"Emma? Please open the door."
There was something stuck in her throat. Something that made it excruciating to breathe. She realised it was a scream when it came out.
"Snow. Just not now. Please." The voice came out sturdy and whole. Big girls don't cry. Not over silly old hearts that should know better. It was embarrassing and weakening and she knew better.
But the truth is: hearts can break even if they are made of stretchy muscle that can take a beating like a champ. It would be easier if we just keeled over and died when they do break because now she could say with all certainty that all the inspirational bull crap in the hallmark cards was actually the fucked up truth: love is eternal and it would be best to die when love goes away. Except you don't. And whoever had come up with it is better to have loved and lost should be shot in the nuts. Twice.
The tray stayed untouched on the stone floor next to her. The scrambled eggs she had made herself ran a strange liquid, the warm bread went stale, the butter congealed, the cut fruit darkened.
It was stupid, the whole thing. She was a grown woman, she had a child and a secure job that required no particular skill set. It couldn't be that one person leaving her life could bother her this much. It was ridiculous, pathetic. She was better than this. Hell, she knew better than this. Regina was probably now laughing her arse off, knowing the damage she had left behind. Regina was that kind of person any way. She fed on other people's misery. Didn't she?
And besides, this could be looked at as a one night stand. Just a really long one. One nighters had been her bread and butter, what was so wrong with this one now?
She just needed to get off her ass, clean up, have this chamber emptied and aired and just go on with her princessy duties. Like… polish her glass slippers and her tiara or something.
No way Emma Swan was going down this easy. No way in hell.
She just needed to catch her breath.
The food on the tray stayed remarkably well preserved. Mostly because the chambers were winter cold and Emma could not be bothered with a fire.
Her thoughts festered. She went from her old staple diet of it doesn't really matter to the absolute novelty of please god, make it stop with a side helping of all by myself complete with visions of herself growing into an old biddy alone in a cottage in the woods, surrounded by pet toads. And that's when the crying jag started. Out of self pity came the self perception: it hurt because of the swell in her heart. It was big and lumpy and unfortunate to carry around and it looked remarkably like Regina and sounded like her and if she thought about it long enough, it smelled like her. That shape in her heart was what hurt. It made her say I love you.
The thought that she had not said, not once, I love you, made it clear as water. She did. She did with all her heart and she had not said a word. She was fundamental crap at talking about feelings - and now, there would not be a chance, because Regina was gone.
That was the loss. She never did get to say I love you. Oh hellfuckhellfuckhell.
If you've ever cried all night you'll know that there comes a time when there is nothing left, when the hearts goes silent, there is nothing left of you. Not a thing.
And then there was anger.
It angered her, that she seemed to have it all at her fingertips. It made her furious that for once her life seemed to be kind and honest and on track to something good. It made her fume that Regina would simply wait for the moment she could walk on her own and puff herself out of their bed without so much as a nice working with you.
She levitated an apple from the basket by the window and as her anger grew and fed on itself, more and more apples rose into the air, circling, faster and faster and faster until they were a whirlwind of anger and rage. A small white paper was swooped into the whirling wind and landed on the bed next to Emma, the lettering a bold cursive.
How lucky am I to find it so difficult to say goodbye.
Emma stared dumbly at the paper in her hand. Had this been the plan all along? Regina's plan?
Henry barged in through the door. "She would not leave without saying goodbye to me. She wouldn't, Emma. So you get off your butt and you go and fix this. Go and fix this now."
Henry was probably too young to understand things like this. She hoped. How the hell was she supposed to know. She had never really been a child herself, forced to grow up fast or succumb to the system. So she handed him the note and hoped that she was not forever scarring the kid.
"Okay. So what, now? Are you just going to let her go and sit there?"
"She knew she was leaving."
"So she left. And she didn't say where she was going. How am I supposed to find her. How do I even know she wants to be found?"
"Emma, go and ask Grandma."
"God, sometimes you are just so... dim." He covered his mouth at his outburst, regretting it immediately. To Emma, it just made it blatantly obvious that he was Regina's son as much as hers. "Grandma brought her here. Mom was scared that Snow might send her back. You do the math, cause I'm just 12 and I'm not the one in love with Mom."
"I swear, Emma, if you treat me like a kid I'll scream. I know it okay? I saw you together. I was here too for the last month. Even if you didn't even see me, because you were so focused on her. I get it, okay. And it's... fine. It's great, really. But I want my mom back. I want you to go and get my mom back."
"You're not made of glass. Emma?"
Oh, god, was she really snivelling? "Yeah?"
"Yes, not yeah. I've figured out something... The happy endings? They are not a guarantee... Sometimes, you need to work really hard to get one."
The Queen had stood outside her child's chambers and grieved with her. That's all parents can do, sometimes, and it is a difficult lesson to learn. More so for the Queen because they had been friends before they were mother and daughter. The silence and then the sobs on the other side of the door hurt physically in her chest.
Those sobs terrified her too in the choice they presented. She could save her child and reveal herself less than worthy or she could preserve Emma's perception of her and condemn her to heartbreak.
Eventually, it was her last shred of decency, the one she tried her best no to hear, that won out.
She had the contract in her hand. Funny how she had never realised how potent words could be until it was too late. She could try to fool herself that this was for the best. Or she could cut her child's losses and intervene.
She knocked on the door, setting her game face back in order. There was no reply. Snow knocked and knocked until she was forced to understand that Emma simply would not open the door.
She kicked it down. Hell has no fury as a mother trying to protect her young.
"Later. Just… later, okay?"
"No. Now." And that was as queenly as Snow managed to be. If Emma was not going to listen to her mother, she'd damned well listen to her queen. But when Snow began on where Regina was and how she'd been taken there, her throat simply closed up. There was air but no voice. And when she tried writing, there was ink but no words. And when she tried gesticulating, there was pain, a pain so intense in her chest that she simply collapsed on the bed. When she tried to hand Emma the contract, she was seized by paralysis.
"Henry says you know where she is."
Snow blinked furiously, her eyes pointing at the contract her paralyzed body could not push towards her suffering child.
Emma took the contract from her hand and began to read.
There was just one word in her mind when Emma began reading the contract she had plucked from Snow's frozen fingers- fuck- which, really, was a handy expletive, sort of a one size fits all. She didn't know much about the land she'd been born in, but she'd lived there long enough to know some things don't need a logical explanation, they just are. The moment she plucked up the contract from Snow's hands, her mother's body relaxed. And there really was not point in another of her go to expressions- what the hell - because she was not going to get a reply. But what she saw when she managed to decipher the elaborate characters was that they had agreed to teach Emma and that once Emma was safe, Regina would be repaid for her services with freedom and a cottage in the woods and visits from Henry.
"You had her in the dungeon? For a year?" This was the one question Snow had prayed would not be asked. But she had started so she'd finish. She'd finish and her daughter would hate her forever. But even if she had an explanation, the contract prevented her from speaking, from explaining, from accounting her actions. She merely nodded which was the only thing she could without feeling she'd die.
"Did you take her from me? Was it you?" In way, yes, when she'd set out the terms. But she couldn't have imagined. She couldn't. Her eyes glazed over in pain and still she looked pointedly at the contract.
" Was it this?" Emma waved the parchment of the contract. "Where is the cottage?"
Snow's body seized again. Okay, so contract again.
"When she saved me from the spell… Was it because the contract made her?"
Snow's eyes turned back on her skull. She had something to say, clearly, it just would not let her.
"How do I find her? Mom, please, I know it hurts. How do I find her?"
Snow smiled and teared up a little. Her hand shot to Emma's chest and splayed over Emma's heart before paralysis hit her again. "My heart?" Snow blinked. "Follow my heart?"
The only reply were Snow's falling tears.
One moment she was safe and warm, the next her body was not hers, just a mass of scattered specks of dust reforming elsewhere. There was a bed but she was on the floor, there were clothes but she was naked. There was a fireplace, but no fire cackling on it.
There was Emma's scent on her skin, but no lover with her. There was the feel of Emma's hands on her, inside her, over her, but no Emma. There was only the absence, the cold, the loneliness she knew by heart. She looked around her. There was a room, a small room with low ceilings and snow covered a garden outside her ivy framed window. A fire came alive on the hearth, warm tea steamed the air next to her bed. Her cottage. Her prize. Her loneliness.
She picked herself up from the floor and stumbled into the cold bed, her body still warm, still lose and sore from the love they had made.
She was taken care of. Food, water and fire when she was too weak to move. But magic is no companion. Magic was just another word for loneliness.
Alone is the worst of words. Nothing can be as wrong, as cruel, as against nature. The cottage was pretty and warm and secluded. There was ivy that lined the walls and a thatched roof, a warm fire, a view of the lake. She wanted for nothing. Except Emma. But every attempt she'd made at going back, every attempt at sending word, she'd end up in agony. Magical contracts are not to be trifled with. It was not like giving up, though. But she needed to build her strength. Rebuild her magic. She had waited a lifetime for this… love. She would wait yet one more if only life was not so short. She could wait a few more months. Even years. But she would find Emma again.
She just needed to get past the crippling weakness that still confined her to the cottage.
She should have taken notes. She should have written down everything Regina taught her about magic, every spell, every nuance, every flick of the wrist. Yeah, she had magic in her blood but she was not so confident right now. Right now she wanted mathematical certainty.
"So what do I do now? Just click my ruby red heels and say There's no place like home?"
Regina laughed wholeheartedly. It was sound so heady, so addictive that Emma wanted to hear it again.
"Something like it. Close your eyes and think where you want to go. Concentrate on that place. Think of it with your heart. That's where your magic is. Your heart." Regina's hand landed light, careful over Emma's heart. "Where do you want to go?"
Regina. She wanted to go to Regina. Heart pounding madly, she closed her eyes and thought home.
And just like the first time, there was only a momentary surge through her blood and she was elsewhere, not entirely sure how she'd done it.
The cottage had a porch that overlooked the lake. It was a good place to sit, even in the cold. She pulled the quilt up to her shoulders, because February is inclement, the worst of the winter really. Inside was lonelier and emptier. If she tried hard enough, she could make believe that she was still sitting by her convalescence window overlooking the lake with Emma tossing breadcrumbs at her. Funny the things you miss.
And then, inside, there was a clutter of falling objects on the stone floor. Probably some animal seeking refuge from the cold. Which was alright, really. She would just catch her breath for a minute and then she would go in and shoo it out. She closed her eyes gathering her still elusive strength, shutting out the greyish blue of the snow threatening sky. "Regina?"
She closed her eyes tighter. It was not the first time she'd heard her name called by Emma's voice. Since being dragged out there by the magic of the contract, she'd heard Emma over and over again. She'd hear her name cursed, sworn, cried. She held on to the sound every single time.
"Gina!" She would not cry. Grown women don't cry. She bit her lip and screwed her eyes shut tight. And then there were hands on her, and she was shaken and suddenly there were arms around her and Emma's young, wild magic scent. When she opened her eyes, Emma's face was less than a hair's breadth away from hers and she had her arms under her knees and was pulling her out of the chair, trying, for sure, to carry her somewhere.
"Emma." She had to touch her because this time it was not in her mind, it was real real real… "Emma!" Her hands tried cupping Emma's face but the position was awkward and Emma was still trying to pick her up from the chair. "Emma, I'm okay. I'm okay. You can put me down."
And as Emma released her hold, Regina could finally take that face in her hands and breathe her in. "I'm alright."
"I thought you were…"
"I'm alright. Just… catching my breath."
"I thought…" But she didn't finish. Her face was too close to Regina's: she just leaned into a kiss, something made out of all the absence, of all the grief and how much they could have lost. When the kiss broke, though breathing was overrated, Emma lowered her head into Regina's knees. "You left. You left me."
"I didn't leave you. I left, that was all." The smile was sad. "I just left. Not you. I didn't leave you."
Superpower or not, Emma would have believed her. It was all there, in the eyes open wide so that the moisture gathering did not become tears.
"Regina I…" The most important things are the most difficult to say.
There was a hummingbird in Regina's chest, so fast, so fast. She had waited and waited for the words Emma was going to say. She had devoted all her life to hearing them and gone about in all the wrong ways. She wanted to close her eyes in case they didn't come and she wanted to have them wide open in case they did and her breath was catching in her throat. Her hands cupped Emma's face.
"I love you."
And just like that, this was it. Happy. No ever after. Just happy. Here and now. And it was enough and good and complete.
You wait all your life for things. You go through Christmas and birthdays and still they don't come. You despair and believe that they are not meant for you. And then, one day, there they are.
"I love you." It could not have been easier or simpler. Some things just are, like a the lake behind them or the forest or the mountains. Emma smiled because it was easy. She'd expected that it might hurt or be uncomfortable or simply not come out. But the words came out like they belonged in the air around her. Or like they belonged to the woman before her. "I love you."
Regina nearly fell from her chair, the hurry to catch the words as they were said, maybe afraid they might not be there for long. Emma understood that. She let herself be held in those hands, holding Regina up, just letting herself smile a silly little smile of someone completely besotted with another.
Words are insufficient for certain things, for certain feelings, but they are all we've got in an emergency, like when someone just said I love you. It doesn't give you time to go and prove it to them, to go and do all the things you do or would do or want to do for love, for the person you love, so in the end, you just say it back, "I love you too" and hope that there is going to come a moment really soon that will let you show it and prove it. "I love you, Emma." was easy after all and it seemed strange to have something that was easy.
That settled it.
She would have to prove it on a regular basis. "I love you, Emma." And she just let herself fall into those arms around her and grown woman or not, she cried in relief that Emma was really there and that she would not have to struggle through everything all over again.
"Were you really going to carry me inside?"
"Because you thought I was dead?"
"Sort of, yeah."
"You were going to give to do yourself damage."
"I'm deceptively strong."
"Indeed", Regina touched the smiling cheek that had a little lopsided dimple. "Maybe we should go in. It's chilly out here. I'll let you carry me inside."
"Are you tired?"
"No. Not anymore. I'm just letting you be gallant."
Emma simply slid her hands under Regina's back and knees and prepared to hoist her up. But when she expected to lift a weight almost like her own – and actually have it hurt her back- Regina simply floated in her arms, light as a feather. Regina smiled delighted. "Look who's got a sense of humour."
"One of my best qualities, dear." But she leaned on Emma's shoulder.
Emma deposited Regina on the bed and lay down next to her, on her side so that she could see Regina better. She studied the bags under the eyes and the thin sheen of sweat the levitation spell had put there. "How are you feeling?"
Emma ran her fingers through the black hair, the face so pretty it hurt sometimes, and pulled the woman to her, craving the warmth, the presence, the body, the vitality of her if only just to reassure herself that everything was okay, that there was no distance, no goodbye.
Her mouth sought out Regina's in a hungry kiss, and when she heard the now familiar whimper of need, she let go of the control she'd held on. She rolled onto Regina, settling easily into the cradle of that body she knew so well, tracing kisses, long and hungry from neck to breast, elbow to knee, navel to foot. She opened the ties on the shirt, revealing the body it covered, the dips and the swells, the scent, the smoothness, the dark grey webbing that still marred it. She kissed each of these grey lines to which she owed her life.
"I don't think it will go away." Regina tried to close her clothes, but Emma's only response was to kiss more, to trace each one with her fingers.
"If it doesn't hurt you, it's okay."
"Yes, a little. But it's part of you. We're not all pretty and perfect." And she devoted herself to that skin, to kissing and touching. "And you are so beautiful." Small fingers slowly released the shirt, letting Emma slide it off, gently onto the pristine bed. Emma kissed Regina's poisoned skin and her healthy skin, no difference between one or the other and it was that, more than anything that relaxed Regina. She felt no debt being paid, just her lover loving her. She relaxed into Emma's touch and let herself be made love to.
It may well be because they were in the shadow of the Enchanted Forest, heart of Fairy Tale Land, but right now life was the easiest it had even been. With a thought, Emma started a fire in the hearth close to their bed.
"I'm impressed, Princess."
"That's good. Is it likely to make you more agreeable to sexual favours?"
"You don't need to impress me any further. You have made a suitable impression so far that will last you quite some time."
"Yeah? I thought you were not easily impressed."
"You saved my life. That impressed sufficiently."
"Then we're even."
"How do you figure?"
"You saved me from freezing to death."
"Ah, yes. You just had to remind me of one of your most dim witted moments…" Emma simply shrugged. Yes, there was no denying that particular level of moronitis but damned if she was going to explain the why and the what for of that not so shinny moment. Guilt tripping when you're basking in post coital bliss is a disservice to sex. "We'll call it even, then."
"Come to think of it, I think we are not exactly even. I mean… look, it's been four weeks since the ball. And I was here all the time. I juggled apples for you!" But all that Regina heard was four weeks playing on a loop. Had it been that long? Had it been that bad? "So, you know, I'd say that a thank you is in order."
"Say thank you with gifts… or sexual favours. Whichever is handier…"
There you go: a reality check at every turn of phrase. She slid into Emma's open arms and just let her body mould itself to the warmth and the strength. Emma closed her arms around her.
"I don't think any amount of sexual favours will ever repay what you did, Miss Swan."
"Are we back to the titles, Ms Mills? Anyway, I think we can give it a try. I can let you know how you're progressing…"
Regina's smile was easy but not uncomplicated. No, Emma did not know she had saved more than a body. That's not how you save a life. Emma had stayed with her, through thick and thin. And when there had not been magic enough to break the spell, there had been her heart.
"You saved me, Emma. In all the ways you could have saved me." She took Emma's hand and pressed it against her heart. "You broke my curse."
"Don't, Gina. Just don't. I kissed you that night, alright? I kissed you and it didn't work. I told you I did not have enough magic."
"And you think that magic is just breaking curses with kisses? That is the easiest thing to do. Just ask your parents. You stayed with me. All this time, you never left. You healed me one tiny fragment at a time. Not just here," her hand pressed into her tainted skin. "But here." Her hand slid over her heart. "I never… never had that. It was never about kisses, Emma. You just stayed. You stayed." And that was that.
"Now what?" Emma asked, pulling Regina closer into her, adjusting the covers to their cooling bodies.
"What do you mean?"
"I mean… Is this what you want, this cottage, the independence or… Where do you want us to live from now on? Here or the palace? With the in-laws..."
"Is there something wrong with my question?"
"No… No. Nothing at all." Regina buried her face into Emma's arm. "But you are the princess and I am the Evil Queen."
"Maybe it's best if you just come to visit. When you feel like it." Emma actually pushed Regina back a little just to take the measure of the woman's words as she spoke them. "You are the princess, Emma. You can't be playing house with someone. Especially me. You were born into privilege. But with it come specific obligations."
"Gina, can the crap. One, you're not a queen anymore. That's half your objection blown out of the water. And second… you can be a bitch sometimes. 'Cause you are. But evil is just ridiculous, now."
"People don't change, Emma. We just want to believe they do."
"Jeez, just tell me you don't want me, will you? You're not evil, Regina. You're not evil. No anymore. Evil is who evil does."
"Emma. That's not even good English"
"No it's Forrest Gump English. You must picture it with a southern accent. Stoopid is who soopid does, momma always said. I'm, just taking liberties with it."
"Oh god, I'm stuck in this land without TV. My point is…"
"Oh, you have one?"
"Yeah." She pushed Regina onto her back. "This," she said her fingers trailing each of the lines of that dark web on Regina's body, "Was not contractual obligation. It was not a game move. This was you. Saving my life. That's not evil."
"Sometimes, Emma, it is difficult. To keep being good."
"Why would you think it is easy for anyone?"
"Hell no. Do you know how many heads I want to smash against the nearest wall on a daily basis? Snow keeping you in a dungeon for a year? But I'll tell you what: you trust me. Be with me. Here, there, wherever you choose. So far we had no incidents. I must rub off on you."
"Rub on me, at any rate."
"Funny. Please. Let me try to make you happy."
The most important things are the most difficult to say but to keep them inside? To lock them away? They rot you to the core, make you bitter, sink you into the worst part of you.
"Emma, I'm not an easy person. But I have… let's call it a handicap. I will get mean and snappy and jealous and..."
"Way to sell it Regina…"
"No, Emma, listen, what I'm trying to say is that I'm moody, I can be jealous, sometimes, even borderline homicidal, but… I need you to promise me that you're okay with that… I need you to be sure Emma. I can wait. I can not have you. I can wait for you to visit. I just don't think I can survive losing anyone else. Losing you, you see?"
"We'll be together forever, Regina. Just wait and see. Maybe even longer."
"Forever is a long time, Emma."
"Just you wait, Regina. Just you wait."
"You know what I thought when you first rolled into my town in that death trap of yours?" Emma shook her head. "Henry just shot past me and I thought Here I am, alone in the dark and no one sees me. But it was not true, was it?"
"No, it wasn't."
"I didn't know that. You saw me. But I didn't know that, not then."
"You're catching up…"
"Huh…" The smile was small, but it was a smile. "Forever, then."
"Yep. Buckle up, Regina."
There are so many ways to say I love you.
Author's note: I wish I had a brilliant way to say thank you to all of you who reviewed, followed, favorited. The blog mentions, the PM's... everything. I was... still am- amazed and not a little bowled over. This was supposed to be a modest story and it turned into this buzz.
You have spoiled me forever.
So thank you. From the heart.