Chapter Sixteen

Regina's gaze snapped up and locked onto Emma's. "Emma," she said, almost breathlessly. They stared at one another a long moment, Emma taking in Regina's awed expression and Regina taking in Emma's subtle smile, and then Regina quietly asked, "What is this?"

Emma blinked once, twice, and then sighed, her shoulders sagging. "Really?" she drawled.

Regina's brows furrowed. "What?"

"I was just being totally sweet and romantic, and you ruined it with a question," Emma replied with a roll of her eyes.

"Romantic?" Regina asked sharply. "Are you saying that you were actually aiming to be romantic just now? With me? The Evil Queen?"

"I'm saying that if I was aiming to be romantic, it was a wasted effort, because you totally killed the mood."

"The mood?" Regina blurted. "I ruined 'the mood'? The mood I wasn't even aware existed until you mentioned as much?"

"Oh please, Regina," Emma deadpanned. "Don't act like you weren't aware of the mood."

"What is this?" Regina asked again, both wanting Emma to give her a real, solid answer and wanting to remain ignorant. Then again, Regina wasn't entirely sure that she was as ignorant as she was acting. The steady pounding beneath her ribs and the fluttering in her gut certainly said she wasn't.

"What is what, Regina?" Emma asked despite knowing exactly what Regina was referencing.

"This," Regina repeated, using her index finger to motion back and forth between herself and Emma. "Whatever this is that you are doing, that we are doing. You try to comfort my past. You crawl into my bed and tell me the ways we fit. You're suddenly openly complimenting my body. We are civil with one another, Emma, and at times, even true friends, but now you are changing the game. Why? What is this?"

"When are you going to stop asking me impossible questions?" Emma asked her, swiping a hand down her face. "What is this? What are we doing? Why do you care?"

"So, I can't ask questions now?" Regina snapped, crossing her arms tightly over her chest. Her gaze turned hard as she kept it fixed on the blonde.

Emma shook her head gently and laughed. She rose to her feet and began a slow pacing in front of the benches. "I don't get why you can't just accept something for what it is. Why can't you just let things happen, Regina?"

"Why can't you just put a name to it?" Regina countered bitterly, arching a brow at the pacing woman. "Why is it that I am the one who always needs to compromise? You want things to happen naturally. I want to be prepared. Excuse me if the life I've lived has made me lose my taste for surprises."

"Fine!" Emma snapped, turning to face the woman on the bench. "Fine, Regina. You want to talk about it? That's what you want? Fine. We'll talk about it."

Regina opened her mouth to respond, but Emma put a hand up to stop her. "But," the blonde continued, "not now. We have stuff we have to figure out first, and Henry and R are waiting for us back at Gold's. So, we're going to go deal with that first. We can talk about this later."

"So now you're the boss?" Regina asked, knowing she was being immature and petty, but she couldn't help herself. Anytime someone else pulled the reins from her hands, she lashed out. The lack of control made her feel insecure. It also didn't help that she and Emma Swan were but a breath away from completely exploding on one another, and Regina didn't know if that explosion would lead to utter destruction or allow them to rebuild their relationship into something possibly altogether better and more beautiful.

"Oh no, Regina," Emma bit out, "you've made it perfectly clear that things are definitely not going to go my way. Now, let's go."

Regina worked her jaw angrily even as her chest flooded with guilt before she rose to her feet, straightened her spine, and reluctantly followed Emma without a word.

Gold stared at R for several long moments, simply taking in the sight of her. It felt as if centuries had passed since he had last seen this Regina, the one with the bright eyes. He remembered watching from the shadows, through crystal balls, through enchanted mirrors. He remembered watching her grow. He remembered those bright eyes turning desperate. He remembered the first time she had ever called his name. He remembered turning those desperate eyes dark. He remembered every moment. Each one flashed through his mind every time he came face to face with the Regina of this world, the one he had molded so long ago.

He could never forget the things he had done to her. Even if he couldn't regret them, he also couldn't forget. He couldn't forgive himself.

It was yet another burden he had to live with.

"Uh, Grandpa?"

Henry's voice pulled Gold back to reality, the man blinking rapidly and turning to look at his grandson. Henry's expression was pure confusion. "Are you alright?" he asked, and Gold nodded without answering. "You sure?" Henry pressed. "Because you kind of zoned out there for a minute."

Gold offered Henry a tight smile. "I'm fine, Henry," he told the boy before turning his gaze back to R.

The teen was obviously intimidated by him, perhaps even frightened. He could see it, feel it radiating off of her. This Regina still wore her emotions on her sleeve. Everything that she felt haloed around her like a bright, colorful aura.

"Are you frightened of me, dearie?" Gold asked quietly as he took a few slinking steps toward her, his cane tapping gently against the shop floor.

R took as many steps back as Gold took forward, her gaze never leaving his. She shook her head slowly back and forth.

Gold smirked and a quiet chuckle escaped him. "Now, now," he said, "there's no need to lie."

R chewed on her bottom lip and took yet another step back so that her calves smacked into an antique trunk and she stumbled.

"And," Gold continued, a small smile playing at his lips, "there is also no reason to be afraid."

"Why do I not believe you?" R asked, having steadied herself and stepped to the side of the trunk. "Who are you?"

"Why, I'm the owner of this lovely establishment, of course," Gold told her, flicking a wrist in the air, "and I am also perhaps the only person who can help you return to your time."

"Yeah, R," Henry chimed in, walking around his grandfather to stand next to his mother's younger self, "he can help us. You don't have to be scared. He used to be a bad guy but he's not anymore, so there's nothing to be afraid of."

Those words only increased R's unease. She reached out and wrapped a hand around Henry's forearm, pulling him a bit closer to her. Henry didn't know if she was pulling him close because she was scared or because she was trying to protect him; either way, he was happy to stand beside her. He just wished he could somehow convince her that it was okay to trust Gold. The man was dodgy, for sure, but he'd been on the path to redemption for quite some time now, and Henry believed he could remain on that path. He hoped he would.

"Henry," she said quietly, "who is this man?"

"His name is R—"

"Mr. Gold," Gold interrupted quickly, locking eyes with his grandson and giving a subtle shake of his head. The less R knew of whom he was, the better. She would find out soon enough anyhow once returned to her time, and that was the way it was meant to be. "My name is Mr. Gold."

"Mr. Gold," the teen repeated softly.

"Indeed," Gold told her. He tilted his head forward an inch or two as if to say it was a pleasure to meet her. Perhaps it was, meeting her all over again.

Before R could respond, the door of the shop jerked open, the bell jingling overhead, and in walked Emma and Regina. Henry was disappointed to see that both his mothers looked hard-faced and angry, anything but on the verge of admitting they loved one another.

Regina's gaze tracked back and forth between Gold and her younger self. "What's going on here?" she asked sharply.

Gold looked up at her then, the barest hint of a smile dancing on his lips. "Oh nothing, dearie," he told her. "We were just getting better acquainted."

Regina arched a brow at him before sneering. Before she could reply, though, Emma chimed in with a hard, "Well don't, unless you want to get better acquainted with my fist." She stepped over in front of R, mostly blocking her from view, and crossed her arms over her chest.

Regina could hardly help the smile that tugged at the corners of her lips despite how annoyed she was with the Sheriff. She quickly schooled her features, though, and nodded firmly. "You can talk to us."

"Such hostility," Gold teased, smirking.

"Such history," Emma drawled. "Much wickedness. Big jerk." She then rolled her eyes and asked, "Can we move on now then?"

Regina snorted, her arms crossed over her chest in a mirror of Emma's, and she spared a glance to her son who was grinning despite trying not to. "Yes, dear," she agreed, turning back to Gold, "let's move on."

Gold chuckled lightly. "I think you both know I am going to have to talk to the girl," he told them, and Regina sighed.

"Fine," she bit out. "Let's just get this over with."

"And she just popped out of the air," Emma told Gold just as she had told Regina the day before. "Literally, right out of the air. It was like the sky unzipped for a second and just spit her out or something."

"Quite the description there, Sheriff," Gold replied, and Emma just gave him her usual deadpan stare that she hoped wordlessly communicated how little she cared for his sarcasm.

"Well, that's what happened," she said after a moment, shrugging. "You asked, and I answered."

Gold nodded. "Of course," he said smoothly, "but there were no colors in the air? No glimmering or shimmering? Any strange smells perhaps?"

Emma's brows furrowed as she contemplated that for a moment. She closed her eyes and did her best to recall the moment when R had come crashing out of the sky and barreling into her. It had all happened so quickly that she doubted she would have noticed any colors in the air even if they had been there. Smells, though. That was a bit different.

"I don't remember any colors," she told Gold, shaking her head, "but then she pretty much fell right on top of me, so I could've just missed them if they were there."

"I see."

"Now that you mention smells, though," she continued, and both Gold and Regina perked up. Henry and R stood silently behind Regina, just listening and waiting for someone to have an a-ha moment that could lead to some significant discovery. "I think I remember something smelling like…cinnamon, maybe? Or nutmeg? I figured it was just because I wasn't too far from Granny's, but do you think it could've been because of the ripple thing?"

As soon as the mention of the spices escaped Emma's lips, Gold's and Regina's eyes locked hard.

"What?" Emma asked, catching the knowing glance. "Is cinnamon important? Know any ripple makers who like to bake or something?" She snorted at her own humor, but neither Gold nor Regina spared her a glance, so she sighed. "Oh, come on. You guys are boring."

Gold finally turned to look at Emma then and said, "There is no such thing as a 'ripple maker', Miss Swan. The existence of ripples in time is not rare. It is the discovery of them that is the rarity. You see, one cannot create a ripple in time. One can, however, find one and magically force it open in order to use it."

"So, you're saying that there are random invisible time portals just sitting around everywhere that people could just stumble into?" Emma asked, her expression nothing short of positively bewildered.

"Cool!" Henry exclaimed from behind her.

"No, Miss Swan," Regina interjected, ignoring the glare from Emma at the use of the formal address, "one cannot simply stumble into a time ripple. They exist everywhere, but they can only be opened and accessed by a powerful source of magic."

"And it is anything but cool," she added, glancing to her son. "Messing with time is terribly dangerous and can have disastrous outcomes."

"Indeed," Gold agreed. "It is considered a foul form of magic, that which meddles with time."

"But then why are these ripples just sitting around everywhere then?" Emma asked him. "Why even tempt people?"

Gold sighed. "It is beyond any one person's control," he replied. "Ripples are a by-product of chance, a representation of flaws in the grand design."

"The grand design? Flaws? By-products of chance?" Emma repeated back to him. She then shook her head. "I'm so confused."

"And I unfortunately lack the patience to explain it all to you," Gold told her.

Emma glared at him. "Well, I don't care what you have the patience for. Explain."

Regina placed a hand on Emma's arm without thinking, a comforting touch to calm the woman. She could tell in that moment that Emma was overwhelmed. She was feeling a little overwhelmed herself, but at least she knew enough of magic to understand what Gold was telling them. Emma, on the other hand, didn't seem to be able to wrap her head around it so easily.

"The grand design," she told the blonde, "is the design of the universe, the laws by which each species exists and operates here."

"Precisely," Gold said, "and flaws occur when one's choices do not align with one's original fate. When that happens, a ripple in time is created. The ripple contains the fate that was cheated and preserves it. Fate then molds itself to the choice made and creates a new destined path for the one in question."

"Whoa," Henry said in awe. "So people can literally change their fates?"

"Oh yes," Gold answered. "It happens all the time."

"But then how would anyone ever truly know what was fate and what was not?" R suddenly chimed in, too intrigued to remain silent.

Gold smiled softly at her. "All is fate, dearie," he told her. "All that you do and don't do. All that you run from and all that you run toward. Each act is an act of fate, whether pre-destined or created by one's own will. What is chosen for you is fate as is what you choose for yourself. Wherever you end up is fate, whether fated by the grand design or fated by your own choices. It is simply the way of the universe."

Emma's eyes glazed over as she listened to Gold, and then she let out a long, heavy sigh that bordered on a groan. "Well, the universe's existential b.s. is giving me a headache," she grumbled once he finished, and Regina smirked.

"You are not alone, dear," she said, nodding, and Emma smiled at her before she could stop herself. When she realized that they were basically just grinning at one another while three other people stared at them, she quickly cleared her throat and turned back to Gold.

"So, what does any of this have to do with colors and cinnamon or whatever?"

Gold said nothing as his gaze flicked from Emma to Regina and then past them both to settle on R. "I'm going to need to speak with her."

Regina chewed her bottom lip for only a moment before turning to face her younger self. "R," she said softly, "come here, please."

The teen stepped forward, looking apprehensive. "Have I done something?" R asked worriedly.

"No, no," Regina replied, placing a hand on R's back and rubbing soothingly between her shoulder blades, "but Mr. Gold needs to ask you a few questions."

The last thing R wanted to do was talk to this man who gave her chills that simply refused to subside, but she knew that this was hardly the moment to let her discomfort get the better of her. So, she nodded her acceptance and turned to face the man.

"Dear," Gold began, "can you tell me what you remember about crossing over?"

"Nothing," R answered honestly. "I remember nothing. One moment, I was home, and the next, I was here. I remember nothing of the transition."

"And before?" he asked her. "Do you remember what you were doing prior to traveling through time?"

"I…" R hesitated, looking back and forth between Regina and Emma. "I was resting."

"Resting?" Gold asked her. "You were asleep?"

"No," she answered honestly. "I had yet to fall asleep. I was simply lying in my bed."

"Doing?" Gold pressed. "Thinking about?"

R's cheeks colored a soft pink. "Love," she answered in a whisper. "I was thinking about love."