The setting sun illuminates the pair standing on her doorstep. A small brown-haired boy jumps up and down in excitement next to his mother who glances at him in restrained amusement. “If I didn’t know any better, I’d say Henry prefers you over me.”
It’s been like this for years, without any proper greeting or goodbye, and it suits Emma just fine when she’s good at neither of those things. “Please,” she teases her friend, “of course he likes me better.” To demonstrate her point, Emma bends down to tickle Henry, making him squirm in her grasp before she gives him a crushing hug. Henry leans into it, hanging onto her even as she stands.
“Look Mommy!” Henry says enthusiastically as he curls his legs around Emma’s waist. “I can do it all by myself.” Emma offers him a strained smile, but keeps her hands hovering over his legs in case he can’t hold on any longer.
“A monkey for a monkey,” comes the reply.
Both Emma and Henry shout out a disgruntled, “Hey!”
That earns them a laugh, the most melodic sound Emma will ever hear in her life. And she hates how vulnerable she is to this crush, one that she’s carried with her from high school. Pinning after a woman she knows will never be hers is painful, but Emma sucks it up and reminds herself how grateful she is that she gets to spend this time with the cutest boy in the world—and, when the occasion calls for it, his gorgeous mother.
“Alright, alright,” Emma says, shooing her friend from the door, who obediently steps back onto the porch. She lingers there in the light of the dying sun, oranges and yellows catching the ends of her dark hair. Emma sucks in a breath when they stare at each other for too long, when the details of one Regina Mills becomes a spell she can't resist. Clearing her throat, because this tension can't possibly be about them , she chalks their pause up to Henry and says, “He’ll be fine, your majesty,” in a placating tone. “Go on, have fun.”
Pressing a kiss to Henry’s head, the scent of floral perfume wafting up to Emma’s nose, Regina whispers, “Be good,” into his hair. Her hand settles on Emma’s shoulder next, squeezing tightly in thanks. “I’ll be back by eleven.”
“It’s okay if you’re a little later,” Emma soothes, knowing how important this date is. But she only receives a stiff smile before that hand falls away from her shoulder.
Looking up from the crook of Emma’s neck, Henry waves at Regina who blows him a kiss. “Bye Mommy!” he screams too loudly, and they’re both rewarded with dazzling smile that Emma loathes to admit makes her feel more than she’s supposed to.
Once the black Mercedes backs out of the driveway and disappears down the road, Emma takes them inside and closes the door with all her feelings left out in the cold. Twenty minutes later however, once the sun has gone down and they have warm drinks in their hand to sit near the fire, the inevitable question comes. “Do you have any stories?”
Emma can’t help but laugh. She shakes her head, knowing better than to think this six-year-old with a thirst for legends would leave her degree on anthropology and history alone.
Henry scoots closer to her, dragging his blanket with him to settle next to the armchair where Emma sits. “Please?” he pouts, and Emma tries, she really does for three whole seconds, but that cute little face is something she cannot resist.
“What story would you like to hear?” she indulges him. Her book on the history of Saint Nicholas is set aside on a pile of papers, cast away for a child with green eyes now filled with glee.
He sits up straighter and says, “A story about a bird! And a wolf! And—”
“And?” Emma interrupts with an entertained bark, knowing she won’t possibly be able to find anything so specific if he continues.
“And about two girls, who love each other.” Henry looks up at Emma shyly, picking at the loose thread on her pants. “Like you and Mommy do.”
Emma chokes on a sip of her tea, trying very hard not to panic at Henry’s assumption. It might be obvious to everyone that Emma is in love with her best friend, but said best friend is straight, and currently out on a date with someone named Sam. Emma doesn’t have a chance, no matter how much she wishes. But Henry blinks up at her patiently, and she knows this story might do more harm than good.
Reaching down, Emma pulls Henry up onto her lap and drapes the blanket over him. “Once upon a time,” she starts, and their imaginations lend way to another world.
In a land far away, there lives a boy with a destiny that is etched into his craft. One day, when the sun is setting low in the sky and the boy is hungry enough to steal, that is when this story starts.
A baker, with a round stomach and furious expression bursts out of his shop. “Thief! Thief!” he calls, pointing at boy who runs down the road. The baker’s large belly and stumpy stance make him slower than the child who darts and weaves, jumping over boxes and diving under carts with a loaf of bread in his hand that he clutches to his chest.
The young thief laughs as he skids into a nearby alley and presses himself against the stone. He keeps his voice quiet and narrows down his laughter to a smile. The poor baker runs right past him, huffing and puffing about his bread.
Satisfied, the boy thinks he’s safe when he glances back and finds the alleyway empty. He licks his lips and looks down at his steal, knowing it will keep him fed for a day or two. Just as he’s about to break off a piece, a voice sounds from the darkness.
“A loaf of bread, eh?” it asks, and the thief jumps in surprise.
When the boy turns around, he finds a looming presence making its way toward him. From the shadows a large man emerges with his hands on his hips and a twirling moustache that curls up at the ends. Swallowing back his fear, the boy says, “Yes, sir. I have a loaf of bread. I am to take it to my ailing mother.”
“And pray tell,” the man asks, his heavy hand landing on the thief’s shoulder with a smile too wide, “where does your mother live?”
The boy laughs nervously and tries to stumble back, his hands raised in surrender. Unable to find a suitable answer, he turns around and attempts to flee. But the man, large and clever, only chortles as he grabs the thief’s collar to drag him away.
“No!” Henry yells.
Emma startles at the outburst. She hasn’t even started the story yet and Henry is already so passionate. “What is it?” she asks him,
He leans in close, moves the hair away from her ear and cups his hand around it. “He’s a boy,” Henry whispers too loud. “I don’t want a story about a boy.”
Pressing her lips together to hide her smirk, Emma nods in agreement. “What if the boy’s name is Henry?” she asks sweetly, “and he is the one who finds the women?”
Sitting back down, Henry plonks himself into a comfortable position on Emma’s lap and effectively knocks the wind from her. “Okay,” he agrees, and pulls the blanket up to his neck like he didn’t interrupt in the first place. “Carry on with the story.”
All Emma can do is snort, seeing too much of Regina of him. “Well, the man with the moustache was the sheriff, you see. And he took the thief by his collar to be punished.”
“But the thief was a smart boy, and no one could hold him for long…”
Henry the thief twists within the sheriff’s grasp once they’ve made their way onto the dirt path. The fabric that the sheriff clutches tears away from his shirt with a ripping sound that Henry mourns. Although, he has no time to worry about his clothes, not when the sheriff reaches back to grab him. Ducking from the large hand, Henry runs in the direction of the woods. It has always been his home, and when he slips away from the moustached man, he knows just where to go.
“Come back here, boy!” The sheriff yells, but Henry hoots when he sees the man far behind him. They’re all too slow for a thief like him. No one is faster, not even the bird that he sometimes watches, circling the woods like it’s searching for something.
Once the sheriff’s shouting and yelling fades, Henry slows down to rest against a fallen tree. He takes out a small bun he had hidden in his vest and examines it before he begins to eat with tiny bites. The day is almost over, and Henry is saddened that for all his hard work, a bun is the only thing to show for it.
Looking up at the sky, he raises his hands to an unseen force. "Unfair, " he breathes, shaking his head in disappointment. A speck flies past the orange sky, and Henry follows it with his gaze with a growing smile on his face. It's his bird!
Large and graceful, with brown wings and a hooked beak that promises speed and power. Henry only saw it up close once, and the bird had looked at him with such knowing, that Henry had run away. But today, after being chased by the baker and caught by the sheriff, Henry thinks he deserves to make a new friend.
The sun slips lower in the sky, and the bird swoops down into the woods. Like chasing a kite, Henry gets up and runs after it. But it isn't easy to follow something so fast, something that goes this way and that, weaving through trees with an ease Henry himself cannot manage. When he finally comes across a small clearing in the woods, Henry sees something only possible in tales of madmen.
What was once a hawk, dangerous and imposing, morphs into a woman—
“What does morph mean?" Henry interrupts. And Emma mentally face palms when she realises these stories need to be watered down.
“Morph means change,” she tells him.
He looks at her with a narrowed gaze, still confused. Then, like a switch, his eyes widen, and he sits up on his knees to grab Emma’s face. “Is this the first girl?!” he asks excitedly, “and she’s a bird?!” And before Emma can answer any question, he screams in her face in excitement.
It’s funny how he never does this with his mother, but Emma’s eardrums apparently need to be burst. “Alright, watch the volume, kid.”
Henry says, “Sorry.” And settles again, but not without looking up at Emma with a million questions in his gaze.
“What?” she asks. And that’s the end of her.
“How does the bird lady look? Is she pretty? What is she wearing after she changes from a bird? Is it a bird dress—”
Clamping her hand over Henry’s mouth, Emma leans down until it’s her whispering in his ear. “She’s very beautiful,” she answers. “So beautiful that the richest man in the town wants to marry her—wait, you weren’t supposed to know that yet.” Casting Henry an apologetic look, Emma leans back to take a sip of her now lukewarm tea. “And no, she’s not wearing anything—”
"I don't think I'm supposed to know that ,” Henry says cheekily. Emma sticks her tongue out at him.
“She’s wearing a very simple white dress,” Emma amends.
“And her name is Emma!”
Twice now, Emma chokes on her tea. “Buddy no, her name is—”
“Emma.” There is no room for argument, And Emma fears she might be found dead in a few hours when Regina comes to fetch Henry if she doesn’t agree to this.
She sighs. “Okay, Emma it is.”
Henry watches the hawk change into a beautiful woman. Her hair is as bright as the sun, her eyes like two emeralds fashioned from the Gods, and her pale skin is shielded from the elements with a simple white dress that sparkles with magic.
She glances back at Henry only once, smiles at him tenderly like he’s someone she knows, and then walks away deeper into the forest.
Curious, Henry runs after the woman. He’s confused and intrigued, and he knows he can make a fortune if only the woman is willing to showcase her talents for the townspeople to see. He barrels through trees and trips over roots, and only when he catches sight of the woman’s skirt, does he crouch low into the bushes to watch what happens next.
Before him, as the sky darkens to beckon the end of the day, he sees someone else embrace the woman. But hands turn into fur covered legs and faces already hidden by the trees blur into a large wolf. The sight of two beings who can change into animals makes Henry suck in a breath. Double the money, he thinks.
His surprise however, doesn’t fare well for his balance. Swallowing a gasp, Henry leans forward to catch himself, but the bush is only so large and his body sprawls out on the ground before the woman and wolf. He sees teeth, large as his fingers, and a snapping jaw that makes to eat him alive.
“No!” he yells, “please don’t eat me! I have bread instead!”
The sight of Henry holding up a half-eaten bun to save himself makes the woman from earlier laugh. Her smile distracts the wolf who pads over to her and settles firmly at her side like a guard.
“He is only a boy,” the light-haired woman says. “And he has bread.”
The wolf, surprisingly, listens to the teasing tone of the lady. “Yes,” Henry murmurs, slowly pushing himself up to stand. “I have bread, and I’m nice.” He glances at the woman who had been a bird, giving her grateful smile.
She reaches out despite the wolf’s low growl and takes Henry’s bun. “Would you like some?” she asks the wolf, but it snorts at her instead; and Henry gapes in surprise when it answers the question with a roll of its eyes. Shrugging, the lady breaks the bun in half and hands a piece over. “You are very kind young man.”
“Henry. My name is Henry.”
“I am Emma,” the lady offers, smiling at him with such beauty that Henry leans closer to her without thinking. Only when the wolf growls at him does he step back. “And this,” Emma says, running her hand over the wolf’s head, “is—”
They’ve made their way to the kitchen now after Henry silently rubbed his tummy and pouted. And the sudden interruption makes Emma spill milk all over the counter. “Mommy?” she asks. Her upper lip curls in irritation as she washes a wet rag to wipe the milk away. “What kind of name is that?”
“It’s Mommy’s name.” Henry says stubbornly. “You promised me the story will be about a bird and a wolf, and you and mommy.”
“Woah! I promised no story about me and your Mom. You asked for a story about two women in love and that’s all I’m giving you.”
She hands him his hot chocolate once the counters are milk free, and bends to check on the chicken nuggets still in the oven. Henry, however, doesn’t let it go. What he does is the exact same thing Regina did in her youth, and gets off the stool without help to disappear from the kitchen. When Emma looks up to check if he likes the hot chocolate, she panics when he isn’t there.
“Henry?” she calls, No answer. “Henry where did you go?” Peeking her head into the lounge and dining room, Emma sees nothing out of the ordinary. Next is her study that’s devoid of any six-year-olds, and finally, her bedroom.
She finds Henry behind her bed, packing away all his things into a tiny suitcase she had bought for him two birthdays ago. “Whatcha doin’, buddy?” she asks.
“Leaving,” he says sternly, and proceeds to throw things into his bag without breaking eye-contact.
Trying to swallow her laughter, Emma bends down to peek into his suitcase. “Oh,” she says, feigning hurt, “I’ll miss you, I guess.” The betrayal on Henry’s face is unmatched. Okay maybe not, but the only person who can top that is the woman who printed out an exact version of herself, and leaves Emma to find all the similarities between mother and son to swoon over. Picking through the things he deems important enough to pack, Emma holds up an ironman action figure and chuckles when the only thing she sees in the suitcase is toys. “No underwear, clothes nor your toothbrush?”
Henry only glares. He grabs the ironman figure from her hand and places it neatly in his suitcase. When it slams shut, Emma knows she’s done for. “Well, more nuggets for me.” A sigh, and she sits up to leave, but when Henry doesn’t make a move, she glances back to find him frowning at the floor. “Unless you want to share?”
“Will you make a sauce?” He asks, almost daring her to say no.
She pretends to think it over. “How about you help me make the sauce and I’ll finish the story?”
Henry stands, but he drags his suitcase with him. “Is the wolf Mommy?” he asks, his lips pursed in anger.
Taking the suitcase gently from Henry’s hand, Emma sets it down by the door and slowly walks him back to the kitchen. “You made me change one name, why not another.” And this is where she’ll get scolded for giving Henry everything he wants, but Emma isn’t immune to those puppy-eyes.
“Right,” she says, tying an apron over Henry’s clothes. “So, Henry met Emma who can turn into a bird. And she introduced him to the wolf.”
“And she ate his bread.”
Frowning, Emma sets a pan on the stove and adds butter to melt. “And they shared Henry’s bread,” she agrees, knowing now not to argue important points with a child. “Emma tells Henry that the name of the wolf is Regina.”
“Mommy,” Henry insists.
Emma pauses her task as she looks at Henry who is almost the same height as her when he stands on his little stool. “Yes," she agrees, "Regina.”
He gets angry, his little hands slapping the counter in warning. “Mommy’s name is Mommy!”
Oh . Oh no.
Switching the stove off, Emma turns to face Henry fully. “You know how my name is Emma, but everyone keeps telling you to call me Aunt?” Henry nods. “It’s the same. You call your Mom Mommy, but her real name is Regina.”
Devastated. That’s the only word for it. “But you don’t call her that,” Henry points out before falling into her and smashing his face into her chest. Emma catches him in an embrace, and winces when she's rightfully called out about her stupid nickname for Regina. It’s always Your Majesty, and it’s been like this since Regina won best actress for her role as The Queen of Hearts in their high school play nearly twenty years ago.
She pats Henry’s back in sympathy. It isn’t easy knowing your parent’s names are not what you've been calling them your entire life. “Do you want the rest of the story?” she asks, completely flying over his unasked question of why she calls Regina anything but her name.
A huff, one that begs for more comfort, and Henry nods a yes.
“Alright, now, where were we?”
“Regina?” Henry asks, pointing to the wolf. “Is she your companion, like a horse?”
Emma laughs at him, utterly bemused by her new friend. “No. Not like a horse. But we will forever be bound.”
The loving look in Emma’s eyes confuses Henry. He’s seen an animal turn into a human, and a human turn into an animal. “Is it because you are a hawk?” he can’t help but ask. Emma stiffens at his question and her expression turns dark. The wolf beside her growls low.
“No,” she says sharply. “I am not a bird.” She seems to forget herself, that she speaks to a child who has offered her food and no judgement. Her shoulders relax once she turns to him again, a small smile fixed in place. “It wasn’t always like this. And it won’t be for long.”
The sky becomes as dark as a secret, blanketing the woods in mystery. There's something about the hawk and wolf that Henry can't wrap his head around, but he knows that he's part of their story now.
When blinks, the lady and her wolf are gone, leaving behind only the image of Emma’s smile and Regina’s bared teeth.
“Regina is mean.”
Emma watches him dunk his nuggets into the sauce and chew thoughtfully. “She’s only trying to protect Emma.” And yikes , it’s still hard for her to refer to these characters as Regina and herself. But Henry remains unphased and steals a nugget from Emma’s plate with a cheeky grin. “Also, don’t call your mother that.”
Looking at her blankly, Henry gives her a look that dares Emma to think he isn’t as clever as Regina is constantly telling him he is. In retaliation, because Regina also tells Emma that she’s a child, Emma reaches forward and bites the nugget out of Henry’s hand. “Hey!”
“You snooze, you lose.”
Making a funny face, Emma barely has time to dodge before Henry reaches over and gives her a messy kiss on her cheek. There is sauce everywhere. In her hair, her mouth, down her shirt, and all Henry does is clap his hands and laugh happily to himself.
“Oh,” she warns, standing up from her chair. “I’m going to get you!” The shriek of delight that Henry affords her shouldn’t encourage Emma, but if there’s anything in this world that makes her happy, then it’s this kid that will leave handprints on her walls, giggling as he runs.
When she finally catches Henry and blows a few raspberries on his stomach, Emma realises they might have a very messy situation on their hands. “Oh no,” Henry says dramatically as he looks around the kitchen. “Look what you did.”
“What I did— How ?” Groaning, Emma sits in Henry’s vacated seat and sets him on her lap.
Immediately, Henry reaches for another one of Emma’s nuggets, and chews with a smile despite his own plate being full. “Where did Emma and Regina go?” He asks, and just like that, they’re thrown back into the story.
A farmer’s barn is chosen for the night, and Henry settles into a pile of hay with a hungry stomach. He had met a bird, and a woman, and a wolf, and he knows no one will believe him if he tells them they were all one in the same. If he had the gift to spin tales, perhaps he could sell it as entertainment on the street, but already, he knows the sheriff will be looking for him.
So, he sleeps, content with a pile of hay and half a bun. But that isn’t to say the farmer who finds him is just as pleased.
“Get out of here, boy!” comes a shout too early in the morning.
Henry jerks awake, finding a pitchfork too close to his face. As scared little boys often do, he screams. “ Ahh !” The dreadful sound escapes Henry, and it stirs something from outside the barn.
“Begone!” The farmer shouts, turning the pitchfork over to threaten Henry with the stick. And Henry has been beaten before, knows how painful it can be. But the hay is slippery, and his eyes are still gritty from sleep.
The farmer lifts his make-shift stick, and Henry flinches before it cracks down—but no pain comes. “Get off me!” The farmer yells, sounding just as scared as Henry had been. He waves his arms and pats his behind, but his screams do not stop. Only when a black wolf releases his bum does the farmer run with his hands over his bottom, crying mercy to the wolf who Henry recognises only vaguely.
“Thank you,” he tells the wolf through his laughter, absently petting it's head.
In the distance, the sun begins to rise, and a ray of light reflects into the barn to catch the glow of a white dress. Emma .
She stands before the wolf and watches it change. Henry looks on in awe as his hand slides down fur that turns into skin, and instead of a head, he grasps a very human hand. In the wolf's place, a woman stands. Her posture is perfect, and her long tumbling curls are the same shade as the black fur of the wolf. Tanned skin is hidden behind a navy-blue dress, dotted with intricate patterns that look like stars. Brown eyes turn to Henry briefly, then skip to Emma who rushes to embrace Regina.
In a matter of seconds, the bird that Henry has been so fond of sits in Regina’s arms, and there is no sight of Emma anywhere.
“Wow,” Henry breathes, and Regina turns to look at him like she forgot he was even there. She wrenches her hand out of grasp, embarrassed despite herself.
“It is rude to be in awe of a curse.” Regina sounds scolding, far sterner than Emma who smiled at him like he was an innocent boy. Regina looks at him like he’s a man, and Henry doesn’t know whether he likes it or not yet.
He stands from his pile of hay and looks Regina square in the eye. “Why can’t I?” he asks. “You get to be a wolf, and Emma gets to be a bird. Who wouldn’t want that?”
Before Regina can respond, the hawk gives a scolding call from where it sits on Regina’s shoulder. At this, Regina deflates and gestures for Henry to follow. “Come,” she tells him as if reluctantly obeying orders from a wife. “You must be hungry.”
And Henry knowing no one else in the town who would offer him food, follows.
Henry splashes in the bath, and subsequently soaks Emma to the bone. “Oh no,” he says, and Emma expects him to be sorry about how she looks like a drowned rat. Instead, he moans, “They can never be together.”
One of her eyebrows rise to her hairline, unable to hide how impressed she is. “Uh, yeah. I mean, I was getting to that part. Now you’ve spoilt it.”
He scoffs at her, “It’s like you and Mommy,” he says casually, and Emma tries not to have a heart attack whenever Henry makes too many assumptions. “Mommy is with me in the day, and you are with me in the night.”
“Not all nights, kid.”
Henry looks up from where he’s filling his rubber ducky with water to squirt at Emma later. “But it’s night now,” he argues, and really, Emma doesn’t have a reasonable comeback, because that would mean telling Henry that his mother is dating again. And she’s already shocked Henry enough by telling him Regina’s real name.
Spluttering, Emma wipes her eyes clean with her hand when a spray of water hits her face. Henry openly laughs at her state with the empty rubber ducky in his hand. “That’s how you wanna play, huh?” she asks, and swipes her hand through the water to completely douse Henry. He coughs, now thoroughly wet, and retaliates.
By the time they’re done, there is no water left in Henry’s bath, and the floor is slippery enough that Emma skids when she carries Henry out in a damp towel. “You started it,” she tells Henry, and he doesn’t deny the blame when Emma wipes him down and puts him in clean pyjamas.
“Okay, okay! What happened next?”
“With the story?” Emma asks.
She takes a mop and bucket to the bathroom and tries to clean up as much as she can before someone seriously gets hurt. Henry follows her and stands in the doorway, his hair sticking up every which way. “Yeah,” he answers softly, mesmerised by Emma’s handiwork as the bathroom slowly transforms back to its original state.
“Regina fed him of course. She may be strict and a little hard to read, but she’s a big ol’ softie. You see, she was a warrior, and a respected member of the queen’s guard. But she was also afraid to tell the queen of her struggles, because the person who cursed them was a good friend of the crown.”
“Captain,” A guard greets, “Captain,” another says with a salute. Henry watches in amazement as people look at Regina with respect. Something he always wanted for himself but could never achieve by being a thief. Maybe it's because she carries a hawk on her shoulder, that's what he thinks.
He’s led to a small wooden table in a tavern he has never been old enough to grace. “Here,” Regina says harshly, as she slides Henry a bowl, “you’re too skinny.”
Henry laughs at her but doesn’t refuse the bowl of stew. “A curse,” he teases her, “to be skinny no matter how much you eat. Is there a thing for that? Because I’m sure I have it.”
Unamused, and the complete opposite to Emma whose beak opens as if in laughter, Regina only stares at him in distaste. “You are a thief, yes?”
“I only take what I need. And never from those who need it more than I do.”
“Oh dear,” Regina drawls, “we have a Robin Hood in our midst.”
Henry lifts his chin to seem taller than he is. “Really?” he asks with a sparkle in his eyes, “do you think so?”
He can see Regina straining to hold back her smile, to seem stoic and important to a child who has no one. But she sighs and reaches across the table to wipe the stew clinging to his mouth. “You could be. If you help me.”
Taking another bite of food, Henry considers what Regina is asking. “Are you going to break the curse?” he whispers, and Regina perks up, “so, you can both be animals again?”
Emma screeches and hides her face with her wing. Henry doesn't know if she's laughing or embarrassed. He wishes he could speak bird.
Spluttering, Regina pushes back from the table and stands to tower over Henry, taking Emma with her. “My wife and I,” she says in a tone so cold that Emma stops shaking, and Henry can feel his stew freezing into a block, “are not animals . We are human and have always been human. I wish to capture the man who cursed us, but I cannot get close to him without arousing suspicion from the queen.”
Gulping, Henry looks up at the mismatched pair. He still can't see why they would want to give up their animal forms, but grownups are weird, and he hasn't had an adventure in forever. “So," he says with a cheeky grin, "you need me."
When Regina forces a smile to reveal a line of perfect teeth, Henry swears he sees a bit of the wolf in her. "For now," she says, and pats his shoulder in warning.
Henry clumsily wipes the kitchen counters as Emma tackles the handprints on the walls. He looks guilty enough to help out, but Emma knows she’ll have to go back and do Henry’s job properly. As long as he thinks he’s doing something, that’s enough for her.
“Did the stew really freeze?”
Snorting into her hand, Emma squats to hide her face from Henry and wipe another streak of sauce from the wall. “It’s an expression,” she tells him. “But no, Regina isn’t the villain.”
“Hmm,” Henry hums to himself. He gets off his stool and places it neatly in its corner, then throws the dirty rag into the sink for Emma to deal with later. “This is boring,” he whines, “I thought they were gonna be in love, but they’re not.”
Well, Henry wanted a story about Regina and her, and this is as close to romantic that Emma can make it without sounding too wistful. But, six-year-old boys demand romance, and Emma is nothing but a wimp in the face of a tired munchkin who sits on her couch and pouts cutely.
“What do you want to happen?” she asks instead, if only because Henry has proven to have excellent ideas, and Emma admits she encourages him if only to see Regina's horrified expression when he eventually tells her he wants to be an author when he grows up.
Henry squints at her as he thinks. “They should kiss, and the curse is broken by true love! Like Sleeping Beauty and Snow White.” He taps his index finger against his chin as he piles orders against Emma. “And I want them to live together. And have pets, and love Henry.”
Emma raises her eyebrow, pausing her work as she turns to look at Henry who has completely gone off track. “That’s a whole other story,” she admits. Because Regina and she aren’t together, none of them have pets, but they do love Henry. And maybe that’s why he latches onto the idea of them, thinks that Emma would make a good substitute for his father who died before he was born.
“Tell me that one then,” he insists.
“You sure? Because that story won’t have them turning into hawks and wolves.”
Henry kicks his legs out with a huff. “Okay fine. But promise me they’ll be happy.”
Licking her lips, Emma reaches out to pinch Henry’s cheek. “Maybe. But they’ve got to defeat the bad guy first, right?”
A plan forms, one that has been brewing long before Henry met them. Regina tells him of the queen's advisor named Gold, and how her plan needs a young thief to slip between secret passageways and open a door to Gold's private chambers. And if anything goes wrong, Emma will signal them.
The only problem is that all of this must be done during the day.
“Why?” Henry asks as he walks alongside Regina.
“Because,” Regina explains, “I am human in the day. And I am far more skilled with a sword than Emma.” From high above them, a hawk screeches in disagreement.
Henry asks through his stifled giggle, “What are you going to do when you get into the castle?”
Regina turns grave, and her lips purse with too many secrets between them. “The only way to break this curse is to kill its caster.”
Henry protests by grabbing onto Regina’s hand, but she stops him in the middle of the road and crouches down to his eye level. “Gold is a rich man, and he has desired Emma for her title and beauty since she came before him during one of the Queen’s balls. He was outraged when he found out that I was the one who captured Emma’s attentions. He cursed us to always be apart despite being together. I cannot live like this.”
“You will not live in peace if you kill!” Henry is ashamed to admit that he’s become attached to the cursed couple, that he sees something special about them. But to aid in someone’s death isn’t what he signed up for. Pulling from Regina’s grasp, Henry sprints away from her.
She chases him and is far faster than the sheriff or the baker. Her stance is strong, and she reaches Henry just as he slips through the gates of an old cottage, the one they say is haunted.
“You will help me,” Regina insists, her grip on his arm too strong to flee from. Henry screams, falling to the floor as he tries to escape her.
The hawk above them calls, a warning that none of them heed. By the time Regina looks up, the door to the cottage flies open and it’s too late. “Oh dear,” comes the drawl, “unwanted visitors.”
A hag, old and frail stands before them, and Henry shuffles back in fear to stand behind Regina who shields him with her sword. “Stand back, old crone!”
“You require assistance,” the crone purrs, and her voice sounds too young to belong to someone who looks like they’re flirting with death. “Bring your lover inside and we will see what we can do.”
Henry leans up, looking at Regina with wide, determined eyes. There could be another way, one that might be dangerous, but maybe no one has to die.
“Don’t do it,” Regina whispers warningly, already tugging him away.
The crone disappears inside the house, leaving the door wide open. Emma flies down to perch on Henry’s shoulder, pecking at Regina's hand that keeps him in a grip. “What’s the worst that could happen?” he asks and then runs inside with Regina chasing him, only for the door to shut behind them.
“Lovely!” the crone cackles from somewhere in the cottage. But Henry can’t make out where she is. “I see you’ve been cursed,” the crone continues, and there’s a burst of light from the fireplace that illuminates the surprisingly homey space. The crone that Henry saw transforms like Regina and Emma did, but instead of an animal, a young woman sits on an armchair with a smirk on her face that says she’s pleased with the matching expressions of surprise on her guest's faces.
“ They are,” Henry says, pointing to Regina and Emma. “The only thing I’m cursed with is good looks.”
That earns him a smack on the back of his head from Regina, but the witch laughs so freely that she stands up to face him. “A delightful one, this. Fated for greatness.” She gently taps his cheek, then turns to Regina who still has her sword pointed at the woman. “And you,” the crone purrs with a smile, “are far too angry.” Just like that, the sword melts into nothingness, and Regina steps back in alarm.
“Witch,” Regina hisses, “release us!”
The witch in question cocks her head to the side, then looks to Henry for support. “I did not drag you inside by your collars. If you wish to leave without hearing the solution to your problems, then be my guest.”
All too eager, Regina grabs Henry’s arm and tugs him in the direction of the door. He thinks she’s scared, that all these displays of magic might leave her unbalanced. “Wait!” he says, scrambling to hold onto something so Regina doesn’t take him away. “Surely there must be a better way than murder.”
“Oh, there is,” the witch says casually. This is what makes Regina stop, and she looks back at the witch with wide eyes.
“What is it?”
A slow smile spreads across the witch’s lips, and she holds out an empty clay pot. “First, payment.”
“You’ve taken my sword,” Regina growls, “I have nothing else to give.”
Shifting, the witch looks at Henry and then Emma. The hawk stretches its wing, shaking it until a feather falls into the pot. Henry on the other hand groans as he removes the last piece of bread he had stowed away and throws that into the pot next to the feather. “Excellent!”
Henry looks on curiously as the witch gathers all their payments and tosses it into the fire, watching as it swirls an eerie green. “The curse will be broken,” she chants, “when you both face its caster on a day without night and a night without day.”
Regina scoffs, but Henry can see her frown as she thinks. “There is no such thing,” she whispers in defeat, “Gold must die.” And then, when there seems to be no hope left in her eyes, she drags Henry outside and marches him toward the castle despite Emma's anguished screech.
Blinking back sleep, Henry folds in on himself as he listens. Emma has just finished washing the sauce from the walls and wiping down the counters. The kitchen is spotless again.
“Bedtime?” she asks him, but he shakes his head in the negative.
He says, “I want to know what happens next.”
He’ll probably fall asleep through half of it and then make Emma tell it to him all over again. It’s unlikely she’ll remember anything from this story exactly as she told it, anyways. “How about,” she suggests, clicking off the kitchen light as she grabs Henry’s hand, “I have a shower, and you go keep the bed warm until I get back.”
“But you take so long!”
“Five minutes,” Emma bargains, “I promise.”
It seems to pacify Henry who scampers ahead of her toward the bedroom and shimmies under the blankets. Emma smiles at him as she opens her cupboard to get a set of pyjamas. She can’t wait to get the sauce off her hair.
It lasts exactly five minutes; Emma is sure of it. And then, Henry is there against the doorway and demands in no uncertain terms, that Emma hurry up. “What happened next?!”
She’s halfway through conditioning her hair, and Emma really isn’t the best at having fast showers, but damn. She tried. Besides, getting dried sauce off from paces you never knew existed requires a bit of time. “Ugh!” she shouts from the shower, “ Fine !”
Regina sits Henry down in the guard’s quarters of the castle and explains everything to him. She says, “All you have to do is open Gold’s door from the inside. There is a secret passage only someone as small as you can get through, and I wouldn’t ask you to do this, but I know there’s a sheriff out there who would have your ear nailed to a post if he could.”
Henry shudders at that, remembering how rough the sheriff had been, and how he had taken Henry’s bread. “And it’s safe?” Henry asks.
Stroking his hair away from his face, Regina transfers Emma onto his shoulder. “Emma will be with you; she can distract anyone who stops you.” Emma nuzzles against Regina’s hand. “But you must be quick, nightfall is almost upon us.” Looking up, Henry sees the oranges and purples of a coming sunset.
Having no choice, he nods his agreement and takes the basket of flowers that Regina hands over to him. It would be easy to blend in as a servant, the hard part is remembering all those passages. Emma takes off from his shoulder and flies high, scouring the skies from above.
“Be safe,” Regina tells him with fondness, and then runs in the opposite direction.
Henry looks up at the imposing castle with dread, but knows his ear is on the line if he doesn’t comply. How hard can it be to open a door?
The flowers provide him with enough cover to bow to the person collecting the queen’s gifts and hand off the basket. He finds himself flanked by guards and people too tall, but his small stature allows him to crawl on all fours and scurry into a nearby alcove where Regina said a secret passage would be. “Yes!” he says to himself and fist bumps the air.
Cobwebs meet him, and Henry realises that no one has used these passages in years. He counts his steps and pauses whenever he hears someone walk past in the main hallway. Gold’s chambers are on the fourth floor in the east wing of the castle. He tries to remember which way to go, how many steps to take exactly like Regina told him. But the boy gets utterly and terribly lost.
“Can you believe it?” he hears through a crack in the wall. “It’s ‘bout that big, and I shot it out the sky with me own hands!” The laughter of a young guard makes Henry panic. Could it be? Could they have found Emma. Henry certainly hasn’t seen another bird that large before.
“Come on then, show us your prize!”
The guards slap each other on the back as they traipse through the hallways, and Henry tries not to panic as he follows them through the secret passages. They reach a locked door, which one of the guards opens, and just as Henry was afraid of, there sits Emma with a bloodied wing.
The guards prod and poke her, and when one of them gets too close, Emma bites his finger.
"Stupid bird!" they yell, and Henry grows angrier by the second.
Squeezing through a tapestry, he watches as the guards lock the room again. “Gold would like it,” one of them says, and Henry has had enough .
He runs at full speed down the hallway, giggling like a carefree child of the castle. His eyes remain fixed on the keys jangling from the guard’s belt, and he snatches it with ease when he bumps into the man, shouting out a, “Sorry!” as he turns the corner of the hallway. When the guards run after him, Henry follows the line of the secret passage and hides himself. Ha ! No one can outrun a thief, well…not unless they’re Regina. But Henry keeps that to himself.
It’s easy then to unlock the door and take Emma with him, to coo over her wing and wrap a strip of cloth around the wound. “I’ve forgotten,” he whispers to her, “I have no clue where Gold’s chambers are.”
She scolds in response, and gestures with her head toward the passage that Henry had been in previous. "In there?” he asks, and she nods her beak. Henry carries her through the passages, turning when she screetches or clicks and finally, when he thinks he can’t run anymore, the passage gives way to a painting that swings open.
Standing there before him like he might have been expecting it, an old man dressed in nothing but robes looks up aghast. “Who are you, boy?!” he thunders.
“Better dressed than you,” Henry declares and makes a beeline for the door. But the man is sharp and quick, and Henry’s wrist is trapped in a hold. “No!” he screams, “let me go!”
Henry kicks the man’s shin as Emma flaps her uninjured wing to distract him. The man yelps in pain, clutching onto his leg as he releases Henry. It buys Henry enough time to unlock the door, but the sun dips below the horizon and the moon shows its face.
Emma’s beak reverts into a nose, and feathers turn into long golden hair. Her injured wing transforms into a hand that's hurt just as badly, but she stands before Gold with determination, and Henry thinks she might kill him herself when she reaches for a nearby candlestick and lunges at the man.
“Did he die? Did the curse break? Did they adopt Henry?”
Emma runs a brush through her wet hair and sighs when she sees that Henry is more awake now than ever before. It’s going to be hell trying to get him to sleep. “How do you know what adopt means?”
“My friend,” Henry says shyly, “she’s adopted because she has two Daddies. If I have two Mommies, then I’ll be adopted.”
When will Henry ever stop surprising her with the way he perceives the world? “That’s…not entirely what adoption is. Its...” She turns to face Henry properly, the brush dangling from her fingers. “You know what, ask your Mom. I’m sure she’ll have better answers.” Emma knows when she’s way out of her depth, and this is one of those times.
“I want two Mommies,” Henry tells her wistfully. “They give better hugs.”
Unable to disagree, Emma winces when she snags a knot in her hair. “Can’t argue there, Bud,” she says, and winks at him when he giggles.
“Will Henry have two Mommies when he helps them break the curse?”
And they’re back to the story, or so Emma likes to think, because imagining Regina with a woman is so hard to picture that she’s short circuiting a little. Braiding her hair, Emma ties the end and slips into bed beside Henry who snuggles into her side. “If he manages to help them break the curse, maybe. ”
“No!” A startled shout comes just as Emma makes to hit the man. Behind Henry, Regina rushes through the door, and he knows they only have a few moments together before Regina changes into a wolf. “I will not have your hands bloodied for this infidel.”
She’s gotten herself a new sword, Henry notes, and it’s pointed right at Gold who laughs at them. “How lovely of you to bring me my bride,” he sneers, and just like Henry, he waits for Regina to take on her cursed form. But nothing happens.
Henry counts backwards to ten in his head as he inches closer to Regina and Emma. Emma cradles her hand to her chest and immediately pulls him close to her to hide him from Gold’s eyes. Regina, however, isn’t as loving, and her sword raises with every intention of killing the man who wronged them.
“Don’t!” Henry shouts, “You don’t have to kill him.”
Regina turns to glare at Henry. “This is no longer your business, child.”
Leaping to grab Regina’s hand, Henry pleads with her. "A day without night and a night without day! There is still hope!"
Regina looks pained, and her jaw clenches when the sun goes down entirely. Time has run out, and Henry knows she'll turn into a wolf who can't possibly wield a sword.
Emma gasps as she reaches for Regina, pointing to the darkened sky. “An eclipse,” she whispers through her relief.
Gold chokes on his words, his beady eyes darting between Regina and Emma who stand before him as women and wives. Neither of them changed into their cursed forms and they spare him if only for the boy who was once a thief. “No,” he laughs, “No, my curse cannot be broken! I refuse for my bride to be wed to another!”
He lunges at Henry and throws him aside, but Regina is quicker to react, and she slices through the air and—
Emma pauses. She’s sitting up in bed facing Henry, her arm poised as Regina’s would be to strike Gold down. Clearing her throat when she remembers to censor her stories, Emma brings her hand down to grasp at Henry’s shoulders instead.
“And Regina grabs a hold of Gold to stop him, but a whole lot of guards appear at the exact perfect moment and arrest him. Then, the Queen who was so touched that Regina and Emma fought against a curse to be with each other, planned a grand ball in their honour for everyone to witness their love.”
Henry’s smile is contagious, and blinding, and positively thrilled. “And they kissed? On the lips? And they adopted Henry?”
“Noo,” Emma says, drawing out the word. “They kissed like this.” Grabbing Henry’s face, Emma blows a raspberry on his cheek and tickles him until he cries out mercy.
Once he’s calmed down and lying beside Emma with his hands on his stomach, he looks over at her with the type of longing a child should not have. “Did they?” he asks, “did they become a family?”
Reaching over to stroke Henry’s hair, Emma presses a kiss to his forehead. “They did,” she tells him, “they lived happily ever after, with no curses to be heard of again.”
There’s a smile on Henry’s face as sleep beckons him once more, and Emma thinks she’s done good when he breathes out, “That’s nice,” and closes his eyes with a weak giggle.
They stay like that for a few minutes, just long enough that Emma is sure Henry is asleep and won’t fuss when she covers him with a blanket. Her duties done for the night, she carries her blow-dryer into the next room and gets to work as quickly as she can on her hair. She can’t afford to get a cold.
Another cup of tea, the fire stoked and rekindled, and Emma sits down long enough that she finishes the chapter of her discarded book. When she turns the page to start on the next, there’s a knock on her door and her heart thunders in her chest.
“You look nice,” are the words that greet her.
Emma cocks her hip and drapes herself over the door, “I aim to please,” she says, displaying her Wonder Woman pyjamas with as much sass as she can muster.
Regina laughs at her antics and pushes her aside, leaving behind a trail of now faded perfume that Emma follows without complaint. “How was my Prince today?” Regina asks as she takes off her coat to reveal a tight-fitting black dress with a very generous slit up the thigh.
Closing the door behind her, Emma leads them into the dark kitchen and switches on the stove light where she busies herself with finding two glasses. “He was a real Prince, alright,” she teases, taking out the bourbon that she knows Regina likes. “He’s in my room, sound asleep.”
Rounding the counter, Regina presses a quick kiss to Emma’s cheek and disappears to check in on her precious son. If only she knew what a terror he could be. Snorting to herself, Emma pours them both a thumb of bourbon and carries the drinks to her study where she knows Regina will steal her spot on the armchair.
“He’s exhausted,” Regina says before she enters the room. “What did you do to him?”
“What did I do to him?” Emma splutters. “You should ask what he did to me. Came into my house, asking for stories about a bird and a wolf, and two women in love.”
Stiffening, Regina says, “Oh?” and takes the bourbon without complaint as she, predictably, steals Emma’s place by the fire.
“I told him a very edited version of LadyHawke.”
“And you passed it off as your own, I assume?”
Emma holds her hand to her chest, looking rightfully offended. “If only you know the type of things he made add into the story, you’d have a different outlook.” Regina hums as she sips her drink, looking exhausted despite the reasonably early hour for a third date. “How did it go?” Emma tentatively asks.
At this, Regina smiles. “Henry thinks he’s going to get another mother just because I went on a few dates with a woman.”
And Emma chokes. “A woman?”
“Oh, come on. You can’t tell me you didn’t know.” The frown on Regina’s face is enough of an insult, because if Emma had known she would have made a move years ago. “Oh God,” Regina says, her eyes blowing wide, “you didn’t—”
“Relax.” Emma holds up her free hand to stop Regina from going on a tangent. “It’s okay.” It isn’t , but that’s for later. “No wonder he wanted a story about two women in love. Although I have no idea why he wanted the characters to be us .” And welp, that slipped right out.
And now it’s Regina who chokes, splutters and nearly dies. Emma rushes to her side to tap her back, “I am so sorry,” Regina wheezes.
“Hey,” Emma soothes, her hand still on Regina’s back where she strokes softly. “It’s okay. Besides, it was the third date, and by the look in your eye I’d say it went well?” Whatever was in Regina’s eyes fades, and Emma backpaddles. “or not?”
A thin smile is all Emma receives, and she’s starting to think that the story she told Henry might have more truth to it than she wants. “What’s wrong?” she finds herself asking, because Regina can still get Henry and go if she wants, but after every date, Regina comes here, sits with a glass of bourbon and curls her feet under her legs on Emma’s favourite chair. That has to count for something, right?
Regina remains silent for a long time, and when she puts her drink down with trembling fingers, Emma begins to get nervous. “I’ve liked women before,” she admits. “I just never told you.”
“Oh.” And its hard not to be hurt by that, but Emma understands the need for Regina to keep things private. “That’s okay—”
“No, it’s not. Going out with Sam…I thought it would be good for me. But all these dates and something is missing, even if they’re…” and she sighs, running her fingers through her hair as she looks up at the ceiling like a woman who has lost too much. “Perfect.”
Emma’s heart drops down into her stomach and she struggles not to let it show on her face.
“Do you know what I did today?” Regina whispers the question, and Emma nods her head for her to continue. “I had the date, and it was okay, normal , I guess. Even if I could never bring myself to kiss her—which was a problem apparently, and so, I told Sam to take a hike. But when it was done, all I could think about was coming home and sitting here, talking about whatever trouble you and Henry—”
“Oh my God.” Regina startles at Emma’s outburst. “You’re in love with me.” Emma means it as a joke, has her hands pressed to her mouth and her eyes wide. Because whatever Regina is about to say, whatever she has been saying, Emma refuses to look too deeply into it. She won't get hurt, she can't .
Regina looks at her in shock, and this is the part where Emma expects her to start laughing. Instead, Regina reaches out, her fingers skimming across Emma’s cheek. “Is it that so hard to believe?” she breathes, and leans in far too close.
Emma's hands fall away from her face, and the disbelief she feels settles on her expression. “No,” she chokes, “you can't be in love with me.” Because that's ridiculous. It's what she's been telling herself for years.
The answering hurt on Regina’s face is devastating, and Emma almost thinks Regina is going to pack all of Henry’s toys into his suitcase and leave with him, but Regina only brushes her thumb over Emma’s lips with longing and offers them a way out. “If you’re uncomfortable, I can leave.”
She can smell bourbon on Regina’s breath, can hear Henry kick his blankets off in the next room, and she thinks of the tale where they were together but forever cursed to be apart. This has been their story from the beginning, pinning for each other without the other ever noticing, and like hell Emma is letting this go.
Surging forward, Emma closes the space between them. Regina hums into her lips and draws her closer, leaving no room to escape as she thoroughly kisses Emma. The angle is awkward and Emma can already feel the burn in her muscles when she leans up to press herself against Regina. But the pain is worth it if she gets to do this, if the years of wanting amount to happiness instead of heartbreak.
When they pull back for air, Emma chuckles nervously to herself. “And to think," she rasps, her voice sounding raw, "I’ve been in love with you forever."
“Oh?" Regina teases as she wipes lipstick off Emma's mouth, "I hadn’t noticed.”
Something clicks, and Emma sits up with an incredulous laugh. "You knew! You knew all along!"
The pleased glint in Regina's eyes looks almost wolfish, and when she grins, her teeth on full display, Emma wonders if her story was a story at all. "You were cursed, dear," Regina rasps, pinching Emma's chin, "with this ridiculous notion that I never wanted you."
"Well," Emma breathes, leaning into Regina with the promise of another kiss. "I don't think I'm cured yet." And when Regina draws her closer, Emma thinks that maybe, this is the story that Henry really wanted.
She can't wait to tell him that in this one, they live happily ever after too.