She's never minded the cold, has actually embraced it over the years, reveling in the sensation of allowing it to soothe her inner fire and calm overheated nerves. And today is no different, even though no demons have resurfaced nor any fireballs been summoned. Regina's nose and feet are a bit too chilly for comfort, but that's nothing she can't handle, not when she's surrounded by laughter and the occasional stray snowball whizzing by, the three males in her life knowing better than to lob one in her direction.
Then there's a tug on her coat, and she turns to the youngest member of their family who now stands waist-high. She holds her gloved hand palm up, her lucid green eyes wide with wonder at the intricate patterns made by a cluster of freshly fallen snow.
"No two are alike, Elena," Regina explains, her movements fluid and sure as she smiles down at the child's uninhibited awe, wiping snow from her daughter's glasses with a gloved finger. "Every snowflake that falls is unique."
The girl stills and looks up at her, the question readable in her eyes before her hands move to speak.
Just like people?
Unique doesn't begin to describe her daughter by choice and circumstance, and Regina swallows hard as she kneels to twirl long, nearly white-blonde locks through her fingers, watching dimples she adores peek out from hiding at her mother's touch.
"Yes," she nods before withdrawing her hand so she can answer. "Just like people."
The spell that had accelerated Elena's development in Zelena's womb had marked the girl in ways that hadn't been clear until she began to grow. Some of the effects were benign, such as the silver-blonde hue of her hair, vastly different than either Robin's or Zelena's but so like Emma's had been when she'd put the girl on a path towards instant growth.
It's odd how very much she looks like Emma.
But other effects, such as the child's inability to hear or speak, those side-effects had been devastating to all of them. And Emma has never forgiven herself for inadvertently marking the child with dark magic–her dark magic, to be specific.
"Hey, Ellie!" Roland yells, prompting Regina to point over the girl's shoulder in the direction of her brothers. "Come on!"
Roland and Henry have effectively teamed up on Robin, a fact which is just as irresistible to a five year old female as it is to the two over-sized lugs pummeling a certain thief with a barrage of snowballs. Elena jumps and claps her hands, her snowflakes now all but forgotten as she dashes to her father's rescue, getting covered by snow in the process.
There will be hot baths and hotter cider for everyone this afternoon, it would seem.
"Save me, Ellie!" Robin cries, his plea followed by a chorus of protests and shouts from Henry and Roland before more snow is thrown about. Robin belly-laughs as he picks up Elena and swings her around, the girl's mouth open in a smile that covers her face. But no sound emerges from her little body, no squeals, no giggles. Regina aches with the raw need to simply hear her daughter laugh or scream, to finally know what her precious little voice sounds like.
Her stomach clenches uncomfortably.
Robin still blames Emma for the loss of Ellie's speech and hearing, although he has put aside his overt hostility for Henry's sake. But Regina can't help but wonder if the muting spell she'd placed on Zelena had left traces of that particular strain of magic in her bloodstream, magic that had been enhanced by a certain batch of onion rings and absorbed by the one innocent in what had been a horrific situation.
It was me, Regina, not you.
Her hair, and perhaps her deafness, but her speech…
Was all because of me. Her hearing loss happened because I was trying to shut out the voices when I cast that spell, trying to convince myself that what I was doing was for the best. And no matter what sort of muting spell you may have placed on Zelena, it would have never found its way into Elena's DNA if I hadn't…if I hadn't brought about her birth prematurely. I did this Regina–not you. You're not responsible for what happened to your daughter.
Emma is certain. Robin is certain. But at times, Regina still has her doubts.
They head home later, red-nosed and pink-cheeked, each of them receiving a mandatory brush-down before entering the house. Boots are discarded, coats are hung in the utility room before there is a mad dash into the warmth of home. The house smells of a ham and cloves, making four pairs of eyes stare back at her in exaggerated hunger.
"Just a nibble, Mom?" Roland asks as she shoos him towards the downstairs shower.
"That's for dinner, and you know it," she replies, snapping a warning glance towards her husband who has stealthily made his way towards the kitchen. "There had not better not be one pinch missing from that ham, or there will be no dessert for you."
Her hands fly–signing is second-nature for all of them now–and she watches as Robin gives an exaggerated shrug towards Ellie before wiggling his eyebrows suggestively at his wife.
She's making apple strudel, Daddy. Don't cheat.
Robin laughs and scoops up his daughter, kissing her cheek before setting her back down.
"I won't," he assures her before tickling her belly. Her mouth flies open in a silent laugh, the joy on her features unmistakable. She pushes against her father until he stops and puts her down, placing her hands on her hips in a mock reprimand.
Bath, Ellie, Regina signs, watching with amusement as a small pink lip juts out in a pout that rivals Roland's.
Regina shakes her head before Ellie's hands still in defeat.
"Now, before everyone comes over."
She may not be able to speak, but Ellie can stomp with the best of them, and she does so up the stairs, letting her mother know in no uncertain terms just how she feels about her fun being interrupted for something as mundane as a bath.
"She knows her own mind, that's for certain," Robin muses as he makes his way towards her. "A Mills woman if ever I saw one." She leans into her husband's chest as strong arms wrap around her from behind, reveling in the warmth and security he offers. "You're thinking too loudly, Regina. What's bothering you?"
She turns in his arms, melting into the feel of his thumbs brushing over her cheeks.
"I just wish…" She pauses as he folds her into his chest.
"I know," he breathes, his fingers working into her hair. "So do I."
They don't dwell on it all the time—they don't have time to dwell on it—what with raising three children, Regina's duties as mayor, Robin's heightened responsibilities at the sheriff's office, and Henry's part-time job at Granny's. But at times like this, when the holidays force life to slow its pace, when family and friends gather more frequently, the utter unfairness of it all hits her all over again.
Their daughter cannot hear. Their daughter cannot speak. These are the consequences Elena lives with simply because she had a biological mother so vile that Emma had been ready to sacrifice Zelena's life for Killian's in her darkened state. Thank God there had been enough of Emma left within her to protect the innocent baby girl growing inside the womb of Regina's now deceased sister. If not, they'd never have been given the gift of parenting this remarkable child who, in spite of her limitations manages to live her life out loud.
Then the bathroom door slams shut, and Regina knows that's her cue. She tosses her husband a fleeting kiss on the cheek before making her way up the steps, an exasperated, "Ellie—what have I told you about leaving your clothes in the hallway?" flying from her lips to her hands just as she rounds the corner.
She knows Robin is chuckling at the bottom of the stairs.
Guests arrive right on time, and the house is full of Locksleys, Mills, Charmings and Joneses. Even Archie, Granny and Marco are able to make it this year, something that means more to Regina than she'll ever let on to anyone besides Robin.
But it's Emma who commands most of her attention, just as she always does whenever she and Ellie are in close proximity to one another. If Regina wears guilt around her waist like a fitted belt, Emma drapes it over her body as a full-length shroud. It's suffocating, stifling, a weighted presence that bears down on the entire gathering in a manner it shouldn't.
"I wasn't sure she was going to come tonight."
Snow stands just behind her, her years as a bandit still allowing her the unnerving ability to sneak up unnoticed.
Snow nods, her eyes fixed upon her daughter.
"Killian was finally able to convince her," she expounds. "Told her how disappointed Henry would be if she missed out on the extended family celebration."
Regina locates her eldest son in the corner chatting animatedly with Marco.
"Henry can be highly persuasive when he wants to be," Regina states, a small smile tugging up at the corner of her lips.
"I wonder where he gets that from?"
Regina's hard stare melts at Snow's smile.
"From you," Regina shoots back. "And that insufferable grandfather of his. You two could talk a magic bean away from an ogre."
Snow actually chuckles as both women cast glances towards their husbands, now seated together as Neal and Ellie play with their dads' phones while sprawled out on the floor beside them.
"She has to get over this, Regina. The guilt is eating her alive."
"You think I'm not aware of that?" Regina questions, her own guilt pressing against her chest. "I've told her on several occasions that she needs to let it go."
Emma is standing alone in the corner as Roland and Baby Liam continue to command Killian's attention. She's smiling at the boys, but it's the smile of the distracted, of someone watching one scene while obsessing over something else.
"I thought that when Liam was born, she might snap out of it," Snow adds. "But she feels guilty about him, too, about how he was born with all of his senses while Ellie wasn't."
"That's ridiculous," Regina shoots back. "She shouldn't feel guilty that Liam was born with all of his senses intact. That's what every parent wants for their child. Nobody in their right mind would ever wish otherwise for either of them."
"I know, Regina, believe me," Snow agrees. "And I know that neither you nor Robin would ever begrudge Liam that–ever." She sighs, her shoulders slumping with the weight of it. "But Emma–she takes Ellie's deafness and muteness personally. She always has."
Regina exhales, seeking words that flutter stubbornly just beyond her grasp.
"Emma has to let that go. She can't live the rest of her life carrying around that sort of guilt."
She pauses, catching and holding Robin's eyes from across the room. He tosses her a wink just before Neal commands his attention yet again, but it's enough to break through a rising barrier of self-protection starting to envelop her like purple smoke.
"No. She can't. And neither can you."
Snow's words are as direct as her stare.
"I'm dealing with it," Regina tosses back, her brow furrowing in a denial she doesn't feel.
"Good," Snow states. "You need to. And so does Emma."
They both eyeball the blonde, trying not to be obvious when Regina knows full well that they are. Her posture is slumped–not terribly so, but it is far from upright, far from the Emma who drove into Storybrooke ready to take on the world, the Emma she'd wanted to blast back over the town line when she first showed up at her doorstep, the woman who is now her friend, a woman she'd protect with her life if it came down to it.
"I have to deal with it," Regina adds. "It's not good for Ellie to see me feeling guilty over her life, something that is uniquely hers and that I'm powerless to change. Besides, I want her to have as normal a childhood as possible, not one where she feels like everyone is judging her simply because of Zelena or walking around her on eggshells because she can't hear or speak."
The words gush from her mouth to her fingers, unravelling in a rush of feeling Snow accepts without question.
"I can't imagine you ever walking on eggshells, Regina. Poofing them out of the way, perhaps…"
"Did you have a point? Because if so, I'm missing it completely."
It's Snow who chuckles this time, shaking her head before turning her eyes back on her stepmother.
"My point is that Ellie is an amazing little girl–just as she is, and that she's lucky to have you for a mother."
The words spatter across her chest with a gentleness that seeps in and warms what was chilled. Something crumbles inside of her, something that needs to crumble, she realizes, and she lets it continue to disintegrate as a knotted muscle begins to unwind.
"She is," Regina agrees, rolling her eyes at Snow's pointed grin. "A remarkable little girl, that is. I'm the lucky one–the one lucky enough to have her as a daughter." She pauses to look at Emma again, her brow furrowing in time with Snow's. "And if Emma continues to hold herself personally responsible for Ellie's deafness and inability to speak, it will only chip away from the joy she should be experiencing with Liam. That's not fair to either one of them."
They gaze at each other, reading more than will ever be spoken, feeling more than either ever anticipated.
"No–it's not. Time with your children should never be taken for granted or wasted."
"No," Regina states, no longer able to look Snow in the eye. "It shouldn't."
A gentle touch to her arm seeps through bone and muscle, drawing Regina's gaze back to the younger woman.
"You don't have to sign for me, you know."
God–she'd been doing it again. Her face flushes at the realization as she bites her lower lip.
"It's so automatic," Regina says, clasping her hands together in front of her. "Sometimes my hands take on a mind of their own."
"Your hands are your means of communicating with your child," Snow states. "Of course it's automatic. Why wouldn't it be?"
"Robin and I will catch each other signing when nobody else is around," Regina volunteers, having to concentrate to keep her hands still. "We tease each other about it, but…" Her voice trails away as she scans the room. "Where's Ellie?"
Snow peers in Robin and David's direction, seeing the men and Neal just where they'd been moments ago but minus the company of one little girl. She scans the room, her face showing further concern as she looks back at Regina, both women coming to the same realization at the same time.
The air is cool on Emma's face, and she welcomes it, breathing it in, wishing it possessed the ability to freeze away what hurts. Yet her face still burns as it always does when she's with Ellie. Hell-it stings, actually, as if her skin has gotten chapped from overexposure to the elements. The heat of shame will never leave her, she realizes. It has marked and condemned her, has read her a sentence she both deserves and despises, a sentence she can never outrun or outlive.
Snow continues to fall, but she barely registers the fact as tears shed only in private prick the edges of her soul. She's supposed to be the savior, damn it, but with Ellie she was the exact opposite. She was the woman who took senses that were not hers to take in an attempt to save Killian and rid the world of Zelena. She'd been the Dark One in every sense of the word when she'd given the witch those onion rings. God, she'd never even considered the effects such a move would have on the innocent little girl growing in a womb not of her choosing.
How do you live with that sort of guilt? The guilt of hurting a child?
It had been hard enough to move on after giving up Henry, but then she'd been able to imagine him growing up with a family, in a nice house, not being moved from home to home or wondering why nobody wanted him. In her dreams, Henry had always been happy, handsome and well-fed, a child who'd been both sought and found, not a baby left to the system who somehow never managed to break free of it.
But Ellie…God, Ellie.
She nearly jumps at the tug on her jacket and turns to see green eyes gazing up at her through the black frame of her glasses and errant strands of blonde hair, a cherubic face that resembles her far more than any child not of her own womb ever should.
Her voice and fingers move automatically, the cold making joints ache even as her breath hovers in the air. The child waves back at her, her direct gaze unfaltering, as if she somehow knows what Emma's been thinking.
"It's cold out here, kiddo. You should go back inside."
There's no movement from Ellie, no return, just a stare that slices through her far more effectively than the frigid air.
"You don't want to get sick, do you?" Emma continues, kneeling down to Ellie's level. "Your mom will kill both of us if you do."
The girl continues to stare at her, her gaze fixed and unwavering.
Why do I make you sad?
Emma falls back as if she's been physically shoved, just catching herself before her ass hits the porch. She steadies herself before moving back into a kneeling position, not even noticing the bitter cold that presses through fabric where her knee touches down.
"You don't make me sad," Emma protests, trying to make her smile look convincing. "I'm just a little tired tonight." Her lie sounds unconvincing to herself.
That's not what your mommy and my mommy said.
Emma's mouth falls open, but no protest emerges. She can imagine all-too-well just what her mother and Regina had said about her, probably unaware that young eyes were taking in a conversation they assumed nobody but the two of them could hear.
"You shouldn't eavesdrop, you know."
The girl's brow scrunches in confusion.
"It's when you listen to something you're not supposed to hear."
Ellie shrugs then as a tug of mischief tugs at the corners of her mouth.
I didn't hear anything. I watched.
"Same thing, kid," Emma shoots back. She feels her frustration build before she remembers just with whom she's conversing. It fizzles then, leaking out of her like air from a punctured balloon, draining her once again of all fire until she feels empty.
"Nothing's wrong, Ellie," she protests, not appreciating being backed into a corner by a pint-sized Mills-Locksley version of herself. "I already told you."
The girl stares back at her unyielding, her breath forming a thick vapor between them in the cold.
You think you broke me before I was born, and you're sad about it.
It hurts to breathe, both guilt and frigid air burning her lungs until she feels the need to scream. Dammit. How is it a kid who barely reaches her waist can reduce her to a heap of ash in less than a second?
You didn't break me, Emma. I'm not broken. I'm just me.
She can't breathe, can barely focus as her eyes well yet again.
"I never said you were broken," Emma signs back. "And I know how smart you are."
Then why do I make you sad?
Green eyes demand an answer, and Emma knows she owes Ellie this much.
"Because I'm the reason you can't hear or speak."
The girl blinks twice, her face registering no other form of surprise.
"I put a spell on Zelena before you were born, Ellie, one that made you grow too fast inside of her. It's my fault that you were born like…"
Her words trail off, cut short by emotion and the realization that she'd almost said the wrong thing.
Disabled? Incomplete? Robbed of the very senses that were her birthright? The thoughts halt on her tongue, her mind unable to keep up with too many feelings brimming just under the surface.
"Without two of your senses," Emma finally manages. "Without what should have been yours." Emotion clogs her throat, making speech next to impossible, forcing her to rely on her hands.
I had no right to take those from you, Ellie.
Tears break free, spilling down her cheeks, warming her skin for a few fleeting seconds. She'd done what she'd sworn never to do to another human being–had taken a little girl's childhood from her for reasons Ellie would never be able to fully comprehend. This is how it feels to come full-circle, she thinks, to inflict a piece of the hell you once inhabited on someone who deserves a world of sound and speech.
Then a small hand wipes her face, the tiny fingers pressed to her cheeks nearly as cold as her own.
What if it's not your fault? What if it's just me?
She's shaking her head, pushing away what she can't allow herself to believe. She can't let go of the guilt–she has no right to live without her self-imposed penance.
What if I've always been like this? I'm still okay, aren't I?
Time stills around the two of them.
"You're more than okay," Emma shoots back. "You're amazing, Ellie."
And I can talk and hear. I talk with my hands. I listen with my eyes.
She feels Ellie pull away and watches as the girl walks to the edge of the porch. Small hands are thrust outward into the snowfall, and she smiles then, a smile of hope, wonder and unadulterated joy.
It's the sort of smile only a child can muster.
She skips back, completely unaware of the cold, just staring at her left hand, her smile still in place as she extends her arm towards Emma.
Snowflakes, Ellie signs one-handed as best as she can. She looks back at Emma to see if she's paying attention and waits until she nods her head before proceeding. They're all unique and special. Just like people. Just like me.
That does it.
God, she's a sobbing mess, but the tears won't stop, and to be honest, Emma doesn't want them to. They hurt, they overpower, but she needs them for reasons she doesn't quite understand and isn't sure she ever will. Then small arms wrap around her, the very arms Ellie uses to communicate with the world, and Emma picks up the child, cradling her to her chest just as she would Liam, holding her safe against the elements, wanting to press what is good and right about her into her own skin.
She's not cold anymore, or maybe she's just numb to it by now, but she feels warm all over, warm in a way she usually feels only with Henry, Killian or her baby. Its life, Emma thinks, life pressing into sadness, embracing it–engulfing it–asking to transform it into something as new and delicate as a newborn. But in order to allow the transformation to begin, she has to let go of what she's carried for years.
And letting go is frightening. It always has been, even when what she's holding on to hurts like hell.
Ellie pushes back, a smile Emma can only describe as impish beaming back at her.
Are you going to stop being sad now?
She swallows, trying to gather stray thoughts and place them in some semblance of order. She's been sad so long it's become second-nature, a crutch she reaches for without even thinking about it. How wrong, she realizes, thinking of her husband, her teenage son and baby boy, of the life she's been given, of the life here in her arms. She stares into eyes so full of hope they're almost painful to see, but she looks into them all the same, nudging herself towards the freedom being offered, doing her best to sign with one hand while holding Ellie in the other.
It's all she can promise, perhaps more than she's capable of carrying out, very possibly a life-long task condensed into two words spoken in the cold dusk of Christmas Eve. But it's more than she had just seconds ago.
And by God, it's a start.