"I honestly don't think I can take another bite," Robin says, leaning back from the table with a satisfied grin. "You have outdone yourself, milady. I don't know how you do it."
"Mom's got the magic of the season in her," Henry says with a broad smile of his own before wiping his face with his napkin. "Every single Christmas I can remember I've had this meal for Christmas Eve. It's one of our traditions, right, Mom?"
She feels five sets of eyes turn to study her at that. Part of her wants to hide from the scrutiny, but the larger part of her knows that this is her family, that they would never do anything to hurt her. She takes the time to meet each of their gazes, her own eyes burning with unshed tears. "Yes," she says, blushing as her voice cracks with emotion on that one word. Clearing her throat, she tries again. "Yes, Henry, this is a meal similar to those I had growing up for the Yule festivities. I had to make a few changes over the years, but I think it's pretty close."
Mal reaches over to squeeze Regina's hand briefly before lacing their fingers together. "I still can't figure out how you manage to crisp the skin on the turkey without the use of Dragonfire or magic. Your skills still impress me to this day, Kitten."
"Mal…" She can't keep the embarrassment from her tone, cheeks heating up again.
"No, Ma, she's right." Lily's voice comes from further down the table. "I grew up in this land, remember? And I survived by being a waitress and occasionally a short order cook. I've done the whole Thanksgiving and Christmas meal for work and you could kick the ass of every cook I've worked with."
"You said a naughty word, Lily!" Roland's scandalized tone makes everyone else at the table laugh. "You gotta put a quarter in the pony jar."
Lily's eyebrow rises in a perfect imitation of her mother. "It's a pony jar now? I thought it was for a bicycle?"
Before Roland can launch into a big explanation that she knows is coming, Regina reaches over with her free hand to comb through his curly hair. "Are you finished with your dinner, handsome, or did you save room for cookies and cocoa when we open our presents tonight?" When his eyes grow wide, she chuckles. "Are you telling me that you forgot about cookies and cocoa, my little knight? How can we make sure Father Yule will like them if we don't test them out first?"
"Father Yule?" Lily asks curiously. "Is that like the way some Europeans say Father Christmas instead of Santa?"
"Essentially," Regina replies. "When I was growing up, my father, grandfather, and uncles would all tell me stories about Father Yule. For many years when I was very little, I thought my grandfather was secretly Father Yule."
Robin chuckles at that, pushing his chair back. "Why don't we continue this after we clear the table, hmm?" He quirks a brow toward Roland. "There are little boys who need to make sure they get to bed on time so they get presents from Father Yule and his brother Santa instead of lumps of coal."
"I was a good boy, Papa!" Roland says with a pout. "I don't want no coal."
"Any coal, my little brownie," Mal says softly. "Remember?"
"I 'member, Sprinkles."
"I knew you would. Come on, let's take our plates into the kitchen. I think tonight is our turn to do the dishes." She grins mischievously at Roland. "I bet you and I can get the dishwasher all loaded and ready to run before Papa and Henry get the leftovers put up. What do you think?"
"Come on, Mal! We can beat Papa and Henry!"
Roland wiggles out of his chair and grabs for his plate and silverware, but stops at Regina's hand on his shoulder. "No running, Roland. That goes for you older three, too," she says, throwing a pointed look at her loves and Henry.
"Okay, Gina." Roland moves more slowly, giggling softly as Lily bumps shoulders with him when he passes her. "You still owe a quarter, Lily," he reminds her.
"I know, munchkin. I'll even put in an extra quarter because it's Christmas Eve and maybe I want Father Yule and Santa to bring me something nice in my stocking tonight, right?" He nods happily and heads into the kitchen as Lily and Regina both get up. "Nope, you sit your a-- butt down in that chair, Ma. You cooked this incredible feast, so that means the rest of us have clean up duty."
"Nope. Enjoy your wine and relax. When we're all done, you can show me the family secret cocoa recipe, okay?" Before Regina can do anything more than nod, Lily grins and grabs her dishes, stacking the two plates together. "Good." She leans over to kiss Regina's cheek and whisper, "I know you want everything perfect for the rest of us, but we want that for you, too. Stop worrying so much and just relax, Ma."
Regina watches as her daughter walks away into the kitchen. The sound of laughter wafts in as the door swings shut, finally letting the tears slip down her cheeks at just how good her life has become, but the holidays still are a contentious time for her. Lily is literally the last of her blood family in all the lands, and she feels the losses of her father, mother, and sister keenly. This is her second Christmas season since Zelena's death, and it hurts that she never actually got to spend any real time bonding with her sister. She forgave her mother for so many things, she knows she could've done the same for Zelena, but now she'll never have the chance.
"Love?" Robin asks, pulling her from her thoughts to blink up at him. "Regina, what's wrong?" She shakes her head, leaning into his touch as he cups her cheek to wipe away her tears with his thumb. "And if you tell me it's nothing, I'll know it to be a lie. And we both know that Father Yule and Santa don't bring gifts to people who lie on Christmas Eve."
Regina sighs softly. "It just hit me again that Lily's my last living blood relative, and explaining the family traditions to her is bringing back a lot of memories."
Robin shifts to take the seat Mal had occupied through dinner, hand still cupping her cheek. "Hey, it's okay. You're allowed to feel melancholy at this time of year. You have so much love in your heart, Regina, and I know what family means to you. Do you need some time for reflection tonight? I know you did that on Yule, but if you need more…"
She sighs and shifts to kiss his palm. "No, I think I'll be okay." They both hear Roland's excited giggles waft in from the kitchen. "You should get back in there, darling. It sounds like Henry's losing."
"He's doing that on purpose," Robin replies with a sheepish grin. "He told me that he's willing to let Roland win because he's the youngest, just like you always let him win when he was little."
That makes her chuckle softly. "Henry always did have an innate sense of fairness. I'm proud of him for making sure that Roland is having fun." She closes her eyes briefly, humming when she feels his forehead gently resting against hers. His fingers move back to card through her hair, cupping the back of her head and massaging at the muscles there. "Mmm, that feels good."
"I know. You're storing a lot of tension again, love, and that only leads to headaches that lay you up in bed for days on end." She sighs softly and works to regulate her breathing. "That's it, love. Breathe in peace, breathe out stress."
They sit there for a few minutes as Robin continues to massage her scalp and neck, occasionally rubbing the tip of her nose with his. Regina smiles as the tension starts to melt away, leaving a warm sensation suffusing her entire body. If he keeps it going, she could easily fall asleep on him. His knowing chuckle tells her that he knows exactly what he's doing, but she's powerless to stop him.
"Hey, Ma-- Oh!"
Regina starts to pull back to look at Lily, but Robin doesn't release his grip on her, keeping their foreheads together. "D-Do you need something, dear?"
"Nope, not a thing. You two just keep on doing what you're doing. We got this covered in the kitchen. And, uh, Pops, you owe me for teaming up with Henry to lose. I expect lots of booze once the boys go to bed."
Robin chuckles at that. "Maybe Father Yule will leave a bottle of something smoky and expensive in your stocking tonight."
"I'm okay with that. Do you need me to send Mom in? She's been eyeing the door this whole time, and frankly doing a shitty job of covering it up."
"No, it's okay," Regina says softly. "Just tell your mother that I'm okay. Actually, tell her that Robin's giving me back my fire. She'll understand."
"Okay, ew, I did not need the mental image that came up just now. But I'll tell her. We've probably got another fifteen or so before we're all done."
Regina nods as Lily heads back into the kitchen with more dishes and the gravy boat. She lets out another soft sigh, relaxing into Robin's touch again. He shifts slightly to brush his lips against hers once, twice, lingering a third time. It's soft, slow, sweet; a gentle meeting of lips to remind her that she is loved and not alone. The sting of tears burns in her eyes, but this is cathartic in its own way. Everything else in the house falls away into the background as Robin continues to kiss her, chasing away the melancholy thoughts that had been haunting her earlier.
By the time everyone is settled in the den with mugs of cocoa and a plate of cookies to share, Regina is feeling far less off-kilter. The fact that Mal distracts her with a heady kiss while Robin and Lily spike the cocoas of the four adults goes even further toward her sense of belonging again. She splutters out a laugh as she tastes the cinnamon schnapps in her cocoa, but lets the warmth suffuse her body.
"Gina, can we open presents now?" Roland asks, his words slightly muffled by the mouthful of cookie he's chewing.
"Roland, you know you shouldn't talk with your mouth full," she chides lightly. "Finish your cookie and wipe your face first." His sheepish giggle makes everyone laugh. "And since it's Lily's first Christmas Eve with us, I think it's only fair that she be the one to pick out which present we each get to open, since Roland got that honor last year for his first holiday with us."
Lily looks up from the mug in her hand to stare at her mother. "Wait. What's going on?"
"It's a tradition that the youngest or newest member of the family gets to pick the gift," Henry says. "When I was little, it was always my job to pick out the Christmas Eve present for me and Mom. Last year, Roland got to do it for us."
"Yeah, but I'm not the youngest, Hen."
"No," Robin replies from where he's stoking the fire, "but you're the newest member of the family, as it were, and that's the same thing. If you truly don't wish to do it, I'm quite sure your youngest brother would be more than happy to pick up the mantle again."
"No, I want to do it, but I think I'm gonna shake it up a bit in the order of who opens first." She pauses and glances at everyone. "Or is there a tradition to that, too?"
Regina smiles and snuggles into Mal's side. "It's entirely up to the person handing out the gifts. Christmas Morning is a different story. That goes in age order from youngest to oldest in turns until everything is opened."
"But Father Yule is different, right?" Roland asks softly, fear lacing his tone.
"The gifts from Father Yule and Santa come last, Roland, and you don't have to wait in turn to open them. It's just like we did it last year, remember?"
"I 'member, Gina." He turns to grin at Lily, dimples out in full. "You're my favoritest sister, Lily."
They all laugh at that, and Lily pulls him into her lap to tickle him. "I'm your only sister, munchkin."
"Favoritest!" he manages to get out between squeals of laughter.
"All right, you two," Mal says finally as Robin moves to sit on Regina's other side on the couch. "You can keep this up if you want. I mean, we can save the presents for tomorrow."
"No!" Roland cries out, squirming to get out of Lily's arms. "Presents, Lily! Presents!"
"You want to open presents, munchkin?" When he nods, she blows a raspberry on his cheek. "All right, then we need to open presents because there are some people here who need to get to bed on time so Father Yule and Santa can come, right?" Roland nods again and giggles. "Okay, munchkin, you sit by your brother and I'll find a present for someone to open."
Roland shifts to sit in his spot by Henry again, taking another drink of his cocoa as he waits. Lily shifts to study the brightly wrapped gifts under the tree. She grabs a medium-sized box wrapped in red paper with a green ribbon. Her lips curl up in a grin as she hands it to Henry.
"For me? Oh wow!" he says, looking at the tag. "It's from Mom, Mal, and Robin. It's heavy!"
Regina smiles and sips her cocoa, knowing exactly what this gift is. Lily had a hand in helping her decide on it, but didn't want any credit for it. Henry takes his time to unwrap it, eyes growing wider as the packaging reveals the gift inside.
"Oh my god! Mom, this is a Surface Pro 4! You said this was too much!"
She shrugs and winks at him. "Your sister and Mal made convincing arguments for the purchase. Your schoolwork is getting more intense, and if you like this, we can upgrade to the next model when it comes out."
Henry shifts to get up and makes his way to the couch, hugging all three of them tightly, saving Regina for last. "Thank you, guys. This is the greatest present! I can use it for some of my Author stuff maybe, right?"
"If the magic allows you to do it, then do it."
He settles back down, stroking the box lovingly, and Regina knows he won't be sleeping anytime soon. She also knows that he won't actually open it until all of the gifts have been handed out. Lily rummages around under the tree as Roland watches avidly. She leans back finally with two small boxes, handing one each to Roland and Henry.
"Lily," Regina says softly, "Henry already got his one gift for tonight. Those are the rules."
"I'm new to all this," Lily replies, a mischievous glint in her eyes that reminds Regina far too much of Mal, "and I refuse to follow that rule because I want my brothers to open this gift at the same time. It's special and it's from me."
Regina rolls her eyes affectionately. "You're trouble, young lady."
"Yes, I am. And now I'm gonna let my brothers open their gifts." She looks at her brothers. "Go ahead, guys. Roland, I want you to show me your awesome reading skills, okay?"
Roland looks at her curiously before reading the tag. "It says I'm your favoritest little brother!"
Henry snorts. "I'm your PITA brother? Wow! Thanks for that, Lil. I am so gonna get you back for that."
She smirks and shrugs. "I mean, if the shoe fits…"
Before either of them can say anything else, Roland tears the paper from his box to open it and pull out a small booklet. His face scrunches up in concentration. "Si-Sib, uh, Sibling She-Shenana-- Lily, what's a Sibling Banana?"
"Shenanigans," she says, using a finger to point out the letters as she repeats it.
"What's that mean?"
"Well, it means fun stuff that we can do that might get us in trouble with our grownups if we're not careful. But I promise that we can have fun and be careful at the same time, so don't even start with me, Ma," she says, grinning at Regina. "Why don't you look in the book and see what we can do, munchkin?"
Roland and Henry flip through their books, Henry and Lily helping Roland sound out some of the words as they go. It's all Regina can do not to cry at how her two older children are so good with the youngest. They start giggling about plans to go to the arcade and the movies, and then she watches as Henry's eyebrows shoot up nearly into his hairline as he flips another page. He glances over at Lily, who has a smug smirk on her face, then they both look down at Roland, waiting for him to turn the page.
"This en- entitles you to one free…" Roland's eyes grow round as saucers and his head snaps up to look at his sister. "Really?"
"Really," she replies. "Now read it out loud so our grownups know what it is, too."
Roland's smile is impossibly wide as he looks down again and reads the words confidently. "This entitles you to one free Dragonback ride."
"No." The word is out of Regina's mouth before she even recognizes the thought attached to it. In the next breath, all three of her children start protesting over each other.
"Ma, it's okay."
"No, Lily, Roland's too little for that."
Roland's lower lip pouts out. "But you said I'm a big boy, Gina."
Regina can see the glimmer of tears in his eyes, and it tugs at her heart. "You are a big boy, sweetheart, but when Lily and Mal are Dragons, they're very big and it can be scary."
"Are you telling me that you think Lily and I would intentionally scare Roland?" Mal asks. Her tone is curiously neutral, but Regina can hear the thread of offense in it. "You know how careful I am about human riders, Regina, and that was the first thing I taught Lily when she started shifting."
"No, I know, I just-- He's my little knight, Mal. I don't want him to get hurt."
"Ma, I swear I'll use the butt glue spell on both of my brothers and the stay safe bubble spell from the second they touch my back."
At that, Regina lets out a small snort of laughter, somewhat mollified. "That's not what your mother calls them, dear."
"No, but it's what they do," Lily replies, then grins. "Besides, it got you to laugh, so that makes this a good thing. I swear I won't let anything happen to either of them. I just wanted them to have something special that I can do as a big sister."
Robin is suspiciously quiet through all of this, and Regina turns to look at him. Another strangled sound that might be a snort of laughter escapes her at the blatantly jealous, wanton look on his face. "Why, Robin Locksley, are you jealous of your sons right now?"
He scowls and reluctantly nods, and if anyone was ever concerned about Roland's parentage, his pout proves it even more than the dimples. "I just--"
"Pops, I'll give you a ride if you want, but I'm guessing you'd rather Mom do it, right?" She waggles her brows at him, making both Robin and Regina blush hotly, all of which makes Mal and Henry laugh. Roland joins them in the laughter, but it's clear he doesn't understand the double entendre. When the laughter fades, Lily strokes Roland's hair. "Okay, munchkin, when our grownups say it's okay, I'll take you and Henry for your rides. You can do them separately or together, that's up to the two of you."
For the first time, Regina notes the slight fear in his dark eyes. "Can Henry go with me?" His voice is soft, and he bites his bottom lip, just like his father does.
"It's okay to be scared, buddy," Henry says, rubbing his back. "I'm a little nervous about it, too, but if we go together, we can feel safer, right?"
Roland nods and hugs Henry with a mumbled Thank you, Henry, then hugs Lily and thanks her for the gift. Regina shifts to kiss Robin, then Mal, in an attempt to hide the happy tears filling her eyes again.
"You're not fooling anyone with that tough girl routine, Kitten," Mal whispers, stroking her hair. "We know how big and soft that heart of yours is. We don't mind the tears at all."
"If the three of you are done with your mack fest over there, I'd like to get on with the gift opening," Lily says dryly, sounding more like Mal than Regina. At their embarrassed laughter, she grins and reaches for another box. "Damn, this thing is huge!"
"Quarter, Lily!" Roland says with a giggle muffled by his hand over his mouth.
She rolls her eyes with a grin and says, "I put in an extra one before, remember?" When he pouts and nods, she adds, "But I'll put in another one after presents are done, okay?" When he nods again, she shifts to lean toward Robin. "This one's for you, Pops."
Robin takes the box and shifts on the couch to straddle it across his lap. "It is heavy. What on earth?" He glances at the tag, then looks up past Regina to meet Mal's gaze. "Maleficent…"
"Just open it," she says softly, a slight catch in her voice.
Robin nods and removes the shiny green paper that matches one of his scarves. He licks his lips and lifts off the lid of the box, letting Regina take it from him as he pushes aside the paper and bubble wrap to stare with wide eyes at what's inside. "Mal, I--" With careful hands, he lifts out the beautifully designed and undoubtedly handcrafted recurve bow. It's clearly made from a single piece of a reddish-gold wood that looks like living flame, with a solid, chunky grip and arrow rest between the upper and lower limbs that his eyes are immediately drawn to.
"Oh, Papa, it's so pretty!"
Regina slides the box into her lap as Robin stands and pulls the string to test it, sighting along an imaginary arrow shaft toward a spot across the room. He shifts his stance a couple of times, drawing the bow in each new position. Satisfied with how it feels in his hands, he sits again and strokes the wood lovingly.
"I know you love the bow you have, but when Regina gave you those golden-tipped arrows, I knew you needed something more updated, more modern, but with the feel of what you'd used in the old lands. I've been working with Marco on this for the better part of a year now to perfect the design with the wood used. I found this Madrona burl online from a place out in Washington State and had it shipped to Marco to work with. He did say that he can adjust it a bit more if the balance or fit is off for you. Normally he would have had you there to test it along the way, but I wanted this to be a surprise. John and Will helped with some of the details that I didn't know."
"Mal, I-I don't know what to say. Thank you doesn't seem enough."
She leans across Regina to touch his arm. "The look on your face, the reverence in your touch and tone, that's thanks enough. My only request is that I be there the first time you use it, even if you're just going to do some target practice."
"Yes, of course! I'd have it no other way. In fact, if you don't mind, I'd like to invite Marco along, so he can see the fruits of his labor in action."
Mal's smile grows bright, and she blinks back tears. "I think he'd like that very much."
"Oh, just kiss him, Mal," Regina mutters, leaning back a bit more with a chuckle to give them room. It warms her heart to see her two dearest loves so in tune with each other. Their kiss is brief, but not without its own level of intensity that makes her squirm slightly. When they pull back, Robin carefully returning the bow to the box, Mal leans over to stroke Regina's cheek before dropping a teasing kiss to her lips.
"Can we please not totally traumatize me on my first family Christmas?" Lily asks.
Regina splutters out a laugh at that, breaking the kiss with Mal. "Sorry, dear, but can you blame us for showing affection for our whole family? Now how about that next present? I believe it's down to you, me, and your mother."
Lily rolls her eyes and turns to grab a small box wrapped in shiny purple paper with a black ribbon. She blinks as she reads the name on it. "This is for me from Mom." She shakes the box and frowns, then shrugs and opens it. Pulling out several layers of tissue paper, she chuckles. "Clever, Mom." And then she sucks in a breath and pulls out a delicate pewter and amethyst rattle. "Mom?"
"When we first met and I showed you that rattle, you didn't seem all that interested in it or me. It hurt, but I understood where your anger was coming from. With time, our relationship has changed and grown so much better than I ever hoped it could. It felt right that you finally have this first gift I ever got for you."
Lily shifts to get to her feet, moving to hug Maleficent tightly, the rattle clutched in her hand. Regina can hear them whispering and sniffling, and she just rubs both of their backs in an attempt to calm them. When Lily pulls her into the hug, she willingly joins them, always grateful when they include her. It takes a moment or two before the tears slow and Lily leans back with a sheepish smile to murmur, "Sorry."
"Don't apologize, sweetheart," Mal replies, a slight warble to her voice, then kisses Lily's cheek. "Merry Christmas, Lily."
Lily repeats the sentiment before heading back to her spot by the tree. She takes a long swallow of her cocoa, lets out a deep breath, then reaches in for another box. It's a little bigger than a sweater box and wrapped in red and white striped paper. "Hey, munchkin, why don't you take this over to Mom?"
"Okay," he says brightly and takes the box from her. As he walks over to Mal, he reads the tag and giggles. "This one's from me and Henry, Sprinkles!"
"It is?" she asks, taking the box. "Why don't you help me unwrap it, hmm?"
Roland climbs up in her lap to help her unwrap the box, letting her keep the tag. Once the paper is gone, she lifts up the lid to see a packaged kite. The picture on the front of the package shows a large dragon-shaped kite. It makes Mal laugh loudly.
"Do you like it, Sprinkles? Me and Henry saw it online and he buyed it."
"He bought it, my brownie boy," she replies and kisses his cheek. "And I absolutely love it. Thank you both for this awesome present. This spring, when it's nice out, the three of us will take this kite to the beach and see how it flies. How does that sound?"
"You mean it?"
"I do! Maybe we can make a whole day of it and bring the whole family with us. I bet we could talk Regina into making a yummy picnic lunch for us."
Roland glances over at Regina with his big eyes and bigger dimples. "Please, Gina? Can we do that?"
"As soon as it gets warm and sunny enough, we will, Roland, I promise."
Roland giggles and snuggles into Mal's lap more, but Regina catches it when he yawns and scrubs at his eyes. Mal winks at her, setting aside the kite and its box to wrap her arms around Roland. "I think we're just left with one more present to open, Roland. Do you know whose it is?"
"Gina's turn," he says with another yawn. "What's she gonna open?"
"Well, I'm not sure, my little brownie, but I bet Lily will pick out something nice for her."
Regina catches the not-so-subtle wink Mal throws at their daughter, then notices how everyone else suddenly sits up straighter and leans in, a kind of electric anticipation in the air. She wants to blame the schnapps in her cocoa for this sensation, but she's not entirely sure. Lily takes her time under the tree, muttering everyone else's name as she picks up and discards each package. Regina knows there are a lot of presents for the others under the tree, but it feels odd that Lily can't find anything with her name on it.
"Aha!" she says, pulling out a long, flat box wrapped in shiny black and purple striped paper with a blood red ribbon and bow. "Found one for Ma!"
She shifts to hand the box to Regina with a warm smile. The box is heavier than she expected, especially for its size. She glances at the tag, startled to see that it's from all five members of her family, and her vision goes blurry from the tears already building. "What did you all do?" she asks, voice husky with emotion.
"Just open it, love," Robin says, rubbing her back gently.
Regina takes a deep breath as she removes the tag bearing all of their signatures on it, intending to keep it, then strokes the ribbon and bow before pulling them off and setting them aside. She hears a soft, knowing snicker from Henry, and her lips curl up into a smirk as she glances over at him. "You shush, young man. You know better than anyone here how I am." At Mal's soft cough, she flushes hotly. "Okay, fine, Mal actually knows it better than you do, Henry."
He laughs softly. "Mom, this is not my first rodeo, but maybe you and Mal should've warned Lily about your sentimental hoarding status before now?"
Mal nearly chokes on her laughter at that, and Regina feels her cheeks heat up even as she joins in. "Oh, Henry, that may have cost you Father Yule gifts," Mal says when she can finally speak again.
He simply shrugs and grins, looking every bit as mischievous as Regina as he says, "Worth it."
Regina shakes her head. "You're growing up too damned fast, Henry Daniel Mills." Roland's gasp alerts her to the slipped swear and she turns to look at him, stroking his cheek. "I know, handsome. I'll put a whole dollar in the pony jar for that."
When he snuggles back into Mal's chest, she turns her attention back to the package in her lap. Taking a deep breath, she carefully unwraps the paper from the box and lifts the lid off to find an envelope with her name on it in Robin's distinctive script lying atop a bed of tissue paper. Quirking a brow at him, and receiving only a smile in return, she opens the envelope to pull out the small piece of vellum within.
My darling Regina,
This gift is but a preview of your full gift which is not yet fully completed. Maleficent and I began planning this gift a little over a year ago after the idea came to me in one of our late night discussions as you slept between us. Lily and the boys chose to get involved, as well as a few others who chose to remain anonymous at the present moment.
You have the deepest reserves of love and affection within you, willing to sacrifice your own comfort and happiness for those you cherish most. This gift is our way of reminding you that your happiness matters every bit as much as ours does, perhaps more so, and also to show you all the little ways in which you make our lives more complete by being in them.
Your full gift will be given to you on New Year's Day, once it's been completed. For now, please accept this small sampling of what is to come.
We love you, Regina, now and always,
Robin, Maleficent, Lily, Henry, and Roland
Regina looks up from the letter to blink furiously past the tears filling her eyes. She turns to Robin first and kisses him, murmuring Thank you against his lips, then repeats the same with Maleficent. Roland gets a kiss to his forehead and a thank you. Before she can get up to do the same to her older two children, they're suddenly in front of her to accept their own kisses to the forehead.
"You all planned this, didn't you?" she asks, eyes landing on each of them again. "Right down to me having the last gift tonight?"
"Open the rest of your gift, Ma," Lily says softly, clearing her throat against her own emotions.
Regina nods slowly and takes the box back from Robin, who somehow slipped it from her lap in her attempt to offer thanks to her children. Slipping the sheet of vellum back in its envelope, she hands it to Robin to set aside with the tag, then peels back the tissue paper to see a series of clear photo frames with pieces of tissue paper between them. Curious, she picks up the first one and smiles instantly at the sight of Roland's messy printed words and pictures on the paper inside the frame.
Mal, Papa, Henry
And Gina make our fam'ly
I'm a lucky boy
P.S. I forgetted Lily! I'm sorry!
"Roland, did you write this all by yourself?" she asks, turning to comb her fingers through his hair.
"Uh-huh," he says with a big, sleepy smile. "Henry helped me with it and wrote down the words first, so I could copy them by myself." His smile falters briefly as he glances at Lily. "I feel bad 'cause I forgetted Lily at first, but I made sure to add her in."
"It's okay, munchkin," Lily says with a chuckle. "I know you didn't do it on purpose."
Regina leans in to give Roland an Eskimo kiss. "I love this poem, Roland, and that you got to help with this present for me. This is the best present I could ever ask for from you and the rest of our family. I love you, handsome."
"Welcome, Gina," he replies and yawns, then giggles. "Love you, too."
She strokes his cheek with a fond smile, then returns to the box in her lap. Setting Roland's poem aside, she lifts out the next one, recognizing Henry's handwriting. Part of her is surprised it's not written in what they've dubbed "The Author font", but then again, this technically isn't something that would require that particular magic, is it?
"A Mother's Love"
A mother's love is never wasted,
It grows by leaps and bounds with every breath she takes.
Like the gravy we made from the turkey we basted,
A mother's love is never wasted.
All of the pasta on paper that I pasted
Bear witness to the emotion in her eyes that overtakes.
A mother's love is never wasted,
It grows by leaps and bounds with every breath she takes.
Daily she promised me the moon and stars,
Even when I was mean to her and didn't deserve it.
And even with Robin, Roland, Mal, and Lily joining this family of ours,
Daily she promised me the moon and stars.
The Author's powers allow me to record our memoirs,
Everything good and bad of our lives one day I will have writ.
Daily she promised me the moon and stars,
Even when I was mean to her and didn't deserve it.
"Oh my gods," Regina whispers as she finishes his poem, hiccupping out a sob. "Henry…"
His name is barely out of her mouth and she feels his arms wrap around her in a tight hug. She belatedly realizes that the coffee table has been moved so that Henry and Lily can kneel on the floor in front of the couch. He murmurs something in her ear, but she's crying too hard to actually understand it. She can feel Robin and Maleficent's hands on her back, as well, silently offering the support they know she needs. Finally, she pulls back to cup Henry's face in her hands.
"You are the greatest gift I have ever received in my entire life, Henry. I love our family, but it was you and your love and support that truly made me see the good in myself again and made me want to fight to get it back. This poem of yours is so beautiful. Thank you for the poem and for just being such an incredible young man. I love you so much."
"I love you, too, Mom. I meant every word of that poem. You are the best mom I could ever want."
"You know I love Ma, too, and we have our own relationship, but this is different. You've always been there for me, no matter what, even when I was a real tool. Especially when I was a really selfish, spoiled little sh-- tool." He blushes as Lily snorts out a laugh at the near-slip.
"Nice save, punk," she mutters.
"Sorry, Ma, couldn't help it. Please continue." She offers an angelic smile that is completely ruined by the twinkle in her eyes.
"I swear, you two really could be siblings," Regina says, kissing Henry's forehead again.
"Read Lily's poem next, Mom," Henry says with a smirk. "Then you can shower her with all this mushy lovey-dovey stuff that she just looooves so much."
"I am so gonna get you for that, punk," Lily growls, but Regina can hear the affection her tone.
"All right, you two, that's enough," Mal says with a chuckle. "Let your mother get back to her gift."
Regina hands off Henry's poem to Robin in order to pick up Lily's. The angular lines of her handwriting remind Regina of her own grandfather's penmanship, and she reminds herself to go back through her vault to see what she has of his. Lily, in particular, should have something of her great-grandfather's. Her eyes scan the lines of Lily's poem, taken in by the shape they create on the page.
Once I was meant to be a princess,
A magical Dragon princess,
Daughter to two fierce witches.
But Fate had other plans,
Robbed my family
For thirty years
Of much love
It taught me strength
I needed to be found,
Returned to my family of
Two moms, two brothers, and a step-dad.
She swallows thickly and strokes the Lucite frame over the poem. "Has your mother read this?"
"Oh yeah, she has. She and Pops wrapped this, so they saw it all," Lily says with a nod, which Regina repeats with a smile.
"Good. Otherwise, I was going to make her read it now. I know you weren't born into that land, but you would definitely have been our princess if you had. You had a hard journey to get to your family, but you're here and we are not going to let you get separated like that ever again."
"Even if I did wander away, I know where home is, Ma," Lily says, leaning in to hug her tightly. "I've never felt as at home as I do with all of you."
That just gets Regina to cry harder, and Lily murmurs something in Dragonish to try to calm her. The similarities to her Dragon mother hit Regina even harder, and she clings to her daughter for a few more moments before she feels steady enough to continue. She whispers I love you in Dragonish to Lily before kissing her cheek and leaning back again.
"Bet you're glad I insisted on the waterproof mascara this morning, aren't you, Kitten?" Mal asks, offering a bit of levity to the moment, as she poofs up a tissue for Regina.
"Oh gods, yes. Thank you, my darling." Regina dabs at her face with the tissue, tucking it into her sleeve when she feels she's saved what she can of her makeup at this point. Letting out a deep breath, she swaps out the poem for the next in the box. She is startled to see Maleficent's precisely looped penmanship. "And here I thought this was done in order of age and I'd be getting Robin's poem next," she says with a wink for her blonde lover.
Mal rolls her eyes and shakes her head. "We discussed doing that, but this really was Robin's idea and I thought it would be better than you get his poem last. You know how much I love you and what you mean to me, but he is your soulmate."
"No, Robin, let me finish," she says, cutting him off. "I know the place I hold in Regina's heart and in yours, but your soulmate bond helped to break the bonds she had on her heart for romantic love after everything that happened in the old lands. If it hadn't been for you two finding each other and embracing love during that fateful year, I'm not sure that my resurrection would've had quite the same impact. I am grateful to you for that, for opening her heart to the possibility of a proper reconciliation for us and our daughter."
"Fuck," Regina barely whispers at Mal's speech. She glances over at Roland, wondering why he's not jumping at her swearing, only to find that he's peacefully passed out in Mal's lap. "I need to put more money in the pony jar for that, even if he didn't hear it. But how am I supposed to read either of your poems now without completely falling apart?"
"Just read them, Kitten. We knew when we started planning this project a year ago that you would be emotional. We're prepared for it, all of us are, even the kids." She smirks and glances down at the boy sleeping in her lap. "Well, maybe Roland's not, but we figured he might not make it all the way to the end, so he got to go first."
Regina nods and cups Mal's cheek briefly before taking a breath as she turns to the frame in her hand. "Okay, I can do this."
"My Little Queen"
The first time I saw my little queen, I knew she would linger
In this ancient heart of mine. My isolation did bring her
Into a world so dark and depraved, it chased away the light,
Leaving behind a landscape devoid of goodness, pure and bright.
She barreled right in and took charge, pushing and taunting until
The Dragon awoke from her depressed slumber, ready to kill
This interloper who thought she knew what I needed, and still
In no time at all, she had us wrapped 'round her little finger.
A whirlwind tryst ever deepening, our love took wing in flight,
And though I lost her for a time, now our hearts' desires fulfill.
She reads the words that Mal has written twice through before she can really respond. She hugs the frame to her chest for a moment, glancing up at Lily's face to see both herself and Maleficent so prominently there, the product of the love they once shared and now do again with Robin. She turns to look at Mal, blindly handing the frame to Robin as she leans into the kiss they both need. So much pain and love have defined their lives and their loves, but she knows that they were able to rise above the darkness to find this love that they both needed. Both murmur softly in Dragonish between kisses, soft reassurances that there are no hard feelings between them over past issues. Only when Roland stirs slightly in Mal's arms do they pull apart.
"Thank you, Maleficent, for still believing that I had love in my darkened heart, even when I was sure I could never. I am eternally grateful to have you in my life and my heart again. I love you more than words can say."
"I love you, too, Kitten." Mal kisses her sweetly. "I'm not going anywhere. You're stuck with me for eternity, I'm afraid."
"I don't see any reason for you to apologize for that. I'm more than willing…" She blushes as Lily clears her throat again, rolling her eyes. "And apparently we're traumatizing our daughter again."
"I suppose that means it's time for me to read Robin's poem, so you can explain exactly what the main gift is?" When Mal nods, Regina repeats the gesture and blows out a breath as she turns to face her soulmate. "All right, my love, I think I'm as ready as I'll ever be for your poem. You're going to make me cry, aren't you?"
"Probably," he replies, biting at his bottom lip briefly. "But that seems only fair since the rest of the family's already had their chance to do so, yeah?"
She nods and strokes his cheek briefly before reaching into the box for the last frame. His highborn background shows in the precise lines and loops of his handwriting, but she can see the places where it deviates from what was always expected of him, and somehow that makes her heart skip a beat.
"The Evolution of Soulmates"
She walks in beauty,
Or so Lord Byron once penned.
In my soulmate's case, his words ring true.
She doesn't believe she's earned this love,
This happiness that bubbles beneath the surface
Like the frothiest effervescence
That floats atop the coffee in her cup
In a kind of culinary magic that defies all sense.
The first time I met her,
I knew that my life would never be the same.
She was stubborn and bore a fire deep within
That made me want to coax it out over and over,
Just to see the fire burn hot in her eyes.
It brought out an inner beauty that I cannot forget.
Her fierce need to protect my son from the start
Was why I first fell in love with that fiery brunette.
She fought her attraction, I know that now,
But at the time, I felt she was utterly insufferable.
And yet, still I continued to poke at her prickly edges
In an attempt to find out what made her smile.
I wanted to find her vulnerability, her soft underbelly
That she was always so adamant to protect.
Who knew it would take my son's sweet innocence
To bring out the softer side she doesn't want anyone to detect?
My love for my soulmate grew daily,
And included the handsome son she thought lost forever.
Things weren't always easy for the two of us,
But every hard-won connection between us has been worth it.
Now our family has expanded to include
My son, her son, our Dragon, and their daughter.
There is nothing that our love cannot overcome,
And I cherish every single smile that our love has brought her.
Regina can feel her heart bursting at the seams with the love straining to get out at his words. She can barely see by the end of his poem, the tears are coming so hard. She feels someone taking the frame from her hands, the box from her lap, and then she's enveloped in the strong embrace of her soulmate. She clings to his shirt, face buried in the side of his neck as she cries. She can feel his heartbeat under her hand, hears the low rumble of his whispered words, but she couldn't make out what he's saying if her life depended on it. She has no idea how much time passes like this, but the sudden sensation of Mal's much warmer body surrounding her from behind is like a balm on her soul. She feels utterly safe in the arms of these two loves of her life that know about her lowest and darkest moments, but still love her unconditionally. Mal's voice joins Robin's in reassuring her while she sobs, and soon enough Lily and Henry's voices join in.
When she finally feels utterly spent, like she can't possibly shed another tear, Regina presses a tender kiss to the side of Robin's neck and forces herself to release her death grip on his Henley. Her hands feel cramped and it feels like forever before they'll completely straighten out against his chest. She sniffles and closes her burning eyes, breathing slowly in time with him as his heartbeat soothes her even more.
"How are you feeling, love?" Robin asks softly when she sighs.
"Tired," she rasps out, coughing slightly. A straw suddenly bumps against her lips and she sips at the cool water, grateful for how it feels going down her throat. When she's drunk her fill, she pushes the bottle away again. "Th-Thank you."
"You're quite welcome, love," Robin replies, stroking her cheek.
She can feel Mal shifting to lean back and snakes out her hand to reach for her, relaxing again when Mal squeezes back. "It's okay, Kitten, I'm not going anywhere. Just giving you room to sit up if you want."
Regina does just that, moving slowly as she rubs at her eyes. It takes a moment to realize that Roland's not with them. "Where's Roland?"
"I took the munchkin up to bed," Lily says. "He's all tucked in with his monkey. He barely stirred at all, he was so tired. I'm sure he'll be out for a while."
"Thank you, sweetheart."
"Henry and I are gonna clean up the trash and dishes here, so you three can have a few minutes to yourselves."
"Lily, you don't have to."
"It's okay, Ma. We'll be back before we turn in for the night. You three need some time, and we get it. Let us do this, okay?"
Regina nods and watches the two of them pick everything up and head out of the den. She sighs softly as she looks between Robin and Mal, grateful to see that both have red-rimmed eyes from shedding tears of their own. "So…" She winces as her voice cracks on that one word, easily taking the bottle of water again to drink some more. "So that was quite a poem, Robin," she says with a soft chuckle. "Yours, too, Mal. Everyone's poem was wonderful. You all had such different styles."
"Henry had something to do with that actually," Mal says with a grin. "He found a website with all sorts of poem forms. I must have scoured that site for days before I wrote the first draft of my poem for you."
Mal attempts a nonchalant shrug. "You know how much of a perfectionist I can be. I hadn't even read any of the other poems until we started putting this project together for you."
"So what exactly were these poems a preview of?" Regina asks softly, cheeks flushing in embarrassment. "I kind of lost track of myself before I could find out."
Robin strokes her hair, cupping the back of her skull to massage lightly. "Well, your gift is going to be a book of poetry written mostly by Maleficent and me, but the kids and a few other people who shall remain nameless for now helped out. We started the project on New Year's Day of this year and have been painstakingly and lovingly writing you a poem each and every day of this year. That's why we can't give you the actual gift yet. It's not completed, and won't be until the last day of the year."
"This has been a labor of love, but as I said in my letter to you, you deserve to see the love and joy you bring to this family each and every day. You are important to us, Regina, and we want you to have a physical token of that for years to come."
"And when you get the book, you are absolutely not allowed to read it all in one go," Mal says, jumping into the conversation again. "You are allowed one poem per day, that's it. I have a spell going on the book that will only allow you that one poem each day, too, because I know how you can be, Kitten."
Regina blushes hotly again and ducks her head with a pout. "I'm not that bad."
"Regardless, the spell is going to be in place and only I will be able to remove it. It's your choice when you read your poem each day, but we were kind of hoping you'd pick the same time each day and maybe make it a kind of meditative process for yourself."
Regina looks between the two of them, sees the love and veracity in their eyes at these words. She lets her eyes wander to the stack of poems on the restored coffee table and considers the request for a moment. "I think I'd like to do that." She smiles at both of them. "You really wrote a poem every day?"
"We did. Mal and I took turns. When Lily and Henry heard us discussing it one evening while you were in a late meeting, they asked if they could be involved. Henry even went so far as to create a program on his computer to help us all keep track of the dates we had, because they each had specific days they requested for their own reasons. And then Roland wanted to help out, of course, because he likes to be involved, and Snow heard about it from him one weekend when she watched him so we could have a weekend away, as it were."
"Snow has poems in there?" Regina can't hide the incredulity and wonder in her tone. "She wanted to be involved?"
Mal snorts softly. "She tried to take over. I may or may not have growled at her and threatened to shift and eat her if she didn't behave."
The loud guffaw of laughter explodes out of Regina before she even registers it coming. "You did not do that!"
"Oh yes, she did," Robin replies with a laugh. "I've never seen her shut up faster in my entire life. Even David agreed with Mal."
"I actually kissed him for that, you know," Mal says with a devious smirk. "Might have slipped him a little tongue just to be a brat, not that he'll say anything about it. You know, he's not that bad of a kisser."
Regina lets out a giggle at that. "Actually, you're right."
"What's this now?"
She grins at Robin. "I kissed him once when I had him in my dungeon. I was trying to get him to fall in love with me as a way to ruin Snow's life at the time. It clearly didn't work." She wrinkles up her nose. "Oh! And then I tried to seduce him during the curse, after he'd woken up from his coma. That was a two-fer. I was afraid that if he and Snow got too close while cursed, their True Love's Kiss could break my curse. And…"
"And? Come on, Kitten, you can't leave it there."
"And I was lonely," she finally says. "Henry had pulled away from me almost completely, no one in town gave a damn about me, and I felt guilty as hell for what I'd done to you, Mal. I hoped he could change that. I should've known better. But he was definitely a good kisser." She sighs softly, and picks at nonexistent lint on her pants. "I really should apologize to both of them for that."
"You weren't exactly yourself then, love," Robin says softly, stroking her cheek. "I'm sure they both understand."
Regina nods and is quiet for a moment, reflecting on the changes in her life over the last handful of years. "So, have you two read all of the poems in the book?"
"I've skimmed over them as I've been working with Henry to put the book together," Mal says. "Of course, I know my own, and we've all helped Roland with his. You're going to like those."
"Maleficent!" Robin says with a frown. "No spoilers on her gift."
"That wasn't a spoiler, Robin, because she loves every gift that comes from the little brownie boy, just like she did with Henry when he grew up. I may have been trapped beneath the clock tower and library in my Dragon form, but I know how our girl is with those she loves unconditionally."
"Mal, I never knew…"
"I know you didn't, and I don't hold it against you. We've been through this, Regina, and it's in the past. You needed to truly hit your rock bottom and find yourself looking up at a world of hope before you could really see past your own pain and need for vengeance. But when you finally did, and worked to pull yourself up out of that deep pit of self-loathing, you blossomed into the most beautiful thing I've ever seen. When you let love guide you, you are incandescent, Kitten, and I am so grateful and honored to be a part of your life again."
Regina feels the sting of tears again. "Oh, Maleficent, I am so sorry that you ever weren't part of my life. I love you and need you in my life." She smiles and kisses Mal gently, pouring all of her emotions into it, grateful when Mal returns it.
"I love you, Kitten. Never, ever doubt the depth of my love for you."
"I won't." She turns to look at her soulmate for a moment. "And you, Robin, I love and need you in my life, too. And all of our children. You all make me feel at home in my own skin and my own soul."
"I love you, as well, my love," Robin replies, leaning in to offer her a kiss like she'd just shared with Mal.
The two of them and their love settle her again, a kind of expansive peace sinking into the marrow of her bones, writing itself into her DNA. She knows without a doubt that this is the life she always dreamed of, this love that encompasses her entirely and without ceasing. Her maternal instinct senses it when Henry and Lily linger just outside the doorway, and she breaks off the kiss with a soft chuckle.
"You two can come in, you know," she says, eyes still on Robin's. "This is entirely PG and safe for even Roland's eyes if he were up."
She watches the two of them coming into the room. The exhaustion is starting to show more obviously in how Henry holds himself, but she can see it around Lily's eyes, too. Clearly tonight has been more emotionally charged for all of her family, not just herself. She holds out her hands to both of them, grateful when they each take one and squeeze it. She wants to envelop them both in a tight hug and never let go. She wants to return to Henry's childhood and raise him with all the love and lightness in her heart now. She wants to go back and stop Snow and Charming from what they did to Maleficent and Lily all those years ago, wants the opportunity to raise their daughter. But she knows that doing any of those things changes the person she is and the life she has now, not to mention the ripple effect of changing everyone else around her, including those that mean the most to her. And so she purposely shoves those What ifs back into the box where they belong and chooses to live in the present, warts and all.
"You both look tired. I think we should all retire for the night. Roland will likely have us up at the crack of dawn to open presents."
"You lot go on up to bed," Robin says, "and I'll get out the Father Yule and Santa gifts before I head up."
Lily shakes her head. "Nope, sorry, Pops. You and my moms are going up to bed now. You've had an emotional night and you all need to regroup in the privacy of your bedroom." She makes a face then. "Just please erect that silencing spell, okay? Henry and I do not need to be traumatized tonight."
Regina blushes hotly, remembering that Lily actually has her mother's acute Dragon hearing, as well, and has been subjected to more things that she never should experience, thanks to her three parents. "It'll be taken care of, sweetheart, not that I expect we'll do much more than sleep tonight. I'm rather wrung out emotionally in all the best ways possible."
Robin nods and chuckles as Maleficent lets out a loud yawn. "What she said. Well, both of them actually. Sleep is definitely high on my list right now."
"Then it's settled," Henry says with a tired grin. "You three head up to bed, do your showers or whatever else you need to do, then get some sleep. Lily and I already decided that we're gonna make breakfast in the morning with Roland, maybe let you guys get a little extra sleep in while we do that."
"Henry, Lily, you don't have to do that," Regina says, feeling her emotions start to spike again.
"But we appreciate the hell out of it," Mal adds in smoothly, reaching into her pocket to shove a couple of bills into Henry's hand free hand. "And put this in the pony jar for your mother's and my swearing tonight."
"Mal, this is like twenty bucks!"
She shrugs. "Money means nothing to me, and everything to your little brother. It's fine."
Robin chuckles again. "You spoil him, Mal."
She shrugs again. "I spoil all of you. My prerogative as the oldest in this family. Now, we've been summarily told to go to bed, and I'm not going to fight it. So let's go upstairs. I'm dying to curl up with both of you and pass out for a few hours."
"And before any of you ask, I already know where the presents are," Lily says with a grin. "No, I wasn't snooping, but Henry was."
"Look, little brother, it's not my fault you couldn't be more discreet."
He rolls his eyes and helps her pull Regina up to her feet. "Fine. I was actually trying to make sure I got my last minute stocking stuffer gifts in the right bags, but you think what you want, sis."
"You're both wonderful and I treasure you," Regina says, kissing each of their cheeks. "Please don't stay up too late getting the presents out? I don't want either of you exhausted tomorrow."
"Not a problem, Ma. We got this." Lily kisses both Mal and Robin's cheeks. "Father Yule and Santa are gonna rock this place tonight while you all sleep easily."
Once all of the hugs, kisses, and words of love are handed out to the older two children, Regina lets Robin and Mal lead her up to bed. They barely pass the threshold when she feels Mal's magic not only set the silencing spell, but also strip them all down to their usual sleeping attire. Exhaustion tugs at her more as the three of them brush their teeth. Mal uses magic again to braid her and Regina's hair for bed, then they all crawl under the covers with Regina in the middle. Sweet, sleepy kisses are exchanged among them until, one by one, they drift off into much-needed sleep to end the best Christmas Eve of her life so far.