Eyes closed behind her oversized sunglasses, Regina took a pull from the bottle that she'd wedged into the sand at her side. The fizzy, citrusy malt beverage was unimpressive compared to her homemade hard cider, but it was cool in her throat and warm in her belly and anyway, nothing was homemade this far from home. It would have to do. Anything to quiet all the noise in her head.
She scrunched her nose at the chemical-sweet smell of sunscreen as a shadow fell across her body. She knew it wasn't Henry, who still wouldn't speak to her but would have managed to drip salt water out of his hair all over her anyway. This figure just stood, waiting. "You're in my sun, Miss Swan," she said finally.
Emma started. She was sure that Regina hadn't opened her eyes, but she was suddenly self-conscious at being caught staring. She'd been distracted by the white bikini that set off Regina's golden skin and revealed more of it than Emma guessed anyone had ever seen at once. It seemed out of character for the tightly wound mayor, yet somehow it suited her perfectly. Emma dropped into the empty chair next to Regina and tried to cover. "How did you get so tan already? We just got here."
Regina cracked one eye open at that and eyed the woman sitting next to her. "Magic," she replied with a hint of a smirk.
"That's not actually as funny as you think it is," Emma told her, but her tone was less than scolding.
"It is," Regina argued lightly. "You just have a wildly underdeveloped sense of humor, dear."
Emma rolled her eyes. "You're a troll, you know that?"
"Witch," Regina corrected.
"No, it's—never mind. I brought you a present," she said, dropping something in Regina's lap.
Regina glanced down at the glossy fashion rag and frowned. "I brought reading material, Miss Swan."
"I know," Emma told her. "I saw it on the plane. You can't read political biographies on the beach, Regina."
Regina sighed, but she was already flipping through the magazine. Emma was right, actually. She needed a distraction that didn't require her to think. Pages of perfume ads and couture photo shoots were pitch-perfect. It was a bit annoying, actually, that the woman who was supposed to be her nemesis had gotten it so right. "I wouldn't have thought this kind of thing was your style."
"It's not," Emma admitted, holding up a mass-market paperback with a dark cover to prove her point. "But I thought it might be yours."
She sounded so earnest that Regina looked up at her in surprise, searching for a hint of deception or derision. But Emma's face was open, the corners of her mouth tensed with a smile that threatened to appear at the first note of approval from Regina. She looked almost exactly like her mother. The resemblance made Regina's throat tighten, but she couldn't parse whether it was from affection or revulsion. The thought grated, so she turned her eyes slowly back to her magazine before offering up, "Thank you."
Emma relaxed into her beach chair and watched Henry, who was close to the water, bent over a low and intricate sort of sand castle. Normally he'd be begging her to go down and help him, but three days ago the kid had been dead. Normal was pretty much over for all of them. He'd hardly spoken to either of his mothers since they'd left Storybrooke. Emma glanced over at Regina. One hand still held the thick magazine up, but her eyes had slipped closed.
Regina was a beautiful woman, there was no question. Fairest of them all, Emma thought. But in Storybrooke, her beauty had always been deliberate, polished, accentuated with carefully applied lip liner and tailored blazers and pumps that cost as much as Emma's half of the rent. Here on the beach, half asleep and half in the bag, with her dark hair slicked back and no makeup at all, she should have been a mess, but she was still somehow preternaturally beautiful.
Emma realized she was staring again and turned her attention back to her novel. After reading the same page three times without absorbing a single word, she gave up and dropped the book onto the sand. She decided to try her luck with her son.
Her stirring roused Regina, who watched Emma walk down to the water. She stopped and turned her back to the wind coming off the water, standing a few feet past Henry so that the waves just lapped around her ankles. Regina could see that Emma was speaking to the boy, but he kept his head down, eyes on the work he was doing in the sand. A soft chuckle escaped Regina as Emma folded her arms and cocked her hip, putting on her best "White Knight" pose before trying again with Henry. He didn't even look up.
It occurred to her that inviting Emma Swan to come with them on this trip had provided her with a companion. She had brought the only other person in the world who understood what it felt like to have your entire self wrapped up in whether and how that boy looked at you. If he wouldn't speak to them, they could always talk to each other. She was struck by the fact that she didn't find that idea completely repellent. The blonde sheriff was many irritating things, but at least she was entertaining. Regina had a low tolerance for boredom.
Emma trudged back up the beach and sat down with a defeated sigh. Absently, she picked up the bottle that sat in the sand and drained it, nearly choking when Regina spoke.
"That one was mine, Miss Swan."
She looked at Regina, who was watching her with one eyebrow raised, then back at the now-empty bottle in her hands. "Sorry?" she tried, only a little bit guiltily. "I'll go up and get you another one."
"No, it's fine," Regina drawled, waving a hand aimlessly. "You'll make it up to me later."
"Oh, really? And how will I do that?"
"With a favor," Regina answered lightly.
Emma's eyes narrowed suspiciously and she lifted her chin. "What favor?"
Regina pursed her lips as she thought. "Oh, I don't know. You can owe me."
"Owe you?" Emma rolled her eyes dramatically. "You've been spending way too much time with Gold."
"Gold?" Regina echoed, turning the name over in her mouth. Of all the people in Storybrooke, his was the only name that had never really changed in her mind.
"Rumplestiltskin. Whatever." Emma tilted her head, quizzical. "What's the deal with you guys, anyway?"
Regina smiled inscrutably and deferred. "It's a long story."
"I'm sure it is," Emma smirked. "You're like the Storybrooke mafia or something."
Regina considered that with an amused expression. "A fair assessment, Sheriff."
For the first time, Emma was acutely aware that although they were playing the same game they'd been engaged in for months, the rules had radically changed. Regina was still her maddeningly belligerent self, but she seemed freer, less withholding. Emma suddenly felt nervous, recalling Archie Hopper's words about waking a sleeping dragon. This new Regina could be volatile. She squinted hard at the empty bottle still in her hands, scratching at the loose edges of the label with her thumbnail. She didn't look at Regina as she confessed, "This is a little weird for me."
"What is, dear?"
"You being, I don't know…" she searched for the right word. "Forthcoming? And the beach vacation was kind of a surprise."
"It's not a vacation," Regina reminded her. "Not really. Distance buys us time. Time to rest, and time to figure out what to do next."
"We have to go back," Emma intoned, thinking of the people she'd left behind, the family who had only just remembered her, left without a word in Emma's single-minded drive to get Henry out and as far away from danger as possible. Rumplestiltskin was insane. Regina was, too, probably, but she loved Henry, maybe more than her own life. As long as she was operating from the same primal urge to protect him as Emma, the sheriff could consider them on the same team.
"We will go back," Regina assured her, "but not until we know what cards we have and how we can play them."
Emma's stomach did an incomprehensible little flip when she realized Regina was talking about the three of them as a unit. "We? A week ago you wanted me dead."
"A week ago I still thought I could salvage the life I had built." Regina surprised herself with how much she was willing to reveal once she started talking. Alcohol and exhaustion had loosened her more than she'd anticipated. "I gave up everything I had loved to create it. And I didn't know what I would lose when it ended. I had to at least try to protect it. But it doesn't matter now. That world is gone. There's nothing left to protect."
"Except him," Emma added, looking toward the thin boy digging at the water's edge.
"Except him," Regina agreed. "And I simply don't see a way to do that anymore that doesn't involve you."
Emma looked at her. "You're serious?"
"What you did—well, I already know you're all in." She thought of Emma bent over Henry's lifeless body and felt hot tears spring to her eyes. She hoped against hope that her sunglasses obscured them and swallowed hard before continuing. "But he is still my son, so you're all in with me. Together. Like it or not."
"So we may as well like it," Emma suggested with a shrug and a tentative smile
Regina turned her face up to the afternoon sun. She almost looked as though she were praying, but she answered, "We can certainly try, Miss Swan."