The first she'd said it, she hadn't meant it.
Neal had been pursuing Emma since their return from Neverland, constantly 'finding' her- coincidently of course- and always having something to offer her: whether that was a flower, a dinner invitation or even just a compliment. Emma was sick of his neediness and his persistence, especially since she was now officially with Regina. Neal didn't believe that this was even possible.
The two women were sat in the diner, sharing a milkshake, and giggling about Henry's disastrous attempts at making breakfast.
"I mean, I know you're the worst cook in the world, but I raised him for ten years! You think he'd at least know when the pan was too hot!" Regina exclaimed, making Emma laugh more.
"Hey, I'm hardly the worst!" she tried to redeem herself, but the look Regina gave her told her it was pointless trying to convince her otherwise. Emma leant forward, to promise she would prove her skills in the kitchen when they got home, only to be interrupted by the diner door banging open and a bunch of flowers being shoved in-between their faces.
"What the hell?" Emma exclaimed, pulling her face out of the mess of a bouquet and looked to see who had interrupted her private moment. Her face hardened and she leaned back in her chair to glare at the man. "Neal," she sighed. "What?"
He grinned awkwardly and dropped the flowers on the table, ignoring Regina. "Nothing, came to say 'morning' and ask if you considered my dinner offer..." he tailed off, not wanting to go into detail in front of Regina.
Emma rolled her eyes and glanced at her girlfriend, who was watching the scene with interest, before Emma stood and took Neal's arm.
She led him over to the other side of the diner, where Regina could see if things got bad but, hopefully, wouldn't hear if Neal insulted her. "Look Neal, we're not going to happen. This-" she waved her hand between the two of them. "This will never happen. I don't love you and I don't want to be with you." Sure, she was being harsh, but she'd told him several times that she didn't want to be involved with him. He could see Henry, but that didn't mean they had to get married.
Neal stepped towards her and grabbed her elbow. Even from being at the other side of the diner, Regina could see Emma panicked. She knew the woman hated to be touched suddenly, it brought back bad memories.
"Emma come on, you're not really with her are you? You're just keeping Henry happy, I know and that's good of you-" Neal was stopped when Regina's hand yanked his off Emma's elbow. Regina wrapped her arm possessively around Emma's waist and Emma automatically rested her head on Regina's shoulder, letting out a breath she didn't realise she was holding.
"Mr. Cassidy I believe Emma told you she wasn't interested," Regina spat at the man. "And if you insist on pursuing the woman I love I'm afraid I'm going to have to get a restraining order, which as Mayor, it's an easy job." She threatened. Neal swallowed and looked at the two women.
Regina was glaring at him, her eyes full of venom but Emma was staring up at her, her eyes wide. Their grip on each other was tight, and Neal knew there was no way of getting through to Emma now. He just nodded.
"Sorry," he muttered before shoving between the two of them and storming out. Their little confrontation had earned them a small crowd, but when Neal departed, the customers went back to their lunch.
"You love me?" Emma whispered, her voice full of shock.
Regina bit her lip and slowly shook her head. "Well, no-" Emma closed her eyes, pulling away from her. Regina panicked. She didn't not love her, she just wasn't 'I-want-to-wake-up-next-to-your-stupid-face-for-the-rest-of-my-life-' in love with her. She thought. "I love you," she blurted out as Emma stared to walk away.
"But you just said-"
"I think," she finished quietly. The people in the diner were staring to stare again, so Regina grabbed Emma's arm and pulled her into the back room.
"I don't... I don't not love you," she said, holding the blonde's hands. "I just... it got Neal away, and hopefully for good. I know that I can't really imagine being away from you but love is just..." she tailed off, looking sheepishly up at Emma.
The blonde smiled softly, cupping her cheek and kissing her. "Hard?" Regina nodded, resting her forehead against Emma's. "I get that, I just freaked, I guess, when you said you did- and then you didn't and-" Regina stopped her by squeezing her hand.
Emma laughed, kissing her cheek. "Sorry, nervous rambler." Regina nodded.
"I know, idiot," she bit her lip, glancing up at her. Emma rolled her eyes, wrapping her arm around her waist.
"Come on, let's get out of here. It's about time to get Henry anyway."
The couple left the room, ignoring the blatant stares they got, and leaving their payment at their table. Emma grabbed the flowers Neal had shoved at her and threw them into the trash, smiling at Regina.
The brunette held out her hand to the blonde, which she gladly took, grinning before kissing her softly. "Let's get out of here."
The second time those words had been uttered were to Emma's parents.
"Do you really think after publicly displaying your bedroom activities at Granny's, you wouldn't gain our attention?" Emma rolled her eyes, squeezing Regina's thigh when the brunette snorted.
"Mom, we've already told you! It was a kiss, a simple kiss! Everyone knows we're together, it's not like it matters. You and dad do it all the time!" she almost yelled. She jumped to her feet, something she did whenever she got defensive. Her fists clenched as she glared at her mother and father.
Emma hated arguing with her parents. Every other argument she'd ever had with a parent had ended in her back in a home. Logically she knew that wouldn't happen, but that didn't make the fear any less real.
"Emma, honey, it's okay, calm down, I'm here," the blonde jumped when a gentle hand rubbed her arm. She hadn't realised she'd been shaking.
Regina's soothing made her breathe normally again, making Emma almost melt into her touch, sinking back down to the couch. Regina locked their fingers together, still rubbing her arm. Emma nuzzled into Regina's neck, mumbling "sorry."
"It's okay, I got you," Regina mumbled back, kissing her forehead.
The Charmings watched the scene warily. They had never really believed Emma when she had said that she and Regina were together. Charming just refused to see it- he didn't think it possible for anyone to actually love 'The Evil Queen'. Snow, frankly, was entirely against Emma with anyone other than Neal. So at least her vendetta against Regina was nothing personal; technically.
Once, Emma had been at the diner with Hook for some coffee before he took Henry out on the Jolly Roger, and she had received a half hour lecture about how inappropriate it was for her to be "shoving her assets" in other men's faces.
But now, watching the two of them be so... intimate. This was so much more than the eye-sex the two would have across rooms or the late night phone calls they'd have, with Emma giggling 'quietly' all night. This was trust. This was romance.
Snow cleared her throat, interrupting the pair's intimacy. Regina looked up at the woman, warning her not to upset Emma again as Emma spoke.
"Sorry, it just gets to me that you can't see how much I love her and why you seem to think it's such a big deal whenever we show others that," Emma said, sighing. She really was sick of it.
David's eyebrows had shot up and Snow's jaw had dropped. Emma knew why, she had chosen her words carefully.
"You-" Emma rolled her eyes, grabbing Regina's hand and leading her to the door.
"Yeah mom, I love her, okay? And now we're going. We'll go eat at Regina's," Emma finished, practically dragging Regina out of her parents' apartment and marching to her car.
With all due respect to Regina, she had managed to keep her face entirely impassive the whole time. She suspected it to be a lie.
When they were finally back in Emma's car, the two sat in silence for a minute as Emma attempted to regain her breathing and finally relax.
"Sorry for storming out," she muttered.
Regina nodded, still not trusting her voice. "And yeah, to save you asking. It's what you said. It's easier to say I love you. People don't believe actions do they? It got them to shut up though, right? So I guess it worked-" Regina squeezed Emma's hand and smiled at her.
"I know, I get it. You don't not feel it, you just..."
"Don't know what I feel," Emma finished for her, rubbing her thumb softly over the back of Regina's hand.
"Come on, I'm sure I have something at home that we can eat."
"Do you think we'll ever mean it?"
"Mean what, dear?"
"I love you," Regina stopped, placing her glass on the coaster and twisting on the couch to face Emma.
"What?" Emma lifted her head from Regina's lap and shifted back before crossing her legs, making sure her knee touched Regina's.
"I mean, we've said it twice right? And I was just wondering. Do you think we'll ever say 'I love you' to each other and actually mean it?" Emma asked.
Regina let out a breath, surprised at how much the supposed admission had stunned her. She shrugged at Emma's question.
"Honestly? I don't want to say it." Emma's shoulders slumped and her head dropped.
"Oh," she let out, but Regina placed her palm on Emma's knee.
"I don't want to say it, because it's so cliché. It's not us," she said with a small smile. Emma frowned.
"But if I love you, or if you love me, don't you want to admit it and tell everyone and show everyone. Once you say it to me, I never want those words to not be said," Emma spoke earnestly, moving her hands over Regina's. She could feel the brunette tremble.
"I don't want to say it because no one has ever meant it," she whispered quietly. "Everyone that has ever said 'I love you' to me has been taken from me." She grabbed Emma's knee. "I don't want you to be taken from me."
Emma blonde tilted her head to catch Regina's lips. "I'm not leaving you..." she paused, biting her lip. She opened her mouth to speak, but Regina beat her to it.
"It cheapens it, I guess. I mean, I love you Emma, but do you need to hear it everyday? Can't our morning kiss or the way I help you wash your hair because you're afraid of getting soap in your eye mean the same thing? Or the way you go out of your way to juice and cut all those apples for my cider? Isn't that love? Isn't that better than hearing me say 'I love you' repeatedly?" Regina whispered, her head resting against Emma's.
She swallowed nervously, and looked up to see the blonde's reaction. She was shocked to see the tears in her eyes.
"Oh Regina," Emma breathed, her voice raspy with the threat of tears. "I love you, I adore you and I admire your words," she said, kissing her again. "I get them. I won't... I won't over say it- after tonight," she added, smiling and sniffing.
Regina chuckled, kissing Emma again. "What, so you'll tell me a thousand times tonight you love me and then prove it a thousand different ways tomorrow?" Emma beamed, giving Regina an Eskimo kiss.
"Well, nine hundred and eighty-ish. There's about twenty ways I can prove my love for you tonight," she said, wriggling her eyebrows.
Regina giggled, sighing at Emma's childlike behaviour. "I love you, Emma," she said, bringing a finality to the conversation.
The blonde grinned at her, kissing her and cupping her cheek. "I love you too, Regina."
And, as of that moment, the words were never said again apart from when the two were feeling low, or on special occasions. They much preferred to show their love through smaller actions that only one's true love could possibly know.
Emma took it upon herself to wake up ten minutes earlier than Regina every morning so she could bring the brunette coffee in bed, and Regina would always come home ten minutes later than she used to because she was fixing the paperwork that Emma had filed incorrectly or, in some cases, hadn't even finished. She never complained though, because what was a file or two in place of true love?
Emma started listening to the classical music Regina liked- and the 80s pop she would never admit to loving in secret. Regina bought Emma a record player and several of the blonde's favourite vinyls and didn't object when she would be woken on her days off to Emma and Henry loudly singing "Go Your Own Way" or "Don't Stop" at the top of their voices.
It was the small ways that they showed their love for one another that mattered, because the two had come to realise that "I love you" was just a phrase, just words. And the things that had hurt the two the most in the past had been words. They didn't need any more false ones or uncertain ones.
Sometimes actions speak far louder than words, and for this couple, that was definitely the case. Besides, it was kind of nicer to wake up to fresh coffee than it was to a mumbled admission that might not even have been "I love you", Regina decides.