Regina heard the patter of Henry's footsteps first. She hadn't even heard the front door open, then he was there, as if standing in a spotlight in her kitchen door, instantly drawing her attention. He drew her away from her current task – the kneading of dough for a perfect apple pie.
"Henry!" She checked the time on the stove and her smile faltered. "You're home early – is something wrong?"
He dropped his bag on the floor, causing Regina's eyes to momentarily flicker down in disapproval, before he wrapped his arms around her tightly, his face pressing into her floral apron.
"No, nothing's wrong, it was a half day and Emma came to pick me up early." Henry said, his words a little muffled.
He was still in his thankful afterglow, ecstatic that Regina had brought Emma and Snow back home – well, back to Storybrooke – and he'd been uncharacteristically affectionate towards her since.
He was splitting his time between staying with the Charming bunch and staying with her. It wasn't ideal, but Regina was just pleased he was spending any time with her at all. There had been a moment, when she'd been left behind in the townsfolk's wake of celebrating, when she'd thought she'd go back to spending all of her days alone.
"Emma picked you up?" Regina asked. Henry pulled away but kept his arms loosely around her.
"Yeah, that's okay isn't it? She was close by so she offered to save you the trip." He said it apprehensively, afraid Regina would snap at him about it the way she used to. But she just smiled.
"Yes that's fine. Did you have lunch?" She asked. He nodded vigorously.
He let her go completely and she felt a little lost. He went back to his bag and picked it up, shouldering it again.
"I'm gonna go finish my homework," Henry said. Regina's eyebrows shot up in surprise, not unnoticed by her son. "And then watch some TV," he added with a reassuring grin. She matched it.
"I'll call you when dinner's ready." She said.
He turned to leave, but before he was through the door he turned back.
"Is it okay if Emma stays?" He asked.
Regina's mouth went slack.
Henry poked his head out of the kitchen to check.
"Yeah, she's still trying to get her boots off," he said with a snort.
Regina's instinct was to say no, to deny the woman an invitation to dinner on the basis of some leftover bitterness at the invitation that hadn't been extended to her. But Henry caught her eyes again, wearing the meekest smile, as if he was already expecting her answer to be no. She could do it, couldn't she? She could be civil with the former Sherriff. (Or was she the current Sherriff now? Regina hadn't been paying much attention to the town's affairs.)
"Sure." She said with her warmest smile, just for him. He grinned and ran out of the room, the pounding of his feet up the staircase reverberating through the house.
Regina returned to her pie-making, mentally assessing her preparedness for three meals instead of two. Of course her roast was going to be plenty – she was always making enough for leftovers, even when she was cooking for just herself – but the salad, the salad might not be enough for everyone, she'd have to–
The door to the kitchen swung open again. Regina knew it was Emma this time, not Henry, so she didn't bother looking up from her work. Without missing a moment, she began peeling and slicing a pile of Granny Smith and Cortland apples.
"Those must be some boots." Regina said. To her surprise, Emma laughed.
"Yeah, they don't really cooperate with me sometimes."
Regina didn't say anymore. She wasn't about to give the blonde any excuse to stick around. She was hoping the woman would take the hint and run off upstairs to Henry. She didn't.
"I hope it's okay that I picked him up. I didn't mean to impose or anything," Emma said.
"I'd have to disagree. I think you do mean to impose. But in this case," Regina said, she glanced at Emma briefly, meaning to flash an icy smile. "I'll overlook it." The grin that jumped to Regina's lips was decidedly not cold.
"Thank you for your understanding, your majesty," Emma said with a haughty tone and an awkward curtsy. She was going for comedy, but Regina bristled at the old title, dropping her eyes back down to the counter and slicing the apples more viciously. Emma noticed the effect immediately.
"Oh, I'm sorry. I didn't even think–"
"No. You often don't."
Emma sighed and rounded the counter. Regina could feel the green eyes boring into her, trying to catch her attention, but she ignored them.
"Regina, can we talk? I know I'm not your favourite person in the world, but you did bring me back into this one. I thought we were at least on speaking terms." Emma said.
"We are speaking," Regina said curtly. In her periphery she could tell Emma was rolling her eyes.
"Traditionally, when two people are talking, it's customary to actually look at each other."
"I'm busy, Ms. Swan. Or can't you tell?"
"Regina, come on." Emma took a step towards her. She was getting far too close for Regina's comfort.
"If you want to have a nice, long, lady chat, I suggest you go find your mother. As for me, as I said, I'm busy."
Regina felt the shift in the air before Emma snapped into action. Emma grabbed Regina's wrists in her hands, causing her to drop both apple and the knife, before spinning the brunette around and pushing her up against the counter. Regina's wrists were held firmly against the cold stone. Their bodies were close – too close – and Regina felt her skin heat a little in spite of herself. Their eyes were locked now; the younger woman was enraged. Regina was pretty pissed too.
"What in the hell do you think you're doing?!" Regina said. She made a conscious effort to keep her voice down for Henry's sake. He'd heard the two of them fighting enough for a lifetime.
"I just want you to look at me when I'm trying to have a conversation with you! To treat me like I'm a human being!"
"And why should I?!" Regina spat back. "No one treats me like a person, no one ever has! Either I'm a possession or a villain or a monster, but I'm never human."
Emma stepped back, releasing the wrists in her hands.
"Regina… You don't really think–"
"I don't think, Ms. Swan. I know. My own son thinks I'm no better than the villain in the pages of a book. Of course I was that too. But not just that."
Regina dropped her eyes, suddenly ashamed of her outburst. Or rather, ashamed that she'd shared the truth of what was hurting her with Snow's daughter. And what was worse, Emma would know every word was brutally, painfully true because of her special sixth sense.
"He doesn't think that anymore," Emma said. "He loves you. He knows you're not that person now. You've changed."
Regina let out a dark laugh that chilled Emma's spine. It was the evil queen's laugh.
"He doesn't really believe that. No one does."
"I do." Emma said.
Regina barely registered it at first. She took a couple seconds to confirm to herself that she'd heard the woman correctly and met her gaze again.
"And why would you believe such a... fairy tale," Regina's said with a little self-satisfied smirk. She waited patiently for Emma to backpedal.
Emma's eyes lit up and her words tumbled out deliriously.
"Because I was a runaway and now I'm some kind of saviour. And because you had the opportunity to leave me behind, but you brought me back. And because you love that little boy more than I've seen anyone love anyone, and that is how I know you aren't the evil queen. Not anymore. If you can't see that for yourself, then I'll make it my mission to make you see it." Emma said.
Regina's smile was gone. She didn't know what to make of any of that. She stood in silence, staring at the blonde. Emma's confidence started to buckle under the scrutiny.
"I had a lot of time to think, okay?" Emma said defensively, folding her arms over her chest.
Regina quirked an eyebrow. She'd forgotten how much fun it was to toy with Emma. She hadn't done it properly in such a long while.
"You want to make me your personal mission, Ms. Swan?" Regina said, putting a hand to her hip as she leaned against the counter.
"What? That's not what I said," Emma laughed uncomfortably.
"Perhaps. But that is what you implied." Regina swept her eyes down over Emma's body, making sure the blonde noticed her appraisal.
"And just what are you implying?" Emma might have meant to discourage the former mayor, but it ended up sounding like an invitation. Regina lifted her hip from the counter and sauntered over to Emma. Emma watched the woman approach like a tiger advancing on a helpless woodland creature. Then she realizedshe was that helpless woodland creature. She gulped.
Suddenly they were sharing the same air.
"You said you were grateful when I brought you back," Regina said. Emma could the woman's breath on her skin.
"Yes," Emma said cautiously when Regina left pause for a reply.
"You never thanked me properly." Regina said. Emma remembered a few times before when they'd been this close, faces separated by mere inches. Once on the day Henry was trapped in the mine shaft – the day she'd first thought of kissing Regina rather than slapping her across the face – and once while Henry was in the hospital – when Emma had thought for a second she might murder Regina in her rage.
Both times there'd been a tiny spark, some inexplicable desire she felt kindling low in her stomach. The first time she'd had to restrain herself from acting on it. The second time, it had kept her from exacting revenge on the woman.
But this time, she wasn't sure how to proceed. She'd just spilled her guts, admitted she had more or less accepted Regina had changed, that she deserved a little more acceptance. Emma didn't want to be kicked around, though. That felt too much like the queen playing her old game. If she was going to move forward, Emma had to be sure she was doing it for the right reason. She needed to keep her head.
"You're right." She paused for effect. "How about I take you on a date?" Emma tipped her head to the side and smiled. Her request came so far out of left field that Regina took a step back.
"You've been cooped up in this house for a while. You only go into town anymore to pick up groceries. I know you're afraid to go out there, but you can't stay in here all day and night. It's not healthy. So, to thank you for all you've done, I'd like to take you out." Emma said matter-of-factly, as if there were no more rational proposition in the world.
"On a date." Regina said.
"On a date." Emma replied.
"I have to admit, I was thinking of something a little more… imminent." Regina purred.
Emma hesitated, then reached out and pulled Regina's body closer to hers. It was oddly easy. She felt suddenly more comfortable with the woman, like some cloud had been lifted.
"How about a compromise? I get to take you on a date; you get to kiss me right now." Emma said. It still felt a little dangerous. Regina could deny her completely. But the way the brunette was relaxing in Emma's arms, Emma had a feeling she wouldn't be turned down.
Regina didn't bother with a verbal answer. She threw her arms around Emma's neck and crashed their lips together, throwing her body into the blonde's. The force threw Emma back into the edge of the counter.
"Ow! OW!" Emma said against Regina's lips. Regina's eyes snapped open.
"Are you okay?" Regina said breathlessly. One of her hands went to the small of Emma's back, soothing it.
"It's fine," Emma assured her. "You are a lot stronger than you look." Emma laughed. She kissed Regina and the brunette responded a little more gently this time. Emma slipped a hand under Regina's apron to grope at her chest. Regina laughed against Emma's lips.
"And here I thought I was the over-eager one." Regina said.
"I think it's safe to say we're pretty evenly matched."
"Oh you think so, do you?" Regina slipped a hand between them to snake into Emma's jeans. Her path was stunted when Emma's cell rang from her back pocket. Emma looked at Regina apologetically and the brunette extricated herself from their tangled limbs. She briefly washed her hands before returning to pie-making.
"Hey, what's up?" Emma greeted. She stood next to Regina as the woman worked. Her hands were hypnotizing.
"No, I was going to have dinner with Henry and Regina tonight actually." She paused and sighed at whatever response she'd received.
"What do you mean why?" Emma said. She waited again. "Listen, we had this conversation. You can't be the same age as me and nag like this. I'm not fourteen."
Regina smirked. She imagined Snow on the other end of the call, utterly disapproving of their fraternization. But then, Snow didn't know what kind of interaction they were really indulging in.
"We can have dinner tomorrow night!" Emma insisted. She reached for an apple slice, ready to pop it into her mouth when Regina grabbed her wrist.
Emma whipped her head around to glare, but the expression fell away when Regina pulled Emma's fingers to her lips and took the apple slice into her own mouth. Her tongue flicked at the blonde's fingertips as she held her eyes with her own.
Emma stood staring until she snapped back into her conversation.
"Yes! I'm still here," she grinned and shook her head at Regina. "Just don't worry about it right now, okay? I'll be back later. We can talk then. Goodnight." She hung up the phone and restored it to her back pocket. She leaned over and rested her arms on the counter, watching Regina intently. She was adding lemon juice to her bowl of apple slices.
"You know, you could actually help me with the preparation. Instead of eying me like a Christmas ham." Regina said.
"I can't help it," Emma replied. "I'm seeing you in a whole new light. You know, since I know instead of hating me, you just wanted to jump my bones all this time."
Regina huffed in amusement.
"That's not even remotely true."
"I did hate you. A little at least. And the desire to… be closer, that was a relatively new development."
"That sounds like at least remotely true to me." Emma said. "So what did it? What changed your mind?" Emma asked seriously.
Regina flicked her eyes over to the blonde.
"You protected me. I thought maybe you were just doing it for Henry. But you found out the things I'd done and you still protected me. It was surprising."
"I have my moments," Emma said. "So when's a good day for our date?" Emma was grinning just thinking about it.
"As you so delicately put it, all I do is stay in the house all day and night. So pick your poison, Ms. Swan. Apparently you're booked tomorrow night."
"Then night after that it is, then." Emma said.
"Very well. Now can you peel your eyes off my ass for a moment and take the roast from the fridge? It's time to put you to work."