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longing will snag itself on the reeds

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Anything dead coming back to life hurts - Toni Morrison, Beloved

*

Regina wakes with a start, gulping in a mouthful of ocean water. The surface is far above her, murky with a liquid light from above and, realizing where she is, her body bucks in a sudden spasm of terror, lifting her urgently up toward the surface.

“Oh god.” she gasps.

All around her is sleek grey water, her arms and legs moving in numb circles to stay afloat. Her thoughts are lost in her terror, but as she glances all around her she can recognize the blurry trees in the distance, the glow of the town just beyond the upward slope of a hill, cars whirring quietly across the stone bridge above her.

A bleary memory returns to her, almost dreamlike, although it had happened quickly at the time: the car hitting her, the burst of glass and the sudden, terrifying swerve over the bridge and into the black depths beneath her.

Cold and shivering, she glances briefly at the darkness below, no sight of her car anywhere. Or anyone else’s. But she can’t think about that, now – whoever hit her might be on their way to the hospital just as her car is on its way to the bottom of the ocean. She doesn’t have to think about anything else. She just has to survive.

With stiff, cold limbs, she makes an attempt toward the shore. One of her heels slips off her foot and, feeling lighter, she quickly kicks off the other one. The shore is just a soft blurry line in the distance, but she’s a strong swimmer. Strong enough. She can make this.

The water weighs in her wet clothes and her fingers grow stiff and unresponsive, but she doesn’t stop, her muscles burning with her effort, salt water slapping against her face, the cold wind stealing her breath. She doesn’t stop even when her lungs seize and her body slides into a numb kind of silence, cold and shivering, she doesn’t stop until she can feel the soft mushy soil beneath her feet, her fingers grasping at the wet weedy plants along the shore, helping to pull her up.

The beach is empty and quiet; she collapses, breathless and gasping in the wet sand, the salt stinging on her cold cheeks and cracked lips.

But she’s alive.

She’s alive, she’s alive, she’s alive.

*

The walk home is long. Cars rumble steadily by and she watches them go, the glow of their headlights poking through the dark and disappearing around the corner. The wind has a bitter edge to it, and she can do nothing more than gather her jacket closer, tucking her fingers under her arms for warmth.

Trudging up a hill, the familiar shape of her house peek through the hanging telephone wires, the stilted roof and stone cowls, its manicured lawn and cobbled walkway, looking exactly the way it did when she left it that morning. Relief wells in her and she sucks in a sharp breath, moving a little quicker up the icy sidewalk.

On her steps, she fumbles briefly with a spare key before entering, breathing in its slightly different air, warm and smelling of home.

“Henry?” she asks, and slides off her wet coat. “Are you home, dear?”

From a distance, she can hear a pause, an action becoming incomplete as the rusty squeak of door stops half way. But nobody steps out to meet her, and though she waits, the stairway remains dim and empty.

Hesitantly, she peeks up at the darkened rooms above the stairs. “Emma?” she asks, (because sometimes Emma is here, uninvited, yes, but not unwelcome) “Emma? Are you here?”

But nobody answers.

A hollow feeling gathers in her chest and so she leaves for her kitchen, suddenly hungry, exhausted by salt-water. On the marble white counter there is a vase of flowers on the table filled with spry white daisies and she smiles at it as she passes, opening the fridge.

Though she doesn’t remember buying it, there is a bag of deli meat on the bottom drawer and she grabs a piece, folding it in half and eating it in just a few bites (embarrassing, she knows, and Henry would make fun of her if he saw like this, but she’s hungry and it’s the only thing she can think to stomach right now).

She’s eaten three pieces before she notices Emma by the door.

“Shit.” She yelps, dropping the bag on the floor. “Emma, what the hell.

Emma stares at her with wide eyes from the door way.

“You scared me.” Regina sighs and bends for the package on the floor. She can see Emma’s bare feet in the doorway, pale and strange in the dim light, standing still. Frowning, she straightens, “Where have you been? Did you not hear me calling you?” Emma doesn’t answer, only stares at her with the same cloudy quality of the sky. “Are you alright?” she asks with a frown.

“Uh…” Emma blinks and slowly shakes her head, glancing away to the front door where her coat is hanging. “Yeah.” she finally breathes, still staring out at the entry way.

“You don’t seem okay.” Regina purses her lips, her mind leaping for an answer. When Emma looks back at her, something clicks, and she sighs. Of course they would call her. She’s the Sherriff; she’s the first person they would call. “You heard about the crash, didn’t you?” she says, tone gentle.

But Emma only stares at her, and the numb look of shock on her face unfolds a slick, strangeness inside of her like sea weed tickling the bottom of her feet as she wades blindly in the water, a sense of something immense all around her.

“Well, anyway, I’m sorry I didn’t call.” Regina continues on her own, busying herself with opening the fridge to ignore it “I know you must have been worried, but my phone in the crash and I just wanted to get home.”

Emma nods silently and Regina peeks at her from the top of the refrigerator door. She doesn’t know how to make of the teary, red eyes or the pale, sallow skin.

“Did everyone make it out alright?” she asks with a tick of impatience. Because something must be wrong – it must. Usually Emma would have told her by now.

“What?” Emma asks unevenly.

She sighs with impatience. “The man who hit me, Emma. Did he make it out alright?”

“Oh. Yeah.” she says quietly. “Yeah. He made it.”

“Good.” She sternly closes the refrigerator door, the silence unsettling between them. It feels too large, frightening, and so after a moment of hesitation she turns to close it because if there is one thing she’s come to know about Emma is the warmth in which she accepts affection. But Emma wobbles back half a step and Regina halts immediately, startled. “Are you alright?” she snaps, hurt and irritated.

“Yeah-Yeah, I’m fine.” Emma says, but she looks light, as thin and weightless as leaves, about to blow away in any moment.

“Where is Henry?” she asks, her shoulders stiff, struggling to keep her voice sharp.

“Um. With a friend.” Emma glances distractedly at the oven where the time blinks back at her in green numbers. “Yeah, he’s still with a friend.”

“A friend?” She glances outside where the light is already turning dark, turning grey. It’s been years since Henry’s skipped out on his daily schedule, years since she’d come home without him there, waiting for her. “It’s a school night, isn’t it?”

Emma just stares helplessly at her and the faint hum of distress inside of her begins to expand, unfolding into something far bigger – something immense.

“Alright.” she says, her fingers tremble as they flick back her hair, “I’m going to take a shower. And get out of these disgusting clothes. And then when I come back, we are going to talk about whatever the hell is going on here. Alright?”

At Emma’s numb nod, she strides past her and up the stairs, urged by the almost frantic need to simply be clean, to stand beneath warm water and feel the salt and weight of this day slide away from her, rubbed away, to smoother, softer skin.

In the bathroom, she undresses quickly, peeling off her wet dank clothes surrounded by the familiar cleanliness of her bathroom. There is some comfort in it: in the expensive lotions lining the counter and her robe, soft and blue, still hanging on the metal hook behind the door. The familiar details.

Stepping in, she faces the warm spray of water and lets everything else fall away.

By the time she showered, walking barefoot down the stairs in new clean clothes, she feels confident that the oddness of the day is behind her. She’ll walk back down stairs and be met with everything back in order: Emma with her usual goofy self, her son returned, and her house feeling exactly like it did when she left it this morning.

Down the stairs, however, she can hear Emma on the phone and halts by the hesitant uneven sound of her voice.

“I don’t know,” Emma says, her back facing Regina, wiping tears blindly with a trembling hand. “I don’t know how to explain it. I don’t even know what to think of it. I just need you to come here, alright? Please?”

The good feeling inside of her collapses and Regina remains frozen on the stairs, the tips of her fingers suddenly cold.

“I know.” Emma sighs tiredly, “That’s why I’m calling you.” Regina feels the stiffness in her legs loosening, allowing her to travel down the stairs to the floor, her bare feet soundless on the floor. She stands close enough to hear Emma take a deep breath. “Alright,” she sighs. “Thank you. See you soon.”

“Who was that?” She asks.

Emma jumps and whirls around, “Regina.” she yelps, her eyes wide and red. The fingers around the phone tighten, turning white. “God, you scared me.”

“Who was that on the phone?” she asks, her voice dry.

“Snow,” Emma swallows. “Just Snow.”

“Why were you asking her to come over?”

“She , uh, you know...” Emma huffs out a soft, harried breath, rubbing a rough palm underneath her eye. “Was worried about the crash. I thought maybe she’d want to check up on you.” The lie feels like bristles against her skin.

“Really?” she asks, feeling her anger rising. “So my crash is already fairly well known, then?”

“Well.” Emma steps back nervously. “Yeah. You know. It’s a small town.”

“So where is Henry?” She continues relentlessly. “If Snow White is so concerned, I can’t imagine how my son might feel. And yet he isn’t here. So he either doesn’t know, or something is going on that you’re not telling me.”

Emma flinches and Regina’s anger falls away. She steps forward to be closer, but halts when Emma steps away from her again, her face edgy and unsure. Regina sighs and rests against the counter until her heart stops aching.

“What is going on here, Emma?” she finally asks, brushing a wary hand through her hair.

“Nothing.” she whispers.

“Then why are you acting so strange?”

“I’m not.”

Her skin prickles, feeling strange. “Do you think I don’t know what goes on in my house?” She asks. “You expect me to believe Henry is out late with friends? On a school night? I know my son better than that. I know you better than that – Emma, look at you, you’re trembling, you can’t look me in the eye, you’ve obviously been crying, and you keep backing away from me!”

“I’m sorry.” Emma caves and looks so suddenly like the person she was all those years ago when the curse refused to break and held their son hostage – when a bright, raw world was opening up all around her. Regina halts immediately, recognizing the fear in her. “I’m sorry. I don’t know what – I don’t know what’s happening, at all. I don’t know what to do.”

“What to do?” Regina echoes quietly, “Emma, I just want an honest answer from you.”

“I can’t give you one.” Emma breathes unevenly, “I don’t even know what to think. You were…you were gone. I know that, and you could still be, but this is goddamn Storybrook and fucked up things always happen, so what the fuck am I supposed to believe, right?”

“What –” Regina starts to say, but stops, cutting herself off because there is an idea forming in the back of her head, a large, immense thought that fills the ocean in her lungs and pulls her down with the weight of her wet clothes – too frightening to consider, too terrible – so she pushes it away instead.

“God.” A hand curls around Emma’s eyes, the sound of her breath catching in her throat, “I’m going crazy.”

“No, you’re not.” She soothes. The tears in Emma’s eyes fill her with a new kind of emergency: to ease Emma out of her worry, out of the havoc twisting her face. “You’re alright.” When Emma looks up at her with wet, frightened eyes she sighs. “Oh, Emma,” she coos. “It’s alright, dear, I promise. Everything is alright.”

Emma’s mouth trembles as she slowly nods. She must be holding her breath, because her chest quivers after a moment, and Regina opens her arms to her, the same way she did when Henry had a nightmare, bundled up in his bedsheets, struggling as Emma does with a body’s natural and unexpected betrayals: the sudden hitches of her breath, the way throats close up and tears blind.

Emma falls into her arms like he did, too.

“It’s alright.” She soothes, sliding her arms around Emma’s waist. She rests her chin on the slope of Emma’s shoulder and repeats those words until it starts to feel true, until Emma’s breathing begins to even out and the hands making fists in the back of her shirt soften their grip.

After a while, Emma tilts her head away. “God,” she laughs softly and wipes at her cheeks. “I’m sorry.”

“No, no.” she soothes. “Don’t apologize.”

“I mean your shirt.” Emma smiles. “You smell like salt water all over again.”

“I’ll survive.” she smiles and feels Emma’s arms tighten around her. Craning her neck, she peeks at her ruddy wet cheeks and closed eyes. “Do you feel better?” she whispers.

Emma gently nods. Regina suspects the hug to end, for them to step back to their normalcy, but Emma only presses her head back against Regina’s neck. It makes her heart feel warm, an old yearning tangling itself in all the new questions, gathering like the gentle fingers against her back, crinkling her shirt.

Sighing, she closes her eyes and allows time to pass. There is a warm kind of forgetfulness in Emma’s arms, in the soft, even breathing and the vague smell of her clean clothes and shampoo, so familiar it’s a struggle to remember that there are still questions to ask. That things aren’t quite right yet.

“Does Henry know about the crash?” she asks after a while, holding tighter when Emma stiffens. “I don’t know what’s going on, but I would like to be prepared. I wasn’t prepared at all for you, my dear.”

There is a moment of hesitation. Finally, Emma sighs. “Yes. He knows. He’s going to be here soon.” she says, and then with a quick smile, she pulls away. “Are you hungry?”

Regina opens her mouth with No but her stomach reacts before she does and Emma laughs at her.

“Alright.” she says. “I’ll make you something.” But she only makes it to the fridge before she startles, the front door slamming shut.

Blinking, Regina looks over the counter to see Henry’s back moving swiftly up the stairs.

“Shit.” Emma mumbles, but Regina doesn’t hear – she doesn’t let herself hear it – her heart caught in the familiar sight of her son, in his broad shoulders and his dark hair, in his thin arms and that ugly grey sweater.

“Henry!” she calls but he’s already up the stairs, closing his door.

She strides out of the kitchen, urged by the hard beating in her heart, rushing in her chest, the need to see her son. She can hear Emma following quickly behind her, feel the tip of her fingers catch at the corner of her shirt, her hesitant, “Regina, wait.” But she is already at the stairs, wrenching free, the need to see Henry suddenly unbearable.

She knocks only as a warning before entering. “Henry.” she steps inside, readying a smile for him.

That smile stays even as the darkened room surrounds her, the walls covered in posters and maps, the books and toys gone, the room suddenly completely unfamiliar to her. She blinks, glancing quickly at every corner before she finds Henry standing stock still in the center of the room, too tall, his face longer and far too old to be her little boy, her sweet thirteen year old.

“What-“she stumbles back a half step. “You’re not Henry.” She says, but even as she says it she knows it’s not true; she recognizes the boy in this face, so familiar, but not the one she kissed goodbye this morning. “I don’t – I don’t understand. I left the house just this morning. I- I was…” she begins to say, but her breath comes up short, and she can’t get the rest out.

Henry just stares at her, his eyes dark and horrified.

It unfolds a greater fear than the one she had felt in the water, her memories returning to her, weak and watery like a dream, filled with freezing black water and struggle; she remembers the glass breaking, her numb fingers scrabbling to unlock her seat belt, not quite quick enough, her body strapped and sinking, becoming heavy with sea-water as she watched the surface disappear above her.

“No,” Regina gasps, stepping back. She can feel Emma right beside her, waiting. “No, I-“ she struggles to breathe and it echoes weakly in her memory, the feeling of no air, gasping, swallowing sea water between breaths as her lungs sat in her chest like a half deflated balloon, a hand clutched around it, tightening. “I got out,” she chokes out, “I swam to shore, I made it home.”

Emma’s arms fold silently around her. “It’s alright,” Emma says against her ear again and again, but it isn’t. Nothing is. She can feel the grave distance between her and the world she lived in, suddenly changed, suddenly different.

She stares into her son’s dark eyes, his hardened, horrified face and reaches out for him, sucking in a watery breath when he steps back, widening the distance. He stands, older, taller, a complete stranger to her, and she curls into Emma’s arms, feeling the weight of the ocean all around her again, dragging her down to its murky bottom, separating her, gently, from the ones she loved.

*

In the living room Regina listens to the sounds just above her head, the creaking of the floorboards and the passing of feet. Once Snow and Charming arrived, things had moved more quickly, dividing them with unrest and fear, the Charmings knotting around Henry as Emma stayed firm and loyal at her side, losing her breath arguing with them.

She meant to stay, but in the face of all that anger and confusion she found herself slipping away instead, down the stairs to her living room and the small corner where her couch sits stiffly. Sitting motionlessly, she can hear their voices now, softened through the distance, reverberating through the walls.

There is Charming’s quiet murmur, “Maybe we should all calm down.”

“I can’t believe you right now,” Emma intervenes, her voice heated. “That’s Regina, that’s her. It’s gotta be!”

“And how could you possibly know that Emma?” Snow’s voice is a sharper reflection of Emma’s, “People just don’t come back from the dead. It doesn’t work like that, not without consequences.” There is a short pause, and Regina listens closely despite herself. “I think your feelings are fogging your judgement. You’re not thinking about what’s best for Henry. Or yourself.”

“Oh, fucking come on-”

“She’s been dead for years, Emma! We buried her, we had a funeral. I know you are struggling, we all are-” Snow’s voice rises, likely from Emma’s reaction, whatever it may be, but Snow refuses to be cut off, “But you have to think of Henry first. You have to think about what this might do to him if you’re wrong and that woman down there is not the person you think she is.”

Emma says something else, but she can’t hear it over the scuffle of movement as the door opened and closed, Emma’s bare feet moving across the hall and down the stairs. Regina straightens her shoulders, sitting guiltily in the silence that pauses at the bottom of the stairs.

“Hey.” Emma frowns, glancing up at the top of the stairs and then back down. “I guess you heard all that, didn’t you?”

“It’s fine,” she lies and looks away.

“I’m sorry,” Emma sighs.

She manages a small shrug, feeling the dull ache in her spine from being motionless for so long. Slowly, she rests back into the couch. “How is Henry?”

“Um.” Emma tucks her hands into her back pockets so that the pink curves of her thumbs hang out. “Good. Snow and David are going to talk to him for a little while.”

“About how I am a danger to him?” She remarks dryly.

Emma doesn’t argue; she looks away, instead, her thumbs turning down, hiding into the flat of her palm.

It’s this, somehow, that wells the emptiness in her chest.

“Well perhaps he should know,” she says and can feel the sharp surprise in Emma’s eyes, even if she can’t let herself look. “As your mother said, the dead don’t just come back.” The word tastes foreign in her mouth, like salt water, as bitter as the words that follow. “Or at least not for any good reason. Not for any reason you’d want.” She thinks of the stables and of bruising fingers, the smell of straw, and horses shifting nervously, watching as life caved in and turned to dust.

“Regina.”

“We might as well be honest with ourselves, dear,” she says and though she keeps her voice firm, almost indifferent, she can’t look up from her hands. “The last time someone came back from the dead they ripped off a man’s arm.”

“Sorry, but have you ripped off someone’s arm, yet?”

Regina levels a glare at her. “Don’t be childish.”

“What?” Emma retorts. “We’re aware of one other case of something like this happening and it came from fucking Frankenstein, so kind of bound to be fucked up, in my opinion. And Daniel was….” Her sentence trails off when Regina’s eyes snap up, sharp and focused, worrying Emma’s mouth into a gentle frown. “Well…he was…gone for a lot longer.”

“Dead is dead, Emma,” she snaps. “The amount of time that passes is irrelevant.”

“Not to me.” There is a sharp edge to her voice and Regina looks up just in time to see Emma’s face flicker and then close, watching her draw in a long breath and close her arms protectively around her chest. “Look – you said it yourself, magic is unpredictable. It’s done weird shit before. It’s done a lot of impossible things. Why can’t we just take this as what it is?”

“And just what is this, then?”

“I don’t know!” Emma exclaims, “I have no idea what this is. But you were gone for years and now you’re here looking exactly as you had before, so why can’t we just be happy about that?”

“Because we don’t know if this is permanent – “

“You’re right, we don’t!” The space between them evaporates in two large steps, Regina suddenly looking directly up at Emma’s face and into her wild eyes. “We have no way of knowing how this will go. You could disappear tomorrow or you might live the rest of your life like you were supposed to. I have no idea, but yesterday you were just gone so maybe whatever this is, it’s good enough”

It probably shouldn’t surprise her how much Emma’s eyes seem to well, how much feeling there is between them in this moment. But it does. It’s as startling as when she first saw it, so clearly, so obviously, in that night in her vault so long ago (longer than she wants to think about), her face flushed and her voice a quiet whispers.

It still feels new – being this important to Emma.

For Emma, it must feel like a stale fact, like cold coffee or like dust gathering on a shelf. She presses her back against the couch to reorder herself.

“Alright,” she says.

Emma blinks and then nods, slowly straightening up to stand awkwardly above her, gangly, tall, filled with so much.

“Sorry,” she mumbles after a beat, her voice a quiet wobble. “For, uh, yelling.”

Waving a dismissive hand, she pats the space beside her when Emma remains standing stiffly, as though there were hands in her shoulders and arms and legs keeping her still. Emma sighs deeply and settles into the small space beside her with relief, thighs and arms brushing against her, warm and comforting.

They fall into a comfortable silence, ignoring the quiet hush of voices above them, returning now in the brief quiet, still audible through the distance of stairs and thin walls; it runs on in the distance like running water, a quiet background, gathering thoughts in her head the way rivers join in lakes, carrying with them all the years that passed on without her notice, piling up like dirt, growing heavier and heavier.

The feeling gets stuck in her throat, wet and clotted. “How…” her voice sticks, forcing her to clear her throat. “How old is he?”

Emma’s head turns to her slowly, her eyes clear, grey, and knowing. “Eighteen.”

It feels like a fist to the chest. “Eighteen?”

Dizzily, she remembers the small child she lifted up from a crib so long ago, wrapped in a soft blue blanket. The child she sang lullabies to, and who grabbed fistfuls of her hair whenever he could. The child who fell asleep to the sound of her heart beating, who she once promised to never leave –

“So I’ve been…” she swallows, the word dead sitting solidly in her mouth like dirt. “I’ve been gone for five years.” She sinks back into the couch. “But how? How is this even happening?”

“I don’t know.” Emma rests a hesitating hand on her knee. “I know this must feel terrifying. I can’t even imagine. But I want you to know – whatever happens – I got your back.” Emma’s eyes find hers, and Regina feels the heaviness of those words, said so many times before. “No matter how this turns out, I’m here for you.”

Regina looks over her expression closely, scrutinizing for small changes these five years might have made of her expression, but Emma’s face is still familiar. “I wonder if you’re prepared for what that might mean.”

“Can’t be worse than losing you again.” Emma says, the corner of her mouth pulling up into a light smile, her hand squeezing tenderly. “Maybe just give me a bit of a warning if you start craving human flesh.”

A wake of nervousness creeps around Regina’s back, but her heart catches at the words – at Emma’s soft face and the severe, genuine look in her eyes. Still her Emma.

“You’re as much as an idiot as you were five years ago,” she says, and when Emma’s eyes crinkle Regina feels her hand slide off her lap and seek out Emma’s, curling over knobby white knuckles and a warm calloused palm.

She squeezes gently and is relieved to feel Emma squeeze back.

Minutes pass in a comfortable silence, Emma and Regina sitting side by side, still holding each other’s hands. They only separate when there is the sound of movement at the top of the stairs, lifting Regina immediately to her feet.

Turning, she watches as David walks down first and then Snow and finally, Henry. He does not look at her, his head bent away, but she can see his eyes, dark and lined with red.

“Henry.” she starts to say, swiftly cut off by Snow.

“Emma, we are going home,” Snow doesn’t look at her. “I hope you plan to think a little more reasonably about this.” Her eyes cut to Regina, dark and unyielding; Regina tries to return it, feeling the stir of anger in the pit of her stomach, but it passes through her dry like sand and she’s left staring at Henry’s face instead.

“Right,” Emma sighs tiredly.

Snow is already turning away to pull Henry into a swift hug. There must be brief exchange of private words because Henry nods quietly and Snow squeezes his shoulder before turning back to the door, Henry close behind, never once looking back at her.

She startles at the sight of her son walking out toward the door. “Wait,” she follows on weak legs, her voice breathless. But they don’t turn to look at her, so she clears it away, reaches for the woman who can fight, the Evil Queen. “Stop.”

Snow pauses hesitantly, turning back to face her. “Yes?”

Closing some of the distance, Regina refuses to feel small even in her bare feet and tear-streaked cheeks. “My son.” she lifts her chin. “He belongs here with me. Whether you believe I am who I should be or not, he stays here with me.”

“Is that so?” Snow’s face begins to change, becoming a sneer she hasn’t seen since she was a child sticking her nose up at her teachers. A feeling clatters loudly in her chest, an old memory, an old anger.

She grasps onto it, baring her teeth. “He’s not leaving with you, Snow White.”

Surprise flutters briefly around Snow’s expression, but disappears soon after, becoming a quiet, muted displeasure. “No,” Snow frowns. “He isn’t.”

Rage flattens immediately into hope, gaping in her chest like a wound. “You’re staying here?” She asks, looking to Henry.

He doesn’t look straight at her, his eyes focused at the middle of her forehead, a tactic she taught him for his nerves in public speaking. Just imagine your talking to a wall, dear, she had said. Say what you need to and that’s all, then it’s all over.

“Henry.” She steps forward, her voice raw with the hope and fear in her throat, stuck in with her words. “Please look at me.”

His eyes flicker to hers in surprise. The space around her fills with quiet nervousness, shuffling feet and voices – Snow hums fretfully and David steps closer, as if to block her from him, but Emma steps in between, halting their action.

“Emma,” David warns warily, but doesn’t move with his daughter’s hand pressed against his chest.

“Just let her be.” Emma says.

Regina approaches carefully, moving to stand right in front of him. “Henry,” she whispers, and although he is too tall to direct his chin anywhere, anymore, her hand lifts anyway, traveling up the small distance to press hesitating fingers on his cheek.

She is aware of the wary twitch of his head and the cautious way he is watching her. But he does not move, and neither can she.

“I’m so sorry, darling.” she whispers and gently draws circles along top of his cheek. “I know how confusing this must feel. I can’t imagine how you must feel. I don’t even entirely know how to make of it myself.” Her thumb presses down, urging the immediacy of her words. “But no matter how strange this seems, no matter how many years have passed, I want you to know that I – I still love you. So much, my darling. And I would never hurt you.”

Henry’s eyes flicker and she breathes in sharply, gently pressing down on the thumb along his cheek. “All I want is for us to be together again.” she breathes, wanting so much. “To be a family again. You, me, and Emma. Do you think we could do that?”

He stares at her for a long time before quietly stepping back again. Her hand flickers with surprise and falls heavily to her side. “I’ll be staying.” he says, and doesn’t look away from her. “But only so Emma isn’t here alone.”

“Henry.” Emma snaps, but Henry doesn’t flinch. He stares at Regina, the heart of a thirteen year in his chest, flashing, tightening, turning into a fist.

He turns to his grandparents. “I’ll walk you out,” he says, before stepping out onto the porch, his grandparents following close behind him. She watches him through the foggy glass window, walking evenly down the path and into the grey, evening light, not speaking, his head lifted and facing forward.

Emma brushes worriedly against her arm. “Regina?”

“I’m fine,” she says because suddenly she is too tired for comfort. Her chest aches, wanting, for a moment, the simple quiet that comes with sleep, the silence, the peace. Crossing her arms around her chest, she glances up at the dim rooms above the stairs. “If you don’t mind, dear, I think I’ll rest for a little while.”

“Okay,” Emma murmurs.

Regina turns and leaves. She can hear Emma’s footsteps following quietly behind before becoming hesitant, pausing, stopped on the first floor. Regina doesn’t look back, she simply continues up the remaining stairs to her room, gently closing the door behind her.

Her room still looks familiar. There is the oval mirror hanging on the wall and the slanted white windows, the filmy curtains tied to the side and the desk that still holds all of her belongings. It looks in the same exact state as it had been five years ago, preserved somehow. On the desk beside her bed is the wristwatch she had forgotten that morning, dropped carelessly the night before. It still works, ticking quietly even five years later, its thin silver hands chasing time.

As she sinks into bed, she rests her cheek on the pillow nearest to the window and listens to the distant hum of the traffic outside. There is an odd comfort to it, in the steady rhythm of cars passing, uninterrupted, through streets and intersections, returning, alive and well, to the families and homes waiting for them.

She closes her eyes, but doesn’t sleep.

*

It’s still early when she decides to leave bed, finally done pretending. By the silence in the hallway and below the stairs, she knows Henry is still asleep. She thinks briefly about Emma, whether she returned to her parents or if she is asleep in her house somewhere, if she lives here now.

At the stairway, she turns on a whim and peeks into the guestroom where she finds Emma in bed, the room still dark and quiet, her jeans on the floor and her belongings crowding the desk space.

“Oh, Emma.” She sighs and is already halfway to the bed before she’s completely aware of it.

She picks up a shirt from the floor and folds it over the back of a chair, sitting quietly on the corner of the desk to watch her sleep for a moment. There is something undeniably peaceful in her calm, even breathing, in the way the thin fingers in her hand curl into a fist, squished against her chest, how the usual lines in Emma’s face are smoothed out in her sleep and softened.

With a sigh, gently tucking away a few strands of her blonde hair, Regina thinks: I will make up for it now. The long years. The sadness, the loss. Her son and Emma. Her family. She will make up for it all, somehow.

Rising to her feet, she gently pulls the sheet up from where they’ve twisted around Emma’s legs and drapes it loosely around her shoulders.

“You sleep like a rock, my dear,” she chuckles lightly and delivers a soft kiss against the top of her head, unable to resist brushing the messy strands of blonde hair from her face to behind her ear. Emma hums and shifts closer. Quietly, Regina steps away, to let her sleep.

She doesn’t check on Henry. His sleep is far lighter than Emma’s and somehow, she knows that he would be waiting for this. For something suspicious. He’d be lying in bed like a mouse in the walls, listening closely, waiting for possibilities, for her to walk into his room uninvited.

It’s too early for breakfast, but her stomach grumbles (again) and she checks her fridge, sighing at the spacious, empty drawers. She couldn’t even make her family oatmeal if she wanted to. Turning away in disgust, she plucks the car keys from one of the hangers and strides purposefully to the garage.

A quiet hush falls around her and she stands in the doorway, breathing in the dark, damp air of the garage, faced with the two cars instead of one. One is familiar, at least, the bright yellow bug. But the other…is a truck, big and green and unfamiliar. It sits in the same space where her own car used to.

It makes sense, of course.

Henry would need a car of his own and whether Emma would be willing to hand over her bug or not, her family would not be able to sustain a single-car lifestyle.

It makes sense. But it also makes her think of her own car, lost somewhere on the bottom of the ocean, (the way her body had been, still strapped inside) waiting as time passed on and her son became old enough to drive.

Shivering, she steps out from the garage and quietly returns into the warmth of the hallway, her fingers trembling as she grabs her coat and scarf. On her way to the door, she sets the keys back on its hook, leaving without a word.

The morning is chilly, the sidewalk slick with rain and wet bundles of leaves. She passes along the narrow sidewalks, shivering gently – yet oddly grateful; there is a kind of alertness that comes with the cold, a pleasant certainty that she is alive and that the air clouding from her mouth is her breath, and it moves with her lungs, with a functioning, beating heart.

She doesn’t take much notice of the people around her, quietly passing by her like fish in streams of water, mindful of only their direction as she is mindful of her own, recalling favorite recipes and half-forgotten street names.

It isn’t until she is in the grocery store reviewing two different sausages that she feels the uneasy eyes of a stranger on her.

He is watching her from beneath his eyelids, his gaze flickering hesitantly from her face to her hands (familiar, perhaps, to the people who have known an empty space between their ribs), and she drops both packages in her cart and walks away, heart thrumming high and red in her ears.

Though it’s still early, the store is more populated than she thought it would be, morning joggers pausing for coffee, tired mothers hugging their children to their hip as they walk through the aisle, and her, pulling her scarf up from beneath her chin to hide from them all.

Her cart is heavy with ideas of breakfast and though she knows she won’t make it through the checkout line without being noticed (is that Ava? she's so much taller, now, Regina hardly recognizes her at all), she won’t return home empty handed. It’s still possible, she thinks, to have a normal morning. To have breakfast with her family.

In the back of the store, small cold offices sit with untouched papers and coffee in styrofoam cups, becoming stale. Closing the door, she sets the phone to her ear and quickly punches in the familiar number.

It rings three times before Emma answers breathlessly. “Yeah?”

Beneath the quiet hum of static, Regina can hear the high sweeping sound of distress in her voice and with a sudden jolt of guilt, she can imagine how the morning unraveled without her: Emma walking bare foot into her room to find an empty bed and a terrifying possibility – all the hope and relief closing inside of her like metal trap beneath the earth, closing shut.

“If this is a prank call I can pretty much guarantee you this is not a good time.”

“Its not,” she breathes, guilt-heavy. “Though I suppose I do still owe you an apology.”

The pause lasts the amount of time it takes for Emma to steal a half-breath. “Oh my god,” she rasps, “Regina – do you have any idea how this morning was like?”

“I should have left a note,” she sighs.

“Where are you?”

“The store. The refrigerator was looking a little scarce, and I wanted to make breakfast,” she sits on the corner of the desk and sighs. “I’m sorry I frightened you. I just wanted the house stocked again. It isn’t always this empty, is it?”

Emma is still coming back, still catching her breath, but she’s heard the edge in her voice and it softens her own. “Um, no, not usually. I try to go shopping every week, but I mean, I can’t really cook that well and Henry tends to eat with his friends, but we’ve been…we’ve been really trying –”

“Oh, of course you have. I didn’t mean…” she sighs and starts again. “I just wanted to make you breakfast. You and Henry. That’s all I want. I planned to be back before you woke up.” Hesitating, she clears her throat. “Is Henry awake, too?”

“No, still asleep.”

Still asleep. “Good,” she sighs and tips her head back. She never thought mornings would ever feel like this again: made up of so many complications, so many knots; its work just to slip through one unharmed.

Remembering her situation, she glances out of the window. “By the way, dear.” she says. “I think I might be in a bit of a situation.”

The line briefly hums with static before Emma’s voice comes through with worry. “What kind of situation?”

“Well I didn’t think the store would be this busy in the morning.” A few people pass by the door and she frowns. “Or that I’d be noticed so quickly.”

They’ve noticed you?”

“Just a few suspicious looks,” she assures her. “It’s not a big deal, of course. I could probably go through the checkout line if Ava wasn’t the one behind the counter.” Her finger curls around the phone wire idly, pinching it between her thumb and forefinger. “I’m just not sure what to expect. I don't know how anyone will react to seeing me again.”

“Yeah, let’s not take any risks,” Emma hedges uneasily. “Can you just – you know – poof away?”

“Oh, and just steal all this food?” Emma makes a quiet sound of understanding, but inside Regina stirs uneasily at the dry, hollow feeling, like silent, empty rooms in a large house.

“Well, let’s just forget about shopping for now, then. I’ll take care of it later, after work.”

“But Emma,” she frowns. “Breakfast.”

“Regina, I’m not putting you in danger for bacon and eggs.”

“But I…” Frustration wells, gripping her chest. “I won’t have anything to make you and Henry.”

“Breakfast will be just as nice tomorrow morning,” Emma says lightly, but Regina doesn’t answer. There is a quiet panic blooming between her ribs at the thought of an empty kitchen, at the quiet restlessness that will follow, the silence, the unease, her son’s dark eyes refusing to meet hers.  

No.” She strains. “We’re having breakfast together. You, me, and Henry.” She means to sound firm and unyielding, but her voice sticks, caught, and she wobbles, casting her eyes out across the office instead. At anything that can keep the wet and suffocating rasp from her voice – at the silent desks and piles of papers, at the cold coffee cups and the small windows.

“Regina?” Emma asks hesitantly, but she cannot answer. She stares at a small crack in the window until the squirming in her chest begins to quiet down again, ebbing away, allowing her to breathe.

After a while, Emma’s voice returns gently. “How about I drive over now, then? I’ll go through the check out and drive you home. We’ll get whatever you want. Does that – does that sound good?”

“Yes,” she sighs all at once.

“Okay,” Emma breathes, relieved. “Okay. See you soon.”

She remains in the office for a little while longer after Emma hangs up. She stares out at the small office window, watching people quietly pass by.

(There are a few people she recognizes – not many by name, but she can see them in the back of her mind, a younger image of them captured by moments just like this, passing quietly through stores and sidewalks, existing as she had at the time as someone alive).

They pass by her now, still alive, still busied by life but separated now by years she’s lost.

Without thinking, her hand lifts to press hesitantly against her chest to feel gently with the tips of her fingers the skin and bone beneath it. Against her palm, she feels the gentle beating of her heart, and though she knows it stopped at one point, it’s beating now, beating again, so she presses her hand more firmly against her chest (and thinks please, please keep beating).

A few minutes pass before she catches Emma passing by the small window, oblivious, her long hair tossed up into a messy ponytail as she walks around with her hands shoved into the front of her jean pockets, scanning the aisles as subtly as a Charming can.

Popping open the door, she pokes her head out. “Emma.

Emma pauses and glanced around obliviously.

Emma.” she hisses, and then sighs when she goes on unnoticed. Leaning out further, she says, “I''m over here, you idiot.

Emma twists around to find her, smiling immediately. Quickly, she slides into the cool office, bumping elbows and limbs, her boots knocking clumsily against the door to close it behind them.

“Hey,” she whispers.

“Hello.” Regina returns, mildly disoriented by how little space there is between them now. Emma’s cheeks are still pink and her lips look dry and cracked but she’s smiling still, smiling widely.

Emma glances at her cart, “Oh, wow,” she chuckles. “Craving meat, Regina?”

Blinking, she looks down at her cart, only now recognizing just how heavy it is, so little with her usual choices, the salads and fruits and yogurts. “Oh. Right.” She clears her throat and tosses away the sudden discomfort. “I assume you’re still a ravenous carnivore.”

“Absolutely.”

Regina smiles, “Well good. I’ll have to make something special for dinner, too.”

Emma glances back down to her cart, “What are you gonna make?”

She has a list of Emma’s favorite foods in mind, but Henry’s picky appetite halves it. “Biscuits and gravy?” she asks, smiling gently when excitement jumps in the hard lines around Emma’s smile.

“Really?” Emma exclaims happily, “I haven’t had that in forever.”

“So it’s still your favorite?” Regina asks carefully.

“Oh yeah.” Emma smiles and gently brushes a strand of her hair behind her ear, “Just about anything you cook is my favorite.”

Her chest fills with warmth. “At least somethings haven’t changed.” Regina smiles.

The reminder of the years that have passed steals some of the simple happiness, but the smile on Emma’s face doesn’t slip away and it is not entirely unpleasant to know that the years that went on without her won’t simply be ignored. She still has a chance to catch up on them.  

“So I’ll just…” Emma reaches for the cart, transferring the weight between their fingers. “The line doesn’t look long, I should be done pretty quick. Do you wanna….” Her face scrunches up. “Wait in the car I guess?”

“Oh.”

“If you don’t want to that’s fine, you could totally drive home. I don’t mind walking -”

“Emma, honestly,” she sighs. “It’s below freezing.”

“You walked here.”

“Well, I have a scarf, don’t I?”

“I don’t mind, really.”

“Emma, the keys.

“Right.” Wiggling them out of her pocket, her keys jangle loudly with the clutter of pictures and keychains and spare keys and Regina holds them tight as she slip out of the door and into the small crowds of people.

As she passes the mothers and the children and the early joggers, she allows herself to focus on the pictures instead – Emma’s life, all strung together on a keychain and carried in her pocket everywhere she goes. Regina thumbs an old picture of her (some odd stolen moment preserved between paper and glass, worn and weary over the years, still attached after all this time) and slips quietly out of the door, unnoticed.

*

Emma comes out only a few minutes later, her face scrunched up from the cold and her figure fogged by the window, but she smiles when she steps in, bags sitting heavily in the back while she flicks through the few fuzzy stations on the radio. She eventually sets it to the one clear station, playing 80’s music in a constant stream.

Emma hums the whole way back, tapping her thumbs on the wheel as she drives. Regina sits beside her, feeling present, watching Emma’s usually sharp face soften with her smile, glancing over every now and then to sing the words badly (oh so badly, but it’s being sung).

She can’t help but wish she was still in that car, still on her way home to the sense of possibility that had captured her on the road. That Henry would sit with her as he often did and they would talk over the lost years, all of his grief and doubts. It seemed possible.

But when she walked in, Henry slunk out of the kitchen where he sits now, sorting through papers and school books while she hesitates near the narrow doorway, waiting with tightness in her throat and words stuck against the roof of her mouth.

It’s difficult not to sneak up the stairs to where Emma is, still showering, where a simple knock would have her leaving early to be whatever she needs her to be: the aid, her support, a shoulder to lean on. She would help with this, too. She’d do it without hesitation, but there are knots in her throat and they keep her in the doorway, waiting for a moment with her son.

She watches from the frame as Henry lifts to his feet, quickly zipping up his backpack and sliding it over his broad shoulders.

As he turns from the couch, he finds her and halts, startled. Slowly, he frowns. “Why are you staring at me?”

She slips from the door frame to walk closer, resisting the urge to close her arms around her chest for fear of seeming defensive. “I made you some breakfast, dear.”

“I’m not hungry.”

“It’s your favorite.”

Henry, despite everything, cranes his neck a little to see past the marble counters to the steaming plates and deep saucepans. There is a moment, she thinks, that is almost like the one she imagined so she pushes for it, mustering up a small smile. “I thought we could have breakfast together.”

He glances at her. “I’m already on my way out.”

She looks back to the old clock behind her, its hands chasing numbers. “It’s only 7:15.”

“It’s not a school day.”

“Then where are you going?”

“Out.” he shrugs his big shoulders with frustration, not looking at her. “I don’t have to ask for your permission.”

“Henry.” she doesn’t walk after him, but her voice feels halting her throat, her feet anchored by the heavy beating of her heart. “Will you please just – will you just give me a chance?”

Henry is still turned away from her, but he remains still, his shoulders stiff, but waiting for her in a way that reminds her of when he was an infant, crying in great, frightening spasms with a kind of ferocity that seemed endless until, suddenly, wrinkling a kiss against his cheek, he was silent.

Slowly, she walks closer, facing him. “How can I help you with this, darling?” she says, watching the smooth planes of his forehead move in a small nervous twitch. “How can I make you see me again?”

“I don’t know.” he says, and though his voice is hard, his fingers curl nervously around the straps on his shoulders. “Why can’t you just leave me alone?”

“I’m your mother.” she says, and the rest of her clear, cohesive explanation gets lost in her thin, watery voice.

His face clouds and he looks out across the room, his fingers absently running along that thin thread-bare strap on his shoulder. “I don’t know what you expect me to do.” he says at last, still not looking at her. “I mean. Things like this just don’t happen. People can’t just come back. I don’t know how you expect me to believe this.”

“I know dear. I can’t imagine how difficult this must be. I know how impossible it feels.” she nearly steps closer, but remembers in time the way distance speaks, to let her son breathe. “I’ve spent years of my life searching for ways around constraints in my magic and I have never once seen anything like this. Not even with Daniel.”

Henry’s eyes snap to hers. She can see the recognition, remembering that day in the stable, the frightened humming-bird heart in his chest and the smell of straw. Daniel’s looming, terrifying form. It’s the first time he’s really looked at her since she touched his cheek, his attention wells a kind of hopefulness in her.

“I can’t explain this in terms of magic, but maybe we can still make sense of this in some way.”

“And how should I make sense of this?”

Somewhere beating beneath his chest is the heart of the Truest Believer, and so she leaps, hoping some of that might faith might linger beneath, like a net. “Well, I think it might be a second chance. It seems to be. Or at least something like it.” she clears her throat, crossing her arms around her chest. “It must be, if I am here again. To be with you, and Emma.”

“A second chance?” Henry’s expression is unreadable until he speaks again, the curve of his mouth lifting into something hard and amused. “Uh yeah. Sorry, I don’t think so.”

“Why?” She asks uncertainly.

“You don’t know my mom very well if you think she’d get a chance like this.”

She stands there, staring, feeling suddenly hollow. Scraped empty like a seashell. “You don’t think she deserves one?” she asks quietly.

“No, I didn’t say that.” Henry frowns at her. “I just – whether or not she deserves it has nothing to do with it.”

“And why not?” she snaps, a dry anger rolling off her tongue. “What makes a second chance so impossible, then?”

“Because she got hit by a truck.” His voice is sharp and definitive, as if each word hit the back of his teeth on its way out, falling out sharp and chipped. “On her way back from work. From some stupid careless accident – a guy looking over his shoulder at the wrong time. A stupid accident after years of doing all she could do to be better. All her sacrifice, all her work and she just drowns in her own goddamn car.”

She feels the large empty space in her ribs, the crushing weight of all the things she wants to say, how to explain – but how when life has always felt frighteningly like a train on a railroad track, rushing, screeching, pushing her forward only to crash, right on course. She doesn’t know how, she doesn’t understand it herself, so she remains quiet. She watches Henry instead.

His breaths come out in sharp, uneven puffs. “Yeah, so sorry, but I just can’t believe that. I don’t think those kinds of things just happen. Not for my Mom at least.”

Henry turns away from her then, walking toward the door and while she wants him to stay, her words are lost somewhere in her throat, so she remains in the entryway, watching silently as he slips through the door and out into the walk away, disappearing out of sight.

For a while, she just waits. She can hear the house all around her, the familiar ticking of the clock, a branch tapping against the window, the silence. She doesn’t know how long she stands there, waiting, listening, but it isn’t until she hears the quiet creaking of the floorboards above her that she allows herself to leave the entry way. Quietly, she slips into the warm glow of the kitchen.

Sitting silently at the table, she waits for Emma.

“There you are.” Emma breathes, and slides into the kitchen light, “Where’s the kid?”

“He left.”

“Left?” Emma frowns deeply and smacks a hand along her empty pockets, searching for her phone. “Damn it. I’ll call him back. He’ll be here –”

“No,” she sighs. “It’s fine.”

Emma blinks at her. “You don’t want me to call him back?”

“No. No. Just let him be.” she says, and waits for the ache: for Henry’s disbelief to harm in some way. But all she feels is a kind of certainty, like steady streams of traffic moving forward, humming in her mind because even though everything is different and difficult, Henry is not. The years have failed to make him a stranger to her.

It is enough, she thinks. To understand her son again. She will learn to understand the rest.

“So…” Regina glances up to find Emma still standing by the door, now shy in the silence. “Are – are we still going to have breakfast?”

“Well, if you don’t mind me as your only company.” Regina smiles and enjoys the way Emma’s smile crinkles her face into familiar lines.

“I’ll get you a plate.”

The morning light is warm on her back as Regina waits at the table, watching Emma move through the kitchen in a thin, easy grace. She is in long sleeves and bare feet, her hair still wet from the shower.

Somehow, the morning feels normal regardless of everything. Emma sneaks bites of food on both their plates and sips her coffee loudly. Sometime while eating, she scoots her chair even closer to Regina’s. Regina smiles and pretends not to notice.

It isn’t until they have both finished that Emma speaks again, a cup of coffee cradled against her chin. “I don’t know if I should go to work.”

Regina hums, half dozing in the warm sun. “Why wouldn’t you?”

“I don’t want to leave you here alone.”

She purses her lips. “I’m not a stray cat, dear. I know how to stay put in a house.”

“Yeah I know that, Regina.” Emma sighs and leans forward, setting her cup back on the tabletop; a napkin flutters gently from the movement and her fingers trap it down at a corner. “I just don’t like the thought of you being here alone.”

Well. She can’t argue with that. She doesn’t like it either.

Regina waits in the quiet, watching the tip of Emma’s finger trace the patterns in the napkin, the soft red circles and the dotting lines. After a while, her voice creeps in hesitantly. “What if you came to work with me?”

“Emma,” she sighs.

“It could work, I mean – it’s only me and David there all day.” Emma tilts her head and looks at her from the side. “And he already knows you’re here.”

“That doesn’t mean he wants me there, my dear.”

“Well I want you there.” Emma nudges her with her knee. “Come on, I really don’t want to leave you here.”

It really only takes a few seconds before she feels herself give, sighing. “Alright.”

“Really?” Emma grins.

“Yes.” She sighs, but she is warmed by Emma’s smile. It loosens something in her chest.

*

The office is quiet when Emma walks in. Regina waits momentarily by the door, watching Emma as she looks around the room, looking for her father. It’s mostly empty, the desks dark and silent in their set rows, papers fluttering beneath paperweights as a cool breeze moves the air around the room. In the far corner, she recognizes David with his straight back and large shoulders, staring tiredly at the coffee pot, rubbing the sleep from his face as he waits for it to brew.

Emma clears her throat. “Uh, hey dad.”

“Hey kiddo,” he sighs before even turning around, smiling over his shoulder. “How was your night.” His eyes stray momentarily to the back where she stands, tall and straight in her dark jacket and heels. “Shit.” He jumps back, fingers jumping to his waist to feel his gun holster.

“Whoa, Dad.” Emma’s walking forward, hands splayed out in front of her. “Can we not grab the gun so early in the morning?”

“What the hell, Emma?” His hand drops from his holster, but his expression doesn’t change. There is something about his eyes that pricks an unpleasant feeling in her stomach. There is fear in it, understandably she supposes, but also disgust like the way her son looked at spiders crawling up his wall, waiting for her careful hands to trap them and take them away again. “What in the world is she doing here?”

“I wanted her here.” Emma sets her wallet and keys on the desk, sliding her jacket onto the back of the chair. There is a kind of sly certainty in her as she waits for an argument and pretends like she isn’t.

“I’m not going to fight you on how you should feel. I don’t want to.” David crosses his arms squarely across his chest. “But you can’t just – bring danger into everyone else’s lives, alright kid? You just gotta be more cautious about this.”

“Cautious?” Emma laughs with the kind of exasperation that makes her face hard and sharp. “What do you think is going to happen? Is she going to eat my brains?”

Regina shifts uneasily and glances back across the far hallway. For once, the large and empty house seems welcoming. She wonders if it’s too late.

“Is that so ridiculous, Emma? She came back from the dead.”

“Right, and so obviously she’s just waiting to smash my head in, right now, huh?”

“I don’t know.” David gruffs.

“No, you don’t know, so maybe stop trying to give me some lessons through your enormous knowledge of low-budget zombie movies.”

David locks up, his jaw tightening, but it’s only a moment before he seems to deflate, shying away from a standoff with his daughter. “Fine.” He sighs. “If she’s staying, then she sits in the cell.”

Dad!

“In the cell or she doesn’t stay.” David only wavers a little by the ferocity in his daughter’s eyes, ducking his head a little to accept the new weight and heft of his daughter’s anger. It is the one thing she is willing to grant in his favor: the way his daughter’s disappointment wounds him. But he still nods his head to where the cell is. “It’s the only way I’m letting it happen, kiddo. If she tries anything, I’m not going to be taken unprepared.”

Emma opens her mouth to say something– or perhaps to start yelling – but she interrupts.

“Its fine, dear,” Regina brushes a gentle hand on Emma’s arm as she passes with a prick of contempt, she glances to David. “Anyway, what’s a few bars for the living dead.”

David blinks and shifts away as she passes, catching the weary yet warm smile on Emma’s face; she rolls her eyes when she winks.

The cell is small and empty except for the mattress pressing up against the wall. Light tilts in from the window above and rested in long rectangles along the bedspread, flickering briefly with leaf shadows and other quick, passing things. Regina sits gingerly, the sunlight resting warm against the side of her face and along her neck.

She hears David murmur, “Here are the keys.”

“I’m not locking the door,” Emma hisses back and Regina looks away so she doesn’t have to see what happens next, glancing across the office instead. It’s still familiar with its slick garish floor and reddish gray brick. There is a fan whirring quietly above them, flickering the pages; beside the cell is a small desk where a stack of magazines are, an old battered coffee can filled with spry white daisies sitting atop it.

Emma’s steps are quiet as she approaches. “You want anything to read?” she asks quietly, nodding to the magazines. She’s holding the keys limply with her fingers.

“No,” But Regina stops, and says after a beat, “Actually, is there a Journal in there?”

Emma slips by, flipping quickly. “Yeah. Old one, though.” She holds out her hand and Emma smiles, passing it over. “Never figured you for the Home reading, sorts.”

“I enjoy their recipes.” She says without glancing up, she asks, “Are you going to lock the door?” Her voice is unintentionally soft and it sways Emma to a stop.

Her fingers fiddle with the keys, turning the large metal ring that holds them all together. “I don’t want to.” she mumbles.

“Well it makes no difference to me,” she tries to sound light and casual, but the wall is cold and the mattress is stiff and it’s been years since she’s been thought of as the enemy. It is rattling, despite everything.

Emma must sense the lie because when she closes the door and slips the key in, she imitates the click with her tongue before sliding the key back into her pocket and walking to her desk. Regina doesn’t look up from her magazine, but she feels it all the same, the brightening, warming her chest in the same way the sunlight does, resting against the curve of her neck.

*

In the end, it is not entirely unpleasant to simply rest. The sun is steady and warm and she feels comfortable enough to almost forget about the odd circumstances surrounding her, allowing her to rest against the wall and watch her surroundings: the odd tap of the tree branch against the window, the odd click of fingers on a keyboard, the way Emma shifts restlessly in her chair, glancing occasionally over her shoulder to watch her in pauses of her work.

David is less subtle in his watch of her – he glowers over his coffee whenever Emma shifts towards her again.

It’s mostly silent. There are the small, incidental sounds, the answered phone calls, and the click of the receiver, paper shifting, dry yawns and cracks in the small bones along the spine, spent from the long hours. Regina doesn’t remember the years that passed without her but there is something about the possibility of its absence that make these quiet familiar sounds seem all that more important to her.

It’s a little while later when David stands stiffly and mumbles a quiet excuse as he walks towards the door. Emma waits for the door to close before turning around in her chair to face her.

“Hey,” she smiles.

“Hello,” Regina smiles faintly. “You know, you are far more efficient than I remember you to be.” Emma cocks an eyebrow at her and she makes a small pass of her hand. “I don’t see a single paper airplane in this place, and it’s been at least four hours.”

“Oh yeah.” she grins and leans on her elbows. “But to be fair, by now we usually half-way through one of those games over there.” she nods over to the drawer with a grin.

“Of course.”

Emma glances at the drawer, and then at her, smiling slowly. “You wanna play a game of cards?”

“I don’t know much about them.”

“You’d know this one,” she says, already sliding her chair back to her desk, opening up a drawer. “Henry was the one that taught me. He said you knew it.”

“Ah,” Regina sighs, remembering. “Yes.”

A life can seem so incredibly long and yet so short. It seems only a year ago that she was dragging a small desk between her and Henry to play the only card game she knew. She’d watch him then, his quick smile and excited, eager gains along with his wide, avid eyes flipping through his deck, looking for victory.

But it is Emma now, years later, pulling a deck of cards from a drawer and shuffling the battered, bent cards as she walks to her cell. She kicks off her shoes and slides into bed with her, sitting cross-legged as though they had always been this way, this easy around each other and it urges Regina to meet her in some way, to force comfort into their new lives, to toe off her heels and tuck her legs behind her and feel the sun warm her bare toes.

A tentative happiness flickers inside of her and she lets it grow, leaning on her hand she watches Emma split the deck with quick, practiced hands, gathering the cards as they lie out in front of her.

It’s a few quick games (Emma playing recklessly and losing badly) before Regina decides to speak again.

“So.” Regina starts.

“So?”

She glances up at Emma, at her even brow and her set mouth, flipping carefully through her cards. “I would like to know more about the last five years.”

“Oh.” Emma’s mouth turns hesitant. “Um, well alright. What would you like to know?”

Regina follows the corner of the card with her finger, bending it easily back and forth. She’s not sure. There is so much to know – so many years, so many days and moments that go on in her absence. They extend like the sky above her and she struggles to focus on one single detail, thinking of Henry and the maps and pictures in his room, the thick books along his wall. She thinks of Emma and her long sighs, her sad sweet smiles, eyes that still follow her everywhere.

“Well,” she straightens the card again, tries to make her tone smooth. “I haven’t seen Hook lurking in any of your doorways in a while.”

“Hook? That’s your first question?”

“I have quite a few years to catch up on if you recall, Emma.” she huffs and haughtily collects her cards but there is a small flutter of embarrassment in her chest. She can feel the top of her cheeks burn warm. “You seemed to love him, last I remember.”

“Did I?” Emma asks absently, still looking at her cards. “I guess I did. I don’t really know anymore. It’s been a while since it ended, and I haven’t thought of it since.”

“When?”

Her mouth pinches at the corner. “Close to five years.” Regina watches Emma’s eyes become more dimmed, remembering, “I don’t know. It would have hurt more if I loved him, right? You’d think about it more. You’d start missing them, all the little things. Their little habits and mannerisms. What they do when they think they're not looking. All the time you spent together.”

“You didn’t?”

“No.” Her thumb idly bends the worn, fuzzy edge of the card. “I thought I was okay spending the rest of my life with him, but I think I could have said goodbye to him on our first date and felt no different.” Emma smiles dimly, her eyes fluttering up with a wry exhaustion. “I don’t think I ever found a way to say goodbye to you.”

Her heart thunders in her ears and Emma’s face tightens, eyes falling away. “Sorry.”

“It’s fine.” she assures breathlessly, but her mouth fills with all the wonder she has for Emma’s devotion to her. And while she wants to ask, her words are stuck inside of her like the heart behind her ribs, beating brashly like the waves against the cliffs, always wondering.

“What’s the next question?” Emma asks, looking away from her.

“Why did you never move into my room?”

Emma’s face registers the question like a slap and Regina nearly takes it all back. But she thinks of Emma in the guestroom, curled up like a mouse in the wall as her room remains closed, still filled with all of her belongings. With the jewelry box and that silver wrist watch she forgot that morning, still full of the details of her life but motionless, interrupted by grief. Sealed by a closed door.

“I don’t know.” Emma says but her voice is scraped clear like dead leaves, “I guess I just didn’t want to move you out of your own room. It didn’t feel right to put you in boxes and set you away in the basement with the rest of Henry’s childhood. Like you were some part of the past now, just because you were dead.” Her voice breaks away suddenly and she shakes her head, huffing out a sharp laugh. “God, I’m sorry.”

“No, don’t be.” She soothes, the lilt in her voice carrying both the smile on her face and the sorrow. “I was the one who wanted to know.”

“And I want to tell you.” Emma warily wipes a blonde curl from her face. “But I haven’t exactly gotten any better at having difficult talks. Henry just about suffered through every pep talk I ever made”

“What pep talks?” Leaning forward, she smiles; she remembers only the childhood talks, the math homework and the difficulty with friends - she can’t imagine any now since he’s crossed into adulthood.

“Just normal stuff.” Emma’s tone tells her otherwise and Regina decides not to press, her heart shying away from the possibility of sharp jolting truth. “He ended up taking over most of the pep talks over time, though. He got pretty good at it, too. I think he stole just about half of what you used to tell him though. I could practically hear your voice in all the talks he gave me when he thought I was being too sulky.”

Warmth blurs in her eyes, furrowing her vision. She smiles. “Did it help at all?”

“Yeah,” Emma chuckles wetly and lightly rubs her forehead. “It did, a little. He got your tone down to an art. My job was just to listen.” She smiles watery, the soft creases around her eyes wet with tears. “We made a good team out of it, I guess – trying to fit you back in the house.” Emma looks down at her hands suddenly, her chin quivering.

But Regina captures her chin, gently lifting Emma back to her. She looks carefully over her watery grey eyes and tight cheeks, every part of her trying to hide the urge to cry.

Brushing a thumb along her cheek, she swells, so full suddenly of relief. “I’m so glad you had each other.” She whispers, and as Emma smiles tremulously, she rubs a thumb along the peeks of her cheeks, pressing all of her love and relief into the brimming pink in her skin. “I’m so glad.” she sighs.

They stay like that for a little while, the bed warm with the late afternoon, Emma’s long blonde hairs tickling her wrist as her fingers repeat their small routine, pushing strands from Emma’s face, thumbing the strong curve of her cheekbone and new creases around her eyes. There is an old yearning lifting inside of her like smoke, closing her throat.

After a while, Regina slides her hand away, her fingers curling into a fist at her side as she gently clears the soreness from her throat. “Are we going to continue the game, dear?”

Emma slowly opens her eyes again, blinking slowly, and then again, as if only now waking up. “Sure.," she shifts and straightens up a bit, smiling when her shoulders pop with their stiff joints, “You wanna continue this one or get another?”

“Well,” Regina smiles down at her pile of cards. “I suppose I am rather bored of winning.”

Hey there, I got close a few times, if you remember.”

“I don’t, actually.”

“You’re a liar, because I totally did.”

“Do you want to keep playing, then?” She suggests slyly, smiling with delight when Emma huffs. “No really, dear, I want to see you prove yourself.”

“You know, this gloating is just gonna come back and bite you in the butt.” Emma huffs and leans over to rake up all the cards, shuffling them again. “Just watch.”

It’s as she’s passing out cards again when the door clatters open, the sound of rushing feet filling the room. “Emma.

Regina straightens immediately, watching as a head of dark hair comes tumbling into the cell and onto Emma’s lap, sharp angles and jabbing elbows as Emma yelps, struggling to hold on. “Jesus, Neal. A little warning.”

He finally settles onto her lap, bony back pressing firmly against her front as her arms cross gently around his chest. Regina can’t look away from him, her heart thumping heavily against her ribs; with his dark hair and brown eyes, he could have been Henry twelve years ago, still just a boy.

“Hey, so uh…” Emma’s chin rest against his shoulder, her cheek brushing gently against his. “You might not remember this lady, but she knew you when you were just a little a baby.”

Neal turns to look at her and she dizzily remembers the night she had rescued him from Zelena, so long ago. She had paced the small hallway in Granny’s with him against her chest, his exhausted parents waiting for an absent Emma to return as she rubbed his back, his frightened cries slowly quieting into a hushed kind of distress, still frightened, but becoming reassured. He had fallen asleep there, warm against her neck.

“Hello,” she smiles weakly and reaches for his hand. “You’ve grown so much.”

He glances down at her hand and turns shyly back to his sister, hiding beneath her chin. Emma chuckles warmly, hugging him closer.

“Oh, you goof,” she murmurs and drops a kiss on the top of his head. As Regina watches her, she feels a sharp, sudden yearning in her chest, aching simply with the sight of Emma with a small child.

“Neal – I said don’t run ahead.” Snow’s voice skitters anxiously through the hall and Emma blinks, startled, turning to face the door just as it opens. “I know you’re excited but you –” she halts, face instantly registering, responding. “What is she doing here?”

“Mom.” Emma sighs.

Snow flicks her hand, refusing excuses as she stalks closer. “Come here, Neal.” Blinking, Neal glances up at his sister before he tumbles out, huddling up to his mother’s side. Her hand grasps him by the shoulder once he’s close enough, pressing him sharply behind her.

“Look, Mom.” Emma starts again.

“I don’t want to hear it.” Snow snaps, boring her fury into her. “I don’t even know what to say to you – you’ve just endangered your little brother.”

Emma sinks limply back onto the mattress and Regina rubs her back with the flat of her palm because even five years later Snow still has issues with choosing one child over the other. Snow darkens over the exchange, seething silently until Neal muffles his hurt into her side and her hand releases immediately.

“What is she doing here?” Snow says again.

Emma sighs, “I wanted her here. I wasn’t going to just leave her alone in the house.” Her mouth twists nastily. “And anyway, I thought you wanted her in the cell.”

“You can quit making me seem like the enemy, Emma.” Snow sighs, a long exasperated sigh. “You aren’t seeing things clearly. You could be a little more cautious, for your brother’s sake, at least.”

Emma opens her mouth, but she is interrupted suddenly by the short trill of the phone. Regina can be relieved, seeing the conversation end and Emma lifting awkwardly to her feet, slipping through the cell doors to pick up the phone.

There is a quiet buzz, the voice beneath it speaking quickly before the taught brow of Emma’s forehead crinkles and she’s swept into movement, hanging up the phone, grabbing her keys and gun, holstering it quickly.

“Who was it?” Snow hedges anxiously.

“David.” Emma slides her jacket over her arms, speaking through urgent movement. “Someone called him over – said they saw a man running around in the forest. Needs back up now.”

“Is your father alright?” Snow follows urgently. “Did he sound alright?”

“Mom, yeah –I gotta go, though.” Emma’s nearly through the door before she’s skittering to a stop, fingers frantically clearing the blonde hair from her face. “Regina, stay here – please.” And then she’s out of the door, Snow rushing after her with worry.

Neal stands gawkily in the remaining silence, his mother’s steps echoing distantly down the hall. He has the gaping, frightened look of a child left behind. Regina pulls in another breath because stupid thoughtless Snow before making herself sit down again, to rescue any of the normalcy he’d burst into only minutes later.

Neal glances anxiously around before looking at her, shyly. After a moment, he slides back into the cell and nervously sat on the edge of the bed with her. She watches him curiously, watches the small, even lift of his shoulders as he breathes, staring out into the calm office as they sit side by side, his hands in his lap.

It’s only a moment later before he glances over her again.

“You’re the woman in the picture,” he says.

Regina blinks and tilts her head in question, but an explanation never comes. He sits there watching her with large dark eyes, scrutinizing her carefully. It is only after a moment when he was finished with his thoughts that he nods, smiling shyly. In one movement, he lifts up onto his knees and throws his arms around her.

She’s startled for only a moment before her chest expands and she is returning his hug, her hands rubbing up and down his back. He squeezes his arms tight around her. “I’m glad you’re not lost anymore.”

Her hands halt. “What do you mean, dear?” she asks softly.

He pulls back, resting on the back of his legs. “Mom said we lost you,” he says, his arms still lank around her shoulders. “I’m glad you found your way back.”

A spasm of emotion takes her suddenly, starting as a heat at the back of her eyes, furring her vision. “Sweet boy,” she whispers and gently sweeps her fingers over his forehead, pushing back his hair (it falls like Henry’s did, so long and dark). “I’m glad I’m back too.”

Neal nods and squeezes her into a quick hug again. She barely has time to lift her arms before he is already squirming away t with an ecstatic exclaim “Mom!”

He bounds into her legs, but she doesn’t even budge. Snow is staring at Regina with wide eyes (it’s with surprise and something else, something wild and needy and hopeful).

“Snow,” Regina sighs and starts to stand.

Snow’s face changes swiftly, falling into the mask she once wore for an entire year – as the girl Regina watched through her mirror. Who stole, fought and evaded her guards, who defied her, slept on the ground. Who made that large empty room in her castle feel vast and cold and empty. A feeling Regina mistook for victory.

That girl stands in front of her now, blocking the door where Emma left. “You’re not leaving,” Snow snaps, “I don’t care who you convince here. You’re not Regina."

“But I am, dear.” Regina says and steps out of the cell, gently closing it behind her. "You know I am."

“Regina drowned. We buried her.” Snow snaps, stepping back from her. “You can’t come back from that.”

Regina feels the urge to repeat the same speech she gave to Henry. But she knows it wouldn’t be the same. Snow, in her loss, is a child with a dead mother, wanting to change the world into something she can fit into her own hands. Into something that makes sense to her. And right now, Snow is looking at her like she’s something harmful, something poisonous – a dangerous, ravenous spider.

“I won’t hurt you, dear.” Regina says, but it is to a blank wall, Snow’s hardened angry face.

“That’s just because the gun is gone.” Snow snaps and presses Neal closer against her. He watches worriedly, eyes wide. Quietly, he tugs on his mother’s hand. “What?” she snaps edgily, looking down at her son.

“She’s on our wall, Mom.”

Snow turns away from him, pulling a sharp, shaky breaths. “No, she isn’t.” But her eyes glimmer still, and Regina isn’t sure if it’s fear or doubt or something in between, and Regina doesn’t have the energy to decipher which. Walking towards the door, Regina only has to wait a moment for Snow’s fight to give, softening her spine. She wobbles to the side, glaring at her warily as Regina passes through the door and into the hall, feeling Snow’s eyes on her the entire way through.

Walking into the cold bright light, the door clicking closed after her, leaving Snow behind.

*

It doesn’t take long to find them.

Through the large crowd, she finds David first. His face is the only thing visible to her in the swell of the people gathering around them, shuffling, voices rising and falling, worry rushing all around them.

People gathered closer together, and through their shoulders she can see Emma, standing tall and halting with her shoulders pulled back stiffly, causing Regina to walk a little quicker.

And Emma – stupid, idiotic, Emma – is facing whatever David is looking at, whatever is making him afraid, and so why is she only standing there staring?

She doesn’t understand until she’s reached the crowd, bumping shoulders with others, struggling her way through until Emma’s face is clear and shaken and her fingers are trembling on the back of her belt where her gun is, staring at someone, but her fingers are still just twitching around the handle, not grabbing it, and why isn’t she grabbing it –

Emma yelps and Regina straightens to see what had been shouldered from her view before. The man Emma is staring at – his chest broad and bare and familiar like his hands now covering Emma’s jaw, cradling it like it’s something precious, and it doesn’t make sense, not until he lifts his head and she sees what Emma sees –

Graham. Dark, tall, handsome Graham.

And covered in blood.

His eyes are dark and unclear, glancing from all the sharp points in Emma’s face to the unfamiliar around him, the people, the motion, the tension, furring in and out until – until they find hers – then they sharpen, clearing; he steps away, letting go of Emma to face her completely.

Something jolts in Regina’s stomach, strange and foreign to her until the moment Graham steps into view because his mouth is dark with blood and his hands are large and red and there is the smell of flesh on him. It is raw and wet, underneath his fingernails and stuck in between his teeth. It is around his mouth, dripping down his fingers, and it excites her, remembering something similar (something like hunger).

When Graham steps forward, she does too, ready to meet him.

He breaks into a run.

*

The excitement only lasts a moment.

It lasts the time for Graham’s bare feet to hit the rough asphalt of the street, for his anger and fear rattling inside of him the way a train does in a station, screeching along metal. It lasts long enough for Emma to realize where Graham is heading, for the people around Regina to scatter fearfully away, leaving only her. And Emma.

And Emma – stupid, foolish Emma – is quicker. It takes her only a moment to start running, arms pumping wildly, feet steady, body quick and agile as she pivots herself between them.

It’s a quick switch from the high sweeping exhilaration to the kind of terror she once reserved for only her son; it rattles wildly in her now as she feels Emma’s back bump into her, her body a shield, taking the strength and anger of Graham’s grip as it wraps around her throat.

The sudden fear sends her a step back, as Regina watched the dark curve of his fingertips dig into Emma’s neck, the quiet sound of pain stuck in her throat.

Magic tickles up her spine as she watches Emma’s body twitch and Regina barges forward, baring her teeth.

“Don’t touch her,” she snarls and Graham’s dark, dim eyes only flicker to her for a moment before he’s flung back with just a flick of her hand.

His head hits the cement hard, making a sick, solid sound before the momentum sends him tumbling across the sidewalk.

“Oh god.” Emma gasps with wide eyes, and then looks at her. “Oh my god,” she repeats, startled, her fingers hesitantly touching the marks on her throat.

Regina’s fingers find them too. “Oh, Emma,” she sighs fretfully. “You complete and utter moron, what were you thinking?”

“I’m alright,” she says with a quick jerk of her head, swallowing hard. It looks like it hurts. “Think – think he’s just really confused.”

“Is he.” Her lips purse with a dry anger.

“I don’t – I don’t think he knows the curse broke.”

It’s not an accusation, but the guilt finds her anyway. Regina’s thumb circles a dark mark on Emma’s throat before slipping away, smoothing down the collar of her shirt.

“Well, he’s probably fine.” Weariness creeps over her as she glances at him, “And covered in blood.”

Emma doesn’t answer. She is looking at something just over her shoulder with wide, dark eyes. Her fingers drop from her neck to curl painfully tight around Regina’s arm.

“Hey,” she starts, but Emma is already pushing her gently behind her. There, above Emma’s shoulder she can see where people have started to gather in edgy, huddled groups, as silent and dark ad houses are at night. Some are still returning into the scene, something heavy in hand – something to hit with.

There is a man closer than others, and though he doesn’t look familiar, she recognizes the look. The fear. There is a bat in his hands, his grip whitening his knuckles.

“Alright, alright.” Emma’s voice quakes as she holds her hands up in a kind of surrender. “Just – calm down, now.”

“Calm down?” The man asks, his voice high and clear, “That boy over there is covered in blood. You think we don’t know who he is? What he is?” His eyes flicker, boring into her. “What she is?”

“We don’t know anything yet.” Emma’s words are trampled under the hard heel of the bat as it lifts to rest against his shoulder. He starts forward. “Hey, hey – hey!” Emma exclaims frantically, stepping forward and slapping her hands hard against his chest. “We don’t know anything yet!”

“That blood came from someone!” He yells and pushes hard enough for Emma to stumble back a step, losing balance.

Regina steps forward in a thoughtless spasm of fear, hoping only to catch some part of Emma’s body, an elbow or arm, anything to keep Emma’s body from hitting the cement. What she catches instead is the hard swing of the bat against her head.

It’s like a door slamming shut – like Henry, ten years old, running up the stairs to avoid her, the door swinging shut, the walls rattling with its force.

Then everything goes dark.

*

She wakes in a room unfamiliar to her. It is small with windows on two sides, one facing the faint, darkening line of the buildings outside and the other to the sea, a distant blurry line.

It’s large and empty-looking, holding only two other pieces of furniture: an old bureau and a nicked desk. Looking around, she can’t distinguish the large empty walls and space with anything or anyone familiar, and so with the dull ache of the bat still pulsing in the back of her head, a frantic hum of unease begins to settle over her body.

Lifting stiffly, she looks uneasily around the room. “Emma?” she whispers, but no one answers.

Her heels are gone and so is her belt. She finds them in a neat row on the desk beside her and with a keen sense of unease she slides her belt through the loops of her pants and steps into her heels, ignoring the faint ache in her knees at the thought of a quick escape. She opens the door slowly, helping it ease back shut behind her so it wouldn’t creak.

But in the hallway, her worry begins to ebb, taking notice of the familiar details in the faded white brick walls and narrow central hallway, the long black stairwell and the creaking floorboards.

On a desk, she finds a picture of her and Henry. Beside them are candles, flowers, and other small momentums of grief that Regina doesn’t know how to accept. She looks at the old washed out picture instead – she’d been tired from a long day of work and a stiff conversation with her son.

They walked home together and just in the span of a few minutes, she could feel the vast distance settling between them like two different shores facing a wide ocean, and impulsively she stopped Archie on a walk to press a camera into his hand. And though Henry resisted, squinting uneasily in the bright, cold light as she struggled with that strand of hair always falling into her face, she had the picture framed and set it on her desk for years.

Leaving the hallway, she trails down the stairway into the familiarly cluttered living room. She doesn’t notice Henry at first, sitting at the counter in the far corner, but when he stirs, she jumps and whirled around to face him.

“Hey,” he says and bunches his hands into the front of his jeans and looks up at her in a way he had as a kid, a wary kind of gentleness. “Um. How do you feel?”

“Fine, I’m fine..” she manages a small smile, though her fingers lift almost thoughtlessly to seek out the place where the bat had hit, now soft and bruised and rough to touch. “What are you doing here, darling?”

He glances away, shrugging. “I heard what happened.” His backpack is on the floor and his shoes in the spot next to him, as though he had walked in and moved to this exact place and has not moved since. A small muscle clenches in his cheek, tightening his face. “They uh, put him in the bathroom, by the way.”

She thinks of the large man, first. His bald, shiny head and white knuckles. It’s only when Henry glances nervously down the long narrow hallway that she thinks of the other option, the most likely – it being Graham who is locked away. Another version of her, really. The living dead.

She wonders if Graham’s return has changed anything for Henry: if he is fearful of her now or if Graham’s violence has broadened her return from a simple miracle into something else. Something more understandable.

Sighing, she draws her arms around her chest, the air cold from the open window. Remembering the chill, she looks at Henry. “Where is your jacket?” she asks.

He frowns. “Huh?”

“You had a jacket on this morning.” When he lifts an eyebrow, her lips purse with irritation. “Don’t give me that, it’s much too cold to be wearing only a tee shirt and jeans.”

For a moment he only stares up at her, eyes as bright and unblinking as an animal’s, until finally, the corners of his mouth give into a small smile. “Okay,” he says and grabs it from his backpack

The sweater catches on his ear as he pulls it on and though his hands are much larger than she remembers them being and his face far older, the way he struggles through a sweater is so incredibly Henry that for a moment she feels buoyant, the love in her lifting up from her chest and surrounding her like the ocean; she can only stand there helplessly, watching her son (so much older now) jerk his chin out of a sweater and pull it roughly over his head and down to his waist.

Finally, cheeks red, he pats the sweater down. “Good?” he asks.

“Good,” she says and smiles, tears prickling behind her eyes.

Silence surrounds them, cluttered with feeling the way a room is with stuff, with hanging pots and chipped cups and porcelain trinkets lining the wall, both meaningless and important.

It only lasts a minute before, helplessly, needing to protect a good moment she falls on to the one thing they both still share.

“Where is Emma?” she asks, and forces herself not to fidget when Henry looks up at her. “I’m sure she’s worried.”

“Yeah. It was bad for a while.” He sighs, “But she’s arguing with Snow right now, I think.”

He nods over his shoulder to the narrow balcony facing out into the sea, Emma and Snow visible only as cloudy impressions through the glass.

The sky has become a pale, wispy gray behind them, blurring the distant shapes of the trees and mountain into a faint foggy outline. Emma is standing with her arms wrapped protectively around her chest, and though the wind blows her hair partially across her face, she can see the sharp expression on her face, how the occasional response will curl her upper lip.

“Wonderful.” She sighs, even as something warms bubbles up inside of her, at the sight of something familiar: the odd squabble in the back of a room between Emma and her mother. She risks a glance to Henry and smiles, “Who do you think is winning?”

“I don’t think they even know.”

Regina chuckles. “Poor dear.” she says as she watches Emma’s agitation grow, her hair still whipping wildly in front of her face, “I’d say your mother probably needs saving the most.”

The old routine of settling disputes is already setting in her shoulders as she says it, but before she can step forward, Henry in front of her, glancing back with a small smile.

“It’s okay, I got it.”

“Oh.” She hesitates, “If you’re sure.”

Henry nods and she watches him go, feeling with just the small click of the door the way the past moves steadily into the present, creating new, unfamiliar routines. Memories formed entirely from her absence.

She remains standing, watching as Henry slides into the small space between his mother and Snow. It is easy to imagine then, the kind of spaces she left behind – the odd argument left unattended, uninterrupted, conversations circling anxiously away from the empty seat and empty table. Her death carving daily a space in the people she loves, a place where grief exists like the black, scraped walls of large empty caves, holding only space.

She burns with a need to be a part of it again. To be pulled back into the life she left behind. For it all to be worth it, for her to be back with her family, and all the spaces in her house filled again.

Before she is completely aware of it she is already making her way down the narrow hallway, past all the hanging pictures to the bathroom door where a soft light glows beneath its door.

Sliding in, she takes in the small cluttered bathroom. The walls are a soft white with green shutters and empty seashells lining the top of a cupboard. There is a jar of dried daffodils in a mason jar, dying gently on the windowsill. Graham is sitting in the shower with his hands cuffed to a thin rail above his head, his arms dangling limply. He is watching her dully, his face blank and placid.

She waits for some reaction, some anger to flicker across his face but the only movement she can see is the idle twitch of his fingers, flexing into a fist before stretching out again. There is still a thin line of blood visible beneath his fingernails. Her hands slide uneasily down her waistcoat, hiding warily in its comforting pockets.

“I assume you remember who I am?” Regina asks walks closer and pauses at the tall glass doors. A muscle tightens in Graham’s jaw, but he nods. “And you know what’s happened to you?”

“I’m dead, aren’t I?” His voice is a soft familiar rumble. It’s not the voice she’d been expecting.

“Yes.” she answers gently.

“Why aren’t you in one of these?” He asks and gently twists his wrists, the handcuffs clanging gently against the porcelain wall and the steel rail it is tying him to.

It seems for a moment that he knows she’s dead, as well. That she should be considered just as dangerous as he is. But the look in his eyes is more telling, glowering with a hard edge of hatred and she sighs with understanding, “It’s been nine years since the curse broke, Graham.”

Graham’s expression blanks. “Nine years.” he echoes and flexes his fingers, the small bones cracking quietly. She considers explaining, but she is so tired of the old, weary practice of defending herself, fighting against the old evils she has worn on her heart for so long, untouched by the good she’s done, by her fierce, unending apology.

Graham doesn’t speak again, only staring at the pale green bathroom tiles below her feet. Straightening, she pushes through her hesitancy, pushing for the sure direct route, each questions like an arrow pointing straight to her heart

“You are covered in blood.” She says and steps close enough to regain his attention. “Do you know why?”

The corner of his mouth twitches with contempt. “Yes.”

“Do you know whose blood it belongs to?” He frowns at her for a moment before shaking his head. Her skin prickles with fear. “What does that mean?”

“It means I don’t know.” He grumbles.

“How could you not know?”

He stares up at her with an odd tilt of his head as though he knows his words are the ones she dreads, and they are, they are. “It happened suddenly. I woke up feeling normal…maybe a little hungry, but it didn’t feel too unusual. I was fine and then I wasn’t.” Her heart shudders like blinders falling closed and she thinks, no, tell me anything but that, anything but that.

Regina’s fingers curl and uncurl listlessly in her pocket, as if pushing blood through her hands will keep her calm. “So it just happened? That’s it?”

“No.” His jaw clenched. “I started to remember how it felt. Your hand crushing around my heart, turning my life into nothing.” His breathes in deeply, his fingers clenching into hard fists. “I started realizing what happened to me, and started feeling angry. More than I ever have before. More than what could possibly be normal. There was so much of it, it was the only thing I could feel.”

The words pulse in the back of her head, familiar. She tries to keep her breath even, her heart calm. “It happened when you got angry.”

“My vision started to blur.” Graham continues, “And then I guess anger turned to hunger cause it was all I could think about. I felt hollow, I was so hungry. I wanted then to tear something apart.” Her stomach clenches sharply and she struggles to shake it off, the sharp recognizing ache, the familiar hunger pangs.

Weakly, she leans against the glass door, her fingers catching the edge to keep her steady. “And are you…?” She hesitates, unsure if she wants to know. “Are you still hungry?”

Something dark passes quickly across his face. “Yes,” he says, finally. He glances up at the uneven ceiling above him. “I am.”

There is a raw pain in her throat and for once she is grateful for it, grateful that she has to work harder to get the words out, that they might remain there, trapped behind her teeth.

But they don’t of course, because like any indulgence, it slips in after only a moment of hesitation as she is stealing a half-breath. “What did it feel like?”

For a moment, he just stares at her, his expression eerily similar to the way it had been within the curse, blank and unseeing. But then slowly, he smiles. “You died too, didn’t you?”

She stiffens, a gaping horror expanding in the space between her ribs, but she shuffles it away, sending it somewhere behind her bared teeth. “Of course not.”

“Can you not sleep either, then?”

“I sleep just fine.”

“Right,” he chuckles, smiling with sharp teeth. There is a knowledge trapped somewhere inside of him where her fury cannot shake it.

She stands stubbornly in the silence, wanting to leave but knowing it would feel like defeat if she did. She glares out at the green window shutters and the filmy grey of the sky, the salt-sea air brushing the leaves against the glass, and at the line of empty seashells along the window sill with its slow-dying flowers.

After a moment, he shifts and extended a long leg out ahead of him. “It felt like sleep.” he says at last and when she looks back at him, he gives a small tilt of his head, leaning it against the wall. “Having a full stomach – it was like waking up from a full night of sleep.”

Quickly, she leaves – but even when the door closes firmly behind her, and all of Graham is separated from her, she cannot calm the hard beating of her heart, rattling like tree branches in the wind, knocking against each other.

It’s a few minutes of silence before she can hear the noises from outside enter again, the glass door sliding open and closed as footsteps patter in along with their voices. She forces herself to move, her legs stiff and slow with reluctance, she navigates closer towards the living room where all of the clatter and noise is, the argument long ended as the lives of her family begin to settle back into what must feel like normalcy.

Standing in the narrow hallway, she watches Henry and Snow in the small kitchen as they move in absent movement, Snow flicking through pages of her planner, ticking off dates as Henry talks, leaning against the counter. So much ease, so much comfort. It feels suddenly impossible to enter.

It is with a sharp stab of relief that she catches Emma jumping quickly up the stairs towards her room, her bare feet flashing briefly behind her. Regina moves quickly, avoiding the loud living room and the beginning of conversation to hurry up the stairs behind Emma.

She considers waiting until Emma notices her but when Emma pokes her head in, she can sense the stress tightening in her again a she glances around the empty room. So instead, quietly, she clears her throat.

Emma jumps and whips around. “Fuck,” she gasps, opening her face into a tragic kind of relief. She leans heavily against the doorway. “What is it with you and disappearing?”

“I like to keep you on your toes,” she says, but the corner of Emma’s smile is pinched with pain.

“How’s your head?” she asks, after a pause. Regina can see the twitch in her fingers, the nervous impulse to lift to the spot behind her head, where she likely fears the worst exists there, far worse than a rough patch of skin, a simple bruise. She fears, as Regina does, something that will not heal or close. That will not return to normal.

“It’s fine.”

“Good.” Emma says, watching her with a deep and obvious concern.

It feels inviting, and with the conversation audible below, going on about life she has no knowledge of, she feels the desperate need for comfort. The need for touch flashes hotly inside of her, pushing her forward until she can set her chin on Emma’s shoulder and slide her arms around her in a weak hug. I

For a fleeting, terrible moment, Emma is completely still. But then Emma is pulling her closer with a solid hand at the back of her neck, pressing her warm blushing body against hers.

Sighing deeply, Regina leans her forehead against Emma’s neck feeling suddenly propped up, as though she’d been slowly sinking through the floorboards and then helped up again. It has something to do with her boneless responses, willingly giving her exactly what she needs. It’s an unbelievable comfort, to press her cheek against Emma’s and not feel a wince.

After a while, Emma sighs, leaning her head on Regina’s shoulder. “You tired?”

“No, not really.” Regina answers, though it’s not entirely true. There is exhaustion in her that sleep cannot reach.

“I guess it’s just me.” Emma puffs out a breath, “I don’t really know why. I basically just played cards and argued with my mother today.”

“I think you’re forgetting how you were strangled only an hour ago.”

“Wasn’t a bat to the head, that’s for sure.”

“It was still pretty terrifying.” Regina whispers and gently brushes the back of her knuckles down the small dark marks still visible on Emma’s neck. “Does it still hurt?”

“No.” Emma gently squeezes her closer. “Thanks for saving me, though.”

“Thanks for jumping in front of me.” Regina retorts dryly, “Even if you are an idiot.”

Emma’s ribs quiver with a soft laugh and Regina presses her closer; they had always shied away from physical contact before, initiated usually, awkwardly, by Emma after a long period of not seeing her at all. She’d pull her in a quick hurried squeeze of affection Regina never entirely understood. She often found herself thinking about it later, measuring out the intimacy with seconds and pressure, wondering if she's imagined the longing or if it was simply her own.

She always thought they’d have more time to figure it out - all these rushed goodbyes and quick hugs, these feeling like a riptide between them. Now it is five years later and quite possibly too late.

Clearing her throat, Regina gently steps back. “We should get going, shouldn’t we?”

“Oh.” Emma gently steps back too, sliding her hands into her back pockets. “We can’t. Not yet. We’re um, supposed to waiting for David to come home so we can all have a talk about we’re going to do next.”

Regina sighs deeply. “Let’s leave anyway.”

Emma smiles, “If you think we can get away with it.”

“The door is unlocked, isn’t it?” When Emma nods, she says, “Then yes, I think we can get away with it.”

“Alright.” she chuckles, “Let’s do it, then”

“Are we really?”

“Yeah, sure. David already texted me anyway.” she hums. “We can figure out the rest tomorrow.”

“Alright.” Regina smiles, the thought of home warming her chest. “What did he need to text you for?”

Emma’s smile dims in the corners of her mouth. “Um…he was you know…just closing up the scene.” Regina catches the brief twitch of Emma’s fingers curling in, hiding into the flat of her palm. “And…well, he was out…uh, looking for a body, too.”

Her happiness is swept aside so swiftly it leaves a tingling emptiness inside. “He found it?”            

“Yeah, he found it.” Emma shrugs and tries for a smile. “It was just a deer, as it turns out.”

Just a deer, yet there is hesitancy around Emma’s smile. For anyone else, it might return Graham’s violence into a normalcy people can understand: people who lived in the forest and knew him to be a hunter. The blood, the death – it can be understood purely as tracking down prey and killing it. The gore stuck beneath his fingernails and between his teeth can be forgotten.

“Good,” she says, but Emma is still smiling that difficult smile and she can’t stop thinking of Graham and that broad, blank expression on his face, the ‘I don’t know’ and the dried blood on his fingers, unknown to him, lost in that balking, blind hunger.

Falling into silence, they shuffle back downstairs and into the quiet of the kitchen where Emma maneuvers around her mother’s anger to deliver a quick goodbye kiss to her cheek and Henry’s. She manages a timid smile of her own, waving to Henry who glances away and back again, his eyes dark and his mouth lost somewhere between a smile and a grimace.

They push out of the door a moment later to rush out into the cool winter air, walking past Henry’s truck down to the bug parked silently at the bottom of the driveway. Emma makes noises all the way through, groaning from the cold as they shut doors and pull on seatbelts, bumping fingers as they press them against the sputtering heater.

It’s silent for more than half the way before Emma glances back at her, a strange expression on her face. “Hey,” her mouth pulls into an awkward smile. “You want to go somewhere to eat or something?”

“No,” she glances at Emma’s thumb, idly tapping against the worn car wheel. “I’m sure what we have at home is fine.” It’s why she went shopping after all. Even if the thought of cooking is exhausting and already she knows that it won’t be enough, really.

The corners of Emma’s mouth twist to the side even as she nods her head, turning to stare back out the window. Regina watches her thumb tap four beats against the wheel before she speaks again. “But if you’re like, really hungry or something we can get something more. I don’t mind stopping.”

Dread sinks in her stomach, tightening her shoulders. “I said I’m fine, dear.”

“Okay.” Emma sighs.

The silence, previously quiet and numb, tenses as it surrounds them. To avoid it, Regina looks out of the window, watching the dark silent houses pass by, glinting softly in the yellow streetlights. People walk in the cold, bundled up, breathing out clouds of breath, disappearing in the soft grey between lights.

The car rolls to a stop at a red light and they sit in silence, staring out at the still houses and the dark, wet road until finally, stomach twisting unbearably, Regina turns back to her. “Why did you ask me that?”

The corners of Emma’s mouth wrinkles and Regina can hardly breathe as she watched it, her mind moving restlessly and thoughts hopping from place to place like birds on rooftops, thinking – please, please, not you, too.

“You’re afraid, aren’t you?” she whispers.

Emma’s head snaps like a ratchet gun. “Hey, no. Not at all.” Her voice is as firm and flat as a hand, pressing against hers. “I told you that I got your back no matter what. And I mean that. I’m here for all of it – whatever that means.”

Emma bites her bottom lip, her thumb nail rubbing over a rough leather patch, worn thin. “I can’t say I’m not scared for what might happen – cause I honestly don’t know what that will be. I’d like to think nothing – I’d like to think Graham is just violent by nature and not by whatever is causing this…” she breaths out, suddenly. “But I think what might be worse. For me, what might be worse is the thought that you might be here right now, starving – wanting something more but too afraid to say it. Too afraid to tell me.”

Regina leans back, stunned. Emma only continues staring out the window, her thumb pressing hard against the wheel as worry touches her face like the soft yellow glow of the street lights above them.

The light turns green, but Emma remains paused, staring up at the rear view mirror and at the long, empty street extending behind them. She pulls in a deep breath and points a finger down the road. “So. Home?” she asks, then flicks her finger to the left lane. “Or really good fatty hamburgers?”

It takes a moment, the air too thick to speak, but when the distance glows faintly with an incoming car, Regina sighs. “Hamburgers.”

Emma smiles and flicks her turn signal on.

*

It’s late and Regina is staring up at the ceiling of her bedroom. Her alarm clock sits beside her, and with a gentle tap of her finger its face illuminates with a dim white glow, revealing the sturdy black hands at two and twelve.

Two o’clock.

It’s been three hours since she first settled into bed. It seemed possible, at the time, warmed from a glass of wine and a (mostly) full stomach, that she would be able to fall asleep. She could sink into the cool sheets and press effortlessly into dreams as she had before, seemingly effortlessly – but now it eludes her, ebbing from her grasp, floating like clouds above her head.

Tossing the sheets aside, she rises from bed and pads quietly into the hallway.

She heard Henry’s footsteps over an hour ago, but still, just to check, she peeks through the small crack in the door to see Henry on his bed. The sight of him sleeping had always amused her– even as a child he would lie flat on his stomach with his face pressed into the pillow and with his arms stretched high over his head, his legs positioned as though he were in the middle of a sprint.

It makes her heart beat warm and with a soft sigh, she quietly closes the door again.

There are still quite a few hours before they wake, and with the house large and silent around her she finds herself slipping into Emma’s room only a few minutes later. There is a small chair beside Emma’s bed where she settles quietly to watch Emma sleep. Asleep, Emma looks content, breathing evenly with her long gold hair splayed out across the pillow, her eyes closed.

Regina nearly jumps when Emma speaks, "Couldn't sleep?"

"Oh." she awkwardly rises from the seat, stiff. “I’m sorry, dear. I shouldn’t have come in.”

“No, no stay.” Emma slips a hand out from the sheets to warm the top of her ankle. “I’m glad you’re here.”

“Well. Alright." Regina breathes and slowly settles back into her chair.

Emma smiles and gently brushes the tips of her fingers along Regina's foot. "So. Can’t sleep?”

“No. I'm afraid not." Gently, she clears her throat. "I don't think I'm capable of it.”

"Oh." Emma blinks and suppresses a yawn against her arm as she leans over to point at the small desk in the corner of her room. “Well, I kept some of your books on the top shelf over there, if you want to read them or something. You can turn on the light, too, if you want.” she murmurs. "I don't mind."

“That's alright, dear.” Regina smiles, “Thank you.”

“Alright.” Emma sinks back into her bed, yawning once before sighing, “Do you think other people have come back?”

Regina hadn’t considered the possibility yet, but as it settles in the air she feels her heart tighten in her chest. “Yes.” she says, “I think so.”

“Okay.”

“Go back to sleep.”

“Okay,” Emma whispers, a smile crinkling the corner of her mouth. But her hand is still warm on her foot, her fingers coasting down from up from small bones of her toes to her ankle, squeezing with a quick spasm of emotion. “I’m so happy you’re back.”

Tenderness catches in Regina’s throat – for Emma’s soft bed-wrangled body and her long hair, for her endless devotion, for her steadiness like the cement outside, like the trembling fingers on her ankle, trying to hold on to her in some way. The tenderness sweeps high and clear like a kite in the sky until she is lifting herself up on shaky legs and moving closer.

She settles on the bed beside her, directing Emma’s head onto her lap because she cannot speak. She combs her fingers through Emma’s hair until Emma sighs and closes her eyes, so suddenly at peace that Regina has stop herself from promising her everything. All the small impossible things in life. That everything will be okay, that she will be alright. That everyone will be safe.

“I’m here.” she promises instead; she combs through Emma’s hair until her breathing evens out.

She remains by Emma’s side, sitting on the soft, spongy mattress of her bed until the early morning touches the corners of the sky, lighting the windows. From the bed, she can hear the quiet hum of morning traffic and see the yellow haze of streetlights touching the corners of her yard.

For a brief, terrifying moment, she thinks she sees someone at the edge of her property. A familiar figure, a woman. She stands behind a bush, looking up at the window, at her. It has her mother’s narrow shoulders and the slender, cool danger of a slowly approaching snake. For a moment, her chest seizes with terror, overcome with dread, tightening her fingers into a painfully grip on Emma’s hair.

Do you think other people have come back?

The quiet, pained whimper in Emma’s throat tears her eyes away, releasing her grip immediately. “Sorry.” she whispers and sighs, echoing her apology again against the soft spot in Emma’s temple. She waits until Emma’s breathing has evened out again before looking back. But the figure is gone, just a trick of the bare branches and shadows.

Just a trick, she assures herself and waits until the morning stretches the shadows out across her lawn, innocent, blameless.

But the dread remains.