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those who can't [flirt like functional adults], teach

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The paper is slammed down on her desk, and Emma takes a moment to glance at the grade scrawled at the top of it– a C-, you can do better than this – before she looks up. “It’s not mine,” she says. “I do numbers, remember? If I had to grade seventy sixth-grade papers every month, I’d walk out and never come back.” 

 

Snow– Mary Margaret Blanchard, technically, but Snow White had been foisted upon her at a high school sleepover and had stuck firmly since– glares at her. “I know it’s not yours. It’s Henry’s.” 

 

“Henry’s,” Emma repeats, her heart doing a funny little twanging thing. Henry is the kid Snow is fostering, kind of. He’d been left at Storybrooke General Hospital at birth, one step up from Emma’s own abandonment at birth at the side of the freeway, and he’s bounced through Storybrooke’s foster system since then. His last foster mom had died when he’d been in Snow’s class last year. 

 

Snow has taken him in while social services try to find him a new place, but she isn’t cut out for sullen kids who aren’t sunshine and rainbows, and Henry has only gotten worse since losing his foster mom. Emma, who’s been dreading and anticipating him being in her classroom for years, has kept her distance from him. He sits in a back corner of math class, scribbling in a notebook, and he is a solid B plus student in math. 

 

She doesn’t bother him, doesn’t initiate any conversations that he clearly doesn’t want. She figures that Snow is bother enough, though she never means to be, and Henry just wants to be left alone. But she’d glanced over a few times and seen what he does at his desk– writes, pages and pages in a notebook that Snow had gotten him, and she’d always assumed that he’d be a star student in Mills’s English classes.

 

“I think C minus is probably pretty decent for Mills,” Emma offers. Mills is a hardass who seems to delight in terrifying her students, and her classroom is always perfectly silent when she wants it to be. Emma, who is next door and keeps a boisterous classroom, finds it impressive and kind of eerie at once. “You know what she’s like.” 

 

“It’s not decent for Henry,” Snow snaps. “I’ve marked his essays, too. He writes above grade level, and he doesn’t get C minuses in school.” She looks up at Emma, eyes pleading. “He needs some stability right now, Emma. And school is the thing he’s good at. Regina is doing this because he’s my foster son. You know how much she hates me.” Snow’s father had been briefly engaged to Mills’s mother before both had died, which had meant that they’d nearly been sisters. As far as Snow’s concerned, they still are. Mills had been horrified by the whole affair. “You need to talk to her.” 

 

I need to talk to her?” Emma says, taken aback. “Have you ever known me to persuade Regina Mills of anything?” Mills storms into her classroom when the volume level is unbearable , according to Mills, and the kids are having fun , according to Emma, and they have been known to have sharp-tongued conversations in the halls.

 

Emma, of course, responds to Mills’s criticism by sabotaging her smartboard, spiking her coffee with hot sauce (though Mills hadn’t even reacted to that one– she’s like a machine), and, on one glorious occasion, jamming her office chair so it sat at the lowest possible level for a week straight. Because she is a mature adult. (Just like Mills, who avenged her office chair by spraying some hideous men’s cologne in Emma’s supply closet, and now she can’t even poke her head inside the closet without the overpowering sensation of being at a frat party.) “We can’t even be in the same room together without being at each other’s throats,” she reminds Snow. “Remember that professional development day when we got kicked out of a lecture–?”

 

“Emma,” Snow says, and she has that look on her face that has been appealing to Emma’s softer side since Emma had wound up in Storybrooke and in Snow’s house in her senior year at school. “You have a name in the middle school. You know that. The kids adore you, and everyone knows that you get results. Regina might not like you, but she respects you. I can’t let this grade hurt Henry’s self-esteem. He’s been through…well, you know what he’s been through.” 

 

It’s a low blow, tying Emma to Henry Brooke. But it works. Emma shifts, irritable and guilty, and she says, “Fine. I will speak to Mills. But when she stabs me with a pencil and throws me out of her office, I’m not going back.” 

 

“Yeah, yeah,” Snow says cheerfully, happy now that she’s gotten her way. “Text me when you get her to grade it again. You’ll see. Regina will listen to you.”

 


 

Mills does not listen to her. She stares at Emma for so long that Emma finds herself with the distinct impression that she is under one of Marian’s lab microscopes, and Mills has found her exactly as interesting as a single-celled organism. “Excuse me?” she says slowly. 

 

“Yeah,” Emma says, thumbs hooked over the waistband of her jeans. “It’s just…you know Henry’s situation, right? And he’s a pretty good writer. I read the essay, too, and it’s smart. He makes some good points about Animal Farm, a book that I have definitely read and not just skimmed the SparkNotes about immediately before entering this classroom. Hey!” she says brightly, because her last girlfriend had told her that her babbling is charming. “You got me to read a book! That’s gotta be a point in Henry’s favor, right?” 

 

Mills’s expression is positively chilly, and Emma is suddenly sure that Mills would disagree with her last girlfriend. “I don’t give out gold stars to adults reading books for sixth graders,” she says.

 

“Wow. Scorching.” Emma grins winningly. “But still! Henry’s paper–”

 

“Henry’s paper deserved a D,” Mills says, which is brutal . “I raised it half a letter grade solely out of appreciation for the writing. What is the main thesis?” 

 

Emma glances down at it, skimming. “Uh. Something about horses? Pigs?” 

 

“Where is it supported in the paper?” Mills continues, eyes flashing. She’s extra hot when she’s scary, but Emma isn’t going down that road. Nope. Not even a little. There was a weird crush a couple of years ago, but she’s shaken it. She thinks. “Where does he use the text to support it? I’ve been teaching here for seven years, Ms. Swan. I know when I’m being bullshitted.” Okay, and while Emma’s on the topic of how hot Mills can be, there is something really fucking hot about hearing her say bullshitted . “Did Ms. Blanchard bother to ask Henry if he meant to write a C minus paper? Or did she jump in because of some misplaced desire to coddle him?” 

 

Emma glowers at her, irritation rising. “You know, it’s not coddling to give a kid a break sometimes. Especially a kid like Henry. He could use a few more adults on his side.” 

 

“He could use some structure,” Mills corrects her, standing firm. “A child like Henry doesn’t need us to pat him on the back for making it this far. He needs honesty and teachers who hold him to the same bar as they would anyone else.” She takes out her red pen, and Emma watches its ascent warily, remembering her own certainty that this confrontation ends with her stabbed by writing implement. But Mills only uncaps the pen and underlines another word, writing another sp? beneath it. 

 

Petty. So petty, and Emma sees red. “You really are the worst,” she bites out, the maybe-crush forgotten. “I don’t know what possessed a sociopath like you to work with adolescents, but you need to be kept far, far away from kids like Henry.” 

 

Mills scoffs. “And yet, you’re the one who can’t control your classes,” she says coldly. “And you come in here to tell me how to teach?” 

 

“Not how to teach,” Emma shoots back, abruptly self-conscious. She can’t control her classes, not like Mills can, but she’s a good teacher and she knows it. They learn with her, they like her, even if they don’t fear her. Mills, they fear. “Just how to be a functional human being–” 

 

“Get out of my office,” Mills says dismissively. “Go whine to Ms. Blanchard about me some more. You think she’s the first helicopter mom to complain about me? I get results , Ms. Swan. That’s why I’m here. Not because I’m running a summer camp in my classroom.” 

 

Emma stalks to the door, opens it, and pauses as she thinks of a mature and cutting response. “Fuck off,” she says, very professionally. Three of her students, on the other side of the door, gape at her in outrage. “It’s okay if I say it,” Emma says swiftly. “You don’t talk like that to Ms. Mills. Even if she really needs to fuck off.” 

 

One of the girls giggles shrilly. Another says, “Oh, same ,” and Emma high-fives her, also very professionally, and storms through the hallway.

 

She hears snatches of conversation. “Ms. Swan looks pissed .” 

 

“I bet–” 

 

“–Ms. Mills’s office is right down there–” More laughter, which Emma does not appreciate from the students who seem to think that Emma’s fights with Mills are spectator sports.

 

“Mills probably raked her across the coals ,” says a seventh grader whom Emma hadn’t liked last year, either, and she whirls around.

 

“Maybe I did the raking this time,” she says hotly, and she is met by a number of very skeptical faces. 

 

One of the eighth graders says kindly, “I’m sure you really showed her.” 

 

A sixth grader says, “At least you didn’t get detention. She’d give me detention if I spoke to her like you do.”

 

Emma sputters, “You’re still new here! At least pretend that you have some respect for me.” 

 

A seventh grader with long braids says apologetically, “We love you, Ms. Swan. But there’s no way Ms. Mills doesn’t win every argument you have.” 

 

“You should just kiss and make up,” an eighth grader mutters, and several others around him shriek with laughter. 

 

Emma points a dramatic finger at him. “It is homophobia to suggest that I would ever–” She abruptly remembers herself, and remembers that she is not a student here but a teacher. It’s a conversation she’s had on more than one occasion with Principal Midas, who reminds her gently that she has to stop chatting with the kids like they’re her equals instead of her students.

 

It’s hard sometimes, when she genuinely feels more at home with the kids than she does with the adults around her. The kids like her. Her peers, aside from Snow– who is basically her sister– well, her peers include Mills , and that really sums it up. Emma had never had much of a childhood, not until Snow’s parents had taken her in when she’d been a senior in high school, and there is something intoxicating about being so beloved by the kids.

 

She waves a hand, dismissing her own thoughts on Mills, and she walks away and ignores the kids on break in the hallways. She knows where the one student she’s looking for will be.

 


 

He’s in the back of the cafeteria, of course, feet up on his chair and knees leaning against the table as he reads. His brow is furrowed, and he wears a grey polo buttoned to the top that only adds to his intensity. Henry Brooke is nothing like Emma, no matter where they might have intersected in the past, and Emma watches him warily, her heart beating hard against her chest.

 

She sits, placing the paper down on the table first. Henry glances at it, and he frowns. “I missed an o in too,” he says, sounding annoyed with himself. “Stupid mistake. Ms. Mills didn’t catch it when she first graded the paper, either.” He sounds dubious about Mills, too, and Emma seizes her chance.

 

“I, uh…Ms. Blanchard asked me to speak to her about your paper,” she says. “I thought it was a great essay, and Ms. Mills marked it too harshly.” 

 

Henry shrugs. “No, she didn’t,” he says. He hasn’t looked at Emma yet, his eyes fixed on his paper, and Emma schools herself not to be discomfited by it. “She’s right. It sucked.” 

 

“It does not suck!” Emma says, taken aback. “Henry, you can’t let Ms. Mills make you feel like your work is–” 

 

“No thesis statement,” Henry says, his voice sharp and a little strident. “No textual proof. I forgot about the paper and wrote the whole thing during math class last week.” He doesn’t seem very bothered at the fact that he’s speaking to his math teacher, and Emma gets the distinct impression that he’s lying. “I would have given myself a D.” 

 

Emma stares at him, at a loss. “You can’t be serious.” She’d gone to bat for the kid, and now he’s fighting Mills’s battle for her? Ridiculous

 

Henry finally looks up, and there is a gleam of light in his eyes, the first bit of positive energy she’s seen in them all year. “Under C means you get to rewrite,” he says. “I already started mine. Ms. Mills is going to love it. I’m talking about the stupidity of using animal metaphors. Real life isn’t a metaphor,” he says fiercely, this smart, troubled little boy, and Emma gapes at him and is overwhelmingly fond. “I don’t need to read a story about pigs to know what’s right and wrong. At least,” he finishes sheepishly, “If I can prove my point using at least three pieces of textual evidence.” 

 

His head drops again, shutting Emma out, and Emma can only think to say, “You really like Ms. Mills, huh?” It’s the part of his pronouncement that stands out most, the eagerness when he’d talked about Mills. Henry cares about what Mills thinks of him.

 

Henry shrugs, withdrawing again as he looks down at his book. “Doesn’t everyone?” he says absently, the conversation over, and Emma shakes her head and laughs in sheer disbelief.

 


 

The first thing that Sabine has discovered about being bisexual, aside from how nice is it to kiss Jacinda, is that there’s, like, a whole culture for it. She’d known about pride parades and GSAs and stuff like that, but she hadn’t realized that her entire friends group would narrow and expand, unexpectedly, to every other gay kid in Storybrooke Middle School. There are just some ways that they get each other, you know? 

 

Also, she’s abruptly aware of every little bit of gay happenings in the school. Ninety-five percent of that is just whatever Ms. Swan is doing, their sole beacon in a sea of straightness, but Ms. Swan gives them plenty of room for conversation.

 

“She called me a homophobe for saying she and Ms. Mills should kiss and make up,” Rogers says, sounding baffled at the idea. They’re in Ms. Swan’s classroom after school, which has always felt a little more like a safe space than anywhere else in the school despite the general math vibe that Jacinda says is nice . “I was just supporting her.” 

 

“Rogers, you dumbass .” Ava hits him on the head with her binder. “You don’t tell Ms. Swan that she has a crush on Ms. Mills. She hates her.” 

 

“Definitely a crush, though,” little Violet puts in. “Like, a murder crush, but a crush.”

 

“Murder crushes are hot,” Sabine says, exhaling a dreamy sigh. There is something very enticing about wanting to kill someone who also gets you all worked up, and when said person looks like Ms. Mills…

 

Well . Sabine is very happy with Jacinda and isn’t thinking about that. Too much. “Anyway,” she says, clearing her throat. “I think Ms. Swan broke up with her girlfriend.” 

 

“The lady she was kissing at the diner last week?” Rogers’s sister, Alice, says as she leans in. “She wasn’t going to stay. There was chaos all around her.” They all blink at Alice, who might be clairvoyant or might just be a little weird, depending on the day.

 

“Yeah,” Sabine says, uncertain. “I heard her on the phone in her office, and she called herself ‘aggressively available.’” There is a litany of sighs, every girl (and Rogers) present disappointed at this information. “It’s been, what? Two months? I think this might be her longest relationship since I started middle school two years ago.” 

 

“I don’t get it,” Violet says, her long hair swishing as she shakes her head. “She’s pretty. She’s fun. She’s good at math –” 

 

“That might be a dealbreaker, actually,” Robin objects. “I wouldn’t date anyone who’s good at math.” Alice lays her head against Robin’s shoulder, content in her famously terrible math grades.

 

“My point is,” Violet says, “Ms. Swan is great . Why does she keep picking up duds?” 

 

“Maybe I’m the dud,” Ms. Swan offers lightly from the doorway, and they jump up. 

 

“Ms. Swan!” Ava immediately stands, super-straight, and tucks her braid over her shoulder. “We were just talking about you.” 

 

Ms. Swan snorts. “I noticed. Don’t you kids have a club to go to or something?” She doesn’t have an office, just a supply closet at the back of her classroom, and she digs through it and emerges with a stack of papers. Sometimes, she’ll sit with them, but she’s late today and looks a little discombobulated. Sabine watches her with interest.

 

“This is math club,” Jacinda lies blatantly. “We’re here because we love math.” 

 

“Uh-huh. Hey, Alice,” Ms. Swan says, raising her eyebrows at Alice and Robin. Alice smiles brightly. “Big math fans all around.” She stacks her papers and tucks them into her bag. “Sorry I can’t stay today. I’ve got a hot date–” They all straighten as one. “–With yesterday’s takeout.” 

 

Sabine sags. “Ms. Swan, you’re so boring ,” she says, disappointed. “How are we supposed to live vicariously through you like this?” 

 

Ms. Swan is the kind of teacher she can talk to like that. If she’d said it to Ms. Mills, she’d be booted from school before she’d finished the sentence. But Ms. Swan only laughs. “Trust me, Sabine, you’re going to have a much more exciting life than a small-town math teacher.” She slings her bag over her arm, glancing out the window. For a moment, her brow creases and she looks very somber, discomfort and concern warring with each other on her face. She seems to shake it off, and she turns to grin at them. “See you tomorrow, kids. Don’t do anything I wouldn’t.” 

 

“Will do,” Robin says cheerfully, and Ms. Swan winks and vanishes into the hall.

 

Sabine wanders to the window, curious to see what Ms. Swan might have been staring down at. Maybe that cute caterer from the diner or the seventh grade math teacher, who is nearly as hot as Ms. Swan. But all she sees below her is the front walk to the school, and a sixth grader sitting on a bench alone, absorbed in his book.

 


 

Emma Swan, bane of Regina’s existence, has left her an apology cocoa that doesn’t even have the courtesy to be some black-peppered prank. It’s ridiculous. It’s obscene, really, because who leaves a cocoa in her office instead of coming to face her like an adult? Regina contemplates the possibility that Emma might have been waiting for her for a while– Regina had stayed late after class with a student and the cocoa is still hot– but who leaves cocoa , anyway? Are they children?

 

Still, there is a little spark of satisfaction that comes with the note below the cocoa, written on Regina’s personal stationary. Turns out Henry is pretty psyched to write a makeup essay. Guess you’re just a big softie after all . There’s a little winking face drawn beside that, and then, My secret ingredient is cinnamon.

 

It’s not much of a secret when the cocoa stinks of cinnamon, but Regina drinks it with the grimness of someone who rarely gets to savor the unconditional surrender of her nemesis. Emma Swan, she of the golden hair and bright eyes and that obnoxiously charming tendency to babble, is so rarely quick to admit her wrongs.

 

Which is fine. Regina is content with knowing that she is absolutely right in every conflict that they’ve ever had, and Emma continues to bumble around proving her points. But Emma being self-aware enough to concede? That’s something new.

 

And the cocoa isn’t bad.

 

She contemplates writing Emma an email. She’s hardly one to rub her victory in someone else’s face, except for thirty-two years of this existence that might say otherwise, and she types quickly and clearly.

 

Ms. Swan: 

 

It was hardly necessary to inform me of the obvious, though I appreciate the apology and expect more of those in the future. I am an experienced educator who is perfectly aware of children’s needs, and I don’t require your validation to know that I’m right.

 

The cinnamon is terrible. 

 

Best,

Regina Mills

 

The response is quick, and no less infuriating. 

 

You expect more in the future? Are you asking me to bring you more cocoa? You clearly haven’t heard what they say about us in the halls.

 

Regina wrinkles her brow, baffled at that response, and decides that Emma deserves some condescension. 

 

Ms. Swan:

 

Might I suggest proofreading your writing before you send your emails out?

 

Best,

Regina Mills

 

The next response has Regina’s eyes narrowing.

 

Ms. Mills:

 

Might I suggest removing the stick from your ass before you send your emails out?

 

Best,

Emma Swan

 

Typical Emma Swan. There had been a time when Regina would react to an email like that one by dragging Mal Drake out for drinks and complaining, ad nauseam, about Emma and her infuriating smirk, and her absurd lack of decorum, and her ridiculously toned arms, but it’s a new year, and Regina is growing as a person. 

 

No, she has other things to worry about than Emma being obnoxious. And one of them is the little boy who has quickly become her star student, a boy who has consumed her thoughts far more than the typical student might.

 

Because she can agree with Emma and Mary Margaret Blanchard on one thing: Henry Brooke doesn’t write C minus papers. And if he has produced one, then something is very wrong.

Chapter Text

Emma gets the frantic call at seven am, on the last leg of her morning jog. She loves running in Storybrooke, loves the sense of freedom that comes with the wind against her face, in the woods and alongside the sea, while her foot are firm on the ground. She’s always been a morning person– first by necessity, because early risers had been the only ones to eat well in some of her group homes– and then by habit. She’s alert moments after she first wakes up, alive with energy and anxious to get it out of her system. 

 

Today, she’s running off the weird high that had come with flustering Mills enough to silence her yesterday. There’s nothing like shutting up Regina Mills, and Emma thrives on it. One time last year, she’d managed to figure out Mills’s birthday from an old yearbook, and she’d left her a singing birthday card in the book she’d been reading with her class. Mills had been stunned for minutes before she’d made a snide remark and kicked Emma out of the room, and Emma had been in a good mood for days.

 

When she sees the call from Snow, she’s abruptly reminded that she had forgotten to gloat to Snow, and now’s the perfect time–

 

“Henry’s missing,” Snow says rapidly, and thoughts of Mills are swept from Emma’s mind. “I went to wake him up, and his bed was empty. He slept there– it’s all rumpled and his pajamas are on the floor– but he’s gone. David is out looking, but there’s nothing.” 

 

“Maybe he went to the diner early,” Emma suggests, turning down Main Street in the diner’s direction instead of going home. She’s pretty sure that she looks gross right now, probably drenched in sweat, but she doesn’t care. Her eyes flicker over the passersby, but there is no sign of Henry.

 

He isn’t at the diner, either. “I’ll keep looking. You want me to ask Sheriff Graham for help?” 

 

“Not yet.” Snow sounds agitated. “Henry won’t like that. He’s…” A pause, then a defeated, “Emma, I’m not cut out for this. When I agreed to foster Henry, he wasn’t quite so…troubled. He was happier last year. And I think I’m the one making him withdrawn.” 

 

“No, you aren’t.” Snow has been good with Henry, has been trying her best with an unresponsive kid. Emma squeezes her fists, then unsqueezes them. “I’ll come over more,” she says finally. “I’ll help you and David out.” She’s good with most kids, but Henry has a barrier down around him that’s a dozen feet deep and impenetrable, and Emma hasn’t dared to break through that barrier. She’s been avoiding Snow’s apartment since Snow had started fostering Henry, which is kind of terrible of her– “You’ve got to keep him. He’s Storybrooke’s kid.” 

 

“I know. I’m not…” Snow lets out a ragged sound. “Emma, I’m pregnant ,” she says. 

 

Emma blinks. “What?” She’d known that Snow had been thinking about it, that she’s been dating David for long enough that she’d gotten all swoony over babies, but she’d just figured that Snow is being…well, Snow . Snow had walked off with Mal Drake’s baby once back when she’d been babysitting for her in seventh grade and had had to be persuaded to return the baby, as Mal tells it. Snow loves babies and kids and that’s why she’d been the perfect person to take Henry in, and Emma had just kind of figured that Snow would start on babies after Henry had been a little more established.

 

“I wanted to tell you in person, but…” Snow takes a deep breath. “I think Henry overheard us talking about it last night. Do you think that’s why–” 

 

“Of course it is,” Emma says. Her voice is too loud, too harsh– Snow says Emma in that pleading voice that doesn’t understand–

 

But of course Snow doesn’t understand. Snow’s mother had been perfect, elegant and beautiful and so loving that she’d reigned over Storybrooke like a noble queen instead of an assemblyman’s wife. Her father had been a little unsure of what to do with his daughter, but he’d been proud and affectionate when Snow had needed him. Snow doesn’t know what it’s like to be the kid that no one really picks first, the kid who knows that a baby will inevitably supplant them. 

 

Emma swallows through a wave of burning grief and guilt and runs in the opposite direction, toward the place where she suddenly knows that Henry will be, the place  that Emma had gone when she’d been newly fostered by Snow’s parents and had been looking for some privacy. The Storybrooke Library is closed this early in the morning, but there’s a little unlocked catch at the door that leads up to the clock tower, and Emma sees Henry silhouetted in the clouded windows near the top. “I’ve got Henry,” she says abruptly. “I’ll bring him to school. Don’t worry about it.” She hangs up before Snow can say anything else, and she ducks in through the door and climbs the stairs to the clock tower.

 

Henry doesn’t look at her when she arrives. He’s writing, of course, but not in that notebook that Snow had gotten him. This is an essay of frightening proportions, his copy of Animal Farm open beside a growing stack of papers, and he flips through the book and writes furiously. 

 

Emma stares down at what looks like a fifth or sixth draft and sits down beside him. “Hey,” she says. 

 

Henry nods brusquely, his eyes on his essay. Emma tries again. “You know I was a foster kid, too, right?” It’s not something she tosses out there to students, usually, a secret about herself that she keeps even from the cute gay clique that hangs out in her classroom. 

 

Henry snorts. “Yeah,” he says, and Emma blinks. Had he recognized some commonality between them and attributed it to a shared past? Or is he seeing something else…? “Ms. Blanchard tells me about fifty times a day,” Henry adds, and Emma winces. Well. Maybe not her best-kept secret. “Her best friend was a foster kid so she understands me.” He rolls his eyes, his pen still perched in his fingers but his hands still. “She doesn’t.” 

 

“Yeah,” Emma agrees. Snow understands Emma a little too well, maybe, but that isn’t going to translate into understanding Henry. “I grew up in group homes and really fucked up places,” she says, leaning back against the window of the clock tower. “You aren’t like me. You’re in this town– You’re Henry Brooke,” she says. He’d been named for Storybrooke, in the absence of a surname, and he’s special to everyone in this town. 

 

At his age, Emma would have killed to be so ensconced by love and family. “Everyone here looks after you. And they’re doing their best. I know…I know that Ms. Blanchard isn’t giving up on you, no matter what happens,” she finishes delicately. You lived with Granny until her hip surgery, right? And she still feeds you breakfast and lunch every day.” She’s guessing on that one, because she’s seen the meals that Henry eats at school, and they’re a league above cafeteria food. 

 

Henry doesn’t react to that, and she goes on. “And Dr. Hopper was great, too, even if he couldn’t house you when he went back to school.” She knows Henry’s history, has made a point of following it. There had been at least one adoption attempt that had gotten so tangled in red tape that it had made formal adoption of Henry an impossible headache, but Storybrooke loves him, and Henry must know that.

 

But all he says is, “Okay.” 

 

“Okay?” Emma echoes. Henry doesn’t sound all that convinced, and she peers at him. He has returned to his essay, uninterested in Emma’s assurances, and she is seized with the sudden desire to leave and stop embarrassing herself in front of a boy who clearly doesn’t want her around.

 

But she can’t seem to move. “What do you want?” she says instead.

 

Henry shrugs, pen moving aimlessly in his hand. “I just want to sit here,” he says, and then more pointedly, “In the quiet.” 

 

There is something very young about how he says it, disdainful but also lost and afraid, and Emma swallows the urge to flee this strange, hostile little boy and stays put. “I can be quiet,” she says.

 

Henry snickers. He looks wide-eyed at it, which Emma takes to mean that he hadn’t meant to sound quite so disrespectfully mocking, and then he says, “Sure you can,” which Emma takes to mean that he doesn’t regret said mocking, either. 

 

“I can!” Emma says, outraged. “I’m an excellent listener. Very good at being quiet. I don’t have to babble– I just do it because people are more comfortable when I–” Henry looks at her, his eyebrows raised. It’s the first time he’s looked directly at her since she’d climbed up the clock tower, and it is very close to amused. Maybe even fond, though Emma’s been wrong on that one before. “Okay,” she says. “Fine. Being quiet now.” 

 

She sits in silence beside Henry as he writes and shoots a few texts to Snow, then to the permanent sub. She’s going to be late today, she suspects, and she’s still in her sweats– and needs a shower, if the wrinkle of Henry’s nose is any indication. 

 

But she doesn’t move, and after a few minutes, Henry stops writing. “This is good,” he says, and he tucks the last three pieces of paper into a folder in his backpack and then sits back against the glass window of the clock tower. Emma sits beside him, the two of them still very quiet, and they stare out through the glass at the people walking down Main Street and don’t speak at all.

 


 

Grace likes Ms. Mills’s class. Most people do, even if Ms. Mills is a dictator who once glared so hard at a kid that he backed out the window. At least, that’s what everyone says, and Grace, who has yet to be directly on the receiving end of Ms. Mills’s glare, believes it. 

 

But Ms. Mills is a good teacher, the scary kind who makes you want to ace every essay just to get a little hint of approval from her. She makes Grace feel smart , every discussion in class plucking out a little erudition from the class that they hadn’t known was there. Like the word erudition , which Grace had learned from Ms. Mills, too.

 

She likes Ms. Mills, but she isn’t stupid enough to get in her way when Ms. Swan is around, which is why Grace steps out of the bathroom, sees Ms. Swan walking down the hall with Henry Brooke– who is in Grace’s class and therefore has Ms. Mills right now– and steps right back into the bathroom. There’s a doorstop on the door, leaving it a creak open, and Grace hangs back and waits for the explosion.

 

Ms. Swan looks freshly showered, her face free of makeup and her hair damp, and Henry is finishing the last few bites of what Grace is pretty sure is a Pop-Tart. He swallows, and Ms. Swan says, “You ready for class?” 

 

“I’m late for class,” Henry says grimly, and he stares up at the door to Ms. Mills’s classroom as though it’s about to fall onto him. 

 

When he doesn’t move, Ms. Swan steps forward. “Don’t worry,” she says. “I’ll tell Ms. Mills that it’s my fault you’re late. It’s the perfect opportunity to yell at me. You basically gave her a present.” She winks at him. Grace presses her lips together to keep from laughing and leans against the sinks as she watches them approach the door. 

 

Ms. Swan pushes the door open. “Hey, Mills,” she says cheerfully, which is enough to curl Ms. Mills’s lip to start. “Just returning one of your students to you.” 

 

Henry looks up at Ms. Mills hopefully. Grace winces. Henry sits next to her at the front of the classroom, and he’s solitary but one of her only good friends. She doesn’t want to watch Ms. Mills eviscerate him. 

 

Ms. Mills stares at Henry, then bites out, “That’s a demerit.” The school doesn’t actually have a demerit system, according to some of the older kids. It’s just Ms. Mills who gives them out, as though she can will the system into being. Grace has long suspected that the staff keeps quiet about Ms. Mills’s pointless demerits just to give her an outlet.

 

But Henry looks crestfallen. He stumbles into the classroom, stopping only to set a paper on Ms. Mills’s desk– and does that mean Henry had had to redo a paper? That catapults Grace to the top of the class, but she’s too startled to celebrate it– and Ms. Swan stares after him with a pained look.

 

She rounds on Ms. Mills. “Did you have to do that? He’s had a rough day–” She lowers her voice, and Grace can barely hear what she says. “Don’t you think you can give him a break sometimes?” 

 

Ms. Mills looks coolly at her. “Not this again,” she says sharply, loud enough that Grace thinks a few people in the classroom might have heard it. Ms. Mills must think so, too, because she steps out of the classroom and closes the door behind her. “You are not the role model you think you are,” she says, her voice tight. “And if I have to nip your level of delinquency in the bud, then I will–”

 

“Oh, stop it,” Ms. Swan says, sounding cranky. “He ran away this morning, okay?” When Grace peers into the hallway, she sees Ms. Mills standing stock still, her face unreadable. “He’s having a hard time this year. And you know you’re his favorite–” 

 

Ms. Mills scoffs. “I’m no one’s favorite,” she says haughtily, and she sounds very proud of something that is definitely not true. Ms. Swan is fun , but Ms. Mills is Grace’s favorite, and she knows that she isn’t the only one.

 

And she’s absolutely Henry’s favorite. He doesn’t sit up front in any other class or raise his hand at all. Grace shares all her classes with him, and she’s one of the only people Henry speaks to about real stuff. She doesn’t have a mom, and so they go to the same required school activities for kids missing parents. Grace likes them, but Henry thinks they’re a waste of time. I have a mom , Henry says, shrugging. She just had to let me go for a while.

 

Ms. Swan and Ms. Mills, who don’t get Henry at all, are two of his favorites anyway. Or, at least, Ms. Swan was , until Henry had told the wrong person about her. “You’re wrong,” Ms. Swan says, and her eyes are flashing as she breathes hard. Sometimes, Grace kind of believes what Ava says about Ms. Swan and Ms. Mills. “And you’d think – you could at least try to reach out to him. Give him some way to feel connected. He could use that right now.” Her voice is gentler now, imploring, and Ms. Mills’s face undergoes the most incredible transformation that Grace has ever seen.

 

For an instant, she almost looks nice , like the kind of teacher who desperately loves her students instead of terrifying them. Grace is glued to the opening of the door, gaping at her, but it vanishes as quickly as it had come. “I’m not his mother,” she says sharply. “And you would be a better educator if you remembered that you aren’t, either.” 

 

It’s weird how uncomfortable two adults can be with an obvious statement. Grace squints out at them, at the averted eyes and the rigid backs, and she feels suddenly uncomfortable, too, like she’s eavesdropping on something much more personal than a spat in the hallway between the two most combustible people in the school.

 

There is silence, and then the clicking of a door. Ms. Swan says, “Coast is clear, Grace,” and Grace peeks out. 

 

She gets a weary smile from Ms. Swan and a gentle, “Probably better to mind your own business next time, kid.” Ms. Swan turns back to Ms. Mills’s classroom, peering through the window and looking away quickly.

 

“Sorry,” Grace says meekly. “I was just going back to class when–” She gestures at Ms. Mills’s door.

 

Ms. Swan winces. Then, suddenly, she says, “You’re friends with Henry, aren’t you?” 

 

Grace shrugs. No one is friends with Henry Brooke, exactly. He’d told her once that he isn’t equipped for people when she’d invited him over in third grade. “Kind of,” she says. “We hang out sometimes after school.” 

 

“Does he…has he mentioned anything odd lately? Anything that’s upsetting him? He’s been…” Ms. Swan shakes her head. “Maybe it’s just adolescence,” she says tiredly. “Maybe Snow is overreacting.” 

 

Grace shrugs. She knows some things, but not enough to tell Ms. Swan, and it’s no one but Henry’s business, anyway. “I have to go to class,” she says, swinging her bathroom pass, and she ducks into the classroom before Ms. Swan can ask her anything else. 

 

Ms. Mills is in a foul mood inside, one exacerbated when she discovers that the cable connecting her smartboard to its speakers is missing. The school is short a couple and no one has gotten around to replacing them yet, which means that someone had snatched Ms. Mills’s since the last time she’d used the speakers, and there’s only one teacher bold enough to steal hers. 

 

Ms. Mills storms out of the room and returns with the cable, which she fails to install properly. “I can do it,” Nick Tillman offers. 

 

Ms. Mills gives him a quelling look. “It’s under control,” she snaps.

 

“It’s really not,” Nick says under his breath, and Ms. Mills hears him. Her eyes flash, and Grace is abruptly afraid for Nick.

 

“Very well,” she barks out. “Since I clearly won’t be able to show you this video right now, you can have it as a homework assignment. And in lieu of a class discussion, you will write a one-page paper about point of view as illustrated in the video.” She stalks out of the room, and Grace can hear her voice in the hallway. “ Swan !”

 

Ms. Swan is probably the only person in the universe who is unafraid of Ms. Mills. “Yeah, yeah,” she says, strolling into the classroom. “You know, I did tell you I’d put the cable in for you.” She ducks down in front of the smartboard, and Ms. Mills stares at her commandingly, though Grace thinks her line of sight is pointed more at Ms. Swan’s jeans than at what she’s doing. “You don’t have to be so cranky about it.” 

 

Ms. Mills glowers at her, and Grace is startled when a hand appears on her desk, leaving a note behind. It’s from Henry, of course, who stares straight ahead as though he’s fascinated by the bickering between their teachers. Grace unfolds the note.

 

It says, I’m seeing her again today , and Grace doesn’t need to ask who he’s talking about. Henry has told her plenty. 

 

She writes be careful and folds it again, slipping it onto Henry’s desk before she turns back to the front of the room.

 


 

It’s a relief when lunchtime comes, and with it a break from the students. Regina likes her students, though they’d probably never believe it, and she loves the energy that comes with a classroom full of young minds, each of them so willing to think beyond their prior perceptions. She’s never had a student that isn’t receptive, that isn’t capable of insight, and there is nothing quite like getting them to that point. She is exacting and demanding because it pays off, and the students grudgingly appreciate it at first and then learn to embrace it. And on a regular day, that energy infuses her with energy, leaves her on a high that has her satisfied and relieved at the end of a long morning.

 

But today, she is irritable and exhausted, though she can’t put a finger on why. Maybe it had been Emma, eternally the thorn in her side, and the way she’d reproved Regina in the hallway. With a student eavesdropping in the bathroom, no less! Emma has been teaching in Storybrooke Middle School for three years now, and she still shows no regard for Regina’s methods. 

 

It’s because she’s an infant , Regina decides. She’s…what? Twenty-eight? Four years younger than Regina? But she lacks basic maturity. She’s still trying to be her students’ friends, still caught up in the idea of being liked when that does little–

 

Well. Emma is a surprisingly competent teacher, from what Mal says about her incoming seventh graders. She claims that they have more enthusiasm for math, which Regina informs her is an abomination , because no math teacher should ever deceive students into believing that math is fun .

 

Emma is appalling . And that’s probably what had made her so frustrated. That and Henry Brooke’s face when she’d awarded him a demerit. Regina’s hands tighten on her desk. Ridiculous. Of course he’d gotten a demerit. He’d been late, and he knows what the penalty for that is. And Emma wants to handle him with kid gloves? Henry wouldn’t respect that. Regina knows it instinctively.

 

Henry had run away this morning, and Regina feels a creeping desolation at the picture of it, of Henry sneaking out of Mary Margaret Blanchard’s house all alone, wandering off into the woods around Storybrooke and being lost there. It can’t happen again.

 

As if Emma could tell her what Henry needs. She scoffs to herself. Emma doesn’t understand what any of her students need.

 

But still, for some unnameable reason, Regina finds herself stepping out of her office and walking down the stairwell to the cafeteria. The students give her a wide berth, and there are a few whispers– and no , she is not going to eat the cafeteria food, thank you very much– but she walks through the room until she finds Henry, sitting in a corner and picking listlessly at the elaborate meal in front of him. “Mr. Brooke,” she says, and Henry jumps and stares up at her, wide-eyed. “With me.”

 

She takes his plate before he can leave it behind, and Henry follows her meekly to her office. She sets the plate down in front of the chair opposite her desk, and she orders him, “Eat.”

 

He eats. Regina clears her throat. “Your makeup essay was excellent,” she says. “I disagree entirely with the premise, but you had a persuasive voice and made some very good points. I’m inclined to give you an A.” 

 

Henry peeks up at her, his expression hopeful. “Before points deducted for it being a makeup essay?” 

 

“After,” Regina confirms, and that bit of her heart that swells when Henry smiles at her really needs to stop .

 

“Whoa.” Henry gazes at her now, his eyes wide. “I thought you didn’t give A plusses.” 

 

“This is an A,” Regina reminds him, but there is a smile threatening to break out upon her face, absolutely destroying her reputation. She tamps it down. “You wrote a wonderful piece on the pointlessness of metaphor,” she says. “But I think that your mind is not so limited that you can’t see any benefit to it.” 

 

Henry bites his lip. “I don’t know,” he says. “It’s stupid. Why can’t writers just say what they mean?” 

 

“Sometimes metaphor helps us process what’s happening to us when we aren’t ready to understand it,” Regina points out. She doesn’t know what she’s doing now , and no metaphor will help her with it, but she forges onward. “You have a gift for words, Henry. And I think it might help you, too.” 

 

She expects Henry to say I don’t need help or I’m fine or something else that might, respectfully, remind her to mind her own business. He’s brushed off enough overtures over the years. But he is in writing mode now, his mind juggling through every scenario like an opportunity, and she knows him well enough to track it and be comforted by it. “What do you mean?” Henry asks, his eyes glued trustingly to her.

 

Regina takes a breath. “Write a fairytale,” she says. “Consider it an extra assignment to remove that demerit. Fairytales are a great way to take apart all the baggage we aren’t ready to explore and interpret into princes and knights, dragons and magic. Get your story to a happily ever after, Henry, and then read it back and see what you’ve gotten out in metaphor.” 

 

Henry bites his lip again. “I don’t know what I’d write,” he says. 

 

Regina raises her eyebrows and offers him a smile, thin but rare enough that Henry looks awed by it. “Most writers begin with once upon a time ,” she suggests. “And you’re welcome to come here at your breaks and write in my office. I’m happy to help you work through any ideas you might have.” 

 

Henry’s face is as bright as sunshine, and he glows as he grins at her. “Thanks, Ms. Mills,” he says. “This is super cool. I think– maybe I have some ideas.” He scrawls something into that notebook that he has, writing up a storm, and Regina watches him and aches for this little boy with no family, this child who has never quite been left behind but never belonged anywhere, either.

 

She had been twenty when he’d been born, had been away in school and returned a couple of months later. Mother had been mayor then and had regarded the entire Henry Brooke situation as under control. Regina had been less convinced, to everyone’s detriment. She had tried to adopt him– had held the infant at Granny’s one day, had canceled her classes for the semester and nearly dropped out of college– and Mother had snarled her under so much red tape that Henry had lost any chance of being adopted by anyone.

 

She still blames herself for it, though time and Mother’s passing had given her more perspective. She’d kept a yearning eye on him over the years, had worked to get him admitted into school a year early and had quietly funded his summer camps and some of his clothing. She’d done it through Archie Hopper rather than letting her mother know of her interest. It had never been a good idea for Regina to show her cards when Mother was watching. After Mother had passed, she’d continued from a distance, Henry already eight and settled into foster care with no interest in a stranger as his benefactor.

 

But this year has been different, a quiet gift to watch Henry grow– and he’s so smart , so thoughtful and such a skilled writer– and she fights long-ingrained patterns of caution to give him this now. It’s what Henry needs, as a star student, and not Regina attempting to make a connection. It’s what Emma had requested of her, though Regina is hardly doing this for Emma.

 

Regina walks a tightrope of careful appearances and selective relationships, and she will not let it implode here today. And so she nods curtly to Henry, tempering her smile into something small and impersonal as he grins at her, and her heart floods with affection, invisible to him. “Please,” she says, “Drop by anytime.” 

 


 

Henry leaves when the bell rings for the end of the lunch period, still glowing with enthusiasm, and Regina continues grading papers until her next class. Her earlier irritation is gone, and she even gives her final class of the day a reading period instead of an assignment. “I won’t be so kind if I find you talking instead,” she warns them. They hurry to get books from the class library, tripping over themselves to sit again, and Regina sits back, satisfied.

 

She grades their papers while they read, pleasantly surprised at how many students can string together a decent essay now. They’re moving at a decent pace for early October, and she’ll have to commend their fifth-grade teacher, who was thankfully not Mary Margaret Blanchard. 

 

At the end of the day, she is feeling like herself again, and Henry catches her eye in the hall before he heads out to the stairwell. There are a legion of students around Emma when she escapes her classroom, but Emma brightens when she sees her. “Ms. Mills,” she calls, and Regina’s mood immediately falls. She retreats back into her classroom, fiddling with her bag as though she’d forgotten something, and she makes the hasty decision to sit and finish grading. 

 

She takes the papers out again, marking them absently, and the door to her classroom creaks open. “Hey,” Emma says, shutting the door behind her. Regina doesn’t deign to acknowledge her.

 

Emma says, “Henry was so excited about your project that he went downstairs to tell Snow– Mary Margaret– during study hall. And she was so excited about him being excited that she called me,” she says ruefully. 

 

Emma’s thigh appears, somewhere just beside Regina’s arm. Alarmed, Regina finally looks up. Emma is sitting on her desk, her feet propped up against the wall behind Regina. She raises her eyebrows at Regina, but she’s smiling, a splash of warmth to melt Regina’s icy exterior. “You thought about what I said, didn’t you? You wanted to give Henry something to connect to.” 

 

Regina scoffs. “Hardly,” she says, raising her chin. “It was extra work because of his lateness. I expect my students to behave with–” 

 

“Regina,” Emma says, and Regina is silenced by the tone of her voice. She stands up, intending to escape, but it’s a mistake. Abruptly, her face is dangerously close to Emma, and Emma’s eyes are frighteningly soft. “Why do you do your best to make me believe the worst of you?” 

 

“I–” Regina is sputtering, frantic to respond with something sharp and cutting. Instead, all she manages is a weak, “Why do you believe I think about you at all?”

 

“Hm.” Emma grins at her, the skin by her eyes wrinkling just a little when she smiles, and Regina absolutely hates that she notices that. “I’m pretty sure you wake up every morning and think how is Emma Swan going to piss me off today?

 

Regina blinks at her, incapable of muffling the breath of laughter that escapes her mouth. “Well, you might have a point there–”

 

“It’s the only thing that gets you out of bed,” Emma says, eyes dancing. “That and what is Emma Swan going to wear today and how will I best ridicule it?

 

“You dress like a middle-aged suburban mother of three who’s going to the revival concert of a band that hasn’t been decent since she was twelve,” Regina says obligingly. 

 

Emma throws her head back and laughs. There is a part of Regina that envies Emma’s ease, even with her, the laughter that emerges from her lips instead of being restrained. Nothing about Emma is restrained. “God, I love that. I feel simultaneously seen and humiliated.” She lays a hand on Regina’s arm, and Regina stiffens, horrified at it. “Tear me to pieces, Ms. Mills,” Emma says, and there is an undercurrent to it that sounds almost suggestive.

 

Regina recoils, staggering back, and she says, “You speak like you learned how to interact with other people from TikTok,” which is alarmingly possible and also makes Emma smile wider. “And if you don’t mind, I have work to do. Alone.” 

 

She circles around her desk the other way, and Emma says quietly, the humor only a flicker in her eyes now, “You’re doing a good thing for Henry. Thank you.”

 

Regina can handle the mocking, the flirting, even the teasing from Emma. Sincerity, though, she can’t abide. But it feels wrong to dismiss it when it comes to Henry, and she says grudgingly, “You and Ms. Blanchard hardly have a monopoly on Henry Brooke’s future. He has a lot of promise. I’m doing what any teacher would do.” 


“No,” Emma says, and there is something shining on her face that makes Regina breathless and infuriated at the same time. How dare Emma Swan look at her like that. How dare Regina feel her heartbeat elevating in response. “Not any teacher,” Emma says, and Regina escapes the room and hurries to her office, stumbling twice in the empty hall along the way.

Chapter Text

Sunny days in October are rare enough that Emma rejects the idea of learning altogether on a Friday morning and brings her students up to the roof. Storybrooke Middle School is technically just the fourth floor of Storybrooke Elementary, and the younger grades tend to monopolize the playgrounds and fields in the mornings, but the middle school gets the roof all to itself. It’s flat-topped and gated in, usually used by Mulan for gym in the spring, but Emma figures that if she snags it this early in the morning, it’ll be all hers.

 

She figures wrong, because what would a morning be without Mills right there, passing judgment upon her? Her class is gathered around her as Mills sits on a chair like she’s a queen presiding over her kingdom, all of them listening with the appropriate measure of respect. Emma eyes them– her rowdiest class, too– and wonders what it is that Mills doses them with to get them to sit like that.

 

Her current class is one of her favorites, after the remedial seventh grade class– and not just because Grace Page is a dream student and Ava Tillman is her most entertaining one. They’re a fun group, full of energy and enthusiasm, and even Henry looks pleased when she rewards them with the roof.

 

But they all stop in their tracks when they see Mills and her class, turning uncertainly to Emma. “It’s fine,” Emma says, breezy. “The roof is big enough for two.” 

 

Mills’s class is deep in discussion about a short story they’ve read, and Mills rises gracefully and stalks over to Emma, clearly not sharing her assessment. “You brought your students up here?” Mills demands, eyeing them with dissatisfaction. “How do you teach math without desks?” 

 

Emma shrugs. She could rattle off a dozen ways to teach math without desks or pencils or paper, but she suspects that Mills will be less than impressed by them. Instead, she says the truth. “I don’t. I’m giving them a free period.” She waves at the roof. “It’s a gorgeous day, Mills. Even you must get that if you brought your kids up.” 

 

Mills offers her a grudging nod. “It is a lovely day,” she concedes. There are a few students still hovering near them, waiting for the fireworks. The rest of Emma’s have wandered to the far side of the roof and have begun a game of what they call Elimination with a dodgeball. Emma watches them for a minute– sees Ava motioning to her, ball in hand– and Mills says, “But my students won’t be able to focus if you’re playing on the roof.” 

 

Emma shrugs. “Let them play, then,” she offers, if only because she really enjoys the way Mills’s face gets all flushed when she’s angry, pretty little spots of brown high on her cheeks. “It’s too nice out here to waste the day talking about another piece of writing by some creepy old white man.”

 

Mills stares at her. “We’re reading Julia Alvarez,” she says, looking at Emma as though she is exceedingly stupid. 

 

Emma, who often feels exceedingly stupid around Mills, falls back on her default. “And we’re playing Elimination on the roof,” she says, offering Mills a toothy grin. “You can watch while the kids bore you to death. I’m a mean shot.” 

 

“I think I’d rather die than watch you play ball with your emotional equals,” Mills says evenly, and Emma clasps a hand to her chest in mock-insult. There’s nothing like a good Mills burn. It always leaves her a little giddy– which might be a little bit akin to pulling a girl’s pigtails on the playground, as Snow tells it, but Emma chooses not to ponder that. 

 

“You’ve wounded me,” she says, staggering back. Mills’s whole class is watching her now, and so are the few of Emma’s students who haven’t gone off to play. Henry is sitting on a bench, his eyes flickering from Emma to Mills as though he isn’t sure what to make of them, and maybe it’s part of why Emma’s moves are so exaggerated. “I am eviscerated. I’m just going to have to stay on this roof, recovering from that burn, for the rest of the day.” She drops onto the bench beside Henry, still clutching her chest. “Help me, Henry, you’re my only hope.” 

 

Henry stares dubiously at her, a tiny smile twitching at the corner of his lips, and Emma feels as though she’s done something good. Mills must have caught the smile, too, and she’s just enough of a softie around Henry– which, wow , Emma’s still recovering from that revelation– that she says wryly, “Well, if you’ve been incapacitated, then I might as well send your students downstairs for the rest of the period.” 

 

“Never!” Emma stabs a dramatic finger at Mills. “I will rise from the dead and avenge my students, my dignity, and the last hot cup that I know you took from the teachers’ room this morning. You’ll never stop me.” Henry is watching them, his eyes wide, and he’s definitely smiling now.

 

Mills sighs. “You’re wasted on math,” she says, which might be the nicest thing that Mills has ever said to her. 

 

“Math is never a waste,” Emma says cheerfully, and Mills quirks one eyebrow in polite disdain that proves that she will never understand Emma.

 

“Ms. Swan!” Ava calls from the gaggle of students across the roof, impatient. She bounces the ball once. “We’re running out of time! Are you playing or flirting?” Mills’s mouth drops open in outrage, and Emma’s mind is flooded with sudden, disturbing images of what Mills is about to do to Ava Tillman, who is cursed with a lack of fear.

 

Henry is looking down at his notebook now, but his pencil is drawing aimless loops on the paper that bely his attention. Emma clears her throat. “You’re gonna have to figure out what actual flirting is one day before you pick a fight with the wrong chick,” she calls back to Ava, who makes a face and tosses the ball in Emma’s direction. She turns back to Mills, who is still staring at her with horror. “She’s just projecting because she’s in love with you,” she says breezily, absolutely selling Ava out, and she rises past a sputtering Mills and heads to the students.

 

It’s just so fun to provoke Mills. And yeah, is she hot and scary? Of course. Is Emma flirting with her? Obviously. Can Mills ever, ever be aware of it? Not if Emma can help it. Despite the old scandal Snow tells about Mills being left at the altar by a man, Mills isn’t a hundred percent straight. Emma knows this only because of that time two years ago when Emma had opened the bathroom door at the staff holiday party and found Mal Drake’s face between Mills’s thighs. They hadn’t seen her, and Emma had been frozen for roughly ten seconds before she’d had the presence of mind to back out of the room, but the image is still etched into her mind. Mills, head thrown back and hands buried in a mane of blonde hair, her lips parted and her chest heaving as Mal had–

 

The point is . Mills hates her, and Emma is pretty sure that Mills is a sociopath, anyway. She just gets her entertainment where she can.

 

Plus, Henry is enjoying this. Henry remains a mystery to her, and Emma looks back at him and considers encouraging him to join the game. According to Snow, he never plays at gym or at recess, though, and he isn’t an athletic kid. Emma doesn’t want to push him– is wary of what happens if she pushes him, and is afraid to do anything but keep a safe distance– but he makes for a solitary, lonely figure on the bench, looking up only to watch Mills teach her class while she throws dirty looks at Emma. 

 

Emma ignores her, tossing the ball instead. Elimination is just dodgeball without teams, every player for themselves. Emma is eliminated almost immediately with a carefully aimed throw from Nick Tillman, and she manages to snag the ball from where she’s frozen in place and nail him with it. “It’s the Big Bad Swan’s game now,” she crows, hurling the ball at Violet. Violet squeals, barely dodging it, and Emma plays in earnest.

 

She likes playing ball with the kids. They come out of it energized, and there is a camaraderie there that she can’t get when they’re behind desks. When she backs out of the games, there are always a few kids lurking on the sides, and they are always more willing to speak to her then than they would be in a more formal setting. 

 

Plus, she really, really likes playing ball games. She had never been academic when she’d been a kid– had moved from place to place and struggled to keep up– and math had often been her only constant in new group homes and unfamiliar school systems. She still loves math, but she’s very aware that her knowledge of history and science and even a lot of the basic literature that Mills does with her students is lacking. It feels good to be good at something, even if it’s tossing a ball with a gaggle of kids who are nearly a third of her age, and she embraces it. 

 

She’s gotten nearly all of her students out by the time the period is half over, and she dodges their outstretched hands and tosses the ball at an elusive Grace. “You can’t run forever!” she calls, catching a ball hurled at her by a vengeful Ava. “I’m going to get you–” 

 

“Think you can get me?” says a smug voice that startles Emma. It’s Felix, who isn’t in her class right now. He’s in–

 

Mills’s , and Mills is sauntering toward her now, her students following behind. “I took your advice to heart,” she drawls. “No more discussion. They’re happy to join in.”

 

That’s a surprise. Mills doesn’t usually give an inch. But Emma sees, out of the corner of her eye, Henry lingering at the border of the game, drawn to it by Mills’s interest. “I hope that means you’re all playing,” Emma says, undeterred, and she throws the ball lightly at Mills.

 

And damn . Mills catches it– a shock– and then hurls it toward Emma with unexpected precision. Emma is taken by surprise, barely dodging the blow, and Mills smiles a feral smile. “You think I’ve been teaching here for seven years and haven’t picked up anything?” she says, her voice rich and low, and the ball bounces back toward her. She catches it, throwing it right back at Emma, and Emma catches it and hurls it back. 

 

The returning ball is fast– too fast. Mills is merciless, and her students are so delighted by this new side of her that they toss her the ball, whooping whenever she gets close to Emma. Emma is being hunted , and Mills is the predator in question. It’s a nightmare. It’s amazing.

 

“Get her!” Ava calls, and Emma is pleased until she realizes that Ava is talking to Mills.

 

“Hey!”

 

Mills throws the ball again– but this time it’s an easy toss, high in an arc, and Emma blinks up at it, taking a step back–

 

Behind her, someone catches the ball and tosses it at her from a foot away, hitting her in the back. “Hey!” With her out, every student she’s gotten out is back in, and a cheer rises up from all of her kids.

 

She turns in place goodnaturedly, ready to pounce on whoever had tag-teamed her. “I hope you know that you’re going to be my primary target–” It’s Henry, his face bright and flushed, and the words die on her lips. 

 

There is a part of her that is deeply envious of how readily Henry will do anything that Mills does, but she pushes it aside in favor of relief that he’s playing with everyone else. Soon enough, though, he drifts away from the group again, his face falling into that perpetual frown as he leans against the gate.

 

Mills catches her eye, and by silent agreement, Emma raises her voice. “Hey!” she calls to Henry. “You’re not just going to leave me here, are you? I can’t get back in the game until someone gets you out!”

 

“It’s a public service, Henry!” Ava yells to him, completely missing what Emma’s trying to accomplish. “Keep as far back as you can–” 

 

“Don’t you dare!” Emma says loudly, and Henry’s eyes move from Ava to Emma, his eyes uncertain. But he steps back into the game, dodging a few balls sent his way, and Emma spends her free time throwing the ball at Mills, doing her best to catapult her from the game.

 

Sadly, Mills is much better at the game than anticipated. Happily, she keeps eyeing Emma as though she’s a particularly delectable prey, and that is enough to keep Emma going until the end of the period, along with Henry’s triumphant whoop when he makes it through the entire game without being eliminated. He walks with Grace back to the stairwell, their heads together as they talk animatedly, and there is no sign of the cloud that seems to hang over his head most of the time.

 

Emma is distracted from Henry, though, as Mills walks past her. “Imagine if you were frozen in place for the rest of the day,” Mills muses wistfully. “Maybe forever. Just trapped up here, far away from my classroom.” She exhales a deep sigh. “We can dream, I suppose.” 

 

“I always knew you dreamed about me,” Emma mutters, just loud enough for Mills to hear.

 

Mills gives her a sidelong glare, halfhearted, and she says in that low, throaty voice, “You do figure prominently in some of my nightmares.” 

 

Emma nearly chokes. Instead, she gathers every last bit of her composure and says in a low voice, “I hope I’m extremely hot in them. Maybe in something really tight and low-cut.” Homecoming is next week, but Emma chaperones responsibly, usually in a fitted suit or a conservatively cut dress. “I can wear the hell out of a catsuit–” 

 

Why ,” Mills says to no one in particular, but there’s a heat in her eyes that has Emma swallowing, staring at her with renewed interest. 

 

Ava says, “Hey, Ms. Swan, if you’re going to spend the next forty-five minutes gaping at Ms. Mills anyway, do you think we can ditch her class or what?” 

 

The concept of cutting class jerks Mills back to herself, and she twists around to glower at Ava, stalking toward the door to the stairs without a second glance back at Emma. Emma watches her, her throat still very dry, and she is deeply grateful that she isn’t teaching next period.

 

She just needs a minute. Or ten. Or thirty.

 


 

On Fridays, no one wants to stay in school any longer than possible, and so Robin and the others have made a habit of drifting to the new ice cream shop a few blocks from the building to celebrate the end of the week. This week has been particularly harrowing, and Ava is on the warpath. “Two extra assignments this week!” she says, furious. “ Two ! And one because of my attitude , whatever that means–” 

 

“It means you made multiple comments about Ms. Swan and Ms. Mills flirting with each other,” Violet says. Robin likes Violet, who is a lot more sensible than the other sixth-grade lesbian. “And that you hit on Grace in the middle of class–”

 

Well. She appreciates the less sensible sixth-grade lesbian, too. “Did you?” she says, interested. “You told me last week that Grace Page was the worst suck-up in the grade.” 

 

“Ava only says that about girls she likes,” Jacinda says wisely. 

 

Violet continues on smugly. “We were talking about Romeo and Juliet in class and Ava called Grace her Romeo twice. Grace asked her to stop and Ava said that she was being hate crimed, and Ms. Mills made her write an essay about sexual harassment policies in the school.” 

 

“She talks big for someone who was definitely flirting with Ms. Swan on the roof earlier,” Ava says grumpily. “Who’s doing the sexual harassment now?” 

 

“You are,” Sabine says, grinning, “Because Ms. Swan is an enthusiastically participating adult.”

 

Robin leans forward. “Did you see them in Ms. Mills’s office after school today? I swear, Ms. Swan finds reasons to go into the office.” This time, according to Alice, it had been during seventh-grade remedial math. Ms. Swan had found a crumpled paper on the floor near the garbage and had discovered that it was someone’s draft for Ms. Mills.

 

“She was so pleased,” Alice says dreamily. “I think it was probably garbage, but she went to return it to Ms. Mills anyway.” 

 

Robin entertains the thought of Ms. Swan dumping old garbage on Ms. Mills’s desk. “Ms. Mills could just tell Ms. Swan to stop , you know. It’s not like Ms. Swan is subtle. But she never does.” She glances over at the doorway, where two younger kids are wandering through the door. “Hey,” she says in a low voice. “Isn’t that your girlfriend, Ava?”

 

Ava scowls at her. “Shut up,” she says, and then, loudly, “Ice cream, Grace? Really? Aren’t you a little too stuck up and stuffy to be here?”

 

Grace blinks at Ava. “Hi, Ava,” she says. She’s walking with a boy Robin knows vaguely, that foster kid who’s been raised by random people throughout Storybrooke. Her mother has always kept an eye out for him, which is pretty weird, because her mother doesn’t care about anyone but Robin and Alice and her sister.

 

Ava’s voice goes funny and a little high. “Hi, Grace,” she says breathlessly. His back to Grace, Rogers mimics the hi, Grace soundlessly, and Ava glowers at him.

 

Grace says, “Anyway, we were going to go get some ice cream.” She slips her hand into Foster Boy’s hand and Ava looks crestfallen. “Do you want to sit with us?” 

 

Ava tosses her hair, appeased. “I’m with my friends,” she says, wrinkling her nose. “Enjoy your vanilla .” 

 

Foster Boy– Henry, maybe– blinks at her and then murmurs something to Grace. They sit at the counter, and the lady who runs the ice cream shop speaks to them in a quiet voice. 

 

Robin glances over at them a few more times while the others tease Ava, discomfited by the conversation. There is something odd about the lady, something about the way that she talks to Henry. His eyes never leave her face, and Grace squirms in her seat, far less comfortable. Alice murmurs, “She’s a strange one,” her eyes fixed on the woman, and Robin knows better than to doubt Alice.

 

She’s distracted eventually by a story that Jacinda tells about her stepsisters, one of whom is the family darling and the other a hellion, and she forgets about Henry and Grace entirely as she departs from the group. She has a family dinner to go to. Friday nights are for Mom and Aunt Regina.

 

See, there is a fun little fact that she’s never mentioned to their little mock GSA, if only because she doesn’t like talking about her family to outsiders. Only Alice knows that Ms. Mills is her aunt, and she keeps it quiet, too. No one needs to know that the teacher who has them all terrified also used to babysit Robin and occasionally take her in when Mom would have her episodes. If they found out, Robin suspects, they’d insist on going to see Ms. Mills in her natural habitat , and that involves a lot more wine and a lot more complaining about Ms. Swan than any of her clique can grasp.

 

She heads toward the cozy little house on Second Street where Aunt Regina lives in Grandma’s old house. Robin still feels a note of dread whenever she walks down Mifflin Street to that terrifyingly huge white house, still envisioning Grandma’s disapproving eyes. Grandma had never liked Mom, and she had liked even less when Mom had had Robin. She doesn’t like anything she can’t control, Aunt Regina had said in a burst of honesty once. And she has no control over your mother . She’d sounded proud instead of defeated, which had been a nice change of pace.

 

Today, Aunt Regina is weeding her garden, and she spares a smile for Robin. “How’s Alice?” she asks. “I saw that she fell during gym yesterday.” 

 

“She was okay. She says her feet move faster than her brain.” Robin shrugs, bending down to weed with Aunt Regina. “I heard you played ball with the sixth graders today.” 

 

Aunt Regina scoffs. “Hardly with them,” she says. “Imagine the trouble the school would have gotten into if I’d hit one of them with that ball. I only targeted the adult child in the group.” 

 

“Still haven’t asked Ms. Swan out, huh?” Robin says, and Aunt Regina gives her a quelling look. “She’d say yes, you know. She’s like…really out and proud. It’s nice.” 

 

“I can imagine what it must mean to you and your friends,” Aunt Regina acknowledges. “Though it seems to open her up for your incessant speculations–” 

 

Mom appears behind them, blocking out the sun with her shadow. “I love speculations,” she drawls. “What are we talking about now? Whether or not Robin can share a room with Alice when she sleeps over–?” 

 

Mom !” 

 

“How many students are making little voodoo dolls of Regina for next week?” Mom says, and Aunt Regina makes a little rumbling noise in her throat. “What Emma Swan is wearing when she chaperones Homecoming?” 

 

Robin grins, pouncing on the new target. “I bet Aunt Regina dances with her,” she says. “It’d probably make my friends’ heads explode.” 

 

“I will still have some dignity left even after an afternoon with you two,” Aunt Regina sniffs. “I don’t think you grasp exactly how much I loathe Emma Swan.” 

 

Mom frowns. “You’re not fucking Mal again, are you? I thought we talked about this. She isn’t interested in a relationship–” 

 

Robin puts up a hand. “Hello,” she says. “Child in the garden.” 

 

Mom ignores her. “She uses you, Regina,” she says, sounding agitated. “I know that you’re friends, but you can’t–” 

 

“I’m not ,” Aunt Regina says, and she sounds very tired. “I would just like– for one night– to not think about Emma Swan. Is that too much to ask?” 

 

Always , Robin thinks, and she shares a silent communication with her mother, who is just as unconvinced. As soon as Aunt Regina gets started, she talks about very little but Ms. Swan, which is deeply entertaining and deeply frustrating. 

 

Because seriously , if Aunt Regina can’t get her act together, then there’s really no hope for anyone else.

 


 

Henry, yet again, is missing. Snow calls Emma, panicked again. “He was supposed to get something to eat at Granny’s,” she says, tearful. “She never saw him.”

 

“Get the boy a cell phone, please . Or at least a walkie-talkie,” Emma says, but she bites her lip and goes out searching. It’s difficult to imagine Henry in very much trouble in Storybrooke, the safest town in the universe, but there are still dangers. There are those abandoned mines outside of town, and he could have just…wandered off a trail in the woods and gotten lost–

 

She takes a breath and heads for the clock tower. This time, Henry isn’t there or at the library below it, and she ducks her head into a few stores on Main Street to find him with no luck. She’s about to cross the street to check the ice cream shop when a ridiculous possibility occurs to her and she makes a left turn off Main Street toward Mifflin Street, where Mills lives.

 

Henry rarely talks to Snow. He doesn’t talk to Emma at all, which is probably what she deserves. But if he’s said anything to anyone, it’ll be Mills. 

 

She jogs down the street toward the big white house at the center of it, and she pauses when she hears voices in the garden and goes there instead of the front door. Mills is there, and Emma blinks in surprise. 

 

Gone are the formal pantsuits and those solid-colored hot-boss dresses that Mills wears to school. Instead, she’s in jeans and a hardy-looking button-down shirt, long gloves up to her elbows, and her hair is tied back . Whoa. Emma has never even imagined Mills’s hair in a ponytail before, a slight wave to the edges of it and her hair pulled back from her face– god , that bone structure is something– and–

 

“Wow,” Robin Greene says from where she’s sitting up against a tree. “I think Ms. Swan forgot how to talk.” 

 

“Must be my stunning good looks,” comments a woman who, Emma suddenly notices, is crouched beside Mills. Emma recognizes her from parent-teacher conferences last year, and blinks, baffled. 

 

“Wait a second,” she says, glancing from one to the other. The woman doesn’t look much like Mills, but she does resemble Mills’s mother, the late mayor of Storybrooke. “Robin, are you Mills’s niece ?” Robin blinks at her as though she’s an idiot, which is the strongest confirmation that she’s related to Mills. “Is this why Mulan told me to tread carefully around you last year?”

 

“No,” Robin says cheerfully. “That’s because my mom goes totally apeshit whenever I get in trouble.” 

 

The other woman sniffs. “My daughter is an angel,” she says.

 

“She used to practice Wiccan spells during class,” Emma says skeptically. “I once found her feeling Alice up during group work.” 

 

“I was eleven ,” Robin, a whole twelve years old now, says, looking appalled at the accusation. “I was fixing her zipper. Good thing you were afraid to kick me out of class.” 

 

Emma blinks at her. “Okay, that is definitely better news, but–”

 

Mills says abruptly. “What are you doing here, Ms. Swan?” Her voice is sharp, though it’s so much harder to take her seriously when she looks like a model for L.L. Bean. “How did you find my house? Addresses aren’t noted on the public faculty lists.” 

 

Emma says, “It’s a freaking mansion , Mills, I could find it from space.” She remembers abruptly why she’s here in the first place, and it had had very little to do with Regina’s gardening style. “I was hoping you might have an idea where Henry is. He was supposed to meet Mary Margaret at the diner but he’s gone missing again.” 

 

Mills’s brow furrows, the disdain on her face melting into worry. “Have you checked the library? Or Blanchard’s house? Are you sure he left school this afternoon– or what about the park–?” The part of Emma that is pretty sure that Mills is a sociopath is silenced at the note of fear in her voice as she rattles off locations. “What about–”

 

“The ice cream shop,” Robin puts in. 

 

Mills shakes her head. “He doesn’t like ice cream. He wrote a persuasive essay about how substandard ice cream in Storybrooke makes it inedible.” 

 

“No, he’s there,” Robin says, yawning. “I saw him there with Ava Tillman’s imaginary girlfriend a half hour ago. That Grace kid.” Emma stares at her. “They were talking to the lady at the counter.”

 

“Oh,” Emma says. “Uh. Thanks.” She feels suddenly foolish for coming straight here, enlisting Mills in something so obvious. Snow had probably told him to get something to eat after school– what kid wouldn’t go straight to the ice cream shop, persuasive essay or not? “I’d better go get him.”

 

Robin’s mother says lazily, “Regina will come with you.” 

 

Mills looks horrified. “I will not.” 

 

“You love that little boy,” the other woman says, and she gives Mills the most exaggerated wink that Emma’s ever seen, followed by a smirk. “He needs you. And I’m sure you can help Emma out with this. For as long as she needs a hand.” A second wink, and Emma stares, baffled.

 

She puts up a hand. “How do you know my name?” The only reason she can think of is that Mills talks about her , which is a frightening proposition. There’s no way any of it is positive. 

 

Mills rises, and she yanks off her gloves and tosses them at her sister. “Let me get my coat,” she bites out, and she disappears into a side door while Emma still stands there, uncertain about what had just happened. Maybe peeking back for a minute to watch Mills’s ass in those jeans. She’s only human.

 

The sister says, “So how long have you been in love with my sister?” Robin chokes. 

 

Emma stares at her, feeling very much like a deer in this strange redheaded woman’s headlights. “I’m…I’m not…” 

 

The woman considers. “Well, in that case,” she says brightly. “I’m available this Sunday, if you don’t have plans–” 

 

Robin hits her mother’s arm. Emma says, a little faint, “Uh. I’m…not that I’m not flattered, but I’m just out of a relationship and I…” 

 

“Zelena,” Mills says sharply from behind Emma. Her hair is down again, and the jeans have been swiftly changed out for slacks. She looks like herself again, complete with the death glare she has leveled at her sister. “Stop hitting on my colleague.” 

 

She whirls around and stalks down the street, and Emma hurries to catch up. “For the record,” she says, “I didn’t actually say anything to your sister to imply–” 

 

“It’s all about the body language,” Mills says disdainfully, and Emma sputters for a moment before she sees the gleam in Mills’s eyes and knows she’s being teased .

 

“Okay,” Emma says, scowling at her. “Well, I’m glad that you find it funny. Maybe I will date your sister. Get some fun stories about wild baby Regina–” She laughs when Mills looks abruptly alarmed. “Just kidding. I know you were born in a sensible pantsuit with a red pen in your hand.” 

 

“Absolutely,” Mills says with a straight face. “My first word was ‘And did you back that up with evidence from the text?’ It was about Green Eggs and Ham , of course.” 

 

Emma shoots her a sidelong glance. “Ms. Mills, you are veering dangerously close to funny . What will all the students say?” She should probably stop, but instead, she finds herself saying, “At least they don’t know that you can rock a pair of mom jeans. You’d never hear the end of that.” 

 

Mills offers her a dubious look. “I’ve already resigned myself to the fact that I’m not hearing the end of it,” she says. “The worst-behaved child in the school saw me in them today.” 

 

Emma’s eyes dance. “That’s no way to talk about your niece.”

 

Mills gives her an aggrieved sigh. “Let’s just go get Henry,” she says, and if Emma weren’t so sure that the sigh is masking a laugh, she might feel a little less giddy.

Chapter Text

Somehow, this is how today ends: Henry Brooke and Emma Swan walking beside her in the park, each with an ice cream cone in hand. The woman behind the counter had given them a smile so terse that Regina had understood exactly how this looks, but she is helpless to resist it. And Henry seems to glow under her attention, so Regina really has no choice.

 

“I thought you didn’t like ice cream,” she says, watching Henry enthusiastically attack the chocolate-tipped edges of his cone. 

 

Henry looks confused. “I’m a kid. Of course I love ice cream.” His eyes clear. “Oh, the essay. You said that an expert writer can write a persuasive essay about something they disagree with. So I did.” He grins, and Regina looks at him in surprise.

 

He had been sullen when he’d seen Emma at the door to the ice cream shop, had snapped at her before Regina had appeared behind her. Emma is still subdued, watching Henry with a strange, silent longing on her face. There aren’t a lot of students who don’t adore Emma from the start, and Henry is a rare exception. Regina should feel smug about it when Emma clearly wants his affection so badly; instead, it sends a pang through her.

 

“He’s one of my best writers,” she says to Emma, if only to turn Henry’s attention to her. Emma smiles at Henry, her eyes gleaming with pride, and Henry gives her an uncertain smile back. “How is your project going?” 

 

“It’s great ,” Henry says, turning right back to her. “I decided to write about a…” He sounds suddenly self-conscious. “I’m writing about a kid who was adopted by the Evil Queen from Snow White,” he says. “And she’s really scary and cursed everyone in the land to an existence where they don’t remember who they are. She seems super mean, but she loves her son more than anything. And deep down, she’s really just sad and misunderstood.”

 

He looks up hopefully at Regina. “Is that okay?” 

 

Regina, who has been described as really scary and super mean various times over her years as a teacher to adolescents, has the nagging feeling that Henry has very specifically and presciently placed her into his story. Emma is grinning at her, and she mouths something over Henry’s head that looks suspiciously like Your Majesty . “It sounds lovely,” she says firmly. “But if there is a curse, then a fairytale will end with the curse broken, yes?” 

 

Henry chews on his lip. “I think…the boy’s birth mother is going to come to town,” he says. “After leaving him behind ten years before. And she’s going to save him.” He stares down at the ice cream in his hand, his face suddenly pinched with a silent fear, and Regina looks up to catch Emma’s eye.

 

But Emma is watching Henry, her face ashen. “What’s her name?” she says.

 

Henry says thoughtfully, “I don’t know. I haven’t gotten that far. She’s going to be really cool, though. Maybe she’ll have magic.” He offers Emma a tentative smile, a peace offering. “I think the kid will have a cool math teacher, too.”

 

It seems to do the opposite to Emma, who walks in silence for a few minutes and then says abruptly, “Mills, can you walk Henry back home? I have to go. I, uh…I have lesson plans.” 

 

Henry makes a face. “Homework is the worst,” he says in sympathy, and he watches Emma disappear with his teeth biting down on his bottom lip. “She tries too hard,” he says suddenly. “She wants everyone to like her.” 

 

“She does,” Regina agrees. It’s one of the things that has always irritated her about Emma. Emma is deeply likable, but equally desperate to win over every student who doesn’t adore her. It’s why she dogs Regina’s footsteps, why she is determined to be such an annoyance toward her. At least, that’s what Regina assumes. “But it works, doesn’t it?” 

 

Henry shrugs. “I don’t know.” He purses his lips. “I don’t trust people who everyone likes,” he says, a proclamation far beyond his years. “Ms. Swan seems nice, but so do a lot of people. And then they’re…not. Like Ms. Blanchard. She was a really cool teacher, but did you know that she’s trying to get rid of me?” He looks up at Regina, his eyes wide and earnest, and Regina stares back at him in confusion.

 

Blanchard is in her office twice a week, interrogating her about Henry’s academics and social life, and for all her faults, she doesn’t seem like someone about to give up on her foster son. “What do you mean?” 

 

“She’s going to have a baby and kick me out,” Henry says, his voice low. “I talked it over with…well, I know what’s going to happen,” he says, cutting himself off. “And Ms. Swan is best friends with Ms. Blanchard. She’s in on it. That’s why she always seems so guilty around me.”

 

Regina is stymied. This is coming out of nowhere, and she retraces their verbal steps, struggles to figure out what has Henry so convinced. She is left with one question. “Who did you talk it over with?” 

 

Henry shrugs. “Just my friends,” he says. “Some of them think so, too.”

 

Regina stares at him. “Did you…did you always think this about Ms. Swan?” she finally ventures. Someone must be planting these thoughts in Henry’s mind, and she thinks back through the sixth grade warily, pondering the possibilities. Peter and Felix are prone to this kind of bullying, though Regina hasn’t seen them interact with Henry before. What is Henry doing after school? She can’t imagine that sweet little Grace Page is the one persuading Henry that he doesn’t have a safe place–

 

He has such an active imagination. Maybe he’s only just feeding off of what he’s sensing at home. “Did you always think that Ms. Swan was…did you always think that she was like that?” 

 

Henry ponders her question, licking the last of his ice cream thoughtfully. “At the beginning of the year, I thought she was funny. Then I figured out how fake she is.” 

 

“No.” Regina is aghast at this certainty from someone so young that Emma is anything other than obnoxiously, absurdly exactly who she seems to be. “Henry, I may not have the highest opinion of Ms. Swan–” 

 

Henry nods eagerly. “You see through her, too. That’s why you fight so much.” 

 

“–But I know that she is as real as it gets,” Regina finishes wryly. “She might drive me up the wall, but Ms. Swan is sincere about reaching out to you. And I can’t imagine that Ms. Blanchard is planning to let you go anytime soon, judging from the amount of time she spends haranguing me about your grades and your social life.” 

 

Henry shakes his head. “You don’t get it,” he says, and his face is shadowed and distressed. It strikes Regina as the image of a child facing two opposing ideologies at once, impossible to reconcile, and she is very sure that someone is feeding this drivel to Henry. 

 

“Henry,” Regina says again. “Who told you this about Ms. Swan?”

 

Henry heaves his shoulders, and she senses that she has already pushed him too far. “No one. Never mind, okay?” His voice is a bit too sharp to speak to a teacher, and he seems to realize that. “Never mind,” he repeats, less abrupt. “I have to go.” He points a finger at Blanchard’s apartment building. “That’s where I’m staying.” He runs ahead, away from Regina, and she watches him and is quietly worried.

 

There is really only one option now, and she sighs and takes out her phone to dial a number she’s never called before. Emma picks up on the second ring, and Regina says tersely, “We need to talk about Henry.” 

 


 

There is something skeevy about Mr. Gold, though no one can quite put their finger on it to lodge a formal complaint. He has this way of looking at his students that makes Jacinda uncomfortable, and he always seems amused by himself to the point that no one knows if he’s annoyed with the class or delighted. He’s married to an old student, though the school officially claims that they didn’t start dating until she’d finished high school, and Jacinda doesn’t get that . How can you teach a kid history when she’s thirteen and then date her four years later?

 

But the skeeviest thing about Gold is that he always picks a girl to get coffee from the teachers’ room in the middle of class. It makes Sabine furious, and she’d mouthed off to him when he’d tried sending her and been sent to Principal Midas over it. Today, she’d looked nearly as livid when Jacinda had been sent, but Jacinda had shaken her head, a warning not to blow up over it.

 

Getting coffee for Gold might be sexist, but it beats being in his class on a Monday afternoon.

 

She squints at the instructions on the top of the coffee pod as she tries to piece together how to make the coffee. Because hey , why is she supposed to know how to operate a coffee maker–

 

There are voices nearing, and Jacinda ducks forward, self-conscious. She’s pretty sure that she’s allowed to be in the teachers’ room for Gold, but she doesn’t particularly want to explain herself to her old teachers. “–for Homecoming,” says a voice she recognizes as Ms. Hua, the PE teacher. “I thought slacks and nice button-down would be enough.” 

 

“I don’t think you’d stand out,” agrees Ms. Locksley. She does science lab for the school, and she’s one of Jacinda’s favorite teachers. Thankfully, she doesn’t notice Jacinda by the pantry, behind the open door. “I’m going with a classic little black dress. You can’t go wrong with one of those.” She laughs. “The kids are too busy being overwhelmed by their own hormones to notice what we’re wearing, anyway. Except maybe the ones who are a little bit in love with you.” 

 

Ms. Hua sounds pained. “Please stop,” she says.

 

“The seventh graders last year had a list ,” Ms. Locksley says teasingly. “You scored second place after Regina.” She snorts. “Emma was the one who confiscated it, and she was very miffed that she was only fifth.” 

 

“She’s too approachable,” Ms. Hua says knowingly. Jacinda suppresses a snort. “How many students are going to try to dance with her this year at Homecoming?” 

 

Ms. Locksley snorts. “Too many. Regina’s going to make snide comments the entire time .” 

 

“Mm, my favorite,” Ms. Hua says, and Jacinda peers through the gap in the door to the pantry just in time to see her peck Ms. Locksley on the lips– and whoa , are there more gay teachers in the school than they’d thought– and says, “I’d better head back out. I just came in here to grab my stopwatch.” 

 

She ducks out, and Ms. Locksley follows soon after, leaving Jacinda to continue to puzzle out the coffee pods. She figures it out disappointingly quickly, and she’s just waiting for the coffee itself to drip into the mug she’d been given when Ms. Swan wanders into the room. 

 

Ms. Mills is right behind her, and Jacinda turns around before she can get in trouble for being in the teachers’ room. Ms. Mills, she suspects, won’t be happy. But neither teacher seems to notice her, too caught up in an argument they’re having.

 

Typical , of course, for them to be arguing. Jacinda had been in Ms. Swan’s first class in the school, and she remembers how many mistakes Ms. Swan had made. The worst of them had been on the second day of school, when Ms. Swan had made the mistake of telling Ms. Mills to go easy on Jacinda’s class when she’d dismissed them late. Jacinda still shudders when she remembers Ms. Mills’s face going all thunderous, murder in her eyes. Let me make one thing very clear, Ms. Swan she’d bitten out, and Ms. Swan hadn’t flinched back, had only stared right back at Ms. Mills with her own gaze just as hot. If you ever interfere with my classroom again, I will make your life very, very difficult. 

 

After that, it had been like a sickness, how Ms. Swan had found ways to annoy Ms. Mills. There had been a week when Ms. Swan had blasted rock music next to their shared wall because there had been some vague evidence that it helped mathematical thinking. Ms. Swan had once swapped the cabinets in their classrooms for a day so Ms. Mills’s code wouldn’t unlock hers. On the first day of school last year, Ms. Swan had walked into Ms. Mills’s classroom, introduced herself as Regina, and had assigned the students Captain Underpants as their first novel before Ms. Mills had gotten into the room. 

 

Back then, Jacinda had thought that they’d been acts of defiance, proof that Ms. Swan isn’t going to let Ms. Mills intimidate her. Now, she’s pretty sure that it had just been Ms. Swan antagonizing the lady she’d liked so Ms. Mills would notice her, and it hasn’t stopped yet.

 

Today, though, there is nothing hostile or playful about the way that they’re arguing, though. Their voices are low, and Ms. Swan sounds upset. “I want to talk about it,” she says. “If he really believes all of these things, then I should be able to–” 

 

Ms. Mills, to Jacinda’s surprise, doesn’t sound angry at all, only weary. “He has to be able to trust that I’m keeping his confidence. If you start reassuring him, he might shut himself off from us both.” 

 

Ms. Swan stops. Jacinda can see her reflection in the coffee maker, the way she looks small and defeated. “So we just let him continue to believe it?”

 

Ms. Mills turns, and Jacinda’s eyes widen at the expression on her face, at the way she lifts a hand as though she’s going to put it on Ms. Swan’s arm. She doesn’t– snatches it away before Ms. Swan notices it and tucks her hand against her side as though restraining a misbehaving appendage– but her voice is surprisingly gentle when she responds. “You know that you don’t need every student in this school to love you for you to be a competent educator, don’t you?” 

 

Ms. Swan is staring away from Ms. Mills, her reflection barely visible in the black plastic of the coffee maker across the room. Jacinda feels abruptly as though she’s eavesdropping on something very private, and she swallows and puts her hands around the coffee cup. 

 

Ms. Swan says, “It’s not…that’s not…” But she sounds strained, her voice thick, and she takes a breath. “Oh,” she says suddenly, and her tone lightens, becomes casual and amused. “Hey, Jacinda. What are you doing in the teachers’ room?” 

 

Jacinda turns sheepishly, eyes averted, and she lifts the cup up in answer. “Gold is still doing his thing, huh?” Ms. Swan says ruefully. “Go ahead,” she says, nodding to the door. “Get back to class before the bell rings. Learn something.” Jacinda scampers.

 

But when she peeks up at Ms. Mills as she leaves the room, she sees that the other teacher is watching Ms. Swan, her brow furrowed.

 


 

Emma is trying to be a less impulsive, she is , and that translates to being totally chill around Henry Brooke for the duration of class. She calls on him twice early on and then panics that it had been too needy, and then she ignores him for the rest of class even when he uncharacteristically raises his hand for an answer. So she isn’t doing a great job at being totally chill , maybe, but at least she hasn’t blurted out anything stupid all morning.

 

She congratulates herself on that as she wanders through the near-empty cafeteria at Henry’s lunch period, which is maybe a little less chill. It’s another nice October day, and most kids are outside, enjoying lunch on the lawn or the roof. Henry, though, sits alone in his corner of the cafeteria, engrossed in a book.

 

Emma considers what it might mean that Henry thinks she tries too hard , which is all Mills had given her of their exchange beyond the fucked-up Ms. Swan is helping Snow get rid of me part, and then she decides that she doesn’t care. “Hey,” she says brightly. “Good book?”

 

Henry doesn’t look up. “Yeah.” 

 

“Cool.” She hovers, buzzing with anxious energy, and it takes everything she has not to immediately blurt out who is feeding you that garbage or I’m not trying too hard . She finally thinks of something to say. “How’s the fairytale project going?” It had felt a little like a punch to the gut when Henry had told the story as he’d planned it, though it’s probably one she deserves. “Are our heroes going to break the curse?”

 

Henry sets his book down reluctantly, giving Emma a weary look that tells her that he knows exactly what she’s doing and he isn’t impressed. There is something about Henry Brooke that has Emma always on the defensive, always certain that she isn’t measuring up. And still, she can’t stay away anymore. The dam has been broken, and Emma is caught in an inescapable rush of water. “They’re working on it,” he says. “But it’s hard. The Evil Queen is really sneaky, and she doesn’t want them to be together.”

 

“That’s your Ms. Mills stand-in, huh? Think she’s flattered?” Emma says lightly. It is wild to her that Henry is so standoffish toward everyone else, his foster mother included, but he’d go so far as to write Mills in as his fictional mother . Emma hadn’t even imagined that there could be anyone in this world who might actually like Mills.

 

Henry gives her a look. “She isn’t actually evil,” he says. “She just had a really hard life. She adopted her son and he taught her to love again.” 

 

“That’s…really sweet, actually,” Emma admits, chewing on her lip. She tries to imagine Mills with a son and entertains herself with the picture of a perfectly groomed little boy with a starched shirt and that haughty disdain on his face. Maybe a little less of the whole secretly a softie thing that Henry is imagining for his Evil Queen. “And as Ms. Mills’s official nemesis, I can tell you that she would definitely curse an entire kingdom if she had the magic to do it. Can’t really picture her having a kid, though.” 

 

Henry’s eyes drift back to his book, and Emma winces. This is like pulling teeth. “I was thinking–” she starts, and it’s almost a relief when Henry interrupts her, because she has no idea where her sentence was going.

 

“Ms. Mills tried to adopt me,” he says abruptly, and Emma is no longer relieved at all.

 

What ?” 

 

Henry shrugs. “When I was little. She tried to adopt me, but something happened with the paperwork and stuff and I wound up being fostered instead. But she was supposed to be my mom.” 

 

No. No, she wasn’t , because she’s never said a word , and this is their thing, now, kind of. They’re working together to help Henry, and Mills has never breathed a word about–

 

But there had been an adoption. She remembers hearing about it from afar, while she’d been studying to get her GED through the local high school, and it had consumed all of her thoughts until it had fallen through. There hadn’t been much discussion of who the person is, only disapproving town gossip that it had been someone much too young to be adopting a son, and then it hadn’t happened and Emma had been devastated and relieved and sobbed in Snow’s bedroom when the house had been empty. I guess this is kind of a trigger for you , Snow had said wisely when she’d come back, and she’d rubbed Emma’s back and brought her chocolate without asking any questions.

 

Snow had never asked questions, which had been half the reason why Emma had stayed. 

 

“Your mom,” Emma finally croaks. “Ms. Mills ? Are you sure?” 

 

Henry bobs his head. “I have to go to Dr. Hopper every week. Sometimes he just lets me sit in his office and read where no one will annoy me.” Okay, and that sounds like a personal attack, but Emma is still too staggered to take offense. “I looked through my files one time when he left. But I knew already.”

 

It’s strange how betrayed Emma can feel by someone she’d never even liked , someone who’s always been a menace instead of a friend. But how could Mills not…how could she keep this from Emma? “How did you…?” 

 

Henry rubs his thumb against the spine of his book in a nervous gesture. “I know everyone thinks my last foster mom was some kind of angel because she was a nun or whatever but, like…she was pretty tough about a lot of things. She didn’t like spending money on me. If I tore my pants, she wouldn’t replace them, so I just wore the same pair every day for most of first grade. And I was only allowed to read religious books around the house, and I didn’t get snacks or anything for breakfast or lunch that wasn’t in the cafeteria. It was okay, though,” he says hastily, the mark of a foster kid that has Emma anguished. She’d been in houses like that, had been so relieved to have a place to stay that she hadn’t minded, and she’d never intended for Henry to… 

 

“Henry,” she says, and she sits, finally, next to him. 

 

He gives her a wary look. “It really wasn’t so bad,” he says. “And then when I was in second grade, Archie– Dr. Hopper– came back to town and started working at the school. I never mentioned any of this to him– I don’t know how Ms. Mills knew– but he used to give me these packages that he said were legally mandated from the state for all foster kids. Loads of new clothes and books and games and stuff.” 

 

He puffs out a little laugh. “He messed up when he started giving me those brown paper bags every day with homemade lunches and fresh cookies and fruits. He fostered me when I was in preschool. I knew he couldn’t cook. So I sneaked around until I saw who was dropping off the packages and stuff. And when I found out later that Ms. Mills also tried to adopt me, it made more sense.”

 

Emma stares at him. “Ms. Mills has been making you lunch every day? For five years?” Snow had said that Henry is insistent on eating the cafeteria food, which Snow had taken as a personal affront after seeing the gourmet meals that his old foster mother had made him the year before that. But no, he’s just been quietly eating Mills’s food for years.

 

Another surge of betrayal, followed by agony. Why hadn’t she known about this? Why hadn’t Mills said a word? Shouldn’t this have been relevant to their conversations about Henry–

 

“And she never told you any of this,” she says, and her voice is small and hurt.

 

Henry gives her a scornful look. “No way. It’d ruin her image,” he says, and he grins. “But I know. See? Evil Queen with a heart of gold.” 

 

“I see,” Emma says, and her throat hurts, her heart thumping in her chest. “Uh. Is Ms. Blanchard…are you happier there?” That’s the most important thing here. Not whatever Mills has been quietly doing for Henry, not how lost Emma feels right now. Henry had spent over four years in a house where she’d been sure he’d been cared for– and he’d always looked it, though she’s only gotten to see him more often in the past three years– and he’d been unhappy.

 

Henry shrugs. “It’s fine. Ms. Blanchard is nice.”

 

Emma swallows. “Look, I’ve been in houses where I felt– like you did– and I want you to know that you can always talk to me if you feel like that again.” Henry gives her an unimpressed look, and Emma persists. “I mean it,” she says. “I know it’s easy to get stuck in the feeling of, like, that at least someone wants you, so it’s okay what they’re–” 

 

Henry cuts her off again. “Look,” he says, mimicking her tone. “I know you think that we’re supposed to be…bonding or whatever because we’re both foster kids. But we’re not the same.” He presses his lips together, releasing them in a hard sigh. “I don’t want to make a little club of how bad our lives are. I’m fine . I’m not your pet project. Ma’am,” he says hastily, as though he’d just remembered that she’s his teacher. “I just…I really just want to read my book,” he says, and he looks longingly down at it, making no secret of how badly he doesn’t want to be talking to Emma.

 

Fuck. Fuck. Fuck . Emma forces a smile, makes her voice flippant though it comes out a little too thick. “I’ll stop bothering you, then,” she says. Henry flashes her a smile– the first directed at her all conversation– and looks back at her book.

 

And she can’t just leave it like this, not even with a boy who wants nothing to do with her. She doesn’t know why he’s so hostile toward her, what it is he senses about her that he dislikes so much, and it feels simultaneously deserved and untenable. But he can’t go home today still thinking that Emma and Snow are trying to get rid of him , at least. That’s for him, not for Emma, though it is becoming frighteningly clear that every other part of this interaction has been about Emma helping herself instead of Henry. “You know that…you know that Ms. Blanchard adores you, right? She and Mr. Nolan both. They love kids, and they talk about you all the time– how smart you are, and how sweet–”

 

“Okay,” Henry says. There is no emotion in his voice whatsoever. 

 

“I just wanted to tell you that,” Emma says meekly. “So you know.” 

 

“Cool.” He doesn’t look up. 

 

After a moment, Emma backs away. She hurries away from the cafeteria, up the stairs and to the faculty restrooms, where she stares into the mirror and breathes hard, struggling to regain her composure. 

 

A toilet flushes in one of the stalls, and Emma steadies herself and her breathing, looks at herself in the mirror and is satisfied that she can look stable if no one tries to talk to her. But, of course, it just has to be Mills who emerges from the stall, her sharp eyes falling on Emma. “What’s wrong?” she says abruptly, peering at Emma’s face.

 

So maybe she hasn’t completely hidden away her distress. She takes a breath. Mills takes a step forward, her eyes sweeping over Emma with something that might almost be concern. “Emma,” she says, and Emma can’t bear this, all the secrets that pile upon secrets and become something that will break her.

 

She says, “Why didn’t you tell me that you almost adopted Henry?” and watches as Mills takes a careful step back, her face smoothing over into something unreadable.

 

“Who told you that?” she says.

 

“Henry,” Emma says, and it should feel savagely good that Henry has told her something– has shared more with her than she’d ever expected, considering how he seems to want nothing to do with her. Instead, it only hurts even more. “He’s known for years.” 

 

Mills’s eyes widen, then close off again. “I don’t see why it would make a difference,” she says, the words clipped.

 

“Yeah,” Emma says helplessly, and the words are thick and hurt, are grieving for something that had never existed at all. “I don’t see why you would.” She turns and stalks away from Mills, out of the bathroom and back into the harsh lights and noise of the hallway as the kids return upstairs from lunch.

Chapter Text

It’s impossible not to notice that Ms. Swan and Ms. Mills are fighting. Like, really impossible, which is so weird, because until now, Ava had kind of always figured that her teachers were in the midst of one perpetual fight that had never ended. 

 

But this is different. Ms. Swan teaches mechanically on Wednesday morning, and Ava had never really imagined math to be the kind of subject that you put your soul into teaching until Ms. Swan’s soul had been, abruptly, removed from the equation. Today, math is boring , which sucks, because Ava likes math. It’s the one subject that doesn’t require any work if you get it, and she always gets it with Ms. Swan.

 

Except today, Ms. Swan teaching dully at the board instead of wandering around the room and abruptly leading them in dorky chants to make sure they’re paying attention. They’re paired into groups to do practice equations, and Ava hurries to sit with Grace, who gives her a cute little smile when she pushes her desk to Grace’s and Henry Brooke’s. 

 

“So if we simplify this fraction,” Grace says, frowning, “We should be getting six. Logically, that makes sense. But it’s not working.” 

 

“Lemme try,” Ava says, setting up the problem on her paper and keeping in mind her priorities. “Speaking of fractions, do you guys have dates for Homecoming this Friday?”

 

Henry squints at her. “What does that have to do with fractions?” 

 

“Shut up. Answer the question,” Ava says, glancing significantly at Grace.

 

“I’m not going,” Henry says, because he can’t take a hint. “Dances are dumb.”

 

“I don’t have a date,” Grace says, and she smiles at Ava, who promptly loses every last ounce of sense that she’d had and says, “Whatever, who cares?” and looks back up at Ms. Swan to avoid having to make eye contact with Grace again.

 

Ms. Swan is watching their group, but she looks away swiftly when she sees Ava watching her. Instead, she writes halfhearted notes in her roll book, and Ava is at last sure that something is very wrong. 

 

It gets weirder. There’s a knock at the door to the classroom, and Ms. Swan looks up, her face going all pale and stiff. “Come in,” she calls, and Ms. Mills pokes her head in. Pokes her head in, like a polite colleague might instead of Ms. Swan’s mortal enemy, and Ava gapes at her. 

 

Ms. Mills usually throws the door open without knocking, strides into the room like she owns it, and lambasts Ms. Swan for a good five minutes before getting to the point. Today, she says, “I believe you have my cable,” and Ms. Swan unplugs it from the smartboard and hands it to Ms. Mills without comment. Ms. Mills says, “Thank you,” and then hesitates and says, “Will you install it in my computer?” 

 

“Yeah,” Ms. Swan says. “It’s just a finicky board. You have to shut off the power before you plug it in or it won’t recognize the cable.” She leaves with Ms. Mills, trailing behind her with her face still all tight, and Ava’s eyes go wide with realization.

 

There’s no other explanation for this tense, polite awkwardness. “They’re hooking up ,” she hisses to Grace. “Oh, my god. Look at them. They barely even made eye contact.” 

 

Grace laughs. “You really think so?” she says. 

 

“What a day for gay rights in Storybrooke,” Ava says, drumming her fingers against the desk as she leans toward Grace. “Ms. Swan gets the girl, and you agree to go to Homecoming with me. Incredible.” 

 

“I did?” Grace says.

 

“They’re not hooking up,” Henry says scornfully. “They don’t even like each other.” 

 

Ava snorts. “That’s really not required.”

 

Grace’s voice lowers. “It’s so weird to think about teachers doing… you know . Like they’re real people living real lives outside of the classroom.” She raises her eyebrows at Henry. “But you went out for ice cream with them the other day, didn’t you? Did they seem cozy?” 

 

Ava stares at Henry, who has abruptly become interesting. He’d gone out for ice cream with both of them? What even

 

Henry scoffs. “I don’t know. Ms. Swan calls Ms. Mills Mills . Not even by her name. I don’t think they’re together.” His brow knits together. “You think Ms. Mills talks to Ms. Swan about…other things?” He looks worried, and there’s an angry little set to his jaw. “She wouldn’t.” 

 

Ava shrugs. “I’m just saying. There’s something going on there.” 

 

She watches as Henry and Grace exchange a look, Henry unhappy and Grace tense. “Don’t talk to her about it,” Grace says sharply. It’s unlike Grace to be sharp , and Ava looks between them as though she’s refereeing a tennis match. “I told you. She’s going to say terrible things again.” 

 

“She’s right ,” Henry shoots back. “So who cares what she says?” 

 

“She’s not right,” Grace hisses, and she looks upset now. Ava, who has already sworn internally that she will murder anyone who upsets Grace, contemplates stabbing Henry with a pencil. “You told her Ms. Swan was the nicest person you know two weeks ago and she’s been tearing her apart since. She just doesn’t like anyone you like, and if you bring up Ms. Mills–” 

 

The door to the classroom creaks open, and Henry says tersely, “Can we just do our math?” as Ms. Swan slips back inside. 

 

Ava, who is intensely interested in this cryptic conversation, says, “No, go back to fighting.” She gets two dirty looks for that, and she rolls her eyes at them and turns to watch Ms. Swan unobtrusively. 

 

She sits heavily, drawing mindless circles into her roll book, and then– before she sees Ava watching– sneaks a glance at their little group. Or at Henry, maybe, whose attention is fixed on his paper now and misses Ms. Swan’s stare altogether.

 


 

Regina has done nothing wrong. She knows that, even if Emma is holding an irrational grudge against her right now for…absolutely nothing. Why is anything that Regina has done for Henry relevant to Emma? Emma is just that brand of self-centered, and, Regina decides, she has had enough.

 

Except that, for some reason, the resentment fizzles away when she sees Emma. It’s easier to hold onto petty annoyance around Emma, to be perpetually irritated and stymied by her. This new reality where hurt swims around them like they might matter to each other is discomfiting, and it leaves Regina itchy and frustrated and oddly sad.

 

And then there’s Henry, who has known all along that Regina is the one who had destroyed his life. Who had reached too far and tried to keep him, and Mother had made sure that no one would ever give him a home again. Regina had tried, had called bureaucrats and sorted through red tape and done everything in her power to untangle the mess that Mother had created for Henry. But it’s impossible. Short of his birth mother reappearing in town and claiming him, there’s no permanent family for him.

 

He doesn’t hate her for it, which is nonsensical. Perhaps he just doesn’t grasp the extent to which she’d caused this for him, and sees him as a benefactor instead of a saboteur. Emma must have understood the latter, and she’s shut Regina out over it. Emma, who loves Henry so much, despite the reality that someone is poisoning him against her. 

 

Regina closes her eyes, abruptly weary. When she opens them, it is with a restless need to be away from here, to do something. It’s the end of the day, and she is still in her office, exhausted from too much time spent in tension. 

 

She packs up in silence, gathering papers and tucking them into folders in her bag, and she slips out of the room and strides down the hall toward the elevator. Marian is already there, speaking quietly to someone Regina can’t see, and Regina winces when she gets closer and realizes that it’s Emma. Emma doesn’t look at her, though Regina knows that Emma is aware from the way that her spine is stiff as she says lightly, “I still need a date for Homecoming, and I think he’s perfect .” 

 

Regina’s ears prick up, her heart skipping a beat, and Marian laughs. “I think I can introduce the two of you. You’ll have to supply the suit, though.” Her eyes dance to Regina, and she says, “He’s on the second floor. Want to come along?” 

 

That’s definitely a question for Regina, who falters, at a loss. “I can’t think of anything I’d like less,” she says coolly. Isn’t Emma a lesbian? Why is she bringing some man with her to Homecoming? 

 

Marian snorts. “I know you aren’t actually this stuffy, Regina. We’ve been friends since you were in diapers.” 

 

Emma perks up, though she still hasn’t made eye contact with Regina. Regina is annoyed with herself for noticing that, and also deeply bereft. “That long?” 

 

“Oh, yeah. Our friendship took a hard hit when Cora heard me teaching her Spanish and banned me from the house, but we reconnected in high school.” Marian winks at Regina, who stares at her, face frozen. This is more about her childhood than she had ever wanted Emma to know. 

 

“Why for teaching Spanish–?” Emma looks bewildered. 

 

Marian snorts. “Too much costeña in me. I didn’t even speak Spanish. I was teaching her to count to five. But Cora was afraid I’d ruin Regina’s pedigree.”

 

Despite herself, Regina grins. “You ruined me in plenty of ways,” she admits, playful. There had been that terrible, hopeless time when Regina had fallen head-over-heels for Marian, had spent her sophomore year terrified at how her mother would take it if she were a lesbian, and the relief that she’d felt when she’d found Daniel. It han’t lasted, of course– he still hadn’t been enough for Mother, and Mother had catapulted him far from town, never to be seen again– and to this day, Regina hasn’t met another man who attracts her. She wonders sometimes if her love for Daniel had been a defense mechanism, a way to keep herself safe from Mother’s wrath.

 

At least the old crush on Marian has settled into a friend’s love, the kind of love that may outlast the horrific fact that Marian is introducing Emma to a man right now. Which is fine , because it has nothing to do with Regina, anyway. Let Emma make a fool of herself by bringing a date to Homecoming. She’ll probably dance there, too, as though it’s her Homecoming instead of the students’. Regina remembers her outfit last year, a dress that hadn’t been obscene except in how it had brought out the green in her eyes so handily, and Emma had tried on three separate occasions to taunt her into dancing.

 

Appalling. “I hope this date of yours will keep you from harassing me during Homecoming,” Regina sniffs, forgetting that there is an unspoken tension between them right now. 

 

Emma offers her the ghost of a smile, her eyes catching Regina’s for an instant. There is no anger in her eyes, just a hollow sort of loss. “I don’t think he’d have the guts for that,” she says, and Marian pokes her hard in the ribs.

 

“You’re terrible,” she says, and she leads them to her lab when the elevator opens. “Anyway, this is my claim to fame. I knew Regina before she was scary.” 

 

“I’ve always been scary,” Regina says, deadpan.

 

Marian laughs hard . Emma is watching her in fascination, and Marian throws a wink at Regina. “She used to rescue abandoned kittens from the shed behind my house,” she says. “Hide them in the garage at her place and feed them from droppers. They’d never leave. It drove Cora mad. Regina would find anything that breathed and try to adopt it.” 

 

Unfortunate wording. Regina tenses. Emma’s face has drained of color. “Oh,” she says.

 

Marian doesn’t seem to notice. “Rabbits. Mice. A snake once. I was shocked when we started hanging out in high school and you didn’t have a single pet.” 

 

Mother had locked the kittens in once, had sealed the door and changed the garage code. Regina had pressed herself to the side of the door and listened to the kittens mewling, begging for food, and Mother had only opened the door to let them out when she’d been satisfied that Regina had learned her lesson. “I guess I outgrew it,” Regina says dully. 

 

Emma watches her, her face unreadable. When she speaks, it’s artificially light, like someone else is moving her lips for her. “I always wanted a pet,” she says. “I used to find ratty little strays and try to hide them under my bed. Never really worked, though.” 

 

Marian laughs. “Your parents had a handful. I’m shocked.” 

 

“No parents,” Emma says, her tone still the same. Regina blinks at her, startled. Emma shrugs. “I grew up in foster care,” she explains. “Kind of careening from group home to group home when i wasn’t running away from them. Not really an ideal space for pets.” 

 

“Oh, I’m sorry,” Marian says, and she shoots a covert look at Regina, a glance of why didn’t you tell me? As though Regina is meant to understand Emma Swan, her worst enemy. “I didn’t know.” 

 

Regina hadn’t known a thing, hadn’t even suspected. She’d known that Emma hadn’t come from an auspicious background because the Blanchards had sponsored her degree, but she’d assumed…well, parents like Regina’s mother, maybe, except that Eva Blanchard would have noticed what Leopold Blanchard hadn’t during his affair with Mother. Not foster care. 

 

Just like Henry. The picture isn’t quite clear yet, but the pieces are beginning to fit together.

 

Emma shrugs. “Not a big deal,” she says airily, though Regina is positive that it is, in fact, a very big deal. “It doesn’t really matter anymore. I guess I could finally get that dog.” She clears her throat. “Now, where’s my date?”

 

They’re standing outside of Marian’s lab, and Regina’s distaste is replaced by a sneaking suspicion–

 

“Here,” Marian says brightly, leading them to the far side of the lab. A life-size skeleton stands in the corner, and Regina exhales. “Just throw a tux on him and he’s good to go.” 

 

Emma throws an arm around the skeleton. “Let’s paint the town red, babe,” she says, grinning, and her eyes catch Regina’s–

 

Regina averts hers too quickly– the trick is not to avert but to look as though she truly doesn’t care, and she fails miserably– and Emma raises her eyebrows. “No need to be so jealous, Mills,” she drawls. “I’ll still save you a dance.” 

 

Marian snorts, glancing down at her phone for a moment. “I’ll leave you two to it. Roland’s got soccer practice in ten.” She pats the skeleton’s shoulder. “Be gentle with Bonehead. He’s one of the good ones.” 

 

She makes a quick exit before Regina can find a reason to follow, and Regina hesitates, the tension in the lab overpowering. Emma isn’t smiling anymore. Regina says, “I wasn’t– I wasn’t jealous .” 

 

This is somehow more comfortable than talking about the elephant in the room. Emma quirks her lips, an almost smile. “Right.”

 

“I was thinking about Robin,” Regina blurts out. “It means a lot to her that you’re an out and proud lesbian. You were the reason she followed suit. I was concerned– I didn’t know why you would bring a man to Homecoming–” 

 

“Marian didn’t have any girl skeletons,” Emma says regretfully. “I asked.” Her eyes do that shiny-twinkling thing that aggravates Regina and also makes her face unconscionably warm. “But I’m glad I could reassure you. For Robin.”

 

“Well, it’s not as though I would care,” Regina says, straightening, and she feels a little more in control of the situation now. “You can keep your eternal parade of girlfriends as long as Robin feels seen.” 

 

Emma raises her eyebrows. “ Eternal parade ? Three in a year isn’t a parade . How many people have you dated this year?” 

 

Regina stumbles over her words. “I haven’t– I don’t–” Well, there had been another ill-advised turn with Mal last February, but that’s hardly relevant. Zelena says that Mal triggers Regina’s mommy issues . Rich words from a woman drowning in issues. “I don’t see how that’s your business,” Regina finishes primly.

 

Emma grins. “Oh, Mills,” she says. “I think anything that has you this off-balance is my business.” 

 

Regina gives her a frosty look, though she’s internally relieved that they’re talking right now. “You severely overestimate your effect on me,” she shoots back. “And your obsession with my love life is embarrassing.” 

 

“Not as embarrassing as your lack of a love life,” Emma retorts. At Regina’s glare, Emma says smugly, “What? Am I supposed to believe that you’re this much of an asshole and still getting laid?”

 

Regina eyes her. “I’m this much of an asshole and you’re still trying to dance with me at Homecoming. Apparently, it appeals.” It’s supposed to be scathing. 

 

Emma, who doesn’t even register that she should be offended, just laughs. “Right,” she says. “Maybe I see that softie cat lady that Marian claims is somewhere deep, deep down. Slipping cats into the garage and presents to Hen–” She stops, and the tension drowns the room again.

 

“Emma,” Regina says, and she doesn’t know what she’s going to say to make this better. What is there to explain, exactly, except that little girl standing outside a garage, listening to kittens crying out for her and unable to help them? Except watching a baby who had stolen her whole heart as he’d been kept from her and anyone else who might have cared for him instead? There is no justification, only grief and guilt, and Regina doesn’t owe Emma any of that.

 

Doesn’t, except that when Emma turns, the skeleton slung over her shoulder, her lips are thinly pressed to each other and Regina craves to say something. Doesn’t, except that her heart pounds as Emma says, “I’ve got to go,” abruptly and Regina breathes as though she might choke on her breath.

 

Emma doesn’t turn around again. Regina watches her go in silence, and her heart hurts as though there is something here to salvage, when they have never had anything at all. 

 

But there is someone else in this tangled mess, and Regina can’t let him be lost because of whatever is happening between them.

 

She says, “If he knows everything, he knows what I’ve done to him. Maybe he doesn’t realize it yet. Maybe he doesn’t hate me. But he will.” Emma doesn’t move. “You have to make sure that he…that he has a safe place, Emma. He talks to you, even if he believes all that nonsense that he’s been fed.” He claims that he doesn’t trust Emma, but his admissions to her speak otherwise, even if he doesn’t grasp that himself. 

 

Emma might be his last anchor. “Please remember that,” she finishes, her voice quiet, and Emma walks out of the room. 

 


 

It would be easier if Emma could process her emotions like someone a little more stable might. Or, you know, if she could do something other than linger outside Dr. Hopper’s door, hoping he’d emerge instead of having to knock. Not that she’s going to talk about herself if she speaks with Archie. This is strictly about Henry.

 

Not the strange, gnawing sensation of the world dropping out around her whenever she sees Mills. It isn’t Mills’s fault, for a change, and she isn’t angry with her. She’s just…grieving for something that had never happened. 

 

Mills had planned to adopt Henry. Mills has been quietly looking after him for years. She might not have said it, but her actions speak volumes. As far as Mills is concerned, Henry is her son in all but reality.

 

Emma gulps a breath and leans her head against the wall, blinking hard. That’s…good. It would be good for Henry and for Mills, who adore each other unceasingly. It’s what they need, and it’s what they deserve. If Henry is up for it, maybe Mills can broach the idea of fostering him long term while they work on that red tape. A perfect happy ending.  

 

God , why does it feel like she can’t breathe?

 

When Emma thinks about childhood, she thinks about being sixteen and fleeing an abusive boyfriend twice her age, driving a car with no license and hoping that no one would pull her over. After, she’d lived with no shelter for them but the roof of her car, and it had been almost two weeks before she’d conceded that she couldn’t do this. That she’d reached too high and fallen hard.

 

She’d driven out to Storybrooke because she’d thought that it looked like a safe, quiet place to live. Sometimes out here, isolated towns are all distant farms and ominous-looking homeowners, and you don’t know if asking for directions might end with you locked in a basement. But Storybrooke had looked almost like a model town, something built for a movie set instead of a real place. The people had smiled at her when she’d slipped into the grocery and stolen food in her pockets, and people had chatted with her, gently intrusive without any hostility.  

 

She had known then that this was the place. She’d done what she’d needed to do and then planned to get the hell out of town, except that she couldn’t seem to find the strength to do it. Instead, she’d parked on a side street and stayed in her car for another three days, bereft and so lost, and that had been when Snow had found her and brought her home.

 

Snow’s apartment no longer feels like home. They’d been roommates for a few years in college, but Emma had known even then that it would be a temporary thing. Snow and David are forever, and they’d been engaged for years. When they’d gotten married three years ago, Emma had found a little place a few blocks away, and she’d been a constant guest in Snow’s apartment until Henry had arrived.

 

Mills thinks that Henry’s safe place is Emma , which is absurd. Henry makes no secret of how little he thinks of Emma, and he isn’t confiding in her as much as informing her of all the reasons why she isn’t good enough for him. He’d be happy if she kept her distance. Mills is an idiot

 

Emma takes a shuddering breath and takes out her phone. Glances at the perennial invite from Snow to dinner. Texts a response and takes off.

 


 

When Snow opens the door to the apartment, Henry is nowhere to be found. “He reads in the loft when he’s home,” Snow says in explanation, watching Emma’s eyes flicker around the room. There are very few signs that an adolescent boy now lives here– a backpack at the bottom of the stairs, a child’s coat hanging from the hook beside David’s. Nothing else. Henry keeps himself distant by choice, and Emma knows full well the quiet embarrassment that comes from pushing at Henry and being rejected.

 

Snow calls, “Henry! Dinner!” and feet appear at the top of the stairs a minute later. Henry still has his book tucked under his arm, and his eyes narrow when he sees Emma.

 

“What’s she doing here?” he demands. 

 

Snow looks taken aback. “ Henry ,” she says sharply. “Ms. Swan is your teacher. You can’t–” 

 

“It’s fine,” Emma says, and she puts on a face, the one that says that none of this bothers her. “Henry, let’s set the table.” 

 

She finds the plates and hands a grim-faced Henry the forks. He stares at her, his face wary. Emma quips, “I think I’ll do the knives.” For an instant, there is a flicker of humor on his face.

 

She keeps up a running chatter as they set the table. “Ms. Blanchard used to have me do some of the cooking when we’d do dinner together, but it never ended well. I once burned the soup. I didn’t know you could burn soup. It was disgusting. Naturally, she ate it to be polite. I refused.” 

 

Henry is quiet, his eyes on the spoons, but she thinks that he’s listening. “So then I got put in charge of cutting up the salad veggies. I think some of those cucumbers still had bloodstains on them when they went into the bowl, but Ms. Blanchard never knew. I made a raspberry dressing to mask it.” She winks at Henry. These are outrageous lies, of course. Emma had learned young how to dice vegetables perfectly. There are few better ways to get extra time in a group home kitchen. But Henry peeks up at her, and Emma keeps going. 

 

“I tried dessert a few times, and once Ms. Blanchard banned me from touching the salt, it was pretty good at the edges.” She waits.

 

And at last, victory. Henry says, “What about the rest?” He bites his lip as though he’s annoyed with himself for asking, and he sets down the last cup with a bit more force than necessary. 

 

Emma pauses for dramatic effect. “ Excellent ,” she says. “Raw, yes. But excellent regardless.” She swaggers to the table, swinging her shoulders while Snow and David watch them, both of them hiding their smiles unsuccessfully. “I don’t know why I was assigned to table setting after that. Ms. Blanchard gave up a gem.”

 

“You tell me,” Snow says easily, heading to the kitchen island. Emma joins her there, and Snow lowers her voice. “You’re good with him. I don’t think he’s ever set the table before.” 

 

“I’m terrible with him,” Emma corrects her ruefully. “He’s only enjoying this because it’s a bunch of stories about me screwing up.” 

 

“Hm,” Snow says, and she gives Emma that look again, the one that makes Emma uncertain what exactly Snow knows. Emma swallows and serves the casserole. 

 

Henry eats quietly, and Emma needles him just a little. “How was school today?” she says. “I bet math was the best part of the day. You probably get on the bus every morning and think, wow! I get to go to math class!

 

Henry cuts his food into tiny pieces, his eyes on her as though he’s watching an animal at the zoo.

 

“I hear the teacher is terrifying, though. A real tough cookie,” Emma says, eyes dancing. Every emotionless stare is like a little cut against her heart, but she refuses to let Henry see it. “Probably the toughest in the school.” 

 

“What did you learn in math today, Henry?” Snow says, joining in hopefully. 

 

Henry says, “That Ava Tillman thinks that Ms. Swan and Ms. Mills are hooking up.” 

 

Emma chokes on her casserole. David says, “Well, that seems perfectly reasonable,” as he chews on his. Snow snorts.

 

Well , Ava seems perfectly delusional,” Emma retorts, and her heart is doing that sad, hollow thing again. She does her best to ignore it. “Ms. Mills is a joyless asshole– sorry, Henry– and I have taste .” 

 

“You just told us that you’re bringing a skeleton to Homecoming,” Snow reminds her.

 

Emma puts up a finger in objection. “The skeleton has a heart . I’ve seen it. Mills? Doubtful.” 

 

Henry says, “Someone told me today that Ms. Mills’s mom was a sociopath.” Emma blinks at him, baffled at where that’s coming from. “And that she is, too.” He pushes at the casserole on his plate, and Emma notices suddenly that he has been doing a lot of cutting and pushing of the food, but he hasn’t taken a bite.

 

“Well, that’s not true,” Snow says gently. “Ms. Mills is just a…very exacting teacher. I’m sure your friend was angry about a grade–” 

 

“She isn’t a student,” Henry says sharply, and he cuts his food into even smaller pieces. “She knows–” He stops. 

 

Snow, who has no context for any of this, says lightly, “Well, Ms. Swan should probably stop badmouthing her colleagues to the students. It’s very unprofessional.” She gives Emma a look , which is wholly unfair, but Snow doesn’t know about Henry’s mystery source. Emma might have been a good guess otherwise. 

 

Emma says, “Ms. Mills isn’t a sociopath. She’d just really like everyone to think that she is one.” Henry shrugs, his shoulders hunched, and when he looks up, there is a redness to his eyes that makes Emma falter. 

 

Whatever he’d heard about Mills, it’s killing him. “I’m done,” Henry says in a burst, and then he turns on his heel and hurries back up the stairs to the loft. Emma gets up, follows him without a word to Snow.

 

She stands at the top of the stairs, staring at Henry where he’s curled up under the covers of his bed– a bed that had been Emma’s, once upon a time, and her heart stutters to think about that. “Go away,” he says, his voice thick. “Why don’t you ever go away?” 

 

Emma stares at him, out of words. “Ms. Mills– she cares about you,” she says finally. “She loves you like I’ve never seen her love anyone before. And you know that. You’ve seen it.” Nothing, only Henry’s shoulders up and his back to her. “I don’t know who’s feeding you this bullshit– and I know they’re feeding it to you about me and Ms. Blanchard, too– but they aren’t trying to help you. They want to hurt you, and they want you to stop trusting everyone else.” 

 

Henry doesn’t budge. Emma sighs. “Look,” she says, and the blood pulses through her like a second heartbeat, like it’s all she can hear. “I know you think that I’m annoying, that I’m pushy, that you’re better off without me. Maybe you are. But I’m not going anywhere.” 

 

Finally, a few cutting words. “I don’t want to hear about how alike we are,” Henry bites out. “I’m nothing like you–” 

 

“Great,” Emma says coolly, hurt. “Because if you were, then I’ve failed at…at everything I–” She stops herself before she says too much. “I don’t care what you think of me,” she says, and she finally means it. “I’m here because I am determined to be here for you. And you’ve got to remember that. Okay?” 

 

She waits, but Henry doesn’t respond, and she thinks he might be asleep. She tiptoes around the side of the bed, and comes face-to-face with him. His eyes are open and red-rimmed and he stares at her and doesn’t say a word. “Okay,” Emma says again, and she reaches out with a trembling hand and brushes her thumb, once, across his brow to smooth down his hair. Henry doesn’t move, and Emma says, for the third time, “Okay.” 

 

Her heart is thundering against her ribs, her stomach twisting, and she steps backward and turns to descend the staircase. She can hear the creak of the bed behind her, the movements that might be Henry sitting up to watch her go, but she doesn’t turn back.

 

She makes it downstairs and into the hallway, then out the door, and she lets the cold air dry out her eyes before she moves, away from the apartment and back to her empty, quiet apartment.

Chapter Text

Henry is avoiding Regina, which feels like a physical blow. She doesn’t know what has set him off– what she’d done wrong, how she’d hurt him– but he slouches in his seat in class while Grace shoots him worried looks and he doesn’t raise his hand in class for two days straight. He eats cafeteria food and leaves her lunches at Archie’s office, and when she does see him watching her, it’s as though she’s being observed, qualified, and found wanting.

 

By Thursday, the school is buzzing with enthusiasm for Homecoming. Students have the temerity to skip Regina’s class to set up, offering her passes from Principal Midas that Regina is forced to honor. She is in a sour mood about the whole thing, though she couldn’t say if it were because of Homecoming itself or Henry or Emma.

 

Emma is still avoiding her, but Regina enters her classroom Thursday morning and finds, at least, that Emma hasn’t written her off entirely. There’s mathematical nonsense on the board, some kind of elaborate algebraic equation with a preponderance of letters that Regina eyes as her students lean forward with eager anticipation. 

 

“I could try it,” Peter offers, and Regina gives him a cold look.

 

“I am not solving Ms. Swan’s shenanigans,” she says. The quiet relief that suffuses her is calming, and her mind clears enough for her to take a breath and say, “This is hardly math, anyway.” 

 

She wasn’t born yesterday. She collects the letters that Emma has used in the equation and puts them together at the bottom of the board: EDOYRUN . “How do we rearrange this into the sort of mature, adult message that Ms. Swan has left?” she asks rhetorically. She’s already gotten it, and it is exactly what she’d expect. 

 

The students peer at it, and they are distracted until she erases the entire board and returns to their short story unit. It isn’t until after class– Emma downstairs with her students, setting up the gym– that Regina slips into Emma’s classroom and writes the obvious solved equation on her board. YOU=NERD . Rich words from the math teacher who put that equation together in the first place.

 

She turns around, a floaty little exhilaration sweeping through her, and she sees that one student is still in the classroom, huddled in the back corner with a hint of amusement on his face. “Henry,” she murmurs, and his smile fades.

 

“Hi, Ms. Mills,” he mumbles. It’s strange, the way he looks away, as though he’s afraid of what he might see if he stares at her for too long. It’s bruising, a wound in a place where she has always been tender.

 

She clears her throat. “I’m not…this isn’t me leveling abuse at Ms. Swan,” she says, gesturing vaguely at the board. “There was an equation…” Henry doesn’t respond. “Isn’t Ms. Swan downstairs, setting up for Homecoming?” 

 

Henry shrugs. “I’m not going to Homecoming,” he says. “She let me stay up here and write instead.” 

 

“Oh.” Regina leans forward, afraid to ask. She does anyway. “Is it…are you working on the fairytale?” 

 

Henry bobs his head, chewing on his lip. “The boy and his mom are still trying to defeat the Evil Queen,” he says.

 

Regina takes a step back like she’d suffered a physical blow. “Oh,” she says. She’d been under the impression that Henry had wanted to humanize the Evil Queen in his story. 

 

She had been mistaken, apparently. Henry watches her steadily now, studies her face as though he might be able to figure her out from it. Regina longs for the right thing to say, the words that will make him admire her again or even just believe in her. But she is left with nothing, only a strained, “You haven’t been eating your lunches.” 

 

Henry averts his eyes again, spooked. Regina takes a breath. “I’ve…I know you know that they’re from me. Is there something wrong with them? I haven’t poisoned any apples,” she offers with a half smile. 

 

Henry doesn’t smile back. “I just don’t like things with strings attached,” he says.

 

“No strings,” Regina says firmly. This, she can understand from him. “I don’t expect anything from you for the…it’s for you, Henry. Because I want to give it to you. Not because I expect anything in return.”

 

“She says–” Henry stops himself.

 

Regina’s expression tightens, and she has to measure the words before they emerge so they aren’t too sharp. “What does she say about me?” she asks.

 

Henry looks wary, then stubborn. “She says you’d keep us apart if you knew about her. That you think you’re my mother.” He slouches in his chair, staring at the window to avoid her gaze, and Regina is filled with so much agony that she can feel her skin burning with it.

 

An then, a creeping suspicion. “Henry,” she says slowly. “Does this…does this woman think that she’s –?”

 

The door to the classroom pops open, and a swarm of sixth graders empty into it. Emma is with them, banging on the side of the door while she shouts, “Grab your stuff and run! Ms. Mills is going to have my head if you’re late to second period–” She blinks. “Oh,” she says, taking in Regina on the other side of the room. “I mean, Ms. Mills and I will have mature, adult conversations about this–” She spots the YOU=NERD on the board, clearly in Regina’s handwriting, and shakes her head, mock-regretfully. “Or perhaps I expected too much of you, Ms. Mills.” 

 

It feels comfortable for a moment, like they’re back to how they were. But when Regina turns to shoot Emma a few sharp words, she sees the way Emma looks away, the strain that pales her face. The words die on Regina’s tongue, and she glances back at Henry and then at Emma.

 

Emma watches them, and she manages a quick, glancing smile. “Don’t worry, Mills,” she says, her voice light again. “I’m still penciling you in for that dance tomorrow.” Her eyes are still tense and distant, and it occurs to Regina that Emma doesn’t want to be this uncomfortable around Regina. It’s something that has happened, without any explanation, and Emma doesn’t like it, either.

 

Or maybe this is just Regina hoping for the best. And the best , somehow, has become Emma smiling at her like she means it, finding reasons to irritate Regina and depart smugly. Emma’s annoyances have become the brightest part of Regina’s day, and she–

 

“I’ll be waiting,” she says, her voice slick and amused, and she watches with her heart clenching as Emma’s eyebrows shoot up and she grins like the sun parting the clouds.

 


 

Did Rogers plan to go to Homecoming alone? No. In a perfect world, he wouldn’t be the only guy in the school who likes guys– or at least admits it, because half the jocks have given him eyes and a quarter of them have tried to kiss him at parties– and he would have his pick of boys. In this imperfect world, he walks into the building fashionably late with his little sister and her girlfriend and feels like half the homophobes in the grade are sneering at him.

 

Or checking him out, because he is the hottest and most available guy in the school, obviously. 

 

Alice, ever his willing wingwoman, says softly, “There he is!” She sounds delighted, and Rogers sees him, too, loitering near the punch table and smiling easily at the girls who gravitate toward him. Neal Gold, resident high school freshman, whose father is currently flunking Rogers and who is supposed to be tutoring Rogers in history.

 

“Nope,” Rogers says. “Absolutely not. But you do raise an excellent point. There are bound to be a few more older guys around here tonight.” He recognizes Arthur Avalon, a sophomore now, wandering around with Gwen from chem class. Lance…something, who’s also a sophomore, and a few others hang around– some with dates, some unattached. 

 

Neal catches Rogers’s eye and winks, and Rogers says, “Hey, do you girls want punch?” 

 

No one spikes the punch at Storybrooke Middle School events. Maybe it happens in the high school, where Ms. Mills doesn’t watch the bowl with an eagle eye, but no one here has the nerve. Besides, Rogers has always figured that the spiked punch thing is a myth from too much TV and not a real life thing. 

 

He glances up speculatively and finds Ms. Mills’s eyes already sharp on him, as though she knows exactly what he’s thinking. He gulps and gets some punch.

 

“Hey.” Neal leans back, hands shoved into his pockets, and he smirks. “Mills still at it, huh?” 

 

“Always,” Rogers says wryly. “Are you here with a date?” 

 

Neal scoffs. “I don’t date preteens,” he says. He’s…what, fourteen? Rogers is thirteen and very much not a preteen. Not that that’s relevant. “Hey, look. Swan.” He nods to the other side of the room. Ms. Swan is arm-in-arm with…what looks like a skeleton in a tux. “God, she’s so weird. I was so mad I never got a chance to have her as a teacher.”

 

“She was great,” Rogers says, eyeing her as she wanders toward the middle of the room. He glances back at Ms. Mills by reflex and finds her staring at Ms. Swan, too, a glimmer of humor in her gaze.

 

“I thought she was a lesbian,” Neal says. “Isn’t it, like, deceptive for her to bring a dude skeleton to Homecoming? Make all the idiot jocks think they can still get her to fall in love with them.” He snorts. “Like she wouldn’t be the creepiest lady alive if she dated them. Like my dad.” He says it with distaste, then brightens. “Are you and Sabine still trying to set her up with Mills?” 

 

“We barely need to try,” Rogers says, conspiratorial. “Just watch them.” Ms. Mills is striding across the room toward Ms. Swan. She slows her step as though to appear more casual, and she says something briskly to Ms. Swan. Ms. Swan laughs, her eyes bright, and then she offers Ms. Mills her skeleton date. Ms. Mills cocks an eyebrow. Ms. Swan looks up at Ms. Mills through her eyelashes, so much warmth in her gaze that Rogers is sure that they’re there

 

But Ms. Mills pulls away then, says something that has Ms. Swan’s face falling, and she strides right back to her vantage point at the punch bowl. Neal whistles. “A swing and a miss. I’d lose my mind if I had to watch them do this every day.” 

 

“No teachers in the high school who keep the gossip mill churning?” Rogers asks, disappointed.

 

“None who look like them ,” Neal says, making a face. “Everyone is old or ugly. It sucks. I mean, there are a few teachers worth looking twice at, but Mr. Page is very gay and Mrs. Boyd is very married. Boring.” 

 

He jabs a finger across the room, at a gaggle of too-tall visitors for Homecoming. There is music playing now, loud and obnoxious, and Ms. Swan is dancing with her skeleton at the center of the room. “Mostly we just watch the other kids. See Arthur there? He’s been dating Gwen since they were kids , but everyone knows that Lance is into Gwen. It’s been a whole thing. It’ll probably get worse next year when Gwen is in school with them.” 

 

Rogers watches Arthur speculatively, the proprietary way he drags Gwen onto the dance floor while she’s trying to speak to Lance. “Yeah?” 

 

Lance follows them onto the dance floor, still talking, and Arthur says something sharp. Lance’s lip curls, and Arthur takes a step forward, a full head shorter than Lance but still somehow threatening. “This is pretty entertaining,” Rogers concedes. “Good to know there’s something to look forward to next year.” 

 

“That’s all you’ve got?” Neal says, and Rogers turns quickly, almost stumbling in place at the invitation in Neal’s voice. “Well, if you say so.” 

 

“Got anything better than that?” Rogers says, abruptly very glad that he hadn’t talked the guy who’d been kissing him in the locker room for the past few weeks into coming with him to Homecoming. “Because, you know, I’m always open to–” 

 

He’s distracted by a shout, a scuffle that he’d missed by virtue of being too busy watching Neal to keep an eye on Arthur and Gwen. Arthur is snarling at her, Lance moving protectively in front of her, and Gwen grabs Lance and pulls him back so she can properly snap at Arthur. They’re making a scene, little sixth graders scattering, and Ms. Mills moves between them. “Enough,” she says, her sharp voice clear. “Mr. Avalon, I’m going to ask you to leave.”

 

“I have every right to be here,” Arthur sneers, leveling his glare at Gwen. “My girlfriend invited me–” 

 

“Out,” Ms. Mills says, unyielding. Gwen is still holding onto Lance’s arm, and she watches Arthur with her eyes narrowed. He ignores her, focusing his ire on Ms. Mills.

 

“Damn, you really are the same bitch you always were,” he says snidely. “Five years and you still have that stick up your ass–”

 

Rogers should have expected it– would have , if he’d thought about it– but he’s still startled when Ms. Swan is abruptly between them, and she looks furious. “Get the hell out of here before I call the sheriff,” she snarls.

 

Arthur puts up his hands. “Okay, okay,” he says, belligerent. “No need to get so cranky about it.” He throws a dark look at Ms. Mills that Ms. Swan catches.

 

She grabs Arthur– yanks him around by his arm until he yelps– and she says, deadly angry, “Apologize to Ms. Mills.” 

 

Ms. Mills looks startled, then wary. Arthur says indignantly, “This is assault! Do you know who my father is–?” 

 

“Don’t care,” Ms. Swan says, her voice like ice. “Apologize. To. Ms. Mills.” 

 

Arthur makes a disgruntled noise. “I don’t have to– ow –” 

 

“Ms. Swan.” It’s Ms. Mills, her own voice surprisingly calm. “Let the child go.” Principal Midas is making her way across the room, her face grim, and Rogers winces in anticipation of what might come next. Arthur might not be a student anymore, but he’s a rich kid from the powerful side of town and this isn’t going to end well.

 

Ms. Swan releases Arthur and gives him a shove. “Get out,” she says sharply, and Arthur flees the room, tripping over Ms. Swan’s skeleton in his haste to leave. Ms. Swan tries to stride after him, stumbles over her own skeleton as well, and topples to the ground.

 

Neal says, envious, “We get nothing like this in high school.”

 


 

Idiot . She’s an absolute idiot, and if nothing else, the angry scrape across her knee is reminder enough of that. It hurts, which is deeply annoying, and it has Mills irritated with her, which is less annoying. “You’re an idiot ,” she says, which is completely fair and exactly what Emma has already noted. She is cleaning the cut with a piece of wet toilet paper, because there are no first aid kits that aren’t locked in the office or upstairs. Emma is sitting on the sink in the ground floor faculty bathroom, and Mills hasn’t let her move from that spot since.

 

Emma shrugs. “I didn’t like the way he was talking to you,” she mumbles.

 

“He’s an idiot, too,” Mills says. “I don’t take it personally.” But she had. Emma had seen the way that Mills’s face had tightened and her eyes had gotten all hard and sharp, and she’d just wanted to punch that kid in the face. Her self-control is admirable, actually. “You talk that way to me,” Mills points out.

 

“That’s different,” Emma says, and she hisses when Mills dabs at the spot on her knee. She’s torn her stockings, and there’s a big gap where the cut is, but it’s not wide enough to really clean the cut. “I say it with affection . Like, that stick up your ass is part of your charm– not that you’re charming , you’re like an ogre with really good teeth–” 

 

“Emma,” Mills says patiently. “Are you drunk?” 

 

No . Mulan has a flask,” Emma says, which sounds suddenly contradictory. “I mean, I drank a little, but just to take the edge off. I am completely in control of my sensors. Senses. I’m not secretly a robot,” she adds. 

 

“I see.” Mills eyes her. “You seem fairly sober. Unless you’re always drunk and I’ve just assumed that’s your natural state of being.” 

 

“Funny. So funny.” Emma eyeballs her. “Has anyone ever told you how funny you are?” 

 

“Not quite bring-a-skeleton-date-to-Homecoming funny, but…” Mills lets the sentence dangle. 

 

“It was a commentary on my dating life,” Emma says primly. “Because it’s dead. Like the skeleton. I thought you were supposed to be a pro at subtext and extant references or whatever. Isn’t that your job?” 

 

“Is your job to attack fifteen-year-olds to defend my honor?” Mills counters. 

 

Emma grins at her. “You make it sound so romantic,” she drawls. Today, in the bright lights and color of the Homecoming floor, it’s a strange relief to be able to put aside the tension that she feels around Mills right now. Henry isn’t here today, which isn’t a relief, exactly, but it gives her some space to breathe for the first time all year. And that only makes her feel guilty–

 

“Speaking of romance,” Mills says dryly. It is hard to think of her as Mills tonight, when she’s wearing a pretty wine-colored dress that goes nearly to her knees and her makeup is soft instead of severe. She is so utterly Regina. Regina, a stunningly beautiful woman with an attitude problem, which has been the exact type of woman that Emma’s taken to dating since she’d started working at the school. Not that that’s relevant.

 

She smiles her most charming– well, her most impishly charming, according to Ruby, because she isn’t nearly bold enough to try her most seductively charming smile on Regina. “Is this about that dance, because I don’t think that I can move right now, but if you give me five–” 

 

“We’ve got to get your stockings off,” Regina says. The cut is sticking to Emma’s torn stockings, and the blood is drying into them. Regina looks expectantly at Emma. “Do you…do you need a hand…?” She sounds strained, and fifty butterflies abruptly emerge from their cocoons in Emma’s gut and start flapping furiously.   

 

“Uh. Lemme…” Emma hitches up her dress and tugs at her stockings, then is hit by a wave of pain from her side. “Ow! Oh…crap.” She peels up her dress a little more and discovers a blossoming purple bruise near her hip. “Okay. Maybe I do need help. I knew I shouldn’t have worn heels–” 

 

“You wear the heels just fine,” Regina says, shaking her head. “It’s your date who did this to you.”

 

“Wouldn’t be the first time,” Emma mutters, and Regina looks up at her, alarmed. “Hey,” Emma says, embarrassed. “Weren’t we about to do some very awkward stocking-tugging?” 

 

Regina snorts. “When I do this, it isn’t usually awkward ,” she says, and Emma is abruptly reminded of walking into this very bathroom to find Regina seated where she is now, Mal Drake’s face between her legs– 

 

Oh, god , if she just stained her underwear while Regina’s about to pull it down– “Uh,” Emma says, and Regina hooks her fingers into Emma’s stockings and peels them down her thigh. Her fingers are warm and gentle, her touch artful, and the bathroom is warm– too warm, and there is a flush to Regina’s face that must be mirrored on Emma’s. “You are good at this,” Emma says dumbly. 

 

Regina’s fingers caress Emma’s legs, her thumb running just behind her fingers as the stockings are peeled off. The air touches Emma’s skin, leaves goosebumps behind, and Emma shifts to let Regina pull the stockings down.

 

Has she been standing this close the entire time? Emma reaches out, her hands a little shaky, and she puts one on Regina’s cheek. Regina looks up, her brown eyes catching Emma’s and holding them, and she takes a step forward. “Ms. Swan,” she breathes, and she pulls the stockings down Emma’s calves, tipping her heels off as her fingers enfold Emma’s feet. Emma has never considered her feet particularly erogenous until this precise moment, at which point Regina’s hands on them are setting her on fire. 

 

“Ms. Mills,” Emma rasps her voice hoarse, and Regina takes another step to her, nearly between her legs. “I– we–” 

 

Regina raises an eyebrow. “Something you’d like to share with the class?” she says– almost purrs , god – and Emma leans in, her heart pounding. 

 

And then– of course, because what else would it be– the bathroom door swings open, and– of course, because who else could it be– Mal Drake walks into the bathroom.

 

“Oh, my,” she says, eyebrows halfway up her forehead. “I hope I’m not interrupting anything.” 

 

“Nope,” Emma says, savagely furious for no reason at all. “Nothing happening here.” 

 

“Ms. Swan was attacked by her date,” Regina says, and she exchanges a glance with Mal. It seems laden with meaning, and Emma grits her teeth and rubs the tender spot below her hip, which only makes it hurt worse. “Her date was a skeleton, but regardless.” 

 

“Thank you for clarifying,” Mal says, her tight little smile not unfriendly, exactly, but maybe a little patronizing. “I had heard there was an altercation with Arthur Avalon, so when you said date–” 

 

“He’s fifteen ,” Emma says. “And in school .” 

 

“Well, you can’t be much older than nineteen or twenty,” Mal says easily, which is surprisingly condescending for a woman whom Emma had gotten along with until this very moment. It occurs to Emma that there may be something proprietary about the way that Mal sees Regina, and this is about to torpedo the exclusive math teachers’ clique in the faculty. 

 

Burn it all down , Emma decides, and she says blandly, “I’m twenty-eight.” She lets out a false little laugh. “I guess it’s all the same to you once you hit fifty, huh?” Mal’s eyebrows hit a new summit.

 

Regina clears her throat. “Emma,” she says, and she swats Emma’s hand away. “Stop touching that bruise. You’re going to aggravate it.” 

 

Mal watches them. She shows no sign of going to the mirror or one of the stalls. Emma says, “Sorry, am I in your seat?” to Mal, which has Regina staring up at her with dawning realization. Emma shrugs, outwardly nonchalant and internally roiling. “I’ll get right out of here,” she says, swiping at the cut one last time and sliding off the sink. “Leave you two to it–” 

 

Emma ,” Regina says, and she follows Emma out of the bathroom. She looks tired. “Mal and I aren’t–”

 

“It’s cool. Totally chill. Hey, I’ve got mommy issues, too,” Emma offers, mostly just to be obnoxious. “Very supportive of you getting them out with hot math teachers–” 

 

Regina takes her hands, and Emma stops talking. “I distinctly recall you promising me a dance,” she says, and now she looks determined. There is a slow song playing in the gym, the doors open just around the corner from the bathroom, and Regina tugs Emma from the hallway and into the gym.

 

Inside, there are too many students watching. Ava Tillman gives Emma a thumbs-up, which is humiliating, and Robin Greene gives her a wink, which is encouraging. Emma hadn’t thought that Regina had taken her seriously on the dance, and she’s off-balance and making a terrible impression.

 

She dances anyway, her mind still somewhere right about the instant before that bathroom door had opened. Regina breathes, “Whatever you think you saw between Mal and me–” 

 

“Her face between your thighs at the faculty party last year?” Emma says in a whisper. 

 

Regina winces. “Ah,” she says. “That’s…long over.” 

 

“Yeah?” Emma takes a breath, calms herself, lets her voice be lightly teasing. “So you don’t have a thing for pretty blonde math teachers?” 

 

“Pretty blonde math teachers are the devil,” Regina says fervently, which is funny coming from the bane of the sixth grade, but Emma has the sense not to say so. “Why are there so many of you–?” 

 

“We have a math clique,” Emma says. “Mal and Elsa and I. You know what they say about teaching blondes math? Subtract their clothes, divide their legs, and–” 

 

Regina cuts her off. “I don’t think you want to finish that one,” she says severely. They aren’t dancing anymore, which is probably for the best. Emma has managed twenty-eight years in this world without learning how to dance, and Regina has nearly discovered that. “My point is–” 

 

Emma’s phone starts ringing with the dulcet tones of someday my prince will come . “It’s Snow’s ringtone,” Emma says before someone else questions her homosexuality. “I don’t–” She reaches into her dress and plucks her phone out from its improbable pocket. “Hey,” she says. “This is so not the time–” 

 

She almost expects the response she gets, the eternal update that never bodes well. “Henry’s missing,” Snow says. “Is he– I thought he might have gone to Homecoming without telling me.” 

 

Emma peers around the room, squints through the bright lights and the dancing preteens. Grace Page is here with Ava, no Henry in her orbit, and she doesn’t seem him around the food table. “I’ll find him,” she promises Snow. “When did you last see him?” 

 

Regina leans closer to hear Snow, her face grim. Snow says, “He went upstairs hours ago. I thought he’d gone to bed. But I was– I ran out to the store for a few minutes at about six. It’s the only time he could have gone without me noticing. I’ve checked everywhere he’s gone before, and everything is empty. He’s gone.” 

 

It’s almost nine. If Henry had been here, Emma would have noticed by now. “I’ll check for him,” she says, but she has the sinking feeling that he isn’t here. 

 

This isn’t like the other times, a half hour or so before Henry’s whereabouts are in question. This feels different, too. Something is very wrong, though Emma can’t explain how she knows it.

 

Three hours. Henry’s been gone for three hours, and no one had known until now.

Chapter Text

Principal Midas gets them the keys and the microphone, and Emma calls, again and again, “Henry Brooke, are you here? Henry Brooke, please come to the stage. Will the sixth-grader with the license plate H-E-N-R-Y please move your car, it’s parked illegally–” which she had thought was clever, but only seems to aggravate Regina more.

 

“We would have seen him. He isn’t here ,” she says as they dash up the staircases. Regina runs in heels like she’s an action starlet. Emma has opted to go barefoot, and she swaps to the socks and sneakers that she has in her closet once they make it up to her classroom. “We’re wasting time–” 

 

“It’s not wasting time if we find him,” Emma reminds her. “Come on. We’ll take the other stairwell down.” There’s nothing, and Emma isn’t surprised but is still disappointed.

 

Henry’s disappearance is like a constant fear thrumming in her chest, like defensiveness and guilt combined. She couldn’t have known, but she should have. He isn’t her responsibility, but he should be. There are no other options, but there had been. “We will find him,” she mutters to herself. “We have to.” 

 

“We should never have let him be around…whoever that person was,” Regina says darkly. “Just kept him locked up in his room for the rest of his life. It would have been safer.” 

 

“You think he’d have accepted that?” Emma points out. “He didn’t like being pushed. I…” She bites her lip. “I pushed him too hard earlier this week one day.” She had told him that she wouldn’t be going anywhere, and he’d decided to get away from her instead. She’d pushed him right into the arms of the mysterious person who’s been trying to get to him all year. “I’m an idiot –” 

 

“No,” Regina says, and she catches Emma’s wrist and then drops it, stepping back from her as Emma looks at her in surprise. “No,” she says again. “You were trying . Maybe it helped. We don’t know that yet.” She grits her teeth. “This is on me,” she says. “I should have stopped this as soon as I saw that he didn’t trust me anymore.” 

 

“He didn’t trust you because someone was feeding him lies about you,” Emma says abruptly, then regrets it as Regina turns to her questioningly.

 

“You know what he was told?” 

 

Emma shrugs, chewing on her lip. “Not really. Just that she was starting on you.” She doesn’t want Regina to hear what Henry had said about her. It’s strange how vulnerable Regina feels to Emma, like all that secret tenderness had made her soft instead of the hard outer shell that she presents to the world. 

 

“I need to know what he was told,” Regina says, expectant, and Emma shakes her head. “ Emma .” 

 

Emma shuts her eyes, then opens them. “Someone told him that your mom was a sociopath and you are, too.” Regina stops walking, stands on the stairs and grips the railing. “That was it. I defended you,” she says hastily. “I said that you care about him and that you’re not–” 

 

Regina shoots her a wry look. “You call me a sociopath daily.” 

 

“That’s different. When I say it, I mean that you’re…you know…” Emma stumbles over the words. Hot and mean is what she wants to say, but she knows better than to express that. “ Anyway ,” she says, swallowing the words. “Let’s focus on Henry.”

 

“Yes,” Regina agrees.

 

“Come on. We’ll drive around town.” Emma leads the way to the parking lot, winding through the preponderance of cars and finding her yellow bug at the far end. “He spends a lot of time at the diner. And he was at that new ice cream shop last time, right? There’s also the clock tower– what?” Regina hasn’t budged, staring at the car in horror. “What?” Emma repeats.

 

“This is your car,” Regina says slowly. 

 

“Yes,” Emma says, and she raises her eyebrows and motions to the car. “Get in.” 

 

Regina slides in. “You’ve been stealing my spot all year!” she accuses Emma. “I couldn’t imagine anyone had the nerve –” 

 

“Oh, please. It’s not your spot if I’ve been using it all year, is it?” Emma says very reasonably. Had she known that Regina had used that spot for years past? Absolutely. Does she get to school early now to take it? A strong possibility. “Shouldn’t we be focusing on Henry right now?” She pulls out of the parking lot and swings around the corner, driving toward Main Street.

 

“I’m very focused on Henry,” Regina says through gritted teeth. She’s hanging onto her seat with her knuckles white with strain. Emma drives faster. Regina says, “Are you still drunk ?” 

 

“What? No. I wasn’t drunk, just a tiny bit buzzed. I’m fine. You can breathalyze me.”

 

“That really isn’t the come on you think it is,” Regina shoots back. “I think I should drive–” 

 

“This is how I always drive,” Emma says, offended. “I’m an excellent driver. I haven’t gotten a single ticket in my life .” She can’t afford to. The car isn’t technically under her name. Technically, one might say that it was stolen. Emma has always considered it her rightful alimony from a boyfriend who’d nearly killed her.

 

Regina jabs a finger at her. “You’re the one who cut me off last month!” 

 

“You were barely moving–” 

 

“There was a squirrel crossing the street!” 

 

Emma is suddenly reminded that Regina is secretly an animal lover. “It had crossed . You were loitering.” 

 

Regina sits back in a huff. “You are a menace to polite society, Emma Swan,” she says grimly. 

 

“Stop,” Emma says, and she squints out the window, searching for Henry. “You’re making me blush.” 

 

“Wait,” Regina says suddenly. “There–” But the figure in the shadows moves, and it’s just a raccoon. “Damn it,” she bites out. “Where is he?” Main Street is quiet and dark, empty of everything but a few stray cats, and Emma sees no sign of Henry within it. She drives down to Regina’s house and even to her own apartment– they park outside the diner and check the inn– but there’s nothing.

 

“I can’t do this,” Emma whispers, staring out into the night. “I can’t…he can’t be gone. He’ll be back. Maybe he’s already back.” But there is nothing new from Snow.

 

“I think it’s time we figured out more about his secret friend,” Regina says darkly, and Emma heads back to the school.

 


 

Regina concedes that it’s possible that Emma might be driving like this out of stress. She also concedes that they’ll do no good to Henry if they’re both dead on the side of the road, so she hangs on for dear life and doesn’t say a word until they’re parked in the school parking lot again, nearly an hour after they’d left.

 

Four hours since Henry had disappeared, now. He could be anywhere. 

 

Emma is muttering to herself, fists squeezed, and Regina follows behind her. Her pulse is racing, and she blames herself. Years she’d had to get through to Henry– to try a little harder, to get him to talk to her– and now he’s missing, and she doesn’t have a clue where to find him. She should have pushed. She shouldn’t have waited for him to come to her. 

 

But it wouldn’t have worked. He’s too easily spooked, and he’s already grown to resent her. A sociopath , when she cares too hard to ever come close to that. She’s been too strict around him in the classroom, too hostile. Of course he’d distrust her. She can give him all the lunches in the world, but they won’t do a thing without–

 

“Stop,” Emma says, as though she knows exactly what Regina’s thinking. “You’re not a sociopath. This isn’t your fault. The only person we can blame for this is…is whoever put Henry in foster care in the first place.” She says it sharply, with so much fury that Regina is discomfited by her hatred. “She’s the one who made him like this.”

 

Regina thinks that this is probably unfair when there’s blame to go around. She’s the one who had destroyed Henry’s future by putting him in Mother’s line of fire. No one else had done that , even the mother who had left him for reasons they couldn’t say. “Emma–”

 

“There.” Emma’s movements are jerky, but she stabs a finger at a dark corner of the gym and then strides off in its direction, Regina hurrying to keep up. 

 

Grace and Ava are there, whispering to each other and doing that tentative smile that comes before a first kiss, and Emma snaps, “Ms. Page!” It’s a sharp voice, more like Regina’s than her own, and Grace jumps and stares at Emma in consternation. 

 

Ava says, “We’re kind of in the middle of something here,” folding her arms. 

 

“No,” Regina says, and she straightens and watches as Ava gulps and Grace looks away. “Henry Brooke is missing.” 

 

Grace’s eyes flicker away from them, so quickly that Regina nearly misses it. Emma doesn’t miss a beat. “Where is he, Grace?” she demands. “What do you know?” 

 

“Nothing,” Grace says quickly. “Nothing at all.” She has the furtive look of a child keeping a secret for another child, and Regina runs out of patience.

 

“I think you know plenty,” she says, her voice silky and threatening. “Henry is missing. And if you’re obstructing the investigation, that can be a criminal offense. It’s certainly an academic offense.” Grace looks alarmed, shrinking back into Ava’s grasp. “Suspension would be warranted. Perhaps even expulsion–” 

 

“Regina,” Emma interrupts, and her first name from Emma’s lips takes Regina by enough surprise that she stops. “Stop. Grace, you aren’t going to get into trouble,” she says, and she sounds calmer now, more gentle. Regina is fairly certain that it’s all a facade, but she opts not to mention that. “But we’re very worried about Henry. We think that she might have hurt him.” She says she easily, as though they’re all familiar with the mystery person, and Grace looks at her with trusting eyes. 

 

“She wouldn’t hurt him,” she says earnestly. “She really does love him, even though she’s…not always so good for him. She’s his mom .” 

 

Emma lets out a strangled noise. Regina stands stock-still. His mother ? Henry had been abandoned at the hospital just after he’d been born. The doctors had estimated that he’d been only a week or two old, and he’d been malnourished and sickly. He’d recovered quickly, had been growing well when Regina had first met him, but the pediatrician she’d spoken to during the adoption process had been clear. Henry survived because his mother left him here. His mother saved his life.

 

But she’d never come back for him. Regina had assumed that she’d been dead or that she’d run and never looked back. Not that she’s here in town, quietly biding her time and creating poisonous barriers between Henry and any other woman who might be a rival to her. “Grace,” she says, and she takes a breath and crouches to face her. She lets the mask fall, lets her fear shine through her eyes, and she says quietly, “We need you to tell us exactly what you know about her. Henry’s safety depends on it.” 

 

Grace bites her lip, then firms it. “I know her real name is Ingrid,” she says, and she takes a breath as the information spills out of her. “She runs the ice cream shop.” Pieces slot into place, painting a terrifying picture of what Henry’s been doing with his free time. “She calls Henry Harald . Says that it’s his real name. She’s kind of weird.” She frowns. “She gets really mean whenever Henry talks about…” Her eyes dart to them.

 

“Anyone he might see as a maternal figure?” Regina suggests, and Grace bobs her head in guilty agreement. “I see.”

 

“Do you know where she lives?” Emma demands. Her voice is too high, strident in a way that Regina’s never heard it before, and Grace looks alarmed. “We need to find– Henry’s missing , Grace, and chances are that he’s with this woman–”

 

“I don’t know anything,” Grace says helplessly. “I just know the ice cream shop.” 

 

“It’s all right,” Regina says when Emma is silent. It’s remarkable how easily they swap positions, how one can be strong when the other is on edge. It’s a strange compatibility that she’d never expected from Emma Swan, and she refuses to think about it any more than absolutely necessary. “You’ve been very helpful, Grace. We’re going to find Henry because of you.” 

 

She leads Emma from the gym to where her car is. Emma doesn’t object, doesn’t say anything, and Regina eyes her as she drives down the road– hits a red light in an empty intersection, makes a command decision, runs the red– and she says slowly, “Are you all right?” 

 

Emma stares out the window. “I’ll be all right when Henry is here,” she says tersely.

 

Regina can relate to that. “Yes,” she agrees, and she squeezes the steering wheel a little too hard as they pull in beside the dark ice cream shop and tear out of the car. Emma leads the way, yanking at the door to the shop and letting out a curse when it doesn’t open.

 

“We can get Sheriff Graham,” Regina suggests. “Have him get it open–” 

 

Emma picks up a table sitting outside the shop, table side down, and smashes the bottom of it into the glass door. The door shatters, and Regina says faintly, “Or we could just break in.” There had been a brief time in her teenaged years when she had found delinquents charming. She’s supposed to have grown past that, and there is nothing charming about Emma Swan breathing hard and smug with victory, dropping a hand into the broken glass to open the door from the inside. 

 

“You look a little flushed,” Emma says, and she looks considerably more cheerful now that she’s broken something. Regina envies her cathartic moment. “I bet you had the hots for all the criminals in town when you were a kid.” She quirks a grin. “I would have had you eating out of the palm of my hand.” 

 

“You would have been a toddler,” Regina says scornfully. “Now, let’s go–” 

 

“On it.” Emma shines her phone flashlight on the back of the store, heading to a file cabinet against the wall. It’s unlocked, and she leafs through the papers. “Says here that the lease is for someone named Sarah Fisher. No Ingrid here. But if she’s in the habit of lying to little boys and kidnapping them, then she probably has the sense to use a fake name.”

 

Emma has taken it for granted that Ingrid is lying to Henry. Regina is less certain. “What if she was telling the–” Emma looks at her, and Regina’s voice trails off. “I suppose that’s unlikely,” she concedes. 

 

“She has nothing to do with Henry,” Emma says fiercely. “Henry is Storybrooke’s . And no…no mother who abandoned him has any claim to him.” She shivers suddenly, and Regina takes a step forward to her. Emma spins abruptly, a stack of envelopes in her hand. She is nearly on top of Regina, the envelopes brushing against the front of Regina’s dress, and Emma’s eyes are very, very bright. “I found…” She clears her throat.

 

Regina thinks– the polite thing to do is to back away, take a step back, you’re too close, she smells like lemon and jasmine, Henry where is Henry – and doesn’t budge. “What did you find?” she whispers. 

 

“Uh.” Emma takes a breath. “Bills. Junk mail. I don’t know. But there are a few addresses all throughout New England–” She breathes again, a little harder, and then she steps back and her voice strengthens. “The same six places, and only one in Storybrooke. I guess these are her haunts.” She glances down again, and her jaw goes stiff. “This is in Snow’s apartment complex. She’s on the next floor.” 

 

She’s been lurking this close to Henry all along, biding her time, and the wave of fury and helplessness that accompanies that realization is blinding. “Let’s go.” 

 

They make for the car when Emma’s phone rings again. She puts it on speaker without looking at it. “Snow, you need to–” 

 

“Ms. Swan?” The voice is shaky but unmistakable, and Regina and Emma freeze in their tracks.

 

Henry. It’s Henry, his voice tiny and afraid. Emma says, her throat thick, “Henry. We’ve been searching all over town for you. Are you okay?” 

 

“I’m…I’m okay,” he says, but he doesn’t sound it. “I’m…I don’t know where I am. Not in Storybrooke. A gas station somewhere.” He lets out a muffled sob. “She’s in the shop. I don’t know how long I’ll have before she gets back. I watched her unlock her phone and memorized the code to–” 

 

“Where are you?” Emma pushes. Her hand is tight on the phone. Unbidden, Regina’s own fingers move to brush against the phone, too, to reach out to Henry in the only way possible. 

 

“I don’t know. It’s so dark.” Henry swallows. “I was…I tried to keep track of landmarks when I could see them. I wanted to grab her arm and stop her but there was just mountain all around us and I thought I’d die–” 

 

Regina speaks up, unable to hear Henry flagellate himself for this. “You did exactly what you should,” she says. “You focus on staying in one piece, all right? We’ll find you.” 

 

“Ms. Mills.” Henry sounds like he might cry. “Ms. Mills, I’m so sorry–” 

 

“Landmarks.” She steels her voice, keeps it sharp and demanding like it is in the classroom, and it seems to trigger something calm in Henry. 

 

“I saw a…a farmhouse decorated with Christmas lights a little bit before the gas station,” he says. “And a few street signs. Uh…West Bark Avenue. Empire Road. A place called McNally’s and a couple of Vermont license plates.”

 

“Vermont,” Emma repeats. “Does the gas station have a name?” 

 

“It just says GAS– she’s coming back,” Henry says suddenly, his voice faint. “I can’t– if she sees that I called someone–” 

 

“Hang up, Henry. It’s okay. We’re going to find you,” Emma says reassuringly. “We’re going to find you.” 

 

“We love you,” Regina adds, her voice hoarse and the admission more than she’d meant to say, but Henry lets out a ragged sob before he hangs up and that– that was the right thing, she knows. To give him something , even if it’s too far.

 

The phone hangs up, and Emma makes an anguished little sound. Regina totters in place, at once as weak and unbalanced as a women thrice her age, and Emma catches her before she falls, holds her still and steady. “I did this,” Emma whispers, and she sounds lost, awash with a grief that Regina refuses to share right now. “I did this to him.” 

 

“You didn’t do a thing,” Regina says, and she blinks away sudden tears and seizes the envelopes from Emma.

 

“I did it all,” Emma says grimly, immobilized by an emotion that seems to have consumed her. She pulls away from Regina, averting her eyes. “You don’t know. No one– I–” 

 

“This isn’t about you,” Regina says, and she forces herself to stand straight, to be the one who stays on target instead of despairing. Emma is crumbling in front of her, is swaying with arms tight around her and her eyes wide and adrift, and it occurs to Regina that Henry isn’t the only one who is desperate for some structure right now. “This is about Henry, and we don’t have time to entertain your recriminations over it.” Emma blinks owlishly at her. “We have to find Henry. And kill that soft serve bitch ,” she snarls, the fury overpowering her teacher mode. 

 

Emma clenches her fists. “Yeah. Yeah, we’ve got to…” She swallows. “There’s an address in upstate New York on those envelopes. If she’s in Vermont, she’s probably headed there, or she would have gone through New Hampshire. We can call the cops and have them waiting for her.” She peeks at Regina through her eyelashes. “Unless you were serious about killing her, because I am game .” 

 

Regina has never really contemplated the possibility of killing someone until this exact moment, at which point it feels like the best way that this will end. “Of course not,” she lies, and Emma gives her the ghost of a smile, like a tiny beam of light shining through a thick mat of reeds. 

 

“Yeah,” Emma says, and she fits her hand into Regina’s like it belongs there, warm and soft and right. “Me, neither.” 

 


 

Regina is already an hour on the road when Emma says suddenly, “Snow. We should probably call her.” 

 

“Must we?” 

 

Emma gives her a look. “She’s Henry’s guardian,” she says, and there is something very fragile about the way that she says it, like Snow holds Emma’s entire heart in her hands with those words. Regina wonders, but she doesn’t inquire. Not yet. “Hang on, I’ll–”

 

She calls Blanchard on speaker. Regina is beginning to suspect that Emma exclusively uses speaker, that she is someone who can never restrict conversation to a hand at her ear. Everything about Emma Swan is so present , so wholly in the moment, and her phone conversations are just a part of it.

 

Blanchard picks up. “Sheriff Graham has three separate search parties in the woods,” she says. “I’m searching the beach. We found this…there’s a paper that washed up that is the same size as the ones in Henry’s notebook and I’m…” She lets out a sob, and Regina contemplates for the first time that Blanchard might actually care about Henry as anything other than another symbol of how magnanimous and sweet she is. 

 

“It’s okay,” Emma murmurs. “We should have called you earlier. Henry called me from a car with the…Ingrid. The ice cream lady. She, uh…she says she’s his birth mother–” 

 

Blanchard says immediately, “She’s lying.” 

 

Emma looks startled at that assertion. “You think so?” 

 

“Emma,” Blanchard says kindly, and Emma kicks at the space under the glove compartment and says nothing. 

 

When she clears her throat, it isn’t to challenge Blanchard’s comment. “We found some mail at the shop with an address in New York. We called the cops. They’re staking out the place.” 

 

“Oh,” Blanchard says, relief suffusing her voice. “Oh, thank god. Give me the address, I’ll–”

 

“We’re already on the way,” Emma says quickly. “We’ll get him.”

 

“We?” Blanchard echoes, and now she sounds oddly hopeful. “You and…”

 

“I’m here,” Regina says curtly. “And I’d really like Emma to hang up so I can focus on driving.” 

 

Blanchard sighs a little breath that might be relief or might be amusement. “I’ll leave you to it,” she says. “Thank you for bringing him home.” 

 

“Don’t thank us yet,” Regina says grimly, and Emma hangs up the phone. 

 

She flops back against the seat. “Let’s call the cops again.” 

 

“We can’t,” Regina says. “I don’t want to distract them–” Emma gives her a dirty look. “ Wait ,” Regina says, and she squeezes the wheel and focuses on driving in the dark around a tight bend without crashing into a tree. 

 

Emma sits, her hands tight on the armrests, and she says suddenly, “Why didn’t you adopt him later?” 

 

“My mother made it impossible for the adoption to go through,” Regina says, and she grips the steering wheel again. “She was adamant that a child would ruin my chances…first, when it came to a job; then a family. She thought no man would look at me twice if I already had a son.” It had been absurd, particularly when the unspoken truth had been that Regina hadn’t been all that interested in men. But Mother would always have her way. “And she made it impossible for anyone to adopt Henry. It was…a reminder. That she would burn down anything and anyone if it would control me. So it was better to stay away.” 

 

Emma watches her, and Regina forces herself to stare out the windshield again instead of meeting her eyes. “And when she died, Henry already had a foster mom. Until last year.”

 

“He didn’t know me last year,” Regina says, her voice thick. “I didn’t know if he’d want me. Archie Hopper called me about it, but Blanchard was insistent. I don’t know why she was so sure that she’d be perfect for Henry,” Regina mutters. The resentment still lingers and disperses, like a breath of wind on a dandelion. “You’d have thought that she was too busy parenting you.” 

 

Emma exhales, but it sounds shaky. “I’m sorry,” she whispers. “She should have let you take him. Maybe…”

 

Maybe, maybe. Maybe Henry wouldn’t be gone right now, in danger two hours away. Maybe he would be, and Regina would never, ever recover from it. “That isn’t your fault.” 

 

Emma lets out a choked little laugh. “Except that–” She stops. Regina’s phone is ringing, an unfamiliar number on it, and Regina hits the button on her steering wheel and picks it up.

 

“Yes?” 

 

“This is Officer Ramirez from Plattsburgh PD,” a crisp voice says, and Regina takes a long, deep breath. “Is this Regina Mills?” 

 

“Yes. Is–” 

 

“Henry Brooke named you as his legal guardian. Is this correct?” Regina feels her face freeze, feels Emma’s hand somewhere around her thigh for a moment.

 

“Yes,” she says. There is enough paperwork swimming around the system that might confirm that to a casual check. “I’m his adoptive mother.” Her voice cracks, and she says, “Is he all right?”

 

“He’s fine,” the cop says, and Regina lets out a whooshing breath so long that she doesn’t recognize the sound of her own breathing. “We pulled the abductor’s car over a mile away from the cabin you indicated. We’ve brought him down to the station and taken her into custody. We’d like a statement from him, but he was insistent that we call you first.” 

 

“We’re on our way,” Regina breathes. “It’ll be…” 

 

“A hour and thirty-eight minutes,” Emma supplies. Regina sneaks a glance at her, sees her face as though it’s carved from stone. Emma turns away, stares out the window, and is silent.

 

She doesn’t speak for a long time, until after Regina has arranged to pick Henry up and has called Blanchard to update her. Yes, Emma is in the car , she’d said, exasperated, and Emma hadn’t said a word. Emma has retreated into a quiet place, a locked-up part of her heart that she won’t open up tonight. 

 

Which is fine. Regina is an expert at concealing her own heart, at blocking out anything she doesn’t want exposed to the world. She feels too much and too deeply to allow anyone to prey on her emotions–

 

A farmhouse looms in the distance, decorated with the exact Christmas lights that Henry had remembered, and Regina has to pull over, switch on her hazard lights, and choke out a dry little sob. It is followed by another, then another, relieved agony enveloping her in broken tears. 

 

Henry had been gone , in abject danger, and she’s only just beginning to process it now. She’s been running on adrenaline, has been terrified and determined and has had no time to fully despair, but there is something about this farmhouse– Henry had been here, had been afraid and alone and living every parent’s worst nightmare– but Regina isn’t a parent, isn’t his mother, no matter how long she’s spent playacting as it–

 

She’s forgotten that there’s someone else in the car until she sees a blurry pale face, a wave of gold around it, and Emma says softly, “Hey. It’s okay. Hey.” Her hand lands on Regina’s cheek, and her eyes are bright but dry. She brushes a tear away, and she whispers, “Regina…”

 

Regina lurches forward and kisses her, cries onto her lips as Emma grips her and holds her close. “Yeah,” Emma whispers. “Yeah, I–” But she is still like a rock, immobile and stone-faced, and her lips move in concert with Regina’s as her eyes are closed off entirely. It isn’t the kind of kiss that Regina had expected with Emma– not that she’d expected , except that she’d occasionally indulged in fantasies that ended on Regina’s desk or up against the smartboard in Emma’s classroom, hard and passionate and angry– but it is something else entirely, transcendent and painfully resonant. It feels suspiciously like feelings , and Regina pulls away, registering with horror that she has done something else tonight that there’s no coming back from.

 

“That never happened,” she says, and she is flooded again with long-ingrained fear, with the looming awareness that this, too, is something that can be taken from her. That this is a mistake, and she is about to destroy a relationship– an aggravating, adversarial relationship that is nevertheless one of the reasons she gets out of bed every morning. 

 

Emma says, “Yeah,” and breathes out, falling into silence again. 

 

They drive for a long time without a word, and Regina can feel the distance between them like a palpable thing, a thick air that suffuses the car and leaves it tense and fearful. It’s deeply unpleasant. It’s necessary. Whatever has happened tonight, it can’t change anything except for Henry– 

 

Henry is not going back to Mary Margaret Blanchard’s house. That much she’s sure of.

 

She drives with steely determination, and she refuses to look at Emma right up until they’re pulling into a police station three hours from Storybrooke. “If they ask–” she begins.

 

“You’re his mom,” Emma agrees, and it sounds strained. But she reaches out to touch Regina’s arm and they both can breathe for a minute. 

 

Henry is sitting in a chair right inside the station, writing furiously on a notepad that he must have gotten from them. He’s still writing, and Regina wants to laugh and cry when she sees that. Instead, she says, “Henry!” and he looks up and launches himself into her arms, holding her tightly and blinking away tears. 

 

“Ms. Mills,” he whispers, and then he looks up at Emma, who lingers in the doorway of the station. She offers him a tense smile and smoothes down the dress she’d worn for Homecoming, and Henry clutches tighter onto Regina and gives Emma a cautious smile in return. 

 

They leave with Henry as quickly as they can, and by Regina’s pointed suggestion, Emma sits in the back of the car beside Henry. They each take one side, a gulf separating them in the middle seat, and Henry says, “I went to visit her. It was dumb . I thought…I don’t know. I thought she was just a little weird. Not dangerous.” He shrugs unhappily in the rearview mirror. “Grace kept saying that she was bad, and I just…yelled at her over it. I was so stupid .” 

 

“Not stupid,” Regina says, though it might be a lie. “You were looking for family.” She’s spent enough time over the past few days contemplating what it means for both of them– Emma and Henry– that they’d grown up without parents. Mother had been awful, but she’d been there . Regina had had no questions but why

 

Henry closes his eyes, takes a deep breath. “I was there and she said that we could go get ice cream. But she gave me this juice first…I don’t know what it was. I was so tired. It tasted funny.” 

 

It’s all emerging in a jumble, but the pieces are familiar from every cautionary tale and every one of Regina’s worst fears. “She drugged you.”

 

Henry bobs his head. “When I woke up, we were way out of Storybrooke. She tied up my ankles together.” He looks down, and Regina catches a flash of angry red as he lifts his pants that sends a bolt of fury through her. “At first, my wrists, too. But I kept telling her that it was okay and I was excited. That I was happy to be with her. And eventually she freed my wrists. She wasn’t…” He pauses, considers it. “She wasn’t really all there, I guess. She kept calling me Harald– but then she kept saying things like how her son was dead. Like she wasn’t even sure who I was. I kept thinking she was going to crash the car.” He shivers. “But she didn’t.”

 

“Emma found her mail in the ice cream shop,” Regina explains, because Emma still hasn’t spoken. Her eyes don’t leave Henry except when he looks at her, and then she stares out the window with her teeth clenched. “We found the address that she was going to and called the police to find you.” She clears her throat. “Henry, I’d like you to stay with me for the time being. If you’re willing–” 

 

“Yes,” Henry says immediately, and he gives her a bright little smile through the shadows of his eyes. “Please. I know you probably hate me right now–”

 

No .” Regina says at once, and she tries for levity. “You got me out of Homecoming for the first time in seven years. You’re absolutely my favorite person right now.” Henry offers her a shaky grin, and Regina dares to be honest. “I don’t want you out of my sight for a while,” she admits, her voice dense with emotion. “And I would have…I would have liked you with me a long time ago.” 

 

“I would have liked that, too,” Henry says, his voice small. Regina has no answer to that, and Henry adds, still very quiet, “I know that my…my birth mom wound up being pretty screwed up, but I don’t think that I am. Much,” he adds, sounding a little dubious.

 

Regina shakes her head. “That doesn’t matter to me,” she says firmly. “Not to mention that we don’t even know if she’s really your birth mother.” Blanchard and Emma both had been sure that Ingrid hadn’t been, and Regina is beginning to understand why.

 

Henry bites his lip. “She knew things about me. Specific things about where I was left and how old I was and what I was wearing. She had to be.” 

 

“All of those things might be written in various newspaper articles or doctor or police logs,” Regina points out. “Nothing very hard to find.” There is still a desperation to the way that Henry says it, to the nearly tangible longing that he still seems to have for answers. “She isn’t really your birth mother, Henry.” 

 

Henry is agitated. Regina can see it in the way his fingers drum against his knees, in the way his tongue emerges to wet his lips over and over again in a nervous motion. “How can you possibly know that?” he demands, and his voice is pitched just on this side of anger. “How can you know that she isn’t my mom?” 


Regina opens her mouth to respond, but it’s Emma who speaks at last, who turns and watches Henry as he looks at her with narrowed eyes that yearn for only one  thing. And Regina knows , knows in the instant before Emma says what she does, and it all begins to make perfect sense. “Because I am,” Emma says, and her eyes are hollow as she turns away from Henry, out of sight of the rearview mirror, and stares out the window in silence.

Chapter Text

Ms. Swan is late to class on Monday. She’s habitually late, dashing in five minutes after the bell with her coat still on and her bag half-open behind her, and Henry doesn’t usually mind. It’s more time to write, and when he’s inspired, writing is all he wants to do.

 

He rarely writes stories. Instead, he writes in bits and pieces– a dialogue between characters, a roster for a ball game, a diagram of a building. The stories that are written are short and simple, there to flesh out narratives that exist only in his mind. Ms. Mills’s assignment is the first time that he’s ever sat down and written a story longer than a few pages, and he’d ordinarily embrace the extra time.

 

Not today. Today, he grits his teeth and watches the door.

 

It’s been a long, long weekend, but he feels freer than he has in a long time. Ms. Mills had brought him back to Ms. Blanchard’s house and then refused to leave without him. They had had a hushed, angry conversation, and then Ms. Mills had said Emma told us and Ms. Blanchard had taken a step back and nodded tersely. She had hugged Henry for too long, had whispered reassurances in his ear, and then Ms. Mills had taken him to stay in her guest room.

 

Henry had laid in the bed there for hours, wide awake, replaying every last bit of what had happened with Ingrid. He remembers little things now, stuff that makes him uncomfortable and uncertain. The way that Ingrid had straightened his collar when it had been askew. The little laugh she’d had whenever he’d said something particularly idealistic. The way she’d gripped his hand over the counter and he’d felt a warmth that had glowed like mom .

 

He’s never had a mom, and he’s uneasy when he remembers how Ingrid had done all the same things with him when she’d kidnapped him. He wonders, more than once in that warm bed, if he’d made a mistake. If maybe it would have been better if he’d stayed with Ingrid and played the part of Harald instead of running away to a new mess. 

 

He’s pretty much only good at running away, and maybe he had run one time too many.

 

Then he remembers Ms. Mills’s voice, hoarse with tears, and the way that she’d said we love you over the phone. Ingrid had said that she’d loved Henry, had promised it, and Henry had believed her. He doesn’t want to be stupid again. Ms. Mills had said it because she’d thought that Henry was going to die , and she’s nice enough not to want a kid to disappear forever knowing that there’s literally no one in the world who would miss him.

 

Ms. Mills is good . She doesn’t tiptoe around him like Ms. Blanchard did. She makes him eat his vegetables at Saturday dinner and he isn’t allowed to touch the gaming system that had appeared overnight Sunday until after he’s done all of his homework and studied for the history test he’d planned on ignoring. But she doesn’t counter or try to mute his rage, acknowledges it as though it is a perfectly acceptable thing, and Henry understands for the first time the other kids who seem so anxious to go home at the end of a school day.

 

Home is a little premature, maybe. Except that it’s Ms. Mills, and Henry has been hoping for this for years, is still hoping that it will last. It had been second to dreams of a surprise return of his birth mother…

 

He clamps his jaw shut. Forget her

 

It would be easier if Ms. Swan had explained any of it, had said anything more than Because I am before she’d fallen quiet. Henry hadn’t understood it, had stared at the back of her head and said, finally, Are you sure?

 

Yes , Ms. Swan had said, and there had been such grim honesty in it that Henry had been afraid of what would happen if he’d said anything else. 

 

Ms. Mills hadn’t known. That is as much of a relief as knowing is. Ms. Mills had been just as startled as he had been, and he’d seen the way her jaw had tightened when Ms. Swan hadn’t offered anything else. Ms. Mills is totally separate from Ms. Swan, no matter how much Ava might insist otherwise.

 

Today, Ava is whispering to Grace about Ms. Swan’s lateness. Grace is sitting next to Henry in the back, a rare concession in the classroom, and Ava has taken the seat beside her. “I bet Ms. Swan is off in a closet with Ms. Mills,” she says to Grace. “That’s why she’s late.” 

 

“You think Ms. Mills would ever willingly be late to class?” Grace says reasonably. 

 

Ava pauses, stymied at that point. “I guess not,” she says, reluctant. “But I think–” 

 

Ms. Swan walks into the room, less of a rush of energy and more like she’s drifting, as uncertain as a wafting scent or a wisp of smoke. Henry narrows his eyes at her, tracks the firmness of her chin and the shape of her eyes, the color of her skin and the snub of her nose, all the little things that might be Henry’s, too. It’s a strange kind of relief, knowing. Ms. Swan is his birth mom. Ms. Swan is the one who had abandoned him. There will be no secret angel swooping in again and telling him all of the things he’s craved for twelve years, no secrets left untold. Ms. Swan is his birth mom, and he might hate her for leaving him, but he will never again make the mistake he’d made with Ingrid.

 

If it had been a mistake. He wants to scream. Dr. Hopper had said that it’s normal for him to be angry and sad and scared, but Henry doesn’t think that this is normal, the constant memories of Ingrid that aren’t all that bad, the way his heart still thrums when he thinks about her being his mom. He’s supposed to be traumatized , not second-guessing his escape.

 

“Hey,” Ms. Swan says to the class. “Would you believe that I nearly set fire my toaster?” Her eyes sweep over everyone, skitter over Henry like they always do, and Henry realizes then that there will be no discussion of what happened in the car. Ms. Swan isn’t going to explain herself, and Henry will just hate her forever. Like she deserves , but–

 

A kid at the front of the room, one of the burly kids who is good at baseball and not much else, says loudly, “You really can’t take care of anything, can you?” Henry blinks. It’s an aggressive comment from someone he barely knows, and it sounds almost as though–

 

“I don’t see why our parents are supposed to trust her with us,” says another kid, and she looks mad at Ms. Swan, too. Nearly everyone in the class does, now that Henry is watching, and he feels a twinge of suspicion. 

 

“Grace,” he hisses. The other kids are speaking to each other now, deliberately ignoring Ms. Swan at the front of the room, and the volume in the room is rising. Ms. Swan stands at the front of the room, her face tight, and Henry says louder, “Grace. Did you tell anyone about what happened at Homecoming?” 

 

“No!” Grace says, eyes wide. “I mean, just Ava because she was in the room when you called. But that was it .” 

 

Ava says, “I just told Nick. He’s my brother . But I told him not to tell anyone,” she says hotly. “He wouldn’t–” She peers around the room, at their classmates, who are deliberately ignoring Ms. Swan and tossing Henry nods of what is unmistakably solidarity. “Well, probably not,” she mutters.

 

“I heard it from Sabine,” Violet says helpfully from in front of them. “The whole school knows. Sabine’s mom was going to call and complain.” She grins at Henry, sympathy in her eyes. “Ms. Swan shouldn’t be a teacher after what she did to you.”

 

When Henry looks up, Ms. Swan is staring at him. Her face is stiff, and Henry can’t read a thing on her face. It’s weird, thinking of Ms. Swan as being closed off when she’d been like an open book to him until now.

 

Not really , he reminds himself. Ms. Swan had pretended, had talked to him like she’d been a friendly teacher and not the person who’d hurt him most. Ms. Swan had acted as though she’d never kept a secret in her life while she’d been holding onto the one truth that Henry had wanted more than anything. And now, Ms. Swan gazes out at the hostile classroom in front of her as though she’s never seen anything like them before.

 

She stands, her thumbs hooked into the waistband of her jeans, and she doesn’t say a word. Not that Henry would hear her if she did. He’s just judging from her unmoving lips. The class talks loudly, insolently, Ms. Swan excluded from the center of their day, and Ms. Swan makes no move to stop it.

 

Good , Henry thinks, but he doesn’t know how he feels about this. The kids who are the loudest are the popular ones, the guys and girls who live on a different plane of existence than him or Grace or even Ava’s weird little clique. It’s like they’ve been waiting for a reason to pounce on Ms. Swan, and they’re using him to do it.

 

“I don’t get it,” he says finally, pressing his hands into the hard wood of his desk. “I thought everyone loved Ms. Swan. And none of these people care about me .” 

 

“They love her,” Grace says wisely. “They just figure that this is their best shot at getting a free period today.” 

 

“Yeah.” Henry slouches in his seat. It’s what Ms. Swan deserves after what she’d done to him. It’s just…he hadn’t pictured it like this, really. More yelling from him. Maybe she would have the decency to cry. This feels more like…well, bullying .

 

It’s a relief when the door slams open and the room falls silent in an instant. Ms. Mills glowers at the class and then at Ms. Swan. “ Ms. Swan ,” she barks out. “I remain incredulous that math could ever be this noisy.” 

 

“I’m sorry,” Ms. Swan says dully. 

 

Ms. Mills squints at her, at once suspicious. “You’re sorry ? That’s all you have to say for yourself?”

 

Ms. Swan’s face gets really hard when she’s frustrated, just like Henry’s. He touches his jaw and watches as Ms. Mills’s eyes flicker around the classroom, at the sharp expressions on Henry’s classmates’ faces, and at Henry himself.

 

He thinks back to the way that Ms. Swan had left the car on Friday night– about the way Ms. Mills had stopped the car and chased after her, the hushed argument that they had had outside Ms. Blanchard’s apartment, the way Ms. Swan had reached out, for an instant, and touched Ms. Mills’s cheek with three gentle fingers– and he is suddenly uncertain of whose side Ms. Mills is on. 

 

Ms. Mills says, her voice sharp, “I don’t want to hear another word from this classroom.” Her eyes are on the class instead of on the teacher; and when she sweeps from the room and leaves them behind, no one has the courage to continue the onslaught on Ms. Swan.

 

Henry glares in silence, watches Ms. Swan and remembers that he hates her, and wonders if the freckles that are just barely visible on her nose are hereditary. 

 


 

Something is happening in the school. There’s a ripple of discontent that is not quite audible, that has Regina looking twice at whispering students, and she is positive that Emma is at the center of it. Emma, who has never once been the target of students’ ire before, is being brushed past in the hall and ignored by the older grades. Even that group of her favorites, the ones who linger in the classroom with her and gossip incessantly about her life, have moved to the hallway outside the classroom.

 

“I’m just not comfortable being in there when Grace and I are so close,” Ava Tillman says loudly, and Robin nods as though that’s meant to mean something. “And I don’t really know if we should be around her at all.” 

 

“What kind of person just abandons a baby like that?” Sabine wonders. “Like, okay, yeah, not everyone can handle a kid. But just running off and living your life while he grows up in your town ?” 

 

“Maybe she only wanted to know that he was safe,” Alice says thoughtfully, but the others don’t seem to hear her.

 

“I heard that Henry’s dad is some kind of serial killer,” Violet says, voice hushed. 

 

Rogers shakes his head. “No way. I heard he was about to make it big and he left them so they wouldn’t hold him back.” He clears his throat. “I won’t say who I’m pretty sure it is, but let’s just call him Schmake Schmyllenhaal.”

 

“I heard that Ms. Swan was the one who was going to make it big,” Jacinda corrects him. “And then she got pregnant. That’s why she left Henry here. Then her big show tanked and she came back to check in on him.” She lowers her voice. “You know Cameron from House MD? Dead ringer for Ms. Swan.” 

 

“No one knows what you’re talking about, J,” Sabine says, not without some fondness. “We don’t watch old people TV.”

 

Jacinda throws up her hands. “No one listens to me,” she says.

 

Regina has listened plenty. “There is no gathering in the hall like this,” she says sharply. “You’re a fire hazard.” 

 

The students shuffle over, glancing at each other until they head, reluctantly, for the cafeteria. Regina glowers after them, even Robin, who has probably already taken this as evidence that Regina is head-over-heels for Emma Swan.

 

Ridiculous. Regina is head-over-heels for only one person right now, and he’s the boy at the epicenter of the school rumor mill alongside Emma. Henry is staying in her house, is sitting with her at the table at breakfast and playing video games on her couch, and it’s exactly what she’s always wanted. She hasn’t broached the subject of a formal fostering yet– it’s too soon, and she doesn’t want to push too hard– but it’s on her mind. 

 

There is a new complication, though even that might require more red tape. If Emma can prove that she’s Henry’s birth mother, does she automatically get parental rights? Does she want them? She’d been so cold in the car, had been like an unreadable statue on Friday night, and she had only seemed herself when they’d pulled over at Blanchard’s apartment. I can’t be here , she’d whispered.

 

You’re being a coward , Regina had said, and she hadn’t known why she’d felt like crying then, except that Henry and Emma are all she’s ever wanted and she might gain one and lose the other. They’d– god, they’d really kissed, had been so lost that it had been their only anchor. And now–

 

I don’t belong here , Emma had said, and she’d touched Regina’s cheek. You’ll hate me. You’ll have some time to think about this and you’ll hate me. I’m not…I’m not a good person. 

 

She’d fled before Regina could respond, could point out that Emma is annoyingly good and she’s much too young to have a twelve-year-old secret son, could say exactly what she thinks of the clumsy ways that Emma has tried to reach out and protect Henry this year.

 

Regina doesn’t hate Emma, and especially not this hard, distant Emma who seems so small and alone. Even their colleagues eye her speculatively in the teachers’ room when Regina drops in there to get some coffee, and Marian says in a low voice, “I’ve heard that Abigail’s phone has been nonstop with commentary from parents who think that they know better.” 

 

Emma is sitting at the little desk in the corner of the room with a computer on it, eyes fixed on her phone. Regina says to Marian, her gaze on Emma, “Tell me you have enough sense not to listen to a crowd of eleven-year-olds when they tell you the latest gossip.” 

 

Marian snorts. “I have enough sense not to comment on anything Emma Swan does around you.” She offers Regina a sly glance. “Long drive to New York, though, huh? Lots of time…heightened emotions…unexpected vulnerability…” 

 

“Go away, Marian,” Regina says tiredly, and she escapes the teachers’ lounge, sans coffee, and heads around the corner to the principal’s office. 

 

Abigail Midas’s daughter had been in Regina’s grade in school, and she’d been at the top of the class and had sported two influential parents. Mother had encouraged the friendship, though they’d never quite hit it off, and Kathryn and Regina had maintained a stilted friendship until they’d parted ways after high school. Her mother had remembered enough about Regina that she’d given her a model lesson and had taken her on without hesitation, and Regina is still simultaneously intimidated and grateful to the older woman for it. 

 

She knocks on her open office door and pokes her head in. “Abigail,” she says, and Abigail puts up a finger and then nods Regina in impatiently. 

 

“Explain to me why I have parents calling to complain about Emma Swan ,” she says. “I have students in Dr. Hopper’s office insisting that being in her class will trigger their anxiety. I’ve never gotten a single complaint about Emma before that wasn’t idiocy. The kids love her. The parents usually call about you .” 

 

“Thank you,” Regina says, not without some genuine pride. “I try.” 

 

Abigail gives her a quelling look. “Tell me that Emma just kissed another woman at Homecoming. I can handle the homophobic parents.” She sighs heavily. “But the story I keep hearing is–” 

 

“Henry Brooke,” Regina says wearily. “Yes.” 

 

“It’s true?” Abigail’s eyes are sharp, and Regina doesn’t have the audacity to deny it. “Damn it.” Abigail pinches the bridge of her nose. “The board wants a meeting,” she says.

 

Regina stares at her, a rising alarm in her throat. “About Emma? For something that happened when she was sixteen ?” 

 

Abigail exhales. “Storybrooke is…protective over Henry Brooke. Your generation in particular. We don’t get a lot of foundlings out here in the middle of nowhere, and a lot of people have suddenly decided that Henry is their priority. It’s something to be outraged about.” 

 

“That’s always very attractive to parents,” Regina says dryly. A strange sort of rage has begun to suffuse her, a protectiveness that is unacceptable and undeniable. “Tell me, are they talking about family values when they insist on this board meeting? Is that why they suddenly discovered that Henry Brooke is important, when he was shifted around to reluctant foster parents again and again?” 

 

“Regina–” 

 

“You know they don’t give a damn about Henry,” Regina says, and now her words are like steel. “They care now because the woman who left him behind kisses women in public where their darling children can see. And they finally have a reason to boot her for that.” 

 

Abigail gives her a look. “I may not be in the classroom anymore, but I’m not an idiot,” she says. “Go. Don’t engage with the students about this. And for the love of god, help your girlfriend figure out what she’s willing to share, because if I have to soothe one more hysterical parent, I might just tear this phone cord out of the wall and hurl it out the window.” 

 

Regina takes a breath. Why does everyone in this school seem to think–? “She isn’t my–” 

 

Go ,” Abigail says again, and Regina makes a hasty departure as the phone begins to ring again.

 


 

More than anything, Emma would really like a nap. She’s slept over the past few days– brief bursts of sleep that aren’t even catnaps, because at least cats seem to look like they’re enjoying their sleep. Instead, Emma dreams about a man she hasn’t seen in twelve years, about the ugly curl of his lip and the quiet terror that had thrummed through her whenever she’d seen him. She wakes up in a cold sweat, shivering uncontrollably, and she peers out of windows and peepholes and into closets as though he might be hiding inside them.

 

She dreams about Henry, wrapped in her arms in the backseat of the car she’d stolen, and the makeshift bed she’d had to wedge into the foot of the passenger seat to carry him safely. He’d been so small back then, his face splotchy and his hair so thin that he’d looked like a little old man instead of a baby. She’d been enamored with his miniature ears, most of all, perfectly molded and as tiny as a very detailed doll. She dreams about the moment she’d parked on the side of the road up to Storybrooke, had gotten out of her car, and had screamed at the top of her lungs until she’d been hoarse with tears and fury at every single thing that had brought her to that moment.

 

Mostly, though, she lies awake in bed, replaying every moment on Friday over and over in her head until she’s paralyzed by it. Henry gone. Grace’s admission that he’d disappeared with a woman pretending to be his birth mother. Regina in tears, Regina’s stockings, Regina’s lips on Emma’s like nothing else will ever belong there so well. Regina holding Henry. Henry’s eyes on Emma, expectant, after she’d said what she’d never meant to say.

 

She had only told him the truth to protect him from anyone else who might use his ignorance against him. Not because she’d wanted to share any more than that. She’s said enough, and if the world hates her for it– fine .

 

It’s probably her own fault for putting so much of her self-worth into her students, who are absolutely her favorite people in the world but also prone to dropping people in the blink of an eye. It’s just usually an estranged friend, not a favorite teacher.

 

Some of the kids still smile at her in the hall, but they look guilty when they do, their eyes flickering around as though they’re afraid that someone might see it. Emma is officially persona non grata in the school. Even in the teachers’ room, she gets a few supportive hands on her shoulder, but little more than that. The room falls silent when she walks in, and she knows that they’ve been talking about her.

 

They will judge her, perhaps even more than the students. After all, what kind of mother abandons her child and then watches him grow up without saying a word? Emma has questioned her own judgment for a dozen years, has mulled over every option and reached no conclusions. Of course the others will be sure that Emma is the villain here.

 

She remains in her classroom during her final grading period of the day and makes the cowardly decision to sit in her closet, alone, rather than spending any time in the teachers’ room with her peers. She takes out a stack of papers and halfheartedly organizes them, keeping herself busy with it and not wondering if the group that hangs out in her classroom might come back after last period. It’s fine if they don’t, she decides. It’s fine. If they know the truth about her and have rejected her, then so be it.

 

The door to the classroom creaks open, and Emma’s heart leaps– but there is no noise of girls laughing as they spill into the room, no raised voices or discussion. It’s just one set of feet clipping across the floor in heels, which means that it isn’t Henry, either.

 

It’s Principal Midas. It must be. Emma has heard the murmurs of a board meeting about her, of discontent from the parents. She straightens, swallowing through the lump in her throat, and she turns around.

 

She nearly crashes into Regina as the other woman strides toward the closet. “Oh,” Emma says, staring at her. Her eyes find Regina’s lips first, then the rest of her tight face, and she is flooded with the memory of their kiss. 

 

It had been…terrifying, really. Regina had been crying and Emma had been lost in her grief and fear, and it should have been awful. Instead, the earth had moved a little beneath Emma, and she’d held onto Regina and been certain that she’d never let go. Regina had ended the kiss– this never happened , of course– but every time Emma thinks about it, she is stricken with impossible, desperate longing, as though she might die if she never gets to kiss Regina again.

 

She straightens, forcing her voice to be even and calm. “If this is about your spotty Internet, I have told you that my classroom isn’t blocking your service. That’s not how Internet works.”

 

“No, it’s…” Regina clears her throat. “I thought I might walk you out of the building today,” she says at last.

 

Emma blinks at her, then tries for levity. “You think the kids will be more afraid of you if they see you hanging out with the scary lady who abandons babies at the–” 

 

“Emma,” Regina says, and she puts a gentle hand on Emma’s arm. Emma stares at it, feels a tremor pass through her, and knows immediately that she has to get away before she embarrasses herself. 

 

“I think I can make it out of the building myself,” she says curtly, and she grabs her bag, shoving the stack of papers back where they’d been, and heads for the door with Regina trailing behind her. She takes the stairs down instead of the elevator to avoid waiting there for an agonizing few minutes with Regina, and she makes it to the front of the building before she understands why Regina had insisted on walking her out.

 

She’s being protested

 

It’s kind of a pathetic little group, really, four women and two men standing outside the school with signs, but it’s enough that the students beginning to file out of the building are peering over with interest. The signs are vague– FIRE EMMA SWAN is the only one that makes it clear what they’re picketing– and Emma recognizes a couple of the parents as past ones with siblings in the sixth grade. The others, she doesn’t know, except for–

 

“Zelena?” Regina has emerged from the building behind her, and she sounds outraged. “What are you doing here?” 

 

Regina’s sister is holding a sign that just says PROTEST SIGN , scrawled on with permanent marker. She waves cheerily to them. “Hello, darlings! Isn’t it a lovely day for a protest?” 

 

Regina stalks over to her, and Emma follows out of sheer morbid fascination. The other protesters shrink back, eyeing her warily. Zelena says, “I came because I thought I might meet someone here. It’s rough for attractive single women in this town, eh?” She raises her eyebrows and winks at Emma, who takes an automatic step back. “But those four are married ,” she says, sounding disgusted. “I think the last woman might be open to it, because she really can’t stop talking about Emma and other women she’s been with–”

 

“They’re homophobes , Zelena,” Regina hisses. Emma blinks at her and feels very foolish for not figuring that one out. She’d known that there have been complaints about her working in the school (“around our little girls,” someone had said tearfully at parent orientation last year, and someone else had said, “so is Gold ,” and Principal Midas had steered them on), but she hadn’t thought that that had been the impetus for this protest.

 

Henry is an excuse for them, and that raises Emma’s hackles far more than the protest had when it had been sincere. 

 

Zelena shrugs, unbothered. “Well, I’m sure I can convince the right ones to reconsider.” She wanders back to the group, speaking with a woman who looks progressively more alarmed as Zelena speaks.

 

Emma makes a quick getaway, hurrying to the parking lot with Regina still on her heels. “Emma. Emma ,” Regina barks out, and now she sounds annoyed. “Will you stop for a minute?” 

 

Somehow, Zelena has found her way to them again. “This is so adorable,” she says, rubbing her hands together. “I love watching lovers’ spats. I take sides,” she informs them. 

 

Emma’s car is all the way on the other side of the lot, and there’s no way that she can outrun both other women. “I don’t know what you want from me,” she says, twisting around. “Today has been long enough without you picking another fight–” 

 

“Trust me, I’d rather not talk to you at all,” Regina says tightly, and crap , what is it about Regina’s hardest voice that makes Emma want to kiss her? “This is about Henry.” 

 

“I don’t want to talk about Henry,” Emma says through her teeth.

 

Zelena says, “Oh, this is excellent . Very Real Housewives of Storybrooke. I love it.” 

 

Regina ignores her. “That’s wonderful. Absolutely. The less you talk, the better.”

 

“You sound thrilled, Regina,” Zelena trills. Regina gives her a look that could freeze fire.

 

Emma says, “I’m glad we’re on the same page,” and starts for her car.

 

Regina catches her arm. “ Except that Henry isn’t an abstract concept. He’s a little boy who’s trying to process two traumatic events at once, and you’re avoiding him instead of helping.” She looks furious about it, furious and pained, and Emma tenses as the guilt washes over her again, an endless sea that she’s been drowning in for days.

 

“He’s better off without me,” Emma points out, abruptly defensive. “That was the point of leaving him in the first place–” 

 

“This town is so odd ,” Zelena says aloud. “I love it.” She lowers her voice to a mock-whisper. “As a fellow abandoned child, I can say that your way is better. I was left in the woods.” 

 

Emma pauses, distracted. “I was left at the side of the freeway,” she says, eyeing Zelena. 

 

Zelena brightens. “Do you think it was Mother?” she says, tapping Regina on the shoulder insistently. “She didn’t admit that I was hers for years , you know,” she says conspiratorially. “One of the maids followed Mother out to the woods and raised me for a few years until Mother found out and took me in again. You could have been another secret daughter.” Emma blinks at her, horrified and abruptly very glad that she was found nowhere near Storybrooke.

 

Zelena claps her hands together. “We could be sisters !” she says enthusiastically. “I’ve always wanted another sister. Regina is frightfully dull.” She considers for a moment. “Have you two done the deed yet? I think that may be a step too far. Kissing is fine, though,” she adds reassuringly. “Star Wars established that as long as you don’t know , you can still–” 

 

“Zelena, go away ,” Regina says, turning back to Emma. “I don’t know what’s going through your head right now, but this isn’t acceptable . You’re the adult here, and Henry deserves an explanation. However we might hate each other–” And here, for a moment, she looks uncertain. Emma aches and refuses to show it. “He deserves to understand,” Regina says finally, and Emma feels the weariness in her bones.

 

“Fine,” she says. “I’ll come by your house in an hour. I just need to– I need to get to my car,” she says, and she flees in the direction of the Bug as quickly as she can.

 

She doesn’t realize that Zelena is following her until she hears, as she opens the car door, “I suppose it might be all right to get to second base. But anything more than that would be over a very disturbing line,” she concludes. 

 

“Go away, Zelena,” Emma echoes Regina, and she wonders, not for the first time, how someone as intolerant as Regina Mills might have a sister like Zelena. 

 

Zelena eyes her. “There is something,” she says in a very different tone. “I’ve done the research since I heard the news. If you can prove that Henry’s your son, you can pull him out of the snare of red tape that has Regina so trapped. She could adopt him.” 

 

“There’s no birth certificate,” Emma says brusquely. “Nothing. He was born…there.” She jabs a finger at the back of the Bug. She hates talking about this– hates it, wishes she’d never have to– but it all seems to be spilling out in bits and pieces now, forcing its way into the light.

 

“A genetic test, then,” Zelena offers, unfazed at that pronouncement. “It would be enough.” She looks at Emma, suddenly hard-eyed. “Unless you’re planning on reclaiming him–” 

 

“No. I–” Emma takes a breath. “No, I’d be a terrible mother. I’m not cut out for kids. See what I did to my last one?” It’s supposed to be a joke, but it falls flat, sounds lost and lonely, and Zelena eyes her with misgiving. “Look. I just want to move on from all of this. Let’s just…deal with that if it ever comes up. Not now.” 

 

Zelena frowns at her. “You aren’t at all Real Housewives material,” she says, and Emma can’t figure out if it’s a compliment or an insult. 

 

She drives away, takes off toward her apartment and then veers off to a quiet spot right outside of an abandoned hiking trail. Then she bangs her head against the steering wheel repeatedly and sits in fraught silence for forty-five minutes, struggling against every pervasive thought that threatens to consume her.

 

When she has achieved the commendable task of not breaking down for a full hour after her departure from school, she drives down a few side roads and parks in Regina’s driveway.

 

Her heart seizes up when she sees what awaits her there. Regina is sitting on the steps of her palatial mansion, leaning against one of the columns, and Henry is sitting opposite her with his history textbook on his lap. There’s a test tomorrow, Emma remembers vaguely, and they must be studying together. There’s a bowl of popcorn between them, and Henry reaches to take a handful of it before he turns and sees Emma in the driveway.

 

It’s exactly the kind of picture-perfect life that Emma had imagined for him, back when she’d left him at the door of a hospital in an idyllic town like Storybrooke. It’s aspirational. It’s what he could have had if not for the red tape that Zelena had mentioned. 

 

She should feel justified, validated in a way that she’d never been before. It had been the right thing to leave him, and she’s always known that, and what had happened next hadn’t been her fault. But instead, her whole body goes still, and a black tar seems to fill the place in her heart where blood had been pulsing incessantly a moment ago. 

 

Henry stares at her and says something to Regina, then gets up as though to go. Regina puts a hand on his arm and he sits again, watching Emma with narrowed eyes. It’s how he’s been looking at her all day, and Emma walks slowly from the car toward him.

 

“Hey,” she says, and she shoves a hand in her back pocket and bends her elbows in an attempt to seem relaxed. 

 

Unconvinced, Henry says, “What do you want?” 

 

“Henry.” Regina’s voice is sharp, warning. Henry gives her a wary look, and Emma waits, uncertain. Her line of vision has narrowed, fishbowl-like, and she can only see Henry directly in front of her. Regina has faded to a voice, a steady anchor right now. “Ms. Swan is here to answer your questions,” Regina says, her voice gentling. “She never really got a chance to Friday night–” 

 

“Fine.” Henry stares up at Emma, his face belligerent. She knows he hates her, had expected it, and she doesn’t think that she can do much of anything to change that. “See, the thing I don’t get–” He picks up his history book, squeezes it between his fingers and takes a breath. “In between all the times that you lied to me, you kept saying that we were the same. That you grew up without a family, too. That you were in foster care your whole life.” He breathes again, rough and ragged. “So I don’t understand how you go through that and then do the same exact thing to a baby.” 

 

Emma presses her lips together. There are things she isn’t willing to share, parts of the story that Henry doesn’t need to know. “I picked out Storybrooke,” she says finally. “I thought it would be…it would be the perfect place to grow up. I wanted to give you your best chance.” 

 

“My best chance would have been to have a mother ,” Henry says scornfully. “To have a family. To know when my freaking birthday is!” Regina reaches out to him, but Henry takes a step away from her, from Emma. “And you’ve just been…hanging out here for all this time? Watching me grow up alone? You didn’t care. What kind of person are you?” 

 

Emma feels her face harden, the planes of it as though it’s carved from stone. “August fifteenth,” she says. “A few days earlier than the hospital estimated. You were just very small.” He’d stayed small with her. She remembers how terrifying that had been, how she’d given him her breast over and over and known that she’d been doing something wrong but not what. He’d screamed and she’d cried and had felt so desperately alone in the world, so helplessly lost.

 

“And my father?” Henry says, expectant and still hostile.

 

“Dead,” Emma says. It’s the truth. She had been incapable of not checking, had looked him up twice a week for years until she’d seen the news. She keeps her face very still, very carefully rigid.

 

Henry clenches and unclenches his fists, clearly dissatisfied with the answers that Emma is giving him, but she refuses to give him anything else. She won’t. There is nothing else he needs to know.

 

Henry says, “I hope the school does fire you. You’re a monster.” He turns on his heels before Regina’s sharp Henry! and disappears into the house, slamming the door behind him. 

 

“It’s fine,” Emma says, staring after him. “It’s fine.” 

 

“It’s not fine for him to be snapping at adults like that,” Regina says, her words tight. Emma wonders if Regina hates her now, too, if the same judgment that everyone else seems to feel has been leveled at her from Regina as well. Regina, Emma suspects, would be the kind of perfect mom who would never dream of abandoning a kid, let alone hiding from them from twelve years. Somehow, Regina would have made it work. “I’ll talk to him.” 

 

Emma shrugs. The fishbowl lens that has settled over her vision is still to Regina’s periphery, and she can’t look directly at her. “There isn’t really anything left to say.” 

 

Emma .” Regina sounds frustrated. “I did the math. Someday, Henry will, too. There is certainly something left to say about a girl who had a child at sixteen–” 

 

She wheels around, forcing her line of vision to encompass Regina and only Regina. “I don’t want to say it. Is that so terrible? Can I keep this one thing to myself? It has nothing to do with Henry, and if the school board wants me out over it, then let them. I’m done.” She’ll leave Storybrooke, tack on a new last name, find a new life. It wouldn’t be the first time, even if twelve years is longer than she’s spent anywhere before. She doesn’t need this. “I’m done,” she says again.

 

“Emma,” Regina says, reaching out to touch her arm. And fuck , Emma really, really wants to kiss her again. To get to know this tender woman lurking beneath the hardass teacher who rules the sixth grade with an iron fist. To stay , as unsavory as it might become for her. 

 

“I have to go,” Emma says, and she turns abruptly and hurries back to her car.

Chapter Text

Regina has spent years wondering what it might be like to have Henry living in her house. She’d bought a few toys, all those years ago, that she’d never had the heart to throw away, and they still sit in a dusty corner of her garage. But Henry-the-adolescent is a very different person than Henry-the-infant. For one, he’s just undergone a significant trauma. He insists on keeping his door open at night, and he’s been sleeping with the lights on, which Blanchard informs her is uncharacteristic and Archie is going to work on.

 

And he’s angry. Not at her, which is a surprise in itself. They aren’t exactly snuggling together on the couch, but he talks to her about school and eats meals with her, even though he still feels very much like a cordial guest in her home. But he smiles very little, and his eyes go dark whenever Emma or even math class comes up. 

 

It’s a lot to process. And Regina is torn. If Emma would just talk to Henry–

 

But Emma doesn’t want to talk. Emma keeps her truths close to her chest and refuses to share them, and Henry senses that enough to resent her for it. Regina doesn’t push, wary of what happens if Henry is pushed too hard.

 

She’s become Mary Margaret Blanchard when it comes to Henry. Damn it. Hadn’t she been the one who’d advocated for structure? But Henry has a gift for flouting that structure when he’s in a home, for turning even the most rigid of foster parents into a cautious, permissive authority. 

 

She drives Henry to school on Wednesday, and she’s gratified that he walks in with her. “Everyone knows everything about my life now, anyway,” Henry says, making a face. “It’s not like it’s a shock that we’re coming to school together.”

 

“I can always drop you off a block from the school,” Regina suggests, pursing her lips in amusement.

 

Henry snorts. “I can pretend I’ve never seen you before in my life. It might be awkward sitting in your classroom, but I’ll just look confused. It works for Nick.” 

 

“It certainly does not work for Nick,” Regina says dryly. Nick’s last paper, a reading response on literary devices used in Animal Farm, had just been a nearly-blank paper with the words pigs don’t talk scrawled at the top. He hadn’t written his name, but Regina had known. At least Henry had made an effort when he’d bullshitted her.

 

“Three people asked me yesterday if you wear heels to bed, too,” Henry says thoughtfully. “I told them about the secret chocolate drawer in your study.” 

 

“Wha– How did you know about the chocolate drawer?” Regina demands, aghast. “When have you been in my study?” 

 

Henry gives her a sidelong look, almost wary, and Regina regrets the question at once. “You sent me to get a pen yesterday morning, remember? I opened the wrong drawer while I was looking.” 

 

“Right.” Regina feels very foolish, as though she had just destroyed the tentative beginnings of something good. Henry’s smile is fading, and she hurries to say, “You’re going to ruin my image. Make sure that they know about the dungeon in the basement.” 

 

Henry’s smile doesn’t fully return, but he gives her a wry little smirk. “Will do,” he says. “Felix asked me what was in your basement yesterday, actually. I didn’t know there was one.” 

 

“Oh, there isn’t,” Regina agrees, then lowers her voice to a mock whisper. “ Officially .” 

 

Now Henry laughs, and Regina regains the presence of mind to say, as they head for the elevator, “Felix is chatting with you?”

 

Henry shrugs. It’s nonchalant, which only makes Regina more tense. “I guess. He and Peter ate lunch with me yesterday.” 

 

“Hm.” Peter and Felix are in her homeroom class, and they swagger around the hallways like they own the school. Regina has always disliked them, though she tries never to take adolescent belligerence personally, and they’re among the more popular students in the grade. Definitely too much for Henry to handle, and the interest that they’ve taken in him makes her worried.

 

Henry eyes her in the elevator like he knows what she’s thinking, and Regina changes the topic as gracefully as she can manage. “I thought you liked to work on your fairytale during lunch.” 

 

Henry shrugs, and Regina remembers too late that it might be a bit of a sore topic right now. The mysterious birth mother has been revealed as a fraud, and the reality of her is someone far more complex than Henry had anticipated. “I’m not really sure what I’m doing with it right now.” His notebook still pokes out of his backpack, a reminder that he hasn’t let go of it just yet, but Regina doesn’t push him.

 

She says, “I’ll see you second period,” and rests her hand, briefly, on Henry’s back. He stands still in front of the open elevator doors and doesn’t move until she’s let go of him, and she is overwhelmed by an aching affection that she doesn’t dare express. 

 

When she turns, she sees– Emma, standing at the door to the stairwell, watching them with an expression that Regina can only describe as haunted . She averts her eyes when she sees Regina watching, and Regina’s heart thrums painfully in response, a rubber band stretched to breaking point. 

 

Henry sees Emma, too, and he bites his lip and ducks away from Regina, making a hasty retreat into the gaggle of students in the hallway. And all three of them, divided but wholly aware of each other, disappear into their days.

 


 

There hadn’t been multiple protesters in front of the school today, just one woman with a sign who hadn’t seemed to recognize Emma. The fury must already be ebbing down, which is a relief. Emma can handle hostility from strangers, but she has grown swiftly tired of the whispering in the halls, the subtle giggling when she walks past and someone gets in a good zinger. 

 

This is sixth grade , where stars rise and fall in moments, and a wiser teacher wouldn’t let their judgments get to her. But she had been liked. She had been beloved , and that is gone now, as she rightfully deserves. It doesn’t make it hurt any less.

 

And the worst part of it: starting every morning with Henry Brooke, who has ceased sitting in the corner with averted eyes and now glares at her from the center of the room. He doesn’t look away, but he doesn’t do his work, either, and Emma pretends she doesn’t notice. If there is a power struggle on, it’s one that Henry is going to win every time.

 

She gestures at the board. “Uh,” she says at what Violet has written on it. “You’ve missed the simplifying.” Her teaching feels lackluster lately. She knows it, can sense it and can see it in how she’s begun to feel as though she’s lecturing foreheads instead of faces. Her students are checking out, too, and it’s only making everything else worse.

 

By the time the board has their big meeting– a meeting that Principal Midas assures her won’t be the end of her career but a bunch of blowhards making grand statements – she won’t have a single advocate left in the school. It’ll just be Emma on her own, with students that hate her and–

 

The door slams open, and Emma jolts, as startled as her students. Regina has stormed in, as she does, for the first time in days. “What is the meaning of this?” she demands. She’s holding– what the hell ?– the entire, enormous test calendar that hangs in the teachers’ room.

 

Emma, like muscle memory, regains her bearings. “I think it’s a calendar,” she says. There are a few muffled snickers from the classroom, a reassuring, familiar sound. “Is that where you log your monthly coven meetings?”

 

Regina scowls at her. “You scheduled a test for my day . Mine .” 

 

“And you tore the calendar off the wall for that?” Emma raises her eyebrows, the grin impossible to tamp down. “The Incredible Mills. I love it.” 

 

There are fewer foreheads in audience now, a few sparkling faces. It’s been a while since Emma has seen them, and she remembers now the rush of adrenaline and endorphins that accompanies them, the energy that shifts in the classroom. “It’s October and you’re an English teacher,” Emma says, skeptical. Regina’s face is flushed with annoyance, and she’s still holding up the calendar furiously. “What do you give tests on, anyway? How many times some character speaks? What prepositions are used most often in the book? I bet it’s on and the ,” she confides to the class, and it feels good when they giggle, like she’s finally regaining herself. Henry glares from the middle of the room, but Regina’s annoyance is like an anchor, keeping her intact.

 

The isn’t a preposition, you idiot,” Regina says, lip curling. 

 

“Whoa. Not in front of the children,” Emma says in a mock whisper. Even Grace is watching them now with wide eyes, the hint of a smile in her eyes. Henry remains immobile, but the room is beginning to feel like Emma’s again. “Save the sweet little nothings for after school.” 

 

Ava whoops. Regina’s glower deepens. “Explain.” She holds the calendar up again, jabbing her finger against a day next week on which Emma had scheduled a math test. “My day.” Below Emma’s clear 6th grade math notation is a smaller notation, 6th grade vocabulary quiz, and someone had drawn a line through it. “You crossed out my quiz and wrote in your test!” 

 

“False!” Emma says, only mildly outraged. “I scheduled my test weeks ago. And why does it matter, anyway? You’re allowed to give quizzes on test days. Or just, like, move it a day. No one’s going to know the meaning of quixotic whether or not you give them an extra day to study.” She addresses the class. “What does quixotic mean? I thought he was the windmill guy.” 

 

“That’s Don Quixote.” It’s Henry who speaks, his voice unfriendly, incapable of leaving a question about literature unanswered. Emma is overcome with a wave of affection that might make her cry if she isn’t careful.

 

Instead, she swallows through a lump in her throat and says. “Oh, you know what I always assumed it was? Like a really nice but interesting scent.” She takes a step closer to Regina, who looks alarmed when Emma inhales deeply. “Your perfume is just…quixotic today.” 

 

“Tell me about it,” Grace sighs, and she grins and shrugs when Henry gives her a wounded look. 

 

Regina shakes her head, her eyes glinting with irritation. “Your perfume is just sweat and cheetos.” A few kids ooh . They are rarely as afraid of Regina in Emma’s classroom as they are when they’re in Regina’s classroom. Emma likes to think that it’s her chaotic energy that gives them courage.

 

“You love it,” Emma says, dancing back when the calendar is clutched into Regina’s fist. “Careful. You might destroy the evidence of something that I– by the way, though I’m of course enjoying your little visit to my homeroom– didn’t actually do .” 

 

“Who else would have done it?” Regina demands, and Emma has a sudden inkling, though it is one that she’s going to need a lengthy period of time to process. “Is there anyone else in this school motivated by a desire to make my job here impossible?” 

 

“Just me,” Emma says cheerfully. “Maybe those gremlins in the teachers’ room who keep stealing the weird oat milk that you bring to school–” 

 

“I know that’s you, Ms. Swan,” Regina shoots back. “Your breath stinks like oat right now –” 

 

Michael Darling pipes up, “She was drinking it when we came in this morning. Straight from the box, too.” 

 

“It’s a mini box! You can drink those directly.” 

 

My oat milk. My vocabulary quiz.” Regina stabs a finger at Emma. “Fix it.” 

 

Emma squints around at the room. “What do we say, kids? Is Ms. Mills asking me to take her out to coffee?” 

 

“Definitely,” says Ava. “I think you might have to figure out what quixotic means first, though.” 

 

“That’s very quixotic of you,” Ava agrees. Emma wiggles her eyebrows at Regina.

 

Regina throws up her hands. “This is my own fault,” she says to herself, “For entertaining the absurd idea that I might be able to have an adult conversation with you.” 

 

“You can give your quiz that day,” Emma says brightly. “I’m not opposed. You must have made some other enemy in school. Though I can’t imagine how, with your sunny disposition.” 

 

“Never mind,” Regina says, and she wheels around and storms out of the room, her head as high as it had been when she’d entered. Emma takes a moment to admire her profile as she storms in heels and that sensible-yet-somehow-still-sexy pantsuit, and then she turns back to the class, oddly energized. 

 

“Let’s get cracking,” she announces, and she doesn’t lose a single face to a forehead for the rest of class.

 


 

The board meeting is scheduled for next Monday, which is good. Regina fully plans to be present, and Monday is a fairly light schedule for her. She teaches several electives to the seventh and eighth graders, but they are smaller classes and can miss a day without any concerns.

 

Well. No academic concerns. At least Emma had seemed a little more energetic this morning after homeroom. She’d even walked her students to Regina’s class to loudly assure her that they’re going to do quixotically on their vocabulary quiz. Emma is absurd , and Regina has yet to discover why it is that she hasn’t resorted to homicide yet.

 

Then again, seven years of teaching eleven and twelve year olds will do wonders for her patience. Her homeroom class today had needed a little extra discipline to settle down, a little more glaring and sharp words. Between that and the fight with Emma, Regina is exhausted by lunchtime, and she takes the elevator down to the cafeteria instead of finding a casual reason to check in on Henry.

 

He’s sitting with Peter and Felix again, and Regina sighs and ponders what she might be able to do to separate them. Peter isn’t a good match for Henry, but she suspects that Henry won’t take well to hearing that. He’s in a delicate place right now, processing both his kidnapping and the truth about his birth, and he needs stability. Someone who can be steady for him. Regina is determined to be that person.

 

She heads back to her office, pondering all the ways that she can find Henry better friends. Grace has been spending time with Violet lately, but that means Ava, too, and Ava is hardly the kind of student who will be a good influence on Henry. It’s a tough grade, and…

 

She stops. Emma Swan is in her office. 

 

She’s sitting in Regina’s chair with her feet propped up on Regina’s desk, and Regina directs her worst glare at the other woman and shuts the door behind her. Imagine the students seeing Emma undermine her in her own office. Horrific . “Down,” she orders. 

 

“Wow,” Emma says. “I feel like one of your students.” She hums a bar of what sounds suspiciously like Van Halen’s Hot for Teacher and Regina stares at her, aggrieved. “I brought you…oat milk.” She proffers a package that she must have gotten delivered to the school. “Or something like that.” 

 

Regina takes it and looks inside. “These are oatmeal cookies.”

 

“Something like that,” Emma repeats smugly. Regina takes a cookie. Scowls at Emma. Eats the cookie. “I also got you a hot cocoa. WIth my secret ingredient–” 

 

“You told me it’s cinnamon,” Regina points out. “And it’s not very secret–” 

 

“Just like the perpetrator of the crossed-out vocabulary quiz,” Emma says easily, and Regina gives her a dirty look. “See, I know that I didn’t do it. And I couldn’t think of who else might have at first. But I’m not actually that dense. Just a little quixotic.” She winks at Regina, then says, “You wrote it in and crossed it out, didn’t you? Just to pick a fight with me.” 

 

Regina considers lying, but she sees very little point to it now. The truth seems far more dangerous, but it sits in front of them, immovable. She spreads her hands and says helplessly, “You know why.” Emma has been sleepwalking in misery for days, at the mercy of Henry’s fury and the school’s judgments, and she’d needed a jolt to get back to herself. Regina had missed her impossible, annoying, charming nemesis, and she’d only done what had been necessary.

 

Emma tilts her head and grins. “I know why,” she says, her voice teasing. “It’s because you’ve got a crush on me.” 

 

That Regina hadn’t been expecting, and she lets out an offended little gasp. “ Excuse me?” 

 

“You’ve got a crush on me,” Emma says in a singsong. “That’s so embarrassing for you. I bet you were heartbroken we didn’t get to dance at Homecoming.” It’s the first time Emma’s mentioned Homecoming without a chip the size of Texas on her shoulder, and Regina should really be focusing on that instead of spluttering at Emma’s insistences. “Don’t worry! The faculty holiday party is coming and I plan on getting very, very tipsy to get through it. You’ll get me there.” 

 

Regina shakes her head vigorously. “False. I do not–” But Emma’s eyes are sparkling, and Regina says, “You want me to lie to you?” Emma looks dubious, and then, Regina says without a modicum of thought, “I would if it kept your face that bright–”

 

She clamps her mouth shut, horrified at her own admission, and Emma’s face grows brighter still. 

 

She gets up, sidling around the desk to lean casually against it opposite Regina, and she drawls, “Now that sounds like crush behavior.” 

 

Regina refuses to allow herself to speak. Whatever she says is going to be bad , she knows it–

 

And, without a word, Emma’s eyes widen and she looks as though she’s been struck by lightning. “Oh, my god. You’ve actually got a crush on me,” she says, and there is a reverence past the playfulness, a note to it that doesn’t make Regina want to drop dead of sheer humiliation. Emma lifts a hand to Regina’s cheek, and Regina aches for her, wants desperately to move closer. “It’s okay,” Emma says hastily, her eyes still very wide. “I mean, it’s not like I haven’t wanted to– well, respectfully, obviously, not in a creepy way, but–”

 

“Emma,” Regina says, heaving an exasperated sigh. “Shut up and kiss me.” 

 

Emma breathes, “Yes, ma’am,” and leans in for a soft, gentle kiss. In that kiss, Regina can imagine a future, a relationship that might last and feelings that might be enough to carry her on for a lifetime. And then Emma’s kiss gets a little harder and she bites Regina’s lip, and Regina only sees stars. 

 

“Hang on ,” she says against Emma’s lips, letting out a little hiss, and she thrusts Emma forward, sends her stumbling back against the desk, and then steps back away from her. Emma looks wild-eyed, bewildered, and Regina holds up a hand and reaches behind her to lock the door.

 

Then, she shoves Emma forward and hoists her up as best as she can, pushing her onto the desk. “Ms. Mills ,” Emma says, and she tugs Regina closer, burying her hands in Regina’s hair. “How’d you know I’ve always wanted this–” 

 

“Why do you always talk so much ?” Regina demands in a hiss, and then– they are moving, too quickly to argue. Emma is up on Regina’s desk and kissing her soundly, her arms locked in tightly around Regina’s shoulders and head that Regina feels utterly encompassed by Emma. Regina licks Emma’s neck and slides her own hands under Emma’s shirt, tracing the planes of her abdominal muscles and letting her fingers dip down into Emma’s waistband.

 

Emma groans and reaches down to squeeze Regina’s ass, which sends another burst of arousal through Regina. Regina shifts forward, pushes Emma back, and– fuck, yes – manages to shove her jeans down enough to press her hand against Emma’s center.

 

Emma stares down at her from her spot on the desk, breathing hard, and she says, “We have to go back to class after this.” 

 

“I don’t care,” Regina says through gritted teeth, and she is desperate, desperate to touch Emma and lose herself in her. Emma kisses her hard, rucks her shirt up and pops one button– a nightmare , except that Regina’s jacket should hide it– and then mouths her breasts over her bra. Regina shudders and massages Emma’s center, thrusts the heel of her hand into Emma’s still-clothed clit, feels Emma suck hard in response–

 

And the warning bell rings, loudly and obnoxiously, and absolutely kills the mood. 

 

Regina’s hand pauses. Emma’s mouth detaches from Regina’s breast, which is a tragedy in itself, but her hands graze Regina’s skin and Regina suddenly can’t seem to remember why she’d stopped touching Emma. “We should…” Emma says, struggling for words. Regina traces patterns into her thighs. “We should play hooky,” Emma manages to finish. “Just leave.” 

 

“No,” Regina says, and she slides her hand through Emma’s hair, letting her ponytail flow free into pretty waves that should never be constrained. “We should quit,” she decides.

 

“Ooh. Bold decision.” Emma sighs when Regina kisses her, wriggles up against Regina where she’s still sitting on the desk. “I can sue em over this pen that I think just stabbed me repeatedly in the thigh. We could settle for enough to give up on teaching. Spend a few years just doing this.” 

 

Regina luxuriates in the kisses, in the touches, in a closeness unlike anything she’s had in a long, long time. “You’d miss it.” 

 

“Mm. I’d miss this more,” Emma says. This is nothing like their last kiss, the one in the car that had been out of place and had never officially happened. This is playful, something that comes with the promise of more. “The kids are great. Math is great. This, though?” This appears to be Regina’s cleavage, which Emma is still caressing longingly. “This is better.” 

 

“But is it better than picking fights with me in the middle of the hallway during homeroom?” Regina counters.

 

Emma ponders. “I’ve always considered that foreplay.” 

 

Regina puffs out a little laugh. “Of course you did.” She bites Emma’s shoulder, because she can and because she’s wanted to for the past three years. “Imagine missing out on that. And the kids. And the…math, I suppose.” 

 

“Don’t lie to me,” Emma whispers in her ear. “Math is turning you on right now.” She licks the shell of Regina’s ear, and Regina winces.

 

“You’re never going to get the girl if you keep talking about math,” she says, but she interrupts her own insistence with a little groan that has Emma smug and laughing at her, joyful in their lack of inhibition. “Maybe with that tongue,” she concedes.

 

Victory ,” Emma says. The second bell rings, the start of their next period, and there’s a knock at the door.

 

“Ms. Mills?” It’s Robin , which is a situation, because Robin is the single student in the school who will respond to a “go away! ” with: A) a simple “ no? ” and B) passing on the incident to Regina’s sister, who will assume the worst.

 

Or the best.

 

Regina pulls reluctantly from the desk and turns to the mirror behind the door, running her hands through her hair until she’s satisfied while Emma ties her hair back again and slides off the desk. Robin knocks again, tries the door, discovers it’s locked. “Ms. Mills,” she repeats insistently, then in a low voice, “ Aunt Regina . Mom said she sent my bio papers with you–”

 

Regina pulls the door open. “Right,” she says, and she smooths down her jacket and tries her best to look innocent. Behind her, Emma has suddenly found a staff memo on Regina’s desk fascinating. “It’s in my bag.” 

 

Robin stares at them, her eyes narrowed, and Emma gives her a wan little wave. “Hey, Robin. Just delivering this cocoa to your aunt.” She points to the now-cold cup.

 

“With the door locked,” Robin says, arching an eyebrow. “Sure.” 

 

Regina says, “I can and will blackmail you for your silence.” 

 

“Really subtle, Mills,” Emma says, and Regina wonders, not for the first time, what she sees in that aggravating child

 

And wonders, not for the first time, why she can’t stop smiling.

 


 

Felix is already sick of the scrawny little Brooke runt that Peter has taken under his wing. He’s one of those quiet nerdy types, and neither of them has ever had any use for one of those before. But Henry Brooke is interesting , according to Peter. Peter likes interesting people.

 

Sure. Felix can tolerate Henry for another few days until everyone gets sick of his sob story and the weird connection to Ms. Swan. Peter likes Ms. Swan, but Felix has never been all that impressed by her, either. She’s just another teacher who tries too hard and acts like school should be fun, which… please .

 

Henry’s only redeeming quality is that he seems just as unmoved by Ms. Swan as Felix is. “I don’t really care that she was my mom for, like, ten seconds,” he says, shrugging, and Felix eyes him suspiciously. He can’t imagine anyone just shrugging off a secret mother like that, but Henry’s a weird kid. “She still sucks as a teacher. I don’t know how we’re supposed to be learning when it’s just Ms. Swan trying to be entertaining at the front of the classroom for forty-five minutes a day.”

 

“I’d rather be entertained than learn math,” Peter says, yawning. “And somehow, I come out of it with a lot more math than I’d planned to.” He shrugs. “Good teacher.” 

 

“Good teacher,” Michael Darling agrees. Wendy nods in cheerful agreement, and Peter looks satisfied. 

 

Felix is already bored of the conversation, and he scans the cafeteria, looking for something more interesting. There’s that pretty eighth grader, Jacinda, chatting up another pretty eighth grader, Rogers, and Felix snorts and looks away before Peter makes more comments about him staring at a guy. One of the seventh grade teachers is putting the fear of god into a table of her students, and creepy Mr. Gold is leaning against a wall and watching antsy students hurry past. 

 

An unfamiliar man catches Felix’s eye as he makes his way across the cafeteria, and Felix watches him until he’s sure that he’s headed in their direction. “Guys,” Felix mutters, and Peter looks up, eyebrows raised at the man as he reaches their table.

 

“Hello,” he says, eyeing them speculatively, “I’m Mr. Spencer. I’m a member of the school board. I was told that Henry Brooke is sitting here?” 

 

Peter pats Henry on the shoulder, “Here’s our boy,” he says genially. “What can he do for you?” 

 

“I’m leading the investigation on Ms. Swan,” Spencer says, and Felix perks up. An investigation sounds interesting, at least, a nice change of pace. “I thought it would be instructive to hear from you first.” He has that cloying tone of an adult trying to win over a kid he has only disdain for, and Felix watches him warily. “Has there ever been a time when you’ve felt that Ms. Swan has treated you differently because of your history with her?” 

 

Henry shrugs. Spencer says, his voice grating, “Are you getting good grades in her class? Do you feel uncomfortable around her?” He turns to face the rest of them. “Do any of you feel uncomfortable around Ms. Swan?” He eyes Wendy in particular, the only girl at the table. “Has she ever made any comments on your appearance?” 

 

“She once complimented my earrings?” Wendy says, twirling said earring with a careless finger. 

 

Spencer writes that down. “Does she often comment on students’ attire?”

 

“Mostly she comments on Ms. Mills’s attire,” Felix mutters, and he winces when Spencer’s eyes turn to him. “No,” he amends hastily. “Not really.” He isn’t enough of an idiot to start up with Ms. Mills. 

 

“She once told me that I have the face of a horror movie child villain,” Peter remembers, grinning. “That was on the nose .” Felix had been outraged at it, but Peter had just laughed. That’s Peter.

 

Spencer does not write that down. “Do you feel as though she favors the girls in your classes?” he says, eyes sharp. “Is it true that a group of girls go to her classroom after school every day?” 

 

Henry speaks up for the first time since Spencer had arrived, his voice abrupt. “I thought you were investigating her relationship with me , not with other girls,” he says. Felix eyes him surreptitiously. For someone who hates Ms. Swan, he sounds almost protective.

 

Spencer blinks. “Yes, well. We need some sort of comparison for how she treats you,” he says, running his thumbs over his phone where he’s been writing. “Your names, please?”

 

Peter jabs a thumb at Wendy. “She’s Ava Tillman,” he lies, and Henry’s face grows stormy. “I’m…Rogers. What’s my first name?” he says in a mock whisper. “Faaa–” he starts, and Spencer squints at them suspiciously.

 

“Hmph,” he says, and he stalks off to interrogate other students. 

 

Henry says, “Why did you give him Ava’s name?” 

 

“Come on, Brooke,” Peter says, patting him on the back. “I did it for you. I saw your girlfriend all over that girl at Homecoming.” He sneers, finding the table where Grace and Ava are sitting with those other chicks from the other grades. “And now she’s, like, officially one of the queers.” 

 

Wendy rolls her eyes. “Come on, Peter.” Felix hunches his shoulders and sneers with Peter. 

 

Peter squints at them. “You know what’s weird, though? They’re all so…subpar. Average-looking at best. I thought dykes were supposed to be sexier than that.”

 

Felix feels obligated to say, “Cindy’s pretty okay looking.” He does not mention Rogers. “The rest are kind of hideous. Or just boring.”

 

Peter laughs. “Boring at best .” He puts an arm around Henry, which makes Felix seethe just a tiny bit. Henry doesn’t even appreciate Peter. He’s looking more and more unhappy by the moment. “Henry, you probably know plenty about this stuff, right? Now that you have a dyke mom–” 

 

Henry jumps him. Felix doesn’t track the moment until it’s already happening, until Peter’s chair is tipping over and little Henry has his fists in Peter’s face, bloodying it as Felix gapes at him.

 

“Hey. Hey!” The third of the Darling triplets leaps from his seat, grabbing at Henry, and the rest of the table follows. There’s a pileup that attracts the teachers on cafeteria duty, and Felix sits in his seat and placidly eats his gross cafeteria pizza as the rest of his table devolves into anarchy.

 

“Enough! Break it up!” The teachers yank kids aside, peeling them off the pileup until there’s just the bottom two. “That’s it !” 

 

Peter’s perfect face is bruised, his nose bloody and his lip swelling up, and Henry looks worse for the wear, too. Creepy Gold is the one to look between them, his eyes narrowed. “What happened here?” he demands, and Henry glares back at him with fire in his eyes and his fists still clenched. Don’t really care, my ass . Surprisingly, it sparks a little bit of fondness for the weird little kid who’d thought he could take on Peter. 

 

Not too much fondness, though. He’s no Peter.

 

Felix says obligingly, “Brooke started it,” and takes another bite of pizza.

Chapter Text

Henry Brooke got in a fight and got suspended from school , according to the rumors. Violet doesn’t know much about it– she stays as far away from those kids as possible– but she has heard plenty from Robin and Grace, who converse in low tones on Wednesday under the overhang in front of the school building. “From what I heard, the school called in Ms. Blanchard because they didn’t know who they were supposed to call. And she just kind of let it happen. She didn’t fight for Henry at all,” Robin says, wrinkling her nose.

 

Grace blinks at her. “How do you know all of that?” Robin shrugs. “Anyway, Henry told me that it wasn’t a big deal. Peter was being a jerk about…” She motions at them all. “Us.” 

 

“Not what I heard from Felix,” Rogers says, frowning. “He said that Peter made some comment about Ms. Swan and Henry just jumped him.”

 

Jacinda raises her eyebrows. “You talk to Felix a lot?” 

 

Rogers shrugs. “He lives down the block. He’s a dumb kid.”  

 

“Not as dumb as Henry,” Ava decides, but she sounds gleeful. “Did you see what he did to Peter’s ugly face? No one deserves it more.” 

 

Which– yeah . Peter is the kind of guy where you know that he’s talking about you under his breath, but he always has a smile when he talks directly to you. Violet had kissed a girl at summer camp and he’d seen it and then spread obnoxious rumors about her after that. He definitely deserves it. 

 

“Have you seen Henry since?” she asks Grace, pulling herself up onto the big stone half-gate at the top of the stairs.

 

“Just talked on the phone. Ms. Mills grounded him. Bet she wouldn’t have if she’d known that he was defending Ms. Swan, though,” Grace says, eyes dancing.

 

“Shh,” Sabine hisses, and they all turn, casual, to watch as Ms. Swan’s bright yellow car pulls into the parking lot. At the moment that she arrives, a black car veers across the parking lot to take Ms. Swan’s usual spot, and Ms. Mills emerges from her car, looking smug.

 

She strides up the stairs toward the door, and then she pauses. Violet is abruptly sure that she is waiting for Ms. Swan to catch up, and she is validated when Ms. Swan appears and comes running up the stairs, panting. “You’re such an asshole,” Ms. Swan says in a low voice, but she sounds amused.

 

Violet tilts her head and watches them out of the corner of her eye. She has a better vantage point from the gate than any of the others, and Ms. Swan and Ms. Mills haven’t noticed her yet. There is something about the way that they’re standing–

 

It’s different , though you wouldn’t notice it unless you spend a lot of time watching them. Ms. Swan looks brighter than she has in days, and she’s standing just a little too close to Ms. Mills, her hand brushing against Ms. Mills’s side. And Ms. Mills is smirking, but there is a strange warmth in her eyes. “You had it coming,” she says to Ms. Swan, and Ms. Swan lets out a little bark of laughter.

 

She swallows it after a moment, and then she says, her voice uncertain, “How’s Henry doing?” 

 

“Sullen. Irritable.” Ms. Mills shakes her head. “Won’t explain to me what happened. I’ve told him that I know that he wouldn’t have attacked Peter without cause, but he’s been tight-lipped about the whole thing.” She sighs. “I thought about grounding him, but he’d…”

 

“...just run away, yeah,” Ms. Swan agrees tiredly. She looks unhappy and uncomfortable, and Violet thinks again about what it means that she’s Henry’s mom. Sort of. Henry totally hates her, according to Ava, and Violet has seen a little bit of it, too, but Ms. Swan acts like she’s afraid of Henry. “I…I should go to class,” she says abruptly.

 

Emma .” Ms. Mills touches Ms. Swan’s arm, holds it loosely between her fingers, and Violet thinks, oh . There is something so familiar about the movement, something that makes Violet’s heart quiver and her throat ache with indecipherable emotion. Is it ridiculous to read so much into a single interaction? To feel it in the palpable affection in the wind? But suddenly, Violet is sure of something she can’t vocalize, and she takes a breath. 

 

Ms. Swan breathes, too, a ragged breath that has Robin and Alice exchanging glances, and she says in a low voice, “I’ll see you later, okay? I have something to take care of before class.” She doesn’t remove her arm from Ms. Mills’s grasp, not until Ms. Mills lets it drop, and she leads the way up the stairs.

 

And Violet, who has always prided herself in the ability to blend into the background, decides to speak up as they walk past. “He was defending you, you know,” she says to Ms. Swan, who stops short.

 

“I’m sorry?” She glances at Violet, politely puzzled. 

 

Violet shrugs. “Peter said something rude about you. That’s what I heard.” She’s careful not to look at the others and give away her sources, but she watches Ms. Swan steadily and hears the little intake of breath from Ms. Mills. 

 

Ms. Swan shakes her head. Her eyes look wide and unguarded for a moment, and Violet is uncomfortable and looks away. When she looks back, Ms. Swan is inscrutable. “You must have heard wrong,” she says, and she disappears into the building.

 

By the time class starts, she’s back to herself, cheerful and an open book. “Inside, inside,” she says when Ava lurks by the door. “We have work to do! Just kidding. I have toys.” She holds up a box of manipulatives. “Let’s kick some fractional butt.” 

 

Violet likes math, likes seeing pieces come together and answers materialize through logic and formulas. She hadn’t liked math until this year, but Ms. Swan makes it much less agonizing than it could be, a jolt of energy in a humdrum day. There is no hint of the woman from the stairs who had closed herself off in an instant, and Violet entertains the unnerving possibility that the Ms. Swan that she sees every day is a mask, too.

 

No . Ms. Swan is genuine about everything except, perhaps, her perpetual cheerfulness, and she really does like the classroom. No one could pretend to care about students like she does. “So multiplying fractions is a drag,” she acknowledges, poking Violet in the arm. “But if you–” 

 

Swan! ” The cry comes from the next classroom, right through the wall between them, and Ms. Swan’s smile grows. And that is a genuine smile, Violet is positive.

 

“Oops,” Ms. Swan says, and Ms. Mills storms into the room.

 

She’s holding something in her hand, and a few students clutch their manipulatives and scurry away from her. “A spider ?” she demands.

 

Ms. Swan points at herself. “A Swan,” she corrects Ms. Mills.

 

Ms. Mills looks unamused. “Why are there multiple fake spiders in my desk drawers? Are you a twelve-year-old boy?” 

 

“Hey,” protests Nick, but no one pays him any heed. 

 

“It’s mid-October, Regina,” Ms. Swan says, her eyes sparkling. “It’s festive. Did you shriek?” 

 

“Emma–” 

 

Ms. Swan turns to whisper to Violet, loudly and exaggeratedly, “I heard her shriek.” 

 

“That was a cry of outrage, you buffoon.” But Ms. Mills’s eye roll doesn’t have the same fire behind it, and Violet eyes her dubiously. There is something about them today that’s different, though she can’t put her finger on it. Maybe it’s in Ms. Mills’s gaze. Maybe it’s Ms. Swan calling her Regina

 

“Where’s your holiday spirit?” Ms. Swan says, plucking a new spider out of nowhere. She pats Ms. Mills’s shoulder and it stays there, stuck to her jacket.

 

Ms. Mills doesn’t notice it. “Waiting for Christmas, not Halloween ,” she says dryly.

 

Ms. Swan tilts her head. “Is that a request to put up mistletoe? Because I can arrange that.” 

 

Ms. Mills lets out an aggrieved sigh. “I don’t know why I put up with you,” she says, and another clue slots into place in Violet’s head. It has to be. They have to be…

 

“It’s her charming personality and that princess hair,” says Ava, who is incapable of keeping her mouth shut to let their teachers have a moment . Violet eyes her and contemplates homicide, then decides against it when Ms. Mills laughs.

 

Laughs! Eyes sparkling, face bright, a hand brushing against Ms. Swan’s back– to affix the spider from her shoulder onto Ms. Swan, Violet notices– and says, “Ms. Tillman, you are dangerously close to a demerit right now.” 

 

But she saunters from the room, Ms. Swan watching her unabashedly, and Violet is so, so positive that they’re going to vanish to Ms. Mills’s office between periods to make out. 

 

Finally .

 


 

Henry is restrained that evening when Regina had expected him to be brimming with energy from a day doing nothing. “I went out for a walk after I ate lunch,” he says in explanation. “It was fine.” 

 

“You’re allowed back on Friday,” Regina reminds him. “And I do expect you to call Grace and find out what material you’ve missed.” She thinks about what Violet had said about Henry defending Emma, and she almost asks him–

 

But she doesn’t, wary of spooking him. Henry sits next to her at the coffee table in her study, flipping through the paragraphs that his classmates had written today. “This one makes no sense,” he says, squinting at Michael’s. “He was supposed to use two vocabulary words. Instead, he only used one and then unicycle instead of unique –”

 

“Is that what he was trying to say?”

 

Henry bobs his head. “Not well ,” he says, wrinkling his nose. “His paragraph is a mess. I’d flunk him,” he offers, and Regina eyes him, remembers that Michael had been one of the boys who’d jumped Henry in the cafeteria, and reconsiders the wisdom of letting Henry read these papers. At least if he’d heard them in the classroom, he’d have phrased that more politely.

 

Maybe. Henry isn’t exactly a master of tact.

 

“What did you think of Grace’s story?” Regina says, pushing that one to him. 

 

“It’s good. Not very creative.” Henry pulls out another story. “See, Violet’s probably the best writer in the class, even though Grace is a better essayist. She does cool stuff with description that I can’t do.” He looks wistful. “I bet she’s going to be a writer someday.” 

 

Regina nudges him. “I bet you are, too.” Henry looks unconvinced, and Regina says, “You have a gift. If you recognize that– and if you find inspiration in better writing instead of letting it discourage you– it’ll take you far.” 

 

“Yeah.” Henry rubs his side and then winces, setting the papers down. “I guess.”

 

Regina glances down at his side. “Does it still hurt there?” Peter has been suspended, too, but she’d still had to restrain herself when she’d seen his flunkies in class today, laughing as though they hadn’t jumped on Henry yesterday. Henry had insisted that he’s fine, but–

 

“Just a little bruised,” Henry mumbles, rolling up his shirt a little so Regina can see the angry, purpling mark beneath it. Regina grits her teeth, and Henry looks alarmed.

 

She forces herself to breathe. “You should lie down,” she says. “Let it heal. I’ll move to the desk so you can have the couch–” 

 

“No,” Henry says quickly, and his hands tighten around the papers. He looks embarrassed at his own hasty response. “I don’t want you to get up,” he says in a low voice. “It’s fine. I’m fine.”

 

“You aren’t in trouble,” Regina reminds him. “I don’t know why you– I don’t know why the fight started–” She peeks at him, sees the dip of his eyes as they go carefully blank. “But I do know that you’re not someone who punches another boy for no reason. If you want to talk about it…” She lets her voice trail off, lays a hand on Henry’s shoulder.

 

He doesn’t pull away, but he doesn’t answer, either. Regina clears her throat, and the oven lets out a loud beeping noise from the kitchen. “Dinner is ready,” she says, and Henry follows her slowly to the kitchen.

 

He eats carefully around her. She knows that he had wolfed down her lunches for years, enough that he must like them, but he eats very little at the table with her and glances up at her as though he’s waiting to have it taken from him. There is a delicacy to his movements, an uncertainty that hadn’t been there before.

 

She wars with the impulse to blame his new environment, but Archie has cautioned her against it. He’s just gone through the most harrowing experience of his life thanks to someone he thought of as a mother , he’d said. Let him adjust at his own pace

 

He doesn’t talk about it, either, but when she says, “Once you’re caught up on schoolwork, we can sit and watch something together. If you’d like,” he smiles at her and she feels, for a moment, certain that Archie is right.

 

He goes to bed a little after ten, and she tidies up after him and feels the swooping sensation in her heart that accompanies every time it dawns on her what she’s finally gotten. There is a little boy living in her house right now, a boy whom she’d longed for for over a decade. It isn’t official yet– there is paperwork to fill out, of course, and hoops to jump through before he can be fostered by her– but it is a start, and she is going to do this right.

 

She has an obligation to Henry, one she’s always felt, but not once has it occurred to her when he’s around. Loving him comes instinctively, like muscle memory, and this is the closest it’ll ever be to how it should be.

 

There is a soft knock at the front door, and Regina goes to open it, her heart warming more even as she hisses, “What are you doing here?” She slips outside and closes the door firmly behind her, darting one anxious look up at the window to Henry’s bedroom.

 

Emma looks abashed. “Sorry. I just…I wanted to see how he was doing.” She chews on her lip, and Regina contemplates her for a moment. Emma is, at times, like the sixth graders she teaches, rocking on her heels and so anxious that Regina almost wants to reprove her and give her a demerit. “I didn’t think he’d want me inside.”

 

“You could have called,” Regina says, but she is already softening, already desperate to find a reason to have Emma here with her.

 

Emma blinks at her as though the idea has only just occurred to her. “Oh. Right. I guess so.” She buries her hands in her pockets and then says, “So how is he?” 

 

“He’s…fine,” Regina says. “Withdrawn. I don’t really know how my house has been any better for him than anyone else’s, but–” She can feel the frustrated tears emerging with just that admission, more than she’s given anyone else. Emma takes a step forward, touches her cheek, and Regina is overwhelmed with a wash of conflicted affection that only makes her throat even more clogged. “I don’t know what to–”

 

“This is what he needs,” Emma murmurs. “Know that.”

 

“I don’t.” And the conflicted affection bursts into frustration. “This isn’t what he needs. You can’t come here and insist that you care – that this is what he needs – when we both know that what he needs is for you to–” She’s suddenly furious with Emma, with this entire situation. “I know you were a child. I know . But now you’re an adult, and he’s a child, and he just wants to understand –” 

 

Emma is already shaking her head, her face going tight and her eyes closing off as she retrieves her hand from Regina’s cheek. “No,” she says, and Regina balls up her hands into fists and wards off more unreasonable fury. “He knows what he needs to.” 

 

“Then we have nothing more to speak about,” Regina snaps, and it’s so sharp and automatic that she doesn’t rethink it until Emma is standing still, her hands in her pockets again, staring at her with that emotionless face. Regina is torn in two, between an obligation that is everything and a woman who looks very small, and she turns around to go inside as Emma doesn’t move. 

 

She turns back around. “Please,” she says in a whisper, and she glides forward until she is standing in front of Emma, until Emma’s breath is cool on her lips. “Please, think about it–” 

 

Emma only lifts her chin, lips parting, and Regina kisses them and feels the weight that sits between them. She holds her there, feels Emma quake, shivers with her and holds her tighter. Regina doesn’t understand, either, feels as confused as Henry even with the benefit of age and a little more perspective, but she feels for Emma, too, split between two people who both seem so desperately to need her. 

 

And when she parts, there they are: Emma, her eyes still trained on Regina, and Henry in the doorway with anguished, furious eyes on Emma. “You…you’re together ?” he says, and in it is a note of disgust and hurt, of abject betrayal. “That’s a real thing?” 

 

Emma says, “Henry–” and Henry jerks to life. 

 

“Go away,” he says, his voice rising. “Go away !” His fists are balled up, Regina notices suddenly, his little body shaking. “Why are you always here?” he demands, and Emma takes a step back. “Why do you have to be everywhere?” 

 

Emma shakes her head, and Regina watches helplessly, torn. Henry is shouting now, is too loud, too angry, unleashing a barrage of fury on Emma, and Emma takes it in silence. “You don’t get to come here. You don’t get to say my name! Just get the fuck out of my life!” 

 

And it’s enough , even from a conflicted child. There have to be limits. “Henry!” Regina says sharply, and her voice is harder than she’d meant for it to be, a little less sympathetic.

 

Henry looks at her, wide-eyed, and flees back into the house, past the foyer and into the kitchen.

 

Regina squeezes her eyes shut, takes a breath, feels like the worst person ever. “I have to–” 

 

“Yeah.” Emma doesn’t budge. “He’s a runner,” she says. “You take your eyes off him and he’ll be out of the house–”

 

It registers suddenly that Henry hadn’t run up the stairs but toward the kitchen, an odd decision for a boy in the throes of fury and fear, and that the kitchen is where her back door is located. “Henry?” Regina says, and Emma follows her into the house, drawn by the panic in her voice. “Henry!” 

 

The back door is open, Henry a figure disappearing into the trees behind the house.

 


 

They chase him until he’s far out of sight, and then they regroup at the house. Emma is still silent, still withdrawn, and Regina says, “Stay here. I know where he is.” 

 

She doesn’t, not exactly, and Emma gives her a knowing look. Regina scoffs at her. She has guesses , at least– the clock tower, the school, the diner, even Blanchard’s house. There are only so many places in the town where a little boy might hide.

 

But Emma understands Henry– really does , as much as they both might deny it. There is a thread that connects them as surely as it connects Henry to Regina, and it’s why Regina listens when Emma says quietly, “He’ll go where he feels safe.” 

 

And there is only one horrible, sad place to go after that. 

 

Emma lingers in the street when Regina ducks through the jagged bits of glass that still poke out of the door frame of the ice cream shop. She doesn’t see him at first– feels a little breath of irrational relief, then lets out a sob of despair– and then Henry says, “I’m in the back.”

 

He’s sitting on the floor next to the counter, his knees up and his chin planted onto them. His eyes are red-rimmed, and he tightens his grip around his knees. “It’s fine,” he says. “I’ll go get my stuff together. I can go back to Ms. Blanchard.” 

 

Regina stares at him, this little boy sitting in the place where he feels safest– in the old haunt of a woman who had kidnapped him. Here is Henry, sitting in a place that should only hold trauma for him, and he is speaking about leaving again.

 

She stumbles through the papers that they’d strewn over the floor while searching for Henry last Friday, and she kicks off her heels and sits down beside him. He doesn’t look up at her, his chin still on his knees, and she says, her voice strained, “Why would you come here?”

 

Henry shrugs, still avoiding her eyes. “I know she was a bad guy,” he says. “And that she didn’t really know who I was. But she…she wanted me,” he whispers, and tears spill out of his eyes. “She wanted me so much." And then, another revelation from a boy who hasn’t given her anything all week. “I wish I’d stayed with her. I don’t care what would have happened to me–” 

 

“Henry, no ,” Regina says. Her voice is thick, and she can’t quite get the words out. Henry watches her, and Regina shakes her head, pushes past the careful, formal way that they’ve been playacting all week and gives him something real. “Maybe you don’t care what might have happened to you,” she says, and she feels raw and heartbroken at that, furious and drowning in an emotion that she so rarely experiences. “But I do. I always have–”

 

Henry shrugs again, and Regina is seized again by that indescribable emotion, mixed with fury. “Don’t you dare ,” she says fiercely. “Don’t you dare shrug off what I’ve…I wanted to be your mother , Henry. I’ve loved you for twelve years .” Henry looks at her at last, stares at her with wet, uncertain eyes. “Don’t tell me that she’s the only one who wanted you. She was a dream. I’m real, Henry. I’m–” 

 

Oh, fuck , she’s crying now, every last bit of her carefully crafted image gone in an instant. “My mother has been gone for years. I could have…I could have adopted another child, if I’d wanted. A baby, even.” Henry recoils as though he’s been slapped, and Regina seizes his sleeve, makes sure he doesn’t go. “I didn’t . The son I wanted was always there, just out of reach. And I’ll be damned if I let him go again.” 

 

She is a disaster, humiliating herself with a wash of emotion, of unvarnished love that she has never been stupid enough to reveal to anyone. She is only going to prove to Henry that she isn’t fit to be his mother or anyone’s mother, that Ms. Mills the iron-willed teacher is just an illusion of a frightened girl who has never been allowed to give herself so readily to someone else. 

 

She lets his sleeve go. Emma is somewhere outside, can catch Henry before he runs off again. She will figure this out somehow, this hostile boy who must have just lost all respect for her, and she will find a way to give him everything he needs, even if he hates her. “If you make me choose– if it’s Emma that made you run–” She blinks away more tears, feels even closer to despair at what she has to say next, and she wonders at the creeping sensation of even more emotion when she says Emma’s name. “I can tell her to stay away,” she says, and it breaks her even more. “I can–” 

 

A hand lands on her lap, small and decisive. “No,” Henry whispers, and he looks up at her in disbelief, his eyes shining and his voice hoarse. “You really love me?” 

 

“Since the moment I saw you,” Regina says, and she closes her hands around Henry’s, holds it tightly and refuses to let go. “You’re not going anywhere , do you understand? Whatever it takes–” 

 

“I don’t want you to make Ms. Swan stay away,” Henry says, and he looks suddenly afraid. “I don’t want her to–” He stops, choking over the words, and Regina takes a breath and feels like the adult again, like the person who still holds these two tattered threads to each other.

 

“You don’t want her to go,” Regina finishes in a whisper, and she holds Henry’s hand tighter, chooses her words carefully. “It’s okay to want to be around her, sweetheart.” She huffs out a rueful breath. “No matter how hard we might try, Ms. Swan just can’t help but make us care the way that she does.” 

 

Something sparks in Henry’s eyes, and he leans into Regina’s side. She feels it like she had when he’d run into her arms at the police station, like she’s almost something that might be, someday, a mother. 

 

She lets go of his hand to wrap her arm around him, and he snuggles into her side. The two of them are holding onto each other on the floor of a vandalized storefront in the middle of the night, and Regina has never felt this close to peace.

 


 

Emma should leave. Like, she gets that. Regina hadn’t said it exactly, but it had been obvious in how she’d phrased things and how she’d moved– a step ahead of Emma, as though she’d been trying to get far enough in front of her that she could subtly lose her. 

 

But she doesn’t. Instead, she lingers in front of the ice cream shop and paces a little, does some stretches, sits on a bench and then gets up, wanders to the end of the block and then back, and stands in place in front of the door, her toe tapping a rhythm against the pavement. 

 

It’s a half hour before she sees the first sign of movement, of Henry’s head appearing behind the counter in the shop and then disappearing again as he bends to help Regina up. Regina grows another few inches– her shoes, Emma guesses– and then they are walking out of the shop toward her. 

 

And she should leave. That’s the whole point . She’d surrendered her right to be around Henry twelve years ago, and the whole… thing with Regina is definitely over if Henry and Regina are walking like this, hand-in-hand, and Henry is smiling up at Regina. It’s what she deserves, and she’s self-aware enough to recognize that.

 

Regina doesn’t look surprised to see her, and Henry only gazes at her with an unreadable gaze. Their hands slip apart for a moment, and Regina walks to Emma and, deliberately, presses a kiss to her lips. Emma stumbles, startled, and forgets to kiss her back. Regina just laughs.

 

She looks younger now, freer, like the girl she’d been when Emma had still been in school and had heard that she’d been trying to adopt Henry. Emma had peered at her in the diner when Snow had casually pointed her out, had seen a girl only a few years older than her with eyes that had sparkled as she’d held Henry in her arms, and Emma had fallen a tiny bit in love with her right then. 

 

Not that she’s in love . But there had been something so enchanting about Regina even back then, and Emma had thought that baby is going to love his mother so much and then she’d fled the diner and avoided seeing her again.

 

She hadn’t recognized her as Henry’s almost-mother when she’d begun at Storybrooke Middle School, though there had been that same dumbstruck sensation when she’d seen her pretty face. She’d been dry-throated and in awe as Regina had smiled coolly to her, then stared as Emma hadn’t been able to take her eyes off of the other woman. Then she’d said is there a problem? stiffly and Emma had been so stupefied that she’d seized for something to say and wound up with you learned that fake smile from your mom, huh?

 

It had been a joke, something to dispel the tension. As it had turned out, it had been exactly the wrong thing to say. Regina had pretty much hated her for the past two-and-a-bit years over it. 

 

Today, she doesn’t look at Emma like she hates her. She looks at her like there’s something bright and beautiful ahead of them, and she looks bright and beautiful herself. “Thanks for waiting for us,” she murmurs, and then she looks at Henry and nods. “I’ll be at the house.” 

 

It’s an invitation, but Emma realizes a moment later that it isn’t for her. Regina walks away, and Henry remains behind, staring up at her with his eyes still sharp and questioning. 

 

He doesn’t ask for an explanation again. Instead, he says, “I know that you’re a good person. And that you…you care about people. And there’s something that Ms. Mills said that made me think…” 

 

Emma can’t respond, can only school her features to say nothing at all. Henry isn’t dissuaded. “So I guess the only reason that I can think of that you’re not telling me the stuff I want to know has to be that you’re protecting me,” he says, and Emma shakes her head vigorously, thinks no, no, no

 

She says, “Maybe I’m protecting myself,” and Henry just watches her.

 

“You don’t ever do that,” he says, and Emma thinks stop, stop, stop .

 

But he doesn’t stop. He toys with his fingers and stares at her, unwavering. Emma is struck for a moment by his eyes, by the calm wisdom within them. Henry has always been precocious, but the last few weeks have aged him, too, given him insight that she’d never wanted him to have. “I thought about it. It’s gotta be my dad, right?” he says. “That’s what you’re trying to hide from me.” He leans forward, still a boy. “Is he someone I know? Is he a murderer? Is he in jail? Or, like, famous for something horrible–” She can see him struggling to think of the worst thing he can think of, and she steps in before she succumbs to his imagination.

 

“No,” she says quietly. “He was…just an ordinary, terrible guy.” Henry is quiet, staring up at her, and she is struck by endless weariness. “I ran away from a foster home when I was sixteen,” she says. “I tried to steal a car and he was already in it.” She remembers him like he’s still standing in front of her, that sandy-blonde hair and the arrogant smirk. “I wound up staying with him for a while, and we…” She gestures helplessly, reluctant to say anything more to Henry. 

 

She hadn’t been attracted to him, but she had been attracted to freedom , to living on her own without foster parents or siblings. She’d done what she’d needed to to keep herself afloat, and that had meant withstanding his slaps that had become punches, the days spent locked in his apartment like she’d been a child who couldn’t be let out.

 

“Eventually, I realized that I was pregnant,” she murmurs, and she shivers. “I knew I couldn’t stay there. I didn’t care if I’d been treated like crap, but I couldn’t do that to the baby.” Henry watches her solemnly, and she lets herself think for a moment what the baby means now. How the little infant she’d bundled into a box at the foot of the passenger seat is now four foot four and has an imagination beyond her. How the baby she’d pushed out of herself on the side of the road now has eyes that can sear her with only a glance.

 

What had she known then? Only a boy she hadn’t named, because he hadn’t felt real. Blood and pain and then fumbling for her penknife to cut a cord, howling on the side of the road in her stolen car and so weak that she’d nearly sought out a hospital. She hadn’t– couldn’t , not when they would ask too many questions and the idea of her boyfriend or a social worker finding her had been worse than the agony of childbirth. She remembers healing, sobbing, eating nothing but a box of cereal and water for days while she’d struggled to nurse the baby. Duckling , she’d called him, her trusting little companion, and then it had seemed the most natural thing to call herself Emma Swan after that.

 

“He didn’t eat at first. And then, finally, he did,” she remembers, leaning back against the wall of the shop. Henry still watches her, listening, and she leaves spaces between words and then has to fill them with her own chatter. “But I wasn’t making enough milk. He was so hungry. And then he got sick. Coughing and screaming like something was so wrong…” She gulps in a breath. “I would have made do. I would have kept you forever if I hadn’t thought that I was killing you.”

 

She shakes her head. “I was sixteen , Henry. I was a scared kid who was just trying to give you everything I could. I didn’t abandon you. I found you this…amazing, loving town and left you with people who could help you. And then I tried to leave and…” She shrugs helplessly. “I couldn’t go. I went away to school and I still came back. I used to hang out in the diner for hours just to see you. I didn’t abandon you,” she says again. “I just gave you your best chance.” 

 

Henry finally speaks. “My best chance sucked ,” he says fervently, and Emma quails under his accusation. But his voice softens. “Doesn’t sound like you got a chance at all, though.” He ducks his head. “I wish you’d told me before.” 

 

“Yeah.” Emma bites her lip. “I think I probably should have.” She tries for a smile, but it emerges strained and sad. “I understand why you don’t want me around,” she says, and she takes a breath. “But I meant what I said to you last week. Back before…I’m going to be here for you, now that I can. If you never want to see me again. I’m not going anywhere.” 

 

Henry is silent for an interminable moment, and Emma is ready to imagine it– his hostile face at the front of her classroom for the rest of the year. His fury if she dares to go near Regina, and her stomach drops when she contemplates keeping her distance from Regina forever, for Henry’s sake. When she contemplates Henry’s relationship with her lasting in this way from here on out.

 

Henry says, “Good,” and Emma exhales so loudly that they both laugh, nervous and a little giddy. Henry looks up at her with his eyes still bright with laughter, and Emma yearns to hold him, to cradle him in her arms like she had twelve years ago. “Is now when I get to ask you about your intentions with my foster mother?”

 

There’s a tremor to the word mother , a hint of longing that Emma notes. It leaves a cutting wistfulness in her heart, too, though she refuses to dwell on that right now. She’d given that up a long time ago, no matter how incapable she’s been of cutting ties. And this is…good. Enough. 

 

She clears her throat. “Mostly I plan to piss her off a lot and then convince her to date me anyway.”

 

Henry nods, very seriously. “And you’ve been in Stage One of your big plan for a few years now. Are we ready for Stage Two now?” He begins the walk toward Mifflin Street, Emma beside him. “I think you’re going to need a lot of help.”

 

“No doubt,” Emma agrees. “Your mom’s a tough cookie.” She says it intentionally, tries it out and feels the mingled pain and relief that comes with it. But she watches the way that Henry’s shoulders straighten with it and she knows the bolt of longing that must come along with it, and she is sure that it’s the right thing to do. 

 

“Do you even have a name for your plan?” Henry says, sounding dubious of her abilities there. “I think Operation Cobra is perfect.” Emma blinks at him, bemused. “She likes you, but she also thinks you’re a dumbass, which is– sorry– a little true.”

 

Emma eyes him suspiciously. “You don’t sound very sorry.” 

 

Henry snaps his fingers. “Flowers! Bring her flowers. Girls like flowers. Ms. Mills really likes well thought out essays, though. Maybe bring her a book report?” Emma peers at him and is relieved to see that he’s smiling like he might be kidding. “But make sure that you keep screwing with her. She really likes that.” 

 

Emma peeks at him again. “Are you trying to sabotage me?” 

 

“Absolutely not. She gets this face like she’s not sure if she wants to laugh or yell but like she would definitely kiss you. Ew.” Henry shudders. “I sound like Grace’s girlfriend.”

 

“The horror. They’ll be making a board meeting to boot you from school next.” Henry looks up at her with sudden concern, and she waves it off. Now that she’s talking to Henry, the ominous board meeting seems like a minor annoyance instead of an existential threat. “It’s a bunch of homophobes who just want to whine about me and then concede that they’ve got nothing. I can handle them.” She tries it again, says the word as though it’ll make it real. “Or your mom will eviscerate them. I’m not worried.”

 

Maybe she can make it real, like Zelena had suggested, like Henry and Regina deserve. If she claims Henry as her birth son, that could restart the entire adoption process for Regina. This is their best chance, isn’t it? And Emma’s best chance is…

 

Here, walking up Mifflin Street toward a too-large white house, watching Regina as she opens the front door and stands framed within it as she waits for them. “Yeah,” Henry says, and Emma reaches out to squeeze his hand.

 

He squeezes hers back, and they walk up the path and into Regina’s house, their hands dangling together.

Chapter Text

Lucy Vidrio’s big sister always claims that sixth grade is terrible. “The worst year of my life,” Jacinda had promised Lucy when she’d been home from college this summer. “I don’t think I can overstate how miserable I was.”

 

But she’d also promised Lucy bomb teachers , as though that makes up for drama and departmentalized schooling and getting her period sometime soon, and so Lucy goes in with high hopes. She isn’t all that academic, though she does love to read, and she’s gratified to discover that Mrs. Mills loves reading just as much. She gets Bs when she’s lucky and As barely , but that’s par for the course with Mrs. Mills. Everyone knows she’s a tough grader and no one is dumb enough to talk during her class, but she’s one of the best teachers Lucy’s ever had and everyone knows it.

 

Plus, there’s always the chance for excitement. The only person in the school who isn’t afraid of Mrs. Mills works next door, and she’s equally entertaining in the classroom and out. Lucy’s going to miss them next year. “ Mrs. Mills,” Mrs. Swan says one afternoon in April, always with that drawl around Mrs. like she can’t believe that Mrs. Mills is married. Lucy’s classmates tend toward that same disbelief. We’re supposed to believe that someone actually chooses to live with Mrs. Mills? Do you think Mrs. Mills has kids? Can you imagine Mrs. Mills in love or do you think she treats her husband like she treats us? 

 

Even in a small town like Storybrooke, it’s been hard to keep track of Mrs. Mills. She’s been spotted a few times in the diner, but always with other teachers– Mrs. Swan or Mrs. Locksley or occasionally that high school senior who runs the student newspaper, never a husband. Maybe the Mrs. is just there by default, Lucy reflects, and that’s why Mrs. Swan is mocking it now. 

 

She saunters into the classroom like she owns it, right in the middle of a class discussion on thesis statements. “ God , it’s boring in here,” she says, heaving a sigh. She turns to the class to say in a mock whisper, “Some people count sheep. I count lectures I’ve overheard from Mrs. Mills’s classroom.” 

 

“Are you here for a reason ?” Mrs. Mills says, eyebrows arched.

 

Mrs. Swan gives her an exaggerated pout, the kind that Lucy can never figure out if she’s making fun of Mrs. Mills or flirting with her. “What? Can’t a girl miss the stuffy literature teacher next door? Or her charming class?” Mrs. Swan says, winking directly at Lucy. Lucy grins back. “Oh,” Mrs. Swan says, as an afterthought. “Also I need your cable.” 

 

“We’ve updated our smartboard systems. You have all the cables you need,” Mrs. Mills says, exasperated. Sometimes, Lucy thinks that Mrs. Mills doesn’t mind Mrs. Swan annoying her, and that she actually likes it. Lucy might be projecting, though.

 

Mrs. Swan shakes her head. “Nope. I lent the connector between the computer and the board to Mulan and never got it back.” 

 

“So bother her .” 

 

Mrs. Swan cocks her head. “When this is so much more fun?”

 

Mrs. Mills bends down, finds the cable, and thrusts it into Mrs. Swan’s hand. “ Goodbye ,” she says, and Lucy makes a little mark on the corner of her desk. Front corner desk is the tally desk , and Lucy grabs it whenever she can. There’s an identical one in the front corner of Mrs. Swan’s room, complete with the same cross in the corner, the M over the first arm and the S over the second. Lucy draws in a line over the S and notices with satisfaction that it’s winning. Mrs. Mills is winning on the tally desk in Mrs. Swan’s classroom, of course, and this is just symmetry.

 

She has Mrs. Swan first in the morning, which means that they’re sleepy-eyed and listless for the first few minutes of class the next day. Mrs. Swan always takes that as a personal challenge. “If I can’t wake you up, who can? Mrs. Mills? She’d put you into a coma.” 

 

Soon, they’re immersed in a wakeup exercise, and Mrs. Mills is flinging their door open, glowering. “What now ?” she demands. “Can I have just one class before you drown me out?”

 

Mrs. Swan gestures at Lucy’s two classmates at the front of the room. “PEMDAS rap battles, obviously.” She says it like they hadn’t invented them on the spot and that this is an everyday occurrence, and Mrs. Mills squints suspiciously at Mrs. Swan and shakes her head. 

 

“I understand maybe a third of what comes out of your mouth on a good day,” she says, her words cutting. Or maybe they’re meant to be cutting. They sound almost rueful to Lucy, almost affectionate. Lucy considers the fact that they’ve been teaching together since Jacinda was in sixth grade, eight years ago, and that that’s a really long time to sustain hatred. 

 

Mrs. Swan laughs. “I’m sorry to hear it,” she says, tossing her hair.

 

“I’m sorry it isn’t less,” Mrs. Mills shoots back, and Mrs. Swan laughs again, flashing Mrs. Mills a bright smile. And Lucy is almost positive that Mrs. Swan doesn’t hate Mrs. Mills, at least. 

 

Not that the rest of her class agrees. One boy waits until Mrs. Mills leaves before he sings in a low tone, “Ding-dong, the witch is gone,” and a few of his friends snort. 

 

Mrs. Swan gives him a sidelong glance. “Don’t let her hear you sing that,” she says. “You’ll just encourage her.” The boys sit back, smug that Mrs. Swan is on their side, and Mrs. Swan sings it for a week whenever Mrs. Mills stalks out of the classroom. 

 

It’s weird , though, the ongoing feud between Mrs. Swan and Mrs. Mills. The older kids claim that it’s been going since Mrs. Swan had started teaching at Storybrooke Middle School, but it doesn’t seem like it’s nearly as cloaked in bitterness as it could be. Mrs. Swan hangs out in Mrs. Mills’s office all the time, and Lucy sees them herself at the diner one early morning, a few weeks after the PEMDAS rap battle argument. They’re eating pancakes and drinking coffee, leaning forward as Mrs. Mills says something in a low tone. It looks almost… intimate , like they’re really, really close friends, and Lucy shies away from the table before she can intrude.

 

Mrs. Mills spots her anyway. “Morning, Lucy,” she says, and the smile she gives Lucy is so different from the ones she gives in school. It’s a little gentler, a little warmer, and when she turns back to Mrs. Swan, it’s almost conspiratorial. “Lucy wrote that opinion piece on school lunches that I want Henry to run in the student paper.” 

 

“Aha. Good at math and a writer. One in a million.” Mrs. Swan winks at Lucy. “I figure that anyone who can get on Mrs. Mills’s good side is an unparalleled talent, huh?” 

 

Mrs. Mills snorts. Snorts , like she’s a regular human being and not the picture of poise and grace. Lucy stares. “Mrs. Swan only says that because she’s never once experienced it.” 

 

“To be honest, I’m not sure you have a good side,” Mrs. Swan says, and then “ Ow! ” when Mrs. Mills ostensibly kicks her under the table. She turns back to Lucy. “See what I mean?” 

 

Mrs. Mills leans forward, close enough to murmur something into Mrs. Swan’s ear. Mrs. Swan’s smile grows, and then she murmurs something back. Lucy is left with the strangest impression that she’s missing something , but she can’t put her finger on what it might be. 

 

She clears her throat. “I’d better go,” she says. “My bus is–” She points vaguely down the block, and she’s left with the faint afterimage of her teachers bent toward each other, speaking in such low tones that one’s lips are nearly at the other’s ear.

 

She doesn’t think much of it when they’re back in their rightful places in school and Mrs. Swan has rearranged Mrs. Mills’s painstakingly organized desk into an elaborate maze of paper clips and pencils. Mrs. Mills sighs heavily and ignores it, and the class is tactful enough not to say a word when she sits absentmindedly on her desk at one point and then jumps up, a thumb tack at that spot on the desk.

 

She peeks back into the classroom later that day and sees Mrs. Swan and Mrs. Mills tidying up the desk together. Mrs. Mills says something, and Mrs. Swan puts a hand where Mrs. Mills had gotten tacked and holds it there. Lucy gapes, because that’s definitely Mrs. Swan’s hand on Mrs. Mills’s ass , but Mrs. Mills just rolls her eyes and walks away.

 

They really are good friends, Lucy decides, though she doesn’t mention it to her classmates. They’d laugh it off, probably, because who would see Mrs. Mills and Mrs. Swan and think that they were friends

 

Near the end of the year, Jacinda comes back from college, bright-eyed and enthusiastic and chatting with Ana about Ana’s political science final like she’d always been an expert in politics. “You’ve got a while to go,” she tells Lucy, curling up with her on the squishy pillow in the room they used to share. “Oh! You know who’s in school with me? Do you remember Sabine?” 

 

Lucy remembers Sabine very vaguely, Jacinda’s girlfriend who’d moved away three years ago and left Jacinda in tears for weeks. “Are you two together again?” she asks, and Jacinda bites her lip and then promptly denies it, but Lucy grins. Good . Jacinda deserves a cool girlfriend.

 

“And how is your school?” Jacinda asks pointedly, and Lucy tells her about science lab and some of her new friends this year and the article that she’d gotten to publish in the student newspaper. She talks about Mrs. Mills and how much fun math is, and Jacinda perks up. “They’re still at it, huh? Ms. Mills and Ms. Swan?” 

 

“Always,” Lucy says, shaking her head. “I’m pretty sure that they’re secretly friends, though.” At least Jacinda won’t laugh at her.

 

Jacinda raises her eyebrows. “Friends, huh?” 

 

The next day is the weekend, and Jacinda takes Lucy out for milkshakes and then wanders Main Street, pointing out all the little things that had changed in the past year. “Gold has a pawn shop now?” she says incredulously. “I heard he was fired but I thought he’d just go work in some other town.” She stares wistfully at his storefront. “I remember when this place was an ice cream shop for, like, two months. Good times.” 

 

“I’ll bet.” Granny’s makes a mean milkshake, and Lucy doesn’t think that some other shop could match hers. She has no memory of said ice cream shop. 

 

They meander toward where some of Jacinda’s old friends are hanging out at the park, waiting for them. Two of the girls are fresh out of high school and already engaged, and they happily discuss color schemes and wedding dresses– and Sabine , of course– with Jacinda while Lucy skips stones in the pond. “Where’s Henry?” Jacinda asks suddenly. “I messaged him that I was coming back, but he never answered.” 

 

“He’s been busy,” says one of the blonde girls. There are, like, four of them. One of them works on the student newspaper, and she’d been the one to suggest that Lucy might want to take over the middle school coverage next year. Lucy doesn’t really think of herself as a journalist, but Ms. Mills had said she’d be a good choice and Lucy wonders if this might be her niche, after all. “Yearbook and the paper and college prep. His moms are being very intense about college prep.” She snorts. “Bunch of nerds.”

 

“Strong words from the class valedictorian, Ava,” another blonde says teasingly, and Ava looks alarmed.

 

“Don’t tell Jacinda that. I have an image to protect.” Lucy watches them, fascinated, and Jacinda pats her shoulder as she finishes her milkshake. 

 

“I’m gonna head over to Henry’s to see how he’s doing,” Jacinda says. “It’s been a while.” Lucy knows Henry, sort of, as the editor of the paper and as one of Jacinda’s good friends. He’d introduced himself as such when she’d submitted her article, and she’d seen why Jacinda had gotten along so well with him. He’s the kind of guy who’s really genuine without being obnoxious, and he has an easy smile and the confidence that comes with it. 

 

She hadn’t known that he has two moms; though now that she thinks about it, she remembers him mentioning both a Mom and a Ma offhand. As someone gay-adjacent, she feels a specal kinship with other gay-adjacent people. “Henry has two moms?” she asks Jacinda as they walk, just to be sure.

 

Jacinda looks as though she’s smothering a laugh. “Technically, it’s more complicated than that. He has a birth mom and an adoptive mom.”

 

“Oh,” Lucy says, disappointed. “So it’s like shared custody?” That’s much less relatable than two moms.

 

Jacinda shrugs airily. “Not really. The birth mom gave up parental rights, from what I remember. Then I guess she adopted him formally after she married the adoptive mom. I don’t really know all the details. Just what Henry’s mentioned.” 

 

Oh . Lucy looks up at her sister, wide-eyed, and maybe she is journalist material, because this is a story she wants to know everything about. “His birth mom married his adoptive mom after he’d been adopted?” It sounds very much like they’d fallen in love , and that would be amazing–

 

Jacinda shrugs again. “Yeah. It was a big drama back then. The school board got involved and a few people tried protesting the birth mom, but it petered out. Then he was adopted and the protesters got bored. They were really private about it after that. But it was a super romantic story in the end.” Jacinda looks wistful. “Sabine and I went to the wedding together right before she moved. It was in their backyard and we were the only students there– aside from Henry, of course.”

 

Lucy glances down the block where they’re walking, one of the wealthier streets with roughly five houses on a block and a ton of carefully tended grass everywhere. It looks like the kind of block where there’s a house big enough for a wedding. Part of the story still makes no sense, though. “Why did the school board get involved? Why did they care about who Henry’s moms were–” 

 

She stops talking. At the big white house near the middle of the block, she can see Mrs. Swan, pacing up and down the lawn as she speaks on the phone. “Whoa,” she says slowly. “Mrs. Swan is Henry’s mom?” 

 

She knows that Mrs. Swan is a lesbian– she’s never very quiet about it– but she hadn’t known that Mrs. Swan is married . (Which, you know, still the question about the Mrs . designation.) She’d always just assumed that Mrs. Swan flirts and fights with Mrs. Mills because she’s a free agent, and Lucy frowns suddenly, thinking about Mrs. Swan acting that way while being married.

 

Unless–

 

No way .

 

Jacinda bobs her head. Mrs. Swan hangs up the phone, sees Jacinda, and beams. “Jacinda! Back from school? What’s this I hear about a reunion with Sabine?” 

 

“Henry has a big mouth,” Jacinda mutters, loud enough for Mrs. Swan to hear. 

 

Mrs. Swan just laughs. “I’ll go get him,” she says. “And Regina. She’ll be thrilled to see you.” She rests a hand on Jacinda’s shoulder, and then smiles down at Lucy, who is still gaping up at her. “Hiya, Lucy.” She says it casually, like she isn’t in the process of shattering every single bit of Lucy’s world view for the past ten months.

 

Because Regina is…isn’t she…?

 

Lucy stares as Henry emerges from the house and says gleefully, “Jacinda! Why didn’t you bring Sabine?” 

 

“Shut up,” Jacinda says, and she runs to hug Henry, leaving Lucy alone to watch as a woman emerges from the doorway behind Henry. She rests a hand on Henry’s back, undeniably Mrs. Mills, and Lucy thinks back– to the sightings of the three of them at the diner and the times that her two teachers had hung out together in their classrooms or the office. To the nonstop barrage of bickering and flirting, sometimes indistinguishable, and the affection that can’t be separated from it. To that moment that Lucy had spotted Mrs. Swan and Mrs. Mills in the diner, sitting so close that it had been impossible to characterize their positions as anything but intimate .

 

Mrs. Swan wanders up the steps as Henry descends them to Jacinda, and she presses a kiss to the corner of Mrs. Mills’s mouth. “I’ll put up dinner. For five,” she adds, and her hand trails over her wife’s waist for one casual, affectionate moment before she disappears into the house.

 

Lucy’s world, tilted off its axis, rights itself again with that motion, with the little kiss, and with the smile that it leaves behind on Mrs. Mills’s face as she turns to gaze back at her wife with unmistakable, overflowing love.