They start with a sublet townhouse two blocks from the train line that goes directly to Penn Station, just in case. Regina doesn’t like living so close to the tracks but after the first week of constantly going into the city to meet with headhunters and the like, she sees the use of it. It’s the end of June when they first settle into the two-bedroom, so she brings Henry with her on Thursday. He takes her to a particular pizza parlor on the corner of 8th and 37th and the pizza is, actually, to die for. He’s pleased to have impressed her and she’s just happy to see him want to be with her, and if she blows off the final meet of the day to walk around Times Square with him and see how he tries to play it cool while taking in all the lights—well, no one would blame her.
Certainly, no one would blame her for linking their arms together as they walk, (perhaps a little too tightly for his newly-fourteen tastes) for keeping him close to her in this city of millions of strangers. Nothing on TV ever prepared her for the crush of the outside world, for how dense and smoky and dirty and thick the atmosphere is. Henry seems unfazed, almost too trusting; she’s certain that she sees more than one accidental collision pat his pockets down, but he’s fourteen and with his mother and the only thing he carries is the candybar cell phone Emma bought him two years ago.
When they get home to the little house with their bags and boxes and the completely garish mint green paint on the walls, Emma’s sautéing ground beef and blasting Nirvana and Regina takes a deep breath, lets it out with a huff. “Go wash up,” she murmurs to Henry, kisses his forehead. “I had fun today.”
He smiles just enough, glances towards the kitchen doorway and shoots her a look of sympathy before clomping up the stairs with his suddenly size-nine feet. The volume of the music lowers slightly, but Emma doesn’t crane her neck to see into the living room, so Regina takes her time putting her purse away and slipping her heels off. When she finally does head into the kitchen, Emma’s already moved on to dicing tomatoes, hands moving quickly and surely with the knife but eyes following Regina around the room.
“Hi,” Regina says quietly, opening the refrigerator and taking out the iced tea they’d made the night before.
“Tony called,” Emma says in a clipped tone. “Wanted to know where the broad I called him about was, since it was twenty past three and she hadn’t showed or called.”
Her stomach knots quickly; the final meet of the day had been with one of Emma’s contacts, not just another headhunter. “We went for lunch and lost track of time,” she says, and bites her tongue when Emma’s hostile posture deflates, knife clattering to the cutting board.
“Damn it, Regina… you should’ve called him. Or me.”
“I didn’t think it was a big deal.”
Emma stares at her for a moment, and a plaintive guitar wail rattles the speakers. “These favors I’m calling in—it’s a big deal. Okay? They’re all big deal favors.”
Regina stares back and sips at her glass of iced tea, unsure of how to smooth this over before Henry comes back downstairs. “Can I reschedule with him?”
The stare-down lasts a few beats longer, and then Emma sighs, looks away. “Already did. Tuesday at eleven. Two hours before the guy from the legal temping place. It’s the only time he had, so you’re just gonna have to make it work.”
“Thank you,” she says quietly, and slides the second glass across the counter towards Emma. “And thank you for starting on dinner.”
Emma’s hand hovers over the knife handle and her gaze is fixed on Regina. She slowly reaches over to take the drink, nods, and they’re back at their detente just in time for Henry to slide into the kitchen on his socks with a pair of ridiculous neon-framed sunglasses added to his outfit. “I look good, right?” he drawls.
They laugh, can’t help it.
She wakes up at seven and pads downstairs in just her pajamas, her robe lost somewhere among the boxes stacked in the basement. At one point, there’d been a swinging door between the main room and the kitchen—she can see the old hinge-marks in the doorframe—but it’s long gone, so when she switches on the coffee maker, she knows the noise will wake Emma in fifteen minutes anyway and doesn’t bother being quiet while she darts out onto the front stoop to pick up the paper.
Sure enough, just as she’s spreading out the real estate listings on the kitchen table, a muffled whine comes from the living room, followed by the thumping of pillows and a hissed curse or two. Eventually all the noise produces a tousled blonde head, and after a series of cracks and groans, Emma shuffles into the kitchen with her arm stretched towards the coffee pot. “It ready yet?” she mumbles, leaning one arm on the counter while the other reaches around to massage her lower back.
“A few minutes,” Regina says, and returns her focus to the newspaper. “What’s Glen Ridge like?”
“Shithead kids, shithead adults.”
Sighing, she crosses out a whole column with a blue marker. “Clifton?”
“Wannabe thugs and trust funds.”
Regina crosses out more houses. “You didn’t say how it went yesterday.”
“Should tell you how it went,” Emma grumbles, and flops into the chair across from her, stretches her bare legs out to reach the patch of sunlight shining through the sliding door. “They’re all saying the same shit. I need certification in like, three different finance categories.”
“You didn’t before?”
“I ran my own gig. As long as I checked out with the insurers and banks, I didn’t need any of that.”
Regina sighs, pushes the rest of the paper towards the middle of the table. “Maybe you should look for a different job altogether.”
“Not qualified for anything else.”
“That’s not true.”
“Everything that pays enough to qualify as providing for us needs school, Regina. More school than a prison GED.”
The coffee maker chirps, and she takes the out gladly, pours them both large mugs and sweetens each appropriately. Emma sometimes adds a splash of milk, but only on lazy days. “You’ll find something,” Regina says, placing the mugs on the table.
“Yeah, probably,” Emma shrugs it off. “Thanks. We’ve got the Seton Hall tour today, right? Or is it MKA today, Seton Hall next week?”
“No, you were right, Seton Hall.” Regina hesitates before sitting down again. “We don’t have to consider private schools, you know.”
Outside, one of the neighbors is yelling out their back door at a high-pitched yipping; probably the Yorkie who’d already taken a shine to Regina. Emma takes a few quick sips of coffee, hissing when it burns her tongue.
Strange, how it’s already familiar and routine.
“I know we don’t,” Emma finally says, “but… say things work out well, and we can make the money work. I’d rather have the knowledge and already be on their radar than have to claw to get their attention. We’ve got the time now, might as well, right? And besides—maybe one of these prep schools will have something that really appeals to the kid. Every public school I’ve ever been in pretty much just swallows you whole. He deserves better than that. If—if we can send him someplace good, I’m okay with living someplace… less good. You know?”
They’ve both killed for Henry but it’s these things, these other sacrifices that have nothing to do with good and evil, that always catch her by surprise. “Yes,” and Regina smiles. “I see what you’re saying.”
And then Emma smirks, stretches her legs out a little more (are those her hips cracking?) and wiggles her toes. “Think you could see yourself to pancakes and bacon, too?”
“Don’t test me, Miss Swan, I haven’t even had half a cup.”
After the tour and a check-in call with Henry (“I got the PS3 hooked up—Ma, come on, I just died again!”), they pull into the parking lot of a strip mall and head into a rare, non-branded coffee shop. “I need a car,” Emma grumbles, handing the cashier a ten dollar bill. “I hate your damn hoop-dee.”
“My car,” Regina snips, “is a classic.”
Emma snorts, takes her change and their drinks and leads them to a couch in the corner, waits for Regina to sit before handing her drink over. “The gear shift sticks and your steering’s off. Didn’t you get that thing serviced before we left?”
Regina tries to cover her expression with the paper cup, but it’s too late.
“Have you ever gotten that thing serviced?”
She glares at Emma out of the corner of her eye. “Twenty eight years,” she hisses, “in perfect condition. Two years of actual wear and then one trip with you behind the wheel and now things are damaged?”
Emma should look contrite, but the expression on that scowling mouth is anything but conciliatory. “One five hundred mile trip should not fuck a car up that much, Regina. So that’s on you.”
Gritting her teeth, she looks away, takes a deep breath. “Let’s get to the point, shall we?”
“You mean the part where we’re royally fucked?”
Across from them, some hipster in a beanie—honestly, it’s almost eighty degrees—lowers his headphones and studies them with raised eyebrows. Regina narrows her eyes and he quickly lowers his gaze, glances up twice before she turns to look at Emma. “Is it that bad?”
Emma sighs, draws one leg up to rest her foot on the edge of the cushion and sit her iced coffee on her knee. Hipster’s eyes track from Emma’s “respectable” jeans to Regina’s dress, then back again. “Yeah, it’s—it’s that bad,” Emma says softly, all her usual sarcasm gone.
She lays it out quickly, quietly. On paper, Regina doesn’t exist. All the paperwork Gold forged for Henry’s adoption describes a now forty-seven year old woman, but there’s no paper trail for the last fourteen years, and modifying the original adoption records—it’s going to be a mess. “Be extra nice to Tony, will ya?” Emma asks with almost enough levity to seem playful.
Regina waits for the rest of it, and when Emma’s done, she sets her drink on the end table and puts her face in her hands. Because the basic truth is that Emma is not supposed to have any contact with Henry, ever, and on top of that she’s a con, and basically leaving Storybrooke was the worst thing they could have done. Who knows how long they would’ve gone on deluding themselves, if that arrogant snit of a tour coordinator hadn’t droned on about background checks and legal documentation and health insurance and all the things they don’t have and can’t pass.
“What do we do?” Regina asks softly, and Emma, eyes glazed and focused on the hipster’s laptop, just shakes her head.
“We figure it out,” Emma murmurs, and finally looks up at Regina. “We figure it out.”