Actions

Work Header

The Lunch Thief

Work Text:

The break room refrigerator is empty.

Huh.

Emma straightens, nose wrinkled as she takes in the shelf where her lunch should be. A paper sack with an apple and a container of last night's pasta inside, 'Swan' scribbled messily on the front. She can remember it perfectly. Throwing it together this morning through her bleary eyed six-thirty haze.  

Maybe she'd just left her lunch on the counter at home.

Yeah. Sure. Okay. That sounds like her.

Shrugging, Emma closes the door and shouts to David that she's walking to Granny's for her break. It's a nice day anyhow, fall not yet in full swing so it's still warm enough to get away without a jacket even in Maine.

Archie and Pongo pass her on the sidewalk, pausing for a quick hello. Michael Tillman shouts from his open garage across the street, waving when she meets his eye. Mr. Mendez pauses watering the rose bushes out front of his house to actually tip his hat to her and say, "how do you, Sheriff?" like an old school gentleman while Mrs. Mendez smiles warmly from her rocking chair on the porch.

It's all very...sweet.

Sweet and quaint and full of small town charm that makes her smile to herself and think maybe she shouldn't always be so down on the fact that she lives in the middle of nowhere. Maybe it does have its upsides and-

And then Emma jogs up the steps into Granny's and remembers that no, it doesn't have it's upsides. Because living in a tiny town means there's only one diner of note, and that of course translates into one hell of a fucking lunch rush.

Oh yeah, this is why Emma always packs her own food.

The place is near bursting at the seams, and Emma has to shove her way through a crowd large enough that she half wonders if she should shut the place down for being over capacity.

Ruby passes by with a tray of steaming french fries that has the idea leaving as soon as it comes.

Eh, whatever, there probably won't be a fire today anyhow.

At least the crowd is less of a line and more of a bunch of people holding plates of food while milling around with nowhere to sit. Separate parties start bunking up at tables together though--everyone in Storybrooke is actually pretty friendly when they're not trying to kill one another--and the floor starts to clear.

Emma stands at the full bar and waits for Granny's attention. "Not so bad for business running a monopoly, huh?" she asks as soon as she has it.

"Can't complain," Granny chirps, barely fighting back a pleased smirk. Emma swears she sees dollar signs flashing in her pupils. "Whaddya want?'

Emma orders a BLT and splurges on the up-charge to turn her fries into onion rings. It's not like she makes a habit of this. She can treat herself every once in a while.

Three other customers shove in front of the cash register as soon as Emma steps away in search of somewhere to safely wait for her food. You'd think after close to thirty years of living here most people wouldn't be so desperate for Granny's cooking but, well, if Emma has learned anything since she first stepped over the town line it's that fairy tale people are fucking weird and incredibly over dramatic in all things.

Speak of the devil.

Despite the fact that most tables are overladen with food and people are racing for the odd free chair that pops up, Regina is sitting at the back of the diner comfortably, an entire booth to herself and not a single soul bothering her as she quietly reads with a cup of coffee in hand. And, well, if nobody else is brave--stupid--enough to sit with the queen, then that's their loss. More room for Emma.   

She heads over and unceremoniously flops down opposite her...friend?

Co-mom?

Magic mentor?

Gal pal?

"No."

"Oh, come on," Emma whines, "we're totally gal pals."

Regina blinks up at her, brow furrowed. "What?" She shakes off her confusion at Emma's blank stare. "Never mind, I don't want to know. You can't sit here."

"Why not? You have the room. And if you were looking for solitude I'm gonna be honest," Emma throws a thumb over her shoulder at the rowdy crowd behind them, "prime time at Granny's was a horrible choice."

"I was doing just fine until you walked in."

"Story of your life, am I right?"

Regina doesn't seem to think that's as funny as Emma does. "Why are you doing this to me?"

"I'm not doing anything to you," Emma defends. "I forgot my lunch this morning and you had a free seat at your booth. Now I get to relax and you get some pretty amazing company from your gal pal."

"Stop calling us that."

Emma ignores her. "It's a win win."

"It really isn't."

"So whatcha reading?"

Regina glares at her, pulling her book closer. "None of your business."

Aiming to be as obnoxious as possible, Emma bobs her head and says, "Sounds good. Who's it by?"

The sigh Regina responds with is loud and long suffering and enough to have Emma break character.

She drops the obtuse act with a laugh. "All right. I'll be good." Gently kicking out, she nudges the toe of Regina's shoe with her own. "How're things in the office?"

The effort doesn't earn her a smile, but it does have Regina softening enough that she sticks a marker in her book and closes it. "I'm still attempting to decipher the idiocy of your mother's latest proposal."

Emma snorts. "This is the housing project for the woodland critters or-?"

"No, that was the last one," Regina says dryly. "This is the one about Silly Sweater Sunday. A weekly, town wide event."

"Good god." Emma pales. "Please let me know when that one is gonna show up at a town meeting so I can help you oppose it."

Regina hums. "Always good to hear I have the sheriff's support."

"Here you go, Ems." Ruby drops a steaming plate in front of her. She looks sweaty and irritable, but a professional smile is still plastered on her face, even if it is faltering a little at the edges. Emma doesn't envy her, that's for certain. "Are you looking to get anything else, Regina? Or are you all set?"

"I'm just fine, thank y-" But Ruby is already gone before Regina can get all the words out.

Emma laughs at her disgruntled expression. "Don't be mad, she's got things to do." She hunts through the pile of onion rings on her plate and finds the smallest one first. Emma likes to work her way up to the big stuff. "We can't all sit behind a big desk and leisurely skim documents all day."

It's an obvious wind up, but Regina's way too prideful to do anything but be wildly offended on principle. "Oh, because you're so busy? When's the last time you engaged in anything remotely close to actual police work?"

"Hey, just last week Edgar Balthazar called me to investigate because somebody had stolen his hat and his umbrella." Emma takes a triumphant chomp of her food. "Course," she says around the mouthful, "turned out he'd just left them behind when he took his boyfriend out on a picnic, but still. There was like a two hour period where I thought I was hunting down a real life burglar."

Eyebrows raised, Regina doesn't seem particularly impressed. "Astounding," she drawls. "Really."

Emma waggles her eyebrows as she munches on another ring. "Intimidated?" She does her best not to preen at the fact that Regina's obviously fighting back a laugh. "See?" Emma gestures between them over the table, grinning. "Win win."

Regina rolls her eyes, but doesn't disagree.

 

-

 

So it all turns out just fine. Emma has a nice, impromptu lunch with her gal pal--deal with it, Regina--and then heads back to work upbeat and refreshed. She jokes around with David and gets her paperwork sorted out and heads home at the end of the day to find her lunch sitting out on the kitchen counter where she'd forgotten it.

And it's over.

She opens the Tupperware to suspiciously sniff at the pasta before heating it up for dinner, saves the apple for the next day, and moves on with her life. Honestly, she forgets about the whole thing within a couple of days.

Forgets until just over a week later when she heads into the break room at the station and opens the refrigerator to once again find it empty.

Huh.

Okay, this time Emma is almost certain she remembers bringing her lunch in. She walked into the station, said hi to David and Mulan, threw her bag into the fridge, then headed into her office.

That had all happened, right?

Or maybe she's just thinking of yesterday. That could be it.

Maybe she'd left her lunch on the counter at home. Happened before, could happen again.

Sighing, Emma resigns herself to another afternoon at Granny's.  

 

-

       

After a short walk and way too long elbowing her way to the front counter to place an order, Emma finds herself once again standing in the middle of the diner staring down the only free seat in the whole joint. Whelp, Regina hadn't murdered her last time, right?

Taking a breath, Emma heads over to the booth where Regina sits and plops herself down. "Afternoon."

"Twice in as many weeks?" Regina drawls without even looking up. She has a cup of tea today, and a folder of what looks to be paperwork from the office in front of her. "My, I'm a lucky woman."  

"I'll say," Emma agrees, pointedly ignoring the sarcasm. "Working through your lunch break?" She wrinkles her nose at the idea. "That can't be healthy."

"Excuse me for taking pride in my work." Regina has a pen in hand and she writes out her elegant signature at the bottom of the whatever-it-is document with an extra flourish. Likely to subtly remind Emma how shit she is at cursive. "Is it too much to hope you're bothering me on official town business?" She glances up at last, eyebrows raised as though she doubts her own words.

"Forgot my lunch again." Emma doesn't even bother to pretend to be embarrassed about it.

"Should I be worried my sheriff seems to be having memory issues?"

"Or maybe my subconscious just really wants onion rings." Emma shrugs. "One of life's great mysteries I suppose."

It isn't long before Ruby brings over her sandwich, and Emma manages to rope Regina into a conversation about Henry's short story for his after school writing club for the rest of their break. She even gets Regina to laugh out loud at one point so all in all she feels comfortable counting the outing as a win.

 

-

 

When she goes home that night, Emma shakes out of her coat and kicks her boots off by the door and heads to the kitchen to poke around for dinner. She only pauses for a second to consider that there's no paper sack waiting for her on the counter. Huh.

Did she forget to make lunch at all this morning? No, she remembers throwing it together. Cheap peanut butter on the crumbly ends of discounted white bread wrapped in cling film.

But if it's not here, that would mean she had brought it into work. And if she had brought it into work then that would mean...

Oh dear god...

Somebody Emma works with at the station is a Lunch Thief.

An actual, real life criminal on her own force.

Corruption from within.

...

And it's the sheriff's job to stop them.

 

-

 

When Emma walks into the station the next morning, she doesn't return her father's usual greeting. She merely offers a barely-polite nod and tosses her lunch into the fridge before slinking into her office. Everyone is a suspect until proven otherwise, she can't let David off the hook because of mere familial ties. The stakes are too high.

Slits of the blinds on her office window just wide enough to peer though, she stands and watches her staff.

David and Leroy are the only ones in at the moment, but Mulan is due in a little after noon and Marian will be pulling the dreaded night shift. Anyone could strike at any moment. Emma has to be prepared.

Shoving Regina's overdue paperwork aside, Emma hops up on her desk and waits, eyes glued to the break room door.

No way is this fucker getting their grubby mitts on the ham and cheese shoved into a leftover tortilla from fajita night. No sir.

...

...

...

Except twelve-thirty rolls around and nobody makes a move. When she gets up to retrieve her lunch, it's waiting for her, safe and sound.

Was Emma wrong? Is this just a misunderstanding?

...

Or do they know she's on to them? Are they biding their time until she lets her guard down? Will they strike again when she least expects it?

Emma gnaws on her wrap and thinks hard on just what sort of nefarious scheme this Lunch Thief could be concocting.

 

-

 

The next day Emma does her best to be more casual about her surveillance. Marian is off as soon as Emma gets in, so it's just her, David, and Leroy until late afternoon and Emma thinks she does a pretty fair job of not acting like she's monitoring who goes in and out of the break room at what times like a hawk.

It all amounts to nothing though, as when twelve-thirty hits, Emma once again finds her crumpled paper sack completely untouched.

Huh.

So, maybe, it really is in her head. Maybe she really just had forgotten to make her lunch at all and dreamed up that whole peanut butter sandwich.

It wouldn't be the first time she dreamed of processed goods.

Well then...maybe she can relax and actually get back to pretending to get her work done.

 

-

 

Nope.

The next afternoon Emma stares into the empty break room fridge, fingers wrapped so tightly around the handle it's a wonder the thing doesn't shatter in her palm. Taking a deep breath to compose herself, Emma heads back out into the trenches.

David, Marian, and Leroy sit at their desks working hard and not at all acting like the thieving monsters one or all of them most certainly are. Well then, looks like they're going to make her do this the hard way.

Emma goes for the good cop approach just to feel out her crowd. "I'm a decent boss, no?"

Leroy hardly spares her a glance before refocusing his attention on the paperwork for parking tickets he issued the other day. David and Marion though both stare up at her in obvious confusion.

"You're doing a great job, kiddo," David soothes with a warm smile.

"Did somebody say something?" Marian tilts her head, brow slightly furrowed. Ever since Emma saved her life, she's developed quite a protective streak. It's mostly awesome, but sometimes a little scary. Emma really doesn't need everyone who accidentally bumps into her on a crowded sidewalk threatened with bodily harm, thanks. "Who was it? Tell me their names."

Leroy just grunts.

"Nobody said anything," Emma assures them. She crosses her arms and leans against the wall in a way she hopes is casual. "I just wanted to know because I thought if you guys like having me as your boss, it would be strange for you to take advantage of me. I know I keep things pretty relaxed around here. I'm cool. I like to have fun. But there are limits and boundaries and some things are just not okay."

David blinks. Marian frowns.

"What the hell are you going on about, sister?" Leroy squints up at her.

Emma won't be fooled though. She drops the approachable act and lowers her voice. "Look, I know what's going on here. No, I don't know just who is doing it yet, but mark my words I will figure it out if it kills me. Spread the word to the others that this better end or there will be consequences. If the culprits come clean now it will be a simple slap on the wrist, but the longer they wait, the worse their punishment will be."

She spins on her heels to increase the dramatic tension and stomps out the door, tummy rumbling all the while. There's a traitor in their midst and this case is officially cleared for take off.

Or, you know, something a cop might actually say.

 

-

 

Emma really isn't in the mood for crowds today, so she elbows her way to the pastry display on the counter and makes sure Ruby sees her swipe a blueberry muffin. This time she doesn't even pause before flopping down across from Regina.

"Late break today?" For once Regina doesn't have anything else to occupy her attention beyond a cup of tea and a disgustingly healthy looking sandwich. Oaty bread and vegetables poking out the sides and, yuck, Emma can hardly stand to look at the thing. "If I didn't know any better," Regina tilts her head to the side, a wry smile on her lips, "I'd say you enjoyed my company."

Emma lets out a sad sigh, unable to hold it in any longer. "I think somebody at the station is stealing my lunch."

Regina blinks at her, probably aghast at how somebody Emma trusts can be so cruel. At how a member of their community can be so uncivilized and-

"My, your life is exciting."

Or maybe not.

"Regina, I'm serious," Emma all but whines. "It's a real problem. It's happened multiple times now."

"I'm sorry." Regina abandons her food to fold her hands in front of her on the table, straight backed and tone somber. "What did the police say?"

"Fuck you," Emma snaps when Regina's laughter finally breaks past her control.

Regina doesn't seem particularly chastened. She merely pinches some crumble off the top of Emma's muffin, eyes twinkling with enough good humor Emma can't bring herself to be mad about it. "You wish."

Emma snorts. She slaps Regina's hand away and has half a mind to steal some of Regina's food in retaliation, but she's pretty sure there's asparagus involved in that 'meal' in some way, shape, or form so that's a no go. "You know, as my gal pal you really should try to be more sensitive about this."

"You're right," Regina drawls, elbow on the table and chin in palm. "Please, tell me what I can do to help you through this difficult time in your life."

"Now that you mention it..." Emma needles.

Regina's face falls. "No."

"Oh, come on. You've got to know some kind of spell or something that can show me who the thief is."

"Yes, the first thing Rumpelstiltskin taught me in my hour of need was how to protect my lunchbox."

Emma rolls her eyes. "You know what I mean. There's gotta be something you know that's applicable to the situation. You know everything about everything when it comes to magic." Emma Swan is not above shameless flattery to get what she wants. It's a cold truth.

And even though Emma is certain Regina knows she's being played, the woman still sits a little straighter in her booth, chin raised. "Be that as it may, even though I do know a few things I'm sure would be helpful to you, I'm not going to tell you anything. I-"  

"What?" Emma squawks loud enough to turn quite a few heads in the crowded diner. At Regina's pointed glare she lowers her voice to a more reasonable volume. "Why not? Come on, you're my- my-" she flounders, eyes falling to Regina's plate between them, "you my Food Friend. You've gotta help me out. It's practically law."

"One, never call me that again." Regina's low, even tone leaves no room for argument. "Two, if you let me finish a sentence, you would know I have significant investment in the advancement of your magical abilities. I believe it would be irresponsible for me to do the work for you when you are fully capable of doing it yourself with a little practice and perseverance."   

Oh great, Emma's awakened Magical Mentor Mode Regina.

"When I was learning there was nobody around to coddle me. Only through dedication and hard work was I able to achieve the level of power I hold today. In fact, I often-"

"Yeah, yeah," Emma cuts her off before she can start to get all waxing poetic, "and you had to walk three miles to school barefoot in six feet of snow. We get it, Grandma."

Regina's glare is murderous. "Investment aside," she grits out, "I also believe nabbing a lunch thief is a bit below my considerable talents, don't you think?" She sniffs. "Despite my fall from grace I do have some dignity left, thank you very much."

Emma can't help but grin at Regina's haughtiness, even when she's being supremely unhelpful. "I'm gonna ignore all that narcissism and focus on the fact that you admitted to having significant investment in me."

"In your magic," Regina hurries to correct her, cheeks darkening a bit at the implication. "There's a difference."

"Sure, Regina," Emma allows through a laugh, talking over her friend's squeak of protest. "You're right though, I guess. This isn't your problem. I should figure it out on my own. One of my guys is a sneak and I gotta hunt them down for the good of Storybrooke."

"Let me know how that works out for you."

"Sure," Emma chirps brightly as she stands. At Regina's unimpressed look she sighs. "Oh, you're being sarcastic. Right."

The sheer force of Regina's eye roll is something to behold. Emma tosses a couple bucks on the table and picks up her muffin before Regina can snatch anymore. She's got a lot of work to do and she's gonna need all the brain fuel she can get.

 

-

 

Emma stands hunched over her desk in her office, the suspects laid out before her. A good detective always has an open mind. They never make any assumptions. She takes a deep breath and studies what she's already come up with using her amazing sheriffing skills. Every single person who works at the station or is seen at the building on the regular is included no matter how unlikely. No one is above Lunch Law.

Her list winds up looking a little something like this:

Asshole Lunch Thief Suspects

David:

  • At the station almost as much as Emma is and has been on duty during every incident thus far
  • Overly familiar type who might think taking his daughter's lunch is acceptable as family

BUT

  • Gets well balanced meals from Snow on the regular (often with a sweet treat and a sticky note declaration of eternal love inside the bag)

Snow:

  • Visits David an obscene amount so around often enough to steal as many lunches as she likes (Honestly the school should probably have a talk with her about how often she leaves to flirt with her husband)
  • Constantly hounds Emma about her poor eating habits (might think forcing her to Granny's is helping her nutrition)

BUT

  • Awful at keeping secrets and probably would have blurted out the truth by now.

Mulan:

  • Ample opportunity to steal
  • Slick warrior skills to help her get away with the heist

BUT

  • Seems too honorable and respectful to touch someone else's stuff without explicit permission

Ruby:

  • Sneaky asshole who likes to mess with Emma as often as possible.
  • May be stealing Emma's lunch to force her to spend money at Granny's as a new business model.
  • At the station often to "subtly" flirt with Mulan so ample opportunity to strike.

BUT

  • Probably would have gloated by now if she was the culprit.

Leroy:

  • No personal boundaries
  • Drunk 90% of the time
  • Kind of a dick

BUT

  • Probably too hungover to make it to the fridge and away with Emma's lunch without anyone noticing.

Marian:

  • Expert thieving skills (Way better than that loser Robin's)
  • Might try and get back at Emma secretly for being gal pals with Regina???

BUT

  • Loves Emma unconditionally and would never betray her
  • Promises she only steals from the rich to give to the poor (Emma is definitely not rich)
  • Doesn't like bologna (98% of Emma's lunches involve bologna).

Robin:

  • That asshole would

BUT

  • No buts, he's just an asshole

Seven suspects.

Emma moves to the window carved into the wall of her office to peer out the slits of her blinds. Her employees mill about, working, chatting, blissfully unaware of the wrath they have brought upon themselves.

 

-

 

Her first move is obvious. Proper surveillance.

Now, Emma is a modern woman so she doesn't have a camcorder lying around these days, but she does have a laptop with a working webcam and illegally downloaded software and that's close enough. It's kind of annoying that she'll have to turn it on in the morning and off after lunch to save file space, but needs must.

She sets her computer up on the break room counter, tucked away in the far corner, and plugs it into an outlet so battery won't be an issue. It takes some finagling, but eventually she manages to fix up an angle that clearly shows just who is visiting the fridge and what they're taking. After stacking up some files and folders around the laptop to hide it as much as possible without obstructing its field of vision, the trap is finally set.

Now all she has to do is wait for the next time the Lunch Thief makes a move.

 

-

 

Henry is going to spend a couple nights at her place for some totally sentimental bonding, processed junk food that he definitely isn't allowed to tell Regina about, and violent movies that he must never speak of to anyone. Emma picks him up at the mansion after dinner, and it's not until they're nearly back at her place that it comes up.

"So," he drawls, hugging his backpack to his chest as he watches the quiet streets pass by the window, "I heard you have a Lunch Thief at the station."

Emma's brow furrows. She hasn't brought this deep, deep trauma up to many people yet. Definitely not to Henry. Poor kid should have some faith left in the decency of the world. "How do you know about that?"

Henry shrugs, eyes still focused on the window. "Mom brought it up."

That's weird. Regina hadn't taken Emma's problem seriously at all. Why would she bring it up to Henry? And so quickly too...

Emma glances at him out of the corner of her eye while she pulls into her driveway, considering the idea. Maybe-

No. It doesn't make sense. Henry has school at the time of the crime and no way on Earth would the kid opt for wonder bread sandwiches when he has someone like Regina as his personal chef.

Right?

Right.

Stupid idea.  

 

-

 

This time it's a mere four days before the Lunch Thief strikes again. When Emma opens the fridge in the break room to find her bologna sandwich gone, she lets out a whoop of triumph and makes a mad dash for her laptop. When she watches the day's footage though, Emma is met with nothing but darkness. As though the thief had known the camera was there, and had flicked the light switch off when they'd come into the room.

Fuck.

She hadn't hidden the laptop well enough, and now the thief knows she's on to them. What the hell is she supposed to do now?   

 

-

 

Regina doesn't seem particularly surprised when Emma throws herself into the booth across from her. She doesn't even look up from her chicken caesar salad. "I think someone might be holding a grudge, Sheriff."

"Drop the attitude or you'll make my shit list too, lady."

"Oh my," Regina drawls.

"Do you have a video camera? I need something with night vision."

It's a credit to their friendship that Regina doesn't seemed fazed by the odd, unexplained request.

Or maybe it's a credit to how fucking weird their town is on the daily.

"Henry might have something along those lines. He always has all sorts of gadgets plugged into his computer up in his room."

Emma doesn't bother to stifle her laugh. "Gadgets?"

Regina ignores her. "If you stop by tonight I'm sure he'd be happy to let you take a look."

"Cool, thanks." Emma reaches out to snag a crouton from Regina's plate, but Regina swats her hand away. "You're a terrible Food Friend."

"That means so much to hear, thank you."

 

-

 

Henry has an uncomfortable amount of surveillance equipment for a thirteen-year-old boy. Like, enough that Emma's not sure if she should be confiscating anything. He swears it's all retired gear from the days of Operation Cobra but, well...she'll be keeping a closer eye on him in the future.

Sure, she and Regina are totally a pair of badass power babes. But they're also kind of objectively terrible people in a lot of ways.

Any spawn of their making should probably be kept on a tight leash.  

"This will be your best bet," Henry distractedly murmurs as he does his best to untangle the mass of chargers and cords on his bed. "It's small, so it will be easy to hide. And I've got lots of blank tapes you can use."

"Tapes?" Emma whistles. "Very old school."

"Yeah. Well it's the little ones. Not Vhs. I, uh, can't find the av cord, but I probably will by the time you might need it. If you do. It's gotta be here somewhere..." He looks up at her, frowning. "I don't think your problem is the camera though, Ma."

"No, it was the lights. The fu-fu...dger turned them off."

Henry flashes her an unimpressed look at her near slip. "I don't think it was." Henry tilts his head. "The fridge has a bulb in it, right? So even if they turned the light off the thief would have been lit up when they opened the door to take your lunchbox. You would have at least seen the basic outline of them. So either they somehow knew to take the bulb out of the fridge beforehand, or something else is going on."

Huh. Kid makes a good point. Emma wrinkles her nose. "I guess they could have covered the camera with a towel or something." She probably would have been able to tell though. "It's something to think about at least, if the night vision doesn't work."

Henry bobs his head, pressing his old, tiny camcorder into her hand. "Let me know how it goes." He hums. "I guess you'll figure it out soon. It was nice while it lasted."

Emma's brow furrowed. "Nice? What about me getting accosted is nice?"

Henry scoffs. "You weren't accosted."

"I was emotionally accosted, Hen." Emma fixes him with a solemn stare. "That's even worse."

"Sure." He rolls his eyes. "I was talking about how you've been having to go to Granny's and stuff. I just think getting out and about is good for you."

"Because of all the lost money and added stress?"

"No," Henry grouses, "because before this started happening you were a complete recluse who hid in her office eating wonder bread and bologna sandwiches like a loser."

Emma's eyes widen at the affront. "Okay, first of all, recluse? How dare you use your vocab words on me. Second of all, some of them are ham and cheese."

"Wow," Henry drawls. "All I meant was it's nice you're varying your lunch habits a little. You know, hanging out with other people when it's not just for work or saving the town or whatever. I think Mom likes it too."

Emma perks up at that. "Why, did she say something?"

Henry gives her sudden enthusiasm an odd look. "Not really? It just seems like she does. For some reason she seems to think you're funny."

"She thinks I'm funny?" Emma's voice cracks a little at the end of the question. Her dopey smile makes Henry pull a face.

"Not when you try to be on purpose," he assures her. "I think she mostly just likes watching you frantically running around trying to stop the town from blowing up all the time. Your struggles amuse her."

Honestly, at this point Emma will take it.     

"It's nice, you guys having lunch together now," Henry leaves her with, a wistful sort of expression making its way across his face. "You both need more friends."

 

-

 

Emma, arms awkwardly full of recording equipment because after thirty-one years she's still not smart enough to bring a fucking bag with her when she goes to pick something up, is doing her best to open the front door with an outstretched foot when Regina sneaks up on her like some kind of hot witch Dracula.

"What the hell are you doing?"

"Holy shit." Emma jolts, Henry's goods nearly shattering all over Regina's pompous foyer--or whatever the hell it's called.

It's a process, but she manages to get all the wires and cords re-situated in her tenuous grip.

"You ever thought about maybe saying, 'hey, Emma,' before coming up behind me? You know, like a normal person."

"My apologies." Regina rolls her eyes. "Hey, Emma. What the hell are you doing?"

Emma glowers at her smug smile. "Just open the door for me, you asshole."

Regina's laugh is melodious. "So antagonistic." She sighs. "I was trying to catch you before you left to see if you'd like to stay for dinner, but if you insist on being so-"

"Dinner?" Emma's eyes widen.

"Nothing fancy," Regina is quick to warn her. "I hadn't been expecting to cook for company, but there's plenty and-"

"Is it fancier than butter and noodles?" Emma interrupts.

Regina's brow furrows. "Yes?"

"Well, then it's plenty fancy for me, thanks." She trips over her trailing wires in her haste to make for the kitchen. "Let's go," she calls over her shoulder. "It's dinnertime. Pick up the pace, girl."

 

-

 

The next day Emma heads into work early to set up Henry's equipment. There's a cabinet across the room from the fridge, and Emma drags a chair over so she can rest a camera on top. It will be far less noticeable up there, and she does a pretty good job of wrapping the power cord around back if she does say so herself. She's fairly confident it won't be seen unless the thief is actively looking for it.

Which, of course, is an eventuality she's also cleverly combated. She sets up her laptop slightly further down the counter than last time, and hides it even more clumsily than before. No way will the thief miss it. They'll pull whatever stuff they did last time to snag her lunch and not even think to look for another recording device in their arrogance at besting her once again. Pride cometh before the fall and all that good stuff.      

Emma puts her PB&J--minus the PB part because she really needs to get to the supermarket sometime this week--in the fridge and heads to her office to wait.

This ends today.

 

-

 

Emma cackles when she opens the fridge at twelve-thirty to find her bagged lunch gone. "Gotcha now, asshole." Ignoring her computer, she clamors up a chair in front of the cabinet and grabs Henry's camcorder. Opening the tiny screen on the side, she quickly rewinds the day's footage.

The first thing Emma sees is a ghostly, green version of herself, climbing down the chair and opening the fridge only to close it again and walk backwards out of the room. Just a few more seconds and-

"What?" Emma barks out in disbelief when the camera screen blacks out for a few minutes exactly when the thief must have struck. "No, come on," Emma whines. She rewinds the tape to check again, and again, and then once more before she scowls and gives up.

What the actual fuck? Had they known about the second camera? Did they search for it when they came in? Or did they know from the time she set it up?

Blood simmering, Emma abandons the camera and storms out to face down the people she'd once trusted. "This isn't funny anymore and I'm done with it, you hear me?" Emma's booming voice echoes off the hard brick of the station walls. "Done!"

Emma marches around the room, throwing open drawers of desks and overturning waste bins.

"What the hell is going on?" Ruby asks, nose wrinkled from where she's perched atop Mulan's desk.   

Mulan is still sporting a healthy flush from Ruby's unsolicited attention, but that doesn't stop her own features from twisting up in confusion.

"Emma, you're making a mess!" Snow chides as Emma kicks the trash about the floor, on the hunt for her paper sack or the plastic wrap that had held her sandwich or the packaging from her fruit gummies. Snow stands by her husband's desk quite clearly aghast, a serving dish full of cookies balanced on her open palm. She likes to bring goodies in for them all sometimes, and usually that's a sign for Emma that things are looking up, but not today. No sir.

When Emma's frantic search comes up empty, she stands in the middle of the mess she's made, hands on her hips. "Okay then, so technology is out. You want me to do this the old fashioned way? Fine. I will. I just hope all of you realize that I always get my guy." Her eyes narrow as she takes in the majority of her suspects. "Always."

"Seriously, what's her deal?" Leroy whispers in awe as she marches away.

 

-

 

Emma spends the rest of her break mapping out her next step from the safety of her office. Well, first she grabs the broom and sweeps up the mess she'd made. Like, all right, she's not a monster. But then she hides herself in her office and works out her plan.  

A--totally legally obtained--picture of each of her suspects is pinned up on her cork board. She studies them carefully, doing her best to work out just which of those assholes out there is the biggest asshole of the bunch.

"My, this does look serious."

Emma startles a bit at Regina's sudden appearance. "What are you doing here?" Her gaze flits to the paper bag in Regina's grip. By the smell of it it's an order of Granny's Grilled Cheese Deluxe (TM), extra onion rings. Emma gasps in sudden realization. "How did you know my lunch was stolen today?"

Could it really be? Her gal pal Food Friend? A traitor?

At first, Regina looks caught off guard by the accusation in Emma’s tone before her features fall into well practiced distaste. "Because I've been your lunch thief all along," she deadpans. "I just can't get enough of discount deli meat."

Emma's brief rush of triumph ebbs. "All right," she sighs. "But can you blame me for being paranoid? It's like there's a conspiracy."

Regina hums. "Well, I was stopping by to see how the camcorder worked out, but judging by the deranged look of you I'm guessing you didn't capture what you needed." She holds the paper sack out and Emma, stomach grumbling, tears into it without hesitation. Regina steps up to the cork board, tilting her head as she soaks it all in. "These are your suspects I take it?"

"Yep," Emma manages through a mouthful of gooey cheese. "I'm working my way through them. Not saying they're the only possibilities, but it's a start."

"Why is your mother crossed out?" Regina's grin is wicked. "Did you finally do her in?"

Emma snorts. "No. I just flat out asked her if she's ever stolen my lunch. When she didn't immediately burst into tears and confess everything I knew she was definitely innocent."

Regina nods sagely. "And Mulan?" She points to where the woman's picture has a fat red 'x' over the top.

"Ah." Emma gnaws thoughtfully on an onion ring. "I asked her if she's ever stolen anything and she said," Emma straightens a bit and puts on a solemn, low voice, "the only time I dishonored my family by stealing was when I wore my father's armor into battle."

"I see."

"Yeah." Emma gestures to one of the chairs in front of her desk. "Got any ideas for me?"

Surprisingly, Regina stays. She's quite obviously mocking Emma the whole time, and steals more than one onion ring, but she is also pretty helpful. She agrees that Marian is probably too in love with the very idea of Emma to betray her in such a way, and even fights a clear smile when Emma explains her reasoning about Robin making the list. She adds Gold's name into the pot, mostly just to stir up trouble, but agrees that Ruby is the likely culprit as she stands to gain the most from the deed.

"Though I wouldn't be surprised if she was working on Granny's behalf."

"Wow," Emma breathes, "this thing goes straight to the top, huh?"

Regina rolls her eyes and checks the time on her phone. "I really should be getting back." Collecting her purse, she stands. "Do me a favor and at least try to get a little bit of actual work done today, Sheriff."

"Hey," Emma squawks, "this is real work!"   

"Sure." Regina pauses in the doorway, an incredibly condescending pout on her lips. "I have some meetings lined up so I'll likely be taking my break in the office tomorrow but please, really , If that cruel thief strikes again feel free to stop by. You really should be rewarded for your heroic sacrifices. Maybe I'll bake."

Well, hell, maybe being relentlessly robbed isn't such a bad deal after all.  

 

-

 

It's a long process, but Emma writes up a sheet of questions perfectly designed to crack her case. After a quick trip to the copy machine, she hands them out to each of her suspects to fill out. To keep them off their guard, Emma delivers them under the guise of dutiful employer.  

When the replies come in, Emma's information looks something like this:

Normal Anonymous Questionnaire That Department Employees (and Their Close Acquaintances) Have Always Filled out Since the Town's Creation.

"Uh," Ruby drawls when she reads it over, "if it's supposed to be anonymous, why is there a section to put our names?"

"Don't worry about it," Emma says. "Just fill in everything."

 

1) How do you feel about corn flour tortilla wraps?

David: Neutral

Ruby: Pretty tasty

Leroy: Mexican food gives me the runs

 

2) Do you respect other people's belongings?

David: Always

Ruby: Never

Leroy: Who's asking?

 

3) When is the last time you betrayed someone's trust?

David: King George, but that was for the greater good

Ruby: Like everyday pretty much

Leroy: Did that bastard Happy put you up to this?

 

4) What is the most recent thing you regret doing?

David: Eating that extra slice of pie last night. It goes straight to my hips but I was just feeling naughty ;)

Ruby: Agreeing to fill out this survey

Leroy: You tell him this isn't funny and he's gonna have hell to pay when he gets home tonight.

 

5) Any Allergies? (Food specifically)

David: None! Thank god :)

Ruby: Dumb surveys

Leroy: Peanut Butter

 

6) Do you like bologna?

Everyone answers 'no' to that one.

 

Emma tries to get Robin to fill it out too, but he claims he doesn't have any writing utensils out in the forest and zips the tent flap closed in her face. Emma half considers questioning him orally, but then decides to just call it a day and cross out his stupid picture anyhow because she honestly doesn't feel like looking at him anymore.

He's probably not the thief.

 

-

 

The next day Emma sits in her office pondering all she's learned, killing time until noon. She probably should be working on another trap to catch her thief but today-

Well, if Regina is going to bake she doesn't want it to go to waste.

At twelve-thirty on the dot Emma scrambles out of her chair and makes a break for her lunch. Wrenching the refrigerator door open, she blinks in shock at the untouched paper bag inside.

The thief didn't...

Emma stares, heart sinking low in her belly. But-

But-

But Regina said-

Emma looks over her left shoulder, then she looks over her right, and then she smashes up her lunch between her palms and stuffs it into the trash can.

"This won't stand for much longer!" she cries at her confused employees as she hurries out of the station. "I'll catch you yet!"

 

-

 

Regina's secretary isn't expecting Emma, which is kind of weird, but Emma doesn't fully grasp her mistake until after she's already burst into Regina's office unannounced. Behind her oversized desk, Regina blinks up at Emma, her surprise at the interruption clear.

"What are you doing here?"

"Uh," Emma shifts between her feet, "Lunch Thief?"

Regina's eyes widen a bit. "This many times in a row? Usually they've been spacing it out more, haven't they?"

Emma shrugs. "Guess they're...hungry," she offers rather lamely. Her eyes flit about the room, hunting for any sign of cookies or pastries or muffins or- Maybe Regina will summon her baked goods with magic?

Regina hums. "Perhaps," she says, but sounds rather dubious. "And you're here because?"

Emma's mouth is dry. "Baked...Baked goods..."

"What?" Nose wrinkled, brow furrowed, utter confusion.

"Reward?" Emma tries weakly, heart sinking yet again. "Noble sacrifice?"

Understanding at last dawns over Regina's features. "Heroic," she amends, rolling her eyes, "and that was clearly a joke. I was making fun of you, Emma, you incomparable id-"

"So there are no baked goods?" Emma cuts her off, still daring to hope because apparently she'd inherited at least something from her mother.  

"No," Regina says flatly, absolutely no sympathy to be found.

"Oh," Emma rasps, one step back, then another, "okay...that's...that's fine..."

"Are you crying?"

"No." She probably says that too quickly to be convincing.

"Oh my god," Regina groans, hands in her hair, and Emma steels herself for another round of mockery. Regina only sighs though, and pages her secretary.

It's like a full blown miracle, listening to Regina shift her schedule about. For a moment, it seems too good to be true, but Regina stands and throws her bag over her shoulder and mutters a tired, "Come on, then," and Emma knows it must be real. She follows Regina to Mifflin Street like a puppy, scarcely able to believe her luck when she's welcomed inside and led to the kitchen.

Emma is stuffing a second chocolate chip cookie in her mouth when Regina snaps. "At least have a sandwich or something first, you're like an animal for goodness sake."

"You really are the best gal pal a girl could ask for, you know that?"

"Would you please ," Regina protests irritably, but her cheeks are suspiciously pink.      

 

-

 

They make it back to their respective offices far later than is appropriate, but Emma can't really bring herself to care. She catches up on the work she's been neglecting in favor of catching her Lunch Thief, then heads home. Instead of bothering Henry like usual, Emma stretches out on the couch and opts to pester Regina instead, texting her inane musings well into the night.

It's nice, these tentative steps closer to one another, and Emma falls asleep thinking it won't be so bad if someone steals her bologna tomorrow too.

 

-

 

Except nobody does.

...

And they don't the next day either.

...

Or the day after that.

It's like the Lunch Thief has just...vanished.

Did they give up? Did Emma get too close during her investigation and spook them?  

Emma peers out her office window, studying her employees. Is this the end?

In a way it's certainly a relief but-

But that would mean-

Well that would mean Emma is free to pack her own lunch to enjoy at the station every day.

Alone.

By herself.

Without Regina.

Forever.

...

It's a mere week before she cracks.

 

-

 

"Lunch Thief?" Regina asks when Emma plops into the booth across from her.

"Haven't made it to the store," Emma lies, flagging Ruby over to order.

 

-

 

"That's not like him," Regina says as she accepts the textbook Henry 'forgot' on his transition between their houses.

Emma smiles like she hadn't swiped it out of his backpack and stuffed it under the couch. "It's been a long week, he's probably just tired," she says and rationalizes that because she did it on the weekend she's not a totally awful parent.

 

-

 

"I didn't realize they got my order wrong until I was already back at the station," Emma says, placing the steaming to go cup of coffee on Regina's desk. "I figured it shouldn't go to waste."

Regina's brow furrows when she takes a sip. "Strange. That's just how I take it."

"Yeah." Emma shifts between her feet. "Weird."

 

-

 

It isn't until Emma sabotages the inner-workings of her own car with magic to have a convenient breakdown in front of Regina's house just in time for dinner that Emma admits to herself she might be feeling things beyond average gal pal Food Friend feelings for Regina. Which is, you know, a bit of an uh-oh situation.

Sure, things don't seem to be going anywhere with Robin anymore, but Regina's never really shown any interest in Emma either. She barely tolerates her on a good day. And it's probably not the healthiest thing now that Emma is aware, manipulating Regina into all these impromptu dates without her knowledge or consent. That's definitely not the kind of person Emma wants to be.

Unless she can work up the courage to ask Regina out for real, she needs to back off.

 

-

 

"Oh," Regina tilts her head, leaning casually on the handle of her shopping cart as she leisurely peruses the fresh vegetables for sale, "I didn't even think you knew this section of the store existed."

"Yeah." Emma's laugh is too high and too loud. She shifts, the bags of Doritos stuffed into the basket on her arm crinkling. "Um-"

Regina looks at Emma.

Emma looks at Regina.

...

...

...

"Well, bye!" Emma shouts and flees for the checkout counters.

 

-  

 

Okay then, backing off it is.

 

 

Emma carefully picks out all of the edge pieces of their puzzle. Henry takes care of everything else.

"Are you and Mom fighting again?"

Emma's head snaps up. "No, why? Did she say she was mad at me?"

Henry shakes his head, tongue poking out between his teeth as he tries to shove together two identical looking pieces of dark blue sky. "You guys were hanging out a lot and now you're not. Are you mad at her? You know whatever she said she doesn't really mean. She's just bad at joking around. Sometimes she takes it too far."

Emma snorts. That's the understatement of the century. "I know, kid. Don't worry, I'm not mad."

"Are you guys even having lunch together anymore?"

Emma winces. "Not really so much anymore, but don't worry about it, Hen. We're not fighting again, I promise. We've both just been busier."

"Yeah right." He flashes her a pretty impressive stink-eye. And even though he drops the subject, Emma's certain he's not ready to let it go indefinitely.

Oh boy.  

 

-

 

Two days later, Emma's Fruit By The Foot and bruised banana go missing from the break room fridge.

"Oh come on," Emma cries when she finds out, "that lunch was shitty even by my standards. I didn't even want it."  

None of this makes any sense. Why would the Lunch Thief strike today of all days? Her lunch yesterday was a Lunchables that went completely untouched! In what world could a Lunch Thief resit the allure of a Lunchables but spring for an old banana?

Obviously the quality of the food itself isn't a factor, so what's the motive? They clearly can feed themselves reliably since they haven't stolen anything in weeks. And yeah, it's annoying, but if they're just doing it to make Emma upset there are certainly better ways to mess with her.

Honestly, unless it's just all some weird conspiracy to force her out to Granny's to eat lunch with Regina then-

Then-

...

Oh shit.

...

Emma knows who the Lunch Thief is.

 

-

 

"Hey, Champ, how's it going?"

"Champ?" Henry furrows his brow, laughing a little when he glances up from his homework. "All right I guess. Better when I get this dumb math packet over with."

Emma gives him a sad, sympathetic sort of smile. She sits on the edge of his bed, going for a soft you-can-talk-to-your-dear-old-ma-about-anything sort of approach.

"So, Hen, is there anything you wanted to chat with me about?"

Pencil stilling, he eyes her with confusion. "I don't think so?"

"Are you sure?" She presses. "Because I hope by now you know I would never be upset with you about any thoughts or feelings you may be having lately."

Pure horror twists up Henry's features, his eyes widening. "Oh god, you're not trying give me the sex talk are you?"

"What?" Emma squeaks, flushing.

"Because Mom already gave me a very detailed PowerPoint presentation and I promise you I'm now more than prepared for every conceivable situation."

"No-no. Definitely not the sex talk," Emma quickly assures him. She hesitates. "Though if you guys still have the file for that PowerPoint I would absolutely love to see it. That sounds amazing."

"Clocking in at nearly two hours, it really wasn't, but I'll ask Mom."

"Do you think you could convince her to present it to me herself? That would be the absolute pinnacle of my life. Seriously. All downhill from there."

"I'll do my best." Henry tilts his head with a smile. "So if it's not that, what are you trying to get at? I gotta say I'm kinda lost."

Emma heaves a heavy breath. Right, she came for a reason. An uncomfortable conversation where she has to crush her only child's hopes and dreams. "I know about the lunches, Henry."

He blinks at her, face falling.

"And I figured out why." She keeps her tone neutral to make sure he doesn't think she's upset. To make sure he understands this isn't an accusation. "I know your heart is in the right place, but I have to tell you it's really not okay to try and force these things. Relationships need to be natural and I've been having a great time with your mom, don't get me wrong, but trying to manipulate us isn't the way to go about this." A gentle smile, and Emma reaches out to pat his knee. "I'm sorry if that hurts your feelings."  

Nailed it.

"Uh," Henry winces a bit, "sorry, Ma, but I don't have any idea what you're talking about."

Emma stares at him, hunting for any hint of deception, but there's none to be found. "You don't?"  

"Are you trying to ask me if you're allowed to date Mom?" He tries.

"Pfft-" She splutters. "No. Duh."

"Because I wouldn't care."

"You wouldn't?" She probably says that too fast.

He shrugs. "As long as you're not too gross in front of me I don't care." His attention falls back to his homework. "Though you guys should be fine, I'm pretty desensitized from Grandma and Grandpa."

Despite her discomfort, Emma laughs. It's always nice to have Henry's support, even for something that's not actually happening. Still, none of this makes sense. If Henry wasn't stealing her lunches to try and push her and Regina together, then who-?

It has to be someone who knows about Henry's camera. Someone able to pull off stealing the lunches under the cover of manufactured darkness like some kind of crazy wizard. And someone who, for some reason, doesn't want Emma to eat lunch alone in her office...wants her to eat at Granny's...with...Regina... 

The door opens downstairs.

"Henry?" Regina calls up from the front hall. "Is Emma here? Her car is in the driveway."

"We're upstairs," he shouts back.

Holy shit.

...

Emma knows who the Lunch Thief is.

...

"Hello," Regina offers after making her way upstairs and peeking her head in the room, looking a little confused. "I didn't know we were expecting you."

Holy shit. Holy shit. Holy shit. Holy shit.

Emma just blankly stares at her.

Regina.

Regina .

But why?

Just to fuck with her? No, Regina likes to tease her, but she's upfront about it. She wouldn't have let the joke go on this long without claiming credit for it. And she's certainly not eating Emma's lunch. Her standards are way too high for bologna.  

But the only other answer is-

Henry pointedly clears his throat and Emma is startled out of her whirring thoughts.

"The kid invited me for dinner," she blurts out. Until she's figured this out for certain there's no way in hell she's willingly leaving this house.  

"I did?" Henry asks.

Emma pinches his leg until he squeals.

"I mean, yeah, I did." Henry clears his throat. "I think we should have Emma over for dinner tonight, Mom."

They plaster twin angelic smiles on their faces as they blink up at her, radiating innocence.

From the way Regina warily eyes them, she's not buying it. "I suppose that will be fine, though in the future I'd appreciate it if you inform me ahead of time so I can make sure to have something appropriate to pull together."

Henry shrugs. "It's just Emma."

"Yeah," Emma nods, then stills with a scowl. "Wait, what's that mean?"

"You'd be happy if Mom gave you a Pop-Tart."

"Well, yeah." Emma frowns. "Doesn't mean you have to be a jerk about it though."

"I suppose I'll get changed and then start on dinner." Regina heads for her room down the hall.

"Henry," Emma hisses as soon as she's out of earshot, "I know who the Lunch Thief is."

"Cool," he drawls, already refocused on his work as if he doesn't even care that Emma has finally cracked this all important riddle.

Some son. Giving up on him, Emma hurries downstairs to beat Regina to the kitchen. Today is the day she gets to the bottom of this once and for all.

And maybe if she's lucky some more stuff will be going down too. Depending on how stubborn Regina feels like being, of course.  

It's only a few minutes before Regina arrives looking more relaxed in comfy lounge clothes, though her serene expression quickly fades when she finds Emma waiting in her kitchen. "What are you doing?"

Emma shrugs, doing her best not to crack and blurt her suspicions out. Regina Mills is known for being rather flighty after all. At least when it comes to matters of the heart. "I thought maybe I could lend you a hand with dinner since we sprang this on you."

Regina actually laughs out loud. "I think it will be safer for everyone involved if I handle it myself." She heads for the refrigerator to begin gathering ingredients. "Though I do appreciate the offer."

"All right then." Emma shrugs and plops down onto one of the stools lining the counter. Chin in hand, she absently watches as Regina moves about collecting everything she needs. Here goes nothing. "Hey, so you'll be happy to hear I've cracked the whole Lunch Thief case."

There's a loud clatter from deep in the cabinet that Regina's half inside. "Oh really?" Clipped and tight and rising at the end.

Bingo.

"Yeah." It's a blessing Regina won't look at her right now because Emma's smile would definitely break her cover. "I have a name, I just need some hard evidence to really pin them down."  

As soon as it wavers, Regina's usual aura of smug confidence returns. She tugs a bowl down from a high shelf and sets it on the counter with a disinterested, "How exciting." It's horribly condescending. "You must almost feel like a real sheriff."

"Almost," Emma agrees, sliding off the stool. "I was thinking though, despite how annoyed the thief made me, I've enjoyed having lunch with you so often." Regina's pride is often her downfall, so before making her accusation, Emma wants to put herself out there as well. Hopefully it will make Regina more receptive to having her own vulnerabilities exposed. "I've been wondering, if you want, if we could make it a regular thing? You know, meet up a couple times a week to catch up and stuff."

It's the perfect opening for Regina to confess. And she's come so far since Emma first met her, there's a good chance she'll be emotionally mature enough now to-

"No, thank you. My lunch hour is my only break during the day where I don't have to be bothered by anyone's nonsense."

Oh for the love of-

Fine. If Regina wants to play hard to get, Emma just won't take the bait.

Instead of pushing like she usually would, Emma shrugs and says, "Oh, well all right then," completely nonplussed.

It works exactly as she'd hoped. Regina shoots a wide-eyed look over her shoulder, startled by Emma's lack of grovelling. "What?"

"If that's how you really feel, I don't want to hound you about it." It's near impossible to keep a straight face. Emma has to lightly bite the insides of her cheeks to manage it.  "I don't want to disrespect your wishes."

"Well I- I mean-" Regina stammers, looking a little lost, "if there was a reason we were both at Granny's at the same time it's not like I would throw you out of the booth, I just-"

"Regina," Emma cuts her off gently, her smile slipping past her careful control a bit, "do you want me to eat lunch with you?"

"Obviously not," she sneers.

Emma shrugs again. "Okay."

"But-" Regina mumbles.

"Yeah?"

"You're so annoying." Regina lets out a huff and rounds back on her cooking, banging and slamming her utensils about as she pretends to focus on dinner.

The mini temper tantrum is cute enough that Emma really has no choice but to cut her some slack. "Regina," she says with fond exasperation, a parent who caught their toddler with one hand in the cookie jar, "after we hung out at Granny's that one time, did you start magically stealing my lunches out of the fridge so I'd be forced to spend my break with you?"

Regina stands, back to Emma, ramrod straight. "Don't be absurd."

"You know you could have just asked me to lunch at any time, right?"

Emma's smug tone seems to be the thing that shatters Regina's pretenses. She whirls about, eyes blazing. "And let you think I enjoy spending time with you? Absolutely not."

"But you do enjoy spending time with me," Emma all but whines.

"Let's not start labeling-"

"How are you a person?"

Regina doesn't seem to have an answer for that. She settles for crossing her arms and glaring instead, which is just so...frustratingly... typical .

"Gah!" Emma throws her hands up in the air. "You know what? I'm rescinding my offer. I don't want to have lunch with you."

"Fine," Regina snaps, cheeks pink.

"Instead," Emma announces grandly, "we're going on a date."

Regina's eyes widen, her mouth agape. It takes a few seconds before she manages to splutter out a weak, "No- No we aren't."

"Yes we are. That's all we're doing from now on." Emma lifts her chin. "Anytime we hang out alone together, it's free season on dates, lady. That means hand holding, chair-pulling-outing," she ticks the words off on her fingers, "uncomfortably sappy declarations of affection, and even some light canoodling when the situation is appropriate."

"You disgust me," Regina glowers.

Emma is hardly swayed. "And anytime anybody comes up to us like, 'hey, what are you two doing out tonight?' I'm going to say dating. We're dating as a couple in a romantic, exclusive manner because Regina has a big fat crush on me."

"You wouldn't dare ."

"Try me."

Jaw tight, Regina studies her for a moment. Up and down and up again, her eyes track over Emma. Her confident posture, her smug smirk, her crossed arms. Even with all that evidence laid out before her, Regina is apparently still too damn proud to take Emma at her word.   

"You're all talk," she insists in a haughty tone.

Emma shrugs. "If that's what you wanna believe." She turns on her heels and heads for the door.

"Wait." Regina's voice is high and panicked behind her. "Where are you going?"

Emma pulls open the front door and takes a deep breath. "Regina has a super big gay crush on m-"

A hand slaps over her face and muffles her shouting. "Shut up," Regina hisses, doing her best to wrestle Emma back inside. But Emma stands firm, laughing into her palm.

The neighbor on the left side of Regina's home pauses his hedge trimming to stare at them, the one on the right getting her mail smiles and flashes a hammy thumbs up.

Emma makes to return the gesture but Regina slaps her hand down and whines, "Fine! Fine! One date if you'll just get inside and shut up."

That only has Emma laughing harder as she finally allows herself to be pulled indoors and dragged back to the kitchen. "Would it surprise you to know that's not the first time those words have been said to me?"

"Not in the slightest," Regina grumbles, pouting.

"Hey, don't look so grumpy about it." Emma gestures to herself. "You could do worse, huh?"

Regina shakes her head, but despite her clear exasperation there's a smile playing along her lips.

"Is now a good time to admit I have a pretty big crush on you too?" Emma presses.

Regina looks away with a sniff. "Only if you're looking to embarrass yourself." She's still smiling though.

Emma laughs. "Worth it." She takes a careful step forward, hands coming up to tentatively rest over Regina's hips. It's new, being in her space like this, and exciting, but she's nervous too. Not sure how far she's allowed to push before Regina inevitably withdraws on her. "Okay?"

Regina surprises her by leaning into her hold, a hand coming up to Emma's face, thumb gently running along the curve of her cheek. She nods, eyes soft as she studies Emma, and Emma prays that the frantic beating of her heart isn't loud enough to give her nerves away as she ducks her head down.

"If you're doing anything gross then stop," Henry's shout interrupts them before their lips have a chance to so much as brush. "I'm coming down for snacks."

"We're not being gross, kid," Emma calls back. "It's totally safe!"

And then she tugs Regina close and makes sure he gets a full view of their first kiss as he rounds the corner into the kitchen.

"Oh come on," he whines, slapping a hand over his eyes. "Don't let her do this to me, Mom. One of you has to be on my side."

Regina lets out a hum of agreement and reluctantly gives Emma a little push to escape her embrace.

"Aw, don't be so dramatic," Emma drawls, unable and unwilling to tamp down her smug grin. "This can't be worse than the PowerPoint."

A shudder runs through him. "Nothing is worse than the PowerPoint."

Emma rounds on Regina, eyes bright. "By the by, you have a very important presentation to give me." She claps her hands together, rubbing them with enthusiasm. "My tender young mind is ready to be molded."  

"Yep," Henry sighs, "I'm outta here."

 

-

 

Roughly an hour later finds Emma sitting cross legged on the couch, notebook open on her lap so she can dutifully take notes.

Well, mostly she's just absently doodling a picture of Regina in a classic 'hot teacher' ensemble complete with thick rimmed glasses and a pointer stick, but still-

"Is this really necessary?" Regina cuts herself off to whine for the hundredth time that night. "You're not even paying attention."

"I'm listening," Emma assures her. "Go on."

Sullenly, Regina continues her presentation. There's a lot left to be desired in her deadpan delivery, but it's actually a surprisingly informative experience. Of course, Emma isn't here for learning.

"Miss Mills?" She raises her hand for the thirtieth time in what's had to be a mere fifteen minutes.

Regina's sigh is loud and long. "Yes, Emma?" she grits out.

And Henry has already made a desperate break for the safety of his grandparents’ apartment for the night so she has absolutely no qualms in smiling innocently and saying, "I'm really trying, but I'm having trouble keeping all the anatomy terms straight from just the diagrams alone. Do you think it would be possible to have a more hands on lesson?"

"Oh, for heaven's sake," Regina snaps. She abandons her PowerPoint completely to march out of the room.

"Woah, hey," Emma calls through her laughter as she scrambles to follow. "Come on. It's a valid teaching method!"