Note: Hello again! I'm actually kind of surprised at how quickly this chapter got finished – it's much more compact than the previous one, so of necessity it's shorter, but I guess that's been made up for in speed? Ehh, I don't know. Anyway, once again, thank you so much for taking the time to read. I'm so grateful that you're giving this story your time.
Please be aware that this chapter deals explicitly with a sex scene of highly dubious consent, previously from Chapter 2 of Rearranging the Disaligned. The whole chapter is potentially triggering.
Emma'd learned to skip stones from a foster dad named Pete. They'd go to the lakeside, her and Pete and Pete's wife Rita, and she and Pete would practice by the shore as he told a crummy joke over and over again, because it had his name in it: "Pete and Re-Pete were in a boat. Pete fell in. Who was left?" She'd say, of course, "Re-Pete," and he'd tell it all over again. That was the joke. At first she'd thought he was making fun of her, until she gradually realized he was just trying to get her to relax, to maybe make her smile or laugh. She'd been about twelve and already had a chip on her shoulder bigger than the shale-flat lake itself.
At the town boundary, there was a scattering of stones by the roadside. They weren't smooth like real skipping stones, but there wasn't any water anyway.
Your wife is the Evil Queen, she said to herself. Take a shot. She skipped one stone over the town line and watched it bound unevenly away into the darkness.
Pete and Rita had been a brief pool of stillness in a life chased through with frenetic ugliness. She'd felt the same way about Regina and Henry at first, before it all went to shit.
You fell in love with the Evil Queen because she cursed you to love her, as revenge on the parents she stole you from with the curse before the curse to love her. Take a shot.
Another rock went over the boundary of spray paint.
You're in love with a woman who has killed a lot of people and made a lot of other people suffer. She hasn't confirmed or denied it, but she probably murdered your friend Graham. Take a shot.
This rock went over harder and louder, and shot off in an arc into the night, passing brief and pale like something dumb and poetic. A shooting star maybe.
You're in love with a woman who made your life a living hell after you left her. You're in love with a woman who scared you and hurt you. You're in love with a woman who made you uncomfortable with your own body because of how she used it. You're in love with a woman who tried to poison you with the same apple she used to poison your mother.
That was four shots. Four rocks went down the road, one after the other.
No more. She went back to the boundary between asphalt and forest.
She counted what was left. One: you're in love with a woman who wasn't so bad when she first cursed you to be her wife. Two: you're in love with the mother of your child, which was more than most people could say. Three: at least she's apologized and keeps apologizing.
Four, the look in her eyes when she told you the same thing had been done to her. Five, the way she clearly needs you.
The way she kissed you today in the kitchen, like you were the only person in the world she ever wanted to kiss.
The way your body seized up with fright at the touch of her lips.
Take a shot.
Six stones stayed on the ground, but the seventh she wound up and threw like a pitcher, thinking that the tense-and-release would do something to fix the remembered fear and discomfort that was clawing its way up her body. It didn't do anything more than overbalance her. She sat down hard on the ground next to Mary Margaret's car, which she was borrowing while she tried to track down her Beetle.
She picked up one of the six remaining rocks and flung that after the seventh, in memory of her lost car. Then she put her head down on her knees and breathed deep.
It wasn't so bad, not anymore. If she initiated the touches, she was fine. It had even felt kind of good and secure to hold Regina in her arms. Being the big spoon and stuff. Even the first kiss - not so bad, because she did kind of see it coming. But when Regina didn't stop... Emma closed her eyes as tension gripped her limbs anew.
For the few scattered weeks that their marriage clung together after that night, Emma had thought she was, you know, over it. It had been shitty and made her feel kind of sick to think about, but Regina didn't demand much by way of intimacy in the days leading up to Graham's death. There'd been no forceful kisses waking Emma at two in the morning, no hand fisting in her hair so she could bend Emma where she wanted her.
Emma rubbed a hand over her face and wondered exactly when their sex had gone from mutual and eager and even occasionally tender to a whole lot of Regina pushing Emma around. She guessed, by that time, she'd been well enough trained to submit, but at least that had been a choice she made, not something wrenched out of her by force.
By force. She squeezed her eyes shut tight, feeling the memory of that night pulse like a bruise. No, please, can we not do this right now, but it rose to the front of her awareness, a chronic pain she couldn't medicate.
Regina kissing her insistently, laying on top of her. Weirdly heavy, though her weight had never been much to Emma before. Pushing up her sweater to grope her breasts, using mouth and teeth the way Emma liked.
Emma felt almost nothing at all as Regina was doing it, but her body responded just enough, in little twitches and gasps, to convince Regina that she was playing hard to get. Regina'd even chuckled around the nipple between her lips, clearly believing this was some game of Emma's, to taunt her. She made Emma come, a weak little thing, a reflex of her body like the kick of a leg after a tap to the knee. Just an answer of her muscles to the insistent pressure of Regina's fingers.
Then Regina took her robe off. Emma knew what was expected of her, so she did it, feeling nothing.
She didn't know if she'd expected to feel something by then - like maybe her engine just needed warming up and now she'd kick right into gear. She'd always loved Regina's body, after all. She'd learned its secrets, the birthmarks, the little ticklish places; had she thought that night, carrying out by rote what normally was done with love, that somehow a switch would flip and life would come back to her again? She must have been neck-deep in the pretense already. In pretending to be okay.
Emma shivered back into herself, realizing that the cold rocky pavement was digging into her ass through her jeans. Her head had dropped all the way down in remembering, she could feel the stretch in the back of her neck.
She unbent herself gradually. Being sexless after she left Regina hadn't been bad - who was she gonna have sex with, right? And that night only came back to her once in a while, only froze her in shards in moments like outside the mine, the time that Henry, desperate to prove that something in his collapsing life was real, got himself stuck underground, and Regina - Jesus, why did she do it? Why did Regina do anything? Probably to manipulate her. Regina had crossed the gap between them as Emma prepared to harness up and go down the airshaft, and she got so close that everything in Emma went tight and painful and afraid. And Regina just looked at her with dazzling harlequin romance eyes and asked her to bring Henry back, seeming so outside the fist squeezing Emma's insides that Emma could almost believe she wasn't the cause of it.
Emma brushed off her jeans, then leaned heavily against the side of the car, looking not ahead of her but down the road, over the line, out of the town. She'd always thought of Regina as being a hundred different people at once, putting on a different face for every different situation, never showing her real self. Was there even a real Regina, at the bottom of it all, trapped underwater like the ghost of someone drowned? Could you swim deep enough and find her?
Emma's legs hurt now, and so did her ass. It was cold enough out to seep in through the knit of her sweater; she wrapped her arms around herself, shivered. Better get home, she thought, and wondered where home was these days, anyway. The party had to be over by now.
She glanced over the line and thought about all the rocks piled on that side, more there than where she was. She could follow them, if she wanted. Get in and keep driving. As easy as that.
Regina cut her eyes at Emma from across the piano room to hear the words, pursing her lips. Emma could have predicted that expression down to the slight narrowing of Regina's eyes, and took some kind of comfort in it; through good stuff and bad stuff some things never changed.
"Emma," Regina said, "leaving is not an option for you anymore." She passed Emma one of the glasses of cider.
"I know," Emma said. "I mean - I'm here, aren't I?" She had never much liked Regina's cider, but drinking it felt like sealing a pact, and that was what she wanted to do. Make a pact to stay. She took a swallow, grimaced slightly at the burn of the alcohol.
Regina sat on the other end of the couch, smoothing a crease out of her silk pajamas. "I didn't expect you to come back here," she said. "It's late." The clock on the far wall said nearly one in the morning. It had a steady metronomic tick that meted out the time beneath the soft pattern of their voices.
"You weren't asleep," Emma said in her defense, and instead of asking how the end of the party went, she took a sip of cider. She flicked her gaze up at Regina, who wasn't looking at her, and who was unfairly flattered by the dim light, the way she was always flattered by any light; Emma didn't look down in time to miss the slightly uncertain look Regina sent her, disguised in a frown.
"Is there something you wanted, Miss Swan?" Regina said; her expression seemed to twitch, as though even she recognized the ridiculousness of her old habit.
Emma tried to find somewhere safe to put her eyes, but they kept getting snagged on little details. The perfectly smooth glass top of the coffee table and the shelf beneath it, which had a neat arrangement of Henry's comic books, as though he might still wander in and scoop one up to relax after school. The array of family photos near the television, mostly Henry and Regina, but there was one with Emma too, taken, maybe, to convince her of the reality of the whole magical charade. Her and Regina and the kid at the summer fair that sprawled across the docks every year, and not the most attractive picture, either, because when it got sunny Emma wore a permanent scowl as self-defense and was squinting distrustfully at the camera as though to ask "You want a piece of me?" Henry had a swath of sunburn across his nose. Only Regina looked put-together.
Emma pulled her eyes away from that and then they got caught on how Regina wasn't wearing any shoes or socks or anything, and how vulnerable she looked with her feet exposed. She shook her head at herself, took another swallow of cider. It seemed to chafe in her stomach. She should have eaten more at the party.
Is there something you wanted, Miss Swan? Not a bad question, even if it still sounded dumb when Regina called her Miss Swan. Emma looked down at her glass - finally somewhere to look with neutral implications - and tried to find the right words, to explain.
"I feel like..." Her brow furrowed, her eyelids flickering briefly down, giving herself a moment of rest. "Like there's so much... People expect of me." She remembered the kid at the well with her. Realizing only in retrospect that he'd called her Mom then, and it still sent a weird, sickly shudder through her to think about, the feeling too heavy in her throat to be happiness.
"I mean, when I was doing that whole - when I was the sheriff, and you and I were fighting, I was... None of it was planned." She brushed her thumb over the rim of the glass and chanced a look up at Regina just as she was wetting her lower lip nervously with her tongue, something so innocent and vulnerable, like the bare feet; she felt like she was peeking in on a scene not meant for her, especially when Regina rearranged her expression so quickly Emma knew that she wasn't supposed to have seen.
"The whole time, it was just..." Emma fished for the precise word she wanted, came up with it: "Improvisation. I... I was just fucking around, not knowing what I was doing, with any of it. With being sheriff - being the Savior. Being Henry's - his other mother. I was just rolling with the punches. None of it was instinct, or talent, or anything. Just me... Trying really hard." She'd never said any of this aloud before, never admitted to anyone, and, shit, was she going to cry? She frowned really hard down at her cider glass, hoping she wouldn't.
"There's so much... So much... Sitting on me." Emma bit the inside of her mouth, another safeguard against tears. "Snow and Charming expect me to be their daughter and everyone expects me to be the Savior and Henry - Henry expects me to be his Mom, and I just, I don't, I can't."She looked up at Regina, but when she blinked her vision was rimmed with prisms of refracted light; she was crying, or at least there were tears in her eyes. She felt sick, and she felt weak.
"I don't even have myselffigured out," Emma said urgently, trying to make Regina understand, so at least one person would know the truth and Emma wouldn't have to carry it alone. "There's this, there's all of this historythat's on me here, I haven't got any of it figured out. I feel like..." She lifted a hand from her glass, wiped hard at her eyes. "If I could just figure it out... How all the pieces fit together..."
"You'd understand who you are," Regina said, looking down at her hands, not at Emma. Regina's cider glass was on the table, on a coaster. "If you could just understand how one thing led to another, you'd understand yourself."
"You get it," Emma said, not quite a question but neither a statement, and there was a wobble in her voice that she hated; shame prickled at her as badly as the tears did.
Regina suddenly looked small, sitting on the far side of the couch, just a slim woman in a pair of pajamas with mussed hair and bare feet. Her hands shaped themselves as though holding something fragile as she spoke softly: "How do you... Unlink one event from another, Emma? How do you uncouple the regret of one moment from the happiness of another?" Regina swallowed; her mouth was taut, the scar on her upper lip in sharp relief, that one crooked eyebrow nearing its twin unevenly across her furrowed brow. Emma recognized the vein in her forehead from moments of anger but knew this to be a profound sadness instead, something from the dark inner forest of Regina that she couldn't touch.
"I don't think you can," Regina said softly. "You can't make sense of it. It's not as simple as saying... As saying because or ergo." There was the faintest tinge of bitterness in her voice now, manifesting also in the way Regina's lower lip pulled up, against tears, Emma realized - Regina was crying too, or about to cry. In sympathy for Emma?
Emma closed her eyes and stayed that way for what felt like a long time. This time, when she spoke, she asked the question that had sat in her since the town line, the history that crushed her most of all.
"Do you remember that night?" Emma said. "The night when you... Made me..." She took a long breath, and at the end of it, looked at Regina. She hadn't thought the grief on Regina's face could grow any deeper, but it had, and her eyes were like wells to drown in.
"Yes," Regina said, just the one word, very quietly.
"I feel like if I could just... If I could understand that..." Emma struggled, and had to put down her glass, because her hands were shaking, more than a little. She didn't know how to explain that that night had been so pivotal to her, that it marked some kind of before and after in her life. If that night had never happened, would she ever have challenged Regina about their marriage? Would she have gotten her old job back, and would Graham...?
"Sometimes things happen to us that make no sense," Regina said, and her voice sounded ashen and dead, so bereft of the sarcasm and the acidity that normally seared the edges of their conversations. "Sometimes terrible things are - done to us. And they make us who we are. And they have no purpose, no meaning. Except to be wounds that never close."
Emma was really crying now, she couldn't pretend not to be. She wanted to throw up, like she could purge the feeling out of herself. It sat in her belly like a stone. "How do you live with it?" she asked, her voice ragged. "How am I supposed to live with it?"
"Day by day," Regina said. "You fight. Even though it might kill you anyway." Her voice was soft, very soft, and Emma wanted to reach out to her, to the person who hurt her most and understood her best.
Instead, Emma scrubbed her hands fiercely over her eyes, over her wet cheeks, and tried to make herself as small as she could when she heard Regina say, her voice thick with pain, "I'm sorry. If it's any - use to you. I'm sorry. I... I love you." It had been a long time since Regina said that to her, and the words resonated in Emma like the aftermath of thunder.
Regina continued, her voice a throaty rasp, as though shredded by what she felt. "... But even the people I love aren't safe from me."
Emma swallowed. She made herself drag her head up, look at Regina, whose head had dropped forward; shadows spilled over her face from the light in the hall that silhouetted her, as though a conscious defense, a disguise.
"How did you get like this?" Emma asked, not for the first time.
Regina told her.