Robin was sitting at his desk, going through their supply lists and ensuring that the shelter he ran, Arrows to Hope, would have all of the components necessary to make this Christmas a special one for all of its occupants. It was always important to him that this time of year was as happy as it could be for those who were less fortunate, especially the children. He wanted the magic of the season to stay with them for as long as possible, a feat that wasn’t always easy given their circumstances.
A knock sounded at his door, and Robin looked up. August, the son of the toymaker who always supplied Robin’s shelter with toys for the children each Christmas, stood in the doorway, black leather jacket over one arm. Emma, one of the women who worked alongside Robin and August’s girlfriend for the last few months, stood just behind him.
“I’ll leave you two alone to talk, good luck,” she said, quickly kissing August’s cheek before she walked away, leaving August with a very confused Robin.
“Good luck with what?” he asked tentatively. He had assumed that August was here to verify the number of children who would need toys, but from the sound of it, he was mistaken.
August came into the office and sat down on one of the chairs in front of Robin’s desk. “Robin, I’m sorry, but we won’t be able to provide toys for the kids this year,” he began. “My mother’s fallen ill, and my father needs to stay home to take care of her. I’m sorry, but you’ll have to figure something else out.”
“I’m so sorry,” Robin said, rising from his chair to put a comforting hand on his friend’s shoulder. “What’s wrong with her?” August and his parents, Marco and Margherita, had been Robin’s friends for as long as he could remember. If something was wrong, he would gladly do what he could to help them.
“She has leukemia,” August informed him. “The doctors just told us last week, so we’ve been bombarded by appointments ever since we found out. Which will leave very little time to prepare toys for the children, I’m afraid. I’m so sorry.”
Despite the panic that was slowly rising in Robin, he reassured his friend, “It’s all right, your mother’s health matters more. I’ll figure something out. How many people could possibly turn me down? It is Christmas, after all.”
“With the late notice, you might be surprised,” his friend told him grimly. “Stores are likely running out of stock. They may not have enough surplus to give you what you need.”
“I’ll figure it out, I’m sure,” Robin said, feigning confidence he didn’t feel so August didn’t feel too guilty.
“All right,” August replied. He left, leaving Robin with his troublesome thoughts.
Robin sat at his desk running his fingers through his hair, at his wit’s end. He had started calling every store that sold toys that he could think of the moment August had left, until he finally collapsed in the chair behind his desk, head in his hands, at a loss. None of the stores he had called were willing to provide toys to make the children’s Christmas a happy one.
What was he going to do? Letting Christmas pass them by without any gifts for the children wasn’t an option. These kids had little enough to call their own as it was, he couldn’t possibly deny them something that those who had been there for years looked forward to every year.
He was still contemplating how to find a way out of his predicament when his secretary and close friend Will poked his head around the corner of his office door. “Hey Robin, we need-” he broke off when he saw his expression. “How’d it go with August?”
“As well as you’d think under the circumstances,” Robin replied.
“I know, I could hear your conversation through the walls,” Will said, setting down the papers he was holding and sitting. “So what are you going to do?”
“That’s just it, I don’t know,” he confessed. “Do you have any suggestions?”
Will seemed pensive, but a moment later his eyes lit up. “I know! Ask my friend Regina Mills for help. She runs that toy store on the other side of town, Regal Trinkets. She might not initially want to help, but once you tell her I sent you, I’m sure she’ll be able to do something for these kids.”
Robin sighed with relief and was so thrilled that he had a solution to his problem that he stood, walked around his desk, and patted Will on the back. “Thank you so much, I owe you one!”
Will laughed, returning the gesture. “She hasn’t agreed to help you, so don’t thank me yet. As I said, it might be a challenge to obtain her aid, but it can be done.”
“Why on earth will it be a challenge to get her to help underprivileged children?” Robin wondered. “Is she always that way, or is it the time of year?”
Will hesitated. “It’s not my story to tell, so you’ll have to ask her. Just know that there is a valid reason that she might find it difficult to help you.”
Robin nodded. “Fair enough.”
He left him then, and Robin wanted to go to Regina’s store right at that moment and start begging her to help him provide the children at his shelter with presents to open on Christmas morning. But he knew he had work to do, so he decided that he would call, which would take less of his time, allowing him to turn his attention to other matters for the remainder of the day.
He quickly found the number for the store and dialed it.
He waited anxiously for someone to answer the phone. On the third ring, a cheerful voice that he doubted was the owner’s answered,
“Regal Trinkets, this is Tink, how can I help you?”
“Hello, this is Robin Locksley, I run Arrows to Hope, the shelter on the other side of town. Could I speak to Regina Mills please?”
“Hold on one second, I’ll get her,” Tink said.
“Whistle While You Work” from Snow White and the Seven Dwarves began to play as Robin waited. The children at his shelter always insisted that he watch movies with them, and as a fellow Disney fan, he acquiesced to his charges’ request more often than was perhaps wise given the amount of work he always had to do. Because of this and watching the movie during his own childhood, he started humming along to the song. He was so caught up in it that he was startled when the music ended and a low but rich voice said, “Regina Mills, how can I help you?”
Rapidly, Robin refocused his mind on the task at hand and answered her, “Yes, Regina, this is Robin Locksley. I run Arrows to Hope, the shelter across town, and I was wondering if you would consider making a donation of toys to serve as Christmas gifts for the children this year. These children have so little, it would truly mean the world to them if you would do this.”
There was a long pause, and Robin could have sworn he heard a gasp. “Regina, are you all right?” he asked. “Is there anything I can do to help?”
She seemed to recover quickly, and when she spoke again, her tone was harsher, more reserved. “I’m sorry, Mr. Locksley, but that’s just not possible.”
“That may be, but I’m sure I can change your mind about that,” Robin said with a confidence that he didn’t entirely feel. He wanted to change her mind and would do everything in his power to accomplish that goal. But he also didn’t know this woman, and therefore didn’t know what methods of persuasion would work best in this situation.
She sighed. “And I suppose nothing I can do will deter you from your attempts?”
“No, milady, I don’t give up so easily,” he told her, smirking. If this is what his interactions with the store’s proprietor would be like, he would be looking forward to them throughout this entire arrangement.
“Do your worst, Locksley.”
“Oh, I plan on doing just that,” Robin responded, and he couldn’t contain his grin. “You will hear from me again- until then, Regina.”
“Until then, Mr. Locksley,” she replied, and Robin noted with a surge of satisfaction that her voice held a hint of resignation. Good, so she had acknowledged that they were apparently equally stubborn. At the very least, that should make things interesting.
Regina hung up the phone and groaned. Why must every shelter in the area call asking for donations for the children they harbored? She loved children, she really did, and wanted to help those in need. However, heartbreak and tragedy from years before had caused her to turn her back on the younger members of the population that she had once loved with all of her heart because now they only reminded her of one of the worst periods of her life. The only remnant of her affections lay in her ownership of the toy store that she had once poured her heart and soul into.
After taking a few minutes to fight back tears, she rose from her desk and walked out into the store. With Christmas only two weeks away, parents and grandparents alike had come in on their lunch breaks looking for additional gifts for their offspring. One, an extremely attractive man with dark blonde hair and the deepest blue eyes Regina had ever seen that she was instantly drawn to, caught her eye. She immediately knew that she would have to keep her wits about her with this man, otherwise she would find herself wanting a relationship with him when she was perfectly content on her own.
He spotted her- more particularly, her employee name tag, no doubt- and walked briskly toward her, holding out his hand. “Regina?”
“Yes?” she asked tentatively, holding out her hand. How was it that this stranger seemed familiar with her when she knew for a fact that she had never seen him before?
“My name’s Robin Locksley. We just spoke on the phone.”
Regina closed her eyes for a second, then opened them again. Yes, he was still standing in front of her, that infuriatingly annoying man who had just called her store not ten minutes ago asking her for Christmas gift donations for his shelter. “What do you want? I’m a very busy woman,” she snapped, despite the fact that she already knew the answer.
“To convince you to donate toys to the children at the shelter I run, of course,” he replied. “I am willing to do whatever it takes to acquire these gifts. Our mutual friend, Will, told me that-”
“Wait, Will?” she repeated, stunned. No wonder he was so determined. That man considered himself the savior of all, always coming to the aid of those in need, to the point of getting in the way of people’s true goals on occasion- far too many of them, in fact, as Regina had experienced for herself. “Well, I know Mr. Scarlett considers it his business to meddle in other people’s business and cause chaos wherever he goes, and I’m sorry to disappoint you, but you won’t find your solution here, Mr. Locksley.”
“What if I offer to work here when I’m not at the shelter to pay it off?” he offered, a smug smirk that she either wanted to slap or kiss (she couldn’t decide which) on his face. He had just offered her a deal she couldn’t refuse, and he knew it. He had likely gathered information from Will, and knew the holiday season well enough to know that she was understaffed during their busiest time of year.
Her mouth dropped open. Rapidly closing it so she could preserve some of her dignity, she stuttered, “W-what did you just say?” Not one of the shelters who had begged for her goodwill over the years had ever offered to work an additional job at her store to pay off their debt to her.
He chuckled. Cocky jerk. “I said I would work for you when I’m not at the shelter to repay my debt to you. I love these children, I would do anything for them, even work an additional job just so they have something for Christmas. None of them have a home and some of them don’t have one or more of their parents, so giving them something to smile about during the holiday season is something I need to do. I’ll hate myself if I’m not able to accomplish this, so I’ll do anything to achieve it, milady. Even take on a second job.”
She looked around at the store, lingering at the cashier’s line, which was filled to capacity with only one person available to check patrons out and send them on their way. “Fine. Come back to my office and we’ll figure out your schedule.”
She turned, expecting him to follow her, but not so quickly that she missed his triumphant grin. She knew she was going to regret this- the only question was: how quickly would she wish the holiday season was over so she could get this man out of her life forever?
Robin showed up at Regal Trinkets ten minutes early the following morning. He didn’t want Regina to have any reason to regret her decision to hire him, and based on his first impression of her, he doubted that she would appreciate tardiness.
He paused for a second, recalling the first moment he had seen her. Short dark hair, the deepest brown eyes he had ever seen, and a poise and grace that would leave any man captivated by her. Add to that her wit and he knew from just the first day of their acquaintance that he was completely captivated by this woman, and longed to learn more about her.
He unlocked the door using the key she had given him the day before and found employees hard at work. There were only three: Regina, Tink, and Mallory, who he had been informed responded to nothing but Mal.
“Hi Robin,” Tink, who so closely resembled the Disney fairy in manner and appearance, greeted him cheerfully. “Would you like to help me restock the shelves? We ran low on a few things yesterday but we have more in the back, it’s just a lot for one person to carry.”
“Of course,” he readily agreed. Judging by Tink’s outgoing personality and the fact that Mal hadn’t even said hello to him yet, he surmised that Tink would likely be his only ally at the store.
As they walked toward the storage area, Tink gave him a tour of the store. Despite the deficit in the establishment’s staffing, it was filled with every toy imaginable, from stuffed animals and kitchen sets to Barbies and racecars. It even had a small library in the back.
He relayed his impression to Tink, and she nodded happily. “Regina always makes sure that Regal Trinkets is well-stocked, especially around this time of year, no matter how few employees she has to have to accomplish that goal. It’s one of the things I admire about her - she’s always willing to do anything for children.”
“Really?” Robin commented, not wanting to reveal that Will had told him something confidential about their employer. “That is something that we all should emulate.”
Tink nodded enthusiastically in agreement. By this time, they had returned to the front of the store, where she showed Robin how to operate the cash register. It was simple enough. As he went through his first day, Robin knew that some may consider the job tedious, but he would still enjoy every moment he spent there because he would see and hear about the children’s enjoyment of the toys he was selling.
Periodically, he would spot Regina walking purposefully down the aisles, interacting with customers. While she seemed happy to help them, there was a sadness lingering in her eyes that Robin couldn’t place. It was likely what Will had referred to when he had told him about the store’s proprietor, whatever had happened in her life to make her less receptive to helping organizations in need. Judging by her expression, it pained her to talk about children and their likes and dislikes all day long, but she did it anyway, and he suspected that it wasn’t just for the money. Despite whatever tragedy had happened in her past, she seemed to care about children and wanted to see them happy, and pushed through her suffering to make that goal a reality, and Robin was in awe of her for it, and wondered if there was a way that he could help her.
He was contemplating that very question two days after he had started working for her when she called him over. “Locksley, come over here! Time for you to select what the children at your orphanage get as their Christmas presents before all of the best ones are taken.”
He followed her. “Can’t I just choose on my own? I do know these children, after all.”
The look she gave him as she glanced over her shoulder was so imperious that he immediately understood why Tink and Mal sometimes referred to her as the Evil Queen when they knew she wasn’t listening. “Now, Locksley.”
“Coming,” he rapidly replied, placing the games he had been carrying down on a stepladder and following her to the wall of the shop that was closest to the door. “You can choose whatever toys or games you want for the children, it doesn’t matter to me,” she told him with a disinterested air that matched her words. “But my suggestion is that you choose things from this wall. This is where we keep the newest items, so all of the kids will want these, but likely won’t dare to ask for them, given their life circumstances.”
“I’ll take that into consideration, thank you,” Robin thanked her, and he was surprised when she lingered for a moment as he perused the selection before him. He spied something that he knew one of the boys at the shelter, Henry, would love. It was for boys like Henry, who not only had no home to go to after school but no family as well, that Robin always ensured that each child staying at the shelter got a Christmas present. He didn’t know what had happened to Henry’s parents, only that he had somehow landed on the shelter’s doorstep years before.
Henry, the sweet soul that he was, was always telling stories to the younger children at the shelter to help them fall asleep, some of which he had written himself. The little tablet before Robin now would be perfect for him: it would give him somewhere to record his stories, which to Robin was important because otherwise, all of the fantastical tales that resided in the boy’s head may be lost over time, which would be a great loss. When he told stories at the shelter, adults and children alike stopped to listen to whatever tale he had decided to tell that night. Apart from his voice, not a sound could be heard as he weaved together tapestries of magic and dragons, brave princes and honorable knights, with the occasional princess to appease the girls.
It was a gift that Robin wanted to encourage as much as possible, and the tablet in his hand would help Henry do just that.
Regina, however, was skeptical about his choice. “A tablet for a child? Really? Aren’t children a little young for that?”
“Some of them, maybe, but this child is different,” Robin informed her. “He’s ten, and he tells bedtime stories to all of the younger kids every night, many of which he’s written himself on whatever he can find. If he has a tablet, he’ll be able to record the stories somewhere, and I know adults and children alike will be grateful for it. His imagination is one of the best I’ve seen in the fifteen years I’ve been working at the shelter,”
An expression that he couldn’t quite read was in her eyes. “Wh-What’s his name?” she asked so quietly that Robin could barely hear her.
“Henry,” he replied with a fond smile that quickly turned to a frown when her eyes filled with tears. “What’s wrong?” he asked, reaching out to her.
Instead of melting into his embrace to accept his comfort, she turned and fled, which didn’t surprise Robin in the least. She might hate him for it, but he decided to follow her.
He found her in the corner of the storage room, sobbing so silently that if he hadn’t followed her, he wouldn’t’ve been able to find her.
“What’s wrong? Is there anything I can do to help?” he asked softly.
“No. Go away, Locksley,” she snapped.
Robin sat on the floor beside her, not willing to move until she forced him to.
She cried herself out as he sat there, and when her tear ducts had run dry, she turned to him. “I thought I told you to leave,” she reminded him in a voice so menacing that once again he was reminded of her moniker. “What on earth are you still doing here? Do you have a death wish? Or maybe I should threaten to rescind my offer of giving the children toys. Maybe that will get you to do as I say.”
“I just wanted to be here for you,” he told her. “Do you have so little experience getting comfort from others that you don’t recognize someone offering you a helping hand when it’s standing right in front of you, arm outstretched?”
He immediately knew that he had hit a nerve the minute the words were out of his mouth, emphasized by the glare she gave him, and he was immediately backpedalling , trying to undo the colossal mistake he had made. “I’m so so sorry, milady, I didn’t mean it,” he apologized profusely.
“Too late, Locksley,” she said, her eyes brimming with fresh tears. “Congratulations, you hit the nail on the head. Now would you please leave me alone?”
“Not until you tell me what I can do to make it up to you - please,” Robin begged.
“Is it too much to ask to never speak about Henry again?” she asked. “You seem like you love him, and all the rest of them. It would be an impossible task to get you to remain silent.”
“No, I can do that,” he readily agreed. He didn’t know how - Henry was one of his favorite children at the shelter by far - but for her, he would do anything.
“Good,” she responded curtly. Standing from where she had collapsed on the floor not long before, she walked out into the store.
Robin watched her interact with a little girl. The child was cradling a doll, and Regina bent down to her, asking what the doll’s name was.
Her eyes lit up as she answered, and the sad smile that Regina gave her broke Robin’s heart. He thought he had a few more clues now that would help him discover what had happened to make her avoid assisting shelters in the past, and if his suspicions were right, he knew he had to get her to trust him before he made his next move. But once she was ready, he knew exactly what that move was going to be.
Over the next few days, Regina kept a watchful eye on Robin. He seemed intent on getting to know her and breaking her walls down; for what purpose, she didn’t know, and the very thought that he was trying to harm her made her apprehensive. In her experience, being in vulnerable positions only ever led to her being crushed, so she had sworn over and over again that she wouldn’t let anyone get to know her too well. The only exceptions were Mal and Will, because they had either known her since adolescence or forced their way in with Herculean efforts that were akin to a battering ram.
Because of this, with the exception of the one blunder that she refused to think about, she had remained professional and aloof around the man who was haunting her every thought. She had not succumbed to any of his efforts to befriend her… except one.
And thoughts of the day that he had chosen gifts for the children at his shelter filled Regina’s eyes with tears, which had happened far too frequently since the event itself. If she had only chosen better, perhaps she would have been spending the holiday season differently and she would have had a significantly different attitude about the whole affair. But circumstances were the way they were for a reason, and she had no way to change them…
Or did she? The thought of confronting her past intimidated her so much that she had to avoid it at all costs, but at the same time, would it be so bad if she had Robin by her side? She had been aloof toward him, but he had shown her nothing but kindness, and there was a part of her that suspected that were she to confront her demons, he would be with her every step of the way.
So she slowly started changing how she acted toward him. Smiles replaced frowns, harsh words turned to kinder ones that made him smile. Not that that was difficult; he smiled at everyone, so much so that she wondered sometimes if smiling that much hurt. He started engaging her in conversations, and although she didn’t reveal anything about herself to him, she did think that he was starting to consider them friends, and although she was reluctant to admit it, a part of her was starting to feel the same way.
That all changed one day halfway through his time working at her store. It was five o’clock on Saturday, which meant that they were closing, and as she went over to the main doors to lock them, she suddenly found Robin standing in her path.
“Robin, don’t get in my way,” she warned.
“I wouldn’t dream of it, milady. I was just wondering, since the store’s closing early today, if you would maybe want to come to the shelter with me for a little while, so that you could meet some of the children you’ll be helping. It would really mean the world to them.”
She stiffened. Go to the shelter? Risk coming face-to-face with the past that haunted her dreams? There was no way on earth that was happening.
Sensing her hesitation, he rushed to assure her. “You don’t have to stay long if you don’t want to. And if you feel so inclined, perhaps afterwards we could go for a drink? There’s an Irish pub not far from here that a friend of mine owns- I’m sure I can even get those drinks for free.”
Facing her past, but getting to drown her sorrows afterwards? Now that was a plan she supposed she could live with. “Okay, fine, you win,” she agreed.
He reached out as if to hug her, then seemed to read her expression of bewilderment and think better of it, because he stepped back and let her finish her task.
Once all of the duties necessary for closing the store for the day had been accomplished, she followed Robin to his orphanage. She had passed it so often on the street that it had blurred in her mind’s eye, but looking at it from a fresh perspective, she had to admit that it was one of the better-kept shelters that resided in the city. The garden and lawn out front were perfect for children to play in (with adult supervision, of course, she would have demanded to speak to Robin immediately if she had been passing by the shelter and she had seen the children playing too close to the road without any adults watching them) and the blue building was much more cheerful than the dull brown of many of the surrounding edifices.
To her surprise, the atmosphere when she entered was much like the building’s exterior: joyful. She had thought that the circumstances surrounding the occupants’ presence here would lend themselves to a somber air, but she was pleasantly surprised to find that the expression on every face was cheerful. Somehow, these people managed to hide their suffering much better than she did despite her best efforts, and she envied them for it.
“Robin! Regina!” Will greeted them, walking over to them and giving Regina a hug that she tolerated, but didn’t reciprocate. She would never be as affectionate as the boisterous man before her. “What are you two doing here?”
“I asked Regina if she wanted to come and meet some of the children, and she agreed,” Robin informed her. His gaze surveyed the room.
“Where are they?”
Regina echoed his movements. With the exception of one or two infants, she noticed that Robin was right: there wasn’t a single child in the room.
“They’re all playing board games in the kids’ area,” Will informed them.
“All right, then let’s go,” Robin stated, grabbing Regina’s hand. At the sudden contact, she felt an unknown force, unlike any she had ever felt before. Without conscious thought (though she’d admit, without any resistance either), her fingers intertwined with his as he led her to the children.
The room Robin led her to was so full of children that she was surprised there was room for them all. Despite the fact that the room was likely filled beyond its maximum occupancy limit, her eyes were immediately drawn to a small boy with chestnut brown hair and brown eyes that matched her own.
She had lectured herself on the way to the shelter, saying that she was a strong, independent woman, that she could handle anything. But one look at the little boy who was the spitting image of Daniel, and her heart shattered into a million minuscule pieces, just as it had all those years ago when she had had to give him up.
She gripped Robin’s hand tightly, so much so that she was surprised he had any feeling left in his fingers. He squeezed her hand in return and whispered, “Why don’t you read a story to them? Even the older ones enjoy a good story.”
She pondered the idea for a moment, then nodded,
He called out to the children, “Everyone, this is Miss Regina. She’s going to be reading you all a story.”
As he ushered Regina over to the bookshelf that was surprisingly full of books, she saw the children sit in a corner covered by a colorful carpet that was in front of a rocking chair where she would be reading. She couldn’t help but notice that Henry - her Henry, this tall, mature, bright-eyed boy who so closely resembled his parents - was ushering the younger children over to the area, and her heart swelled. Robin had mentioned that he always read to them, and she wondered if he was upset at all that he wasn’t getting to read to them himself.
“Regina?” Robin asked, returning her attention to the task at hand. “Which story do you want to read? Usually, we have one of them choose, but since you’re our guest of honor, I think you should decide today.”
She perused the titles before her, until her gaze landed on a tale of adventure that she hoped all of the children would enjoy: Robin Hood. She had loved the idea of Robin Hood, someone who stole from the rich to give to the poor, when she was growing up because her mother had been one of those rich people, and she had never helped any of the less fortunate people in the city that Regina saw all around her. And standing next to someone who was practically Robin Hood in the flesh, she couldn’t resist the opportunity to share the story of her favorite bandit.
She turned to the children, holding up the book for them to see. She knew that trying to factor in so many opinions would backfire, but wanted to give them the choice of what they listened to regardless of potential disagreement with her selection. “How does Robin Hood sound?”
A cheer of agreement (mixed with one or two groans of dissent, as she had anticipated) met her inquiry, so she walked over to the chair, Robin’s arm loosely fitted around her waist to guide her through the crowd.
Her gaze skimmed the children, gauging their ages. There were enough older children that she thought the idea that had just occurred to her would work. Now that she was here, that her son was right in front of her, she wanted to witness something he was good at, and she remembered that Robin had said he enjoyed reading to the other children.
She addressed her audience. “I am going to read to all of you, but only a couple of pages. I really want to see you all read to each other, so I’ll pass it off to someone, then they can pass it to someone else until we get to the end of the book. Does that sound good?”
A young girl around Henry’s age piped up, “Henry always reads us stories! He’s the best at it.”
“Well, Henry will have to help me out then,” Regina replied, smiling first at the girl, then at her son, who the braided child had pointed to as she was speaking.
She began reading, asking the children to share their reactions as she read. They were eager to participate and hung on her every word as she read, which pleased her. She had worried that some of the girls would quickly lose interest in the story, claiming that it was for boys. But she was happy to learn that these girls, unlike the girls she had grown up with, were open to stories of any kind.
As she had promised, after a few pages she handed the book over to Henry. When she gave it to him, she resisted the urge to throw her arms around him and never let go. The circumstances that had seemed so insurmountable in the past seemed inconsequential now, in the light of realizing just how much time she had missed with him.
After thanking the children for letting her read to them, she joined Robin as Henry began reading. Robin had been correct, he really was a good storyteller, just as his father had been. Even though his audience had likely heard these tales of the famous thief countless times, they listened with rapt attention, reacting animatedly to each event in the story at exactly the right moments.
When he had reached the final sentence, ending the story with a flourish, she clapped along with Robin and the kids, her smile wide, but tears glistening in her eyes. He was so grown up. She had missed so much- was it possible that she would be able to make up for lost time? Would he even want her to try? He had a life here, he didn’t need her. She hastily moved to wipe her tears away with the back of her hand.
Robin beat her to it though, gently brushing away her tears with his fingertips in a gentle gesture that was a surprise coming from his callused fingers. “Is that offer of going for a drink still available?” she asked quietly, not wanting the rest of the room to hear.
“Of course, milady, let’s go,” he said, hand at the small of her back again as he ushered her out of the room.
Once they were sitting at the bar in Killian’s pub, drinks of choice (an appletini for her, beer for him) in front of them, Robin tentatively began. “You don’t have to tell me anything about the past events that led to you being upset today or that day in the shop. If you want, today can just be drinking until you forget what’s troubling you. But if you do decide that you need a listening ear, I’ve been told that I have an excellent one. I won’t judge anything you tell me, and whatever you reveal here, I won’t tell anyone else if you don’t want me to.”
She seemed hesitant, even now, and he steered the conversation toward lighter topics as they began the appetizers they had ordered.
Then something about her seemed to shift, and as he was in the middle of telling her a comical story about Will and Killian, his two closest friends growing up, she interrupted him with four words he was not expecting to hear, “Henry is my son.”
“Then he- what?” Robin asked, dumbfounded. “Henry’s your son?” He had seen the way she watched him and had theorized that something had happened to a boy she knew when he was that age, or a boy who looked similar to Henry. Never had he anticipated that Henry was so closely linked with Regina, and now that he knew, he wasn’t entirely sure what to say, deciding instead to reach across the table to hold her hands in both of his.
Thankfully, she took his lack of response in stride as she continued, “Daniel, his father, died when I was only a few months pregnant with him. I was still starting Regal Trinkets, which he had encouraged me to do, so I didn’t have much money to care for Henry the way he should be taken care of. Because of that, I sought my parents’ aid. My father - Henry’s his namesake - readily agreed, but my mother was resistant. She told me that I should have acted more responsibly, that Daniel and I shouldn’t have tried to have children until Regal Trinkets was thriving. But we didn’t want to wait, so we didn’t, and that cost me her full support. She only agreed to take me in if I agreed to give up Henry…”
In the midst of her speech, tears had started flowing silently down her cheeks, but at this point, it was clear that she was too choked up to continue. Robin stood, and there was confusion in her eyes until he sat beside her and she allowed him to wrap his arms around her as she buried her face in his chest.
When she had collected herself enough, she continued as he looked down at her, fingers erasing any remaining traces of tears from her face. “So I did because I wanted to give him his best chance. After all, it wouldn’t be me providing for him, but his grandparents. But seeing him now? There hasn’t been a day that’s gone by that I haven’t regretted my decision to let Henry go. It still is a thought that crosses my mind at least ten times each day. And seeing him at Arrows to Hope - what horrible things must he have been through that I could have saved him from? I saw his face; not all of his days have been happy ones. This is exactly why I’ve been avoiding shelters all these years, I didn’t want to look into my son’s eyes and know that it’s because of me that he has a substandard life and no family…”
“Shh, it’s okay,” Robin soothed her, his hand rubbing circles on her back.
She glared up at him, tears seemingly forgotten for the moment. “How can you say that? Look where he is, all because of me. If it wasn’t for me, he would be with his mother, in a home where he lived full time, never wondering when his next meal would come. Who knows what he’s been through? I shudder to think about it, especially the fact that it’s all my fault that he’s living this way… He probably hates me, and I wouldn’t blame him. I was horrible, and I’m supposed to be his mother.”
He had been fighting the urge to do this for days, ever since the day he had seen a softer side of her when he had picked out Henry’s tablet. He kissed her temple, and instead of backing away and yelling at him, she leaned even further into his touch. “Which means that you did what you thought was best for him,” he told her, his hand rubbing small, soothing circles on her back. “It’ll be all right. I don’t think Henry hates you. We always make sure that all of the children know that their parents loved them, but that they did the best thing they could for them. So Henry knows that that was the best place for him to be. But if you want to have him in your life again, to have full custody of him…”
She shrank away, but he spied something that remarkably resembled hope in her eyes. “Do- do you think he’d want me in his life, after all this time?” she wondered. “What if-”
“There’s no question about it. I’m positive that he will want you in his life,” Robin assured her. “I told you he writes stories - so many of them are about his mom, the superhero who had to give him up to keep the world safe for him.”
“A superhero?” she laughed, “The Evil Queen, a superhero? I don’t think so. He clearly got something wrong there - I’m no one’s idea of a superhero.”
Robin chuckled. Clearly, she knew what Mal and Tink called her behind her back. “You’re my idea of one, though,” he refuted her quietly, but firmly. “The way you did what was best for your child no matter what the cost, The way you still interact with children every day, despite the fact that you had to give yours up and that clearly affects you on a daily basis. I think he’s right: you’re far more like a superhero than you think.”
It was at that moment that she pulled him toward her by the collar and kissed him fiercely. He could hear Killian’s catcall behind him, but he didn’t care as he pulled her even closer, inhaling the scent of her- an intoxicating mix of apple and cinnamon- as he ran his fingers through her silky raven curls and his tongue swept through her mouth, tasting and claiming her in the way a part of him had longed to do since the moment he had first laid eyes on her.
Finally, they parted, their foreheads touching as they both gasped for air.
Regina shook her head. “What are we doing? I am still your employer for the next week or so.”
“I don’t know, but my suggestion is that we take it one day at a time,” Robin suggested. “Once the holidays are over, we’ll see where we are - deal?”
She nodded in acquiescence. “Agreed.”
The following week, the man who had come to mean far too much to her spent even more time than he had the week before at her shop. Whenever she saw him, she acted as if the events of the night that she had found her Henry- particularly the latter portion, when she had kissed him- had never occurred. But she was no longer reserved, instead asking his opinion on her own gift for Henry - although he was almost too old, she claimed that the tablet was from Santa (Robin would be dressing up as the man in the red suit to deliver the presents), and that she wanted to get him her own present, which she had enlisted Robin’s help with over the course of the last week.
Now it was finally Christmas, and they were both eager to spend the holiday at the shelter. At the same time, though, she was nervous. She feared that Henry would reject his present from her, even though she had been at the shelter constantly since the first day, each time spending more and more time with her son and his friends (with some encouragement from Robin, though she was reluctant to admit that she was so weak that she could barely face her own son).
Robin, who of course had known Henry longer, constantly reassured her that Henry would love his present, and had helped her in her interactions with him by telling her everything he knew about the boy. As she had suspected from Robin’s gift for him, his favorite subject was English and he hated math. He was not only creative in his storytelling but often drew illustrations to accompany his work. Although she loathed the time they had spent apart and the reasons behind their separation, she was more determined with each passing day to make up for lost time, perhaps spoiling her boy a bit too much to make up for all of the years she hadn’t been there for him.
As she got to know Henry, she saw more and more the many ways in which he was the perfect combination of herself and her beloved Daniel. He had Daniel’s gentle disposition, but her overactive imagination, which he put to better use than she ever did by writing stories for the children who lived at the shelter.
As they walked up to the shelter on Christmas morning, gifts under each arm, her heart was pounding in her chest. Robin glanced over at her, saw the nervous look on her face, and gave her an encouraging smile that was emphasized by the warmth in his eyes before he opened the door.
They were greeted with shouts of, “MERRY CHRISTMAS!” from adults and children alike. Will, Emma and August were there, helping the children sit so that they could receive their present, and Robin’s other employees were rushing around making final preparations for the meal that would follow gifts. Every face was alight with the joy that the season brings, but Regina’s focus zoned in on one face in particular.
Henry, like any kid his age, seemed to be as eager as the rest of them. However, he helped the youngest children settle down, then sat and waited patiently for his present, and Regina’s heart swelled. She knew he would enjoy Robin’s present for him - she had certainly heard him tell enough stories to know that he would put the tablet to good use - but would he enjoy hers?
As each gift was opened, the children laughed and shouted with delight. Regina’s heart swelled, knowing that she had played an integral part in bringing these children joy on Christmas, Her son was just like the rest, letting out an excited, “YES! This is perfect!!” when he opened the tablet that Robin had picked out for him.
Her own gift she still had to give him. Robin had suggested that she take him aside for this gift - after all, boys Henry’s age could get easily embarrassed, and she didn’t want the younger children to be upset that they weren’t getting the same number of gifts as Henry.
With this in mind, she found him later, after all of the wrapping paper had been cleared and the children were spread throughout the room, playing with the presents they had received. “Henry, can we talk for a minute?” she asked nervously. He was about to sit down to play a game with his friends, and she was trying to catch him before he got too caught up in fun activities that she wouldn’t want to interrupt- but she still saw the looks of disappointment on his friends’ faces, and quickly assured them that Henry would be back, she just wanted to talk to him.
She clutched the envelope that Robin’s connections had helped her procure, the hands holding it clasped in front of her like some nervous schoolgirl. She then changed her mind, leading Henry over to sit by one of the windows that overlooked the snow-covered yard behind the shelter.
“What’s up, Regina?” he asked tentatively. His gaze fell to the envelope that she still held tightly in her lap. “What’s that?”
She took a deep breath, then handed it over. “Henry, I-I’m your mom, and these are papers that will let you come live with me... if you want to, that is.”
Henry was speechless, the silence so thick she could’ve cut it with a knife as she waited with bated breath for his reaction. “What?” he gasped incredulously, looking from the papers to her and back again, his eyes wide.
“Henry, I’m your mom, and I want you to come live with me,” she repeated, tears glistening in her eyes.
The look he gave her when he finally tore his eyes away from the paper was full of confusion. “If you’re really my mom, then why did you leave me at the shelter? And why didn’t you tell me sooner?” he asked, his lower lip trembling as tears filled his own eyes. He quickly wiped them away - her little boy was clearly determined that he would act like a grown-up. Little did he know that she had cried herself to sleep many a night as she imagined how this conversation would transpire.
She shrugged - her actions, though necessary, must seem terrible to him, and she hoped that the explanation she was about to give him would make him understand. “Cancer took your dad away from me right before you were born, and I was just opening my toy store, so I had to go to your grandparents for help. And the only way your grandmother would let me stay was if she didn’t have to care for you too. And I wanted you to have the best life. You didn’t need someone who didn’t want you, even if it was only your grandmother. Don’t worry though, I don’t live with her anymore. It’d just be you and me. And I was scared, Henry.”
He cocked his head to the side. “What were you scared of?”
“Not being able to give you everything you deserved,” she told him honestly. “But I can actually give you those things now, Henry. I can take care of you, just like it should’ve been from the beginning. Would you give me that chance, please?”
“You know, I don’t need a bunch of stuff to be happy,” he said matter of factly. “I just wanted my mom.”
“And I love that you think that,” she told him fervently, “And I’m proud of you for thinking that too, because not every kid your age would think that way. So what do you say? Do you want to come live with me? Can we be a family like we were supposed to be from the beginning?”
He launched himself into her arms, the papers he still held getting bent as she held him - her son - as close to her as she possibly could. She knew then, without him saying a word, what his answer was.
From that moment on, everything seemed to fall into place. She and Henry walked hand in hand back to where the others were eating the desserts that had been passed around, where Henry ran off to tell his friends the good news.
Robin found her a few minutes later and wasted no time in asking, “How’d it go?”
“He’s going to be my son,” she whispered, awe at the day’s events giving her voice an almost reverent tone.
Robin swept her off her feet and spun her around as she clung to him. “That’s wonderful!” he shouted. He leaned in as if to kiss her, and then seemed to remember that today marked the end of their arrangement. “And what about us?” he asked, nervousness in his voice as he voiced the question that would seal their fate.
Instead of answering, Regina looked around her. Her ten-year-old was playing with his friends as Christmas music played through the shelter’s intercom system. Will was chatting animatedly with women who lived at the shelter, likely trying to charm them. All around her was a community, a family, one that she realized she wanted to be a part of in more ways than just through Henry.
Her gaze returned to the man who had convinced her to face her past, to take charge of her own destiny. And in the process, he had been the kindest man she had ever known. Add to that the fact that she was wildly attracted to him, and, well… She realized again that she had known where this would lead from the very beginning, no matter how much she tried to resist him.
She wrapped her arms around his neck and pulled him toward her. “What are your plans New Year’s Eve?” she asked, not waiting for an answer before she kissed him.
His arms wrapped around her as he responded enthusiastically to her kiss. Several minutes later, their lips parted, foreheads touching as he answered, “What do you have in mind?”
She shook her head and laughed. “I have no idea, but we’ll figure it out.”
And they would do it the same way she wanted to do everything with him- with them , both him and Henry. Together.
Hope you enjoyed this, let me know what you think, and Merry Christmas!