A/N: Sequel to 'Keep Your Enemies Closer'. Hope you enjoy this new ride, and please, please, please review! :)
Pushing open the door to her apartment with a defeated sigh, the blonde kicks off her heels to land in a careless heap in the hallway. Her feet groan gratefully as she pads over to the kitchenette and chucks the small box in her hand onto the centre island. She inwardly berates herself for putting up with such a stupid tradition as she glares down at colourful cardboard, but supposes it's no good changing her mind now.
With the night she's had, she damn well deserves to treat herself.
Rubbing absentmindedly at the drying wine stain painting what had been a perfectly good dress, she stretches up onto her toes to root around in the cupboard above the toaster; wondering for a moment if perhaps she won't have what she needs to complete her sorry little ritual after all, before finding a small packet of candles beside a forgotten pack of emergency cigarettes from her brief courtship with Lucky Strikes.
Shaking her head with self-deprecation, she opens up the small box on the counter and deposits the single cupcake inside onto a simple, china plate. Pushing a candle into the slightly stale yellow frosting, she licks the flaked sugar from her fingers as she goes on a hunt for matches. The icing is a little hard due to the cake having been left sitting out all day, but she supposes beggars can't be choosers, and she's lucky she's not sticking a candle into an old bagel or something given she'd swung by the store long past 11 p.m.
As always, Mark the check out guy had commented on her outfit. As always, she'd fixed him with a cool stare until the asshole had remembered he was being paid to do his fucking job and not gaze down the front of her dress. In some ways, the sleazy little shit reminds her of a long ago acquaintance from when she'd lived in Boston before. Over on the other side. The side she refuses to accept work in nowadays... Because of the heat. The smell. The sounds...
Reminds me of Denny. He-
-But, thinking about that time long gone brings her back to what had happened afterwards. The shadowed time. Her lost time. And she pushes those thoughts away warily.
Finding an old book of matches beside the fruit bowl, she strikes one up with a roll of her eyes at her own pathetic tradition, before holding it to the wick of the candle and waiting for it to catch. Leaning over with her elbows resting on the counter and a deep and familiar feeling of apathy sitting heavily- but not entirely uncomfortably- in her gut, she murmurs another part of her ritual with a weighty sigh of sarcasm.
"Another banner year."
Before blowing out the candle.
Jerking as the extinguishing of the flame is met by a low knock on the door, she pushes herself up with a frown. Padding slowly down the hall- not one to receive many visitors, especially at this time of night- she opens up the door cautiously after tugging self-consciously at the hem of her dress.
"Can I help you?"
She asks curiously, regarding her visitor with a raised brow.
"... Are you Emma Swan?"
"Who wants to know?"
She asks with a frown, glancing over her shoulder at the black Roche-Bobois clock above the sink and making it to be a little past midnight.
"You are... Oh my god, you are..."
Her guest concludes in a hushed tone, and the blonde nods slowly with an exaggerated look of dubiety before opening her mouth in surprise when the well-dressed brunette at her door sweeps neatly past her and into the living room.
She cries, following at her unwanted guest's heels while running a hand over the tight fabric of her dress in search of her Ruger, but finding nothing but the hidden line of her underwear.
"Who the hell are you?!"
She demands, trying her best to sound threatening as her intruder stands with their back to her surveying the room.
Finally, in a low voice, she gets an answer; the stranger turning back to face her and introducing herself with a queer breed of elegance.
"My name is Regina. I need your help."
Emma replies distrustfully, and the brunette wishes the younger woman would just hurry up and invite her to sit down already before her knees buckle beneath her.
She'd done her research- of course, she had- before venturing out on this most obscure of trips, but it is still a shock to be stood in front of the blonde. To be in the same room as her. To actually speak to her.
Ironic, as suddenly she feels at a complete loss for words.
She is unsure exactly what she had been expecting, and as Henry has reminded her to do warily this last month, she has tried to keep her guessing and imagination to a minimum. Has strived to keep from reminiscing on a past she is the sole beneficiary of. To keep from reflecting on old conversations. The girl's wit. The girl's laugh. The way she smiles. The way she smells.
The way she tastes.
Standing in front of her now, following one of the most psychologically exhausting car journeys of her life, all she can do is stare.
At her apartment.
At the girl she'd once hauled blindly out of her squalid pit of despair.
The blonde prompts uneasily, and Regina swallows as she rues the past ten years devoid of that misleadingly irritable tone.
She corrects primly, with no hint of her inner turmoil, and a well-shaped brow raises in return before the younger woman simply shrugs and agrees.
"Sure. Fine. Regina. What can I do for you?"
Emma asks, and she points to an elegant white sofa accented by a folded throw that looks suspiciously untouched since being pulled from its packaging. Taking a seat and clutching her bag neatly on her lap, Regina struggles to find an appropriate response before smiling snidely and pointing towards the small kitchenette.
She purrs- hastily avoiding answering any of the blonde's many questions too soon- and she smirks as the latter casts a glance over at the sorry looking cupcake with an ineloquent 'ugh'.
"Is it your birthday?"
The Mayor asks, already knowing the answer.
Sighing as she catches a smug look- a look that for some unimaginable reason she finds queerly intriguing- Emma relaxes slightly and falls into the Eames chair opposite her guest; flashing a great deal of thigh.
"I'm not really a 'birthday' person."
She confides lazily, while regarding the woman sat in front of her with open interest. She has concluded- for now- that the attractive brunette doesn't appear to mean her any harm, despite her unusual hour of calling and entering without consent, and in her line of work, she's been met with stranger situations. She tries once more to ask the darker woman what she wants outright, but when this is met with little response other than a benign comment regarding the decor, she abandons this approach altogether.
She imagines Regina might have a job for her that is a little out of her comfort zone.
It is irregular for her to be approached independently, but not a first, and she's had enough experience of dealing with a disgruntled spouse or family member to know that the entire concept of the underbelly of the judicial system leaves some of them with a bitter taste in their mouth.
And a favourable hole in their wallet.
Studying the impeccably dressed brunette and the delicate gold chain accenting prettily defined clavicles, Emma surmises that this 'Regina' is most likely horrified at the idea of having anything to do with whatever lowlife she is here to begrudgingly assist.
Of getting her perfectly manicured hands in the least bit dirty.
And I do always wonder what the high and mighty like yourself might make of me if you could only see who it is you're really dealing with... I imagine I'd get a pretty good kick out of your expression if you knew what lowly 'delinquent' you were confiding in...
For now, she lets the matter rest.
After all, the eventual payout will likely be worth the rude imposition, and, if nothing else... The woman perched rigidly on the sofa for her analysis is deliciously easy on the eye.
Little does she know that the brunette is thinking much the same.
I can't believe it's really you...
Regina repeats over and over in her mind as she meets the blonde's cool gaze expressionlessly. On the outside, she is able to keep her features carefully in check, but internally her emotions run wild. It is with a great amount of willpower alone that she resists her basest urge to greet the younger woman in a way that she imagines might land her with a restraining order given Emma's lack of recollection, but this self-control doesn't go so far as to stop her from studying the never-forgotten curve of the blonde's lips.
You're all grown up...
Yes. And oh hell, it isn't making this any easier!
She's had ten years to contemplate what the passing time might have brought to the skinny imp of a girl she'd once known, but such idle musing had always swiftly become painful, and she'd shut the thoughts out before she could wade too deeply into what was momentarily lost.
Now, though... Well, now she has her answer, and it is one she is entirely in favour of. Lissom, teenage limbs have gained definition and slender muscle, and the low cut of the blonde's cruelly distracting dress hints at the fact that womanhood readily agrees with her.
Oh god, why in the world does she have to be wearing that dress?!... Why in the world is she wearing that dress?
A good enough question she believes, but then she supposes she knows little of Emma's tastes these days. Something that is seconded by the elegant luxury of the apartment the younger woman appears to be renting. The Boston address had thrown her unpleasantly at first, but once she'd made her way into the city and followed the neatly penned directions Henry had helped her to glean from the internet, she'd quickly come to realise the vast metropolis hosts many faces, and this one couldn't be further from the squalor she remembers. Curiously though, however stylish the younger woman's apartment might be, the Mayor gets the underlying sense that Emma doesn't spend a great deal of time here. At least, not in this room. It seems almost for show. Proof.
A woman with a credit card creating the meticulous theatre set of the life a little girl once wanted.
She supposes Emma might have most people fooled.
But not her.
For one, there are no books in here save for a couple of carefully placed, expensive picture books on the coffee table.
Glancing over towards the door of what she presumes to be the blonde's bedroom, she smiles to herself. She would bet a great deal of money on the notion that she is not the only one who has made an art of keeping up appearances. She has her vault. Emma has whatever lies behind that door.
She'd wager almost anything on it.
"I like what you've done with the place."
She offers finally, and Emma looks around indifferently and shrugs.
"I hired someone for most of it. Apart from that little corner of my office, I did that when I moved in."
She points towards the far corner of the room, and Regina's breath catches momentarily in her throat as she drinks in a single panel of monochrome, busy wallpaper behind a neat, glass desk.
"Yeah. Not really my thing usually, but I dunno. I saw it and just kind of couldn't get it out of my head. I only bought the one panel as it's pretty seizure-inducingly fussy, but... It seemed to work for an office."
Emma shrugs once more and Regina swallows, nodding woodenly.
She tries to think of something to say; not used to finding herself struggling in social situations, but overwhelmed by a whole wealth of conflicting emotions upon seeing the girl again.
Her girl again.
"A decent host would offer her guest a drink."
She finally manages with admirable haughtiness, and the blonde raises a brow with an irritable flash of her teeth before breaking into a grin and pushing herself from her chair; allowing Regina a candid view of her legs before she tugs self-consciously at the hem of her dress.
"Yeah, well, I guess we'll use the term 'guest' loosely, then. Way I see it, a 'guest' would have been invited in."
Emma replies smartly as she opens up the sleek, grey doors of an impressive liquor cabinet and peers over her shoulder.
"What can I get you?"
Perusing the selection on offer when the younger woman steps out of the way, Regina catalogues the many bottles with an internal sigh. It is a reaction born from conversations had long ago, and she knows that logically she has no ground to stand on when it comes to her opinion of the blonde's drinking habits now that she's nearing thirty. That said, save to say that whatever Emma lacks in birthday treats, she more than makes up for with liquor. A vast artillery graces the shelves of the cabinet, and the brunette is intuitive enough to know that a woman spending her birthday alone is unlikely to host a great many parties where such excess is necessary.
Stop that. You know nothing about her life as it is now. Who's to say the amount of choice represents the amount actually consumed? And who's to say she has spent her birthday alone?... I doubt a woman enjoying her own company would choose to do so in a dress most definitely designed for another's pleasure.
The thought sends a sudden white flare of jealousy coiling down her spine, and her fingers tighten on the soft leather of her bag.
"Any day now...?"
Emma interrupts her inner possessive wrath, and she glances up at the blonde distractedly as the latter waits impatiently for an answer. Looking back to the selection at hand- shaken by the intensity of her feelings all these years later- she finds a slow smirk creeping across her lips as anger is replaced by fond disdain.
She comments innocently.
"Ugh, no. I don't touch that crap. You know that bitter kind of taste is what you're supposed to watch out for with poison?"
"Do you find people attempting to poison you often?"
The brunette counteracts- touching her tongue to the roof of her mouth as she smells imaginary apples- and laughing when the blonde throws her a glare and helps herself to a very generous shot of bourbon.
"You know, that's the kind of question that could make a girl nervous when it's asked during an- admittedly civilised- home invasion."
"Oh, please, I knocked, you answered, I just took my cue."
Regina retorts silkily, and she feels an incredible mantle of warmth begin to shroud her despite having yet to touch a single drop of liquor.
It's just nice. This. Us. different, but nice.
Yes, nice not to be spoken to with the caution she is met with back home. Self-inflicted, she will readily admit, but tiresome just the same. Only Henry speaks to her as though she's a person rather than a title.
"Yeah, well, if you don't make a decision, I'm going to decide for you, so-"
"Do so. You clearly know more than I do when it comes to liquor."
The brunette elaborates with a snide gesture of her hand that hints at the rather impressive scale of the younger woman's collection, and Emma greets this ill-hidden insult with the lazy sarcasm Regina had hoped she would. The kind she's missed.
"Clearly. You should educate yourself. It will take that bitchy edge off."
The blonde replies coolly, pouring her guest a companionably immoderate amount of Jim Beam.
Such rudeness goes only half heard as the Mayor thinks back to the last time she'd let Emma choose her fate– that time at the hands of the motel's mini bar. She surmises that the bourbon in her hand is a profound step up from the tequila knocked back atop over-laundered sheets, but she'd still trade circumstances in an instant. She recalls the way the blonde had grinned at her, perched on the bed with her legs childishly crossed- completely naked while clinking the small bottle in her hand against her own- and takes a sip of expensive bourbon as her eyes travel the new and unexplored lines of the younger woman's svelte frame.
Her heart beats a frantic rhythm as she knows it's only a matter of time before Emma resumes her questioning, and she has no clue just what it is she means to tell the younger woman to explain what she's doing here.
Who she is.
Much less, what she wants from her.
These are all important topics that Henry has badgered her about ever since she'd first mentioned her plan to finally go and locate the blonde, but, no matter how stern the boy had become about Operation Ocelot- a name she has never quite understood- she'd found herself no closer to a solution in spite of the hours spent fretting over one.
Well, it's fitting in a way. When we first met it was under the same guise of mystery and riddles...
True, but at that time Emma had been playing her own game of cat and mouse. She'd been in no position to question the woman offering her a free meal and surprisingly amiable companionship. Now the blonde seems very much in control. She already has the comfort and security that had once been so lacking in her life; their absence making her an easy and malleable target. She doesn't need a hand out- at least, not any kind that Regina can provide her without a great deal of explanation- and she has learnt from her past. That much is clear. She has done well for herself, but she knows what it's like to be on the other side. The brunette has no doubt that the younger woman remains just as wily and street smart as she had been all those years ago, and this makes her a damningly difficult sparring partner.
I want to help you. I want to help you to help me. To help us.
Taking another sip of bourbon, she offers a smile as the blonde's gaze remains trained raptly on her.
She just can't help herself.
"Who are you, Regina?"
Emma asks quietly, and the brunette ruminates on this question and how best to answer it solemnly, before confiding silkily.
"I'm your birthday present."
Silence, and then the younger woman snorts with laughter- coughing on a mouthful of hard liquor- and relaxes visibly.
"No offence, but you are the strangest looking strip-o-gram I've ever seen. And I don't have any friends to send me one!"
She chuckles. Regina simply smirks back; no clue what it is that the blonde refers to, and not in the least bit surprised at Emma's bluntness towards her lack of companionship. It is a shame- she may never have favoured the relationship between Ruby and her girl, but she'd still been able to see its benefit on the blonde- but not something that shocks her. She is fairly sure it's by choice.
Catching her breath, Emma reaches awkwardly over to the cabinet and helps herself to another drink, musing softly.
"Ok, so, I believe we've both established you're not here to give me a 'happy ending'. Wanna tell me what the hell you do mean?"
She challenges, attempting to ignore the voice in her head that suggests she would be more than ok with the curious brunette giving her a birthday treat.
"That's exactly what I mean, Miss Swan."
Regina smiles, and green eyes narrow as the younger woman sips at her drink and waits for the punchline.
"It just depends on whether you can find it within yourself to trust me."
"...And then what, Obi Wan?"
Funny, I don't remember asking for a fucking nut job this year...
"It'll become clear soon enough."
"Happy Birthday, Emma."
Regina offers, raising her glass. Topping it up with a roll of her eyes- much to the brunette's surprise and amusement- Emma falls back into her chair and swirls her drink.
"Yeah. Sure. Happy Birthday. Whatever."