“So, um, hey, I was wondering if we were still on for dinner on Sunday?”
Regina Mills smiled at Emma Swan’s habit of starting a telephone conversation with no preamble.
“Yes, of course.” It was an unexpected question. Emma came by for dinner every Sunday, and had done for over two years. It was their ritual, the cornerstone of their friendship. Even if Emma was working, she still showed up and had all calls to the Sheriff’s office forwarded to her cellphone. Henry rarely ate with them anymore, but he was always in their orbit, popping in and out for one thing or another. It was nice. It was family. It was Sunday.
“Okay. I just thought I’d check. You know, in case you had other plans or something.”
“Other plans?” Henry was the only reason she would ever reschedule, in which case, Emma would either be aware of whatever they were doing or, much more likely, be involved with those plans.
“Oh, okay. Right, I’ll be there usual time, then. As long as you’re sure.”
“I’m quite sure.” Regina frowned, and then it occurred to her that she might not be the issue. “Do you wish to cancel? Is there somewhere else you need to be?”
“God, no. It isn’t that at all.” Emma made a strange noise, possibly of frustration. “No, I really want to come over.”
“Okay.” This conversation was becoming bewildering.
“It’s just—oh, never mind. It doesn’t matter. I’ll see you Sunday, if I don’t see you before.”
“Okay. Bye, then.”
Regina didn’t reply because Emma always ended her calls as abruptly as she started them.
She did, however, hold her phone in front of her and stare at it, as if the metal, glass and plastic might offer a clue as to Emma’s curious behaviour.
“So, are you having dinner with Emma on Sunday?”
“Hmmm?” Regina looked up from her salad to her friend, Kathryn Nolan.
“Sunday, Emma, dinner?”
“Yes, of course.” She put down her knife and fork, and lifted her napkin to wipe the corners of her mouth. “It’s strange you should ask, though. Emma called yesterday to ask the same thing.”
“Did she now?” Kathryn smiled broadly.
“Yes, she did. And why are you smirking like that?”
“No reason. Are you cooking something extra-special?”
“I thought perhaps steak, nothing out of the ordinary.” Regina shook her head. “Why are you quite so amused?”
“You don’t know what Sunday is, do you?”
“Clearly not. Have I forgotten someone’s birthday or some major event?”
Kathryn snorted. “It’s the fourteenth.”
“Regina, it’s Valentine’s Day.”
“Oh.” She thought about it for a moment. “Well, that explains why Emma wondered if I had other plans. How considerate of her.”
“Considerate? You think Emma is being considerate?”
Regina didn’t understand her friend’s tone or her continued amusement. “I find it quite sweet, really, that Emma should hope that I have a secret admirer.”
At that, Kathryn laughed outright, a surprised yelp of a laugh which startled several of the lunchtime customers in Granny’s Diner.
Regina folded her arms over her chest. “I’m glad you find it so ridiculous that someone in this town might have an interest in me.”
“Oh, honey,” Kathryn reached out to unfold Regina’s arms, “that’s not remotely the case, and I apologise for making you think that I’m laughing at you.” She took Regina’s hand and squeezed it. “You’re a very beautiful and attractive woman, and you know that. And you have many admirers in this town, secret and otherwise.”
Regina doubted that fact, but it was nice that both of her closest friends thought that it was at least a possibility for her.
It was only later that evening that she realised she’d forgotten to ask what had caused Kathryn’s laughter in the first place.
The following morning, again in the diner, the subject of Valentine’s Day was raised once more, this time by Ruby Lucas.
“Okay, one red eye to go,” Ruby said, handing over her coffee, “dark and strong and smooth, like I like my men. And women.”
“Indeed.” It was no secret that Ruby was currently involved, or whatever the appropriate twenty-first century word was, with Mulan.
“Not your type, though.”
Ruby folded her arms across her chest. “I think perhaps you like them a little fairer.”
“I don’t have a type.” Regina fiddled with the lid of her cup, which wouldn’t stay fixed.
“Oh, so no big Valentine’s date for you this weekend, then?”
“No, Regina and Emma are having dinner on Sunday,” someone else said before Regina could formulate a reply to Ruby’s effrontery. It was Snow White. She looked exhausted and had baby spit all over her shoulder. Regina had been there herself; she, however, would not have gone outside without changing first. But, then, she had standards.
“Of course they are,” Ruby said. She and Snow exchanged what could only be described as a meaningful look. That meaning was lost on Regina.
“Yes, yes, how delightful for all of you. The rest of the town has a date and I don’t.” In her irritation, she pushed too hard on the lid and coffee sloshed out onto her hand. “Dammit.” Ruby handed her a napkin without prompting. “Thank you.”
“I think it’s nice that you and Emma have each other,” Snow said, putting a hand on Regina’s shoulder. “It’s good. Friends are good.”
Regina was irked by Ruby’s tone, by Snow’s fussing, by the scald on her hand, by the implication that she should have a date for Sunday and not just dinner with her friend, when that word didn’t come close to describing Emma’s role in her life. Emma was her family. Emma was her—
Emma was her person.
“I neither need nor wish a date,” she snapped. “I am more than happy to be with Emma.”
“Of course,” Snow agreed, stroking Regina’s shoulder in a way which managed to be infuriating, patronising and well-meaning.
“Absolutely,” Ruby said.
Handing the coffee-stained napkin back to Ruby, Regina sighed. “My apologies.”
“It’s fine,” Ruby said, sharing another glance with Snow. “I’m sorry for teasing you.”
“Yes, well, I should go.” All she had wanted was a coffee, and now Ruby Lucas and Snow White were making her feel gauche and ill-at-ease, as if they knew something which she did not and pitied her for it. She had no desire to remain in their company any longer.
“Have fun on Sunday,” Snow said.
On Sunday afternoon, Henry came into the kitchen as Regina was preparing the ingredients for that evening’s dessert.
“Are you making chocolate caramel tart?”
“Well, yes, it’s your favourite.” She smiled at her son. These days, she had to look up because he’d got so tall when she wasn’t looking, too impossibly tall to still be the precious little boy he was in her mind.
“Technically, it’s Emma’s favourite. It’s only my second favourite, after the lemon tart.” He dipped his finger into the open tin of condensed milk and sucked it clean with a satisfied pop. “Still, I can’t believe I’m missing it.”
Regina smacked his hand away before he could steal more. “What do you mean?”
“I’m going out.”
“You have a date?” Her heart quickened. Getting too tall was one thing, but she wasn’t remotely ready for accepting his dating, even if Emma had told her of several girls he’d had crushes on in the last year or so.
“I’m babysitting Uncle Neal and the baby tonight, remember? I told you the other day.”
“Oh, yes. Of course.” He had mentioned something about it, but she hadn’t thought much of it, as he babysat often for Snow and David, who insisted on maintaining a date night every week.
“What about you? Big plans for later?”
“Don’t be silly. It’s only your mother coming over for dinner.”
“So how come you’re all dressed up?”
Regina looked down at the dress she was wearing. She had no idea why she’d decided to put it on that day. Dinner with Emma was usually an informal affair around the kitchen table, and they both dressed casually.
“I felt like making an effort for once. We never really use the dining room these days.”
“Yeah, but I like eating in here. It feels more like we’re a family when it’s the three of us.”
“It does, doesn’t it?” It always felt like a family when Emma was there. She complemented and completed them in so many ways.
“So you don’t have a date tonight?” Henry asked again.
“No, sweetheart. Just me and Emma.”
“Right. Okay. Whatever you say.”
There was something about the way he said it which reminded her of Kathryn and their conversation the other day. Was her lack of dating such a huge concern for the people in her life? She certainly hadn’t given it much thought herself recently, but everyone else seemed to.
She liked her life. She liked the people in it. She didn’t feel that it was somehow lacking.
Henry kissed her cheek. “I suppose I should get going.”
“Must you?” She nudged his arm with her shoulder. “If you help me bake, I’ll let you lick the bowl.”
“Maybe I could spare a little time.” He dipped his finger into the condensed milk again. This time, Regina didn’t stop him.
At the stroke of six o’clock, the doorbell rang.
Regina was surprised as she opened the door. First, Emma had a key and always let herself in; second, Emma was always late; and, third, Emma was not wearing jeans. She wasn’t overly dressed, in her best black pants and a fitted grey-green blouse, but it counted as formal for Emma.
“Why didn’t you use your key?” She left the door open and headed back towards the kitchen, where dinner was still cooking. “Did you forget it?”
“No. Sorry. I don’t know what I was thinking.”
“Come give me a hand. Dinner won’t be long, but I wasn’t expecting you so soon.”
Emma’s reticence caused her to turn around.
Emma was hovering in the doorway. She looked paler than normal, but was also blushing. And the set of her mouth indicated that she was on the verge of saying something but debating against it.
“Are you okay?” Emma’s pallor could be due to ill-health. After all, her diet was worse than their own teenage son’s and she slept far too little and she didn’t take proper care of herself unless prompted to by Regina in one of their numerous texts every day.
“Yeah, yeah.” Emma shook her head and walked over to the counter. She smiled, all mouth and no eyes. “What can I do to help?”
Regina assigned some minor chopping and prepping, because Emma and cooking were not the best combination. Emma went about the task with her usual bluster, and made some generic small-talk, but there was something in the air between them.
Perhaps it was the lack of Henry, or because Regina was feeding off Emma’s pensive mood to become less talkative herself, but the conversation was not the easy bantering they usually enjoyed. By the time the meal was prepared and they were carrying the appetisers through to the dining room, they were barely talking.
It wasn’t awkward. In fact, she liked that they were comfortable enough to enjoy silence together. She was more worried about Emma than anything else. She didn’t like it when Emma was withdrawn, as it often meant she was berating herself for something. Emma took her role as the Saviour too literally at times, and had a tendency to blame herself for the slightest issue in the lives of those around her. She was stoic and brooding, and she didn’t ever talk about her feelings, which turned them in on herself even more.
As they sat down at the table, Emma grimaced. “I’ve been shit tonight. I’m really sorry.”
“No, honestly it’s fine. There’s obviously something on your mind. We’re all allowed to be distracted sometimes.” She gave a reassuring smile.
“Well, I’m sorry all the same. And this food smells amazing.”
“All food smells amazing to you.”
Emma nodded. “Yeah, but yours actually tastes as good as it smells. Yours tastes better than any other food I’ve had in my life.”
Regina bowed her head at the compliment. “Thank you, but it’s just bruschetta, and you helped prepare it.”
“Nah, it’s definitely all you.”
“Yes, well, perhaps I just like cooking for an appreciative audience.”
Emma laughed, the first time she had all evening. The sound was beautiful to Regina’s ears, and it changed Emma’s face completely, making her younger and somehow more confident.
“I can promise you one thing, Regina. I am definitely appreciative.”
It was as if a switch had been flipped. The quiet politeness of their kitchen preparations gave way to flowing conversation on their usual topics of work and Henry and town life and Emma’s fractious but loving relationship with her parents.
They moved to the kitchen for dessert, and it was obvious to Regina that she should never have set the dining table. They were at home in her kitchen, and it felt right there. They felt right. They felt like themselves, and not the stilted versions they had been earlier.
Regina felt comfortable enough to open up about the subject which had been troubling her all week.
“You know, everyone seems concerned that I’m cooking for you this evening and not out on a date.”
Emma frowned. “What do you mean ‘everyone’?”
“Well, you asked the other day, and then Kathryn, Ruby, your mother and then Henry today.” She took another bite of caramel tart. “Are people starting to refer to me as the spinster lady and I’m not aware of it?”
Emma seemed relieved somehow by her answer.
“People care, that’s all.”
“Are you sure?”
“Yeah, they do. About both of us.”
“Oh? Have you been getting asked the same questions?”
“No.” Emma shook her head and then pushed her plate away. She stared at the table for a few moments before adding, “I think most people know who I’m interested in dating.”
Well, it was certainly news to Regina, who didn’t know that Emma was interested in anyone. She felt the hairs on the back of her neck raise at the thought. Emma couldn’t be dating someone without Regina’s knowing because Emma was her person.
Her person. Not anyone else’s.
“Do you know what I want?” Emma asked.
“What?” Regina’s mind was already running through potential suitors for Emma and finding them all lacking.
“I want something good. I’ve had a lot of shit over the years, and I’m done with trying to be something and someone that I’m not. Because I know exactly who and what I want.
“I want someone who knows how I take my coffee and that I don’t like provolone on my sandwiches. Who doesn’t care that this is as dressed up as I get. Who doesn’t need me to flatter their ego but appreciates when I pay them a compliment. Who won’t think that my being late is some kind of passive-aggressive attempt to punish them when I’m actually just late all the time, for everything. Who doesn’t mind that I’m not perfect, and who’ll call me on my shit when I need it. Who wants me for exactly as I am and doesn’t want me to change.”
Emma was still focusing on her empty plate, but her voice was becoming more animated.
“I want someone I can spend lazy Sundays with. I want to go out for brunch and drink lots of coffee and maybe have a slice of cake. I want to sit there and read an actual newspaper and be able to reach out and touch the person that I love, just a squeeze on the leg or a touch of their hand because I can, because we’re together, and that’s a thing that we do. I want to go grocery shopping and fight over which brand of mustard is the best. I want closeness and intimacy and regular everyday affection. I want kisses on the shoulder while I’m cooking breakfast and making out while we’re watching TV. I want chicken soup in bed when I’m sick, and laughter and fun in the good times. Hell, I want laughter and fun in the bad times, too.”
Emma turned her head slightly towards Regina and her eyes were red-rimmed. “I want to hold her when she’s scared, even though she’d probably never admit that she gets scared.”
Regina’s mind stuttered as she acknowledged the shift to gender-specific pronouns. She had already been contemplating that no-one could possibly understand and appreciate Emma more than she did, but she hadn’t quite joined all the dots until Emma made it plain. The attraction between them had always been there, and Emma’s constant low-level flirting was flattering and endearing, but not subtle in the least. But she had never thought that she could, that she should, that they might be more.
“I want someone who’ll play hooky from work sometimes and watch old movies with me and argue about my taste in music and books. I want time together with the kid, and time alone without him, time to laze about and talk and laugh and make love.
“That, I definitely want. I want to spend days, weeks, months showing her all the ways in which I find her attractive, how she excites me and makes me half-crazy with want and need and longing. I want to show her all the ways I’ve imagined being with her, and I’ve thought about this a whole lot, I can tell you, so there are a lot of ways to explore. And, if I’m lucky, maybe she’ll feel the same, too, because I want to be wanted by her.
“I want to love and be loved. I want to give her everything I have, all that I am, and take whatever she wants to give me in return. I want to belong with her, and for her to belong with me.”
Emma gave her a half-smile, a self-deprecating grimace which accepted defeat before Regina had even had a chance to think, never mind respond.
“That’s what I want. I know I can’t have it, but it’s still what I want.” Emma shrugged. “It’s you, Regina. You’re what I want.”
Intellectually, she had been prepared for the reveal. But, to hear Emma’s protestations, to know that Emma wanted her to be her partner—an equal partner, that’s what Emma had described—gave her pause. Not because the idea was abhorrent, but because she could not think of a single reason why she would object or say no.
“That’s why people keep asking you about dating. Because they pity me. They’re laughing at the way I pine over you. They know you’re bound to find someone you actually want someday soon, and then you’ll tire of having me around.” Emma sighed. “Anyway, it’s obvious from your silence and the fact that you can’t look at me that I probably shouldn’t have said all of this. But, well, it’s Valentine’s, and I wanted you to be my Valentine more than anything else, and it was stupid, I know, so, yeah.”
Regina didn’t even have time to register Emma’s last few sentences. Her mind was still processing how easily she could conjure images of the relationship Emma had described, and how right it felt in every possible way to have Emma fully in her life.
As she shook her head to clear her thoughts and begin a careful response, she saw Emma’s fists clench and then the tell-tale sensation of Emma’s magic.
And then Emma was gone.
It took her four attempts to find Emma, and she would have some serious explaining later to both their son and Emma’s parents for interrupting their evenings and demanding to know of Emma’s whereabouts.
On the fourth try, she ended up at the pier, where Emma was standing, hugging herself against the wind because she had left in only her indoor clothes and a thin shirt was no protection against a winter’s Atlantic storm. It was February, damn it. The woman was a menace to her own health.
“Hey,” Emma said, as Regina approached. It was guarded and tight, and there were drying tears on Emma’s cheeks.
“No cooking in my kitchen,” Regina said.
“What?” Emma blinked, her brow furrowed.
Regina took Emma’s hands in her own. “I haven’t had as much time as you to think about all of this, but your terms seem acceptable to me. That is, if you’re proposing what I think.”
Regina lifted one of Emma’s hands to her lips and kissed her knuckles. “If you want me to be your Valentine, and in return have the relationship you described, I think I can accommodate that.”
Emma’s smile was one of the brightest she’d ever seen. “Okay.”
“With the exception, as I said, of your cooking in my kitchen. I would not, however, be opposed to your kissing my shoulder while I cooked, if that seems like a reasonable compromise to you.”
“A reasonable compromise?” Emma repeated.
Regina nodded and moved her mouth across Emma’s knuckles. There was the most delightful little moan and Emma’s pupils dilated instantly.
“Come home, Emma. Come back to the warmth and let me look after you. Come back and let me explain my terms.”
“Terms?” Emma’s voice was cracked.
“This is a lot to process, and we need to talk.”
“Talk.” Emma nodded, but her eyes sparkled with unspoken ideas of what else two attractive people who were attracted to each other might do together. Regina smiled and shrugged. She had had some thoughts about Emma Swan over the years, and she wasn’t opposed to exploring other forms of communication.
She was, however, playing catch-up, and she needed some time to get on the same page.
“Home?” Emma asked, squeezing Regina’s fingers.
“Yes, Emma. Home.”