"I forget—is it cream in the cereal and skim in the coffee, or the other way around?"
Regina looked up from the newspaper in front of her and flashed a smile at the man. "It's been over a year and you still can't figure out the difference between skim and cream?"
Robin laughed, approaching the table with both cartons in hand. "Hey, you've had thirty years to get used to the oddities of this place. What kind of a world has more than one type of milk from a cow?"
Regina shook her head and grabbed the cream from his left hand, her fingers grazing over his as she slid the carton from his grip. She looked him in the eye, her eyebrow raised, and poured the cream into her coffee.
He snorted and poured the skim milk into her cereal for her, his arm extended in front of the article she'd been reading.
And there it was. The lion tattoo. The reason she'd been trying to keep the exasperation from her voice whenever he asked her an inane question that he could have solved himself with only two seconds of actual thought. The reason she'd been feigning a desire to sleep with him for any reason other than to get him to shut his mouth.
He was her soulmate.
If only Tinker Bell had never stolen the fairy dust that revealed the man with the lion tattoo to be her soulmate. Regina thought often of the night she first saw him, the decision she made to leave without speaking to him. She had been acting out of fear, but fear, she now reminded herself, was sometimes necessary to survival. Like when you are confronted with a bear in the forest. Or a lion on some boring asshole's arm. If only she could have pretended never to have seen it when their paths crossed decades later. But there was no fighting it, really. He was, and would always be, her one true love.
In her darkest moments she wondered if the soulmate system was linked to some Snow Whitesque system of atonement. She had always considered her one-liners quick-witted and sassy, evidence of her high intelligence and dry sense of humour. Robin had charmed her by matching each barbed comment with one of his own. But the appeal had waned over time and she'd begun to wonder: Had he ever really been funny? Had she? The growing resentment and hatred she felt for this man had started to spread to herself.
Perhaps this was the end of the Evil Queen, she thought. Her ego had diminished. Her sense of self had been lost. Maybe this placid wearing down of one another's expectations was what everybody meant by a happy ending. What if this was happiness? What then?
She snapped back into the present, Robin now seated next to her with his own bowl of cereal.
"I thought you were supposed to eat this stuff before it turned into a cold mush." He nodded to her bowl of untouched cereal, now revoltingly saturated and limp.
Regina groaned and pushed the bowl away, catching a glimpse of the time on her watch. She stood, chugged her coffee, and bid farewell to her suitor.
"Don't I get a kiss?" he called after her.
"I'm late!" she called back.
In fact, she wasn't late. She just wasn't as early as she would have liked.
"Come on in," Emma said, abandoning her at the door to tend to some smoky mess in the kitchen.
Regina had been teasing the sheriff about her cooking skills for months, arriving earlier each week to take over her son's breakfast preparations. Any chance to remind Emma that the fake memories she had of being Henry's mother did not actually equip her with a decade's worth of motherhood skills.
She stared flatly at the woman as she dumped two charred pieces of toast in the garbage. Skirting around her, Regina made her way to the bag of bread and put four new pieces down in the toaster.
"Now you're making my breakfast, too?" Emma asked, prodding at the eggs frying in the pan in front of her. "That's oddly nice of you."
Regina grimaced. "Robin ruined my cereal this morning. I thought you could spare two measly pieces of toast, after all of the time I've been saving you by making Henry's breakfasts."
Emma sighed and shook her head. "I don't know what I was thinking. Go right ahead. Want me to put another egg on for you?"
Regina stared into the pan, wondering if the woman was about to poison Henry with salmonella. "No thank you. Toast is quite enough for me."
A beat passed before Emma asked, "So, how exactly does one ruin cereal?"
Now it was Regina's turn to sigh. "It wasn't his fault, really. I just got distracted after he poured the milk in."
"Ugh," Emma recoiled. "TMI. Sorry I asked."
Regina frowned, puzzled by Emma's reaction. TMI, TMI, what was that one again?
Henry interrupted her train of thought by making an appearance on the stairs. He slunk down, step by step, and walked like a zombie to the island counter. "Mmrg," he mumbled in greeting.
"Good morning to you too, kid," Emma said with a laugh.
"You used to be so bubbly in the mornings." Regina divided the toast onto two plates and absentmindedly put two more pieces of bread in the toaster. "Maybe you're not feeding him well enough at night. When he lived with me, he had more energy than this."
"Regina, he's 13. Things change."
Henry groaned again and shuffled to the fridge for some orange juice. Regina passed him the tallest glass in the cupboard and watched, concerned, as he filled and emptied the glass.
"So you're saying this is puberty, not malnutrition?" Regina asked, gesturing to the boy refilling his glass.
"Please don't say that word," Henry groaned. "It's gross when you say it."
"Puberty is nothing to be ashamed of, kid," Emma said, focusing on flipping the eggs.
"It's gross when you say it, too," the boy mumbled.
"Is it grosser when I say it or when your mom says it?" Emma teased, apparently high on the victory of having successfully flipped both eggs. "Pyuuuberrrtyyyy."
Regina nearly choked on her toast. The woman was deliberately antagonizing Henry, and she would probably get away with it! This was a game to her. She could tease Henry and he wouldn't start having a fit and storm out of the house, accusing her of being evil. As thankful as Regina was that Henry now remembered his life in Storybrooke before the curse that took him and Emma away, she was becoming increasingly bitter to learn how much better he considered the memories from his fake life with Emma. The memories Regina herself had given him.
Emma turned to Regina expectantly. Of course it was a game, Regina reminded herself. Play. She swallowed and composed herself.
"Puberty," she enunciated.
Henry looked between the two of them and grudgingly pointed at Regina.
She wasn't sure whether that meant she'd won or lost to Emma.
Emma laughed and served the eggs onto Henry's plate. "It's okay, kid. I won't say puberty around you anymore. Except when I'm talking about puberty."
"Ugh, if you promise never to say that word again, can I come back home and live with you?" Henry asked Regina, his mouth full of bread and eggs.
Her heart skipped a beat. For a moment another wave of anger washed over her, remembering the day she'd come home to a collection of boxes in the foyer. Robin had helped Henry pack up his room to bring all of his belongings to Emma's house. Now it was Roland's room, and despite Robin's insistence that the room would always be Henry's when he visited, her son hadn't slept over once. He would never return home now, thanks to Robin.
She could sense Emma's eyes on her at Henry's joke—and it was a joke, she reminded her pathetic heart—and decided to keep playing along.
"But what if I slip up, and I say… puberty?" she asked, crunching down on her piece of toast.
"Ugh, you guys are so gross." Henry scooped up the last bit of egg on his plate and shoved away from the counter, trudging toward the bathroom to brush his teeth.
Regina smiled. It had been fun to make her son squirm. It was like when he was four and he made her be the tickle monster after he saw a dad on TV doing it. She learned to play games for him before, and she could still do it now.
Plus, she thought, looking over at Emma scrubbing the frying pan, she was certain she'd won.
Emma looked up from her desk when the man sighed for the fourth time. "Robin, if you're bored with your paperwork, I can send you out on patrol. David should probably come back and work on the papers from last week's burglary anyway. I'll swap you."
"No, Sheriff, I'm fine," Robin replied. "Sorry if I've bothered you."
Emma raised an eyebrow. "No snappy comeback? What's up with you?"
"Did Regina seem different today?" he asked. "When she picked Henry up from your place?"
"She was in a bit of a better mood than usual. She made me toast! Sort of. She kind of left it in the toaster too long and it burned a little. Why?"
Judging from his furrowed brow, this was not the answer he was expecting. "I feel like she's constantly in a bad mood around me. I thought maybe it was something going on with Henry, but… maybe it's me."
"Huh." She remembered Regina's comment about how Robin had distracted her from her cereal this morning and shuddered. "I'm really trying to avoid TMI territory with other people's relationships, but from what she said this morning, it sounded like you had a very… fulfilling romance."
Robin nodded, distracted by his thoughts, which he thankfully did not voice.
"Speaking of Regina, though, I should probably go and take Henry off her hands. See you at 9 tomorrow. Staff meeting. Don't forget."
Emma approached the diner that afternoon without trepidation. It seemed the awkward stage of this new custody arrangement had finally passed. She and Regina might never be friends, but if they could team up to tease Henry like they did this morning, maybe one day they could parent him as a team, too, instead of as rivals.
"Good, Emma, you're here." Henry said, his tone signaling her to an argument he was having with his mother that he clearly wanted her to resolve. "Can I get a tattoo?"
"What? No! Why the hell do you want a tattoo?"
Despite his disappointment, he scootched over to make room for her at the booth.
"Henry wants to be a grown-up now," Roland chipped in, a crayon scratching away at the colouring pad in front of him.
Henry side-eyed the boy, as though wary that Roland, too, might try to ruin his life by speaking the word 'puberty' in front of him.
"Well, I was thinking about what you said earlier," Henry explained, turning his attention back to Emma. "The 'p' word. And how, if I were in Fairytale Land, I would probably go through some ceremony or something, like Robin did. Even you got a tattoo at my age!"
She ignored Regina's glare and focused. She had no excuse for the decision she'd made, and she didn't regret it either. "Henry, your mom and I both grew up in a different environment than this one. And if you compare your life to ours at your age, you should just be counting your lucky stars you have two parents who are actually looking out for you. If you still want a tattoo when you're 18, you're free to go do that, but for now—"
"Excuse me?" Regina interrupted. "He will not be getting a tattoo when he turns 18."
"Regina, we can't keep him from doing anything once he's an adult." She turned to Henry. "I just hope you'll respect us enough to consult us on the big things."
"Like tattoos," Regina added. "You don't want to go marking up your beautiful body."
Ruby's instinct for gossip drew her to the table with a cup of hot chocolate for Emma. Henry squirmed in embarrassment as the waitress joined the conversation.
"I don't think tattoos detract from beauty. Plus, Regina, you can't really talk. You're practically married to a tattooed man!"
"Yeah, and they don't keep you from getting jobs anymore, either," Emma added. "I mean, I'm the sheriff."
"You have a tattoo?" Ruby asked. "I never noticed."
"It's just a flower on her wrist," Henry said. "I'd want something big, like a chainmail sleeve."
"Henry, no," Regina said in a pleading tone. "So tacky."
Ruby, meanwhile, had seized Emma's wrist. "Pretty! Hey, it kind of looks like the flower on your family's crest. I think this world calls those ville de lyons, or something."
"Does that mean, like, lion village?" Henry asked. "That sounds pretty badass for a flower."
Or at least that's what it sounded like Regina was trying to say. It came out more like a whisper. She was staring down at her hands on the table and looked a little pale to Emma.
"Hey, you alright?" Emma asked, tapping Regina's hand.
Regina drew in a sharp breath and withdrew her hand. For a moment Emma worried she was about to scream at her for touching her. Instead the woman plastered on a smile and calmly answered, "I'm fine. But I really should go home and make some dinner."
She and Roland were through the door so quickly, Emma swore Regina only had her coat half-on.
"Did I do something wrong?" she asked Henry.
"I don't know," Henry mumbled with a shrug. "Maybe she's just up to something weird."
Emma sighed. That was just what she needed right now.
Regina paced the hallways of the house, thinking. Something in the diner had clicked.
Ville de lyon.
A lion flower.
Was it possible the fairy dust that pointed to Robin had made a mistake? The thought that Emma Swan could be her real soulmate sent waves of anger and panic through her body. She didn't seriously think the woman could be her match, but the possibility that she was—shudder—meant it was possible Robin wasn't. How could the fairy dust rule out someone who hadn't been born at the time it was cast, someone who would grow up in another dimension? For all Regina knew, the dust got confused by the name of the flower and settled on Robin's gaudy beast tattoo instead.
The saviour was famous for getting into every single narrative in this town and turning it on its head. As far as Regina was concerned, Emma Swan's ill-advised lion flower tattoo could be her way out of this unbearable destiny with Robin Hood. She would save her worries about how unbearable life with the saviour would be until after she'd found a way out of this mess with Robin.
But was that how it really worked? Could she argue her way out of her true love pairing like some TV lawyer? Could she poke holes in the methodology of the dust? She needed answers.
Fuck dinner. Robin could fend for himself, and Roland wouldn't mind eating at the diner. She told Roland to get ready to go out again, and she pulled out her phone, scrolling through her list of contacts until she found the one that mattered most right now.
"Twice in one day!" Ruby teased, as Regina entered the diner, Roland in tow.
She ignored the waitress and scanned the room for the fairy. The door jingled behind her and she turned to find her old friend. She held out her arm, gesturing to the booth in the corner. "Shall we?"
Once they'd seated themselves and ordered their food, Roland busied himself with the puzzles printed on his placemat, and Regina got to business.
"The fairy dust that night, where did you get it?"
"The fairy dust that showed me the path to—" she glanced at Roland then back at Tink, "to you-know-who. You stole it, right?"
Tinker Bell squinted. "You know I did. Why?"
"Well, have you ever wondered why there would be fairy dust lying around for you to steal? I mean, we all know you weren't the most competent fairy. How did you pull off such a challenging feat?"
"Well, don't you think it's a bit odd that you were warned not to help me, and then you went and looked around and there was fairy dust for you to steal? I mean, was it even the right kind of fairy dust? Maybe it was bad fairy dust. That's why it was lying out. It was supposed to be thrown away."
Tink closed her eyes and massaged her temples. "Let me get this straight. You think I helped you with fairy dust from a garbage dumpster, that somebody planted there to sabotage my plan to help you. Fairy dust that could help you fly but somehow malfunctioned in its most important task."
Regina had expected her questions to offend. The woman was a fairy again, after all. "Am I glowing?" she asked the fairy.
"You want to know if you're glowing?"
"Yes. Am I glowing with new love, Tinker Bell?"
The fairy shook her head. "You're not glowing." She sighed. "Look, I can guess by your questions what this is about, but all I can tell you is that fairy dust doesn't lie. Just like that night at the tavern, you had to give a little to get your happy ending, too. Maybe you're having a hard time with Rob—"
Regina cleared her throat and nodded toward the child, who was colouring a portion of his placemat.
"Look, Regina, the fairy dust tells you who, but relationships actually take work, even if you know you're meant to be together."
"Is it possible for fairy dust to settle for a person? Is it possible that I'm meant to be with someone else with some of the same traits, but the dust couldn't find them? Someone else with a lion tattoo?"
"A lion tattoo?" Tink asked. "Regina, I was the one who pointed out the tattoo. The dust wasn't just looking for some random with a tat."
"But what if a person's soulmate wasn't alive when you used the dust?"
"Is this about Daniel? Regina, you need to move on from Daniel and accept that you can be happy with someone else."
"It's not about Daniel."
Tink lowered her voice, just in case Roland decided to tune in. "Do you think you're in love with someone else?"
"No!" Regina spat, resuming in a whisper. "I just think that there is a possibility that I might not be meant to be with him, specifically. What if, for example—" She sighed and looked around the diner before continuing, "What if—and I have never, ever—" She sighed again. "What if a woman's soulmate is another woman? I just wonder, with Mulan and all, I mean, what would the fairy dust have told her?"
A patronizing smile spread across Tink's face. "Look, Regina, fairy dust tells you who your happy ending should be with. You were dealt this hand. You can't just burn the cards."
Ruby arrived with their plates, but Tink stood from the table. "Thanks all the same, Ruby, but I think I've actually got to take mine to go."
Regina gritted her teeth. Most of her questions hadn't been answered. Was it a conspiracy, a time-space error, or a homophobic bias on the part of the dust itself? The only answer that had come to her with any clarity was this: there was no way she would ever find a happy ending with the man who made Emma Swan look like a romantic upgrade.