Emma rolled over and groaned into her pillow. "I didn't hear anything."
"Well, she's awake," Regina insisted. Emma groaned again, but she dragged herself out of bed anyway. She didn't know why she bothered protesting. Regina did this every morning, and she'd never once been wrong. Emma wasn't really clear on whether it was magic or just that weird mommy-spidey-sense Regina seemed to have in spades, but she was better than a baby monitor.
Sure enough, when Emma padded into the nursery, Alice was sitting up in her crib, sucking at the ear of her teddy bear and watching for Emma with wide, dark eyes. When she saw her mother, she began babbling, not stopping even as Emma lifted her onto her hip. "Good morning, Alice," she murmured in the baby's ear. "Happy birthday."
Emma woke up when she felt someone lifting her legs. Regina lowered herself onto the couch and settled Emma's feet into her lap. Emma inhaled deeply and started to stretch before she registered the warm little body across her chest. She opened her eyes to look blearily over Alice's head at Regina. The living room was still pre-dawn grey. "Hey," she rasped, her voice thick with sleep. "What time is it?"
"Still early. You didn't come back to bed," Regina whispered plaintively
"Yeah, you're welcome for that. She was talkative this morning. I thought one of us should get some real sleep. Thought it was better if it was you."
"Are you trying to tell me something?" Regina's fingernail played lightly against Emma's bare ankle, drawing soft figure-eights.
"Yup." Emma drew the word out, teasing. "You're a bitch when you're sleep deprived."
"Language," Regina warned gently, nodding at Alice, who had opened her eyes and was looking up at Emma intently. "That won't be cute when it's coming out of her little mouth."
"She doesn't talk yet, Regina."
"She will soon enough," Regina replied primly. "And you'll wish you'd developed better habits."
Emma let out a tired sigh and stopped fighting to keep her eyes open. "Whatever."
Regina smirked a little. Whatever was Emma-speak for you're right but I'll never admit it. "You could have brought her back to bed with you. I couldn't sleep anyway."
"Excited?" Emma guessed. Snow and David had become something of regular fixtures in this house, but no one else had set foot inside the door since Regina's house arrest. Today, if things went according to plan, that would change.
"That, and nervous," Regina admitted, her eyes trained on the feet in her lap. She'd thrown herself into full hostess mode over the last few weeks, cleaning and decorating and making endless lists. Anything to keep herself from thinking about all the things that could go wrong when they invited people into their home. As much as the house had served as Regina's prison, it was her sanctuary, too, and very much her kingdom. She'd been reluctant to agree to a party, but Emma had insisted that birthdays were part of the normal childhood she'd promised to give Alice, and Regina had no way to object to that.
"Hey," Emma implored, nudging her toes against Regina's stomach until the brunette met her eyes. "It's going to be fine. Everyone who's coming is coming for Alice, because they love her, okay?"
"Okay," Regina agreed reluctantly. Emma had told her, many times, that Alice was adored, that the people of Storybrooke had embraced their tiny princess as much as they ever had their queen or their savior, but Regina still worried. She had no evidence of people's loyalties other than Emma's word, and as much as she trusted Emma, she knew the blonde's ability to spot dishonesty was clouded when it came to the people she loved. Emma couldn't conceive of someone not finding her daughter miraculous, but Regina saw so much of herself in Alice, and she knew others would see it, too.
"Regina." Emma's voice drew her out of her own thoughts. "They do love her. You'll see. And they're going to see you the way she sees you. The way I see you. This is going to be good for us."
"And how do you see me?" Regina asked.
"As Regina," Emma replied simply. "Just Regina. Not as a—you're a good mother. You're a good woman. And you deserve to be loved."
"I doubt very much that anyone is going to see all of that," Regina replied with a wan smile. "But I'm glad that you do."
Emma beamed at her warmly, the sparkle in her eyes making Regina's heart swell. "So, Martha Stewart. What's left to get ready for this party?"
Regina thought for a moment. "The food. Your father's bringing extra chairs." Her face changed suddenly, remembering something. "I finished wrapping presents last night."
"Yeah, I saw that," Emma said. She had peeked into the dining room when she'd brought Alice downstairs. Regina loved to accuse her of spoiling the kids, but she was positive there were at least twice as many of those pink and gold packages as there had been the last time she checked. She never should have let Henry teach his mom about online shopping. "Please tell me those aren't all going to show up on the credit card statement."
Regina simply shrugged. "It's her first birthday. You can't begrudge her a few extra gifts."
Emma rolled her eyes. Regina was clearly working with a loose definition of the word few. "I'm not begrudging her, I'm begrudging you."
"Well, they're not all for her. One of them is for you."
"For me?" Emma's eyes lit up. She'd never particularly been excited by gifts, having gotten so few of them, but Regina loved giving them, and she had a knack for choosing exactly the right thing that Emma found utterly charming.
Regina smiled, pleased that she'd been able to surprise Emma. "I was going to wait, but then I hoped you might it wear it today."
Emma scrunched her face up. "I already promised you I'd wear a dress, Regina. At least let me pick it out."
"It's not a dress," Regina answered patiently. "Oh, well, if you don't want it…"
Emma considered calling Regina's bluff for no other reason than to see what she'd do, but curiosity and greed got the better of her. "No, where is it?"
Regina reached for her daughter. "Come on, baby girl, let's go find Mama's present."
Emma drew her feet up under her as she sat up, waiting. After a moment, Regina came back from the dining room with a package wrapped in shimmery blue paper. Emma reached for it eagerly, and Regina sat back down beside her, watching closely as she unwrapped it. Inside was a small wooden box, intricately carved.
"It's a jewelry box," Emma said, trying to keep the edge of dismay out of her voice. Admittedly, it was beautiful, but it seemed more like something her mother would have than something Regina would pick for her.
"Oh, that's not the gift," Regina said, with wave of her hand. "Open it."
Emma did, and inside found a gold ring, set with a small diamond. "Oh," she breathed. "It's beautiful."
"You can have it on one condition."
Emma looked up sharply, narrowing her eyes. "What's the condition?"
"It's an engagement ring."
Emma shook her head, wondering briefly if she'd misunderstood. "Sorry, it's what?"
"An engagement ring," Regina repeated. "You can wear it on the condition that you marry me."
"You want to get married?" Marrying Regina had honestly never crossed Emma's mind. It seemed almost unnecessary, somehow, when there was simply no future that Emma could see without Regina in it.
"I want…" Regina's mouth worked as she tried to find the words. "I want something permanent. Something that says you and I are permanent."
"We have Alice," Emma pointed out. "And Henry. That's pretty permanent, Regina."
"That's true. But you and me, that's not just about Henry and Alice, is it?" Regina's voice had suddenly done that going-small thing it did sometimes. Emma knew that meant she was only half-present in the moment, that her mind was drifting toward things that had happened in another life.
Emma took her hand, pulling her back. "You know it's not."
Regina smoothed her free hand over Alice's dark head and pressed an absent-minded kiss to it. "I love our family. But I want something that's just about the two of us."
"You really want to marry me?"
Emma lifted a hand to Regina's face, pulling her close to give her a soft kiss over their daughter's head. If Regina wanted a promise of what Emma already knew to be true, it seemed like such a small thing to give. "Well, all right, then."
Emma leaned against the marble counter, watching Regina bend over neat rows of cupcakes, carefully piping pink frosting onto each one. It had taken a long time for Regina to begin baking again, and Emma enjoyed getting the chance to watch her do something she so clearly enjoyed. "These look amazing."
Regina glanced up just in time to see Emma swipe a finger through the frosting on the cupcake closest to her and grabbed her wrist before she could stick the finger in her mouth. "What do you think you're doing?"
"Um, taste testing?" Emma tried.
"They taste as good as they look, and you know it," Regina snapped, but her eyes were crinkling around the edges. She considered Emma's hand for a moment before pulling the pink-frosted finger to her own mouth and licking it clean. Her eyebrows lifted in approval of her own work. "And you can wait like everybody else."
Emma made a face at her. "Control freak."
"Hedonist," Regina shot back with a grin.
"Morning," Henry announced his presence as he came into the kitchen. His eyes lit immediately on the cupcakes. "Hey, that one's messed up. Can I have it for breakfast?"
"No," both of his mothers replied in unison. Regina picked up her pastry bag to repair the damage, and Emma wrapped a consoling arm around her son's shoulders. "Cheerios are on the table, kid," she told him.
"Fine," Henry sighed, and then he caught sight of Emma's hand on his shoulder. Excitedly, he turned, not to Emma, but to Regina. "You asked her already?"
"I did," Regina replied with a small smile. "And she said yes."
"Yes!" Henry pumped his fist before wrapping his arms tightly around Emma's middle. "I knew it!"
"Kid," Emma grunted. "I need to breathe."
He let her go and turned to pull a cereal bowl down from the cupboard. "So awesome," he said, grinning widely.
The doorbell rang, echoed by a squeal from Alice. On her way to answer it, Emma stopped to lift the baby out of the highchair. She opened the front door to find her parents standing there, and when Alice gave a little wave, the biggest smile Emma had ever seen spread across Snow's face. While David edged past them with his arms full of another half-dozen gifts, Snow pressed kisses to the cheeks of her daughter and granddaughter.
"What's this?" Emma tapped an accusatory fingernail against the large red and white button pinned to her mother's cardigan. Three decades with the concept of democracy had not been lost on the people of Storybrooke, and while Regina counted that as a point of pride, a way she'd made people's lives better, Emma really didn't think it was necessary to remind her that Snow was now running for the office Regina had held for so long. The sound of grinding teeth drove Emma crazy.
"Sorry." Snow unfastened the pin and dropped it into her pocket. "I had a breakfast thing."
"This is my kid's birthday, not a campaign event, okay?"
"Of course," Snow agreed, reaching to pull Alice into her own arms. "This is a family thing. I'm just here as—Emma!" She grabbed Emma's left hand. "What's this?"
Emma smiled sheepishly. "Um, a ring. From Regina." She bit her lip, waiting for a reaction.
Snow simply tilted her head as she examined the ring, raising one eyebrow. "It's lovely. Although I did think she was going to wait."
Emma's brow creased. "She told you?" Snow and Regina were civil, even occasionally kind when their shared adoration of the children made them forget themselves, but Emma didn't think they ever spoke privately.
"Oh, Emma," Snow said, amused. "You're marrying a traditional woman. She asked permission."
"And you gave it," Emma said, and it was not a question. She was a little embarrassed at the emotion welling in her throat. She supposed in another life she might feel insulted by people talking about her life as if it was theirs to give and take, but she had never imagined that she would feel so much like she belonged to so many people.
"She's your true love," Snow said, with that constant note of deep assurance. "And she asked us, Emma. Do you know how hard that was for her to do?"
Emma nodded slowly. Of course she knew, now, of how Regina had learned never to ask for the things she wanted, how disappointment and loss had turned her heart inside out until the only way she knew how to go through life was by grasping desperately at anything she thought might make her happy. Asking meant being ready to be refused. And, Emma realized now, asking, for Regina, meant trusting that she would not be.
"My precious girl," Snow said. "We knew you'd say yes. How could we say no?"
Regina held Alice in front of her. Not slung on her hip, not draped over her shoulder, but in front of her, facing out. Emma couldn't tell if the baby was meant to be a shield or a peace offering. Either way, it seemed to work. Emma hung back, leaning in the archway between the living room and the foyer and watching as people approached the pair easily, even warmly. Alice grinned and babbled back at the people who fussed over her, energized by the attention. For her part, Regina looked happy to disappear into the role of proud mother.
Ruby spotted Emma from across the room and flashed her a wide smile. Emma re-crossed her arms, tucking her left hand into her elbow as Ruby weaved her way through the small clusters of guests. She hadn't wanted to take the ring off, but she wasn't quite ready to really show it off, either.
Ruby sidled up to her, bumping shoulders with her affectionately. "Emma! Nice dress."
Emma glanced down at the sweet blue dress Snow had talked her into borrowing. It was a bit too short and made her feel like a six-year-old trying to wear last summer's clothes, but the look on Regina's face when Emma had come down the stairs wearing it had almost been worth how silly she felt now. "It's my mom's," she said apologetically.
Ruby rolled her eyes. Snow was her best friend, but it was no secret that Ruby thought her sense of style left something to be desired. "No kidding. When you pick your wedding dress, you've gotta let me help you, okay?"
Emma raised her eyebrows. "My wedding dress?"
"Oh, come on," Ruby said with a knowing smile. "You didn't really think you were hiding that rock, did you?"
Emma shrugged, rubbing her thumb along the gold band. "I was trying to let Alice have her day."
"She is," Ruby assured her. "You can still let people congratulate you, Em."
"I wasn't sure anyone would want to. You don't think I'm crazy?"
"Marrying Regina? Oh, I definitely think you're crazy." Emma tried not to flinch at that, and Ruby smiled indulgently. "But since when does that mean you shouldn't do it? If Emma Swan didn't do something crazy once in a while, I don't think any of us would even be here. Especially not that kid. And she's great."
Emma couldn't help but grin. Ruby didn't even like babies. She tended to eye them warily from a safe enough distance that no one would suggest she hold them. But she loved Alice.
"So I say go for it," Ruby continued. "I just want a front row seat."
Emma wrapped an arm around her friend's waist and hugged her. "I'm so glad you're here, Rubes. You really are the best."
Ruby winked cheekily. "I know."
She found Henry in the study, sitting on the floor next to the coffee table, bent intently over a thick leather-bound book. This was not the book her son had carried like a talisman in the first months that she knew him. This was a new book, similar but for the title embossed on the cover and the blank pages within. Henry had nearly filled the book with his accounts of people in Storybrooke finding the happy endings they'd been denied for so long. Emma had read most of it, and as much as she adored him, Henry's prose was nothing special. Where he really shone was the illustrations. With some gentle encouragement in that direction, his work had begun to resemble a comic book more than a story book.
"Hey, kid," she said from the doorway. "You're missing the party."
"I'm not missing it," he argued. "I'm remembering it."
"Working on your book?" She came to crouch beside him, looking over his shoulder at the page where he was sketching a detailed picture of the party. At the center of it was a laughing Regina holding Alice, with Emma and Henry smiling on either side of her.
"If I don't get it down right away, sometimes I start to forget things. And the ending is the most important part."
"The ending?" He'd never mentioned an ending before.
Henry nodded, still drawing. "I think I'm almost done, Emma. If the Queen and the Savior get married, that's the last happy ending." He'd all but dropped the epithets for his mothers, except in the book, and the queen hadn't been "evil" for a very long time. Emma was glad for that, but she suddenly realized that the day might come when she would miss hearing herself called the Savior, even if she never really did feel like one. She had wished so often for him to outgrow his childish obstinacy, but now she wished that he wouldn't grow up quite so fast.
"What are you going to do when it's done?"
His pencil stilled as he thought for a moment. "Color it in, I guess. Mom said you'd get me some paints."
"That's a good idea," she told him, ruffling his hair gently. She ran a finger over the faces in his drawing, careful not to smudge the lines. "I think this is my favorite one."
He tapped the end of the pencil against the page. "Ma, do I look like you?"
"What?" She looked up from the book, startled by the non-sequitur.
"Alice looks like Mom. Everyone looks at her and just knows she's Mom's kid. Which is weird, because you're the one who had her."
"Henry…" Emma's stomach was already churning at the thought of the one horribly awkward conversation they'd had about how, exactly, Emma could be pregnant.
"I know, magic." He rolled his eyes—that was Emma all over—and it was clear that he didn't want to revisit that subject any more than she did. "But do I look like you?"
She glanced back down at his drawing, surprised that he couldn't seem to see the shared features he could render so well. "Well, it's different. You're a boy. But, yeah, I can see me in you. And I can see your grandpa sometimes."
"No one else?" Henry in an uncharacteristically shy gesture, dropped his eyes. It was the reticence that let her know what he was getting at.
"You mean your dad?" Henry nodded. "Sure. Sometimes. Henry, I know you know things were a mess with your dad. But I also liked him. A lot. And every time I notice him in you, it's really easy for me to remember why."
"Really?" He looked up at her then, trying to channel Emma's superpower. She'd lied to him before to keep him from feeling bad about his dad, and he wanted to be sure that this was true.
"Really. I like it, actually."
He chewed the inside of his cheek, and she could see the thought coming together behind his eyes. "You think maybe Alice does that, too? For Mom? You think Alice helps people remember the good stuff about her?"
She thought of the way Regina had held Alice, the way she'd seemed to be presenting the child as though she were proof of something. Which, when Emma thought about it, she was. "Yeah, kid. I hope so."
He nodded once, firmly, as if locking the idea into place. "Me, too."
"I think you've got enough here to remember, Henry. Come back to the party. You can help your sister open her presents."
"Okay!" His eager grin was every bit her little boy.
He scrambled to his feet as she closed the book. She traced her fingers over the gilded letters on the cover, smiling to herself when the gesture let her catch the sparkle of the new ring on her finger. She had rolled her eyes at the title when August had presented Henry with the book, but now that she knew how it ended, she thought it was kind of perfect:
Happily Ever After