It had been almost a month, and nothing was getting better.
It was supposed to get easier as time went on. All the books said so. Even birth parents didn't always bond with their children right away, they had reassured Regina, but as she cared for the baby and learned to understand him, she would gradually feel that spark of connection and so would he.
It was magic that they were describing, in a world where there was none. And people believed it, people who claimed that magic had no place in their lives. They would call a dragon an absurd fiction, but the idea that she would one day look down at this squirming, screaming creature and suddenly love him was something they found so obvious that it barely needed mentioning. And not only that, but they were confident that a baby who cried every time she held him would suddenly love her as well.
He was crying now, a high, unhappy wail that echoed through the house like an accusation. Regina smothered a little cry of her own; hadn't he just gone to sleep? "I'm coming, I'm coming," she said, extricating herself from the mountain of paperwork that had taken over the dining room table since she'd started doing most of her work from home.
The little nursery was homey and colorful, in sharp contrast to the minimalist elegance Regina preferred for the rest of the house. "It's all right," she soothed as she picked the baby up, trying to sound cheerful in the hopes that it would rub off on him. "It's okay, Henry, I've got you."
The crying continued, which she had expected. "What do you want." The words came out as a hiss, her teeth clenched to keep her from shouting them. "I give you everything you could possibly need. Why are you never satisfied?"
There was no answer, of course. Regina couldn't even answer that question when she asked it of herself; why did she think that an infant might be able to? She let out a sigh with a catch in it like a little sob. She had grown accustomed to those fleeting flashes of sadness, the lonely, hollow feeling that crept up on her from time to time, but she had hoped that having someone to love and care for might diminish them. Instead they had become more frequent, mounting as her stress and exhaustion did.
Another sigh as she repositioned Henry against her shoulder, and then she drew herself up straight. It was just new-parent weariness, that was all, and she refused to let it get the better of her. She refused to let anything get the better of her, not ever again. "Are you hungry? Is that it?" It should have occurred to her earlier; he was almost always hungry when he woke up in the afternoon. She might not be able to solve the larger problem of his continued unhappiness, but she could at least tend to his most immediate need. "Come on, let's get you something to eat."
The slight bounce that descending the stairs imparted into Regina's gait seemed to soothe some of Henry's cries, but they returned in full force as she reached the kitchen. "I know, I know. I'm going as fast as I can." She opened the canister of baby formula and bit back a groan; it was almost empty. The rest of the pantry was similarly bare. There was nothing else for it. Once Henry was fed, she was going to have to go grocery shopping.
As usual, eating took all of Henry's focus. He latched onto the bottle with such intensity that he seemed to forget that Regina was holding him. She settled back into her chair, studying him with the same intensity. Babies were supposed to be simple things, with basic needs and uncomplicated minds, difficult to care for but easy to understand. So why was this one such a mystery to her?
Peaceful silence reigned for a while, broken only by Henry's noisy eating. Even after that subsided he was quiet for a while, staring up at Regina like she was just as incomprehensible to him as he was to her. They watched each other in mutual wariness for some time before Regina shifted her hold on him and stood up. "All right, we have places to be," she said. Truthfully, she might have liked to stay sitting and watching him for a little while longer, but it was only a matter of time before he would start crying again. It would be less upsetting if she broke the silence first. "We're going shopping. You'll like that, won't you?" And if you don't, hopefully you'll wait until there aren't too many people around to tell me so, she added silently.
It took much less time to get Henry clean, changed, and dressed than it did to make herself look presentable. Regina was growing to dread going out in public; the amount of effort it took to maintain her image had grown exponentially since taking Henry on. Not a crease or a hair could ever be out of place, nothing to hint to her…neighbors that she was anything other than fully calm and in control at all times. None of them could be allowed to suspect for a moment that motherhood might have weakened her, loosened her grip. She was royalty, still and always, and even if no one else could remember she would give them no chance to forget.
Finally, you understand the importance of comporting yourself like a lady, an old voice echoed in Regina's head, dripping with false affection. Such a shame that it took you so long. Not a surprise, but a shame nevertheless.
Regina gasped and jerked backwards, pulling away from the mirror as if its surface might suddenly become that face instead of hers. She shook her head, forcing the thought away. She was fine, she was in control. "I'm not yours," she hissed softly. "Not anymore."
She scooped Henry up more sharply than she had intended to, but his fussing at this treatment soon subsided as she bundled him into the car. He liked the car, or maybe he had already figured out that it usually took him to places where there would be other people. He liked other people, his little face moving eagerly to track the movement of anyone who came near as if he was looking for someone. Probably just looking for anyone who's not me, Regina thought.
The store was mercifully uncrowded, with only a few early-afternoon shoppers drifting through the aisles. All the same, Regina maintained as brisk a pace as she could without looking hurried. One or two people nodded a greeting at her as she passed, but most avoided making eye contact. As it should be.
Henry was another story. He was cooing softly, a happy little sound that he rarely made at home. Even the people who refused to look at Regina seemed incapable of ignoring him. Everyone they passed cast a furtive little smile towards the stroller, and he was no doubt smiling right back.
"Cute kid," someone said by Regina's elbow. She turned to see Leroy standing beside her with his usual scowl, although he had sounded sincere enough. "Looks like a handful."
"No more than I can handle," Regina replied with a tight smile. She angled the stroller to get around him and nearly collided with someone coming around the corner.
"Excuse me," a small voice said, and then its owner looked up. Mary-Margaret's eyes went wide and she shrank back. "Oh, Regina! I-I'm so sorry, I wasn't looking…"
"No harm done, Miss Blanchard," Regina said with a cold smile. At least there would be one bright spot to this trip. There was no day that couldn't be improved by seeing Mary-Margaret quail in front of her. "Just be more careful."
"Of course," the other woman stammered, nodding sharply. She started to slink away, but her downcast eyes landed on Henry. "Well, hi there!"
The transformation was instantaneous. Her shy, closed face blossomed into Snow's old smile, warm and illuminating, a look that Regina hadn't seen on her since they came to this place. Her voice stayed soft, but now it was the tender softness that it used to have when she spoke to her animal friends. "Oh, you are just beautiful, aren't you?"
Regina's grip on the stroller's handle tightened. She hadn't expected this. Snow was supposed to be buried irrevocably deep under the woman the curse had turned her into, her gentle fearlessness trapped forever inside Mary-Margaret's cowed shell. For eighteen unchanging years she had dodged Regina as much as possible, her voice never rising above a whisper when they were forced to interact and her eyes never rising above her shoes. Now this baby, this little creature that Regina could barely manage to care for, let alone appreciate, had brought back her brightness and her beauty, that smile that made her look regal even in her mousy cardigan and dowdy skirt. Not only had Henry consumed Regina's life, he was putting cracks in the world she'd worked so hard to build. What was wrong with him that made him affect people like this?
And what's wrong with me that keeps him from doing it to me?
Mary-Margaret was fully crouched in front of the stroller now, beaming at Henry and whispering little baby words to him. Regna could see the little twitches of her hands, the way she was resisting reaching out to touch him or pick him up. She wouldn't do so without his mother's permission, of course, and evidently she wasn't so emboldened as to ask even though every little bit of her so clearly ached to do so. Regina found herself praying that she wouldn't ask. If she did, Regina wasn't sure she could stop herself from saying Take him, let me get away from him for just five minutes, let someone else try to figure out what he wants for once. The relief might even be worth losing some of her dignity.
It was a tiny squeak of a sound, barely identifiable as a laugh. Regina had never heard anything like it from him before, and it filled her with a sudden, twisting sorrow. Why doesn't he do that for me?
Mary-Margaret was clearly just as surprised as Regina. She gave a little gasp of delight. "He's just so sweet!" she said, looking up at Regina for the first time since she'd caught sight of Henry, her smile still radiant.
That broke the spell. All of Regina's weary sadness crystallized, hardening into a burning knot of jealousy in the pit of her stomach. "He is," she agreed, ice in her voice. "But I'm afraid we're very busy right now."
"Oh, of course." Mary-Margaret's smile dropped as she stood up, clearing her throat and straightening her skirt. She was herself again, shrinking back and shaking her head apologetically. "I won't keep you. Excuse me." Regina nodded graciously, a queen accepting a peasant's plea for forgiveness. "Bye-bye, Henry," Mary-Margaret cooed, a tiny spark of her earlier glow returning. "I can't wait until you're old enough to be in my class!"
Regina didn't return the goodbye, she merely dodged around Mary-Margaret and continued on her way. That was another concern she hadn't considered. If one little moment with Henry could do this to Mary-Margaret, then the prolonged interaction of being his teacher might have even more dramatic consequences. Regina would have to see if there was some way to remove her from her post before then without affecting the town's equilibrium. "You are far too popular for your own good," she told Henry softly. She quickened her pace, newly motivated to finish her shopping and leave as fast as possible.
Regina had always been graceful and fairly agile, but with as infrequently as she took Henry out she was still unused to maneuvering a stroller, especially with any speed. There was a sharp crash as one wheel collided with the corner of a display, sending the entire stroller tipping and skidding sideways and nearly knocking Regina off her feet. There was a little grunt, the sound of all the air being forced out of tiny lungs as Henry was thrown against the straps, and then a deep gasp before he started screaming.
Regina could barely draw a full breath herself. She was on the floor in an instant, unbuckling Henry and picking him up in one fluid, frantic movement. "Oh, Henry, shhh, shhh, it's okay." She prodded him gently, examining his squirming limbs for bumps and bruises, beginning to breathe again when she couldn't find any. He seemed unhurt, but his screams morphed into a sobbing wail, an inconsolable sound of fear and unhappiness.
The handful of people who came around the corner to see what the noise was felt like the eyes of the entire town, converging to stare silently at Regina as she tried in vain to soothe Henry. He refused to be comforted, continuing to cry and trying to push away from her even as she held him tight. Panic bubbled up in her, her whispered words getting sharper and more frantic. She had to get away, had to escape this nightmare where she didn't know what to do and everyone was watching her lose control. She stumbled to her feet, nearly losing her hold on Henry in the process, and made her way for the exit as quickly as she dared.
Once outside, Regina collapsed onto the bench in front of the store. Henry continued crying, although it seemed quieter now that it wasn't echoing off the walls. "It's all right," she continued to tell him in that strained, frantic murmur. "You're all right, everything's safe, I'm right here, it's okay, please just stop crying!"
"Well now, what's all this fuss about?"
The crying didn't stop, but somehow that soft voice cut through it without effort. Mr. Gold was standing over Regina, his face as mild and unreadable as ever. "He certainly has a healthy set of lungs on him," he commented.
Regina bared her teeth unconsciously. This is your fault, part of her wanted to scream. You're the one who brought him here. Did you specifically look for a baby that you knew would hate me? Instead she simply nodded sharply, acknowledging and dismissing his presence in one gesture, before returning her attentions to Henry.
Mr. Gold was undaunted by her indifference. "They did tell me that the mother was in excellent health, despite her unfortunate circumstances," he continued, sitting down on the bench next to Regina. He watched the two of them for a moment, seeming to take no notice of Regina's distress. "A handsome child," he finally said. "May I hold him, please?"
Regina felt a flash of gratitude and relief as the magical bargain that Mr. Gold couldn't possibly remember making took hold. Without willing herself to, she eased Henry into Mr. Gold's waiting arms and slumped backwards, suddenly overcome by exhaustion.
"Thank you," Mr. Gold said with unexpected sincerity. He gave Henry a gentle bounce and held him to his chest. "Now, why all this fuss, little one? It can't be as bad as all that, certainly." Henry's crying began to diminish in volume, as though he were agreeing that no, it couldn't be as bad as all that. "I thought not."
His voice was almost hypnotic in its gentle tones, and Regina found herself calming and quieting even as Henry did. She let out a long, slow breath and tried to collect herself. She was beginning to realize that she'd escaped one precarious situation only to run into another. Despite the loss of his magic and the drastic change in his physical body Rumpelstiltskin was probably the least-changed resident of Storybrooke, especially in his desire for power and his knowledge that Regina was the most significant obstacle standing in his way of achieving it. He was, as far as she was concerned, the closest thing she had to a true adversary in this world, and now he was witnessing her public breakdown. She could, perhaps, mitigate some of the damage if she exited gracefully now, but to do so would mean taking Henry back from him, and for the moment she couldn't bring herself to do so. He was quiet now, his little head resting comfortably against Mr. Gold's shoulder and his eyes half closed. Regina didn't want to disturb him, but more than that she just wanted a break from him, a few minutes of not being the one responsible for his continued comfort. She sat silent, trying to appear unconcerned, waiting for some opening to make her move.
"Now, then," Mr. Gold said, his voice still soft and gentle. "Why all this fuss, dearie?"
It took looking up at his face and seeing his eyes on her, placid and inquisitive, for Regina to realize that he was speaking to her now. She sat up a little straighter, hoping that he wouldn't realize he'd caught her off guard. "Just a little stroller accident," she said. "A bump, nothing more. I think it scared him more than anything."
"And you too, from the look of it," Mr. Gold said. "But, no harm done, right? A small mistake. All parents make them. Hardly anything to worry about."
Regina was immediately on guard. It was certainly like him to recognize her distress so readily, and to tell her oh so casually that he'd seen it, but this gentle dismissal of it was something she didn't trust. She met his eyes coolly, giving nothing away. "I'm not worried."
"It's natural for parents to worry," he told her. There was nothing smug or condescending in his voice; he hardly seemed to be speaking to Regina at all. He was staring at Henry, stroking the child's head with a pensive look. "You strive so hard to give them the best lives possible. You do so much for them, and yet there's so much that you can't do for them."
This was new. Regina leaned forward, examining Mr. Gold's face as closely as she could without arousing suspicion. She had studied Rumpelstiltskin back in the Kingdom, learning as much as she could about her enemy, and she remembered now that there had been rumors that the man he had once been had had a child, though none could say what had become of it. Another buried personality, it seemed, was rising to meet Henry. "I didn't realize you were so…sentimental," she said, injecting a note of disdain into her voice.
"It comes with age," he told her smoothly, the sad distance in his voice evaporating so cleanly that she might have mistaken it. "Age, and a lifetime of assessing value. At some point you grow to realize that the old cliché is true: Children are our greatest resource. And the hardest to cultivate, especially if you try to do so alone."
Regina bristled. "If you had doubts about my ability to handle the job, Gold, you might have said something when I first came to you."
A gentle laugh. "Is that what you think this is, my dear? An accusation? And what would I be accusing you of, exactly, except for having the same troubles that every new parent does?"
"He doesn't like me," Regina said. The words burst out of her, against her wishes and out of her control. She couldn't remember the last time anyone had spoken to her the way Mr. Gold was now, gentle and frank, without fear or deference. His kind, calm demeanor had drawn her out, and now he had her trapped.
"He doesn't know you," Mr. Gold responded without concern. "Give it time."
"I have been," she snapped. "That's all anyone can tell me, and it hasn't helped."
"It isn't easy," Mr. Gold agreed. "But you won't make it any easier by pushing yourself. You need to give him time, but you need to give yourself time as well. And you need to take time for yourself. You're no good to him if you can't be good to yourself."
Regina barked a cold, ironic laugh. "You make it sound so simple."
"And yet nothing valuable or worthwhile ever is." Mr. Gold shifted Henry against his shoulder, moving the child out of the way so he could turn his full attention to Regina. "Don't think that I underestimate your troubles, Miss Mills. It's a difficult path that you've chosen, but help is there if you're only willing to seek it out. We both know that you're not entirely without allies in this town. Your young sheriff, for one, and your friend at the newspaper." A barely-noticeable pause. "And, at this moment, me."
"Excuse me?" Regina covered up her shock with a sharp laugh.
"There's little enough love lost between you and me, I know," Mr. Gold said. "But I'm not offering my help for your sake. It's for the boy's sake. He needs a mother who's rested and relaxed enough to take proper care of him, and if I can contribute to that in some small way then I will." The look he gave Henry then was soft and fond, and it stayed on his face as he turned back to Regina. "Go on, then. Finish your shopping, take your time. I'll watch over the little one. It's not much of a break, I'll grant you, but it's something."
It was so tempting that Regina nearly sprung from her seat. Only her natural distrust of Mr. Gold, a distrust cultivated over two lives, made her pause. "And what, exactly, would I owe you for this little favor?"
For a brief moment he looked wounded. "I already told you, this is for his sake and not yours. I wouldn't ask for payment from an infant." That wistful look came into his face again. "And even if that weren't the case, this is one favor that carries its own payment. It's been far too long since I last held a child."
The tiny store felt like a palace when Regina went back inside, an airy haven briefly empty of worry and responsibility. She made her way to the back of the store with slow calm. Someone had righted Henry's stroller and tucked it and her handbasket against a wall, out of the way of traffic, but clearly nobody had wanted to disturb something of hers more than was absolutely necessary. She picked both up, collapsing the stroller so that she could maneuver it more easily, and began making her way down the aisles. There were a handful of questioning looks as she continued her shopping, but nobody said anything to her and for the moment she didn't care. This was her time, for the first time since Henry had arrived, and she was going to relish it.
She was breathing more easily than she had in weeks by the time she left the building. Mr. Gold was right. It hadn't been much of a break, but it was something. She went to her car first, loading in the groceries and the folded stroller before pulling around to the front of the store. For the first time, she felt like she wasn't forcing the smile that rose on her lips at the thought of seeing Henry again.
The sight of her benefactor was much less welcome, however. Her head newly cleared, Regina was suddenly reminded that this man she had entrusted her son to was a threat, no matter how kindly he might be treating her at the moment. Her blood turned briefly to ice, and it was all she could do not to rush forward and snatch the child from his arms.
Mr. Gold was bent over Henry's head, his voice rising and falling in a soft song. "Never let it fade away," Regina heard him sing in a whisper as she approached. He kissed Henry's forehead and inclined his head towards Regina, almost a truncated bow. "And here's your mother, then, little one. Feeling a bit more rested, I trust?"
She didn't answer him, instead leaning forward to stroke the top of Henry's head. "Hi, sweetie." He didn't smile, or make a sound, or acknowledge her in any way, but he also didn't start crying, thank God.
"Such a charming child," Mr. Gold said. "He's been no trouble at all. But then, they never are when someone else is watching, are they?" He gestured towards the bench beside him. "Have a seat. I'd stand, but…" he gestured towards the cane that leaned on the armrest beside him.
Regina sat down, holding her arms out. Mr. Gold eased Henry into them with some reluctance, and as soon as Regina had a firm grip on the baby she pulled back, holding him close, something fierce and possessive bubbling up in her. It was a few moments before she realized that he wasn't crying. Her surprise silenced her, evaporating the cool dismissal she'd been about to give Mr. Gold. What did you do? she wanted to ask. "You were singing to him." It came out like an accusation.
"Just an old lullaby," he said, shrugging off the minor miracle. "It helps them when they fuss." He smiled slightly at her surprise. "Why? Did your mother never sing to you?"
It was such a ridiculous question that Regina snorted. "Of course not." As if her mother had had the time to coo over her.
The humorous look fell from Mr. Gold's face, replaced by an expression Regina couldn't read. There was something like pity in it, and a strange, sad kind of comprehension, as though he suddenly understood something. He shook it off quickly, though, and gave her a casual shrug. "Well, what we can't remember we can always learn. But I'm certain that you're in a hurry to get home. I'll not keep you any longer."
Regina needed no more encouragement to take her leave, to escape that look and the way it had unnerved her. She stood quickly and started to walk away, barely giving Mr. Gold a nod of farewell. She had only taken a few steps before Henry began making fretful noises. She bit back a sharp curse.
"Is that how you hold him?" There was soft, gentle surprise in Mr. Gold's voice, and Regina turned back around to see him rising from the bench to follow her. "That explains quite a bit."
Before she could respond, his hands were on hers, helping her support Henry as he repositioned her hold on him. "You need to hold him closer. He's delicate, yes, but he won't break quite as easily as that."
Regina could only stare at him. The fussing had stopped the moment he moved her, and now Henry was settled peacefully against her chest. "You see?" Mr. Gold said. "He needs to feel secure. They always do, when they're so small in a world so vast. He just needs to know that you've got him and you won't let go."
"Thank you." The words came out hesitantly, but for once in her life Regina couldn't help saying them.
He acknowledged them with a simple nod, perhaps respecting her discomfort at saying them. "What we can't remember, we can always learn," he repeated. "Do think on what I've said, dearie. For his sake, and for your own."
The crying started around midnight, as it usually did. Henry always seemed to give Regina just enough time to fall asleep in earnest before jolting her out of it. He had been so quiet all evening, apparently tired out by the day's events, that she had hoped there might be a reprieve tonight. She stumbled out of bed, not even needing to turn on the lights to make the now-familiar trip down the hall to the nursery.
The sounds just got louder as she entered the room and flicked on the dim lamp that stood beside the crib, letting Henry know that he had an audience. "Yes, you have my attention," Regina said dryly, too tired to feign cheer. "Come on."
She picked Henry up and paced around the room with him for a minute, which almost never worked but which she felt compelled to try anyway. She had tried everything else already. He was never wet or hungry when he woke up like this, and she had checked the thermostat and his blankets a dozen times to make sure he wasn't just getting too hot or too cold in the night. If she could have imagined any cause for it, she might have thought that he was simply…
…Afraid. Mr. Gold's words from the afternoon came back to her. They're so small, in a world so vast. Was it really that simple? Was he really just pleading for her to show him that everything was okay and he wasn't alone?
Suddenly terrified of dropping Henry, Regina sat down in the overstuffed armchair and tried to remember how Mr. Gold had moved her hands. One across Henry's shoulders, supporting his head at the same time, and the other holding up his backside without constraining his legs, his entire body positioned just over her heart. His crying didn't stop as dramatically as it had that afternoon, but it lessened, and Regina could hardly believe how much more comfortable she felt while holding him like this. Something else he had said came back to her, and it stirred a memory she couldn't identify. A song she barely remembered hearing, something that most certainly hadn't come from her mother, but one that someone's mother had once whispered to a child. Regina's voice wavered, the notes uncertain and the words even more so as she began to sing.
"Come, stop your crying, it will be all right…"
She fumbled her way through the song twice, guessing at half the words and hitting a few notes so sour they made her cringe, but it seemed to work anyway. Henry's cries softened and slowly turned into a series of contented murmurs before dropping off entirely as he fell asleep in Regina's arms. She exhaled silently, not quite ready to accept this miracle. After a moment she started to stand, preparing to lay Henry back down in his crib, but then she stopped herself. He was comfortable, and so was she. She leaned back in the chair, stroking Henry's back and listening to him breathe and feeling more at peace than she had in a very long time.
It was only when she realized that she was in danger of falling asleep while holding him that Regina finally put him back to bed. Still, she leaned over the crib for a long time, watching her son sleep, incapable of suppressing a gentle smile.
There was some magic left in this world after all.