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When the smoke alarm goes off for the third time in an hour, Regina nearly throws her laptop against the wall. The smell she could handle - barely - charred meat and lord knows what else, but the high pitched, intermittent beeping is driving her out of her mind. She’s got a stack of papers to grade and a migraine in the works and if her neighbor drops one more goddamned pan—

Muffled cursing follows the hollow banging of steel hitting hardwood floor and Regina slams her computer closed, shoves her feet into a pair of flats and a sweater over her blouse and storms across the hall. She doesn't quite know what she expected after banging on the door, but a slim blonde woman covered in flour and coughing through the smoke that billows out into the hallway was not on her list.

“What the hell are you doing?”

The woman blinks, brushes her hair out of her eyes and cringes. “Sorry,” is all she manages before coughing again, waving a tea towel through the air in front of her. “Thanksgiving. Hosting.” She tucks her face into her elbow just as something pops, loudly, from the direction of the kitchen. “Shit.”

Leaving the door open, the blonde scrambles back into her apartment and Regina follows, waving a hand in front of her nose at the acrid smell and smoke.

Whatever’s on the stove is now burning, smoke rising from the half-open oven, a microwave keeps singing and Regina resists the urge to cover her ears.

The woman grabs a cup of water at the same time Regina yells, “Wait!” but it’s no use. The water hits the pan - and the oil - and Regina just manages to grab the woman by the sweater and yank her backward before she has a face full of fire. They stumble, and Regina’s hands instinctively go to her waist, steadying them both; her fingers brush bare skin just above the woman’s jeans, and she drops her hands with a jolt.

“What the hell!”

“You idiot,” Regina snarls, pushing her aside as she grabs a potholder and a metal lid and slams it over the pan.

“I'm sorry, I didn't know—”

“Turn off the damn alarm,” Regina bites out, already feeling her headache intensify. She punches the off button on the microwave to stop the beeping and turns off the oven and all the burners, removing the pots and pans from the heat and onto a wood cutting board. When she turns back, the blonde is standing on a chair, frantically waving her towel in front of the smoke detector, cursing up a storm that almost makes her smirk, and she has to tear her eyes away from the small glimpse of skin as her shirt rides up.

“Oh for fuck’s sa—” she says, and promptly yanks the device from the ceiling. Regina breathes a sigh of relief at the silence. “There,” she says, absurdly proud as she jumps down from the chair. “That's better.”

Regina glowers. “You're going to have to pay to have that replaced.”

She shrugs, and tosses the detector onto the table. “Worth it,” she says, looks up, and smiles so brightly Regina feels her stomach flip. “Thanks. I’m Emma. Swan.” It’s awkward, somehow, the way she introduces herself, and Regina rolls her eyes.

“Your parents never taught you about grease fires, Miss Swan?”

The woman’s smile drops. “Never had parents.”

Regina frowns, not quite guilty, but strange, like she should be, though she's never had much pity before. Clearing her throat, she shakes her head. “Still. Even a moron knows that.”

Her neighbor shrugs again, moving past her to examine the pots and pans littering the kitchen island. “It’s my first Thanksgiving,” she says, a bit maudlin, poking at the burnt… whatever it is.

Regina wings an eyebrow. “You didn't think to read a recipe?”

Emma turns and glares. “I did. They all said different things.”

Regina’s eyes widen slightly. “You tried to combine them.” It's a statement, not a question, and Emma turns to her in surprise. Regina shrugs, suddenly uncomfortable under the scrutiny, and tucks a strand of hair behind her ear. “My son does the same thing. With the same disastrous results.”

She should leave, go back to her blissfully quiet apartment and her papers and her pristine kitchen, but there's something about the way this woman is looking at her, the way she's standing, almost nervous against the backdrop of her burnt meal that makes her pause.

“I take it you ruined the turkey, too?”

Instead of scowling, as most people do at her tone, Emma nods, a self-deprecating smile that should not look so good on anyone covered in flour and grease. “First casualty,” she says, and Regina almost laughs, until Emma turns her back and prods frustratedly at half a yam. “There's no way I can salvage this.”

“Probably not,” Regina agrees, never one to sugar coat anything, but she almost regrets it when her neighbor - this stranger - sighs and slumps against the counter.

“Great.”

There’s no reason for her to stay. No reason to do anything but leave now that the crisis is relatively over. But there’s nothing waiting at her apartment, either. No family. No Henry. Just all the Thanksgiving trappings, purchased days ago and useless now in her refrigerator. She’s never really been one for acts of charity, not the personal kind, but when Emma turns back, there’s a familiar expression on her face, self-flagellation and guilt and not good enough that Regina has seen so many times in the mirror, it makes her breathing hitch.

“Well. Thanks. For… saving my face.”

Regina hesitates. Thinks of her good China, still packed away, and the DVDs she won't watch now, and Henry, the way he lights up at every opportunity to do something good. Henry’s voice in her head, C’mon, Mom, it’s Thanksgiving! You have to help. It’s the right thing.

Huffing out a sigh, Regina relents against her better judgement. “Come with me,” she says, turns on her heel and strides out of the apartment.

--

Emma frowns, but dutifully follows her bizarre savior across the hall. Her apartment is spotless - not even a pair of shoes out of place, the living room and kitchen decorated in black and white and it’s far, far too formal for her taste. It’s a similar floorplan, she thinks, but looks nothing at all like her cozy one-bedroom, with its green walls and flower pots and thrift shop odds and ends.

This apartment looks like it’s staged, and she can't help wrinkling her nose a little at the austerity. “You live here?”

The woman glares and points near the door. “Shoes off,” she says curtly, rounding the island into the kitchen and Emma feels desperately out of place, in her jeans and stained sweater and mangled hair. She looks for personal touches, something revealing, but the only item is a photograph on the mantel. Unable to resist, she crosses and peers at it closely. It’s a young boy, maybe seven, mid-laugh and the woman behind him is smiling, her lips pressed to his temple and it’s the same person, she knows, but she doesn't look the same—not younger or older, just different.

Happy, she thinks. For some reason, it makes her smile.

“If you're done snooping, you can put this on,” she says from behind, and Emma turns just in time to catch a wadded up apron before it hits her in the face.

“What for?”

The woman huffs, as if she’s being intentionally slow. “Your Thanksgiving dinner isn't going to cook itself.”

Emma’s eyes widen, her mouth dropping open when she approaches the kitchen island. There’s a turkey, and a large assortment of vegetables, potatoes, pumpkin, and the woman is pulling a variety of baking materials out of a cabinet.

“What time are your parents coming?”

Emma tries not to gape. “Uh. Seven.”

She glances at the clock - almost three - and frowns. “We’ll do it spatchcocked. I presume you can handle chopping?”

“Yeah, but—”

The woman hands her a knife, places a cutting board, two green apples, an onion, and a stalk of celery in front of her. “Start with that.”

“What am I doing?”

“Stuffing,” she says, pulling a pan from under the island.

Emma stares as she lights the gas, tosses the pan with olive oil and pulls out a package of what she thinks is ground sausage, opening it and leaving it by the stove while the pan heats up and she turns her attention to the turkey.

“Do you need instructions, Miss Swan?”

Emma grits her teeth. “Emma,” she corrects, uncomfortable with the formality. “And I don't understand what we’re doing.”

The woman’s movements still momentarily, barely a hitch before she continues carving, so carefully and intently Emma almost misses her words. “My plans for the holiday fell through at the last minute. Yours are charred to the bottom of cheap kitchenware. The solution seems obvious.” Her words are curt, but she refuses to look up, and Emma has the sudden, irrational urge to tuck her hair back so she can see her face. “Besides, I hate wasting food.”

“I—” Emma flounders, reaches for something to say and blurts, “I don't even know your name.”

“Regina,” she says, turns, and stirs the meat into the pan. “Now get chopping.”

Despite herself, Emma smiles.

--

Regina breaks out a bottle of wine twenty minutes in. Partly as a social lubricant, Emma thinks, and partly because she probably can't remain completely sober and watch Emma destroy her kitchen.

She’s trying to be careful, but there’s already food on the floor and apple seeds everywhere and by the time they get to the spice mix, Regina’s on her second glass.

Emma smiles sheepishly, attempting to clean as she goes until Regina waves her off with a blunt, “You’re making it worse.”

Still, she winds up showing her how to baste a turkey, and how to make seasoned butter. How to properly wrap yams in tin foil and how to cook down sugar so that it doesn't burn.

There’s absolutely nothing to explain why she feels so at ease in Regina’s presence. The woman is infuriating - mercurial at best, snappish at worst. She’s insanely guarded, making up for small slips with annoyance and hostility and Emma has never wanted to punch someone and kiss them at the same time as much as she does her neighbor.

Because that is what she wants, she realizes quickly, every time Regina’s hand brushes hers as she reaches for something, or their hips knock together, or she smirks at something Emma says. She finds she wants to kiss the smile or smug quirk or pursed expression right off her face, and it makes the cooking process a hell of a lot more difficult.

But for all her prior kitchen failings, Emma’s a quick study, and they fall into a rhythm of asking and answering questions, Regina demonstrating and letting Emma take over so she can move on to the next thing.

It's so easy, in fact, that the conversation strays away from recipes fairly quickly. It’s the usual, stilted getting to know you questions at first and feels remarkably like a date— aside from the setting and the circumstances and the fact that she’s covered in flour. Emma tells her she works as a bail bondsperson, and then has to explain exactly what that entails and how it works and Regina just arches an eyebrow and says, “You get paid to sit in your car, eat junk food, and stalk people?”

Emma tries not to pout. “Bad people. It’s a real job.”

Regina chuckles, and Emma shivers slightly at the sound, low and deep and far, far too erotic coming from a woman in an apron peeling potatoes. Emma has a flash of what she would look like in just the apron, and has to quickly shake her head.

“If you say so, Miss Swan.”

“Emma,” she corrects again. “So what do you do?”

“I teach,” she says simply, and it’s another five minutes of subtle prodding and a calculated trip to the restroom - she makes a point to pass by Regina’s desk on the way back - before she learns she’s a professor at NYU with a doctorate in political science; before she learns that “writes occasionally” means has three books published, one of which is used as a standard textbook in undergraduate seminars.

“So what you’re saying is, you get paid to sit behind a desk, lecture, and mock people.”

She feels vindicated when the corner of Regina’s lips lift. “Stupid people.”

Which is how they get into a conversation about Washington and talk radio and Emma really doesn’t follow anything political, but somehow Regina makes it easy—she talks more about ideas than specifics, about people rather than policies, and it’s easy for Emma to exchange stories of her own—fake dates she’s used to catch a perp and a long night spent watching some idiot through the window, trying and failing to find the car keys Emma had lifted from his apartment hours earlier.

“Breaking and entering, Miss Swan?”

Emma. And only for fun.”

Regina laughs at that, and the sound makes her face flush—though she’ll insist later that it was the steam from the oven.

--

Regina knows she’s in trouble when Emma tosses her hair back over her shoulder, and she gets so distracted by a freckle behind Emma’s ear that she almost cuts herself with the paring knife.

She’s oddly easy to talk to—not that Regina’s big on sharing, but she feels almost comfortable, more relaxed than she had been hours earlier, at any rate, when it was just her and her work and a silent cell phone.

It’s how she somehow manages to ask about her family, in a way she hopes isn’t too gruff, and Emma tells her that she’s only recently found her parents - they gave her up when she was a baby - and that this is her first holiday with them.

“You grew up in the foster system?”

Emma pauses from stirring the mashed potatoes to take a drink of wine, and Regina keeps her eyes on her task to avoid staring at her mouth. “Sort of.” When she frowns, Emma smirks. “I kept running away." Regina nods, but she can tell by the way Emma takes another, longer drink that she doesn't want to elaborate. "What about you? You said your plans fell through—parents not coming, or…?”

Regina can’t help the bitter bark of laughter. “Oh, no. Thanksgiving’s were always at Mother’s, until my father died. After that, I—” She stops, the familiar stone in her throat whenever she thinks of her mother. She starts when Emma places a hand on her back, so briefly. So soft. “I took Henry and moved to the City. She wasn’t the kind of person I wanted my son growing up around any longer.”

Emma half-smiles, in a way that makes her chest loosen just a bit, just enough. She turns and takes a glup of wine and Emma changes the subject.

“So how old is Henry?”

“Eighteen,” she says, with a fond roll of her eyes and a laugh at Emma’s startled expression.

“Sorry,” she manages, “I just—you don’t look old enough to have a kid that age.”

She hates the bubbly feeling in her stomach. “Flattery will get you nowhere, Miss Swan,” she says, then inwardly cringes, well aware of how flirtatious it sounded, until Emma is suddenly standing right behind her, hips pressed to her back as she leans over - far, far too close to be unintentional - and picks up the salt from the island.

“It’s Emma,” she says, breath hot on her ear and Regina swallows, pulling back just enough to meet her gaze. “Okay?” She thinks she feels the flutter of fingertips against her spine, and she nods, licking her lips.

“Emma.”

--

Her name is barely a hushed whisper but it's enough to make her insides clench and her cheeks flush and she's so warm. The heat in the kitchen, Regina barely a hair's breadth away and the wine in her blood and she can't imagine what she looks like right now, leaning into Regina’s personal space with all the delicacy of a bull in a china shop.

It's too much, she realizes, because Regina clears her throat and turns away, putting as much distance between them as possible and she isn't sure if it's the good kind of uncomfortable or the all too awful, why is this woman hitting on me uncomfortable.

“Check the pie crust,” Regina says, which is decidedly unhelpful, but Emma acquiesces, and turns the conversation to cooking questions, something benign, though for the life of her she doesn’t know what because Regina is bent over at the waist, searching for a bowl to put the cranberry sauce in and while she’s fairly certain Regina isn’t doing it on purpose, but can’t help hoping she is anyway.

Emma pulls the partially baked crust from the oven, stupidly pleased when Regina hums in satisfaction, and it’s been so, so long that she felt this kind of attraction to anyone—something beyond just the physical. Some kind of connection.

It’s only been a few hours, but she wants to know everything—what kind of films does she like or music does she listen to, what makes her laugh, how she drinks her coffee and what books she reads and what kind of pajamas she wears. It’s ridiculous, but she wants to know, more than anything else, what put the melancholy sheen in her eyes that never seems to go away. Even when she’s smiling, or teasing, or snarking at her across a half-roasted turkey, what happened to make this woman - beautiful, confident, intelligent - so distant. So on edge.

She’s learned to read people over the years, had to when she was younger - what mood her foster parents were in, which siblings to avoid, who to trust and who to run away from - but Regina is complicated. Her home is austere, impersonal, but she moves through the space with ease. She makes pie crust from scratch and hasn’t once consulted a recipe, which tells her that she’s done this for years, that she has traditions. Her apron is old, well-worn, and unlike the one Emma wears - crisp and red and overpriced - Regina’s is a light blue, with misshapen, sparkly stars and faded glue marks that she thinks say #1 Mom.

It clashes horribly with her slacks and blouse and simple but expensive jewelry, but she looks right in it, and Emma wonders if perhaps the personal touches are hidden, secreted away from prying eyes.

She wonders if she’ll ever get to find out.

--

For some reason, Regina winds up telling her about Henry. Not everything—not his adoption, not his struggle to come to terms with it—but bits and pieces about the things he likes and carefully chosen excerpts from his childhood. It’s not entirely that she doesn’t want to share—Emma listens and interjects and laughs in all the right places—but it’s difficult. She’s a stranger still, and despite her attraction, she isn’t stupid enough to bare her soul to someone she’s just met.

But Henry is easy to talk about, always has been, and it keeps her from missing him quite as much.

“Where is he now?” Emma asks, reaching for her glass of wine, and Regina rolls her eyes at her attempts at casual.

“He’s a freshman at UVA. Some of his friends invited him on a trip to Chicago to see a game, so he’s spending Thanksgiving with them this year.”

If her voice cracks, Emma thankfully says nothing, but she thinks she feels her hand squeeze her arm briefly, and startles at the warmth.

“That must be difficult,” she says, soft, but without pity, and Regina nods.

“It is. But I've learned not to cling too tightly,” she admits, though she isn't sure why. “Never ends well.”

“Better to have a helicopter mom than no mom at all,” Emma offers.

Regina smiles wryly, but she finds herself reaching for the other woman, a brief, awkward touch meant to comfort. “Try telling him that.”

Emma studies her for a moment too long. “I'd be happy to,” she says, and it’s too serious, too genuine.

Regina swallows thickly. “Emma—”

“I’m just saying,” she says, smiling, and Regina feels the ghost of her thumb brush over her elbow. “I know what it’s like to grow up without parents, and from what I can see he’s a damn lucky kid.”

She doesn’t mean to sound so stiff, but there’s a knot in her chest and the words come out almost resentful. “And what do you see?”

But Emma only squeezes her arm and lets go, pointing to her apron with a wooden spoon. “Well, he’s not even here and you’re still wearing that.

Regina flushes, tries to think of something and settles for tossing a towel at her head. “Shut up, Swan.”

--

She makes absolutely sure, while they’re standing around sipping wine and waiting for the stuffing to come out of the oven, to mention an ex-girlfriend.

Regina doesn’t bat an eyelash, gives absolutely nothing away, and Emma resists the urge to groan. It’s almost six-thirty, and she needs to go back to her apartment and clean up, shower, and change her clothes but she doesn’t want to leave, and she certainly doesn’t want to leave Regina alone.

“You’re having dinner with us, right?” she says, already barrelling over Regina’s protests. “It’s your food, and you did most of the work.”

Regina waves a hand in front of her face carelessly. “It was going to go to waste anyway.” Emma gives her the sternest look she can muster, but Regina merely rolls her eyes. “I’m not crashing your first Thanksgiving with your parents.”

“It wouldn’t be crashing,” she insists. “In fact, you’d be doing me a favor.”

Regina wings an eyebrow. “Haven’t I already done you enough favors?”

“So, I’ll owe you double. It’s our first holiday, and I’m a bit—I mean, I think we’re all a bit nervous, you know?”

It’s partly true, but mostly exaggerated, and she’s fairly certain Regina has caught on because she narrows her eyes and folds her arms across her chest in a way that should not look so appealing in that apron.

“So, you want to have a virtual stranger as a conversational buffer? That sounds like a disaster worse than your kitchen.”

Emma shakes her head. “No, it’d be great. You don’t have plans. We have all this food—your food—and my parents will have each other, so I need backup. A buddy.” She cringes the moment the word leaves her mouth. “Not a buddy. A—friend.”

“Three hours and a bottle of Merlot don’t make us friends, Miss Swan.”

“Maybe not, but they make us something. And I… I’d kind of like to figure out what that is. If you do.”

Regina’s eyes widen and Emma tenses, waiting for the inevitable, Oh, you thought— or I’m sorry, I’m not— or any number of awkward platitudes. But Regina just keeps staring at her - not offended, not uncomfortable, just confused, but not at Emma’s meaning. Like she doesn’t understand why anyone would offer. Why anyone would try.

“Regina?”

She starts, stops, clears her throat and her eyes flicker from Emma to the floor and back again, and she’s tempted to give her an out. To say nevermind, or I’m sorry, or forget it, but then Regina squares her shoulders and meets her gaze and Emma feels herself smiling before she’s spoken.

“Well you’re not eating in my place dressed like that.”

--

Emma runs home to shower and change and, Regina hopes, toss out some of those pots and pans she destroyed. Regina stays and sets the table for four (five, almost, but she catches herself), makes sure everything’s staying warm but not drying out, and lights a few scented candles - cinnamon, Henry’s favorite. She cleans up the rest of the kitchen quickly before ducking into her bedroom. She exchanges her silk blouse for something a bit more casual, and wonders for the umptenth time in the last twenty minutes what the hell she’s thinking.

Dinner with a stranger has never appealed to her, and dinner with a stranger and said stranger’s parents is just asking for an uncomfortable evening. But she seems a bit incapable of saying no to Emma, something she isn’t sure she likes and isn’t sure she hates, finds herself freshening up her makeup and perfume and fluffing her hair in the mirror before scowling at herself and marching back out into the living room.

She checks her phone, even though she’s sure it hasn’t rung, and hopes Henry will remember to at least text her when he’s in Chicago safely. She doesn’t want to be the mother that constantly hounds him, that embarasses him when he’s with friends, but her heart aches as she stares at his photo on her lockscreen and she wishes he were here. Wishes, sometimes, that he were still the little boy who would curl up in her lap with a book and demand she do silly voices, or come to her crying when he skinned his knee, or make a mess of the living room building forts and using her spatula to fight invisible dragons.

Swallowing, Regina forces herself to pocket her phone before she does something stupid. She focuses on choosing a wine and checking the food and she doesn’t realize she’s nervous until she catches herself rubbing her palms against her thighs. Until she catches herself glancing at the door intermittently. She doesn’t know what Emma meant by figure it out, but she can hazard a guess, and it makes her throat feel dry and her heart pick up speed.

She tries not to, but she hates it—hates the way the feeling reminds her of the past, of lost love and pain rather than new hope and joy. Henry, she’s sure, would tell her to take a chance, it’s just dinner, just an almost-friend, but there’s something about Emma - her smile, the way she doesn’t recoil at her smart mouth, her long fingers and pale skin - that makes her want to lock the door and turn off the lights and pretend she isn’t here, that she never existed. Wants to take her battered heart and lock it away.

But then there’s a knock on the door, and Emma’s too-loud, “Regina? It’s us.”

Taking a deep breath, Regina crosses the room and pastes on what she hopes is a friendly, easy smile.

--

Emma’s parents are borderline disgusting.

Twenty minutes in and Regina thinks she’s counted four “hopes” from Mary Margaret and half a dozen “loves” from David; they make eyes at each other and smile constantly and mirror each other’s actions and facial expressions down to the minutia.

They’re clearly delighted to see Emma - and a bit wary at Regina’s presence, looking from her to Emma and to each other often enough to make Regina want to proactively dig out another three bottles of wine - and spend half the meal dishing their entire life’s story.

She’s aware they’re making up for lost time - and, she grudgingly admits, probably trying to include her in their conversations by explaining - but she’s never met anyone who speaks so freely about their struggles and histories, and it’s unnerving.

Emma keeps shooting her apologetic glances every time Mary Margaret tears up a bit, and David has to smile and take her hand and tell Emma again how happy they are that they’re all together, as if it weren’t glaringly obvious.

If she’s honest, she knows most of her bitterness comes from missing Henry. From wishing that she’d had just one Thanksgiving like this with her own mother, one filled with laughter and love and not Regina, dear, university is no place for a sophisticated woman, or Regina you need to teach that child some manners, or Honestly, Regina, you can’t still be upset about that stable boy.

The third time Mary Margaret sniffles and thanks Regina again for her help and tells Emma how happy she is, Regina clears her throat and excuses herself. In the safety of her bedroom, she checks her phone again - nothing - and takes a few deep, calming breaths. Her hands are sore from gripping her silverware too tightly and she feels like her face is stuck in a false smile.

It’s not even that it’s so horrible - David and Mary Margaret, despite being grossly affectionate - are kind and funny and not altogether stupid. They talk about their friends and their son Neal (Regina thinks she’s the only one who catches Emma’s wince every time they say his name) and it’s admittedly a nice change from office politics - from board meetings and business dinners where the conversations are heated debates on the power of the FEC and a lame-duck Congress and how many troops should be sent back overseas.

But if she’s honest with herself, she’d rather be hearing about dorm life and roommate struggles and the girl in his English comp class who smiles at him from the back row. About cafeteria food and RA pranks and the professor who never blows his nose and new friends and arguments and things he’s learned and he’s been her entire life for eighteen years, every day, every hour, every decision and now there’s nothing. Silence.

Picking up the photo on her nightstand, Regina can’t help but trace the lines of his baby face, the gappy grin he always gave her when she sang.

She doesn’t hear the knock on the door, only registers Emma’s presence when she’s right behind her, a hand on her arm.

“Regina?”

She whirls, photograph clutched to her chest and glowers. “What are you doing?”

“I just came to make sure you were alright.”

“I’m fine.”

Emma frowns and tilts her head slightly. “It’s okay to admit you miss him. I’m not gonna judge you or—make fun of you or whatever it is you think happens when you’re honest about something.”

Regina turns, shielding the photo with her body as she replaces it on the nightstand. “I’m not looking for your approval, Miss Sw—”

“Don’t.” Emma cuts her off, a sharpness to her voice Regina hasn’t heard, and it makes her pause. Emma’s eyes are narrowed, her arms folded across her chest and Regina almost feels impressed. Not many people interrupt her, and fewer to correct her. “I’m just trying to be nice.”

Regina snorts, pushing past her towards the door. “You don’t have to be nice to everyone who does you a favor.”

“Is that why you think I’m doing it? Because I owe you?”

Cursing her inability to face her, Regina shrugs. “Why else would you—”

She doesn’t manage the rest of the sentence, because Emma has one hand on her arm and the other tangled in her hair and her lips are warm and slightly chapped on hers and she gasps, too surprised to do anything but stand there until Emma pulls away.

“Don’t be an idiot, Regina,” she says. “It doesn’t suit you.”

And then she quirks her lips in a half smile, squeezes her arm, and leaves Regina standing motionless in the doorway to her bedroom, eyes wide and lips still tingling.

--

Idiot, Emma thinks. Idiot idiot idiot idiot—

“Is everything okay?” David asks, and she forces a smile.

“Yeah,” she manages, sliding back into her seat and reaching immediately for a long, long drink of wine. “She was just checking in with her son.”

“Her son?”

Emma winces, aware that Regina hadn’t said anything and probably didn’t want them to know. She tries to think of something to change the subject, but then Regina’s answering, her voice low and just the tiniest bit shaky as she settles back into her chair next to Emma.

“Henry. He’s off at college.”

Mary Margaret lights up and proceeds to nearly drown Regina in questions—about books and schools and college admissions and Emma tries not to let it get to her, tries not to think about the childhood she could have had, the childhood Neal gets.

She knows why they did it—they were too young, far, far too young, and wanted to give her the best chance they could but it hadn’t worked, and she knows she’s going to spend the rest of her life trying to fight that resentment now that they’re here. Sitting across from her, going on about their son, and she doesn’t realize she’s digging her fingernails into her palm until a soft hand settles over hers, uncurling her fingers against her thigh.

Emma’s eyes snap to Regina, but she’s nodding politely at something her mother’s said, answering something about SAT scores, and at the same time her fingers curl around Emma’s in a way that makes her feel warm and safe and somehow protected.

She isn’t sure what three hours, three bottles of wine and a kiss make, but she’s pretty sure it’s more than friends.

Across the table, she starts when she sees her father staring at her, an eyebrow raised slightly as he looks from Regina to Emma. She hadn’t planned on sharing that part of her life yet, but then he smiles, gentle and secretive, and she relaxes, letting her shoulders slouch and her thumb brush against Regina’s under the table.

--

Mary Margaret and David insist on cleaning up, and despite the fact that she hates other people in her kitchen, putting things where they don’t belong, she relents - if only to escape yet another question about recommendation letters and East Coast vs West Coast universities. And, she knows, so that she can tug Emma into the hallway, push her back against the wall and kiss her properly, like she should have done the first time.

Emma squeaks in surprise, a sound that has Regina grinning against her lips before she opens her mouth and Emma moans quietly. She can feel Emma’s hands on her waist, fingers stretched under her rib cage and her thumb moving slowly over her sweater.

She kisses her until they’re both breathless, and the smile Emma gives her when she pulls away makes her flush.

“Better?” she asks, trying to calm her heart, the voice in her head telling her to run.

“Oh, yeah,” is Emma’s breathless reply, and it makes her laugh. She doesn’t quite know why, maybe it’s the alcohol or the look on her face or just the strangeness of the day. Regina ducks her head when Emma brushes her hair back behind her ear, fingers warm and light against her cheek. “I’ve wanted to do that all day,” she admits, and the tremor there, the simple honesty, is almost more than Regina can bear, so she kisses her again, one hand on her neck and the other at her hip, thumb slipping under her shirt to trace bare skin. Emma sinks into her, so easily, so unlike harried, stolen kisses with Daniel or bittersweet moments with Robin or the clash of teeth with Mal and she feels her breathing hitch, feels Emma smooth a hand up and down her spine.

“Regina, did you want to take the pie out of the—oh!”

Mary Margaret’s voice shoots up an octave and Regina starts, fixing her with a glare to cover her blush.

“Sorry, I didn’t mean to—” She flusters, then frowns: “Didn’t you just meet?”

Emma rolls her eyes, but she keeps one hand on Regina’s wrist like an anchor. “At least I didn’t bludgeon her with a rock.”

Regina frowns as Mary Margaret turns faintly pink, mutters something about a misunderstanding and disappears back into the kitchen.

“Do I even want to—”

“No,” Emma says, and kisses her again.

--

Pie is awkward.

Her mother keeps shooting her nervous glances while David tries to cover the stillness with stories from work and Regina is tense next to her on the sofa, keeping almost a full seat cushion between them. It’s not the strangest first date she’s ever been on, if she can count it that, but it’s certainly inching up into the top register, especially when Mary Margaret clears her throat and says brightly,

“So, you’re both…?”

David groans quietly and shakes his head.

“I’m just asking!” she protests, smiling far too widely, and Emma looks at Regina out of the corner of her eye, waiting for the terse remark or back-handed compliment she knows is coming. Regina is biting her lip, gaze focused on her coffee intently and Mary Margaret must have noticed, because she quickly says,

“Not that there’s anything wrong with—I just didn’t realize—”

“Mary Margaret,” David mutters.

And then Regina snorts, a sound she instantly tries to cover with her hand. It takes a moment, with her head still ducked and hair in her face, for Emma to realize she’s trying, so, so desperately, not to laugh.

“Regina?” she prompts, a small smile of her own threatening to break through.

Regina tries to clear her throat, to rearrange her face into something more stern, but the moment she raises her head, sees Mary Margaret’s concerned expression and David’s weary one, sees Emma biting back a smirk, she can’t keep it. Regina laughs, shaking her head and waving her hand in front of her face and the sound is so wonderful, Emma thinks it might be one of the most beautiful things she’s ever heard.

“Sorry,” Regina mutters, though she doesn’t sound at all sorry, just endlessly amused, and it only takes a quick look at her parents’ confused faces before she’s laughing, too.

At the day, at the wine, at her parents, who don’t seem to quite understand what’s so hilarious but are smiling; and then she catches Regina’s gaze and the mirth there, the can you believe this shit expression that she reads so clearly and only makes her laugh harder.

It’s only a moment before they’re all laughing, far more than the situation probably warrants but Emma scoots herself closer on the sofa and her hand finds Regina’s and she feels almost weightless. Free of something she didn’t know was holding her down.

And then Regina smiles, something small and just for her and squeezes her hand and things don’t seem quite so funny anymore, but infinitely better.

She’s so distracted she almost misses the knock on the door, but she catches Regina’s frown, the way her eyes flicker to the clock and she scowls before standing up. Emma watches as she smoothes her slacks with her free hand before she turns back to her parents, who’ve asked her something she needs them to repeat.

She’s about to answer when there’s a crash from the doorway, and she’s over the couch and halfway through the dining room when she hears a sheepish, giddy,

“Surprise?”

--

Her coffee mug slips out of her grasp and she feels tears in her eyes before he’s said a word.

It’s been less than three months and he shouldn’t look so different but he does—standing in the hallway with a backpack slung over his shoulder, hair in desperate need of a trim, grinning at her so widely she almost worries she’s imagining it. That she’s finally lost the plot.

“I meant to get here earlier, but the bus was late and I forgot my key in my dorm and—Mom?”

She doesn’t know what sound leaves her throat, something akin to a sob most likely, and then he’s in her arms, all eighteen years of her baby boy, smelling like books and public transit and cologne - when did that happen? - and Henry and she buries her face in his neck.

“Hey,” he murmurs, his voice low in her ear, “Hey, it’s okay. Mom.”

She sniffs, and forces herself to push him back, still gripping his arms as she drinks him in. “Sorry,” she murmurs. “I’m just so happy to see you.”

Henry chuckles. “Yeah, I got that.” He starts to say something else, she thinks, but then pauses—”Do I smell stuffing?”

Regina laughs—a bit tearfully, she’s sure—and ushers him inside, shoes off, Henry, and smiles when he rolls his eyes. She can’t quite stop touching him, a hand on his shoulder or his arm or her face pressed to his hair, and she’s so distracted that he’s here she forgets all about her company, until Henry freezes and says,

“Who are you?”

Regina starts, her eyes flickering to Emma’s, instinctively muttering, “Henry, manners,” before making introductions while she quickly cleans up the coffee she’d spilled and the broken mug. Henry nods, a bit confused, until Emma explains that his mother ‘saved the day’ and then he’s beaming at her, like she’s done something otherworldly.

“If I’d known you were coming—” she starts, biting her lip, nervous that he’ll be upset. That he’ll think she was fine without him, or didn’t want him, or any number of insecurities she keeps close to her heart.

Henry hugs her tightly. “No, it’s brilliant. You’re brilliant, Mom.” And she feels herself tear up all over again, feels her cheeks stretch from smiling as she ushers him into the kitchen, fussing that he must be hungry and tired and how was the trip and what about Chicago and how are his classes and how long are you staying, you need a haircut, do you need new clothes, what’s the dorm like, and Henry, bless him, answers as best he can, and she’s so thrilled and awestruck that she doesn’t even care when he eats standing up at the kitchen island or shovels food straight out of the tupperware.

He’s here and he’s home and she feels everything bend back into shape, everything as it should be, her heart lighter than it’s been in months.

--

If she thought Regina’s smile was something special before, the one she saves for Henry is almost blinding. She watches as Henry fumbles through his explanation, watches Regina’s eyes water and there’s so much love in the way her hand cradles the back of Henry’s head, in her fussing, in the way she completely forgets about everyone and everything around her.

Emma watches as she steers him into the kitchen, and part of her thinks she should feel neglected, or at least bittersweet about having the evening cut short, but Regina’s smile is so wide, her laughter so open and clear and full of joy that Emma can’t begrudge her this. The melancholy in her eyes has all but vanished, and all it took was a scrappy teenager, shovelling casserole into his mouth while telling her about a smelly guy on the bus.

Returning to the living room, Emma explains to her parents that they should be going, and ushers them into the hall before they can ask too many questions. She approaches the kitchen just in time to see Regina use her thumb to wipe something off Henry’s cheek, and his flustered, half-laughed, “Ugh, Mom.

She clears her throat, and Regina looks up, startled, then a bit embarrassed.

“Emma—” she starts, but she cuts her off quickly.

“It’s fine. I just wanted to let you know we’re gonna get going.”

“Already?” she says, but Emma can tell it’s forced, polite, and she scoffs fondly.

“You’re fooling no one, Miss Mills.”

Regina wrinkles her nose at the title, and Emma watches Henry look back and forth between them curiously.

“Tell your parents—” She pauses, as if trying to think of something diplomatic, and Emma chuckles.

“I’ll make something up.”

“That’s probably best.”

There’s a silence, and Emma knows she doesn’t want to leave, not yet, just wants a few more seconds to drink in the moment, the soft, gentle smile on Regina’s face. But Regina’s eyes flicker to Henry, almost longingly, and Emma takes her cue.

“So. I’ll uh, I’ll see you around?”

“You live across the hall, dear.”

Despite her tone, Emma brightens at the endearment. The implication. “True.”

Regina hesitates, her hand on Henry’s shoulder, then manages, “I’ll be busy this weekend, so if you could hold off any more attempts to burn down the building until next week, I’d be grateful.”

Emma grins. “How’s Tuesday sound?”

Regina flushes, just faintly, and gives a short nod. “Tuesday’s fine.”

“Good. I’ll cook a—”

“You’ll do no such thing,” Regina interrupts. “And throw out those pans, they’re probably poisonous.”

Emma gives a mock salute, says goodnight to Henry and forces herself to go. She’s got a hand on the doorknob when there’s a hand on her arm, and then her waist, and then Regina’s lips against hers and it’s short and sweet and full of promise. Regina steps back almost immediately, clears her throat and tucks a strand of hair behind her ear.

“Tuesday,” she repeats.

Emma beams. “Tuesday.”

Regina turns away, back to Henry, and she’s halfway out the door when she hears his, “Nice job, Mom. She’s hot.” and Regina’s scandalized, “Henry!

Chuckling, Emma lets the door close behind her and sighs, leaning against it for a moment with what she’s certain is an idiotic smile on her face.

For a first Thanksgiving, she thinks, not bad at all.