The bed is cold when Regina's fingers stretch across it, the sheets exposed to the morning light where the covers have been carelessly thrown back. As she opens her eyes, she frowns, squeezing her eyes closed and then open again to remove the blur from her vision. She lifts her head, looking down the length of the bed and then across the room. Her clothes are still lying in a heap just inside the door and the sight of them forms her lips into a hard line.
She never used to be so careless. But as she shifts in the bed, a dull ache spreads through her body, swelling a memory of the night before and she knows that it isn't a lack of care that gives her pause.
It had been different with Emma last night: harder, more needy and desperate, much less forgiving. Regina lifts an arm to push at her hair and spies the beginnings of a bruise just above her elbow. She doesn't even want to contemplate what marks might appear on the rest of her body, naked beneath the bedclothes.
Regina always used to take wicked pleasure in emerging from the fray unscathed. But fighting demons is much more difficult and wearing than fighting anyone else, and if these are the battle scars she owes, then she will endure them. Perhaps even wear them with pride one day. And Emma, the instrument of her torture, remains a sword upon which Regina will continue to fall for as long as it takes to feel better, feel something. Anything but the pull of a black abyss which has seduced her for most of her life.
There are moments of something approaching happiness: when Henry smiles at her and takes her hand without being pressed to do so; when she sees in his eyes the sort of forgiveness she never thought she'd find. Even Emma's increasingly frequent visits have provided a salve for the rawness of her heart, found in the shape of the blonde's body and the tangy sweetness of her sweat-soaked skin, the way she holds Regina while their breathing returns to normal, the little kindnesses Emma shows on occasion.
It might not be the happiness of fairytales. But it's more than she's experienced in a long time.
Struggling up onto her elbows, Regina casts a glance around the room. She hadn't intended to fall asleep with Emma still in her bed last night. They'd lain side by side, only their little fingers touching, bodies thrumming with the remnants of spent passion. Regina had been caught in a whirling moment of breathless wonder that still took her by surprise every time she felt it, every time Emma brought her to orgasm and she felt life and light sing in her veins.
She can still feel it now, a low buzzing in her gut and a flood of change at the back of her mind, ready to roll over her and wash her away. The more she tries to lose herself in what she and Emma are doing, the more credible the act seems, the more prescient the feeling that accompanies it. She thinks that she woke during the night to feel Emma's arm slung around her waist and the other woman's body pressed up behind her own, but now, in the morning light that creeps through the gap in the curtains, Regina wonders if it was a dream. A worrying, fanciful want instead of a living, breathing reality.
She's alone again now, dream or not. Emma must have slipped out under the shadow of darkness and there's a part of Regina that can't really blame her. Because no matter how good this feels, it's still wrong and shameful in ways neither of them can really explain or justify.
Regina draws the covers up around her and breathes deeply. Even if it was a dream, she'll take comfort in the idea that someone might stay. That she wants them to, after all these years of pushing so hard that everyone abandons her in the end.
There's a hissed expletive outside her bedroom door before it bursts open and Emma wobbles into the room, barely balancing two cups of coffee in one hand and a plate in the other. She ignores the unrestrained look of surprise on Regina's face and focuses instead on not spilling the coffee until she can finally rest both cups on the bedside table. Emma's made a habit of leaving beds, not sleeping more soundly in them than she can remember in a long time. And especially not in the bed of someone who stirs up such conflicting emotions that's she's sure she's not ready to parse out and unpick.
She sits on the edge of the bed, clutching the plate in both hands and avoids Regina's enquiring gaze.
"I was gonna leave," she says in a rush of breath. "I mean, I was creeping out the door like a teenager or something." She laughs and flushes a little, shaking her head.
"I fell asleep," Emma shrugs. "You did too."
"This is my bed," Regina says, a sardonic smile quirking her mouth. "I belong here, unlike you, dear."
The blonde rolls her eyes and puffs out her cheeks. "Okay," she sighs, "I see you're going to try and make this as awkward as possible. Thanks for that."
Silence falls between them as Regina is suddenly, painfully aware of her own nudity and how inappropriate that seems when Emma's fully dressed. But then, hasn't she always been at a disadvantage with the girl? Hasn't she always been scrabbling to gain the upper hand, left clawing at the canvas of her own demise, painted in broad colors of regret?
"I uh…I toasted you a bagel," Emma suddenly says, holding out the plate in her hand. They both stare down at the charred mess on Regina's fine bone china before Emma frowns and grunts. "Okay, so I incinerated you a bagel," she mumbles and shoves the plate onto the bedside table before grabbing her cup of coffee.
"I have to say," Regina comments, reaching for her own cup and sipping gratefully at the coffee inside it, so strong that she winces as she swallows, "this probably isn't your finest exit strategy."
"What do you mean?" Emma makes herself more comfortable on the side of the bed and eyes Regina carefully.
"You stayed by mistake and yet you're making me coffee and what passes for breakfast," Regina says. "I would have thought you'd be halfway across town by now, running scared."
Emma shrugs and laughs. "I'm not scared of you, if that's what you mean." She doesn't intend for it to come out as the challenge that it does, but she sees the gleam in Regina's eyes and meets it head on with a steady gaze. If she's honest with herself, Emma might succumb to the prickle of fear at the back of her neck, walking its way down her spine. Because when she thinks about it – and she can't say that she hasn't over the last few months – this place has become her refuge, Regina her solace, of sorts. So when she halted in the hallway this morning, it was because she didn't really want to leave.
And that terrifies her more than any sort of curse Regina might still have the power to cast.
"Here's the thing," Emma begins, wrapping her hands around the warm cup in her grasp. "Everyone here wants something from me, you know? I mean, even my parents want…they want me to be someone that I don't even know I can be. And I'm trying to – to be a mom and daughter and everything else and it's just…"
She lets out a heavy, grumbling sigh and shakes her head. "It's just crazy. It's all fucking crazy and there's magic and other worlds and portals and…and…"
"You come here to escape that."
Emma presses her lips together and nods. "Basically, yeah."
Regina puts her cup back onto the bedside table and folds her arms over her chest, pinning the bedclothes against the swell of her breasts. "Well," she says in a quiet, resigned tone, "I'm glad I can be of assistance."
Emma's eyebrows rise and she leans back a little, appraising Regina with a gaze that can't quite decide between offended and appalled.
"Is that what you think this is?" she finally says. "Assistance?"
"Emma, dear, it doesn't matter what I think. We're both long past thinking that happiness exists for people like us. I'm afraid your parents being who they are might have given you…given all of us something like false hope when it comes to happy endings."
It's not the first time Regina's looked vulnerable, but it's the first time she's ever really voiced it, voiced the longing that still exists somewhere deep inside her. It resonates in Emma's chest, striking a chord that plays out in a dissolute, lonely life that has shaped both of them in different ways. Because even a fairytale life isn't made up of what's written; it exists between the lines on pages that don't really begin to tell the full story. And if Emma knows anything, then it's that Regina's tale is much like her own: less told and full of horrors far more real than the villains created to frighten children.
"But false hope…isn't that better than none at all?" she asks, and sees the sad smile that pulls at Regina's lips.
"I used to think so," Regina answers quietly. "But I have Henry back, after a fashion. It's probably more than I deserve. I won't stand in your way when he decides he doesn't want to know me anymore."
"Yeah? Well, guess what, Regina," Emma intones, leaning forwards and putting her cup onto the bedside table next to Regina's. "You are in my way. And maybe…maybe that's just how it's supposed to be, you know?"
Regina clearly does know, as her head drops and she clutches at the bedclothes around her. "If I could stop, I would," she whispers. But her heart pounds blood into her ears and she knows that stopping any of this isn't really an option anymore.
"Me too," Emma says. "But I can't, so I made coffee and breakfast instead."
Lifting her head, Regina can't help smiling at the simplicity of the explanation, how it encompasses the ways in which they should rail against this; how it's so telling about the ways in which they won't.
"You should go. Henry will wonder where you are."
Emma nods, slapping her palms onto her thighs before she rises from the bed and looks down at Regina. There's little majesty about the woman; she seems so very small, huddled in her huge bed wrapped only in sheets. It's the most human, the most open and the most beautiful Emma's ever seen her and she swallows as she lingers by the side of the bed.
"I'll come back," she says. It's the only time she's made this promise to Regina since they started this, but she knows as the words leave her lips that she means it.
"I won't be surprised if you don't," Regina draws her knees up and wraps her arms around them, scant protection that they are.
Emma shoves her hands into the pockets of her jeans and turns, walking towards the bedroom door where she pauses and looks back at Regina. "Henry," she says with a frown. "He thinks I'm some sort of White Knight, yes?"
Regina resists the urge to roll her eyes but her nostrils flare and she fixes Emma with a glare that's somewhat akin to her older, harder self. "He does indeed," she says grimly. "And?"
"Then whatever you and I think we know, or don't know about this," Emma says, waving her finger back and forth between them, "we have to have faith in our kid. From the very beginning, he's the one who's always believed in this stuff more than anyone. And he's been right about it, too."
"What are you getting at, Miss Swan?" Regina snaps, discomfort inching its way up her spine.
"Well…" Emma shifts and laughs a little, embarrassed enough by the mere thought to let it turn the tops of her cheeks crimson. But she's done with running, for now. Perhaps forever. And if the town, her parents and Henry want her to take responsibility for who she is, then who she is in this house – to Regina – might be a good place to start shouldering it.
"I don't know much about how it works in your world," Emma continues, reaching for the doorhandle, "but I think I know enough about fairytales to figure out that a knight never leaves her queen."
"That's very noble of you," Regina responds, and she can't stand the way Emma is looking at her, with so much light in her eyes that it's almost blinding. "I'm sure your mother will be overjoyed to hear that."
Emma demurs slightly, her shoulders falling a little and a disconcerted expression flitting over her face for a brief moment. "I don't know about that," she tells Regina, opening the door and hovering on the threshold for a second, "because I wasn't talking about her."