It became easy, having him. Easy pulling him down into bed beside her at night and waking up next to him the next morning. Easy pushing him out on the days she wanted the sheets to herself. The days she wanted to see him shimmy into his jeans at her order, or jump the window without them -- skinny legs and dark boxers.
He brought her a rose once. Deep red, almost black. She laughed and laughed, and they crushed the petals to smears under their bodies. (Pinpricks of thorns that she felt up her spine, that she kept between her body and the sheets and flicked to the ground when she let him roll them over.)
She liked the control, liked knowing she owned him (completely and irrevocably, right down to his heart). But mostly, she liked not having to question. Liked that he was a sure thing, that she clicked her fingers and he came (and came, and came). She liked not having to play the game, dance the dance, navigate those dark, shark infested waters.
She liked having him and somewhere along the line, at some unidentified place that crept up without her permission. She began to just like him.
It all went to shit. Of course it did. This was her life. And this was Emma's too, apparently. Sticking her nose in where it didn't belong. Always sticking her little snub nose in, those big, limpid eyes and that stupid vacant expression on her face. Sending her letters and daring to throw forgiveness in her face. (Or was that Snow? And did it matter? Both of them, lying and stealing. From world to world, everything doomed to play and replay.)
She hated them, all of them. Her hate was a deep furnace that, damn them, kept her warm at night. (In her big, empty bed. Sheets all to herself now, all to herself.)
He'd jeopardised everything. Not his fault, perhaps, but he'd been the one to follow through, to insist and somehow, in some impossible, awful way, to break the curse. Not entirely, oh no, it was too thick, too clever for that. But enough. Enough to cause trouble. Enough that something had to be done. (Something had to be done.)
She should have stabbed his heart straight through, should have taken a knife and speared it like so much meat. But it was warm in her hands, beating for her, all that precious life held between her fingers and she couldn't. She couldn't do it.
She burnt out the spell holding him to her, burnt out the edges of his contract and all along the rest of it. Burnt away the heart that had so long been hers.
If you love someone, let them go. Or so the saying went. What was supposed to happen next? Once you'd let them go. Did you just rub your raw eyes and start over again?
She'd always loved fiercely. Stifling and desperate in her intensity. Her love burnt so hot it was almost hate. It grew and raged and took away the space for everything else. She held her loves close. So close they burnt away.
Graham was taken to hospital with second degree burns in a long, jagged scar across his chest. (She stole into his room like a ghost and pressed weightless fingers along the line of heat she felt under the bandages.) He slept through the days, quiet and calm. Emma spent every free moment at his bedside and Regina was relegated to the door. She didn't share. Not her love, not her grief. (But she let him go, let him go. Without ownership, what was left?) She left before Emma could stir from her tired watch post beside his bed. The echo-scent of her rose perfume drifted through the hospital halls.
She loved to love Henry, she wanted to. But she couldn't. Couldn't fit herself around the edges of her grief for her father every time she said his name.
She wanted to keep him close. She wanted to wrap him up in the idea of her love until the truth of it shined through. (She'd put up with enough, suffered through enough tantrums and long nights, she deserved this.) She wanted the confirmation of it, the flash when she looked at him, him smiling up at her, his hand twined in hers (sticky, sweaty hands and she'd cured him of that habit fast.) She wanted it so fiercely, had it pictured so clearly, she didn't notice it creep up on her. Didn't realise until he was lost down a well and lighting-bright Emma was right there snapping at her heels. Her jarring voice wore at Regina's patience until she snapped, pushed the whole tangle of her emotions aside and told her, “Find my son. Find him.”
Find him before this hole in my chest sucks in the rest of me. Before grief rains down on my bones and I do something mad, just so that I can feel again.
She couldn't speak but to scold when she had him back, her hands on his shoulders. It seemed she was always holding him now, their places swapped and her sweaty hands dragging him back towards her.
It hurt, this stupid game, and she wanted so desperately to be able to let go. (She let go of his heart, let the ash of the spell fall to the stone floor, so why is she drawn back and back and back again?)
She stood by Henry's bed late that night and watched the rise and fall of his little chest. She had the whole town in her pocket the whole lot of them right where she wanted them, so why did it feel like everything was slipping away? Her hands so full of marbles they were slipping between her fingers, each one striking the floor and escaping into the shadows, one by one by one.
Graham slept on in the hospital. His curse-spelled slumber keeping him under long enough to fix all those frayed threads.
She stayed away. Stayed away as long as she could. She took to walking the streets of her town. Making sure everything was running right. The jarring note that was Emma cast everything a little off. She could feel it in her bones. Hear it like a ticking clock in the hall. The one you don't notice all day, not 'till sleepy night falls and its ticking keeps you from sinking into the covers. Keeps you on edge all night long.
She yawned, wide and tired, her jaw aching and turned her feet homewards.
She recognised Emma's car pulling out from the hospital. Recognised the tell-tale flash of blonde at the wheel. Her treacherous feet dragged her forward. Through hospital hallways smelling of antiseptic and medicine.
She hesitated at the door, her fingers drifting over the door jamb, then, pushing through some imagined resistance, she stepped inside.
She crossed the room like in a dream. A blink and she was beside his bed. His colour had returned. His cheeks were suffused with a soft warm blush. However his hair looked stiff and greasy and his skin pressed a little too tight on his bones. (She ached to take him home).
She brushed a hand across his brow and felt the edges of the curse curl against her fingertips. They'd re-knit themselves as he slept. They'd pulled taught and perfect, un-marred. The shudder of her hands wasn't a move to shred them. (Tiny fragments of smoke escaped and faded into the cool air.)
She withdrew her hand, the curse caressing her fingertips before letting her go, sinking down into his brow. It wrinkled for a moment, frown lines making neat little shadows between his eyebrows and her fingers twitched once more.
He didn't stir. She watched, willing him to and fearing it happening just as much. She left before the early shift came in. Left nothing behind but the dark scent of roses.
Graham woke a week after the spell turned to ash between her palms, a week after his first heartbeat (in forever). A week after the curse relaxed then snapped back taut, elastic snapping into place around a new man. (A dead man isn't a live man and she could have cut his heart in half she could have, why didn't she?)
She wasn't there when he woke. Didn't matter, she was safe now. The curse was safe now. (A flicker of heartburn in her chest that caught her on the inhale, forced her to breathe shallowly). It was her bed and she'd damn well lie in it, but that didn't mean she was stupid enough not to feel the thorns for the scent of the roses.
She didn't visit him after he was awake either, not even at night; the cool quiet of the hospital all around her. She didn't watch the sun turn the curtains grey with held light, nor listen to the insistent beeping of the machines clustered around his bed (counting out his heartbeats, every one a step away from the box she'd kept him in).
She wasn't there when he was let out. "Watch yourself and no nasty shocks." She didn't watch from across the street. She didn't tighten her grip on the wheel until her knuckles faded to white. She didn't lean forward, forehead against the wheel. She didn't press her cold fingers against her closed eyes. Beige and blue fractals exploding behind the lids in perfect pixelated patterns of mathematical elegance. Fading and dying and being reborn every second over. (With every pulse of blood.)
She kept it formal, when she finally had to go into the Sheriff’s office (and she hadn't bargained for this... bureaucracy with her curse. Damn Gold. Damn him and his wishes that rear back to strike you with their tail.) She didn't slip. Her make up was perfect, so was her hair. Her suit starched (and grey, grey, grey. Her bed, no roses, cold sheets). She smiled, asked how he was doing and didn't fall apart at the way he wouldn't meet her eyes.
“Straight back to work, that's the kind of dedication I like to see.” Her words fell flat. He just nodded. She swallowed stiffly. Glanced at the window behind him. The day looks dreary, clouds ready to shed their rain upon the town's head.
“That's what I like to see.” She said again.
The silence was awkward.
She focused on him, really seeing this time. He still looked thin, though his hair was clean.
“How are you?” She asked and it came out softer than she'd intended (Did she intend it?) She took a step towards him as he began to raise his head.
“He's delegating the more strenuous work to me.” Emma intercut from behind her shoulder. Regina stiffened and Graham's look went past her.
Emma strode forward and moved neatly between them. Regina, despite herself, took a step back (hated herself for taking a step back.)
She wondered how long Emma had been lingering there at the door. Waiting at the edge of sight. Divide and conquer. But he was her wolf first, her huntsman. Hers.
He didn't look at either of them.
Regina jerked her chin up sharply and stared Emma down, daring her to comment and hating the spark of pity in her vacuous blue eyes.
She was still Mayor. The show must go on.
The Town Hall renovations were complete. Back patting and ribbon cutting. She practiced her smile in the mirror until memories gathered too heavily in the back of her mind. (There were lines now, at the corners of her eyes. Would he say Snow White? Or would he say Emma? Did it matter? If Graham was her mirror, the choice has been made.)
Her hand gripped the microphone too tight, her lips too close and feedback whined across her ears. Step back, a practiced smile. "Well that's certainly one way of getting everyone's attention."
Did they laugh because it was funny or because it was her that made the joke?
He was smiling, just at the corner of his lips, but she didn't know if it was her or due to something Emma said, their heads inclined towards each other. She couldn’t hear their murmurs from the back of the hall, just imagined them, a whisper beneath her words, beneath the pauses she took to find her place. Wrap the speech up early. Her smile stiff.
The next day had her at the Sheriff's department and wasn't that just her luck? (Wasn't it just). Emma running interference, and maybe part of her was warmed that she felt the need. (Because if she was threatened there had to be something there. Didn't there? Didn't there? Mirror, Mirror, on the wall.)
They left together. Emma dragged him out to investigate a disturbance. (Did he want to stay? Did it matter? He was gone now, wasn't that answer enough?)
She lingered for no reason. (Who’s the fairest of them all?) Trailed her fingers over the edges of the desks. (This desk and that one and that wall there, and the door.) She glanced at the closed door of his office as if she could see the desk behind it. (That one, oh that one, so many times.)
Emma reappeared by her shoulder like the devil, or maybe the angel, all blonde and clean lines and a smile sharp enough to cut.
She was too bright, this fair-weather child. Too bright and too fast. (Burn away quick and leave me and mine alone.) Regina smiled, the motion too abrupt to be taken as anything but a baring of teeth, but why bother with games? Why bother here? Why bother with any of them? She was sick of games, they didn't help her the first time. (Snow's tears soaking into her collar). They wouldn't help her now.
She didn't look back at his door on the way out.
She had gaps in her schedule now. Spaces that he used to fill. Legs and arms and that smile; cocky and bashful by turns. His ducked head and warm, clever eyes.
She had gaps that she didn't know how to fill. (An easy lay is easy to find but she doesn't want to lie so easily.)
The thrill of the curse was starting to dull. She could feel the whole thing unravelling (she was no fool). One thread at a time (and she was gathering them up around her, Emma was, spinning her own gold. Gold. Make your deal with the devil. I already did and don't say I didn't warn you because why should I?)
She let Henry go. The tug faded to a dull ache faster than she thought it would. (Did she ever have him at all?) She watched him standing next to Emma, smiling up at her, relaxed and genuine. It didn't twist a knife somewhere in her gut. (About where the blade had gone into her father's chest, about the same depth, about the same length.) It didn't hurt. (That wasn't blood on her hands. She paints her nails black.)
Soon she’ll be alone again, all in black under the apple tree. She could feel them falling away, and she should care, but it’s as if her heart was the one that fell to dust on the stones. There was an empty hole in her chest, (Familiar, so familiar.) A hole she'd thought she could fill.
(She was a fool).