I know this update is long overdue. My apologies if it falls a bit short of the mark. I have been struggling with this last chapter for months, but no matter how many times I rewrite it, it never gets any better. So I have decided to post it as is.
I'd like to take a moment to thank everyone who left comments and kudos and all the readers who have been patient enough to see this through with me to the end. I couldn't have done it without you.
"I almost lost both of you."
Regina's eyes fly open, a deep frown worrying her brow. A flash of movement catches her attention - a hand and part of a hideously orange sleeve, reaching around a closing front door to check the latch before disappearing and pulling the door shut with a solid thunk.
Regina pushes herself up on her elbows and calls after the only person she can imagine would wear that shade of orange. The door stays closed. Regina scowls at the door for a few moments.
Crumpled sheets and a discarded quilt are the only traces left of her sleeping son. Regina presses the palm of her left hand against the sheets, running her hand over the small dip where Henry was before she blacked out.
Her gaze sweeps through the small apartment. A note on top of a small wooden box on the bedside table captures her attention. Regina squints at her name flowing over the folded paper in large cursive script but she ignores it when she hears her heart beat. She sweeps the small note aside. Her fingers trace the delicate lines carved into the lid and outer edge before she opens the box. Regina stares at the swirls of coal black curling through her heart, edging away from the pulse of bright white. The sliver of Emma's magic against Regina's heart is strong, vibrant. Perfect.
"Emma." Regina breathes, caressing the small sliver. Emma is alive. Her fingers wrap around the pulsing enchanted organ and she carefully removes it from the box. She takes a breath, bracing herself against the pain of the action, before sliding her heart back into her chest. Regina revels in feeling whole again. Her magic curls around her heart, content to rest against her connection to Emma.
A soft moan drifts down the stairs. Regina freezes for a moment before she launches off the bed and rushes up the wooden stairs to the sleeping loft. She pauses at the top of the stairs, heart caught in her throat at the sight of blonde curls spilling over a pillow.
Regina only realises she's moved and taken Emma in her arms when she feels a trickle of moisture and long, soft eyelashes brushing against her neck. A deep sigh shudders through Emma's whole body. Regina pulls back so she can look at her. Regina finds herself struggling for breath at the pain in Emma's eyes and instinctively reaches for her again, cupping Emma's face in her hands and brushing away her tears.
Hazel eyes blink at her in silence.
"What's wrong, dear?"
"Regina?" Emma sounds so confused, hurt and incredibly vulnerable. Regina's arms reach for her again of their own accord. She tries to pull Emma back into her arms, but strong hands press against her shoulders, keeping her at arms length.
"No." Emma whispers, staring at her with large eyes. Emma shakes her head, applying more pressure against Regina's shoulders. "No. You died." Emma's hands curl into fists around the flannel top of Regina's pyjama top and Emma pulls her closer.
"You died!" Emma lashes out, pounding her palms against Regina's chest, tears streaming down her cheeks. Grabbing Emma's wrists, Regina pulls her close and pins her arms to her side by wrapping her own around Emma's.
"Shhh...I'm here." Regina cradles Emma's head against her, brushing her fingers through her hair. "I'm here." Regina whispers against Emma's temple.
"No." Emma's voice is low, almost too soft like she's talking to herself. She leans back, hazel eyes desolate. Her hand drifts up and hovers a few breaths away from touching Regina. "This is a dream."
"Like our night at the Cabin?" Hazel eyes frown at her in silence. Regina reaches out and brushes her fingers against Emma's cheek. "It was real." Her fingertips wander, tracing Emma's eyebrows, her nose, her mouth. "This is real."
Regina's lips barely have time to curve around her next words before Emma silences her with two fingertips. Perfectly sculpted arms pull her into a deep, heartbreakingly perfect kiss. All too soon, Emma pulls back. She gives Regina the most peculiar look before curling against her chest.
"You died." Emma whispers, lips brushing against Regina's collarbone. "I think I did too."
"What?" Regina chokes into soft blonde curls. Strong arms keep Regina from pulling away. A wistful sigh caresses Regina's neck.
"Don't. Please...Stay?" Emma's voice is more brittle than Regina has ever heard it. Regina dips her head to brush her lips over Emma's eyelids.
"As you wish."
Emma's soft nose nuzzles Regina's neck. Regina hums contentedly and pulls her even closer. Emma's left arm curls around Regina's waist and she folds her right until it's tucked in against Regina's torso, hand splayed over Regina's heart. Regina feels long lashes brush against her pulse point. Emma turns her head, brow resting against Regina's shoulder for a few breaths before she pulls back and looks deep into Regina's eyes. A mixture of hope, fear and a flash of old pain passes through Emma's eyes. And that look. That same look that has always been there, but Regina failed to see.
David and Henry sink back against the cushions of the diner booth, hands resting on their satiated bellies. Ruby grumbles something under her breath and keeps pushing her food around on her plate. Snow laughs and ruffles Henry's hair. Henry's mouth curls into a hint of a smile, but it doesn't quite reach his eyes. He gives Snow the Mills "I'm fine" look and diverts attention by pointing out David's new moustache.
Snow rolls her eyes when she notices the dash of cream above the deep grooves around David's smile. Grabbing a nearby napkin, she holds his chin and wipes at the left over spoils of his morning battle with Granny's waffles. His eyes grow impossibly gentle. Snow's hand stills and she seems to lose herself in those adoring pale eyes.
It makes Ruby miss Elsa terribly.
She was dumbfounded when Belle dropped by the apartment last night and asked to speak to Elsa in private and led Elsa to the outer hallway. Ruby blushes at the memory of trying to eavesdrop. Elsa noticed, of course, and with a graceful flutter of her wrist, Ruby's lover and best friend were cocooned in thick, clear, soundproof ice.
Ruby watched the silent curving of lips around words. Belle spoke for several minutes, head bowed. When Belle finally found the courage to look into Elsa's eyes, she seemed almost as surprised as Ruby at the smile on Elsa's lips.
Belle reached into her bag and pulled out the intricately carved box housing Regina's heart. She placed the box in Elsa's hand and lowered her eyes, muttering something at her feet, before turning way and gesturing at the ice. Whatever Elsa said in response brought tears to Belle's eyes. Belle looked up at Elsa as though seeing her for the first time. Her thin eyebrows pulled together in a confused frown while she just kept staring up at Elsa.
Elsa reached out to cup Belle's face. Belle studied Elsa carefully before nodding slowly. With another twirl of Elsa's wrist, the ice cocoon around them broke into a thin white mist. Elsa walked back into the apartment, leaned in to kiss Ruby and placed the box with Regina's heart in Ruby's hands. Ruby can't remember exactly what Elsa said, only that she was told to stay and then her lover disappeared out the door and down the stairs, holding Belle's hand.
Thin fingers snap in front of Ruby's eyes, pulling her back to the present.
"Sorry, what?" Ruby's eyelids flutter and she takes a deep breath.
"You're growling." Snow points out. A knowing smile sneaks over her lips. She nudges Ruby's neglected coffee cup closer. "She'll be back soon, Ruby." Ruby wraps her hands around the steaming cup and stares at the black liquid, grunting in response. Snow laughs and moves out behind the diner table to pull Ruby into a quick hug. "There's nothing to growl about."
"I just..." Ruby's fingers flex around her cup. "I don't understand why she had to go. With Belle. Without me." Ruby scowls and glares at her coffee, her voice hitching at the end if her rant.
"Red, try to imagine how hard this is for Belle." David chides gently. "Gold wasn't a good man." David clears his throat and places a hand on Henry's shoulder. Henry's eyes are sad, but accepting. He nods for David to continue.
"In the end, I think even Belle had to face the horror of accepting his true nature," David continues, "but he was still her husband and she loved him unconditionally for many years."
Henry surreptitiously wipes at a few tears and excuses himself from the table. Ruby's cheeks darken. Her fingers hug her cup and she sucks on her bottom lip, her emerald green eyes full of insecurity.
"That's why I wanted to be there for her! Why did she ask me to stay away?" Ruby questions the cup in her hands. Snow reaches for Ruby. The diner bell tingles. Elsa and Belle walk towards their table with Deputy Will following a few steps behind them, but Ruby and the Charmings are too caught up in their conversation to notice.
"Ruby, imagine if Elsa were in love with someone else. Would you want that person with her at your funeral?" Snow and David share an uncomfortable look. "Or the person who killed you?"
"Or the wife who betrayed you." Belle's quiet voice adds, leaning into Elsa for support. Snow flinches and bows her head. Belle's eyes absorb Snow's respectful posture.
"Belle..." Snow stammers.
Belle's petite fingers flutter to rest on Snow's wrist. Her eyes water for a moment. She dips her head in acknowledgement of everything Snow hasn't said. Everything she could not bear to hear, but understands nonetheless.
An unreadable expression frames her eyes when they sweep over Ruby. Ruby's cheeks flush under the intensity of Belle's gaze, but she doesn't avert her eyes. The silence that follows slowly fills with meaning until Ruby slides out of the booth and pulls Belle into her arms, whispering into her ear. Belle's lips curve into a half-hearted smile. She looks up at Ruby and nods.
Deputy Will sneaks a peek at everyone eyeing him curiously before he finds the courage to meet Belle's questioning look. He takes a step closer to the petite brunette.
"My shift starts soon, so I have to head back to the station, but..." Strong hands wring the scarf in his hand. Will shuffles his feet. "Please call if you need anything."
"Thank you, Will." Belle wipes a tear from the corner of her eye and offers him a small, but genuine smile. The deputy's eyes grow soft as he gazes at Belle. With a shy nod and a warm smile, he turns and leaves the Diner.
Belle keeps watching the door long after he's left. She seems utterly lost, just standing there in the middle of the Diner. Elsa runs her hand down Ruby's back before taking Belle's hand and guiding her to Ruby's room at the Bed & Breakfast.
"Do you think she knows?" Ruby whispers over Snow's shoulder, staring at the diner door and leaning against the back of the booth.
David shakes his head.
"Poor Will." Snow laments.
David chuckles, but his pale eyes are serious when he weaves their hands together and kisses their entwined fingers. Snow stares at her husband. There's a faint twerk of his eyebrow.
"Eventually." David and Snow echo.
Warm. Emma feels warm. Safe.
Deep breaths expand against her collarbone. Emma frowns and her nose brushes against warm skin. Emma takes a deep breath of her own and her senses flood with the subtle scent that is uniquely Regina. The warmth pulls back and Emma finds herself looking into deep brown eyes.
Regina? No. It can't be...
She's dreaming again.
Soft arms reach for her, but memories of an unspoken goodbye and a failing heart clutched in gnarly fingers destroys any comfort her dreams normally offer. Emma's heart shatters. She pushes away and desperately fights to wake herself up, but a deep, soothing voice hushes her and possessive arms pin her close.
It feels so real.
No, this isn't real, Emma reminds herself. It feels real. It always does, but this is a dream.
"Like our night at the Cabin?" A husky voice interrupts her thoughts. Emma shudders when warm fingertips caress her cheek. "It was real. This is real."
Emma knows it's not real. But for a moment it feels real. So she clings to it. Reaches for this vision of a woman she loved more than life and delves into a bitter-sweet kiss. It feels so real, Emma almost loses herself in it.
But it isn't. Is it?
No. Her Regina...
"You died." Emma whispers into the warmth of dream-Regina's chest. "I think I did too." Regina shudders and starts pulling away.
Images of Regina limp and lifeless in Ruby's arms sears through Emma's mind. Emma sucks in a painful gasp of air and feels the words she never had a chance to say bleed from her lips before she can stop them. "Don't. Please...Stay?"
Regina's low, melodious voice almost caresses the words as they flow from her lips.
"As you wish."
She should wake up, stop this. But she can't. So she clings to Regina until the edges of her dream start to fray.
"Keep me here." Emma whispers. "I want to dream. With you."
A bright ray of sunlight cuts through a gap in the curtains and rouses Regina from her sleep. She pushes herself up on her elbow. Her gaze falls on Emma. Beautiful, sleeping Emma. Regina tucks a stray blonde curl behind Emma's ear and leans in to steal a kiss.
As if on cue, the door squeaks open and a pudgy arm waves through the gap in the door, followed by the sleeve of a bright orange cardigan. Snow leans through the door frame, hugging little Neal to her chest as his strong little legs kick the air excitedly. She smiles down at the bundle of energy in her arms.
Snow looks up and little Neal almost manages to launch himself out of her arms when her body goes slack with shock as a pillow hits her squarely in the face.
"You forgot to knock, Snow." Regina grumbles in a low, sleep-heavy voice.
"Sorry, stepmother." Snow's habitual response from years of similar encounters in the castle rushes from memory past her lips before Snow has a chance to think.
An irritated groan is followed by another perfectly aimed pillow. Little Neal gurgles with delight and tiny hands latch onto the pillow as it slides down Snow's torso. He starts sucking the edge contentedly. Snow's mouth plops open and closed a few times.
"I believe a fly swat would be more effective, dear." Regina drawls with her usual sass before she notices Emma staring up at her.
"Emma, sweetheart. How are you feeling?" Snow gushes after recovering her voice.
Emma's hazel eyes swivel from Regina to Snow and back to Regina. There's a blur of arms and curls as Emma pulls Regina into a slow, intimate kiss.
Snow works on catching flies as her voice deserts her once again. David saunters through the door and subsequently trips over his own feet when he catches sight of the epic love scene unfolding on his daughter's bed.
"Moms?" Henry calls out and squeezes past the newly patented Charming dual fly trap.
"Oh...uh..." Henry splutters. His face turns bright red, but he recovers enough to don a perfect Mills-smirk. "I guess you owe Ruby 10 bucks, Grandma."
Two sets of saucer-sized eyes swivel to gape at their grandson.
Regina manages to free her lips for a "Henry? Miss Swan!" but Emma's only response is a pillow projectile of her own. Little Neal squeals with laughter and tries to reach for the pillow flopping down Henry's chest. Henry makes a mental note to "re-home" some of the pillows on Emma's bed.
"Right." Henry mumbles. "Uh, maybe we should leave?" Henry points to the open door. Regina's cheeks blossom deep red. Henry gives her a shy smile and pulls David to his feet. After a few shoves, he manages to usher his grandparents out of the room.
"Oh, and Ma?" Henry pokes his head through the door. "Remember that bet we made?"
A spontaneous peal of laughter leaves Henry slightly dazzled. He doesn't remember hearing Emma laugh like that. Ever. Henry glances at Regina and catches the same awed expression on her face. They share another shy smile. Henry ducks his head and pulls the door shut behind him.
"Grandma?" Henry waves his hand in front of Snow's oblong eyes.
"Grandpa?" Henry snaps his fingers in front of David.
"So...you know how you guys always mention taking me camping?" After a few blinks, Snow and David manage a slow nod. "Well, what do you say? Can we go?"
"Camping? Um, now? What about..." David's eyebrows pull into a thinking-frown. Snow's eyes dart back to the closed door and her hand flip-flaps through the air in front of her face. Henry's not sure if it's to wave away unwanted images or to silence David.
A muffled moan wafts through the closed door.
"Camping!" Snow squeaks, nodding vigorously. "Of course. Now! Let's go!"
Henry smirks as she rushes them down the stairs.
"Hey." A tentative smile touches the corner of Emma's lips. Gently, reverently, she reaches out to cup Regina's face in her hands. Regina's only reply is a low, deep chuckle.
"This is real." Emma whispers.
Regina turns her head to kiss the soft skin of Emma's palm. Emma's eyes crinkle and her cheeks hug the corners of her mouth as she breaks out in a brilliant smile.
"Yeah." Emma laughs. "Apart from my parents' reactions and the fact that I'm sure you would never be caught dead in these pyjamas," Emma teases, petting one of the duck patterns on Regina's borrowed sleepwear. "I can feel you." Emma's hand splays over her own heart. "Here."
"Regina...I..." Emma's voice breaks and she falters. Her teeth gnaw at her her bottom lip, staring intensely at one of the ducklings on Regina's borrowed pajamas. Regina's thumb soothes the worried flesh. Emma's face scrunches up in concentration.
"I know." Regina whispers. "I want to dream with you too." A finger under Emma's chin forces her to look up. "Keep me here..."
Emma feels a brush of magic against her heart. She bites her bottom lip in a failed attempt to muffle a deep moan. Regina's answering moan is the most sensual sound Emma has ever heard.
"Regina." Emma breathes her name like a prayer.
"Emma." Regina smiles the softest of smiles before her expression loses its innocence. Her fingers weave through the fine hair at the nape of Emma's neck possessively. Regina leans in, whispering against thin lips.
Emma's pupils dilate and a soft whimper escapes her lips when Regina, consumed by a deep hunger for more, for everything Emma; surges forward and captures Emma's lips in a desperate kiss.
The kiss is pure fire. And Emma burns.
Flannel rips, clothes evaporate under impatient fingers and the flames spread under Regina's trembling fingers until they consume Emma and she explodes.
Regina sighs when Emma's fingers wrap around her wrist. A weak tug silently begs her to crawl up into Emma's arms.
"Yours." Emma whispers breathlessly against Regina's temple. "Yours forever." Emma mumbles.
Her heavy eyelids flutter a few times before they fall shut and the soft puffs of breath over her slightly parted lips deepen into the peaceful rhythm of sleep.
For the first time in her life, Emma doesn't dream. She doesn't have to. She's exactly where she wants to be.
The moon shines down on Storybrooke.
They are all prisoners here. Constant companions, kings and queens and princesses and saviours. Pulling and pushing against the tides of time.
Would they leave if they could? Would you? Or do you believe as I do, that sometimes, being held is not a bad thing.
Not at all.