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Down The Rabbit Hole

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Marisol Mendez was eleven years old and, therefore, should not have been so nervous standing outside the perfectly ordinary door. She steeled herself, took several deep breaths, and knocked just below the metal number ‘13’. She hoped it wasn’t a sign. She could hear the click of high heels, a familiar sound, and then the door creaked open. The woman at the door was not at all who she was expecting. She was blonde for a start. And white. Marisol certainly hadn’t been expecting that.

“Who are you?” the woman asked and her voice was husky and rough, like she smoked a pack of cigarettes a day.  

“My name’s Marisol,” she said. “Happy Birthday, Mom.”

-- From ‘The Queen and the Saviour’ by R. C. Mills

 

Mary Margaret’s father is the one that finds the apartment. It’s in Chelsea, next to a backpackers and across the road from a police station. They’d never be able to afford it on Emma’s minimal savings while she searches for a job and Mary Margaret’s stipend for her post-graduate studies. But Leo Blanchard, who has always sort of given Emma the creeps, buys the loft apartment, calling it a real estate investment, and charges them a pittance in rent.

 

Emma takes the tiny room, set above the main space and accessible only by a rickety ladder. It’s barely big enough for a single bed and kitset wardrobe and it’s only fair, after all, that Mary Margaret gets the larger space curtained off in one corner of the loft. It also means Emma gets a modicum of privacy, which for the introverted Emma is beyond important.

 

“We’re going to be so happy here,” Mary Margaret says, wrapping her arms around Emma’s neck on move in day. Emma, lugging a box full of her roommate’s books, makes gagging noises and kicks her gently in the shin. Her own meagre possessions are already in the apartment, a duffle full of clothes and a box of treasures. Mary Margaret gets sentimental about books and ornaments and bullshit like that, which will make their apartment seem homey. They’d got the basics from Ikea the week before and had them delivered yesterday.

 

“Yeah,” Emma says, just barely resisting the urge to lie down on the wooden floor in the sun and just bask, cat-like. One of the best things about the place is the large windows, which let in the afternoon sun.

 

Leo enters, puffing slightly from the stairs and a box of linen under his arm. “I think that’s everything, ladies,” he says, dropping the box and pushing thinning grey hair back from his face. “Do you girls want to grab a bite? My treat.”

 

Mary Margaret nods; her father is leaving shortly, back to Portland where she’s from.  Emma, feigning a desire to give them their space, declines. She needs time to herself. So while Leo and Mary Margaret head in one direction, Emma walks in the other, finding a grocery store and stocking up on the essentials, pasta and milk and coffee. On her way back, she stops at a bakery, buying a box of pastries.

 

Then she sees it. The bookshop. It’s adorable, nestled in between a stationery store and the bakery. The sign above the door creaks, reading The Rabbit Hole. A bit twee, Emma thinks, but she’s mostly just impressed that there are still independent bookstores functioning. There’s a sign in the window, yellowed and stuck up with tape that’s curling at the edges: Help wanted. On impulse, Emma enters.

 

It smells like cinnamon and old books and coffee and there are small children in just about every corner, poring over picture books or reading novels. There’s one girl, glasses perched on the end of her nose, squinting at a ‘Percy Jackson’ novel. She barks out a laugh and tugs on the end of one of her braids. Emma can’t help the reluctant smile that curves across her face.

 

“Can I help you, hon?” a shop assistant, name badge reading ‘Ruby’, asks. She’s tall and long-limbed with a mane of dark, straight hair, streaked with red. She’s carting a box of books, which she rests on the counter, leaning against the counter. She’s not exactly dressed for working with children, in a midriff baring shirt and shorts that show off an expanse of slim, pale legs. 

 

“Hey,” Emma says, balancing grocery bags and the box of pastries. “I was wondering about the job. Is it still going?”

 

“Oh,” Ruby says, grinning. There’s something feral about her grin, too wide and teeth too bright. “Yeah, that’s been up for a while. You’ll be wanting Lacey then. She owns this joint.” She leans across the counter, granting Emma a view of her pert ass, and yells, “Oi, Lace.”

 

Emma’s not sure what to expect but it’s not the woman who enters from what she assumes must be the stockroom. Lacey’s really young to own a business and a little grungy and doesn’t seem particularly interested in resumes or references or anything normal. “You like books?” she asks, pulling her thick dark hair back into something that approximates a bun and securing it with an elastic band.

 

“Yeah,” Emma says.

 

“Favourite kid’s book?” She’s got a really strong Australian accent, and it takes Emma’s ears a moment to adjust.

 

“’The Secret Garden’,” she says. She doesn’t have to think about it. It’s the only book she owns – the rest on her e-reader – and it’s been with her since she was a kid, bought for her by her social worker after her third family didn’t work out. It was new then, its hardcover spine smooth and shiny. Emma had treasured it but like all things it had grown old, pages yellowed now and the illustration on the front cover faded. She’d related to the crotchety, unwanted Mary more than she could possibly say.

 

Lacey nods. “A classic. What would you recommend for a twelve-year-old boy to read?”

 

“What stuff does the boy like reading?” Emma asks. “I’m not big on, like, ponies are for girls and trains are for boys.” Ruby nods appreciatively and Lacey almost looks like she might smile.

 

“You got any experience in retail, lady?”

 

“I spent my time at college making coffee and waiting tables,” Emma says, not mentioning the fact that she dropped out of college at end of her sophomore year. “I’ve spent the past few years working for a bounty hunter in Maine. No bookshop work but I’m a quick study. And the name’s Emma, not lady.”

 

Lacey sizes her up, gaze drifting from Emma’s hair, which she knows must be frizzy and sweat soaked from the oppressive heat, to the dust-smeared tank top, cut off shorts and flip-flops. Emma shifts from foot to foot, the handles of the grocery bags cutting into her sweaty palms. “You want a trial?” Lacey asks eventually. “One week. Start at eight tomorrow. Pay’s a bit shit but I can give you full time work and health insurance if you pass muster.”

 

Emma grins. “Yeah, that’d be great. Do you want me to bring my references and stuff?”

 

Lacey doesn’t bother responding, turning on her heel and heading out the back again. “She likes you,” Ruby says and she wraps her arms around Emma, hugging her, and Emma has to fight off the urge to shy away. “Oh my God, I am so relieved. Ari quit three months ago to go be one with the sea and Lacey has been a total picky bitch about the whole thing and I was seriously contemplating murder because at least prison would be a day off.”

 

Emma returns to the apartment with a smile that refuses to leave her face and finds Mary Margaret unpacking. Well, she’s found the coffee machine and put up paintings on the brick walls, even if the kitchen table is as yet unassembled. “Good walk?” she asks. There’s a smear of grime across her forehead from where she’s obviously pushed her short hair back with a dirty hand. “Oh, you darling. You bought coffee beans. The grinder’s here somewhere.” She rummages around in a cupboard.

 

“And pastries,” Emma says, shaking the box. Grease has started to seep through the cardboard, creating darkened patches. “I also got a job, I think.”

 

“What?” Water overflows from the coffee pot before she has the nous to turn off the taps.

 

“Yeah,” Emma says, opening the pastries. They’re a bit battered, the icing melting off a chocolate donut, but otherwise unharmed. “There’s a children’s bookshop on the way to the grocery store and they had a sign up. The lady who owns it is a bit of a kook but apparently she liked me, offered me a trial starting tomorrow.”

 

“Oh, that’s wonderful, Emma!” This would be Mary Margaret’s dream job – she’s been accepted into the masters in children’s writing programme at the New School – but she’s too kind to feel bitter or envious or anything but totally, 100 percent happy for Emma.

 

It’s not that Emma doesn’t like books, she does. She got a bit addicted to Young Adult literature since she became friends with Mary Margaret, who would hand her copies of ‘The Queen of Atolia’ and ‘Eleanor and Park’ like she was dealing crack. But it’s not her passion like it is her friend’s. They were roommates in their first year of college – though Emma’s a couple of years older than her – and have lived together pretty much ever since. Mary Margaret knows when to give Emma space and when to make her talk, and Emma grounds her from her occasional flights of fancy.

 

“I think we should celebrate,” Emma says and the damn smile just won’t disappear. “Coffee and pastries?”

 

“Do you even need to ask?” Mary Margaret replies and turns the grinder on so that the only sound for the next little while is the buzz of coffee being ground and the smell of coffee permeates the apartment.

 

Yeah, all in all, a pretty damn good day.

 

The next day, Emma arrives at the bookshop at five to eight, the morning already warming up and she’s regretting her decision to wear dress slacks. Ruby grins when Emma knocks at the door and opens it for her. Lacey, still gruff, looks her over. “You’re over-dressed, buddy.”

 

“You don’t look much like the owner of a children’s book shop,” Emma says. Lacey’s in Doc Martens, hair in a style Emma might generously refer to as a bird’s nest rather than a big old mess and cut off denim shorts. She’s wearing a ratty tee-shirt with the cover of ‘Catcher in the Rye’ on it, which Emma supposes is something.

 

“Never had any complaints, smart ass,” Lacey replies, though a grin curves across her face. “Ruby’s going to train you. I’m busy.” She snakes an arm around Ruby’s waist, fingers splaying across the gap between shorts and tank top, before disappearing into the stock room-cum-office out the back.

 

“So,” Ruby says. “Where do you want to start?”

 

“Are you guys a couple?” Emma asks. It just pops out and she regrets it the moment she says it. God, how invasive could she possibly be?

 

“Married,” Ruby says, flashing a thin gold band on her finger. “Going on two years now.”

 

“Nice,” Emma says. “So, what are my duties?”

 

Ruby grins and launches into a spiel about the tills and the stock. “Lacey expects us to read one new book a week,” she says. “It’s part of your pay. Choose wisely. I’m the picture book queen so you can do middle grade or young adult.”

 

“God, my roommate is going to be insanely jealous,” Emma says. “She’s starting her masters in children’s writing next week.”

 

“Nice for some,” Ruby says. “Tell her to come by. We can give friends and family discount.”

 

Emma spends the day putting away stock and learning how the crotchety old till works. At eleven thirty she heads into the bakery next door and gets coffee in a take-out cup and a bear claw. “You Lacey’s new’un?” the woman, whose name tag reads Rory, asks. She’s got long brown hair, tied back in a braid, and skin that looks like she hasn’t seen the sun in a while.

 

“For my sins,” Emma says. “I don’t think she likes me much.”

 

“Lace doesn’t like anyone. Except maybe Ruby, and even then I’m not so sure. I’m Rory,” the girl says, holding out a hand. It’s wonderfully formal and Emma shakes it, looking the girl’s nails, which are encrusted with coffee grounds. “Aurora, really. My parents were hippies.”

 

“Emma.” She looks around at the décor, the dark walls and twisted, surreal paintings seeming to be at odds with the chipper princess in front of her. “This is your place?”

 

Rory laughs, the sound high and tinkling, and moves over to the coffee machine. “Nah, my godmother owns it. I’m the manager though.” She hands over the coffee and Emma takes a seat in the corner of the shop to eat.

 

About ten minutes later, a woman enters and Rory rushes out from behind the counter and wraps her arms around her neck, kissing her, heedless of the queue building. The woman blushes scarlet and extricates herself from Rory’s grip, brushing straight black hair behind her ears. Rory whispers in her ear and a moment later, the woman is sitting down across from Emma. “Hi,” she says. “Rory says I should talk to you because you’re ‘new and cool and I need more friends who aren’t work colleagues’. I’m really sorry.”

 

Emma shrugs. “I probably need more friends too,” she says. “You can sit here.”

 

They sit in remarkably companionable silence for ten minutes and it’s because of that that Emma knows she’s met someone who might quite possibly be her soul mate. “So, what’s your name?” she asks and the woman laughs.

 

“I wondered who was going to be first to break the silence. I’m Mulan,” she says. “Rory said your name was Emma.”

 

“Yup.”

                                                                             

“Cool.”

 

“Mulan’s a gym teacher,” Rory says, coming over with a coffee and a slice of lemon tart for Mulan. “Just round the corner at the elementary school.”

 

Emma nods. “I’ve got to get back,” she says, wiping her mouth of any bear claw remnants and standing. Rory picks up her rubbish and returns to the counter. “Nice to meet you both.”

 

“You should come out for drinks with us one Friday,” Rory says and Mulan nods.

 

Emma agrees and, both their phone numbers now programmed into her cell phone, she returns to the shop, where Ruby is in a state and Lacey has quite literally barricaded herself behind her desk with boxes of books. “What’s up?”

 

“We’re having a book launch,” Ruby says. “We’ve never had one before.”

 

“This is your fault,” Lacey calls out from behind the boxes. “I would’ve said no.”

 

“You don’t say no to someone like R. C. Mills,” Ruby snaps.

 

“Who?” Emma asks.

 

“Oh my God,” Ruby says. “Have you been living under a rock? R. C. Mills. She writes the ‘Marisol Mendez’ series.” Emma screws up her face in confusion. “They’re the biggest thing for the under twelves.” She scurries to a bookshelf, grabs a book and shoves it at her. “Mills is, like, this reclusive genius. She never does book tours or talks or launches. No one knows anything about her. But she’s launching the fourth book in the series in a week and her agent’s asked us to do it.”

 

Emma looks at the cover of the book, navy blue with a shimmering picture of an apple and a sword. The Queen and the Saviour is emblazoned in embossed golden letters and smaller below it is R. C. Mills. “Cute,” Emma says.

 

“They’re about fairy tale characters living in small town Maine,” Ruby says. “They’re pretty cool. This latest one’s about Little Red Riding Hood apparently.”

 

“They’re amazing. Mills is amazing,” Lacey says, emerging from behind the barricade. “And we have to host a launch and I don’t have a fucking clue what I’m doing.” Emma looks around, hoping that kids sitting in the bean bags near the counter and giggling over ‘The Little Mole Who Knew it was none of his Business’ heard Lacey swear.

 

“Buy in food from next door,” Emma says. “Send out an email invite to your customers and industry people. Organise with Mills’ people to have someone launch it. Someone famous. Mills speaks, reads from the book, we all cheer, people eat food, drink wine or cheap orange juice. Easy.” She shrugs. It’s not like she’s ever done one before, but Mary Margaret dragged her along to a couple when they were back Maine and they followed the same pattern.

 

Lacey looks like she might kiss Emma. “Okay,” she says. “You’re now officially in charge of publicity at The Rabbit Hole.”

 

“Does that come with a pay rise?” Emma asks. Lacey rolls her eyes. Still, as she puts together an invite based on the stuff that’s been emailed through from Mills’ agent, she’s feeling pretty pleased with herself. She might just have this job longer than a week.

Chapter Text

Her real mom (who’d told her to call her Gin) drove a beat up truck, the engine making dangerously clunky noises, and she listened to loud rock music as she drove. Marisol tried to make conversation with the woman but she turned the radio up louder, singing along one beat behind the music. Her hands on the steering wheel were clenched white. After about an hour, she turned the music down. “So, why’d you run away, kid?”

“My mother is evil,” Marisol said.

Gin laughed, but it didn’t sound like she found it funny. “You look pretty well dressed for a kid whose mom is evil. You fed regularly? Does she beat you?”

“Of course not!”

"Sounds like a pretty okay mom to me,” Gin said and Marisol fell silent because the thing was, Mom could be pretty great. But she was also the Evil Queen and Gin was the only person who could stop her.

--  from ‘The Queen and the Saviour’ by R. C. Mills

 

The first thing Emma does when she goes home is ask Mary Margaret about R. C. Mills because Mary Margaret knows every children’s and young adult author in the world. This launches her roommate on this impassioned tirade. “The woman’s a genius!” she’d said. “Her books are culturally diverse, feminist… and kids still love them. Please tell me I can come to the launch.”

 

“Course,” Emma says.

 

“I so wish I could write like her,” Mary Margaret says, sighing. Emma’s read a lot of Mary Margaret’s stories over the year. She’s a sucker for a happy ending and does a good line in quirky characters; Emma suspects she’ll find her calling in picture books one day. She must introduce her to Ruby.

 

She ends up having a fair amount of contact with Mills’ assistant over the next week. She’s this woman named Tink and she’s picky as hell about every minor detail of the launch and really unhelpful in her desire to help. “Ms Mills does not like things being ‘cutesy’ or ‘twee’,” Tink says. She’s from New Zealand. Emma didn’t actually care but Tink’s pretty keen on volunteering information.

 

Emma snorts at this. “Maybe she shouldn’t have written children’s books then,” she suggests and Tink giggles before cutting off abruptly.

 

On the day of the launch she arrives at work in jeans and a plaid shirt to find Lacey spiralling out of control. She’s tamed the wild beast that is her hair into a neat chignon and is wearing this tailored, black dress and pantyhose and it kind of freaks Emma out. Ruby – in her usual attire – keeps darting glances at Lacey. “Pretty sure that body snatchers got my wife,” she mutters to Emma, who laughs though darts an anxious look at Lacey as she does so.

 

They set up around the kids milling about, with space for a lectern and posters of the latest book sent over from her publisher up everywhere. The latest in the series is called ‘Little Red’ and the cover just shows a floating red cloak. Emma hasn’t had a chance to read any of them yet, the copy of the first book Ruby gave her gathering dust on the floor beside her bed. Fantasy’s really not her thing and it’s not like R. C. Mills is going to care about Emma’s opinions of the books.

 

At one side they set up a table for signings. Emma’s on Mills wrangling tonight, with Ruby on the tills and Lacey on internally freaking out in the store room. Rory comes downstairs about a couple of hours before the launch with boxes of cupcakes, though honestly Mulan does most of the heavy lifting for her. “Place looks great!” Rory says. “Is Lace around?”

 

Emma points to the office and says, “enter at your own risk,” but Rory doesn’t look fazed at all. Then again, she wonders if Rory is ever daunted by anything.

 

Mulan sets the boxes down on a trestle table. She’s wearing a sleeveless shirt and her arms are all smooth tanned skin and tightly coiled muscle and Emma, whose arms are nothing to sniff at, can’t help but be impressed. “You need any help?”

 

“We’re good,” Emma says. “Thanks though. Just playing the waiting game now.” She looks around the store; it’s the four o’clock lull and the shop is empty but for a couple of kids with books in their laps and a woman sitting at one of the tiny children’s tables, reading to a little boy. She seems familiar; Emma thinks she’s seen them in here before though she’s never spoken to either of them. She looks up when Emma glances over and Emma meets her eyes and is struck by the ferocity in the dark gaze. The woman wraps a protective arm around the boy and Emma rolls her eyes. “Like, calm down, right?” she mutters to Mulan.

 

Mulan’s brow furrows. “What?”

 

“Never mind,” Emma says. She looks over at the woman again, who stands, brushing down her skirt and clasping the little boy’s hand. Then she stalks over to Emma.

 

“If you’re not too busy gossiping,” and Emma has to hold in a laugh because Mulan is the most laconic person she’s ever met, “I would like to purchase this.” Her tone is icy and there’s a haughty set to her chin. Emma takes the book from her and watches as she raises a hand and flicks a sweep of dark hair back behind her ear. She’s wearing these ridiculously expensive-looking pearl earrings, the sort Mary Margaret has in one of the jewellery boxes on her dresser that have been handed down in the Blanchard family for generations. Emma should stop being surprised that the people who shop at a children’s bookshop in a nice neighbourhood are wealthy and should maybe attempt to remove the chip from her shoulder.

 

“Hi!” the little boy says, as though apologising for his mother’s attitude. “My name’s Henry.”

 

“Hi Henry,” Emma says, deliberately ignoring his mother, and walking over to the counter. “I’m Emma. Is this book for you?”

 

“It’s my fav’rite,” Henry says, emphatic in a way that is kind of adorable despite Emma’s essential discomfort around children (which has been tested sorely during her time at The Rabbit Hole). “I have all the pigeon books.”

 

“I think the pigeon’s my favourite too,” Emma says, smiling. “I’ll let Ruby ring this up for you,” she adds because Ruby has been standing behind the counter this entire time and why the woman felt the need to come to her instead she’ll never know. The woman sniffs, lips pursed.

 

“Hi Henry,” she hears Ruby say. “How’s my favourite customer?” So obviously they’re regulars.

 

She watches them leave as she plates cupcakes, all with a little sword or apple on top because Rory has done her homework (though she does worry that Mills is going to consider these ‘cutesy’). Henry holds the paper bag with his book in it close to his chest in one hand and his mother’s hand in the other. He chatters away and she seems content to let him. Mulan’s browsing the picture books and Rory, who has left the back room, has laced a hand through hers and is whispering in her ear, standing on tiptoes to reach.

 

At five, just an hour before the launch is due to start, a tiny blonde bounces through the front door to The Rabbit Hole. “Hi,” she says, bounding across the room to Emma who apparently looks like the person in charge, and holding out a hand. “I’m Tink, Ms Mills’ assistant. It’s really Bella, but that’s kind of an embarrassing cliché of a name in the book world, don’t you think? Tinker’s my surname but everyone calls me Tink.” She pauses. “Well, almost everyone.”

 

Emma takes her hand, overwhelmed by the barrage of words. “Hi,” she says. “I’m Emma. We’ve talked on the phone. Where’s Mills?”

 

“She’ll be here,” Tink says. “Had to drop her son with the babysitter. What can I do?”

 

“I think we’re all set,” Emma says. She looks around. The banners sent by Mills’ publisher are up. The food is on plates. She’s set out seats around a podium. The books are on display conveniently close to the counter.

 

“Miss Tinker?” There is a voice from the doorway. A familiar voice. Emma whirls around and sees her. Henry’s mother.

 

When Emma had pictured R. C. Mills, she’d imagined her as a staid, middle aged woman, possibly with grey hair, possibly wearing the sorts of pastel cardigans Mary Margaret wears. She’d imagined her smiling constantly, with glasses on a chain around her neck. She would have been willing to buy Mills as an attractive older woman, in the line of J.K. Rowling. She hadn’t imagined her as barely thirty, stunningly good looking and kind of mean.

 

“Oh, Ms Mills,” Tink says, screwing up her nose and sighing the sigh of the truly defeated. “I said no black.”

 

“And I ignored you, dear,” Mills says, brushing down the black dress clinging to her tiny frame and moving forward. “Now, who’s in charge of this… event?” She manages to imbue the word ‘event’ with as more disdain than Emma thought would be possible.

 

“Ms Mills, this is Emma Swan,” Tink says, gesturing at Emma. “She’s been organising the launch with me. Emma, meet Regina Mills.”

 

Emma sticks out a hand automatically. She’s never shaken so many hands before she started working here. Mills looks at her hand for a moment, takes it for what can’t be more than a second, before turning to Tink, saying, “show me where I will be speaking from,” and wiping her hand against her dress. Emma is left, mouth gaping in outrage.

 

“Of course, Ms Mills,” Tink says, leading her over to the podium and shooting an apologetic look back at Emma.

 

Emma hears Regina Mills says, “I thought we agreed on nothing cutesy. What the hell are those cupcakes?”

 

Sighing, Emma goes out the back to find Lacey. “She’s here,” she says. “And she’s a total bitch.”

 

Lacey stands, her hands shaking and Emma knows she’s been craving a cigarette all day but didn’t want to smell like smoke when she met Mills. “She’s R. C. Mills. She’s allowed to be a total bitch.” She takes several deep breaths, threads her fingers through her hair, pulling a curled clump of hair from the tidy bun at the nape of her neck, and sighs. “Okay, let’s do this thing.”

 

Emma’s kept busy pouring wine for people and then the book is launched. Lacey speaks first, voice shaking, and then the book is officially launched by some young adult hotshot Emma’s never heard of. Then, Mills gets up. “Thank you so much for coming.” Her voice is deep and husky when she thanks her publishers, agent and The Rabbit Hole. “You may know that I’ve never been one for interviews or book tours or any of that business. I’d rather let me novels speak for themselves. But my agent has been pressuring me for years to do more publicity, so with ‘Little Red’ I finally agreed. I chose The Rabbit Hole because it’s my son’s favourite bookshop.” She looks over at Lacey and manages a smile. “Now, I’m not one for speeches, but I thought I’d read aloud from ‘Little Red’ – unless anyone has any objections.” The crowded bookstore chuckles and Emma pulls a face, hoping Mills doesn’t see her. Mills opens a copy of the book and begins.

 

Marisol shouldn’t have been out past eight. Her mom had always said to never go out after dark and Gin had backed her up. “Bad things happen after dark, kid,” she’d said, though she’d said something rather more coarse than ‘things’, and Mom had actually smiled at her, that smile she normally reserved for Marisol when she was proud of her. Of course, Gin ruined it when she then said, “of course, a lot of those bad things are usually your mom.” It was just that she’d been hanging out with Esther at the diner and her cell phone had powered down and she’d lost track of time.

Still, she’d be fine walking home. Right? The rustle of the trees and bushes was just wind.

The rustling got louder and then Marisol saw them. The eyes.

They were wide and yellow and she screamed so loudly that her mom, who’d sworn off magic, puffed to her side in a swirl of purple smoke. “Mom, you promised!” Marisol said.

“I promised I would only use magic in extreme circumstances, cariño,” Mom said, tugging on Marisol’s braid. Marisol knew she was resisting the urge to pull her into a tight hug. She tried to let Marisol come to her first. Mom was big on Marisol setting her own boundaries for physical contact. “My baby girl screaming is an extreme circumstance.”

“I’m fine,” Marisol said, trying not to think about how Mom could have heard her scream from three blocks away. “I just, I thought I saw something.”

“What?”

She felt stupid even saying it but it was Mom and she never made her feel stupid. “I think it was a wolf.”

She didn’t expect Mom to look straight up at the sky. It was a full moon, casting cold light over the pavement, which was one of the reasons Marisol thought she’d be okay to walk home. But Mom’s eyes narrowed and her lips formed a dangerous red line. Before Mom could say anything though, Gin skidded to a halt before them. She stood, hands on her hips, breathing deeply in and out. “I need to get more exercise,” she said when she could breathe normally again.

Mom nodded and Marisol looked between the pair of them. “Wait, how did Gin know where we were?”

“Sal and I were having coffee,” Gin said, shifting from one booted foot to another. Gin almost never called Mom by her name, normally referring to her as ‘your mom’ or ‘your majesty’ when she was feeling particularly sarcastic. Mom’s full name was Salbatora and Marisol hadn’t worked out the irony of that one until quite recently.

“You and Mom are friends?” Marisol asked, screwing up her face.

Mom laughed. “Oh, Marisol,” she said. “A mother will do anything to make her baby happy.”

“Including drink coffee with the Evil Queen,” Gin said, but she was grinning and Mom, surprisingly enough, grinned back.

 

Emma finds herself gripped by the smooth tones of Mills’ voice, by the slight accent she gives to the evil queen’s voice, by the relationship between Sal and Gin conveyed in so few words. By Mills in general, in spite of herself. “Thank you,” Regina Mills says. “I’ll be over by the counter signing books.” And she walks over to the signing table they only remembered they’d need this afternoon to rapturous applause.

 

Emma watches her sign copies of her book from her place at the drinks table. She notices that her hair keeps falling from behind her ear when she leans forward to sign. She notices that she’s coldly professional with adults but when children come up to her, she smiles and talks and writes lengthy messages and, judging by one little girl who walks past the drinks table with her father, even draws pictures. She notices the man standing over her as she signs, expensive suit, walking stick and alarming smile, one gold tooth glinting.

 

Emma has to take out the trash and ends up leaving shortly after Mills does and it’s because of this that she overhears a conversation. “Why that passage?”

 

“It’s one of my favourite parts,” Mills says. “It introduces the wolf and shows the developing friendship between Gin and Sal. It’s important.”

 

“Conservative groups will become convinced that the evil queen and the saviour are lesbians, Regina,” the man’s voice says. Emma thinks it might be the agent, Gold. “Do you know what that could do to sales? You fought to keep their friendship in there. Don’t draw attention to it.” He pauses and Emma takes in a deep gulp of air, pressing herself against the wall and into the shadows. “I’m just looking out for your best interests, dearie.”

 

And Regina Mills, who Emma has admittedly known for less than a day, does what Emma would have thought was impossible and, rather than exploding, mumbles an apology and leaves. Her heels clack against the pavement.

 

She might be a snotty bitch, Emma thinks as she returns to the store to continue cleaning up, but she’s starting to feel sorry for the woman.

Chapter Text

Marisol should have been in her room. Mom had sent her there and the glint in her eye suggested that she was to be obeyed without question, but then she’d invited Gin inside for a drink and Gin had agreed and Marisol had to know what it was they were talking about.

She couldn’t hear much at first, just the clink of ice against glass and murmured voices. Then, her mom said sharply, “What fairy tale thing?”

“Y’know, the whole thing the kid’s into, like, everyone in this town’s a fairy tale character,” Gin said and if Marisol hadn’t been trying to listen without getting caught she would have run into the room at that moment. How could Gin be such an idiot? You never tell the Evil Queen that you know her nefarious plot.

“I think it’s time for you to leave,” Mom said and her voice sounded like that feeling Marisol got when she slurped a milkshake too quickly, harsh and stabbing and cold. Mom had been like that a lot lately; Marisol figured it was the Evil Queen bleeding through. “Have a safe drive back to Boston.”

Marisol bled into the shadows as Gin opened the door, striding out of the study. She turned, still carrying one of Mom’s expensive crystal glasses that Marisol was under no circumstances to touch. “Do you love her?” she asked.

Mom’s eyes narrowed, shadows hiding half her face. She paused a moment before answering. “Of course I do,” she said. It was true, Marisol knew it was. She’d never had cause to doubt her mother’s love, but it was selfish for Marisol to turn a blind eye to evil when a whole town of people were unhappy and under subjection to the evil queen. That Mom loved her, and only her, wasn’t enough. Gin had to stop her. Mom added, “Marisol is everything.”

Gin just nodded. “Good. Take care of her.” She set the glass down on the sideboard and left, heavy footfalls sounding from the combat boots she wore. Marisol watched from the shadows, seeing Mom’s shoulders sag. There was a wistful look on her face that she hadn’t seen before, her eyes shining and her lips softened.

-- from ‘The Queen and The Saviour’ by R. C. Mills

 

A few days after the launch, Mary Margaret starts her masters. Emma is at home at the end of her first day, slouched on the couch with a beer in her hand and watching ‘Grey’s Anatomy’ on Netflix, when her roommate returns. “Busy day?” Mary Margaret asks, staring at her critically.

 

“Day off,” Emma grunts, taking a swig of beer and grimaces because she’s been sipping on it for a while now and it’s lukewarm and kind of flat. “Now, shush. I’m watching.”

 

“You hate this show,” Mary Margaret says.

 

“Yeah,” Emma says. “But the gay ladies are real pretty. Now, shut up.” Callie Torres is the closest thing she’s had to a crush (or whatever the adult term for it is) in two years, ever since she broke up with Elsa, her sort-of girlfriend back in Maine.

 

Rolling her eyes, Mary Margaret dumps her satchel on the table and pulls out a notebook, scribbling furiously. The episode finishes and Emma slides off the couch and onto the floor, before clambering to her feet. “Good first day?”

 

“Amazing,” Mary Margaret says, voice dreamy. She has ink smeared down the side of her hand. “Just perfect. I have found my people.”

 

Emma tries not to be bitter about the fact that Mary Margaret can afford one of the more expensive colleges in one of the more expensive cities to live doing a masters in something so absolutely frivolous as a masters in children’s writing, whereas Emma had to drop out of college at the end of her sophomore year because she couldn’t sleep, complete coursework and earn enough money to live. Something had to give and that something was college. “Stir fry for dinner?” she asks instead.

 

“Please,” she says. “Want any help?” Emma shakes her head.

 

Emma takes out her mild resentment on carrots and broccoli and if she spills the rice on the kitchen floor, well, it’s not her week to vacuum. “Here you go,” she says, passing a bowl over and Mary Margaret puts her writing aside and digs in.

 

“How’s the Rabbit Hole?”

 

“Pretty good,” Emma says. Since the launch, Lacey’s been flying high. Finding out that R. C. Mills is one of their regular customers, selling a huge number of books (because people didn’t just buy Mills’ books but browsed the shelves and, as Ruby put it, they “made out like a bandit”) and not having a total meltdown at meeting interesting industry types.

 

“Want to watch a movie?” Mary Margaret stacks her empty bowl on Emma’s and takes them over to the sink.

 

Emma shrugs. “I’ve been sitting in front of the TV most of the day. I think I’ll go to bed and read.”

 

 When she’d talked to Mary Margaret about the R. C. Mills launch, her roommate had dug around and found the first three books in the stacks of books piled beside the couch that didn’t fit on the shelves they’d bought. “You’ll have to read them now,” she’d said. “She comes to your shop.”

 

Emma had rolled her eyes. “You know I’m not that into fantasy. Besides, it’s not like Mills is going to want to talk to some ex-con who never graduated college about her precious books.”

 

And then she’d met Regina Mills and she’d decided she’d read them and find something really problematic or offensive in them and go town with it. Prove to Mills that she wasn’t some perfect, children’s literature goddess, but a total hack.

 

Unfortunately, she’s really, really enjoying them. Like stay up until three in the morning to finish the first book enjoying. It’s killing her because Mills is this hideous snob of a woman – and she’s gleaned this from their single meeting and one look at those designer shoes that clearly cost more than Emma’s entire wardrobe and she doesn’t even care that she’s being judgemental – and she so doesn’t want to like Marisol Mendez, but she does. She’s sassy and brave and resourceful and important.

 

She’s, like, halfway through the second book, which is about what happens after Sal ends up breaking the curse on the little town in Maine by kissing Marisol’s forehead. Marisol’s helping Gin find her parents, who turn out to be Snow White and Prince Charming and dealing with the conflicting notion that she was right about her mother being evil and the saviour of the town and loving the woman she’d called ‘Mom’ for the past eleven years.

 

So she opens the book, curls up on her bed, covers rumpled around her, and reads. It’s when Gin makes Marisol go home to her mom that Emma starts crying, deep gulping sobs. “Enough of this,” Gin said and tugged at the end of one of Marisol’s braids. “She’s your mom, she loves you and you are not going to abandon her. No one should abandon family.”

 

Emma’s never had family to speak of. While her backstory is hardly as romantic as Gin’s – supposedly abandoned on the side of the road but really the daughter of Snow White and Prince Charming sent to the real world to save her from the Evil Queen’s curse – she can kind of relate to the spiky biological mother of Marisol. She was just lucky that the boyfriend who got her chucked into juvie at sixteen didn’t knock her up like Gin’s did. Kind of put her off guys on the whole. Elsa used to call her a “non-practising bisexual”, which she’d never really liked because there was something prickly about Elsa and her comments and Emma could never really be certain if she had a problem with Emma being bi or not.

 

She keeps reading, aware that she has to be up by seven to be at work by eight and equally aware that she has to finish the book before then or she’ll find it even more difficult to sleep than she already does in the ridiculous heat.

 

“So,” Ruby says when Emma arrives at the store, attempting to hide her exhaustion with carefully applied make up and a red floaty dress she stole from Mary Margaret’s wardrobe that makes her boobs look awesome, even if it’s not her style. “You’re on story time today.”

 

Emma’s throat goes dry. “What?”

 

“I’ve got a half day, Lacey’s doing the accounts. Kids are coming in at one.” Ruby smiles and Emma might be imagining it but the smile seems almost predatory, her canines too white and pointed. “You’ve got this, Emma. The kids love you.”

 

“Don’t know why,” she says because, to be honest, kids make her uncomfortable. They’re so tactile, grabbing at her legs or hands, rubbing their faces on her jeans, stroking sticky fingers through her hair when she’s bent down shelving books. And they want to know everything. Are you a princess? What’s your favourite dinosaur? Why are you wearing such tight pants?

 

“I think it’s the way you project discomfort,” Ruby says, setting up the cash register. “It’s like cats getting obsessed with the one person in the room who’s allergic. Anyway, you’re doing this so suck it up. We’re halfway through ‘Matilda’.”

 

“Ugh, fine,” Emma says, sighing, because it’s not like she’s going to get out of it. Perhaps if she does a really terrible job, as she’s bound to do, Lacey’ll ban her from ever doing story time again.

 

“That’s my girl,” Ruby says. “So, how’s Marisol going?” Ruby’s the only person who knows Emma’s reading the books; she needed someone to squeal about them with and she’s been too embarrassed to admit to Mary Margaret that she was right.

 

“Finished number two last night,” Emma says. “God, they’re good. I’m pretty much super invested in them becoming a little family. She kick-started Sal’s magic, for God’s sake.”

 

“Preaching to the choir,” Ruby says. “You know, you kind of remind me of Gin,” she adds after watching Emma sliding a knife through the packing tape holding a box of books together. “Spiky, introverted, with a good heart and an obsession with baked goods.”

 

“Thanks, I think,” Emma says, grimacing, and, heaving the box off the counter, she heads into the picture book section. The next few hours fly past. Emma takes an early break because Ruby’s off at twelve and since the afternoon’s going to be stressful, she goes next door and treats herself to a bear claw.

 

“Emma!” Rory says. They still haven’t had their drink yet – the day they were supposed to go out was the day of the launch – but they’ve lapsed into a camaraderie that Emma, misanthrope that she is, finds she quite likes. “How’s it going?”

 

“Bear claw,” Emma says. “And strong coffee please.”

 

Rory grimaces. “That bad huh?”

 

“I have to do story time,” Emma says and Rory actually, literally cackles.

 

“Sorry, darling,” she adds, handing over the bear claw in a paper bag, the grease turning the bag translucent, and pouring her a coffee into a take away cup, “but you should see your face!”

 

“Shut up,” Emma mutters and, the sound of Rory’s laughter following her, she returns to the store where she hides behind the counter, eating pastry disconsolately.

 

“You’re actually making donuts depressing,” Ruby says, between customers. “Stop it.”  

 

“Stay until after story time then,” Emma says.

 

But Ruby doesn’t, simply handing her ‘Matilda’ before she leaves, a skip in her step. The shop’s busy before story time, many parents arriving early with their kids, and at five to one Emma takes a deep breath, grabs the story time stool and the book, and heads over to the open space in the picture book section.

 

She’s sitting on the squat stool, watching the kids mill around and hoping that maybe they won’t remember that it’s story time so she’ll get away with packing up in five minutes, when she hears a squeaky voice from her side. “Hi Emma!”

 

She turns and sees the boy, brown hair, sharp nose. Regina Mills’ kid. “Henry, right?” Emma says, hesitant. She’s generally okay with names.

 

“Yeah!” He beams. “My mom’s over there,” and he points. Emma sees Regina Mills, dressed absolutely inappropriately for the weather in black tailored slacks and a translucent blouse, standing by the board books. Emma waves and Regina Mills raises an eyebrow in response. “Momma,” he yells and Mills is at his side in a moment.

 

“Inside voice, dear,” she admonishes.

 

“Can I sit up front by Emma?” Henry asks, directing pleading brown eyes at his mother.

 

“Doesn’t the leggy one normally read?” Mills asks, looking down at Emma, still seated.

 

Ruby has the afternoon off,” Emma says, though a secret part of her finds it hilarious that Regina noticed Ruby’s legs. “You’ve got me instead. Sorry.”

 

“Momma,” Henry hisses, tugging on the leg of her slacks. “You didn’t answer my question.”

 

“Yes, Henry, you may sit up the front with Ms Swan,” she says and Henry lets out a giggle and sits down at Emma’s feet.

 

There’s quite a crowd gathered when Emma begins. “Chapter Twelve: Lavender,” she says and starts reading. A couple of paragraphs in, she feels an odd sensation against her calf, and looking up from the book she sees Henry, stroking the bare skin of her leg. He’s so intent on brushing his fingers against the stubble on her legs (because she hasn’t bothered shaving them in a few days) that he doesn’t even notice her staring at him. She stumbles over the next couple of sentences and when she looks up, Regina Mills is laughing at her, mouth covered by her hand.

 

Spurred into action, Emma takes a deep breath, ignores Henry’s hand and continues reading, trying to add greater animation to her voice. Small children are a wonderful audience; they laugh at everything, in hysterics when the skink leaps from the glass and latches on the evil Trunchbull.

 

She feels sweaty and shaky when she finishes and some of the parents must recognise her nerves because they congratulate her on her efforts. A somewhat more honest child, however, comes up to her and asks, “when’s Ruby coming back?”

 

“Next week,” Emma says.

 

“Oh good,” she says. “She does the voices way better.” And she runs over to her father.

 

“It’s true, I’m afraid.” She hears Regina Mills’ voice from behind her.

 

“Thank you so much,” Emma snaps, because she’s okay with kids being honest but the wildly successful children’s book writer could perhaps be a little more tactful.

 

“You acquitted yourself admirably, dear,” she says.

 

“I liked it lots,” Henry says stoutly.

 

“Thank you,” Emma says. “That’s why you’re my favourite.”

 

Henry’s chest puffs up with pride and he looks slyly at his mother. “Emma, do you wanna come over for dinner tomorrow night, please?”

 

Emma barks out a laugh and then realises Henry wasn’t joking and is staring at her, waiting for a response. “I, uh.”

 

“Ms Swan may very well be busy,” Regina says. She’s gentle with him, bending down to meet his eye.

 

Henry’s face falls, the beginnings of a wobble in his lower lip, and Emma can’t help what comes out of her mouth next. “I’m not busy.”

 

He grins and she notices that his front tooth is missing. Regina’s lips purse and she keeps a hand clasped on Henry’s shoulder. “Momma, card,” he says, grabbing her handbag. Regina rifles through her bag and pulls out a business card, which includes Regina’s phone number, and she scrawls an address, only a few blocks from Emma’s apartment, on the back.  

 

“Six o’clock, Ms Swan. Do not be late. Henry, why don’t you go and find a book to buy?”

 

When Henry has run over to the picture book stand, Regina moves towards Emma, and there’s a dark look in her eyes. “I can, like, cancel,” Emma says. “I just couldn’t say no to that face.”

 

“For whatever reason, my son has taken a shine to you,” Regina says, the vein in her forehead protruding and her lips tight and tense. “He does not warm to many people like he has to you. You will not disappoint him. I expect to see you at six.” And she turns on her heel and clips over to Henry.

Chapter Text

“Well, your mom’s certainly interesting,” Gin said as she and Marisol sat in the diner, drinking hot chocolate. Gin’s hair was tied back in a knot at the nape of her neck and she looked tired, dark circles under her eyes that stood out against her pale skin, so different from Marisol’s own. It was odd, she thought, that she looked so much more like Mom than the woman who gave birth to her but she couldn’t quite pluck up the courage to ask about her father because what if Gin ran? Marisol had expected her to leave immediately but it was three days since she’d gone to Boston and Gin was still here, living at the bed and breakfast. “I’ve got some money saved,” she’d said. “About time I took a holiday.”

“She’s evil,” Marisol said.

“A bit of a hard ass,” Gin replied. “Evil’s stretching it though. She does love you.”

“I know,” Marisol said, uneasy. Sometimes her mom loved her so much it felt smothering, like she was the only thing that made Mom happy. She didn’t have any friends and she’d never had a boyfriend that Marisol knew of and she didn’t even seem to like her job that much, even though she was the mayor, which was a pretty big deal.

“Still,” Gin continued. “I’ll help you with your plot, if you’ll still have me.” She spoke with the sort of bemused condescension of a non-believer and it struck Marisol for the first time that Gin might be her real mom, but Mom was better at actually being a mom. Still, she needed Gin to stick around to break the curse and so she’d ignore the fact that Gin was just patronising her. For now.

-- from ‘The Queen and the Saviour’ by R. C. Mills

 

“Emma, calm down,” Mary Margaret yells up the ladder to Emma’s bedroom. “You’ve been invited to dinner by a five year old. He’s not going to have high expectations about your attire.”

 

“His mother is R. C. Mills,” Emma says. She’s throwing clothes around her room like a woman possessed. Somewhere she’s got a dress, and not one that was purchased for dating or clubs, or the one she wore to work yesterday, now so damp with sweat that it will not take another wearing. “Hah!” She pulls a short blue tunic from her wardrobe and makes her way down the ladder. She’s been at work all day and really needs to shower before she leaves.

 

“She’s not going to judge you,” Mary Margaret says.

 

“Did you not hear me talk about her?” Emma says. “She’ll judge. She’ll laugh in my face. You don’t need the bathroom?”

 

“All yours,” Mary Margaret says. She has a mug clasped in her hand and has been, as far as Emma can tell, wandering around the apartment in nothing but a loose tee-shirt (an ex-boyfriend’s, Emma suspects) and boy shorts all day because it’s the hottest day in the world and she doesn’t have class on Friday afternoons. If Emma wasn’t going out, she’s pretty sure she’d spend the evening lying on her bed, naked, with a fan directed at her face.

 

There’s something about showering that makes Emma feel like she’s putting on armour. She shaves her legs, sitting down in the shower and letting the hot water run over her back because she doesn’t trust her balance. She steals Mary Margaret’s hair dryer and blows out her hair.

 

“Oh, Emma,” Mary Margaret says when she emerges, sounding like a proud mother. “You look beautiful.”

 

Emma groans. “I’m not supposed to. Ugh. She’s going to think I made an effort or something.”

 

“Stop worrying so much. She’s just a person.” It’s all very well for Mary Margaret; she’s part of the world that Mills inhabits. Wealthy, educated, upper class. Emma’s never been a part of that. “Don’t forget the pie I baked,” she adds.

 

She slips her feet into sandals, grabs the bag containing pie and leaves. It’s still far too warm out and she’s barely walked a block before her tunic is sticking to her back with sweat. She can just feel her hair frizz. Mills lives in a brownstone next door to an art gallery just a few blocks from Emma’s apartment. She’s a few minutes early so while she’s waiting on the sidewalk she texts Mulan. May need that drink later on tonight.

 

Her phone beeps moments later. Basketball on TV late tonight. Come by when you’re done. This is followed by an address for an apartment nearby.

 

She slides her phone into her pocket and, steeling herself, rings the doorbell. It’s silent for a moment and then there’s thumping footsteps and this scraping sound. “No, Momma, I can do it.” Then the door is open and Henry, standing on a stool, throws himself at Emma who just barely manages to catch him and not fall backwards down the concrete steps. “Hi Emma!”

 

“Hey,” Emma says, holding Henry around the waist. She’s a little concerned she might drop him and she meets Regina’s eye in the background, where she is watching the proceedings with a critical eye.

 

“C’mon,” he says, tugging on her hair. “Come and play.” Emma walks inside, still carrying Henry.

 

“Henry dear, perhaps you could get down,” Regina says. “I’m sure Ms Swan’s arms are tired.”

 

“It’s fine,” Emma says. She’s strong. She can handle a wriggling five-year-old for a few minutes. “You might need to take the bag in my hand though,” she adds. “It’s for you.”

 

Regina takes the bag, fingers brushing against Emma’s hand as she disentangles the plastic from her fingers. “Pie?”

 

“Hey,” Emma says. “My roommate baked it. It’s peach, I think.”

 

Henry bounces in her arms. “Pie pie pie!”

 

“For dessert perhaps,” Regina says though she’s looking at the plastic bag dubiously. “Thank you. Henry, mijo, why don’t you show your friend around while I finish cooking?” So that’s how it’s going to be. With one sentence, Emma has been firmly delegated to being Henry’s friend, not an adult in her own right and who is not all that much younger than Regina in the scheme of things.

 

It is singularly unfair, Emma reflects as she takes in Regina’s perfectly coiffed hair and grey sheath dress over Henry’s head, that she can look so fresh while Emma’s a sweaty mess from walking four blocks. She lets Henry lead her through the opulent hall, up the stairs, the walls positively coated in pictures of Henry from baby to present day, and to his bedroom. It’s a large space and Emma’s struck by the huge bookshelf, full of books, picture books within Henry’s reach but chapter books further up. There’s a copy of ‘The BFG’ on his bedside table with a bookmark in it. “Momma’s reading it to me,” Henry says when Emma picks it up.

 

Everything’s blue; blue and white striped wallpaper, a blue, star-covered duvet set, blue trim around the skirting boards, and blue furniture… “Is blue your favourite colour?” Emma asks.

 

“Yeah,” Henry says. “This summer me and Momma made my room pretty. She said I could choose my stuff.”

 

“You did an awesome job,” Emma says and Henry’s chest puffs out with pride.

 

He leads her around the room, introducing her to all his toys, showing her his favourite books, and jumping on his bed for a few moments before looking guiltily at the door and clambering down. Emma suspects this is against the house rules. Then he says, “wanna see my office?”

 

Emma laughs. “Okay.” So Henry grabs her hand again and takes her down the hall to a closed door. Emma opens it for him and they enter. It’s clearly Regina’s office; a large desk houses a desktop computer and shelves of books and papers take up most of one wall. There’s a corkboard with pictures, what look to be fan illustrations though Emma’s reluctant to take a closer look, feeling strangely like she’s snooping even though Henry has invited her in. What’s really adorable though is that against the opposite wall, by the window, is a small, Henry-sized desk with a stack of paper, a tin of colouring pencils and his own corkboard on the wall above it. “Do you write stories here?” Emma asks.

 

Henry gives her a look that is pure Regina Mills, all judgement and contempt. “I’m five,” he says. “I can’t write.”

 

“Sorry,” Emma says.

 

“S’okay,” Henry replies. “When Momma works, I draw the pictures.” He grabs a picture from the top drawer. “See, this is Marisol.” It’s a crude stick figure done mostly in brown coloured pencil, with black curls sticking out from her head and a bright red dress shaped like a triangle.

 

“It’s really good,” Emma tells him and he beams.

 

“Henry, dinner!” Regina calls and Henry grabs her hand again and drags her downstairs into a lavish dining room. Emma, for whom a dining room is a concept only seen on the one occasion she had Thanksgiving with Mary Margaret and her family, stares around in awe. There are candlesticks that look like they’re made of gold on the table with actual lit candles in them. There is a floral arrangement in the centre of the table. The table cloth is blindingly white.

 

“Wow,” Emma says, as Regina comes in behind her and Henry with a dish. “Nice digs.”

 

“Henry, can you show our guest to her seat?” Regina asks, ignoring Emma’s inane comment. Henry, the five-year-old gentleman, pulls out her chair for her, and seats himself at the head of the table. “That’s not your seat, mijo,” Regina says.

 

“But Momma,” Henry pleads. “I want to sit beside you and Emma.”

 

Regina sighs and swaps his child-friendly cutlery with her own. Emma’s quickly coming to realise that Regina Mills is a total soft touch when it comes to her son. “This smells delicious,” Emma says.

 

“It’s lasagne,” Henry informs her. “Momma let me grate the cheese.”

 

Regina has been silent while she dishes up and passes a plate laden with lasagne first to Emma and then to Henry. Henry picks up his fork. “Salad,” Regina says and, scowling, Henry grabs the salad servers and clumsily gets his own salad, lettuce littering the perfect tablecloth.

 

“Henry’s going through an independent phase,” Regina says, looking across at Emma. “I find it’s easiest not to discourage it.” Emma nods, like she has any idea about the stages children go through.

 

Dinner progresses, the conversation led by Henry chattering away about kindergarten. “We did paints and I played with Grace.”

 

Emma’s impressed with how Regina speaks to her son, like he’s a person rather than a baby. Her diction is as crisp as ever, her tone doesn’t change but there’s a softness in her face that belies the stern tone that Emma finds she rather likes – it’s an expression of vulnerability. “And how is Grace?”

 

“Good,” Henry says. “She says I can come over and play next weekend.”

 

“Perhaps she could come here,” Regina replies, reaching over to push Henry’s hair out of his eyes. Henry pouts. “We could bake cupcakes,” she adds and immediately Henry’s face brightens.

 

“Emma, do you like cupcakes?” he asks.

 

“I love cupcakes,” she says and cringes at the enthusiasm injected into her voice. She could deal with Henry when they were hanging out, but under Regina’s watchful eye she feels over-exposed and nervous and one wrong word away from being exposed as a fraud.

 

“You should come over and make cupcakes with us,” Henry says.

 

“I’ve got to work, kid,” she says. “Maybe another time.” She sees Regina’s shoulders relax infinitesimally.

 

“We can bring you one at work when we’re done,” Henry decides. “Right, Momma?”

 

“Of course, dear,” Regina says. “More lasagne, Ms Swan?”

 

After dinner and Mary Margaret’s pie that Regina pronounced “rather nice” (Emma sent Mary Margaret a text with the compliment, which had her return a message entirely made out of exclamation marks and emojis), Henry insists that Emma sit with them while Regina reads ‘The BFG’. So Emma perches on the end of his bed, watching Henry curled up at his mother’s side, one hand coiled in her hair and his head nuzzling into her shoulder. Regina’s voice is hypnotic and Emma finds herself carried away to the world of Sophie and the Big Friendly Giant within the first sentence.

 

He’s almost asleep, eyes fluttering shut, when the chapter ends and Emma stands, awkward, waiting for Regina. She strokes his hair back from his forehead, pressing a kiss to his cheek and pulling the sheet up over him, the evenings still too warm for duvets. She whispers something in Spanish that Emma, with barely a semester of high school Spanish under her belt, struggles to make out.

 

“Night, Momma, night Emma,” Henry mumbles.

 

Out in the hall, Emma asks, “what did you say to him?”

 

Que sueñes con los angelitos,” she says. “Sleep with the angels, literally. I’m not religious or anything anymore but my papa used to say it to me every night when I was a little girl.”

 

As a child Emma had put herself to bed, cleaning her own teeth, tucking herself in. Sometimes a foster parent would come around and turn the lights off and say good night but often enough they’d forget. It was strange, the things she didn’t have a frame of reference for, and she never stopped discovering them. The idea of a parent who loved you enough to put you to bed, tuck you in, and wish you good dreams was utterly foreign.

 

“Drink, Ms Swan?” Regina asks, interrupting her reverie.

 

“I wouldn’t want to put you out,” Emma says because Regina has been pleasant enough all evening and she doesn’t want to over-stay her welcome and meet the bitch again.

 

“I wouldn’t have asked if it would put me out,” Regina says. So, rolling her eyes, Emma follows Regina downstairs and into a small room that seems to be a library judging by the three walls of books. “Cider?”

 

“Perfect,” Emma says, though she’s more of a beer drinker. Still, she’s never been one to turn down free alcohol. Regina busies herself, pulling an expensive-looking decanter from a sideboard and two glasses. The silence seems oppressive and so Emma, desperate for something to say, latches on to the one thing she knows about Regina Mills. Her books. “I read your books,” she says. “Well, I’ve read the first three. Haven’t had time for the latest one yet.”

 

“Oh?” Regina says, raising an eyebrow and handing Emma a crystal glass half full of amber liquid.

 

“They’re brilliant,” Emma says. “Marisol, she’s important.”

 

I think so,” Regina says. “She’s very dear to me.” Her fingers tap against the side of her own glass, the liquid sloshing against the sides. Emma studies her, noting the scar above her lip, the softness in her brown eyes, the velvetiness of her olive skin…

 

“Question though,” Emma says and she chooses to blame what she says next on the warmth in the pit of her stomach created by the cider. “Are Gin and Sal a couple?”

 

Regina, who has just taken a sip of her drink, chokes. She coughs several times before answering. “No,” she says eventually. “They’re becoming friends.”’

 

“But they’re going to be a couple, right?” Emma says. “Like, Gin has the brief thing with Captain Hook, before he double crosses her, but, unless she hooks up in book four, Sal’s not been with anyone since the stable boy.”

 

“Luis,” Regina says and a hand comes up to her throat, clutching at the chain encircling it and dragging the pendant attached to the end out from beneath her shirt. It’s clasped within her fist before Emma can tell what it is. “You mustn’t be so idiotic as to think I can say anything about the future of the books.”

 

“It’s not like I’m going to say anything to anyone,” Emma says, offended.

 

“You work in a children’s bookshop, dear,” Regina says.

 

“Ugh, fine,” Emma says, rolling her eyes and taking another healthy sip. “New subject, since you don’t want to talk about the obvious true love between Sal and Gin. Does Henry often bring home strays?”

 

“You’re one of a select few,” Regina says and her lips curve into a smirk.

 

“I feel very honoured,” Emma says dryly. “He’s a great kid.”

 

“He’s everything,” Regina says, so softly Emma almost misses it.

 

“Is his dad in the picture?” She says it and regrets it immediately because Regina’s hand tightens on the pendant at the end of the chain, her knuckles bruised white and the chain pulled so taut Emma suspects there will be marks tomorrow.

 

“Henry’s adopted,” she says, which isn’t really an answer, Emma reflects, but it’s not like they’re friends or anything. She takes the last sip of her drink and Regina snatches the glass from her hand. “I have things to do, Ms Swan,” she says. “I think I’ve played hostess long enough.”

 

“Okay,” Emma says. She stands, hands twisting together. “I didn’t mean to upset…”

 

“Oh, Ms Swan,” Regina says, voice sharp and brittle like shattered glass. “You would have to be important to me in order to upset me.”

 

“Oh.” Emma can’t help the hurt squeak that emanates from her even though it’s utterly ludicrous. “I’ll get out of your hair then. The meal was delicious and tell Henry I had a great time.” Regina escorts her to the front door, handing her the jacket she arrived with and standing in the doorway until Emma is safely away from her stoop. Once on the sidewalk, Emma pulls out her phone. Hey, about that drink? I’m coming over now.

Chapter Text

Marisol kicked at the entrance to the mine, wincing when pain throbbed in her toe. No one believed her. She’d thought Gin was starting to but then she’d heard them.

“Look, I think you’re pretty nasty and vindictive,” Gin had said. Marisol had been meeting Mom at her work, as she did every Wednesday, and heard Gin’s voice through the cracked door. “Marisol believing that you’re the evil queen from fairy tales though? Are you sending her to a therapist or something?”

Marisol had pushed the door open, letting it bang against the wall, and Mom had smiled over at her. “There you are, darling. Virginia was just leaving.”

Gin had grimaced. Marisol knew Gin hated her full name, hated that Mom had found it out because Gin had applied for the job as Deputy Sheriff, and now used it against her at every opportunity. “See you, kid,” she’d said and she’d reached out to tug on one of Marisol’s braids. She had shrugged away and felt guilty and furious all at once that Gin had looked hurt because Gin thought she was crazy. Gin had betrayed her. She’d talked to Mom about her.

And now she’d had a fight with Mom and run away to the old mine shaft. She’d find proof if that’s what it took and there’d been whispers of strange sightings in the area, ghosts and weird mists. So, steadying herself, she crawled into the mine, and started walking. It was dark and the beam of her flashlight only helped so much and then she tripped over something sharp and felt a twang in her ankle. She screamed, the pain terrible. Whenever she hurt herself – and three broken arms, several fights, and a concussion over the years could attest to this – Mom was always there to soothe her pain. But not now. And then the worst happened. There was a rumbling and the mouth of the shaft caved in, leaving her trapped.

She waited. And waited. And waited. It was so dark and the batteries of her flashlight ran flat and Marisol started imagining the townspeople excavating the mine in fifty years and finding only her skeletal remains.

“Kid, you there?” Gin’s voice echoed through the mine.

“Gin,” she cried. “Over here.” The beam of a flashlight blinded her and then Gin had her, scooped her up in her arms like she weighed nothing and carried her over to an elevator shaft, light streaming in from high above, and in that moment Marisol couldn’t even remember why she was angry with Gin, not when she was saving her from almost certain death.

“Grab tight around my waist,” she said and gave the line a sharp tug. They were hauled up and barely out of the shaft before Mom was on them, arms encircling them both before she remembered herself and pulled Marisol tight to her, shoving Gin away in the process.

“Oh, mija,” she said. “Never scare me like that again.” Marisol, reaching a hand into her pocket and clasping the curved piece of glass that had made her sprain her ankle, let herself be held and comforted and if she cried into her mother’s expensive silk blouse, well, no one would know except Mom and she wasn’t going to tell anyone.

-- from ‘The Queen and the Saviour’ by R. C. Mills

 

Mulan lives on the fourth floor of a shabby apartment building, the corridor smelling like garbage and stale urine. Emma knocks and hears, “door’s open,” so she enters.

 

“Can you lock the door?” Mulan asks. She’s lying on the couch, watching women’s basketball, all her attention on the screen. “Beer’s in the fridge.”

 

“No Rory?” Emma asks, grabbing a beer.

 

“She hates basketball with a passion,” Mulan says. “Oh, damnit! That was a foul! She’s out.”

 

Emma’s not the biggest basketball fan herself but she’s not going to say that around Mulan. Instead she cracks the cap from her beer and looks around the tiny apartment, all one room, bar a door to what is presumably a bedroom. The décor feels more like Rory than Mulan, lots of brightly coloured cushions – Mulan is currently using one as a cuddly toy – and paintings of flowers on the walls. She’s two beers down when the halftime buzzer sounds. Mulan mutes the TV. “So, how was dinner?”

 

“Confusing,” Emma says. “Also, God, I put my foot so far into my mouth it came out my ass.”

 

“That’s some gymnastics,” Mulan notes, grabbing another beer. “You want a third?”

 

“Please,” she says. Mulan passes her a fresh bottle, condensation creating bubbles on the label. “The kid’s pretty cute. At least he likes me.”

 

“What do you care if Mills likes you or not?” Mulan asks.

 

“I don’t,” Emma replies and Mulan snorts. “What? I don’t.”

 

“The fact that you’ve been stewing over tonight since you arrived suggests otherwise,” she says. “But what do I know? My crush is reciprocated.”

 

Emma just looks at her. “Crush?”

 

“It’s a love-hate thing, right?” she asks.

 

“She’s so judgemental,” Emma says. “And she thinks I’m nothing.”

 

“So it’s unrequited?”

 

“It’s not anything,” Emma says. “Because I don’t like people who are never going to like me back.” Mulan nods, though her expression is doubtful. “I was such an idiot though. Like, she was almost being nice, offered me a drink, talked to me about her books. And I asked about Henry’s dad.”

 

“Yeah, I can tell you don’t care about her at all,” Mulan says. “Basketball’s back on.” She unmutes the television and swigs at her beer.

 

Emma, who definitely wasn’t stewing in the first half of the game, stews now. She doesn’t like Mills. She doesn’t. She might be beautiful (and Emma’s mind drifts to those expressive dark eyes and the soft curves of her calves as her legs crossed) but she’s mean and snobby and made Emma, who knows she fucked up, feel like absolute shit.

 

She’s felt worthless all her life. Her mother abandoned her, disappeared into the nether. She moved from foster family to foster family, labelled ‘troubled’ from a young age. Her first serious boyfriend framed her for stealing a bunch of watches (I mean, she was no saint, but the watches thing was definitely on him). Mary Margaret’s the only person to ever stick by her long-term and that means that even when her privilege and her incessant niceness irritate Emma, she’ll never run from her.

 

When the game ends, and Emma’s allowed to talk again she’s drunk. “She’s got this hair, y’know,” she says. “I just wanna run my hands through it. And her lips.”

 

“For someone who hates Regina Mills, you sure seem to like her looks,” Mulan says. “Maybe we could talk about something different?”

 

“Sure,” she says, curling up on the couch. “How’s school?”

 

“Great,” Mulan replies and starts telling Emma about dodgeball and the sixth grade girls’ basketball team she coaches. Emma lies back and listens to her voice, her clear diction and smooth tone soothing, even if she’s only really catching every other word.

 

When she looks at her phone, it blinks back one o’clock. “Shit,” Emma says. “I should go.”

 

“Sleep on the couch,” Mulan replies. “You basically are anyway and I don’t want you walking home in this state.”

 

“Aw,” Emma says, only mildly mocking. “That’s sweet.”

 

“Yeah, well, Rory would never forgive me,” Mulan says. “She’s decided we’re going to be best friends and she’ll be really upset if I ruin that by letting you walk home in the dark while drunk.” She grabs a blanket from the bedroom and throws it over Emma. “Sleep tight.”

 

Emma pulls the blanket up to her nose and falls straight to sleep, though she dreams about Regina Mills, who’s wearing the sort of get-up she imagined that Sal as the Evil Queen might wear, all corsetry and leather pants, and she’s seductive and terrifying and Emma wants to pull her tight and refuse to let go. She wakes before the dream gets x-rated, finds a glass of water by the couch, presumably left by Mulan, and gulps it down, trying to calm her racing heart and the heat coursing through her body.

 

The next time she wakes, it is morning, sun streaming through the windows and painting Emma’s shoulder golden. Rory greets her from over in the kitchen with a cheery, “morning, Sunshine!” and Emma has to really try hard not to throw a pillow at her because it’s not Rory’s fault Emma got wasted, slept on her couch and woke up with a hangover.

 

Instead, she groans and stretches. “What time is it?”

 

“Seven,” Rory says and adds, when Emma pulls a horrified face, “I’m an early riser. Pancakes?” It’s then Emma notices that she has a mixing bowl in front of her and is stirring vigorously.

 

“Thank you,” Emma says fervently and soon the kitchen is warm with the smells of pancake batter frying. Mulan, with impeccable timing, opens the front door as Emma has eased herself off the couch and Rory is pulling the stack of pancakes from the warming drawer. There’s a sheen of sweat on her forehead and she’s wearing running shorts and Emma takes a moment to feel bitter that Mulan can drink as much as they both did – for while she didn’t drink as much as Emma she certainly was well past tipsy – and still get up and run at some god-awful hour of the morning.

 

Mulan, with practised ease, reaches over Rory’s head to grab plates from the cupboard above her. They fit together kind of perfectly; Mulan lanky and athletic, Rory rounded and feminine. She feels a twinge of envy. It’s not like Emma likes either of them that way, but their relationship, that she could be into. Maybe. With the right person. Who does not currently exist.

 

Shaking her head and feeling her brains rattle around inside her skull, she shifts over to the tiny kitchen table and lets Rory pour her a strong coffee and stick several pancakes on a plate for her. The coffee and food revives her somewhat and she’s able to actually contribute to conversation when she’s onto her third pancake and second cup of coffee. “I’m so sorry,” she mumbles at Mulan, who laughs.

 

“Don’t be,” she says. “I find your terrible crush on Regina Mills endearing.” Rory’s grinning too and Mulan’s told her, the bastard, and Emma feels her whole face flush red, particularly in light of the drunken dream she had that, had she been in her own bed, would have led to a rather vigorous round with her vibrator.

 

“Shut up,” she mutters. “I was really drunk.”

 

“You were really love-struck,” Mulan says and how Emma ever thought Mulan was, like, laconic and sensible, she’ll never know.

 

“More pancakes?” Rory asks and Emma could kiss her for changing the subject but then she adds, “or would you rather be eating something else? Perhaps some of Mills’ forbidden fruit?” It’s a metaphor in the first R. C. Mills book (“how to get the saviour to taste my forbidden fruit?”) and, though the evil queen is referring to the poisoned apple, everyone who has ever read the books is aware of the sexual connotations behind it. No, Emma decides. Rory must die as well.

 

Mulan literally cackles and Emma has to endure this for the rest of breakfast. Fortunately, she’s got the day off work so she walks home, stopping off at the grocery store on the way to get a big bag of kettle chips, a box of pastries and sprite – her sure-fire hangover cures. Mary Margaret’s cleaning the stovetop and she stops when Emma enters. “Oh, Emma, you look awful.”

 

“Thanks so much,” she says, grouchy because the walk has only made her hangover return with a vengeance.

 

“What can I get you?”

 

“I need to lie in a dark place and eat chips,” Emma says and she ascends the ladder to her room where she does exactly that. At some point she falls asleep because the next thing she knows, she’s waking up with chips in her bra and a half eaten pastry crumbling in her clutched fist. “Emma Swan, you are disgusting,” she mutters to herself.

 

Mary Margaret’s gone out when Emma goes downstairs to shower but she’s left a note (hope you’re feeling better. off to write at school. see you for dinner)and a freshly brewed pot of coffee and Emma is once again grateful that Mary Margaret’s around – and not just for the cheap rent in an amazing location.

 

Ruby, who gets the highly sanitised version of Friday night’s escapades on Monday, is more excited about the fanart above Regina Mills’ desk than how Emma feels about her, for which she is very grateful. Lacey pretends not to care, grunting when Emma mentions that she asked Mills about the Saviour and the Evil Queen, though she notices that she wears a dopey grin for much of the rest of the day.

 

At twelve, Emma goes next door for lunch. The bakery’s the busiest Emma’s ever seen it and Rory has no time to chat. She would get takeaways if she wasn’t so desperate to keep away from the bookshop for half an hour because there’s a school visit and the kids are kind of terrifying en masse while dressed in their private school uniforms and if she goes back she’ll get roped into helping out.

 

There aren’t any free tables though and she resigns herself to returning to the store after all, when she spots a spare seat at a table in the corner. “This seat taken?” she asks, pulling out the chair, and then the woman looks up from the notebook she’s writing in and she realises that it’s Regina Mills.

 

“Ms Swan,” she says, diction crisp.

 

“I mean, I can just…” Emma stutters and Regina sighs.

 

“Sit down,” she says. “Don’t waste your brief lunch break dithering about.”

 

Emma sits. Regina’s dressed as casually as she’s ever seen her, in jeans, even if they are dark denim and look like they might have been ironed. She doesn’t encourage conversation, returning immediately to her writing, but Emma didn’t bring a book with her and she feels awkward not acknowledging the woman in front of her. “So,” she says, drumming her fingers against the table anxiously. “Thanks so much for dinner the other day.”

 

“Thank Henry. He invited you,” Regina says, and she reaches out to grab Emma’s wrist to stop the incessant tapping. The warmth of her palm wrapped around her wrist makes Emma feel faint and dizzy and she’d like to be able to put that down to the heat of the bakery but she’d be kidding herself. “And stop that.”

 

“You didn’t have to let him,” Emma says, pulling her hand away after a moment and resisting the urge to touch where it feels as though Regina’s hand has left an indelible mark. “And I’m really sorry for my terrible case of foot in mouth.” She looks over at Regina, widening her eyes, fluttering her eyelashes and letting her lower lip stick out ever so slightly.

 

Regina looks up again from the notebook, clipping her pen to the cover of the book. “Honestly,” she says. “You’re worse than Henry. Puppy dog eyes will only get you so far in life, Ms Swan.”

 

“It seems like they get Henry the world,” Emma says and hastens to add, “not in a bad way. Just, the kid’s super cute.”

 

“Thank you,” Regina says, and she actually seems sincere about it until she adds, “that means a lot given you are clearly terrified of children. Perhaps it’s time to consider a new profession?”

 

“I am not!” Emma says, indignant. Regina raises an eyebrow. “Well, perhaps a little.” Rory sticks a mug of coffee, a panini and a donut in front of her and Emma goes straight for the donut, tearing off a chunk and devouring it.

 

“Of course you go for dessert first,” Regina says. “Be a little less predictable, Ms Swan.”

 

“Hey!” Emma says. “It’s been a rough morning. Not all of us can swan around being internationally successful children’s writers.”

 

“It must be so tough working in the most casual bookstore in the world,” Regina says and Emma actually giggles, before she hears the shrill noise coming from her lips and feels her cheeks flush scarlet.

 

“Are you actually eating?” Emma asks, trying to change the subject before Regina comments on the deeply embarrassing giggle. There’s nothing on Regina’s side of the table bar a mug bearing only the dregs of coffee.

 

“I’m allowed more food when I finish this chapter,” Regina says, gesturing at the notebook with scribbled handwriting in it. Emma would have picked Regina as someone with elegant cursive, and her scrawled script makes her seem moderately more human.

 

“That’s ridiculous,” she says and sticks half of her panini on a napkin, offering it to her. “You’ll never finish a chapter without sustenance.”

 

Regina demurs but Emma thrusts the panini half at her so vigorously the chicken threatens to slide out and onto Regina’s lap. “Fine,” she snaps, taking the napkin and biting off a corner of the sandwich. The blissful expression on her face is one Emma wishes she had a photo of. “God, that’s good.”

 

“So, you’re not actually a bitch?” Emma asks. “You just get cranky without food?”

 

“No,” Regina says, swallowing, and Emma’s eyes follow the movement of her throat. “I’m definitely a bitch.”

 

“Nuh-uh,” Emma says, taking her own less delicate bite of panini. “You’re a soft touch. Totally gooey on the inside.”

 

“Don’t mix metaphors, Ms Swan,” Regina says, though she’s almost smiling, one corner of her mouth quirked up. A couple of crumbs have stuck to her lipstick and her tongue darts out to capture them and Emma’s transfixed.

 

“I’m sorry we can’t all be writers, Mills,” she says.

 

And Regina Mills actually, genuinely laughs and it’s kind of beautiful.

Chapter Text

She was supposed to be in bed asleep but she couldn’t because Gin was in Mom’s study and she had to know what they were talking about. Her best friend, Esther, said she wasn’t trusting enough and it’s true. She didn’t trust anyone. Couldn’t even. Gin didn’t believe her. Who knew what she’d say to Mom?

“She’s a good kid,” Gin said. “You’ve raised her well. Makes me glad I gave her up.”

“I’m glad too, Virginia,” Mom said. “She says you told her about her father.” There was a frown in Mom’s voice.

“I…” Gin’s voice stuttered to a halt. “I lied,” she said.

“Idiot,” Mom said, though she sounded amused. “Marisol can pick liars.”

She hadn’t picked that one though, Marisol thought bitterly. Gin lying to her about who her father was seemed like the ultimate betrayal. Gin had promised to be honest with her, like Mom never was.

“Bianca already called me an idiot. But I just, I couldn’t,” Gin said, referring to her roommate and Marisol’s teacher, and Marisol’s anger was ripped abruptly from her because she heard a ragged sob and she thought Gin might be actually crying. “I was sixteen,” she said. “Ramon wasn’t a good guy. Marisol deserves a hero for a father.”

“So you created one?” Mom asked and her voice had softened into the tone she used to talk to Marisol when she was upset, before Marisol started pushing her away. “The danger with stories is that real life isn’t one. There are no heroes. There are no villains. There is no perfect, happy ending, Virginia.”

Marisol snuck away at that point, feeling troubled. The comfortable sense of black and white in her world was blurring, the white fading to grey, and she wasn’t sure if she liked it.

-- from ‘The Queen and the Saviour’ by R. C. Mills

 

It takes three more lunch breaks at the bakery before Emma realises that Regina’s coming to the bakery on purpose to have lunch with her. Oh, she pretends that she’s not, acting surprised and a little exasperated when Emma sits across from her with a coffee or bear claw. But there are clues.

 

The first clue is to do with coffee. When she sat down across from her the second time, Regina said, “what is that muck that you drink?” Now, when Emma enters the bakery, her coffee is across from her, exactly how she likes it. Regina feigns ignorance of this, rolling her eyes when Emma thanks her. “It must have been your little friend at the counter.”

 

The second clue is Regina’s smile. As much as she tries to hide it, she cannot help the flash of an honest-to-god grin that appears on her face when Emma enters the bakery.

 

The third, perhaps most obvious clue is that Rory tells her that Regina is coming in deliberately to have lunch with her. “She came in on your day off and was all disappointed when you weren’t there, even though she tried to hide it. I told her you normally come in here on Wednesdays and Thursdays – and Saturdays if you have to work.” Emma can’t help the smile that blooms across her face.

 

It has been two weeks since the dinner and Emma enters the bakery on a Wednesday afternoon, after the lunch rush is over. She sits down across from Regina, taking a long swig of her coffee, and slides one of the two bear claws she bought across to Regina, who ignores it, though when she thinks Emma’s not looking, she sticks out a finger, swiping sugar crystals from the crust of the pastry, and licking her index finger clean. “So, how’s my favourite five-year-old?” Emma asks.

 

Regina pauses, finger transferring another swipe of sugar halfway to her lips. “Henry’s perfect,” she says and, as it always does, her whole face relaxes at the mention of Henry. “He’s learning to tie his own shoe laces.”

 

“Good on him,” Emma says, grinning, because she can visualise Henry sitting on the floor of Regina’s office, tying and untying the shoe laces on his tiny sneakers, lips pursed and eyes almost crossed in concentration. “Give him the thumbs up from me.”

 

“Tell him yourself,” Regina says, though she cannot fight the proud smile. “I’m bringing him to story time tomorrow.”

 

“Awesome,” Emma says, taking a large bite of her bear claw. “At least there’ll be one kid there who doesn’t completely terrify me.”

 

“I fail to understand your fear of children,” Regina says, grabbing a napkin and dabbing at the side of Emma’s lips, where apparently she’s smeared sugar granules from attempting to eat pastry. She feels her cheeks flush. “You’re practically one of them. A bear claw is not a nutritious lunch.”

 

“Henry’s way more mature and self-actualised than I am,” Emma says and Regina nods as though this is an undisputed truth. “You could at least pretend like you don’t agree,” she whines and Regina smiles.

 

“I’m never going to back you over my own son, dear,” she says and picks up her pen, scribbling another correction onto the typed chapters she’s been working on. She has been re-reading her first draft – just completed – and making notes around the margins before she starts mercilessly editing.

 

“So is this the book where Sal and Gin become a couple?” Emma asks, trying to peek at the pages. She catches the sentence “Marisol scowled at Prince Charming” before Regina’s arm covers the page and she glares furiously at Emma.

 

“It’s a children’s book,” she says and Emma frowns, the words cutting and sharp.

 

“So you’re saying that gay parents aren’t suitable for children,” she snaps. She hopes desperately that it’s not what Regina means but then they’ve only known each other a couple of weeks. It’s not like they’ve discussed their positions on, like, marriage equality or whatever.

 

Red spots appear on Regina’s cheeks. “I’m saying my agent would have a conniption. It was hard enough arguing against Marisol being changed to a little boy – let alone the fight that came with her and Sal being unambiguously Latina. I’m saying that sometimes the book industry can be a difficult place for people of colour and women and queers. Do you know how shocking it is that Marisol’s been so successful?” She pauses. “Anyway, they’re just friends.”

 

“You so want them together,” Emma says. “You want Marisol to have two lesbian mommies who raise her. The level of subtext cannot possibly be unintentional.”

 

“I think you’re confusing me with your favourite fanfiction writers,” Regina says dryly and Emma rolls her eyes because the whole fandom thing is so not her and Regina knows it. Ruby perhaps, and she has her suspicions about Lacey’s proclivities, but she’s never been much of one to get whole-heartedly obsessed with something. “Just drop it, Ms Swan,” Regina says. There’s a note of finality in her voice and Emma’s learning not to push her too far.

 

“Seriously? Can you please call me Emma?” she asks, instead of pushing.

 

“I don’t know if we’re close enough,” Regina says.

 

“You call Rory by her name.” She crosses her arms over her chest, not sure why it bothers her so much, except that Regina seems to be nicer to everyone they both know except for her. “And Mulan – and you’ve only met her twice. We’re friends.”

 

“I’m not sure I want to be friends with you,” Regina says, “since your erroneous interpretation of my novels suggests you don’t understand what friendship looks like.”

 

“And you clearly don’t get chemistry,” Emma says, grinning because Regina being snotty about the idea of them being friends is as sure an indication of their friendship that she’s ever going to get.

 

Regina raises and eyebrow and her voice is a husky purr when she responds. “Oh, trust me, Ms Swan. I understand chemistry.” And Emma feels a shock of warmth somewhere in her belly and stumbles over her next words.

 

They carry on, Emma asking questions – mostly about Henry – and Regina being rude, until Emma has to go back to work and she’s grinning like an idiot when she enters the Rabbit Hole. “You are so smitten,” Ruby says.

 

“With Rory’s bear claws, yeah,” Emma replies.

 

“With her royal Mills-ness,” Ruby says, grabbing a box of their latest shipment of ‘The Gruffalo’ and moving to the picture book stands to stack them.

 

“Am not,” Emma says, following her, because apparently Regina’s correct and Emma is, like, five. “She’s a friend.”

 

“Sexy times friend.”

 

“Screw you.” Emma balls up an old receipt and chucks it at Ruby’s head.

 

“Oi,” Lacey says, poking her head out from the store room. “We have small children in the shop. Shut the hell up.”

 

“Sorry, babe. I’ll be good,” Ruby says, winding an arm around her wife’s neck and kissing her cheek with a loud, smacking noise. Her lipstick leaves a red stain but Lacey doesn’t move to rub it off before she returns to the stock room.

 

“So, what’s the story with you guys?” Emma asks, throwing out old receipts and post-it notes around the till.

 

“Met online,” Ruby says, sliding the knife through the tape holding together a box of books. “She was in Australia, stuck in some hick town in this marriage to a wealthy asshole. She travelled when they finally got divorced and ended up here, because my roommate had just moved out.”

 

“And the rest is history?” Emma asks, grabbing half the box of books and helping Ruby re-stock the shelves.

 

“The rest was four years dealing with Lacey setting up the shop, trying to pretend I wasn’t in love with my straight roommate and employer – not so straight as it turned out, just deeply closeted – and kissing her drunkenly against the door of our apartment after a night out.”

 

“Romantic,” Emma says.

 

“That’s us, baby,” Ruby says, waggling her eyebrows. And as much as Emma was being sarcastic, it is kind of romantic, because they’re together and they’re in love and they care about each other. Lacey might be caustic and Ruby glib, but they suit each other and Emma has watched them work seamlessly together, has seen the soft touch of Lacey’s hand against Ruby’s hip when she thinks no one’s watching and Ruby’s advances when she knows that people are looking because she’s a bit of an exhibitionist.

 

She wants that with someone but it’s possible she’s too fucked up to get it.

 

That night Emma talks about Regina one too many times and Mary Margaret’s apparently getting sick of it. “I get it, Em, she’s the love of your life,” she says, slumping irritably onto the couch and running a hand through her short hair so it stands on end. “Can we maybe pick a movie now?”

 

“She’s not,” Emma says. “Why do people keep saying that?”

 

“Emma, you are so blind,” Mary Margaret sighs. “I don’t think you’ve ever talked about someone so much – even Elsa, and you guys were together for ages.”

 

“But it’s all about her bitchy comments and her condescending attitude and stuff,” Emma says, grabbing a couple of pints of ice cream from the freezer and teaspoons. “How the hell do you get romance out of that?” She stops, Mary Margaret watching her. “I mean, yeah, she’s hot but…” She trails off, the pints of ice cream freezing against her hands. “It’s not like she even likes me,” she mumbles. “I’m pretty sure she’s straight.”

 

“Perhaps you need to stop stewing and do something about it,” Mary Margaret says, taking the Cookie Dough pint and leaving Emma with her Butter Pecan. “Now,” she adds, holding up two DVDs. “’The Labyrinth’ or ‘The Princess Bride’?”

 

Watching David Bowie gyrate on the TV screen, Emma thinks about Regina (a comparison she’s sure Regina would kill her for). She contemplates her smile, guarded and seen all too rarely for Emma’s liking, but soft and promising hope and warmth and something Emma’s unfamiliar with but which she suspects might be home. She thinks about her fingers, perpetually ink-stained and with notes scribbled on the back of her hand, reminders to pick up Henry, ideas for Marisol, once a phone number. Emma teased her about it, though jealousy must had bled into her voice. “It’s a hotel booking line,” Regina said, staring at her as though there had never been a bigger idiot in all creation. “I have to call them to confirm for a book thing in a few weeks.”

 

She’d step up her game tomorrow, she thinks, and then lets herself become absorbed in the world of Sarah and her creepy puppet friends, and when Mary Margaret leans her head against Emma’s shoulder, she doesn’t flinch away.

 

The next day Regina and Henry arrive in plenty of time for story time. It’s Emma’s turn again – she and Ruby have agreed to once a month – and she still feels the same terror at reading aloud. Henry runs up to her and she picks him up, feeling his arms encircle her neck and smiling even though he ends up choking her. “Careful, mijo,” Regina says, grabbing Henry around the waist and allowing Emma to extricate herself. In doing so, her fingers brush against the bare skin of Emma’s arms and she shivers at the touch, which burns. “If you kill Ms Swan, you won’t get to hear any more of ‘Matilda’. Sorry,” she adds. “He’s just finished at kindergarten. Excess energy.”

 

“Can I sit with you, Emma?” Henry asks, big eyes pleading.

 

“Of course,” Emma says and bends down to his eye level. “You have to promise me something though.” Henry nods eagerly. “No leg stroking this time.”

 

Regina snorts, trying to disguise it as a delicate cough and failing, and Emma glares at her. Henry looks between the pair of them. “What’s funny, Momma?” he asks and this time it’s Emma who laughs.

 

Forbidden from stroking her legs, Henry instead plays with her shoe laces, lacing and unlacing them while she reads. It’s a weird feeling, but it’s less intrusive than the leg thing and she figures at least he’s practising a useful life skill. The kid who was disappointed she wasn’t Ruby last time is glaring at her the whole way through and Emma desperately attempts to ‘do the voices better’.

 

“Better than last time,” Regina says, approaching her when Emma’s finished reading and has packed up. The counter’s busy with kids and their parents but Lacey seems to be handling it and she wants to talk to Regina so she pretends she hasn’t seen the crowds.

 

“I actually practised,” Emma says, bending down to re-tie her shoe laces because Henry may be learning but he’s not there yet. Henry’s sitting at one of the kiddie tables, reading with Ruby.  

 

When she gets back up Regina looks nervous, teasing her bottom lip with her teeth. She’s dressed more casually than Emma’s ever seen her, no make-up and there’s a smear of ink on her cheek, near her ear. Emma knows she’s getting close to a deadline and suspects she rushed to get to Henry’s kindergarten and then here. “May I speak with you? Perhaps somewhere where there’s less noise?”

 

Emma nods and leads her into the hall, knowing Regina will still want to be able to see Henry. “So…” she says, raising her eyebrows and feeling a smile start to play on her lips.

 

“Are you doing anything this Saturday night?” Regina asks, words coming out too quickly.

 

Emma can hear her heart thumping in her ears and feels warmth spread through her body. Her breath quickens. “Free as a bird,” she says, feigning nonchalance, though she can’t stop her lips spreading into a toothy grin at the words.

 

Regina twists her hands in front of her. She’s nervous; Emma knows her. The fact that she’s anxious makes Emma so happy. She, Emma Swan, professional idiot, can make Regina Mills nervous. “Would you be able to babysit Henry for me?”

 

Emma freezes, the request so far from what she expected that it feels like whiplash. The confusion must show on her face because Regina continues. “My usual sitter’s out of town and Henry really likes you and I’ll pay you of course…”

 

“Regina,” Emma says, interrupting because she can’t hear anything more and at some point Regina’s going to tell her about what she’s up to on Saturday and Emma’s not sure if she can bear to find out that it’s a date right now. “Stop babbling. I’d love to hang out with the greatest kid in the world.”

 

Regina smiles with something like relief and so Emma returns it automatically, even though all she wants to do is kick herself for daring to hope, for being so damn stupid.

Chapter Text

After what Gin said, she was trying to be kinder to Mom. So when Mom hovered at her door at nine o’clock to get her to turn her light out, Marisol didn’t scowl and burrow under the covers. “You can come in,” she said and if her voice sounded sulky, Mom didn’t seem to care, judging by the smile that lit up her face.

She sat at the end of Marisol’s bed and rubbed her calf through the fabric of the duvet and sheets. “I love you, cariño,” Mom said.

“Can you tell me a story?” Marisol asked.

(“Talk to her,” Gin had said. “Let her tell you her story. It might explain things,” she had said. “She’s your mom and that’s nothing to sniff at,” she had said.)

Mom paused for a moment before speaking. “Once upon a time,” she said, “there was a girl. She was brave and caring and kind and she loved horses more than anything. Her mother did not approve. Her mother wanted her to be more ladylike. But the girl didn’t listen. She just wanted to ride horses; she was a wild horse of a girl. When she grew into a young woman she fell in love with the boy who groomed her horse and he loved her back. They made plans to marry one day.” She sighed, hand fiddling with the ring she wore on her ring finger, twisting it around so the green stone was no longer visible.

“One day the lovers were picnicking beneath a tree on the girl’s estate when they saw a runaway horse, a girl on its back, screaming for help. The young woman leapt onto her horse and rescued the girl, who turned out to be the princess of the realm. The king, as a reward, offered the girl his hand in marriage. But he was much older than her and she had already given her heart. So she and stable boy ran away.”

Her hands shook and Marisol, forgetting for a moment that this was the evil queen, reached out and grabbed her mother’s hand. Mom squeezed her hand tight. “The young woman was betrayed by the princess, who told her mother of the young woman and the stable boy. Her mother found them and she was a cruel and vengeful woman who had ambitions for her daughter beyond happiness and she pulled the stable boy’s heart from his chest and crushed it into dust and everything was lost.”

Marisol was silent for a long moment, listening to Mom’s jagged breathing. “Is that a true story?” she asked.

“Of course not,” Mom said. “Perhaps a little morbid for a bed time story?” She laughed, the sound brittle as glass, stood and, hesitantly, as though asking for permission, bent and kissed Marisol’s forehead. “Te quiero, mija.”

She had turned the light out, framed only in the light of the hallway, when Marisol got the courage to ask. “What was his name?”

For a moment she thought Mom wouldn’t answer and her voice was soft and low when she did, so low Marisol almost missed it. “Luis,” she said. “His name was Luis.”

-- from ‘The Queen and the Saviour’ by R. C. Mills

 

“I’m never listening to you again,” Emma says, slumping downstairs at six thirty. She’s due at Regina’s soon and she grabs her chucks by the door, shoving her feet into them without undoing the laces.

 

“I said I was sorry, Emma,” Mary Margaret says. “I didn’t know you’d misread the situation.”

 

“Babysitter,” she says. “Teenagers babysit.”

 

“I’m sure she just asked you because she knows you like Henry,” Mary Margaret replies. She’s not fully concentrating because she’s attempting crème brûlée for a bunch of new friends from her masters programme who are coming over tonight – and Emma’s pleased she’s going to be gone before the blow torch comes out. She doesn’t know that she trusts Mary Margaret with an open flame, not after the candle incident at college.

 

“Whatever,” Emma says. She knows it’s not Mary Margaret’s fault, or Ruby’s fault or anyone’s fault but her own. She got her hopes up all by herself and now she has to deal with the consequences. “I’m off.”

 

“Stop being grouchy before you get there,” Mary Margaret warns. “Regina’ll take one look at your face and change her mind about letting you babysit.” Emma actually contemplates this as a strategy for a moment but she likes Regina and she wants to be her friend even though it’s never going to go any further. So, instead, she grabs her jacket and shoves her e-reader and keys into her bag and leaves.

 

When she arrives at the Mills house, Henry lets her in and he’s so happy to see her that her foul mood evaporates instantly. “Emma!” he says. “Momma’s getting dressed.”

 

He drags her inside, where she kicks off her shoes, and into the lounge, where he’s been playing some complex game with his Lego and she watches him play, muttering to himself under his breath, until she hears Regina’s voice. “Henry, is that Emma?” And she enters the lounge. She’s threading an earring into her ear, head tilted to the side so her hair falls in a dark sheet, and Emma can’t help but stare because she’s never seen her look so dangerously beautiful; plum lips, tight black dress, heels that emphasise the defined line of her calf muscles.

 

“Hi,” Emma says, throat dry, and Regina smiles, white teeth gleaming in contrast to the almost purple lipstick and eyes running over Emma, making her feel pathetic and exposed in her tee-shirt and jeans (she wanted to dress up, she almost did, but she didn’t want to seem tragic).

 

There’s a knock at the door and Emma’s still busy staring at Regina and Regina at her and so Henry runs and gets it.

 

“You look really nice,” Emma says, which is a lie because Mary Margaret looks nice in her floral dresses and pastel cardigans. Regina looks stunning and Emma just wants to rip the dress off her and do stuff that is certainly not in the realm of babysitting (unless she were in a porn movie) because apparently Regina Mills turns her into a cavewoman.

 

“Thanks,” Regina says and she fusses with her dress for a moment. “There’s a note on the table for you. Bedtimes and all of that.”

 

“Momma,” Henry says, returning to the room. “Marian says she’s waiting outside and then she said to hurry up, but she used a rude word.”

 

“I better go,” Regina says, kissing Henry’s cheek, grabbing her purse and leaving, after one final long look at Emma.

 

“So,” Emma says, left entirely alone with Henry for the first time ever. She fiddles with her hair, pulling it back into a ponytail. “Who’s Marian?”

 

Henry just shrugs. “Momma’s friend.” And Emma’s heart breaks all over again because at least if she was going out with a man, Emma could pretend that the only reason Regina wasn’t interested in her was incompatible sexualities. “Can we watch a movie?”

 

“Sure, buddy,” Emma says, smiling.

 

Henry clasps his hand in hers and leads her to a weathered, wooden trunk where the DVDs are kept. Emma is amused to see that the only Disney movies Henry owns are ones about people of colour. “Lilo and Stitch,” Henry says, after long minutes of scanning the selection, grabbing the DVD as though this is the most important decision he has ever made in his life. Emma frowns. She’s not seen it before.

 

And as they watch she realises there’s good reason for that because, holy fuck, it’s triggering deep-seated emotions inside her and by the time Stitch says, “this is my family. I found it all on my own,” she’s sobbing and Henry crawls onto her lap and touches the tears on her cheek.

 

“Why you sad?” he asks.

 

“Sorry, kiddo,” Emma says, sniffing. “Just wish I had a family.”

 

“You don’t have a family?” Henry asks, eyes wide and serious.

 

“No,” she says. “It sucks.”

 

He giggles. “Momma says families can be anyone. She chose me and so we’re family. You can be our family too. Maybe Momma can adopt you.” And Emma starts sobbing again. Henry is patient for a short time but he gets bored eventually, clambering down from her lap and tugging at her arm. “Hot chocolate?”

 

So Emma lets herself be led into the kitchen where she finds a box of tissues and cleans herself up. She lifts Henry onto the bench, where he sits as though it’s a throne, issuing royal proclamations. “More cocoa,” he says. “Marshmallows in top cupboard.”

 

They drink their cocoa at the kitchen table (house rules, Henry tells her sternly) and then it’s time for bed. Regina had said not to bother with baths in the extensive note she’d left on the coffee table but she has to blackmail him with threats of calling Regina into brushing his teeth and he gets all silly and hyperactive when she’s trying to get him to change into his pyjamas.

 

Eventually though he’s in bed. “Story,” he says. The book on his bedside table is ‘The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe’ but he shakes his head when she reaches for it. “Momma won’t know what happens in it if you read,” he says, high little voice solemn.

 

So Emma searches the bookshelves and finds a couple of picture books that Ruby has said are pretty good. His eyes flutter shut halfway through ‘The Sign of the Seahorse’. “We’ll finish it next time, okay, buddy?” and Henry smiles.

 

“G’night, Emma,” he says.

 

“Night,” she says and she can’t stop herself from pressing a kiss to his forehead and he smiles sleepily, eyes still shut.

 

Downstairs she turns on the TV quietly but can’t concentrate so she decides to go exploring; it’s basically a rule of babysitting, right? You check out the client’s house. Downstairs is the kitchen, living room, dining room and what seems to be Regina’s library – it’s where she offered Emma a drink at dinner. She’s seen it all before, though she’d like to have a closer look at the books on Regina’s shelves. She tiptoes upstairs, avoiding the study and Henry’s room because she’s familiar with them.

 

Instead she finds herself standing in the doorway of Regina’s bedroom (and the door was open, it wasn’t like she’s being that nosy) and takes in the vast space. There’s several dresses laid out on her bed, in a sort of morbid rainbow – burgundy, rust, violet, navy – and the cream duvet cover is crumpled. The bedside table is a mess of books, piled high, and she sees a pair of reading glasses that she wishes she could see Regina wear. Her eyes scan the artwork (modern, abstract), the shoe rack against one wall that houses an impressive collection of designer high heels, the make-up and moisturisers cluttering the top of the vanity.

 

There’s also a framed photo on the vanity, a woman dressed in white, a man in a suit, but she can’t see anything more from her position by the door and it’s though her body is moving independently of her brain because she finds herself over by the photo before she has a chance to tell herself that she’s invading Regina’s privacy.

 

The photo is of Regina, much younger, looking barely out of her teens, and so happy, looking up at the much taller man beside her and grinning – her smile unguarded – and Emma’s especially struck by the long, wavy hair flowing down her back. There’s an expression of such love in the man’s eyes and something about him reminds her a great deal of Luis, the character of the stable boy in Regina’s novel. The way his eyes crinkle, perhaps.

 

This is the tragic story in Mills’ past because he’s obviously not around anymore.

 

Realising too late how invasive this is, she leaves, makes her way downstairs and spends the next few hours raiding Regina’s bookshelves and drinking coffee. It is past midnight when Regina returns. And she’s not alone.

 

She stumbles into the living room first, cheeks flushed and this ridiculous smile broad on her face. “Emma,” she says, in a loud whisper, sitting on the arm of the couch and stroking Emma’s hair. “Hi!”

 

Emma turns to her and raises her eyebrows. “You’re wasted,” she says but she’s smiling because Regina always has several layers of reserve up and it’s intrinsically hilarious to see those layers shed because apparently you end up with a very affectionate, clumsy housecat.

 

“Am not,” Regina replies, outraged, standing again and almost falling backwards.

 

“Yeah, she is,” says a voice from behind her and another woman – Marian – enters. Emma had been hoping that Marian would be stiff and upper class and hopelessly snobby. But she’s not. She’s beautiful, dark skin glowing and curls winding around her shoulders and she has this broad mouth that’s currently grinning fondly at Regina and Emma feels a little heartbroken.

 

“I should go,” Emma says but Regina grabs her arm.

 

“Stay,” she says, widening her eyes and pouting and it’s easy to see where Henry gets it from. “Have a drink with us.”

 

“Yeah,” Marian says and she’s still grinning and it’s starting to unnerve Emma. “Have a drink, Emma.”

 

So Emma lets herself be led into Regina’s library where Regina kicks off her shoes and curls up on the couch and lets Marian pour them all a drink with practised familiarity. “Was he good?” Regina asks. Her skirt is hiked up to mid-thigh in her current position and Emma has to actively stop herself from staring.

 

“Very,” she says, settling into an armchair a safe distance away. “Did you have a nice night out?”

 

Regina’s face takes on a dreamy quality and she smiles. “So many pretty people.”

 

“We went to see ‘Chicago’,” Marian says. “Regina enjoyed it.”

 

“So pretty,” Regina says again and, after placing her drink carefully on the coaster, she leans back against the arm of the couch and closes her eyes.

 

“So Emma,” Marian says, settling into the crack of space between Regina’s feet and the other arm of the couch. “Tell me about yourself.”

 

“Not much to tell,” Emma says, shrugging. She doesn’t know why Marian’s staring at her with such fascination.

 

“Where are you from?” Marian has these legs that go on forever; she’s taller than Regina and lean, toned. She can see why Regina would be into her.

 

“All around. Maine most recently, I guess.” She’d spent time in foster care and group homes all over New England, wherever they could find somewhere for her to be placed.

 

“And you live?”

 

“A few blocks over. My roommate’s doing her masters at the New School,” she says. Marian’s direct gaze starts to unnerve her and she stares at her hands, thin scars from working in retail and so opening too many boxes with knives on her fingers and nails short and poorly maintained. “I work at the Rabbit Hole.”

 

“Yes,” Marian says and her eyes are shining with barely concealed fun. “Regina told me that. Actually, she told me rather a lot about you. Ow!” Emma looks over to see that Regina has kicked Marian in the thigh.

 

Emma drains her drink. “I should probably get going,” she says.

 

“I owe you money,” Regina replies, one eye cracking open and Emma shrugs.

 

“Don’t worry about it,” she says because being given money for babysitting makes her feel like a fourteen-year-old girl. “I was doing a favour for a friend.”

 

Regina smiles. “Friend. I like that.” And Emma feels that warmth inside, her whole body melting, because Regina has avoided the ‘friend’ moniker for the entire time they’ve known each other and she files this away for a time when Regina gets prickly and Emma’s insecurities play up. “I’ll walk you to the door.” And she follows Emma to the hall, where Emma shoves her feet into her shoes and grabs her jacket.

 

It’s cool out and the only light comes from the street lamps. “So,” she says, standing on the stoop and somehow unable to make herself go any further. “Marian seems nice.”

 

“She’s great,” Regina says. “She’s the best. So’re you though. The best.”

 

“I…” Emma stops. “No, never mind.”

 

“What?” Regina asks and she’s smiling and her hand reaches out and brushes against the bare skin of Emma’s upper arm and Emma would think she was flirting if not for the fact she’s just met Marian, who is quite possibly the perfect woman for someone like Regina.

 

“Nothing,” Emma says. “Just, you and Marian make a really good couple.”

 

Regina blinks and then she laughs, loudly and at length. “Are you jealous, Emma Swan?” she asks when she has caught her breath.

 

“No!” Emma says.

 

“I think you are,” Regina says, voice low and sonorous.

 

“Don’t mock me,” Emma replies fiercely. “Don’t think my pathetic little crush on you…” But she’s cut off because Regina pulls her towards her and kisses her. She smells like a distillery, well, that and expensive perfume, and Emma had never in all her daydreams expected a kiss with the sharp and sophisticated Regina Mills to be quite so sloppy.

 

But there’s that heat and it builds in Emma, pushing out all anxieties or fears and for a moment, she’s home, here with her mouth on Regina’s and her hands clenching and unclenching, desperate to touch and claw and caress, but she manages to restrain herself.

 

Regina pushes away from her, swaying slightly, and says, “Marian’s happily married,” before she turns on her heel and saunters into the house, shutting the door on Emma.  

Chapter Text

Marisol scowled at Gin who was having rather too animated a conversation at the counter of the diner with the guy who’d just driven into town on a motorbike. He was good looking, she supposed, all stubble and dark eyes, but this was their time. Mom had only given her an hour before she had to be home to do homework and she didn’t want to waste it watching Gin flirt.

 Gin obviously felt Marisol’s eyes boring holes into her back because she returned to the table with their milkshakes. “Sorry,” she said. “New guy in town. He was asking questions.”

  “There’s never new people in town,” Marisol said.

  “What can I tell you, kid?” Gin said. “He’s never been here before. Says his name’s Carlo.” She looked back over at the counter. “I wish I could figure out why he looked so familiar.”

She told Mom (of course she did because Gin was getting into this rather unfortunate habit of telling Mom everything) about the new guy and Mom’s eyes narrowed and her voice deepened. “New?”

“Yeah, he’s staying at the inn,” Gin said. “My old room, in fact.”

“I don’t give you this time with Marisol so you can flirt with strange men,” Mom said.

“I wasn’t flirting!” Gin whined, sounding like a wounded puppy. “Was I flirting, Mar?”

“A little bit,” Marisol said, shrugging, because Gin had been standing at the counter with her legs apart, hands on her hips and a wry smile playing across her lips, and it seemed like Gin’s weird way of flirting.

“Traitor,” Gin said, but there was no malice in her tone. “See you Wednesday, kid.” 

“Unless of course, you’re too busy with your new gentleman friend,” Mom said and Marisol sighed. It was one step forward, two steps back with her mothers.

-- ‘The Queen and the Saviour’ by R. C. Mills

 

Emma wakes up happy and for a moment she can’t remember why but then it all comes rushing back to her. Regina. Regina’s lips on her, Regina’s hands around her waist, Regina’s scent engulfing her.

 

She sighs happily and stretches, taking a moment to bask in the pure, sloppy perfection of the moment. “Em?” It’s Mary Margaret calling up the ladder. “It’s eight. Do you have work?”

 

Fuck. She rolls off the bed and pulls jeans and a tank top over last night’s underwear. Clambering down the steps, she pulls her hair back into a straggly ponytail.

 

Ruby’s in charge today – Lacey taking a rare and apparently very necessary day off. “About three times a year she gets incredibly toxic and grouchy and becomes the worst wife in the world,” Ruby says, twisting her wedding band around her finger. Emma wants to ask ‘only three times a year?’ but she suspects Ruby knows where to hide bodies. “So we have a mental health day deal, wherein I run the shop and at night…” She waggles her eyebrows.

 

“I can’t know this,” Emma says, setting up the till.

 

“I’m just saying,” Ruby says, “you haven’t lived until you’ve tied someone up.”

 

“Seriously? You’re talking about my boss,” Emma says. After a moment, she adds, “really not my thing though. More into being tied up than doing the tying.” Ruby raises an eyebrow but otherwise refrains from comment because they’re busy, kids all over the store and people are beginning to cluster at the counter. It’s the busiest Emma’s seen the Rabbit Hole since she started and she doesn’t get a proper break until three. She’s craving coffee by the mid-afternoon and rushes next door, feeling her shoulders sag when she sees that Regina’s not there.

 

Rory grins when she sees her though. “Here’s your coffee,” she says, handing Emma a takeaway cup and a sandwich. “Already paid for.”

 

“There are sprouts in this,” Emma says, eyeing the sandwich dubiously.

 

“Your secret admirer is concerned about your health,” Rory informs her. “She says she’s never seen you eat a vegetable she didn’t cook.”

 

Emma beams and when she sits down to eat, she notices the note on the side of the coffee in Regina’s scrawl. Your work looked busy and I had to pick up Henry from his playdate at one. Thank you for last night. This is followed by a squiggle that Emma assumes is supposed to say ‘Regina’.

 

She bites into the sandwich and, do you know what? The sprouts aren’t so bad after all.

 

She has Mondays off work and she contemplates texting Regina, offering to buy her a coffee – somewhere that isn’t the bakery – to pay her back. She doesn’t and she’s not sure why except that possibly she’s afraid.

 

Man up, Swan, Mulan replies to her when she whinges via text.

 

Sexist.

 

Fine. Stop being a coward.

 

She heads into the bakery on Wednesday during her regularly scheduled lunch break. Regina’s there, editing. She looks up when she sees Emma and smile-scowls like there’s nothing different between them, but Emma knows. “Hi,” she says shyly when she sits down.

 

“Ms Swan,” Regina says, velvet tongued. “Yet again, you show no concern for my need to work.”

 

“Don’t be such a grouch,” Emma says, rolling her eyes. “Hey, I enjoyed meeting Marian.”

 

“Marian’s the best,” Regina says and she folds the paper into her notebook and twists the pen between her fingers. “Except when she’s being the worst. Did she tell you how we met?”

 

Emma shakes her head. “Wasn’t really time.”

 

“We went to high school together,” Regina says, putting her pen and taking a long drink of the coffee in front of her. “We did track together. Fiercely competitive about everything – including, as it turned out, about boys. There was this one boy, Rob. She was in love with him. I think I mostly wanted him because she did. We kept fighting about him.”

 

“Who won?”

 

“Our track coach pulled us into her office and told us that girls shouldn’t fight over boys, that we owed it to ourselves as feminists to stop being idiots. Marian rolled her eyes so much at the meeting I got the giggles and coach dismissed us in disgust.” Regina smiles fondly. “Then she invited me over for pie.”

 

“Either of you ever actually date the boy?”

 

“Marian, I guess, given she married him last year,” Regina says. “But, I mean, we were twenty-three when she met him again and by that stage I had...” She stops abruptly. “Well, I’d stopped caring about other men, at any rate.”

 

Emma wonders if she’s referring to the man in the photo.

 

“Thank you for looking after Henry,” Regina says quite suddenly. “I felt terrible asking you but I didn’t trust him with a stranger and he likes you.”

 

Emma frowns because she had hoped the ‘thank you’ might have been for the kiss and she’s now wondering if she misinterpreted that. “So how much do you remember from Friday night?” she asks, testing the waters.

 

“I remember coming home, having a drink with you and Marian and next thing I know I was waking up on the couch.” She’s lying. Emma’s good at picking up liars and Regina’s not even trying that hard, eyes boring holes in the manuscript and fingers fidgeting with the chipped corner of the table. “Did I say something embarrassing?”

 

“No,” Emma says heavily. “Nothing embarrassing.” So she wants to pretend she doesn’t remember. Emma pulls out her phone. “Got to get back,” she says and leaves, leaning against the wall of the bookshop and taking in deep breaths.

 

Need a drink, she texts Mulan. You free tonight?

 

It’s a school night, Swan, Mulan replies. Then, her phone beeps again. Come over for dinner.

 

So Emma turns up at Rory and Mulan’s apartment at just after six, a store-bought pie in one hand and a bottle of wine in the other (she’ll drink it all herself if she has to).

 

“Emma!” Rory says, opening the door. Her hair, normally pulled back in the bakery, is loose around her shoulders, coppery strands catching the light of the dying sun, and she’s smiling. “Come in, come in.”

 

Mulan’s cooking, every available surface of the tiny kitchenette covered, and there is a laptop set up at the kitchen table with what looks like lesson plans on the screen. “You okay with dumplings?” she asks and Emma grins in response at the balls of dough lined up along the counter and the smell of spices and dough sizzling and frying in a pan.

 

“She gets a bit obsessed about once a month,” Rory says, noticing Emma staring at the over-abundance of dumplings. “They’re the only Chinese thing she can cook. Calls it ‘harking back to her roots’.”

 

Mulan throws a tea towel at her. “I can make other things. Like rice,” she says.

 

“In a rice cooker,” Rory counters. “I can do that and I’m whiter than Emma.” Mulan just shrugs and returns to the stovetop.

 

“Good day?” Emma asks.

 

“Brilliant,” Rory says. “Essays coming out my ears though.”

 

“Sorry,” Emma says, the guilt of imposing coming down on her in full force. “I shouldn’t have come.”

 

“Nonsense,” Rory says. “We never get to entertain.”

 

“It’s not entertaining,” Mulan says. “It’s just Emma.” And Emma knows she’s supposed to feel offended by this because of the way Mulan grins slyly at her but there’s something so delightful about being ‘just Emma’ with someone that she feels rather emotional about it all.

 

Rory clears the table, Mulan hands Emma wine glasses and tells her to get pouring, and then she sticks trays of fried dumplings and bamboo steamers on every available space on the table. When they’re eating, she asks, “so why was a drink so necessary?”

 

“So you know how Regina kissed me?” Emma says, dipping a steamed dumpling in the sauce Mulan’s provided and biting the end off. Rory looks incredibly unsurprised by this information so obviously Mulan’s told her. “Well, she’s pretending like it never happened.”

 

“She was drunk,” Mulan says. “Perhaps she actually doesn’t remember.”

 

“No, she does,” Emma says and she’s not sure why she’s so convinced of it. Perhaps it’s because she’d never be able to forget that ridiculous kiss. “And she’s lying.”

 

“She might regret it,” Rory says and Mulan shoots her this look as if to say, what is even wrong with you? “I don’t mean like that. Just, maybe she wasn’t ready. Alcohol makes us behave like idiots.”

 

Emma takes a long gulp of wine and clumsily picks up a fried dumpling with her chopsticks. “These are amazing,” she says.

 

“Not enough salt in these ones,” Mulan says, eyeing the dumpling clasped between her chopsticks critically. “Ma would be so disappointed in me. But then, you know, that’s her usual state.”

 

Rory takes her hand, her thumb rubbing the back of Mulan’s hand. “You talked to her today, didn’t you?”

 

“She called this afternoon,” Mulan says. “It’s all, gym teacher still? But my Mulan, you are so smart. Like, she’s okay with me being in a relationship with a white woman but it’s my career choice that’s killing her?”

 

Rory laughs. “She’s proud of you really,” she says. To Emma, she adds, “it’s just how parents work, right? Mine are all up in arms that I’m doing an MBA because, like, capitalism is the greatest evil in the world.”

 

“Wouldn’t know,” Emma says, shrugging.

 

Rory winces and stutters out an apology but Emma grins to let her know that she’s okay, and changes the subject.

 

She wakes up that night, forehead slick with sweat, picturing Regina and with her hand already under the waistband of her underpants. She’s going to have to talk to her. She has to know, one way or another. She’ll go mad otherwise.

 

But Regina’s not at the bakery on Thursday and Emma doesn’t usually work Fridays. She wakes at noon to hear Mary Margaret leaving for school and, after showering and eating breakfast (or is it lunch when you eat it at one o’clock even if it’s your first meal of the day?), she decides to be productive and run errands.

 

It just so happens that she takes a wrong turn on the way to the grocery store and ends up on Regina’s doorstep and before she can stop herself she’s knocking. She’s halfway down the steps, preparing to run, when Regina answers. “There’s a disappointing lack of a flaming bag of excrement,” she says, looking down at the mat.

 

Emma shrugs, hands in her pockets. “What can I say? I’m terrible at pranks.”

 

“You must have a reason for disturbing my writing,” Regina says. Her hair is clipped back but it’s really too short for that and loose strands fly around her face in the breeze. She’s frowning, her forehead crinkled.

 

“It’s not important.”

 

“I’m out of the zone now,” she replies impatiently. “You’ll come in and have tea, Ms Swan.” She stands aside at the door and taps her bare foot against the stoop, waiting for Emma to come to a decision.

 

So Emma follows her inside and sits in the armchair in the library and tries not to feel deeply uncomfortable – and fails. Regina has left her there to make tea and it’s taking all her willpower to not simply bolt. Everything about this room – from the shelves of hard-cover books and smell of polished wood to the expensive leather furniture – screams ‘this woman is too good for you’ and she was an idiot to think this was a good idea.

 

“So,” Regina says, crossing her legs and sitting on the couch. It’s such a difference from the previous evening. “Talk, Ms Swan.”

 

“You called me Emma on Friday,” Emma mumbles, staring at the tea warming her hands.

 

“I do a great many foolish things when I’m drunk,” Regina says coolly. It’s absolutely unfair that she should look so beautiful without make-up and dressed so casually; leggings and a long, woollen cardigan wrapped around her.

 

And it bursts out. “You kissed me.”

 

Regina’s cheeks tinge pink and her hand holding her tea trembles as she sets it down on the side table. “I did not,” she says, voice squeaking on the ‘not’.

 

“Liar,” Emma says without heat. “Look, if you think it was a mistake, that’s fine. I get that.” Honestly, she’d expect nothing less.

 

“It was a mistake,” Regina said woodenly. “The age gap alone…”

 

“Six years?” Emma asks. “That’s your issue? I’m uneducated, scruffy, poor, ambitionless… Don’t play me off with our age difference. Tell me the truth.”

 

“Is that how you see yourself?” Regina asks and there’s an odd expression on her face that Emma can’t read.

 

She shrugs. “It’s the truth.”

 

“No, it’s not,” Regina says. She stands and moves over so that she’s crouching in front of Emma. “You’re brave and protective and loyal and caring and special, Emma.” The fact that she uses her name makes Emma shiver because she is gone on this woman. “Don’t let anyone tell you differently.”

 

“And I’m not good enough for you,” Emma mumbles.

 

“No,” Regina says firmly. She clasps Emma’s hands in hers and it’s so reminiscent of Rory taking Mulan’s hand at dinner the other night that she tenses because she aspires to those easy gestures, has never wanted anything more than that, and it’s becoming abundantly clear to Emma that she’s not going to get that with Regina. “These are my issues. I don’t exactly have a great track record.”

 

Emma sighs. “Henry’s father?” She’s tentative about bringing him up after what happened last time. Being told to leave isn’t something she wants to experience again.

 

“Daniel,” she says, voice trembling, and Emma has a name to put to the face now. “I can tell you about him if it’d help you understand why I’m hesitant.”

 

“No,” Emma says hastily because Regina looks ready to break. “I mean, only if you want to tell me.”

 

“I don’t really,” she says and she’s still crouching in front of Emma, hands at her sides. “Not today. I have to run errands soon, before it’s time to pick Henry up from kindergarten.” She stands and there’s the distance between them again, Regina’s walls up, back to being invulnerable.

 

“Well,” Emma says, standing herself so she can meet Regina’s gaze, “we’re still friends, right?”

 

Regina nods. “I hope so.”

 

“As your friend, I feel it is my duty to buy you a coffee,” she says.

 

Regina rolls her eyes, though she sniffs and Emma sees the water pooling. “If you insist on coming grocery shopping with me, Ms Swan…”

 

“Nothing would give me greater pleasure,” Emma says and, even though her heart is aching, she can’t help but think that Regina’s not saying never. She’s saying there are issues. There’s a track record. She has to stop kidding herself though, stop thinking that she can change Regina’s mind because it’s not fair on either of them.

 

And friendship’s enough, right?

Chapter Text

Mom walked her to school the next morning. She placed a protective arm around Marisol’s shoulder at the pedestrian crossing and she shrugged it off and then felt horribly guilty the very next second because Mom’s mask slipped for a moment and she looked like she might cry.

  They bumped into Cressida along the way. Just Cressida; no one knew her surname. She owned the bookshop, a place Mom wouldn’t let her go alone. Marisol, who hated most of Mom’s restrictions, found this one comforting. She hated the way Cressida’s amber, cat-like eyes would follow Marisol around the store, as if she were some precious object she’d hate to see go missing, and the way her hair hissed around her face like Medusa. She hated the stacks of dusty books, none of them written for children. She was terrified of the beleaguered assistant, a rather beautiful young man named Hassan, who seemed to both fear and worship Cressida and scowled at Mom whenever he saw her.

  Mom’s hand tightened on Marisol’s shoulder and this time Marisol didn’t push her away, but buried closer, took in her mother’s apple blossom perfume and let her hands brush against the comforting softness of her woollen coat. “Cressida,” Mom said.

  “Madam Mayor,” Cressida said, her voice soft as silk. “A fair number of changes in town.”

  Mom flinched. “Well, many do say change is a good thing.” This was quite contrary to the pacing and fuming that had taken place after Gin got the job as deputy sheriff, after the coma patient woke, after the stranger drove into town…

  “Do they? Are you ready for what’s coming?” Cressida smiled. She always smiled, her lips thin and the feline grin never reaching her eyes. Marisol had never been able to work out who she really was and that alone scared her because she didn’t think she was one of the good guys.

  Mom’s fingers dug into Marisol’s shoulder and it hurt. When Cressida moved past them, Marisol turned to Mom and asked, “was she threatening you? Was it about the curse?”

  “Don’t be silly, mija,” Mom said but the pause was too long. “There is no curse.”

-- from ‘The Queen and the Saviour’ by R. C. Mills

 

Being friends isn’t enough. Emma realises this incredibly quickly, but she relishes being around Regina so much she can’t bring herself to keep her distance. They still meet during Emma’s lunch breaks a couple of times a week and over the next fortnight they go to the park with Henry, bundled up warm as October hits and with it frost in the air, drink coffee together for stretches longer than thirty minutes and in places slightly more sophisticated than the bakery, and once Regina even drags Emma on a shopping trip, where she tries on dresses for some upcoming book event that Emma would not be able to afford in a million years and makes Emma give her specific and detailed feedback about each one.

 

Apparently, “you look really pretty in all of them,” is not nearly specific or detailed enough, judging by the eye rolls and pursed lips.

 

On Thursday, she returns from a late break and finds Marian at the counter of the Rabbit Hole, tapping her foot and apparently waiting for her. Ruby shrugs from behind the counter. “Hi,” Marian says and she’s smiling to Emma figures she hasn’t done anything wrong though she’s still not entirely unconvinced that she’s in trouble. “I need help.”

 

“Okay?” Emma says and wonders if this is about Regina.

 

“Finding a book,” Marian adds and smirks as though she knows where Emma’s mind went.

 

“So who’s it for?”

 

“My boy,” she says. Regina hadn’t mentioned a son. “Roland. Don’t ask,” she adds at Emma’s barely concealed amusement. Marian seems far too cool – her cream trench and black rimmed glasses completely on point – to have a son with such a dorky name. “My husband’s an idiot.”

 

“How old is he?” she asks.

 

“Thirty? Oh, Roland. Two.”

 

Emma guides her to the picture books and pulls a few from the shelf. “You know, Ruby knows more about picture books than I do.”

 

“Yes, but Ruby isn’t madly in lust with my best friend,” Marian says and Emma fumbles with the books, almost dropping ‘Love You Forever’ by Robert Munsch, and hoping against all hope that her skin hasn’t flushed scarlet. “I’m trying to figure you out, Emma Swan.”

 

“We’re just friends,” Emma says. It’s a phrase she’s repeated a lot over the past couple of weeks – mostly to herself, true, but she’s tired of it.

 

Marian laughs. “Is that what she told you? Idiot.” Emma frowns and Marian adds, “not you. Regina.”

 

She seems a little too fond of the word ‘idiot’ and Emma is indignant on Regina’s behalf. “She’s not!”

 

“Oh, bless,” Marian says, patting her arm. “She kissed you, yes?”

 

“I don’t see what…”

 

“Regina believes in true love, soul mates, all that bullshit. Pretty sure she hasn’t so much as kissed someone since Daniel died. That makes you special.”

 

“She was drunk,” Emma say dully. She shuffles the books and tries not to think about the kiss that has plagued her for the past fortnight, something Marian’s presence is making difficult.

 

“Still,” Marian says. “Doesn’t alcohol make people tell the truth?”

 

Emma shrugs. “I’d recommend this one,” she says, handing Marian a book. “If you come back to the counter I can ring it up for you.” She can’t help but feel like Marian has told her stuff she shouldn’t know and she’s not sure how she feels about that.

 

She has a day off the next day and she pops around to Regina’s on her way home from buying wine. She and Mary Margaret are having a night in together, something that hasn’t happened in far too long, and Emma promised she’d provide alcohol if Mary Margaret cooked. They’re friends, right? People pop in to see friends all the time. “Hi,” she rehearses, mumbling as she walks, “I was just in the neighbourhood…” Even to her own ears she sounds like an idiot.

 

Regina answers the door with the phone to her ear and when Emma suggests through a series of mimes that she can leave, Regina shakes her head and ushers her in. “Can you make tea?” she whispers and Emma follows her into the kitchen, where she sets the kettle on the stovetop and Regina pulls down loose leaf Earl Grey and mugs.

 

“Look, Gold,” she hears Regina say irritation seeping out of every pore, “I’m just saying that maybe Sal doesn’t need a love interest at all.”

 

Emma’s ears prick up.

 

“No, I understand,” she says. “I just don’t want to add in a male character for the sake of…” She trails off. “I’ll consider it,” she says dully.

 

Gold is obviously appeased by that because after a moment’s silence the subject changes. “I have a dress,” she says. “Yes, a friend helped me pick it out. No, not Marian. I know you don’t trust her taste. No it’s not… ethnic. Jesus.” She frowns. “I know you’re just trying to help…”

 

The water boils and Emma fills the teapot, letting the tea leaves steep, the amber swirling into steaming water, while Regina finishes her conversation. “I’ll email you,” she says. “No, I have company. Good bye.” She slumps down into a kitchen chair, sighing and letting her phone skitter across the table.

 

“That sounded fun,” Emma says, pouring a mug of tea for Regina and placing it on the table in front of her.

 

Regina frowns and shifts it onto a coaster. “I know he’s just looking out for me,” she says but Emma senses the doubt in her voice, so present she could almost touch it.

 

“Didn’t sound like it,” Emma says, pouring her own tea and hunting through Regina’s cupboards for the sugar. “From this end it sounded pretty controlling. And kind of racist.”

 

“I don’t want to talk about it,” Regina says, sighing heavily. She lifts the mug steaming before her and drinks greedily, heedless of the scalding water. “Any particular reason for your visit?” she asks.

 

Emma shrugs. “I was in the neighbourhood…” She gestures at the calico bag by the entrance to the kitchen, the curve of wine bottles clearly visible. “I mean, we can crack it open if you want. Mary Margaret probably won’t get made if I say her hero drank all of it.”

 

Regina laughs. “How did you know exactly the time I might need someone to comfort me?”

 

“Women’s intuition?” Emma asks, shrugging, and Regina laughs again.

 

They sip tea and Emma might be pining hopelessly but it’s still pretty great, she and Regina across the scratched kitchen table from each other. Henry’s scribbles are framed on the wall beside them (at least, she hopes it is Henry’s and not some fancy modern art – modern artists don’t use crayon, right?) and other pictures he’s done adorn the fridge. He’s into people at the moment. There are images that Emma knows are of Marisol and Sal, but others that are him and his mom and one with him, his mom, a figure Emma can only assume is Marian judging by the scribble of black hair and the brown crayon skin, holding a baby and her other hand clutching that of a man Emma can only assume is the ‘Idiot’.

 

“Favourite book from your childhood?” Emma asks.

 

She’s been asking random questions over the past fortnight, trying to find as much out about Regina as possible. She told her about ‘The Secret Garden’ and forced it on her when she admitted she hadn’t read it. “Gardening doesn’t exactly enthral me,” she’d said. She still hasn’t said anything to Emma about it and she’s trying not to make it a thing.

 

“Papi used to tell me stories,” she says, “but they were all in Spanish and I don’t know whether they were real stories or ones he made up.” She sighs. “Perhaps ‘Black Beauty’?”

 

“Really?” Emma asks, raising her eyebrows incredulously. “The horse book?”

 

“I was a horse girl,” Regina says and Emma snorts because of course she was.

 

“Come over and watch a movie tomorrow,” Regina says later when Emma gets up to leave because she really needs to get home to Mary Margaret. “Henry’s been asking to see you again. He sticks out that big lower lip and widens those terrible eyes and says ‘Momma, I miss Emma’.” She smiles. “I told him you’d been spending your time with a much less manipulative five-year-old boy instead. I mean, he doesn’t know what the world ‘manipulative means…” She’s rambling now and it’s adorable and Emma wants to kiss her.

 

“I’ll come as long as it’s not ‘Frozen’,” Emma says and, at Regina’s quizzical expression, adds, “ex-girlfriend called Elsa. Kind of looked like the cartoon too.”

 

At home, Mary Margaret’s put together the ingredients for Fajitas, wildly inauthentic Emma’s sure but completely delicious. “Good day?” Emma asks, stealing a slice of chicken. Mary Margaret slaps her hand away and then apologises because she’s convinced it, like, triggers some deep-seated memories of abuse in foster care, which Emma’s tried to explain regularly is just not true. Abuse was never much of a concern for Emma; it’s abandonment that she has issues with.

 

“Taught my class,” Mary Margaret says. “Freshmen are so lazy.”

 

“Oh, those halcyon days of yore,” Emma says, putting the two bottles of wine in the fridge. She doesn’t bring up the fact that she never got much further than her freshman year; Mary Margaret gets guilt-stricken and she doesn’t need to hear her apologies again.

 

“Blissful memories of essays that only had to be six to eight pages, double spaced,” Mary Margaret says. “Beer?”

 

“Please,” Emma says. They eat at the table, a rare occurrence these days, and then journey to the couch, where Emma channel surfs and Mary Margaret curls up against her, the alcohol making her affectionate and touchy-feely. Emma normally shies away from this but the situation with Regina is making her sad and clingy and any physical affection is welcomed.

 

“I met a boy,” she says and Emma laughs at the surprise and delight in her voice because Mary Margaret’s never been in a relationship, never even been interested. “I’m waiting for my true love,” she’d told Emma when they were roommates and Emma had thought she was some ‘purity ring’ Jesus freak for at least a month before she found out that she was simply hideously sentimental.

 

“Who is he?” she asks. “Another writer on your course?”

 

“A builder,” Mary Margaret says dreamily and Emma starts laughing, the idea of prissy Mary Margaret with a labourer too ridiculous for words. “Don’t laugh!” she says. “He’s Ashley’s roommate. I met him last week at her party.”

 

“And you like him?”

 

“He’s the one,” she says. “I mean, I haven’t told him that yet.”

 

“Good,” Emma says. “Because, no offence, but that kind of freaks people out.”

 

Mary Margaret laughs, the sound high and melodic and intoxicated. “Still love you most, baby girl,” she says, nuzzling into Emma’s shoulder. Emma’s actually a year older than her, but Mary Margaret’s the mom of every friendship she forms. They drift off to sleep curled up together on the couch to the sound of ‘Maleficent’ on the TV and for once Emma doesn’t feel the need to pull away and be by herself.

 

She turns up at Regina’s the next day after work and knocks. She waits longer than usual, almost contemplating leaving, before Regina arrives at the door. It looks like she’s combed her fingers through her hair a few too many times and her lipstick has all but disintegrated. “Emma,” she says, harassed and apologetic. “I completely forgot.”

 

“Hey,” Emma says, touching her arm. “If it’s a bad time, I can come another day.”

 

“No, no,” Regina says and then Emma hears a voice from behind her, sweet but with a core of metal within.

 

“Who’s there, dear?” A woman appears behind Regina. She’s perfectly groomed, dressed in a black pantsuit, dyed brown hair perfectly coiffed and blood-red lips.

 

“Emma,” Regina says, a heaviness in her voice that Emma’s not heard before, “meet Cora Mills. Mother, this is my friend, Emma Swan.” She turns to her mother. “If you return to the library, I’ll be with you shortly.”

 

Cora Mills ignores her daughter and slides past her. “Ms Swan,” she says. “Regina has never mentioned you.” She holds out a hand and Emma takes it, Cora’s hands cold and dry, and Emma feels rather like she is shaking hands with a corpse. “I can’t imagine why not.” She looks her up and down, gazing coldly from Emma’s ratty chucks to her jacket, which she’s had since she was seventeen and has seen better days.

 

“Mother, be polite, please,” Regina says and she looks exhausted and Emma wishes she could do something to help.

 

“Mind you,” Cora says, casting that critical eye over her daughter, “you’re barely better attired.” Regina’s dressed for writing, in leggings and a long cardigan, and she tugs at the hem of the cardigan, before wrapping it more tightly around herself.

 

“If I had known you were coming…” Regina says. “Emma, Henry’s in the living room. How about you join him? He’s really looking forward to seeing you.”

 

Emma slips gratefully past Regina and her mother, hearing Cora saying, in the background, “you could do so much better, dear, but then you have always rather fallen for the worst sorts of people.” She feels a stab of anger, ice in her veins, and she wants to pull Regina into a hug or make her laugh or punch Cora Mills.

 

In the living room, she finds Henry, who’s lying on his stomach, watching ‘Dora the Explorer’ and drawing, the computer paper leaning on a picture book. He grins when he sees her. “Hi, Emma!” he says. “Momma’s with Grandma.”

 

“I saw that,” Emma says. “We watching Dora?”

 

Si! Siéntate!” Henry cries and Emma remembers enough high school Spanish and sits as requested, on the floor and with her back against the couch. Soon after Emma sits, Henry stops drawing and snuggles into her side. “Don’t like it when Grandma’s here,” he whispers. “She makes Momma sad.”

 

Emma wraps an arm around his shoulder. “We’ll just have to cheer her up when your grandma goes,” she says. “Does you Momma like pizza?”

 

Henry grins and confides, “she says she doesn’t but when Marian came over one time Momma ate six slices!” He giggles. “She got so sick.”

 

So when Emma hears the front door shut almost an hour later, she puts her finger to her lips and calls the best pizza place in Chelsea, Henry giggling in her ear.

Chapter Text

Bianca (her mom disapproved of her teacher who liked her students to call her by her first name – ‘hippie nonsense’ in Mom’s books) pulled Marisol aside at the end of class. “How are you, Marisol?”

  “Fine,” she said. “Good.” She wasn’t, not really. She wanted Gin to break the curse already, so everyone could be free but Gin was being altogether too resistant to the idea of a curse.

  “Oh, honey,” Bianca said. “It’s okay to feel torn about this. Your real mom coming back into your life…”

  “Birth mom,” Marisol said, interrupting, because whatever she might think of Mom, it was pretty damn clear to her who her real mother was; the one who had read her stories and comforted her after nightmares and who fed her and clothed her. You’ll have to get used to Gin as your mom when the curse is broken, the rodent-voice in the back of her brain hissed. No one will let the saviour’s kid live with the evil queen.

 Perhaps her mom wouldn’t even want her around when she was back to being evil again.

  “Sure,” Bianca said, smiling. There was something too sweet about Bianca; she rolled over too easily and Marisol found it difficult to trust her. She was supposed to be Snow White. She was supposed to have been this fierce bandit – according to the book anyway. “Gin’s really proud of how you’ve turned out.”

  “Thanks to Mom,” Marisol found herself saying. She even looked more like Mom really, though she had Gin’s jaw and blue eyes. She’d been surprised to find out Gin was white; her dad must’ve been Latino.

  “You know, I’m sure Gin would love to have you stay with us sometime,” Bianca said.

  “Thanks,” Marisol said. “I have to go.” She could see Mom waiting, pacing, outside the school gates while the other moms chatted.

  “Of course, sweetheart,” Bianca said and she smiled again and Marisol wondered how she’d got to the point over the past few weeks where she was siding with her mom over Snow White but when she left school, instead of dawdling, she ran over to Mom and hugged her.

  “Hey, mija,” Mom said, her accent stronger as it always was when she got emotional, and a hand hovering above her hair. “What’s all this?”

  “You’re a good mom,” Marisol said. A lot of bad stuff was going to happen over the next while and Mom needed to know the truth, Evil Queen or not.

-- ‘The Queen and the Saviour’ by R. C. Mills

 

Regina doesn’t enter the living room for at least another ten minutes after the front door shuts and when she does, her face is drawn and Emma thinks she can see a red tinge in her eyes. “Give your momma a hug,” she whispers to Henry who clambers up and runs over to her.

 

“Momma!” he says, wrapping his arms around her thighs. Regina bends down and gathers him into her arms, holding him a bit too tight, Emma suspects, judging by the way Henry wriggles. “Emma ordered pizza.”

 

Regina looks over his shoulder at Emma and raises an eyebrow. “Did she now?”

 

“Hey,” Emma says. “Kid said you liked it and he’s the leader of the cheer-up committee.”

 

Regina shrugs. “Well, in that case,” she says and hugs her son, kissing him several times on the top of his head. “Thank you so much, mi querido. How was Dora?”

 

Henry squirms and manages to get himself back to the floor. “No more kisses, Momma,” he grumbles. “Juice.”

 

“Please?”

 

Por favor,” Henry says, widening his eyes.

 

“Oh, I see how it is,” Regina says. “Using Spanish against me. How can I possibly resist?” And she bends to Henry-height and pulls him close, smooching his cheeks and forehead with big, sloppy kisses that make him screech and squeal and giggle. “Kitchen?”

 

Emma eases herself to her feet and follows Regina and Henry to the kitchen where Henry sits at the table with his apple juice and Regina pours them both a glass of red wine. “Does this go with pizza?” Regina asks.

 

“Everything goes with pizza,” Emma says and sips at the wine, feeling it warm her bones.

 

When the doorbell rings, Emma tries to get there first, but Regina has obviously drafted Henry into holding her down, and he refuses to move. She comes back with two boxes, irritated. “You paid over the phone?” Because Emma is actually five years old, she pokes out her tongue and opens the two boxes. There’s a large cheese pizza – primarily for Henry – and spicy Italian sausage on the other because Henry said “no vegetables” very sternly when Emma read through the menu with him.

 

“You couldn’t get anything moderately healthy?” Regina asks.

 

“Hey,” Emma says. “It’s thin crust. And I’m pretty sure the sauce is real tomatoes, not paste.”

 

Regina snorts and pours herself a second glass of wine. She’s eyeing up the Italian sausage though as Emma grabs a slice of cheese pizza. Soon Regina has had three slices and there’s a sheen of grease on her fingers that no amount of wiping with a napkin will entirely remove and Henry’s got sauce bordering his mouth and is nobly trying to power through his third slice.

 

“Ah, hot!” Emma says, taking a bite of the sausage pizza and following it up with a large gulp of wine. “This is not normal pepperoni,” she says when her mouth no longer feels on fire and glares accusingly at the pizza, which has betrayed her.

 

Regina grins. “More for me then,” she says and grabs a fourth slice. Emma really, really hopes she’s going to see a repeat of the six slices day Henry told her about. Apparently, though, Regina has learned her lesson because she stops after four, wiping her mouth delicately with a napkin, her lipstick now completely gone.

 

“Why was Grandma here, Momma?” Henry asks.

 

“She misses you and she wanted to see us,” Regina says, reaching over with a napkin and wiping sauce from around his mouth. “I just wish she’d give advance notice,” she says.

 

“But she didn’t even see me really,” Henry says.

 

“She’s old, mijo,” Regina says. “You have too much energy for her.” She runs her fingers along his stomach, poking his belly button and Henry giggles. Emma, from the brief meeting she had with, Cora Mills suspects that she was here to check up on her daughter and to criticise her choices.

 

Henry, full of pizza-induced energy, drags them into the living room and makes Regina put on ‘Aladdin’. “Bossy,” she says but she complies with his demand without further comment. They sit on the floor in a pile of cushions, Henry lying on his stomach and absently kicking at Emma and Regina as the movie begins. Regina grabs his foot to stop it from connecting with her calf again and tickles the sole of his foot lightly so he squirms and giggles though doesn’t take his eyes from the screen. Emma can’t help but watch and then she looks up and sees that Regina is watching her watch Regina and Henry. “The movie’s more interesting,” she whispers.

 

“That’s a matter of opinion,” Emma whispers back and Regina snorts.

 

“Flattery will get you nowhere, Ms Swan,” she says, smiling, but Emma watches her face; in the semi-darkness with Henry absorbed in the screen, she’s not as happy as she’s been pretending. Her eyes can’t focus on the screen, but watch Henry, laughing and singing tunelessly along with ‘Friend Like Me’.

 

Henry’s yawning, eyes sliding shut, by the end of the film but he scowls and complains when Regina tries to take him to bed and she lets him lie his head on her lap in place of a pillow and fall asleep in the living room, she and Emma leaning against the couch and watching TV on low volume, not talking. When he’s finally out for the count, a patch of drool on Regina’s leggings, she hauls him up and takes him upstairs to bed. “Please don’t leave,” she whispers to Emma and of course Emma stays because she’d basically do anything for Regina.

 

The living room is covered in Henry’s toys and so, stuck for something to do since Regina already put the leftover pizza in the fridge and discarded the bottles, she tidies, packing away the spare Lego, stacking the DVDs, putting the crayons back in their box… It’s soothing and it makes her feel as though she’s useful, a rare enough feeling when she’s at Regina’s house.

 

So that’s how Regina finds her, holding a stuffed toy rabbit and looking around for a suitable place to put it. “You’re not my maid,” Regina says, standing in the doorway. “And you’ve already done more than enough for me tonight.” Instead of going for the couch like Emma might have expected, she falls back onto the cushions on the floor, drawing her knees up to her chest and hugging them tight. Emma knows that Regina’s thirty and much more mature than her but right now Emma feels like the grown up. She sits down beside her, leaving a careful distance between them, and hands her the rabbit.

 

“What’s its name?” she asks.

 

“Mr Bunny,” Regina says, smiling and tugging on one of the rabbit’s floppy ears. “Never let babies name toys, Ms Swan.”

 

“I’ll keep that in mind,” Emma replies.

 

“I love her, you know,” Regina says into the silence and it takes Emma a moment to figure out who she’s talking about.

 

“I think that’s normal,” Emma says. “Do you want to talk?”

 

And so Regina does.

 

She paints a picture of a loving father (“Papi told me stories. He taught me to ride horses.”) and a mother to whom Regina could never measure up. She talks about how her mother had her hair straightened at the salon regularly, insisted Regina take her surname, not as a feminist statement but because she believed Regina would never be as successful if she was too obviously Latina. She talks about how speaking Spanish was something secret she only did when her mother was out of the house. “She wanted me to be a politician or a surgeon or a lawyer, something high powered and prestigious. I wanted to be a horticulturalist for a while. God, she was so embarrassed when we went to the careers counsellor and I said that.”

 

Emma laughs at that. Regina’s still sitting with her knees pulled into her, but her shoulders have relaxed and she’s actually looking over at Emma from time to time now.

 

“She let me do English at university,” Regina continues. “I was to go to law school once I’d completed my degree but then Daniel…” Her hands clench. “He proposed. I said yes. I got a job in admin and Daniel ran a stable, taught lessons too.”

 

“You don’t have to tell me,” Emma says. She almost doesn’t want to know, doesn’t want to see the pain in Regina’s eyes when she talks about the love of her life.

 

“I’m in a sharing mood,” Regina says. “Mother didn’t cut me off, not exactly, but we didn’t see much of them. They lived in Maine. We were in Rochester. Papi’s health wasn’t great. He died and I found out I was infertile at around the same time. We were looking into adoption. I started writing a novel because it’s what Papi had always said I should do. And then Daniel died. A horse kicked him. Brain bleed.” She pulls at the chain from around her neck and Emma realises it holds a ring, a small blue stone clasped to it. An engagement ring. “It was a bad time.”

 

Emma reaches out a hand and touches Regina’s shoulder, light and hesitant because she’s not certain that Regina will welcome her touch or push her away. Instead, she folds into Emma’s arms, leaning her head against Emma’s shoulder. “Mother came back into my life. She moved me back to Maine, took care of me. Did everything for me. And I got better. I finished my novel and mother passed it on to Gold, who is a friend of hers, and he agreed to represent me.”

 

“So when did Henry come into it?” Emma asks. She had thought Daniel and Regina had adopted him together and Regina hadn’t corrected her when she’d referred to Henry’s father.

 

“We’d been on a waiting list,” Regina says. “Back when Daniel was alive. Five years ago, I got told there was a little boy, three months old, closed adoption. He was mine. I fought so hard for him and it helped that my books were taking off.”

 

Emma watches her, watches the steady rise and fall of her shoulders, feels the flicker of Regina’s body against hers. Henry’s so lucky; Regina wanted him so desperately. Emma should have been like that. She knows that she should have been a hot commodity as a baby; white, able-bodied, cute as hell judging by the few photos she has of herself as a baby and toddler. And yet here she is, no parents, no home that lasted longer than a year at most. Regina looks close to a breakdown and Emma can’t think of anything that’ll make things better and she speaks without thinking. “So,” she says. “The C stands for Cora right?” She wants to die the moment she says it and can feel her skin flush scarlet.

 

“Actually, no,” she says and she looks up at Emma and smiles at her like she’s a puppy who’s attempted a new trick and failed miserably. “Cabrera. Papi’s surname. R. C. Mills is because books apparently sell better if you sound like a white male.”

 

And Emma’s heartbroken all over again for Regina, for the little girl who loved her father so much and for the adult who keeps being made to hide so much of what her father has given her. Not in her stories though. “You’re amazing,” Emma breathes.

 

Regina’s lip quirks. “Thank you, dear,” she says. Emma knows that ‘dear’ is a tic for her, something she uses alternately to patronise and praise, but it’s inexpressibly precious to her to imagine that she’s dear to someone.

 

They sit in silence for a while and Regina’s feathery hair is tickling Emma’s bare arm and Emma’s hyper-aware of her breathing, growing erratic, fast-paced, and of the pull between them that she so desperately hopes isn’t one-sided.

 

“Oh hell,” Regina says and she twists around so she’s facing Emma and brings a hand up to her cheek so that Emma will turn to look at her and Emma can’t look away, eyes fixated on the scar of her lip, Regina’s tongue poking from between her lips to wet them.

 

“What…” Emma asks.

 

“I’d really like to kiss you,” Regina says. “But I understand if…”

 

But she’s cut off because Emma surges forward, on her knees, and kisses her and it’s everything, soft and gentle and Regina tastes of spicy Italian sausage, which should be a mood killer but somehow, in spite of everything, isn’t.

 

Regina sighs and places her hands on either side of Emma’s face, pulling her closer and it’s this devastatingly blissful moment that makes Emma’s skin tingle and her heart beat too quickly and her eyelids flicker because she’s kissing Regina Mills. Emma presses forward, hands on Regina’s shoulders, in her hair.

 

Regina, unsteady on her knees, falls backwards, pulling Emma with her and she falls with an ungainly thump on top of Regina, face connecting with her collar. Regina immediately starts laughing, bringing a hand up to cover her face as the giggles refuse to stop. Emma blows a raspberry against Regina’s collar bone because apparently she’s, like, five. “God I like you,” Regina says, breathless.

 

“I like you too,” Emma replies and Regina stretches her head up and kisses her briefly. She rolls off Regina at this point, lying on her back next to her, chest rising and falling steadily.

 

“There’s a ball next week,” Regina says, sitting up on her elbows, and she almost seems nervous, voice hesitant. “It’s for this literacy charity I support. I bought two tickets. Come with me.”

 

“Okay,” Emma says without thinking. Fortunately, she has the self-preservation to recognise that ‘I’d go anywhere with you’ might freak Regina out before it spews out of her.

 

“As my date,” Regina says. “Just to clarify.”

 

“So this means…”

 

“We take it slow,” Regina says. “Like, snail’s pace. I don’t know what I’m doing but I can’t stay away from you and every time you talk I want to kiss you so I should probably stop kidding myself that I just want to be friends.” She sighs. “Marian’s going to be insufferable.”

 

Then she laughs and pulls Emma back to her, kissing her, and Emma forgets pretty much everything that’s ever been in her brain, lost in the pure pleasure of sensations that is kissing Regina Mills and knowing that she’s not going to deny it in the morning.

Chapter Text

“Did you do it?” Gin asked, her lips thin and drawn downwards, her eyes narrowed and angry.

“Do what, Virginia?” Mom asked, raising an eyebrow. Marisol did notice that the grip around her shoulders tightened.

“Have something to do with Meg Kaneshiro’s disappearance,” Gin said. She wore the deputy sheriff badge at her waist, attached to the skin-tight jeans she typically favoured and her fingers played across it as she spoke. Marisol suspected it was a nervous gesture.

“What are you accusing me of?” Mom hissed. “Meg is my… friend.” She spoke the final word uncertainly, as though unsure whether it was true. Marisol knew Mom didn’t have friends, that Ms Kaneshiro was a recent anomaly, a sign to Marisol that Gin’s arrival really was changing things. And for the better.

“Hesitation?” Gin asked and she sneered. Marisol sighed. That was never going to end well but Gin trying to sneer at Mom was sure to get her back up.

“Virginia, sweetheart,” Mom said, voice dripping with arsenic, “I suggest you branch out your search. Perhaps your dear friend, Bianca? She certainly has motive.” Ms Kaneshiro was in a relationship with the recently woken Prince Charming – or Edward Armstrong as he was known here – so Marisol wasn’t surprised that Bianca might have some residual jealousy from when she was actually Snow White.

“Bianca didn’t do anything,” Gin said, jaw set.

“Does your gut tell you that? Because I suspect the evidence tells a different story. Come, Marisol. Excuse us, Virginia. My daughter will be late for school.”

-- ‘The Queen and the Saviour’ by R. C. Mills

 

Emma strokes at the skirt of the dress, brushing away imagined fluff and specks of dust from the silky fabric and resisting the insane urge to try a curtsey.

 

She’d borrowed it from Mulan. “You’re about the same size,” Rory said, eyeing Emma critically when she saw her on Monday, panicking over the need to buy a ball gown and the lack funds to do so. “Come over tonight and try on her fancy dress.”

 

“Why does Mulan have a ball gown?” Emma asked. She didn’t seem the type – and elementary schools didn’t have proms that teachers might have to go to in a nice dress.

 

“Mulan’s parents are kind of high society so she’s got her share of nice dresses,” Rory said. “My god mother, though, she’s ludicrously wealthy, like, ‘bought the bakery just so I’d have a job through my masters’ kind of rich. She got married for the fourth time last year, really formal occasion. Mulan got this dress for it. It got her so lucky.” She grins, tongue poking out between her teeth.

 

“What’s with my acquaintances giving me too much information about their sex lives?” Emma grumbled.

 

“Friends, darling,” Rory said. “Friends.” And Emma couldn’t help but smile at that.

 

When she let Emma in, Mulan led Emma straight through to her and Rory’s bedroom and pulled the dress from the wardrobe. “Give it a go,” she said. “I’ll be in the living room to zip you up.”

 

The slinky black dress lay on Rory and Mulan’s patchwork quilt, looking really out of place. Emma stripped down to her bra and underwear and unzipped the dress, pulling it over her head. The fabric, though slinky, had a bit of stretch to it, which was fortunate because while Mulan and Emma were approximately the same size, she had bigger boobs and a butt.

 

She left the room with the back gaping and Mulan zipped the dress. Emma felt her chest constricted, pushed up by the fabric. “Never looked like that on me,” Mulan said. “Nice boobs.”

 

“Thanks,” Emma said. “Grew them myself.” But she was fascinated by the insanely amazing cleavage, pressing out of the dress.

 

Mulan rolled her eyes. “Narcissist.”

 

And now she stands in the middle of the loft, putting off slipping her feet into her one pair of heels until the very last moment. “Oh, Emma,” Mary Margaret says, coming out from behind the curtain that separates her bed from the rest of the loft. “Look at you!” She grabs her phone.

 

“No photos,” Emma says firmly, though she’s pleased. She resists the urge to run her hand through her hair; she spent far too much time curling it to mess it up now.

 

“But you’re so pretty,” Mary Margaret says. “This is all so very ‘Cinderella, you shall go to the ball’.”

 

“Always more of a Mulan girl myself,” Emma says and then starts laughing because she’s just realised who her newest friend is named after. She sends a text. OMG Mulan? I just worked it out.

 

What?

 

You’re a girl worth fighting for.

 

I’ll fight YOU if you’re not careful, Swan.

 

Their buzzer rings and Emma runs out, having to go back for her shoes when she’s halfway down the corridor. The skirts are long and she’s unused to it, hiking them up to her knees as she runs down the stairs so as not to fall – a really classy move, she’s sure.

 

Regina’s standing on the street outside her building. Her dress is red. Although, Emma thinks, red seems a rather anti-climactic word to describe the way the scarlet velvet clings and glides over her body. “Ms Swan,” Regina says, raising an eyebrow and drawing closer. “You clean up well.”

 

“It’s Mulan’s dress,” Emma says, made self-conscious from the way Regina’s staring at her.

 

“Well,” Regina says and Emma doesn’t miss the way her eyes darken as she scans Emma’s body, “please give her my compliments.”

 

All of Regina’s bravado dissipates when she’s seated in the car; her hands twist together and she keeps checking her make up in her compact, clicking it open and shut, open and shut.

 

“Hey,” Emma says, reaching out to clasp Regina’s hand in hers. Her palm is warm and her fingernails grip into the skin on the back of Emma’s hand. They’re painted black, matching the shadowy makeup around her eyes. “What’s up?”

 

“Nothing,” she snaps before adding, “sorry. It’s just I realised about five minutes ago that taking you to this…” She pauses.

 

Emma thinks she understands. “You’re not out.”

 

“I’m private,” Regina says and though this is true, Emma’s pretty sure that it runs deeper than that. “And I’ve also been essentially celibate since Daniel. Not as much as Marian might have suggested to you, but…” She clenches Emma’s hand tighter still. “The important people in my life know I’m … whatever I am.”

 

Emma smiles. “I can just be your friend tonight,” she suggests. “People bring their female friends to events all the time.”

 

Regina laughs, deep and throaty. “Not possible. I’m struggling to keep my hands off you in that dress as it is and I can only imagine how difficult self-control will be after a couple of glasses of wine.”

 

Emma shudders, watching Regina, whose smile has turned predatory. She tries and fails to get words out but loses her voice when Regina’s hand drifts up her thigh. It’s a way of taking control, because if there’s one thing Emma’s figured out about Regina Mills, it’s that she doesn’t like feeling out of her depth. Emma doesn’t mind, and as Regina’s fingers trail up her thigh, feather-light and tantalisingly close to areas Emma feels probably shouldn’t be touched while she’s in a borrowed dress in a car being driven by a stranger, she gives into the feeling and hisses out a groan.

 

“Quiet, dear,” Regina says, staring straight ahead, as though the touch that’s driving Emma mad has no impact on her. “And here we are,” she adds, withdrawing her hand and grabbing her clutch. “Midnight, Billy?” she asks, opening her door before the driver has time to get out and open it for her.

 

“Just call if you need me earlier,” the driver says, nodding. Emma slides out of the car, straightening out her dress, which has ridden up in the drive. Regina loops her arm through Emma’s and pulls her towards the entrance. She can feel her shake against her but you’d never be able to tell from looking at her that she’s nervous.

 

They enter, Regina giving their tickets at the door. “Fancy shindig,” Emma says, looking around at the vast polished wooden floors and sparkling lights, because apparently her response to something classy is to be as awkward as possible.

 

Regina laughs, waving over at someone across the ballroom floor. “Don’t look so nervous,” she murmurs. “They’re like sharks. They can smell fear.”

 

“Can sharks smell fear?” Emma asks.

 

Regina laughs again, though this time Emma sees the tension in her mouth. “No idea. Champagne?”

 

She snakes two glasses from a waiter carrying a tray and hands one to Emma, who drinks, the bubbles tickling her nose and throat. “Oh my God,” she says. “That’s…”

 

“The good stuff,” Regina says and Emma’s left with simultaneous feelings of awe and inadequacy.

 

“Should you be, like, schmoozing?” she asks. “Everyone looks really wealthy and important.”

 

“So do you, dear,” Regina says, tucking a curl behind Emma’s ear. “I can make dull small talk later. I want to dance with my exquisite date right now.”

 

Emma gulps down the rest of her champagne. “Okay,” she says. “I don’t really know what I’m doing though.”

 

“In dance or life in general?” Regina asks and is rewarded with a nudge in the side with Emma’s elbow.

 

“Rude.”

 

“Sorry,” she says. “I promise all you need to do is follow.”

 

There’s a band. Emma’s never been to a party with a band before, except for her brief time at college. Somehow she doesn’t think amateur feminist rock groups bashing drums and butchering guitar solos in someone’s living room counts as having a band at a function. This band plays is more jazz, big band, classical style of things. Emma’s not particularly au fait with music and she doesn’t want to ask exactly what sort of music it is, doesn’t want to give Regina more opportunities to realise how ludicrously out of her depth Emma is.

 

Regina takes her hand and leads her onto the dance floor, the hand not already in hers grasping Emma’s waist. “Shoulder,” she says and Emma clutches Regina’s shoulder, fingers edging at the bare skin of her arms.

 

They dance and it’s okay really. She likes being held by Regina and there’s something soothing about swaying together, feeling the gentle touch at her waist and staring into Regina’s eyes.

 

“Next date we’re doing my kind of stuff,” Emma says, grateful the music is slow because she’s struggling with the heels and the long skirts. “Chips and beer and bad TV.”

 

“What makes you think that’s not my kind of stuff?” Regina asks. “I had to come to this. I give them money.”

 

Emma laughs. “This is your world,” she says.

 

“Too white for me to want this to be my world,” Regina says. “The cause is worthwhile though. Chips and beer and bad television sounds perfect.” She rests her head against Emma’s shoulder, just for a moment, and Emma breathes in her perfume and it’s a perfect moment, one she might have dreamed of if she’d been the sort of little girl who dreamed of fairy tales.

 

It can’t last though. Emma’s feet start to ache and Regina has to make the rounds. “Come with me,” she says, but Emma figures it’ll be easier for Regina if she’s alone and doesn’t have to answer any awful questions about what being here with a woman means. She’s sitting in a corner, watching the people dance in the ballroom and giving her feet a respite from the heels, when Gold sits down beside her, unbuttoning his suit jacket as he sits.

 

“Ms Swan,” he says, metal-tipped cane in front of him.

 

“Hey,” she says, slipping her feet as discreetly as possible back into her shoes and hoping he hasn’t noticed.

 

“And what is a bookstore employee doing at a ball?” he asks. She suspects he knows the answer.

 

“Regina’s probably in a better position to tell you that,” Emma says, keeping her voice neutral. She stares over at Regina, smiling with a group of people, looking so utterly at home.

 

“I won’t have you destroying her reputation,” he says in the same even, dangerous tone.

 

“I’m sorry?” Emma says. “Did you just actually say that to me?”

 

“Regina Mills is my most valuable client,” Gold says. “She’s been reclusive for years and I’ve just managed to convince her to get into the limelight and I will not have this little… dalliance mess up what will be a very lucrative time for her.”

 

“For you,” Emma says. She will not rise to the bait. She will not punch him in the face. She will not give him – or anyone – reason to believe that Emma will damage Regina’s reputation.

 

“Side benefit,” Gold says, shrugging. “Just something to think about, dearie.”

 

Emma waits until he’s over the other side of the room, wrapping an arm possessively around Regina’s waist and steering her over to a group of older gentlemen, before standing and storming into the bathroom. She leans her hands against the sink, breathing as deeply as she can in the damn restrictive dress.

 

“Yeesh,” a voice says from behind her. “That’s generally how I feel after an encounter with Gold.”

 

Emma looks up; from the reflection in the mirror, the woman standing behind her is tall and thin and striking, the gold of her dress standing out in stark contrast against her dark skin. She turns and the woman holds out a hand. “Tamara,” she says. “Tamara Drake.”

 

The name seems familiar to Emma but she can’t place it. “Emma Swan,” she says, taking the hand, the palms dry, nails painted blood red.

 

“You’re here with R. C. Mills, yeah?” Tamara says, flicking straight, black hair over her shoulder so it falls in a train down to her waist. “Didn’t know she was into women. That’s an industry rumour about to go wild.” Emma frowns and Tamara adds, “particularly with that whole ‘Marisol has two mommies’ shtick her agent’s so big on denying.” She moves to the counter and pulls a lipstick from her purse, refreshing the scarlet of her lips.

 

“So you know why I’m here. What’s your story?” Emma asks, leaning against the sinks.

 

“Literary agent,” Tamara says. “Represent a few big names.” She rattles off several authors Emma, Lacey or Ruby have alternately fangirled at some point or another.

 

Emma nods, impressed. “Nice,” she says.

 

“I do all right,” Tamara says. “Always looking for books with greater diversity.”

 

“I figured that based on your clients,” Emma says.

 

Tamara returns her lipstick to her clutch, presses her lips together and grins briefly at Emma. “I’d be encouraging her to hook those moms up,” she says and saunters out of the bathroom.

 

Emma returns to the ballroom shortly after, grabs another glass of champagne, and finds Regina who is talking with an older woman in a dusty black gown. She wraps an arm around her waist and Regina leans into her, the press of her body against Emma’s comforting in its solidity. “You having a good time, dear?” she asks.

 

“Better now that I’m with you again,” Emma says and it’s so ludicrously soppy. She’ll blame the champagne if anyone asks.

 

“Ah, young love,” the older woman says. “Ask your girl to dance, sweetheart.”

 

So Emma does and soon she and Regina are wrapped in each other’s arms again and Emma decides, screw the fairy tale. Real life is so much better.

 

“Hey,” she says in the car on the way home. Regina’s staring out the window, exhausted and contemplative, and the relative quiet of the car – the soft hum of the motor, Billy’s humming – reminds Emma of the conversation earlier in the evening. “Your agent’s a creep.”

 

Regina stiffens. “I don’t want to talk about Gold,” she says.

 

“It’s just, I met this other agent in the bathrooms and she reps some pretty big names. Tamara Drake? She seemed pretty interested in the Marisol stories.”

 

“I’m not leaving Gold if that’s what you’re suggesting,” Regina says. She turns to look at Emma, the vein in her forehead protruding and lips drawing together in tension.

 

“He’s controlling,” Emma says. “He’s controlling and racist and homophobic and he doesn’t care about you.”

 

“He got me where I am today,” Regina says firmly. “Drop it, Ms Swan.”

 

“Just think about it,” Emma says.

 

“You’re overstepping your boundaries,” Regina says and she’s cold and closed off, like she was when Emma first met her and, if nothing else, it shows Emma just how much Regina has changed around her – until now. “I said, leave it.”

 

So Emma does. And when she gets out of the car, Regina doesn’t walk her to her door, doesn’t kiss her good bye, just says a stiff, “good night”. Emma congratulates herself inwardly because there’s got to be a prize for being the quickest person in the universe to fuck up what could have been a fairy tale.

Chapter Text

Gin was on their doorstep, battering at the door.  Mom refused to answer, continuing to eat pollo agridulce like nothing was wrong. “And how was your day at school?” she asked over the din.

  “Mom, can I let Gin in?” Marisol asked.

  “That woman isn’t welcome in our house,” Mom said. “Not after she accused me of murder.”

   “Maybe she’s here to apologise,” she said. “Please.”

  Mom sighed. “Fine, mija, you can let her in.”

  Gin had turned away by the time Marisol opened the door. “Gin,” she yelled. “Mom says you can come in.” The smile that bloomed on Gin’s face was disarming and for the first time she could see a clear resemblance between the two of them. It was Marisol’s smile.

  That smile was still present on her face when Gin entered the dining room and perhaps that was why Mom let her speak. “What do you want, Virginia?” she asked, voice clipped.

  “We found Meg Kaneshiro,” Gin said. “She has no memory of the events leading to her kidnap and she’s plenty battered, but she’s going to be fine.”

  Marisol was disturbed to see the range of emotions flash across her mother’s face. Relief and joy were expected, welcomed even, but the anger and guilt that bled fleetingly to the surface were more alarming. “I’m so pleased our sheriff’s department seem to be doing their job finally.”

  “I’m sorry, Sal,” Gin said, eyes large and pleading. “I really am.”

  But Marisol felt the sense of unease she’d felt when she’d first read the book of stories and then when Edward Armstrong had woken from his coma. Mom knew more about Meg’s disappearance than she was letting on.

-- ‘The Queen and the Saviour’ by R. C. Mills

 

Emma works all day Saturday, the bookshop busy due to the damp, chilly weather, people coming in off the streets to get out of the cold and buy books. She and Ruby are frantic at the counter most of the day, so much so that Lacey even runs out to buy them coffee later in the afternoon, which is most unlike her.

 

“Rory said can you get the dress dry cleaned if you got lucky in it?” she says on her return, placing the coffee behind the counter and pulling off her coat. “I don’t want to know.” Emma watches her head on to the shop floor, hair coiled in a knot on her head and jeans riddled with tears. She starts re-stacking books left out by over-zealous toddlers.

 

“I do,” Ruby says, grinning at her. “How was the fancy party? Here you go, kiddo,” she added, handing a paper bag with books to a little girl wearing a Minnie Mouse jumper.

 

“The fancy party was great,” Emma says, ringing up the till for the next customer.

 

“And why don’t I believe that?” Ruby asks. “I assume you didn’t get lucky then.” This is added in a whisper though Emma’s cheeks still flame red and the man she’s serving raises his eyebrows.

 

“We were taking it slow,” Emma replies.

 

“We’ll discuss that ‘were’ later,” Ruby says, turning back to the counter. “And how are you today?”

 

Emma manages to skip out before Ruby can get too far into questioning and makes it home with  a bag of Chinese food and a six pack of beer. Mary Margaret’s been baking; there’s snickerdoodles on every surface of the kitchen and the apartment smells of sugar.

 

“Emma!” she says, coming out of the kitchen nook and pulling off her apron.

 

“The apartment smells amazing,” Emma says, dumping the food on the coffee table.

 

“Some of them are for study group tomorrow,” Mary Margaret says. “But we have dessert tonight!” Mary Margaret bakes when she’s stressed – Emma knows this from the years of living with her – and her first assignment for her masters is due on Monday.

 

Emma sets up beef and broccoli (hers) and fried rice (Mary Margaret’s) on the coffee table, dunks a wonton into sauce, cracks open a beer and collapses. “Such a busy day,” she says, just about moaning at the taste of hops. “I barely got a lunch break.” She bites into the wonton, sauce dripping down her chin, which she wipes up with her finger.

 

“So,” Mary Margaret says, snapping chopsticks and manoeuvring a clump of fried rice to her mouth. “How was last night?”

 

“It was … good,” Emma says, taking another swig of beer. Having worked all day on minimal food, even the few gulps of beer are making her feel light-headed.

 

“You don’t sound sure.”

 

“It ended badly,” she admits. “I said something stupid.” And she tells Mary Margaret about Gold, Tamara and the conversation in the car, shovelling food as she goes.

 

“Oh, honey,” she says, placing a hand on Emma’s knee. “Criticising someone’s agent isn’t first date conversation.”

 

“I’m an idiot,” Emma says, barely resisting the urge to bash her head against the arm of the couch.

 

“But, I mean, her agent does sound like an asshole,” Mary Margaret adds. “She’s probably locked into a contract with him. Hard to break.”

 

Emma chews on a hunk of beef and grabs her phone. She texts Regina that night. Sorry I ruined our first date. Emma xx

 

She doesn’t hear back.

 

The next day is laundry day. Emma is back from the laundry in the building of their complex, dressed in leggings and a baggy tee-shirt advertising a bar she used to work at, about the only clean clothes she owns. “I’m taking this up to my room,” she says and Mary Margaret nods, getting started on folding her own laundry.

 

She looks over at her wardrobe, Mulan’s dress on a hanger. She’s taking it to get dry cleaned tomorrow. It’s a beautiful dress, too beautiful for her. She folds her clothes, taking some comfort in the routine. There’s a knock at the front door, which Emma ignores. Probably Mary Margaret’s study group. She’ll head out soon. Everyone’s far too earnest, wanting to talk about literature with a capital ‘L’ like somehow their discussions will change the world, and discussing the difference between urban fantasy and magical realism.

 

“Getting it,” Mary Margaret yells. The lock snicks back. “Oh!”

 

So not her study group then. “Hello. Is Emma about?” Emma drops her laundry basket. It’s Regina.

 

“Yeah,” Mary Margaret says and Emma takes a moment to grin at how flustered she sounds before the panic re-asserts itself. “I mean, yes. She’s upstairs, Ms Mills.”

 

“May I?”

 

“Of course!” Mary Margaret says. “Ms Mills, I am such a fan.” Emma groans.

 

Regina just says, “thank you,” in a clipped tone and then Emma hears high heels clip onto the ladder and freezes, looking wildly around the room. She doesn’t have time to put away her laundry or change or do anything to make herself or her room look more presentable or adult. Fuck, she’s not even wearing a bra.  

 

Regina’s outfit puts Emma to shame. She’s in heels and a silky shirt tucked into wide-legged pants, holding her coat in her arms, and it’s unfair that she looks so beautiful and put-together when there’s no possible way she can be here with positive news. “Hi,” Emma says, sitting on her bed, placing the laundry basket at the end. “Where’s Henry?”

 

“Playdate,” Regina says. “I was at the bakery yesterday with him but you didn’t show.”

 

“It was really busy at work.” She looks down at her hands. “You didn’t reply to my message.”

 

“I didn’t think this was a conversation that should happen via text message,” Regina says, shrugging.

 

“It’s okay,” Emma says. There’s a tear in her leggings, cotton thread dangling at her ankle “I get it. I screwed up. See you around, I guess.”

 

“What?” Regina crouches in front of her and puts her hands on Emma’s knees, the weight of her hands solid and comforting. “I’m not breaking up with you, dear.”

 

“You’re not?” Emma looks up, meets her eyes, Regina’s wide and serious. She’s worrying her lip between her teeth and it’s unbearably attractive.

 

“Am I crazy about what you said? Not especially,” Regina says. “Did I handle it well? Not really. I’m sorry, Emma.”

 

“I shouldn’t have pushed…”

 

“Gold got me the deals and publicity that have made my books such a success,” Regina says. She’s still crouching in front of her, hands rubbing Emma’s knees. “I owe him my career. Honestly, I owe him my life.”

 

“I didn’t know,” Emma says.

 

“I wouldn’t have expected you to,” Regina says, standing again. “I talked to Gold. I’m not happy with what he told me and I suspect it wasn’t the whole story.”

 

“He warned me off you. Said a lesbian relationship would destroy your career trajectory,” Emma mumbles. She twists a tank top from her laundry basket in her hands.

 

“Asshole,” Regina mutters, pacing away from her, and it’s so utterly bizarre to hear her swear that Emma actually laughs, the sound quick and high and over just about before it even starts.

 

“You’re something else,” Emma says, folding socks because she needs something to do with her hands that isn’t fidgeting.

 

“Are we all right?” Regina asks. “I shouldn’t have taken you to that stupid ball.”

 

“I loved the stupid ball,” Emma says. “It was just, maybe, a bit too all guns blazing for people who were going to be taking it slow.”

 

“I don’t know how to do this,” Regina says, she inspecting Emma’s bookshelves and Emma realises that apart from her battered copy of ‘The Secret Garden’ and a few paperbacks, the only books on the shelf are Regina’s. She looks over at her, smirking, and Emma knows she’s figured it out too.

 

“Perhaps we just do what feels right for us,” Emma says. “If that’s fancy dinners and dancing, fine. If that’s lying on the couch together, fine. If that’s wild, animal sex, fine.”

 

“Wild, animal sex, huh?” Regina asks, raising an eyebrow and smirking, and Emma feels the blush spread across her cheeks.

 

“Dunno,” Emma says, shifting on her bed. She hears a knock at the door and Mary Margaret answering. “Oh God,” she sighs. “The study group’s here.”

 

“The study group?” Regina asks.

 

“Mary Margaret and her crew of creative writing pals,” Emma says. “If you thought Mary Margaret was bad…” Regina’s horror is exquisite.

 

“I can’t go out there,” she hisses. “I can’t handle creative writing grads en masse.” Emma can just imagine Mary Margaret, in whispered, reverent tones, telling everyone that R. C. Mills is in her apartment.

 

“Then stay,” Emma says. “We can have our second date here.”

 

“In your bedroom? That’s taking it slow?” Regina asks, though there’s a mischievous tilt to her mouth.

 

“Shut up,” Emma says, pushing her folded laundry back into the basket and dumping it over in one corner of the room, before grabbing her laptop from on top of her bookshelf. “I’ve got illegal downloads of, like, everything and I can forage for snacks. The study group won’t be interested in me.”

 

“Sounds perfect,” Regina says, dropping her coat and handbag on Emma’s dresser, and lying down on Emma’s bed. She pats the space beside her and Emma curls into her side, breathing in her perfume and fingers stroking at the silk of her shirt.

 

She puts ‘Veronica Mars’ on because Regina’s never seen it before and she sounds intrigued by the concept. Because Emma’s seen it before, she can spend her time more wisely, watching Regina’s reaction, her smiles over the pint-sized detective, the furrow between her eyebrows when she is working out what is going on, the sharp laugh that Veronica’s wise-cracks draw out of her. It’s halfway through the second episode that Regina looks over at her. “You’re staring at me, Emma,” she says, lips quirked into an almost-smile.

 

“You’re very easy to stare at,” Emma says.

 

“You’re just lovely, aren’t you?” Regina says and she sounds almost surprised.

 

Emma kisses her, the episode of ‘Veronica Mars’ forgotten in the feel of Regina’s mouth on hers, the taste of peppermint on her tongue, the curve of her lips as she smiles. She kisses her and tries to memorise the way she tastes and feels and smells because at some point she’ll probably fuck this up again and she wants to remember Regina for as long as she can. Her neck is cricked at an uncomfortable angle but she doesn’t care, bringing up a hand to run her fingers through Regina’s short hair.

 

Regina breaks away from her and Emma sighs at the loss but then Regina pulls herself up so her back is up against the head of the bed and pats her lap. “Come. Sit here.”

 

So Emma does, straddling Regina’s lap and feeling idiotic until Regina kisses her, hands on Emma’s cheeks and pulling her close. The hands are possessive, greedy almost and the idea of being held, being possessed is intoxicating to her.

 

Emma’s hands wind around Regina’s back, clutching at the silk shirt and failing to gain purchase in the fabric, slipping like water through her fingers. “Can I?” she asks and in response, Regina untucks the blouse from her pants and Emma’s hands slide up, fingers brushing over velvety skin, desperate, clasping. In response, Regina pulls Emma’s hair out of its ponytail, brushing her fingers through it.

 

“I love your hair,” she says. “It’s Disney princess hair.”

 

Emma laughs and kisses Regina’s neck. “I love everything about you.” She plays with the button on Regina’s shirt, fingers edging at the lace of her bra peeking out from the silk. Regina stiffens. “Sorry,” Emma says. “That wasn’t taking it slow.”

 

But Regina just laughs. “Setting our own pace,” she says. “I was just surprised. I liked it though,” she adds, and slides her hands under Emma’s shirt and it’s then that Emma remembers she isn’t wearing a bra, all of them in with her laundry, and there’s nothing between her breasts and Regina’s wandering hands.

 

She groans when Regina’s hand brushes the nipple of her left breast and wetness pools between her thighs, stomach muscles contracting beneath Regina’s other hand. She obviously likes the reaction because she brushes back over Emma’s breasts and then her thumb circles one nipple, teasing, though the hand on her stomach move up, twisting and plucking at the other with much firmer intent.

 

Emma unbuttons Regina’s shirt, fingers fumbling because her chest feels tight, almost like she can’t breathe. At the final button she inadvertently runs her hand across the juncture of Regina’s thighs and Regina hisses. Her cheeks are flushed and her eyes dark and there’s lipstick smeared around her mouth. “Sorry,” Emma says.

 

“Don’t apologise,” Regina says, kissing Emma’s neck. Emma suspects that if she looked in the mirror, she’d see the dark red of her lipstick all too visible on her neck.

 

“Too soon though?” Emma says.

 

“Probably,” Regina replies. “I like the way you think though, Swan.” She grins and pulls Emma’s shirt up, pulling it over her head and pressing kisses to her breasts, each one burning deliciously.

 

Emma’s legs are curled around Regina’s waist and her hands push at the shirt barely hanging on her frame. She claws at Regina’s shoulder blades, her breathing deepening and she lets out a deep groan as Regina sucks on a nipple, tongue flicking and sucking.

 

“Uh, Emma?” Mary Margaret’s voice carries up the steps to her bedroom. Too late Emma realises that the ‘Veronica Mars’ episode has finished. “You okay up there?” She sounds deeply, horrifyingly embarrassed.

 

“Oh God,” Emma says, covering her face with her hands. Regina’s laughing.

 

“Did we just get caught by your roommate and her study group?” she asks, head falling back against the wall.

 

“I think so,” Emma says. She kisses Regina’s lips briefly and clambers off her. “Do you want to hide out up here until they leave? I can be quiet.”

 

“I don’t want you to be,” Regina says and Emma feels the heat, which dissipated when Mary Margaret’s voice interrupted their tryst, return to her belly. “When we do this, I want to hear every moan and sigh and scream. But I also suspect we were interrupted at a good moment.” She pulls her shirt back on properly and buttons it, covering the flesh Emma barely had any chance to explore.

 

“Probably,” Emma says, swinging her leg over Regina and sitting against the side of the bed. She stretches for her shirt, hanging half-on, half-off the bed, and pulls it back on. “I think we were heading to the opposite of slow.”

 

Regina looks at her phone. “I have to go and get Henry,” she says. “Come over for dinner this week.”

 

“Third date?” Emma asks. “You know what happens after a third date?”

 

Regina laughs, fluffing her hair in the mirror so it doesn’t look quite so much like she’s been doing exactly what they’ve been doing and using a wet wipe to tidy her face. “I need moral support going down there,” she says so Emma follows her downstairs. The study group swivel in unison to look at them. Two women turn to each other and whisper and Emma knows it’s about Regina.

 

Regina just smiles regally at group. “My apologies for the disruption,” she says and kisses Emma on the cheek. “Wednesday night work for you?”

 

Emma grins.

Chapter Text

Marisol sat at the top of the stairs. Cressida was here, in Mom’s study. She had turned up as Mom was trying to get Marisol to bed. “I’m not interrupting anything, am I, Madam Mayor?” she asked, scanning the hall, though not entering. For a moment, Marisol wondered if she was a vampire and had to be invited in.

“What do you want, Cressida?” Mom had asked, her jaw tightening. Marisol had unconsciously wrapped her hand in Mom’s and felt Mom’s hand clench in hers.

“Hello, Marisol,” Cressida had said and Marisol felt an unmistakable shiver of unease shudder down her spine. “Might I speak with you alone, Madame Mayor?”

“Marisol,” Mom had said, voice sharp and her accent all the more apparent with nerves. “Bed now.” Something in her voice made her not want to argue like she had been.

So now she sat on the stairs, waiting for Cressida to leave. She had to know that Mom was safe. The study door opened. “Take care, Salbatora,” Cressida said. “I brought Meg Kaneshiro back. I can destroy you.”

  “I’m not your puppet,” Mom replied.

“Oh, my dear,” Cressida said and Marisol could hear the curved smile in her voice. “That’s where you’re very wrong.”

-- ‘The Queen and the Saviour’ by R. C. Mills

 

It is two weeks since the tryst in Emma’s loft. Emma has dined at Regina’s twice, gone to the movies one weekend when Henry had a playdate and spent several evenings after Henry has gone to bed curled up next to Regina on her couch, ostensibly watching movies but really making out.

 

“Thanksgiving plans?” Emma asks, curled up against Regina on the couch. It’s still six weeks away, but Mary Margaret has started questioning her about her own plans and she doesn’t want to go to Maine for the entire long weekend if there’s any chance she could see Regina and Henry at some point over that weekend.

 

“Just me and Henry,” she says. One hand strokes Emma’s shoulder. “Mother’s desperate for me to go home for Thanksgiving but half the town’s invited and Henry doesn’t do too well with my mother’s sit down dinners. Marian and her family might come for dinner.”

 

“Nice,” Emma says. “I’ve gone to Mary Margaret’s family extravaganza since college.” It’s a family affair, every single Blanchard connection invited and Emma fits in neatly. Last year one of Mary Margaret’s many great aunts was convinced she was actually a family member – Daisy’s cousin’s daughter. Sometimes it’s overwhelming; Mary Margaret understands that Emma will have to hide in her room for a few hours every day in order to behave like a human being.

 

“Do you want to come here instead?” Regina asks.

 

“I wasn’t fishing for an invite,” Emma says, suddenly embarrassed that Regina might not want her there.

 

“I wouldn’t have taken the bait if I didn’t want to,” Regina says, smiling and pressing a kiss to her forehead.

 

She’s starting to feel wanted and she’s just waiting for the other shoe to drop.

 

It happens on Tuesday. She heads into work at the normal time and enters to find Ruby sitting on the counter, long legs crossed and swinging against the wood, eyes glued to her phone. “Emma,” she says, looking up when Emma coughs, “you’re famous.”

 

“What?”

 

Ruby passes her the phone and Emma sees a picture of Regina, kissing Emma, outside a movie theatre.  Though Emma’s face is indistinguishable, Regina’s fully in focus. The subject of the blog post reads Popular Children’s Author in Lesbian Lip-lock. It’s on this blog called ‘The Looking Glass’, which appears to detail all children’s and young adult literature gossip.

 

“What is this?” Emma asks. She skims the blog post. Sexy lip-lock… Younger woman… Sapphic scandal. She leans against the counter, hands shaking. This can’t be happening. It’s too soon.

 

Regina’s not at the bakery at lunch, and Emma pulls a muffin into crumbs before calling her, hands shaking. “Are you okay?” Emma asks.

 

“I’m furious,” she says. “Not at you. This is why I didn’t want to do these book events. This is why I didn’t want to out myself as R. C. Mills.”

 

“How did you manage to keep that secret?” Emma asks.

 

“I went by Regina Cabrera in the organisations I worked for. Apart from that, Marian knew. Henry Mills, if you take one more bite of that cookie, I’ll throw them all in the trash.” Emma can hear Henry giggle in the background and suspects that’s something of an empty threat. “Sorry,” Regina adds. “You may have noticed that I don’t like people much so it wasn’t difficult.”

 

“Really?” Emma says and a smile plays across her lips, even despite the nerves still bubbling away in her belly. “I’m shocked.”

 

“You know, more people question Mills than Cabrera. Is that your married name? But isn’t your father Puerto Rican?” She snorts. “Idiots.”

 

“That’s ridiculous,” Emma says, though honestly she’s unsure what to say. “How is this – us – even newsworthy?”

 

“I don’t know,” Regina says, sighing. Emma can hear the shuffle of her putting something away – the cookies perhaps? She’s convinced of the truth of this when Henry’s whine is audible through the phone. “But I wouldn’t be entirely surprised if Gold has something to do with it. He wasn’t thrilled when I told him to back off my personal life.”

 

“And you’re still with him, why?”

 

Regina sighs again. “Emma…” There’s a warning in her voice.

 

“Sorry,” she says. They haven’t talked about Gold since the afternoon in Emma’s bedroom. Emma wants to but it’s not her business. Regina knows what she’s about.

 

“No,” Regina says. “I’m sorry. It’s complicated.” Emma wants to touch her, just hold her hand or squeeze her shoulder or something that might be comforting, but she’s a phone line away. “No one’s going to even read this, I’m sure.”

 

She’s right in that the general media doesn’t latch on to this. However, the children’s book blogs ago wild for the gossip – and then the queer media blogs get in on it. Regina gets asked for interviews with queer media and even from The Looking Glass. “I don’t even know what I am,” she says over the phone to Emma, “and they want me to interview?” She tries to turn them down, has Tink, her assistant, email polite but firm responses.

 

But eventually she yields to persuasion – not to the interview requests from The Looking Glass though. She’s still fuming and Emma can only imagine the earful Sidney Glass got. Instead, she accepts an interview with a New York-based queer women website.  

 

*

 

The Inside Scoop: R. C. Mills dishes on life, writing and her new romance

By Esmeralda Herne

R. C. Mills has always been an enigma of the children’s literature world, in spite of the fame of the ‘Marisol Mendez’ series. Some have even called her the next J. K. Rowling and the similarities are certainly there: the fantastical subject matter, the plucky female characters, and the single motherhood that both of them endured before their success. Where Regina Mills is quite remarkable, however, is in the way she has proven once and for all that a young woman of colour (Marisol is explicitly Latina) can carry a book series and that a book with a diverse cast of women will still appeal to boys.

Mills is modest, however. “I write the world I see,” she says. “My universe is one populated by women, many of whom are women of colour, and to write a series that bleaches that would be unthinkable.” She pauses, tucking a lock of dark hair behind her ear. “I have been lucky to have publishers and an agent who have supported the diversity of the Marisol novels.”

She seems ecstatic about the letters she receives from young girls and boys, who are happy to see someone who looks like them in literature. I tell her that as a young girl of Romani descent I would have been all over the books and she’s flattered. “It’s stories like that which keep me going when I’m revising at three in the morning with a sick child and a deadline looming.”

I ask about the latest Marisol book. “I’m doing revisions of book five at the moment,” she tells me. The fifth book is focused on Sal’s mother, a character we have apparently met before. I ask who she is. “I can’t say,” she says. “Though some fans have guessed already.”

Does she have any plans for something not a part of the series? Her son, Henry, is five and she would like to write something he’d like, perhaps a picture book. She tells him watered-down versions of the Marisol novels every night. “He likes Marisol,” she says. “We had some problems with nightmares when I told him about Cressida. So in his story, Cressida is redeemed and falls in love with Hassan, which obviously is never going to end happily in the books.

And of the recent photos? Mills is tight lipped. “I am currently very happy with a woman,” she says. “I was also very happy with my late husband. That’s all I’m saying.” One wonders about the amazing creature who has caught this woman’s eye. The pictures showed blonde hair. Is she Mills’ Gin? Mills laughs before she can stop herself. “That sounds like something she might say. She really wants Gin and Sal to get together.” She’s not the only one; it is the most popular ‘ship’ on fanfiction.net. I tell her this and she frowns. “I have to prioritise – and I explicitly prioritise writing diverse and strong women of colour.”

Does she relate to Sal? She nods immediately. Though Marisol carries many attributes of twelve-year-old scrappy Regina Mills, she puts more of herself into Sal’s fierce love for her daughter. “I certainly hope my son doesn’t see me as an evil queen – in spite of not letting him eat cookies for breakfast.”

Like everyone else, I’ll be waiting avidly for the next book in the series and hoping, like so many others, that Gin and Sal’s relationship progresses like Mills’ relationship with her very own Virginia seems to be. That is to say, happily ever after.

 

*

Emma texts Regina when she sends her the link to the article, heart still light and floaty at the mention of Regina being happy with her. She can't help but constantly question why Regina would ever be with someone like her. 

 

*

 

Nice article tho Esmeralda chick seemed to have massive crush on you.

One sided, dear. You free for a call?

@ work. Lacey glaring. Could call in an hr.

I have to go to Henry’s school. Will chat with Marian.  

 

*

 

its late had a few glasses of wine with MM thinking of u

Thinking of you too and worrying about your inability to punctuate.

You know, you made some promises about third dates…

Were those actually promises

Well, I inferred that they were. Lack of follow-through was disappointing.

Ok Im def calling you kid asleep

Call in ten. I expect explicit detail about what your intentions were…

 

*

 

When am I actually going to get to see you?

It’s a busy month. We’ll see each other soon.

When???

Three question marks!

I’m frustrated.

;)  

Don’t be crass, Ms Swan.

 

*

 

I might actually kill Ruby and Lacey and customers and just everyone

Want to talk?

Do you have time?

Henry will be in bed by eight.

I’m going out with Mulan. NM I’ll talk to MM.

Sorry.

Not a prob <3 <3 <3

Ugh. Emojis. Ugh.

<3

 

*

Regina is kept busy over the next week, revision deadlines and book events and helping out with a concert at Henry’s kindergarten. When she’s not busy, Emma is. They talk on the phone and text but it’s not enough and Emma’s trying so hard not to be needy (because that’s not who she is, that’s never been who she is) and failing desperately.

 

One of the times she’s busy is when she makes the very dubious decision to mix her friendships, inviting Mulan and Rory over for dinner with her and Mary Margaret. Her roommate’s been desperate to meet Emma’s new friends and insists on cooking – which is probably a good thing because Emma’s go-to meal is macaroni cheese and Mulan is lactose intolerant.

 

Emma sets the table, feeling like a twelve-year-old girl helping her mother out in the kitchen. The glass of wine she’s toting around with her helps make her feel nominally like an adult, however. She’s feeling edgy, not having seen Regina for eight days. She didn’t realise how much she relied on even their bakery dates.

 

Mulan and Rory arrive, a bottle of wine in Mulan’s hand and a tart in Rory’s. “Courtesy of the bakery,” she says, handing it to Emma. “Hey! You must be Mary Margaret. I’m Rory. This is Mulan.”

 

Mary Margaret hugs Rory, who instead of squirming away like Emma did back when she first met her (she also contemplated dropping out of college to avoid her touchy feely roommate), immediately offers to help with dinner, “because I imagine Emma is worse than useless.”

 

“What?” Emma says, grouchy and affronted. “I cook.”

 

“Oh sweetie,” Mary Margaret says, shaking her head in a horribly patronising manner.

 

Mulan grins over at Emma. “This is dangerous.”

 

“They’re going to bond, aren’t they?” Emma asks. Mulan laughs, helping herself to a wine glass and pouring a generous serving.

 

“So this is the apartment?” Mulan says, looking around. “It’s nice. I take it you’re up those stairs?”

 

Emma nods. “Closest place you get to privacy in this place, unless you include the bathroom, and even then it’s not so private.”

 

Mulan laughs again. Emma’s told her about the breast-touching incident of three weeks ago that ended in what is up there as one of Emma’s top five most embarrassing moments. “God, you must love it.”

 

Their prediction is correct; Rory and Mary Margaret have formed a fast friendship in their hour in the kitchen, though Emma suspects this might be down to a bottle of pinot noir consumed between the two of them while waiting for the chicken to brown.

 

It’s after dinner that she feels edgy, the pit of tension in her stomach not eroded by the four glasses of wine she consumed. “What’s up with you?” Rory asks, lying on the couch against Mulan, who has one of Rory’s long curls coiled around her finger.

 

“I don’t know,” Emma says.

 

“You miss Regina,” Mulan says, her gaze all too knowing.

 

Emma shrugs but Mary Margaret says, “it’s been a week.”

 

“Eight days,” Emma says and then groans because Mulan’s going to absolutely pounce on that.

 

She texts her. You home?

 

Come over if so inclined. I miss you.

 

Give me an hour.

 

“I’m going to Regina’s,” she tells Mary Margaret, who rolls her eyes.

 

“Of course you are,” she says, adding, “besotted,” and looking over at Rory and Mulan who nod in agreement. Emma bristles.

 

She walks out with Mulan and Rory, who insist on dropping her at Regina’s. “You’re drunk,” Rory says, “and this isn’t exactly the safest city.”

 

“Yes, Mom,” Emma says and doesn’t miss the wistful look on Rory’s face at the use of the name or Mulan wrapping her arm around Rory’s shoulder and files it away for later.

 

She texts Regina to tell her that she’s outside rather than knocking because she doesn’t want to wake Henry and Regina answers the door in a dressing gown and slippers, face wiped free of make-up. “I’ve kept you up,” Emma says. “I didn’t mean to.”

 

“No,” Regina says, pulling Emma inside and kissing her soundly up against the door. “I’ve missed you.”

 

“Busy week,” Emma says, keeping herself pressed into her body, feeling Regina’s hands find their way under her coat to trace and tickle her ribs. “I hate that.”

 

“Stay over,” Regina says and Emma’s heart is warmed.

 

Regina gives her a nightie – rather racier than Emma might consider wearing – and when Emma asks about the possibility of pyjamas, Regina rather too innocently tells her that her only other pair are in the washing basket. “So it’s that or nothing,” she says. “I’m happy either way.”

 

Emma changes in the bathroom, avoiding looking at herself in the nightie – so not her style and clearly too expensive for Emma – but bundling up her clothes and carrying them so they cover the ample amount of chest on display. Her throat tightens at the thought of Regina wearing this. When she enters the bedroom, Regina’s sitting up, glasses on her nose, reading. She places a bookmark between the pages and smiles at Emma. “Look at you,” she says and Emma shivers at the sliver of evil in her smile.

 

She burrows under the covers, totally covering herself from view and she can’t quite understand why she’s only now shy when she’s never been anxious about her body before. “God, I want to hold you down and have my way with you,” Regina says, fingers idly stroking Emma’s shoulder.

 

“One day, I hope,” Emma says, trying to ignore the moisture between her legs, the dampening of her underwear, the silk of the nightgown threatening to stick to her thighs.

 

“Just not when you’re still intoxicated and Henry’s in the next room,” Regina says, rueful. “I’m exhausted, dear. I’m sorry.”

 

“I just wanted to be close to you,” Emma says and adds, “God, that makes me sound needy.”

 

“I feel the same way,” Regina says and Emma cuddles into her shoulder and lets herself drift off to sleep with her head against Regina, breathing in her scent and feeling the velvet of her skin beneath her cheek.

 

The last thought she has before she falls asleep is that she might just have found home.

Chapter Text

“Gin!” Marisol said. She hadn’t seen Gin in a while. Since she accused Mom of setting up Bianca to take the fall for Meg’s death, things had been fraught – even after the apology. Marisol almost hugged her but Gin seemed shaky, hands twisting, one knee jiggling as she leaned against the gates of the school. Marisol was walking to Mom’s office today.

“Want a ride home, kid?” Gin asked and Marisol followed her to her truck.

It wasn’t until Gin had driven past Mifflin Street that Marisol looked in the back seat and saw the boxes. “What are you doing?” she asked. Gin was flaky sometimes, and put up walls but she’d never been scared of her before now.

“We’re going,” Gin said. “Marisol, I have evidence that Sal kidnapped Meg Kaneshiro. I have evidence that she framed Bianca for her disappearance. She hurts people. I’m afraid she’s going to hurt you.”

“Stop,” Marisol said and Gin didn’t listen, knuckles white and tight against the steering wheel and eyes straight ahead. They were heading to the town line, to that place where no one could cross but her and Gin, to the real world where Mom didn’t exist and curses were fairy tales. “Gin, please.  Stop!” She felt the tears pricks her cheeks, stinging at the sensitive skin beneath her eyes. “Don’t do this. We can’t leave!”

And something in Gin seemed to snap. She veered right, pulling in at the side of the road, and turned to Marisol. “Oh God,” she said and her breathing was too quick and she swore. “Marisol. I’m-”

But Marisol jumped out of the car, leaving her school bag, and ran, legs pumping, heart breaking.  

Gin was the saviour. She should have been ecstatic that she wanted so much to keep her that she would abduct her, that Gin wanted her. That was all she’d ever wanted, right? That Gin would want her so much she’d stop the curse? But that wasn’t the same as wanting her enough that she’d kidnap her and skip town and as she’d driven closer and closer to the town line, all Marisol could think about was Mom.

-- ‘The Queen and the Saviour’ by R. C. Mills

 

Emma wakes early, nestled against Regina and with one of her arms wrapped possessively around Emma’s waist, and she takes a moment to relish in the feeling of being held. The silk nightgown has twisted in the night, one of her breasts basically exposed, and she re-adjusts, feeling her skin grow warm with embarrassment. That feeling of home is back in full force but instead of settling her like it did last night, she feels a bubble of panic pool low in her stomach.

 

Before she can dwell on this, however, the door to Regina’s bedroom creaks open and Henry peers in. Emma cricks her head upwards and catches his eye. He grins. “Emma!” And he runs at the bed, clambering up and throwing himself at her, one foot pressing into her bladder. She settles him so that his feet are on the mattress and lets him fold his arms around her. “Did you and Momma have a sleepover?” he asks, poking at her cheeks with chubby fingers.

 

She smiles in spite of herself. “I guess we did, kiddo.” How Regina has managed to remain asleep through this she’ll never know but Henry looks set to ruin that, looking over at his mother who is, if such a thing is possible, even more beautiful in sleep, all lines of care smoothed away.

 

“Momma!” Henry yells into his mother’s face, fingers pushing her lips into a smile. Regina grumbles and rolls over, burying her face in her pillow. Henry clambers off Emma, crawling onto his mother’s back, bouncing and poking her between her shoulder blades.

 

“The sun’s awake so I’m awake,” he says.

 

Regina mumbles something that sounds remarkably like, “shouldn’t have let him watch ‘Frozen’,” but she turns onto her back, pulling Henry into a hug and smiling as he kisses her cheeks with loud, soggy, smacking noises.

 

Emma smiles, but it feels forced. It’s so domestic, so sweet, so much like a home and in the cool light filtering through the blinds, she remembers that this isn’t her family. No family lasts forever, not for Emma anyway. She knows this for a fact. “I should get going,” she says. “I have work.”

 

Regina looks over at her and must see something in her eyes because she frowns. “Are you all right?” she asks.

 

Emma smiles, more of a grimace really. “Fine,” she says. “Enjoy your lazy morning with Henry.”

 

“Need anything?”

 

Emma picks up her shirt and sniffs it. “Could I borrow a shirt?”

 

Regina gestures at her wardrobe, too occupied by Henry to get up. “Take anything.”

 

She finds a blue silk shirt in Regina’s wardrobe, not her usual style but it reminds her of Regina, and pulls it on in the bathroom, relishing the feel of the expensive fabric draped across her skin.

 

It’s as she’s buttoning up the shirt that Regina knocks and enters. “Sorry about Henry,” she says, pressing a kiss to Emma’s neck, bared by the ponytail into which she’s dragged her hair. “I forgot to warn you.”

 

“It’s cool,” Emma says, though her skin feels clammy and too tight, like she’s being held down. She leans forward and kisses her. “See you later,” she says.

 

“Emma, you can come over any time,” Regina says. She’s shuffling from one bare foot to the other. “I slept really well.”

 

So did Emma. And therein lies the problem because it can’t last and having this ripped away, well, Emma isn’t sure she can handle that if she continues with this much longer.

 

She goes to work and snaps at Ruby, who sends her into time out with Lacey. “You’ll yell at a kid if you don’t stop being such a grouch.”

 

It’s peaceful out the back, Lacey not much of one for communicating. After an hour of unpacking stock and checking orders, Emma’s in a better frame of mind and Lacey makes Emma a cup of tea using the tea bags from her secret stash (“American tea is the worst,” Lacey had said too often to count) and sits her down on a crate. “So,” she says, looking very much like she’d rather be anywhere but here. “What’s your deal today?”

 

“We really don’t need to have this conversation,” Emma says.

 

“Ruby’s making me,” Lacey replies, picking at a stray thread on her jeans. “So spill.”

 

“I spent the night with Regina,” Emma says.

 

“Yeah, you’re right,” Lacey says. “We really don’t need to have this conversation.”

 

Emma laughs and shortly after she returns to the shop floor and apologises to Ruby. On her lunch break, she heads to the bakery. The bakery is busy but she manages to grab a table at the back, and pulls her bear claw into crumbs and fingers tapping against her phone, fighting the instinct to text Regina. She needs to pull back, to detach before it’s too late.

 

There’s a cough from above her. She looks up and she’s not sure who she expected to see standing above her, but Regina’s mother would not have been it. “Ms Swan,” Cora Mills says, “what a pleasant surprise.”

 

Emma wipes sugar-coated fingers on her jeans and looks across as Cora sits down across from her, takeaway coffee in hand. “Is it?” she asks.

 

“I just stopped in to see my grandson,” Cora says, the sweetness of her tone belied by the cold, hard stare and pinched lips. “He was burbling away about a sleepover? It would be too much to ask obviously if my daughter told me when she was in a relationship. Instead I find out from a website and a five year old.”

 

“It’s just started,” Emma says. She fiddles with the rolled up sleeves of the shirt, Regina’s shirt really, and Cora notices.

 

“You’re wearing her shirt,” Cora says, raising an eyebrow. “And Henry’s calling you family.”

 

Emma’s heart sinks. “I don’t…” The memory of watching ‘Lilo and Stitch’ comes rushing back to Emma. Ohana means family. Family means no one gets left behind, or forgotten. Henry telling her that he and Regina could be her family. Emma crying. She kind of wants to cry now at the memory and she takes a deep, gulping breath to allay them.

 

“Be careful, dear,” Cora says. “Henry will only be hurt if things turn sour.” She stands and clasps Emma’s shoulder, her hands like claws. “Enjoy your lunch.”

 

The conversation shakes Emma. It’s not like Cora was mean or forbidding or anything really, but there’s something menacing about Cora Mills, danger lurking in the subtle smiles and cold eyes.

 

She goes upstairs early, not in the mood for conversation with Mary Margaret who is far too interested in the fact that Emma did not come home last night. “Did anything happen?” she asks. Emma just shrugs, using a mouthful of peanut butter toast as an excuse not to answer. She changes out of Regina’s shirt, though she sniffs it before folding it. It smells of Regina.

 

Even though it’s still early, she tries to sleep. She should be tired after six days of work without a break. However, her brain just won’t shut off. She tries to re-read ‘The Queen and the Saviour’ in the hopes that the words might sooth her to sleep. Instead it gets her thinking. She knows she isn’t Gin, but she can’t help reading herself in Gin’s character – the same fears and pre-occupations plague them both. It’s when she gets to the part where Gin kidnaps Marisol, trying to take her away from Storybrooke and from Sal because she’s afraid to be the saviour, that she makes a decision.

 

She cannot let fear govern her. She cannot let Cora Mills or her own fucked-up past or the fear of screwing up Henry or the possibility that Regina might leave her one day stop her from trying. She pulls on her jeans, shoves her bare feet into sneakers and ties back her hair.

 

“I’m going out,” she says to Mary Margaret who’s on the phone with the boy she likes, judging by the soft smile and the nervous tapping against the coffee table. She just nods, mouthing “we’ll talk later” and returning to her phone call.

 

Emma finds herself on Regina’s doorstep and texts. Outside. She sits on the stoop while she waits for Regina to respond, watching people walk past and rubbing her hands together to ward off chill. It’s cold and she regrets the thin jacket – and, to be honest, her whole outfit, which is not exactly the picture of class and sophistication. A few minutes later, she hears the door open. “Henry was restless,” Regina says. She stands in the doorway. “Why didn’t you call?”

 

“I just…” Emma says, standing. Her hands are in her pockets and she’s halfway down the steps. She’s still not one hundred percent sure if she’s in or out. “I don’t know. I can leave.”

 

“Don’t be stupid,” Regina says, rolling her eyes. “Come in. I’ll make coffee.”

 

Emma follows her in, letting Regina take her jacket, and is seated in the library; she’s regretting the decision to turn up. She didn’t call ahead. She didn’t check if this was all right. What if Regina doesn’t want her here tonight?

 

Regina enters, bearing two mugs and passes one to Emma. “So,” she says. “You seem… stressed?”

 

“I bumped into your mother today,” Emma says, hands clasped around the mug. She doesn’t want coffee, not really, but the warmth is soothing.

 

Regina’s face pinches. “I’m sorry,” she says. “I mentioned where you worked when she asked about you but I didn’t think she’d show up there.”

 

“No,” Emma says. “It’s fine.” She stares at the liquid swirling in the mug. “I just don’t have a great track record with this stuff.”

 

Regina slides over to sit closer to her, close enough to touch, though she doesn’t, giving Emma just enough space. “Talk,” she says, taking the mug of coffee from Emma as she does so.

 

And Emma does. She tells Regina about foster care. Six homes before she reached double digits, ripped away from a family at three when they had a biological child and didn’t need her anymore. She tells her about neglect, about families that used her as a meal ticket, about bullying and intimidation. “I thought I’d found a mom when I was fourteen. Her name was Ingrid. She wanted to adopt me. And then she pushed me in front of a car.” She can sense Regina tense beside her but still she says nothing. “Neal, the love of my teenage life, got me arrested and skipped out on me. My college girlfriend – before I had to drop out – broke up with me because I wouldn’t talk about myself. I haven’t really done the ‘relationship’ thing since then.”

 

Regina’s hand clenches beside her. It’s like she wants to touch Emma but she’s afraid to and Emma grabs the hand in hers, fingers intertwining. “I guess I’m saying nothing in my life has ever been permanent. I’ve never belonged. I’ve never been enough. And the way I feel with you – and Henry – scares me.” She draws the hand up to her lips, kisses Regina’s knuckles. “I don’t want to be scared anymore. I want to be with you as long as you’ll have me.”

 

Regina’s silent for a moment and then she speaks. “Welcome home, querida,” she says and that pretty much does it for Emma. Regina has just about enough time to place her own mug of coffee on the side table before Emma’s kissing her. She still has Regina’s hand clasped in hers and the other hand coils in her hair, pulling her closer.

 

They break apart. “If we stay downstairs, we don’t have to be quiet,” Regina says. Her lips curve into a wicked smile.

 

And the next thing Emma knows, Regina has pulled Emma off the couch and hiked her shirt up to her armpits and is lavishing the skin of her stomach with kisses and it’s all Emma can do to stop herself from arching entirely into Regina’s lips, molten against her skin and making her desperate to be able to, like, magic her trousers off or something. She has the presence of mind – barely – to pull off her top entirely, undo the clasps of her bra and fling them both somewhere and the moment she does, Regina moves up, kissing her breasts, making Emma tremble below her lips. “So beautiful,” she murmurs into her skin, and Emma could cry because it feels like her words are being tattooed across her body.  

 

And then she kisses her way back down Emma’s body and when Emma tries to touch Regina, to do something for her in return, Regina slaps her wrist. “No,” she says. “This is about you.” She’s still fully dressed, clad in a white shirt and black pants that are doing amazing things to her butt, so far as Emma can tell from this angle.

 

Her fingers play at Emma’s belt buckle and she lifts her hips so that Regina can pull her jeans and underpants down. Regina sits back and stares and her and there’s something deeply lascivious in her gaze, the way her eyes rake down her body, and Emma’s thighs clench instinctively. “Lovely,” Regina says and presses a kiss to Emma’s belly. “Perfect,” she adds, another kiss placed on her hip bone. “Enough,” she says, kissing just above Emma’s pubic hair.

 

Her fingers crawl up Emma’s thighs and Emma fights an insane urge to giggle at the sensation. “You want this?”

 

“So much,” Emma breathes. She squirms as Regina continues to stare for what feels like minutes before Regina’s fingers slip between her thighs. Emma shudders. And then it’s all a haze of fingers thrusting and, oh God, Regina’s tongue and the pressure on Emma’s clit is unbearable, whole body hot and jerking, and Emma comes with a screech. But Regina doesn’t stop, working her up again and all Emma can do is claw at the carpet and let out strangled moans.

 

She lies there a moment, trying to get her breath back, before sitting up on her elbows. “Come here,” she says and Regina pulls off her clothes and positions herself over Emma, the weight of her body comforting and arousing all at once. She kisses Regina and Regina bites Emma’s bottom lip, which ratchets up Emma’s arousal once again. Soon Emma’s leg is between Regina’s thighs and her fingers circle Regina’s clit lazily and then harder until Regina’s gasping and she bites at Emma’s neck before she comes – back arched, hoarse cry echoing from her lips – so hard Emma knows it will mark and she’s so pleased, so very happy to be possessed like that.

 

At some point, they gather up their clothes (though Emma cannot find her shirt anywhere) and make their way to the bedroom where Regina hands her a pair of pyjamas. “Much as I’d love to sleep naked,” she says. “You’ve experienced a Henry wake-up before.”

 

“And now you have spare pyjamas,” Emma says, pulling on her underwear and then the set of pyjamas Regina’s handed her. They’re flannel and cosy, the legs slightly too short for her.

 

“Would you look at that,” Regina says and she grins.

 

Emma curls an arm around her neck and presses a kiss to Regina’s cheek. “Thank you,” she says.

 

“You’re enough, Emma Swan,” Regina says. “You’re more than enough.” And for the second time in as many days, Emma falls asleep curled up beside Regina.  

Chapter Text

“Marisol,” Mom said, standing in the open doorway of her bedroom. “Can you come downstairs, please?”

  Marisol, who was in the middle of re-reading ‘The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe’, grumbled but wandered downstairs. Mom was in the kitchen, which smelled of pastry, and she wasn’t alone. Gin was there. “Hey, kid,” Gin said. She was sitting at the table, fingers drumming against the varnished wood.

  “Hi,” Marisol said, wary. She hadn’t told Mom about what had happened and she hadn’t seen Gin since, having hidden in her room when Gin had come by with her school bag. “She gave me a ride to your work,” she’d said, shrugging, when Mom entered her bedroom with the bag in hand. “I must’ve left it in her truck.”

  “Can you give us a minute, Sal?” Gin asked and Mom left, no arguments or eye-rolling, and that was enough to tell Marisol that something was very wrong.

  “Look,” Gin said. “I’ll never stop being glad that you came to my door that night, Marisol. You’re an awesome kid, and that’s the thing. You’re Sal’s awesome kid, not mine. I can’t be a mother. I can’t be the saviour.” She took in a deep breath, squeezing her eyes shut and lips disappearing as her mouth tightened with the effort not to cry. “I’m heading back to Boston.”

  “You can’t,” Marisol said, chest constricting because she might not have liked Gin much at the moment but she still loved her – and still needed her. “The curse…”

  “There isn’t a curse, kid,” Gin said. The oven timer beeped and Mom entered, pulling out a tray of apple turnovers, pastry crisp and golden.

  “Do take one for the road, Virginia,” she said.

  “You can’t,” Marisol hissed. “It’s apple. They’re poisoned.”

  “Marisol,” Gin said. “You’re eleven. You need to move past this.” She picked up one of the turnover from the tray, the pastry flaking off onto her fingers. “These look amazing, Sal.”

  Marisol caught her mother’s eye. She looked dangerous, eyes glinting hungrily as she seemed to urge the turnover to Gin’s mouth. Marisol didn’t think, just acted, grabbing the turnover, and shoving as much of it in her mouth and chewing. For a moment nothing happened, bar the burning of hot apple on her tongue. “See?” Gin said, looking over at Sal. Marisol followed her gaze and saw her mother and felt sick fear knot in her stomach.

  Perdóname, querida,” Mom said, her dark eyes wide and horrified and wet with tears, and Marisol began to feel woozy, her legs giving out from under her and after that there was only darkness.

-- from ‘The Queen and the Saviour’ by R. C. Mills

 

When she wakes, she’s no longer nestled in Regina’s arms but that’s only because Henry has wormed his way between them at some point so now Emma’s being spooned by her girlfriend’s (and she thinks she’s allowed to use that word now weird as it sounds to describe Regina Mills) five-year-old son.

 

She shuffles around, desperate not to disturb them, and watches Regina and Henry. Regina has her arms curled around Henry and much of her face is hidden in his hair. He has his mouth open and is making snuffling, snoring noises. There’s a patch of drool on the pillow beneath him.

 

Emma sneaks out of bed and into the kitchen, where she makes coffee and rummages around in the cupboards and fridge, finding eggs and bread and bacon and proper, high grade maple syrup – and, in short, everything she needs to make French toast. She’ll show Mary Margaret and her mildly patronising ‘Emma is incapable of using the kitchen’ attitude, in spite of the fact that Emma cooks dinner at least twice a week.

 

She’s setting the kitchen table, bacon in the warming drawer of the oven, frying pan heating butter for the French toast and coffee percolating when she sees Henry peer around the kitchen door. “Momma, she’s in the kitchen,” he hollers and Emma’s struck by the realisation that Regina might have thought she’d run out on her.

 

She pours coffee into the ‘Number One Mom’ mug that Emma is certain was not bought by Regina or by Henry, adds milk, and hands it to Regina as she enters, hair forming a frizz of curls after her sleep. “Sorry,” she whispers as Henry eyes a glass of orange juice. “I didn’t want to wake you.”

 

“It’s okay,” Regina says, though her smiles speaks of relief. “Anything I can do?”

 

Emma smiles. “Henry and I have got this, right, kid?”

 

Henry grins, orange juice stains around his mouth. “Right.” Regina sits at the kitchen table and watches, a smile playing across her lips, as Emma hoists him up onto the bench, where he kicks his bare feet against the cupboards below.

 

“You dip the bread into this,” she says, placing the bowl of egg mixture beside him. “Make sure it gets totally covered.”

 

Henry’s tongue juts out in concentration as he dunks a thick slice of bread into the eggy mixture. He hands it to Emma, who throws it on the frying pan, the egg meeting the greased pan with a satisfying sizzle. When they’ve made what looks like enough French toast to feed twelve, she gives Henry the maple syrup and takes the plates of toast and bacon over to the kitchen table.

 

“Delicious,” Regina says, after she’s polished off a piece of French toast drenched in maple syrup, and kisses Henry’s forehead.

 

He squirms and wriggles away. “Your lips are all syrup-y, Momma.” There’s a sticky patch of syrup on his blue pyjamas.

 

“Oh no, not sticky lips!” Regina says, smiling at Emma who is on her other side, and leans over, kissing Emma on the lips. Emma tastes maple syrup and laughs into her kiss. Regina stands to get the orange juice and Emma looks across at Henry, who is eyeing her thoughtfully.

 

“Do you live with us now, Emma?” he asks. Emma takes a large bite of syrup-laden toast and bacon, relishing the mix of salt and sweet on her tongue, to avoid answering immediately.

 

“What gave you that idea, mijo?” Regina asks carefully, combing her fingers through his hair.

 

“Emma was here yesterday morning and today morning and she sleeps in your bed and Ava says that Mommies and Daddies sleep in the same bed and Mommies and Daddies live together so.” He speaks as though what he has said is utterly rational and Emma almost laughs at the unassailable logic of five year olds. She would laugh outright if she wasn’t nervous of Regina’s response. She may have made herself vulnerable last night, but it’s a process not a Jenga tower tumbling down.

 

“Emma has her own apartment,” Regina says, with a glance over at Emma. “But she’s going to be spending more time here. Is that all right?”

 

“Is it because you’re in love?” Henry asks. “Like Gin and Sal?”

 

Regina starts, staring at him, and Emma bursts into hysterical laughter. “Gin and Sal?”

 

Henry gives Regina a look like she’s the biggest idiot this side of Manhattan. “Yeah. Marisol’s mommies. In your story.”

 

Emma finds that once she’s started she actually can’t stop laughing. There are tears pouring down her cheeks and her chest starts to hurt and Regina looks so incredibly confused. “I never said…” she says.

 

“Even a five year old can make inferences about those two,” Emma gasps, between sobbing laughs. Henry’s looking at her like she’s grown an extra head or admitted to liking Brussel sprouts.

 

“You’re both very silly,” he says, emphatic, and then he hops down from his chair and heads into the living room. The sound of cartoons shortly follows. Regina follows him with a wet flannel and Emma picks at toast and clears the table. When she returns Emma darts glances at Regina, who is placing leftover French toast into Tupperware containers, as she rinses plates. “You okay?” Emma asks.

 

Regina nods. “This is a big step for me as well,” she says. “I like it though.”

 

“So do I,” Emma says, winding her hands around Regina’s waist from behind and pressing a kiss into her neck.

 

The doorbell goes and Regina swears under her breath. “In terms of big steps,” she says. “How would you like to see Marian in your pyjamas?”

 

Emma frowns. “Seriously?”

 

“I forgot she was coming over for coffee,” Regina says and then yells, “Henry Mills, do not answer the door without me.” Henry’s footsteps can be heard and immediately stop with a thump as he seemingly runs into the door. “Go and get dressed,” she adds. “Towels in the cupboard under the sink.”

 

Regina’s shower is spectacular. Emma doesn’t take the time to indulge, though she does note the expensive branded shower gels and shampoos, lathering a minute amount of shampoo into her hair because it feels sweaty and lank. Once showered and dressed, she returns downstairs, where she finds Marian, perched on an ottoman in the living room, Henry at her feet and searching through her handbag. He’s lining up nail polishes in formation as though they’re toy soldiers when he looks up.

 

“Emma!” Henry says and then turns to Marian. “Emma and Momma had two sleepovers.”

 

“Did they?” Marian asks. “Did they kiss?” Henry nods, eyes large and solemn. “Was it disgusting?” Henry giggles and nods again.

 

“You’re teaching my son terrible manners,” Regina tells her, though there’s no bite in her tone. She’s relaxed, still in her dressing gown, feet up on the sofa and a second cup of coffee in her hand. “He was such a polite boy.”

 

Marian smiles over at her. “Me corrupt this little angel? Impossible.” Henry grins up at his mother and Marian adds, “Hi, Emma.”

 

“Hey,” Emma says. Regina gestures at the table where her mug is full of coffee and holding that centres her. She sits on the ground, leaning against the sofa, and Regina’s hand finds its way into her hair, coiling strands around her fingers and letting damp curls form.

 

“So,” Regina says, hand massaging Emma’s scalp, in this kind of casual intimacy that has Emma feeling soft and dreamy. “I thought you were bringing Roland.”

 

“Roland’s not well,” Marian says, screwing up her face.

 

“Oh?” Regina raises an eyebrow.

 

“He caught something off a kid at day care,” she says. “Feverish, throwing up, all that delightful stuff. Rob’s better at dealing with all of that and Roland’s not interested in anyone else when he’s sick – including me.” She shrugs. “Rob’s better at it anyway.”

 

“Darling, you’re a nurse,” Regina says and Marian shrugs again as if to ask ‘what’s your point?’ and Emma laughs. Then, Regina’s hands still in Emma’s hair. “That’s not going to be ideal for next weekend, is it?” Regina asks and Emma turns to look at her; she’s trying not to appear panicked but there’s anxiety written into her expression.

 

“Shit,” Marian says, covering Henry’s ears as she does so. Henry seems used to this and carries on with his game with the nail polish.

 

“What’s next weekend?” Emma asks.

 

“I have a couple of book events in Ohio,” Regina says. “Henry was going to stay with Marian.”

 

“I could come here,” Marian says, though she looks doubtful.

 

“Not for the whole weekend,” Regina says.

 

“I’ll come over,” Emma says. The words are out before she has time to think about them.

 

“I don’t want to put you out,” Regina says. “Won’t you have work?”

 

“Ruby’ll swap a shift with me,” Emma says. She doesn’t mention that Ruby will be so pleased that she got some because she thinks it means Emma will be less surly that she’ll do anything for her. She’s worried about her reaction when she realises surly is just Emma’s default.

 

“And you’d be okay with this?” Regina asks, taking Emma’s hand in hers.

 

“Sure,” Emma says. “Me and Henry, we’re buddies, right, kid?”

 

Henry looks up from the hot pink polish kicking the crap out of the purple polish. “Buddies,” he says, nodding.

 

“Henry,” Regina asks, getting off the sofa and bending down until she’s at his level. “When I go away next weekend, would you like Emma to come and keep you company?”

 

Henry grins so widely all the concerns Emma might have had are utterly washed away. “Yes thank you please,” he says. Regina smiles over at Emma and it’s so open and happy and, God, in this moment Emma would do anything for her.

 

“That’s settled then,” Marian says and then she covers Henry’s ears again before saying, “so, have you two boned at last?”

 

*

 

Emma has to swap her Wednesday off with Ruby to get a free Saturday and Regina is on a deadline to finish the revisions of book five by Friday when she flies out so she doesn’t see her. They text and on Wednesday Emma calls her while she’s folding laundry and talks about nothing and everything all at once.

 

She turns up on Friday after work with her duffle bag over one arm and nerves bubbling in her stomach because it’s a whole weekend alone with Henry, Regina gone from Friday until Sunday, and she so desperately doesn’t want to screw up.

 

Henry answers the door. “Momma’s in the kitchen,” he says, after ascertaining through the screen that it is indeed Emma.

 

Emma drops her bag in the hall and follows the smell of what she thinks is cilantro to the kitchen. Regina’s dressed in a pantsuit and frilly apron, dipping a spoon into a casserole dish on the stovetop. “Hello,” she says and thrusts the spoon forward. “Taste.”

 

Emma obediently opens her mouth and tastes – though she had been hoping for a kiss rather than food when she entered the kitchen. It’s spectacular, as she’s come to learn that everything Regina cooks – or indeed does – is. “Amazing,” she mumbles through the sauce. “What is it?”

 

Sancocho. A kind of beef stew. Not too hot for you?” she asks.

 

“Isn’t this for Henry as well?” she asks.

 

“Henry can handle a bit of heat,” Regina says. “I’m less convinced about you, however.” She smiles though and Emma wraps an arm around waist, pushing dark curls aside to kiss her neck. “No time for that, Ms Swan,” Regina says, smacking Emma’s hand and she can’t help the whine she emits.

 

“Come on,” she says, walking her fingers up Regina’s arm. “There’s got to be time for me to rumple that hair just a little.”

 

“Henry,” Regina calls in response. “Dinner.” She presses a quick kiss to Emma’s cheek as she walks past with the stew.

 

Henry enters, sitting up at the table, and stares critically over at Emma. “You have Momma’s lipstick on your cheek,” he says. “It’s really annoying when she does that.”

 

Regina gasps in mock outrage. “See if I ever kiss you again,” she says, before immediately pressing a kiss into his hair. “I have to go now,” she says. “Emma’s in charge. You know the rules.” Henry holds out his arms and she hugs him, holding him so tight that he squirms. “Te quiero, precious boy. I will call you every night.”

 

Henry gives her the look of a much older child. “It’s two nights, Momma.” And Regina laughs, serving him a bowl of Sancocho.

 

“Emma, could you help me with my bags?” she says and Emma follows her into the hall, where Regina’s single tiny suitcase stands.

 

“Trickery,” Emma says, and then Regina presses her against the wall and kisses her, holding Emma’s wrists against the wall above her head when Emma’s fingers pull at the shirt tucked into black trousers.

 

“There’s a note for you in the study,” she says. “Just info about Henry – his doctor, emergency contacts, my itinerary… Henry’s exhausted from kindergarten so he shouldn’t be any trouble tonight. You’ll sleep in my bedroom.”

 

Emma just nods, kissing Regina’s cheek and pretending not to see her wipe away a tear before she picks up her suitcase and leaves for the waiting taxi. She watches the car pull away, before returning to the kitchen. “So, Henry,” she says, spooning herself a bowl of stew. “What’s the plan for this weekend?”

 

Henry finishes chewing on a chunk of beef. He’s boosted in his seat by a couple of cushions and seems to be struggling with the cutlery, though Emma knows better than to offer him help. “Pancakes for breakfast,” he says and Emma snorts, before realising he’s serious. “Then the park and then lunch at home and then games in the afternoon and then pizza for dinner and then a movie.”

 

Emma nods. “That all sound do-able,” she says.

 

Regina was right about Henry being tired – or perhaps he’s secretly feeling a bit sad and vulnerable that his mom isn’t there – because he just wants Emma to read to him after dinner, getting readily into his pyjamas and brushing his teeth, and she ends up starting ‘Charlotte’s Web’ with him. It’s one of the few books she recalls someone ever reading to her, one of the better foster homes. He falls asleep halfway through chapter three and she pulls the covers up around him, kissing his cheek.

 

She’s tired herself and, after sticking the leftover stew in Tupperware and loading the dishwasher, she grabs the note from Regina in the study and her duffle bag and heads up to Regina’s bedroom.

 

There’s a parcel at the end of Regina’s bed, on top of the fresh towel and face cloth, which is labelled ‘Emma’ and she tears it open, the note about what to do with Henry forgotten for the moment. A slip of paper flutters out.

 

Emma,

The manuscript for book five. I’m sending it to my publishers next week but I’d like your opinion.

Love Regina

 

Her throat feels dry and tight – a heady mix of excitement and happiness that Regina wants her opinion – and she rushes to change into the loose tee-shirt and leggings that stand in for pyjamas, before curling up in bed and flicking through to Chapter One: in which a stranger arrives in Storybrooke.

Chapter Text

There was a room of flames and she was burning and she screamed but nothing came out and in one corner she saw a figure and it was tiny and broken and too far away to speak to and she wondered.

-- ‘The Queen and the Saviour’ by R. C. Mills

 

Emma wants to read until she finishes the book. She wants to know what happens, both as a fan and as someone for whom everything about Regina has become important. She reads through the opening chapters, a Storybrooke that is settling into normalcy after Red’s werewolf attacks, the mysterious older woman arriving in town, befriending Marisol at the diner. Gin, who has Marisol on alternate weekends and whenever Sal has meetings, gives her permission to go to her home for afternoon tea.

 

Marisol took one of the proffered tarts. “They’re freshly made,” Saden said, her dark eyes fixed on Marisol, and there was something familiar about her voice, something Marisol couldn’t quite place. She took one, the pastry still warm and raspberry jam oozed when she bit into it.

  “Saden is an unusual name,” Marisol said, holding a hand under the tart to capture the crumbs.

  She laughed, the sound high and light. “Some might say Marisol is a strange name,” she said. “I had another name once.”

  “What was it?” Marisol asked.

  Saden smiled. “That’s a story for another time, dear,” she said and placed a hand over Marisol’s. Her hands were cold and Marisol supressed a shiver. That would be rude.

 There was a knock at the door and the woman’s benevolent expression was replaced with a scowl, just for a second. She sounds like Mom, Marisol realised and then Saden was at the door, opening it.

  “You!” She heard Mom’s voice, low and hate falling from her tongue like acid. There was something else in her voice too, a tremor, something like fear.

  “Now, Salbatora,” Saden said. “Is that any way to speak to your mother?”

 

It’s at this point that Emma’s eyes give up on staying open and she falls asleep with the lamp still on and the pages of the manuscript still open. She wakes with her face stuck to the pages and Henry butting his head against her stomach. “Emma,” he whines as he nudges her. “Wake up time.”

 

“Get in, bud,” she says, pulling back the covers and Henry snuggles into her side, little feet kicking at her. He’s incapable of remaining still it seems.

 

“Can we call Momma?” he asks and Emma grabs her phone. It’s 6.30. Regina’s going to kill them but she still dials, putting the phone on speaker and lying back against the pillows, struggling to stay awake in spite of Henry’s incessant wriggling.

 

“Hello?” Regina says, voice hoarse and groggy with sleep.

 

“Momma!” Henry shouts. “It’s me an’ Emma!”

 

He looks over at Emma to add to the conversation and so she sits up properly, running a hand through the mess of hair falling down her back, and says, “hey, Regina. It was the kid’s idea.”

 

“Hello, darlings,” Regina says. “Were you good for Emma last night?”

 

“Really good,” he says. “Ice cream good I think,” he says with a sly look over at Emma who rolls her eyes at him.

 

“Surely it’s too cold for ice cream, buddy,” she says and Henry shakes his head emphatically.

 

“And was Emma good?” Regina asks, the beginnings of a laugh in her voice.

 

“Really naughty,” Emma says and there’s a spluttering cough from down the phone line.

 

Henry tells his mother about his plans for the day while Emma wakes up properly. “Sweetheart, can you put Emma on the phone?”

 

“Cartoons?” Henry asks hopefully and Emma nods.

 

“I’ll be down soon and we’ll make breakfast.” She holds the phone to her ear. “I really am sorry,” she says. “How are you?”

 

“Naughty, huh?” Regina asks and Emma can hear a purr in her voice that warms her from her toes to the roots of her hair. She settles back against the pillows on Regina’s ridiculously comfortable bed.

 

“Very,” Emma says and she can’t help but smile even though she knows Regina can’t see it. “I stayed up late reading and didn’t protest at all when Henry suggested we call you.”

 

“I’ll punish you on my return,” Regina says and Emma laughs.

 

“That is such a cliché,” she says. “I would’ve thought better of you, Ms Incredibly Successful Children’s Author. Are you doing okay?”

 

“I miss him,” Regina says. “I know I’ll be busy all of today, but I haven’t spent a full night away from him ever.”

 

“He’s fine,” Emma says. There’s a faint thump from downstairs. “He is also possibly trying to make himself breakfast.”

 

“Go,” Regina says, more amused than anything. It’s only after hanging up that Emma realises she forgot to thank Regina for the manuscript, for the trust and faith that it symbolises.

 

Later, after clearing up spilled shredded wheat and making a much more satisfactory breakfast of scrambled eggs and bacon, they go to the park. Emma sent Mulan a text over breakfast and she’s pleased to see her sitting on a bench next to the playground, two takeaway cups on the ground beside her. Henry immediately runs over to the castle, clambering up the steps of the wooden structure. Emma’s not totally sure of the protocols – should she stay with him while he plays? Will he want her to? – but he pretty much immediately finds a girl his age to play with on the wooden castle and is content to wave over at Emma occasionally.

 

Mulan hands her the coffee and they sit in silence for a time before Emma says, “you want this, don’t you?” She’s been watching Mulan, who is focused in on a group of little kids running around a tree.

 

Mulan’s drinking tea because, as she told Emma last time they had coffee, “my body is a temple,” which made Emma snigger because Mulan’s also one of the biggest drinkers Emma knows. She’s silent for a moment, watching Henry play. “Yeah,” she says and there’s something akin to longing in her tone and Emma, who’s the expert in longing, recognises a soulmate. “Can you keep a secret?”

 

Emma nods. “I think so.”

 

“I might be pregnant,” she says. It comes out in a rush, her cheeks flushed with cold and excitement, and she tugs at her scarf, winding it tighter around her neck. “I mean, just a couple of weeks so it could come to nothing, but we’re trying.”

 

“You’re trying?” Emma asks.

 

“Rory’s got this friend,” she says. “Actually, a second cousin I think. They’ve been best friends since kindergarten. He’s donated sperm. It’s a very sexy process.” She barks out a laugh and then adds, “God, Emma, I want this so much.”

 

Emma nudges her side, resting her head briefly on her shoulder. “Happy for you,” she says and Mulan, who Emma associates with quick grins and terse laughter, actually beams like she never plans to stop smiling ever again.

 

“My parents are not going to be ecstatic,” Mulan says. “’At least she can’t get pregnant out of wedlock’, Ma keeps saying when she sighs about me being queer as hell. They’ll like that I’m carrying it though because the baby’ll be Chinese.” Emma laughs and looks back at Henry who comes running over.

 

“Henry,” Emma says. “This is my friend, Mulan.” Mulan’s lips quirk upwards and she waves. Henry’s eyes get very large and wide and he buries his face in Emma’s leg. “What’s up, buddy?” Emma asks, lifting him onto her lap where his face immediately retreats to her shoulder.

 

He lifts his head long enough to stare at Mulan in awe and whisper, “like in the movie?”

 

Emma grins. “I am so happy I cannot even tell you,” she says as Mulan rolls her eyes.

 

“Shut up, Emma,” she says.

 

“But when will your reflection show who you are inside?” Emma asks and Mulan punches her in the shoulder.

 

“Stop being mean to Mulan, Emma,” Henry says, little voice stern. “She could kill you real easy with a sword.”

 

“I like you, Henry,” Mulan says, holding up her hand for a high five, which, after some hesitation, Henry slaps. “Catch you later, Emma.” She throws her take away cup in the nearby trashcan and walks off in the direction of her apartment. Henry’s started shivering now that he’s not running around and Emma’s not warm either, so she sets him down on the path and they walk back to Regina’s, hand in hand.

 

Emma draws from her limited repertoire of cooking and makes them grilled cheeses for lunch. Henry dictates their afternoon, pulling out all the games he owns so she moves from Memory to Hungry Hungry Hippos to Guess Who, the whole time selfishly wanting to finish the book. But Henry doesn’t tire and then there’s pizza to order and a movie to watch and Henry insists all the lights go off and that Emma sings along with all the songs in ‘Mulan’ and acts out ‘I’ll Make A Man Out of You’ with him, Emma snap-chatting videos of Henry to Mulan throughout. And she loves it, she really does, but the fucking manuscript is sitting there, taunting her.

 

Henry falls asleep in the final act of ‘Mulan’ and doesn’t wake when Emma lifts him up and carries him to bed, just wraps his arms around her neck and nuzzles into her chest. She’s struck by an inexpressible fondness for the boy, by this desire for him to be hers. It’ll pass. She’s not especially maternal but she’s rather relishing the babysitter/cool aunt role she thinks she might be starting to fill in Henry’s life.

 

She kisses his forehead softly before going downstairs, brewing a large coffee, grabbing a couple of the secret chocolates Regina informed her of in her lengthy note about babysitting, and settling into read.

 

The story is every bit as fantastic and creepy as the first four books. Sal’s mother turns up in Storybrooke and Marisol discovers that she’s the masked Queen of Hearts she tricked in book two. Marisol has to watch as her mother struggles not to fall under the sway of Saden, who moves into the house.

 

“Take her,” Mom said, handing Gin Marisol’s suitcase from the trunk of her car. They had talked about this on the way and Marisol understood, though she didn’t approve exactly. “She can’t be here. My mother…”

  Gin nodded and she watched as Gin’s fingers stroked the back of Mom’s hand before taking the suitcase from her in a gesture that spoke to Marisol of how far they’d come over the past two years. “Come with us,” Gin said.

  “I can’t,” Mom said. “I need to know what she’s planning and I need Marisol safe to do that. I trust you.” The last bit was spoken with some reluctance, words forced out like Mom couldn’t believe she was actually saying them.

  Gin frowned, harsh lines appearing at the sides of her mouth. “Come on, Mar,” she said and her voice shook.

  Marisol threw her arms around Mom, suddenly aware that she was almost her height. She was so small, so delicate. “I love you,” she muttered into Mom’s hair and she thought she heard her choke out a sob but when they broke apart her eyes were dry and her face a mask. She touched a hand to Marisol’s cheek, the imprint of her fingers burning into Marisol’s skin, and looked as though she might say something, but shook her head and turned on her heel, returning to her car.

 

Emma feels apprehension in the pit of her stomach. She unwraps another chocolate as she continues to read, leaving a mint chocolate thumb print on the manuscript. Her anxiety only deepens when Saden’s plan is revealed, to kill Cressida and steal her power.

 

“She needs her heart back,” Bianca said, thrusting the box at Mom and she took it, eyes widening with what Marisol thought might be hope.

 

Saden’s death – theheart cursed by both Cressida and Bianca – sends Sal snarling at Bianca and it’s only Marisol stepping in front of her that stops Sal from killing Snow White once and for all, instead collapsing in Cressida’s book shop and sobbing. But it feels like a triumphant end and Emma’s uneasy about the fact that there’s still a chunk of text left.

 

And then it happens.

 

Marisol woke in her own bed the next morning. Mom was safe, if angry and devastated, Saden defeated. She leapt out of bed, ready to go downstairs and make Mom breakfast because her scrambled eggs always made Mom feel better (Mom said it was the paprika she put in the eggs though she suspected that it was really just the fact that it was Marisol making them) but, on pulling the curtains, stopped. Something was wrong.

  Purple smoke on the horizon.

  Mom wasn’t in her bedroom, the bed undisturbed. She hadn’t slept in there that night. Marisol tore downstairs, finding her on the sofa, tear tracks sticky down her face and several missing vases and ornaments a testament to Mom’s rage after she thought Marisol had gone to bed. Marisol had heard the yelling, the swearing in Spanish, and the sound of glass breaking against surfaces from her bedroom. Gin was curled up on the window seat, knees tucked in at her chest. She hadn’t left them since Saden’s death. “I’m taking care of you guys,” she’d said and, when Mom had sneered at her, she’d just boiled water for tea and ordered pizza.

  “Mom,” Marisol said and then more urgently when her mother didn’t stir, “Mom!”

  Mom rolled over, eyes blinking open. “What is it, mija?” she asked, voice hoarse and scratchy as though she had a cold.

  “There’s something happening,” Marisol said. “Purple smoke.” Gin sat up, groaning and stretching her back, which cracked loudly.

  Mom stood, legs shaking, and Gin rushed to support her when it looked like she might fall. “What is it?” Gin asked, helping Mom to the window.

  “A curse,” Mom said and she closed her eyes, breathing in deeply as if gathering all her strength. The phone rang and Mom answered, barking a greeting and then listening carefully. “Cressida tells me my mother set a failsafe,” she said when she hung up. “Should she die, Storybrooke would be destroyed along with all its inhabitants.” She sighed. “I think I know the curse.”

  “Can you stop it?” Gin asked.

  “Perhaps,” Mom said. “Or at least I might be able to mitigate its effects.” She looked over at Marisol. “Can you call your… grandparents and ask them to tell the townspeople not to panic?” Marisol nodded and complied. On her return, Mom had dressed, pulling a grey coat over slacks and a loose sweater, and Gin was pulling her leather jacket on over her usual tank top and jeans. Marisol grabbed her coat and followed them to Gin’s truck.

  It was silent in the cab of the truck; Mom clutched her hands together so tightly her brown skin was white and bloodless at the knuckles. Gin drove erratically, missing a stop sign and speeding. “What’s wrong?” Marisol said because this was more than just stopping a curse. Her mothers were falling apart.

  “Just the end of our world as we know it,” Mom said. Gin laughed, a harsh, stuttering sound.

  They stood at the town line – the line where over a year ago Mom had pushed Captain Hook over the line to save Gin and he’d lost his memories – and Mom pulled out a scroll, muttering as she stalked down the spray-painted line. Gin wrapped an arm around Marisol’s shoulder while Mom worked. Mom’s whole body was tense, her breathing sharp and eyes glowing purple with magic.

  At that point, Mom threw a fireball at a nearby tree. “Mom?”

  “I can’t–” she said, exhaustion setting in. She slumped to the ground and Marisol ran forward, kneeling beside her mother and wrapping an arm around her shoulders.

  “So what?” Gin asked. “We all die?”

  “No,” Mom said heavily. “I can change the curse. Storybrooke will disappear. We’ll be sent back to where we came from.”

  Marisol frowned. “But what about me?” she asked. “I’m not from there.”

  Mom rested her head against Marisol’s. “I know,” she said. “Virginia, could you come here, please?” Gin held out her hands and hauled both of them up, Mom swaying from the energy she’d expended.

  “I need you to take Marisol over the line,” she said. “It’s the only way.”

  “No,” Gin said. She staggered backwards. “I’m not a mom.”

  “But you will be,” Mom said and she was smiling through her tears. “When you cross that line, you and Marisol will be a family. You’ll have never given her up. You’ll have always been together. We – the rest of the town – will go back to being stories again and you’ll have your happy ever after.”

  “Come with us,” Gin said. She was crying. “Let us give you a happy ending.”

  “I can’t,” Mom said. “If I cross the line I leave the whole town to their deaths. I have to play the hero – even if I’m not one.” Her lips twisted into a sneer. Marisol stood between them, Mom’s arm around her shoulder, fingers gripping so hard they hurt, and yet she didn’t want her to let go.

  “This isn’t a happy ending,” Gin said.

  “But I can give you one,” Mom said. “Good memories, a good life for you… and Marisol.”

  “But it won’t be real,” Marisol said. “I don’t want a good life without you in it, Mom.”

  Mom smiled at her. “The past might not be real but the future will be,” she said and her fingers traced the curve of Marisol’s jaw, and she arched into the touch because she didn’t want to forget, not ever.

 “But she’s not my daughter,” Gin said. “She’s yours. She’s ours.”

  “We don’t have time for this, Virginia,” Mom snapped. “Get in the damned truck.”

  Gin grabbed her keys from her pocket. Marisol hugged Mom. “Te quiero, Mami,” she whispered into Mom’s hair, using the childhood name for her mother that she’d dropped when she’d started kindergarten and realised no one else called their mothers ‘Mami’. “I won’t forget you.”

“Oh, mija,” Mom said and then she was crying too much to speak at all.

Marisol got into the cab of the truck and Gin started the motor. Then, she stopped and leapt from the cab. “Since I won’t remember,” she said and she pulled Sal towards her and kissed her. “I love you, Salbatora Mendez,” she said as Mom stood stunned, touching her lips.

Gin got back into the truck and drove and, as the purple mist engulfed the town, Marisol’s tears dried until she could scarcely remember why she had been crying. She looked over at her ma and was surprised to see tear tracks down her cheeks. “So, home, Ma?”  

“Home,” Ma said, rubbing a hand through Marisol’s curls.

 

Epilogue

 

Marisol woke late on Sunday morning with the pleasing realisation that it was her birthday. Thirteen. Finally she was a teenager. She could smell eggs frying through the open door of her bedroom and could hear Ma sing along to the radio. She crawled out of bed, hardwood floors cold against her feet.

“Happy Birthday, kiddo. Good sleep?” Ma asked as Marisol entered the open plan living space, pulling one of Ma’s old hoodies on over her pyjamas. Ma was still in her pyjamas, though she’d brushed her hair and pulled it neatly back into a ponytail.

“Great,” Marisol said, sneaking a slice of ciabatta from a plate. “How was your date?”

“A bust,” Ma said. “She wasn’t… right.” Ma was dating again. She went through stages and every time she seemed to be looking for someone who didn’t exist.

“I only met her once,” Ma had said. “The woman. You were two. I was working in a diner, barely making ends meet, and this woman came in. Beautiful, with these dark eyes and lips...” She’d sighed as Marisol had made gagging noises. “We got to talking and I told her about you. She seemed tickled by you. Showed her a couple of pictures too. A week later this apartment went on the market really cheap and I got it, and I was headhunted by Jack, said some ‘super hot Latina lady’ came into his offices and said he’d be a fool not to hire me.” Jack was her boss at the bounty hunting firm where she worked.

Marisol figured Ma was looking for that woman still and until she found her no one else would ever measure up. She’d just taken a bite of eggs on toast when the doorbell rang. Rather hoping it might be Elise from down the hall, Marisol answered.

A woman stood there and there was something familiar about her, something in those dark eyes that made Marisol’s heart pound and her eyes well up without knowing why. “Can I help you?” she asked.

The woman made a choking sound and tears started to stream down her cheeks. She reached out a hand as though to touch her and Marisol flinched back. “Ma,” she bellowed.

Ma made it to the door and gasped. “You!” she said.

 

It is past one and Emma’s crying and when she licks her lips she tastes salt. Before she heads upstairs to bed and attempts to get a few hours’ sleep before Henry wakes her, Emma sends Regina a text message, knowing she won’t get it until morning.

 

You beautiful, wonderful idiot. I can’t believe you did that.

Chapter Text

Marisol’s eyes flickered open, the press of lips still warm on her forehead, though she didn’t know whose lips. As her vision cleared, she saw Mom and then Gin, on either side of her hospital bed, their figures a blur. Wires protruded from her chest and the green hospital gown scratched against her skin.

“I was gone,” she said, her voice croaky. “Was I dead?”

“Sleeping,” Gin said and she was crying, mouth down-turned and chin trembling.

As her vision improved she looked across the hospital room, sitting up on her elbows in the bed. The nurse looked shaken and was staring at Mom with something akin to loathing. No one had ever looked at Mom like that before – fear, yes, respect, sometimes – but never hatred, and the look in the nurse’s eyes terrified her. “Is the curse broken?”

Mom let out a shattered sob. “Yes,” she said.

“How?” Marisol asked.

“Your mom…” Gin said.

Mom kissed her. Mom’s kiss woke her. Mom was Marisol’s true love.

“Marisol,” Mom said. “Mi corazón. I’m so sorry.” She turned to Gin. “Take care of her, Virginia.” And she fled, bursting out the doors of the hospital room, past the doctor walking in to check on Marisol. And, as Gin’s hand clasped her shoulder, Marisol felt like her heart might break in two.

-- ‘The Queen and the Saviour’ by R. C. Mills

 

It’s all Emma can do to make Henry cereal for breakfast the next morning, splashing milk over the side of the bowl of shredded wheat and pouring him orange juice when he asks for apple juice. He looks at her as she butters toast for herself, screwing up his face. “You’re weird today, Emma.”

 

“Just tired, buddy,” she says and pours herself a coffee, grimacing when she takes a sip because she’s only now realised that she poured coffee in the machine twice and it’s far too strong. She’s exhausted, it’s true, but she’s had nights with less sleep in the past. Instead, her distraction is because she is preoccupied by thoughts of Gin and Sal, preoccupied by thoughts of that ending. She’s simultaneously dying to talk with Regina and dreading it. Regina hasn’t yet responded to her text, probably because it’s just gone seven and she’s not awake yet.

 

“Let’s call Momma,” Henry says when he’s finished eating. He’s been watching Emma hit her face with toast as she struggles to concentrate enough to eat and the expression on his face is pure Regina. She smiles over at him, grabbing her phone from the bench and dials Regina’s number, before passing it over to Henry.

 

“Hi Momma!” he says and Emma lets him chat on her phone for a while, telling Regina all about the park and how he beat Emma at ‘Guess Who’ three times and how he met the real Mulan and how Emma’s being really weird this morning. “She has jam on her face,” he says with the delight of a five-year-old who is finally not the messiest eater at the dining table. Emma wipes at her face. Henry doesn’t leave a lot of space for Regina to speak, chattering on and on. Eventually though the phone is passed to Emma. “Momma wants to speak to you,” he says and slips out his chair, the sound of ‘Dora the Explorer’ following shortly.

 

“Hi,” she says, inexplicably shy all of a sudden. Regina gave her something so important, trusted her with her manuscript, and Emma wants to be worthy of that trust. She wants to say something thoughtful and erudite about it.

 

“So you liked it?” Regina asks, a smile in her voice.

 

“You’ve destroyed me,” Emma says. “I’m dead. Henry has had to fend for himself all morning because I’m a ghost.” She’ll try for thoughtful and erudite when she sees her in person.

 

“Oh, good,” Regina says, laughter threatening to make an appearance in her voice. “He needs to learn some life skills.”

 

Emma squeezes her eyes shut, glad that Regina can’t see her be a total idiot. It’s bad enough she has to hear her. “We’ll talk about it when you’re home. I’m sure Gin and Sal kissing will have stopped consuming my very soul by then.”

 

And talk they do. Though the talking comes after Henry is put to bed, especially needy after two nights without his mother, and after Emma jumps Regina when they reach her bedroom, dragging off her blazer and trousers and kissing a trail down her body from sternum to clitoris while Regina writhes and shakes and desperately tries to keep quiet.

 

Emma pushes the strap of her bra back up her shoulder, wondering vaguely where her underwear ended up, and turns to Regina who is buttoning the shirt that never actually made it off her back (“Henry may pay us a late-night visit,” she’d said when she could speak again). She kind of wants to rip the shirt off and go another round but that can come later.

 

“How long have you known about that ending?” she asks, curling up against Regina, head settling into the curve where neck meets shoulder. Regina presses a kiss into her hair and wraps an arm around her.

 

“I wrote it last week,” she says. “It’s the ending I wanted but was too afraid to write.” She shuffles down to press a kiss to Emma’s neck and Emma shudders into the touch of her lips. “Gold hasn’t read it yet. I emailed the file to him tonight. I wanted the first reader to be someone who I hoped would love it.”

 

Emma nuzzles her head against Regina’s chest. “I did,” she says. “I really loved it. The whole thing, not just the ending.” She’s quiet for a moment, the house silent but for the rustle of sheets as Emma tries to find a more comfortable position and the faint sounds of the street. “And what happens if – when – he doesn’t approve?”

 

“I don’t know,” Regina says, her grip on Emma tightening for a moment, fingertips pressing into Emma’s skin just at the point of pain. “I just hope I’m strong enough to fight him on this.”

 

She’s seen Regina around Gold before. She becomes smaller around him, quieter, submissive. She remembers seeing him with her at her launch, back when she thought Regina Mills was a horrible person. She hadn’t liked the way he talked to her then, and she likes it less now. He may not be abusive per say, but he’s manipulative and he’s got his claws deep in her. “You don’t have to do this alone,” she says.

 

Regina presses a third kiss to her neck and it’s becoming horribly distracting, which is perhaps deliberate on Regina’s part. “I met with Tamara Drake at a party on Saturday night,” she says. “She’s made her interest in my work known.”

 

Emma trails her fingers down Regina’s arm, her touch light and sparking against her skin. “Who wouldn’t be interested in you?”

 

“Darling,” Regina says, getting out of bed and grabbing two scarves from her wardrobe. She straddles Emma, undoing the clasp of her bra and pulling it off, pressing kisses to her breasts, to the underside, around the areola, carefully avoiding Emma’s nipples, which are taut and sensitive. Her kisses move from Emma’s breasts until she’s kissing a line up one arm and then the other, holding her wrists over her head. She trails the silky fabric over her wrists and Emma whines. “Is this okay?” Regina asks.

 

She whimpers, hips thrusting, and Regina ties each of her wrists to the headboard and then it is Emma who is trying not to make noise as Regina builds her up over and over again, teasing mercilessly.

 

*

 

Emma arrives at work on Monday having had a proper breakfast before work for the first time in over a week because Regina snuck out of bed early and made her breakfast. “Returning the favour,” she had said when Emma descended the stairs, hair damp from the shower and wearing yesterday’s jeans and tee-shirt. Emma had kissed her, and Henry had made noises of disgust into his cereal though he’d grinned at her when she entered the kitchen, obviously pleased to see her for the third morning in a row.

 

The Rabbit Hole is quiet, an opportunity for Ruby to run through the special orders book and make sure everything has been actioned and for Emma to start organising the book launch they’re hosting in a fortnight. Since Regina’s launch all those months ago, word has started to get around. This will only be their second, but there’s a line-up of five or six after that – a couple of picture books and the rest YA.

 

Ruby and Lacey leave her alone to take a long lunch break together. “It’s been the week from hell,” Ruby whispers to her when Lacey goes to grab her wallet. “Lace’s dad has been staying, making passive aggressive comments about everything in our lives.”

 

“I’m sorry,” Emma says. She’s setting up a facebook event and on hold with the printers to see where the physical invites they ordered are at, phone tucked behind her ear and typing furiously.

 

“Don’t be,” Ruby says, and she grins. “She was such a grouch all week and now she’s feeling really guilty about it.”

 

Lacey re-appears. “You ready?” she asks, arm circling Ruby’s waist and kissing her cheek. Ruby looks at her as if to say ‘told you so’. “Emma, you’ll be okay alone?”

 

Emma nods, waving a hand at them even as the hold music is making her slowly go mad. “Go. Have lunch. Be gross and adorable.”

 

Lacey rolls her eyes. “Don’t break my bookshop,” she says and then it’s Emma’s turn for an eye roll.

 

When she’s managed to get the invitations sorted (they’ll be delivered by close of business, the man on the phone tells her and she wishes she could believe him) she grabs the feather duster because the bookshop is basically empty and the dust is getting extreme in the classics section. No wonder no one’s buying ‘Treasure Island’ or ‘Little Women’ when it looks like they haven’t been touched since their publication hundreds of years ago. It’s just gone one when Henry comes running in, stumbling at the bottom step and launching forward, barely managing to steady himself instead of face planting into the carpet. “Emma!” he yells.

 

“Hey!” she says, lifting him up with a loud ‘oof’. “Remember, inside voices in the bookshop. Where’s your mom?”

 

“She’s coming,” Henry says, wrapping an arm around her and pointing at the picture books. She flicks the duster over his cheeks and he squeals and squirms. She almost drops him after.

 

Regina enters when Emma has him settled in a little stool with a pile of their latest picture books. “Hey,” Regina says, kissing her. “Quiet day?” She’s on edge, Emma can tell; the styled hair and strong makeup, her tense shoulders and the purse in her lips all too harsh for someone who’s spending the day with her son.

 

“Pretty dead,” Emma says. “Lacey and Ruby are out for lunch. How are you?”

 

“Good,” Regina says, though her nod is jerky and it’s not difficult to sense that this isn’t exactly the truth. “I haven’t heard from him yet.”

 

“Whatever happens, happens,” Emma says, and bumps Regina with her shoulder. “He doesn’t control Marisol. You do.”

 

“I know,” she says and for a moment she just leans into Emma and Emma can smell coffee and Regina’s perfume, sweet and warm. “This is part three of my Mom and Son day with Henry – his decision and he should really be at kindergarten – and I should really get back to him.”

 

Emma watches them as she restocks the shelves with copies of Rick Riordan’s books, Regina holding him on her lap as she reads to him. She’s speaking too softly for Emma to hear but one of her hands strokes his dark hair. Ruby and Lacey rush through the doors about ten minutes after they’d promised to be back, Ruby finishing the last bites of a burrito, licking mayonnaise from her fingers. “Nice, relaxed lunch, then?” Emma says, raising an eyebrow.

 

Lacey’s face flushes red and she disappears out back. Ruby grins, throwing the burrito wrapper in the trashcan under the counter. “Excellent lunch,” she says, licking her lips and grinning. “Any problems here?”

 

After an afternoon mostly spent gossiping with Ruby between customers, she goes home that night to find Mary Margaret in a state. “I have a date!” she says when Emma walks through the loft doors. She’s only wearing a slip, lace-edged, and her hair still wet from the shower.

 

“Hi,” Emma says, dropping her bag by the steps up to her room. “Nice to see you too.”

 

“Hi,” she says and pulls another dress from her wardrobe. “I have a date. A real actual proper date.”

 

“With the builder?” Emma asks, dumping her bag and heading over to Mary Margaret’s corner of the loft. She paws through the vast quantity of dresses in varying pastel and floral prints, and finds one in pale blue with a red belt. “This one.”

 

Mary Margaret looks at it for a moment, takes two deep breaths and smiles. “Thank you!”

 

“Anytime,” Emma says, sitting on her bed and unzipping her boots. “So, a date?”

 

“His name’s David,” she says, stepping into the dress and pulling the thick straps over her shoulders. “He’s beautiful. I’m going to marry him.”

 

“Steady on,” Emma says. “You haven’t even been on a date.”

 

“Sometimes you just know,” Mary Margaret says, looking at herself in the full-length mirror and scowling at her hair, which is in need of a cut. She bemoans the pixie cut about once a month when it’s grown out enough to flick up and curl at the back. “Don’t you know with Regina?”

 

Emma’s silent for a moment because Regina certainly wasn’t as immediate as Mary Margaret at David seem to be, nothing as easy or safe, though perhaps things that aren’t easy are less worth the struggle. “Yeah,” she says. “I think I do.”

 

Mary Margaret’s dress is still unzipped, the fabric gaping and belt hanging loose around her waist, when she sits beside Emma and nuzzles against her shoulder. “Good weekend then?”

 

“Yeah,” she says and she smiles at the memory. “The best.”

 

There’s a knock at the door and Mary Margaret curses. “I haven’t done my hair.”

 

“Go,” Emma says. “I’ll answer.” She pads over to the door, opening it and finding Mary Margaret’s Prince Charming there. “You must be David,” Emma says, gesturing him inside. “She’s not ready yet.”

 

David holds out a hand. He’s handsome, closely cropped blond hair and a really rather beautiful jawline. Emma takes his hand, impressed by his strong shake. “I think I’m early,” he says. “Bit over-eager. You’re Emma, right? Mary Margaret talks about you all the time.”

 

“Those must be some romantic conversations,” Emma says, rolling her eyes, and David laughs. Emma decides she likes him. Mary Margaret emerges from the bathroom at that point, pretty and demure and cheeks pink.

 

“Be good,” Emma says, feigning strictness.

 

“I’ll have her back by ten, sir,” David says. Yeah, Emma definitely likes him.

 

She spends the rest of the night on the couch, watching ‘Gilmore Girls’ re-runs and texting Regina. She calls at nine. “Mom and Son day is officially over,” Regina says. “I’m exhausted.”

 

“Any word?”

 

“No,” she says. “Henry won’t stop talking about how much fun you two had. I’m glad.”

 

“Cute,” Emma replies. “Tell him I had heaps of fun too.”

 

She falls asleep with Regina still on the line, having explained to her the entire plot of seven seasons of ‘Gilmore Girls’ and talked nonsense for a couple of hours. When she wakes, the signal’s dead but there’s a text message from Regina on her dying phone. Sweet dreams.

 

The bookstore’s quiet again when she arrives in the morning and Emma goes next door to the bakery for lunch. Rory sees her come in. “Sit down!” she says. “She’s ordered.” And Emma’s heart leaps.

 

Regina’s at their back table. There are two coffees at the table and she’s not pretending to write or ignoring Emma, but sitting there, smile playing across her lips, and hands curled around her coffee. “Hi,” Emma says, sitting and taking a long drink of coffee, sighing with pleasure at the first taste of coffee.

 

“He read it,” she says and she’s smiling so it has to be good news. “I got summoned this morning. He told me I couldn’t end the novel that way, that people would never go for it, that there’d be blowback that could ruin my career. He suggested I change it to a hug, and make it clear in the narrative that Sal and Gin had become friends.”

 

“And?” Emma asks.

 

“And so I fired him,” she says and she’s actually grinning now. Everything about her seems light. “I realised I’ve got enough dirt on him to keep him quiet and maybe it won’t be so easy without him but I’m not this fresh little author with nothing behind her now. I’m R. C. Mills. I’m a fucking literary powerhouse.”

 

Emma laughs. “Yeah you are.” She reaches out across the table, taking Regina’s hand. “’Have you called Tamara Drake?”

 

“Later,” she says. “I want to celebrate. I’m free, Emma. He has no hold over me.”

 

Emma stands, leaning across the table and pulls Regina into a kiss, hard and fierce and proud. “I’m so happy for you,” she says, when they part.

 

Regina smiles and her hand caresses Emma’s cheek. “Darling,” she says and Emma feels happiness well up inside of her, her heart pounding and her smile stretched so hard her cheeks hurt.

Chapter Text

An extract from ‘The Valentine’s Day Mix-up’, a short story by R. C. Mills, written for an anthology of stories by your favourite children’s and young adult writers being sold to raise money for heart disease research. Coming to you, Valentine’s Day, 2015!

Marisol woke in her own bed, in her own room for the first time in weeks, and couldn’t help the feeling of absolute contentment spreading through her body. She was home. She was with Mom. Gin was with Mom. And on Valentine’s Day because they were so hopelessly, sappily gone on each other even though Mom tried to pretend like she wasn’t.

She screwed up her nose at that final thought because she was pretty sure Gin hadn’t gone home. Marisol had stayed awake late – drinking in the pure, exquisite joy of finally being back in her own real space, on her own inner-sprung mattress and her own quilt made for her by Mom when she was two – and she hadn’t heard Gin’s truck putter off at any point. Her truck wasn’t exactly quiet. Which, like, ew.

Still, she smiled.

And then the rapping at the door began. She groaned, dragging herself out from under the covers and clomping down the stairs, pulling on a sweater as she went. “Mom, Ma,” she yelled as she went past Mom’s bedroom. “Door.” She heard Mom grumble (she so wasn’t a morning person) and then actually, literally giggle. “You’re both disgusting,” she yelled, grimacing at the idea that Gin could make Mom laugh like that, like she was a fifteen-year-old girl with her first crush.

At the front door she found Bianca, holding something wrapped in pink paper with glittery hearts on it. She wondered at the exquisite irony of Bianca getting Mom in the town-organised Amigo Secreto exchange. (They’d had an exchange in her Spanish class at school last year and Mrs Rodriguez had called it that and she’d been given homemade chocolate and a card from Ziggy Castellano, which had made her giddy for days. When she’d told Mom about it she’d told Marisol about a similar tradition of secret gift giving in her homeland to celebrate friendship and she’d laughed over getting some pompous visiting dignitary in the exchange when she was eleven and making him think that the gifts were from a pretty lady-in-waiting. It was one of the only positive stories Marisol had heard about Mom’s childhood.)

“Marisol?” Bianca said, surprise flushing her pale skin pink. “Is your mother at home?”

“Which one?” Marisol asked and looked over at the staircase, which both Mom and Gin were descending. Mom’s hair sprung up in unruly curls, not all that dissimilar to Marisol’s own hair, and Gin was fiddling with the tie of one of Mom’s dressing gowns. Marisol suspected this was to hide the fact that she wasn’t wearing any pants (Ma had only slept in a shirt and underwear during their year in New York City, which had been deeply embarrassing when Marisol’d had sleepovers).

Bianca’s blush deepened when she saw the pair of them and her jaw tightened, rosebud lips knitting into a thin line and eyes darkening from blue to black. “What are you doing here?” she asked.

 

“Look at you,” Mary Margaret says in a tone that could not be described as anything but motherly when Emma descends the steps leading to her bedroom. “Want me to do your hair?”

 

Emma nods and Mary Margaret grabs the curling iron from the bathroom, plugging it in at the kitchen counter and pulling over a straight-backed chair. She sits, relishing the feeling of her hair being brushed – and by someone who isn’t Henry (who has developed a fascination with her hair and insists on “making it pretty” very roughly). Mary Margaret coils a lock of hair around the curling iron, holds it in place. “Can you believe it’s your last week here?”

 

She goes to shake her head, before realising that’s probably not the best idea with a hot iron in her hair. “Regina probably won’t do my hair,” she says, looking around at the boxes in the living area. There aren’t all that many considering, but Emma doesn’t have a lot of stuff and it’s not like she’ll need her crappy single bed or Ikea bedside tables and kitset wardrobe at Regina’s.

 

“It’ll give you an excuse to come back here occasionally,” Mary Margaret says and sighs. “I’m going to miss you. It’s been, what, five years?”

 

Emma finds her throat closing up, tears pooling in her eyes, as she has every time Mary Margaret has reminisced about their time together over the past few weeks. Though she’d found her roommate trying (to say the least) when she’d been in her freshman year of college, Mary Margaret was family – or the closest thing Emma had had to family up until recently. “You wouldn’t want me to keep living with you and your fiancé though,” she jokes.

 

She can practically feel Mary Margaret smiling at the word. David, it seems, is even more of a soppy romantic than even Mary Margaret and proposed, like, six months into their dating with the whole hideous nine yards – the beautiful ring (his mother’s), asking for her father’s blessing (and Mary Margaret had loved that even though when Emma had told Regina she’d turned into a veritable tornado of rage over the idea) and the location (the restaurant where they had their first date). David moved into the loft shortly after, but it’s been getting old for all of them – and, for her part, Emma’s spent considerably more nights at Regina’s over the past three months than in her own bed.

 

It’s time. It’s more than time.

 

“Right,” Mary Margaret says, with a final burst of hairspray over Emma’s head. “I think I’m done.”

 

Emma stands, touching her hair lightly and feeling the loose waves bouncing back against her palm. “Thanks,” she says and impulsively wraps her arms around Mary Margaret, hugging her.

 

“Careful with your hair,” Mary Margaret says, though she clasps Emma tight to her and Emma has a sneaking suspicion that she’s getting teary-eyed. “We’ll be down later,” she adds. “Soon as David gets home.”

 

Emma throws her new red leather jacket – bought especially for this occasion – on over the rest of the “costume” she has put together for the evening and leaves. Tonight’s the midnight release of ‘Dark Heart’, the fifth book in the Marisol Mendez series, and they’re hosting a launch party of sorts at The Rabbit Hole. For once, Emma’s not been called upon to work – Lacey told her last week that her job on the night was to support Regina – though she’s done most of the prep work leading up to the event.

 

It doesn’t take her long to get to the bookstore and it’s mostly empty when she arrives, just Lacey and Ruby, dressed as Cressida when she was the Dark One and Red Riding Hood respectively, setting up and Tink fluttering around, offering irritating suggestions and almost knocking picture books from the ‘new releases’ stand with her wings. “Hey,” she says, wrapping an arm around Ruby’s shoulder. “Nice cloak.”

 

“Gin?” she asks, looking Emma up and down. “Please tell me Regina’s dressing as Sal.”

 

Emma rolls her eyes, desperately trying to contain a smile. Ruby has been vibrating with excitement over the release of book five for over a month and comes to Emma daily with her speculations. “I suspect so,” she says.

 

Ruby grins. “Excellent.” She lowers her voice. “Lacey’s really grouchy about all the gold makeup on her face. Says it itches.”

 

Emma looks over at Lacey who is glaring at a stack of cupcakes, gold glittering on her cheeks. She looks over, seeing them, and comes over, saying, “your girlfriend has a lot to answer for.”

 

“Do I?” Regina asks from behind Emma, though it doesn’t sound quite like Regina, voice deeper, richer and accented – the voice she uses for Sal when she reads her or tells Henry ‘Marisol and her Mami’ stories (always adventures because Henry gets bored otherwise). Emma turns and finds Regina, though it’s not Regina, but the Evil Queen, complete with a corset and full skirts, hair teased high and makeup dark and dramatic.

 

Lacey actually grins. “Never mind,” she says and drags a gobsmacked Ruby away with her.

 

“Oh my God,” Emma says, taking it all in. She finds herself licking her lips and Regina grins, baring her teeth, white against dark red lipstick.

 

“Hi, Emma!” Henry says, grinning at her from beside his mother and Emma takes a moment to feel guilty that she didn’t notice him, struck as she was by Regina’s appearance. She’d not been sure if Regina would actually dress at Sal. She had expressed some consternation the previous week.

 

(“I don’t look like her,” she’d said. “Marian would be much more appropriate as Sal really.”

 

“There can be more than one Sal,” Emma had replied but Regina had sniffed and told her she was missing the point.)

 

“And who are you dressed as?” Emma asks, bending down to his height.

 

“Captain Hook,” he says, brandishing the plastic hook held in his left hand, and Emma stifles a laugh.

 

“You look awesome, buddy,” she says, hugging him and feeling the hook dig into the small of her back.

 

Regina rolls her eyes over Henry’s head and when Emma stands she kisses her on the cheek, whispering, “I tried to dissuade him.”

 

“Sure you did,” Emma says. “I know you love Hook. It was all that evil Mr Gold’s fault that he was revealed to be a villain and didn’t stick around to make out with Gin some more.”

 

Regina makes a gagging sound and they watch as Henry runs over to Ruby who is his current favourite person ever because she’ll run around with him on her back like she’s a horse and always has gum for him. Emma wraps her hand in Regina’s and leans her head against her shoulder, watching Henry stab Ruby with his plastic hook and clamber onto her back when she pretends to stagger and fall in pain. “Remind me of the agenda for this evening,” she says.

 

“Well,” Emma says. “People are arriving at eight. Speeches, food, drink, you talking with the adorable children who have got tickets. The books are released at midnight and there’s a frenzy of buying while you sign. What’s happening with Henry?”

 

“Rory and Mulan said they’d take him with them if he starts flagging,” she says. “I made him nap this afternoon though so he might make it to midnight. It’s not every day your mom gets a midnight release party.” 

 

The doors open at eight and the Rabbit Hole is quickly crowded with children in costumes and the occasional important adult. There are a lot of little girls dressed as Marisol who immediately gravitate towards Regina, who is kept busy posing for photos and chatting with them. Emma watches, smiling from her vantage point by the bar, sipping on a glass of champagne.

 

“She looks happy.” Emma looks beside her and sees Marian and laughs. Marian’s dressed as Sal at the height of her mayoralty – dark curls in a severe bun and red lips held in a permanent purse. Emma’s pretty sure she’s wearing one of Regina’s own pant suits, though the ridiculously high heels have to be Marian’s own.

 

“She is,” Emma says. “This new agent… She’s amazing.” Tamara has been fantastic, though pushy as hell, forcing Regina to do more publicity – she now has a Twitter and a blog, and Tamara’s organised a four week book tour that’s due to begin in less than two weeks, during which time Emma will have sole charge of Henry, a thought that both excites and terrifies her. Work is even going into a TV series and Sara Ramirez has been signed on to play Sal, which had Emma and Mary Margaret binge-watching ‘Grey’s Anatomy’ again to flail about how beautiful Callie Torres is.

 

“Well, yes,” Marian says, grabbing a glass of wine and shifting her handbag back up and over her shoulder. “I do think you might have something to do with it.”

 

Emma laughs. “It’s going really well,” she admits.

 

“I mean, I read the dedication,” Marian says and takes a long swig of wine.

 

“The what?” Emma asks.

 

“Oh fuck,” Marian says, just a little bit too loudly for a party crowded with eleven and twelve year olds. “I said nothing.”

 

“What dedication?” Emma asks but Marian ducks through a crowd of little Marisols, grabbing another glass of champagne on the way.

 

Emma moves to follow but Mulan and Rory enter the bookshop, a bundle attached to Mulan’s chest in a purple sling, so she heads in their direction instead. She’ll get it out of Marian later. “Hey, Emma,” Mulan says, as Rory waves at someone (possibly Mary Margaret who arrived dressed as Snow White, with her very own Prince Charming in tow just after they opened) and heads away, clasping Emma’s arm for a moment.

 

“Hello, Meiling,” Emma says, rubbing a finger across the soft, black hair on the baby’s head. Meiling snuffles her nose against Mulan’s chest, cheeks pink and one hand clasped into a fist by her ear, but she doesn’t wake, even with all the noise. “You’re my favourite little girl, yes, you are.”

 

“Oh,” Mulan says. “I see how it is. Now I have a daughter you’re not interested in me.”

 

Emma nods. “It’s true,” she says, pulling Mulan into a loose hug as she does so. “How is she still asleep?”

 

“I think she’s used to noise,” Mulan says, “after nine months in my womb as I taught elementary school kids gym.” Rory returns, wrapping a hand into Mulan’s and kissing Meiling’s forehead.

 

“How’s it going?” she asks. “The kiddies ready to crash yet?”

 

Emma laughs. “I don’t think so,” she says. “They’re all far too excited for midnight. Plus, there’s your cupcakes, which are making them crazy.”

 

At that, Henry runs up, grabbing Emma’s hand. “Emma!” he says, eyes wide. “There are so many Marisols.”

 

She grins and lifts him, settling him on her hip, so he can see Meiling. He’s still a little in awe of Mulan and he’s rapidly become obsessed with Meiling, asking Emma incessantly when they can visit her again. He holds out a hand and reaches out to pat her cheek. “Careful,” Emma says, though it’s unnecessary because Henry’s almost reverent in his touch, his pudgy fingers barely grazing the velvet-soft skin of Meiling’s cheek.

 

She has this flash, this imagining of somewhere down the line. Her and Regina adopting a baby girl. Henry the doting big brother, cuddling her and holding her and playing with her. She imagines sleepless nights and colds and Regina being snappy and Emma being grumpy but them being together. It’s so far in the future it might as well be hoverboards and flying cars, but she smiles.

 

Lacey calls for attention and Emma turns, setting Henry back on the ground though clasping his hand in hers and she sees Mulan and Rory drift towards the back, closer to Mary Margaret and David. “Hi everyone,” Lacey says. “I thought we’d get the speeches out of the way so we can get back to waiting for the release of the book and play a few games while we wait.”

 

Emma feels a touch at her arm and looks to her left to find Tamara. “Hello, Emma Swan,” she whispers as Lacey invites Regina’s publisher to speak. Emma’s not listening though because beside Tamara is possibly the most attractive leviathan of a man Emma has ever seen. “This is Lance.”

 

Lance grins and raises an eyebrow at Emma, who is pretty she blushes under the force of that smile, my God. “Nice to meet you,” he says. Emma just nods, tongue feeling slippery in her mouth, and she’s glad when Lance focuses his attention on the person speaking.

 

“Hey,” Tamara whispers. “Did you hear? Gillian Anderson’s in talks to play Cressida.”

 

Emma lets out a squeak so loud Regina hears it from up the front and looks over, raising an eyebrow. “There is going to be a situation,” Emma says, voice hushed, “where unless they cast, like, an actual Greek goddess, I will want Cressida and Sal to be together.”

 

Tamara chuckles and then shushes her because Regina’s getting up to speak. Henry nuzzles his head against Emma’s leg. “Pick up, please,” he says, and she hefts him onto her shoulders so he can see his mom give a speech at her book launch party for the first time – though Emma suspects not the last. There are more ‘Marisol Mendez’ books to come, of course, and Regina’s halfway through writing book six, about which she refuses to divulge any details.

 

Henry screams, “go, Momma!” when she coughs into the microphone and now that Emma’s known her as long as she has she knows she’s nervous. Regina can’t read from the book, given the embargo, which seems to be easier for her than speeches.

 

Regina waves at him, the smile that dances across her lips utterly incongruous with the Evil Queen costume she’s created. She speaks briefly, about the importance of Marisol – a real Latina heroine. She speaks about how she never expected the series to take off, never expected that her whimsical thoughts and characters would resonate with a broader audience. She thanks Tamara for her efforts. “It’s down to Tamara Drake that a television series is in development,” she says. “And more importantly, it’s thanks to her that the casting will reflect the diversity of the series.”

 

A loud cheer echoes through the bookshop at that and Regina appears startled, eyebrows furrowing and one hand clenching into the fabric of her robe. “Thank you, of course, to all the friends and supporters who made this possible and to my darling boy, Henry, who is at his first ever book event dressed as my least favourite character.”

 

Henry lets out his own little whoop at the sound of his name, though Emma suspects he wasn’t actually listening because he’s been bobbing around on her shoulders, looking around at the crowd of people. Regina finishes and Ruby leads the children to a game of bobbing for poisoned apples. “Want me to take him bobbing?” Marian asks, coming over. “I just saw Regina disappear out the back.”

 

Emma puts Henry down and heads after Regina. She finds her, leaning against a box of her books in the semi-darkness of the stock room. “You okay?” Emma asks, shifting forward and leaning beside her.

 

“It’s all so… big,” she says. “I always forget how big this is. What if they hate it?”

 

Emma laughs. “I’ve seen at least two sets of little girls dressed as Sal and Gin, running around and holding hands. They’ll love it.”

 

“Their parents mightn’t.”

 

“No,” Emma says. It’s the truth. The books have already made ‘most challenged books’ lists since the release of ‘The Queen and the Saviour’. Sal and Gin kissing is going to do the opposite of appeasing those people. “You told the story you wanted to though, right?”

 

“Yeah,” Regina says and she turns to Emma and she’s smiling. “Yeah, I did.”

 

“Some people won’t like it. But there’ll be a whole lot of people who love it. There’ll be a whole lot of kids who see themselves, and their families in a fantasy book for the first time. That’s not nothing.”

 

Regina leans over and kisses her cheek, her breath warm against Emma’s skin. “I love you, you know,” she says and they are words that have grown so familiar to Emma over the past year, yet still make her feel safe, make her feel at home in Regina’s arms and in her heart.  They make her never want to leave and hope she’ll never have to.

 

“Love you too,” she replies, wrapping an arm around Regina’s shoulder and holding her close. “Should we get back out there? Ruby wants photos.”

 

So, hand in hand, they return to the party and Ruby takes pictures, making Emma kiss Regina for one of them, “because at least then I’ll have one ending where Virgin Saviour is an actual thing.” This is said with a glare at Regina and Emma has to bite her cheek – so sharply she tastes the iron of blood – to stop herself from spilling the truth so close to the finish line.

 

Mulan and Rory take Henry home with them when Meiling wakes, scratchy and overwhelmed by the number of people, because Henry has nodded off against Lacey of all people, seated at one of the children-sized chairs in a corner of the bookstore. Emma catches her running her fingers through Henry’s hair, though she glares when Emma raises her eyebrows and jerks her hand away. And at midnight the book is released and Regina is frantic with signing and complimenting costumes and Emma just watches how perfect she is with each little kid, even if the adults don’t get nearly the same attention.

 

At just after one they stumble back to Regina’s house, back to the place that will soon be home for them both, Emma with a copy of the book in one hand and her other hand clasped in Regina’s. When she’s lying on their bed, Regina in the bathroom, removing the heavy makeup, she finally opens her copy of the book, because Marian’s comment about a dedication has been playing in the back of her mind.

 

For Emma. Thank you for helping me be brave.

 

Regina exits the bathroom when she hears her sobbing and immediately clambers onto the bed behind Emma, still in the five-inch heels and costume, wrapping her arms around Emma’s waist and resting her head on her shoulder. “What’s wrong, querida?”

 

“Happy tears,” Emma says, taking in deep gulps of air, tasting salt on her lips as she laughs through her sobs. “You dedicated the book to me.”

 

“Of course I did,” Regina says as though this should be obvious to Emma, as if she doesn’t understand exactly what this means to Emma. And it’s this that makes Emma turn, twisting in Regina’s arms and kissing her, tasting salt and champagne, and her fingers trail down to where skin meets corset.

 

And soon there is no talking between them whatsoever.

 

*

 

Emma wakes far too early to a series of angry beeps from her phone. She sits up, pulling the sheet over her body, exposed to the frigid air of the bedroom, and looks over at Regina who is lying on her stomach, naked but for the fact that the corset she was wearing last night has become a makeshift blanket. She’s snoring lightly, air huffing from her lips at slow, regular intervals.

 

Emma’s phone beeps again and she grabs it, leaning back against the pillows as she checks the messages. They’re all from Ruby.

 

Sent 6.05am: OMG this book is amazing. Tell your gf I forgive her for lack of kissing.

 

Sent 6.15am: WTF WTF WTF WTF WHY ARE THEY GOING TO THE TOWN LINE?

 

Sent 6.16am: GIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIN

 

Sent 6.16am: SAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAL

 

Sent 6.17am: No she did not just get in the car again and drive away not after that not at all no no no

 

Sent 6.18am: OH FFS

 

Sent 6.19am: AAH! She’s back! She’s at the door!

 

Sent 6.21am: Emma, I’m going to fucking kill you when you come into work tomorrow.

 

Emma’s laughter wakes Regina who rolls over, scowling. “Sorry,” Emma says and she curls back up against her, letting Regina hold her tight, hands splaying across Emma’s stomach, and soon all she can feel is Regina’s breath on her neck and all she can hear is the snuffling snores. Before returning to sleep, she texts Ruby a brief reply.

 

VIVA LA VIRGIN SAVIOUR.