“I don’t think we should just show up like this,” Henry worried as Emma parked the yellow bug in front of the Mifflin Street address. “We should have called ahead.”
“It’ll be fine, kid,” Emma breezed, although she had considered calling ahead as well. She didn’t want to give Regina an opportunity to say no, however.
She turned off the engine and they both exited the car.
Henry’s shorter legs struggled to meet his birth mother’s, stride for stride. “I just don’t know if we should surprise her like this. I know for a fact that she doesn’t like surprises.”
Emma flashed a brilliant smile in her son’s direction. “But it’s a good surprise, Hen.”
She knocked on the front door and waited. She hadn’t been to Regina’s house since the night she’d fallen asleep in her car and had experienced a more intimate encounter with the former mayor. She didn’t think she could look at Regina without blushing, but she’d dragged her feet long enough about letting Regina spend some time with her adopted son. She wasn’t going to let her own personal issues get in the way of that.
“I don’t think she’s home,” Henry said, sounding almost relieved. Emma glanced once in his direction. He looked up at the formidable, yet silent, mansion.
Regina’s vehicle was parked in the long circular driveway out front, so Emma knew she had to be around somewhere. “C’mon. We don’t give up that easily.”
She left the front stoop to continue her search for the home’s owner, Henry trailing behind.
When she made her way to the side yard, she heard the soft sounds of music filtering from the rear of the house. Turning another corner, they found Regina in the backyard, on her knees in the lawn, her head tilted down in concentration. In front of her were impressive rose bushes that she was diligently cutting back
Emma had no green thumb, but if she gardened, she imagined she’d wear old jeans and a t-shirt. Not so for Regina Mills. Her hair was down, but pulled back from her face with a headscarf and oversized sunglasses. It made her look a little like Jackie Kennedy Onassis. Her lips were painted a familiar red shade. Her sleeveless navy shell with the gold buttons looked straight out of a Banana Republic catalog. Emma couldn’t quite make out the shape or style of her pants since she was on her knees, but they certainly weren’t tattered blue jeans. Regina probably didn’t even own a pair of jeans.
How can she look so perfect, even when she’s gardening? Emma wondered to herself. She was impossibly elegant. It was truly maddening.
Henry fidgeted beside the Savior. “Hey…Mom.”
Regina snapped to attention at the sound of the familiar voice. Her eyes were hidden by the oversized sunglasses, but Emma knew too well the combination of joy and sadness she would have seen had the sunglasses not been there.
Regina scrambled to her feet and rushed over to the duo. She looked like she wanted to fall to her knees and wrap Henry up in her arms, but she stopped just short. Instead, she cleared her throat and seemed to gather her composure in front of the unexpected visitors. “What are you doing here?”
Emma shoved her hands into the back pockets of her jeans. “I thought it was about time you two got to spend a little time together.”
“Supervised, I’m sure.” There was an icy bite to the former mayor’s tone that could not go unnoticed.
Emma hesitated. She’d fought with Mary Margaret that very morning about if she should drop off Henry or not. She didn’t worry about Henry’s safety – not with Regina – but she also knew this new arrangement was tenuous. Maybe supervised visits would be best for the moment. But she hadn’t exactly wanted to spend any more time with the woman who recently monopolized her dreams.
Saving Emma the trouble of explaining herself, Regina pointed to a shed in the back of her yard. “Emma, be a dear and grab that bag of mulch would you?”
Regina had used her first name to address her, not Sheriff or Miss Swan. Emma nodded dumbly and obeyed the request.
Near the back of Regina’s lawn was a small wooden storage shed painted red and white like a miniature barn. The doors were open and inside she found the typical things one might have in a shed: lawn mower, snow blower, weed whacker, and a wall of tools. She wondered if Regina paid someone to take care of her yard. She couldn’t imagine the woman snow-blowing her driveway in the dead of winter. The mental image of Regina, resplendent in high heels and a snowsuit, bordered on the ridiculous.
The bag of mulch wasn’t heavy, maybe forty pounds or so. It smelled like chocolate. She set it down near Regina who rewarded the effort with a soft, melting smile. Henry was on his knees beside her, helping to prune back a twisting vine of thorny roses. It must have been something he’d helped her with before as he wielded the pruning tool with familiarity.
Regina didn’t look away from her son and his careful pruning. “If you’d like to make yourself useful, you could put a layer of mulch over the roses’ root systems. They’ll need a good two or three inches to protect them over the winter.”
Happy to have something to do, Emma dutifully took to the task and trowelled shovelfuls of mulch into the flowerbeds. Between her efforts she glanced in Regina’s direction. The former mayor’s focus was trained on the rosebushes while she softly talked with Henry. Their heads were bent towards each other, nearly conspiratorial, and Emma felt guilty for intruding on this shared moment. It was easy to forget in situations like this that Regina was the Evil Queen and her son was a Charming.
“Mulch is done,” Emma announced.
“Are you two…” Regina looked flustered. “Are you staying a while?”
“I dunno. What’s for dinner?” Henry asked.
Henry’s eyes lit up. “The kind I like? The one with the meatballs?”
Henry’s head swiveled as if on a stick to appraise Emma. “Can we stay?” he practically pled. “You’ve got to try her soup. It’s the best.”
Emma couldn’t help but chuckle. She’d never seen anyone get so excited about soup before. “If it’s as good as her lasagna, I bet it is.”
“Would you like to stay for dinner, Miss Swan?”
Emma quirked an eyebrow. “I feel like this is a trick question.”
“How could that ever be construed as a trick question?” Regina let out with building annoyance.
“You ask me if I’d like to stay for dinner,” Emma clarified. “I say ‘yes,’ and you say, ‘too bad.’”
Regina shook her head at the overly cautious approach. “I can guarantee I’ll do no such thing. So?”
Regina rolled her eyes. “Dinner, Miss Swan. Are you staying or not?”
Emma smiled serenely. “I thought you’d never ask.”
“Henry, why don’t you go in and wash up,” Regina instructed. She pulled off her gardening gloves and held them in one hand. “Dinner will be ready soon.”
Henry hopped to his tennis-shoed feet and pressed the pruning tool he’d been using into Emma’s hands. Without another word to either mother, he bounded into the Mills manor with all the unbridled enthusiasm of a ten-year-old boy.
Emma brushed at her backside, wiping away phantom dirt. “You’re good with him. If I’d told him to go wash his hands, he’d put up a fight. He tries to get away with stuff with me.”
A gentle smile, but more hollow than Emma would have liked, found its way to Regina’s lips. “I’ve had a little more practice than you, Miss Swan. Parenting is trial by fire. When I first brought him home I had no idea what I was doing.”
Emma fiddled with the metal snips Henry had handed her. They looked dangerous, like they could sever a finger if she wasn’t careful. “Can I…do you still need help with the flowers?”
“I’ve got a little more pruning to do,” Regina nodded. “You can help, if you’d like.”
Emma looked helpless. “I don’t know the first thing about flowers.”
“But you seem to have a way with my apple tree,” Regina countered without malice.
Emma scratched at the back of her neck. “Yeah, uh, about that…”
Regina’s features were unreadable. “It’s in the past, Miss Swan. I’d prefer to keep it there.” She moved to stand beside Emma in front of a rosebush. “You’re going to start at the bottom of the plant and work your way up,” she instructed. “The goal is to trim away just enough to protect the plant over the winter months. Even though we’re cutting away at the plant, it will make it healthier and stronger.”
“So find an area that you think you might want to cut away.”
Emma opened the snips and closed them around a branch. She applied minimal pressure, but stopped just short of cutting off the twig. “What if I cut off something that should have stayed?”
“Don’t worry. You can’t kill the plant by pruning too much.” A small smile twitched at the corners of Regina’s lipsticked mouth. “Just, you know, don’t cut it off entirely at the bottom.”
“Give me a little credit,” Emma snorted. The clippers felt foreign in her palm.
“Cut it at a 45 degree angle. And when you make the cut, be decisive about it. You want the cut to be sharp, not ragged.”
Emma held her breath and cut off a tiny branch. The green branch fell to the mulch. It wasn’t much, but she hadn’t been brave enough to cut away more. The more she clipped away, however, the more confident she became. Her efforts didn’t go unnoticed. Emma felt Regina hovering just behind her.
“Very nice. Just like that,” the other woman approved.
Emma turned her head to look at Regina; her caramel eyes danced, and Emma experienced a rush of adrenalin, privately pleased at the praise.
Her eyes went to Regina’s mouth and then lower to the opening of Regina’s shirt at her elegant throat. Catching herself and her wandering eyes, she spun back to face the roses. “So you have to this every year or something?” She hoped her blush wasn’t too obvious.
Regina nodded and returned to her own plant. “And in the spring to get rid of any winter damage, and again after they’ve bloomed to help them keep their shape.”
“Wow.” Emma continued to cut back the plant. “That seems like a lot of unnecessary work.”
“If anything is worth doing, it’s worth doing well,” Regina said with a small shrug. “I don’t mind a little sweat and blood if the results are to my liking.”
“Ouch.” Emma shook out her stinging hand.
Her jerky motions did not go unnoticed. “What’s wrong?”
“Your roses bit me,” Emma pouted.
“Let me see.”
The blonde shoved her finger into her mouth and sucked.
Regina’s features darkened. “Stop being such a child, Miss Swan. I need to see how serious your cut is.”
“It’s just a little prick,” Emma insisted.
Regina stood up. “Come on,” she sighed. “You need to wash it out. It could get infected.”
“It’s fine, Regina. I’ve had worse.”
Regina rolled her eyes. “Rose thorn cuts can cause sporothrix schenckii. There’s a fungus on the thorns. Do you want to keep your fingers?”
She might have been imagining it, but Emma thought she witnessed Regina’s cheeks tint at the mention of her fingers. Normally she wouldn’t have let such an opportunity pass and she would have made a smart comment, but she was a little spooked by this rose-thorn-mushroom-disease. She liked all of her body parts where they were.
Regina didn’t bother waiting anymore. She strode through the lawn to the backdoor of her house and Emma silently followed.
Emma found Regina in a powder room on the first floor just large enough for a toilet and a sink. Regina pulled a small basket of first-aid supplies from the cabinet beneath the sink.
“Give me your hand,” she commanded.
Regina rolled her eyes. “The one with the cut, Sheriff.”
Emma stuck out her right hand and tried not to flinch at the other woman’s touch. Regina wet a cotton swap in peroxide and dabbed at the cut on Emma's finger. The blonde released a quiet hiss as the stinging liquid cleaned out the wound.
Regina arched an eyebrow. "I would have hated to see you during childbirth."
"I guess I had a higher tolerance for pain back then."
Regina cut a square of gauze and wrapped it around Emma's cut finger. "Are you taking him with you when you leave after dinner?" She sounded tired and defeated, and it made Emma’s chest ache to hear the hurt in Regina's tone.
"I didn't really think that far ahead."
Regina wordlessly nodded. She unwrapped a Band-Aid and dressed the small wound with the gauze and sticky bandage. "All done."
Emma flexed her finger and inspected Regina's work. "Not bad."
Regina put the first-aid kit back in the cabinet under the sink. "I have some experience with cuts and skinned knees."
Emma bit the inside of her cheek. She'd never cleaned up Henry after a nasty fall. She'd never brushed the hair off his forehead when he was running a fever or soothed an upset stomach with ginger ale and saltines. That had been all Regina. She didn't know how to be a mother.
She grasped onto the edge of the pedestal sink and steadied herself with her uninjured hand. The room had become too warm and too small.
"Are you okay?"
Emma nodded. "Just a little lightheaded."
"That cut must have been worse than I thought."
Emma released her grip on the sink and righted herself. "I'll be fine. Just gotta walk it off."
Dinner was an Italian wedding meatball soup with red kale and crusts of still-warm sourdough bread. Emma had two bowls, not caring if Regina judged her for having an appetite. The soup was too good not to ask for seconds.
Emma devoured the food in front of her seemingly without taking a breath. Normally Regina would have recoiled at the elbows on the table and the use of a soupspoon as a shovel, but it actually brought her perverse pleasure to watch Emma so heartily and unabashedly enjoy the home cooked meal.
Regina watched Emma with amused, dark eyes. “If you’ve left anything in the Dutch oven, I can package it up so you’ll have leftovers,” she offered, taking a sip of her red wine.
Emma slowed the movement of her spoon. “It’s really good,” she said, defending her appetite.
“Thank you, dear.” Regina spared Emma additional embarrassment even though it would have been easy. Too easy. But she found she just didn’t have the energy.
Emma turned her attention to their shared son. "How about you, Henry? Is it as good as you remembered?"
The boy had his spoon shoved into his mouth. "Mmhmm," he confirmed around the utensil.
Emma flicked her eyes in Regina's direction expecting to find a stern look or rigid disapproval at Henry's poor table manners, but she found only patient adoration in warm, caramel irises.
"You know, Hen,” Emma started with slight hesitation, “you could stay the weekend, and Regina could cook more meals like this for you if you wanted."
Henry looked between the two women, unsure. "But I..."
Emma knew he didn't want to betray Mary Margaret or David by staying overnight. But he had to have missed Regina at least a little bit. "You've gotta admit, kid, it's better than poptarts."
Henry tore off a soft, flaky piece of homemade bread and shoved it in his mouth as if to agree.
Emma turned her attention back to Regina who now sat tense in her chair. She couldn't help but notice how Regina's fingers were curled around her spoon so tightly that her knuckles were white from the pressure. She looked like a woman who didn't want to let her heart believe.
"So what do you think? Henry stays the rest of the weekend, you make sure he gets to school on time Monday, and I'll pick him up afterwards?"
Regina swallowed and nodded. "That would be lovely. Thank you."
Emma used the cloth napkin to wipe her mouth. She glanced once at Henry who seemed preoccupied with blowing bubbles in his chocolate milk. Regina hadn’t commented on how his table manners had rapidly deteriorated now that he was living with his birth mother. She imagined Regina would let Henry get away with just about anything now, as long as she got to spend time with him. Between Regina and his doting grandparents, he was going to be the most spoiled child on the Eastern seaboard.
“Hey, kid. Don’t you have some homework or something?”
Henry frowned. “Yeah, but it’s only Saturday.”
“You shouldn’t sit on it until Sunday night though,” Emma noted.
Henry looked between his two mothers with a deeper frown. “Are you two gonna be okay if I leave?”
Regina quirked a small smile. “I promise to behave if Miss Swan does.”
Emma raised her right hand. “Scouts Honor.”
Henry grabbed his empty bowl and stood up. He continued to look warily between the two women.
“Henry, we’ll be fine,” Emma assured. “Now go do your homework. I’ll be up to say goodnight before I go,” she promised.
With a sharp nod, Henry left the dining room.
“As much as I appreciate you showing concern for Henry’s studies,” Regina started carefully, “I have a feeling you want to talk to me about something without him in earshot.”
Emma waited until she heard the distinct sound of feet pounding up the staircase to the second floor before she asked her question.“Has Cora contacted you?”
The dreams were coming more frequently now – and with more and more violence. She wasn’t ready to tell Regina about them, yet, but she couldn’t let this go any longer without being concerned.
“Of course it would be about her.” Regina’s mouth quirked into a tired frown, knowing her raw emotions had been momentarily exposed. She tugged the bandana from her head and ran a hand through her hair. “What makes you think she’s in Storybrooke? I thought you defeated her in the Enchanted Forest?”
“It’s just a feeling, I guess.”
“I haven’t spoken to my mother since my Wedding Day when I pushed her through the Looking Glass and she became the Queen of Hearts in Wonderland. If you don’t believe me though, Sheriff, I could always take a polygraph.”
"You're not on trial, Regina. I'm not here to pass judgment on you."
“If that’s the case, you’re the only one in this town.”
"Let them think what they want," Emma shrugged. "They're just bored with their own lives so they need to scrutinize others’ to bring a little excitement into an otherwise dull existence."
"The perks of small town life." Regina exhaled deeply. “I should have dropped us in the middle of New York City.”
"In Storybrooke?” Regina asked for clarification.
“Well, there’s that little matter of the town border. And-and there’s Henry.” She frowned deeply. “I’m sure you would love to get me out of your hair though.”
Emma thought about the upcoming mayoral election and Regina’s future role in Storybrooke. "“Henry aside, as much as I hate to admit it, you were really good at your job...politics, being mayor, and all that. Your talents are being wasted in a small town like this.”
Regina scoffed and flipped her short, raven hair. "It's not like I need the money or the notoriety. I have them both here."
“But don’t you ever want, I don’t know…more?”
“Once,” Regina said darkly. “But it didn’t get me very far.”
Emma finished the remaining soup at the bottom of her bowl with a loud slurp. She looked up, guiltily, at the impolite noise. “Sorry.”
“I appreciate your enthusiasm, Miss Swan.”
The room was quiet, save for the rhythmic ticking of an unseen clock.
Regina cleared her throat, culling Emma’s attention. “I want to thank you for allowing Henry to stay.” She toyed with the stem of her wine glass. "I've been putting fresh sheets on his bed everyday just in case."
Emma stared down into her now-empty soup bowl. God. Why couldn't this situation be easier? And why couldn't she bring herself to hate the Evil Queen? She was starting to understand, and she hated her conclusion.