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Swan's Shelter

Chapter Text

The door snapped shut and she let out a sigh of relief, as she did every morning. Except today was different. She stood in the middle of the grand entrance hall, frozen, waiting until she could be sure he had gone. The car engine roared to life moments later. It idled softly as it rolled backwards, gravel crunching beneath the tyres and swung onto the quiet suburban street. And then the engine sound increased, picking up speed as he accelerated away, the exhaust unnecessarily loud.

She sprang into action as the car faded from earshot. Spinning on the spot, she took the stairs two at a time. In the master bedroom, she reached up to the top of the cupboard and pulled down a large black suitcase, wincing at the stab of pain which the move triggered. But she ignored the tug of her ribs and pushed on. She opened the walk-in wardrobe and dragged the case inside, flipped up the lid and stood to survey the racks before her. Time and space were limited. She pulled out a few of each item of clothing, folding them quickly as she placed them inside the case. A handful of underwear landed on top. A few pairs of shoes followed, specifically her running sneakers and pumps rather than the heels he insisted she wore.

Before moving onto her next task, she removed the tight dress she had been told to wear that morning. The restrictive material of her outfits always made her feel claustrophobic, constricted. Peeling it off, she left it lying on the floor and reached for some old jeans she rarely wore. Pairing them with a simple cream pullover, she dragged the half-full case from the walk-in and moved to the en-suite.

Taking the opportunity to tie up her hair, she gathered the long brown strands and pulled it away from her face. He didn’t like her hair up, so she always wore it down. But it irritated her and got in her way, especially as long as it had grown now. Hair dealt with, she set to work. Shampoo, conditioner, toothbrush, toothpaste, hairbrush, sanitary products. She needed nothing else. Well, she didn’t after grabbing a face wipe and aggressively removing the makeup she had been expected to apply that morning.

She paused, staring at herself in the pristine mirror above the expansive double basin vanity. Her skin was paler than usual and worry lines spread from the corners of her eyes, usually masked by her make-up. Fingers reached up to touch the healed scar for a moment, the skin tingling slightly as she caressed the gouge which marred her lip and led up towards her nose.

And then she was on the move again; the washbag tossed into the case which she dragged from the room and down the corridor. Pushing open the bedroom door, upon which five wooden letters spelled out the name of the occupant, she shifted the case inside. Standing up, she surveyed her son’s room for a moment before glancing at how much space was still available. Some of his possessions would have to be left behind. She could only take his favourite and apologise for anything she forgot. It was all replaceable, she reminded herself as she began to pull a number of outfits from his dresser. On top of the clothes were added a few books, some of his favourite toys and the stuffed elephant, unimaginatively named Eddie.

How long did she have? Glancing at the clock on her son’s bedside table, she calculated that she had at least seven hours before her husband returned. But she still had more to do. Zipping the case shut, she heaved it onto the wheels and trundled it down the corridor before bumping it down the stairs. Leaving the packed bag by the front door, she returned to the master bedroom with her handbag. Reaching into the very back of the wardrobe, she fumbled in the darkness until her fingers closed around the tin she had hidden there.

Sitting on the bed, she opened the box and tipped the contents onto the bed. She counted the money, already knowing how much was there. Enough, for now. Gathering the notes back up, she reached for her purse and stuffed the bills inside. They barely fit but half of them would be gone within the hour. The two passports she picked up and put in her bag too. Her cell phone she took out. He tracked that, she knew. Leaving the empty tin and the phone on the bed, she headed out of the bedroom.

It was a warm spring day as she stepped out of the house. Pausing on the top step, she took in a steadying breath.

“Hi Regina! Beautiful morning, right?”

She forced a smile and waved to Alicia, her neighbour across the street who was tending to their immaculate front garden. Suburban neighbours were far too involved in one another’s business for what she had planned today. But there was no way around them. Swinging her handbag onto her shoulder, Regina set out down the sidewalk towards the outskirts of town.

“Damn,” Emma Swan said to herself as she hung up the phone. “Damn, damn, damn.” Her fingers tapped a rhythm on her thigh. One, two, three, four, five, pause. One, two, three, four, five, pause. There was problem which needed to be solved. But she couldn’t solve it herself. Not tonight. She had plans. The plans had been made a week ago. She couldn’t change those plans. There was only one thing for it.

“Ruby,” Emma called out through the open office door towards the reception area. “Can you work this evening?”

“Why?” the woman asked, poking her head around the doorframe, bright red hair swinging almost down to her waist.

Emma swallowed. “Ella just called. Alex is sick and she’s not going to make it to work tonight. I … I can’t cover her. Can you?”

“Yeah, I guess so. But if I do tonight, could you cover my Sunday shift?”

Sunday. What was happening on Sunday? What did she need to do on Sunday? Turning the pages of the rota list in front of her to buy her some more time, the tapping resumed. One, two, three, four, five, pause. One, two, three, four, five, pause. Yes, Sunday was ok. She could do Sunday. She had no plans on Sunday. “No problem,” she agreed, crossing out Ruby’s name with a single neat black line and writing her own next to it.

“Thanks, Em. You’re the best.” Ruby disappeared back to the reception, leaving Emma alone to process the new schedule for her week.

Tonight was as planned. She was meeting up with her foster parents. They were going to have dinner. Mary Margaret had already sent her through the link to the restaurant and Emma had driven past to make sure she knew the route from her apartment to the restaurant. They would eat, catch up, then her parents would go home and Emma would return to her home. The difference would be that Ruby, her flatmate, wouldn’t be there. She would be working the night shift. But that was ok; Ruby often wasn’t there. Emma was used to that.

The change was on Sunday. On Sunday Emma would be working too. Emma didn’t usually work Sundays but she had in the past and it had been fine. In fact, Sundays were the same as Mondays, or Tuesdays, or Wednesdays, or any other day of the week. One, two, three, four, five, pause. One, two, three, four, five, pause. Ok. Emma took a deep breath. Everything was ok. She hadn’t planned anything for her Sunday so nothing needed to be cancelled. Opening her cell, she set an alarm for 7:24am on Sunday. That was the time she woke up every morning when she had a shift. It was the perfect amount of time to get ready.

Done. The changes had been done. The rota had been sorted. Everything was fine. Emma was satisfied and calm once more. Getting to her feet, she left the office and headed out into the reception area. It was quiet. Ruby was sat texting on her cell. That was ok, as long as she stopped if someone came in. She headed down the corridor and stopped at the next door. Punching in the security code, she pushed them open when the electronic buzz permitted her to. On the other side, a child was screaming, ragged sobs and indistinguishable words.

“What’s going on?” Emma asked Belle Gold, the shelter’s resident counsellor who was stood in the doorway to her office, arms folded as she listened to the anguish.

“One of the new kids is upset. He wants to see his dad and his mom said no.”

“Did you talk to him?”

“Not yet. She seemed pretty reluctant to let me, to be honest. They only checked in last night and when I offered her a session this morning, she said she didn’t need my help. I tried to talk to her just now but she wouldn’t let me in.”

It wasn’t unusual for those staying to resist help at first. They were wary, suspicious. Their lives had, for the most part, recently seen a dramatic change. New people were scary. Change was scary. Emma understood that. It was one of the things which made her so good at her job.

“I’ll go and see if I can help,” she said, setting off down the corridor, listening outside each room as she passed until she found the one from which the screams were emanating. The door was closed. One, two, three, four, five, pause. One, two, three, four, five, pause. She raised her knuckles and knocked on the wood.

“We’re fine,” came the harried response.

“I just wanted to see if you need anything,” Emma replied. “My name’s Emma. I’m the manager here. Would you mind if I came in?”

It had taken Emma a while to become comfortable with asking permission to enter people’s rooms. But she knew now that sometimes it was necessary to offer her support and services. Years of training and experience had boosted her confidence in certain areas, so interactions such as these were second nature. To those who knew Emma outside of work, the difference between the blonde woman at the centre compared to how she was in other social situations was as different as night and day.

No one had ever been able to understand this behavioural change. The only explanation her psychologist had offered was that Emma’s work acted as an ‘obsession’ in her life. People on the spectrum often fixate on something around which much of their world revolves. But rather than knowing everything there is to know about bumblebees or computer software programs or car engines, Emma had not only learned but applied everything there was to know about caring for and protecting survivors of domestic abuse. In some strange, unexplainable way, this also translated into her social interactions with them which were calm, measured, confident and supportive.

“Fine,” came the answer after several seconds.

Emma turned the door handle, none of the doors were fitted with locks inside the main part of the shelter, and stepped into the room. On the bed sat a dumpy woman with frazzled brown hair. Her mouth was drawn into a tight, thin, tired line. In her arms was a baby, less than six months old. Sitting in the corner of the room, crying loudly, was a boy of about four.

“I’m Emma,” she said again, having not yet met the latest new resident. She didn’t ask the woman’s name. Handing over personal information wasn’t required when anyone entered the shelter. If they wished to remain anonymous, if doing so made them feel safe, then the staff never pushed. The woman said nothing. “May I?” she pressed on, gesturing to the small boy.

The mother nodded and Emma crossed slowly to the boy and crouched down a few feet from him. “Hi, I’m Emma.”

The boy raised his head from between his knees. “Go away! I want my dad!” he shouted.

Undeterred, Emma sat herself down near the boy, her head resting against the wall. She noted as she did so that the kid didn’t have a New York accent. It wasn’t unusual for people who arrived at the shelter to be from out of state. When running from someone, or something, distance often made people feel safer, as did being in the most densely populated cities in the United States. There was a certain anonymity to NYC. “You know, we have a really cool games room here. Want to see it?”

“I don’t want to play games with you,” the boy said, his words muffled against his legs, face pressed into his pants once more. “I hate grownups.”

“Want to know a secret? I’m not keen on grownups either sometimes. But everyone here is really nice, I promise. And there might be some other kids in the room too so maybe you could play with then?” Emma offered. “We have lots of jigsaws and there are even a few computer games.”

The boy’s blue tear-filled eyes reappeared. “Computer games?”

Emma nodded. “Yep. Have you ever played Mario Cart?” He shook his head. “Maybe you and your mom could come and check out the game before lunch?” Emma suggested, glancing at the woman who was watching the interaction with a relieved yet tired expression.

“Ok, but only if I get to play computer games,” the boy said, turning to look defiantly at his mother.

“Sure,” the woman nodded, grateful that the screams had stopped and willing to give her son anything t make him happy after the trauma they had experienced. “Thank you,” she added to Emma.

“No problem,” Emma smiled. “Shall I show you guys where the room is?”

All new arrivals at the shelter got a full tour on their first day. Emma liked this part of her work a lot; showing the women and their children around and pointing out all of the features which made them a secure facility. Whatever or whomever they were running from, Swan’s Shelter kept them safe.

“Are you sure you want that one?” the lanky teenager frowned. “We’ve got way cooler models.”

“I’m not looking for cool. I’m looking for reliable,” Regina replied. She had done her research. She knew what she wanted. “So, the paperwork?”

“Whatever,” the teen shrugged, gesturing for Regina to follow him into the office of the used car dealership. Taking a seat opposite the boy, Regina glanced at her watch. She had six hours now. “Ok, I need you to fill this out,” the teen said, handing her several pieces of paper. “I need your license and your credit card.”

“Oh, I’m paying cash,” Regina said, pulling out her purse and quickly counting out the amount. The boy’s eyes bulged at the sight of several thousand dollars but Regina ignored him, setting to work filling in the papers as fast as possible.

Within fifteen minutes, she was unlocking the door of the decade-old Volvo, feeling immediately like a soccer mom, and turning the key. The engine came to life at once, the vibrations somehow soothing her racing heart. One step closer. Pulling out of the used car dealership, she waved once to the teen and turned the opposite direction to her home. Just in case. Circling the block, she paused to fill up the generous tank before continuing onwards. Back on the correct road, she drove towards the house she had been living in for almost a decade.

She was relieved to see when she reached the driveway that her nosey neighbour had gone indoors. If anyone saw her, she was going to have questions to answer. Getting out of the car, she hurried to the side door of the garage and entered. The room was dark but she knew what she needed. Navigating to the side of her own car, she unlocked the door and began unstrapping the car seat. It took her only a few minutes to get it out. The process of fitting it into the Volvo took a few more, her heart pounding in her chest. The longer she was out here, the more likely it was someone would see her. At last the seat was in. Regina slammed the car shut, raced into the house and closed the front door, leaning against it and breathing heavily.

It’s ok, she said to herself. You can do this. You have to do this. Now for the final steps of the plan. She headed to the kitchen and began putting together some food, enough to sustain both her son and herself, for the journey ahead. Sandwiches, chips, fruit and several drinks were packed into the large cooler which she deposited by the front door beside the suitcase.

Once done, she returned to the kitchen and emptied her handbag, sorting through the items one final time. No phone, of course. The two passports. Close to seven thousand dollars in cash, now the money for the car had been spent. She pulled out her debit and credit cards. Neither would be needed from now on. An assortment of makeup was also left on the table, only the vanilla lip balm put back in the bag. Her keys she decided to take, just in case she needed to return. But she wasn’t going to; she couldn’t. She had to leave. She had to get away. For her son’s sake and her own.

Satisfied that she had all she needed, and anything she had forgotten could be replaced, she stood up and gathered her bag once more. As she walked from the kitchen, her eyes fell on the Elmer book she had been reading with her son before dinner the previous evening. Picking it up, she slid it into her bag as well before returning to the hallway.

“Ok, Regina. You can do this,” the brunette said to herself, looking sternly at her reflection in the hallway mirror.

Opening the front door a crack, she peered around it, checking to see if anyone was in the street. The coast was clear. Picking up the food and the suitcase caused a stabbing pain in her chest but she ignored it as she heaved everything out of the house and closed the door. Clambering down the steps, she pointed the key fob at the new car and opened the trunk. The suitcase was lifted and thrown unceremoniously into it before the lid slammed shut, her ribs protesting worse than ever.

“Where are you off to?”

Regina spun around to see her neighbour stood at the bottom of her driveway. “Oh, Alicia, hi. Um, just taking some old clothes to the thrift store.”

“Is this your car?” the woman asked, ignoring the answer to her first question and asking a second.

“Yep, mine’s in the shop,” Regina lied.

Alicia’s nose wrinkled. “It’s old.”

Regina nodded, feigning annoyance. “I know, I told them that but they had no other options. Anyway, um, I’d better be going. I’m spring cleaning today.”

“Oh, that explains the outfit,” Alicia said, eyeing Regina’s unusually dressed-down appearance.

“Yep,” Regina agreed, seizing the excuse she had been handed.

“Ok, well, see you on Friday for dinner, right?”

“Sure, can’t wait,” Regina smiled, picking up the food cooler and circling to the driver’s side.

“What’s in the cooler?”

Regina gritted her teeth. “I’ve made some baked goods for the school. Just dropping them off before this afternoon’s sale.”

Alicia gave a little clap. “Ah, you’re just the perfect wife and mother, aren’t you? Parker didn’t even tell me there was a bake sale today. I’d better hurry and make something so you don’t show me up in front of the rest of the PTA!” With that, the woman at last turned and scuttled back to her own corner of suburbia.

Breathing a sigh of relief, Regina opened the car door and climbed in. Reversing out of the drive, she set off down the street towards her son’s school, less than half a kilometre down the road. The final stop before they left.

It was just before lunch time by the time she arrived. Almost five hours before he came home. She explained that an emergency dental appointment had been made and waited for the receptionist to go and get her son from his class. Crossing her legs, her foot jiggled nervously as she watched the door. Come on, she thought to herself. Every second matters. We have to get a head start. She let out a little sigh of relief as she saw her son emerge into the waiting area.

“Mom, I have to go to the dentist?” he asked at once.

“Henry,” she said, pulling her son into her arms as he walked towards her. “Come on, I’ll explain in the car.”

“But my teeth don’t hurt.”

“Do you have your coat?”

“No, I didn’t bring one today, remember? You said I didn’t have to.”

So there’s one thing we’ll have to replace, Regina mused. At least it was spring moving into summer rather than fall heading towards winter. “Ok, well, let’s go.”

Henry looked curiously up at his mother, unused to seeing her without makeup and sensing the tension radiating from her body. “Is something happening? Am I sick?”

“No, my little prince,” Regina said, crouching down at once, desperate to reassure him. “I’m just in a bit of a hurry. Come on, I’ll explain later.”

“Ok, bye Mrs Green,” Henry agreed, waving at the receptionist.

“Bye Henry,” Mrs Green replied. “I’ll see you tomorrow.”

Regina forced a smile as she pushed open the door for her son and followed him out into the sunlit parking lot.

“Where’s the car?” Henry frowned when he couldn’t see his mother’s vehicle.

“It’s in the shop. There was a problem with it so we’re using this one today,” Regina said, leading the way over to the silver Volvo.

“Ok,” Henry accepted. “So, why do I have to go to the dentist?”

Regina didn’t answer and instead focused on helping Henry into the car and securing his belt. Once that was done, she moved to her seat and started the engine. “Mom, the dentist,” Henry repeated. “Is there something bad about my teeth. Cos you know that tooth that got real wobbly and fell out last month and the new one isn’t there yet. Do I need a plastic tooth?”

“No Henry, you’re not going to the dentist.”

“Where are we going then?” Henry asked.

“On a little trip,” Regina replied.

“Where to?”

“New York City.”

Chapter Text

“Mom, I need to pee.”

“Already? We only left an hour ago,” Regina said, looking in the rear-view mirror at her son.

“Yeah but I didn’t go before we left school and now I wanna pee.”

“Ok, hold on. There’s a gas station in a few miles.”

The car fell quiet again. In fact, Henry had been unnaturally quiet since they drove out of Storybrooke. After Regina had reassured him that they weren’t going to the dentist, he had tucked happily into his lunch and settled back with his iPad which had been switched to Flight Mode and disconnected from the family’s iCloud, just in case.

After only a few more minutes, Regina steered the car off the freeway and pulled into the parking lot of a gas station. Getting out of the car, she let her son out and followed him towards the bathroom block.

“Mom, I can go on my own,” Henry protested when she tried to get him to come with her into the ladies.

“Are you sure.”

“I’m six and three quarters, Mom. I can pee on my own.”

“Ok, I’ll meet you out here. Don’t forget to wash your hands.”

Regina hurried into the ladies bathroom and peed as fast as possible. She hadn’t needed to go but figured she should. The fewer stops they made the better. By the time she emerged, Henry was still not outside. She loitered outside, tapping her foot, glancing at her watch.

“Henry?” she called through the open door after almost a minute.

“Mom, I’m fine,” Henry said, emerging as once. “I was just washing my hands like you said.”

“Sorry,” Regina said, pulling her son in for a quick hug.

The boy wriggled away. “Can we get candy?”

“There’s a chocolate bar in the car.”

“No, I ate that already,” Henry said, looking up at her with wide pleading eyes.

Regina didn’t usually allow her son to eat much junk food. Only on special occasions. She supposed driving five hundred miles was an occasion. “Ok,” she agreed. Henry grinned and led the way into the small convenience store which was attached to the gas station. He stood in front of the colourful display, eyes scanning the range of treats, trying to make a choice. “Henry, come on,” she chivvied eventually.

“Ok, ok,” he said, grabbing an Apollo bar and handing it to Regina. “What do you want?”

“I’m not hungry,” Regina said, moving to the counter to pay.

In truth, Regina hadn’t been hungry for days, weeks, months, maybe even years. Her insides coiled with nerves from the moment she woke each morning, only calming during the hours when she was alone in the house and flickering back to life shortly before her husband was due home. It made enjoying food or even eating at all a challenge. So far that day, she had consumed only a cup of black coffee and an apple. As she received her change, she realised perhaps she needed a little more sustenance given the journey which lay ahead.

“So, where are we going?” Henry asked as they climbed back into the car.

“I told you,” Regina said, twisting around to reach for a sandwich out of the cooler. “New York City.”

“The capital?”

“Actually, New York City isn’t the capital of anything. The capital of New York State is Albany and the capital of the United States is Washington D.C.”

There was a pause as the six-year-old considered the information he had just been handed. “Whatever,” he said eventually. “So, why are we going to New York?”

“Because it’s a big and exciting new city and we’re going to have a lot of fun there.”

“Like a vacation?”

“Sort of.”

“Is Dad joining us?”

Regina flinched. She wasn’t sure why but she hadn’t expected that conversation to happen so soon. “Um, it’ll just be you and me for a while,” she said eventually. Regina knew it was important not to lie to Henry but she also didn’t think now was the right time to tell him everything. He was too young. They were too close to home. She needed time, space, a chance to process.

Turning the key, the car engine fired back to life. For once, Henry seemed content with the limited answers he had been given and as Regina glanced in the rear view to reverse out of the space, she saw her son had already put in his headphones and was absorbed in his tablet once more.

“Rubes, I’m heading out now,” Emma informed her friend and employee. “Call if there’s any problems.”

“I’ll be fine,” Ruby assured her, not even looking up from the laptop where she was logging some data from a recent new entrant to the shelter. She doubted all of the information was true but that didn’t matter. They never forced any of the women to disclose more than they were comfortable with. Over time, the truth tended to come out as they became more comfortable and felt safe in the shelter. The first few days, however, tended to be laced with suspicion. Unsurprising, given may of the situations these women had escaped from.

“Well, I’ll be in tomorrow morning at eight. See you then.”

“Yep, say hi to your parents for me.”

“Foster parents,” Emma corrected automatically. She loved Mary Margaret and David very much, but they weren’t her biological parents. Labels were important to Emma. Her parents had abandoned her when she was a baby. Her adoptive parents gave her back to the system when it became obvious Emma was ‘different’ to other children. And her foster parents were the two people who agreed to take on this ‘difficult’ child, as Emma had been labelled by the time she was six. “And I will. Have a good night.”

With that, she pressed the door release button and stepped out of the non-descript building. Glancing left and right, not looking for anyone in particular, she set off at a brisk walk towards her apartment which was located just a few blocks away. The streets were busy with commuters, crowds spilling from the subway stations, erupting from the earth like swarms of suited ants. Emma always picked her route to avoid the caverns which led to the transport system. She avoided the system all together.

Everyone thought it was crazy to have a car in New York City but for Emma it was a necessity. Crowded places, cramped spaces from which she couldn’t easily remove herself made her uncomfortable. The subway was a no go. She also hated small talk and after a few attempts at using cabs, she realised that wasn’t an option either. When Uber had exploded onto the transport scene, she gave them a shot too, at Ruby’s insistence that it would revolutionise her life. The drivers were worse than yellow cabs; chattier! So the few times Emma needed to go somewhere outside of walking distance, she drove.

Another resident of her building was leaving just as Emma arrived at the door. She nodded and smiled at him as he held the door from her. Mary Margaret had told her it was polite to do that. The man opened his mouth as if to say something but Emma scuttled past before he could begin. She didn’t want to talk to him. Meeting new people was hard work and she need time to prepare.

Except for at work. For some reason, Emma was comfortable standing behind the desk, being the face of Swan’s Shelter. She would welcome anyone and everyone who appeared outside the door and pressed the intercom. Regardless of who it was, what they had experienced, why they had turned up at a women’s shelter, Emma was warm and welcoming and did her best to make them feel calm and safe.

“I don’t get it,” Ruby had mused one day as she leaned against the doorjamb to the office.

“Don’t get what?” Emma asked as she handed a young woman a locker key where she could store the small rucksack which held all her worldly possessions.

“You’re so … normal here,” Ruby said eventually, knowing it was the wrong word to use but unable to find a better one.

“There’s no such thing as normal,” Emma replied simply, watching the girl fumble to enter the code which granted her access to the back area where she had already been given a tour and allocated a room.

“No, but you know what I mean,” Ruby protested as Emma turned to look at her. “I mean you’re fine with me and people you know outside of work but you do say and do some weird shit in social situations when we’re with strangers. And then you walk in here and you’re perfectly calm and you know exactly what to say to make these women feel safe and … yeah, I don’t get it!”

“Well, nor do I,” Emma admitted.

Yes, women in the shelter Emma could talk to. But a man she’d seen a handful of times in the vestibule of her building, with his gentle hazel eyes and his floppy hair, no. Her stomach did a flip just thinking about talking to him, even now as she was stood alone in the elevator, waiting for the upwards journey to finish. One, two, three, four, five, pause. One, two, three, four, five, pause. The illuminated seven on the screen told her she’d reached her destination. The elevator doors slid open and she hurried out, fumbling for her keys in her handbag.

As soon as she was inside the apartment, she slammed the door and slid the deadbolt across. Then she slid it back. And across again. Finally, she slid it back and left it there, forehead resting on the cool wood. One, two, three, four, five, pause. One, two, three, four, five, pause.

Turning around, she placed her handbag carefully on the side table. Her keys tinkled into the dish beside it and she connected her cell to the phone charger which lay waiting. The screen illuminated, confirming the power source. 5:17pm. She had forty-three minutes until she had to leave to meet her parents. She had timed the drive to the restaurant. It would take twenty-one minutes. She had to meet them at 6:30pm. That gave her a nine-minute buffer in case something unexpected happened. Emma hated being late.

“Mom, I’m bored, can we stop now?”

“We’re nearly there,” Regina promised. It was true. She could see the glow of the city on the horizon. The night sky lighter where New York stood, its millions of inhabitants just living their lives.

“We’ve been driving forever!” Henry sighed.

It was true. Well, seven hours. Henry had slept for several of them, drifting off soon after they passed Portland. Regina was exhausted but she knew they couldn’t stop. Not until she reached her destination, not until they were safe. Or at least hidden. A glance at the satellite navigation system told her she had barely twenty miles to go.

“We’ll stop soon, I promise, my little prince.”

“And then can we have food? I’m hungry.”

“Have another sandwich,” Regina offered.

“There aren’t any. I ate them all. Can we stop and buy something?”

Regina glanced at the time on the dashboard. He would have returned home over two hours ago. He would have realised by now that they were not there, that something was wrong. Her car was in the garage, her phone was on the bed. Sooner or later he would think to look in the drawer in his desk where their passports were kept and realise two were missing. Sooner or later he’d be looking for them. They had to be unfindable.

“We’re about half an hour away,” Regina promised her son. “What are you watching on your iPad?”

“It died. Do you have a charger?”

“Yes but nowhere to plug it in.”

“Your real car has chargers in it. This car is stupid.”

“Henry,” Regina admonished.

“What? It is. It’s a stupid car which smells funny and I’m hungry and I don’t want to go to New York. I want to go home. I want to see Dad.”

The tears started before the sentence finished. Regina looked in the rear-view mirror and saw her son’s face crinkle. Oh great, she thought to herself. The tantrum was about to start. She had two options; drive through the screams which were due to erupt or pull over and try to contain it. While every fibre of her being wanted to put as much distance as possible between herself and Maine, her maternal instinct overrode that. Indicating, she pulled off the highway and stopped on the side of the road, traffic continuing to thunder past.

“Henry,” Regina said, twisting around in her seat, ignoring the twinge from her ribs and reaching out to pat her son’s knee. He wriggled away as far as his car seat would allow. “Henry, I’m sorry. I will explain everything to you, I promise. But we can’t go home right now. We’re going to have an amazing time in New York together though. It’s a really fun city. We can go to the park and there’s a zoo and -”

“I want Dad,” Henry shouted. “Why isn’t Dad with us?”

Regina sighed. “Dad couldn’t come with us today, sweetheart.”

“Why not?” he bawled. “Why couldn’t Dad take me, not you? I hate you!”

Even though Regina didn’t believe the words, they stung. Her heart clenched at the mere thought of her husband taking Henry anywhere without her. She didn’t trust him one bit. He had proven just a week earlier that he wasn’t to be trusted with their son. But Henry, optimistic and naive, couldn’t see the danger the man posed, to her and himself. The incident which had been the final straw for Regina was long forgotten by the six-year-old even though it had occurred only eight days earlier.

Regina didn’t want to be the one to shatter the boy’s illusion of his father. And it wasn’t right to discuss such as subject while parked on the side of the freeway. There would be time to explain everything later.

“Henry, I love you very much and -”

“No, you don’t. You hate me.”

“Henry, I love you more than anything else in the world,” Regina said, tears now sparkling in her eyes, the pain and anguish she had been keeping in all day finally showing. “I’m sorry I can’t explain everything right now, but you have to trust me that what I’m doing is for your own good and mine.”

There was nothing more she could do so Regina turned around in her seat, fastened her belt once more and restarted the car’s engine. Gliding smoothly back onto the freeway, she checked the fuel gauge. There was enough to get them to their destination. No more stops. Henry whimpered in the back seat, no longer screaming but sniffling instead. Regina didn’t respond. She wasn’t ignoring him; as a mother, ignoring her child’s pain was impossible. But she was focused. Focused on the road ahead. On getting where they needed to go. On reaching safety.

Emma scanned the menu, trying to work out what she was going to eat. Not linguini and shrimp. She didn’t like shrimp. Not the lasagne. It came with a side order of garlic bread and she didn’t like garlic.

“I think I’ll have the ravioli,” Mary Margaret said, smiling up at the waiter who had arrived to take their order.

“The squid ink pasta for me, please,” David said, “and a beer,” he added, passing over the menu.

“And for you?”

Emma’s eyes snapped up at the waiter who was looking directly at her. She dropped her gaze. “I don’t know,” she mumbled.

“Give us a few minutes,” Mary Margaret suggested quietly to the waiter who nodded and disappeared without a word.

Her foster parents were used to this. Emma struggled to make decisions when it came to eating out. Her tastes were particular and restaurant dishes often put together food in a way that one ingredient in every single dish meant Emma wouldn’t like it. This caused the blonde some distress as she disliked being awkward and asking for dishes to be prepared differently to how the menu stated they came.

“What about the carbonara?” David suggested, knowing it was a favourite of his foster daughter’s.

“It might have a raw egg on the top which I have to mix in,” Emma pointed out. Raw egg was definitely on Emma’s list of food which was not to be consumed.

“We can just ask them not to add that,” David pointed out. “It’s the last ingredient so it would be easy for them to add it in earlier and cook it for you or leave it out.”

Emma shook her head.

“Ok, what about a pizza?” Mary Margaret suggested. “Pepperoni?”

“I’m not hungry enough to eat a whole pizza,” Emma mused.

“We could ask for anything you don’t eat to be put in a takeout box. You could eat it for breakfast.”

At David’s suggestion, Emma’s nose wrinkled. “Pizza for breakfast? No, that’s wrong. Breakfast is toast and blueberry jam and one coffee.”

“Ok, then you could take it to work for your lunch tomorrow.”

Emma thought about that. Tomorrow was Friday. On Friday she and Ruby went to the deli on the corner and she ordered a meatball sub with no cheese. But tomorrow Ruby wouldn’t be working because she pulled a double shift. So Emma would be on her own. That meant she could change her lunch plans and eat cold pizza and it wouldn’t affect anyone else. One, two, three, four, five, pause. One, two, three, four, five, pause. Friday’s lunch was going to be cold pepperoni pizza.

“Ok,” she nodded eventually.

Mary Margaret smiled and waved their waiter back over. Emma ordered and asked for a soda water. The waiter repeated their list back to them before disappearing to the kitchen.

“So,” David asked. “How’s work?”

“Good,” Emma smiled. “We got that grant.”

“Fantastic,” Mary Margaret beamed. “Does that mean you can expand?”

“Yep,” Emma nodded. “We’re planning to build three more rooms out the back. That’s three more women we can help at any one time. It means we’ll lose some of our outdoor space but no one really uses it anyway and we’ll still have a small area if the women want to go out and smoke or the kids want to play. And we’re improving our security system too. There are going to be better locks on the entrances as well as inside. Just in case.”

David and Mary Margaret had visited the shelter only a handful of times. In fact, David hadn’t been inside beyond the foyer. It was a women-only space in the rear, a rule Emma refused to break for anyone, even the man who raised her. She promised the women that no men would be allowed and Emma wasn’t someone to go back on her word.

“And how’s Lily?” Mary Margaret asked halfway through their main meal after they had exhausted talk of Emma’s work.

“Mom, I told you, we broke up,” Emma sighed, placing the half-eaten piece of pizza back onto her plate.

“Yes, but I thought that maybe you two would get back together,” Mary Margaret said. “Lily is such a lovely young woman.”

Emma shook her head. “No, that’s not going to happen. Lily told me she didn’t see a future with me. If there is no future, then the relationship should stop. I told her that. She agreed. It’s over.”

“But you love her.”

One, two, three, four, five, pause. One, two, three, four, five, pause. Talking about feelings, especially painful ones, was hard for Emma. Emotions were complex and unpredictable which made them hard to control. Emma didn’t like elements of her life which she couldn’t control. Emma didn’t really like having feelings at all which was why she had only had two relationships in her life. The first had been at college, an awkward and confusing yet gentle and slow introduction to love. She and Becky had split shortly after graduation. It was amicable.

Emma had been single for close to five years before she met Lily and those pesky emotions resurfaced. They had been together for almost three years before Lily had admitted that she didn’t see herself spending the rest of her life with the blonde. They had broken up that night. It had been two months and Emma was starting to move on. She wasn’t ready to date again but the pain was receding. Talking about it was still difficult though. One, two, three, four, five, pause. One, two, three, four, five, pause.

“I loved her,” Emma corrected her foster mother. “I don’t love her now.”

Mary Margaret opened her mouth to say something, but David laid a hand on his wife’s arm. He knew no good would come of pursuing this conversation. Instead, he started to tell Emma about the new project he had started for their Scarsdale home. After a few minutes, Emma picked up the discarded piece of pizza and continued to eat.

Ruby’s eyes scanned the black and white security feeds, checking everything was ok. Nothing was out of the ordinary. The corridors were quiet, with just a few women and children wandering back from the dining hall towards their rooms. The common room was fairly busy, the television holding most people’s attention but a few of the children were gathered around the foosball table, making their own entertainment.

Everything was quiet. She picked up her cell and checked the time. Almost eight. She yawned. The day had been long already and now she was facing a night on call. She wasn’t required to be awake behind the desk. The building was secure, so she didn’t need to be on guard. But she was expected to be available if anyone arrived at the centre of if anyone already inside needed her. There was a small bed set up in the office which she’d retreat to when she was ready for sleep. Often, the nights were quiet anyway but being woken once or twice was not unusual.

She returned to reading an article Emma had forwarded to her based on some new studies of domestic abuse victims. Emma was always encouraging her staff to ensure their knowledge was up to date and in line with the latest research. She was barely halfway through the paper when the buzzer for the front door rang. Turning to look at the security feed, she saw two people standing outside the front door. A woman and a small child. The rest of the street was deserted.

Pressing the intercom, she answered the request. “Hello?”

There was a pause. There always was. “Hello, is this Swan’s Shelter?”

“Yes, it is,” Ruby replied. “Are you looking for somewhere to stay?”

“Yes please.”

“Ok, how many of you are there?”

“Just me and my son.”

“Come on in.”

She pressed the door release and stood up, ready to greet the new arrival. After only a few seconds, the heavy wooden door in front of her swung open and a small boy appeared, closely followed by a woman. Dark hair, cut into a stylish bob, framed her striking features but her brown eyes darted nervously around as she took in the new space.

“Good evening,” Ruby smiled. “Welcome.”

“Hi,” the woman said, moving further into the room, chivvying her son forwards. “Um, we’re looking for somewhere to stay.”

“You’ve come to the right place,” Ruby smiled. “I’m Ruby.”

“Hi,” the brunette said again. “I’m Regina. This is Henry.”

“Hi Regina, Henry. Welcome to Swan’s. There are just a few bits of paper I need you to fill in.” She reached for a fresh set of intake forms and clipped them to a board, sliding them over the desk towards the brunette. “Anything you want to leave blank, you can. We don’t ask you to disclose anything you aren’t comfortable with, including your name.”

“Could have told me that thirty seconds ago,” Regina laughed dryly.

“Everything here is completely confidential. We’re not going to share the information you give us with anyone. You’re safe here.”

“Safe?” Henry asked, eyes barely able to see over the top of the desk where Ruby sat. “Safe from what?”

“Just safe to sleep here,” Regina jumped in quickly. “We need somewhere to sleep after our long drive, don’t we?”

“Is this a hotel?” Henry frowned. It didn’t look like the hotels he had been to with him mom and dad on vacation. Where was the pool?

“Yes, I guess you could say that,” Regina nodded, picking up the clipboard and pen and moving to take a seat. Henry followed, climbing up beside his mother and looking around.

“I’m hungry. Can we eat now?”

“We’ve got a canteen inside. I’m sure you’ll be able to eat something there,” Ruby offered when Regina looked up questioningly.

“Are there burgers?” the boy asked, face lighting up at the possibility. He got to eat burgers on special occasions and surely a vacation was special enough.

“I’m not sure what’s on the menu today,” Ruby admitted. “But once your mom has finished the forms, I’ll take you through and we can find out.”

“Mom, I want my iPad,” Henry said, tugging on Regina’s sleeve.

“It’s in the car,” Regina replied. “We’ll get it in a minute.”

“You have a car?” Ruby asked.

“Yeah, we drove here.”

“From Maine,” Henry piped up.

Well, Regina thought, between she and Henry, there was no willingness to play their cards close to their chests.

“We have an underground parking lot you can use,” Ruby said. “I wouldn’t leave it on the street. This neighbourhood is safe but you never know.”

“Thank you,” Regina replied.

The three of them fell silent as Regina finished up the forms. She kept the details as vague as possible for the questions which asked her reasons for coming to Swan’s Shelter. In the address section, she just put as Maine. She left her surname blank too. Once done, she stood up and handed the forms over.

“Thanks,” Ruby smiled. “So, do you have any luggage you want to bring in from the car?”

“Yeah, a case and a few bags,” Regina said.

Ruby glanced at the internal and external security cameras once more and then came out from around the desk. “I’ll help you,” she said, leading the way back out of the building and onto the street.

It was dark outside but the sidewalk was well lit. The street’s ambiance was one of the reasons Emma had chosen this particular location for the shelter. Regina pointed to the car and together they unloaded the large case, the now empty food cooler and Henry’s school bag.

“I can take these inside with Henry if you want to park the car,” Ruby offered.

“Is that ok?” Regina asked. Her energy levels were fading fast and she was desperate to get settled. In fact, she wanted nothing more to collapse into a bed, curl her arms around her son and sleep for hours.

“Sure. So the parking lot is that entrance just on the right there. The code for the gate is 5291. Our bays have SS painted on the floor. There should be plenty free. Not many of our guests bring cars. Buzz the front door when you come back. I’ll issue you with your pass once I’ve given you the tour and gone through the house rules, so you can come and go whenever you wish.”

“Thanks,” Regina said. “Henry,” she crouched down so she was eye level with her son, “can you go inside with Ruby and wait for me?”

“Ok,” Henry said, stifling a yawn. His tantrum, while over now, had worn him out.

Ruby offered Regina a reassuring smile before leading her small son back into the building.

“Do you live here?” Henry asked as Ruby stacked their case and bags beside a door which led to the rear part of the building.

“No, I live near here. But this is where I work, so I spend a lot of time here.”

“I live in Maine with Mom and Dad. Mom said we’re coming to New York for vacation. Is this New York?”

“Yes, this is a part of New York called The Bronx. The famous bit of New York is called Manhattan and we’re not too far from there. Maybe one day your mom will take you to see the Empire State Building.”

“A building? That’s boring. She told me there was a zoo.”

“There is a zoo,” Ruby smiled. “It’s in Central Park.”

“Does the park have swings?”

“It sure does,” Ruby nodded. “There are lots of different things to do in the park. It’s really big.”

“Like a soccer field?”


Henry’s eyes widened. “Cool. I wanna go play soccer there with Dad when he comes.”

Ruby said nothing in response to that. She had met countless children in the centre who had not yet been told about or come to terms with where they were and why they were there. Henry, at the age of six, was surely too young to understand anyway. Similarly, Ruby had no information of what had driven Regina to Swan’s Shelter although she had her suspicions. It wasn’t her place to speculate, however. But before she needed to find a new, safe subject, the buzzer sounded.

Circling the desk, Ruby checked it was indeed Regina outside before pressing the door release button. The woman entered quickly, scanning for Henry at once.

“Right, do you want the tour?” Ruby asked.

“Yes, I suppose so,” Regina nodded, holding out her hand for Henry. “And then food. Is that ok, my little prince?”

“Food,” Henry nodded. “Yes.”

Ruby smiled. “Let’s go.”

She entered the code which permitted access into the back area and, with the help of Regina, shuffled through their case and bags into the back of Swan’s Shelter. The door swung shut behind them. Regina turned around and looked at it.

“You’re safe here,” Ruby murmured, seeing the look of apprehension on the woman’s face. “I promise.”

Chapter Text

Henry picked up his burger with both hands, eyes round as saucers as he took in the feast before him. The first bite dripped ketchup down his shirt but Regina ignored the spreading stain, focusing instead on what Ruby was saying. She herself wasn’t hungry.

“You can have visitors but women only and they have to be signed into the visitor’s log at the front desk. No visitors after nine at night or before eight in the morning. I guess it goes without saying we don’t want you handing out our address to people. We keep a low profile.”

“Understood,” Regina nodded.

“Out of interest, how did you find out about us?” It was a question Emma always wanted her staff to ask new arrivals, curious to know how word of a location which was so deliberately kept hidden was spread.

Regina looked sideways at her son. There was no way he was listening; he was far too busy making his way through his long-awaited dinner. “A woman at the Samaritans recommended you. I called last month. Someone to talk to, you know? I told her I wanted to head to New York and she said you would take me and Henry, no questions asked.”

The fact that she had called the Samaritans was still something Regina couldn’t quite believe. It had been one morning, a few weeks earlier. She had been sipping her second coffee of the morning, staring out of the window over the kitchen sink and something had snapped in her. She needed to talk to someone. She needed to confide in someone. She needed to be listened to, to feel heard.

“Yeah, we get a few referrals from them. We’re not completely unknown but of course we’re a women only space so this address is never given out to men. We don’t have a sign outside for a reason. We don’t have an online presence. We’re not supposed to be found. And no man is granted access to the building under any circumstances,” Ruby added firmly.

“Do men … do they show up here often? Looking for people?”

“No, it’s very rare. And when it does happen, it’s because they’ve been told the address by someone; either the woman themselves or a family member. But regardless of the reason or how they find us, even if the woman they’ve come to see says it’s ok, no man is given access. We have a mediation room next to our office if a meeting is something both parties want but one of the shelter staff will be present at all times.”

Regina nodded. She didn’t think that was a room she was going to need to use. She also didn’t think he’d ever be showing up at the door. There was no way he would be able to track her to New York and she’d told no one of her plans.

“So, you and Henry will have a bedroom to yourselves. There are no locks on the doors for safety reasons but this rear area is completely secure. You’ve seen our back yard. The door out there which leads to an alley is fitted with a coded lock just like the internal door and there’s also a deadbolt. We never really use the door but the access is a fire safety requirement. And as you saw, there’s a code to get into this back area. All of the common rooms and corridors have cameras in them. There are no cameras in the room but, as we said, the doors don’t lock because that’s a security risk for you above all else.”

“So anyone can just walk into our room?”

“In theory, yes, but they won’t. There’s a locker in your room so all of your valuables are safe but you won’t have any problems from anyone in here. Everyone is here for the same reason. We’re a team, a community. You’ll get nothing but support from the other women, I’m sure.”

Regina glanced over to the far side of the common room where half a dozen women were sat watching television, small children dotted on their laps. None of them had paid her any attention. She supposed there were many people coming and going in a place like this. “How many of us are there?”

“Including you, we’ve got eleven women here at the moment. Thirteen kids. We have twelve rooms in total but we’re due to expand.”

“And how long can I stay?”

“As long as you need to. We’ll never ask anyone to leave until they have somewhere safe and secure to go.”

“Ok, thanks,” Regina said, offering the woman a flicker of a smile.

“Any time,” Ruby replied. “There’s always someone here whom you can talk to. We have a psychologist who’s here during the day so you’ll meet with her tomorrow.”

Regina felt her stomach twist at that. “Tomorrow?”

“If you’re ready,” Ruby nodded. “We find it better to have a meeting set up as soon as possible but we won’t force you into anything until you want to talk. If you’d rather wait a few days, that’s fine too.”

“Mom, I’m tired,” Henry piped up.

Ruby and Regina both looked at the boy. Ketchup was smeared around his mouth and his eyes were half closed; dopey as a result of the huge meal and the long drive.

“Bed time, I think,” Regina smiled, reaching over with a tissue and wiping her son’s face. “Thank you, Ruby. You’ve been amazing.”

“The hardest part is over,” Ruby offered. “It’ll get better from now on, I’m sure of it.”

“I hope so,” Regina said, getting to her feet and helping Henry down from his chair. “See you in the morning.”

“I won’t be on shift tomorrow. I pulled a double today. But I’ll be in on Saturday, so I guess I’ll see you then.”

Regina and Henry walked out of the dining room and back to the small bedroom with Ruby where they had deposited their case before dinner. The redhead wished them goodnight and pulled the door to. As soon as he was in his pyjamas, Henry lay down on one of the two beds and closed his eyes.

“Not yet, Henry. Teeth first, please.”

Henry grumbled but righted himself as his mother handed him a washbag. Together they made their way down the corridor to the communal bathrooms. Teeth brushed, toilets used and faces wiped, they returned to their room. As Henry crawled into his bed, Regina realised just how tired she was. An eight-hour drive after leaving your husband apparently took it out of you, she mused as she dimmed the lights and set about getting herself dressed for bed.

The moment her head hit the pillow, however, her mind raced once more. What now? What was her next move? Regina had been focused on one goal; leaving. Her entire being had been consumed with getting away. She had to get herself and Henry away. They weren’t safe. She had to make sure they were both safe.

And they were. Lying in that dark bedroom, Regina did feel safe from him. But what about the rest of the world? Not that she was concerned about becoming a victim to another man; no, she wasn’t even considering dating again. But the world was a harsh place. It was unforgiving, driven by money and power. She had nothing. She had no job, a college degree she had never used, no references. All she had was a single suitcase containing a handful of outfits and her son. She had a six-year-old child who depended on her and no way of providing.

Her husband had countless faults but at least he always provided for his family. The mansion they lived in. The clothes they wore. The food she prepared. They wanted for nothing, in the material sense. This generosity was more a display of machismo than a declaration of his love and devotion. Regina would have gladly sacrificed all their worldly possessions for a loving, caring, kind husband and father. In fact, she had sacrificed all of their worldly possessions but in their place she and Henry only had … her.

She peered through the gloom to where her son lay. Henry was already asleep, exhausted from the day. His head poked over the edge of the blanket and Regina felt her eyes fill with tears at the sight. Henry was completely dependent on her. He had come with her, been torn away from everything he had ever known and thrust into a new and confusing environment without any explanation. There would be questions tomorrow, she was sure. Tonight he had been too tired and hungry to really take it all in. Tomorrow would be a different story.

How was she going to provide? Would she get a job? How would she afford rent? Henry needed to go to school. Could she sign him up tomorrow or would he have to wait? What sort of job could she get? She didn’t have any proof of her college education; that had been left behind in Storybrooke. Would he be able to find her once she started working? Where would they live? Would they stay in New York?

Regina rolled over and stared at the wall, willing her mind to permit her to sleep. It didn’t.

The alarm beeped at 7:24am. Emma reached out at once to turn it off before swinging her legs out the side of her bed and stretching. Standing up, she opened the door to her bedroom and propped it open with a dumbbell. Picking up the pull up bar from the floor, she slotted it in place and stretched her arms a few more times.

Lean fingers curled around the grips as she prepared. One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten. She dropped to the floor, tipping her head from side to side and rolling her shoulders, the burn in her muscles welcome and exhilarating. Her hands returned to the bar for another ten reps. Once done, she took the bar down and made her way through to the bathroom.

Twisting the shower dial to halfway between the number seven and number eight, Emma used the toilet as she waited for the water to reach the right temperature. Once in the shower, she realised she was running low on shampoo. Working the cinnamon scented gel through to the tips of her thick blonde hair, she rinsed and reached for the cinnamon body scrub. Emma liked cinnamon.

As soon as she got out, she opened the cupboard under the sink and pulled out a new bottle of shampoo to put in the shower cubicle. She counted the remaining bottles; five. There were eight bottles of body scrub lined up beside it. Emma bought her toiletries in packs of twelve, just in case.

Next was the kitchen. Into the toaster went two slices of medium thickness bread. The dial turned to the third setting. A plate was placed on the counter along with a knife, the butter and a jar of blueberry jam. She turned on the coffee machine. Her travel mug was already waiting beneath the spout for the morning brew.

Back in her bedroom, she looked at her cell. 7:39am. Right on schedule. She dressed, white shirt and black slacks, and blow-dried the worst of the water out of her hair. The rest would dissipate on the way to work. Once dressed, Emma went back to the kitchen. The toast was already waiting for her. She didn’t like hot toast. Buttering both slices, she added the perfect amount of jam and took a bite before screwing on the lid of her travel mug.

As she ate, she moved to the fridge. Inside was a cardboard box which contained half of her pizza from the night before. The thought of eating that instead of her toast made her chuckle to herself. Her foster father was a fool. But it would do for lunch, given Ruby wouldn’t be there.

By 7:52am the toast was gone and Emma was placing her cell, keys and the pizza box carefully in her handbag. With her travel mug in hand, she left the apartment, closing the door behind her. At the elevator, she pressed the down button five times. In the lobby, she checked the mail box. Nothing yet. Their mail usually arrived late morning. She locked the box. Then opened it again. She knew there was nothing in there but it was part of her routine. Box locked for the second time, she stepped out of the building and onto the street.

The walk to the shelter took six minutes. It almost took seven because a delivery truck had obstructed the sidewalk where they were unloading crates of vegetables. Emma had debated her move for a split second, one, two, three, four, five, pause, one, two, three, four, five, pause, before crossing the street a block earlier than planned and continuing on.

“Morning Ruby,” she said as she walked through the front door of Swan’s Shelter and took her first gulp of coffee.

“First sip?” Ruby smirked at her.

“You know it is,” Emma said as she rounded the desk. “How was the night?”

“I don’t know why you don’t make a coffee here when you arrive. It’s the exact same machine we have at home and it would save you carrying it.”

“How was the night?” Emma asked again, ignoring her flatmate. It was not the first time Ruby had pointed out that particular quirk of Emma’s morning routine.

“One new arrival. A woman and her son. Regina, which I think is her real name, and Henry. They’re in room 108. Didn’t get too much out of her last night. They were pretty tired.”


Ruby shook her head. “The car had Maine plates on it. The kid said that was where he was from too. He seemed exhausted, like they’d driven all the way yesterday.”

“Did she say anything about why she was here?”

“No,” Ruby replied. “Figured we’d give her some time. I told her she could see Belle today.”

“Might be a bit fast but we’ll see. How old is the child?”

“Six. Didn’t ask much last night. Said something about going to the zoo and the park. I think that was what his mom had said to explain their trip. He was just hungry from what I could tell.”


“Not at all. Just the long drive. The mum had a cool box but I guess an eight hour drive is going to require more than a few sandwiches. He had a burger when they got here.”

“Did she eat?” Emma asked. Ruby shook her head. She hadn’t even realised that Regina was probably hungry too. “Right, clock off and go and get some sleep. I’ll see you tonight.”

Ruby didn’t need telling twice. She grabbed her things, gave Emma a kiss on the cheek and disappeared. Emma surveyed the front desk and sighed. One, two, three, four, five, pause. One, two, three, four, five, pause. How she managed to live with someone as messy as Ruby, she never knew. The first order of business was tidying up. She put the pens back in the box. She straightened the file. She wiped the crumbs from the surface and emptied the trash can. While she was doing this chore, Ella arrived.

“Hey, I’m so sorry to mess you around yesterday. Did Ruby cover me ok?”

“Yes, not a problem,” Emma lied. Well, it wasn’t a problem really but it had caused her several moments of unnecessary stress. She knew Ella hadn’t done it on purpose though. “Is Alex better?”

“Yeah, it was just a twenty-four hour thing. She’s at school now.”

“Glad to hear it. Are you ok to stay out here for an hour? We got a new guest last night and I’ve not met her yet. I want to meet with a couple of the other women too.”

“Sure, take your time. I have paperwork to catch up on anyway,” Ella said as she slotted her bag beneath the now clean desk and sat down. Each woman who arrived at Swan’s Shelter was allocated one member of staff who was their primary point of contact. This staff member was responsible, as far as their personal training allowed, for mentoring, supporting and assisting these women as they started their new lives. While it was an important element of their jobs, it also came with paperwork.

“Thanks,” Emma said, taking her cell out of her bag, along with the pizza box and heading into the back.

She could hear the noise from the canteen as soon as she stepped into the corridor. Breakfast was always a loud affair. Before she knocked on the closed bedroom door of the new guest, she headed to the kitchen to stow her cold pizza in the fridge. Several of the women greeted her as she crossed the common area and she smiled back at them. Once the pizza was safely put away, she headed towards the bedrooms but before she could reach the corridor once more, a figure sat in the far corner caught her eye. She stopped dead in her tracks.

No, it couldn’t be, Emma thought to herself. The woman’s face was hidden from view but there was something about the way she held herself, the way her hair fell, the straight point of her delicate nose, peeking out from beyond the curtain of dark brown hair. A small boy sat beside her, spooning large amounts of cereal into his mouth, milk splattering the table. The woman seemed to be staring into a cup of coffee. Emma took a step closer, increasingly sure she knew exactly who this newest guest was.

“Regina Mills?”

Brown eyes snapped up from where they had been staring at the hot black liquid. Eyebrows knotted together as she took in the face of the blonde woman standing before her. There was definite recognition. She was familiar but hard to place. Emma waited until those striking eyes, despite the dark circles beneath them, blew wide as the connection was finally made.

“Emma Swan.”

Chapter Text

April 17th 2004

The bell rang at last, signalling the end of what felt like the longest hour of Emma’s life. She hated English class. Writing was just not her forte, especially creative writing. Stuffing the half-completed story into her satchel, she swung her bag over her shoulder and headed out of the noisy classroom. It was the end of the day and she could at last leave school and return home where it was quiet and calm. Perhaps then she might be able to complete her attempt at the assignment.

The hallway was busy. She walked as close to the wall as she could, shoulder brushing the pale paint, desperately trying to avoid touching anyone else. Eventually, she got to her locker. Twirling the combination lock, she opened it and began pulling out the books she knew she’d need for her homework that night. Emma always did her homework the night she got it. That way, she was never behind and she never forgot. She was probably the most diligent seventeen-year-old at the school.

As she was loading her bag, the strap was suddenly tugged from her shoulder.

“Hey!” she spun around, the leather slipping away from her before she could snatch it back.

“What did you write about, Psycho Swan?” jeered the teenager holding her satchel, her two best friends flanking her on either side, smirking in anticipation.

Emma dropped her gaze, trying to avoid confrontation. If she ignored them, they always got bored in the end and left her alone.

But not yet; they had to have their ‘fun’ first. “Write a story about a character who is struggling to find their place in the world,” the bully recited. “Did you just write your own life story? Abandoned little swan with no parents to love her? If you’re trying to find your place in the world, it’s not here. You don’t belong in Storybrooke, Swan. Move back to New York.”

Emma said nothing. It had been eight months since she had arrived in Maine and still she was the outsider. Not that she wanted to be part of this particular friendship gang but her position as their target had made Emma a social pariah. She found it hard enough to make friends at the best of times. This bulling didn’t help. No one wanted to be friends with the person who was taunted and teased daily by the meanest girls in school. She stared at her shoes, waiting for the trio to move on.

“You’re just an unloved ugly duckling,” one of the other girls taunted.

“Actually, baby swans are called cygnets.”

It was a reflex; correcting a factual mistake. Emma kicked herself internally as she found herself looking defiantly into three smirking faces. They had got what they wanted. They had succeeded in making her engage.

“Ooh, a cygnet,” they sneered in unison.

“What are you, a geeky bird watcher?” the leader laughed.

“Bird watchers are called ornithologists and no, I’m not. I just know things.” Again, Emma cursed herself for engaging. She couldn’t help it; the compulsion was too strong.




Emma’s gaze returned to her shoes, teeth biting the inside of her cheek as she forced herself not to cry. It wasn’t the names. She was used to them by now. It was the never-ending feeling of being alone. The contents of her satchel came into view as the bullies turned her bag upside down and everything tumbled to the floor. Laughing, the girls walked away, leaving Emma to gather her belongings.

She did so, hurrying to pick everything up before walking then running out of the school, out of the grounds and down the street. She didn’t stop running until she reached her bedroom. Slamming the door, she threw herself down on the bed and sobbed into her pillow.

“Emma,” Regina said again. “Um, hello.”

The blonde said nothing. She just stood, gaping at the woman she hadn’t seen in almost fourteen years. As she stared, the olive cheeks tinged pink and Regina shifted awkwardly from foot to foot, as if waiting for Emma to say something. But she didn’t. There was a long silence, stretching for what seemed like hours. Then, without a word, Emma spun on her heels and walked away.

“Mom, who was that?” Henry asked, looking up curiously to his mother who was watching the blonde stride from the room.

“Um, someone I knew a long time ago,” Regina said eventually after Emma had turned into the corner and disappeared from view.

“Is she your friend?”

“Not really,” Regina admitted, stomach rolling at the memories which swept over her. She flopped back against the couch and closed her eyes.

What were the chances? Of all the people in the world to be in charge of the women’s shelter, why did it have to be Emma Swan? Swan … Swan’s Shelter. Regina groaned quietly. Not that she would ever have made the connection between the name and the gangly, awkward blonde she had known what felt like a lifetime ago. There was nothing gangly about Emma now. The awkwardness, perhaps, remained.

“Mom, can we go to the zoo today?” Henry asked, already having moved on from the strange, almost wordless interaction he had just witnessed.

“Maybe. I have a few things to do here first though. Do you want to go and play on your iPad in our room for a bit?”

“Yeah!” Henry enthused. Any excuse to get some more screen time and the six-year-old was always up for it.

Regina got to her feet and she and Henry left the communal area, her half drunk coffee poured down the sink as they passed the kitchenette. The brunette was agitated, her heart pounding. She had felt safe here. From the moment she walked through the door she had felt safe. It was a feeling she valued greatly. Emma’s appearance hadn’t made her feel unsafe by any means, but it had set her on edge, throwing up abundant memories she fought to keep locked away and didn’t have the emotional energy to deal with. And yet, it seemed, fate had other plans.

With Henry settled happily on his bed, Regina promised him she’d be back soon and told him to not leave the room until she got back. The boy nodded once, already engrossed in a game, before Regina went in search of the woman who had disappeared without a word.

“Ems, can you help me with this section about -”

The door to Emma’s office slammed before Ella had even asked her question. The counsellor frowned at the action but didn’t move to follow. She knew sometimes her boss needed space to work through emotions. It was rare, however, for such an event to happen at work. With a curious glance at the door, she turned back to the paperwork she was struggling with and continued without assistance.

On the other side of the door, Emma was pacing up and down, hands balled into fists. One, two, three, four, five, pause. One, two, three, four, five, pause. One, two, three, four, five, pause. One, two, three, four, five, pause. One, two, three, four, five, pause. Fingernails dug into her skin. Four crescent shapes growing deeper and deeper on each palm as her fists tightened.

Of all the women. Of all the women to walk into her shelter. Emma spun on the spot and walked back the other way. Why her? Why did she have to be here? She turned and continued walking. It had been fourteen years. Fourteen years since they had seen each other. Turn and walk. Sure, Emma had thought about Regina in that time. She’d even dreamed about her. Turn and walk. Dreams were uncontrollable. Her mind did strange things when she was asleep. Turn and walk. But Regina wasn’t part of her life. They hadn’t seen each other since high school graduation. Turn and walk. Regina had been the valedictorian. Her speech had mentioned hope for the future, kindness to others. Emma barked out a laugh. Turn and walk.

Her palms tightened. The indentations deepened. What was she doing here? Stupid question; Emma knew what she was doing here. But why here? Why Swan’s Shelter? Why New York? Hadn’t Regina stayed in Maine? Ruby said they had come from there. Why had Regina come to New York? Was it because –

A knock at the door stopped Emma in her tracks. One, two, three, four, five, pause. One, two, three, four, five, pause.

“Come in,” she called.

Ella’s head appeared. “Um, are you ok?”

Emma didn’t answer. The blonde wasn’t good at lying but she also knew that what she was dealing with had nothing to do with her professional position. “What do you want?”

“There’s a woman, Regina, to see you. She said she’s new here, checked in last night with Ruby. You said you were going to talk to her, right?”

One, two, three, four, five, pause. One, two, three, four, five, pause. This isn’t about the past, Emma told herself. Regina is a victim. Regina in at the shelter for a reason. Put aside your history and do your job. “Take her to the mediation room. I’ll be there in a few minutes.”

Ella nodded and disappeared. As soon as the door was closed, Emma sank into the chair behind her desk and closed her eyes. Breathe, she told herself. Just breathe. In through the nose, out through the mouth. Do your job. Do what you’re good at. The history, the memories, they don’t matter. She was young. You were young. Yes, it hurt. It all hurt. Everything which happened between you two caused you pain. But it’s in the past. You were children. You’re both adults now and she needs your help, your support. Now she’s the one in pain. Don’t hold your history against her; she’s not the same person she was back then, just in the way that you’re not the same person.

A final deep breath and Emma stood up. She could do this, she was a professional.

“Are you ok to stay on the desk for a while longer?” Emma asked as she appeared beside Ella. “Belle is in at midday today if you need help with that paperwork you asked about.”

Belle, their psychologist, had undergone more training than the counsellors but worked at two centres and was only at Swan’s Shelter part time. Emma, Ella, Ruby and their other team members Mulan and Ursula were the primary point of contact for everyone in the shelter on a day to day basis.

“Yeah, fine,” the woman said, looking curiously into the face of the woman now rifling through the filing cabinet to get the intake forms Ruby would have completed the night before. “Are you sure you’re ok?”

“No,” Emma replied bluntly.

Before Ella could ask another question, Emma had found what she was looking for. With Regina’s file in one hand and a pen in the other, she walked from behind the desk towards the closed meeting room door. Ella watched as her boss paused for a moment, hand on the handle, before pushing it open and disappearing from view.

This must be the mediation room which Ruby mentioned, Regina mused as she took a seat and crossed her legs, waiting. She hadn’t thought she’d need to ever enter this room. She certainly didn’t think she’d be sat here across from her husband. The person she was waiting for, however, was even more unlikely. Emma Swan. She hadn’t seen the blonde since graduation day. Well, graduation night. She had barely thought of her classmate since then. Ok, that wasn’t strictly true but she always steered herself away whenever she found her mind wandering in that direction. Her thoughts were embarrassing, shameful.

Her stomach twisted again. She owed this woman an apology. So many apologies. The word ‘sorry’ wasn’t going to be enough, not for what she had done. She shifted uncomfortably in her seat at the memory. Looking back on her teenage self, Regina felt a wave of guilt. She was ashamed of many of the memories which took place in Storybrooke High and much of that shame revolved around Emma.

The woman was about to appear, she knew that. Emma Swan was about to enter the room. Suddenly, Regina jumped to her feet. She wasn’t ready. She couldn’t do this. She wasn’t … The door opened. Green eyes met brown once more. There was a long silence and then Emma stepped inside and closed the door.

“Emma,” Regina said as the blonde turned to face her once more. “I … I’m sorry.”

The woman said nothing. She simply walked to the chair on the far side of the table to Regina and sat down. After a moment’s hesitation, Regina sank back down into hers.

“So,” Emma said, opening the thin file which she had been carrying, “you need somewhere safe to stay.”

“Yes, I … Emma, I’m sorry.”

“Yeah, I heard you the first time,” Emma said shortly. “Ruby says you have a son. He’s here with you. Are there any other children?”

Regina wanted to protest, to direct the conversation back to the elephant in the room but after opening her mouth to say as much, she stopped herself. “Yes, Henry’s here. He’s my only son.”

“Ok, and you came from Maine, correct?”

“Yes,” Regina nodded. “Storybrooke. You know where I live.”

Emma ignored the reference to their past. “May I ask you a little about why you need a place like our shelter? You don’t have to tell me anything you’re not comfortable with so you don’t have to answer the question if you don’t want to.”

I’m not comfortable with any of this, Regina thought to herself. This conversation would have been difficult to have with anyone but Emma Swan may be one of the worst people she could have imagined sitting opposite her.

“Emma, can we just talk about this for a moment?”

“That’s why I’m here,” Emma replied. “This is a safe space.”

Regina’s brow furrowed. It was as if the woman was completely blocking out their pre-existing relationship, focusing only on her professional role, pretending they had never met before.

“No, I don’t mean that,” Regina pressed. “I mean us.”

Emma visibly swallowed. “There is no us, Regina.”

“I mean our past. High school. I … I’m sorry.” Every time she said them, the words sounded more pathetic, but she didn’t know what else she could say.

“Yeah, you said,” Emma replied shortly. “We’re not here to talk about that though. We’re here to talk about you.”

“I know but … Emma, I can’t just pretend like I don’t know you.”

“Ok,” Emma replied. “You know me.”

“Yes, I do. And you know me.”

“Right, so, we know each other. Would you prefer a different counsellor? I can ask Ella to take over if you’re not comfortable with me doing this.”

“I … are you comfortable with this?” Regina asked.

Emma cocked her head. “Why wouldn’t I be?”

Regina rolled her eyes. “Um, because of our history.”

“Our history has nothing to do with my job nor your presence here. I am a counsellor. This is my women’s shelter. You are a woman in need of a safe place and someone to help you. I can provide both of those things.”

“Do you even want to?”

Emma frowned at that. “Of course I do. We offer shelter to anyone who walks through our doors who needs a safe place.”

“Even me?”


“Even after what I did?”

Emma leaned back in her chair and took a slow, steadying breath. One, two, three, four, five, pause. One, two, three, four, five, pause. It seemed Regina was intent on talking about this now. Emma struggled to balance her professional persona with her crumbling inner self. She couldn’t do this, not now. It was too much. She wasn’t prepared. She wasn’t strong enough. The compartmentalisation was shattering; emotions and memories spilling from that carefully crafted box.

“Regina, it was a long time ago. Can we forget it?”

“No, I don’t think we can,” Regina replied. “I know I haven’t forgotten and from the way you looked at me earlier, you haven’t either. Please, can we talk about this? At least let me apologise.”

One, two, three, four, five, pause. One, two, three, four, five, pause. One, two, three, four, five, pause. One, two, three, four, five, pause. It wasn’t working. She couldn’t calm her heartbeat. She couldn’t stop herself.

“For what?” Emma all but screamed, suddenly jumping to her feet. Regina’s eyes widened at the sight and she sat, frozen in her chair as Emma continued. “For bullying me for two years? For making high school a living hell? For making sure I had no friends? For teasing me and making me feel worthless and broken and damaged and unlovable? Or for taking the piss out of me for being autistic? Or for being gay? Or for being a foster kid? Or for tricking me into thinking that actually, perhaps, I was worth your time and then tearing me apart when I was at my most vulnerable? Take your pick, Regina. What do you want to apologise for first?”

But Regina didn’t get the opportunity to even begin expressing how sorry she was because Emma stormed out of the room, the door banging off the wall and leaving Regina gaping after her. Ella’s gaze snapped up from the paperwork as her boss reappeared with a bang, watched as she strode, red-faced, up to the desk and demanded her handbag. As soon as Ella had handed it over, the blonde spun on her heels and walked out of the shelter, the heavy front door swinging closed behind her.

“What the fuck?” Ella said slowly, shifting her gaze from the front door into the meeting room where Regina still sat. As she watched, the brunette buried her face in her hands.

Hurrying out from behind the desk, she approached the woman with caution. Her instinct was to comfort her but their training told them not to initiate physical contact with any of the women or children who arrived at the shelter. They didn’t know their history and many of them had suffered physical abuse. So instead she sat in Emma’s vacant seat and asked if the sobbing woman was ok.

“No, I’m not,” Regina blubbered, words muffled into her hands.

“What just happened?” Ella asked. “I’ve never seen Emma act like that. Why was she shouting at you?”

“It’s not Emma’s fault,” Regina said at once, raising her tear stained face to look at Ella. “I know her. Knew her, I suppose. We went to high school together.”

“Ok,” Ella said slowly, not any the wiser.

“We weren’t friends,” Regina clarified. “In fact … I was worse than not friendly.”


“Yeah. Oh. Is Emma ok?”

“Doesn’t look like it,” she replied. “But she will be. She probably just needed some space, time. She’ll come back when she’s ready. You know Emma. She works through things differently to other people.”

“Yes, I know,” Regina said, guilt stabbing her stomach as she remembered another memory from high school.

September 1st 2003

“I can’t believe we’re finally in our junior year,” Regina said as she climbed out of her mother’s car, followed by her two best friends, and stood looking up at the large high school entrance before her.

“We’ve still got two years in this stupid place though,” Zelena grumbled beside her, fingers already preening her wild red hair.

“This place isn’t stupid, you are,” Regina teased, knocking her shoulder against the girl’s who narrowed her eyes before linking arms with her friend and ignoring the insult. Everyone knew Zelena’s academic capacity was limited.

“Senior year will be even better,” Vicky pointed out. “As soon as one of us is eighteen, we’ll be able to drive ourselves and not have your mom in the car with us.”

Regina turned and waved at her mother who was walking around the front of the car and sliding into the driver’s seat Regina had just vacated. Her mother blew her a kiss before reversing out of the space and driving out of the parking lot. Ever since Regina received her provisional license, her mother had agreed to let her practice driving to and from school each day, the woman herself sat in the passenger seat as the law required and her best friends in the back row, gossiping away as usual.

“Yeah, we’ll be free to go wherever we want and get out of this crappy town,” Regina grinned. “But I guess we should get through junior year first. Come on, let’s go and find out our timetables.”

The trio set off, arm in arm, up the wide sweeping steps which led to the main building. A few students greeted them but most just stayed out of their way. Everyone knew Regina Mills and her entourage ruled the school. For the most part, this was accepted and barely affected most of the students. Keeping your head down was one of the best ways to make sure you didn’t become one of the unfortunate individuals which her position did affect.

“Hey Regina.”

The teen turned at the sound of her name. “Robin. Hey.”

“How was your summer?” the tall boy asked, sandy hair flopping over his eyes as he leaned against the trunk of a large tree, hands stuffed deep in his jeans pockets.

“Good thanks, how was yours?”

“It was sweet. I missed you though. We should get together some time.”

“Maybe. I’ll see you around, Robin.” Shooting the captain of the football team a coy smile, Regina returned to walking into the school.

“Omg he’s so into you,” Zelena whispered as Vicky giggled. “Are you finally going to agree to go out with him this year?”

“Maybe,” Regina replied. “Maybe not.”

“Tease,” Vicky said. “If someone that hot was interested in me, I’d jump his bones.”

“Vic, you jump everyone’s bones,” Regina pointed out. “Aside from Robin, is there anyone in our year you haven’t ‘jumped’ already?”

Vicky was about to answer when she collided with another student who had just emerged from the classroom they were about to enter.

“Hey, watch it,” Regina snarled at the mane of blonde hair who had stooped to pick up the piece of paper she had dropped.

“Sorry,” the blonde muttered as she got to her feet.

“You’re new, aren’t you?” Regina said, taking in the striking green eyes and high cheekbones. Something fluttered deep inside her as the blonde teen drew her bottom lip between her teeth.

“I’m new to Maine but not new to the planet. I’m sixteen years old and I will be seventeen years old in fifty-two days.”

“What?” Vicky laughed. “You’re weird.”

“No, I’m not,” the blonde retorted.

Vicky bristled and narrowed her eyes. “You’re definitely new if you’re talking back to us. Don’t you know who we are?”

“No, I don’t. Who are you?”

“Who are you?” Regina shot back.

“I asked first.”

This time, it was Regina’s eyes who narrowed. “Fine. I’m Regina Mills. This is Zelena West and Vicky Cruella. So, I’ll ask again, who are you?”

“Cruella as in one hundred and one Dalmatians?”

“Yes, and I’ll skin you myself if you don’t answer our question.”

“How will you skin me?”

Vicky’s eyebrows shot comically up her forehead. Before she could answer, Regina spoke. “What’s your name, you freak?”

“I’m not a freak. My name is Emma Swan.”

“Emma Swan? Like the bird?”

“Yes,” Emma replied. “Like the bird. Swans live on water and they can also fly. The Trumpeter Swan is one of the biggest flying birds in the world. Trumpeter Swans live in North America and they are the heaviest bird we have. Their wingspan can be up to three metres. I saw lots of Trumpeter Swans last summer when I went to Yellowstone National Park with my foster parents.”

Three slack-jawed faces stared at the outpouring of information they had just received. It took their leader a moment to react. “Well, fly away, Swan. You’re in our way,” Regina sneered eventually.

“I can’t fly. I’m a person with the surname Swan but I don’t have wings like a swan.”

“Just move,” Regina growled, fed up with the blonde’s pedantic attitude already. Seriously, who talked like that?

Emma stepped obediently aside and allowed Regina and her two friends to sweep into the classroom she had just vacated. She watched them walk up to the board where their timetables were displayed before returning her attention to the map she had collected of the school and began to find her way towards her assigned homeroom.

Chapter Text

She ran. Her feet pounded the sidewalk. Her bag slapped against her side. People looked at her. She didn’t care. She ran as fast as she could, as fast as her work shoes would allow her. Outside her building, she was forced to stop to unlock the door before entering, heart hammering against her chest. She didn’t take the elevator. She needed to run. Up the stairs, two at a time, until she reached the fourth floor and the burning in her lungs forced her to slow down. The last three flights were taken one step at a time, her legs now protesting too.

She fumbled for her key as she tried to get into the apartment, dropping it twice before finally succeeding in opening the door. Her bag landed on the couch, keys tossed after it. Breathing hard, she walked up and down the large living space. Up and down. Up and down. One, two, three, four, five, pause. One, two, three, four, five, pause. Breathe, Emma, breathe, she told herself. It wasn’t working. She wasn’t feeling calm. She wasn’t in control. The edges of her vision blurred.

“FUCK!” she screamed, picking up the closest object which happened to be a pillow and throwing it at the far wall where it bounced and landed on the floor. Dissatisfied, she reached for another object, this time a photo frame holding an image of herself and her team at the five-year anniversary of Swan’s Shelter.

Glass shards sprayed across the floor as the frame collided with the wall. Emma let out another scream and picked up a vase, lifting it high above her head.

“Woah, Emma!” Ruby yelled as she appeared in the room. “Ow, shit!” she cried as her bare foot was impaled on a sliver of glass.

“I hate her!” Emma screamed, ignoring her flatmate who was hopping around on one foot, trying to pull the shard from her toe, blood dripping onto the hardwood floor as she did so.


“Regina Mills!” Emma shouted. “I fucking hate her. She ruined my life.” The vase followed the photo frame, ceramic daggers now adding to the minefield Ruby was surrounded by.

“Emma, stop!” Ruby bellowed back, limping towards her friend who was searching for something else to destroy.

“I hate her,” Emma repeated, a half-drunk mug of coffee now in her hand.

Launching herself at the blonde, Ruby wrapped her arms around her distraught friend and wrestled her onto the couch. The mug dropped, unharmed, to the floor where cold, brown liquid spread quickly across the wooden boards, staining the edge of the rug as it came into contact.

“Emma, calm down. Talk to me. Tell me what happened,” Ruby pleaded, struggling to hold the thrashing woman. Emma fought to free herself. She needed to throw things. She needed to be angry, to vent, to take out her frustrations, her pain. And then, quite suddenly, the body beneath her went limp.

The blonde let out a choked sob and buried her face in Ruby’s neck. Knowing her friend would be unable to speak until she was ready, Ruby held her, wrapping her arms more closely around the shaking figure and trying to ignore the throbbing in her foot where blood continued to seep from the gash caused by the glass.

This wasn’t the first of Emma’s meltdowns which Ruby had experienced. They had been sharing an apartment ever since they met at college and Ruby was used to dealing with Emma when the blonde couldn’t contain her emotions on her own. It was scary sometimes, to see the blonde lose control and be unable to calm herself down. Ruby had even had to call Emma’s foster parents a few times but generally they managed to work it out between them. She just had to be patient and move at Emma’s pace.

Already she could tell this was a big one. Over the years, Emma’s breakdowns like this had become less frequent but also, in some ways, worse when they did happen. It had been a long time since the blonde had taken to trashing their apartment though. Ruby winced. Her foot hurt.

“Emma, sweetheart, what happened?”

“Regina Mills happened,” Emma replied, words muffled in Ruby’s neck. “I hate her.”

“Who is Regina Mills?” Ruby asked.

“The woman from the shelter. The one you checked in last night.”

“Oh, that Regina. You hate her?” Ruby had never heard her boss ever talk about one of their women in such a way.

“I hate her,” Emma nodded as she pulled away from her friend at last. “I hate her.” The look in Emma’s eyes burned. Ruby shivered at the intensity. She believed those words.

“Why?” Ruby asked, completely puzzled about what could possibly have happened in the hour between her leaving the shelter and the two of them now lying on their couch, Emma’s face blotchy and red and her eyes still wet with tears.

“She bullied me.”


“In high school,” Emma clarified at last. “We went to high school together.”

“Oooh,” Ruby said. It was all making sense now. “You and Regina went to high school in Maine together?” She had temporarily forgotten that Emma had spent two years out of New York state after David had been transferred up to Maine for a short-term job.

“Yes. She was the school bully. She made my life hell. And now she’s here. And she needs my help and … I can’t do it, Ruby. I can’t help her. I want to. I want to do my job but I can’t forgive her for what she did to me.”

Emma pushed herself out of Ruby’s comforting grasp and stood up, resuming the pacing. Her shoes crunched over the glass and ceramics at the far end of the room but Emma didn’t seem to notice. The sound reminded Ruby of her foot, however. Sitting up, she curled her leg so her right foot was resting on her left thigh and bent over to see the damage. It could have been worse, she mused as she pulled one final glass splinter out of the pad of her big toe.

“I hate her, Ruby,” Emma said, her voice quiet now, the pacing ongoing. “I hate one of the women in my shelter.”

“That’s ok, Emma,” Ruby assured her. “You don’t hate her because of what she’s been through herself. You hate her for what she did to you. That’s ok. That’s normal.”

Emma ignored the use of the word ‘normal’ even though she hated it. “My job is to protect women. I need to protect Regina. I want to protect her from … whatever it is she’s running from but -.” Emma stopped abruptly, she looked down. “Shit, I’m sorry. I broke something.”

She had no memory of throwing the pillow nor the picture frame nor the vase. This often happened when she lost control of her emotions and it was only when she came back to herself that she could take in where she was once more.

“Yeah, you kinda did,” Ruby nodded. “But it’s ok. We can clean it up. Keep talking about Regina. You do want to protect her, right?”

“Yes. Because it’s the right thing to do,” Emma nodded. “She needs somewhere safe but …” She stopped again. Ruby waited patiently, knowing she couldn’t push Emma. “I hate her, Ruby. I hate her for what she did to me. She deserves to be safe and we can do that for her but … I don’t want to.” The final words were a whispered confession.

Green eyes, filled with tears, looked over at Ruby. Seeing the distraught woman, Ruby got to her feet and hobbled over, wrapping her arms around her friend. “It’s ok,” she soothed. “It’s ok.”

“It’s not,” Emma sobbed. “It’s my job to keep women safe. How can I not want to? I’m a monster.”

“No, you’re human,” Ruby said gently, hands rubbing up and down Emma’s back. “You’re not saying you want Regina to go back to whatever she was running from. You’re just saying that you don’t think Swan’s Shelter is the best place for her to be. That’s ok. We can contact Empower and see if they have space to take Regina and Henry. You won’t be abandoning them or refusing to help them. You’ll just be passing them to another great shelter.”

Emma shook her head. “No, I can’t do that.”

“Why not?” Ruby asked. “Empower are great.”

“Yes, but if I do that, I’m running away. I’m not facing my past. Regina Mills is one of the reasons I got into this career. I was victimised by her and her friends in high school. It’s not the same as what our women go through but I’ve experienced those feelings of powerlessness and loneliness. Regina Mills did that to me and if I don’t help her now she’s a victim, I’m running from what made me who I am.”

Ruby pulled back, forcing Emma to look into her eyes. “Ems, you’re not running. You’re doing what is best for you and all the other women. Do you think facing your past will help you become better at your job? Do you really need to take another trip down memory lane? I thought you were done with that. I thought we’d agreed your focus now is on the future.”

“How can I have a future with this demon in my past?”

“Well, it sounds like the demon is in your shelter right now,” Ruby remarked, even though she couldn’t picture the woman she met the previous night being a bully. “You have to think about yourself and the ten other women we’re keeping safe right now. With Regina there, can you do your job to the best of your ability for everyone else?”

“I don’t know,” Emma admitted. “I want to.”

“I know you want to. But can you?”

Emma shrugged and stepped away from Ruby, heading towards the kitchen to find the dustpan. She needed to think. She needed to do something with her body to distract her mind. Ruby made her way back to the couch, plucking a tissue from the box as she went and beginning to wipe the blood from her toe.

“You’re hurt,” Emma noted as she came back, realising for the first time that Ruby’s foot was smeared with blood.

“Oh yeah, but it’s ok.”

“Shit, I’m sorry,” Emma gasped, dropping the clean-up equipment and rushing to her friend’s side. “I didn’t mean to hurt you, Ruby. I wasn’t thinking. I just saw red, you know?”

“Yeah, I know. It’s ok. I’m fine, honestly. The cuts are not that deep.”

A wave of guilt washed over Emma. She had let her own emotions, or lack of control of her emotions, affect other people twice that day. She had screamed at a woman who had come to her shelter to be safe. She had caused Ruby pain. This wasn’t Emma. This wasn’t the woman Emma wanted to be. She was better than that. She was stronger than that.

“Regina stays,” Emma said quietly as she helped Ruby clean her foot. “She stays.”

Henry barely looked up when Regina entered their room. His eyes remained glued to the tablet as she walked over and lay down on her bed. She let out a sigh as she settled on the mattress, trying to process the events which had happened over the past hour. Guilt churned her stomach. She had no way of knowing who ran the shelter, of course, but she still felt bad for reappearing in Emma’s life, fourteen years after they had last seen each other. It was obvious the blonde wasn’t ready to see her again.

If she was honest with herself, Regina wasn’t ready to see Emma either. For different reasons, of course. Emma was angry, and rightly so. Regina was ashamed, and deservedly so. She knew all teenagers did foolish things and made choices they weren’t proud of. But Regina had been worse than most. She had been malicious, vindictive and downright mean. No one had ever said she was a bully back then but she now knew that was what she and her friends had been. It was embarrassing to think of how they had treated Emma and other peers in high school.

The irony was, Regina had been largely liked by her peers. To the majority of students she had been kind and pleasant. She was voted prom queen. She was a popular valedictorian. Her popularity, however, stemmed from a culture of fear. To be on Regina’s bad side was a fate only a few people endured. Most of their classmates would turn a blind eye to the way in which she, Zelena and Vicky treated a handful of students, grateful it wasn’t them and somehow accepting that this behaviour was ok, as long as they weren’t directly affected.

She had been the ring leader; the one who chose their targets. Goaded, of course, by Vicky and Zelena but she was the boss. She was the one who could have stopped it. Yet she didn’t. She had bullied Emma and other students, teased them, taunted them, made their school lives hell. Her gut clenched again, a physical representation of the emotional discomfort she experienced as she remembered how she had behaved.

Emma had never done anything to offend Regina or her friends. But she was an easy target. She was different, ‘weird’ as they had branded her. It took a while for the truth, that Emma was autistic, to come out. And yet that didn’t stop them. If anything, it added fuel to the fire as the trio found other ways to taunt the girl. Regina sat up, stomach churning worse than ever.

“Henry, stay here,” she said before dashing out of the room and running to the bathroom. Crouched over the toilet bowl, she threw up. Her ribs twinged in protest at the movement but she could do nothing to stop the emptying of her stomach. Eventually, she slumped, sweaty and exhausted, against the cubicle wall.

The nausea had gone, to be replaced by utter humiliation at the memories. Regina hated who she had been back then. Sure, her own high school experience had been amazing but she had destroyed those precious years for a number of others. She had created victims. Her stomach lurched and she heaved back into the toilet, bile burning her throat this time as she had nothing left to expel.

She was a victim now. She could relate now; she knew how those students felt. Alone, vulnerable, hurt, worthless, weak. She had made Emma feel like that and now she had, unknowingly, turned up at the woman’s front door and asked for help. No, Regina said to herself, that wasn’t fair. Emma deserved better. She pushed herself to her feet, flushed the toilet and exited the cubicle. Washing her face and rinsing her mouth in the sink, she returned to her room and began packing the few items they had used back into their case.

“Henry, can you go to the bathroom, please?”

“I don’t need to go.”

“Just go, please.”


“Because we’re leaving,” Regina replied.

“But I like it here. They have burgers.”

“We’ll go for a burger tomorrow,” Regina offered, anything to get her son moving. “Please just go to the toilet and then come back here.”

The six-year-old huffed but left the iPad and climbed off the bed to obey his mother. Regina picked up the abandoned device and stowed it in her handbag. She unlocked the locker and pulled out their passports and the money she had stowed in there the night before. A final sweep of the room confirmed they had everything packed. Literally everything they owned now was sat in the suitcase beside her.

“Come on,” she said as soon as Henry reappeared.

“Where are we going?” he asked as they walked down the corridor.

“We’re going on an adventure,” Regina replied. “Just me and you.”

“And Dad?”

“Not right now,” Regina said, not prepared to get into that conversation yet. She didn’t even know how to begin talking to her son about the fact that he was never, hopefully, going to see his father again. At least, not before his eighteenth birthday. She knew she didn’t have the right to keep them apart after that.

She pressed the button which activated the door release and steered Henry and their case through to the reception area. As she passed the front desk, she placed the locker key on it and muttered ‘thanks’ under her breath.

“Where are you going?” Ella asked, jumping to her feet at the sight of the two newest guests heading for the front door with their bags.

“We can’t stay here,” Regina said. “Thanks for everything but we’ll be going now.”

“Regina, you don’t have to leave,” Ella said, coming out from behind the desk.

“Yes, I do,” Regina replied simply, turning back towards the door.

Before she could reach it, however, it opened. Emma’s eyes locked on Regina’s at once. Tension filled the room. Henry drew a little closer to his mother’s leg, sensing something was off and needing the familiar comfort in this strange new world.

“We’re leaving,” Regina offered at last. “I’m sorry to have reappeared like this.”

“Leaving? Where are you going?” Emma asked.

Regina hadn’t thought that far. All she knew was that she needed to leave Swan’s Shelter. She just shrugged. “We’ll find a place.”

“No, you should stay.”

“I don’t think that’s a good idea, do you?” Regina sighed.

One, two, three, four, five, pause. “Yes, I do. You need somewhere safe, right? This is safe. I’m sorry about earlier. I let my personal feelings get in the way of my work and it won’t happen again. I want you to stay here. We can help you. I … I can help you.”

“Emma, I can’t ask you to do that. Not after everything I did to you.”

“It’s in the past,” Emma said firmly.

“It clearly isn’t.” Regina thought back to the explosion which she had witnessed only an hour earlier. Judging by the redness around Emma’s eyes, the blonde had been crying wherever it was she had disappeared off to.

“It will be,” Emma acquiesced. “I’m working on it. And while I’m working on it, you’re going to be here. Safe. With Henry. Please, Regina. Don’t leave. My work is to keep women safe and I couldn’t live with myself if I didn’t do that for you.”

“Even after … everything?”

Emma nodded. “I’ll keep you safe. This shelter will keep you safe.”

There was another silence and then Regina seemed to sag where she stood. Nodding, she crouched down to explain to Henry that they weren’t going to be leaving just yet. The boy was evidently confused but didn’t question the change of plan in their already turbulent existence.

“Come on,” Emma said, her hand on the handle of the suitcase. “Let’s get you unpacked and settled. Once we’ve done that, maybe you should see if Belle is available.”

“Belle?” Regina asked as they walked back into the main part of the building, Ella watching them go with curiosity.

“The psychologist,” Emma reminded her. “I think perhaps you should talk to her before you and I sit down again. I’ve already made an appointment with my therapist for this evening. We can try again tomorrow if you like?”

“You’re seeing a therapist? Because of me?”

“I mean, I’m not sure you can take all the credit. Autism affects my life in many ways. But I won’t deny I’ve talked about my high school experiences with Archie before.”

“I’m sorry.”

“Yeah, I think you’ve said that,” Emma grinned as she pushed open the door to room 108 and let Regina pass through first.

Regina was dumbfounded at the change. Was this really the same woman who had disappeared, enraged, just an hour earlier? How was she now so composed, professional, friendly?

“Well, I am sorry.”

“Let’s just focus on the here and now. The wardrobe isn’t big but many people find unpacking is an important first step. Makes them feel secure, like they have somewhere to come home to again. Do you want some help?” Emma offered.

“Mom, why are we unpacking?” Henry piped up from his bed where he’d already perched. “How long are we staying here?”

Despite the inner turmoil, Regina did the only thing she could: she turned to Emma for help. She had no idea how to talk to her son about what was happening. She had no idea what to tell him, how much to reveal, how much he’d understand. Emma would know, however. Emma would be able to help. The blonde shot her a reassuring smile before crouching down.

“Hey, my name is Emma. I work here. What’s your name?”

“I’m Henry. What do you do?”

“I help people.”

“Do I need help?”

“Not right now but I think you might need someone to play a game with. What do you say we go and see what games we can find in the common room?”

Henry’s eyes lit up. “Yeah ok. Mom, can you come too?”

“Let me just have ten minutes to unpack and then I’ll join. Is that ok?”

“Ok,” Henry agreed, sliding from the bed and reaching for Emma’s hand.

“Take your time,” Emma murmured to Regina as she passed. “I’ll keep him occupied and this afternoon we can talk about what you want to tell him.”

“Thank you,” Regina said just before Emma disappeared with her son into the corridor.

As soon as they were out of sight, Regina sank onto her bed, legs trembling. What was happening? How was Emma so ok now? Where had that justifiably angry, socially awkward woman gone and what was Regina supposed to make of the confident, accomplished, helpful and kind-hearted woman who seemed to have replaced her?

A lot had changed in Regina’s life in the past twenty-four hours. Leaving her husband, driving across several states, arriving at a women’s shelter. But for some reason, all of those monumental events paled in comparison to the fleeting, confused, emotional interactions she had just had with Emma Swan.


Chapter Text

September 1st 2003

She peered around the edge of the door, scanning the noisy room beyond. There were hundreds of students already there, voices bouncing off the walls. She shivered. But she knew she had to enter. One, two, three, four, five, pause. One, two, three, four, five, pause.

A student knocked into her as they hurried into the room, chattering with their friends and ignoring the meek blonde hovering in the doorway. Emma withdrew, flattening herself against the wall. No, come on, she scolded herself. You have to do this. One, two, three, four, five, pause. One, two, three, four, five, pause.

Hands balled into fists. The new counting technique her therapist had taught her wasn’t working. She wasn’t feeling calm. She wasn’t feeling in control. Turning, she set off down the corridor, head down. Leaving the building, she found herself in an unfamiliar part of the new school grounds. The sun shone high overhead, reminding her it was midday and she was hungry. But not hungry enough to face the bustling canteen. Looking around, she set off towards a large tree, its broad branches casting a wide shadow on the grass below.

Sitting down, she shuffled about, trying to get comfortable leaning against the rough bark. Eventually she settled and pulled her satchel towards her. Inside she found a bag of chips, a bottle of water and an apple. “Just in case,” her foster mother had said that morning when she handed Emma money for lunch. Back then, four hours ago, Emma had been confident she would be able to walk into the canteen of the new school and order lunch. But when the moment came, it was too much.

Settling down, she opened the bag of chips and pulled out a book. Within moments, she had fallen into the world created by the words on the pages.

“Hey, it’s the new weirdo.”

Emma looked up, instinctively knowing the snide remark was about her. It wasn’t the first time in her life she had been called weird and it probably wouldn’t be the last. But it wasn’t fair. There was no such thing as normal. Everyone was different. Just because she was different in a different way, that didn’t make her weird. At least, that’s what her foster parents told her. Her peers, however, seemed to have other ideas. In front of her, silhouetted against the bright sunshine beyond, were three already familiar girls.

“What are you doing here?” the redhead asked. Zelena West, Emma remembered. She was good with names.

“Reading,” Emma replied, holding up the book as if to illustrate a point.

The move was foolish and the book was snatched out of her hand at once by Regina. “Black Swan Green,” she read. “Swans again, huh?”

“I like swans,” Emma stated. “I’m reading books with ‘swan’ in the title. I’ve already read Wild Swans and The Trumpet of the Swan and Swan Sister and three different books all called Swan Song. Isn’t it strange how authors write books with the same title? If I wrote I book I’d give it a new title, not one which was already used. Swan song refers to -”

“Oh shut up,” Regina interrupted, throwing the book back in Emma’s lap. “Move.”

“What?” the blonde frowned, picking up the book which had slapped against her thighs.

“Move. You’re in our spot.”

“Your spot?”

“Yes, our spot. Move it, psycho,” Zelena snarled.

“Why is it your spot?”

Regina visibly bristled. “It just is, ok? Everyone knows we sit here. So move, right now.”

Something inside Emma told her it was a good idea to obey the impolite demand. She gathered her book, empty crisp packet, apple and water bottle and stood up. Before she could walk away, however, Regina reached over and plucked the apple out of her hand.

“Hey, that’s my lunch,” Emma protested.

The brunette’s lip curled into a cruel smile. Looking Emma straight in the eye, she took a bite of the apple. As she chewed, she raised an eyebrow pointedly. Even Emma, who struggled to understand social cues at times, knew to leave without arguing. As she traipsed back to the school building, she heard the cackles of laughter. Her heart clenched. Two whole years of this? How was she going to get through her final years of high school with such mean classmates? Maybe, if she asked her foster parents, they could go back to New York. One thing was certain, she didn’t want to stay in Maine.

“Where’s Mom?” Henry asked as he shook the dice in his little hands.

“Just getting your bedroom ready, I think,” Emma replied, glancing towards the door to the common room, half expecting Regina to walk back in at any moment. But considering the brunette had said she would join them in ten minutes and it had already been close to two hours, Emma suspected she would have to go to find Regina herself.

“I’m hungry.”

“Me too,” Emma admitted, realising it was almost lunch time. “Come on, let’s see what they’re cooking.”

Swan’s Shelter had a small catering team, staffed solely by females, of course. These chefs provided some basic food for the women and children in the shelter. It also served as employment opportunities for some of the shelter’s former guests as several women had found work in the kitchen as a stepping stone towards independence once more.

“Can I get a burger?” Henry asked as he led the way towards the kitchen.

“Maybe,” Emma said. “Does your mom allow you to eat burgers?”

“All the time,” Henry said, eyes wide as he looked sincerely up at the blonde.

Emma doubted that very much but the dilemma ended when it transpired there were no burgers available. Henry pouted but then pointed at the tomato pasta dish. Emma herself went to the fridge to retrieve her pizza leftovers.

“What’s that?” Henry asked as Emma sat down opposite him with two glasses of water and a cardboard box.

“Pizza,” Emma replied. “My foster dad told me to eat it for lunch.”

“Your dad still tells you what to eat?” Henry frowned. “You’re an adult. Don’t you get to choose your own meals? When I grow up, I’m going to eat burgers every day. Mom eats salads all the time and makes me eat them too. When I’m an adult, I’m never going to eat salad. Salad is gross.”

“Salad is healthy,” Emma replied as she opened the pizza box and peered at the contents. The leftover pizza slices had slid on top of one another during their journey in her handbag. She separated them and looked with suspicion at her food. Cold pizza looked different to hot pizza, she decided. She wasn’t sure if she liked the appearance of cold or the hot pizza better.

Steeling herself, she picked up a slice and took a bite. Interesting. Different. Acceptable. She took another bite. Henry was already halfway through his pasta, chatting away to Emma about his love of burgers.

“Hello Emma.”

The blonde turned towards the small voice which had emanated from behind her left shoulder. “Hi Roland, how are you?” she asked the little boy who stood there.

“Good thank you. Look, Mommy bought me a monkey.” He held out the plush toy and waggled it. “He’s called Mike.”

“I have a toy elephant,” Henry piped up. “He’s called Eddie.”

Roland eyed the new boy for a moment. He had seen Henry the previous evening but hadn’t said anything to him yet. “Monkeys live in jungles,” Roland announced.

“Elephants live in -” Henry stopped, biting his lip.

“Elephants sometimes live in jungles too,” Emma offered. “Asian elephants live in jungles but the African elephants live on the grass plains of Africa.”

“Wanna play?” Roland asked.

Henry beamed, pushing his empty bowl away. “Sure. Can I go get Eddie?” he asked the blonde.

“I’ll come with you,” Emma said, knowing she should check on Regina and also unsure what Henry might be walking in on. It wasn’t unusual for women to stay strong in front of their children but break down when alone. While natural, the sight of their parent crying was confronting for a young child and Emma wanted to make sure Henry didn’t have to deal with Regina in such a state without another adult present.

Leaving Roland and promising they’d be back soon, Emma and Henry cleared away their lunch items and headed back into the corridor. Emma knocked on the room door and waited.

“Why can’t we just go in?” Henry asked, hand reaching up to turn the handle.

“Because it’s polite to knock,” Emma explained.

“It’s just Mom,” Henry argued.

Emma just smiled at him and knocked again. When the second request for entry went unanswered, she turned the handle and poked her head around the doorframe. The room was dark but she could make out the shape of Regina, curled up on her bed. From the silence, Emma suspected the woman was asleep.

“Ok, go and get Eddie and then go and meet Roland,” Emma said, pushing the door open a little further so he could enter. She followed and waited until he left before closing the door behind him, leaving herself alone in the room with the sleeping brunette.

Crossing to the window, she pulled the curtains back a little just to allow a little natural light into the space. A shaft of sunlight fell towards the bed, illuminating the woman balled into the foetal position. She looked so small, Emma observed. Slowly, she crossed to the bed and sat on the edge of it. The movement of the mattress, however slight, jolted Regina awake.

“Who’s there?” she asked, sitting up at once and squinting as her eyes adjusted to the dusky room.

“It’s me. It’s Emma,” the blonde said at once. “It’s ok, you’re safe.”

“Emma,” the brunette said, sighing and flopping back to the mattress. The movement made her wince.

“You’re hurt,” Emma frowned. “Do you need to see a doctor?”

Regina shook her head, mouth set in a firm line. “I’m fine.” The short reply did not invite further questions and Emma understood.

“Henry is playing with another boy who’s staying here. Roland is about the same age and they seemed to get on well. Henry has had some lunch and -”

“What time is it?” Regina interrupted.

“Um, about half twelve I think,” Emma said.

“I fell asleep.” The statement was unnecessary. “I just lay down for a moment and I must have drifted off. I’m sorry, Emma. I didn’t mean for you to look after Henry for so long. It’s just been a tough couple of days and I haven’t really slept. I guess it all caught up with me.”

“No need to apologise. Henry and I had a great time,” Emma placated. “When was the last time you ate?” Regina shrugged. “Do you want some lunch?”

“Not really.”

“What about some fruit then? An apple?”

Regina’s mind jolted back sixteen years, an image of teenage Emma flashing before her eyes. Did Emma see it too? Did Emma remember that day?

“Um, an apple?”

“Yeah, or banana. We may even have some watermelon. Whatever you feel like. Just something healthy. You need to keep your strength up for both you and Henry.”

Maybe Emma didn’t remember. Or maybe there was another memory in which Regina and her friends bullied her running through her mind, Regina mused. But by the look of genuine concern on Emma’s face, somehow, she didn’t think the blonde was reminiscing. It seemed that in spite of everything the two of them had been through, Emma really did just want to help Regina.

“I like apples,” Regina said quietly, sounding almost childlike in her admission.

Emma stood up at once. “I’ll get you an apple.”

“No, I can get it myself,” Regina said, pushing herself up once more, trying to hide the stab of pain she experienced at the movement. The brief contortion of her features, however, was not missed by the blonde.

“Regina, you are hurt. Do you need to see a doctor? We have an amazing female doctor who comes once a week for general health check-ups but she also comes on request. Shall I call her for you? Or do you need to go to the hospital to get an x-ray?”

“No, I’m fine. It’s just my ribs.”

Emma’s features darkened. She had seen this before; countless time. She might not know the details but, she didn’t need Regina to tell her how her ribs got hurt.

“Stay here,” Emma said firmly. “I’ll be back in five minutes.”

Before Regina could protest, Emma was gone from the room. She eased herself back down onto the bed, hand instinctively coming up to rub soothing circles against her damaged ribs. She hadn’t wanted Emma to know about that injury. In fact, she didn’t want anyone to know about it but certainly not Emma.

It hadn’t been the first time she had taken the man’s wrath. He was usually able to keep his anger in check and didn’t strike out all the time. But it happened on occasion. The first time had shocked him as much as it had shocked Regina. He had stared at her, eyes glued to her red cheek where his hand had struck her and then turned and stormed from the room. He apologised that night. She forgave him. The second time had been several months later and it was a more brutal attack. There was no shock on his face when he had seen what he’d done, however. One of Regina’s friends, back when she had friends, had asked her where she got the black eye. She’d fumbled a lie and changed the subject. He’d become more careful after that; striking in places he knew wouldn’t be visible.

“Hey, I just saw Belle,” Emma said reappearing in the room with an apple and a glass of water. “She’s got a free time slot in ten minutes if you want to speak with her.”

Regina took the food and drink with a quiet murmur of thanks but said nothing in response to Emma’s suggestion. The blonde didn’t push.

“Henry seems like a great kid. He’s playing with Roland who’s been here for a few weeks already. They’re about the same age so it’ll be good for him to have a friend while you guys get settled.”

“Thank you,” Regina said quietly before taking a bite of the apple. As she chewed, she realised she hadn’t eaten anything she arrived at the shelter.

“We have various activities for kids which run through the week,” Emma continued. “And if you need to go out and run an errand, you can always leave Henry here. Our staff or the other women will keep an eye out for him.”

“Thanks but if I leave, I’ll be taking Henry with me.” The thought of going anywhere without her son made Regina’s stomach flip.

“Ok, that’s fine too,” Emma said at once. Regina wasn’t the first woman to not want to let her child stray far from her side. “Um, may I ask why you chose to come to New York?”

“It’s a big city,” Regina shrugged. “Surely it’s easier to disappear somewhere like here than in Maine. He won’t think to look for me here.”

“And by he, do you mean Robin?”

Regina’s gaze snapped up from the apple she’d half eaten. “Who?”

“Robin Locksley,” Emma clarified.

There was a frown then a dry chuckle. “Oh, Robin. My high school boyfriend. God, I haven’t thought about him in years.”

“So you two didn’t get married?”

Another short laugh. “No. Robin and I broke up. The day after graduation actually.”


The two women fell silent, both thinking of a night, fifteen years earlier. It was a night neither dwelled on often but, in hindsight, the moment from which their futures had dramatically diverted and set each woman upon the paths they now walked. High school was over. Graduation was complete. Emma had left for New York the following morning and Regina had made her way over to Robin’s to end their relationship which was reaching the eighteen-month mark. That break-up had begun a domino effect Regina herself had no control over. The final domino to fall had happened last week and now she was here, in New York, hiding from her husband.

“So, this Belle woman, she’s a psych?”

“Psychologist rather than psychiatrist, yes,” Emma nodded.

“And I have to speak to her?”

“Nothing is mandatory but it is strongly recommended for everyone who comes to stay here for a while. Belle is great with children too if you want to speak with her and Henry together.”

“You’re not a psychologist?” Regina asked.

“No, I’m a qualified counsellor.”

“So I have to talk to Belle, not you?”

Emma turned to look at the woman beside her who was peeking almost shyly up at her from beneath a curtain of hair which had fallen across her face. A flicker of something Emma recognised as pity fluttered through her. The blonde scolded herself. Pity wasn’t what these women needed from her. Equally, she wasn’t sure whether she was strong enough to give Regina what she needed just yet.

“I think it would be good if your first meeting was with Belle. Then, maybe next week, we can sit down and talk. I just need some time to process all of this first in order to give you what you’ll need from my professional role. Is that ok?”

Regina nodded at once. “Of course. I’m sorry to even ask. I shouldn’t have put you in that position. I’ll speak to Belle, don’t worry. I just … I thought maybe it would be easier talking to someone I know.”

At that, Emma cocked her head to one side. “Regina, you don’t know me.” The two had history, sure, but it wasn’t right for Regina to claim she knew Emma. For one thing, Emma wasn’t the same person she had been fifteen years ago. For another, Regina and her gang had never made any attempt to get to know Emma. They had just enjoyed teasing and taunting her for two years until she finally left town. Neither Regina nor Zelena nor Vicky would be able to tell Emma a single personal thing about her life.

The brunette blushed. “No, I guess I don’t.” There was a pause. “Emma, I’m so sorry.”

“I know,” Emma replied shortly. “But I don’t think now is the right time to talk about that. Do you want to come with me to meet Belle? I’ll introduce you and then make sure Henry and Roland are ok.”

Regina nodded and stood up, knowing the longer she delayed the meeting, the harder it would be. “Ok,” she said, draining the glass of water. “I’m ready.”

January 9th 2004

The cold bit at her cheeks as she ran, the icy air hurting her lungs with every breath she took.

“Keep it up,” their gym teacher called as she passed on a pushbike, cycling up and down the length of the class as they ran the cross country track.

Emma dropped her gaze to the uneven floor and kept up her steady pace. Left, right, left, right, left, right. Her heart was beating hard against her ribs. She hadn’t been for a run in weeks, the Christmas holidays and the snowy weather of Maine putting paid to her usual schedule. But their gym teacher had other ideas.

“Hey Swan.”

Her stomach knotted. She knew that drawl. She didn’t need to glance to her right to know who had fallen into step beside her. Regina’s skin was pink from the cold, her plump lips bright red as they sneered at her.

“What did Santa bring you for Christmas? Something weird, I bet.”

“Santa doesn’t exist,” Emma replied. “It would be impossible for him to exist. In order to deliver that many presents to children all over the world he would have to be able to travel at 650 miles per second. Plus, reindeers can’t fly and magic isn’t real.”

Regina looked blankly at her for a moment. “Freak,” she said simply, bumping her arm heavily into Emma’s before speeding up. She only looked back when she heard a cry. Emma’s sneakers had lost their grip on the icy ground and the blonde had fallen hard. Something deep inside Regina twinged and her pace slowed slightly. She should stop, she should help. But then the cackle of her redheaded friend reached her ears and she turned back around, running on to catch up with Zelena who had seen the whole thing and leaving Emma on the floor.

Green eyes, filled with tears, watched her run away before turning her attention to her ankle from which stabs of pain were shooting. She clutched the limb, the movement causing another uncomfortable sensation across her chest.

“Hey, Emma, are you ok?”

Emma looked up to see one of her classmates, a quiet boy she hadn’t spoken to before but knew to be called Killian, standing in front of her looking down, his big eyes framed with heavy black eyeliner.

“No,” she said through gritted teeth.

Killian looked around for their gym teacher who was already cycling back down the hill towards them. He waved to direct her attention to them and seconds later the teacher was skidding to a stop and rushing to Emma’s side.

“Ok, what happened here?” the gym teacher asked, crouching down.

“I fell,” Emma said shortly.

“No, she didn’t. Regina Mills pushed her,” Killian explained.

Emma shot him a look, silently asking him to not say any more. “Is this true, Emma?” their gym teacher asked.

“No, Miss, I slipped. I wasn’t looking where I was going and it’s icy.” Well, that was true but Emma knew she hadn’t fallen because of the surface.

“Can you walk?” the teacher asked, pulling up the bottom of Emma’s tracksuit to look at the swollen ankle the teen was clutching.

Emma shrugged and then winced. The movement had caused pain in her ribs.

“Does it hurt?”

“Um, yeah,” Emma nodded.

The gym teacher sighed, as if inconvenienced by Emma’s injury. Pulling her cell from a pocket in her tracksuit, she called to the school, asking them to send a car up the cross-country track to collect them. She then instructed Killian to wait with Emma before climbing back on her pushbike and catching up with the rest of the class, all of whom had passed the injured student by now, shooting the girl on the floor curious glances but not stopping to see what was wrong.

“You should have told her the truth,” Killian said, sitting down on a rock beside Emma. “Everyone knows Regina and her cronies have been bullying you. Now she’s hurt you. Maybe the school will actually do something about it now.”

“Just leave it,” Emma replied shortly. “I can handle it.”

Killian’s large brown eyes, highlighted by his heavy makeup, looked concernedly over at Emma. “Are you ok?”

“No,” Emma admitted. “My ankle fucking hurts and I think I cracked a rib.”

Fishing in the pocket of his sweats, Killian pulled out a chocolate bar and handed it to Emma.

“Why are you running with candy?” Emma asked.

“I like candy,” Killian replied. “Go on, take it.”

Emma hesitated but did as instructed. She unwrapped the bar and snapped the treat in half, handing one piece back to Killian. “Thanks, I’m Emma, by the way.”

“I know who you are. I’m Killian.”

“Yeah, I know,” Emma said quietly, taking a bite of her chocolate bar and trying not to think about the intense pain still radiating from what she suspected was a broken ankle. So Regina had escalated from verbal abuse to breaking her bones, Emma mused. Great, just when she thought life couldn’t get any worse.

Chapter Text

Beige fluff oozed out of the arm of the chair she was sat in. Her fingers toyed with the escaping stuffing, twisting the strands together into synthetic dreads and poking it back beneath the fabric where it belonged. She glanced at the door, then the clock. Her foot jiggled. Her heart thumped harder.

“Fuck it,” she muttered under her breath, pushing herself to her feet.

“Hey, sorry to keep you waiting.”

Regina froze, staring at the brunette who had just walked through the door. “Oh, um, no problem,” Regina lied as she sat back down into the old chair she had just vacated.

“I’m Belle,” the woman smiled, crossing the room and taking a seat in a chair at a right angle to Regina’s. “How are you doing today?”

“Not bad, I guess.”

“So, Emma filled me in. She said you arrived last night and -”

“What did she tell you?”

The accusatory tone made Belle cock her head slightly. “She just said that you and your son arrived from Maine last night and needed an introductory session,” Belle said slowly. “She said she knew you from school and that you might need some help explaining to your son what’s happening.”

“Oh.” Regina sank back into her chair, cheeks pink. The assumption that Emma had run to her colleague and bitched about how cruel Regina had been in high school was clearly misplaced. The woman was an adult and appeared, at least now, to not be letting her justified grievances with Regina get in the way of her professional role.

“Was there something else you thought she might have told me?” Belle asked.

Regina shook her head. “No, that’s all.”

“Ok,” Belle replied, knowing full well she wasn’t being told the truth but choosing to allow Regina some more time to adjust. She never pushed the women. “So, as I know Emma’s told you, I’m a psychologist. Your sessions here are confidential so anything you say in this room won’t go any further. However, if you believe that you or Henry are in danger, I do recommend you tell the shelter staff. I’m only here during regular office hours but there is always a counsellor from Emma’s team onsite.”

“I don’t think I’m in danger,” Regina said quietly.

“Ok, that’s good. But if you do have any concerns, the staff here are all excellent. And if you ever need to talk to anyone when I’m not around, Emma’s your primary contact.”

Regina frowned. “What does that mean?”

“It means she’s the first person you should go to if there’s a problem. She’ll be the one tracking your case from the time you arrive until whenever you’re ready to leave.”

“Emma’s my primary contact?”

Belle leaned over and pulled a file from the top of a stack on her desk, double checking the paperwork. “Um yep, that’s what it says here. Well, Ruby’s name was here first as the person who was on duty when you arrived, but her name has been crossed out and Emma’s is here now. Why? Would you prefer to have a different counsellor?”

Would she? Regina wasn’t sure how she felt about having Emma as the person who was assigned to her case. Was she a ‘case’ now? Is that how Emma saw her? And why had the blonde replaced Ruby with herself?

“No, Emma’s fine.”

“Ok,” Belle smiled. “So, I don’t want to push you to talk about anything you’re not ready for but it does help me, and Emma if you choose to share with her, if we know a little about the events which led up to you arriving at Swan’s Shelter.”

“You mean why did I leave my husband?” The words came out harsher than Regina intended. She knew the woman was just trying to be tactful but suddenly Regina had felt the overwhelming need to confront what was going on.

“Is that who you left in Maine? A husband?”

“Yes,” Regina nodded. “I walked out yesterday morning. Bought a used car, picked Henry up from school and drove here.”

“Why New York?”

“Leo won’t think to look here.”

“And Leo is your husband and Henry’s father?” Belle was trained to listen, just as much as she was trained to offer advice and support.

“Yes,” Regina said, teeth clenched.

“Have you heard from him since you left Maine?”

Regina shook her head. “I left my phone there. Disconnected everything from Henry’s iPad. He can’t contact us. He won’t be able to find us.”

“Ok, that’s good. Can you tell me anything about why you chose to leave?”

“He was abusive.” Three simple words. They were words Belle had heard many times, Regina was sure, but the confession still seemed to linger in the air for several seconds as the occupants digested their significance.

“I’m sorry to hear that. Can you tell me anything about the forms of abuse you experienced?”

“Emotional, physical. The usual,” Regina shrugged. “Controlling husband stuff, right? I’m not the first woman to have got herself stuck with a worthless bastard.”

Stuck was an interesting choice of words, Belle mused. “How long did the abuse go on for?”

When something becomes expected, commonplace, it can be hard to trace it back to the first time, Regina realised as she tried to remember when Leo first started to be controlling. “Years,” Regina said after a pause. “Most of our marriage, I suppose. He slapped me the night of our third wedding anniversary. That was the first time he was physically abusive.”

“And what made you leave now?”

Tears glittered in Regina’s eyes as the memory flashed before her eyes. “He … oh God, I can’t even say it.”

“That’s ok, you don’t have to tell me anything you’re not comfortable with,” Belle assured, seeing the distress the question had caused the woman. “You left, that’s the important thing. You got away and you’re somewhere safe.”

“He hit Henry,” Regina blurted out, tears now pouring down her cheeks. “Last weekend. His Tee Ball team lost. They’re kids! He’s just a kid. It’s a stupid sports team full of six years olds who want to have fun with their friends. No one takes it seriously. Henry missed a catch and Leo just started yelling at him from the bleachers. It was embarrassing. Everyone was looking at us. Then when we got to the car, Leo … I swear, I never thought he would hurt Henry. If I had ever thought Henry was in danger, I would have left years ago. Henry doesn’t deserve a father like that.”

“And you deserve a husband like that?” Belle countered.

Regina’s face, still wet with tears, became suddenly emotionless. “Perhaps I do.”

Sitting forwards in her chair, Belle clasped her hands in front of her. “Regina, I need you to listen to me really carefully right now. No one deserves to be abused. No one deserves to be a victim of domestic violence or emotional abuse. Everyone deserves to feel safe and loved in their own home. You might have left Leo to keep Henry safe but you’re also keeping yourself safe. You and Henry both deserve to be here and to be safe and to be away from a man who didn’t respect you.”

“Respect is earned,” Regina remarked bitterly.

“Perhaps, but Leo still should have had more respect for his wife and son.”

“I didn’t.”

“Have respect for yourself?”

“No, for others,” Regina said, standing up and wiping her face. Belle watched, unsure if the woman was about to leave or not. But then Regina started walking up and down the room. Belle paused, sensing that Regina would continue without prompting. “Emma didn’t tell you how we met back in Maine, did she?” Belle shook her head at the question. “We went to high school together. She joined when we were sixteen and me and my friends bullied her for two years.”

Shock flickered over Belle’s features before she schooled them. Her boss certainly hadn’t mentioned that detail.

“I made Emma’s life hell for two years. And other students. Me and my friends were popular and powerful and we enjoyed making other people feel small. I waltzed through high school thinking I was impervious to the world, that I could treat people like shit and nothing would happen to me. Well, I guess karma’s a bitch, huh?”

“Regina, what happened between you and Leo wasn’t karma.”

“It feels like it,” Regina muttered. “It took me years to realise that the way he made me feel must have been how I made Emma and those other kids feel. I turned innocent people into victims and then my husband did the same to me. That’s karma. And then, to top it off, after driving for nine hours, I turn up at the shelter run by one of the women I used to taunt and tease and ridicule?” Regina let out a bark of laughter. “I’m not religious but I’m starting to think there’s someone up there having a damn good joke at my expense.”

Belle watched the woman pace back and forth, her fingers running through her increasingly frazzled hair at each turn. She waited, knowing the brunette needed some time. After less than a minute, Regina sank back down into her chair.

“I deserve what happened to me but Emma doesn’t,” she said, so quietly that Belle almost didn’t hear her. “Emma didn’t deserve what I did to her fourteen years ago and she doesn’t deserve for me to reappear in her life now. I can’t even imagine how I’d feel if Leo walked into this room today or even in fourteen years time.” Regina was on her feet again. “I shouldn’t be here.” She strode towards the door, with Belle jumping to her feet to follow.

“Regina, wait, don’t leave.”

“I can’t stay here. I tried to leave this morning and Emma told me not to.”

“Then listen to her,” Belle pleaded.

Regina paused, feet from the office door. “I can’t. It’s not fair. She was so upset this morning when we first met. Then she disappeared for an hour and came back and was … fine. She told me and Henry to stay. I mean, I know she’s autistic and sometimes she deals with social situations differently than others but that was such a dramatic change. She can’t be ok with this. She can’t be ok with me being here.”

“If Emma didn’t think she could handle it, she would have said something. And she certainly wouldn’t have assigned herself to be your primary contact if she didn’t think she was the right person to take on that role. Yes, Emma has autism but as a result of this, her primary focus in life is providing shelter to women like you. She has dedicated her life to making Swan’s Shelter and she is committed to helping as many women and children as possible, keeping them safe and helping them start a new life. Today, that’s you and Henry. What happened between you and Emma is something I think you should talk about together but I don’t think it’s a reason to leave. And I certainly don’t think the actions of a teenager, however cruel and foolish, can be considered justification in any way for what your husband did, Regina. Leo was wrong to hurt you and Henry. You were right to leave. You both deserve better and Swan’s Shelter is the best place for you to start your new chapter.”

Emma’s eyes lingered on her cell screen. She had to leave. If she didn’t leave now, she was going to be late. But if she left now, she wouldn’t see Regina. Emma hated dilemmas.

“Who’s on shift tonight?” Ella asked as she poked her head around Emma’s office door.

“Ursula, why?”

“Good, I’ve got that book she wanted to borrow. Um, aren’t you supposed to be gone by now?”

“Yes,” Emma nodded, standing up and gathering her things. “You’re ok on your own for the last three hours?”

Ella nodded. Emma didn’t usually duck out early. In fact, she often stayed beyond the end of her shift to complete paperwork and pulled additional hours when needed to cover staffing shortfalls. While Emma didn’t like changes to her routine, she hated outstanding paperwork and the thought of her women not having the support they needed even more. So her staff knew the rare occasions she changed her plans and left early was important.

Reluctantly, Emma headed out of the shelter and towards her apartment to get into her car. The drive to her therapist’s office was short. Dr Archie Hopper was conveniently only a few of miles away and had been Emma’s therapist since she was a child. Perhaps the man, with his round tortoiseshell spectacles, knew her better than anyone else in the world.

Parking outside the small clinic where Archie practiced, Emma strolled into the building, pausing to scratch Pongo, the man’s unimaginatively-named Dalmatian behind the ears before approaching the desk.

“Hi Emma,” Archie’s receptionist, Marco smiled at her.

“Hey Marco,” Emma smiled, sticking her hand in the big bowl of candy on the desk and rummaging around until she found one of the strawberry lollies she liked.

“Archie’s already available. His previous appointment cancelled.”

“Oh.” Emma looked at the clock above Marco’s desk. “But I’ve got another six minutes before my appointment is due to start.”

“That’s fine. You can wait if you wish,” Marco said at once. He had been Archie’s receptionist for over twenty years and given that the therapist specialised in autism, was used to patients reacting to change in such a way.

Emma nodded, unwrapped the candy and stuck it in her mouth before walking over to the waiting area and sitting down. She pulled out her cell to check. No messages. She wasn’t sure what she expected; Regina didn’t have her cell number. But Emma still checked. She wanted to know how the meeting with Belle had gone. She wanted to know what they talked about. Belle would never betray her patients and tell her any details but she was curious. What was Regina running from? Or who? But Emma knew not to push for information. If and when Regina was ready, she would share.

Roused from her thoughts by Marco pointing to the clock which indicated that Emma’s scheduled appointment time had arrived, she stood and shook her head, trying to focus on what she needed to do. Focus on herself. She had to forget about her current role to protect Regina and instead think about their history. Dealing with the past would help Emma support Regina in the future.

“Good afternoon, Emma,” Archie smiled from behind his desk. “How are you?”

“Regina arrived at the shelter last night,” Emma said, sitting down in her favourite chair and crossing her legs beneath her.

“Regina from Maine? The girl who was the leader of that girl gang in high school?”

“Yeah,” Emma nodded. “And she needs my help.”

“Ok,” Archie said slowly. “How are you feeling about that?”

Emma tapped her fingers on her knees. “Confused,” she started. “And angry and confused again and I feel sorry for Regina and I know I shouldn’t because these women don’t need my pity but I do feel it for her and I feel scared that I can’t do my job and I feel guilty because maybe I can’t help her and I feel like it’s all too much. It’s too much, Archie. After everything that happened, I don’t know if I’m strong enough to face this.” Emma thumped her fist into the arm of the chair, frustration getting the better of her. The action jolted her. One, two, three, four, five, pause. One, two, three, four, five, pause. “Sorry.”

“It’s ok,” Archie placated. “That’s a lot of emotion.”

“Yeah, loads. I can’t deal with it all. This morning, I yelled at her. I yelled at a woman who had come to us for help, Archie! I’ve never done that before.”

Archie knew much about Emma’s work, although he had never visited the shelter. She often talked with him about how working with the women affected her autism and the impact her vocation seemed to have on her wider social interactions.

“You can’t blame yourself, Emma. It must have been a shock seeing her again.”

Emma nodded. “It’s been fourteen years. I told you about the last night I spent in Maine. And then two years of being the scapegoat for Regina and her friends before that. It’s not like I think about it much but I do sometimes remember. When I talk to the women and they describe how they felt, there are times when I felt those same things. It’s different, I know. Regina and I went to school together. We weren’t married or anything. But she made me her victim the same way their husbands made the women in the shelter a victim. I guess Regina’s a victim now.”

Archie considered that final statement. “How does that make you feel?”

“What?” Emma frowned.

“The thought of Regina as a victim, how does that make you feel?”

The frown deepened. The elaboration had not clarified anything for Emma. Unless … She jumped to her feet. “Are you saying I’m glad that Regina’s a victim now?”

Archie opened his mouth to interrupt the seething woman before him but couldn’t get a word out before Emma stormed over to the window where she looked down on the dusky suburban street beyond.

“No one deserves to be a victim,” Emma snarled at her reflection. “What Regina did to me as a teenager has nothing to do with what she’s been through. Hell, I don’t even know what she’s been through. She hasn’t told me. But whatever it was, she doesn’t deserve it.”

“I’m sorry to have implied anything,” Archie soothed.

“You don’t believe that, do you?” Emma asked, rounding on her therapist. “You don’t believe that people who have behaved badly towards someone deserve to be victimised by someone else.”

“No, of course not,” Archie said at once.

“Then why suggest I might think that?” Emma queried, marching back towards the desk. “Do you think that because I’m autistic I don’t have fucking feelings?”

“Emma, please don’t shout at me.”

Taking a deep breath, Emma tried to steady herself. It didn’t work “Don’t accuse me of being a fucking monster!” she exclaimed.

“Emma, come on,” Archie placated. “That’s not what I was suggesting. I know you very well. You care deeply for people. You are very loving and compassionate and you have dedicated your life to helping those who need somewhere safe and supportive. You have some of the most intense feelings I’ve ever seen. I’m sorry to have implied anything which caused you offence.”

Emma’s green eyes scanned the therapist’s face. Archie waiting, knowing the blonde needed some time. After almost thirty seconds, she seemed to accept that he was being truthful and sank back down into her chair.

“I told her to stay,” Emma said quietly. “She was going to leave and I told her to stay. I told her we’d help, we’d keep her safe. I even made myself her primary point of contact.”


“Because it’s the right thing to do,” Emma sighed. “And because I’m not the same person I was fourteen years ago and I’m willing to bet she isn’t either. She’s a mum now. She has a kid and I need to keep them both safe. I want to move on from what was in our past. I want to forget what she did to me and just do my job.”

“You can’t forget your past, Emma.”

“Forget, forgive, whatever. I want to be over all the stuff teenage me went through. That part of my life is done. I’ve moved on and I’m ready to close the door.”

“Do you think you can do that?”

“Not without you. Can you help me?”

Archie nodded slowly. “I can try. But it’s a journey, Emma. Don’t expect change overnight. And cut yourself some slack. If you’re going to be around someone with such strong ties to some negative memories, you need to be careful about how you deal with that. What techniques have you been using to help calm yourself down?”

“I threw stuff around my apartment this morning,” Emma deadpanned. “That didn’t help.”

“No, throwing things, while satisfying in the moment, rarely helps to reduce our anger. What else have you found effective?”

“The counting,” Emma said. “I use it a lot. But, you know, when I’m at the shelter, apart from this morning, I’m usually ok.”

“I know, you’re very high functioning. But I do think you may find that the strain of Regina’s presence means you may find yourself experiencing some heightened emotions outside of work. This is something you should be aware of, that’s all.”

Emma nodded. She knew that. She knew Regina’s presence was going to change things for her. Swan’s Shelter had always been the place where she could shed her insecurities and flourish as a professional. Her autism faded the moment she stepped over the threshold and she transformed into the counsellor the women needed. But Regina’s presence changed things. With Regina inside, the lines were blurred. The woman’s ties to her past confused her. There was one thing Emma knew crystal clear, however. Whatever had happened between herself and Regina, she could not allow it to affect the services and care she offered the woman and her son.

Chapter Text

By the time she left the clinic, the suburban sidewalk was quiet, illuminated by the soft glow of the street lamps. It was almost seven in the evening. Emma’s stomach grumbled. She wasn’t used to meeting Archie so late and her body was letting her know she was behind schedule when it came to food. Her standing appointment with her therapist was on the first Monday of each month at ten in the morning. But the man was always available for emergency sessions if required.

It was increasingly rare for Emma to need to see Archie in addition to their monthly sessions but it happened. The triggers were never work related but to do with her family, friends or some other social interaction. Except this week. Regina Mills’ presence had prompted Emma to dial her therapist as she walked back to work from her apartment that morning. Was Regina considered work or social? The confused position the brunette held in her life had thrown Emma. How was she supposed to deal with Regina?

After the initial shock of seeing her, the outburst of anger and pent up emotions hit hard. Then after that uncontrolled explosion, plus the throwing of various breakables (I must replace that photo frame, she mused), came the sadness. Pain of memories long since buried, abruptly dragged to the surface, raw and vivid. And then, as she regained control of herself, something else changed when she thought about the circumstances under which they had met. Regina had come to Swan’s Shelter. Regina had been in danger. Regina was looking for somewhere safe. Regina needed Emma to keep her safe.

As she climbed into her car, Emma knew exactly how she had to deal with the newest arrival at her shelter. The past was in the past. Yes, she would address it in therapy with Archie who had suggested she increase her appointments to weekly for a while. But aside from that hour in the clinic, Emma’s approach to Regina was solely professional. She would provide her with a safe place to stay, help her work through whatever it was which brought her to New York and get her started on building a new life for herself and her son.

Turning on the stereo before she pulled away from the curb, her cell phone connected via Bluetooth and she selected her ‘car’ playlist. Turning the volume to number fifteen, Emma set off. The streets were busy with Friday evening traffic, people pouring out of Manhattan and heading north. Emma drove in the opposite direction, on autopilot as she navigated her way, mind churning over everything she and Archie had talked about. It wasn’t until she scanned her pass and entered the underground garage that she jolted back to the present.

Looking around as she pulled into her space, she saw an unfamiliar car at the far side of the parking lot. Ruby had said she arrived by car. Getting out, Emma pointed the key and locked it. Then she unlocked it. Then she locked it again. As she passed the new vehicle, the Maine plates confirmed who the owner was.

“Hey, what are you doing back here?” Ella asked as she saw her boss reappear.

“Um, not sure, to be honest,” Emma admitted as she looked around the empty reception area of Swan’s Shelter. “Anything to report?”

“Nothing,” Ella replied. “Super quiet. A few of the women have gone out for dinner to celebrate Bonnie getting a job.”

“Oh, she got the waitressing gig?” Emma asked.

One of the most important steps the women at the shelter went through was securing employment. Earning a living and being self-sufficient allowed the women to move on from the shelter and start their new life. For many women, this was the first time in years they had earned their own money, financial control being one of the most common ways in which abusive partners dominated women and restricted their freedom. Swan’s Shelter helped the women put together their resumes, apply for jobs and prepare for the interviews.

“Yeah, her trial shift today went really well. She starts on Monday. Wages aren’t great but the tips there are apparently good. I said we’d go for lunch one day and see her in action.”

“For sure,” Emma nodded. She loved seeing the women at their new places of work, even if it meant she had to deal with eating in an unfamiliar restaurant or diner. Often, the women were unrecognisable when compared to the person who had walked into the shelter however many weeks or months before. It filled Emma’s heart with happiness. “I’ve just got to speak with someone. If Ursula arrives to relieve you before I’m done, enjoy your evening and I’ll see you tomorrow.”

“Thanks,” Ella smiled. “You too. Don’t work too hard; you deserve a break too.”

Emma laughed. She never didn’t work too hard. She loved her job. In fact, she didn’t even see it as work. Her staff couldn’t understand why Emma always insisted on working both the Saturday and Sunday shifts, although they were grateful. The blonde had five scheduled weekly twelve-hour shifts, compared to the rest of her team who each pulled four shifts only. But Emma didn’t mind the extra work. She often came in on her days off as well and covered shortfalls whenever she needed to.

Punching in the code, Emma let herself into the back end of the shelter. It was quiet; the distant sound of muffled voices coming from the communal area at the far end of the corridor. Making her way to the open door, a quick scan of the space told Emma the woman she was looking for wasn’t there. She smiled and waved at the few shelter guests who caught her eye before turning and heading towards room 108.

“But I don’t get it,” Henry pouted. “Why can’t Dad join us tomorrow?”

Regina readjusted herself on her son’s bed. She was lying on her side, facing him. They had finished reading a story and the question she had been dreading had finally been asked. She and Belle had had a brief discussion about how Regina should talk with Henry about their situation but she still felt unprepared.

“It’s just going to be you and me for a bit,” Regina said, brushing her son’s floppy hair off his forehead.

“And then Dad will come to get us?”

“No,” Regina said quietly, finally confessing to her son that his father would not be in his life any time soon, or ever, if she had anything to do with it. “Your dad won’t be coming to get us. He’s going to stay in Maine and we’re going to stay in New York.”


Would it be easier if he was older? If he was of a maturity age which could handle the brutal truth? Perhaps, Regina mused. But he wasn’t. The boy couldn’t and shouldn’t be told about what had occurred between his mother and father for the whole of his life. Regina just thanked her lucky stars that Henry had never witnessed any of the violence. Well, there was that one time he had woken to Leo screaming at Regina, coming downstairs to find the brunette cowered in the corner of the living room. But he had been four at the time; he wouldn’t remember that.

“I’ve decided that I don’t want to live with your dad any more,” Regina replied.


“Because I wasn’t happy.”


“Lots of reasons, grown up reasons,” Regina offered, knowing even as she spoke that the vague answer wasn’t going to be enough for the confused and inquisitive young boy.

“What reasons?”

Regina sighed, unsure what more she could say. But before she could formulate a reply, there came a knock at the door. Her body stiffened automatically. She knew she was safe. She knew it wasn’t going to be her husband. Yet the reaction was unbidden; instinctive. Rolling over, she climbed off the bed, handed Henry his iPad and crossed the small room. There was no peep hole, she noticed. An oversight. Turning the handle, she opened the door a crack.

“Emma, hi,” Regina said as she took in the woman standing in the corridor.

“Hey,” the blonde said, hands stuffed awkwardly into the pockets of her black slacks. “Um, I’m just checking in to see how today went.”

“I thought you’d left. Ella said you’d gone when I came to see you earlier.”

“You came to see me?”

Regina felt the heat rise in her cheeks. “I just wanted to let you know the session with Belle went well.”

“Good, I’m glad to hear that.”

“So, you came back?”

“Yeah, I did. I … well, I wanted to find out how your session went.”

“It went well. Thanks.”

There was a pause, neither woman knowing what to say next. Emma shifted her weight from one foot to the other. Regina chewed her lip.

“I was just talking to Henry about why we’re here.”

“Oh, right. How’s that going?” Emma asked. Helping mothers explain to their children what was happening was something the blonde had done countless times. It never got easier but she knew her presence assisted the mother when trying to make children of any age understand.

“The word ‘why’ has been used a lot,” Regina said, exhaustion suddenly claiming her as she leaned heavily against the door frame. “I don’t know what else to say,” she added, lowering her voice to a whisper, acutely aware that her son was just a few feet away. “I told him I didn’t want to live with his dad any more because I wasn’t happy. But I can’t explain why.”

Emma didn’t need Regina to offer her any more details. After the revelation that the brunette was suffering from an injury to her ribcage, Emma had assumed that the woman was running from a domestic violence situation. She had also noticed an old scar across Regina’s plump lip which the brunette hadn’t had when they were at high school. But the specifics weren’t important when it came to explaining to a child Henry’s age. “Want some help?”

Regina hesitated for a moment before nodding and opening the door wider. Emma smiled reassuringly as she stepped into the room.

“Hi Emma!” Henry exclaimed, sitting up in bed as he saw who had come to visit them, iPad cast aside.

“Hey kid, how’s it going?”

“Mom said we’re staying here. But she said Dad can’t come too.”

“Yeah, that’s right,” Emma nodded, glancing at Regina for permission before sitting on the edge of the boy’s bed. “You and your mom are going to live here for a bit.”


Emma glanced at Regina and winked. There was that word again.

“Because this is the place which your mom thinks is best for you both right now,” Emma offered.


“Well,” Emma began, “sometimes moms and dads decide that they will both be happier if they don’t live together any more. And as well as your mom and dad being happier, you’ll be happier too. Your mom thinks that you and she will have a happy life together in New York.”

“But what about Dad?”

“We don’t need to worry about your dad right now,” Emma said, not wanting to lie in any way and tell the boy his father, a faceless monster in Emma’s mind who was doubtless out of his mind with myriad emotions after his wife and son had been missing for twenty-four hours, would be happy too.

“Does Dad not love me?” Tears suddenly sparkled in Henry’s wide hazel eyes at the thought.

“No, my little prince,” Regina said, rushing to the bed and sitting down, wrapping her arms around the small boy and holding him tight. “Your father loves you very much.”

“Then why isn’t he here? I want Dad!” Henry bawled. “I don’t want to be here with you.”

The words were like a dagger to Regina’s heart. She buried her face in her son’s hair, not wanting him to see the pain his words had caused. “Henry, please, this is what’s best for you and me, I promise.”

“Why didn’t Dad come with us?” Henry cried. “Why doesn’t Dad love me?”

Emma waited for a moment to see if Regina was going to offer an answer. When she didn’t, the counsellor stepped in. “Henry, your dad does love you but your mom has decided that the two of you are going to spend some time down here in New York without him. That doesn’t mean your dad doesn’t love you but it does mean you won’t see him for a while. Instead, you and your mom are going to stay here. I know it’s a little bit confusing and new but I promise you New York is really cool. There’s a great school a few streets away and on Monday we can get you signed up. You can go to school with Roland. I’m sure you’ll make lots more friends there too. And then after a little while, your mom will find the two of you a new apartment and you’ll get to decorate your new bedroom.”

Red-rimmed eyes peered up at Emma at that last sentence, suddenly distracted from his feelings of abandonment. “I get to choose the colour?”

“Yep,” Emma nodded. “What colour do you think you want your bedroom?”

“Orange!” Henry exclaimed, face suddenly illuminated with excitement.

“Orange?” Regina queried, already trying to work out how she could backtrack from Emma’s well-meaning but foolish offer to hand creative control to Henry. The six-year-old had no sense of style.

“Yeah, orange walls and a blue floor and a green top bit,” he pointed to the ceiling. “And I want a racing car bed. Toby has a racing car bed and is was so cool. Can I get a racing car bed, Mom?”

“We’ll see,” Regina placated. “But for now, do you think it’s time for sleep? It’s been a long day. Do you have any more questions?”

Henry shook his head, temporarily distracted from his quest to find out where his father was by the vision of his new vibrant bedroom.

“Ok, well, any time you do have questions about New York or your dad, you can ask me, ok?”

“Ok,” Henry agreed.

Regina slid from the bed and helped her son snuggle down beneath the duvet as Emma moved to stand by the door, not wanting to encroach on the tender night-time ritual. “Emma and I are going to be in the room where we ate dinner. Come and find me if you need anything. I’ll be back in an hour, ok?”

“Where’s Eddie?”

Spotting the elephant laying on Regina’s bed, Emma crossed the room to pick up the toy and handed it to the brunette. With a “thanks” to Emma, she turned and tucked the stuffed elephant underneath the duvet. Henry’s arm came around to hold it tight. Placing a kiss to her son’s forehead, she whispered “I love you” and stood up.

Emma opened the door and stepped out into the hallway, closely followed by Regina after she had dimmed the lights to let her son sleep. Once the door was closed, the brunette let out a deep sigh.

“You ok?” Emma asked.

“No,” Regina replied. “Got any vodka?”

“This is an alcohol-free space,” Emma replied. “Drugs too.”

“Oh yeah, Ruby mentioned that last night.”

“It’s just a safety thing. Some of the women who come through are addicts and we find the best way to support their sobriety is to have a blanket ban. How about some cocoa instead?”

Regina raised an eyebrow. “Cocoa? I’m not seven.”

“Cocoa as an adult is amazing. Don’t knock it ‘til you’ve tried it,” Emma grinned.

“Ok,” the brunette agreed.

Emma led the way into the communal area. The few women in there were watching a movie on TV. A cluster of children were hunched over an iPad. Screens seemed to be dominating the Friday evening, as usual, Emma mused as she made her way to the small kitchen space.

“Thank you for your help with Henry,” Regina said as she slid onto a bar stool.

“You’re welcome,” Emma replied, igniting the gas ring beneath the kettle she had just filled before reaching for the cocoa powder from one of the cupboards, along with two mugs. “I know it’s hard to explain to kids without sharing too much.”

“Yeah. I can’t tell him the whole truth and I hate lying to him.”

“I know how you feel but you don’t have a choice. You’re doing what’s best for him and that’s all that matters. In my experience, establishing a routine as soon as possible helps a lot for a child his age. He’s not going to stop asking questions but if you can create some sort of new normality, much as I hate that word, he’ll feel more secure. His world has been rocked and you need to stabilise it.”

Regina nodded her agreement. What Emma was saying made sense. A cloying sense of guilt rose up inside her as she realised she was responsible for her son’s sense of uncertainty, for everything he had ever known, other than herself, being ripped away from him.

“Hey,” Emma said, leaning across the counter and gently resting her hand over Regina’s fidgeting fingers. “This isn’t your fault.”

Regina, who had jumped at the physical contact, stared down at the pale, thin fingers which covered her own. The nails which had been scratching the skin on the side of her thumb stilled, the tender, exposed flesh throbbing where she had already scraped away the top layers, leaving it red and raw. It was an anxiety tick she’d developed over the years.

“Will he ever forgive me?” she asked, eyes shimmering with sadness. “For tearing him away from his father? His friends? His school? For disrupting his entire life?”

“In time, yes,” Emma nodded. “He’ll understand eventually. It’s not going to be easy and there is going to be an adjustment period for both of you. We’re here to help you and Henry work through this. I know your priority is your son -”

“Always. He’s everything to me,” Regina interrupted, eyes suddenly fiery with passion.

“And it’s important he knows that. If you want, on Monday we can go to the local school I mentioned and get him registered. They know me there and there’s usually space for new kids so he should be able to start straight away. Once he’s set up with his education and routine, you’ll have more time to focus on yourself.”

Regina nodded. “Yes, ok, that sounds like a good plan. Thank you.”

“Any time,” Emma smiled, reaching for the whistling kettle and pouring the water into the two mugs which held the cocoa powder.

“I have a question,” Regina admitted as she watched Emma stir their drinks.

“Go ahead.”

“Belle said you’re my primary contact, is that true?”

Emma’s hand stilled in its movement. One, two, three, four, five, pause. One, two, three, four, five, pause. “Yes,” she said, withdrawing the spoon and dropping it into the sink. “I thought it would be best, for both of us.”

“Why?” Regina asked. “I mean, after everything that’s happened between us, why would you want to be the person to help me through this? What about Ruby or Ella?”

“Maybe it’s selfish, but I think I need to do this,” Emma shrugged, reaching back into the cupboard and selecting the final ingredient. “I wouldn’t have allocated myself your case if I didn’t think I could offer you the best possible support. That said, I do think perhaps part of it is me dealing with my own issues. But if you’re not comfortable with this, I’ll switch you back to Ruby. Just say the word.”

“No,” Regina said at once. “No, don’t do that. I … I think I’d rather talk to you than a stranger. But, Emma, I need you to know that I really am -”

“Please don’t say sorry,” Emma interrupted. “Not again. Not now. I’m not that same person any more and I don’t think you are either.”

“I’m not,” Regina replied. “I’m really not.”

“Then let’s start with a blank slate, at least within these walls. I’ve still got some things I need to deal with but I’ll be doing that outside of work. Here, I’m your counsellor and you are someone I can help. Nothing more, nothing less. Deal?”

“Deal,” Regina agreed. “Thank you, Emma.”

“You’re welcome. Now, do you want cinnamon on your cocoa?” She waggled the small spice pot she was holding questioningly.


“It’s a family thing. My foster mom used to give me cocoa with whipped cream and cinnamon whenever I was upset.”

The fact that Regina was doubtless the cause of many of those upsets throughout Emma’s latter teenage years hung heavy in the air.

“Um, yes, ok, I’ll try it. But no whipped cream.”

“Ditto,” Emma smiled, tapping a sprinkling of the brown powder onto the steaming liquid. “I cut out the cream element when I hit my twenties. Damn metabolism caught up with me.”

Unbidden, Regina’s eyes roved over the blonde’s slim figure. It didn’t look to her like the woman had any problem with her metabolism. Raising her gaze to Emma’s face, she blushed as she realised she’d been caught staring. But Emma said nothing and just pushed the drink towards the brunette before blowing across the surface of her own. Regina did the same, awkwardness seeping into the space between them once more.

“So, what’s your plan for the weekend?” Regina asked.

“Work,” Emma replied. “I always work weekends. Actually, I work pretty much every day. I’m supposed to have Tuesdays off and every other Friday but it doesn’t usually happen.”

“You work hard.”

“I love my job,” Emma shrugged.

“So, you’ll be here tomorrow?”

“Yep,” Emma nodded.

“Ok, good. I mean, cool. Whatever, I mean, it’s not like I care or anything.” Regina hid behind her mug, sipping the still too hot liquid. Emma watched quizzically, confused at the jumbled response.

“So there are various weekend activities going on,” Emma explained. “Since the kids are out of school, we provide some onsite entertainment and there is usually a group who go into Manhattan or down to the local park.”

“I promised Henry a trip to Central Park,” Regina remembered. “Do you think I should go?”

“If you feel ready,” Emma nodded. “It might do you good to get out of here for a bit. I know you’ve only been here for a day but the longer you leave it before venturing out, the harder it can be. Plus, you and Henry aren’t from the city, so you don’t have to worry about running into anyone you know.”

“Like my husband?”

“Exactly,” Emma nodded.

“Do you go on the park trips?”

“Not usually,” Emma replied. “I have on occasion if there’s a special event or some of the women feel a little vulnerable but it depends on who else is working in the centre. There are usually two of us on duty during the day and one at night but I don’t like to leave if we’re busy or if there’s a lot of paperwork.”

“So, will you be going tomorrow?”

Despite Emma’s challenges when it came to reading social situations, what Regina was asking was crystal clear. “I can, if you’d like me to.”

The blush which already stained Regina’s cheeks deepened. “Yes, please.”

“Ok,” Emma replied. “I’ll come.”


Chapter Text

“You said what?” Ruby asked, jaw gaping at what she had just heard. Or misheard, surely!

“I said I’d go to Central Park with Regina and Henry and whomever else is going from the shelter today,” Emma said as she loaded her two slices of toast into the toaster, one towel wrapped around her body and her hair piled up beneath a second atop her head.

“You said you’d go to the park with the same Regina Mills whom yesterday you screamed you hated before throwing stuff at the wall?”

“Yes, and then I calmed down and decided that I was going to do my job and make sure Regina and Henry were safe, remember?” Emma replied as she got her jam and butter out of the fridge, preparing for her breakfast to be made.

Ruby frowned. “Well, yeah, ok. But doing your job doesn’t usually include accompanying our women to Central Park.”

“It does sometimes.”

“Tell me when you last went to Central Park with women from Swan’s,” Ruby countered, arms folded as she watched the blonde press various buttons on their coffee machine.

Emma paused for a moment. “August 11th last year. We went for the birthday party of Jo’s youngest. Yasmin, right?”

“Fine, ok, you go to the park with our women once every eight months when there are random special occasions. But seriously, Emma, do you think this is a good idea? Can you handle this?”

“She asked, I made her a promise,” Emma shrugged, walking back out of the kitchen and into her bedroom to get dressed.

“Yeah, but Ems, do you think you can deal with spending time with this woman?” The door to Emma’s bedroom snapped closed but the redhead was undeterred. “The cut in my toe would beg to differ. After everything she did to you, are you sure you’re ready to hang out as if nothing happened? As if she’s just another woman looking for somewhere safe to stay, running away from whatever bad situation she ended up in?”

“She is another woman looking for somewhere safe to stay,” came Emma’s muffled response, the woman now getting dressed so she wouldn’t be late. A conversation with her flatmate wasn’t going to interrupt her morning routine. “I told you that my responsibility is to do my job and I’m doing my job.”

Ruby sighed and leaned against the wall outside her best friend’s bedroom. “Do you think you’re strong enough to be what she needs after everything which has happened between you in past?”

The door flew open at that. Emma, clad in her usual white shirt and black slacks, glared at Ruby. The other woman had the good grace to look apologetic, knowing she had touched a nerve. Emma was one of the strongest women Ruby knew and as soon as the word was out of her mouth she regretted it.

“If I didn’t think I was capable, I would not have assigned myself to be her primary contact. If I didn’t think I was strong enough,” she snarled, “I would have left you in charge of her case. I can do this, Ruby. Don’t try and stop me.”

“Hey, I’m not trying to stop you. I’m just looking out for you.”

“Well, thanks,” Emma said, setting off back to the kitchen where her perfectly bronzed toast had appeared seconds earlier. “But I don’t need you to look out for me. I know what I’m doing. It’s my shelter, my job, my decision.”

“Ok, I’m sorry.”

The dejected tone made Emma pause. Glancing up from the toast she was slathering with jam, the blonde caught the flicker of hurt on Ruby’s features. It had taken her a long time to learn to read facial expressions and she still struggled on strangers, one of the features of her autism. Ruby, however, she was now beginning to be able to understand. I’ve been too harsh, Emma realised, based on the crease in the woman’s forehead and the way her mouth drooped slightly. She’s only trying to be a good friend. One, two, three, four, five, pause. One, two, three, four, five, pause.

“Hey, Rubes, I’m sorry,” Emma offered, returning the butter and jam to the fridge. “I appreciate what you’re doing and if it gets too much, I’ll let you know. But right now, I’m fine. I can do this. In fact, I think it’s something I need to do.”

Ruby nodded her understanding at that. She might not know all the details of the history Emma shared with this new woman in the shelter. And she might not be able to comprehend why Emma was so determined to put herself in close proximity to a woman who had caused her such pain. But she also trusted Emma to know herself and to know her capacity. If Emma believed she could provide Regina with the support which her role required, Ruby wasn’t going to question that. Emma’s passion about her job meant Ruby knew that the woman would never compromise the services delivered by the shelter for any reason.

“Well, have a good day at work. I’m heading to my Granny’s for the weekend. I’ll be back in time for my shift tomorrow night.”

Emma’s mouth stopped mid-chew. “What? You didn’t tell me you were going out of town.” Crumbs landed on her shirt and she brushed them off.

“Yeah, sorry, last minute decision,” Ruby admitted, knowing how much her roommate hated plans changing or new plans being thrust upon her. Even though Ruby’s trip to New Jersey wasn’t going to involve any changes to Emma’s plans, the redhead would usually have told Emma as far in advance as possible that she wasn’t going to be around in their shared apartment in the evening.

“Ok, well, ok. I guess that’s fine.” After a moment, Emma went back to working her way through the piece of toast.

Five minutes later, toast devoured and teeth brushed, Emma was downstairs unlocking and relocking their mailbox, then unlocking and relocking it once more. Ritual done, she headed out of the door and onto the quiet Saturday morning street, zipping up her jacket against the cool morning air.

Breakfast was a muted affair at the shelter for Regina and Henry. The woman nursed her cup of coffee while Henry obediently sat down and spooned cereal into his mouth. Picking up a trashy magazine which had been discarded on the breakfast bar, Regina thumbed through it absentmindedly before remembering that she hated reading shoddy journalism about B-list celebrities and tossed it aside.

“So, we’re going to go to the park today,” Regina told Henry when he had finished his food.

“Can Dad come too?”

Regina’s heart splintered just a little bit when she saw the way her son’s eyes lit up at the prospect of his father joining them. Her conflicted emotions towards the man made it hard to wrap her head around how to talk to Henry about him. With every fibre of her being, she hated him for what he did to her and Henry. But she also felt guilty for tearing Henry from his father, even if she knew she was justified in doing so. She hated that Henry missed the man, that he was pining for him, that she couldn’t tell her son the truth. She felt, quite simply, sad that Henry no longer had his father in his life.

“No, sweetheart. Do you remember what we talked about last night with Emma?”

Henry nodded. “She said me and you were gonna stay here. But can Dad come and stay here too?”

“No, Henry, he can’t. Dad and I aren’t going to live together any more. It’s just going to be me and you for a bit.”

The boy looked like he was about to argue but luckily a distraction arrived in the form of Roland. “Hey Henry, wanna come play?”

“Sure,” Henry said, sliding from his barstool and hurrying off with his new friend without even a backwards glance at his mother. Regina wasn’t sure if she was relieved that the difficult conversation had been avoided or hurt at the way her son had just walked away. At least he has someone, Regina mused, unlike me.

At that moment, a flash of blonde hair caught her eye. Turning towards the entrance to the communal area, she saw Emma, wearing the same outfit as the day before but with a red leather jacket added to the ensemble. Her stomach flipped. She recognised that jacket.

Regina returned to her cup of coffee and drained the rest of it before picking up Henry’s breakfast bowl and moving to the sink to wash up. She didn’t hear Emma approaching until she was right beside her.


“Hi,” Regina said, looking to the side to see that red jacket again. A wave of nausea rolled through her.

“How was your night?” Emma asked.

She swallowed thickly. “Ok.”

“Where’s Henry?” The blonde had scanned the common room when she entered and hadn’t spotted Regina’s son. The building was completely secure, however, so she wasn’t concerned.

“Playing with Roland.”

“Have you eaten breakfast yet?”


“That’s not food,” Emma scolded gently. “You need to eat, Regina. Have you had a proper meal since you arrived?” Regina bit her lip and then shook her head. Emma sighed. “Sit down. Let me make you some toast.”


“It’s my favourite breakfast,” Emma explained, turning her back on Regina as she made her way to get what she needed from the small pantry which the shelter kept stocked with basics for any guests to use. “I eat it every day with butter and blueberry jam,” she added, with those exact ingredients in her hand.

“Got any apple?”

Emma faltered in her step. Toast without blueberry jam was new for her. “Apple jam?”

“It’s a thing,” Regina smiled. “My mother used to make it.”

“Oh, well, no we don’t have any, sorry. Are you ok with blueberry?”

“Yes, that’s fine. Thank you,” Regina said. “In fact, Emma, I can make my own breakfast. I’m not a child.” She moved off the stool which she had sat on and tried to take over but Emma gently refused, insisting that she didn’t mind. Eventually, Regina acquiesced and returned to her seat, watching as the woman moved easily around the kitchen to make her breakfast. A few minutes later, two slices of toast were presented to her, liberally spread with dark blueberry jam.

“Thank you,” Regina said quietly before picking up a slice.

“You’re welcome. So, I’ve got a bit of paperwork I need to complete before I leave here. Do you know if anyone else is planning a trip into Manhattan today?”

Regina shook her head. In truth, she hadn’t really spoken to any of the other women in the shelter aside from polite greetings. The place was still all very new for her and she didn’t yet feel comfortable talking to, well, anyone. She knew the women around her most likely shared similar experiences but talking to them about her ordeal was too much; it was too soon. So she kept her distance, interacting only with her son and the shelter staff.

“Ok, hang on,” Emma smiled, walking out from the kitchen area into the centre of the room. “Hi everyone. If I can just have your attention for a moment, please.”

Regina watched, dumbfounded, as Emma addressed the room containing a dozen or so of the shelter inhabitants. The blonde teenager she remembered would never have stood up in front of a group so confidently. Regina was transfixed by the change she saw, wondering how the shy, socially awkward teen had transformed into such an accomplished, beautiful and confident adults. Perhaps it helped after she moved from Maine and she didn’t have you and your gang putting her down all the time, an unhelpful voice in the back of her mind piped up. Regina felt her face colour at the shameful memory.

“We’re planning a little trip into Manhattan. Central Park, in fact. If you’re interested in joining, we’ll be leaving here at about eleven this morning. There’s no special event, just a day out with anyone who wants to come.”

“What time will we be back?” one of the women asked.

“Before dinner,” Emma replied. “Before dark,” she added. “Anyway, no pressure. No obligation. If you’re going into the city for a different reason, you’re welcome to travel with us. You can also stay longer or leave earlier; it’s entirely up to you. If you’re in, let’s meet at reception at eleven.”

With that, Emma headed out of the common room, leaving the women to discuss amongst themselves whether they would go on the trip. Regina turned back to her rapidly cooling toast and forced herself to take another bite. The food felt heavy on her tongue but she knew Emma was right. She needed to eat.

December 4th 2004

The snow swirled from the sky, fat flakes adding to the already thick carpet through which she trudged. Her toes were frozen, the icy water having permeated the seams mere metres from her house. She needed to go shopping again. If she thought New York winters were bad, Maine was a whole different level of winter hell. The balmy summer and long autumn they had enjoyed had lulled them into a false sense of security but now winter was back with a vengeance. Emma was not a cold weather person. Mary Margaret had dragged her to the mall the weekend before, insisting that Emma needed some new winter clothes. The blonde had grown another couple of inches and half of her wardrobe now did not fit. Shoes, however, had been forgotten.

By the time she got to school, her teeth were chattering. Perhaps her foster mother had been right. The jacket wasn’t the most sensible purchase and she definitely needed a proper winter coat. But she had fallen in love with the item the moment she had seen it in the store. Emma wasn’t one for clothes but there was something about the jacket which she was drawn to. Perhaps it was the colour. Emma did love red. Perhaps it was the fact that it was one of the first ‘grown-up’ pieces of clothing she had owned. Perhaps it was something else. Whatever the reason, Emma relished the feeling she had got when she slipped her arms into the jacket. She felt powerful, invincible, protected.

Home room was empty when she arrived. The snow seemed to have delayed most of her classmates or distracted them into snowball fights, many of which she had dodged as she walked into the building. Taking her seat at the back in the corner, as far away from everyone else as possible, she pulled out her latest book and settled down to read as warmth slowly seeped back into her bones.

Emma had barely five minutes alone before the door to the classroom opened. She looked up, and then quickly dropped her gaze. Heels clicked across the floor. Who wore heels in this weather, Emma thought to herself? Some people put way too much store in how they looked.

“New jacket?”

Green eyes snapped up. “What?”

“Your jacket, is it new?”

Was this a trap? Where was the insult? The scathing remark? “Um, yeah.”

“It suits you.” With that, Regina promptly sat down in her seat and turned her back on Emma. The blonde stared at the back of her head, thunderstruck. They were the only nice words Regina Mills had ever spoken to her. Every other interaction, from her very first day at school over a year earlier, had been negative. More than negative; cruel. Fifteen months of being the bully’s plaything. Regina and her cronies seemed to get pleasure from taunting and teasing Emma. But today? What was that comment about her jacket? Before Emma could analyse the interaction any further, the door opened again.

“Fuck it’s cold,” Zelena said, marching in and heading straight for the radiator, against which she leaned, her bare legs, usually alabaster white, pink from the cold. Why the girl insisted on wearing a mini skirt and no tights or even pantyhose in this weather was beyond human logic.

“Yeah, thanks for leaving us to get the bus, R,” Vicky added. “There are dirty, poor people on there. It’s gross. I think I’ve caught rabies.”

“Mom wouldn’t let me drive in the snow with anyone else in the car,” Regina explained. “I’m sorry but she said it was too dangerous. And you can’t catch rabies from sitting on a bus.”

Vicky rolled her eyes and moved to warm herself up alongside Zelena. It was then that the two other members of Regina’s group saw Emma.

“Ooh, Psycho Swan’s been shopping. What’s with the tacky red jacket?” Vicky asked.

Emma didn’t even raise her eyes from her book. Ignoring the girls seemed to be the quickest way to make them lose interest. She’d learned that since arriving in Maine.

“Yeah it looks like it cost about five bucks from a thrift store. Is that where you got it, Swan? Some second-hand dive?”

“No, I bought it from Zara. It cost one hundred and forty-nine dollars.” Her compulsion to correct inaccuracies, however, still got her into trouble.

Vicky and Zelena’s eyes blew wide. Suddenly, the jacket which they’d been mocking appeared much more desirable. With a glance at one another, they stood and made their way over to Emma’s desk.

“Guys, leave it,” Regina said. But she made no move to stop the girls and neither of them halted their approach.

“Hmm,” Vicky said, reaching out to touch the shoulder of Emma’s jacket. The blonde flinched and leaned away. “It’s real leather.”

“It’d look good on you, Vic. Don’t you think, Swan?” Zelena asked.

“I don’t know much about fashion. I like reading about swans and animals and -?

“Yeah, yeah, we know, weirdo. Well, I do know about fashion and I can tell you that this jacket would look a lot better on me than it would you. I mean, let’s face it, anything would look better on me over you. So, I think you should give me your jacket, don’t you?”

“What?” Emma said, gawping up at the tall blonde. It wasn’t as if she wasn’t used to Regina and her friends taking her stuff. But until that moment it had been small items like food, stationary or the occasional book. They’d never taken anything of any real value.

“Take it off. I want it.” Vicky said.

“No, it’s mine.”

Vicky’s lip curled into a smile. “It wasn’t a question, Swan. Take it off. Now.”

“No,” Emma snapped back.

“Give it to her, Emma.”

Three sets of eyes turned to Regina, dumbstruck at the use of the blonde’s first name. Emma had been called Swan or Psycho Swan or weirdo or any other derogatory term the trio could think up since day one. But they’d never called her Emma. Vicky and Zelena looked curiously at their friend, confused not only as to why Regina wasn’t joining them but also why she had addressed the girl so politely. Well, as polite as she could be considering she was ordering her to hand over the jacket. Emma, too, was thoroughly confused. But there was something in the teenager’s words that made her heed the command.

Slowly, she shrugged off her jacket, left only in a thin sweater. She was going to get hypothermia on the way home from school. Vicky snatched the article out of her hands and tossed aside her own coat to don Emma’s.

“How do I look?” she asked, twirling around.

“Fabulous,” Zelena exclaimed, giving her friend a round of applause.

Without a backwards glance, they trounced off to their seats as the rest of their class began to arrive. Emma just sat there, humiliated, cold and angry. Before she picked up her discarded book, she noticed big brown eyes on her. She avoided the gaze, knowing they’d be filled with distain. But as she settled back in her chair, she couldn’t help but glance at Regina and the look she faced shocked her. Was that sadness?

By the time Emma got home that night she was wet through from the tumbling snow. Her fingers were turning blue and her cheeks burned with the pain of the cold. She hurried up the shovelled path to the house, stamping snow off her boots on the porch as her numb fingers fumbled the key into the lock. As soon as it was open, she threw herself inside, the heat enveloping her like a hug. Just before she shut the door, she noticed a package on the bench in their porch. Grabbing the bag, she slammed the door, tossed the item on the side table and hurried upstairs to take a hot shower.

It was only half an hour later when she returned to the hallway, finally feeling human again, that she went to investigate the mysterious package on the porch. Looking into the bag, her heart skipped a beat. She reached in and pulled out the jacket, holding it up before her. Had Vicky given it back? No, Emma realised. This jacket had the tags on it. It was new. Someone had bought her a new jacket to replace the one which had been taken from her that morning. Looking into the bag, Emma searched for a note but came up empty. Only three other people knew that Emma had been robbed of her new jacket though. Regina, Zelena and Vicky.

If you had asked Emma that morning which of those girls was willing to drop one hundred and forty-nine dollars on her, she would have said none of them and laughed. But now? Well, she still couldn’t believe it but out of the three teenagers who had been present that morning, there as only one who might, just might, have done this.

Walking slowly back upstairs, the jacket held loosely in her hands, she went straight to her room and stowed the item in the back of her wardrobe. Vowing never to wear the jacket to school again, Emma returned to the living room and settled at the small desk her father had built to do her homework.

Chapter Text

The reception area was empty aside from another staff member who was sat behind the desk when Regina and Henry emerged from the back area of the shelter. Glancing at her watch, Regina saw that it was five minutes before eleven. Eager. Henry was sulking beside her, having discovered that his mother had failed to pack his soccer ball. Regina apologised for the oversight, her son’s recreational activities not being at the forefront of her mind when she had been packing to leave the family home.

“Hi,” the woman behind the desk smiled as she saw mother and son. “I’m Mulan.”

“Regina,” she replied. “And this is Henry.”

“Are you guys going to the park with Emma today?” Mulan asked, her boss having told her of the plans, as it meant she was alone at the centre for most of the day. Regina nodded. “Well, just take a seat. Emma will be finished up in a few minutes.”

“Can we buy a new ball?” Henry asked as he plonked himself down alongside his mother.

“Maybe,” Regina conceded.

“Will you play with me?”

“Maybe.” In truth, she didn’t feel much like kicking a ball back and forth but knew she should. Roland and his mother, Marian, had opted out of the trip as the woman had a friend visiting that afternoon. Unless other children joined, it would be up to Regina to ensure Henry was entertained. She didn’t resent that one bit but, in truth, she needed a little space. And after seeing that jacket, she knew there was a conversation she and Emma needed to have.

“Dad always played with me,” Henry pouted, folding his arms.

The statement was like a punch in the gut. Not only because of their current situation but because it wasn’t true. Leo had never been a hands-on dad. He was rarely home from work during the hours Henry was awake on school days and at the weekend the boy struggled to get his attention for more than a few minutes. She wasn’t sure how the boy had formulated this inaccurate picture of his father but she sincerely hoped he realised he was disillusioned.

Before she could say anything, another woman emerged from the back of the shelter with three girls, all of whom appeared to be under the age of ten with bright blonde hair, just like their mother. Two of them were fighting over a toy and the third, the youngest, had her arm wrapped around her mother’s leg, making walking cumbersome.

“Just sit down and sort it out yourselves,” the woman said, sounding exhausted.

Still bickering, the older girls did as they were told, the contentious toy clutched in four small hands. Henry watched with intrigue as they argued about who was the rightful owner of the item.

“Hi,” Regina offered as the woman sat down nearby, the youngest daughter immediately climbing into her lap.

“Hey,” the woman replied, a weak smile on her lips.

“I’m Regina and this is Henry.”

“Kathryn,” the woman replied. “This is Emily and those two are Rose and Amy.” She pointed at the girls who were now engaged in a full-on tug of war. Regina wondered why the woman didn’t step in and deal with the disagreement herself.

“Are you going to the park too?”

“Yep,” Kathryn nodded. “I’m actually meeting my father there. He wanted to see the girls and it’s easier than coming up here from Brooklyn.”

“You’re from New York?”

Kathryn nodded. “Yeah, born and raised in Brooklyn. You?”

“Maine,” Regina replied.

“How did you end up down here?” Kathryn asked.

Regina shrugged. “Seemed like the best place to disappear.”

The women fell silent. The unspoken truth that they were both in the shelter, with their children to escape a dangerous or unwanted home situation weighed upon their shoulders. But before anything more could be said, Emma emerged from the office behind the desk.

“Hey,” she smiled. “Just you two?”

“Looks like it,” Kathryn nodded. “I think most people had plans. But I’ve got to meet Dad somewhere and it saves him slogging all the way up to The Bronx, so I’ve told him we’ll meet in the park. Is that ok?” she added, suddenly wondering if she needed to ask permission to invite a man to participate in a day out from the women’s shelter.

“Fine by me,” Emma replied who had met Kathryn’s father once before, a few days after she and her daughters arrived at the shelter. “Regina?”

“Yes, of course,” she said at once. It wasn’t men in general whom she was avoiding. While she understood the policy which Swan’s Shelter enforced, the idea of interacting with men didn’t fill her with dread. It was only her husband whom she prayed she never had to see again.

Emma grinned and turned to Mulan to fill her in on what needed to be done at the centre in her absence. At that point, Rose began to cry, the toy finally being tugged from her fingers by Amy, the oldest. Kathryn sighed and got to her feet, Emily perched on her hip. She separated Rose and Amy by standing between them and removing the disputed toy from Amy’s victorious hands and placed it in her bulging handbag.

“Right, are we all ready?” Emma asked, circling the desk.

“Yep.” Regina got to her feet, Henry sliding off the chair beside her.

“Emma, will you play soccer with me?” Henry piped up, suddenly remembering the conversation which had been interrupted by the arrival of Kathryn and her family.

“Sure,” Emma nodded. “Do you have a ball?”

“No,” Henry huffed. “Mom forgot it.” The last three words were said in a surprisingly harsh, accusatory tone.

“We’ve got one here,” Emma assured, wanting to diffuse any situation which may be bubbling below the surface of the six-year-old. “Do you want to go and get it?”

Henry nodded enthusiastically and listened with intent as Emma described where in the communal area he would locate the soccer ball. Nodding his understanding, he raced off, pausing to wait for Emma to enter the code to the rear of the shelter and then disappeared.

“Thank you,” Regina said, relieved that her son’s mood hadn’t soured the day.

“No problem,” Emma replied. “Priorities, right?”

Regina nodded. “Something like that.”

“Have you two met before?” Emma asked, remembering that Regina had only been in the centre for a couple of days and she hadn’t yet seen her interacting with any of the other women. That was normal, however. It often took several days or even weeks for new arrivals to begin to forge friendships with the other residents.

“Just now,” Kathryn nodded. “Hopefully Henry’s presence will stop these girls fighting all the time. He’s about seven, right?”

“In three months,” Regina confirmed

“Rose is six, Amy’s nine,” Kathryn said. “Let’s hope they can entertain themselves in the park so I can actually have a chat with my dad without them needing my attention every five seconds. I thought kids were supposed to enjoy playing with their siblings but mine just seem to fight constantly. That said, Emily won’t leave my side any more. She’s almost four but she acts like she did when she was two since we moved to the shelter.”

Not for the first time, Regina wondered what life would be like if Henry had a sibling. But it wasn’t an option, at least not a biological one. Complications during her son’s birth had left her unable to carry another child to term. She had been devastated when the doctor had broken the news, even though, at the time, she wasn’t considering a second child. Leo’s reaction to her infertility, anger rather than sadness and support, had crippled the last of Regina’s self-confidence.


Snapping back to attention at the sound of her name, Regina started to see concerned green orbs looking at her. She must have zoned out, lost in painful memories.

“Sorry,” she mumbled, heat rising in her cheeks even though she knew she had nothing to be embarrassed about. “So, are we ready to go?”

“We’re just waiting for Henry,” Emma said gently, knowing that the brunette’s mind had gone somewhere completely unconnected to the shelter for a brief moment.

Regina turned towards the door where Henry had disappeared, realising that she had temporarily forgotten her son. She stayed stock still, waiting for the small boy to reappear. Behind her Emma and Kathryn were talking about the latter’s father and what their plans were for the day in the park. Regina was only half listening and felt her heart flutter when Henry at last reappeared, a soccer ball tucked under his arm.

The journey from The Bronx to Central Park by bus took little under an hour. Emma knew the subway was faster, but she couldn’t deal with the crowds. Plus, the bus gave the children the opportunity to see the city. Regina watched the unfamiliar streets slide by, tuned completely out of the conversation Emma and Kathryn were having about the woman’s upcoming job interview.

When they arrived at their bus stop, a few blocks from the park, Emma ushered everyone onto the sidewalk and then led the way to their destination. Mere minutes later, children’s hands clutched in the adults, they hurried across the pedestrian crossing and found themselves on the edge of Central Park.

“I know there’s a great park in The Bronx but I do love coming here,” Emma mused, almost more to herself than anyone else as she stood, hands on hips, at the gateway to a wide, grassy area of the park. Although overcast, it was a warm April day now the last of the morning chill had seeped from the air and the park was dotted with families and friends, enjoying some of the first pleasant weather of the year.

“It’s beautiful,” Regina observed. She had never been to New York before but had seen countless movies and TV shows which featured the park. The fact that she was now standing on the edge of it was a little surreal. Through the trees to the right, she could see Central Park lake glittering as a gentle wind ruffles the water’s surface.

Henry slipped his hand from Regina’s and looked up questioningly, a silent request for permission.

“Don’t go too far,” Regina said, knowing her son wasn’t one to wander off anyway and trusting him to stay within sight.

The boy nodded fervently and raced to catch up with Amy and Rose who were already sprinting across the grass, Kathryn and Emily walking more slowly behind them. Regina watched for a moment before setting off too. Emma fell into step beside the brunette.

The stroll across the park to where the children had started kicking the soccer ball around was silent. Emma was partly enjoying the fresh air but also didn’t want to push Regina into any conversation she wasn’t ready for. Regina, on her part, didn’t know what to say. The red jacket in her peripheral vision was starting to become the elephant in the room. At least, it was to her. Perhaps to Emma it was just a jacket.

By the time they reached the children, Kathryn had spread out a picnic blanket which she had pulled, Mary Poppins style, from her bag and sat down. Emily had crawled into her lap and curled up, sucking her thumb.

“Em, stop that,” the mother chided. The little girl shook her head and seemed to suck more firmly. “She started again when we left,” Kathryn offered by way of an excuse.

“It’s normal,” Emma reassured her. “She’ll stop in her own time.”

Emily was not the first child at the shelter to regress somewhat in terms of development after the trauma of being removed, without warning, from her routine and family home. Children usually recovered fairly quickly but there was always an adjustment period. Emma often had to remind parents that this was just part of the process and that children would bounce back.

“I can’t afford an orthodontist,” Kathryn sighed.

“She’s only three,” Regina said, sitting down beside the blonde mother. “I’m sure a few weeks won’t have any long-term effects.”

Emma sat down too and echoed Regina’s sentiments. Kathryn looked unconvinced but shrugged and moved on, pulling out her cell and texting her father to let him know they had arrived.

“I should get a cell,” Regina mused.

“We can help you with that,” Emma said. “The shelter has a set-up package, as it were, for women to get you re-established with those sorts of basics.”

“I’ve got money,” Regina replied a little defensively.

She didn’t like handouts and hated feeling dependent on anyone. Leo’s refusal to allow her to work had been crippling. He’d been generous enough with her allowance but the mere fact that she relied on him, that he controlled her finances, was hard to accept. She had worked, in the early years of their marriage. But once she took maternity leave for Henry, six months turned into one year which turned into two and then suddenly Leo was telling her that she’d never get another job, that she didn’t have the skills or the experience, so it was better for her to just stay at home and he’d provide for the family.

She’d been squirrelling money away for years, saving a little each week until she knew she had enough to get safely away and make a fresh start. It might have been his money in the first place but when she had looked at that bundle of twenties, fifties and hundreds, neatly stacked, Regina felt emancipated. Now she wasn’t dependent on anyone.

Realising she had zoned out again, Regina refocused her attention on Emma who was halfway through a sentence.

“- and then we’ll get him signed up.”

Regina nodded in agreement before shaking her head, realising she didn’t have a clue what Emma was talking about. “I’m sorry, what were you saying?”

“Henry and school on Monday. I’ll go with you.”

“Thanks,” Regina smiled weakly. “That would be great.”

“Don’t you usually work Monday nights only?” Kathryn piped up, fingers tapping on the side of her cell as she waited for her father to call her.

“Yeah, but I don’t mind coming in for a few hours in the morning for something like this.”

“No, Emma, it’s your day off. It’s fine. I can ask Ruby or whomever is working, right?” Regina argued.

“Technically yes but I’m your case worker and I want to be there. Honestly, it’s no big deal.”

Regina bit her lip, a nervous habit she couldn’t shake. “Are you sure?”

“Positive,” Emma smiled just as Kathryn’s phone rang. The blonde gently moved her youngest daughter from her lap, stood from the blanket and walked a little way away to answer. Emily at once hurried after the retreating woman, whimpering quietly at the loss of her mother’s body.

Regina suddenly felt a wave of emotion wash over her as she realised how much she missed her own parents. Before she could disappear down that rabbit hole, Henry ran over, asking Regina for a drink. The mother, always prepared, dug around in her handbag and passed over her son’s bottle. He slurped down the water greedily before tossing it back onto the mat and rushing over to re-join Amy and Rose who were at last playing nicely with each other.

Sunlight spread slowly over the grass as the clouds split apart at last. Emma looked up, smiled at the sight and lay down on the blanket. Warmth seeped into the air as the rays hit her body. Spring had well and truly sprung in the city. Reaching up above her head, Emma stretched out her tired limbs, feeling the muscles in her arms flex slightly. Regina glanced towards at the movement, quickly looking away from the sliver of skin which appeared between the bottom of Emma’s white shirt and the top of her black slacks.

The blonde’s eyes were closed, a serene sense of peace on her features as she felt the sunshine on her face. See, this was fine, she thought to herself. Ruby was worrying for nothing.

“Emma, my dad’s over by the ducks at the lake. He’s brought some food for the kids to give the birds. I’m going to go and meet him there for a bit, is that ok?”

Sitting up, Emma squinted up at the silhouette of the woman standing in front of her. “Of course. You don’t have to ask my permission to do that. Regina, Henry and I will hang out here, right?”

“Right,” Regina nodded.

“Thanks. I reckon we’ll be an hour or so. I’ve got your number so I’ll call if anything changes.”

“No problem. Have a good time. Say hi to your dad for me,” Emma said.

Promising to do just that, Kathryn began to gather up the few possessions which had tumbled from her handbag while she had been on the picnic rug and called her older daughters over to her. Amy pouted at the idea of having to stop playing soccer but cheered up as soon as she found out she was going to feed the ducks with her grandad. A couple of minutes later, four blonde heads were bobbing away from them, heading towards the large lake. Henry stood a few metres from Regina and Emma, the abandoned soccer ball by his feet.

“Mom, I’m bored,” Henry sighed, realising that his new friends weren’t going to come back.

“I’ll play with you for a bit,” Emma offered, jumping up and shrugging off the jacket. It landed beside Regina with a thud as the blonde jogged away from her, tapping the ball easily from Henry and dribbling it further from their patch of the park. Henry giggled and ran after her, his small legs trying to wrestle the ball from Emma’s possession.

Regina, however, saw none of this. Her eyes were fixated on the jacket which had appeared beside her. She stared at it for almost a minute before, finally, reaching out to feel the warm material. It was the same one, she was sure of it. She’d know that jacket anywhere. The softness of the leather implied it had been well worn. Good, she thought to herself. The fact that she had never seen Emma in the jacket at high school hadn’t been a surprise after what had happened. But she did sometimes find herself wondering whether Emma would ever wear it again. Clearly she had and for that Regina was glad.

Her fingers ran over the red leather, stroking methodically back and forth. Inch by inch, the jacket migrated its way into Regina’s lap until it sat there, balled between her crossed legs, hands clutching the material almost protectively. Memories washed over her.

The day she first saw Emma in that jacket, fourteen years earlier. Bunking off school that afternoon for the first time in her life. The journey to the mall, to the store, to find what she knew she needed. Tracking down where the blonde lived. Sneaking up to the porch and leaving the bag. Catching sight of the teenager trudging down the sidewalk just as she was climbing into her own car, cold and wet and looking utterly miserable. Regina had watched from across the street as Emma had made her way inside the house, grabbing the bag at the last minute before disappearing. She had waited in her car for ten minutes. For what, she didn’t know. Eventually, as her breath began to escape in clouds inside her car, she started the engine and drove home, mind churning, stomach in knots, heart confused.

“He’s got skills,” Emma said, interrupting the trip down memory lane as she flopped down beside the brunette, lying on one side, facing Regina.

The mother jumped as if she had been scalded, all but throwing the jacket back at the blonde. Emma’s eyebrows rose as she realised what Regina had been doing. The offending item, which had landed on her hip, slid down to the blanket. Emma wasn’t sure what had made her select that particular piece of clothing that morning. She didn’t wear the jacket often but for some reason, it had been what she had chosen from her wardrobe. Perhaps, subconsciously, she wanted to have the conversation which, she knew, they were about to have.

“It was you,” Emma said quietly.

“What was me?” Regina asked, feigning ignorance.

“You replaced my jacket that day, didn’t you?”

There was a pause. “What Vicky did wasn’t right.” The words were a quiet, indirect confession.

“No, it wasn’t. But it also wasn’t the first mean thing she did to me.”

Regina’s cheeks burned again. “No, it wasn’t,” she agreed. “Emma, I’m -”

“Sorry. Yeah, I know,” Emma interrupted. “You’re sorry now, I get that. But what I don’t get is why you spent so much money replacing something your friend stole from me back then. You were their ringleader, right? Why didn’t you just tell them to stop?”

“I couldn’t,” Regina whispered.

“Yes, you could have,” Emma countered, “but you chose not to, why?”

“I … don’t know,” Regina finished eventually.

There was a pause. Regina was watching her son who was practicing dribbling the ball with moves Emma had been teaching him while Regina was reminiscing. Emma, meanwhile, was watching the brunette, trying and failing to read the complex flickering of emotions which crossed her face.

“I never wore that jacket until I moved back to New York,” Emma offered. “I couldn’t deal with the memory. But even here, sometimes I can’t wear it. It’s confusing, you know?”

“Yeah, I know,” Regina nodded. Confusing was definitely the right word to describe it. The only problem was, she knew her confusion was completely different to Emma’s.

“I always figured it must have been you who bought this jacket,” Emma went on. “I mean, there was no way it was Vicky and Zelena didn’t seem like the type to spend money on anyone other than herself. It had to be you. I knew that logically but I couldn’t understand why so I didn’t let myself believe it, not at first.”

“When did you start believing it?”

“I think you know the answer to that question,” Emma said quietly.

Regina turned to look at the blonde, taking in at last the woman who was lying beside her. Her gut clenched; guilt and regret and sadness and myriad other emotions coursing through her veins.

“Emma, I’m so sorry.”

At those words, the blonde sighed and pushed herself into a sitting position, running her hands through her hair. “Can we just stop with that word? I know you mean well but it really isn’t helping.”

“I’m not talking about what I did with Vicky and Zelena,” Regina clarified. “You already know I regret all of that but I also know that one little word isn’t going to be enough to make up for what we did to you in high school. I’m not saying it’ll make up for what I did that night either but, oh God, Emma, can you just let me explain?”

“What’s there to explain?” Emma asked, feeling her heart beat faster. This was a subject matter she didn’t want to discuss; she wasn’t ready to discuss. The jacket was one thing but that night was something else. One, two, three, four, five, pause. One, two, three, four, five, pause. “I was just a butt of one of your jokes, yet again. I was used to your cruelty, Regina. Hell, I’d endured it for two years. It hurt but I could take it. You could tease me about my autism and I could rationalise it; you didn’t understand me, you didn’t get how my mind works. Fine. That I could cope with. But what you did the night of graduation was different. It was crueller than anything else. It shattered me, my self-confidence, my self-acceptance. After that night, it took me over a year of therapy to get back to where I was before graduation. I don’t want to talk about that night.”

Regina’s wide brown eyes were sparkling with tears as she heard the woman’s brutal truth. “Emma, I’m so sorry,” she said, unable to stop the word spilling from her lips once more, “and I know what I did is unforgivable, but there is something you have to know. Please, I think it will help.”

“Help? Regina, I’m over it now. I’m not still hung up on the past. I’ve worked through everything which was brought up that night with my therapist and I’ve moved on. I don’t need your help to do that, do you understand?”

The brunette nodded. “I know and I think you’re incredibly strong but I do need to say this, perhaps for me as much as you.”

Emma’s pulse thudded under her skin. She was close to the edge, close to breaking point. She knew that. But she could also see the desperation on Regina’s face, the emotion so clear even Emma could read it. There was something eating the brunette alive and she needed to get it out. Emma was her case worker. Emma was the woman Regina was supposed to be able to talk to. If she wanted to do her job as well as she knew she could, she had to listen, even if another part of her never wanted to talk about that night again. One, two, three, four, five, pause. One, two, three, four, five, pause. She nodded her consent.

“That night; it wasn’t a setup. It wasn’t a trick or a joke or anything like that. I didn’t know Vicky and Zelena were going to come looking for me. Hell, I didn’t come looking for you. I was just taking a walk around high school for the last time. Memories, you know? I guess you were doing the same thing. It wasn’t planned. What happened wasn’t some big prank which we concocted as some sort of evil bully’s last hurrah. That was just me, Emma. What happened, what I said, what I did. It was all me.”

Chapter Text

The dull thud of the bass receded with every step she took away from the high school gym. Excited voices intermingled with the music, steadily faded too until, at last, everything was silent. She was alone. The corridors were illuminated but deserted, her heels clicking on the tiles as she walked down them one final time.

This was it. This was the last time she would be at her high school. In the fall she would be off to college. The thought both excited and scared her. She’d be going from a big, popular fish in a small pond to a teeny tiny piece of unknown plankton in what felt like a lake. It was new and challenging and something she was determined to excel at. College would be a fresh start, a chance to leave the old Regina Mills behind her. A chance to be who she really was.

It wasn’t all bad, she knew, reaching up and caressing the prom queen crown on the top of her head where it rested on curls which her mother had painstakingly pinned into place. The majority of her high school life had been idyllic. But her status and her reputation, to some extent had been borne out of a culture of fear. Over the past six months, Regina was beginning to recognise and despise that element of her high school life. She’s woken up, quite abruptly, to who she was.

She had been a bully. She knew that. She had been the leader of a pack of mean girls who had made the lives of a chosen few hell for no reason. As her conscious caught up with her, Regina had tried to steer Vicky and Zelena away from their mean-spirited games but the two girls appeared to relish the way they treated those deemed unworthy of their friendship. And Regina hadn’t been strong enough to stand up to them, fearful that despite her status as their leader, the two would turn against her and she would suffer. She wasn’t strong enough to do that; she was weak.

The sound of a door snapping shut up ahead echoed through the quiet space. Regina frowned. Who else was wandering the corridors? Who else had slipped out of their own high school prom to walk alone just before the evening drew to an end? Curious, she began to peer through the small windows in each door, scanning the dark classrooms beyond for any sign of life. It didn’t take her long to identify her corridor companion.

She hesitated, taking in the figure sat in the gloom beyond, hand poised over the handle. She knew who it was the moment she saw her. Her heart thudded a little harder. It had been over six months since the two of them had been alone together, the day Vicky had all but stolen that new red jacket. Where was the jacket now? Regina never saw either woman wear either version. Was this her chance? Was this the opportunity she had been waiting for? After a moment, she turned the knob, a shaft of light splintering the room. Blonde hair whipped around, green eyes widening as they took in the intruder.

“Hey,” Regina said as she stepped inside and closed the door, plunging the two of them into semi-darkness once more.

“Um, hi,” Emma replied, shifting off the table on which she had been sat. Of all the students to have found her, why did it have to be the one she least wanted to see? “Sorry, I’ll leave.”

She made her way towards the door and had almost reached it when Regina’s voice came from nearby. “You don’t have to.”

Emma stopped in her tracks, eyes scanning the room as they slowly adjusted to the light filtering in through the small window in the door. Regina’s face was dimly lit, but she could see those large brown eyes, perfectly framed by what looked like a bit too much eye liner, locked on Emma’s face. She wanted to move; to walk away. But her feet remained frozen in place, refusing their command.

“What are you doing here and not at the prom with everyone else?” Regina asked, emboldened when Emma made no move, either to leave or sit down.

“I don’t like loud music,” Emma replied. “Or crowds. When there are too many people, I can’t think clearly. I wanted to come for a walk to get away from everyone.” If it had been anyone else, the end statement might have sounded like a dig at Regina for interrupting the blonde’s solitude. But it wasn’t; it was just a statement of fact.

“Yeah, I’m not a fan of crowds either,” Regina admitted. “Plus, my date was getting handsy.” At the memory, she reached up and plucked the glittering crown from her head and dropped it onto the table beside her.

Emma said nothing. She had seen Robin and Regina on the dance floor, each of them topped with a tacky crown to mark their coronation as prom king and queen. The man’s mouth had been fused to Regina’s and from where Emma was standing, it looked like he was trying to eat her face. That can’t be pleasant, she had thought to herself before she slinked away from the overwhelming gym and into the quiet corridors.

“Where’s your date?” Regina asked.

“I don’t have one,” Emma replied. “I came in a car with Killian and his date but now they’re dancing together and three people can’t dance together like … that.”

“Why don’t you have a date?”

Emma hesitated, the simple truth one she struggled to vocalise. “No one wanted to come with me.”

“I don’t believe that.”

Again, there was a long pause, Emma trying to understand the words she was hearing. It would help if she could see Regina’s face even if she did find it hard to read expressions. Was the woman teasing her? Was that familiar, cruel smirk on those beautiful plump lips?

“I asked a girl. She said no. She said I was cute, but she didn’t want to be seen at prom with me. I understand that because everyone knows I’m weird, but I don’t understand why she thinks I’m cute. Puppies are cute. And kittens are cute. They have big eyes. It’s part of nature’s evolution to make sure that baby animals survive. We think they look sweet and innocent so we don’t kill them and other species think the same. Baby animals are cute, but people aren’t cute.”

“I think you’re cute.”

Emma froze, suddenly aware that Regina was closer than she thought, her eyes finally accustomed to the light. Or had Regina moved? She was mere feet away. Within touching distance, Emma’s brain calculated.

“I don’t understand,” Emma whispered, brain desperately trying to register the signals it seemed to be receiving.

“Me neither,” Regina replied.

“You hate me,” Emma stated. “You and your friends hate me.”

“I don’t hate you, Emma,” the brunette said. “I … you confuse me.”

“You confuse me,” Emma shot back. In fact, the blonde couldn’t remember a time when she’d been more confused. Which was saying something as her autism meant she often struggled to understand concepts which were not scientific or logical. Emotions, thoughts, other people’s behaviours.

“No, I mean, how I feel for you confuses me.”

“How you feel for me?”


“How do you feel for me?”

The blonde’s directness was perhaps a blessing in that moment, Regina realised, as without such prompting, she wasn’t sure she’d have the courage to do what happened next. Or perhaps it was those swigs of whiskey Robin had encouraged her to have from a hip flask he had snaffled into the prom. Either way, something made Regina move forwards. Emma gasped as she felt lips press softly against her own, hands drifting up to rest on her hips. It was the briefest contact, a brush of flesh on flesh, before Regina moved back, eyes glittering in the darkness, inches from Emma’s face.

“Did you just kiss me?” Emma asked, taking a step backwards and causing Regina’s hands to slide from her body.

“Yes,” Regina nodded.


“Because it’s something I’ve wanted to do for a long time.” The hushed confession was finally out there, Regina vocalising at last what she’d known, deep down, for a long time. Emma, however, was struggling to process a colossal piece of new information and it took her several seconds to answer.

“Kiss me?”



Regina couldn’t help but chuckle. “I don’t think I have the answer to that question, Emma.”

“Are you gay?”

“I don’t know,” Regina said.

“I’m gay,” Emma stated.

“I know.”

“But you’re not gay.”

“I might be,” Regina replied.

“But you have a boyfriend. You are with Robin. He’s a boy and you’re a girl.” Emma had learned about sexuality in middle school. She had realised early on that she was not attracted to boys. Her autism made this an easy fact to accept, facilitated by her supportive foster parents. But she also knew that the majority of people tended to be in relationships with someone of the opposite sex. Like Robin and Regina.

“I know but these past few months I’ve been, I dunno, having feelings.”

“Feelings? Like happy and sad?”

“Bigger than that, I think,” Regina replied. “Emma, I have feelings for you that I don’t have for Robin.”

“But he’s your boyfriend.”

“I know.”

“And I’m not your girlfriend.”

“I know that too.”

“And you hate me.”

The bluntness of the words caused a stab of pain through Regina’s gut. That was how the blonde perceived their relationship. Justifiably, her brain supplied. But it still hurt, to know that Emma thought Regina despised her so much. She had to set her straight. It wasn’t too late. “No, I don’t,”she murmured.

“You and your friends hate me,” Emma repeated. “You and your friends have bullied me for two years. You do hate me.”

“Emma, no, please. I don’t hate you. I’m sorry,” Regina stepped forwards and tried to reach for Emma’s hands but the blonde pulled back. “Emma, I don’t hate you. I’m confused about how I feel for you but I know it isn’t hate. I’m so sorry about everything that’s happened. I know you won’t forgive me and that’s ok but I need to tell you how I feel.”

“Did you follow me in here? Did you come here to tell me this?”

“No, I was just walking in the corridor and I heard the door. I didn’t know it was you but once I saw you, I knew it was now or never.”

“What was now or never?”

Regina sighed. “Emma, I like you. I mean, really like you.”

Emma’s mind whirled. How could a girl who liked her be so mean for so long? It didn’t make sense. You were nice to people you liked and you were mean to people you didn’t like. Only Mary Margaret taught Emma that being mean is not a good thing so if you come across someone in your life you don’t like, you should just not spend time with them if you can avoid it. Regina, however, had been actively mean to her, alongside her friends for two years.

“I don’t understand,” Emma sighed quietly, her brain giving up trying to make sense of everything which had happened in the past five minutes.

Regina hesitated before stepping forwards again. She could see Emma’s ghostly features in the dim light from the door’s window. Green eyes were flickering over Regina’s face, trying to understand, to read the expression there. Slowly, Regina reached up and cupped either side of Emma’s face, giving the woman plenty of time to move away. Regina felt her tense beneath her touch but made no indication that she was about to pull back. Slower still, brown eyes drifting from green orbs to slightly parted lips; she moved closer.

Just before their lips touched for a second time, Emma’s eyes drifted closed. It was instinct, her body taking over despite her inexperience. She felt the warmth of Regina’s shallow breathing against her skin as their mouths met once more. The brunette was trembling, she realised, her slim body vibrating with nervous energy. They stood there, lips gently pressed together, for several seconds. It surprised both of them when Emma began to kiss Regina back.

It was clumsy, exploratory as this time the blonde’s hands came up to sit on Regina’s hips. Her lips parted slightly, capturing one of Regina’s between her own. A soft sigh escaped the brunette’s mouth and she stepped a little closer, the girls’ fronts now touching. Emma’s fingers flexed against Regina’s hips. She struggled with physical contact. But the tingling in her tummy which seemed to be spreading from their kiss was more powerful, more addictive than the need to pull away. It was confusing and new and strange but also, for want of a better word, nice.

Regina’s hands slid lower, down Emma’s slender neck and into the long blonde hair which tumbled down her back. Emma tilted her head to one side, like she’d seen in the movies, and moved her lips a little more firmly against Regina’s. This time, a light moan spilled from Regina’s lips. Emma’s stomach did a somersault. She pulled Regina a little closer, pressing their bodies more firmly together, one hand drifting to the small of Regina’s back. Just as she was about to find out what it would be like to add her tongue into the kiss, something she’d also seen in movies, light exploded around them.

“Oh my god!”

The two girls stumbled apart the moment they realised they weren’t alone. Blinking in the light, it took Emma a moment to realise who the two people silhouetted in the doorway were. Regina identified them instantly and quickly moved to stand beside them, heart in her mouth. She felt nerves rise inside her, the passion she had felt seconds before eclipsed at once as she scrambled to work out what she should say. She couldn’t tell them the truth. She couldn’t. She couldn’t admit to her friends how she felt about Emma.

“Good one, Regina,” Vicky laughed. “Leading on the lesbian weirdo. I can’t believe you kissed her though. That’s gross.”

There it was; her ‘get out of jail free’ card, handed to her on a plate. The fact that her friend’s mind made that assumption, rather than considering the possibility that Regina hadn’t been, as usual, teasing or bullying Emma, was a blessing she seized upon.

“Yeah,” Regina said, her tone breathless. “Gross. Totally gross. But funny, right?” She was looking at her friends, keeping her back firmly to Emma, knowing she couldn’t bring herself to gaze upon the girl’s face. The expression she couldn’t bare to see would doubtless be filled with pain and confusion. If only you knew, Emma, Regina thought to herself, that I’m feeling exactly the same on the inside.

“Brilliant. The best thing you did all year,” Zelena chuckled. “How did you get her to think you liked her?”

“Oh, you know. I just lied,” Regina said easily. She heard the inhale of breath behind her followed by a sniffle. Her heart pounded against her ribs, as if so angry with the human it was keeping alive that the organ wanted to burst from the body her words were betraying. She had to leave. She couldn’t look at Emma. “Come on,” she said. “Let’s go back to prom.”

Without a backwards glance, Regina stalked from the room, followed by her two cackling friends. Emma slumped into the nearest chair as soon as they were out of sight, tears streaming down her face. It wasn’t the fact that Regina had left which hurt, not entirely. Until two minutes ago, Emma hadn’t even thought of Regina in a romantic way at all. Her heart wasn’t broken, by any means. But her self-confidence, her self-belief, her self-love, they had all been shattered. How could she be so foolish to think someone might like her, might see her for more than just the weird girl who reads too much and struggles to have a normal conversation? Of course, Regina didn’t like her. Of course, it was a trick.

Standing up, she headed for the still open door but paused when something glittering caught her eye. Regina’s prom queen crown lay on one of the desks, discarded by its owner. Emma hesitated for a moment before snatching it up and walking out into the deserted corridor. She looked left, then right, then turned towards the closest exit.

Once outside, she began to run, grateful that she had refused to wear the heels Mary Margaret had bought her and instead wore her Converse. She ran, and ran, and ran, away from the school, away from Regina, away from her teenage years. By the time she got home her red cheeks were wet with tears. Her foster parents hurried up the stairs after her, desperate to find out what had upset their daughter so much. Emma couldn’t tell them. She never did manage to explain what happened that night, not even years later.

The family left Maine the following morning for New York and Emma was booked into a session with Archie where, over the course of months, the two of them would slowly unpick and address everything which had taken place in that empty classroom. It took time. It was hard. But eventually, Emma began to move on. She regained her confidence, she excelled at college, she met Becky, she started her first proper relationship. Memories of that night faded until they were a distant, unpleasant but insignificant part of her past.

Chapter Text

“Regina, I can’t do this,” Emma said, her heart in her mouth. One, two, three, four, five, pause. One, two, three, four, five, pause. “I can be your primary contact. I can be your counsellor. I can give you and Henry all the support you need at the shelter. But I can’t talk about that night, please. It’s in the past. It happened. I can’t rake back over those memories.”

The blonde got to her feet, needing some distance but Regina jumped up too. “Emma, stop, don’t go. I’m sorry.”

“I’m not going far. I just need some space, ok? I have to clear my thoughts.” Emma said. “I’ll be back in a bit.”

With that, Emma turned and strode off across the park, hands deep in her pockets. Regina watched her walk away, heart heavy with regret. She knew it had been a mistake to stay at the shelter once she realised who ran it. This was too much. It was too much for Emma and it was too much for Regina. She should leave, she knew that. But at the same time, she knew she wouldn’t. She couldn’t. Now she’d found Emma, not that she ever truly searched hard, she couldn’t walk away. Sinking back down onto the picnic blanket, Regina forced herself to turn her attention to her son who was still kicking the soccer ball back and forth between his feet.

Henry had to be her number one. He always had been. And if Emma was willing to be their counsellor, to be the person in charge of their case, to help them make a new life in New York City, then Regina was willing to let the blonde play that role in her life. It wasn’t the role she once imagined Emma playing but there were a number of elements in her life which hadn’t worked out the way she planned.

She couldn’t regret her choices because they brought her Henry, despite the pain and anguish which went along with them. But she could regret her behaviour in high school; the way she had treated Emma and other students. I just need the chance to show her I’m sorry, Regina thought to herself. But she wouldn’t push. Emma needed space. Emma needed their relationship to be professional. Regina was respectful of that. She could do that. But one day, maybe weeks, months in the future, once she was out of the shelter and settled in her new life, there were some things which she knew she needed to say to the blonde woman still walking further away from her, across the park.

“Mom, come play with me,” Henry called, bored of entertaining himself.

Regina pushed herself up off the rug and checked the laces on her sneakers. Satisfied, she made her way towards her son who grinned widely at her and kicked the soccer ball towards the approaching woman. His aim wasn’t fantastic yet and the ball went wide but Regina jogged to bring it back in line and the two of them began to pass to one another. Regina had never played much soccer before becoming a mother to a young child but since Henry had been able to run around in the park, it had been the boy’s game of choice and, as such, Regina found herself often involved in the sport.

The rhythmic tapping of the ball between them at least offered some sort of distraction from the conversation she and Emma had just endured. In the back of her mind, however, hurt green orbs glittered with pain.

One, two, three, four, five, pause. One, two, three, four, five, pause. Emma breathed heavily through her nose, fingernails digging into the palm of her balled fists. One, two, three, four, five, pause. One, two, three, four, five, pause. The memories were fading slowly, images of herself and Regina back in that dark classroom became blurred and hazy. But the emotions which had resurfaced remained sharp.

It had been a long time since she had thought of that night. After working through every painful detail with Archie, Emma had come to terms with the events and moved on. Seeing Regina, however, brought everything back. That said, it had not been the first memory which she had relived when she saw Regina standing in Swan’s Shelter. Recollections of the many, numerous ways Regina and her friends had bullied her came first. It was only when she was sat in that room, trying to conduct Regina’s initial session that she remembered the look in those beautiful brown eyes.

One, two, three, four, five, pause. One, two, three, four, five, pause. Her heartbeat still pounded, her body thrumming with myriad emotions as she tried to get herself under control. She could deal with the anger, with the hurt of being the subject of teasing. It wasn’t new to her and had been a constant feature of her school life. Even what Regina, Vicky and Zelena had done, while perhaps more extreme and targeted, wasn’t new. Emma had always been different, someone whose mind worked in alternative ways and, as such, some people couldn’t understand her. Children in particular had a mean streak when it came to anyone they saw as ‘other’.

Yes, Emma could deal with being bullied. She hated it and didn’t accept the way society stigmatised those who were not ‘normal’, but she could process those events and separate the cruel actions and words from who she was. It had taken time, but she learned how to not let bullies hurt her.

But that night, those few minutes when it had just been her and Regina, alone in the dark, that was different. In fact, it was what had happened between them before Vicky and Zelena arrived which plagued Emma for years, not the subsequent gut-wrenching betrayal. Her whispered confession to Archie, barely a week after the incident had been tearful, her breath coming in harsh, ragged sobs. The moment of intimacy which she and her, up to then, nemesis had shared awoke emotions in Emma which she had never felt before.

Emma knew she was gay, had done since she was a young teen. But she had never felt intense, raw sexual attraction to anyone she knew beyond a television screen before that night. Sure, objectively she could recognise Regina’s beauty but that aesthetic became irrelevant the moment the brunette and her group started to bully Emma. Which was why it was so confusing when her body reacted in such a way to Regina’s kiss.

“Forget about it,” Emma muttered to herself, walking quickly along one of the paths which crisscrossed Central Park. “Forget about that night.”

But it was easier said than done. While Emma had indeed locked those emotions, that turmoil, away for years, she knew it would be difficult to do now she was seeing Regina every day, particularly because the woman appeared to have become impossibly more attractive.

For Emma to do her job, however, she had to be professional. She had to forget about that night; about the hurt and the confusion and the tingling low in her abdomen. She had to focus on what Regina needed from her in the moment. A safe, supportive environment. And that, Emma nodded to herself, was something she could provide.

One, two, three, four, five, pause. One, two, three, four, five, pause. Taking a deep breath, she turned on the spot and began to walk back to the woman and son whom she’d left in the middle of the park.

After about half an hour of kicking the ball back and forth, Henry declared he was hungry and abandoned the soccer ball to return to the mat. Regina followed, dribbling the ball between her feet before sitting down beside her son who had already started on an apple he had found in her handbag.

“Where’s Emma?” Henry asked, realising for the first time that he and his mother were alone in the park.

“She went for a walk.”

“Where are Amy and Rose?”

“They went to go and feed the ducks with their grandad,” Regina explained.

“Can we go too? I like ducks. They look funny when they walk.”

“Not today,” Regina replied. “Amy and Rose are with their family, so it’ll be nice for it just to be them and to have some quality time. Maybe we can feed the ducks next time we come.”

“Will Dad come with us next time?”

Questions about Leo seemed to be coming up far too often for Regina’s liking. Clearly Henry had either not understood or not accepted what his mother had told him so far. That was to be expected, Belle had assured her when they discussed it the day before. But telling and re-telling her son that his father was not going to be a feature of their lives was not an easy task. Regina readjusted herself on the blanket and handed Henry a juice carton before answering his query.

“Henry, it’s just going to be you and me for a bit,” Regina began. “We’re going to live in New York and find you a great new school where you’ll have lots of friends and I’m going to get a job and then we’ll find a place to live together. Your dad isn’t going to be around, at least for a while.”

“Why can’t Dad come and live in New York too? I bet he’d like feeding the ducks with me.”

“Do you remember when I said your dad and I aren’t going to live together any more because we didn’t make each other happy?”

Henry nodded but followed it up with his own question. “Did he hit you?”

Regina stiffened at the casual words, eyes wide. “Wh- what?”

“When Dad isn’t happy, he hits you, right? Like last week when I was bad at baseball, Dad wasn’t happy with me, so he hit me. Is that why he doesn’t want to live with us any more? Because we don’t make him happy?”

Finding herself temporarily lost for words, Regina stared at her son before finding her voice again. “Henry, what your dad did last week was wrong. It wasn’t your fault.”

“Yeah but I was bad at baseball, so my team lost. I should have catched the ball.”

Forcing herself not to correct the past tense verb, Regina pushed on. “Henry, no matter what you did, it is not right that your dad hurt you. Even if you do something really bad, that doesn’t mean you get punished by being hit. It wasn’t your dad who was unhappy at home; it was me.”

“Were you unhappy because of Dad?”

“Yes,” Regina replied honestly, unable and unwilling to lie. She didn’t want her turn Leo into the devil but at the same time she knew that as a mother raising a son, she had a responsibility to teach Henry the right way to behave in a relationship. That also included learning what the wrong ways to behave were. “Your dad didn’t make me happy and I don’t think he was making you happy either. How did you feel when your dad hit you?”

“It hurt,” Henry admitted, bottom lip starting to tremble at the memory.

“I’m sorry,” Regina whispered, eyes sparkling with tears. “I’m sorry I didn’t protect you. Your dad should never have hit you. There are other ways to deal with your anger and I don’t want you to think that hitting and shouting is the right thing to do when something goes wrong. It isn’t, ok? And what your dad did was not right.”

“Is that why we came to New York? Because Dad hit me?”

Regina’s heart shattered just a little more. The utter devastation on Henry’s face when he believed it was his fault that his family had separated would remain in her mind forever.

“No, Henry. Never think that. You did nothing wrong,” Regina said, placing her hands on his shoulders. “The truth is, I was the one who wanted to leave.”

“Because Dad hit you too and made you sad?”

The boy had handed her the truth on a plate. All she had to do was confirm what he had said. Regina’s internal struggle raged. To tell her son the truth and turn him against his father, or protect him from the ugly reality of their marriage and immortalise Leo as someone who had his wife and son ripped from him. She swallowed.

“Yes, Henry. He hit me too.”

Thin arms wrapped themselves around Regina’s neck, pulling her close. The brunette, unable to stop herself, broke down, tears streaming down her face at the compassion her son was displaying. Henry held her tighter, confused at the way his mother was shaking but seeming to understand she needed him to keep hugging her. He buried his small face against the soft skin of her neck, inhaling her familiar, comforting scent.

Neither of them noticed the shadow which fell across the picnic rug. “Hey, are you guys ok?” Emma’s voice, soft with concern, floated across the warm spring air towards the embraced figures.

Henry’s arms unwound from around his mother’s neck and looked up at the blonde. “Hi Emma,” he said, sounding woefully despondent for a six-year-old. “Mom is sad because Dad hit her like he hit me.” The boy turned back to his mother and clumsily wiped the tears from her cheeks. Regina’s heart, though aching, suddenly felt full to bursting with love for her son. How did she get so lucky to have such a sweet, considerate little boy?

Without a word, Emma sat back down on the rug and took a swig from some water, not wanting to interrupt the moment. Once Henry had finished wiping his mother’s tear tracks, he shuffled off her lap and helped himself to his iPad which he’d spotted in the bag while searching for some food. He then lay down on his front, turned it on, and disappeared into the screen.

“So, now you know, I guess,” Regina sniffed, wiping her nose with a tissue.

“I’m sorry,” Emma offered. “Are you sure you don’t need a doctor to come and check your ribs?” She hadn’t forgotten about the pain which she had seen on the brunette’s face when she moved that first day. Her assumption of how the injury occurred, while she wished it hadn’t, had been proven correct.

“No, they’re fine,” Regina insisted. “They’re getting better every day.”

“And Henry?”

“He’s fine. I mean, physically fine. Psychologically, who knows.” Regina glanced at her son. She knew it was foolish to talk so frankly with the boy less than two foot away but she also knew that when her son was immersed in his iPad, Mount Vesuvius could erupt right next to him without his knowledge. “I didn’t mean to tell him, by the way. He asked me and I just didn’t lie. Is that ok?”

“Yes,” Emma nodded. “If he was already aware of the violence, then talking about it is probably healthy. Did you talk to Belle about how you were going to approach this subject in any detail?”

“Yes, a bit,” Regina nodded. “In fact, it feels like all I’ve been doing since I arrived is talking. To Ruby, to you, to Belle. I just want to forget about what happened and move on.”

“I understand that and it will happen but you’ve got to lay the groundworks. It’s important to address what happened so that you can come to terms with it and move on. Otherwise you’ll always be stuck in the past.”

“Is that what you did with what happened between us?”

Emma’s eyes narrowed slightly. “Regina, I told you. We’re not talking about our past. I’m your counsellor, nothing more.”

“I know but -”

“No,” Emma said firmly, unable to allow Regina to pull her back to that space, not after the thirty minutes she had just taken to clear her head. “No buts. This is a professional relationship. If you keep trying to talk to me about this, I’m going to have to reassign you a different counsellor.”

Regina wanted to argue but knew there was no point, not in the mindset which Emma had placed upon herself. She also knew that whatever was between she and Emma was anything but professional. Sure, Emma was acting as the woman’s counsellor and Regina and Henry were staying in her shelter. But beneath the surface bubbled emotions which were nothing to do with their current situation. Those emotions, however, were not aligned. It was evident that the blonde, justifiably, felt anger and hurt towards Regina. On the other hand, seeing the woman again after so long had reawakened any number of dormant emotions which she had forced to suppress for years.

The two women fell into an uncomfortable silence, accompanied by the faint tinny sound effects from Henry’s iPad. Emma pulled out her cell and shot a quick text to Mulan to ask how everything was going. Regina forced herself not to watch Emma, knowing if she was caught with the expression she knew adorned her features the blonde would admonish her.

She turned her attention to her son, reaching out to touch the back of his neck which looked a little pink from the sun. Rummaging through her bag, she found the sunscreen and applied it, Henry half-heartedly wriggling away.

“You’re a good mom.”

Regina turned towards the woman beside her at the murmured compliment, unaware that her actions had been watched.

“Um, thanks,” Regina said, not feeling like the comment was deserved.

“Honestly,” Emma pressed, knowing exactly what was going through Regina’s head. She’d seen mothers like her before, filled with self-doubt at the decision they’d made. “You’re doing what is right for Henry and for yourself. He’s safe and he knows he’s loved. What more could he want?”

“A father?”

Even as she said it, the words felt bitter on her tongue. She wasn’t someone who believed a child needed to be brought up with a mother and a father. And yet, for the first six years of Henry’s life, that traditional familial unit was what he had known. Now, he had been ripped away from his whole world, part of which was his father. Regina knew Leo hadn’t been a good dad and she didn’t regret her decision. But it was still a huge change to her son’s circumstances which she had inflicted and would now have to not only come to terms with but also deal with the consequences.

“You know blood doesn’t make a family. But you’re his mother. You’re giving him everything he needs right now and Belle and I will be here to support you moving forwards. It’s not going to be easy but I can promise you it’s the right path to take. You’ve done the hardest part. You left. Now you can get on with starting fresh.”

“How?” Regina asked. “I don’t even know where to begin.”

“We’ll help,” Emma smiled. “You’re bright and you have a college degree, right?”

“Yes,” Regina nodded, ignoring the fact that Emma was unconsciously referencing their past history by discussing her education. “But I’ve never really worked.”

“That’s ok. We’ll find somewhere suitable with a job that fits your skills and experience. Honestly, Regina, everything is going to be ok. One of my favourite parts of my job is getting people set up with their new life. It’s a blank slate, something on which you can make your mark. Whatever you want, you can have, and I can help you make those dreams come true.”

Regina watched as Emma’s eyes lit up with excitement and positivity. It was so different, so refreshing from the girl she had once known. And then she was abruptly reminded of one of the primary reasons why teenage Emma had been a comparative shell of her current self. Regina. She was responsible. Her gut twisted again, guilt clawing at her insides.

I need to talk about this, Regina thought to herself. In that moment, she knew that she wasn’t going to be able to work alongside Emma in any sort of productive manner if she didn’t address their past. If Emma was going to help her get her future back on track, Regina needed to face their history. Not with Emma. No, the blonde had made that clear and Regina recognised now that pushing her would be not only unwise but also unfair. Emma was coping far better than Regina with their past and Regina didn’t have the right to drag Emma down.

Belle was the obvious answer to her dilemma and Regina resolved to organise a meeting with the psychologist the following week to discuss the storm of emotions currently flowing through her veins.

I’m not over her, Regina mused, as she watched Emma lie back down on the mat and close her eyes, face towards the warm New York spring sun.

Chapter Text

“Belle, I have to talk to you.”

The door to the rear area of the shelter hadn’t even closed behind the psychologist when the desperate woman launched herself into her path.

“Regina, good morning,” Belle smiled, taking in the pale face as she looked up from the handwritten note Mulan had passed her detailing the information about the shelter’s newest arrival. “Is everything ok?”

“I have to talk to you,” Regina repeated, fingers twisting around each other. She had worked herself up into quite a state waiting for the woman to appear that Monday morning. “Are you free?”

“Not exactly,” Belle replied. “I’ve got an appointment in fifteen minutes. But I can book you in for later this afternoon. Is it an emergency?”

Regina shook her head. “No, I guess not.” The woman had been battling these feelings for over a decade, even if they had grown fainter with time but it was certainly not an emergency-worthy problem.

Trained, experienced eyes scanned the way the brunette deflated, shoulders slumped when Belle revealed that she was unable to make time immediately to speak with the woman who was clearly panicked about something.

“Would fifteen minutes now help?” Belle offered softly.

Regina hesitated. Would she be able to explain everything adequately in fifteen minutes? No, she’d need more like fifteen hours to do that. But maybe talking about what had been consuming her thoughts for the past two days would help relieve some of the tension. “Yes please.”

With a smile, Belle gestured for Regina to lead the way and together the two of them walked the short distance to her office.

“Where’s Henry this morning?” Belle asked as she unloaded her handbag and a couple of files she’d been reviewing over the weekend onto her desk.

“In our room. He and Roland played all day yesterday, but Roland had to go to school this morning. Henry was upset but he seemed to cheer up when I told him we’d be going to sign him up for the same school this afternoon.”

“Oh, great, Emma got you an interview?”

“I guess so,” Regina nodded. “She’s coming with us.”

“Today?” Belle asked.

“Yes, at two.”

Belle said nothing but silently noted that her boss was working on her day off. Emma religiously took the day shift on Monday off because she always worked both Saturday and Sunday. It wasn’t unheard of for Emma to work seven or more days in a row, despite the scheduled shift breaks she was technically supposed to have but Belle couldn’t recall a time Emma had come in for something as standard as a school interview.

“Right, so, what’s going on?” Belle asked, sitting down in her chair and smiling once more at Regina.

The woman opened her mouth as if to speak but snapped it shut. Suddenly, she couldn’t find the words to explain what was going on, what was happening, what had happened. How could she tell Belle what she had done to Emma but then also make her believe how she felt? Surely Belle would react exactly as Emma had; justified disbelief.

She had barely seen the blonde since they had returned from the park. Soon after they got back to the shelter, Emma had finished for the day and her Sunday shift had been consumed by the arrival of a woman who was in need of a trip to the ER, her injuries consistent with domestic abuse, Regina could tell when she saw the new woman later that day. The brunette hadn’t even had the chance to speak with Emma about their plan for Henry’s school and the long empty hours had given her brain far too much time to become consumed with thoughts of the blonde.

“Regina,” Belle said softly, drawing the woman back to the present, “is everything ok? Did you hear from Leo? Are you in danger?”

“No,” Regina replied quickly. “No, nothing like that. We’re safe. As far as I know, at least. No, this isn’t about me. It’s about Emma.”

“Oh.” Belle hadn’t been expecting that.

Regina closed her eyes and took a steadying breath. “You remember what I told you last time we met about me and Emma?”

“Yes,” Belle replied. “That you two went to high school together.”

“And that I bullied her,” Regina all but spat, anger at herself bubbling up at the memory.

“Yes,” Belle nodded. “I remember.”

“Well, there’s more to it than that.”

This time the nod was slower. “There always is,” Belle said, a soft smile on her features.

“I … look, I’m not proud of what I did back then. I hate myself for what I did to Emma and if I could go back in time and change what I did, I would.”

“We all do things we regret,” Belle said simply when Regina stopped talking and looked unsure of how to continue again.

“Yes, I know. And I know being a teenager is hard and confusing. But the thing is, I wasn’t confused. Not really. I knew how I felt and I knew what it meant. I was just too scared to accept that part of myself and show everyone who I am. And because of that, Emma got hurt. She’s still hurt but she won’t talk to me about it.”

Much as Belle wanted to press questions onto the woman, who was now scratching the sore skin on the side of her thumb with the nail of her forefinger, she waited. Whatever Regina wanted to say would be said in good time.

“I think this would have all be so much easier if I’d just been a bully,” Regina sighed. “I know that sounds crazy and of course I wish I had never been mean to any of my peers. But at least if I fitted neatly into that box, it would be simpler to deal with and Emma and I could both move on. Thanks to me, it’s more complicated than that. Emma didn’t tell you about her last night in Storybrooke, did she?”

“I don’t think so,” Belle replied.

“It was our prom,” Regina explained. “We were all at the high school after our graduation. I was crowned prom queen and my high school boyfriend was king. Fairy tale ending, right? It should have been one of the best nights of my life. Maybe it would have all been ok if I hadn’t taken that walk. If I’d just stayed in the gym with everyone else, perhaps none of this would have happened. But I didn’t.

“It wasn’t like I went looking for Emma. I hadn’t noticed her absence from the gym and tried to find her. I had simply felt the need to get out of that room, get away from everyone else and spend a few quiet moments alone. But then when I did see her, sat in that classroom on her own, I knew it was my last chance. Well, I thought it was my last chance. After that night, I didn’t think I’d ever seen Emma again. I guess fate had different plans, huh?”

Belle said nothing. She didn’t believe in fate. She believed that everyone made their own path in life and was in control of their own destiny. Taking ownership of all life choices, both good and bad, was what mattered most.

“By the night of prom, I had known for months. I was still confused and unsure of what it all meant but I knew. No one else did, though. I hadn’t told anyone and I was still dating Robin. But when I saw Emma in that room, something inside me seemed to muster up the courage I had been lacking for months.

“I don’t blame Emma for not believing me, for reacting the way she did to what I said. She had no reason to believe that I had suddenly changed from a girl who had bullied her for two years to someone standing in front of her telling her she liked them. It came out of nowhere, for me too, actually. I remember the day I realised I was attracted to Emma. It was in December, just before Christmas. It was a shock, to be honest. Not an unpleasant one, just an unexpected turn of events. I guess it kinda hit me like a thunderbolt and all of a sudden she was ‘Emma’, this beautiful, intriguing blonde, not the new kid we’d been teasing for over a year.”

Still Belle said nothing although she now was beginning to understand what Regina was talking about. As teenagers, Regina and Emma had briefly shared a moment, by the sounds of it. What confused Belle, however, was why Regina was talking to her about a night which happened fourteen years ago.

“I kissed Emma on prom night. It was my first kiss with a woman, the first time I really acknowledged how I felt. She freaked out at first, understandably, but I did manage to explain what was going on, how I felt. I apologised, although I know it wasn’t enough. I was so relieved when she let me kiss her again but then …”

Regina trailed off, memories of her friends bursting in through the door and shattering their perfect moment making her eyes sparkle. Actually, it wasn’t the appearance of her friends which caused her such pain, it was her abhorrent behaviour towards Emma in those subsequent minutes.

“Look,” Regina sighed after a long pause, “I get that Emma’s mad at me and I get that she’s hurt. But I need to talk about what happened. I need to tell her how I feel, how I felt then and how I feel now.” Large brown eyes gazed at Belle, desperate and shimmering with emotion. “I need to tell Emma but she won’t listen. She says she can’t talk about that night; that here she is my counsellor and nothing more. I don’t understand how she can just or shut out a part of our history. I know Emma’s brain works differently to mine and perhaps for this it’s a good thing. Because I can’t do that, I can’t forget what we shared. I think about that night all the time now. I need to talk about everything. Please, can … can we talk about it?”

“Of course we can,” Belle said at once. “I’m here for all the women to talk to. But I do have another appointment right now ,so I’m really sorry Regina but we are going to have to hit pause. Would you like me to make an appointment for you later today?”

“Yes please,” Regina nodded. “And thank you for listening just now. I’m sorry I accosted you as soon as you arrived at work on a Monday morning.”

“I understand,” Belle assured her. It was not the first time the psychologist had been greeted by a woman desperate to speak with her the moment she stepped into the shelter in the morning. “I’ve got a slot available at three this afternoon, does that work?”

Regina nodded, assuming that she, Emma and Henry would be back from their one pm appointment at the school by then. “Yes, that’s fine. And Belle, the stuff I say in these sessions is confidential, right? You won’t tell Emma?”

“No, I won’t tell Emma.”

“Good,” Regina sighed. “She doesn’t need to deal with this right now. She told me to back off and I don’t want her thinking that I’m not.”

“While I’m happy to talk to you about Emma and anything else which is on your mind, we will also have to discuss the more recent events which led you to arriving at the shelter by the way. That’s my primary task here; to help you deal with the past and get ready for your new life.”

Regina nodded. “I know,” she sighed. “And we will. But right now, there isn’t much room in my head for anything other than Emma Swan.”

Before Belle could speak, there was a knock at the door, signalling that Regina’s impromptu meeting had come to an end and the psychologist’s scheduled appointment was ready. She got to her feet, straightening out her dress and running her hands through her hair.

“Ok, well, thanks,” she said. “I really appreciate it.”

“Any time,” Belle said, getting to her feet too and guiding Regina over to the door. “I’ll see you later this afternoon.”

Regina nodded and stepped out into the corridor through the door which Belle opened. She glanced at the woman stood waiting, realising it was the newest arrival. She was a young girl, no more than twenty-five, with straggly blonde hair. Her left eye was half closed, surrounded by a large purple bruise. A jagged line of stitches ran from her temple down towards her cheekbone, the skin angry and red. Regina offered her a tight smile before heading off down the corridor to find her son.

Shuffling slowly along, blanket wrapped around her shoulders and a mug of tea clasped in her hands, Ruby manoeuvred herself around Emma who was lying on the floor of their living room on a yoga mat, finishing her ab workout.

“So you’re going to the school with Regina and Henry today?” Ruby asked as she curled up on the couch and rearranged her blanket. It wasn’t exactly cold but she liked to snuggle. She had returned from the night shift at the shelter half an hour before and planned to pass out on the couch watching crappy morning television shortly.

“Yep,” Emma nodded as she completed a rep of crunches and turned over to do a little work on her back, starting with some swimmers.


“Because I’m her counsellor,” Emma huffed, raising her arms and legs in sync to feel her body begin to work.

“Yeah but it’s your day off. You’re not working until the night shift tonight. Why are you going in when you don’t have to?”

Emma didn’t reply and instead finished the rest of her workout, making she didn’t lose count of how many reps she had completed. Once done, she rolled onto her back again and stretched her arms high over her head, feeling the muscles of her stomach pull tight. She then tucked her heels up near her butt and started doing some slow bridge poses.

“Because I’m off on Tuesday too and we need to get Henry into a school as soon as possible,” Emma offered, focusing on rolling each vertebrate one at a time off her mat.

“Someone else could go with her,” Ruby reasoned. “Mulan or Ursula.”

“Yeah but they’re not, I am,” Emma replied.


Emma sighed. “Because I want to.”

Ruby cocked her head and sipped her drink. She knew Emma well, possibly better than anyone else. While she had witnessed the explosion of anger and hurt the first morning Emma had come face to face with the brunette after fourteen years, she had since seen a number of other emotions displayed in relation to Regina. To say she was confused by her best friend’s relationship with this woman was an understatement and Ruby was convinced she didn’t know the full story.

“You’re working the night shift today as well,” Ruby reminded her friend gently. “Just don’t work too hard. The women need you focused and at the top of your game. Don’t burn out.”

Emma finished her last bridge and sat up, wiping the beads of sweat from her brow. “I know what I’m doing. I know what I can handle.”

Ruby’s eyebrows rose slightly at the defensive tone, but she knew better than to push her friend. Emma got to her feet and rolled up her mat before heading towards the shower to get ready for the day.

As the warm water ran over Emma’s face, she closed her eyes and tried to put Ruby’s words from her mind. But all that did was make space for Regina. Her words, her actions, her face. Emma’s eyes snapped open again, the vision fading. Angry at her own mind for its lack of self-discipline, she reached for the shampoo and started to wash her hair.

Ruby wasn’t right, Emma told herself. She wasn’t taking on too much. She was being a good counsellor to Regina and to all of the other women in the shelter. Sure, things were a little different when it came to her and Regina. How could it not be? They had history. But their history didn’t matter in the grand scheme of things. Emma would help the brunette start a new life in the city with her son. That was what mattered. Not their kiss.

Emma cursed herself again as the memory of those plump lips, moving gently against her own, swam back into her mind. The feel of Regina’s hips beneath her fingertips, the sensation of her heart pounding in her chest. “Fuck,” Emma hissed under her breath as she realised just how vivid her memories of that kiss were. Of course they were vivid. It was her first kiss. She wasn’t going to forget that any time soon, or ever. “Come on, Emma. You can do this,” the blonde huffed, reaching for the conditioner.

The short pep talk did little to distract the young woman from her memories however, and by the time she stepped out of the shower, Emma had resolved to book another appointment with Archie. In a way, Regina was right, they did need to talk about their shared history. But Emma couldn’t bear the idea of talking with Regina, not now, not yet. It was too much, her emotions too raw and unchecked. If the two of them sat down in a room to discuss how they felt, what had happened, Emma didn’t know what she might say or do. No, before she could speak with Regina about anything, she had to get her own head on straight.

Chapter Text

Henry pouted as his mother fussed over his hair, brushing it repeatedly to try and coax all strands to lie where they were supposed to. It wasn’t working. A haircut was needed, Regina decided as she eventually gave up and instead started fiddling with the collar of his polo shirt, the smartest item of clothing she had packed in her hurried exit from the family home, four days earlier.

“Mom, stop it,” Henry sighed as Regina began to use her fingers to tame some unruly hair once more, the comb now stored in her handbag.

“Sorry,” Regina offered without stopping her fruitless attempt.

“Why does a school even care if I have good hair anyway?” Henry asked. “I’m a good reader and I know my two and five and ten times tables all the way up to one thousand. Schools don’t teach you about hair. They teach you about math and reading.”

“We just want to make a good impression,” Regina replied, now turning her attention to her own appearance and reviewing her makeup in the small compact mirror she had pulled from her purse.

Bored immediately at his mother’s activity, Henry slid himself off the chair in the reception of the shelter and wandered over to the desk where Mulan was sitting. Regina watched out of the corner of her eye as the two of them struck up a conversation, the counsellor asking the boy where he was going and then what his favourite subject at school was. She smiled, knowing Henry had been bored all day given that his only friend at the shelter was in school. Hopefully, Henry would be joining Roland tomorrow if their meeting today went well.

With a final review of her makeup, Regina snapped the mirror shut and put it back in her handbag, turning her focus now to the door through which she assumed Emma would appear. A message had reached her via Ursula just after she left her meeting with Belle, saying that Emma would come to the shelter to accompany Regina and Henry to the school at twelve thirty. It was twelve twenty-eight. From what Regina could remember, Emma was fastidiously punctual.

As she waited, the murmur of Henry and Mulan just background noise, her nerves began to rise again. She had barely seen Emma since their day in the park. The one time she had caught sight of the blonde in the corridors, she had been accompanying the new resident, fresh stitches stark against pale skin. Regina had averted her eyes and ushered a staring Henry into their room.

Yet now it was going to be just the three of them again, unresolved tensions rippling through the air. Even after her brief meeting with Belle that morning, Regina knew she was going to struggle spending time with her counsellor. Perhaps it would be better if she were to be assigned another primary contact, Regina mused. But as soon as the thought entered her head, she pushed it away. No, it couldn’t be anyone else. She didn’t want anyone else in this centre, not even Ruby whom she had taken an instant liking to, involved closely in whatever was to come next for her. It had to be Emma.

Something, whether she called it fate or destiny or anything else, had caused this reunion. Painful and confusing and emotional as it was, it was necessary. She needed to do this, she needed to resolve whatever it was which she felt for Emma. And, Regina suspected, the blonde had some underlying, unaddressed emotional challenges in her future too.

Before she could speculate any deeper, however, the front door to the shelter opened and Emma stepped inside. Regina swallowed at the sight of the familiar red leather jacket. Did the blonde really have to wear that? Did she know what it did to Regina to see her in that piece again? Perhaps Emma hadn’t known the identity of the mystery person who had gifted her the replacement for years but she knew now. Was she wearing it deliberately? Did it mean something?

“Hey,” Emma smiled as she caught sight of the woman she had come to meet. Regina blinked several times to try and force her churning mind to focus. “How are you?”

Before Regina could reply, Henry shouted out his own greeting and raced over to the blonde, pulling out a small plastic toy from his pocket and holding it out to the woman who crouched down to meet him. “Mom bought me this when she went to get us groceries. Isn’t it cool!”

“Very cool,” Emma nodded, admiring the cheap toy dinosaur which Henry waved before her. “Are you ready to take a look at your new school?”

Henry nodded. “Mom brushed my hair,” he said, pudgy fingers threading their way through the strands and completely destroying any semblance of order Regina had tried to create.

“You look very smart,” Emma declared, straightening her legs. “Mulan, all ok here?”

“Yes boss,” the woman grinned. “Nothing to report. Belle left a note for you on your desk about Yasmin but she said it wasn’t urgent. See you at eight.”

Emma nodded and turned to the door, opening it and holding it ajar for Regina who had got to her feet and crossed over to reach the woman and her son. “Thank you,” Regina replied as she took Henry’s hand and stepped through the door onto the sunny New York street.

The door closed behind them and Emma fell into step beside Regina. “So, you went out?”

“Just to the bodega. I wanted to get some food in for us. I feel bad eating everything the shelter provides.”

“Don’t feel bad, that’s what it’s there for.”

“Yeah well, I’ve got money. We’re not a charity case so we can pay for our own food.”

Emma looked sideways at Regina. “Not having money doesn’t make the women at Swan’s charity cases. The food is part of the service we offer and you, your son and anyone else who is there is more than welcome to use that food to feed themselves and their family. We understand that some people will be able to find employment quicker than others and some of our women do come from financial means but these are not conditions who define your status or your value. We’re all humans and we all need and deserve to eat good, healthy food.”

The tips of Regina’s ears pinked. “Sorry,” she muttered. “I didn’t mean to offend anyone. I just like to pay for my own stuff.”

“Everyone does,” Emma said, her tone a little softer. “But it’s important we recognise that there are times in all of our lives where that isn’t always possible. And that’s ok.”

“Yeah, I know,” Regina sighed.

They walked on almost a block in silence. Henry was not listening to their conversation and had instead become fixated on the sidewalk, making sure his feet didn’t touch any cracks or lines in the paving. His leaps and uneven steps sometimes tugged Regina’s arm but at least he was quiet and not asking any difficult questions about his father for once.

“The school’s up here,” Emma said, guiding the group around a corner and up a gentle incline. “It’s just a casual meeting with the head. Nothing to worry about. She’s an old friend and I’m sure they’ll be able to offer a place for Henry to start straight away.”

“Does Roland go to this school too?” Henry asked, tuning back in at the sound of his name.

“He sure does,” Emma nodded. “Maybe you’ll even be in the same class but if not, you’ll definitely get to play together at recess.”

“And if he doesn’t get in here, are there other schools nearby?” Regina asked, nerves suddenly rising inside her at the prospect.

“He’ll get in,” Emma said nonchalantly.

Less than an hour later, Emma was proven right and the trio emerged from the school onto the playground after a very successful meeting with the head teacher. Henry seemed nonplussed at what had happened but Regina let out a cautious sigh of relief as soon as they were out of earshot of the office. After asking his mother’s permission, Henry raced off towards the swing set which they had bypassed on the way into the meeting. Following more slowly behind, Regina turned to her companion.

“Thank you.”

“I didn’t do anything. Henry was charming and you made a great impression on Ingrid too. My presence was irrelevant.”

“Not to me.”

Emma stopped walking, toes of her boots lined up perfectly with the edge of the red asphalt which marked the start of the playground. Regina stopped too and they watched Henry thrust his legs backwards and forwards, steadily encouraging the swing to soar higher and higher.

“You’re welcome,” Emma said eventually. “I was just doing my job.”

Regina didn’t reply. She didn’t doubt that Emma would accompany mothers to school interviews in her role as their primary contact. But there had been something in the way Belle had reacted to the revelation that Emma was coming in on her day off, and a comment Ursula had said, “she must really be invested in Henry,” when she passed her the note that made Regina think perhaps Emma had gone above and beyond. She didn’t dare speculate as to why.

“Well, thank you,” Regina said after a long pause. “We both really appreciate it. Henry, too high,” she added, realising the effectiveness of her son’s wriggling legs.

The duo stood and watched Henry for another five minutes until Regina declared it was time to go back to the shelter, although for the sake of her son she referred to it as ‘home’. Yet it didn’t feel like home for either of them. Henry slowed down, dragging the soles of his feet along the floor until the swing was low enough for him to jump off and run to his mother. “I’m gonna play on the swings all day tomorrow,” he declared as he took Regina’s hand and they exited the school grounds.

“Well, maybe but remember that there’ll be lots of other children here and it’s important to share and play nicely with everyone. If someone else wants to have a go on the swing, you should let them.”

Henry huffed but nodded. “Can our new house have a swing? From a tree, like the one at Billy’s house up in Maine?” he asked, eyes lighting up with excitement.

“Maybe,” Regina replied, not willing to make any promises about their future just yet. She had no idea what sort of job she may be able to get, let alone the style and size of property she may be able to afford. She highly doubted it would be a house with a back yard and a tree large enough to accommodate a swing.

As soon as they arrived back at the shelter, Henry asked Regina to open up the back area for him (he was too short to reach the code pad) and raced off down the corridor, promising that he’d go straight to their room to use the iPad. Regina hovered in the doorway as Emma spoke with Mulan. The counsellor had called their boss over as soon as they entered and now Regina didn’t know what to do. Emma was clearly working but Regina didn’t want to just leave without saying goodbye. So she waited awkwardly, noting as she did so that she had half an hour before her appointment with Belle.

After a few minutes, Emma glanced up from a file Mulan was showing her and realised Regina was still there. “Give me a second,” she muttered to her employee before making her way over to the brunette whose face had pinked. “Are you all good? Do you need anything?”

“Um, no, I just wanted to say goodbye,” Regina replied.

“Oh, right. Yeah, goodbye. I’m on shift tonight so I may see you later,” Emma smiled.

“Ok, good,” Regina said. “Thank you, for today.”

“You’re welcome,” Emma assured. “What have you got planned for the rest of the day?”

Something inside Regina instructed her not to divulge her meeting with Belle. Not yet. “Nothing,” she lied. “I’ll probably do some reading with Henry. Maybe do some laundry. And then cook us some dinner. Henry has requested my famous lasagne so I bought ingredients this morning. I wasn’t too impressed by their veg selection at the bodega but I hope I’ll be able to recreate my mother’s original recipe without too much trouble.”

“Sounds delicious.”

This time, something else inside Regina forced her to speak. Something beyond her control which managed to bypass her internal filtering system. “Would you like to join us?”

Regina had never believed in that image of an angel on one shoulder and a devil on the other but in that moment, she wondered whether she was being governed by two subconscious forces, each with their own, uncontrollable agenda.

“Join you?” Emma repeated, her brain focused not on angels and devils but on how the impromptu dinner invitation might affect her schedule. Monday nights were when Ruby cooked for them. It was her flatmate’s day off and she liked to cook a large dinner before Emma went to work and then portion up leftovers for the week. Could Emma miss that? What would Ruby think if she were to bail on their tradition?

“Sorry, stupid offer. Don’t worry about it,” Regina muttered, hastily backpedalling when Emma’s answer wasn’t immediately affirmative. “Of course you don’t want to come.”

“No, it’s not that,” Emma assured. “I’d like to join but I’ve already got plans with Ruby tonight and I don’t know if I can cancel.”

“Oh, that’s fine,” Regina replied. “Don’t cancel anything for me.”

“It’s nothing special,” Emma said. “Just routine. I’ll talk to Ruby, see what she thinks. If she doesn’t mind, I could maybe join later but it won’t be until after eight. And I’ll be on duty.”

“I mean, if you want to,” Regina stuttered, “and I can wait and eat with you later after Henry’s gone to bed.”

“I don’t want you to be hungry,” Emma said. And I’ll be hungry, she added to herself. For Emma, dinner time was usually at six and never later than seven. If she were to wait until eight, she was going to have to have a snack. Emma didn’t like snacks. They were confusing and messed up her meal routine.

“I don’t mind waiting,” Regina said. “So, maybe see you at eight?” She failed to keep the note of hope out of her voice.

Emma hesitated for a moment before making a decision. “Yes, ok. I’ll see you at eight.”

Hardly daring to believe that the blonde had just agreed to spend time with her beyond her capacity as her counsellor, Regina froze before smiling and saying goodbye, disappearing into the back of the shelter and leaving Emma to finish up with her staff.

As soon as Belle opened the door to her office later that afternoon, Regina was on her feet, all but pushing the psychologist out of the way in her desperation to get into the room. “Are you ok?” Belle asked as she watched the woman take the seat she had been in six hours earlier.

“I asked Emma to dinner.”

Belle shut the door and made her way back to her own chair. “Dinner? As in a date?”

“No. I don’t think so. I mean, it’s just lasagne. Here. That’s not a date. Plus, Emma must still hate me.”

“Emma doesn’t hate you,” Belle soothed. “And I’m assuming she agreed to your offer to have some lasagne here today with you and Henry?”

“Yes,” Regina nodded. “But I Henry will be in bed. It’ll just be us. It’s feeling very date-like. When I first asked it was just impulsive but now I’m thinking about it and I’m freaking out about what this might mean. What does it mean? What do you think it means? What does Emma think it means?”

“What do you think it means?” Belle asked when Regina paused for long enough for her to get a word in edgeways.

“I … don’t know,” Regina finished at last, slumping back into the chair. “Fuck, what is wrong with me?”

Belle crossed her legs and observed the woman before her, ignoring the rhetorical question. She was not used to this sort of relationship problem. Typically she dealt with women who were recently out of domestic abuse relationships, often women who had been trapped in those relationships for years. Some, on occasion, would wonder if they had made a mistake to leave, self-doubt and low self-esteem hampering their ability to move forwards. But the way Regina was talking was entirely different. In fact, it reminded Belle a lot of teenage romance dramas.

“Regina, would you mind if I offered you a theory?” When the brunette nodded her consent, Belle continued. “From what you’ve told me, you developed a crush on Emma at school but due to various circumstances, nothing truly came from this except for a traumatic event for both of you. Now I don’t know what happened afterwards but I’m surmising that you settled down in a heterosexual relationship, perhaps without addressing or resolving your attraction to Emma. When you saw her again, unexpectedly, those unresolved feelings have all come back up from where they’ve been lying dormant for fourteen years. In many ways, while you’re dealing with these emotions like a thirty two-year old woman, the feelings and desires you have for Emma are coming from your eighteen-year old self. Does that make sense?”

“You’re saying this is a teenage crush?”

“Not exactly. At least, I’m not belittling it in the way many people do young love.”

Regina scoffed. “I don’t love Emma.”

“No, that wasn’t what I meant but I do think that the way your body, mind and hormones are responding in this confused way could be attributed to this history.”

“So, teenage Regina has awoken. Great, Lord help us all,” Regina scowled, tone dripping with self-loathing.

“I think you need to cut yourself some slack, Regina,” Belle offered. “Attraction is confusing at any age and you’ve also just gone through a huge life change. I do think it’s also important that you don’t distract yourself from talking to me and possibly Emma about the reason you came to Swan’s Shelter in the first place. I’m not saying you’re using this reconnection as an excuse to not address those problems but you did leave your husband and the father of your child five days ago. Even if you and Emma did choose to explore whatever might be between you, I don’t think now is the right time for anyone.”

Brown eyes fluttered closed and Regina let out a low breath. Belle was right. She knew that. And, to some extent, she realised, she had been distracting herself from thoughts of Leo with ideals of she and Emma. But it was ridiculous to think that anything could happen. For one thing, she didn’t deserve Emma after the way she had treated her for the majority of their school days together. For another, she was a woman who had just left her abusive husband and had a six year old son. Nothing could or would be happening with Emma, regardless of how the blonde felt, any time soon.

And, Regina’s brain supplied unhelpfully, Emma hated Regina. Well, maybe she didn’t hate her. Regina thought the blonde’s heart was too pure to be capable of hate. But there was no way even someone as good as Emma would be able to forgive Regina for what she had done to the extent that they were willing to date her. Is that what Regina wanted? Did she want to date Emma?

Yes, a voice piped up in her mind. Yes, she had wanted to date Emma for over fourteen years. She still remembered the way her heart grew heavy with lead the day after prom when Emma’s neighbour informed her over the picket fence that the family had packed up and moved away that morning. She had missed her chance. She had hurt Emma and lost her forever. Which was why her emotions went into overdrive when she saw the blonde again. It was like a second chance at her happy ending, after over a decade of living a lie with a man she despised. Except it wasn’t the same, it wasn’t right to pretend as such. She wasn’t the same and Emma certainly wasn’t. While something deep inside connected with the blonde as soon as she saw her, other parts of Regina, including her bruised heart and ribs, needed some time.

“You’re right,” Regina sighed. “It’s too soon for me to be thinking about anyone in that way, let alone Emma. I need to focus on me and Henry. I’ll apologise to Emma, I’ll make sure she knows I’ll not put any pressure on her to talk about our past. It’s not the right time.”

Belle nodded slowly, pleased that Regina had come to accept this realisation so readily. Although, Belle mused to herself, the two of them would make for a great couple. Maybe, some day.

“Would you like to talk a little about Leo?” Belle asked. “We’ve got some time left and we’ve not spoken much about him since you arrived here. It could be helpful, for all elements of your life.”

The idea of discussing her husband made Regina’s stomach coil unpleasantly but she nodded, curling her feet underneath her on the chair and wrapping her arms protectively around her shins. “What do you want to know?”

“Let’s start at the beginning.”

Emma leaned against the doorframe which lead to the small kitchen, watching Ruby prepare some food, the redhead’s foot tapping in time to the music which had masked Emma’s arrival. The blonde was summoning the courage to tell her friend she had agreed to eat with Regina that night. Emma had considered not telling Ruby at all and just eating two dinners but decided against that. Humans were supposed to eat three meals per day, not four. At least, that was how Emma structured her day to day intake. No, she had to tell Ruby, her friend who was already curious and suspicious of her relationship with the shelter guest.

After almost a minute, Ruby finally turned around and spotted Emma in the doorway, jumping a little when she realised she was no longer alone.

“Hey,” she said, reaching over to turn down the volume on her cell. “Were you watching me?”

“Yes,” Emma replied. She hated lying.

“Why?” Ruby frowned.

“I have something I need to talk to you about and I wasn’t sure how to do it.”

Sensing the tone, Ruby turned the music off all together, wiped her hands on a towel and leaned against the counter. Emma was tense. Ruby had seen her friend act like this with strangers outside of work but she hadn’t been visibly nervous with Ruby for years.

“Are you ok?”

“Yes, I’m ok. I want to ask you something,” Emma ventured.

“Go ahead,” Ruby said with an encouraging smile.

“So, you know how we always have dinner on Monday nights?”

“Yes,” Ruby nodded, waving her arm to indicate the pile of chopped vegetables she was halfway through preparing. She was planning to make a bolognaise, stuffed with onion, carrots, red pepper and peas.

“Well, tonight, I am planning to eat at the shelter, if that’s ok?”

“At the shelter? Why?”

Unwilling and unable to lie, Emma was upfront in light of the direct question. “Regina invited me to join her for dinner.”

“Regina?” Ruby asked, eyebrows raised. She should have known that woman was involved. The brunette’s appearance in Emma’s life seemed to be causing a number of complications for her best friend. Since the first night when Regina and Henry arrived at the shelter, Ruby’s dealings with the woman had been minimal. None of her own interactions had been anything other than positive and Ruby liked Regina. In theory. Except now her personal experience of the woman was tainted by the stories Emma had told. Regina had been a destructive force in Emma’s teenage life now, somehow, she appeared to be worming her way into Emma’s adult life. The problem was, Regina couldn’t work out why.

“Yes, she’s making lasagne. I like lasagne.”

Before answering, Ruby turned back to the task of chopping up the carrot which she had abandoned. Even if Emma wasn’t eating dinner that night, she’d still be cooking.

“And you want my permission to go?”

“No, I don’t need your permission, I’m an adult,” Emma reasoned. “I wanted to inform you before you started cooking and also,” she faltered, “I mean, I guess I want your opinion.”

Ruby put down the knife again and looked over her shoulder. “My opinion? Of what?”

Emma shrugged. “Regina? Me being her primary contact? Lasagne?”

“Well, I am a fan of lasagne,” Ruby said, her lips quirking slightly. “And I know you like it too. But I think perhaps that’s not what you meant. Do you want to know whether I think you should meet one of our women for dinner?”

“Yes,” Emma nodded.

Ruby hesitated for a moment before answering. “Well, I’m not going to pretend this is normal. You’ve never eaten a meal like this with anyone else from the shelter, have you? But I will accept that it’s different simply because you knew Regina from before. The question you need to ask yourself is whether this meal will shift the dynamic for the two of you. As you’ve said before and as you’ve argued, you’re her counsellor first and foremost, nothing more. But the fact that you’ve come to me all twitchy and confused suggests to me that perhaps something deeper is going on. Does that sound accurate?”

Emma shrugged again and made her way over to perch on a breakfast bar stool, elbows on the counter as she considered what Ruby had said.

“Look, I’m not going to tell you what I think you should or shouldn’t do but can I make an observation?”

“Please,” Emma nodded, keen for any insight her friend may provide for her. The fact that she was a trained counsellor meant Ruby generally gave astute advice.

“That first day you saw Regina again, four days ago, by the way, you told me you hated this woman and basically called her the devil. You were incredibly angry and I understand why. But what I can’t understand is what’s changed. You stormed in here that morning, broke stuff, then went back to work and a few hours later agreed to go to Central Park with this woman. Then you went into work on your day off and helped her secure a place for her son at the school. And now you’re going to meet her for dinner. What’s changed? What made you go from throwing things around our apartment to blowing me off to spend time with Regina?”

Emma opened her mouth to answer but then closed it. What had changed? What had happened to make her put her anger aside. She knew some element of that came from her desire to do her job to the best of her ability but that wasn’t going to satisfy Ruby. And, in truth, it didn’t satisfy Emma who had been a little rattled by the question, especially when Ruby pointed out how fast all these events had taken place. It was fast. It was too fast. It was confusing. One, two, three, four, five, pause. One, two, three, four, five, pause. First things first.

“I’m sorry for not being here for dinner tonight,” Emma began but Ruby interrupted her.

“I don’t care about that. I’m more concerned about you. Do you know what you’re doing?”

White teeth drew a thin lip between them, gently digging into the flesh as she considered the question. “No,” she confessed eventually. “I don’t know what I’m doing. I’m confused, Ruby, and I don’t know what to do.”

Ruby moved to sit beside Emma, taking the blonde’s hands and looking directly into her friend’s green eyes. “What happened between you two?” she asked. “And don’t tell me she was your high school bully because I know it’s more than that. What is it which has you all messed up over this woman?”

The words climbed up her throat, desperate to get out, to be confessed to someone. Emma swallowed thickly, unsure if she was trying to force the truth down or just steady her nerves. One, two, three, four, five, pause. One, two, three, four, five, pause.

“Regina was my first kiss,” Emma whispered.

Brown eyes blew wide. Ruby hadn’t been expecting that. A crush on Emma’s side, somehow, perhaps. Even if Regina had spent years tormenting her, the woman’s beauty couldn’t be ignored and teenage hormones were confusing as hell. But for the attraction to be reciprocated surprised her.

“You kissed?”

“She kissed me,” Emma admitted. “The night of prom. She told me she liked me and apologised for her actions. And then we kissed again and … God, it was amazing, Ruby. It was everything you’d dream a first kiss would be. But then her friends came in and Regina turned the whole thing into a joke, saying it was a prank and that I was a weirdo. I ran out of there, never saw her again because we moved back to New York the next day. But then she turned up and all those feelings bubbled up again. I know she was evil and I know I should hate her. I do hate her for much of what she’s done. But the way she kissed me, the way that kiss made me feel, I know that was the truth, her truth and my truth. And now it’s fourteen years later and all these old, confusing feelings are resurfacing and I don’t know what to do. I don’t know how I feel. I don’t know how she feels.”

“You need to talk to her,” Ruby said firmly. “You need to tell her what you just told me. You’re both tip toeing around, neither one saying how you feel or what you think. It’s confusing you and not allowing you to actually address those feelings. It’s also probably hindering your capacity as her counsellor. Once you know where you stand, I think you both need to re-evaluate whether you’re the best person to be her primary contact. If you’re not in a position to be as supportive and objective as you need to be, please pass her case over to me, for both your sakes.”

Emma nodded and looked down at her hands, fingers knotted together, twisting and untwisting. Ruby was right, she knew that. She did need to talk to Regina. The problem was, Emma struggled to talk about her emotions. Emotions were unpredictable and changed according to the people around her. They were confusing and they hurt but yet they could also cause euphoria. To find the words to describe her own emotions was a challenge for Emma, particularly when she was talking to the person about whom she was feeling things. Because, she admitted to herself, she did feel things for Regina. Confusing things including hurtful emotions and painful memories. But there were also flickers of happier times, hopeful futures, the embers of a teenage fantasy.

“I never thought I’d see her again,” Emma said quietly. “I didn’t think I ever wanted to see her again but now that I have … I feel like I’m eighteen again, Rubes. And not in a bad way.”

“Tell her,” Ruby said gently. “But just bear in mind that she’s in Swan’s Shelter for a reason. Whatever either of you is feeling, remember the context of how you two met again. She just left her abusive husband and she has a kid who has essentially lost his father. Just, be careful, for the sake of everyone involved.”

Emma nodded slowly. Ruby patted her friend on her shoulder and slid off the school, returning to the chopping board when she resumed her prep.

“Can I help?” Emma asked, deciding that doing something to distract her from her churning emotions may be beneficial. “If I’m bailing on our dinner, the least I can do is help you prepare.”


Chapter Text

Emma listened patiently to Ursula and Mulan as the two women gave her a brief rundown of the day’s events. Thanking her team members for their work, Emma bade the duo goodnight and waved them out of the building. A quick check of the security system, making sure her cell phone was correctly connected to the front door intercom to catch any guests and Emma made her way through the double doors which led to the back of the shelter.

The common room was busy, most of the residents having recently finished their dinner and were now turning their attention to the television. Some of the older children seemed to be protesting at their inability to play video games as a result. Emma decided not to get involved. The mothers could work out for themselves what was best for their children. Emma liked children and found their straightforward view of the world much easier to navigate than most adults. But not tonight. Instead, she turned towards the kitchen but a quick scan told her Regina wasn’t there.

Glancing at her cell, she saw it was already ten minutes past eight. Had Regina given up waiting for her? Emma considered her options. She could just go back to the front desk and get started on the mountain of paperwork which she knew waited for her. But no, she was hungry. Starving, even. She could make a sandwich with ingredients from the fridge. But she had agreed to eat with Regina. And, as Ruby had made clear, the two of them needed to talk.

Pausing on her way back to the corridor to speak briefly with Yasmin and ask how her stitches were feeling, Emma was soon on her way towards room 108, satisfied that the newest arrival in the shelter was safe and in as little pain as possible, given the circumstances. Her blood boiled as she recalled the details the young woman had divulged about her abusive partner. As a result, the rap of her knuckles on Regina’s door was a little harder than she intended.

“Oops,” Emma muttered, retracting her hand and stuffing it into the pocket of her slacks as she heard hurried footsteps on the far side of the door. The sound made her heart thud a little faster. Stop it, she said to herself. You’re here as her primary contact; she invited you to dinner and nothing more. Plus, she was a cold-hearted bitch who made your life hell in high school, remember? Yeah, well, a lot’s changed since high school, Emma thought to herself just before her internal argument was interrupted.

Regina yanked the door open, ready to scowl at the person who had almost woken Henry up. “Oh, Emma,” she said, realising who was there and feeling the anger dissipate at once. “Is everything ok?”

“Yeah, fine,” Emma said quickly, almost forgetting what had caused the abrupt knock in the first place, distracted by thoughts of Regina. “Sorry about that, um, knock. I was thinking about something else. So, I’m ready to eat, if you are?”

“Perfect timing,” Regina smiled. “Henry’s just fallen asleep.” Checking quickly over her shoulder to ensure the loud knock really hadn’t woken her son, Regina grabbed a cardigan from the chair by the door and stepped out into the corridor, closing it quietly behind her. “Are you hungry?”

“Very hungry,” Emma nodded. “I usually eat dinner at six thirty.”

“Oh, I’m sorry for making you wait,” Regina said quickly. “I didn’t mean to. You could have come earlier, or just eaten at home with Ruby.”

“It’s ok,” the blonde replied, placating the woman who even Emma could see was flustered. “I’m sure your lasagne will be worth the wait. Did Henry like it, since it was his request?”

“Yes, he had two helpings,” Regina smiled. “And we managed to get through the whole afternoon without him asking after his father which was a nice change.”

The comment reminded both women of the situation they had found themselves in. Regardless of how they felt, even without knowing where the other woman’s head was at, they both had the same thought. Too soon.

“So, I don’t mean to spoil your evening but how are you feeling about your husband?” Emma asked as they reached the small kitchen and Regina set about preparing what they needed to eat.

Pulling the lasagne out of the oven where she had left it to keep warm, Regina bought herself some time to answer by portioning out two generous chunks of the Italian dish. “I’m doing ok,” she said as she slid the second piece onto a plate. “One day at a time, I suppose. I’m safe and so is Henry. That’s all that matters.”

“And you had a meeting with Belle today, right?”

Regina looked up from where she had been adding some salad to their plates. “How do you know about that?”

“Belle’s schedule is on our main work calendar all our cells connect to. Every time she adds or removes an appointment, I get a notification,” Emma explained. She decided it wasn’t necessary to point out to Regina that the brunette had failed to mention her scheduled meeting when Emma asked her of her afternoon plans earlier that day. Regina had her reasons and Emma wasn’t going to pry if the brunette wasn’t ready to talk.

“Oh, right,” Regina said, resuming her task. “Yeah, I guess that makes sense.”

“All discussions within the meetings themselves are confidential,” Emma clarified without prompting. “But it’s important that I and the team can see what her schedule looks like so that we can book in any of our women to appointments if required.”

“I understand,” Regina nodded. “I just didn’t know you knew. Do you want a dressing on your salad?”

“Just olive oil and balsamic,” Emma replied. She didn’t like shop bought dressings. They were too sugary and stodgy. “I’m glad you’re talking to Belle. It’s important to feel like you have someone here whom you can turn to. Belle’s fantastic and I’m sure she will be able to help you.”

The undertone was evident: Regina wasn’t talking to Emma about her past. She forced a tight smile and picked up the plates along with the required cutlery and made her way towards the long dining table which was now vacant. Emma followed, grabbing a couple of glasses of water on the way. Actually, a red wine would be perfect right now, she mused to herself, temporarily regretting the dry space rule she herself had implemented at the shelter. But perhaps it was for the best, she decided as she sat down opposite Regina. If they were going to talk about their past and present relationship, it would be better for both of them to have a clear head.

“Well, I hope you like it,” Regina said, gesturing to the food.

Emma picked up her cutlery and obediently tucked into the slab of lasagne. Her eyes closed at the first mouthful, taste exploding on her tongue. A soft moan escaped her lips.

“Wow,” she said after she had swallowed. “This is amazing.”

Regina, who had been temporarily immobilised by the sight and sound of the blonde before her, jerked back to the present and hastily stuffed some food into her own mouth, trying to cover up the fact that she’d been staring.

The two of them ate for a few minutes in silence until the grumbling in Emma’s belly had been satiated. Regina was just trying to avoid saying anything foolish by not speaking at all.

“So, I was talking to Ruby today,” Emma said, starting on her salad now she’d eaten half of the pasta dish.

“About what?”


Regina coughed harshly as a piece of lasagne got stuck in her windpipe after she inhaled too sharply with shock. Emma pushed the glass of water towards the choking woman and watched to see if she was alright. Regina took several deep gulps, eyes watering.

“Are you ok?” Emma asked as the glass was returned to the table and Regina patted her chest a few times.

“Yes, sorry. That was embarrassing. I just wasn’t expecting you to say that. Um, why were you talking to Ruby about me?”

“Well, when I told Ruby why I wouldn’t be joining her for our usual Monday night dinner, she wanted to know why I was spending time with you. I suppose because I’m spending more time with you than I would usually spend with our shelter guests. As a primary contact, I’ll do a lot of different things depending on what each woman and their family needs but, as Ruby pointed out, having dinner with a resident isn’t usually one of my responsibilities.”

So, we’re talking about this, Regina thought to herself, gently laying her cutlery on either side of her half-finished dinner. “Yeah, I guessed this dinner invite wasn’t exactly standard judging by your reaction when I asked you earlier. I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to put you in an awkward position. If it was inappropriate, I apologise and I won’t do it again.”

“It’s not all on you,” Emma reasoned. “I was the one who said yes. And while it isn’t entirely appropriate, I’m going to take you choking as a hint which tells me you’re feeling just as awkward about this as I am. I don’t like feeling awkward at work. I feel awkward in so much of my life, but the shelter is somewhere I feel comfortable. I’m confident in my abilities and I know the work I do is good and important. But there’s something about you which changes things. Ruby thinks we need to talk about it. Well, I’m here now and I perhaps there are a few things we need to talk about.”

“Here?” Regina asked, looking around to gauge whether anyone else was listening. They weren’t but she still felt uncomfortable, unsure exactly where this conversation was going to go.

“Let’s finish eating and then we can head to my office, or a meeting room if you’d prefer somewhere more neutral. But bear in mind I’m the only staff member on site, so I may have to press pause if someone else here needs me.”

Regina nodded her agreement and after a moment, resumed her meal. The two of them cleared their plates in silence, broken only when Emma congratulated her on the delicious dish and stood to tidy up the remnants. The blonde’s foster parents had instilled the importance of manners from the moment she had arrived in their home. Years in the foster system, coupled with her autism, meant Emma’s manners were a little underdeveloped for her age. Regina followed her silently to the kitchen but was batted away when she tried to help. Another learned behaviour from Mary Margaret and David. Within five minutes, the remaining lasagne was stored in the fridge, the plates were clean and their water glasses were refilled.

“I need to check on Henry,” Regina said as they walked towards the corridor. “I told him I’d be in the common room if he woke and neded me. Actually, Kathryn,” she said, noticing the blonde was sat on the couch nearby, “I’m just going to have a meeting with Emma. If you see Henry, can you bring him to me? He’s in bed and asleep but just in case he wakes up, I don’t want him to panic if he can’t find me.”

“Sure,” Kathryn replied. “I’ll keep an eye out.”

“Thanks,” Regina smiled at the woman she was now tentatively considering her friend. Kathryn had wandered over earlier that day when she was preparing dinner and the two of them had talked for an hour or so. Of all the women in the shelter, the blonde was the only one she had really spoken with for more than a few minutes.

She realised with a jolt that she hadn’t missed any of her friends from Maine. In fact, until that moment she hadn’t even thought of them. Then again, she mused, they weren’t really her friends. They were Leo’s. Anyone who Regina met without her husband never got far into their social circles and quickly fell away after they failed to penetrate the austere barrier her husband had constructed around them. The people they spent the majority of their time with were all Leo’s work colleagues and their wives.

“Come on in,” Emma said as they emerged in the reception area of the shelter, where the doorway to the blonde’s office lay behind the desk. Henry had been fast asleep, his arms wrapped snugly around Eddie, the elephant’s trunk laying against his cheek.

Regina stepped inside the office for the first time and looked around. The desk was large, piles of neat paper stacked along one side, a computer taking up the remaining space. Four filing cabinets, each topped with a plant lined one wall. Emma made her way behind the desk and sat down in the swivel chair, gesturing for Regina to do the same. But the brunette hesitated.

“Are you ok?”

“Yeah,” Regina nodded slowly. “It just feels super formal. Like I’m here meeting you for a job interview or something, not talking about … whatever we’re going to talk about.”

Emma glanced around her own office, realising Regina was right. The problem was, she didn’t really have anywhere informal to take the brunette. Perhaps the most informal rooms, aside from the bedrooms and common room, was Belle’s office but Emma wasn’t comfortable using that space. That said, it was important Regina felt comfortable. How could she solve this problem? How could she make Regina feel more relaxed?

“Ok, how about this?” Emma asked, wheeling her chair around to the same side of the desk as Regina, removing the desk as the obstacle between them. “Better?”

Regina chuckled. “Yes, I guess. Sorry, I just didn’t imagine us having this conversation in an office. Where else though, right? It’s not like there’s anywhere private in this place.”

Ignoring the mild criticism of her shelter, Emma chose instead to focus on the evidence that Regina too seemed to have been contemplating a conversation with Emma, just as Emma knew she needed to talk to Regina. Well, after prompting from Ruby.

“So, do you want to go first?”

“Not really,” Regina replied. “I don’t know where to start.”

“Ok, how about I go first then,” Emma suggested, used to taking the lead in awkward conversations about challenging subjects for work. Sure, this was a little different due to their history but at the end of the day, as Ruby reminded her, she was Regina’s primary contact.

“Yes please,” Regina nodded, keen to hear what the blonde had to say, hoping it would enable her to decipher where the woman’s head was at before she made a fool of herself and confessed her own, long-harboured feelings which had lain dormant for fourteen years.

“Well, I think I should start by talking about the circumstances under which we’ve met again,” Emma began. “I never expected to see you again, Regina, and now that I have, it’s brought back up a lot of memories and emotions for me.”

“Me too,” Regina replied.

Before the brunette could apologise again, Emma pressed on. “And while I know it is important that I address those emotions, I think it is key that we both remember what brought about this reunion. The last few days have been intense to say the least, but I need to bear in mind why you’re here. I’m sure you’ve not forgotten what happened last Thursday but I worry I sometimes have lost sight of that”

“I have too,” Regina confessed.


“Well, I’m sure it’s always there, in the back of my mind. ‘I left my abusive husband,’ but I guess I’ve been distracted. And maybe because of that emotional trauma, the other emotions which have been triggered by seeing you again appear to be heightened. You’re right that it’s been intense since I arrived and I think I have to apologise for some of that intensity. I was confused and overwhelmed and I didn’t think. I’m sorry.”

“It’s ok,” Emma assured her. “It’s not all on you. To be honest, my emotions feel confused and heightened too. Now, I’m not good at talking about how I feel. At least, not outside of a professional conversation and I think we’ve already stepped beyond that. But what I do need you to know before anything more is said is that I am acutely aware of your current situation and any further discussions between us will need to be had within that context.”

“The context of being in a women’s shelter?”

“Exactly,” Emma nodded. “And I’m your primary contact here. It’s my role to help you and Henry stay safe and start a new life.”

With you, Regina’s brain added before she could stop it. She internally scolded herself for not only the assumption but also the inappropriate thought considering what Emma was saying. It was clear Emma wanted to keep their relationship professional and Regina understood her reasons.

“I agree,” Regina nodded. “Actually, I was talking about this will Belle today.”

Emma frowned slightly. “Talking about what?”

“The fact that you’re my primary contact, not -.” She stopped herself before she spilled the beans and confessed where her mind had been drifting over the past few days.

The two women fell silent, neither quite knowing where the conversation should or could go from there. Emma was already feeling out of her depth. This was no longer a work conversation. This was a conversation about feelings. Emma didn’t like talking about her feelings, particularly when they were as confused as they were when it came to the woman sat opposite her.

“Ok, there’s one thing I do need to say,” Regina said after a moment. “At least, I think it’s something you need to know.”

Emma nodded slowly. “Go ahead.”

“The day after prom, after that night whn we -”

“I know the night,” Emma interrupted before Regina vocalised the memory. She didn’t need it to be spoken out loud. Hold it together, Emma, she told herself as she felt yet more emotions and memories flicker to life.

“Ok, well, I went to your house the morning after. I came to find you, to apologise or explain or whatever. To be honest, I didn’t even know what I was going to say, but I knew I had to see you. That next morning, with a terrible hangover thanks to some questionable alcohol, I walked down to your house. But you’d gone. Your neighbour took pity on me after I’d been sat on your porch for ten minutes and told me you and your family had left. I had no idea you were moving back to New York so soon after the end of school.”

“You never asked,” Emma pointed out.

“True,” Regina admitted. “Well, anyway, I just thought you should know. I wanted to apologise for that night fourteen years ago. I often wonder how different my life might have been if I’d caught you before you left Maine. But I didn’t, and I had to live with the guilt of knowing I had said some many cruel, hurtful and malicious things to a woman I was crazy about.”

“Crazy about?”

Regina shrugged. “I mean, I guess I shouldn’t use that word but you certainly sent my mind into a spin. You had done months before prom, to be honest. And then everything just sort of came to a head when I saw you. You looked so beautiful that night, Emma.”

“Stop,” Emma said before the woman could continue. “Regina, I … we can’t do this. You just left your husband and I’m your primary contact and -”

“I know,” Regina pushed on. “I know and I’m sorry this is such a mess, but I need you to know how I felt. I need you to know that what happened that night was real for me. And I’m sorry for all the hurt which came afterwards and I’ll never forgive myself for how I treated you. I’m not asking for anything and as we both know, now isn’t the time. Hell, there might never be a time. You might not think of me in that way. I’m not even sure how I feel. Belle thinks the emotions I’m dealing with are unresolved teenage issues resurfacing.”

“You talked to Belle about us? Did you tell her what happened?” For some reason, the idea of Belle knowing about their history sat uncomfortably with Emma. She liked and respected her colleague greatly but the idea that Belle knew about the complicated past which Emma and Regina shared made her feel unprofessional. It was unprofessional, she mused, especially considering the direction their conversation appeared to be heading.

Regina bit her lip and nodded. “Yes. I’m sorry, I just needed to speak with someone about all the messed up emotions which were swirling around my head. I mean, haven’t you spoken to Ruby about it?”

“Well, yes,” Emma admitted.

“I just needed to talk and I don’t have any friends here. I needed to voice what I was feeling and start to deal with it all. But Belle did remind me that I’m here in the shelter because of Leo, because my marriage is over. Now isn’t the time to start anything new. I mean, not that I’m assuming anything but …”

She trailed off, cheeks flushed with embarrassment. Not only had she all but admitted to Emma that she still had feelings for the woman, but she had also revealed her completely unwarranted and unfounded assumption that Emma would be interested in pursuing anything with the brunette.

Even if all of the circumstances under which they had met again had been different, there was no reason for Regina to assume Emma felt the same way. Sure, there was the kiss. A kiss she thought about often over the past fourteen years. A kiss which had felt different in all the right ways to any other kiss she had ever shared with a man or woman. But the rest of the women’s history had been far more negative, filled with unpleasant memories.

“Look,” Emma said, the silence in the room becoming too much for her, “I need to talk to someone too. Work out what I’m feeling. I agree; it’s confusing.”

Brown eyes searched Emma’s face, trying to identify what sort of confusing emotions the blonde was referring to. Were they good? Bad? A mixture?

“I never thought I’d see you again,” Emma continued. “And then when you showed up without warning, I wasn’t ready to deal with it. I thought I had put high school behind me but seeing you tells me that I haven’t. That night was really confusing for me, Regina. Up until that point you had been nothing but unpleasant to me and then suddenly you were making me feel all these different things which I couldn’t process. And then we were back to you being a mean girl and I couldn’t take it. I’m glad my family left early the next day and if you had come over, I don’t think I would have talked to you. It was too much; too soon.”

“And now?”

Emma cocked her head, considering the woman before her. Emotions were always a challenge for Emma but there was something she thought she identified as hope glinting in those wide chocolate orbs.

“Now I need some time,” Emma said eventually. “And you do too. For you and Henry to have the best possible start at your new chapter, you’re going to need to focus on setting up a life in New York.”

“What if I want you in that life?”

The words tumbled from plump lips before Regina could stop them. She gasped as she realised what she had said but there was no taking them back now. So instead she raised her gaze which had fallen to the pink, raw skin of her thumbs and looked stoically at the shocked blonde.

“One day at a time, ok?” Emma answered eventually, ignoring the funny feeling in her stomach at the intensity of the woman’s eye contact. She wasn’t hungry; that wasn’t the feeling. She wasn’t sick. It was something else. Something bigger.

Regina seemed satisfied with the answer as the corners of her mouth quirked upwards into a gentle smile. Yes, Emma concluded, that was definitely the look of hope. Was Emma wrong to have given her that? Was Regina right to hope for some sort of future for the two of them? Before Emma could begin to answer those questions, Regina glanced at the clock above Emma’s desk.

“I ought to get back to Henry.”

“And I have paperwork which needs to be finished.” It was true but Emma suspected she’d be struggling to focus on much for the rest of the night after their conversation.

The two women got to their feet. Suddenly the lack of a desk meant they found themselves alarmingly close together. Too close, as far as Emma’s sense of personal space was concerned. And yet, with Regina, she found she wasn’t feeling that usual sense of discomfort at the proximity to another human.

“Well, thank you. Tonight was lovely and I’m glad we talked.”

“Me too,” Emma nodded. “It was a conversation which we both needed to have. And thank you for cooking. The lasagne was delicious.”

“Feel free to have some for lunch tomorrow,” Regina offered. “There’s plenty left.”

“Thank you but it’s my day off tomorrow. I have errands to run.” Emma’s Tuesday off work was regimentally filled with a number of weekly chores, completed in a specific order without fail.

“Oh,” Regina said, smile faltering when she realised she wasn’t going to see the blonde for a whole day. “Well, enjoy your day off. You work really hard. You deserve a break.”

“Thank you. I’ll be looking forward to hearing how Henry’s first day at school goes when I’m back on Wednesday.”

“Me too,” Regina replied. “I hope he settles quickly.”

“He will,” Emma assured. “Kids are remarkably resilient and as long as he knows he’s safe and loved, he’ll adapt just fine.”

“Thank you.”

“Any time.”

Both women lapsed into silence. Neither quite knew how to end the conversation and, deep down, neither wanted to. But then the shrill ring of the front door interrupted their awkward, stagnated moment. Emma gestured to Regina to exit the office first before following and heading for the computer where the CCTV for the street entrance was located.

“I’ll leave you to it,” Regina said, a little disappointed at the abrupt end.

“Yeah, bye, thanks again for dinner,” Emma said, already focused on her job once more. When a woman was in need, Emma was always professional. As Regina exited the reception, the blonde pressed the intercom and introduced their location to the unknown woman standing in the doorway of the building.

Chapter Text

“And then we learned more math and then we went out for recess and Roland and I shared a cookie and then we had to learn spelling. I don’t like spelling. But then we did art. Look, Mom. I made this for you,” Henry finished, thrusting a crumpled piece of paper into his mother’s hand as they walked down the street.

“Wow, this is beautiful, Henry,” Regina exclaimed, trying to decipher what exactly it was her son had been attempting to draw. If she squinted perhaps it was a picture of a dog. Or an elephant. Or maybe a rabbit. “So school was good?” she asked, giving up on her quest.

“Awesome,” Henry enthused. “I get to go tomorrow too, right?”

“Tomorrow is Saturday so there’s no school. But you can go back on Monday,” Regina said, relief washing over her at the realisation that the young boy was already settled and was looking to the future.

Henry mumbled something about not wanting the next day to be Saturday because he wanted to play with his friends before launching into a story of what he and Roland had got up to during lunch. By the time they had returned to the shelter, Regina had heard all about her son’s day, right down to the twig Roland had dared him to eat which, according to Henry, “tasted like mud.” Before Regina could ask her son how he knew what mud tasted like, they were walking through the doors of their current home and Henry was distracted by the sight of his new favourite adult.

“Hey Emma, I drewed you a picture at school,” Henry called out at the sight of the blonde behind the desk.

“Drew,” Regina corrected automatically as she followed her son who had raced towards Emma, an even more scrunched up piece of paper being pulled from his bag and presented to the woman.

“That was very kind of you Henry, thank you,” Emma said as she took the picture. “You’re a great artist. I love this big flower here.”

Henry pouted. “That’s not a flower, it’s the sun.”

“It’s purple,” Emma frowned.


Before Emma could answer the question, which was clearly rhetorical in Henry’s mind, the boy had moved on and now stood bouncing up and down on the spot, waiting for his mother to open the door leading to the back of the shelter. Regina reached over her son’s head and tapped in the code. Henry raced off down the corridor, Regina calling after him that he was only allowed to be on the iPad for one hour that night before turning back to Emma.

“You weren’t here earlier, were you? I thought Friday was your day off.”

“I wasn’t and it is,” Emma replied. “Ruby needed me to cover her, so I came in for a few hours.”

In fact, Emma didn’t have a choice. No one else was available to cover the second half of the woman’s shift. Emma had spent ten minutes pacing up and down her apartment, trying to work out whether or not she could delay her planned chores and tasks until the following week. Eventually, she had determined that it was acceptable for her to put off doing her laundry and a grocery shop for three more days and had arrived at the shelter thirty minutes later. Her most important chore for the day, a visit to Archie, had already been accomplished.

“Is Ruby ok?”

“Yes, her grandmother fell sick. She’s visiting her in hospital.”

“I’m sorry to hear that, but it’s nice to see you,” Regina said.

Although Emma had been working most days that week, Regina had barely seen her since Monday night. After Emma’s day off on Tuesday, the blonde had come back to tackle the regular mound of paperwork and had been kept busy with the arrival of another woman, with three teenagers in tow as well as a looming grant application deadline which could provide the shelter with a sizeable funding boost for the next five years. Regina had barely glimpsed the woman as she hurried in and out of the common room, grabbing something quick to eat before returning to her office.

“You too,” Emma replied. “How has your week been? Is Henry settling into school?”

“The week’s been good thanks,” Regina nodded. “I met with Belle a couple more times. We’re talking a lot. About Leo, you’ll be glad to here.”

“Is it helping?”

“Yes, but it’s hard,” Regina admitted. “At least I don’t have to worry about Henry. He’s settling in amazingly at that school. He and Roland are inseparable. We’ve been walking back together each evening but today Roland and Marian had to go to the dentist. Henry even asked me if he could go to the dentist too, just so they could spend more time together.”

“That’s sweet,” Emma chuckled. “Although, and don’t take this the wrong way, his artistic talent is limited.” She held up the picture Henry had gifted her and Regina realised the image was even less distinguishable than her own.

“Yeah,” Regina laughed. “I fear that’s not going to be a future career for him. But he’s proud of it.”

“I’ll put this up in my office,” Emma replied. “Perhaps its abstract nature will inspire me to think outside the box more. I’ve never been any good at that.”

“Henry will be honoured,” Regina replied. “I’d better go and get dinner ready. Are you around all evening?”

“Just until eight. Then Ursula takes over.”

“Oh, well, enjoy your evening off.” The disappointment in Regina’s tone was missed by the blonde but she heard it herself. Even if it was unlikely that they could spend any time together if Emma was on shift, Regina still felt disappointed to know the counsellor wouldn’t be there.

“Thanks,” Emma replied, oblivious to Regina’s thoughts. “I’ll see you tomorrow.”

Because Emma had her own thoughts to content with. That statement rolled around in Emma’s mind as she sat at her desk for the next four hours. Yes, she would see Regina tomorrow. As always, she was working both the Saturday and Sunday day shifts at the shelter. But that wasn’t the issue which was plaguing the blonde when she was supposed to be completing the intake papers for the newest arrivals at the shelter.

Monday evening had replayed regularly in Emma’s subconscious; memories of the meal, the conversation, the revelations. She had even talked to Ruby about it, her friend eager to hear how it had gone when Emma returned home on Tuesday morning. After some gentle prodding, she had told Ruby everything. Emma wasn’t good with secrets and she didn’t want to lie to Ruby. The redhead had listened politely, as her training dictated, but Emma could see concern in her friend’s blue orbs.

“Trust me, I know what I’m doing,” she had said before yawning and retiring to her room for a quick nap.

Except that was a lie. She didn’t know what she was doing. Not really. Everything which had happened, which had been said, all of the emotions which had come to the surface were too plentiful and complex for Emma to really wrap her head around. She had been glad of her busy week; the workload kept her mind busy and herself away from Regina.

Yet that brief conversation earlier in the day brought Emma back to those thoughts, feelings, complications. It was completely illogical, she knew. What she felt for Regina made no sense. After everything the brunette had done to her, even if it was over a decade earlier, should have put paid to any flicker of attraction, even just superficial. And yet, somehow, that warmth in Emma’s belly remained.

She knew Ruby didn’t understand. If she was honest with herself, she didn’t understand either. But the fact remained that a brief moment, shared between two teenagers fourteen years earlier still evoked strong, confronting and scary feelings. She had talked about exactly this with Archie that morning. The psychologist was encouraging Emma to deal with her anger towards Regina, so that she was in a better position to close the door on that part of her life. The problem was, Emma’s mind kept drifting from those feelings of anger to other, seemingly oppositional feelings. It was intensely confusing.

Emma didn’t like feeling confused. She didn’t like feeling out of control. She didn’t like feeling at the mercy of something else, even her own emotions. Which was why Emma mentally scolded whatever part of her being had been responsible for the decision to enter the common area that evening soon after eight. What are you doing? She thought to herself. Nothing good can come of this.

And yet, that anger at herself faded as she spotted the woman she was looking for. Regina was sat in a corner, talking quietly with Kathryn. As she watched, the brunette threw back her head, laughing at something the other woman had said. Kathryn chuckled too, sipping a mug of tea before continuing their conversation.

Not wanting to interrupt, Emma headed towards the kitchen to make herself a drink. It was after four, so she wasn’t going to have any caffeine. Instead she poured herself a glass of apple juice. Taking a sip, she turned back to survey the room. Her eyes moved immediately to Regina, breath hitching when she locked her gaze upon those familiar brown orbs. As she watched, Regina excused herself from Kathryn and stood up, making her way across the room towards the kitchen island where Emma was leaning. Behind her, Kathryn’s eyes tracked the woman’s path with interest.

“Hey,” Regina smiled as she reached the blonde. “Finished for the day?”

“Yes,” Emma answered.

There was a pause, neither woman knowing what to say. Regina hadn’t expected to see Emma and Emma hadn’t thought through what she wanted to say. Or what she needed to say. The only thing which was clear was that she needed to see Regina. All other thoughts were incomprehensibly jumbled together.

“Would you like to join us?” Regina asked after the silence had stretched for an uncomfortably long time.

“No,” Emma replied.

“Oh, ok,” Regina said. “Um, well -”

“Can we talk somewhere private?” Emma interrupted.

Regina, relieved she wouldn’t have to finish the sentence she had started without knowing the ending, nodded. Draining her glass of juice, Emma turned to the sink to wash up the receptacle, dried it and returned it to the cupboard, all while Regina was stood at the counter watching. Then she walked from the room. Stunned for a moment, Regina left her half-drunk cup of tea and hurried after the woman who appeared to have assumed Regina would follow without instruction.

In the doorway, she paused and glanced at Kathryn. “Can you keep an eye out for Henry?” she called over the common room.

“On it,” Kathryn replied, watching with curiosity as her new friend disappeared, wondering what was going on between the brunette and the owner of the shelter.

Regina caught up with Emma halfway down the corridor towards the woman’s office. Emma said nothing as she marched so Regina stayed silent too. Inside however her stomach was doing flips. What was going on? What did Emma want to say? Was it good or bad? The woman’s face was unreadable.

Emma led the way straight to her office without asking Regina if she was ok with that. In that moment, Emma wasn’t thinking as a counsellor. Selfishly, this wasn’t about Regina. Well, it was, but in the context of Emma’s own emotions. With the door shut on a curious looking Ursula, Emma rounded her desk and placed her hand on the back of her chair. At this point she paused, remembering what Regina had said about the formality of the room a few days earlier. Wheeling the chair around the side of the desk, Emma sat down in the exact same position she had occupied four nights earlier. After a moment, Regina sank into her allocated seat too.

“I’ve been thinking about you,” Emma started. Straight to the point was always better, in her opinion.

“Oh,” Regina said. “In a good way?”

“I think so,” Emma nodded. “I’m confused, to be honest. I don’t understand. Archie, my psychologist, thinks I need to deal with my anger towards you.”

“Your anger?”

“From when we were kids,” Emma clarified.

“Oh, right,” Regina said quietly, eyes cast down to where her index fingers were scratching at the raw skin of her thumbs. Of course that was what Emma was talking about. Of course Emma was angry.

“But I keep getting distracted,” Emma continued. “I know I have to deal with what happened back in Maine and I know it’s not healthy to ignore the past. But it’s really hard to concentrate on all those negative feelings when I have … other feelings.”

Regina looked up from her lap, where her gaze had fallen in shame. “Other feelings?”

“It shouldn’t make sense, I know that. I think you know it too. That’s why you’ve been awkward around me. You’re more relaxed when you’re with Kathryn, I can see that. I make you awkward and nervous, don’t I?”

“You do,” Regina admitted, unsure where the woman’s blunt assumptions had come from.

“Everyone else thinks we’re mad, don’t they?”

“Do they?”

“I don’t like people thinking I’m mad, or weird or crazy. Or psycho.”

Regina squirmed in her seat at the reference to the nickname she and her friends had once bequeathed upon Emma. The blonde seemed not to notice however and pressed on.

“Archie and Ruby think I need to spend time talking about what happened between us, put that anger to bed and then I’ll be ready to, I dunno, move on, I guess. Do you think that’s right?”

“I don’t know,” Regina admitted. “I can’t tell you what’s right for you.”

Emma nodded slowly. “But what is right for you?”

“I’ll never be able to forgive myself for what I did to you, Emma,” Regina sighed. “And I don’t expect you to forgive me either. All I can do is hope that at some point in the future we’ll be able to leave the past in the past. What happens after that, well, I don’t want to speculate.”

“What do you want to happen after that?” Emma pressed.

Regina allowed her eyes to scan Emma’s face, the features so familiar and yet it was like Regina was seeing them again for the first time. Her gaze dropped a little lower, settling on Emma’s pale lips. It wasn’t the first time, it was a second chance. “You know what I want,” she said eventually. “It’s what I’ve wanted for the past fourteen years.”

The silence which filled the office was heavy with anticipation. Regina continued to look directly at Emma, somehow emboldened by the honest statement she had just made. Emma was processing, her mind running a mile a minute as she took in the new information and calibrated it with her own feelings. Except her feelings were so entangled, a fluid mess which swirled around deep within her. Anger, desire, betrayal, hope, hurt, lust. She didn’t know what to feel, what to think, what she wanted. Except …

Emma stood up abruptly, Regina’s eyes widening at the move. They grew wider still as the blonde stepped forwards, entering the brunette’s personal space with a few strides. Regina tensed. Emma saw it immediately, her training kicking in even with the emotional soup thrumming through her veins. Crouching down, the counsellor placed her hands on either arm of the office chair where Regina sat.

“I’m not going to hurt you,” she said softly, reminding both women of what Regina had been through, of what had brought them back together. “But I think this is about fourteen years overdue.”

Emma didn’t move though, not until she received a miniscule nod that confirmed the woman before her understood her intentions and consented. Regina held her breath as the blonde leaned towards her. Against her ribcage, her heart hammered. But not with fear. That emotion which had flickered as the blonde towered above her had been eclipsed at once by white hot flames, the sensation curling up from the pit of her stomach. Only when Emma’s face was mere millimetres from her own did Regina’s eyes flutter closed.

Once more, the first kiss was the faintest of brushes, a barely there graze of flesh on flesh. But the second kiss came more quickly, after only a brief pause with Emma pulling back just a fraction to steady her heartbeat. Then she kissed Regina a little more firmly, more confidently. Fingers covered her own where they gripped the arm of the chair, Regina also needing something to ground her as her mind went into overdrive.

It was still slow, however. Lips moving gently against one another, barely parted. It was innocent, tender. And yet it was also intense; both women struggling to comprehend that this was really, finally happening. Despite all of this, Emma’s mind felt clearer than it had done all week, as if her soul was soothed by the action.

“Emma,” Regina mumbled, not breaking the kiss but needing to say the woman’s name as if she needed the confirmation that she really was kissing Emma Swan.

“I’m here,” the blonde replied before pressing her lips a little harder against Regina’s, understanding exactly what the woman needed. “It’s me.”

Only when Emma tasted salt mingling where their lips met did the kiss end. She pulled back, fingers still trapped beneath Regina’s, to see tears streaming down the brunette’s face.

“Don’t cry,” Emma said, too overwhelmed and confused to offer anything more.

“I’m sorry,” Regina said, reaching up to swipe almost angrily at the tears. “I just can’t quite believe that happened. After fourteen years, do you know how many times I’ve thought about our kiss?”

“Probably more than me,” Emma admitted. “I went to therapy for a long time to stop thinking about that night.”

“So why -”

“I like you, Regina,” Emma interrupted. “I know it doesn’t make sense and no one really understands it. But I like you and I like the way you made me feel that night. No one has ever made me feel like that. Like this,” she added, reaching her free hand out to cup Regina’s face.

The brunette leaned into the touch, warm and reassuring and caring. It had been a long time since someone had touched her like that.

“What does this mean?” Regina whispered, eyes scanning Emma’s face, searching for a clue.

“Honestly, I don’t know. And I don’t like not knowing. But this is what I do know. I like you a lot, Regina. We’ve got some issues in our past which we both need to address but I’m doing that with my psychologist and I hope you’ll do the same with Belle. And then, well, I’d like to see where this goes.”

“Me too,” Regina replied quickly. “But … Emma, are you sure?”

Emma rocked forwards onto her knees, her toes and ankles protesting about the squat she’d be holding until that point. Regina widened her thighs slightly to allow Emma to slot between them. The move was strangely natural, almost familiar, but neither woman referenced the intimate position they now found themselves in.

“It makes no sense, right? I should hate you, I know that. I did hate you for a long time and I’m not going to lie about that. But even before prom night, I’d seen glimmers of another side of you, Regina. At the time, I didn’t really take them seriously. I was an autistic teenager and I saw things pretty one dimensionally. It never occurred to me until that night that perhaps there was something beyond the class bully.” Regina’s cheeks flushed crimson at the name. “But through my training and my life experience, I’m learning that people are much more complicated than that. The two of us proved as much on prom night but obviously that ended in disaster. It planted the seed though. Back then I think I knew there was something between us but I just didn’t have the words or the emotional intelligence to understand it. Now I do, or at least, I want to try.”

“Even after everything that I did?” Regina asked.

“I’m not going to lie to you and say that doesn’t matter. It does. It hurt. The memories still hurt. But I’m willing to work to get past all that if it means we have a shot at this.” As she spoke, Emma moved her hands to rest lightly halfway down Regina’s thighs, peering up into the brunette’s face to search for any sign of fear.

“I don’t deserve you,” Regina said, fresh tears spilling from her eyes.

Emma reached up and wiped them away without a word. Most of the women she met at the shelter suffered with self-confidence and self-belief issues. With Regina, these stemmed not only from a decade with an abusive husband but also the complicated history the two women shared.

“You’re a good person, Regina,” the blonde said quietly. “I believe that and you need to believe it too.”

“You really want this? You want us?” The disbelief was evident.

“I’ve not been able to stop thinking about you all week,” Emma confessed. “I’m usually excellent at compartmentalising but you seem to be everywhere my mind wanders. Whatever this is, whatever this might become, I’d like to give things a go, if you would also like to.”

“I would,” Regina nodded. “But, slowly, ok?”

“Agreed,” Emma said. “For both of us. Like I told you on Monday, I haven’t forgotten why we met again. I know why you’re here in the shelter and that has to be your priority. And I’ve got some things I need to work on too with Archie. But this week has been really hard. I already feel better for telling you how I feel.”

“I never thought in my wildest dreams this would happen, you know. Even after Monday, I never truly allowed myself to think you’d ever get to a place where you’d want to be with me,” Regina admitted.

“I do,” Emma said, leaning forwards and kissing Regina gently. “I do want to be with you. It doesn’t make sense given everything we’ve been through but who cares. This feels right to me. Does … does it feel right for you?”

“Yes,” Regina said at once, another kiss exchanged but this time initiated by the brunette. “Yes, it does feel right but at the same time a part of me feels like I don’t deserve this, that I don’t deserve to feel this happy because of you.”

“You feel happy? Because of me?”

Regina cocked her head to one side. “Blissful,” she whispered. “And I know I shouldn’t feel like this so soon after leaving Leo but I do and I can’t stop myself. I suspect things might get a little messy for both of us, so we will need to take things slow and communicate.”

“I’m not great at communicating.”

“You’re amazing at communicating,” Regina frowned. “I mean, this conversation wasn’t exactly easy and I think you expressed everything very clearly.”

“Yeah but I do often struggle to talk about how I feel in relationships. Emotions are complicated and I can’t always find the right word to describe how I’m feeling. Work’s different. I can talk with the women here no problem but when it comes to my personal life, I struggle.”

“Well, I think you’re doing just fine so far,” Regina assured her. “I do have one request though.”

“Name it,” Emma nodded.

“We keep this quiet from Henry. He can’t know anything about this. I don’t want him confused or upset. He’s going through enough at the moment without adding this to his new life.”

“Of course,” Emma said. “Actually, I don’t think anyone in the shelter should be made aware, to be honest. It’s not exactly professional of me. In fact, it’s extremely unprofessional.”

At the realisation, creases appeared on Emma’s forehead as she realised just how far beyond their professional relationship she and Regina had stepped. She was the brunette’s primary, she was her counsellor, she was here to protect Regina, not kiss her.

“Hey, don’t go there,” Regina said. “It’s different. We have history.”

That was an understatement, Emma thought to herself. But it was also true. They did have history. Regina wasn’t just any woman who had appeared in her shelter. Emma had never had romantic feelings for any of the women before. This was different because of their history. One, two, three, four, five, pause. One, two, three, four, five, pause. It was ok, Emma was still a good counsellor. She was still good at her job.

“We do,” Emma agreed eventually, putting her worried to bed for now.

They fell silent, Emma still kneeling between Regina’s legs.

“So,” Regina said fingers now coming to lace behind Emma’s neck, hidden by blonde curls, “we’re doing this?”

“We’re doing this,” Emma nodded, leaning forwards once more and fusing her mouth to Regina’s for their most passionate kiss yet.

Lips parted at last, tongues touching once more for the first time in fourteen years. The hot flesh seemed to spark as they grazed one another, muscle memory triggering a coiling low in both women’s abdomens as they explored one another’s mouths. Fingernails grazed the nape of Emma’s neck, angling her head a little further as Regina tentatively took control. Emma let her, a tiny voice in the back of her mind noting that she still didn’t know the true nature of Regina’s abusive marriage and didn’t want to demonstrate any of the traits her husband had. So she allowed Regina to lead, letting out a little sigh of contentment as perfect teeth sank gently into her bottom lip.

The tip of a tongue soothed the dents away at once, returning to exploring more of Emma’s mouth. The woman tasted like mint. Regina wondered whether she had sucked a tic tac before coming to find her, knowing the meeting would end in a passionate embrace. Her mind began to wander, still struggling to comprehend how Emma could possibly be interested in pursuing any sort of relationship with her. But then the woman’s fingers slid around her waist, pulling their torsos together, bringing her back to the present and Regina found herself fully in the moment, everything else fading from existence apart from Emma’s mouth against her own.

Chapter Text

A smile spread slowly across Regina’s face the following morning as the memories of the previous night returned. Her fingers trailed across her lips, as if trying to recall exactly how it felt to kiss Emma. Magical, frankly. Or miraculous. After all, who would have thought the two women would have not only found one another again but started to … what? Were they dating? Were they in a relationship? Were they exclusive? It was only then that Regina realised she and Emma hadn’t defined what they were.

Perhaps it was too early for all of that anyway. There was still a long way to go for both women before any sort of ‘real’ relationship would be possible. Regina had to deal with the breakdown of her abusive marriage. And Emma had to deal with the fact that Regina had bullied her for two years.

The happiness which had consumed her since the moment she woke up faded slightly as the memories of guilt washed over her. How was this ever going to work? She thought to herself. How was Emma ever going to forgive her? Or even get to a place where she could move on? But, that said, judging by the previous night, Emma was already moving on. It had been the blonde who had initiated their kiss, it had been the blonde who had wanted to take that step. Maybe Emma was further along the path to dealing with the past than Regina. Maybe it was Regina who needed to address their history.

“Mom, I’m hungry.”

Rolling onto her side, Regina smiled at her son who was sat up in bed, rubbing the sleep from his eyes. Hair stuck up at random angles and Regina made a mental note to make an appointment with a local barber as soon as possible.

“Breakfast time, my little prince?” Regina asked, throwing back the covers and swinging her legs out of bed.

“Can I have fruit loops?”

“Do we have any?” Regina asked. “I thought I bought cornflakes.”

“Cornflakes are boring. Emma has fruit loops in the cupboard. Can I have some?”

“If you have a piece of fruit as well, sure.” Regina had been giving into most of her son’s demands since they arrived at the shelter, but now she was starting to reinforce some basic rules, including healthy eating. Good parenting was not only about ensuring her child was safe from his abusive father but also that he was getting enough nutrition too.

“But there’s fruit in fruit loops. That’s why they’re called fruit loops,” Henry argued, himself now climbing out of bed and following Regina in pulling on his dressing gown, fumbling the tie together around his belly.

“I can promise you that no fruit loop has ever seen a real live apple,” Regina said as she led the way out of their room and towards the common area. “One bowl of fruit loops and one piece of fruit, do we have a deal?”

“Fine,” Henry huffed. “Can I have chocolate milk?”

“Regular milk,” Regina replied. “You’ll have sweet milk left at the bottom of your bowl as it is.”

“No fair,” Henry pouted. “Dad would have let me have chocolate fruit loops and no apple.”

“Yes, well, Dad isn’t here, is he?”

Regina spoke without thinking, her brain sluggish without its coffee. Henry however was wide awake and jumped on the opening at once. It wasn’t that he had been consciously avoiding bringing up his absent parent but what with starting a new school and making lots of new friends, it had quite slipped his mind until his mother mentioned his father.

“When can I see Dad?”

Before she answered, Regina helped Henry up to sit on one of the bar stools beside the kitchen island so he could watch her prepare their breakfast. The act also bought her a little time to try and cobble together some semblance of an answer.

“I don’t know,” Regina admitted. “Things with me and your dad are a little complicated right now. Do you remember the conversation we had in the park last weekend?”

“About Dad hitting me? And how he hit you too?”

Regina nodded. “Yes. Well, I don’t want to see your father because of what happened which means it might be a while before you see him too. We’ll need to make sure he knows that what he did to us is not ok and he’s going to need to promise to never do it again. I don’t want to keep you from him forever. He’s your dad and he should be in your life. But what’s really important first is that you and I are going to set up a new life here and make sure we’re safe and happy. Maybe then we can talk about setting up a time to meet your dad.”

“How long will that be?”

“I don’t know,” Regina sighed as she poured fruit loops from the pack she had found in the cupboard into a bowl. “A few months?”

“And then we’ll move back home?”

“No,” Regina said. “New York is going to be our home now. You like your new school, right?”

“Yeah,” Henry enthused, bouncing up and down in his seat. “And Roland is my new best friend. So if we stay here, we can be best friends forever, right?”

“Absolutely,” Regina nodded, latching onto the positive which Henry seemed to have identified about their new location. “So what’s going to happen now is I’m going to start looking for a job. And then we’ll be able to look for an apartment.”

“So I can paint my own room like Emma said?”

“Maybe,” Regina replied. “But wherever we end up living, I’ll try to make sure it’s really close to your new school so you can stay there and keep learning with Roland.”

“Ok,” Henry said, appearing to be satisfied with the conversation. Or perhaps he was just distracted by the bowl of colourful cereal which had appeared in front of him. Either way, the boy was silenced as a mounded spoon was stuffed into his mouth.

Regina set about brewing some coffee and making a bowl of fruit for herself. Just as she was spooning some yoghurt onto the top and adding a sprinkle of granola, Kathryn sidled up beside her, Emily perched on her hip as usual. At the long dining table, Amy and Rose were already squabbling over something.

“Morning,” she yawned. “How was your evening?”

“Um, fine, good, you know, just normal,” Regina garbled. “How was yours?”

“Well, it was pretty boring after you left. But then Amy had a nightmare, so I spent about half an hour trying to settle her again. What did Emma want last night?”

Taking a page out of her son’s book, Regina shoved a huge spoonful of her breakfast into her mouth, trying to buy herself some time to formulate an answer which would satisfy the curious blonde without getting Emma into trouble.

“We were just talking,” Regina said after she had swallowed her mouthful. “You know, about my future plans.”

“Weird time for a counselling session,” Kathryn remarked.

“Busy week,” Regina shrugged. “What are your plans for the day?”

“Meeting my dad again. He’s taking us out for lunch. I think he’s going to offer to set us up with a house again.”

“That would be very generous of him,” Regina said.

“I don’t want to be indebted to anyone,” Kathryn replied stiffly. “I want to make my own way in the world for me and my kids.”

“Yeah but this is your dad. It’s not like being dependent on a husband.” Regina and Kathryn had exchanged a brief overview of the relationships which had led to them being in Swan’s Shelter. Kathryn’s ex had been a big shot businessman and had used his wealth to control his wife even more than Leo had. But the blonde also came from money and her father had already offered to buy a property for his daughter after the marriage broke down.

Kathryn just pursed her lips however, clearly resistant to the idea that she needed anyone to provide for her children. While Regina understood that, she also knew that if her father was around to support her, she would gladly accept his assistance. She stared into her mug of coffee, sadness suddenly crawling into her very bones at the memory of her deceased parents.

“Hey, you ok?” Kathryn asked, noticing the change which had come over her friend.

“Yeah, I’m fine.”

“Is it your ribs?” Kathryn had also become privy to the last injury Regina had sustained from her husband after the blonde caught the wince of pain as Regina reached for a high shelf earlier in the week.

“No, they’re fine. Almost healed, actually. I was just thinking about my parents.”

“Are they back in Maine?”

“In a manner of speaking,” Regina nodded. “They died four years ago. Road accident.”

“Oh, Regina, I’m so sorry,” Kathryn gushed, reaching out to pat Regina’s arm. “I didn’t mean to upset you.”

“It’s fine,” Regina sniffed, forcing herself not to cry. She wasn’t afraid of her own emotions but she did want to keep herself in check as much as possible in front of her son who was now tipping his bowl to dry and drink the stained, sweet milk which remained at the bottom.

“No, it’s not fine. I’m sorry I was so insensitive.”

Regina shook her head and tried to curl her lips into a smile for her friend. “You didn’t know. It’s ok.”

“Yeah but still. Foot in mouth, right? I need to actually start thinking before I speak.”

“Don’t we all?”

Regina and Kathryn whipped around to see Emma standing behind them, smiling slightly. As Kathryn greeted the counsellor and enquired what she meant by the comment, Regina’s eyes drifted leisurely down Emma’s body. The blonde was wearing her usual white shirt and black slacks but suddenly the curves beneath the clothes appeared more pronounced. Perhaps it was because you had your hands on them twelve hours earlier, Regina’s mind supplied just as a prod in the arm from Kathryn jolted her back into the conversation.

“What?” she asked, turning away from Emma and looking back at her friend.

“Emma was just saying her autism makes her speak before she thinks too but I don’t agree. In my experience, Emma’s always given very measured responses, don’t you think?”

“Um, yes,” Regina nodded. “Measured. Very much so. You always know the right thing to say,” she added, raising her gaze back to Emma’s to find the blonde smiling at her.

“Thank you. I’m working on it,” Emma said, rounding the kitchen island and moving to wash up her travel coffee cup which had held that morning’s drink. “What have you two ladies got planned for today?”

Kathryn filled Emma in on her plans as Regina focused on Henry who’d managed to dribble milk all down his front and now needed to get dressed, his pyjamas destined for the laundry hamper.

“And you, Regina?” Emma asked just as the brunette climbed down from her stool and helped Henry off too.

“No plans,” Regina replied. “I’ll probably just hang around here. Henry’s got big playdate plans with Roland.”

“We’re going to build Lego!” the boy announced, tuning in only when he heard his name. “Emma, can you join us and play Lego too?”

“Maybe later,” Emma laughed. “I’ve got work to do first. In fact, Regina, if you’re not busy, would you be able to come to my office once you and Henry are ready for the day,” the unspoken words ‘once you’re dressed’, made Regina pull her dressing gown closer around herself, “and we can have a quick meeting.”

A sparkle in Emma’s eyes which Regina recognise from the night before told the brunette what sort of meeting Emma was alluding to. Considering she had been pondering herself how she and Emma were going to manage to spend any time together, Regina was relieved at the blonde’s suggestion.

“Of course,” she nodded. “I’ll come down at about ten.”

“Great,” Emma smiled before picking up her now clean coffee cup and leaving the common room.

The knock on the office door drew Emma’s attention away from proofreading the finalised grant application. Her brain breathed a sigh of relief at the excuse to stop staring at the screen for a moment. “Come in,” she called.

Mulan’s head appeared around the edge of the frame. “Regina to meet with you,” she announced.

Emma nodded her consent and closed the lid of her laptop just as the brunette entered the room, the door shutting behind her as Emma’s staff returned to the front desk.

“Hello,” Regina said, suddenly shy despite feeling excited about meeting Emma since the moment the blonde had left the kitchen over an hour earlier.

“Hi,” Emma replied, standing up from her chair and circling the desk. “I hope you don’t mind me inviting you here. I wanted to see you.”

“I wanted to see you too,” Regina assured, allowing Emma to step right into her personal space as the blonde’s hands landed on her hips.

Their lips met without another word, a gentle good morning kiss as if they’d been exchanging affections for years. Regina felt her body melt into the contact, leaning closer to Emma until their torsos were pressed together. Emma slid her hand around Regina’s side, coming to rest in the small of the woman’s back, feeling the dip of her spine as the woman curved into her own form.

Although the kiss didn’t deepen, it didn’t stop either and it was several minutes before they finally broke apart.

“Hi,” Emma breathed, fingers brushing some stray hairs from Regina’s forehead.

“You’ve already said that,” Regina smirked.

“What can I say? You make it hard to think straight,” Emma replied, placing another chaste kiss onto those irresistible lips before stepping back and gesturing for Regina to take a seat.

She did so, crossing her legs as Emma brought her own chair around, the pair resuming the same position as they had been in the evening before.

“So,” Emma said, becoming unsure of her plan as soon as the initial goal, kissing Regina, was accomplished. Now she felt awkward. She had never been much good at dating. She knew how she felt and she had told Regina that the night before. What now? She had kissed her. That had been amazing. But what is the next step? What should she say? Emma felt her mind begin to panic but luckily Regina’s simple reply grounded her before she lost control.

“So,” Regina nodded.

“How did you sleep?” Emma asked, reverting to a question she often asked women who stayed at the shelter, knowing nightmares often plagued the dark hours. It was a simple question; safe. It showed she cared.

“Well, thank you. You?”

“I always sleep well. I used to be very restless as a kid but one of my therapists taught me a great technique for clearing the mind before I get into bed. Now I’m out like a light.”

“Henry’s like that too. Head on the pillow and he’s gone. I’ve always been jealous of his capacity to sleep anywhere.”

“How is Henry?” Yet another safe question. But not very date-like, Emma reminded herself. They appeared to have slipped back into counsellor and client mode. Was that a bad thing? Was this a date? Once again, Regina’s answer pulled Emma’s spiralling mind back to the present.

“Good,” Regina smiled. “With school organised, I just need to start looking for a job and somewhere to live. I think he’s going to be just fine.”

“You’re already thinking of looking for a job?” Emma asked. “You’ve only been here a week.”

“Yeah and look how much has changed in that time,” Regina pointed out.

Emma’s forehead creased. “Is that a bad thing? Are you saying we’ve rushed this?”

“No,” Regina replied at once. “I mean, it’s not exactly been slow, but I have no regrets about what’s happened between us. If I didn’t think I could handle it, I would have stopped what happened last night. Actually, I think you’re the one keeping me grounded, giving me something to focus on.”

“What about Henry?”

“Of course, Henry too. But you, Emma, you’ve given me hope. You’ve reminded me that I can have a positive relationship with another adult, that I’m worthy of being in a relationship which is based on trust and mutual respect. I’ve just got to work on that mutual respect thing because right now, I feel like we’re a little unbalanced.”

“How so?”

“In the past, I mean,” Regina clarified. “I respect you now, immensely. But I didn’t when we were teenagers and I have to make up for that.”

Emma wheeled her chair closer to Regina’s and took the blonde’s hands in her own. “You are respecting me,” Emma said quietly. “The fact that you’re acknowledging our past and trying to make things right tells me that. But can we not talk about Maine today? Can we just talk about the fact that I woke up with a smile on my face today because of you?”



“Me too.”


Chapter Text

“Mom, I get to go to school with Roland tomorrow, right?” Henry asked as his mother tucked his duvet close around him.

“It’s Monday tomorrow so yes, you do,” Regina replied, settling herself on the edge of Henry’s bed, leaning back against the headboard and picking up the book the boy had requested for his bedtime story, The Tiger Who Came To Tea.

“And then on the next day too?”

“What day comes after Monday?” Regina asked.

“Toosday,” Henry replied after a moment’s pause to recall the order of the days of the week.

“Tuesday, yes,” Regina smiled. “And yes you do. That’s your school now. You’ll get to go there every day from Monday through to Friday and then at the weekend we’ll be here.”

Henry looked around the small room. “Is this where we’ll live forever now?” he asked, nose wrinkled at the idea. The space was about half the size of the bedroom he had grown up in and, to boot, had to be shared with his mother. This was not ideal, even for a six-year-old.

“For a while. But tomorrow I’m going to start looking for jobs and then hopefully we’ll be able to move out of here and get our own place.”

“Can Roland come too?”

“Roland will be living with his mom,” Regina explained, even though she had no idea what Marian’s plans were. The woman barely spoke, even though she and Regina now walked their children to and from school together. “But I’m sure he can come over to play some days.”

“Ok,” Henry agreed. “Read now.” His mother’s eyebrows raised. “Please,” he added.

Obediently, Regina opened the book and began to read.

“Do the proper voices!” Henry pouted when the first line of speech came out in Regina’s usual tone.

“What do you mean?”

“Dad did it differently,” Henry moaned. “He’s better at it than you.”

The comment hurt. She could count the number of times her husband had read a story to their son on one hand. She understood that this was normal; that the absence of his father meant Henry was elevating the man’s position beyond reality. Belle had talked a little about what to expect over the coming months as Henry adjusted to life with a single parent. But she had hoped that the conversation they had had about Leo’s abuse would have had an impact. While she didn’t want to paint the man as the bad guy, evil though he was, Henry had appeared to understand their conversation that day in the park. So why was he now reverting back to wanting his father? Couldn’t he understand what Leo had done, that he was the reason their family was no longer together. No, of course he couldn’t, Regina told herself. He’s six.

“Sorry Henry,” Regina forced herself to say. “Let me try again.”

With five minutes to go until the end of her shift, Emma saved the document and shut down her computer. The grant proposal was ready to be sent the following day. I hope we get it, Emma thought as she packed up her desk and prepared to leave for the evening. The shelter had enough funding day to day, from a combination of government grants, donations and funds secured from prior grant applications. But this new injection would allow them to expand further, improve their services, help more women.

Just as she was stepping out of her office Ruby walked through the door of the shelter.

“Good timing,” Ruby grinned, swinging her bag onto the top of the counter and leaning on it.

“I’d say more like you’re cutting it rather fine and were almost late,” Emma replied.

“It took me longer to get here from the hospital than I thought.”

Emma winced. She hadn’t meant to be so insensitive. “Oh, sorry. How’s your gran?”

“She’s ok. Doctors say she’ll be fine but it’s just going to be a slow recovery. Thanks for covering on Friday by the way.”

“You’re welcome. I was happy to do it.”

Ruby snorted. “You were happy to change your plans? Emma, I know you. You hate changing plans.”

“Yes, well, this plan change didn’t work out so badly.” Memories of that Friday night flashed across Emma’s mind. Followed by memories of Saturday morning. And Saturday evening, when she and Regina had managed to snatch five minutes together. And Sunday morning when the blonde had joined Regina and her son for breakfast. Lost in her recollections, Emma missed the curious way in which her friend was looking at her.

“Ok, well, thanks again. So, what do I need to know?” Ruby asked, forcing images of Regina from Emma’s mind.

“Not much,” Emma replied, focusing once again on her job. “Terri and her kids left this morning. The new apartment isn’t anything special but it’s safe and the children have a room each. She said she’d call if there were any problems or if Grant showed up again.”

“Prick,” Ruby muttered. She had met Terri’s ex only once. The man had somehow tracked down his wife and children and confronted them in the street outside the shelter. Ruby had seen the altercation on the CCTV monitor and called the police before rushing outside to assist. The man had since been served a restraining order and Terri had chosen to find an apartment on the opposite side of the city. Ruby knew they had done all they could, but she still feared that one day he’d find them again. “Anything else?”

Emma shook her head, glancing at the clock and seeing that it was one minute past eight which meant she was officially off duty. “I’m just going to say goodbye to the women,” she said. “You good out here?”

“Sure,” Ruby nodded, circling the desk as Emma stepped out from behind it. “But you don’t need to lie to me. I know by ‘women’ you mean Regina.”

Stopping dead in her tracks towards the back of the shelter, Emma turned to her best friend. “What do you mean by that?” Emma asked.

“Babe, you’re glowing. I’ve not seen you like this in years. Plus, what you said about the change of Friday night working out? Don’t try and lie to me about the reason.”

Panic bubbled up in Emma. She couldn’t admit it. She couldn’t tell Ruby what had happened, how she felt. It was unprofessional; Regina was a guest at the shelter.

“I -”

But before the blonde could even begin to formulate an excuse, the phone rang, interrupting her. Ruby waggled her eyebrows in a way that said, ‘we’ll talk about this later,’ and leaned over to answer the phone. “Hello, Swan’s Shelter. Ruby speaking, how may I help?”

Seizing the opportunity, Emma darted through the doors into the back of the shelter, leaving her nosey friend behind. Well, looks like we won’t be keeping this quiet, Emma bemoaned as she set off down the corridor. What would people think? What would the women think? What would her staff think? Lost in her spiralling fears, Emma didn’t hear the woman calling after her until a hand landed on her shoulder. She spun around, eyes wide.

“Sorry,” Regina said quickly. “I didn’t mean to startle you.”

“Regina,” Emma breathed out, heart pounding. “I didn’t hear you.”

“You walked past my room just as I came out. You looked like were miles away. Are you ok? Did something happen?”

Emma glanced behind her to make sure no one would overhear them. “I think Ruby knows about us.”

“Already? How?”

“I’m glowing, apparently,” she shrugged. “How can a person glow. We’re not phosphorescent. It’s a strange expression. I don’t understand it. Am I glowing?”

Regina took the opportunity to stare unabashedly at the blonde, eyes drinking in the tall, slender figure. “You look beautiful,” she said eventually.

A dopey smile appeared on Emma’s face. She couldn’t help herself. Regina made her feel … soft. “Thank you.”

“Are you finished for the day?” Regina asked.

“Yes, I just clocked off. Ruby’s arrived for the night shift.”

“Would you like to have a cup of tea with me? I was just about to make one. Henry’s finally asleep. He made me read him The Tiger Who Came To Tea twice and only fell asleep right at the end. Bud in doing so, it made me really want a cup of tea.”

“Tea sounds good,” Emma nodded. “In the common room? Ruby’s on the front desk and she already thinks she knows something’s going on.”

“Is that such a bad thing?” Regina asked as they set off down the corridor towards the common area. “I mean, she is your best friend. I assumed you would tell her, even if you didn’t tell the rest of the staff.”

It was true. Emma had contemplated telling Ruby. In fact, if the woman had been at home on Friday when she returned from the shelter, she probably would have divulged what had happened. But the empty apartment and two nights to sleep on the information had made Emma reassess. Much as she hated lying, she didn’t want to tell Ruby just yet.

“I don’t know what she’d think of me,” Emma admitted at last. “And I don’t want to affect her working relationship with you either. Ruby and I have been friends for a long time and I know she’d support me but she also saw me throwing stuff around our apartment because of you last week.”


“Oh, I didn’t tell you that, did I?” Emma said as they entered the common room, which was mercifully almost empty, and headed towards the kitchen.

Regina shook her head slowly, that familiar feeling of guilt crawling into her bloodstream. “You threw stuff? Because of me?”

“The first day I saw you, that morning. It was just the shock. All those emotions. I just needed to let off some steam. I couldn’t express what I was feeling in words, so throwing breakable stuff around our apartment seemed like the next best thing. Ruby was the one who,” she quirked her lips to one side, “calmed me down.”

“Emma, I’m so sorry,” Regina began but Emma held up her hand to stop her.

“Let’s not do that. I know you’re sorry. It’s ok. I’m talking to Archie about why I reacted the way I did and to be honest I think it was more to do with how confusing those emotions were, rather than the anger I felt towards you. I won’t deny that I did feel angry but I was also dealing with so many unresolved feelings and those conflicting states were too confusing. I exploded. I … I do that sometimes.”

“I know,” Regina said quietly, a brief memory flashing before her eyes before fading as quickly as it had come. “And I understand. But I’m still sorry.”

“Anyway,” Emma continued, not wanting to dwell. “I’m worried that Ruby will not be supportive because of that outburst. She’s just protective, she wants what’s best for me and I don’t know if I can explain to her that you are what’s best for me.”

“I am?”

Emma cocked her head and regarded the shorter woman before her. “I think so,” she nodded. “I know it doesn’t make sense, but these last two days have been amazing. We’ve barely spent any time together and I can’t remember being this happy before. Because of you, Regina. In spite of everything, against all odds, whatever it is we have, it makes me really happy.”

Brown eyes sparkled with emotion. “God, I wish I could kiss you right now,” she whispered. “You’re amazing, Emma. And you make me very happy too. Happier than I feel I deserve to be, given the fact that I left an abusive husband ten days ago. How did I get so lucky?”

“I think you deserve a little luck after everything you’ve been through,” Emma offered gently. “Now, shall we have that tea before people start wondering what we’re doing?”

Realising the two of them had been standing in the middle of the kitchen talking intensely for five minutes, Regina nodded and stepped back, just in case any of the few women who were watching television noticed the interaction. Together, they set about preparing the hot drink and soon found themselves sat side by side on the barstools, each cupping their mug.

“So, you’ve got tomorrow off, right?” Regina asked.

“Yeah,” Emma nodded. “Well, I’m working the night shift.”

“Would you like to join me for dinner again?”

Emma looked sideways at the woman. “Are you asking me out on a date?”

“Well, I’m not sure I’d say ‘out’. We’d be sat at a dining table in a women’s shelter where you work and I live. I’d hardly say it was a romantic location but yes, I guess you could call it a date.”

“You know I like clarity,” Emma smirked. “Or rather, I don’t like ambiguity. Straight to the point, no nonsense, that’s how I’ve always lived my life.”

“I know, and I’ve always admired your honesty,” Regina said. “So yes, if you want to put a label on it, then I’m asking you ‘in’ on a date tomorrow. What do you say?”

“I say yes,” Emma grinned. “And in line with this conversation, are we dating now?”

“I mean, I think so. We’re going on a date, isn’t that the definition of dating?”

“I don’t know,” Emma mused. “Let’s look it up.”

Regina rolled her eyes playfully as the woman pulled out her cell and googled the definition of the term ‘dating’.

“Google’s top result is from a website called Urban Dictionary,” Emma announced a few moments later. “Is that like the Oxford English Dictionary or Merriam-Webster or Collins?”

“Not really but go ahead and read it,” Regina chuckled.

Emma cleared her throat. “Dating is where two people who are attracted to each other spend time together to see if they also can stand to be around each other most of the time. If this is successful they develop a relationship, although sometimes a relationship develops anyways if the people can't find anybody else to date them, or are very lonely or one person is only attracted to the other and pretends to be in love with the second unfortunate person who has the misunderstanding that they have found love. This occurs quite often and eventually leads to something called cheating.”

Regina burst out laughing. “That website is ridiculous.”

Emma however, looked sobered. “I’d never cheat on you. I’d never cheat on anyone.”

“Oh, me neither,” Regina said quickly. “Sorry, I wasn’t laughing at that. Cheating isn’t funny in the slightest. I always suspected that Leo cheated on me actually, not long after Henry was born. It crushed me. So, I know that cheating isn’t a joke, trust me. It’s just that the entries on Urban Dictionary are supposed to be kinda funny.”

“So it’s not accurate as a definition?”

“I think dating is a hard word to define,” Regina pointed out. “But how about we take that first part and the bit about relationships. Forget the stuff about being lonely and cheating. I’d never cheat on you, Emma.”

“Ok,” Emma nodded. “Thank you.”

Glancing over her shoulder to make sure no one was watching, Regina moved her hand towards across the counter brushing her knuckles against Emma’s fingers where they were curled around her cooling tea.

“I know we agreed to take this slow but you’re also going to have to be patient with me,” Emma sighed. “I … well, the way my mind works means I’m not like everyone else. Sometimes I struggle with emotions and I also find it hard to trust people. You know about my early childhood. It can be hard for me to accept that I’m wanted. Self-doubt, you know?”

“I really do know,” Regina nodded. “And, for what it’s worth, I do want you. I want you more than I’ve ever wanted anyone before. And I’m sorry if that’s too fast or too much or whatever and I’m not pushing anything. I would never push either of us into anything which we aren’t ready for. But I need you to know that, well, I’m excited to be dating you and I’m looking forward to finding out what our future holds.”

“Me too. Let’s leave the past in the past and explore what we could have together. A fresh start,” Emma offered.

“Deal,” Regina smiled.

But even as she said the word, Regina wondered whether she could ever truly leave the past behind her. Not just her past with Emma but also her husband. Would he always be there, the ghost of Leo haunting her future relationships? And could Emma really move on? After everything which had happened, was it even possible for them to start with a blank slate? Or would traces of their past continue to creep into their future?

October 23rd 2003

Brown and orange leaves crunched underfoot as she trudged down the sidewalk, coat zipped up to protect her from the chilled wind which had swept into town overnight. Her nose was pink from the cold and for the first time since her family had moved to Maine, Emma found herself wishing she would arrive at school faster.

“Hey, it’s the new kid.”

Not already, Emma thought to herself. The day had barely started. She kept walking but the trio hurried up behind her and one yanked on the handle of her backpack, forcing her to stop walking. Stationary, she stared at the ground, watching as the freshly fallen autumnal leaves wavered gently in the cold air.

“What swan book are you reading today?”

“I’m reading The Silver Swan,” Emma answered, raising her head to meet three callous faces. Her foster mother had taught her it was rude not to look at people when addressing them. But Emma didn’t like eye contact. It was too intense. It made her feel uncomfortable. “It’s very dark. It’s about a girl who has to move away because someone in her family commits a murder. I won’t tell you who because I don’t want to give you a spoiler. But then she meets her step-brother and he’s got lots of mean friends. And all the boys are meant to be very attractive and sexy but I don’t think they are. I think girls are sexy.”

Three stunned faces looked back at her, still not used to the blunt and open way the blonde spoke. Emma, for her part, didn’t recognise that she had overshared some information which the bullies would pounce on. As far as she was concerned, she simply answered the question and told the truth.

“You’re gay?” Vicky asked.

“Yes,” Emma replied.

There was another pause and then Zelena started to laugh. “Oh my God, just when we thought you couldn’t be more of a freak, you turn out to be a fucking lesbo. This is gold!”

Emma said nothing. Her eyes dropped again, confusion now bubbling inside her. What did the nasty redhead mean? Why was her sexuality gold? What was strange about being a lesbian? She was simply attracted to women; there was nothing odd about that.

“So, have you got a girlfriend, dyke?” Vicky asked.

“No,” Emma replied.

“Why not? Can’t find another lezzer in this town who finds crazy weirdos hot?” Zelena crooned. “Isn’t that mousey chick who does close-up magic in the year above a homo? Maybe she’d fuck you, Swan.”

“Can lesbians fuck?” Vicky questioned. “How does that even work? Surely you need a dick to have sex, right Regina?”

“I wouldn’t know,” Regina said, voice a little quieter than usual.

“Oh yeah, I forgot you and Robin were waiting,” Vicky sneered. “Just do it already. You’ve been with him for, like, four weeks already. You don’t want people to think you’re uptight. Or a lesbian, right?”

“Fuck off,” Regina snapped. “I’m not gay. And it’s only been three weeks since we became official.”

“Three weeks isn’t a long time,” Emma said, joining the conversation again. “It’s important to love and trust someone before you have sex with them. You should never feel pressured into having sex and if your partner is trying to push you into doing something you’re not ready for, you should end the relationship because that means they don’t respect you.”

Once again, three teens were stunned into silence. But it didn’t take long for Vicky and Zelena to start to laugh. A few seconds later, Regina joined in.

“Oh you really are a freak. Robin isn’t pressuring me into sex. But you,” Regina looked Emma up and down before scoffing, “you’d be lucky to have someone want to have sex with you at all.”

“Yeah, you’re a dorky weirdo,” Vicky added.

“Total freak. Nutjob. Except you don’t like nuts, do you. Um, you’re a total …,” Zelena cast around for a pun on female genitalia but came up empty, “you’re a total vaginajob.”

“What does that mean?” Emma asked. She always asked when she heard a new expression which she didn’t understand. It helped her understand idioms and other sayings which didn’t make logical sense and therefore she struggled to interpret without help.

“It means you’re a psycho who’s never going to be fucked because you’re unfuckable. Actually, you’ll never be loved either because you’re unloveable. That’s why your real parents left you when you were a baby, right?”

Emma’s status as a foster child was well known in the school, partly because she herself referred to Mary Margaret and David as her foster mother and father. But this was the first time her childhood circumstances had been used as an insult. The effect was instant. Eyes darkened, nostrils flared and her heartrate seemed to double instantly.

“I’m not unlovable. They made the mistake,” Emma snarled. “They left me, it wasn’t my fault.” Her voice was rising now; other students walking to school stopped on the sidewalk to watch as the altercation became a spectacle. “I was a baby. I was innocent. It was my birth parents who couldn’t love. It wasn’t because of me. My foster parents love me. I CAN BE LOVED!” She was screaming now, her face red as the emotions and fear she had struggled with all her life rose to the surface once more. “I WILL FIND LOVE. I WILL HAVE MY OWN FAMILY AND I WILL NEVER DO TO MY BABY WHAT HAPPENED TO ME.”

Regina, Vicky and Zelena watched, open mouthed as the blonde before them crouched down, arms wrapped around her shins as her body shook with emotion.

“One, two, three, four, five, pause,” Emma chocked out, words mumbled into her knees. “One, two, three, four, five, pause. One, two, three, four, five, pause. One, two, three, four, five, pause. One, two, three, four, five, pause. One, two, three, four, five, pause. One, two, three, four, five, pause.”

“She’s gone mental,” Vicky commented, taking a step back.

“I’M NOT CRAZY,” Emma screamed, jumping to her as the counting method failed to calm her down. “I’M NORMAL. I’M NOT MAD.”

She pushed her way roughly past the group, knocking Regina out of the way who fell backwards, Zelena catching her before she lost her footing entirely. With tears blurring her vision, Emma ran down the street towards the high school. But she didn’t stop at the gate. She kept going. She ran, and ran, and ran, her backpack bouncing off her spine as her legs pounded the pavement, cold air stinging her face, dark thoughts plaguing her mind.

Only when the blonde was out of sight did Regina, Zelena and Vicky recommence their walk to school, laughing as they recounted the loss of control they had just witnessed.

Chapter Text

Ten o’clock on a Monday morning had been chosen as Regina’s regular meeting with Belle. In fact, the week before she had met several times with the psychologist, starting to open up about what had happened which drove her to Swan’s Shelter and what her plans for the future were.

As she walked down the hallway to meet the woman that Monday, however, Regina realised that she and Emma hadn’t discussed whether or not their relationship was something she had to keep secret from Belle. Emma had already mentioned not wanting her staff to know but did that include Regina’s own therapist? How was Regina supposed to talk about how she felt, her hopes for the future, if she couldn’t talk about Emma?

Because, in just two short days, her future had suddenly filled with the blonde. The turnaround from Friday night was dramatic. There were still moments of doubt and self-hatred which Regina had to deal with but for the most part, with soft touches and gentle words and a look in her eyes the brunette couldn’t describe, Emma was making sure Regina knew that whatever between them wasn’t just a fling.

But did that mean Emma was ok with her employee knowing about their blossoming relationship? Or dating, as they had established last night. Regina cursed herself for not clarifying with Emma how she wanted to play this, but she was out of time as she found herself outside Belle’s office door, knuckles rapping on closed wood.

“Regina, come on in,” Belle smiled as she opened the door and greeted her next appointment. “How was your weekend?”

“Great, thank you,” Regina said, taking her usual seat. “How was yours?”

“It was lovely, thank you for asking,” Belle replied, a well-trained eye taking in the change in the woman before her. The woman was radiating happiness. “What did you get up to?”

“What? Nothing,” Regina said, suddenly defensive, the smile on her lips fading.

Belle cocked her head. “You just stayed in the shelter?”

“Um, yes,” Regina nodded, feeling her cheeks already begin to tinge red. How was she going to keep this up for an hour? Sooner or later, she was going to let the secret slip. “Henry and I stayed here both days.”

“Ok,” Belle said slowly. “And how is Henry? Was he good about returning to school today?”

“He couldn’t wait,” Regina explained, grateful for the change of subject. “He’s been talking about school all weekend. His friendship with Roland has been a lifesaver. He’s so happy, considering everything that’s happened and all the change he’s gone through. I’ve told him we’ll look for an apartment nearby so he can continue to study there.”

“An apartment? Already?”

Regina shrugged. “Well, I’ve got to get on with life some time, right? I would like to start looking at jobs this week and then see if I can get myself a few interviews. How do I go about doing that, by the way? I don’t want to connect Henry’s iPad to the internet in case Leo tracks its location and I don’t have a cellphone or computer. I don’t even have a CV.”

“Speak with Emma. She usually helps the women find suitable jobs and she has several connections to local businesses. How are things going with Emma, by the way?”


Once again, Belle’s internal radar picked up on the defensive tone. “Because last week when we talked you mentioned the past the two of you shared and how you were concerned about her being your first point of contact here. Is that still the case or are you feeling more comfortable with the arrangement?”

“Oh, yeah, no I’m fine now. Thanks,” Regina mumbled. Yeah, there is no way I’m going to be able to keep this quiet, the brunette thought to herself. The next time I see Emma, I’m going to ask her if I can tell Belle about us. And kiss her. I’ll kiss Emma and then ask if I can talk to Belle about our relationship. In that order. Kisses come first. Soft lips, fingers tangled in blonde hair, bodies pressed -


Her name snapped the brunette back into the room, eyes refocusing on the woman who was looking curiously at her. “What?”

“Are you ok?”

“Yes,” Regina replied quickly. “Just, um, thinking about jobs.”

“Well, the fact that you’re looking towards the future is a great sign. I’ll leave it to Emma to help you get set up with a resumé and everything. For now, can we go back to what we were talking about last week? You were telling me how your marriage to Leo came about and what it was which signaled, for you, the change in your ex-husband’s behavior and his attitude towards both you and Henry.”

Regina took a deep breath and nodded, recommencing the story she had begun to divulge to Belle, wondering as she did so when she would tell Emma all the sordid details of what had happened in her marriage.

Soft piano music filtered quietly from the laptop as the blonde worked, tapping a pen against her lip as she reviewed the sheet in front of her. It was a Monday afternoon ritual; checking her personal banking to make sure she could account for all expenditures. Sipping her coffee, Emma moved down the list, recalling the iced coffee she had bought herself the previous Wednesday on the way to a meeting with one of the shelter’s former guests. That accounted for three dollars seventy-five cents. And what about that eleven-dollar charge? Oh yes, that was the paperback book she’d ordered online.

A shuffling from behind her announced Ruby’s arrival.

“Morning,” the redhead yawned, circling the coffee table, wrapped in a duvet shroud and plopping herself onto the couch beside Emma. The nightshift had been slow and the five hour nap had been enough to recharge her. “Are you a millionaire yet?”

“No,” Emma replied, closing the laptop lid. She trusted Ruby with her life but she still disliked being overt about her financial situation. It wasn’t like she was rich; her salary from the shelter was modest. But she was frugal and an excellent saver. Over the years, she’d built herself quite the little nest egg. Thanks to New York property prices, however, she was stuck renting for now.

“What are you doing today?” Ruby asked, easing her feet onto the table and snuggling backwards as she grabbed the remote off the arm of the seat and flicked on the television.

“The usual,” Emma replied. “Chores. You?”

“I’ll do a food shop later. Any requests for dinner tonight?”

With a jolt, Emma remembered she had agreed to meet with Regina at the shelter that evening. Their first ‘date’, in a way.

“Oh, um, about that.”

The television was muted and Ruby turned slowly to her friend. “You’re bailing? Again?”

“Sorry,” Emma offered, knowing that while Ruby wasn’t as rigid in her weekly planning as she was, the fact that the blonde was cancelling for the second week in a row didn’t go unnoticed.

“Are you eating at the shelter again?”

“Yeah,” Emma nodded.

“With Regina?” Ruby asked. Another nod. Emma braced herself for the onslaught of confusing questions. “Are you dating?”

Or just the one, simple question, Emma mused as she raised her eyes to meet Ruby’s. “Yes.”

Ruby said nothing, her gaze scanning Emma’s face, trying to read her friend. While Emma struggled to read emotions on others, Ruby considered Emma herself to be an open book. The woman always wore her heart on her sleeves. Although she could see that the blonde was a little uncomfortable and on edge, Ruby also thought back to the way her friend had appeared ever since Regina had arrived at the shelter.

Well, it had been a rollercoaster, she wouldn’t deny that. But over the past week, as the initial shock of Regina’s reappearance had worn off and Emma had started addressing the past she shared with the shelter’s new guest, there had been a fundamental change in Emma. Not only was the woman appearing to step out of her comfort zone more readily but Emma was also, quite simply, happier.

“Take care of each other,” Ruby said before unmuting the television and navigating her way to Netflix to continue the latest show she was binging.

Emma, gobsmacked at how quick the conversation was over, stuttered for a moment.

“That’s it?”

“What more do you want me to say?” Ruby asked, not looking away from the screen.

“Um, well, I don’t know but I figured you’d have more of an opinion.”

“Do you want me to have an opinion?”

Emma frowned. “What? Of course I do. You’re my best friend. I want to know what you think about this. I mean, you’re the only person who knows and to be honest, I would quite like your perspective.”

The television went silent again and Ruby turned back to Emma. “Do you want my opinion as your friend or your staff member?”

“Friend,” Emma decided. She didn’t want to know what Ruby thought in her capacity as a counsellor at the shelter. Not yet.

“Ok, then as your friend, I can see that Regina makes you happy. I don’t understand it, given everything you’ve told me about what happened but -”

“That was in high school,” Emma interrupted.

Ruby raised her eyebrows and Emma apologised quickly for speaking over her friend. The redhead continued. “I don’t understand it, but it is clear to me that something has changed in you; in a good way. I’m guessing those changes stem from Regina. If you can deal with whatever is in your past and if she is treating you the way you deserve, then I’m happy for you. It’s been too long since I’ve seen you show any interest in someone and I know you get lonely. So, yeah, I’m happy for you Emma. Just, as I said, take care of each other.”

“That last statement sounds like you’re speaking as someone who works in Swan’s Shelter,” Emma pointed out.

“I am,” Ruby sighed. “Look, I don’t know the details, but I was there the night she turned up with her kid. She’s a battered woman, Emma. She ran away from her husband ten days ago and now she’s jumping into your bed?”

“Woah, we’ve not jumped in any beds,” Emma defended. That was a strange phrase she had struggled to understand. What did jumping on beds have to do with sex? She’d never jumped on a bed in a sexual situation. The English language was bizarre.

“You know what I mean,” Ruby sighed. “It’s fast, ok? I just don’t want you to get hurt if this turns out to be a rebound for her but also I don’t want you to end up hurting her if it turns out whatever’s going on only happened because Regina’s in a vulnerable space.”

At that, Emma’s eyes darkened. “You think I’m taking advantage of her?” The insinuation made her heart clench.

“No,” Ruby said quickly. “But I still think Regina’s position needs to be taken into account. Less than two weeks ago she was living with a man two states away. Now she’s dating you? It’s a lot. Big changes, you know? For both of you. And Henry.”

“He doesn’t know.”

“Good. Keep it that way. And don’t spread it around the shelter either.”

“We weren’t planning to,” Emma replied. “We’re taking things slow.”

“Ok, well, then I guess we’ll see how things go.”

Emma nodded slowly. “So, are you ok with this?”

“It’s your life, Emma. I’m not going to tell you what to do or what not to do. I’m here for you, always, you know that. And if we ignore that little incident the day Regina showed up, I think overall I’ve seen a positive change in you. If she makes you happy, then I’m happy for you.”

Emma couldn’t stop the smile spreading over her face. “She does, Rubes. She really does. She makes me feel … I can’t even describe it. It’s like my tummy is bubbling when I see her and I get excited when I know I’m going to see her and I can’t concentrate properly. I know we’ve got issues in our past and I’m not forgiving her for what happened when we were teenagers. It’s inexcusable but she wasn’t entirely to blame and she has said sorry. A lot.” Ruby looked unconvinced but allowed Emma to continue. “I never thought I would feel like this about Regina. Even after that kiss when we were teenagers, I didn’t really understand what it was that we shared. But this is real, Rubes. This is something I’ve never experienced before.”

“Not even with Lily?” Even though Emma’s past relationship had been over for months, Ruby still missed her friend’s ex. She’d liked Lily even if she didn’t like the way the woman had hurt Emma with her admittance that she didn’t see a future for the two of them. At least she was honest. Was Regina being honest, with herself or Emma?

Emma shook her head. “No one. Well, maybe I did feel it back in Maine that night, just for a moment before, well, before everything went wrong. I can’t help it, Ruby. I know it doesn’t make sense and I shouldn’t feel for Regina what I do after everything we’ve been through. But I’m crazy about her. And you know I hate using that word so it must be true. Can … can you understand that?”

“No, but I can accept it,” Ruby offered with a gentle smile. “You’re right, it does sound crazy and I don’t understand what you two share. But I trust your judgement. And, as I said, you seem happy. Are you happy, Emma?”

“Very,” Emma nodded fervently.

“Good, because I’m going to make you feel super bad about standing me up for the second week in a row just to hang out with your girlfriend,” Ruby smirked, grabbing a couch cushion from behind her and swinging it into Emma’s face.

The blonde squealed as she was propelled backwards into the couch but emerged laughing, relief washing over her as she realised that at least Ruby, her closest friend, was on her side. Settling down side by side on the couch, Ruby resumed Netflix and the two of them wiled away the hours until the late afternoon just hanging out and enjoying their day off.

Chapter Text

“Mom, I’m not tired,” Henry pouted as his mother tucked the duvet up under his chin.

“It’s almost seven and it’s a school night,” Regina countered.

“But I’m not tired,” Henry insisted.

Regina ignored his claim, knowing full well that her son would be asleep only a few minutes after closing his eyes. Henry had always been a good sleeper. And, more importantly, she had some dinner prep to begin, so he needed to be in bed. Henry had requested cheese on toast for dinner and Regina obliged, but that now meant she had to create something for her and Emma to enjoy. She had been shopping that afternoon on the way to collect Henry from school to buy the ingredients she needed.

“Can I have another story?” Henry asked, changing tact.

“Sure,” Regina agreed. “But just a quick one. I have some things I need to do tonight.”

Less than five minutes later and that no-so-tired boy was breathing deeply, leaning into his mother’s side. Regina extricated herself carefully, placed the half-read book on the bedside table and tiptoed from the room, flicking the light off as she passed.

There were two other women preparing food in the kitchen when Regina arrived. She had spoken to neither of them during her time in the shelter and didn’t feel like striking up conversation now. So she politely said hello before getting out the items she required and setting to work.

“Wow, are you hungry?”

Regina looked up to see Kathryn leaning on the far side of the breakfast bar, upon which she had set up her chopping board.


“You look like you’re cooking for two. Is Henry not in bed?”

“Oh, yes, he is,” Regina said, surveying the amount of food before her. “I’m cooking dinner for Emma.”

“Emma as in Emma Swan?”

“Do you know another Emma?”

“Well, yes, but you don’t know her,” Kathryn justified. “Anyway, why are you cooking dinner for your counsellor?”

More questions about her relationship with Emma. Unlike Belle, Regina knew for a fact the blonde didn’t want any of the women finding out about their budding romance. But she also disliked lying to anyone, particularly the only woman she could really consider to be her friend.

“Emma and I knew each other before,” Regina admitted at last.


“We went to high school together. I didn’t know it was her shelter when I arrived but it appears we’ve found ourselves back in one another’s lives after over a decade. We’re just catching up, I suppose.”

“You went to school with Emma?”

Regina nodded. “Up in Maine. Emma was only there for two years.”

“What was she like as a teenager?”


“Yeah!” Kathryn smiled. “I’m always interested in what people I know as adults were like when they were kids. So, what was she like? Were you two friends?”

“No, we weren’t friends,” Regina said shortly.

“Ooh, enemies?” Kathryn asked, eyes glittering at the prospect of gossip.

“Something like that,” Regina muttered.

Kathryn slid onto the barstool opposite Regina and leaned her elbows on the counter, expectantly. But when no more information was divulged, she pressed. “And?”

“And it was a long time ago,” Regina sighed. “We’re moving past it.”

“From enemies to having dinner together?” Kathryn frowned.

“Perhaps you could say we’re making amends. Getting over our past and focusing on our future. I mean, my future.” Regina didn’t want to give Kathryn any more information than she already had which might lead to speculation.

“Huh, weird,” Kathryn replied. “So, I got called into school by Amy’s teacher today.”

Relieved at the sudden subject change, Regina listened to Kathryn explain how her eldest daughter had punched another child in the face and then defended her actions by claiming that her parents used to hit each other so it was allowed. As the story unfolded, Regina moved to the stove to begin cooking the dish.

“Have we fucked up our kids forever by staying with these dick men?” Kathryn asked as she finished recounting the conversation she had had with Amy’s teacher.

“Temporarily, perhaps,” Regina said, stirring the pot as she spoke. “The exposure to an unhealthy relationship can’t have been beneficial but at least they’re all safe now. We’ll just have to make sure they know that what they saw between their mom and dad isn’t normal and isn’t acceptable. They’re still young, maybe they’ll even forget some of the things they’ve seen or heard.”

Kathryn nodded. It was probably true, particularly for her youngest who was likely to not remember any of this experience. “So, I took my dad up on his offer,” Kathryn revealed.

“Of the house?”

“Yeah, he’s found a property out in Suffolk County. We didn’t want to move back to Brooklyn and this seemed like the best alternative. I’m going down to view it tomorrow after the girls are at school. Well, I guess Amy will have to come with me now since she’s been suspended.”

“Suspended? She’s nine.”

“She gave another kid a bloody nose. And there was a lot of blood, according to Amy. She’s not allowed back until next week.”

“Wow, harsh,” Regina mused.

“She’s gotta learn, I suppose. Anyway, the photos of this house look amazing so I suspect we will end up saying yes. If I wasn’t so confident, I would leave her here. I don’t want to get their hopes up for nothing.”

“I can keep an eye on her if you want,” Regina offered, turning the heat down beneath the pot and glancing at the clock. Emma should be arriving in five minutes.

“Thanks,” Kathryn smiled. “I may take you up on that.”

“Any time,” Regina replied. “You’d do the same.”

“True,” Kathryn said. “What are you cooking by the way? It smells amazing.”

“Risotto,” Regina said. “Nothing special.”

“Well, it’s making me hungry so I’m going to grab a piece of bread and leave you to your date.”

The wooden spoon clattered to the floor. Regina gaped at her friend. “What? This isn’t a date!”

“Kidding,” Kathryn laughed, oblivious to the reaction she had drawn from the brunette. “Anyway, I’ve got to look over this property spec my dad sent over. See you later.”

With that, Kathryn reached for a bag containing half a loaf of bread, pulled out two slices and waltzed over to the couch. After a moment, Regina reached down and picked up the spoon, washing it under the tap before returning it to the slowly bubbling risotto.

“What are we eating?”

Regina jumped and spun around to find Emma standing right behind her in the otherwise empty kitchen. “Jeez, you scared me.”

“Sorry,” Emma said quickly, stepping back and out of Regina’s personal space. “I thought you heard me approaxh.”

“No, it’s fine,” Regina assured, seeing the guilt on Emma’s features as the blonde realised how her actions may have been construed by a woman who had been in an abusive relationship.

“Are you ok?” Emma asked, still concerned.

“Yeah, fine. Sorry, I’m not usually so jumpy. I just had a weird conversation with Kathryn.”

“Is everything alright?”

“Yes, but she was asking about us.”

“Did you tell her anything?”

Regina shook her head. “No, you asked me not to. I told her we knew each other from high school. It was the only way I could explain how I was cooking dinner for you. It’s risotto, by the way.”

“So, you didn’t say anything more?” Emma asked.


“I told Ruby.”

“Told her what?”

“Everything,” Emma admitted. “I’m sorry. I know we said we were going to keep this quiet, but she seemed to already know considering this is the second Monday I’ve bailed on her. She could tell there was something going on.”

“It’s fine, Emma. You don’t have to justify telling your best friend. But can we move this to your office or something? I guess we shouldn’t be having this sort of conversation where we could be overheard.”

“Sure, can I help you plate up?”

“No, I’ve got it,” Regina said, quickly pulling two plates she had already got out of the cupboard towards her and heaping the servings onto them. With a sprinkle of parmesan added to each, she was ready. Emma, in the meantime, had gathered two glasses of sparkling water to them. In lieu of wine, it was either that or some sickly sweet juice pouches which had been left on the fridge. “Ready?”

“Let’s go,” Emma nodded.

The two women made their way out of the common area and towards Emma’s office. Kathryn watched them go, munching on a slice of bread, papers open in front of her on the coffee table. The shelter itself was quiet. Another woman had left that morning and there were numerous vacant rooms. It always made Emma feel optimistic when their numbers were low, as it perhaps the amount of domestic abuse situations were decreasing. But humanity always managed to let her down and she knew the spaces would be full sooner or later.

She stepped back to allow Regina to pass first into her office.

“Can we use your desk as a table?” Regina asked, placing both plates on the surface.

“Of course,” Emma nodded. “Not too formal for you?”

Regina cocked her head. “Sort of, but I think I’ve got a way to fix that.”

Emma’s eyes widened as Regina stepped towards her and, without hesitation, pulled her into an embrace. The blonde struggled to keep the two drinks upright in her hands as Regina’s tongue invaded her mouth.

“I’ve missed you,” Regina sighed when the short, hot kiss ended. “I’ve been thinking about doing that all day.”

“Hold that thought,” Emma said, quickly dumping the glasses on her desk before turning back to Regina. “Right, where were we?”

Emma gently placed her hands on Regina’s hips, drawing the woman closer. “Hi,” she said, breath ghosting over Regina’s lips.

They kissed again, a little softer this time. Regina’s fingers threaded themselves through Emma’s hair which tumbled down her back. It was a way to anchor herself, to remind herself that this was all real. That Emma was really there. That she was really free.

“Hi yourself,” Regina said as she broke away, a little breathless.

Emma grinned and placed another chaste kiss to Regina’s lips, the sweet gesture turning passionate again as Regina refused to allow her to pull back. But then Emma’s stomach grumbled and the moment ended at last.

“Sorry,” she smirked, shrugging her shoulders. “I usually eat earlier in the evening.”

“Sit, enjoy,” Regina offered, gesturing to the barely steaming piles of food. “I hope you like zucchini and mushrooms.”

“Love them,” Emma nodded. “But I am fussy. Just so you know.”

“Ok, what don’t you like?” Regina asked. “I’ll try to avoid them for any future dishes.”

“It’s a long list. Um, squid, cucumbers, parsnips, duck, blue cheese, oranges, truffles, pumpkin, garlic -”

“There’s no garlic in this although the recipe does call for it,” Regina interrupted. “I, well, I suppose I made an assumption.”

“What assumption?”

Regina blushed. “That we’d be kissing. I think I was proved right.”

“What does garlic have to do with kissing?” Emma asked.

“Oh, people say it makes your breath smell and your mouth taste funny.”

“Does it? I mean, I don’t like it anyway, but doesn’t all food do that unless you brush your teeth?”

“I suppose to an extent, but garlic is strong and rather unpleasant even if both parties like garlic. So, I elected to remove it from this recipe.”

“Good call,” Emma smiled. “That way I don’t have to eat it and you won’t taste bad when I kiss you.”

The bluntness was still new for Emma. Or at least an adjustment. She had known the blonde was straight to the point, as she had been as a teenager. But it was new, and strangely refreshing to be dating someone who was so open about what they wanted and what they were thinking. Perhaps if everyone was more like Emma, relationships in general would enjoy better communication and be healthier.

“So, you told Ruby?”

“Well, she guessed. When I said I wasn’t able to come to dinner, she asked if I was having dinner with you. I didn’t want to lie so I admitted that I was. She then asked if we were dating. Again, I wasn’t going to lie.”

“What did she say?” Regina hadn’t seen much of Ruby lately. She was a little nervous about how the redhead may react given that she knew their history including what had happened back in Maine. She really didn’t want Emma’s best friend to dislike her.

“Not much, at first. She didn’t say anything until I asked for her opinion.”

“And her opinion was?”

“As expected. She doesn’t get it. We both know this doesn’t make sense, right? But she did seem to accept my choice. She said I looked happy. She said she wants me to be happy and she’ll support me in any way she can. But she did tell me to keep it quiet at the shelter, as we’d already planned.”

Regina nodded. “Yeah, about that. Kathryn made some weird comment about our dinner being a date just before you arrived.”

“What did you say?”

“Nothing. I denied it and she left. But she’s not the only one who’s going to start wondering what’s going on. I mean, the two of us are eating dinner in your office right now. I fear we’re not going to be able to keep this quiet for long if we want to keep spending time together.”

Emma sighed and put her fork down on the side of her half-eaten plate. She knew Regina was right, but she also didn’t know how to go about identifying a solution. She wanted to keep seeing Regina, but she also knew it was important for her career and the other women that their relationship didn’t become public knowledge just yet.

“Leave it with me,” Emma said. “I’ll see what I can come up with.”

“I also have a question.”

“Go ahead,” Emma nodded.

“It’s about Belle. I mean, I met with her today as usual and she asked what I did over the weekend and I couldn’t really tell her. I know she’s your employee and I know you don’t want people to know about us but if I’m going to be talking about what my future looks like and where I plan to go from here, I think I’m going to have to tell her about us. Are you ok with that?”

“I have to be, don’t I?”

Regina frowned at the statement, disliking the slightly abrupt tone in which it was delivered as well as the meaning behind the words. “No, we can discuss this together. Although I will remind you that you didn’t speak with me before telling Ruby about us.”

Emma bristled at the accusation, more because the truth hurt than because she disagreed with the brunette. “Yeah, ok, fine. I’ll give you that.”

“It’s not about giving me something. I didn’t mean to go all righteous on you. I hardly think I’m in a position to do that. Honestly, I’m happy you told Ruby. It’s important to have someone to talk to but, well, it’s just that I don’t have anyone. I don’t have friends down here, aside from Kathryn whom I’m not planning to tell. So I wanted to ask your permission before discussing our relationship with one of your staff members.”

“While I didn’t ask you before telling Ruby?” The blonde was becoming indignant now, both defensive of her own actions and irritated at the allegation.

“No, that’s not what I’m saying. Emma, please, let’s not fight. I’m honestly fine about the fact that you told Ruby. I just wanted to speak with you before talking to Belle because she is one of your team.”

“Ruby’s my best friend.”

“I know.”

“I needed to tell her.”

“I know that too,” Regina assured.

“It helps to talk to someone.”

“It does.”

“That’s what you want? With Belle? Someone to talk to?”

Regina nodded. “This has been really confusing for both of us, Emma. At least if I have someone who isn’t you to talk with about this, perhaps our situation may start to make a little more sense.”

“We don’t make sense?”

“On paper, no,” Regina reasoned. “But in here,” her hand drifted up to rest over her heart, “yes.”

Emma felt her anger and confusion melt away as she looked into the genuine, soft smile on the woman’s face. “You want to talk to Belle about us? You think it would help?”

“Yes,” Regina replied.

“Ok,” Emma said after a moment’s hesitation. “But can I come to the appointment too? Just for the first five minutes or so. We can tell her together. Give her the details and then I’ll leave the two of you to talk. And you know all her meetings are confidential, right? I will never read any of her notes and she won’t tell me anything that is discussed between you.”

“I know,” Regina nodded. “And yes, that sounds perfect. Thank you.”

“You’re welcome. And I am sorry I didn’t talk to you before telling Ruby. I didn’t plan to tell her. She just came right out with the question.”

“It’s ok,” Regina replied. “I’m not angry. I’m glad you’ve got someone.”

“And you will too, with Belle.”

Regina nodded. “So, how do you like the risotto?” she asked, gesturing to Emma’s empty plate.

“Delicious,” she smiled. “You’re a great cook.”

“Thank you,” Regina said, glad the woman had enjoyed her food. “I cooked a lot in Maine.”

The unspoken words that the woman’s husband had expected her to prepare all of the meals hung over the desk. Much as Emma’s training was screaming at her to pursue a line of questions regarding Leo, the part of her responsible for being on a date with Regina overrode that urge.

“Well, it was lovely. Thank you, I really appreciate the effort. Maybe one day I’ll cook for you too. Although, I’ll warn you now, I’m not very good.”

“It’s the thought that counts,” Regina grinned, images of her and Henry sat around a table with Emma flashing into her mind.

“If thoughts count, then I’m the best girlfriend ever. I’ve been able to think of nothing but you all day.”

Regina froze. It took Emma a moment to register what she had said and the way Regina had reacted to the label she had automatically applied to herself. Emma hadn’t dated anyone for a long time; she was used to being in relationships.

“I shouldn’t have said that,” she muttered. “Sorry.” Green eyes dropped to the desk, her fork pushing a stray grain of rice around the plate.

“Emma, I … it’s too soon.”

“I know. I’m sorry,” Emma said. “I didn’t mean it.”

“I’m technically still married,” Regina pressed on. “And I’ve never had a girlfriend before.”

“Does that bother you? The fact that people will now assume you’re a lesbian?” Straight to the point as always. Even if Regina considered herself to be bisexual, in Emma’s experience, the general public preferred to categorise people as straight or gay, depending on their partner at the time. Bisexuality was all but ignored.

“I ... yes,” Regina admitted. “I’ve never accepted that side of myself. I’ve spent years pushing down my attraction to women. Hell, you know how I treated you in high school. I hate those memories but not just because of what I did to you. I hated myself then. I knew I was attracted to women and as a teenager I couldn’t accept that. It was easier to lash out at people like you who were strong enough and open enough to accept who they were rather than to confront my true self. That’s why I’ve only ever dated men. They were what I wanted to want. It was what my family expected me to want.”

“They don’t know?”

“About the fact that I’m attracted to women? No,” Regina replied. “I never told them. To be honest, there wasn’t much to tell. While I’ve found other women attractive over the years, it’s nothing compared to how I feel for you, Emma. Seeing you again, experiencing what we have again, it’s almost forced me to accept what I truly want. I’ve been playing straight all my life. Everyone I’ve ever known has assumed I was straight because they’ve never had any reason to think otherwise. I guess now they will.”

“Are you ok with that? I know coming out can be a challenge and it sounds like this is a long time in the works.”

“One day at a time, ok? Or maybe one person at a time. We’ll tell Belle, Ruby knows already. Bit by bit. But I do need you to know that I am accepting who I am. I accept how I feel for you, Emma. It’s taken me fourteen years and god knows both our lives have been affected by my inability to accept what I know are perfectly natural feelings. But I’m getting there. Do you know why?”

“Tell me,” Emma said, reaching across the table and taking Regina’s hands in her own, noting the raw skin on the sides of her fingernails as she did so.

“Because anything that makes me feel as good as the connection we share, can’t be wrong.”

Chapter Text

The cursor flashed steadily on the blank page, taunting her. Daring her to start. She narrowed her eyes at it and tapped out her name, just to prove a point. Then she deleted her marital surname, typed on autopilot and replaced it with her maiden name instead. But then she stopped. What next? What other information did she have to share? Did she put the address of the shelter? The number for the shelter? She had no cell phone. Her email address? No, she’d need a new email, for sure. Anything related to her ex needed to be removed from her life.

Minimising the word document, she clicked on the internet browser. The tab displayed at once, informing her that the laptop wasn’t connected to the internet.

“Emma, what’s the Wi-Fi password?”

The blonde looked up from her own computer. “Why?” Regina arched an eyebrow at the woman sat on the opposite side of the desk in the counsellor’s office. “Sorry, it’s a security thing. We don’t tend to give the Wi-Fi password out to guests in case dangerous people in their past lives are looking for the women or they’re thinking of contacting their ex.”

“Well, I’m not doing that,” Regina assured. “I just need to make a new email account. I don’t want to use my old one for exactly that reason.”

“Oh, right, sorry,” Emma said, reaching for a post-it note stuck to her computer and handing it over.

“Trust me, I’m not going to contact Leo,” Regina said as she typed in the password to the shelter’s Wi-Fi connection.

“I know,” Emma admitted. “Sorry.”

Regina shook her head. “No need to apologise. You’re just looking out for me.”

“Always,” Emma smiled.

The two women returned to working in silence, Regina setting up her new email account and Emma replying to some emails which had built up through the week. Two new guests had arrived in the shelter and settling them in had taken precedent over paperwork and other administrative tasks which, while necessary, Emma deemed less important than her work directly related to the women.

Regina sighed, looking at the document which now held her name and new email address and nothing more.

“Are you ok?” Emma had looked up from her screen to see creases on the forehead of the woman before her. She had invited Regina to come to her office to work on the document following their conversation on Monday night. The two of them had looked over several resumé examples from a folder Emma kept for that exact purpose before Regina had been given one of the communal laptops to get started.

“What am I even supposed to write on my CV?” Regina asked. “I’ve never had a proper job.”


Regina shook her head. “Aside from a couple of summer jobs when I was in college. I got married straight after graduation. Leo didn’t want me to work. He said I didn’t have to. So, I didn’t. It wasn’t really a choice. I was expected to become a Stepford wife as soon as I returned to Maine. I did become one. Just like my mother, although she was perfectly content in her role and was devoted to my father in a way I never was with Leo.”

“But you went to college, right?

“Yes, I studied English literature at BCU.”

“Seriously? You went to BCU and then your husband didn’t want you to work? What a waste.”

Regina flinched. “Yeah, well, I didn’t exactly think my life was going to work out like this. It wasn’t planned.”

“I’m sorry,” Emma said quickly, realising that her words had hurt the brunette. “I didn’t mean to insult you. But you’ve had a fantastic college education and I’m confident we can find a job where those skills are put to good use.”

“Maybe, but that still doesn’t help me when it comes to what to write on my CV. Housewife?”

“Start with your education. High school grades, college. Maybe write a little about what you wrote your thesis on to flesh it out and show an area of study in more detail. Plenty of people take time out to have a family and then return to the world of work. You’re not alone in that, Regina”

“I didn’t take time out by choice. I wasn’t allowed to work.”

Emma reached over her desk and placed her hand over Regina’s. “And now you get to live life on your terms. So, let’s live the best possible life we can.”

“I want to,” Regina whispered. “I just can’t imagine that future because I don’t even know where to begin.”

Henry raced across the playground that Friday afternoon, colliding with his mother’s leg where she stood chatting to Marian. Over the week, Roland’s mother had started to talk a little to Regina on the walk to school and while they waited for their sons. The conversation was interrupted as Regina’s knee buckled and she struggled to stay upright.

“Henry, be careful please,” she scolded before thanking Marian who’d grasped her elbow to keep her from falling.

“Mom, can we go to the zoo tomorrow?” he asked, ignoring the fact that he’d almost sent his mother crashing to the ground.

The promise of a trip to the zoo which Regina had referenced several times during their first few days away from Maine had settled on the backburner recently. With Henry starting school and Regina accustoming to life in the shelter, psychological sessions and now CV writing and job searching meetings with Emma, the time for excursions had disappeared.

“The zoo? Yes, I suppose so.”

“Roland says they have monkeys like Mike and an elephant like Eddie. Can we go?”

“I’m pretty sure there aren’t elephants in Central Park Zoo,” Regina frowned.

“No, this is at the zoo near here, right Mommy?” Roland piped up, having appeared at Henry’s shoulder.

“It’s true,” Marian said. “Bronx zoo is huge. One of the biggest in the US. And they do have an elephant although there’s been some recent media attention about the fact that she’s living alone. They think she needs to be with her own kind. Frankly, I’d rather live alone than with Keith.”

“Who’s Keith?” Roland asked.

Sometimes it was a blessing that young children didn’t learn the first names of their parents, Regina mused as Marian quickly changed the subject away from her abusive husband. “So, do you want to go to the zoo too, Roland?”

“Yes please. I want to see the monkeys. And Mike wants to come and see the monkeys too. I’ll hold him up to the bars so he can see his real brothers and sisters.”

Marian turned to Regina. “Do you have plans tomorrow?”

“No, I’m happy to take them. Are you busy?”

“I have a trial shift at that new hotel a couple of blocks away. Receptionist gig. But I can reschedule.”

“Oh, don’t do that. I’ll take them myself,” Regina assured. “Is that ok with you, boys?”

Judging by the shouts of glee and bouncing up and down, it was a fair assumption that Roland and Henry were on board with the plan. Followed by their parents out of the gate onto the sidewalk, the boys chattered away, trying to list as many animals as possible which they hoped to see at the zoo the following day.

“Does Roland ask about his father often?” Regina queried quietly as they walked back towards the shelter. She knew very little about Marian’s past but figured now was as good a time as any to ask.

“Every day,” Marian nodded. “Before bed, usually. Keith used to read his bedtime story. What about Henry?”

“Often enough. I’ve told him the basics of why we’re here but it’s not really stuck. Not that I want him to hate his father but the questions are hard and there seems to be a disconnect between what happened a few weeks ago and our new life. I just don’t know how to answer him and be fair but also honest.”

“I know what you mean,” Marian said, lowering her voice in case the boys in front could hear their conversation. “I’m running out of answers that he’ll accept, without just repeating myself and he doesn’t seem satisfied with what I’ve been telling him recently. But I can’t tell him the truth.”

“Is he here? In town?”

“No,” Marian said, shaking her head. “Keith’s a sheriff out in Nottingham, this small town in New Hampshire.”

“He’s a cop?”

Marian nodded. “Yeah. So it wasn’t as if I could go to the local police and file assault charges against him. I wouldn’t even dare do so here. As soon as my name entered the system, he’d find out. I bet he’s set up alerts to try and find us.”

“Wow, I’m sorry, Marian, that’s really hard.”

“It is what it is,” Marian shrugged as she unlocked the front door to the shelter. “Nothing I can do about it but keep my son and myself safe.”

Regina knew that feeling. But she wasn’t hiding from someone whose job and training included tracking down missing people. Sure, Leo could pay a private investigator to try and find Regina, but he didn’t have an entire police force at his disposal. She couldn’t imagine how nervous Marian must be, never sure whether she was really, truly safe.

“Emma! Mom’s taking us to the zoo tomorrow!” Henry exclaimed as he entered the shelter and saw the blonde stood behind the desk with Ruby. “Can you come with us?”

“Hi Henry. Hello Roland. How was school?”

Excellent deflection, Regina mused but Henry wasn’t to be deterred. “Can you come to the zoo with us. Mom wants you to come.”

Regina’s cheeks flushed. It was a mixture of the truth of her son’s words combined with the fact that he had made such an assumption himself and yet somehow made it appear as if they’d been talking about Emma.

“She does, does she?” Emma asked, glancing at Regina and cocking her head.

“I mean, you’re welcome to join,” Regina offered.

“Marian, don’t you have that trial shift tomorrow?” Ruby asked. As Marian’s case worker, she had been trying to get the woman a job opportunity for weeks and knew the following day was important in terms of moving forward and finding some sense of independence. She and her son had been at the shelter for almost two months and there was no sign of her husband which meant, with Belle’s assessment, the woman should start looking for her own place and begin to set up her new life.

“Yeah, I’m not going to the zoo. Regina’s kindly offered to take the boys herself.”

“So can you come, Emma?” Henry asked again.

The blonde glanced sideways at Ruby, feeling her friend’s eyes on her. “Well, I’m supposed to be working here,” she began but Ruby held up her hand.

“I’ll take your shift,” she announced. “Em, you covered for me last weekend so it’s only fair. You go to the zoo. Enjoy a day off. Hell, you’re not even supposed to be here today.”

“Yes, but I have lots of paperwork to do.”

“I can do that for you or it can wait until Sunday,” Ruby insisted. “You’ve done more than enough. There’s nothing urgent waiting. You deserve a break.”

Emma turned back to Henry. “Looks like I’m coming to the zoo with you, kid.”

“Yay!” Henry exclaimed. “We’re going to see elephants and monkeys and giraffes and lions and snakes and birds and tortoises and …”

Continuing his list, more to himself than anyone else, Henry walked to the door heading to the back of the shelter and Marian let him in. The six-year-old set off down the corridor still listing animals, Roland chipping in every now and then.

“See you later,” Marian said to Regina before following them.

Regina watched Henry and Roland turn together into the common room before closing the door and walking back to the front desk. “Um, sorry about that ambush,” she began. “I had no idea Henry was going to invite you.”

“It’s fine,” Emma assured her. “The zoo is great and I haven’t been for a while. I’m sure we’ll have a great time. And Ruby, thank you,” she added, turning to the redhead.

“Yeah, well, if you guys are going to date, may as well try and do so outside of this place and make it vaguely normal, right?”

“You know I hate that word,” Emma frowned.

Ruby shrugged. “I just mean, dates in your office aren’t exactly normal or romantic. At least you can get out and about every once in a while and spend some time away from this place.”

“Is a zoo romantic?” Emma asked.

“Not the point and you know it,” Ruby smirked. “Anyway, like I said, you did cover for me last week when Granny was sick, so I owe you.”

“How is your grandmother?” Regina asked.

“Better, thank you for asking,” Ruby smiled. “I went to see her last night and she’ll be released from the hospital some time next week.”

“Good, I’m glad to hear that. And thank you, for covering Emma’s shift. I think some time away from this place might be just what we need.”

“You mean those CV writing sessions Emma’s been organising haven’t been wooing you?” Ruby grinned.

Regina laughed and shook her head. “No but they’ve been very useful. I think I’m almost ready to start applying for some jobs.”

“Well, I’m glad they’ve been useful but I’m sorry I’m not really a woo-er,” Emma mumbled, gaze dropping to a pen she was holding and clicking repeatedly in and out.

Stepping up to the desk, Regina reached over the large wooden structure and cupped Emma’s cheek. “Yes, you are. You woo-ed me.”

Green eyes rose to meet Regina’s earnest smile. Her heart fluttered at the look the brunette was giving her. Intense and emotive and scary and oh so good.

“Ok, gross,” Ruby said, picking up a folder from the desk and moving to sit down by the computer, distracting herself from what she was witnessing with the paperwork she and Emma had just been discussing.

Regina smirked. “I’d better go and check on Henry anyway. See you tomorrow, I guess.”

“See you tomorrow,” Emma nodded. “I’ll get here at nine but we can head off whenever you’re ready. The zoo opens at nine and it’s a seventeen minute drive from here. We can take my car or your car. I’ll put gas in mine tonight to make sure we have enough. I have two umbrellas and there’s supposed to be a forty percent chance of rain tomorrow afternoon. And we should make sandwiches before we go.The food at the zoo is expensive and also I don’t like it and … why are you laughing?”

The brunette couldn’t help it as Emma went off into her monologue. She struggled to regain control over herself but the hurt look on Emma’s face quickly sobered her. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to laugh at you.”

“Why did you?”

“It was just the way you were talking. You like to plan, I can tell. It’s cute.”

“But you laughed.”

“I know, I’m sorry. It’s just that the way you were talking reminded me of Henry sometimes.”

“I remind you of a six year old?”

Regina shook her head. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean that. I think that sounds like a great plan. We’ll meet here at nine and then we can make a picnic. I have bread and cheese and some salad, so bring anything else you want to include. I’m happy to drive; the car should probably go out anyway to keep the engine ticking over. And umbrellas sound sensible.”

“It’s the autism,” Emma said quietly. “It makes me plan stuff.”

“Planning is good,” Regina assured her. “I like to plan too.”

“Not like me. I have to plan and then I find it really hard when plans change.”

Ruby, who had been listening the whole time, had to bite her lip to stop herself making a comment about the changes to their Monday nights which had happened ever since Regina had arrived at Swan’s Shelter. She knew now wasn’t the time to tease her roommate and she was also, in her role as Emma’s best friend, interested to hear how Regina handled the conversation.

“Then let’s not change these plans,” Regina said softly. “But if anything does change, we can deal with it together, right? And I’m not just talking about tomorrow.”

“Ok, yeah, ok we won’t change tomorrow’s plans,” Emma said, nodding her agreement. “And if anything does have to change, that’s ok. We can work it out. Change isn’t always bad.”

“No, it’s really not. I think the two of us are living proof of that.”

Emma smiled. “Yeah, I guess a lot has changed for both of us, not just since high school but in the last two weeks. And I accepted those changes. Those changes make me happy.”

“Me too.”

There was a long pause. Ruby could tell, without looking that the two women were gazing at one another.

“So, sorry but I need to get some paperwork done. I’ve got to do a few urgent things here and then I’m meeting my parents for dinner. But I’ll see you tomorrow morning at nine.”

“Ok,” Regina agreed. “I can’t wait.”

“Me neither.”

Regina glanced at Ruby, who was still sat with her back to them, before her eyes dropped down to Emma’s lips. Eyebrows raised in surprise but the tingling in her stomach overrode her surprise and Emma found herself leaning across the desk and meeting Regina’s lips in a soft kiss.

“Get a room,” Ruby teased, looking over her shoulder when she heard the unmistakable sound of kissing. The two women pulled apart, Emma shooting her friend the death glare before turning back to the brunette.

“Have a good evening,” Emma said to Regina.

“You too,” Regina smiled, her bottom lip trapped between her teeth in a coy smile. “See you tomorrow.”

Emma watched Regina walk away before turning to her friend who was smiling smugly. “What?”

“I like her.”

“Really?” Emma hadn’t meant to sound so surprised but she knew how protective Ruby was of her and had feared the redhead wouldn’t be on board with the relationship in quite such a positive manner.

“Yes. She makes you all goofy and she seems to understand your autism. Ironic, I guess since she bullied you about exactly that when you guys were at school but you’ve clearly moved past that. I can too, if she’s going to be that compassionate and accommodating.”

Emma leaned down and wrapped her arms around her best friend. “Thank you,” she murmured in Ruby’s ear. “That means a lot.”

“Yeah, I know. I’m awesome. And in exchange for being the bestest ever best friend, I want to hear all about the monkey business you two get up to in the monkey house tomorrow evening.”

“Firstly, bestest isn’t a word. Secondly, there won’t be any ‘monkey business’,” she added the air quotes, “because Regina and I aren’t teenagers and also that would be unhygienic and publicly indecent. The monkey house smells and there’ll be lots of children there and I don’t think monkeys are romantic.”

“Well, that’s one of the most fabulous things you’ve ever said,” Ruby chuckled. “No, monkeys aren’t romantic but you and Regina are mad for each other so I am predicting something happens, just saying.”

“Well, I think you’re wrong. We’re adults. We’ve only just started dating. We can control ourselves.”

“Judging by what you’ve told me and what I just saw and heard, I’d wager otherwise,” Ruby said before turning back to her computer and resuming her work, leaving Emma to wonder whether her friend might be right.


Chapter Text

“Emma! What’s your favourite animal?” Henry called as soon as the blonde woman entered the common room the following morning.

Regina looked up from the newspaper she was reading and smiled at her date. Because, even with two small boys in tow and the unorthodox location, that was what the day out at the zoo would be.

“I love swans,” Emma replied, crossing the room towards the little family and Roland, both children sitting in front of half full bowls of cereal. “Do you know why?” Henry and Roland shook their heads. “Because that’s my name.”

Henry frowned. “Your name is Emma.”

“Yes but my surname is Swan. That’s why this place is called Swan’s Shelter.”

“What’s a shelter?” Roland asked.

Walked into that one, Emma mused to herself as she took a seat opposite Regina. “It’s a place to stay for a while,” she offered. “Good morning,” she added, turning to the brunette.

“My favourite animal is an elephant. Roland likes monkeys,” Henry continued before Regina could reply. “I like monkeys too. They’re cool cos they can climb trees and they eat bananas. I like bananas too. But elephants are the bestest. They are sooooooo big!” He held his hands wide as if illustrating the size of his favourite beast.

“Monkeys eat lots of different fruit actually,” Roland said, digging into his breakfast once more.

As the boys started their own conversation about what monkeys and elephants did and didn’t eat, Regina turned and smiled at Emma. “Good morning. How was your Friday night?”

“Good thank you. I called my foster parents to catch up. I haven’t seen then in a couple of weeks and I miss them.”

Regina forced herself not to react. Emma didn’t know the fate of her own parents and hadn’t intended the casual comment to hurt as much as it did. She didn’t want to bring the mood down by confessing the sucker punch to the gut she had just experienced.

“That sounds like a lovely Friday evening. Henry and I just watched one of the movies on his iPad. Even he’s getting bored of them now and that boy’s capacity for repetition is impressive. Do you know if there’s a way to wipe an iPad and remove all cloud data? I don’t want to risk connecting it to Wi-Fi until I know my account is no longer associated with it.”

“I’m sure it’s possible,” Emma nodded. “I’ll do some research and we can maybe do it next week. Good thinking, by the way. Find My Phone is a creepy app regardless but for the women here, it can be dangerous.”

“Mom, can we go now?” Henry asked through the last mouthful of cereal.

Regina nodded and instructed her son and Roland to go and brush their teeth. Both boys slid from their chairs and scampered off at once to fulfil the command. Emma smiled as she watched the interaction. It made her wonder, not for the first time, what sort of mother she would be. Children had never been a part of the blonde’s plan but every now and then her mind would wander to how her life might look if she did have a child or two.

Snapping out of her daydream when Regina stood up, Emma jumped to her feet as well and helped the brunette wash up the remains of their breakfast.

“I’ve made lunch,” Regina announced as she opened the fridge and pulled out some Tupperware. “Cheese and salad sandwiches. I’m guessing you like them.”

“Yes, thank you. How did you know?”

“You mentioned both ingredients last night.”

Emma thought back to the rambling stream which had led, via Regina’s misplaced laughter, to their first mini argument. “You were listening?”

“Of course,” Regina nodded, pulling several packs of chips from a cupboard and stacking them on top of the Tupperware in a canvas bag. “Do you still like apples?”

“My favourite fruit,” Emma nodded.

“Me too,” Regina smiled, picking up four apples from a bowl on the side and placing them carefully on top of the chips. “Right, we’re good to go.” She picked up the bag and swung it carefully over her shoulder. “’ll just do my teeth too,” Regina said as they reached the corridor. “Coffee breath.”

Informing the woman she’d meet them all in the reception, Emma made her way down to the front of the shelter. Ruby was sat behind the desk, already halfway through a report which she hadn’t had the time to complete yesterday. Emma leaned against the desk, reading over her friend’s shoulder as she typed in the information.

“You missed an apostrophe.”

“Grammar Nazi,” Ruby scowled as she tabbed the curser back and corrected her mistake. “Where’s your girlfriend?”

“She’s not my girlfriend,” Emma sighed. “Make sure you add in a reference to her meeting with Belle.”

“Stop doing my job for me,” Ruby huffed. “And you know who I mean. Where’s Regina?”

“In the bathroom. She’ll be out in a minute.”

“Are you excited?”

“I like the zoo. I haven’t been for a long time and I am excited about seeing how the place has changed. I like to see the animals even though it is a shame they are in captivity and -”

“Not what I meant and you know it,” Ruby interrupted, shooting her friend a smirk. “Are you excited about going out on a proper date with Regina?”

“I … well, is this a proper date? I mean, Roland and Henry will be there. But we are spending time together outside of the shelter so that’s date-like. And we have a picnic. Picnics are supposed to be romantic somehow, right? And she’s wearing mascara. She’s got beautiful long eyelashes. And I’m wearing mascara. I put more mascara on than usual. Does that mean it’s a date? Ruby, is this a date?”

Ruby grinned at her friend who looked startled at the realisation. “Yes, sweetie, it’s a date.”

“Oh God. I’m not sure I’m ready for an actual date with Regina.” One, two, three, four, five, pause. One, two, three, four, five, pause. Emma could feel her heart pounding against her chest, the panic rising inside her. She wasn’t sure why she was reacting this way. It wasn’t as if she hadn’t spent time with Regina with romantic undertones before. Hell, they’d kissed in almost this exact spot the night before. But a date. With Regina Mills. With the woman who had made her high school experience miserable. She stepped away from the desk, hand pressed against her sternum in an attempt to calm herself.

Ruby jumped to her feet, seeing that the blonde was spiralling. “Ok Emma, breathe,” she said as she hurried around to the far side of the desk. By the time she reached the woman, she was doubled over, hands on her knees as she tried to draw gulps of air deep into her lungs. “It’s ok. I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to freak you out. Calm down. It’s just Regina. You like Regina, remember? Wanna count with me? One, two, three, four, five, pause.”

“One -,” Emma coughed, her chest tight. “One, two, three.”

“That’s it,” Ruby soothed. “One, two, three, four, five, pause.”

“One.” Deep breath. “Two.” Deep breath. “Three. Four. Five.” Deep breath. “One, two, three, four, five.” Pause, deep breath. “One, two, three, four, five.” Pause, deep breath. “One, two, three, four, five.”

Taking a final deep breath, Emma stood up. “Thanks,” she muttered at her friend who looked concerned. She wiped her eyes, careful not to smudge that mascara. “Sorry.”

“No need to apologise,” Ruby assured. “Starting a new relationship is always big and with the history you share with Regina? I get it. Are you ok now?”

“Yeah, I -” She fell silent as Regina, Henry and Roland appeared in the reception, the boys still talking loudly about monkeys and elephants, each child clutching their stuffed toy which represented their favourite animal.

“Ok, we’re all ready,” Regina smiled but her expression changed as soon as she saw Emma’s face which was still red. “What’s wrong?”

“Nothing, I’m fine,” Emma said quickly. “Shall we take my car?”

Regina glanced at Ruby who subtly shook her head, advising Regina not to probe deeper. Instead, the redhead circled the desk and took her seat, returning to her report and pretending nothing had happened.

“Um, why don’t I drive? I’ve got Henry’s car seat all strapped in the back and a spare booster which Roland can use. Unless you want to drive?”

In truth, Emma didn’t like being the passenger in cars. She hated not being the one in control of the vehicle. Another reason she detested public transport. But she said nothing. She was sure Regina would drive safely with her son in the back seat. With their car arrangements decided, Regina bid farewell to Ruby, thanked her again for covering Emma’s shift, a sentiment echoed by the blonde, and opened the door to the shelter to allow the boys to exit the building. Emma followed, with Regina bringing up the rear.

An hour later and they finally made it to the front of the queue to get into the zoo. Tickets purchased, the boys were bouncing up and down with excitement as they made their way past the entrance and into the park.

“Now I need you two to stay together and near us at all times,” Regina said firmly. “Here’s a map of the zoo. Where do you want to go first?”



I don’t know why I asked, Regina thought to herself as she leaned over the fold out map to identify where those two enclosures were. “Ok, well the elephant enclosure is way over here, Henry, and we’re going to have to pass lots of animals to get there. So we’ll see some monkeys on the way to the elephants, ok?”

Henry huffed but nodded. “Fine. Which way?”

Regina glanced at the map before pointing to one of the pathways. Henry and Roland took off at once.

“I fear this isn’t going to be a relaxing day,” Regina said as she hurried after the boys, Emma right behind her.

“That’s ok. They’re having fun. The simple joys of being a child, without a care in the world.”

“Oh, what I wouldn’t give to have that mentality for a day,” Regina said wistfully.

“Is it that bad?”

Regina turned to the blonde and saw Counsellor Emma had taken the place of the fun woman who had been keeping the boys well and truly entertained in the line with interesting animal facts. The mask had returned, however, and here was the woman who had dedicated her life to keeping women safe from abusive partners.

“No,” Regina assured. “It’s not that bad. Half the time now I’m not even thinking about Leo. But I do get waves of anxiety every now and then. I wonder what would happen if he found us, what would happen if Henry decided he wanted to see his dad. What I would tell him, you know? But no, it’s not that bad. Most of the time, I’m happy. Especially when I’m with you.”

Emma felt the dopey smile spread over her face. “Really?”

“Really,” Regina nodded, reaching out to take the blonde’s hand. “Come on, the boys are almost out of sight.”

Hand in hand, they hurried through the crowd, glancing into the enclosures on either side, whose inhabitants the boys had deemed not interesting enough. Regina supposed they’d slow down on the way out and take their time to see all of the creatures. But for now, monkeys and elephants took precedent. As they caught up with the boys who had got caught behind a large group of scouts, Emma went to pull her hand from Regina’s but the brunette tightened her grip.

“What about Henry?”

“He’s six,” Regina replied. “And he’s not going to be paying attention to us when there’s an elephant in the vicinity.”

“Are you sure?”

Regina nodded, placing her free hand on Henry’s back to guide him carefully past the cluster of young teenage boys. As they edged around them, Regina felt Emma’s fingers interlace with her own and a smile formed on her lips once more.

“So, can I ask what happened just before we left the shelter?”

It was lunch time and the two women were sat at a picnic table in a small play area just off to the side of the elephant enclosure. Henry had reluctantly dragged himself away from staring at the magnificent creature to wolf down his sandwich but he and Roland were now pressed back against the barrier, watching the huge animal slowly chew mouthfuls of grass.

Emma swallowed the last bite of her sandwich before answering the woman beside her. She wasn’t surprised Regina was asking but she still wasn’t quite sure what to say. She hated lying but she also didn’t want to confess the thoughts which had run through her mind. She didn’t want to admit that she had thought of Regina as that teenager she had once known. That was before. That was the past. Maine felt like a lifetime ago.

“It’s just a lot, I guess,” Emma said eventually. “Starting a new relationship.”

“Do you have panic attacks before every date at the start of a relationship?”

“How did you know?”

“I used to get panic attacks,” Regina explained. “After my parents died. I was going through hell and Leo wasn’t there for me. The smallest thing going wrong used to trigger them. Sometimes I could get them under control before I spiralled. Other times … yeah, they weren’t fun.”

“I’m sorry.”

Regina shrugged. “I dealt with it. I don’t get them any more.”

“No, I mean about your parents. I had no idea.”

“Oh yeah, they died four years ago. Traffic accident.”

“Regina, I’m so sorry,” Emma repeated. “Why didn’t you say anything?”

“I don’t like to talk about it. Worst day of my life, to be honest.”

“I can’t even imagine,” Emma murmured, curling her arm around Regina’s shoulders and pulling the woman into her side. Regina leaned into the contact, resting her head against Emma and letting out a little sigh.

“Thank you.” It felt good, she realised, to lean on someone. Both metaphorically and physically. But, she also wanted to be that person for Emma. “So, that panic attack,” she said, returning to the start of the conversation.

“Sometimes, I remember, that’s all,” Emma explained, rubbing her hand up and down Regina’s arm. “I remember our past, how we met again. I want this, don’t get me wrong. I want to explore what’s between us and I am excited about our future. But there’s still a little part of me, I guess it’s seventeen-year-old me, who can’t quite understand how I can be on a date with Regina Mills.”

“And that triggered a panic attack?”

Emma nodded slowly. “Yes but I do want this.”

“Yes but a part of your brain doesn’t,” Regina pointed out, sitting up straight and looking at the blonde. “Do you think that will ever change?”

“I want it to,” Emma replied. “I’m working on it. I’m going to Archie every week. I’m talking it through with you. And Ruby, to an extent. I think I just need time, to be honest. This has all happened quickly and sometimes it’s just a bit overwhelming. I don’t deal too well with emotions and when they’re confusing and don’t make any rational sense, it’s hard for me to process.”

“Aren’t all emotions irrational?” Regina asked. “Isn’t that the beauty of being human?”

Emma smiled at the sentiment and glanced over at Henry and Roland. Seeing that both boys were preoccupied with the elephant, Emma turned to press a gentle kiss to Regina’s lips. “You’re a beautiful human.”

Blushing, Regina also checked where her son’s attention was. “So are you,” she murmured, returning Emma’s kiss before resuming her position leaning against the blonde, a long slender arm wrapped around her shoulders as the two of them watched the six-year-olds talking excitedly as they watched the elephant graze.

Back in the underground parking lot late that afternoon, Regina and Emma each bent into the vehicle to lift a sleeping boy carefully from their chairs. After a full day running around, seeing their favourite animals and myriad others, Henry and Roland had sparked out just as Regina pulled into the Bronx traffic as they left the zoo.

“Are you ok with Roland?” Regina asked as she hoisted Henry into her arms with the practiced ease of a mother.

“Yes, I’ve got him,” Emma said, staggering backwards a little clumsily before using her foot to slam the door of Regina’s car closed.

Together they made their way back to the dusky New York street and down to the entrance of Swan’s. Fumbling with one hand, her other arm clutching Roland to her side, Emma fished the key from her handbag and unlocked the front door.

“Hey, how was your date?” Ruby asked as soon as the two women appeared.

“Great,” Emma replied.

“Any monkey business?”

Emma narrowed her eyes at her smirking friend and followed Regina without replying through to the back of the shelter, both boys still spark out. They first deposited Henry on his bed, Regina quickly slipping off his shoes but leaving him fully clothed on top of the covers for now. He’d have to wake up to have his dinner at some point anyway.

Further down the corridor, Regina knocked on Marian’s door. There was no answer.

“She may still be at work,” Emma pointed out when Regina turned to her as if asking what they should do now. “I think her trial shift finished at five but she might have been asked to stay later to discuss her position.”

“Let’s put Roland down on my bed then until she comes back.”

Emma nodded her agreement and followed Regina back to the brunette’s room. She was relieved to release the weight of the six year old. Roland wasn’t exactly heavy but Emma was used to lifting workout weights, not awkwardly shaped little people. She stretched out her arms as Regina made sure the boy was comfy.

“You ok?” she whispered as she beckoned for Emma to leave the room.

“Yes, fine,” Emma nodded. “Thanks for today, it was great.”

Regina glanced up and down the empty corridor they now found themselves in. “Um, can we go to your office?” she asked, knowing that was the only place the two women would be able to talk privately.

They set off side by side, emerging into the reception area. Ruby seemed unsurprised to see them. “So, how was it?” she asked again.

“It was lovely, thank you,” Regina replied. “The boys had an amazing time. They’re exhausted, as I’m sure you saw.”

“And you guys?”

“We had a wonderful time too,” Regina said, following Emma as the blonde stepped behind the desk.

“Oooh, is it monkey business time?” Ruby asked, ducking to the side as a notebook sailed through the air and narrowly missed her head before a scowling Emma slammed the door behind them.

“Monkey business?” Regina asked as soon as the door was shut.

“Ignore her. I do,” Emma said, crossing to the brunette and wrapping her arms around her waist.

“But what -”

The question was cut off with a kiss, Emma deciding she would rather distract Regina than explain the bizarre conversation she and Ruby had had the night before. And anyway, the expression didn’t even make sense. Monkeys, like almost all other animals, did not exhibit sexual behaviour for any other reason than procreation. It was a foolish way to describe what Ruby implied was going to happen between them.

But as Regina’s tongue glided against her lips, Emma stopped wondering the origins of the confused idiom and focused instead on the woman in her arms. She slid her hands up Regina’s back, cupping the nape of her neck as they kissed. Regina moved closer, pressing her body against Emma’s as the kiss deepened. A familiar tingling low on Emma’s abdomen began, tickling her insides and making her clench her thighs together before she broke the kiss and stepped back.

Regina watched her move away, dark eyes heavy with desire.

“I had to stop,” Emma explained. “You feel too good.”

The brunette cocked her head. “Yeah?”

“Yeah,” Emma nodded. “And we’re in my office. Ruby’s outside. It’s not the right time or place.”

“When will it be right?” Regina asked, her own body already on fire. She was still confused as to how one kiss could evoke such powerful wanton lust within her. But in many ways, it made a lot of sense. Here, with Emma, was where she was meant to be.

“One day,” Emma said. “Soon, I hope. But not here. Is that ok?”

“Yes, of course. I understand,” Regina said, following the retreating woman and placing a chaste kiss to her lips. “One day soon. Maybe we could go somewhere if Marian looks after Henry for an evening, just the two of us.”

“I’d like that,” Emma smiled.

“It’s a date,” Regina replied, rocking onto her toes to kiss Emma one last time before she moved past the blonde and slipped from the room. Ruby looked a little surprised to see her so soon but said nothing as the brunette bade her goodnight and disappeared into the rear of the shelter to check on her son.

Chapter Text

The weekend slid away, Monday rolling around too soon for Henry, for whom the novelty of a new school had now worn off. Regina tried to ignore his moans and refused to pander to his insistence that he was sick as she pulled his school t-shirt over his head.

“You’ll have a great time once you’re there,” Regina insisted, tying the laces on his school shoes, Henry’s feet wiggling unhelpfully as she did so. “And don’t you and Roland want to tell all your friends about the fun day we spent at the zoo?”

Henry perked up at that, remembering that he and his new best friend had some amazing adventures to share in the playground that day. Regina listened patiently to her son as he began to recount to her how he had seen a real live elephant that weekend, seemingly ignorant to the fact that it had been his mother who stood beside him as they watched the magnificent creature.

But at least he was excited about going to school again, Regina reminded herself as she and Henry walked up the road, Roland and Marian behind them. At the gates, she bade farewell to her son and began to walk back with Marian.

“So, your next shift is this afternoon, right?”

“Yes,” Marian nodded. The trial at the hotel had gone well and she had been offered the job. It was a big, important step but it was also a significant adjustment for a woman who hadn’t worked for many years. “Are you sure you’re ok to watch Roland tonight? I don’t want him to be an imposition.”

“Of course,” Regina assured.

“I’ll repay the favour. If you ever need Henry watched while you go for a job interview or something, just let me know.”

Regina thanked her for the offer, mind already whirring as she began to wonder whether she and Emma could at last spend some time together alone, outside the shelter. Much as she liked the snatched moments they got in Emma’s office, Regina was soon tiring of the awkward secretive nature. Sure, there was something thrilling about being pressed gently up against the blonde’s desk, hands running up and down her thighs as lips melded against her own, but she needed more. She needed more of Emma, in fact. And she was eager to experience the blonde away from the shelter too.

There had been a marked difference in the other woman when they were at the zoo. Regina had noticed how the blonde’s grip tightened in her own when they reached large groups of people, loosening again as they regained some space. Emma too was reluctant to talk to strangers, prompting Regina to be the one who bought their tickets and ordered their ice creams. The counsellor’s confidence and composure in the shelter, where she so clearly felt in her element, faded as she stepped out into the harsh, bustling real world.

It was interesting, intriguing and something Regina wanted to understand. Beyond that, there was something deep inside her that wanted to help Emma. She didn’t even know if that was the right thing to think. Did Emma need help? But Regina felt the urge to, in any way possible, make the blonde feel more relaxed and comfortable wherever they were.

By the time they got back to the shelter, Regina had a fully formed plan of where she wanted to take Emma on their upcoming date. She had only been half listening to Marian as they returned to the shelter and waved the woman off with a vague “see you later,” as she approached the reception desk.

“Hey Ursula,” Regina smiled at the dark-skinned woman who was sat behind the desk.

“Regina, hi,” Ursula replied. “How is everything going? I’ve not seen you for a few days. How is Henry finding his new school?”

“He’s enjoying it, for the most part,” Regina said. “This morning he was a little reluctant but it’s Monday, so I understand.”

Ursula laughed. “Yeah, I feel you. Mondays suck.”

Regina nodded but as she did so, she wondered when she would be in a position to complain about Mondays. When would she be able to start applying to jobs? Her CV was lingering, half-finished on the shelter’s laptop. “Is Emma here?” she asked, glancing past Ursula to the closed office door.

“No, Mondays are her day off,” Ursula replied. “But can I help? Or do you want me to pass on a message?”

“It’s fine, I’ll catch her tomorrow,” Regina said, hoping the disappointment she felt wasn’t obvious. She had forgotten that Emma didn’t work Mondays. In fact, it was the day Emma went to see Archie. To talk about her, them, their past.

“Are you sure you’re ok?”

Regina blinked, refocusing on the concerned face before her. She had zoned out, eyes glazed over as she stared at Emma’s office. “Yes, I’m fine. Sorry, just thinking about, um, my CV. Emma was going to help me get it finished this week. Am I able to use the laptop to do what I can then she can help me finalise it next time she’s free?”

“Of course,” Ursala replied. “Do you know which one you saved the document to?”

Nodding, Regina recounted the make of the laptop and Ursula quickly retrieved it from the little stash of computers which were locked away in Emma’s office. “Remember, there’s no internet connection on this. Security issue. But if you need me to look anything up, just ask. I’m not as good at Emma at writing these things but I can help with some basics if you want to run anything by me.”

“Thanks,” Regina replied, tucking the machine under her arm and heading towards the common room. Five minutes later, a fresh mug of coffee beside her, she opened up the laptop and began her task.

Knees tucked up under her chin, arms wrapped around her shins, Emma regarded her therapist, considering his latest question carefully. The man waited patiently for her answer, fingers poised in a steeple grip as he leaned back in his own chair. He knew the question was heavy, the answer perhaps more important when it came to defining the blonde’s relationship than she realised. Was it too much? Had he pushed too far? But even as he wondered whether the question should have been saved for next week’s session, the woman in front of him began to nod.

“Yes, I think I have,” Emma said eventually. “At least, I’ve forgiven the Regina I know today. The woman who’s staying in my shelter, the woman I’m dating, I’ve forgiven that version of Regina. But I’m not so sure about seventeen-year-old Regina. I understand her, I guess. Talking to Regina over the past few weeks, understanding, in a way, what she was going through with her sexuality, I get it. But I can’t really forgive her for what she did to me. No matter what’s going on in your private life, no one has the right to treat another human the way she treated me.”

“And, moving forwards with this relationship, do you think there is enough of a separation between these two Reginas?”

“I think the fact that I am dating her answers that question. I’ll admit there was something between us back in high school but whatever I felt that night we kissed could never have amounted to anything because of our history. Now, with distance, with the changes we’ve both experienced in the decade since, we’re two different people. Most of the time I don’t associate the Regina I knew back then with the Regina I know now.”

“Most of the time,” Archie repeated. “But you do sometimes?”

“On occasion. Like when she laughed at me last week. It’s little things like that, I guess they’re triggering. They remind me of who she used to be, what she used to do. But when she realised I was upset, she was a completely different person to seventeen-year-old Regina. She was so apologetic and I could tell she regretting the fact that she had caused me pain. That was something I never saw back in Maine. She’s a different person now. I’m a different person. And I think, I hope, that means we have a chance. What … what do you think?”

As soon as the words were out of her mouth, Emma realised she didn’t want to know the answer. It was her relationship. Hers and Regina’s. Archie didn’t get a say. He didn’t get to judge them, to announce whether he thought they would succeed or fail. But she’d asked now; she had to listen to the answer.

“I think you are one of the most remarkable, compassionate and open-hearted people I’ve ever had the pleasure of knowing, Emma.”

Green eyes widened in surprise. What did that have to do with Regina? Archie smiled as he saw his patient’s reaction and continued to clarify what he meant.

“Your capacity for forgiveness, your willingness to look for the good in everyone, your ability to recognise that, as humans, we all make mistakes and do things we regret and can evolve to become better people. It’s rare, Emma. And I think it’s probably one of the reasons you’re so good at your job. There’s no judgement, no assumption. You take people as they are, in the moment, and treat them with kindness and respect. I’m not saying Regina doesn’t deserve a second chance with you but I do think she’s lucky that you are someone who thinks in the way you do. Few people would be as forgiving.”

“So you think … I mean, are you saying … What are you saying?” While she understood everything her therapist had said, Emma was struggling to understand how the glowing report of her personality was related to her relationship with Regina.

Archie smiled gently. “I’m saying I’m very happy for you and Regina. Whatever’s between you, it must be something very special for you both to be working to overcome your shared past. And if you’re both committed to working through an obstacle as seemingly insurmountable as this one, then I’m confident the two of you have a long future ahead.”

That evening, over a meal carefully prepared by Ruby, Emma recounted parts of the conversation she had had with her therapist, keen to get Ruby’s perspective as someone who knew her so well and had also seen her with Regina.

“Yeah, that make sense,” Ruby nodded, spearing some more food onto her fork. “I don’t know if I could forgive Brad Turner but you’re a better person than me.”

“Who’s Brad Turner?”

“Some little prick who bullied me in primary school. He used to think it was funny to tie my shoelaces to the chair legs and then pull up my skirt when I fell over. But if he walked into my life tomorrow, I wouldn’t be asking him out on a date. In fact, I may punch him in the face, belated payback for being a misogynistic dick.”

“It’s different,” Emma reasoned. “I mean, it is different, right?” Suddenly, Emma wasn’t so sure.

“Yes,” Ruby assured. “Yes, it’s different. I’ve seen what you and Regina had. And while I didn’t see what she was like in high school, from what you’ve told me, her behaviour sounds like it was more in response to her own confusion about being gay. Or however she labels herself. She saw someone who was confident and comfortable with their sexuality and that made her angry at herself for not being able to accept her feelings. It’s not a defence; a little bit of me will hate her for what she did to you. But I can’t deny that she makes you happy. It’s obvious to anyone who sees you together.”

Emma couldn’t stop the smile from spreading over her face. “She does make me happy. And most of the time, I don’t even think about our past. But sometimes I do and it’s like I’ve been kicjed in the stomach. How can emotions be felt physically? Isn’t that weird? The way a thought in my head can translate to my tummy.”

One of the things Ruby liked most about her friend was the straightforward way she saw the world. And so often Emma made wonderfully valid points Ruby hadn’t even considered until the blonde pointed it out.

“You’re feeling some pretty big emotions,” she shrugged. “It’s normal, don’t worry. And as long as most of the time you are happy and those times when you’re not grinning like a loon aren’t making you want to break up with Regina. I mean, that’s not how you feel, right? When you think about Maine, you don’t suddenly want to run away from her and have her out of your life again, do you?”

“No, I don’t feel like that at all. I feel like I want to explain to her how she made me feel back then, how her actions hurt me, how they affected me.”

“Have you two ever talked about your past in such frank terms?”

Emma shook her head, knowing instinctively what Ruby was going to suggest next. But the redhead seemed to realise words weren’t needed. Emma knew what had to happen. She knew she had to address these lingering feelings with Regina head on before their relationship could progress any further. Sure, the two of them had touched on the subject, awkward mentions of how their past had influenced the women they had both become. But there was yet to be a direct, upfront conversation between them with this new dynamic. Emma was yet to tell her whole truth.

“Well, maybe next Monday evening you can return to your usual bailing habit of leaving me to eat alone and meet Regina at the shelter to talk.”

“No,” Emma said shortly, mind made up. “I can’t wait that long. Tomorrow. I’ll talk to her about it tomorrow.”

Chapter Text

The second hand looked like it was crawling even slower than usual around the clock face. Except it wasn’t. She knew that. Time was constant. It was impossible to slow time. Yet, as Emma watched the thin sliver of metal glide around the clock face, she began to doubt that. Forcing her eyes back to her computer, she tried to focus on the document in front of her. It was a new piece of legislation which was being proposed with regards to marriage annulments and she needed to know its content to enable her to best advise the women in the shelter.

Eyes flicked back to the clock. “Seriously?” she muttered under her breath. How had only two minutes passed? She glowered at the clock, whose face remained unchanged except for the smooth movement of the second hand. Emma returned to her work, occasionally scribbling some notes on the pad beside her laptop. Three more minutes. Seventeen minutes to go.

A knock on the door startled Emma, wrenching her mind from the conversation she knew she was due to have. “Come in,” she called after she had composed herself.

Ella’s head appeared around the edge of the door. “Hey, there’s a phone call for you. Do you want me to forward it? I know you said you didn’t want to be disturbed.”

“Who is it?”


Emma frowned and reached for her cell phone. Sure enough, there were several messages and four missed calls from her best friend. “Yeah, I’ll take it,” Emma said, a feeling of dread overwhelming her and cursing herself for putting her phone on silent.

Seconds later, the desk phone rang. Emma picked it up before it had even finished the first trill sound. “Hey, are you ok?”

“Yes, no, I mean, yes I’m fine,” Ruby said, her voice thick in the way that Emma knew mean the redhead was crying.

“What’s wrong?”

“It’s Granny. She’s gone downhill. Doctors say she might not make it through the night. I’m on my way to the hospital now.”

“Shit, do you want me to come and meet you?” Emma asked. She knew that was the right thing to say because Ruby had asked her the same question when her foster grandmother, David’s mother, had been sick.

“No, it’s fine. There’s nothing you can do. I just wanted to let you know. And, well, I’m supposed to be working tonight.”

“I’ll cover you,” Emma said without thinking. Much as she hated changing plans, she hated the idea that her best friend was upset even more. “Do you need me to do anything? Can I help?”

“No, I just want to be with her,” Ruby sobbed.

“Where are you?”

“In an Uber,” Ruby replied. “The driver thinks I’m crazy.”

“You’re upset,” Emma reasoned. “Are you nearly at the hospital?”

Ruby nodded, then remembered she was on a phone call, so her flatmate couldn’t see her answer. “Yes, about five minutes away.”

“Ok, give your granny my love. And if you do need anything, ask me. I can drive over tomorrow morning after Ursula comes on shift if you like?”

“Thanks, I’m sorry to leave you in the lurch. I know you hate change.”

“Don’t be absurd,” Emma replied. “There’s nothing to be sorry for. Go and be with your granny and let me know of any news. I hope she pulls through.”

Ruby dissolved into tears. Emma couldn’t understand anything more which came through the speaker on her phone and eventually the call was disconnected. She stared at the blank screen for a moment, trying to gather herself, to understand what she was feeling. She didn’t know Ruby’s granny that well but the woman had always been kind to her. And death was always sad, right? That said, she didn’t know for sure that the old woman was going to die but from the sounds of it, things didn’t look good.

No, Emma was sad for her friend, for the imminent loss. Ruby had been raised by her grandmother and the woman was the only family member she had left. Emma might not have her own biological family and couldn’t remember her early years in the orphanage before the Nolans adopted her but she understood loneliness. It was a feeling which consumed her childhood, crawling into her bones, coupled with a sense of not belonging. Compounded, Emma had been on edge, unsure of herself for much of her life, probably exacerbated by her autism. It was only after she started seeing her therapist and learning why her brain worked differently, alongside reaching an age where she could understand and contextualise what had happened to her as a child. Only then did she start, for the first time in her life, to understand and like herself. Well, most of the time.

Green eyes darted back to the clock. Less than one minute to go until her lunch break. Until the conversation. On the back of the phone call from Ruby, Emma suddenly wondered whether now was the right time. Should she wait? Should she go to the hospital in her lunch hour instead? To be with Ruby? But Ruby had said she didn’t need to go. Was that just the polite thing to say? Did Ruby actually want her there?

But Emma had something she needed to do, needed to say. Standing up as soon as the second hand glided across the number twelve, Emma slotted her cell into her back pocket and left her office. “I’m just going for lunch,” she informed Ella as she passed.

“Sure, is Ruby ok?” her colleague asked.

“No, her grandmother is dying,” Emma replied shortly.

“Are you going to the hospital?”

“No,” Emma said, unaware of how callous she sounded. Another feature of her autism. It wasn’t that Emma didn’t care. She cared deeply for Ruby and hated seeing her friend upset. But there was something upsetting Emma right now too and her brain appeared to want to focus solely on the conversation she had been planning since her discussion with her flatmate the night before.

She walked quickly down the corridor towards the common area. It was quiet; most women either at work or out and about for the day. She scanned the room but couldn’t see Regina. Her stomach growled. Making her way to the kitchen, she quickly pulled out the ingredients she needed to make a sandwich and set to work. Cheese and ham placed neatly on the bottom piece of bread, Emma added the second and cut the sandwich perfectly in half from one corner to another. Triangles were better than rectangles. Dumping both pieces on a plate, Emma headed back to the corridor and towards Regina’s bedroom.

Outside, she hesitated. One, two, three, four, five, pause. One, two, three, four, five, pause. Knuckles rapped on the wood before she picked up half her lunch and took a bite. She was still chewing when the door swung open. “Emma, hi,” Regina beamed.

“We need to talk,” Emma said at once. “Can I come in?”

The smile on Regina’s lips faltered but she nodded and stepped aside to allow the blonde to enter. Emma did so, glancing around and taking a seat on the single chair which was in the room. Regina remained standing by the door.

“Um, is everything ok?” she asked when Emma took another bite of her sandwich without saying anything.

“Ruby’s granny is dying.”

“What? Is Ruby ok?”

“No,” Emma replied, frowning at the stupidity of the question. “But I wanted to talk to you about something else. About us, actually.”

“Oh, ok,” Regina said slowly, sitting down on the edge of Henry’s bed. “So, is everything ok with us?”

“I need to tell you something.”

Regina swallowed and nodded, a sense of dread filling what felt like her very soul. “Ok.”

“It’s about Maine. Actually, it’s about what happened after I left Maine. After prom, after we …”

“Kissed,” Regina supplied when the word didn’t form on Emma’s lips.

“Yes. And then you said those things about it being a joke, about it being gross, about everything you said to me being a lie.”

“Emma, I didn’t mean them,” Regina said at once. “I was scared that my so-called friends would realise that I was attracted to girls. I was embarrassed about my sexuality, although I know I shouldn’t have been. I’m sorry I said what I did but you know it wasn’t true, right?”

“I know that now, yes,” Emma nodded. “But at the time, I believed what you said. I believed you had done what you did for a joke, to trick me. I left that room confused and hurt and angry and I ran. I ran home, I ran to my bedroom and I cried all night. Then next morning my foster parents tried to get me to talk about what had happened but I couldn’t; I shut down.”

“Emma, I -”

“Please, let me say this,” the blonde interrupted. Regina snapped her mouth closed and nodded her agreement. “We drove back to New York, back to our old house which had been rented out for the two years we’d been away. It was supposed to be familiar, comforting to be back in my childhood bedroom but I felt like a stranger in my own home. I stopped talking. I barely ate. My foster parents didn’t know what to do. My therapist came to visit me each week but I wouldn’t say a word. I just sat in my room all day. I read, I listened to music sometimes but I wasn’t really taking any of it in. And I slept. I slept so much that summer.”

“Fall came and I was supposed to go college. I had a place at NYU to study psychology but I deferred it. I couldn’t leave the house, let alone attend lectures. My foster parents got really worried. I overheard them one day discussing whether to have me committed to a psych unit. I freaked out, screamed at them about abandoning me, about me being unloveable and not having a place in the world and ran back up to my room, barricading myself in and only coming out in the middle of the night to eat and use the bathroom. But at least I’d spoken. They saw that as progress even though the things I said made them even more concerned.”

The words pierced Regina’s heart. She knew why Emma had said those things. They were the insults and teasing remarks she and her former friends had thrown at a vulnerable teenage girl. Guilt welled up inside her as tears began to form in her eyes. Emma, however, wasn’t looking at Regina and continued, gaze focused on the half of a sandwich left on the plate, balanced on her knees.

“My therapist started coming to the house each day. I wouldn’t let him in to see me and he used to stand in the corridor and talk at me through the door. After a month, he told my foster parents he was worried and wanted a second opinion. But the other therapist who came couldn’t get me to talk either. In the end, she gave up and Archie returned, coming every other day and just talking about anything and everything, waiting for me to say something in return.”

“And did you?” Regina asked.

“Eventually. It was almost Christmas, I think. There was snow falling outside the window. I remember watching the flakes as I listened to Archie. I always listened to him, his words soothed me somehow but they weren’t enough to make me come out of my room. I was safe in my room. No one could hurt me in there. And no one could leave me. But eventually, over time, I started to take in what he said, the shattered pieces of my self-confidence slowly rebuilding. I remember the look of shock on his face when the door opened at last. He came in and sat on my bed and we started to talk. He was the first person I’d really spoken to since you that night. Almost six months had passed. My throat hurt, my voice sounded strange to my own ears. He stayed a long time, late into the night. I didn’t tell him what had happened that night at prom at first but a few weeks later I confided in him.”

Emma paused and licked her dry lips, remembering that harsh winter. She barely left the house, her body weakened from months cooped up in her bedroom. Slowly, she regained her strength and started to eat meals with her foster parents. Once or twice, she walked to the local park with her foster father as the warmth of spring seeped into the air. By summer, she had started jogging again, her condition limiting but the endorphins she released from the exercise felt invigorating.

“I went to Manhattan College in the end, rather than NYU. I wasn’t confident enough to live away from home that first year so I stayed with my foster parents and drove in each day. I didn’t attend all my lectures. I had good and bad days. Sometimes the thought of leaving the house was too overwhelming. I had panic attacks too, particularly before seminars when I knew I might be asked a question and have to speak in front of a group. But then I met Ruby and I made my first friend. My first real friend, anyway. We moved in to a crummy student house together in second year, not far from where my foster parents were and I used to come home at weekends. Ruby was a lifesaver. She built me back up, she helped me to learn how to live independently. Shopping, cooking, things most people take for granted but for me seemed like insurmountable obstacles.”

“It took time but eventually I regained some sense of self. And then I met Becky. She was my first girlfriend. It took me a long time to accept that she really did like me; that she wasn’t just leading me on for a prank. Ruby, my foster mom, everyone had to tell me it was real, that Becky really did want to be in a relationship with me. That self-doubt slowly ebbed away and we started dating. It was the first time in my life I allowed someone into my life in such an intimate way. It was scary but exciting and Becky was amazing. We broke up after college when she moved out of state but it wasn’t the confidence knock I always feared the end of a relationship would be. And I still had Ruby and my foster parents. I was finally back on track and life was good. I started working, I set up Swan’s Shelter, my life was exactly as I wanted it to be. And then you showed up.”

A tear dripped down Regina’s cheek. She had no idea where this conversation was going but she couldn’t imagine it was anywhere good. “And me showing up was a bad thing?”

“At the time, yes,” Emma nodded. “I was stunned, to be honest. Seeing you was a trigger, it sent me back to that dark time. Not just Maine but the months which followed, a time in my life where I didn’t know myself. Not having a sense of self is a scary experience. I hated who I was during that time and I hated you for making me into that person. I don’t hate you now,” Emma added quickly, “but I realised that you didn’t know about that chapter in my life and I think it’s important you have all the facts and understand everything in my past if … if we’re going to have a future together.”

Regina’s mouth gaped open like something out of a comic strip. “A future? You still want a future with me?”

“I do,” Emma nodded. “And I know it doesn’t make sense but I do want us to be together. I’ve spent much of my life working on my sense of self. I probably know who I am more than most people know who they are. It’s part of the autism, I suppose. I’m over-analytical. But it also means I know what I do and don’t want. I don’t want our past to affect our future, Regina. I want to move forwards. I don’t want to look at you and think about that time but there’s not much I can do to stop it. My memories are always going to be there so when something happens with us to make me feel anxious or self-conscious, I’m going to slip to a dark place. But you can pull me back. You make me feel safe and wanted and those are two really important things for me.”

“But I also made you feel unwanted, unloveable,” Regina frowned. “I don’t understand how you could possibly feel the way you say you do about me if I’ve also done such damage in your life.”

“I don’t understand it either,” Emma admitted. “But I do accept it. Whatever you’ve made me feel, good or bad, it’s always been powerful. You had a profound impact on me when I was a teenager and yes, it wasn’t positive. But now, after years of self-development and personal growth, your reconnection with me is completely different. It is positive now, Regina. You make me happy, really happy. But before we move forwards, I knew I needed to tell you everything. This isn’t just about me, it’s about you too and it wasn’t fair for you not to know all the demons in my past.”

“Demons?” Fresh tears leaked down Regina’s red cheeks.

“No, not you,” Emma said quickly. “You’re not a demon. I meant psychological demons.”

“That I caused.”

Emma cocked her head. “Perhaps, once upon a time. But I conquered them, for the most part. That said, if this is something you need to think about, if you need time to process what I’ve told you, that’s fine. In fact, I ought to go and finish my lunch anyway before I start working again.” She nodded towards the half a sandwich, forgotten on the plate on her lap.

“So, what does this mean for us?” Regina asked as Emma got to her feet, plate in hand.

“It means I want to be with you. I’ve forgiven you for what you did in Maine, for what came afterwards. I’m happy, I’m confident in myself, for the most part, and I have come to terms with my past. But I need to know whether you can forgive yourself and get to a place where we can both move on from our history and be on the same page when it comes to our future.”

“And what do you see? In our future?”

Emma reached out and cupped Regina’s jaw, eyes scanning the beautiful woman’s tearstained face. “I see you, me and Henry, my own little family. We’re happy, we’re supportive, we’re committed and we’re … in love.”

Fingers slid further backwards, curling around the nape of Regina’s neck as the blonde pulled her gently closer. Regina’s red-rimmed eyes closed just before Emma’s lips brushed against her own. The kiss was tender, short but full of emotion. Emma was the one who broke it as she stepped away and turned towards the door.

“I’m working Ruby’s shift tonight,” Emma said just before she stepped out into the corridor. “Maybe we can have dinner? Talk?”

Regina nodded mutely as she watched Emma close the door, leaving the brunette alone with her jumbled, confused, painful thoughts.

Chapter Text

Regina walked behind Henry and Roland, tuned out of the conversation the two boys were having on their way back from school that afternoon. She’d been tuned out of everything around her since Emma had left her bedroom at lunchtime, the revelations swirling around in her head, endless and all consuming as she struggled to come to terms with what she had learned.

Guilt had been the first emotion she felt, understandably. But there was also myriad more, including anguish for what Emma had gone through, irrespective of who or what caused it. She hated the thought of Emma being upset or in pain and regretted not only that she was the reason but also that she could do nothing to take that pain away. The idea of Emma being upset made Regina instantly want to protect, to make everything better. The fact that she was the cause just made it even harder to come to terms with.

And then there was disbelief. She was in awe; stunned at the fact that even after everything, Emma seemed to be willing to give them a chance. She had, somehow, forgiven Regina. And now she was asking Regina to forgive herself.

That seemed like an insurmountable challenge. Regina already hated herself for what she had done to Emma. Now, with the true depth of the pain revealed, how was she ever supposed to come to terms with that? And then there was the fact that the conversation had brought up all the other memories of high school. Alongside recollections which made her squirm with embarrassment and shame at the way she had treated Emma, there were also memories of self-hate.

Unlike Emma, Regina’s hatred came from within, rather than pressures from outside. Her refusal to accept herself, to accept her sexuality had been something she hadn’t truly faced. The one night she had allowed herself to feel, to admit that she was attracted to women had ended in her destroying Emma’s self-esteem and turning the spark she felt between them into a joke. All further sexual interactions with women had been at college, fuelled by copious amounts of alcohol. Each morning, after what were only ever one-night-stands, she’d tug on her discarded clothes and creep from the room, her gut twisting in discomfort at what she had allowed herself to do.

The irony was, she didn’t know where such distain for her sexuality came from. Her parents had been liberal enough and they doted on their daughter. Had she come out to them, she was confident they would support her. Perhaps it was high school and the way in which the few ‘out’ students were whispered about, although few experienced ongoing bullying. Except Emma. And that was led solely by Regina and her friends.

“Henry, Roland, hold my hand please while we cross the road,” Regina said, on autopilot as they reached the crossing, not far now from the shelter.

As soon as they reached the far side of the road, each boy dropped the woman’s hand they had held and hurried on ahead, recommencing their conversation and allowing Regina to delve back into her thoughts as they mad their way home.

Yes, Regina had known she was attracted to women, but it was only under certain circumstances that she would allow herself to indulge in her sexuality. And then college was over and she was back in Maine, accepting a proposal of a man she barely knew. She could never regret the marriage because that would mean regretting Henry. But she had always wondered why her father had agreed to it. Leo was his business partner, for goodness sake. Surely her parents were not comfortable with the age gap between them. But they said nothing and the wedding went ahead and she slipped into married life, conforming to all those societal norms which were mirrored in every mundane home in their suburban street.

Her attraction to women wasn’t forgotten but she was married. Regardless of how she felt, she was married to Leo. Even as their marriage disintegrated, she never considered straying. That wasn’t something she would ever do to a partner, no matter how bad the relationship became. And perhaps her sexuality, or the label she occasionally had toyed with in college after copious shots of tequila, became less important, fading into a part of her past which was no longer relevant.

Until it was. Until she saw Emma. Until she stood in the spot she stood in now, pressing the entry code on the intercom and herding Roland and Henry back into Swan’s Shelter. Everything changed for Regina the night she stepped over the threshold, although she didn’t know it at the time. It changed in a different way to the colossal upheavel leaving her husband had been. That had been necessary; for her safety and Henry’s. The change Emma inspired in her was different. Better, perhaps. But scary. With Emma before her that first morning, and those familiar green eyes she had tried to forget over the past fourteen years, she was forced to remember herself, remember who she had been, who she hadn’t been.

“Mom, Roland’s having for pizza tonight. Can I go?”

Pulled back to the present, Regina snapped her gaze from Emma’s closed office door to her son who was stood in front of her beside the door which led to the back of the shelter. “Um, maybe. Have you been invited?”

“Yes, Mom told me I could ask Hen to join us,” Roland piped up. “Can he?”

“It’s a Tuesday,” Regina frowned. “You’ve both got school tomorrow.”

Roland shrugged as if to say, ‘not my decision’, and then turned to the door they were waiting for Regina to open.

“Let me speak to your mom and we’ll decide,” Regina said eventually, aware that Marian would finish her shift at four and be back at the shelter shortly after that. She now often picked Roland up from school to cover the woman’s work life. Briefly she wondered when she too would get a job and realised she still had to complete her CV before she could start applying for work. Maybe tomorrow, she mused as she entered the security code and the buzzer sounded the door’s release. Roland and Henry pushed through and raced off down the corridor, followed by Regina.

As the door to the rear of the property shut behind her, Regina didn’t see Emma appearing from her office to speak with Ella.

‘How do you reply to a text about your friend’s gran dying?’

Emma scanned the Google results for her phrase, tapping a pen against her bottom lip as she did so. Picking an article which looked fairly reputable, she began to read, glancing every now and then at Ruby’s most recent text to make sure each section was relevant.

It was times like these when Emma wished she better understood emotions. She understood how she herself felt; that was why she had been so effectively able to verbalise her past with Regina that lunch time. Emma had spent months, years, of her life working on herself and understanding how she felt, why she felt how she felt and what to do with the feelings she had. But other people’s feelings? They were a little more complicated.

She had considered calling Ruby to speak with her but the prospect of saying the wrong thing to her distraught best friend made her decide against that. So she chose to text a reply. The problem was, she didn’t know how to. And so Google had come into play, the endless source of information, both reputable and not so reputable, helping her to craft a message with the right tone.

Ten minutes and several rewrites later, she pressed send. Looking up at the clock, she saw that it was almost the end of Ella’s shift. And, she noted, time for dinner. Standing up and stretching, she made her way through to the main reception area.

“You can head off if you want, Ella,” she offered. “It’s quiet and I’m staying all night.”

“Are you sure? You’ve been working all day. I bet one of the other girls would cover if you asked.”

Emma nodded. “I know but I’m fine. I told Ruby I’d do it. Enjoy the rest of your evening. Say hello to Alex for me.”

Assuring her boss that she would pass the message onto her daughter, Ella gathered her belongings and left, waving goodbye as she did so. As soon as she had disappeared, Emma locked her office and headed into the back of the shelter in search of some food, trying to remember what she had in the stock cupboards which the women used. She hadn’t expected to be at work over dinner and had therefore not planned a meal. Before she reached the kitchen, however, she met Marian.

“Hey, how’s the job going?” Emma asked, not having seen the woman much since she had started working at the hotel.”

“Great,” Marian smiled. “I’m just about to order some pizzas with my first pay check actually. Do you want in?”

“I wouldn’t want to intrude,” Emma said at once.

“Nonsense, Regina and Henry are joining too. We were going to go out but since it’s a school night, we decided take out was easier for the boys.”

“Oh, um, ok,” Emma replied.

“Great, what do you want?”

“Margherita please,” Emma said, deciding to play it safe.

“On it,” Marian said. “Regina’s watching the boys in there.” She jabbed her thumb over her shoulder in the direction of the common room. “I’m just going around the corner to that little Italian to order it. I’m sure Regina wouldn’t mind you waiting with her. I’ll be back as soon as possible.”

As Marian hurried away, Emma suddenly wondered if Regina would mind. She had suggested dinner with the brunette that night but it was an option; a choice which was Regina’s to make. And now Emma had gotten herself an invite to a meal with Regina and her friend and their sons, all but forcing Regina to speak with Emma when, in fact, the woman may not want to even see her.

“Shit,” Emma muttered to herself. But there was no backing out now. One, two, three, four, five, pause. One, two, three, four, five, pause. She took a deep breath and continued her walk into the common room.

Henry waved at her as soon as she entered, almost as if he had been watching for her to arrive. Regina looked up from a book she was reading. There was a pause and then a brief smile. Emma forced a grin in return, waved at Henry and then headed to the kitchen. If Regina wanted to speak with her, she should have the opportunity to approach Emma rather than the blonde plonking herself down beside her and forcing the conversation.

She found some long life apple juice in the cupboard and two lonely ice cubes in the freezer. Juice and ice in a glass, she set about refilling the tray.


The plastic tray clattered to the bottom of the sink, the water splashing out of its little capsules.

“Hey,” Emma muttered, glancing over her shoulder to see Regina. “Sorry, hang on.”

Regina nodded and leaned against the counter as she watched Emma refill the tray and then carry it carefully over to the freezer, walking slowly so as not to spill any water on the floor. Once in place, she straightened up. There was a pause. Unseen by Regina, Emma closed her eyes and mouthed: One, two, three, four, five, pause.

“Hi, sorry. How was your afternoon?” she asked as she turned around.

“Full of thoughts,” Regina said with a coy smile. “Yours?”

“I had a lot of work,” Emma admitted. “Ruby’s granny isn’t going to make it.”

“Oh, I’m sorry Emma,” Regina said, immediately forgetting the emotional ordeal she had been going through. “How’s Ruby?”

“Not great,” Emma said. “This is her only family member.”

“God, that’s so hard,” Regina sighed. “If there’s anything I can do, please tell me.”

“Thanks,” Emma replied, realising that she’d texted very similar words to Ruby minutes earlier. “Um, so, Marian kinda asked me to join you guys for pizza. Is that ok? I mean, you’ve had a day full of thoughts. Do you want me to join or -”

“Yes,” Regina interrupted. “Yes, I want you to join. In fact, I was going to come and find you as soon as Marian came back with the pizzas. I’m not really hungry and, well, we need to talk.”

Emma swallowed thickly. “Is that the ‘we need to talk’ which ends things?” She might not be great with other people’s emotions but she’d watched a lot of television.

“No,” Regina said at once.

Letting out a sigh of relief, Emma nodded and smiled. “Good. Because I don’t want things to end.”

“Me neither,” Regina said, glancing around and making sure no one was close enough to overhear them. But with the television on in the background and the common room fairly empty since it was still quite early for dinner, they were in no danger. “But we do need to talk.”

“After pizza?” Emma suggested. “My office?”

“I’ll meet you there after Henry’s gone to sleep.”

The next two hours dragged. Marian seemed to take forever to return with the pizza, during which time Emma worked in her office and Regina watched some colourful cartoon with the boys. Then the pizzas seemed to take forever to eat, particularly for Regina who wasn’t very hungry. Henry deliberated over which story he wanted read to him for well over five minutes. And then insisted Regina read it to him again when she reached the end and he was still wide awake. Eventually, however, his lids dropped closed and she eased herself off the bed. With Marian having promised to keep an eye out for Henry, Regina checked her make-up in the small mirror on the back of the door, dimmed the light and slipped from the room.

Emma called out for her to enter as soon as her knuckles rapped on the wood. Both women were impatient, Regina noted. She turned the handle and stepped inside, closing the door behind her with a soft click.

“Hey,” she said, suddenly shy as she saw Emma getting to her feet behind the desk.

“Hey,” Emma replied. The blonde made a move as if to step towards the brunette but then faltered. Regina hesitated too. The day had been a lot; her mind was still whirling with thoughts and questions but that didn’t stop her body from craving the blonde. After a few seconds, she crossed the room, rounding the desk for the first time and wrapping her arms around Emma. The blonde let out a sigh of relief as she felt Regina embrace her tightly, her own arms coiling their way around Regina’s back.

“I’m sorry,” Regina whispered. “For everything.”

Four words. Tiny and yet huge at the same time. Emma didn’t say anything. She just held Regina tighter and buried her face in the silky dark hair. It was Regina who broke their hug eventually, pulling back and sliding her hands to rest on Emma’s waist. Wide brown eyes peered up into sparkling green ones.

“I don’t know how you did it,” Regina sighed. “Forgave me, I mean. After everything, I don’t understand how one human can have such compassion for another person who’s treated them so poorly.”

“I don’t understand it either,” Emma admitted. “But I know it to be true. The question is, do you forgive yourself.”

“I have a lot of things to forgive,” Regina said, stepping a little further back from Emma, needing to keep her head straight. “The things I did to you, to myself. I was unkind to many people in my life, you included. But I was also unkind to myself. I hated myself at times, not just for what I did to you but for who I was. Who I am.”

“Your sexuality?” Emma asked quietly.

“Yes,” Regina nodded. “And I don’t know why. I don’t know where this lack of acceptance came from. All I know is that when I was a teenager, the idea of being gay terrified me.”

“And now? Does it terrify you now?”

Regina shook her head. “Only three things terrify me now. The idea of something happening to Henry. Leo showing up in our lives again.” The brunette stopped, eyes suddenly darting away from Emma and focusing on a faint stain on the grey carpet in the corner of the room.

After a few more seconds, a cool fingertip brushed the underside of her chin, coaxing her gaze back up. “What else?” Emma asked when their eyes locked once more. “What else terrifies you?”

“Losing you,” Regina said, lip trembling. “And I know that’s crazy and it’s too big and too fast but, God, Emma, the idea of you not being in my life scares the shit out of me. I don’t know why and I can’t explain it but I can’t imagine my life without you now.”

“And you don’t have to, I’m right here,” Emma said, sliding her whole hand up to cup Regina’s jaw as she stepped closer. “I’m right here, Regina.”

“But will you always be?”

“I … I can’t promise that.” Emma admitted. “Just like you can’t always promise you’ll be there for me. Life is unpredictable and neither of us know the future. But I can promise you that I will always be honest with you, that I will never intentionally hurt you and that I hope our individual paths continue to keep us together. Is that ok? Is that … enough?”

“Yes,” Regina nodded. “Yes, it’s enough. This is all enough. It’s too much, it’s more than I deserve, it’s -”

“No, don’t say that,” Emma said firmly. “You deserve to be happy. Everyone has made mistakes in their past. You’ve made yours. I’ve made some too. But that’s the past and as long as we recognise our past mistakes as wrong and attempt to make up for them, we deserve the chance of a happy future.”

Regina reached up and threaded her fingers through Emma’s hair which had been released from its usual pony tail. “You’re amazing, you know that?”

“People are amazing,” Emma corrected. “I constantly marvel at the women who come through my doors. Their strength, their resilience, their love and commitment to their children. And the day you arrived, well, that was something I wasn’t expecting and this,” she glanced down at the non-existent space between their bodies, “this is amazing too.”

There were no more words needed. Regina rocked onto her toes and pressed her lips against Emma’s. The blonde slid her hand to the nape of the shorter woman’s neck and pulled her closer, feeling Regina’s fingernails scrape tenderly against her scalp. Her own played with the soft downy hair which lay against olive skin.

Lips parted, tongues touched, a delicate dance beginning as the kiss deepened. Emma rested her other hand in the small of Regina’s back, encouraging the woman’s body against her curves. They fit, she had noted during their kisses, the contours of their figures seemingly designed to press tightly against one another. A soft moan left Regina’s lips, swallowed by the kiss which was heating up. Emma could feel her body reacting as it always did to Regina but this time was different. There was a need, a hunger which had started, low in her belly, the heat rising steadily.

She turned Regina slightly, pressing the woman up against the side of her desk. This was nothing new, and yet the way she pushed her hips, pinning Regina there, was a little more insistent than before. Regina groaned again, one hand now coming to grasp at Emma’s ass, a silent encouragement. Without communicating with anything other than their lips and hands, Emma helped Regina to sit up on the desk, legs now parted to allow Emma to stand in their crux.

A little more space was now between their bodies and yet somehow it felt more intimate. Emma’s hands slid up and down Regina’s sides, feeling the dip of her waist, the flare of her hips, the dip of her waist again and the slight ridge of the edge of her bra. I wonder what colour it is, Emma’s brain supplied as Regina’s fingertips slid, for just a moment, under the waistband of her pants. Her core twitched, the involuntary movement sparked by the thought, the teasing, of Regina’s hand moving further south.

Thighs tightened against her own, Regina’s hips shifting slightly. Was the brunette as turned on as Emma was? Did her body react in the same way Emma’s did? Was her heart pounding, her breath catching, her body thrumming with desire? Regina’s thighs shifted again, the heel of one leg curling around to rub against the inside of Emma’s leg, just below her knee. It wasn’t the most erotically charged spot on her body but coming from Regina, Emma’s brain short circuited as she felt the warm flesh through … when had Regina taken her shoes off?

“Wait,” Emma said, pulling back breathless.

Regina leaned away too, hands splayed on the desk behind her to support her weight as she uncurled her leg from around Emma’s calf. The stance pressed her breasts outwards, towards Emma. The blonde swallowed with some difficulty and forced herself to drag her gaze up to hooded brown eyes.

“Not here,” she said. “Not yet.”

The brunette nodded her agreement. The two of them deserved more than for their first time to be on top of Emma’s desk, hurried and fumbled, under stark strip lights with the risk of any one of the shelter’s guests interrupting at any given moment.

“Not yet,” Regina repeated. “But soon?”

Emma smirked. “Yes. Please, I mean, if you’re ready. I don’t want to pressure you or anything. We can wait. As long as you want. Just, yeah, whenever you’re ready.”

Regina chuckled at the sudden insecurity. “I think we’ve both waited long enough. But, that said, let’s wait until there’s a bed nearby. Until then, is there any harm in us kissing?”

Before the word was even out of her mouth, Emma was back between her legs, both hands cupping the sharp jawline as their lips fused together once more. A laugh bubbled from the brunette, swallowed by pale lips as she pushed herself up once more and joined Emma’s enthusiasm for their resumed kiss.

Chapter Text

The cool morning air revived her tired mind as she walked, in no particular hurry, along the streets which led from the shelter to the apartment. A smile graced her lips as she recalled the previous evening. Regina’s lips. Her body. The little moan which escaped each time Emma’s fingers stroked the delicate lobes of her ears. Her eyes, half open and filled with desire. The feel of her breasts pressed against her own.

Emma turned the corner into her street, trying to tamp down the heat which her memories had inspired. She understood why Regina wanted to wait. She wanted to wait too. She certainly didn’t want their first time to be uncomfortable or in a place which wasn’t intended for sex. Emma had never had sex outside of a bedroom. Why would you? Beds were for sex. She had never understood why Ruby and her various partners seemed to find the kitchen erotic. Emma had scrubbed every inch of that room three times over after walking in on her flatmate intertwined with someone whose name was long forgotten. She feared it wasn’t the only time that had happened.

No, Emma Swan didn’t have sex in weird places. And until a few weeks ago, she would have considered her office at the shelter a weird place to have sex. But the night before, with Regina in her arms, their lips fused together, Emma certainly would have waved aside any preconceptions if it meant she could be with Regina, finally. Except, they had stopped. And rightly so. She understood Regina’s reasoning and she was happy to wait until the right time.

It was new for her, however. To be with someone where logic and rationality, two mental states Emma held in high esteem, went out the window. Regina made her feel more, think less. It was almost, Emma scoffed to herself, the sort of love movies and books were made of.

She stopped dead in her tracks, the pedestrian behind her having to redirect their feet quickly to avoid colliding with her back, muttering something about carelessness as they passed. Emma ignored them, too focused on the revelation she had experienced. Love? Is that what this was? She’d loved Lily. And Becky. She’d loved both of her past girlfriends, she was sure of it. But this … it was different.

Resuming her steps, Emma found herself lost in thought as she entered her apartment building and crossed to the elevator. Was this true love? Like the kind which you read about in fairy tales and see in Hollywood movies? It was certainly different to what she’d experienced before. It was more, bigger, deeper, special. An uncontrollable smile spread over Emma’s face and by the time she stepped off the elevator she was grinning from ear to ear.

Unlocking the apartment, she tossed her keys into the side dish and then turned back to the door. She slid across the deadbolt. Then returned it to its open position. Locked again. Open. For a moment, her palm rested against the cool wood before she pushed away and turned towards the apartment. It was only when she took in the bundle of blankets on the couch that the smile finally slid from her lips.

“Ruby?” she asked, dumping her handbag on the armchair and crossing to her best friend whose head peeked out from beneath a mound of soft furnishings, tearstained and blotchy. “What happened?”

“She …,” Ruby choked, tears flooding down her cheeks. “Granny, she … she died, Emma.”

Instinct took over in light of such overwhelming emotions and Emma wrapped her arms around Ruby’s trembling form, the woman burying her face in Emma’s neck and sobbing even harder. Emma whispered how sorry she was and promised her friend everything was going to be ok. Because that’s what people in the movies did. That’s what Regina would do, she was sure.

The two friends stayed like that, curled up, for over an hour. Ruby just cried, occasionally mumbling incoherent words which Emma asked her to repeat and then gave up when she still couldn’t understand. She stroked up and down Ruby’s back, trying to soothe her. She got cramp in her arm, against which most of Ruby’s weight was leaning. But she ignored it, understanding that her physical discomfort was less important than the emotions her friend was feeling.

Because emotions hurt too. She knew that. Words hurt, feelings ached, just as much as that time when she was eleven and she’d fallen off the jungle gym and broken her arm. Ruby had the sort of pain which couldn’t be seen but which spread to every part of your body. Emma had felt that pain a lot. Loss, abandonment, loneliness. She understood. Her arms tightened around Ruby, holding her closer, silently telling her friend she was there and that she was going to be ok.

“She’s gone, Emma,” Ruby said at last, the first words the blonde had been able to recognise since she had been told what had happened.

“I know,” Emma replied. “I’m so sorry.”

“She just … died. One minute she was lying there, asleep. She was sick but she was alive. I was holding her hand. And then … I don’t even know what happened.” Ruby sat up a little and wiped her face on the blanket closest to her, the remains of mascara now smeared across her cheeks. “The machine she was hooked up to started flashing. Then it beeped more. Before I knew it, a doctor had arrived. And then another. They pushed me out of the way, started CPR.

“I was trying to find out what had happened, what they were doing to her. They didn’t say anything, just ignored me and then I felt someone trying to pull me out of the room. A nurse, I think. I was made to go into the corridor and this woman couldn’t tell me anything, just said we had to wait for the doctors to do their jobs. I asked her what was happening but she didn’t reply. I tried to look in through the window but there were so many bodies between me and Granny I couldn’t see anything. I guess it was a good thing, in hindsight. Anyway, the doctors all came out a few minutes later. Most of them just walked off down the corridor without even looking at me but one stayed and said … she told me she was sorry but that they’d been unable to restart her heart.”

“I’m sorry, Ruby. That sounds awful.”

“I was allowed back in the room them. She was just lying in the middle of the bed, her sheets were all messy and they’d torn her robe before trying to put it back on. It was so … undignified. She’d have hated it. I tried to make her look better. Brushed her hair a bit. You know how curly it was; I don’t think I helped, to be honest. And then I just sat there. With a dead body.”

Emma couldn’t help but wrinkle her nose at that. Death was not something she thought much about but the idea of being in the same space as a corpse sent chills down her spine.

“Then some orderlies came and wheeled her to the morgue and I had to sign a load of papers. I don’t even know what they were, what I was signing. No one told me and I wasn’t in a state to read them. And then I just walked outside, got in a cab and came here.”

Ruby looked up from the blanket where she had been picking at a loose thread and scanned the apartment, as if suddenly remembering where she was.

“Can I do anything to help?” Emma asked. “Do you want some tea?”

“I want to sleep,” Ruby replied. “I’m so tired.”

“Ok,” Emma said. “I’m going to sleep too.”

“Can we sleep here?” Ruby asked, sounding just like a small child. “I don’t want to be on my own.”

Emma hadn’t slept on the couch in years. Beds were for sleeping. And sex. Ignoring the inappropriate and unhelpful memory her brain supplied, Emma quickly counted to five, paused, and nodded. Sleeping on the couch was ok, if it was what Ruby needed.

Her friend offered her a weak smile before her eyes slid closed. Within moments, she was asleep, emotion and exhaustion overwhelming her body and mind. Emma watched her for a while, wondering how she was going to support Ruby through this bereavement. What would she need? How could Emma help? She’d have to ask Regina, she decided as she adjusted her seat slightly and tried to shift her arm into a more comfortable position without waking the redhead. Eventually, she settled down and closed her eyes. Sleep came eventually, but it was fitful, uncomfortable, and occasionally interrupted with sobs from the woman beside her.

“So, I have a favour to ask you,” Regina said as she walked up to the school with Marian later that afternoon.

“Go ahead.”

“Would you be able to watch Henry for me one evening this week or next week?”

“Sure, when?”

“What day would work for you? I’m flexible depending on your shifts. I just … need some time to be an adult, not a mom, you know?”

Marian nodded. “I understand. Work isn’t exactly fascinating but at least I’m not the person who has to wipe runny noses or tie shoelaces or make dinner. Don’t get me wrong, I love Roland more than anything in the world but …”

“You need a break,” Regina replied.

“Yeah,” Marian nodded. “So yes, I can definitely watch Henry for you for an evening. Have you got anything specific you want to do with your child-free time?”

Regina shook her head. There was no way she was going to tell Marian that she planned to see if Emma was available for a proper date which may or may not end in sex. The blonde didn’t want anyone in the shelter knowing and Regina respected that. Plus, she and Marian were becoming closer and Regina didn’t want to change that dynamic by revealing that she was in a relationship with a woman.

As soon as that thought came into her head, she scolded herself. She had no reason to believe that Marian would react negatively to the news. It was Regina herself who was projecting anticipated stigmas onto those in her life. She sighed, silently berating herself for the lack of acceptance.

And yet, in many ways, she had accepted how she felt about Emma. Their time together thrilled her and she certainly wanted to organise an evening when it would just be the two of them, away from the shelter. The idea of taking their relationship to the next level didn’t scare her the way the idea of lesbian sex once did, unless she was stupefyingly drunk. But, at times, lingering doubts still remained.

“Well, I’m sure you’ll have a lovely evening, however you choose to spend it,” Marian said, pulling Regina back to the present. “Let me check my shifts and get back to you.”

“Thank you,” Regina said. “I really appreciate it.”

“It’s the least I can do for the number of times that you’ve been looking after Roland recently. The fact that our two boys get on so well has been a real blessing. Roland hasn’t asked about his father for days.”

“Henry neither,” Regina remarked, realising that Leo hadn’t come up in any conversation recently. Was that a good thing? Was Henry accepting that his new life didn’t involve his father? It had only been a few weeks and the boy was almost seven. Surely he hadn’t forgotten that quickly about their life in Maine.

Her musings were interrupted by the appearance of both boys, sprinting across the playground together, rucksacks bouncing off their backs.

“Mom, look what I drew,” Henry bellowed, waving a piece of paper wildly in the air.

Regina was about to answer when time seemed to slow down. She could see it happened, see what was about to occur and yet was powerless to stop it. She’d heard of such a cliché spoken about by other mothers but never believed it. Yet as Henry’s right foot caught on his left calf and his body flew forwards, arms splayed, artwork drifting from his fingers, she realised it was true. As Henry hurtled towards the ground, Regina stood rooted to the spot as she watched her son collide hard with the playground.

There was a deafening silence. And then, “MOM!”

Jumping into action, both Regina and Marian hurried forwards as Henry tried to push himself to his feet. Regina lifted him up as the boy wrapped his arms around his mother’s neck, screaming in pain.

“It’s ok, Henry,” Regina soothed, trembling hands cradling her son as other parents and children gawked at the spectacle. “It’s ok. I’ve got you.”

“MOM!” Henry cried out again, promoting Regina to pull him tighter.

Over her son’s shoulder, Regina caught Marian’s eye who was checking over Henry for injuries. “His knees look pretty banged up. Open wounds, grit. They need cleaning to avoid infection. There’s a hospital not far away if you want me to get you an Uber.” Marian held out her new phone which she had purchased using her first pay check.

“No,” Regina said. “We can’t go to hospital.”

Marian nodded her understanding. Regina didn’t need to say why. She knew the woman was unable to give her real name to a hospital and risk her husband tracking her down using their health insurance. But equally Regina didn’t have any money to pay for treatment.

“The shelter have funds for this sort of thing,” Marian said quietly as she took Roland’s hand. “Do you want me to call and ask if someone can meet us there?”

“Is it that bad? Do we really need a hospital?” Regina asked, unable to see her son’s injuries herself since the boy was still clinging to her like a limpet, his sobs now muffled in her hair.

Marian shrugged. “You could maybe do it yourself, if he’ll let you. I know they’ve got a great first aid kit at the shelter. And I’m pretty sure all of the staff are first aid trained.”

“We’ll try that first then,” Regina said. “Um, could you -” She pointed to Henry’s artwork which had landed several feet from where he had faceplanted the asphalt. Marian sent Roland to pick it up and the foursome made their way out of the playground, multiple sets of eyes still on the little group.

The walk back to the shelter had never felt longer. Regina’s arms ached by the time they got to the bottom of the hill. Marian took over trying to soothe a still crying Henry when she saw how out of breath Regina was getting as she walked and talked. Roland said nothing but stayed obediently beside his mother, eyes fixated on the dark red liquid snaking its way down his friend’s calf.

“What happened?” Ursula asked, jumping to her feet as soon as the women entered the shelter.

“He fell in the playground,” Marian explained as Regina deposited her crying son, as carefully as she could manage, onto one of the chairs in the reception area. The boy wouldn’t let go of his mother, however, so when she went to pull away, she had to redirect herself to sit beside him.

“It’s ok, Henry,” she soothed. “It’s going to be ok. Can you just let me take a look?”

“It’s hurts,” Henry screamed once more, making Roland hide behind Marian’s leg. His friend was really loud.

Regina placed a kiss to her son’s sweaty forehead and pried his hands from around her neck. The boy cried harder but allowed her to lean back enough to get a look at his knees. She grimaced. Marian was right; they were badly battered and she could see numerous pieces of dark grit embedded within the wounds.

“How about your hands?” Regina asked, noting that if his face was ok, her son must have put his palms down to break his fall. As predicted, they were bleeding and dirty. She only got to examine them for a moment however before Henry too caught sight of them and screamed in fear, throwing his arms around Regina’s neck again.

“Do you want to go to hospital?” Ursula asked. “Or will I do, with this.” She held up a huge first aid kit. “Or would you like to do it?”

“You, please,” Regina said, tears sparkling in her eyes now that she was back in the shelter and faced with the ordeal of cleaning her son’s wounds. “I don’t think he’ll let me.”

Ursula nodded and knelt down in front of Henry before opening the bag and getting out what she’d need.

“Henry, Ursula is going to clean your legs and make them feel better again, ok?”

“They hurt,” Henry cried. “Don’t touch them.”

“We have to, my little prince,” Regina cooed. “Your knees and hands are dirty and we don’t want the dirt to make you sick.”

“But it hurts,” Henry repeated.

“I’ll be very gentle,” Ursula assured him. “Marian, could you please get some warm water?”

Marian nodded and disappeared with her son to complete the task. Roland looked over his shoulder the whole time, still fascinated and horrified by the injuries his friend had sustained.

Five minutes later, the time crawling by as far as Regina and Henry were both concerned, Ursula began to wipe away some of the blood and dirt on the unbroken skin around Henry’s knee. The touch, although gentle and pain-free, made the boy flinch and pull away. Ursula glanced up at Regina and silently communicated how important it was for Henry to endure this. Regina nodded.

“Henry, sweetheart, I know it hurts but I’m going to need you to be a big brave boy and let Ursula clean your legs and hands, ok? Hold onto me, alright? Hold on really tight and it’ll all be over soon. What do you want for dinner? Do you want pizza? Or maybe hotdogs?”

“Chocolate,” Henry replied, face still pressed into his mother’s neck.

“Ok, we can have chocolate for dinner,” Regina replied, anything to placate her son. “And ice cream for dessert?”

Henry nodded and then flinched again as Ursula recommenced her task. But he didn’t pull away and allowed her to begin cleaning up the first of four wounds.

“I think we should get chocolate ice cream,” Regina continue. “With strawberry sauce. And sprinkles.”

“And whipped cream,” Roland added, climbing up onto the seat beside Henry. “Can I have ice cream for dinner too, Mom?”

Regina shot a sympathetic look to her friend but saw Marian smile. “Sure, how about I go and get us some ice creams right now? Henry, what ice cream do you want?”

“Chocolate,” came the mumbled reply.

Regina mouthed ‘thank you’ to Marian who promised Henry she’d be back very soon and that he could have the biggest ice cream ever as soon as his knees and hands were all better. The small boy said nothing but continued to sit still, even if his body was shaking as the adrenaline caused by the pain thrummed through his veins. Regina held him closer, stroking up and down his back as slowly, carefully, Ursula cleaned the dirt from his wounds.

The cell’s ringtone roused her. Ruby blinked open her puffy eyes and looked around. Why am I on the couch? She wondered before the events of the previous evening came back to her and grief slammed itself into her heart. “Granny,” she whispered, the memory of the old woman lying in the hospital bed seared into her retinas, an image she’d never be able to forget. “Emma?”

“I’m here,” the blonde called in response to the shout of her name. “Are you ok?”

“Your cell’s ringing,” Ruby said before rolling onto her side and snuggling deeper into the blankets.

Emma appeared in the doorway, beads of sweat dripping down her chest and into the sports bra. She had been doing her usual workout, judging by the way her torso was heaving gently, skin shimmering with exertion. “Thanks,” Emma said, crossing the room and rummaging through her handbag. “It’s the shelter,” she frowned as she saw the screen. Her staff only called her when she wasn’t on shift in the case of an emergency. “Hello?”

“Hey, sorry to bother you.”

“Ursula, what’s wrong?” she asked at once.

“It’s fine, we’re fine. I just, well, Regina asked me to call you. She insisted on it.”

In the background, Emma could hear the brunette say somewhat indignantly; “I didn’t insist. I asked.”

“Is Regina ok?”

“She’s fine but Henry took a bad fall in the playground. I’ve cleaned him up and he’s sleeping now but she asked me to let you know.”

There was something unfamiliar in her employee’s voice. Was it suspicion? Emma wouldn’t blame her if it was. This wasn’t the sort of event which usually warranted a phone call to the boss outside of her work hours. But in that moment Emma didn’t care. She just wanted to make sure Henry and Regina were ok.

“Can you put Regina on the phone, please?” Emma asked. There was silence and then she heard the woman’s voice saying her name, the words filled with relief. “Are you alright? Is Henry?”

“He’s fine. He’s asleep. I’m sure he’ll be fine but it was so horrible. He was just crying and I couldn’t do anything to stop the pain. I wished you …” She stopped. Emma assumed it was because the brunette had been about to say something which Ursula should not have overheard. “Are you working tonight?”

“No, I’ve been on for 24 hours so I need a break. And Ruby’s grandmother died last night.”

“Shit, I’m sorry to hear that. Can you pass on my condolences to her?”

“Regina offers her condolences,” Emma said turning to her friend and relaying the massage at once. The redhead grunted but did no more to acknowledge the gesture of sympathy. “Um, do you need me to come in?”

“No,” Regina said at once. “It’s fine. We’ll be fine. Are you working tomorrow?”

“Yes,” Emma replied. “I’ll come and find you as soon as I can.”

“Ok, thank you. Henry will be off school. His knees are all bandaged up and his hands. He can’t really walk properly because of the bruises and he won’t be able to hold a pencil for a while. I think he needs bedrest and iPads for at least a few days.”

“Poor thing. Give him a kiss from me.”

“I will.”

“Ok, look, I’ve got to go.” Emma could feel the sweat drying on her cooling skin. She hated that feeling and the urge to shower suddenly overcame her. “But I’ll see you tomorrow.”

“Yes, see you tomorrow.”

The line went dead and Emma tossed the cell back into her handbag. “Henry fell in the playground,” she informed Ruby. The information got even less of a response than Regina’s sympathies. “Do you need me to get you anything before I take a shower?”

Ruby shook her head. After a moment’s hesitation, when Emma tried to work out whether her friend was telling the truth or not, she gave up trying to read the facial expression of someone who was grieving the loss of her last relative and made her way towards the bathroom. By the time she returned to the living room, dressed and brushing her wet hair, Ruby was sat up, a vodka bottle cradled in her hands as she stared at the blank tv before her. Emma said nothing and instead sat down beside the woman and switched on the screen, selecting the first mind-numbing show she could find on Netflix and settling back to watch. Ruby stared ahead, unseeing, swigging from the vodka bottle periodically until, at last, she passed out once more.

Chapter Text

The night was restless. Henry struggled to get comfortable and whimpered whenever the duvet touched his knees, even though the wounds had been covered after Ursula had finished cleaning them. Eventually Regina had put two pairs of socks on his feet to stop him getting cold and wrapped the blanket around his midriff. But he slept fitfully. Which meant Regina did too.

The following morning, she yawned and ran her hand through tousled hair as she waited for her coffee to brew and Henry’s bread to toast. Shuffling back to their room with a loaded tray, Regina found her son sitting up in bed, tapping on his iPad.

“Hi my little prince. Are you hungry?” she asked. The boy had been barely awake when she left to prepare their breakfast.

“Can I have chocolate?”

“Not for breakfast, no,” Regina replied, placing the tray on the bedside table and off-loading the glass of orange juice and plate of toast, now slathered in peanut butter.

Henry pouted but accepted the verdict. In reality, he knew chocolate for breakfast was never going to be sanctioned, especially after the copious amount of ice cream he had eaten the night before. But, to be fair, his hands and knees really did hurt and the ice cream definitely helped.

He picked up a piece of toast, crumbs spraying all over the duvet at the first bite. Regina winced, realising she was going to have to do a load of laundry that day. Well, it wasn’t like she had anything else to do. The CV sat unfinished on the shelter’s laptop. After initially being so forward-thinking about getting a job and her own place, her motivation had waned somewhat. A voice at the back of Regina’s head told her why. Emma. If she and Henry left the shelter, when would she see Emma? The blonde was so busy and spent so much of her time at work. Regina wasn’t sure how she and her son would fit into the woman’s life.

Realising that the blonde may appear at any moment and that she looked rather dishevelled, Regina took a gulp of her coffee and told Henry she was going to take a shower and would be back as soon as possible. The boy nodded his understanding, eyes already locked back on the iPad where he appeared to be playing a game which involved shooting colourful alien-like creatures.

The shelter’s bathrooms were communal and it had taken Regina a while to get used to them. She liked her privacy. There was something about the setup which reminded her of prison, well, according to the television shows she had watched. But the shower cubicles were large and fully enclosed, clearly designed to be used by families.

She washed quickly, running a razor over her legs and under her arms. She wasn’t sure who she was shaving for; herself, perhaps. Habit? Leo insisted Regina was always smooth. She cursed herself for thinking of him, for allowing thoughts of her husband to arrive so early in the morning. But having lathered up with her favourite apple scented shower gel, she was feeling much happier, more awake and ready for the day. Towelling off as best she could while surrounded by steam, hanging low in the air, she got dressed and exited the cubicle.

“Hey, how’s Henry?” Marian asked, catching sight of her friend in the bathroom mirror.

“Ok, I think. He’s still in bed,” Regina replied. “Did you tell the school office that he’d be off for a few days?”

Marian nodded, turning around as she placed her toothbrush in her washbag. “Yes, they had assumed. Someone saw him go flying yesterday, so they knew he probably wouldn’t be around. They said it’s all ok but if he’s going to be out for more than a week, he’ll need to do some catch up work.”

“He’ll be fine by Monday, I think,” Regina replied. “Are you working today?”

Marian nodded. “Yes, I start at ten. I’m going to have to finish early though to pick Roland up.”

“I can do that,” Regina offered.

“But you won’t be going up to the school yourself,” Marian frowned.

“It’s no problem. Happy to help out. You’ll repay the favour some time anyway.”

Marian cocked her head to one side. “You’re a great friend, you know that? I bet there are a few people back in Maine who really miss you.”

Regina, who had been leaning against the wall, stiffened and stood up. The change in posture wasn’t lost on Marian who immediately realised her words had touched a nerve. “I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have said that.”

“I’ve got to go,” Regina replied. “I’ll pick Roland up and give him a snack or whatever he needs until you get back this evening.”

“Regina, I’m sorry,” Marian called after the brunette who strode out of the bathroom without another word.

She didn’t slow down her pace as she entered the corridor, Marian’s words echoing in her head. She wasn’t sure exactly what it was that had triggered the swooping sense of dread in her stomach. She was confident no one back in Maine missed her, per se. She had no friends. At least, no friends who weren’t closer to Leo than herself. The only person who would be directly feeling her absence was her husband. And that emotion wasn’t going to be the fact that he missed Regina rather that his wife, cleaner, cook and personal punching bag had disappeared without his consent.

Yes, Leo wouldn’t be missing his wife. He’d be angry; irate even. Not for the first time, Regina wondered what had happened when Leo first came to the conclusion that his wife and son had left and weren’t coming back. What had he done? Who had he called? Was he looking for them?

Regina was lost in her own thoughts as she pushed open the door to her room and it took her a moment to register that her son was talking to someone. She blinked as she took in the blonde woman sat on her bed who was smiling gently at her.

“Mom, Emma came to see me!” Henry announced, peanut butter smeared over his face, with a tiny amount even perched on the tip of his nose.

“I can see that,” Regina said, draping her wet towel on the back of the chair and placing her washbag and folded pyjamas on a small side table. “Um, hi.”

“Hi,” Emma replied. “Henry was just telling me what happened yesterday. It sounds like he was very brave.”

“I didn’t cry at all,” Henry announced proudly.

Regina decided now wasn’t the time to call out her son for lying and instead reached for a wet wipe and proceeded to remove the food from around his mouth. “Did you have any juice?” she asked, noting that the glass appeared untouched.

“I can’t pick up the cup,” Henry said, holding up his hands as if presenting evidence.

“Ok, would you like some juice?” When Henry nodded, Regina picked up the glass and tipped it carefully to her son’s lips. He took several gulps and then began to pull away. Regina righted the glass just before the liquid spilled onto the bedsheets which, in her absence, had accumulated even more crumbs.

“Do you need anything else?” Regina asked.

Henry shook his head and reached for the iPad he appeared to have discarded when Emma arrived. At least he has manners, Regina mused, as she picked up the dregs of her now lukewarm coffee and crossed to sit on her bed beside Emma.

“Hey,” she said, looking at the blonde once she was confident Henry was absorbed in his game.

“Hi, sorry, I didn’t mean to barge in but I wanted to see you both. Are you ok? You looked angry when you walked in.”

Regina nodded. “I’m fine. Thank you for coming. Yesterday was hard. As a mother, you do everything in your power to try and protect your children but sometimes they get hurt anyway. It was just awful to see him falling like that. It felt like the world slowed down and I was powerless to stop the inevitable. But he did do really well. Ursula was great, by the way. I couldn’t have cleaned his knees myself and I wasn’t in a position to go to hospital, so she was really helpful.”

“The shelter can cover some medical costs,” Emma said. “For future reference. Although I hope neither of you need it.”

“Thanks, Marian said as much. But I don’t think we needed to go. Once the wounds were clean, we just bandaged them. Now it’s a case of waiting for them to heal.”

“Is that why you were angry? Because of Henry’s knees?”

Regina shook her head. “No, I was just … thinking.”

“Thinking made you angry?”

“My thoughts made me angry,” Regina said.

“What were you thinking about?” Emma asked.

Regina glanced over to her son. He might be staring at his iPad but she had no way of telling how much he was listening to and absorbing. It wasn’t appropriate for them to have this conversation within earshot. Cool fingers gently covered her own, pulling Regina’s gaze back to the woman beside her.

“Another time,” she said quietly. “When we don’t have an audience.”

“Ok,” Emma said, withdrawing her fingers in case Regina didn’t want to risk her son seeing the contact between them.

“How’s Ruby?”

“Sad,” Emma replied. “Really sad. I don’t know how to make her happy again.”

“You can’t do anything to make her happy right now. She’s grieving. Time will help but for now, all you can do is be there for her.”

“She’s barely moved from the couch. She wouldn’t eat last night. Should I be worried?”

Emma had tried to suggest to Ruby that she sleep in her own bed. She’d received a single shake of the head. She then suggested that they order take out. That too was rejected. As was Emma’s offer to cook. She had given up eventually and made herself a sandwich which she ate sitting at the far end of the couch, in the small space which wasn’t taken up by Ruby’s mound of blankets. Her attention was only half on the television but Ruby wasn’t focused at all. For most of the evening, she had stared at the ceiling. Tears occasionally rolled down her cheeks. When Emma had gone to bed, Ruby had said she’d stay up a bit longer but when she emerged the following morning, the redhead hadn’t moved.

“It’s normal,” Regina assured. “I don’t think I ate for a week after my parents died. You just have to be patient, let her know you’re there for her, whatever she needs. It’s still all very new; she’ll start to come to terms with it soon and then she’ll deal with her sadness and start to get back to her old self.”

“Is that what happened to you?”

“Sort of,” Regina nodded. Now wasn’t the time to tell Emma that in the wake of her parents’ death she was not only grieving their lives but also the changing behaviour of her husband and an escalation of the abuse.

“I don’t want to leave you but I’ve got to get some work done,” Emma said. “Do you need anything? Do you want me to take a look at Henry’s knees? I’m first aid trained.”

“Maybe later? He seems pretty content right now and I don’t want to remind him or aggravate the healing process. But thank you for the offer. And thank you for coming.”

“You’re welcome,” Emma smiled. “I’m sorry for coming in before you got back but Henry invited me to wait. He even told he I could sit on your bed. Is that weird? I mean, this is the first time we’ve sat on a bed together and it’s not how I pictured this happening.”

Despite everything which had happened in the past twenty-four hours, Regina’s eyes darkened. “Oh really? And how did you picture us when we first sat on a bed together?”

Eyebrows rose. “Well, I imagined that we’d be in my bedroom in my apartment. Ruby would be out, of course. And Henry would be … somewhere else. And we’d start out kissing and -”

“Oh my God, stop,” Regina interrupted, shooting a panicked look at her son who seemed to have not been paying them the slightest bit of attention.

Emma frowned. “But you asked me how I imagined it.”

“I was flirting,” Regina sighed, chuckling with exasperation. “I didn’t expect you to actually describe the scene.”

“Oh, sorry.” Good work, Emma, the counsellor thought to herself. Now she’s laughing at you.

Realising the blonde was a little hurt, Regina reached out and squeezed the woman’s knee. “But I liked what I heard. Maybe some time, when we’re not within earshot of my son, I can hear the rest of this imagining of yours. I’m intrigued to know where it leads.”


“Yeah,” Regina said, eyes darting down to rest on Emma’s lips for a moment. “Very intrigued.”

This was more flirting, Emma’s brain supplied. Emma had never been very good at flirting. Double entendres were confusing for her and logic and practical thinking were definitely non-sexy. But perhaps Regina would like a teaser as to how her imagined scene unfolded. That was the logical way in which television shows trailed next week’s episodes, right?

“Well, I’ll leave you with this,” Emma said, leaning in a little further. “It involves the two of us … and no clothes.”

Regina had to do everything in her power not to close the ever smaller gap between their mouths as she heard those words. She subconsciously squeezed her thighs together and took a shaking breath. “Emma,” she whispered.

“Too much?” the blonde asked, wondering whether her flirting had been good or bad.

“Not enough,” Regina admitted. “Go, please, before I can’t control myself and we scar my son for life.”

Emma grinned. The way Regina spoke made her confident that she’d performed admirably in the flirting department. She stood up, said goodbye to Henry and made her way to the door. Before passing through it, she turned and discretely blew a kiss to Regina. On the bed, as she watched the tall blonde pout in her direction, Regina felt her heart melt a little. Was that the moment, she wondered years later? Was that the moment she realised how she truly felt about Emma Swan?

Whenever work allowed that day, Emma checked in on Regina and Henry. She made far more cups of tea than she usually did and even had a mid-morning and mid-afternoon snack, just to cover as an excuse to make her way from the reception to the kitchen, via Regina’s room. Except, the excuse wasn’t really working.

“Hey, Emma, can I ask you something?” Ursula asked as Emma reappeared just before the end of their shift, carrying a cookie.

“Sure, do you need help with that exit paperwork?” One of the women for whom Ursula was assigned as their primary contact had secured an apartment and was moving out the following morning. After almost two months at Swan’s Shelter, Ursula had to make sure the woman’s documents were all in order before she left.

“No, that’s all done. It’s on your desk for approval. Um, this is about Regina Mills.”

Emma looked at her employee for a moment before sinking into the vacant chair. “What about her?”

“I was just wondering, I mean, I know you’re her case worker and everything but she was really insistent I call you about Henry’s fall yesterday. Is she ok? Did I do the right thing in agreeing to call you?”

It was only a matter of time, Emma supposed, before her staff started suspecting something. The problem was, she didn’t know what to tell them. In fact, it was something she had considered speaking with Belle about. The psychologist was the only member of her team who knew about she and Regina, so she wanted to get her take on their relationship as well as how she should go about telling the rest of the shelter staff. But in that moment, she still didn’t yet want people to know exactly what was going on.

“She’s fine, Ursula, thanks for asking. And yes, you did the right thing in calling me. Regina just needed someone to talk to about Henry. She’s not from New York so she doesn’t have friends nearby.”

“She has Marian and Kathryn,” Ursula pointed out. “Marian was by her side the whole evening. And I was right there if she wanted to talk.”

“I know, but I’m her case worker. We’ve spent quite a bit of time together over the past few weeks.”

“I’ve noticed,” Ursula muttered under her breath.

Emma was about to chastise her staff member for such a comment but decided to let it slide. Instead, she settled on a truthful fact, although one which didn’t necessarily apply to Regina. “Some of the women who come here need more support than others. Myself and Belle have been meeting regularly with Regina to help her come to terms with the decision she has made. A decision which affected both her and her son, by the way. I think Henry’s accident reminded Regina of the fact that it’s just the two of them now. She has to provide for this child all alone and perhaps yesterday there was a moment of self-doubt. She needed some reassurance from me; I gave it to her. So yes, you did the right thing in calling me, thank you.”

“Ok, well, I guess that makes sense. It’s just, you know, unusual.”

“Every woman is different,” Emma said, getting to her feet. “There is no usual in this line of work. We treat every person as an individual and tailor our services to suit their needs. Anyway, it’s almost five. You can leave early if you want. I’ll wait for Ella to come on shift and do the handover. Do you have notes for her?”

Ursula, understanding that she was being dismissed, shook her head and set about packing up her desk and handbag. A couple of minutes later, she stuck her head around Emma’s office door, where the woman had started the task of checking over the exit paperwork, and said goodbye.

Once she had gone, Emma put her pen down and sighed. She was too distracted to work. All this sneaking around was hard. She didn’t want to hide what she had with Regina. But at the same time, she didn’t want all of the other women in the shelter knowing they were now involved. True, she and Regina had history but she still feared it was a bad impression. No, their relationship had to remain a secret until Regina moved out. When would that be? Emma made a mental note to discuss finishing Regina’s CV so the woman could apply for jobs once Henry was on the mend.

Every time she had gone to see him that day, the boy had been watching something on the iPad or listening to Regina read him a story. Regina had been in the room all day too. Remembering that she had promised to check on Henry’s knees, Emma was relieved when Ella appeared to start the night shift and she was able to hand over before make an excuse to slip into the back of the shelter once more.

Unlocking Belle’s office, she located the first aid kit which was kept inside and proceeded down the corridor. She knocked lightly on Regina’s door, in case Henry was asleep. He wasn’t as she saw when Regina opened the door.

“Hey, kid, how are you doing?”

“I’m bored,” Henry announced. “All of the games and movies on my iPad and stupid and Mom won’t let me download new ones.”

Regina raised her eyebrows at Emma before asking the blonde how her day was.

“It was good thanks. I just came here to see if you wanted me to check Henry’s wounds.”

“Oh, yeah, I guess that would be sensible. Henry, do you mind if Emma takes a look at your knees?”

Henry pouted. “But my knees hurt. I don’t want Emma to hurt my knees by touching them.”

“I’ll be really gentle,” Emma assured him. “But your mom and I need to make sure Ursula cleaned them up really well yesterday because if there’s any dirt in there, it could make you sick.”

The boy frowned but eventually nodded his agreement. The blanket was still wrapped around just his upper body, so his legs stuck out in plain view already. After a nod from Regina, Emma sat on the edge of the bed and began to carefully peel off the tape which held the gauze over Henry’s knees. The boy winced and pulled away just as Emma came to the part where she needed to lift the white covering. Regina quickly moved to sit beside the boy, cooing softly and assuring him that it would be ok.

With the gauze carefully removed, Emma peered into the raw, oozing wound. Regina grimaced and hugged Henry tighter. Somehow the injury looked worse the day after. Henry, however, leaned forwards. “Ew, that’s gross! Can I touch it?”

“No,” Emma replied. “Poking this would hurt a lot. But it looks nice and clean. No infection, it’s already starting to heal.”

“Am I gonna have scars?” Henry asked, eyes lit up with excitement at the prospect.

“Yep,” Emma nodded, fishing out a new piece of gauze and quickly but carefully recovering the open wound. “Two big scars on your knees. You’ll look like a war hero.”

“But I didn’t fight a war,” Henry frowned. “I was running and I fell over … a big rock.”

Clearly even at the age of six, Henry understood there was some level of embarrassment which came with tripping over his own feet. Neither Emma nor Regina pulled him up on his lie, however, and instead Regina started telling Henry about how she had been thrown from a horse when she was younger and broken her arm. She pulled up the sleeve of her top and pointed out the thin jagged line which ran up her inner forearm where a metal plate had been inserted to strengthen the shattered bone. Emma listened as she worked, all the while fighting the urge to ask a question she had long since wanted to know the answer to. What happened to Regina’s lip?

Emma could remember when Regina came into school, her arm in a sling, after the horse riding accident. She had paraded around the school as if she had fallen after winning the Kentucky Derby. But the scar which crossed her upper lip was new. Or, at least, new within the last fourteen years. Emma had a theory. She had been working with victims of domestic abuse for too long not to assume the damage was caused by an enraged spouse. And judging by the bruised ribs Regina was suffering from when she first arrived, she suspected Leo was indeed the perpetrator.


“What?” she looked up, realising she had drifted off and now had two identical sets of brown eyes gazing at her. “Sorry, I didn’t hear you.”

“Henry asked if you wanted to have lasagne with us tomorrow night. I’ve promised to cook it for him to say well done for being so brave.”

“Oh, yes, I’d love that. Thank you for the invite, Henry.”

“You’re welcome. Can you bring ice cream for dessert?”

Emma glanced at Regina who was smiling and nodded slightly at her. “Yes, Henry, I think I can bring some ice cream.”

“Thanks!” Henry exclaimed before reaching for his ‘boring’ iPad and at once being absorbed by the screen.

Emma got up from the bed, as did Regina. She gathered up the old gauzes and tape, placed them in a bag for medical waste and tidied up the rest of the box. “So, I guess I’ll see you tomorrow.”

“Yes,” Regina nodded. “Thank you for doing that. Say thank you to Emma please, Henry.”

The thank you came without the boy’s eye shifting from the screen. Regina sighed but Emma laughed. “It’s fine. I don’t mind. I’ll be looking forward to that lasagne all day.”

“I wish we could spend some time together away from this place,” Regina confessed in a quieter voice, moving towards the door. “In fact, I asked Marian if she would watch Henry one night so the two of us could, you know, have a normal date, I suppose.”

“Yeah? I’d like that.”

“When? I mean, what days work for you?”

“I always work both Saturday and Sunday nights so, Friday?” Emma suggested. “I can cook, if you would like that.”

“At your apartment? Won’t Ruby be there?”

“No, she wants to come back to work and she usually works Friday night. She called me earlier and said she wants to start back tomorrow. Said she needs the distraction because she’s too ‘in her head’ if she’s at home. Do you think it’s too soon? I do. I told her to take at least a week.”

Regina shrugged. “If she wants to get back to normal and have some sort of routine, maybe it will do her some good.”

“I suppose. I’ll keep a close eye on her.”

“You’re a good friend.”

“Maybe. I mean, I hope I am.”

“I think you are. And you’re a great girlfriend, just for the record.”

The term warmed Emma’s heart. She glanced past Regina and saw that Henry was still engrossed in the screen. She shifted slightly to the left, ensuring that she was blocked from the boy’s view by his mother. With a glint in her eye, she leaned forwards and placed a short, soft kiss to Regina’s lips. “So, are we on for Friday?”

“If Marian isn’t working, yes.”

“I can’t wait,” Emma replied, stealing one final, quick kiss before she left the room.


Chapter Text

Regina walked backwards, trying to get a better look at herself in the narrow mirror. Hands came up to smooth the imaginary creases from her hips, head cocked to one side. The black dress was a little baggier than it had been when she last wore it in Maine to one of Leo’s work functions. She hadn’t wanted to wear a dress which he had bought for her on a date with Emma but she had no other options. Her packing had not been completed with romantic evenings in mind. Plus, she did love the piece and that night Leo had been too busy talking with business contacts to pay any attention to Regina. As such, the dress wasn’t tainted with unpleasant memories as many of her outfits were.

Her fingers trailed up to the low cut neckline. She wore no jewellery. That hadn’t been the top of her packing list. Without something hanging around her neck, the outfit looked incomplete. But it would do. It was all she had.

“Mom, where are you going?” Henry asked, appearing in the doorway and hobbling his way over to his bed. He had started walking around the day before, knees stiff from the healing skin and the bruised flesh.

“Just out for dinner,” Regina replied. “Where’s Marian and Roland?”

“Roland wanted to play on my iPad. Can I take it?”

“Sure,” Regina nodded. “But remember you need to be in bed by eight. I’ve told Marian the same thing so don’t go trying to trick her into thinking you’re allowed up any later than that.”

Henry’s eyes went wide with faux innocence as if the thought had never crossed his mind. On more than one occasion, Regina and Leo had returned home well past midnight to find Henry still wide awake, sat beside his babysitter on the couch. Those babysitters were never asked to return and Henry was marched up to bed by his father.

“I won’t. Thanks Mom.” He crossed over to his bed where the iPad rested beside his pillow and picked it up, gathering up the charger for good measure. In the doorway, he paused and looked back. “You look really pretty, Mom. Like a princess. But in black. So a ninja princess.”

Regina smiled at her son and finally finished primping herself in the mirror. “Thank you sweetheart. I’ll see you tomorrow morning, ok?”

“Ok, goodnight Mom.”

Henry allowed himself to be kissed on the crown of the head before making his way awkwardly down the corridor, trying to avoid bending his knees as much as possible. Regina watched until her son turned into the communal room and then picked up her handbag and closed the door to her bedroom.

“Are you sure you’re ready to be back here?”

Ruby looked up and scowled at her boss who was leaning on the reception desk after having finished the shift handover. “I’m fine. Go, enjoy your date.”

“I will but if you need anything, call me. I still think this is too soon to be back after your loss.”

“Sitting around at home wasn’t helping. I want to keep busy. You said you agreed to let me come back so just leave and allow me to do my job,” Ruby snapped.

Emma said no more but instead just regarded her friend as she waited for Regina. The redhead’s face was gaunt, skin paler than usual and dark bags under both eyes symbolising the lack of sleep she had got since her grandmother’s death. Was she ready? Emma thought probably not. Her staff had a generous employment package and it included bereavement leave. Ruby had used three days of it. When Ella’s mother had died the previous year, she had been off for two weeks.

“Well, if you decide you want to come home or you need any help, you know how to get in touch with me.”

The repeated statement was ignored completely as Ruby focused her attention on the computer. She hadn’t been particularly communicative over the past few days and Emma wasn’t sure how to help her or what she needed. Already the situation was one which Emma felt uncomfortable with, not knowing exactly how to support her friend. But with the lack of conversations, she felt even more in the dark.

“I can always stay, you know. If you -”

“Fuck, Emma, just go. Get off my back. Anyone would think you were trying to get out of this date with Regina.”

“What? Of course I want to go on a date with Regina. Why would you say that?”

“Because you’re doing everything possible to try and make me go home. It’s as if you want an excuse to stay here. But I’m fine. I want to be here. Go fuck your girlfriend in our apartment and leave me alone, ok?”

“Um …”

Emma jumped off the edge of the desk at the sound of Regina’s voice. The brunette was stood, fingers twiddling nervously with the strap of her handbag which was slung over her shoulder. Even as a blush crept up Emma’s cheeks at Ruby’s words, her eyes trailed greedily down Regina’s body.

“Wow, you look amazing,” she said. “Sorry about … that. Are you ready to go?”

“Yes,” Regina nodded, glancing curiously at Ruby whose back was to her as she sat typing once more on her computer.

“Great,” Emma said, grabbing her belongings from the desk and circling around to stand before Regina. “Hi.” A quick kiss, short and firm, started their date. Much as Emma wanted to take Regina’s hand, she refrained for now and instead led the way towards the door. “Um, Ruby, call me if … you know.”

There was no sign that the redhead had even heard her. Emma sighed quietly and opened the door, standing back to allow Regina to pass through first onto the street.

“This way,” Emma gestured, falling into step beside the smaller woman. “That dress, by the way. It’s gorgeous. You’re gorgeous.”

“Thank you,” Regina replied. “You look beautiful too.”

Emma plucked at the white shirt she was wearing, neatly tucked into black pants. “This is just my work outfit. I’ll change when we get to mine.”

“Well, you always look beautiful,” Regina said, not caring if the statement was soppy.

Emma didn’t seem to mind either as she just smiled shyly at the woman beside her before reaching for Regina’s hand and interlacing their fingers together.

“Is Ruby ok?” Regina asked after a few moments of silence.

“I don’t know,” Emma replied. “She won’t talk to me about it. She says she’s fine but I don’t think she is. It’s too soon, right? She needs more time.”

“Maybe. I don’t know Ruby well. She came across a little angry but I suppose that’s expected after losing the last member of your family. I know I was angry after my parents died. It didn’t seem fair. Why them, you know?”

“Yes but Ruby’s grandmother was really old. Old people die. Your parents died in a traffic collision. That is unfair. Wrong place, wrong time.”

Regina pursed her lips. She knew Emma meant well but the words stung. The blonde had no way of knowing how many times Regina had gone over in her head the ‘what if’ questions. What if they had left the house five minutes earlier? What if they had taken a different route? What if her father had bought a different vehicle with a higher safety rating? What if the ambulance had arrived five minutes faster?


The brunette blinked and looked up at Emma, realising that the two of them had stopped walking. “Sorry,” Regina said, forcing a smile.

“Are you ok?”

Regina nodded. “Just thinking. I’m fine. So, where’s that apartment of yours we’re going to fuck in?”

The blonde’s eyes widened comically at the salacious comment. “Um, I didn’t say anything to Ruby about that. She just … assumed.”

“Well, I think she assumed correctly,” Regina grinned, leaning in to kiss Emma lightly, a tender promise of what was to come. “So, where is your apartment?”

Emma pointed down the street and the two of them recommenced their steps, appearing outside the building and entering the small lobby. Asking Regina to wait a moment, Emma crossed to the mailboxes and opened her own. Two letters sat inside it. She pulled them out and locked the box. Then she opened it and locked it again. Regina watched the repeated action but said nothing.

Inside the elevator, their fingers interlaced once more. Emma smiled sideways at the shorter woman and was about to kiss her when the door opened on her floor and they found themselves face to face with her neighbour.

“Good evening Mr Costa,” Emma smiled at the man as they stepped out into the corridor and towards her apartment.

“Good evening, dear,” the elderly man replied as he stepped into the elevator and the doors slid closed.

Emma unlocked the apartment and stood back to allow Regina to enter. As she followed the brunette inside, she noticed that Ruby had not tidied up at all before leaving for work. She wrinkled her nose as the collection of dirty cups and bowls on the coffee table. “Sorry about the mess,” Emma offered as she slid the deadbolt across the door. Then back. Then across. Then back.

“It’s ok,” Regina replied. “Um, the locking thing. Is that part of your autism?”

“Yeah,” Emma nodded, throwing her keys into the bowl on the side and dumping her handbag on the table along with the post before holding out her palm to take Regina’s bag. “Habits, routines, compulsions, I suppose. It’s a bit like OCD in some ways.”

“What happens if you don’t perform those habits?”

Emma looked up from where she had been stacking dirty crockery. “I don’t know. I always do them.”

Gesturing for Regina to follow her, Emma led the way through to the kitchen where she deposited all of Ruby’s items on the counter. “I’ll wash those up in a moment. Would you like a tour?”

“Sure,” Regina smiled.

“Ok, well, this is the kitchen. Ruby’s a better cook than me but we both do a fair amount. Help yourself to anything, you know, any time you’re here. We share groceries.”

“Thanks,” Regina replied.

“Oh, would you like a drink? Before the rest of the tour,” Emma added, forgetting her manners. The first thing you do when someone arrives at your house is take their coat and bags. Then you offer a drink and a tour. That was what Mary Margaret had taught her.

“Do you have any wine? I know the shelter is dry for a reason but I’ve been craving a nice red for over a week now.”

Emma nodded and crossed to the modest wine rack where half a dozen bottles were resting. She pulled out the four which were red and lined them up so Regina could choose which she preferred. The brunette leaned down to read the labels, allowing Emma the opportunity to marvel at how the black material stretched over the woman’s pert behind. A sudden urge to press Regina up against the counter bubbled up inside her. Perhaps there was something to Ruby’s kitchen sex after all.

So lost in thought was she that Emma didn’t noticed that Regina had straightened up and that she had been caught staring. Her face flushed and she looked away. Regina chuckled. “Like what you see?”

Green eyes returned to meet twinkling chocolate. “I like everything about you,” Emma confessed quietly.

The gentle words, so honest and sincere, made Regina’s breath hitch. And then she stepped forwards, wrapping her arms around Emma’s neck and pulling her in for a passionate kiss. Their mouths parted, lips captured one another as Emma’s hands splayed across Regina’s lower back.

“So, how about that tour?” Regina asked when the kiss eventually ended.

Dark pupils gazed back at her. “Tour, right. Um, did you choose a wine?”

“The Cabernet Sauvignon please,” Regina nodded.

Emma set about pouring them both a glass of Regina’s choice of wine. Once both women had a drink, Emma led the way back into the living room. “It’s usually tidier than this,” she confessed, taking in the nest of blankets which Ruby had finally vacated. “Ruby’s room is down at the end of this corridor. The bathroom is here,” she opened the door and allowed Regina to glance inside. “And my room is here.”

“Can I see your room?” Regina asked when Emma made no move to open the last door she had indicated.

The blonde nodded and turned the handle, stepping out of the way and allowing Regina to enter first. The room was spotless. Emma’s room was always tidy; everything in its rightful place. But she had spent the previous evening cleaning every surface and making sure the room was presentable. Not that she was assumptive about where this date may end up. Practical, perhaps. In both their minds, sexual intimacy was long overdue.

She watched as Regina slowly moved around her room, finger trailing along the spines of her books before she turned back to the blonde. “It’s lovely. Very ‘you’.”

“What does that mean? How can a room be like a person?”

“Your style, your personality,” Regina explained. “The colours. Red, white and black. It’s striking and bold. Like you. It’s organised, neat. It’s, yeah, it’s just you, Emma.”

“Is that a good thing?”

“A very good thing,” Regina smiled. “I like everything about you too, by the way.”

The weight of her own words, echoed back at her, felt more significant than they should. The meaning behind them, the true meaning, now hovering on the tips of both their tongues. But instead of voicing those words, Emma crossed the room, depositing her wine glass on her dresser as she passed and scooped Regina into her arms. She kissed her hard, a desperate need to feel the woman overcoming her. Regina responded at once, her own wine glass placed blindly on Emma’s bedside table before fingers reached up through Emma’s hair, fumbling with the elastic to allow the yellow curls to escape from the pony tail in which they had been contained all day.

Emma’s lips pried open Regina’s mouth as she felt her hair cascade down her back, tongue exploring the warmth of the other woman. The taste, she realised was becoming familiar, comforting. Fingernails scraped her scalp as Regina pushed her body further into Emma’s, flush together as the kiss intensified. And then Regina was moving away, their mouths still connected. Emma’s brow furrowed as she felt Regina turn and then their bodies tip downwards. She threw her arms out to catch herself just before she landed with her full weight upon Regina on top of her bed.

Pushing herself up and breaking the kiss, she looked down at the woman now laying beneath her, dark hair fanning out across her white duvet.

“Wait,” she panted. “Not yet.”

“Oh, ok,” Regina said, turning her head to avoid Emma’s intense gaze. “Sorry.”

“No, don’t be sorry. Let’s just eat first, ok? This is a date and on a date you’re supposed to do something nice together before you end up in bed, right?”

“Are you saying what we might have been about to do wouldn’t be nice?” Regina asked.

Tender fingers landed on Regina’s cheek and coaxed her head back, so the two women were looking at each other once more. “No, it would have been very nice. More than nice. It will be more than nice. But let’s do things in order, ok? I planned to cook you dinner before anything else happened.”

“Ok,” Regina nodded in agreement, realising that she needed to respect Emma’s need for a structure and her desire to stick to a plan. “Let’s have dinner first. Can I help you cook?”

“If you like. But I want to change first. You look beautiful and I look,” Emma pushed herself off the bed and gestured to her work clothes, “like a counsellor.”

Regina laughed and took the hand which Emma held out to help her up. “Ok, you get changed. Can I start any prep in the kitchen?”

“You could chop an onion,” Emma offered as she handed Regina her discarded wine. “I’ll be a few minutes.”

“Don’t keep me waiting,” Regina smirked, placing a chaste kiss to Emma’s lips before sashaying her way out of the room. Emma watched her go, eyes glued to those curvaceous hips until they disappeared from view.

Once alone, she stripped down to her underwear and set about tugging on some skinny jeans. As she buttoned them, her hands ran over her own hips. They could hardly be called curvaceous. She had always been bony, toned and fit but skinny. Her body wasn’t classically feminine like Regina’s. While Emma understood that women’s bodies came in all different shapes and sizes, she herself knew the pleasure of touching a woman who was supple and soft. Would Regina find her pleasurable? Her fingers danced over the hip bones which jutted out slightly. Were they sexy? Or just awkward?

Emma had experienced body hang-ups before at the start of her other sexual relationships but they soon faded. She was confident the same would happen with Regina. But first, they had to be together for the first time. Coils of nerves and excitement at the thought swirled around her stomach as Emma pulled on a dark blue shirt and did up the buttons. She glanced in the mirror and quickly fluffed out her hair before grabbing her wine glass and returning to the kitchen to help Regina prepare their evening meal.

“Mom, can we use your phone?” Roland asked, tugging on Marian’s sleeve as the woman leaned against the kitchen counter, waiting for the pasta to cook for the boys.

“No, use Henry’s iPad,” Marian replied without looking up.

“But it’s boring. I’ve got no new games,” Henry argued.

“Then download some.”

Roland and Henry looked at one another. They had tried to do that but the App Store had announced that they weren’t connected to Wi-Fi. With no more help from Marian, the boys headed out of the common room and down the corridor.

“Emma can help us,” Henry declared, walking slowly but with determination. “She’s my friend.”

“She’s my friend too,” Roland added, desperate not to be left out.

“Then she will help us because she’s both of our friends,” Henry said as he reached up to the door handle. It was annoyingly high but if he stretched up on his tiptoes, his fingers just about reached. But he couldn’t twist it.

“We need to work together. Teamwork. Mom says it’s important to work as a team. Lemme give you a piggy back,” Henry suggested, turning around and offering for his friend to climb on. Roland jumped up, positioned himself on the boy’s back and reached up.

“Move back a bit,” he instructed the Henry so that he was in the right position. The couple of extra inches he had gained were enough and the door clicked open.

Triumphant, Henry staggered through before letting Roland slip from his back. They rounded the corner and saw Ruby sitting behind the desk.

“Hi Ruby. Is Emma here?” Henry asked.

“No, she’s out.”

Henry and Roland looked at one another. Ruby looked strange. Her eyes were really red and she was staring at her cell phone. Maybe she was playing a super cool game, Henry mused.

“Can we have the Wi-Fi password?” he asked. “We want to play a new game.”

Without looking at them, Ruby held out her hand. Henry stepped forwards and handed over his iPad. Ruby quickly located the settings and typed in the string of numbers and letters. “There,” she said, handing it back.

“Thanks. Um, can you open the door for us? We can’t reach.”

Although he and Roland could open the door handle on the inside if they worked as a team, entering the code which their moms always used was more complicated because it was much higher. And neither boy knew the code.

“Sure,” Ruby said, standing up with her gaze still on her phone and walking to allow the boys entry back into the shelter.

“We should get whatever game she’s playing,” Henry said as the door shut behind them. “It must be really good because Ruby didn’t even look at us. I bet it’s a game with lots of elephants in it.”

“Or monkeys,” Roland offered.

“Let’s look for a zoo game,” Henry declared as the two of them marched back into the common room just as Marian was draining their pasta.

“This looks delicious,” Regina said politely as Emma presented her with the plate at the small dining chair in the living room, a white tablecloth, three flickering candles and polished silverware adding to the ambiance.

“Well, you helped make it,” Emma pointed out as she sat down in front of her own dish and topped up Regina’s wine. “Thank you by the way. This night was supposed to be me cooking for you.”

“Team effort,” Regina smiled.

Emma nodded and raised her glass. “To being a team.”

A soft chink from their glasses and both women drank to the toast before digging into their meal. The conversation flowed, as it always did between them. They were, despite everything, comfortable in one another’s company. Topics of conversation were varied but always carefully avoided their shared history in Maine or Regina’s subsequent life up there. But they talked about college and their early childhood, the shelter, hobbies and all other subjects which were typically addressed by people during the early phase of a relationship.

Emma knew she needed to speak with Regina about her husband before anything physical happened between them but over dinner wasn’t the time. She didn’t want to mar the event with dark memories. So she steered clear anything related to Leo, except for Henry. She loved listening to Regina talk about her son, the woman’s devotion to the boy evident and breath-taking. Emma hadn’t given much thought to whether she wanted to be a mother herself. She’d spent enough time protecting women and children at the shelter and wasn’t sure if she would be able to do her job if she also had her own child to care for. But seeing the way Regina’s eyes lit up at the mention of Henry, Emma started to wonder whether that sort of love was something she did want in her life.

Plates clean, Emma removed them to the kitchen, returning with some early season strawberries which had been marinating in some sugar during their main course. Spooning them out into clean bowls, the two of them tucked into their sweet dessert.

“You’ve got some juice there.” Regina pointed to the blonde’s chin.

Embarrassed at her messy eating, Emma quickly wiped her face with the napkin. “Sorry.”

Regina ignored the unnecessary apology and instead pushed aside her empty bowl. “That was all delicious. Thank you so much.”

“You’re welcome.”

“I’d like to cook for you some time.”

“You have cooked for me, at the shelter.”

“Yeah but this is different. I mean, this is a proper date. The shelter is still somewhere we have to hide our relationship. I want to wine and dine you, treat you like my girlfriend. I can’t do that in the shelter.”

“Does that bother you?”

Regina shrugged. “I understand why we’re hiding our relationship.”

“That wasn’t my question.”

Letting out a sigh, Regina nodded her agreement at that. “Yes, it bothers me a little. I really like you Emma and I want to be able to be in a normal relationship with you. I understand your hesitation and I do think we need to be careful about how this comes out. But it is going to come out. I just don’t know if I want to wait until I move out for that to happen.”

“Why not?”

The fear which Regina had harboured bubbled up and she didn’t hold back. “What if this, us, only works when I’m there? What if, once Henry and I get our own place, we don’t see each other every day and whatever it is that we have fizzles out?”

“Fizzles out?”

“Fades, goes away. What if we’re only together because I’m there in the shelter and it’s easy for you because you’re there all the time and I’m convenient? Once I go, I won’t be convenient any more and you’ll have to make time for me, and Henry. The fact that we’re secret makes me feel that, I don’t know, perhaps you’re holding back?”

“Regina, no, that’s not what this is.”

“Then what is it? Why can’t people know about us?”

“Because you’re a client,” Emma shot back. “Shit, Regina, can’t you see how unethical this is? I’m your fucking counsellor.”

“No, you’re not. Belle is. You’re a … you’re someone who’s helping me. Someone I’ve known for over a decade. Why can’t we at least start talking about how we tell people?”

Emma hung her head. She had known this conversation was coming and she didn’t have an answer. “I don’t know what people will say. I don’t know how they’ll react.”

“Does it matter?”

“Yes, it’s my job. My livelihood. My profession. How this comes across is important. I can’t be seen to have taken advantage of you.”

“You haven’t,” Regina insisted.

“I know that. But other people won’t understand. I just … I need a little more time, ok?”

Regina leaned back in her chair and crossed her arms. “Yeah, ok. But just for the record, this sneaking around stuff is hard for me.”

“I know, it’s hard for me too. And, for the record, when you and Henry do move out, I will find the time for you. I will always find the time for you, Regina. I know this is new but you’re a really important part of my life and you are certainly not just convenient. Hell, I don’t think much about our past could be considered a convenient start to a relationship. We’re together because we care about each other, right? That’s not going to change when you and Henry leave the shelter. In fact, I can’t wait for you two to move out so that we can be in a real relationship.”

“We could be in a real relationship now,” Regina pointed out.

“We are in a real relationship,” Emma said, correcting her earlier statement as she reached out and laid her hand palm up on the table, waiting for Regina to take it. “This is real, Regina. And I’m not putting my career before us but I am having to balance the two. Do you understand that?”

Regina hesitated before placing her hand in Emma’s. “Yes, I do, you’re right. I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to get angry at you. It’s just hard sometimes. I want to be with you all the time but I can’t be.”

“Not yet, but one day.” Emma lifted their joined hands and pressed a kiss to Regina’s knuckles. Butterflies erupted in Regina’s stomach. “One day, soon.”

“Promise?” Regina asked.

“I do promise,” Emma nodded. “Let’s talk about it properly tomorrow at the shelter. We’ll put a plan in place. Maybe meet with Belle and see what she thinks.”

“Ok,” Regina agreed. “Thank you.”

“Of course,” Emma smiled. “I want you to be happy, Regina. You deserve that.”

“You make me happy. And I know what would make me really happy tonight,” Regina hinted, sliding herself out of her chair and coming to stand above Emma. Craning her neck down, she kissed the blonde’s lips which still tasted faintly of strawberries. “So, according to your date schedule, what’s next on the agenda?”

Emma laughed and stood up, Regina stepping away to make room for her. But the blonde pulled her closer, fusing their lips together once more and beginning to guide the two of them towards her bedroom door. She fumbled the handle open, crossed the threshold and kicked the door closed with her heel, just as Regina’s fingers began to unbutton her shirt, tongue dancing with her own.

Five hundred miles away, the door to Regina’s former home in Maine slammed shut too. Seconds later, gravel sprayed from beneath a car’s tyres as the driver accelerated out of the driveway.

Chapter Text

A single lamp on Emma’s bedside table bathed the room in a soft light. Low music played from the speaker system which Emma triggered on her phone as soon as they entered. It was as romantic as one could make the setting without candles and a live four string quartet.

They stood at the foot of Emma’s perfectly made bed, kissing in a manner which could only be described as furious. After so many weeks, or perhaps years, of pent up sexual tension, their proximity to one another and to a bed in a private space was overwhelming. Emma’s shirt hung open, her toned abs flexing as Regina’s fingers curled around her waist. The zipper at the back of Regina’s dress was half-undone, Emma pulling it slowly downwards, still aware enough to make sure Regina had time to stop her. But there was no stopping the brunette who started to push Emma’s shirt from her sculpted shoulders.

“Are you happy?”

“What?” Regina asked as she tossed Emma’s shirt to the floor.

“With what’s happening here. Is this all ok? Are you happy?”

Regina paused, her hands now resting on tight biceps. “You’re asking if I’m happy?”

“Comfortable might have been a better word,” Emma clarified.

“Comfortable? With you?”

“With sex,” Emma pressed. “Given your history and -”

“No,” Regina interrupted. “Don’t say his name. Don’t bring him in here. Not here, not with you.” The mere thought of her ex-husband made her skin crawl and took the edge off her arousal. But Regina was determined; Leo wasn’t going to destroy another part of her life. “I want this, Emma. I want you. I promise you that I’ll say if anything makes me uncomfortable but for now, can we just be together? No one else matters right now. Just me and you.”

Emma reached up and brushed some stray hairs from Regina’s forehead. “Ok,” she said softly. “Just me and you.”

Plump lips smiled in thanks before pressing to Emma’s neck. The blonde allowed her head to fall back, a soft groan vibrating through her pale skin. Regina’s core clenched. The arousal was back in full force. She trailed a line of soft kisses, interspersed with nips and flicks of her tongue, down the slender column of the blonde’s neck, biting lightly at the juncture where the slope of her shoulder joined, the defined muscle flexing beneath her teeth.

“You work out,” Regina remarked as she pulled away, noting the power and tone of the blonde’s upper body.

“Yes, every day. It’s part of my routine,” Emma said, her hands now travelling to Regina’s thighs to coax the material of her dress up, the zip now completely undone.

“I … I don’t work out,” Regina said, lip suddenly pulled between teeth in the way it always did when she had a moment of self-doubt. Back in Maine, she was always chewing her lip. Body shaming had been a favourite cruelty of Leo’s, even though Regina’s figure was almost as it had been before she gave birth to Henry. The stretch marks which marred her stomach, however, made her ex-husband sneer in distaste. Over the years, Regina had grown to hate them too, even if they were simply a natural reminder of the amazing feat her body had accomplished in creating her son.

Emma’s hands paused in their quest, the black material now bunched at the top of Regina’s thighs, sensing her discomfort. “I think you’re beautiful, Regina,” she murmured earnestly, fingertips gently caressing the exposed skin. “So beautiful.”

“I’m not perfect,” Regina whispered, staring at the flat, flawless plane of Emma’s abs.

“No one is. And I don’t want perfect, I want you.”

The words, sounding as if they were out of a cheesy Hollywood film, made Regina lift her head. She almost scoffed at the line but when she met Emma’s gaze, she realised something. Emma didn’t lie. Emma didn’t say things she didn’t believe. Those words were true; coming from Emma, they had to be. Emma didn’t want someone perfect. Emma understood that people are all flawed in one way or another. Emma wanted her.

Regina threw her arms back around Emma’s neck, kissing her hard. The realisation that she was wanted, desired, lusted after, sparked a renewed fire within her belly. Emma cupped the back of her head, steadying herself at the intensity of the kiss. And then, as they settled back into the rhythm their tongues found, her hands returned to Regina’s thighs.

The material slid up slowly, bunching tightly over her hips before moving more quickly past her waist and torso. They were forced to break apart as Emma reached Regina’s armpits and the brunette stepped back, raising her hands above her head to allow Emma to tug the fabric up and over her body.

With a thud, the dress fell to the floor. Emma’s gaze raked down Regina’s body, taking in the beautiful woman. It was only when she got to those brown orbs in which she could usually see glimmers of her future that she realised Regina’s eyes were screwed tightly shut. A pang shot through Emma’s heart as she saw yet another reminder of the abuse Regina had suffered. But the brunette had asked not to be reminded of that, even though her history was painfully obvious to both of them.

Heeding Regina’s wishes, Emma closed the gap between them once more, revelling in the feeling of warm skin against her own bare stomach. Regina responded to the kiss at once, a soft sigh of what must have been relief escaping into Emma’s open mouth. Knowing the brunette was happy and relaxed, Emma’s mind also became more focused on the woman in her arms. Her fingers raked up and down Regina’s back, tripping over the narrow bra strap on each passing. Although she was itching to take it off and feel the weight of Regina’s breasts, free from their confines, she knew she should wait. Their current state of undress was uneven, and that was unfair.

A view Regina clearly shared, Emma mused, as she felt fingers start to fumble at her belt. The strip of leather was quickly removed and tossed blindly behind Regina before she returned to undo her button and slide the zipper down. A quick wiggle of her hips and the dark pants were pooled at Emma’s feet. Without breaking the kiss, she stepped out of them and toed the material aside.

And then the kiss ended, Regina pulling away slightly and stepping back. Both women stood there, clad only in their underwear, drinking one another in. Regina’s bra and lace panties were both black, although not from the same set. Emma’s white bra was simple and practical and her cotton briefs were navy blue. Both choices seemed to fit each woman’s personality and style. Regina drank in the sight before her, marvelling at how the beautiful yet gangly teenager she had once known had blossomed into, well, for want of a better word, swan.

Their eyes met and Emma stepped back towards Regina but the brunette held up her hand, fingertips pressed lightly into the woman’s sternum. She stopped at once.

“I haven’t … I mean, I have but … it’s been a while,” Regina admitted at last.

“Ok,” Emma said slowly. “But you have had sex with women before, right?”

“Yes, a few times, in college,” Regina nodded. “Drunk. Always drunk. Never sober.”

“You’ve had two glasses of wine this evening,” Emma pointed out.

“I’m not drunk.”

“Good. I wouldn’t be standing here if you were.”

“I just … look, I want this, Emma. But I don’t want to disappoint you, do something wrong, not please you. I want you to feel good, satisfied with me.”

“I want the same for you,” Emma assured. “It’s not that hard really once you get going and let’s keep this communication stuff open. I’ll tell you what I like, you tell me. Deal?”

“You want us to talk during sex?”

Emma frowned. “If there’s something you want to say, yeah. Why?”

Regina shook her head. She didn’t want to give those thoughts invading her head a moment of her time. Except, there they were. Leo had talked in bed. Well, instructed in bed. Do this, touch that, suck me. Regina’s stomach coiled at the memory until cool fingertips stroked her cheek, pulling back to the present.

“As slow as you need us to go,” Emma said sincerely. “We move at your pace.”

“At our pace,” Regina said. “The same goes for you.”

“Ok,” Emma agreed. “At our pace.”

Regina nodded and stepped back up to Emma’s body, kissing her tenderly and bringing her mind and body fully into the moment. The heat returned almost at once as she felt Emma’s arms wrap around her. She moaned into the kiss as Emma gently turned their bodies so that Regina’s back was to the bed. But the blonde pressed no further. There was no way Emma was going to physically push Regina down onto the bed. That was a move Regina would have to initiate herself.

She did, minutes later, breaking the kiss and leaving swollen, parted lips behind as she sat down and then lowered her back to the soft duvet, eyes never once leaving Emma’s face. Standing at the foot of the bed, Emma drank in the sight before her. Regina blushed slightly at the intensity but also felt a glimmer of pride and a minute boost to her self-confidence as Emma’s aroused eyes grew even darker. Slowly, she shifted herself up the bed so that her feet left the floor and her knees straightened, eventually allowing her head to rest on one of Emma’s pillows.

“Come here,” Regina asked, permitted, instructed once she was in position.

Emma, who had been motionless the entire time Regina had been moving, seemed to spring into action. She quickly reached down and pulled off the socks which still adorned her feet before placing her left knee beside Regina’s right ankle, followed by her right knee by the brunette’s left ankle. Leaning forwards, her hands landed on either side of Regina’s ribs. Their eyes locked.


“Blissfully,” Regina nodded, reassuring Emma that the stance wasn’t too dominating.

Emma smiled as she crawled up the bed until her knees were cradling Regina’s hips, her hands were carefully placed underneath the fan of brown hair and their lips were hovering inches from one another.

“Still ok?”

Regina smirked. “Very ok.”

It was sweet that Emma kept checking in, even if it was entirely unnecessary. Regina felt more than ok. With Emma, she felt safe and cared for and … it was too soon for that. What mattered, however, was that the way Emma treated her was so far from the way Leo had, that Regina felt not even a glimmer of trepidation or anxiety as Emma lowered her body slowly on top of Regina’s.

Their mouths met once more, softer this time. More slowly, the build up to what was next, the inevitable development, requiring a little pause to take stock, as they both grew used to the feel of the other. Warm flesh, alive, vibrant, wanton. Breathless lips, expanding ribcages, breasts pressed against breasts.

Regina’s hand trailed up Emma’s sides, fingers of one coming to unhook the clasp of her bra, the other burying in tangled blonde hair. But the hooks slipped and slid, forcing Regina to use both hands. She flushed with embarrassment at not being able to perform the simple action which she did herself every day. The mirrored motion had confused her. But eventually the strap gave way and she set about removing the material.

Pushing herself up on her hands, Emma’s bra fell away, straps sliding down her arms as they did so. Regina’s eyes locked on the small, pert breasts which hung before her, light pink nipples tight against the rush of cool air they had been exposed to. Emma quickly rid herself of the bra but continued to hold herself up, allowing the observation. She understood the hooded gaze. She was a boob girl too. Her eyes trailed down to Regina’s chest, the bra at least a size bigger than her own. She licked her lips.

At the action, Regina pushed herself onto her elbows, positioning her mouth within kissing reach. Emma obliged, shifting her weight to one hand as she kissed the brunette so she could undo Regina’s bra, the clasp of which was now available to her. It was released within a second.

“Show off,” Regina chuckled into parted lips.

“I’m good with my hands,” Emma replied.

Regina laughed as she let herself fall back onto the mattress and set about the task of removing her bra. “Is that so?”

“Yes,” Emma said. “I am practical and I’m good at building things. I helped my foster father with lots of DIY in the house when I was younger and -”

“Emma, shut up,” Regina giggled, pressing lightly on the top of the blonde’s thighs, forcing her to sit back, straddling her own hips. She then guided Emma’s hands which were no longer supporting the woman’s weight up to cup her breasts. “Let’s put those magic hands to work, shall we?”

“They’re not magic. Magic isn’t real and -”

This time, Emma was silenced by Regina covering the blonde’s hands with her own and squeezing lightly. Against her palm, taut nipples pressed tantalisingly into her soft flesh. Ok, Emma mused, perhaps this was not time to argue why magic was all an illusion and didn’t really exist. She took over from Regina’s gentle encouragement and curled her fingers more firmly around the supple flesh. Regina let out a sigh of contentment and her hands fell away, leaving the blonde to work alone.

The pads of Emma’s thumbs massaged the soft underside of each breast lightly before sliding her hands to either side, revealing those hard nipples. They were darker than Emma’s, unsurprising given the woman’s complexion, she mused. Leaning down, lips captured the peak, a delicate kiss to test the waters. How sensitive was Regina? Judging by the way she arched her back, very. Emma needed a little harsher treatment to her own breasts but she knew some women were very sensitive. Proceeding carefully, she parted her lips, drawing the tip into her hot mouth. Fingers threaded through her hair as a moan vibrated up from Regina’s chest. Emma smiled into the flesh and flattened her tongue against Regina’s nipple, laving softly. Fingers tensed on her scalp.

Moving on, Emma switched her attention to the neglected breast, her hand covering the now wet nipple as she applied the same ministrations to its twin. Beneath her, Regina’s body twitched and trembled with arousal. Emma’s own lust was brewing, bubbling up from deep inside her as she felt Regina react to her touch. But she had promised Regina she would be the one to set the pace. She didn’t want to push.

Regina did, however. Emma released the nipple with a soft pop and looked up to meet chocolate eyes when she felt hands on her shoulders, a gentle, encouraging pressure applied. She raised an eyebrow in question. Regina nodded. Emma rocked forwards on her hands and placed a kiss to Regina’s lips before starting her quest downwards. Kisses fluttered down Regina’s neck, over her collarbone, between the valley of her breasts, over the edge of her ribcage which rose and fell and down towards her stomach. Beneath her lips, Emma could feel the woman tense slightly. Her eyes opened, glancing up to take stock of the woman.

“Go on,” Regina breathed out. “I trust you.”

Emma nodded and placed a quick kiss just above Regina’s belly button before moving down, settling between the woman’s legs which had been parted to make room for her. Only one item of clothing remained. Emma glanced up to Regina’s face and received a nod, permitting her to slip a finger into either side of the black lace and wriggle the material down. It was awkward; Emma having to climb out of the way and Regina raising her hips up to release the fabric. But eventually the underwear was gone and Emma knelt between Regina’s thighs once more.

Cool hands rested just above her knee, the touch light and reassuring, thumbs brushing over her smooth skin. Regina allowed her legs to fall open a little wider at the pressure, although that wasn’t Emma’s intention. It was just a touch, a promise, a reminder. ‘I’m not him,’ Emma was trying to say. I’m not going to hurt you. The nod of Regina’s head seemed to reply, ‘I know’, and it was Emma’s cue.

She shifted herself once more, lying on her stomach with her legs dangling half off the edge of the bed. No Hollywood movie depicted how ungainly sex could actually be, with two people trying to get their bodies into the right position on a relatively small surface. But she ignored the awkward angle as she reached her arms around each thigh, her hands coming to rest upon Regina’s hip points. The woman was slender, the bones protruding lightly at the base of a flat stomach. What had the brunette been nervous about? Emma mused. The thought disappeared, however, when she looked up to see the unadulterated desire in Regina’s eyes. The woman had been waiting long enough.

Returning to the task in hand, or mouth, as the case was about to be, Emma moved closer, breathing in the scent of Regina fully for the first time. Every woman Emma had been with smelt and tasted differently. Regina smelt sweeter than her exes and Emma was already addicted. Unable to wait any longer, she lowered her lips and placed a soft kiss to the woman’s mound, covered in neatly cropped dark hair. A gasp filled the air. Emma glanced up to see Regina’s pupils blown black with lust. She smirked and lowered her mouth once more, maintaining eye contact as she allowed her tongue to lave the soft skin.

Regina’s eyelids fluttered closed. So did Emma’s as she focused on the task in hand. She dragged her tongue repeatedly across Regina’s labia, parting the lips and allowing her tongue to dip into the woman’s entrance. The sharp, sweet taste on her tongue drew a groan as she delved deeper, seeking out more. As her tongue entered the brunette, fingers dug suddenly into her scalp. A quick glance told her Regina was more than ok and Emma continued.

She started a rhythm. Lick up, tease clit, lick down, enter. Lick up, tease clit, lick down, enter. The taste intensified with each pass, Regina’s clit hardening beneath the tip of her tongue as she swirled her tongue around it. Readjusting herself on the bed, Emma splayed her hands across Regina’s stomach, holding down hips which had begun to rock into her ministrations.

“Emma, Jesus, I’m close already,” Regina gasped.

The blonde didn’t reply, but instead opened her eyes and looked up the naked, tense body of her lover. Regina’s core was clenched, her shoulders lifted off the bed as pleasure thrummed through her veins. As Emma watched, tongue still performing the same actions, the brunette arched her back, reversing her posture. On either side of Emma’s ears, thighs twitched, little jerks of pleasure which told her Regina was reaching her peak.

Usually, Emma would have used her fingers, adding internal stimulation to maximise the pleasure of the woman in her bed. But a small voice in the back of her head told her not to. Regina hadn’t said anything about avoiding penetration but she decided that this first time needed to be as different as possible to anything Regina might have experienced before. So she kept going. Lick up, tease clit, lick down, enter. Lick up, tease clit, lick down, enter. Regina’s core was slick with saliva and her own juices by now, Emma’s tongue gliding easily over the hot flesh. She sped up her movements as Regina moaned out her name again, urging her onwards, upwards.

And then she was falling, her body rising off the bed once more, fingers grasping at the duvet as her body quaked. Emma kept her mouth where it was, allowing Regina’s rocking hips to grind against her lips, prolonging her pleasure until, after over thirty seconds, she fell back to the bed, chest rising and falling heavily.

Satisfied, although not as satisfied as Regina by the looks of things, Emma extricated herself from beneath Regina’s legs and crawled back up the bed. She reached for a tissue from the bedside table and wiped the wetness from her mouth. Through half-open eyes, Regina watched the action.


Turning at the whispered apology, Emma frowned. “What for?”

“You don’t like how my body tastes. It’s ok. He didn’t either.”

Anger boiled in Emma, both at the mention of the man while they were in her bed and also at the look of rejection on Regina’s eyes and the realisation that her action had caused that.

“What? No, Regina, that’s not it at all. You’re delicious! The tissue thing is a habit.” The words ‘from a past relationship’ hung unspoken in the air. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to offend you. But seriously, you taste amazing.”

Regina looked unconvinced. Lying beside the sceptical woman, Emma reached down and ran her finger through Regina’s wet core and brought that glistening finger to her mouth. Eyes locked on brown orbs, she sucked it clean. “Delicious,” she declared.


“Truly,” Emma nodded. “I don’t lie, you know that.”

“Ok, thank you,” Regina said, turning onto her side and slinging an arm over Emma’s waist.

“For the orgasm or telling you the truth?”


Emma smiled and leaned in, placing a delicate kiss to Regina’s lips. She wrapped her own arm around Regina and pulled her even closer before closing her eyes and resting her head on the pillow more comfortably. Regina watched the woman before her, unguarded and content. How far they had both come, she mused, fingers trailing up and down the blonde’s spine, feeling the ridges of each vertebrae beneath her tips.

“You’re not falling asleep on me, are you?” she asked after several minutes of silence.

“No,” Emma smiled, eyes still closed. “Just basking in the moment.”

“I’m the one who should be in a post-orgasmic basking phase. You’re pre-orgasm, you should be tense and itching for me to touch you.”

“I’m not going to push you,” Emma replied, eyes opening again. “There’s no rush.”

“But you are itching for me to touch you?”

“I’m not itching. I don’t have lice or crabs.”

Regina wrinkled her nose at the literal reply. But then Emma lifted up her leg, hitching it over the top of Regina’s thigh and opened up her core, a silent offering. Regina took the hint at once and slid her own thigh in between Emma’s legs, pressing upwards until she met slick, hot skin.

“So, you are a little impatient?” Regina teased as she felt the blonde’s arousal on her thigh.

“I’m as patient as you need me to be,” Emma said. “There’s no rush.”

“But you’re turned on.”

“By you,” Emma nodded. “What I just did to you, watching you come, it was erotic, Regina. You’re very sexy, in case you weren’t aware.”

Regina hadn’t been called sexy for years and hadn’t felt sexy since the birth of her son. Not that she blamed Henry but the experience affected the way she perceived her body. The feel of Emma’s wetness, however, did send a rush of empowerment throughout her veins.

“You’re sexy too,” Regina murmured, kissing Emma softly. “And I’m not going to make you wait any longer.”

Emma felt herself being pushed onto her back, Regina rolling on top of her, thigh still wedged between her own. She grinned into the kiss which grew more heated as the brunette moved to kneel between her legs. And then the brunette had pulled away, slithering downwards quickly and all but ripping the underwear from her body.

All that pent up desire, those feelings, the musings and wonderings of what Emma Swan would be like in bed suddenly flooded back and Regina couldn’t get between her thighs quick enough. The blonde cried out as a hot mouth sealed itself over her core, diving in without any preamble. Already aroused after her time pleasuring Regina, the blonde gasped as she felt a tongue swipe through her wetness.

“Fuck, Regina.”

Dark eyes glanced up, eyebrows raised cheekily. Emma chuckled. What have I unleashed? She thought to herself as Regina’s teeth grazed her clit. And then thoughts were no longer an option for her as Regina’s tongue started its assault. Lashing and twirling and sucking and looping around her bundle of nerves, Emma groaned and pushed her body further into the relentless stimulation. She liked it hard and fast, something Regina seemed to enjoy providing. Unashamedly, she ground her body against the woman’s mouth, feeling Regina’s tongue push back eagerly.

Almost embarrassingly quick, Emma’s body trembled and then her back arched, her orgasm taking her by surprise with its speed and intensity. She froze, core pressed tight against Regina’s mouth, the woman also not moving as she watched Emma’s body poise, half off the bed, before collapsing back down, chest heaving. Before pulling away, Regina placed several kisses to the sensitive inside of Emma’s thighs. By the time she crawled back up to Emma, the blonde was watching her though hooded eyes.

“And you were worried about pleasing me,” she husked, pulling the brunette towards her for a deep kiss. While Emma’s previous girlfriend hadn’t liked the taste of herself on Emma’s tongue, the blonde didn’t mind it and savoured the mixture of Regina and her own come.

“That was ok then?”

“More than ok. God, you’re incredible.”

Regina couldn’t stop the smug smirk which graced her face. She settled down beside Emma who held out her arm to cradle the smaller woman.

“No regrets?”

“No regrets,” Regina confirmed. It was true. She had no regrets about taking her relationship with Emma to the next level. She was ready. They were ready. It was long overdue but had also been worth the wait. She turned her head and placed a kiss to Emma’s collarbone beneath her lips before settling more comfortably. Emma’s arm held her tightly. They fell silent, both lost in their own thoughts. Mostly good. Reminiscing about the past. Pondering the future. What next? What now?

“I should get back to the shelter,” Regina said after almost thirty minutes.

Emma, who had been almost asleep beside her, reached out to check the time on her phone. “It’s close to eleven.”

“Yeah, I told Marian I’d be back by then. She has to work tomorrow.”

“Ok,” Emma said. “But, for the record, I don’t want you to go.”

“I know. And I don’t want to go either.” She added a kiss to the statement as if in proof. “But I have to get back to Henry. He can’t be alone for the night.”

Emma understood and nodded her agreement as Regina sat up. She watched for a moment as the woman navigated her way around the room, gathering her discarded clothes. Once Regina’s bra was fastened, Emma got up and did the same.

“Are you coming with me?” Regina asked as she noticed Emma was pulling on her boots.

“Of course,” Emma replied. “Have walk my date home, don’t I?”

“I hope the shelter isn’t my home for much longer.”

“It won’t be,” Emma assured her. “We can start looking for jobs which you can apply for on Monday if you like? After we finish your CV, of course.”

“Yes, that sounds good,” Regina nodded. “Thanks.”

“You’re welcome,” the blonde said, pushing herself off the bed and giving Regina another kiss. “Ready?”

The dark streets were quiet and the two women walked hand in hand, barely speaking on the short walk back to the shelter. Outside the door, Emma leaned against the brickwork. “Well, I guess you can take it from here.”

“You’re not coming in?”

Emma shook her head. “Ruby will think I’m checking up on her. She’ll be watching us on the CCTV now and cursing me for not trusting her.”

“You’re just worried,” Regina pointed out. “And rightly so. She’s suffered a serious loss.”

“Yes and I want to help her but she won’t let me. So I’ll leave it until she’s ready. As long as she’s doing her job and taking care of herself, I suppose I can’t say anything. She wants to work, so I’ll let her. When she wants a friend, I’ll be here too.”

Regina wondered when she’d ever stop falling for this woman. Because that was what was happening, she knew, as she stepped forwards and kissed Emma, a silent way of showing her admiration of the incredible person before her. Much as it pained her to do it, Emma broke the kiss shortly after it started.

“Don’t want to put on a show,” she remarked, glancing up at the discrete camera above them.

“Right, sorry. Well, thank you for tonight. It was amazing,” Regina smiled.

“It really was. We’ll do it again soon, ok?”

“I can’t wait.”

“Goodnight Regina.”

“Goodnight Emma.” With that, she turned and opened the door to the shelter, glancing over her shoulder as she stepped inside. Emma watched until the door clicked shut before stuffing her hands into her pockets and turning around to walk back home. If Emma believed in cliché sayings, she’d probably describe her heart as singing with joy. But hearts didn’t sing. So that was stupid. But whatever the vital organ was doing, whether it was the part of her body where her soul resided, as Emma walked back to the apartment, her heart felt full to bursting. In a good way.

Was this it? Was this her happy ending? She wondered as she bolted the apartment, unbolted it, bolted it shut once more, and slid the deadbolt back. Curling up in her bed minutes later, surrounded by sheets which smelt of Regina and sex, Emma couldn’t help but muse that everything was too perfect.

Life hadn’t dealt Emma Swan a fair hand. Something always went wrong. What was going to happen to destroy the tentative life she and Regina were building? Her skin tingled. Something was coming. She could sense it. Scoffing suddenly at the absurd thought, Emma rolled onto her side and buried her face into the pillow, breathing in the lingering scent of the woman whose naked body she wished was still beside her.

The sign loomed out of the dark, stark white against the black sky. Headlights glanced off the wording, reflecting them into narrowed, determined eyes which flicked from the freeway over to the welcome and back again with renewed determination and focus.

“Empire state, my ass,” he growled as he crossed the border.

Chapter Text

It’s corny but true. Emma woke with a smile on her face. Just like Hollywood, she mused as she buried her grin in the pillow, on which Regina’s scent still lingered. And then she resumed her routine. Alarm off, dumbbell wedging door open, pull up bar in place. Raising her arms above her head, she rolled her shoulders a few times before wrapping her fingers around the plastic grips.

One, two, three, four, five, six. She dropped to the floor, her arms aching more than usual. She had been doing two sets of ten pull ups for years. Guess I’m a little out of practice, Emma mused, thinking back to the time she had spent holding her body weight about Regina’s. Her core tingled at the memory of the woman beneath her the night before. Reaching up once more, she finished the reps, gave herself a longer break than usual, and did five more. Then another five.

“That’ll do,” Emma muttered, removing the bar and making her way to the bathroom. Shower warming, she peed and then climbed under the perfectly temperate spray. Cinnamon shampoo, cinnamon body scrub. A quick shave of her underarms. Done.

Wet hair wrapped in a towel turban, she headed for the kitchen and placed her two pieces of bread in the toaster. The dirty plates from the previous night were sat on the side. Emma never left the kitchen anything other than pristine but Regina’s presence had distracted her. And now she was on a schedule. The dishes would have to wait. She pulled out a clean plate, knife, butter and the jar of blueberry jam. Hmm, running low, she noted. Next was the coffee machine. Cup in place. On.

She dressed in her usual work attire and dried her hair briefly before returning to the kitchen. Glancing at the washing up, she then checked the time. 7:44am. She definitely didn’t have time to do the dishes. Their presence would remain a constant irritant in the back of her mind all day. Toast buttered and jammed, she picked up one slice and began to chew, suddenly realising she was starving.

Once she’d eaten, she screwed the lid on her coffee mug and headed for the door, grabbing her handbag on the way. It was 7:51am. She was early. Eager. She knew who she wanted to see. Down in the lobby, she opened the mail, then closed it, then opened it. The box was empty both times. Stepping out onto the street, she was greeted by grey drizzle. The warm spring which had been developing appeared to be on vacation and Emma quickly pulled out the compact umbrella she always kept in her bag. Popping it open, she set off down the street, eyes on the slick sidewalk as she headed for work.

Her usual six-minute walk took five and a half, the damp weather speeding up her pace and urging her back inside. Well, she may also have wanted to see a certain brunette as soon as possible. Before entering the building, Emma performed her cursory glance around the street. Parked cars, the usual commuters walking up and down, a mother scolding her child who appeared to have jumped in a puddle and splattered grimy water up her pale pants. Poor choice of outfit, if you asked Emma, especially if you put a four-year-old boy in wellington boots. Asking for trouble.

She unlocked the door to the shelter and stepped inside, closing the heavy wood firmly behind her.

“Ruby?” she called out, noticing at once that the front desk was vacant.

No answer. She frowned and walked over, peering over the edge and spotting the woman. Fast asleep, head resting on a pillow made of her own sweater. Emma sighed. Well, at least she was still here. And sleeping. Sleep was good. Although not while working. She circled the desk and went to enter her office but as she did so, she paused. The computer screen was black. Another frown. Inching her way behind Ruby’s chair, she leaned over and pressed the monitor button. It flickered to life at once, the four CCTV cameras’ streams neatly arranged.

“Ruby,” Emma said, hand resting on her friend’s shoulder.

“What?” came the mumbled reply.

“Why was the monitor off?”

“What?” This time, Ruby raised her head, yawned and rubbed her eyes. “What are you talking about?”

“The monitor,” Emma said again. “It was off. Why?”

“Oh, um, I turned it off when I saw you and Regina go at it outside the door last night. Not really my thing, you know? Spying on my best friend.”

Emma rolled her eyes. “It was a goodnight kiss. Have these been off all night?”

“Yeah, so? Nothing’s happened. It’s been quiet. Can I go home now?”

“Sure,” Emma nodded. “Anything to report?”


Ruby got up, stretched out her arms. Emma grimaced at the sound of something cracking in the redhead’s back. She hated that sound. Gathering her items, Ruby took a swig of a cup of cold coffee before bidding Emma farewell.

“Rubes,” Emma called out before her friend disappeared. “You are ok, aren’t you? I mean, if you’re not ready to come back, you know you can have more time.”

“I’m fine. Look, I’ve gotta go. Funeral to plan. Some dick from the mortuary called last night and told me I could come and collect Granny. Collect a dead body. That’s what I’ve got to organise today. Some bloke is going to drive to the hospital and put Granny in a box which I have to choose because apparently it matters what sort of wood the worms are going to burrow through to eat her. And then I have to decide what songs we sing before she’s dumped into a hole. So, yeah, Emma, I’m fine. I’ll see you later.”

Before Emma could answer, her friend had gone in a flurry of red hair. She didn’t know what her answer would have been anyway. Words had failed her. She was too busy suppressing the visual of a dead body being eaten by worms. Gross. She understood it was part of some grotesque life cycle but still; gross.

Dumping her handbag on the desk, she sat down in front of the computer and navigated her way to the archived footage. Taking a sip of her coffee, she selected the point in the footage shortly before she and Regina arrived and sat back to watch the historic tape in double time. Almost immediately, and at jolted, comical speed, she and Regina appeared in the shot. She smiled as she recalled their brief conversation. The kiss, twice as fast as it had been less than twelve hours before, still sent a tingle down Emma’s spine.

Moments afterwards, Emma’s image disappeared from the shot of the front door and Regina appeared on the screen of the camera which was trained on the entrance. She took another gulp of coffee as she watched her former self walk down the street. The shelter had four cameras. One over the front door outside, one above the reception desk facing the front door, and two on the street outside, one pointing east and one pointing west.

It was late. After eleven by now and the footage was static. The occasional car slid from one wide street view to the other but aside from that, nothing moved. Even in double time, this was boring. Quadruple would be better. She tapped the button. The clock in the counter announced that time was sliding past even faster. Still nothing of note was visible. Another sip of coffee.


Emma jumped to her feet, not having heard the door to the main area of the shelter open. “Hey,” she grinned at the brunette leaning on the edge of the desk, reaching behind her to pause the running security tape. “How are you?”

“I’m good. How are you? Did you sleep well?”

“My bed smells like you,” Emma informed her girlfriend.

“In a good way?” Regina asked.

“In a very good way,” Emma nodded. “I slept very well. Did you?”

“Yes, I did. Although my bed doesn’t smell like you, which is a shame. Are you busy or do you want to have breakfast with me and Henry? We’re out of milk so I’m just nipping down to the store to get some.”

“There should be communal milk in the fridge,” Emma offered but Regina shook her head.

“No, it got finished up yesterday apparently. Do you want me to grab an extra carton?”

“Yes, please,” Emma nodded, reaching for the petty cash box which was kept locked in a box under the desk. “I’d come with you but Mulan isn’t here yet and I can’t leave the desk unattended. And I’ll take you up on breakfast as soon as she arrives. But don’t wait for me. She’s often a few minutes late on Saturday mornings. It’s something I’ve learned to accept.”

“No problem,” Regina replied. “Do you need anything else from the store?”

“I’m good, thanks,” Emma smiled.

Regina took the five dollar bill which Emma was holding out to her and grinned back. “I’ll be back in ten minutes.”

“Ok, oh, take my umbrella. It’s raining out there.” She stood and picked up her umbrella which had been resting against the wall, dripping slowly onto the floor.

“Thanks,” Regina replied as she took the offered item, leaning in to give Emma a chaste kiss before heading for the door.

The blonde watched her leave and only sat back down when Regina was out of sight. Pressing the space bar, she restarted the footage. More coffee slid down her throat. It was close to two in the morning now, according to the footage and the streets were even quieter. She glanced around the desk, noting as she did so that debris from Ruby’s night lay scattered across the work surface. Grimacing she kept one eye on the monitor while she started to tidy up.

Just as she was sweeping some crumbs into the bin, movement on the screen caught her eye. A man walked unnaturally fast along the sidewalk and then stopped almost outside the shelter. Emma froze, hand quickly slowing the recording to real time as she watched. Something inside her immediately twisted. This was not right. Her heartbeat quickened. The man was older, nudging mid-fifties. Balding, pot-bellied and wearing an expensive looking jacket. Emma didn’t recognise him. Yet something deep inside her told her the man had come to the right place. As far as he was concerned. Tapping the keyboard, she took several screengrabs.

He looked up and down the street and then directly at the door. He seemed to be searching for something. Emma knew that at any given time there would be various individuals seeking the women and children whom she kept safe. She prided herself on the fact that few had ever found them and those that had got the information from the women themselves, children missing their fathers or previously trusted friends. So who was this man? Who was he looking for? And how did he find them?

Moments later, he pulled out a cell, tapped the screen and put it to his ear. Emma glanced at the time stamp. Almost three in the morning. The man was talking into his phone. Whoever he had called had answered. What did that mean? Emma wished, not for the first time, that their CCTV had audio recording. The man looked angry, gesticulating towards the building and then appearing to be searching for a way of identifying where he was. For obvious reasons, Swan’s Shelter had no plaque outside. And then he was walking away, back the way he came. Just before he reached the edge of the shot, however, he stopped, opened the door of a dark car, and climbed inside.

At once, Emma navigated back to the live stream. It took her less than a second to identify the car. In the exact same position. She squinted. From what she could see, the car was empty. Movement in the other camera caught her eye.

“Thank god,” she murmured as she recognised the figure strolling towards the shelter.

Seconds later, Mulan appeared in the reception area. “Hey boss. How are you? Grim weather today. Where did the sunshine go?”

“I’m worried,” Emma replied, putting down her now cold coffee and getting to her feet. “There’s a car outside which belongs to a man who was looking around outside in the middle of the night. Wait here, I’m going to check it out.”

Mulan nodded at once, hurrying around the desk and taking Emma’s place in the vacated seat. “What do you want me to do?”

“Just watch the feed. If anything happens, call the cops.”

“Who is this guy?” Mulan asked.

“No idea. But he’s looking for someone in here. I just want to know if he’s still around.”

Mulan watched the blonde disappear and then turned her attention to the screen where the black and white figure had appeared. Emma glanced up and down the street before setting off along the sidewalk. Mulan watched, shrugging off her jacket as she did so, as Emma approached the edge of the camera’s view.

Next to a dark sedan, the woman bent down and seemed to peer through the window. Evidently the car was empty. She circled the front of the vehicle and looked in through the driver’s window too. Then, after only a couple of seconds, she straightened up, glanced straight at the shelter and set off at a sprint in the opposite direction.

“What the fuck?” Mulan muttered, jumping to her feet before realising she couldn’t leave to follow the woman who had disappeared from their camera coverage. Instead she did as she was instructed and reached for the shelter’s phone and called 9-1-1.

Two cartons of milk had evolved into a mini shop. Tempted by the fresh croissants which she had spotted in a bakery on the way to the bodega, Regina had then set about buying a few toppings and breakfast treats. Well, it was the morning after their first night together. The occasion deserved to be marked now Emma was joining them.

So she’d splashed out. Just a little. The bodega wasn’t particularly well stocked, but it had what she needed and she had become accustomed to shopping there. Plus, it was close to the shelter. Her comfort zone was still relatively contained. Henry’s school, the bodega, the shelter. Oh, and Emma’s apartment. Actually, she mused, thinking back to their first month in the city, anywhere with Emma. The park. The zoo.

The memory of those days burning strong, she smiled widely at the man behind the counter as she heaved her basked onto the side and he set about tallying up her bill, face stony. But Regina didn’t care. Nothing could dampen her mood that day.

“Twenty-six dollars, seventy cents.”

Oh, that might. Regina looked down at the crumpled twenty-dollar bill she was holding and Emma’s pristine five dollars. She had spent the other five she’d slipped into her wallet on the croissants.

“Oh, um, I don’t have quite that much,” Regina admitted, cheeks flushed with embarrassment. The man behind the counter said nothing. “Right, I’ll just put back the Nutella then,” reaching for the jar perched on the top of the first bag.

“I’ll get these.”

Regina froze at the sound of the voice right behind her. An arm reached over her shoulder and passed a hundred-dollar bill to the disinterested cashier. She could feel his breath on the back of her neck. Her body trembled involuntarily but she remained motionless. All three members of the strange transaction were silent. Regina thought she might be sick if she spoke. The cashier seemed not to have noticed anything. It was he who broke the silence.

“A thank you would be nice,” he said as he received his change.

Slowly, reluctantly, she turned on the spot, groceries forgotten on the side.

“Hello Regina.”


“Where’s Henry?”

Regina swallowed the bile rising in the back of her throat. “I … I’m not telling you.”

Leo sneered. “Oh, yes you are. You’re going to tell me and then the three of us are going to go home. And we’re going to have a little talk about disobedience, ok?”

His thinly veiled threat was met with silence. Regina prayed that the bodega owner was paying attention but doubted it. The rest of the store was empty. It was just her and Leo.

“Come on, let’s go and see my son.”

Picking up her two bags of shopping, he used his elbow to nudge Regina hard in the back, the woman forced to move towards the shop exit. She stumbled forwards, trying desperately to think of a plan. Only one option occurred to her. Outside on the street, she turned left, not even bothering to raise the umbrella as the fine drizzle fell from the pale grey sky.

“Ah, where do you think you’re going?”

“To Henry,” Regina lied.

“But you came from down this way.” He jerked his thumb in the other direction, towards Swan’s Shelter. Colour drained from Regina’s olive skin and the man smirked with cruel mirth. “I watched you, Regina. I know where you’ve been staying. And that’s where Henry is too. Take me to him. Now.”


A jar of jam smashed on the sidewalk as Leo dropped one of the bags and lashed out. Regina stumbled backwards, hand clutching her cheek where bare knuckles had connected with her jaw. Her entire skull throbbed with the impact and involuntary tears sparkled in her eyes.

“Take me to my son. Right now, Regina.”

Although it went against every motherly fibre of her being, Regina stepped over the spoiled groceries, spilling from their soggy brown bag and started to make her way down the street, in the direction of the shelter. She couldn’t do anything else. She couldn’t disobey Leo again. He already knew where they were anyway. She couldn’t hide. But Emma was at the shelter. She could help, couldn’t she?

It took immense effort to keep placing one foot in front of the other. She walked slowly, umbrella dangling by her calf. Was she doing the right thing? Should she stop? What would happen to Henry? What would happen to Emma? But she kept walking. There was nothing else to do except walk. Leo was right behind her, humming softly. A mixture of smug contentment and cockiness. Emma would hate him, Regina was sure. She hated him. If possible, her hatred for the man had increased even more so since she arrived in New York. He didn’t deserve her. Or Henry. He didn’t treat them right. And yet, she kept walking. Left, right, left, right. Towards her son. Towards Emma.

Rounding the corner and turning into the street on which Swan’s Shelter lay, Regina collided with a speeding body. She almost lost her balance, the knock to the head making her faintly dizzy but two strong hands shot out to steady her.

“Shit, sorry. Oh, Regina, thank goodness. I thought -”

Emma stopped dead when she took in the man behind the brunette. In a split second, she understood the situation and immediately pushed Regina behind her, positioned herself between the brunette and Leo.

“Excuse me, Sir, I’m going to have to ask you to leave.” As she spoke, she blindly reached behind her for Regina’s hand. When cool fingers intertwined with hers, she felt a rush of relief. Regina was still there. Alive. Ok. She could protect her. She would protect her.

“Leave?” Leo laughed. “It’s a public sidewalk, love. You can’t tell me to leave. And who the fuck are you anyway?”

“My name is Emma Swan. I don’t want any trouble,” Emma said, taking a step backwards and encouraging Regina to move away from the man as well. “I think it would be best for everyone if you got in your car and went home.”

“Home, huh? Sure, I’ll go home. Just as soon as my wife and son are returned to me.”

Emma shook her head, still walking backwards slowly. Leo, however, had started to walk towards them, maintaining an equidistance between the two parties. “They’re not going anywhere with you.”

Leo laughed. “What are you, some sort of woman saviour?”

A rhetorical question, Emma decided. No answer needed. Instead, she kept walking backwards, Regina’s fingers still interlocked with hers.

“Listen, Emma Swan, I don’t know who you are and I don’t know what you’re doing but that woman behind you is my wife. She has taken my son and I want them back.”

“You can’t have them back,” Emma snapped. “Humans aren’t property. You don’t own people, Leo. If Regina doesn’t want to go with you, then she doesn’t have to.”

Leo hesitated for a moment before speeding up his steps. Emma reacted too and walked faster as well. “You know who I am, I see. Have you been telling tales about me, Regina?”

“No, Leo,” came the quiet voice from over Emma’s shoulder. “Please, leave us alone.”

“I drove all this way to get you, Regina. I’m not leaving without you.”

Out of the corner of her eye, Emma noticed that they had passed Leo’s car. That meant they were barely fifteen metres from the door of the shelter. Close enough, she deduced, for Regina to get to safety. She stopped walking, Regina’s fingers pulling against her own for a moment before she stopped too. Leo also ceased his advance, now mere inches from Emma’s face.

“Sir, I’m sorry but I am going to have to insist,” Emma said, keeping her voice neutral and calm. Offering a slight squeeze to Regina’s fingers, she released her grip and held up both hands in a placating manner. “Regina does not want to return to your home with you and I would like you to respect her wishes. If you do not leave peacefully, I will be forced to call the police.”

“You want to call the cops on me? Go ahead. I’ve done nothing wrong,” Leo jeered.

A wave of anger overcame Emma at the blatant denial. Or perhaps Leo genuinely didn’t consider what he did as wrong.

“You have been physically and mentally abusive to your wife and your son,” Emma explained, voice now trembling slightly.

“Can’t prove that,” Leo shrugged. “And even if you could, we live in Maine. NYPD has no jurisdiction there.

Someone’s been watching too much TV, Emma mused. “Perhaps, but I can prove you just hit your wife on a New York street.” The red mark on Regina’s face had been noted as soon as she realised who it was she had run into. The visible representation of the man’s violence triggered a surge of hatred, if she hadn’t already hated Leo enough for what he had done.

“Oh yeah, go on then, lady. Call the cops.”

Emma raised an eyebrow and then nodded, reaching for her pocket. Empty. Dread fluttered across her face when she realised she had left her cell on the desk. Leo’s lip curled into a sneer. “I guess there won’t be any of New York’s finest joining us today. Regina, get in the car. I’ll get Henry myself.” With those final words, Leo advanced towards Emma, reaching for her arm to shove her out of the way.

No fucking way, the blonde thought to herself. Self-defence training kicking in, she quickly wrapped her free hand over Leo’s brutish fingers which were clamped over her wrist. In the blink of an eye, she had twisted her arm around and forced Leo’s entire body downwards. Another push, and the man crumbled to his knees, crying out as he landed on the wet sidewalk.

“Regina, go back inside,” Emma yelled over her shoulder.

“No, I’m not leaving you.”

“Go,” Emma all but bellowed as Leo wrenched himself free, rolling away from her grip and pushing himself to his feet.

Loathe as she was to take instructions from anyone, Leo or Emma, the fury she saw on Leo’s face as he staggered upwards made her fear once again for Henry’s life. She turned on her heels and ran, hand fumbling for the key to the shelter. Behind her, came an ‘oof’ as Leo tried to pass Emma and received a knee to the gut.

“You bitch,” he gasped, drawing air into mildly winded lungs. “Get the fuck out of my way.”

“Never,” Emma declared. “Leave Regina and Henry alone.”

Beady eyes narrowed and the man advanced again. Emma went to a monthly self-defence training, as did all of her staff. She knew how to defend herself. And then Leo reached behind his back. The metal glinted in the sunlight. Emma stepped backwards at once. Leo laughed. “Not so strong now are you,” he mocked, raising the gun to point the barrel directly at Emma. “Move. Out. Of. My. Way.” Each word was punctuated with a step; Leo forwards, Emma backwards.

Regina had never mentioned that Leo owned a gun. But the omission of that detail hardly mattered now. Emma raised both her hands in surrender, knowing she could do little in their current positions to outmanoeuvre a gun. But she stayed in the middle of the sidewalk. Regina must be inside by now but she didn’t dare move. Praying instead that Mulan was watching the feed, Emma decided to stall, waiting for the cops which must be on their way.

“Leo, let’s talk about how I can help you,” she began.

Bursting into the shelter, Regina slammed the door behind her and looked around, eyes wide with fear.

“Regina, what the fuck is going on? Who is that guy?” Mulan asked her, jumping to her feet behind the desk.

“My husband. Where’s Henry?”

“Inside, I guess? I’ve not seen him,” Mulan answered before turning her attention to the phone in her hand. “Ok, can you send someone now? We’re a women’s shelter and one of the husbands has turned up. He’s violent.”

Regina frowned. “You called the cops?” she asked.

Mulan nodded. “Yes, the wife is inside.” Pause. “Yes, she’s safe. But my boss is outside with this guy and –,” she stopped, staring open mouthed at the computer screen. “Shit, he’s got a gun. Send someone now. He’s pointing a fucking gun at her.”

At those words, Regina turned on the spot and immediately reached for the door handle. She had to help Emma. She couldn’t leave the woman alone to take a bullet which was intended for her. Leo’s problem was not with the blonde. It was with her. Emma didn’t deserve to get involved, and she certainly didn’t deserve to die. But when she wrenched the handle, it wouldn’t budge. She tried again, and again, adrenaline surging through her veins at the horrifying thought of losing Emma. I can’t lose her. I can’t lose Emma. Not now, not after everything we’ve both been through. I have to help. Regina rattled the handle in spiralling desperation until a voice from behind her interrupted her stream of consciousness.

“It’s locked,” Mulan explained, hurrying around to the far side of the desk. “Security protocol when there’s a gun. We’re on lockdown.”

“But Emma’s outside,” Regina screamed, tears now streaming down her face. “We have to help Emma.”

“The police are on their way. They’ll help Emma. Right now, I have to get you to the back of the shelter, ok? Let’s go and see Henry, make sure he’s alright.”

Regina shrugged off Mulan’s hand on her shoulder and returned to trying to open the door, desperate to get back to Emma. She had to help Emma. Emma needed her. It was no use, however, and soon her body collapsed, shaking with sadness and regret, terror and foreboding. Gently, Mulan coaxed her upwards and escorted the now limp woman through to the back of the shelter. Regina leaned heavily on the smaller woman, sobbing uncontrollably. Just before the heavy door to the rear of the building swung closed, the hollow sound of a single gunshot reverberated through the air.

Wide brown eyes, filled with unshed tears, gazed at Mulan. Despair, heartbreak, loss emanated from her expression. Mulan too, looked pale. Had her boss just been shot? And then she leapt back into her role to protect the women in the shelter, catching Regina who was falling once again as she fainted. Mulan, her own heart in her mouth, dragged the unconscious woman’s feet past the threshold and slammed the door shut.


Chapter Text

Five Minutes Earlier

“Leo, let’s talk about how I can help you,” she began. “If you get in your car and drive home, then that’s the end of this. Nothing bad needs to happen, no criminal charges will be filed and we can all get on with our lives.”

“Yeah, that’s not happening,” Leo sneered, fingers flexing slightly on the grip of the gun. “I came here to get my wife and my son. I’m not leaving without them.”

He took another step forwards, in the direction Regina had fled. The brunette had already disappeared inside the nondescript door outside which he had stood the previous night. Inside that building was his son. And his wife. But Leo knew he couldn’t get inside without a code. This woman must know the code. She could help.

“Take me to Regina,” Leo said, another step closer to Emma.

“No.” The answer was simple because the question was stupid. Of course Emma wasn’t going to take an abusive man to her girlfriend.

Dark eyes narrowed. “Who the fuck are you?”

“My name is Emma Swan,” Emma repeated.

“Yeah, but why are you standing in my way? Regina is my wife. What’s it to you that I’ve come to take her home.”

“This is Regina’s home now,” Emma replied coolly. “And I’m standing in your way because I am protecting Regina and Henry from you and your abuse.” Those were the facts, after all.

“Abuse?” he barked with a short laugh. “Whatever she’s told you is bullshit. She’s lying. I’m her husband. I’m Henry’s father.”

“You can be those things and still be abusive, Leo. You hurt them. You hurt Regina and Henry. Maybe you didn’t mean to, but you did and Regina decided that it wasn’t safe for either of them to stay with you. She chose to leave and she chose to bring Henry with her.”

“They’re my family. It’s got nothing to do with you,” Leo snarled, yet another step closer to Emma. “Now move the fuck out of my way or I’ll make you.”

Inside her ribcage, Emma could feel her heartbeat thumping. She briefly thought of the irony, as if her heart was aware it may be coming close to its last moments and wanted to squeeze as many pumps into its remaining seconds as possible. But then she forced her mind back to the situation at hand. The gun, more specifically, which was pointed directly at her. Leo’s face was red with fury as he waited for her to move.

“I’m sorry, I can’t do that.”

Leo almost growled as he lunged forwards. Emma tried to seize his wrist but the man wrestled himself away, using his considerable weight to overpower her. Quick as a flash, Emma found herself knocked out of the way before he advanced again, this time jamming the barrel of the gun into Emma’s side. She winced in pain, shrinking away from the brutish man who had managed to wrap his arm around her neck, twisting himself so her back was held tight to his front. The cold metal barrel shifted slightly, pointing directly into Emma’s abdomen.

“Walk. Now.”

Slowly, because there was nothing else to do, Emma started to make her way towards the door of the shelter. Please have called 9-1-1, she thought to herself, knowing that she left Mulan with clear instructions to do exactly that if anything should go sideways. Well, things were going sideways as far as Emma was concerned. Leo pressed the gun a little deeper into her flesh, forcing her to stumble slightly. She kept walking, straining her ears for any sign that help was on the way. Nothing. Complete silence. It was New York City and yet, somehow, there was no comforting wail of a siren in the distance.

“Police! Drop your weapon!”

Emma faltered in her step at the shout from behind them. Leo stopped too, then whirled around on the spot, dragging Emma in front of him and positioning her, now his hostage, between himself and two uniformed cops who had appeared at the far end of the street.

“Back off,” Leo bellowed. “Or I’ll shoot her.”

“Put the gun down, sir,” one of the officers said, taking a step away from her partner and into the road, dividing Leo’s attention.

“Just back off, ok?” Leo yelled again. “This is nothing to do with you.”

“Sir, you’re holding a firearm and pointing it at a civilian,” the police officer explained. “Can you put down the gun for us, please, and no one needs to get hurt.”

Behind her, Emma could feel Leo’s body begin to tremble. He was scared, feeling trapped, desperate. And Emma knew from experience and her training that these emotions made people unpredictable. Leo had already behaved irrationally and now, threatened by police, he was even more on edge. Emma closed her eyes briefly, trying to steady her breathing. Regina and Henry are safe, she reminded herself. And Leo wasn’t getting access to the shelter. One way or another, he wasn’t going inside.

“Just stay away,” Leo said, eyes glancing from the officer on the sidewalk, directly ahead of them and the woman who was now at a forty-five degree angle.

“Sir, can you let her go for us? Then we can talk about what’s going on and see if we can come to some sort of solution.”

“Nothing’s going on. I just came to get my wife and kid.”

“Is this your wife here, sir?”

“No!” Emma protested. The idea of being married to Leo made Emma’s stomach coil.

Leo hissed with anger and pulled Emma closer to him, ensuring that the cops couldn’t shoot. “No, this bitch isn’t my wife,” he agreed. “My wife and my son are inside that building over there. Just packing up our things and then we’ll be on our way.”

“Great, well, while we wait,” the office continued, taking another step towards Leo and Emma, “do you think we can put the gun down?”

“No, I don’t think so,” Leo sneered. “And back off,” he added, realising that the officer was advancing. “Both of you, back the fuck off.”

The man’s body was tense, hard and hot against Emma’s. The thought of his overbearing presence above Regina’s made her physically sick. She wanted desperately to be free of him, to be released from his sweaty arm wrapped around her neck, for the pressure in her side where the gun dug into her flesh to disappear. But she was powerless. There was nothing she could do except wait.

“We can’t do that, sir,” the officer said, although he had stopped walking. “Now, if you can let the woman go, perhaps we can talk.”

“Nah, if I let her go, you shoot me. I think I’ll keep this troublemaker close by,” Leo said, tugging Emma roughly back, forcing the two of them to stagger a few steps backwards.

“Sir, please let her go. No one needs to get hurt. We’re not going to shoot you.”

“Oh yeah? Then why has your mate got her gun pointed at me?” Leo yelled, suddenly changing tact and pointing his gun at the female officer now in the middle of the road who did indeed have a glock pointed at the man.

In that moment, the other police officer pulled his weapon too, pointing it directly at Leo. But everyone involved knew he couldn’t take the shot. Emma was too close. It wasn’t worth the risk.

“Back the fuck off,” Leo yelled.

No one moved. Well, Emma’s body moved. She was shaking. Had it not been for Leo’s arm around her neck, she suspected she would have collapsed. Her knees felt weak. Briefly, she was angry at her body for acting in such a way. She needed it to be strong and responsive in the face of danger, not just embody the terror which, she admitted to herself, flowed through her veins.

“Sir, just lower your weapon,” the female officer said, just as the sound of sirens reached their ears. At last, backup was coming.

Leo heard them too, knowing he was soon to be surrounded. What to do? How to get out of this? They wanted the blonde woman free. But that would result in his immediate death. He had to keep her. She was the reason he was still alive. He stepped backwards. The police officers mimicked his movement.

“Fuck off out of here,” he exploded, knowing as he spoke that it would never happen. “This has nothing to do with you. It’s my family.”

Something snapped inside of Emma. Despair? Desperation? An abrupt confrontation of her own mortality? “Regina’s not your family any more,” she yelled, pulling angrily at the arm around her neck, fingernails digging into plump flesh. “You can’t have her.”

Leo roared in anger, shifting the gun back towards Emma, but before he could fully redirect the barrel, a crack of gunfire sounded on the street.

They were falling, hard. The sidewalk sped up to meet them as both bodies collapsed in a heap. Emma’s lungs were crushed as the weight of the man landed on top of her, pinning her to the ground. A scream, followed by moans of agony. Whimpering. A groan. She had no idea who made those noises. Wet breath puffed erratically on the nape of her neck. Against her shoulder blade, something warm and wet began to spread. Bile rose in her chest at the gruesome sensation and she vomited. The last thing she was aware of before she passed out was the increased volume of the sirens and the heavy boots rushing towards her. And then there was blackness.

Eyes blinked slowly open, lights above her too bright. She squinted, closing her lids against the glare. Beneath her was a hard, cold surface. Where was she? And then the memories returned. Snapping her eyes open once more, she pushed herself up.

“Woah, hey there.”

“Kathryn,” Regina frowned, realising who was kneeling beside her. On the floor. In the corridor. At the shelter. Swan’s Shelter. Swan. Emma. She resumed her efforts to get up, forcing her aching body into a sitting position. “What happened? Where’s Henry? Where’s Emma?”

“Henry’s in the common room and I don’t know where Emma is,” Kathryn admitted. At that, Regina scanned her face and realised the blonde was paler than usual.

“Where’s Mulan?”

“Talking to the police,” Kathryn replied, gesturing towards the door which led to the reception.

“Police? How long was I out?”

“Ten minutes maybe? Not long. You gave us a fright though. I was bringing the girls out for brunch and came across you and Mulan on the floor.”

“Where’s Emma?” Regina repeated.

“I told you, sweetie,” Kathryn said, reaching out as if she was going to check Regina’s head for a bump which may have caused a concussion. But Regina recoiled and Kathryn dropped her arms back to her side. “I don’t know where Emma is. Mulan just asked me to wait here with you. She was standing by the door for a minute or so, just looking at her cell phone. Then she told me to wait with you while she talked to the police and disappeared. I’ve been here ever since. Do you know why the cops are here? Has something happened?”

“Henry’s safe?”

“He was with Roland the last time I saw him. I told my girls to go back to our room when Mulan asked me to wait with you. No one else has come down this way. Do you know what’s going on? Mulan looked really freaked out. Are the police here to speak to one of us?”

“No,” Regina replied, now getting to her feet. Kathryn rose too, hands poised to catch Regina if she wobbled. “I have to find Emma. Can you stay with Henry?”

“Yes, but what’s Emma got to do with you fainting? And what’s going on here today? Mulan wouldn’t tell me anything, just made me promise to stay with you. Is everything ok?”

“My husband is here,” Regina admitted through gritted teeth. “And the last I knew, he was pointing a gun at Emma. Please, just, look after Henry?”

Kathryn opened her mouth to answer but seemed to decide there were no words to respond to the revelation, so she closed it again and nodded. Regina muttered ‘thanks’ before pushing herself away from the wall against which she was leading to start walking, on shaky legs, towards the reception door.

Only one thing mattered to her in that moment. Now she knew Henry was safe, she had to find Emma. The door handle felt cold beneath her fingers. She gripped it hard, not sure what to expect on the other side. Actually, she knew exactly what to expect. There were two outcomes and she dreaded hearing both of them. One because, much as she hated Leo, she couldn’t begin to think about how she could explain to her son that his father was dead. The other because, well, because she didn’t think she could handle losing Emma.

The reception was busy. Half a dozen cops were there, along with several civilians who appeared to be being interviewed. Witnesses. But to what? She spotted Mulan at once, standing beside the desk with her fingers twisted together. Regina scanned the rest of the room. Was that a smear of blood on a police officer’s cheek? Whose blood was it? She forced herself to put one foot in front of the other until she reached Mulan.

“Regina, shit, what are you doing out here? Get back to the common room please,” Mulan said as soon as she registered the woman stood beside her.

“Where’s Emma?”


“Emma, where is she?”

“She’s on her way to hospital,” Mulan admitted, relaying the information she herself had just learned. No specific details about her boss could be gleaned from the cops, despite Mulan’s pleas.

At the news, Regina’s knees gave out but the police officer interviewing Mulan caught her before she reached the floor. “Is she … was she …?”

“She’s ok, we think,” Mulan replied, crouching down to Regina’s level after the man lowered her gently to the floor. “Look, you really can’t be here. The police will want to talk to you about Leo but not yet.”

“This is then man’s wife?” the police officer asked.

“Yes, I’m Leo’s wife. Well, we’re separated. Is he ok?” Regina asked.

“Not really. But he’s alive. On his way to hospital too. He’ll make it.”

“Was he shot?”

The police officer nodded. “Yes, and I am going to need a statement from you. Now, please.”

“Let’s use Emma’s office,” Mulan offered. She had wanted to protect Regina from having to discuss her abusive husband, at least until she or Belle could speak with her. The psychologist was on her way in already but Mulan thought it would be detrimental to Regina for the interview to commence without additional psychological support. She knew, however, that she was unable to prevent the police officer from taking the statement. The most she could do was be there for Regina as she told her side of the day’s events.

“Wait, can I see Emma first?” Regina asked. “Was she shot too?”

“No,” the police officer said. “Miss Swan was not shot. She’s going to the hospital because she lost consciousness. It’s standard procedure. She’ll probably be released in a few hours.”

“So she wasn’t hurt by Leo?”

“Not deliberately,” the police officer replied. “Look, we can go through all this but ideally I’d like to start at the beginning so…” He gestured towards the open office door and, begrudgingly, Regina entered, followed by Mulan.

“Excuse me,” she asked a passing nurse. “I feel fine. I don’t need to be here. When can I leave?”

“You were brought in by paramedics, so you’ve got to wait to see a doctor, sorry,” he said with a sympathetic look for the woman propped up in a hospital bed.

“Miss Swan, please, we’re trying to finish this statement,” a detective said, forcing Emma to focus on him rather than the retreating nurse who, for a short moment, Emma had hoped could get her out of here. “So, you were saying that you saw a notepad on the seat of the victim’s car which had a name on it.”

“Yes, Regina’s name. And the address of the shelter. I don’t know how he got that. We’re off grid for a reason. There’s no trace of us online. Anyway, as soon as I saw that, I knew who the car belonged to and who he was here for. Regina had gone down to the bodega, so I headed that way but met her and Leo already coming back. Is he dead?”


“Leo. Is he dead?” Who else would I be talking about? Emma thought to herself.

“Oh, no, he’s not dead. He’s in surgery, I think,” the detective replied. “So, what happened when you met Regina and Leo on the street?”

“I put myself between him and Regina.”


“Because he’s a dangerous man and it’s my responsibility to keep Regina safe.”

The detective looked at the woman before him for a moment at Emma and then wrote something down in his notebook.

“Ok, then what?”

“We backed down the street and when we were close enough, I told Regina to run inside. Then Leo pulled out the gun.”

“Did you know he was armed?”

“Not before I saw the gun, no.”

“Then what happened?”

“I tried to calm him down. Keep him talking. I figured Mulan had called you guys so knew I just had to wait it out and make sure the situation didn’t get any worse. But he got angry when I said I wouldn’t move out of his way and … I don’t know how he got me in the chokehold. I’m trained in self-defence. I should have stopped him.”

The detective shook his head. “Don’t think like that. You did nothing wrong. You were in a dangerous situation and you survived. That’s all you need to know.”

“Yeah, well, it’s my job to protect the women in my shelter and I wasn’t able to do that.”

“You did keep them safe, Emma. They’re all safe now because of you.”

Emma shrugged. She wasn’t so sure of that. What she was sure of is that she wanted to be back at the shelter in that moment making sure Regina and everyone else was still safe. Leo’s appearance had rattled her confidence in the safety and security of the shelter as a whole.

“Ok, after he took you in the chokehold, what happened next?”

“The police showed up seconds later. But on foot. I never heard the sirens. I was listening out for them. I didn’t hear the cars approaching until almost at the end, almost before I blacked out.”

“There were two uniforms around the corner and they heard the call on the radio. Said they’d check it out,” the detective explained. “Then radioed for backup as soon as they saw that there was a civilian in danger.”

“Yeah, well, once they showed up, Leo decided to use me as a human shield. You know, so your cops couldn’t shoot him without risking a civilian casualty. It sounds like they were great shots,” Emma added, realising that despite Leo’s plan, the man had been taken down.

Before the detective could ask another question, a doctor arrived to check Emma over. As soon as she took in the congealed bloodstain on Emma’s shirt, she pushed the detective aside and began to work.

“It’s not mine,” Emma said, as the woman reached up to pluck at her shirt collar.

“Yes, and we’ll need your shirt as evidence,” the detective added.

“But it’s mine. I’m wearing it. What am I supposed to wear instead of my shirt?” Emma asked, it wasn’t like she could walk around in just her bra. That wasn’t socially acceptable.

“We can find you something,” the doctor assured. “Detective, do you need to continue questioning my patient right now or can the rest of the statement wait?”

“It can wait,” the detective admitted, retreating away from the bed as the doctor’s eyes darted towards the door, indicating that he should leave. “I’ve got to get back to the station anyway. I’ll call you to arrange a time to finish off later today.”

As soon as the two of them were alone, the doctor asked Emma if she was comfortable removing her shirt. Emma did so, shrugging it off so she was sat on the bed in just her bra. The doctor ran her hands over the smooth skin of Emma’s back, where bruises were already beginning to form from the fall. A purple bloom was also appearing just beneath her ribs on her side where Leo had jabbed his gun.

“Are you feeling ok? Any dizziness?” the doctor asked.

“No, I just want to get out of this hospital. Can I leave?”

“Give me a few minutes,” she smiled. “I know hospitals aren’t anyone’s favourite place but it’s important I make sure there was no internal damage caused during your fall. That was quite a weight which landed on you.”

Emma’s eyes narrowed and she swallowed at the memory. The feel of Leo bearing down on her made her shudder. It was repulsive. It was something Regina had experienced all too often, Emma’s mind unhelpfully supplied.

“Please, I’m fine. I just need to get back to the shelter.”

“You run Swan’s, right?”

“Yes,” Emma nodded. She was known at the local hospital. There had been many times in recent years when she’d brought a new guest to the hospital for treatment. Similarly, she’d received referrals from there when battered women had arrived and needed somewhere safe to stay.

“This guy was after one of the women you’re providing accommodation for?”

Emma nodded, teeth gritted together as the woman pressed against the bruise in her side lightly.

“How did he find her?”

The blonde swallowed. It was a thought which had been running through her head the moment she had realised who was in that car. How had Leo found Regina? She was confident the woman herself hadn’t made contact. But somehow, over a month after she walked away from her life in Maine, he had reappeared. How? And if Leo could find them, did that mean the other women were in danger from their former partners too? A chill ran down Emma’s spine at the thought but she forced herself to listen to the doctor who was speaking once more.

“He’s a monster,” the doctor said as she peered into Emma’s eyes, shining a small torch into them. “Keep doing what you’re doing. The world needs more people like you. The woman are lucky to have someone who is willing to give their lives for them.”

Is that what she had done? Emma thought to herself. Well, yes. She had made the choice, in a split second, to put herself between Regina and Leo. She had told Regina to go back inside, even when the brunette protested. It had been Emma who Leo had taken hostage, nor Regina or Henry. It had been Emma lying on the sidewalk, clothes soaked with the man’s blood as he lay, wounded on top of her.

Would she have done the same thing, made the same choices if it had been another woman and not Regina in danger? Yes, Emma answered at once. She would do the same for any of the women in her care. That was her job.

“Right, you’re all clear to leave. But if you feel any dizziness or sickness over the next forty-eight hours, sit down and call an ambulance, ok? I don’t think you’ve got a concussion but it’s still possible you hit your head when you fell.”

“Ok, I understand. Thank you.”

“You’re welcome, Emma. I hope I don’t see you or any of the women at the shelter here any time soon.”

“Me too,” Emma mused, slipping from the bed and then stopping. “Um, my shirt?”

“Oh yes,” the doctor said, realising was topless, her pale skin already displaying a spattering of bruises which she knew would only spread and darken over the coming hours. “Hang on, I’ll find something in lost and found for you.”

By the time the police officer had everything he needed, Regina was slumped back in Emma’s chair, feeling exhausted. Mulan had sat beside her, listening intently. At times, she had rested her palm on Regina’s arm. She knew the basics of the woman’s history but the officer asked a number of probing questions. Insensitively, if you asked Mulan.

The officer bid them both good day and promised Mulan the shelter would be contacted with an update of Leo’s condition when the precinct got word. And then he was gone, leaving Regina and Mulan together in Emma’s office. Both women, although neither voiced it, felt out of place without the blonde.

“Do you need me to do anything?” Mulan asked. “Do you want some water?”

“No,” Regina replied quietly. “I need to see my son.”

Mulan nodded and helped Regina to her feet. Together, they walked back into the reception area from which most of the police officers and witnesses had now dispersed. Belle was there, however, having poked her head into the office but been assured that Regina was ok upon her arrival. Instead, she had helped one of the officer’s build up a profile of Leo, based on what Regina had told her during their sessions over the previous weeks.

With the counsellor by her side, Regina made her way into the back of the shelter. There were a number of women milling around the corridor and the moment the two of them appeared, they rushed forwards, clamouring for information.

“Please, I’ll come and speak with you shortly but just let Regina through,” Mulan said, kindly but firmly.

“Where’s Henry?” Regina asked, ignoring all of the other questions levied at her.

“I’ll get him,” one of the other mothers said, rushing ahead of the brunette and disappearing. Mulan steered Regina into her bedroom.

With a helping hand, she sat down on the edge of the bed and looked around. Nothing had changed. And yet, since she had last been here, waking up with a smile on her face after her night with Emma, everything had changed.

“Where’s Emma?”

“I’m not sure. Still at the hospital, perhaps,” Mulan said, taking a seat beside Regina. “She’ll be back as soon as she can be. You guys are pretty close, right?”

Regina’s cheeks coloured but before she could say anything, Henry appeared. “Hey Mom, I’m hungry. You’ve been ages!” Behind him, Kathryn mouthed ‘I did feed him,’ as if in defence of her babysitting skills.

“I’m sorry, my little prince,” Regina said, opening her arms wide and beckoning her son forwards.

There was something in the woman’s expression which made Henry go to her. He wrapped his little arms around her neck and hugged tightly as his mother enveloped her.

“Mom, what’s wrong?” he asked.

“Nothing,” came the whispered response, the hug getting even tighter. “I just missed you.”

“Where were you?”

“I had to talk to some people,” Regina replied. “Did Kathryn make you some food?”

“Yeah, she did,” Henry admitted, pulling back and looking into his mother’s glassy eyes with confusion. “But I wanted to have breakfast with you. And Emma. Where’s Emma? I thought you were going to ask her to come and eat with us.”

“She’s … she’s busy right now but she’ll join us when she can,” Regina forced out.

“I’m here Henry,” came a voice from the doorway. “I’m sorry I missed breakfast. Can I join you for dinner instead?”

But neither woman heard the response. Regina dissolved into tears and Emma crossed the room in three strides, gathering the sobbing woman into her arms. Mulan stood up and stepped away, immediately aware that she was interrupting something. Raised eyebrows at Kathryn were met with a shrug.

“Come on, Henry. Let’s go and see what my girls have found for us to watch on TV.”

Only when the door snapped shut did the hug end, the room now empty except for the couple. Regina uncurled her arms and looked up into Emma’s face. Reaching out, she cupped her cheek, the warm flesh against her palm a silent reminder that Emma was alive.

“I’m so sorry,” she whispered.

“There’s nothing to be sorry for,” Emma replied, her own thumbs swiping tears from Regina’s face. “You did nothing wrong.”

“You were in danger. Because of me.”

“No,” Emma said firmly. “I was in danger because of Leo. It wasn’t your fault, Regina. And I did what I did because I wanted to protect you. And that is my job, of course. I would have done the same for any woman or child in here. But, when I was I the hospital earlier, I realised there was another reason why I protected you, separate from the shelter. I did it because…” She glanced down. This wasn’t how she imagined saying these words. Hardly romantic. But life was short; she’d learned that today. It was important to live in the moment. “Because I love you.”

Chapter Text

They were words Regina had imagined saying herself. Words she had wanted to hear. Words she knew described how she felt about the blonde. But she never imagined that Emma felt the same. How could she? With their history.

Except, hadn’t Emma shown her, over and over and over again that she’d forgiven the brunette? Hadn’t Emma told her that the past was in the past, that she forgave her teenage mistakes?

Yes, but then her husband had held her at gunpoint. Surely that was a relationship no-no. Leo’s actions that morning must have demonstrated to Emma how she deserved better than Regina. Didn’t they?


Realising that she’d been staring, unseeing into the blonde’s green eyes, Regina stepped backwards at the words. Emma’s face crumpled at the move, sensing rejection as the space between them widened.

“Oh, you don’t feel the same way,” she said, more to herself than to Regina.

“What? No!” Regina said. “Of course I love you.”

Emma frowned. “You do?”

“Yes, of course. I just can’t quite understand why you … I don’t know why you love me,” Regina ended eventually.

“This is your self-doubt, isn’t it?” Emma sighed, sitting down on the edge of Regina’s bed. “From our past, right? You’re thinking about Maine.”

Regina hesitated and then nodded, taking a seat on Henry’s bed. The distance between the two of them suddenly felt vast. There was a tense silence, neither one of the women sure where to start.

“Regina, I love you,” Emma said eventually. “I don’t know how to explain it any simpler than that.”

“I love you too,” Regina replied. “But for me it’s so easy to understand why I love you. You’re amazing. You’ve been so kind to me and to Henry. You’re smart and beautiful and I love your passion for what you do here. I just … I don’t understand how someone like you can love me, especially after today.”


“Leo,” Regina sighed. “He was here for me. He’s my husband, my responsibility and you put your life at risk for me. Don’t you hate me for what he put you through? Don’t you -”

“Regina, stop,” Emma said, standing up and crossing the room, crouching down before the brunette and resting her palms on her thighs. “I don’t hate you. I could never hate you. I hate Leo, sure. I hated Leo long before he appeared with a gun in front of me. I hated him for what he did to you and Henry. But I don’t blame you for his actions today. Yes, he was here because of you and Henry but you had no hand in his decision to pull out a gun in the middle of the street. And as for risking my life, I told you; that’s my job. I would have done it for any of the women in here. It just so happened that today, the person whose life was in danger was yours. And I love you.”

Regina looked down into the earnest face before her. She wanted to believe the blonde. She wanted the beautiful, loving words to be true. But after years of abuse, after the reliving of her shared history with Emma, she couldn’t quite understand … “Why?”

“Do you need me to list reasons?”

Faint blush appeared on Regina’s cheeks. She felt foolish. This crisis of confidence, yet another one, getting in the way of a budding relationship. They were, she realised, having the same conversations. Her self-doubt, Emma’s reassurance. After each conversation, for a short time, she would accept it. Believe it. But then something would happen and that self-confidence would be knocked again.

“I want to believe it, Emma,” she said at last. “I want to feel like I’m worthy of this. But I feel like I’m haunted, you know? Every now and then I remember Maine. I remember how awful I was. But you say it’s in the past and I want to believe you. And most of the time I can. I’m learning to forgive myself, the way you have.”

“Ok, good,” Emma said, fingers squeezing lightly on Regina’s thighs. “I’m glad you’re making progress. That’s really positive.”

“I know but then something like today happens. Leo found me, Emma. He came to take me back. Maybe this is the world’s way of saying I don’t deserve to be happy after everything I did to you. Maybe I deserve to go back to Maine with Leo. Maybe that’s what fate wants for me.”

Emma’s features darkened at the statement. “Maine. I don’t believe in fate, Regina. We make our own way in the world and you made the decision to leave Leo. Unless that’s changed, I won’t allow him to take you back to Maine. You’re not going anywhere with him, not if you don’t want to. I won’t let him take you and Henry.”

“I don’t want to go. I want to stay here, with you. But after a decade of being married to a man who made me feel like I wasn’t worthy …”

She trailed off but Emma understood. Regina wasn’t the first woman who had walked through the doors to the shelter with shattered self-esteem. She was always in awe of women who had been repeatedly kept down who managed to find the courage and strength to leave. And it was her job to protect them when they came to her. The difference here was that Regina was the first woman in her shelter she had ever dated, ever fallen in love with.

“You are worthy, Regina,” Emma said quietly, peering up into those wide brown eyes. “Everyone is worthy of happiness. And I’m sorry if we’re moving too fast. I should have realised that you’re not ready for a new relationship yet. You’re still married to Leo, technically. And you need to be focusing on yourself and Henry. So I understand if you’re not quite ready for the ‘I love yous’ and I’m sorry if I pushed you. I thought it was the right thing to say. I thought it was something you wanted to hear.”

“It is,” Regina said at once, leaning forwards and draping her arms over Emma’s shoulders. “I did want to hear those words. I do. God, if you’d said them last night, I’d have been over the moon.”

Emma shook her head fervently. “I would never say ‘I love you’ for the first time after sex,” she said, strangely stern. “It’s confusing. You don’t know if the person is saying it because they mean it or because they feel so good post-orgasm. Our bodies release a number of hormones during and after sex and they can make us feel emotions which fade in the morning. It’s important to have a clear head when you first say ‘I love you’ to someone.”

Despite the day’s events, Regina laughed. She loved the way Emma’s mind worked. “Fine, then I’m glad you didn’t say it yesterday. And had today not unfolded the way it did, I would have been happy to hear those words over breakfast. But Leo’s appearance knocked me sideways. I wasn’t expecting it. I mean, how did he even find me?”

“I don’t know,” Emma said, eyes darkening. “But I’m going to find out.”

“Thank you,” Regina replied. “For everything. What you did today, Emma … I can’t believe you did that. You’re such a good person.”

“So are you,” Emma insisted. “You’re an amazing mother and a great friend and you are a wonderful girlfriend. And I am happy to keep telling you these things until you believe them if that’s what you need.”

“I want to believe you. It’s just hard sometimes.”

“Then I’m going to make it as easy as possible for you. And the first thing I’m going to do is stop hiding this relationship. I don’t think there’s much of a secret to be kept, to be honest. From the way we hugged when I arrived just now, Mulan will know something is different between me and you compared to the rest of the women. And Kathryn’s smart; she’ll figure it out too. So, are you ready?”

Regina raised an eyebrow. “Now?”

Leaning forwards, Emma placed a chaste kiss to Regina’s lips. “Now. I’m done hiding, Regina. I know people might talk. And I know I need to speak with my staff and explain how this all happened. But I’m ready for that. It’s worth it, to be able to be in a proper relationship with you. And then the two of us can face whatever’s coming with Leo together. Court cases, custody hearings, whatever may come, we can do it as a team. I mean, if that’s what you want.”

So, I’m not the only one with self-doubt, Regina mused to herself as Emma moved a little further away from her. She chased the blonde with her lips, kissing her hard. “Yes,” she breathed out. “Yes, Emma. That is what I want. You and me, I do want it. And, in time, I will learn that I deserve it.”

Emma beamed at her and stood up, reaching for Regina’s hand and pulling her upwards. Fingers interlaced, they started towards the door. But before they reached it, the blonde stopped.

“Wait, what about Henry?”

“I’ll talk to him,” Regina said. “I’ll explain everything in a way he can process.”

“Will he understand? That you were with his father and now you’re with a woman?” Emma knew most of the world, even in 2019, saw sexuality as black and white.

“He’ll be fine,” Regina assured her. “Kids are highly adaptable. And Henry loves you, he’ll be thrilled about this.”

“I love him too, he’s a great kid,” Emma replied. “Are you going to tell him about Leo?”

Regina shook her head. “Not until we know more. I’ll keep any answers to his questions vague without lying to him. He’s at the hospital, right?”

“In surgery, the doctor told me.”

Surgery. That was more than Regina had gleaned so far. It also sounded serious; possibly life-threatening. “He won’t die, right?”

“I don’t know,” Emma admitted. “I don’t think so. They wouldn’t tell me much to be honest. The police will be coming to interview me later so maybe I’ll get some more information. I assume you’re his next of kin by default, so if anything was life threatening, you’d have to be informed I would imagine.”

“I guess,” Regina said. “Anyway, can we not think about him? Not now. I just want to go and see Henry.”

Emma nodded her agreement to that plan and reached for the door handle. Before she opened it, she reached for Regina’s hand. The brunette smiled as she interlaced their fingers once again. Emma was unsurprised to see Mulan as soon as she stepped into the corridor. The woman had clearly been loitering. Regina walked out behind her and immediately dark eyes zeroed in on their hands.

“Hey,” she said after several seconds, forcing herself to look up at her boss. “Um, everything ok?”

“We’re ok,” Emma nodded. “And yes, we’re together.”

“Like, together in a relationship?” Mulan asked.

“Yes,” Emma confirmed. “You know Regina and I have a history. I’ve known her since we were sixteen and once we reconnected when she arrived, the nature of our relationship developed and became sexual.”

“Emma!” Regina gasped, not realising the blonde was going to be so blunt. She supposed it was part of her autism. Straight to the point, no faff. She realised this quality, this honesty, was one of the reasons she loved the woman now peering curiously at her. “Sorry, carry on.”

“Mulan, you know I’m always professional and I have never started a relationship with anyone here before.”

“I know,” Mulan said. “I’m not judging.”

“Good. I just wanted to explain. This is not technically ‘ethical’ but I do believe there were extenuating circumstances. And as I just explained to Regina, what I did today, I would have done for any of the women here. I didn’t only do what I did because I love her.”

“Love, huh?” Mulan repeated, eyebrow quirked.

“Yes,” Emma said simply.

“Yes,” Regina echoed. At the confirmation, Emma’s fingers tightened in her own.

“Well, I guess I should say congratulations. You two are pretty adorable together. And while I would love to stand around all day talking about my boss’ love life,” she winked at Emma, “can we talk about how the fuck that man found this place?”

Emma nodded furiously. “Yes, definitely. Um, Regina, do you mind giving me some time? We’ve got a lot to discuss and we may need to revisit some of our security procedures.”

“Not at all,” Regina assured. “I’ll talk to Henry. And feed him. He was complaining about being hungry.”

“Order pizza. I think we all deserve it after this morning. You can use the phone in the common room; there’s a take-out menu stuck next to it for a local pizza place which is good. Pepperoni for me, please. I’ll bring the delivery through when it arrives at the front desk.”

Regina nodded her agreement to that plan. With a quick kiss to her lips, Emma untangled their hands and headed off down the corridor, Mulan falling into step beside her as they headed for the reception. Right, she thought to herself, now to tell my son.

The procedures and protocol in place to keep Swan’s Shelter undetectable were extensive. It was paramount to Emma and the rest of her staff that no one who threatened the safety of those inside could find the place. Of course, many people knew it existed. The women themselves, for example. But the building was not marked on maps, there was no website online, the address was not published anywhere, the door bore no plaque. As much as possible, they tried to remain hidden.

A select group of individuals knew where to find Swan’s Shelter. Women in their shelter, former residents and the shelter staff of course. And then there were others in related professions. Some of the female prison officers knew where to find Emma’s shelter. If a battered woman required a safe place to stay, they would refer them and even on occasion dropped them off at the door. Similarly, doctors and nurses at the hospital, along with a few administrative staff, knew of Swan’s. Victims were provided with the information if and when it was required.

It was hard in the modern world to remain anonymous but Emma tried. She knew how important it was for the women inside to know that whoever it was they felt threatened by would be unable to find them. Not only was the main part of the shelter a female-only zone, but they could also be confident that the husband, boyfriend or father they were hiding from wasn’t loitering on the street, waiting for them to emerge. Swan’s Shelter was off the grid.

“He had our address,” Emma said as she sat down in her office. “I saw a notepad on the front seat of his car. It had our exact address, plain as day.”

“That’s why you ran off,” Mulan mused, thinking back to the way her boss sprinted out of sight of the CCTV cameras. “I called the cops by the way. They said there was nothing they could do because I’d only seen you run out of sight. I was arguing with them about the fact that I knew it was an emergency but it wasn’t until Regina appeared in the lobby and then I saw Leo pull a gun on you that the 9-1-1 operator accepted we needed police.”

“You did great,” Emma assured her. “And thank you for looking after Regina, as well as everyone else here. Where’s Belle, by the way. I want to talk to her.”

“In her office.”

Emma made a mental note to make sure she spoke to the psychologist before she left. “Ok, well, thank you for calling the police. It might have saved my life.”

“How did you know he was after Regina?” Mulan asked. “You ran towards her, not back to the shelter.”

“There was a photo of her sticking out of the notebook. I guess he was going to show it to people and ask if they’d seen her.”

“God, what if you hadn’t noticed the car,” Mulan breathed. “What if he’d taken her.”

Emma shuddered. The thought didn’t bear thinking about. “Well, thanks to Ruby having fallen asleep at her desk, I was scrolling through the footage when I spotted him outside. Had Ruby been doing her job last night, she would have seen him and perhaps we could have avoided all of this. It’s my fault. I should have known it was too soon to let her come back to work.”

“Don’t blame yourself,” Mulan protested. “She wanted to come back, she needed the distraction. And at least you stopped him. You kept Regina and Henry safe. That’s the job, right?”

“Yes, one which Ruby wasn’t doing. I’m so angry at her, Mulan. When I see her later -”

“Emma, she just lost her gran,” Mulan argued. “She’s in mourning.”

Pursing her lips, Emma sank back in her seat. “Yeah, I know. But it was a stupid mistake.”

“Agreed. But for now, let’s go back to working out how Regina’s husband found us in the first place. You said he had our exact address?”

After placing the pizza order, Regina turned to find herself face to face with Kathryn. The expression on the woman’s face told Regina a million questions were coming her way. But she wasn’t really in the mood to answer any of them in detail just yet.

“Hey, thanks for taking care of Henry this morning,” she offered.

“Sure, are you ok? Your husband found you. Do you know how?”

Regina glanced across the common room to make sure Henry was well out of earshot before answering the question. “No, we don’t know how he found us.”

“Shit,” Kathryn breathed. “Are you ok?”

“I’ve been better, but it could have been a lot worse.”

“Yeah, Emma sounds like a superhero. She really got in between you and a man with a gun?”

So, gossip travelled fast, Regina mused. It was the truth however, and she didn’t want to lie to one of the few friends she had in New York, so she nodded. “She’d have done the same for any of us in here, she told me.”

“Yeah but … you’re not anyone, are you?”

As Emma had predicted, the way in which the two of them had embraced had not gone unnoticed. Kathryn had picked up on the dynamic between them and now wanted answers. Regina understood that.

“No, I’m not anyone. We’re in a relationship.”

“How long?” Kathryn asked.

“A month or so? A few weeks? Time seems to slow down in here. It feels like forever.”

“Does Henry know?”

Regina shook her head. “I’m about to tell him.”

“Well, good luck with that. And I’m happy for you, by the way. I mean, it’s a bit weird because Emma does run this place. Isn’t she your primary contact?”

“That’ll probably change now,” Regina noted. “And yes, we know it’s not exactly normal. It wasn’t something either of us expected. But we have a history and when fate decided to place us on one another’s paths again, I suppose we couldn’t do anything but fall for each other.”

“You guys are in love?”

An almost shy nod was accompanied by a smile spreading over Regina’s face. Kathryn grinned back at her and then wrapped her arms around the woman. “I’m really happy for you,” she whispered in Regina’s ear.

The hug ended and Regina thanked Kathryn for her support and for taking care of Henry. She also asked if Kathryn would mind keeping the news of her and Emma to herself. The two of them would probably tell all the other women together, later in the day, but for now, the less gossip, the better. With that, she made her way over to the couch where her son was sitting, iPad in hand.

“Henry, can you come here for a moment? I want to talk to you,” Regina said, patting her lap.

After a few seconds, tongue stuck between his teeth in concentration, Henry discarded the iPad and obediently crawled across the couch to sit beside his mother. But that wasn’t good enough, not after what she’d been through that morning. Regina pulled Henry into her lap. He squirmed slightly. Being hugged by your mother is so not cool when you’re approaching seven years old. But Regina jut held him tighter and eventually he relented. “Mom, are you ok?” he asked. “Did something bad happen today?”

“Yes, sweetie. But it’s nothing for you to worry about. Everyone is fine. Actually, I wanted to talk to you about something good.”

“Is the pizza here yet?”

She chuckled. “Not yet. Another twenty minutes.”

“I’m hungry. Kat made me a sandwich but it was on brown bread.” His nose wrinkled in disgust as if it was the most unpleasant meal he had ever been served.

“Well, they’re busy making the pizzas now and then they’ll come and deliver them. Emma will bring them through.”

“Emma’s joining us for lunch?”

At the affirmative nod he received from his mother, Henry cheered at the news. Good start, Regina thought to herself.

“You like Emma a lot, don’t you?”

“Yeah, she’s cool,” Henry enthused.

“I like Emma too.”

“Do you like her lots like me?”

“Lots and lots,” Regina nodded. “In fact, Emma and I like each other so much that we want to be in a relationship with each other.”

Henry pondered the unfamiliar word before asking; “is that like a friendship?”

“Sort of,” Regina nodded. “The best relationships are friendships too. But it’s different. People in relationships sometimes live together and start families together and spend the rest of their lives together. Sometimes they even get married too so all of their friends and family can come to celebrate with them.”

“Are we going to go and live with Emma?”

“Not yet.”

“So we’re not a new family?”

“Not yet.”

“And what about Dad? Isn’t he in our family still?”

“Your dad did something bad this morning, Henry. He’s going to be in some trouble because he hurt Emma a little bit and he didn’t do what he was told. He probably won’t be allowed to come to visit us for a while.”

“So he’s not in our family now?” The boy’s face fell. He missed his dad. He knew that his dad had not been nice to his mom and that sometimes he had been mean to Henry too. But he still missed him. It was confusing but true.

“He’ll always be your dad, Henry. But he’s not going to be around much.” Or ever, if I have anything to do with it, Regina thought to herself. She had never wanted to completely cut Leo out of Henry’s life but the morning’s events had made her decide that it was the only way to keep them both safe.

“But Emma will be around lots?”


“Like another mom? Or like a new dad?”

“Like Emma,” Regina suggested. “She’s not another mom, she’s not replacing your dad. But she is someone I really like and I want you to like her too.”

“I do like Emma.”

“Good. So do I. In fact, Emma and I love each other.”

“Love? Like kissing and stuff?” Henry’s eyes widened.

“Yes, like kissing and stuff.”

“Are you going to get married?”

“Not yet.” An image of Emma in a white lace dress flashed into Regina’s mind. She forced herself to tear her focus away from the delectable image and back to her son who was pondering her answer.

“Oh … ok. Can I play on my iPad now, please?”

Momentarily startled by the sudden end of the conversation, Regina nodded. Henry grinned and scrambled off his mother’s lap and retreated to the far side of the couch where he recommenced his game.

Well, that went better than expected, Regina mused. Kids are so willing to accept any kind of relationship, far more open minded than adults who are set in their ways and world views. Why can’t everyone be like children? Regina asked. Then she noticed that Henry was sat with his finger up his nose. That’s why, she reminded herself as she leaned over and gently pulled his hand away from his face.

Just as she settled down with a discarded newspaper she’d picked up off the coffee table, waiting for Emma to reappear, a chime from Henry’s iPad caught her attention. “Henry, pass that here please,” she said, holding out her hand for the device.

“What? But I just started a game,” he protested. But one look from his mother and the tablet was placed in her hand.

She exited the app, eyes drifting to the top left corner of the screen. “Shit!” she exclaimed.

“Mom! That’s a bad word,” Henry said, arms folded.

Regina ignored him however, too busy opening the settings app and switching off the Wi-Fi. Powering down the device immediately afterwards, although she knew the damage was done, Regina leapt to her feet.

“Marian!” she yelled across the room. “You gave Henry the Wi-Fi password?”

The woman, who had been standing by the stove, cooking lunch for Roland, frowned. “What? No, I would never do that. Why?”

“The iPad,” she said, brandishing the off device. “Where the hell did he get the password from? It wasn’t connected when I left last night.”

“I don’t know,” Marian replied. “Regina, please, you have to believe me. I didn’t give them the password. They asked to play on my phone at one point but I said no and then they went off to play. I never gave them the passwords; I’d never do that.”

After a moment’s hesitation, Regina spun on the spot. “Henry, come here.”

The boy obeyed at once, somehow knowing his mother was not in the mood for an argument. Everyone in the common room was looking at the two of them as she reached for his hand and the two of them hurried out into the corridor. Regina almost broke into a run, heading for Emma’s office.

Chapter Text

“Regina, how are you?”

The brunette ignored the psychologist who had just stepped out of her office as the harried mother rushed by, Henry several steps behind her. In the events of the past couple of hours, Regina appeared to have forgotten her son’s spectacular fall in the playground a few days earlier. Belle pulled the door of her office closed, locked it and set off after Regina who was now disappearing into the front of the building. Hurrying after his mother, Henry’s small hand reached for the rapidly closing door.

“I’ve got it, sweetie,” Belle said, catching the door herself before it snapped on his fingers.

“Mom’s angry,” he informed the woman now gently steering him through the door. “She shouted at Marian. Mom told me I’m not allowed to shout. Daddy used to shout at us but Mom said it wasn’t nice.”

“No, shouting isn’t nice, is it?” Belle agreed, a quick scan of the reception area letting her know that Regina must be in Emma’s office. An exclamation which a six-year-old shouldn’t hear confirmed that suspicious and she coaxed Henry towards the ajar door.

Inside, Emma was on her feet, an iPad clutched in her hands. Regina was pacing back and forth, fingers running through frazzled hair. Mulan was sat in a chair, looking a little stunned.

“Hey, is everything ok?” Belle asked, moving further into the room.

“No,” Emma replied simply.

“Henry, how did you connect the iPad to the Wi-Fi?” Regina asked, rounding on her son.

The boy leaned back into Belle’s legs, aware that his mother was upset and suddenly worrying that her anger might be his fault. He didn’t like it when his mom was angry with him. “With the password,” he reasoned. “Me and Roland wanted to play a new game. All my old ones are boring.”

“Yes, but where did you find the password?”

“I asked Ruby.”

“Shit,” Emma all but yelled, slamming the iPad down onto the table.

Henry’s eyes went wide. That was a bad word. And also, Emma was not being careful with his things. If you borrowed something which wasn’t yours, it was important to be respectful of it and make sure you don’t break it. His mom taught him that. So why was Emma being so mean to his iPad?

“You asked Ruby last night?”

Henry looked back at his mother and nodded. “Yeah.”

“What did you ask her?”

“I was polite,” Henry protested. “I think I said ‘please’.” In hindsight, Henry wasn’t sure he had said please but he knew his mom would have wanted him to so without Ruby around to contradict him, maybe he could stop his mother looking mad if he used his best manners.

“And she just gave you the Wi-Fi password?” Emma asked.

“No, she typed it in for us. She was looking at her phone too.”

“Seriously?” Emma asked, incredulity on her features. “Jesus, I knew she shouldn’t have come back to work. I’ve got to fire her now.”

“Woah, what?” Mulan protested. “You’re going to fire Ruby?” Out of all the staff at the shelter, Ruby was the person Mulan most enjoyed spending time with on shift and outside of work too, whenever their schedules allowed it.

“I have to. She violated our security policy. She put everyone here in danger,” Emma pointed out. “She’s the reason everything happened this morning.”

“That’s not true,” Mulan argued. “Ruby isn’t responsible for the actions of a nutjob with a gun.”

“She’s responsible for him turning up here in the first place. He must have been tracking the iPad, monitoring its connectivity. The moment the Wi-Fi was connected, he would have been able to track where the signal was coming from, assuming he had the right equipment to do so. If Ruby hadn’t been so careless, none of this would have happened.”

“What happened?” Henry asked, thoroughly confused about the entire conversation. “Mom, are you mad at me?”

Regina crouched down in front of her son. “No, sweetie. I’m not mad. I’m sorry, it’s been a very difficult day. But you did know that you weren’t supposed to connect to the Wi-Fi. I did tell you that, didn’t I?”

“Yeah but my games were boring,” Henry pouted. “I just wanted to get a fun new one. Can I have my iPad now?”

“No, not yet,” Emma replied. “I’m afraid we’ll need to keep this for a while.” She knew the police would be able to use the device to establish a timeline of events. Which would be necessary, assuming charges were brought against Leo. “Belle, you’ve got some games in your office though, right? Could you maybe play something with Henry for a bit? Henry, your mom and I will come and join you as soon as the pizza arrives.”

Henry’s eyes lit up at that suggestion. He had forgotten about the pizza, what with all the shouting and confusion. Agreeing to forego his iPad for the moment, in lieu of playing games with Belle and eating pizza with his mom and Emma, he willingly left the office.

Once the three of them were alone, Emma sank back down into her chair, hands covering her face. “I’m so sorry.”

The words were mumbled but Regina understood them. Circling the desk, she knelt beside the blonde, arm draped around her back. Without a word, Mulan left, pulling the door closed behind her to give the two women a little privacy.

“I’m sorry, Regina. This is all my fault.”

“No, it’s not,” Regina soothed. “And didn’t you just blame Ruby? Not that I’m in agreement with that either but why are you suddenly taking the blame yourself?”

“Because I allowed her to come back to work,” Emma reasoned. “I knew it was too soon. I knew she wasn’t ready. Her grandmother died four days ago. Of course she wasn’t ready to be at work. This morning, she mentioned that the hospital had called and then said something about funeral arrangements. That’s what she should be doing, not manning a post of immense responsibility. I put you all in danger by allowing her to come back. And now, thanks to my mistake, I have to fire my best friend.”

Abruptly, the blonde stood up. Pushing her chair backwards, she walked around Regina and started to walk up and down her office. The room wasn’t large and she could only fit in a few paces before turning around. The action wasn’t unfamiliar. She often walked up and down; it was supposed to be calming. Regina watched, unsure what to say.

Emma needed the silence. She needed the time to try and understand and organise her thoughts. The mystery as to how Leo had found them had been solved, with remarkable ease. Technology, the development of tools designed to make their lives more convenient, simpler, easier, had become dangerous. There was a reason why she insisted all shelter residents get new phones before connecting to the Wi-Fi. It prevented this sort of tracking, or stalking, depending on your view.

Her staff knew the rules. No guest was given the Wi-Fi password without receiving extensive training on how to avoid their digital activity allowing them to be traced. The women complied, understanding that the recommendations, although somewhat restrictive, kept them safe. Teenager children too were under strict instructions as to how they could and couldn’t use the internet. Again, they understood why. But what about the younger children?

Emma hadn’t had an iPad as a child. They hadn’t existed. She had got her first mobile phone at fourteen and it had been used solely for calling her parents and playing snake. Now toddlers had tablets for watching videos and playing games. Children had smart phones and spent their afternoons and weekends WhatsApping each other. Instagram and Facebook’s minimum age restriction was regularly ignored and pre-teens lapped up the addictive nature of social media. It hadn’t occurred to Emma, foolishly, that the younger children in the shelter could be security risks.

No, she thought to herself, hand slamming into the wall. Regina flinched. One, two, three, four, five, pause. This wasn’t Henry’s fault. One, two, three, four, five, pause. It was Ruby’s. One, two, three, four, five, pause. She should have known better. One, two, three, four, five, pause. She did know better. One, two, three, four, five, pause. No matter what she was going through, there was no excuse for her stupidity and carelessness. Emma turned on the spot and grabbed her purse from the desk. As she leaned over, she winced.

“Are you ok?”

“Bruised,” Emma muttered, not wanting to remind Regina that her soon to be ex-husband had crushed her into the sidewalk a few hours earlier. “I’ll be back later. Here’s some money for the pizza.” She pulled out several bills and passed them to Regina.

“Where are you going?”

“To speak to Ruby.”

“Are you going to fire her?”

“Yes,” Emma nodded. “And scream at her, probably. I know it’s not very mature but I’m very angry at her. I don’t think I’ll be able to stop the screams, even if I count.”


“I count. I count from one to five and then pause to calm myself down. Sometimes I only have to do it once or twice. Sometimes I do it lots. It usually works. But I don’t think it will today.”

“Oh, ok. Can I come with you?”

Emma shook her head. “No, stay here. Stay with Henry. Can you apologise to him for me? I didn’t mean to scare him and I didn’t mean to say a bad word in front of him. Will he repeat that?”

“Probably but it’s something he’s heard before. It was a favourite of Leo’s. As was fuck. The food I cooked him was often ‘shit’ and he didn’t give a ‘fuck’ about why it was late on the table.”

“I hate that man,” Emma seethed, hearing another example of how Leo’s mistreated her girlfriend and hadn’t appreciated the wonderful woman he had been lucky enough to spend a decade of his life with. And not a moment longer, if Emma had anything to say about it. That man was never coming near Regina nor Henry again.

“Yeah, I hate him too.”

Emma hesitated then leaned down to kiss Regina, who was now stood beside her desk. “I love you though,” she said as the kiss ended. “And I’d do anything to keep you safe.”

“Including firing your best friend?”

“That won’t keep you safe,” Emma pointed out. “The damage has already been done. But it’s irrelevant. Ruby violated the terms of her contract. Her actions led to today’s events, even if it was Leo who was holding the gun. Had Ruby not been so thoughtless and careless, Leo wouldn’t have found you. She deserves to be fired. I can’t let this slide.”

“Leo would have found us one way or another,” Regina sighed, voicing for the first time something she had been feeling for weeks. “I think I’ve always known that he’d reappear. Leo is not the sort of man to take his wife’s disappearance as just another event and move on with his life. He was always going to find me.”

“And Ruby facilitated that. Unintentionally, but it was her carelessness which led to what’s happened. I have to end her contract.”

“Emma, she just lost her grandmother.”

The blonde’s lips set in a firm line. “I know. And it’s my fault she’s in this position. It was my mistake to allow her to come back to work. As her manager, I’m responsible for that. But she claimed she was fine, she claimed she was ready. She insisted she was ready to take on all of the responsibilities which this job entails by turning up to work. Yes, I shouldn’t have let her. But I did. And she made a mistake. At the end of the day, it’s a fireable offence.”

“Fireable? As in, you don’t have to fire her?”

“Do you not want me to? She’s the reason Leo found you, Regina. Why are you sticking up for her?”

“Because I like Ruby. She made a mistake, fine. We all do stupid things sometimes. But is it worth ruining someone’s career over?”

“And if I had died?” Emma shot back. Regina swallowed. “Would you feel the same way if Leo had shot me?”

Hesitantly, Regina shook her head. “No, I guess I wouldn’t. But you didn’t die, Emma. You’re right here.” She reached up to cup Emma’s cheeks, reminding the blonde that she was fine, that Regina herself was alive, that Henry was unharmed.

Emma gazed down into those chocolate brown orbs, so filled with myriad emotions after the weight of the day’s events that she couldn’t decipher any of them. Emma always struggled to read people’s faces, even when she knew the person as well as she knew Regina. But right now, her mind was racing too fast for her to focus. She placed a final kiss to Regina’s upturned lips and stepped away.

“I’ll be back later,” she said, swinging her purse onto her shoulder and turning to the door. Regina followed her, watching the blonde as she crossed the reception and left the building.

“Has she gone to speak to Ruby?” Mulan asked.

Regina nodded. “I tried to talk her out of it. She needs to calm down, have a clear head.”

“You can’t talk Emma out of anything, once she sets her mind to it,” Mulan advised. “But Ruby doesn’t deserve to be fired, not after the week she’s had.”

“I know,” Regina sighed. “I did tell Emma that. Her staff are all amazing and she shouldn’t let Ruby go from the team. Thanks for this morning, by the way. I’m sorry I was such a mess.”

“The woman you love was in danger,” Mulan reasoned. “I get it. And I’m happy for the both of you, by the way. Emma’s always been private about her personal life but I know she likes to be in a committed relationship and she hasn’t had someone making her happy in a while. Even with all the drama going on, I can see she’s happy with you. And you also deserve someone who respects you. Unlike …”

Regina didn’t need the counsellor to tell her what a disrespectful prick her ex-husband was. She smiled her thanks at Mulan and handed over the money which Emma left, asking her to pass it to the pizza delivery people who were due any moment. Regina couldn’t wait though. She needed to hug her son. Again. And apologise for shouting at him. He had no way of knowing how his actions had impacted their lives that day.

The door of their apartment bounced off the wall as Emma pushed it open violently. Springing back off the dented plaster, the heavy wood almost hit Emma in the face as she strode into the apartment, calling out her flatmate’s name. Then she stopped. Spinning on the spot, she turned and slammed the door shut, sliding the bolt across, then open, then across, then open again. Ritual done, she resumed her march towards Ruby’s bedroom.

Just before she arrived, the door opened and the tousle-haired woman emerged into the hallway, yawning.

“What’s going on?” she asked as she saw Emma standing right before her.

“You gave Henry Mills the password to our Wi-Fi,” Emma bellowed. Yep, the counting she had done on the way home hadn’t worked.

“What?” Ruby frowned, peering bleary-eyed into Emma’s angry features.

One, two, three, four, five, pause. One, two, three, four, five, pause. Forcing herself to calm down a little so she could at least explain herself, Emma took a steadying breath. One, two, three, four, five, pause. “Last night,” Emma gritted out. “You put the Wi-Fi password into Henry’s iPad. Regina’s husband tracked the signal. He turned up at the shelter to take Regina.”

“Shit, is she ok?”

“She’s fine. I stopped him. He held me at gunpoint.”

“Fuck, are you ok?”

“Yeah, I’m fine. Except my back is sore from when he landed on top of me after he was shot by the police.”

“Oh my god. Is he dead?”

“No, but he’s in surgery. Because of you, Ruby. What the fuck happened last night?”

Ruby’s face, already drained of colour as she listened to the events, crumpled at the harsh question. Emma rarely swore and Ruby could tell the woman was fuming. “I don’t know,” she whispered. “I can’t really remember. It’s all a bit blurry after I got that call from the hospital about Granny’s body.”

“You shouldn’t have come back,” Emma snapped. “You weren’t ready.”

“I … no, I guess I wasn’t. Is Regina ok? Is Henry ok?”

“Not really. Henry doesn’t know what’s happened and Regina is waiting to hear if Leo’s going to die or not. I guess then she’ll be telling him that his father is either dead or going to prison for holding me hostage. So, no, they’re not ok. Because of your actions, Ruby.”

Tears sparkled in Ruby’s eyes at the words. She loved working at the shelter and she took pride in her job, particularly in her role of making sure the women felt safe. She’d failed.

“I’m sorry,” she murmured. “I didn’t mean to put anyone in danger.”

“Yeah, well, you did. Your mistake could have been fatal. It still might be. If Leo dies, his death is on you.”

The words triggered the tears to begin spilling down Ruby’s cheeks. She knew Leo had been abusive to Regina and Henry and had just learned that he had held her best friend at gunpoint. But the man didn’t deserve to die. The accusation that Ruby’s actions may lead to his death was a punch to the gut.

“I’m sorry, it won’t happen again,” Ruby sobbed.

“No, it won’t. Because you’re fired.”

Ruby took several steps backwards into her bedroom, sitting down on the edge of her unmade bed in the dusky room. “Wh-what?”

“You’re fired. You violated your contract. You put the women in the shelter in danger through your actions. I’m terminating your contract, effective immediately.”

“Emma, come on. You don’t have to do this. It was a mistake. Mistakes happen. I’ve said I’m sorry. I’ll apologise to Regina. I’ll take responsibility and go on additional training courses or whatever you need but please don’t fire me.”

“There is no training course for not handing out Wi-Fi passwords, Ruby,” the blonde pointed out, now leaning on the doorframe. “That was a stupid mistake and one I would not stand for, regardless of who made it. It’s a fireable offence and that’s what I’m doing.”

The nonchalant way in which her friend delivered the life-changing news sparked a little flurry of indignation. Ruby understood that Emma sometimes struggled to sympathise with other people’s emotions but even for the blonde, this was callous.

“You’re seriously firing me? After all the shit I’ve been through this week?”

“I’m sorry for your granny, Ruby. I’ve said that many times and I mean it. And I’m also sorry that I agreed to let you come back to work in the shelter. You clearly weren’t ready and it was my mistake to put you on shift last night. But you claimed you wanted to come back, you claimed you were ready. You clearly weren’t and your grief led to a distraction which has caused one of our women to be in danger.”

“Your girlfriend,” Ruby pointed out.

“Regina is not relevant to this. If you had put any of the women in danger, I would be reacting the same way.”

“Really? So you’re saying the fact that your new girlfriend was the one whose husband turned up has nothing to do with this complete over reaction? Would you do the same if it were Kathryn? Or Marian?”

Emma’s features darkened and she stepped into the room, turning on the light so she could more clearly see her friend. The bedroom, she noticed, was a mess. Dirty plates were stacked on the bedside table, a shaft of light from the poorly drawn curtains captured the dust floating in the air. The window needed to be opened. Several loads of laundry needed to be done. It was pathetic, really. Sad. Emma forced herself to calm slightly before speaking. One, two, three, four, five, pause. One, two, three, four, five, pause.

“Never question my professional integrity,” she hissed. “I am committed to keeping every single woman and child in that shelter safe. I would do whatever it takes to make sure that the men they are hiding from can’t find them. That’s the job. I don’t discriminate between them and you damn well know that. Just because Regina and I are in a relationship doesn’t mean I reacted differently to if any other psychopathic husband had turned up outside. With a gun, Ruby. I could have been killed today. Your actions could have led to my death.”

Those words hit home too and fresh tears streamed down pale cheeks, the defiance which had briefly flared up dying away once more.

“Emma, I’m so sorry. It will never happen again. But please give me a second chance. Please don’t fire me. I need this job. I love this job and you know I’m great at it. I fucked up yesterday, I know that. And yes, it was too soon to be back. But I was just hurting so badly, sitting here all day and I needed to focus my mind on something else. I can see now that I wasn’t ready and my mistake was huge. You’re right, you could fire me. It’s within your right but I’m begging you not to. Emma, I need this job. I need the shelter. I’ve got nothing left in my life right now except work. I won’t come back until you say I’m ready but please give me a second chance.”

The blonde appraised the sobbing woman before her. She had seen Ruby cry more this week than throughout their friendship, she realised. The woman was distraught and clearly wracked with guilt. As she should be. It was her fault. But sat on the edge of her bed, tear-streaked face, red eyes, lank hair … Emma felt a sliver of compassion for the woman whose actions had been the catalyst for the day’s terrible events.

“I’m entitled to fire you.”

“I know.”

“You made a mistake which should never have been made.”

“I know.”

“It put the lives of everyone in the shelter at risk, including mine.”

“I know.”

“You shouldn’t have come back to the shelter.”

“I know.”

“You’re not ready to be at work.”

“I know.”

There was a pause. Emma looked down into her friend’s face, trying to make her decision. She didn’t want to fire Ruby. She loved worked with the redhead. But she also didn’t want to be seen as going easy on the woman just because they were such close friends. Ruby had made a fireable mistake; that was a fact. There were reasons for the mistake, sure. But those reasons didn’t justify it, didn’t negate the irresponsible nature of her actions.

But she was good at her job, most of the time. The women loved her. She had built up great rapport and trust with her women. The children loved her too. She worked hard, always willing to cover additional shifts in the face of staff shortages. And, whether Emma liked it or not, Ruby’s friendships was one of the reasons she had been able to move out of her foster parents’ house and live independently. She had helped her navigate the world, developed her self-sufficiency and boosted her self-confidence. She owed a lot to Ruby; patient, caring, funny, compassionate Ruby. Her decision was made.

“I’m sending you on a refresher course for our security training. You’ll be required to attend it before you return.”

There was a long pause, and then, “so does that mean I’m not fired?”

Emma sighed. “You’re on probation. Six months. One mistake and you’re out. You’re not coming back until Belle’s signed you off as ready for work. We’ll get the paperwork done next week. I’ve got to get back to the shelter. Just, get some sleep, do what you need to for your granny and we’ll talk later. I’ll be back after the end of the shift.”

“Thank you,” Ruby breathed out. “Thank you, Emma. You don’t know how much this means to me.”

“Yes, I do,” Emma replied. “I know you love your job. And you’re good at it, most of the time. I didn’t want to lose you from my team so if you can show me that you’re committed to turning this around, I’m willing to give you a second chance.”

“Thank you. Can you apologise to Regina for me?”

“I will, but you’ll need to do that yourself when you next see her.”

Ruby nodded her understanding. “Of course.”

With that, Emma turned on the spot and retreated out of the apartment. When she heard the front door close, Ruby flopped backwards onto her bed and allowed fresh tears to fall.

Chapter Text

Henry and Regina were curled up on a couch, watching TV with a handful of other women from the shelter when Emma returned. The room was quiet. Word had got out about the events which had taken place outside the building that morning. Regina’s husband had turned up. He’d been shot. He’d found his family; tracked them down. But no one had spoken directly to Regina about it, recognising that the woman was not ready to talk.

Emma walked over to her girlfriend and tapped her gently on the shoulder. Regina smiled up at her and patted the space beside her, encouraging Emma to join her. But the blonde shook her head, jabbing her thumb over her shoulder.

“Henry, sweetheart, I’m going to talk to Emma for a bit. Are you ok here?”

“Do you have my iPad, Emma?” Henry asked, turning towards the woman standing behind him.

“Sorry, kid. I’m going to need to hold onto it for a bit longer.”

Henry pouted. “That’s not fair. And you missed lunch. You said you were going to eat with us.”

“I know, I’m sorry. I had to do something for work and it couldn’t wait,” Emma replied. “How about I have dinner with you guys instead?”

This seemed to be acceptable to the boy who nodded his agreement and turned back to the TV as Regina untangled her arm from around her son’s small body. Placing a kiss to the top of his head, she got up and followed Emma out of the room. All eyes watched them leave but no one said anything. Regina raised her eyebrows at Kathryn who nodded her understanding. Please watch Henry for me.

“How did Ruby take the news?” Regina asked as soon as they were in the corridor.

“I didn’t fire her,” Emma replied. “I know I said I was going to and I know I have the right to do so but I decided she deserves a second chance. She’s on probation and she won’t be back here until I and Belle think she’s ready. But what happened wasn’t only her fault. It was mine too; I was the one who put her on the rota. I have to take some responsibility too and it’s not fair that she lose her job for my mistake. Are you ok with that?”

Regina reached for Emma’s hand as they passed through the doorway into the reception. “Of course I’m ok with that,” she assured, tugging lightly to stop the blonde who was marching towards her office. “Ruby made a mistake but I don’t blame her for Leo’s actions.”

“I do but I blame myself too,” Emma sighed, head hanging as she stared at her shoes, disappointment with herself finally showing.

But Regina wasn’t having any of that. As far as she was concerned, Emma had done nothing wrong. Ruby had fucked up, sure. But the brunt of the responsibility had to lie with Leo. No one else was to be held accountable for his actions.

“This wasn’t you, or Ruby,” Regina said, gently coaxing Emma’s chin up until they made eye contact once more. “It was Leo. Don’t blame yourself. Don’t blame Ruby. It’s Leo we should be angry at.”

“That’s what I wanted to talk to you about,” Emma admitted. “The cops are here to talk with you.”

“Here?” Regina looked around, the place was empty except for Mulan who was studiously looking at her computer but evidently eavesdropping on their conversation.

“In the meeting room,” Emma explained, pointing to the closed door on the far side of the room. “They say they have some news and they want to answer a few follow up questions based on the statement you gave this morning. They arrived two minutes before I got back from speaking with Ruby. I said I’d check with you before they ask any questions but I figured you’d want an update on … his condition.”

Regina nodded at once. Emma’s mouth set into a firm line and she turned towards the room. But Regina’s hand in her own stopped her and she turned back to find the brunette standing in the exact same position. “What -?”

Before she could finish the question, soft lips covered her own. Her eyes fluttered closed as she melted into the kiss. It was short, tame and ended far too soon. But it did what Regina had intended, and reassured Emma that the woman’s desire to find out how her husband was doing after the shooting had nothing to do with lingering feelings.

“Ok, let’s go,” Regina said with a gentle smile.

“Where’s my mom?” Henry asked when Kathryn passed him a juice box.

“She’s talking to Emma,” Kathryn replied as she gave the same drink to each of her daughters.

“Mom and Emma love each other,” Henry announced casually as he stabbed the straw into the box. “She told me today. They do kissing and stuff.”

And stuff? Kathryn thought to herself. Please don’t let a six-year-old understand ‘and stuff’. But she was intrigued to know what Henry did understand about his mother’s new relationship. So she sat down on the couch beside him and sipped her coffee. “Yeah, I know. Do you like Emma?”

“Most days. But today she took my iPad. And then she said she’d have pizza with us but she didn’t come. She made a promise and she broke it. That’s not nice.”

“No, but I think Emma’s had a busy day today,” Kathryn reasoned, adding in her head ‘what with being taken hostage and then involved in a police shooting’.

“Yeah, well, I’ve had a busy day too. But I still had time for pizza.”

Oh the sass, Kathryn mused. Henry was going to be a fun teenager, she could tell already. But she had a sneaky suspicion that Emma would be around to help Regina out when those mood swings hit in full force.

“I’m sure Emma will make it up to you later once she’s finished work.”

“Emma works loads. My dad did too. But Mom doesn’t work. Do you work?”

“Not at the moment,” Kathryn replied. “I have my girls to look after.”

“Do you know what happened to my dad?”

Ok, that’s not a question I was expecting, Kathryn balked. She had no idea what Henry had been told about that morning’s events. To be honest, she had only a basic understanding herself about what had gone down outside the shelter. And she was sure that Regina would want to be the person to tell her own son the actions and consequences of the young boy’s father. So she settled for the vague truth.

“I don’t know much, Henry, I’m sorry. I’m sure your mom will talk to you soon though.”

“Mom said he did something bad.”

Kathryn nodded. “Yes, he did.”

“Did your husband do something bad too? Is that why you live here?”


“Does that mean Emma might do something bad to my mom?”

“No,” Kathryn replied quickly. “Not at all, Henry. Most relationships are happy and healthy. Most people are kind to each other and they love each other and want to spend their lives together. Sometimes relationships can be bad, but it’s rare.”

Henry’s little forehead creased in confusion. “What does rare mean?”

“Not common,” Kathryn explained. “If something is rare, it doesn’t happen often.”

“But it happens sometimes?” Henry clarified. Kathryn nodded. The boy cocked his head to one side, straw between his lips as he sucked up some juice while in thought. “I don’t want to be in a bad relationship when I’m a grown up,” he said at last. “I want to be nice to my family. Not like my dad.”


Both the boy and Kathryn looked behind them to see Regina standing there, glassy eyed. She had clearly overheard the last part of the conversation.

“Are you crying, Mom?” Henry asked, twisting around to kneel up and lean over the back of the couch.

“I’m fine,” Regina said, wiping her eyes and reaching out to cup Henry’s cheek. “I was just thinking about how much I love you.”

“I love you too, Mom,” Henry said, leaning out to place a clumsy kiss on his mother’s lips. “Where’s Emma?”

“She’s working,” Regina replied. “But I wanted to talk to you about your dad. Shall we go and sit in our bedroom where it’s a bit quieter?”

Henry nodded and wriggled backwards and off the couch. Regina placed a hand on Kathryn’s shoulder and squeezed her thanks. The blonde patted her friend’s hand as if to say ‘you’re welcome’ before turning her attention to her daughters, two of whom had started to fight over their latest toy.

Once again, as Regina walked out of the common room, she could feel people watching her. The day’s events needed to be addressed sooner or later. As did her relationship with Emma. Perhaps later that evening, once all of the children had gone to bed, they should provide a brief update. But first, there was someone who deserved to know what had happened.

Inside their room, Henry climbed up onto his bed and picked up a discarded comic. Before he could open it, however, Regina began to speak.

“So do you remember how I said that your dad did something bad?”

“Yeah,” Henry nodded. “You said he might not be able to come and see me.”

“Exactly. Well, it turns out that your dad really missed you and he wanted to see you. So he came down to New York.”

“Dad’s here?” Henry asked, eyes lighting up with excitement in such a way that Regina’s heart broke a little bit.

“He was but he isn’t any more. The problem is, Henry, that I came here with you because I didn’t think it was a good idea for us to live with your dad any more. Do you remember why?”

Henry nodded. “Cos Dad hit me and he hit you and hitting people is not nice.”

“Exactly. And because of that, your dad can’t just come and see us whenever he wants. He has to ask permission, like when you want to play on the iPad, you have to ask me first, right?”

“Yeah. I ask and then you say yes or no.”

“Well, your dad didn’t ask if he could come and see us. And when I told him he couldn’t see you, he got angry.”

“Did he shout?”

“A bit,” Regina nodded. “He was angry with me and with Emma.”

“Emma met Dad?” That was an odd thought. Emma didn’t know his dad. Emma lived in New York, not up in Maine where his dad was in their home.

“She did. And Emma told your dad that he couldn’t come in and see you this morning because he hadn’t asked permission. Dad got angry with Emma when she said that and Emma told me to come inside to make sure I was safe.”

“Did Dad hurt you again?”

“No he didn’t, but Emma was worried that he might, so she protected me.”

“Like a knight?”

“What?” Regina frowned, her mind instantly thinking her son was referring to night time rather than a gallant hero who saved damsels in distress in Henry’s storybooks.

“Like when the knight rescues the princess from the scary dragon,” Henry clarified.

“Oh, yes, I suppose so. Emma didn’t want me to get hurt so she told me to go inside. She wanted to talk to your dad and ask him to go back home. But your dad didn’t listen.”

“Did Dad hurt Emma?” Henry’s eyes widened as he asked this question. He’d seen Emma today. Emma didn’t look hurt.

“A little bit. But Dad was also shouting at Emma lots and so the police came to help.”

“With the big, loud siren?”

“Later, but at first, there were just two police officers who walked from nearby to see if they could help.”

“Help Dad or help Emma?”

“Help everyone. The police were worried that your dad might hurt Emma and they wanted to make sure he didn’t.” She deliberately left out that tiny detail about Henry’s father pointing a gun at Emma. He didn’t need to know that yet. When he was older, maybe, but not at the age of six. “The police were trying to help your dad not make any bad decisions but your dad wouldn’t listen.”

“He wouldn’t listen to the police? That’s bad!” Henry exclaimed.

“Yes, it is. And then the police got very worried about Emma and they had to make sure that your dad didn’t hurt her so … so they shot him.”

Henry’s eyes blew wider than ever. “The police shot Dad?”


“Is he dead?”

“No,” Regina replied at once. “I just spoke to a police officer and -”

“Was it the policeman who shot Dad?”

“No, a different one. It was a woman and she’d come to tell me that your dad is ok.”

“He’s not dead?”


“But he got hurt?”

“Yes. He had to go to hospital and they had to do an operation on his shoulder which is where he got shot. He’ll be ok but he’s in big trouble with the police.”

“Because he didn’t listen?”

“Yes. So after he gets better, he is going to go to have to go to prison.”

“For not listening?” Wow, Henry thought. That’s extreme. Maybe I should listen to my teachers more in class. Prison isn’t somewhere I want to go.

“He made some mistakes and did some things which are against the law,” Regina said, choosing her words carefully. “So you won’t be able to see him for a while, maybe until you’re eighteen, if the court decides that it’s not safe for your dad to spend time with you.”

“Because he might hurt me?”

“Maybe,” Regina agreed. “Some adults will have a conversation with your dad and with me and with some other people who know lots about children and families and they will be the ones who help us decide if you can see your dad again. Do you understand everything I’ve told you?”

Henry nodded slowly. “I think so. Dad did some bad things to us at home and then he did some more bad things here so the police shot him to stop him hurting Emma. And now he has to go to prison to be punished. And because he’s been bad, he can’t see me. Is that a punishment too? Not being able to see me?”

“I suppose so. More a consequence than a punishment.”

“What’s a consequence?”

“It’s what happens as a result of an action. So if I put the plug in the bath and left the tap running and then went out for lunch, what would the consequence be?”

“The water would go everywhere,” Henry replied.

“Exactly. And the consequence of your dad hurting you and me and try to hurt Emma is that he needs to go to prison for a while.”

“But that means I can’t see him either. So it’s like my consequence too?”

Regina pondered this. Her son wasn’t wrong. Due to the way Leo had acted, their son had been left without a father. It wasn’t Henry’s fault; it was all Leo’s. And yet her son was the one who was, in a way, being punished. Through no fault of his own, Henry was, for all intents and purposes, fatherless. His childhood was collateral damage.

“It’s not a consequence of what you’ve done,” Regina explained. “You haven’t done anything wrong, Henry. But unfortunately, what your dad did means that his punishment affects you too. Imagine if I dropped our dinner on the floor. It would be my fault because I dropped it and I wouldn’t be able to eat it. But you wouldn’t be able to eat it either because I was cooking for both of us. So it was my mistake but both of us would have to wait until I cooked a second meal, right? Your dad made the mistake but his punishment is that he can’t see you. And that means you can’t see him either, even though you did nothing wrong. Does that make sense?”

“I think so,” Henry nodded. “Can you still see Dad?”

“If I wanted to,” Regina nodded. “But I don’t want to see your father any more, Henry. I’m very sad about what he did today and the fact that he hurt Emma and -”

“He hurt Emma?” Henry interrupted, eyes aflame with anger at the thought.

“A little bit,” Regina nodded.

“Is Emma ok?”

“Yes, she’s fine.”

“Did you kiss it better where Dad hurt her?”

“The doctors made her all better at the hospital,” Regina replied, realising as she spoke that she and Emma hadn’t discussed the blonde’s injuries. Was she horribly self-involved?

“Did Dad say sorry to Emma?”

“Not yet, but I hope he will,” Regina replied, knowing full well that the chances of Leo apologising to Emma were minimal. “Do you have any other questions?” Henry thought for a bit and then shook his head. Regina smiled and kissed his forehead. “You’re a good boy, Henry. Thank you.”

“Can I have my iPad back now?”

“The police took your iPad to check something,” Regina informed her son. “But when they bring it back, yes, you can have it.”

“The police have my iPad? That’s cool!” Henry exclaimed.

Regina listened attentively as her son launched into an announcement that he wanted to become a police officer when he was older because it meant he got free iPads. The two of them made their way back to the common area and resumed their place on the couch. Regina didn’t want to do anything more than snuggle up with her son for the rest of the day, the rest of the weekend. She curled her arm around his back and pulled him close. To Henry’s credit, he allowed the contact as he pondered whether police officers also got free PlayStations.

When Emma stepped out of her office just after eight that evening, she was unsurprised to see Mulan and Ella whispering conspiratorially together. She raised her eyebrows pointedly at them when they noticed their boss’ presence but said nothing.

“Are you ok, Emma?” Ella asked as Emma pulled out her key to lock her office door.

“I’m bruised but I’ll be fine, thank you for asking,” Emma replied. “I presume Mulan has told you what happened here this morning?” There was a nod of confirmation. “We’re still on high alert but we think we know how Leo found Regina. Still, make sure you monitor the CCTV feed closely tonight, just in case.”

“Understood,” Ella nodded. “How is Regina?”

“She’s ok, I think. She’s talked to Henry about Leo after we heard an update from the cops. The man is under arrest and will be up in front of the court on hostage taking charges as soon as he’s well enough to leave the hospital. Henry doesn’t know everything but he knows he won’t be able to see his dad for a long time.”

“And Ruby?”

Emma glanced at Mulan who shrugged in casual defiance. She didn’t care if Emma knew she’d gossiped about a fellow team member. Ruby was a friend as much as a colleague. “She’s on probation,” Emma replied. “She won’t be working here until Belle signs off and I’ll be monitoring her closely for six months. She made a mistake and she knows it. But I know I made a mistake in allowing her to come back so I’m not firing her. I decided it wasn’t fair.”

“Thank you,” Mulan replied. “I think that was the right decision.”

Another curt nod and Emma made her way towards the rear of the shelter. “Aren’t you going home?” Ella asked.

“I’m having dinner with Regina and Henry,” Emma replied. “It’s been a long day for all of us.”

Ella looked sideways at Mulan who grinned at her. Another piece of gossip confirmed. “Congratulations, Emma. I’m really happy for you.”

“Thank you, Ella. Have a good night. Mulan, you can head off if you’ve completed the handover.”

Emma had already decided that she needed to speak with the women in the shelter about her relationship with Regina. The cat was out of the bag. Which was an expression which Emma hated; who put cats in bags? It made no sense. But nevertheless, she had decided that, in light of their relationship reveal, she needed to make some sort of announcement. She was yet to discuss this with Regina, however.

So as soon as she entered the common area, which she was pleased to see fairly busy, she headed straight for the brunette to explain her plan. Regina nodded her agreement at once. “I was thinking the same thing,” she said. “It’s better for them to hear it from you than the gossip mill.”

“And I want to reassure them that Leo’s appearance doesn’t mean the shelter is in any way easy to find. It’s important they know our security measures are still in place. Where’s Henry?”

Regina pointed to the far side of the room where Henry was playing with Roland. It was past their bedtimes but it was a Saturday night and it had been an intense day for everyone.

“Do you mind if he’s in the room when I talk?”

“No, I’ve talked to him, go ahead.”

With Regina’s approval, Emma made her way over to the breakfast counter and called for everyone’s attention. The room fell quiet at once. Emma hesitated before beginning. She was usually unaffected by speaking in public and rarely felt nervous. But this was different. This wasn’t just about the women; this was personal, about her.

“Um, hi everyone, sorry to interrupt your evening but there are a few things I want to talk with you about in light of what happened this morning.”

All eyes were on Emma, eager for the truth after an afternoon of whispered theories. A glance around the room told Emma that, in addition to Henry and Roland, most of the children were still up. Some of the younger ones had ignored her but most were listening. She needed to censor her words to make sure they understood what they needed to know but weren’t provided with too much information. That said, she also didn’t want to lie nor provide too little information. The truth was important.

“I am sure you’ve heard that there was an incident here this morning. The husband of one of our guests came to Swan’s Shelter and an altercation occurred. I placed myself between the woman and the husband to keep her safe. The police were called quickly and were on scene very fast. Under threat from law enforcement, he took me hostage with a firearm. When he refused to release me, the police had no choice but to use their weapons. He is recovering in hospital and will be arrested when he regains consciousness.

“We have already established how our location was revealed and it happened because one of my team made a mistake. They have been disciplined and we will be ensuring this never happens again. As you all know, every possible effort is taken to keep you safe and my team are committed to doing so. However, we are human, and mistakes happen. Rest assured, we’ll do everything in our power to avoid anything like this happening in the future.

“Finally, on a personal note, there is one more piece of news which I feel you should be aware of and which you should hear from me directly.” At this point, Emma’s eyes drifted over to Regina. “I have started a relationship with one of the women in here.” A flurry of whispers could be heard around the room but Emma pressed on. “This is not something I condone usually but there are extenuating circumstances.

“Regina and I,” she gestured to the brunette whose cheeks pinked slightly as all eyes flicked over to her, “have known each other since we were sixteen. We met at high school in Maine. Her chance arrival here over a month ago has rekindled feelings which seem to have been harboured all these years. We started dating a few weeks ago and decided to tell you all today. In light of the morning’s events, many people already realised we were together. However, our relationship had nothing to do with the way I dealt with the situation today. Had any of you been in danger, I would have done the same thing. In my position here, I pledge to keep you all safe in here and that is what I will do. That said, I sincerely hope that there will never be a repeat of today. I’m off duty now but I’m having dinner now with Regina and Henry so if you do have any questions, please feel free to approach me or Regina,” she added, to which Regina nodded her agreement at once. “Thank you for your attention and I hope you enjoy the rest of your evening.”

With that, the informal meeting dispersed. Regina got off the couch and made her way to Emma.

“Was that ok?” Emma asked.

“Perfect,” Regina nodded. “Are you hungry?”

“Yes.” With a jolt, Emma realised she’d barely eaten all day. It was very unlike Emma to miss meals.

Regina placed a gentle hand on her forearm and moved past her into the kitchen to begin cooking. Emma slid onto a barstool and offered to help. Two minutes later, she was chopping an onion.

“Emma?” Henry poked the blonde in the knee at the same time as saying her name just to make sure he got her attention.

“Hey kid, how are you?”

“Good, thanks. Mom said Dad hurt you. Are you ok?”

“I’m fine, Henry. Thank you for asking.”

“Mom said you love her now.”

Emma glanced at Regina who was smiling and shaking her head in exasperation. Trust her son to be so direct. Luckily, Emma’s autism meant she preferred this sort of conversation to one which skirted the point. “Yes,” the blonde confirmed, “I do love your mom.”

“But Dad doesn’t?”

“Your dad made a mistake,” Emma offered. She didn’t really want to get into a conversation with Henry about his father in her role as Regina’s girlfriend. She didn’t want to appear bias. “But he still loves you.”

“Mom says Dad can’t see me now,” Henry pressed. “Is that because he was bad?”

“Yes,” Emma nodded. “We have to make sure you’re safe.”

“So you and Mom are going to look after me? Like having two moms instead of a mom and a dad?”

“Well, maybe. Right now, your mom is going to look after you. But I’m here too. Whenever you need to talk or you have a question, you can come to me. Is that fair?”

“Yeah, ok,” Henry agreed. “Can I help you make dinner?”

“Sure,” Emma nodded, reaching down and lifting Henry onto the seat beside her.

Regina smiled as she watched her son and girlfriend, sitting side by side, work together to prepare their evening meal. Was this her future? She wondered as she stirred the pan of onions. If it was, she couldn’t wait to experience it.

Chapter Text

Something was different. That was the first thought which came into Emma’s mind when she woke up on Sunday morning. Something smelled different. Bacon. She turned off her alarm and swung out of bed, unable to stop her mouth salivating slightly at the wafting odour. So, Ruby had been serious the night before when she had promised to cook Emma an apology breakfast. Emma had questioned how a bagel with bacon and a fried egg (hard yolk, not runny) was a gesture of regret and Ruby had insisted it was. The blonde had dismissed the offer. After all, how would a bagel fit into her usual morning routine? What would happen to her toast and jam?

The aroma strengthened as she opened the door to her bedroom and put the pullup bar in place. Her back twinged as she reached up. The bruised muscles protested even more as she started to work out. But she was determined, splitting the two sets of ten into four sets of five. Dropping back to the floor once her strengthening workout was complete, Emma headed for the bathroom.

“Breakfast when you’re ready, Em,” Ruby called out as she spotted her flatmate walking down the corridor past the open door to the kitchen.

Emma didn’t reply. She was angry. She wasn’t sure what she was angry about. The disruption of her perfected morning routine? Ruby’s insistence that a breakfast bagel would make up for her mistake? The fact that Ruby made the mistake in the first place? The fact that Emma’s agreement to allow Ruby back to work had led to that mistake happening? What Regina had endured as a result of her personal failing as a boss and Ruby’s failing as an employee?

She squirted far too much shampoo into her hand, emotions taken out on the bottle. After futilely trying to get the liquid back in through the narrow hole, she gave up and slathered it into her hair. The suds took twice as long to wash out but eventually she was onto the conditioner, more carefully dispensed, and a quick shave. Then she was out, dried and heading to the kitchen, a towel wrapped around her hair and a second around her body.

“I’ve put the coffee on already,” Ruby said as soon as Emma appeared in the doorway, intent on setting up her morning brew as usual. “I figured I’d save you some time.”

“Ok, thanks,” Emma replied, diverting her steps towards her bedroom where she got ready for the day.

By the time she returned to the kitchen, the consistent, lingering smell of bacon had worn her down. She might not understand why the breakfast bagel was a representation of Ruby’s apology but she was going to eat it. Emma liked bacon, when cooked to her exact requirements. And Ruby knew exactly how Emma liked to eat it. Crispy but not to crispy. Minimal fat. Oil drained off.

“Thank you,” Emma said as Ruby presented her with the morning meal, gesturing for her to sit down at the breakfast bar they rarely used. Dinner in front of the television was far more their style.

“You’re welcome. How did you sleep?”

“Not bad.”

“How’s your back?”

“Sore,” Emma admitted.

“I saw the bruise,” Ruby said. At Emma’s frown, she clarified. “When you left the kitchen before, in your towel. It looks bad. Do you want me to put some arnica on it?”

“No thanks,” Emma replied. In truth, she wanted to forget the blue and purple mottling which covered much of her upper back. When she had caught a glimpse of the damaged capillaries in the mirror in her bedroom, her stomach rolled at the memory. His weight, relentlessly pressing her down. The sticky warmth of his blood. His ragged breath against her neck.

Picking up the bagel, Emma took a bite. It was good. Ruby had first introduced Emma to this simple breakfast sandwich when they were at college together. Back then, it was their go-to hangover cure but now, on occasion, Ruby would make them on the rare times they both had the same day off work.

“Thank you for this,” Emma said, unable to forget her manners even if she was unsure how a bagel was going to make up for everything which had happened.

“You’re welcome,” Ruby replied as she poured Emma’s coffee into her travel mug and handed it over, knowing the blonde wouldn’t finish the steaming beverage and therefore would carry the remainder of the drink to work.

They fell silent. Emma didn’t have much to say; she had said all she wanted to Ruby the previous evening. The two of them had talked late into the night. She couldn’t say the issue was resolved. She still blamed Ruby for much of what had happened. But she had come to the conclusion that she was right to give Ruby a second chance. And she was confident Ruby was going to work as hard as possible to regain her trust. As an employee. That was the problem. Their relationship had become blurred ever since Emma set up Swan’s Shelter and took Ruby on, as her first hire. They were friends, flatmates and now employer-employee. Each required a different role and sometimes it was hard to differentiate what they were to each other.

Yesterday afternoon, Emma had been Ruby’s boss, intent on firing her. This morning, they were flatmates, eating breakfast together. Last night, they had been some strange hybrid of the two. Ruby had begged Emma’s forgiveness, verbalised over and over her deep-seated regret, and made promises that it would never happen again. Emma had listened, sceptical, as she tried to unwind from a long day, constantly reminded by the other woman on the couch of what had happened.

And yet, at the same time, Ruby was also still her friend. She was someone who understood Emma, loved her despite her quirks, and had stuck by her for years. She was mourning her grandmother. In any other scenario, Emma would have been sat on the couch the previous night, talking with Ruby about her memories of her Granny, trying to console the woman who had lost her last family member. But Ruby wasn’t only a friend. She was also an employee who had made an unforgiveable mistake. In Emma’s mind, her two roles struggled for precedence.

“I’ve got to go,” Emma said, glancing at the clock. “Thanks for the bagel.”

“Sure, I’ll see you later. Can you please say sorry to Regina for me? I know I’ll say it myself too but I don’t know when I’ll next see her.” Because you’re not letting me come back to work yet; the words hung unspoken in the air.

“Yeah, I’ll tell her. See you later. I hope everything goes well today.”

The night before, Ruby had told Emma she was meeting with the funeral director. On a Sunday; dedicated professional. Emma couldn’t begin to imagine how it might feel to make decisions with regards to coffins and flowers and final outfits for someone she loved. Briefly, she wondered whether she should ask her foster parents if they could write down what they wanted when they died. Everyone must have an idea of what their funeral would be like, so surely it was acceptable to put together a list of instructions.

This thought was still on her mind when she entered the shelter, sipping her coffee, ten minutes later.

“What do you want at your funeral?” she asked Ella after they had exchanged morning pleasantries.

The woman’s eyebrows rose. “Am I dying?”

“No? Well, technically. We all get closer to death every day.” Ella went a little paler. “But hypothetically, what do you want at your funeral?”

“Um, I’ve not really thought about it. Why?”

“Just thinking. You should write it down. Give it to Alex, so she knows what you want when you do die.”

Ella’s skin went even paler. Emma was oblivious. “Alex is five. I’m only twenty-nine.”

“Yes, but none of us ever know when our time is coming,” Emma pressed on as she rounded the desk, unaware of how much she was freaking the young mother out. “It would be a good idea for you to tell Alex what you want before you die, so she doesn’t have to make those decisions for you while she’s grieving. Anything to report from last night?”

A little stunned at the abrupt end to the jarring conversation, Ella hesitated for a moment before catching Emma up on the few incidents in an otherwise uneventful night. Fifteen minutes later she was waving goodbye to her boss before heading off down the street, her mind now focused on her own mortality and what sort of flowers she’d want decorating her coffin when her time came in, what she hoped, many decades to come.

Henry’s desire to go to the park had started the moment he woke up. Yes, he had decided, staring up at the ceiling. Sunday was park day. That was the plan. Regina had been roused by a bouncing child seconds later, kneeling on the edge of her bed and poking her with that exact request. “Maybe,” she had yawned, resting her hand on his back to support him in case he toppled backwards with enthusiasm.

As the duo got dressed, washed their faces and headed to have breakfast, the requests continued. “Can Roland come?” Henry asked as his bowl appeared before him. “Can I get an ice cream?” he asked when he finished his orange juice. “Can we play soccer?”

Realising she wasn’t going to get out of this trip, regardless of how much she was personally disinclined to go to the park, Regina nodded her agreement, head buried in a cup of coffee. Henry whooped at that and slid from the stool, scampering off into the corridor to tell Roland.

“Oh, hi Emma!” he grinned as he collided with her legs in the doorway, narrowly missing receiving a coffee shower as the blonde expertly steadied the mug in her hand. “I’m going to the park!”

“Great, have a good day,” Emma said as the boy raced off towards the room Roland and Marian shared, several doors down from his own.

Regina smiled at her girlfriend as she approached. She couldn’t help it; seeing Emma always made her smile.

“Good morning,” Regina said as Emma reached her.

“Morning,” Emma replied, placing a gentle kiss on Regina’s upturned lips. It felt so natural, so right to be able to display such affections. And they could do so publicly, now those in the shelter knew about them. It was a relief, if she was honest. She was tired of hiding. “How did you sleep?”

“Pretty well, actually. Better than usual and better than I expected. I think a part of my brain was more relaxed, knowing for the first time since I left Maine that Leo wasn’t going to track us down, turn up outside and force us to come home.” The fact that the exact events of the previous day had been something Regina had predicted went unsaid.

“Is that a thought you’d often had since arriving?” Emma asked, sliding onto the stool Henry had just vacated. She was also sliding into her role of counsellor, in addition to that of concerned girlfriend. “Were you often unable to sleep because of it?”

“It was subconscious,” Regina explained. “It was always in the back of my mind, yes. I knew he’d find us eventually. I was just waiting. But most of the time I felt safe in the shelter. To be honest, I always assumed he’d find me once I got a job; tracking my social security number or something. I never imagined he’d find me here. But when I was drifting off, more than once over the past month, I’d sometimes find myself wondering what I’d do if he did show up. What would I say? What would he do? I guess we found out.”

“We did. And now he’s going to prison. So you’re never going to have to worry about him again.”

“I’m going to have to testify. I’m going to have to stand up in open court and tell people what he did to me, what our marriage was like.” These thoughts would have kept Regina awake the night before, had she not been so emotionally exhausted by everything else which had happened. That morning, however, they had begun to creep into her mind.

“Unless he takes a plea,” Emma pointed out. “And anyway, I was the one he held at gunpoint. That’s the charge. He’s not being arrested for anything which happened between you in Maine, just what he did to me yesterday. You may not even be needed.”

“How are you?” Regina asked suddenly, remembering that it was Emma who had been held hostage by Leo with a gun pointed at her. “How’s your back? Are you still in pain?”

Emma offered a soft smile of reassurance. “I’m ok. I’ll feel fine in a few days.”

“Did you sleep ok?”

“Yes, but I’ve always been a good sleeper. Plus I think I was too exhausted for my brain to keep me awake replaying the events. Ruby and I stayed up until well past midnight talking. She says she’s sorry, by the way.”

“Oh, right.” Regina didn’t know how to respond to that. What was the correct way to accept a secondhand apology from someone who had enabled your soon-to-be-ex-husband to find you?

“She’ll tell you that herself when she comes back to work,” Emma pressed on. “But she won’t be back for a few weeks. I’ve told her she needs to take some time. Grieve. Hey, do you know what you want at your funeral?”

Just as Ella did, Regina balked at the abrupt, out-of-nowhere question. “What? No. Why?”

“You should tell Henry. Or me. Or someone. Write it down. Maybe put it in your will. It’s much easier than what Ruby’s got to do today. Choosing flowers, coffins, hymns. I think we should all leave a record for what we want at our funeral before we die, so our families don’t have to do it for us while they’re grieving.”

“Oh, um, ok,” Regina said slowly. She understood Emma’s logic and she agreed with her sentiment. But it was far too early in the morning for her to be holding the image of Emma or her son planning her funeral.

Emma, to her credit, frowned slightly. “I’ve upset you,” she said, correctly reading the creases on Regina’s forehead. “Was that not an ok thing to say?”

“It was … unusual,” Regina replied eventually. “I get your point and I think what you’re saying is valid. But to be honest, I try not to think about my own death, especially not before I’ve finished my first coffee of the day on a Sunday morning.”

“Yes,” Emma mused. “Our society has tried to sanitise death as much as possible. It’s a taboo subject, for the most part. Something that’s seen as scary and not understood. People rarely talk about death or what happens afterwards.”

“Especially when you’re a parent,” Regina continued quietly. “It’s not that I’m afraid of dying myself. Well, I guess I am. But I’m more scared about what happens to Henry after I die. When you become a parent, your two constant worries are; what if something happens to them? And what if something happens to me?”

Emma nodded slowly. That made sense. She understood, from the other side of the table, what the loss of a parent does to a child. She had lost, mere hours old, her birth parents. She never knew why they left her. She’d wondered, of course, but her theories never made her feel better, never justified their decision, never comforted the dull ache in her heart. Then, as a toddler, she had lost her adoptive parents. She remembered that. She remembered the feeling of loss, detachment, no longer belonging. They gave her back; they no longer needed her. Emma wasn’t good enough. Being fostered by Mary Margaret and David had come a few years later, after years in the system and years of ever-growing self-loathing. It had taken her foster parents a long time, endless patience and constant reassurance to make Emma believe she wasn’t going to be sent away again. That she belonged. That she had a family. The dull ache, however, remained. In the background, barely noticeable, but there. Loss.

“I’m sorry,” Emma said gently. “I didn’t mean to make you think about something like that. I wasn’t thinking myself, at least, not as a mother. But nothing is going to happen to you, Regina. Henry is going to be all grown up and independent before anything happens to you.”

“You don’t know that,” Regina whispered, eyes filled with tears at the thoughts which now tumbled through her mind.

“I don’t,” Emma agreed. “But I believe it to be true. You’re healthy and fit. You eat well and I can only assume you must work out.” Eyes trailed down Regina’s toned body. “You’re also sensible and you’re not going to do anything to put yourself in danger. You’re not an adrenaline junkie who skydives or goes cave diving at night. Your abusive ex is in prison. You’re in a healthy relationship with someone who loves you. The chance of you dying young is minimal, right?”

“Is this supposed to make me feel better?”

“Yes, is it working?”

Regina couldn’t help but chuckle and the genuine, earnest look on Emma’s face. “Sort of. You’re sweet, Emma, thank you. But telling me that my micromort count is low is not going to reassure any parent.”

“You know about micromorts?” Emma asked, perking up.

“I’m not a geek,” Regina said quickly. “I heard about it on this British quiz show.”


“You watch it too?”

“Religiously,” Emma nodded. “Big Sandi fan.”

“Ditto,” Regina grinned. “Ok, now I feel better. Can we have a QI date some time?”

“Definitely. How would you feel about coming to mine again? We can watch old episodes on YouTube. I’d like to take you out on a proper date as well though. Henry could come too.”

“You want to bring a six-year-old on our date?”

“You and Henry are a package deal, right?” Emma pointed out.

“Yes,” Regina nodded.

“Then yes, I want to bring Henry too. I want to get to know him. And, for the record, if anything did happen to you, despite your low micromort score, I promise you Henry would be cared for, and loved.”

Tears glittered again. “Thank you,” Regina whispered.

In those dark moments when she had allowed herself to ponder her own demise, Regina tried not to think about how alone she was. Ever since her parents had died, Regina had worried about who would take care of Henry. For years, she had made the disturbing but realistic assumption that her untimely death would be at the hands of Leo. With her dead and him hopefully in prison for her murder, what would become of their traumatised son? Regina had no siblings, no real friends. Who would care for Henry?

She knew it was early days. She knew there was no obligation for Emma to offer to care for Henry. Their relationship was still a fledgling. Henry and Emma hadn’t even spent that much time together. Yet the offer meant a lot to Regina. If her micromort number really was up, perhaps, in those final moments, she could feel some sense of comfort knowing Henry would be safe and loved, with Emma.

“So, Henry wants to go to the park?”

“Yeah,” Regina nodded. “I figured he deserves some time out of this place. Plus, it’s not like he’s going to run into his father and be kidnapped.”

The line was delivered as a light-hearted joke but the fact of the matter was if Regina had taken Henry to the bodega the morning before, that exact scenario could have unfolded.

“Well, have a good day,” Emma said, forcing a smile as she pushed past the comment. “I wish I could come with you two.”

“Next time,” Regina suggested. “Have you got a lot of work on today?”

“Paperwork. Nothing too complicated but I’m behind and I need to catch up.”

“Dinner later?”

“Yes please,” Emma smiled.

“Great,” Regina grinned, noting that Henry had reappeared with Roland, the two of them making a beeline for her. Roland had a soccer ball tucked under his arm. “Well, I guess I’m heading off. See you later.”

“Bye,” Emma said, smiling into the kiss which Regina laid on her lips before she turned to answer Henry’s question as to whether they could have two ice creams. One before they played soccer and one after. Emma watched them walk away, wishing she could join the small family on their day out and wondering how many park trips with Regina and Henry lay in her future. Many, she hoped.

Chapter Text

Slowly, day by day, life started to get back to normal. Or at least the new normal which Regina had come to accept since. Living in the shelter, applying for jobs she knew she was overqualified for, picking Henry up from school, dinner with Emma. That was her life, for now. And for the most part, she was happy. Blissfully happy. She felt safe at the shelter. She wanted a job. Henry was happy at school. And she was in love with Emma Swan.

But there were other elements of her life which lingered, inconclusive. Her ex-husband; still in hospital recovering from surgery and a subsequent infection he had picked up. The looming trial which she knew was coming. Her future. What was she going to do? The jobs she was applying for weren’t going to pay for accommodation in New York. What would happen with her and Emma? Would their relationship continue to thrive when she was no longer in the shelter? And how would Henry deal with all this change? A father going to prison. A mother now in a relationship with a woman. That woman coming into his life as some sort of authority-parental hybrid.


“What?” She looked up at the sound of her name, noticing that Emma was peering at her, forehead knitted in confusion.

“You zoned out. Are you ok?”

“Yeah, I’m sorry,” Regina said, patting Emma’s hands which lay rested on the counter between them. “What were you saying?”

“I was saying that Ruby is coming back to work tomorrow. I wanted to know if you needed to talk about it.”

“Tomorrow?” Regina asked. “No, that’s fine. I’m fine.”

“Are you sure? Because it looked like you stopped listening and went somewhere else just then. What were you thinking about?”

“Um, life? Us? This place?” Regina shrugged, pulling her hands away and returning to the task of cooking which Emma had found her mid-way through when she had come to talk to her after clocking off for the evening. Whenever Emma was working a day shift, she always ate dinner with Regina after work. It was a new tradition.

“Were you thinking good things?” Emma asked. From the look on Regina’s face, they weren’t entirely happy thoughts.

“Lots of things,” Regina replied. “I got another rejection letter today from a job and it made me think about what was going to happen when I do get one. I’ll have to move out of here sooner or later and then I have to restart my life, effectively. It’s a lot to process, a lot to consider.”

“We can help you with that. And there’s no rush to move out, you know that.”

“Emma, the shelter is full. I heard you telling Belle that you need to start the building of the additional facilities soon because you’re at capacity. I’m taking up space. Henry and I are safe now. Leo can’t get to us.”

“Oh, that reminds me. Leo was up in court today.”

“What? Why didn’t you tell me? I thought he was still in hospital.”

“I didn’t know,” Emma replied, defensive at the accusatory tone. “One of the cops called me to let me know. He’s been remanded without bail so there’s no way he’s getting out. The trial date is set for a few weeks from now. I’ve got to go in next week to go over my statement.”

“Do I have to go?” Her gut twisted at the thought of seeing Leo again.

Emma shook her head. “Not at the moment. But I’ll speak to the lawyer next week and find out more. Do you want to speak in court?”

“No but I will if it helps the case. I’ll do what’s needed to make sure Leo goes away for what he did to you.”

“Ok, I’ll tell the lawyer that. And going back to your earlier comment, you and Henry are welcome here as long as you want to stay.”

Regina put down the wooden spoon she was using to stir the sauce which was bubbling lazily over a low heat. “I know but when I do get a job, I’ll start looking for somewhere anyway. There are other women who need this place more than I do.”

The blonde wasn’t going to argue that point. It was true. Regina and Henry were safe now. But that didn’t mean Emma was going to kick them out. She liked having her girlfriend at the shelter just because it meant they saw each other almost every day. Unbeknownst to Regina, Emma had also been wondering how their relationship dynamic would change once that regularity fell away. But now wasn’t the time to bring that up.

“How many job applications have you got to complete?”

“I’m halfway through a couple. Sent one today. There are a few more bookmarked. I’m sure I’ll get something eventually but it’s disheartening. Plus, it feels strange applying to jobs which I know I can do in my sleep but not get them.”

“We discussed this; your resume is weak because you’ve not worked since you graduated college. But you have a college degree from BCU and you’re a highly intelligent woman. You’ll find something, I promise. But you’re going to have to start at the bottom, that’s all. As soon as they see your potential, you’ll get put into a better position, I’m sure.”

“Maybe, but it’s still disheartening to be told you’re not qualified enough to be a receptionist. It’s literally just answering a phone.”

“It’s a little more than that but I understand why you’re upset. Can I try to make you feel happier? Or at least think about something else?”

“Go on,” Regina nodded.

“So, Ruby is working tomorrow’s night shift. Ella’s going to be on shift as well. Ruby won’t be working alone for three months. But, that means I won’t be working and the apartment will be empty. I was wondering if you and Henry wanted to come and have dinner and then stay the night. It’s a Saturday so he doesn’t have to be up early for school the next day.”

“Stay the night?”

There was a slight nod, quickly followed by a frown. Was that not ok? Emma assumed the only reason she and Regina hadn’t been intimate since their first night together, almost two weeks earlier, was because of the events which had happened and a lack of opportunity, not because Regina no longer wanted to explore that aspect of their relationship.

“Unless you don’t want to,” Emma offered.

“No, I do,” Regina said at once. “I do, seriously. You have no idea how much I want that. But what about Henry?”

“He can sleep in Ruby’s bed. I’ve already asked her.”

“And she’s ok with that?”

“Yeah, she’s fine with it. And not just because she’s still trying to get into my good books. She wants me to be happy with you and she knows we don’t get much time together. So, are you interested? I know I said I’d take you out on a proper date but I’ve been so busy here, covering Ruby’s regular shifts and dealing with the new guests that I know we’ve not got around to it. Would this be a good alternative?”

Regina grinned. “Absolutely. Let me speak with Henry and make sure he’s ok with it. But I’m sure he’ll be very happy to hear he’s going for a sleepover with the great Emma Swan.”

“Well, at my house. Not in my bed. You’ll be in my bed, Henry will be in Ruby’s. And Ruby will be at work.”

Regina chuckled. “Agreed. Henry will not be in your bed. It’ll be a sleepover in different rooms. Don’t worry, no one is stopping me from experiencing what it’s like to spend a full night with you.”

Without words, the two women leaned from either side of the breakfast bar, lips meeting softly. It would have lasted longer except Regina suddenly remembered the sauce she had been stirring needed attention and someone tapped Emma on the shoulder.

“Hey,” she said, cheeks a little flushed at having been caught kissing her girlfriend in the middle of the common area. Everyone knew about their relationship, of course. But they tended to be a little more discrete.

“Sorry to interrupt. Can I have a word?” Kathryn asked, winking at Regina.

“Of course. Is everything ok?”

“Fine,” Kathryn nodded. “I just need to run by some things with you about this house my father is buying for us. Legal stuff, you know. Restraining orders and what my rights are when it comes to stopping my dickhead ex coming onto the property.”

“Sure,” Emma agreed, even though her shift had technically finished. “Regina, can you come and get me when dinner’s ready?”

“Yep, it’ll be about twenty minutes.”

“Great, thanks,” Emma said, sliding from the stool.

“God, you two are such an old married couple already,” Kathryn laughed.

“We’re not old and we’re not married,” Emma frowned. “That statement makes no sense.”

Leaving Kathryn to explain the nuances of her gentle insult, Regina turned her attention to the salad she had been preparing as the two blondes left the kitchen, already wondering what meal Emma would cook for her and Henry on Saturday night; their second date. With her son in tow. But still, it was an evening she was very much looking forward to.

Ruby, on the other hand, was not looking forward to Saturday. She was nervous. She hadn’t felt nervous walking down to the shelter since her first day. And even then, she was strolling alongside her best friend, her boss. But this time she was walking into a building where Emma was currently working and where Emma’s girlfriend lived. The same woman whose abusive husband had turned up, two weeks ago, and tried to kidnap her, taking Emma hostage in the process. Because of a mistake Ruby made.

Her footsteps felt heavy, as if she was wading through thick mud, as she walked down the sidewalk towards the shelter. On any other occasion, she would take the time to admire the golden evening sunlight which streamed down, summer well and truly having arrived. But not today. Today she was too focused on what awaited her. She had to face Regina. She had to apologise. She wanted to apologise: she knew she needed to. But it still made her sick to her stomach to think of how that conversation may go.

And then she was there. Standing outside of the door. Her fingers poised for a moment, as if she wasn’t sure she was even going to enter. But the cool grip of the key brought her back to earth and she forced the sliver of metal into the lock, letting herself into the building.

“Hi Ruby.”

Shit, the redhead thought. She’s right here, leaning against the reception desk in a tight striped dress. And so is Henry, sitting on a chair playing on an iPad. The iPad. Was this some sort of sick joke? Unbeknownst to Ruby, the police had dropped the iPad off earlier that afternoon and Henry was enjoying being reunited with the device and refused to be drawn away from it. Nevertheless, its presence was unfortunate given how Ruby felt. The door slammed behind her and she jumped a little before moving further into the room. “Hi Regina. How are you?”

“I’m doing well thank you. I’m sorry to hear about your grandmother.”

“Thanks,” Ruby replied shortly. Since the funeral the previous weekend, the profound grief she had felt had been replaced by new sensations: a dull, muted pain, and loneliness.

“Emma said the funeral was beautiful,” Regina offered when the woman before her said nothing more.

“It was. Ruby planned a beautiful funeral. It gave me several ideas for my own. I’ve written them down, haven’t I, Regina?” Emma said, strolling out of her office and joining the conversation.

Regina couldn’t help but roll her eyes. “Yes, dear. You’ve told me all about what you want at your funeral which we’ve both agreed is not allowed to happen for at least seventy years.”

“And I said to you, I don’t think I want to live until I’m one hundred and two. That’s really old. What if I can’t walk or cook for myself and all that? I don’t think that’s much of a life, do you?”

Ruby slid around the back of the reception desk while this absurd conversation carried on and shrugged off her jacket, hanging it on the back of her chair before taking her seat. “Anything I need to know?” she asked Emma.

“Nothing specific, but we’ve got some new guests. Ella will get you up to speed. She’s in the kitchen making some dinner.”

Ruby nodded. She didn’t say anything. Didn’t argue about the fact that she didn’t need a babysitter. Because judging by her actions from two weeks ago, she did need someone monitoring her and making sure she didn’t fuck up.

“Regina, can I have a word?” Ruby asked, suddenly standing up.

“Of course,” Regina nodded, glancing sideways at Emma. She had known this was coming. She knew Ruby wanted to apologise.

“You can use the meeting room if you want some privacy,” Emma offered. “I’ll finish off the review of those building contracts. Come and find me when you’re done.”

Although she wasn’t going to say anything to Regina that she hadn’t already said to Emma, Ruby led the brunette into the meeting room, leaving the door ajar behind them.

“Um, sit down, I guess,” Ruby said, gesturing to the comfy chairs which were pushed into the corner of the room. Regina did so but said nothing. It was Ruby who had asked to speak with her, so she was going to wait for her to take the lead. Which, after a few seconds, she did. “I guess I just want to say sorry for my part in what happened two weeks ago.”

“I don’t blame you, Ruby,” Regina said softly, seeing how nervous the other woman was. “Not any more. When I first found out I was very angry but it’s not your fault Leo did what he did. That was his decision; it had nothing to do with you.”

“Emma told me you’d come to that conclusion. But I still feel awful. If I hadn’t given Henry the Wi-Fi password, your husband would never have found out where you were. I am the reason he turned up here, even if it’s not on me that he chose to carry a gun and threaten Emma’s life.”

“You made a mistake,” Regina shrugged. “But I always knew Leo was going to find us eventually. He was looking and the iPad just happened to be the first clue. But if it hadn’t been that, it would have been something else. He’s not the sort of man to just let his wife and son walk out of his life. Perhaps you did me a favour in a strange way. At least now I know where he is and I know he can’t hurt me or Henry.”

Ruby listened to the rational words but she still struggled to believe them. She still blamed herself. And she knew Emma did too, to an extent. “Well, thank you for that but I do still want you to know that I’m sorry. I’ll never be able to make it up to you, nor Emma.”

“You’re letting my six year old son sleep in your bed tonight,” Regina pointed out. “I’d say that was repayment of some kind.”

“Whenever you want to stay over at our place, you and Henry, you’re welcome,” Ruby said at once. “I’ve seen how happy you make Emma, despite your history. If she can get over your past, it must be because being with you is worth it. I respect that. And I respect Emma for that decision. I also respect her decision to put me on probation after what I did. I just need you to know that I’m always going to be sorry for my mistake that day and I’m never going to do it again.”

Regina nodded slowly. “I know, Ruby. Stop beating yourself up about it. Mistakes happen.”

“This was a pretty fucking massive mistake.”

A wry smile appeared on plump lips. “True, but everything worked out as it should.”

“Your husband is going to jail,” Ruby pointed out.

“Well, I sort of consider that working out. I’ve been speaking a lot to Belle these past two weeks and frankly, Leo deserved to go to prison for the way he treated me in Maine. He’s not going to be found guilty of those crimes so if he can be put away for what he did to Emma, I’m happy with that. He can’t hurt me or Henry or anyone else while he’s inside. We’ll finally be able to start a new life without looking over our shoulders every five minutes to see if he’s found us.”

“Does this new life include Emma?” Ruby asked. It was something she had been thinking about over the past two weeks, alone in the apartment she shared with the blonde. Their living arrangements were always going to come to an end when either one of them met a significant other. She had thought Emma and Lily were going to move in together a few months before they broke up but it never happened. With Regina, however, Ruby got the sense that this time might be different, even if the relationship was less than two months old. There was just something about the two of them together which made her believe this was Emma’s person, her happy ending.

“I hope so,” Regina replied, grinning shyly. “Has she said anything to you about me?”

“Only good things,” Ruby assured. “She loves you so much, Regina. And Henry. You two make her very happy.”

“She makes us happy too.”

Ruby smiled widely. “Then get out of here and get started with your romantic evening. I hope you have a great time.”

It was strange, Emma noted, as she walked into the living room later that evening to find Henry and Regina sat side by side on her couch, chatting about his latest history project in school. She couldn’t recall ever having a child in her apartment before. It changed the atmosphere. In a good way. She smiled as she handed Regina a topped up glass of wine and took her seat beside the brunette, just as Henry tried and failed to stifle a yawn.

“Bedtime, I think,” Regina said. “Do you want to find your toothbrush in your bag and brush your teeth? Can you remember where the bathroom is?”

Henry nodded and without arguing, slid off the couch to do as he was told. Regina turned to Emma and placed a hand on her stomach. “I’m stuffed,” she chuckled. “That was delicious.”

“I’m glad you liked it,” Emma replied. “But I hope you’re not too full to have sex.”

Regina’s eyes widened slightly at the blunt statement. She was still getting used to how direct Emma was. What she was thinking tended to come out of her mouth without much censorship. Refreshingly honest but sometimes it caught Regina off guard. That said, she couldn’t deny that she too had been thinking about the fact that this date would mark their second opportunity to be intimate with one another. It had been an almost all-consuming thought for much of the day, if she was honest.

“No, I’m not too full,” Regina said, her voice dropping in such a way that Emma’s core tingled in anticipation. “But we can’t move onto that portion of the evening until I put my son to bed.”

Before rising from the couch, she leaned over and placed a soft, lingering kiss to the corner of Emma’s mouth. A promise of more to come. Smiling to herself, Emma settled back on the couch and picked up the book she was reading as a way to occupy herself while Regina was busy.

She was barely two pages further along when Regina reappeared. “Henry would like you to read him his bedtime story,” Regina explained when Emma asked if there was a problem.


Regina nodded. “Is that ok? You don’t have to.”

“No, I’ll do it,” Emma said, placing her bookmark neatly in between the pages and standing up. She’d read a number of children bedtime stories at the shelter. Some of her fondest memories of her childhood were when Mary Margaret or David read to her. She loved the feeling of being tucked up in bed, delving between the pages with an adult and being spirited away on a little adventure.

Henry looked tiny in the middle of Ruby’s large double bed. His face split into a wide smile when Emma appeared and he thrust the book out towards her. She took it and settled herself on the edge of the bed, making sure Henry could see the words and the pictures too. Regina leaned on the door jamb and watched as the blonde began to read.

Before she reached the end of the book, Henry’s eyes had slipped closed, his body slumped awkwardly against the pillow. Regina made her way over to her son and shifted him gently down the mattress and pulled the duvet more fully over his body. “Goodnight, my little prince,” Regina whispered, placing a kiss to his forehead. The boy didn’t stir.

“Goodnight Henry,” Emma said, rising from the bed and retreating with Regina.

“You’re great with him,” the brunette remarked as they pulled the door to and made their way back to the living room.

“He’s a great kid. I enjoy spending time with him.”

“He thinks you’re great too, by the way. He doesn’t ask just anyone to read him a bedtime story.”

“I’m honoured,” Emma said, sitting down on the couch and reaching for Regina’s hand. “And now I’d like to honour you.”

Regina smirked, her body coiling in anticipation despite the food baby she was still nursing. She allowed herself to be guided so she was sat, straddling Emma’s lap, her already short dress riding higher as her knees planted either side of Emma’s thighs. The blonde’s arms wrapped around her waist, pulling her closer as Regina dipped her head to meet the pale, upturned lips.

Their first kiss was tender but both women felt a fire deep within them. While the past two weeks had seen their relationship go public, the soft touches and PG kisses they had been exchanging weren’t enough. It was still early days, still at that time in a relationship where a simple kiss lights a fire which can’t be extinguished without multiple orgasms, without each person collapsing back on the pillows, too weak and too satiated to take more pleasure. And yet, for two weeks, Emma and Regina had been denied that; their passion and desire restricted by circumstance. Until tonight.

Emma’s hands slid down to clasp Regina’s ass, fingernails digging into soft flesh as the warmth of her skin seeped through the thin material. Regina’s teeth grazed Emma’s lips, her hands already tangled in thick blonde curls, pulling their mouths impossibly closer.

“Bedroom,” Regina muttered. Henry might be fine with her relationship with Emma but that didn’t mean they needed to scar the boy with an indecent display. With reluctance, she pulled away and climbed off Emma, holding out her hand to the slightly dishevelled looking woman. Fingers intertwined, they made their way through to Emma’s room where the door was pushed closed behind them.

They didn’t need words. Both women knew what they wanted and what the other one wanted. Emma pulled Regina closer again, recommencing with another soft kiss which quickly escalated. Soon fingers were fumbling zippers, buttons, fabric. They undressed one another with their mouths still fused together, clothes discarded without a care as they stumbled, now naked, towards Emma’s perfectly made bed.

Regina let out a little groan as Emma landed on top of her. The food baby, despite their passion, was very much still present. Emma mumbled an apology against her neck as she continued to lave kisses while rolling off the brunette to lie beside her instead. Regina tilted her head back slightly, improving Emma’s access. Hot lips and tongue skittered across her skin, trailing down towards her clavicle. Here Emma paused, sucking tenderly on the thin skin, drawing a soft gasp from Regina. But she didn’t want to mark her, at least not in such a visible place, so she continued downwards, heading for the taut nipples which jutted out from Regina’s breasts.

Without preamble, her lips closed around one bud, fingers seeking out the other to gently tweak and tug, forcing them to harden even further. “God,” Regina groaned as she felt her core clench again. She needed Emma. Emma knew that. With lips sealed around one nipple, her hand slid from the other tortured nub and down the smooth plane of Regina’s stomach. The brunette squirmed slightly as those questing fingers passed over the stretch marks which, she believed, marred her skin. Emma didn’t notice or if she did, she put the shiver down to sexual anticipation rather than discomfort. But soon her hand was sliding lower, fingers passing over the neatly cropped hair and cupping the waiting core below.

Regina gasped. Emma moaned. The damp heat radiating against her fingers made Emma clench her own thighs together. She released Regina’s nipple and looked up to see Regina’s brown eyes gazing at her through the dim light of her room. “Are you ok?” Emma asked, still mindful that this was only their second time together and Regina’s sexual experiences over the past decade were not positive.

“Do I feel ok?” Regina asked, rocking her hips up slightly so Emma’s fingers came into closer contact with wet folds.

“You feel ready,” Emma nodded. “I just want to make sure.”

“I’m ready,” Regina assured her, fingers stroking some wayward hairs from Emma’s face.

Emma smiled and pressed a kiss to Regina’s lips just as her fingers parted her other, wetter lips. She hissed in delight as she felt the copious arousal already pooling between the brunette’s legs. The tip of one finger slid easily up and down a few times before she dragged it higher, feeling out that sensitive bundle of nerves at the top. Regina’s hips bucked when she found it. She pressed a little harder, circled it twice, and retreated. Regina moaned, willing Emma to come back, but a moment later she let out a shuddering sigh of relief as Emma slid a solitary finger shallowly into her core.

She stilled, waiting, allowing Regina time to adjust to the penetration. Small as her finger was, Emma didn’t want to go too fast, too soon for her girlfriend. Regina’s eyes were closed, her chest rising and falling rapidly as her core clenched around the slender digit. “Emma,” she breathed out, eyes fluttering open to see the blonde laying on her side, waiting for permission. “Move. More.”

Emma dropped a kiss to Regina’s shoulder and obliged, pumping her fingers in and out of the hot slickness before adding a second, Regina’s body opening willingly to accommodate her. She bucked her hips as she felt Emma’s long fingers reaching deep inside her, her hand bumping her clit at the same time.

The clenching muscles around Emma’s fingers told the blonde her girlfriend was already close. She moved steadily, slowly, wanting to build Regina up and not rush her climax. She wanted to draw it out, take her time, revel in the feeling of being inside the beautiful woman whose body was trembling beside her own. She set up a rhythm, making sure her hand pressed against the protruding nerve bundle each time she pumped inside, releasing the pressure as she pulled out.

It was a dizzying climb. Regina was already so turned on that had Emma focused immediately upon her clit, she would have climaxed fast. As it was, the blonde built her up with remarkable patience, waiting for Regina’s body to be so on edge that there was nowhere else to go but over the top. As the muscles clamped around her fingers, harder than ever, Emma’s thumb pressed down on Regina’s clit, rubbing quick, hard circles as she read Regina’s body perfectly.

A short cry echoed off the walls, Regina’s back arching off the bed as she came. Emma kept pumping, her own sex tingling as she felt the hot wetness building around her fingers, buried deep without Regina’s core. She continued her ministrations until the brunette’s body suddenly relaxed, flopping back to the mattress. Spent, for now.

Gently, she pulled her fingers free. Remembering Regina’s hang up about her own taste, Emma made a point of locking eyes with the exhausted woman as she licked the juices from her fingers. Regina groaned, her eyes darkening. Food baby and orgasmic exhaustion forgotten, she rolled over, forcing Emma onto her back and quickly straddled the surprised blonde who raised an eyebrow.

“You’re so sexy,” Regina murmured, looking down the toned body below her. She realised in that moment that the angle wasn’t the most flattering for her of physique. Leo had told her as much. She was never on top when they were in bed. Emma frowned at the self-doubt on Regina’s features, unable to identify the expression.

“Hey, where did you go?” she asked, reaching up to cup Regina’s cheek.

“Nowhere,” Regina said, forcing a smile and shuffling backwards but Emma caught her, following the woman by sitting up and bringing Regina’s torso tight against her own.

“You’re sexy too. Beautiful, stunning. You have no idea how gorgeous you are,” Emma whispered against parted lips.

Regina’s body twitched in her arms. If Regina had no idea of her looks, Emma had no idea how much Regina needed to hear those words. She wrapped her own arms tight around Emma’s neck, hugging her close. “Thank you,” she murmured, words muffled in Emma’s hair.

The hug went on for a while. Despite Emma’s desperation for release, she didn’t want to push Regina. And Regina needed a moment. She needed to believe Emma’s words, needed to reassure herself that she was desired, desirable. Eventually, she pulled back and gave Emma a sound kiss as thanks. The swipe of a tongue against Regina’s lips reminded both women what they were in the middle of and Emma slowly lowered herself back to the mattress, pulling Regina with her.

The brunette recommenced her journey, less concerned now with how her breasts hung lower than Emma’s would have, how her stomach too looked a little less than perfect with gravity working against her. It didn’t matter. Emma didn’t care. What did matter and what Regina cared about was making Emma feel good.

She threw herself into that task as soon as she settled between the blonde’s eagerly spread thighs. Emma’s fingers raked against her scalp as her tongue began its torment. Unlike Emma, Regina didn’t want to take her time. She wanted to feel the blonde crest against her, needed to taste her want, her desirability. She licked firmly, suckled Emma’s clit, dipped her tongue into her hot centre and repeated. The hips beneath her bucked, her name was spilled from Emma’s lips and the fingers in her hair tightened until, moments later, Emma came.

Regina remained where she was, lapping up the blonde’s pleasure and prolonging the orgasm until Emma shifted her hips away, overstimulated to the point of discomfort. Regina crawled back up the bed and lay beside her girlfriend whereby Emma rolled over and threw her arm over Regina’s waist.

“You’re great at that,” she mumbled against lips which tasted of her own essence.

“Thank you,” Regina replied. “You’re great at it too.”

“Is that your way of asking me to reciprocate?” Emma asked.

“No, just a statement. But I’m not going to stop you doing that if you feel so inclined.”

Emma laughed. “Oh, I feel very inclined. Give me a moment to catch my breath.”

“We’ve got all night,” Regina reminded her. “There’s no rush.”

“We’ve got more than tonight,” Emma said, kissing Regina tenderly. “We’ve got forever.”


Chapter Text

The shrill alarm pierced Regina’s subconscious, quickly followed by the sensation of the warm body pressed against her back rolling away. Cool air rushed against her spine causing the hairs on the back of her neck to stand on end. She instantly missed the comfort of Emma’s arms in which she had slept soundly all night.

“Come back,” she mumbled into the pillow as Emma shut off the alarm.

“I can’t,” Emma replied, already getting out of bed. “I have to get to work.”

Regina groaned. She’d forgotten about the fact that Emma worked at the shelter both days every weekend. The gentle clinking of metal caught her attention and she rolled over just as Emma was starting her pull up routine. She couldn’t help the smirk which spread over her face as she watched the strong muscles of her girlfriend’s arms and back, flexing as she pulled her body up and down. She knew Emma worked out; it was obvious. But watching the blonde repeatedly flexing as she, seemingly effortlessly, lifted her own body weight made Regina’s core tingle.

“Well, that was impressive,” Regina said when Emma had dropped back to the ground and began removing the bar from the top of the doorframe.

“It’s my morning routine,” Emma replied over her shoulder as she neatly slotted the bar back where it lived, propped against the wall behind the open door.

“And one I rather enjoyed watching,” Regina grinned. “What do I have to do to get an encore?”

“Can’t,” Emma said. “My morning is organised carefully. I only have time for twenty pull ups. I’ve got to go and have my shower now, otherwise I’ll be late.”

Before Regina could respond, Emma had disappeared down the hallway. Moments later, the door to the bathroom closed and shortly afterwards, the faint sound of running water could be heard. It didn’t surprise Regina to learn that Emma had a strict morning routine that she followed with military precision. But it would have been nice to bask in Emma’s arms that morning. Falling asleep, wrapped up in the blonde the night before had been blissful, but their morning separation had been a little less romantic. In fact, it was abrupt.

Still, she understood. Emma had to go to work. Did that mean she and Henry had to get ready and leave with the blonde? Or was she going to be offered the chance to hang out in the apartment for a while? Would that be weird? What would Ruby think about coming home to find her and Henry in her space? No, it would be better if they walked to the shelter with Emma. She didn’t want to overstep.

Climbing out of bed herself, Regina padded barefoot down the corridor to Ruby’s room. Henry was still asleep but he stirred as his mother opened the door. She began getting his spare set of clothes out of his little rucksack which he had proudly packed himself. It was at this point that she realised he’d put in three pairs of jeans, two sweaters even though it was summer, and no clean underwear. Making a note to supervise her son’s packing better next time, Regina picked up his discarded clothes from the day before to make a temporary outfit before moving to wake Henry up.

“Morning my little prince,” Regina said as her son’s eyes blearily opened. “Did you sleep well?”

“Yeah, I think so,” Henry said, small fists coming to wipe the sleep from his eyes. “Ruby’s bed is big. Can I get a big bed in our new house?”

“Maybe not this big. You’ll get lost.”

Henry laughed. “No, I won’t. You can’t get lost in a bed, Mom. That’s silly.”

“As was your packing yesterday, young man. Did you forget to put in a set of underwear?”

Henry shrugged. “So?”

“Well, it’s a good job that we’re only going back to the shelter and then you can change into something clean. Out of bed, please. We’re going to leave soon.”

“Why? It’s early. Where’s Emma?”

“In the shower. And Emma has to work today so we’re going to walk to the shelter with her. Do you need help getting dressed?”

“No, but I wanna pee first,” Henry said, slithering from underneath the covers and making his way towards the door.

“Remember to knock first. Emma was taking a shower,” Regina called after him. Being a young child, Henry was used to barging into rooms without knocking. During the last few years of her life, she hadn’t been able to use the bathroom without her son interrupting her. It was part of motherhood, apparently.

Voices in the hallway moments later told Regina that Emma had finished her shower and bumped into her son. Standing up from the edge of the bed, she made her way through to let the blonde know they’d be accompanying her back to the shelter. Emma was emerging from the kitchen as she entered the corridor.

“Hey,” Regina smiled. “Henry and I are going to walk to work with you.”

“Are you sure? You don’t have to. You can hang out here if you don’t want to rush to get ready to leave in seventeen minutes.”

“It’s fine,” Regina said, following Emma who had not stopped to have the conversation but continued to the bedroom where the next part of her morning routine took place. “I want to keep going with those job applications and … and, um, I need … um…”

Emma turned around when Regina stopped speaking. “You need what?”

The brunette swallowed, eyes glued to the naked, damp woman who was now standing in front of the wardrobe, the towel which had been wrapped around her draped over the radiator. “Um, what?” she asked, dragging her gaze up Emma’s bare form to see the woman waiting patiently for her answer.

“You said you need something but then stopped talking. Are you ok? You look flushed. Is it too hot in here?”

Regina didn’t respond, she just pushed the door shut behind her and crossed the room in three strides, wrapping her arms around Emma’s neck as she kissed her, hard. Emma froze for a moment before kissing Regina back, pulling the shorter woman closer to her. As Regina’s tongue teased open her mouth, Emma forgot about her schedule, forgot about the coffee which was brewing at that very moment, forgot about the day of work she had ahead of her. All she could think about was the woman in her arms, whose hot tongue was dancing against her own as their lips moved in an unspoken rhythm.

“You’re the reason it’s hot in here, Emma,” the brunette breathed when the kiss ended. “You can’t be naked in front of me and expect my brain to function.”

“What does me being naked have to do with your brain? That’s an organ inside your body which controls everything you say and do. I don’t control your brain because I’m not a psychic and psychics aren’t real anyway. So my body certainly doesn’t control your brain.”

“Oh really?” Regina asked, stepping away and pulling her pyjama top over her head. “How’s your brain doing?”

Emma’s eyes, which had dropped to Regina’s bare breasts the moment they came into view, blinked slowly. “Um, what did you say?”

Regina smirked. “I rest my case.”

Turning on her heels, Regina moved to her own overnight bag and began to get dressed. The movement reminded Emma what she was supposed to be doing and she returned to her own wardrobe, wondering as she did so what it was about Regina’s lips on her own and the sight of her girlfriend’s naked body which did indeed seem to render her brain temporarily distracted from everything else in the world.

Just as Emma was buttoning her white shirt, there was a soft knock at the door. Regina, who was already dressed, checked with Emma that it was ok to let Henry in before doing so.

“Hi Henry, well done for knocking,” she said as her son peeked into Emma’s bedroom. He’d seen the room when he was given the tour the day before but he remained curious about the new space where he and his mom had had a sleepover the night before.

“Can we get McDonalds for breakfast?” he asked, crossing the room and climbing up onto the unmade bed. “Hi Emma,” he added, waving at the blonde.

“Good morning Henry,” Emma said, straightening the covers as best she could to make the bed with a six year old sat in the middle of it. “Did you sleep well?”

Why does everyone ask that? Henry mused. It must be a grown up thing. Sometimes Henry Mills wanted to be a grown up really badly. He wanted to stop being treated like a child and be allowed to make his own decisions, like McDonalds for breakfast. But other times he really didn’t want to be a grown up because that meant asking boring questions like:

“I slept good. Did you sleep well?”

“I slept ok, thank you for asking,” Emma smiled. She didn’t need to mention to the young boy that her sleep had been disrupted. It always took Emma a while to get used to sharing a bed with someone else. That wasn’t to say she didn’t enjoy sleeping with her arm curled around Regina’s waist. She did. But the woman’s body was still new beneath her duvet and she had woken every time Regina shifted slightly or let out an audible sigh. Emma didn’t mind; she wasn’t going to hold it against Regina. But she would need to get used to the brunette before she got a proper night’s sleep.

“Can we go to McDonalds?” Henry asked again, this time directing his question to Emma.

“Not this morning, Henry,” Regina said before Emma had a chance to respond. “We’re going to walk back to the shelter with Emma and we’ll have breakfast there.”

“Will Emma have breakfast with us?” Henry asked.

“I’ve already got some toast ready for me,” Emma said, the statement reminding her that she was, a quick glance at her phone told her, two minutes behind schedule. Damn Regina’s lips and breasts. Excusing herself, Emma made her out of the room.

“Off the bed, please, Henry,” Regina instructed, finishing the job Emma had started and smoothing out the sheets. The faintest scent of their love making lingered in the air as she leaned over the mattress to plump the pillows. It was familiar, comforting and made Regina wish the two of them could crawl back beneath the sheets and spend the rest of the day there, preferably naked. But Henry knocking over the metal pull up bar reminded Regina that her lazy, sexy fantasy wouldn’t be happening any time soon.

Before leaving the room, she opened the window a little wider, noting as she did so that it was already warm outside and it wasn’t even eight. The day was going to be a hot one. Beckoning Henry out of the room, Regina headed to the kitchen where, sure enough, Emma was biting into her first slice of toast, neatly spread with blueberry jam.

“Um, you can have some toast, if you want,” Emma said as she spotted Regina eyeing her breakfast and realising she had not prepared anything for her girlfriend nor her son. Was that bad? Did they have time for extra bread to be toasted? Emma glanced at her cell phone. “But I have to leave in three minutes.”

“It’s ok,” Regina replied, not wanting to interrupt or slow down Emma’s routine, which seemed to be even more fastidiously planned than she had first anticipated. “We’ll eat at the shelter.”

“Or McDonalds,” Henry piped up. “Do you like McDonalds, Emma?”

“Not really,” Emma said as she screwed her lid onto her coffee mug.

Henry’s nose wrinkled at that. The blonde had just gone dramatically down in his estimations. Who didn’t like McDonalds?

“Um, sorry, Regina, I didn’t make you any coffee,” Emma said as she caught the brunette now watching as she sipped from the cup in her hand. “I’m not used to having people here in the morning.”

“What about Ruby? Mom says she lives here too. I slept in her bed, didn’t I?” Henry asked, only half tuned into the conversation and still trying to work out how he could shoehorn McDonalds into their day.

“Yes, you did but Ruby doesn’t often have to get up at the same time as me so we have different morning plans. Sorry,” she said again, realising that she was not being a good host. She had thought about how Regina and Henry would fit into her Saturday night plans and the trio had had a wonderful evening. But she hadn’t thought about how her mornings would be affected by their presence. Both of her previous girlfriends had had jobs in Manhattan and, on the occasions when they stayed over at Emma’s, had left well before her alarm even went off to travel into the city. And at the weekends, Emma would stay in their respective apartments before travelling back to the Bronx for work.

“It’s fine,” Regina assured her, even though she couldn’t deny that a sip of some coffee in that moment would work wonders. In fact, a sip of coffee was always welcome in Regina’s life. “I’ll make some at the shelter.”

“I’ve been a bad host,” Emma said, thrusting her mug out towards Regina, some coffee slopping out of the open top as she gestured. “Take it.”

“No, honestly, I’m ok, Emma,” Regina assured, not wanting Emma to see her presence as an inconvenience. She very much wanted to be invited back for another sleepover in the future and she feared any intrusion into Emma’s routine would threaten that.

Little did Regina know but Emma was already calculating how many more minutes she’d need to add into her morning routine to enable her to make toast for two extra people, pour out some juice for Henry and make an additional cup of coffee for Regina. It was manageable. Next time, she promised herself.

“Well, I’ve got to go or I’ll be late,” Emma said, realising what the time was. “Are you sure you’re ready? I don’t want to rush you.”

“It’s fine,” Regina assured. “Henry, go and get your bag, please. Make sure you put everything in it.”

Two minutes later and the trio were stepping out of the apartment. In the lobby, Emma unlocked the mailbox. Empty. Then she locked it, then unlocked it and locked it again. Regina said nothing. Henry didn’t even notice. Outside sunlight flooded the sidewalk. It was still early and the streets were quiet. Most people were enjoying a leisurely start to their Sunday morning.

Emma, however, was going to being late for work. She set off at her usual pace but in less than half a block, she realised Regina and Henry were a little way behind. Children have short legs, she reminded herself as she waited for them to catch up.

“Sorry,” she offered, slipping her hand into Regina’s and slowing her gait as she fell into step beside mother and son.

“Stop apologising,” Regina said, pressing a kiss to the blonde’s high cheekbone as they walked. “We’ll get used to these sorts of things. It just takes some time. New relationship, remember?”

“Yeah, I know. I’ve never dated someone with a kid before. It’s different.”

“Good different?” Regina asked, heart suddenly thumping in her chest. It was way too early in the day to have this sort of conversation.

“The very best sort of different,” Emma nodded, reaching over and ruffling Henry’s as yet unbrushed hair.

It was only four minutes after eight when Emma pushed open the door to the shelter. As soon as they entered, Ruby and Ella looked up from their desk and greeted them with identical grins. Emma rolled her eyes. Why where her staff so invested in her love life? Well, she supposed she could forgive Ruby. They were best friends, despite the events of the past month. But still, it was a bit intense.

“So, how did it go?” Ella asked.

Emma glanced at Regina. “Well, how did it go?” She sensed somehow that the question wasn’t for her.

“It was perfect,” Regina replied. “Henry and I had a wonderful time. Thank you, Emma.”

Rocking onto her toes, she closed her eyes as she leaned up to kiss Emma. Feeling Henry pull his hand from hers, she let go. But the kiss didn’t go on for long, Emma herself pulling away with slightly pink cheeks. Clearly not comfortable with overt displays of affection, at least in front of her employees, Regina noted. And fair point, she added as she reviewed the statement in her head.

“I’ll see you later. Have a good day,” Regina said, follow her son who was already heading towards the rear door, his overnight bag now dragging along the floor.

“See you for lunch?” Emma asked, taken aback by the sudden end of their date.

“Sure,” Regina nodded. “I’ll make us something.”

As Regina disappeared, Emma headed towards her office. She was not surprised when Ruby and Ella followed her inside. Sitting down in her chair, she pretended to ignore the two women and took a long drink from her coffee mug before finally acknowledging their presence.

“You’re here to ask me questions about the date I had with Regina and Henry last night and this morning, aren’t you?”

“Of course.”

“What sort of friends would we be if we didn’t?” Ruby replied. “So, how was it?”

“It was perfect, just like Regina said. Well, except for this morning.”

“Uh oh. What happened?” Ruby asked.

“Nothing exactly,” Emma sighed. “Which I suppose was the problem.”

“You did your usual morning routine without thinking about them, didn’t you?” Ruby chuckled. As someone who had lived with Emma for years, Ruby was familiar with Emma’s iron cast morning schedule. No other woman’s presence had ever changed it, so she knew Regina and Henry would have experienced the same sequence as Emma had carried out for as long as the two of them had shared that apartment.

“Yeah. I forgot about the morning. I planned last night and I knew what we’d eat and do and how everything would work in terms of Henry staying over. But I forgot they’d still be there in the morning. And I couldn’t just turn off my alarm and stay cuddled up with Regina. I had to come here and work.”

“But you wanted to stay cuddled up with Regina?” Ella asked.

“Of course I did. Waking up with my nose in her hair was amazing. Although it did tickle a little bit. But her hair is very soft and it smells really nice.”

“God, you’re so in love it’s disgusting,” Ruby laughed. “You could have called in sick. We’d have covered for you.”

“I don’t call in sick if I’m not sick and you know it,” Emma shot back. “Anyway, so I got up and did my pull ups and had my shower and went to the kitchen and then Regina and I kissed and got dressed and then I went to the kitchen again and then I realised I hadn’t made any extra toast or coffee. It was like I forgot they were even there. Like they didn’t fit into my life. I think Regina wanted some coffee but when I offered her some she said no. And I didn’t have any juice for Henry. Did I mess this up? Will she be mad at me?”

“Woah, Emma, calm down,” Ruby said, recognising the signs of the blonde spiralling. “Regina is not mad at you. She’s besotted with you, can’t you see that? Yes, you’re going to have to remember to put on double the amount of coffee when she stays over and maybe we’ll need to invest in one of those massive six piece toasters. But Regina’s not going to get too upset over what you’ve just told us. This is a new relationship. You’re learning how to fit into each other’s lives.”

“That’s what she said when I walked too fast down the road and then had to wait for her and Henry to catch up. He walks slowly. That’s why I’m late.”

“Did you just blame a six year old for being late to work?” Ella laughed. “Emma, you need to chill out about all of this. You and Regina had a great time together and the next date which ends in a sleep over, just remember to set the alarm ten minutes earlier.”

Ruby knew telling Emma to chill out about her routine was a pointless statement but she agreed with everything else. “Ella’s right, Emma. You two will figure this out. You make each other happy in a way that’s bigger than forgetting to put on some toast or walking too fast. Those are just small things which you’ll learn over time.”

“I thought love was about the small things,” Emma mused, remembering reading something similar somewhere once. Probably on the back of a box of matches, or an inspirational poster, or on a promo for a dating site.

“Love is about big and small things but messing up the small stuff doesn’t end a relationship. It just gives you things to work on. No couple is perfect from day one. You and Regina are still getting to know each other. And you’ve got Henry to think of too. Don’t be too harsh on yourself because I’m sure Regina understands. Just remember to do the same to Regina when she messes up.”

At that, Emma frowned. “Regina hasn’t messed anything up.”

“Not yet, but she will. Relationships always have ups and downs and it takes two people to tango.”

“We’re not going to a tango class. I don’t like dancing. It makes me very self-conscious. Did Regina tell you she wanted to learn tango?”

“It’s an expression,” Ruby clarified. “It means that you two are in this together and you’re both responsible for creating a relationship which suits both of you and which makes both of you, and Henry, happy. Just take it one day at a time and be kind to one another.”

Emma nodded slowly. “Kind. One day at a time. No couple is perfect. Ok, thanks guys.”

“You’re welcome,” Ruby grinned. “So, are you ready for our debrief? I want to get home and sanitise the kitchen counters of any evidence of the wild sex you and Regina had last night.”

“We did not have sex in the kitchen. We had sex in my bed like sensible people. You’re very strange, Ruby. Please don’t have sex in the kitchen. It’s unsanitary and dangerous.”

Laughing, Ella and Ruby opened their files from the night before and began to talk Emma through everything she’d need to know for the upcoming day.

Chapter Text

“Regina, there’s a call for you.”

Standing from the couch on which she had been sitting and reading, Regina made her way across the common room towards Ruby. Who would be calling for her? She had so few people in her life now. It wouldn’t be Emma; Ruby would have said. No one from Maine knew where she was, nor really cared, considering all of her friends were Leo’s friends. There was Leo, she supposed. But surely he wasn’t able to call a women’s shelter from prison. Maybe it was the police calling in relation to Leo’s case. Were they going to ask her to come in and prepare her witness testimony for trial? She knew Emma had been to do exactly that earlier in the week. Was she going to have to speak in open court about everything Leo had done to her?

“Who is it?” she asked Ruby when she reached her.

“The Bronx Library Centre,” Ruby replied. “Did you apply for a job there?”

“Weeks ago,” Regina nodded. “Did they say what they wanted?”

“No but I assume they want you to go for an interview or something,” Ruby smiled. “Congratulations, Regina. This is the first follow up call you’ve had, right?”

Regina nodded, throat suddenly dry. Was this it? Was this her opportunity to start again? To finally earn her own money? To earn a living for herself and Henry and not be dependent on anyone? Not Leo, not a women’s shelter? Not even Emma?

She followed Ruby silently down the corridor, the redhead chatting away about her favourite book until they got to the reception area.

“You can use Emma’s office if you want a bit of privacy,” Ruby offered. It was the blonde’s day off ahead of another weekend at the shelter. She had come by that morning after her overnight shift to have a coffee with Regina before heading out to run some errands.

“Ok,” Regina agreed. “Um, what do I say?”

“Just answer their questions,” Ruby said kindly, pressing a button on her desk handset to divert the call through to Emma’s office and away from where she and Ursula would be sat. “They’ve called you for a reason, remember that. They saw something they liked on your application and now they want to find out more about you. Don’t get too stressed about it. There are plenty of jobs out there.”

“This is the only place which called me back after I applied to a couple of dozen position though,” Regina said, fingers now wringing together as she stood in front of Emma’s empty desk, staring at the phone with its little blinking light, indicating that there was a caller waiting.

Ruby squeezed Regina’s shoulder. “You’ll do great. Just be yourself. I’ll be right out here if you need anything. Sometimes employers need to speak to someone from the shelter when they start talking about pay checks and fixed addresses.”

Nodding slowly, Regina reached out to pick up the phone. “Hello?”

“Hi, is this Regina Mills?”

“Speaking,” Regina said, hearing the door behind her close quietly as Ruby retreated from the room.

“Hi Regina. My name is Graham Hunter and I am head of HR at the Bronx Library Centre. I received your application a few weeks ago for our open position for a library assistant. Is that correct?”

“Yes,” Regina nodded, sinking into a vacant chair. “I’d love to work at your library. I love books.”

Graham chuckled. “Me too. What are you reading at the moment?”

“The Handmaid’s Tale,” Regina replied. “Cliché I know but I’m rereading it ahead of the follow up. I read it years ago, way before it became a television phenomenon. I always try to read the book version before I see a movie or TV adaptation.”

“Me too,” Graham said. “Although I must confess, I do enjoy the televised version of The Handmaid’s Tale.”

“Oh, I love it too,” Regina replied, noting that the man she was speaking to had a British accent. She had always liked listening to a well-spoken British person. Forcing herself back onto the topic at hand, she continued; “But the book is better. Well, different, I suppose.”

“Agreed,” Graham said. “So, you’re a keen reader. I see on your resume you studied English Literature at BCU. That’s impressive.”

“Thank you.”

“But I can also see that you’ve not used your degree since you graduated. In fact, you didn’t list any employment history aside from a couple of internships during your time at college. Is that correct?”

“Yes. I got married straight out of college and my husband was paid well enough for me not to need to work,” Regina said. Now was not the time to go into the details of Leo refusing to allow her to look for a job. “And once I had my son, I became a stay at home mom but now he’s at school, I’m ready to have a job of my own.”

“Yes, you mentioned that you have a son on your resume. What’s his name?”


“What a lovely name. How old is Henry?”

“Six,” Regina replied. “He’ll be seven in August.”

“So he’s at school full time?”

“Yes,” Regina nodded. “Childcare won’t be a problem, if that’s what you’re worried about.”

“Not at all, Regina,” Graham reassured. “We have plenty of working mothers as part of our team here. And Henry would be welcome to come and join in with any of the children’s activities which we run. In fact, these activities would be a large part of your job. We’re looking to expand the number of events we host for children of all ages. The fact that you’re a mother with lots of experience with a young child is one of the reasons we’d like to invite you to interview.”

“You want me to interview?”

She could almost hear Graham smiling at her down the phone. “Yes, Regina. In fact, at this point it’s just a formality. Your resumé was very impressive, despite your lack of experience in the world of work and you were the only applicant which we were interested in following up.”


“Yes,” Graham assured. “You have a degree from BCU, Regina. Not many of our applicants have been to such a prestigious college.”

“Yes, but I’ve not worked in a library before.”

“Are you trying to talk me out of offering you this opportunity?” Graham asked, his teasing tone missed by Regina whose body froze.

“No! Sorry, no, I’d love to interview. I’m sorry, please forget I said that.”

“Regina, relax. I’m just joking. We don’t mind that you don’t have experience in a library. Your love of literature is evident and we don’t need you to be an expert in every aspect of working in a library. Your job would mostly be focusing on the children’s area anyway and we’ll help you to learn how the job works. The team here are very supportive so you won’t be thrown in at the deep end. We’re not horrible, I promise. So, would you be interested in interviewing for us?”

“Yes,” Regina said at once. “When would you like me to come in?”

“We have several times available next week. When would suit you?”

“Any time, any day,” Regina relied, not caring how desperate it made her sound. The job had appealed to her the moment she saw the advert. Not only were the responsibilities and hours ideal but it was also only a few minutes walk from the shelter. And Henry’s school. And Emma’s apartment.

“How about Tuesday at eleven?” Graham suggested.

“Perfect. Thank you so much for this opportunity, Mr Hunter. You have no idea how much this means to you.”

There was a slight pause and down the phone she could hear Graham tapping on a keyboard, presumably booking in the interview on their systems. “You’re very welcome, Regina. And please call me Graham. We’re very informal here. Like one big family.”

“Ok, well, thank you, Graham. I really appreciate this and I very much look forward to meeting you next week. Is there anything I need to bring or prepare ahead of the interview?”

“Think of it more of an informal chat rather than an interview,” Graham replied. “As I said, we were very impressed by your resumé and we think you’d be a great addition to our team. All we need to do is meet you in person, explain a little more about the job and the salary and all those boring bits of paperwork. Then if you still want to join us here and if no one on our side has any concerns, I suspect you’ll find yourself as one of our staff very soon.”


“You sound surprised.”

It wasn’t a question, it was a statement. Regina sighed and leaned back in the chair, her body deflating slightly as the tension she had felt since Ruby announced the call began to seep from her bones.

“It’s been a difficult few months,” Regina confessed. “I’m not used to things going my way.”

“Well, perhaps all of that is about to change. Enjoy your weekend, Regina. And I look forward to meeting you on Tuesday. Just come to the main reception and ask for Graham and I’ll come down from the office.”

“Thank you, Graham. You have no idea how much this means to me and Henry. I’ll see you on Tuesday. Have a great day.”

The call ended and Regina replaced the receiver into the cradle. Seconds later, the door opened. Ruby, who had clearly been listening, poked her head into the room.

“You got an interview?” she asked when Regina swivelled around in the office chair to face her.

“Yeah,” Regina nodded, a smile slowly spreading, uncontrollably over her features.

“See, told you,” Ruby called over her shoulder, opening the door wider to show Ursula who was sat at the front desk. “She thought you had an overdue library book. I said they don’t call to chase up on fifty cent fines.”

“Yeah, well, you didn’t tell me she’d applied for a job there. How was I supposed to know?” Ursula defended. “Congratulations, Regina. That’s great news.”

“Thanks,” Regina said. “I’ve never been for a proper job interview. Although Graham said it was more of a formality. That’s a good thing, right? He said they liked my resumé and wanted to make sure I was a good fit with their team.”

“That sounds excellent,” Ruby grinned. “Seriously, Regina, from what you’ve said, the job is as good as yours. Well done! Emma’s going to be so happy.”

“Can I call her?” Regina asked. “I don’t have my own cell yet so is it ok if I use the office line?”

“Of course,” Ruby replied. “She’s speed dial one. The ego on that one, I tell ya!”

Regina and Ursula both laughed, the former thanking the two women before the door to the office shut and she turned back to the phone, ready to tell her girlfriend the good news.

Much as she disliked changes to her routine, Emma found herself electing to leave her apartment fifteen minutes before she usually would the following morning. She had felt her heart beat a little faster as she changed the time on her alarm the night before, rolling the dial back to the new wake up point. Just for one day, she told herself. Except, she mused as she put two slices of bread into the toaster, this additional time could be used in the future to make breakfast for a certain two overnight guests.

But that day all she was doing was getting to work early. This was out of character enough as far as Emma’s fastidious routine was concerned for Ella to ask if everything was ok when she appeared in the reception area. Usually Emma was only in work early or stayed late when there was a problem with one of their guests which, as far as Ella knew, there wasn’t.

“I’m fine,” Emma replied. “I just wanted to speak with Regina before my shift started.”

“You heard about the interview?”

“Yes,” Emma said, beaming with pride. “I won’t be long. I’ll be back before my shift starts.”

“Take your time,” Ella grinned back. “I’m happy to stay a little later if you want to have breakfast together. It’s been a quiet night but I have some reports I want to finish up.”

Thanking her employee for her understanding but assuring her she would be back in time to relieve her when shift change occurred, Emma made her way through to the back of the shelter. But a quick glance around the common room told Emma that Regina wasn’t there. At almost eight in the morning, Emma would have expected Regina to be awake, not least because she was the mother of a six year old. But nevertheless, the woman’s allocated room was where she checked next.

She knocked softly on the door, not wanting to startle Regina or wake Henry, if indeed he was still asleep. It took several attempts, knuckles wrapping against the painted wood, before the door cracked open, Regina’s sleepy face, devoid of make-up appearing through the gloom.

“Emma, hi,” she said, opening the door a little wider. “Is everything ok?”

“I’m good. Are you ok? Why are you not up yet?”

“Henry had a nightmare last night. The two of us were up for a couple of hours because he couldn’t get back to sleep. He’s still sleeping, thank goodness.”

“Oh, is he ok?”

Regina nodded, stifling a yawn. “He’ll be fine, I hope. He doesn’t have nightmares often but this was a bad one.”

“What was it about?”

“A fire, apparently. He’s scared of fire.”

“Sensible. Fire is scary. It’s very dangerous,” Emma said seriously.

“True, I agree with him. Well, anyway, he woke up screaming and bathed in sweat. I couldn’t calm him down for ages and when he eventually did stop crying, he was too worked up to get back to sleep.”

“Poor kid.”

“Yeah,” Regina nodded. “So, did you need something?”

“I didn’t need anything but I wanted to do something,” Emma replied. Using the correct words was important.

“Ok, then what do you want to do?” Regina asked, smirking slightly at the pedantic word-defining woman before her.

“I want to say congratulations to you about your interview.”

Regina grinned. “Thanks. I’d forgotten about that.”

“Don’t forget,” Emma said, looking very serious. “If you forget to turn up for the interview, that’s a very bad first impression and they probably won’t give you the job.”

Regina laughed. Emma frowned. Regina stopped herself, remembering how Emma had felt hurt the last time her autistic view of the world had caused Regina to chuckle slightly.

“No, I don’t mean I forgot entirely. But it’s barely eight in the morning and I only just woke up. Don’t worry, I’m not going to forget to turn up to my interview. This is the chance I’ve been waiting for and I’m going to do everything I can to secure this job.”

“And I really hope you get it,” Emma replied. “Do you want to do some preparation work? We offer workshops for interview techniques. There isn’t one scheduled between now and Tuesday but I can do a one-on-one session with you if you think it would help?”

“Sure,” Regina nodded. “But not now, is that ok? I have to get back to Henry and I assume you’ve got work to do.”

“My shift starts in five minutes,” Emma replied. “I left early this morning to come and speak with you before work.”

“You left early?” Regina asked.


“You changed your routine?”

“I set my alarm fifteen minutes earlier,” Emma said, puffing out her chest as she spoke, the evidence of her self-pride apparent to both women.

“That’s very sweet of you, thank you,” Regina replied. “Would you like to spend the last five minutes of your free time before work in here?”

Emma peered over Regina’s shoulder into the dark room. “Why? Don’t you want Henry to sleep?”

“Of course I do but we don’t have to make any noise, do we?” Regina suggested, eyebrows rising.

Emma noticed the movement but was unsure of what the woman was trying to portray. She crinkled her brow, thinking hard. Nope, she thought to herself, I need clarity. “I don’t understand,” she admitted. “What are you asking me to do?”

Regina smiled and reached out for Emma’s hand without a word. Once the blonde had taken it, she opened the door a little wider, tugging lightly on Emma’s fingers to encourage her inside. With the door closed, she moved blindly to Henry’s bed, the boy himself still sleeping in her own and sat down, pulling Emma along with her.

“Let’s just lie here,” she whispered, warm breath hitting Emma’s face.

“In the dark?”

“Yeah,” Regina nodded, laying herself down next to the wall and coaxing Emma to fall beside her. “Let’s just lie here, in the dark. You’ve got about four minutes until your shift starts. Let’s spend them together.”

Emma settled her body beside Regina, facing her on the narrow bed. Regina draped her arm over the feminine dip of Emma’s waist and the action was quickly mirrored by the blonde who was taking her lead from Regina. No one spoke. Then Regina felt soft lips press against her own. She smiled into the tender kiss, shuffling her body a little closer. Emma’s hand splayed across the small of her back, anchoring them together as their mouths moved slowly against one another.

“This is the nicest wake up I’ve had in a while,” Regina whispered when the kiss ended.

“Maybe one day you can have a wake up like this at mine,” Emma replied. “I’m going to work on changing my morning routine. I want to organise my time so that you and Henry are part of it too. Ruby says it’s something we’ll learn as our relationship develops but I want to learn it now. This is a nice way to wake up for me too, even though I woke up over an hour ago and have already had a shower and breakfast and walked to work. But still, this is nice.”

“Yes, it is,” Regina agreed, kissing Emma soundly, lips pressing more insistently this time.

They fell silent, the only sound in the room the occasional snuffle from Henry who slept on, his small body making up for the hours of sleep lost in the middle of the night. Regina closed her eyes, enjoying the quiet, understated closeness.

“I should go.”

Emma’s whisper broke through the darkness, into which Regina could feel herself slipping. The blonde leaned towards her, pressing a chaste kiss to the other woman’s cheek before rolling her body away and getting off the bed.

“I’ll see you later,” she said as she reached the door. “We can do some interview prep after lunch if you like?”

“That would be great,” came the soft reply. “Thanks Emma.”

“You’re welcome,” Emma replied.

The door opened, yellow light splitting the room into two sides; Henry in Regina’s bed, Regina in her son’s, and Emma stood in the middle, illuminated in the brightness for the moment before she stepped out into the corridor, closing the door behind her. Darkness swallowed the room, a thick blanket wrapped back around mother and son.

Yet the soft comfort Regina always felt each night before she fell asleep, as she looked across the bedroom at her sleeping son before switching off her bedside lamp, never came. Something was different. Something was missing. Her gaze shifted towards where she knew the door was, even though there was not enough light in the room for her eyes to distinguish it. She wished it would open, that Emma would reappear. But she knew she wouldn’t.

It was a monumental event for Emma to get up fifteen minutes earlier than usual just to congratulate her on the job interview. After seeing the blonde’s morning routine the weekend before, Regina had found herself wondering how well Emma would adjust to the presence of her and Henry in her life. It was going to be a process, she knew that. And it was evident Emma was willing to try. But she couldn’t deny that she was a little concerned about how someone who enjoyed the comfort and safety of a dependable routine would adapt to a child. Henry was a good boy but he was also a kid; kids were unpredictable.

The appearance of Emma in her doorway that morning, therefore, was a very positive sign, as far as Regina was concerned. It symbolised not only Emma’s capacity to change but also her willingness to do so for Regina. She couldn’t stop herself smiling at that thought. Slowly, one step at a time, the two of them would learn to interlock their lives. It would involve many more changes for Emma, she knew. Regina didn’t really have a life of her own, per se. She had Henry and Henry’s routines. It was Emma whose life in New York was going to be transformed by the presence of a mother and son. But, judging by that morning, Emma was willing to begin that transformation.

At ten to eleven on Tuesday morning, Regina hovered outside the Bronx Library Centre. She was early. Going inside now was going to make her appear too keen. Could you be too keen for a job? Would it seem desperate? Well, she was desperate, to be fair. This job would transform her life. It could be the first step towards her new life with Henry, away from the shelter. Employment, for Regina, symbolised independence, freedom and her chance at a happy future.

So she waited, loitering outside until there were just two minutes before her scheduled appointment time. When it was ten fifty-eight, she entered through the sliding glass doors. Inside, she headed straight for the reception desk, letting the woman know her name and who she was here to see.

“Take a seat,” the woman smiled. “I’ll let Graham know you’re here.”

Sitting down on a chair, Regina crossed her legs, smoothing out invisible creases in the skirt she was wearing. Emma had helped her pick out the interview outfit. A white blouse and a tight black shirt. When she had recovered the power of speech after Regina appeared in her office doorway dressed in the clothes, Emma had announced that she was going to do research into how seeing someone very sexy could stop your brain working properly. Regina had laughed, kissed her girlfriend soundly, and promised the blonde that she had the same stupefying power over the her.


At the sound of her name, she jumped to her feet, holding out her hand at once towards the tall, dark-haired man who was smiling at her.

“Yes, hello,” she said as her hand was shaken in a firm grip.

“I’m Graham; we spoke on the phone. It’s lovely to meet you in person,” he continued.

Yep, definitely British, Regina thought to herself, taking in the classically handsome features. “It’s great to meet you too. Thank you so much for the opportunity.”

“You’re most welcome. Would you like to come through? We’re just going to have an informal chat and then I thought I’d give you the tour; show you the facilities we’ve got here and talk to you about what we’re looking to do.”

“Sounds great,” Regina nodded, following Graham as he made his way further into the library and up some stairs to where the offices were located.

Inside a small meeting room, he invited Regina to choose a seat before taking one himself, placing a notepad down on the table between them and pulling a printed copy of her resumé out from beneath the pages.

“So,” he said, palms on either side of the piece of paper. “I guess I should start by asking why you applied for this position.”

“I love books,” Regina replied, remembering how Emma had suggested she emphasis her education in and hobby of read. “I’ve always read a lot, particularly in recent years while I’ve not been working. I majored in English Literature because I enjoy delving into my favourite stories. It helps me to understand the power of storytelling and how authors create the plots and conjure up the incredible characters and vividly describe places we can’t even dream of just with words. Books are magical.”

“Have you ever tried writing yourself?” Graham asked.

Regina shook her head. “Oh, no. I can’t write.”

“Everyone can write. It sounds like you could be a great writer too, judging by how much you’ve studied literary techniques.”

“I don’t think so,” Regina replied. “But it’s kind of you to say.”

“Don’t put yourself down. At least not until you’ve tried it.”

Regina shrugged. If she was honest with herself, she had wondered a few times about writing that great American novel. But the rare occasions when some semblance of plot had started to form in her mind, something had always gotten in the way and she’d never started the process of committing plot to paper.

“Well, for now I’ll stick with working in a building which no doubt holds some of the best books ever written.”

“Indeed. As I’m sure you know, we’re part of the New York Public Library group, although we’re still waiting on our gateway lions.”

Regina laughed. She had to admit that the entrance into the Bronx branch didn’t have quite the same impact as the New York Public Library. That landmark was still on her list of things to do in the city as she hadn’t been since she was in college and Henry had never been. Her son’s reading was developing well but he was not yet at an age where he could enjoy a book in the same way as a more proficient reader.

“As I mentioned, we’re keen for you to get involved in our events program. We run daily activities for the local community, all of them free. But we’re looking to expand the number of events we offer as well as developing a more diverse range in terms of content and ages.”

“What ages do you do cater for now?”

“All ages, in theory. We have toddler classes every other morning. At the weekends and during some afternoons we host story time for children aged four to eight. And then we have a young reader program running after school and at weekends, which is split up by ability. But we tend to find attendance drops off pretty sharply once children hit their teenage years. We’d like to keep them engaged with a more diverse program including some creative writing classes. Judging by what you’ve said, this could be an area you could lend your expertise.”

“I don’t have any experience with teaching creative writing. Or leading any sort of activity with children aside from Henry’s birthday parties,” Regina admitted, completely forgetting how Emma had told her to present as confident and to avoid talking about what is missing from her resumé and instead focus on what she could bring to the role.

“That’s ok,” Graham assured. “As I said, we won’t throw you in at the deep end. We’ll offer training if required and we also have a team here who do have experience. You wouldn’t be expected to put something together on your own.”

“Right, sorry,” Regina muttered, cheeks flushed as she looked down at the desk before her.

There was a moment of silence as Graham observed the woman before him, noting her lack of confidence which became very apparent when she perceived herself to have made a mistake. He had noticed in on the phone too. Standing up and leading activities required a certain amount of self-confidence and Graham was sure Regina had the ability. Even in the short phone call and a few minutes into their meeting, he was convinced Regina had what it took to join his team and become a valued member of their community. There was something about her which appealed to him as an employer. The problem was, the woman didn’t seem to believe in herself. If Graham was going to take a chance on Regina, he had to be sure she was willing to take a chance on herself too.

“Hey,” he said gently, waiting for her to make eye contact with him before continuing. “We really liked your resumé, Regina. And I think you’d be a great fit for the team. We believe in you and we’d like to give you the opportunity to believe in yourself. Do you think you can do that?”

Regina hadn’t believed in herself for years. Not really. She believed she was a good mother, for the most part. But sometimes she did wonder whether she waited too long to leave Leo, for her son’s sake rather than hers. She believed she was a good daughter, devoted to both of her parents and making them proud by attending a great college. They had been over the moon when they became grandparents, besotted with Henry. Their deaths had been jarring on so many levels. But to lose her title of daughter, to lose the love and respect of two people whose support had been a constant throughout her life had hit hard, crippling what self-worth she still had after several years of marriage to Leo.

She knew she needed to work on her self-respect, her self-confidence. Self-development, as Belle called it. But throughout her marriage, she had learned, had been conditioned, to not put herself first. It was Leo or Henry who was more important, always more important than she was. That was still true, as far as she was concerned, when it came to her son. But now, as she realised Graham was still waiting patiently for an answer, some self-confidence and self-conviction was needed to enable her to provide for her son. Regina needed to embrace the opportunity, throw herself into the prospective job and become the sort of mother Henry could be proud of.

“Yes,” she said, sitting up a little straighter. “I can believe in myself. I do believe in myself.”

Chapter Text

Stepping out onto the street, Regina looked up into the baby blue sky and took a deep breath in. Exhaling, her shoulders dropped, handbag sliding down her arm.


She turned at the familiar voice, hoisting the bag back onto her shoulder. “Emma, what are you doing here?”

“I wanted to find out how the interview went. But I didn’t want to wait until you walked all the way back to the shelter and you don’t have a cell phone so I came here to wait for you,” the woman explained, standing up from the bench outside the library upon which she had been sat. “So, how did it go?”

Regina wrapped her arms around the blonde without speaking, relaxing further into the soothing embrace. Firm hands rubbed up and down her back as she felt Emma’s face bury in her hair. “Never mind,” the taller woman whispered into her ear. “It was only your first interview.”

“I got the job.”

At that, Emma pulled back abruptly. “What?”

“I got the job,” Regina repeated.

Emma frowned, stepping further away and scanning Regina’s body as if trying to understand what she was seeing before her in light of this new information. “But … you sighed,” she said eventually. “And you hugged me. Sighing and hugging are things you do when you’re sad or disappointed. Shouldn’t you be doing happy things? Like jumping and smiling?”

At that, a smile did indeed spread over Regina’s face. “You’re adorable,” she chuckled, sliding her arms back around Emma’s neck. “I am happy.”

“You don’t look happy. Well, you do now because you’re laughing at me, I think, but when you came out of the library, you didn’t look happy.”

Understanding that it was important for Emma to dissect what had just happened, Regina began to explain the myriad emotions she was currently experiencing. “I was sighing with relief, I suppose. It was a positive sigh, like a weight had been lifted off my shoulders. I mean, this was the first interview I was offered after weeks of applying and I never really expected to get the chance to interview let alone walk out with a job. That was something Graham talked about actually. My self-belief. He could see I didn’t really expect him to offer me the job but he did. He said he wanted to give me a chance to prove to myself as much as him that I was capable.”

“Wow, he sounds like an insightful man.”

Regina nodded. “He was great. We talked more about me than the job, I think. He wanted to know if I believed in myself and then we ended up going into this super deep conversation about why I’ve got problems with my self-esteem. I told him about the shelter, is that ok?”

“Yes, if you felt comfortable telling him about it. Did you give him the address?”

“No. I knew you wouldn’t want that. But he did say he’d need a street address for my paperwork.”

“You can use my apartment,” Emma said at once but when Regina’s eyebrows raised, she clarified. “Until you find somewhere of your own.”

“Thank you,” Regina replied. “That would be ideal. One less thing to stress about. That’s why I hugged you, by the way. I’m really happy I got the job but it’s stressful thinking about entering the workforce after so many years. I was feeling rather overwhelmed and then I saw you and all I wanted was a hug. Sorry if I made you think the interview had gone badly.”

“No need to apologise,” Emma assured her. “But thank you for explaining it to me. It helps me to understand body language and emotions. With you, in particular but also more generally. I want to be able to understand you because that will help me be the best girlfriend I can be.”

Regina smiled and rocked onto her toes to kiss Emma’s lips. It was a slow, tender kiss, a silent thank you for the woman in her arms. “You are the best girlfriend,” Regina replied when they broke apart. “Thank you for coming to meet me after the interview.”

“Oh, shit. I forgot to say congratulations!” Emma exclaimed. “Congratulations on your new job, Regina.”

Before the brunette could answer, she found herself in a fierce hug, feet lifted off the ground as Emma picked her up and swung her around. Regina squealed in delight, legs waggling in the air until her shoes came back into contact with the sidewalk.

“Congratulations,” Emma beamed at her. “Let’s celebrate. Tonight. I was only going to go home on my own anyway so my change of plans will not affect anyone else. How about I take you and Henry out for dinner?”

“It’s a school night,” Regina replied. “Can we have dinner together at the shelter tonight and go out at the weekend as a belated celebration?”

Emma nodded her agreement to that plan. She had forgotten that Henry would need to be in bed at a reasonable time. Children made everything different. Not difficult, but different. That said, she was growing to love Henry and she would not begrudge him his bedtime for a meal with his mother. “It’s a date,” she said, sliding her hand into Regina’s before the two of them set off towards the shelter, Regina now recounting every part of the interview and tour of the library in fastidious detail.

“Em, can I ask you a favour?”

Emma looked up and nodded at her friend slash flatmate slash employee who had appeared in her open office door just before lunch on Thursday. “Sure,” she nodded. “What do you need?”

Ruby took a seat before continuing. “I know it’s last minute but can you cover my shift tomorrow?”

“I’m already working tomorrow,” Emma replied.

“Ok, not cover but do without me for a couple of hours. I won’t be gone all day.”

“Where are you going?”

“Granny’s will is being read by her lawyer. I have to be there,” Ruby replied. “Some office in Manhattan. I didn’t even know she’d left a will but apparently she was more organised than I thought.”

“I have a will,” Emma replied. “You should get one too in case you die suddenly.”

“Yeah, um, thanks for that. So, anyway, is it ok if I take a couple of hours? The meeting is at ten thirty. I should be back by midday. I don’t think it will take long.”

Pulling up the work calendar, Emma scanned her appointments to check whether she had any one-to-one sessions during that time period.

“Yes, that’s fine,” Emma said when she had confirmed that her schedule was clear. She had worked shifts solo before and, for the most part, there wasn’t any need for two counsellors to be present, just as long as someone was on the front desk. “Did your granny leave you anything?”

“I don’t know,” Ruby replied.

“Well, you were her only family. Who else would be in the will?”

“I don’t know,” Ruby admitted. “But it’s not like she had much. She was a waitress in a diner for most of her life. She had a crappy pension. I doubt there was much to leave anyone.”

“She must have left you something, otherwise you wouldn’t be asked to be present at the reading of the will, right? That’s how these things go.”

“Yeah, that’s what the lawyer said but he wouldn’t tell me what it was. I have to be present.”

“Why is this such a ceremonial occasion? She’s dead. Can’t they just send an email?”

“I asked that. He said technically he could but that Granny had asked for there to be a reading. It’s tradition or some shit.”

“Sounds rather archaic to me. But if it was something your Granny wanted, I guess you should honour it.”

Ruby nodded. “I will but it’s weird. Sitting in a room with a lawyer I’ve never met being told what she left me. Anyway, I appreciate you covering for me. If you want to leave early tomorrow that’s cool.”

“You’re on probation,” Emma reminded the redhead. “I can’t leave you unsupervised.”

Pursing her lips, Ruby said nothing. She hated that she was on probation, although she understood why and she appreciated that Emma had not fired her, when she had a reasonable case to dismiss her. Yet she resented the babysitting. Aside from that one, admittedly sizeable, slip when she had given Henry the Wi-Fi password, Ruby had been a model employee. She hated that Emma no longer trusted her to do her job. And yet, she didn’t have a leg to stand on when it came to protesting her status.

“Ok, well, if Regina and Henry ever want to stay over at ours in the future, I’m happy for the kid to sleep in my bed.”

“I appreciate that,” Emma replied. “In fact, I was going to ask you already if they could come over on Saturday. You’re working anyway and we’re celebrating Regina’s new job.”

“Of course,” Ruby smiled. “I’m so happy for her, by the way. I can’t believe she got offered the job on the spot.”

“I can,” Emma said. “She’s amazing. They’re lucky to have her.”

Ruby smirked. “Not that your bias or anything.”

“Of course I’m bias,” Emma replied, missing the sarcastic tone. “She is the girlfriend and the woman I love. I think anyone would be lucky to employ Regina.”

“Did you ever consider offering her a job here?” Ruby asked, voicing a sentiment she had been pondering for several weeks.

But Emma shook her head. “She’s not qualified. I love Regina and if she had academic or professional qualifications which we could use, yes, I would have tried to create a post for her. But she’s not a counsellor or a therapist or a psychologist. And I’ve got nothing in the budget to bring on someone at a trainee level. Plus, Regina never expressed any interest in working here. Let alone the ethical implications of hiring my girlfriend who also happens to be a current but hopefully soon to be former resident. No, it’s too messy and confusing.”

“Fair enough,” Ruby said hastily, seeing Emma begin to spiral at even the thought of the potential complications. “So, I’d better get back to work but thanks in advance for covering tomorrow. Are you eating dinner with Regina tonight or shall we get take out after our shift is over?”

“I have no plans with Regina so take out sounds good. Can we please order from the Chinese place I like with the good prawn crackers and the chow mein which doesn’t have gross water chestnuts in the dish?”

“Sounds perfect. I’ll place our usual order, right?”

Emma nodded and smiled before returning to her work as Ruby left the office. She had to admit that she was rather looking forward to spending some time with the redhead. With their shift work and Emma’s new relationship, the two flatmates had largely been ships passing in the night over the past month. Emma missed their friendship, even if she still held some simmering resentment over what Ruby had done. But she knew it was an honest, if grave, mistake and she understood that not everyone was perfect. There was no such thing as perfect, just in the same way as there was no such thing as normal.

An evening in their apartment would offer them time to reconnect, catch up and spend some time together. Emma had been so consumed with Regina and Henry, in the best way possible, that she had, she realised, neglected that friendship a little. Having Ruby in her life was something she had taken for granted, a constant, familiar presence she could always rely on. But that didn’t mean she could ignore her friend in light of her new love. Plus, she realised, Ruby had been through something awful; the loss of her last family member. And, she swallowed down the rising guilt, Emma had been largely unsupportive in the wake of the events which had happened outside the shelter. She had attended the funeral but aside from that, she had barely acknowledge Ruby’s recent bereavement.

“Rubes,” she called through the open doorway. Her friend appeared, wheeling herself backwards into view on her office chair.

“What’s up?” she asked.

“Chinese is on me,” Emma offered. “Thanks for suggesting it. I am looking forward to our evening together. I’ve missed spending time with you in our apartment.”

Ruby grinned. “Thanks Em, I’ve missed you too. I mean, as mates, not as people who work together.”

“Let’s get some beers in too. We could drink to the memory of Granny, if you like?”

“Granny liked sherry actually but I’m game for beers. Sherry is gross.”

“Sherry is good in trifle,” Emma replied. “I ate lots of trifle when my foster mom was going through that anglophile phase after their trip to Britain. Do you remember?”

“I do,” Ruby laughed. “She wore that scarf with the Union Jack on it all winter. I’m glad she’s moved on now. But despite sherry’s delicious properties in English desserts, I think Granny would be happy for us to toast to her memory with beer. I’ll get them, you get the Chinese. Deal?”

“Deal,” Emma nodded.

A siren wailed in the distance. The glow of the streetlamp outside leaked into the bedroom between the blind and the wall. On the sidewalk below, a group of inebriated people walked by, laughing and singing on their way to a club. She sighed and nestled closer to the warm, bare body.

“What are you thinking about?” came Emma’s voice into the gloom.

“Just how happy I am right now,” Regina replied, placing a kiss to Emma’s clavicle.

“Because of the orgasms I just gave you?”

Regina chuckled, the movement and sound reverberating through Emma’s ribcage. “Partly. And partly because, sex or no sex, I love falling asleep in your arms. You make me feel safe and loved. After the past decade, you have no idea how important that is to me.”

“I do have some idea,” Emma replied, pulling Regina even closer to her side, fingers stroking the soft skin of the brunette’s upper back. “I know how unhappy Leo made you and I know I’m never going to treat you the way he did. It makes me feel very proud to know you feel safe with me. I promise to always keep you and Henry safe.”

“Thank you,” Regina whispered. “But it’s my responsibility to keep Henry safe too. I can’t rely on you for everything. That’s why I’m looking forward to starting this new job. The pay isn’t great but I reckon I’ll be able to save up enough for a deposit in a couple of months.”

“Actually,” Emma said, rolling onto her side so she was facing Regina, features decipherable through the dimly lit room, “there’s something I wanted to talk to you about.”

Regina’s heart sank. Was Emma going to tell her she needed to leave the shelter? Had she outstayed her welcome? Was it time for her to move on and let someone else in need of the security of Swan’s Shelter take her place? “Go on,” she said, throat dry.

“Ruby’s moving out.”


“She told me this morning,” Emma pressed on. “I was going to talk to you about it next week after I’ve had time to think about it but I felt it was important for you to know, since you’re now talking about deposits for apartments.”

“Ruby’s moving out? Is she leaving the shelter?”

“No, she’s just moving of here. Her granny left her an apartment. It’s only one bedroom but it’s completely paid off. Ruby had no idea she even owed it. She thought it was a rental but apparently not. She inherited it on Thursday at the will reading. Well, she was told about it. I think there is some paperwork and stuff before it’s legally hers. But, yeah, Ruby is going to move out and live in her own place. It needs some decorating though so it won’t be for a while. She only found out yesterday and didn’t say anything until she knew what she wanted to do. And I wasn’t going to say anything to you until I knew what I wanted to do.”

“Oh. And, um, do you know what you want to do?”

“I want to ask you and Henry to move in with me,” Emma nodded. “But I want to wait until the right moment.”

There was a pause, then a chuckle. “But, Emma, you sort of already asked me, just now.”

“Did I?”

“Well, I suppose technically you didn’t explicitly ask the question but you told me you want to ask me. I know you intend to ask me at some point in the future. The near future?”

“I don’t know. Maybe. I needed to think about it, think about how it will affect my life.”


Regina rolled onto her back, staring at the ceiling. Emma sensed that she’d said something wrong and shuffled herself closer, arm now slung over Regina’s stomach.

“Hey, what’s wrong? Did I say something bad?”

“No, you were honest,” Regina admitted. “But sometimes it’s hard to hear. I know it’s not a simple thing to move in with a partner. And we’ve only been together a few months. Plus, there’s Henry. I know you have to think about something like this. I guess usually the person whom you’re asking isn’t aware that you’re weighing up the pros and cons of joining your lives together. It’s … a little confronting.”


“As in, I’m confronting all of the reasons you wouldn’t want to live with me,” Regina replied. “I get it. I understand why you’re hesitant.”

“Woah, Regina, I’m not hesitant,” Emma said at once. “At least, not about whether I want to live with you. I’d love to live with you and Henry. I love you both. I would be so happy if I could fall asleep with you each night and wake up with you each morning. I’m not thinking about if I want to live with you, I’m thinking about what changes I’ll need to make in my life when you two arrive.”

“Changes? Emma, I don’t want you to change for me. You don’t need to change for me. I love you for the person you are.”

Emma shook her head. “Not those sorts of changes. I would never change who I am for someone else. I’m talking about my routine. I’ve worked out that I’ll need to get up thirteen minutes earlier in the morning to make you and Henry some breakfast. Which is fine on the weekend but what about during the week? I haven’t timed how long it takes to walk to Henry’s school from here. But I also start work at eight so I can’t take him when I’m on shift. And then when your new job starts, what time are you going to get up and will you have your shower before or after me? And I’ve ordered a new toaster which can do six slices of bread at one time. But won’t arrive until Thursday.

“Plus, my wardrobe is quite small so I don’t know where you’d put your things. I’m going to go through all of my clothes tomorrow evening and donate any which I don’t wear to a thrift store. And then we’ll need to decorate Henry’s room. And buy him a bed. There’s so much to think about with kids. Can he reach the sink properly or do I need to buy one of those little stools for him to stand on? And then where does the stool get stored? Henry needs to be able to get to it easily but the bathroom doesn’t have many cupboards. And the couch. That’s Ruby’s couch so I need to buy a new couch before you move in otherwise we’ll all be sitting on the floor. There’s a lot to think about, Regina. There’s lots of changes which need to be in place before you can move in.”

Regina’s eyes were glittering through the darkness by the time Emma had finished. She threw her arms around the blonde, rolling her onto her back and peppering her face with kisses. “I love you, Emma Swan. You are the sweetest woman in the world.”

Confused by the sudden display of affection, Emma decided to ask why she was being smothered in love later and instead enjoy it. Her hands skated up and down Regina’s bare back, hips canting up slightly as she felt Regina’s own pubis come into contact with her stomach.

“You’re amazing, Emma,” Regina said, pulling back slightly and tucking some errant strands of hair behind her ear. “You’re the kindest, most thoughtful person in the world.”

“Thank you,” Emma replied. “I’m methodical. I like to think things through.”

Regina conceded that perhaps Emma had been thinking about the logistics of their shared life together rather than how to make Regina and Henry feel welcome. Yet in her pedantic attention to detail, Regina felt that Emma had done exactly that. Or was willing to do exactly that. To Emma, a six slice toaster simply allowed her to maintain her morning routine. To Regina, it was a gesture which demonstrated how much she and Henry were wanted. The idea of painting Henry’s bedroom, to Emma, was simply practical. Henry was a six year old boy. He didn’t want to sleep in a boring cream room. But to Regina, the idea that Henry would be able to have a space to call his own again meant more than anything.

“Emma,” Regina sighed, placing a kiss to the blonde’s lips, “you have no idea how much this means to me. Take as long as you need to organise your life but, just so you know, if and when you do choose to ask me and Henry to move in, we’ll say yes.”


Chapter Text

Regina cocked her head to one side as she observed herself in the mirror. Tugging lightly on the sleeves of her blazer, she stood a little straighter. Her hair, at least, was behaving itself today and sat perfectly styled just as she had wanted it. Stepping closer, she used the pad of her pinkie finger to brush away a fleck of mascara which marred the skin just below her dark, smoky eyes.

“Mom, where are my school shoes?”

“By the door where we keep them, Henry,” Regina replied, without looking.

“They’re not there,” came the whining response.

Turning towards her son, Regina raised an eyebrow at him. “Really, Henry? Take a closer look, please.”

The boy pouted and stared pointedly at the floor beside the door to their room. “See, not there.”

Regina rolled her eyes and crossed the room. Bending down, she lifted her son’s discarded pyjama bottoms and revealed the shoes which had been half obscured by the material. Without a word, Henry sat on the floor and started to pull the shoes onto his feet.

“Where’s your reading book?” Regina asked.

“In my bag,” Henry replied.

“Are you sure?” It wasn’t uncommon for Henry to forget to take various books to school. But upon inspection of his bag, Regina realised that her son was right.

With Henry ready and nothing else to delay the inevitable, Regina picked up her own handbag as Henry slung his rucksack onto his back. Just then, there was a knock at the door.

“Can you answer that please Henry?” Regina asked who had returned once more to the mirror to make sure she looked perfect. Yes, hair was in place. Make up was on point. Clothes were … as good as it was going to get until she had some money to expand her limited wardrobe. Stomach was rolling uncomfortably, nerves fluttering inside her. In the reflection of the room behind her, a smiling blonde appeared as Henry opened the door and Regina turned and grinned herself. “Hey, what are you doing here?”

“I came to walk you to work on your first day,” Emma explained. “Good morning Henry. Are you excited for school?”

“Yeah!” Henry nodded. “We’re starting a project on dinosaurs today.”

“Very cool. Are you ready to go? We don’t want you to be late. Either of you, in fact.”

Regina nodded and crossed the room. Kissing Emma lightly, she steered Henry out into the corridor and the trio set off, collecting Roland from Marian’s room on the way out of the centre.

“I wasn’t expecting to see you,” Regina admitted as they stepped into the warm sunlight of the early summer morning. “Monday is your day off.”

“I know but I wanted to be here for you. I know today is important and I thought you would like the support.”

Regina leaned against her girlfriend and squeezed the hand she was holding. “Thank you. That’s very sweet. I hope it hasn’t disrupted your day too much.”

“Well, I had to delay my usual food shop and I’m a bit worried that the produce won’t be as good in the local green grocer’s because I won’t be there as early as I like. But it’s ok, I don’t mind. If they don’t have my favourite apples, I will buy some pears instead.”

Change to Emma’s Monday routine had been increasingly common ever since Regina had appeared in her life. And while she was unable to deny that she sometimes missed the regularity, the payoff was worth it.

“How are you feeling?” Emma asked after they had dropped Henry and Roland off at the school gates and were now making their way towards the library.

“Nervous,” Regina admitted. “But excited too, I suppose. I’ve not worked for so long and I’ve never really had a proper professional job. So I’m nervous about what it will entail and whether I’ll be any good but I’m also excited to get stuck in, learn new things and start to give something back to this community.”

Emma nodded her understanding at those two emotions. “You’re going to be amazing, I just know it.”

“Well, today is just going to be getting to know the building and the team so I don’t think there are going to be many opportunities to be amazing but I appreciate the support. And I appreciate you changing your Monday morning plans for me. Thank you.”

“You’re welcome. But I can’t come and meet you at the end of the day. I have my appointment with Archie. I did try to reschedule but he had no other available time slots.”

“That’s no problem. I can walk home by myself. Marian is taking care of Henry too, so I don’t have to worry about that. Seriously, Emma, I really do appreciate having you here today.”

“Of course. I’m so proud of you and I can’t wait to hear all about your first day. I’ll come to the shelter after I’ve finished at Archie’s. Is that ok?”

Regina turned to Emma as the two of them stopped outside the library. “That’s perfect. Thank you.”

“You’re welcome. Good luck.”

Emma wrapped her arms around Regina’s waist and pressed a gentle kiss to her lips. Regina melted into the contact, feeling the frisson of energy which always sparked between them when they were in contact. Enlivened and feeling a little more confident, Regina stepped back.

“See you later,” she smiled. “Have a good day.”

“You too,” Emma replied.

She watched as the brunette walked through the sliding glass doors of the Bronx Library Centre and disappeared inside. Emma waited for a moment longer, just in case Regina reappeared. But when she didn’t, she turned and walked away, heading towards the market to begin the chores on her Monday to-do list.

“Is that the last of them?” Emma asked as her friend appeared in the living room, head poking over the top of a cardboard box. She herself was using bubble wrap to protect the photo frames she was placing into a smaller container.

“Yes,” Ruby replied, lowering the heavy load onto another box already stacked by the front door. “Now we just have to tackle the bed and wardrobe. Did you find that spare allen key?”

Emma nodded, holding up two tiny pieces of metal between her fingers. “Do you want me to get started and you finish up here?”

“We can do it together,” Ruby said. “Lesbians aren’t the only people awesome at putting up and dismantling flatpack furniture.”

Ignoring the stereotypical jibe, Emma gave up packing the frames and moved past her friend towards the bedroom. It was strange, entering the space which was now bare, except for the huge bedframe and the empty wardrobe. Ruby had wrestled the mattress down the hallway an hour earlier and it now rested lazily against the wall, waiting for the removal van.

Putting on some music from her cell, Ruby joined Emma on the floor and took the second allen key. Slowly, the pieces of wood were detached from one another and a pile of screws appeared on the carpet. With no box to pack the bedframe into, the two friends simply carried all of the components out into the living room, already wondering how long it would take for them to reassemble it in Ruby’s new apartment. Next was the wardrobe, which somehow took them twice as long, despite being half the size. But eventually, with stacks of wood neatly lined up in the living room, they completed the task.

“Well, I guess we’re ready. Do you know when Regina is going to arrive?”

Emma pulled out her cell and checked the text from her girlfriend which had informed her she was about to leave the van rental parking lot. Doing some swift calculations in her head, Emma answered: “in seven minutes, assuming she didn’t get stuck in traffic.”

“Seven minutes it is,” Ruby laughed. She was going to miss Emma’s pedantic, straightforward, no nonsense way of looking at the world. Not that moving into her grandmother’s apartment meant she’d never see the blonde. Thanks to her work at the shelter, Emma would still be a big part of her life. But it wasn’t the same as living with her. “God, I can’t believe I’m moving out.”

“I know,” Emma nodded, looking around at the living room, scattered with boxes full of Ruby’s possessions. “I knew one of us would leave eventually. But I thought I’d have more time to prepare for the idea of living without you. Or living with someone else.”

“Are you going to be ok?”

Emma nodded. “Yes, I’ll be ok. I’m an adult. I can take care of myself, despite what people sometimes assume about people on the spectrum. But it is going to take some time to get used to.”

“And Regina?”

“Regina can look after herself. She’s a mother. She had to look after herself and Henry.”

“Not what I meant and you know it.”

“No, I don’t. What did you mean?”

“What about Regina and you?”

“What about her and me?”

Ruby rolled her eyes. Just the other evening, Emma had told Ruby about the conversation she and Regina had had with regards to their plan to live together. “Have you officially asked her yet to move in here?”

“Oh, no,” Emma replied. “Not yet.”

“What are you waiting for? Do you not want to live with Regina?”

“I do want to. But I’m waiting to make sure I’m ready for that change. It’s a big step. I’ve never lived with a girlfriend before nor a six-year-old boy. I have to prepare. I have to get this place ready for them. I’d not really thought about living with Regina because we’ve only been together a few months and that seems like something you’d do after a year or maybe two years. But then you told me about your new apartment and then everything just moved so fast. I mean, it’s been three weeks since you found out from the lawyer that you have your own place and you’re moving today. Plus, Regina’s started her new job which is going well but it’s a big adjustment and Henry’s been asking questions about his dad which Regina doesn’t know how to answer. And don’t forget I’ve got to go to court next week to testify in Leo’s trial. There’s a lot going on. I haven’t had the time to think about what colour walls Henry might like. And yes, I’ve got the big new toaster but I have to buy so much more before they move in. Are you sure you don’t want to take the couch? You did pay for half of it?”

“Emma, you can keep the couch,” Ruby said, placing a hand on either of her friend’s shoulders, feeling the tension reverberating off the woman’s slender frame. “And I know you’ve got a lot on your plate. I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to push you. Take as long as you need and then ask her when you feel the time is right.”

“I do want to live with her,” Emma repeated. “I really do want her to be here. And Henry. But everything is moving so fast and there’s so much happening. I just need some time. Do you think that’s ok?”

Ruby nodded and gave her friend a quick hug. “Of course that’s ok. Regina isn’t going to want to push you into anything you’re not ready for. She understands what’s going on in your life and I’m sure this is a big change for her too. Moving in with the first woman she’s been in a relationship, navigating that and Henry and what it means for all three of you. I can see you both have lots to contend with here and no one is rushing you. Just promise me you’ll have a house party to celebrate when they do move in.”

“Well, it would be an apartment party, if you think about it. And the last time we had one of those one of the neighbours called the super because of the loud music and he was really mad. And someone spilled wine on my armchair. You can still see the stain. That’s why the cushion is there. And someone broke your lamp. I still think it was Mulan, by the way.”

Ruby laughed. “Well, that was a few years ago. Maybe you can have an apartment party with a little less cheap alcohol this time.”

“Maybe,” Emma replied but before she could say anything more, the apartment door opened and Regina appeared.

“Hey,” she said, smiling at the two women as she pulled her key out of the lock. Emma had presented her with the week before. ‘For emergencies,’ she had said, although when asked she admitted she wasn’t sure what sort of emergency would require Regina to get into Emma’s apartment. “The van’s parked outside.” Perhaps it was the blonde’s subliminal way of testing out how it would feel to have Regina coming and going from the apartment whenever she pleased. Not that Regina had done so but … hypothetically.

“Thanks Regina,” Ruby said. “I really appreciate you helping.”

“Not at all. I’m excited to see your grandmother’s place. Are you looking forward to the start of this new chapter in your life?”

Ruby shrugged. She supposed it was a new chapter but the move was bittersweet. She was stoked about the prospect of not paying rent. The apartment was also a little bigger than the space she shared with Emma. And although her commute into work was now longer, the suburb in which her granny had lived was quieter and leafier. But she was also going to be living in an apartment where everything reminded her of her deceased grandmother. Ruby had not only inherited the house but everything in it. And while she was bringing her own bed, wardrobe and all of her possessions, she knew she was going to feel like an imposter for a long time, living in the place her grandmother had called home for as long as she could remember, her things still scattered in every single room.

“Let’s start loading up,” Ruby said eventually, without answering Regina’s question.

Emma didn’t notice and sprang into action, but Regina recognised the avoidance. Rather than pushing, however, she followed Emma’s lead and picked up a box, heading out of the apartment and down to where the rental van was waiting to be filled.

Four hours later, Emma pushed the van door shut and slumped against it. “Ruby has too much stuff,” she sighed.

Regina laughed and leaned beside her, wiping several beads of sweat from her forehead. “Agreed. Who needs so many pairs of trainers?”

“She runs,” Emma said, by way of explanation. “But I’m not sure why she kept her old pairs. They are useless and they smell bad.”

Closing her eyes, Regina let out a long sigh. “I’m exhausted.”

“Me too. Shall we go home? Or do you want to stay for that cup of coffee Ruby offered?”

“Let’s go home,” Regina replied, without opening her eyes.

Emma nodded and pushed herself off the back of the van, about to head inside to tell Ruby they were going to leave but she stopped in her tracks. “What do you mean by home?”

Brown eyes blinked open. “What?”

“You said home, where do you mean?” Emma clarified. “Is home the shelter or my apartment?”

“Oh.” Regina could feel the colour start to tinge her cheeks. In her mind, when she had answered the simple question, she had pictured Emma’s apartment. Not that she and Henry spent more time there than at the shelter but the place was certainly more homely. Except Emma had just referred to it as ‘my apartment’, not ‘our apartment’. Because despite several conversations, Emma was yet to formally ask Regina if she and Henry wanted to come and live with her. “Um, the shelter,” Regina said. “I’d like to go back to the shelter. Marian has been looking after Henry all day and I need to go and relieve her.”

Emma hesitated for a moment before nodding her head once and turning to walk into Ruby’s new building. Regina watched her go before fishing in her pocket for the key to the van and making her way around to the driver’s door. Climbing up, she sat and waited for Emma, tapping her fingers on a wide steering wheel.

She had to admit, if someone had told her three weeks ago she’d be spending her Saturday driving a U-haul, she wouldn’t have predicted it would have been to help Ruby move apartments. That said, Regina and Henry had so few possessions that a U-haul would be unwarranted for any move they made. Nevertheless, Regina couldn’t help but admit to herself that the fact that she and Henry would continue to sleep at the shelter hurt a little. No, hurt was the wrong word. But it was confusing. She didn’t want to push Emma into anything she wasn’t ready for and she knew the blonde was dealing with a lot. Ruby leaving, Leo’s trial, the prospect of living with Regina and Henry. The ideal of the trio moving in together had first been raised by Emma but Regina couldn’t deny she wasn’t disappointed than a formal invite hadn’t already been extended.

She snapped out of her thoughts when the passenger door opened and Emma hopped up into the cab. “Right, let’s go,” Emma said, clipping her seatbelt in place.

Regina nodded and started the engine. As they pulled away from the curb, Emma glanced up at the building and waved up at Ruby who was leaning out of her new window. At the end of the road, she turned back and slumped into her seat.

“Are you ok?” Regina asked, sensing the deflated mood.

“No,” Emma said simply. “I’m going to miss her. I don’t like the idea of her not being there when I wake up tomorrow morning. I don’t like waking up in an empty apartment. I don’t even like it when she’s on night shift at the shelter. Do you and Henry want to stay tonight?”

Despite the fact that asking or offering to stay had crossed Regina’s mind, the way in which Emma had casually tacked the question onto the end of her thoughts stung. Before she could stop herself, she bit back. “So you don’t feel lonely? Or because you actually want us there?”

Emma looked over at her girlfriend, eyebrows creased. Regina’s eyes remained firmly on the road as she drove slowly through the busy Saturday streets. The blonde paused and took in what she saw. Regina’s back was rigid. Her fingers curled and uncurled on the steering wheel. And the tips of her ears turned a dark shade of red. Emma frowned. “What?”

Regina shook her head, regretting the barbed comment. “Never mind.”

“No, you’re angry,” Emma said. “I can tell. Your ears are red.”

Subconsciously, Regina scratched her right ear before answering. “I’m not mad,” she said quietly. “Just a bit hurt.”

“Because I asked you and Henry to stay over? Do you not like staying at my apartment?”

“No, Emma, it’s not that. It was the way you asked me,” Regina explained. “You were talking about feeling lonely and missing Ruby and then you asked me. It made me feel like Henry and I were backups, like we were being used to replace Ruby now she’s not there to keep you company.”

“Well, you are, in a way.”

Regina’s jaw clenched. Once again, her fingers released and curled around the steering wheel, gripping tighter. “Right, well, thanks for letting me know where we stand, I guess.”

She turned into the side street where the rental van business was located and parked behind her own car which was waiting for her. Pulling the key from the ignition, she climbed out of the car and stalked off towards the entrance before Emma could register that they’d arrived. Quickly unbuckling her belt, she slid down too and hurried after her girlfriend.

“Regina, I don’t understand,” Emma said as soon as she spotted her girlfriend talking to a man behind a reception.

“Well, I’m a little busy now, Emma,” Regina replied without turning around. “We can talk about it later.”

Emma huffed and shifted her weight from foot to foot. She could tell Regina was angry. But it was more than that. She had upset the brunette in some way. She hated it when Regina was upset, especially when she was the cause of it.

“Did I say something bad?” Emma asked.

Regina ignored her, instead answering the question of the man before her and then signing some paperwork.

“Was it because I said you and Henry are replacing Ruby?”

“Emma, I can’t talk right now,” Regina snapped.

“But I need to talk now. What did I do wrong?”

Regina slammed the biro she had been using down on the desk. The man on the other side raised his eyebrows but said nothing as he slid the paperwork away and went outside to check the van for any damage. And to avoid whatever domestic showdown was about to take place in the reception area of the van rental company.

“Yes, Emma, I’m angry because you said Henry and I are replacing Ruby,” Regina replied, whirling around on the stop with her arms folded. “Is that all we are to you? Two people you can move into your apartment so you’re not lonely?”

“No one wants to be lonely,” Emma rationalised.

Regina’s eyes narrowed. “No, I suppose not. Lucky for you that we came along, I suppose.”

“Very lucky,” Emma nodded, completely missing the sarcasm. “I mean, what were the chances of us meeting again after so many years?”

“How very serendipitous,” Regina replied, marching over to a chair and sitting down. Her feet hurt from the number of times she had marched up and down the stairs in Ruby’s new building. What a day for the elevator to be undergoing maintenance.

“I would say it’s fate but I don’t believe in fate and also I think you’re saying things you don’t believe. Not like lying but saying something which isn’t true for effect in an argument which I’m pretty sure is what we’re having at the moment. Is that right?”

Regina didn’t answer. She didn’t have the energy to explain sarcasm to Emma right now. She was exhausted from a long week at work, a long day of moving Emma’s best friend into a new apartment and now their fight. She just wanted to go back to the shelter and give Henry a big hug.

“Regina,” Emma said, crouching down in front of her girlfriend and trying to look into her eyes which, she now saw, were glittering with tears. “Help me understand what I said to upset you. I never wanted to hurt you but I can see I have. Please tell me what I did wrong.”

Unbeknownst to the two women, the rental company employee appeared at the glass door of the reception area but, upon seeing the tearful brunette, decided to pretend to inspect the van again to avoid interrupting.

“You did upset me,” Regina said eventually, unable to deny Emma’s pleading for an explanation. She understood that Emma sometimes misread social situations and recognised she would sometimes have to break down the nuances of the way her words or actions may come across.

“I’m sorry,” Emma replied at once, resting a hand on either of Regina’s knees. “What did I say to upset you?”

“You asked me and Henry to stay at your apartment.”

Emma frowned. “But … I thought you liked staying with me?”

“I do. We both do. But you didn’t ask me as a one off statement. You asked me after saying how much you were going to miss Ruby and how lonely you feel when she isn’t there. It made me feel like you were only asking because you don’t want to wake up alone.”

“I don’t.”

Regina pursed her lips. “I know you don’t. I don’t either.”

“So I don’t understand why you’re upset if you don’t want to wake up alone and I don’t want to wake up alone and I asked you to stay so that neither of us will wake up alone tomorrow morning.”

Sighing once more, Regina placed a hand over each of Emma’s. “It was just the way you asked. Maybe I’m tired and oversensitive but to me it sounded like you were asking us just for the sake of having someone in your apartment. As in you would have asked Belle or Mulan or anyone but I just happened to be beside you at the time. It felt like you just needed someone, anyone, to stay over tonight.”

“But I didn’t ask anyone,” Emma pressed. “I asked you. And Henry. I don’t want anyone else to stay. I don’t want Belle to stay at my apartment. That would be weird. We’re work friends. I don’t think Belle would want to stay at mine.”

“You’re missing the point, Emma,” Regina said, exhaustion evident in her tone.

“Ok, sorry,” Emma replied. “So, can I please tell you what I think I understand and then you tell me if I’m right?” Regina nodded so Emma continued. “I upset you when I asked you and Henry to stay over because right before I asked, I was talking about how much I was going to miss Ruby. Which made you think I was replacing Ruby with you and Henry and that I didn’t really want you to stay over.”

“I know you want us to stay over,” Regina clarified.

“Good, because I do.”

“It was more the replacement that hurt, I suppose. You said that we’re replacing her.”

“But … and I don’t want to hurt you by saying this,” Emma pre-empted, “you and Henry are going to replace Ruby. Not as my best friend. She’s still my best friend because that’s who she is. You’re my girlfriend and Henry is your son, so you’re different people and you have different roles in my life. But you will replace Ruby in the sense that when the two of you move in, Henry will have Ruby’s old bedroom. And instead of coming home to Ruby after work, I’ll come home to you. Some of what Ruby and I shared as flatmates will become things you and I share. There’ll be differences too. I never had sex with Ruby.”

“Good,” Regina said quickly.

“And Ruby and I were flatmates rather than partners,” Emma pressed on. “You and I are partners. It’s different. But when it comes to who lives in that apartment, I think it’s correct as far as the English language is concerned to say that you and Henry will be replacing Ruby as human beings who call the apartment home. Isn’t that right?”

“I … yes, I suppose,” Regina admitted.

“But I said it in a way that hurt you?”

“Yes,” Regina nodded.

“Then I’m very sorry,” Emma said, turning her hands around and interlacing her fingers with Regina’s where they lay on her thighs. “I’m sorry I hurt you, Regina.”

“I know,” the brunette said quietly. “And maybe I overreacted a bit. I know you didn’t mean to make it sound like you were only asking us to stay so you weren’t alone. I know you want us to stay.”

“I do, very much. And I do want you two to move in. Soon, ok? I just have some things I need to sort out first. But I do want to live with you, Regina, if you want to live with me too?”

“I do,” Regina said, leaning down to place a gentle kiss to Emma’s lips. “I’m sorry.”

“I’m sorry,” Emma insisted, kissing Regina again and wrapping her arms around the woman’s waist as she rocked forwards onto her knees and pressed her body in between Regina’s now parted thighs.

The brunette melted into the kiss, exhaustion and emotion wrapping themselves around her and making her feel lethargic and dopey. But loved. She tangled her fingers in Emma’s thick locks and pulled the woman even closer.

The clearing of a throat forced them apart several minutes later. Emma looked nonplussed at the appearance of the red-faced man but Regina blushed lightly with embarrassment.

“Everything’s in order. We’ve refunded your credit card with the deposit,” he said, handing Regina a copy of the paperwork.

“Thank you,” Regina replied, passing the papers to Emma as it had in fact been the business credit card which had paid for the van hire.

Emma slid her hand into Regina’s and the two of them left the office. In Regina’s car, over the console, they kissed again.

“We’re good, right?” Emma said as the kiss ended. “You’re not mad at me any more?”

“No,” Regina replied. “I’m not mad.”

“Are you and Henry going to stay over?”

“I’d like that but where is Henry going to sleep? There’s no bed there any more.”

“Yes there is. I ordered one. It’s shaped like a race car. Like the one Monica accidentally orders in Friends except this was a deliberate order because I know Henry likes race cars. It’s red but I wasn’t sure whether Henry wanted to have red walls in his bedroom as well. I thought that might be too much red, so I wanted to talk with you about what paint to buy before I start redecorating.”

“What?” Regina balked. “You bought Henry a bed?”

“It arrived two days ago. I know it’s going to make painting the room a bit harder if the bed is already in there but it’s taking up loads of room in my bedroom, so we may as well put it together. You might need to help me though, is that ok?”

“Lesbians putting together flatpack furniture after a day in a U-haul, is that the evening you’re offering me?”

“Ruby made a joke about that too,” Emma pouted. “I don’t understand what sexuality has to do with ordering furniture online and building it yourself.”

Laughing, Regina buckled up and started the engine. “Come on,” she said, still chuckling. “Let’s collect Henry and then conquer the flatpack world.”

Chapter Text

Regina chewed her lip as she stared at the computer screen. But it wasn’t the contents of the web browser which she was contemplating. Her brow creased. Eyes narrowed. She let out a gentle sigh.

“Everything ok?”

Looking up, she noticed her boss standing beside her desk and remembered that she was at work. How long had she been zoned out for? Not the best performance of a new member of staff. Regina forced a smile, leaned back in her chair and nodded. “Sorry, I’m a little distracted today.”

“Anything you want to talk about?” Graham asked, leaning his hip against the edge of her desk. “I’ve been told I’m a great listener.”

Regina didn’t doubt that. Her boss was clearly very intuitive, judging by the way he had perfectly read her during their first meeting; her interview. But she didn’t think it was appropriate to discuss what was on her mind with Graham. Already he knew a lot about her situation with regards to living in a shelter and the fact that she was a single mother. So early on in her new position, she didn’t want to share even more. “No, I’m fine. I’m trying to decide which book to read to the preschool group tomorrow morning.” Not entirely a lie; that was what she had been doing before her mind wandered. “Any ideas?”

Circling around so he could see Regina’s screen, Graham scanned the list she had pulled up and got distracted from. “Elmer,” he announced almost immediately. “Can’t go wrong with everyone’s favourite elephant. Plus, it’s a good way to remind children that it doesn’t matter what you look like, everyone is equal.”

“Ok, thanks. Um, do you mind if I head out at three today? I have to pick Henry and his friend up from school, but I can come back here with them afterwards.”

“Of course,” Graham nodded. “But you don’t have to come back here. You’re not scheduled for any activities this afternoon so as long as you’re prepped for tomorrow’s events, you can just go home.”

“Thank you. And are you sure it’s ok for me to have Wednesday off?”

Again, Graham nodded. He looked like he wanted to ask why Regina had requested the day off but seemed to decide against it. The form she had filled in simply said ‘personal day’. It was curious, and Graham was naturally inquisitive. But he also recognised in his newest employee a desire for some privacy.

“Well, I’d best be getting on. Enjoy Elmer tomorrow morning if I don’t see you before you start and say hi to Henry for me.”

Graham and Henry had only met a handful of times but they had hit it off. Henry had already identified his favourite beanbag in the children’s area of the library and Graham had pulled several books off the shelf which had proved a big hit. Regina was grateful for her boss’ flexibility around her child as well as his welcoming nature. It was a relief to know she was able to bring Henry to her place of work on the days when Marian couldn’t collect him. Roland too had come to the library one or twice although he was less interested in books.

Which was particularly apparent after school later that day when Regina stood by the gate, watching the stream of children pour out into the playground. Her son appeared before Roland, nose in a book. Regina couldn’t help but smile. She loved that Henry was a reader. Behind him came Roland, dragging his school bag behind him as if the effort to hoist it onto his shoulders was too much. As she watched, Roland tapped Henry on the shoulder. Looking up from his book, Henry followed Roland’s finger which was pointing at a child on the far side of the playground.

Henry tucked his book into his bag and followed Roland, the pair of them jogging over to a blonde haired boy who looked a little younger than the two six year olds. Regina didn’t recognise him but wondered whether he was one of the other friends Henry had mentioned in his class. After a few seconds, however, she realised she was wrong. Before her eyes, Roland shoved the boy hard in the chest. He stumbled, his bag dropping to the floor. Roland looked at Henry. After a moment, Henry stepped forwards and mimicked what Roland had done. The smaller boy fell backwards at once and even from across the playground, Regina could hear him crying.

“Shit,” she muttered. “Excuse me.” Pushing her way through the throng of parents waiting to collect their children, she reached the gate just as the teacher on duty noticed what was happening. “Can I come in? My son is …” She trailed off. Over the shoulder of the teacher standing by the gate, she could see Roland and Henry, side by side, looking down at the boy whose face was red and streaked with tears. What was she supposed to say? My son is bullying another child?

“You’re Henry Mills’ mother, right?” the woman asked.

“Yes,” Regina nodded. “And I think I’m about to need to speak with the head teacher.”

She pointed, unable to say more, at the altercation. The teacher glanced over at the three children, noticed that another of her colleagues was helping the crying boy to his feet and turned back to Regina. “Go on in,” she replied with a look of distain on her features.

Regina walked through the gates, feeling a hundred eyes on her, judging her. The mother of a bully. The mother of a child who made other children cry. What sort of mother was she? What had she taught her son? Didn’t she know how to raise her child?

“I’m so sorry,” Regina said to the teacher as soon as she was within earshot. “Is he ok?”

“Mrs Mills, I assume you saw what just happened?”

With a jolt, Regina recognised the teacher. It was the head. She hadn’t spoken to her since Henry had been accepted into the school. Their first meeting had been pleasant and the woman, Mrs Thomas, had been very welcoming. Regina got the feeling that this second meeting was going to be less pleasant.

“It’s Ms but yes,” Regina nodded. “I’m so sorry. Henry, say sorry, please. Roland too. Apologise, both of you.”

“Sorry,” both boys muttered in unison. Henry looked horrified but Roland was just kicking a small pebble with the toe of his shoe.

“Well, I’m afraid sorry isn’t going to cut it. We have a zero tolerance rule on bullying in this school. You’ll have to come with me. Do you know Roland’s mother?”

“Yes, we live together. Marian’s at work. Do you need to speak with her?”

“I will do but for now, you’ll do.”

That sounded ominous, Regina noted. But she nodded nonetheless.

“Do you remember where my office is?”

“Yes,” Regina nodded.

“Go there and wait for me. I’ll going to take Hansel to his father and explain what has happened. Henry, Roland, go with Ms Mills please. I’ll be speaking to you later.”

Regina reached down to take the boys’ hands and marched them, red-faced into the school. Sitting them down on two chairs outside the headteacher’s office, she crouched down in front of them. “What did I just see?” she asked, voice low and slow.

“Nothing,” Roland replied at once. “Hansel fell over. We were just standing by him.”

Ignoring the lie, Regina turned her attention to her son whose eyes, she realised, were shimmering with tears. “Henry, why did you do that?”

Bottom lip wobbling, Henry tried to speak but gave up, bursting into tears instead. Despite her anger at his actions, Regina gathered her son into her arms. Beside them Roland frowned.

“Ms Mills, come on through,” Mrs Thomas said as she walked past the little family and Roland.

Regina moved to stand up but Henry’s arms tightened around her neck. So she stood, with him clinging like a monkey to her front, and helped Roland off his chair, guiding him into the headteacher’s office. She hadn’t been in that room since the day Henry had started, since he had been accepted into the school. Emma had been by her side then. Regina suddenly wished Emma was there now. But she wasn’t. She was in court. Giving evidence. Against Leo. Regina already had more than enough on her mind. She didn’t need the worry of her son becoming a bully added onto the top.

“So, Henry and Roland, would you like to tell me what happened in the playground?” Mrs Thomas asked as soon as the trio on the far side of her desk were sat down.

“Hansel fell over, Miss. We didn’t do nothing bad,” Roland said at once.

“Is that so? Does that mean that when I saw you push Hansel and then when Henry pushed him, I was imagining things?”

Roland shrugged. The headteacher turned to Henry. “Do you agree with Roland, Henry? Did Hansel just fall over or did something happen to make him fall over?”

Through his tears, Henry sniffled something but neither Regina nor the headteacher could decipher any words.

“Henry, I saw what happened too,” Regina murmured to her son. “Can you please tell us why you pushed Hansel?”

There was a pause, more snuffling and then Henry wiped his snotty nose on the sleeve of his sweater. “Roland made me,” he hiccupped. “Ow!”

In retaliation to the betrayal, Roland had swung a kick at Henry’s ankle. The injury set off another howl of tears and Henry climbed into his mother’s lap, away from his violent friend. Regina wrapped her arms tightly around her son, secretly glad that he wasn’t the ringleader in the unpleasant bullying incident but knowing this was far from the end.

“Roland, why did you push Hansel?” Mrs Thomas asked again.

“I didn’t. Henry’s lying. And Hansel just fell over. I didn’t touch him,” Roland yelled, his own face now red from anger, not tears.

Turning to Regina, the headteacher raised her eyebrows. “Do you have Marian’s cell phone number? I’ll need her to come in.”

Regina nodded and fumbled in her bag for her new cell. She had got it only two weeks ago, as a celebration for completing her first week at her new job. Emma had helped with the contract by connecting it to her own debit card, ‘just until you can apply for your own,’ the blonde had assured her. The gesture had meant a lot to Regina who was still unsure if and when she would get access to any of the assets from her marriage to Leo. Finding Marian’s contact details, she handed the handset to the headteacher who copied down the number.

“Ok, take them home,” Mrs Thomas said once she had the details she needed. “But let Marian know to expect a call from me. And Roland and Henry, during lunchtimes for the rest of the week, you’ll be inside with Mr Price and you will both need to write a letter to Hansel to say sorry for pushing him.”

Roland huffed and muttered “fine,” as he slid off his chair. Henry just kept crying.

“Thank you,” Regina replied. “And I’m very sorry. I will speak with Henry about his behaviour later today.”

“Goodbye, Ms Mills.”

Walking somewhat awkwardly from the office, Regina let Roland go on ahead as she adjusted her increasingly heavy son, so he was precariously balanced on her hip. In fact, halfway back to the shelter, she had to lower Henry to the ground and insist he walk himself. He did so, hand gripped tightly in hers, tears now rolling less frequently down ruddy cheeks. Roland, several metres ahead, had picked up a stick and was hitting every streetlamp they passed, a dull clang the only sound as they walked.

The sooner we leave the shelter, the better, Regina mused to herself as she dropped Roland off in the common room where he ran to another of the children and started to play. How long had this bullying been going on for? How many other unpleasant behaviours had Roland encouraged her son to get involved in? She was so wrapped up in her thoughts about Henry that it wasn’t until she saw Emma sitting on her bed that she remembered with a jolt where the blonde had been all afternoon.

“How was it?” Regina asked as soon as the door to the bedroom was closed.

“What happened?” Emma asked, as soon as she saw Henry.

“What?” Regina frowned. Emma gestured to the boy who had thrown himself, face down, on the bed. “Oh, he pushed a kid over at school. Roland told him to, apparently. But he still did it. Henry has to spend his lunchtimes this week inside and write a letter to Hansel to say sorry, don’t you Henry?”

The boy didn’t answer. Emma however, had more questions. “Henry pushed another child? And Roland was involved too? Why?”

“I can’t answer why Roland acts the way he does, although from what Marian has told me about his father, I can guess. As for Henry, well, I suppose it’s in his DNA.”

The words caught in her throat as she said them, slicing like glass. The truth. Emma saw her girlfriend crumbling and jumped up off the bed to wrap the shaking woman in a hug. There were no words. She had no idea how to comfort Regina. While she was fairly confident being a bully wasn’t a genetic trait, she could understand why Regina would make the connection. In fact, it was more likely that both boys had witnessed bullish, unpleasant behaviour from their fathers towards their mothers and were re-enacting that. It wasn’t the first time a child from the shelter had been involved in an incident of bullying. Emma knew some of the mothers had a hard time counterbalancing the negative exposures which their children had experienced for many of their formative years.

“He’ll be ok,” Emma soothed, at least knowing that to be true. Henry would be ok. He had a loving mother who would do anything for him. And he was young enough to learn the right way to interact with people. One incident, for now, wasn’t something to be worried about. Most children went through a phase of throwing their weight around at school. That didn’t mean they were going to continue doing that and become … well, someone like Regina when she was a teenager.

The brunette cried into Emma’s shoulder and Henry cried into his pillow. There was nothing for Emma to do but wait it out. She held Regina closer, whispered soothing statements into her ear and slowly, eventually, the tears stopped.

“Sorry,” Regina whispered when she pulled back.

“What for?”

“For getting mascara all over your shirt,” Regina replied, pointing to the black smudge on Emma’s shoulder.

“Oh.” In Emma’s mind, she ran through the products which were kept in the cupboard under the sink. She would soak the shirt first. Add bleach. Soak it a little longer, after carefully reading the instructions. Then rinse. Then wash. “It’s ok,” she declared. “I’ll be able to get it out.”

Remembering why Emma was wearing a smart white shirt, Regina asked her question again. “How was court?”

“Fine but I’ll tell you about it later,” Emma replied, not wanting to speak in any detail with regards to Leo in front of Henry. “Do