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“He’s asleep,” Regina whispers, looking up from her spot sitting on the edge of Henry’s bed. His face is turned into the pillow, his too-long messy hair splayed across it. She reaches out a hand and runs it across his cheek, still not quite believing this gift of another chance that she's been given.

Like every other time before it, she's still not entirely sure she deserves the new opportunity, but this time, she's determined to make the most of it.

Whatever that looks like.

“You should be as well. It’s been a long... a long few weeks,” Zelena comments, stepping into the room. "A few hours ago, one part of you was dead and the other was dying. I know you're something of a Superwoman, but you should be resting." The concern in her tone is strong, overwhelming all of her usual sarcasm.

It's enough to make Regina turn her head and look at Zelena. Really look at her and see just how much her sister has changed. How far they both have.

Quietly, she replies, “I think we could both use it.” She gets up, pulls the covers up over Henry, kisses him on the forehead and then moves away. She turns the lights off, closes the door and then follows Zelena into the hallway, towards the master bedroom.

And then turns into an unexpected hug from her sister. It only takes Regina a few seconds to soften into the embrace.

“I know we don’t do this,” Zelena tells her, arms circling Regina, holding on tight.

“Sometimes we do," Regina reassures her, holding on just as tight.

They hold on for a few moments longer, and then Zelena steps back, wiping at her tears.

“We’re okay,” Regina promises.

“You forgive me?”

“A long time ago. You forgive me?”

“Not as long a time ago, but yes.”

“Good enough.” She frowns for a moment, thinking.

“What is it?”

“Our mother. It's weird and it's complicated, but I want you to understand the rest of what happened.”

As they enter Regina's bedroom together, Zelena asks, “How did she…when did she leave the afterlife? Wasn’t that supposed to be some kind of happy ending for her? Actual peace?”

“It should have been, but she’s our mother and it wouldn't surprise me if she got herself kicked out,” Regina chuckles, sitting on her bed. “Quiet and peace were never her style. Nor was staying out of our lives. At least this time, she was trying to protect us. I guess she figured out a way to keep an eye on us, and when the Black Fairy put her plan into motion, Cora escaped from the Afterlife and found a way to send me the vision that convinced me to do what I did."

"Step in front of the sword for your beloved."

Regina gives her a "don't start" look.

Zelena rolls her eyes and changes the subject back. “Did Cora speak to you?”

“Not much. Only to tell me to keep fighting and that she'd ensure I got back to the people I love. People like you."

“You trusted me," Zelena states, the disbelief clear in her tone.

Regina reaches forward and takes both of her sisters' hands. "I believe in you. No matter what we go through, I will always believe in you."

“You know, you call the Charmings 'idiots', but you might be the biggest of them all.”

“Probably,” Regina agrees. She gets up, then, and disappears into the bathroom. The sink turns on a moment later.

“What did you mean when said Mother gave up all of herself for you?” Zelena asks from her position still on the bed.

“Exactly that.” Regina calls back to her, his disembodied voice echoing from the bathroom. “After I realized who was behind what was happening and that it wasn’t really one of the Fates, that’s when I started pushing back on being saved because I could feel myself weakening rapidly. The Black Fairy was, essentially, eating my magical heart. I didn’t think I would be strong enough to rejoin with my other half. And I wasn’t. The rejoining would have killed both of us and allowed the Black Fairy entrance without resistance. That is until our mother gave up the rest of her spiritual energy to boost me back up. You know, she was actually laughing as she was breaking apart. Laughing at the Black Fairy. She said, ‘my daughters are going to destroy you’. But this time it wasn’t about grabbing power for herself. In the end Mother sacrificed herself for us. It was her twisted and deranged way of saying…she loved us.”

“We lead very strange lives,” Zelena notes.

“The strangest.” Regina agrees as she comes out, dressed in pajama bottoms and a tank. “Go on, get some sleep. We can talk more in the morning.”

Zelena stands and starts for the day, stopping only to ask, “What’s it like being dead?”

“It's not something I'd like to repeat any time soon. I think I rather prefer living.”

“Me, too.” Zelena says quietly, and then closes the door behind her.

 


 

Alone in her own room a few minutes later, Regina inhales and then exhales. Her body is on fire, still sharply aching from the pain of the last few weeks. Even pulled back together, there's abundant healing to be done. Both in spirit and in frame.

Hands trembling, Regina waves one to put up a sound buffer on the room. Then picks up her blankets and uses them to muffle first a scream and then her sobs as everything comes pouring out of her. A thousand different terrible and terrifying memories which will never fade.

It’s over, it’s over, it’s over.

Hand against her chest, feeling her heart beating.

We’re okay. Regina, we're okay.

“Don’t ever stop speaking to me,” she murmurs aloud.

I’m glad you need me. That's all I ever wanted.

“I know. And I do."

Good. Now stop talking out loud; you look insane. I'm right here; I can hear you. Remember? We're together again.

Regina closes her eyes and nods, collecting herself.

I know you don't believe this right now, but you're strong. You’ve always been strong. 

“You were always our strength,” Regina corrects.

Perhaps, but you were always our heart. It's taken me a very long time - and perhaps the irritation of those annoying people you so love - to understand that we need each other to ever have any chance of happiness. And that's what I want. For you. For both of us. We can have that.

"Suddenly, you're the hopeful one," Regina chuckles.

I was left alone with Snow White for several hours. She's like a virus.

Regina chuckles knowingly, then taps her chest again. “It’s okay.” A statement, not a question.

Yes, it is. Now close your eyes. Tomorrow, we start on fulfilling that beautiful dream of yours.

“Of ours.”

Of ours. Now quiet that mind of yours. We'll both be here in the morning.

"Yes, we will," Regina agrees as she curls on her side, and closes her eyes.

 


 

Morning comes far sooner than it has any right to, but then she's nearly leaping out of the bed to start preparing for the Charming Family Army to arrive.

And all of the stress and excitement sure to come with them. Such as the impending conversation with Emma.

Rather than give into the anxiety of that impending discussion, Regina decides to focus on breakfast. Pancakes, bacon, hash, fresh squeezed orange juice.

Enough to keep her busy and and out of her own head. 

An hour later, a knock breaks the spell and then she's pulling off her apron and padding over to open the door to reveal Snow and David, baby Neal in his arms. “My favorite Charming,” Regina coos, plucking the boy from David’s arms and then snuggling into him as he giggles happily in response.

“Ouch,” Emma feigns, coming up the walk and then following everyone in the house, shutting the door behind her. "I'll try not to take that personally."

"He takes direction better than you do," Regina reminds her. "What can I say? The Queen in me appreciates that." She wiggles her eyebrows when she says this. It's certainly flirtatious, but it's also just her being playful. Just her enjoying the strange new freedom of acceptance that rejoining has given her.

“Oh, don’t listen to her, Swan, she’ll always like you best,” Zelena chortles as she spins into the kitchen, grabbing a piece of bacon off the plate before Regina can snap around to stop her. She's out of the room before anyone can react, making the whole thing seem just a little bit surreal.

“She’s in a good mood,” Emma notes watching Zelena flee into the front room.

“It’s a nice thing to see,” Regina replies, as she watches her sister fondly. “Now go set the table.”

“Yes, Your Majesty.”

Regina winks at her, then turns to David and Snow. To David, she says as she hands Neal back to him, “You take him. Snow, help me finish up the pancakes.”

“On it.” She follows Regina back behind the counter, picking up a spatula. Then, “How are you?”

“I’m all right,” Regina assures her. “I’m sure I’ll have a few restless nights, and I probably should go speak to Dr. Hopper, but I’m…here.”

“Yes, you are.” She licks her lips. “You have all the Queen’s memories, right?”

“I remember your conversation with her, if that’s what you mean.”

“Good, because I want…all of you to know that I love you and I forgive you for everything. You're my family, Regina and I want all of you.”

“We know. I know.”

“And I meant what I said about the other part, too,” Snow says, eyes glancing towards the table where Henry and Emma are goofing around in their attempt to set the breakfast table.

“I know that, too,” Regina assures her. “But she and I are complicated when all we are is friends, and I don't think either of us wants- or needs - complicated right about now. I think I need to take a step back for awhile and just try to enjoy being alive and whatever happens or doesn't happen, well, it'll be our choice."

“Fair enough.”

“Good, because you’re burning my pancakes.”

“Oh!”

Regina rolls her eyes, even as Henry and Emma’s laughter makes her heart swell.

“It’s a nice sound, isn’t it?” Snow asks, head turned towards the laughter.

“It is," Regina replies, her hand drifting to settle over her heart.

Snow grins. “Now you’re burning the pancakes.”

“Ugh,” Regina groans as she looks down at the burnt mess of one. “Go away and let me finish.”

“I’ll go set the table they’re not setting.”

“Good plan.” She watches as Snow leaves, listening to Snow’s bemused scolding of Emma and Henry and then the giggling laughter which follows it.

Still smiling like a fool the whole time.

 


 

“Don’t get me wrong, I appreciate it, but you didn’t have to stay to do the dishes,” Regina tells her as she takes the last dish from Emma’s hand, submerging it into the basin of soap suds. She eyes the rack of already washed dishes carefully, ensuring that no food debris has been missed.

“I know," Emma agrees as she puts the dish towel down and turns to face Regina. "But I figured we should probably talk about everything.”

“Do you actually want to?”

“I never really want to talk," Emma admits. "But I know that you mean too much to me to have something weird between us so...we need to talk."

“All right,” Regina agrees. “There’s somewhere I need to go. A couple things I need to do. Will you come with me? We can have this discussion there.”

“Of course.”

“Emma,” Regina says softly. “Stop looking so nervous. We’ll be all right, regardless of what happens or doesn’t happen with us.”

“You promise?”

“We have been through far too much together not to be. You mean too much to me to let anything...we are going to be just fine."

“Okay. So where are we going?"

Regina reaches for her hand. “Take a deep breath.”

“Why?”

“Because we are going to my vault, Miss Swan."

"Why am I Miss -"

She doesn't let Emma finish her sentence before she jumps them, the smoke overtaking their vision. When it clears, they're just outside the door of the Mills Family Vault. Immediately, Emma stumbles forward, doubling as she tries to keep herself from throwing up.

"- Swan again?" she mutters weakly, finishing her first sentence before changing the subject to, “Why is it so much worse when I teleport with someone else? Feels fine when I'm the one doing the teleporting?"

"Do you get carsick when you drive?"

"No."

"Same principle. Don't worry, a couple hundred more jumps and you'll be a pro at it. As for Miss Swan, well you were asking questions and it annoys you," Regina quips, eyes dancing mischievously. 

“Hilarious. Why are we here again? Besides making me want to throw up on your shoes?"

"Don't you dare. These cost more than that the reckless excuse of a deathtrap you insist on not recycling."

Emma snorts, somehow incredibly tickled to hear Regina insulting the Bug again.

Mostly because it means that this really is real and they really did somehow, almost inexplicably, survive death.

"Emma?"

"Sorry, I was..just thinking."

"I know I've warned you about that."

"And still I persist."

"Now you know why I prefer your little brother," Regina teases as she leads them through the door and into the vault. They move towards the room with the three coffins in it, both of them stopping by the doorway. Involuntarily, Emma shivers at the realization of what’s still in one.

Regina’s original body.

“You may want to turn away from this,” Regina tells her.

“What? What's going on? Why are we here?"

Looking more than a little unsettled even as she rallies herself to do what she must, Regina explain, “Two types of the same magical matter aren’t supposed to exist in the same reality. Even when one is dead. When I was separated into two parts, we were already bending the rules. In a way, that caused enough stress to create the reality cracks the Black Fairy needed to put her plan in place. It would have come eventually, regardless, but we may have sped it along.”

“So what are you going to do?”

“As I said, you may want to turn away,” Regina repeats, crossing over to the coffin and with a wave of her hand, cracking the magic seal. When the lid slides back, she looks down at her quiet corpse, a glimmer of preserving magic keeping her looking like she’s mostly just sleeping.

But this body is empty, just matter.

Her hand rested against the protection spell, she breaks it away and then touches the corpse’s chest, fingers bending inwards. And then, for the second time in two days, she violently pulls part of herself back into herself, crying out in pain and shock as matter slams together.

“Regina!” She rushes forward, stopped only by the heat of the magic flowing off of Regina.

And then Regina stumbles, falling backwards and away from the now empty casket.

“I’ve got you,” Emma says, helping her into the ground, her arms wrapped around Regina's trembling frame. “Holy shit, that was insane.”

“Yeah,” Regina agrees, head lolling backwards to rest against Emma's shoulder. She feels one of Emma's hands come up to touch her forehead, deft fingers moving sweaty hair away from her brow. She's still shaking under the force of all the magic this body has absorbed over the last two days, her heat pounding.

“Are you okay?”

“Yeah.”

“You don’t look okay.”

Regina looks up at her, and smiles, and for a moment, even though Regina is plainly exhausted Emma is almost blinded by the openness she sees there. “I’m better than I’ve been in a very long time, Emma. Just very tired.”

“Oh. Then we should get you back home and -"

“No. We should do this. We should talk.” She pulls herself away from Emma, both of them feeling the sudden disquieting chill of the distance between them.

“Okay,” Emma agrees awkwardly. “So…”

Regina snorts. “And I thought I was bad at this. Emma, I don’t expect anything from you. I never should have told you about the vision I had. I was selfish in doing so, but in my defense, I was also bleeding out and had no idea where the vision had come from or what it actually meant. I just knew that I wanted you to have hope because you've always given me hope. But the thing you need to understand is, that vision came from a different reality. That doesn’t make it our reality and it doesn’t ever have to be our reality. You are under absolutely no obligation to reciprocate my feelings. That’s not what I want from you. I would hate it if any future we could have was built on that or the idea that the decision is anything but yours.”

“Do you love me? Are you in love with me?”

“Yes," Regina replies without hesitation. "I love you and I am in love with you,” she says, and it’s almost breathtaking even to her. Because there’d been a time not too terribly long ago when such courage would have been impossible. When such words would have been unthinkable.

“Since when?” Emma asks, looking for all the world like she can’t quite believe Regina’s words.

“I think I have loved you almost since the moment I met you. I didn’t know it, then, but those fights we had when we couldn’t stand each other…they helped me get through some of those days when I felt like I was sleepwalking through an endless nightmare. You being there pushed me on even though I loathed you and believed that I wanted you to just leave. And then it grew into something else. I didn’t know who I was but inexplicably, you were always there for me. Always refusing to give up on me even when I didn’t deserve it. As for when I fell in love with you? It was when we were hugging Henry after we saved him from Pan. I looked up at you and you looked at me and you had the most beautiful smile I’d ever seen.”

“Funny,” Emma murmurs. “I remember thinking the same thing.”

“Emma?”

“About your smile. Look, I don’t know what I feel,” Emma admits. “But I don’t want to hurt you.”

“I’m not hurt. You being honest, being yourself, will not hurt me. The only thing that could hurt me is if you lied to me. So don't do that."

“I won't. I just..I .just know that I feel like decisions have rarely ever been mine. Everyone has been telling me what I feel and how I should feel and what my future might look like. With Neal, with Hook –”

“And now with me. I’m sorry for that. You know better than most that much of my life has also not been by choice. And even beyond that, there was also the kind of choice you make when you’re desperate to have one. I don’t want that for either of us. If the difference between that vision and this reality is that we’re always just the best of friends and partners and co-mothers, I can more than live with that, Emma. I can be very, very happy with that."

“Are you happy now?” Emma asks.

“I’m working on it. What about you?”

“Honestly, I don’t even know where to start.”

“We’ve both been through a terrible amount of trauma in our lives. And sometimes together.”

“We have,” Emma agrees. “You understand, right? I just need something that’s actually mine.”

“Something you and you alone chose; of course, I understand.”

“Maybe –”

“Don’t make commitments just because you feel like you need to give me hope,” Regina insists, her tone reassuring yet firm. “I know it’s your instinct, but it’s not fair to either of us. It’s better for both of us to move on and focus on being happy. There are many beautiful dreams to pursue.”

“I won’t lose you?”

Regina drops her hand down and finds Emma’s, fingers interlacing with Emma's. “No. Never.”

Both of their heads rest back against the wall, butts settled in on the cold cement.

“You know,” Emma says. “You’re a really annoying ghost.”

Regina laughs, the sound genuine and warm. “I had some fun with that.”

“Did you?”

“Up until I realized what was actually happening, yes, maybe a little. It’s pretty hard to get someone who doesn’t believe in ghosts to actually listen to one, so once I was able to start actually talking to you, I felt like I owed you a few vintage ghostly moves.”

“Of course, you did. But hey, if it’s all the same to you –”

“I’ll do my best not to have it happen again.”

“Thank you."

Regina turns to look at her, then, reaching a hand up and touching her face. “Hey, look at me.”

“What’s wrong?”

“Emma, you can’t live your life afraid of losing everyone. Trust me, I’ve been there. And I know how much you've lost, but loss happens. To all of us. Too much. Every bad decision I have ever made has been because of it. And always brought me to a place of terrible misery. Even what we've just all been through came about because of grief and hurt and fear. I was so afraid that my darkness would cost me you or Henry or even your mother that I tore myself in half and opened us all up to even more pain and heartache. I need to start facing my uglier feelings and so do you. That's the only forward for either of us."

“Okay. So what now?"

“Now, I think we both figure out how to heal, separately and as together as you would like. We have to be honest with ourselves and look at it all. The good, the bad, the ugly. As far as you: go see Archie. Spend some time with yourself, finding yourself. You’re an amazing woman, Emma Swan, and there’s no one who should ever have the right to make you feel like less, even if your heart is breaking. You have the strongest moral fiber of anyone I have ever met. Until –”

“Until I’m afraid. You mean Hook.”

“I mean the desperation you feel. Trust me, I understand it all too well, but I want better than that for you. You deserve better than that.”

“I don’t know what I deserve. It’s been almost a year since I was the Dark One and I still dream about everything that happened almost every single night. In Camelot. Here in Storybrooke. Down in the Underworld.”

“You may always. Those are the burdens of our sins. But you’ve always told me that I can be better than the worst of myself. That I can come back from anything. You’ve always told me that you believe in me. Well, I believe in you. Now it’s time for you to start doing the same.”

“Okay,” Emma agrees. Then sulkily adds, “But I still don’t wanna lose you.”

“Oh my dear, Miss Swan, I’m not going anywhere.” And then she leans in, for a moment seeming like she might kiss Emma on the lips, before diverting to her forehead for a pedal soft kiss which leaves Emma almost breathless.  When she backs up, she winks mischievously.

“You’re such a troll,” Emma grumbles.

“Well, I did have an imp as a teacher.” She stands up, winces a bit in pain, waves Emma's concern away and then and offers Emma a hand up. “Shall we go? It’s a beautiful day and I’d really like to be out in it as opposed to inside of here. I find that I don't have much desire to be amongst the dead, anymore."

“Glad to hear it. You know, there’s a nice breeze coming off the ocean today,” Emma tells her as she rises to her feet..

“Sounds perfect.”

They start towards the exit, stopped only by Emma putting a hand out to stop her, fingers curling around her wrist, “Wait. You said you needed to do a couple things? One was…the creepy body-merging thing. What was the other?"

“Oh. Right. My mother.” Regina turns then and crosses over to the coffin containing Cora’s corpse – all that’s left of her in the universe now that her soul has been destroyed. Regina touches the lid with one hand and with the other summons a perfect red rose. “There are things I can never forgive you for,” she says quietly. “Things you shouldn’t be forgiven for, any more than I should be forgiven for some of the things I’ve done. But when  you had the chance to be the mother I needed, you were there for me. So, thank you, Mother. Goodbye."  She places the rose on the coffin lid, presses her fingers to her lips and then presses them against the marble as well. Holding them there with eyes closed as she exhales her emotion. And then she straightens, and says, “Coffee is on you, Sheriff.”

“Whatever you say, Madam Mayor.”

The door to the Mills Family Vault closes behind them, the day stretched out in front of them.

 


 

He's on the couch playing video games when she comes in, teeth bitting into his lip in concentration.

For a moment, Regina considers leaving him to his game; a time ago, he would have been annoyed with her if she'd tried to stay.

But then he's looking over at her and smiling, all bright eyes and joy at her presence.

She remembers how he'd held her when she'd been just the Queen, and so very close to death.

Now, she's both parts or herself again, and she's okay and she's recovering, but she still wants to be close to her son.

"Hi," she murmurs as she approaches. "Can I join you?"

"Yeah," Henry says, moving over so she can sit next to him. He reaches forward and grabs a second controller, handing it to her.

"You know I'm terrible at this."

"I promise I'll go easy on you."

She laughs and settles beside him, allowing herself the small indulgence of kissing his temple.

He doesn't turn his head when he says, "We're home, Mom. Everything is going to be okay now."

"What's home?" she asks, and the questions sound stupid even to her ears, but she's learned over the last few years just how much more than a building the concept of home actually is. 

"It's where all of us are," he tells her, not missing a beat. "You, Emma, Grandma and Grandpa, Zelena. Everyone we love. That's home."

"You really are a Charming," she chuckles.

"Newsflash," he tells her, finally turning to look at her. "So are you now."

Her nose wrinkles. "How do you figure? You know there's nothing going on me between me and Emma, right?"

"I know. But there doesn't need to be. We're family even without the two of you doing...stuff."

"I reluctantly concede that," Regina allows. "But that doesn't de facto make me a Charming."

He simply smirks in response, and then turns back to the TV. "Okay, push start to bring your character on. We're about to go win us the red flag."

"Lead on," Regina replies, and then as always, follows her son to the other side.

 


 

Time - once a memory - passes for all of them slowly, quietly and mostly dully.

Hook leaves town about three weeks after Regina’s return, boarding the Jolly Rodger and taking her and several passengers through one of the bean-created portals from the new crop. Emma reminds him that he doesn’t have to leave, tells him they can be friends, but he smiles weakly and reminds her that they’ve never actually been friends, and this is the best for all of them. Hurt and raw, Emma drinks herself into a stupor that night; and in the morning finds herself hugging the porcelain throne, her mother behind her, patiently rubbing her back, but for once not offering any advice. For once, just being there.

After that, Emma moves out of the house she’d shared with Killian and into a two-bedroom apartment about a mile from Regina’s mansion. It’s got a good-sized room for Henry, which he stays in a few days a week and every other weekend. Their so-called custody schedule is non-specific, always shifting, but somehow remarkably comfortable in the ease and adaptability of it. Henry, at times, looks as though he wants to say something, but always keeps whatever thoughts he has to himself.

Emma starts going to therapy three times a week, and on Archie’s advice, begins to take up kickboxing again just so she can have a physical outlet to work out her many frustrations. It’s nice and it’s good and it feels like for the first time in a very long time, she’s getting strong again, becoming herself again. She builds her body back up. and pulls out her jeans and leather jackets, throwing away the demure clothes she’d worn, outfits from a weakened version of herself. A version she’d allowed to exist.

“Why do you think you did?” Archie asks one cool and blustery afternoon, as patient and as soothing as ever. He’d told her during one of their early sessions that he was thrilled that Regina had returned to Storybrooke (and to sessions with him). Not only because he’d grown fond of her, but also, he has no desire to be the Mayor. He prefers his practice and his ability to help people talk about things they don’t know to work through.

For Emma, this is definitely the case as she struggles to come to terms to a lifetime of trauma. It's even harder to deal with the helplessness of her role as the Savior. The crushing obligation it had created in her, the paralyzing responsibility of dying for Storybrooke just because she’d been given this role that she’d never actually asked for. But beyond that, she finds herself going even further back to her past growing up in homes and how she'd so desperately needed to be wanted, often taking on the poison of learning to make herself small in order to achieve peace. She hadn’t always been successful – and ironically, her complete lack of success doing that with Regina had started this whole journey of hers – but it had manifested itself in her relationship with Hook. The desire to make everyone happy, including her parents. To be the perfect daughter with the perfect True Love. And then perhaps the perfect wife and mother.

“To be happy,” Emma replies simply, not quite able to meet Archie's eyes. “Isn’t that what everything is all about?”

“Yes and no,” Archie responds. “The journey to happiness drives us, but there are other worthwhile journeys along the way, such as fulfillment and empowerment. Ideally, they all get us to the same place, but happiness shouldn’t feel like you’re suffocating, Emma. And it did.”

“It did,” she confirms.

“And now?”

“Now I’m just trying to enjoy being alive.”

“That’s good,” he tells her, unable to hide his pride in her. She feels warmth in the middle of her chest and knows it’s ridiculous and yet another old response from her childhood, but she allows this one because what she’d told him was the truth and if that makes him happy, which then makes her happy, is that bad? 

“No,” he tells her, when she asks. “You’re allowed to feel good about yourself."

“Working on it,” she answers, and then steps outside and inhales the fresh air.

 


 

Regina’s on a different journey.

Finally feeling at peace with her past (as much as she can ever be), she turns her focus towards improving the town and growing it towards the future. New buildings, new initiatives and a stronger push for the idea of family and everyone growing into this community of theirs.

She asks to meet with Hook before he leaves, surprising him with the request.

“Here to gloat, Your Majesty,” he asks from his position by the wheel.

She approaches with her usual confidence, a small leather bag in her hand as she steps up next to him. “No. And this isn’t about her.”

“Then what it is about?”

“Something you can do for me, perhaps."

He scoffs. “Why would I do anything for you?”

“Fine. Something you can do for others.” She hands him the bag.

He opens it and looks inside. “Magic beans?” he asks, eyebrow up. “I have one, already.”

“I’m aware. There’s ten more in there. I thought maybe, if you’re interested, you could be a courier of sorts between the realms. Eventually, I’d like to find a way to bring all of the realms together again, but I haven’t mastered that spell yet. But I know there are people out there who would love to be here and some here that would love to be there. I know you want to bury your pain in the ocean, but take it from me, burying your heartbreak in old terrible habits won’t make the pain go away. You’re beyond those ways now. Whether you want to admit or not, you’re not the same man you were before you came to Storybrooke.”

“Swan," he mutters. "She has a way of upending things."

“She does; she has a way of making you want to change the way you see yourself."

“That, she does. So this plan of yours…”

“Allows you be Captain Hook once again, but this time as someone who helps people start over.”

“And what’s in it for me?”

Regina shrugs. “I suppose you can charge your travelers however much you want to come back and forth, but I think what’s in it for you is…your own journey. And the ability for you to choose to continue to be the man that you really want to be. It's not just me or Emma who have spent much of our lives being at the mercy of the choices of others - you've had a few taken away from you as well. So do something about it. Make a choice."

“One day, I’m going to come back to find you and her together, aren’t I?”

“I have no idea. Maybe? Maybe not. I don’t allow myself to think about that.”

“Don’t you believe Fate has you two destined to be together. Everyone else does?”

“After everything we’ve been through, after everything I went through with the fake version of Fate and after every way the real Fates did everything they could to force me down their path instead of mine, I don’t give a damn what anyone thinks. What’s meant to be, Captain is what we make happen. That’s all.”

“I suppose that's the beautiful dream," he notes, smiling wryly, like he still knows what's beneath her words.

She looks back at him evenly. "The beautiful dream is never just about someone else, Killian. It's taken me far too long to understand that, but I finally get it. If there's ever to be any hope - for either of us - of making the dream into reality, it has to be about who we are first. Otherwise, it won't last."

For a moment, they just stare at each other - two former enemies who have been through change beyond the understanding of most mortals. Finally, his bravado sliding away from him, Hook looks down at the beans, then back up at her. “I don't understand why you're doing this. I was leaving Storybrooke with the intent of never returning. If I take you up on your offer, you’ll see me from time to time.”

“I'm aware. I'm doing this because we have stories outside of Emma Swan, no matter our feelings are for her. I’ve been working my ass off to make up for the past and to do right by the people who trusted me to do so. I was their Queen and I failed them. Now I’m their Mayor once again and I won’t fail them a second time. Worse than that, though, I failed myself by throwing away every bit of hope and idealism I ever had as a young girl. I had my reasons, but I also made my choices. Now I’m trying to make different choices. Maybe one day, I’ll find my way back to the hopeful girl who believed in everything beautiful.”

“It’s not easy,” he murmurs, thinking of his own once youthful, hopeful self.

“No, but I believe it’s doable. For both of us. Killian, you’re the captain of the fastest ship there is, and no one knows the seas of the realms like you do. It’s your choice now, and you can just walk away and disappear if you’d like, but I think you’re failing yourself if you do.”

He nods slowly, thoughtfully. “All right,” he says. “I’ll do it.”

She beams and extends her hand. He chuckles in disbelief but takes it. “Good. Then I’ll have a list of passengers heading over with you by the end of the day. I’ll pay for their trips over this time. After that, it’s your ship and your choice as to how you want to proceed.”

“Noted.”

She steps away, moving across the deck, then stops. “You were dead for a time, too, so you probably understand this, but when I was dead or whatever the hell I was up in the spirit realm, I wasn’t scared most of the time. I was just sad. For all the things that I’d missed out on getting to see and do because I’d let my rage remove me from the world and from the lives of everyone who might want to care for me for so long.I'd gotten fortunate enough to get a few of them back, but that just made my heartbreak after what I let pass me by so much worse.  I was heartbroken over the stories I would never get to see unfold, the adventures I’d never get to be part of. I was devastated by every memory I'd never get to make. I don’t want to ever feel like that again. No matter what else happens, I want to feel like I’m finally getting to live. Your turn."

“You’re saying no more crocodiles.”

“No more crocodiles, Captain. For either of us. Just living.”

“Aye, just living.”

And with that, she steps off the boat and heads back into town to meet her family.

 


 

They meet almost every day for either breakfast or lunch, only canceling when police or city business comes knocking. Usually when it does, they’re both called to the scene, anyway, one of them usually showing up with a cup of coffee for the other one. It's funny how often they seem to know when the other one won't have one, but neither of them ever speaks of this or even makes note of it aloud.

And, of course, they argue as much as they ever have, but it’s easy and comfortable, even when it’s explosive.

No one (aloud, anyway) says a word about the clear and undeniable connection between them, understanding that neither woman wants to hear it.

Instead, they support the two of them as they casually date others.

Not saying a word.

The new relationships never seem to go far, neither of them seemingly inclined to take it further.

Both insisting they have other focuses.

And so it goes, for months and months.

David retires from the Sheriff’s Department after Snow gets pregnant again, choosing to stay home and take care of the children while Snow continues to teach, becoming the principal of the grammar school. To replace him, Emma hires Mulan, who arrives on one of Hook’s first transports, to take his position. After a bit of rough-edge sanding and some gentle explanations about the proper uses of force and violence, she’s perfect in the job.

After Hook’s third transport during the first year, Regina creates a five-seat elected council to advise the Mayor, recognizing that Storybrooke’s rapid growth is likely to come with new complications and political concerns. Her integration plan for the newcomers is robust, providing for work and housing until they can establish their own. There are hiccups and the growing pains of bringing so many people together, but Storybrooke is infinitely better for the diversity.

And for the Mayor and the Sheriff, every day there’s breakfast or lunch and quite often dinner and a drink afterwards.

Sometimes there’s coffee shared down by the docks, the ocean breeze rippling.

And then one day, quite out of nowhere, Emma says, “Are you happy?”

“Hm?” Regina asks, her coffee stopping halfway to her lips.

“Are you happy?” Emma repeats again.

“Trying to be,” Regina tells her. “Are you?”

“Trying to be,” Emma agrees.

“What…what is stopping you from being happy?” Regina asks, seeming almost hesitant. Wondering if its time for the "next" conversation.

“At the moment? My own fear.”

“Of?”

“Whether or not a choice is actually mine.”

“Emma, what are you talking about?”

The Sheriff turns then, facing Regina completely, her green-blue eyes vivid. “I’ve been thinking about what it would feel like to kiss you for…I don’t even know how long.” 

“Oh…oh. And do you…do you want to kiss me…now?”

“Yes.”

Oh.

Emma grins. “You seem nervous, Your Majesty.”

That’s enough to snap Regina out of her shock. Eyebrow up, she replies in her haughtiest tone (one which sends a shiver through Emma), “Hardly. Miss Swan.”

"Again with the Miss Swan." Smirking, Emma steps closer to her, a hand reaching up. 

Regina’s catches it at the last moment, her confidence sliding away. “I’ve respected your need to make this your choice and not Fate’s path. I’ve always wanted the same. So, I need to know that this is real and actually something that you truly want with every part of you because if it’s not, I need you to walk away before we destroy something that means more to me than you could ever imagine. I love you, Emma Swan, but I am content loving you platonically. If this is -"

Emma leans in, then and kisses her, cutting off her words. The kiss is gentle and tentative. Softer than Regina might have expected. Cautious and careful.

When Emma pulls back, she licks her lips. "Was that okay?"

Regina nods, for a moment very much feeling like that young girl she’s been trying so long to find again. Along the way, she’s come to understand that there’s no way to go all the way back, but she can find a way to bring that girl forward and let her have a voice in the future as well. Now, in this moment where Emma is standing across from her with kiss swollen lips, she feels the excitement and hope of it all.

Even as the Queen within her tells her to be the one controlling the kissing.

"Was that okay for you?" Regina counters.

"Yeah. And for what it's worth, I'm still not one hundred percent sure I know what I want. But I do know that I have feelings for you. Strong, definitely not at all platonic, definitely entirely real feelings for you. If you're willing, I'd like to see where that takes us."

"I'm definitely willing."

Regina lets the Queen take over.

She pulls Emma flush to her, pressing her lips to Emma's and immediately deepening the kiss. Their bodies warm against each other, Regina breathes this woman whom she’s so quietly loved for so impossibly long in. It’s charged and explosive, but also passionate and strangely even tender.

“Wow,” Emma says, when they finally break away once again.

Regina lifts her thumb to her lip. “Not bad, Miss Swan.”

“You're not going to stop with that, are you?”

Regina’s eyes twinkle impishly. “Convince me I shouldn't.”

“That sounds like a challenge. You know I've always risen to your challenges,” Emma says, leaning in.

A hand on her chest stops her. Regina says softly, “I do. But slowly, Emma. Slowly."

Every moment a necessary choice.

Emma exhales and then leans in again, capturing Regina’s lips.

In the absence of force or fate, making her choice.

 


 

Henry is fifteen when his moms start to formally date. Or well, it's more like cautious courting at first.

And look, there's slow and then there’s molasses, but only Zelena is willing to point it out.

To be fair, no one would expect her not to be the one to voice what everyone is thinking.

“At this point, it’s pretty obvious two you want to hump each other stupid every five seconds," Zelena snaps out at them one night over a family dinner. "I think you can probably stop worrying about outside forces forcing you to be together and just go find a closet and work off some of that lust, all right?"

Okay, maybe that’s not quite what everyone wanted to say.

Close enough, though.

“We’re good,” Regina assures her, her hand slipping out to take Emma's across the table.

And they are. So wonderfully good.

Even if they are molasses slow.

 


 

They find their way into bed far sooner than anyone realizes, however.

Only weeks after their first kiss.

It's as complicated as they are until it's not and then it's just whispering and touching and coming apart wrapped around each other.

Afterwards, sheets tangled around them, Emma finds herself trailing a finger down Regina's arm, marveling at the unblemished smoothness of it.

To which Regina notes, "There used to be a scar there. Maybe half an inch long. A gift from my mother for not behaving."

Emma frowns, thinking of all the conversations they've had over the last few weeks about their pasts. "It's gone now," she notes, unnecessarily.

"Apparently, when the Queen and I split, she got an unmarked body and when she and I came back together, it stayed that way." There's a curious heaviness to her words, like the blank slate had perhaps been unwanted.

Emma gets it. "Our scars are part of our story," she observes, leaning down to press her lips against the warm skin of Regina's arm. "And don't worry, knowing you and how reckless you are -" she grins when she hears Regina scoff - "I'm sure you'll get a whole bunch of new scars sooner or later."

"Whatever," Regina mutters, and then rolls to look at her. She reaches up and moves a strand of hair away from Emma's eyes. 

"What?"

"Sometimes, this all still seems so unbelievable to me."

"But...good unbelievable, right?"

Regina smiles softly. Considering the self-loathing she's always struggled with in her life (and likely always will, to some degree or another), she more than most understands that Emma's battle with her self-worth is a life-long journey. Instead of replying with words, she leans forward and kisses Emma.

Pours everything she is into the kiss.

Everything she's ever wanted to be and have and show.

"Good answer," Emma murmurs, and then rolls Regina over. Straddling her, she grins down at her lover and impishly asks, "Ready for round two?"

Regina smirks in response, the Queen coming out to play. "Do try to keep up, dear."

 


 

"I love you" for Emma comes the first time in the strangest way. Over an unexpected repainting of the Bug, every surface of her shiny and bright.

Regina can't stand to ride in the little vehicle, but she knows Emma loves it. It'd seemed a small and insignificant gesture, but for Emma, it's not.

It's while Emma's walking around the newly repainted car when she murmurs, "God, I love you."

Regina smiles slightly, but says nothing, and maybe that's what makes Emma turn around and look at her.

Understanding the significance both of the moment and her words, especially to Regina. "I mean it," she says, and then crosses over to Regina and hugs her tight. "I mean it. I love you."

"It's just a stupid car," Regina protests weakly.

"I know. And that's why I love you."

Absurd as it is, somehow, having Emma's first "I love you" be because of the yellow death trap just fits for them.

 


 

Henry is sixteen when they move in together.

The first morning after the first night, he makes them promise to soundproof their room.

Horrified and a little bit traumatized at what he’d heard, but inwardly delighted to see how happy they are as they prepare for their days, moving around each other as the Mayor and Sheriff get ready to take care of their town.

Teasing and bickering, their hands occasionally touching as they pass.

So organically them that it’s hard to imagine any reality where it wasn’t always this.

Hard not to pity any reality where it wasn't always this.

 


 

They're still them, though - the headstrong, at times self-destructive, Mayor-Queen and the red-assed, arrogant, upstart Savior-Sheriff.

There are snipping fits and sharp arguments, and all too often they're over fear and doubts and the things they're still learning how to say to each other.

There's tears and screaming and sometimes broken dishes in the aftermath of doors slamming.

There's old fighting habits that die hard, and instinctual flight reflexes which come easy.

And then there's the day when they have the conversation about whether or not they should break up. It's horrible, and heartbreaking, and they're both crying.

Regina asks quietly, "Do you want to end this?" She bites her lip and adds, "Because if you do, I...I won't..." she can't even finish the sentence.

Doesn't really get the chance before Emma is surging towards her and hugging her. "No. No."

Later, she'll tell Regina that it was once again the availability of the choice which had convinced her of what she actually wanted; it had been the right to make a decision for herself absent any consideration of fate which had allowed her the clarity to see and understand the future she wants. 

"This," she tells Regina and presses her against the mattress. "You."

 


 

It's the day before Henry's due to leave for college in Boston, and he asks his moms if they think one day they’ll want to get married.

“Don’t know, Kid,” Emma admits as she flips the omelet in the pan. “Why?”

“Isn’t that what people in love normally do?”

“We’ve hardly ever done what normal people do,” Regina reminds him as she comes into the room, her short dark hair still wet from the shower she and Emma had shared just ten minutes earlier.

“But maybe we should,” Emma says suddenly. “Not because it’s what normal do but because it’s what we want to do."

The underlying theme of everything they’ve done, even three years into this romance of theirs.

Rarely easy, sometimes terrifyingly hard, but always beautiful in a way that makes the dream she’d once had – the dream which had driven Regina to sacrifice herself once upon a time – seem almost insignificant. This is more. Real and difficult and so wonderfully, perfectly them.

“You want to get married?” Regina asks, disbelief still peppering her tone.

“Only if you do.” 

“You already have me,” Regina reminds her.

Emma steps closer to her. “Maybe I want a honeymoon, complete with a wedding night."

“Ew,” Henry groans. 

“We don’t need wedding vows for that, my love,” Regina assures her, grinning salaciously.

“Double ew. Forget I ever asked the question.”

But they don’t forget; they just push the question off to another day.

 


 

About four years after they get together, Regina finally figures out how to bring all of the fairytale worlds together into one. With Hook's help, a vote across every land is taken and the decision is made to meld them all into one. Each will continue to be sovereign within their own kingdom, but Regina is elected to be the overall Queen of the United Realms. A celebration occurs the day magic unseals the barriers, fireworks soaring across a hundred different skies,

High up on the balcony of the castle she'd once destroyed from, Regina leans against Emma, watching the colors in the night. Below then, people hoot and holler, laughing and celebrating. Deep in the middle of the ocean, led by the Jolly Roger, every ship in the new armada and quite a few civilian vessels sends up a flares in the shape of the new flag of the United Realms. 

"How does it feel, Your Majesty?" Emma asks, an arm lazily slung around Regina. "To know that all of this is because of you?"

Regina tips her head up to kiss Emma's chin. "I had help," she says, lifting a hand to graze her fingers over Emma's cheek.

"So, does this make me your consort?" Emma jokes.

"You do recall you're still a princess of your own right, don't you?"

"We played that game," Emma reminds her, thinking back to the adventure they'd undertaken just before the one which had set them on this path.

"True. I prefer you as my Sheriff, anyway."

Emma chuckles, and then nuzzles into her neck. And murmurs, "Long live the Queen."

 


 

The discussion about marriage comes in and out of conversations, and in and out of their thoughts for years. Arriving, warranting some discussion and consideration, and then, once again being pushed off until another day.

The dark shadows of her past marriage to the King still grasping at Regina's heart, squeezing it just enough to make her fearful.

Until one day, a reminder of how fragile life is, no matter the great love, comes around. 

This one courtesy of a villains court led by King George; he rallies them for a rebellion against the Queen. Loudly declaring that Regina is no better than any other villain, and doesn't deserve to lead. Emma and Snow and the Council convince her to fight, reminding her that the people had chosen her as their Queen.

So she fights and Emma fights beside her. She fights and the Realms fight with her.

But none of that matters when in the middle of an especially tense magical battle with the resurrected Jafar, Emma suddenly gasps and collapses, a coil of red-hot magic circling her middle, squeezing into her body like razor blades. Only a thousand other tragedies and the strength of the Queen keeps Regina from panicking instead of acting. The Queen guides her hands and keeps her steady as she protects and then heals Emma. The Queen reminds her of the ferocity of her heart.

Right now, Emma needs that heart. Open it completely, and show her it as you've shown me. No more fear, Regina. 

So she does open it, pouring every bit of it into hands which had once hurt, and now can heal.

Finally, Emma's eyes jerk open, awareness flooding her senses as she registers that she's still alive.

"Hey," she says, like she's just waking up from a lazy afternoon nap.

Idiot.

Regina leans in, then, and rests her forehead against Emma's, feeling the brush of Emma's breath against her face.

"Yes," she says, "I'll marry you."

"Yeah?" Emma asks stupidly, still in a daze, but smiling up at her so brightly.

"I told you before: only you," Regina tells her, because she needs Emma to understand that this this moment could only ever happen with her.

Emma forces herself up, the pain still radiating through her fierce, but the love she feels even fiercer as she affirms, "Always only you."

 


 

Henry’s twenty-two and freshly graduated from college when the wedding finally happens in the lush backyard of Snow and David’s farm.

Later, there will be a celebration for the United Realms, an understanding that this is something they need to share with the people, for now, it's just for them and the people they love. A moment belonging only to them. 

Snow does the officiating honors, allowing David and Henry to walk the women down the aisle. No one is at all surprised when halfway through saying “I know pronounce you Mrs. and Mrs. Swan-Mills,” Snow starts to sob, and Regina reminds her to pull herself together, and then roughly wipes a tear of her own away,

Zelena toasts them afterwards with,” For the couple who was constantly trying to side-step Fate, don’t worry, she long ago got bloody tired of you two taking your annoying time and ran off to irritate someone else."

But it wasn’t just Fate they were trying to side-step. It was a lifetime of baggage and chains and choices which should have been theirs but never were until they forced the issue. Above all else, though, it was the desperate need to make every step of this journey theirs and only theirs.

And now it is.

Their own fate. Their own beautiful dream, their own wonderful love story.

Messy, complicated, occasionally turbulent, but always theirs.

The music for the first dance starts and Emma pulls Regina close.

“Are you happy?” Emma queries. “Is…all of you happy?”

Regina chuckles at that, amused more than anything else when people – especially Emma, who has had more than a few conversations with the Queen part of her over the years, speak about how the Queen continues to exist within her. Never quite calm and always up to snap an insult or start a fight and throw some fire, but more sated and at peace than she’s ever been. Regina reaches up and traces Emma’s cheekbones, the tips of her fingers gliding down and across Emma’s painted lips. “We are. Are you?”

“Yes,” Emma says simply, her own hand reaching up to catch Regina’s and bring it to her lips.

“Good,” Regina says, and then rests her head on Emma’s shoulder as they continue to dance.

A hundred people around them, moving to join them on the dance-floor.

In the end, between the three great gods - Life, Love and Fate - it's Love that declares victory.

And Life? Well, Life goes on.

-Fin.