A watched pot never boils, Emma knows, although admittedly she only cooks once every few weeks, throwing pasta together when she can't face another night of eating out. No, a watched pot feels like it will never come to the boil, and a watched door will not produce the one person she's both dying to see and dreading the arrival of.
Henry keeps catching her eye, now and every other time they both look back at the room filled with people in a botched attempt at pretending neither of them were staring at the white double doors that form the entrance to Storybrooke's Great Hall.
Paige takes pity on Henry first, dragging him into the throng of people on the dancefloor. Emma knows about the diamond ring tucked into the corner of Henry's sock drawer, but they don't talk about these things now he's home from college on something like a permanent basis. They're closer to roommates now that he's been out in the real world, and it's peaceful in its own way. Emma likes not being the only one to buy beer for the fridge these days; she's learned to take the perks where she can find them.
It's getting a beer that distracts her in the end. Her father insists on taking her to the bar, as though simply bringing her a bottle of the same beer she drinks at every event is too much for him to remember. They're in conversation about the turnout, about how happy Snow looks to be holding court for the evening once more, when the hush falls over the room.
Not a real hush, anyway, because the music is still blaring over the crappy PA system, but the talking and yelling that mingled with old pop songs has stopped in an instant. Even without that, the hairs on the back of Emma's neck are standing on end, and there's only one person who ever had that effect on her.
"Regina," she says, striding across the room to shake the other woman's hand. Someone turns the music down, and the murmuring begins. "I'm glad you could make it."
"Mom!" Henry says, scurrying across the floor without any concern about looking cool. The relief on Regina's face when Henry pulls her into a hug is so palpable that Emma almost feels dizzy to look at it.
Thankfully, the private moment between mother and son is enough to make most people do the decent thing and turn away. The music starts back up, and Emma exhales slowly.
"Emma," Regina says, once Henry releases her. He towers over her now, the Charmings' height now evident in him. "Thank you for inviting me."
"You're always invited, Mom," Henry reminds her. "We're just glad you could make it this time."
"Henry, can you-"
"Scotch, neat. Got it," Henry says, shaking his head but smiling. His close-cropped hair shows off the face that turned out so much like his father's, a man he spent a handful of days with and never saw again; it's just another thing they don't talk about, and one that Emma's goddamned grateful for.
"You trained him well, in New York," Emma teases. "I'm surprised he didn't have the drink waiting for you."
"I can't believe it's been six months since he graduated," Regina admits, dark eyes tracking Henry's movements on the other side of the room. "I hoped he would go back, do his Masters degree, but..."
"You wanted to keep him there longer," Emma accuses, but there's no malice in it.
"Perhaps," Regina admits, tucking fur-lined gloves into her sleek red purse, and putting that under her arm in a practiced gesture. Her coat is already unbuttoned, and Emma steps behind her to slip it from Regina's shoulders, because habits apparently still die slow and hard out here in Maine.
In deep red velvet, dark enough to look almost black in the shadows, Regina is as stunning as ever. Emma tries to hide it, but too late, and the hitch in her breathing gives her away. She looks instead at the jewels that shimmer at Regina's ears, and then at her throat. Rubies, like drops of blood, and even with all the memories the sight brings, Emma can't tear herself away.
In her own simple black pantsuit she feels dowdy, even though two hours ago it felt like trading up from her signature jeans and leather jacket, just a couple of sizes larger these days because forty is creeping up and sleepy towns don't do a lot to keep a girl active.
"Let's sit," Emma says, steering Regina with a light touch that barely grazes her elbow, towards a table in the back corner of the room.
By the time they're seated in adjacent chairs, no more than a few inches between their knees, Henry has returned with Regina's drink. Emma takes a long pull of her beer to preempt any need to clink glass on glass, or worse, make any kind of toast. Paige hovers behind Henry, still wary, still mistrusting Regina with those eyes that are so very much like Jefferson's, without the widened whiteness of crazy.
"Mom, I know I haven't seen you in a few weeks, but I'm supposed to be helping with the-"
"Go," Regina says, reaching for his hand and squeezing it. "I'm staying tonight, so if we don't get time now, you can take me to breakfast."
Emma swallows hard at that little piece of news. The B&B is being refurbished since Ruby finally decided to sell it last year, which implies that Regina is inviting herself to a night in her old home. It certainly wouldn't be the first time, but Emma doesn't dare to presume anything about Regina's visits anymore.
"So, I have a guest?" Emma asks when the kids leave, recruited by Snow for some organizing task or other.
"Problem?" Regina asks, quirking one eyebrow as she downs the double (Henry knows better by now) in one gulp.
"Just wondering why we're wasting our time here," Emma says simply.
"Well," Regina says. "Give it half an hour, make them squirm a little more."
"Deal," Emma agrees, leaning back in her chair and unbuttoning the single button on her blazer.
"There's something we need to discuss," Regina warns, and the darkness in her voice is unfortunately familiar. "Tonight, preferably."
"Whatever you want, Regina," Emma replies, because that's just the way of things these days.
Talking gets forgotten somewhere on the drive home.
Emma's one beer over the limit but not about to arrest herself. The Bug was consigned to the town scrapheap long ago, right by the boundary that Emma can't cross, and these days she gets around in a truck that used to be Michael's, sold at a knockdown price in exchange for a couple of years' worth of parking tickets disappearing.
Regina couldn't look more out of place, in her designer dress and killer heels, but she says nothing about the takeout wrappers and empty bottles that litter the floor of the passenger seat. She stares for a moment when the truck first guns into life, but seems satisfied that Emma is still driving stick, that some things don't change, and as soon as they're out on the main road Regina's hand comes to rest on Emma's thigh, her touch warm even through the fabric of the black pants.
"It's been longer, this time," Emma points out when she pulls the truck into the driveway that used to be Regina's, but it's where Emma calls home these days.
Regina struts around the front of the truck, and no doubt there's a bitchy reply forming on her lips, but she reaches Emma before the words can spill and then they're kissing, Emma's back pressed against the window and her hands already grasping at Regina's silky dark hair.
"Too long," Regina admits when they part for air. Her lipstick is smudged, half of it no doubt smeared on Emma's willing lips now, obliterating the pale gloss that was her one concession to dressing up for the evening. "We really do have to talk, first."
"If you're going to tell me you're marrying some stockbroker son-of-a-bitch..." Emma mutters, but Regina looks up in surprise.
"I'm not dating," she says. "I mean, socially, a dinner here and there. Nothing more."
"Henry said there were guys sometimes. I mean, that was the deal," Emma blusters, trying not to sound like the jealous mistress in the equation, even if she's never asked for anything more. She hasn't exactly lived like a nun in Regina's absence.
"Drinks. Dinner. The occasional night at the opera," Regina confirms with a shrug. "But no, I won't be marrying anyone to secure my social station again, not in this life or any other."
"Come inside," Emma says, because the air is cold enough for snow and they've already lingered far too long. She hangs back for just a second, the cold determination in Regina's voice about marriage bringing up some old, unanswered questions, but a moment later it already feels like the wrong thing to ask.
They're in the foyer when Regina grabs her by the arm, eyes wild and unable to stop the words from tumbling out.
"I've done it!"
"Done what?" Emma says, ignoring the prick of recognition in the pit of her stomach.
"Found the way out of your deal," Regina confirms, putting Emma's most dangerous and scarcely forgotten hope into words. "The deal that you used to save my life. I can get you back your freedom."
Emma can't breathe at the thought of finally leaving this town again, almost eleven years after consigning herself to it for the rest of her life.
"Don't say that," she snaps after a minute, a lifetime of cynicism taking over once more. "It's a price I was happy to pay." They've talked about this a hundred times, maybe. Over the years of talking to Regina and not, of kissing and not, of only exchanging sullen glares over the top of Henry's head, to achieve this fragile peace sometimes feels like enough; and Emma Swan has always known not to ask for too much.
"To be trapped here? While everyone else can come and go?" Regina scoffs. She knows Emma too well to be tricked so easily. "No, I don't think so. Your eyes lit up like the Fourth of July at just the mention of it, so don't you dare lie to me now, Emma Swan."
"It's fine," Emma says, peeling away from Regina's vice-grip on her arm, heading towards the living room. Nothing is quite as fancy as Regina left it, the day she was run out of town, but Henry keeps track of the things that Emma misses. "So long as Henry comes often enough. I think he's staying through the summer to finish this design he's working on. And... well, it's nice to see you sometimes, too."
"I want more," Regina says quite bluntly, biting her lip after making the admission. After all this time, after all those years of terrorizing people, she still expects a bad reaction to simply stating what she wants. "It was fine with the distraction of Henry at Columbia, but no more. I'm not living like this."
"The deal was pretty clear," Emma says, gripping the back of a stylish armchair that's not remotely comfortable to sit in. "It's how we got rid of Gold. It's how I kept Henry alive. It's how I kept you."
"You should have let him kill me, you know," Regina says. "That was my destiny. Especially after I killed Baelfire."
"Neal," Emma corrects, out of habit. "And he was trying to take Henry from us. I'm every bit as guilty as you. Won't breaking the deal let him come back?"
"No. The banishment is permanent. But the Blue Fairy has ruined my life for long enough," Regina says bluntly. "We have to depose her. Put someone sympathetic in her place. Someone who'll let you change the terms of her deal and leave. Then we can be together. Near wherever Henry wants to go, if he'll have us there."
"I'm here to safeguard their magic," Emma reminds her. "They're terrified it'll run out, like the fairy dust, so I'm the Strategic Magic Reserve."
"They want to secure the magic that's in you," Regina reminds her, pacing now, although the heels have been kicked off by the sofa as though she's still the Mayor, as though she still lives here. "If the fairy dust stops growing, and they think yours is the only magic left, do you think they'll still let you walk around untouched? They will drain it from you."
"That doesn't sound like something I'd survive," Emma concedes. "Mostly because I'm thinking they're going to drill me like those bits of Alaska where nothing but birds live."
"You wouldn't," Regina says, blunt as ever.
"Moms?" Henry's voice echoes in the hallway.
"In here, kid," Emma answers. He appears a moment later, cautious about peering round the door.
"Oh, you're decent," Henry says. "Did you explain to her?" He directs that one at Regina and Emma hangs her head, because of course they're in it together.
"Almost," Regina says, her smile benevolent as she ushers him into the room. He folds his lanky frame onto the sofa and watches them both expectantly. "I was just getting to the good part."
"About how you found a way to take her magic out?" Henry asks, because in some ways he's still just a kid with a book that he believes every word of, even when the rest of the world laughs. "And give it to the fairies?"
Emma searches desperately for the memories of when talk like this made her roll her eyes, or turn away in disbelief. She comes up blank, and it only frustrates her further.
"It's not without risks," Regina explains. "And my own magic is rusty from all the time away from here. But if we wait until the end of my 48 hours, I have hope I can do it. Presenting them with your magic should be enough to get us what we want."
"Hope is kind of in short supply these days," Emma says, but she can already feel the flickering ember inside her whoosh into flame. For all the sensible reasons not to be caught up in this scheme, she needs it too much not to respond to Regina's cautious optimism. "But damn, I'd like to go further than the town limits again."
"We could all live in New York for a while," Henry suggests. "I heard Ruby might be making her way back from California soon, too."
"No promises," Emma cuts him off. "There's still a lot to discuss."
"Yeah, discuss naked," Henry sasses under his breath, already standing to leave them be. "I'm going to turn in. Breakfast at Joe's, Mom. Don't forget."
"Joe's?" Regina asks, momentarily puzzled. "Oh, Granny's."
"Yeah," Henry says, leaning in to peck each of them on the cheek. "Sleep tight."
"I can't help feeling that Henry had a point," Regina says, barely concealing the smirk once he's left the room. "I've told you the plan, and we'll get into the specifics later."
"You know," Emma says, letting Regina take her by the hand. "You were still the prettiest girl at the ball, tonight."
"That," Regina sniffs. "Was no ball."
"Well, it sure wasn't a hoedown," Emma argues, because that's how they communicate and the thought of being able to do it every day has left her feeling light-headed. Regina being allowed back for two days every two months or so has never been enough.
"Shut up and take me to bed," Regina groans, as they approach the staircase.
Emma wants to take her time, wants to savor every line and curve that she's been dreaming of for the past nine weeks, and so often before that, but Regina is drunk on power again. They're fucking before the bedroom door even closes, fingers inside each other in determined strokes as Regina backs Emma against the wall.
"What," Emma gasps. "Happened to patience?"
"Fuck patience," Regina growls, her mouth against the base of Emma's throat.
Emma's spent a lot of her life being told she's not the brightest bulb in the tanning bed, but even she has never been stupid enough to consider arguing with a proposal like that.
"I don't trust the fairies," Regina says later, sitting up against the headboard with one white sheet barely covering her. Emma, flat on her back, tilts her head to stare at Regina, upside down. "But they're our only hope."
"And I'd be totally done with magic?" Emma asks, considering the energy she can feel buzzing quietly in her blood sometimes. "I mean, the true love baby crap wouldn't make it just come back?"
"Almost certainly not," Regina responds. "Even less chance if you go out into the world where nothing magical can happen."
"This felt pretty magical," Emma says, blushing furiously at her admission. No matter how many intimate moments they have, she can't ever quite feel like the kind of person who says these things. Regina smiles at the token effort, though, running her fingers absent-mindedly through the jumble of Emma's curls.
"Of course," Regina says quietly. "You don't have to come with me, when you're free. I would understand if you wanted to run very far, very fast."
"We need to be able to come back," Emma hedges. "I'm not giving up on my family, not now." She leaves unspoken her concern over Storybrooke's degraded infrastructure, of the cracks that have shown up since the fairies took charge of everything important and left her parents as little more than community organizers with slightly fancier titles; a long way from King and Queen of anything.
"Yes," Regina sighs, taking the non-answer as confirmation. "And I'll help you with anything you need to get set up in-"
"Regina," Emma says, rolling over and wrapping an arm around Regina's thighs. "I'm coming with you. To you. However you want to put it."
"Oh," Regina says, smiling down into her chest.
"I'm going to suck at it," Emma warns. "I mean, I'm better at the sleeping over and people in my space. My little sister hasn't exactly given me a choice there, and Henry's not really much better."
"And if your parents object?" Regina queries.
"Let them," Emma shrugs. "They've mostly given up on setting me up with some nice guy, at least. And I only get the lectures after your visits if Snow is drunk and emotional."
"She's drunk tonight-should we be expecting her to start yelling from the garden?"
"I think we're safe," Emma says, wriggling into place at Regina's side, waiting for the little huff of air and movement on Regina's part. It's taken far longer than it should have to be this comfortable with each other, to be able to touch in ways not designed to bruise or to thrill.
It's the love that Henry taught them, pulled from each of them like a physical force, that got them through. On the nights they've been lost and at a loss with each other, remembering how to feel for Henry has pushed them further along the path to loving each other, even if they still don't dare to call it that.
"We'll finalize the plan over breakfast," Regina explains, trying and failing to stifle a yawn.
"I'm helping my parents with the clean up in the afternoon," Emma murmurs. "Can you play nice for a few hours?"
"I'll be at the library," Regina says, the words stiff. "Belle won't be much use, but I know some of the old books found their way there. And I'll talk to Nova, of course."
"Maybe you can take Lily, keep her out from under our feet," Emma suggests, biting her tongue to keep from laughing.
"I am not a babysitter," Regina snaps. "And it's not like they'd ever trust me with their other daughter."
"Well, I trust you with this one," Emma says suddenly, before pressing her face into Regina's shoulder and letting sleep pull her down.
They wake far too early for a Sunday breakfast, and when Emma's response to Regina's quiet grumbling about morning breath is to drag them both into the en suite bathroom for tooth brushing and then a very thorough joint shower, the early hours pass in a happy whirl.
Henry is waiting for them downstairs, and Emma finds herself misty-eyed at the way Regina comes to a dead halt in the doorway, hand over her heart at the sight of Henry in such a familiar spot, hunched over a bowl of cereal and flicking through a comic book.
"I'm hungry," he says, off Emma's accusatory glare. "I couldn't wait all morning for you two to surface."
"Manners, Henry," Regina says, but she ruffles his short hair on the way past anyway. She looks far more relaxed now, dressed down in gray slacks and a shirt borrowed from Emma's closet. Actually, the shirt might have been Regina's to start with, but these years of visits that aren't long enough and Emma's inability to change much about a place she can't feel at home in, have left their lives with jumbled fragments.
"We should get going," Emma says, picking up her truck keys from the counter. For the first time in far too long, she's actually eager to get on with the day.
Emma's stacking the last of the chairs, laughing at the way her father keeps slowing everyone down by dancing through the space with Lily in his arms, when the doors fly open, slamming against the wall. Regina comes marching in, every inch the Queen, and various people scatter out of habit.
Only the Charmings hold their ground, and Emma treats Regina to a quite spectacular eyeroll before turning back to the chairs.
"Emma!" Regina barks, some of her natural melodrama dulled by Emma's refusal to engage. "I spoke to Nova, but more importantly, I was right!"
"You usually are," Emma says, taking her time about turning around. "But I assume you mean about the magic stuff."
"What magic stuff?" Snow demands, insinuating herself between the two women, offering a tight smile that's fooling no one. "Because if you remember, Regina, the condition on you being allowed to visit Henry here in town is that you don't use magic when you're here."
"I'm well aware," Regina snaps, but Emma takes over before the old hurts can rise up and cause another argument.
"Regina thinks she's found a way to get me out of this town," Emma says. "I mean, I could come back to visit. But it would break the deal that's keeping me here."
"Emma," David says, his once-boyish face crumpling into a frown. "You know we wished that for you a thousand times, but the fairies insist there is no way to break the deal."
"They also insisted there was only one space in the wardrobe forty years ago," Emma snaps, because with this glimmer of hope she no longer has the focus to hide her frustration from them. Her parents are kind and loving and supportive, but Emma still can't talk to them about the nights she's driven to the town boundary and wondered if it wouldn't be worth the quick, merciful death that came with crossing it. They somehow believe that the loneliness that once made her run all the time is filled by having parents a few decades too late.
Regina, at least, knows that it isn't. She understands hurts that won't heal and voids that won't fill. She steps past Snow and lays a possessive hand on Emma's shoulder, reminding her silently of exactly that.
"Your blue friend has caused enough trouble for one lifetime," Regina says, and the fire is dancing in her eyes again. Emma knows the Evil Queen was never truly vanquished, knows that in all her time alone Regina still obsesses over past slights and scores in need of settling, but it's still uncomfortable to watch. Mostly, Emma scolds herself, because she finds the whole 'princess of darkness' thing almost unbearably attractive. "We simply mean to effect a change in leadership: Nova agrees that it's needed, and she'll put her own name forward. Then we can negotiate new terms."
"You've never believed in negotiation," Snow snaps, arms crossed over her chest in defiance. "Why on earth would we trust you now?"
"I'm not asking for your trust," Regina states, quite plainly.
"She has mine," Emma says, her voice tight as she offers support.
"And mine," Henry says, ruffling Lily's black curls as he steps into the little standoff. "I want both my moms to be happy; we've all waited long enough."
"Why are you only considering it now?" David asks, unusually sharp, but even he's learned a lot in the past twelve years. "If it's so simple, why not do it right away?"
"I didn't know I wanted to," Regina admits. "You remember the terms Emma and I first parted on. If not for Henry, I would never have come back here in my allocated hours. And somewhere along the way..."
"I wasn't ready to try, either," Emma confirms. "It's only with Henry being away at college that I've realized how much I want to get back to the real world; back to my world."
"Emma, your world is-"
"Don't," Emma pleads, cutting her mother off. "That was never my world, Mom. I think I proved that when I ran around trying to shoot ogres."
"If there's to be a plan," Snow resumes, changing tack. "I insist we be involved. Not just to keep an eye on Regina."
Regina looks as though she's about to object, but mercifully bites her tongue.
"Yes," David agrees. "We want your happiness, too, Em. Let us help."
"I don't need help," Regina fumes, but Emma takes her hand and squeezes firmly. "But... I suppose, it may make things a little easier. If you do as you're told for once, Snow White."
"Anything for Emma," Snow says, tilting her chin the same way Henry does when his mind is made up. Emma can't be sure if she does the same herself, but she smirks to see that Regina does. Someday they might all appreciate what they've learned from each other, but Emma isn't hopeful that it will be today.
"We only have until tomorrow evening," Emma reminds them. "Regina wants to try once her magic is fully recharged. It gets weaker out there."
"What about your magic?" David asks, obviously uneasy.
"Well," Emma sighs. "I guess we should explain."
She gets about six words in before the storm of protest explodes, echoing through the hall like gunshots; Emma begins to wish she hadn't bothered at all.