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in dreams of distant flame

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The house is silent.

In a way, this isn’t particularly abnormal. Henry has always been a light sleeper, almost too much so for Regina’s nerves back when he was just a child, but Henry is not the only other person sleeping within these walls tonight.

Maybe it’s just a sign of sheer and thorough exhaustion, but one of the things—one of the most personal things—that Regina knows about Emma Swan is that she is not a light or quiet sleeper, and should easily be audible in the dead silence of the night.

Regina has known that fact for a while, of course—just over a year, actually, ever since… well. Adventure would be one way to put Neverland, and probably the word that Emma's parents would use, but slow-burning terror would be more accurate—more honest, essentially, in the way it captures how she could barely think, could barely breathe from fear as the hours and days ticked on by.

Then Pan's curse had fallen, she had fallen asleep, and her baby boy—

Her baby boy—

But no. That's over—that's over; she's awake, Henry remembers her, Henry is safe, has been safe for over a year, and the person responsible for that is just down the hallway.





It's a little surprising, given what she’d assumed just a few hours beforehand.

After convincing Emma to ignore what three decades' worth of instincts are clearly screaming out at her, Regina had assumed that she'd go straight back to her parents', whilst Regina took Henry home. All she needs to do is make sure, and it takes less than five seconds for Snow to pick up the phone.

“Regina! What's happening? Where is Emma? Is everything—”

“Everything's fine,” Regina says, cutting off her increasingly high-pitched, panicked babbling. “Emma is—”



“—here, with Henry and I.”

A long, audible exhalation of relief. “Thank goodness. I was so worried… is Emma there? Can I talk to her?”

Regina looks over at Emma, who is still very much ensconced in her son's arms, rocking gently—and surely with conscious thought—from side to side, murmuring in his ear. Even in the near-total darkness, Regina can make out the words I'm sorry on her lips. Their eyes meet for a second, and Emma gives a near-imperceptible shake of the head.

Come home, Emma.

She hadn't meant anything specific by it, but...


Regina keeps her eyes fixed to Emma's, sees something, something there. Something she can't name. Something she understands anyway.

“I think she needs to be with her son right now.”


* * *


On the drive back from the town line, Emma is quiet, shut off, staring hundreds of yards out the window into in the darkness. Henry is quiet too, too emotionally and physically worn out to feel anything but visible relief that he has both his mothers again, so Regina isn't surprised when he hugs her (hugs her, hugs her) and then goes upstairs to bed.

Emma, though—

“Actually, um, can I stay here?” she asks quietly, teetering on the doorstep. Her eyes are widened, fearful, years upon years of rejection and abandonment that Regina is only vaguely beginning to understand written in the thin press of her lips and the narrowness of her posture. “I mean, if you just want some time alone with Henry—”

Regina steps aside.


* * *


And so Emma is here, she is supposedly asleep in the guest room, and Regina is—well. When you spend an entire year in slumber (fully conscious, granted, but sleeping nonetheless) then it rather drains your immediate need for more, so instead she decides to do what she's always done when sleep has evaded her—which was often, not so long ago: sit next to her son and watch him sleep.

There's a peace to him now, an openness in his face as his chest rises gently and falls, a tranquillity that she hasn't really witnessed in this house in… years, probably. She really can't recall, and it doesn't matter now. None of it matters now that he's awake, he remembers, and he loves her, loves her, loves her—

A tentative clicking noise interrupts her train of thought, breaking into the silence. She looks up to see Emma opening the door ever so slightly, peering in nervously. Her eyes widen when they spot Regina in her chair.



Henry's eyes have opened just a tad, but there's a sparkle to them even in the sleepy haze. “Mom?” he asks again.

“Hi, kid. I didn't mean to wake you up, sorry, I—”

“Come in, Emma,” Regina interjects softly, much softer than she had expected. Henry is still gazing bright-eyed at Emma, expectant and waiting—so Emma gives a small, watery smile and comes in, closing the door near-silently behind her, and pulls up a second chair next to Regina.

They stay like that for the rest of the night.





Regina meets Emma's brother for the first time the next morning.

Emma is at work, and Henry is back at school—a fact that had provoked no small amount of grumbling, but now that his mother is now awake, Henry Daniel Mills, it means that you no longer get to play truant. She'll be having a word with Emma as to why Henry wasn't attending anyway, though she suspects she knows the reason. In any case, it means that when she arrives at the Charmings' loft, she arrives alone.

“Regina,” David says with raised eyebrows upon opening the door. “We weren't expecting you.”

“I, uh, though I would check in on Mary Margaret, and the baby,” she says stiffly. Oh, this is a bad idea, this is a terrible idea. “May I come in?”

She's half expecting a no, she probably deserves a no—“Yeah,” David says immediately, stepping aside and motioning her in. “Yeah, of course, come in.”

Snow is dozing on the wide double bed, the baby in her arms. She wakes as Regina approaches, instinctively drawing the child closer into her body, and Regina momentarily freezes, her breath catching in her throat—but she forces herself forwards anyway.

This is your chance, mom, Henry had told her just that morning. Make a fresh start.

Snow cracks open an eye. “Regina,” she says, her words slurred by obvious tiredness. “Should I be worried?”

“I'm sure you'll find something,” Regina says as smoothly as she can, pulling up a chair. “I thought I would check by. How is he?”

“He’s good. Whale dropped by earlier on and checked us both out.”

“Does he have a name yet?”

A pause, a silence, as Snow looks down at the now-stirring baby, so small, so fragile, like Emma had once been long ago as glass had shattered into razored fragments around her, the choking purple smoke enveloping them as Regina had laughed and taunted—

She blinks once, twice, clears her mind. A fresh start.

Snow nostrils flare in exhalation. “We were thinking of naming him Neal. Before Emma…” she trails off, and Regina doesn’t need to hear the rest of the sentence to know how it ends.

Before Emma let Zelena take him.

Snow sighs again, this time audibly. “How is she, anyway?”

So they hadn’t talked. “You should ask her that yourself.”

“She hasn't called.” A deep, exhausted sigh. “I was thinking that I should try myself, but I guess she thinks we're just so angry with her, she figures it isn't worth it.”

“Are you?”

Snow pauses, worries her bottom lip between her teeth. “A little. Do you blame me?”

The baby chooses that moment to start gurgling, and Regina watches him as he wakes up properly, eyelids opening the merest fraction to reveal bright, familiar green. He reaches up still half-blind for his mother, emitting one or two soft cries as she rocks him gently from side to side.

“I suppose not.”


* * *


By common assent—or, more accurately, because no one had the mind to argue with her—Regina gets her old job back as Mayor. It’s a comfort to slip back into the job, even if several weeks of less-than-competent leadership under Snow White had left an alarming backlog of paperwork waiting for her upon her arrival at Town Hall. And she isn’t just saying that to keep up appearances, either, because she is absolutely sure that she’s never seen the secretaries look so relieved to have her back.

It’s nice to be validated on some things at least.

In any case, she’s about two-thirds of her way through the mess, having spent most of the morning dealing with various petitions, ordinances and other inane requests which somehow had to have been directed at her. It’s busywork, but oddly enjoyable nonetheless, and the familiarity of running the town again without external pressures or worries pressing down on her like they had before—

“Wow. Seriously? Your first day back and you already have to get through all that?

She looks up from her papers to see Emma—of course—holding two brown paper bags, eyebrows raised.

“Your mother is truly inept,” Regina replies. “Shouldn’t you be at work?”

“It’s half past twelve, Regina. You know, lunchtime.”

She starts, and glances up at the clock—oh. So it is. She must have completely lost track of the time somehow, getting totally lost in her work, the rest of the world turning into irrelevant washes of colour and noise.

How exactly had that happened?

Emma, meanwhile, is still looking at her, but some of the mirth has departed from her expression, settling more on something that looks a lot like concern.


“It’s fine. It’s nothing,” Regina answers, in reply to a question that Emma hadn’t actually asked. “Was there something you needed?”

“There is, actually. But in the meantime I thought we could have lunch,” Emma says, still with residual wariness, but there’s something else there too, lurking in the tension between Emma’s shoulder blades, the rigidity in her hands. “Though if you’re busy…”

Oh. “Sure.” And it’s the right thing to say, because it diffuses some of that weird tension running through Emma. Nonetheless, Regina still has to add, “I hope you didn’t just get takeout from Granny’s.”

Emma hands the over the paper bag, eyes twinkling again. Regina takes one look inside, and can’t help but roll her eyes.



* * *


The something Emma had mentioned turns out to be on the outskirts of town, in the small area of farmland beyond the houses but still within the confines of the old curse. In fact, Regina soon realises that she’s been here before, very recently in fact—

“Yeah, it’s the same place as—as last night,” Emma says shortly, both her tone and posture suddenly hard and brittle in ways which make Regina inexplicably want to stop Emma in her tracks, place firm but gentle hands on her shoulders and massage some of the tautness away, but no. Emma can take care of herself.

“I just got a call this morning, and I decided to check it out and—well, you’ll see.”

And Regina does see, once she gets to the barn: a streak of glittering, half-melted ice leading from the still-visible remains of Zelena’s portal. “Ah.”

“I mean, no one’s seen anything, but…”

“We probably have an ice monster running around town. Yes.” Something along those lines, anyway. She’d heard that Disney had put out a movie about a girl with ice powers from Henry last year, or at least that’s what she remembers—at the time, she’d been more focussed on the fact that she’d been able to see him again after weeks and weeks of being stuck in that damn room, unable to wake or truly sleep and so very, very alone—

“Hey,” Emma has stepped in front of her, and is straining a neck a little to peer directly into her eyes, as if trying to see past the impassive, neutral layers that Regina keeps on as lifelong habit to the still-burning flames behind. “You okay?”

For the second time in about an hour, Regina snaps out of it immediately. “Yes. Fine. I’ll put a notice out.”

Emma is still frowning, but she nods anyway. “Great. I mean, hopefully it’s just nothing, and we can all get some piece and quiet around here for once.”

Regina snorts. “In this town? Miss Swan.”

Emma rolls her eyes, but she’s smiling—and there’s a warmth there which has nothing to do with the crisp winter sunlight surrounding them. “Whatever, Madam Mayor.”


* * *


A few hours later, she’s leaning against the Mercedes, watching an oh-so-familiar pair of double doors like a hawk. She doesn’t fidget—she never fidgets, an instinct drummed out of her hard by Mother long, long ago—but she’s aware that both Emma and Henry do, and for the moment she can understand why.

The doors open, and children start filing out: a dark-haired girl, a blonde boy, another blonde boy, a girl, a girl, a dark haired boy who looks—


“Mom!” The boy yells out, and abandons his chat with some entirely anonymous girl—boy—it doesn’t matter, because Henry charges—rushes over, and nearly knocks her off her feet with the force of his hug.





Despite what they’d uncovered at the barn, life settles almost immediately, with no snow monsters or hellbeasts or anything else remotely out of place. Just work, school, family dinners—normalcy. Peaceful, calm, good normalcy, except for one thing.

It’s not a surprise, frankly. After a year of it, Regina doesn’t exactly need to catch up her sleep, and to be quite honest she can find no better use for her time to just sit in Henry's room and just—watch, and watch, and watch, and stop herself just reaching forward and disturbing him with her touch, remind herself that he's here and real and not separated from her by walls of fire. And sometimes—not every night, but sometimes—Emma joins her.

Regina wonders at that—she wonders at a lot with regards to the occupant of her guest room, to be honest. After all, doesn't Emma have a whole other side of her family to go back to; parents' that she's just rediscovered; a baby brother to help raise?

“Since when did you care about them?” Emma asks sharply when Regina asks after dinner one evening, her eyes flashing.

“I care about the fact that your mother calls me six times a day,” Regina says evenly, suppressing her alarm at the way Emma’s expression has twisted into something far removed from her usual bright demeanour. “And regardless of whatever issues you might have with her—”

“I want to be with my son, okay?” Emma counters—retorts, really, with some of that old hardness and fire that Regina had been so accustomed to not that long ago. “Our son,” she says, correcting herself in a far gentler tone, and Regina doesn't bring up the subject again.

Anyway, Emma stays. She quickly fills the role of model houseguest too, quiet and conscientious in ways that are so very, very unlike her, and Regina—

—doesn’t comment. Doesn’t comment, because Emma here means Henry here, and Henry here means Emma isn’t going to run and the three of them together, in this house, this home of theirs can stay in this unquantifiably precious state of equilibrium for a little while longer.

It means family dinners that are noisier, livelier than she can ever remember; kisses on the cheek as she drops Henry off at school; office lunches with Emma during midday breaks; laughter as their son beats Emma on the Playstation for the fifth time running.

“It’s nice,” Henry says one evening when Regina brings it up, during a quiet moment whilst Emma is in the next room doing the dishes. “I’m happy for you guys.”

She sighs. “Sweetheart, your mother and I aren’t—that.” Sure, she remembers what she’d said at the town line, and she’d meant it; but despite Henry’s less that subtle hinting, that doesn’t mean they’re in love with each other, and Emma is—

Emma is—

“Whatever. I’m sure you guys’ll work it out,” he says, confident as ever.

And in end, it doesn’t really matter what Emma is, because she’s merely part of what Regina has—what they all have, the three of them in this house that was once so empty of anyone other than herself. It’s a family, completeness in a way that Regina had once thought impossible, and far, far too valuable to second-guess.

So she doesn’t. And when Emma rests her head on Regina’s shoulder late one night whilst they watch over Henry, she does not comment.


* * *


Of course, there is a reason that Regina isn't sleeping. An obvious one.

At first she’d worried that said reason would apply to her son—but no, the dreams have more or less already stopped for Henry. This is no surprise; he was cursed first, after all, so his dreams would fade quicker than Regina’s anyway. It had really just a blessing that his lasted so long and that they managed to intersect with hers—though it’s an entirely selfish blessing, of course, one that helps her and only her. In any case, it’s help she’s no longer getting, because it’s now becoming very obvious that he’s stopped having regular dreams in the netherworld and its fiery prison, because her oblique questions are met with a shrug.

She herself is not so lucky.

The first demonstration of it is just under a week after first waking up, having fallen asleep in her sentinel’s position in Henry’s room. The fact that it is just a dream means that she isn’t fully aware of where she is for a while. But when she does—


She jerks awake covered in a cold sweat, sitting bolt upright, reaching up blindly in the darkness and grabbing hold of the nearest object—a limb, as it turns out.

“What—what is it?”

Henry bites his lip—a habit he seems to have picked up off Emma—as he crouches down over her. When exactly had he gotten so tall?

“Is everything okay?” His eyes have widened with the usual worry of any thirteen year old boy not named Henry Mills, and his brow creased in thought, a sign that he’s already examining, deconstructing and translating her body language in his head even in the dark.

She sits up even straighter. “Of course.”

He’s not convinced. “You had one of those dreams again, didn’t you?”

Her expression slips a little. Clearly he’s lost none of his sharpness over the last year—although she already knows that, of course. She’d been keeping up.

“It’s fine, Henry. Just a dream.” She smiles again; it’s warmer and truer this time, because she can’t help but be a little (selfishly, selfishly) glad that he’s looking out for her like this. “I didn’t wake you up, did I?”

“No, um—” He swallows visibly, looks down at his hands. “I had a bad dream as well.”

She reaches up, pulls him down onto her lap and starts to stroke away hair from those wide, bright eyes of his—he’s far too big for this, but she can’t help it regardless. “Tell me about it.”

He presses his lips together, shakes his head—and Regina has to physically stop her throat from tightening up, spasming. “Honey—”

“It wasn’t one of those dreams,” he babbles quickly, as if sensing the sudden rush of panic his response had induced in her. “It was—um…”

She waits and waits, continuing to brush hair from his eyes, and stays silent, willing him to continue, to just talk to her like he’d done when she’d been just a friend instead of a mother, a mere dream person—

“It was—you were there,” he explains, still with high, trembling tones. “And mom—Emma was there, and I—I just wanted to make sure that you were—you were still here,” he finishes, on a whisper so quiet that Regina only just catches it above the silence.

She pulls him in under her chin, presses her lips to the top of his head as she rocks him gently from side to side. “I’m here, sweetheart. Always here.”

He peeks up, vulnerable and so very, very young. “Always?”


“Okay.” He disentangles himself from her embrace and climbs back into bed, but doesn’t quite pull over the covers yet. “Mom, you can go back to bed as well. If you want.”

And she could, of course—she knows he’s not going anywhere. Just like she’d known years before, when the curse was still intact and they were each other’s whole world.

But merely knowing something doesn’t make it true.


* * *


So no. Regina doesn't sleep much. And when she does, her dreams are fitful, vivid and disturbing in ways the waking mind can't really comprehend, all scorching heat and dazzling flame and smothering darkness at the same time. She deserves it, of course, because this is something she'd chosen for herself, and she doesn't get to deny the consequences now—

“Regina. Regina, wake up.”

Her eyes fly open, darting wildly about as she struggles with the snap transition from fiery netherworld to near-total darkness, a firm grip on one of her shoulders and a worried expression hovering right above her.

“Emma?” She frowns, sitting up slightly as her breathing begins to settle. “What—is something wrong?”

“No, um—you were, uh, yelling a bit in your sleep.”

Regina sits up a little straighter, tenses slightly. Emma is sitting close—too close, frankly. “Really.”

“Yeah. So I just thought I'd check—”

“You do realise that it's dangerous, Emma? To wake me up during one of those dreams?”

Emma's mouth opens on instinct—but nothing comes out for a moment, as if she's immediately thought better of whatever words snap instinct had engendered within her. “Sorry. I'll—I'll just go, then.”

She pushes herself off the bed and makes her wait out of her room, shoulders drawn in and her head bowed—before pausing in the doorway and glancing back.

“You know that I'm not just here because of Henry, right?” she asks, plaintive, almost imploring Regina to reach out and accept—

Regina swallows, and doesn't dare.

“Good night, Emma.”