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call it forgiveness with teeth

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change came ugly then.
showed up alone with moldy suitcases
and too many demands, speaking the language
of hard looks and wine headaches.

what no one ever talks about
is how dangerous hope can be.
call it forgiveness
with teeth.

 -- clementine von radics, change came to me like a crooked beast


 

 

When she gets the first call, she is already parked in Regina’s driveway. She has the phone pressed between her ear and shoulder when she answers, opening the car door for the box of terra pots that Regina had asked her to get.

“Yeah?” she asks, and nearly misses David’s voice through the static and the faint creak of the car door as she bends to get the box. “Sorry – hey Dad? I’m kind of busy right now. Can I call you back in a bit?”

“No, I think you better hear this.” David says. The weary sound of his voice makes Emma stop.

The cold metal of the car door stings against her palm as Emma rests against it. “Oh – that bad?”

“Pretty bad. There’s been an attack – the guy’s in critical condition right now. We’re not sure if he’s going to make it.” There is a pause after his breath, something more to say, but he only ends up swallowing again.

“Oh shit,” Breathing out a thin breath, she works her agitated fingers through the tangles in her hair. “Alright. Do we know who did it yet?”

There is another pause. The silence extends falteringly, like a long road with holes and bumps. Emma waits, listening to the faint buzz of static and the sound of her breathing. She continues walking up the driveway, fitting the phone more securely against her shoulder.

“Dad?”

He sighs. “I…I don’t know if I should discuss the details with you right now,” In the quiet over the line there is the sound of idle tapping, like a pen cap against the edge of his desk. It beats once, twice, and then David is clearing his throat uncomfortably, “Are…Are you…with Regina right now.”

Emma frowns deeper. “Uh, yeah? I’m walking up to her house right now. Why?”

“Just…” David sighs again. “This case contains some sensitive material…So maybe don’t talk to her about it.”

“Okay...?” The question hangs for a few awkward beats as Emma waits for an explanation. When none comes, her frown deepens. The silence rubs like sandpaper against her skin. “Regina is just as much a part of this team as I am you know.”

“Yeah, I know kid.”

“So,” she grimaces, “You gonna explain why I can't let her know?”

In the next pause, longer than the rest, she hears the connection suddenly clear as she steps up to the porch, the security of Regina’s mansion clearing away the faint static of the miles buzzing between them. She can hear every soft, unsteady breath her father takes.

“Just…come to the station when you can, kid.”

Deepening her frown, Emma pushes the box closer against her chest and huffs, “Yeah, okay sure Dad. I’ll see you in a bit.” Her dad hangs up first and so Emma huffs out the rest of her goodbye and irritably gropes for her jacket pocket to shove her phone in with her keys and wallet.

But she can’t quite shake the unease that floods her chest. She slows, feeling a hard, wariness push against her like a moving river, rushing past her knees.

Because it has been months since anything weird happened in Storybrooke happened and that is just enough reason for it to all happen again. For the worst to show up and knock everything down again.

At the door, Emma comes to a stop and slowly sighs, knocking hard.

But as heavy as her shoulders feel beneath yet another problem to solve, when Regina’s muffled voice invites her in, she feels it all lift up, falling out like her breath into the slightly warmer air.

It smells like coffee and warm air. There is something else too, a sharper smell she has come to associate with Regina alone, like the smell of a candle after it has been extinguished.

“Regina?”

“In here.”

She finds Regina in the kitchen, her back bent softly over the sink with her sleeves rolled neatly up to her elbows. Her fingers are black to the knuckles with dirt and busy with the soft roots in her hands, gently working new plants out of their containers.

When she looks back at Emma, she has a spot of dirt on her cheek that has been smeared from some previous attempt to wipe it away.

 “Oh those are perfect,” She says, and smiles beautifully. “Thank you, Emma.”

Quite easily, Emma forgets everything else for a while.

She might have forgotten completely, had she not left her phone in her jacket and stuffed both her hands into her pockets on her way out of the door, an hour later. She feels it weigh against her palm when Regina calls her name softly behind her. She comes to a stop just outside the door, looking back.

 The cool air flutters her blonde hair against her face as she waits for Regina come to a full stop in front of her, resting a hand against the door frame.

“Come for dinner, tonight.” Regina’s invites always sound vaguely like a demand, but she is smiling and it forces Emma to swallow before speaking again, to push down the emotion that always crowds her throat whenever she sees those soft, genuine lines crinkle around her eyes. “I’m making lasagna.”

“Well,” Grinning, she shoves her hands deeper in her pockets. “Guess I gotta be there, then.”

“Five o clock?”

“Yeah, that sounds great.” Emma steps back off the porch, smiling a little dumbly, a little too happily, until Regina is inside again and she is alone, fumbling with her car keys with cold fingers.

 Alone, there is very little else to think about in the cold air than her next destination. As she turns the car engine on, she stares back at the dark wet road she has to back into, her phone still weighing heavily in one of her jacket pockets.

But still, there will be dinner at five. Dinner with her family. Maybe even drinks after.

In the ten minutes it takes to drive to the Sheriff's station, Emma has to work to tamp down her smile. It is still lingering around the corner when she steps inside, lasting for a little while longer.

And then it’s just gone.

***

“What do you mean it was Regina?”

“I mean,” David sighs and rubs a heavy palm across his face again. She can’t blame him for the exasperation that brackets his mouth; she feels it on her own: it’s been ten minutes and they are still having the same conversation, probing at the same question with different words. “I mean that our key witness said she saw Regina at the crime scene.”

“Yeah, I got that but how does she know,” she snaps. As she meets the end of the desk, she reaches the limit of her agitated pacing and has her stealing another half-breath before she is turning around again, firing out her next question. “How could she even be sure? You said it was last night, right? So it was dark – did she fill out a full description of what the assailant looked like?”

“Yes.” There’s a new softness to his voice when he speaks again, washed-out finally by the heavy subject. “And it was inside a building. The lights were on. The girl said it looked like Regina, and gave a full description of what she looked like. Even what she was wearing.”

“Okay.” Emma’s brain is working too quickly, bumping against sharp corners just to find something new to say. “Okay, but Regina is a public figure; anyone could just memorize what she was wearing that day and fill out an eye witness report. You said the victim was in critical condition?

“Yes. Mr. Camus.” David says again, slower this time as he eases himself down on the corner of his desk, bracing both hands on either side of him. “If he recovers, we will have to see if his story matches up with the eye witness report.”

The flat, even calmness in his expression only works something hard and angry into her lungs, pinching the space with every breath until it feels hot and angry in her chest because this isn’t how disaster goes in Storybrooke – not like this, not for years.

She can take monsters, she can take a sudden leap into darkness, she can take Hook dying, but she can’t take this.

She shoves off her jacket feeling too cramped, too crowded inside of it, and throws it on the back of a chair. David’s sigh makes her turn on her heel, out of sorts, facing him with all the jumbled up anger inside of her.

“Why are you so cool about this?” She practically accuses, feeling her anger drive harder inside, beating to an uneven cadence like her heart against her ribs. “Regina didn’t just beat up some old guy and put him in the hospital alright? She didn’t.”

“We don’t know if she did.” David agrees, but the corners of his eyes tighten again as he rubs a tired hand along the back of his neck. “But we can’t say she didn’t. Not yet.”

Scoffing, incredulous and angry, Emma lays her hands on to the desk. “Maybe you can’t, but I can.” She ducks her head until she catches her dad’s eyes, weary gray and growing distant. “I just spent my entire morning with her, planting stupid plants into stupid pots she asked me to get that morning. I know her. This – whatever this is – it’s not her.”

“That might be true. But I don’t want to make any conclusions until I know the full story,” He looks down, pressing his mouth together, pitching his words to the knuckles of his hands. “Which is what you should be doing.”

Emma rears up, immediately angry. “Oh, okay, sorry if I’m not assured by like your easy-going, let’s-just-wait-and-see how this goes attitude when it comes to Regina – my best friend, and the mother of my son -- on whether or not she might have just committed a crime that could get her in huge trouble.” She draws in a big shaky breath and releases it in a growl of frustration. “Which she wouldn’t because she’s changed.”

‘I know she has, Emma.” He finally looks up, and Emma just stands there, glaring back with all the harsh anger flaring up inside. “I’m just trying to keep a clear head, here.”

Looking at his firm kind face, Emma tries to gather herself together again, wrapping her hands around her elbows just to contain the wild, whirling feeling inside. But her patience falls behind, dropping like an anchor to a ship that has nothing heavier than itself to snag on, nothing to hold her steady again.

She sighs, and grabs her jacket off the chair. “Whatever. She’s going to need a lot more than your clear head if the town starts finding out about this,” Pushing her arms through the sleeves, she makes her way to the door.

Her dad’s voice follows her in alarm. “Where are you going?”

Finding the folder, she slides it off the edge of her desk and hooks it under an arm. “I’m going to interview the key witness now – she’s in the next room, right?” When she looks back, David’s level brow wavers with frustration, folding heavy over his eyes.

She pauses only temporarily at the door, caught in the trap of her father’s disapproval. But it only lasts the amount of time it takes for her to grab the door handle and pull it shut behind her. The wood rattles loudly against the wall as she leaves.

***

“Erna?” She asks as she steps inside the interrogation room.

The woman looks up at her from across the long wooden table. She has clear, grey eyes and a look of tired patience pressed so deeply into the thin lines of her face that Emma suspects it is an expression she has likely worn for most of her life. She sits in her chair the way passengers do on a train, waiting for their stop.

Well then. Emma just settles in the seat across from her, deciding that any intimidation tactic will likely only be deeply unappreciated.

“I just have some quick questions for you, Erna.” Emma spreads out her papers. “You said you were at the Supermarket last night, getting a few things, when you heard a noise, correct?”

“I’ve already given my statement to the other Sheriff.”

Emma looks up. “Yep. You did.” She forces out a smile, pressing her fingers down on her pen, hard enough to leave a mark on her blank notepad. “I’m just making sure we got all our details right.”

Erna just rests her chin on steepled fingers and sighs. “Yes, I heard a noise.”

“And so you went to go see what was wrong and found...” Emma waits, glancing up from her father’s scribbled handwriting to look at Erna’s face again.

“That is when I found the Mayor. She was holding that old man’s heart, squeezing it like she was looking for bruises in bad fruit.” Erna hums, and tiredly smooths a gray hair behind her ear. “He looked like he’d been thrown around a little.”

Emma sits tensely in her chair, waiting for the quiet buzz in her body, for any trace of a lie. It could sometimes feel soft, like a bad connection or the quiet hum of faulty wiring that makes television screens jumble with color and static.

But everything remains silent.

Clearing her throat, Emma straightens up and rests her elbows on the table. “So you said you hid behind one of the aisles. Just how far off would you say you were when this all occurred.”

Her eyes narrow, unimpressed. “I was in the closest aisle, Sheriff.”

“And you feel absolutely confident that Regina Mills was the person you saw?”

“Yes.”

Still, nothing. No zap, no buzz, no alarm.

“Okay,” The line of Emma’s mouth flattens hard.  “So exactly which curse brought you over here?”

Erna raises her eyebrows. “Which curse?”

“Yes. Did you come over with the first curse, when everyone lost their memories? Or the second? You wouldn’t have lost anything then.”

“Is that relevant?”

“Yes,” Emma snaps, and has to forcibly restrain her voice into something smiling and professional. “It is important. It would tell me a great deal about your relationship with Regina Mills.”

Erna is silent for a little while, watching Emma narrowly over the bends of her fingers. Her expression never wavers from its weary patience, not even when she draws in a breath and straightens back against the chair.

“Listen, Sheriff,” she says, and Emma abruptly feels the force of her attention. Like a switch, something clicking on. “I came over from a village with hardly enough food for one mouth at a time, and then woke up here with a daughter that I didn't raise, but still got to keep, and more than enough food for the three people that I now call family. My life did not start until that woman’s curse.”

“I do not hold any ill will against Regina Mills.” Erna says, and slowly leans over the table to look Emma clear in the eye. “But I still saw her last night, at seven pm at the Supermarket, squeezing that old man’s heart like a fruit.”

Listening to her, a certain hollowness starts to creep through Emma’s chest, the way shadows seem to take over a large empty house; it is the kind of distance she remembers feeling as a kid when she began to sense her whole life might have to change again.

Emma stares down at the table and at all of her paperwork splayed out in front of her, lying beneath her palms, scribbled with ugly, gruesome details that she doesn't even want to comprehend.

“Does that answer everything?”

“Yes.” Emma answers quietly and doesn’t look up. “Thank you. You’re free to go.”

*

The sky is already dark when Emma starts walking towards Regina’s house. She is running a little late, having stopped by the apartment to change into something nicer -- a red long-sleeve shirt she usually only wears for special occasions -- and grab one of the more expensive bottles of wine she has.

It all feels a little ridiculous now. The effort she put into restyling her hair, the time she wasted finding her holiday-only-shirt, and her sudden, ridiculous urge to grab something expensive when she knows Regina probably has an entire basement of wine better than anything she would know to buy.

Dinner with Regina is hardly a rare occurrence anymore, but Emma is in a mood tonight. She can’t seem to stop imagining it becoming one.

Regina’s house peeks up from a distance, strange and familiar in its black mansard roofs and large bay windows. The streetlights flicker on, flooding the wet cement with yellow, keeping Emma on course towards the house her family lives in. As she ambles up the stone steps, her hands flatten anxiously along her waist in search for pockets, something to busy her hands with, but they only slide against her slacks instead, uncomforted.

At the door, she pulls in a short breath and knocks.

The door opens almost immediately, Regina standing with one hand on her hip and the other holding the door. Her face is flat and unsmiling.

“Miss Swan,” she drawls dryly. Emma’s shoulders stiffen at the nonchalance in it, the off-tone cadence that Regina perfected years ago for strangers. “I was just about to start eating without you.”

“Sorry,” With uneasy hands, she slides the bottle of wine out of the space against her ribs. “I -- uh, brought you some wine.”

Regina lifts a dark, skeptical eyebrow. For one terrible moment it seems she might only stand there, unwilling to soften the resolve the last half-hour has made of her spine. The pause lasts long enough for the bottle of wine to feel like a rock in Emma’s hand, and for her to fleetingly imagine the awful lonely night she will have to return to, alone in her empty apartment with frozen food and no shared drinks in Regina’s study.

As Emma is just about to rear up a painful, acquiescing smile, accept the silence and walk away, Regina finally sighs. Quietly, she steps back.

“You know you don’t have to bring anything.”

“I know,” her breath leaves in one heavy breath as steps up, her shoulders awkward and stiff. “I just felt weird coming empty handed tonight, I guess.”

Silently, Regina helps Emma out of her coat. Her hands touch Emma only briefly, always in a process of doing other things, but the touch feels gentle. When Emma turns back to face her, there is an approachable softness in her expression that only the porch lights seem to capture.

“You look nice.” Regina says quietly. She is following the shape of Emma’s long sleeve shirt down to her slacks. There is a small pinch of a smile on her mouth when she looks up again. “You didn’t dress up for me, did you?”

Her tone is light and smiling. All the small lines around her eyes crinkle, and while Emma can still remember how she looked a decade ago -- when nothing softened with a smile and her hands were ruthless when closing around a heart -- she can’t imagine anything so uncaring on her face now.

A tremor skitters down her spine, at the possibility of being wrong, and she sighs. “I just really needed to get out of my works clothes, actually,” she lies, and smoothly sets out toward the kitchen, ignoring the ache in the bend of her neck where the long hours of paperwork made knots in her muscles.

 Behind her, Regina’s quiet footsteps follow.

“Kid.” she breathes in a smile when she sees Henry waiting at the counter. “How are you? How’s school?”

Henry immediately smiles, standing up to hug her. His body is changing again, turning lean and hard. He has started to carry himself differently, like a boy who knows he will grow taller than both of his mothers.

“It was good,” Henry steps back from her, leaning against the counter. “Math class wasn’t so bad. I think I will probably end up going back to that tutor, it’s been helpful.”

 “Awesome, kid.” She smiles and squeezes his arm. It helps to remember the normal details. The daily stuff -- the math tutors and school schedules. Things she can’t imagine even Storybrooke taking away from her.

There’s a slight pause. The newly plotted plants sit by the window, casting their shape. Regina maneuvers around the white marble counter towards the oven, sliding on oven mitts. 

Henry asks, “How about your day?” But Emma hears it as though from a distance.

She is distracted, watching Regina move about in the kitchen, wearing the same apron Henry had bought for her on Mothers’ day -- the one with apples that Emma has seen hang on the metal hook on the kitchen door for nearly three years now -- so wrinkled with use now, not even an iron could smooth it new again.

And yet, as Regina moves about in her usual rushed pace, closing cupboards and setting down plates, Emma can’t stop imagining the woman Erna had described earlier that day; like a shadow, she steps side-by-side with Regina, moving close behind. Like an echo in Emma’s eye.

“It was fine,” She manages dryly.  “My day was great.”

“Gramps said it was kind of hectic.”

Emma’s focus snaps up, her stomach dropping like a stone. “You talked to David?” When Henry nods, a hot acid anger touches her tongue, “Did he say anything more to you?”

Regina glances up at her as she slides off her oven mitts. She notices, as always, the note of difference in her voice.

“No,” Henry shrugs, frowning gently. “Why? Did anything happen?”

It takes more work than she'd like to relax again, to release the tension in her shoulders. “No, sorry,” she sighs, and waves an absentminded hand as she leans against the counter, “Just the usual stuff. Nothing big.”

Regina hums. “Really?” She watches Emma sharply from beneath her eyebrows, settling her oven mitts one after another on the counter space beside her. “So nothing unusual happened at all, then?”

Her stomach flips. “No,” she answers back a little too hard. “Like I said, just the usual.”

When Regina merely purses her lips, a hot, wounded anger swells up in Emma’s chest. The feeling is so large she has to hold her arms around her ribs just to keep it in, to keep herself from asking all she wants to ask: How could you sacrifice this? Isn’t this enough? Isn’t this everything?

But she is too far ahead of herself. She is speeding like a car to the worst possibility when she knows better than this. Knows better than to get caught up in all her fear and doubt.

This has happened before, and it can happen again. Even with someone like Cora already dead.

Sighing slowly, Emma lets all her worry roll off her shoulders as she slides up out of her seat. “Here, I’ll help set up,” she says, and reaches for the napkins and silverware. “Help me with the plates, kid.” And Henry does.

For a little while, things return to normal.

Henry talks all through dinner, carrying their usual ease. He must suspect something is wrong because he tells stories he has told before, the ones he knows will make his mom laugh (that  loud, brash laugh that can stretch to all  the different rooms in the house) and picks up the dishes when they are all done.

“You guys just relax,” he says, and stacks plate on plate on plate. “I got all of this. Get a drink or something.” He glances at his mom, who looks back with such direct complicity Emma has to press her lips together to keep the warmth from showing on her face.

She always suspected they worked together in these things; in getting her tied up in plans she never made, for drinks after dinner, to stay stay later than she should. Secretly (not so much anymore) she lives for these small shared smiles between mother and son.

When Regina turns to look at Emma, she is smiling again.

“Well?” she asks. “Would you like to stay for a drink?”

“Yeah,” Emma grins, reassured. “Yeah. I’d love that.”

In Regina’s study, things slow. Emma is sitting on her favorite couch, the soft plush one nearest to Regina’s desk, watching Regina spoon out those dark, sweet-smelling cherries from her Maraschino jar. The silver spoon tinkles lightly against the jar every once in awhile.

When Regina finishes, she walks leisurely towards her with two glasses.

“There,” she says, and stops right in front of Emma, nearly touching her knees as she extends a glass toward her. “The best Manhattan you’ll ever taste.”

“Thank you,” Emma sighs and reaches for the glass. “It looks great.”

“Well it better, I only used my best whiskey.” The leather squeaks duly beneath Regina’s body as she settles down on the couch, close beside Emma. Leaning slowly on an elbow, she smiles and rakes her fingers through her dark hair. “In case you need reminding in how much I spoil you.”

Emma’s heart flutters, her cheek warming. “No reminder needed,” she murmurs, smiling into her first sip. Regina’s drinks tend to be a little too strong for her, but today she appreciates the burn.

The moment settles comfortably. Regina’s knees are folded, pressing gently against Emma’s. From the angle that she sits and from the room’s warm light, Regina’s face is reduced to its bones, just soft brown cheeks and her dark hair. It helps smooth down Emma’s heart again.

Laying her head down, Emma stares up at the blank white ceiling and listens to the quiet of the room. The shelves of a heavy-looking book case stands in the corner of her vision, holding simple, smiling pictures of her family.

“You styled your hair.” Regina murmurs quietly after a little while. Emma opens her eyes again, hardly believing she closed them at all, and feels Regina’s fingers brush softly against her hair. “Was this for work, too?” she asks, slyly.

Emma nearly rolls her eyes, because of course that’s what Regina hangs on to. But she just smiles instead, warmed from her drink.

“No,” she says, and leans on her cheek toward Regina. “That was all for you.”

Slowly, along the corners of Regina’s eyes first, and then around her mouth, comes one of those rare, beautiful smiles that makes Emma think of the future in a way she rarely ever does. It makes her feel like maybe they are going someplace new after all, somewhere neither one of them had planned, but, looking back, it feels almost like they had.

Maybe that’s what happens when you know someone for so long. Maybe things just gradually, unexpectedly, turn into something more. (She wouldn’t know, she has never had a friend for this long).

Regina is close enough to feel the short buzz of Emma’s phone. She hums, and scoots back to rescue it from a slip between cushion and seat, handing it back to Emma.

On the flat, black screen, as the phone is being passed from hand to hand, Emma sees her dad’s text.

Camus didn’t make it. Died about two hours ago. Heart failure.

Staring at the text, all the soft, tentative happiness curls inside of her like burning paper, leaving her cold.

Heart failure.

She can’t put locks or dams in her head, the thoughts simply come in. They push in like water through a crack, flooding her head with images; she can imagine Regina standing above the quietly-breathing man, deciding to keep the heart instead. Maybe she crushed it in panic later when she came home, or maybe she decided she just wanted to get rid of the evidence.

She wonders whether two hours ago is long enough to make hands soft again, turn crushing fingers into the soft, gentle touch she feels now, still combing through her hair.

“Emma?” Regina’s voice is still close and warm, still in the moment before. “Is everything alright?”

Emma glances up at her. Her eyes blur, and she blinks, still falling from one thought onto another as if her head was built like an elevator shaft with only one long, terrifying drop and its brutal sudden end. As she sits, falling, she tries to catch herself on something. On anything to slow herself down again.

But...

But if Regina did do this, Emma wouldn’t be able to help. It’d be too late. With someone already dead, the town would never trust her again. There’d be no trying again.

“Emma?” Regina’s fingers brush against Emma’s neck, sweeping back a few stray, blonde curls from where they have caught in her shirt. “Are you alright?”

“Yeah,” she answers, hollowly. “I’m fine,” But her voice sticks in her throat, and then suddenly, all at once, she can't bear not knowing. She seeks out Regina’s eyes, wanting something soft to soothe out the panic prickling the space in her lungs. “Where were you yesterday?”

Regina blinks and leans back. “What?”

“Last night.” she clarifies. She watches Regina’s eyebrows pinch together, but refuses to drop her eyes. “Did you do anything?”

“Why?”

“I’m just curious.”

The silence thins, turning uncomfortable. A curtain flutters. In the other room, a floorboard creaks. Regina never once looks away from Emma.

“I had a night in,” She says at last, narrowing her eyes. “You know that.”

“Yeah, I know, but...” A weariness takes over and she sighs, wiping away a curl of blonde hair with her fingers. “Did you, I don’t know, do anything last minute? Like shopping or something?”

“Why are you asking me this?”

“I just want to know.” The nonchalance falls flat between them, her voice becoming stern and policelike, sounding dangerously like an accusation.

It makes Regina pull away, returning her back to the couch as she looks at Emma with sharp, narrowed eyes.

“Something did happen last night, didn’t it?”

Emma grimaces before she can stop herself. Her “No,” is only met with more distance as Regina turns to sit sideways on the couch, her knees facing the desk instead as her hands slide away from the place where Emma’s hair had still been still in reach.

“You're lying,” Regina looks suddenly harsh in the lamp light. Any lingering softness recedes far behind her eyes. “Is this an interrogation, Sheriff?”

Emma stiffens at her title, at the terms Regina uses to put distance between them, to put Emma in a role with just a gun and a star on her belt, or in the past where she is Miss Swan and an intruder in her life instead of the friend she has drinks with in her study. Who she has a son with, who comes for dinner every other night. As often as she can.

Who makes her smile like maybe Emma knows something about her happiness, after all.

“It’s not an interrogation, Regina,” she sighs and drags her agitated fingers through her hair. “I was just -- why can’t you just tell me?”

“Why should I?” Regina asks and stands smoothly. Her drink doesn’t spill, held perfectly with two slender fingers. “You certainly don't feel obligated to tell me anything.”

She waits a moment longer, as if she expected Emma to open up to her, after all. At just the hint of exasperation. Maybe she would have. Maybe if Regina had stared at her for just a moment longer, she would have told her everything.

Instead, only a beat passed before Regina's mouth turns hard and she lets out an exasperated puff of air before turning towards the door.

Jolting with surprise, Emma stands up.

“Hey, where are you going?” Following after Regina, she moves into the darkened hallway. The only light is the left-over glow from the late evening outside, the sun already gone, the lingering light crowding in the fading pink corners of the sky.

Regina doesn’t look back at her. “Hey,” Emma grimaces and quickens her pace. (She has to make fists out of her hands because she is used to a life of grabbing, pushing, and pulling, fighting back, but she will not grab Regina). “Can you not just leave in the middle of a conversation?”

That was not a conversation.” Regina says steely and doesn’t slow as she starts on the stairs. “We can talk when you’re willing to be honest with me.”

“Regina, come on.” When Regina doesn’t stop or slow, Emma’s breath pitches high over the knot in her throat. “Regina, stop!”

Halfway down the stairs, Regina's hisses back, “Keep your voice down.”

Still at the top of the stairs, Emma stands like a heavy stone. She can’t go any farther. “Regina,” she hates the ragged sound of her voice, the way her breath lifts up, makes her words sound loud and uneven. “Will you please - ? Just stop and talk to me, alright?”

Regina sighs, and finally stops. But she doesn’t turn back. She doesn’t respond. She stands there in the silence the way people stand in front of crosswalks, waiting impatiently for the traffic to clear.

This is her shot, Emma knows. Her short window of time to gather together all the details of the violence, Erna’s statement, and her father’s scribbled notes, splay it out as best as she can to finally relieve them both of the murder that still hangs unknowingly above Regina’s head.

But what comes out instead is a jumbled breath and a halting fear: “Are you unhappy?”

Regina’s shoulders tense slowly. “What?” she asks, and turns back around seemingly without any intent. Her face is harsh and watchful. “What kind of question is that?”

Holding herself up, Emma rests the flat of her palms against the stair railing and wills herself not to drop away, not to duck behind her usual defense of silence and shrugging shoulders.

“It’s just --” she pulls in a steadying breath, “It seemed like you were pretty happy to me. I mean, I realize that it might have only seemed like that because I was happy, but -” Her voice bottoms out as a sudden fear rises inside of her, rising high, high above her the way waves rise before taking down a ship.

“This felt real to me.” she manages, and says the rest to Regina’s hands, watching them curl into half-fists at her side. “Whatever life we were making, it felt like something that was good for both of us. But...but if I’m wrong and you are unhappy, if you are looking for something more...I just -- I would hope that you’d know you could tell me.”

“Where is this even coming from?” Regina asks, upset.

Something hard and urging weighs down her stomach. “Please, just say you’d tell me.” she needles. She tries to find some certainty in Regina’s face, in the usual hard jaw and dark eyes. “Tell me you wouldn’t do anything rash.”

“Emma,” Regina exhales haltingly and steps up a stair. “Of course not. What on earth made you think otherwise?’

The question hangs, but there is no wait for an answer. Regina is already moving on to more important things, like the number of stairs between them, leaving them high and low and unlevel.

The stairs are the darkest part of the house at night, the only available light sitting in an unwavering yellow rectangle on the wall. Regina passes through it to come to the step right below Emma, the light catching the white of her blouse and the elegant curve of her neck.

“What is going on with you?” Regina asks tremulously. There is a soft-rough quality to her voice, unexpectedly harsh, like the voice after a loud surprise, like being dropped suddenly in freezing water. “You don’t -- you don’t honestly believe I could ever want anything other than our family?”

Emma nearly says, “No, of course not,” but her breath is trapped, stuck beneath a red squirming anger in her chest and all the hands that have passed her along since childhood; the people who loved her, and loved her, and loved her until they didn’t anymore, until they could love someone else more.

In the ruckus of her lungs, as Emma breathes out a breath she cannot seem to breathe in,  Regina’s hand gently captures her chin and brings her back up again.

“This family is everything to me,” she says fiercely. Her fingers press hard Emma’s chin, firm and reassuring. “I would never do anything to threaten it.”

In the silence, Emma waits tensely for the cackle of a lie, for the soft buzz, for a zap.

But there’s nothing.

A breathless silence follows as everything Emma wants suddenly realigns with Regina’s again. This family is enough. Her shoulders release, heaving out a loud, shuddering relief that comes out dry and rough like a sob.

“Oh, Emma,” Regina sighs. She bumps her cheek against Emma’s jaw as she pulls them together again. Gently, her hands move up and down for something to hold on to, for rounded shoulders and the bend of a neck, anything to keep their bodies pressed warm and steady against each other.

Emma just holds back and closes her eyes against the overwhelming relief and love that slowly knits back the future the last hour had shaken, turned terrifyingly off course. As she feels Regina’s fingers pull gingerly through her hair, Emma feels it tentatively coming back together again.

This family is good enough. It’s enough.

For her, that answers everything.

***

When Emma wakes up, she is still tired from the long day before, but calm. Even as the long day extends ahead of her, full of paperwork, long hours, and searching for magical explanations she’ll probably never truly understand, no terrifying weight falls onto her chest.

Because it’s not Regina.

That assurance alone makes it possible for Emma get up, toss the warm blankets off and push her feet to the floor. The cold morning rolls off from the sea, fogging the windows and making the floor cold.

Emma moves in her usual quick, unhurried pace, sliding on her belt and moving down the stairs, her steps rattling with her gun and keys and the loose floorboards as she idly sweeps her hair up into a ponytail. She is calm. She is prepared. She knows only that it is not Regina.

She carries her calm into the station, nodding a smile at David as she slides past him towards the small office in the back where a coffee pot sits at a slow-drip. Shaking the cold out of her fingers, she grabs a styrofoam cup and waits, not seeing David shift and walk silently after her.

“You - uh, get my message?”

Emma frowns and looks over, “About Camus?”

“Yeah.”

“Yeah, I did.” Her mouth wrinkles together, already knowing where the conversation is going. “Sorry I didn’t reply. We should talk to the family members first, see if anybody had a problem with him, or knows if anybody else did.”

There’s a slight pause. The silence has an exhausted quality to it, like the silence after a fight. Emma tenses, listening to the thin soles of his boots squeak on the floor.

Finally, he sighs. “We can’t move forward until Regina’s in custody”

She isn’t surprised, but the anger still comes like a flat, hard slap. She turns around slowly, her breath coming out hard. “What?”

David doesn’t move from where he stands, hands on hips, self-assured. “I checked the surveillance videos,” he says, and nods to the dark hallway behind him. “We gotta take it in as evidence soon. You can check them if you want, but...it’s definitely Regina in them.”

“Or someone trying to fuck up Regina’s life.” Emma rebuttals immediately, folding her arms hard around her chest. She feels unbalanced though, like the floor is lifting beneath her feet. She doesn’t like the certainty in her father’s face. “This has happened before, you know. If you care to remember.”

“I remember,” David sets his coffee down solidly. “But we have significant reason to bring Regina in.” Emma remains motionless, her mouth snapped closed. David lets out a big sigh. “Look, if the attacks keep happening, then we got our answer right there. But if we don’t bring her in and this stuff keeps happening? The station will look biased and people will feel unsafe.”

The silence goes on for a beat or two, unevenly. The hands holding her elbows cover for the chill that runs up her spine, for all this morning’s calm rushing out, unwinding, spiraling out of control.

She stares up at the ceiling and sighs. “Fine.” she answers shortly, deepening the lines in her frown. Setting aside her coffee, she stands and reaches for the jacket slumped over an office chair. “But it’s gotta be me that takes her in, no one else. I won’t let her just get shoved into this unprepared.”

When her dad doesn’t answer right away, she feels the air thin, the tension of a fight buzzing in the air between.

“Look, about that...”

Emma turns back, her father’s expression sending ice through her lungs. “Don’t tell me you’ve already sent for her,” she breaths and drops her arms to her side. “You wouldn’t do that without telling me.”

David’s face flushes, and then hardens with stubbornness. “People have to feel safe.” he says again, a little lower.

Emma just rushes for her jacket, searching first the empty pockets at the front of her jeans and than in the small zipper at the side, fishing out her phone with shaking fingers.

“Who is getting her?” she asks, when the phone’s in her hand. In the hesitation that follows, she snaps up like lightning, burning hot. “Dad, come on, who is it?”

“It’s Leroy.”

“Fucking great,” Her hands tremble as she flips through her contacts, making the call. Emma lifts her phone up, listening to the short buzz against her ear, but sometime around the third ring, a door opens down the hall and brings in the sound of Regina’s voice.

“Let go of me,” There is the short, stumbling sound of heels and boots, sounding too close to each other. “Take your grimy hands off of me!”

Emma’s hand drops like a rock to her side. She can only stand there watching, waiting, until the door opens and she watches through the office window as Regina is pulled into the station by the elbow.

Her hands are joined together in front of her waist by handcuffs, her arm lifted at an awkward angle by Leroy’s large hand. She resists the pull, walking at an unbalanced stumble toward the cell Leroy moves her to.

“What the hell is going on?” Regina seethes into the open air, directed at no one. Her voice grows louder, more distressed, and it tightens a coil of iron in Emma’s stomach.

She pushes forward, toward the office door. When David’s hand grabs at her, she jerks away, all anger and no breath. “It should have been me,” she snarls at him and turns around again.

Leroy is just turning the lock when, over his shoulder, Regina finds Emma. Her face changes dramatically, moving from anger to confusion to the soft, painful hope that sends a bone-cold despair through Emma’s lungs, all that clutched, frenzied faith slowing her down.

Had Emma done the impossible -- had she pushed Leroy to the side, grabbed the keys and unlocked the door again -- things would have been alright. She would have destroyed all the town’s trust in her, but would have kept Regina’s.

But as she slows, coming to a halt, stopping only halfway in the rush of what Regina expects her to do, Emma watches Regina’s face slowly change between the bars. Her expression grows slack, and then hard again, stern and disbelieving.

“Emma.” she says, like a stab of a knife. Her eyes are black and harsh with urgency. “Come here, Emma. Right now.” She tries to reach out to her, but her handcuffs clang loudly against the bars, keeping her hands closely bound inside.

Emma tries to fill her lungs with enough air to possibly explain what is happening, why she can’t open the door, why she so very much wants to.

But still, the fact is: she doesn’t move.

The back of her neck prickles as she watches Regina’s face slowly close, feeling as though a large metal vault has just swung shut between them. Her bones reverberate with the feeling of it. With being suddenly on the other side of the people Regina trusts.

“Regina.” Emma breathes, and steps forward.

Regina steps back. The air grows cold and sluggish between them.

“I can’t believe this,” she sneers through the bars. She walks back and forth across the tiles, her eyes wild with fury. “What the hell do you think you’re doing?”

“Regina, there’s --” she has to swallow back bile, all she still has to lose. “I’ve got a lot to explain.”

“Oh, no, that’s quite unnecessary, I’ve already heard the whole speal from Leroy,” she smiles aggressively, her teeth bared.  “Apparently, I’m being put away for murder.”

“Regina -”

“How dare you,” she hisses, and points a rigid finger through the bars. The handcuffs clang against both metal and bone. “How dare you come to me like you did last night with those big, sad eyes of yours and question my dedication, my love, my devotion -- when all along, all along it was coming down to this. You were waiting for this.”

“No,” Her lungs ache. “Regina, no--”

“And -- and that stunt,” she says, her voice stripped raw and cold like the winter air. “-- having that man pull me out of my house, into the back of a police car right in front of Henry. Being called a murderer right in front of Henry, our --our son, Emma, he was right there.”

A short fretful breath leaves Emma as she moves forward on sluggish, uncoordinated legs, needing to cross some of the distance, but after only a few steps in, a hand grabs her; her father’s soft tentative voice rushes out to her like a soft tide.

“Maybe we should just go -- give her time to breathe.”

 Emma jerks back her elbow. “How about you go?” she snaps. But her voice is weak with the tears already blurring her vision. “Just let me deal with this.”

“Emma.”

Go.

After just a short pause, there is the sound of boots against the tile before a door swings shut again. Then it’s just them.

The station settles into a soft, incomplete silence; into its soft hum of lights and the usual creak of an old building. Cold air blows in through a half-opened window, bringing in the muted sounds of the town outside, but against Regina’s silent anger, everything else sounds muffled, washed-out.

“Regina,” she tries again, edging along a hard, unapproachable silence. “I should have -- God, I didn’t ever want Leroy to take you in like that. I’m sorry, I should have been there -- It should have been me --”

The rest of Emma’s words are stamped down by the sound of Regina’s laugh, a soft breathy noise, like blowing out a candle.

“Well, if that is all I should come to expect out of five years of friendship, then no,” she answers thinly. “I really don't think that would have been better at all.”

Cringing, Emma steps forward. “No, it’s not like that --”

But Regina holds out a flat palm to stop her. “Don’t,” she says.  Her voice is thin and hard like a metal rod and it prods right into the space between Emma’s ribs. She stops.

In the silence that follows, Regina seems to gather into herself again, staring at her the way she did on the doorstep seven years ago, at the very start, when they had looked at each other the way strangers do. Blank eyed and defensive, seeing only what there is to fear.

“I don’t know what your involvement is, or what you are planning, but if this even takes one step closer to Henry, if you try to make him choose between us --” she sneers harshly.

And yet, as she picks up her chin and glares over the top of a bar, something seems to shake her, because her expression only holds a moment longer before it crumbles, collapsing beneath the weight of an unimaginable wreckage.

“You’ll have to tear him from me,” she cries, “You don’t have the advantage you had before, Miss Swan, even if you do make me out to look like the bad guy again, even then, it's not -- you won't be able to take him from me, not like before--”  but she runs out of breath, unable even now to shape such a loss.

And God. Sometimes things are just worse. Worse than you can even imagine.

“Regina -- God --” she only realizes she is crying when the whole ragged, heaviness of her ribs pushes against her breath. “This isn't -- I would never do that, I don’t want that at all.”

Scoffing, Regina disappears in and out of the shadows as she starts pacing agitatedly again, walking the length of the cell. “You must think I’m some kind of idiot if you expect me to believe you had nothing to do with this,” she mutters darkly. You’re the Sheriff, you had to know they’d do this.”

“I didn't know until this morning,” Emma pleads, “I swear -- I would have done something if I had known.”

“Done what?” Her voice scalds, turning hard as she paces back to Emma, “I would still be here if it was you on my doorstep -- you would have still brought me here.”

“Well, yeah, but--” She lets out a long, messy exhale. “It’s different, it would have been different if it was me.”

How?”

“Because I still think you’re innocent!”

“Oh please.

“It’s true!”

“So why am I here Emma!” Her hands wrap around the bars, her wrists too close together to allow much more than the angry sound of clanging metal. “If you don't think it was me, why the hell do I have murder charges over my head?”

“Because someone -- someone made it look like you did it.” Off Regina’s expression, she stumbles, urgent to explain, “An eyewitness said they saw you at the crime scene, and well, I guess they got you on camera, too -- or someone pretending to be you, I’m not entirely sure how they managed that yet, but I know it wasn’t you.”

There is a pause. The air seems to churn between them like a riptide  -- a dangerous body-tugging pull, moving in from both sides.

“So why lock me up?” Regina asks, at last. She is no closer to the bars then she had been before, but Emma feels the bitter anger in her voice as though it is pressed right against her ear.  “I could be helping you. We could be working through this together, like we always do. What, do you want to  play hero, again? Excited at the chance to do it all on your own while I am here handcuffed in jail?”

Flinching, Emma’s face reddens. “Regina, look, I’m sorry --”

“I don’t want your apology, I want to know why you’ve decided to put me here.”

“Because,” A soft exhausted sigh leaves her. “We can’t just ignore a video and an eye witness report -- we just can’t. Not until we find the real person responsible for this,” She gently reaches for Regina’s hands, to soften her words, but her fingers touch only metal as Regina retreats out of reach. She sighs. “I’m sorry. I should have just told you. I should have been there.”

“Yes, you should have.” is her only reply, spoken only to the bars and then to the wrists she keeps moving in tight, agitated circles.

The cuffs jingle quietly, the bones jutting out, thin and slender, against the skin. In the cold light, Emma can see the thick black band wrapped around her wrist, slid carelessly beneath her handcuffs. It tickles a memory so horrific that Emma’s eyes shutter closed in shame.

“And that,” she says hoarsely. “I am so sorry about that.”

An off-beat moment passes. The blinds flicker against the window. The station hums.

Flexing her hand one last time, she lets it drop slowly to her side again. “I wasn't sure you remembered.” Regina answers, her voice as dry as sand. Her mouth makes a sharp sucking sound as she breathes in and then seals her lungs shut. “Though, I suppose it doesn't matter. You won't take it off.”

There is no apology big enough. She lets it flood inside, overflowing. “Look, this -- this is all gonna pass over real soon, I promise, Regina.” Her voice roughens as tears burn again, blurring her vision. “We're gonna catch whoever is trying to do this to you. Everything’s gonna be alright.”

Regina only shrugs, and doesn’t step any closer. Her body makes a long creeping shadow against the red brick wall behind her as she looks to some vague point behind Emma. It startles an anxious flutter in Emma’s heart, like birds frightened from trees, flying out in a loud clatter.

“You believe me right?” she asks quietly. She leans hard against the bars. “You believe I'm gonna get you out?”

Regina rolls one shoulder before finally looking up, her eyes dark and impossibly sad. “If that's truly what you want.” she says.

Swallowing uneasily, Emma looks over Regina’s expression again. There is no suggestion of a question in Regina’s voice, and yet the softly pressed corners of her mouth holds no certainty that she believes Emma at all.

“Of course I do,” She leans a little harder against the gray bars. “Regina, I don’t want you in here. I know you didn't do this.”

Beneath her black coat, Regina’s shoulders only shrug again. “Well. I'm just wondering how long this apparent faith in me will last,” She says and glances to her again, through the cold light and over a gray bar. “You didn't seem so sure yesterday.”

Something hard releases in Emma, deflating her limply against the bars. Her fingers tingle with an old habit, the urgency to reach out and grab at something of Regina’s and pull her closer. It makes her hands into fists because even now, even here, she won’t grab.

“I’m sorry,” she whispers, and pushes gently until the metal is cold against her cheeks. Regina doesn't look at her. “I got scared. I know how much you’ve changed. I never really doubted that, I just --” A shallow, halting breath tumbles from her throat, “I’ve just never really had a family this long. It just seemed like my kind of luck to see it fall apart.”

All the lingering harshness falls away from Regina’s face. Emma watches the tension seep out of her, unravel from her spine and slowly sink her shoulders. It leaves in a soft sigh and in the quiet steps Regina turns to close the space between them.

Straightening up, hardly breathing, Emma waits for Regina to walk into the space between her arms, her hands dangling limply over the gray rectangular bars.

“Okay,” Regina says softly. “I understand.”

Staring down at Regina -- at the sudden softness in her features, the gentle care and concern that moves her so deeply sometimes, so much more than anyone Emma has known -- she feels a tightness in her throat again, all her love swelling it closed.

“I’m sorry this is happening,” she says. Her voice sounds like wet paper ripping. “Whatever this is, though, I’m going to figure it out.”

Regina looks back at her steadily. “What do you think it is?” she asks.

“I think you’re being framed.” she says, and doesn’t waver.

She can feel the way the vault between them opens again. A moment passes, the silence soft and settled. The lights hum, a clock on the far wall ticks, a cold wind blows in.

Slowly, with both wrists still bound together, Regina folds her hands into the space between a bar, grasping tightly at Emma’s red jacket. When she grabs a good handful, there is a gentle tug forward that makes Emma stumble against the bars, pulled in as close as bodies and metal can permit.

Inside Emma’s chest, her heart beats loud and unthinking as Regina closes as much space as she can, the gaps between them as thin as the air Regina breathes against her neck. When she is close enough, Regina tilts forward and gently leans her forehead against the bar where it might have fallen onto Emma’s shoulder had nothing but air been between them.

Dark hair tickles her nose as she turns to look at the side of Regina’s face. With her eyes closed, the exhaustion on her face finally settles, creeping around the hard corners. 

“Please --” Regina’s breathing halts, and then starts up again, heavier than before. She is close enough for her breath to skim across Emma’s ear. “Don’t forget that, Emma. Remember that it’s not me, even if it gets hard to. Please, I need you to believe in me.”

Emma shivers without quite meaning to, but still, she works to fit both her arms as far through the bars as she can manage, just to hold Regina back in some way. There is a feeling like elbows knocking against metal, like the hand she can’t quite make around Regina’s waist, like the loud startling bang as her boot awkwardly strikes a bar -- where nothing feels close enough, at all.

But as she slides a palm up along the dip of Regina’s back, feeling that steady beating heart against her hand, it is enough.

“I promise,” Emma whispers into Regina’s collar and feels a shiver shake from the shoulders down to her lower back, right up against her hands. Regina pulls her jacket even closer, held tight in her clenched hands.

***

An hour later, David comes back into the station. He stops by the door, his body as square and solid as a house as he glances at Regina. He looks only briefly, but from where Emma sits at her desk, hunched over the large pile of spell books Regina had scribbled on the note (now crinkled in her pocket), she can see that he is staring more at the bars than at Regina.

Emma gets it. It is hard to look at someone you’ve hurt. But it reminds Emma, not for the first time, of just how unmoving her parents’ are to change.  They’ve forgiven Regina. They love her. But, for them, there is nothing more to do. For them, growth is just standing still.

David nods at her. “You coming with me?”

Emma raises her head.  “Where you going?”

“Supermarket.” He gently stalls, clearing his throat and stuffing his hands into his back pocket. But after a beat, his eyes flicker to the cell bars. He forces out a tight cough into the hollow cup of his hand and adds. “We uh... gotta collect that video.”

Frowning, Emma looks over where Regina is sitting on the cot inside the cell, staring out at the window high above her. She doesn’t appear to have heard, or seem interested at all, but when the silence extends for a few more awkward beats, she lets out a slow, dry sigh.

“It’s alright, Emma. I'll manage just fine.”

The practiced steadiness of her voice makes Emma’s chest heavy with guilt. She needs to go with David, she refuses to let any other part of this process go on without her, but there is a stiffness to Regina’s shoulders that Emma recognizes, a weary readiness for the hours ahead of her, for all the time she will spend restless and still. Trapped.

Standing up, Emma opens a few drawers. Her voice goes on in a soft rumble. “You, uh, want a blanket or something?” She closes a drawer, opens another one. “A book?”

“No,” she answers, but after a minute of Emma searching aimlessly, scuttling through loose leaf paper and pens, she sighs. “Very well,” she says in a light, conceding tone. She reaches out her hands. “Give me one of Henry’s comics. Top shelf.”

Popping open the top drawer, Emma pushes back the newspaper and the folders to find the comics Henry usually brings in to waste his idle after school time.

Sliding through a few, she smiles at the well-used, well loved covers before just hauling up the whole load and carrying them over to Regina.

Regina gives her a look that is probably meant to convey irritation, but the corners of her eyes are still wrinkled and she can’t quite smush her mouth into that thin, flat line her disapproval usually makes.

Emma is careful to transfer the comics in a solid, sturdy stack, aware of the awkward position of Regina’s wrists.

“Thank you.” Regina murmurs.

“Tell me how that one goes,” she taps at a bright, garish cover that she knows Regina will probably read all the way through. She gets a flash of dry amusement from Regina before she turns toward the door.

“Read it yourself, you slacker.” is said to her back.

She laughs as she snatches her jacket up from the back of a chair. The lightness in her chest carries her safely past the station, out the hallway, and into the car.

At the store, they walk all the way to the back where stationary desks and piles of paper sit in quiet, dull offices. A heater blows above their heads. They wait.

The manager finally settles heavily in front of his computer. “Okay officers.” His fingers tap along the keyboard. He wipes at the white bristle of his beard along his chin before finally pulling up a grainy video. “Alright. This is seven o clock, two nights ago.”

Emma frowns and squints at the screen. The image is just of the store, a flat, unmoving picture.  There is the white floor and the shelves of food lining up from on ceiling to floor aisle. Nearing the edge of the screen, there is the round black edge of the check-out counter.

In the corner of the video, white numbers tick by; the only evidence of passing time.

“Well, where is it?” she asks, and tenses only a moment later when a dark figure is hurled suddenly across the bare, clean floor. He hits the corner of the counter and topples onto one side, obviously hurt.

Emma grimaces, her hand gripping hard around the back of the manager’s chair. She keeps herself steady there, watching the white numbers flicker by in the corner of the screen, all the seconds it takes for a shadow to slowly move across the floor.

Even in the grainy, unclear video, she can see the man’s pinched face, gasping in clear pain, wince with fear. His hands grabble along the floor. He struggles, tries to stand, and doesn’t get up.

A woman with Regina’s dark hair and high-shouldered walk comes slowly into view. She wears the very same dove gray petticoat Regina had worn that day and leans carefully over the man as though the previous violence had been a single, remote act she had only stepped into by accident.

Watching her, it seems suddenly possible that they got it all wrong. That this is just a simple mistake.

She will only help him up again -- she is only here for some last minute shopping, thinking about home or work, and had walked herself instead into the middle of a misunderstanding. She is only going to help him up again.

The feeling only lasts for a moment, ending abruptly as  the woman plunges her hand deep inside the man’s chest. It takes everything to keep the surprise from showing up on Emma’s face, to shrug off the tremor that skirts quickly down her back, nervous from the passing of an impossible hope.

Hardening her brow, she picks her chin up and watches as the woman pulls the man’s heart out. Her hands are steady and practiced, as though she were merely pulling something out from a suitcase.

Only the woman’s side profile is visible. There is the cleaved shape of her jaw and the soft, dark hair that falls in its familiar waves around her shoulders -- but as the man winces, Regina slowly turns around again.

Her eyes sweep up along the ceiling, up across the windows and the shelves until at last she finds the camera. There, through the gray blur, Regina’s eyes finds Emma’s.

Without meaning to, Emma’s lungs releases an anxious breath of surprise. The two men shift uneasily, their murmurs stirring the office air, but Emma doesn’t look away from the screen.

She has watched an illusion before, had watched Cora mimic with precision the grace of her daughter’s cruelty. It was a convincing act, one she figured she could catch the second time around.

Because she knows Regina, now. Really knows her. And secretly, she thought that would change things.

She had been expecting to feel the difference, to look at this frightening woman and sense the stranger beneath. See it in her eyes or on the expression of her face.

And yet, as Emma stares into the grainy, dark picture of the woman’s face, she can see only Regina. In that harsh, beautiful face, in those angry, squeezing hands, in her wild, dark eyes --- she sees only Regina. 

On the screen, the woman looks at Emma as if she can see her there, too. Can see her two days later, sick to her stomach, and needing a chair to lean her weight on.

Looking at the camera, Regina squeezes the heart again and smiles a terrifyingly beautiful smile.

***

The video gets bagged, and packed away to be put on a shelf in the evidence room in sheriff's station. Emma will have to process it there, put it in paper, draw dangerous conclusions.

Her father sighs on his way out of the store. “Bad day, huh?” he says and holds the door open for her.

Emma just nods and steps out, her throat too sore to revisit the things she needs to say after something like this. That it’s not Regina. It’s some kind of trick. Just wait and see.

It can’t be her. She knows it can’t. Regina wouldn’t.

(She said their family was enough).

In her car, she takes the slow way to the station.

She drives along the trees, watching the porch lights of the neighboring houses flicker in and out of their leaves. The sky is deepening into a cold, scoured blue.

At a stop sign, the station can be seen in patches. Through the trees, Emma can see its steep icy roof and square black windows. David’s truck is already parked in front, the engine still on. Clouds of exhaust rumble out as he waits for Emma to park beside him.

Coming to a complete stop, Emma waits for conviction to take hold of her again, as it sometimes does.

But when it comes to fear, her heart always seems to shift back a few years. She can feel it now, beating like a hammer against tin, making her hard-edged, evasive, wanting, above all else, for just a few hours to herself. For some time to think.

Swallowing hard, she drives forward instead. The station passes by sullenly, glinting harshly in her rearview mirror. Emma doesn’t look back until she has turned a corner, until the wide open neighborly streets have narrowed down into the road that will eventually take her out of town.

Rain starts to drop on the windshield as she drives toward the town line. Tree branches sway in the cold wind, casting their large, shadowy shape over the road, dropping pine needles along the roof of her car.

She glances briefly in the rearview mirror before she drives over the line. It’s only a glimpse, but she thinks she sees Regina on the road, walking after her with something harsh in her face. Something hard and angry.

It is only a second before she passes across the town line and the world behind her shimmers and slides away, disappearing behind a watery illusion, but on the other side, Emma quickly yanks her car into park.

She waits there, watching the rearview mirror breathlessly, feeling a sudden clumsy, skidding apprehension, like driving too fast on an icy street. For a while after, Emma just waits.

But nothing happens. Nobody steps out, and the road remains calm and empty behind her.

It’s just her guilt, she thinks. But she’ll be back. She’ll be back. She just needs a few hours to think. It’s just her guilt. A trick of a shadow and trees. Regina will still be there when she comes back.

And yet, as she jerks the gear into drive, pressing on the gas again, her chest feels heavy and unsure, her lungs full of air that refuses to be released. She glances tentatively at her rearview mirror and can’t seem to stop even after the town line disappears from sight.

***

She is gone for less than two hours. It takes only fifteen minutes for her to regret her decision, and another forty five minutes for her to stop at the next shoulder on the road.

Parked on a cliff, as she steps out to get some air, loneliness knocks into her like a cold gust of wind.

Shoving her hands into her jacket, she tries to contain the feeling, but it pushes out of her like her breath as she stares out across the trees and the rugged blue outline of the mountains, drawing the world into its shadow.

She can see lights dotting the valley below, where unknowable houses are returned to every night. Where families exist in a way she fears she may only get to understand in moments. Between the fits of turbulence.

She wants her family in a solid, sustained way, to have them hour to hour, uninterrupted rather than in the odd moments she manages to pin down. When they are all in one place, happy, all at the same time.

After all this time, it still doesn’t seem like too much to ask.

 She stares out at the large expanse of sky until she feels her phone buzz. It’s a short buzz -- just a text or an email.

But it buzzes three times in the space of just a minute so she sighs and reaches for her phone.

The beginning of the clutter on her screen starts with the general “Where are you?” query from her Dad and a few from Henry that she quickly scrolls down, all unbearable to look at, so she is about to set her phone down again when the last text from her dad catches her eye.

Come back when you can. Regina seems worried.  

Staring at her phone, Emma puffs out a long, heavy breath. One thing about family that never ceases to surprise Emma is the way she has come to fear their loneliness more than her own.

Standing up and pulling open her car door, she only manages to yank her seatbelt over her body a half mile later as she speeds down a long dark road.

She stops only briefly at Hardee’s (because it’s been a whole day of clumsy mistakes and she needs all the help she can get) before taking off again, sliding back into the town’s slightly different air, with its larger trees and strange stars.

She doesn’t see Regina in her rearview mirror or along the road again, just in the cell she had left her in two hours ago, sitting in the exact spot she had been sitting in before, as though no time has passed at all.

But Emma can see the stiffness in her neck, the way her shoulders have dropped to lean on the elbows resting now against her knees.

She closes the door behind her, putting on a smile for the stiff room. David looks up with a startled relief and stands up hurriedly.

“Oh good, you’re here.” His smile is more of a passing goodbye as he collects his keys and wallet. “I’ll leave you two alone for a bit.”

Her father exits hurriedly, and as the door shuts, the room fills with an enormous silence, almost too much to bear with Regina refusing to look at her.

Emma holds the Hardee’s take out bag in front of her like a shield.

“Hey, I got your favorite.”

Regina only hums her disinterest and rests her back against the wall. She doesn’t look at Emma, staring instead at the silent station. The windows glint with the last of the light. The bag grows heavy in Emma’s hand.

“Come on,” she tries, weaker this time. “Aren’t you hungry?”

Regina shrugs.

“Yeah,” Emma sighs, “I should have known that wouldn’t work.”

Silence rushes between them again. A blustering wind rattles the heavy aluminum blinds, flickering the lights briefly before they resume their steady consistency.

Walking closer, Emma can’t help but be a little struck by how beautiful Regina is; the look of her dark hair, the squareness of her shoulders, the trimmed-in waist. The way her jaw looks when she is angry. She is pulled in, helplessly.

When Regina glances back, however, the faint warmth in Emma’s chest shrivels up. It leaves a tingling emptiness.

“I’m sorry,” she murmurs and comes to a slow, hesitant stop by the bars. The bag crinkles gently as she taps it light against the bar. “I didn’t mean to be gone for so long, I just...I needed some time to think.”

“I’m sure Hardee’s is just the place for that.”

“No,” She smiles weakly, but as she looks up again, any lingering defense wading around her heart -- the grip she has around her old habits, of having just one moment to be stupid, to be selfish, to act on impulse -- deflates inside of her from the look in Regina’s eyes.

Her own hurt, like a boat that strikes something bigger than itself, peacefully sinks beneath the waves.

“I’m sorry,” She breathes, and as she stares down at Regina's face, the feeling only continues to well inside, gathering a knot in her throat; it’s a struggle not to give to the heaviness of her neck, to look down at the floor instead. “I shouldn’t have just left you like that. I’ve been so wrapped up in my own head, in everything that I might lose, I...I just keep letting you get hurt. I should have put you first.”

Regina doesn’t say anything. Still sitting on the bed, she is staring up at Emma with something like surprise on her face. But not quite; it is softer, gentler, a kind of recognition. Seeing something she has seen before.

A gentle smoothing out occurs somewhere in the air between them. The cot shifts quietly as Regina gently purses her lips and folds her hands around her knees. She nods to the bag in Emma’s hands.

“Did you get something for yourself?” she asks.

Emma quickly looks down, just to double check. “Um no,” she mumbles, “I just ordered for you.”

There is a slight press of Regina’s mouth before she slowly stands and walks towards the bars. “Well if I’m eating that, I’ll need these unlocked.” she says, and shakes her handcuffs with a perfunctory twist of her wrists.

A flutter of relief lifts up in Emma’s chest. “Right,” she says, and quickly reaches in through the cell, working a key with clumsy hands, eager for things to feel a little more normal again.

When it unlocks, she weighs a thumb down against the hollow of Regina’s wrist. “Sorry if they were tight,” she murmurs and gently smooths the soft skin with her thumb.

Regina makes a soft indistinct sound of pleasure. She allows the affection for a moment longer before she reaches out for the take out bag.

“You should come in,” she says, nodding briefly toward the door before heading to the cot again. “I won’t be able to eat all this alone.”

Her skin buzzes pleasantly with the lie as Emma smiles and quietly pulls the keys off her belt.

Habit takes over. When Emma settles on the bed, she unties all the tight knots on her boots before she pulls her knees up to sit beside Regina. Her legs are clumsy and uncoordinated but Regina doesn’t complain about the bumping limbs or the awkward shifting, only snaps the white bag open and sets it down on the mattress.

She hands the napkins out to Emma first, and then the food.

The ease of the moment settles over them.

There are thoughtless conversations. “Don’t use any more salt, Emma. Honestly, you and Henry both worry me sometimes,” and the echoing assurances “I know, I know.  I’m working on it, I promise.”

In the same thoughtless ease, with the same care and concern, Regina says, “It makes me nervous when you leave like that,” and the promises repeat, weighted just as heavy, just as serious. She says, “I know, I know. I’m working on it, I promise.”

Emma doesn’t have the stomach to eat more than a few bites of everything Regina shares. Regina shares everything, but the chocolate shake.

Time passes as they sit side by side with each other, the red brick wall backing them both. Moments like this can sometimes blur; they have a steadiness to them, a gentle peace where time can pass just as seamlessly as boxcars on a train.

In previous nights, sometimes silence turns to sleep; sometimes Emma wakes up stiff and warm on the couch with Regina beneath her, blankets and pillows crowding around them.

But  this isn’t the study and they aren’t on the couch. Emma already knows by the feeling in her spine, already beginning to stiffen from the time spent against the brick wall, that she won’t be able to fall asleep here. She knows Regina won’t either.

The station is silent and cold. A wind pushes a drizzling rain against the windows, rattling the blinds again.

She can suddenly imagine a few hours from now, when the last of the light has gone and Emma has long since returned to her own apartment (she will have to pick Henry up soon, make dinner, face all his hard looks), and Regina will be alone.

Regina will lay awake on a springy mattress all night; the cold will rattle the windows, the handcuffs will start to hurt, and every odd, incidental sound will make this room feel even more large and strange then what will even seem possible.

She sits motionlessly for a while as something within her trembles, pushing up from its place from under her ribs -- that part of her that worries obsessively, that tracks her family’s phones, that turns her blood cold when a text goes unanswered for too long.

In that moment, Emma makes a decision. Regina deserves a good night’s rest after today. She deserves a night in her own bed, murder charges be damned.

 Standing up, Emma begins packing up, sliding on her boots. Her mind is moving ahead of her, working out the details as she crumbles up the used napkins and greasy wrappers, shoving them into the larger white bag.

Regina utters a quiet “Oh,” as she watches Emma move about. Her voice is even, but her idle hands betray her restlessness, capturing a dark curl of hair and anxiously sliding it behind an ear. “You know, I was thinking...if you wanted to stay just a little longer, we could read one of Henry’s comics together.”

Blinking, Emma looks up. Never in her life has Regina ever asked her so plainly for something so -- well, nerdy. To read comics with her. The only thing that keeps her from grinning like an idiot is the soft, beseeching look in Regina’s eyes. 

“Not tonight,” Emma says as gently as she can, and only allows herself to smile after saying, “But maybe Henry will read one with you.”

A hard, fleeting frown creases the corners of Regina’s mouth before her expression empties into surprise as Emma reaches for her hands, hauling her up to stand on uncertain feet.

“What in the world are you --” Regina starts, but dithers off as Emma unwraps the black band from around her wrist. “Emma...” Her voice is blank with surprise, but she draws no further protest as Emma rubs a thumb along her bare wrist and drops the band on the bed.

When Regina looks up, her dark eyes have a brightness to them. It still gives Emma a jolt sometimes, to be seen so clearly.

“Emma,” Regina says again, softer now, with warning in her voice. “This won’t win you any favor with the town if anyone finds out.”

“I can take it,” Shrugging, Emma tucks her thumbs into the safety of her belt loops and nods toward the cell door. She is smiling softly. “Seriously, don’t worry about me. Go relax, have a drink, sleep in your own bed.”

She hears rather then sees Regina step closer, looking up only to find that rare beautiful smile on Regina’s face again -- the one that makes her heart beat fast, that makes an entire future feel sometimes still possible.

 “Emma,” Regina sighs softly and gently reaches for her arms. The leather of her jacket squeaks quietly as Emma is pulled even closer, swayed by the grip of those soft, needling fingers. “What in the world would I do without you?”

Surprise makes her laugh breathily, but it quickly disappears with the closing of her throat, shutting before she can pull out of one of the self-deprecating jokes that rumbles around in her head, because love can close everything down sometimes, even self-loathing, as if it were on tap --- twist right and Emma is bright and smiling, family, a friend that Regina can’t do without. She is enough.

And though Emma doesn’t need any more convincing, as she drives Regina home, waving her one last goodbye through the window, she feels suddenly buoyed again by Regina’s innocence.

It can’t all be a lie. She knows Regina too well -- she’d know. She’d know.

***

Emma wakes up two hours early and lies quietly for a while, breathing in the dark. She keeps her eyes closed for a little while longer, hoping that if she is still enough, sleep might take her away again. But when the morning light starts creeping along the ceiling, she only sighs and tosses the blankets off again.

As she prepares for work, her thoughts doggedly return to Regina; whether it would be fair to ask her to come back. Just for the day, again. Just so that David doesn’t walk in to see an empty cell. So that the lines around his face don’t crease with yet another reason to be disappointed in his daughter.

But as she drives past the dock, at the jumble of gray-shingled houses and the pale shimmering ocean on the other side of her window, she decides against it. Freedom is too much to give up, even for the day. She refuses to be on the list of people who ask.

But as she steps into the station, dropping off her keys and sunglasses, she finds Regina already sitting in the cell, dressed impeccably in the day before, gently wrapping the black band around her wrist again.

“Oh,” The noise escapes her abruptly as she stops by the door.

Regina glances up at her, and smiles. With a slight shake of her wrist (to get used to the weight), she stands and meets Emma at the bars.

 “You’re here early.” she says lightly.

“Yeah, uh, I couldn’t sleep,” Emma mumbles. She rubs a heavy hand along the back of her neck.. “I-- uh, didn’t know you’d be here.”

 “Well. As much as I appreciate what you did yesterday, I don’t want to be the reason why the town can’t trust their Sheriff. If I have to wait, then so be it.” She tilts her head up, looks at Emma evenly. “Whoever is doing this to me better have a spectacular life to leave behind in jail.”

There is always some calculating judgement about Regina, as if every event could be counted out in exact change and made even. She likely has a list of suspects in her head.

Emma has the sudden desire to show Regina the video of the woman in the store, the one with Regina’s dark hair and clothes, with her cold graceful poise; she wants to know whether Regina would see herself or if her harsh, unmitigatable scrutiny would reveal the stranger beneath.

Instead, Emma makes her way slowly to the bars, just to be within the soft air of Regina’s presence and perfume, the low hum of her proximity.

“How was your sleep?” she asks softly.

Her mouth creases with a small smile. “Good, considering,” she steps closer, into the intimate space between them. “I had a nice evening with Henry, too. He was impossibly sweet -- he absolutely refused to let me make dinner, so we had pizza and watched some dumb movie together.”

A knot gathers in the back of her throat even as she smiles. “We got a pretty good kid, huh?” she mumbled thickly. Regina peers at her over the bars, a soft interest for her looking out of her eyes, the care and concern so deep and genuine that Emma feels her eyes well, her chin wobbling so unexpectedly she can barely laugh to hide it. “He’s not too mad at me, is he?”

“No,” she soothes, tucking away her worries the way she tucks a blonde curl behind Emma’s ear. “No, Emma. I talked to him last night, he understands. But he wants to hear it from you. ”

Still struggling with the weight around her heart, Emma just nods, murmuring a wet, “I know,” and a sigh. “I shouldn’t have avoided him, I just...I got nervous.”

“He will understand that too.”

A watery happiness lightens Emma’s chest and blurs her vision. She smiles, blinking down at Regina. “You know, you’re awfully nice for someone who's been put in jail for murder.

“Allegedly,” Regina murmurs, and presses a soft thumb against the top of Emma’s cheek, wiping quickly below the eye. “Look up, you’re going to smudge your mascara.”

As Regina carefully wipes away the dark smudges around her eye, Emma thinks this is probably a dumb way to fall in love. To have loved so recklessly, so thoughtlessly, that you only find yourself in the middle of it years later, after all the large, sweeping gestures have been made, after all the curses and sacrifices, tripping instead over the small moments, over a soft, caring touch. A steady hand that wipes away a smudge.

Longing wells in her chest, for all the settled happiness her life seemed to occupy only a few days before. For the bi-weekly dinners and the drinks in the study. For that sometimes possible future.

She can’t seem to contain the way her chest aches. She doesn’t say anything, lets it inflate inside of her instead, lifting up like a lung.

She doesn’t have to say anything more.

With a tender hand, Regina smooths a hand over her cheek. “This will be over soon,” she soothes, saying exactly what Emma wants to hear, unprompted. “Whoever is doing this is going to make an error somewhere. Or get egotistical. It’s nearly impossible for a killer like this to hide themselves completely.”

Emma only nods. She wraps a gentle hand around Regina’s slender wrist, keeping it there against her for just a moment longer, until she can get a hold of herself.

A silence passes. When Regina speaks, it is with a gentle reminder of where they are. “I’ll probably need my cuffs back soon.” she says.

“Right.” She sighs, reluctant to return just yet.

“You should also change the the surveillance videos, too.”

Emma blinks, neither surprised nor sharp with clarity. “Why would we change the surveillance?” She asks.

“To make it look like I was here all night.” Regina says, and grips her shoulders gently, thumbing the faint line of her collarbone and idly smoothing out a wrinkle in her shirt. “You know your father, he might just be suspicious enough to look, and I would hate if you got in trouble just so that I could sleep in my own bed and watch a movie with my son.”

“Oh, okay.” Settled by the two warm hands on either side of her shoulders, Emma feels no alarm, so convinced in her innocence, in the love that makes their family enough. There is no reason to. “I’ll make some coffee, too. Want some?”

Regina smiles. “Yes.”

***

She’s in the office an hour later, sipping coffee and flipping through the older-looking, smellier spell books Regina suggested for her to look through when her father settles into the space beside her.

He’s in a good mood, she can tell before she even looks up into his smiling face. He’s holding a VCR tape.

 “Regina’s innocent,” he says, happily reassured. “We can prove it.”

She follows him into the next room with a vaulting happiness, watching him slide the tape into a VCR. The old tv scrambles with gray static for a moment, situating itself.

“It’s kind of gory,” he warns, and steps back to her side. He crosses his arms over his steady chest.. “But whoever is trying to frame Regina didn’t really think much about whether or not she had an alibi. This all happened last night.”

Frowning, Emma asks, “Wait, what do you mean?” She watches the video clear into a calm gray recording, adjusted into the familiar vantage point usual for stores, looking down from the top of the ceiling to record events with an unblinking eye. A sudden clarity blooms in her spine. “What is this?”

“There was another attack last night.” David says. “At about two am. And since Regina was here all night, we got a solid alibi for her.” After a beat of unsteady silence, he turns his gray, serious eyes to hers. “She was there all night, right?”

Her throat constricts. As she watches the video play on, watches a sudden burst of flame catch and hold onto the wallpaper of some store, slowly browning the walls, she swallows down the contradiction, the result too dangerous to consider.

 “Yeah, she was.”

David nods. His face clears, turning back to the screen. “Good.” he sighs with his own relief. “Then Regina is innocent.”

“Right.” Emma says. She watches the screen silently, searching across the burning walls and shadowy figures for Regina, for her sleek, narrow shoulders and that dark, long hair. 

Emma finds her only a moment later. She walks into clear view, holding a man firmly by the throat, unaffected by his stumbling feet or his grasping hands. She seems to say something to him, right into his frightened, open face, before pushing him against the wall.

David grunts uncomfortably. “We can probably turn this off.” he says.

“Wait,” she says, because she needs to see it until it ends. Because whoever it is, they know they are being watched. That’s the point. They are putting on a show.

The man’s fingers are red, scrabbling along Regina’s arms, carving red marks that will be able to heal, that will disappear with just a wave of her hand, unlike the red blooming beneath his white shirt, unlike the red beneath his fingernails. 

With a sick stomach, Emma asks. “Will he die?”

“Yeah,” he says, “In just a bit.”

“Okay,” she says. “We gotta go to the morgue, then.”

“Wanna go now?”

“In a bit.”

She waits until the heart is torn out, until the muscle turns to ash and his body crumbles, until the only movement is the harsh red flames catching, spreading through plaster and paper. She waits the woman turns to look up at the camera. Until their eyes meet.

Somehow, Emma knows that this was all the woman wanted. Only this. Beneath the crumbling building, and all that violence, it was to look up after everything and be seen. To be seen by her.

“Alright,” Emma mutters darkly. “Let’s go.”

***

She has a plan. Well. Something like a plan. There is the quiet bus of thoughts in her head, something beginning to form as she flips through the pages in Regina’s spell book, pacing idly back and forth in her office.

David has gone out to be with the baby. She’ll have to call him back when she figures this all out, but for now she has his paperwork, and that’s enough.It details their evidence: two videos, one eye witness, and the blood beneath a dead man’s fingernails.

That’s enough, she thinks. To make some kind of outcome out of this. One that differs from what it looks like. Because it can’t be that. It just can’t be. She’s not worried.

“What are you looking for?” Regina asks for the second time, though Emma only recognizes the repetition of it by the wane sound of her voice.

Slowly  returning, Emma comes to a stop. “Sorry,” she sighs. But she doesn’t let herself return fully. She flips through another page. “I’m looking for something kind of specific here, not really sure if it even exists. You remember where blood magic is in this thing?”

“Blood magic?” she asks, and Emma can sense the shift of interest in her voice, the stern, almost teacherly pride and patience. “What are you thinking about?”

A furtive glow of pleasure warms Emma’s stomach. Pulling her lips in, she idly sucks her bottom lip as she walks back towards the cell. “Okay... so I don’t really know where to look, but I think I can prove that your magic isn’t the same as the magic being used in all these attacks if I can find the spell in here.”

“Oh?”

“Right -- okay, so  you know how magic is super specific to each person, like fingerprints, right? And since our magic is in our blood too, I was thinking that there had to be a way to show that the magic in your blood is different than the blood we found beneath that dead man’s fingernails...” Blowing out in a breath, she looks up. “Does that make sense? You think that’s possible?”

Regina smiles beautifully. “Yes,” she says, and reaches up to grip Emma’s chin affectionately, her voice a soft thrilling delight. “Yes, you smart, smart girl.

A hot, glowing warmth fills Emma’s chest, makes everything suddenly okay for a little while again.

No, she’s not worried at all.

In the back of a quiet room, with a spellbook open and a white platter probably too pretty, too fancy for the magic they are about to perform, her father leans squarely over the table and asks, “So how do we go about this, again?”

“Drop some of that blood onto the plate.” She says, and David’s mouth makes a hard line but he starts unscrewing the top of their vial. She shifts a little, glancing to Regina. “You ready?” she asks.

Regina is already rolling up her sleeve. She slants Emma with a dry look. “Yes,” she says, and hands Emma the small thin needle she will have to poke her with, the necessary pain. “I’d like this to be over with as soon as possible.”

“I know,” she murmurs just as David grumbles. “Not really sure why we have to do this, at all.” He swirls the vail uneasily, the blood so dark, it’s almost black. “I mean, we already have the surveillance cameras as our evidence. That should be enough, shouldn’t it?”

A murmur of unease passes across Emma’s neck. She expects Regina to reveal Emma’s dishonesty, explain why she had changed the surveillance, why her innocence deserves more than just an amateur's quick handiwork. Emma waits, but Regina doesn’t say anything.

The relief comes with a faint ticking of uncertainty.

“Well. It’ll be good info to have, regardless.” Emma vaguely shuffles the moment along and glances at the spell book. “It just needs two drops so be careful, Dad.”

“Right.”

“Ready?” she asks again, and Regina holds a steady, slender finger out.

With careful fingers she grips the tip of Regina’s finger until the skin whitens. A circle of red blooms and Emma can feel the steady pulse of Regina’s heart beneath her fingertips.

“Okay,” she says, more for herself than anything, and pricks Regina’s finger. Regina doesn’t make a single sound, not even a stifled breath. She endures the pain from the needle and the two clumsy squeezes Emma makes around the tip of her finger, directing the blood into the pool of a stranger’s blood.

“What’s next?”

“Just a spell,” Emma shakily extends a hand, eager for this to be over. “Okay. Here we go.”

When she waves her hand, she knows exactly what it should look like. What reaction she should expect.

The blood should shimmer, and separate. The two different types of blood will push away from each other like oil and water. It will deepen in its own color, with its own magic, with Regina’s innocence.

And while it does shimmer, nothing separates. The blood swirls together perfectly, one of the same; it grows a dark, dark purple, and stays still.

“Oh,” she says, and nothing more.

She looks to Regina for direction, for a sign of how to react, but Regina doesn’t even stir. Her hands remain perfectly still in her lap as she stares deeply into the dark dark pools of her own magic and blood.

“What does that mean?” David asks with baffled wonderment.

Emma knows what it means. But it has to be wrong. As Emma waits for an explanation, the place under her ribs spasms with the need to laugh, to start the joke of herself and make everything go right again. It is a hard laugh, a spasming need that lifts her lungs raggedly against the bones of her ribs. Itis just an amatuer mistake. Just a dumb, stupid, stupid mistake.

When Regina looks up, finally, she sucks in a sharp breath and smiles. “Well.” she says to David and doesn’t look at Emma at all. “It looks like whoever is framing me is very skilled.”

David’s eyebrows pinch together. “So this isn’t your blood?”

“No, it isn’t,” she answers. Her voice is weighed perfectly. It is a gentle, cool tone. Emma waits dutifully for the faint buzzing of her lie to pass through her body, for things to start making sense again. “It looks like whoever did this knows a few tricks.”

“So that’s possible, then? For magic to be confused like this?”

“Yes, absolutely. It’s a very unreliable system.”

The lie touches Emma’s skin softly, a faint, buzzing calm, like the noise of the ocean. It fills the space in her body with its quiet, drowning unsteadiness. Emma swallows thickly, and waits.

“Well,” David sighs, and rubs the back of his neck. “You were here all night...”

“Yes.”

“Can we prove that?”

“Of course,” She waves a careless hand. “Check the surveillance if you need to.”

Emma makes a quiet noise. It is a breathless kind of noise, unintentional and a little bit too hard, like a sliver of bone catching in the back of her throat. Like a laugh held in too long.

David doesn’t seem to notice, already setting his focus on the old dusty compartment of surveillance videos beneath the tv, but Emma can see Regina’s hands slowly curl and slide off from the table top from the corner of her eye. A gentle, warm palm rests against the smooth denim of Emma’s thigh.

The fingers flex gently, as though to say: be calm, just ignore my lies.

And Emma tries. She really does. Because there has to be an explanation for this. There just has to be. So she watches the static of the tv jumble again in silence, waiting until the screen clears with the same bird’s-eye vantage point as before, but this time it is looking down at the red brick cell, at the white cot and Regina’s slender shoulders and her dark hair, resting against the red brick wall.

David fast forwards, blurring the screen into just a scrambled, passing vision of Regina's night, the absent, vacant hours and idleness that Emma had created only a few hours ago when the only thing she thought she was protecting was just a few idle hours at home -- just some time with her son and a night in her own bed.

Swallowing tightly, Emma tries to keep her large, uncertain heart from shifting back a few years, from making another clumsy mistake. She remains still, allowing the fingers on her thigh to squeeze again, to gently work the tense, uneasy muscle.

But already, her mind is returning to the image of the woman in the video. The beautiful terrifying smile and those eyes that she knew in an instant.

Emma might have stayed silent the entire time had things gone differently. Had the film not been playing, had the meeting just ended and allowed her to shuffle out of the stiff office air, she might have kept her silence until the end.

But as she watches the film roll on, watches the white numbers in the corner flyby, showing just how many hours the camera captured nothing instead, only space and a blank, empty bed.

A startling, jolting fear rises up inside as Emma waits, and not even the fingers around her thigh can contain the quaking, fretful shiver that rushes across her skin. She curls her fingers hard into her palm, trying to remain calm, to remain contained, but there is something unhooking inside of her, unwinding with a wild recklessness that shakes every word Regina has ever said, every promise, every genuine, soft smile until suddenly it means nothing. Nothing at all.

Feebly, as her lungs clench, she sucks a sharp, watery breath through her teeth.

David blinks and looks at her. He pauses the tv. “Emma?” he asks.

The hand on her thigh tightens it’s grip, smoothing up and down the rough, worn denim of her thigh with a hard, beseeching touch.

It makes the room blur. “Shit.” Emma exhales, a loud trembling breath.

“I think Emma is stressed,” Regina carefully squeezes her thigh again, before turning back to David. Emma can hear the creeping fear in Regina’s voice, like the sound of rain on top of a roof, a steady, growing sound pounding from a remote distance. “It's been a long couple of days.”

As Emma looks at her (at her friend, her sometimes future), some lingering voice from before (when she was in the dark, when she was alone) rustles in the back of her head, whispers: let her get away with it.

“Yeah,” her dad says, “You okay, kid?” her dad asks, and when she doesn't answer, he repeats her name with steady purpose, like a hammer against a nail. Regina’s careful fingers squeeze around Emma’s knee, pleading wordlessly.

And though she so much wants to let her get away with it, when she closes her eyes, the memory of being passed along, of not being good enough, of being loved again, and again, until she’s not, shuts everything else out.

With a raggedy, half-breath, she says. “I let Regina out.”

The hand on her thigh recoils.

David frowns at her, wearily. “What do you mean?” He glances back at Regina, and then back to the still playing surveillance tape, to the soft, moving picture of Regina’s restless sleep. “But, she was there the whole time. We have proof, the whole surveillance tape...”

“I altered it.” She says, and almost feels how much she changes in her father’s eyes. With two dead men in a morgue and a hand in it all. She wishes she mourns it more, more then the crumbling in her chest,  an entire future falling, falling out of her with every breath.

“Emma,” Emma can’t help but turn to the sound of her name, to the harsher, more urgent sound of Regina’s voice. Her father’s anger and disappointments are pushed to the corner by the distress in Regina’s face. “Emma, what are you doing?”

She says, with urgent wet eyes, “You're forgetting your promise.”

A tremble of a laugh leaves Emma breathlessly. “Oh, please, don’t even start on me with that,” she leans back, hating the watery sound of her voice, “You just lied, right in front of me!”

“No I didn't.”

“What was that bullshit then?” Emma snaps, “About how magic can be confused?”

“Well, honestly, who knows about the rules of magic, anymore, it’s been so twisted around these last few years.”

But her skin buzzes with the lie. Whether it’s true or not, Regina doesn’t believe it. She steels herself. “I'm not an idiot, alright? You can't just wheedle the truth with me, I know a lie when I see it, and you lied.”

“Fine, I lied,” Regina snaps at last, face rigid with a fearful sincerity. “I was scared, I didn’t know what else to do. But that doesn’t mean I’m the one behind all of this.”

“Then what the hell is that?” The platter remains defiantly ordinary on the table, with its simple, fancy design and the blue fish planted on its white rim, with the deep, dark purple blood sitting in the middle as plainly as water. Her stomach turns. “This isn't just some trick, or some video surveillance that someone could change. This is your magic, this is your blood.”

Regina’s face shifts, hardening as she slowly retreats from her and her anger. Mad and almost overwhelmingly desperate to be be wrong, Emma follows after her.

 “So just tell me,” she says, and grips the metal below Regina’s chair. She nearly pulls it, to tug her closer, but stops herself just in time (because even now, even here, she will not grab her).  “Tell me how this works, because right now it looks like I’ve just been played hard, like I was just stupid and eager enough to believe everything you ever told me. So just this once, give me more than your word.”

“I don’t see how I could possibly change your mind.” she says, tightly. “I don’t have anything else, unless you’d like to call our son.”

The mention of their son divides her heart between relief and a sad, crumbling hurt. She grapples for the hope first, and asks. ‘Can he account where you were at two am? Was he with you then?”

“No.” Regina answers briskly, her lips pulling over her teeth as if the question is unnecessary and slightly irritating. “He was asleep at eleven thirty because I’m his mother and it was a school night. Of course he wasn’t awake at two am.”

“But...” Emma releases a half-breath, half-laugh. “How does that prove your innocence, then?”

“I don’t know Emma, maybe because it’s been seven years of doing everything I possibly can to change. So that I can tuck my son in at night and continue to be in his life.” she snaps, and Emma stings from the waspish quality of her voice, the impatience and anger.

It pulls at her chest, makes her want to sit back again, to decide it’s just not possible. That she could be this wrong. About her best friend. Her son’s mom. But she can’t shake quite shake the look of the woman in the video, with her dark, smiling eyes and long hair, that high-shouldered walk and beautiful, terrifying smile.

Her face interposes itself right behind Regina, like a shadow, like an echo in her eye.

Regina must see her drifting away again because a spasm of frustration makes her face hard (makes the two faces in Emma’s vision become one). Extending a hand, she gently touches Emma’s cheek.

“Emma,” she tucks away Emma’s hair gently, her fingers so soft and tender that Emma nearly gives in, regardless of the blame. But when she speaks again, the ache in Emma’s chest makes it impossible. “I told you that I wouldn’t do anything to threaten this family. That it is enough for me. Do you believe that, Emma?”

Emma wants so much to lean into the hand on her cheek, but the wreckage around her heart holds firm against the usual flood, against the welter of her heart like an old, battered barricade, built harder than any other bone.

Into Regina’s hard, searching face, she whispers. “No.” Her whole voice shakes. “I don't think I do.”

***

The worst part comes after the cell is locked. Regina returns to the cell with a cold, unsmiling look that borderlines on triumphant, as if she has spent her entire life looking for the one unforgivable failing in Emma, and having finally found it, she takes her victory like poison.

Regina doesn’t say anything to her when the key turns and clicks. The bitter, anger in her spine remains erect, holding her up until there is nothing else for Emma to do but leave.

It is only after Emma closes the door that she hears the sounds. The sharp, peeping cries, the muffled gasps. They fill the space behind the door and turns Emma’s joints into cement. She stands there, paralyzed by the sound of Regina crying alone in her cell.

She nearly goes back in. Because it’s too painful to listen to, and impossible to just leave. But she can imagine Regina stifling it all under one breath the moment she steps in, regaining herself just to lock it all inside, into a trembling, wet anger that refuses to be seen.

So Emma calls Henry.

She navigates his questions deftly, reassures that she will call his school and excuse the absence. Just come to the station, she says.

She waits by the door until Henry comes. He has that tall, jokisch walk, the beginning of a strong jaw.

“Hey,” she manages when he ambles up to her.

“What’s wrong?” he asks, but by the sound of his voice she knows he has already guessed the worst. His face shows which side he has picked. She knows she is the enemy in all of this.

Mustering up a small smile, Emma gestures to the door behind her. She can’t quite get her words out from beneath the bubble in her chest, the crushing grief and love that seems to follow her wherever she goes, but she manages a feeble, “Will you just...?”

And it’s enough. Henry hears the sounds behind the door, draining his face of all its color and expression. He jolts into motion immediately, yanking the door open to make the short, unembarrassed sprint a kid will make for his hurting mom.

Emma waits until the sounds change, until the gasping sobs turn bright, and watery, forming Henry’s name, until the grief diminishes for at least a moment. Only then does Emma leave.

She only allows herself to cry in the car. Alone, with the windows rolled up, she cries the whole way to her apartment, until the cold numbing walk to the stairs steals the capacity of her lungs, until the only thing she can manage are short, shivering breathes. The warmth of her apartment soothes the cold, trembling, but nothing else.

Dropping  everything, uncaring if her parents are home or if her young brother can hear, she stumbles, breathless and blind to her room.

When she opens the door, Regina is there waiting for her.

The realization comes with an odd shudder of relief that, as she blinks, refocusing onto the room and onto Regina’s dark hair and familiar shoulders, is quickly swept aside by her confusion.

 Wiping at her wet cheeks, Emma narrows her teary vision at Regina. “What are you doing here?”  She asks, her voice big and shaky, too tired or too weary to fill in the blanks on her own. Because even if Henry had found a way to pick the locks of the cell, had taken off both cuffs, even with that as a possibility, nothing seems to explain how Regina came to be sitting here alone in Emma’s room, waiting for her.

Regina doesn’t answer. She doesn’t appear to have heard Emma at all, looking at her instead with a distinct interest, as if she is only watching her talk. Observing her and her tear-streaked cheeks.

“How’d you get here?” Emma asks again, but when Regina smiles, a pang of difference hits her stomach. it is a grandeur, stately smile, a formal, remote separateness that looks completely unconnected from anything Emma has said.

“You are crying,” she says, and tucks her fingers beneath her chin. She hums. “I wasn’t expecting that.”

Frowning, Emma wipes a rough palm along her cheek. “Yeah, well, I wasn’t really expecting anything that happened today.” she gruffs, and then sways back a nervous step when Regina stands unexpectedly, neatly folding her coat and tossing it on the chair’s arm. Emma swallows, her heart picking up. “Um. You know what? It’s been a really long, miserable day, and so I would really appreciate it if you’d just tell me how you got here.”

Regina slides her fingers quickly through her dark hair, brushing it back. “No, I don't think I will,” she says in a clear concise voice and then simply continues on her own train of thought, uninterrupted. “You’re much harder to predict than she is.”

Emma’s stomach constricts nervously. “Who?” she asks, but already, something is beginning to make sense.

With a gentle push of the tip of her foot, Regina pushes aside a white laundry basket to clear her way to Emma. “You know,” she says, and gives a soft, dry sigh. “It really is too bad it had to patter out like this, I was really hoping our game would go on far longer. I was looking forward to seeing just how far you faith in her could be stretched.”

Walking gracefully, she makes a smooth, causal path up to Emma. Her eyes hold a calm coldness in them that traps Emma where she is, keeps her standing there, watching her.

“You really surprised me when you left,” Close enough now to touch a blonde curl of hair, Regina wraps it around her finger, and doesn’t tuck it behind an ear as she usually does, only glances at it briefly before letting it fall through her fingers again. She hums. “When you came back, I decided to speed our game up a little. It wouldn’t mean anything if you just ran away on me, dear.”

When Regina smiles, everything seems to clicks into place.

Emma knows exactly what is going to happen the second before it does. Like seeing the danger of an oncoming car before the fear hits you, before you completely understand that the impact might very well kill you.

The Queen plunges a hand in her chest with the same practiced ease Emma had watched over the video, feeling with a distant, suspended terror as a hand grazes along the bones of her ribs, pushing carelessly through the narrow gap to the loud banging in her chest.

Gasping, Emma grabs at an elbow, tries to squirm back, to escape the pain in her chest, but there is no room for a fight when those slender, nimble fingers are already wrapping around her heart.

It is almost unimaginable how empty a chest can feel. When the Queen pulls her heart out, everything inside seems to shutter and close, pushing inward in defense for the small beating thing that is no longer there.

Breathless, Emma watches as the Queen draws the heart closer to herself, her fingers like a thin slender cage for a bird to beat itself against. When she looks up, it is with a beautiful, terrifying smile.

“Bring Regina to me.” she says.

***

She takes a stumbling path to her car, shuts the door without really caring if it closes or not and drives to the station with only a blurred sense of purpose. Her ears thunder with the sound of her own heart, beating farther, and farther away from her.

She can feel the closed-hand grip of Regina’s hand around her heart. It leads her through street lights and dark wide roads. Through the icy, steel blue of the evening.

When she arrives at the station, the sky is receding behind clouds. Fireflies buzz pleasantly around the hanging street lights as she walks up the road, the lights inside the windows leading her. To her family -- a part of it, at least -- where they are safe. Until she walks in.

When she opens the door to the station, she finds the cell door open. A jolting fear that is not her own squeezes angrily around her heart, a quick, fearful rage that falls away the moment it is clear both mother and son have not vanished.

They are both still there. Emma knows at least some of herpp relief is her own.

Through the bars, she can see Henry’s shoes hanging off the edge of the cot. She can see the bare flat of Regina’s feet, her heels likely sitting somewhere beneath the bed, kicked off carelessly and then straightened again with a stubborn, persistent neatness.

Her heart aches for a new reason, wanting only to crawl into bed with them, to be welcomed back with forgiving arms. Instead, she gently clears her throat.

Henry looks up first. His face is shadowed by the evening, but she can tell by the tension in his shoulders as he sits up that he is still angry at her. She can’t help but smile at him and his righteous, protective rage -- she understands him completely in this moment, possibly more than she ever has before.

“What are you doing here?” he asks.

At the sound of his voice, Regina lifts up, her joints crackling softly as she moves. Unable to help herself, Emma steps closer, peering through the bars to her dark hair and familiar eyes.

Emma’s chest clenches around its emptiness, knowing suddenly just how much she has failed. She didn't protect Regina enough. She didn't believe in her enough. Now, she'll only be leading her to only more hurt and suffering.

“I, uh...” Emma swallows thickly, hates herself for the smile puts on. “I came to get you out of  here.”

Regina frowns at her. Her long hair is a mess from the time spent in bed, curled awkwardly around her son. She peers at her through the bars.

“You’re taking me out?” she asks.

“Yeah,” Smiling, Emma  has to fight the sudden urge to cry. The hand around her heart keeps her voice steady. “I -- uh, I changed my mind about everything.”

Regina doesn’t have a lie detector -- or at least she hasn’t ever said so, but Emma still suspects that she secretly feels every lie between them just as Emma feels it, like some inward confusion between the skin and air. It is a soft, buzzing discomfort.

Regina peers at her closely. “Have you really?”

Emma just nods, the truth in her gripped too tight to be heard. “Yeah. I just came to give you a ride home.” It’s too light, too easy. A voice that is not her own. The difference in her shines through her eyes.

It broadens Regina’s shoulders with distrust as she stands.

“What’s wrong?” she asks. Her eyes have that sharp quality to them again, that clear, calculating judgement as she walks to the bars, watching her more closely. “Are you alright?”

“Yeah, of course.” Emma manages, but as always, Regina hears the note of difference in her voice, seeing with perfect tenacity every possibility of danger, the wide net of potential harm that seems to surround her family at all times. She arrives to a full understanding the way a train arrives at a distant, countryside stop, pausing only briefly before going forward again, continuing in its purpose.

“Very well,” Regina says in a firm, steady voice and walks towards the cell doors. “Drive me home, then.”

“Mom.” Henry mumbles. He follows after her a few steps, grabbing her hand. His eyes never leave Emma. “I don’t think you should go.”

Emma remains light and smiling even as a pain pierces her heart, squeezed by the grip her son holds over her heart.

“It’s okay, sweetheart.” Regina squeezes his hand, gives a brief dry kiss on his cheek, and whispers. “Go see your grandfather.”

“Okay.” he says, wobbly, but full of understanding.

Emma wants to say something too, something that will put her back on their side, but she can only stand with the buzzing blank emptiness in her chest, smiling through the waiting silence.

She doesn’t expect Regina’s hand to slide into her own, or for her eyes to look at her with such direct, dreadful understanding. “Let’s go, sweetheart,” she says, gentle and understanding, and follows her out the door.

It is silent all the way to the car, carried by the ease of the normal details. The motion of daily life, the strapping of seatbelts, the sudden splutter of static and radio, the way Regina fiddles with the heater until the air seems to finally warm.

It calms Emma down. Suddenly, it seems impossible that anything could really go wrong. All because of these simple, unremarkable motions. Because Regina is the only one who can make the heater in her car work, and if something happened to her, there would be no one else.

In her apartment, as she is leading her up the stairs, she notices the black handcuff still on Regina’s wrist.

 And just like that, the calm leaves.

Because the Queen knows exactly how helpless Regina is. The danger Emma is leading her to, just above the stairs and through the narrow, closed door, is something she cannot protect her from.

Without thinking, she makes a grab for Regina’s wrist. Her fingers fumble for some kind of clasp, for the end of the band, but the moment she does, the hands around her heart squeeze and spins her head into a breathless nothingness. She keeps fumbling.

“Emma, Emma, stop!” Regina stricken voice beats the air close to her face, close enough to feel the thin, worried breaths skim across her cheek. “Don’t worry about that -- stop -- Emma -- just do whatever they want -- whoever they are, I’ll be fine, I’ll be fine.”

Emma jerkis the thick black material once more, in vain, feeling the beginning of the crumbling, the shifting, loosening of her life as it begins to waver beneath hard, squeezing fingers.

And then, suddenly, it stops.

A deep, rumbling sigh comes from the top of the stairs.

“You’re really quite a stubborn girl,” the Queen says, and steps down a stair. She moves with a slow, deliberate ease from one stair to another, until the pale evening light exposes her face. She smiles when Regina tumbles back a step. “Hello again, dear.”

“No,” Regina whispers, looking fearfully up at her own face. “No, this isn’t possible.”

“Oh, Regina,” The Queen’s voice thrills with delight. “You poor frightened dear. You must have truly thought you could get rid of me that easily.”

 In the dark, it is easier to see the differences. Their faces are structured identically, with beautiful symmetry, but beneath the skin, the muscles work differently. There is the odd tick of a smile, an unfamiliar lilt of her voice, the amused way her anger looks.

When Regina notices the heart still in the Queen’s hand, she pulls in long, stuttered breath and leans against the stair railing. “What do you want?” she rasps.

The Queen’s eyes glint, amused. “You can probably guess.” Her fingers flex lightly around Emma’s heart, just to tease, and though Emma does her best not to react, Regina still makes a pained sound as if the heart in her hands is her own. The Queen absorbs the pain with smiling, furious fascination. “You really have let yourself grow too fond of the girl.”

“How I feel is no longer your concern.” Regina snaps. Her fear and loss only deepens the strength of her voice. She holds out her hand. “And that heart doesn’t belong to you.”

The Queen smiles, harsh and unpleasant. “No, but it’s not yours, either.” She glances at the heart in her hand, holding it up to the light as though it were only an apple she was inspecting for bruises. “It is a pretty heart, despite what the poor thing has been put through.” she briefly looks at Emma with a smile. “But I’m not done with it yet.”

Before Regina can even open her mouth, the Queen squeezes with one powerful hand, all the bone and flesh in her grip making Emma double over in pain, breathless.

Distantly, through the empty buzz of her own head, she hears Regina cry. “Stop! Stop!”

The Queen never looks away from Regina, her face an ugly sneer of triumph as she squeezes Emma’s heart again. Through the blur, she can see Regina’s haphazard attempt to advance, but she only stumbles back the few steps she advanced with a wave of the woman’s hand.

The pain comes in waves, happening again and again as Regina’s frantic pleas go nowhere. As the pain recedes again, and Emma sucks in a breath, she sinks to the stairs beside Regina’s heels with a stunned breathlessness, like an elk with finally too many arrows in it.

She feels arms wrap around her chest, holding her steady. Holding her close.

 When the pain comes again, the crumbling ache, she hears Regina scream, furious and wet with tears. “You coward! You stupid monster! I love her!

By the mere mention of the word, the grip eases completely, uncharacteristically clumsy, as if frightened. But as Emma sucks in a clear, full breath, coughing and breathing back the emptiness in her chest, the pain doesn’t return again. Regina’s arms tighten around her, giving her some place to rest.

When Emma manages to look up again, there is a living fury in the Queen’s face that seems to seize her like the waves of an ocean, beyond her control, crashing upon her with a havoc so wild and ceaseless, she is completely lost to it. For a moment, she can do nothing more than breathe.

When she can speak, it is with bared teeth. “You stupid, selfish girl,” she snarls, “You still don’t get it. You don’t get it at all,” There is a heaviness to her fury, to the welling depth of her eyes, as if her rage had turned inward to drown her. “It wasn’t just yours -- this love -- this family, it was mine too. You took it from me.”

Emma blinks, struggling to see the Queen clearly in her blurred vision. Everything shifts, and blurs. Regina remains firm, holding Emma close to her chest, but there is a faint quiver to her fingers, an unsteady push to her ribs.

“So what is your plan, now?” she asks, coldly. “Do you plan to take their lives? Destroy what you can’t have for yourself?”

The Queen doesn’t immediately answer. Her eyes tick with unknowable thoughts, but Emma thinks she sees something quick and pained flicker across her face.

But the silence is enough for Regina. “And you wonder why I cut you out.” she snaps, angrily. “This family was only possible because of me, because I found a way to move on from you. If I hadn’t fought back, if I hadn’t changed, you would have suffocated them all. You would have killed them or scared them off, made yourself so unloveable they would have left one way or another.”

Looking up, Emma can see the Queen’s shoulders straighten and pull back. She retreats into her anger. “So that’s that, then.” she looks down at Regina with a cold fury. A queen of a dying regime. “You cast me aside, after everything I’ve done for you.”

Emma feels a tickle of something under her ribs, a growing understanding, but she is too tired to do anything but watch.

She feels Regina’s chest shudder with an incredulous breath. “Everything you’ve done for me?” Regina asks, wildly. “Our hate was pointless. It did nothing but eat us alive. What good did you ever do for me?”

The Queen laughs, loud, brash, and uncontrolled like a dish breaking. She steps down another few steps, sneering into Regina's face. “You wouldn’t have survived without me, my dear.”

With the Queen’s approach, Emma can see the anger in her face, the fury that churns and drowns, that makes everything as wild and unclear as the sea. But as she looks, she can see the hint of what lies on the other side, just behind her anger. It is the beginning of a large and terrible emptiness, an unfathomable grief.

“You would have died if it wasn’t for me. I pulled you up when you fell, when you didn’t want to get up.  I carried you through all of it --” The Queen continues harshly, “Every ugly fight with mother, after every little thing she took from us. I protected you from her eyes, made sure she saw what she wanted most of the time. I gave you a place to hide on our wedding night, and every night after when the King came into our room. When Snow White came to you, wanting a mother when all you wanted was silence, I was there to soothe you.”

Emma can feel the buff of air against her ear and the weak, wet sound Regina makes sucking a breath back in. But Emma can only stare up at the Queen’s face, at the terrible loneliness and the red, unceasing pain of being given up suddenly, and unexpectedly by someone you love.

The Queen steps closer, seemingly unable to help herself. “All these years, I have held onto your pain. All of your grief, and anger, and unforgivable deeds so that you could love. So that you could forgive.” Her face is a spasm of unbearable pain, her dark eyes welling with tears. “But when it came to us finally having a happy ending -- you -- you just cut me out of it.”

A silence passes. Against her back, Emma can feel the quick, unsteady beating of Regina’s heart. Emma waits, unable to move, her heart torn in two.

Slowly, Regina pulls in a deep breath. “What do you want?”

There is not even a second of hesitation before the Queen answers. “I want you as miserable as I am. I want everything ripped away from you forever.” Her voice is scoured with brutal unhappiness, empty of anything but the blank joyless need of purpose.

Emma stirs at that, her loud, uncertain heart full of love and an unbearable need for both. For both of them. Regina holds her tighter, keeps her still.

“Take my heart, then,” Regina says, “Do what you need, I don't care. Just give back Emma’s.”

The Queen’s eyes flash for a moment, full of longing for something that was once hers, completely. It sways her from uncertain plans, moves her down the few remaining steps to extend a hand. Even through her daze, Emma can feel the change of hands, the swift shift between the grip of cold anger to the gentleness of her best friend. Her son’s mom. Her sometime future.

Emma can’t think of anything else but the feeling of her heart being pushed back into its place, into the safety of her ribs. The fullness swells inside, chasing back the creeping, blank nothing, filling her with its explosion of contractions, with its sudden push and pull. 

She breathes in sharp, hurried breaths, relieved and angry and forgiving all at once. It comes to a settled plateau when she realizes the Queen is already straightening up again, Regina’s heart already in her hands.

“Hey, woah,” Emma stumbles out, breathless again. “Regina, no, come on.”

“I think you know a good deal when you see it, dear,” The Queen answers, looking down at the dark, red heart with a cold clinical glare. With a sharp squeeze that emits a breathless gasp from them both, she smiles. “Well. This might just kill us both.”

A cold ice settles into Emma’s stomach. Decided, suddenly, irrevocably, she struggles briefly out of Regina’s arms, and then stands up.

“Emma,” Regina snaps. She comes to a kneel, grasping at the edges of Emma’s jacket. But Emma steps out of her grip.

The Queen just looks at her with genuine amusement. “What are you doing?”

Frowning, Emma picks up her chin. “I’m gonna stop you.”

The Queen laughs, a joyless trickle. “Oh please. Emma, my dear, I am your teacher. I have taught you everything you know. I know exactly how far your capabilities can go, and I can promise you, it won't be enough to defeat me.”

Emma steps up another step, ignoring Regina’s whispered hiss ‘Get down here’. “I don’t want to defeat you.” she says instead.

This time the Queen’s face is genuinely baffled, clearing up into a blank surprise as Emma comes to stand at the step just below her own, nearly leveling their heights. She manages just a quiet, baffled, “What?” before Emma gently takes hold of her jaw with both of her hands.

She knows a touch isn’t enough the moment she sees the Queen retreat behind her eyes, unsure, hardening herself to the possibilities of this moment. Deciding, Emma leans up softly, gently putting her mouth tenderly onto hers. It is just a touch, not even a kiss so much as a warm promise, held tentatively until she feels the knowledge enter the Queen with the large, sudden, shaky breath she takes.

The whole tangle of their past and future jolts between them as Emma presses back just enough, until Emma can feel sure that Regina knows that she is loved. That Emma loves both. She loves the girl and her sword and shield. Until the whole fabric of their future knits back together, with both of them safely securely within it again.

When Emma pulls back, as she looks into her face, she sees only Regina again. Her anger and her rage, her aching, unbearable love and loneliness. Her ravaged, fearful hope.

Beneath her palms, Emma can feel a violent tremor shake through her entire body, tingling into her skin. Slowly, as the Queen steps back from her, up one step, and then another, she glances down at Emma and then further down to herself. In her dark eyes, Emma can see her exhausted longing, the desire to only return, to rest peacefully inside herself again.

But that is a decision only Regina can make. And they are just not there yet. Emma can’t see what happens behind her, but she knows it is not what the Queen wants because after the long, shuddered breath she takes, her face slowly retreats again. She hides behind a cold mask.

Yet still, the Queen passes back Regina’s heart. Too angry, too sad, too hopeful for anything more than an exhausted, furious growl. “This isn’t over,” she snarls to them both as she passes down the stairs in a rush of dark, chilling magic.

A silence passes, everything finally settling. Slowly, turning back, Emma returns to the bottom of the stairs where Regina still kneels, waiting for her with wide, dark eyes. Oddly, there is nothing more to say, nothing more important than this gentle, settling silence.

After Emma pushes back Regina’s heart, she sits with her, shoulder-to-shoulder, against the wall. Regina’s elbow accidentally prods against her side as she settles, the tip of her heel resting sharply against Emma’s ankle as she stretches out her legs, but Emma doesn’t shift away, only waiting until they can rest side-by-side, together, in peace.

An oddly peaceful moment passes. They don’t talk about the dead bodies or the blame. They don’t talk about what might need to be done, on how to forgive, how to love yourself again.

Instead, after a moment, Regina gently clears her throat. “So...back then,” she tilts her head enough to give Emma a tentative look “When you kissed her, was that just something you did...you know... to distract her with...?”

 Maybe it’s silly that this is the only thing they talk about after everything. Maybe not. Maybe they deserve something soft in all this.

Slowly, Emma shakes her head. Her heart picks up, loud and uncertain and hopeful. “No,” she whispers. “It wasn’t.”

Regina smiles at her. It is that rare, beautiful smile, the one that crinkles around her eyes, that sometime future that seems so much more possible and suddenly, so much closer than it had ever seemed before.

Slowly, tentatively, Emma leans in for a kiss, and against Regina’s lips, she feels yet another soft warm promise.