DISCLAIMER: Don't own, don't profit.
NOTE: Set post-curse, after Emma and Snow fall through the hat. Follows canon loosely, with one notable exception: no Hook. I couldn't figure out how to properly involve him.
Written entirely because I have so many feelings about Regina Mills.
Where does the voice come from
that says suppose the war
is evil, that says
suppose the body did this to us,
made us afraid of love—
Crater Lake, Louise Gluck
It starts a week after—after they're gone. They, Emma Swan and Snow White, and Henry. Henry is gone because they are gone, and they are gone because they were stupid, and sometimes if she thinks about it too long, all that rage—the kind that draws her spine up straight and feels like coming back to an old lover's embrace—bubbles up into her throat. Except without Henry, it just feels like nausea, like vertigo.
It's been a rough week, so when she finally dreams, she thinks it must just be a product of the week and all the images in her head and all the dead ends they hit. As far as dreams go, it's completely unremarkable; she sits at the window table of the diner with a mug of coffee and a book of poetry. She knows it's poetry because she knows it; she can't read anything, all the letters blur and jumble together and leap off of the paper, but she knows it's poetry. It's been so, so long since she's done just this: sit still and read pretty words. Twenty eight years in this world and she has yet to find anything that quite compares to a good poem and the right drink.
Time passes—the light through the window changes color, warms slowly—and she turns pages and somehow, someway, doesn't feel anymore. All the ordinary despair doesn't touch her here, and she's just begun to relax when there's a small sound across from her, a timid "Huh."
She's not alone, and her subconscious has a truly warped sense of relaxing if it thinks conjuring up Emma Swan fits with the overall theme.
It takes no effort at all to simply turn her eyes away from the chair opposite her and return to the book she can't actually read. Following the warping letters and their dance around the page is sufficient distraction, and when she looks up again, it's because the light has shifted to late afternoon gold and she has managed to pass an entire afternoon with Emma Swan without a fight.
A newspaper and a cup of cocoa are in front of Swan, and when Regina looks up, Swan does, too. On actual eye contact, Regina realizes that while Swan's clothes and hair are in their regular shoddy condition, her face—her skin—is mottled by bruises, split and scraped in some places. She doesn't look to be in pain, though; she appraises Regina as frankly. Regina is sure that their frowns are mirror images. As soon as Swan goes to open her mouth, though—she would ruin the peace—that golden light gets paler and paler, and when Regina looks up from the formica table she sees only her bedroom ceiling.
Her bedside clock tells her she has fifteen minutes before her alarm goes off, and she preemptively shuts it off. With no ten year old to rouse and ready, her entire morning schedule is different. She could sleep for an extra thirty minutes every day, but changing the alarm… is not an option.
Forty-five extra minutes today, however, means that maybe she can find something like relaxation before Dav—James—no, David's inevitable check-in at noon. So she pushes back the covers, wraps her robe around her body and slips downstairs—quietly, because she will never not move quietly in this house, whether her son is sleeping here or not—to her study, to her books, to a thin volume of pretty words that has always spoken to her more than it should.
It works. It works for the first time in years. When David knocks—four heavy thumps in an even staccato—at noon, she's only just finished dressing, only just had her coffee. For a moment, when she opens the door with her hair still damp at the roots and realizes she has no progress to report, she feels a flash of guilt. Poetry over her promise to Henry? It fades, though, because it feels like maybe, maybe, maybe, if she can get back to that quiet place in her head, she can be as she was before: the most powerful, the most alone.
She spends the afternoon researching, and enough hours after sundown to assuage that last remaining sliver of you should do better. When she rinses toothpaste out of her mouth, when she tugs the drawstring of satin pajama pants tight, when she finally slips between the sheets again, it feels like she will do better. Tomorrow and the day after, and the day after that, every day until she brings them back.
So when she closes her eyes and finds herself sitting in the diner again, with Emma Swan across from her again, she doesn't entirely understand what her subconscious is doing. She got the hint already: center, regroup, don't fuck this up. She really doesn't need a second run at… at whatever this is supposed to be, because whatever it is hurts.
Because Emma Swan gave Henry his smile, and that particular scrunch to his nose when he concentrates, and their eyes are set the same, and Henry is gone. Not in the way where she can even properly grieve about it—if he'd been sucked into the portal like Swan—but in that horrible way where she can reach out and touch him and still not have him with her. Where he can call her and give her hope and then just not be there.
Maybe it's that, the idea that Henry is here but not here, that Emma Swan is Henry but not Henry, that Swan is here but not here, which makes her start to talk. Because even if Swan is just a figment, Regina needs to say this. Needs some version of Emma Swan to understand, to see that curse-breaking is breaking for a reason. That she's blown up the whole world, Regina's whole world, and not merely the bubble of Storybrooke but Henry. That the woman shooting up on rage and despair who wanted to destroy a whole world, to hold misery around her for eternity, is not and could not be the same woman who held a three-week-old baby in her arms and swore to love him forever. That all she's been for the last ten years is broken-hearted and overjoyed and desperately confused, and curse-breaking has left her with nothing but pieces.
"The first time I held him, he was asleep. Just… completely asleep. He's always been a heavy sleeper, I guess. Everyone told me I was so lucky, that he would sleep for five hours at a go as a newborn. So when they brought him, when I held him, I didn't—I guess we didn't really meet, you know? Not until a few hours after they left, and his tiny little mouth opened up in this… yawn, this adorable bubble of a yawn, and then he opened his eyes and…"
Swan is staring at her, absolute fear in her eyes.
Regina keeps going. She has to keep going. "Babies, they can't see very far, not for their first few months, so I didn't even know if he really knew I was there, but… but he's always been able to look at someone and get to them. He just, he crawls right in when you think he's just looking around, and… he opened his eyes and he looked at me and that was it. Nothing else mattered. He's always been everything—magic, power, fear, love. He's always been everything."
The fear—and even afraid, those eyes are the same shape, wide and still with an extra crinkle under the left eye—morphs, and Swan turns her head away, as if to shake it off. Regina thinks that maybe, for a moment, she saw tears. "I wondered. All the time. I tried so hard not to but I wondered." Swan's voice is rough, like dehydration and smoke, or maybe emotion. It's always impossible to tell.
But Regina understands, nods at her. "You wanted to know if he was as perfect as you thought he could be." And she smiles—smiles—at Emma Swan, because Henry is so much more than Regina ever dreamed of, so much more than Swan could have ever hoped for. "His first word was 'uh-oh.' He was learning to walk at the same time, and every time he'd fall, I'd say 'Uh-oh!' You know, just to keep it light, to give him something to focus on instead of the fall." And she has to pause, just to chuckle for a moment, because baby Henry with his chubby legs and million-mile smile had, once or twice, looked back at her and promptly sat down, just to hear her say it. "So I was feeding him, and he just looked right at me, like he knew exactly what he was going to do, and he knocked the whole bowl of applesauce right off the highchair—took the spoon out of my hand with it—and his smile… And then he said 'Uh-oh!' like it was the greatest thing he'd ever done and—"
Her voice cracks into a sob, and she turns her head away sharply, puts her fist over her mouth to hold it in. Hold it in. She can't do this. She can't.
"I hate you for this." The whisper is out before she realizes it, and she sounds worse than Swan, sounds like a cigar a day for ten years and whiskey nights. "I hate you for this. My son is gone because you are gone, and you cannot possibly… do you know how empty everything is, without him? You never—you never had him in your life, had him remake your whole life, nothing makes sense without him, I don't make sense without him, do you understand that?"
She can't do this and she is, tears burning behind closed eyes and her hand still trying to stifle the words and the hiccuping sobs. She can't do this and she is, because goddamn Emma Swan gave her everything and took it away.
Goddamn Emma Swan, sitting across the table looking straight at her and flexing her fingers like it might rain, is God to Regina's whole world. Creator, Savior, Destroyer, and so, so cold.
"I was in jail for another two months, after he was born."
Regina looks up before she can help herself; she can't even properly see Swan through the salt in her eyes, but she's looking anyway.
"Jail is, um, pretty empty. There's not… I talked to him, for nine months. I talked to him and sang to him and told him every dream I'd ever had about my birth parents and about all the places I wanted to go as soon as I got out. I never once said he wasn't going to be coming with me because—" She cuts herself off and Regina is thankful. Thankful, thankful, grateful to goddamn Emma Swan. "It's not the same, at all, and I know that. But… I think, I think I can understand. What you're feeling. The… the base of it."
Regina wipes at her tears and tries to get her lungs to just calm down and when she looks up again, her bedside clock says 4:00 AM and she can finally, finally cry.
After Daniel, she drinks enough coffee to stay awake for two straight days, and when David comes in for his check-in on Wednesday, her hands are shaking from the caffeine. Perpetual genius that he is, he assumes it's an after-effect of magic, talks to her like she's using again, and then sends Archie over.
Pongo sniffs out the backyard, staying well away from her apple tree—smart dog, learned his lesson five years ago—and Archie sits with her on the back porch. Actually on it, not on the lounge chairs or the swing, but on the steps, side by side. He looks at her like she's a stranger and she can't blame him; when was the last time anyone in this town saw her in faded jeans and a baseball tee? She's fairly certain no one knew she owned jeans. Well, Graham knew, but Graham was jeans and a baseball tee: a comfortable secret.
Daniel would have told her she looked best in jeans, would have wrapped her up in love so comfortable—
"I haven't done magic. I just… I don't want to go to sleep."
Archie nods, takes a sip of the coffee she'd offered and puts it down with a wince. "That would explain the rocket fuel." But neither of them smile. "Is it because there's an advantage to being awake or a disadvantage to being asleep?"
She wants to retort that she's heard smarter questions from illiterate toddlers, but then she realizes that it actually is a relevant distinction. "Disadvantage to sleep," she murmurs.
He understands. "Don't drink any more coffee. Your level of exhaustion should be sufficient to keep REM cycles short. Too short for dreams." She wonders if she'd been too hard on him when he was just Dr. Hopper, or if becoming Jiminy again added something likable to his personality. "I'll tell Henry it's nothing to worry about, just sleep deprivation."
It hurts. "Henry… is worried?"
Archie doesn't look at her, just whistles for Pongo. "You're his mother."
She falls into bed at eight and when she rolls over into the bright light of the diner and a mug of hot chocolate, she hates Archie. Swan has a bruise below her elbow and Regina realizes, belatedly, that the iconic and insufferable red jacket is gone. Was it there last time? She can't quite remember; Swan is always a hazy overlay of denim and leather and scorn.
Right now, she's green cotton and gray sweatpants and wide-eyed and silent. She smells like pine sap and smoke. Regina wishes she wasn't anything: gone, relevant, charmed, anything. She wishes Swan would speak so that when she herself starts talking, babbling, weeping openly, she doesn't feel like such a fool. It's just—she needs to talk. She needs all of this to leave her and if it takes talking to her nemesis in dream-form, then she'll do it, anything for the maelstrom of pain to leave her alone.
Swan gazes at her through all of it with that look, that look, that Henry-on-Father's-Day look of uncertainty and discomfort. She doesn't say anything, doesn't interrupt with sighs or gasps, but when Regina chokes, rasps out love again, there is the faintest touch to her hand, the tips of two fingers brushing over her knuckles.
She wakes up scratching at the back of her hand, right above where Daniel's ring used to sit.
The next night, and the next, she talks. The diner never fills up with anyone else, neither Ruby or Granny come by to top up their drinks, but Swan is there and the coffee is always hot and there's something… nice. To go from talking to Archie about how she's fucked everything up and how she doesn't—no, how she can't be that woman, ever again, to talking at Swan about Henry when he was four and took crayons to the dining room walls or when he was seven and convinced that he could dance like Michael Jackson… it's nice. It's restorative. It almost makes not having Henry to cook for and pick up after less unbearable.
It takes until that fourth time for dream-Swan to ask questions, and once she starts she doesn't stop. She asks after every single moment that Regina's ever cherished with Henry and pays attention through all the moments that had overwhelmed her. Teething, and potty-training, and the chicken pox, Swan listens to all of it. In the morning when Regina sits out on the porch steps and watches the sunrise break up the mist, she gets it, finally. She's not the only one who loves Henry the most, and that is a good thing.
When David knocks on the door at noon, she actually invites him into the study to sit, offers him a glass of juice and tells him what she's worked out so far. It's all theory, breaking apart the old runes to isolate the elemental components of magic, and it mostly seems to sail over his head, but at some point he leans forward and almost touches her hand. "So you think that if you can understand the new rules of magic, here, you'll be able to—"
"Work within them to open a portal directly, or to open a series of portals. With more stability than by using a hat or guessing at a spell."
He actually smiles at her. "Good."
It's almost a struggle for her to ask, but she manages it: "How are Henry's riding lessons coming along?"
There is an awkward, stilted silence, and then David grins. "He's managed to work all the way up to putting a rope harness on his pony."
Her eyes flicker to the statue on the mantelpiece, and she realizes that she hasn't gone riding since Henry brought Swan to town. "When—when he finally mounts," and she stops. "Do you think I could be there? Just to—I'm a—"
"You prefer the bay, right?"
She nods, tries to tamp down the smile. "Sancho. Yes."
"I'll have him saddled and ready." He leaves before she can figure out how to say thank you.
Research in the afternoon goes quickly and deeply into the properties of magnetism and M theory, and in the old spell book she finds three base runes that keep coming up, and it feels like something. Progress, maybe. Hope, at least.
"I've—I've never had this, before."
Swan quirks an eyebrow and lowers her mug and Regina is tempted to point out the line of whipped cream on her upper lip, but if dream-Swan can be as inelegant as real-Swan, she wants to enjoy it. "A human conversation?"
Regina picks a sugar packet out of the dish and flicks it at Emma's face without comment. "Someone… as invested in Henry. To share things with." It doesn't sound at all like partner but that's what it is, isn't it? And it's pathetic, because she is Regina, she can demand a second sunrise should she please, but she resorts to dream conversations in a hick-town diner with an ex-bounty hunter.
She isn't quite sure how she's supposed to ever love again when she needs to fabricate someone to merely trust.
But Swan looks at down at her mug and nods. "Maybe this is what we should have been doing all along."
"Maybe this is what we could have been doing all along if you hadn't taken a chainsaw to my tree."
"Lady, did you miss the part where you tried to frame me and run me out of town?"
Maybe the reason her dreams keep going like this is because Emma Swan is, at the very least, guaranteed repartee. Sometimes when she goes to Archie's office, her voice cracks from twenty-four hours of disuse.
So she waves a hand as if to deflect that whole frame-job detail. "You were a threat. Training kicked in. Really, you were the invading party, I should think the obligation to be non-threatening would fall to you."
There is nothing intimidating about a glare with a whipped cream mustache. She chooses to keep this information to herself.
Henry's hair feels rougher than usual but smells like cedar, and it's such a relief to touch him, to put a hand to his shoulder and know that he's real, that she can almost forget about the part where Rumplestiltskin is standing in front of her and holding her son's safety in his imp-hands.
She doesn't understand why Rumple is suddenly giving and not dealing, but she sees the burn when Henry raises his hand to take the amulet and it suddenly isn't as pressing to know why, just that he is. It still leaves her feeling nauseous, though.
Henry puts the amulet away and sits on the couch to let her treat the burn, first with a thin layer of aloe, then a gauze pad and a loose but secure wrapping. "Mom?" he says suddenly, and she wonders if this is what it feels like to have a heart put back in a chest.
"Are you okay?"
She thinks of her baby boy who cried when she came home with paper cuts. She thinks of her son stepping into the afterburn of a fireball. "I'm trying to be," she whispers, and kisses his rougher, cedar-spiced hair. "I'm trying."
Regina tells Swan that Henry is learning to ride, and sword-fight, and that he's grown a whole shoe size and God help her, if he grows any more before December—
Emma laughs and cuts in, "What are you going to do, cast a shrinking spell?"
Regina just stares, because she's fairly certain that the laugh and the quip are malice-free, and she's never—how does that even work? And then she thinks about a fully-grown Henry with child-size feet, and there is a strange feeling in her throat and a strange sound in her ears and she's giggled.
Swan laughs again, like she's just seen a particularly clever magic trick, and for the first time since Henry's rendition of "Thriller," Regina laughs until she cries.
If she starts talking research over with Emma, it's only because the only person equipped to be her sounding board about magic is herself. So talking to herself, filtered through Swan's unique lack of couth, is the best way—the only way—to think deeper and better and smarter. And if there's something magical in explaining magic itself, well, that's a bonus. An unlooked for but appreciated bonus.
It works, to an extent; she loses a whole night on explaining the way borders work with membranes, and atoms and how magic is, simplified, a specialized electron and oh, right, electrons, well—but dream-Swan is smart and understands quickly and having to go back to basics opens up a whole new idea.
Namely: perhaps it is not about creating a portal but finding and restoring one already in existence.
The one thing she can safely say she knows about magic in this world is that it doesn't work right. The easiest way she knows how to explain it to Emma is that it's like trying to transmit from inside a microwave; the signal gets twisted because of the properties already in play. Swan asks if taking down the cell tower will help, and she sounds so much like Henry, looks so much like him, that Regina simply shakes her head and keeps theorizing.
She reads more and eats less because somehow, the idea of sleeping less—of perhaps only getting twenty minutes with Emma and not one hundred and twenty—it doesn't work. It doesn't gel with anything else she can sacrifice. Cooking takes time and isn't the type of chemistry she needs to waste time with.
Swan tells her she looks like shit—verbatim—and Regina just sighs, waves it aside. She knows she needs to eat more than fruit and slightly stale bread, but if she and Emma can just figure out what these three rune bases mean—
"So, my mom… she's got a kind of a warrior-princess thing going on…?"
Regina rolls her eyes, because maybe she's paid too much attention to real-Swan if dream-Swan can sound so identically inane. "Would you like to decide if that's a question or a statement, Miss Swan?"
Emma huffs, crosses her arms. "Statement: my mom is a badass."
Way too much attention. "She is… scrappy," Regina acquiesces.
It is quite a concession, in her eyes, but dream-Swan just quirks an eyebrow again. "Does scrappy really apply against ogres?"
Ogres. Regina doesn't miss them—brutish and foul-smelling and never more than primal. How they'd gone to organized war, twice, is beyond her. "Ogres are overestimated. Ferocious, yes, but appallingly easy targets."
Emma snickers, and Regina closes her eyes in preparation for what she knows is coming. "Don't you mean ogre-estimated?"
When real-Swan gets back, Regina is going to wear earplugs, constantly.
"I'm just wondering, you know, if it's something like—like what, like cell tower interference? Maybe you have to go somewhere different, somewhere not Storybrooke. I know you can't leave but—" Swan stops talking, wipes at her mouth quickly. "What? Do I have whip—Regina?"
She doesn't want to ask because she knows the basics and she doesn't want the dull ache in her stomach to fill in the blanks. She doesn't want to ask but she does anyway, because. "How bad was it?"
Emma's shoulders drop, come back up slowly, like adjusting to a new weight. "Fourteen homes in sixteen years. Longest stint besides the first three years, two years, third and fourth grades."
She shouldn't ask, she doesn't want to ask, she asks. "Why?"
"Light-haired, light-eyed little girls don't do well in the system." She doesn't know what that means but it makes that ache flare up into a slow-roiling nausea. "Early on, a few people, they thought I'd be some… angel-child. No kid's an angel all the time, even the best ones, and I wasn't good. I wasn't a bad kid, but…" Emma looks away, twists her hands around each other. "You don't learn to trust anybody, not the way I went. So it was hard. I wasn't an angel and I wasn't easy so I'd go back."
Regina doesn't move, doesn't blink, doesn't breathe. "And later?"
She hates that Swan can always gauge exactly when she's at her most genuine point, always knows exactly when to look her in the eye. "I liked to fight back."
Regina feels sick, because fight back from what, and light-haired, light-eyed little girls and she is sick, she is sick all over the next chair, all over the right side of the bed. She tastes sour and acid in her mouth and she makes it to the bathroom before she throws up again.
She's cleaned up her bed and her clothes and herself by the time the sun comes up, and she's stopped shaking by the time noon and those four thumps roll around.
She opens the door to David and Ruby, and stacks of Tupperware. "Um?"
Ruby clears her throat and Regina steps back, allows them both in. "You're not eating," Ruby says simply, and David leads her towards the kitchen. "Granny packed up some leftovers."
Regina trails behind them both, perplexed. "I—I am perfectly equipped—"
"Save it." Ruby opens the refrigerator, shoots Regina a pointed glare, and starts stacking containers on the empty shelves. "The big two are lasagna and pot roast. Mashed potatoes, green beans, some type of stir-fry that probably has tofu in it, and two containers of apple crumble. Should last you a few days, I'll come back with more." Ruby picks up a half-empty tub of hummus, sniffs at the edge of the lid and makes a face before trashing it. "Gross, Regina."
She can't remember ever having a full-fledged conversation with Ruby, much less reaching a first-name basis. "I—I don't understand."
Ruby and David trade glances, and he bows out of the room; princely habits die hard, apparently. "You're overworking yourself in an attempt to get your arch-nemesis and her daughter back for your son. It's not enough to make up for what you did to other people, but… I had twenty-eight years without fear, here. And I wouldn't have any to look forward to if I didn't have those behind me. So, lady, I think you're crazy and in need of some serious rehab, but I'm not about to let you starve to death."
Regina sits, heavily, at the kitchen table. She closes her eyes, tries to figure out what she can say here—what would Swan say? Something asinine and sarcastic, probably. "Oh." And significantly better than oh.
But Ruby grins at her. "Hey—do you have cocoa, by any chance?"
She starts to point to a particular cabinet, then shakes her head. "No—I—I ran out, before—before the curse broke. And Henry hasn't been back and I don't really—no. I don't."
It suddenly feels like she's said something wrong, because there's something hard in Ruby's eyes now. "Really?" All she can do is nod, because there's something just higher than primal in the bones of Ruby's face. "Because you smell like cocoa and pine trees."
It's better than smelling like stomach acid and evil, but it's impossible. It's impossible.
Ruby shrugs it off. "Just a quirk of yours, then."
But it's impossible.
"I don't want your pity."
Emma's snarling at her as soon as she realizes where she is, and the anger in those eyes—and oh, God, light-haired light-eyed little girls—makes her think very carefully about her next words.
"Admiration is not pity."
It throws Emma, and how does it even matter if dream-Swan is thrown? Why is she still trying to score points against a figment of her guilt and misery? "Admiration?" The question is rough and smoky, and Regina thinks back to wood-fires and dancing and joy.
"It takes a particular breed of strength to continue." She gives a slight nod, like awarding points, like conceding a point. "I admire strength."
It's… accepted. Swan leans back, sips her cocoa, and they sit silently for a while.
But it's impossible.
"I miss this. Cocoa," Emma clarifies. "And, y'know, regular food. Tables. Chairs. Warmth."
She chuckles, because real-Swan would hate the Enchanted Forest, so of course this isn't real-Swan. Real-Swan would never be so diplomatic about it. "I imagine that wherever you are is significantly less comfortable than here."
"It's the fucking woods, Regina, it's like the goddamn Middle Ages." Dream-Swan scowls, just like real-Swan, but it's impossible and she's not. "Everybody talks funny and the food sucks and nobody knows what a gun is or any Led Zeppelin songs and honestly, Mulan? And Lancelot? And who the hell else am I going to meet? And the goddamn bugs!"
No. No no no. No. It's impossible.
"It's like the worst acid trip in the history of trippy trips and about the only thing I can get with is the amount of leather everyone wears. Except for Aurora who apparently believes that waify pink silk is—" Emma stops, realizes that Regina is sitting bolt upright and that her hands are shaking. "Regina?"
"Oh, my God, you're real."
Swan's face twists from concern to horror, and she pushes away from the table and stands up, knocking the chair over. "You… are not my subconscious in ironic form?"
But it's impossible.
And then it doesn't matter, because Swan is real, and this fact matters enough for her to stand up and lean over the table and hiss like she's Mayor and Queen and Regina again. "Where are you and how the hell do we get you back?"