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Shuffle Me A Ninth Life

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I.

You kiss.

A small part of you may have expected (and fiercely hoped for) that to happen, but when you feel Emma Swan’s havoc wreaking hands cup your face in the gentlest of ways, like you’re both just girls for a moment, your heart soars and swells, strong and awake.

When she asks you out (all kneading fingers and shy smiles), you tuck a strand of her hair behind her ear and hear yourself say: “No, Emma. I will not.”
Her shoulders set and she says okay and nothing more –.

According to Archie, constantly expecting the worst of people is a habit you need to work on. You have not yet decided whether or not you agree – technically, it is a habit that should have more advantages than disadvantages: you like to be pleasantly surprised, and you like to be right; expecting the worst of people is bound to result in one of those options. Admittedly: being right sometimes tastes like forgotten coffee, stale and cold, and sometimes surprise (however pleasant it may be) makes you long for something more. But no matter how bitter, no matter how small, you will take it over the hard, icy grasp of disappointment any day (and sometimes twice).

You think she might ask you again, come after you and try and try (in true Charming manner).
You think she might step back and stay away and look at you with hard eyes.

Instead, she bakes for you. Henry gives you a package two days later (“Emma says hi. No idea what’s in it though”), and when you open it, it’s a box with a very small dark chocolate cake in it. No note.
Now, you know a homemade cake when you see one. (In fact, you also know a Jamie Oliver recipe when you see one, but that is only because you accidentally zapped in one night and found it relaxing, and you would never admit it).
You stand in your kitchen for two minutes, just staring at the cake, because what are you supposed to do with this? You will not invite Emma to eat it with you, if that was her plan. And you’re certainly not about to throw food away. In the end, you pour yourself a glass of heavy red wine and have a piece of chocolate cake all by yourself late at night. It’s not half as good as if you would have baked it, of course. But outside the wind is forcing the rain against your windows, and your feet are on the couch, and it’s still pretty good.

Four days after that, Emma shows up at your doorstep with a tool box. “Henry said one of your doors doesn’t shut properly anymore?”
You let her in, and watch as she examines the entry to your study. She inspects lock and frame and you look away when she unhinges the door carefully (what you definitely did not expect: she is considerate enough to place a towel between the door and the wall when she leans one against the other). When she leaves, her hands are smeared with oil from the hinges and your door clicks into place like it has for over thirty years.

You invite her to have dinner with you and Henry a week later when she drops him off. She accepts with a smile and asks “anything that needs mincing?” when she enters your kitchen on socks.
She calls to ask if she should put summer tires on your car “while she’s at it” (and, momentarily distracted by how out of breath she sounds, you say yes).
She offers you twelve year old Bushmills Single Malt while you wait for Henry to find a saving point in his video game. She laughs brightly and tells you to shut up when you poke fun at her favorite TV show (you can’t remember how you know what her favorite TV show even is).
“Would you like me to pick you up at eight on saturday?” you ask one night, as casually as possible. It takes a moment, but Emma sets her shoulders and smiles at you. “Yes.”

 

II.

Here is a little thing you did not expect of yourself. After you take her out to dinner (far, far away from Granny’s), you intend to only drive her home.
But. But.
Somehow, your hand glides down her arm as she is about to get out of the car, and her eye twinkles just so, and then your fingers close around her wrist and your blood is pounding in your ears. Your safety belt rolls back with a hissing sound at the same time as your motor quiets down and then you’re kissing again, and everything feels like it has finally written all over it, and Emma tastes like white wine and clear winter night skies.
You try to let her go twice more after that, and each time she sinks back against you with no resistance whatsoever when you pull at the lapel of her coat.

You download snapchat. Actually, Henry downloads snapchat. Onto your phone (username mommamills).
He sends you ten second pictures of his bright smiles next to a variety of people’s faces (he explains to you that screen capping them is against the rules of snapchat, but you do it anyway; collect his smiles like Little League trophies), short bands of comments on things he stumbles upon (among your favorites: a shot of Mary Margaret standing in the kitchen, a haphazardly drawn circle of red around something green on her feet - followed by a blurry close up of her footwear, crocs with Disney Princess Snow White shoe charms on them, saying seriously what - crowned by a picture of Henry, who is looking directly into the camera with a completely dead expression in his eyes) and photos of kittens that simply say PLEASE in all caps.
You love it. (At first you pretend like you’re indulging him, but it only takes two weeks for you to give in and snapchat him back instead of only replying in the chat. This results in long snapchat-conversations with your son in which you judge people’s parking jobs and clothing choices together, a lot. You’re not sure what to think of that.)

Your phone chimes on your nightstand one evening, and you frown, because Henry is (pretending to be) asleep in his room (and actually reading the last two chapters of his book). It’s from snapchat user eswan, and you’re so stupidly something you almost miss it, because this picture is only available to you for one second.
It’s a picture of Emma’s palm, and it it a pebble the size of her pinky nail, vaguely formed like a heart.

 

 

III.

Six spontaneous breakfast treats, four dinner dates and a lot of phone calls into it, you decide to tell Henry. Because it really is time that he starts getting the memo from you instead of finding things out some other way. (You’re still not exactly looking forward to it.)

You call him down into the kitchen, and while he calls back “In a sec!” and rumbles down the stairs, Emma hugs you hard and quick.

“What’s up?”, Henry wants to know, hopping onto a barstool. You put a plate of fried almonds in front of him.

(“Bribery. Good thinking”, Emma said earlier, and then she said “Ow!” because you hit her fingers when she tried to sneak one for herself.)

Emma folds her hands. “We have to tell you something, kid, but don’t freak out, okay?”

Henry raises an eyebrow (the right one, like you). “Okay…?”

Emma looks at you, her shoulders pulled up and tense. You roll your eyes, and turn to your son.
“Henry - Emma and I are... going out.”

His eyes widen and his chin drops a little. You flinch, hard, when he slams a flat hand on the counter.
“So that’s who you were talking about!”, he says loudly and points his finger dramatically at Emma, “In the car! When you were-”

“Yes”, Emma cuts him off hastily, “I know when, and yes.”

There is a moment of silence, in which you make a mental note to find out why Emma’s cheeks are flaming red and she keeps making keep your mouth shut faces at your son like you’re not right there.
Henry leans back a bit. “Huh. So... like, is this going to be a thing, or...?”

You take a deep breath to give him a long winding answer that is already forming in your mind, when –

“Yup.”

You look up at Emma, whose face is open and simple and she returns your son’s gaze without blinking or looking away, like she is passing some sort of test.

“Okay”, Henry tears his eyes away from Emma to look at you. “Okay?”

Sometimes the reality of Henry having miraculously, fantastically grown into an entire whole person all of his own, with his own thoughts and feelings and agenda, who is fully able to function without you guiding his little feet over hardwood floors, or helping him win at Scrabble, it hits you full force in the face. That he is now a boy who can look at you and see a person who exists next to being a mother to him.

He is still looking at you like he’s waiting for you to give him the green light (for what?), like maybe he still wants you to help him win at Scrabble. And so you nod, and he smiles like that was all he needed.

 

IV.

As hard as it sometimes is to understand Emma and her headstrong, naive tendencies for Charming™ idiocy, other times it’s just as easy.
Sometimes, it’s like Emma is a container of emotions, overflowing, as if all you have to do is stand near her to feel them, too. (You wonder if the pirate has ever felt the air go clammy around her after a certain kind of phone call from Snow, or if Ruby knows that bright shine she gets when she talks about Henry.)

There is something that you secretly hope nobody else before you noticed (foolishly so, and you know, but can you be blamed for wanting something you love to just be yours?), and that is the way you feel her skin vibrate when it is pressed to yours. The way something warm and urgent wells from her chest and into you when she kisses the corner of your eye, when her hands rake over your sheets. The way she looks at you when you can’t catch your breath, when she strums your body into something humming, ringing, sounding.

 

V.

Emma turns up unannounced and without a jacket on, her collarbones standing out and her lips almost white.
You let her in and you take her hands in yours. They are cold and dry and the skin is chapped and raw where it stretches over her knuckles.

She won’t answer any of your questions, just pulls up her shoulders and looks cornered. You leave her be.
You make tea, feel her eyes follow while you boil and wash and stir and pour as she stands forlornly in your kitchen.

It takes the better part of an hour of you talking to her about your day and Henry’s newest snapchat stories, and of her turning her tea cup in her hands until the corners of her mouth curl up and she takes her shoes off to pull her feet up on the couch.

(Later, you kiss her eyelids and fill her silence with yours.)

 

VI.

“— so because you were angry with me, you decided to undermine my parenting and sabotage Henry so you could be the hero –“

“What the fuck are you talking about?! Yeah I was pissed, but I didn’t undermine anything let alone—“

“Oh, then why is my son coming home with—“

“—our son, Regina, don’t you dare do this right now—“

“Do not tell me what to do, Miss Swan—“

“See, this is exactly my problem! Can you stop pushing me away?!”

“That’s rich coming from— you know what, don’t change the topic!”

“I’m not changing the topic! I didn’t sabotage Henry, all I did was get him one game and it’s not even rated –“

“—did you even stop to think that maybe there was a reason I had not allowed him to buy it?”

“You probably did, seeing as you always seem to have a reason for everything—“

“This again! Do tell me, Emma, what on earth was so terrible about what I said—“

“We’ve been over this! It’s not what you said, it’s how you said it!”

“Of course it is.”

“The fuck is that supposed to mean?!”

“I will not have you swearing at me—“

 

Emma caves in fast and first and with careful words she clearly spend an entire night reorganizing. You can hear her pulse beating in her throat as she speaks, her shoulders set, palms turned up like she’s praying.
It reminds you of the tiny blue bird that Emma sometimes is, and suddenly how you said it makes sense. So you look back at her just as earnestly, and respond in kind.

Something within you clicks or snaps or rattles around in your chest when she reaches for the tips of your fingers like all she did was ask, like she doesn’t even have a shelf to put your apology, like she can’t help herself.

 

VII.

Henry gets his heart broken – or at least his pride.

“It’s like she’s everywhere”, he says gravely into his pillow, “and Gramps and Grandma won’t stop looking at me like…“ He groans.

You rub his back. “Should I talk to them?”

“As if they’d listen.” That is a good point, and you’re a little proud that he has no illusions about his grandparents. He sits up, his hair sticking up. “I just wanna go away for a while.”

Still rubbing circles over his back, you look at him, and how much his face has changed (even all scrunched up). “I think that’s a great idea. Why don’t you call Emma?”

He calls, and Emma comes. She has dinner with you and asks Henry about winter break and listens to everything he says (and her eyes flicker back to you again and again.)

Later, she brings you a glass of wine and opens her laptop. “So”, she says, “I might have thought about this once or twice.”

As it turns out, once or twice means a bookmark folder with nineteen travel offers in it. You laugh at her, and she swats your thigh, but her ears turn bright red.

(When you’re away, you learn that Emma knows how to play the guitar a little bit, that you missed riding horses more than you thought, and that Henry is a really good reader.
It starts with him reading out loud the funny parts of his book to explain why he’s laughing, and ends with him reading a chapter for you and Emma every night.
You come back feeling centered and confused at the same time, full of longing and so much love.)

 

VIII.

When little Neal gets sick for the first time, Snow loses her mind.
Emma goes to pick him up so David can take care of his wife who hasn’t slept in 43 hours.

“She had him in complete quarantine”, Emma whispers to you over Neal’s head while she bounces on her heels through your living room, “Like, it’s just a cold? I had to disinfect my hands before I was allowed into the loft.”

You say nothing, your hands are in the kitchen sink and covered in foam up to your elbows, you watch her hum against her brother’s whining and stroke his little hands. Her fake memories are fading, she says, but apparently, taking care of a sick baby still comes easy to her, and you know she’s wondering if this is her or you.
In any case, so you think to yourself as you clean your largest kitchen knife, it’s probably not appropriate to find Emma Swan with a small child in her arms as attractive as you do.

 

 

IX.

“Your feet are cold”, Emma whispers. “Sorry”, you murmur back automatically.

You hear her chuckle through your sleepy haze, and then there’s a blanket over you and a weight is pressing down the couch next to your feet.

“I’m watching that”, you try to sharply say, even though you can’t actually see Emma take the remote. More chuckling, and Gina Rodriguez’ voice turns down, but stays on. You think she’s doing something silly, but you’re not sure what it is anymore, and –

“’re you massaging my feet?” Your eyes won’t open.

“Nah, I’m not touching your stinky feet. Go back to sleep.”

She’s lying. Also your feet smell impeccable. But you’re out before you can tell her that.

 

X.

“Twenty-eight.”

You look up from your reading. “What’s that, sweetheart?”

Henry looks at you thoughtfully, his arms crossed over his chest. Sometimes it feels like you see him a little blurred, like your right eye sees him at age twelve and your left at age twenty-four.

“It’s been twenty-eight days since I slept at Emma’s.” He continues before you can open your mouth. “Mostly because it’s been an entire month since Emma has slept at Emma’s.”

Oh.

“I mean, if she’s moving in here for good, I’m gonna get my play station from her place. It’s just wasting away there, mom, did you think about that?” His eyes twinkle waggishly.

You put your book down. “The place must be getting dusty, I suppose.”

“So is my play station, I might add.”

“And all that rent she is paying.”

“That, too”, he agrees.

You take the book back up. “Perhaps she needs her refuge. I’m sure she will let us know if she’s ready to move in with us.”

Henry groans. “Are you? Do you think she’d ask you to leave this house or invite herself in? Because that sounds super likely.”

“Don’t get snarky at me, young man.”

 

(Emma freezes when she finds the key on her pillow, and your insides do, too. “It’s just a key”, you hurry to say, your voice weighed down by the stone in your stomach. She turns it in her hands, those hands that you love, and her face is hidden behind her hair. When she speaks, it sounds like the Emma only you know. “Is it?”)

 

XI.

Henry’s play station (that Emma pretends isn’t just as well her play station) moves into your living room, and Emma gets some space in your walk-in closet.
(There’s also a cardboard box full of random things – among them: a folding spade, a Gwen Stefani album and an unidentifiable brass object – that shimmer with magic. Not in a sappy, metaphorical way, but Emma’s actual magic. You don’t ask.)

Emma is as messy as you expected in some aspects (“You lived here for weeks and it never seemed to be a problem for you to put your mugs in the dish washer, why is it suddenly impossible for you to place them anywhere but in the sink?”) but keeps the bathroom clean almost obsessively. She won’t let you do her laundry, but never irons a single thing (“It wrinkles the second I put it on, what do I need to press it for?”), and you have a long argument about which way to fold towels (you win, of course).
It goes over much more smoothly than you would have anticipated – although you do wonder if you need one more bathroom, given that Henry has started taking up to an hour to get ready.

All of you readjust, change angles, and wiggle through the spaces in between until everything fits together, and Emma sometimes brings home flowers for you (always tulips, in every color available to Game of Thornes).

 

XII.

You kiss, hands in your hair and flowers blooming behind your eyes.

Emma groans when your phone buzzes, but you check it anyway. It’s a snap of you and Emma just seconds ago, saying ew <3.

You look up just in time to see Henry stick out his tongue and then bolt from the doorway to flee from Emma – “So you want a wedgie for lunch, is that it, kid?!” – who is leaping over the couch to take after him.
Neither of them really hear your half-hearted “No running in the house!”.

(Sometimes, Emma looks at you like she would burn down the world if you asked. Like she wants to take away the ground beneath your feet in public, like she’d be ready to fight you if you needed her to. You look back, and hold her hand in yours.)

“I got you something.”

“Did you? What’s the special occasion?”

She narrows her eyes. “You know exactly what the special occasion is, Regina.”

(Of course you know what the special occasion is. Your present to her is a leather bracelet that you have owned for what feels like forever, and attached to it is tiny anatomically correct heart made of silver. When you give it to her later, Emma hugs you tight and doesn’t let go.)

You laugh. The wrapping paper feels silky and expensive, you unpack her present with care.

It’s a framed photograph of the three of you on the beach, huddled together in blankets and sweaters, the light of the setting sun on your faces. Emma is the only one smiling into the camera because she’s the one taking the picture – you and Henry just glance into the distance, over the ocean, his head resting on your shoulder. It’s a picture from your last vacation.

“That’s not really it”, Emma says hastily, “I thought maybe you’d like to go away again. I asked Henry – he’s super up for it – anyways, it’s a long weekend, we could excuse him for one day – and I made reservation at the vacation home we were at last time, but it’s completely up to you. Like, I wanted to surprise you, but if it’s too spontaneous, it’s absolutely fine—“

You kiss her on her blabbering mouth, because you were not wrong about Emma Swan, and you’re still warm and safe and free. And if you’re honest, you’re not all that surprised.