Regina picked up her cell and checked her messages for the tenth time that morning. When she saw that the screen was still empty, she scoffed to herself and tossed the phone back onto the kitchen table.
This felt like the start of their relationship all over again: she was desperate to hear from Emma, but all she got from her was silence. Back then she'd been afraid to text her first, in case she came off as needy and annoying, but this time around she hadn't had such qualms – she had texted Emma, multiple times. And still she'd received almost nothing in response.
It was Sunday morning, and she hadn't seen or heard from Emma since Friday. Given that she'd basically moved into the mansion during the weeks before, Emma's absence was beginning to make Regina feel nauseous.
Emma – I just want to check that you are okay? I miss you.
She'd sent the text the night before. Emma had replied after an hour and a half.
Everything's good :)
Then nothing. Emma's texts were normally bubbling with terrible jokes and complaints about work and an almost continuous chorus of I miss you so much that never failed that make Regina's heart pound. This radio silence was agonising.
She drummed her fingers against the table, her unbrushed hair falling across her face. It had gotten so much longer in the last few months. She tried to remember when she'd last gotten it cut.
She was checking her cell again, making sure that she hadn't accidentally turned it off in the last four minutes, when her head snapped up. She had heard a noise from the hallway.
There was a long pause. Regina was just about to get up and investigate when the door creaked open, her son's head poking around it. 'Hey, Mom.'
'This is early for you,' Regina said, glancing up at the clock on the kitchen wall. It was 6:30am. 'What are you doing up?'
Henry shifted from one foot to the other, still not walking into the room. 'I… I just woke up. I was coming down for some breakfast.'
He glanced away from her every time that he spoke, and Regina had raised him for long enough to know that that meant he was lying to her. She narrowed her eyes.
'I see,' she said slowly. 'Do you want me to make you something?'
'It's okay,' Henry said. He swallowed. 'I just need to go back upstairs and get something. I'll be back in a second.'
Regina forced her face to remain impassive. 'Okay.'
Henry darted back out of the room and Regina sat back in her chair, her ears straining. She heard the click of her office door opening, and then closing. After a few minutes, she heard her photocopier whirring to life.
She got to her feet and slipped into the hallway, tiptoeing across to the closed office door. She eased it open, and saw Henry in the corner of the room, his back to her, struggling to fit something into the photocopier. Regina realised with a jolt that it was his storybook.
She watched him for a few seconds, wondering what on earth he could be doing. She hadn't seen the book in a while – it seemed that now she and Emma were together and Regina had finally admitted the full truth of her old life, he had lost interest in the one-sided stories that the book insisted on telling. But now, here it was again: in the space of two days, Emma had disappeared, and Henry had started re-reading his stories.
Regina weighed up the options of offering to help him with his photocopying, or pretending that she hadn't seen him at all. After a moment she quietly closed the door and retreated back into the kitchen.
She picked up her cell and checked it for messages, and then she started to make herself another coffee.
[14:21] Are you free for dinner tonight?
[15:13] Oh, sorry! I missed this. I'm not free tonight :( rain check?
[15:15] Okay, no problem. Can I see you tomorrow?
[15.42] Tomorrow's not so good either. I'll call you?
By Thursday, Regina was a ball of nerves. It had been nearly a full week of Emma missing her calls, dodging her emails and only responding to her fifth text with a series of emojis. No matter how many times Regina asked her what was wrong, Emma never gave her a proper answer. Everything was fine. She'd call her later.
She never called, and Regina could feel herself starting to go crazy.
Every time she tried to ask Henry about it, he would mysteriously vanish. It was like he could sense whenever Emma's name was about to be brought up, and his instinct was to dart away into the nearest vacant room. If she tried to ask during the evening, he suddenly had homework to do. He would run off upstairs, his feet pounding against the floor, and the slam of his bedroom door would tell Regina that her questions weren't wanted.
That evening, as he hid in his room and she was perched uncomfortably on the edge of a kitchen stool, her bare feet dangling and her nail beds bitten almost raw, she could feel herself edging towards a full-blown panic attack. Emma had disappeared on her before, but never like this – there was no reason for this. Things were good between them, the best they'd ever been, and it wasn't like Emma to bail out on that. She could be having second thoughts – but it didn't seem likely. Not after everything.
Even when her magic had come back, Emma had stayed calmed. She'd been the one reassuring Regina that things were going to be just fine – and Regina had believed her.
Regina stared down at the four text messages that Emma hadn't replied to yet and finally snapped. She hurried up the stairs and knocked her fist against her son's bedroom door.
There was a thud, followed by a scrabbling sound. Regina narrowed her eyes, listening closely, until Henry finally called out, 'Come in!'
Regina pushed the door open and walked in to the room, looking about her. Henry's room was a mess, but nowadays that wasn't entirely unusual.
'What are you doing in here?' she asked.
'Homework,' Henry replied. He was sitting cross-legged on his bed with his math book open in front of him. His face was impassive. Regina's eyes narrowed further.
'Without a pencil?' she asked, nodding at the open workbook. Henry looked down and hesitated – she was right. There wasn't a pencil there.
He swallowed. 'I dropped it.'
The fact that he still thought he could get away with lying to Regina was almost endearing. She took a step closer to the bed, peering down at the mess on the floor. She could feel Henry tensing up as she did so.
She turned back to look at him, perching herself on the very edge of his bed. 'Can we talk?'
He looked nervous in a way that he hadn't in a very long time. 'Sure…'
She took a deep breath. 'I know something is going on. Emma isn't talking to me and you keep running away from me like I've done something wrong. But for once I can't actually think what that could be. So can you just tell me?'
Henry's mouth opened, and then closed again. 'I don't know what you're talking about.'
Immediately, Regina's felt the knot in her stomach tighten. 'Henry. Please. I'm getting really worried. I don't know what I've done to upset everyone.'
'You haven't done anything, Mom,' Henry said, but she could see him wavering. 'Everything's great. You must be imagining things.'
Regina raised her eyebrows at him, ready to object as strongly as she possibly could, when her eyes were suddenly drawn to a brown envelope on the floor. A large and battered one that she somehow recognised.
'What's that?' she asked, eyeing the only corner that was visible from under the pile of books beside Henry's bed. It was slightly open and something was poking out from inside.
Henry immediately flushed the darkest possible shade of red. 'Nothing. Just… something for school.'
Regina blinked. She knew she'd seen it somewhere before. She was certain of it.
She looked back at her son, who was almost twitching with anxiety. She longed to reach down and pick it up, to find out what was inside – but something stopped her. Henry looked genuinely panicked.
She forced a smile, but it was unconvincing from all sides.
'Okay,' she said quietly. They both waited for the other to say something, and when nothing came, Regina forced herself to stand back up again.
'Dinner will be ready in 20 minutes,' she said as she reached the door. She didn't look back over her shoulder.
As soon as the door had clicked shut and Henry was sure that his mom had started to walk back down the stairs, he grabbed the brown envelope from the floor. He'd hidden it under the pile of books when Regina had knocked on his door, and he could have kicked himself for not thinking of simply shoving it under the bed.
He checked that all the papers were still inside, then pushed the envelope into his backpack. If he wanted to make sure that Regina didn't find it while he was at school tomorrow, he'd just have to take it with him.
He grabbed the walkie-talkie and pressed the call button. 'Emma?'
After a few minutes, it crackled back at him. 'Hey, kid.'
'You need to hurry up,' he said, his eyes still on the door. 'She's getting really nervous.'
'Noted,' Emma replied. 'It's nearly ready.'
'Can't you at least answer her calls or something?'
Emma sighed. 'I wish I could, Henry. But your mom sees right through me. I don't want her to drag this out of me - it needs to be a surprise.'
Henry couldn't help but grin to himself.
'I get it. Just... hurry up.'
'I will. I promise.'
Downstairs, Regina was checking her cell in case any messages had come through while she was away.
The weekend finally arrived, and over the course of the week Regina had managed to speak to Emma a grand total of three times. The day before she'd even resorted to calling the sheriff station instead of Emma's cell, just to see if Emma would pick up when she couldn't see Regina's name flashing up on the screen. She had.
'Emma? It's Regina.'
'Oh!' Emma seemed genuinely startled. 'Regina. Hey. Are you okay?'
'I'm absolutely fine,' Regina said, pressing the phone as close to her ear as she could, relishing the feeling of having Emma's voice back in her ear once more. 'Apart from the fact that my girlfriend is ignoring all of my messages. What's happening with you?'
She could hear Emma swallowing. 'Nothing. It's just been a really busy week. I'm sorry.'
Regina bit her lip, drumming one hand nervously against her desk. Emma didn't sound angry – if anything, she sounded relieved to speak to her. But Regina knew her almost painfully well, and she could sense the nervousness at the back of her throat. She knew that Emma was fiddling with a pen as she spoke, probably glancing around the room for a reason to hang up the phone, and immediately Regina knew that Emma was hiding something from her.
'I miss you,' Regina said, and her voice was so soft that it surprised the both of them.
'Oh, Regina,' Emma sighed, dropping the pen that Regina had rightly guessed was in her hand. 'I miss you too. I'm sorry. I've been so crappy.'
'Can you just…' Regina started, then faltered. 'Just tell me everything's okay?'
'Everything's fine,' Emma said, and at once Regina could hear the cautiousness returning to her voice. 'I promise. I'm just… I'm really busy, and I…'
There wasn't an end to the sentence and they both knew it. Regina felt the disappointment plummet in her stomach like an anchor.
'Okay,' she said quietly. 'I suppose I should let you carry on with your work then.'
Emma paused. 'Yeah. I guess.'
When Regina didn't reply, Emma heard herself suddenly blurt out, 'I love you, Regina.'
Regina blinked in surprise. 'I love you too.'
'I have to go,' Emma garbled. 'I'll call you. I promise. Soon.'
'Okay,' Regina said, and suddenly the conversation was over. Emma had hung up.
Regina stared incredulously at the phone in her hand like it had betrayed her before she slammed it back down on the desk, her blood pounding behind her eyes. She let her head thud down onto her crossed arms, and it took everything she had not to scream.
It was now 24 hours later, and Emma hadn't called. Regina tried to rationalise – which was challenging at the best of times, but even more so after yet another night of almost no sleep – that Emma hadn't said when she would call. She still could. Any minute now.
Regina pressed the home button on her cell and growled when she saw that her inbox was still empty.
Somewhere upstairs, Henry was still creeping around, hoping that Regina wouldn't notice that he kept sneaking into her office to photocopy pages from his book. At dinner the night before she'd tried again to ask if he had spoken to Emma, and he'd deliberately knocked over his drink to avoid answering her.
She looked up at the clock on the kitchen wall. It was barely lunchtime, and already her nerves felt like they'd had electricity shot through them. When she tried to pick up her cup of coffee, her hands were trembling.
Emma is avoiding you, she thought, running one finger around the rim of her cup, but she's not avoiding Henry. So she's probably still speaking to other people too.
She pressed the home button on her cell one more time.
There's nothing to say that they won't tell you what's going on.
And like that, she was on her feet, charging up the stairs.
'Henry,' she called down the corridor as she disappeared into her own bedroom. She heard shuffling noises and a bit more thumping before he surfaced at the door, poking only his head around the corner.
'I'm going out,' she said from her bedroom. She was pulling boots onto her feet. 'I don't know how long I'll be.'
A flicker of what looked like relief crossed her son's face. 'Oh! Okay. That's cool.'
'You'll be okay on your own?'
'Of course, Mom,' he said, opening the door a bit wider. 'I know the rules.'
'Don't answer the door,' she said anyway, putting on her other boot and zipping it up. 'No video games.'
'I know,' he said, edging down the hallway towards her. She rummaged in her closet for a moment before resurfacing with a long black coat. 'Where are you going?'
'I just need to run some errands,' she mumbled, pausing to look in the mirror. She was wearing her house clothes – black jeans, and a thin, long-sleeved white shirt that belonged to Emma – and she would never normally dare to go out in town wearing them. But her standards had dropped recently, and now that the idea had been planted in her head, she didn't have time to change. She needed to go.
She threw on the thin coat and turned to face her son. He was hovering in the doorway.
'I'll be back by dinner,' she said, reaching out to cup his face. 'Call me if there's a problem?'
'I will,' he said, and he offered her a smile that was so warm it nearly melted her heart. She rubbed a thumb over his cheek.
'You're getting so tall,' she said softly, her eyes on his. Then she let him go. 'Go on. I'm sure you have more homework.'
'I do,' Henry said. 'See you later, Mom.'
He disappeared back into his room, shutting the door with a snap. At once Regina took to the stairs, grabbing her purse and keys on her way out.
As soon as the front door slammed shut, Henry poked his head back around his bedroom door to check that she was definitely gone. Once he heard the faint rumble of the Mercedes pulling off of the driveway, he rushed to his bedside table and fished out the walkie-talkie.
'She's gone. Time to go.'
It took longer than she had expected for August to answer the door. When he did, she realised exactly what had taken so long.
Regina looked up at his pallid face and felt herself flinch. 'Oh. Mr Booth. You…'
'…look like shit,' August filled in for her, not smiling. He was leaning on a cane. 'I'm aware.'
Regina swallowed. 'That's not exactly what I was going to say. Are you alright?'
'I've been better,' August said, his voice still as drawling and casual as ever, in spite of everything. His eyes were piercing as they looked her up and down. 'You don't look so great either, Madam Mayor, if you don't mind me saying.'
Regina swallowed, her gaze automatically dropping to the floor. In addition to her unusual choice of attire, she hadn't had time to put on any make up that morning and her usually glossy hair was unwashed. She awkwardly ran her fingers through it.
'Yes. Well,' she muttered. 'I suppose that's true.'
There was a pause. August shifted his position, groaning slightly as the pressure on his leg increased. 'Do you want to come in?'
Regina looked past him at the dingy hotel room. 'Into your bedroom?'
'Don't get any ideas,' August smirked, turning and hobbling towards the bed. 'I just need to sit.'
Regina tentatively followed him into the room, shutting the door behind her. As August collapsed onto the bed, stretching out his aching leg, she approached the desk and pulled out the rickety wooden chair.
'So,' August said, tiny beads of sweat scattered across his brow. 'What can I do for you?'
Regina gingerly sat down and crossed her ankles. 'It's about Emma.'
'I guessed as much.'
'I haven't heard from her in a few days,' she said, wetting her lips. 'It's very unlike her. I was just wondering if maybe you'd seen her?'
'I might have done,' August said, his eyes bright with their trademark twinkle but his face otherwise impassive.
Regina rolled her eyes. 'You might have done?'
'She was here at some point, yes,' August said.
'When?' Regina asked.
'When?' Regina snapped. There was a swell of desperation hidden beneath her anger, and August found himself pausing.
'Yesterday,' he admitted.
Regina felt her face fall. So she's still coming to see the puppet, she thought, looking down at her interlocked fingers, but she won't come and see me.
August saw the way that her expression had changed, and he sighed. 'I think she's really busy at the moment, Regina. Don't take it too personally.'
'You know as well as I do that Emma is rarely busy,' Regina said, dusting off her jeans. 'Certainly never too busy to text me and let me know she's okay.'
Not that she had been expecting a helpful response, but she couldn't help feeling a little disappointed when August didn't reply at all. She sighed, forcing herself to stand back up again.
'Thank you, Mr Booth,' she said. 'I'll leave now.'
She made as far as the door before he finally cracked. 'Regina. Wait.'
Regina let go of the doorknob, turning back to face him. 'What?'
'Look,' August sighed, trying to stretch out his leg and wincing violently as he did so. 'Just… don't freak out. Just because Emma is busy doesn't mean that the worst has happened.'
'She's ignoring me,' Regina said flatly. 'She's deliberately avoiding me. I've been to the sheriff station four times this week and she hasn't been there once.'
She waited for August to speak, her gaze harsh.
August paused. 'I'm sorry, Regina, I don't know what to tell you.'
Regina narrowed her eyes at him. 'How about we start with what you know?'
'Who says I know anything?'
'Your face does,' Regina said. 'Just because your nose isn't growing doesn't mean I can't tell that you're lying.'
August couldn't help but smirk. 'Glad to see that your anxiety hasn't dampened your wit.'
'Are you going to help me or not?' Regina snapped, crossing her arms over her chest. Why had she decided to come out in Emma's shirt? Half of her authority came from the clothes she was wearing.
August just shrugged. 'I'm sorry. I just don't think that you need my help.'
'Easy for you to say,' Regina muttered, reaching back out for the door handle. She paused before she pulled the door open. Her voice was quiet when she asked, 'Just promise me that she's okay?'
August's face softened at once. 'She's okay, Regina.'
She truly wanted to believe him, but she'd always had trouble seeing the best in a bad situation. She nodded even though her heart was plummeting.
'Thank you,' she said. She left the room and shut the door quietly after her.
August watched her go. His brow furrowed.
Even though it was a Saturday, Regina tried the sheriff's station, vaguely hoping that she would find Emma hiding there. She arrived to find that the main building was open and a few of the town's reserve officers were lolling back in their chairs, but when she strode through the corridors and arrived at Emma's office, the door was locked.
Regina knocked, and when no reply came she sighed, reaching into her purse for her official Storybrooke keys. The ring was considerably lighter than the one that held her skeleton keys, which she made a point of not using anymore, but it still took a fair amount of effort to sift through until she found the key to the sheriff station.
She unlocked the door and walked into the office. The cells at the back of the room were empty and the lights were off.
The sound of Regina's heeled boots echoed through the large room as she walked slowly into Emma's glass office. It always smelled like her in there. Regina stepped up to the desk, swallowing as she traced one finger over the edge where Emma would sit. There were three separate rings burned into the wood from where Emma kept forgetting to use a coaster, and Regina trailed her index finger around each of them.
Even though Emma wasn't there and she knew that she should leave, Regina found herself slumping into her chair, leaning back in the same way that the sheriff did. She frowned when she realised how uncomfortable the seat was. Emma had asked for a replacement in her very first week on the job, and Regina had ignored her. Emma hadn't asked again – even now, when she knew that Regina would get her whatever she wanted.
Scanning her eyes over the desk, Regina took in the mess that was spread out into all corners. It made her feel nostalgic in a way that she couldn't quite explain.
She pulled her cell out of her pocket and found Emma's number. She called. It rang out.
She leaned back in the chair and let her hair dangle down the back of it, her eyes on the dingy ceiling, with her silent cell phone still clamped in her hand.
After visiting Granny's and not finding the face that she was looking for there, Regina drove across town to Emma's apartment. When she got there and immediately saw that her yellow bug was nowhere to be found, Regina turned the car around and began to follow Emma's usual running route through town. After weaving through the streets of Storybrooke, looking for a flash of blonde or red or blue somewhere along the sidewalk, her track led her to the town line.
She wasn't exactly expecting to find Emma there, but she couldn't help the bubble of disappointment that filled her abdomen when she found the spot completely deserted. She glanced at the clock: she'd been gone for less than two hours. Part of her wanted to turn around and go back home again, and maybe spend the rest of the evening enjoying the company of a bottle of red wine, but instead she found herself killing the engine and stepping out the car. It always unnerved her how quiet the town was this far out.
Several birds flew out of their nearby perches as she slammed the car door shut, walking as close to the town line as she dared. She still expected some sort of sign to come with it – some kind of heat, or electricity, or even just a warning siren blaring inside her head. But there was nothing there; just air and silent crickets and an invisible line in the dirt.
She reached the spot where she and Emma had stood the last time they had been here together, and she brought her toes up to the boundary. Thrusting her hands into the pockets of her coat, she lifted her chin, looking out at the road that she would most likely never walk down.
Immediately, she spotted it. She nearly stepped forwards.
It was several metres away and covered in dirt, face down in the road. But it had been hanging around Emma's neck for as long as she had known her, and Regina had watched it hanging there and traced her fingers over it and kissed her way around it a thousand times. She would have recognised it anywhere.
It was Emma's swan necklace. She knew it at once.
A throbbing sound filled Regina's ears. She grabbed her cell phone out of her pocket, once again pulled up Emma's number, and silently pleaded with her to just pick up the damn phone. For every second that it rang, Regina felt her throat become tighter. Her eyes never left that necklace.
When Emma's voicemail message started playing, Regina squeezed the phone so tightly that she was almost certain she heard the plastic casing crack.
She turned away from the line, looking back where she had just come from with tears in her eyes. Where had Emma gone?
The silence was bad enough. It had been torturing her for a week, but even through it all, she'd been able to listen to the tiny voice at the back of her mind telling her that this was just Emma being Emma. Pulling away, being cautious, waiting for her fears to vanish before she came creeping back into Regina's arms again. Regina had managed to tell herself to just be patient, and things would be okay. Everything would be fine.
But now that voice was silent. She looked back at the necklace that was somehow out there, out in the real world, on the other side of a line that she could not cross.
Has she… gone?
Regina knew that Emma wouldn't do that. She wouldn't take off without a word. She knew that. And yet…
She rubbed a hand over her eyes, fighting back the feeling that she might vomit. She could feel the ground tilting beneath her. She wouldn't just leave. She wouldn't.
She told herself it, over and over again.
But then… what was she doing here?
The dread that suddenly washed over her was too much to bear. She stumbled back towards the car, collapsing into the driver's seat and gripping hold of the wheel with both of her hands. She rested her forehead against them, struggling to take deep, even breaths. She could feel her fingers trembling.
She wouldn't have just left. She wouldn't do that to me.
But at the back of her mind, that small voice that had been offering her the tiniest slither of hope all week was telling her the cold, bitter truth.
She told you that she wouldn't be able to say goodbye.
Regina had thought at the time that she'd meant she couldn't leave at all. Maybe Emma had just meant that she'd rather leave quietly.
Regina lifted her head and let it fall back down against her knuckles, then did it again slightly harder. The doubt that was gnawing away at her was impossible to shake and suddenly she was rushed back all those months ago, when everything was uncertain and everything was a struggle and all she wanted was Emma but she was the only thing that she couldn't have.
She hurtled back to the first day when she'd seen Emma again after Moe had attacked her – when she had gone to Emma's apartment and found her, bruised and shaken and unable to meet Regina's eye. At that moment Regina had suddenly realised that, after everything she thought they'd been through already, she didn't really understand Emma at all.
A year had passed since then. Maybe nothing had changed.
Regina twisted the key in the ignition and shifted the car into reverse. Her eyes lingered on the necklace, lying far away in the dust, before she finally forced herself to drive away.
She couldn't give up yet. She had to stay together.
There was still one more place she had to check.
Regina had lost count of just how many times she'd found herself waiting outside this door over the last 12 months. She looked up at the peeling white paint and the brown wood that was peeking through the cracks, remembering all too vividly the first time she'd come here. Mary Margaret had answered the door then. She knew as she knocked that the same would happen today.
As soon as the schoolteacher saw her, she blinked in alarm. Looking down at the mayor's rumpled clothes, she blurted out, 'Regina. Is everything okay?'
Regina forced a smile.
'I'm looking for Emma,' she said, and she was surprised by how quiet her voice was. 'But I'm assuming from the fact that her car isn't downstairs, she's not here?'
'She's not,' Mary Margaret said. She was fiddling with her necklace in the same way that Emma always did. Or, used to. 'I'm sorry. She went out.'
'Maybe an hour or two ago?' Mary Margaret said. Her hazel eyes kept flicking up and down, taking in Regina's slightly dusty clothes and her make up-less face.
'Did she say where she was going?'
Mary Margaret shook her head. 'Not really. She said she had some stuff she needed to do.'
'Stuff,' Regina said wearily, looking down at her feet. 'I see.'
When she looked back up again, Mary Margaret was watching her closely. Regina blinked.
'Are you okay, Regina?' she asked, frowning. 'Do you want to come in?'
Regina glanced past her at the empty apartment. She had spent so little time there, and yet every inch of it reminded her so very plainly of Emma. Such a big part of her wanted to take up Mary Margaret on her offer, and go in there and curl up on Emma's bed and breathe in the smell of her and just sleep. But instead she forced herself to smile and shook her head.
'I'm fine, thank you,' she said, pushing her hands into her pockets. 'I'm just… I haven't seen Emma in a few days and I'm a bit concerned. No one seems to be able to tell me where she's gone.'
Mary Margaret looked like she was about to reach out and touch Regina's arm, but she pulled back at the last moment.
'I'm sure there's nothing to worry about,' she said, smiling. 'Have you checked your voicemail?'
Regina swallowed. 'Once or twice.'
'She's probably just busy,' Mary Margaret said. 'She's been rushing around a lot all week.'
'And she never told you where she was going?'
'I just assumed she was going to your place,' Mary Margaret said, and though her cheeks flushed slightly, she smiled. 'She seems to more or less live there now.'
'Yes. Well…' Regina said, her eyes falling to the floor. 'She does. Or did. I don't really know what's going on now.'
Silence fell, and just as Regina was about to awkwardly excuse herself, Mary Margaret blurted out, 'Thank you, Regina.'
Regina blinked back at her. 'For what?'
'For helping Emma,' she replied, leaning against the doorframe. 'I know it's been a long road for you two and I know there's been some issues, but she really is better off now than she's ever been before. She's opened herself up more. I know it's not a coincidence – it's because of you.'
'A lot of things have happened because of me, Miss Blanchard,' Regina sighed, guilt suddenly squeezing at her throat. 'But I'm not sure I can take credit for that.'
'You love her,' Mary Margaret said, and Regina was surprised by how pleased she sounded.
'I do,' Regina said. 'Very much.'
'She loves you too. I think that's all she's ever needed – someone to love, and to be loved by in return. That was the only thing that could have saved her after City Hall.'
Regina swallowed against the lump in her throat. 'I'm no saviour, Miss Blanchard.'
Mary Margaret shrugged, a smile still playing about her lips. 'Perhaps not to most people, but to Emma, that's exactly what you are. She lights up when she tells me about you now. It's really… really wonderful to see.'
Regina felt her jaw begin to tremble, and she swallowed frantically.
'Thank you... for saying that.'
'Well. It's the truth,' Mary Margaret said. 'I have no reason to lie to you.'
'I suppose,' Regina sighed. 'In which case, I should assume you actually are telling the truth about not knowing where Miss Swan is right now?'
Mary Margaret shook her head forlornly.
'I'm sorry. I wish I could help – I really don't know where she went. She was carrying a few boxes and then she just vanished.'
All at once, Regina's stomach plummeted right back down to her boots. 'She... she had boxes?'
'Do you know what was in them?'
'I have no idea,' Mary Margaret said. She frowned at Regina. 'Are you sure you're okay? You've gone very pale.'
'I'm fine,' Regina said, taking a step backwards. She was suddenly certain that she was going to be sick. 'I just… I think I need to go.'
'Oh. Okay,' Mary Margaret said, swallowing. She watched as Regina staggered towards the staircase, her skin a sickly grey colour.
Regina raced down the stairs, her boots clattering against the floor. She nearly slipped twice. The moment that she was outside, she staggered into the nearest bushes and doubled over, resting her hands on her knees, her hair falling into her face. Her stomach was churning and she closed her eyes, waiting for the waves of nausea rolling over her to actually translate into vomit, but nothing was happening. She took a deep breath, swallowing down the bile that had risen in her throat.
Emma had been carrying boxes.
Regina had managed to convince herself to stay calm, to not think the very worst until she could be sure that the it had actually happened. Maybe Emma really had just been busy with work. Maybe she had been enjoying reconnecting with Mary Margaret and so she hadn't considered what this distance must have felt like to Regina. There were a million possibilities and Regina had been desperately trying to cling on to every single one of them. The unexpectedly kind words that she had just heard from her roommate had seemed like a lifeline. Maybe things were okay after all.
But Emma had been carrying her stuff out of the apartment. Mary Margaret didn't seem worried, but Regina knew how little that woman actually noticed: unless the boxes had had David Nolan's face painted on them, she wouldn't have thought to question them.
She suddenly knew that she had been foolish to try and be optimistic about this. Emma must already be over the town line – how else would her necklace have gotten there?
I can't say goodbye to you, Regina. Please don't make me.
She could remember Emma's words to her so vividly and she wanted to kick herself for not understanding what they really meant.
Emma couldn't say goodbye, so she had just left. No words. No tears. She'd disappeared into the skyline like she'd never been here at all.
A new wave of nausea rolled through Regina as she suddenly realised that maybe Henry was gone too. That was part of their deal, after all. She would only have herself to blame if it were true.
She forced herself upright and, leaning on the brick building for support, pulled out her cell. No messages.
She dialled her home number and waited for her son to answer it. It rang for a long time. She knew that there wasn't going to be an answer, but she waited until her own voice started talking to her, requesting that she leave a message at the tone, before she swallowed and pressed the end call button.
The town seemed oddly quiet. Blinking back tears, Regina walked slowly to her car, sliding into the driver's seat. She leaned back in the chair and rested both of her hands at the bottom of the steering wheel, her eyes aimlessly staring out of the windscreen.
She thought that when Emma had left her last time, after they had gone into the vault together and Regina had forced a stranger's heart on her, that she was experiencing the worst pain imaginable. But this – this confused, dazed numbness – was somehow worse. She felt like her body was floating away from her.
How, after all of that, had she still managed to lose everything?
She let her head fall back against the seat and closed her eyes. You told Emma she should leave. You asked her to do this.
Had she been naïve enough to think that Emma wouldn't actually go?
She pulled her cell back out and tried to call home again. Still, there was no answer. As she hung up for a second time, she saw another name in her list of recent calls, and without a thought, she pressed down. That call too rang out, clicking through to voicemail.
She swallowed, waiting for the beep.
'Emma,' she said, and her voice was gravelly and lost. She looked down at her lap, where her other hand was twisting away at the hem of a shirt that didn't belong to her. 'It's me. Regina. I…'
She paused. She had called without thinking, and had no idea what she was planning on saying next.
'I know you are probably driving,' she murmured, tugging at a loose piece of cotton. 'So I don't know when you'll get this. Or if you'll listen to it at all. I just… I wanted to say that I love you. I understand why you've gone and I understand why you felt like it was easier not to say goodbye. Or at least, I think I do. I just…'
She sighed, swallowing back tears.
'I'm going to miss you,' she said softly. 'I don't know if I'll see you again. I hope I will. But I know that this is what I asked for and so it's not really up to me anymore – I just hope that you and Henry are safe, and happy, and that whatever happens, you manage to make a good life for yourselves together.
'The last year has been the very best of my life. I've never been happier than I was when I was with you. I've never felt so at home before – I hope that I helped you feel the same, somehow. I just want you to know that I am so grateful for everything you've done for me, and for how you've loved me, and I want you to know that I'll never forget any of this. No matter what happens – even if you decide not to come back, and you find someone else and you fall in love with them – I want you to be happy and I want you to have a good life. I'm sorry that it might not be with me, but… if you're happy, then it's worth it.'
She looked back up and saw that the sky had started to turn pink. She sighed.
'I'll always love you, Emma,' she said, rubbing a hand over her eyes. 'Take care of yourself. And… tell Henry I said hello.'
And she ended the call. Replacing her cell in the pocket of her jeans, she slipped the key into the ignition and pulled out of the parking lot, driving away before the tears could start.
The town was quiet. As Regina drove home, the only sound she could hear was the steady thrum of her tyres turning over on the road. Her pulse had stopped pounding. If she'd summoned the energy to think about it, she would have realised how strange it was that she wasn't crying. But she couldn't think, not right then – she felt hollow, and exhausted, and contemplating anything beyond whether there was a stop sign coming up or not would have sent her over the edge.
Her eyes stayed on the road as she drove down Main Street. Something flashed past her, pinned to a tree, and she ignored it. The numb feeling inside her was strangely suffocating. It took all of her concentration just to check that she was driving in the right direction.
But then something else flashed past, taped to a streetlight, and her eyes automatically flicked to one side to try and look at it. She was driving too fast to be able to catch a proper look, but in that momentary glance, she thought that it looked like a photograph.
Regina swallowed, something unfamiliar stirring in her belly. She wasn't sure if maybe she was going to be sick after all.
She kept driving, but her eyes were now on the sides of the road rather than on what lay ahead of her. After barely 20 seconds, she caught sight of another one: a photograph pinned to a tree. Too far away to see it properly, she was tempted to pull over and take it down, but that hissing voice at the back of her mind told her that it probably wasn't anything to do with her anyway.
She kept driving. But her gut told her the truth: it was for her. The next one was too. She just knew it.
As she pulled into Mifflin Street, she slammed on the brakes: every tree leading down the entire length of the road had something attached to it. Some were photos. Some, she realised with a jolt, were wide, yellowing pages – just like the ones from Henry's book.
She swallowed. Her house was almost visible down the other end of the street, and she didn't quite let herself believe what she was going to find there. That hollow feeling in her stomach was starting to fill up again, and she wasn't sure whether she was going to burst into tears or vomit on the side of the road.
She left, she told herself, shifting the car back into first. She left town.
She had to keep telling herself it because her hope was getting the best of her, and if she got back home to find that Emma wasn't there after all, she was almost certain that the disappointment would kill her.
The car rolled forwards, moving slowly down the road. She felt like she was creeping up on her own house, somehow worried that she was going to startle it.
She reached the sidewalk just before her gate, and immediately tears pricked at her eyes.
The bug. It was on her driveway.
She parked her Mercedes exactly where it was, not even bothering to pull it up to the kerb, and clambered out of the car without locking it. She steamed down the path, her boots clicking against the bricks, suddenly brimming over with anger and relief and gratitude and even more anger. The words were formed in her mouth already: Emma Swan, how fucking dare you scare me like that?!
But then she stopped, dropping her purse onto the path. She blinked and staggered back a step.
When she'd gone to Emma's apartment all those months ago, armed with an envelope of photographs and a roll of tape, she hadn't really considered how overwhelming it would be for Emma when she found herself faced with a wall of pictures, all of herself. When Emma had dropped everything she had been carrying in complete shock, part of Regina had rolled her eyes, inwardly laughing at her ridiculousness.
But here she was, faced with it herself. The front door to her home was covered in pieces of paper, from the highest point where the wall met the porch roof all the way down to the floor. At the top were the photocopies from Henry's book – every single drawing of her as the Evil Queen, all gathered around one another in a storm of black leather and seething rage. They bled down into the photographs that Sidney had taken months ago. Regina swallowed, suddenly realising why she'd recognised the envelope that she'd found in Henry's room: it had been filled with those photos all those months ago, and she'd carried it to Emma's apartment to do exactly this.
In the first of those shots, most of which she recognised instantly, she was bickering with Emma in almost every single frame. Sometimes Henry was standing between them, looking bemusedly up at his mothers' angry faces. In others it was just her and Emma, pettily snapping at one another in all corners of the town. Eventually those shots faded out and were replaced by the most recent ones – ones that Sidney had taken around the time that she and Emma had tentatively become friends. Regina recognised with a pull of her heart that Emma had pulled them out of her photo album, just for this.
Then there were a hundred others – all photographs that she'd never seen before.
Some she remembered Emma taking of her – tangled up in the sheets on a Sunday morning, or perched at the breakfast table with Henry before school. But most of them she didn't remember at all, and that was because she hadn't realised Emma had been photographing her. She was reading a book on the couch with Emma's legs in her lap, or she was curled up in bed, asleep. She was at the bathroom mirror, applying her mascara with a slightly open mouth, or tottering around the kitchen with a glass of wine in one hand and a wooden spoon in the other. A hundred different memories of her that she'd had no idea were being captured.
The contrast between the photos at the bottom of the wall and those inky sketches plastered at the very top couldn't have been more jarring.
She stepped forwards, part of her wanting to examine them more closely. There was something about seeing a wallpaper made entirely of her face that made her want to burst into tears. But a movement out of the corner of her eye distracted her, and she tore her gaze away from shot after shot after shot of herself to follow it.
It was Emma. Right there, before her.
She stepped out in front of the door, and the very sight of her filled Regina with an unbearable warmth. Emma was wearing a dress – it was black and skated over her thighs, pinching in at her waist, with a black leather jacket on top. Her hair was pulled back into a ponytail, and her hands were fidgeting by her sides.
There was an anxious smile on her face that made Regina's chest swell.
Regina took a step forwards, leaving her purse abandoned on the path behind her as she croaked out, 'You're here.'
Emma smiled. 'Of course I am,' she said, stepping down off of the porch and onto the path. 'Where else would I be?'
'I thought...' Regina said, her throat tightening. Panic was bubbling up inside her and she could feel her lower lip starting to tremble once more. 'I thought you'd left.'
At once, Emma's smile disappeared. 'Left?'
'Left town,' Regina said, taking another step forwards. Her voice was high-pitched and frantic and she continued, 'Where have you been? I've been calling and calling and… and you…'
The realisation dawned on Emma in a flash of bright, white light and she suddenly reached out, pulling Regina into a hug before she could finish her sentence. Regina was furious – possibly angrier than she'd ever been in her life – but the smell of Emma's hair and the feeling of her arms wrapped back around her instantly made some of the pain ebb away. She buried her face in Emma's neck and clung onto her more tightly than she'd ever held anyone.
'I'm sorry,' Emma murmured into her hair, squeezing her eyes shut. You're a fucking idiot, Swan, she spat at herself. 'Regina, I'm so sorry. I didn't think. I just wanted this to be a surprise and you know I can't keep a secret from you. I thought it would be easier to just lay low and I thought it would be ready sooner than it was and… Fuck. I messed up. I'm so sorry.'
'Henry didn't pick up when I called,' Regina mumbled into her shoulder. 'I thought you'd taken him. Like… like I asked.'
'Henry's fine. He's still here,' Emma said, pulling away so that she could take Regina's face in her hands. It broke her heart to see how sad and relieved she looked all at once. 'He's upstairs in his room. He's been helping me with this so I guess he didn't hear the phone ring from out here. Do you want to go and see him?'
Regina swallowed, glancing up at his window. 'You're sure he's okay?'
'He's fine,' Emma repeated, rubbing a thumb under Regina's eye even though she wasn't quite crying yet. She sighed, shaking her head. 'I've been such an ass. I'm so sorry. I really didn't think how this would look.'
Regina let out a watery laugh. 'Well. You know I have a tendency to jump to conclusions.'
'True,' Emma smiled. 'You couldn't honestly think I would leave without saying goodbye though, could you?'
'I have no idea what I thought,' Regina admitted, leaning into Emma's hand. 'You told me that you didn't think you could say goodbye to me. I thought maybe… maybe that meant you could only leave if you said nothing at all.'
'I would never do that, Regina.'
'I couldn't find you anywhere,' Regina choked out. 'No one would tell me where you were. And Mary Margaret said you'd been carrying boxes out of the apartment, and… God. I panicked.'
Emma blinked. 'Is that where you've been today? Hunting for me around town?'
'If you'd picked up your cell phone just once,' Regina muttered, 'I wouldn't have had to.'
Emma could hear the hurt in her voice all too clearly. She swallowed.
'I messed up,' she repeated quietly, letting go of Regina's face. 'I'm sorry. I didn't mean to do any of this. This was meant to be a great, romantic surprise and I fucked up completely. I didn't mean to worry you, I just… I knew that you'd get it out of me if I saw you. You can always tell when I'm lying.'
Regina smiled weakly. 'That's because you're a terrible liar.'
'I am not,' Emma said. Regina laughed, and the relief of being back here – back to the playful bickering and the gentlest of touches and the feeling of somehow being at home – made her knees buckle. She suddenly reached out for one of Emma's hands, squeezing hard against her fingers.
'Emma. Listen to me,' she murmured. She couldn't bring herself to lift her eyes as she spoke. 'I know I told you that when the curse breaks, you should leave. I know I said that. But… I don't want you to go.'
There was a pause before Emma asked, 'You don't?'
'No. I thought I did. And I still want you and Henry to be safe, but… I can't do any of this without you. Maybe I'm being selfish but I… I think I have to be right now. I can't do this without you by my side. I need you to stay with me. Please.'
She looked up, biting down on her lip, still half expecting Emma to pull away from her. But Emma was watching her curiously, with the smallest smile of amusement on her lips.
'Regina,' she said softly. 'You know I never would have been able to actually leave you.'
'No, dumbass,' Emma smiled, and against her will, Regina found herself smiling. 'It wouldn't have mattered how many times you asked – you could have screamed at me until you were blue in the face. I don't think I ever would have left – not when it came down to it. Neither would Henry. Maybe I shouldn't have promised you I would, but you just seemed so… lost. I didn't know what to do. But I'm not going. Not now, not ever. I'm officially disobeying you.'
Regina smiled weakly at that, but then she swallowed. 'Then why was your necklace by the town line?'
Emma took a moment to realise what she meant, and when she did, her cheeks burned.
'I… went there for a while last week. I just needed to think. And I decided to get rid of it: it has too many bad memories, and I've been carrying it around for too long.'
'Henry's father gave it to you,' Regina said, squeezing Emma's hand.
'He did,' Emma said. 'And I don't need to keep remembering him. It was just unnecessary weight.'
Relief fluttered inside Regina's stomach, and she found herself looking past Emma at the photographs that were plastered to the walls. The sun was beginning to set, and the orange tones were sending long shadows across every image.
'Why have you done this, Emma?' Regina asked.
Emma turned to look at her handiwork. 'Probably for the exact same reason as why you did this once.'
'Public humiliation?' Regina asked, and Emma smiled softly at her.
'Something like that.'
'Can I look?'
'Of course you can,' Emma said, stepping to the side so that Regina could approach the door. There was a nervous tremor to her voice that Regina noticed immediately.
She stepped up onto the porch and started to examine the images, Emma waiting two paces behind her, still on the path. Regina's eyes scanned over the photos, recoiling slightly from the storybook illustrations.
'So Henry was in on all of this?'
Emma laughed. 'Of course. It was an Operation Cobra mission – he would have killed me if I'd left him out.'
Regina smiled, continuing to look over the photos. Her eyes were naturally drawn to the unfamiliar ones at the bottom of the collage.
'You are a very sneaky photographer, Miss Swan,' she said, tapping one of the photos of her sleeping. 'How long have you been doing this for?'
'A while,' Emma mumbled, her cheeks flushing. 'I think I started around the time when you told me about the Evil Queen… Just before, when it felt like you were pulling away from me. I guess I wanted to have something to remember you by in case you were about to dump me.'
Regina's face softened. 'Oh, Emma.'
'Then I just kept doing it,' Emma said, her eyes skimming over the photographs so that she wouldn't have to meet Regina's eyes. 'Maybe I'm a creep, but I like having photos of you when you're just doing your thing. When you aren't even looking at me. Those are my favourite memories of you.'
Forcing back her delighted grin, Regina asked, 'When I'm sleeping?'
'Absolutely,' Emma smirked. 'You don't talk anywhere near as much then.'
Regina reached out and slapped her arm, then tugged her up onto the porch. Suddenly not caring that anyone could walk past and see them, she slipped her arms around the back of Emma's neck and pulled her forwards, planting kisses against her smiling mouth.
'Emma,' she murmured. 'This is so sweet. You are so, so sweet.'
She pulled away from Emma's lips, her fingers toying with the blonde hair at the base of her neck, watching the way that her green eyes were creasing with contentment.
'But what is it all for?' Regina asked.
At once, Emma's smile froze. She bit her lip as she reached up to disentangle Regina's arms from her neck.
'I… I need to ask you something,' she said, the nervous tremor returning to her voice.
Regina's stomach jumped.
'Alright,' she said slowly, her eyebrows tugging together. 'Go ahead.'
Emma wetted her lips, then glanced around her. She gestured down to the small step that led up to the porch. 'Do you want to sit?'
'Okay,' Regina said, letting herself be led to the edge of the marble platform. She sat down on the stone lip, stretching out her legs in front of her, before holding out her left hand so that Emma could lower herself down next to her.
When they were sat side by side, looking out at the empty street in front of them, Regina suddenly laughed.
'We've swapped clothes.'
Emma looked down at her floaty black dress, then turned to examine the jeans and shirt that Regina was wearing. She laughed.
'Is that my shirt?'
'You left it at my house,' Regina said. 'Finders keepers.'
'It suits you,' Emma said softly, reaching out to touch the hem.
'So does that dress,' Regina replied. She glanced down at Emma's legs as she spoke: they were twitching against the brick path, her feet constantly bouncing, and she was biting her lip without seeming to notice what she was doing.
Regina reached out a hand and placed a thumb on her lower lip. When Emma looked up in surprise, she gently tugged it free.
'You're going to ruin your mouth.'
'Sorry,' Emma said, swallowing. 'I'm a bit nervous.'
'I can see that,' Regina said. 'Although I still don't know why.'
Emma wetted her lips again, and Regina could see that she'd drawn a tiny fleck of blood from where she'd been chewing them.
'You asked me to leave,' she began, speaking slowly. She reached out a hand and pulled Regina's into her lap. 'If worse came to worst. You put my safety – and Henry's – before your own. I knew all along that you didn't even want me to go, but you told me I should anyway.'
Regina felt her cheeks go pink. 'What's your point?'
'My point is that you might just be the most selfless person I've ever known,' Emma said, suddenly looking up and startling Regina with the intensity of her gaze. 'You think so little of yourself, and I suppose I can understand some of your reasons, even if I don't agree with them. But you really, truly are the most amazing person I've ever met. You are so kind and loving and so unbelievably loyal. And you would do anything for me.'
'I would,' Regina said quietly. It was then, with a sudden lurch of her stomach, that she remembered the voicemail she'd left her.
Emma noticed the shadow that crossed over her face. 'What?'
'Nothing,' Regina said quickly, squeezing her hand. 'Go on.'
'Regina. Please tell me.'
Regina sighed, rolling her eyes to the pinkish sky. 'It's not important. I just… earlier, after I spoke to Mary Margaret and she told me that you'd been shifting boxes around, I really did think you'd packed up and left. And I tried to call you again but because you didn't pick up, I…'
She fell silent, her cheeks flushing even darker.
'I left you a voicemail.'
'Oh,' Emma said, blinking. She pulled her cell out of her jacket pocket and look at the screen. She winced when she saw how many calls she'd missed. 'Can I listen to it?'
'I'd really rather you didn't,' Regina muttered, but she could see the disappointment on Emma's face. She sighed. 'Fine. Go ahead.'
Still, Emma hesitated before she hit play. She held the phone up to her ear and went quiet, her thumb rubbing circles against Regina's palm.
It was curious how quickly Regina could see her expression starting to disintegrate. By the end of the message, Emma's hands were trembling.
Regina swallowed, looking away from her, letting her gaze drift off down the path and at the purse she'd abandoned a few metres away. There was a sudden clatter as Emma dropped her cell to the floor, reaching out to grab hold of Regina's face and pull her back towards her. Regina blinked at the ferocity of the kiss before she melted into it, twisting her body to meet Emma and gathering her leather jacket up in her fists.
When Emma pulled away, she was breathless. 'You were really going to let me leave?'
'I was,' Regina said quietly. 'I didn't want to, and, honestly, nothing has ever made me feel more relieved than when I got here and saw your stupid car on my driveway. If you had actually left, I might have died. But…'
'But you would have let me go anyway,' Emma finished for her. Regina smiled weakly.
'Yes. I would.'
'So are you slightly disappointed now that I've told you I'm not going anywhere?' Emma asked, and Regina shot her a withering look.
'Absolutely,' she drawled, reaching out to playfully knock a knuckle against Emma's chin. 'Can't you see the frustration all over my face?'
Emma smiled, tilting her head to one side. The sun was dipping behind the trees, and in that low light, in that moment, wearing no make up and a pair of scruffy jeans, she was certain that Regina had never looked more beautiful.
'I'm glad you still want me around,' Emma said softly, taking one of Regina's hands back between both of her own. 'Because I still have something I wanted to ask you.'
'You're certainly dragging it out.'
'Well, you keep distracting me.'
Regina smiled. 'Fine. I'm sorry. Go ahead.'
Emma took a deep, steadying breath. She squeezed Regina's hand, waiting for it to give her the last bolt of courage that she needed, and then she quietly began to speak.
'Regina,' she said, looking up to meet her girlfriend's patient brown eyes. 'I've never been happy. Not really. My life has always been a bit of a mess, a bit lonely, a bit scary and angry. I just sort of got used to it. The only time I've ever really felt happy before I came to Storybrooke was when I was with Neal – I thought we were in love, and he was going to look after me forever, and everything was going to be okay.'
Regina flinched, and Emma squeezed her hand once more.
'But looking back – it wasn't happiness. None of it. I was 17 years old and he was in his late twenties and he knocked me up and disappeared, leaving me in prison to just deal with it by myself. I was a kid, and all I was looking for was some attention, and some love. He gave me that, but on some pretty bleak terms. It was worth it because we got Henry out of it, but… it wasn't happiness. It wasn't even real. And it kind of wrecked me for the next 10 years. I didn't think I'd ever feel happy again.
'But then I came here, and I ran into you, and it was like all this time I'd just been wandering around, running from city to city, looking for somebody who would make me feel like I was finally at home. I found you and I realised what true happiness is actually meant to be like – it's not just date nights and great sex and having someone to sleep next to. It's having someone who understands you entirely, and never questions why you are the way you are.'
Emma swallowed, taking in the slight gleam in Regina's eyes. 'I once told you that I understood why Moe attacked me – it was what I needed. It was what I deserved. And I'm grateful it happened – truly – because if he hadn't taken me apart like that, I never would have let you close enough to put me back together again. Everything that's happened, I'm glad for. And I do mean everything.'
She glanced over at the photocopied illustrations taped to the door as she spoke, and Regina grimaced.
'Are you so sure about that?'
'I am,' Emma said firmly. 'I wouldn't change any part of it. You did some bad things – I get it. Clearly I freaked out at first, but I came back, and I'm so glad that all of that happened because it just showed me so much more about you. It showed me that since day one, since before we'd even met, we were the same. We've always been looking for the same things, and somehow we managed to find them in each other. It showed me how honest you are, and just how much you've been able to change. It showed me how much love you have in your heart, and how far you'll go to try and make other people happy.'
She picked up the cell phone that she'd dropped on the floor. 'And now this. Regina… you've sacrificed so much for me. You put your whole life on hold to try and help me get better again, and now that I'm here, and I'm probably as okay as I'll ever be, you're still doing it. You're putting me first and keeping me safe, and doing whatever it takes to make sure I'm okay.'
Regina swallowed as Emma reached back out and grabbed hold of her hand.
'You asked me to leave,' Emma said softly, her eyes unblinking. 'To keep us safe. So that you could deal with this without putting us in danger. And I love you for that, Regina – for being so selfless even in the very worst situations. And that's why I agreed. I knew you only asked because you really thought it was for the best, and so I said okay. But then I realised something: I realised that, without you, none of this means anything anymore. I'd be keeping Henry safe, and that would be great, but it wouldn't be enough. Because we're a team, the three of us together, and without you as a part of our lives – even temporarily – we would never be happy. I think I've known that since the very first day you came to check on me after Moe attacked me, but… it's only now, now that I was faced with actually losing you, that I fully realised it.'
She really out and brushed her thumb against Regina's cheek.
'I'm sorry it took so long,' Emma said. 'For too long, you've been right here, right in front of my eyes, and it's only now that I truly understand that I can never let you go. No matter what happens – no matter who comes knocking at our door, I'll be there, by your side, fighting for you. Because I never believed in happy endings before now, but I think you might be mine.
'You are kind, and loving, and terrifying, and you're about the only person I know who's as messed up as I am. You're patient with me, and you're an amazing mother to our son, and you were willing to lose everything you hold dear in this shitty little world just to keep us safe. No one has ever loved me that much before, and, if you'll have me, I want to spend the rest of my life making you feel just half as happy and as safe as I do right now, sat here, looking at you.'
Regina could feel tears beginning to prickle against her eyes, and she forced herself to blink them back.
'Of course I'll have you,' she said, squeezing back on Emma's hand. 'You're all I've ever needed, Emma. No one makes me feel right like you do.'
Emma's eyes were suddenly bright green as a relieved smile flickered across her face. She took another breath.
'All this,' she said, gesturing to the photos behind her, 'is for you. You once told me you wanted me to see myself how you see me – and now I'm doing the same. I want you to see the beautiful, strong, caring woman that I've fallen in love with. And I know that just showing you some photos won't do that – so I want to give you the rest of my life, so I can keep trying to make you see.'
Regina swallowed. 'Emma…'
'And when the curse breaks,' Emma continued, and tears were brimming in her bright eyes. 'And the people of this town come to find you – and they will come, I know that – I want to be there, holding your hand. Not running away, leaving you to fight for your own happiness. That's my job now. If I'm the Saviour, then I'm here to protect you. No matter what happens, and no matter how many times you change your mind and tell me that I need to go after all, I'm not going to do it. I'm staying. For you.'
Emma looked back at the photos once more, a half-smile playing on her lips. 'They will be angry at first, but eventually they will see this too. They'll see the amazing woman that I see.'
Regina raised her eyebrows. 'I think you're overestimating their ability to forgive.'
'Maybe,' Emma admitted. 'But I'm not overestimating you. They might hate you at first, but they won't forever. They see the woman at the top,' she gestured to the illustrations, where Regina's face was twisted with rage, before tracing her finger through the air until it was in line with the softer, calmer photos at the floor. 'But they'll see that woman too, in time.'
Regina cleared her throat, forcing her tears back. 'You have so much faith in me.'
For once, it wasn't a criticism. Her brown eyes were watching Emma with a kind of wonderment, like she truly couldn't understand where she'd gotten such an opinion of her from, but she was so desperately grateful all the same. And Emma could hear in her voice that she truly wanted to believe her, and so maybe, for the very first time, she would just let it slide.
Emma smiled, pulling Regina's hand up to her mouth and gently kissing the knuckle. 'I do. Always.'
'I don't think…' Regina said, pausing so that she could take a deep breath. 'I don't think I've ever felt true happiness before, either. Not until I met you.'
'You mean not until we started dating,' Emma grinned, thinking back to the months when they were constantly bickering and swiping at one another, forever trying to outdo the other. But Regina shook her head.
'No. I don't.' Her lips pursed thoughtfully. 'The minute you drove into this town, something changed. I don't know what it was. Maybe because I liked the challenge that you posed, or maybe because I felt like you… completed something in me, I have no idea. But I was lost before you got here, and the second that clock started moving again, everything else started to fall into place.'
Emma leaned forwards and gently kissed her cheek. 'I really do love you.'
Regina smiled back at her. 'I love you too.'
Her heart melted at the delighted expression on Emma's face when she said those words. She took in those disarmingly bright green eyes, the spiky corners of her mouth, the tiny nose scattered with freckles. She absorbed the grey scar that ran down her temple. It was a face that she had memorised every inch of, but even now, looking at it for the thousandth time, she was blown away by just how much she saw in it. How much love she found there.
'Can I ask you my question now?' Emma asked, and the nerves were gone from her voice. They both knew what was coming next. They both knew how this ended.
Regina nodded at once. 'Yes,' she said, suddenly feeling lightheaded. 'Of course you can.'
Emma took a breath and reached into the inside pocket of her leather jacket. From it she pulled a small, black box. Regina wasn't expecting her heart to pull just as sharply as it did when she saw it.
Emma opened the box and held it out between them. Inside was a silver ring, almost identical to the one that her father had once given to Snow White – but the stone was a deep, glistening red.
As Regina looked down at it, she felt a strange mix of happiness and what felt like heartbreak.
'Marco made it for me,' Emma explained, swallowing. 'With August's help. That's why this whole thing took so long… I hope it's okay.'
No longer bothering to force her tears back, Regina wiped a fist over her cheek. 'It's beautiful.'
'Red always reminds me of you,' Emma said.
Regina smiled. 'Because of the apples?'
'Partially,' Emma said. She slowly reached out one hand and pressed it against Regina's chest, where she could feel her heart pounding furiously. 'And because of this. You have the biggest heart out of anyone I've ever known, Regina. Red only seemed fitting.'
Regina laughed – not because Emma had said anything funny, but because she was so filled with happiness that she could feel herself overflowing with it – and another wave of tears rolled down her cheeks. She scrubbed them away, and when she was ready, she nodded.
Emma took a deep breath.
'Regina Mills,' she said, clutching the box in one hand and Regina's hand in the other. 'I love you. I always have. No one in this world has ever made me happier, or made me stronger, or made me feel more loved. And, if you will let me, I want to spend the rest of my life with you, trying to repay you.'
She watched the heartrending way that Regina's mouth was quivering, torn between grinning and trying not to cry.
Emma pulled the ring out of the box and held it up between them.
'Regina,' she asked, her voice quiet. 'Will you marry me?'
At once, Regina's face split into a smile that lit up the whole street. Barely able to trust her own words, she nodded, and then she nodded again. As she started desperately laugh-crying, Emma found herself grinning back, tears swelling in her own eyes.
'Is that a yes?' she asked, reaching out for Regina's hand. Regina choked out another laugh, suddenly feeling like her heart was going to explode.
'Yes,' she said, nodding more and more frantically. 'Of course I will, you idiot.'
'As charming as ever,' Emma said, letting the ring hover near her finger. 'I've made a wise choice with you.'
'Shut up and put that ring on my finger.'
Emma did as she was told. It fit perfectly, because she had stolen the grey ring that Regina had been given by Daniel and made Marco measure it one afternoon while Regina was in a city council meeting that she too was supposed to be attending. She'd had to face Regina's wrath that evening, pretending that the meeting had completely slipped her mind, but seeing the look on her face now – the complete disbelief that Emma had managed to get every single detail of this somehow right – made it worth it.
Regina looked down at the ring as it glistened on her finger, for once in her life completely speechless. Emma was right – it was so, completely her. And yet it was Emma too – it was the red of the leather jacket that she'd grown to love, and it was the red of Emma's lips after she'd been kissing her for hours. It was the red wine that they drank together, and the red of Emma's strong, loving heart.
'Is it okay?' Emma asked, watching the emotions barrelling across Regina's face.
Regina looked up at her, her eyes glistening, and leaned forwards, sliding her hands around the back of Emma's neck. She pulled her towards her, and the moment their lips touched, she felt it.
It was like a firework had gone off in the distance. The reverberations of it jarred through their bodies, and they pulled apart just in time to see that a multi-coloured light was radiating away from them. Then, there was silence. Regina turned to look at Emma, whose face was only inches away. Her forehead was creased.
'Was that what I think it was?'
Regina swallowed. 'I think so.'
They waited for a moment, partially expecting the entire town to show up at their doorstep then and there. But the street stayed oddly quiet, and they were left sitting on the stoop, their arms wrapped around one another and the crickets just beginning to sing.
The noise of a window opening somewhere above their heads made both of them jump.
They turned around, peering up and around the porch, to see Henry hanging out of his bedroom window.
'What?' Regina called back.
'I don't know if you noticed,' he shouted, a grin spreading across his face, 'but I think the curse just broke.'
'Yes, thank you, Henry,' Regina said, rolling her eyes. 'Have you been watching us this whole time?'
'Henry,' Emma snapped, but she was grinning back at him. 'Go back inside.'
'Fine,' he sighed, shutting the window as loudly as he could.
Emma and Regina both looked away from the window, their eyes seeking each other out. Although they could both feel an anxious gnawing pain deep in their stomachs, it somehow wasn't as bad as they were expecting. Emma squeezed Regina's hand.
'It's going to be okay,' she said. To her surprise, Regina just shrugged.
'Probably,' she said. 'One day. But for today, I have you.'
Emma felt her cheeks turn pink. 'You do.'
'Then that's more than enough for me.'
Smiling, Emma leaned forwards and kissed her. She slid one hand beneath Regina's hair, pulling her as close to her body as she could, and sighed against her lips. When Regina placed her left hand against her cheek, Emma smiled at the unfamiliar weight of a ring there.
'I love you,' Regina said as she pulled away, stroking the hair away from Emma's temple.
'I love you too,' Emma said, bending down to kiss her hand. A shiver passed through Regina that she knew she would never tire of.
After a moment, Regina pushed herself to her feet, holding out one hand. 'Come on.'
Emma reached out and let herself be pulled upright. 'Where are we going?'
'Inside,' Regina said, gently kissing her cheek. 'I'm sure Henry wants to congratulate us.'
'I'm sure he probably does,' Emma said. A smile seemed to be permanently drawn onto her face.
Regina turned for a moment, walking back down the path to pick up her purse, and then returned to her side, gesturing towards the house.
Emma wrinkled her nose. 'You don't think we should wait here?'
'For the town,' Emma said, her stomach plunging momentarily. 'They'll show up at some point. And at the very least, we should probably clean all this up.'
She gestured to the photos as she spoke. Regina followed her gaze, and she sighed.
'To be perfectly honest, Miss Swan,' she said, squeezing Emma's hand as tightly as she could. 'I really don't care.'
Emma's face broke into a grin. 'That doesn't sound like the anally retentive mayor that I know and love.'
'I'm the new and improved version,' Regina said, gently pulling Emma towards the house. 'Come on.'
Emma followed her for a couple of paces before she released Regina's hand and glanced back at the darkening street. She could hear noise stirring in the distance. 'You really don't think we should wait?'
Regina pushed the door open, and the light from the hallway streamed out onto the porch. Their son was waiting for them on the stairs.
Regina turned back to face Emma, an amused smile on her face.
'I'm sure they know where to find us, dear,' she said, and she reached out one hand. Finally, Emma didn't need to be asked again. She laced her fingers through Regina's and followed her inside – to her home, and to her family.
The town would come. They could wait for it together.
Author's note: I really can't believe that this story is actually over. I've been writing this fanfic for three years, almost exactly to the day, and now that it's completed it's somehow almost the same length as Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix.
I realised that I was bi because of this story. I met my girlfriend because of this story. While writing this, I graduated from university and got a proper editing job and moved to London and fell in love. My whole world changed during these three years and I'm so sad that such a huge part of my life has actually come to an end.
Thank you for all the reviews and favourites and your lovely messages on tumblr (I'm starsthatburn over there too - come and find me and let's be lifelong friends!). Thank you for sticking with me this entire time, and for not getting too impatient when the updates got slower and slower and slower. Thank you for recommending me to other swan queen fans, and thank you for making me feel like I might actually be a pretty okay writer after all. Every single thing has meant the world to me.
I've loved every minute of this, and I love my two favourite gay ladies. Fingers crossed some more writing will come soon.
Love you all x