It takes three attempts, but eventually Regina makes it up the small number of stairs to find herself outside the home of her most-hated enemy; even then she still considers turning back.
It takes another five minutes of listening intently to the muffled noises from within, the sounds of a family at home, until Regina's arm starts to feel stiff where she's holding it almost against the surface of the door.
She shouldn't be relieved when Emma is the one to answer her brisk knock, but after Henry it's the best possible alternative. Snow or Charming would slam the heavy wood in her face, no doubt, and this is a fragile enough idea without instant rejection.
"Regina," Emma says quite calmly, not a hint of question or surprise.
"Miss Swan-" Regina begins, but Emma shakes her head.
"We've talked about this," Emma reminds her.
"Emma," Regina says reluctantly, the name still just a little sour on her tongue for reasons she's unlikely to ever share. Snow probably still thinks it's jealousy, of never measuring up to the saint who held the name first, but Regina knows better. "Is Henry here?"
"He is," Emma says, but she doesn't step aside or open the door any wider.
"I brought this," Regina says simply, reaching for her purse. It's an expensive reminder of the life she built for herself here, one that decays more by the hour and the stretch of every endless day. Sometimes she thinks of packing the few things she truly needs into her Mercedes and fleeing the town, regardless of what it may or may not do to her mind.
"Uh, is it-" Emma begins to ask, tensed for some kind of trick or weapon. Regina would laugh, but she's too tired to find it funny.
"You probably have your own already, I know Mary Margaret will have thought of it, but, well," Regina finishes lamely as she hands over the slightly worn Christmas stocking, the creases and stretching of previous years just about visible beneath the decorations that adorn the dark blue fabric; Henry decorated it himself, the year he turned four. "I wanted him to have something from home."
"That's... oh like, to hang?" Emma asks as she holds the stocking up to the light. In her hands it looks cheap, tacky from the childish additions and gaudy colors, not at all the beautiful thing of Regina's memories. "I never had one," Emma adds quietly. "I'll ask him where he wants to hang it."
"Can... may I see him?" Regina asks.
"He's doing his homework," Emma hedges, casting a nervous glance back over her shoulder. "But... hold on, okay?"
The door closes, though not far enough for any of the locks to click. Regina hums quietly not to listen to the distorted voices; she doesn't want to hear Henry saying 'no' again. Before she can turn on her heel and flee, though, there's the familiar thump of small footsteps and the door opens to show Henry standing there.
"Henry," Regina says, willing her face not to crumple as she allows the muscles in her cheeks to form a smile. "How are you?"
"Fine, mom," he sighs, and the exasperation is so familiar that she wants to hug him. It's a physical ache in her arms, in the very bones of them, to want to scoop him up and never let go again. "I'm almost done with math."
"We'll have to ask Emma," Regina says, barely gritting her teeth at all. "But how would you feel about going for ice cream?"
"That's fine," Emma says a little too quickly from behind the open door. This, Regina realizes, is what she's been reduced to: supervision and begging for scraps of time, like a deadbeat parent just let out of prison. The difference, she supposes, is that the convict would at least have some kind of freedom. "But be back in time to do those last two questions before bed, kid."
"I'll get my coat," Henry says, disappearing for a moment. Emma comes back into view then, hands shoved awkwardly in the pockets of her jeans.
"We'll make a better plan," she mumbles, so quietly that Regina barely hears it. She would have missed it entirely if the message hadn't been one she so desperately needs to hear. "Maybe in the New Year, when everything calms down. You should see him more."
"How generous," Regina snaps, but she gets a hold of herself just in time to stop it turning nasty. "We'll... talk."
Henry comes running out then, buttoning his coat that Regina bought him just a few months ago in preparation for this winter; he's already outgrowing it, if the sleeves are any indication. Regina makes a mental note to buy him a new one, before the thought fizzles out in the frustration of not knowing whether it will be accepted.
"Are you ready for that ice cream, Henry?" She says, as brightly as she knows how.
He slips his arm through hers and guides her back towards the stairs. Regina smiles a watery smile, and lets him lead the way.
Emma's waiting on the stairs when they return to the dingy apartment building.
"Did I keep him too long?" Regina asks, her tone sugary but her smile tight. This is really going too far.
"No," Emma replies, realizing too late what her position looks like. "I, uh, just wanted to get out for a while, and then I realized I don't really know where to go." She's still holding Henry's Christmas stocking, can she really have been out there all this time?
The door opens then, and Snow spills out into the hallway, still practically skipping with the joy from her newly recovered love who follows her like the dutiful puppy he's always been. Regina doesn't sneer at them, but she feels the gesture bubbling in her very soul.
"Emma," Snow says in that way she has that someone must have told her sounds kind, but Emma bristles just as surely as Regina, because it's patronizing, pure and simple. "We're going to stay at David's old place. At least, until we find something more permanent."
"Fine by me," Emma says, without looking up. Henry stares at each of the adults in turn, because for all the things that living with Regina exposed him to, tension like this between loved ones is not on her list of crimes.
"Henry, I'll see you soon," Regina says, because whatever Charming family drama is occurring, she wants no part of. That's why she surprised to reach the building's front door only to find Emma on her heels.
"Come over," Emma blurts, reaching for Regina's arm but thinking better of it. "On Tuesday, I mean. I have no idea how to do Christmas. I don't even like Christmas, but Henry..."
"Won't your family be expecting you?" Regina can't resist asking, because the cruel part of her that never gets what she wants can't resist prodding the fresh bruises of others.
"Just come over," Emma sighs, brushing blonde curls out of her eyes. Regina nods, once, all the concession she knows how to make, and steps out into the cold evening air.
The days stretch interminably as Regina occupies her time with meaningless tasks around the house. There's a nagging feeling in the base of her skull that the New Year and the power vacuum will perhaps mean she loses the only place she's ever truly felt at home, but a well-timed text from Henry distracts her from that uncomfortable realization.
Mom, do you think Emma can actually cook?
It's Christmas Eve, and she can't use magic, but Regina rolls her shoulders in anticipation of a suddenly busy day ahead.
Don't worry, darling. Mom is on the case.
He sends her some strange punctuation that she remembers just in time is supposed to be a smile, and Regina tucks her phone into her purse with a sense of purpose.
This isn't the Christmas she envisioned, but since the first year with Henry she's done it to the best of this world's capabilities, and she has no intention of stopping now.
Emma takes an age to answer the door, but that's perhaps because of the late hour and the fact that Regina has been reduced to knocking softly with the pointed toe of her shoe.
"Hello?" Emma says.
"It's... me," Regina says, only just loud enough to be heard. The lock slides back quicker than she would have expected, to expose the sight of her laden with bags to Emma's incredulous eyes.
"Holy shit!" Emma yelps, before springing into action and grabbing bags from Regina's grateful, aching hands. "Did Henry rat me out?"
"He expressed some mild concern about your cooking skills this morning. Boys are governed by their stomachs, as you probably know. I think he might be nostalgic for my more formal dinners," Regina explains, casting an appraising glance around the dismal space. A few decorations hang in the corners, and there's a tree at least, even if it's lopsided and the few badly hung decorations clash terribly.
"And you're here because...?" Emma asks, even as she places the shopping bags on the kitchen counter.
"To make sure you don't ruin Christmas," Regina says bluntly. "Henry's had a difficult enough year already, don't you think?"
To her credit-credit Regina wouldn't have given her ordinarily-Emma doesn't bite back with a clichéd "whose fault is that?" Just as well considering the ways in which they're both so very much to blame.
"I'll prepare things for the morning, leave you instructions," Regina continues after a moment. She shrugs her black wool coat off in a fluid gesture and hangs it on the nearest hook as though she's been coming here for years. "Then just call me tomorrow when it's time for me to see Henry."
"Wait," Emma says, jumping right in Regina's path into the kitchen. "You're not spending the day with us?"
"I didn't think you'd want that," Regina blurts out, genuinely surprised. "I brought my gifts, everything is here. I can just stay home until-"
"Stay, then," Emma says. "Give me instructions for all this preparing, and then maybe we can have a glass of wine like grown adults."
"I couldn't," Regina says, even as her heart twists at the thought of waking up in the morning to Henry's excited shouts. She wants it, even if it's in a horrible converted mill (where else to banish Snow White but this world's version of Regina's own childhood prison?) and her bed would no doubt be the monstrosity of a sofa that's lurking in the living room. "Henry will no doubt want his first Christmas with you."
"Well, we missed his birthday with all the world jumping," Emma says, unpacking groceries with deft hands. Regina ushers her away from the food with an irritated slap that doesn't quite land, nodding at the bags of gifts instead. Emma takes the hint, dragging them towards the sad little tree. "And honestly, I don't really know what to do with all this holiday crap. Not exactly experienced, you know?"
"Miss Swan, if this is another sob story about the terrible life I condemned you to, could we please skip to the punchline?"
"Emma," she corrects. "And it wasn't all your fault. Don't get me wrong, I'm mad as hell about it; but other people made choices, too."
"Don't you get tired?" Regina asks, unpacking the sweet potatoes, Henry's favorite.
"Of what?" Emma asks, distracted by gently shaking Henry's gifts with the hint of a grin playing across her lips. She looks almost innocent, in that moment.
"Of forgiving. Of being good," Regina finishes.
"I wouldn't know," Emma replies, quite honestly. "I don't have a lot of practice in it. So, what needs to be done, Martha?"
Regina rolls her eyes and nods towards the assorted vegetables.
"Peel. Chop. Try not to bleed on anything," she instructs, surveying the tragic little chicken in the fridge and moving it in favor of the ham she's brought.
"I'm not that clumsy," Emma retorts, taking her place at the counter and picking up the paring knife. "I kicked a lot of ass back in the Enchanted Forest, you know."
"Including my mother's?" Regina asks, because she still hasn't heard anything close to the full story. Sometimes, in the quiet of another lonely night, she feels a prickling on the back of her neck like she used to sleeping in the castle, knowing her mother was roaming the halls.
"Yeah," Emma hedges, staring very intently at her vegetables. "I wasn't kidding when I said she was a real piece of work. Did you-"
"I'd rather not talk about her," Regina says tersely, stopping just short of slamming the fridge door. "Did Henry go to bed first time?"
"Third," Emma admits. "I pointed out that for all we know Santa might actually be from the Enchanted Forest, so does he really want to risk being awake on the one night it might stop Santa showing up?"
"When he was six," Regina says, unloading the pies she baked that afternoon. "He called me into a 'meeting' in my home office. Sat me down with a glass of cider and presented me with his case for why Santa couldn't possibly exist."
Emma laughs, softly.
"Bet you wish he'd been that way about Snow White and Evil Queens, too, huh?" She asks after a minute. "Some mornings I wake up and just for a minute it's like none of this ever happened."
"You'd go back to being ignorant?" Regina can't help but pounce.
"Sometimes I want to forget it all," Emma confesses, putting the knife down after her knuckles get very white from gripping it too hard. "Not the kid, but..."
"I felt like that, the first weeks here," Regina admits, surprised at the truth of the words. "It was too much, everything was strange and new and I was the only one who knew. It got tiring."
"Someday you're going to have to explain how it actually worked," Emma says. "I mean, I grew up here, but after a couple of weeks in Fairytale Land, I'm thinking dishwashers probably freaked you out."
"The car was the hardest part," Regina tells her. "The curse gave me the knowledge and ability but I didn't trust myself for a long time."
"Like when someone tells you how to say something in, I don't know, Spanish or whatever. And it sounds good, but for all you know you're insulting their mom, or whatever."
"Something like that," Regina agrees.
Emma leans over to flip a switch on her iPod, and music flows through the kitchen. Regina rolls up the sleeves on her sweater, and they work in companionable silence for a while.
"I meant it," Emma interrupts, taking Regina's coat from her hands. "Stay tonight. You can take my bed if you want, but you should be here for the morning. Everyone says that's the best bit, with kids."
"You're scared," Regina says, in realization. "You don't know what you're doing, and you want me here to paper over the cracks."
"Maybe," Emma replies, shrugging before hanging Regina's coat once more. "I hate Christmas. Hate it. I don't get the fuss or the food or the stupid things that people do. It's just a day, you know?"
"I felt the same way about Yule," Regina says, when she could be pouncing on Emma's admission of failure. "No doubt your parents are celebrating that?"
"We're adjusting," Emma says a little too quickly. "I've asked them to give me some space."
"That's why they left the other day," Regina surmises. "What made you snap?"
"I didn't snap," Emma says, shoving her hands in her pockets and staring at the ground. She's almost hiding, behind the curtain of her hair.
"Let me guess," Regina sighs. "They're exactly as nauseating as they ever were. Declarations of undying love after every five-minute separation? 'You found me' until someone threatens to throw up, that sort of thing?"
"They're a little intense," is all Emma will concede. "I've just never been around that kind of thing. And I need to not be in a bad mood, for Henry's sake."
"He's good at dealing with difficult women, haven't you noticed?" Regina can't believe she's poking fun at herself to make Emma Swan feel better, but she's also spent part of her evening preparing a Christmas feast for them all to eat in this depressing apartment, so maybe nothing is unusual anymore.
"Anyway," Emma says, nodding towards the lumpy sofas. "One thing I do know how to shop for is wine. So, seriously. Sit. We'll have a drink."
"You're still feeling guilty about the welcome back dinner," Regina sighs, but she kicks off her shoes and takes a seat anyway. It's getting too late to really think about arguing. She watches Emma dart around, filling large glasses with what is probably terrible white wine, but when the glass comes her way, Regina accepts it with as much grace as she can muster.
"I'll give you pajamas," Emma says. "You can always go collect some clothes in the morning, after gifts and stuff."
"It's not such a long drive," Regina points out. "Or are you scared Santa's going to break in? He's really not from our world, you know."
"I just..." Emma trails off and drains her wine. "For some reason," she continues as she places her glass on the trunk that doubles as a coffee table. "You're the easiest part of all this."
"Excuse me?" Regina almost spits out her mouthful of wine. Which would be a pity, given that miracle of miracles, Emma has actually picked out a decent Sancerre.
"I know, I know," Emma says, holding her hands up. "Nothing about you is easy. But I guess it's like I know what to expect, with you. You've been the same ever since I first met you, just a few details that I didn't believe have been, um, added."
"That's one way of looking at it," Regina says, still a little shocked by the frankness of the confession. "I suppose I should tell you something embarrassing in return, right? I'm told that's how it works."
"Oh, you don't have to," Emma says, jumping up from the sofa to retrieve the rest of the bottle of wine. In a simple gray sweater and blue jeans, she's the very picture of easy comfort. No wonder Henry gives his hugs and affection to her so easily.
"It's fine," Regina counters, holding out her glass for a top-up when Emma comes back. "You know, you've never asked why I saved you."
"For Henry, I assumed," Emma says, folding her legs under her and sitting back on the sofa to sip at her wine.
"Mostly," Regina admits. "But while you were gone I realized that you're... well, not the worst option."
"For what?" Emma presses, leaning towards the armchair that Regina's taken over like a throne. Some old habits really do die hard.
"Henry," Regina murmurs. "If I have to lose him," she continues, in a much stronger voice. "I'd rather you than your parents. Or someone like Cora."
"You're not like her, you know," Emma says, considering the words carefully. "I mean, I would worry about that, probably. But you're not like that. Not with Henry."
It's perhaps the most generous thing anyone has said to Regina in decades, and her eyes prickle with sudden, mortifying tears.
"Maybe I will stay," she says, making a production of checking her watch. "Henry will be up in about... three hours, if previous years are any indication."
"I know I said we'd talk, after New Year's," Emma says suddenly, staring at her knees. "But whatever we work out, I just want you to know that I'm not taking Henry from you. Not full-time."
"Too much work?" Regina snaps, realizing a moment too late how ungrateful it sounds.
"No. Christ, Regina," Emma sighs. "Give me some credit, please? While I was away, I missed the kid pretty bad. I mean, it hurt like a bitch and I hated it."
"I'm familiar with that particular 'bitch'," Regina says, putting her glass down. "Especially lately."
"Well, I've known Henry a few months and missing him broke my heart a hundred times a day," Emma says, her eyes still fixed on her apparently fascinating knees. She looks so uncomfortable with the subject that she's apparently seconds from hiding behind her hair, like a child. "I can only imagine what that would be like after ten years."
Regina feels the animosity leave her in that moment, the tightly-clutched knot of hatred and thirst for vengeance ebbing away so suddenly that her head spins. Emma Swan, it seems, has never truly been her enemy; why didn't anyone notice that until now?
"I miss him," Regina blurts out. "And it's horrible."
"Well," Emma says, reaching across the space between them now, laying a hand so awkwardly on Regina's forearm that she might as well be on fire. "We'll work something out. If nothing else, it might be nice to have help after ten years doing it all on your own?"
"We should also get some sleep," Regina says, wriggling out of Emma's loose grip.
The sofa is deceptively comfortable, or maybe Regina is just exhausted, but she sinks into it gracefully wearing a pair of hideous flannel pajamas. Her last minute preparation was put in place once Emma slipped through the door into the downstairs bedroom, and all is quiet.
What feels like five seconds later, she's blinking awake at the sound of thundering footsteps on creaking stairs.
"Mom!" Henry yells, and when she turns towards him he barrels into her with a hug that says he's genuinely glad to see her. "You came early!"
"She stayed," Emma says, poking her head out of the downstairs bedroom. "Because apparently someone is a total dork about opening his presents."
"And I didn't want to miss that," Regina agrees. "Is that coffee I smell?"
"I remembered to put the timer on before bed," Emma says, looking pretty proud of herself. "Help yourself, I'm going to shower and-"
"No!" Henry yelps from where he's kneeling by the tree. "Gifts first, then we get dressed."
"Henry," Regina scolds. "We can relax the rules a little. Things are different this year, after all." It's actually painful not to bend to his demands, not to throw everything he wants at him in the hope that he'll love her again. "Let Emma have her shower, and you go get dressed, too."
"We'll be quick, kid," Emma promises, and Regina stands up then to go and fetch a much-needed mug of coffee. She mistimes her entrance to the kitchen area, brushing against Emma who's making her way to the stairs.
"Sorry," Emma mutters, and it has the awkwardness of a morning after.
"I won't drink all the coffee," Regina promises. "Well, I'll try."
Emma smiles, in that blinding and genuine way all princesses seem to have.
"Try," she repeats back. "And if there's coffee when I come downstairs, I'll make us all the one thing I can actually cook."
Emma's all the way to the top of the stairs when Henry speaks, but the cruelest part of Regina likes to think Emma still hears.
"Don't listen to her, Mom. Her eggs are terrible."
Henry tears through wrapping paper like he's possessed by a daemon, when he's finally unleashed, and Regina laughs heartily at the sight of it. She did try not to spoil him over the years, but in a world where she hasn't cared about anything for so long, making him happy has been an addiction she never intends to seek treatment for.
Only when he's setting up his new games console does Emma notice the other stocking hung on the wall next to the tree.
"Is this..." she starts to ask, before tracing the gold thread that spells out her name on green felt. Regina feels her cheeks start to warm, although she did a passable job there wasn't time for much in the way of flourish. Had she not promised Henry, a quick sweep of magic would have made a far more impressive showing, but Emma seems overwhelmed as it is.
"I suppose," Regina says, and she doesn't really grit her teeth all that much. "That we're technically one big family right now. And this is our family tradition."
"No need," Regina interrupts, raising a hand to ask for silence on the subject. "Henry wants me to try; I'm trying."
"You made Emma her own stocking?" Henry asks then, having started to pay attention at last. It gives Regina just enough time to brace for the running hug.
The day ebbs away from her too quickly, and just when Regina is carving up the ham, a knock at the door signals the Snow White invasion that they all knew was coming. That Emma has managed not to mention it so far feels like a kindness, and it would have warmed Regina's heart if Henry's homemade gift hadn't already lit up the few good parts of her that remain. He never was the greatest at neat lettering, but the scrapbook decorated for her to keep new 'good' memories in is another heavy-handed attempt at saving her, she knows.
"Regina?" David is the first to react, and his booming voice almost covers the dismay.
"Well," she replies, running her hands under cold water from the tap. "I was just leaving."
"Wait," Snow says, striding away from her husband and past her daughter, until she's just a few feet from Regina in the tiny kitchen. "I want to talk to you."
"We have nothing to say, Snow White," Regina says, a lifetime of weariness in her words. She watches her former stepdaughter, struggling quite obviously with a world that would deny Snow anything she says she wants, and Regina sighs. "Enjoy your time with your grandson," she says, barely frowning at all.
"There's a lot to say, Regina," Snow argues. "Not least of all that I haven't thanked you for saving Emma and me. Henry told us all about it."
Regina smiles at her son, who nods in acknowledgment. After a year of him calling her names and denying that she ever loved him, it's a blessing to have him defend her to others.
"I didn't do it for you," Regina says, her vocal cords straining to even form the civil words. "But you're welcome, I suppose. Anyway, I was just going."
"Regina," Emma says, sounding just a little exasperated.
"Thank you for a lovely day," Regina says, grabbing her things from the back of the sofa as she heads towards the door. "Henry, I'll see you soon."
He runs to her then, hugging her around the waist and letting her place a kiss on the top of his head.
"You really have to go?" He asks quietly.
"I do," Regina says, and the moment he lets her go, she ducks out of the apartment door.
She's rooting through her purse for car keys when the pounding footsteps sound on the street behind her. Braced, Regina turns to confront her pursuer, wondering if the Yule and Christmas celebrations have poured too much alcohol on the simmering resentment towards her and created a sudden spark.
But it's Emma, which Regina realizes she was actually sort of expecting.
"Wait!" Emma pleads, waving something in her right hand. Regina notes with some amusement that Emma is, for some reason, holding two neatly-carved slices of ham. "You can't go without having some dinner."
"I'm not hungry," Regina lies. She can stave off the hunger pangs with a large glass of Scotch and something to pick at from the fridge, if only she can get home.
"I've asked them to go," Emma explains, leaning against the side of Regina's car, clearly freezing in just a thin sweater and the omnipresent jeans. She shrugs, before taking a bite of the ham. "Damn, you really can cook."
"Go back to your family, princess," Regina says. "You don't have to keep indulging me just to keep Henry happy. Trust me when I say you're in no danger of having to buy his love."
Emma says something, but it's mumbled and lost in the sudden shouts of a couple of rowdy dwarves chasing each other across the street.
"What?" Regina snaps, when she looks back and sees Emma watching her expectantly.
"I said, it's not just for Henry," Emma repeats, forming proper words this time. "I want you there."
Regina can't do anything but stare. She feels as though she suddenly gained the ability to understand the language of the ogres, but even though she recognizes the plain English, she can't quite comprehend it.
"Yeah," Emma sighs. "I know. Even though you're not exactly swimming in friends right now, you still think you can do better than me for company. I don't know if it's the juvie thing, or who my parents are-did you always know that, by the way?"
Regina nods, barely in control of the gesture. She clutches the roof of the car to keep her balance.
"Well, I suspected at first," she manages to say a moment later. "Everything pointed towards you being... I couldn't deny it any longer."
"And it didn't change how you felt about Henry? Knowing he's your enemy's grandson?" Emma presses, weeks of unanswered questions finally bubbling to the surface.
"I love Henry," Regina states, hoping that for once someone will believe her. "Nothing will ever change that."
"I love him, too," Emma says. "I know I made out like I wanted nothing to do with him at first, but that was the only way to cope. The last thing I wanted was to risk another kid growing up like I did. But I had no choice-"
"That, I understand," Regina admits. "His father abandoned you?"
"I was in prison taking the rap for him," Emma confesses, staring at her shoes. "Which makes me every bit the idiot you always thought I was, huh?"
"I don't think you're an idiot," Regina concedes. "But I'm familiar with placing trust in someone who absolutely did not deserve it."
"Come inside," Emma pleads, throwing the rest of the ham onto the sidewalk in exasperation. The former Mayor in Regina sneers momentarily at the assault on Storybrooke's pristine streets. Not for the first time, she wonders what will become of this place when they finally kill her, or run her out of town.
So Regina relents, because it's cold, and because her own house is still so very lonely that she can feel the emptiness of it from where she stands.
They meet Snow and Charming in the hallway again, Henry bundled up in his coat between them.
"Gram and Gramps have gifts for me at their house," Henry explains. "They didn't think we'd have dinner here, so..."
"We have dinner," Emma snaps, clearly exasperated. "But Henry, you go learn about Yule with your grandparents, okay? Dinner will be... what?" She looks to Regina for help.
"At least an hour," Regina supplies, glaring at Snow White. "Make sure you come back hungry, little man."
"It really would be no trouble to have you over, Emma," Snow tries, reaching for her daughter's arm, but Emma simply absorbs the gesture, making no move to return it. "Family should really be together on the holidays."
"And Henry should be with his family, which includes Regina," Emma states. "We've already had this argument, or have you glossed over why I asked you to leave?"
Regina can't help but quirk an eyebrow at that. Perhaps Emma's Christmas plans had been a little more premeditated than it seemed. Either way, the girl so desperate not to be an orphan has apparently put further strain on her relationship with her parents just to give Regina and Henry the time together that they deserve. That, more than anything, prompts Regina to speak up again.
"Of course, we have plenty of food here, if you wanted to come back with Henry," Regina says smoothly, the politician she honed for so long taking over. "I'll understand if you'd rather bring your own dessert."
It's worth it, for the strangled giggle that spills out of Emma.
"Henry," Charming says, clamping one of his huge farmer's hands on her son's delicate shoulder. "Let's go open some presents, okay? We'll bring him back by five."
"Emma, are you sure-" Snow begins, but Emma cuts her off.
"I have to help Regina in the kitchen," she lies. "Dinner isn't going to make itself."
Snow looks as though she knows exactly how little help Emma is going to be in preparing a meal, but for once keeps her damn mouth shut. She pulls a resisting Emma into a hug anyway, muttering something about "back to normal"; Regina looks away in disgust.
But a moment later they're on the other side of the closed apartment door and Regina finds herself alone with the other mother of her son, on Christmas Day, for reasons that she still doesn't understand. Emma looks at a loss, too, until she crosses the living room in bold strides, picking up her dark green stocking again. Regina follows, drawn in by the watery smile on Emma's face.
"I can't believe you did this," Emma says, more moved by the stocking than the small gifts it contained. Henry, being the peculiar little boy that he is, opted for a gun-cleaning kit, a more practical companion to the cashmere scarf and gloves Regina opted for as a last-minute regift. If Emma's taste in clothes can't be remedied overnight, she can at least upgrade her accessories to something less cutesy than items from the Mary Margaret House of Twee.
"It didn't take long," Regina says, shoving her hands in the pockets of her coat, purse dangling awkwardly from her elbow.
"You know," Emma says. "I found out a lot while I was away. About Gold-Rumplestiltskin-god, that is so weird to say out loud."
"You have no idea," Regina muses, hearing the echoes of her own youthful voice stumble over the word.
"Anyway," Emma continues. "I don't think that maybe you're as evil as everyone says. I don't think all of this is your fault."
"That's where you're wrong," Regina corrects her. "Oh, I know I've been manipulated. I know my life has never been my own. But I still made those choices, Emma. I'm not a good person, and I never, ever will be."
"Seems to me," Emma says, dropping the stocking on the sofa. "That maybe there's no such thing. In fact," she says, stepping closer, invading Regina's personal space without a second thought. "I think most people might actually just be selfish assholes, who do nice things sometimes to make themselves feel better about that."
"So cynical," Regina retorts, and she wants to be amused, or dismissive, but she's captivated by Emma's gaze. Those green eyes that never seem the same shade twice, Regina sees the dark green flecks now, almost exactly the color of the stocking that touched Emma so deeply. "And from the product of True Love, no less."
"They tell me I can save people," Emma says, jaw trembling. "Maybe turn you into a not-that-good person who tries most of the time. I want to see if I can." She actually pulls Regina's hands from her pockets then, taking them in her own.
Regina is the one who can't help it this time; she tips her head back and laughs.
It's a real belly laugh too, the kind of genuine amusement she hasn't experienced in so long. There are flashes of memory dragged up by the feeling: Henry trying to bake his first cake and covering them both in flour, her first horse ride here in the fields of Storybrooke with no magic to curtail her, even an almost-forgotten flash of Daniel's face as she tickled him mercilessly in the haystacks. The residual pang of pain at the last thought is enough to sober her, and Regina collects herself at last.
But Emma is still holding her hands.
"I'll always be the Evil Queen, dear," Regina explains. "If cornered, if someone tries to hurt me or take what is mine, I will always be this way. Don't you see that? I'm damaged goods. No refunds, no exchanges."
"You sound like a Republican," Emma snorts, not looking away.
"You have no idea," Regina replies, smirking at the implications.
"I'm not saying I want to change everything about you," Emma says. "People don't change, remember?"
"You're using my own advice against me?" Regina accuses. "You always did have a lot of nerve, Miss Swan."
"I can't do the Henry thing without you," Emma admits, squeezing Regina's hands gently. It should feel uncomfortable, unnatural, and part of Regina is causing her spine to stiffen, for the tension to swirl in the pit of her stomach. "And for better or worse, he wants me in his life. You have to stop me screwing that up."
"I'm a witch, Emma," Regina reminds her. "Not a miracle-worker."
"And I don't think I can live here with all these... weirdos... unless there's something more than Henry to stay for. I need someone in my life who doesn't think that my parents shit rainbows just because of who they are."
"Nobody wants to hear the Savior's complaints?" Regina asks, genuinely curious. It's a distraction from her own panic at the softness of Emma's fingers pressing against her own, of the closeness that was never supposed to happen.
"Just try telling them that Snow White gets on your nerves," Emma points out with a wry grin. "Oh wait, you kind of did. Tell me, how did that go over with the local mobs?"
"A lot of buildings burned to the ground," Regina concedes. "So you want an agony aunt, and someone to do the hard parts of child-rearing. Oh, and a cook?"
"No," Emma says, stamping her foot in frustration. "God, this is coming out so badly."
So are you,Regina thinks, because if nothing else in this world, she knows a clumsy attempt at seduction when she sees one; people have proposed to her with far less trouble.
"Perhaps you have something better than words?" Regina asks, raising her eyebrow to accentuate the question.
And Emma gets it, then. She sees the answer somewhere in Regina's expression, to this question that Emma is failing so spectacularly to ask. Regina can't be sure when this shift happened, whether it's just the allure of screwing over Snow in one more way, or whether this nagging feeling since Emma grabbed her arm and made magic happen is just never going to go away.
It certainly doesn't go away when Emma places trembling fingers on Regina's cheeks and draws her into the tenderest kiss Regina has ever experienced. Honestly, she expected mashing lips and too much tongue, but Emma Swan kisses like she's the lead kisser from the Philharmonic Orchestra of kissing, and Regina doesn't know what the hell to do about that; well, besides kissing back, fingers tangling in those irrepressible blonde curls.
"Fuck," Emma sighs when they part, her hands now on Regina's shoulders.
"Well, there are nicer ways to ask," Regina teases. It would be so easy to shatter this, in this moment. She can feel the words forming on her tongue like a long-forgotten incantation. "Besides, we have to get the potatoes in the oven."
"I didn't-" Emma starts to explain, blushing a deep shade of pink, before realising that Regina is kidding. "Oh yeah, we should probably work on the feeding of the kid."
"I don't want your parents accusing me of starving him," Regina says. "And," she tosses back over her shoulder as she shrugs out of her coat and commandeers the tiny kitchen area. "If that was just a moment of madness, a terrible idea you'd sooner forget, well. I understand."
She's reaching for the roasting tray then, so she doesn't see Emma coming. That's the only reason, Regina tells herself, that she allows herself to be backed against the fridge and kissed so thoroughly it makes her dizzy.
"I'd do a lot more, too," Emma admits, breathless again. "But that has to wait until Henry's in bed, later. God, being a grown-up sucks sometimes."
"Maybe I'm not that kind of girl," Regina suggests, back at the counter and lining up the chopped potatoes in neat rows. If she focuses on these simple tasks, she doesn't have to think about the shift in her own personal gravity, as though the world itself has tilted on its axis.
Emma responds by squeezing Regina's ass, and the genuine laugh that provokes is every bit as startling this time; perhaps a shift isn't such a bad thing.
"Let's just get through dinner," Emma suggests, before risking a quick kiss to the side of Regina's neck. "We can screw everything else up later."
"And they say romance is dead," Regina scoffs, but she's still smiling as she places the trays in the oven, one by one.
When she looks up again, Emma's smiling too. And that, Regina decides, is romance enough for now.