They didn't have much. More like Emma didn't have much, and Regina, well Emma wasn't quite used to being anyone's first choice until she met Regina their sophomore year at Boston U in a GSA meeting. She had thought Regina was there as part of the straight alliance, but the brunette Poly-Sci student kept finding ways to pair herself up with the blonde Psychology major and at the GSA dance that fall, Emma had no doubt about Regina's intention when the brunette danced with only her that night then led her outside and walked hand in hand around the campus quad. If that hadn't been enough, Regina shyly asking Emma if she could kiss her under an old oak tree was a bright beacon in the ocean.
They had been inseparable ever since.
Regina would bring Emma to frat parties for a couple hours if just to save face with Regina's acquaintances since the brunette's family name had made its way around campus, and despite her very public and deep interest in Emma, Kappa Kappa Theta still thought they had a chance with her.
Emma would wait for Regina outside her class, sometimes being too absorbed in her textbook that she wouldn't notice the time until Regina would sit beside her and casually play with Emma's blonde locks, usually tied in a ponytail because her thick-rimmed glasses already did enough to cover her face.
The duo spent their free time either studying (or not) in the library or at Emma's one bedroom apartment severely off campus. Regina would buy take out and the two would sit at the Ikea-bought table and chair set because Emma didn't own a TV (or cable for that matter) so she had no use for a couch, and she really hadn't expected to be bringing anyone home since she was a city kid getting by because of a million scholarships and bursaries she applied for throughout high school. The extra money she made working on campus as a videographer, filming online lectures, was used for groceries, Internet, and a ten dollar phone plan for a Nokia she picked up at a gas station just a few hours before orientation.
But they'd sit at the plastic and metal table for an episode or two and stream movies before moving to Emma's bed, the laptop warming the space between them since Emma's furnace had been on the fritz again, and more often than not, one or both of them would lose interest in the actors on screen and let their fingers dance over their partners' thigh, let their lips trail over an unsuspecting neck.
They came from two different worlds. Regina had been a debutante, went to private school, and was one of those girls who got cars for their sixteenth birthday and walked around with her Mother's credit card. Emma couldn't even afford to sign up for one, knowing how easy it would be to slip into debt. Her apartment was meek and the size of Regina's bathroom back at the Mills mansion, and some nights she had to wonder whether she wanted ramen noodles today or tomorrow because even though Regina would take them out for a meal or offer to buy some groceries, Emma would only accept so that Regina could have a decent meal.
As different as their upbringing from their homes to their shoes, they had one common factor that was undeniable: they loved each other immensely.
Emma had never been the child parents picked to bring up as their own. She was used to scraping the bottom of the barrel, having big dreams but realistic expectations and working down to the bone to get through the day in a warm, safe place. But for whatever reason, Regina always wanted her.
That much was abundantly clear that day in February when the young lovers were curled around each other by an outdoor quad heater, enjoying a cup of hot chocolate between them. Regina's nose had dotted with snow flakes and for whatever reason the brunette decided to forego headwear, so Emma shrugged off her own beanie and plopped it on Regina's head.
"You look cute," the blonde teased.
The garish blue and green wool clashed with Regina's deep purple parka, but the brunette rolled her eyes playfully and flipped out her hair from under the hat. "Don't I always?"
"You're right." The sight of her girlfriend in her hat made Emma grin, and just before she had been able to kiss the flecks of snow away, Regina was ripped from her arms.
Cora Mills had only been a picture on the wall at the Mills mansion whenever Emma visited since the matriarch was constantly out of the country for business trips, but seeing her now, screeching at Regina whose brown eyes that always sparkled with mirth was now cowering in fear, Emma understood why Regina never liked speaking about her mother.
Before either girl could properly react, Cora was storming away, dragging Regina by the back of the neck and ripping Emma's hat off her head. The blonde was picking it up off the salted sidewalk by the time she heard car tires screech and a Benz speed away.
Emma had followed them. As best as she could when she was carless and the icy and snowy conditions kept her bike locked up in her apartment. The usual two hour bus ride from campus to the Mills mansion seemed to take longer, and by the time she had transferred onto a second bus and walked the twenty minutes from the stop to the Mills gate, Emma was fuming.
Who the hell did Cora Mills think she was dragging her daughter off like that? She took her anger out on the intercom system, holding her finger over the button, but by the time she reached a person, Claude by the sound of it if his usual jovial turned nervous disposition was anything to go by, the threat of police was thrown at her and all Emma could do was scowl and kick at the gate, retreating back toward the bus stops and fuming all the way back to her apartment.
Anger gave way to anxiety. It was nearly midnight and Emma still hadn't heard back from her girlfriend. Whether they were still girlfriends seemed to be up in the air since she was sure Cora was the type of parent that would force her child's hand. Her texts went unanswered, and Emma had even spent the better part of an hour using the few minutes up on her pre-paid phone to call Regina, the mansion, and any friend who would be able to help. They heard nothing. Emma was a button away from dialling police when she heard it. The faintest knock on her door.
Her heart leapt in her chest and she prayed to every god out there it was Regina and not some cop notifying her of the brunette's sudden disappearance. There on the other side of the door was Regina, her girlfriend who was both intimidating and sweet, laden with bags and her face running. Her shoulders, usually held so high, slumped against the weight of her burden, and Emma didn't need to ask to know what had happened.
She pulled the girl in, shucking her bags to the floor and held her tightly. Emma didn't have much, but the only thing she cared to keep safe was the woman in her arms.
Regina had been kicked out. It wasn't as simple as that though. Emma had been kicked out of a foster home or two in her lifetime only to realize the family was still claiming her existence to get their cheques. No, not only had Regina been kicked out, but she had been disowned. It wasn't the first time Emma had heard of such drastic measures whenever a kid was outed to their parent. It was the one thing she was grateful for being an orphan, but Regina was no orphan. Stripped of the Mills name and all that was held with it including that car she had gotten for her sixteenth birthday, her Mother's credit card, and the funding for school. Cora, in all her influential power, pulled the plug on her daughter's education, and if Regina hadn't been mortified being dragged across the quad by her raging mother, she was damn near depressed when the Dean of Admission himself regretfully informed her that her tuition had been retracted.
Emma thought the tears Regina shed the night before when they sat on the floor, the brunette gasping that she had no home and Emma promising that this tiny apartment could be her new one, were bad but that was nothing compared to when Emma had come home that day from her Stats tutorial to find the brunette curled into a ball on the bed and a deferral paper in her hand.
It was novel, living together for the first two weeks. They had had their fair share of sleepovers, both at the apartment and at the mansion, but it wasn't until Regina was living in her sad excuse of a living space did Emma realize this was no place for a Mills. But Regina said nothing, smiled whenever Emma's alarm would wake them at 5 AM precisely because if Emma didn't have an 8 AM class, she was filming one at least.
Trying to earn her keep, Regina had bought groceries because Emma's stock of ramen noodles, KD, and peanut butter and bread was severely lacking. The second morning when they rose before the sun, Regina had made them breakfast. A real breakfast of scrambled eggs and bacon and toast, but Emma, constantly glancing at the time as she hoovered her meal at a ridiculously fast pace, could only stay until 6:12 the latest before she had to dash out the door and catch her bus. Emma had been overly apologetic about that when she returned home that night, but Regina simply shook her head and leaned up on her tip toes to place a kiss on Emma's lips, dismissing her apology and making a dinner to compensate.
They had settled into a routine of sorts. Waking, school, and home. During the day, Regina would clean, and by the third day the entire apartment was spotless. By night, they would curl up on the bed, Emma's laptop on their laps and a movie streaming online or their textbooks littering the covers because Regina may have been kicked out of home and school but these textbooks were paid for and she was damn well going to be learning something from a professor or not.
But at the end of most nights, after they'd been studied out or their attention lingered away from the movie, they'd kiss, tentatively until a stray hand wandered to a thigh and their homework and movie and awful mothers were forgotten, their bodies reconnecting in an age-old dance.
Emma had to admit it was nice coming home to Regina and a home cooked meal. The last time she had smelled pasta cooking was when her last foster family before university lived above an Italian restaurant. Still, she waited for the other shoe to drop because it may have been nice and easy now but in a few months' time when Regina figured out Emma was literally not worth the trouble she was going through, she'd be left alone, rejected.
It seemed to be fast approaching when at the end of the two weeks Regina was going stir crazy sitting in the apartment all day, so the brunette tagged along to school, using the computer lab to shine up her resume and cover letter. If they were really going to live with each other Regina would need a job, and the few hundred dollars saved up from birthdays and Christmases would only last them for so long. Regina had seen Emma write out a cheque for rent. Her savings would be gone in three months without a steady income.
So the two women sat, Emma using her free hour between filming Anthropology and her own Stats class to look up prospective jobs Regina could do while the older girl carefully crafted ways to indicate that her lack of job experience would not hinder the way she performed administrative duties. Regina had interned for her Mother's company once, though getting a reference from that would be tricky. Regardless, Regina was hard working, determined, and punctual. Anyone would be daft to turn her away.
"You'll get something," Emma reassured as Regina clicked submit on the tenth application that day. "And if anything, I hear there's an opening at Granny's. I could pick up an extra job."
"No, Emma," Regina sighed already signing into her emails as if an offer letter would already be waiting for her. "I want to help. I live there too."
But as the days passed and not so much as a confirmation email that these companies had thanked Regina for applying, the brunette became despondent wondering if she should send a follow up email or call them. Emma had suggested they print off a few resumes and hand them around to local retail stores, even trying to entice the girl by the discounts she'd get working an outlet mall, but the glare Emma received shut up that idea quickly, and she watched as her girlfriend's face crumble in realization.
No job experience, the one internship unlikely to vouch for her, and an incomplete education. Regina may be hard working, determined, and punctual, but so were the other million candidates who dropped out of college. That hit Regina in the face like a brick, and silently, Emma wrapped an arm around her shoulder, reassuring her that they'd hear something from someone soon.
By April, Regina still hadn't heard anything, and Emma's seasonal gig of videography had come to a close with her last lecture. Exams were right around the corner, bills were on its way, and both women were stressed out. The last of Regina's savings had gone to helping Emma out with that month's rent because the last couple weeks had seen the blonde giving away more shifts to accommodate the papers she had due, and now they were both stuck jobless. Emma still had a few scholarships that would be renewed come September, but that wasn't helping their situation now.
Emma could see the conflict in Regina's eye whenever she glanced up from her Social Psych text, the brunette studying intently for an exam she wasn't scheduled to take. It broke Emma's heart. Out of everyone in the world, Regina was the one who should be enrolled in school, not Emma the foster kid. But Regina, always sensing Emma's presence, glanced up from her paper with a genuine smile behind her glasses and handed the sheet over.
A cover letter to Granny's Diner, a local eatery en route between school and home, was the subject of attention, and since Regina had never done waitressing before, she needed a second eye on it. "It's not a terrible profession," Regina admitted shyly.
"The tips should be good."
So Regina had dressed up in a pressed blouse and skirt and hopped the bus with Emma on her way to her first exam. Getting off five stops before her, Regina marched into Granny's Diner, gracefully asking to speak with the owner. The namesake of the establishment raised a curious eyebrow at Regina's cover letter, glanced down to her attire, and then barely acknowledge her resume before nodding curtly. With nothing more than a gruff, "When can you start?" Regina was hired as the diner's newest waitress.
It worked out that the brunette got the job just as Emma was finishing up her exams. Spring was giving way to summer, and as the blonde celebrated her last exam by dropping by the diner to see her girlfriend, Regina congratulated her for completing her sophomore year with a kiss on the cheek and a slice of apple pie.
Regina had not been a natural server, by any means. In fact, she held the record for most broken dishes which Granny regrettably had to dock from her pay, but she was friendly and engaged with the customers that her tips nearly made up for the fact that she may have been over enthusiastic in trying to carry three plates at once.
During that summer while Emma was off from school, she and Regina would ride the bus together, the brunette having gotten her own metro pass. Regina would get off at Jameson Ave for the diner, and Emma would stay on for another two stops and get off at Military trail where she worked as a camp counsellor at the Y. On the nights where Regina would work a full day's shift and get off closer to ten, Emma would head to the library and tutor some high school kids for some extra cash before making her way back up to the diner, smiling tiredly at Regina who would be cleaning off tables and stifling a yawn, looking much too cute in her short red skirt and sleeveless white blouse. Regina had been giddy when Ruby taught her how to keep her shirt free from stains since their debacle with bleach that night a kid had spilled chocolate milk on her. The brunette would look up at the sound of the bell dinging Emma's entrance and retreat to the back, already untying her apron from her waist and waving goodbye to Granny and Ruby. Some nights the owner's granddaughter would give them a ride home, but more often than not, Regina would return from the back, wearing one of Emma's sweaters and tossing her purse over her shoulder before leaning into the blonde and making their way back to the bus stop.
It wasn't ideal, this working where they saw each other at best, three hours a day excluding their sleeping hours, and Emma hated to admit that it was significantly easier to pay the rent on time with a second income, but they made it work. Regina never once complained, if only to entice Emma for a neck massage which the blonde would thoroughly conduct with both hands and lips. Emma had no idea how she did it, taking such a drastic change in living in stride, but if all Regina wanted out of it was a massage, then she was going to get it because if that wasn't love and sacrifice then she didn't know what was.
So Emma picked Regina up from work whenever she could, sometimes surprising the brunette just by being on the bus whenever she hopped on then they would go on impromptu dates. Nothing extravagant like fancy dinners or even movies, but they would walk around the city, stroll through parks, and sit talking by the base of a tree for hours until they headed home again. For whatever reason it was enough, even when it wasn't.
Even when all Emma had to offer was a mattress on the floor because the bed frame broke after one particularly passionate might when both women felt as if they hadn't seen each other in ages. Even when all they had eaten for dinner one week was mac and cheese every day. Even with the faulty air conditioner that was more for decoration than real use made the apartment unbearably hot that shedding clothes was a necessity and not a turn on.
They were enough, and it never ceased to surprise Emma.
That didn't stop her from wanting to give Regina the best that she was used to, even if the next best thing was looking at an apartment twenty minutes closer to campus and just down the street from Granny's diner. It was pricier, but when Emma had suggested getting a better place, Regina accompanied her a couple hours before her shift started, and the two inspected the bigger apartment. A working elevator, ceilings with no water damage, and a heater you could actually control. They could even get a couch from a thrift shop and have a real living room to entertain guests. When Emma snuck behind Regina, wrapping her arms around her waist over her diner uniform and asked how she liked it, the brunette gave a soft smile that Emma thought was almost hopeful, and so they began saving away every extra penny in a jar hidden under the sink.
The mattress on the floor stayed that way since getting a new frame would dip into their savings, and they didn't need an air conditioner anyway when it was so much hotter when Regina would pop an ice cube from the freezer and trail it down her neck. Emma really didn't want to get a new air conditioner when her tongue would catch the droplets of cool water dripping from Regina's neck.
The summer gave way to fall and soon Emma was back in school starting her junior year. While they had a routine over the summer where they managed to pay off rent, groceries, and bills with relative ease, Emma's shift work as a videographer dwindled to only one or two lectures a week. Online lectures from previous years were getting shown in lieu of recording new ones, and having only four hours of work each week was less than what she was making tutoring high school students.
It was Regina, this time, who promised they'd be okay one night when Emma came home stressed not only from school—already she was scheduled to have three presentations due within a week of each other—but from the fact she couldn't make up her half of the rent.
"We'll dip into the savings," Regina reassured.
"It's for our new place."
"We have a place." Regina silenced her with a kiss, coaxing Emma to respond until the blonde sighed breathily in resigned acceptance.
So the few hundred dollars they had managed to save over the summer became a couple hundred causing Emma to pick up a second job at the school's library. The downside was that they tended to work opposite shifts. During the day while Emma had class, Regina was working breakfast and lunch at the diner, and in the evening Emma would be at the library, organizing wayward books and assisting undergrads with their research projects. The time shifts lasted only one day before Regina decided to pop into her old school's library after work if just to be in the same space as Emma.
Regina, changed out of her uniform and wearing Emma's hoodie that looked far cuter on her, would reach Emma at the front desk, sometimes even waiting in line behind other students, just to lean over and kiss her girlfriend hello. Then the brunette would read or connect to the school's internet with Emma's laptop and apply for entry level positions or read the follow up texts to the textbooks she had made intricate notes for because if Regina had picked up anything from Emma it was that textbooks could be found for free online if you looked hard enough.
But it was one day by mid-November, right in the middle of mid-term seasons where there were exams every day and projects and essays due left and right that Emma had to stay late at the library and told Regina to go home after her shift. The brunette promised to pick up an apple pie from Granny's for them to share when she got home, and after the week Emma had been having, she was looking forward to just curling up on the mattress with Regina as they fed each other pie.
She didn't expect to find cops outside their building when she got off the bus that night with thoughts of Regina and pie. The red and blue lights sped up her walk, and she ran up the three flights of stairs, tossing her backpack on the landing when it slowed her down. Dread filled her when she found Regina speaking with a police officer. The brunette, still dressed in her diner uniform, had her arms wrapped around herself, and her face was streaked with tears. Her bare knee had a large bandage pressed over it, and Emma was scared of what else had happened to her girlfriend. As soon as she spotted Emma, Regina pushed passed the cop and buried her face in Emma's chest.
"Are you hurt?" Was the first thing out of Emma's mouth as her hands roved over Regina's back for any signs of pain.
A sob was the only answer she got as she pressed her chin to Regina's temple in silent comfort. The door was busted open, and from the little she could see inside the apartment, the chairs were toppled over.
"A break in," the officer provided regretfully.
Emma wasn't nearly surprised. She almost wanted to laugh at the robber's poor choice to pilfer, but another thought filled her that had her pulling Regina's head up to catch her eye. "Are you hurt?" She insisted once more.
Regina shook her head.
"Were you home?"
Regina shook her head again, sniffling this time. "I was coming up the stairs when I saw the broken door," she voiced shakily. "I went to push it open and—and then this man, I-I didn't see his face, h-he shoved me out of the way and took off."
"Jesus, Regina." Emma pulled her back into a tight embrace. Her words were muffled by the girl's hair as she apologized over and over. "I'm so sorry. I'm so sorry I wasn't here."
Their rainy day jar was stolen as was Emma's laptop. Like she said, there wasn't much of note to ransack through the place, but what he did steal shook both women to the core. Their savings. Emma's school notes. Regina's applications. It could have been worse, but Regina had been so apologetic that Emma's laptop had been taken, vowing she'd get her a new one. The blonde shook it off. It was just a computer. She was just glad Regina hadn't been home when he broke down the door, but the fact that she got the tail end of it got the gears shifting in Emma's head once more. This really wasn't a place for Regina Mills.
Granny graciously let them stay in her living room at the small bungalow she shared with her granddaughter. The old woman had even gone down to their apartment herself to inspect the damage and acted as a bodyguard when the couple packed an overnight bag. She was even there with Regina as they waited for a locksmith to put in a new door, and for that, Emma was grateful.
She didn't like having to leave Regina alone, but she had two midterms back-to-back, and by the time she got back to their place, Granny was already testing the deadbolt on the door and deeming it secure with a gruff nod. That night as they lay on the mattress on the floor for the first time since the break in, neither woman slept, both too hyper aware of any creak in the floorboard or whine of the pipes.
It haunted her, knowing that Regina wasn't safe in their home. This wouldn't have happened if Emma hadn't told her not to come to the school. God, what was she thinking, Regina had every right to be at school. By now, Regina should be studying for finals and acing her presentations. Not waiting tables for measly tips and having grown men leer down her shirt.
The thought that Regina deserved better amplified after that. Every little tick that went wrong in their apartment—the window was stuck again, their building's hot water supply was done by noon, day-long trips to the twenty-four hour laundromat—all of it wasn't enough for Regina.
That was the last thought running through her mind as the brunette rushed out of their bedroom, her uniform hastily thrown on and her apron set with perma-stains.
"Shoot, do you have change?" Regina inquired quickly tying her hair into a bun. "I left my bus pass in my sweater at Granny's."
"Regina," the blonde said quietly.
The older girl sighed and pulled out their new rainy day jar that held more pennies and nickels than anything. "I'll replace the money after work."
"No, it's not that." Emma ran her hand through her hair, her voice caught in her throat.
The sound must have attracted Regina for the brunette paused in replacing the jar and tilted her head curiously. "What's wrong?"
Emma wanted to be selfish. She wanted to give Regina her bus pass and see her in a few hours because although the brunette debutante turned street rat had been so adamant that everything would be okay, Emma knew time wouldn't change much. Emma would still be working odd jobs and though her degree may get her an office job in the future, saving for something like the Mills mansion just wasn't in the cards. That was if she was lucky, and if growing up had taught Emma anything it was that she was anything but.
Visions of rundown apartments, subway commutes, and leaky roofs filled her mind, and though Emma could see Regina there, decorating the apartment with little trinkets to make it their own, standing in a crowded subway, or putting a flower pot under a leak, Regina Mills was worth more than that.
"Emma." Lost in her doubt, Emma hadn't noticed when Regina stepped up to her and cupped her cheeks between her palms. "What's wrong?"
"You don't have to replace the money."
Regina cocked an eyebrow and nodded slowly, trying to understand the blonde's cryptic tone. "Well our new place won't pay for itself."
The blonde shook her head. "It's not a step up from this."
"We can look at other locations." Regina waited a moment, hoping for Emma to explain her distant mood, but when the blonde remained quiet, Regina simply nodded and slipped into her runners. "I'll be a bit late tonight. I'm going to swing by Granny's to pick up my sweater."
"You should go home."
Frowning, Regina looked as if she understood and stepped toward her girlfriend once more, placing her hands on her shoulders. The simple touch was met with tension. "Okay. Maybe Ruby will stay with me so I'm not alone."
"No," Emma implored, grabbing Regina's wrists determinedly. "You should go home."
Regina's eyes flashed with something akin to defiance before confusion took precedence. "What are you talking about?"
Everything Emma wanted to say got stuck in her throat. For once she was doing the right thing even if it killed her. She wouldn't wish her life on anyone let alone the girl she—
"Emma." Regina's tone was a warning now as the brunette took a cautious step forward.
"We can't keep doing this," the blonde admitted quietly.
Emma wasn't sure what she was expecting. Relief. Tears. Understanding. Why anger never crossed her mind was up in the air considering who the brunette was, but the confusion that had swept Regina's face broke free for the fury that flooded her.
"Are you kidding me?" Regina hissed, her hands at her waist. "You're breaking up with me."
The brunette scoffed. "It's not you, it's me? Honestly, Emma if you're going to break up with me, I expect something a little less juvenile."
"Regina, I don't have a choice."
"You don't have a choice?" Regina belted, pushing Emma back with two firm palms against her chest. "And who put the gun against your head and told you to do it, hmm?"
The push didn't startle her. She caught herself on the table, but the thin metal legs were barely enough support for her weight, and she nearly toppled the thing like the Titanic. "Regina, you work in a diner. You got kicked out of school. We live in a shack!"
"So I'm just not good enough for you now, is that it?" If the words didn't stop Emma cold the inflection her tone took did. Regina may have appeared haughty and angered in the moment but her glassy eyes left nothing to the imagination.
Emma rushed forward, cupping her cheeks trying desperate to make her understand. "No. That's not it."
The brunette tried to shake her off and was successful enough to turn away, hiding a pained sniffle and wiping the moisture from her eye with the move. "I have to work. I'll gather my things when I return."
"Regina." The blonde caught her hand and rushed to get in front of her, needing to explain. "That's not it at all. The only reason you're in this situation is because of me. If-if-maybe you go to your mom and just pretend for another few years, I know, I know it sucks, but just until you get back in school and get a job and a place with a real roof—"
A derisive snort was on her lips before Regina paused, furrowed her brow, then cast a curious gaze to the blonde. Slowly the mask of pain and anger and confusion gave way to understanding as Regina shook her head with a laugh. "You're an idiot."
Emma squinted confused.
Regina cupped her girlfriend's cheeks and pulled her in for a deep kiss, making her silently understand how much of a fool she was. When she pulled back, keeping their foreheads pressed and the air between them hot, Regina could feel the last of Emma's resolve fade. "My mother didn't kick me out because I'm gay."
The blonde furrowed her brow and somewhere between the kiss and Regina's words Emma had wrapped her arms around the brunette's waist in familiarity. "No?"
"Well, I suppose she did," Regina drawled. "She said her or you. My decision was easy."
"You—" Emma's grip tightened at her waist. "But—why? You wouldn't have to worry about money all the time or be tired or-or get your place broken into, or at least afford to get some decent locks and a security system."
"Because I love you."
The response stopped Emma in her thoughts. It wasn't the first time the L-bomb had been dropped between them, but this time, Emma felt it rush through her like a wave hitting shore. The simple four-worded phrase seemed to answer everything and nothing and all Emma could do was gape. "I—is that enough?" She asked in a strained whisper.
"Is it not for you?" The brunette questioned worriedly. Emma sighed and tried pulling away, but Regina held her tightly around the collar. "Emma."
"I don't want to hold you back," the blonde admitted. She shrugged out of the embrace and gestured wildly. "You shouldn't be saving pennies in a jar. You shouldn't be taking the bus everywhere, or sleeping on a mattress on the floor. You should be the one freaking out about finals and gussying up to profs to get into a graduate program, and not having to walk around with your keys between your knuckles because some idiot wants to rob the poorest part of town."
"So I should just leave you alone for you to get mugged on the street? Who do you think I am?"
"I think you're better than all this. You deserve more, and you had it once."
"But I didn't have you," Regina reminded before getting suddenly serious. "And honestly I'm very upset you would want me to go back to living with a mother who kicked out her lesbian daughter, but I know what's upsetting you and I get where that's coming from."
Emma looked ashamed and diverted her gaze, but Regina ducked, catching her chin with her fingertips offering a soft reassuring smile.
"And you are not holding me back. I've never been more free to be myself, to set my own rules, and to be my own person." Emma nodded minutely, but when she didn't say more than that Regina pressed. "Is it the break in?"
"It's not just that." Finally Emma looked up, but the doubt still clouded her eyes. That wave of emotion seemed to feel like a tidal wave, and Emma was always really good at pulling herself under. "Where do you see yourself in five years?"
Regina reared back. "Is this a job interview?"
"But where will we be living?"
"Does it matter?"
"Yes." Emma pulled back from Regina's embrace and gestured to the apartment. "Because in five years, I'm probably going to have a place like this or worse, and I might be in between jobs, and everything will always be tight."
"Answer me this," Regina demanded, her voice stern. "In your little five-year future, do you even want me there?"
"Of course, I do, but—"
"Then what's the problem?" The brunette rushed Emma's space so quickly the blonde almost fell back, but Regina used the surprise to trap Emma between her and the kitchen sink. "Emma, when my mother kicked me out, you were the only person I wanted to be with. I could have lived with Kathryn or her family, but I wanted you. And yes, loving you is enough because in five years if we're still living here or in a box under a bridge if you're there then that's where I want to be."
Emma's eyes watered though she tried hard to be the strong one. She was the one used to this life, not Regina, but the brunette was giving her a run for her money. The blonde sighed defeatedly, pressing her forehead against Regina's as she linked their fingers behind her on the kitchen counter. "I just want you to have your best chance."
"I know, and I love that about you." Regina pecked her lips understandingly. "But please believe me when I say that chance is here."
The last of her resolve stripped, Emma nodded, wrapping her arms around Regina's waist and capturing her girlfriend's lips into a heated apologetic kiss. When their broke apart, the tension that had been in the air seconds earlier eased to a quiet intimacy as the young couple caressed softly, simply enjoying the feel of being with one another.
"I love you," Emma whispered breathily into Regina's mouth before adding earnestly. "I do want you."
Regina smirked, her own eyes glassy before her smile blinked it away. "Perhaps tonight in exchange for a message?"
Emma almost looked confused before her face paled in realization. "Shit, I made you late for work."
Regina shrugged. "Granny will understand."
With a final kiss that was meant to be brief but turned more heated than intended, Regina pulled back, standing on her tippy toes to peck Emma's forehead. "I love you."
It didn't get easier for them. They didn't suddenly win the lottery nor did Cora have a change of heart and welcome them with open arms. But this time Emma was sure that when the floorboards creaked or the bathroom door wouldn't shut fully that it wasn't the end of the world. Regina had been an hour late to work that day, the buses running only hourly on Sundays, but when Emma explained why, the old owner smacked the blonde across the head and shook her head. She deserved that.
December hit. Exams were over for the semester. Though Emma and Regina had been going –two years strong now, that Christmas as they sat huddled in the corner of the floor, the brunette snuggled in between Emma's legs with a blanket on top of them and a thermos of hot chocolate shared between them, felt like the first family Christmas either girl had had in ages. The miniature Christmas tree lit up the darkened room, a brilliant blur of red and white casting glows on their faces. Tacky dollar store ornaments and garland decorated it, but it was the best tree ever. Regina had started to hum some Christmas carols as Emma tapped a beat out on her girlfriend's waist under the covers. Come Christmas morning, the only gift they were able to give each other was spending the day skating at a public rink, and it was nothing short of perfect.
When Regina's birthday approached in February, Emma begged Granny to use the back room of her diner after hours and surprised Regina with a homecooked meal. Emma may not have thought that plan through considering Boston's weather and the amount of staff that had called in sick that day, forcing Regina to work, but it was still a surprise nonetheless when the brunette tiredly trudged herself to the back room for one final sweep at the end of the night and found Emma standing in the middle of the darkened room at a candle lit table. Emma was never much of a cook to begin with, but being with Regina taught her how to boil water for pasta and how to heat up pesto sauce. So they sat and ate in their makeshift restaurant.
They'd laugh about it later how on the way home, the last bus of the night got stuck in a deep snow trench and the two young women were forced to either wait for hours on the bus for a replacement or trudge the last half mile home. They certainly had fun warming each other up in the shower that night.
It was by the end of Emma's third year when the blonde was starting her exams did Regina get her first interview for an administrative assistant in some shareholder company in the heart of downtown Boston. Before Emma's first exam, Regina kissed her girlfriend on the platform of the subway line and rode down for her interview.
The brunette confessed later that night that she had never been more nervous sitting in that office lobby, her face made up more than it had been for the past year and her diner uniform hung up in favour of a pressed skirt and blouse combination. She charmed the interviewer with a summary of her clerical skills and her willingness to grow within the company, but when they asked her why she ceased her education in favour of a waitressing job, Regina fumbled. She finally strung together a clipped response about personal financial reasons, but the scrutiny she felt afterwards was already done.
Perhaps that was the reason Regina didn't get the job picking up phones and booking meeting rooms or maybe the process had been a formality for HR and they had already decided on hiring the manager's niece, but when both she and Emma waited impatiently with news from the company and nothing came, they simply smiled understandingly at one another and opted for a walk around the park.
It didn't deter them in the slightest. Regina was gaining seniority as a waitress at the diner, and Emma was too preoccupied with third year exams. She was stressed out most of the time in the two weeks between her first exam and the official end of the year. She may have lucked out with having her Personality class on the first day of exams, but the following four were compressed in the last two days of the exam schedule. Emotions, Criminal Psych, and Drugs in the Brain during the Friday, while an elective English Comedy course was bright and early the following Saturday.
Regina had suggested to ask her professors to defer one or two of them, but then that'd mean Emma would have to take them in spring, and there was no way the blonde was going to be remembering to study for those classes on top of her fourth year courses. So she stuck it out, reviewing carefully crafted notes. Regina had created a mock test of sorts using flashcards that they'd bring around with them everywhere.
But one night on the day before her Killer Friday where Emma was so overwhelmed trying to memorize three courses, Regina grabbed her textbooks and notes and put them away in the corner of their room.
"Regina," Emma hissed, scrambling on the mattress trying to grab her books back.
The brunette ignored her and left the room, turning the volume up on the radio in the kitchen. Emma hadn't realized it was even on until the sound of the Zac Brown Band filled the small apartment. Regina must have been listening to the radio as she cleaned the apartment, but it was nearly midnight now and–
"Stand up." Regina held her hand out for Emma to take, but green eyes darted between the hand and her books.
"I have to study."
"You've studied." Regina reached down and pulled Emma to her feet. "You're going to do fine, Emma."
Regina didn't let her finish as she took Emma's hands and began swaying to the country song blasting through their room. The blonde was never much of a dancer, and being with Regina who had danced for twelve years in her youth didn't change much, but as Regina held her hand and moved lithely around Emma, the blonde couldn't help the smirk from appearing on her face.
With a wink, Regina pressed against Emma and gently guided their bodies together. The younger blonde took the hint and laughed into Regina's neck as she began moving off beat.
They danced for who knew how many songs until the DJ bid his followers goodnight with a slower tune, and the young couple was wrapped around each other, hugging more than actual dancing.
Emma had breezed through her exams the following day, and though she ran out of time to get the conclusion in for her Comedy essay, the blonde was okay with it.
That summer was handled with more ease, and with Regina becoming familiar with the regulars at the diner, it was easier for her to earn her wages in tips. Emma was just happy to have one less stress to deal with, hoping to enjoy the summer months before her final year of school. She reprised her job as a camp counsellor and had even convinced a couple of the high school students she tutored to meet up at the diner. She and Regina got to at least see each other, and Granny appreciated the new business.
This year, however, the couple took time off for a summer trip of sorts. Kathryn had offered up her family cottage for a weekend getaway with a few of her closest friends, and Regina and Emma were among the lucky few. Carpooling with the wealthy blonde and her long-time boyfriend, the foursome arrived at the lake house just in time to meet up with Kathryn and Regina's friends.
Neither Emma nor Regina had been camping before, not that the oversized lot looking over the lake was to be considered a camping ground, but it was refreshing to be away from the city, away from the stress of school and constant shift works. They drank with friends and partied like true college students, and come morning when Emma hadn't gone to bed yet, Regina found her sitting out by the dock, her bare feet dangling into the nippy water.
"If we ever get rich or famous, we should get a place like this," Emma said into the morning light, wrapping her arm around her girlfriend.
"With a small boat so we can take it to the other side of the lake," Regina added.
"And a sauna. God, that sauna is amazing."
The brunette nodded her agreement and snuggled in closer. The water lapped softly and somewhere off in the distance birds were singing to one another. It would take a miracle to get a place like this again, but it was always so nice to dream.
Emma's heart thudded in her chest as they called her name. Her robe was bulky, and instead of ceremonial hats, she wore some sort of hooded collar that choked more than it meshed well with the outfit, but she was here, graduating from university. All those teachers and foster parents that told her no could suck it because she just got her Bachelor of Science.
She shook the Dean's hand as he offered her congratulations, and as she turned, she wasn't longing for parents to be beaming proudly at her. Instead she caught a pair of deep chocolate eyes, almost golden with happiness as Regina cheered and clapped, standing from her seat in the balcony with a contagious grin on her face. The blonde beamed back, winking back when Regina blew her a kiss before she was promptly scurried from the stage.
The rest of convocation flew by in a blur. It was surreal being a university graduate. The daunting feeling of now what? almost overwhelmed her, especially since Regina convinced her to take a break between her final exam and graduation. For two months, Emma had taken up a home design project, re-wallpapering the walls of their new apartment, just one stop away from Granny's and along the main road, and had even started a mini garden on their fire escape window. Only six months into their new place, Emma was already known around the building as a handy woman and had even been enlisted by the superintendent to help him with some unit repairs. It was a pretty decent pay all things considering, but now Emma was a real adult and needed a real adult job.
When they filed out of the hall at the end of the ceremony, Emma felt a force press against her back, and all her fears and insecurities for the future were gone as she felt Regina's familiar weight behind her.
"Congratulations, graduate," the brunette beamed, holding out a small bouquet of yellow lilies for the blonde.
"It'll be you standing up there soon," Emma promised, leaning in for a kiss.
Regina met her eagerly with a pleased hum. "In a few years, perhaps. Night courses are only so limited."
Cameras flashed all around them and parents cried with their children. The tent in the middle of the quad where goody bags and school memorabilia were being held offered an enticing array of finger foods. Kathryn waved them over from the inside of the tent, but Regina dismissed her with a nod. The couple walked around the quad, away from the congregation to a more secluded area. Immediately Emma knew where Regina was leading them to, and when they got to the old oak tree with a bench underneath it, Emma was already whipping off the choking hood and gown and propping it over the bench. It had all started here nearly three years ago.
"I'm really proud of you," Regina said earnestly as they sat, kissing Emma's jaw.
"I never thought I'd actually graduate."
"With Honours," the brunette reminded happily.
Emma blushed prettily, letting Regina pull her in closer. "It still should have been you up there."
"Hey," Regina said softly. "We're past that, remember?"
Emma nodded and ducked down to press their foreheads together. "So this is real, huh?" She inquired quietly.
"Unless you've been living a dream this entire time, I'd say we're very real."
Emma didn't have much, and by extension, neither did Regina. If she could she would get the moon on a silver platter for the older woman, but for some reason, whether it was a crossed wire in Regina's brain or Emma was actually something special, all Regina wanted was sitting right beside her.
That was enough.