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Someone has keyed Emma’s car. It’s just a jagged line across it, sharp and sloppy, but the meaning is clear. Traitor . Emma twitches, stricken, turns around to take in the parking lot outside the station, and sees a dwarf glaring at her from across the street.

 

News has spread that Emma has chosen a side , and she’s been getting a lot of sidelong glances. There are plenty of townspeople who are content with what they’ve gotten from Regina and don’t have the courage to confront her, anyway, and they watch Emma but don’t let on whether it’s with approval or disappointment.

 

Maybe they expect her to be the savior, still. Maybe they’re relieved that she isn’t going on a rampage against Regina. Emma doesn’t know. 

 

“Wow,” Henry says, staring at the mark along the Bug. “You’re making real enemies now. That’s so cool.” He flashes her an admiring grin that leaves her at a loss.

 

“Henry, have you ever considered that you might have overshot a little when you decided to go supportive on your mom?” 

 

Henry takes a sip of his milkshake. “Nope.” 

 

Emma eyes him, then the milkshake. “Where’d you get that? I thought Granny’s was still under construction.” 

 

“The kitchen works. Ruby sent this to you,” Henry says, sucking up a good third of the milkshake through the straw. “I confiscated it. Until Granny and Ruby decide whose side they’re on, I’m your official taste-tester.” 

 

He looks very smug, and Emma considers reminding him that, A, a taste-tester isn’t supposed to finish the food; and, B, the last time he’d tried her food before her, he’d wound up in the hospital. Instead, she says, “I don’t think they’re going to take sides. It’s bad for business.” 

 

“Yeah, well, taking sides is bad for my GPA, but you don’t see me showing up to class today,” Henry says smugly. 

 

“You’re in fifth grade, you don’t have a GPA– and wait. Why aren’t you at school?” Emma demands, checking the time. It’s nearly eight-thirty, and she could have sworn that she’d seen Regina walk with Henry and Ampy to the bus stop a half hour ago. She’d stayed back in the house for a little longer, washing breakfast dishes and avoiding going outside to face the town. “Does your mother know you’re here?” 

 

Henry gets a shifty look in his eye that Emma’s ninety-nine percent sure is genetic, not learned. “I’m sure she doesn’t want me to spend the day with Snow White, either,” he says. “You know she’ll try to win me over–” 

 

“We are going to school.” Emma points a finger at the passenger seat of the Bug.

 

“Try to get at you with me,” Henry continues. “Use me against you.” He folds his arms stubbornly.

 

Emma gets out her phone, hits a number and holds it to her ear. “Hey, Regina,” she says when Regina picks up. She glances at the spot where Henry had been. 

 

He’s gone, sitting in the passenger seat with a scowl in place. “Just checking in,” Emma says lightly. “I wanted to make sure that no one gave you a hard time this morning.” Henry stays wisely silent. 

 

Regina sounds gratified on the phone. “You seem to have forgotten that I rule this town with an iron fist,” she says, and then her voice hardens. “Why? Has anyone given you any trouble?” 

 

“Nope,” Emma says hastily. “No issues. Well, a dwarf keyed my car, but it’s no big deal. Ruby sent over a milkshake, so I might even still have a friend–” She pauses. Regina is muttering something that sounds suspiciously like I’ll key him , and she stops when Emma falls silent. “Please do not stab anyone with a key or other small, sharp object,” Emma says, wincing.

 

A pregnant pause, and then Regina says, “If you insist.” 

 

“Or any large, sharp objects,” Emma amends, wary of how easily Regina had conceded.

 

Regina lets out a little irritated noise. “You ask too much of me, Miss Swan.” 

 

“Are we back to Miss Swan already?” Emma asks, and she keeps it playful, a tiny bit flirtatious. “I thought we’d moved past that.” Regina had been wearing black this morning, and Emma hadn’t managed to get in a proper flirt between peering through her clothes for something appropriate and being assigned to omelet duty in the kitchen. She exhales, relieved at the urge to flirt fulfilled. The compulsions are learning patience, at least. “I just want you to stop murdering people, Madam Mayor.” 

 

Regina heaves a sigh. “ So demanding.” She is quiet for a moment, and Emma drums her fingers against the steering wheel as she drives, her shoulder up to hold the phone to her ear. “I’m going to stop by later,” she says. “I’ll see what I can do about that rolling safety hazard that you call a car.”

 

Emma grins to herself. “Is that you saying that you’re coming by for lunch? I hope you’re bringing leftovers–”

 

The phone is snatched from where it’s wedged between her shoulder and her ear. Henry hangs it up, frowning at her. “Don’t you have a hands-free device? There are young lives at stake here.” He points at himself. 

 

Emma gives him a long look. “I notice that you waited until we parked to take my phone away,” she points out. The last few kids are trailing into the building in front of them, a few glancing back at Emma’s distinctive car. “Come on, kid. Let’s get you inside.” 

 

In a bigger town, or a bigger school, there might have been security to stop Emma from entering the building, thereby saving her the decision of whether or not to join Henry on his way to class. But no one stops Emma, and Snow glimpses her through the window of the door before she can duck away.

 

Snow hurries to the door, offering a forced smile to Henry. “There you are,” she says. “I was worried when the others said that you hadn’t been on the bus.” 

 

Henry stares up at her balefully and Snow takes a step back, hurt. Emma, who has become very adept at reading Henry’s mood when he’s being blase, sees the flicker of guilt and uncertainty on his face and clears her throat. “Henry,” she says quietly, “Your mother didn’t overhaul the educational system in this town for you to skip class and disrespect your teachers.” 

 

Henry shrugs. “She would get it,” he says, moody, and he glowers up at Snow and looks back to Emma as though she still might change tack. “I’ll go, but I’m not going to enjoy it.”

 

Snow looks just a little shattered, which makes Emma simultaneously spitefully glad and mournful. “Henry–” she begins.

 

Henry ignores her. “I left the box in the station, by the way,” he informs Emma. “Say hi to my mom when you two have lunch together.” He looks smug when he makes that pronouncement, and Snow just looks devastated. 

 

But she doesn’t look up at Emma, doesn’t acknowledge her at all, and Emma grits her teeth and tells herself that it doesn’t matter. “Thanks, kid,” she says. “What box?” 

 

Henry doesn’t answer, only slips into the room and glares at the board as though it’s personally offended him. Emma makes an escape before she has to stand opposite Snow for any longer, the two of them ignoring each other.

 

She finds the box that Henry had mentioned in the station. It’s filled with everything that Emma had brought with her to the B&B, and there’s a note in Ruby’s handwriting. I swear I’m not kicking you out, it starts, and Emma sinks into her chair and stares at the note in quiet dismay. It’s just not a good for us to get involved in this fight, you know? Snow’s my best friend. Something has been scrawled out that looks like it might have been a number of innuendos about Regina’s house that Ruby had correctly assumed would piss Emma off, then, I had to go drinking with Grumpy last night, and it sucks. We had to sit thirty feet away from the Rabbit Hole and I got so wasted that I think I might’ve made a marriage pact with him if we’re both not married in ten years. At least I wasn’t wearing that fucking amulet. 

 

Emma almost cracks a smile, but the ground feels as though it is rocking beneath her, close to breaking open and letting her fall in. Ruby’s last line– Enjoy the milkshake! I’ll stop by later if you don’t slam the door on my face – doesn’t help.

 

Ruby isn’t Mary Margaret, no, but she’d been some kind of shelter in the shitstorm of Emma’s life right now. And she’s gone now, trapped between two friends and excusing herself from this conflict. Emma is without a place to go, again

 

“That’s absurd,” Regina says evenly at lunch, after she spots the letter on Emma’s desk and snatches it before Emma can retrieve it. “Of course you’ll stay with Henry and me. I have a perfectly spacious guest room where you can keep your things.” She brightens. “We can break into Snow’s apartment and get the rest of them, too. And with Gold gone, the apartment building defaults to town property, which means I can raise Snow’s rent significantly– I’d like to see her try to pay it without a third income–”

 

“Regina,” Emma says, and she means to…to tell her to tone it down, to remind her that they’re better off without another fight with Snow, to talk her out of it…but then she sees the gleam in Regina’s eyes and realizes that Regina is only trying to cheer her up. “I think the best revenge is probably for me to stay in your guest room,” Emma offers.

 

Regina scoffs. “The best revenge is for you to stay in my room,” she corrects Emma. “I said that you could keep your things in my guest room. I expect you to be elsewhere.” 

 

“Hm,” Emma says thoughtfully. “I have some ideas where.” 

 

A stubborn smile threatens to curl up Regina’s lips. “Do you?” 

 

“Well, there’s the rug in the study. It’s grown on me.” Emma considers. “And maybe the master bathroom.” She’d almost caught Regina in the shower this morning, but she’d sadly awakened as Regina had emerged. “The kitchen counter–” 

 

“Unsanitary,” Regina sniffs, standing up to take a few steps around Emma’s desk. If Emma hadn’t instantly taken care of the compulsion when Regina had walked into the room, Emma’s pretty confident that she’s got it in the bag now. 

 

“That big chair in the living room,” she breathes, and Regina straddles her on her chair, cupping her breasts over her shirt. “I think I’d be very comfortable there–” Regina leans down to kiss her, and it’s gentle as it had so rarely been before, teasing but still uncompromising. The kiss builds in intensity, Emma gripping Regina’s ass and pulling her close, lost in her scent and the way Regina caresses her. Beneath the desire is a warmth, a connection that they both silently crave, and Emma revels in it.

 

This , she knows immediately, without any doubt… this is what makes it worth it.  

 


 

She doubts that a little more in the morning, when she stumbles out of Regina’s bed a half hour after her alarm and sees a flash of red in front of her. 

 

“No,” she mumbles, still half asleep. A jolt of alarm chills her, but she doesn’t process what she’s seeing until she’s showered and made her way downstairs.

 

Henry is eating oatmeal with chocolate chips, reading a book at the kitchen table, and Regina moves gracefully from counter to counter, stepping around Ampy and with a mug of coffee in hand as she finds ingredients in the fridge to deposit into the crockpot for dinner. She’s particularly stunning today, her hair falling past her shoulders and her lipstick the same shade of red as her dress.

 

It’s like muscle memory, the way that the red sets off dread within Emma, the certainty that she’s going to have to pick a fight with Regina. It’s been a while since Regina has last worn red, since Emma had had to reckon with the curse in any way that might have been counterproductive, and Emma stares at Regina with building despair.

 

Regina spots her standing at the base of the staircase and flashes her a brief, stolen smile. “About time you woke up. I could have sworn that you were a morning person last year.” 

 

Emma makes a face, feels a little wave of grief when she thinks about last year. “Mary Margaret was a morning person,” she says. “She used to open every single window shade in the apartment every morning at six o’clock to start the day with sunshine . I didn’t really have a choice in the matter. I slept until noon on my day off once and she looked at me as though I’d killed her puppy.” 

 

“Emma!” Henry says, clapping his hands over Ampy’s ears. Ampy, who has been sniffing curiously at Henry’s oatmeal, lets out a little yowl. 

 

Regina shakes her head. “I have no idea what you saw in that woman.” She smoothes down the wrinkles in her dress and raises her eyebrows at Emma. “Are you just going to stare at me all morning, or do you want some oatmeal?” 

 

Emma sits obediently, her eyes flickering to Regina’s red dress again. “You’re wearing red,” she finally manages, fighting back the urge that comes with that acknowledgement. It’s all she can think about, enough to give her a migraine, and she rubs her temples and tries to eat the oatmeal that is set out in front of her. 

 

Regina cocks her head, eyebrows rising. “Is that a problem?” 

 

Here . The flashpoint is ready, waiting for Emma’s instigation, and Emma is helpless but to respond to it. All she needs to do is manufacture some grievance or snide comment or…

 

She can feel the strain like a pounding in her head, pushing her to respond with a fight, and she battles it off. No. Not today, not now, when they’re actually doing okay. If Emma goes down, she’s going to go down kicking and screaming. “Only because there’s a town meeting today,” she says, wiggling her eyebrows suggestively. Her head aches and she ignores it. “The Small Business Association does not deserve to see you in that.” 

 

Regina wets her lips and winks at Emma, then frowns. “Are you all right?” 

 

“I’m fine,” Emma says, a little breathless. “Hey, why don’t I take Henry to the bus so you can finish up in here?” She’d meant to offer it anyway today after Henry’s escape attempt yesterday, and now it’s an opportunity to get away before Regina’s dress drives her to hurt them. “I’m kind of full.” 

 

“Do you hate oatmeal?” Regina says, staring at Emma’s untouched bowl. “If you need the chocolate chips, too, I’ll only judge a little–” 

 

Emma leaps to her feet, grabbing Henry by the arm. “We’re going to be late. Let’s go ,” she says, and she doesn’t breathe until they’re outside, clear of Regina and her red dress. 

 

Henry looks carefully at her. “You’re being weird today,” he decides, swinging his backpack over his shoulder. 

 

Emma grimaces. “Just woke up funny,” she says. A flash of color catches her eye, and she looks again at Henry’s backpack. “Uh. Henry? Why is your backpack covered in little rainbow buttons?” There are at least a dozen of them in varying sizes and styles, pinned carefully to the back of Henry’s knapsack.

 

Henry perks up. “Do you like them? I got them at one of the kiosks in the Portland shopping center. There were also a few Spider-man sets but they were double the price.” 

 

“Uh,” Emma repeats, eyeing Henry like he might be a ticking time bomb. “You a big rainbow fan?” 

 

Henry gives Emma a look so dripping in disdain that Emma isn’t quite sure how to respond to it. “I can’t believe I used to think you were cool.” He scampers ahead of her, the rainbow buttons glinting in the sun like they must mean something

 

Emma calls after him, “Wait! When did you stop thinking that?” and jogs behind him, baffled but relieved to be anywhere but around Regina. 

 

There’s a coffee on her desk this morning, another peace offering from Ruby, and Emma drinks it and stews over how she’s going to get around seeing Regina for the rest of the day. Regina had been pretty explicit in inviting Emma to stay with her, right? She wouldn’t look kindly on Emma ducking out and disappearing for a day after that invitation. Maybe she can guilt-trip Ruby to spill something on Regina and force her to change. Maybe they can have a nice, easy fake-fight during the town meeting that will somehow satisfy the dare. 

 

Emma gulps down her coffee and decides to avoid the meeting altogether. But by midday, she’s changed her mind. The dwarves have filed past the station toward Town Hall, followed by Snow, who likes to go to the meetings on her lunch break. Emma can’t leave Regina alone to confront the resistance. 

 

She steps out of the station and nearly slams into David. “Sorry,” he says, holding up his hands. “Sorry. I was just coming to look for you.” 

 

“Okay.” Emma eyes him warily. She doesn’t know David, not really. He’d been the asshole who had strung Mary Margaret and Kathryn along and who’d seemed directionless and uncertain and not nearly good enough for either. But David post-curse carries himself differently, walks with more confidence and has an easy smile. When they’d spent time together, Emma had liked him despite her better judgment. “I don’t want to talk about Regina. Or Snow.” 

 

“Yeah, I figured.” David rubs the back of his neck, awkward. “Look…I just thought that you’ve got a lot on your plate right now,” he says. “And this town meeting is going to be another uncomfortable situation for you. So I wanted to…I mean, this is usually when I feed the animals, and I thought you might enjoy it.” 

 

It’s unexpectedly sweet. Emma blinks at him, touched, and then shakes her head. “I can’t leave Regina to face them without me.” 

 

“Regina is very capable of fighting her own battles,” David says, not without a light undercurrent of distaste. Emma chooses to ignore it. “She’s been doing it for a lifetime without you.”

 

And that sucks , it really does, and it reminds her of Regina at nineteen, fighting battles she never should have had to and enduring pain like Emma can’t imagine. “Thanks,” Emma says, and she really does mean it. “I appreciate the offer. But…” She bites her lip. 

 

David watches her and then shakes his head wonderingly. “You really are just like your mother,” he says, and Emma flinches. 

 

It stings like he’d never meant for it to, and she twists away from him. “I’m nothing like her.” Snow is condescending, is pushy, is self-centered. She’d give Emma an ultimatum and then victimize herself over it, and Emma doesn’t want to hear about all the ways that Snow resembles her.

 

“I just mean…you have her compassion,” David says, his eyes warm, and he lays a fleeting hand on Emma’s shoulder and then walks away. Emma watches him go, already drained, and then heads to Town Hall.

 

The meeting is already underway, but Emma knows the instant that Regina sees her. A little bit of tension drains out of Regina’s shoulders, and her sneer softens into something almost like a smile. The man she’s talking to– Marco, or Geppetto, Emma supposes– relaxes a hair. “As I said,” Regina says, her voice strong. “I’ve put together three separate committees to ensure that every shopkeeper on Main Street is fully reimbursed for ogre-related damages. You can collect the requisition forms you need at Town Hall.” 

 

“Why rebuild if there are just going to be more attacks?” demands Sneezy, which is pretty damned hypocritical of him. Emma had only let the dwarves out of jail after the ogre because the idea of having to sit in the station with the seven of them had made her want to tear out her hair. They’d each been slapped with a fine large enough to cover some of the repairs, but not all. “Storybrooke is a sitting duck and we have no way to defend ourselves.” 

 

Is this their newest move? If it is, it’s a baffling one. Regina flicks a wrist like she might be about to curse Sneezy, and Happy cries out, “We want weapons!” He stands up. “At least in the old world, we weren’t dependent on the Evil Queen’s favor to keep us safe–” 

 

“Actually,” a woman Emma recognizes from the bank says, standing up. “I was.” She shrugs. “I lived near the castle, and let me tell you. There was never so much as a forest fire when the Evil Queen was in charge.” 

 

“Pretty great economy, too,” one of the high school teachers notes. “Good setup for drought years. And she compensated well when King Midas’s kingdom lowered the price of gold to pennies by the end.” 

 

An older woman who Emma vaguely recognizes pipes up, “Not one invasion, either. No one screwed with the Evil Queen. As long as you weren’t harboring Snow White in your village, you were pretty well off.” There’s a murmur of assent from the audience, and Emma watches them in astonishment. The woman shrugs. “In the scheme of things, do we want our politicians to be good people or good leaders? I’d rather a ruthless mass murderer who keeps the storehouses full.” 

 

Regina, at the front of the room, looks taken aback, somewhere between gratified and offended. Grumpy rockets to his feet. “She isn’t the rightful queen!” he protests. “She killed the king!” 

 

“Yeah, well, he sucked,” Emma says loudly. She can feel the urge to pick a fight with Regina as soon as she speaks, and she battles it down, straining to resist it by picking a fight with Grumpy instead. “And this isn’t the Enchanted Forest.” 

 

“It’s a democracy,” the bank teller says, and there’s another loud murmur of agreement from the crowd. “Granted, it was a cursed democracy where we never had any choice but to vote for Mayor Mills, but I’d do it again.” 

 

“It’s actually a democratic monarchy,” the high school teacher points out, and Emma takes a moment to marvel at how far that bullshit has already spread. “Albeit one where the monarch has absolute power. But I Googled it and we have the best-funded public schools in Maine, so I think that’s a right I’m willing to surrender.” 

 

“I like the Evil Queen,” someone else says boldly. “She’s got great hair. And that fireball schtick is pretty hot.” Emma jerks around to glare at the speaker, and is caught midway there by Regina’s smoldering eyes. 

 

Regina barks out, perhaps sensing that she’s beginning to lose the room, “All of this is irrelevant! I’m your queen, like it or not, and I am also your mayor.” There are a number of indulgent smiles at that, and Regina sputters, “I will be treated with the fear and respect that my position demands!” 

 

Regina has, once again, fallen into that inescapable hole of cute , and Emma isn’t the only one to see it this time. She shoots a glance toward the side of the room, where Snow is sitting upright beside an empty chair and watching Regina with an unreadable expression. She hasn’t said a word this meeting, Emma notes, which is surprising from her.

 

“Enough!” Regina snaps from the front of the room, and she does what she always does when she’s trapped, these days: she sets Town Hall on fire.

 

Flames burst up around the sides of the room, roaring threateningly but not burning anything around them. Townspeople get up, scattering, and Emma overhears someone saying, “Classic Evil Queen,” with unmistakable fondness. A dwarf mutters darkly, and someone else says in a hushed tone, “She didn’t even get to flirting with the sheriff this time.” 

 

Soon, the room is empty, and only Emma and Regina are left. Regina scowls and lets the fire fall. “I can’t believe the sheer audacity of this town–” 

 

Emma wonders, suddenly, if she might be able to get away with fighting Regina over exactly how adorable she is. “They appreciate you,” she says simply, walking down the aisle to meet Regina halfway. “You’ve done a lot of good here, and plenty of people can look past the worst of it when they’re thriving now, thanks to you.” She’s focusing too hard on two opposing things at once, on fighting and not-fighting, and she tries to take a deep breath.

 

She gets a headache for her efforts, and Regina looks at her with sudden concern. “Are you all right?” 

 

“Just a migraine.” Emma massages her temples. “It’ll go away eventually.” She is not going to let this dare get the better of her.

 

Regina frowns. “Come,” she says, and she takes Emma by the wrist and leads her to the elevator, up to her office, and sits her down on the couch. She rubs Emma’s head, massages some of the tension from her shoulders, and murmurs at last, “I can’t believe the town–” 

 

Emma is boneless and at peace beneath Regina’s ministrations. “You said you used to walk amongst the people and they hated you. Maybe you just weren’t walking in the right areas.”

 

“Maybe I killed everyone who preferred Snow,” Regina says darkly, and she doesn’t sound all that pleased about it anymore. Her hands still on Emma’s temples, and she says, her voice more careful, “I am not a good person.”

 

Emma opens her eyes, looks up at Regina’s stony face, and she doesn’t know what to respond to that. Regina isn’t a good person, if you factor in the past and her occasional flights of fury even now. She isn’t stupid, nor has she decided to cope by going full-fledged Team Regina like Henry has. But Emma is equally certain that Regina is no Evil Queen. Not anymore. Her past has shaped who she’s become, and Emma thinks that she’s on a collision course with some kind of goodness, all the same.

 

And she only wants to reach up and comfort Regina right now, a desire stronger than dares or curses can ever be. “I don’t care,” is all she can think to say, and it rings true enough that Regina sighs, her stiff hands relaxing, and Emma lifts herself up to kiss Regina.

 

It’s delicate, careful, and it feels like balancing a glass on one finger, like playing with danger and refusing to submit to it. And it is the only thing that can quiet the urge to fight , to put aside the dare for a moment and enjoy the sight of Regina in red, wrapped in Emma’s arms.

 


 

Granny’s has reopened in record time, with a new state-of-the-art kitchen and an extended indoor and outdoor area. There’s a grand opening where Emma slinks to a corner booth with Regina to avoid the raucous group of dwarves that surround Snow and David on the opposite side of the room (and David smiles at her from there and Emma thinks that there might be some hope, after all) and then clandestine resistance meetings that Emma sees from the window and doesn’t break up.

 

Regina is less than pleased about that . “I thought I made an official decree about resistance meetings.” 

 

“You did. It was tyranny,” Emma points out. “That’s their First Amendment rights. If you wanted to stop it, you should have cursed us back to the seventeenth century.” 

 

Regina gives her a scornful look. “So we could all die of plague? I think not.” She’s in a sleek grey dress today, and Emma has called her Your Majesty far more times than the dress had warranted. “I wish I knew what those dwarves were up to. They’ve been suspiciously quiet since that Town Hall meeting.” 

 

“Maybe they’ve given up,” Henry says hopefully. He’s wearing one of his little rainbow buttons on his shirt, and he’d just stared at Emma when she’d commented on it and said, So ? as though it hadn’t begged any questions.

 

“They don’t know how to,” Regina says grimly. “They’re up to something.” She runs her fingers through her hair, scowling at her reflection.

 

Emma says seriously, “You look very scary.” 

 

Regina gives her a look . “If I have to spend forty-five minutes in a room with Snow White, I’d better look scary .” It’s Parents Night at Henry’s school, and they’re probably going to have to…sit in a room and build birdhouses, according to Regina. She’s been caught between dread at seeing her mother again and warmth at being invited in the first place all evening. “You did find a deputy to patrol tonight, right? I don’t want those dwarves anywhere near the school when we’re there with Henry–” 

 

“Ruby’s on it,” Emma says, laying a hand on Regina’s arm. “Don’t worry . I’ve got it under control.” 

 

It takes about three minutes into Parents Night before it’s clear that Emma does not, in fact, have it under control. Snow has conspicuously avoided their crowded little desk, and there’s an icy chill that permeates the room, Henry’s classmates’ parents glancing at them and then Snow, over and over again. 

 

Emma clenches her fists, angry and frustrated and maybe a little bit hurt, and she tries to absorb herself in their project. “If we’re going to build birdhouses,” Regina decides, waving her hands over their popsicle sticks to transform them, “I want ours to be a castle.” 

 

Henry grins. “ Yes .” As of yet, he seems oblivious to the tension in the air. His desk is decorated with little rainbow stickers, and he sees Emma looking at them and says, “Jack gave them to me. Aren’t they great?” 

 

“So why the sudden interest in rainbows?” Emma asks, narrowing her eyes at him.

 

Regina, somehow utterly oblivious, says, “What’s wrong with rainbows? I hope you’re not feeding our son outdated ideas of toxic masculinity.” She pats Henry on the shoulder and he beams up at her. “I think they’re lovely. We can put one on the birdhouse.” 

 

“This one,” Henry says, digging through his desk, and he pulls out a sticker that says PRIDE emblazoned across the center in rainbow colors. “Because I’m proud to be your kid.” Emma purses her lips together. Regina smiles affectionately at Henry.

 

When Emma looks up, Snow is watching them. She turns away swiftly when Emma sees her, but it’s too slow. Emma swallows and returns to the birdhouse. 

 

She makes it another five minutes on righteous anger before the moroseness sets in, and she fumbles three popsicle sticks (each sharpened at the edges to be properly imposing , according to Regina) before Regina leans over and murmurs in her ear, “You don’t have to stay.” 

 

Emma shakes her head rapidly. “I want to. I’ve never gotten to do this with Henry before–” 

 

“Oh, trust me, you’re going to get lots of chances,” Henry assures her. “We have four Parents Nights a year and we’ve made birdhouses at the last two, also. You’re not missing anything.” He smiles at her, clear and compassionate beyond his age, and then he reaches over and presses a little PRIDE sticker onto her jacket, because he’s also a little shit. “See? The stickers are the best part, and you’re done now.” 

 

Compassionate but also a little shit. Definitely Regina’s kid.

 

Emma is about to refuse, and then Snow walks past, hesitates, and then bends over Henry’s shoulder. “What a…lovely birdhouse, Henry. Very creative.” The sharp spires of the birdhouse jut out forebodingly. Snow’s hand brushes Emma’s arm and Snow yanks it away as though she’s been burned.

 

Emma gets up. “Okay, I’m out,” she announces. “I’m going back to the house, okay?” She looks at Regina, determinedly avoiding Snow’s eyes, and Regina reaches out and squeezes Emma’s hand. “I’ll see you later.” Emma presses a kiss to Henry’s cheek and then a quick, defiant kiss to Regina’s. Regina blinks at her, her eyes wide. 

 

Henry says, “One for you,” and presses a rainbow sticker to his other mother’s dress.

 

And Emma is gone , striding through the halls of the school until she makes it outside and breathes again. She takes off at a run in the direction of Mifflin Street, enjoying the satisfying sensation of her feet pounding the pavement and the nighttime air in her face. It’s cleansing, freeing, a welcome break after the claustrophobia of Henry’s classroom.

 

Fucking Snow. She has no right to make Emma uncomfortable. She has no right to Emma’s emotions at all, and Emma is going to train herself until she doesn’t care anymore. Snow is nobody to her. Snow doesn’t get to be her mother–

 

She’s home before she knows it, and she slips inside, lets Ampy out to run in the backyard a bit and then stretches out on the living room couch, breathing hard. “It doesn’t matter,” she says aloud. “It doesn’t .” She shuts her eyes, refusing to think any more about this, and she lets herself drift off for a nap.

 

And then, a little while later, the house explodes.

 


 

BOOM . It’s a strange sort of explosion, louder and quieter than anything Emma’s ever heard before. The sound emanates outward, and Emma thinks at first that she’s been deafened by it.

 

But no– this is magical in nature. Emma stumbles to her feet, still drowsy, and takes in the glowing room around her. Glowing? There is something floating through the air, thickening it as the room burns around her, like shiny ash…

 

Dust , she finally realizes. Fairy dust . The topic had come up at one of the town meetings, and Regina had forbidden anyone to mine for it because of labor laws and public safety reasons. The dwarves must have gotten it anyway and built some kind of bomb out of it.

 

The air is charged, and when Emma moves, something bursts against her in a series of tiny explosions. “Ah!” She pulls a hand back, sees an inflamed red mark on her wrist.

 

And that movement is enough.

 

The little burst sets off another, then another, until the room is exploding again, that sinister quiet kind of explosion that seems to boom and hiss at the same time. Emma is hit again, this time hard enough on her leg that it won’t move right, and now the room is actually on fire– the house is burning– god , she has to get out–

 

She drops to the floor and crawls, dragging one foot behind her and sparking more fairy dust, and she can distantly feel her heart pounding furiously and her breath coming more faintly. Everything feels disjointed, like she’s close to passing out, like nothing is registering right…

 

And then she hears the scream, desperate and shrill. “ EMMA! ” 

 

A moment later, there’s a burst of magic behind her, Regina’s distinctive purple smoke. “No,” she says, panicked. The fairy dust reacts to the magic, and there’s a massive explosion, one that leaves Regina unconscious and crumpled on the floor. “No,” Emma says again, crawling over to her. 

 

The shrill scream continues. “ EMMA! ” It’s getting closer, and Emma looks down at Regina, baffled through her panic. Who’s…?

 

It sounds almost like Mary Margaret. 

 

A figure barrels through the door, setting off a dozen little explosions that scorch her, and she hurtles through the foyer, looking around wildly– and then, finally, she catches sight of Emma on the floor in the living room. “The firefighters are calling the nuns,” Snow chokes through the smoke, stumbling to her. “I heard the blast and I–” 

 

She seizes Emma, tugs her forward, and Emma shakes her head. “No. No, I have to…” She looks helplessly back at the ground, and Snow doesn’t hesitate. 

 

She gestures to Regina’s right side, and Emma tucks herself under Regina’s arm, holding it steady with her own hand. She can’t stand unaided, and Snow crawls beside her, supporting Regina’s left side as they move through sizzling bits of fairy dust.

 

Finally, after what feels like long minutes of incremental movements, they emerge on the porch and Emma drops to the ground, coughing hard. Fairy dust is worse than smoke, like having glitter in her throat, and she collapses beside Regina and coughs and coughs until she can’t breathe. Snow is bent over her, rubbing circles into her back, pulling off a patch of fairy dust that had embedded itself into her leg.

 

Then, a reprieve. A group of women in habits approach, and they do… something , a little flash of light and then the mansion is clear of fairy dust and Emma can breathe again. There is no more smoke, no fire, just a flash of light and the dust gone. 

 

Emma’s leg still hurts, but she manages to pull herself to a stand now and take in the view in front of her. There is a crowd on the lawn, a few helpless firefighters and a doctor standing by, Ruby holding Henry back and David dashing down the block toward the house. The dwarves are huddled together, some stubborn and some chagrined, and their eyes turn cold when Regina stirs. 

 

“What the hell did you do?” someone spits out, but it isn’t Regina. It’s Snow, stalking down the stairs to Grumpy, and she shoves him hard and throws him into a carefully cultivated bush. 

 

He sprawls in it, gaping up at Snow. “It was just her house! She wasn’t there!” 

 

“My daughter was there!” Snow snarls. “My grandson could have been there! I never said to try to kill her! I said a coup, not a bomb !” Her eyes are wet and furious, and she shoves Happy next, then Sneezy.

 

“You wanted a revolution,” Happy says, his voice reaching a low whine. “This is what happens in revolutions. There’s always a cost–” Snow pulls back her fist and slams it into his face. Emma watches, eyes wide, until she snaps back to herself.

 

“Hey,” she chokes out, hobbling down the stairs. “Wait. Snow, we can’t–” As much as she’d like to beat up the dwarves, they’re dangerously close to a dictatorship already. “You’re under arrest,” she says, and she stumbles a little. Snow puts an arm out, steadying her, and Emma sways a little but stays upright. “And this time, you’re not getting out with a fine.” 

 

The dwarves are silent, muted at Snow’s horror, and Emma exhales with relief when another arm slips around her back, holding her up. Regina stands beside her now, her eyes dark and furious, and she says, “I will execute every last one of you.” 

 

“No,” Emma wheezes. “Trials, remember?”

 

“They deserve to die,” Regina says darkly. “Every last one of them. I’ll–” Her hand lights up in flames and the remaining dwarves who are still standing let out squeaks and scatter. Regina lets out a volley of flames before Emma can stop her, setting the bushes on fire around Grumpy, Happy, and Sneezy. “I’ll kill you!” she roars.

 

Emma darts forward, ignoring the pain in her leg, and yanks first Grumpy, then Sneezy, then Happy from the flames. “Regina–” 

 

Regina throws out a hand and Grumpy is abruptly floating in midair, choking, the flames still burning behind him. “I will make you pay. You think you can try to hurt my family, you insignificant termite?” she demands. “You think you can touch what’s mine ?” 

 

Emma cries out her name, but Regina doesn’t react, and Snow is still standing with one fist clenched and another hand on Emma’s arm. Regina lifts a hand, Grumpy writhing in the air in front of her with his hands on his neck, and her eyes narrow–

 

A small voice says, “Mom?” and Regina freezes. 

 

Henry has gotten past Ruby at last, and he stands behind them, fidgeting with his little rainbow pin. “Please don’t kill anyone on our front lawn,” he says, his eyes wide and imploring.

 

Regina slumps, and Grumpy drops to the ground. The bushes stop burning, and Henry offers his mother a quivering smile and then runs to wrap his arms around her. 

 

Grumpy gets up, his lip curled and his eyes furious. “You should have let her die,” he snarls at Snow, who looks startled at his animosity. 

 

“No,” Snow says, and she looks regretful, a little tentative as she turns to gaze at Emma. Emma flushes, head still spinning as she struggles to make sense of this new Snow, the woman who would run into a burning building to save her even when they’re not speaking. “She means too much to Emma for that.” 

 

Grumpy scoffs. “Please,” he sneers, and he glowers at Regina with malice. “Ruby told me everything.” Emma remembers gradually, as though in slow motion, Ruby’s letter– she’d gone drinking with Grumpy and she always talks too much when she’s drunk– oh, fuck , Grumpy knows–

 

He raises his chin, smug at the devastation he’s about to wreak. “Emma’s just cursed . She has to flirt with the queen. It’s something about her dress color.” He waves his hand dismissively. “I wasn’t really listening. But it’s not real. It’s a curse.” 

 

Of all the ways that Regina could have found out– of all the people who could have told her– Grumpy is the very last choice on Emma’s list. She can feel the sour taste of loss already, of hurting Regina, and she opens her mouth to hotly deny it for however long she can, to at least save face in front of the dwarf–

 

There is a flicker of uncertainty on Regina’s face, and then she says, cool like she’s shut down a thousand blustering idiots before, “You fool. We broke that curse ages ago.” It’s such a convincing bluff that Snow barely has a chance to tense before she relaxes again. Regina keeps her head high, and Emma aches for her, for this humiliation that she had never meant for Regina to suffer. 

 

“Regina…” she whispers, and she clears her throat and tries to lie like Regina does as eyes swing to her. “Yeah,” she says, straightening. “Ages ago.” Regina casts her one look, unreadable, and Emma swallows and can’t meet her eyes to see the betrayal and shock within them.

 

“I am done with you,” Regina says, taking a step forward, and Emma flinches until she sees that Regina is looking at Grumpy. Her eyes are flashing, and she looks…fearsome again, like the Evil Queen that the dwarves keep insisting she is. “I am this close to banishing you from this town and wiping your memories, too.” 

 

“We don’t really have a prison facility in town,” Snow says in a worried whisper, but she doesn’t contradict Regina.

 

“No,” Regina agrees, her voice steely. “The prison-industrial complex is deeply flawed. And I’ve been denied an execution. So I suppose we’ll have to find another way, won’t we?” Henry hugs her tighter, and Regina says, “I think I’ve had enough of this,” and takes his hand and strides into the house.

 

She doesn’t turn back to Emma, and Emma’s afraid to follow them in.

 


 

Snow is still chastising the dwarves as Ruby and Emma lead them to the station, one after the other. Her voice is hard, and she’s nothing like Emma’s seen her before, the overbearing mother gone and replaced with someone fierce and uncompromising. “We have to be better than this,” she says to Grumpy as he stands in one cell, his head hung. “We can’t be…” And she casts a look at Emma, her eyes soft and ashamed, and clears her throat. “We can’t be the villains here.” 

 

The dwarves might be tiny, unstoppable forces when it comes to hating Regina, but Snow White halts them in their tracks with carefully chosen words. All seven of them are weeping by the end, loud and obnoxious sobs that have Ruby making an excuse to leave and David shifting from foot to foot before he does the same.

 

He hesitates in front of Emma, and he finally says, “Can I…?” Emma isn’t entirely sure what he means, but she nods. Abruptly, there are arms around her, strong and warm and tight, and Emma puts her hands on his back and lays her head against his shoulder and savors the strange, impossible feeling of having a father for an instant. 

 

When he leaves, Emma sees Snow behind him, still standing at the cell, her face flush with anguish. She turns away from Emma swiftly, continuing her lambasting of the dwarves for the attack. “That was my daughter ,” she says, and her voice is wet. “That was my daughter.” 

 

Emma can’t hear it anymore. She slips outside, leans against the wall of the station and does her best not to think about the wrenching pain in Snow’s voice.

 

“I’m sorry,” Snow says, because of course she’d followed Emma outside. “I swear I had nothing to do with this. I wouldn’t . I still think about– how terrified I was for you after that explosion at Town Hall last year,” she murmurs. “I woke up the next morning and couldn’t move until I heard your footsteps upstairs–”

 

It’s strange, hearing Snow speak about Mary Margaret as though she’d lived her life. “That wasn’t you,” Emma says, and she closes her eyes, unwilling to see Snow’s expression. 

 

There is silence, and then, “Of course it was me. Emma, I’m not a different person now–” Snow exhales. “I haven’t been fair to you, have I?” she says instead, and Emma opens her eyes and turns to see her expression. Snow is lost in thought, her fingers twisting and untwisting around each other in muted distress. “I was so caught up in the idea of my daughter–” And a ripple of discomfort runs up Emma’s spine– “And I didn’t think about how, well…” Snow raises her eyebrows, a glint of wry amusement in her gaze. It’s the first hint of Mary Margaret that Emma has seen since her roommate had transformed into a fierce warrior-insurgent-slash-overbearing-patronizing-mother. “...emotionally constipated you are.” 

 

Emma thinks about protesting, but the words that emerge from her lips are raw and vulnerable instead. “You abandoned me,” she says, and the words are as tremulous as Henry’s Mom? earlier in the evening. “I don’t care if no time had passed for you. You show up after twenty-eight years and I didn’t…” 

 

She can feel the threat of tears, the way the words stick in her throat, and she rushes them out before she bursts into embarrassing tears. “I didn’t even have my best friend to help me through it,” she gasps out, and Snow takes a step forward, reaches for her and then thinks better of it as Emma squeezes her fists and struggles to regain her composure. “Don’t tell me it was for the good of the kingdom. I don’t– I don’t need to know that my life was a sacrifice you made–” 

 

“It wasn’t supposed to be,” Snow says quietly, and beneath the affected pleading and nagging that she’s been around Emma before is someone else, someone with pain so deep that Emma can feel it permeating them both. “I was supposed to go into that wardrobe. We were going to be in this strange world together from the start.” Emma stares at her, uncomprehending, and Snow murmurs, “But you came early, as the curse was coming, and those twenty-eight years were stolen from me.” She chews on her lip. “I guess we both just…deal with trauma differently.” 

 

“Yeah.” Trauma . Emma wants to point out that Snow still had a choice , that she could have stayed here with her for those twenty-eight years, but she is deflated. Trauma , Snow says, and Emma thinks about giving up Henry, about that whirlwind of emotion about what might have been best for him and the moment when she’d been given the opportunity to hold Henry and had refused it. Henry had gotten his best chance. Emma had gotten a burden of destiny. 

 

“I’m still not going to… defeat Regina,” she says, a touch of defiance in her voice, and Snow pinches the bridge of her nose and laughs a strained little laugh. 

 

“Were you cursed?” she asks, straight to the point.

 

Emma winces. “Not to…not to care about her. Just this dumb thing Ruby did…it’s a long story,” she says, and she thinks with trepidation of Regina, waiting in her house, reeling from Grumpy’s reveal. “It doesn’t change anything.” 

 

Snow considers. “Okay,” she says finally, and this time, she dares to reach over and slip her hand into Emma’s. Emma squeezes it, and oh, breathing is hard right now, and she doesn’t understand how Snow can accept this so easily after so much resentment and conflict.

 

Snow sees the look on her face and smiles sadly. “What?” she says. “Is it so surprising that I can understand it?” She leans back against the wall of the station, her hand still firmly in Emma’s, and she says, “Do you think that you’re the first one in our family to love Regina?”

 

Love Regina , and Snow might mean it very differently, but Emma swallows and thinks of Regina’s uncertainty before she’d shrugged off the curse with a lie. Her heart clenches and– to love Regina? – and Emma takes a shuddering breath and grips her mother’s hand in her own.

 


 

It’s tempting to go back to the loft, to avoid Regina for another night before she has to face the consequences of what she’s done. Snow offers it, tentative and with a hasty only if you want to! , but Emma can’t bear to imagine Regina going so long without Emma explaining , to imagine Regina believing that none of this is real.

 

But when she enters the mansion, her leg still aching just a little, it’s as though nothing has happened at all. Henry is sprawled on the living room couch in his pajamas with a book in hand and Ampy curled up on his legs, and Regina is in the kitchen, tidying up the counter where they’d made a messy attempt at cauliflower pizzas before Parents Night. It feels like another lifetime, before, when Emma had been more afraid of Snow than Regina and they’d been ensconced in the safe embrace of this house.  

 

Emma takes the Windex and sprays the far counter, and Regina just offers her a glancing smile and passes her a rag to rub it down. “Dwarves are all contained?” 

 

“They were pleading community service before I left.” Emma stares down at the counter. “I don’t know. It might be a good idea to give them something more productive to do with their time than attack you.” She clears her throat. “I don’t think Snow will let them try anything else.” 

 

“No, I didn’t think she would.” Regina is subdued at the thought of Snow, and she takes a moment before she says, her tone resigned, “I’m not going to get to decapitate her, am I?”

 

It’s as close to a question about Emma and Snow as she’s gotten, and Emma says ruefully, “I don’t think so.” 

 

“I had a plan ,” Regina says, scowling. “I was going to lace a lasagna with fairy dust and then offer her a drink that would set off a combustion in her intestines–” 

 

“Regina,” Emma says, and she’s faced with such a surge of fondness that she can’t stop the smile from curling onto her face even with the dread of the thing they aren’t talking about, “Why do all your grand plans involve poisoning someone? You know you don’t have the patience for that.” 

 

“I could,” Regina says, narrowing her eyes at Emma. “I played the long con before the curse broke, didn’t I? Years spent–” 

 

“Making bad puns about fairytales and magic to entertain yourself?” It’s a guess, but Emma hears the confirmation in Regina’s outraged gasp. “You’d poison that lasagna and then show up at Snow’s door with a polished speech about making amends, and then you’d stuff it down her throat anyway–” She pauses, realizing that it is probably not the best move to give Regina ideas. “Please do not do that,” she says. 

 

Regina sighs. “Henry wouldn’t let me, anyway.” The counter is clean, but she sprays it again, scrubbing away at nothing on the granite. “You know, it’s very limiting to be an Evil Queen whose son has a moral compass.” 

 

The words are light, and Emma sets aside the tension she feels because Regina hasn’t even mentioned the dare– does she think Grumpy made up the whole thing or– and says gently, “Might be enough for you to reconsider your job title, right?”

 

Regina scrubs a little harder, her shoulders stiff with indecision, and Emma leaves her counter and slides her arms around Regina’s waist, resting her head against Regina’s shoulder and brushing a kiss to her neck. Regina exhales, her hands falling, and she murmurs, “It might be.”

 

They stand entwined for a moment, wrapped together as one, and Regina slips her hands over Emma’s. It feels good, feels like something worth keeping forever, and Emma can almost put aside her fears about the dare for a moment. She can’t lie about it, can’t avoid it forever, but she’s going to enjoy this stolen moment before everything is turned upside down again.

 

Regina says suddenly, “Did you put that there?” 

 

Emma blinks, startled, and follows Regina’s gaze to a rainbow magnet on the fridge. “I think that was your son,” she says.

 

“Oh, now he’s my son.” Regina makes a face and pecks a kiss to Emma’s face before she moves away to examine the magnet. “What is this new fixation on rainbows? I tried telling him earlier that leprechauns aren’t real, and he looked at me as though I was the one acting off. Your son is a strange, strange child.” 

 

And there’s something about the mention of Henry and his rainbows, about acting off and their very unusual child, that finally sets Emma off. She blurts it out, all at once in a surge of word vomit– “It’s true. What Grumpy said, I mean. Not about the– not about everything being fake – this whole fucking dare started because I was drunk and ranting about how unfairly gorgeous you were– but it’s true. Or…fake. It’s just that the curse is there.” She can’t keep track anymore, lost in the winding path of her own words.

 

Regina blinks at her. “No, it isn’t,” she says, and she crouches down to put the Windex away in the cabinet beneath the sink.

 

Emma feels a wave of despair at this absurd, impossible situation. “I’m telling you, it is. Ruby got some amulet from Gold back before the curse broke and it made her stupid little dare into a curse, and it’s been weeks –” 

 

“No,” Regina says slowly, as though she is speaking to a very young child. “I’m not saying that there wasn’t a curse, obviously.” She makes her way to the fridge and opens it, pulling out a pitcher of cider. “You never had to work so hard to flirt with me before then. Or pick a fight, for that matter.”

 

Emma blinks at her, the words beginning to settle into the fuzzy despair that has taken up residence in her brain. “You knew ?” 

 

Regina removes two glasses from a cabinet, pours cider into each. “It would have been nice of you to tell me,” she says, a severe cast to her voice, and she turns to face Emma again. “But I have always paid a bit more attention to you than strictly necessary. I caught on quickly.” She passes Emma one glass, her eyes grave, and Emma is caught within them, breathless.

 

She swallows back some of the cider. It burns, but it’s a good feeling, like cleansing the last bits of fairy dust from her throat. “I’m sorry,” Emma says, holding Regina’s gaze. “I thought that if I beat it without telling you…I didn’t want to hurt you. I still don’t. That red dress the other day nearly killed me.” 

 

Regina is still staring at her, her brow furrowed and– yes, there’s the look of disbelief, of outrage that Emma had expected. It occurs abruptly to Emma that she hasn’t felt the urge to call Regina Your Majesty all evening, when she hadn’t been thinking about it. “Emma,” Regina says, her head shaking very slowly. “Did you sleep through my true love’s kiss?” 

 

What . “What?” 

 

Regina sets her glass down and spins around, pacing the kitchen. “I don’t believe this.” 

 

“True lo– what ?” Emma repeats.

 

“Finally. I finally get to break a curse– and of course, the Charmings are all breaking them willy-nilly, typical – and no one notices.” Regina throws up her hands. “Even the person I kiss doesn’t notice.” She spins around. “Have you just been…didn’t you notice that the compulsions to act on the dare were gone?” 

 

Emma drinks a little more cider. It does not make any of this make any more sense. “No. Maybe,” she says, because hadn’t she fought off the compulsion to fight Regina? Has she even been feeling compulsions like before, or has it just been easy to flirt and compliment and tell Regina the truth now? “Maybe it was just habit by then?” 

 

“I wondered why you kept calling me Your Majesty earlier, but I just thought you were bad at flirting– and what was it? Was that grey?” Emma nods dumbly. “I could never figure out blue,” Regina says, shaking her head. “I thought it might be that you’d have to lie to me, because you were always so nice –”

 

“Lie?” Emma sputters. “I gave you compliments !” 

 

Regina scoffs. “Don’t tell me you meant them. You once told me that I was the best parent any kid in this town would be lucky to have, and we weren’t even together then–” 

 

Emma surges forward, struck by impossible adoration and the certainty that if she doesn’t kiss Regina right now, they’re going to have their most ridiculous fight ever. Regina lets out a muffled noise, but she kisses Emma anyway, pulling her close and twisting them to back Emma against the counter.

 

Somewhere in that kiss, Emma finds herself again, and a little bit more of what Regina has said finally registers. She pulls away, her eyes wide, and says, “ True love’s kiss ?” 

 

“It was the night after we went to Portland,” Regina says, and she’s calmed down, too. “I brought you back to me, remember?” She raises a hand to stroke Emma’s cheek, her eyes shining, and Emma is on the verge of– of either a panic attack or a blurted admission or something that would make Snow’s accusation of emotional constipation look like the understatement of the century.

 

But Regina looks at her with those gentle eyes that have seen too much, and there are no more compulsions anymore that force Emma to speak.

 

So she stands with Regina, at peace together in the place that they’ve carved out for themselves, and she doesn’t say another word.