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not today (a long and lustrous winter)

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1: March 21st, 7:51am

“Babe!”—bzzt bzzt bzzt—“I got you, babe!”—bzzt bzzt bzzt—

Emma bolted upright in bed, heart pounding wildly in her chest as her phone blared its alarm ringtone, buzzing its way across her nightstand. She was shaking, arms trembling, the dream- memory? -dissipating even as she tried to remember. She could see Regina, wreathed in a golden light, her mouth open in a wordless scream, Emma helpless to—

Her phone buzzed right off the edge of her nightstand and clattered to the floor, sliding under her bed.

“Shit!” Emma scrambled for it, throwing her comforter off her legs and diving off the edge of the bed. “Shit, come on,” she whispered to it, shoving her shoulder up against the bedframe and stretching her arm until her fingertips ached to reach it, and snorting a dustbunny up her nose in the process.

Fuck!” she grunted, just as she managed to hook a fingernail on the edge of the case and scoot it towards herself, silencing the alarm. She relaxed, resting her head on the edge of the carpet next to her bed for a moment to swipe through her notifications before extricating herself. A banner proclaiming that her sprinkles container had refilled in Kwazy Cupcakes, her daily horoscope from an app Snow had installed that told her some bullshit about going around and around in circles, and a text from David that just read, ‘Can’t do the early patrol - kid has a cold. Cover for me?,’ followed by a praying hands emoji, a winking face, and then a shrimp, for some reason.

Emma groaned. “Good fucking morning to me,” she muttered as she pulled herself out from under the bed, then climbed to her feet to get dressed.

And promptly tripped over the boots she’d left at the foot of her bed the night before.

The bell above the door at Granny’s jingled as Emma pushed through it, stomping her boots dry as she stripped off her gloves. She always hated this season, when winter hadn’t given up and left the town yet, but it was close enough to spring for the snow to all turn to grey, horrible slush the moment it touched the ground, but this year it felt like it might never end and she’d just have to stay soggy forever.

“Morning, Emma!” Marian called across the diner, an impressive stack of plates balanced on one arm as she swept past her and towards the dishroom. “It’s miserable out there today, isn’t it?”

Emma huffed and pulled off her beanie, fluffing out her hat hair and slumping over to collapse against the counter. Her forehead met the surface with a dull thunk as she dropped onto a stool, the countertop cool against her wind-chapped face. “Wow,” Marian said, reappearing to delicately shift the condiment basket away from her head, “you look like shit.”

“Thanks,” Emma said, muffled by the formica. She rolled her head to one side so she could glare up at her. “Can you at least get me some coffee while you’re making fun of me?”

Marian propped both elbows on the counter and rested her head on her fists, squished-up cheeks exaggerating her mocking pout. “Awww, whassa matter?” she cooed in a faux-baby voice, “Is somebody having hawd time?”

“I regret ever introducing you to modern methods of sarcasm,” Emma sighed, then picked her head up so she could look at Marian directly. “You ever have one of those days that just starts out bad, and you know it’s gonna keep going badly, because it feels like all the bad days you’ve ever had before?”

“Yeah,” Marian said, then twisted around to grab the coffee pot. “It’s called being an adult. Now drink your coffee and stop whining.” She slid a to-go cup across the counter, then waved behind Emma as the bell jingled again. “Good mo- Oh, no, watch—!”

The subsequent crash made Emma jump on her stool, and she whipped around to see Kenai on one side of the now-open door, rubbing his head, his entire load of fish spilled out across the floor in an avalanche of ice and scales, and Archie on the other, holding a busted nose with a look of surprise.

“—out,” Marian finished, arm drooping in defeat. She looked over at Emma and sighed, “I’ll have to commiserate with your cranky ass later; somebody’s gotta clean this up before the whole diner smells like fish,” she glared at Kenai, who had the good grace to look sheepish, “Again.”

Emma laughed, “Yeah, I swear he just did the same thing yesterday, didn’t he?”

Marian cocked her head and frowned. “You weren’t even in the diner yesterday, Emma. Are you feeling all right?” She reached out a hand to feel her forehead and Emma jerked back, flapping her hand to shoo her away.

“I’m fine,” she insisted, swooping under Marian’s arm to grab her coffee as she hopped off her stool. “Gotta go anyway - it’s my turn to patrol this morning. Good luck with… that,” she waved vaguely behind her at the slowly-melting pile of fishy ice on the floor, and grinned as she saw Marian give her the finger as the door closed behind her.

Half an hour later, she was already regretting not volunteering to stay behind to help clean up, fishy smell or no.

“All right, sir,” she sighed, tucking her thumbs into her jean pockets, “one more time - you called in a robbery because an elephant stole your honey in a dream you had? Is that right?”

“No, of course not! Who ever heard of an elephant stealing honey?” the man said, indignant. Emma, stupidly, relaxed for a moment. “It was a heffalump.”

Emma was really really never going to get used to living in the stupidest Disney movie ever made. “A heffalump? You mean, the evil nightmare elephants from Winnie the Pooh?”

“I honestly prefer to go by Winnipeg. That nickname is so demeaning,” the man - Winnipeg, fucking Winnie the Pooh - said haughtily, hmmphing and tugging his red shirt down over his stomach. “And no, actually, the heffalumps are just greedy. It’s the woozles that are evil.”

By the end of the interview, Emma had agreed to bring any heffalumps she saw in for questioning, a throbbing has started in her temples, and she could feel the onset of a distinct combination of dizziness and existential dread that she was considering calling ‘Storybrooke Fever.’ Sometimes it felt like nothing in this town changed - it was all either fairytale grudges, magic gone wrong, or life-altering curses.

Still, though, “Winnie the fucking Pooh,” she whispered to the inside of the patrol car, thumping her head back against the headrest briefly before reaching for the keys. She was strongly considering just driving home and going back to bed and chalking it all up as a bad dream.

Unfortunately, because her life was a parody of itself, before she could make her escape, a portal opened up just in front of the car, and what looked like a furry river of black-and-white polka dots poured out. Emma squinted at it, keys forgotten in her hand, and realized it was puppies, a stampede of tiny little black-and-white spotted puppies, yipping and snapping at each other as they tumbled out in a pile and careened down the street.

Her radio crackled to life. “Station to Sheriff Swan,” Mulan’s crisp words cut through Emma’s stunned fog.

She grabbed the radio, pressing the button on the side hard enough to hear the plastic crackle under her thumb. “Please tell me it’s something easy. Something normal.” The silence when she released the button was palpable, and Emma rested her head on the steering wheel. She brought the radio back up to her mouth, pressed the button, and sighed, “Yes, Deputy Hua, what is it?”

Archie has reported that Pongo escaped again, and this time he found him with a genie’s lamp in his mouth. Thinks he might have made a wish.

Emma cranked the car into gear and whipped the steering wheel around. “Not to worry,” she said into the radio. “I think I know exactly what he wished for.”

By lunchtime, the pounding in her temples had escalated to a full-on headache, and she was dripping mud all the way down her left side and onto the perfectly polished floors of the mayor’s office.

Regina quickly stifled an indelicate snort. “You’re lucky my meeting with the Maldonian royalty was this morning and not this afternoon,” she said, grinning, "or else I'd make you clean all that."

Emma glared. “Laugh it up,” she said, hefting a paper bag in one hand and pivoting back towards the door, “I can always eat these by myself instead.”

“Let’s not be too hasty,” Regina said, regal tone somewhat ruined by the laughter she still couldn’t quite stifle. She waved a hand and the mud disappeared, along with half of Emma’s bad mood. Emma could have done it herself, but she always managed to overshoot and iron her jeans while she was wearing them, and she was not about to walk around town wearing pleat-front denim.

Emma sighed happily as her clothes dried and straightened themselves, and she dropped the bags she’d been holding down on the desk, immediately rummaging in the one closer to her to pull out a wax paper package.

Unfolding it, she grimaced. “Ugh, beetroot salsa. I know Granny is convinced that she has to find new things for the menu, but I hate being her guinea pig.” She began scraping the salsa off into the wrapper with the top bun, leaning over to get a better look at Regina’s burger. “What’d you get this time?”

Regina cautiously peeled back the bun and checked. “Shallots and bleu cheese, it looks like.” She closed it back up and took a bite, considering as she chewed. Swallowing, she sniffed, “Good, but not terribly adventurous. A safe bet. I expected something more daring.”

“You’re welcome to mine,” Emma grumbled, unearthing a whole pineapple slice from under the layer of beets and sloughing it off into the wrapper. “I swear she just piles fruits and veggies on mine to see how long it takes me to crack and eat one.” Satisfied that she’d cleared off any unsavory elements, Emma replaced the bun and bit down, only to immediately spit the mouthful back into the wrapper with a groan of despair. “Horseradish,” she groaned, scraping at her tongue with a napkin.

Regina snorted and squeezed her burger a bit too hard, fumbling for a napkin as a dribble of chili aioli oozed out the side and splashed onto her blouse. She cursed and dabbed at the orange blotch fruitlessly as it began to spread.

Emma laughed. “Don’t you know by now that you should never eat one of Granny’s burgers over anything you care about? I swear you do this every time.”

Regina growled and flicked her fingers, the stain disappearing in an instant. “I’ll have you know that’s the first time it’s happened in weeks.” Emma frowned, almost certain - but Regina continued, “Besides, I wasn’t the one who showed up here soaked head to foot in mud, so you really don’t have any room to talk. What on earth were you doing, anyway?”

Emma sighed, pushing the tainted burger away and fishing her packet of fries out of the bag instead, offering them to Regina first before settling in to enjoy them when she was waved off.

“Pongo managed to get ahold of a genie’s lamp and wish his whole extended family into Storybrooke,” she said, shrugging and stuffing a whole handful of fries into her mouth, chewing valiantly in order to mumble, “I wish I could be surprised at this point, really, but eh. I’m pretty sure I even had a nightmare about it last night, so it wasn’t even a surprise.” She swallowed, sticking her tongue out at Regina’s disgusted grimace, “It’s just life in Storybrooke at this point. I do hate fetch quests, though.”

“Fetch quests?” Regina asked, pointing at a napkin and floating it over to Emma, who ignored it.

“Yeah, you know. ‘Find me the seven Enchanted Acorns of Durmstrang or whatever and I’ll give you a magic sword.’ Basic video game shit.” Emma swatted at the napkin hovering next to her cheek and scowled at Regina. “Annoying as hell in real life, as it turns out.”

“Oh, yes, I think I’ve heard Henry yell at one of his video games about those. Are you the reason he knows such, hm, colorful phrases to shout at the TV?” She twirled her finger, and the napkin ducked under Emma’s arm and darted up to dab at a streak of ketchup on the corner of her mouth.

Emma grabbed the napkin before it could go any further and wiped her face herself. “You’re going with blaming that on Henry, then? Interesting.” Emma said, pleased when Regina’s cheeks darkened with a blush. “So it wasn’t your Skyrim save file I found under the name SirRocinante?”

“I was just trying it out,” Regina said primly, “I had to make sure it was appropriate for Henry.”

“Right. Which is why it had a hundred and fourteen play hours clocked on it last I checked.”

Regina sniffed and stuck her nose in the air. “It’s called being thorough,” she said.

They both managed to hold it in for all of thirty seconds before bursting into laughter, burgers forgotten on the table between them.

Three hours later, and her feet were soaked. Not just wet, but soaked, the wool of her socks doing nothing to warm her feet as they squished miserably inside of her boots. And, to top it all off, the dreary gray of the melting sidewalk slush in the watery mid-afternoon light was mocking her after the sun-drenched warmth of Regina’s office, Emma was sure of it.

Her phone chirped mournfully in her hand and Emma pulled a face, yanking her sleeve over her free hand to wipe at its screen in an attempt to remove the black spots spreading across its display. It chirped again and she shook it, water droplets spraying outward from its warped case. It gave out one final warble and the screen shut off, leaving Emma to stare at her darkened reflection.

“Stupid piece of junk,” she grumbled, repeatedly mashing the power button to no response. “Can’t even survive one lousy water-witch, cheapo phone.” She wedged a fingernail under the edge of the case and popped it open, grimacing at the dampness. At least Regina had insisted on encasing all their walkie-talkies in protective spells after the last budget review had revealed they spent too much on replacements, so she could still call for a ride. Maybe she could head to Town Hall and try to get Regina to fix her phone - she was sure to know some kind of spell that could—

Eyes on her phone, Emma didn’t even see the wall she ran into until she hit it. She shook her head and looked up… and up… and still up, at the being whose scaled leg she had run headfirst into. It was standing at the corner of Main Street, eyes - no, eye - darting from left to right as if it were being chased, breath curling out of its mouth in great, steaming clouds that smelled of rotten meat. In its hands, each the size of an armchair, it was holding wriggling bundles that Emma couldn’t quite make out from below. She squinted at them, then startled when a yell came from behind it.

Emma leaned around the trunk-like leg in her way to see who would be foolish enough to yell at a Cyclops, and her eyes widened incredulously when she saw an old woman, her white hair a startling silver cloud against the deeply-lined brown skin of her face, striding purposefully down the road towards it, brandishing a battered-looking umbrella in one hand. “Hey!” the woman yelled again, shaking the umbrella at the Cyclops, “You come back here with my kids! It’s bathtime!”

Emma squinted up at the wriggling bundles in the Cyclops’ hands and realized, yes, they were, in fact, children the giant had in his enormous grip. “Oh, shit,” she said, and fumbled at her side for her gun before realizing it, too, was completely soaked and less than useless. Sparing a single moment to lament that she hadn’t paid better attention in her lessons with Regina, she flung up both hands and pushed at it with her magic.

The Cyclops reared back, startled, and one of the children leaned over the edge of the fist she was clutched in to shout down in a reedy voice, “Stop! Don’t hurt Princess Monster Truck!”

Emma’s next shot went wide in shock, buffeting the Cyclops to the side as she shouted back, “Princess what now?” The Cyclops roared and stumbled, the children clinging to its fingers screaming in delight as it swayed precariously above Emma. One scaly knee buckled to the side, and Emma just barely managed to mutter, “Aww, fu-” before it slammed into her chest, knocking her, breathless, to the sidewalk.

Wheezing, looked over to see the Cyclops right itself and stride off down the street, the same child who had yelled down to her now propped over its shoulder, smiling a gap-toothed smile at her and waving as they thundered off toward the edge of town. Emma turned her head to stare sightlessly at the gray clouds overhead and tried to wish without wishing - who knows what that would do in this town - that this day would end already.

Something poked her cheek.

She squeezed her eyes shut and sighed, coughing as her ribs protested, and turned to see the old woman standing above her, still wielding her umbrella. The tip of it dripped slush onto Emma’s jacket as she rested it on her cheekbone. “’S’what you get for messing with Gertie, you know,” the woman said calmly, pulling her umbrella back but pointedly not offering a hand to Emma as she struggled to her feet.

“Gertie?” Emma said, pulling slush-soaked pants away from her thigh and grimacing.

The woman fixed her with a beady glare and said, firmly, “Yes, Gertrude. Gertie for short. He picked it out himself - wanted one with a good nickname.” She laughed, tucking her umbrella under her arm. “Not that it matters, anyway, since the kids all call him Princess Monster Truck.”

“…Right,” Emma said. “I did hear that. About, um, Gertie-“

“He wasn’t kidnapping them, if that’s what you thought,” the woman said pointedly. “He’s their babysitter. Takes ‘em out and about when they get to be too much for me.” She suddenly cupped both hands around her mouth, shouting down the road, “Fat lot of good it does me when he runs off with them at bathtime!” even though both Cyclops and children were already far out of sight.

“Your… babysitter,” Emma repeated, her head pounding again as she fought the urge to rub her temples. A glob of melting slush slid down her neck and into the collar of her shirt.

“Yeah, and a lifesaver he is, too,” the woman said. “You know the old rhyme, right? ‘So many kids, she didn’t know what to do?’ It might have been exaggerating some things, but that was the damn truth.” She shook her head ruefully.

“‘So many kids, she didn’t know what to do,” Emma repeated, then jolted. “You’re the old woman who lived in a shoe?”

“The one and only,” the woman said, “Name’s Mrs. Shoemaker - I run the orphanage on the other side of town. Came in with the last curse, along with that one.” She jerked her head in the direction Gertie had stomped off in, then looked back to squint one eye at Emma, her finger raised to point at Emma’s nose, so close she had to cross her eyes to see it. “And don’t you dare threaten Gertie again,” she said, “or I’ll skin you and turn you into a shoe, too, Sheriff or no.”

And with that, she flashed a bright, sunny grin at Emma and swept past her, following the enormous slushy footprints down the road.

Emma sighed, then fished her magically-protected walkie talkie out of her jacket pocket. “Hey, Mulan? I’m gonna need a ride at the corner of Grimm and Anderson.” She released the button, then glanced down at herself and pressed it again. “Bring towels. Lots of towels.

During her first weeks in Storybrooke, Emma had been grateful for and annoyed by Regina’s heels in equal measure. The first because they gave Emma ample time to stop goofing off in the Sheriff’s office when she heard them coming, and the second because it was really, really hard to stay angry at then-Madame-Mayor Regina when all Emma could think about were her legs in said heels.

Now, though, Emma didn’t even pull the towel off her head when she heard them clicking down the hallway, just groaned and tilted her head towards the door. She heard an amused huff above her and then the towel was removed, and Emma squinted into the light at Regina’s face hovering above her own.

“Bad day, I assume?” Regina said, folding the towel and draping it over the back of the chair Emma’s feet were resting on.

“Actually, it felt about par for the course, really.” Emma sighed. “Nothing new, just… exhausting, y’know?”

Regina hummed. “I thought it had been pretty quietly recently, but I suppose even the mundane can get tiring after a while.” She trailed her fingers along the edge of the desk and stopped at the Tupperware container in front of Emma, tapping its lid above the pieces of her phone suspended in rice inside it. “I see why you never answered my texts, now.”

“Yeah,” Emma said, “Turns out ‘water-resistant’ is no match against Madame Mim’s firehose spell.”

“Perhaps you’ll pay more attention the next time I try to teach you about elemental spells, then,” Regina said.

Emma grunted, shrugging her shoulders. “I mean, going on instinct’s worked out pretty well for me so far - why mess with success?”

“Ah, yes,” Regina said, teleporting Emma’s soaked phone out of the rice with a twist of her wrist. “I forgot that head wounds and broken phones are your definition of ‘success.’ Forgive me.”

“Yeah, yeah, Your Snarkiness, I get the point.” Emma waved at the phone, thumping her boots onto the floor as she stretched out the kinks in her back. “By the way, can you fix that thing? I never know what you can or can’t do with magic. Feels like it changes at least once a week.”

Regina sighed and tossed the pieces of the phone up into the air, snapping her fingers and catching a fully-repaired phone on the descent. “Showoff,” Emma mumbled, but smiled when Regina passed the phone over.

“You’ll have to take it in to get the software reset,” Regina cautioned, “since I don’t have a degree in computer science, but I repaired the corrosion from the water damage and fixed your screen.”

Emma kissed the phone and clutched it to her chest. “You’re a lifesaver,” she said, looking up at Regina. “I thought I was gonna have to take out another payment plan just to fix this one up.”

A pile of papers at the edge of Emma’s desk seemed to suddenly catch Regina’s interest, and she shuffled them into order, eyes fixed on her hands. “Yes, well,” she said, clearing her throat, “Since you never received my texts earlier, I’ll ask now: would you- I mean, that is, Henry would like you to come over for dinner. Um.” Regina blushed. “If- if you’re free, that is.”

Emma knew she was staring, but she couldn’t stop. She felt her cheeks heat up, and her stomach swooped alarmingly. Dinner with Regina? And Regina was nervous about it? This could only be bad. The last time Regina had been nervous was the night she had to tell them all that Rumpelstiltskin’s half-sister’s uncle’s great-granddaughter was the goanna from that movie with the Australian mice, therefore making them all at least partially related to an evil lizard named Joanna.

Emma still listed that memory on her “Why I Am Allowed To Drink Today” board.

Suddenly realizing the silence had gone on too long, Emma scrambled for a reply. “I don’t think- I mean, I’m not—“

Regina looked away quickly. “No, no - I understand. Another night, maybe.”

“I just don’t think I’d be good company,” Emma managed, weakly. She gestured at her limp hair, huffing out a laugh. “I still smell like Cyclops and have a head full of road grit, for one thing.”

“Of course. Don’t worry about us; I have a lamb chop recipe that Henry’s been dying to try out.” Regina reached out and twisted a lock of Emma’s hair between her fingers as Emma gazed up at her, heart in her throat. “Just make sure you eat something healthier than a Pop Tart, okay? You know Henry worries.”

Not trusting herself to speak, Emma nodded, and Regina smiled softly at her in return before turning and clicking out of her office in her heels. Smiling stupidly after her, it suddenly occurred to Emma that she hadn’t gone grocery shopping in weeks, and, unless she wanted to eat honey-roasted peanut butter wrapped in a slice of turkey again, she was going to have to go buy some food.

As she slogged her way through the grocery store, she berated herself for turning down Regina’s invitation, throwing random items into her cart as they appealed to her. She analyzed the conversation - a familiar request but in a new context - as she dragged the bags up to her apartment. And she thought, obsessively, about Regina’s blush as she put away far too many boxes of oatmeal and bags of chips she didn’t remember buying.

Sitting in front of her TV with a bowl of Froot Loops (It was healthy! Fruit was practically part of its name, she told her inner Regina. Her inner Regina rolled her eyes), she resolved that she would track Regina down the next day, apologize, and invite her out for dinner instead. She nodded resolutely to herself, milk dribbling down her chin as she fumbled her grip on her bowl.

She was wiping her face with the bottom edge of her tank top when a muffled boom rumbled through the apartment, rattling her dishes and almost knocking her off the sofa. She ran to the front door, dumping her bowl in the sink and stomping her feet into her boots along the way, and yanked it open to see a horribly familiar purple cloud billowing its way towards her.

“Oh, absolutely fuck this town,” Emma said, and then she was swallowed up by darkness.