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Realized. More like discovered, with her lips to Regina’s in what had been a whim–  a terrible, ill-advised, it’s-the-end-of-the-world-and-she-isn’t-thinking whim– until the rainbow light had surged from around them and, very suddenly, the town is no longer in peril.

“No,” Emma says, stumbling back. The cavern is suddenly too small, the trigger blackened on the floor where it had been lit up until then. Inanely, she wonders for a moment how the hell that had qualified as a curse to break. Then she catches her mother’s wide eyes and puts that aside. “No, that didn’t just happen.” 

“Believe me, I’m just as alarmed as you are,” Regina says dryly. She’s still flat against the wall a few feet away from Henry, just as she’d been when they’d had a terse conversation that had ended in Emma lunging forward and...never mind that. But now, her back is straighter, her hands pressed to the wall (instead of tangled in Emma’s hair, a thumb brushing against her neck as she kisses her back–) and she looks defensive as a cornered cat. Her eyes flicker to Emma and then Mary Margaret and then to a still open-mouthed Henry, the fear apparent in her gaze. “Henry, I–” 

“You’re in love,” he says slowly, shaking his head. “You just...true love’s kiss? You’ve been in love all along?” 

Emma flees.


 

Look, true love should come with some kind of warning, right? It doesn’t creep up on you when it’s someone you loathe and then suddenly announce itself and shock everyone involved. If Emma’s fallen in love with her son’s mother, then she’d have noticed it a long time ago. This just feels like destiny dictating itself again, informing her how she’s supposed to feel and stripping away another choice from her.

Before Cora– before Regina had been framed for Archie’s murder, maybe, there had been something to salvage there. Regina had smiled at her outside Granny’s and her stomach had done backflips and then Archie and Emma had been furious and then guilty and then vindicated all over again when Regina had teamed up with Cora. (We never gave her a choice, Mary Margaret had admitted. There’s always a choice, Emma had said stubbornly, and chalked up the loss and disappointment in her throat to another loss for Henry. And maybe she’d kind of wanted to believe in Regina, in someone else the world had written off taking back control of her narrative.) But anyway. Faith isn’t love. Emma had made a mistake and believed in Regina’s capacity for change, that’s all. 

Except Regina kind of has changed, much too late. She’d nearly died to stop the trigger and now she’s suddenly coordinating with cleanup crews, fixing up the town after Greg and Tamara had fled. And in Regina fashion, of course, she’s taking an interest in town welfare when she’s the last person Emma wants to see in her cleanup crews.

“Please,” Regina scoffs when she catches Emma’s side eye. “Bear in mind who attacked whom in the mines.” She curls her lip and stalks away, but she also avoids Emma for the rest of the day.

You kissed me back, Emma doesn’t retort. It’s just as well. The next day, Regina’s hand brushes against Emma’s when they’re de-vining Town Hall and Emma can feel heat rising in her cheeks at the contact. Ruby, who has been informed of this ridiculous situation, smirks hugely.

(Listen, Emma says later. It was the end of the world. I thought, what the hell, might as well see what that’s all about. It didn’t mean anything. She says it emphatically and loudly so Regina will hear from the other end of the hallway. Regina does not acknowledge it. Ruby is not convinced.)


 

Mary Margaret hates the whole idea of it. “She’s taking you away from us!” she wails early on. “This is some twisted plan to hurt us even more.” But she’s also the staunchest believer that the kiss had been real, even when everyone else has acknowledged that there being any true love there is pretty fucking unlikely. 

And somehow this translates over time from Regina’s evil schemes to Regina should come over for dinner with the added sigh of “I just want you to be happy, Emma,” that disregards Emma’s repeated insistences that she’s perfectly happy and not in love with Regina. “There was a lot of weird magic at work in the mines,” she protests, time after time. “Come on, Mary Margaret. Which is more likely?” 

“You once broke a toaster because you were so upset at Regina,” Mary Margaret says, passing her a stack of plates. “You jumped into a portal to save her life. You invited her to our welcome home party and–” 

“I did all of that for Henry!”

“–defended her to the whole town. That’s the good china, Emma. Don’t bang it down like that.”

And so family dinner is enacted, and Regina’s so pleased to have the time with Henry that she goes along with Mary Margaret’s insinuations instead of categorically denying it all. Mary Margaret flits around talking about Henry’s two moms while waggling her eyebrows suggestively and Regina nods absentmindedly as she helps Henry with his spelling homework. 

Emma fumes. Regina smiles down at Henry, the whole world reduced to just the two of them, and Emma’s heart is raw and missing something. She makes an excuse to return to the station and hurries out the door.

Regina looks up at her– the first time she has all night, eyes searching and almost timid– and Emma is assailed by...nothing. Absolutely nothing.


 

Regina falls when they’re inspecting the clock tower. She shouldn’t have been there at all, but they’d had an argument about its repair and Regina had insisted on breathing over her shoulder throughout. And then she’d begun twitching as though she’s having a seizure and pitched forward through the broken glass of the window and–

Emma jumps after her in a moment of sheer, heartstopping stupidity. Emma hurtles out the window and forgets to be afraid for herself because Regina is nearly at the ground and–

A rush of magic spills out of her and encases Regina, settling her gently down as Emma crashes toward her. She hits Regina and they both tumble onto the ground, Emma atop Regina and caught in a moment of breathless fear and relief. Regina stares up at her, her face wracked with uncertainty before she says, in direct opposition, “What the hell idiocy was that?” 

“You’re welcome,” Emma shoots back. She’s still on top of Regina, heart pounding and mouth dry. “You know, I don’t think Henry’s no-magic embargo includes you dying.” 

“What do you care?” Regina snarls, shoving her away. “Why did you bother– oh, never mind.” She stands up, still teetering on her feet, and stalks back toward the library with another twitch.

And there’s something in her movements that isn’t quite right– that hasn’t been quite right in a while, and Emma shouldn’t care. Emma doesn’t love her, no matter what some magical kiss claims. But she’s Henry’s mom and there’s something–

“Regina,” she says, her voice nearly a whisper. Regina pauses, her back still to Emma. “Regina, are you sick?” 


 

The Blue Fairy had waved a wand and Regina had been deemed better, except she isn’t, exactly. Magic can fix some things but it can’t undo days of torture frying nerve cells and the psychological damage to boot, and Regina can shrug it off and deny it but her quivering hands give enough away. “My magic is blocked up,” she mutters. “That’s why I couldn’t stop the trigger. It’ll pass.”

“How do you know that?” Regina doesn’t, and Emma takes Regina’s hands in hers and swallows past a lump in her throat and the snide reminder of she deserves this because no one deserves...she’s changed. She’d been a menace before, but she’d changed and no one deserves this.

Sometimes she wants to blame Regina for everything about this mess, for all the flip-flopping of the past year. Sometimes she thinks about we never gave her a choice and she’s chastened. “It didn’t have to go like this,” she murmurs, an apology for Archie that’s been a long time coming.

Maybe if they’d done this right– if Cora hadn’t come to frame Regina, if Gold hadn’t summoned her to New York, if they’d stood strong instead of bending to all the outside forces sabotaging them– if they’d done this right, that nightmare of a true love’s kiss might have made a bit more sense.

Her hands are still wrapped around Regina’s and her eyes must belie some of the conflict within her– the impossible maybes swimming through her mind– because Regina leans forward, crosses the gulf between them, and presses her lips to Emma’s, quick and uncertain.

She pulls away as swiftly as she’d moved to her, mutters, “Those electrodes might’ve done something to my brain,” and yanks her hands out of Emma’s. Emma is still staring at her, frozen, and when Regina turns to the door, Emma moves.


 

“I’m not in love with you,” she feels obliged to inform Regina later. They’re entwined under the heavy comforter in Regina’s room, skin pressed to skin. Regina’s legs are tangled between hers and her arms are around Emma’s waist as Emma stares at the wall. Her breathing is ragged and still too fast. “I’m attracted to you, that’s all.”

“Mmhm. Yes, of course. i’m not in love with you, either,” Regina agrees, pressing a kiss to the back of Emma’s neck. Emma wants to sob and doesn’t dare examine why.


 

“You’re staring,” Henry says, poking her side. Emma chews on her lip and begins to look away just as Regina catches her gaze. And then– a slow smile, inviting and mischievous and playfully seductive. Emma swallows hard. Henry’s brow furrows. “So you’re really in love with my mom? Even though she’s– she was...” He falters over his own certainty, biting back the evil that has Regina flinching these days.

“She’s your mom,” Emma reminds him. Not that he doesn’t know that. They might still be living apart but they gravitate toward each other anyway, unofficial breakfast dates at Granny’s and encounters in town and Henry slipping into the mayor’s office three times a week after school just to visit. “She’s really trying to be better now, and saying things like that aren’t helping anyone.” 

Henry nods solemnly. Emma adds hastily, “And I’m not in love with her!” but Henry has an eyebrow raised, his expression just as mocking as his mother’s can be. Emma feels a wave of affection that she doesn’t quell.

She also sidles up to Regina at the counter and orders two (plates of chocolate chip pancakes, until Regina scowls at her and she amends it to) omelets and cocoa as she says, “Henry was waiting for you.” 

Regina raises an eyebrow, a mirror to her son, and Emma is getting gooey again, ugh. “Well, I’m sorry to keep...Henry...waiting.” Ruby passes her cocoa to her, whipped cream on top, and Regina swipes her finger through it and then licks her finger meditatively. Emma’s eyes widen fractionally and her stomach lurches. Ruby snickers.

There’s a little white smear of whipped cream above Regina’s lip, and Emma sets down her cocoa, drags Regina into the back hallway, and sucks it off.


 

“You should go to the hospital,” Emma says one evening, toying with Regina’s hair and watching the barely visible quiver of her hands. Whenever she brings it up, she’s scoffed at and forced to endure Regina’s sulking (irritation is not sulking, Miss Swan) but she hasn’t let up.

“Emma, if you think I want to be strapped down and examined by another mad scientist after what I’ve been through...” Regina pulls away from her. “I’ll be fine. I’m already healing. See?” She holds up a hand, lets a little glittering light spark at her fingers. It spurts and dies a moment later. “Baby steps.” 

“Neurological damage and magical damage aren’t–”

“Miss Swan,” Regina sighs, stroking the skin around her navel. “Please drop it.” 

She’s adamant about it. She’s adamant about a lot of things, Emma’s found. She wishes she doesn’t find it so endearing, but that’s been a problem since she’d first gotten to Storybrooke. Mayor Mills had been a pain in the ass and downright sociopathic at times, but she’d been...reliable, you know? An adversary to keep things interesting. Those first two days, she’d even thought that they might have been...

Well, now they are, though Emma’s opinion of Regina has changed drastically. And it’s not like they’re really friends even now. They’re reluctant allies with benefits. They’re Henry’s moms. They’re never going to have that kind of relationship that she’d once been wistful for, and they’re certainly not in love.

Emma’s just worried about Henry’s other mother, that’s all.


 

The town cleanup is nearly done when they hear reports of an incoming blizzard. Regina, being the insane control freak that she is, insists that Emma take an overnight shift at the station so she can be informed throughout. “Why don’t we just stay at your place together?” Emma mutters, and Regina gives her a reproachful look. 

“Yes, because that’s conducive to government efficiency.” Perhaps proving her point, they’re on the rug in front of the fireplace in her office right now, Regina thrusting into her as she spells out her orders for town emergency preparedness. (And Emma should not be this turned on by that voice except she’s still writhing above her, moving faster and faster in breathless agony until she peaks.)

So they split up for the night and Regina doesn’t arrive in the morning.

She calls her a dozen times and gets no response. She tries out her nascent magic and it gives her nothing. David is dismissive– since when does Regina care about Storybrooke, anyway?– and Emma shrugs and since when does Emma care about Regina, anyway? 

She makes it until eleven before Henry arrives at the station, flushed with the cold and snowflakes sticking to his scarf, and then she just feels sick. “I have to go,” she says and takes off.

The streets are plowed by now, even if there’s new snowfall already whitening them. Regina should have been at work hours ago, especially considering what a stickler she’s been. And maybe she’s slept in and Emma’s panicking for nothing, but...

She lets out a strangled cry when she sees a black-clad figure unconscious on the mansion’s porch, already nearly covered in white.


 

Regina won’t talk to her. She holds Henry’s hand as he curls up beside her on the narrow hospital bed, protective over her as he hasn’t been in a long time. She speaks in low tones to Mary Margaret and even laughs at something that David murmurs, and Emma sits frozen in silence in the chair beside her bed and is ignored.

Mary Margaret glances over at her too many times, at her clenched fists and ramrod-straight back and stubborn eyes, and Emma doesn’t care anymore what she thinks she’s seeing. And then she says, “Henry, why don’t we go get some lunch?” and Henry glances over at Emma, too, and readily agrees. And Emma wants to scream in denial but...fuck this.

They leave and Regina closes her eyes and rolls over, avoiding Emma’s gaze. “You had a seizure on your porch in thirty-degree weather,” Emma says, and this is so unfair. “Was I supposed to leave you there?” 

Regina doesn’t answer. Emma scowls. “I get that you have some hangups with Dr. Whale. I heard about–” Daniel, she stops herself from saying, because Regina’s heartrate monitor is speeding up to dangerous levels. “But you could have died.”

Regina turns, eyes smoldering with fury, and says, “What do you care?”

Emma is taken aback. “What?”

“Why did you come for me at all?” Regina demands. “You don’t love me. You didn’t even like me before we started fucking. Why the hell are you here?” Her tone is dripping with condescension, with frustration, with...hurt? “Why do you get to make decisions for me when we’re nothing?” She spits out the word and it catches in Emma’s ribs, constricts around her lungs and holds there.

And no, no, they’re nothing. They aren’t supposed to be anything else. Except Regina is looking at her like she’s been betrayed and Emma can hear her own heart pounding in her ears and... “I thought you...we agreed that that true lo– that that kiss didn’t mean anything.” 

“Right. Of course we did.” Regina lies flat on the bed, staring up at the ceiling, and she’s still so angry and Emma doesn’t understand.

“Is this really what you wanted?” she says, uncomprehending. “You want some...some kiss to decide our future? We hated each other before this.” Regina had certainly hated her, had wanted to kill her with Cora and take Henry for herself. “How would we...how is any of it genuine if you’ve been told to feel this way?” Her eyes are burning, threatening tears that she absolutely can not– will not– fuck

And Regina is staring at her again, this time with a glimmer of something less vicious in her eyes. “If I’ve been told to feel this way?” she echoes. 

“I meant me. Not you. I meant–” She scrubs at her eyes and glares at Regina. “I don’t–” This isn’t about her. She isn’t the one with the feelings that Regina apparently has developed since the true love’s kiss that wasn’t. She isn’t going to get trapped into loving someone whose love is contingent on rainbow lights and broken curses.

“I do,” Regina says softly, and now there’s challenge and compassion lingering together in her gaze. “I have for a very long time, Emma.” 

It’s impossible. “No.” 

“You came into this town to be my destruction. I hated you. I was terrified of you.” Regina reaches out a hand, shifts her IV stand and takes Emma’s. Emma holds on, helpless in an undertow. “I could think of nothing else but you.” 

She says it like a love song, precise and gentle and sweet on her lips, and Emma swallows and whispers, “Yeah.” It's acquiescence, admission, and Regina knows her well enough to recognize both and smile tremulously.

“And when the dust settled? When the hatred faded...?” Regina’s hands are shaking again, and Emma wants to call a nurse but doesn’t dare interrupt. “Why did you come find me this morning, Emma?” Regina murmurs, patient as she so rarely is for anyone she doesn't...

Emma whispers, “You know why,” and Regina reaches up to stroke her cheek as Emma shudders with something alien and impossible, something long out of her grasp.

More than anything, it feels like hope.