Valentine's Day. That one day of the year set aside for love. That silly emotion which has destroyed more lives than any plague or curse. It saps away strength and leaves one weak and bleeding and raw. And love is a weakness Regina Mills promised herself never to fall prey to again. She hadn't always been like this; she'd loved once. Only to have it ripped away, making her heart shrivel with despair.
She only had love for one person … her son, Henry. And now that the curse was broken and he'd been reclaimed by his birth parents, he was the only person she could claim she loved. She loved him so much that she was trying to become the person he wanted her to be, someone worthy of him. But old habits were hard to break, and she was afraid the sentimental holiday of Valentine's Day would somehow be a bit more than she could swallow.
Everywhere she went, there were red and pink paper hearts in the shop windows and cards delivered to mailboxes expressing love and devotion to one another's sweethearts. The florist was making a killing selling bouquet of roses, and what was worse was the public displays of affection which abounded in her town. It was enough to leave a permanent sneer on her ruby lips as she made her way to Clark's pharmacy to pick up a few sundry items before retreating to the safety and solitude of her mansion.
The pharmacy had an entire section of Valentine gifts and it seemed most of the male population of Storybrooke had stopped in to buy last minute gifts for their ladyloves. Greeting cards with sappy poems, cheesy cardboard hearts filled with inexpensive chocolates, stuffed animals holding hearts which read will you be mine or I love you, and those disgusting little boxes of sweethearts spilled out of the bargain bins, luring in clueless males in their quest to bring happiness to the women they loved. She wouldn't be caught dead buying the cheap items Dark Star Pharmacy had to offer. Henry's Valentine Gifts had been purchased at the high-end establishments Storybrooke had to offer.
Regina's cold whiskey-colored eyes narrowed as she watched a cluster of romance-driven males huddle together at the back of the store, wondering what could have drawn their attention. Her sneer morphed into a snarl as her eyes fell on four in particular. Jefferson Madden, David Nolan, Viktor Whale and the worst of them all … Gold.
"Henry," Regina gasped happily, drawing her son into a warm embrace. "What are you doing here, sweetheart?"
"Dad gave me some pocket money to buy Valentine's gifts. We're going to the movies tomorrow night since he doesn't have a date," he said, whispering the last part so as not to announce to the store that his father was dateless on Valentine's Day.
"If he'd stop pining over Emma, he might not be without a date on," she gulped past the nasty taste in her mouth, "Valentine's Day."
"He'll meet the right lady eventually," Henry said in a flat tone, wishing his mother wasn't head over heels for someone else and would let his father back into her life.
Once again, Regina's attention was drawn to the chaos in the back of the store. "Henry, what's going on over there?" she asked, knowing her son would know. He knew everything else that happened in their small town.
Henry's face lit up with excitement. "Oh, haven't you heard, mom? Mr. Clark is selling these gift boxes. They include a box of sweethearts, a valentine heart full of chocolates, a small stuffed bear and a card. He's invited everyone to include anything else they want to add and he's gift wrapping them free of charge with purchase. Then he has them delivered to the recipient. It's really a cool idea."
Something truly evil gleamed behind Regina's eyes as she turned a blinding smile on her son. "Yes, Henry … truly interesting."
Henry rejoined his father, who helped him select his gifts and promised to come see Regina tomorrow for afternoon tea and to bring her the gift he had for her. But Regina was entirely too distracted by the sight before her and the opportunity to cause as much mischief for the lovers of Storybrooke as she possibly could. It would take but a small spell, nothing drastic, yet it would have the desired effect. Yes, this Valentine's Day would be epic.
"Up to your old tricks again, m’lady?"
Regina stiffened, her footsteps faltering on the pavement. She refused to turn at the sound of that drawling voice which never failed to send a shiver down her spine. She shifted her shopping bag to her elbow and continued down the sidewalk as he fell into step beside her, his even stride matching hers.
"So, what did you do this time?" Robin asked, raising a brow in inquiry. He didn't understand why his true love wanted nothing to do with him. He was an agreeable fellow, handsome but not conceited, and he was the only known resident of Storybrooke – aside from her son - who could draw a genuine smile from the evil queen. She was just entirely too stubborn.
"I don't know what you mean," she said evasively, her brows knitting into a frown. It didn't matter what Tinkerbell had told her so many years ago. True love or not, there was no way she was going to risk her heart again. There wasn't even a slight possibility someone could love her after all the horrible things she'd done.
But persistence was Robin Hood's middle name. "Have a drink with me and I'll tell you all about what I saw," he chuckled lightly, his voice low and coaxing.
"Go away, or I'll have Emma arrest you for being a public menace," she snapped with cold derision. She ignored the heat curling through her at his husky tone and picked up her pace in her haste to be away from him before she did something she'd later regret.
"Hmm … no drink. How about dinner?"
"Why not?" he whined playfully."
Regina cast him an icy glare, finally meeting his warm green eyes. "Because I don't like you," she insisted, even though nothing could be further from the truth.
Robin picked up his pace and stepped into her path, blocking her escape. Regina forgot how to breathe as he loomed over her, invading her personal space with his intoxicating presence. "How about I invite you to my bed instead, love?" His hands snaked out and wrapped themselves around her wrists, the pads of his thumbs drawing lazy circles along her pulse points.
Regina licked her suddenly dry lips and cursed herself for letting him affect her so. "I'll thank you to keep your lewd suggestions to yourself," she hissed, refusing to meet his gaze.
"Why won't you let me in, Regina?" he asked, his tone having lost its playfulness and bordering now on pleading. He was so tired of playing these games with her. "When are you going to give us a chance at happiness?"
She huffed in exasperation and took a step back, but her eyes held sadness as she finally met his. "Don't you know, Robin? No one wants to be with the evil queen."
Robin let her go this time, having noticed the sheen of tears welling in her eyes. He knew she wouldn't appreciate him following and confronting her in a moment of weakness. "You can run, m’lady, but you can't hide from me. I won't be giving up that easily."
Gold closed the shop early the next evening, anxious to get home to prepare for the evening he'd planned in such detail for his wife. Everywhere he looked, red gift boxes with shiny gold bows were being delivered, compliments of Dark Star Pharmacy. It made him wonder if his own had been delivered to the library where Belle worked. He couldn't wait to see her reaction to the first edition copy of Pride and Prejudice he'd found for her.
Her car was in the driveway when he arrived home, and he was able to find her easy enough in the kitchen. He slipped his arms around her from behind and pulled her back into his chest, pleased to see she'd already opened his gift. She stiffened and wrenched free of his embrace, her eyes flashing icy shards of blue in his direction.
"Belle, love, what's wrong?"
"What's wrong? W-What's wrong?!" she thrust a velvet jewelry case into his hands, a lovely silver snowflake pendant encrusted with diamonds nestled within. "Since when are you having an affair with my best friend, Rumpel?"
"Read the back," she hissed. "To my darling Snow."
Gold's jaw dropped, a bewildered twist to his features. "Belle, sweetheart, this is not what you think. I … Do you know how ridiculous this sounds?"
"I'm holding the evidence in my hands, Rumpelstiltskin." Her lower lip trembled as she replaced the necklace in the red gift box and shoved it back into his hands. "Tell Snow I'm sorry I had to find out this way." With that she retreated up the stairs, the bedroom door slamming behind her and the distinct click of the lock echoing through the silent house.
Gold ran a hand through his hair and stared dumbfounded at the innocent looking gift. "What the bloody hell just happened?"
David Nolan stood outside of the loft apartment he shared with his wife and daughter, staring down at the suitcase and the red wrappings of the gift box he'd purchased, confusion dominating his handsome features. He pounded once again on the door. "Snow, what's wrong? Let me in so we can talk about this. Whatever it is, we can fix this."
Snow opened the door and glared at her husband, her ashen face awash with tears at his betrayal. She pointed at the offending gift box sitting atop the suitcase she'd packed for him. "Open it."
He reached out to her, intending to pull her into a comforting embrace, but she batted his hands away. "Sweetheart …"
He knew better than to argue with that tone, thankful she hadn't opened the door with her bow and arrow in hand. He reached down and lifted the top from the box, frowning in puzzlement over the ruby red lingerie staring back at him, a note sitting on top of the lacy garment. "Ruby, I look forward to removing this from your luscious body with my teeth.” He blinked owlishly. “What? This is one huge misunderstanding, Snow."
"How long has this been going on, David?" she asked, crossing her arms over her chest to stop herself from finding something to throw at his miserable head.
"Snow, you can't really believe I bought this for Ruby."
Her eyes narrowed dangerously at his patronizing tone. "The evidence is staring me in the face. I hope you two enjoy your Valentine's together." She slammed the door in his face and threw the deadbolt, leaving him on the threshold.
The same thing was happening all over Storybrooke; ladyloves, wives, and girlfriends were getting the wrong gifts. Doors were slamming, women were crying - or at least those not plotting murder - men were scratching their heads in confusion and a mob was forming to hunt down Mr. Clark who they felt was responsible for their relationships being in the proverbial toilet.
Whale sat in the booth farthest to the back of the diner and shook his damp hair back from his brow. Ruby had gotten the engagement ring Jefferson Madden had been planning to give to Emma. When she'd found out it wasn't the proposal she'd been longing to hear, she'd been furious and dumped an entire tumbler of whiskey over his head. "So, whose gift did Emma get?" he asked Jefferson who was sitting with his back to the window, his long legs stretched out before him and his head resting in his hand.
"I think she got Belle's. Which makes me wonder whose gift Belle got and if Rumpelstiltskin hasn't been impaled upon his own cane," he snorted dryly, taking a sip of the amber liquid in his own glass.
A venomous hiss sounded behind him as the aforementioned cane tapped on his boot. "No, with my luck, she's no doubt searching for my dagger to make certain the damage is permanent," Gold snarled, waiting for Jefferson to move his feet so he could sit down.
"Whale!" David boomed as he entered the diner and marched over to their table. He thrust the box at Whale and sat beside him. "How did Snow end up with Ruby's gift?" he asked, sitting next to the doctor.
Jefferson lifted the lid and whistled. "Better yet, why is your name on the card?"
Granny appeared next to their table with two more glasses and a bottle of scotch, giving them a reproving stare. "It's happening all over town."
Whale groaned and poured the liquor into four glasses. "I just don't understand how this could have happened. Not only did our women get the wrong gifts, but the cards had our names on them. I distinctly remember signing my name to this," he said, waving the note to Ruby with David's signature through the air.
David took the box Gold shoved across the table at him and looked inside at the snowflake pendant he'd chosen for Snow. "It's not like Clark to make so many mistakes."
"Which makes us beg the question … who is really responsible for this mishap," Gold growled.
"Who would want to make us miserable on Valentine's Day?" Jefferson asked.
"Who thrives on misery?" David queried, staring down into his drink.
"Who could be that petty?" Whale asked, his brow knit in confusion.
"Here's one better, gentlemen. Who has enough magic to pull off such a stunt?" Gold asked, casting a pointed stare at each of them in turn.
Robin sat at the bar, his emerald gaze narrowed as he eavesdropped on the patrons of the diner. His love had really pulled a number on the population of their little town. She was going to be in some serious trouble for this little stunt if they ever got their hands on her. She was probably somewhere, quietly taking in the chaos she'd caused, a gloating smile upon her ruby lips. He had to be impressed with her subtlety as to simply mix up the gifts and place the blame on the hapless dwarf who had wanted nothing more than to offer his services to make the day a little happier for the gentlemen of their tiny hamlet.
"Papa, why do you look sad?" Rowan asked of his father from his perch on the stool next to him, his mouth full of the cookie he was nibbling.
Robin gazed down at his son with a warm smile. The five-year-old had the uncanny ability to discern when his father was troubled. "Nothing to trouble yourself over, my lad."
Rowan smiled. "You're thinking of that lady again, aren't you, papa?"
He was always thinking of Regina. From the moment he'd laid eyes on her, he'd known … known she belonged to him. The unmistakable pull of attraction had always been there, drawing him in. But it was more than that. He wanted to know her in every sense of the word. He wanted to claim her as his own. He'd lost Rowan's mother, his true love, and it made him wonder if he might be lucky enough to find that kind of love once more. He hadn't forgotten what true love felt like and he was convinced Regina was his second chance. But her heart was so hardened, he wondered if he would ever convince her to take a chance on him, to have the happiness denied her for so long.
"How do you know about the lady?" he asked his curious son.
"John said you like her," Rowan answered.
Robin raised a brow and scowled at the man sitting on the other side of his young son. "John talks too much."
"I'm just wondering how long you'll sit here with us before running off to rescue your fair lady. From what I've heard in the last few minutes, she's going to need it," John said with a boisterous chuckle.
Regina smiled over the rim of her appletini and watched the ladies of Storybrooke sit huddled in groups, doing their best to bemoan the fact that their men were nothing better than a bunch of Neanderthals. With the men at Granny's and the women at the Rabbit Hole all comparing notes, it wouldn't be much longer before they put their heads together and figured out it had all been one huge misunderstanding. But it certainly was fun to watch. No more lovey-dovey public displays of affection, no more hand holding, and no more having to watch everyone else's happiness when she had none.
She finished her drink and left the bar, trying her best to ignore the nagging little voice at the back of her mind telling her she could have had her own happiness if she had just reached out to grab it. Why had he had to come to Storybrooke? Why couldn't he have just stayed in the Enchanted Forest, a realm away and left her in peace? When he looked at her, there was yearning, longing in his eyes and it made her feel something she hadn't felt in too long to consider.
She would be the first to admit she wanted him. Oh, how she wanted him, but he wanted more than she was willing to give. Her heart was too hardened, too blackened, to even think about giving it to him. He wasn't without his own flaws, well-known as he was as a thief and vandal. She shrugged, thinking maybe that wasn't so bad.
The crowd parted like the Red Sea, giving Gold a clear path to the table where his wife sat. Belle's eyes widened as she took him in. So did the other inhabitants of her table. Snow, Ruby and Emma wore identical expressions of horror as their men purposefully strode forward to put an end to the ridiculous affair which had been not of their making. The music died and silence fell over the bar.
Gold decided he'd have to be the first to make a move and tossed Belle's gift to the table in front of her, unmindful of the drinks which toppled, or the contents spilling to the stained carpet at their feet. "Madam, I believe this was the gift which should have been delivered to you this afternoon," he growled, his eyes dark with anger that his evening with his wife had been ruined.
Belle glared at him suspiciously, but delved into the box anyway. Her hands caressed the leather cover of the leather-bound book inside, her features softening. "Oh, Rum." She rose from her seat and moved to stand before him, the book cradled to her chest. She ducked her head sheepishly, feeling a fool since she and her friends had come to the conclusion that they had received the gifts by mistake. "I'm sorry I over reacted."
Gold placed a finger beneath her chin to lift her face to his. "You accused me of having an affair with Miss Blanchard, dearie," he said, and she couldn't mistake the coldness in his voice for any other emotion.
"I'm sorry," she admitted, swallowing her pride and stepping closer to kiss the ridged line of his jaw.
"I love you, my Belle. No one could ever replace you in my affections and you know this," he murmured adamantly, his voice warming as she stepped into his embrace.
She wrapped her arms around his neck, holding him close as she played with the ends of his hair. "I love you, too, Rum. I should never have doubted you." Gold kissed his wife in the middle of the bar, not having a care for their audience. She was breathless and clinging to him when he broke away and pressed his brow to hers. "Can we go home and pretend this never happened."
"Dearest, I believe that's the best suggestion I've heard all day."
Charming sat down beside Snow and took her hand in his as he watched the Golds leave the bar hand in hand. "We have a firm suspicion that Regina was behind the mix up with the gifts," he told her, pushing his own gift across the table to her.
Ruby scowled at the thought as she was presented with her gift from Whale. "She just can't stand to see anyone happy."
Jefferson didn't want to propose to Emma in the seediest bar in town and convinced her to leave with him, waving to their friends over his shoulder as he caressed the ring box in his pocket. It didn't take long for Viktor to coax Ruby to leave with him to salvage their evening and Snow was left with her husband, a small smile on her face as she opened her gift and found the snowflake necklace.
"Am I forgiven?" he asked, his arm sliding around her waist as he pulled her closer.
"There's nothing to forgive," she said. "But can you promise me one thing?"
"Next year … could you please wrap and deliver your own gifts?"
Regina returned to her cold empty house and removed her coat, hanging it on the rack by the door. It had been fun while it lasted, but deep down she really gained no satisfaction for what she'd done. It hadn't eased the loneliness in her soul or lightened the heaviness in her heart. She moved into the den and stoked the fire from the embers which remained from earlier in the day. She didn't even have her son to spend the evening with. Sometimes she thought it was just what she deserved.
She poured herself a drink and sat on the settee, hoping to put the day behind her without her usual depression sneaking in to ruin it for her. "And did my lady enjoy the show?"
Regina shrieked and stumbled to her feet, whirling at the sound of his voice as it filtered in from the now open French doors. "You! What are you doing in my house? How did you get in?" she asked, a hand over her heart.
Robin smiled warmly as he moved into the room, his hands clasped behind his back as he stalked towards her. "Your son was helpful enough to disclose the location of your spare key. As to why I am here?" he shrugged, coming to stand before her. He held out a single red rose in offering. "I thought that would be obvious."
Regina's ruby lips curled into a sneer as she took the rose from him and brought it to her nose, inhaling deeply. "I don't appreciate you having my son help you to break into my home."
"Tell me, m’lady, was it worth it? Did it fill you up with happiness to see so many lovers in despair?"
"No," she admitted ruefully with a wry twist to her lips.
He tipped her chin up so she was forced to meet his gaze. "Still trying to play the evil queen, are we?" He took the rose from her and brushed the bloom over her lips as his voice dropped to a husky whisper. "You're not the queen here in this land, Regina. You may still be able to wield your power and practice your magic, but no one is going to bow to you any longer. Here you are just a woman, one with hopes and dreams and a woman's desires."
"No, I'm not. I haven't … I can't …" she stammered, faltering, her voice failing her as she felt the wealth of emotion rise up to choke off her words. It had been far too long since someone, anyone, had made her feel this vulnerable.
His arms slipped around her waist and pulled her into him, pressing her gently to his chest. She yielded to him, her armor falling away, and he could only wonder how long it would last. "I know you have the capacity to love, Regina. Let me help you find it again."
She leaned back in his arms and became ensnared by the unbridled hope in his gaze. "I'm afraid," she said honestly. She was afraid to let herself feel anything for this man, afraid to hope, afraid to dream, but the longer he held her, the longer he insisted he wanted to be a part of her life, the more hopeless she was to resist.
His hand tangled in her dark hair and captured her in his gentle grasp. "Don't be afraid, m’lady. Just take a chance and let me in. All I'm asking for is a chance." Slowly he closed the distance between them, his gaze flitting between her eyes and her mouth until there was nothing left between them and he was able to claim her lips with his own.
She could feel the emptiness leave her, could feel him fill her up with emotions she was scared to name and let herself become lost to his kiss as his lips molded to hers, caressed hers. His kiss was a promise, a plea for her to trust him and she found herself wanting it just as much as he did.
He pulled away from her and dropped his brow to her shoulder, gently rubbing soothing circles onto her back. "I won't give up on you, Regina."
She stepped out of his arms, needing the space to clear her head. "Would … um … would you like to stay and perhaps have dinner with me?" she asked hesitantly, glancing away nervously.
Robin smiled warmly, his expression open and hopeful. "Not tonight, m’lady. I fear you have much to think about." He took her hand in his and brought it to his lips to brush a kiss to her knuckles. "Tomorrow, however; I expect you to be ready at eight."
A puzzled frown creased her brow as she watched him move to the door. "Ready for what?"
"You'll just have to wait and see."
For the first time in years, she wore a rare genuine smile upon her lips. She had been given another chance and this time she was determined not to let it slip through her fingers.