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She calls him Hook now. It’s the name he chose for himself, a constant reminder of his life’s vengeance and his grudge with Rumplestiltskin. It’s the name that earned him infamy and has been a point of pride for the past three centuries.

 

When she uses it now, it sounds like a death rattle, a beginning to an end that will never come.

 

Not that death is all that immutable anymore. She and her family had brought him from past the brink of death back to this life– to a finally peaceful Storybrooke, to a house he shares with her and a built-in family and the day-by-day task of bearing witness to Emma Swan’s misery.

 

“I’m happy,” she says when he prods, and her smile is sweet and good and false. “I have you,” she says when time has proven otherwise, and flinches when his eyes grow stormy and he opens his mouth.

 

He thinks that she must have thought, before, that he’d been a good man brought back from darkness. He thinks that she must know now that he’d been a dark man searching for an excuse to return to his true self. He thinks she’s afraid of him, even if she professes her love and shows no inclination to leave him.

 

He’d thought, once, that she’d been afraid of nothing, and he thinks less of her with every day since all her weaknesses and darknesses had been exposed to him. Milah had been strong, had given as good as she’d gotten and never been reduced to pleas to love in the same ways as Emma Swan had. Emma had emasculated him and then become nothing at all but a lovesick girl.

 

“You’re despicable,” Regina had snarled at him when he’d gotten too drunk and had a moment of honesty. She’s an unlikely ally of sorts now, even if she looks at him as though he disgusts her. She’s reliable for drinks and shared mourning in her office most nights, and she doesn’t turn him away. “You will never deserve her.” 

 

“I don’t want her like this,” he says, disconsolate. If he’d been more sober, he might have thought twice about tearing into his relationship when Regina had lost her lover so recently. If he’d been more sober, he might have worried about the possibility of Regina telling Emma what he’s said to her. “I thought she was good. A spitfire. Someone worthy of a fight. Not this pale shadow of a woman.” 

 

No, he’d reminded himself a moment later. Regina wouldn’t tell Emma. Not anymore. They don’t speak, not since the outlaw’s demise.

 

“Get out,” Regina orders him. “Get out, get out, get the fuck out.” She cuts an imposing figure even with half a bottle of wine down and her legs wavering. “Don’t you dare–“ 

 

Storybrooke gossips more about the Swan/Mills rift than they do any other goddamned topic. It happened in hell, they say. The queen got what she deserved, they say. Good riddance to them both, they say. Regina is locked away in her house with the children and her sister and Emma rarely emerges from her house and everyone seems disdainful of both.

 

He ventures the question once. “Haven’t you ever considered…she’s your friend,” he’d said finally, because Regina had dragged him home one night when he’d drunk himself into a stupor (I think we’ve all lost too much on your behalf to let you die in a puddle of your own vomit here, she’d snapped, and flicked her fingers and been in front of the door) and he owes her at least some easing of these tensions. 

 

“Since when do you care about her?” Emma says, fists clenched and eyes narrowed as they only get when Regina is mentioned. He craves life in her eyes, fury or any of the fire he’d fallen in love with. He’s chained to a broken woman instead.

 

“She did save us all in hell,” he says. He doesn’t tell Emma who he’s been drinking with. He won’t endure another day of Emma flitting around the house like a lonely ghost, brooding out windows as the vitality seeps from her body. “And at the cost of her soulmate. It seems rather…ungrateful, considering.” 

 

“You have no idea what happened in hell,” Emma hisses, and she vanishes in a puff of smoke from the room. 

 


 

Rumple had taken Belle to the town line and offered her an escape, a world beyond Storybrooke, freedom that she’d turned down on the spot. She’d been a fool. Now she’s in a marriage she can’t bear again with a child on the way that she fears means she’ll never be free of it. Freedom seems a distant memory.

 

She's best suited to understand Regina now, Regina who’d gambled for Iris’s future and fallen so hard. She’s best suited to understand Emma as well, but Emma doesn’t talk to anyone.

 

Regina takes the boys to the library, sits with her sister in the baby book section and makes irritable comments about her posture. Zelena snarls back– it’s the same fight every time, the you stole her from me, the I am never going to let another child go through what I did, and they go on for endless minutes before interruption– and Belle watches as they shift, day by day.

 

They sit stock-still on their first day at the library, a seat between them as though they can’t bear to breathe the same air. The second week, Regina finds something and Zelena slips into the seat beside her to peer at it, passing Iris over to her as naturally as family. Now they sit shoulder-to-shoulder, Regina’s steadying hand on Zelena’s back as Iris nurses from her mother. They still growl at each other but there are tentative nods and cautious teamwork, and Belle looks away whenever Regina’s glower slips to her. 

 

When Regina finally deems it safe enough to send Zelena alone, it’s with what feels like hours of coaching. “I’m married to the Dark One,” Belle says finally, a gentle hand laid on Regina’s wrist. “I know how to handle villains without any remorse.” 

 

Regina looks at her for the first time like she– like she understands, understands like no one else in town does. Ruby and Granny regard Belle with pity, Mulan is compassionate but has no grasp of any of it, but Regina is uniquely situated to understand the agony of loving someone who’d chosen the darkness first. I am never going to let another child go through what I did, Cora and Rumple both. “I underestimated you, once,” Regina says, and there’s an odd sort of comfort in her respect. 

 

Belle likes her more now than she’d ever thought that she would during her years of captivity. Belle hears the rumors about Emma and her and what had happened– they were in love and Emma rejected her, Granny insists, and Ruby makes teasing comments about her grandmother’s senility that mask the worry too much time away has brought. 

 

Belle doesn’t know. Regina hasn’t been seen with Emma since they’d all emerged from hell together, stumbled from that black water bruised and injured and Regina supporting Emma in something like an embrace. Emma had clung to her even with Killian emerging on the other end of the group, and Regina had kissed her forehead and set her down and walked away without a second glance.

 

Belle and Rumple had been the only ones there that night. No one needs to know what they’d seen. 

 

And so Belle zips her mouth shut and focuses on her dwindling freedom and duties in the library instead. She doesn’t say a word when Emma is summoned to fight off stray demons who’d followed them up from hell and gets thrown around while her father and lover wave their swords and shout bold words.

 

There’s a listlessness to Emma’s movements now, to the way she throws herself into battle as though she doesn’t particularly care about making it out anymore. It sets off warning bells that aren’t Belle’s business, so she’s silent about it until the day when a flaming demon nearly hits the clock tower and Emma responds with a dwindling burst of magic that has the demon cackling in mocking fearlessness.

 

Emma is tossed into buildings, scorched and still moving forward, and David and Killian both are half conscious on the other side of a river of lava. Belle sighs and uses the number Regina had given her for Zelena emergencies.

 

Regina is there a moment later, eyes darting around wildly. “Where is she? I swear, if she’s done anything while Iris is–“ She catches the scene outside and falls silent. “Idiot,” she mutters, but her fists are clenching and her jaw is tight.

 

Belle is a librarian. She’s good at silence, even when she sees Regina vanish and reappear beside Emma, a hand outstretched to still her wrist. Emma doesn’t turn to look at her and Regina glances like one would at the sun, as though it’s painful to gaze directly, and Emma’s next stream of magic is strong and steady and shatters the monster into blackened rocks.

 

Regina watches the magic instead of Emma and Emma’s eyes slide to Regina, anguished.

 

Belle gasps once. Zelena looks over at her. “I know, right?” she scoffs, and returns to eyeballing Mulan and Roland doing puzzles in the corner.

 


 

It’s good to be back. It’s also kind of terrible, having come to terms that she’s never going to find any more of her kind, but maybe that’s for the best, anyway. As long as she doesn’t get frisky over the next few decades, no newly turned beasts will go around murdering hapless humans.

 

But it’s good, even if everyone else seems in dire straits. Dire ‘straights,’ Mulan likes to say, grinning like she’s already picked up queer culture after a couple of months in this realm. Ruby has firmly decided that it isn’t cute. Nope, coming back to Belle's and Emma’s current situations has pretty much confirmed that she’s never dating ever, ever again. 

 

She tries with Emma, who still manages to go to work half the time. Emma’s fall from grace has been an ignoble experience that involves a lot of dirty looks and battling internal and external demons on her own. “It’s not like I’ve never dealt with being unwanted before,” she mutters over coffee when Ruby inquires. Her eyes have been red-rimmed for so long that it’s beginning to look like permanent makeup, like she’s dying or something.

 

Maybe she is, in that grim little house that has the vibe of Mattel-designed, if Hannibal Lector had been called in as decorator. Ruby’s never been invited over, but Snow has called her on several occasions and begged her to join her on visits. “She needs us,” Snow says each time, even though Emma lets them with marked reluctance. “She can’t ask us, but she needs us.” 

 

So they sit with cocoa and home-baked cookies under flickering fluorescent lights and pretend that Emma’s fine, that Ruby can’t see the skin stretched over her veins and the dark circles ringing her eyes and the way that her shoulders drop when Hook enters the room.

 

“I haven’t entertained much,” Emma says when she manages to find two dusty plates in a cabinet. “You know how early couplehood gets.” 

 

“Before the boyfriend-eating part, check.” Ruby puts on her best smile, despite how unnerved she is by this new Emma. She can smell tension in the room, something close to fear emanating from Emma whenever Hook is around. (“He’s just not good with people,” Emma says when Ruby mentions it, looking around the diner with swift, worried eyes. “I’m not afraid of anything. I wanted him to make a good impression.” Emma is too jumpy these days, her confidence sapped and replaced with dull distress.)

 

Snow brings up PTSD one winter afternoon when they’re huddled on the porch, watching the baby– Neal, just over a year now– and Emma build a little snowman on her lawn. Emma’s more animated around him than she is anyone else, smiling an almost-real smile at him and falling backward into the snow to make him laugh. “I think that what she went through– with the Dark One and then hell– I don’t think she recovered right.” Snow wrinkles her brow, troubled. “I don’t think she’d take well to anyone suggesting that, though.” 

 

“Is there a right way to recover?” Ruby had never had time to recover from any of her own traumas. It had been experience after experience with looming doom ahead for a long time. “She’s hanging in there.” 

 

But she knows Snow is right, if only because Emma hasn’t recovered. The Emma Ruby remembers isn’t the one buried in paperwork at the station, faithfully filling out every single line with precision when Ruby drops off her lunch. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen that much finished paperwork on your desk,” she comments, because there’s no way Granny’s secret conspiracy theory is right but she can’t help but wonder. “You in trouble with the missus?” 

 

Emma’s pen falls from her hand. She picks it up again. She doesn’t answer.

 

Ruby says, self-conscious and afraid she might have overstepped, “I mean, I’m mostly trying to figure out how to deal with the fact that Belle and Mulan have been hanging out with– actually, is there some kind of manual on what to do when your best friend is crushing on the Wicked Witch of the West, because I want to be supportive of Mulan’s choices but not that supportive–“ 

 

“I don’t have a missus,” Emma finally spits out, slamming the pen onto the desk. “I have a boyfriend I love and if you could all stop trying to undermine him–“ She crumbles midway through the threat, her eyes closing and her face stricken. “I’m sorry, Ruby. I’m sorry. I’m–“ She apologizes and apologizes and Ruby puts down her lunch and walks toward the door, very done with this Emma drama.

 

“Regina saved him,” Emma says, her voice small. Ruby hesitates. “I tried…oh god, I tried to split my heart and I think I was dead and Regina brought me back.” She shivers a shiver that wracks her whole body like a seizure. “She negotiated a deal with her mother and saved him with her help instead and it backfired and Robin was trapped down there for good and…paperwork is the least I can do, right?” She stares at her desk. “She gave me my happy ending.” 

 

“You seem very happy,” Ruby says smoothly, and Emma looks up at her with hollow eyes.

 


 

Three months ago, Zelena had been all but defeated in a battle for control of Oz when she’d looked up in the battlefield and seen her sister standing over her, looking very weary. “I’m tired of fighting,” Regina had said. “Aren't you?” She’d held out a hand and Zelena had hesitated for a long moment before she’d taken it.

 

It had been the pardon Zelena had never expected. Later, she’d learn that Robin had been left to stay in the underworld per Cora’s machinations. Later, she’d learn that Roland and Iris had no father anymore. But then, she’d only been installed in Regina’s house with a baby in her arms and her sister talking her through getting her milk supply started again.

 

They squabble…all the time, really. Zelena isn’t quick to forget what she’d nearly lost and Regina’s face is drawn and tired all the time. “You aren’t raising Roland,” Regina had said sharply. “Are you insane?” 

 

“According to Dr. Hopper, just a bit,” Zelena concedes. “But I’m also the only one of us who ever has parented him.” 

 

“You killed his mother! If you think you’re capable of–“ 

 

“That hasn't stopped you,” Zelena says archly, and Regina’s face whitens considerably.

 

Roland is moved to a home with the Merry Men. Zelena sees him in the library with the Fat Friar or Mulan and she wonders sometimes what might have been for him in the Mills household. It’s rather absurd, imagining Henry and Roland and Iris all growing up with the sisters co-parenting them, and Regina takes the lead with all three, but…

 

Sometimes, she wonders.

 

Regina is quieter than she remembers. The bulk of a month as her sister’s handmaiden in Camelot had taught her plenty about Regina– her moods are frenetic and irritable with every frustration, her snipes meant to hurt without lasting mark, and she’s never without one when it comes to Zelena. But maybe she really is done fighting now, because now she’s gentle and soft and rarely seems to have the energy to do more than squabble.

 

Robin’s death has left its mark on her, Zelena thinks. Zelena almost feels a twinge of regret for her part in that rollercoaster– but no, the underworld hadn’t been her fault at all. That had all been on Regina’s drinking buddy and Emma Swan.

 

And Zelena would have left it at that if not for the day that Emma Swan is scheduled to take Henry for the weekend. She spends less time with him now, both of them shaken from recent events, and it’s rare that Emma bothers to come by to pick him up at all.

 

But today she’s standing unsteadily in the doorway with Hook lurking behind her, and Regina opens the door and says, “No.” 

 

Emma’s face falls and then firms, her features unreadable. “What’s that supposed to–“ 

 

“I don’t want him around Hook.” Regina’s arms are folded and she’s bristling– they’re both bristling, on guard and so brittle that one well-placed blow might shatter either one.

 

“Since when?” Emma demands. “You never complained before–“ 

 

“I complained constantly,” Regina snaps back. “You never listened. Do you really think I’d be okay with my son spending time with the man who handed me off for torture?” 

 

Zelena cocks her head, watching interestedly as Emma wavers like a flower in the wind, bends and bends and never breaks. A hand is extended toward Regina, a peace offering within it, and Regina takes a step back from her. Emma flinches, her face darkening. “Then why the hell did you save him,” she says.

 

“I ask myself that question every day,” Regina says. Emma is on edge, features alive as they haven't been since Zelena had been dragged back to Storybrooke the first time, but Regina’s eyes have fallen and her shoulders have knit closer to her as though she’s already been defeated. 

 

Emma watches her with so much agony in her eyes– so much emotion, angry and lost as it is– and she clears her throat and says, “Look, this relationship isn’t going anywhere. My true…my true love isn’t going anywhere. You can’t possibly believe that you can keep him from–“

 

“Love,” Hook says, and Emma flinches away from him the moment he calls her love. He’s watching her with wistfulness, watching her as though he’s never seen this version of her before. Zelena hasn’t seen her in months, either, but she supposes it burns more when you’re meant to be her true love. “I’ll just go.” 

 

Henry clears his throat and then says nothing, staring at Hook with a fifty-knife glare. Hook backs away from mothers and son, fleeing down the road before anyone can call him back. Emma sags. “Regina…” It escapes as a whisper, escapes as a choked exhale, escapes as a sob. 

 

Regina kisses the top of Henry’s head and closes the front door.

 

Zelena passes Iris to her, waits until Regina is crouched on the floor with her niece and cooing at her, the tension fading, before she says, “Were you ever even in love with Robin?”

 

“I did love him,” Regina murmurs, and someone more attuned to her needs might have picked up on what isn’t said and call her out on it. 

 

But Zelena and Regina aren’t close, aren’t real sisters who love each other or talk about their feelings. So instead, Zelena says, “You can’t tell me you don’t resent how untouchable she is,” because Regina isn’t a saint, no matter what she feels for Emma“That she can drag you all to hell for some man and still have her happily ever after while you…”

 

And she’s pushed too far, she realizes with a pang. Regina’s bent over Iris so Zelena doesn’t notice until she’s shaking, fingers digging into the baby blanket below her and back curling into itself. “Dammit,” Zelena grumbles, distinctly uncomfortable. “Don’t make me…” She kneels beside her and goes with an awkward pat on Regina’s back.

 

“I don’t resent her,” Regina whispers. “I couldn’t…” She’s still trembling, mourning losses Zelena had known about and the ones she’s only now beginning to grasp. “I was so stupid,” she grinds out, and Zelena slides an arm around her and tries not to jump when Regina burrows into her side.

 


 

 

Emma comes for dinner without Hook for the first time since hell. Snow has been prodding her gently for months, subtle requests that Emma has pretended to misunderstand until now. I’d love to catch up with you like old times. How about a family dinner? Oh, is Killian going out tonight, because we’d love to keep you busy then– and never a single invite accepted until the day Emma shows up without warning. 

 

“It’s good to see you,” Snow manages, clamping her mouth shut immediately after so she won’t say anything to chase Emma away. “I hope you’ll stay for dinner.” 

 

“If that’s okay,” Emma says, uncertain eyes beneath sallow face like she’s still the foster child Snow had lost–

 

had sent away, comes the niggling reminder, as it does every time since she’d begun trying to understand this new Emma who’d emerged from hell–

 

–who can’t believe that she could be wanted. (After battling for love for so long, she still feels unwanted, and Snow aches.)

 

“It’s always okay,” David says, steering Emma away from Snow’s openmouthed horror. “Check this out, kiddo. Neal’s starting to pick up the walking thing.” He keeps up a steady stream of dialogue, Emma sinking into it like the respite it is, and Snow sinks back against the kitchen counter and busies herself with rearranging the spice rack to keep trembling hands busy.

 

Because David is Emma’s father and he’s attuned to her needs with an ease that Emma loves, but Snow is her mother. Snow had been her friend and had taken her for granted for so long that she’d lost Emma along the way and hadn’t found her again until she’d seen… 

 

(Regina, her eyes wide and wet, her hands in Emma’s in a cavern as she’d pleaded with her. Emma, please, listen to me.

 

Emma in a fury, her hands still clasped around Regina's. You can’t! What am I supposed to do with this? ‘Hey, family, mission’s off because it turns out I’ve been in love with Regina all along.’ Why are you telling me this now? Why are you trying to sabotage–

 

I’m trying to end this madness! Regina had snapped back, and Snow had gaped at them both from her vantage point and understood too much and nothing at once. Let him go, let this end–

 

I did this to him! I can’t…you being in love with me can’t change that! I did this to him, and it’s my responsibility to save him! To be there for him when we bring him back!

 

Regina stands steady, her voice pleading. The world is filled with good women made to believe that they’re responsible for despicable men. Emma, please…)

 

A mother should know when her daughter and her former evil stepmother are in love, right? A mother should know what it means when said daughter would rather cling to a true love already proven false and avoid the best friend she’s in love with. And Snow hasn’t known. 

 

And now she sees this Emma who carries hell with her and she’s failed her for the last time. Snow moves the salt and pepper shakers back and forth, back and forth, and waits for Emma and David to return to the room. 

 

Emma’s subdued during dinner– she’s always subdued now– but she drinks in their company like she’s been starved of all contact. Snow keeps the tone light, talking about Neal’s latest escapades and some fifth-grade classroom politics, and David recounts a high-speed car chase on his shift last week that had wound up with him buried in mud. Emma laughs, light and clear, and Snow’s stomach twists.

 

“Where is Killian tonight?” she ventures delicately after. Neal is down for the night and David has gone to his shift at the station, and Emma is nursing a mug of cocoa at the table. 

 

“Probably drinking with Regina again. Talking about me. Reminiscing about the old days,” Emma mutters, staring into her cocoa. 

 

“Did you two…are you two all right?” Emma’s head snaps up and Snow covers, wincing. “Of course you are. But if you wanted to stop by here more often– we like seeing you like this.” 

 

“Like this. Alone?” Emma’s fingers whiten around her mug. “Now you decide to play the judgy parent?” 

 

“Emma–“

 

“Tell me, then.” Her movements are sharp and jerky as she looks up, eyes scorched with fire until there’s nothing but ashes beneath them. “Tell me what reason I could possibly have for everything I’ve gone through– everything I’ve put you through– other than true love.” 

 

Snow dries the last of the plates. Don’t say it. Don’t say it. She’ll never come back. “True love isn’t so selfish,” she says instead.

 

“Yours was,” Emma says dully. Snow flinches, three months of watching Emma waste away– of regrets and second-guessing and wondering what she could have done differently– too sharp in her mind for her to deny it. “So why not mine?” 

 

Snow shakes her head. “I’m an anomaly. That level of true love– that…” She can feel the arrow nocked and ready on her tongue, ready to fly free, and she can’t stop it. “That level where you’re so in love that you can share a heart– it isn’t–“

 

“Don’t do this,” Emma whispers, rising so quickly that her chair is knocked to the floor. “Don’t…” 

 

(And they’re back at the moment of truth, about to ascend from the underworld with Hook at last. Regina removes Emma’s heart– it shouldn’t be possible, it shouldn’t, but somehow–

 

And they’re back at the moment it fails, that Hook and Emma remain dead on the ground. They’re back at Regina bent over Emma, at hands smoothing down her hair and a wet smile and a whisper of it’s going to be okay. They’re back at Cora sweeping in to examine Hook and Regina pressing together the pieces of Emma’s heart again. 

 

They’re back to Cora’s admonition, I warned you that these debts go unpaid for only so long, and Regina’s cry of horror and Emma’s breath of life and Robin’s scream. They’re back to Regina with an arm wrapped around Emma as they flee from the underworld, none of them looking back.

 

They’re back to the way Emma’s eyes had widened and then dulled when she’d awakened in David's arms in the loft and found out the price Regina had paid.)

 

“I think that person is out there for you,” Snow says swiftly, reaching over the counter for Emma’s hands. “But you’re better than us. You deserve…you deserve to build your own life, not an imitation of mine with your father. You deserve more than settling for the first man who tells you he loves you even though he makes you miserable.” 

 

Emma jerks away from her, eyes narrowed and furious. “I went to hell and back for my true love! Is that not enough to qualify for your exclusive perfect happy ending club?” Her voice is raised but it cracks halfway through happy and Emma shudders.

 

Snow squeezes her fingers to her palm helplessly. “Emma, you’re thirty-one years old. You shouldn’t be looking for any kind of ending right now.” 

 

Emma crumples like a wet paper bag, bends and collapses into herself, and Snow surges forward to catch her, guiding her to the couch as strangled, sobbing gasps escape her. Emma shakes and curls up against the armrest and flinches away from her mother when Snow reaches for her. Emma never sheds a tear but she’s wracked with dry, hacking whimpers, and Snow wraps a blanket around her and dials a phone number.

 

“I need your help.”

 

“I’m busy.” It’s curt, Regina’s response every time Snow’s sought her out since the underworld. There’s a man's murmur in the background, a clink of a glass against the mayoral desk, and Snow sighs. 

 

“Fine,” she says. “Pass the phone to Hook, then.” 

 

It’s a bluff. But Regina hesitates.

 


 

Neal bangs against the bars of his crib and wakes up with a start. He opens and closes his eyes blearily, searching for his mother, but she’s nowhere to be found. 

 

Instead, the door opens and Regina walks into the loft, her eyes sharper than they’ve ever been around him before. They grow only stormier when she sees Emma huddled on the couch across the room, and Neal watches sleepily as Regina crosses the room and sits stiffly on the other end of the couch. 

 

They speak in words too advanced for his mind to parse just yet, brief murmurs that are soothing as family even if the content is beyond him.

 

Muted, carefully chosen words. “I don’t know why Snow called me.” 

 

A choked laugh. “Probably to tell me that I’m being stupid.” Emma’s leg is bouncing against the couch, knee popping up and down as she speaks. “She shouldn’t have asked you to come. I know you hate me right now.” 

 

A pause, a moment where Emma’s shoulders fall and Regina’s straighten. And then… “I don’t hate you.”

 

“Robin–“ 

 

“Robin wasn’t your fault,” Regina cuts in. “You didn’t ask me to come with you. You didn’t ask me to make that deal with my mother. I made my own choices.”

 

Emma is silent, her leg stilling and her hands digging into her thighs. “Not just that. You told me…You said you…” She looks at Regina, pleading for her to say what she’s struggling to. Regina doesn’t respond. “You said you loved me. And I–” She stops abruptly, twisting her fingers together. “I…” 

 

“You made your own choices, too,” Regina says. Gentle, hollow, the slightest hint of resentment that’s quickly silenced.

 

Choices.” Emma sags. “I don’t know if there’s a way out of any of this. Look at…look at Hook. If you saw the way he looks at me now…like he’s finally seen who I am beyond the savior and I’m another disappointment.” 

 

A sharp intake of breath. “Emma.” 

 

“What choices do we have, Regina?” Emma demands. “The price to get here was too steep. We threw…I put everything I am into this. Without it, I’m…” 

 

“No.” 

 

“Empty,” Emma whispers.

 

Silence again, long and so oppressive that even Neal is beginning to feel the tension in the loft from his crib. He tosses and turns, lets out a little rumble of discomfort, and watches as one figure on the couch reaches for the other and then drops her hand.

 

Regina says, her hands back on her lap, “I thought we were going to beat fate,” and Emma trembles like Neal does before he starts on a crying jag, her breathing quick and ragged. 

 

“I miss you,” Emma says, her voice small, and Regina closes her eyes for a long moment and doesn’t move.

 

Neal drifts back to sleep, unequipped to grasp whatever is happening on a dimly lit couch across the room. When he opens his eyes again, the two figures on the couch have molded together, a blonde head nestled below the other’s chin and Regina’s arms protective around Emma. 

 

Her eyes are fixed on Emma's face as she sleeps, golden-brown pinpoints of sorrow.

 


 

“Is it safe?” Snow says uncertainly.

 

“Zelena is too busy changing diapers to hurt anyone, trust me.” Regina rolls her eyes and pats Neal on his diaper, earning a delighted laugh. “It’s just New Year’s Eve. Kind of a ‘Congrats on surviving the year’ party,” she says dryly. 

 

“We’ll be there,” David interjects before Snow can turn Regina down. They’ve all spent precious little time with each other since the underworld, and most of it has been tense with words unspoken. 

 

Emma is still flitting around in the shadows now, but the cold war between her and Regina seems to have reached an impasse. He’d come home one morning and found her curled up in Regina’s arms, and since then there’s been a little more life to her movements, a little more grounding.

 

She’s his little girl, even if he’d never known her when she’d been little. She’s resilient and she’s so strong and he’s always had faith in her ability to keep going no matter the cost, no matter what she’s afraid of. She’s her mother’s daughter. And whatever the toll hell had taken on her, it won’t keep her down for long.

 

Once Emma is better, everyone else will be. He’s sure of it. And he’s going to help in whatever way he can, even if it’s just accompanying Hook on a trip out of town to procure a certain something.

 

New Year’s Eve, surrounded by family. That’s when the perfect moment is going to be.

 

It’s a quiet little party, Zelena too distracted to make any trouble and Hook on edge all night. Emma has a blanket and a mug by the fireplace, Henry huddled next to her, and Regina sits opposite them and says something that makes them both laugh. Emma’s eyes are bright and her smile is blinding; and David thinks, This is how we rebuild. 

 

Neal is asleep in his stroller and Iris is upstairs when midnight approaches. Hook is fidgeting at the corner of the room as Snow trades baby tips with Zelena. Regina has moved to the floor to sit beside Henry, leaning back against one hand as she watches the TV screen. Emma’s leaning back in the same manner, their hands nearly side-by-side behind Henry, and one pinky is casually linked with Regina’s. Finally, peace.  

 

11:58. Emma gets up slowly, her finger leaving Regina’s as she takes Hook’s outstretched hand. “Almost time for midnight,” he says, and Emma’s eyes dim a tiny bit as she leans against him. For the first time since Hook had broached the idea, David begins to feel a niggling worry.

 

11:59. Regina is watching Hook and Emma, her arm around Henry. Snow is watching all three, and David kisses her temple and murmurs, “Watch Killian at midnight. I would have told you but I thought you might tell the whole town before he got to Emma.” 

 

To his astonishment, his wife’s eyes grow wide with wariness instead of excitement and she says, “David, what did you do?” 

 

The ball drops onscreen. Regina kisses Henry and Zelena kisses Iris, and David barely pecks a still-staring Snow on the lips before he twists around to watch as Hook drop to one knee. “David,” Snow says urgently. 

 

Emma is pale and a bit green. Hook says, “Emma, we’ve been through…well, absolute hell together, and it’s finally beginning to look like we can have that happy ending that you’ve always wanted. And I’m ready to give it to you, if you’ll have me.” His words speak of hope but it’s only now that David notices the challenge in them, the brittle edge to his voice. “Will you marry me?” 

 

(David had been thrilled when Hook had asked for his blessing one evening at Granny’s, the two of them at their booth while the ladies had gone to the counter to show off Iris. Bit of a glow back in her cheeks, Hook had said, his eyes fixed on her. Emma is holding the baby, her face serene and Regina’s hand soft against her back. If this is forever, now’s the time, mate. Now this can fix her again. David hadn’t heard the undertone of disdain then, too blown away by Hook’s revelation, but he hears it now and shifts, uncomfortable.) 

 

Emma is silent. The whole room is silent, actually, and David sees it like a tableau as he looks around. Snow’s lips are parted with her eyes fixed on Emma, Zelena is nearly reaching out for her sister, and Henry has an arm around his mother’s waist and is expressionless. Regina’s face is blank.

 

Emma takes a step back, twists around, and flees from the house.

 

Hook spits out a curse and stands up, his face dark. “Fucking hell. I’ll be right back–“ He starts forward and is magically frozen in place, eyes still narrowed like he’s the Dark One all over again. 

 

Snow sighs, “Regina.” 

 

“My mom didn’t do it,” Henry says, eyes flickering to Zelena for a moment. Zelena waggles her eyebrows. “She’s already left.” 

 

Somehow Regina has slipped out of the room while they’d all been watching Emma and Hook. David hesitates, looking at Snow to take the lead, but Snow is watching the door with a hopeless sort of devastation on her face. Henry and Zelena stand side-by-side, stubborn and unmoving, and David sucks in a breath and heads out the door to find Emma.

 

She isn’t hard to find. Regina’s caught up with her halfway down the block, and they’re talking loudly enough that their voices have carried to him. “What the hell was that?” Regina is demanding.

 

“I don’t know!” Emma hisses back, covering her face in her hands. “I just…it all kind of hit me at once. This is forever. True love here is…”

 

David leans against a car parked a few houses down, unwilling to intrude. It’s Emma being a commitment-phobe, that’s all. Regina will talk her out of it and Emma will come back in and get engaged. 

 

But Regina snorts. “That isn’t true love.” 

 

“Fuck off, Regina. Don’t do this again–“ 

 

“Do what? Watch you waste away because of your own stubbornness?” Regina growls. “You don’t want this. You don’t need to be in a…” She scrubs her own face with her fingers. “Emma,” she whispers hoarsely. “Emma, I’ve been here. I know what it’s like being married to someone who thinks nothing of you. Who looks straight through you and sees someone else in your place.” 

 

Emma is shaking her head vigorously but Regina won’t cease. David watches with horrified fascination. “Emma, please. I know it’s easier to fade away. I do. But whatever you do now–“ 

 

Emma looks up, her hands dropping and seizing Regina’s with new determination. “Run away with me,” she says suddenly.

 

Regina doesn’t seem surprised at the request, only resigned. “Emma.” 

 

“I’m serious. We’ll take Henry and go somewhere else, somewhere away from this place and–“ She gestures at the mansion. “And all that waiting for me inside. We can get an apartment in Boston. We can be real and happy and…” And she surges forward and kisses Regina.

 

David gapes. Regina is kissing her back, hands delicate against Emma’s cheeks as Emma strokes Regina’s hair, as Emma presses a dozen kisses to Regina’s lips. From his vantage point, he can just see Regina’s eyes shut and Emma’s lips curved up into a smile.

 

They look happy for the first time since the underworld, soft hands and soft eyes and soft kisses, and David fights the urge to look away from the private scene and studies them instead. Studies the once-Evil Queen, brought to her knees and risen up again as family now breathless in his daughter’s arms. Studies the daughter who’d brought her true love back from the dead to be with him and yet hasn’t looked this content in months. 

 

And he’s beginning to think that this might be okay when Regina finally pulls away, hands sliding to Emma’s shoulders so her thumbs can brush against the inside of the jacket. “Go back to the house,” she says, her eyes on Emma’s. 

 

“What?” 

 

“Go back to Hook. Work this out for yourself.” She takes a step back and Emma’s face falls. Regina has a hand against her stomach, retreating inward. “No more running,” she murmurs. “If you do this, it has to be on your own terms, not finding someone else’s to retreat to.” 

 

Emma’s eyes are wide and hurt and David aches for her, for the little girl he’s never gotten to spare pain and heartbreak. He steps forward, drawn by magnetic pull, and she stares at Regina and says in a small voice, “I love you.”

 

Regina’s hands go back to her cheeks, caressing them as though she’s holding something fragile in her grasp, and Emma still gazes at her with pained trust. “I know you do,” Regina says. She shakes her head. “But I won’t be your Get-Out-Of-Boyfriend-Free card. Look at what hiding away has done to you.” She traces the bags under Emma’s eyes, the hollow curve of her cheekbone, and she looks up to meet David’s gaze knowingly. “Go,” she says, guiding Emma forward.

 

Emma stumbles away from her, her head down, and David hurries to put a steadying hand on her back. She stares up at him, bewildered and alarmed. He grins encouragingly. “She isn’t wrong,” he admits. 

 

Emma inhales a long breath and walks on, leaning heavily on him. “I can’t do this,” she murmurs, sneaking another glance back at Regina. “I can’t–“ 

 

“You don’t have to,” he says. She watches him with somber eyes and he shrugs. “What I thought was best for you is rapidly being deconstructed. I don’t know if anyone has the right to tell you that anymore.” He likes Hook, he thinks of Regina as family, but Emma herself will always come first. “I know you’ve been suffering,” he admits. “I think it’s up to you to decide how to end that.” 

 

Emma’s lip wobbles. “I don’t want to let you down. You’ve all been through so much because of…because I…I don’t want it all to be for nothing,” she says, and casts another longing gaze Regina’s way. “I was so selfish–“

 

“You were human,” David murmurs, his heart aching again. “You let us help you like you never have before. It wasn’t for nothing. It was for you.” He tightens an arm around her and she presses her forehead to his cheek. “Go inside. Do what you need to do.” 

 

He turns around once as Emma enters the house. Regina is still standing where they’d left her, a lonely figure in the distance with her arms folded around her waist and her head bowed.

 

 

 

 


 

 

 

 

“I don’t even want to go back inside there,” Emma says, staring at the picture-perfect house where she’s been holed up for the past few months. It’s on the same block as the Tillman house, and Henry’s skulked past it a few times these past months while he’d wait for Emma to emerge. Mom hadn’t liked him visiting Emma’s house. And the Tillmans hadn’t liked him visiting them, so it had been a lot of time wasted.

 

It’s not personal, Nick had said, shifting uncomfortably in his doorway. It’s just– everyone heard about Violet. And it was one thing when you had the Savior and the Evil Queen as moms, but now it’s…

 

He knows. He’s heard it a dozen times before from friends who give him a wide berth now. I have a family now, Ava had told him regretfully. I like you, Henry, but your family is kind of toxic to anyone who gets involved with them. 

 

Which is mostly why his grades have shot up since the underworld and why he’s spending a perfectly good winter break with his mother and grandparents, talking about moving house. (It’s kind of lonely and he kind of gets where they’re coming from but he’d choose his family over any of them any day.) 

 

“You don’t have to go back inside,” David says. “We’ll take care of it.” 

 

Emma sags a little. “No, I should,” she says. “Hook isn’t there, anyway.” No one except Mom knows where he’s been after the disastrous proposal, and Mom has deemed it unnecessary that they find out unless Emma asks. Emma hasn’t asked.

 

So they all move precious few possessions from the dim house, Henry feeling as though it’s a house of mourning where nothing but death has passed through. They make it out in record time, storing Emma’s things in her old room in the loft while she hunts for a new apartment. Mary Margaret offers her her old room back and Emma politely declines and camps out on the Mills family couch instead.

 

Except the night she’d been in Mom’s room with the rest of them, Aunt Zelena on a date that has them thoroughly unsettled. “Honestly, Mulan could do better,” Emma comments from where she’s sprawled across the bed, suspending Iris in midair. “She used to have a thing for Aurora, I think.” 

 

“Some bratty princess better than my sister? Not a chance,” Mom sniffs. Iris giggles.

 

Emma peers over to where Mom is seated in her place next to Henry against the headboard. It’s movie night, a time-honored Mills family tradition that’s somehow expanded in recent times. “So, what, now you’re on Team Zelena? I thought you were her warden here. One cute baby and you’re a fan? Is this what happened with my mom?”

 

Mom tosses a soft toy at Emma’s head and Iris cackles a little louder, the similarities to her mother outstanding. Henry rolls his eyes and scoots out of the bed to sit on the floor in front of it and watch the movie without distraction. 

 

Of course, then Emma completely makes it awkward and he’s pulled away from Thor. “Have you ever thought about having another?” she asks. 

 

Mom doesn’t answer for a moment and Emma recognizes that she’d overstepped. “I mean, you’re so good with Iris. I just thought you might–“ 

 

“I can’t have children biologically,” Mom says, and Henry hunches down and stares at the screen, letting the action onscreen wash over him as the action behind him becomes of vital importance. “When I was…the queen…it became clear to me that no children I would have would be free of my mother’s control. I chose to take a potion that would spare them of her forever.”

 

“Oh,” Emma says softly. Henry thinks an oh of his own. A lot more about Mom makes sense every time she talks about Cora. “And then you came here and–“ 

 

“I’d always wanted a child,” Mom murmurs, the affection warm and clear to Henry’s heart. “Mother said after that that I was my own worst enemy.” 

 

“That’s a crock of bullshit from an abusive mother,” Emma says, and Mom lets out a startled sound. When Henry peeks back up onto the bed, Mom has a gentle, wistful sort of smile on her face as she watches Emma. Emma looks fierce and protective, face glowing with it.

 

He tiptoes out of the room, neither of his mothers noticing his departure as Mom speaks haltingly. He works on homework, calls one classmate who owes him a favor and gets an answering machine, and he puts on headphones and tells himself that doesn’t matter. 

 

When Aunt Zelena gets home later, he hears her voice in the hallway and emerges from his room. Mom is sitting up in bed, typing busily at her laptop, but Emma is curled under the covers with Iris in her arms and her back molded to Mom’s side. “Don’t wake them up,” Mom murmurs, a hand running through Emma's hair and the skin around her eyes tender. “They’ve had a long night.” 

 

Well. Other than that night, Emma sleeps on the couch. Henry helps her look through apartments and doesn’t understand why everything is so…friendly. “I thought she broke up with Killian for you,” he says when Mom drives him to school one morning. “I don’t get why you aren’t…” 

 

“She broke up with that hapless pirate for herself, not me,” is all Mom will say on that matter. But she softens as they pull in in front of Storybrooke High, earning a few dirty looks as people scurry away from the car. “She’s had enough demands on who and where she needs to be to last a lifetime.” 

 

Sometimes Henry doesn’t really understand either of them, but they get each other and it’s kind of cool. For all the hell they’ve all been through– literal and figurative– he’d never imagined that his moms could care this much about each other. That he might have two moms in the conventional sense someday. 

 

But they’re moving slow as molasses these days, a fact that seems to disappoint everyone. “Are you sure they aren’t just doing it on the sly?” Ruby demands at the library desk, earning a reproachful “Ruby!” from Belle. 

 

“I think I’d have noticed the stick being removed from my sister’s ass by now,” Aunt Zelena says dryly. Belle fixes her with another dark look. “Knock it off, Henry’s heard much worse.” She squeezes his shoulder a little too tightly and he hurries to nod.

 

Mary Margaret and David are just as bad, of course. There are sly movie nights with The Parent Trap as Mary Margaret wiggles her eyebrows at Henry suggestively. There are babysitting double-bookings with Neal and Mary Margaret standing Emma and Mom up twice for a girls’ night before Mom intercedes. There’s a lot of whispering and a lot of sighed, “It’s so nice to be with family,” that earns solemn nods from Emma and Mom that give away nothing. 

 

Tino Blue from his class sidles up to him during lunch one day with a dozen questions about his moms, and Henry answers gamely, so relieved to have someone to talk to that he keeps going until he finds out that there’s a betting pool. “You people won’t even talk to me because ‘my family is toxic’ but you can use me to make money?” he demands. Tino has the grace to look ashamed, at least.

 

But they’re not together, unless they’re way better at keeping secrets than he’s ever thought– and he figured out that Mom was the Evil Queen once. 

 

Mom is being patient for, like, the first time ever, and Emma isn’t talking about it. She moves into a new apartment a few blocks away but still comes to visit all the time. They’re working on a science fair project together because Mom’s been at work, and Emma says curiously, “I thought Mary Margaret said that these were group projects.” 

 

Henry squirms, because Emma is finally back to normal and he doesn’t need her to know what’s going on in school. “I work better on my own,” he says, and Emma examines him carefully like she knows that he’s lying. He'd lied to her all the time after hell and she’d never really noticed anything, not until now. 

 

“Okay,” she says finally, squeezing his hand, and they get back to the moons of Jupiter until the doorbell rings. “That’ll be Zelena–“ 

 

It’s Killian. He stares at her and says blankly, “I was looking for the queen.”

 

“She isn’t here,” Emma says, equally impassive. “I’ll let her know you dropped by.” 

 

Killian shifts, dissatisfied with the response, and Henry leans back against the wall of the foyer where Killian can see him but Emma doesn’t notice. “You can just let her know that I managed a bean and I’ll be leaving town. I wanted to thank her for her evenings these past months.” His lip curls. “Helped me endure much more than I would have otherwise.” 

 

“Fuck you,” Emma says, smiling very ferociously. “Sorry I was too weak to keep you entertained after I saved your life.” 

 

Killian sneers. “You did nothing but put me into the situation in the first place. These past years devoted to you– I gave up my vengeance for you. I gave up my ship for you. And you kept me chained to you and–“ He shakes his head, distaste written across his face. “No woman will ever trap me like that again.” 

 

Emma’s hands twitch like she’s about to use magic. She won’t. She hasn’t used it for anything but keeping the town safe since the Dark One. But Henry tenses anyway, ready to play backup for her.

 

They twitch again, more like a tremble, and then Emma straightens and says, eyes blank, “You have your ship again. You can have your life back. You can go drink rum in taverns and curse the woman who ruined you and you can get the hell out of my town.” She stands tall, fists clenched, and Killian’s hook flashes for a moment like he might attack her.

 

Henry doesn’t get any of it, really, why Emma had stayed with him or how they’ve fallen apart so hard when Emma had been so devoted to him or any of it, but he’s charging forward and knocking Killian’s arm aside before he can touch Emma. The arm doesn’t move, and Henry blinks at it and notices that Emma’s already grabbed Killian’s forearm in a tight grip.

 

“It’s okay, Henry,” Emma says, voice strained, and he ducks his head and glares up at Killian. “Hook was just leaving.” 

 

Killian wrenches his arm free and stalks away, and Emma slams the door and makes a beeline for Mom’s cider stash. “You shouldn’t have seen that,” she says, gulping it down like she’s parched. “Hook and I left things…poorly.” 

 

“I just…” Henry bites his lip. “I thought you were in love before.” 

 

“I wanted us to be in love. He disabused me of that notion every time I didn’t measure up as the perfect savior he’d fallen in love with.” Emma shrugs, her eyes across the room at a photo tacked onto the fridge. It’s from late last year during Operation Mongoose, Henry and Emma pulling faces as Mom laughs breathlessly at the camera. “Kid, you don’t need a fairytale, okay? Not everyone’s cut out for true love and happily ever afters. You can do better than that.”

 

She’s weird now, not really drunk but at ease enough that Henry is, too, and he dares to ask, “What about you and Mom?” 

 

Emma blinks at him. Blinks back at the photo. Says, “You remember when your mom tried to sacrifice herself in the mines? Back before Neverland?” 

 

He bobs his head. He remembers Emma firm that they had to leave her there, remembers Mary Margaret refusing and then Mom and Emma doing magic together and saving everyone. He remembers a hand on his mouth and Tamara’s voice soothing him as Greg had dragged him away. “Some of it.” 

 

“When we were up there– before everyone else– she told me she wanted to die as Regina. That that’s why she was sacrificing herself. I’d never…” Emma offers him a distinctly watery smile. “I’d never seen anyone else go to such lengths to…to punch back at the world and say this is who I am.” 

 

Henry still doesn’t get it, but he’s beginning to figure out that there are some things about his moms that he’s never going to understand. They exist beyond him now, have forged connections that he can’t touch, and he might not know what Emma means but he can grasp what’s beneath it. “Is that when you fell in love with her?”

 

Emma starts, taken aback, and Henry waits patiently. “It’s when I…I think it’s when I realized there was never going to be anyone like your mom out there. I don’t know how I felt about that.” She laughs, almost uncomfortable with the admission, and that’s the end of it. Whatever it was.

 

Except that afternoon, Mom comes home and helps with his science project, too, and Emma and Mom get into a fight about the placement of Io on the posterboard that’s mostly just Mom heckling Emma and Emma grins at her and doesn’t mention Killian at all. And it’s getting late when Emma announces, “I’d better head out,” and Mom walks her to the door.

 

Henry follows them, an observer from the stairs as Mom says, “How is the new apartment?” 

 

“It’s nice.” Emma shuffles her feet a little. “Not as nice as your couch was.”

 

Mom laughs. “Definitely easier on your back, though. I don't understand why you didn’t stay at the loft.”

 

Emma stares at her for a long moment and then says, “Don't you?” and kisses her, simple and sweet and for so long that Zelena rudely clears her throat from the top of the stairs. Henry beams. Mom says, a bit dazed, “Stay for dinner?” 

 

“I’d love to,” Emma says, and her eyes are bright and free. 

 

(One time in Camelot, before the ill-fated date and back when he’d been thinking about Violet all the time, he’d asked them both what it meant to fall in love. Love is a choice, Emma had said, twisting together blades of grass as though she’s constructing a dreamcatcher out of nothing. 

 

Mom had looked oddly at her. A choice? There are no choices in love. It’s…against your better judgment, regardless of what the consequences might be, she’d said, a note of defeat in her voice, and Emma had glanced up and caught her gaze. 

 

Henry had looked at them, perplexed at the intensity in Mom’s fathomless gaze, and Emma had said, Don't you have to choose to hold onto that when it starts to fade? Her eyes are dark and vulnerable, the same as they’d been every day in Camelot, and Mom reaches for her as though she might rest her hand on Emma’s thigh and then thinks better of it. 

 

Maybe you’re right, Mom had murmured, and Henry had pretended not to notice when their hands had brushed again and stayed there.)

 

He goes to school and sits alone on the stairs at the end of the day, same as always, when there’s a movement beside him and Grace Paige is sliding down next to him. “Hi, Henry,” she says. He stares at her, wide-eyed. She shrugs. “You’ve met my dad. I don’t think it’s fair for me to give you a wide berth over your family.” 

 

He blinks, unsure if this is a prank or…? “My mom cursed your family.” 

 

“My dad screwed things up for her, too.” Grace’s eyes are wistful. “I don’t care what your mom did when you were the one who brought us back together.” 

 

He shakes his head, still astonished, and there’s a shout of, “Hey, kid!” and Emma’s bounding up the stairs of the building to him like nothing has changed in recent times. There’s a big, doofy smile on her face, and Henry’s frowning at it until he sees Mom stepping out of the Bug, rolling her eyes skyward as she follows Emma. 

 

She catches Emma’s hand and kisses her on the cheek, murmuring something against her skin, and Emma squeezes Mom's hand and crouches down. “Hey, Grace. You been keeping busy?” 

 

Grace nods and Henry can feel eyes on all four of them, not quite friendly but…curious, at least. A little relieved. 

 

Mom tugs him up and Emma wraps an arm around him and they escort him back to the car together, their fingers linked over his back.