The dreams won’t leave her alone.
Every night, Regina tosses and turns in her bed and half the time she wakes up with tear tracks on her face and they never stop. Ever since her sleeping curse she’s gone to the room of fire every night without fail and felt and seen the worst things she could ever dream of happen as though they’re real.
There’s a brief reprieve when Emma starts sleeping over. When Regina wakes up, breathing hard and sweat-drenched, Emma’s always there to bring her down from her horror with whispers and soft kisses all over her face and neck, and somehow, it makes her feel okay.
Some nights she’s not alone in the room of fire. Some nights there’s a girl named Aurora there, nightgown flapping around her ankles as she cries out for help and Regina comes close to offering it. Sometimes it’s Snow huddled around herself on the ground as she silently endures the pain and Regina feels a fresh wave of guilt on top of everything. Sometimes she summons a shield around Snow and scoffs at the grateful smile thrown her way. She doesn’t tell Emma about these nights.
And sometimes it’s Henry in the flames, bottom lip trapped between his teeth and moisture in his eyes. It’s those nights that she cries the most when she wakes up, and those mornings that Henry comes in and hugs them both in Regina’s bed.
She starts going to work with thick purple bags under her eyes and too many cups of coffee to be considered even remotely healthy and she shares knowing glances laced with guilt with Snow and her ever-growing belly. Sometimes, when Emma isn’t home, Henry talks to her about the room of fire, and it never fails to make her cry.
“Why do we go there every night?” he says to her one night when Emma’s working late.
Regina sighs and clutches both his hands in her lap and revels in how much bigger they already are than hers. “Because even after a curse is broken, it always leaves something behind. And with one as powerful as a sleeping curse that residue is bound to be something big.”
“Sometimes I see Grams there. Are… are my dreams gonna last forever?”
“I don’t know, sweetheart. I just don’t know.”
Emma and Regina lie in bed a few nights later, Regina not wanting to go to bed and Emma staying up with her. “Are they really that terrible?” Emma asks quietly as she combs her fingers absent-mindedly through Regina’s hair.
“They’re worse than you could imagine.”
“Maybe you should talk about them. It might help.”
Regina shifts, snuggling closer into Emma’s arms and sighing contentedly as they tighten around her waist. “When I open my eyes I’m standing in this tiled room. It almost looks like the throne room I had as queen. And there’s fire everywhere; it burns at my skin and my clothes but when I wake up there’s no marks where there should be. And some nights there’s other people there – other people who’ve been under sleeping curses.”
“Like Snow?” Emma whispers so quietly Regina wouldn’t have been able to hear her if Emma’s mouth hadn’t been right next to her ear.
“Yes. Like Snow. And… and Henry.”
“He went under a sleeping curse when you and Snow were through the portal. He did it to find you.”
Emma’s head slumps so that her chin is resting on Regina’s shoulder. “He doesn’t deserve that.”
“No, he doesn’t.” They leave it unspoken, but Regina knows that they’re both thinking the same thing – Regina deserves it. Because she does. Considering everything she did as queen, everything she’s done as mayor, and they both know she deserves to feel the pain she’s feeling now. Which is why Emma’s next words surprise her.
“Neither do you.”
Snow cries on the day her son is born, and only Regina knows why. It takes nearly all night before Emma and her father go home with Henry in tow, leaving Regina an opportunity to speak to Snow alone. “You’re worried about the nightmares,” she says in lieu of greeting.
Snow looks up over Neal’s head and nods, not bothering to wipe away the dried tear tracks on her face. “What if I can’t raise him right because of them?”
“You’ll be a great mother, with or without nightmares.”
“How do you know?”
Regina smiles tightly. “Because you never lose faith in your happy ending.”
It’s Henry’s idea.
But it turns out it helps all of them to go to the meeting he convinces them to attend. It’s the four of them – Henry, Snow, Aurora, and Regina (only because Henry asked her to) – and Archie, all sitting in a room and talking about their feelings for an hour. Specifically, about the nightmares.
Snow and Regina adhere to a silent agreement, and neither of them talk about their interactions in the room of fire. Archie, being the paid professional in the room, is the first to speak.
“I’m glad the four of you agreed to meet. I’m fairly confident that discussing the dreams you all share will help to make them less painful.”
“I wanna know why we sometimes go to the same room but sometimes we don’t,” Henry pipes up. “I never see all four of us in the room at once.”
Regina shifts in her chair, feeling four pairs of eyes burning into her. Of course they’d expect her, the Evil Queen and expert in curses, to know the answer. And unfortunately, she does. “It has to do with your subconscious. Sometimes you reach out to different people, and sometimes to no one at all.”
“What do you mean?” Snow asks.
“It’s like… on the nights when I want someone who won’t judge me, will just leave me alone with my pain, I see Aurora. When I want someone who can share my feelings and my pain I see Snow. When I long for someone who loves me no matter what I see Henry. And on the worst nights, the nights when I feel completely alone, the nights when Emma isn’t there, I’m all alone.” She barely feels the squeeze of Snow’s hand on her knee, feels only the ghost of pressure before it’s gone.
Aurora bites her lip. “Is there any way to make the dreams stop?”
“It takes time and happiness. Lasting happiness,” she adds when Snow’s eyebrows shoot up. “All those times I took your happiness away from you, that’s why you still have them.”
“I’m not angry at you, Regina, so stop trying to make me be.”
“Why aren’t you? You certainly deserve to be. I deserve you to be.”
“I know you think that, but everyone deserves a happy ending. Even you. Especially you. After everything you’ve been through, Regina, you deserve a happy ending more than anyone I know.”
The room is silent as Snow and Regina have a miniature staring contest, before Regina abruptly stands up with her purse in hand. “Excuse me,” she mutters, and leaves without another word. She goes back to the room of fire that night, only no one’s there to ease her mind.
She’s all alone.
After about a month of meeting with Archie twice a week, Aurora announces something. “I didn’t have any nightmares last night,” she says with a grin. “The fire hasn’t been hurting as bad ever since I started going with Mulan, and last night I didn’t go to the room at all. I just had pleasant dreams.”
“That’s wonderful, Aurora,” Archie says with a grin.
Aurora stops coming to meetings.
Henry’s dreams stop soon after that, right around the time Emma moves into the house and they begin operating as a family unit. But he still comes with Regina to the meetings every week, squeezes her hand through the parts hard to talk about and smiles encouragingly when she says something outside her comfort zone.
It’s just her and Snow in the flames now, all understanding smiles and sharing magical shields but never really talking. Sometimes Snow asks about Emma during the day, and sometimes Regina asks Snow. Sometimes Regina comes to the apartment and they don’t talk at all; just sit there in each other’s company without flames licking at them and the entire room around them.
It’s almost a year when Snow comes to their meeting with a smile on her face.
“I didn’t go to the room of fire last night,” she says with a grin, and Regina can’t help but notice that Snow avoids her gaze when she says it. Almost as though she thinks she’s betraying Regina by escaping the nightmares brought on by the curse Regina herself cast upon her.
For some reason, Regina’s nightmares don’t go away. Every night she goes to the room, feels the flames create burns all over her skin, but now there’s no one there to share her misery. She’s all alone until the moment she wakes up in Emma’s arms and everything fades away into bliss as thin pink lips pepper kisses where just moments before there was harsh fire.
“I love you,” she tells Emma one morning, still in a daze until her own words jolt her fully awake and she’s terrified at the silence that must mean she just made a huge mistake.
But then she hears, “I love you too,” and everything’s suddenly okay.
One morning shortly after Henry’s fifteenth birthday Regina wakes up with a ring on her finger. She glances in confusion at Emma, who just smiles and kisses her forehead. “You don’t have to keep it. But if you do, fair warning, you’re gonna have to marry me.”
“Of course I’ll marry you, you idiot.” And then they’re kissing and Regina forgets about fire and white tiles scattered with soot; forgets about everything but soft pink lips on hers and whether Emma will wear a dress or pants.
She doesn’t go to the room of fire that night.
She wakes up peacefully, tucked into Emma’s arms, and Emma’s still asleep next to her and she thinks for one moment that everything might turn out okay after all. She doesn’t dream about the tiled room that’s somehow on fire for a long time after that, and the meetings cease completely.
They come back on the night before her wedding day.
She wakes up the morning of the wedding gasping for breath and sweat-slick, still feeling the ghosts of burns on her arms and face. She thinks back, trying to figure out why she went back after so long, and slowly, the pieces fall into place. She had a bad day yesterday, felt alone and doubting her happy ending would ever come. She felt like she did every day before Emma.
After they get married Regina has pleasant dreams almost every night. There are a few mornings when she wakes up from a flame-filled nightmare, and those are the mornings that Emma goes into the station late so she can stay with her and make her feel okay. The dreams never stop completely, not even when she’s well into retirement, and many years after Snow stops coming to the meetings she finds out that Snow’s haven’t either.
And once every decade or so, Regina and Snow again meet in the room of fire, sharing a smile and nod and sitting in silence as they endure the flames together. Sometimes Snow squeezes Regina’s hand, and sometimes Regina erects a shield around Snow to protect her from the flames. And sometimes, when she sees Snow the next day and they each nod in a silent understanding, she’s glad she didn’t kill her all those times she had the chance.
Sometimes she’s glad she put herself under that sleeping curse, because without it, Emma and Henry might still be in New York, still have no idea who she is. Sometimes she thinks everything she did was leading up to this, to her happy ending, and sometimes she’s glad of that.
Sometimes she’s glad Emma isn’t her True Love. Because sometimes, she thinks about her life, thinks about how everything she’s ever done was chosen for her by someone else, and sometimes she’s glad that Emma was never meant to be her destiny. Sometimes she’s glad she chose Emma herself.
And she’s glad Emma chose her back.