The first time Emma Swan ran away, she was twelve and searching for a reason to find home (an actual home, something that didn't consist of a deadbeat foster dad and a foster mom who couldn't go more than one day without an alcoholic drink).
She had taken her baby blanket and ended up somewhere in the outskirts of New Jersey before a cop stopped her outside a McDonald's.
The last time Emma Swan ran away, she was seventeen and just beginning to realize there was no such thing as home. But running away isn't the same when you're an adult.
It's a little bit scarier. Because when you're a kid you see the world in many different colors. And when you're an adult, suddenly it's all black and white and maybe several shades of gray in between.
Plus she kind of has her own kid to think about these days.
"I'm coming with you," Henry says.
She's in the middle of dumping all her underwear in a duffle bag when Emma huffs, turns and faces her son. Her very preteen son who isn't so much of a preteen anymore.
"No you're not. I told you, it's only until I get my head together. I promise it's not for good," she tells him. "Not to mention your mom will kill me."
"She'll kill you anyway when she finds out."
"And how's she going to do that if I'm not here?"
"Oh, I'm sure I'll have my ways," Regina states unexpectedly from the doorway, unmoving, like she's a living, breathing statue who just heard the entire exchange and Emma just knows she's so, so screwed.
Except maybe she might not be, because Regina is regarding her through thoughtful eyes, like she knows. Like she understands. And maybe Emma doesn't feel so guilty anymore about running away again at the age of thirty-one because she has a worn heart and an equally worn soul.
She's only doing this so she can stop hurting the people she loves, she reminds herself. Becoming the Dark One had taken a toll on her. Now she has to live with the fact there would always be a little bit of darkness inside of her.
Finally Regina looks away, and looks towards their son. "Pack your things, Henry. We're leaving in an hour."
Henry scampers away with an extra skip in his step, and Emma turns wide eyes to Regina.
"If you think we're letting you do this on your own, Swan, then you have another thing coming," Regina says in reply, her face carefully blank before she disappears from the doorway.
She leaves her parents a note.
It's not much, but Emma figures it's more than she's usually accustomed to, which is nothing at all. But she has a mom now and a dad and a little brother with eyes as green as hers, and far more innocent.
I love you, she writes down on a shredded piece of paper, only to cross it out afterwards and scribble down instead –
I'll be back. I promise.
I need this.
I'm a bad daughter.
She leaves the note on their apartment door and doesn't look back.
"Ready?" Regina asks.
They're standing outside the mansion. It's midnight and it feels like déjà vu all over again, like no matter what, everything only leads her back here. In front of this mansion. In front of this woman and the son they share and would sacrifice everything for.
Sometimes Emma remembers that night and thinks she might just sacrifice everything for this woman, too.
"Ready," Emma replies, even though there's a knot in her throat and oh god, is she really doing this? "Are you sure about this?"
"Not at all," Regina says, and there's a tired edge in her voice that Emma quickly catches. "If this is you having a change of heart, then by all means. Let me know."
Emma shakes her head. "I can't stay here."
"Then neither can we."
She hands Emma the keys (a familiar set that can only belong to her Bug, and Emma has to blink away the surprise of Regina agreeing to ride in her metal coffin on wheels) and she takes them. Their fingers brush in the process.
Emma clears her throat. "Henry?"
"He's passed out in the back," Regina says. "He's our son, Emma. What did you think he would do? You couldn't just leave him again."
You couldn't just leave me. It's the unspoken words Emma thinks she hears, wants to hear, but knows she never will.
"Good," Regina says and opens the passenger door. "Lead the way."
When Emma was eight, she wanted to go to Disney World.
She realized it was a childish dream long lost when her foster mother at the time slapped her across the face and said, 'You're not a princess. You're an awful little girl and awful little girls don't deserve to go to Disney World.'
She cried the entire night, with a red mark shaped like a hand fading into her cheek. She likes to think the Cinderella doll she threw out the window made it into better hands. That maybe if she had tried hard enough, rather than a prince whisking her away from her evil foster mother, a real family would instead.
"You should get some rest," Regina says.
They had switched places sometime in the three hours they've been driving. Emma's eyes feel heavy and thick, and she glances towards the backseat where Henry is snoring slightly, dead as a rock.
"I'll watch him," Regina says then. "I'll wake you if anything happens. Get some sleep, Emma."
So she leans back into her seat and closes her eyes, right as Regina mutters, "Where are we going?"
Emma has no idea where they're going. She has no idea where she wants to go. She's not eight years old anymore, but she can still hear her foster mother's voice ringing in her ears. Just ringing.
You're an awful little girl.
"Keep heading south," Emma whispers and listens to the soft sounds of Henry's snoring.
Just before she falls asleep, Emma swears she feels a gentle hand touch her hair, sliding down to stroke her cheek. She falls asleep and dreams of nothing.
When Emma wakes up, it's to the smell of biscuits and greasy sausages. It immediately makes her want to hurl, but she holds it in long enough to roll her head to the side and peer to her left.
Henry's eyes stare right back at her.
"Morning." He grins, mouth full of biscuit. "Mom got us breakfast."
Emma groans and lightly shoves him away. "She also taught you manners, kid."
"Guess it's the genetics."
She wants to laugh it off. She wants to agree and then disagree because it's nurture over nature, and there's no way she could've raised a cool kid like this if it wasn't for Regina. But she also wants to cry because she just dragged her son off on an escape trip from her guilt and shit. She's a terrible mother.
But then what does that make Regina?
"Mom's right there," Henry says and points to the front. "She couldn't stand the smell either."
After ruffling his hair – 'Mom, come on. I'm thirteen.' – she gets out of the car. They're parked on the side of the road, in what looks to be the coast of New Hampshire. Or Massachusetts. She honestly can't tell if they're even in Maine anymore.
She approaches Regina. She's leaning against the hood of a car and studying a map.
"About time," Regina mumbles without looking up. "You snore worse than our son."
Emma bristles. "No I don't."
But Regina only smiles, slow and easy. "Tell that to my ears."
It's the playfulness of the comment that catches Emma off guard. She moves to sit beside Regina on the hood, looks from the coastline in the distance to the map she's holding as Emma asks –
"Are we still in Maine?"
Regina hums distractedly. "Connecticut."
"So we are heading south?"
"That is what you wanted," Regina says and finally turns to look at Emma. "Backing out already?"
Regina shivers as she says this. Emma watches the strands of her hair move with the sea breeze, cool and salt tainted. She shrugs out of her jacket in response and lays it over Regina's shoulders, only to catch a whiff of her perfume.
"Not yet," Emma replies hoarsely and takes a step back. "I'll take the morning shift. Maybe we can make it to New York by noon."
She doesn't turn to see Regina's reaction. She gets back into the car and pretends not to notice Henry's biscuit-filled smirk.
Pretends that her heart is still good and she isn't just a tiny bit love-sick.
She takes the morning shift like she says.
Regina sleeps in the backseat for most of the morning, while Henry takes the seat in the front and rambles on to the sounds of Justin Bieber and whatever else thirteen year olds listen to these days.
"Not Justin Bieber, Mom," Henry says and rolls his eyes. "The guy's a dick."
And Emma's pretty sure that if Regina were awake, she'd be blaming Emma for their son using that kind of language. (Never mind the fact that she's heard Regina curse more times than she can even count)
She drives until her knuckles hurt and her eyes are sore. She also spends a lot of the time wondering what her parents are doing, if they're worried about her. If they found her note and know that she's safe. She's turned her phone off for that reason. So she doesn't have to deal with their calls and the guilt that will likely come with them.
"You're doing it again," Henry observes and promptly turns off the music. "You have that look on your face you get when you're, I don't know, wallowing."
Emma grimaces. "I'm that easy to read, huh?"
"A little," Henry admits. But he's silent for a moment and Emma thinks she's off the hook until –
"You know you were never that person, right?" he asks. "You're not the Dark One anymore, Mom."
Emma opens her mouth to reply, and promptly shuts it. "I still hurt people, Hen."
"But that wasn't you."
"And what am I now?" Emma argues. "Because as far as I know, I'm not the Savior either. I'm not… I'm not good."
He shrugs. "You're my mom," he says simply, and leans over to turn on the radio.
The rest of the car ride is silent except for the voices of her past echoing in her head – echoing and echoing.
Awful little girl.
Running away isn't anything like what you see in the movies. For one, the character doesn't usually bring her son in tow. For another, the story would usually require some sort of romance with the other character.
I.E. Regina Mills.
And just… it isn't like that. There is definitely no romance in the equation and Emma is definitely not in love with Regina Mills.
And her son is a total brat.
She wishes she had the creativity to write her thoughts out on paper, though. Maybe it would be a little less complicated than talking into a recorder.
"Day one is… good, I guess," Emma says into her tablet. "Regina hates my taste in music. Henry ate my last bearclaw. It's… good."
They arrive at a motel somewhere on the edge of Pennsylvania. It's small and dinky and Regina absolutely hates it. She's adamant about Henry sharing a room with her, and well… wherever they go, Emma goes.
She takes a shower while Regina and Henry stop by a nearby diner to pick up dinner. She washes the sand from her hair, spends the better part of twenty minutes pondering the meaning of life while she shaves her legs. When she gets out, Henry is already there with a box of takeovers.
He glances at the towel around her torso and wrinkles his nose. "Gross, Mom. Put some clothes on."
And then he brushes past her into the bathroom, leaving her with a box of what she thinks are cheese fries and Regina, whose eyes flick down to her body in an entirely unsubtle motion.
"Uh…" Emma says awkwardly.
Clearing her throat, Regina turns around. "I won't look."
Emma dresses quickly and eats. By the time Henry's showered and dressed, Regina goes in and Emma's left with the uncomfortable decision of choosing where to sleep.
There are two full beds. They really hadn't thought this through.
She flops down on the bed by the window (Henry's already sprawled across the other one, fast asleep) and waits for Regina to return. She pretends to sleep when the sheets are pulled back and Regina slips in beside her.
"I know you're awake," Regina says after a beat. "You should really consider investing in actual sleepwear."
Emma blushes. She'd forgotten to pack some pajama bottoms in her haste to leave. Now she's stuck wearing her exercise shorts that make her butt cold.
"Just be glad I'm not sleeping in my underwear."
"Yes, and risk scarring our son for the rest of his life."
"But not you?" Emma jokes back.
She doesn't know what makes her say it, but when Regina doesn't respond for a full minute, Emma snuggles into her corner and thinks about her life back in Storybrooke. She thinks about all the people she'd betrayed as the Dark One, all the hearts she had crushed and all the souls she'd destroyed by her venom. She thinks about it and wonders if there's ever enough light to drive out the darkness.
She doesn't realize she's crying until a hand is laid tentatively over her own. Emma sniffles, opens her palm and lets her fingers entwine around Regina's.
Neither of them mentions it the next morning.
Emma was eleven the first time she stole something. It was a cookie, in a little grocery market owned by the elderly couple down the street, Mr. and Mrs. Peterson. The second time was a loaf of bread. Mr. Peterson had dragged her by the arm all the way back to her foster home, where she received a slap on each hand. One for each item she'd stolen.
She was shipped back to her social worker the next day.
Emma wonders if stealing as a little kid is the same as stealing as a grown up, when she knows better but just can't bring herself to care. She stares at the Princess doll in her hands (it reminds her of the Cinderella one she'd thrown out the window when she was eight) and calculates the cash she has in her pockets.
Sixty bucks. Not including the emergency funds she has to dip into to pay for gas.
"What do you think?" Regina asks and holds out a pair of Evil Queen footie pajama bottoms. "Too egotistical?"
"I'm not wearing those," Emma deadpans, and puts the doll back on the shelf.
"You say that now."
"You should get the Batman ones," Henry pipes up and dumps not one, but three pajama pants into the cart. Including the Batman ones. "They're cooler."
"Are you saying your mom's alter ego isn't?" Emma asks.
"Not as cool as Batman."
"Emma, why don't you go grab the motor oil? Henry and I will meet you back at the car," Regina suggests.
And Emma hesitates. "Okay?"
Regina looks at her. "Okay."
And it's a little weird – wasn't there motor oil in the cart five minutes ago? – but Emma goes anyway and grabs it off the nearest aisle (across the store, but that's beside the point).
She pays and heads back to the car, tossing it in the trunk for later use. Regina's already buckling herself in the driver's seat when Emma's opens the door and stops short.
There's a doll in her seat – with pretty princess curls and a blue princess dress and Emma picks it up, clutches it in her hands. And suddenly she's eight years old again and waiting for her family.
"Cool doll, Mom," Henry says casually as he swoops into the back. "It kind of looks like you."
"Thanks," Emma murmurs.
She sits still for a second and glances over at Regina, who isn't looking at her at all. She's fixing the rearview mirror. But Emma sees the shadow of a smile without actually seeing it. And now she's seventeen and naïve and falling head over heels all over again.
"Where to?" Regina asks.
"South," Emma whispers, and clutches the doll against her chest.
For the first time in months, she thinks she feels her heart beat again.
"Can I drive?" Henry asks, popping his head out from the back.
"No," Emma and Regina say at the same time.
Henry just huffs and sinks back into his seat.
"Day three," Emma says into her tablet as Regina is out getting a spare tire and Henry is moping on the side of the road. "Never let the kid drive my car again."
Emma learns several things on her journey through many cornfields and long empty roads. One, Henry likes them. It's a fresh view from the city and Emma has to resist the urge to smack him with one of Regina's bags every time he insists on stopping to look at a cow.
Two, she loves the kid so much, she's willing to do it every single time.
Three, Regina is breathtaking when she smiles.
The last one isn't anything new, but it's the kind of awareness that stays on Emma's mind. It makes her remember everything from 'thanks for trying, Miss Swan' to 'you worked too hard to have your happiness destroyed.'
From 'You're better than this' to 'There's always a choice, Emma.'
"Do you regret it?" Regina asks, five days into their spontaneous road trip. They're parked by an expanse of cornfields and ranches, sat against the hood of the Bug as they watch Henry observe the horses from a distance.
"Playing the hero," Regina says, tilting her head towards the sunlight. Emma watches. "Sacrificing your life to save mine."
"You already know the answer to that."
"It's a stupid one. That's what it is," Regina mutters. "There could've been another way."
"Are you really complaining about how I saved your life?"
"I'm complaining about you saving my life," Regina says. "I'm not worth it, Emma."
"And that's a load of crap," Emma snaps. "You're always worth it, Regina. And for the record, I don't regret it. Because I'd do it again if it means you get to stay alive to watch our son grow up and – oh I don't know. Find your own damn happiness."
She's angry, sure. But mostly she's just really frustrated. She's breathing hard and standing in Regina's space and she doesn't realize it until Emma's eyes accidentally flick down to her lips.
No. She does not want to kiss Regina Mills.
"Moms! Come see this!" Henry calls out.
It startles Emma, but it's Regina who takes the step back first and strides over to Henry's side. Emma follows.
She watches as Henry points to a horse, says something that Emma can't hear but causes Regina to tilt her head back and laugh. His eyes are bright and wide when he looks at Regina and Emma stops. Because that's her son. Their son. And she feels the beginnings of something stirring in her chest again that makes her think her heart isn't really so broken after all.
When Regina meets Emma's gaze, she smiles and it's breathtaking. And Emma's long, long gone.
"Do you even know where you're going?" Regina asks suddenly.
The sun is beginning to set. Henry's passed out already and Emma nearly drives them off the road.
"No," Emma answers. "Do you regret coming yet?"
Regina's quiet for a moment. It makes the anticipation of waiting for the yes all the more painful. Emma's knuckles are turning white from gripping the steering wheel so tightly when Regina reaches out. She brushes her thumb over Emma's right knuckles, then takes Emma's hand and lays it over her lap.
"No," Regina says and brings Emma's hand to her lips in a soft kiss. Emma swallows heavily, her knuckles tingling from the touch.
Regina doesn't let go.
Day six. She wants to kiss Regina Mills.
Sometimes Emma wonders if she would've had a better childhood if she had been a good little girl. If she had eaten her Brussel sprouts when she was told to, if she didn't ask for anything and had been the little princess she was meant to be if fate hadn't gotten in the way.
She wonders if her parents would still love her if they knew she was broken.
Emma presses the phone to her ear, waits with baited breath until it stops ringing and Snow breathes into it in relief.
"Hi Mom," Emma whispers.
"Emma." There's a bang on the other side and she swears she hears her baby brother say her name, too. "Emma. Oh, I'm so happy you're all right! David and I were so worried. Are you okay? Where are you? Is Henry with you?"
"Emma, sweetheart," Snow says and there's a long, drawn out pause. "Why did you leave?"
And then it happens. Emma finally, finally breaks.
She sucks in a sharp, trembling breath and chokes out, "I'm sorry."
"I'm so sorry, Mom," she says. Her chest heaves with each strangling sob. "I'm-I'm sorry for everything I've done. I'm sorry I couldn't be the daughter you and David wanted me to be. I don't deserve you guys. I'm just… I'm broken, okay? I'm broken and – and awful and I'm so sorry."
She doesn't hear what Snow says next. She's eight years old with tear-stained cheeks and a foster mother who wrenches her by the wrist.
Awful little girl.
"Emma. Emma, listen to me," Snow says into the phone. She sounds like she's crying, too. "You aren't broken, sweetie. And you are not awful."
"I'm not?" Emma murmurs.
"No. You're so special, Emma," Snow says. There's warmth in her voice, like honey and tears and a mother's hugs. "And I can promise you, with every fiber of my being, that you are loved."
She's sitting by the motel pool, staring off into the parking lot when Henry finds her. It's cold and dark and she thinks she sees Regina lurking behind him, but she doesn't acknowledge it.
Henry sits beside her and rests his head against her shoulder.
Emma pulls him close. "I'll look into getting you and your mom on the earliest flight back to Maine," she murmurs into his hair, because she doesn't know what else to say.
"No," Henry says.
"We're not leaving, Mom," he states. "And to be honest, that's kind of a stupid thing to assume."
"He does have a point," Regina interjects out of nowhere. She takes the seat on Emma's other side; doesn't offer the same sort of comfort, but her presence is enough. "Considering you're part Charming, I can't say I'm surprised."
"I don't know how much longer I need," Emma reluctantly admits, and shivers when she feels Regina's fingers brush over her own.
"Does it matter?" Henry mumbles and yawns – and just. He says it so casually. Emma remembers lazy days in Grant Park, countless hotdogs in busy New York City streets, and it's not just the two of them anymore.
It never was just the two of them.
"We're family, Mom," Henry says. "Where you go, we follow."
"Day eleven," Emma says into the recorder as Henry pumps gas and Regina shows him how. "If I could write a letter to seventeen year old me, I'd say you were wrong. You have a family."
Henry lets the pump go by accident, spraying Regina's favorite blouse with gasoline, and Henry snorts out a laugh that could be heard for miles.
Emma smiles. "And they're right here with you."
Emma's first kiss with a girl is at age eighteen. She's pregnant and hormonal and one of the girls in the prison sits her down one day. Her name is Maria, and she smells like oranges and cigarettes.
"Just relax, will you?" she tells Emma and leans into her mouth, one hand shifting below her pregnant belly, past the hem of her underwear. "Y disfruta."
Emma doesn't usually reminisce on that day. The kiss had been nice, but awkward, and the orgasm too hollow to really enjoy. But she remembers it more now than ever as she finds herself drawn to Regina's lips with each passing day. She doesn't know if it's because she's insanely attracted to Regina, or if Emma is past the stage of denying that she's in love with her.
Both sound about right.
"Do you have enough money?" Regina asks.
They're parked in front of another gas station – the fourth one in the last two days. Emma's lost track of what state they're in. She thinks Georgia.
"Yup," Henry says and takes out a twenty. "No junk food. Water and essentials only. Sound about right?"
"Don't talk to strangers."
Henry rolls his eyes, but accepts the gesture when Regina leans in to kiss the side of his head.
"Got it, Mom," he grumbles and glances at Emma for a moment. "Maybe once in a while you should kiss Ma."
It's said jokingly, but Emma knows her son can be a little shit sometimes, and this is definitely one of those moments. He slams the door before she can respond and the car is filled with silence.
She turns to Regina, who nibbles her lip and stares down at the map on her lap.
"He's right, you know," Emma says, if only to break the tense silence. "I never get a kiss."
Regina looks up from her map. "Is that so?"
Regina smiles slightly, the kind of smile that is amused and maybe a little fond. Emma doesn't expect her to cup her jaw and press her lips to Emma's cheek.
Emma's breath stutters for a second. She tilts her head, doesn't mean to, really. She's just caught off guard. Their noses brush and this time it's Regina's breath that hitches, so close that Emma can smell the peppermint in the air. Emma stares, motionless.
Regina leans in and presses their lips together.
And it's… warm. It's soft and wet and it makes Emma's heart beat and beat. Emma's hand travels over the gear to settle on Regina's waist, and Regina plants her other hand underneath Emma's jaw, pulling her closer. There's a desperation in the kiss that Emma finds intoxicating. But more than anything it's the touch that slams the life right back into her.
Emma pushes closer, feels her hip wedge against the gearshift. She ignores it in favor of swallowing the gasp Regina breathes into her mouth. Regina's hand slides from her face to Emma's hair and suddenly Emma feels her stomach twist in anticipation.
A sharp rap on the window forces them to spring apart.
Henry climbs back into the backseat, his gaze darting between their flushed faces.
"Are you guys going to be making out the entire car ride?" he asks, unfazed. But somewhat smug.
Emma lets out a breathless laugh. "Maybe not all of it."
She starts the car, pulls them out of the gas station. Halfway down the road she feels Regina reach for her hand on the gear and lace their fingers together.
"You'll be taking us straight into an ocean if we keep going south," Regina says. "Do you even know where we are?"
A road sign emerges on the right side. Fourteen miles.
Welcome to Tallahassee.
The bad thing about Tallahassee is, it's hot no matter what season of the year it is.
The good thing about Tallahassee? It's almost always dim and rainy, but the sun is still beautiful when it sets.
"How does this spot look?" Regina asks, pointing to a space by the bridge. She's dressed casual for once, donned in a light blouse and a pair of Emma's denim shorts. They look good on her.
Emma plops down on the spot without a word and pulls Regina in with her. Regina huffs halfheartedly, but settles in between Emma's legs, back pressed against her chest. Emma takes the opportunity to wrap her arms around Regina's waist. Their fingers clasp together.
The lake is clear and still. Beyond it, Henry can be seen standing by the edge, skipping rocks. It makes the quiet hovering in the air all the more peaceful.
"Do you think he'll ever want to leave?" Emma murmurs after a moment.
"I think he meant what he said," Regina says. "He'll follow you anywhere, Emma."
"I'm here right now, aren't I?" she answers, smiling. She rests her head against the crook of Emma's neck and sighs. "Where would you want to go?"
"Disney World's not too far from here."
"Henry always wanted to go there when he was younger."
It's funny, how for once she doesn't think about darkness and foster moms and childhoods long lost.
Emma hums contentedly, stares out into the horizon. "Me too," she says.
The first time Emma Swan runs away, she's twelve years old and searching for a reason to find home.
The last time Emma Swan runs away, she's thirty one and realizing maybe there is such a thing as one.