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Dirty Dancing

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“Hey!” Ruby called out as she jogged up the path. With her hair pulled up high and barely any makeup, she looked as young as Regina. Laden down with two heavy dance bags and a couple of dresses on hangers, Ruby seemed glad to accept a little help.

 

“Will I need all this for one dance?” Regina asked, panic setting in.

 

“I got some other options up in my room, but I got some bits and pieces from the other girls that I think will make you look great. Oh hey, Neal!”

 

“Hey,” Neal greeted them both, shoving something back in his shorts pocket as he exited the staff house. “You gals getting all set for tonight? Ruby, don’t forget we’re leaving at 3:30, okay?”

 

“I know, I just got done with my group classes” she replied, laying her hand on his forearm. “And thank you again.”

 

“We should go get this over with,” Regina interrupted. “I just got done with fixing my alibi with Sidney, so once I’m ready I have to go lie low until Emma is done with her lessons.”

 

“Good luck,” Neal said, waving as he walked off over the bridge. “You’ll knock ‘em dead as long as Emma is leading.”

 

Regina forced another smile and followed Ruby upstairs to her room, the scent of worn clothes and cheap perfume rising up to smack them both the second the heavy door opened. Flustered, Ruby moved over to open the window and air the small space out.

 

“Not exactly the Ritz, sorry,” Ruby apologized, and motioned for Regina to dump the bags on the bed splitting the center of the space. “But one of these dresses will look killer on you, for sure, and with the hair and the makeup, I swear you’ll feel like Ginger Rogers.”

 

“Doing everything backwards, and in heels?”

 

“Exactly,” Ruby said, her smile bright and achingly genuine. “Listen, Regina, not for nothin’, but I really can’t thank you enough for this. Not just the dancing, but helping out with the cash and all. You gimme your address and I’ll make sure every dime gets repaid.”

 

“That’s really not necessary,” Regina assured her. “My parents gave me the money, to them it’s just another expense of having a daughter. Like me going off to college, you know?”

 

“For real?”

 

“I promise,” Regina lied, as insistent on making Ruby believe her as she had been in telling Emma the actual truth. “You have the much harder job anyway: you have to make me look like the kind of girl everyone would want to dance with.”

 

“You’re pretty, Regina.”

 

“My mother says I carry myself like a man,” Regina countered, before slapping her hand over her mouth at the betrayal. She never spoke against Mother, because even away from home it felt like the walls might have ears. “I mean, my sister is the real lady in the family. I’m happier out in the mud.”

 

“Not in this,” Ruby smiled, rummaging in the flimsy closet and producing a dress redder than even the shiniest fire truck, sequinned detail splashed across what little material made the top. The skirt was fuller, and the petticoats sticking out of one of the bags would no doubt give the material the appropriate lift and shape to transform Regina’s silhouette into that of a dancer’s.

 

“Wow,” Regina breathed. “That is a killer dress.”

 

“I’ve been waiting for a chance to wear it. But it feels right that the first person to wear it is you.”

 

“You sure?”

 

“I am,” Ruby replied, motioning for Regina to lose her simple linen shirt. “But oh, honey, not with that bra.”

 

Regina looked down at her white lace one, by far the most grown-up of her limited collection. She felt her cheeks starting to burn, mentally kicking herself for not raiding Kathryn’s drawers too. Her sister might be a little smaller in the bust, but she had been diverting her pocket money for years and buying the items Mother disapproved of.

 

“I, uh, I didn’t really know what to wear,” Regina started to stammer, but Ruby placed a comforting hand on her shoulder.

 

“It’s a halterneck, anyway,” Ruby pointed out. “So you can go without. Works better for the dance, anyway. The only reason anyone wears clothes to mambo is to stop themselves getting arrested. You want it to feel like just one slip of a hand and--”

 

“I get it! I mean, okay. Right.”

 

“Here,” Ruby said. “Try it on, just to be sure. Then I’ll fix your hair and makeup. Won’t take long at all.”

 

“Thanks,” Regina said, but as she turned towards the screen in the corner that had the only privacy the room offered, she heard a tiny sob escape from Ruby. “Are you okay?”

 

“I’m scared,” Ruby confided. “But Neal said this guy is the best, and Emma thinks I should do it, so…”

 

“You don’t have to,” Regina reminded her, thinking of Emma’s confession the day before. “But Killian isn’t the kind of decent guy who’ll change his mind and stand by you. And you can do it alone, but probably not dancing and having this kind of freedom.”

 

“I thought he loved me… but you wouldn’t judge me? I mean, it’s a crime and all…”

 

“It shouldn’t be,” Regina answered firmly. “And maybe one day it won’t be. Most doctors certainly seem to think it’s making a crime out of something that can save a woman’s life. So, consider this just bad timing, maybe.”

 

“You’re smart, for a kid.”

 

“I’m not a kid anymore,” Regina reminded her. “Okay, here goes with the dress.”

 

***

 

The two hours after Ruby left were the longest of Regina’s life. Hiding out in the tiny room while all the dancers were teaching class and the restaurant kids were preparing for dinner, she fussed over her skirts and tried not to touch her hair or makeup. Every noise in the old building had her on edge, and visions of her mother storming in were all too easy to conjure. Eventually she distracted herself with a copy of Franny and Zooey that she unearthed on the floor beside the bed, and that killed at least some of the time.

 

The knock on the door startled her, and had it come a few seconds earlier she would still have been sipping from a glass of water. Soaked dress crisis averted, Regina scurried across the room to answer.

 

Emma stood there, checking her watch and tapping her foot. That foot was clad in strappy silver dancing heels that matched Regina’s own, but immediately above the ankle black tapered pants began, outlining the length and definition of Emma’s impossibly elegant legs. At the waist she had even included the cumberbund, red silk that matched almost exactly with Regina’s dress. That alone had Regina stunned into silence, but the crisp white shirt and tuxedo jacket were unrelenting. A red bowtie hung untied around Emma’s neck, framing the open collar of her shirt.

 

“You look--” Regina tried and floundered completely. The hair. No blonde waves or loose buns today, no. While Regina’s hair had been curled and sprayed and lifted into a style even Kathryn would struggle to achieve, Emma had slicked her hair back into a French braid, pinned at the nape of her neck instead of trailing down her back. Overall the effect was breathtaking, though Emma seemed not to know it as she looked Regina up and down over and over again.

 

“I’m gonna kill Ruby,” Emma breathed. “I told her to help you out, not turn you into… this.”

 

“You don’t like it?” Regina felt her stomach plummet in disappointment. After all this waiting, to be rejected by Emma’s perfectionism was just too much.

 

“No, that’s the problem,” Emma growled, taking Regina’s hand. “She’s made you up into a total fantasy. That’s gonna do wonders for my concentration, huh?”

 

“Oh,” Regina acknowledged, blushing. “Well, we did promise to get through this dance.”

 

“If I didn’t need the money, the only place we’d be going in my car would be the backseat,” Emma assured her. “I mean, I’m not assuming or anything. I just meant--”

 

“You can assume,” Regina murmured, leaning in close enough to smell the fresh soap and lightly spiced perfume Emma wore. “But not until we’re done with the Sheldrake. After all the work Ruby put into my outfit, there’s no way I’m letting her down now.”

 

They crossed the bridge in quick steps, and Emma lead the way to where she’d parked her car by the side of the exit road. Regina almost missed the words as Emma gunned the engine, but the look Emma gave her was unmistakable.

 

“You looked just as pretty before.”

 

***

 

When they arrived at the staff entrance, Regina was shocked at the noise of the kitchens and then of the staff room. The Sheldrake attracted wealthy guests from all over, far more so than Gold’s resort, and the emphasis here was on money, not family activity. Peeking into the auditorium, Regina saw furs and sparkling jewels at almost every neck, the tables around the stage seeming to go on forever.

 

This was no high school talent contest, she realized, swallowing hard.

 

“Don’t let the audience make you nervous,” Emma whispered from just behind her. “We’re ready Regina, I promise.”

 

Emma melted away then, chasing down a large man with a red face and bald head. They chatted in the hallway for a moment, before he sighed and pulled two envelopes from his pocket, handing them over to Emma with a wag of his finger. She smiled to his face and rolled her eyes as soon as she turned away, making Regina smile.

 

“We’re on after the comedian,” Emma groaned as she walked back over. “At least the audience will be desperate for some good entertainment by then.”

 

“I’m scared,” Regina confessed. Emma smiled for the briefest second, the annoyance from her conversation fading from her face. She looked around the space, seeing that they were alone, and pressed a quick kiss to Regina’s cheek.

 

“Nothing to be scared about. Whatever you do, I’m gonna catch you. Just remember that, okay?”

 

“Okay.”

 

***

 

As they stood in the wings of the stage, dark curtains brushing against her arm, Regina decided that it was absolutely not okay. Emma might be mad at first, but surely even she could understand why Regina absolutely could not do this insane dance. All those people. All those rich, important people that Mother would want Regina to make such a good impression on if they met in the city, and here Regina was going to dance for them like a paid attraction.

 

But as she opened her mouth to tell Emma, the voice booming out into the hall announced ‘Emma Swan and partner’, which made Regina’s knees go weak in an entirely different way. Clutching Emma’s hand, Regina was half-dragged into position, but as they stood silhouetted in soft blue light, center stage, it was officially too late to run.

 

Emma pulled their arms up high and twirled Regina once, and when her feet responded on instinct alone, Regina finally felt herself breathe. No need to think, thinking ruined it, right? Dancing was about emotion, and if she hadn’t believed that before the summer, she’d known the truth of it the second she’d seen Emma on the dancefloor. As sure as Regina had known that kissing Emma would be the best, most important kiss of her life so far, she’d seen Emma’s hips roll and known that dancing was something worth learning to do well.

 

The music sprang to life in front of them, and Regina realized they were dancing to a band instead of the familiar hiss and crackle of the record player. Perhaps she should have panicked at the change, but instead she felt a tiny bit safer, because surely if the conductor saw her struggling he would bring the music down a notch or two to help her? Only one way to find out, but before she could think about it again, Emma had grasped Regina’s waist and pulled her into position: both of them facing out into the filled room, Emma’s chest pressed against Regina’s back.

 

It felt different, in the formal clothes and with her hair twisted into stiff waves that barely moved even when she did. Emma squeezed gently, and murmured ‘relax’, letting her focus just in time to make the first count on cue. The spotlight blazed into life, hot and white and falling from the ceiling like an unexpected sunbeam, blinding Regina for just a moment.

 

One, two--Emma pulled Regina’s wrist up to her shoulder, and then traced down Regina’s side with her own hand. This time, it didn’t tickle--three, four. When those slow-moving fingers reached Regina’s hip, she knew every eye in the room was on her, and it felt fantastic.

 

Which, naturally, was the time for Emma to release Regina into the first choreographed spin, and when their grip held tight at the end of the move, Regina felt herself smile and actually mean it, not the rictus grin she’d been forcing her mouth into since they got in the car earlier. Emma spun her back in, and when Regina stumbled just slightly on impact, Emma’s hand was steadying. A momentary lift from Emma’s finger beneath Regina’s chin and they moved off again, separating and strutting to opposite sides of the black floor.

 

Moving on the two beat, hitting it every time, Regina could feel the laugh bubbling in her throat as she mirrored Emma’s actions. Regina danced her steps like she’d known them since the day she first learned to walk, swirling her skirt like a matador’s cape, and kept perfect time with Emma as they moved back on the stage to where they met once more, hands grasping and hips bumping in unison.

 

“You’re doing great,” Emma whispered, lips barely moving. “First lift,” she warned, and as they turned around in quick steps, Emma’s arms tensed and she lifted Regina to hip height, letting her do the splits in mid-air and be turned by Emma’s momentum alone. The collective catching of breath, followed by a murmur of approval and a more genuine round of applause than the one that first greeted them only made Regina feel even better. They were really going to pull it off.

 

They danced in smooth steps then, moving closer and pushing each other away as the routine demanded. Each time Emma seemed almost close enough to kiss, but Regina delighted in the temptation and denying herself. The ache was so pleasant she wished the dance would last another hour, but at the same time she wanted nothing more than a private room to kiss Emma to her heart’s content.

 

They moved side-by-side for the next section, Regina’s heels never touching the ground, Emma’s arm reassuring across her back. They executed their turn, and when Regina ducked under Emma’s outstretched arm on the next turn, it only messed up her hair a little. She grinned, remembering how the first rehearsal of the move had knocked her to the ground like she’d been taken out in a wrestling match.

 

The crossover swivel worked much better than the last practice session had left it, and Regina heaved another sigh of relief. Just a minute or two left to survive, and Emma hadn’t glared at her once. Of course, as she thought that, she blanked on the copa and had to improvise a few steps with a flick of her skirts, while Emma moved gracefully around her to be in the right position for the next turn and check.

 

“Almost there,” Emma said through gritted teeth. “Concentrate.”

 

Regina smiled out into the audience who were applauding every sequence now, the room buzzing with the beats of ‘De Todo Un Poco’ and the low hum of attention, all of it focused on the stage.

 

Yo quiero vivir, yo quiero reir
Y yo quiero sentir, pero de todo un poco

 

Regina heard the missing lyrics in her head. The smattering of Spanish Daddy had taught her as a child had made the words so familiar, but Mother preferred it not to be spoken around the house, so Regina had never learned it with any degree of fluency. The music swelled and she felt the reassuring pat on her ass from Emma because it meant only one thing: the overhead lift was almost upon them.

 

“Ready for the lift?” Emma muttered as they kicked and turned into position. Regina nodded and took her brisk steps away, trying not to notice how her legs felt heavier with every inch she covered. Turning, raising her arms, arching her back, she began the run up. Emma watched her, but without the look of encouragement Regina had come to expect the previous day.

 

At the last moment, Regina’s nerve failed her. She made a half-hearted attempt, but her feet refused to leave the ground. At Emma’s alarmed expression, Regina turned and improvised a few mismatched steps and a roll of her hips. Thankfully, Emma took hold of her hand and pulled her into continuing the routine.

 

“We’re okay,” Emma assured her. “Just keep going.”

 

“Sure?”

 

“Nearly there.”

 

Regina closed her eyes for a second and let the feeling of dread leave her, the familiar steps flowing once more as Emma led the way. Neal had been right about that: under Emma’s direction, Regina’s body knew exactly what to do. Only when left to her own devices did she spoil everything.

 

Moments later the band finished with a flourish, and safe in her finishing position, Regina almost collapsed against Emma in relief. They took their bows, an elaborate curtsey coming to Regina out of nowhere, and in dazed steps she let herself be guided into the wings. The applause was thunderous, so whatever else at least the audience hadn’t felt shortchanged.

 

“Nice job, Swan,” the bald man from earlier said. “You’ve had a good season.”

 

“Thanks,” she grumbled in return. “Not like you pay me what it’s worth anyway, you pig,” she added under her breath, making Regina giggle. “Hell, we never agreed on your cut, Regina.”

 

“My cut? I screwed up the lift. I should pay you for letting me on stage with you.”

 

“Come on,” Emma insisted. “Ruby will want to give you tonight’s money at least, she just didn’t want to lose the rest of the season.”

 

“I don’t need it,” Regina blurted, not least because it was true. The moment she did, Emma’s eyes hardened and the space between them grew from a few inches to half the room in the blink of an eye. “Emma, I meant--”

 

“I know what you meant. You said what you meant. You okay changing in the car? You brought your normal clothes, right?”

 

“Yes,” Regina sighed, feeling the adrenaline of the night start to slip away.

 

***

 

“Changing in the backseat?” Emma teased, their eyes meeting in the rearview mirror. It had been a long twenty minutes already, and although Regina had taken her time, she was now free of Ruby’s dress and back in her regular pants and shirt. “Not exactly the actions of a lady.”

 

“I can’t believe I chickened out on the lift. I don’t think anyone noticed,” Regina replied, wanting to be cold to Emma, but too desperate to talk about it all. “Do you think anyone noticed? They sure applauded like they thought we did it right.”

 

“No one noticed,” Emma confirmed, the smile reaching all the way to her eyes again. “You bring any cream to take all that facepaint off with?”

 

“No, but I’ll wash my face first chance I get,” Regina promised, hoping that if she didn’t mention money again Emma would drop it altogether. “I might have to go say goodnight to my parents, but maybe I can come by the staff party tonight? I feel like dancing all over again.”

 

“Oh, and you’ll do the lift this time?”

 

“Maybe I will.”

 

“Well, here we are,” Emma announced as they turned into the main parking lot. “Hey, is that Neal?”

 

“I think so,” Regina agreed, squinting through the windscreen. “He looks pretty frantic. You don’t think--”

 

Emma was out of the car practically before she finished braking.

 

“Is it Ruby?”

 

“Yeah,” Neal confirmed. “Emma, you gotta come see her. She’s in a bad way, man. A bad, bad way.”

 

Regina ran after them without being asked, crossing her fingers and praying that Neal was exaggerating. Waiting around the hospital for Mother after her shifts, Regina had seen one or two girls wheeled in, clutching their stomachs. There had always been a police officer following not far behind. The thought of that happening here made Regina’s stomach somersault. It was the same motion as her excitement at the start of the dance earlier, but this time it didn’t feel like a wave of butterflies, it felt like she was going to throw up on her shoes from sheer dread.

 

Ruby’s room was just as it had been before they left, only now the sparse furniture and messy floor were populated by concerned dancers, some offering up glasses of water and cool, damp towels, the rest chattering amongst themselves in concerned whispers. Emma pushed through to sit on the edge of Ruby’s bed, where Ruby herself lay writhing in agony, her face ghostly pale and her big eyes squeezed shut. Ignoring the beads of sweat on her forehead, Emma pressed a hand against the skin, eyes widening at the contact.

 

“Everybody out!” Emma yelled with unexpected authority. “I mean, you can stay close by, but Ruby needs space right now. You too, Daddy’s Boy,” she added, when Neal hung back.

 

“It wasn’t the same guy,” Neal tried to explain. “He just used the other doctor’s name. Wouldn’t let me come in and wait with her, not even the waiting room. And Em, I don’t think he even used the ether. I heard her screaming, but I couldn’t get in to help, I swear to God.”

 

“Rubes, what happened?” Emma asked gently, leaning closer to her friend and dance partner. Ruby rolled over and threw up off the edge of the bed. That was all it took for Regina to make up her mind.

 

Without a word, she pushed her way out and down the hallway, breaking into a run as she cleared the staircase. Nothing mattered, not the ache in her calves or the growing panic that she was about to make a huge mistake. She forced her feet, one in front of the other, as fast as her legs could carry her and her lungs would allow her, until she skidded to a stop on the cabin porch.

 

Daddy’s snores carried through the open window, and Regina considered one more time. Mother would be so angry, might even refuse to go unless Regina explained fully, but no matter the consequences, Ruby getting any sicker or maybe even dying was not an option.

 

Slipping through the screen door, Regina tiptoed up to the bed just as she had so many times at home. In the shadows, it could almost have been her parents’ old bedroom, right down to the ornate mirror on the wall and heavy blanket over the foot of the bed, even in the depths of summer.

 

“Mother,” Regina whispered, and in an instant Mother was alert, sitting and looking at Regina as though she’d never been asleep. “I need you to come. Someone’s very ill.”

 

“Let me grab a coat,” Mother whispered in return. “My bag, Regina.”

 

As Mother placed her elegant blue coat over her pajamas, Regina lifted the medical bag that sat on a chair right by the door, just like at home.

 

“We have to hurry,” Regina implored, and grateful that Mother hadn’t woken up enough to question, they jogged back across the grounds towards Ruby.

 

***

 

“Clear out,” Mother announced as they stepped onto the landing. “Whatever’s wrong doesn’t require an audience.”

 

Every dancer responded to her authority without question, far quicker than they had to Emma’s command. Regina was surprised to see Neal slip away with them, but she knew better than to call out at this point. Instead she nodded towards the open door and sighed in relief when Mother crossed the threshold to deal with Ruby. Whatever happened now, it would be worth the trouble no doubt coming later.

 

Regina hovered in the doorway, standing guard effectively as Mother nudged Emma aside and took her place on the bed.

 

“Oh dear,” Mother said, her work voice as calming as ever. “You’re having a bad night, aren’t you sweetheart? What happened to this girl?” She directed the question at Emma, who had shrunk back against the wall of the tiny bedroom.

 

“She uh, found herself in trouble,” Emma explained, wringing her hands. “There was this doctor, said he could take care of it.”

 

“You sent her? This was your plan?”

 

“Yeah,” Emma lied, taking the fall for Neal, much to Regina’s surprise. “I mean, I thought it was the best option for everyone.”

 

“Well, he almost killed her,” Mother snapped, fetching a vial from her bag and preparing a new needle. “I suppose you used my daughter to fund it? That’s why she came to me for more than $200?”

 

“I, uh--”

 

“Mother, no!” Regina protested from the door, but Mother didn’t even look around, tending to her patient instead.

 

“You,” Mother ordered Emma. “Get out in the hall. You stay out there too, Regina. Close the door.”

 

Emma did as she was told, head bowed and as meek as Regina had ever seen her. No conversation was attempted; with walls this thin Mother would surely hear every word. Ten minutes later, Mother stepped out, bag clutched in her hands.

 

“Doctor Mills, thank you so much,” Emma was falling over herself to express some gratitude, but Mother shrugged it off, reserving a withering glance for Regina instead. “If you think she still needs the hospital, I can drive her--”

 

“That shouldn’t be necessary, unless the bleeding starts over again. She should sleep more easily now, I’ve given her a shot. Find someone to stay with her until morning, but you’ve done enough damage for one lifetime.”

 

“I can stay.”

 

“Someone else,” Mother barked. “And I will check. Regina, come along. You’re going to wash that mess off your face and then it’s straight to bed, young lady.”

 

Neither Emma nor Regina protested the instructions, and Emma took off one way down the hall while Regina trudged after Mother, each step feeling like there was concrete in her shoes. Maybe this was what the walk to an execution felt like, Regina told herself, and it was almost impossible to remember that little more than an hour ago she had felt lighter than air as she danced around the Sheldrake stage with Emma.

 

“You lied to me,” Mother said finally, when they approached the clearing outside the cabin. Here they were sheltered from view of the path, but still not close enough to the building to wake Daddy or Kathryn. Regina felt the first prickle of fear at the base of her spine, but surely not here, not on vacation. “You looked me in the eye when you asked for that cash, and I asked if you were doing anything illegal.”

 

“Mother, I’m so sorry. I really was just trying to help someone else, I swear.”

 

“You stay away from that trashy blonde, do you hear me? We’ve worked too hard and come too far to be dragged back down by the likes of her.”

 

“Mother, she didn’t… it wasn’t like that. All anyone wanted to do was help Ruby.”

 

“These people aren’t normal, do you understand? They don’t belong in our world, and whatever depraved things they get up to is not our responsibility. And I have warned you about dragging yourself and our name down by consorting with the wrong kind of people, haven’t I?”

 

“I was just trying--”

 

“Just like I told you to stay away from that stable boy. Didn’t I, Regina?”

 

“Yes, Mother,” Regina conceded, bowing her head and clasping her hands in front of her. She gritted her teeth at the mention of Daniel, knowing that another outburst would shatter what fragile hope she had of making it to bed unscathed. “But Emma is a good person, I swear.”

 

Damn.

 

Regina opened her mouth to try and take back the display of insolence, but Mother’s slap met her jaw in the exact same moment. Despite knowing better, Regina cried out softly; it had been more than a glancing blow.

 

“You’ll blame that on whatever you’ve been doing with these hoodlums,” Mother warned. “Now, is there to be any more lying? Any more talking back?”

 

Regina shook her head. Her eyes were watering but she didn’t dare raise a hand to her stinging cheek or the tears starting to spill down it. Too often Mother took that as a complaint, or an attempt to hide from the discipline Regina so often required.

 

“I’m not sure you’ve learned your lesson,” Mother sighed, placing her bag carefully on the ground. “You know I don’t like to do this, sweetheart, but you dragged me from my bed in the middle of the night.” Regina didn’t have to look at her watch to know it was barely eleven. “I think it’s time I make sure you remember that just because you’re going off to college, it doesn’t mean you don’t obey my rules, hmm?”

 

“Mother, I’ll be good. I promise!”

 

“Oh yes, you will,” Mother agreed, her voice almost soothing. Regina could hear the glint of steely resolve in the words, though, and she braced as Mother picked a thick branch from the ground at her feet. “Turn around, Regina. Face that tree.”

 

Maybe it wouldn’t hurt so much this time, Regina tried to console herself. The cool air might make her numb. Or the adrenaline from the dancing and the panic might offer some protection, surely? But the branch made a familiar ‘whoosh’ as it split the air (just like the hairbrush, just like the belt) and the first crack over her shoulder blades made Regina cry out as it stung. She stifled the sobs quickly enough, but the second one carried more malice for her slip.

 

“I think ten,” Mother mused as the third blow landed, and Regina steeled herself for the rest.

 

***

 

The skin wasn’t broken, Regina noted with relief as she examined herself in front of the bathroom mirror. Kathryn was already asleep, actually obeying curfew for a change. At least the alibi Sidney had given Regina seemed to have held up: she’d convinced him to tell her family she’d been asked to join some important guests for a private dinner. Clearly Mother thought the consorting with the staff had come afterwards.

 

Debating whether to have a shower or just tumble into bed, it occurred to Regina that she did have another option. Somehow, Mother’s punishment hadn’t left Regina bowed and whimpering this time. Instead of sad and repentant, each whip of the branch had made Regina angrier and angrier. Only by focusing on other things (her reflection, wiping the makeup from her face) had she stopped from lashing out and waking her sister.

 

Mother knew from experience that Regina always behaved after a beating: always went straight to bed, never repeated the crime that caused the punishment, never dared to answer back or defend herself in any real way. Which was why Mother had gone straight back to her own bed when they were done, leaving Regina to take care of herself.

 

She could crawl under the sheets and hope sleep would come, Regina realized. She could stay in the bathroom all night checking in relief that no blood had spilled to ruin her shirt. Or… well, she could do the last thing anyone would expect of her. Just like she’d learned how to mambo, and finally kissed another girl, or given a near stranger money for an illegal procedure in the first place.

 

A choice, Regina thought as she looked at her freshly-scrubbed face in the mirror. After all this time she finally recognized a choice when she saw one. She flipped the light switch and peered out to make sure Kathryn was still fast asleep. The one benefit of this cabin was having their own door out onto the porch. Nobody would see her leave.

 

She eased the screen door open and stepped out into the still of the summer night. The staff house was worth considering, but Regina figured Emma had been suitably scared off by Mother.

 

Breaking into a jog, Regina headed instead for the boathouse; she'd wait there all night if she had to.

 

***

 

The lights were on upstairs and that was all the invitation Regina needed. Taking the shaky stairs two at a time, she bounded up into the space Emma called home for the summer, greeted by the crooning of Elvis and warm, yellow lamplight.

 

“Shouldn’t you be in bed?” Emma asked, lying on the floor with her eyes closed. “Mommy seemed pretty mad at you.” The mocking baby voice made Regina furious all over again, the marks on her back stinging louder as she tensed.

 

“My Mother just saved Ruby’s life.”

 

“You’re right,” Emma sighed, getting up off the floor with some reluctance. Regina noted the bottle in Emma’s hand, some kind of bourbon maybe. Emma took a careless swig from the bottle and winced as the liquid burned her throat on the way down. “I didn’t mean to talk bad about your mom,” she continued. “I mean, thank God she was there, right? What she did, and so calm, too… it was really something, Regina.”

 

“Yeah, something,” Regina agreed, biting back the spiteful comments she wanted to spit out for the first time.

 

“No, really,” Emma persisted, crossing the room in careful strides, offering the bottle to Regina, who snatched it without a second thought. She’d sampled the drinks in the liquor cabinet often enough, Kathryn had said they ought to so they didn’t look fools the first time someone offered them a drink at a party. Regina took a gulp without reacting, and Emma looked faintly impressed for a second.

 

“Thanks.”

 

“It was something, it really was. I mean… what could I have done to help Ruby? Except get her arrested.”

 

“We would have thought of something,” Regina assured her. “That was just quickest and we wanted to help, because she was in pain.”

 

“It’s times like this…” Emma trailed off, wandering towards the record player and trading Elvis for Peter, Paul and Mary. Regina smiled. It wasn’t music they could dance to, but it was something she actually owned.

 

“It’s times like this what?” Regina asked, moving past Emma and daring to sit on the end of the bed for the first time.

 

“I realize all my teachers and foster parents were on to something,” Emma finished. “I’m nothing, I mean worse than nothing, you know?”

 

“That’s not true.”

 

“Dancing isn’t worth a damn, not really. Helping sick people, that’s so much better than nothing.”

 

“But Emma,” Regina pleaded. “I can’t sit here and listen to you saying you’re nothing. I won’t. Because to some people you’re everything, don’t you get that?”

 

Emma scoffed, sitting on the chair beside the bed with a bone-weary thump. “I don’t think so, rich girl.”

 

“Emma,” Regina got off the bed and lowered herself to her knees in front of Emma’s chair. “Look at me.”

 

“What?” Emma grumbled, opening her eyes.

 

“We’re done with the dance. And Ruby is going to be okay. So you know what that means?”

 

“Nope.”

 

“It means you can kiss me. And I can be distracted. And we can do all the things you thought about when you mentioned the backseat of your car earlier.”

 

“Oh, really?” Emma sounded just a little breathless, eyes fixed on Regina now. She smiled in triumph. Mother couldn’t take this. Kathryn couldn’t spoil it. “I can kiss you, huh? Because some people think I’m everything?”

 

“If I count as some people, yes.”

 

“You definitely count,” Emma said, pressing her palms against Regina’s cheek for a moment. But instead of kissing her, Emma reached for the buttons of her white shirt and started undoing them, slowly and deliberately. “Done this before?”

 

Regina shook her head.

 

“No. But I think we can both agree I’m a quick study.”