"The true magic of this broken world lay in the ability of the things it contained to vanish,
to become so thoroughly lost, that they might never have existed in the first place."
Michael Chabon - The Adventures of Kavalier and Clay.
She wakes up slumped over the bed again, which really does her neck no favors at all. Rolling out the kinks all the way down her spine, Regina stands slowly, feeling as old as the woman she once disguised herself as to trick Jefferson and his daughter.
Checking the strange machines that are starting to make a kind of sense to her, Regina sees that Henry's numbers are all where the doctors want them to stay. He's been a very lucky boy, in some ways, but the gauze bandages at his throat and over his legs and arms remind Regina that he has suffered, and will continue to. Perhaps when he wakes up she can persuade him to let her do healing magic one last time.
The concern, of course, is that she won't be able to. It's still rusty, she frets as she shuffles towards the bathroom in the hospital-issue slippers a nurse brought her earlier. Ever since magic took her mother, Regina has been especially reluctant to use it, and burning the love spell she intended to use on Henry now feels like the first step on a very definite path.
That conviction wavers a little in the harsh fluorescent light of the small bathroom, where the mirror shows every line and shadow of a face that's finally aging after so long frozen in time. It would be so easy to spruce it all up with a wave of her fingers, summon comfortable clothes and the warpaint that hides her true state of exhaustion, but Regina grips the sink and rides it out.
When she steps back into Henry's room, Regina's spine tingles in warning. Sure enough, there's a man in black looming in the doorway, and she raises a hand in defense, before relaxing when Hook steps into the light.
"You're a long way from shore, pirate," Regina greets him, brushing past him as she returns to her post at Henry's bedside. The borrowed scrubs are comfortable, at least, and she really must thank the nurse who left them for her: a daughter of Regina's former cook in her castle. She is not, Regina remembers, quite as alone in this world as she might be. As always, some have remained loyal, even despite the twenty-eight frozen years of not serving her.
"Happens that I'm here on an errand, your Majesty," he replies, mocking bow and all. "Your lady love had something she wants me to pass along to you."
"I have no love, lady or otherwise," Regina corrects him. "And if that's intended to be a reference to Emma Swan? Well, neither Henry nor I need a damn thing from her."
"You might revise that opinion when you see the state of your house," Hook insists, pulling a set of keys from the pocket of his leather jacket. "Which is why the Swan lass wants you to have access to her old place. Seemed to think the town wouldn't embrace you to their collective bosom, even in this time of need."
Regina regards the keys with suspicion, scouring her tired mind for curses or enchantments that would require a key to work. Hook may not have magic, but he's far too chummy with those who do, Regina remembers all too well.
"I don't need a place to stay," Regina argues. "And I can certainly do better than that hovel."
"I'm not so sure you can," Hook counters. "And if you're worried about sharing such cramped quarters with her, don't be."
"Why not?" Regina demands.
"She's going to be moving back in with her parents," Hook explains. "When she gets back to town, anyway."
"She left?" Regina spits, her fury instant and nearly blinding. She jostles Henry's bed as she leaps back to her feet. "Where did she go?"
"Don't look at me, love," Hook holds up his hand and his hook, dropping the keys on the bed like they're hot. "I'm just the bloody messenger. And there was no message about her destination."
"But she left Storybrooke?" Regina confirms, as Hook nods. "That idiot, she's not even supposed to be out of bed, yet. And clear she doesn't give a damn about Henry-"
"I wouldn't say that," Hook interrupts, just as he seems to be taking his leave. "In fact, she seemed pretty heartbroken over the little tyke. Well, far as I can tell, anyway. Not really the paternal type, you know?"
"I should go," Hook cuts her off again, with his most maddening grin. "I'm sure she'll be in touch."
But Regina isn't sure of any such thing, because since Sidney started digging and Emma has filled in the blanks in their limited pillow talk, Regina has become certain of one thing: when things get tough, Emma Swan runs.
Which might just be enough to break Henry's heart once and for all, something Regina has no intention of allowing to happen.
Naturally, Snow White comes running, full of blame and recriminations, her puppy of a Prince nipping at her heels.
Regina cuts them off with a glare, a nod towards Henry's sleeping body, and a shrug that says she couldn't care less about the fate of their runaway daughter. Let Hook deliver another message for all Regina cares; this is distinctly not her problem, and she has neither the time nor the energy to care.
It's lucky, really, that along the way she's become such an accomplished liar.
She hangs up.
She walks home that afternoon, reluctant even despite another glowing medical report on Henry.
He was awake for the best part of an hour for tests, his eyes wide and frightened while Regina told him all the things she already said to his sedated mind. Glossing over Emma's absence, Regina is able to evade by saying the doctors are no longer worried about her.
The house is worse than she hoped, and almost instantly there's a twitch in her fingers to start repairing it with magic. Taking deep, steadying breaths, Regina thinks of the curse years and all the times when simple fixes weren't available to her; if nothing else this town has some excellent laborers, and she resigns herself to the bribes and bartering that will be necessary to secure services for her that would be readily available to anyone else. Perhaps a son in the hospital will buy a little tenderness, but as Hook warned earlier, these good people have a habit of reserving their kindness only for each other.
Police tape covers every entrance, and even a cursory glance confirms the stairs are impassable. Unable to face more damage, and conscious of every second spent away from Henry's side, Regina turns away from the only true home she's ever had.
She wraps her arms around herself in the borrowed scrub shirt, fingers landing instinctively on the bruises from the firemen restraining her the other night. They'd been as gentle as possible, but Regina had fought them tooth and nail until they'd had to use real force to keep her from searching for Henry amidst the flames, and now the marks line her arms, deep and purple and angry, just like her magic.
Feeling the chill in the air, Regina gets in her debris-coated Mercedes and drives towards the mausoleum. At least there she has some clean clothes and a few home comforts, untainted by smoke.
The hospital is quieter when she returns, the shift change complete and most patients resting in their rooms once more. When Regina reaches Henry's room, she can't hold back a snarl at the sight of both Charmings waiting outside, wringing their hands and pinched around the face, but the sight of Storybrooke's Fire Chief between them goes a little way to soothing Regina's annoyance.
In the Enchanted Forest he'd been the captain of her guards, a brisk and cunning man by the name of Mercutio. Here, he's grown a thick ginger beard and a thicker waist to boot, but the loyalty to her still shines in Marvin's blue eyes.
"Your Majesty," he greets her, and there isn't an ounce of mockery in the words for once. "We concluded our investigation, and I thought you'd want to hear the findings, along with the Sheriff."
"The Sheriff wasn't available, last I checked," Regina says smoothly. "Her Deputy here will do, especially if she's to be taken into custody anyway."
"That's unlikely," Marvin replies, back ramrod straight as he continues to deliver his report. "The fire had multiple ignition sources. Almost like, well, I haven't seen the likes of it since I saw a barn that one of your fireballs had blown through. With respect."
"Emma has magic," Snow says, and she sounds so morose that Regina can't help but smile, just for a flickering second. To every cloud a silver lining, after all. Until she's forced to correct the assumption.
"Emma's magic is largely dormant," Regina points out. "Unless she's feeling very strong emotion, she has no idea how to access it. Fireballs aren't the most complicated spell, but it's almost impossible to do by accident."
"So who's responsible?" Charming asks, hands on his hips in indignation.
"I would say that's your job," Regina bites back. "I have no shortage of enemies, surely even you can find a place to start." She nods at Neal, currently in with Henry. "You might want to start with his branch of the family tree."
"One other thing," Marvin says. "Obviously there'll be a full written report, but I've heard some talk around town about the Sheriff being found by the door and some nasty rumors as a result."
"It's not your job to tell people not to gossip," Regina reminds him, as kindly as she can. "And though I appreciate the effort, Sheriff Swan neither needs nor deserves our protection."
"Well, that's just it," Marvin presses on, sweat breaking out on his forehead in droplets. He might be able to take down a giant with a swing of his mace, but in the face of his Queen the man still has the good sense to tremble a little. "In my report we mention the staircase quite prominently."
"Out with it," Regina barks.
"Well, a section of the bannister had collapsed," Marvin says. "And in the area we found the Sheriff in, there were bits of it under where she was lying."
"Sheriff Swan didn't abandon your son," Marvin states, quite firmly. "She simply couldn't make it to him."
"She did have a lot of bruising on her back," Snow chimes in, so relieved that Regina wants to throttle her.
"Well," Regina says, and though she can keep her mask in place, there's a distinct weakness in her knees. She knows only too well the desperate fear and loathing of feeling responsible hurting Henry, but yet again Emma Swan was at least trying to play the damn hero.
And yet again, a little part of Regina feels cheated. Her crimes, numerous and terrible, have never been excused. Some never should be, and she would accept no pardon, but others were very much the product of a confused and damaged girl manipulated or simply unlucky to be born when she was.
Yet again, the 'good' will have the slate wiped clean. Even though Emma did nothing wrong, it feels like she's escaped consequences somehow, just like every last one of her relatives, and a part of Regina hates her for it.
"If you'll excuse me," Regina says, though the courtesy is for Marvin's sake and not the relieved Charmings. She motions for Neal to come away from Henry's bedside, and he does after a moment. "Baelfire, I believe our Prince has some questions for you about your father and his recovery."
She returns to her place at Henry's side, placing her bag of clean clothes on the chair and kissing his forehead. He'll be awake again soon, and she refuses to miss that moment.
"It wasn't your fault."
A breath. A pinch to the bridge of her nose because these headaches will not quit.
It's Charming who comes to the apartment, seven long days later when Henry has just been released and Regina is five minutes from collapsing in sheer exhaustion.
Motherhood has never been an easy task, but nursing a sick child while refusing all but professional support, all the while in an unfamiliar place that still manages to remind Regina of how much Emma is not there at every turn, is enough to leave Regina reeling.
"We found her," Charming says, dark circles beneath his eyes and a day's worth of stubble prickling along his overly-defined jaw. Regina blinks, twice, and waits for the horrible words that must still be to come, wondering how the hell she's going to break this to Henry.
As she nods for him to continue, Regina won't allow herself to acknowledge just how terrified she is, and that has almost nothing to do with the little boy resting peacefully in the living room.
She slaps Charming when he eventually follows up with, "She's at a motel, in New Hampshire", because his somber expression and deadpan delivery had made it sound like the very worst of news.
After the second slap he catches Regina's wrist and gives her a warning glare, just like at the stables with Daniel, and if ever she's to use magic again, it will be in this moment, in this blinding period of pure, unadulterated rage.
She resists, and for the first time in so very long, Regina is proud of herself.
"I'll tell Henry she's okay," Regina states, moving to close the door, but Charming is too quick for her and pushes his way inside, entitled to the last.
"Not so fast," he challenges, and Regina hears Henry stirring at the sound of another voice in the echoing rooms.
"Be quiet," she snarls. "Henry needs his rest."
"We can't leave town to go get her," Charming says. "But you can, right?"
"I'm not leaving Henry," Regina states, almost stamping her foot for emphasis. "So you can forget that right now."
"We would look after him," Charming argues. "And if it comes to it, I'll cross the line and the hell with my memories. Our daughter needs us."
"No," Regina says. "She doesn't. There's nothing any of you can do for her right now. She has to do it for herself, and anyone from the Bug to a real doctor will tell you as much."
"I don't want to have to order you-" Charming begins, but Regina cuts him off with what feels like her first genuine laugh in a lifetime or so. It finishes the job of waking Henry, and takes her well over a minute to get the mild hysteria back under control.
"Order me?" Regina asks, gasping for breath. "You speak like someone with authority, shepherd. We all know that's not true."
"Can't you magic her back, Mom?" Henry asks from the sofa that comprises his day bed. Apparently it's where he slept when all of them were crammed into this drafty box of a home. "Then nobody has to leave anyone."
"Magic?" Regina repeats, raising her eyebrows in surprise. "But Henry, you begged me not to use it ever again."
"It's easier," he says. "I'm worried about Emma. I want her back."
"Oh, Henry," Regina says, kneeling in front of him and smoothing his hair back off his forehead. "I'm saying this because I love you, but you need to shut up."
"What?" Henry asks, wide-eyed in shock.
"That's where I went wrong before," Regina says, more to herself than anything. "I was only doing this for you. I was trying to make an adult decision using the logic of a ten year-old. And Henry? There's a reason why adults make the rules, and children don't."
"I will listen to you about everything else, Henry. I will always listen to you from now on, I promise. But I won't let you dictate these things, when you can't possibly understand them. You should stay a child, while you can still be one."
"See? A little boy's protest, and an important one," Regina points out. "It's time I stopped being so concerned with feuds and curses and got back to being your mother, Henry. Are you going to let me?"
He considers for a long moment, with a pleading glance towards his grandfather, but eventually Henry nods. These past few days might have drained Regina of all energy, but they certainly seem to have reminded her son of all she's done for him, and how much more she's willing to do.
"I suggest you speak to Baelfire or Hook," Regina offers as she stands again, directing Charming towards the door. "And I don't suppose there's any progress in chasing down the arsonist?"
"The Blue Fairy did some tests," Charming says with a boyish shrug. Responsibility always sits well on his shoulders at first, but after a short while the slump sets in, and things start sliding off. Regina would envy him the escape route if she weren't so often the one picking up the mess his lack of true leadership creates. "She knows it was magic, for sure, so we're just trying to gather more proof."
"Remember, dear. Even if it's one of your beloved allies? They almost killed your daughter and grandson," Regina cautions. "So think on that before throwing out even more of your easy forgiveness."
"We forgave you, after a fashion," Charming counters, chin lifted in defiance.
"But nothing about that has been easy," Regina says. "You can see yourself out? Henry's dressings need to be changed."
"I'll let you know when we find Emma," Charming promises, though it seems more for Henry's benefit than Regina's.
She doesn't watch him go, but flinches when the door slams just a little harder than necessary.
In the bathroom, Regina roots through the cupboard and her purse, gathering every pill she salvaged from her old supply and newly-refilled prescription. Henry's dressing packs are in neat piles along the counter, but she ignores them for the moment.
If she thinks too long, she'll stop. She'll find excuses and good reasons to keep just a few, to save for the proverbial rainy day, and Regina knows for the first time that she cannot. She knows that her nature is to always reach for whichever crutch is available, especially when other people are to blame for constantly breaking her legs in the first place. For years she told herself that she deserved the easier path for a change, but it's starting to seem just as ill-advised as heart-ruining curses and smothering Henry with love.
She has to stop punishing herself for the damage already done, or trying to pretend it doesn't exist, and so she drops them into the toilet, pill after rattling pill, until every plastic bottle is empty.
Maybe she is learning from her mistakes, after all.
Emma knocks on the door Sunday morning, her pale skin almost gray and blonde hair scraped back from her face to disguise the fact that it hasn't been properly washed or styled in days.
"Can I see Henry?" She grunts, aviators firmly in place and hands shoved in her pocket.
"That depends," Regina muses, leaning against the doorframe to consider. "If he coughs, will you run out of town again?"
"Gimme a break," Emma groans. "I thought I'd fucked up yet another family, can you really blame me?"
"I can always find a way to blame you, Miss Swan," Regina reminds her, crossing her arms over her chest. "And Henry's asleep, so you can call to make time with him in future."
"Emma?" Henry calls out from inside the apartment. Damn, the boy always did have the hearing of a bat, Regina remembers with a frown.
Reluctantly, she steps aside to let Emma enter, smelling no perfume or deodorant as the other woman passes, just the faint smell of stale cigarettes and beer. It takes superhuman effort not to drag Emma bodily back out of the apartment.
Thankfully, Emma keeps her distance from Henry, sitting on the far end of the sofa, by his feet.
"Hey, kid," she opens, as awkward as the day she came to return him, like someone who's never been around a child since she was one herself. For a moment, Regina is reminded of herself with Owen, of Hansel and Gretel, children whose love she thought might be available, but that she had no idea how to claim.
"Emma!" He sounds excited, even though his throat is still raspy. "Where were you?" He demands, and in that moment Regina realizes the easy way out isn't being extended to Emma this time.
"I needed to get away, kid," Emma explains. "I haven't left Storybrooke-well, except for the Enchanted Forest-since I brought you back here last year."
"What's in New Hampshire that you can't get here?" Henry presses, and he folds his arms just like Regina does, propped up on the most comfortable pillows Regina could find.
"I was aiming for Boston," Emma says, wincing as she pulls the sunglasses off. Regina walks past, pretending to busy herself in the kitchen, but a brief glance confirms that Emma's eyes are bloodshot, and the damage from the fire hasn't entirely left her body yet. No doubt she hasn't been looking after herself, which can't have helped. "Henry, I really didn't mean to leave you behind, okay? I want you to know that. Sometimes grown-ups just need some time."
"Did they tell you?" Henry says, unfolding his arms to pick up the comic book on his lap. "You were really trying to save me after all."
"Always the Savior," Regina chimes in, unable to stop herself. "Henry, are you hungry yet?"
"I don't want more soup," Henry sighs.
"Then ice cream it is," Regina offers, reveling in playing the cool mom for just a moment. "Miss-"
"God, can you just call me Emma?" She sighs. "I get it. You're pissed. You have every right to be. But going back to pretending we're strangers isn't going to cut it, Regina."
"Do you want ice cream?" Regina snaps, and it isn't what she intended to say at all, but there's no denying the fact that Henry seems brighter than he has all week. So if tolerating Emma's presence is the price for that, Regina is going to pay it.
"Sure," Emma says. "No sprinkles, though."
"We're in your apartment," Regina points out. "Did you mistake it for Baskin Robbins?"
Emma rolls her eyes dramatically, and Henry giggles. For a moment Regina no longer smells the acrid smoke or tastes tears in the back of her throat. For the first time in too long, she exhales all the way.
Henry's energy flags quickly, and Regina doesn't have the strength to move him back to bed, pulling more blankets over the sofa instead, patting each of his dressings in turn to make sure everything is secure.
"I should..." Emma looks despairingly at the door.
"Lucky Kathryn didn't reassign this," Regina stalls for just a moment. "The house is... well, it's going to take some time."
"Even magic construction has union rules, huh?" Emma teases, but her heart clearly isn't in it. "I've got the pleasure of living with my parents again."
"I assume that's why you came over so soon?" Regina supplies.
"Yeah," Emma nods. "I mean, no, I wanted to see Henry," she adds, in the strangely loud whispers they've adopted. "Like I said, I should go."
That flicker of panic returns, and Regina places it this time, seeing the whole of Emma's face. If she walks out that door it won't be to Snow and Charming's disgusting little chocolate-box of a house, but rather to the nearest place to get good and blitzed.
"I'd offer you some pills to take the edge off," Regina says, taking a deep breath before scoring the point. "But I flushed them all."
"I'm fine," Emma lies. "But seriously? All of them?"
"Well, there might be some that didn't burn, when I get back into the house. But they'll meet the same fate," Regina assures her, with a quick glance to make sure Henry's face is still slack with sleep.
"And the magic?" Emma asks, leaning in with genuine interest.
"Done," Regina declares, surprised by how forcefully she means it. At the moment the magic in her system feels like the last hours of a virus, a leftover toxin just waiting to be sweated or scrubbed out. Not that it will ever leave her completely, Regina knows that, but the disconnect now that she's decided to give up for herself makes wanting to do magic seem like another person altogether. "I, uh, it hasn't been easy. It won't be. I've started going to your meeting thing."
"You're in AA?" Emma presses. "Seriously?"
"I'm told these things can't be done alone," Regina defends herself. "And yes, some of them are self-indulgent idiots, but there are actually some helpful ideas, if you listen. Anyway, it was just one meeting. That's why I couldn't come to get you, if you were wondering."
"I assumed you were still pissed at me," Emma admits. "I'm plenty pissed at myself."
"If you don't want to go to their house," Regina interrupts, not wanting to rake it all over the coals again. "You can stay here, for the afternoon. My one condition is that you shower and change. I don't want all your bar germs around Henry while he's still fragile."
"Always the mom," Emma teases, but it's entirely good-natured.
"One of us has to be," Regina says, with a shrug. She feels overdressed in her office slacks and red blouse. "I'll lay out something clean from the things you left here."
"Thank you," Emma sighs, relaxing for the first time since she arrived. She stands to go take that shower, pausing en route to touch Regina's elbow, leaning in for the briefest of kisses against her cheek. "Thank you," Emma repeats, and Regina simply nods towards the stairs.
Half an hour later and Henry's sleepy wheezing is grating on Regina's nerves, even as she tries to keep herself occupied with quietly cleaning the dingy flat. Whatever her merits as a ruler or a teacher, Mary Margaret was certainly no homemaker, and that trait turned out to be genetic.
With the excuse of taking up more towels, Regina climbs the stairs to where Emma's old bedroom adjoins the bathroom, and lays the slightly worn and graying white towels out on top of the comforter.
The bathroom door is open, steam spilling into the room. Regina moves to close it, muttering under her breath about how their child is more house-trained than Emma, and that's when she overhears the strangled sob.
She could walk back downstairs and absolve herself of all responsibility, and Regina finds her feet taking the first steps without her permission; she is, after all, already so very tired. A second sob changes her mind, the echo of every time Regina cried alone in her father's house or Leopold's castle all too present in the sound.
"Emma?" She asks softly, easing the door open a little wider. "Emma, I'm coming in," Regina adds with a little more authority, if for no other reason than old habits die hard.
The only response is more sobbing from behind the steamed-up glass of the shower stall, and Regina opens it to find Emma crouched on the floor, arms wrapped around her legs as she cries. Bruises, in various hues of freshness, pepper her skin at every turn, and Regina sighs at the sight of burns that still seem red and angry, no doubt left uncleaned and untreated.
"Come on," Regina coaxes, turning the water off with a swift turn of the knob before reaching out to Emma. "This won't do you any good."
Emma looks up at her then, wet hair plastered flat on her head and against her cheeks, eyes already red-rimmed.
"What will?" She demands.
It takes a firm hand and a brusque set of instructions, but Emma stumbles through the steps to get dressed in warm pajamas, slipping into the bed like she never stopped living in this odd apartment. Regina checks on Henry from the landing, satisfied that he's still asleep, and slips back in to deal with Emma.
"Here," Regina orders, motioning for Emma to turn around. With a comb from the dresser, Regina untangles the knots and flicks away the rest of the water, trying not to breathe in the minty scent of Emma's cheap shampoo, something Regina had no idea she missed until this very moment. She hesitates for a second, before separating the strands and pulling a tight braid in the flowing blonde hair, surprised when Emma leans back into the braiding motion instead of making a complaint.
"Hungry?" Regina asks, wondering how the hell she ended up playing nurse to a woman she recently swore never to look at again. "There's no alcohol in the house, so..."
"I'm fine," Emma insists. "I have no appetite, but Mary Margaret forced breakfast on me earlier."
"They do that," Regina commiserates. "You can have something when Henry wakes up, if you're hungry then."
"Am I staying?" Emma pleads, her green eyes paler than usual, seemingly as drained as the rest of her.
"I don't have the energy or the magic to throw you out," Regina admits. "I suppose that means it's up to you. Or Henry."
"David said..." Emma trails off, frowning and rubbing at her temples. "He said that Gold might be behind the fire? I thought we were done with all this crap, I really did."
"It turns out his issues extend far beyond my mother," Regina replies. "I've been wracking my brains, but the stupid Fairy seems to think there's a further prophecy about Gold and that damn dagger, so we'll have to see what happens; he'll certainly be strong enough to fight again soon."
"I can't face it," Emma blurts out. "I mean, I know, right? Dragons and ogres and Cora and even you, when you were being all Carrie at the prom about everything, I'm the Savior, this is what I'm supposed to do."
"I was supposed to become the Evil Queen and cast the curse," Regina reminds her. "That doesn't mean I enjoyed most of it."
"What happens if I don't want to be the Savior anymore?" Emma asks, her voice so quiet, so tiny, that Regina barely hears her while sitting only a few feet away.
"You have options," Regina reminds her. "And if you're still worried about Henry, well, I'll be here to protect him. With magic, if I absolutely have to."
"Of course I'm worried about him!" Emma snaps. "God, do you think it was easy? I only left because I thought I'd failed him again, Regina."
"Leaving him seems to be the only consistent part of your parenting," Regina counters. "And he's as painfully aware of that as anyone!"
"I..." Emma fades quickly, the brief flare of color in her cheeks fading as quickly as it had appeared. "I didn't come here to argue with you."
"What did you-"
Emma lunges across the small space between them, silencing Regina with a clumsy kiss on the mouth. Their noses bump as Emma adjusts her position, and suddenly it's like they've never done this before.
"Sorry," Emma blurts when she finally lets Regina go. "I know you probably don't want to do that anymore."
"Oh for Gods' sakes," Regina sighs, yanking Emma close again by the front of her pajama shirt. "Wanting has never really been our problem, has it?"
If Emma intends to agree, Regina's kiss steals that reply along with her breath. There's fury in the tight lines of Regina's lips, and only with kiss after determined kiss does the tension start to ease, the familiar flicks and soft pressure of Emma's tongue against her own more effective than any amount of advice she's been given this week about how to relax.
Moments later, Emma's trembling fingers are undoing the buttons of Regina's blouse, and when the skin is exposed to her, Emma seems almost compelled to touch it, her fingers in constant motion as they stroke over Regina's ribs, over the swell of her breasts in her lacy black bra, like Emma thinks her access will be revoked at any moment and she has to memorize every last inch.
The quiet desperation of it makes Regina uncomfortable, so she slips a hand beneath Emma's shirt, seeking out an unguarded nipple and pinching it between thumb and forefinger, smiling as Emma gasps at the sudden escalation.
Any hope of gentle, of tentative stroking and anything even close to the love that Emma threatened her with over a week ago, diminishes with that simple action. Clothes are shoved at and almost torn in the need to press naked skin against naked skin, Emma's body still slightly damp beneath her clothes.
She pulls away long enough to ease the bedroom door closed, before practically pouncing on Regina and pinning her against the mattress. The kisses Emma claims now are hungry ones, her mouth darting over every line and hollow, sometimes teasing but mostly sucking hard enough to leave faint marks, then grazing and nipping with the sharpness of her teeth.
Regina closes her eyes in a moment of contentment; with Emma it's always, always better when it hurts. For every bite or careless suck that sets Regina's teeth on edge, she rakes her short nails over the bruised skin of Emma's back, thrilling at every groan it draws from Emma's busy mouth.
"Missed you," Emma murmurs against Regina's breast, and she yanks Emma's hair in retaliation. "I did," Emma persists, before sucking on the opposite nipple, her lips full and pink and lewd to watch as she lavishes attention that sends jolts firing through Regina like electricity. "Especially this part," Emma teases, releasing the hard nipple reluctantly, before kissing her way down Regina's stomach, her tongue tracings paths that her punctuates with pointed bites.
"If you missed me so much," Regina hisses as Emma grazes her hipbone, an area so sensitive it makes Regina wriggle away from the touch before relenting to the slow line that Emma is drawing with the tip of her tongue. "You shouldn't have gone in the first place."
"Can't miss someone if you never leave," Emma offers, before returning to chart a course lower and lower, inch by maddening inch. Her fingers are gripping Regina's thighs hard enough to bruise already, meaning it's not so much a choice when Regina spreads them as an inevitable next step.
"Hmm," Emma muses, the vibration passing through Regina's clit as Emma's mouth hovers immediately above it. "My wrist is still kinda messed up from last week."
"If you're not up to the task-" Regina starts to scold, but Emma rolls away with a sigh, before fumbling in the bottom drawer of the nightstand.
"I never did get a chance to round up supplies," Emma points out, and Regina has to admit that the unplanned and mostly frantic nature of their encounters so far hasn't really lent itself to accessorizing. "And I figured once I was hooking up with you, other people would get too squeamish to go raiding my old room."
She produces the slender black toy with very little flourish, running the tip through the considerable wetness already gathered between Regina's thighs.
"Well?" Regina demands. "Are you waiting for an engraved invitation?"
"So impatient," Emma says, tutting in mock disapproval. "Anyone would think you missed me."
"I've been... oh," Regina gasps as the rounded head is pressed gently inside. "Busy," she finishes weakly, as Emma works the toy back and forth, the penetration so shallow it should barely count, but damned if it isn't setting off happy sensations in Regina's nerve endings all the same. She really is most sensitive right around the edges, and Emma's fingers were already adept at manipulating that.
"Good?" Emma asks, lying on her front between Regina's parted thighs, their eyes meeting over the rise and fall of Regina's chest as breathing becomes more difficult.
"Mmm," is all Regina will give in return.
It's enough for Emma, because her next thrust is far deeper, and Regina cries out in pleasant surprise. Just the right side of painful, the same stretch and burn when Emma works up to a fourth finger. Then Emma is lying on top of her again, hand still controlling the black silicon at a punishing pace, letting Regina wrap her legs around Emma's waist for leverage.
The kisses are disjointed now, more an attempt at possessiveness by Emma than anything else, but Regina's body is thrumming happily, and so she allows it.
By the time Emma slides down again to lick Regina's clit in counterpoint to the thrusts, Regina knows she isn't far from climax, and in the end it only takes a few deft flicks to push her over the edge, soaking Emma's chin and the sheet in the process, a complete release after too many days of painful tension.
Feeling boneless but sated, Regina clutches carelessly at Emma until they're face to face again, Regina rolling her way on top even as she's tasting herself on Emma's lips and tongue.
When the toy slips free a moment later, Regina doesn't think twice about grabbing it, staring for a moment at the evidence of her own excitement on it, before presenting it to Emma's waiting mouth and whispering "lick it clean".
Of course, Emma's eyes narrow in automatic defiance, but something in the way Regina is watching her makes Emma relent, her tongue flickering out reluctantly at first. Soon she's swirling that tongue all over the black surface, until it's glistening in a whole new way.
"Happy?" Emma questions, raising an eyebrow as she takes the toy from Regina's hand and throws it aside.
"I love you, too," Regina answers, horrified at the admission and burying her face against the side of Emma's neck. "I was terrified," she murmurs a minute later, when Emma doesn't respond. "I thought I was coming home to find I'd lost everything. Again."
"I'm not a thing," Emma corrects, sounding a lot more pouty that anyone who just dragged a confession of love from Regina has any right to. "You don't collect me like another trinket. I'm not some heart in a box, Regina."
"I said... you heard what I said," Regina clarifies. "And it's not about possession. I couldn't own you if I tried."
"Which is why you love me so damn much, right?" Emma mocks, laughing out loud when Regina rolls her eyes.
"Don't push it," Regina says, with a playful smack to Emma's thigh. "Now speaking of things that I do like very much..."
"I'm too sore," Emma says, blushing furiously. "Maybe later?"
Regina frowns, but accepts Emma's assessment of her own condition. It feels lazy, somehow, but Regina shifts to the side, pulling the sheets over herself and Emma, and though it feels too much like the kind of cuddling she avoids like the plague, Regina presses herself against Emma's side anyway. To compensate, she digs her nails in when gripping Emma's hip. Emma simply hums in contentment when she does.
"Henry will be awake soon," Regina says, not quite ready to leave the strange world they've created in the safety of the bed.
"But he isn't awake yet," Emma reminds her, grabbing another pillow and getting comfortable with Regina wrapped around her.
Regina exhales carefully, rolls her shoulders a little, and realizes it's the first time she's felt relaxed since getting the call from Marvin about the fire. They lie there in perfect silence for at least ten minutes, until Regina can feel her eyelids getting heavy, drowsiness gathering around her like magic smoke.
"How come you never, uh, tried to, you know... save me?" Emma asks, staring up at the ceiling with her hands behind her head. "I mean, I know you've been helping in some ways, but you're the only one who didn't demand I get better."
"It's nothing personal," Regina replies quite simply. "But I learned my lesson about saving girls in danger a very long time ago."
"I don't think I can do it," Emma says a long moment later. "Another battle, another quest. I do need to try to get better, like I was before I came here. I was coping, you know?"
"It sounds more and more like you know what you have to do," Regina sighs. "Just be sure not to hurt Henry in the process."
"I have some money saved up," Emma admits, caution in her tone. "So I was thinking, there's a place..."
"A clinic?" Regina finishes.
"Yeah," Emma says, exhaling heavily. "A rehab. It's just outside Cambridge, in fact."
"If you think it's necessary," Regina says, and in the quiet after her words she hears a thump from downstairs to suggest that Henry's stirring. She slips out from under the sheets, telling herself she isn't mourning the loss of Emma's warm body pressed against her own, and picks up her discarded clothes quickly and quietly, redressing in no particular hurry.
"I think it might be," Emma confesses, rolling onto her side, watching Regina fasten her slacks.
"Then talk to your family about it," Regina says, shrugging her shoulders with what she hopes looks like nonchalance. "And Henry, explain as much as you can without traumatizing him."
"But I should wait?" Emma asks, propping herself up on one elbow. "I mean, sleep on it, all that jazz?"
"I think it's just wasting time if you already know it's what you have to do," Regina tells her, turning towards the bedroom door. "So I suppose you can either come have soup with Henry, or go break the news to your parents."
"They'll be happy about it, right?"
"I imagine they'll be happy about anything, if it makes you feel better," Regina replies, before making her way downstairs to check on their son.
Emma appears a few minutes later, dressed in a tracksuit she used to go running in some mornings, back when Regina only crossed her path as an occasional adversary. She sits on the sofa with Henry again, and they talk in low voices that Regina doesn't try to overhear from her place in the kitchen where pots are already bubbling.
Whatever Emma says, it makes Henry's cautious expression give way to a smile, and a moment later they're hugging in that easy way Henry has, regardless of how it makes Emma stiffen in the embrace.
"I'll let you know when I'm going," Emma says, sneaking up on Regina once her back is turned to tend to the soup and potatoes she has boiling. "I'd better go break the news."
"Good luck," Regina says, knowing that if they were conventional in any way she could suggest going with Emma, could invite the family here to announce this latest development, but they remain two broken people trying to fit into a complicated and fragmented family that neither of them entirely understand or care for. "If you want..." she starts to offer, the embarrassing declaration of love still simmering inside her.
"Nah," Emma shrugs it off. "This is probably better. If they think you suggested it, well."
"Of course," Regina sighs, turning back to the food she's preparing for Henry. "Anyway, good luck. Like I said."
Emma kisses her cheek again, and leaves without another word.
It's late when Regina hears Emma's Bug idling outside the apartment, the noise painfully familiar when she hears it through the open bedroom window. She considers ignoring it, but instead she slips out of bed and pulls an oversized Patriots sweatshirt and the black pants from that day back on, before slipping down the stairs in the dark, checking on Henry in the downstairs bedroom area before grabbing the apartment keys and making her way out to the street.
Emma is waiting, leaning against the hood, curly blonde hair glinting in the moonlight.
"You told them?" Regina asks, scanning the street for other citizens, but the town seems deserted just after midnight.
"They think it's a great idea," Emma replies. "Twenty-eight days to dry out and turn my life around. No problem, right?"
Regina looks at the car more carefully, sees more than one bag crammed into the backseat, and forms an answer to the question that's been nagging at her since Emma raised the subject the previous afternoon.
"You don't want to be back in four weeks," Regina states quite calmly.
"I didn't say that," Emma says, a flash of panic in her eyes. Regina would have more sympathy if Emma hadn't come here basically begging to be seen through.
"Did you tell Henry earlier?" Regina demands, thinking of how withdrawn the boy was after Emma's departure.
"I didn't know how," Emma admits, her shoulder slumping in defeat. "I just told him I was really happy he was back with his mom, so if I needed to go get better, he would be safe. And loved."
"Right," Regina says, wrapping her arms around her torso, feeling ridiculous in the borrowed sweatshirt from Emma's closet. "Well, safe trip, I guess."
"Regina!" Emma calls out after her, jogging along the sidewalk to stop her.
"Be quiet," Regina warns. "I don't want the entire neighborhood knowing any more of my business."
"I thought this would be easy," Emma says. "I thought that everything I said before I could forget, if it meant being able to leave."
"Sorry to be such an inconvenience," Regina says through gritted teeth. "But don't do me any favors, Emma. I have my son, I'll be just fine."
"What if this is just something else I'm screwing up?" Emma asks. "What if you're my destiny, or some crap like that?"
"You tell me," Regina challenges. "How have either of us done when it comes to escaping destiny so far?"
"Not that well," Emma admits. "I do need to get away. I need to try and get this all under control without Henry expecting and my parents doing those disappointed little sighs when they think I can't hear them."
"Then go," Regina says, taking Emma's hands in her own. "If I'd kept running all those years ago, when I first got rid of my mother... who knows?"
"Running's never been this hard before," Emma is crying freely now, tears rushing down her face. "Every other time, I knew it was the right choice. And uh..."
"What?" Regina snarls.
"Well, you and letting go of things... don't exactly go together. Even if you don't really feel anything for me, this isn't really your style."
"Maybe I'm learning," Regina says. "Or maybe I'm just too tired to fight every time I lose someone now."
"That's really depressing," Emma sighs. "What if Henry feels that way about me, too?"
"Henry is always going to want you in his life," Regina admits. "So when you're ready... I think he'll forgive you any absence. He got over those first ten years pretty quickly."
"Ouch," Emma complains, squeezing Regina's hands. "What about you? If I bail for... I don't know, six months? Am I gonna come back here and find you hooking up with... Hook?"
"No!" Regina protests. "Give me some credit. And I'm not looking for anyone else to... move in. Or do anything else, not that it's any of your business."
"You'll put Henry first," Emma realizes.
"That's what a mother does," Regina replies. "Even my mother did that, although not in a healthy way."
"You know, I could just drink a bottle of something, drive my car off the Toll Bridge and save us all a lot of trouble," Emma says, not meeting Regina's eye this time. She pulls her hands away, shoving them in the pockets of a brown leather jacket that Regina doesn't recognize.
"Don't you dare," Regina warns, thinking of her kitchen all those months ago, of the fight and the kiss that seems to have turned her world upside down without her realizing. "And, well, not just for Henry's sake, okay?"
Emma kisses her then, the softness of her lips somehow desperate and sweet at the same time. Regina tangles her fingers in blonde curls, a hundred ways to stop Emma from leaving competing for space in Regina's mind, but she forces herself to ignore each persistent little voice.
"What about Gold?" Emma asks when the kiss ends. "If he starts something, I mean?"
"I'll leave you a voicemail?" Regina suggests. "I mean, you should call for Henry whenever you want. Write, if you can spell, but your paperwork suggests you should work on that. But if we're not... I don't want to make small talk about the weather with you."
"I do want to come back," Emma argues. "At least I think I do. I just don't know how soon I can. I feel like I need to learn to cope all over again. Every time I start thinking about the family stuff, about the kid, about you... it feels like my brain is gonna burst out of my head like the Alien."
"Those burst out of chests, dear," Regina corrects, almost laughing at the shocked expression on Emma's face. "I like Sigourney Weaver."
"Of course you do," Emma sighs. "Tell me to stay?"
"I won't do that," Regina says, shaking her head. "Don't you want this one thing in your life to actually be your decision?"
"I really do," Emma admits. "But it also scares the hell out of me. For months I've been finding out that I didn't choose a damn thing, that it was all done for me. Neal, August, the fucking curse... all of it."
"Then choose now," Regina urges. "I might change some of the things I've actually done, given the choice all over again. But having the freedom to do those things? I wouldn't trade it for anything."
"Jesus, Regina. One AA meeting and you're the fucking voice of reason?" Emma whines.
"No," Regina corrects her. "I have a long way to go."
"You really won't tell me to stay?" Emma asks. "Or call me in an hour saying you shouldn't have let me leave?"
"I won't," Regina confirms.
"So... if you love someone, let them go?" Emma ventures, looking ten years younger as she makes herself vulnerable.
"It's that or smother them to death, I suppose," Regina sighs. "It's cold, Emma. I should go back to bed before Henry realizes I'm up."
"Yeah," Emma says, opening the passenger door. "I should leave these with you," she adds, fumbling in the glove compartment and producing her gun and Sheriff's badge. Regina flinches instinctively at the sight of the gun, ignoring Emma's smirk.
"Well, leaving them with anyone else would be a dead giveaway," Regina says. "Fine, I'll make sure a new Sheriff is in place. Perhaps I'll just waltz back into the Town Hall, reinstate myself as Mayor, too."
"Believe it or not," Emma answers. "I've heard way worse ideas."
"Get in the car, if you're going," Regina warns. Her resolve is starting to waver under the sulfur light of the streetlamps. Any minute now she's going to betray something like actually caring, and that's something she'll never be able to walk back.
"Can I kiss you again?" Emma asks, shy again.
"Best not," Regina replies. "It's already, well, difficult enough."
"I'll call," Emma promises. "Or write."
"I'll look after Henry," Regina promises.
"I know," Emma says with a watery smile. "You always did, even when you went batshit crazy."
"Not getting any easier," Regina says, clutching the badge hard enough that the points threaten to break the skin of her palm.
"Okay," Emma says. "Goodbye, Regina."
"Goodbye, Emma," Regina says right back, proud of her voice for not wavering.
A moment later, Emma has slipped the car into gear, and the ugly yellow monstrosity is rolling down Main Street.
Regina doesn't watch long enough to see if Emma looks back.
Henry's waiting by the apartment door, looking healthier than he has all week, hair still mussed from sleep.
"We'll be okay, Mom," he promises, taking Emma's things from her and guiding Regina in towards the sofa where they both sit in stunned silence.
"Yes," Regina says eventually, pulling Henry carefully into a hug with one arm. "We all will."
It is over and it is done. I'm just dying to hear your thoughts, whether you've been along for the ride so far, or are just starting now that the story is complete. Thank you all for your thoughts and generous comments along the way. Not kidding when I say I couldn't do it without you.
Thanks to chilly for the swift and reassuring beta job!