The coffee is bad, the day-old muffin even worse, but Emma is barely aware of their inadequacies. She is hunched over a computer screen, left hand absently holding a mug of cold coffee, right hand on the mouse as she scrolls through page after page of names.
The internet cafe is crowded, the air heavy with the smell of damp bodies and too much bitter coffee. But time on the computers is cheap and the tattooed guy working the counter hasn't minded her sitting here, three days in a row now, monopolizing one of his machines. She keeps paying, after all.
It shouldn't be this hard to find a person, at least not for someone with Emma's background, but she recognizes that she's dealing with a woman who not only doesn't want to be found, but who has also proven herself time after time to be both resourceful and frighteningly intelligent.
Regina has disappeared, as if into thin air.
Five days ago she had followed Henry back to the mayor's mansion only to find a cold, empty house. The heat was turned down, the pantry and fridge empty. The remaining clothing in the upstairs closet was neatly organized but the dresser drawers were bare. The Mercedes was gone, leaving behind only a faint set of tire tracks that disappeared at the road.
Henry's desperate pleas for her to find his mother were inevitable, as was the ensuing blow out with her parents. David and Mary Margaret were firmly of the opinion that if Regina Mills had left town then it was for the better, and it was clearly a calculated choice on the part of the former mayor and so-called Evil Queen. Emma was to stay in town, to be a public figure for the townsfolk and a mother to Henry. She was not to go on a wild goose chase after her parent's greatest enemy.
Emma left anyways, early on a Tuesday morning, following a trail already at least a week old.
She found the Mercedes, sold for cash to a used car dealer in the small coastal town of Hampton. Fifty bucks loosened the tongue of the salesman who had bought the car, a large man with a receding hairline whose interest had waned once he realized that she wasn't actually interested in purchasing the vehicle.
He didn't have much information to give her, but it was enough to keep her moving. He told her that the woman who had sold him the vehicle had seemed flustered, maybe a little confused. She had taken the cash and hopped on a bus heading south. He figured she was running from something, a bad relationship maybe. There was no name on the paperwork, just a scrawling signature that could have been anything.
And so Emma had headed south, backtracking the route she had taken over a year before when she had first turned her ratty old car towards Storybrooke with the intention of returning her runaway son.
Now she's sitting in an internet cafe in Boston, cold winter rain pounding the streets outside, eating a stale muffin and searching. Still searching.
She brings the coffee absently to her mouth and takes a sip. The bitter taste finally breaks through her concentration and she sets the mug down with a frown. Pushing back from the computer screen, she winces at the stiffness in her neck and back. She needs to clear her head. She needs some real food.
She shrugs into her damp winter coat and tugs a floppy black hat low over her ears. Tossing an absent wave at the guy behind the counter, she slips out of the cafe and into the crowded streets. She has no umbrella, still, despite her resolve to buy one each time she steps outside, and so she ducks from covered doorway to covered doorway, trying to avoid the stinging rain.
Within minutes her jeans are damp and her nose is cold, but she she's holding two chili dogs in one hand and a hot chocolate in the other and just like that the world feels a little better. She huddles under an awning outside a florist shop and licks the warm chili from her fingers, pleased with this small indulgence.
As she eats she allows her mind to wander.
She remembers the first time she met Henry, in a small apartment on the far side of this large, sprawling city. She thinks of the land that she and her mother were trapped in, on the other side of a hat. She thinks of Cora, which of course makes her think of Regina, which then makes her think of Henry's book of fairy tales.
And then something is nagging at the back of her brain. She's missed something. She's sure of it.
She strides back to the internet cafe, frowning absently as the hot chocolate splashes out of her cup but not slowing her pace. Her mind is already a number of steps ahead of her body.
Inside the cafe someone has filled the space she previously occupied and no other computers are free. She bounces impatiently from foot to foot, wet socks squishing unpleasantly in her boots, fingers drumming on her thigh.
When a computer becomes available she tosses a twenty dollar bill at the guy behind the counter and dashes to the seat. Take-out cup of chocolate cooling forgotten beside her, she retrieves the list of recent employment records from the states of Maine, Massachusetts and Vermont. These lists are government property and weren't exactly obtained through legal channels, and she's lucky that she still has her sources. Privacy means nothing, really. Anything can be bought for the right price.
She knows she's missed something. The memory of a name tickles the back of her mind. Something hidden in plain sight, something she overlooked before. And to her surprise, there it is.
A Ms. Regina Daniels began work at Rose's Diner the week previous. Her details are benign, common. Female, age thirty-five, not married. Nothing unusual, nothing out of place, nothing that would cause anyone to look twice.
Emma hadn't given any thought to the name the first time she had seen it, and in fact had passed over the name Regina dozens of times. Health care claims. Speeding tickets. Employment records, housing records, even death records. She had been looking for something else, a riddle to solve perhaps, not a name hidden in plain sight.
A quick search in Google Maps shows that Rose's Diner is not only in Boston, but in is actuality only a few blocks away from her current location. So close, the whole time.
Emma laughs out loud.
Outside the rain has died down to a drizzle, a damp coldness that seeps down the back of her neck and gathers on her eyelashes. So much rain. Emma hates this weather, hates the damp and the cold. She stuffs her hands in her coat pockets and ducks her head, blinking to clear her vision. Dusk is falling and the streets are busy, men and women making their way home on a dreary January afternoon.
It feels like the perfect time to visit a diner.
Inside the restaurant it is blissfully warm. The gentle smells of soup and cooking onions waft from the kitchen in the back. Emma is seated in a corner, crammed against the wall, for the diner is clearly a popular spot. The hot dogs from an hour ago didn't really fill her belly and she so orders a bowl soup.
When it comes, Emma is greeted with a chunky homemade chicken soup and a crusty dinner roll. Inhaling deeply, appreciating the enticing aroma of the meal, she almost forgets her purpose. But before the waitress can slip away she inquires as casually as possible about the new girl – don't they have a new waitress? Someone named Regina?
The waitress, whose name tag reads 'Beth', eyes her carefully. "Regina said she was new in town, that she didn't have any friends," she says carefully.
"Of course she has friends. Everyone has friends." Emma smiles her most endearing smile. She leans forward, resting her elbows on the table and propping her chin on her fists. It's a harmless pose, a suggestion of one girlfriend talking to another. It's worked for her in the past, and luckily it works again tonight.
"Yeah, she's a sweet girl," Beth allows with a smile. "She works mornings, breakfast through lunch. Kind of slow, but sweet as pie."
For a moment Emma wonders if she has the wrong Regina, for the words 'sweet' and 'slow' would be among the last ones she would ever associate with the woman who has been raising her son. But no, her gut tells her this is right, and she's learned to trust that feeling.
"Thanks." She smiles again, then gestures at her soup. "This smells amazing. Can't wait to try it."
The waitress, Beth, takes the hint, and moves on to another table. Emma scoops a spoonful of soup into her mouth. It's hot, scalding her tongue, but oh so worth it. She moans softly in appreciation.
Breakfast tomorrow. That will work.
The tiny motel room has a cramped shower, limited hot water, and no hair dryer. Emma pulls her wet hair back into a pony tail and tugs her hat over her ears. She remembers to snag her fuzzy mittens on the way out door.
It's a brisk eight block walk to the diner. The temperature has dipped again, hovering somewhere around freezing, but the weak winter sun is trying to peak through the grey clouds.
Emma feels like that sun, tentatively optimistic, hopeful that she'll find Regina this morning, say some words to convince her that her son misses her and needs her, and have them both back in Storybrooke by mid-afternoon. It's a bit of a loose plan, but Emma figures she'll work it out in the moment.
Inside the diner she settles into the same corner seat that she had the night before. The sun is streaming in through the window, illuminating the lazy dust motes floating aimlessly about, and for the first time in days Emma feels warm.
She tucks her hat and mitts into her jacket pocket and glances around the diner. There is no sign of the object of her search and so she flips open the menu, taking a few minutes to peruse the options. She might as well have breakfast before they leave.
A waitress appears at her elbow, bright and cheerful, her smile sparkling in the morning sun. Emma orders a breakfast of eggs, bacon and toast, then shuts the menu and hands it back to the woman. She meets the waitress's eyes and immediately her breath catches in her throat.
And yet it's not. Her hair has been woven back in a tidy French braid. Her face is free of makeup and she looks years younger. Dark eyes sparkle above a soft, genuine smile framing perfectly white teeth.
But there is no recognition in that face. Just a waitress smiling at a customer.
Before she can stop herself Emma blurts out a name. "Regina?"
The other woman's face closes, followed by a fleeting look of hard suspicion that momentarily twists her features into something eerily familiar. But almost immediately the look fades into one of innocent confusion.
"I'm sorry, do I know you?" The words are tentative, a little afraid, her voice higher-pitched than the guttural, hard tones that Emma is used to hearing from this woman.
And Emma realizes that she has miscalculated. Yes, she knows what happened to Sneezy, the dwarf who had crossed the town line and returned as the pharmacist, no memories left other than those granted by the curse.
But this was Regina's curse. She wasn't a victim, she was the caster. Since the woman had retained her memories of both lands, Emma had figured that she would retain them outside the town line as well. But apparently that is not the case. And in a crashing realization Emma finally understands.
Regina had meant to lose her memories.
She had meant to lose the pain. To cut her losses and start fresh. Very fresh. She's not just running away from Storybrooke, she's running from her whole life.
Emma has waited a moment too long to respond and the dark-haired woman is now starting to back away from her in suspicion. Crap.
She pulls out her best innocent act, one that she hasn't had much use for lately. She smiles, slouching down in her chair a little to make herself less threatening. Tips her chin down and blinks up at the waitress, pasting an apologetic smile on her face.
"Oh, no," she says as cheerfully as she can under the circumstances. "I was just chatting with Beth last night, that's all." She pulls the waitress's name from her memory. "She said someone new had started. She said you were sweet, and a good waitress."
She's stretching the truth, but her words seem to have the desired effect and the other woman's face softens again.
"Oh, alright then." The words are shaky, soft. The waitress gives her a smile that's not quite as genuine as before and then blurts out, "Enjoy your breakfast!" before turning and fleeing into the back.
Emma watches her go, watches the girlish trot and bobbing French braid, and swears under her breath. Fuck.
Her task has just gotten infinitely more challenging.
Outside the cafe the washed out winter sun hangs low in the sky, casting reflections of white light off the rows upon rows of windows in the surrounding office and residential buildings. The light no longer feels warming, but harsh and sharp. Mocking. A headache springs up behind Emma's eyes.
"Fuck." She says it out loud this time.