The season had truly turned now, the air lofty with the green-scented rebirths that mark spring, and Regina imagined Mary Margaret smiling that particularly earnest smile of hers and chattering nonsense in her ear, conspiratorially, about leaning into the changes around them and moving forward.
And Regina could almost let herself be convinced – she felt the knot around her heart loosening its pinch, and she was left half desperate to clench onto the old ache, to claim forever the steadying weight of heartbreak, and half swayed to embrace the lightness for how gently it stole over her – lulled as she was by the way Storybrooke settled into its calm, familiar ways around her.
Whatever alliance had brought Cruella, Ursula, and Maleficent together had collapsed rather spectacularly in on itself, first betrayed by Ursula, then Mal, and a final confrontation that had seen Gold slip through the cracks again, Cruella dead, and Regina confined to a hospital bed for two nights for what felt like several years' worth of concussions hitting her at once.
She'd come to to the quiet burbling of voices, indistinct from the other sensations pressing in that she couldn't quite blink into order until "Mom!" cut through to the depths of her and she knew him, she knew Henry, and he was one thing to hold on to.
Her hand in his hand (bigger than hers now, and she keeps forgetting that about him), and Henry leaned across the bed to hug her gently, awkwardly, as she set her teeth and tried to lever herself up.
There was an exasperated snort from the foot of the bed. "If you even think of saying fine I'll have them keep you on suspicion of permanent brain damage," Emma said with a dangerous lack of humor.
They locked eyes for a moment, daring each other (like old times, though the antagonism didn't quite bite as it used to), until Regina half-growled, "Hungry," in defeat.
Emma beamed. "Lucky for you, I know where they keep the jello."
"Are you trying to make me vomit?"
"Come on, it's not a real hospital visit without jello – right, kid?" Henry hummed his assent. "Is strawberry okay, or should I try to find a flavor that's less plebeian?"
Regina sighed, muttering traitor to Henry from the side of her mouth. "Strawberry is fine."
To say she didn't like hospitals was pointless – did anyone? – but it was this kind of watchful attention, even kindly meant, the lack of control she had over even the simplest of decisions, that set her on edge.
The medications made her dull and sleepy, and the asylum-colored walls did nothing to improve her mood nor ease the way her mind skipped errantly between thoughts like a stone cast over water, but there was a certain restfulness in sitting with her son, in listening to him describe the plot of the latest issue of Justice League (with sound effects to make her gasp and laugh in all the right places) – in, just for a moment, not being asked to confront whatever latest adversary was threatening to upend their lives here.
A doctor came in, and she submitted to his battery of tests if only to prove to Henry (and herself) just how fine she was. She answered a string of inane questions with as much sarcasm as she could muster, recounting her memories of the day leading up to the fight with Cruella until she unexpectedly faltered, butting up against a sea of darkness in her mind that she could not feel her way through.
"Cruella, Gold, big blast of light, and…?" she repeated, looking to Henry for help.
"The side of my bug," Emma supplied from the doorway with a sympathetic wince, balancing two plates that quivered with gelatin in every conceivable color. "You left a helluva dent in it. I'm not sure if that means you're supposed to pay me for damages or the other way around."
She was fading by the time the doctor left, trying to memorize the numbers he had read off her chart before they lost all meaning to her and, ultimately, falling asleep while Emma and Henry had a conversation over her, fragments of it working their way in and out of her hearing until she woke to a dark room.
Everything felt sideways, her brain struggling to process the unfamiliar shapes of hospital machinery, the moonlight striking through a half-curtained window, and…the cane propped against the foot of her bed and the silhouette of a man beside it, waiting for her to speak with all the patience and guile of an asp.
How sharper than a serpent's tooth.
There was a pang of fear (childish, so childish to still be afraid of this man, and yet she knew anything less was impossible) somewhere in her chest, tamped down by drugs and the haze of sleep, but her teeth were bared when she broke the silence.
Regina read amusement in the gleam of his eyes, in his bitter grin, through the darkness. "Articulate as always, I see."
"I'll have you –"
"Now, now, don't get ahead of yourself, dearie. We both know you'll be doing nothing tonight."
"Then what do you want, Gold? Am I supposed to guess? Play twenty questions?"
"As much as I would enjoy making a game of it, I'm afraid this visit is purely…business." He would sound almost sorry if he were capable of something as mundane as regret in any meaningful way. "Reckonings, and all that. It's getting a bit tiresome, really."
Regina snorted at that – tiresome. Oh, she knew tiredness, seemed to be ever-steeped in it while Gold and the others pursued all means to their ends indefatigably.
Her anger, her exhaustion, the uncomfortable angling of her body to keep Gold in view was making her head ache again. He was leading her to some new noose, trapping her – she could sense the closing around her neck before it ever touched – but she had no mind for his riddles, for the endless power plays between them. "So put me out of my misery. What do you want from me?"
"Nothing." His chair creaked as he shifted weight forward, elbows on knees, closer to her. "I want you to do nothing. Be the Mayor, raise your son, do whatever it is that amounts to what you would call a life here… and forget the Author. Let me go my way unhindered, and we'll all be –" he hesitated over the word, clenched a fist "– happier for it."
"And you'll, what, rewrite reality into something monstrous so you can pretend all along you've been the hero to Emma's Dark One?" Even saying it felt wrong, like it was apt to cut her tongue. "I don't think that's how happiness works."
Gold was nearer than she thought, as he somehow always was, and pressing something cool into her hand. A phone, the light squinting her eyes and making her blink, blink, until the painful blur of the screen began to form itself into a photograph.
Regina stopped breathing on her own, Gold's victory over her astonishing in its immediacy and yet so predictable, so cunningly obvious that she wondered at it despite herself. She heard the whisper of foolish girl against her ear and never knew whether it was Gold's voice or her own making the accusation.
"I'll spare you the details of what I'll do to them –" he said them, but everything she heard was him "– should you, should anyone, try to interfere."
It was a recent picture: Robin dressed in unfamiliar clothes, and Marian laughing prettily beside him, and Roland in the middle, taller than she remembered but still in need of a haircut, as he perpetually seemed to be.
They were, undeniably, happy.
And they were damned, walking the width of a knife's edge they didn't even know existed, because of her.
Gold had stood, reclaiming his cane and tapping back to her, and freed the phone from her unresisting fingers, tucked it into a pocket. Regina had never seen him so somber in triumph. This was, as he had said, purely business, though there was no comfort in the fact.
His hand rose, passing neck and cheek to rest against her temple, pushing a loose strand of hair behind her ear in a gesture even her father had never used with her.
"We understand each other," he said, and there was no question in it.
The barest tip of her chin into a nod (because they did, because they always had understood the worst of each other, the weakness) and he left her to pass the night as she would, dizzy and helpless and haunted by a thread of birdsong that sang of a sky the color of those eyes.
She discharged herself in the morning, merely staring at those who raised a protest until they stepped back, eyes lowered, and found the appropriate paperwork for her to sign. She made one concession to their concern, which was to call Emma and ask to be driven home.
Emma, to her credit, neither sounded surprised nor argued with her, though the police cruiser arrived with a quickness that suggested she had broken several traffic laws to get there.
"Missed us that much, huh?" she cracked as Regina brushed past her into the passenger's seat.
"Something like that."
"You know, Henry's not going to be happy you pulled this little jailbreak against doctor's orders. I could stay over for a few days, if you –"
"He won't be safe now, not with Gold out there." The words guttered out of her, faint and confessional, before she could think better of it.
Emma frowned. "Who, Henry?"
She laid out the facts of Gold's visit tersely, reciting them with the same clinical detachment someone else might report the minutes of a town hall meeting. And, closing her eyes to speak of the threat against Robin, she felt the creep of selfishness through her, in the way she was asking-but-not-asking for the life of one man she had loved (his child, his...wife) to be measured against all of their lives and found worthy.
To stand still and let Gold bend the Author to his will, or to take up arms against him – either way they, she, would lose, but the mathematics of the thing were unflinchingly unambiguous in the light of day.
Such clarity could only ever burn her.
A soft touch and squeeze at her arm as Emma said, far more kindly than she had any right to be, "Hey, we'll find a way to make it right."
A resigned sort of silence fell momentarily between them, as if they were both waiting for the punchline to a joke they hadn't quite heard. Emma glanced away from the road long enough to catch her eye, and smiled with a knowingness that was half playful and half pained. "We always do."
They didn't speak of it again, in the car or in the days that followed as Regina's world again narrowed, needle-precise, to her duties as mayor and mother; to the quickening revolutions of paperwork into and out of her office as she arrived earlier and stayed later, her schedule mirroring the sun; to too much coffee and too little sleep; to nightly dinners with Henry spent discussing algebra and comic books and hypothetical uses for the town's budget surplus.
It was a life, she thought firmly, in whatever few moments she was left unoccupied and vulnerable to memories of a certain sly voice against her ear. She only wondered if it would all taste less bitter had she not been forced (as if the compulsion were more than a failing in her own heart) into it.
One evening she arrived home under the full fire-blaze of sunset, later than she intended, to an empty house and a post-it note stuck to the kitchen counter: Eating grandma's and grandpa's. Leftover lasagna in the fridge, and don't forget your vegetables! Henry
She laughed a bit at being parented by her own teenage son, but it was colored by a thread of guilt at the thought that Henry was not entirely playacting – she was worrying him with her behavior, she knew, and she made a mental note not to work so late again.
She kicked off her heels, kneading her toes into the blessedly soft carpeting, but didn't bother to change as she set about heating up her dinner and washing dishes, wrist-deep in soapy water when the doorbell chimed and startled her into dropping a plate back into the suds.
It would be like Henry to forget his keys on a night like this, she thought, barely drying her hands on a loose towel before she made her way to the door.
Emma, who never called when she could simply show up unannounced, was standing on the porch, and behind her, backed by a dying fury of light and fidgeting from foot to foot, was (her tired eyes misleading her, though the vision remained unchanged after she swiped her arm across them, and it was only her hands against the doorframe that caught her) Robin.
There was an uneasy silence around them, and a wild thrum of magic rose through Regina unbidden as she searched the yard, the skies, for any signs of incoming danger. No one had seen Gold since her encounter with him at the hospital, but why else – how else – could Emma have brought him here unless there had been some terrible disturbance in the magic that protected Storybrooke, or in the world outside.
"What's happened?" she demanded, arms still holding her upright against the doorway, now raising even further in defense against everything unknown.
"Nothing's happened, Regina," Emma answered gently. "Well, I mean, things have happened, but everyone's fine, and Gold still hasn't poked his nose out of whatever hole he's hiding in. It's fine."
She still hadn't looked at him at all, not really, not until she had an explanation for the impossibility of his return. To look upon him, in her frightened mind, meant to break the illusion, to either see him disappear back into the ether from which he had stepped or be struck to stone herself upon meeting his too-real gaze.
"I don't understand," she whispered (she thought she did) only to Emma, quiet desperation in words and eyes. It seemed to be the only thing she could stay, had to stifle herself to keep it from pouring out in an endless chain: I don't understand I don't understand I don't I don't.
But Emma was already backing away, removing herself as the last obstacle between them, and Regina wanted to curse her for this betrayal. "Look, I should go – I'm technically still on the clock right now. Henry can stay at the loft tonight, okay?"
They listened to the beat of her boots receding against the pavement, the slam of a car door and flicker-to-life of an engine, and neither of them had moved, even to tremble. Neither of them had raised their eyes from the neutral territory (it felt the width of an ocean and of a raindrop at once) between them.
An untold number of heartbeats passed between them, and at last Regina stepped back, and it was not an invitation.
She walked into the house; he followed, the hesitant click of the door behind him giving her something of her strength back.
She stopped in the living room, using its formality to her advantage, pulling herself straighter while longing for her cast-off heels, and preparing to speak to him as nothing more than a man, a practical stranger.
Someone she had known, once, before learning to forget.
She turned, leaned against the back of an armchair and, refusing the same respite to him, raised her head at last. She could look at him without looking at him, a trick of the eyes, though the odd few details slipped through. His boots were the same, well-scuffed and probably tracking dirt even now; his scarf was new, green, hanging lopsided almost down to his waist.
"You're certain Roland is all right? And...Marian?" she asked, pleased that the words came out so evenly.
Robin cleared his throat, and she wondered if she had embarrassed him. "Yes, they're both well. Safe. We thought it best to leave them where they are now – well protected – until we knew more about what Gold's intentions are, and how carefully he is keeping watch here."
The conversation stilled, both of them more than a little lost. He reached out to trail a finger absently over a ridge in the wall. "It's just how I remembered it. I've thought about this place often, since…" Regina felt him shy away from that memory in the same moment she did.
"We all have," he finished finally, and she wondered at his meaning.
"Why...why are you here, Robin?"
She had named him aloud at last, almost without realizing, the word cutting keen over her tongue though it sounded ordinary when it emerged, a simple noun like any other. She didn't miss the way his hands jerked in response.
"I…" He shook his head ruefully, then seemed to laugh at himself. "It feels like a long story to tell, and one I've mislaid half the details to."
"Of course, I'm sorry," she murmured. "You must have had quite the day. A drink, perhaps?"
She didn't wait for an answer, padded over to the liquor cabinet, and purposefully reached past the whiskey (theirs no longer) to darker bottles lined up in the back. It was her own cider, sweet and stinging, that she poured into two tumblers, nudging one towards Robin in a way that offered no chance for their hands to inadvertently meet.
Her movements, her silences, were crafted to preserve every distance between them, a queen feinting around the edges of her chessboard, and Regina wondered if Robin had caught on to her defenses.
(How could he miss them, when he had always been able to read her so unerringly?)
He didn't sit, so she didn't, as if the mere act of a more companionable silence was intimacy beyond what they could bear, and they are left sipping at cider in isolation despite being near enough to touch.
She wondered, somewhat taken aback by her own cruelty, if every taste of apples reminded Robin of her.
If she so rightfully (it shamed her, to think like this) remained ever-present on his tongue, on his lips, the way he, all smoke and salt, had been scored onto hers.
"How did you cross the town line?" she asked, looking to be distracted by facts once more.
Everything she said seemed to be laced with accusation when she didn't intend it, the combative echo of You were never supposed to come back that underpinned her question causing her to flinch.
"There was a scroll, magic…" Robin gestured vaguely, apologetically, with his glass. "I'm afraid I don't understand it very well myself. You'll have to ask Emma to explain it."
Oh, yes, she meant to have Emma explain a great many things when next they met.
But the question, or maybe the drink, had tipped Robin into a mood to talk.
"We left New York several weeks ago, you know. It wasn't the right place for us – we felt ourselves strange there, uneasy for reasons none of us could explain. Too loud, too much, too something. Marian was the first to suggest we leave –" Regina felt her eyebrow quirk at that "– and Roland missed these woods, so."
He shrugged, as if the story were as simple as that: a boy missed a place that had briefly been home to him, and so they had returned.
"You can't mean to tell me you've been living at the town line all this time?"
Robin chuckled humorlessly. "No, no, not exactly. Marian and I found jobs in the nearest town – she at Roland's school, me as a mechanic, though not a very good one – and rented a little place. It's not much, but it all felt temporary anyway. Like we were just waiting."
Regina clicked her tongue against her teeth in frustration; Robin, too, had a tendency for speaking in riddles. "Waiting for what?"
"Today, I suppose. An opportunity to come…" His eyes flicked to hers, a wink of blue that threatened to blind her, and the last word came low but emphatically. "Home."
"But how could you have known any of this was possible?" She was trembling now, in anger or fear or something else she could not yet name. "You should have been stranded on the other side."
"I don't know." His voice rose to meet hers, equally heated. "It was only a calling, one that's been drawing me back since almost the moment I left. I had to follow."
She turned from him then, pressing herself flat against the wall in some gesture of containment. They had strayed dangerously close to the reason behind his leaving, the reason for their present agonies (perhaps only hers, as he had everything yet), and all the broken places she had worked to heal in his absence were cracking under this slightest strain.
She could sense him moving behind her and almost wished for the prick of his knife against her throat.
"It must be said, Regina," he began, hushed, and she hated him for the way he still spoke her name with reverence. "Marian and I are not...together anymore. Not as husband and wife. It was all done amicably, mutually. Truth be told, I think Marian's taken to this world better than any of us – the opportunities, the new beginnings it offers a person like her – and she deserves the freedom to discover who she might be here."
Even now she was shaking her head in refusal, guarding the last of her heart against the implications, against the hopeless promises Robin seemed to be extending to her.
"We are not the same people we once were, and we cannot pretend to be what we are not. It hurt both of us to try."
Her heart might break a little, for him, then. She found her voice, let it thrust as cleanly as a killing blow. "I've seen the love you hold for each other. Would you deny it?"
"Yes, we love each other." His words ached, caught between confessional and exasperated, and she took no more pleasure in hurting him like this. "And Marian will always be someone I care deeply for – as a first love, as Roland's mother, as a dear friend – but she is not the one I burn for."
It was his words that burned, the growing intensity in them speaking to their truth, and still Regina could not hear it, could not bear to.
"Who I live and die for in dreams and in the waking world and in every space in between."
He stood behind her now, the electricity of his nearness quivering between them, and she could feel how powerfully he was restraining himself from reaching out to her, his body rigid with the effort of keeping that distance, only a hand's breadth, until she opened herself to him.
He was so raw in his want when he said, "That title belongs only to you."
She was compelled to face him, so weak for this man, and felt the rest of the hardness in her collapse. "And when have titles brought me anything but…"
They both know the disasters of her life too well.
"No titles, then," and he softened to her, smiling with all his gentleness. His goodness. "But you must know it, Regina – know it, even if my saying it means nothing – how I've loved you for years, nearly from the moment you refused my aid in the forest."
She scoffed at that, and tried to wipe her vision clear. "Impossible."
"Inevitable." He found her hand first, brought it to rest over his heart, and eased her into his grasp. "I was fated for you, and even when fate fell through, I've always been able to find my way back to you."
"Did you steal that line from Charming?"
A thumb sang across her lower lip as Robin lifted her chin, bringing their eyes into proper alignment (a dizzying rotation, she the earth and he her axis) for the first time. "Can't steal what's been given to you."
Looking into his eyes directly, she loosed a challenge to the gods themselves, and to fate, and to all the missteps that had led them here and would lead them onwards, so long as they consented to walk them together:
So blind me, then.
So be the death of me.
A man raised his bow to her, released, and this time she didn't raise a hand to block the arrow's course to her heart.
It (he) struck something vital, deep within, and, though she tasted blood, it didn't hurt.
It didn't hurt at all, this giving in.
She woke to a concert of birds and the milky half-light that meant it was not yet dawn, and, despite the tiredness yawning through her, she knew she would not sleep again.
Her legs wandered to the empty side of the bed as she stretched, and that was what ultimately pulled her out of bed and down the hall, in search of the one who might occupy that lonely place again.
They had both agreed that Robin should take the guest room that night, feeling shy and somewhat awkward (above all, emotionally spent) with each other after the initial intensity of their reunion. And there she found him, spread carelessly over the covers as if he had not so much gone to sleep but fallen into it and snoring quietly. She watched the movement behind his eyelids – she had missed these small moments, how these collected details of Robin belonged to her alone – and decided not to disturb his rest for how desperately he needed it.
It was too early even for coffee, and Regina felt restless in the house, and when she spied the remnants of a loaf of bread in the kitchen (reminding her to go grocery shopping, now that there was another mouth to feed) it felt like a sign.
She had an old friend to visit, after all.
She walked to the office, reveling in the coolness of the morning even as she shivered through the dew, with her offering carefully wrapped in paper and held close to the chest.
She thought he might be waiting at the windowsill for her (the man and the bird sharing a sense of exquisite timing), but it seemed he meant to keep her for a while today. It had become a ritual in patience, to crack open the window and scatter a feast of crumbs below and sit, thumbing through paperwork, until the robin announced his arrival with a distinctive call to her.
Foregoing the administrative ledgers this time, she saw the bird's approach, winging into view and up before diving to settle on the sill with a ruffling of feathers. He regarded her, a lightning-quick shuttling of his head, and chirped his sliding two-note before pecking happily at the bread left for him.
"Hello to you, too," Regina answered, only to stiffen in horror as someone – and who but Robin would track her here? – cleared his throat behind her, belatedly knocking on the doorframe.
She spun out of her chair in a moment, deliberately positioning herself between Robin and the window as if she could still – she needed to – keep the bird from his sight. But she knew, from his face, that the secret, too tender for anyone's scrutiny, was already lost, and she felt the hurt of it like a bruise.
"What are you doing here?"
Robin looked at his boots, rocking onto his heels a bit with all the shyness of a boy. "Missing you. I woke up, and you weren't – I thought we might have breakfast together." He cut a glance up at her, looking past her shoulder. "But if you're busy, I can –"
"No," she said, reaching out a hand to stop him, and just like that the charade was dropped. "No, I'm not busy. I couldn't sleep, and we had some extra bread, so..."
She gestured to the window and let the scene speak for itself. The robin watched as Robin came to her, looking thoughtful, and placed his hand against the curve of her spine. Regina felt ridiculous, then less so as Robin kneaded the tension from her back, and she tucked herself tighter against his side, unbearably grateful.
"Sometimes I forget these pass for robins here," was all he said. "They're so different from what we had in Sherwood."
"They are, aren't they?" she mused, thinking of the smaller birds, with full throats of color, that inhabited the Enchanted Forest. Then, quieter, "I suppose we make do with what we have."
Robin's breath caught a little at that, and she knew him winded by guilt and grief (they should never be his but he wore them anyway) when his fingers tightened over her back.
Still, when he turned into her to ask "Breakfast?" and brush a kiss above her ear, he only smiled, and they both breathed evenly, together, again.
She arched an eyebrow teasingly. "If you remember your way around the kitchen."
"I do." He said it with such unshakeable certainty, and every nerve under her skin buzzed with warmth.
"I'd like to –" she nudged her head towards the window, where the robin was alternately chasing down his crumbs and cocking his head to listen to their conversation.
"Take all the time you need, love." Another kiss to her shoulder, and she was left to say goodbye on her own.
She moved to stand at the window, careful not to startle her robin into flight, and let the silence, the light breeze stirring past them, endure a little while longer.
A little while yet.
He was only a bird – and her solace, and a beginning, and far too clever, too knowing, to have been only anything.
But a bird, and one who chirruped for her attention with a medley of notes that sounded oddly like a blessing before he skipped away, bound back for the trees before she even saw his wings open.
She knew, somehow, that he would be there tomorrow, and the day after (she had spoiled the thing after all, she told herself laughingly, though that took none of the magic out of it), and she would meet each of his returns with gladness. And an offering of more than crumbs.
(She was speaking of the bird, of course – for, though she might find the same delight in Robin's every coming, he invited a different sense of wonder, all his own, and it was more than the promise of breakfast that quickened her step back to him, that spurred her flight onward into his waiting arms.)
I owe a great many thanks to the people who kept this story going and waited so patiently for an ending (you know who you are), and to all of you who have invested your reading time in this fic. Thank you!