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Take me to Wonderland

Chapter Text

She took a look into the mirror and smiled in satisfaction.

She definitely looked stunning and that had been her intention from the start.
The red tube dress looked and felt like a second skin and her black heels made her legs look endless.
Her blonde, curly mane was an eye-catcher and her make-up was as close to perfection as it could get thanks to her friend Killian, the make-up artist. The very gay make-up artist.

She looked like a wild cat and she loved it.

A knock on her penthouse door announced the arrival of her friends, which caused her to grab her purse, and the next second she was already opening said door to greet the ladies she would spend the night with.

A bachelorette party was on the schedule after all.

As soon as the door flung open she caught sight of three dressed-up women, who looked at her with wide eyes and dropped mouths, which brought a smirk to her face.

She hardly ever dressed up as she had done for tonight and she enjoyed the effect she had on everyone.

"Something wrong, ladies?"

"Damn it, Emma! You look…hot!", Ruby stated the obvious and pulled her best friend into a fierce hug, "I take it you are on the hunt tonight…"

Emma just shrugged her shoulders, "Maybe…one never knows who will possibly cross their way". She winked at Ruby and turned to the pixie-haired woman, who was standing next to the leggy brunette, "So, how's the bride to be?"

They had enjoyed a delicious dinner at La Fenice– the most exclusive Italian restaurant in the Boston area.

It was close to impossible to get a reservation there because it was booked up for months in advance, but the group of four didn't have to worry about that since Belle's father owned the place.

Now Emma, Ruby, Mary Margaret, and Belle were sitting in a black limousine, drinking champagne and giggling like teenagers.

"Where are we going?", the pixie-haired woman asked all of a sudden because she recognized that she had never been in this area of Boston before.

"It's a secret", Ruby stated quickly, "But I'll promise you…it will be fun."

"Not sure if your definition of fun and mine are compatible", Mary Margaret countered and smiled shyly.

Emma and Belle could not stop themselves from laughing out loud, because Mary Margaret was a lot of things, but she wasn't half of the provocative adrenalin junkie Ruby Lucas was. Far from it.

"Calm down…I found this awesome place a while ago and since you are so big on fairytales…you should like it", Ruby commented with a wolfish grin.

Mary Margaret's face immediately lit up at the mention of fairytales and wanted to say something, but was cut short by Emma, "Yes, we all know the story of how you and David fell in love in high school because of this stupid 'Snow White' play…and you can keep your Charming forever…nobody is going to take him away from you. Plus you'll be Misses Nolan in two weeks."
-----------------------------

Regina was sitting in front of her mirror and put the final touches on her make-up.
She was tired after what had been a hell of a day and she prayed that at least the evening would run smoothly.
It was highly unlikely, but a woman could dream.

She took a look at the clock and realized that it was time to get dressed.
There was no way she was going to be late. She never was late.
-------------------------------

When Leroy, the driver, finally stopped the limousine Emma almost jumped out of the car. She needed air because Ruby had started to smoke a cigar at some point and she hated the smell of it.

But when she took in her surroundings her eyes went wide.
Where were they?

"Ruby, what the hell?!" Emma glared at the leggy brunette, who had gotten out of the vehicle as well at last – together with Mary Margaret and Belle.

They were standing in front of a bizarre-looking building with questionable decoration that reminded Emma of a horror cabinet.
What was that? The Freak show?

The entrance looked like a tunnel and a sign above it, which was shining in bright blue neon letters, said The Rabbit Hole.

"You really want us to go in there?", Belle glared at Ruby, obviously as uncomfortable as Emma and Mary Margaret was silent altogether.

Ruby could not be serious, but the leggy brunette only smiled brightly, "Trust me. This is going to be sooo much fun."

"Yeah, sure…", Emma growled, "Maybe for you."

"Hey! Back off now", Ruby snapped, "Mary Margaret said no naked men and stuff…which is a shame…but anyway. I really had a great time here some weeks ago."

Right this moment the tunnel opened and a guy, who looked like The Mad Hatter, stepped outside and Ruby's smile grew even wider, "Jefferson!"

"Ruby! It's good to see you again…I was so glad you called", he greeted her by kissing her on the cheek, then turned his attention to the rest of the girls, "Good evening, ladies! Welcome to The Rabbit Hole…I'm Jefferson, but you can also call me Mad as in the Mad Hatter and I will be your host tonight", he shook Emma's and Belle's hand before he stopped right in front of Mary Margaret, "You must be the happy bride."

Emma was not convinced of Ruby's idea to go to whatever this establishment was supposed to be, but the guy seemed to be nice enough. A little crazy maybe, but nice.

"Is everyone ready?" Jefferson asked, watching the four women.

"Absolutely", Ruby seemed to be overjoyed while Mary Margaret and Belle nodded hesitantly.

And although Emma knew better she decided to trust the judgment of her best friend because Ruby would not dare to ruin Mary Margaret's bachelorette party, or at least that was what she was hoping for.

She eyed their slightly weird host closely for a moment, but ultimately she stepped forward before she would change her mind, "Let's go…take us to Wonderland!"

Chapter Text

She looked at her reflection in the mirror and sighed.
She was looking great.

Thankfully she had managed to cover the dark bags under her eyes, her make-up was flawless altogether, and her black leather pants were fitting perfectly.
And yet she did not feel well.
She was tired and worn out, she was lacking motivation and she hoped that the night would go by fast. She was in desperate need of a break although she was aware that she would not get one anytime soon.

"Regina, are you okay?", a blonde woman peeked into the room, watching her with worry.

"Yeah…yeah, I'm good. How long?"

"Two minutes", the blonde stated quickly.

"Okay."
-----------------------------

"Ruby, you can't be serious! You just can't…this is a joke, right?", Emma glared at her best friend, eyes wide and sparkling angrily.

"What? All Mary Margaret said…and I quote: No naked men at my bachelorette party. I don't want to see any guy naked – no matter how hot he might be. I'll stick with my Charming…forever", Ruby countered in defense, "And let's face it…what's a bachelorette party without strippers?!"

Emma did not know whether to laugh or cry, Mary Margaret was standing in the corner, her face pale, holding on to Belle, who was trying not to laugh out loud.
This had to be one big nightmare.

Ruby had dragged them into some bizarre strip club full of staff, dressed up as some fairytale characters and the whole club literally looked like Wonderland.
Who the hell owned this place? Tim Burton?

"Ladies, you better hurry. The Evil Queen will be on stage in a minute", Jefferson announced and ushered them forward.

"Mary Margaret, we can leave if you want…", Emma offered, worried how the pixie-haired woman would handle a club full of female strippers, but right at that moment a red haired woman, dressed as a mermaid, brought some flutes and a bottle of champagne and Emma was forced into a seat in the front row by Ruby.

Never had she thought she would end up in a strip club like some needy guy and yet here she was – thanks to her eccentric friend Ruby Lucas and Emma felt truly sorry for Mary Margaret because she knew that her friend had something completely different in mind for her bachelorette party – something cute and fluffy.

The only one who did not seem to mind, except for Ruby, was Belle and Emma wondered why that was.
Belle had always been big on moral and True Love like Mary Margaret and yet she was counting dollar bills, ready to put them God knows where.
What was going on?

"Oh come on, Em…don't be so prude. You should be happy that you'll get to see some naked skin…it's been months since you've gotten…"

"Ruby, shut up! If you think I would hook up with some chick, who works in a club like this…then you are even crazier than I thought", Emma snapped back and got up to leave, but the lights went out before she could make her first step and Ruby pulled her back down, "I swear to God, Em…if you don't calm down now…I'll have Jefferson chain you to that damn chair. And believe me…he'd do it. Just enjoy the show…it's only for tonight…and I promise...that woman is so hot…not even you will be able to resist her."

Emma sat there, frozen to the spot, and stared ahead, instantly captivated by the so-called Evil Queen.

The woman on stage was…different.
And it was not because of the heels, not because of the leather pants that fit like they would be a second skin, not because of the corsage, not because of the purple ornamented coat, not because of all the fake hair, not because of the hat.

Not even because of her snake-like movements, nor because of her panther-like walk, but because of her eyes.
Breathtakingly beautiful, brown eyes.

While said Evil Queen lost more and more of her clothes, revealing more and more of her skin, all Emma could focus on were her eyes, simply because they had nothing warm.
Brown eyes usually were exactly that – warm and comforting and yet the woman before her looked misplaced, lost even.

"Isn't she the hottest?!", Ruby bumped Emma's shoulder which stopped the blonde's current train of thought immediately.

"Uh…yeah…", Emma stated the obvious, even if she had not taken a look at the naked body of the stripper before her, because she had been too fascinated by the sad, brown eyes.

When Emma realized that Mary Margaret was drinking champagne like water and throwing dollar bills on stage – together with Belle - she finally became aware of the fact that she seemed to be the only one uncomfortable in the whole club, because all the other guests clearly enjoyed the performance of The Evil Queen to its full extend.

What the hell was wrong with her?
When had she stopped to have fun?
This was a bachelorette party for heaven's sake!

She should be drinking with the others, celebrating as if there would be no tomorrow.
But she could not bear to drink another sip of champagne.
All she could do was follow the direction of those disturbing brown eyes.

Half an hour and two more bottles of champagne later, Mary Margaret, Belle, and Ruby were in a pretty crazy mood, cheering to all the strippers who came on stage, but Emma felt like hiding.
Unfortunately, it did not stay unnoticed by her best friend, who waved The Mad Hatter over and whispered something into his ear, which caused Jefferson to break into a big smile and he nodded eagerly.

Emma knew right away that it could not mean anything good, but before she could get up Jefferson was already standing next to her, extending his hand.
And while Emma was sure that taking the offered hand would get her into nothing, but trouble, she still got up and took it, simply to get away from her friends, because they clearly were out of control and she really needed a break.
--------------------------

Regina sat in the dressing room, covered in her robe, wiping the sweat from her forehead.
She felt nauseous and her whole body hurt, but she was aware that she had to do two more performances tonight.

At least she had an hour to recover before she would need to get on stage again and she prayed that this blonde woman would be gone by then.
She had caught this particular guest watching her every look and she had not liked it one bit.
It was bad enough that everybody could see her naked, but nobody ever cared to look her in the eye and she really appreciated that.
But said blonde had not bothered to watch her body, watch her moves, all she had been interested in had been her eyes and that was something Regina did not appreciate at all.

When the door opened she sighed heavily.
This could not mean anything good.

Her colleague and only friend Ashley sat down next to her and Regina had a feeling she would not like what was about to come because Ashley knew exactly how tired and exhausted she was and the apologetic look on the blonde's face said it all.

"What is it?", Regina growled through gritted teeth.

"Your presence is required in one of the private rooms", Ashley answered quickly, "I'm sorry. I told Gold you are not feeling well, but you know how he is. He does not give a shit about us. I even offered to do it, but they have asked for you specifically."

Regina sighed in frustration.
A lap dance.

That was exactly what she needed tonight instead of a break.
Not.

A lap dance for some wealthy guy, who had no manners and would be nothing, but rude.
No, she definitely was not in the mood for that.
But she could need the extra money.
Whom should she fool?
It was almost the end of the month and every penny had to be spent wisely.

"Fine."

Without another word, she put on some of her extra hot underwear, some leather panties, and Ashley helped her to lace her corsage.

"What about my hair?" Regina asked, eyeing herself in the mirror.

"Put everything out. Just your normal hair…nothing fancy", Ashley commented quickly and started to work on her friend's head without waiting for permission.

Once her make-up was fixed Regina put on some of her highest heels and stalked out of the dressing room with hanging shoulders.
God, how much she hated her job.
How much she hated her life.

But she would not be able to change anything about her situation, at least not anytime soon.
-----------------------------

Emma was sitting in a private room, not sure what she was supposed to do.

Jefferson had offered her some more champagne, but she had ordered a bottle of water instead.
At least one of them had to stay sober and take care of the others, to stop them in case things would get out of hand and since Ruby was part of the crowd it was highly unlikely that the night would go smoothly.

When the door opened and Jefferson returned with her water and a glass, Emma was glad because she thought she simply could sit here for a while before she had to go back out to the others, but then the door opened again and she caught sight of her.

The Evil Queen.

Emma gulped and the brunette woman glared at her in disbelief.

"Have fun, ladies! If you need anything…well, our queen here knows what to do…", he winked at Emma and left the room, leaving her alone with a woman, who looked as if she was considering how to murder her.

Regina wanted to turn round and leave.

Of course, that creepy blonde was the one, who had asked for the lap dance.
God really hated her.
Why on earth did this shit always happen to her?

Gold would bite her head off if she would not do what she was told, so she stalked forward, ignoring her wobbly feet and the dizziness.

Unfortunately, the blonde seemed to notice that she was not feeling too well though and she stopped her before she could have started her performance, "Are you okay?"

"I'm fine", Regina hissed.

"I highly doubt that...you are shivering", the blonde commented, "Please…take a seat."

"No, thanks."
Regina became even more annoyed. The last thing she needed was this rich girl's pity.

"As far as I understood…you are here to keep me entertained for the next thirty minutes. So, no discussions. Sit down", the blonde demanded and Regina sighed heavily but did as she was told.

"And now what? Wanna have some sweet talk or what?", she asked provocatively.

"Aren't you supposed to be nice to your clients?", the blonde looked at her with an amused smirk.

"Aren't you supposed to eat caviar sandwiches with mommy and daddy?", Regina shot back.

"Whoa, now slow down, lady…I was just trying to be nice because obviously, you are not feeling well…and honestly…I'm not in the mood for a lap dance", the blonde confessed while she waved her hands in surrender.

Regina looked at her in disbelief. That was a new one.
"Why are you here then?"

"It's my friend's bachelorette party…and since she did not want a male stripper…one of our other friends…Ruby…she brought us here…because she knows the ridiculous guy with the hat…and she thought it would be nice to mess with me… a little. She always tries to hook me up with someone…", the blonde tried to explain and felt slightly embarrassed.

"I see…looks like you should learn to be pickier when it comes to your friends", Regina bit out, feeling the urge to leave the room even stronger than before. She had no intention to talk to this woman, especially not today when she was so damn tired.

The blonde poured some water into the glass and handed it to Regina, "Drink something. Might help you to feel better."

Regina eyed the blonde suspiciously.
This had to be some trick, some test from Gold to check if she was doing her job, because nobody ever cared if she was doing okay, especially no client.
But the eyes of the blonde told a different story. She saw concern in them. Honest concern and it convinced her to grab the glass and take a sip.

Emma sat there and watched the brunette woman's every move. The stripper clearly was in a bad condition.
Why did she even work?

She wanted to ask her so many questions, but the brunette clearly was not in the mood for a conversation, so Emma stayed quiet.

And the woman, who sat opposite from her stayed quiet as well.

It gave Emma the possibility to actually take the woman in because she had refused to take a look at anything, but her eyes before.
But now that she really looked at her Emma became aware of the fact that Ruby had been right.

The brunette was absolutely stunning.
Tired and exhausted maybe, but stunning.
Why would somebody as beautiful as her work in a club like this?

Emma knew she could not ask that, simply because she did not want to offend her, but the question kept running through her head and while Emma knew that not everybody was as lucky as she had been, she still did not like the fact that the brunette had to work here, especially since she did not seem to enjoy it one bit.

When the blonde's time was up Regina started to pace, because she knew Jefferson would be back any second and she was still in her clothes.
She would be in big trouble if Gold found out that she had not done her job.

The blonde seemed to sense that something was wrong, because she gave her the same concerned look as before, "What is it?"

"If somebody gets that I have not danced for you…"

"Oh", the blonde understood immediately, "Well…wait…", she took her purse and grabbed some bills", Here…take these…and if…if you have to get out of…you know…I'll just head for the door. I promise I won't look."

"And I thought you were into women", Regina almost laughed.

"I am. But…but I'm not into this…I mean…I'm not this kind of girl…you are nobody's possession…and I would never force somebody to undress for me…that's just not right", the blonde answered earnestly.

Regina was taken aback by the statement, but on the other hand, she was so relieved because she was not into women, and stripping for one always made her more than just uncomfortable.

When the blonde had placed herself at the door, her back to Regina, the brunette finally got out of her clothes, but she had to admit that she felt a bit better. The water and the rest had worked their magic and Regina was grateful that the creepy blonde, who was not so creepy after all, had been her client.

A knock on the door announced Jefferson's arrival and said blonde was ready to leave, "Just so you know…my friends are the most amazing people you could ever imagine. And I pick them more than wisely. People in my position can't afford anything else."

Regina stood there, even more, surprised than before.

And then she opened her hand to put the money away, realizing that it were one-hundred-dollar bills.
She held seven-hundred dollars in her hand in fact.
Who the hell was that blonde?
----------------------------

When Emma returned Ruby, Mary Margaret, and Belle were dancing, drinking, and laughing like some wasted teenagers, but she was so not in the mood to join them.
She wanted to go home, wanted to sleep, wanted to forget about this night.
She wanted to forget about Wonderland and more than anything she wanted to forget about a certain brunette, whose eyes could easily become her undoing.

Emma wanted to forget about a woman, who fascinated her deeply although she did not even know her name.

Chapter Text

Emma had left the bachelorette party only a few minutes later because she had not been able to stand being at The Rabbit Hole any longer.

She had not wanted to be confronted with the brunette and another one of her Evil Queen - performances either.
She had not wanted to let her friend Mary Margaret down, but it simply had been too much and the others had enough fun without her.
All Emma had wanted was to forget about the whole night and about a certain brunette stripper, who had caught her attention – whether she liked it or not.

She had even suffered through one of her parents' boring Sunday brunches the next day, just to keep herself busy and somehow it had worked its magic in the end.

Maybe because she treasured the time with her parents more than anything, simply because she saw them so rarely since they spend most of their time traveling since she could remember. It had been a rather lonely childhood, but it had been way better than the orphanage, not that Emma could remember much about it.

She had been almost five when the Swans had shown up there and had taken her with them to make her a part of their family.
And Emma knew exactly how lucky she had been, she could have ended up in the foster system as well.
But instead, she had been adopted by one of the wealthiest families in Boston, a family that called a shipping company their own.

Their family name and their contacts had given her opportunities, had opened doors for her others could only dream of and Emma was perfectly aware of that.
And now that she was 29 she was running her own business and she managed to do it with success.

Emma had always wanted to become an event manager because numbers and organizing things had always been her thing and she had wanted to be independent.

While Mary Margaret and Belle were happy and content spending the money of their families, she had always wanted to do something on her own.

So when Emma had gotten some model jobs when she had been in college, she had seen her chance to make the money she needed to start her own business and that was exactly what she had done in the end.

Her parents were beyond proud, although they had not been fond of the idea at first, because they had hoped for her to continue with the family business one day, they had realized that they could not force Emma into something she did not want fairly quickly.

All in all Emma Swan had been one of the lucky dogs.
-------------------------------

By the time she arrived in her office the next morning Emma already knew that her day would be a disaster.

An exclusive bar she had booked for a rather important event had burned to the ground during the night and Emma had to find a new location within the hour since the event was in two days' time and rescheduling was impossible.
She could already feel the headache coming, especially since she had tons of work to do and the current emergency would ruin her whole schedule.
--------------------------------------

Regina sat in her dowdy kitchen, the dollar bills from the mysterious blonde in hand.
She could really use the money, but there was no way that she could keep it.
She had to give it back.

She had no idea how she would manage to do that though because she had no idea, who the blonde was, but she would find a way.
----------------------------

It had been a hell of a week and Emma felt so relieved when she finally left her office around 9 pm on Friday, aware that she had made the impossible possible once again and it was exactly the reason why people paid her the big box, but still.

She was more than ready for the weekend and for girls' night tomorrow because she had not seen her friends all week, simply because she had been too busy.
But the good thing about her week was that The Rabbit Hole and all its craziness was long forgotten.
--------------------------

Emma had gone to bed early because she had been worn out from the stressful days at work, but her ringing phone had her out of her much deserved sleep around three in the morning.

It had been Ruby, who had told her that Emma had to come and pick her up, because her car had broken down and that she would text her the address right away.

At first, Emma had thought it was some crazy joke, but Ruby had insisted that she needed Emma and so she had gotten up in the end.

Ruby had texted her the address as promised, but Emma had been too tired to notice where she was headed. She had typed said address into her navigation system without giving her a second thought – it would guide her wherever she needed to go and that was all she cared about.
Until she saw The Rabbit Hole.

Emma's eyes grew wide and she started to curse – of course Ruby had to be there.
Where else?
Had the universe decided to hate her all of a sudden?
That was so not funny.

She texted Ruby to let her know that she had arrived, because she would not, under no circumstances, enter that club again.
But Ruby was nowhere to be seen for and Emma grew impatient as the minutes ticked by and on top of it heavy started to fall all of a sudden, putting Emma into an even worse mood. Ruby would pay for this, she would pay for this big time.

By the time the leggy brunette finally showed up Emma was more than just pissed. She had waited for almost half an hour and she was tired as hell.

Ruby practically jumped into the car, but when Emma moved her hand to start the engine, her best friend held her back, "Em…I'm sorry. Please don't freak out, okay?"

"What is it? And where the hell have you been? I've texted you countless times", Emma's voice was more like a growl.

"The battery of my phone just died, sorry…the thing is…", Ruby gave Emma her best puppy dog eyes and widest smile.

"Don't even try it…spit it out!", the blonde demanded impatiently.

"I…I wanted to call you…but as I said…low battery…I'm staying because Jefferson invited me to…"

"WHAT?!", Emma yelled, as angry as she could get, "You woke me up in the middle of the night…although you knew that I had the worst week ever…and you let me drive out here and now you tell me I can go back home? That's a joke, right?"

"I'm sorry, Em…really, I am. The thing is…Jefferson…he is different…I like him…and…", Ruby tried to defend herself, but knew she was in trouble when she saw the look on Emma's face.

"Don't tell me he is your soulmate or crap like that now, please…or that it was your destiny to meet him. Mary Margaret would say that…or maybe Belle…but not you. And we both know that fate does not exist…or true love for that matter. Happy endings are for fairytales…"

"Yes, I know that, Em. And I don't even want a happy ending…or true love…but that doesn't mean I can't have fun…now does it?", Ruby watched her friend closely, fully aware where Emma's little outburst had come from, but this was not the time, nor the place for this conversation.

"Fine. Go then. I'll meet you for lunch tomorrow…and you're paying", Emma gave in and once Ruby had left her car she drove off, still furious, but too tired to care at this point.
------------------------------

Regina was stalking through the rain, completely exhausted and worn out.
Of course, it had to start raining right when her shift had ended.
Another one of her lucky days.
Not.

She heard the sounds of a car and sighed heavily, trying to mentally prepare herself for what was about to come and a few seconds later the car was already next to her and a window was opening.

"Don't even try it. I'm not a prostitute!", Regina hissed in annoyance.

"I just wanted to offer you a ride…"

That voice.
That voice sounded familiar somehow and it only took a moment before it dawned on Regina whose voice that was and she froze.
This was a joke, right?
This could not be true.

She looked inside the car and stared right into the eyes of a certain blonde, whose name Jefferson had refused to reveal.

"Thank you, but no, Miss..?", she managed to say while she kept walking, but the car did not speed up.

"Emma. Emma Swan", the blonde answered casually, "Come on…you'll get sick as hell. Let me drive you home."

Regina hesitated because the truth was that she did not trust this Emma Swan.
But then again – she trusted no one.
And so Regina opened the door of the ridiculously expensive Mercedes convertible and got in, "I'll ruin your seats. I'm soaked."

"I don't care."

The weird thing about the statement was that it seemed to be the truth and Regina did not understand why she felt so relieved about that fact.

Emma had not said one word during the whole drive and had just waited for her instructions on where to go.
Regina had considered asking Emma to let her out around the corner because she did not want anyone to know where she lived, not only because she was ashamed of the place, but also because it was no one's business and Regina was big on her privacy.
For a lot of reasons.
But then she remembered that she had something that needed to be returned to the blonde and so she had finally told her the full address.

Now that Emma parked in front of the run-down building Regina became aware that she felt not only embarrassed but also exposed.

"Could you wait a minute, Miss Swan? There is something I want to give you."

"Of course. And take your time. You must be tired", the blonde answered, "By the way…what's your name? Since you know mine it would only be fair if you would tell me yours."

She did not want to tell her, she really did not want to, but she did it anyway, "Regina Mills. I'll be right back."
------------------------------------

While Emma waited the rain stopped and she decided to get out of the car to get some fresh air. It would help her to stay awake because she felt the tiredness kick back in.

She caught sight of the light that was turned on in one of the apartments on the first floor and smiled.
So, this was where the brunette lived.

It was the worst area of Boston and the building was in a terrible state, but Emma figured that Regina probably would not be able to afford anything else.
Shocking, wasn't it?

Especially since The Rabbit Hole was a rather exclusive club.
The owner clearly had to keep all the money to himself.

Emma felt sorry for the beautiful brunette because there had to be a story to her being a stripper and living here, but Emma was not sure if she wanted to hear it, not that Regina would tell her – she was sure about that.
She might be a stripper, but when it came to talking to somebody Regina Mills was all closed up, that was obvious.

Before Emma knew it the brunette was back and standing right in front of her, some dollar bills in hand, "Jefferson would not tell me who you are, so I could not return it earlier. Thank you for driving me home, Miss Swan."

Emma only shook her head and refused to take the money, "Keep it."

Regina shook her head vehemently, "I can't do that. It is not appropriate. Take it back, I don't wish to argue. It's late."

"Tell me you don't need it…", Emma countered.

"Miss Swan…I don't need your pity or…"

"Stop it! You don't know me…you think I'm some stupid blonde, who spends her days shopping and wasting my parents' money…", Emma fired back.

"I said no such thing", Regina defended herself.

"Well, it's rather obvious…the way you look at me says everything. But the truth is, Regina Mills…you don't know me. Not at all. You have no idea, who I am. I was at the club last week…together with some friends…to have fun. And you did your job…and that's why I gave you the money", Emma's eyes sparkled furiously and she was breathing hard.

"I did not even dance for you", the brunette stated angrily.

"Because I didn't want you to. All I wanted was some peace and silence. And I had that. So you can as well keep the money", Emma argued her case.

"No."

Emma sighed. This discussion was pointless. Regina clearly was one stubborn woman.

"Please, keep it. I really didn't think anything of it. I did not mean to offend you or anything. Nor do I think I'm better than you. I could have easily ended up in the streets or something like that…but I've been lucky and got adopted. So please take the money…I'm sure you will spend it wisely...", Emma tried one last time and noticed the questioning look on Regina's face.

She had not meant to reveal so much about her life, but it was too late to take it back.

"What have you done at The Rabbit Hole today?"
The brunette's question came out of nowhere.

"Uh…Ruby called and asked me to pick her up…but when I got there…she told me she would stay with…the hat guy. So I wanted to go home when I saw you", Emma answered truthfully.

"I assume she woke you up?"

Emma only nodded and Regina laughed bitterly, "I remember telling you this before…but I will say it again. You should be pickier when it comes to your friends. Your choices are quite alarming."

"Ruby is just a little crazy at times. But she has a heart of gold, I swear. She is always there for me…she has helped me through a lot", Emma insisted.

"If you say so."
Regina only rolled her eyes.

"I do. And I better get going…you must be tired. God knows I am", Emma opened the door of her car, ready to get in, when Regina grabbed her hand and pressed the dollar bills against her palm, "Good night, Miss Swan."

And before Emma could have reacted Regina had already turned around and was heading inside the building, causing Emma to sigh heavily once again.
Why wouldn't Regina accept help when somebody offered it?

She really needed to go home and get some sleep now, but she would try to talk to the brunette again one of these days.
Before Emma got into her car for real she looked up once again, looked up to the window, where the lights were on and she caught sight of the small form looking down on her, causing Emma to gasp in surprise.

Regina Mills had a child.

Chapter Text

Emma had spent all of Saturday thinking about the child she had seen in Regina's window the other night and it had not stayed unnoticed by her friends that something other than girls night had been occupying her mind, but luckily for her Mary Margaret had been so excited because of her upcoming wedding that nobody had paid much attention to Emma's behavior.

Sunday had been boring altogether, because Killian had called last minute to reschedule their planned movie night, because he had gotten hired for a job last minute and so Emma had ended up on her couch, lost in thoughts once again.

Regina Mills had a child, lived in a run-down building, and worked as a stripper.
It did not make any sense.
Clearly, she had to do it to survive, to pay her bills, but still.
No child should grow up like this.

Emma was aware that one did not always have much of a choice, but there had to be something Regina could do – besides stripping bare for money.
Maybe she could do something to help her.
Maybe, with a little help, Regina could turn her life around.

Why did Emma want to do something for the brunette?
Well, she was not ready to face that yet.
Maybe she would never get there.

Sure, she was fascinated by Regina Mills, but the truth was that Emma was well aware that she could have ended up right the same – if her parents had not adopted her.
And so she changed her clothes and headed for her car, ready to face Regina once again.

Back to The Rabbit Hole, back to Wonderland.

Emma still did not feel comfortable in this bizarre version of Wonderland, she still did not like The Rabbit Hole one bit.
She was not even sure what was worse – that everyone was a fairy tale character or that they were strippers.
But she had to talk to Regina, so for the sake of the brunette's child, she had entered the club once again.

Emma was met by a smirking Jefferson, The Mad Hatter, "I see you have developed a certain affection for our establishment, Emma Swan."

"Don't flatter yourself, hat guy. I just came to talk to Regina", Emma stated quickly, her eyes roaming the club impatiently.

"Is that so?", he tilted his head, curious and surprised at the same time, "I'm afraid she is not here tonight, sweetheart. She called in sick. Actually her colleague Ashley called in for her."

Emma could not ignore the disappointment she felt, but she had no time to think about it because it meant she could go home, could leave the freak show.

"Uhm well…thanks I guess. Hope she will be better soon. Good night."
That said Emma headed out of the club, not even bothering to wait for a reply from Jefferson.
--------------------------

She had wanted to go home and yet she was standing in front of the run-down building once again.
There was still light in the window, from which Emma knew it belonged to Regina's apartment and she looked up for a while, debating whether to go and knock or to forget about it.

The last thing she wanted to do was to wake up the kid, but on the other side, she worried about Regina's well-being. The brunette had been soaked two nights ago and so she decided to check on her – she would not be able to sleep if she did not.

Emma got out of her car and entered the building, slightly nervous about Regina's reaction, because if Emma had learned one thing about Regina Mills, it was that the brunette was big on her privacy if all the walls she had built up to protect herself were any indication.

"Comes with the job", Emma mumbled to herself and headed upstairs, trying her hardest to ignore the dirt everywhere.

She stood in front of the apartment door, which was supposed to be Regina's, for a few minutes, too nervous for her own good because she doubted that the brunette would be amused about this invasion – especially at such a late hour.
But then, all of a sudden, Emma started to knock anyway.
She simply had to make sure that Regina and her child were "okay".
If anybody, who lived in a building like this, could be anywhere near okay, which she highly doubted.

It took a while till she heard footsteps and Emma took in a deep breath, preparing herself for Regina's rant, but none came, because when the door finally opened Emma caught sight of a boy, who looked at her with wide eyes.

"Hey kid", Emma was totally overwhelmed by the situation and smiled awkwardly.

"Who are you?", the boy eyed her warily.

"I'm Emma. And what's your name, young man?

"Henry."

The situation became even weirder and Emma shifted her weight from one foot to the other and back, "How…how old are you, kid?"

"I'm nine", Henry answered quickly, "So, what do you want? It's late."

"I'm…well…I know your mom…and I heard that she is sick…so I came here to see if she is okay", Emma explained carefully.

"She is sleeping since hours", Henry mumbled silently, his eyes suddenly staring at his feet, "I don't think she is okay..but…I'm not allowed to talk to strangers…or let them in."

Emma was taken aback by that statement, but what had she expected?
Regina Mills might be a stripper, but that did not mean that she was a bad mother. Not even when she was living in a place like this, because obviously, she could not afford more and who was Emma to judge?

She had been on the lucky side for a long while now and Regina clearly had not been anywhere near lucky. That did not make the brunette less worthy though.
If anything it made Emma respect her more, because Regina did what it took to raise her child – even if it meant selling her intimacy or at least part of it.

"I see", Emma stated after thinking about the situation for a moment, "Listen, Henry…I'm aware that you don't know me…but I…I brought your mom home the other night…when it was raining. Do you remember? You've been looking out of the window…"

He eyed her closely for a moment, but then he nodded, "Yes…I saw you."

"Good. That's good. Because I really want to help your mom…but you need to let me see her", Emma explained further, hoping that she would be able to convince Henry that she really meant no harm, but the boy just stood there, still blocking the entrance, obviously debating whether to trust Emma or not.

"Okay, you know what, kid…I…I could give you my mobile phone", Emma started and pulled it out of her jeans pocket, "And you can call 911 if you don't feel safe…how does that sound?"

It took another few moments, but then Henry grabbed the phone and nodded before he stepped aside to let Emma in.
She sighed in relief, but as soon as she entered the apartment she held her breath.
What she saw was a lot worse than she could have ever imagined.

The place was shabby, the few pieces of furniture in the living room worn down and the small kitchen unit in the corner did not look like anything would function properly anymore. There were countless holes in the walls and Emma was sure the rest of the small apartment would not be in a better condition.
But before she could worry about any of that she noticed a slight movement on the couch and Emma realized that Regina had to be lying there, under a few blankets.

That was when she also realized that it was more than a little cold in the place.

"Kid, why don't you turn the heater on? You have to be freezing", Emma stated quickly, but Henry only shook his head, "It doesn't work and Mister Gold refuses to have it repaired."

"Who is Mister Gold?"

"He is my mom's boss. And he owns this building", Henry explained, sadness shining in his eyes.

Emma felt the anger rising in her chest.
Who was that Mister Gold?
And why had his staff to live in places like this?
He was responsible for her employees, why didn't he take care of them?

She would worry about that later because first she really needed to check on Regina.

Emma went over and knelt down next to the couch, watching the brunette, who was out like a light, skin pale and Emma recognized the sweat on her forehead.

She reached out, but Henry moved between her and his mother instantly, "Don't touch her!"

"I'm not going to hurt her, kid. I promise. I just want to check if she has a fever", Emma explained patiently.

"She's been sleeping for hours", Henry repeated his earlier statement, not moving an inch.

"I understand. So, can I touch her forehead for a second? Just to make sure if she is running a temperature…", Emma explained further.

"Okay."
Henry made two steps to the left, so Emma could put her fingers on Regina's forehead, but the boy watched her every movement like a hawk.

"She's glowing! Your mom needs a doctor...", Emma announced and moved her hand to Regina's shoulder, "We need to wake her up, kid."

"Mom can't afford a doctor. But I can try to wake her up", he said quickly and sat down next to Regina.

Emma shook her head, "Don't worry about the money…I'll take care of it, okay? But your mom is very sick…and she needs help. Let me call a friend of my dad. He is a doctor…he'll know what to do."

"I don't know…", Henry stared down at his feet again, "People always promise to help…but they never do. Mom says you can't rely on anyone, no matter what they say."

Emma did not know what to reply to that, but she felt so very sorry for Henry. And Regina.
The brunette must have had to deal with a lot of disappointment in her life and Emma knew quite well that someone could easily lose their trust in humanity after a certain amount of pain and bad experiences.

She clearly did not want to scare the boy, but Emma was aware that Regina needed help and that she needed it now, "Kid, I'm serious. The doctor is a friend of my family…it will be okay. But your mom needs medicine…she is running a temperature…and this can easily become dangerous. I know you want your mom to be okay…so do I…please let me call Doctor Whale."

"Okay", Henry agreed after a few moments and handed Emma her cell phone, "Is there anything I can do? I want to help…"

"Sure. Can you get a washcloth or something? You have to make it wet with cold water…and then you can put it on your mom's forehead. And we have to wake her up…she needs to stay awake."
That said Emma dialed, not caring for a second that it was close to three in the morning.
-----------------------------------

Whale had not been amused, but he had agreed to come right away.

Henry had done his best to wake his mother up, but Regina clearly had been too weak to realize what was going on and Emma had been grateful for that because she was aware that the brunette would not be too happy to see her.
------------------------

The doctor had arrived about forty minutes later and had earned a death glare from Henry right away, making clear that the boy did not trust him one bit.
But he had agreed that Whale could check out his mom in the end.

Whale had told Emma that it would be better to bring Regina to the hospital, but the blonde had told him that it was not an option and so he had given the brunette two injections, after explaining everything to Henry – twice. He had left some medication for Regina as well, with detailed instructions about the dose and when Regina was supposed to take them.

Henry had listened carefully, had made mental notes and Emma had to smile at the smart boy, who clearly loved his mom more than anything.
Even though they were living in a place like this.

Whale had been sure that Regina had a very bad cold and that she was close to getting pneumonia and he had been concerned about the brunette's well-being as well as Henry's, especially because of the bad state the place was in, but Emma had promised him that she would take care of it.
------------------------------------

Once Whale was gone Emma tried to talk Henry into going to sleep, but the boy wanted to watch over his mom and he told her that he was too worried to sleep anyway.
But then he had crawled under the blankets and had snuggled up right by his mother's side and before Emma knew it Henry was already sound asleep.

She had to smile at the sight before her and slid down to the floor.
Leaning against the couch she promised to herself that she would not fall asleep as well and since she was so overwhelmed by the recent events she might even succeed.

Regina Mills lived in this shabby little hell hole with her smart nine-year-old son.

Henry was the smartest kid Emma had ever met and he loved his mother dearly, which was a great relief. Because they might not have much, but the brunette had succeeded in being a great mom anyway and Emma knew that was all that mattered in the end.

She had gotten everything she had ever wanted as a child, but she had always been lonely because her parents had been traveling most of the time.
And Regina managed to be a mom during the day and a stripper at night. That had to be the reason she had been so tired the night of Mary Margaret's bachelorette party.

It made Emma realize that there had to be a lot more to Regina Mills than she had thought and Henry being all protective about his mother was the ultimate proof.
What had Regina been through in her life?

Emma doubted that it would be a nice story and she swore to herself that she would make life a bit better for Regina and her son – even if she did not know how she would achieve that yet.
-------------------------

Of course, Emma had fallen asleep at some point, but she woke up to a knock at the door in the morning. And so did Henry.

He shot up and pulled the front door open, much to the blonde's surprise and while Emma got up and stretched her sore muscles, another blonde entered the apartment, eyeing her suspiciously.

"Uhm…hi", Emma offered, not really awake yet.

"Who are you?", the blonde asked, obviously worried and Emma remembered that she had seen the woman before – at The Rabbit Hole.

"I'm Emma. I came to…to check on Regina because the guy with the hat…what was his name again? Jeremy? Anyway…he said she was sick", Emma tried to explain her presence.

The other blonde chuckled and seemed to relax a bit, "It's Jefferson…and he mentioned you earlier, but I didn't think to find you here."

"Emma called a doctor…he checked mom", Henry explained quickly.

"You did? I'm Ashley by the way", the blonde offered Emma her hand, who grabbed it and shook it immediately.

"She was having a fever and I was worried", Emma felt like she had to defend her every action.

"We need to wake mom up anyway. She has to take her meds, right?", Henry announced all of a sudden.

"Right", Emma agreed, "Can you do that, kid? I'll make some breakfast in the meantime."

Once Emma opened the fridge she recognized that it was pretty much empty and she sighed heavily.
What had she thought?
That Regina would be able to shop every day like she could?
Of course not.

She pulled her phone out of her pocket and called her secretary, Virginia Vaughn, to let her know that she would not come to work that day because she had some personal matters to take care of.

When Henry showed up next to her, smiling proudly, Emma had to smile as well, "How is your mom?"

"I guess she is feeling a bit better. She took her meds, but went back to sleep because she is very tired."

"That's good. She needs a lot of rest. And you need to get ready for school, kid", Emma stated the obvious.

"I'm not going. I'm staying with mom. She has nobody else because Ashley has to work…and I am the best in my class…so I can skip a day", Henry answered, sounding very serious and Emma did not dare to argue with him, because she did not want to wake up the brunette.

"Fine. But we need to do some shopping because the fridge is empty. Want to come with me?", Emma was not sure if Henry would agree, but when he stormed off to ask Ashley if she could watch Regina for half an hour Emma knew she had made a breakthrough, at least when it came to Regina's son.
--------------------------------------

Henry had offered to rob his piggy bank because he did not want to take money out of his mother's purse without her permission and Emma had been surprised once again – in the best way possible.
That kid was quite something.

But Emma had told him that it was no problem and that she would pay for the groceries and Henry had given her a thankful smile.
----------------------------------

The trip to the supermarket had been fun and she had allowed the kid to pick everything he thought they needed and Henry had surprised her once again.

He had not picked much sweet stuff as she had suspected and he had told her that Regina did not want him to eat too much candy, but that she always tried to get something healthy on the table – whenever she could afford it.
He also explained to Emma that Regina was a fabulous cook.
Who would have guessed?!

Emma had picked all the ingredients she needed to make a chicken soup, which would be exactly what Regina needed and when they came back home, the brunette was sitting on the couch, a cup of tea in hand, and Ashley was sitting right next to her.

As soon as Regina caught sight of Emma, she almost dropped the mug and shot daggers at the blonde, but Henry sensed the tension immediately and ran over to his mother to hug her tight, glad to see her awake, "Emma and I were shopping…and now we are going to cook you soup!"

Ashley got up and said good bye, obviously aware of the storm that was about to come, shooting Emma an apologetic look before she headed out of the apartment.

"Henry, can you go to your room and look for a book to read…I would like to speak to Miss Swan for a minute", Regina announced, her voice husky.

"Am I in trouble? I know I'm not supposed to let anyone in…but…you were so sick…Or is Emma in trouble? Because she came here to help…she even called a doctor…because you were having a really high fever…and we were worried", Henry started to explain, obviously afraid that he had disappointed his mother.

"Nobody is in trouble", Regina reassured.

"Okay."
That said the boy disappeared into his room.

The truth was that Regina was furious as hell, but she was too weak to yell and she was not mad at her son, but she was angry with Emma Swan.
Why couldn't she leave her alone?

On the other hand, she knew that she owed the blonde because she would be in a lot more trouble now if it would not be for Emma and that doctor friend of hers.
More than anything she was embarrassed that Emma had seen the mess that was her home and Regina felt vulnerable and exposed to no end, was afraid that Emma might call social services or something and that they would take away her son.

Emma had to be disgusted because clearly, the blonde led a very different lifestyle.
And what would Emma expect in return for helping her?
Everything in life had a price after all.

"Listen, Regina…I can see how uncomfortable you are with me being here. Don't even try to deny it. There is nothing to be ashamed of. I'm just cooking soup with Henry because I promised him…and then I will leave you and your son…who is an amazing kid by the way. You have nothing to be afraid of…I mean you no harm…not at all", Emma stood there, looking all serious, praying that Regina would believe her because she spoke the truth and the brunette had to see that. She had to.

When Regina said nothing but nodded, Emma let out the breath she had not being aware of holding, but the brunette did that to her – Regina had this intimidating way, even when she was sick and looked like hell.
------------------------------

By the time Emma was ready to leave it was already evening and Henry seemed to be a bit sad, so she promised to come back and check on them one of these days. She also gave him her business card and wrote her private cell number on it in case he ever needed anything, which made the boy smile brightly.

Regina had fallen asleep a while ago and Emma watched the brunette's resting form for a few moments. Regina had not spoken much during the day, she simply had been too exhausted, and yet Emma had enjoyed her company. Kind of.

When she wanted to pull the car keys out of her pocket she found the dollar bills she had given Regina the night they had first met at The Rabbit Hole, the seven-hundred-dollars Regina had given back to her the other night and Emma shook her head with a smile.

She had put it into her jeans and had not thought about the money again – and now she had found it.
That had to be a sign.
She reached out to give it to Henry, who looked at her in confusion.

Emma smiled encouragingly, "Give this to your mom. And tell her she can't give it back. I'm sure the two of you will spend it wisely."

Henry's eyes went wide in disbelief, "Why are you helping us?"

"Because I want to show you and your mom…that there is still some good in this world, kid."
That said Emma put the bills into the boy's small hand and left the apartment, glad that she was able to help for once.
-----------------------------

Wednesday evening Emma found herself in front of the worn-down building in Mifflin Street again.

She had decided to check on Regina and Henry tonight because the next few days she would be busy with the last preparations for the upcoming wedding of Mary Margaret and her Prince Charming – Saturday was not that far away anymore after all.

When she stopped in front of the apartment door with the number 108 Emma became aware of how nervous she was once again.
Would Regina even talk to her?

She highly doubted it, but she knocked anyway, her heart racing in her chest.
It took about a minute before the door was finally opened and the brunette appeared in the doorframe, "Miss Swan…"

"Good evening, Regina…I just came here to see how you are doing", Emma stated quickly, hoping that Regina would not slam the door in her face.

"I'm doing much better, thank you", the brunette's voice was distant and yet nicer than usual.

"How is Henry? I hope he didn't get sick as well…"

"He is fine. He is upstairs at Ashley's to play with her daughter Alexandra", Regina countered, getting a bit uncomfortable.
Two nights with the worst nightmares about Henry being taken away from her had her on edge and the blonde asking about her son's well-being only made the fear of losing her child getting the best of her once again. She had to get rid of this Emma Swan, no matter how nice the blonde might be because in the end, she would stab her in the back like everybody else before.

"Regina, I know you are scared, but I won't let you down…you can trust me", Emma announced quite desperately. Why did the brunette make this so hard?

But then she caught sight of a flicker of warmth in those brown eyes. It was gone only a second later, but it had been there. It had looked as if Regina would consider reaching out and taking the offered hand as if the brunette would actually come around.

Of course, she did not in the end.
Regina just cut her off once again, "I don't trust anyone, Miss Swan. So don't take it personal. I'm thankful for everything you have done for me…and my son, I really am. But I would appreciate it if you would mind your own business and stay away from us."

"Why do you do that, Regina? Why won't you give me a chance?", Emma wanted to know.

Regina let her guard down for one moment, showed her vulnerability as bright as day, "Because everything in life comes with a price, dear. But I have nothing left to give."

Before Emma could say anything else her phone rang and she looked down at the display of the cell phone she held in hand and she knew it had to be important because it was Mary Margaret, who was calling.

Emma made a quick gesture with her hand to make it clear to Regina that this discussion was not over yet and answered the phone – only to go pale a second later, "Calm down, Mary Margaret. Where are you?...what?! Is David okay?...Oh my God! What about Ruby? …I'll be right there…"

Without bothering to say good-bye or anything else Emma stormed off because right that moment nothing was important anymore.
There had been an accident and she needed to go to the hospital – she needed to make sure her friends were alright.

And Regina Mills stood there, watching one Emma Swan running down the corridor as if the devil would be after her and for a moment she felt sympathy for the infuriating blonde, because if Regina knew one thing then it was how merciless life could be.

No matter how much money someone had, everything could be taken away from them in a heartbeat.
And life would never be the same again.

Chapter Text

Emma left the hospital with hanging shoulders.
Ruby would not get released before Monday, David was in a coma and Mary Margaret was devastated beyond words.

A truck had crashed into David's car Wednesday evening, because the driver had been drunk and had fallen asleep behind the steering wheel and while Ruby had been "lucky", David had gotten injured badly.
Doctors had been able to stabilize him, but he had fallen into a coma and nobody knew when or if he would wake up again.

Ruby and Mary Margaret's fiancé had been on their way to pick up the wedding gift David had chosen for his soon-to-be wife, but they had never reached their destination because life had shown its cruelest side.

Emma had spent the last days canceling everything wedding-related, because Mary Margaret had refused to leave David's side, had kept sitting in an uncomfortable chair beside his bed, holding his hand.

Now that she left the hospital after visiting Ruby and telling Mary Margaret that she had taken care of everything, Emma felt numb.
She had been so close to losing two of her best friends and while Ruby was recovering quickly, David's fate had yet to be decided and Emma was scared. She was scared for all of them because nobody knew what would happen and at that moment Emma realized that not knowing was by far the worst.

Being caught between fear and hope, between doubt and faith was draining and she felt as if she would go crazy.
How Mary Margaret could handle it was beyond her.

Emma couldn't understand where her friend had found the strength to keep positive, to keep believing, because Emma was aware that she would not be able to do it, but then again she never had been such an optimistic person.
And considering the facts, how could she be?

They should be celebrating Mary Margaret's and David's wedding by now, they should be laughing and drinking, everyone should be happy.
But life had thrown them a curveball.
A drastic one.
------------------------------

"How's everyone?"
The sound of Killian's voice had Emma out of her lost thoughts within a second and she caught sight of one of the Swan shipping company's pick-up trucks.

Graham, a good friend of Emma's and her photographer of choice for her events, was also the on/off boyfriend of Killian and they had offered to pick up all the boxes with the wedding decorations, which had given her the opportunity to check in on Ruby, Mary Margaret, and David.

"Where's Graham?", Emma wondered about her friend's absence and hoped that the photographer and the eccentric make-up artist hadn't gotten into a fight again.

"He has a photoshoot tonight, love. I just dropped him off at his apartment."

The answer caused Emma to sigh in relief because truth be told, she would not be able to handle any more drama at this point.

By the time they had finished putting all the boxes into the storage Emma had rented, it was almost 9 pm and she was exhausted. The last few days had taken a toll on her and a part of her was still hoping that this was all one big nightmare and that she would wake up soon.

"You look like you could use a drink…", Killian stated and Emma only nodded, causing the make-up artist to smile widely, "Great! Let's go to The Rabbit Hole. Ruby seems to be obsessed with that club."

At the mention of Emma's personal hell she faltered, her face going pale within a second, which did not stay unnoticed by Killian, "What's up, darling? Are you alright? You might want to sit down for a second…"

But Emma's thoughts were too far gone already and she did no longer pay attention to him.
Regina.

She had left her standing in the doorway Wednesday evening and had not even thought about her since. She simply had been too busy, too worried about her friends, her mind occupied with canceling the wedding.
But now that she was reminded of the mysterious brunette and her son Emma felt guilty, simply because she had insisted that not everybody would let them down and yet she had stormed off without an explanation and had not bothered to get back to Regina since.

Now that Emma was confronted with it she felt like she had already failed, that she had already proven once more that her promises were nothing, but empty words.

"Did I say something wrong, love?", Killian watched Emma in confusion, slightly worried, because his friend was obviously struggling with something.

Emma grimaced, "Let's go to my place…I need some advice."

Emma had never wanted to share this story about Regina and her son with anyone, but she knew that Killian could be trusted, he had always been a reliable friend.
And she had to get it out.
All her worries about the brunette and her child, about the life they were leading, were getting to her.
--------------------------------

Killian had listened all along – without interruptions – and now he was studying Emma again, which made her feel rather nervous.

"You really have a thing for this Regina, haven't you?", Killian asked without preamble, looking her straight in the eye.

"What? No. Not like that…it's just…I could have ended up like that…easily. You and I…we both know it. I was lucky, she wasn't. But she deserves better and her son does too. Hell, everyone would deserve better than what they've got. And I want to help…I just don't know how", Emma tried to explain although she knew quite well that there was more to this than what she was willing to admit. She was fascinated by Regina Mills, truly fascinated, but she knew that it was a story with a dead-end, simply because she was not looking for a committed relationship and the brunette was not interested in women – so there really was no point to this and yet she wanted to help Regina to turn her life around.

"Well, love…I get that you want to help her and I think you are right. A child should not grow up like that…", Killian admitted and took a sip of his wine.

"Yeah…and I keep thinking and thinking…but I can't come up with something useful to help them", Emma sighed.

"If you really want to help them…stop thinking about it so much, love. Stop thinking and just do it!"
------------------------

By the time Emma arrived at The Rabbit Hole, it was already close to midnight.

She had thought about Killian's words for a while and in the end, she had not been able to stay at home and go to bed. She had to talk to Regina, she had to do something.
She still had not figured out how to help the stripper and her son, but she would in time.
Emma would follow her instincts, but first, she needed to see Regina and explain – if the brunette would talk to her this time.
-------------------------------------------

The moment Emma entered the club, dove into the nightmare of Wonderland, she was greeted by Jefferson's smile and she could not stop herself from rolling her eyes in annoyance.
Did this guy always work?

A smile of triumph appeared on his face, "Emma Swan…what a pleasure to see you. Again."

"Good evening, Jefferson", Emma felt proud that she was finally able to recall The Mad Hatter's name, "I need to talk to Regina for a minute. It's important."

"Well, well…you're lucky. Her next show starts in about an hour, so I might as well let you see her…she's in her dressing room. Follow me…"

Emma knocked, her handshaking, and a sharp "Come in" could be heard, which caused her to open the door and enter the room, just to find Regina sitting on a small couch, covered in a robe.

"Miss Swan! What the hell are you doing here?", the brunette growled, obviously not so thrilled to see her once again.

Emma wanted to explain, wanted to say something, when she caught sight of the small form next to Regina's, "Is that Henry? What is he doing here?"

At the sound of his name, the boy started to stir and Regina started to panic.
The blonde definitely would call social services now. How could she not?

"Emma…", Henry rubbed his eyes, making sure that he was not dreaming.

"Hey, kid, sorry to wake you…but what are you doing here?"

Regina was still sitting there, shocked and in fear, not even able to blink. She would lose Henry if somebody found out that she had taken him to work, but she did not have another choice.

"Eugenia…Granny…she is usually watching us when mom and Ashley are working…but she is sick and she had to go to hospital…", Henry stated after a few seconds, sensing that his mother was scared and uncomfortable.

"I see. Regina?", Emma turned to face the brunette and caught the fear in the brunette's eyes, "Regina, listen…I'm not going to judge you…but you and I...we both know…that this is no place for a kid. If somebody else, but I will find out that Henry is here…you'll be in big trouble…"

"Tell me something I don't know, Miss Swan. I didn't want to come to work today…but Gold didn't leave me with a choice…", Regina spat out at last.

"I see…well, let me help you…I could watch Henry tonight…", Emma suggested without giving it a second thought. All she knew was that the kid had to get out of the club as soon as possible.

"No! You don't get to take my son…", Regina started to yell, but Henry took her arm and made her stop immediately, nodding in Emma's direction, signalizing her to continue.

"I don't want to take Henry away from you, Regina. I promise. I don't. I just want to help…he can stay with me and I'll send you a car…so you can pick him up at my place. It's really no big deal", Emma took a deep breath, "Let me help…just this once. Do it for Henry."

Regina stood there, watching Emma like a hawk, countless expressions running over her face, and the blonde expected to be slapped any second, but then Henry broke the dangerous silence, "Mom, please. Let her help us…at least tonight. I don't want you to get in trouble."

His pleading eyes were Regina's undoing and she nodded with a heavy sigh, "Fine. Only for tonight."
Then she turned to face Emma again, "I will be finished at 3.30 am…I'll come over right away to pick him up."

"Of course", Emma smiled and took one of her business cards out of her pocket, "Do you have a pen?"

Once she had written her address on the backside of the card she handed it to Regina, "I'll send Leroy to pick you up. He'll bring you straight to my place."

Regina nodded in understanding and after a moment of hesitation she added, "Thank you, Miss Swan."

Henry grabbed his backpack and got ready to leave and Emma was relieved that the brunette had agreed to let her son go with her.
For one, because she knew that Regina would never let Henry stay with her if she would not know that it would be okay. It also gave Emma hope that the brunette had finally started to realize that she indeed meant no harm.
Maybe Regina would reach out after all?

But then she saw the sadness in the brunette's eyes, saw that she beat herself up over the fact that she could not take better care of her own child, even when it was not Regina's fault.
And so it was Emma, who reached out in the end – to grab the brunette's arm.
To get her attention.
To reassure her that everything was going to be fine.

She regretted it only a second later when she saw how Regina's eyes went wide – horror, terror shining in her brown eyes, and before Emma knew it Henry was standing next to her, "Emma, let her go...just let her go."

Emma loosened her grip immediately and stepped back, "I'm sorry…I didn't mean to…"

All she could do was stare at Regina, who seemed to be frozen to the spot, caught in her own horror and darkness, while Henry tried his best to calm his mother down, whispering words of comfort, assuring Regina that everything was okay and that Emma had no intention of hurting her.

Emma watched the scene, feeling helpless and truly concerned, and she realized for the first time that Regina's past might have been a lot worse than she had expected, that Regina Mills might be a lot more damaged than she had ever thought possible.
------------------------------------

Once Regina had regained her composure Henry and Emma had left through the back entrance of The Rabbit Hole and the blonde had not even dared to look at the stripper, because Emma felt like she had committed a serious crime by grabbing Regina's wrist.
Never would she do anything to the brunette, never would she force anything on her.

Henry must have sensed her discomfort because he had given her an apologetic smile, "You have to know one thing about my mom…she doesn't like it if somebody touches her or grabs her. She can't handle it well…except for when she is at work. Then it's all business and she hides behind her mask…but besides that…it's really no good idea to…you know…the only one she is comfortable with is me…."

"I understand. I promise it won't happen again, kid. I really didn't mean to hurt her", Emma said, her eyes apologetic.

"I know."
Henry's convincing tone made Emma feel better, at least a little because there was no doubt that he believed her, believed in her.
And right that moment Emma Swan swore to herself to never let him down.
---------------------

By the time they had arrived at Emma's penthouse, Henry was so tired that he was not even able to take in his surroundings, so she led him straight to the guestroom and it took the boy not even a minute to pass out on the bed.

Emma stood there for a while, watching Henry's even breathing and it hit her that there was indeed something she could do to help Regina and her son.
All she had to do was to convince the brunette – if only that would be an easy thing to do.

When she was sure that Henry would not wake up Emma returned to the living room and let herself fall onto her couch, sighing heavily.
She was worn out from the last couple of days, but especially from the incident in the stripper's dressing room earlier.

Regina clearly had been through a lot and it had to be some really bad stuff if her reaction from earlier was anything to go by, but Emma knew that the brunette would never reveal her past because Regina did not trust her and did not feel anywhere near safe around her.

It also dawned on Emma that what she had considered a step forward, the permission to watch Henry tonight, probably was nothing, no progress at all.
Because in the end, it had been Regina's one and only option – except for being caught and reported by someone.

Since she feared that she would fall asleep any second Emma called Leroy, one of her family's drivers, and told him to pick Regina up at The Rabbit Hole at 3.30 am.
Sharp.
And before she knew it she had drifted off to sleep.
----------------------------

Regina had been nervous the whole drive through town, but the fact that there had been a driver waiting for her as Emma had promised had calmed her nerves a little.

Now that she entered the building, just to be greeted by a security guy, all her fears and insecurities came back.
What if he was there to stop her from getting her son back? What if Emma had called social services? What if Emma would try to take Henry away from her?

"Good morning, Miss. Can I help you?"

Regina was startled by the question and had to blink a few times to get her dark thoughts under control enough to answer, "Yes..I'm…I am here to see Miss Emma Swan."

The man smiled warmly at her, "Of course. You must be Miss Mills then. Miss Swan is expecting you. Just take the elevator to the top floor."

She sighed in relief at his statement and followed his instructions, entering the elevator only a second later.
Taking one deep breath Regina pushed the button, praying that Emma truly meant well.
-------------------------------------

She woke up to the sound of somebody knocking on her door and Emma jumped up from the couch, slightly disorientated, her heart pounding in her chest, but then she remembered that it had to be Regina.
Unfortunately, that realization made her heart race even more.

Ignoring the fact Emma made it to the door and pulled it open, almost knocking herself out in the progress, rolling her eyes at her own stupidity.

When she met Regina's gaze and recognized how worried the brunette looked Emma managed to pull herself together, aware that she had to act normal or she would work up Regina even more and that was the last thing she wanted.

"Hello Regina…please, come on in."
She stepped aside to allow the brunette to enter her penthouse.

Emma noticed how Regina's eyes roamed through the living room and open kitchen, obviously looking for her son and a small smile appeared on the blonde's face, because she had expected nothing less from the stripper.
Her exclusive apartment, the expensive furniture, the stunning view from the balcony, nothing caught Regina's eye.
The only thing the brunette cared about was her son.

"Henry is asleep in the guest room. It's the first door on the right", Emma stated quickly and Regina headed towards it without another word.

Emma had been careful not to close the door completely, so she would hear Henry in case he had a nightmare or something. The other reason was that the door could be opened quietly without waking him and now that she watched Regina standing in the doorway, looking at her sleeping son, Emma knew she had done the right thing.

"He looks so peaceful."
Regina's words were barely a whisper.

"He does. Do you want something to drink? Water maybe? Or some tea?", Emma suggested carefully and got a nod in return, "Some water would be nice."

Regina was sitting on the big, comfortable couch, a glass of water in hand and Emma noticed how tense the brunette seemed to be, which made her nervous as hell.

"Listen, Regina…about earlier…I didn't mean to…to hurt you…or…I just…I'm sorry", Emma dropped her head in shame, but this time it was Regina, who surprised her, "Nothing to be sorry about, Miss Swan. You couldn't know."

Regina tried to give the blonde a smile although she knew that it would not be very convincing and that Emma would see right through it but she was too tired to care.

For a few minutes neither of them spoke, but then Emma cleared her throat, "You shouldn't wake Henry up…you should let him sleep."

"What are you saying?", Regina stared at the blonde, slightly confused, afraid that Emma would tell her to leave Henry with her.

"I'm saying…you should stay the night. You can sleep in the guestroom with your son…I'm sure he wouldn't mind."
Emma knew she was walking on thin ice and that Regina probably would get it all wrong and go off on her within a second, but on the other hand, the brunette cared more about her son's well-being than about her own, so maybe she would accept the offer.

"That's very kind, Miss Swan, but I'm sure you have plans tomorrow and you've done more than enough…"

Emma shrugged the reply off, "It's Sunday. Henry could sleep in…and it would be my pleasure. Look, Regina…I know you are tired…so why don't you lie down and get some well-deserved and much-needed rest? Why would you wake your son up and drive through half of the town…to go to bed…when you can as well sleep here?"

"Fine."

One word.
One word, that brought this huge smile to Emma's face, "Okay, I'll get you some clothes to change and a towel. I'll be right back."
------------------------------

She had shown Regina the bathroom, had given her one of her tank tops and boxer shorts, which had caused the brunette to look at her with a frown, but Emma had told her they were the most comfortable clothes to sleep in, and now they were standing in front of the guestroom, staring at each other once again.

"Uhm…well…my..my bedroom is right next to the living room…on the left…Just in case you need anything", Emma explained and realized how weird it sounded, "I mean…if there is an emergency or something. I didn't mean to suggest…you know."
She shrugged helplessly and blushed slightly.

"I understand, Miss Swan."
Regina's façade stayed intact, although she was not as comfortable as she wished she would be.

"If you get thirsty or hungry or whatever…just help yourself. Good night, Regina."

"Good night, Miss Swan."
------------------------------

When Emma entered the living room in the late morning she found Henry sitting on the couch, watching cartoons and she had to smile, "Morning, kid."

"Hey, Emma! Mom is still sleeping...thanks for making her stay…she really needs some rest."

"I figured as much. What do you think…should we make breakfast for your mom?" Emma suggested quickly, earning a big grin from her little guest, "That would be so awesome."
------------------------------

By the time Regina appeared in the kitchen the table was set, the smell of coffee and pancakes consuming her senses and she eyed Emma in surprise.

The blonde handed her a mug, "Sit down, please. Your son and I made breakfast. You're our guest today."

Once they were all seated and enjoying their food, Emma recognized how relaxed Regina seemed to be and it gave her the courage to start the conversation, which could change everything.

"Henry, would it be okay if your mom and I talked for a moment after breakfast?", Emma asked, addressing the boy.

"Sure. Why not", Henry nodded and kept eating while Regina had stopped dead in her tracks, obviously fearing the worst.

"Nothing to be afraid of, Regina", Emma assured her with a kind smile, "I just want to talk to you, because I have an offer to make…"

Chapter Text

Emma led Regina into her home office while Henry was sitting on the living room couch, watching some more cartoons.
The brunette seemed to be all tensed up and Emma felt sorry for causing her so much stress, but she meant well and she would make Regina's worries fade away in a minute, at least she hoped she would.

"Please, take a seat", Emma suggested and sat down in her leather chair, her desk separating the two women.

Once Regina was seated opposite her she could not stay quiet anymore, "What do I have to do?"

Emma was completely startled. What did Regina mean?
"I beg your pardon?"

"What do I have to do so you won't call social services on me?", Regina stared at her like a defendant waiting for her sentence, her paranoia getting the best of her once again.

"I would never do that, Regina...you are a great mom...you are doing the best you can with what you've got", Emma sighed heavily, "This is not about Henry...well, it is...but not like that. You have nothing to be afraid of."

Regina watched her like a hawk, still not convinced that the blonde meant well, but her tension started to fade away – at least a little.

"How much do you have to pay Gold for that hellhole you live in?", Emma asked all of a sudden, catching Regina by surprise.

"Excuse me? Miss Swan, my finances are none of your concern", Regina snapped, obviously offended.

"Please...answer me. I want to help", the begging tone in Emma's voice threw the stripper for a loop and Regina wondered what Emma was up to.

Her curiosity got the better of her and she answered though, "Three hundred dollars a week."

"What? That's insane! He should let you stay there for free...especially considering in what a state the building is...", Emma could barely stop herself from yelling, but she did not want to alarm Henry, so she managed to calm down in the last second.

"The one thing Gold cares about is money...oh right, and power. He would never give anything to anyone...for free. And I know it's not the greatest of places, Miss Swan...but it's the only thing I can afford. At least we have a roof over our head."

"What if...what if I would help you...to find another apartment. For three hundred a week", Emma looked at Regina, hope shining in her eyes, but the brunette only shook her head, "There is no such thing as a good apartment for three hundred dollars a week."

"Let's say there were...", Emma tried again. She would not back down that easily.

"If there were...the answer would still be no."

"Why won't you let me help you, Regina?", Emma was getting desperate. Why had the brunette to make everything so difficult?

"I don't need your charity, Miss Swan. I've been good on my own all this time...yes, I agree...a fancier apartment would be nice, but I can't afford it. I'm not someone who relies on anyone, but myself...I did once...and let's say it was a mistake...for which I paid dearly."

"I'm sorry about that, Regina. I really am. But why can't you see that I mean you no harm? I want to help you...you and Henry. Because you deserve better...and you are not the only one with a history...I have one too. Maybe not as horrible as yours...but that doesn't mean I had it easy all my life", Emma countered, getting slightly furious.
What would it take for Regina to realize that she was sincere about her offer?

Regina sighed, "Let's pretend for a moment...I would take you up on your offer...what would you gain from it? Because nobody helps you without expecting something in return...and I told you already...I am not into..."

Emma's eyes went wide, "Wait...what? Do you really think I'm trying to get you into my bed?!"

The shocked expression on Emma's face made Regina feel confused, "Well, aren't you?"

"No", Emma shook her head vehemently, "Absolutely not."

The sincerity in the blonde's voice irritated Regina more than anything because she could tell that Emma was telling the truth, but that did not make any sense.
What motive did Emma have then, because she clearly could not be helping her just because?
That was too good to be true and the world was not that kind to her, never had been, never would be.

"Listen, Regina...I get that you are suspicious, but I can assure you that I don't offer my help because I expect anything from you. And besides that...I know that you are not into women. You made that very clear when we first met. And while I admit that you are beautiful...I would never hit on you", Emma added, hoping that the brunette would believe her.

"Not your type or is it my job that bothers you?", Regina shot back angrily.

Emma looked Regina right in the eye to show the brunette that she was serious, "That's not the reason...neither the one nor the other...it's just...I don't do commitment...and there is no bigger commitment than a child."

"And why is that, dear? Why don't you do commitment? Don't believe in 'True Love' either?", Regina did not know why exactly she kept asking these questions. It was none of her business after and besides that she had no interest in Emma Swan.

"Love is such a big word...I might have been stupid enough to give my heart to someone once...it will not happen again", Emma shot back, not entirely comfortable with being interrogated, but she wanted Regina to come out of her shell so she had to give her something in exchange for it. Building trust went both ways.

Regina was taken aback by the sight of hurt in Emma's eyes and she had to admit that she felt sorry for the blonde, because obviously someone had hurt Emma deeply and although she was not that fond of the blonde, Emma had treated her better than anyone in...forever and that alone was reason enough that Regina felt sorry for her.
She wanted to say something, something comforting in fact, but before Regina could open her mouth Emma's cell phone rang.

The color drained from Emma's face within a second once she answered the call and Regina could not stop herself from feeling worried, but there was nothing she could do – especially since Emma was still talking on the phone.

"I'll be right there...do everything you can...please".
That said Emma hung up and she felt the tears welling in her eyes.

Ruby had collapsed a few minutes ago and the doctors had taken her to the OR right away, suspecting that she was suffering from internal bleeding and since the leggy brunette had no living relatives she had named Emma as her emergency contact some years ago.

Her heart was racing panic-driven, her mind filled with sorrow and fear – Ruby could not die.
She could not lose her.

"Is everything alright, dear?"
Regina's voice pulled Emma out of the initial shock and she shook her head, "I'm sorry, but I need to go. It's an emergency. My friend...Ruby...she's...she...I need to go to the hospital."

"Of course. I'll get Henry ready...thanks for..." Regina started but got interrupted immediately.

"You can stay...it's no problem. Feel free to take a shower...and take your time...I put fresh towels in the bathroom for you when I got up. And if you need something to wear...just take something out of my wardrobe...I don't mind", Emma stated and headed out of her home office, Regina right on her heel.

"Miss Swan...wait! You can't be serious...you barely know me...I thought you did not trust just anyone?"

"I don't. That's exactly why I'll let you stay...because believe it our not, Regina Mills...I have a feeling that I can trust you."

Regina was so startled by Emma's words that she was rendered speechless, truly speechless.
What did you even reply to something like that?

Nobody had ever believed in her or trusted her for the matter. Not to mention that nobody had ever cared for her – at least not without conditions. It had never been an honest concern or anything like that, but Emma Swan seemed to be so different.
But could she really trust her?
Deep down Regina wanted to, longed to have someone she could rely on – a friend.
A true friend, who treasured her for who she was.
But at the same time, she knew that she would never be able to trust someone again. Not after...

Emma grabbed her keys and her purse and headed out of the door, turning around only for a second to face Regina one last time, "You can stay as long as you want...but in case you have to leave because of work or whatever...I'll let the receptionist know that you are my guests...so nobody will cause you any problems."

And with that, she was gone.
-------------------------------------

Regina had not wanted to stay, but Henry had convinced her that they should do something nice for Emma because the blonde did always help them out and Regina had known that her son was right.
It was time they gave something back.

So she had taken a shower and since she had not wanted to wear her work clothes Regina had sneaked into Emma's bedroom quickly, not bothering to look around, because she felt she had no right to do so and had taken some jeans and a simple t-shirt out of the closet before she had returned to the living room.

To her big surprise, the clothes fit better than anticipated once and she found Henry standing in front of the fridge once she returned from the guestroom.

"We should cook dinner for Emma, Mom...what do you think?"

Regina considered it for a moment, but in the end, she decided that it would probably be her best shot since cooking was something she was skilled in, "Sure, sweetheart. Why not."
----------------------------------------

When Emma finally returned from the hospital it was close to 8 pm.
She was exhausted and starving and all the waiting clearly had taken a toll on her.
Ruby had made it through the surgery, but she was not out of the woods yet.
The doctors had been able to find the source of the bleeding – a small piece of bone from her rib had pierced her lung and that had caused the collapse.

They had known about her broken ribs, but the x-ray had not shown any loose bone fragments back then. Obviously, it had moved only recently and nobody had been able to predict that.
At least Ruby was stable and Emma prayed that it would stay that way.

She would order something to eat because clearly Regina and Henry would be gone by now, and then she would go to bed and try to get some much-needed rest.

Regina and Henry.
Had it been a mistake to leave them alone in her apartment?
She doubted it.

Although she hardly ever trusted anyone – there was something about Regina Mills.
Something that told her that the brunette could be trusted.
Maybe it was the way Regina cared for her son.
-------------------------------------------

Regina stood in front of the oven, waiting for her lasagna to be ready while Henry set the table.
She was not sure when Emma would come back, but she could always heat up some of the lasagna later – if necessary.

She had talked Jefferson into switching her shifts with one of the other girls so she had tonight off instead of tomorrow because she had to make sure that Emma was alright.
It was the least she could do, wasn't it?

Regina was still confused about most of what they had talked about earlier, but she was relieved that, no matter what Emma's intentions were, at least it was nothing physical because that was something she would not be able to handle.
And not only because she was not into women.

But deep down it kind of irked her that Emma obviously had no interest in her – at all.
She simply had no explanation for it, not that she would be that vain, but usually, everybody just wanted to drag her to bed, wanted nothing, but her body.
It irritated her to no end that Emma was completely different from anyone else she had ever gotten to know because she was not sure what to expect from the blonde and it drove her crazy because Regina was big on control – it was what made her feel "safe".
At least a little.

When the penthouse door opened all of a sudden Regina almost jumped, but she collected herself within a heartbeat, "You are right on time, dear...right on time."

Emma, who had walked in with her head down, looked up instantly at the sound of the familiar voice and a smile appeared on her face, "You're still here!"

"Yes. And we made you dinner...", Henry came running and grinned widely.

"Oh my God, thank you! But it wouldn't have been necessary...although I admit I'm starving...I was about to order something...", Emma stated and hugged the boy quickly, some of the tension from worrying about Ruby's well-being leaving her body, "It smells delicious..."

"Just take a seat...Henry and I will join you in a minute".
-----------------------------------------

Regina had noticed the sadness in the blonde's eyes and had decided to give Emma a moment to calm down because she seemed to be very upset and worked up – so a rather quiet dinner would be in order.

Regina had been right.
Emma had barely spoken a word during dinner, but she had eaten her lasagna and had complimented her cooking, which had been a huge relief.

Now that the dishes were done they were waiting for Emma's driver to pick them up and bring them home – the blonde had insisted that they would let him drive them.

"Will you think about the offer I made? About the apartment thing...", Emma asked all of a sudden and Regina looked at her in surprise, sure that the blonde had to have more important things on her mind, "I will."

But both of them knew right then and there that Regina would never ask for help and then the doorbell rang.
-----------------------------------------

A week had passed since Emma had seen Regina and Henry and although she had been busy as hell with work and checking on Ruby and Mary Margaret, Emma still missed them.
It had been so nice to have dinner with them, but she did not have much hope that something like that would happen again anytime soon.

Ruby was finally doing better, but David was still in his coma and Mary Margaret was close to insanity.
Emma hated that there was nothing she could do to help her friends, but at least she had taken every free minute to visit them and be there for them.
Her best friend would not be released for another week, but she was alive and that was all that mattered to Emma.
-----------------------------------

Regina did not know what to do.
Henry was sick as hell and Gold still refused to send someone to repair the damn heater.

She knew he needed a doctor, but unfortunately, his new school books had ripped a larger hole into her budget than expected, so she simply could not afford it.
They really needed a better place to stay, but how should she do that?
And then she remembered her conversation with Emma.
Should she really? Was she really that desperate?

Yes.
The answer was yes.
She had to put her pride aside – just this once.
For Henry's sake.
He deserved better than this.

And so Regina took the business card from her son's nightstand and grabbed her phone, dialing the number of the one person, who would probably be able and willing to help her out for real.
------------------------

It was close to 4 am when Emma woke up to the sound of her phone and she grumbled angrily – especially when she caught sight of a number on the display she had never seen before.
So it was not the hospital and that meant it could not be an emergency.
God only knew why she picked up anyway.

As soon as she realized who was on the other end of the line Emma was wide awake though – as if somebody would have splashed her face with ice water.

"Regina...calm down...what? What do you mean Henry is sick and Gold refuses to have the heater repaired...it's almost winter...okay, I get it. Sure my offer still stands...in fact I already found an apartment for you to stay in...it's nothing big...but it has two bedrooms and the area is nice...but that doesn't matter right now...pack the essentials...and I'll come to pick you up...see you in a few."

That said Emma jumped up, put on the next best jeans she could grab from her closet on the way out, and before she knew it she was already driving off into the night.
She called Doctor Whale and told him to be at her penthouse in about an hour and although he was not amused he agreed, simply because he was close friends with her father and for once she was really thankful for the Swan family name.

While she drove over to Mifflin Street she realized what had happened minutes ago.
Regina Mills had called her for help.
And although it would probably mean nothing to Regina, because obviously, she was her one and only option, it meant something to Emma.
It meant a lot.

Chapter Text

Regina was sitting on the edge of the bed in Emma's guestroom, stroking over her sleeping son's head, worry written all over her face.
Emma stood in the doorway, silently watching mother and son.

Doctor Whale had been waiting for them by the time they had arrived at the penthouse and Emma had been more than grateful for that.
He had examined Henry quickly, telling them that it was the flu and that the boy needed rest.
He had also given Regina some medication and instructions on when and how many of the pills Henry had to take.

Furthermore, Whale had pointed out that it was no wonder that the boy had gotten sick considering the place he was living in and all color had left Regina's face.
Of course, Whale had remembered her.

Emma had told him right away that she had found a better apartment for the brunette and her son and although he had given her a questioning look at first, he had nodded his approval after a second, but the doctor's words had cut deep and Emma could see it on Regina's face.

She had to do something to make her feel better because it was obvious that Regina was blaming herself when she really should blame that greedy Mister Gold, who had not bothered to have the heater repaired.

"Henry will be fine in no time...you'll see", Emma tried, but Regina did not even blink.

"I'm going to make myself some tea. Do you want some too?"

No reaction.

"Regina?"

Still nothing.

Emma felt unbelievably helpless.

Usually, she would go and hug her friends to comfort them, but she knew that it would be a bad idea to touch Regina – she had learned that lesson the first time.
And besides that, they were not exactly friends, at least not yet.

"Listen...I need to make a phone call...and then I'll make some tea. It would be nice if you would join me...only if you want...of course."
That said Emma left the room and headed straight into her office.

It was still very early, but she had to call her secretary – Virginia Vaughn had to clear her schedule for the day because she would make sure that Regina and Henry would get settled in their new apartment.
----------------------------

Emma was pouring some hot water into two mugs when Regina appeared in the kitchen, looking completely devastated.

"Regina, please sit down...I'll be right there", Emma announced, worried that the brunette would faint any second.

Once they were both seated on the living room couch, each of them a mug in hand, Regina could not hold the tears back any longer.
She was not one to cry in front of others, to show weakness, but she was too exhausted to care anymore.

"Your doctor was right", Regina admitted between sobs, her head hanging low, "I should have taken better care of Henry...I should have swallowed my pride earlier...but...it's not that easy...for someone like me...when you always get let down..."

"Regina...it's alright. And it's not your fault. Why are you blaming yourself when you should be angry at Gold. He should have taken care of the heater...he should have given you a better place to stay at in the first place!"

Emma felt so angry. If she ever got a chance to talk to this Mister Gold she would give him a piece of her mind.

"You don't understand. I owe him...I owe him a lot. He helped me when I had nothing...sure, he did it for his own advantage...but he gave me a chance when I had nobody...when I was at my lowest point. And while I admit it was not the biggest of chances...I live. And I have Henry, who is truly amazing...but he deserves so much better", Regina explained and sounded utterly defeated.

Emma reached out to touch Regina's hand, but came to her senses right in time and pulled back as if she would have been burnt, "I'm...I'm sorry. I didn't mean to...I'm just...I'm sorry. I'm used to...you know...hug people...when they need comfort or something...but I know you don't like it...and I don't want you to be uncomfortable...it won't happen again...sorry."

While Regina had tensed up instantly once she had recognized what Emma had been up to, the blonde's rambling made her relax quite as fast and she had to admit that it was kind of amusing to hear Emma Swan ramble, because of a simple, innocent gesture.
Except that nothing was innocent for Regina.
Not anymore.
Not after years of torture.

"It's okay, dear. I'm aware that I am a very difficult person. Some people would even call me a freak", Regina admitted all of a sudden.

"You are not a freak. You have a history...and I get that. I think you've been through some big shit in your life...and that's why you don't trust people anymore...which I completely understand, really. I do. But look at Henry...he would have never turned out to be this wonderful boy he is...if it wasn't for you. You are a great mom...you might not have much, but you have made the very best out of the little you've got...and that's truly amazing", Emma stated matter-of-factly and took a sip of her tea.

Regina stayed silent, not sure what to reply to that, but deeply touched by the blonde's words because she could tell that Emma was absolutely serious.

"I still don't understand why you care...", Regina admitted after a while and turned to really look at Emma, who gave her a small smile and shrugged, "Maybe because I never had a family."

Regina wanted to interrupt, but Emma made a gesture with her hand to signalize the brunette to listen and continued, "As you already know I've been adopted...my parents died in a car accident when I was little...I can't even remember them. My aunt took me in, but she was old and she could not take care of me...so it was either the orphanage or foster homes...but I got lucky...and the Swans adopted me. And I'm really grateful for that...don't think I don't know how much I owe them...but the thing is...they always have been traveling...since I can remember. They were always somewhere, but hardly ever home. Sure, there were nannies and stuff, but I would have needed a mom and a dad. We don't have the worst relationship and they have become some sort of parents over the years...and the Swan family name has opened some important doors for me in the past...but everything I have...everything I am today...I worked for it. I built that with my own hands. But I would have never made it without help...and now...I want to help you...to do the same. To rise and shine."

"And why are you so sure that I will be able to...as you put it..."rise and shine"...how can you believe in me when I fail to believe in myself most days...tell me, dear...", Regina challenged her once again.

"I have some sort of a feeling."
That was all the answer Emma gave, simply because she had no better explanation.
-------------------------

Once they had finished their tea Emma had offered Regina to show her the new apartment.
At first, Regina had not wanted to leave her sick son alone, but Emma had pointed out that it was not far and that Henry would sleep for a while anyway and so Regina had given in.

They had left the penthouse and Emma head led Regina to the elevator but had not gotten into it.
Instead, she had headed down the corridor and had unlocked the door to another apartment on the top floor.

It was a completely furnished two-bedroom place and although it was not as modern as Emma's penthouse, it was comfortable and domestic.
Regina's eyes went wide and Emma knew right away that it would be a piece of work to convince the brunette of her genius plan.

"Miss Swan! You can't be serious..."

Emma sighed.
There we go.

"Listen, Regina..."

"No. You listen to me! You said you'll get me an apartment for 300 dollars a week. And this place...has to cost a fortune...", Regina snapped.

"It costs whatever I think is appropriate", Emma countered.

"What's that supposed to mean?" Now Regina was truly confused.

"This apartment was part of my penthouse once. The man I bought it from about two years ago was a widower, who lived here with his little daughter. And since he was working a lot he had a nanny to take care of his child whenever he was away and she lived here. He had the penthouse split up because he had no need for that much space. And neither had I. That's why the apartment stayed empty when I moved in. But I own this floor...so the apartment is mine and I can do with it what I want...and I am renting it to you...for 300 dollars a week...and don't you dare argue with me about it", Emma's stare was intense and Regina knew that any discussion would be pointless, so she did nothing, but nod in understanding.

"I take it you have to work tonight...Leroy will drive you and pick you up. And we'll figure something out for the future because The Rabbit Hole isn't exactly around the corner", Emma stated simply, "I can watch Henry tonight if that's okay with you...if not...I'm sure we can find a babysitter..."

Regina shook her head, "That won't be necessary if you really don't mind because Henry really enjoys your company."

It was Emma's turn to nod, "I'll leave you to yourself for a bit. In case Henry wakes up I'll bring him over. And I'll have one of the security guys bring up your boxes from the garage. I'll also give the staff some instructions so you'll have no trouble getting in and out of the building in the future."

She was about to leave when all of a sudden Regina reached out and squeezed her hand.
Just for a second, but still.
She squeezed Emma's hand and both of them were aware of how big of a step, how much of progress that was.

"Thank you, Miss Swan. You have no idea..."

But Emma waved her off, "You could do me a favor though..."

Regina held her breath.
Of course, there was something.
Even a good-hearted person like Emma Swan would want something in return.
She would do it though, no matter what.
For Henry.
This apartment was their only option, their only chance.

"What can I do for you, Miss Swan?"

Emma saw the horror in Regina's eyes and answered quickly to take the brunette's fears away, "Please, call me Emma."

Chapter Text

Emma had enjoyed her evening with Henry even more than she had expected.
Once the boy had found out that they were Emma's neighbors now he had been ecstatic and had given her a bone-crushing hug, obviously fully aware that they owed it to Emma and her enormous generosity that they had this new apartment now.
A much better apartment.

There had been a certain sparkle in his innocent eyes and that had been more than enough of a 'Thank you' for Emma, but what had been even more precious than Henry's reaction had been Regina's relieved and honest smile.
It had been so genuine and Emma had promised to herself that she would do everything in her powers to bring that smile back on the brunette's face as often as possible.
-------------------------------

Once Regina had left for 'The Rabbit Hole' Henry had continued to work on some school project while Emma had gotten some paperwork done, but once they both had been finished Henry had talked her into playing 'Scrabble'.

Emma had been surprised once again because she had expected that he would want to watch TV or play some computer game or something, but of course, Henry had chosen something completely different.
And yet it had been a great evening with a lot of fun and laughter and Emma had realized once again what a great mother Regina was.
Always had been.
---------------------------------

Her night at work had been long, but bearable at least.
No incidents with annoying customers and since Gold was out of town Regina's shift had gone smoothly.
But now that she sat in the backseat of the black car on her way back home – she had to chuckle at the thought.

Home.
Home was now a beautiful and comfortable top floor apartment with two bedrooms, not the run down, dirty hell hole without a working heater.
Her new home was an apartment she could never afford if it would not be for Emma Swan.

The blonde was still a mystery to her.
What was her gain from all of this?
Was it possible that she really did it out of the goodness of her heart?
It sounded too good to be true and yet it seemed to be the case.

Earlier today she had thought the bubble would finally burst when Emma had asked her for a favor.
She had thought that this would be it.
The turning point.
The moment Emma would drop her mask and show who she really was under all the layers of kindness and generosity, but Regina had been wrong once again.

"Please, call me Emma."

She had needed a minute to realize that the blonde was actually serious and she had wanted to laugh out loud.
It had to be a joke, right?
Emma had been helping her out from the moment they had met and all she had asked of her in return was to be addressed by her first name?

Regina had been too surprised to answer, she had truly been rendered speechless, so she had only nodded her agreement and had earned a decent smile from the blonde.
Which had not been the weirdest thing that day, because it had made her happy to see Emma smile at her – and that had been far more confusing than anything else that had happened to her lately.

She had even grabbed Emma's hand that day, had squeezed it in gratitude and Regina was doubting her own sanity.
What had gotten into her?
Why was she letting her guard down?
It was not much, but still.

It had not stayed unnoticed that Emma had found a way to get under her skin and Regina was worried.
What if she got too close?

She would get burned eventually – Regina was certain about that.
It was always the same in the end.
-----------------------------------------

When Regina finally arrived at Emma's apartment it was close to 5 am.

Emma had already made coffee offered Regina to drive her and Henry to his school in about two hours since they still had to talk about the transportation problem.

Henry was sleeping in Emma's guest room safe and sound so Regina grabbed a mug of coffee and headed to her own apartment to take a shower and change clothes while Emma would do the same in her own apartment.

It was a bizarre situation, but Regina had to admit that it did not feel as awkward as she thought it would and she returned to the penthouse about an hour later, surprised to find Emma preparing breakfast once again while Henry set the table with a smile.
This felt way too familiar, way too comfortable.

And yet Regina was so unbelievably grateful because she was too worn out from her shift to do it herself.
----------------------------------

Once they had dropped Henry off at school Emma had brought her back home and had driven off to go to her office only a minute later, but not without telling Regina that she would meet her in front of their building at 4 pm.

Their building.
It had sounded so absurd.
Well, it still did, but somehow Regina did not mind that much anymore.

Now that she was waiting for Emma she felt nervous though.
What would Emma want now?

At least she had gotten some hours of well-deserved sleep and Regina had to admit that she had slept like a rock – the new bed was way more comfortable than the old, shabby couch.

When Emma's black Mercedes finally showed up and the blonde waved her over to get into the car Regina was a bit confused, but she did it anyway, praying that she did the right thing.
Why was she so anxious?

Emma had driven her home before and the blonde had been nothing, but kind and caring.
She would not harm her now and Regina knew it, but still.
Trusting was not her strong skill and it never would be, no matter how nice Emma would be.

"Sorry, I'm late...", Emma announced with an apologizing smile, "First I got held up in my office and well...traffic is a disaster today as well."

"It's fine, Mi...Emma", Regina corrected herself immediately.

She did not like addressing Emma with her first name, because it meant that they became closer, that her walls got more and more cracks, but it was the only thing Emma had asked of her, so she would do Emma this favor because Regina had noticed that Emma tensed up whenever she called her 'Miss Swan'.

And after all Emma had done for her it was the least she could do, whether she liked it or not.

"I hope you slept well?", Emma asked, obviously unsure if the question was appropriate or not, but Regina nodded her approval before she could say anything else, "Yes, dear. I did indeed sleep well."

"Awesome."
They arrived at the backside of the building where the entranceway of the garage was located and Emma handed Regina a small remote, "You need that to open the door. Just push the yellow button."

Regina did as she was told and the door started to open immediately.

"If the battery is low or something...the code is 7478852...you have to enter it over there...right next to the door...see?", Emma pointed at the display on the wall and Regina nodded in understanding.

"I'll write it down for you later."
That said Emma drove the car down into the garage and parked her car in the empty spot with the name tag 'Swan'.

Both women got out of the car and Emma waved Regina over to her once again, just to hand her a key, "I figured you would never agree to drive my car...or that you would want to drive one of the Swan company...so I thought you could take my old car. And before you argue with me now...hear me out."

Emma watched Regina closely, waiting for her to snap at her or something, but when the brunette stayed silent she continued, "It was my first car...and it never let me down till this very day. I got it when I was about sixteen and I worked my ass off for two summers to save up the money to get it. My parents would have bought it for me...well, they probably would have gotten me a lot fancier one...no doubt...but I wanted to own this car and I wanted to earn it...so yeah...it's not the newest car anymore, but it's the best one...I swear. And you need to get to work somehow...or drive Henry to school...and we both know it."

And then Emma pointed to a yellow bug, that was parked in the spot right next to her Mercedes.
A spot with the name tag 'Mills'.

Regina stood there and did not know what to say.
Emma was right – of course.
With everything in fact.

She would have never agreed to drive one of the expensive cars of the Swans, but she needed a car because she had to go to work and Henry needed to go to school.

But that old Volkswagen Beetle, well.
She was suspicious, to say the least.
To her it seemed to be more of a deathtrap than an actual car, but Emma seemed to love that bug dearly and she had worked hard for it to get it – so, for once Regina decided to trust Emma's judgment, hoping that she would not regret it.
---------------------

Once they made it up to Emma's penthouse she wrote the code down for Regina as she had promised down in the garage, but before Regina could have left Emma had another suggestion for her.

The Swans were good friends with Archie Hopper, who happened to be the headmaster of one of the best private schools in Boston and she wanted Henry to go there and meet him.

When Regina told her that she could never afford it, but more than that she did not want Emma to pay for it either, Emma explained that Henry would have to take some test and if he would pass it he would get a scholarship and neither of them would have to pay.

It had taken Emma some time to convince Regina that it would be Henry's best shot, because hell, that boy was smart, but in the end, Regina had given in and had agreed to take Henry to see headmaster Hopper on Friday.

Henry took the test a couple of days later and got the scholarship as Emma had predicted because clearly, he was one of the smartest kids she had ever met.
Even Archie had said that.

And although Regina had her doubts in the beginning, she was happy after all, because it meant that Henry would have it a lot better in life than her.
He would get a chance, a real chance.

When the headmaster had asked her what she did for a living she had been so scared to admit that she was a stripper, but Emma had nodded at her with a smile and so she had told Archie Hopper the truth.

He had been surprised for a moment but had not paid much attention to it. He had been too focused on his new student.
And Regina had wondered why he had not cared more, but she had figured that it was Emma's presence that had saved her once again.

She would never be able to re-pay Emma for everything she had done for them.
And then again Regina did not want to owe someone so much, but it was too late.
Henry deserved this – she reminded herself of it every day.
------------------------------------

Over the next week, the three of them developed some sort of a routine – together with the help of Jefferson, who had agreed to coordinate Regina's shifts with Emma's schedule whenever possible, which had worked out well in the end.

Regina would bring Henry over to Emma before she left for "The Rabbit Hole" and the blonde would finish her paperwork at home instead of in her office – so she would be there by the time Regina had to leave.

When Emma had an event she had to attend to Regina would take that day off that week.

The big plus was that Henry's new school was only a ten-minute walk away and when Regina was too tired after a long shift Emma would get him over.
Of course, Regina hated that she had grown so dependent on Emma, but it was for Henry's best and her son simply adored Emma, who seemed quite fond of him as well.

The one thing Regina really had gotten used to was the mug of fresh coffee every morning when she came home because Emma would always have some ready for her.

Emma's sleeping hours were a mystery to her, but Emma probably went to bed at the same time as Henry or at least that was what Regina hoped because otherwise, Emma would collapse at some point.
Yes, she had started to care about Emma's well-being lately, but she did not know why.

First, she had thought that it was because Emma had done so much for them, but at some point, Regina had realized that there had to be another reason.
Sure, she felt immense gratitude, but there was more to it.
Was it possible that Emma slowly became her friend?
A real friend?

Regina was not sure about it, but she would have an eye on Emma anyway because the blonde always looked out for them – it was time someone looked out for her as well.
---------------------------

Regina and Henry arrived at the penthouse early a few days later, just to bump into a small woman with a strange accent, who glared at them in disbelief.

"Em, isn't that...the stripper from 'The Rabbit Hole'?"

Emma turned to face the woman immediately, "Regina, this is my friend Belle French...Belle, this is Regina Mills...and her son Henry...my new neighbors."

"Your what?"
The woman's stare became even more intense.

"I rented my apartment to them...down the hall", Emma explained with a smile in Regina's direction and winked at Henry.

"You did what?! I can't believe you rented your place to a..."
But before Belle could say anything else, she got interrupted by Emma, "Don't even think about continuing that sentence. For one...there is a kid in the room...and second...show Regina some respect. You are not better than her just because your father has a shitload of money...which you love spending..."

Henry sensed that this would turn into a talk between grown-ups and he headed for the guestroom before anyone could tell him to.

"How dare you talk to me like that, Emma Swan? I'm just worried about you...worried that somebody uses you again...like that..."

"Enough! You don't have to worry about me...Regina did not even want to live here...I practically had to drag her over...and I would have never succeeded if her landlord had agreed to get the heater repaired", Emma snapped, clearly not ready to have her past discussed in front of Regina.

"We should probably go..." Regina stated quietly, obviously uncomfortable.

"No! Please stay...Belle wanted to go anyway", Emma shot the small woman a glare, who only shook her head, "I thought we wanted to go visit Ruby together. Last time before she finally gets released."

"I've changed my mind. I'll call her later."
That said Emma walked over to the kitchen counter and grabbed some take-out menu, "I'm starving. Who's hungry?"

Belle's reaction to her presence had startled Regina for a minute, but the woman was gone before she could have said anything more.

"I'm sorry that we came over so early...I did not mean to get you in trouble with your friend", Regina stated quickly, feeling the need to apologize.

"Don't be ridiculous, Regina. Belle is a spoiled brat and she has no manners...obviously. I have not seen her in a while...well, I have not seen anyone in a while, because I've been busy with work..." Emma started, but got interrupted by Regina, "Or you've been watching Henry when your friends are in hospital...I'm sorry for being so selfish..."

"Stop it!", Emma looked slightly frustrated but pulled herself together within seconds, "I love spending time with Henry...really, I do. And I've been visiting them twice last week...in my lunch break. It's fine, really. As you heard...Ruby will get released tomorrow and David is still in a coma. There's not much I can do for him. But some of my friends are coming over this weekend for some drinks...even Mary Margaret...although she does not want to leave him...but she needs a break."

Regina nodded in understanding, "That's a good idea. And since I'm off work this Saturday you'll have the day to yourself."

Emma hesitated for a second, "Actually...I thought...you could...you know...join us? You and Henry of course."

"Now why would you want that? You've seen how well that goes only a minute ago...", Regina eyed her suspiciously.

"Believe it or not, Regina...but you and your son have become a part of my life too. I don't care if anyone approves of you living in my apartment...I don't care that you are a stripper...and if one of my friends has a problem with it...they know where the door is", Emma stated, all serious, a challenging sparkle shining in her eyes.

"I'll think about it."
It was all Regina could say, because she was well aware that Emma meant every word she had said.
And once again she was impressed by the blonde, who had been a stranger to her only a few weeks ago.
But she was also hit by the realization that Emma Swan had become a part of her life as well.

And that was exactly the moment Regina Mills finally accepted her life for what it was now and reached out to the blonde, whom she had tried to stay away from whenever possible.
Because yes, Emma had indeed become her friend.
And Emma had never pushed her, had never asked to spend time with her although they were living door to door – definitely not because she did not want to, but because she respected Regina and her wish for privacy.
But after all that Emma had done to help them it was time that she gave something back to her and Regina knew exactly what she would do.

"How come that you always order dinner...because I know for a fact that you can cook?", she asked all of a sudden and caught Emma completely off guard.

"Well...cooking for one person is kind of...you know...lame. Makes you realize how lonely you really are...I guess that's why I try to avoid it", Emma shrugged rather helplessly.

Regina nodded, "I understand. May I suggest something?"

"Sure. Go ahead."
Emma seemed to be quite curious.

"I'm cooking every day...because of Henry. Healthy food is important...especially for kids. Why don't we have dinner together since you should be home by then anyway? You would not have to order this unhealthy stuff all the time and I would not have to throw half of the food away", Regina explained and watched Emma expectantly.

"Are you sure? You don't have to do this. I don't want to interrupt or something..."

"Emma, now you should stop being ridiculous. Of course, I am sure. It would be my pleasure...and I think it's safe to say that my son would be thrilled as well. So, do we have a deal?"

The smile on Regina's face was what convinced Emma in the end, "We have a deal."

"Great. I'll expect you over at our place tomorrow at six then. Sharp."
That said Regina headed for the door because she could not afford to be late – especially since Jefferson was helping her so much.
But before she left she turned to face Emma one last time, "I'll see you in the morning, dear. Oh, right...and order a salad, Miss Swan."

And while Emma had never been happy to hear her address her like that, this time it earned Regina a truly genuine smile.

Maybe because of the playful tone in her voice.
Maybe because they really made progress.
They had become an important part of each other's life after all.

Chapter Text

Regina stood in front of the bathroom mirror and checked her makeup for what felt the tenth time.

She was a nervous wreck and she thought about canceling once again.
Why had she agreed to show up at Emma's tonight in the first place?
Especially with most of her friends being there?

Regina was not good at socializing, it was more like she hated most people.
And Emma had given her an out, had told her that she should not feel pressured to come, and yet she had agreed.
Why on earth had she done that?
Probably because she felt kind of proud that Emma wanted her to be a part of this?
Because Emma did not feel ashamed or tried to hide her from the rest of her friends?

Emma could have easily done that.
She could have presented her as some charity case or something like that to Belle, a misjudgment or God knows what, and when Regina was honest she had expected that, but Emma had risked Belle being mad at her by putting her in place.
And that had impressed Regina once again.

There was also the fact that she was curious – to say the least – to meet these people since they seemed important to Emma and by getting to know them she would learn more about Emma as well.
And that was what Regina really was interested in.

She wanted to get to know Emma better, but she wanted to do it in a subtle way because she was not good at talking and she feared a decent conversation more than anything, simply because she would have to reveal part of her own past as well and she was nowhere near ready for that.

She could not "interrogate" Emma without sharing something in return – that would not be fair.
So plan B had to do it for now.

"Mom, we are going to be so late!", Henry yelled from the living room, causing Regina to jump.

She took a deep breath and a last glance at the mirror, aware that it was now or never.
If she would not leave right this moment, she would not go at all and she had promised Emma to show up.
And Regina intended to keep her word.
---------------------------------

Emma opened the door and when she caught sight of Regina and Henry a huge smile appeared on her face, "Hey kid! Regina...I'm glad you are here."

Henry hugged her quickly and stormed into the penthouse before she could blink, leaving the two women to stare at each other by themselves.

"Are you sure this is a good idea?", Regina hesitated to enter, afraid that the evening would go all kinds of wrong.

"Everything's going to be fine. I promise. I won't let anybody hurt you or Henry", Emma assured quickly and Regina took her hand and squeezed it once again.
Emma's smile grew even wider and Regina finally stepped inside, still worried, but comforted by the blonde's statement.

"You look great by the way", Emma commented to distract Regina and when the brunette's cheeks turned a light shade of pink she knew that she had succeeded.

"Thanks. So do you", Regina admitted and ducked her head.

Emma made a gesture for Regina to wait for a second, "Before I introduce you to everyone...can I ask you something?"

Regina stopped dead in her tracks immediately and Emma did not know whether to laugh or cry, because the brunette really expected the worst – all the time, "You know I love your cooking...you must have realized that by now...but I wanted to ask if it would be okay if I would cook dinner tomorrow. I haven't cooked in a while and I kind of miss it..."

At that Regina had to smile.
Yes, she was aware how much Emma had enjoyed their dinners the last few days and if she was honest she had enjoyed them just as much.
It was nice to cook for someone except for Henry because he ate pretty much anything without giving much attention to her skills.
But Emma had seemed to be truly happy about them eating together, especially when the food was so delicious – as the blonde had put it only yesterday.

And so Regina nodded her approval, "Fine. What time should we be over?"

Emma grinned at her playfully, "At six. Sharp."
------------------------------

By the time they joined the others Henry had already introduced himself and Killian had talked him into playing some racing game on the X-Box.
Needless to say that Henry was beating him with ease.
Was there anything that kid could not do?

"I see you've met Henry already...well, this is his mom. My neighbor and friend Regina Mills", Emma announced matter-of-factly, then she pointed to the three women on the couch, "Regina, you already know Belle. And these are Mary Margaret Blanchard and Ruby Lucas. And the guy over there with the camera...that is Graham Hunter."

He waved over at them, but focused on his camera only a second later, mumbling something like, "I'll be over there in a minute."

Emma chuckled, "He is a photographer, but I guess that's not hard to figure out."

Regina nodded and watched her son and the other man in the room with interest, which did not stay unnoticed by Emma, "Right...the guy that gets his ass kicked by your son...that would be Killian Jones."

"Nobody is kicking my...", he snapped, but right that moment his car crashed into the next best wall, "Damn it!"
Killian sent the X-Box controller flying to the ground and everyone in the room started to laugh about his childish behavior.

"So not funny", he grumbled and got up, just to appear by Emma's side only a moment later, offering Regina his hand, "Good evening, love. It's nice to finally meet you after all I've heard about you."

Regina was startled by the comment, but shook his hand anyway, "The pleasure is mine, Mister Jones."

"Please, call me Killian, darling. May I say your makeup is outstanding? I've seen pics of you from 'The Rabbit Hole' and one could say it's practically art. Would you be so kind to tell me who did it?"

At that Regina was even more surprised.
Who was that guy?
She decided to reply anyway because she did not want to piss anyone off – at least not today.
Not when it was so important to Emma that she got to know her friends.

"I do it myself."

His eyes went wide, "Impressive. Really impressive. You are wasting your talent in that club. If you ever think about a change of employment...have Emma call me. I'd love to hire you. Oh, and your little boy...he is badass."
That said the man turned around and headed to the kitchen counter to get himself a drink.

"He's a make-up artist", Emma explained when she saw the confused look on Regina's face, "A quite famous one in fact. And he's hopelessly gay."

Regina chuckled, "Who would have guessed?! If the eyeliner does not give him away, his way of walking definitely does."

Both women shared a laugh before Emma addressed her other guests, "Who wants pizza?"
-----------------------------------

"The good news is...I managed to place an order...after half an hour in the waiting loop...the bad news is they are dramatically understaffed and we have to wait at least two hours to get food", Emma stated and dropped her head.

"Are you serious?", Ruby glared at her in disbelief, "I'm starving."

"Me too", Mary Margaret added with a sigh.

"Yeah, we all are", Killian grumbled.

Silence filled the room because clearly everyone was unsure what to do.

"Cancel that order. If you are up for it I could make some lasagna", Regina suggested hesitantly.

Emma shook her head, "Nonsense. You don't have to cook, Regina. It's your day off."

"It's really no big deal. And it doesn't take much time to prepare it", Regina insisted.

"I'll help her", Ruby volunteered all of a sudden, much to everyone's surprise, and Regina nodded her approval, "It's settled then."

Henry was beaming with joy, "Awesome! Mom makes the best lasagna...ever. You'll love it."
----------------------------------------------

Regina was not too happy about Ruby's offer, but she had not dared to decline it.
She could be nice to people for one evening – for Emma's sake.

Of course, the leggy brunette had offered to help her bring the ingredients over from her apartment and as much as Regina dreaded letting a stranger into her home she could use a helping hand.
Not necessarily the one of Ruby Lucas, but what could she do about it?
If she would have told her that she did not want her at her place people would have thought that she was weird.
Well, even weirder than they expected her to be anyway.

Once they entered the apartment Ruby broke the silence, "I wanted to talk to you for a second..."

No.
Absolutely not.
Regina knew exactly what would come now.

Of course, that sneaky brunette had tricked her – just to tell her to stay the hell away from Emma.

She gritted her teeth, trying her hardest not to snap, "Sure. What do you want to talk about?"

"I just wanted to apologize for Belle's behavior the other day", Ruby announced with a shy smile, "I know it's not my place, but Emma told me what happened and I'm sorry. Belle and Mary Margaret have grown up pretty spoiled, they never had to face real life. Not like Emma, not like me."

Yes, that caught Regina off guard. Completely.
She tilted her head and looked at Ruby in confusion, "Like you?"

"I grew up at my grandmother's because my mother ran off with some jerk when I was eight. We never had much money, but I would not change it for a thing. I got lucky later and got a scholarship, that's how I met Emma...back in the day...in highschool. We became best friends rather quickly and it has stayed that way ever since. I'm working as a costume designer now for some tv shows and I love it...I make good money...I have a better life, but I would have never made it without my grandma. And Emma", Ruby explained, her voice full of appreciation and gratitude.

Regina did not know what to say to that, so she just nodded, but when she wanted to open the fridge Ruby started to talk once again, "You know...you don't have to take every word one of us says personal...we are all just very protective of Emma...after what she's been through with her ex."

She was so tempted to ask what had happened, but Regina knew better than to pry, so she nodded again and Ruby gave her a warm smile, "Emma speaks very highly of you, you know."

"I still don't know what she could possibly see in me", Regina snorted, because she really did not get it.

Ruby laughed at the comment like the answer would be the most logical thing in the world, "She sees you."

Regina could not really focus on cooking, because her mind was occupied with Ruby's last statement about Emma.
She sees you.

It scared Regina to death and on the other hand, she felt relieved that somebody finally seemed to make an effort to see what was hidden behind the mask she was showing to the world.
But Emma did not know enough to really see her, now did she?

Emma was smart and probably suspected some things, but she clearly could not see her for who she truly was and it was better that way, because if Emma would find out – well, Regina was not sure if she would still speak so highly of her then.
Her past was everything, but pretty.
And yet the thought that Emma was actually seeing her in all her "glory" put her on edge, because what if she did?
Was that possible?

Hardly.
But there was this nagging feeling that Emma probably did anyway and no matter how hard she tried – she could not shake it off.
It was driving Regina crazy, to say the least, but she did not dare to actually ask Emma, too afraid of the answer.
-----------------------------

The lasagna had been a full success and even Mary Margaret and Belle had complimented Regina on her cooking and a huge weight had been lifted from Regina's shoulders that second.
Especially when they had engaged in some small talk with her after dinner.
People seemed to warm up to her, at least a little.
Of course, they were still wary, but she could not blame them, because she was too.

Regina had gone outside for a minute to take a deep breath and it had not taken long till Emma had shown up on the balcony to check on her.
They had stood there in silence for a few minutes, enjoying the view and at some point even Henry had shown up and had stood between them, looking at both of them with a smile on his face.

Once they returned to the living room Emma went to talk to Graham about a project and Regina had watched her son beat Killian at the X-Box again.

After a while of racing Henry had passed out on the floor and Emma had carried him into the bedroom as if it was no big deal, but to all her guests it obviously was since everyone was eyeing her in confusion.
Everyone, but Regina.
Because she knew better.

Emma always looked out for Henry, always looked out for them and of course, she would not let him sleep on the floor and he had gotten quite used to the guestroom by now because he was sleeping in it quite often.

Belle, Ruby, and Mary Margaret decided to call it a night only moments later – especially since the pixie-haired woman wanted to go back to the hospital and stay with her comatose fiance – and Ruby needed rest since she had been released from the hospital not too long ago.
And Killian had left with them in the end since he had a job in the morning.
Or at least that was the official version.

Graham was looking at photos he had taken during the evening, most of them unnoticed, and Emma and Regina were leaning against the kitchen counter, "Thanks for coming. It really meant a lot to me...and thanks for cooking. The lasagna was really delicious."

"You're welcome, Emma. It was the least I could do. And thanks for having us...but I better get Henry and go to bed. It's late. Are you coming over for breakfast tomorrow?"

"I'd love to. But why don't you sleep here? I know it's not far from your place..." Emma smirked, "But there is really no need to wake up Henry. As you said...it's late and it's no problem."

Regina seemed to be unsure, but nodded in the end, "Fine. You sure you don't mind?"

"Absolutely not. If you need anything...help yourself. I'm sure you know where everything is by now...and if not...just ask."

"Thank you. Good night, Emma."

"Good night, Regina."
-------------------------

Emma had talked Graham into drinking a glass of wine on the balcony before he would leave as well because she knew that something was weighing heavy on his heart – he had been awfully quiet all evening.

"Do you wanna talk about it?", she asked carefully, aware that she should not push too much.

"There's nothing to talk about, Em. I'm sure you already know that I broke things off with Killian for good", he stated and took a sip of his glass.

"Yeah, he mentioned something on the phone the other day. What happened? I thought you were doing fine lately. Are you okay?", Emma took Graham's hand and squeezed it encouragingly.

"I'm good, really. And to answer your question...we were doing well, yes. But you know how it always was with Killian and me. One day madly in love and the next it was drama all over again. We had this weird love/hate relationship for how long now? I can't even remember, because honestly...this thing...whatever it was...it has driven me crazy...I was close to insanity more than once. Everyone knows that we could never make it work in the long run...we'd kill each other sooner or later...so, what's the point? It cost me too much concentration and I can't afford that. I can't screw up at work...especially not now that my gallery opening is finally happening...I fought too hard for it", Graham explained and took another sip of wine.

"I get it...maybe it's better that way. Although your reasons for giving up are bullshit and we both know it. You could have made it last, but it would have needed a lot more work than you were willing to put into that relationship."

Graham looked at her thoughtfully and nodded in the end, "You are right. But that's the thing, Emma. You and me...we are two of a kind. We simply aren't made for commitment."

"Actually..."
Before Emma could continue she got lost in the memory of her first dinner with Regina and Henry earlier this week.

Regina was watching her like a hawk, but Emma continued eating without even looking up.
If Regina had to say something she would do it eventually.
And she did.

"For someone who doesn't do commitment...you are quite committed to...to...well, to us. And I'm really thankful for that, Emma, but I don't want you to be uncomfortable or anything. You've done more than enough for me and my son."

"It might sound weird, but I don't feel committed. I mean I do. But not in a bad way. Not like I would be caught or that I have to get away...it feels good to be a part of this...whatever you want to call it. It's the first time I want to be committed...kind of...I know it doesn't make sense...", Emma shrugged and gave Regina a rather helpless smile.

"Actually it makes perfect sense. Because I never wanted anyone to be a part of our life...but it's different with you. I hate to admit it...but I couldn't have made life better for Henry by myself...without your help. And we make a really good team after all. Commitment suits you, Miss Swan."

There was this playful tone in Regina's voice again.

Another shrug from Emma and a smile, "Yeah, I guess it does. And it feels great."

"What are you saying, Emma?"

Graham's words brought her back to reality and Emma looked him straight in the eye, "I've come to realize lately...that commitment is not so bad if you are committed to the right people."

"You are talking about Regina and Henry, aren't you?"

"Maybe."

Graham smirked, "Emma Swan, you can't hide from me. I've been taking pics of you guys all evening...and you know I see the world from a different perspective. Through a lens, through some sort of a filter. It helps me see what is substantive."

Emma looked at him, caught off guard and dumbfounded, "What are you trying to say, Graham?"

"Nothing. I know you are not ready to face it. About what is really going on or what it could mean...but know that I know. So, if you ever wanna talk about it...you know where to find me."
-------------------------------------------------------

Emma had sat on the balcony for a lot longer that night, thinking about Graham's words.
She knew exactly what he had meant, but he had been right as well.
She was nowhere near ready to face it or talk about it.

Of course, she would have to at some point, but definitely not anytime soon.
Probably the whole situation would solve itself before it would end in a disaster.
But for that to happen she had to stop giving it any thought at all.
------------------------

She was not in the least surprised that she had not been able to sleep that night and she had ended up doing paperwork for an upcoming event she was planning.
It was a big deal anyway and it could not hurt to take another look at some of the arrangements – one could never be prepared well enough.
Life was full of unwanted surprises after all.

Before she had started on breakfast Emma had called Graham to asked him if he would be free for lunch later and to her relief he had agreed to meet her immediately.

When Regina and Henry had appeared in the kitchen, awoken by the smell of coffee and pancakes, Emma had gotten lost in the sensation of having them in her life once again, and all her worries were forgotten instantly.

Nothing would happen.
They were a team – Regina had said it herself.
And things would stay that way.
But deep down Emma was aware that she was only kidding herself.

Chapter Text

Breakfast relaxed Emma a lot because conversation flew easily and Henry could not stop talking about how he had beaten Killian last evening and the memory alone was enough to make both women chuckle.

"I take it that Graham took pictures throughout the evening?", Regina asked all of a sudden and Emma almost dropped her fork, "Well, yeah...he does that a lot. He lives for catching the moment."

"I see. The two of you seem quite close...", Regina bit her lip, unsure if it was the right thing to say, but when Emma smiled at her she knew that the blonde did not bother.

"We were...a long time ago...I mean we still are. It's just...he's always busy and I am always busy and he is traveling a lot...we don't get to see each other that much anymore", Emma sighed, "I have not even realized how much I miss him till we talked last night. That's why I'm meeting him for lunch today...taking a chance for once...he'll leave town for a photo shoot in a couple of days anyway."

Regina nodded in understanding, "It sounds like you care a lot about him..."

"I do", Emma admitted, "Not in a romantic way though...although I have to say...if Graham and me...well, if we would not be gay...we'd probably be married by now."

Emma laughed at her own comment and Regina raised her eyebrow in confusion, "He is gay too?"

Emma only smirked, "Oh yeah...he is."

"Where did you get to know him...if you don't mind me asking...", Regina was surprised over her own boldness, but she had a feeling that there was more to Emma's and Graham's story.
And they were friends for heaven's sake – so yes, she would try to have decent conversations with Emma. At least here and there.

"Graham grew up in some cabin in the woods, not far from Boston. His father was a dog trainer and they lived with three dogs... grey German shepherds or something like that. They looked a lot like wolves...and we had this dog when I was younger...it was some White Shepherd named Duchess", Emma rolled her eyes at the name, "Don't ask. My mother bought her one day because she thought she was pretty. Needless to say that this dog had no manners and my mother was busy traveling with my father most of the time anyway. Or with shopping or God knows what else. So my father hired Mister Hunter to work with Duchess...and that's how Graham and I met. I was about thirteen then."

"I always wanted a dog too!", Henry was bouncing around with excitement.

"It's not that easy, Henry...a dog is a lot of work and...", Regina started and got cut off by her son's heavy sigh, "I know, mom. I know. It would be awesome though...maybe one day?"

There was this hopeful sparkle in his eyes and neither woman dared to take that away from him, so Regina just said maybe and Emma nodded to assure him.

It was a weird moment for Emma and Regina because they realized for the first time that they had, somewhere along the way, started to behave like parents like they were a real family.
And that thought was scaring and confusing both of them.

"Does Graham's dad still have dogs? Maybe we can visit him sometime?"

Henry pulled them out of their thoughts before one of them could freak out over the recent realization, but both women knew they had to talk about it later though.
Much later preferably.

"I'm sorry, kid. Graham's dad passed away almost twelve years ago", Emma answered sadly.

"Oh, okay", the little boy dropped his head, "I'll go to the bathroom real quick."

Once Henry was out of sight Regina turned to Emma, "What happened?"

"He shot himself...and Graham...he found him when he came back from school. Two days later he sold the dogs although he loved them more than anything...they've been his best friends, they've been everything he knew...but I guess he could not look at them anymore...after...because they reminded him of his dad too much...it was a horrible time, really", Emma explained quickly, "I talked my dad into letting Graham stay with us till he would be done with high school and he worked his ass off to save up money for college and everything. And he made it...he became this great photographer...you really have to see his work at some point...it's amazing...in fact, he is getting his own gallery now...the opening is in a few weeks. Maybe you want to come."

The words, the invitation was out of her mouth before Emma could stop herself, but Regina nodded before insecurity could get the best of her, "I'd love to see his work, but it depends on my shifts...and Henry of course.."

This time it was Emma who nodded in understanding but was thrilled nonetheless because Regina had not declined as she had expected.
But at the same time, she asked herself what the hell she was doing.
The truth was she did not know.
--------------------------

Lunch with Graham had been a blast – the needed distraction to collect herself.

They had talked about the past, their current lives, but they had also discussed some future plans including Graham's gallery opening and even Mary Margaret's and David's wedding once he would wake up from his coma.
Because nobody had a doubt that he would come back, that one day he would open his eyes and smile one of his charming smiles and the world would be right again.
At least that was what everybody was holding onto.

"Want to come over to my studio tomorrow? I wanna show you something...", Graham announced all of a sudden.

"Uhm...sure. Let me check my schedule later and I'll give you a call when I can squeeze you in", Emma countered playfully.

"Wow. Now I feel really important", Graham teased and bumped her shoulder.

Emma chuckled, "You know...with the kid and all...and I can't be late for dinner...Regina would probably kill me."

Graham laughed out loud and Emma, hit by the realization of what she had just said, froze.

"You know how that sounds, Swan, don't you?"

"Shut up!"

"No, seriously, Emma...you can't run from this. You can't run from the truth either", Graham stated, concern written all over his face.

"I need some air."

That said Emma left the restaurant like a fleeing horse.

"Emma!"
--------------------------

Graham had caught up with her within two minutes and Emma sighed heavily.
What the hell just happened?
-------------------------

Lunch had been great, but in the end, it had come down to the one topic she so desperately wanted to avoid – Regina Mills.

"Let's go for a walk in the park", Graham suggested and wrapped his right arm around Emma's shoulder to guide her, "Care to tell me what has you so on edge?"

Emma debated with herself for a moment, aware that opening "Pandora's box" would lead to nothing, but chaos – especially when she had decided to stay silent about the whole thing, but on the other hand – for how long would she be able to keep it in and not go nuts?
She sighed.
Maybe it was better to confess in Graham than to snap at some point.

"I don't know, Graham. It's just...the day I met her...the day I met Regina my whole life turned around."

She had told him the whole story, from the very beginning, in the end, and Graham had listened during the whole time without interrupting her once, but now he had stopped walking and looked Emma straight in the eye, "Are you in love with her?"

Emma shook her head hestitantly, "No. No, I'm not...I mean...maybe I like her a bit too much, but..."

"But you could fall in love with her...", Graham suggested.

"Yeah, I guess...I guess I could. But it can never happen, Graham! Never. Because Regina would think that I just helped her because I want to get her in my bed...she accused me of that once and it's not true. It's just not true!", Emma sounded so desperate and she knew it.

"No need to convince me, Em. I know you...and I also know you'd never do that. But I get that Regina would probably flip since she is not good at trusting people. At least you have that in common", he answered with a sad smile, "Have you ever told her about Jade?"

Emma shook her head once again, "And I probably never will. Why would I? It's not like we would start a relationship or something like that."

"But you are friends, Em. And I can tell that you trust her. How that happened is beyond me since you trust no one anymore since that story...which is understandable by the way."

"I trust you", Emma replied and sighed, "I don't know what it is about Regina, but I just knew I could trust her. Look at her...she is so damaged by her past, she has this crappy job and has lived in a hell hole of an apartment and yet she has managed to raise Henry the way she did. She raised a smart kid with values, with manners, who is loving and kind, who is ready to explore the whole world...could you have done that? I think I couldn't have done that and I don't even know much of her past...but it can't have been pretty when she has ended up in a place like 'The Rabbit Hole'."

"Yeah, you're right. It's a shame that she didn't give Killian's offer a thought. She told him off right away...", Graham commented with a sigh of his own.

"I know. Killian told me he was serious about it and that I should talk to her about it...which I tried after breakfast. But she wouldn't have any of it. Said that it was nothing, but a dream too good to be true...even when I told her that Killian had offered to help her get some diploma or something...I bet it has something to do with this mysterious Mister Gold...Regina mentioned once that...that she owed him a lot...so, my guess is that he would not just let her leave", Emma spoke out what she had been thinking about for quite a while.
Regina had even said so once.

"Maybe we should have a chat with that weasel at some point...and I'll definitely give this asshole a piece of my mind...how can you let people live in a place like that...without a heater...when winter is right around the corner...", Graham growled and Emma chuckled.

"That's why I love you so much, Graham Hunter. Because you have such a protective nature. And as much as I would want to pay that man a visit and kick him where it hurts...we can't do that. We can't go behind Regina's back. She would freak out...and she'd probably never forgive me."

Graham locked eyes with Emma, watching her intensely, "You're afraid of losing her..."

"Yes."
It was barely a whisper, but it was enough.

"I can't lose her. Or Henry. I don't care that we'll never be a couple or anything like that...but I need them in my life. They are the one real thing in all this madness", Emma confessed.

Graham understood perfectly.

In a world of the rich and famous, where money was nothing and everything at the same time, where everything was about image and parties, one could lose any sense for reality quickly.
One could get lost and worse than that – lonely.

A few lucky ones found something that kept them grounded, but most of them got fooled and taken advantage of.
Emma seemed to be on the lucky side for once and it was about damn time.

Chapter Text

The conversation with Graham had been exactly what she had needed.
Emma had felt a lot better once she had admitted her fears and feelings, as confusing as it had been, and it had also given her some peace.

By the time Regina and Henry arrived she had calmed down completely and the easy-going dinner had made Emma see that things could work out if only she tried hard enough.
And yet the next few weeks had turned out to be a roller coaster ride neither of them had been prepared for.

The first couple of days everything was "normal" considering their unusual circumstances, but Emma and Regina had been aware that a talk was in order and one morning they became just too aware of that – when Henry had asked them to escort him to school together.
Of course, they had granted him his wish, but afterward, they had a long conversation about how this constellation was affecting Henry.

The outcome had been that Regina had more or less decided that they should spend more time apart because Emma would get involved with someone eventually and then they would be "in the way" anyway.
And although Emma had wanted to shake Regina and scream at her face if she could not see that they were all she wanted, that they were all she needed, she had stayed silent, because she knew that Regina only tried to protect Henry.
And maybe even herself.

Because everyone had let her down in life and of course Regina was not able to shake the feeling off that Emma would do the same sooner or later.
Could anyone blame her for that?
Emma doubted it.

And on the other side, she was aware that Regina could be right. She would never let them down or get tired of them, but what if she really got involved with someone at some point?
Or if Regina would get involved with someone? Even if it was highly unlikely, but it was not impossible.
Needless to say that Emma did not like the idea one bit.
-------------------------------------

Staying out of each other lives for real had turned out to be a lot harder than in theory – especially when Regina still showed up for her morning coffee every day when Emma took Henry to school every now and again because the brunette was too worn out to stay up for a moment longer when she returned after her shift at 'The Rabbit Hole'.

And of course, there was dinner and even though neither of them would ever admit it, neither Emma nor Regina had any attention to eat alone, especially because Henry was too excited about them eating together.
Every day.

So, instead of staying away from each other, they had grown closer and both women knew it.
Because of that, the situation became more and more awkward till Emma had to leave for a business trip over the weekend.
Maybe it was what they needed.
Time to take a breath, time to overthink the whole situation.

Deep down Emma prayed that Regina would come to realize that everything was okay and that they could just go on like that forever, but she doubted it because the idea of being some sort of a weird patchwork family was unsettling even to Emma.
But more unsettling than that was the fear that Regina would do something drastic, that she would decide that it was not working at all.
Because friends could be family, right?

Of course, they could be, Emma tried to convince herself because all her friends were part of her family.
And yet again – what she shared with Regina and Henry was completely different and she knew it.
-----------------------------

It had been only two and a half days, but it had felt like forever.
At least to Emma.
And to Henry as well.

The boy had hugged her so tight once she had stepped out of the elevator that she had barely been able to breathe, but it had felt too good to be home to have bothered.
And even Regina had seemed to be relieved to see her if Emma had not completely misread the smile the brunette had given her if the sparkle in her warm brown eyes was any indication at all.

It was weird because Emma loved San Fransico and she had always taken upon any opportunity to go there, to party, to enjoy life, but this time she had gone to her meetings and back to her hotel room to sleep.
The end.

No shopping tours although she could very well afford them, no partying, no drinking, nothing.
She had gotten her work done and had slept the rest of the day, in hopes that time would pass faster because all she had wanted was to go back home.
Go back to Regina and Henry.

"How was your trip?", Henry and his curious self always made her smile, and more than that it always got Emma distracted, always made her sorrows fade away.
At least for the time being.

"I'm afraid there is nothing much to tell, kid. I was there for work", she explained while she unlocked her apartment door.

"Don't you like San Francisco?", the boy seemed to be confused.

"Of course I like it. I love it! I've been there so many times I've lost count over the years. I have some good friends there. We used to party a lot and go shopping and stuff like that", Emma replied, regretting it the same second when she saw the growing confusion on Regina's face.
Why couldn't she keep her mouth shut?

To her relief, Regina did not say anything to her revelation – no comment, no questions, nothing.
Instead, Regina cleared her throat, "I have to go and check on dinner. I hope you are hungry..."

"You bet."
----------------------------

Regina disappeared down the corridor and Emma entered her penthouse followed by Henry.
She did not feel like unpacking so she put the suitcase in the corner and sat down on the couch, patting the place next to her, "Sit down, kid. I got you something."

Once Henry had taken a seat Emma opened her bag and took a book of San Francisco out of it, "I thought since you are reading so much..."

"Awesome, Emma! Thanks!" he hugged her quickly before he grabbed the book and opened it the same second, but before he started to dive into it he looked up once again, "Headmaster Hopper said...if I work hard...and keep my good grades up...he said I might get a scholarship for college one day. I really want that, because then I can get a good job...and I can take mom on a vacation...she's never been on a vacation...but she's working so hard all the time...she deserves a vacation, right?"

Emma was startled by the boy's words, how he never asked for anything for himself, how he always tried to look out for Regina, "You know what, kid! That's a great idea! And we make sure that you get into college because you are damn smart."

The answer seemed to satisfy him for the moment and he lowered his eyes on the book to learn something about the city Emma had called a second home almost all her life.
---------------------------------

Henry had told his mother everything he had read about San Francisco so far during dinner and Regina had listened with interest while Emma had gotten caught up in a daydream of the three of them actually being there.
How she would be the perfect tour guide, what she would show them, where they would eat, what they would do – all the possibilities that the city had to offer.

She wished she could make it true, she wished she could just take Regina and Henry on a vacation.
Well, technically she could, but Emma knew she was getting way ahead of herself because Regina would never agree to that.

Once Henry had gone to bed Emma had wanted to leave, but Regina had motioned for her to sit down, "A word, Miss Swan?"

And right then Emma had known she was in trouble and according to the look on Regina's face it was big trouble, but she took a seat on the couch anyway and waited for the inevitable.

"How come that you stopped living your life?"

The question came out of nowhere and hung in the air for a minute before Emma finally made an attempt to answer, "What do you mean?"

"Emma, don't think I am stupid. You've been a party girl all your life...I've heard enough stories about that while your friends were over some weeks ago. And that's perfectly fine...and now you go to San Francisco, a city you claim to love so much...where you have friends...and you spent your time working and then what? Sitting in the hotel room by yourself? Why would you do that?"

Regina's stare had gotten more intense with every word and caused Emma to shrug helplessly, "I guess I wasn't in the mood."

"You weren't in the mood?", Regina frowned, "What does that even mean?"

"I don't know. I just...I didn't feel like partying...or meeting anyone, okay? I just wanted to...", Emma didn't dare to finish that sentence.

Regina eyed her like a predator eyes its prey. Focus and unwavering, "You wanted what?"

Emma shook her head quickly, "Nevermind."

"Oh no! Don't you dare...tell me...what is going on with you?", Regina demanded.

"Why are you so upset?", Emma countered, seemingly confused about Regina's reaction.

Regina took a deep breath, aware that she had to explain her weird behavior somehow although she was not even sure where her anger was coming from, "Because you are my friend, Emma. And I'm worried about you."

Silence settled between them until Emma decided that it was about time that they had a real conversation about their situation instead of Regina making decisions for all of them, "Can I tell you something without you freaking out on me?"

Regina tensed up immediately, but nodded, "I can't make any promises, but I'll try."

"Fair enough", Emma nodded as well and took a deep breath, "I've traveled quite a bit in my life. With my parents, on my own...I've seen pretty much the whole world and I loved it. I've gotten moved around as a foster kid more times than I can remember...it might not surprise you that I never really called any place 'home'. And I've always been okay with that...even when I bought my penthouse...I never really had a reason to go home, because there was no one waiting for me anyway."

She stopped for a minute, waiting for a reaction from Regina, but the brunette just sat there and listened, so Emma continued, "Until...until I met you and Henry. And when I was in San Francisco this weekend...all I wanted to do was get back here. Come back home and spend time with the two of you...because I've found something that has much more value than some stupid parties...I know this is weird and scary as hell...but it's like...you and Henry...you've become family to me...and I've missed you this weekend."

It took a while for Regina to let the words sink in and a part of her was happy to hear that, but the bigger part of her told her to run, "Emma, you have to know that I'll be forever grateful for what you've done for us. And I admit...we've formed some sort of a family thing...with Henry...for Henry...but you and I...we both know it's only temporary."

"But it doesn't have to be!", Emma insisted.

"How can it not? You are used to this lifestyle...and you'll miss it eventually. What will you tell Ruby...and Mary Margaret...and Belle...and Killian...and Graham...when they want to go out? No, sorry...I'd rather stay home with Regina and her kid? Oh, come on, Emma...be realistic! You'd never do that...and why would you...they are your friends too. They are your family too. And one day you will meet someone and who would want to share you with a damaged stripper and her kid? No one! So, please...let's end this charade...for Henry's sake...before he gets more attached than he already is. His heart will break anyway...but it will be even worse if we keep things going like that."

Emma was taken aback by Regina's words because she knew that Regina was right.
Not with everything, but with some of it.
What would she tell her friends? How would they react if she stopped being who she used to be? Not that she minded, because all the partying had started to annoy her long ago, but still. Would they understand or would she lose the few people close to her over this?
But she was not ready to think about that yet.

"And what about you? What if you meet Mister Right at some point?", Emma fired back

Regina glared at her as if the mere idea was the absurdest thing she had ever heard, "Now you're being preposterous. Besides the fact that I don't want a relationship...for a lot of reasons...who would ever want to be with someone like me?"

Me.
Emma needed all her strength and willpower not to say it out loud, because she would not be able to take it back and because she was well aware that Regina could never handle that revelation.
Not today, not tomorrow, not ever.

"You never know what the future holds for you..."

"That's exactly the point, Emma. You don't know either!", Regina slowly got frustrated.

"I don't. But what I do know is...that I want you in my life. You and Henry. And not just temporary...I don't know how all of this will turn out...how all this will go down with my friends and everything. But there is always a way if you WANT to find one."

Afraid that she had taken it too far Emma got up because she would leave before things got completely out of control.

"Can you promise me that...no matter what happens...that you'll always be there for Henry? That even if you get to know someone, even if you fall in love and start a new relationship...that you will still find time for him? Because kids deserve to be a priority...always. Not only when it's convenient."

Emma locked eyes with Regina to make her see that she was deadly serious, "Don't you think I know that? Wanna guess how many nights I've cried myself to sleep when I was in foster care? How many times I've prayed that my parents wouldn't go on another trip once I had gotten adopted? You guess I don't know how it feels when people use you, break your heart and throw you away like garbage? I know how it feels to be abandoned, Regina. Better than you think."
A single tear made its way down Emma's cheek and she wiped it away quickly, "And yes...I promise you...here and now...that I will always...come hell or high water...be there for Henry. Or you, for that matter."

That said Emma stormed off, overwhelmed by the memories of her childhood, of her past, and of her broken heart.
---------------------------

The next few days they had not talked much.
It was not that Regina and Emma were avoiding each other, but both of them were confused about their conversation three nights ago.

They managed to play it "cool" in front of Henry for the most part, but both women were aware that they could not fool him.
At least not forever.
But neither of them was ready for another conversation and so they tried to sort things out for themselves first.

The fact that Christmas was only ten days away helped a big deal because preparations were in order and that turned out to be the perfect distraction for both of them.
Until Regina did not show up for coffee the next morning.

Chapter Text

"Has mom gone to sleep already?"

Emma jumped at the sound of Henry's words.
She had been staring at her cell phone for minutes, waiting for a text message or call from Regina, but nothing had happened.
Regina should have been home an hour ago at the latest but she hadn't shown up till now.

When Emma had tried to call her she had ended up in Regina's voice mail straight away.
She had left two messages by now, but no word from Regina so far, and Emma started to worry.

Deep down she was highly alarmed if she was honest because her gut feeling had never betrayed her before, but she could not tell Henry that.

"Uh...yeah...she's been really worn out", Emma lied and prayed that Henry would believe her. There was no point in worrying him as long as she didn't know anything specific.

"Kay", He jumped up on a barstool and started to eat his breakfast.

"Hey kid, I have to go down to the garage real quick...I've forgot some papers in my car and I need to see them through before I go to work...I'll be right back, okay?"
Emma could not just sit there and wait, she had to do something, anything really – before her worries would get the best of her.
She would probably scare Henry to death and that could not happen.

"Sure. Is everything alright? You seem off...", Henry eyed her suspiciously, his instincts spot on as usual.

"Everything is fine, kid...stressy day ahead...that's all", Emma tried to give him a smile, not sure if she would succeed, but she must have because he nodded and continued to eat his pancakes, "I'll be right back."
----------------------------------

The moments in the elevator were almost too much for Emma and once the doors opened to reveal the garage she left out a breath, that she had not even been aware of holding.
Her heart hammered in her chest, but then she caught sight of it – her yellow bug.
Right there in the parking lot with the name tag Mills.

Right where it belonged.
What was that supposed to mean?
Why had Regina not shown up?
Why was her cell phone turned off?
Had she really been too tired to show up for her morning coffee?

Regina had always shown up, had not missed it once, no matter how worn out she had been.
She had sometimes gone to bed right afterward and Emma had brought Henry to school, yes, but she had never missed to check in on Emma and say 'Good night'.
Was that the beginning of the end?
Was Regina pulling away from this like she had said she would because it would be "better" for Henry?

Emma was devastated by the bare thought, but she would have to figure that out later.
First, she had to get Henry to school.
----------------------------------

Of course, Henry had picked up on the fact that Emma had not brought a file with her when she had returned from the garage.
That kid was too smart and observant for his own good.

Emma had barely been able to save the situation, but in the end, she had told him that she probably had forgotten the documents in her office yesterday since she had left in a hurry to make it home in time for dinner because she had been stuck in a meeting for longer than expected.
If Henry had believed her she had not known, but Emma had not been able to focus on that.

She had gotten him ready and over to the school, all the while trying to stay calm, but as soon as Henry had disappeared inside of the building she had called her secretary to re-schedule all her meetings because she had some things to take care of and would not be able to show up at her office that day.
To say that Virginia Vaughn was not amused would have been an understatement, but Emma had not cared one bit.
She had to talk to Regina and she had to talk to her right now.
----------------------------------

On the way back up to the top floor the first doubts came to the surface.
Was it wise to push Regina?
Probably not.
Especially since she had to be tired and worn out.

What if Regina really had just needed some rest?
If she had been more exhausted than usual, if she really had wanted nothing, but some peace and quiet?
Maybe she should let Regina sleep for a couple of hours before they got back to the heavy talking?
Yes, that might be a good idea.

By the time she left the elevator, Emma had made up her mind.
She would get some work done and then she would cook lunch.
And she would invite Regina to said lunch to have a decent conversation because she was not ready to give up without a fight.

That was when she caught sight of something she had not seen before.
There were drops on the corridor floor.
Red drops.
Drops of blood.

Leading straight to the Mills apartment.
Regina.

Emma headed down the corridor, barely able to stop once she reached the door.
The hammering of her heart was back, adrenaline was rushing through her veins and it took her a moment to regain enough control over her body and mind to think straight.
Would Regina be able to open the door?
What if not?

Breaking the door in two would not be an option since it was a security door.
Probably it had been just a harmless nose bleed?
Well, she would only figure it out if she would get inside of that apartment.

The second Emma wanted to knock she realized that the door was not even closed.
Emma burst through the door, only to stop dead in her tracks in the middle of the living room.

Regina was lying on the couch, her hands and face covered in blood, her lip swollen, her right eye bruised.

"Oh my god, Regina! What happened?", Emma knelt down right next to her and realized that Regina was shaking, "Who did this to you?"

"It's nothing, it doesn't matter...", Regina's voice was low and weak, but she did not have the strength to say anything more.

"It's nothing?! Regina, you have blood all over you...and that gash on your forehead probably needs stitches. The hell it doesn't matter! You need to see a doctor...I'll take you to the hospital!", Emma was too upset to control her voice.

"No."

"Then I'll call Whale", Emma demanded.

"No! I'll be fine", Regina insisted stubbornly.

"This is a joke, right? Regina, you are hurt. Badly, I might add. You need help", Emma countered, close to losing her mind.

"Then...help me".
It was barely a whisper.

"Only if you tell me what happened. Or I'll call the cops. Your choice", Emma relented.

Regina nodded as best as she could.

"I'll go, get the first aid kit. I'll be right back...", Emma got up, but Regina grabbed her arm and held her back, "I'll come with you."

"Are you sure you can walk?", Emma eyed her suspiciously, but there was something in Regina's not swollen eye that told her that she could not leave Regina here, simply because Regina seemed to be scared to the bone.
----------------------------------

Once Regina had been on her feet she had managed to walk over to Emma's penthouse surprisingly well, but when Emma had headed for her bedroom, Regina right behind her, Emma had realized that Regina got weaker by the second.
And so Regina had ended up sitting on Emma's bed while she looked for bandages and a washcloth in the second bathroom of the penthouse.
The one right next to her bedroom.

When Emma had gathered all the things she needed she stood there and watched Regina for a second, unsure how to proceed, "Uhm...I brought you a bowl of water...so you can...clean yourself up."

Regina nodded weakly, but as soon as she tried to raise her arm she hissed loudly and stopped her attempt the same second and Emma got even more worried than she already was, "Regina, I know you are in a lot of pain...but I have to take care of your wounds and bruises. May I?", Emma asked carefully, showing Regina the already wetted washcloth.

Another nod was all the answer she got, but as soon as Emma raised her arm Regina flinched and ducked her head, turning away from her hand and it dawned on Emma that this was going to be a lot more complicated than she had expected.
Emma knelt down right in front of a still shaking Regina, "Regina, look at me. Please."

It took a while till Regina complied, but Emma just knelt there patiently waiting and rewarded Regina with a smile when their eyes finally met, "It's okay, Regina. You're safe here. I won't let anything happen to you, okay?"

Silence overtook the room till there was a hoarsely whispered approval, "Okay."

And so Emma started to wash the blood off of Regina's face, neck, and arms, always careful not to make a rushed move, because she did not want to make the already highly tense woman even more uncomfortable.
----------------------------------

Once she was done Emma took a closer look at Regina's face, but thankfully there was only this one gash on the right side of her forehead, close to the hairline, "I guess it looked worse before...with all the blood. I still think stitches would be better, but well...I'll clean that gash as best as I can. I'm afraid that it will sting a bit. Maybe I can get it together with these thin and tiny band-aid stripes...don't know what they are called..."

When Regina did not argue Emma continued and Regina only winced once when she put some disinfection spray onto the wound, but afterward Regina stayed quiet and Emma indeed succeeded in vetting the gash.
After that, she put some cooling gel on the bruising around Regina's eye and arms, but then she hesitated, "What about your ribs? You want to put some of it on there too?"

Regina stared at her as if she wanted to ask why she even knew, but Emma cut her off before Regina could have said anything, "Please. You can barely raise your arm and you inhale sharply...like every second breath you take."
No reply.
"Listen...I'll unbutton your shirt if that's okay. I guess then you can take it off by yourself. I'll get you one of mine...and I'll let the cooling gel here so you can put some on...okay? I'll get you some painkillers and some tea in the meantime...would that be...alright?"

To Emma's big surprise Regina nodded her approval once again.

"Okay, great. Can you...uhm...stand up?"

She knew she was asking a lot of Regina because from the looks of it Regina was close to collapsing, but everything would be done much faster if Regina stood, and obviously, Regina knew that too because she made it to her feet only a moment later.
With gritted teeth, but she made it.

It was then that Emma realized what she was about to do and she stopped dead in her tracks, hesitating, because she felt like she had no right to do that, but this time it was Regina, who broke the silence, "It's okay, Emma. I...I tru...I trust you."

Emma was so overwhelmed by the admission because she knew exactly how big of a deal that was, but she shook it off quickly – taking care of Regina was her only priority.
And so she unbuttoned the shirt in the end, her eyes never leaving Regina's face.
She would never take advantage of a situation like that.
---------------------------------

By the time Emma had returned with the tea and the pain killers Regina was already wearing one of her shirts and all she had to do was help her get the last three buttons done.
Regina had taken the pills and had drunk some tea, already in a sitting position, because it was obvious that Regina would not be able to make more than two steps before she would faint.
And once Emma had supported her to lie down Regina had fallen asleep within a heartbeat.
Right there in Emma's bed.
----------------------------------

Regina woke up and panicked instantly.
She was not in her bedroom.
Where the hell was she?

It took a moment or two for the memories to come rushing back, but when they did they washed over here like a gigantic wave and she was left breathless.
She had to be in Emma's bed.
Her fears got the best of her before she could blink her not swollen eye open and Regina wanted to jump up and run, but she became very much aware that she would not even be able to get up when she tried to move to a sitting position.
Dammit.

She had to get away before Emma...
Before Emma what?
Emma had helped her for heaven's sake!
Again.

Why was she freaking out now?
Regina knew exactly why, but she forced the unwanted memories down with all her strength.
This was not the time, nor the place.
But what the hell should she do?

Clearly, Emma would want answers, but what should she tell her?
The truth?
She wanted to, but could she?

Emma would probably freak out and worse than that – she would probably do something stupid.
And yet she had a feeling that lying to Emma would be pointless.

At least she managed to turn her head enough to be able to take a look at the alarm clock on the nightstand.
2.17 pm.
Henry would be home in less than an hour.

Regina felt the panic rising in her chest once again.
She had to calm down, she had to calm down.
Closing her eyes she took a deep breath and that was when she smelled it – the familiar scent on the pillow.
It was so uniquely Emma.

She had no better description for it- it was just so Emma.
And it made her feel warm and safe.
And protected.

"Hey...you are awake!", Emma entered the room a few minutes later, a bowl of soup in hand, a smile on her face, but it did not reach her eyes - they were filled with worry instead, "How are you feeling?"

"I'm fine", Regina croaked out.

"I'm sure you are", Emma answered with a frown, "Are you hungry?"

Regina nodded and struggled to move to a sitting position again, hissing in pain more than once, but she succeeded in the end.

It was hard for Emma to watch Regina in pain, but she knew better than to just walk over and help her, because Regina was not comfortable with being touched, no matter the circumstances or reason.

"Can you...can you help me with...the pillow?", Regina asked all of a sudden and Emma hurried to her side, put the bowl on the nightstand, and took two pillows out of her closet instead of pulling the other one out under Regina. It would have done nothing, but cause Regina pain and why would she do that if there was another option available.

Once the pillows were set up behind her back, Regina let herself sink against the headboard and obviously found a position to "sit" where the pain was at least bearable.

"Is it okay if I sit down?", Emma made sure to show Regina that she would not cross any lines, that she would do nothing without her approval because she suspected that the seemingly composed woman in front of her was more than a little on the edge – deep down.
Regina did not want anyone physically near her, except for Henry, and Regna tolerating, "suffering" through this was not because she wanted this, but because she needed Emma's help.

"Yes."

Emma sat down carefully, facing Regina, whose bruises seemed to have gotten at least three shades darker over the last few hours, and started to feed her some of the chicken soup she had cooked while Regina had been out like a light.

"Do you know who did this to you?"
After Regina had finished her bowl of soup Emma had not been able to stay quiet anymore.
She had to know, she had to do something.

"Yes, but Emma...it's okay. It won't happen again, so just let it go", Regina countered and prayed that Emma would give in because she was still worn out and the last thing she needed was a fight.
She did not have the strength for that.

"Let it go? Regina, I swear to God...if you don't tell me what's going on...right now...I'll call Jefferson", Emma demanded, making clear that she would do no such thing as let it go.
The hell she would.
She would rip whoever did this to Regina to shreds.

"Leave Jefferson out of this. The poor man has trouble enough as it is because of me", Regina sighed heavily.

"What? What do you mean?"
Regina's answer had Emma completely confused for a moment, but then it dawned on her, "Gold...he has finally returned from his business trip, hasn't he? Did he...was it him?"

Regina did not dare to answer, afraid of what might happen if she did.
But of course, her silence made it even worse.
Emma was too smart to not figure it out.

"I knew it! That asshole...I'm going to..."

"You are not going to do anything, Emma. Please, let it go!", Regina pleaded.

"Regina, I can't. I just can't", Emma shook her head wildly, not accepting Regina's answer.

"You have to. There are a few things you don't understand, things you don't know. Gold was furious when he came back and learned that Jefferson had changed my shifts without his permission, that I moved out...he was pissed off, because he thinks I'm going to break the deal we have, but I won't. He is mad because he believes I want to quit on him, that he will lose a shitload of money because of it and he made it very clear that nothing of that will happen. He is a businessman...and he did help me once...not without conditions...of course...but he did. And for that I owe him...so, please...promise me that you will let it go", Regina locked eyes with Emma, silently begging Emma to stay out of this.

"Don't you want to get out of there? Don't you want to get away from all this crap?", Emma asked in disbelief.

"What I want, Emma...does not matter, because I can't afford it. I have stopped dreaming about that years ago because it is nothing, but a dream. There is no way out of there for me. I've come to terms with that long time ago", Regina sounded so defeated and her eyes told Emma that her answer was final.

"Emma, are you home? And do you know where mom is?"

Henry's voice made both of them jump. They had totally forgotten time.

"He can't see me like this", Regina whispered. Not again.

"What do I tell him?", Emma was too overwhelmed to think straight, her question causing Regina to shrug helplessly, "Tell him that I am sick or something."

Emma nodded and headed for the door, but stopped to turn around and face Regina once again, "Don't think this is over. We'll talk about this later."
----------------------------------

Of course, Henry had not believed Emma's story for a second and had tricked her when she had started to prepare dinner, just to sneak into her bedroom and see his mom.
He had suspected right away that something had to be very wrong and once he had caught sight of his sleeping mother with her bruised face he had gotten so unbelievably angry because he had seen his mom like this before.
More than once.
And it was time somebody made it stop.

"Why didn't you tell me?", he stared at Emma expectantly, who was completely startled by his appearance and met his eyes only hesitantly.
Of course, she knew what he meant.

"Your mom didn't want you to see her like that. She didn't want to scare you", she explained quickly before she turned her attention back to the pots on the stove.

"Why? I've seen her like this before...it never scared me, just had me worried", Henry shot back, hoping that his answer would get him Emma's full attention.

Emma shot around and knelt down in front of him, "What do you mean, kid? How often has this happened before?"

He shrugged helplessly, "I don't know...probably three or four times in the last few years. It was Mister Gold, who hurt her, wasn't it?"

"I'm afraid so", Emma hugged him close, her mind racing.
When Regina had said it would not happen again when she had seen the begging look in those warm, brown eyes, she had considered for a moment to do as Regina had asked her to, but now it was very clear that she could not let this go.

"I wish I could do something to help my mom", Henry stated, "As soon as I am old enough to get a job I will start to work and save up money because mom has to get away from Mister Gold...she has been hurt enough. This is about money, right?"

"You don't have to worry about it, kid. I will find a way to help your mom", Emma stated, baffled that Henry seemed to understand so much more about the world than she was aware of, despite his young age.

"Promise? Because a lot of people have promised mom that they would help her in the past but things never got better...they just got worse", his eyes were so unbelievably sad and Emma wanted to cry, "I promise, Henry. I will help your mom. For real. I'm not like other people."

"I know."
----------------------------------

Dinner with Henry had been silent and after he had done his homework he had went to the guestroom to read a book.
Emma knew that he had a really hard time, that he was struggling with the fact that his mom had been beaten up and that he could not help her, could not make it stop.
But she would.

She checked on Regina, made her eat some more soup, and gave her some pain killers again, and once Reginae had fallen asleep Emma headed for her home office because she had to do something.
She would do anything to get Regina out of 'The Rabbit Hole', no matter what it might cost her because she was in the lucky position to have more money than she could ever spend.
----------------------------------

Emma had called Jefferson – to check if he was alright and when he assured her that there was nothing he could not handle she had told him that she needed an appointment with Gold.
As soon as possible.

Jefferson had not been too fond of the idea, but Emma had been persistent and so he had given in in the end.
He would text her the date and time as soon as he had it.
And then she had called Graham, who had been on his way to the airport, on his way to a huge photoshoot in New York, but he had listened anyway.

Emma had completely fallen apart, had cried during most of the call, too worried and heartbroken about Regina's situation, about Henry's words, but Graham had managed to calm her down, had assured her that everything would be fine.

She received a text from Jefferson only minutes after she had hung up.
Gold would expect her the next day at 2 pm – at 'The Rabbit Hole'.
----------------------------------

Emma had fallen asleep on the couch once she had tucked Henry in because she had been completely worn out by the events of the day but she woke up with a feeling of determination the next morning and that got her going with ease.

Regina had looked a bit better, stronger as well, despite her bruises and Emma had been surprised to see her walking to the bathroom and back by herself, but had not commented on it.
After she had dropped Henry off at school she had headed to work, because Regina would sleep most of the day anyway – thanks to the pain killers.

Emma had hated to lie to her, but it was not like she could have told Regina what she was planning to do, simply because Regina would never agree.
But there was no other way.

She was about to leave her office around 1 pm although it was just a thirty-minute drive to 'The Rabbit Hole', but she did not want to be late.
This Mister Gold seemed to be a real asshole, so maybe he would refuse to talk to her if she would not be on time.
Her car keys already in hand she caught sight of Graham, who was leaning against the door frame, watching her with interest, "What the hell are you doing here? Shouldn't you be in New York taking pictures of too thin women in way too expensive dresses?"

He shrugged casually, "I re-scheduled."

"You did what? Why would you do that? I thought it was such a big deal? What if they hire someone else?", Emma stared at him in disbelief.
He had talked about that shoot on the phone for hours a couple of nights earlier.

"If they hire someone else...so be it. I'm here to help you. I'm not letting you go to face that weasel by yourself", he stated matter-of-factly.

"Graham, you really don't have to do that...it's none of...Regina is not even your friend", Emma countered, feeling guilty about pulling him into this mess.

"Shut up, Emma. Regina might not be my friend, but you are. And I know how important she is to you...besides that, I don't tolerate stuff like that. I can't just look away. I've learned that from you. When my dad...you helped me, you didn't care that I had no money or anything. You talked your father into letting me stay. You've always been there for me. Always. This one time I can be there for you...so, don't you dare argue with me about that. I'm coming with you."
The tone in his voice made it clear that nothing would change his mind, so Emma nodded and he smiled at her, "Let's go, Swan. Time to slay a dragon!"
----------------------------------

Although she wanted to do nothing but hit the man in front of her silly, Emma did stay calm, because she was aware that her only chance to help Regina was to come up with a reasonable offer.
And the only way to accomplish that was to talk, not fight.
Thankfully Graham had stayed quiet till now because Emma could see how close he was to murder that man with the letter opener that was lying on the table in front of them.

Making a deal with Mister Gold, who reminded her a lot of Rumplestiltskin from the fairy tales with his maniacal way of giggling, turned out to be a lot trickier than she had expected, but she would give him what he wanted – if only he would let Regina go.

"You have to understand, dearie...this is not only about the money Miss Mills owes me. If I let her go I'll lose a lot of money...she is one of my clients' favorites", he announced with a sly grin.

"There has to be away. Tell me your terms...I'm sure we can work something out", Emma countered, trying to hide her annoyance.

"There is always a way, dearie. And it always has a price", Gold started, "From what I understood you are an event manager?"

She nodded.

"One of the best from what I've heard. You have quite the reputation, here is my offer", he giggled once again and it gave Emma chills, "I want the seventy-five thousand dollars Regina owes me...and I want you to plan two events for 'The Rabbit Hole' next year. For free of course. I will pay for all the material, that's out of the question, but your work...it will be for free. I know my establishment is not your piece of cake, but that's the deal. Right...and Regina has to do one more shift on December 30...as a 'Goodbye'. What do you say?"

"Two events and that's it. Then you let her go for good?", Emma eyed him suspiciously, not at all convinced.

"Two events...'The Rabbit Hole' is turning twenty next year and celebrations are in order", Gold explained, pride swinging in his voice, "And yes, I will hand out all documents I have about Regina...medical reports...borrower's note...everything."

"I want to be present during her last show", Emma stated dryly.

"That can be arranged", Gold snickered.

Emma looked him straight in the eye, "And she gets full payment for this month. And she gets it before Christmas because she has a kid."

"I'm afraid that will cost you an extra favor, dearie."

Graham, who was not too happy about the deal they were coming up with, could not stay quiet anymore, because he did not want Emma to promise that man anymore – that job for Gold could cost her her image, her reputation, and her career anyway, "What if I offer to take the promotion pics for your parties...for free?"

"Interesting", Gold nodded, "Graham Hunter, most famous photographer, in the Boston area offering to take pictures of my girls."

Emma and Graham both stared at him and the maniacal giggle could be heard once more, "Didn't think I know who you are, now did you, dearies? But you know what...I accept your offer. So, the question is...do we have a deal?"

Emma and Graham looked at each other for a moment, silently communicating before Emma finally nodded, "We do. Will it be alright if I write you a check or do you want the money in cash?"

"Right down to the business, Miss Swan. I like that. A check will do", Mister Gold grinned in satisfaction.
----------------------------------

Graham was driving on the way back to Emma's penthouse because she was too worked up from their conversation with Gold.
She was holding a stack of papers in hand, documents about Regina's past, documents that would probably answer most of her questions – and yet Emma refused to take a look at them because she felt she had no right to do that.
She wouldn't invade Regina's privacy like that.

"I have some errands to run, but I'll come by later...will you be okay?", Graham asked once they arrived in front of the building, worry written all over his face.

"Yes, I'll be fine. Everything will get better now. Thanks for coming with me and for offering your help. Not sure if I would have gotten Gold to agree to let her go by myself since he knew from the beginning who you were", Emma smiled at Graham, but could not hide the sadness in her eyes.

"You'll never know with that...with that...I don't even have words for that devil...but it's over now. At least for Regina", Graham encouraged her.

"Yes. Yes, it is. And that's all that matters", Emma opened the car door, but turned to face her friend again, "You can take the car. I don't need it anymore today. See you later then?"

Graham nodded, "See you later."
----------------------------------

The moment Emma unlocked her apartment door and entered her penthouse she was greeted by an obviously furious Regina Mills, who glared at her with anger shining in her usually warm, brown eyes, "What the hell did you do? I told you to stay out of it!"

Emma dropped the papers on the kitchen counter and turned to face the upset woman.
She had feared that Regina would freak out once she found out about what Emma had done, but she had not expected it to happen so soon. Gold must have called her the minute they had left.
Asshole.

"Listen, Regina! I know I should have talked to you about it before I...", Emma raised her hands in a somewhat surrendering gesture.

"No! No, you shouldn't have done this at all. I would have never agreed to this if you had given me a choice!", Regina barked out.

"Please, calm down...I wanted to help. Henry made me promise that I would help you", Emma tried to defend herself.

"You told Henry?!", Regina got even more worked up.

"I didn't. He sneaked into the room while I was cooking yesterday, okay? And when he told me that it had happened before. He was so sad, Regina. He was beating himself up over what happened to you because he couldn't do anything to protect you. No kid should worry about their mothers getting beaten up by their boss", Emma tried to reason with Regina, "And I had the possibility to get you out of there. One more shift and you are done. You can work for Killian and everything will be..."

"No! Nothing will be fine. That's what you don't get! What if I don't want to work for Mister Jones? Have you ever thought about that?", Regina challenged her.

"Then we'll find you another job", Emma suggested quickly.

"I don't want your help! I asked you to stay out of this! But no, you had to interfere and now I don't have a job anymore. How am I supposed to pay my bills? Let you pay for my stuff? No way in hell, Emma. You think you have done me a favor, but you've made things so much worse."

Emma took a step closer, eyes sparkling in challenge, "And how did I do that? Tell me, Regina...because the way I see it you are finally out of that hell hole..."

"But now I am caught here, don't you see?", Regina dropped her head in defeat, "I trusted you, Emma. I trusted you and I begged you to let it go, but you couldn't. Gold might not own me anymore...but you do now. And you know what that means? It means we can't be friends anymore."

"There is no such thing as owning someone", Emma countered, shocked by Regina's statement.

Regina laughed hysterically, "Easy to say for someone who never has been treated like someone's possession. "

"Regina, I swear..."

"Don't", Regina hissed, "I begged you, Emma. I begged you. I really thought you were different...but turns out you are just like the others. You think you helped me by getting me out of 'The Rabbit Hole'. And now you want to tell me what to do with my life...where I should work, what I should do. There is nothing I can do against it because you have that", Regina pointed over to the stack of papers, "I told you everyone expects something in return but I really started to believe you when you said you didn't. And now look at what you've done. You made decisions behind my back, against my will, because you think you know better than me. Now you have the power over me...over my whole life. In fact, you have more power than anyone else ever had and that makes this so much worse."

"What?!", Emma was completely aghast, "You think I did that...to...to control you? So you can be my lap dog? Regina, you can't be serious! I never meant to...I..."
As much as she wanted to hold the tears back Emma failed miserably, Regina's words simply had cut too deep.

For the first time since she had heard the news, Regina took a deep breath.
Was it possible that she had misjudged the situation?
Was is possible that Emma really wanted nothing, but help her?
That she was true to her word?

No, it could not be.
But then she saw the tears streaming down Emma's face and her doubts arose anew.
Emma looked so heartbroken and miserable and there was so much hurt in her usually bright eyes.

Regina did not know about the rest, but the pain was real – she could tell.
What if...

"Emma, I..."

But Emma waved her off, "Forget it. You made your point very clear. You think I'm a manipulative bitch, who uses her money to gets her will...not giving a shit about others...but I have news for you, Regina. You've got it all wrong, but you can't see it, because of your fucking pride. Fine. But know one thing. I trusted you too. I trusted that you could see me for who I am, your prejudice aside...but obviously you lied to me all this time. You never trusted me. You never believed me. No matter what I do. You'll always question me and my intentions...you'll always judge me...I can never be innocent in your book", Emma wiped the tears from her face, "No matter what I'd do...I could never do it right. You would still believe that I'm the devil who hides behind some faked kindness, just to lure you into signing your soul over to me. I got it. I've received the message...loud and clear. I can't change that I let you into my life, that I wanted to help you...that I came to think of you and Henry as family...I'm sorry that I obviously forced myself on you. That was never my intention."

That said Emma headed for her home office, but then she turned around again, "You got one thing right though...after this...we can't be friends anymore."

Chapter Text

By the time Emma returned to the kitchen she felt completely numb.
She knew that Regina was gone without even checking the bedroom.
How had things gone so wrong?

She had meant well, she had thought that she was helping Regina.
Emma had expected her to be mad about going behind her back, but she had not seen this coming.
Why couldn't Regina see that she had absolutely no intentions of dictating her life?

Because you've made decisions without her approval, without asking her what she wanted, you idiot!

Emma was aware that it had been a mistake to assume that Regina would automatically go and work for Killian, especially since she barely knew him.
And Regina probably was not even into make-up.
How had she not considered this?
How could she have missed the fact that Regina would be unemployed now?

A shitty job was better than no job at all – especially if one had a child.
It would be no problem for Emma to pay Regina's bills, but Regina did not want that and she got that.
That she could understand.
If Regina could not provide a life for Henry and herself anymore she would lose her independence, her freedom completely, and that meant she also lost control over everything.

Emma sighed because she had wanted to accomplish the opposite.
She had wanted to help Regina to get back on her feet for real.
Seemed like she had failed miserably.

But she could have made all of this right.
What she could not make right though were the things Regina had accused her of, what Regina thought of her.

Regina's words had cut so unbelievably deep, deeper than Emma had ever thought possible, and she was not sure if she would ever recover from it.
She took a bottle of vodka out of one of the cupboards and broke it open, taking a big gulp in hopes that the pain would disappear.
She felt like her soul would be on fire, felt like she would be burning alive.
--------------------------------

Regina was sitting on the couch of her apartment and felt like screaming.

This time she had screwed up.
She had screwed up pretty badly.
She had hurt the one person, who had truly cared for her, who had ever wanted to help her.

The moment she had caught sight of Emma's tears, the moment she had heard her say that she had been right about one thing – that they could not be friends anymore – she had known.
She had known that she had been wrong, that she had indeed misjudged the situation.
But how should she have known?

After all the people, who had hurt her in her life.
Everyone had been nice at first, had promised her to help her, but in the end, all of them had turned out to give a shit about her.
All of them had always just cared about their own advantage.

You should have known better anyway. Because it's Emma. She IS different.

How should she explain this to Henry?
And how would he react?
He would be so disappointed, especially since he had asked Emma for help from what she had heard.

And Emma had done that, she had tried to help.
Emma had been nothing but helping and kind.
From day one.

She had been understanding, supporting, and patient.
And what had she done?
She had punched her right in the face.
Why had she doubted Emma?
Why?

Because she had been afraid.
And the tricky thing with her fears was that they hid well at times, but they always came back to haunt her at some point.
She had let her walls down with Emma, at least a little, she had become comfortable around her, had begun to trust her, and when she had received the call from Gold she had panicked. She had been so mad about Emma's "betrayal" that she had lost all common sense and she had missed seeing that Emma had not wanted to take advantage of her, that Emma had indeed meant well.

Why had she gotten so angry?
Why had she said all these horrible things?
Sure, she had wanted to protect herself, but that did not excuse how she had treated Emma.
Not at all.

She had to apologize, she had to make this up to Emma.
But how?
And was it even possible?
Right now Regina doubted it.
--------------------------------

By the time Graham showed up the vodka bottle was already half empty.
--------------------------------

Emma was too intoxicated for her own good, but she kept drinking anyway.
Life sucked after all.

Of course, Graham knew right away things could not have gone well and so Emma told him what had happened a few hours ago.
This time she had not even tried to stop herself from crying because it would have been pointless anyway.
She was an emotional mess when she had too much to drink, especially after a day like this.

"I'm so sorry, Em. I thought she would take it better", Graham said after listening to the whole drama that had taken place.

"She thinks I am some weird ass bitch, who wants to buy her or something", she cried and took another gulp.

"Emma, listen to me. This has nothing to do with you. Don't take this so personally. I know it hurts, but Regina obviously snapped for whatever reason. You don't know that much about her past. I guess she has made some really horrible experiences and that's why she thinks nothing good can ever happen to her. She just doesn't know better and you know how it goes sometimes...your emotions and fears get the best of you. It makes you feel cornered and you snap without meaning to", Graham tried to see the big picture, not just Regina's recent actions. But it was hard because part of him wanted to storm over to her apartment and give her a piece of his mind for treating Emma like crap.
Ungrateful...
No, he could not think like that!

From what Emma had told him Regina was neither ungrateful nor a bitch.
Regina might be a stripper, but she was not into Emma's money – that much was clear.
It had taken a lot to happen for her to accept Emma's help in the first place.

"I really wanted to help and now I've lost her. And Henry. I've lost them both because she will never forgive me", Emma started to sob heavily because her own fears were getting the best of her after all.
She would lose everything.
Again.

The circumstances were different, but the outcome was the same.
And it broke her heart all over again.
--------------------------------

When Emma woke up the next morning she thought her head might explode any second.
She had not been that hungover in years.

Graham was standing at the kitchen counter, obviously preparing breakfast, but the bare thought of food made her want to vomit.
When the smell of coffee hit her nostrils tears started to well in her eyes immediately.

Regina would not show up for coffee anymore.
For one because she was unemployed thanks to Emma and second – well, Emma was pretty sure that Regina would not talk to her after yesterday.
God, this was so messed up!

She stumbled towards the bathroom because she needed a shower to clear her head, to wash away her sorrows.
--------------------------------

Needless to say that the shower did neither the one nor the other and Emma still felt nauseous once she re-appeared in the kitchen half an hour later.

"Sweetheart, where do you think you are going?", Graham looked at her in confusion.

"Work. I can't stay here...I'll go crazy", she stated dryly.

"Are you sure that's such a good idea?", Graham seemed to be worried, but Emma shot him a glare and he did not say another word till she made an attempt to leave and he grabbed her hand to stop her, "You are nowhere near able to drive. Let me give you a ride at least."

Emma nodded and grabbed her sunglasses to cover her bloodshot eyes, not to mentions the dark circles under them.
As soon as she opened the penthouse door she regretted that she had not taken a look at the clock before she had decided to leave, because she bumped straight into Regina and Henry, who had to be brought to school.
Was it still that early?
Damn.

Graham showed up right behind her and steadied her with both of his arms and she was so glad for that because for a moment she thought she might faint.
Or puke.

"Emma!", Henry hugged her tight and she could not breathe anymore, "Are you okay? You look pale."

"I'm good, kid. Just tired."

Thank God the elevator appeared quickly, but as soon as the four of them entered it to go to the garage Emma wanted to get back out.
She could not do this.
She just could not stand being in Regina's presence, knowing that things would never be the same again.
But it was too late.

The doors were already closed and the elevator started to move downwards.
Great.

Emma began to panic immediately, grabbing Graham by his shirt, holding on for dear life.
She did not have a panic attack in years and this was not the time to get one, but she couldn't stop it.

Her breathing became faster, her heart was practically racing and sweat was forming on her forehead.

Graham noticed the signs instantly, "Emma, look at me. Everything's fine. Just take a deep breath...you know how it goes... breathe slowly."

But Emma could not focus, because she knew that Regina and Henry were staring at her, she could feel their eyes on her.
She had to get out of this elevator, had to get out of this building.
Away from the tragedy her life had become once again.

"Emma, what's wrong?", Worry was the dominating emotion in Herny's voice.

"We're there in a second, Emma...just breathe", Graham said repeatedly, ignoring everyone else in the elevator.
This was serious and the kid had to wait.
So did Regina.

Once the elevator doors opened she gasped for air, but Emma could swear that she could not breathe properly.

"Hold on, Em. It's going to be okay...", Graham swooped her up in his arms and headed for the car, Regina, and Henry right behind them – she could hear the clacking of Regina's heels right behind her.

"Just get me out of here!", Emma managed to wheeze out, taking a quick look in Regina's direction, but that glimpse was too much because she could not handle the worry she saw in Regina's eyes.

She felt her chest cramping more and more, her heart in complete overdrive and she couldn't breathe.
She had to get her breathing under control.
She had to get it under control now.

"Gra-ham...put me...down."

"I'm taking you to the hospital, Em. You need to get into the car", he countered, already opening the door with one hand.

"No. You need...", Emma gasped, "to...", another gasp, "put me..."

There it was again.
The feeling she hated and feared more than anything.
The feeling that she was choking.
As if she would get buried alive.

Graham finally complied, but as soon as her feet touched the ground she fell to her knees, her hands hitting the floor hard, but Emma did not even feel it.
She was struggling to get her breathing under control with the little strength she had left in her, but it was not working.
At least not fast enough.
-------------------------------

When Emma opened her eyes she became aware of the fact that she was lying in a hospital bed.
How or when she had ended up there she did not know.

The last thing she could remember was Regina's worried expression in the garage and that she had not been able to breathe anymore.
Panic attack.
Of course.

"Sweetheart, don't do that ever again! You scared the shit out of me..."

The sound of Graham's voice made Emma turn her head to the side and she smiled weakly, "Sorry. It's not like I did it on purpose."
Her voice sounded as scratchy as her throat felt.

"I know. Regina almost got a heart attack seeing you collapse", Graham stated and regretted it the second he caught sight of the hurt in Emma's eyes.

"Tell me she isn't here..."

"No, don't worry. I told her I would call her though...once you woke up", he explained and got up to leave the room to make said call.

"Graham, what's the time?", Emma asked before he was out of the door.

"Almost seven, why?"

"Do I have to stay overnight?", Emma wanted to know and he nodded, "I don't want to see her here, okay?"

Graham understood immediately and nodded again, "I'll tell her to stay away then?"

This time it was Emma's turn to nod.
Of course, she would want to see Regina, to make sure she was okay, that Henry was okay, but the bare thought that Regina would only show up out of pity made her sick.
--------------------------------

Regina had been so relieved when Graham had called to tell her that Emma had woken up.
That she was conscious and that everything would be fine.
But when Graham had told her that Emma did not want to see her, that she should stay away, her whole world had shattered all over again.
Seemed like they were done for real, but Regina could not even blame her.

For now, she had to focus on Henry anyway, because he was really shaken by what he had seen in the morning and Regina hoped that he would get over it undamaged, all the while aware that she would never get these pictures out of her own head.
Pictures of Emma lying on the floor, gasping for air like a fish out of water.
--------------------------------

Graham had stayed with Emma all night and had her brought home the next day.
She had made him promise that he would not tell anyone about what had happened, because she was not in the mood for visitors, nor was she ready to answer any questions according to her panic attack.
And besides that, Christmas was only a few days away and people were stressed out enough.

"You know...I could cancel the Christmas shoot in Sydney and stay here if you want", Graham suggested all of a sudden.

"What? No!", Emma shook her head fiercely, "You missed one shoot because of me, you are not missing another one. You wanted to do that for years. And besides...I am fine. I just need some peace and quiet and a few days of rest. You are going to Australia tomorrow evening. No discussions about that."

"But..."

"I said 'No', Graham", Emma snapped.

"Are you sure?", he wasn't convinced.

"Absolutely. I promise to call someone if I don't feel well. Maybe I will go over and celebrate with my parents at their annual Christmas dinner with tons of their friends and clients. In case I need a distraction", Emma assured him.
It was a lie though because there would not be a Christmas dinner this year, because her parents were spending the holidays in Dubai and they would not return before January 5, but Graham did not need to know that.
As much as she loved him – she just wanted to be left alone right now.

"Fine. But I'll call to check on you every day and I swear...if you don't pick up or call back within an hour. I'll call the girls and Killian on you", Graham commented, deadly serious.

"You wouldn't do that", Emma whined.
A penthouse full of worried people was the last she needed.

"Try me", Graham replied and Emma could see how serious he was plain as day in his eyes.
--------------------------------

Emma had thought that she would not care that she would have to spend Christmas alone, but the closer the holidays came the more she realized how lonely she was.
How miserable.

Graham was in Australia, Belle would celebrate with her father, Killian was out of town visiting his mother, Ruby would spend Christmas with Jefferson and Mary Margaret would not leave David's side if the hospital would burn down.
He was still in his coma, but that did not mean that Mary Margaret had given up on him.
In fact, she had turned out to be a lot stronger than anyone had expected her to be.

What True Love could do to a person.
Maybe love could be strength after all.

Besides everyone having plans nobody knew about the terrible situation between Emma and Regina and she had no intention to tell anyone.
She simply was not in the mood to talk about it all over again.
It was still too painful.
--------------------------------

Regina was trying to figure out how she would pay for Henry's Christmas gifts and dinner because it was already the 22nd of December, but the truth was she had no clue.
That was when she heard a knock on the door.

Could it be Emma?
She doubted it.

Emma had not be seen since she had broken down in the garage although she knew that Emma was home – Graham had told her as much.
To her surprise, she was met by a familiar face though when she opened the door, "Jefferson, what are you doing here? Is everything alright?"

"Gold sent me to give you this", he showed her an envelope, "May I come in?"

"Of course", Regina stepped aside to grant him entrance.
Gold had sent him?
That could not mean anything good.

As soon as she had closed the door behind him Jefferson handed her the envelope and she glared at it for a second in hopes to figure out what it held without opening it, but she had no such luck.

"Come on, open it. It's not that bad", Jefferson encouraged her with a smile.

Regina nodded and did as she was told, her eyes going wide only a second later.
The envelope held countless one-hundred-dollar bills.
What was that supposed to mean?

"Oh my God...that's at least", she tried to come up with some number, but Jefferson beat her to it, "Five-thousand-five-hundred and twenty dollars."

"What? Why would Gold give me that much money?", Regina was more than a little confused.
She had never gotten more than the minimum wage in all these years. And that was barely enough to survive.

"It's part of his deal with Emma. He had to promise her to pay you for the full month...no deductions", Jefferson explained quickly.

"He agreed to that?", Regina's eyes grew even wider.
What kind of a deal had they made?
Did she even want to know?

"Well, let's say Emma and her friend will save him a lot of money, but I guess you know that", Jefferson rolled his shoulder.

"No, in fact, I don't. And what friend?", Regina did not have the slightest clue what he was talking about.

"Gold refused to let you go because he wanted more than just the money you owed him. Told them how much he would lose if he let you quit because you are one of our client's favorites. But Emma would not budge. She insisted that there had to be a way and he took his chance. You know how he is. He made an offer and she took it", Jefferson stated simply, "Oh, and about the friend...he is a photographer or something."

"Wait, what? What did she promise him...Jefferson, tell me!", Regina was close to getting hysterical.

"Emma's working for Gold for free. And Graham is taking the promo pics."

Regina's eyes grew comically wide, "WHAT?!"

When Jefferson saw the horror in Regina's eyes he added, "No! Not like that. You know...'The Rabbit Hole' is celebrating twenty years of existence next year and Gold had these two major events in mind. Emma will plan them. She is an event manager after all. And Graham will shoot the promotion pics."

Regina did not know what to say.
What had Emma gotten herself into?

"That woman really has a heart of gold. I mean she is one of the best event managers in the area and she has all these well-situated clients...which has brought her quite the reputation. In fact, she has clients from all over the country. And she is risking all of this to work for our little Rumplestiltskin. To get you a better life. Not many people would have done that...because it could cost her everything. No one knows how people will take it that she is working for a strip club now. I hope you know how lucky you are to have her, Regina."

She could not say a word, she could barely nod.
Why would Emma do that for her?
She was not worth any of this.

A new wave of guilt washed over her, leaving her with even more weight on her shoulders.

"Anyway...I have to go. Duty calls. Merry Christmas, Regina! Make it a good one, one to remember."
Jefferson headed for the door and left before she could say anything else.

A Christmas to remember.
She would laugh if it would not be so sad.
She would never forget this Christmas, nor the disaster she had created.
--------------------------------

When Emma returned to her penthouse in the afternoon of the 24th Henry was already waiting for her.
She had wanted to go grocery shopping quickly but had needed more than three hours in the end, because people were shopping like the world would end tomorrow.
Like every year.
Damn holidays!

"Hey kid! Is something wrong?"

"No. I just came over to give you your Christmas gift", Henry stated and showed her the wrapped-up item in his hand to prove it.

Emma gave him a sad smile, her heart heavy, "That's very sweet, Henry, but you should not have gotten me anything."

Henry shrugged and smile at her, just as sad, "We're family. And I wanted to."

Henry's answer rendered her speechless and Emma unlocked the door to let them in.
Henry took a seat on the couch while she put the groceries away and once she was done she went to the bedroom to get his present, "I got you something as well."

"I know were are not supposed to open gifts before tomorrow, but it's okay if you open yours", Henry announced encouragingly.

"Okay, if you say so", Emma agreed and ripped the wrapping paper open, just to reveal a handmade frame with a picture of Regina, Henry, and herself.

The three of them were laughing and she could remember exactly when the picture had been taken.
Movie night five weeks ago.
Henry had found her digital camera and had wanted to take pictures of them all day long till they had finally given in.
This particular photo had been taken with the help of the timer and while they had tried to look halfway decent they had seen a commercial for the movie "Frozen" and had not been able to stop themselves from laughing about Olaf, the snowman.
And that was when the timer had decided that it was time to take a shot.

Looking at the picture now tore Emma apart.
It was such a great memory and she did not want to miss it, she did not want to miss a second of her time with Regina and Henry, but at the same time, she became aware of what she had lost in the cruelest of ways.

"I made the frame myself...in school. Headmaster Hopper helped me", Henry explained proudly.

Emma nodded appreciatively, "That's great, kid. Thank you."

Silence filled the room after that, but Henry broke it before Emma could.
"I don't know what happened between you and my mom...but you have to fix this. Both of you. And you have to fix it soon, because not spending time together sucks. I miss you", Henry announced sadly.

"I miss you too, kid. Both of you", Emma assured before she got up to light a fire in the fireplace because she was freezing, "You can open your gift too...if you want."

She needed a moment to collect herself.
She had not been prepared for this.

"Kay."

A fierce knock on the penthouse door interrupted his plan though and Emma headed to answer the door, already knowing who would be on the other side of it.

"Is Henry here?", Regina's worried voice could be heard as soon as said door was opened and Emma noticed that her bruises had faded and the gash was healing well.
Good.

"Yeah, uh...he's here. Come in...", Emma stepped aside to grant Regina entrance.

"Thank you."

Emma went back to the fireplace and Regina stalked over to Henry, glaring at her son, "Henry, you can't sneak out of the apartment without telling me! I was worried sick..."

"I'm sorry, mom. But I wanted to give Emma her gift since you two aren't talking to each other and", he dropped his head, "I did not mean to scare you."

"It's okay. Just tell me where you are going next time, okay?", Regina's voice had softened as soon as she had seen how sad Henry was.
This was not easy for him either.

He nodded and returned to unwrapping his present, just to reveal an old, leather-bound book with the title Once Upon a Time on the front, "A fairytale book! That is sooo awesome, Emma! Thank you."

Emma smiled at him once more, "It's my great-grandfather's. He gave it to my grandfather, who gave it to my father, who gave it to me. It's been in my family's possession for a long time. And now I'm giving it to you because you are family too."

Regina was startled by Emma's statement but was nowhere near able to say a word, nor a coherent sentence.

"Can I come by tomorrow to wish you a merry Christmas?", Henry asked quickly and Emma nodded, "Sure...if that's alright with your mom...of course."

"If he is not interrupting your plans", Regina stated and watched Emma expectantly.

Plans?
She had no plans.
None besides hanging out with her buddy Jack.
Daniel's.
"Not at all."

"Very well then", Regina turned back to her son, "Let's go. I'm sure Emma has a lot to do."

"Actually", Emma began, "I'd like to have a word with your mom...if that's okay with you, kid."

Regina stopped dead in her tracks, but Henry nodded eagerly, "Absolutely. I'll go straight to my room. Nobody has to worry. I promise. I want to start reading anyway."

Emma chuckled.
That boy was her undoing.

And before Regina could have disagreed Henry stormed off and left them to themselves.
They stared at each other for a moment, but then Emma cleared her throat, "I need to get something from my office. I'll be back in a second."

She returned with a familiar stack of papers and handed them to Regina, "I wanted to give them to you when I returned from my meeting with Gold, but well...you know how that ended, so I did not get the chance."

Regina looked at Emma in confusion, not sure what Emma expected her to do, but in the end, she took the documents, took the unwanted reminders of a past she tried so hard to forget.

"I did not read any of it...just in case you were wondering. It's none of my business", Emma stated quickly, sensing Regina's discomfort.

Regina caught sight of the borrower's note, took it out, and handed it back to Emma, "I believe this one is for you."

"Right. This one is mine", Emma nodded and grabbed the piece of paper.

"Would you mind keeping them?", Regina asked and handed the documents back to Emma as well, "I have copies of the medical reports and I really don't want to see the rest of this ever again."

"That can be arranged", Emma agreed.

"Thank you."

Emma put the borrower's note on top of the documents, went over to the fireplace, and threw all of them into the flames rather unceremoniously, watching how Regina's past burned to ashes in front of her eyes.
It would not erase Regina's horrible memories and yet a part of her past would be gone forever in a moment.

"What are you doing?!", Regina appeared next to her, obviously shocked about Emma's actions.

"I'm giving you your life back. That's what I wanted to do from the beginning", Emma reached into her jeans pocket and pulled a passport out, which she handed to Regina, "I found this in the folder with your documents as well. You are free to go...wherever you want. Whenever you want. It's your choice now, Regina. And yours alone."

"But I owe you", Regina replied in disbelief.

Emma shook her head, "You don't owe me anything. This is my gift to you. Your freedom. Merry Christmas, Regina."

She gave Regina a quick smile, then she went over to her kitchen counter to answer her phone, which had started to ring right at that moment.

"You can't be serious, Emma. I can't accept this!", Regina shrieked.

"I don't know about you, but I have free will. And what I do with my money and how I spend it...is my decision. Don't even try to argue with me about this, because you'll lose", Emma was deadly serious, but then she grabbed her cell phone to finally answer a call from her least favorite client of all times, "Mister Gold, what can I do for you..."

Regina flinched as soon as she heard his name.
She was frozen to the spot, not able to move, blink or do anything else for the matter.

Emma had practically burned seventy-five-thousand dollars right in front of her eyes only minutes ago.
She stared at her passport in hand, realizing how many possibilities she had all of a sudden.
If she found a job she could travel with Henry or they could move.

But deep down she knew that she would go nowhere because she was right where she belonged.

"I'd suggest a meeting right after the holidays...yes, that would be great. First thing in the morning. Alright, Mister Gold. I'll look it through right away. If I have questions I'll give you a call and I'll see you on the 28th...of course, Mister Gold. Merry Christmas."

Regina had not been able to ignore the conversation and she was as uncomfortable as one could get.

She hated that Emma had to work for Gold now, but maybe she could help her with the planning since she was rather familiar with Gold's taste and preferences.
It would be the least she could do.
But first, she had to apologize to Emma.

"Emma, I..."

"Regina, I really don't want to be rude, but I would appreciate it if you would leave now. I'm sure you've heard that I have work to do", Emma shot her down right away.

Regina was irritated to no end.
She could have sworn that Emma had wanted to talk to her about their fight, but then the phone had rung and everything had changed.
As if someone had pushed a switch.

She still could not wrap her head around the fact that Emma had burned all her documents, that she had destroyed the borrower's note – the one piece of paper that existed about all the money she owed her.
Why would someone do that?

Because she had wanted to help you from the beginning. Like she said!

Now she felt even more horrible about the way she had treated Emma, especially since she did not even get a chance to apologize.
She did not care if she had to pay all this money back – she would have found a way – but Regina had come to realize that she needed Emma back in her life, needed their friendship.
But more important – she wanted it.

And that's why she went back to the penthouse while Henry was setting the dinner table.
--------------------------------

Emma was reading one of the documents Gold had emailed her earlier, a tumbler of whiskey in hand when she heard the knock on the door.
Who the hell could that be?
It was Christmas Eve after all.

If Graham had canceled his photoshoot she would kill him.
But when she opened the door, it was not Graham she found staring back at her, but Regina.

"May I come in? It won't take long."

Emma nodded and allowed Regina to enter her apartment, "What can I do for you?"

Regina scanned the room and caught sight of all the papers on the living room desk, probably from Gold, and the open bottle of whiskey.
Not to forget about all kinds of take-out menus, which were spread all over the kitchen counter.

So, this was it?
Emma's Christmas?
A bottle of Jack Daniel's, some unhealthy food, and work?

How was it possible that a kind and good-hearted person like Emma was spending Christmas alone?

Because the person she cared about insinuated that she was a manipulative bitch.

"Emma, I'm...I'm so sorry! About everything I said. I didn't mean it...I just...it's really complicated. I told you before...I'm a very damaged person. I should have never said what I said and I know you'll probably never forgive me, but for what it's worth...I'm truly sorry. I never meant to hurt you. You've done so much for me and my son and I treated you like shit when you've done nothing to deserve it."

Emma shrugged, "It's okay. I should have thought this through because you were right. I just decided for you, but I had no right to do that. So, I am sorry too."

"Don't be. You've gotten me out of there...I still can't believe you did that! I never thought I would see the day when I could finally turn my back on this hell hole", Regina admitted, "You have no idea what that means to me. I might not have shown it, but I am so happy and so grateful. You have no idea. I was just so caught up in my past...I'm so sorry that I let you pay for the sins of others...and what you did today...I really have no words for that. I have no way of expressing my gratitude...but know this...I will find a way to..."

"Nonsense! If you want me to forgive you...you will stop talking about this money right now because I'm so sick of it. You did not ask me for it or forced me to do this. I did it because I wanted to. My decision, my choice. You have to accept that", Emma countered and crossed her arms in front of her body.

"But..."

Emma shook her head vehemently, "No but. That's the condition."

Regina hesitated, but Emma did not even so much as blink.

It was clear that Emma would not budge, would not give in.
Not when it came to this anyway.

"Okay. But", when Emma wanted to stop her again Regina held up her hand, "Hear me out. I want you to put that bottle away and come with me because dinner is ready. What do you say?"

A smile appeared on Emma's face and she nodded, "Deal."

"Great. And...as much as I dread it...I think we should sit down...probably even tonight...before I lose courage again...we should sit down and talk. About the past...about why we have the issues we have...why we react how we react in certain situations. Maybe it will help us avoid fights like the one from a couple of days ago in the future. Maybe it will help us to get over it", Regina suggested with a small smile.
She was not sure if she was ready for this conversation, but on the other hand, she was not sure if one could even get ready for a talk like that.
But Regina knew that she had to prove to Emma that she indeed trusted her, that it was more than just empty words.
And she would.
Not only to Emma but to herself as well.

"I'm not good at talking about past stuff either", Emma admitted, hoping that the revelation would help Regina to feel less pressured, "It's a good idea though. I'm in. And now let's go...I'm starving."

Chapter Text

Henry had been glowing when he had seen Emma entering the apartment and he had hugged her even tighter than usual, leaving Emma completely breathless.
Literally.

"I'm sorry, Emma. I didn't mean to hurt you", he apologized when she gasped for air, "Are you okay? Do you have to go to the hospital again?"

"No, don't worry, kid. I'm fine", Emma assured him quickly.

"You sure? Because I don't want anything to happen to you. I was so worried when you broke down in the garage."

"Henry, it's alright...I promise you. And I'm sorry that I've scared you. I didn't mean to. The other day when this happened...I've had too much to drink the night before. A lot too much and that was very stupid of me. And when I woke up I felt horrible...really, really horrible. But instead of resting I wanted to go to work and I was upset and then I got a panic attack, but I'm okay now", Emma tried to explain the situation to Henry, hoping that he would understand better then.

"So, it wasn't my fault?", Henry looked at her, insecurity shining in his eyes.

"What? No! Why would you think that, kid? It was nobody's fault, but mine. I should have taken better care of myself...but more importantly, I should not have drunk that much", Emma admitted guiltly.

"Well, I just thought that because I made you promise me that you would help mom...and then you didn't talk anymore...that maybe it was me", he shrugged helplessly.

Emma knelt down to hug the boy, "You did nothing wrong, Henry. I mean it. Me and your mom...it was some stupid misunderstanding, but things are okay now. We have to talk some more later, but it's fine. We're good, okay?"

Henry seemed to be relieved and nodded eagerly, "Okay. But Emma...no more drinking. At least not so much that you get sick again."

"I promise."
------------------------------------------------

Dinner had been delicious and Henry had talked about the fairy tale book non-stop.
And since his mom was The Evil Queen, at least at 'The Rabbit Hole', Emma had to be the White Knight. In Henry's world, she was some kind of a savior, because she had saved his mom.

Emma had laughed at the comparison and even Regina had chuckled at the idea, which had caused Henry to cross his arms in front of his chest in mock annoyance, "You don't take me seriously! You can't see it...because you don't believe. But I do and it makes sense. It all makes sense."

"Look who has the heart of the truest believer", Emma stated with a smile and tickled Henry's ribs, causing him to giggle.

"Look who's bedtime it is", Regina announced with a stern look.

"But Mooom", Henry whined, "It's Christmas eve."

"Yes, and according to you, my little believer...I'm The Evil Queen. So, bed. Now", she stated with a smirk and Emma had trouble to contain her laughter.

"So not fair. And even if you were the evil queen... you are my mom and I love you", Henry got up to hug his mom, who wrapped him in her arms instantly.

"Nice try, sweetheart. Now go, brush your teeth, and get ready for bed. Emma and I will tuck you in."

"Fiiiine", he rolled his eyes but stormed off to the bathroom anyway.
------------------------------------------------

Once Henry was sound asleep Regina and Emma took a seat on the couch in the living room, each of them a mug of tea in hand and a tissue box on the table right in front of them.
Somehow Regina had a feeling that they might need it.

Emma had offered to start with the talking because she had a feeling that her past was not half as horrible as Regina's.
It felt awkward to talk about stuff they tried so hard to forget, to share what they tried to hide from the world, but both of them were aware that it was their only chance to fix things, to move forward from the situation they had gotten themselves into.
To understand better.

"While I can't even remember my biological parents...I was not even three when they died...it's still weird, you know. They were the first people I've lost in my life...I can barely remember my aunt, but she was a sweet, elderly lady...she's been good to me...I wish I could have stayed with her for good, but I know why I couldn't", Emma started after she had collected herself, which had taken her quite a while because she was not used to conversations like this. Usually, she hid her feelings from the world and only very few people had ever been allowed to take a look at the world of her feelings, "Being a foster kid was hard...at times. A new home every other month...and it did not necessarily get better...I might have been young...but I'll never forget most of the shit there. Most of the foster parents don't even want the kids, but the money they get for taking them in...for them you are nothing, but a meal ticket...that's all. I never got physically hurt...besides a slap on the arm or something like that here and there, but the terror, the getting locked up at some of the homes I stayed in, getting treated like a dog or worse...the moving around...it has damaged me a bit I guess. But then I got to know the Swans when I was at the harbor one day...when I was about seven...because I had this thing for boats...we had some sort of a connection...and I must have impressed them somehow...because a few days later they came to pick me up from my foster parents and before I knew it they adopted me."

Emma took a sip of her tea and a deep breath, aware this was far from over.
And it would not get any easier.

"What's your worst foster care experience?", Regina wanted to know, causing Emma to think back for a moment, "I think that one day I came back from the playground dirty because I fell... it had been raining all night, so it's been quite muddy. And I was late too. As a punishment, I didn't get dinner and I had to sit on the stairs outside...till midnight...without a jacket. And then it started raining again but they would not let me in...been sick as hell afterward."

Yep, that had been one of the worst.
Definitely.
She had suffered from nightmares for days how she had been kneeling in front of the door, knocking, begging.
But nobody would open.
Like the night it actually happened.
She had been so scared, she had been afraid that they would not let her in till the next morning.

"That's horrible, Emma. I'm so sorry."
Regina did not know what else to say.
She had never thought that Emma would have experienced such horrible things throughout her childhood.

"It's okay. It's just a memory now...and when I started to live with the Swans things got better for me...although they did not turn out the way I wanted them to...I never thought they'd travel so much...that I would be one my own so much. I had expected to find a new family, a real mom, and dad..." she took another sip of tea, struggling for the motivation to keep going, "As I told you before...the Swans have been nothing, but good to me. And I owe them a lot...but my childhood with them was practically one where I spent most of my time with nannies. I was extremely close with one of them, Nancy...she suffered a stroke when I was about sixteen...the day she died I had my first panic attack...doctors said it had been the stress...and the loss...the fear of being alone...something like that."

"Is that why you had a panic attack in the elevator the other day? Because you...", Regina did not dare to continue, because she did not want to impose anything.

"Yep. I had a lot to drink that night when we...you know...because I couldn't handle the situation. Stupid, I know. I was so sure that I had lost you...like for good...and then I bumped straight into you and Henry...I just couldn't handle it", Emma shrugged helplessly.

"I get that because I felt the same way...that...that I had lost you", Regina admitted weakly.

"Never", Emma was deadly serious and her voice was proving it.
No, she would never abandon Regina.
Never.

When Emma felt a squeeze on her hand she looked at Regina and smiled.
Yes, they would make it through this.

While she had been mad and hurt before – there was nothing to forgive.
At least not in Emma's eyes.
They had both overreacted out of fear and hurt and that was human after all.
It happened.
It did not mean that it had not hurt, but Emma also was aware that they had needed that to see how much they really wanted to be a part of each other's lives.
And now they would get it all out to start from scratch and she had a feeling that they would come out stronger – together.

"So, where was I", Emma started to talk once again, "Don't think my childhood was all bad. I had a good life once I had gotten adopted. It was just not what I..."

"What you expected", Regina stated matter-of-factly and Emma nodded, "Yeah. I wanted a family so bad...we became one later on though. We might not be super close, but we are doing alright now...when I turned fourteen they would take me with them occasionally...on their travels. That was pretty cool. And then I got my first model jobs when I started college...and I decided that I wanted to make something out of myself...so, I saved up all that money...and while the Swan family name for sure has opened doors for me...I built up my whole event management thing with my own money."

Regina smiled, "I'd say that's pretty impressive. Most people..."

"Most people would be happy with wasting their family's money, I know. Like Mary Margaret, David, and Belle. Don't get me wrong...they are my friends and I love them...because they are good at heart...but I don't like their attitude towards money...but that's probably because I know the real world too...since I haven't always been wealthy. And money is not everything. It can't fix a broken heart."

The first tears were welling in Emma's eyes and Regina pulled a tissue out of the box and handed it to the blonde, who chuckled in an attempt to lighten the mood, "Smart move to bring that tissue box, Miss Mills."

Regina chuckled as well, "Yeah, I had a feeling that we might need it...Miss Swan."

"Well, let me get this out before I'm a total mess", Emma sighed, "I had been working as an event manager for only a few months when I met Jade...in fact, I had landed my first big deal and I was out...celebrating with the girls...when I met her at a club. I bumped into her, spilled my whole drink over her dress...and well...I apologized and got her another drink...and we started talking...and that British accent of hers...it was kinda...hot...you know?"

Emma smiled apologetically, feeling a bit weird to tell Regina about her ex-girlfriend.

"I see", Regina did not know what to do with that information.
She was not as uncomfortable as she thought she might be, but it was still awkward.

"It's not like I didn't have girlfriends before...but it was never anything serious...but with Jade...it was different from the beginning. We just clicked. Same interests and stuff...and yeah...we were together for almost two years when I found out...that", Emma took a deep breath, "When I found out that she was not the person I thought she would be. I came home early from a business trip one day...and I caught her on the phone with someone...talking about how she finally had the story she had been looking for to move her career."

Regina looked at Emma in confusion.
What was that supposed to mean?
She had expected Emma to tell her that she had caught this woman cheating on her, but obviously, it was something completely different.

"Turned out she was a journalist from London, looking for a scandal...and that we had not met by accident. That she had been there to get to know me...because she thought the Swans were hiding some big, dark secret since the shipping company is quite successful. Always has been. And I was only there to get her insight...to help her dig up dirt...", Emma could not hold the tears back any longer, "I was so stupid...I should have known better. I don't even know if she ever found anything...because I called my father right away...to warn him and he...he took care of it. I mean he has a lot of influence and he knows some powerful people. So, in the end, she couldn't do any damage to my family and her career was over as well...but I...it took me forever to get over it. It's still hard sometimes...that was about two years ago."

Emma could still feel the pain in her chest as if it would have happened yesterday.
She would never forget how a betrayal like that felt.
She had thought she would never trust someone again...till she had met Regina and her son.

Regina shook her head in disbelief, "I can't imagine why somebody would do that. A job is just a job. Success is not everything...I'm so sorry, Emma."

"It's not your fault. And I've learned from it...no more relationships for me. I'm not good at opening up to people anyway", Emma shrugged, "But just so you know...if it wouldn't have been for Ruby...Killian and Graham...I wouldn't have made it through all this shit. Ruby was there day and night...because I couldn't be left alone for a while. I had countless panic attacks during that time because I could not handle the emptiness...the loneliness I felt."

It had been hell. Pure hell.
She had felt like a piece of shit, like an old toy someone had thrown away.
Countless nightmares had made it impossible for her to get rest for a while, but somehow she had made it out of this, not without some battle scars though.

Regina nodded, "Miss Lucas has told me a bit about her own history during that little get-together a few weeks ago...I guess I understand why the two of you are so close...because you've always been there for one another when it truly mattered."

Emma nodded, "That we have. She's the best friend I ever had."

They fell silent for a while till Regina cleared her throat, obviously struggling for words, "I guess it's my turn then."

God, she was so not ready for this.
She would never get ready for this.
But she had to get it out.
She had kept quiet for so long and it had eaten her up alive.

"My childhood was not that bad, actually. At least not at first. My parents were not as wealthy as your family...though we had a nice house and everything...but my mother was very strict. I've been a daddy's girl from the beginning and that made it even worse...I never could do anything right in her eyes, I was never good enough, but well...my dad would always make me feel special, so it was okay. Till he left my mother when I was twelve. He was gone from one day to the next, leaving me nothing, but a short letter...saying that he could not handle this life anymore...that he was sorry and that I would understand when I would be older...and then life became hell", Regina swallowed audibly, but kept on talking anyway, "My mother had always been big on her image and being left by her husband...well, let's say...she could not keep the facade of a 'perfect' family up anymore...and she started drinking and whenever she did she got so angry at me...blaming me for my father's disappearance...and after a while, she started hitting me...she gave me that scar above my lip by the way. I was almost seventeen by then...and I had been late...I had forgotten time while I was in the library...preparing for an exam and she got so mad...and I ended up crashing into the mirror...there was so much blood..."

It had hurt so much and it had taken her forever to stop the bleeding while her mother had emptied another two glasses of whatever she had had that day.

Emma did not know what to say, because 'sorry' would not nearly cover it.
How could a mother do that to her own child?

"That night I left the house once she had passed out from drinking...and back then I thought that had saved me...now that I look back...I should have stayed at home...because it was the beginning of an even bigger hell...but I did not realize that back then", Regina's hands were shaking slightly, but Emma did not dare to touch her. She would not make that mistake a second time. And yet she wished that she could give Regina some comfort, but she had yet to find a way to do that.

"That night I met Daniel for the first time...I was walking through the streets and he just got out of his car and asked me for the way to some bar in the area...he was so handsome. And he was nice to me...I could not even believe that a guy like him could have any interest in me...he was about twenty when we first met", Regina closed her eyes for a second. It had been too good to be true, she should have known it.

"He asked for my number and I gave it to him...and so we met again. And again...I fell head over heels in love with him...and back then I was so sure that he loved me too. After a while, he took me with him when he went to parties, got me a fake ID and everything and I felt kind of...well, cool I guess. So, when he offered me some pills at one of these parties I did not think anything of it...and besides...I wanted to escape the shit at home so bad that I did not even care...", Regina shrugged helplessly, "I was so naive, but things with my mother had gotten only worse with every day that had gone by...so, I kept sneaking out, meeting Daniel. He was my boyfriend after all...and shortly before my eighteenth birthday my mother found out about him and freaked out...told me I was a whore...that I was not allowed to see him again...that night I ran away for good...straight into Daniel's arms."

Regina shook her head as if she could not believe what she had done back then, the first tears running down her cheek and this time it was Emma, who grabbed a tissue to hand it to her, "It's okay. You didn't know...it's not like your mother gave you much of a choice."

"I suppose...but still. I was so stupid...because living with Daniel turned out to be not nearly as good as I had imagined. He was living in the old, shabby house of his grandmother, who had left it to him when she had died...and when he wasn't working he was partying...and I got more and more into drugs. What had started out with a pill here and there became an addiction and of course we ran out of money at some point...and a few days after I turned nineteen...we were running out of drugs too...and there was no cash to get more...but his dealer offered to give him some for free...if...if he could have his way with me."

Regina took a deep breath after that admission, trying to get rid of the feeling of utter disgust, "I did not want that creep anywhere near me and I told Daniel that...but he begged me, told me that he would still love me...that it would solve our problems...I still don't know how he talked me into it...it's really beyond me. But in the end, I had sex with that man and I felt so horrible, so dirty...I couldn't look myself in the mirror anymore."

She could remember every horrible detail about that night.
The smell of that man, his merciless eyes, how he had touched her, the pain she had been in.
How many hours she had spent in the shower afterward, how she had smashed the mirror with her bare hand because she had been so disgusted by herself.

Regina was afraid that Emma would not look at her the same way ever again as well.
Like Daniel – although he had promised that nothing would change, the truth was that everything had changed that day.
Emma had to see now that she was not the person she had seen in her.
She had to.

But when she met Emma's eyes there was no disgust, just sadness and worry and Regina was barely able to handle that.
How could Emma not judge her?

"Did it happen again?", Emma asked all of a sudden, "Did you have to...to sleep with other men after that?"

Regina gulped but forced herself to continue.
This conversation was getting physically painful, but now that she had opened the door to the darkness of her past there was no way back, " I was supposed to. Daniel thought it would be the answer to his prayers...me working as a prostitute...making a shitload of money...that way he could have kept the drugs coming...but I didn't want to do that. I just couldn't...and I decided to run away, but he caught me...and he beat me up worse than my mother ever had...and then he locked me up in the basement, chained to the heating pipe. I begged him to let me go...told him that I loved him...that I would find a job, but he wouldn't listen...he just laughed at me...told me what a silly girl I was...that I would comply eventually...because I was a whore after all and that he could never love someone like me."

That was when Regina started to sob heavily, not able to keep the pain in anymore.
God, she had been so desperate, so scared.
She did not know for how many weeks she had been in that basement, but it had been a while.
She had lost track of time at some point and all hope had left there.
How many times she had cried on that smelly mattress Daniel had gotten her, how she had bruised her knuckles by hitting the walls out of desperation more than once.

Emma was sitting there, feeling completely helpless, but she had to do something.
She simply had to.
She knew she could not rush anything with Regina and that's why she reached out, offered Regina her hand, and waited.
She would not take it and "force" something onto the brunette, because it would probably backfire, but she wanted to give Regina some comfort, so she had to offer an option.
And Regina took up on it - much to Emma's surprise, probably even to her own.

Emma squeezed Regina's hand carefully and gently, just for a moment, but it was enough to calm Regina, to make her feel safe and understood.

"Regina, it's not your fault. He was an asshole...and I'm so sorry all this shit happened to you...but it's not your fault...you hear me?! And I don't think any less of you because of this", Emma assured, sensing Regina's fears.

"How can you not?", Regina was barely able to hold Emma's gaze.

"Because you did not ask for this, because you had no choice. And even if you had worked as a prostitute out of your own free will...it would not have made you a bad person."

"Most people would think otherwise", Regina stated dryly.

Emma smiled at Regina, "Well, I'm not most people."

"No, you aren't", Regina managed to give Emma a small smile. It took her a while to calm down, but Emma's presence was helping her a lot since Emma was still here after all she had told her and it did not seem like Emma would turn her back on her. That was what kept her going, what made her push herself to continue although it did not get any easier.
Not the talking, not the story.

"I don't know how long I was in that room in the basement...I was cold and hungry most of the time...Daniel often did not get me food for days...I was in so much pain...cold turkey is the worst and when he realized that he started to bring me a pill here and there...to make me agree to do what he wanted...but I couldn't...and whenever he got mad he hit me... as my mother did before...so, I could have stayed with her as well...and then...one night he went to some party I guess...I heard him leave the house and I tried everything to get free...but it was to no avail...and when he came back drunk...he...", Regina closed her eyes, not able to face Emma anymore, "he raped me...for the first time."

She would never forget that pain.
The pain of her heartbreaking while the man she had loved violated her.
It was the ultimate betrayal because she had trusted him.
He was supposed to keep her safe, not harm her.
He should have taken care of her, he had promised it.

Oh, how many sweet promises he had made in the beginning.
He had broken them all in the end.

Regina got herself another tissue, wiping the tears from her face.
The awful truth – it was finally out.
At least most of it.

As much as it hurt to talk about all this she felt like a huge weight was finally being lifted from her shoulders.
And that was the reason why she continued to tell the rest – not without struggling with every word though, "After that night...after he had crossed that line...I knew I would not get out of this alive. I knew that Daniel would never let me go. But after some weeks I became sick...and Daniel brought a friend of his over...a med student or something...and he told him that he thought I was pregnant."

Emma's eyes went wide in shock and horror.
Henry.
Oh God.

She felt sick, wanted to vomit.

"Daniel freaked out and this guy...he told him about a doctor, who would be able to do an abortion...where he could take me without anyone asking questions...but I promised my unborn child that I would get out of there...that I would find a way to keep it safe. And I did", Regina took a sip of her meanwhile cold tea, "That man...I'm not sure if he even was a real doctor...he was nicer than I thought he would be. Once Daniel had dropped me off and he saw the marks on my ankle...from the chain...he asked me if I really wanted an abortion. I was so weak and exhausted from all the puking, but at least I found the strength to shake my head...that was when he brought me some food and something to drink. And he told me he had called a friend, who could help me get a job and a place to live, that he would take care of Daniel. And before I knew it Gold was there to pick me up."

Emma was rendered speechless.
What did you say to that anyway?
There was nothing that could make Regina's past go away, there was nothing to make this any better.
But hell, she was so angry. How could somebody do stuff like that to another person?

"What happened to Daniel?", Emma rasped out.

Regina took another sip of tea, "He got arrested for drug dealing only weeks after my escape and ended up in jail because obviously he already had a long juvenile record. And last time I heard something about him was the news that he had gotten killed in a fight during his jail time."

"Serves him right."
Emma was not sorry.
Not at all.
She would have probably strangled him herself if she had ever met him.

"I guess it does", Regina dropped her head, taking a few deep breaths.

Emma was not sure if she should ask, but she had to know, "Does Henry...I mean does he know about his...I wouldn't necessarily call him father...but...does he know?"

Regina shook her head, "No! And he can never find out. Never."

"Don't worry. I won't say a word. To anyone", Emma promised sincerely, "And since Daniel is dead he won't show up out of the blue either."

Regina nodded, "You have no idea how grateful I am for that."

Silence fell over the room for a while, but Regina broke it eventually, eager to get this over with once and for all, "Gold might be greedy, but he is not the worst...you know. Back then I had nothing...no money, no place to go. He offered me to pay for my medical treatment...gave me that apartment...and while it wasn't the fanciest place...it was mine...I got away from the drugs for good and he even gave me some money to buy some baby stuff...and shortly after I turned twenty-one I had Henry...I thought it would be hard to keep him...to look at him...after what Daniel had done to me...but I couldn't bear the thought of giving him away either...although I've thought about giving him up for adoption more than once. But then I looked into his eyes for the first time, his gentle eyes, and when he held onto my index finger with his small hand...I knew that it would be okay. That I had to raise him to be a different person...to be loving...and kind."

"That you did, Regina. You did an amazing job", Emma assured with a smile.

"Henry is the one good thing that came out of this. And to have him I would endure all of this over again", Regina admitted, "As horrible as it was...it gave me my son. And he is everything."

It was Emma's turn to nod, "Why did Gold hit you time and time again? Or was it someone else?"

Regina glared at her in surprise, "How do you know?"

"Henry told me...after he saw you all bruised in my bedroom", Emma explained and Regina sighed, "It was Gold. He has quite the temper at times. But it was never more than a few bruises and probably a split lip or something. I'm so sorry Henry had to see that though. You have to know...he offered me this deal...that he would pay for all my stuff and I had to work for him...at 'The Rabbit Hole'...that's how I became The Evil Queen...that way I could pay him back...he took my passport so I wouldn't disappear on him...and I had to sign that borrower's note, but I did not care...because I could keep Henry. There was this old lady living in our building...before Eugenia...who looked after him...she was working for Gold too...cleaning the club and stuff like that...so, it was okay. I knew he would never agree to let me go, not even if I would be able to pay all that money back...but I didn't care anymore. So many people have taken from me as they had pleased...have seen me naked...I've gotten so numb over the years...it doesn't matter anymore. I've learned to put up a mask at work...and that has worked out well...till I met you. Because you did not stay away...you had to know what's underneath."

Emma looked at Regina, a decent smile on her face, "And I'm glad that I did. It's been the best idea I've had in a while."

"You think so?", Regina still could not wrap her head around this. How could Emma still like her, care for her?
She was not worth anything.

"I know so."
There was no hesitation in Emma's voice, no doubt.

Regina seemed to be lost in thought for a moment, "I've never talked about this...to anyone. Not that there would have been anyone to talk to about stuff like that. Do you think we'll ever get over this? Our past...do you think all that has been broken can be repaired? Because as you may have noticed...I can't even have anyone touch me...I flinch when someone raises their freaking hand."

"I think you are a lot stronger than you give yourself credit for. I mean seriously, Regina. After all that you've been through...you raised Henry. All by yourself. You are so brave...and you are a fighter, a survivor. And now that you have started to talk about it...you might find a way to deal with it...in a better way. And I'm glad you told me...I'm so sorry that you had to endure all of this, Regina. You have no idea how sorry I am", Emma answered honestly, "Talking helps a lot. Not that I would be an expert on that...but I'm glad I had Ruby and the guys back then...and now I have you too...to talk about stuff...like you have me. And knowing that there is someone who listens, whom you can trust...helps more than anything."

"You're right...I never thought it would help...I never even thought I would be able to talk about this...to anyone...but now that this huge weight has finally been lifted from my shoulders...it feels nice...I almost feel free", Regina admitted, seemingly surprised by the realization, "Do you think we'll get over our fight too?"

Emma nodded, a smile on her lips, "I think we already have."
-----------------------------------------------

Emma had gone to use the bathroom and when she had returned to the living room Regina had fallen asleep on the couch.

The conversation had worn her out completely, Emma had seen that.
They had not cried as much as she had expected, feared even, but it had been unbelievably painful, heart-wrenching none-the-less.

She sneaked to one of the closets, sure that Regina kept some blankets in there, grabbed one and put it over Regina's sleeping form., careful not to startle her.
She took in the sight in front of her, realizing how peaceful Regina looked.
But she also looked so small, so fragile.
Vulnerable.

Now that the cards were on the table, the past was revealed.

Yes, Regina Mills was a truly broken soul with a badly damaged heart.
And after everything she had told her today Emma understood better now.

She knew now why Regina questioned everything, why she expected the worst at all times.
After all Regina had been through it was a wonder that she had not lost her mind.
And Emma was aware of how precious Regina's trust was, how lucky she was to have gained it.

Learning about Regina's past had left her heartbroken, but it had also left her seeing the person behind The Evil Queen.
The woman behind the mask.

Their conversation had left her seeing Regina for who she truly was.
For who she had been.

And Emma could also see who Regina could become.
The mask was gone, the darkest of secrets were revealed.

They were left bare, uncovered, with nothing, but the truth, no matter how horrible it was.
They would find a way to deal with it, to make it better, because after all the day had proven one thing – they did trust each other.

Chapter Text

The thing with storms was that the scope of the catastrophe could only be seen afterward.
And now that the truth, the cruelty of the past had hit Regina and Emma with full force their hearts and their souls were fallow.
They were vulnerable, defenseless.
Both of them.

Emma, for her part, had not been able to sleep once she had returned to her penthouse – images of her own past had mixed with ones of Regina in pain, screaming, begging for her life as soon as she had closed her eyes.
This would haunt her for a long time, probably forever.
But that was what friends did, right? They did not let you carry the burden alone.

Regina on the other side had slept like a rock, much to her own surprise, because she had been plagued with nightmares since the day her father had left her. And they had only gotten worse with time and due to the horror, she had experienced.
Sure, they had not happened as frequently anymore, after all this time, but they were still there, lurking in the darkest corners of her soul, ready to get to her whenever she felt a bit "better".
As if she would not be allowed to be happy.

But this time she had not dreamt, not at all.
The conversation with Emma where she had faced and re-lived the most terrible hours of her life had given her some kind of a weird peace.
At least for the moment.
She had woken up shortly after 5 am and since Henry was still asleep Regina had gotten into her pajamas and had gone to sleep some more – in her bed.
If Henry would find her on the couch, still in her clothes from the day before, he would only worry again and she would avoid that if she could.
Her son had been through enough.
-----------------------------------

After Emma had decided that sleep was no option she had gone back to read through all the documents Gold had sent her because she had to get prepared for that meeting anyway.
He surely would not tolerate anything less than one-hundred percent at all times and she could not afford to piss him off.
There was too much at stake.

She took a hot shower around six in the morning, grateful for the relaxation it provided her tense muscles.
Once she was fully dressed for the day she went to make some coffee when she heard someone impatiently knocking at her door.
It had to be Regina.
Was something be wrong?

Maybe she had suffered a nightmare or something.
Emma for sure would have had one if she had decided to go to sleep.
She was highly worried that the aftermath of their conversation would be at least ten times worse for Regina, but even if that was the case they would find a way to deal with it.

But the second Emma opened the door she had to chuckle.
In fact, she could barely contain her laughter.
Right in front of her stood Henry, bouncing with excitement and next to him an obviously sleepy Regina Mills – in her pajamas.
Eyes only half open, her hair a total mess, and yet Regina looked adorable as ever.

"Merry Christmas, Emma!"

"Merry Christmas, kid..."

"I woke up and dragged mom right over", Henry announced proudly.

Emma chuckled again, "I can see that. Please, come on in."

Regina let herself fall onto the couch, not nearly awake enough to realize what was going on – at least not until Emma handed her a cup of coffee.
The smell let her eyes go wide and once she took in the blonde in front of her, all dressed and ready to face the day, Regina almost jumped.
She was still in her pajamas!
How had Henry managed to get her over here?
She could barely remember that he had shown up in her bedroom.

"Emma, you have to change clothes...", Henry announced with a grin, causing the blonde to frown in confusion, "Why is that? Is something wrong with my outfit?"

The boy rolled his eyes and chuckled, "It's Christmas morning...everyone should be in their pajamas."

"Uh...o-okay...but I usually don't wear...I mean...I sleep in a tank top and...", Emma shut her mouth closed when she realized that she was rambling, hoping that she had not made Regina uncomfortable, but when she caught sight of smirk on the brunette's lips she shrugged, "You know what...you are right. I'll change into something comfier and then we make breakfast."

Henry nodded his approval and Regina let out a chuckle.
A flustered and blushing Emma Swan was quite the sight and to Regina's own surprise she had not felt uncomfortable about Emma's attempt to explain her sleep attire.
Not at all.
------------------------

Emma returned to the living room wearing black sweatpants and a white tank top and more at ease than before.
She had feared that it would be awkward to see Henry after everything she had learned the night before, but there was something about that kid that always comforted her.
His appearance always changed the dynamic of a situation – always for the better.
Thank God!

And while Emma and Henry were preparing breakfast Regina sneaked over to the penthouse door, about to leave when her son yelled, "No changing out of your pajamas, Mom!"

She jumped at being caught and sighed in defense, "Fine. But I'm allowed to get Emma's Christmas gift, yes? Because I forgot to grab it when you dragged me out of bed mid-sleep."

Henry giggled at his mother's words and nodded, realizing that she probably could not see him, "Okay. But you have to be back in a minute."
------------------------

Regina had considered changing into something presentable for a minute but had given up on the thought right away because Henry clearly would have forced her to go back and change into her pajamas again and she would save herself the embarrassment, especially since Emma had already seen her in her current state.
And so she had only brushed her teeth and combed her hair in a hurry and had rushed back into the penthouse, a small, purple gift box in hand.

Once everyone was seated Regina put the gift box in front of the blonde and smiled, "Merry Christmas, Emma."

Sparkling green eyes went wide in surprise, "You shouldn't have gotten me anything."

"Nonsense! I should get you something every day...for everything you've done", Regina started, but Emma interrupted her, "Stop it, please. I know you feel like you owe me so very much, but you don't. Regina, having you and Henry in my life has probably been the greatest gift ever. I mean...we are family...kind of. And family sticks together. We help each other. That's what families do, so please...stop feeling so guilty, okay?"

Regina could not say anything, so she just nodded while tears were welling in her eyes.
Emma had rendered her speechless once again.
What had she done to deserve this when life had been nothing, but cruel to her before?
Had her luck really changed?
It definitely looked like it, but she was still wary.
She would always be.
But she vowed that she would try to enjoy it more while it lasted because Regina was aware that everything could be taken away from her within a heartbeat.

She nudged the box in Emma's direction once again and smiled at her, "Open it."

Emma did as she was told and revealed a silver necklace with a ring pendant, "Oh my God, Regina...it's beautiful...but I..."

Regina only shook her head and placed a hand on Emma's, "It's a gift. It's a good memory actually. Not long before my father died...we've been visiting one of his friends...a jeweler. He made this for me...well, he helped me make it, explained everything to me. And daddy and I crafted it with his instructions. Daddy and I, we chose to make a circle because circles have no beginning and no end. You pointed it out yourself, Emma. We are a family. And families support each other, are there for one another...always. And that is why I want you to have it. It's my way of saying...that...for the first time...in forever...I have hope. I have hope that we'll always be a family. That this will last."

Regina squeezed Emma's hand, who was too overwhelmed to form a coherent sentence and Henry jumped up to get the necklace in place, smiling brightly.
Yes, he was happy.
Truly happy.
And obviously, his mother was too.
And if the smile on Emma's face was any indication – they all were.
Best Christmas ever.
------------------------

Once they had finished breakfast Henry had stormed back into their apartment, eager to open his Christmas gifts and had been overjoyed that he had gotten all the books he had wished for and even one about dogs that had not even been on his list.
And there was another gift under the small Christmas tree – a gift he would have never expected because they never had enough money to afford much, but he had never minded.
His mother had done her best and he was aware of that and while Regina might not have been able to buy him all the cool stuff, he could not have asked for a better mother.
But when he unwrapped the digital camera he was ecstatic.

From the moment he had taken his first picture with Emma's camera weeks ago he had been obsessed with taking pictures, with documenting family moments and happy times.
His whole room was decorated with pics of Regina, Emma, and himself.
He hugged his mother repeatedly, who whispered a silent Thank you to Emma because Regina was well aware that she would have never been here today if it would not have been for Emma Swan and her persistence.

Emma just smiled at them, content for the moment, knowing full-well that the current peace would probably not last.
------------------------

They had gone for a walk through the park after everyone had gotten dressed and Henry had taken tons of photos of them and he had even asked a few people if he could take pictures of their dogs and both, Emma and Regina, had not been able to contain their laughter while the kid had tried to get a proper shot of an English Bulldog, that refused to look in his direction.

Afterward, they had watched "The Polar Express" and "Frozen" and then Henry had talked them into ordering pizza.
Regina had frowned at the mere suggestion, because not only was she not too fond of the greasy food, but because it was Christmas after all.
But Henry had insisted and Emma had told her, Christmas or not, pizza would always be a great choice.
And so Regina had given in and had enjoyed their unusual Christmas dinner more than she would ever admit, but Emma and Henry had figured it out anyway and a new tradition had been born at that moment.
------------------------

When Henry had darted off to the guestroom with his camera – to check his pictures one more time – Regina and Emma had known that he would fall asleep eventually and they had been right.
They went to check on him about ten minutes later and Henry was out like a light, a huge smile on his face.

Emma closed the door, careful not to wake the kid, and turned to face Regina, "Do you want some tea?"

"Yes. Tea would be nice."

Once they were seated on the couch Emma and Regina sat there in silence, sipping from their mugs, both of them waiting for the other to say something.

It was Emma, who spoke up in the end, "Would it be okay if Killian would stay with Henry when you have your last performance?"

Regina was startled by the unexpected question, but on the other hand, it was not that much of a surprise – of course, Emma had her own appointments at times, "I think it would be quite alright. Henry had a lot of fun with him...and the video games."

"Yeah, he had. He kicked Killian's ass. And you don't have to worry. Ruby and Graham will be here as well. I would not suggest this if I wouldn't trust them to...you know...take good care of Henry."

"I know", Regina smiled at Emma and took a sip of tea.

"Great...so, uh...I'd say we'll leave here around eight...what do you think?", Emma offered and watched Regina expectantly.

"I'm sorry? I'm not sure I understand..."
Regina looked at her in confusion.
What had she missed?

"Right! I should have started at the beginning...sorry. When I made that deal with Gold...I insisted that I could be there...during your last shift. I'm not taking any chances with that creep", Emma explained quickly.

Now Regina was really surprised, "Oh Emma...you don't have to do that. It will be okay. Gold might be an asshole, but he is also a businessman, who takes his deals very seriously. He won't do anything to..."

"He better stick to his word...or so help me God. But I'm coming with you. I'm making sure that you'll be able to leave for good", Emma replied with determination, her tone as sincere as she felt.

And while Regina would never admit it, she was so glad and grateful for Emma's support – it would be so much easier to get that last shift over with, with Emma by her side.

"Thank you", Regina said simply, just to take another sip of her tea, "That reminds me...I could help you with those events you have to plan for Gold. I mean, I know his taste and his preferences ..."

"That would be great. Maybe we can sit down tomorrow and talk this through?", Emma suggested and shrugged.

"We can do that, dear", Regina approved and took a deep breath, "Do you think Mister Jones' offer still stands? In regards to hiring me?"

"I'm pretty sure it does, but Regina...you don't have to do that if you don't", Emma looked as guilty as ever.

Regina only waved her off, "I actually do. I'd love to work in the field. I don't know why I have said what I said when we fought. I was a coward."

Emma shook her head, understanding shining in her eyes, "No, you weren't. You felt cornered and you panicked. And it was partially my fault...but if you really are interested in the job...just talk to Killian when he comes over."

"I'll do that."

And then they fell silent once again.
While Emma had managed to keep the awkward tension at bay during the day – while Henry was around to be specific – it became quite obvious now that something was off.
And of course, it did not stay unnoticed by Regina.

"I take it you haven't slept much last night", she stated quietly and looked Emma straight in the eye.

Emma was caught completely off guard, "Uhm...no. I...I've been...you know...working...all night. Checking stuff for...for Gold."

Regina's stare became even more intense. She knew she should stop right here, should drop it, because she had her suspicions according to Emma's sleepless night, but she could not do that.
Emma was her friend.
"Please, don't lie to me, Emma. We are better than that...at least I hope we are. What's bothering you so much that it keeps you from sleeping?"

Emma sighed.
Regina was right. They should talk about this.
About all of this.
But how much could she reveal without scaring her off?
What if Regina wanted explanations?
Explanations she did not have, explanations she was not ready for.
But she had to say something, right?
There was no escape.

"I'm sorry", Emma dropped her head and took a deep breath before she looked back up to meet Regina's eyes again, "It's just...after our conversation yesterday...it's hard to take it all in. It might take a day or two for me to...calm down...right now I'm a little overwhelmed I guess."

"I shouldn't have told you", Regina sighed heavily, "I should have never gotten you into this mess...I'm so..."

"No!", Emma shook her head vehemently, "No, Regina. Don't. Don't feel guilty about this. I'm glad we talked. I'm glad you trusted me enough to tell me. It's just...the bare thought of what you had to endure...I'm so sorry...you have no idea how sorry I am..."

Regina expected to see pity in Emma's eyes, but she didn't.
All she found there were understanding and the pain Emma must be feeling on her behalf.
And honest concern.

"I mean, Regina...I can't even imagine...and Henry", Emma stopped dead right then, only for a second though, before she whispered, "Doesn't it hurt to look at him sometimes?"

Regina gulped and closed her eyes when the uncomfortable silence filled the room once again.
It stayed there for what seemed like an eternity.

When Regina finally opened her eyes again Emma could see the tears welling in the familiar brown eyes and Regina did nothing to stop them from falling.
Her voice was low and raw when she answered at last, "He has these warm and gentle eyes. The eyes of my father. That's what makes it bearable...but I won't lie to you. The older he got the harder it became...to...to look at him. I love Henry with all my heart...I do. And nothing of what happened to me is his fault. But there were times when...when I couldn't...I had to force myself...to look at him."

A sob escaped Regina's lips and Emma's heart broke for her because clearly Regina had never spoken about this before and it had to be torture to admit such feelings.
She offered Regina her hand like she had done the night before and this time it did not surprise her when Regina took it instantly.
Emma squeezed it as gentle as she could manage, aware that Regina could feel caged and cornered by the simple gesture, but Regina made no attempt to pull her hand back, but let it rest in the comfort of Emma's instead.

"One night I came home from work. I had gotten into a fight with Gold...I don't even remember why. I had this split lip, all swollen...and some ugly bruises...Henry was about six I guess, maybe seven...Eugenia had been babysitting him and I was so sure that he was sleeping but as soon as I collapsed on the couch he came rushing from the bedroom...and he looked so worried and scared. He helped me get cleaned up, put some ointment on my lips and everything...and he told me that", tears were streaming down Regina's face now, the memory almost too much to bear, "He told me that everything was going to be fine...that he loved me...that I...that...that I was...beautiful."

Regina sobbed heavily, a painful cry escaping her lips, but then she squeezed Emma's hand again, holding onto it as if it were her lifeline and it that moment it probably was, "I realized right then... at that moment...that Henry...that he was nothing like his father. And since that day it doesn't haunt me as much anymore."

Emma nodded in understanding, "He is a great kid. And I know that you love him. As much as he loves you."
------------------------

They had kept sitting in the living room until Regina had calmed down completely and then Emma had sent her to sleep in the guestroom together with Henry .
There was no point in waking the kid up at an ungodly hour.

Unfortunately, Regina had been plagued with a nightmare in the early morning and that was how she had ended up bumping into Emma in the kitchen – when she had wanted to get herself some water.
Emma had not slept well either, so they had sat down to work on the project for Gold, to get some distraction and it had turned out just fine.

By the time Henry had woken up they had been almost done and he had been thrilled when Emma had suggested that they could go to the harbor and look at one of her family's ships.
------------------------

It had been a nice day, in the end, a day that had given Emma and Regina some much-needed peace.

The next few days had been rather uneventful, because Emma had been occupied with work and Regina had helped Henry with some school project.
Emma's first business meeting with Gold had gone better than she had expected and Regina had been right – he was a clever businessman with massive ambitions.
Emma did not trust him one bit and she never would, but working with him, working for him would possibly turn out to be manageable.
But of course, she hated that man with every fiber of her being for everything he had done to Regina – even if it was "not that bad" compared to some of the other stuff she had suffered through.
------------------------

Killian and Ruby arrived early on December 30 and Emma was glad that they did, because Regina had been tense and on edge since the morning.
Clearly, she expected something to go wrong, expected that probably Gold would change his mind.
But Emma would not let that happen.

Come hell or high water – this would be Regina's last day in that hell hole.
She would make sure about that.

When Graham finally showed up Emma fixed everyone some spaghetti and the friends enjoyed a rather entertaining conversation over dinner about some mess Ruby had created on set while designing a new costume for one of the actresses.
Once they had finished dinner Regina disappeared to get ready for her last shift and Henry and Killian started to play on the X-Box with Ruby cheering in the background.

That gave Emma some time to take a deep breath out on the balcony, where Graham showed up a few minutes later.

"Em, are you alright?", Graham sounded as worried as he looked.

"Yeah, I'm good...just not sleeping much lately", she shrugged casually, "But I guess you don't get much rest either. You are awfully pale."

Graham sighed, "Well, you know how it is, sweetheart. I'm this famous photographer and everybody wants me...to take pictures of course."

Emma laughed out and slapped him on the arm playfully, "Graham Hunter, are you saying that you've met someone?"

"No, it's really just work. Sorry to disappoint you but tell me, Emma...how are things in paradise?"

Her gaze grew distant immediately, "Well, everything's fine I suppose."

Graham did not buy it, of course not.
He furrowed his brow and watched her closely, "Have you and Regina gotten into another fight?"

Emma shook her head, never meeting his eyes though, "That's not it, Graham. Regina and I...we are okay. We...we talked a couple of nights ago...about...about everything."

"Oh."

When Emma finally found the strength to face him he could see the terror, the pain in her eyes and he pulled her into a hug without hesitation, "That bad?"

"Worse", Emma mumbled against his shoulder and wrapped her own arms around his body to seek the comfort only Graham could provide for her.

He knew better than to ask for details because Emma would never betray Regina's trust, she would never betray anyone's trust in fact.
Secrets had always been safe with her.
------------------------

By the time Regina returned Killian was outright frustrated that he could not beat Henry and Ruby and Graham were laughing hysterically on the couch.
Emma was leaning against the kitchen counter, lost in thought, wearing a black suit, a white shirt, and a black tie.
A single braid highlighted her ponytail and the black heels completed a rather stunning outfit and Regina was quite taken by the sight.

"Before I forget it, Em. What about the photoshoot for the campaign? Do you have a date yet?", Graham interrupted all of a sudden and brought Regina back to reality.

"Uh...no. Can we look into that somewhen soon?", Emma looked at him expectantly.

"What photoshoot?" Ruby asked because she had no idea what they were talking about when Emma usually told her about all of her bigger projects.

Emma shared a look with Regina, who nodded her approval, so Emma explained, "It's Regina's last day at The Rabbit Hole. I got Gold to agree to let her go. In exchange, I have to plan two events for the club. Graham offered to take the promotion pics."

"Oh wow", Ruby stated, "Aren't you afraid that this could ruin your reputation?"

Regina cringed at the words because she did not like this deal Emma had made one bit.
There was too much at risk for Emma and she could not wrap her head around the fact that Emma had done that.

"No, I don't", Emma responded firmly, but it was just partially true because she knew quite well that she could lose important clients over this, "If someone has a problem with my decision...well, then they'll have a problem with it. There's nothing I can do about it. But even if that would be the case...there will be a way to use this job to my advantage."

"I absolutely agree, love. You are great at your job and you'd find a way", Killian encouraged and Graham nodded his approval.
It was the first time the two men agreed on something since they had broken up.

Henry listened to every word of the conversation but decided to stay silent, not that he had much to say anyway.
He was just glad that his mother would be out of Gold's reach after tonight.

Graham pulled his phone out of his jeans pocket and checked his calendar, "What about Sunday in two weeks? We could start in the early morning and shoot the pics for both events in one go."

Emma thought about it for a moment to make sure she did not have any appointments and when she was positive that she would be free she nodded, "You know what, Graham...that sounds like a perfect idea."

"It does indeed", Killian announced, "I'm free as well."

Everyone looked at him, quite surprised, but he only shrugged, "What? I'm pretty sure you need someone to do the make – up...no? I might be able to help with the location as well."

A genuine smile grew on Emma's face, "Thanks, Killian. You're the best."

Ruby tipped something into her phone before facing the others, "Nothing on my list either. Except for brunch with Belle...but I texted her and told her that we have to re-schedule...so, count me in...for the costumes and stuff."

"Thanks so much. I love you guys...I hope you know that", Emma stated simply while Regina stood there, speechless once again.
She never had experienced anything like this – people standing up and supporting one another and she was more than a little overwhelmed.

"Em, you've always been there for us. You've always helped us out. It's kinda nice that we can give something back for once", Graham replied and went over to hug Emma once again.

Regina cleared her throat loudly, "I know that you don't do this for me, but for Emma...but I'm grateful none-the-less. And I'd love to cook dinner for everyone tomorrow."

"Awesome!", Ruby practically bounced on the couch, "And you are wrong, Regina. We are doing this because Emma considers you family. And that means you are family to us as well."

"Exactly", Graham agreed and gave Regina a decent smile.

Regina was completely shaken by the statement and a single tear made it down her cheek, but for once it was a tear born out of happiness and that itself was a miracle.

"Anyway...we have to go", Emma interrupted the rather intimate moment with her friends, "We can't afford to be late."

Henry stormed over to hug his mother and say his 'Goodbye', but when Emma headed for the door Regina held her back and turned to face the others once more.
There was something she had to do before they could leave, "Mister Jones, I was wondering..."

Killian stopped her mid-sentence with a gesture of his hand, "You'll start on the 6th of January. I'll pick you up at eight."

"Well, I...thank you, Mister Jones", Regina did not know what else to say.

"It's my pleasure, love...and it's Killian."
He smiled brightly and Emma whispered a silent Thank you in his direction, causing him to wink at her.

"Now that that is settled...we really have to leave", Emma demanded only seconds later and turned to look at Regina, "You ready?"

"As ready as I'll ever be, Miss Swan", Regina teased in an attempt to cover her nervousness, "Take me to Wonderland."

Chapter Text

Jefferson was already waiting for Emma and Regina when they arrived at The Rabbit Hole and led them right into Regina's dressing room.

"Can I get you something to drink, ladies?"

Emma knew right away that Regina would not answer because she was awfully tense and nervous, so Emma turned to face The Mad Hatter, "Just some water...oh, and maybe some tea?"

Jefferson chuckled at the mention of tea, but nodded, "I'll let The White Rabbit know that it's tea time."
That said he winked at Emma and left the room, but came back only a few seconds later, making Regina jump in the process, "Before I forget it. Your first show is in an hour. And the second one around midnight."

That got Regina's attention, "Only two?"

"Yep. Gold seemed to be rather pleased with Emma's work so far...so, only two shows and...no more lap dances for you. Two shows and you're good to go", Jefferson explained with a decent smile.
He was well aware of how much of a toll those had taken on Regina.

It was Regina's turn to nod and she let out a relieved sigh.
Only two shows.
Thank God!
Two she could manage.
-----------------------------------------------

Regina had dressed and done her make-up in complete silence while Emma had stood in front of the dressing room, chatting with Jefferson.
At some point, she had heard Gold, or at least she had thought she had heard him, but she was not sure.
She was too focused on getting this over with and be done with it forever.
-----------------------------------------------

Regina did not know what was wrong, but something was off.
She had always come here, done her job, and had gone home – end of story.

She had not liked it, but she had gotten used to it, had grown a certain routine, and had managed to do what she could not avoid.
But tonight everything was different.
Everything felt so very wrong.

Hell, she had to get a grip, she had to get her shit together – she could not screw this up.
Not tonight, not now that she was so close to leaving.
Not now that she had a real chance to turn her life around.
For Henry.
For herself.

She had applied her make-up with shaking hands like the first time she had prepared for a show way back in the day.
This could not mean anything good.
Why was she so nervous when she should be happy?
Happy that she would be free from this place at last.

Two shows for heaven's sake!
Just two.
It could be so much worse.

Gold could have done something mean and terrible, he could have insisted that she had to do three, or even four shows and at least one or two lap dances, but no.
He had given her the easy way out.
Why was still beyond her, but apparently Emma had worked her "magic" once again.

Emma.

Emma had done so much for her, she could not fail today.
She owed her at least that much after Emma had moved heaven and hell to get Gold to agree to this deal.
To agree to let her go.

That thought finally brought Regina's spirit back, at least part of it.
She would do this, she could do this.
And then she would get out of here and never look back.
---------------------------------------------

Emma was sitting in the dressing room, waiting for Regina's return.
She was worried, concerned even, because she had noticed how Regina had forced herself out of the room, forced herself to head for the stage.

Something was wrong, but she did not know what it was and Regina had not said a word.
She had only squeezed her hand for a second when she had left but had not even looked at her while doing that.
Probably Regina was already in full concentration mode for her performance, but Emma doubted it, because Regina had seemed off all day, but it had not been as bad at home.

Once they had arrived at The Rabbit Hole though – everything had become really weird.
Regina had stood in her dressing room, staring at her reflection in the mirror without even so much as blinking – as if she had tried to find a flaw, a stain in her appearance or something.

Emma had no clue about what was going on, but according to Regina's behavior, she might not even know herself.
And that was what worried Emma the most because Regina had always been awfully professional when she had talked about her job, almost stoic.
As if it would not even affect her, because she had this perfect mask.
At least as long as nobody took a closer look.

But today Regina did not seem to be anywhere near composed and Emma was scared that Regina would do something "stupid".
Probably not on purpose, more like subconsciously.
That she would do something to risk her freedom, to risk her chance of a new life.
Maybe the prospect of actual freedom scared Regina because this life was all she knew.
All she had known for years.
--------------------------------------------------

Regina breathed heavily.

One down, one to go.
She had barely been able to perform properly, but somehow she had managed to function enough to satisfy the audience.
She had to do better next time, the last time, or Gold would probably change his mind in the last second.

Yes, she was really that paranoid.
But who could possibly blame her?

She went off stage, put on her robe, and handed Jefferson the bills she had received as she always did.

He nodded and smiled, "It's almost over, Regina. Just relax. Everything will be okay."

She gave him a tense nod in return and headed for her dressing room just to bump into a woman with long red hair she was not familiar with.
Not at all.

There was something about that woman, despite her green-colored skin, something that had her alarms going off instantly.

"Who are you?", Regina forced out and furrowed a brow.

"Zelena. I'm the new one", the woman snapped back, obviously not fond of Regina either.

"That's impossible! You are...green."

"And you are rude", the woman with the black clothes and hat and green skin barked out and headed off before Regina could have said anything else.

Gold would replace The Evil Queen with The Wicked Witch?
Now that was absolutely ridiculous but thankfully not her problem.

Regina continued her way to her dressing room when she caught sight of the one person she had been "friends" with all those years at The Rabbit Hole.
Ashley Boyd.
They had never been that close, but they had shared the fate of being single moms, had shared being stuck in that hell hole.
And the moment Regina saw her a massive wave of guilt washed over her.
She had completely forgotten about Ashley.
When Henry had gotten sick she had called Emma and had left Mifflin Street without ever looking back, without so much as thinking about Ashley and Alexandra for a second.

But now that she was confronted with her blonde colleague Regina felt terrible, because she realized that she had let Ashley down just the way everyone always had let her down.
She had just abandoned her like a used toy, thrown her away like she was not worth anything.

Ashley stared at her for a moment, but then turned around and left for the opposite direction and that finally got Regina to move, "Ashley, wait!"
-----------------------------------------

Ashley had disappeared into her own dressing room, but Regina had caught her before Ashley could have closed the door on her and to her surprise, her stripper colleague offered her to come in.
Now that she stood in the room, facing Ashley, Regina felt completely out of place, but she knew she had to say something, "I'm sorry...that I disappeared on you."

"I bet you are...now that you live in that fancy apartment with that incredibly wealthy chick", Ashley snapped back.

"I'm not living with her. Emma rented an apartment to me", Regina tried to explain but she knew how it sounded.

Ashley snorted, "Yeah, sure. As if you would be able to afford a place there...tell me, Regina...is it really easier to fuck someone you are not into than stripping for a few creeps, who never get to touch you?"

"What?", Regina's eyes went wide, "That's what you are thinking? I'm not sleeping with Emma...we are friends. That's it."

A bitter laugh escaped Ashley's lips, "Of course. Friends. And the next thing you'll tell me is that she helped you out of the goodness of her heart...without any ulterior motive...suuure."

Regina straightened her shoulders because she would not allow Ashley to talk about Emma like that.
Hell, she wouldn't allow anyone to talk about Emma like that, "Believe it or not, but yes...that is exactly how it is. I know it sounds absurd and I don't get why anyone would do that for someone like me...but that's how Emma is. She's just this good-hearted person...who cared...when no one else would. I get that you are mad and you have every right to be but you know that my heater didn't work and Henry got sick as hell. I had to do something and Emma offered her help. She offered me a chance and I took it. Believe what you want, Ashley but the truth is the truth. You can't change that. I'm aware that this sounds too good to be true...I'm aware of that. But this once someone genuinely cares about me. I had a hard time accepting that and you of all people should know how paranoid I am."

She might not have told Ashley anything about her past, but the blonde had witnessed enough situations over the years when Regina's fears had gotten the best of her.
She had to know that Regina did not trust easily.

When Ashley did not say anything Regina headed for the door, but turned around one last time, "For what it's worth...I'm sorry. I'm sorry that I didn't call or anything. But I'm not sorry for trying to give my son a better life, because he deserves better than this. We all do."
---------------------------------

When Regina finally returned to her dressing room there was a fresh cup of tea standing on the table and Emma was sitting on the couch, reading a book – Alice in Wonderland in fact
She could not help, but chuckle at the sight, "I see Jefferson has brought you something to kill time."

Emma looked up and grinned at Regina, "Yeah. I mean it's not like I've read it already...like fifteen times...but hey...are you alright?"

Regina sighed and sat down next to Emma, shaking her head slightly, "I don't know. I feel so off, so on edge and I have no idea why. I should be glad that it's finally over. I am. Maybe I'm just a bit scared because this...here...is all I know. It's all I ever had and I'm not sure what to expect from the future. Will I be good enough at doing make-up? What if not. What if..."
Regina shrugged helplessly, "And then I ran into Ashley and I realized that I had completely forgotten about her. The night I called you...when Henry was sick...I left without a word. I'm such a horrible person, really. I mean we were colleagues for years. We helped each other out because we were both single moms and I just left. We were not really close or friends...like you and me... but still...I'm giving people a hard time because I'm so afraid to get let down again and then I treat the only companion I had just the same. Everything's so fucked up, I'm so messed up."

"Regina, listen. You can't beat yourself up over that. I mean, okay, you should have told her, called her, or whatever. But you know...phones work both ways. Ashley could have called you as well", Emma handed her the cup of tea and Regina took it with a grateful nod, "And I get that you are afraid that things will not work out because that's what happened before. Your experience tells you that it can't be okay...but Regina, it will. You have to have faith in yourself. You can do this. You can have a better life. You deserve it."
----------------------------------------

They had sat in silence after that for the most part until Regina had to get ready for her last performance and Emma had left the room so she could get dressed.
When Regina stepped out of the dressing room about half an hour later, more or less ready to fulfill her last job at the club, she did not let Emma return to the couch to continue reading while she waited.

"Could you...come with me?", Regina's eyes were pleading and Emma nodded her approval although she was not sure what was going on.

Emma gave her an encouraging smile, "What do you need me to do?"

"Just take a seat...and...just be there. I know you won't glare at me like I would be a piece of meat...like the rest of the people here...I guess that will help me to relax. To know you are here...that...", Regina rambled, unable to meet Emma's gaze.

Understanding was shining in Emma's eyes nonetheless, "I get it. I'm coming with you."
-------------------------------------------

Emma was trying to get comfortable in her seat, but she did not really succeed.
She would have preferred to stay in the dressing room, far away from here, but Regina clearly needed her and that's why Emma had not hesitated to sit down right here, in the middle of the audience of The Rabbit Hole.
But that did not mean that she liked it because she did not.
Not one bit.

Before she could get lost in her thoughts though, the lights were already turned down, the spotlight focused on the middle of the stage where Jefferson appeared, "Ladies and Gentlemen...we proudly present...for the last time...The Evil Queen."

People cheered and Emma cringed, because she could not understand why someone could be giddy about someone stripping for them – and not even because they wanted to, but because they had to.
Because they had no other choice because they had bills to pay.
No, this was all kinds of wrong and she would be damned if she ever would become so desperate that she would become a client of such an establishment.

Right then the music started and Regina entered the stage, wearing the exact same clothes as a few months prior when Emma had first seen her.
It was time.

Time for Regina to say her last goodbye to her nightmarish version of Wonderland.
Time for Emma to focus on what was important – Regina and her well–being.
And so she took one deep breath and then she locked her gaze on the one thing that would keep her sane in here – Regina's eyes.

Regina looked in Emma's direction for a second, realizing that Emma was deep in thought, and she felt sorry for asking this of her because Emma clearly was uncomfortable.
She had no time to worry about it though because the music started and she had a job to do after all.
Just one more time.

She started to move her body to the rhythm of the music, concentrating on the lyrics, concentrating on herself, because she could not look at anyone.
Not anymore.
She had come to realize that during her first performance. While she always had looked right into the audience, quite intimidating, she could not do that today, but why she was not capable of doing it was beyond her.
It did not matter anyway – all she had to do was to get over with her performance and leave.

I'm not Snow White but I'm lost inside this forest
I'm not Red Riding Hood but I think the wolves have got me
Don't want those stilettos, I'm not, not Cinderella
I don't need a knight so baby, take off all your armor

Regina had to chuckle at the lyrics. Wasn't it bizarre?
Because she had not realized it for the longest time, but a knight had been exactly what she had needed.
A savior so to speak.
And she had found it in Emma.

But when she wanted to take a glimpse at Emma once again Regina realized that she could not look at her, not now, because she knew exactly that Emma would not be paying any attention to her body, but to her eyes and she was not ready to face her.
Not now anyway.

You be the beast and I'll be the beauty, beauty
Who needs true love as long as you love me truly?
I want it all but I want you more
Will you wake me up, boy, if I bite your poison apple?

Emma watched Regina's every blink and could not miss noticing that Regina tried to avert meeting her gaze at all costs while she started to drop pieces of her outfit to the floor and more skin was exposed.
Not that Emma would be looking at anything, but the brown eyes, but she could see fabric falling in the corner of her own eye anyway.

I don't believe in fairytales
I don't believe in fairytales
I don't believe in fairytales
But I believe in you and me
Take me to Wonderland
Take me to, take me to, take me to Wonderland
Take me to, take me to, take me to Wonderland
Take me to, take me to, take me to Wonderland
Wonderland, Wonderland

Regina shivered, feeling the greedy looks on her body, on her naked flesh, but she forced herself to go on because there was no way back now.
She would do this and then she would be free.

Of course, her eyes moved through the room and although she had no intention of looking at Emma, she caught sight of her anyway.
Just for a second, but the second was enough.

Yes, Emma truly was a knight in shining armor how she sat there, tense and probably as uncomfortable as Regina, and yet her gaze never wavered – it was locked on her face, on her eyes, and nothing else.
And that did the trick for Regina, made her realize that she was not alone in this – that Emma respected her enough, cared for her enough to keep focused on the one thing that was important – to get this over with and be done with it.
Forever.

When I lay my head down to go to sleep at night
My dreams consist of things that'd make you wanna hide
Don't let me in your tower, show me your magic powers
I'm not afraid to face a little bit of danger, danger
I want the love, the money and the perfect ending
You want the same as I, I so stop pretending
I wanna show you how good we could be together
I wanna love you through the night, we'll be a sweet disaster

Emma had not missed the mere second Regina had looked at her, had not missed how the edges of Regina's dark red painted lips had curled up into the tiniest of smiles and she knew that Regina would make it.
And she was right because right then Regina's movements gained strength, pace and Regina put her body on show for all those greedy people in the audience. For people, who believed that strippers were unworthy of respect and kindness, who believed strippers could be treated as they pleased because they paid for it.

The bare thought sent shivers down Emma's spine, but the lyrics of the song were quite distracting and considering their situation completely bizarre.
And yet the lyrics were what had her attention, next to Regina's eyes, who played with the last pieces of her clothes, teased and danced like it would be no big deal.
Yes, this would be over soon.

I don't believe in fairytales
I don't believe in fairytales

I don't believe in fairytales
But I believe in you and me
Take me to Wonderland
Take me to, take me to, take me to Wonderland
Take me to, take me to, take me to Wonderland
Take me to, take me to, take me to Wonderland
Wonderland, Wonderland, Wonderland

Regina had to focus on her performance because she wanted to laugh out loud all of a sudden.
This was too weird.
Wonderland...

She pretty much felt like she would live there now.
Never had she thought her life would change so much one day.
She had not even dared to hope for anything like that, not after everything she had been through.
Not even in her wildest dreams, she could have imagined anything like the life she had now.

Maybe Emma was the white rabbit and she had truly fallen through the rabbit hole?
What a ridiculous thought.
And yet it seemed so much more realistic than the actual truth.

She dropped her bra, aware that all eyes in the room were on her – on her breasts to be specific.
Except for Emma's.

Emma was still sitting in her seat, watching her face like it was the only thing that mattered and that was when Regina realized that it was indeed the only thing that mattered.
At least to Emma.
Because Emma saw her for who she was.

I believe in you and me

And in that moment the scales fell from Regina's eyes.

I don't believe in fairytales
I don't believe in fairytales
I don't believe in fairytales
But I believe in you and me

Emma had not missed that some sort of realization must have hit Regina because her eyes had spoken volumes before her gaze had dropped but Emma had caught the shifting expressions in Regina's brown eyes anyway.
There had been disgust and fear, horror even and Emma had become aware that Regina had been lying all this time.
She had never gotten used to expose herself in front of countless strangers, had always despised what she had to do for a living and that had to be the reason that Regina had been so on edge today.

Regina had been gone from The Rabbit Hole for quite a few days now and she had been more at ease since then.
Coming back here tonight had to be torture, especially since Regina always expected the worst, and clearly, she feared that something would go wrong, that something would come up that would make her stay in the end and Emma wanted to smack herself that she had not thought about this earlier.
That she had not made another deal with Gold to save Regina this horrible experience.

Take me to Wonderland
Take me to, take me to, take me to Wonderland
Take me to, take me to, take me to Wonderland
Take me to, take me to, take me to

Regina felt the urge to cry all of a sudden.
She wanted to get off this stage immediately, but she couldn't. She had to finish her performance.
It would be over in a minute anyway.

She had not been aware of what a toll it had taken on her to have to come back here but that was not the only reason she was so uncomfortable and she could see that now.
There was a reason why she could not look anyone in the eyes anymore, because...
Because of her conversation with Emma.

Her own armor had been cracked open and her vulnerable self shone through and she could not bear the thought of anyone noticing it, because there was nothing and nowhere to hide.
She could not risk it although she was certain that no one in the audience cared for her soul.
Except for Emma of course.

Emma.
Emma was here.
With her.
For her.

Emma cared about her and she cared about Emma.
And Emma believed in her, in them.
Regina found that she believed in them just as much.

She did, she truly did.
And that was the moment Regina finally looked back up and locked gazes with Emma, looked straight into the familiar and loyal eyes of the woman she considered family and a beautiful smile appeared on Regina's face.

I believe in you and me

Forgotten was the torture of undressing for an undeserving audience when the last piece of her outfit fell, because all Regina could see was the understanding nod from Emma, the decent smile on Emma's lips, and the sparkle in her eyes.

Wonderland
Take me to, take me to, take me to Wonderland
Take me to, take me to, take me to Wonderland
Take me to, take me to, take me to Wonderland

And while the song slowly faded away, Regina stood there, smiling and relieved, because her body might be on display, exposed to the world, but her broken heart, her wounded soul would always be safe.
Safe and protected by the one person, who could truly see her in all her darkness and pain, but also in all her beauty.
Safe and protected by Emma Swan.
---------------------------------------

When Regina had left the stage, dressed in her robe, the audience was still cheering, demanding another performance, but she did not care.
She was done.

Emma was already waiting for her in front of the door to her dressing room, talking to no other than Mister Gold himself.
Regina cringed at his sight, but when she saw the smile on Emma's face she relaxed a bit, hoping that things would really be okay.

She entered the room to get changed and ready to go, but she had not ever buttoned her jeans when she heard a knock on the door and she panicked slightly.
Regina pulled her shirt over her head in a rush when the door opened and Gold entered with a rather wicked smile.

"Well, congratulations, dearie...I'd say tonight was a success", he waved with the dollar bills she had gotten from countless people during her performances, bills she had handed to Jefferson right after she had left the stage. Like she always had.

"Where is Emma?"

Gold giggled and Regina shivered. His maniacal way of giggling or laughing had always creeped her out, "She's in my office with Jefferson...to pick up your release papers since you want to leave us."

Regina closed her eyes and took a deep breath, "So, you're letting me go...for real?"

"Of course, dearie. That was the deal. And that's why I am here...to give you this", he stretched out his hand to give her the bills, but she only looked at him, obviously wary of his unusual behavior, "I think I don't understand."

Another giggle escaped Gold's lips, "Don't you remember, dearie? Miss Swan made me promise I would pay you your full loan this month. No deductions...so clearly this is yours."

Regina took the money, still hesitant, but Gold took a step back the second she held it in her hand, "I just came to say goodbye, Regina. I know you think I am a monster...and you are probably right. But all people who want to be successful are...somehow."

She did not know what to respond to that, so she just nodded.

"I hope you know how lucky you are because real life is not a fairytale...not even close. I assume you know that quite well. And yet Miss Swan came here...like a knight in shining armor...to save you. There are not a lot of people out there who would do something like that. She's one of a kind", Gold said and Regina thought she heard something like respect and admiration in his voice.
Emma must have made quite the impression on him.

"I'm aware of that", Regina agreed and nodded again.

"Good", Gold waved his hand and opened the door, but stopped yet again, "Good luck, Regina. I hope I'll never see you again."

When she saw the expression on his face Regina realized that he had not said it to offend her. It was Gold's way of saying that he hoped things would work out for her, that he hoped that she would never end up in a place like this again.

Taking one last look into the mirror Regina saw a single tear rolling down her cheek.
After all these years, after all this hell – she was finally free.

Chapter Text

The drive back home was a silent one.
Emma and Regina were content and glad that everything had gone over smoothly, that Gold had not done anything to stop Regina from leaving.
And while Emma expected that he was up to something, that he had something up his sleeve for her – it did not really matter, because Regina was free.
She would worry about the rest when the time came.

Standing in the elevator, on their way up to Emma's penthouse, Regina finally looked at her, endless gratitude shining in her eyes, "I..."

Emma reached out, giving Regina time to pull back, but she never backed away, so Emma took Regina's hand as gentle as ever and squeezed it softly, "You don't have to say anything. It's okay. I'm just glad it's finally over. Now you can live your life the way you want it."
-------------------------------------

Henry was sound asleep on the couch when they entered the loft and so were Ruby, Graham, and Killian.
It was quite the sight, especially with the The Lion King running in the background.

Emma and Regina bit their lips to stop themselves from laughing out loud, but Emma could not help it and sneaked around to take a picture of the four of them with her mobile phone.
They would never live that down.

Her best friends, the ultimate party people, worn out by a Disney movie and a nine-year-old.
Priceless.

She sent the pic to her friends' cell phones, even to Regina's, and motioned for Regina to follow her to her home office, which she did without even questioning it.

"You can sleep in the guest room as usual if you want. Or you can sleep in my bedroom...if you don't want to be so close to everyone. I'll be working anyway", Emma stated quickly, turning on her computer.

"What? Emma...you need to rest. You're looking tired since days", Regina countered, her brows furrowed in confusion.

"I can't. I have to get some work done because I have a meeting with Gold on the 2nd of January and I need to talk to a friend, who is an interior designer, first thing in the morning to ask if what I have in mind is possible after all. Don't worry, I'll be fine...really. But I need to get this done because I have to take care of my other assignments first thing in the new year. I need to coordinate wisely like I always do when I take an extra job that was not planned", Emma explained with a tired smile and grabbed a file from the table, just to roam over it a second later.

Regina instantly felt guilty again, because Emma did not deserve all this trouble.
Emma should be in bed, getting the rest she needed.

"Is there anything I can do to help?"

Emma shook her hand, "I appreciate it, Regina, but no. Everything's fine. Although...you could make breakfast in the morning."

Regina sighed, but nodded in defeat, "Of course. I can do that. Good night then, Emma. Don't stay up too long."

"I won't."
-----------------------------------------------

Regina had slept in the guestroom as usual, because she trusted Emma's judgment about her friends.
She would probably never trust them completely, but she did trust Emma and that was enough for Regina to fall asleep after the emotional roller coaster ride she had been on all day.

Henry had woken her around eight and Regina had gotten up to find Killian, Graham, and Ruby setting the table and making coffee.

"Good morning, Regina", Ruby greeted, "We got already started, but we thought we'd leave breakfast to you...because what can I say...my cooking skills are lacking...kind of."

Regina nodded with a chuckle and headed right for the fridge, checking for ingredients while Henry bounced down the corridor to Emma's bedroom, "I'll wake up Emma."

He came back only a moment later, stating that Emma was not in her bed and Regina sighed.
She knew exactly where the blonde would be.

"Henry, can you put the eggs into the bowl for me, please?"

He looked at his mother, slightly confused by her request, but showed up right next to her anyway, "All twelve?"

"Yes, sweetheart. All of them."
That said Regina made her way over to Emma's office and knocked softly.
No reply.

She knocked again, a bit louder, but there was still no reaction.
Regina prepared herself for the sight that would greet her and opened the door, but to her surprise the room was empty.
Where was Emma?

"She's not in her office", Regina announced when she returned to the kitchen and everyone's head shot up in surprise.

"She isn't?", Ruby seemed to be truly confused.

Graham grabbed his jacket and headed for the door, "Just get breakfast ready...I'll get her. I'm pretty sure I know where she is."
------------------------------------

Emma was sitting in the gazebo in the park not far from her penthouse, lost in thought.
She had sneaked out in the early morning to go for a run, to clear her head, and somehow she had ended up right there.
It was one of her favorite places, because the park was almost empty in the mornings, especially during the colder seasons of the year – in fact, it was hardly ever crowded, not even in summer.

The gazebo had become her hiding place during the time she had been living here, but she was not sure what she was hiding from today.
Everything was fine, she should be happy.
And she was – just not exactly as happy as she thought she would be.

"Penny for your thoughts?"

Graham's voice made her jump and she glared at her friend for a few seconds before she registered what was going on, "What are you doing here?"

"Breakfast is ready, princess."

"Don't call me that!", Emma mock glared at him and bumped him with her shoulder, "Seems I've forgotten time."

"So, you and Killian seemed to be okay yesterday", Emma announced on their walk back.

"If you think we are getting back together then I have to disappoint you, Ems", Graham replied, "But yes, we get along. Hope it stays that way because I don't want to lose him as a friend."

"I get that", Emma stated, "And it would be a shame if we couldn't hang out together anymore...I mean all of us...together...that would totally suck."

"It would...but enough of the gay drama...how are things with you and Regina?".

Emma chuckled, "Didn't you say enough of the gay drama?"

Graham laughed out at that, "Right...but I'm serious, Em...are you okay? You seem a little off this morning."

"Everything's fine. I'm just stressed with all the extra work for Gold. But it will be alright. Once we've done the photoshoot and I have material to work with it will be alright."
-----------------------------------

Breakfast had been delicious and a lot of fun and Emma was surprised that nobody had brought up going for a party tonight – since it was New Year's Eve.
Sure, Regina had promised to cook dinner yesterday, but still – none of her friends seemed to be in the mood to party, but before she could have given that fact any more thought, Ruby had solved the riddle for her.

"We decided to stay in this year. With David still in a coma and everything...it just doesn't feel right to...you know...celebrate. Hope you don't mind everyone coming to your place?"

Emma shook her head, "It's quite alright. I'm sure it's going to be a great evening, even without the big parties."

"That's what I said", Graham stated matter-of-factly and smiled at Emma.

"I have to head home though. I have some stuff to prepare for my gallery opening, but I'll be back at five", the photographer announced with an apologetic smile.

"Sure. See you later, Graham", Emma hugged him quickly, "I'll take a shower, but then I have some work to do as well."

Regina cleared her throat to say something about that but decided against it at the last second.
There was no point in arguing with Emma about work, at least not at the moment, "Any special wishes for dinner...because I have to go and do some shopping."

"Mooom, please. Don't make me come with you. I wanna stay home", Henry whined at his mother's statement, clearly not fond of the idea to get dragged from one store to the next. He knew how picky his mother could be when it came to cooking for guests. Not that she had done it often in the past, but even when Ashley had been over for lunch or dinner on rare occasions Regina had almost flipped over shopping and he was pretty sure that she would top it all today.

Killian chuckled at the desperate look in the boy's eyes, "I could keep you company if your mom allows it."

Regina nodded, a grateful smile appearing on her face, "Very well."

"Awesome!", Henry was overjoyed at the news.

"Well, then I'll go shopping with you if you don't mind", Ruby offered, "Someone has to help you carry all the bags after all."

"That would be great", Regina approved although she would not have minded going by herself but she liked Ruby and she saw no reason to decline the offer.
It was a bizarre feeling to have so much help and support these days but she got used to it, albeit slowly.
Everything with her would always be baby steps but Emma and her friends didn't seem to mind.

Emma smiled at the people in her living room because things seemed to work out well between all of them and she was glad.
She had no idea what she would do if her friends would not accept Regina and Henry, but thankfully she did not have to worry about that.

"Rubes, you can take my car. I know how much you love it...oh right...and take my credit card too since I'm obviously hosting."
That said Emma disappeared into the bathroom and Ruby jumped in victory because she did indeed love Emma's black Mercedes.
--------------------------------------

New Year's Eve at the penthouse had been a full success.
Everybody had complimented Regina on her cooking and to everyone's surprise, Belle had made an appearance together with Mary Margaret.
Henry had taken tons of photos with his new camera and Graham had shown him how to make the best out of every picture, had explained to him the importance of light and the right angle and Henry had listened to every single word carefully.

They had sat together for a long while, talking about the events of the year, bathing in memories, sharing a lot of laughter till the clock had stroke midnight.
Toasts had been made then and everyone had started the New Year on a good note, surrounded by friends and family.
--------------------------------------

The next few weeks were rather busy for everyone.
Regina had started to work for Killian, which had turned out to be a great decision because she did really well and enjoyed every second of working for and with the most eccentric of Emma's friends.
Killian and she had started to bond the second he had picked her up for her first day of work because a gay man clearly would be no threat to her.
Especially since he was one of Emma's best friends.

Some of the other makeup artists working for Killian had given her a hard time the first couple of days when they had found out that she was a former stripper, but Killian had jumped right to her defense and had told them that he would fire everyone, who would not behave, that he would not tolerate people bullying Regina.

Regina had been surprised, but Killian had only shrugged, "Emma would kill me if I would let anything happen to you...and besides...you are really talented, Regina. And you are my friend."
It had been the moment she had finally realized that Emma had been right all along – everything would be fine.

Emma was busy with all her projects, especially with the planning for Gold's events, but she tried her hardest to find enough time to see her friends and hang out with Regina and Henry anyway.

Graham was occupied with work as well and with his gallery opening and of course with editing the pictures he had taken during the photoshoot for The Rabbit Hole campaign.
The shoot had been an interesting project altogether because it had been a while since Graham, Emma, Ruby, and Killian had gotten a chance to work together, but they had enjoyed every second of it and the photos had turned out to be absolutely stunning.
So, everything was going good so far – the new year had started out great.

But the best news had been the ones of David waking up from his coma a couple of days ago.
Emma, Regina, and Henry had been on the way to the zoo when Emma had gotten the call and they had visited him the same day.

Mary Margaret had not been able to stop crying, happy tears of course, and Regina could see how much the pixie-haired woman loved her fiancé.
They clearly were meant to be together.

To everyone's surprise, Henry had taken to David right away and David had been quite fond of the boy from the start as well.
And so Henry had visited David practically every day after school ever since.
David was bored anyway, but the doctors had told him that he would be released soon and everyone was thrilled about the news – especially Henry since David had promised him that he would take him camping as soon as he would be fully recovered.

It would be a long way back for him, but with the support of his friends and family, David would get through rehab and all the other obstacles waiting for him on the road.

Regina was not sure what to think of the whole situation, because obviously, Henry was looking for a father figure in his life, which was understandable, but she was wary.
David seemed to be a nice guy and although she would never fully warm up to Mary Margaret, they got along.
Something about the pixie-haired woman bothered her, but she was not sure what it was.
Probably her naive view on the world, her weird belief that everything was about peace, love, and forgiveness.
What bothered her the most though was Belle's and Mary Margaret's lifestyle, the way they spent money without questioning it.
They bought whatever they wanted and if they got tired of it they replaced it with something new and more interesting, more glittery or whatever.

What if David was the same?
What if he got tired of Henry at some point?

Regina did not know how to handle this situation, because she had never been in a situation like this before.
Probably she should let Henry make his own experiences, but she just could not do that.
She had to protect Henry although she knew it was not necessarily for his best, her own past did not allow her to let go.
She was worried sick that Henry would get hurt, paranoid even and she would try to avoid that at all costs.

But the closer Graham's gallery opening came the more Henry tried to convince Regina that she should go there with Emma.
That she should go out for one night and have fun because she had not done anything for herself in forever.
And when David got released right in time Regina had no arguments anymore and so it was settled – they would have an early dinner at Emma's, all of them, and while everyone would show up at the gallery to support Graham, David would keep Henry company, because he could not walk or stand for long periods yet anyway.
He would probably even need another surgery on his damaged knee.
---------------------------------------

Graham showed up at Emma's place the night before the gallery opening, completely worn out.
He looked like a ghost in fact, because he had been working like a maniac to get everything done in time.
He was pale and the dark circles under his eyes were the proof that he had not slept much during the last weeks, but Emma knew all of that too well to give him a pep talk about working too much since she had been quite busy herself.
Time was running for all of them after all.

"You know...we really should go on a vacation or something once that opening is over", Emma announced once they were seated on the couch with a glass of wine.

"I absolutely agree, sweetheart. That sounds like a lovely idea", Graham nodded vigorously.

"It does, doesn't it? And we've been talking about going to Hawaii for so long...but we never did. Something came up...every damn time", Emma sighed and took a sip of the white liquid.

Graham chuckled at that, "True that. We've been talking about it since we watched Forgetting Sarah Marshall. Oh, how much you were whining...Graham, let's go to Turtle Bay...that resort is sooo beautiful...we have to go there!"

Emma laughed out loud as well, "And you know I am right. It is a great place for a vacation. It's ridiculous, really. We don't have to worry about money and yet we never made it there because we were too busy with our careers...because we are two damn workaholics."

"It's really a shame, Em. We should focus on the important things in life from time to time. Like family and friends."

"We'll do...right after your successful gallery opening tomorrow", Emma raised her glass, "To Turtle Bay."

Graham did the same and smiled, "To Turtle Bay."

And since they were already talking about it they decided that they could as well watch the movie.
---------------------------------------------

By the time the credits rolled Graham and Emma were sore from laughing and Graham coughed wildly.
That movie was hysterical.
And the Turtle Bay resort stunning.
Nobody could say otherwise, right?

"You know what, Em? I'm going to get us tickets. First thing in the morning...we deserve this", Graham exclaimed once he had calmed down.

"We do", Emma agreed, but at the same time, she cringed at the idea of going on a vacation without Regina and Henry.
It did not feel right, but she did not want to disappoint Graham either.
And she certainly did not want to give him the impression that he would not be enough, because he was.
She would miss Regina and the kid terribly though.
-------------------------------------------------

They had talked about the project for Gold for a while, about David finally waking up and about the wedding that would probably happen soon now that he was awake, but in the end, they had landed back on the one topic only Graham was aware of – Emma's feelings for a certain brunette.
Her feelings for Regina Mills.

"Come on, Em...spill it. And don't even try to tell me that everything is okay. I can see it in your eyes...how sad you are I mean...trouble in paradise?", Graham prodded carefully.
He knew he couldn't push too much because it would only make Emma's walls rise even higher.

Emma shook her head, "No, no trouble...it's just..."

Graham put his hand on her arm for comfort, "Let me guess...your feelings are not going away, right?"

Of course, he had figured it out, of course, he had seen right through her, so Emma shrugged helplessly, "No, they haven't. It's so hard sometimes, Graham...to talk to her, to see her practically every day...and to know that we can never..."

"You don't know that, sweetheart", he tried to encourage her, but Emma shook her head once again, "No, you don't understand. Even if Regina wouldn't be straight, even if the circumstances were different. It wouldn't change anything, Graham. The things she's been through, her whole past. I'm not even sure if she is capable of loving anyone except for Henry."

"It's really that bad, huh?"

"You can't even imagine. I'm still struggling with some of the things she's told me. I had so many nightmares since that day. Sometimes I'm scared to fall asleep", Emma confessed and ducked her head.
She should not feel like this, because nothing of it had happened to her, but she could not stop herself from feeling what she was feeling.
This was about Regina after all.

Everything that concerned Regina, especially her awful past, made Emma want to rip off her own skin.
She could barely wrap her head around everything Regina had trusted her with.
How much Regina must have suffered, how little she thought of herself. And while Emma had sworn to herself that she would make it all better for Regina, she doubted that she really could.
Because there was absolutely nothing that could ease pain like that.

"So, that's the reason for your sleepless nights, for working so much", Graham stated matter-of-factly, "Does Regina know about this?"

"No. And she can never know. She's struggling with nightmares of her own. And I don't want to burden her with my crap. She's been through enough. Now that life's finally getting better for her...I mean you should see her at work. She is so awesome. Killian adores her", Emma smiled at her own words, pride shining in her eyes.

"I get that, Em. And I'm happy that she is doing so well...but you can't forget about yourself. No matter how much you want to help her, you and your life, your happiness matter too."

Silence hung over them for a while till the first tears started to run down Emma's cheeks and the pain she had been holding in for weeks finally broke its way to the surface, "I don't know what to do, Graham. I can't lose her. I can't. I want her to be okay, I want all of us to be okay. And happy."

Graham pulled Emma into a warm embrace and rubbed circles over her back in an attempt to give her more comfort, "Everything will be fine, Emma. You have to have faith. Everything will be fine. Maybe not right away but eventually. You have to talk to Regina though, you are friends after all. And no matter whether you will ever be more than friends or not, you can trust her and you know it. And besides that, she deserves the truth. Give her a chance to be there for you. She might surprise you because she clearly is stronger than every one of us has given her credit for."

And then Graham said a silent prayer for his desperately hurting friend, glad that Emma could not see the pain in his own eyes.

Chapter Text

Dinner at Emma's the next day was a blast.
Everyone enjoyed being together, especially now that David was "back from the dead".
There was so much laughter and some of them had even shared some happy tears over some of their most ridiculous memories.

Regina was surprised what a truly crazy group they were, but not necessarily in a negative way.
She found Emma's friends quite entertaining if she was honest and she was glad that they made it so easy for her to become a part of all this.

Graham demanded that they would take a group photo because it was a rather epic evening and some moments in time should be conserved forever.
To Graham's surprise, everyone had agreed without whining and so he had taken some of the most hilarious pictures of the whole group by using the timer on his camera.
He had caught all of them laughing, smiling, having a good time.
Feeling free.
What a precious memory that would be one day.
--------------------------------------

Killian had offered to do Graham's make-up because he still did not look rested and once that was done the photographer left to check in on everything at the gallery.
The others would join him in about two hours.

Regina did the dishes and to her surprise, Mary Margaret had offered her help and so they stood next to each other now – Regina cleaning and Mary Margaret drying.

Emma eyed them suspiciously, but shrugged in the end when David came over to her, "Well, hello Prince Charming...you having fun?"

"More than you could ever imagine", he gave her a decent smile and looked over at his fiancé and Henry's mother, "Regina is a keeper. And so is that kid of hers."

"Yeah, they are wonderful", Emma agreed and David patted her on the shoulder, "It was the right decision to help her get out of that place. I'm proud of you."

"Thanks, David. And you're right. I'd do it again without so much as a blink. It was one of the best decisions I've ever made. I don't regret it for a second."

At the same time, Mary Margaret cleared her throat and turned to face Regina, "I...I wanted to thank you..."

"Thank me for what, dear?", Regina was startled at the words and furrowed her brows.

"Well, for allowing Henry to spend time with David. It means a lot to him, to us. And I know how protective you are of your son...which is understandable...what mother would not be? It's just...David cares about Henry. And I think having him around...it helps him, you know...to recover faster...so, thank you", Mary Margaret smiled shyly while her cheeks turned a light shade of pink.

Regina nodded in understanding, "It's alright. Henry likes David a lot. He never had a father figure before. I think it's good for him to have a male...role model in his life."

Mary Margaret considered picking up on the topic for a second but decided against it because Regina and she were not exactly friends and Henry's mother seemed to be a very closed-off and private person. Overstepping her boundaries would only get her in trouble, so she decided on another, safer topic, "Is it okay if I keep picking Henry up from school when you or Emma are busy? I know Emma tries her hardest to be there...but she seems so busy lately."

"That's alright. Thanks for that anyway...because I don't want to see Emma burdening herself even more", Regina answered and could not hide the guilt in her voice.

"It's not your fault, Regina. Emma has always been a workaholic...like Graham...it's who they are", Mary Margaret gave her a sympathetic smile.

"Probably, but..."

"No but, Regina. Emma made a decision and she was fully aware of the consequences. She can handle it, have faith", the pixie-haired woman encouraged, causing Regina to nod in understanding.
It was hard for her to accept that wild, untamed part of Emma since Regina herself was a person, who needed to be in control at all times.

Both women were silent for a moment, both focusing on their deeds, but then Regina focused on Mary Margaret again, "Please don't hurt my son."

The smaller woman seemed to be confused, "I'm sorry? What do you mean?"

Regina cleared her throat, "Don't take this the wrong way, please. I know what kind of life you are living. You don't have to worry about anything and if you get bored of something, you throw it away like an old toy, and replace it with something new, something better."

Mary Margaret shook her head immediately, "Oh no, Regina. You don't have to worry about that, I promise you. Henry is such a precious kid. I understand where you are coming from. I do. And I swear Henry is not some experiment or something. He is an amazing kid. He made me understand that you don't need money to do a great job raising a kid because you clearly have done an extraordinary job with what little you had back then. That says a lot about you, Regina. I admire your strength."

Regina laughed bitterly at that, "There's nothing to admire about me."

"And that's where you are wrong", Mary Margaret continued, "I admit when Belle told me what Emma had done, well, I thought she had finally lost it. But then I got to know you and Henry. And that made me realize that Emma probably had never seen more clearly before. I get what she sees in you, at least I think I do."

Since Regina was not ready for continuing the conversation, because she was too overwhelmed, she decided to take it in a different direction, "So, are you and David planning on having kids?"

Mary Margaret's face fell instantly, "I wish we could have children, but I...I can't."

"I'm sorry", Regina did not need to hear more and from one moment to the next she saw the pixie-haired woman in a different light. There was a lot more to her than she had ever thought possible. Mary Margaret Blanchard wore a mask to the world like she did. They did it to protect their vulnerable sides, to cope with their pain. They were not so different after all, "You could adopt a child?"

"We're considering it but it's not that easy. Not even for people with money. Not when you want to do it right and not buy the next best kid. Right now I can't worry about it anyway. All that matters now is that David gets better", Mary Margaret replied with a small smile.

"Of course."
--------------------------------------

Her conversation with Mary Margaret had given her some peace and Regina even felt sorry for the woman.
While her past was horrible it had given her Henry and no matter what she had to endure – she would go through all of it again just to have him.
There was nothing more precious than a child after all.
--------------------------------------

The group of six arrived at the gallery just in time and flashes started to go off immediately, because Emma and her friends were part of Boston's finest after all.
Regina was completely startled because she had not expected anything like that, but Mary Margaret sensed her discomfort right away and led her away from the persistent journalists and their cameras.
She was not fond of all the attention either.
At least not tonight.
It would be a different story if David would be here because with her Charming by her side she felt a lot more self-confident than without him.

Graham welcomed them with a glass of champagne and showed them around, explained his work to Regina mostly, who kept looking at all his photographs with a lot of interest.
Most of his photos were black and white, but really intense – touching pictures of all kinds of people, rich and poor, happy and sad, but Graham clearly had an eye for the right motive at the right time.

When Emma and the rest finally joined them, Emma seemed to be slightly annoyed with the reporters, but of course, she could not say anything since they were writing about the hopefully successful gallery opening.
One journalist, in particular, seemed to be quite obsessive like some paparazzi, because he was following her every step.
When he caught Emma and Regina chatting he made an appearance once again, "Miss Swan! Who is the stunning lady that is here with you tonight?"

"She's a friend."

He tilted his head, "Just a friend?"

"Listen, Mister. My private life is none of your concern. Plus, we are here for my friend Graham's photography tonight", Emma needed all her strength not to snap at the man.

The journalist did not even think about leaving her alone, "Is it true that you are planning the celebratory campaign for The Rabbit Hole?"

Emma's eyes went wide at the question.
How the hell did he know about that? She had not announced anything officially yet.

"Who told you that?", she asked, feeling quite irritated.

"Mister Gold announced it at a press conference earlier today", the journalist shot back, "So, is it true?"

Gold, that damned weasel.
Of course, he would do something like that. Of course, he would use her name to promote this whole thing even further.
And of course, he would let her face it completely unprepared.

Emma searched the room for Ruby and signaled her to get Regina away from there once their eyes met. Thankfully her best friend understood immediately and came to Regina's rescue only a second later.
If one of the reporters would figure out who Regina was, if any of them would pay here more attention, this whole thing would blow up in their faces and Regina would end up on the front cover of every newspaper the next day.
And the headlines probably would not be very positive.
--------------------------------------

Once Ruby and Regina, who seemed to be kind of shocked, were gone Emma turned back to the journalist, who eyed her intensely, "So?"

Emma straightened her back.
There was no escape anyway.

"Yes, it is true that I have accepted a job from Mister Gold according to his festivities at The Rabbit Hole this year."

"Now why would you do that? You seemed awfully picky about the jobs you took in the past? Your reputation has been flawless, but I'm afraid it will be ruined once this gets public", the journalist taunted.

"While I agree that I am picky when it comes to my work I'm always open for a challenge. Mister Gold and his establishment don't fit my usual clientele, I agree, but I don't see why my decision to accept his offer could possibly ruin my reputation though", Emma answered, her voice firm, her expression professional and serious.

"It's a strip club."

"And? What is wrong with that?", Emma looked at him provokingly, "Are you one of these people who believe strippers are unworthy, who say that they are nothing, but a piece of dirt? Because then you are clearly mistaken, Mister..."

"Glass...Sidney Glass."

Emma cleared her throat, her gaze fixed on the annoying man, "Mister Glass. A lot of people frequent The Rabbit Hole...which is a highly exclusive club by the way. If somebody has a problem with my decision, well, there is nothing I can do about it, now is there? But I assure you that my work is professional as always and that should be the only thing that matters. And if you'll show up at the festivities you might as well see for yourself that it is not as salacious as you would think it is. And now excuse me, Mister Glass. I'm here for my friend Graham, not to talk to some narrow-minded reporter who tries to come up with a scandal where there is none."

"Emma, I'm so sorry", Regina started, completely embarrassed, but Emma waved her off immediately, "Don't worry about it. It's fine. I mean it would have come out sooner or later anyway. It's nothing I can't handle."

"I should have never let you do this...this deal with Gold", Regina countered, her eyes sad and lost.

Of course, Regina would beat herself up for this when it was Gold's fault and Emma was mad as hell.
Not even because he told the press about their working relationship, but because he had managed to make Regina miserable once again.

She took Regina's hand carefully and gave it a gentle and reassuring squeeze, "Hey, look at me...please."

It took a moment for Regina to regain her composure, but when she finally met Emma's eyes she saw nothing, but kindness and it took her by surprise.
How could Emma not be angry with her? How could she not be mad at the world?

"Regina, this is not your fault. I should have known that Gold would come up with something...to test me and my patience. It's alright. I agreed to his terms and I was aware of the consequences when I did so. And I would do it again. I would have agreed to a worse deal than the one he offered if that would have been what it would have taken to assure your freedom. I'd still do it."
Emma sounded so serious, so convinced, so sure about this whole situation – it truly blew Regina's mind.

"Everything will be fine, Regina. Have faith", Emma stated, well aware that she could not be sure about that herself, but she too had to have faith.
--------------------------------------

Graham's speech had provided the needed distraction and once the buffet had been presented the incident with the annoying reporter had been forgotten because there was nothing Emma could do about it anyway.
She would face the outcome of her collaboration with Gold head-on, no matter what.
It might cost her, it might even cost her dearly, but it did not matter.
The thing that did matter though was Regina. And Henry.

And the two of them were safe.
Everything else she could handle.
There always was a way after all.
--------------------------------------

When Regina had seen how relaxed Emma was some of her own tension had faded away, but she could not help, but to worry.

Once most of the guests had gone home Graham had brought another bottle of champagne, just for his friends and they had celebrated his success, they had celebrated life.
Because that was what his work was all about – life in all its tragedy and beauty.

While he was a famous fashion photographer he had chosen completely different motives for the photos in his gallery.
They were beautiful, provoking, sad, and angry, they were full of love and passion, but also tragic and lonely.

He had taken pictures of models, of strippers, of a homeless man, a fighting couple, a fleeing horse, some wealthy business mogul, of strangers on the bus or in the street, and a lot more.
There was so much contrast in his work, so much passion behind every picture – Regina had truly enjoyed the opportunity to take a look at his fabulous work and his amazing talent.
All in all, despite that one incident, it was a great and memorable dinner and night out with friends, simply a day none of them would ever forget.

When Emma and Regina were ready to leave Graham came over to them and addressed the brunette right away, surprising both women, "Regina, is there a chance you could meet me for coffee tomorrow?"

"Uhm...sure...", she answered quickly despite her surprise and confusion.
What was that about?

"Great. Would it be okay if I'd come by to pick you up around three?", Graham asked carefully.

"That would be fine, dear."

"It's settled then", he turned to look at Emma, who watched him suspiciously, causing him to raise his hands in defense, "I have no intention of stealing her from you, promise."

Emma rolled her eyes at that, knowing that she could trust Graham. He would never betray her confidence, he would never tell Regina anything she had confessed during their conversations, "It's okay. She has to be home by six though because we promised Henry to take him to the movies."

Graham could not stop himself from laughing out loud. How very domestic that sounded. As if Emma and Regina would be an old married couple, but he clearly could not point that out to the two of them, "Noted. I'll bring her back in one piece too."

"You better", Emma shot back playfully.

"You know me, Em. I'd never let anything happen to anyone you care about...but what I wanted to say is...I did book that Hawaii vacation we've been talking about. Make sure you are available the first week in May."

Regina's chest tightened at the mention of Emma going on vacation and she did not even know why.
If someone deserved a vacation then it was Emma.
Definitely.
And yet the thought of not seeing Emma for a whole week was somehow disturbing.
Why was a mystery to her though.

Emma glared at Graham in disbelief, "You didn't?! Are you mad? Why am I even asking...oh my God, this is going to be sooo awesome!"

Graham nodded and pulled her into his arms, "It's about time for a real vacation, not just business trips. It's been way too long."

"I agree! Thanks, Graham...I owe you."

"Nonsense. And now get out of here before I get you completely drunk and wasted", he joked.

"Night, Graham...maybe you find the time to come by tomorrow night for a drink", Emma gave him one last smile.

"I'd love that, especially since I will be very busy the next weeks. I sold pretty much every photograph", Graham stated with a huge, proud smile.

"That's amazing, Graham! I'm so proud of you", Emma hugged him again.

"Thanks, Em. Good night."
--------------------------------------

David had already been waiting for them when they returned to the penthouse, Mary Margaret in tow because the pixie-haired woman had texted him first thing once they had sat in the cab.
Henry was sound asleep in the guestroom and Regina could barely hold her eyes open any longer, which had not stayed unnoticed by Emma, "Just go and get some rest. I'll see you and Henry in the morning."

Regina had nodded appreciatively, "Thank you, dear...good night and sleep well."

"Good night, Regina."
And with that she had disappeared into the guestroom, leaving Emma and a slightly confused Mary Margaret and David behind.

"Why is she sleeping here when her apartment is only a few feet away?", the pixie-haired woman asked once she was sure Regina could not hear her anymore.

"Because she is more comfortable if she sleeps in the same apartment as Henry and it's not like I wouldn't have the space, right?", Emma stated the obvious.

"I get it", David said simply, "I don't know much about Regina, but I guess she had a rather difficult life. Not that I could tell much from the few bits of information Henry has given me but he is so protective of Regina."

"Yeah", Emma agreed, "People like us had it a lot easier, but she is a hell of a mother anyway. That kid is amazing."

"He is", David nodded, "He truly is. I've never met a boy like him. Regina did a fabulous job as a mother."

"That's what I told her earlier", Mary Margaret admitted and earned a disbelieving look from Emma and David, "What? You act as if I'd hate her. I don't. It's just...her and me...we don't necessarily share the same opinion on everything."

Emma sighed, "You didn't...I don't know...insult her or anything, right?"

"No, Emma. I didn't. I swear. I know Belle and she had a bad start and we haven't warmed up to her as much as the others but I did nothing to offend her. I guess I understand her a lot better now that we actually talked."
--------------------------------------

Regina was a bit nervous over her meeting with Graham because she had no clue what he could probably want from her.
Maybe he wanted to give her a lecture about this whole debacle with the reporter and Gold but when the photographer finally showed up, a huge smile on his face, Regina did not feel as scared anymore.
Maybe it was something completely different.

And it was.
They had grabbed two coffees to-go at the café around the corner and had gone for a walk in the park till they had arrived at a beautiful wooden gazebo and Graham motioned for her to sit down.

"What are we doing here, Mister Hunter?", Regina eyed him suspiciously.

"It's Graham. And I just wanted to get to know you a little since you are so important to Emma", he explained with a warm smile.

"I see", Regina took a sip of coffee and sighed.
This was worse than a lecture, because she would not, under any circumstances, talk about her past. Not to Graham, not to anyone else.
Except for Emma.

"What do you want to know, Graham?"

"Only what you are willing to share...don't feel pressured or anything", Graham replied, his eyes sparkling.

At this Regina sighed even more.
What could she probably tell him? Without giving too much about herself away?
Without leaving her comfort zone?

"Well, I guess everybody assumes that I have a difficult past and it's true. But it gave me my son and I love Henry more than anything", Regina began and Graham nodded in understanding.

He was aware that Regina was not a person to share and that's why he appreciated the effort even more.

"I've never met anyone like Emma. She is...without her I wouldn't have stood a chance in hell...to get away from this humiliating life. And from what I've heard you had a say in that too. So, thank you! You have no idea how much this chance, this new life...all your support...means to me", Regina continued.

"You're welcome", Graham's smile widened.

"I never thought I would have friends...or someone like Emma, someone I consider family. She's one of a kind and she has become so important to my son. To me. I can't help but feel guilty that she had to go to such lengths to help me. I owe her so much...I..."

"You truly care about her, don't you?", Graham watched Regina closely. He knew that she was not using Emma, that she did not care about her money, but he had to make sure that she cared. That she really cared. He just had to know.

Regina nodded vehemently, "I do. And it's not because I am supposed to be grateful for what she did for me. I mean I will forever be grateful but that's not it. I really like her. As a person. She gets me and I get her...we just...it's...I don't know how to explain it", Regina admitted.

"You click", Graham offered and Regina nodded once more, "I guess we do. Having her in my life, having her as a friend...as family...it's truly a blessing."

"I know what you mean, " the photographer replied, "She's been a savior for all of us at some point. She's helped everyone out at least once...one way or another."

Regina knew exactly what he meant.
She understood perfectly.

"Can I ask you a question?"

"Of course", Graham agreed.

"Why are we here...and where are we exactly? Has this place some sort of meaning to you?", Regina looked at Graham expectantly and he smiled, "It has indeed a meaning...it's Emma's hiding place. There are hardly any people here, not even in summer. She comes here a lot...to think, to clear her head...when something is bothering her."

Regina was not sure she understood, "Why are you telling me that?"

"Because someone has to look out for her and you seem to be very close...as you know, I'm rather busy at the moment and there's a lot more ahead. I'd appreciate it if you could have an eye on her when I'm gone. You'll most likely find her here when she's really upset or something", Graham explained, his expression completely serious now.

"Of course I'll have an eye on her in your absence. I promise", Regina assured without hesitation.

It had to be hard to be so busy, to be traveling so much, because she figured that every one of them would miss out on a lot in the life of the others.
Sure, they could catch up on the phone or when they found the time to meet up, but it was not the same as experiencing it together.

Graham seemed satisfied with her answer because a grateful and content smile appeared on his face, "Thank you."
--------------------------------------

Emma, Henry, and Regina had talked Graham into joining them for their trip to the theatre to watch "Mr. Peabody & Sherman" and they had spent a great evening together and Henry had kept talking about how awesome and smart dogs were all the way home in an attempt to convince his mother to get one.
Needless to say that Regina had seen right through his little scheme and had told him that right now was not the time to get a dog, but maybe one day he could have one.
In the very distant future, Reginahad added in her mind.

"I think it would be a great idea", Graham commented, "Kids should grow up surrounded by animals...and dogs are the most loyal friends one could ask for."

Emma took a sideways glance at him and smiled. It was the first time Graham had mentioned dogs since his father's death.
He had avoided the topic ever since, but now he seemed to finally be able to face it again.
Good for him.
--------------------------------------

When they arrived at the penthouse Regina told Emma that she wanted to spend some time with Henry and go to bed early, because she had a long day at work ahead.
She squeezed Emma's hand on the way out and surprised everyone by doing the same with Graham.
Yes, Regina was definitely making progress.

Henry hugged Emma and Graham good night as well and only a second later the two friends were left to themselves.

"Want some wine?"

"I'd prefer a glass of water. I had more than enough drinks for a while. That gallery opening brought me to my knees", Graham stated and barked out a laugh that caused Emma to chuckle as well.

Once they were seated on the couch Emma glared at Graham, "Spill it. Why did you want to meet Regina?"

"Because I wanted to get to know her a little", he gave Emma the same answer he had given Regina earlier today.

"And, what do you say, dad? What's the verdict? Good choice for a new family member?"

"Perfect choice", Graham replied and smiled, "I get why you are so taken with her. Regina is an extraordinary woman."

Emma sighed dreamily, "That she is."
--------------------------------------

The next few days went by without any nameable occurrences or incidents.
Life was busy but good.

On Thursday night Emma and Regina finally managed to have dinner together with Henry, because the two of them had been able to leave work early.
Henry was glad that they got to spend some time together – all three of them – because most of the time it just happened on the weekends lately.

Je understood that both, his mom and Emma, were incredibly busy at work at the moment, but Emma had assured him that it would only be temporary, that things would get better in a few weeks – after her first event with Gold would be over since the second one would not happen before November, probably even December.

Once dinner was finished Henry asked Emma if he could use her computer, because he had to check something for one of his school projects and she allowed him to use her home office.
The pride in Henry's eyes was unmistakable and Emma could not stop herself from smiling – that boy was quite something.
Like his mother.

"Kid, just call me when you need help...I'm right outside in the living room."

"Kay. And thanks, Emma."

"You're welcome."

Emma was pouring some red wine into two glasses when her phone rang.
A glimpse onto the screen told her that it was Ruby and she picked up with a smile, but that smile died only a second later.

Regina headed over to her immediately, sensing that something had to be wrong, but Emma did not even react to her presence.
She was frozen to the spot and Regina was not sure if she even registered what the person on the other end of the line was telling her, because Emma seemed to be completely zoned out.
Until she dropped her phone and fell to her knees, hiding her face in her hands.

"Emma, what's wrong?", Regina's eyes widened in shock.

But the room stayed silent, except for the voice that came out of the cell phone, which was lying on the floor, only a few feet away from Emma.
Regina hurried over and picked it up, "Hello?...yes, Ruby...it's Regina."

"Thank God you are there!", Ruby sounded terribly upset, "Regina, you have to listen to me. You have to stay with Emma. Please. I'm coming as soon as I can."

"Sure, no problem...take all the time you need", Regina assured, "What happened?"

Regina was prepared for a lot, but definitely not for what she heard next.

"Graham is dead."

Chapter Text

Emma was kneeling on the floor, numb.

Ruby's words had shattered her world, had shaken her to the very core.
She had heard what Ruby had said, but her brain could not process it.
Her heart was hammering in her chest, adrenaline rushed through her veins and her mind started the process of denial.

No, it had to be a mistake.
It could not be true.
Graham was fine. He had to be.

She needed him.
He was like a brother to her.
He knew.
He was the only one who knew, whom she had confided into.
It had to be some sick, some cruel joke.

Graham.

Her talented friend.
He had been so full of life, of ambition, he had so many plans.
There was no way he could be...
--------------------------------------------

Regina was too overwhelmed to say anything and if she was honest she felt completely helpless.
Emma seemed to be in shock, which was no surprise since Graham had been one of her closest friends and Emma did not handle loss well in general.
And Regina could barely handle the news of the handsome and gentle man's passing herself – how much worse had it to be for Emma.

The one thing Regina knew was that she had to get Emma off the floor, but how?
Emma did not react to anything.
Not to her voice, not to her touch.
She had squeezed her shoulder repeatedly but had not even gotten a blink in return.

Emma was completely out of it, hiding in the safety of her mind, zoned out to stay away from the painful reality for the time being.
But Regina was aware that Emma's walls would come crashing down eventually and that the sadness and the hurt would wash over her sooner or later.
She had to do something.
Regina headed over to the home office in a rush, "Henry, I need your help..."

"I'm coming in a minute. I'm almost done", her son replied without looking away from the computer.

"Henry", Regina started again and the desperate sound in her voice made him lock gazes with her in the end, "I need your help. Now."
--------------------------------------------

Regina and Henry had taken Emma's hands and had pulled till she had finally gotten up, still completely lost to her surroundings.
Emma did not notice the worried expression on Regina's or Henry's face, did not realize that her phone was ringing again.

"Henry, can you lead Emma over to the couch. I have to answer this. I'll be there in a minute", Regina asked quickly and took the cell phone without waiting for her son's reply.
She would never answer someone else's phone without permission, but today was an exception, especially since the caller was Ruby.
Again.

"Ruby?"

"How is she?", Ruby sounded almost hysterical.

"I honestly don't know. She's definitely in shock", Regina needed all her willpower not to freak out herself.

"Call Whale. Better if he checks on her because of her panic attacks and everything", Ruby suggested.

"Will do", Regina could not say more. She was barely functioning as it was.

Ruby's voice was filled with tears, "I'll try to come over as soon as I can. I'm at Killian's right now."

Regina cringed at the mention of her new boss and friend, "How is he holding up?"

"Not good. He is devastated. They might not have been a couple anymore, but they still cared a great deal about each other...This is a disaster", Ruby answered and started to sob.

"I'm so sorry", Regina did not know what else to say. She never had to deal with losing a friend before, simply because she's never had any.

Ruby cleared her throat, "Listen. I'm waiting for Belle because she'll stay with Killian tonight and then I'm coming over."

"Take all the time you need."
-----------------------------------

Regina had called Doctor Whale the second Ruby had hung up and had explained to him that they had some sort of emergency and as soon as he had heard the news he had promised to come over as soon as he could.

She glanced at the couch where Emma was sitting, staring out of the window, all emotions stripped from her face.
Henry had instinctively wrapped a blanket around Emma's shoulders and was sitting next to her, confused about why Emma was acting so strange.
Regina sighed at the realization – she had to tell her son.

Henry was standing next to his mother with growing worry while Regina made some camomile tea for Emma. She had motioned for him to come over to the kitchen counter when he had finally looked away from Emma, but now Regina did not know what to say.

"Mom, what's wrong? Emma is acting weird and you look like you're about to cry. What happened? It's something bad, right?"

All Regina could do was nod, but then she knelt to be on his eye level.
There was no running away from this.

"Henry", she whispered, because she did not want to startle Emma although she was sure that Emma paid them no attention at this moment, "Graham has passed away."

Henry's eyes grew wide at the realization.
How was that possible?

"I don't understand. He was fine on Sunday", he dropped his head, shifting with his feet.

"I know, sweetheart. I'm so sorry", Regina pulled her son into her arms and held him tight.

"Is that why Emma is acting so weird", he watched his mother expectantly, "Like...like a zombie?"

Regina nodded, "She is in a lot of pain right now, but Doctor Whale is on his way to check on her."

"Will she be okay?"

"I don't know, my little prince", Regina admitted, "I sure hope so."

"Me too."

Silence fell over them, giving them time to process, but then Henry whispered, "Why did he die? I don't understand."
He looked so confused and helpless at this moment and Regina's heart ached for her son.
Neither of them had expected this, neither of them had been prepared for this.
But that was the thing with life, was it not?
It was unpredictable.

"I don't know, honey. There can be a lot of reasons for people to die. Some are sick or they have an accident. And sometimes people also die for no reason. Their heart just stops", Regina tried to explain, leaving the more cruel options like suicide and murder out, because she did not want to upset her son even more.

"That's not fair!", Henry protested loudly and Regina was afraid that he might have startled Emma, but Emma did not move an inch. She just sat there and kept staring out of the window.

"No, Henry. It's not fair. Remember what I told you about life? Sometimes it is beautiful and sometimes it is cruel. Sometimes cruel things, bad things happen...but the good things that we experience make it bearable", Regina tried to give him a smile but failed miserably. She was too overwhelmed, too sad, and too worried.

Henry nodded anyway, "I really liked Graham."

Regina kisses his temple, "I know, sweetheart, I know. I liked him too."
-------------------------------------

Henry had darted off to the guest room only a second later – to read in his fairytale book and Regina had not dared to stop him, because she knew that it was his way of coping with things.
She would check on him in a bit.

But first, she would try to get Emma out of her stupor, because the motionless state Emma was in scared Regina more and more.
She took the mug of tea and went over to the couch, waiting for a reaction from Emma, that did not come, so she sat down and put the mug into Emma's hands, careful not to spill any of the hot liquid.
Nothing happened for a while, but at some point, Regina registered that the grip of Emma's hands on the mug became firmer and although it was just the smallest reaction Regina sighed out of relief.

To her own surprise, she wanted nothing more than to shake Emma "awake", to get Emma to talk to her, but Regina was aware that she could not do that.
It would probably send Emma straight into a panic attack and she could not risk that, but seeing Emma in her current state had her completely on edge.
----------------------------------

Emma felt the warmth seeping from the mug right into her body, into her soul and she tightened her hold on it as if it were a lifeline, as if her sanity would depend on it.
She felt Regina's hand on her arm, felt her worried gaze on her face, but there was nothing to say.
Her mind was blank, her heart was empty as if somebody had wiped all her feelings away in one swift move and left was nothing, but a hollow shell.
This had to be a nightmare, a misunderstanding.

Ruby's words were clashing in her head over and over and although she tried to fight it with all her might realization, reality, was slowly winning the battle against the protection mechanism of her heart and soul.
Graham was dead.
But how could he be?
How could he leave her when she needed him the most?

"Tell me it's just a bad dream."

It was just a whisper and yet Regina could not overhear the desperate sound, the desperate words.
She took Emma's hands in hers, squeezing them gently and Emma finally met her eyes, but Regina could barely hold her gaze.
The usually sparkling eyes were pleading, begging for someone to tell them it had all been just a mistake and Regina's heart broke for Emma.

Gone were all life, all joy from emerald eyes, and left was nothing, but pain and despair.
All that shone in Emma's eyes now was sadness, emptiness.

"I'm so sorry, Emma."

Regina knew her words had sealed Emma's fate, had destroyed the last sparkle of hope when Emma moved her hands out of her hold, just do lay down on the couch, eyes closed, curled up into a ball without another word.
There had been a knock on the door only a few minutes later, but to Regina's surprise it had not been Doctor Whale, but Mary Margaret and David.

"What can we do?", David asked carefully, while Mary Margaret just stood there, her eyes bloodshot and swollen. She must have been crying heavily.

"Could you check in on Henry? The news hit him quite hard", Regina sighed and David nodded in understanding, "Of course."

"I'll make some tea for Mary Margaret in the meantime."

A small smile appeared on David's face, "Thank you, Regina."

That said he headed for the guest room and Regina led Mary Margaret over to the kitchen counter and started to heat some water.

"How is Emma holding up?", Mary Margaret asked, her voice raw from crying.

"It's pretty bad. It's like she would have disappeared", Regina answered with a heavy sigh, "Doctor Whale should arrive any minute to check on her."

"Good", Mary Margaret whispered, "I can't believe he didn't tell us."

That got Regina's attention, "What do you mean?"

"His...his heart", the pixie-haired woman began to sob, "His heart was...failing...and...and he knew it."

Regina's eyes went wide at that, she could not believe what she was hearing, "He knew?"

A nod was all she got for a while, but then Mary Margaret added, "The doctors were not very optimistic that they would find a matching donor...in time...since Graham's blood type is...rare...I can't believe he is gone."

Heavy sobs escaped Mary Margaret's lips after her short explanation, but a knock on the door made her pull herself back together within seconds.
------------------------------------------------

Whale rushed into the penthouse murmuring a quick 'Hello' into Regina's and Mary Margaret's direction but headed for the couch to check on Emma right away, not even bothering to look at the two other women in the room.
He sat down next to Emma's lying form, talking to her in the calmest tone he could manage, but without any success.
Emma didn't answer, too far gone in her own world once again.

Whale checked her pulse, breathing, and heartbeat and prepared some injection to keep her circulatory stable when Regina appeared next to him, "Is she okay?"

"Well, she suffered a shock. You have to keep a close eye on her tonight. I'll give her a light sedative later. For now, we have to keep her circulatory stable and going", he explained and Regina nodded, "Do you need anything? Can I get you something to drink?"

The doctor gave her a small smile, "Coffee would be nice."
-----------------------------------

Once Whale had made sure that Emma was "fine" he had checked on Mary Margaret because she had been awfully pale and shaky and he had given her some of his 'circulatory boost' as well.
He did not want to risk someone passing out or anything, because that would add only more stress to the already tense situation in the penthouse.

David had returned from the guest room about half an hour later, telling Regina that Henry was okay so far, considering the circumstances, much to the brunette's relief.
That was when Emma got up all of a sudden, looking from one worried face to the next, seeing the sad and cruel truth in everyone's eyes.
Graham was dead.

"Is it true?", she met Whale's gaze, "Did he know?"

Whale watched her in confusion, "Did who know what, Emma?"

"Graham", she answered simply, "Did he know that he was dying?"

Mary Margaret cringed at the question. She had not been aware that Emma had heard her and Regina talk and her eyes wandered over to said brunette, who looked equally worried and pale.
The doctor hesitated to answer for a minute, debating whether he should tell Emma the truth or not, but obviously, she had heard it already.

Of course, he had called one of his colleagues at the hospital to get some details and had been shocked himself over the information he had received.
Graham had known for a while that his chances for survival were practically zero, but obviously, he had told no one.
Not even his closest friends.

"Victor?", Emma growled, "Answer me."

Everyone in the room held their breath and the doctor finally nodded, "Yes, Emma. He knew. He had known for a while."
Silence followed Whale's statement – nobody dared to say a word or move, afraid that Emma would freak out at the tiniest of sounds.
But nothing happened.

Till Emma looked straight at her worried friends, "You can go home now, all of you. Thanks for your concern but as you can see I'm good...so you might as well leave."

"Emma", Mary Margaret pleaded, "You are not okay."

"Just go. I'll be fine."
That said Emma returned to the couch, not able to keep the coldness out of her heart any longer.
She felt betrayed.
God, she felt so betrayed.

How could Graham do this to her?
How had he been able to look her straight in the eyes, make plans for a future he knew he would not have?
How could he have taken her chance of saying Goodbye away from her?

Regina's heart broke at the sight of Emma sitting on the couch with hanging shoulders, disappointed and shaken to the core and she knew exactly what Emma was trying to do.
Emma tried to shut down, tried to lock her feelings away, but Regina also knew that it could only lead to even more heartache.
Hell, she was an expert when it came to a certain pain that made it unable for one to breathe.
Emma had to mourn, needed to mourn the loss of her friend or she would not be able to deal with it. It would haunt her in the worst ways if Emma would not find a way to face this situation if she would not be able to get over her anger, because Graham had kept this from her.

She could understand how upset Emma had to be, but Graham must have had a reason for his decision to withhold this information from his friends, even if it made no sense right now.
--------------------------------------------------

Whale had offered Emma to give her a light sedative, but she had completely ignored him and his suggestion and so he had left, telling Regina to call him immediately if Emma would get worked up or anything.
David and Mary Margaret had left right after Whale and Regina had checked on Henry, who had fallen asleep – his fairytale book in hand.
A sad smile appeared on her face when she watched her sleeping son, aware that this was taking a huge toll on him as well.
He had never lost anyone before.

Regina did not know what to do, how to help Emma, so she just sat down next to her, eyeing her closely.
She wished Emma would say something, anything really because the heavy silence in the room was choking her.
It was almost unbearable.
But Emma remained quiet.

She just stared out of the window, stared into the darkness as if she wanted to drown in it.
She probably did.
And while Emma got more and more lost in her pain Regina closed her eyes and tried to clear her own head, to make sense out of this disastrous situation.
Her meeting with Graham.
The gazebo.

He had made sure that Emma would be taken care of once he would...
Oh God.
The bare thought brought tears to Regina's eyes.

He had said when I am gone.
He had said when instead of while.
She had wondered about it but had not thought anything of it.
She should have seen it coming, she should have known.

And then what?
Would she have told Emma?
Could she have told Emma if she would have figured out something was wrong?

Regina did not know and she was too overwhelmed by her emotions to think straight.
It was all too much.

Everyone was devastated and Emma was, well, she did not know what exactly Emma felt, but it was bad.
And she was not used to having friends, to being there for someone else than Henry, but now that Emma had become this important part of her life, now that practically all of Emma's friends had become a part of her life as well, she was put to the test.
She had to be strong for them, she had to be there for them, because that was what friends did, right?
How she should manage to do that was beyond Regina though because at this moment the weight of the situation was burdening her in a way that made her feel like falling apart.
---------------------------------------

Thank God Ruby had shown up not too much later and Regina had been so relieved, because she had felt like crying a whole damn waterfall and yet Regina had swallowed her tears, afraid that such an outburst would provoke Emma since she obviously had not shed a single tear over the death of her friend yet.

Ruby had pulled Emma into her arms without a word and for a moment the blonde had relaxed into the embrace and Regina had thought that would be the moment Emma would finally break, would finally cry.
But she had been wrong because Emma had pulled back and away only a second later, her composure already regained while Ruby had watched her in confusion, but Emma had ignored the worried expression on the leggy brunette's face and Regina had understood nothing anymore.

She had expected Emma to fall apart, to seek Ruby's comfort and for a moment it had looked like that would be exactly what would be happening, but then Emma had returned to being this emotionless shell.
Nothing made sense, absolutely nothing.
-----------------------------------

At least Ruby had managed to talk Emma into going to bed some when around three in the morning and that had left Regina alone on the couch since Ruby had told her she would stay with Emma.

First Regina had thought about sleeping in the guest room with her son, but in the end, she had decided to stay right where she was because she needed some time for herself.
She was completely overwhelmed and not sure if she could handle it.
Emma seemed so distant, so lost and it hurt so much to watch her like that.

Regina had thought that Ruby's arrival would "do the trick", would help Emma, but it had not done much.
Why was still a mystery to her.
Regina knew for a fact that Emma always craved comfort when she was sad or upset, but that was the problem because Regina herself was not able to do much, except for holding Emma's hand, although she had thought about hugging Emma, but had not dared to in the end.

The only person she had ever allowed to get that close to her since all that shit with Daniel had happened was Henry.
And no one else.
While she had considered hugging Emma, Regina had feared that she would probably overreact, that she would freak out at some point and that would have caused Emma only more hurt.
And if Emma did not need one thing then it was more pain.
Not right now.
Not ever.

It made Regina sad though, it made her sad that her issues, her past, were dictating her life.
That she could not get over her experiences, over herself.
That she could not be there for Emma as a friend usually would.

This was all so messed up.
Why had Emma frozen Ruby out?
What was going on in Emma's head?
Would it tear them apart?
----------------------------------------

Regina woke up around seven in the morning because Ruby and Emma were arguing in the open kitchen.
What the hell was going on?

She got up and made it over to them quickly and Ruby stared at her, obviously expecting her support on the topic while Regina still had no idea what this was all about.

"Emma, you can't be serious", Ruby snapped, "You can't act as if nothing happened."

"I wasn't aware that I needed your permission. But tell me, Ruby, what is it that I can and cannot do in your opinion?", Emma growled back and Regina knew that it would be stupid to get involved in this, so she headed for the coffee machine and turned it on.

But Ruby did not even think about letting her get away, "Regina, tell Emma that she can't go to work. This isn't normal. She has not even shed a tear over Graham's death. She can't be for real. Tell her that."

Emma's eyes locked on Regina's instantly, daring her to stop her, but Regina decided that she would not provoke her. There was no point in it.
"Well, everyone mourns in their own way. I think if Emma wants to go to work, she probably should...because..."

"See", Emma interrupted and grabbed her car keys, ready to leave.

Ruby raised her hands in the air in exasperation and yelled, "Has everyone gone mad?!"

That was when Emma got into her personal space, anger shining in her eyes, combined with nothing, but disappointment, "You know what, Ruby? I don't care what you think. I don't care what you say. I don't care about anything anymore. And you know why? Because I've realized that there is no point in having friends when they don't even tell you that they are dying! When they lie to you, straight to the face, talking about future plans...when they know full well that they won't be here to see any of it. When you don't mean enough to them that they would actually tell you what is going on. When they won't even give you a chance to say goodbye. I trusted Graham. I trusted him with so much. He knew and he wouldn't tell me. He just left like everyone else. But this time I won't cry, I won't let this bring me down. Because a friend would have never done this to me."
And with that Emma stormed out of the penthouse, leaving Ruby and Regina behind, not caring that she had shocked them to the core with the very words she had said only mere seconds ago.
-----------------------------------------

Nobody had said a word during breakfast, not even Henry, who had woken up from the noise in the kitchen.
Regina had allowed him to stay home from school and he had been glad.
He wanted to spend the day with his mother because he felt a certain fear that came with losing a person one cared about.
And now he was afraid he would lose someone else as well and that was a thought Henry could not wrap his head around just yet.
----------------------------------------------

Ruby had gone to check on Belle and Killian without saying another word, Emma's outburst had hit her a lot harder than she would ever admit, but Regina had seen right through her, especially since she felt it too.
But she could understand Emma.
She got where Emma was coming from.

Why had Graham let her walk into this without notice, completely unprepared?
On the other hand – would it have been easier for his friends if they had known?
She doubted it.

Emma clearly did not see that, she was simply overwhelmed with pain and the feeling of betrayal.
Emma could not deal with loss very well and Regina assumed that everyone knew that, so why had Graham not told her?
Especially since Emma and Graham had seemed pretty close lately, so close that Regina had thought they would probably share a secret, but after the latest revelations, she was not sure about that anymore.

And now Emma doubted everything.
Doubted her friends, doubted that she could trust anyone and Regina felt a sting in her own heart.
Things were truly falling apart, but she was nowhere near ready to lose what she had with Emma.

Her friendship with Emma, as unconventional as it was, was nothing she was willing to give up.
Not today, not tomorrow.
Not ever.
-----------------------------------------

Henry had been awfully quiet all day.
Her usually perky son had followed her every step and Regina was concerned that the whole situation would be too much for him, but in the afternoon she had finally succeeded in getting him to talk about his feelings and fears and he had admitted that he was scared to lose his mom.
And Emma.

The mention of Emma's name alone had brought the tears back to Regina's eyes, but she had swallowed them once again, aware if she were to cry Henry would get even more upset.

Regina had tried her best to explain to Henry that Graham had been very sick.
She told him that while people died a part of them would stay alive in the hearts of their friends and family forever.
That thought had calmed Henry down in the end and he had hugged Regina tight, which had brought her back to Emma once again.
How would she be holding up?

Killian was not doing well – that much she knew.
Regina had called him around lunchtime and he had sounded absolutely heartbroken, shattered. She had even heard him cry and that had made Regina see once more what a huge loss Emma and her friends had suffered.

Graham had been an outstanding man.
He would never be forgotten.
------------------------------------

Emma had come home late, a stack of files in hand, but Regina had not said a word about it.
She had decided to leave Emma alone when it came to work – at least for the time being.

Henry had been so glad to see her, but she had gone straight for the couch to lay down and stare out of the window once more, much to Regina's concern.
But then, all of a sudden, Henry had made it over to the couch as well, had laid down right next to Emma, facing her, and had wrapped his right hand around her waist and Emma had scooted closer to him immediately, putting her own arm over his little form protectively.

"It's okay, Emma. I'm sad too."

Henry's voice had been only a whisper, but Regina had heard his words anyway and had stormed off to the bathroom before somebody could have stopped her.
And there she was sitting now, leaning against the wall, knees pulled against her chest, crying and sobbing because she could not bear the situation anymore.

It pained her to see Emma like this, pained her to see her son like this, and she had no idea how to make this better for them.
She felt so unbelievably helpless, caught in this situation without a way out because she did not trust herself enough to do what she thought would be the best.

For a second she had been tempted to sit down next to Emma and Henry, to reach out, to pull them both into her arms, but she had run before she could have moved a finger.
She was too scared that she might not be able to handle it, that holding Emma in her arms would trigger some of her worst memories and the bare possibility had her on the edge in less than a second.
And now she was sitting on the bathroom floor, crying and hurting, because she missed Graham as well.

She might not have known him for long, but Regina knew he had been one of the good guys.
He had been nothing, but kind to her.
Like Emma.

She was crying because her family was falling apart and there was nothing she could do about it because she could not get over herself.
She had reached the limit, the line where she would have to leave her comfort zone, but she did not dare to cross it.
She was too scared, she was too much of a coward.
And she hated herself for it.

If only Graham would be here.
He would wrap Emma up in his strong arms, would hold her tight and he would make the world better for Emma.
And with that, he would make the world better for all of them.
But Graham was gone.

And he would not come back.
--------------------------------------------

By the time Regina had calmed down and had returned to the living room Emma and Henry had been sound asleep, so she had sneaked off into the guest room and had stretched out on the bed, exhausted to the bone.

And she had drifted off into a restless sleep full of nightmares about losing the two people closest to her.

Regina was preparing breakfast the next morning, still struggling with the memories of her nightmares from last night, while Henry and Emma were watching cartoons.
Well, Henry watched them, Emma just stared at the screen like she used to stare out of the window the nights prior.

A knock on the door announced Ruby's arrival and Regina was glad to see the costume designer, in hope that Ruby would get a reaction out of Emma today.
But of course, they had no such luck, because as soon as Ruby started to talk about Graham's funeral, which he had all planned out before his death, Emma told her to leave.

Ruby gave her an incredulous look, but Emma would not even blink, so she sighed and took off without another word.
Emma clearly wanted to push everyone away and there was no point in forcing anything on her at the moment.
Ruby was too hurt by Emma's behavior but she didn't even realize it.
---------------------------------------

Mary Margaret had called Regina about half an hour later and had asked if they could come by to pick up Henry for a walk and Regina had agreed right away.
Some fresh air would do him some good even though she was not happy about leaving him out of her sight but when Henry had beamed at the news she had known that she had made the right decision and so she had told him to shower quickly while she had headed to her own apartment to take a quick shower and get a fresh set of clothes as well before she would go back to Emma's.
She would not leave Emma alone – if she appreciated it or not.
------------------------------------------------

She had met David, Mary Margaret, and Henry in the corridor when she was on her way back to Emma's penthouse and they were on the way over to her apartment.
Mary Margaret had told her that the mailman had delivered something for Emma in her absence and that Emma had been confused about said delivery because she had not ordered anything and Regina had made a mental note to check on that.
David, who had to use a cane for walking, at least for the time being, promised that they would bring Henry back at six and that they would call if they would be late and so Regina had let them leave.

And then she had returned to the penthouse, just to stop dead in her tracks at the sight that greeted her there.
Emma was standing in front of the dining room, staring at a framed photograph, her hands shaking like a leaf.
What the hell was that?

Once Regina got closer she realized that it was a photo of Emma, Henry and her.
And that was when she remembered.

Graham must have taken it when Regina had first met Emma's friends.
He had shot countless photos that night, most of them unnoticed.

She stared at the picture, recognizing the bright colors of the city lights in the background, but what really caught her eye was the position they were in.
Emma was standing on the left, Regina on the right, and Henry in the middle.
He was looking up at the two of them and while Emma and she both had been looking into the night sky they were facing each other. At least a little.

She could remember that moment perfectly because Emma had pointed at some stellar constellation in the distance only a second before that and while they had tried to focus on said constellation they had yet ended up taking a glimpse at each other.
And Graham had caught that with his camera.
This very special moment in time, a moment that had taken Regina's breath away.

She felt like she would be paralyzed, but then Emma made a step backward, opening her palm and Regina saw the white card in Emma's trembling hand.
She hesitated for a moment, but when Emma reached out to give it to her Regina took it and read what it held.
It was just one line, but that line was enough to send a shiver down her spine.

~We often focus too much on looking forward, on looking in the same direction when we really should look at each other.~
Graham

When Regina looked up from the card she instantly caught sight of Emma's eyes.
Locking gazes Regina saw all the hurt in the usually kind and joyful orbs, saw how lost and desperate Emma was and it was exactly at that moment that she realized that she had to do something.
Standing by Emma's side would not be enough, could not be enough.

Emma needed someone, who could be strong for her during this horribly painful time.
And she wanted to be that someone for Emma.
Not only because Emma had fought for her when nobody else cared, not only because Emma had believed in her when nobody else had, but because they were friends.
Because they were family.

And because Regina finally realized that what they had was not just unconventional, but unique.
They had a certain understanding for one another, for each other's fears and issues.
They had found something in each other after everything they had been through, after their trust in humanity had been shaken badly.
This was where she was supposed to jump, this was where she had to risk it because she had never felt safer than with Emma Swan.

Encouraged by that thought Regina pulled Emma into her arms to hold her close, to give her warmth and comfort, to show her that she was not alone, to make her feel that they had each other.
And the moment Emma's head rested against her neck Regina realized that she had made the right decision.
It was also the moment Emma's first tear fell.

Chapter Text

Emma was clinging to Regina's body as if it would be her lifeline, her head resting on Regina's shoulder while heavy sobs escaped her lips.
She sunk more into the embrace with every second, enjoying the warmth of Regina's body, soaking in the comfort it provided.

It was the first time since the life-shattering news of Graham's death that Emma felt the coldness that had sept into her very core disappear.
It was the first time since she had learned about Graham's death that she felt that she could breathe again.
Her mind had been restless since that godforsaken phone call, her heart in despair and no matter what she had tried to distract herself, to calm herself – it had not worked.
But in Regina's arms she finally found the peace she so desperately needed.
---------------------------------------

Regina was so overwhelmed by the feeling of holding Emma in her arms – it took her breath away.
She felt safe.
So unbelievably safe.
Although she was the protective part at the moment.

For a second she had thought she would tense – when Emma had wrapped her arms around her waist – but as soon as Emma had melted into her, as soon as Emma's forehead had found its resting place on her shoulder they had become one.
Regina did not know how else to describe it.
All she knew was that it felt surprisingly well.

It was then that she realized that not only Emma had needed the comfort, but she had as well.
Hell, she had needed a shoulder to lean on forever.
And now she had finally found it.
She had found it in Emma.

She had found so much more in Emma.
Regina was aware that – if she wanted to keep what she had with Emma – she had to give one-hundred percent.
At all times.
Probably even one-hundred and ten.
But one-hundred definitely.
Not ninety-five, not ninety-nine, but one-hundred.
Always.

From now on.
Emma deserved that.
---------------------------------

They had stood in the living room for a long while that night, holding on to each other, but the emotional turmoil of the last days had gotten the best of Emma eventually.
She had been too exhausted to make it to her bedroom, so Regina had led her straight to the couch, where Emma had collapsed immediately and had drifted off into a dreamless sleep within mere seconds.

Regina had sat next to her for a while, but once she had been sure that Emma was really out like a light and would not wake up anytime soon she had went to the guestroom to get some sleep as well, leaving the door ajar just in case, because she wanted to be there for Emma in case she would suffer a nightmare or something.

Of course falling asleep had not been easy for Regina although she was quite worn out herself, but the recent events had her mind squirming.
She had hugged Emma.
She had hugged Emma and it had felt nice.
Hell, whom was she kidding?
It had felt amazing.
---------------------------------

Regina had talked to Killian the next morning, asking if he wanted her to go to work, but he had told her that she should stay with Emma, that he would not go to work either till after the funeral and she had been relieved because she was not sure if she could have left Emma alone.
She was too worried about her, too concerned to even consider leaving her side.
At least she had gotten Emma to eat something – even if it had not been much.
It had been better than nothing.

They had spent all day sitting on the couch, holding each other's hand, barely talking.
But it had been enough.
The fact that they were there for each other, that they were in this together was what they needed to stay calm, what grounded them, what made it easier to deal with the whole situation.
---------------------------------

Henry was allowed to stay home from school the next day to attend Graham's funeral, but the second they arrived in front of the graveyard Regina partly regretted it.
She doubted her decision the minute she caught sight of some photographers and journalists who tried to make a spectacle out of this difficult time for Emma and her friends, simply because they belonged to the city's finest.

Regina tried to shield Henry from view, not wanting to see him on the cover of some shady newspaper tomorrow when David appeared next to her and led them out of sight.

Thankfully there was security that prevented all these noisy people from entering the graveyard, giving the funeral guests at least some privacy.
Regina watched Emma and Ruby talk for a bit, much to her relief, because she was aware that Emma needed her best friend now more than ever, and seeing them fight or rather Emma pushing Ruby away had pained her a lot, but obviously, they had gotten over it if their embrace was any indication to go by.

When Killian arrived he hugged them both and while Regina was glad that Emma had her closest friends there she did not know where she fit in, because she might be Emma's friend and she had hugged her at home, but clearly she would not do that in public.
Especially not with the press around.
As much as she wanted to be there for Emma she could not do that right now.
Not with all eyes on her, not when she felt like she would be interrupting something anyway.

Their whole friendship had always been kind of private, even though she had gotten used to hanging out with Emma's friends at times, but their bonding moments had always happened when they had been alone.

And while Regina could have imagined walking over to Emma and taking her hand in front of her friends, she could not do it with all these strangers around, not to forget about the media.
It would arise a lot of questions she was not ready to face today.
Somebody would want to know who she was, no doubt, and what should she answer?
The truth?

What truth?
That she was some stripper saved by a millionaire and now they were a family with her almost 10-year-old son?
Regina frowned slightly.
God, how pathetic that sounded, how "Pretty Woman".
Just worse.

People clearly would assume that she was with Emma for the money, that she was with Emma...
No.
No way she would allow that.
Not only because it was not true, but she could imagine what people would think of her.
What people would think of Emma.

No.
This could not happen.
But then Regina caught sight of the lost look in Emma's eyes and her heart clenched.
God, this whole situation was so damn complicated, it drove her nuts.

"Mom, I think we should go over and be with Emma...she needs you. She needs us."

Henry's words had her out of her thoughts within a second and she shook her head vehemently, "We can't, Henry..."

"But we are her family!", he insisted.
He was upset, Regina could tell but really, what could she possibly do?

Before she could make a decision though Henry made one for her by simply bolting off – right into Emma's arms.
Regina sighed heavily.
While she wished she could be more like her son at times – braver, more carefree, innocent – she dreaded the day it would get him into trouble.
Because it would eventually.

The clearing of a throat made her turn around and she looked straight into Mary Margaret's eyes.
What a surprise.
She had not expected her.

"Just so you know. You could go over there if you wanted to", Mary Margaret nodded towards Emma.

To say Regina was startled was an understatement, "I..."

"It's okay, Regina. I get that you are uncomfortable, especially with so many people around. Nobody expects anything from you. Just know you could...if you wanted to. And if you worry about the press outside, well, we'd take care of them."

Before Regina could say anything in response the pixie-haired woman was already heading back to her fiance.

She hesitated.
Should she really?
Could she?

Regina looked in Emma's direction again and when their eyes met she had her answer.
She could. She had to.
---------------------------------

Emma had clutched her hand during the whole service, never letting go and after a moment Regina had eased into it, had managed to shove her fears and doubts aside, which had been a lot easier than she had expected, simply because holding Emma's hand had felt so right.
It had from the very first moment weeks ago and even now that they were on display Regina did not mind – much to her own surprise.

This was real progress.
It meant that she trusted Emma, that she was comfortable with her around even in public.
This was a completely new experience for Regina and if it had happened on a different occasion she probably would have shown the world her smile.
---------------------------------

True to her word Mary Margaret and David had left the graveyard before the others, gaining the media's attention by answering questions about Graham's death, careful not to tell too much, but quite enough to satisfy the annoying reporters that could not even give them privacy on a day like this.
At least it gave Killian enough time to send Leroy to the back entrance and made it possible for Regina, Emma, and Henry to leave unnoticed – the two women still holding hands.

Everyone ended up at Emma's penthouse after a rather beautiful service for Graham, but Emma was awfully quiet.
Deciding not to push her the others continued to talk about their favorite memories with the talented photographer, but when Killian mentioned Graham's Last Will Emma shot up and stormed out of the apartment, not ready to face that topic yet.

She could not take more.
She had been strong during the funeral, but she could not hold the facade up any longer.
She was broken, shattered even, she could barely hang on.
Graham was gone, but that did not mean that she could deal with it.
It did not mean that she did not need him anymore, because the truth was she needed him more than ever.

And since he had planned everything carefully Emma was sure it would be no different with his Last Will.
She did not even want to know what it held.
Too big was the betrayal, too painful was the loss.
---------------------------------

There was an uncomfortable silence in the penthouse since Emma left.
Nobody dared to say another word, scared that somebody else would jump up and run.

It was Ruby, who spoke up in the end, "Maybe somebody should...should go and look for Em. Check if she's okay."

"If I had a clue where she is I'd go", Killian answered with a sigh.

"Yeah, me too...but I guess it's safe to say nobody has gotten the slightest idea", Belle added with sad eyes.

And yet it did not surprise anyone when Regina stood up, ready to leave, "I might."

Chapter Text

Emma was sitting in the gazebo, tears streaming down her face.
She was so angry at Graham for not telling her and in so much pain because she had lost him.

God, her life was such a mess.
She was such a mess.
It made her sick that the feeling of betrayal would not go away because she did not want to be angry at Graham.
Not when he was gone.
Not when he would not come back to talk it through.
Why had he not said anything?
How could he let her walk into this unprepared?

While Emma feared not much, there was one thing she could not handle, one thing that kept her awake at night.
It was her only fear, her biggest nightmare – to lose someone she loved and cared about.
And Graham knew that.
So why hadn't he said a word?
Why had he decided to leave her like that?

Emma dropped her head and buried it in her hands, trying to keep the sobs at bay, but she failed miserably.
Graham was the only one who knew about her feelings, he was the only one who could have helped her through this, but he was gone.
He would not come back.
He would never come back.
She was alone with this.
Alone again.

All these years, since her days in the foster system, she had felt abandoned, left behind. Not good enough, but it had gotten better once the Swans had adopted her.
And yet it had never fully gone away.
Even with all her friends around there had always been a void in her heart.
A void she had not been able to fill, at least not completely.

Emma had thought that empty spot in her heart would disappear when she had met Jade, but in the end, she had only left an even bigger hole, had added even more pain.
But she had had her friends and they had kept her going.
Graham was such an important part of her life, had been such an important part for so long and now that she was finally healing with Regina and Henry around, he had ripped a new hole into her already fragile heart.
How should she recover from that? Could she recover from that?
What if she could not?
What if she had finally reached her breaking point?
What if she dragged everyone else down with her?

Emma knew she had to calm down, but her mind was torturing her and sent her thoughts straight into a circle of chaos, panic, and disaster.
She would destroy everything she loved before they would walk away from her eventually.
Or died.

And as hard as Emma tried to stay in control she failed and she realized only when she could not breathe anymore.
---------------------------------------------

Regina hurried through the park, praying that Emma would indeed be at the gazebo because she had some sort of a feeling that something was not quite right.
And once she caught sight of it and saw Emma kneeling on the floor, fighting for her next breath, Regina's eyes grew wide in horror.
Emma had another panic attack.

She stormed forward, her own lungs on fire, but Regina managed to ignore it and threw herself right in front of Emma, a sharp pain shooting through her knees the moment they hit the wooden floor of the gazebo.
But it did not matter.

"Emma..."

There was no reaction, not even a blink.

"Emma!", Regina's voice had gotten louder, harsher even.

Nothing.

Hoping that she would not make a mistake she grabbed Emma's shoulders and shook her twice, "Emma, look at me."

What should she do?
She had no idea how to act in a situation like this. All she had were her instincts, but what if they failed her?
No, she could not think like that. Emma needed her.

"Emma, look at me. It's okay. I'm here", Regina tried again and shook Emma once more, careful not to hurt her, and this time Emma did meet her eyes.

"Try to calm down. Can you do that for me, Emma? Focus on me. Breathe slowly...in and out...in and out", Regina's voice had become soft and comforting within a heartbeat and she started to rub circles over Emma's back to soothe her.
Regina tried her hardest to stay calm herself, she was close to freaking out after all.
Simply because she was so scared that she would not be able to help Emma and she was not sure if she could handle another disaster at this point.
---------------------------------------------

It had taken a while, but in the end, Regina had succeeded and Emma's breathing had slowed down, Emma had calmed in general.
But now Emma was sitting on one of the few steps that led up to the gazebo, staring into the sky, her gaze completely lost and all Regina could do was sit beside her and wait for Emma to say something.
Or whatever.

She was not sure what she was waiting for, but Regina was aware that Emma needed time to sort her thoughts.
Hell, she needed time to wrap her head around everything that had happened only today herself.
And so they sat in silence, watching the clouds in the sky and Regina was glad that she had grabbed her thick coat on the way out because while it was not the hardest winter the city had ever seen, it was still pretty cold.

When she least expected it Emma suddenly broke the silence with a mere whisper, "What if it's me?"

If Regina had not sat right next to Emma she would not even have noticed that Emma had said anything, but thankfully she had. That did not mean Emma's words made any sense to her, so she turned to face her friend and looked at her in confusion, "I'm sorry, but I'm not sure I understand."

Emma's haunted eyes met Regina's and Regina was taken aback by the pain and the doubt that shone back at her, "What if it's me? I mean. Everyone I care about...d...di...dies. My parents, Nancy. Ruby and David barely survived. And Graham",
Emma struggled to keep her composure but failed, a heavy sob escaping her lips, "Maybe something is wrong with me or I'm cursed or something. Maybe you should...should...stay away from...m...m-e. I couldn't...if something would happen to you...or Henry...I couldn't..."

Regina had heard enough. She could not believe that Emma would beat herself up like that, especially when nothing of it was her fault.
She took Emma's hand in hers and squeezed it gently, "Stop. Nothing is wrong with you, Emma. You are a wonderful person and you don't deserve any of this. And if you think I'll leave you...now...or ever...you are highly mistaken. Is that clear, Miss Swan?"

That provoked at least a small chuckle from Emma. She simply loved how Regina always used a certain tone and addressed her as Miss Swan when she was deadly serious and wanted to make a point.
Well, point taken.

"Okay. I'm sorry that I'm such a mess lately", Emma replied weakly and shrugged helplessly.

"No need to be sorry, dear. We all have dark days. They'll pass. Just don't push me away. Don't push your friends away...we'll help you through it", Regina assured with a small but honest smile.

Silence fell over them once again, but it did not take long this time till Regina broke it, because she had to get it off her chest, "I should have known that something was up...the day Graham and I met...I should have known."

It was Emma's turn to be confused, "What are you talking about?"

"He brought me here, told me that it was your hiding place when everything got too much. He made me promise that I would look out for you when he would be gone. I didn't think anything of it back then, but when I heard...that...well, he said when...instead of while...I should have...I don't know", Regina dropped her head and sighed when she felt Emma squeeze her hand, "Regina, how could you have known? I spent a lot of time with him lately and I didn't even realize something was wrong. He was pale, yes, but he often was when he was working too much and didn't get enough sleep. There is no way you could have known when not even his closest friends caught up on it."

"Still."

"Regina, there is no way you could have known. No way at all", Emma insisted and Regina nodded in understanding.

"Nancy took me here for the first time when I was about ten I guess and I loved this park ever since. It's so calm and peaceful. Like a secret world, hidden from the craziness outside. Only a few people come here and when Graham's dad died...I took him here...that's why he knew...I took him here...God, we spent hours...nights here that summer...just looking at the stars...talking about anything really."

"I'm so sorry, Emma. I know you miss him terribly."

Emma wiped a lone tear from her cheek, "I just don't understand why he hasn't said anything. I mean...Graham...he knew...he was the only one I could talk to about..."
As soon as she realized what she had just said Emma closed her mouth and eyes, praying that Regina had not listened to her, but she had no such luck.

"Talk about what?", Regina looked at Emma, full of concern.

"It's...you know...Graham has...had", Emma swallowed hard, "He had the ability to read me like no one else. He caught up on stuff everyone else was oblivious to and he figured something out that should have stayed a secret. But he knew and he also knew how hard it was for me to deal with it. He knew that he was the only one I would ever talk to about it as well...so, why on earth didn't he tell me that he...that he was about to...why did he leave me alone like that?"

"I wish I had an answer for you, Emma, but I don't. But know that you can always talk to me...if you ever feel ready to...no matter what it is," Regina promised, unaware that this secret of Emma's was all about her.

Emma shook her head, "I'm sorry...I can't. It's nothing personal, Regina...I swear...and you have no idea how much I wish I could just tell you...but."

"I get it. And it's fine, Emma. You don't have to say anything...just know you could."

Emma looked at Regina for a long moment, wishing that things would become less complicated because then she could probably work up the courage to tell Regina.
One day.
But she was well aware that she was only kidding herself because Regina could never know.
---------------------------------------------

When they had finally returned to the penthouse Ruby had greeted them with two steaming mugs of hot chocolate and while Regina would have preferred tea she had accepted it thankfully and she had not missed the amused expression on Emma's face when she had taken her first sip, because Emma was well aware that Regina was no fan of her favorite.

Emma's friends left about an hour later and Henry sneaked off into the guestroom because he was tired as well and he doubted that his mom would go anywhere that night. Clearly, Emma needed her.
Both of them smiled when they caught sight of Henry in his pajamas only a few minutes later, on his way to the bathroom to brush his teeth.
This scene had become so utterly familiar over the months. It had become quite comforting as well.

"Thanks for looking for me today...you kinda saved me there", Emma stated.

"You are welcome, dear. Sometimes The Evil Queen has to save her savior. Nobody can expect The White Knight to be strong all the time", Regina replied with a wink.
It caused Emma to chuckle and smile for a moment.
Good.
------------------------------------------

The next few days had been more or less uneventful.
Everyone had returned to their jobs, had returned to their routine and since the first event for Gold came closer and closer Emma was extremely busy with work, but it was exactly what she needed.

Two weeks after Graham's death they learned about his Last Will, but nobody was surprised by his generosity – except for Regina.
All his friends had gotten some of his possessions, precisely the ones they had always loved the most – Killian had gotten the vintage Ford Mustang, Emma had gotten Graham's cabin, Ruby his apartment, Belle his gallery and he had been cryptic about what he had in mind for David and Mary Margaret, but his Last Will had said that they would find out eventually.

He had made sure that Henry got his favorite camera and he had set up a 250 000 dollar trust fund for the boy to help Regina with his college education and everything.
Henry should get his best shot and he had made sure of that.

The rest of his money as well as the salary of his photographs from the gallery opening had to be donated to the local animal shelter.
That had not surprised anyone.

Emma and Ruby had gone to check Graham's apartment that day and they had found everything neatly packed up in boxes.
Except for some photos of the night when Regina had met Emma's friends for the first time.
Pictures of all of them laughing, having a good time and when Ruby counted the copies she realized there were some for all of them.
Emma stared at another photo though.
It was a picture of a dog, a large dog in fact. Dark face, a lot of fur, but his eyes were so warm and gentle.

She flipped it around and realized that Graham had taken it at the local animal shelter only days before he died.
What was that supposed to mean?
It did not make sense to her, but she was eager to find out, especially since she had volunteered to take the donation cheque over there on the weekend.

That was when Ruby showed up with a letter in hand – clearly Graham's handwriting.
Tears were running down her face and she handed the piece of paper to Emma, who flew over the few lines quickly.

 

Dear Ruby,

I know you always loved my place so you might as well have it.
Don't feel guilty about it, we can't change what's in store for us, now can we?

I am gone by the time you read this, so I don't need this place anymore.
You on the other hand are and I know you always dreamed about an apartment like this.
I dare to say you wouldn't have wanted it under these circumstances, but Ruby, it's not your fault.

So, please have a great time here. I sure loved the view.
Thanks for being a great friend all this time.

Please, take good care of the others.
I'll watch over you, always.

Love,
Graham

---------------------------------------------

Killian and Regina had a job on Saturday so Henry was staying with Emma and they both enjoyed their time together.
Since Emma was so busy they did not see each other that often lately, but today would be only for them and so Emma had taken Henry for a walk.

Regina had told her that he had been quieter since Graham's death, which was not too surprising, but Emma had promised to talk to Henry whether something else was bothering him.
One never knew.

When they reached the harbor Emma stopped and took a seat on a bench and Henry followed suit without asking.
She smiled at the boy, who was watching the ships with fascination.

"You could totally be my kid, you know that, right?", Emma joked and nudged Henry's shoulder playfully.

He turned his head and looked at her, "Well, I wouldn't mind having you as my mom. I mean...I don't want to get rid of my mom, because she is the best. But you could be kind of my second mom or something...that would be awesome."

Emma swallowed hard. She should have kept her mouth shut.

"You don't have to. I just", Henry dropped his head.

"No, kid. That's not it. I'd love to be your mom...but your mom and I...we are not...you know...a couple or anything like that", Emma tried to explain.

"Yeah, I know", Henry replied, "But you don't have to be a couple to raise me together, do you? It simply would be nice to have a second parent. Since I don't have a dad."

Emma felt the bile rising at the bare thought of Henry's father, but she managed to stay focused on the boy.
God, she was so not ready for a discussion like that, "Is that what's bothering you lately?"

"No. Well, kind of", Henry admitted.

Emma sighed internally, "Do you want to talk about it?"

"Not yet."

"Okay."

Relief.
She felt so relieved.

"It's just. I miss Graham. I don't understand what happened. Why he is gone...I've never lost anyone before. I am so glad that I have David...he is so cool...but he is not", Henry tried to make sense of his inner turmoil.

"I get it, kid. I can't remember my parents, so I understand. If you ever feel up to talking about it...we will. I promise", Emma hugged him close, praying that this day would not come anytime soon.
She had to tell Regina about this, but she had no idea what to say or how and Regina would probably get a heart attack.
For now, she needed to focus on Henry. She needed to find something to get his thoughts out of this lost and dark place and then an idea popped up in her head, "Kid, what would you say to a visit to the animal shelter?"
---------------------------------------------

Emma and Henry entered the animal shelter and were greeted by a smiling redhead, who introduced herself as Ariel.

As soon as Emma showed her the photo of the dog she had found at Graham's the woman's face fell, "So, he's really gone."

"Yes, I'm afraid so. I take it you knew?", Emma was confused by this information. Graham had told a stranger that he was dying, but not his friends. Why?

Ariel nodded her head, "He did not mean to tell me, but he had an episode with his heart once when he was here and my mother had a heart condition when I was younger, so I figured it out."

Understanding washed over Emma and she felt the rising anger subsiding as quickly as it had appeared and handed the cheque over to Ariel, "He wanted you guys to have this."

When the red-haired woman saw the huge amount of money Graham had left to the shelter her eyes grew wide, "Oh my God! I don't know what to say. The girls will freak out. We can help so many animals with that money. That's... thank you!"

She pulled a very surprised Emma into her arms and hugged her tight, "I'm so sorry for your loss, Emma. Graham was such a wonderful man."

She pulled back and eyed Ariel warily, "How do you know my name? I haven't told you yet."

Ariel laughed, obviously amused, "Graham said you'd come. You are Emma Swan, right? And this is Henry I take."

"Yes. I am Henry Mills", the boy confirmed proudly.

"Nice to meet you, Henry Mills", Ariel gave him her best smile and turned back to Emma, who looked skeptical still, "What else did Graham tell you?"

Ariel laughed out loud at the look of the clearly distressed woman, "That you'd come to take a look at Tamo-tsu."

Emma must have looked like a deer caught in headlights because even Henry started to giggle and Ariel pointed at the photograph in Emma's hands, "The dog."
---------------------------------------------

As they walked past the kennels loud barking could be heard everywhere around them and Emma had trouble concentrating on walking.
Henry tried to catch a glimpse at all the dogs, but it was pointless.
Some were running around hysterically, others were jumping like crazy – every single one trying to get their attention and Emma regretted bringing Henry with her.
It would be so hard for him to accept that they could not take one of them with them.
Hell, it was hard for Emma herself, so how could she expect the boy to understand.

When they reached the last kennel Emma caught sight of the dog Graham had taken pictures of.
It was the only dog not barking like a maniac, but when Ariel wanted to unlock the door Emma held her back anyway, "Are you sure that's a good idea? I don't want anything happening to Henry."

Ariel only smiled, "Don't worry about it. He's a great dog. You'll see."
---------------------------------------------

Once they had gotten the dog out of the kennel Ariel led them into the animal shelter's dog yard so the impressive dog could run around for a bit, Henry watching him like a hawk.

"Graham was fascinated by him the second he saw him. He offered to take pics of the dogs once, professional pics, to help them find forever homes. He and Tamo-tsu, they had become friends I'd say...and Graham considered adopting him, but he was worried what would happen to him once he would die. He didn't want him to get back to the shelter", Ariel told and Emma watched the dog that eyed her curiously.

"What does his name mean?", Emma wanted to know and Ariel smiled at her obvious interest in the dog.

"It's written Tamotsu...but spoken Tamo-tsu. It's Japanese and means defender, protector as far as I'm informed. He is an American Akita", the redhead explained.

Emma nodded. She had read an article about the breed once and they were supposed to be pretty loyal to their owners.
When she took a look at the mostly dark brown dog with white legs, white chest, and dark, almost black face again, she recognized that he was sitting next to Henry, nudging the boy with his nose and she had to smile.
Henry had made fast friends with Tamotsu it seemed.

"Why is he here anyway?", Emma thought about all the possibilities why dogs ended up at the animal shelters or on the streets and shuddered.

Ariel sighed, "The family bought him for their children, but the kids were teenagers by the time they got him and they lost interest in him quickly. He's only one and a half years old, but nobody dares to adopt him, because he is huge. And people say he looks dangerous with his dark face. The truth is he is such a gentle soul and we are really desperate to find him a family. He deserves that."

Emma went over to Henry, who was petting the dog, and knelt down in front of Tamotsu to look into his warm eyes, "So, you knew my friend Graham, huh?"

The dog looked at her as if he would understand every single word and licked over her face as if he wanted to comfort her, causing Emma to smile.
Henry looked at her with pleading eyes and Emma sighed heavily. Regina would kill her.

"Theoretically speaking...could he stay alone for a certain amount of time? Or let's say someone would want to take them to the office...would that be a problem?", Emma wanted to know and Ariel's smile grew wider, "I don't see a problem with that. He spends quite a lot of time in the office with Mulan. He's always at his best behavior. He is a protective dog, but usually ignores strangers if he doesn't get a bad vibe from them or anything."

"Your mom is going to kill me...you know that, kid", Emma warned, but Henry only giggled, "No, she won't. She cares too much about you and you know that, Emma."

Emma took a deep breath, "Fine. So, Ariel...the way I see it we are taking this monster with us."
---------------------------------------------

Emma had filled out all the paperwork and had insisted on paying the adoption fee for the dog although Ariel had tried to tell her she would not have to do that with the huge cheque and all but to no avail.
She had given them an old leash and Emma had told Henry that they would need to do some shopping because Tamotsu needed bowls, a dog bed, a new collar, toys, and some other stuff.
And when she caught sight of her Mercedes she mumbled that she should probably get a bigger car too, which had Ariel chuckling.

"Before you leave...I have something else for you", Ariel announced all of a sudden and disappeared, just to return a minute later with an envelope in hand, "Graham told me to give you this."

Emma took it with a shaking hand and nodded in understanding, "Thank you."
---------------------------------------------

Emma had spent a fortune on dog stuff that day, but she did not care. Tamotsu deserved the best and so they had returned with bags full of toys, dog food, collars, leashes, a dog bed, and bowls.
She had even called her car dealer and had told him she needed an SUV because clearly, Tamotsu was too big to be comfortable on the backseat of her black Mercedes convertible.

Henry was overjoyed and offered to give Tamotsu a tour through the penthouse and his own apartment and Emma was thankful for a few minutes of alone time because she wanted to read Graham's letter.

Now that she held it in her hands she was not sure if she could read it though.
But she had to know what Graham had wanted to tell her before he...she had to know.
And so she opened the envelope to reveal the pages with Graham's last words.

Dear Emma,

I know you are mad as hell because I didn't tell you.
Because I told no one.

Please, understand that it was the most difficult decision in my entire life.
It was the most egoistic decision as well and I'm aware of that, but Emma, I didn't want to spend my last days looking into sad and teary eyes.

I didn't want to be pitied and I wanted you, all of you, to remember me the way you knew me, not like a sick and withering shadow of myself.
I know you don't understand that now, and you probably never will, but I wanted to enjoy life to its full extent, I wanted to leave happy and with a smile on my face.

I wanted your smiling faces to be the last thing I would see and remember, that was my priority and that was what helped me to stay calm after I got the diagnosis.
I hope you will be able to forgive me one day because Emma, you are the best friend I've ever had.
You've always been so good to me and we've had such a great time together.

I wish you joy and happiness because you deserve it more than anyone else I know.
Your tickets to Turtle Bay should arrive within the next few days – as I told you I booked a vacation – for Regina, Henry, and you.
Killian knows about it – about the vacation I mean – so no worries. Regina will get the time off without any trouble.

I promise to look out for you from "up there" and protect that little family of yours.

You are one amazing woman, Emma Swan.
Take good care of yourself.

And Emma, I do love you.
Always have, always will.

You've been my one True Love – maybe not in a romantic way, but in a "friends forever" kind of way.
I'll never forget you, Emma.
And I'll never be really gone – I'll live on through all of you.

Graham

Ps.: Thanks for giving my buddy Tamotsu a home.
Come on, don't look like that.
I know you better than anyone else after all. Of course, you'd take him home.

Congrats on this decision – he's amazing.
And he'll protect you.
All of you.

 

Emma was crying heavily, but she did not care.
Only when Henry and the dog returned to the penthouse she tried to regain her composure, but the boy understood without an explanation when he saw the letter on the table and hugged Emma close, giving her the comfort she needed.
Tamotsu jumped onto the couch and lied down next to Emma, his head resting in her lap, which obviously was his way of showing support and giving comfort.
---------------------------------------------

Henry had fallen asleep in the dog bed, right next to Emma's new pet, but Emma did not bother to wake him up, because she was busy cooking dinner anyway.
She was completely lost in thought so she did not recognize the door to her penthouse being unlocked.

It was Regina's voice that brought her back to reality in the end, "Miss Swan! Care to tell me why my son is lying on the floor with a bear?"
---------------------------------------------

To say Regina had been not amused would be an understatement, but the moment Emma had handed her the letter she had understood perfectly.
Graham had chosen the dog for her, for them, and obviously, Henry and Tamotsu had bonded instantly.
That did not mean she liked the dog because she did not.
---------------------------------------------

Her son and his new friend had woken up to her voice and the dog had gone over to take a closer look at her right away.
The huge animal staring at her had made her nervous as hell, but she would never admit that.

As soon as Henry had appeared next to her and had explained to Tamotsu that everything was okay and that she was his mom the dog had stepped back and had let her sit down on the couch, but Regina was wary.
She did not trust easily after all.
Tamotsu on the other hand had taken to her right away, because he had kept following her around the whole evening, almost driving her insane, much to Emma's and Henry's amusement.

By Sunday evening Regina had given up her attempts to drive to dog away and had accepted her fate because Tamotsu was quite pigheaded and would not leave her alone.
They were his family now, so she had to find a way to get along with him anyway.

Monday morning Regina was the first to leave because she had to be at work early.
Emma and Henry were still sitting at the breakfast table when they heard someone unlocking the penthouse door hectically.

"What has she forgotten now?", Henry groaned.

Emma chuckled knowingly, "Just wait. Her wrath will be directed at me anyway."

At that Henry buried his face in his hands, "What have you done this time?"

"Miss Swan!"
Regina stormed back into the penthouse, glaring daggers at Emma, who smiled sweetly, "Yes, Regina?"

"Where is that deathtrap of yours? I need to go to work. I'll be late...and I'm never late", Regina was furious.

"The bug is back in the family garage. I think he deserves a little break", Emma answered simply.

"Fine. Whatever. Can you call me a cab then?", Regina tried to calm down and be polite. Emma had every right to take the car back after all.

"Why would you need a cab? There's a car in your spot, isn't there?", Emma looked at Regina, slightly confused.

"Your Mercedes is parked there because some big, black thing is parking in your spot", Regina countered, completely oblivious to the fact that it had been Emma, who had arranged that, to begin with.

"Oh, I know. That's my new SUV...or do you suggest I drive Tamotsu around, squeezed in the backseat of my Mercedes?", Emma looked at Regina expectantly.

When realization finally hit Regina she frowned, "You can't be serious. I can't accept that...I..."

Emma grinned like the Cheshire cat itself, "I'd say you better leave because you don't want to be late, Miss Mills, now do you?"
---------------------------------------------

The next few days were busy for all of them.
Emma was busy with work, mainly with the upcoming party for The Rabbit Hole and some other big project, Henry was busy with school and Regina was working hard as well.

At least life had gotten back to normal for the most part.
Everyone missed Graham terribly, but they had found a way to deal with the loss, especially since Graham had left notes for almost everyone.
They would always miss him, but Graham had been right – he would live on through them.

The next Saturday Emma invited all her friends over for dinner – homemade by Emma and Regina – and everyone had a great time with a few trips down memory lane.
They were slowly recovering from the loss and life was showing its bright side again.

Emma, Henry, and Regina went for a walk through the city with Tamotsu on Sunday, enjoying their family time, everyone glad that they had gotten over the drama of the last few weeks in the end.
Sure, there were dark hours still, for all of them, but everyone had found a way to deal with it.
---------------------------------------------

Killian had been a great help for Regina as Regina had been for him and they had grown closer by the day, much to Emma's delight.
It was great that Regina started to socialize a bit.

Emma had met Ruby for lunch pretty much every day and had been so relieved that her best friend had forgiven her for her shitty behavior.
And now that the unique little family of four was out in the real world they realized that they had made it through the worst.
They had stuck together and had gotten over the horror of losing a friend, a part of their family.

The sun was already going down when they returned to the penthouse and Emma went to make some tea while Regina and Henry started a discussion about what movie they would watch when there was a knock on Emma's penthouse door.
She was confused, because she did not expect anyone, but went to open the door anyway. It had to be someone familiar or the receptionist would have called to ask for permission to send someone up.

When she opened the door Emma was surprised though.
She had not expected that, had not expected them, "Mom, Dad...what a lovely surprise! We were about to watch a movie, but come on in..."

She had not seen her parents in a while, because they had been traveling again, but Emma was thrilled to have them here.
Only when she saw the stone-cold expression on her father's face Emma realized that something had to be up and she hoped it would not be too bad.

Tamotsu's appearance by her side reminded her of her manners and she looked over at Regina and her son, "Regina, Henry...these are my parents, Christine and Roger Swan."

"It's nice to finally meet you. We've heard a lot about you", Regina replied politely, all color gone from her face.

Emma eyed her father, but his expression had not changed. Nope, this could not mean anything good.
She continued her introduction anyway, "Mom, Dad...this is Henry and his..."

Her father interrupted her with a dismissive gesture of his hand, his face completely emotionless now.
There was an awkward tension in the room for a minute until he finally spoke up, obviously struggling to stay calm, because his voice was trembling, "Don't bother, Emma. I know exactly who she is."

Chapter Text

Her father knew Regina.
Oh God!
Oh God...

No!
No, no, no.
That could not be true.
----------------------------

Regina on the other hand felt like fainting any second.
Roger Swan knew her?
That could only mean one thing, right?

And the more she looked at him, the more familiar his face seemed to be.
She just could not tell if it was an "I've seen your picture on the news" kind of familiar or "I've done a lap dance for you at The Rabbit Hole" familiar.

There were way too many clients over the years to remember them all properly.
Of course, her past was coming back to haunt her, to ruin the one good thing in her life.
Goddammit!

Somebody cleared their throat and Regina and Emma were out of their thoughts instantly.
Christine Swan looked at both of them for a second before she suggested, "I could take the dog for a walk while you talk to your father."

Emma nodded in understanding.

"Would it be alright if I came with you, Misses Swan?", Henry asked shyly, completely overwhelmed by the tension in the room. He had no idea what was going on, but obviously, it was nothing good.

"Of course. It's Henry, right?", Christine Swan smiled at him and he nodded, "Yes, ma'am."

"Take Regina with you", Emma commented before she made a gesture to signalize her father to follow her to her home office.

"Very well", she heard her mother say, but Emma was too lost in thought to care.
----------------------------

Emma took a seat behind her desk and her father took the one on the opposite side, where clients would be seated occasionally if she invited them to her home office, which rarely ever happened.
She watched her father closely, debating whether she wanted to cry or vomit.
Maybe both.

Her father knew Regina.
Most likely from The Rabbit Hole.
Worst case he would have had Regina doing a lap dance for him.
God, she really wanted to puke.

She could not even look her father in the eye, she was that disgusted.
Not by Regina though, but by him.
And she was so disappointed.

She had always seen him as a man of honor, had always looked up to him, but now...
Did her mother know?

But then another thought crept up in her mind.
What if Regina had known who she was all along?
If she knew her father it would be quite possible, right?
No, Regina would not do that to her.
She would not play her like that.
Right?

Right.

"Emma, would you please talk to me? It's not like I did something wrong", her father sounded worried all of a sudden.

"You did nothing wrong? How dare you say that? You're married...and you paid for someone to..."

"Stop! You've got a completely wrong idea, Emma. I would never step a foot into an establishment like The Rabbit Hole. And neither should you", her father warned.

"I was there for Mary Margaret's bachelorette party. Ruby had organized it by the way, not me", Emma defended herself when her father's words finally sunk in, "Wait, what? You weren't one of Regina's clie..."

"Don't be ridiculous, Emma. Of course no!t", her father assured her and she let out a breath she had not even been aware of holding, "Oh, thank God!"

Roger Swan sighed, "Now that that's out of the way would you care to explain to me why you would bring someone like her into our family? Why you would rent your apartment to a stripper of all people? Why you put your reputation and everything you've worked for so hard at risk over some affair?"

Emma was confused, "Why do you know about all that? Did you spy on me?"
But then the anger took over, "And don't talk about Regina like that! She's an amazing person. Besides, we are not a couple. We're just friends."
And while the admission stung a little, Emma was glad that it was the truth at that moment. Her father could not use that against her.

And he seemed genuinely surprised, "You are not involved?"

"No. Just friends. Some sort of a family even. Depends on how you define a family I guess. But we are not a couple or have an affair or anything of the sorts", Emma confirmed, "So, how come you know all these things...and Regina?"

Roger Swan sighed again, "It's my job to know who she is, Emma. I'm your father. I never said I knew her personally. I just said I know who she is. And I know what you did to get her out of that establishment. I saw the pics of Graham's gallery opening and there she was, this strange woman. And when I heard that she was with you at his funeral too, well, that got my attention."

Emma wanted to say something, but Roger held up a hand to silence her, "Let me finish, please. I'm sorry for your loss, Emma. I know how much Graham meant to you. You lost someone and that makes you even more vulnerable. After that unfortunate incident with Jade, I had all your friends checked out. We don't want anyone breaking your heart again. It was really hard to see you suffer like that. We don't want you to go through that again. And this...well, Regina Mills...she is a stripper for Heaven's sake! Emma, what were you thinking?"

"Regina never asked for anything, dad. I offered my help and she would not even take it. She only came to me when she had no other option left. She's a genuinely good person. And a great mom. She never lied to me. She told me everything about her past and believe me it wasn't pretty. She trusts me and I trust her, it's that simple. Somebody had to do something, somebody had to help her and I could. So I did", Emma explained, feeling a lot better now that she knew that her father's assumptions about Regina were completely unfounded.
He didn't know Regina but she did.

"That's very noble of you, Emma. But you can't trust her. I've talked to this Mister Gold and he told me about her drug record and..."

"You talked to Gold? You know that asshole?", Emma was furious once again.

"I don't know him. We have no business relations or whatsoever, but he is quite well known here. I've seen him at a few events. But that's beside the point. I have reason to believe that Regina Mills is using you", Roger Swan continued, but this time he was shot down by his daughter immediately.

"Save it, dad! Right this second. Regina told me about the drugs. She told me about all the nasty things, about all the ugly shit of her past. I know what she's been through and what she has done. I know. That does not make her a bad person. She's a fighter. She got clean, she managed to raise a smart kid, so don't you dare tell me she is using me. The first night we met she made it absolutely clear that she is not interested in women or any kind of relationship or anything. So, how could she ever fool me? This is not what you think it is, dad. You got it all wrong. And if you would have seen her place, would have seen how bad Gold treated her, you would see it from a different perspective. You might not trust her, but I do. And Regina has to be protected at all costs. The same goes for Henry. No matter what it takes. And I don't need your permission for that."

Emma looked her father straight in the eye to show that she was deadly serious and he sighed, "Your last word?"

Emma nodded, her voice confident and strong, "Absolutely. I really don't want to fight, dad...and I'm grateful that you try to look out for me, but if I have to fight you on this...I will."
----------------------------

Regina could barely breathe.
She stumbled forward, trying to keep up with Henry and Tamotsu, at the same time avoiding to look at Christine Swan at all costs.
What if Emma's father really had been one of her clients?
Oh God.

"Miss Mills, I have a question."

Christine Swan's voice made Regina cringe.
Here it comes.

Emma's mother gave her a sad smile, "How is Emma? We've just heard about Graham's death a few days ago and I know how close they were."

Regina was surprised by the question. Not what she had expected.
But on the other hand, Christine Swan was a mother as well, of course, she would worry about Emma.
And as much as she dreaded it, Regina knew she had to look at Christine Swan to answer that question.

For one because it was the polite thing to do and second because she could not assure her that Emma was okay without doing so.
She was way out of her comfort zone, especially since the Swans had appeared without notice and she had no time to prepare herself for this, but there was nothing she could do about it now.
But the second Regina finally looked at the older woman she realized there was no judgment, no disgust in her eyes.
What the hell?

Regina cleared her throat twice, her insecurities getting the best of her anyway, "Well, honestly, Miss Swan...it's been really hard for your daughter. It took her a while to come to terms with...with Graham's death. She's still not too well but she...I guess, work helps her a lot."

"I take it you had something to do with that as well, that she's feeling better now I mean", the tall, blonde woman said.

If Regina would not know better she could think that Christine Swan was Emma's biological mother. They did not look quite the same, especially since Christine Swan was at least twenty years older, but she was a beautiful woman still.
Her elegant dark blue costume showed her grace and her wealth and yet she had this decent smile. And piercing blue eyes.

"I tried to help Emma as much as I could. She's my friend after all. The best friend one could imagine in fact. She has helped me and my son so much. I'll be forever grateful", Regina stated and looked to the floor, "I wish I could pay her back or something. I just don't know how because what she did for me can't be bought with money. She's given me...a home. A family really."

"A family?"
There was surprise in Christine Swan's voice.

"Yes. We are part of Emma's family now too. Isn't that awesome?!", Henry asked, completely excited, "My mom and Emma are like...best friends. And there's David and Mary Margaret...and Ruby. She is so cool! And Killian...who is my mom's new boss. He always wears make-up and I beat him on the X-Box all the time...oh, and I almost forgot Belle. She's nice too."

"I see", Christine smiled at Henry and nodded her approval, "Looks like you've found yourself a family indeed."
----------------------------

On their way back to the penthouse Regina became more and more nervous with every step, sure that her lucky days were over.
When they were standing in the elevator back up Christine Swan caught up on her distress and wanted to put a comforting hand on her shoulder, but Regina backed away and as soon as the doors opened she stormed off into her own apartment.

"Sorry, Misses Swan", Henry apologized, "My mom doesn't trust easily. She's been through a lot and...well, she can't handle it if someone tries to..."

"I get it", Christine Swan gave him an understanding smile, but she could not hide the sadness she felt.
Obviously, Emma was not the only one with a broken heart.

"I'll go and check on my mom real quick. Can you bring Tamo-tsu back to Emma, please?", Henry asked all of a sudden, but Christina Swan nodded mere seconds later.

"It was nice meeting you, Misses Swan. Emma is so awesome. I really like her. And so does my mom. I'm glad they are friends."
And with that Henry stormed off and was out of sight before Christine Swan could have said a goodbye of her own.
----------------------------

Henry had managed to calm his mother down and now she was on her way over to face the Swans.
Not that she wanted to, but she was aware there was no prolonging the inevitable, so she would rather get it over with and clean up the pieces once they were done with her.
While Christine Swan had seemed to be a nice and caring woman, Regina was sure that she had no such luck when it came to her husband.
She had no clue if he had been her client or anything, but what else could it be?

Regina was prepared for the worst-case scenario or at least she would have to deal with the consequences if it came to it and she was really glad that Henry had not even asked if he could join her. He had gone straight to his room to read and Regina was relieved.
She did not want to have this conversation in front of her son, because he had nothing to do with it.
And she knew full well that things could get pretty ugly and she wanted to save Henry the embarrassment.

Standing in front of the penthouse door she did not know whether to unlock the door with the spare key Emma had given her a while back or if she should knock.
God, she was not ready for this.
She was not ready to lose Emma.
But it had been too good to be true, hadn't it?

The Swans would never accept her as a part of Emma's life. At least Roger Swan never would. She could tell only from the way he had looked at her when he had caught sight of her once he had entered Emma's home.
She could take Henry and just leave, but the thought alone was unbearable.
And she would knock.
The Swans already despised her – no point in provoking them more by letting herself in and interrupting some family thing.

But when she had finally worked up the courage to do so the door opened all of a sudden and Christine Swan looked at her, baffled, "Miss Mills! We were wondering why the dog had gotten so excited. He must have smelled your presence. Come on in."

Emma smiled as soon as she saw Regina enter her penthouse, but Regina seemed too caught up in her thoughts and worries to notice.

Emma was pretty sure she knew what Regina was thinking and fearing, but she did not dare to walk straight over, because she did not want to startle her.
Tamotsu on the other hand appeared right beside Regina and when Roger Swan took a look at the slightly shivering woman the dog even made a protective step forward.

Emma noted it with pride and nodded her approval. Graham had chosen the perfect dog for them.

"Till when do we have to move out?", Regina asked all of a sudden, and Emma's jaw dropped.
Did Regina really think they, or better she, would kick her out? Just because her father did not like her?

She finally made the few steps over to Regina and took her shaking hand, "Regina, look at me."

It took a while until Regina finally did, but Emma waited patiently
Once she had Regina's attention she gave her a warm smile, "You are not going anywhere, okay? I appreciate my parents' concern, but that doesn't mean I don't make my own decisions. I want you here and they will not change that."

"Emma", her father tried, but Emma shook her head vehemently, "No, dad. I told you before. If the need arises I will fight you on this. Regina and Henry are staying. There's no discussion about that. And tell your spies to back off. I'm good. I'm safe. In fact, if it would not be for Regina I might have been in a lot of trouble the day of Graham's funeral. I had a panic attack and if she wouldn't have come to look for me...God knows what would have happened. So please, leave her alone. She means no harm. I trust her."

Roger Swan shared a look with his wife and nodded, "Fine. For now, I will. But I won't lie, Miss Mills. I'm not too fond of you being a part of my daughter's life. Know that I'll watch you closely. Don't screw up the chance you've gotten thanks to Emma. And you better not play stupid games with her or anything because I'd make you regret it. Emma might trust you, but I don't."

Regina could not say anything. She was too intimidated by Roger Swan to get a word out.
So she only nodded her understanding and looked to the floor once again.
Obviously, he had not been one of her clients – thank God – but that did not make the situation any better.
Why Emma still had her back was beyond her, but she was more grateful than ever.

"I'd say we leave them alone now, Roger. It's been quite a lot to take in for everyone", Christine Swan announced and turned to face her daughter, "Emma, will you join us for brunch next Sunday?"

Emma hesitated, looking back and forth between Regina and her mother, not sure what to make of her behavior, of the whole situation in general, "I..."

"Bring Regina and Henry along if you want. They are welcome as well. As far as I understood they are family now", Christine added with a smile, which brought a smile to Emma's face as well.
Only Roger Swan seemed not convinced.

"I'll call you on Wednesday and let you know, okay? It's quite hectic at work at the moment", Emma replied, not wanting to make a decision without discussing it with Regina first.

"Fine by me", her mother agreed and the Swans made their way to the door, but Emma did not bother to say goodbye to her parents.
She was too worried about Regina because of her unexpected encounter with her parents.

She had not seen Regina so miserable and in so much distress in a long time, but she had no idea what to do.
It was then that Emma realized that she was still holding Regina's hand and she squeezed it gently, "Regina, it's okay. Everything's fine. You're going nowhere. You're staying here...with me."

And before she could lose her courage Emma pulled Regina into her arms, careful to give her enough time to back away, but it never happened.
Regina simply put her arms around her and buried her head in the crook of Emma's neck, tears running down her face and eventually hitting Emma's skin as well.

Emma wrapped her arms around Regina protectively and let her cry, the tension finally disappearing from Regina's body, "It's okay, Regina. Nothing is going to happen to you. You're safe."

When Emma felt Regina nod against her shoulder she sighed in relief, because she knew that, no matter how much pain her father had caused Regina, the two of them would be okay.
----------------------------

"I still think this is a mistake", Roger Swan growled while he stepped out into the corridor.

"I don't", Christine countered, sure that her husband was wrong about Regina.
She had realized right away that the brunette was an honest woman, that she was not one for playing games. She did not know why she was so convinced of it, she just knew.

Obviously, Regina Mills had been through a lot. Had been through some sort of hell if her son's words were anything to go by.
And while Christine Swan shared her husband's opinion on a lot of things, first of all, that Emma's safety was a priority, she did not share his opinion on their daughter's new friend.
Apparently, Regina was a truly broken soul, who did not open up to people easily, but at least Emma had found a way to deal with that.

And right when Christine Swan wanted to close the penthouse door she caught sight of Regina, who stepped into the embrace of her daughter as if Emma would be able to shield and protect her from the world.
And that was probably exactly how Regina felt.
Henry's words from earlier came rushing back once again and Christine Swan realized that Emma obviously managed to give Regina a certain feeling of safety, that Regina did trust Emma as much as Emma trusted her and a smile appeared on Christine's face.

It was like Regina had said – they had found a home with Emma.
And a family.

Chapter Text

Brunch with the Swans had not taken place, because Emma had been stuck at work since Gold had announced some more wishes.
Of course, he was just trying to make her life miserable, but Emma had managed to organize everything and the first of two parties could come.
She was ready.

But before that would happen next weekend she had to survive this one.
It was Henry's birthday after all.

She loved the kid and she was looking forward to the party Mary Margaret and Ruby had volunteered to plan because neither she nor Regina would have found the time since both of them had been incredibly busy with work lately.
But Emma was worn out.
Too much work, too many times she had driven over to Graham's old apartment over the last two weeks in the middle of the night to comfort Ruby, who loved the place but could barely handle the memories.
The whole situation was difficult for everyone, but Emma slowly made peace with it – thanks to the support of Regina and Henry.

Ruby on the other side had the hardest time and it did not look as if it would get better any time soon.
At least the whole situation had brought them closer together again and Emma was thankful for that because she loved Ruby with all her heart.
She was her best friend after all.

Emma also knew that if she ever found the courage to talk to someone – about her feelings for Regina and all the worries and fears these feelings brought with them – it most likely would be Ruby.
She trusted Ruby and she was aware that the leggy brunette would listen, that she would care, and that she would not judge. She would try to help, but she would never judge.
That knowledge alone made Emma feel so much better.

But an apartment full of people did not sound too appealing still.
Not when all she wanted to do was sleep, get some much-needed rest.
And yet she stood in the kitchen, cutting tomatoes while Regina was busy with making a cake.

Emma sighed.
As much as she wished she could find the time to relax she would not trade this sight for anything in the world.
It felt so domestic, it felt like they would be a family for real.
-------------------------------------------

The cake was ready, the lasagna in the oven, and Regina was nervous.
This was Henry's first birthday party and she wanted everything to be perfect.

Ruby and Mary Margaret had done a great job with the decoration and everything, but Regina was anxious still.
Some of Henry's classmates were coming and Archie Hopper would make an appearance as well since he was a family friend of the Swans.
He seemed to be a nice man, but Regina was still wary.
And so very nervous.

She felt Tamotsu's nose on her palm and looked down to stare right into the dog's warm eyes.
In the beginning, he had given her an almost heart attack whenever he had done that, but she had gotten used to it by now.
She had gotten used to him by now.

Regina would never admit it, but she had grown quite fond of their furry family member and she petted his head gently, knowing that Tamotsu enjoyed every bit of attention he could get.
Especially from her.

Henry was reading in the fairytale book Emma had given him for Christmas and Emma was typing a message on her phone.
She was worried about Emma and they needed to have a talk soon – probably tomorrow after breakfast – because Emma looked completely exhausted and Regina could not stop feeling guilty about it, because without her Emma would have never taken that job for Gold, and then she would not have to work so much, would not be under so much pressure and stress.

But it had to wait till after the party because the first guests would arrive soon.

She checked the kitchen counter once again.
The dough for the mini pizzas was ready, the vegetables were cut, cheese, salami, and bacon were there as well – so the kids could choose for themselves what they wanted later.

Regina felt the dog nudge her once again and she smiled.
Taking a quick glance over her shoulder she realized that Emma was still typing on her phone and so she grabbed a piece of bacon and fed it to Tamotsu, "There you go, little bear."

The Akita seemed to be very pleased and sighed in content.

"Regina, don't feed Tamo-tsu with pizza stuff", Emma chuckled, still typing on her phone.

"I have no idea what you are talking about, dear", she replied innocently, looked at the dog, and winked.
-------------------------------------------

The party was a full success.
The kids had fun, Henry was smiling all the time and Regina thought he would burst at some point.

She was glad that he had found friends, that he had settled into everything so well in general, and from what Archie had told her he was an excellent student and all the teachers were quite fond of him.
Roland's mother Marian was talking to Emma about some charity project and although Regina was not sure if it was okay to interrupt she went over still and handed Emma a cup of coffee – Emma clearly needed it.

"Thank you", Emma gave her a warm smile and Regina nodded, "You're welcome, dear."

That said she left Emma alone once again and found Killian standing on the balcony, looking into the distance.

"Are you alright?", Regina asked carefully, "If you want to be alone I can go back inside."

He shook his head, "No, it's quite alright, love. Please stay. I was just thinking. It's the first time we are celebrating without Graham...and it's...hard. I miss him. We've been friends for so long...and I loved him...I..."
Tears were running down his cheeks and before Regina could think about it she stepped forward to wipe them away, "I know."

"God, I loved him so much. I still do", Killian sobbed, "I'm such a mess...I'm sorry."

"Don't be sorry. I can't imagine how hard it must be for you to be here today...but it means a lot to me and to Henry that you came", Regina replied and took his hand to squeeze it.
She had no idea when it had happened, but she had started to trust Killian. He was not only her boss but also an incredible friend.
Working together with him had turned out to be one big blessing and it had brought them closer together.

Sure, the knowledge that he was one of Emma's best friends and that Emma would trust him with her life was a big help, but it did not change the fact that Regina had come to realize that he meant no harm.

"I drove the Mustang today", Killian said all of a sudden, "Graham was so ridiculously proud of that damn car. I remember the day he bought it as if it would have been yesterday. He had been talking about nothing else for weeks and it drove me crazy. He had fallen in love with some old, run-down car for crying out loud. And I said if it was so important to him he should buy it and have it restored. And he did! He jumped up right that second, dragged me with him and we drove almost seven-hundred miles to buy the damn thing. A few weeks later it looked better than new and even I fell in love with it."

He laughed out loud and Regina could not keep herself from chuckling.
"I drove the Mustang today...and it was as if he would be still here, driving with me...like he said it would be", Killian turned his head to look up into the sky, "I hope he is happy wherever he is."
-------------------------------------------

Once they returned to the living room Regina caught sight of Emma, who was reading a story to the kids, out of the fairytale book, and Killian announced that he would grab them a drink, which left Regina by herself before Marian appeared right in front of her, "Thanks for inviting Roland, Miss Mills. He's been a bit of a loner lately, but he seems to have found a friend in Henry."

Regina nodded in understanding but was not quite sure what to reply, but Marian continued before Regina could have made a decision, "Anyway. It was a pleasure meeting you, Miss Mills, but I'm afraid I have to go. I have plans with my partner Linda tonight. My ex husband will pick up our son."

"Yes, sure", was all Regina could manage to say, "Have a lovely evening then, Miss Locksley."

"Thank you", Marian turned to leave but stopped mid track, "Before I forget it...I thought maybe we could set up a play date for our sons somewhen soon. I think it helps Roland to see that there are other kids with two moms...it has taken him quite a while to come to terms with the fact that I'm in a relationship with a woman now. Not to mention Robin, my ex-husband."

"I think a playdate should be fine", Regina replied with a nod.
It was only when Marian Locksely headed for the door that her words finally sunk in and Regina's eyes grew wide.
Wait, what?
Had she just agreed to a play date for her son, because Roland's mother thought her and Emma were...were a couple?!

Her heart started racing and she could feel a wave of panic rushing through her body when Killian stepped in front of her and held out a glass of wine, which she grabbed and emptied in one gulp.

"Woah there, love...what have you done? Pissed off Locksley?"

"No...I...I wouldn't say pissed off...wait, you know her?", Regina glared at him in disbelief and Killian broke out in laughter, "Yeah, of course, I do. She has this charity thing going on. One of the projects the Swans support. So, what did you do?"

Regina paled even more, "I...she...uh...she thinks...that...Emma...that Emma and I...that...we are...uh...you know..."

She could not look at him anymore, especially because Killian cringed while laughing like a maniac, "Hold on...are you telling me that Locksley thinks you and Emma are couple?"

"That's not funny!", Regina hissed.

"Of course it is", Killian replied, still laughing, "Has it never occurred to you that people could jump to that conclusion?"

"No?!", she looked at him, caught completely off guard, "Why would anyone think that? I mean okay...Emma is gay, but that doesn't mean we can't be friends...or a faaamily."
Regina's words had turned into a whisper by the end of her sentence and realization finally hit her.
Of course, that would be what people thought.
How had she not seen this coming?

Her mind was rushing, everything was a jumble, a blur, "Do you think I should call Marian Locksley and set her straight?"

"Have fun trying...but from what I hear she's pretty much playing for our team now", Killian chuckled and Regina, panicked or not, had to laugh herself.

"Does it bother you that much that people could think you and Emma are an item?", he asked, all of a sudden completely serious.

"Yes...no...I don't know", Regina admitted and her shoulders slumped, "It's not that...I mean...I don't care what people think about me...hell, I've been a stripper for the most part of my life...but Emma...she has a reputation and...and..."

"Emma gives a shit about people and their opinion if that's what's bothering you. She cares what her friends and family have to say, what they think but the rest can go to hell", Killian assured her, "People gossip anyway. No matter what you do. Who cares what other people think about you and Em, love?"

"I...I..."

But before Regina could say anything else the doorbell of the penthouse rang and the moment it was opened it revealed two quite unexpected guests – a smiling Christine Swan and her not so enthusiastic husband Roger.

"I'm so sorry, Regina. I had no idea that they would show up", Emma stated as soon as she had dragged Regina to her home office, "I just mentioned to my mother that we couldn't come for brunch this weekend, because of Henry's birthday."

"It's fine, dear. It's not your fault."

"Still. I should have known. My mother is, well, complicated. She gets too excited for her own good at times", Emma sighed, "And if my father says anything inappropriate...I'll make them leave. I swear."

"Emma, relax", Regina stepped closer to take Emma's hand and squeezed it reassuringly, "It will be fine. They even brought a gift for Henry."

"Okay."
Emma pulled her hand back and started to pace the room anyway, "It's just. It's been a hell of a week and I...I don't know if I have the energy to argue with my father. Not today."

Regina watched Emma for a few moments, but then she grabbed her by the arms and pulled her into a gentle embrace, offering comfort and reassurance, because Emma clearly needed it.
And if Regina was honest she needed it too.

Standing there, holding Emma close, made the tension in the room disappear, made them both relax and focus on what was important because at the end of the day the only thing that mattered was that they had each other.
-------------------------------------------

Christine had taken Emma's place to read to the children, but Roger Swan was nowhere to be seen.
Marian Locksley's assumption long forgotten Regina went in search of the one person she wished she could avoid – at all costs.
Being a part of Emma's life meant that she had to find a way to deal with Emma's father though, Regina was aware of that.
They would most likely never become friends, but she was willing to find a way to get along at least.

She found him sitting on the balcony, a glass of red wine in hand.

"I'm sorry, Mister Swan. I don't mean to disturb you", she began and he made a gesture for her to take a seat.

"I'm not here to ruin your son's birthday if that's what you're afraid of", he stated dryly.

"That's not what I was thinking. I just wanted to talk to you for a moment", Regina started again, her heart rate increasing drastically with every word.
God, she was not good at talking in general, but this. This was torture.
She could not screw this up.

"I just", she cleared her throat nervously, "I just wanted to...well, I am aware, Mister Swan...that...no matter what I would say now...you would never believe me. You would never trust me. I understand that you are suspicious and you have every right...but let me tell you that I will stick around to prove to you...that I truly care about Emma."

Roger Swan just sat there and watched the city lights, which gave Regina the opportunity to take him in.
The first time she had seen him she had been too stressed to bother, but now that he was sitting next to her she realized how tall he was.
How strong he seemed.
Clearly, he was a well-respected man in this city if his dark grey power suit was anything to go by.
His face was stern, but his eyes gave him away.
They were kind and there was a spark of worry shining in them and Regina saw it for what it was.
A father's concern for his child.

"I know I was rather harsh the first time we met", he began all of a sudden, "And I assure you, Miss Mills...this is nothing personal. But you have to understand that we want what's best for Emma. She's our only child and while we might have been absent a lot...we always loved her...from the bottom of our hearts. The day we first saw her in the harbor...we knew. We knew she was meant to be ours."

Another minute of silence.

"I regret that we've left her alone so many times but it doesn't mean that we didn't watch out for her. We always had people taking care of her...qualified people. And she grew up to be this strong, independent woman...but then...when she met this...this Jade", his voice trembled, "We thought she was the one. She had us all wrapped around her little finger and Emma was so happy."
He took a sip of his wine, "The day she called me, the day she found out what this person was after...it changed Emma. The sparkle in her eyes, the sparkle that had been there all these years since I've seen her for the first time...it was gone. As if a part of Emma had died. She was so heartbroken and it took her forever to get back on her feet. I will not let that happen ever again. Not when I can protect her."

Regina gulped.
She had known that it had been hard for Emma, that Emma had lost her trust in humanity back then, but hearing the hurt in Roger Swan's voice, witnessing how much it had pained him to see Emma like that, gave the whole thing a completely new dimension.

"I'm sorry your family had to go through that. I can't imagine how terribly it must have been. Emma deserves so much better than that", Regina managed to say before her voice gave out.

"Yes, she does. She deserves better than that. And that is why I don't trust you. Because someone needs to look out for Emma. She is this good-hearted person and when she really likes someone she throws all her doubts and everything out of the window but we both know that the world isn't kind. As I said...it's nothing personal", Roger Swan stated again.

"No, I get that. Especially since I have a son myself. Even if it wouldn't be for my own past, I still would be wary", Regina admitted sincerely and got up, ready to leave.

"Miss Mills...for what it's worth. I'm glad you took the chance Emma offered you. That you got out of that establishment and that you found a decent job with Mister Jones.

She gave Emma's father a small smile, and while it wasn't much, at least it was honest, "I'll be forever grateful because it gives Henry a way better perspective for the future and he deserves it."

"We can agree on that. Our children deserve everything", Roger Swan replied and he nodded his approval.

The simple gesture lifted a huge weight off Regina's shoulders and she knew that she could not expect more from the man because Emma's well being was his priority.
As it should be.
----------------------------------------------

The party was long over, the guests had left and the penthouse was all cleaned up, but Emma was restless still.
She could not seem to calm down although she was so very tired and she had no idea why.
Regina was sound asleep in the guestroom, Henry was passed out on the couch with Tamotsu right next to him, but the silence did nothing to slow down her mind.

Maybe it was the upcoming event for Gold that had her so on edge because so much was depending on it.
Maybe it was the fact that she missed Graham like crazy. She had witnessed the scene with Killian and Regina on the balcony earlier that night – out of the corner of her eye and she had been glad that Regina had felt safe enough to comfort him because she would not have found the strength to do it.

Or maybe it was that aching feeling in her heart whenever she thought about Regina.
She was falling deeper in love with her ever day and Emma knew that at this point there was nothing she could do to stop herself from falling deeper and deeper still.
She could see herself sharing her life with Regina, raising Henry together, being a family and being in love.
So very in love that it scared her.

And yet, every day she woke up she craved for Regina's presence as if nothing else in her life mattered.
And maybe it didn't.

She poured herself another glass of wine and sneaked out onto the balcony to sit and enjoy the fresh air for a moment, wishing that Graham would be here because he would know what to say to cheer her up.
To make her heart and mind lighter.
He would be able to help her through it all.

When she heard footsteps she turned around to catch sight of Henry, who rubbed at his eyes sleepily, Tamotsu right beside him and she had to smile, "Sorry, kid...did I wake you?"

Henry shook his head, "No. I had to pee. I guess I drank too much sweet stuff last night."

Emma nodded her head in understanding, "Want to sit with me for a minute?"

The boy did not reply but plopped down on the chair next to hers and Tamotsu sat down between them and so they watched the sky in comfortable silence for a while.
Till Henry broke it.

"Emma, can I ask you something?"
His eyes were pleading and she knew right away whatever he was going to say would have her heart skip a beat, but she agreed anyway, "Sure, kid. Ask away."

"It's about my dad", Henry started, sounding more insecure than she had ever heard him and Emma's heart indeed skipped a beat. Her gut feeling had not betrayed her.

"Maybe you should talk to your mom about that?", she suggested carefully and it reminded her that she had forgotten to tell Regina about her first conversation with Henry about that specific topic and she scolded herself. Work had been busy, but that was no excuse. She could not let Regina walk into that one unprepared.

Henry shook his head vehemently and that brought Emma back to the here and now, "I don't think I can...talk to her about it."

That got him Emma's full attention, "Why not?"

"Because I think that my dad...that he was not a nice man. I think...I think he hurt my mom...pretty bad", Henry dropped his head and Emma's heart was racing in her chest now.
How on earth could he possibly know that?

"Why would you think that, kid?"

"Mom never talks about him. Not once. She has not even mentioned his name...all my life. But she has these nightmares sometimes. It's not that bad anymore now...but it was...in the past. And there is the way she reacts when people try to...just shake her hand or something. I know Mister Gold was not always nice to her...but still...I think it was my dad...who really hurt her."

Emma did not know what to do, what to say.
God, she was not ready for this, she was not the person he should have this conversation with in the first place, but then again - would Regina be able to talk about it with her son?

"Please, Emma...just tell me. I need to know", Henry begged and she sighed in defeat.

"I'm sorry, kid. About your dad. And you are right...he did not treat your mom well I'm afraid", Emma stated and tried not to sound too hateful and angry, because the situation was hard enough as it was.

"I knew it. But he can't hurt her anymore, right?", Henry looked at her expectantly, eyes full of hope and it was Emma's turn to shake her head, "No, kid. He can't hurt her anymore. I promise."

"Good."
And in that moment Emma knew that he knew.
Henry knew that his father was dead without her saying it. He just knew somehow.

"What if I turn out like him?", the boy asked all of a sudden and Emma almost dropped her glass in shock.
She managed to put it on the floor and turned to look fully at Henry, grabbing his little hands, "I want you to listen to me, kid...you could never be anything like him, okay? You are a kind, loving and caring boy. Your mom did an amazing job of raising you and it doesn't matter who your father was because you are nothing like him. You'll never be."

Henry seemed not convinced, "You sure?"

Emma's eyes met Henry's, her face as serious as he had ever seen it, "Absolutely. Henry, you are so protective of your mom...and I admire that. But that alone proves how much you care about her. You always want to be strong for her although you are just a kid. You're so smart and funny...you're great. And everyone knows how much you love your mom. You'd never hurt her. I know that. And because you love her you would never hurt anyone else either. You would never do anything to make her unhappy. Or cry. I know that you want her to be happy...and so do I. Together we'll make sure that she is. Always."

"Deal. But how do we do that?", he watched Emma closely.

"We show her how much we love her every day."
The words were out of her mouth before she could stop herself, but Henry only smirked at her.

"I think we should go to bed then. And do something nice for mom tomorrow...starting with breakfast?", he suggested, his smile never leaving his face.

"You know what, kid? That's an excellent idea."
----------------------------------------------

Emma had no idea how she had ended up on the couch next to Henry and the dog, but here she was – Tamotsu's head on her legs, Henry's arm wrapped around her.
And she had finally calmed down enough to get some sleep if her fluttering eyes were any indication at all.

"Emma?"
It was only a mumble, but she caught up on it anyway.

"Yes, kid?"

"I love you too."

"And I love you, Henry. You're my family."

He yawned, "Me and my mom."

"Yes, you and your mom."

And then they both closed their eyes and fell asleep.

Chapter Text

Emma was a nervous wreck.

Tonight was the night.
The night where everything could go down if she failed.
She had not been able to get any sleep last night.
The burden, the pressure was simply too heavy.

She had worked herself into the ground to make sure this event would become a success and as far as her own work was concerned everything was perfect.
But there were so many other factors – the staff, delivery, technics, and much more.
She had no control over that, at least not completely.

Everyone knew that the more people were involved in a project, the higher the chance that something would go wrong-
And no matter if it would be her doing or not she was pretty sure Gold would blame it on her.

Regina had tried to talk to her about it last Sunday, after Henry's birthday, had tried to tell her that, no matter what would happen tonight, it would be fine.
That it was not about the success, that the gesture that Emma was willing to do all this for her, was worth more than anything.
But not for Emma.
All that counted for her was that Regina was out of this hellhole for good, everything else was simply unacceptable.

And that was why she stood here now, welcoming the guests of The Rabbit Hole herself, together with Jefferson, who seemed awfully understanding, because he had not tried to joke once since her arrival about an hour ago.
It was close to 10 pm and Emma felt sick to the stomach.
The celebrations would start in a few minutes, so her time was running out.

That was when she caught sight of a familiar car out of the corner of her eye.

Ruby was coming.
To her big surprise, her best friend had Mary Margaret and Belle in tow, all of them smiling confidently and the sight gave Emma a second to breathe.

"You didn't think we'd let you go through this by yourself", Ruby mocked and hugged her close, "I'm sure everything will go fine."

Emma held onto her for a minute, not able to let go. She had never been so happy to see her leggy friend than in that moment, "Thank God you're here. I'm losing my mind."

Ruby stepped back to allow Belle and Mary Margaret to say 'Hi' and to greet Jefferson, whom she had not seen in a while because she had been busy with work and living in Graham's apartment had taken quite the toll on her.

"Emma, listen", Mary Margaret took her hand and squeezed it, "I'm sure everything will be okay. You've done your best nd that's all that matters. Nobody can ask more from you."

"I know but if something goes wrong and Gold decides to break the deal...or something", Emma dropped her head.
She was usually so convinced of her talent when it came to her job, but today.
Today she felt as insecure as she ever had and it drove her crazy.

"If...and I don't say something will go wrong...but if it does...we'll figure something out, okay? We won't let Regina go back to this place. I promise", Mary Margaret sounded so convinced, so sincere, causing Emma to stare at her in disbelief, "It's not your problem. I brought this on myself."

"Emma, you are our friend. And while Regina and I are not really close, we are all not blind. We know how much she means to you. And Henry. David and I...we love Henry so much. We'd do anything for him...and his mom. There is no way Gold will get her back. I promise you that. And if I have to kick his ass myself...it won't happen."

At that Emma raised an eyebrow.
Sweet little Mary Margaret, who was not even able to kill a fly, had not just threatened to kick someone's ass, had she?
But when Emma looked straight at her friend she recognized how serious the pixie-haired woman seemed to be and she nodded, "Okay."

"I might not have been Regina's biggest fan in the beginning but who can blame me? After all the shit we've been through...I've become a little bit paranoid I guess", Belle admitted, "But Mary Margaret is right. We'll have your back. You have ours all the time, Em. And that means we'll watch out for Regina as well...she's family after all."

Emma sighed in relief, "I love you, girls. Really, I do."
--------------------------------------------------

Everyone was inside already, the show had started and everything was running smoothly so far and yet Emma stood in front of the entrance, trying to breathe.
She was close to having a panic attack and she knew it.
Why was she so damn anxious?
Especially since Gold seemed pleased so far.

A roar cut through the night and caused her to jump, speeding up her heart rate immediately, but before Emma could blink Graham's Mustang rounded the corner and stopped right in front of her and she caught sight of a laughing Killian, accompanied by none other, but Regina herself.

"What the hell are you doing here? I thought you have a night shoot today?", Emma was completely confused.

"That we do, love. That we do. The location is not far from here...about ten minutes drive...out in the woods. And the damn bitch of a model is quite in the mood. She demanded a one-hour break so we thought we could as well check on you", Killian explained while he exited the car.

All Emma could do was nod, but she was so unbelievably glad to see him.
And Regina, who seemed tense, but all in all, she was in a better condition than Emma.

"You don't mind if I go inside and take a look around, do you, love?", Killian asked curiously.

Emma shook her head, "No, just go. Be my guest."

Killian hugged her quickly and disappeared.
As soon as they were alone Regina stepped closer to take Emma's hand, "How are you doing?"

"I'm okay. Stressed out, but okay", Emma admitted, "Better now that everything is up and running. It's good to see you."

"Please stop worrying so much. You did what you could", Regina answered, "I know how hard it is to satisfy Gold. Plus, he is known for tricking people. So, really. Whatever happens, is not your fault. I meant it when I said that."

Emma shook her head, "Don't think he'll get you back. Ever. I won't let that happen...and if I have to keep working for him till I'm old and grey."

"Emma, stop! You are not selling your soul over to that devil completely. I'm not worth it", Regina pleaded, aware that Emma would do just that. Emma was stubborn enough to pull a stunt like that, definitely.

"No, you stop. That's not up for discussion", Emma replied vehemently, "And it would be my choice to make anyway."

Regina grabbed her second hand as well and squeezed them both, "You've done so much for me already, Emma. You wouldn't be in this position if it wouldn't be for me. You've gotten me out of here, you've given me a home and family. It's enough, really. Promise me that you won't do anything stupid in case Gold is not happy."

"Regina, I..."

"Promise me", Regina demanded.

Emma dropped her head in defeat, "I...I promise."
And then she pulled Regina into an embrace because she could not bear to think about their conversation any longer.

Regina could not go back to this life, because Emma would not let her.
At this point, she was not even sure if she could let Regina go anymore, at least not without losing her heart in the process.
--------------------------------------------------

Sidney Glass snickered happily.
He had been on his way to find Emma Swan to ask her a few questions about the event when he had overheard her conversation with this mystery woman he had kept wondering about since he had first seen her at Graham Hunter's gallery opening.
Regina something.

Clearly, there was a quite interesting story to tell, he only had to find out who she was and what Emma Swan had to do with it.
How hard could it be when this brunette woman was obviously connected to the very club he was at right now?

He headed back inside and caught sight of a green painted woman, who stood behind the stage and looked bored out of her mind, "Excuse me, Miss...my name is Sidney Glass and I'm writing an article about tonight's event. Could I ask you a few questions?"

"Of course", she perked up immediately, aware of her chance to get her fifteen minutes of fame, "My name is Zelena. What do you want to know?"

"Do you, by any chance, know the brunette woman Emma Swan is talking to...outside?"

Zelena scoffed, "How on earth would I know whom she is talking to without seeing the woman?"

"Her name seems to be Regina and from what I've understood she is at least part of the reason why Emma Swan took this job in the first place", Sidney stated and watched Zelena's face darken with a frown, "Oh, you mean Regina Mills."

Sidney took notes on his notepad eagerly, "What do you know about Miss Mills?"

"Well, first of all, people here know her as The Evil Queen."
--------------------------------------------------

Emma sighed in relief.
The event was over, the last guests were leaving.
Everything had gone fine as far as she could judge, but now that the adrenaline was wearing off she felt like collapsing.

After Regina and Killian had left she had become a bit calmer and with Ruby, Mary Margaret, and Belle there it had been bearable at least.
But now she really needed to go home and sleep.

"Here...drink something", Jefferson announced and held out a glass of water.

"Thanks. And thanks for your help tonight", Emma mumbled and took a sip.

"You're welcome, darling. I'd say it was a success. You definitely gave this place a lot more style. I really like what you did with the decoration and everything. Classy", he commented with a smile.

"Thank you. We'll see what Gold has to say about it. He has the last word after all", Emma sighed and took another gulp.

"He says you did a fabulous job, dearie."

Emma had not even seen him coming, but here he was, standing right in front of her, awfully pleased if his grin was anything to go by.
That man creeped her out.

"So, you liked it?", Emma asked carefully, not willing to get her hopes up just yet.

"I did. I'd say you've outdone yourself, Miss Swan. My establishment has never looked so impressive before. I take it you are tired and want to get some rest. I suggest that we set up a meeting for next week because I have some questions for you...I have plans to expand my establishment and I'd love to contact your interior designer...if that is not a problem."

"Of course not, Mister Gold. Give me a call on Monday and we'll make an appointment", Emma nodded her approval.

"Very well, dearie, very well. Good night then, Miss Swan. It was a pleasure."
And with that he turned around and left, a huge weight disappearing from Emma's shoulders, "Oh, thank God!"

Jefferson chuckled, "Better get out of here before he decides to keep you."

Emma nodded again, too tired to respond, kissed Jefferson on the cheek, and headed out of her personal hell.
One event down, one to go.
--------------------------------------------------
Mary Margaret had waited at her car because Emma had offered to take her home with her since David had been watching Henry with Regina and Emma both at work.
She had been glad that the pixie-haired woman had been there because Emma was not sure if she would have found it in her to drive home, she was simply too tired.

By the time they arrived at the penthouse, Emma was completely exhausted, but as soon as she caught sight of a tail wagging Tamotsu, who came to greet her, she felt ten times better.

"How did it go?", David wanted to know, concern written all over his face.

"Everything's fine", Emma mumbled and plopped down on the couch.

"That means Regina is safe, right?", he replied quickly.

"Yes, that means Regina can stay away from that hellhole", Emma groaned and David let out a breath he had not even been aware of holding, "That's great. I'm so happy to hear that."

"Me too. You have no idea", Emma commented sleepily, "How was Henry?"

"Fine. He's such a great kid. Went to bed around ten and has slept in the guestroom like a baby since", David stated and Emma nodded her approval, "Thanks for staying with him."

"Anytime, Em. Anytime."
--------------------------------------------------

By the time Regina returned from the night shoot, Emma was passed out on the couch and although she was dying to know how it went she was aware that Emma needed the rest, so she covered her with a blanket and snuck off to the guest room to get some sleep as well, none of them aware of the massive storm that was brewing in the office of a local newspaper at the very same time.
A storm that would hit soon.
--------------------------------------------------

Emma woke up to the ringing of her cell phone.
She had ignored it the first two times, but it had kept ringing, so obviously, it had to be important.
Opening one eye to take a glimpse at the display she realized it was barely eight.
What the hell?

She had not even slept for four hours.
And then she recognized the number and gulped.
Gold.

"Mister Gold, what can I do for you?", she groaned loudly.
God, she needed coffee.

"Miss Swan, we need to meet up immediately. This is a disaster."

That had her wide awake in a heartbeat, "But I thought you were..."

"This is not about your work. This is about that article in the newspaper from a journalist named...Sidney...Sidney Glass."

"Okay. I have no idea what you are talking about...can I call you back in a few?", Emma pinched the bridge of her nose.

"Of course, dearie. But don't take too long if you want to control the damage...if there's a way to control it...that is..."
And then the line went dead and left Emma confused and wondering.

She had not even talked to Sidney Glass last night although she had bumped into him twice.
Weird.
Before she could decide what to do there was a knock on the door, causing Emma to sigh.
What now?

She got up and stumbled through the room to answer, revealing an obviously worked up Mary Margaret, newspaper in hand and Emma's eyes grew wide in realization, "That bad?"

"Worse", the pixie-haired woman entered, put the newspaper in Emma's hands, and headed for the coffee machine, "You might want to sit down."

Emma did as she was told and looked at the front cover of the newspaper, her jaw dropping immediately.

THE WEALTHY HEIR AND THE STRIPPER
A real-life fairytale or simply a way to catch a billionaire?

By Sidney Glass

Shit.
Shit. Shit. Shit.

Her eyes roamed over the lines in anger.
How the hell had he found out?
Her first thought was Gold, but he had not seemed amused himself, so she was not sure.

A lot of people have wondered why the well-known event manager and daughter of the Swans would agree to work for Gold and his salacious establishment and now we have the answer...
...Regina M., former stripper at The Rabbit Hole, danced herself out of Gold's reach and right into the arms of Emma Swan...
According to an insider they are living and raising Regina M.'s son together...
...the question remains what Regina M.'s motives are...sources tell that she has never been interested in women before...
...but we all know how tempting money can be...
...the insider also told that there had been an agreement between Mister Gold and Miss Swan about M.'s leave...and good-hearted Emma Swan has agreed to his terms to get Regina M. out of his establishment...
...while the event was surprisingly decent for a location like The Rabbit Hole, definitely Emma Swan's handwriting, these new revelations make you look at the whole thing in a different light...'

Emma could not read more.
She had left out every second sentence anyway because she felt sick.
She wanted to puke.
This was a disaster indeed.

Regina.
God, how would Regina take it?

She dropped her head onto the desk in an attempt not to scream out loud because she did not want to wake Henry.
And Regina.
She needed a plan first.
But what was she going to do?

"David and Ruby are out to find out how many issues have been printed and Belle and Killian are on their way over", Mary Margaret announced and put a mug of coffee in front of Emma, who nodded in understanding.

"You should probably call your lawyer. And your parents", the pixie-haired woman added and Emma's eyes grew wide.

Her parents.
Her father would probably freak out.
At that moment Emma's phone started ringing again and she sighed, "It's Carol from the Gazette. And here comes the madness."

Mary Margaret grabbed the phone, "Take my phone and make your calls. I'll take care of yours. Now, Emma!"
--------------------------------------------------

Her lawyer would meet her at The Rabbit Hole in two hours, Mary Margaret was doing a hell of a job at barking all the calling reporters away and Killian and Belle had arrived as well and were currently plotting how to kill Sidney Glass without leaving evidence.
And Emma finally found the courage to call her parents, because if they had not read the newspaper by now they would soon.

Her heart was beating out of her chest when her mother picked up the phone, "Mom? I need to talk to you. Yeah...so, you already saw it. I don't know what to do...yes, I called him...we'll meet with Gold in two hours...okay...sure...what did dad say?...I'm so sorry for this mess...I don't know who...this will break Regina...and Henry...I could rip Glass into pieces...no...nothing stupid...I can't calm down!...this is my family...I...I understand...mom? Thank you!"

The others looked at her expectantly, but Mary Margaret was the one who asked in the end, "What did she say?"

"My mother said that my father knows the guy who owns the newspaper Glass is working for and that my father is not too fond of this Sidney Glass either. He'll see what he can do. And my father's assistant is obviously working on a press statement already", Emma explained with a sigh.

"I have to call Archie. And then I have to get ready for my meeting with Gold", she added, concern was written all over her face now, "And I have to tell Regina."
--------------------------------------------------

Archie had assured Emma that they had his full support, but what could he really do?
Kids were cruel and everyone knew it.
Not to mention how the parents' reaction would be once the news got around.

Emma was dressed and ready to leave when Regina and Henry made their way out of the guest room, completely surprised by all the people in the living room and Emma's heart broke the minute she caught sight of the fear in Regina's eyes.
Henry's innocent smile only made it worse.

"Hey, Em. I called Locksley and he got a warrant. No more copies of that bloody paper and the delivery has been stopped as well...but obviously I owe him dinner", Belle announced proudly.

"And I owe you. Big time", Emma replied with a nod, but then made a gesture for Regina to follow her.

Once in her office, Emma wanted to cry.
Or scream.
Possibly both.

"Emma, what's going on?", Regina's fragile voice cut through the room, through Emma, like a knife.

She barely managed to look at her, "I...I'm...God, Regina...I'm so sorry."

"It's alright, dear. I told you", Regina struggled to keep her composure.

"No, you don't understand. This is not about Gold", Emma started, "Someone talked to that creepy reporter from Graham's gallery opening...do you remember him?

Regina nodded, but she was confused.
What did that mean?

"Someone...I assume from The Rabbit Hole...spilled the beans. Who you are, why I work for Gold. There's an article about us on the front page of the freaking newspaper...implying...that you are after my money...and shit like that."

At that Regina's eyes grew wide in realization.
Her happy bubble had irrevocably burst.
Now everyone knew about her past. Well, not about everything, but they knew.

"I'm so sorry, Regina. I don't know how that happened and I wish I could stay with you...but I have to go. Gold wants to see me and I have to talk to my lawyer and meet with my parents and", Emma was close to getting hysterical, "I'll be back as soon as I can, okay?!"

All Regina could do was nod robotically.
What could one say anyway – when one's whole world came crashing down?

Emma squeezed Regina's hand on her way out but knew that it was not enough.
It was nowhere near enough.
--------------------------------------------------

Killian promised to stay with Regina and Henry till she came back and he would make sure to keep the kid away from the news – it would be hard enough to explain to Henry what was going on in the evening, but Emma did not want him to hear it from someone else.

"I'm coming with you", Mary Margaret announced and her tone made it clear that it was not up for discussion.
--------------------------------------------------

"You did this!" Gold barked, pointing at the newspaper and Zelena winced.

It had taken him all of five minutes to figure out who had talked to Sidney Glass and he was furious as hell, "Who do you think you are, you stupid bitch! You could ruin me with this!"

"I'm sorry...I didn't mean to", her hands were trembling.

"I don't care what you meant! I got you off the streets, you ungrateful whore...because even Anastasia threw you out. Everyone is sick of your bullshit and yet I gave you another chance. This time you've outdone yourself, Zelena...enough is enough."

Gold's eyes sparkled darkly and the woman started to sob, "Please, don't send me back...I'll make it up to you."

He only giggled like a maniac, "How? How are you going to do that? When you owe me so much already...so much more than you could ever pay back."

Zelena screeched beggingly, "Please don't make me go back...I can't go back."

"You are of no use to me anymore, Zelena...we're done."

He was about to leave the room, but she jumped forward and held onto him, just to be thrown to the floor.
When she reached for him once again he hit her straight in the face – with his cane.

"I said enough. You'll go back to work for Anastasia...I already talked to her. And you'll screw every guy she throws at you...till the end of your days."

"No! You can't do this!", she shrieked, blood running out of her obviously broken nose.

"The hell I can't".
That said Gold left the room and instructed Jefferson to take Zelena back to The West End.
--------------------------------------------------

In the presence of her lawyer, Emma and Gold had come to an agreement quickly, because they both knew the news were completely destructive.
Their reasons might be different, because while Gold feared for his reputation and establishment, Emma wanted to protect Regina, but the solution was one and the same.

And so Emma had made her way over to her parents to discuss how to go on from there with hanging shoulders, but much to her surprise her father had already taken care of it.
He had handed her the press statement that would be released later that evening and she had found nothing wrong with it.
In fact, it had been way better than she would have anticipated, especially since she knew that her father was not necessarily fond of Regina.

By the time she returned to her apartment David and Ruby had arrived as well.
Killian and Henry were playing on the X-Box, but Regina was nowhere to be seen.

Before Emma could ask though her phone rang once again and the display said that it was her secretary.
What did Virginia want now?
Sighing she picked up and her face fell instantly.
After the day she had that was the last thing she needed.

"What happened?", Mary Margaret asked the second Emma hung up.

"Virginia quit on me. Said something about she has enough of my escapades."

"What?! That's ridiculous. This was not your fault!", David was by her side within a heartbeat, but Emma only shrugged, "Whatever. I'll find someone new...or...it doesn't matter."

"Can I talk to you for a second? Alone?", Mary Margaret grabbed Emma by the arm and dragged her with her – straight to Emma's home office.
Once she had closed the door behind them she turned to face Emma, "You can't do everything on your own! You are completely overworked already and without a secretary or assistant or whatever she was...Emma, you can't do this alone."

"I know", Emma's shoulders fell, "But it's not like I could magic myself a new employee."

Mary Margaret's eyes dropped to her feet, "You...could hire..me."

Emma was not sure if she had heard right, so she glared at the petite woman in front of her, eyeing her closely, "You want to work for me?"

"I...well...I'm good...at organizing, making appointments, and stuff. And I kind of enjoyed taking your calls today, handle part of the drama. I just wish the occasion would have been a happier one...but yes...I think I would love to try. David is busy with rehab and sitting home all day. It's kinda boring. Besides...there are only so many new things you can buy till you run out of items you want...or need...so,...", Mary Margaret gave her a shy smile.

"Well, let me tell you that the payment is not that great", Emma stated dryly, causing Mary Margaret to slap her shoulder playfully, "We both know I wouldn't be doing it for the money...so, is that a 'yes?"

"Yeah, why not", Emma agreed, "We'll start Monday at 10 because I really need some rest before I return to work."
--------------------------------------------------

Regina was sitting on the floor of her bedroom, tears running down her face.
The newspaper was resting on her lap, covered by Tamotsu's head.

Her new life had been too good to be true.
Of course, it would not last.
She should have known.
And she had.

She had always known that this could not be forever.
Why had she stopped to listen to her inner voice?
Everyone knew now.
People would start asking questions.

Henry.
Oh God, her poor little boy.
What would happen to him in school?
Would he get bullied?

Her colleagues at work had never been too fond of her, but now they had something to use against her for real.
Would she be able to handle that?
But the worst about it was that Emma would lose her reputation completely.

Emma had done nothing wrong, she had just tried to help her, but now she would pay the price for her sins.
What was she supposed to do?
Was there something she could do?
This would ruin everyone's life.
Hers, Henry's, probably Killians for hiring her and for sure Emma's.

The Swans would hate her.
And Emma would too – eventually.

The moment she would lose all of her clients Emma would finally realize that she had made a mistake.
A huge mistake.
And Regina could not blame her.
Emma should not have tried to save her in the first place.

It would kill Henry to lose the only family he had ever known. Hell, it would kill her too.

Tamotsu nudged her palm with his nose, causing her to sob even harder, "I'm so sorry, little bear. I'm afraid our ways will separate soon."

The dog sat up and licked over her face to offer his comfort and while she normally would be disgusted she did not mind the gesture this time.
The unconditional love he offered was balm for her haunted soul and broken heart.

"I love you too, little bear...but don't tell anyone", she joked through her tears while a decision formed in her mind.

She could not do this.
She had to stop this madness.
For Henry.
For Emma.
--------------------------------------------------

"Guys, where is Regina?", Emma asked once she returned to the living room, her new employee in tow.

"She said she needed a minute", Belle answered and glanced at her watch, "But that was a while ago."

"We were so busy making plans how to eliminate Glass...we kind of forgot time", Ruby apologized.

Emma nodded, "I'll go look for her then."
--------------------------------------------------

On her way over to Regina's apartment, she finally found a minute to breathe.

That was not the day she had planned, but she was so thankful for her friends' support. They had proven once again that they were worthy of her trust as she was worthy of theirs.
And her parents were simply amazing.
Even though her father did not trust Regina he had ensured that the damage would be kept as little as possible.
Sure, the next few days would be rocky, but things would calm down eventually.

It was always the same with the news – what was worth a headline one day, was already history the next.
And then a new scandal would make it on the front page and they could go back to live their lives.

Emma was aware that another storm had hit them, but they had survived worse.
They would come out of this too – stronger than ever.

But as soon as she opened the apartment door and took in the scene that greeted her, her heart shattered into a million pieces.

Chapter Text

"Regina, what are you doing?"
It was barely a whisper and Emma knew the answer anyway.

Regina's voice was cold, unapproachable, "I'm packing."

It filled Emma with an emptiness she had never felt before.
Emma did not know how, but she had to make Regina see reason because clearly, she was out of her mind.

"You know our vacation is still some weeks away", Emma tried to joke, but her croaking voice made it sound rather pathetic.

"Please, leave."
Regina was busy stuffing clothes into a bag and avoided looking at Emma at all costs.

"Regina."

"I said leave", Regina's voice became a dangerous growl.

"Not before you talk to me", Emma insisted, but only earned a head shake from Regina, "There is nothing to talk about, Miss Swan."

"Then I at least need you to listen to me", Emma tried again and Regina tensed, obviously considering it.

"I know what you are doing", Emma started, "You're trying to run away because you think it's better for everyone. Well, I have news for you, Regina. It's not."

At that Regina whirled around, her eyes sparkling wildly, "Leave me alone, Emma. You tried to save me. And you did. But now it's time to save yourself."

Blinking in confusion Emma took a step back, "What are you talking about? Wait. Do you think this is better for me? That you can protect me from God knows what?"

"Of course I'm trying to protect you!", Regina yelled, "Can't you see? This...what you are trying to do for me...it will ruin you! Henry can change schools if it gets too bad...besides...he never had it easy. We never had any money and stuff. We'll go somewhere, we'll figure it out. But you, you could lose everything...and I won't let that happen. Not after everything you've done for me."
The first tears were making their way down Regina's face, the walls she had built up to keep out the pain were cracking visibly.

Emma made a step towards her, but Regina backed away instantly, "Emma, please don't. You promised you won't do anything stupid...this is madness. You have to stop trying to save me when it has become more than clear that I can't be saved."

"But we already did", Emma countered, refusing the urge to step forward again.

It was Regina's turn to be confused, "We? What are you talking about?"

"Mary Margaret, Ruby, Belle, Killian...Robin Locksley...even Gold...my parents...every single one of them helped", Emma stated, desperate for Regina to believe her, "I won't lie. This article has caused some damage. Mostly for you...and I'm so sorry about that..."

"It's not your fault!", Regina hissed, "Nothing of this is your fault. Why do you even care?"

"Because..."
I love you.

It would be so easy to say, but she couldn't.
Emma wanted to, more than anything, but she knew it would ruin everything. It would make Regina run even faster.

"Because we are a family, remember? And we are friends. I was fully aware of what it meant when I offered you this apartment. I knew what people might think if they ever found out who you were...but I don't care. Regina, all that matters to me is you...and Henry. Sure, I wish that asshole Glass would have never found out...not for my sake, but for yours...but what's done is done. We can deal with this...we've dealt with worse."

"Your parents hate me", Regina fired back, but it sounded like a lame excuse and she knew it.

"In fact, they don't", Emma countered and took a look at the clock, "And I can prove it to you."

The quizzical look on Regina's face was priceless and in another situation, Emma would have laughed out loud, but since she was fully aware that everything could blow up right in her face any second she went to the coffee table, grabbed the remote, and turned on the TV instead, right in time for the news.

Good evening, Boston. A news article by Sidney Glass caused a lot of turmoil this morning and an official statement from the Swan family reached us only minutes ago. We were asked to make it public before we turn to the world news by Roger Swan himself and we are gladly following his request since his family has done so much for our town.

"We were shocked to learn about Mister Glass and his article, especially since his conclusions are scandalous and false.
Regina Mills has been a former staff member of The Rabbit Hole but has left the establishment months ago and is working in a completely different department now.
Emma's decision to work for Mister Gold has nothing to do with Miss Mills except for the fact that it has been Regina Mills, who introduced them to one another.
Emma's work speaks for itself as the success of last night has proven once again and we are proud of her, regardless of the engagements she takes.
Mister Gold hired her because she is amazing at what she does and he has plans to change The Rabbit Holes' style, to turn it into a decent establishment.
Our daughter and Miss Mills are neighbors, but they are also close friends, and as such Emma considers Regina and her son family.
We would greatly appreciate it if the public would respect our privacy.
Roger, Christine, and Emma Swan"/b>

The moderator dropped the piece of paper he had been reading from and nodded as another paper was handed to him.

We just got confirmation that Sidney Glass was fired because according to the leading editor nobody had allowed Mister Glass to publish said article. Obviously, he has hacked himself into the computer system and has made this decision on his own. We also got informed that the Swan family is considering pressing charges against Mister Glass. We'll keep you posted on the matter, but now back to the world news.

Without so much as a word Regina stepped into Emma's embrace, sobbing heavily, "I'm sorry for being such a bitch...but why? Why are you still trying to save me? To protect me?"

Emma squeezed her waist gently, "Because, believe it or not, you deserve it."
----------------------------------------------------------------

It had taken Regina a while to calm down, but in the end, Emma had managed to convince her that they would get over this obstacle as well as they had gotten over the others.

"But we have to tell Henry...we can't let him walk into this without notice."

"I know", Regina dropped her head in shame.

"He loves you. He'll be fine", Emma reassured, "I'd say you crash at my place tonight. Cleaning up your apartment can wait till tomorrow."

Regina only nodded and they made their way back over to Emma's penthouse where everyone was waiting for them already.

"Mom, are you okay?" Henry looked at her, slightly concerned and Regina hugged him immediately.

Tamotsu, who had followed them silently, ran across the room and squeezed himself in between mother and son, happily wagging with his tail and Emma had to smile.
That dog definitely belonged to them.

"Kid, we need to talk to you about something", Emma announced carefully.

"I think that's our cue to go", David stated simply and everyone got up and ready to leave.

"Thanks, guys. You're the best. I don't know what I'd do without you", Emma smiled at everyone, "I'd love to invite you all to dinner next weekend...what do you say?"

Killian laughed out loud, "I think it's safe to say we're all in, love...as long as Regina cooks."

"Hey!", Emma chuckled, "I know she's a way better cook than me...but still."

"Yeah, yeah", Ruby mumbled, "Just because you've never poisoned anyone."

"Ruby Lucas! You are my best friend. You're supposed to be on my side", Emma warned playfully and her best friend giggled, "I am, Em...I am. Except for the cooking...then I'm definitely on Regina's side."
----------------------------------------------------------------

Once everyone was gone Emma and Regina sat down on the couch together with Henry and Tamotsu, who would not have left their side if they had forced him away, and explained to the boy what had happened earlier today.
He listened to every word carefully, nodded here and there as he followed Emma's explanation – and got sadder by the minute.

"Why did this Mister Glass do that?", he asked once Emma was done with her little speech.

"I would not say he is a bad guy, kid, but he saw a chance to make a move up the ladder in his career. Unfortunately, people love to write about me and my family...because we have some money...and are known in this town. And he thought he could make a scandal out of your mom's past", Emma dropped her head, feeling as guilty as it would get.

"Emma, this is not your fault. You had nothing to do with that article...and...you had nothing to do with my past...my job", Regina stated and squeezed Emma's hand, "I'm actually surprised that nobody figured it out sooner. Who I am I mean."

"You're Regina. You are my friend. And you are my family. That is who you are."

Emma's voice was so sincere, it took Regina's breath away.
How Emma could see her with such innocence, even though she knew about her past, about everything she had done – it would forever stay a mystery to her.

"Emma is right. And I don't care what people say because you have done nothing wrong, you are not a bad person. Or some villain. You are my mom. You're the best mom and I love you", Henry announced and jumped into Regina's lap to hug her close.
A single tear escaped her eyes.
A tear out of gratitude and love.
A tear she did not wipe away.

They sat in silence for a while before Emma added, "Henry, we don't say something bad will happen...just know that kids at school might say something. If anyone is mean...please, don't do anything stupid. Tell headmaster Hopper...or us, okay?"

The boy nodded his understanding and Emma felt so proud because Henry had taken the news way better than expected.
And he had said the right things at the right times and he had truly meant them.
No, he would never become anything like his father.
----------------------------------------------------------------

The next few days were hectic for Emma once again, but she had to admit that she enjoyed working with Mary Margaret although she had her doubts in the beginning.
Working with friends was always complicated, especially if one was the boss and the other "only" an employee, but the pixie-haired woman seemed to enjoy herself, and having her there made Emma's life a lot easier.
Two clients had canceled their requests, because of her engagement with Gold and the article in the newspaper, but to Emma's surprise, she had gained at least three potential new clients as well.

People who admired her for her backbone and for standing up for the people she cared about – so in the end, her job for Gold could turn out like a blessing in disguise.
But new engagements and new clients meant more meetings, more planning, and a lot more work.
And less sleep.
That was why Mary Margaret had suggested rescheduling the dinner Emma had promised their friends for the next week because the blonde clearly needed a break.

Regina had experienced a rather difficult start to her work week, because her colleagues had, as predicted, thrown the news right into her face.
Till Killian had overheard it and had told them that he would not have any of it.
He had barked around for almost half an hour, defending Regina and Emma as well, had told his staff that not everybody was born lucky.
He had also fired two people by the end of the day because he had enough of their bullshit.
That day Regina had learned that Killian had worked one or two dirty jobs himself when he had been younger – before he had made a career.
Knowing that made it easier for her to understand why he would defend and support her as he had done.
But learning that Killian had things in his closet he was not proud of made her feel understood as well and that was something she truly appreciated because most people simply had no idea how it felt.

Archie had shown up at Emma's apartment on Wednesday evening to inform them that some of the parents had not been too happy about the news, but that the kids had behaved better than expected except for a few stupid comments, but Henry had taken them in stride.
Obviously, Marian Locksley had talked some sense into the upset parents – being part of the school council definitely had its perks.
She had spoken on Regina's behalf and Regina had realized that she would have to call and thank her.
Which she had in the end.
And it had led to a play date for their sons.

Emma had invited Mary Margaret to lunch on Friday and now that they were sitting at the small Chinese place they both had always enjoyed since they had found it years ago the pixie-haired woman was smiling brightly, "I really love working for you, Em. I finally understand why you always wanted a career of your own instead of...you know...throwing your family's money out of the window with both hands."

"Yeah, as stressful as it can be...it gives me a purpose", Emma agreed, "But you could do much better than being my..."

"Maybe. But I truly enjoy it. It's enough for me. At least for now...if, one day, I become more ambitious...I'll let you know", Mary Margaret grinned cheekily.

Emma smiled, "Fine by me."

"So, uhm", Mary Margaret seemed shy all of a sudden, "David and I...we thought...uh...that maybe Henry could stay with us this weekend...would give you and Regina some time to relax...not that Henry would be a burden or anything, just..."

"I know what you mean. And it might be a good idea for Henry...to get out of this whole mess for a bit", Emma nodded.

Mary Margaret looked hopeful, "So, you think Regina might allow it?"

"I'll talk to her and let you know."
----------------------------------------------------------------

Regina had not been too thrilled to let her son go, but she had understood Emma's arguments and had agreed that it would be a nice change for Henry, especially since he adored David so much.

Once Mary Margaret and her fiance had shown up the boy had been overjoyed to hear the news, but he had promised to call before he would go to bed every day.
Tamotsu had paced the room, obviously unsure whether he should go with Henry or stay with Emma and Regina, causing everyone to laugh.
It was quite an adorable sight.
In the end, the dog had left with Mary Margaret, David, and Henry.

Emma and Regina spent their weekend together, but mostly in silence.
They sat on the balcony or in the living room, reading books, enjoying the quiet, finding solace in the knowledge that their presence was enough to make the other relax.
That no words were needed for comfort, that the silence never became uncomfortable.

Sure, they talked during their meals, mostly about Henry and about their upcoming trip.
They had come to a silent agreement not to mention the whole madness of the last few days because they had enough of all the drama.
Going to bed early and getting a decent amount of sleep had worked its magic on both women as well and nobody had questioned why Regina had slept in the guest room when she could have stayed at her own place as well.

When Henry returned Sunday afternoon Emma and Regina felt a lot better and were in higher spirits than they had been lately.
What a little rest and silence could do.

Tamotsu almost knocked them over in his excitement, but neither woman found it in her to scold the dog, because they had missed him too.

"Thanks for letting Henry stay with us", Mary Margaret announced and gave Regina a shy smile, earning a nod of approval from the brunette.

"When do you expect me at work tomorrow, Em? Eight?", the pixie-haired woman turned to face Emma, and Regina raised an eyebrow in confusion.

"Uh...I think eight-thirty will be fine", Emma replied and smiled uncomfortably.

"See you tomorrow then...have a nice evening", Mary Margaret hugged her quickly, squeezed Henry's cheek, and petted Tamotsu's head for a moment, debating whether she should offer her hand to Regina, but thought better of it.
She knew that Regina was not one for physical contact and after the week Regina had had Mary Margaret had no intention of putting more pressure on Regina.
So she simply smiled and left.

And so the weeks passed by with a lot of work, a hilarious dinner and evening with friends, and an awkward encounter with Emma's parents where Roger Swan had explained to Regina that he still did not trust her, but that he would do anything to protect Emma and even Henry because he was only a kid.
He had also told her that he was aware that this debacle with Sidney Glass had not been her fault, because the noisy reporter was known for taking it a step too far all the time.
And that it had been his great pleasure to have him fired, that it had been about time.

It had been hard for Regina to settle back into her routine none-the-less because people were talking behind her backs wherever she showed up and she knew it.
She had not been comfortable for a while, but Killian had been there every step of the way – shielding her, protecting, and supporting her.
Almost like the big brother she never had, but always dreamed of.

And Emma and Henry had done everything to distract her, to show her that everything would be fine eventually.
Thanks to Archie Hopper and Marian Locksley the damage had not gotten too big at school and Henry had only faced one bigger encounter with a fellow student, but Regina's son had stood his ground and had defended his mother like a lion.
Like he always had.
----------------------------------------------------------------

By the time May came around their world was fine again.

Since Henry was such a good student Archie had agreed to allow him the week off for their vacation - Henry had definitely earned it.
That was why everyone was packing for real this time – ready for another adventure in their family history.

Destination: Turtle Bay, Hawaii.

Chapter Text

The first challenge on their way to Hawaii came in the form of flying.
Since Regina had never been on a plane before she had been quite anxious and while Henry was too excited to care about anything his mother became almost terrified the second the plane started to move.
But with Emma holding her hand and reassuring her time and time again that they would be fine they had gotten over that first obstacle with ease in the end.

The real challenge had begun when they had arrived at their two-bedroom suite because Henry had declared that he was a big boy now and that he wanted his own room and Regina had glared at him with wide eyes, panic written all over her face till Emma had announced that she would take the couch and Regina could sleep in the huge king-size bed.
And while Regina had been immensely relieved by the offer she had started to feel incredibly guilty.
This was Emma's vacation too.
And now Emma would have to spend it on the couch.
But the bare thought of sharing the bed with someone, except for Henry, even in the most innocent of ways, made Regina sick to the stomach.
God, this was so fucked up.
She was so fucked up.

Before Regina could have drowned in her thoughts however Emma and Henry had dragged her outside to go for a walk and explore Turtle Bay.
And it had worked its magic immediately because the area was breathtakingly beautiful and the sound of the ocean helped Regina to calm down.
She really needed to find a way to relax – they were on vacation after all, but of course, that was easier said than done.
------------------------------------------------

They had enjoyed a delicious dinner after an exciting first day and Henry had gone to bed not long after that, completely worn out.
Regina and Emma found themselves sitting on the balcony of their suite, non-alcoholic pineapple cocktail in hand, watching the waves, enjoying the silence.
Until Regina broke it all of a sudden.

"So, care to tell me why Miss Blanchard is working for you now? You never told me."

Emma gulped.
When Regina had not asked a few weeks ago after Mary Margaret had mentioned seeing her in the office in the morning she had thought the brunette would let it go.
Clearly, she had been mistaken.

"Uh...Virginia quit."

"Why? I thought she had lived for this job", Regina watched Emma squirm in her seat, "Please, tell me this had nothing to do with me and this article."

Emma was tempted to lie, so tempted, but Regina would figure it out anyway, would she not?

"Emma!"

Regina sounded so upset, wounded even, and Emma cringed.
Obviously, her inner debate had taken too long and the silence had given her away anyway.

"It's no big deal", she tried to reassure Regina, whose eyes grew only wider, "It's no big deal? How many jobs have you lost? Tell me, Emma...don't hide things from me."

They had been too busy to talk about this till now and Regina had also been too scared to ask for the truth, but now she needed to know.

Emma turned in her chair to face Regina and grabbed her hands to squeeze them gently, "Listen...Virginia's decision to quit, well, this story with Sidney Glass was probably the last drop, but it was not the only reason. You have to believe me. She is a woman with high morals and she's never been too happy with my party life and the gossip and everything. When she started to work for me all she saw was my family name and thought it would be a good reference one day...yeah, she did a great job but so does Mary Margaret...and believe it or not...our little pixie turned out to be a hell of a personal assistant. So it's all good. Nothing to worry about."

"How many jobs, Emma?", Regina demanded and Emma sighed, "Two, but..."

When Regina tried to pull her hands out of her grip, Emma only held on tighter, "Will you please listen? It has also gotten me three potential new clients...big jobs too. It's all in the works...so please, Regina...don't beat yourself up over it. It's okay. Some people were not happy with the news but that was to be expected. But others were impressed because I stood up for what I believe in and that made quite the impression on some people. But even if it hadn't I will always stick with you, Regina...because you are what I believe in."

Regina had no idea what to say to that because she knew it was true. She knew that Emma meant what she said, but it made no sense to her.
Not at all.
She would never understand what Emma saw in her, but she had come to realize that trying to talk Emma out of being there for her hurt Emma every time and that was why she stayed silent, never letting go of Emma's hands.

"Regina". Emma cleared her throat nervously, "There's something else I have to tell you. I should have told you weeks ago and I wanted to...but then this newspaper shit happened and I didn't want to make you more miserable and..."

"You can tell me anything, Emma."

It was Regina's turn to squeeze Emma's hands in reassurance and Emma nodded, taking a deep breath, "Henry knows...he knows about Daniel."

Regina gasped, her eyes wide in horror.
How could Henry possibly know?

"He came to me and asked if it had been his dad who hurt you. I tried to deny it, but you know the kid...too smart for his own good. He said it had to be him because you never once mentioned his father's name. That you had so many nightmares...and that it wasn't all Gold's doing. He knew, Regina. He just knew", Emma's voice was barely a whisper now because truth be told – she was afraid that Regina would bolt if she spoke any louder.

"Is he mad at me?", Regina asked all of a sudden, which startled Emma completely, "What? No! Henry just had some questions and he didn't want to hurt or upset you by asking you if I understood him correctly. He just wanted confirmation that Daniel could not hurt you anymore and I could promise him that. I didn't tell him that he is dead but I guess Henry suspects...and he...he is scared that he...well, that he would become like his father one day."

Regina's eyes grew even wider, "He could never..."

"I know! That's what I told him", Emma assured immediately, "I think I was able to make him see that too. He has not talked about it since and I doubt he ever will. He just wanted to know I guess."

"Okay."

"Okay?", Emma sounded as insecure as she felt.

"Well, yes. I mean...you should have probably told me sooner but you at least told me now. And honestly, I think I might have flipped if you had told me during this whole crap with Mister Glass", Regina stated, "And thank you for being there for my son...I don't know if I could have...you know."

"Anytime."
------------------------------------------------

While Emma had fallen asleep right away, Regina had been awake much longer although she had been exhausted.
She had stolen glances over at the couch every other minute, feeling guilty for making Emma sleep there, but mostly her thoughts had been on Henry and his father.
How Henry always tried to protect her and how he could never become anything like Daniel.

Of course, Regina had woken from a nightmare in the early morning.
Thinking about Daniel always triggered them, but it had not been that bad in a long time.
She could almost feel his breath on her neck, could almost feel his hands on her.

It took Regina a few minutes to push the dark thoughts away, to regain her composure before she stood up to go to the bathroom.
That was when she realized that Emma was not on the couch anymore.
She had feared that she had woken Emma up with her nightmare, but when she had not heard anything Regina had assumed that Emma was still sleeping, but obviously, Emma was not even there.

The bathroom long-forgotten Regina went in search of Emma, just to find her standing on the balcony moments later.

"Is everything alright, dear?"

Emma turned, surprised to hear Regina's voice at such an early hour, "Yeah. I just wanted to watch the sunrise...for...for Graham. We used to do that a lot when we were younger."

"I see. Want me to leave you alone?"

"No, it's fine. Stay if you want...what about you? Nightmare?", Emma asked knowingly and it surprised Regina once again how well Emma could read her.

She simply nodded and when Emma opened her arms Regina stepped into the embrace without a word, enjoying the safety and comfort the embrace provided in the light of the rising day.
------------------------------------------------

Emma and Henry had been so excited to check out the pool that neither of them had realized how uncomfortable Regina had gotten once they had mentioned it over breakfast.
And although Regina was quite relieved that Henry had not suggested taking a swim in the sea just yet with all the stories she had read about Hawaii and shark attacks she had no intention to go swimming.
Pool or not.

In the end, she had sent Emma and Henry down to the pool by themselves and had promised that she would join them in a bit.
------------------------------------------------

When Regina finally arrived at the pool she was wearing shorts and a loosely fitting linen shirt, earning a confused look from Emma and Henry.

"I don't feel like swimming today...I hope you don't mind. But I'd love to sit here and read a bit", Regina explained apologetically.

"Sure. Whatever you want...we're on vacation after all", Emma replied with a smile, but the feeling that something was off did not go away.
If she would not know better she would suspect that Regina could not swim, but Henry had told her that it had been his mom who had taught him how to swim a few years ago.
Maybe she would get an opportunity to talk to Regina about it later.
------------------------------------------------

She did not know for how long she had been reading, stealing glances at Emma and Henry in the pool here and there when someone from a lounger beside her started to mumble and the sound annoyed Regina enough to drop the book and figure out what the reason for the disturbance was.
That was when she caught sight of Henry and Emma, who were headed her way.
Henry with this wide smile on his face and Emma in a form-fitting red bikini.

Some guys and even one or two of the girls were drooling all over the bare sight.
Regina scoffed visibly, which got her a raised eyebrow from Emma once she sat down next to her, "What?"

For some reason, Regina felt caught all of a sudden and she wished the ground would swallow her whole.
No way in hell would she say it.

"What?", Emma asked again while wrapping a towel around her body, "What did I do?"

"Nothing. It's...it doesn't matter", Regina tried, but of course, Emma would not let her off the hook that easily, "What is it, Regina? It's the color of my bikini, right? I knew this was a stupid idea but Ruby insisted...of course...red is her freaking favorite color."

Emma dropped her head and Regina could not stop herself from laughing at the sight – it was kind of adorable, "You don't have anything to worry about, dear...you made quite the impression on the guys over there."

She nodded her head in their direction, but Emma did not even care to look over, "Since when do I care about some stupid boys?"

Regina chuckled, "Well, I'm sure you didn't only catch the attention of the male guests."

The words were out of Regina's mouth before she could stop herself and Emma smirked, "Is that so?"

The playful tone in her voice was unmistakable and Regina sighed in relief – thankfully Emma had not interpreted too much into her statement.
And before Regina knew it Emma had grown all serious, "I don't care who glares at me...I have everything I need...right here."

But for how long?
Regina could not shake off the thought.
How long would that little family of theirs be enough for Emma?
How long till she would figure out that she missed out on so much.
Emma Swan was a breathtakingly beautiful woman after all.
Not even Regina could deny that.
Well, at least her subconscious could not.
------------------------------------------------

The third day of their vacation was rather uneventful.
Henry had asked them if he could stay at the children's entertainment center of the resort and much to his surprise Regina had agreed right away.
Emma had thought it was a great idea as well and that it was his chance to make some friends during their holidays, friends he could write letters to once they would be back in Boston.
Henry had told her how "old school" that was, but had found the idea tempting anyway, especially once Emma had pointed out that she had kept all the letters she and her friends had exchanged when she was a teenager.
That they were some of her most precious belongings and held the dearest memories.

And so Henry had spent a day around other kids while Regina and Emma had taken a walk on the beach, taking in the beauty of the place, enjoying the sun and the comfort their presence provided for the other.
They had ended up sitting in the sand, enjoying the sun and reading their respective books, once again no words needed.

Until they went to pick up Henry for dinner and the kids' entertainer Shannon wished him and his two moms a lovely evening.
Regina wanted to correct the woman in her mid-twenties, but Henry beat her to it by saying "Well, Emma is not exactly...you know what...actually she is like my second mom, so thanks. See you tomorrow, Shannon. I had a lot of fun today."

That had Regina silent for most of the dinner.
Emma had recovered a lot faster than she and Henry had babbled on and on about his day with the other kids anyway, so he had not recognized the flood of emotions in his mother's eyes.
But of course, Emma had caught up on it, but she had decided not to comment on it before Henry was in bed and asleep.

"I'm sorry."
Emma stepped onto the balcony, sighing at the sight of Regina sitting in one of the chairs, still deep in thought.

"What do you mean, dear?"

"About what Henry said. I never...it was never my intention to...you know...become some sort of a mother to him. He has you already and you are the best mom. Henry's words...not mine", Emma hesitated to take a seat.

Regina made a gesture for her to sit down and looked Emma straight in the eye, "Henry is right though, you know. I've been thinking about it all over dinner. You...you embraced him from the first day you met him as if he would be your own child. You treated him...us...like family. From the beginning. And that's...a really good thing."
A single tear escaped Regina's eye and she wiped it away immediately.

"Is it?", Emma was not so sure about it.

"It is, Emma. You have no idea how much this means to me. I never thought I'd have something like this...a friend like you...a family like we have. It means so much."
And I can't lose it.

But of course, Regina did not say that.
She simply could not say it, not even if she wanted to.
Because a part of her slowly realized that maybe there was a reason why everybody thought they were a couple.
They were a family, they practically shared Henry.
They almost lived together.
And they truly cared about one another.

But the rest was so far from Regina's grasp that she could not face it yet.
It was not even a possibility in her reality at this point, but the truth was lurking in the depths of her heart, only waiting for the right moment to show itself.
To reveal what was so obvious to anyone else.

Consciously Regina was still struggling with the fact that they indeed were a family and what it could possibly mean for their future.
Consciously the fear of losing Emma one day drove her up the walls.
And consciously she tried to fight herself harder than ever before.
She would not allow her past to ruin the most precious gift she had ever received – her family.
------------------------------------------------

Henry had run off to the children's entertainment center right after breakfast the next day once again but had promised to come back after lunch to spend time with Regina and Emma.
And he had made his mother promise that she would come swimming with them.

Ever since her promise had left her lips Regina was oddly tense though and Emma could not help, but worry that something could be terribly wrong but Regina avoided any attempt of a conversation right away and started to read in her book, which made Emma only more miserable.

When Henry came back as they had agreed Regina visibly paled, but she got rid of her linen shirt anyway, much to Emma's surprise, because Emma could have sworn that Regina would come up with some excuse at the last minute.
But she did not.

Regina simply waited till Henry and Emma were in the pool and then joined them without so much as a blink.
Weird.

Emma was not sure what to think of it.
Regina wore a simple black bathing suit and everything seemed fine. Maybe Regina was just uncomfortable with Emma seeing her like that?
Especially considering her past where Regina had been forced to undress for people all the time?
But that did not make much sense, now did it?

They were friends and Regina had become quite sassy at times, they even had developed some playful banter and they both enjoyed it.
It had taken them time to get there, it had not happened overnight, but they had come to trust each other and while some situations had the power to become awkward, this should not be one of them.

They were just two friends on vacation, enjoying the sun and the pool.
That was all.
------------------------------------------------

Regina, Emma, and Henry had a lot of fun in the pool, splashing water at each other, joking and laughing like every other family and the blonde had almost forgotten about Regina's strange behavior.
That was until Regina got out of the water and Emma saw the big, ugly scar on Regina's back.
It was definitely older, but it looked nasty nonetheless, reaching across her lower back and up to the right side of her ribcage.

Emma's eyes grew wide at the sight and it dawned on her that Regina probably had not wanted for her to see it since she never had taken the slightest glimpse at Regina's body during her performances at The Rabbit Hole.
She wanted to ask so many questions, but Regina's tense posture was all Emma needed to understand that she was not ready to talk about it and so Emma turned away to chase Henry through the pool once more before getting out herself.
------------------------------------------------

Regina had felt Emma's eyes on her back the second she had stepped out of the pool and she had tried to brace herself for the questions, but they did not come.
And now they were sitting on their respective loungers, chatting about dinner when Henry offered to put sun blocker onto Emma's back, which Emma appreciated greatly.
Henry accomplished the simple task with a proud smile on his face, about to do the same for his mother when he caught sight of Shannon and begged his mother and Emma to let him go play with the other kids some more and Regina knew better than to say 'No'.

"Cool! Thanks, mom."
He hugged his mother quickly, then turned to Emma and put the bottle of sun blocker into her palm, "You better make sure that mom doesn't get a sunburn."
That said he chased after Shannon, not caring about the dumbfounded look he had put on Emma's and Regina's faces for a second.
------------------------------------------------

Emma did not know what to do.
She kept staring at the bottle, fighting the urge to laugh out loud or cry – she was not sure which one, really.
A shy smile had spread on her face at Henry's comment, but she did not dare look up to meet Regina's eyes.
God, this was so awkward.

Regina clearly was uncomfortable if her shifting her sitting position time and time again was any indication at all.

"Forget the kid said that", Emma mumbled and was about to put the bottle on the small table next to her lounger when Regina finally found her voice again, "No, it's...I mean...Henry is right."

Emma could not stop herself from looking at Regina any longer, because she was not sure if she had heard right, "You sure you are okay with...you know...me...doing that?"

Regina tried to smile, but she was too stressed to succeed, "I...well...I trust you, Emma...it's going to be weird, but..."

"Just say 'stop' if you can't handle it, okay?", Emma suggested carefully and Regina nodded in understanding.

While she squeezed some of the sun blocker onto her right palm Emma recognized that her hand was shivering like crazy. Thankfully Regina had already turned around and could not see it, because nothing good would have come of that.
It would have only put more pressure on the nervous wreck that was Regina Mills.

Emma took a deep breath and put her hand on Regina's shoulder blade as gently as she could manage, expecting Regina to flinch or wince any moment, but nothing happened.
So far, so good.

At least her hand had stopped shaking when it had made contact with Regina's skin and so Emma continued her ministrations, realizing that the tension in Regina's body started to disappear.
She could do this, they could do this.
They were friends for Heaven's sake.

But then Emma caught sight of the scar for the second time and that made her freeze instantly, "Does...does it hurt? I mean if it does I won't...touch it", she rasped out, her mind in overdrive once again.

"No, it's alright...it doesn't hurt."
Anymore.

Emma continued to apply the sun blocker on Regina's lower back, still careful not to move too quickly, the movement of her hand nothing, but gentle. And caring.
The simple task had become a great adventure, but in the end, Emma felt proud that she had managed to do it without giving herself, or Regina, a heart attack.
It had felt great to be able to do that, even if it was nothing spectacular for anyone else, but it was for Emma.
It meant the world because it had proven once again how far they had come.
But it also made Emma see once again what she could never have.
------------------------------------------------

Regina was surprised once again.
And that was probably an understatement.

She had expected this whole sun blocker thing to be weird or cause her some sort of panic attack, but nothing had happened.
She had not even flinched.
It had felt...nice.

She had truly enjoyed Emma's gentle touch.
It had been so long since someone had treated her that gentle – as if she would be the most precious thing.
Well, if she was honest nobody had ever touched her like that.

And it had made Regina see once again that everything with Emma was different.
That Emma was worth her trust, that Emma would never harm her.

Of course, she had seen Emma's shaking hand, out of the corner of her eye, but she had not wanted to make Emma more nervous by commenting on it although it had been quite the challenge to bite back what would have been a very sassy comment.
In the end, she had been glad that she had not said a word, because Emma had sounded almost fearful when she had asked if it would be okay to brush over her scar.
------------------------------------------------

Henry had found his way back to them right before dinner, which had turned into a really joyful affair when he had told them about his afternoon with kids entertainer Shannon and the other kids.
Jesus, some children were clumsy.

Regina had gone for a shower afterward and Emma and Henry were sitting on Regina's bed, playing cards until the boy stopped dead in his tracks all of a sudden.

"What's wrong, kid?"

Henry checked if the water in the bathroom was still running and when he was positive he leaned in and whispered, "You said...when we talked about my dad and how he was not nice to my mom...that we always have to make sure that mom knows that we love her...remember?"

"Uh...yeah...of course, I remember", Emma was a bit confused.

"Good. So I thought we could do something nice for mom tomorrow night?", Henry asked, his eyes pleading.

Emma nodded, "Sure. What did you have in mind?"

"I don't know...I'm ten. And besides...you are the one who is good at planning things", he smirked innocently.

Emma sighed in defeat, "Fine. But only because I love you so much."

Henry's grin only widened, "Me and my mom."

Oh kid, you have no idea.
------------------------------------------------

Henry had gone to bed shortly after Regina had returned from the bathroom and Emma made an attempt to get up and over to the couch, but Regina grabbed her arm and made her stop, taking a seat on the bed as well, facing Emma.

"Daniel gave me that scar...I don't remember it well, I must have been high I guess", she dropped her gaze, ashamed by the admission.

"Regina, you don't have to tell me", Emma interrupted and took Regina's hand to squeeze it gently.

"But I want to."
Regina was serious and she looked up to meet Emma's understanding eyes to prove.

"Then I'll listen", Emma promised, never letting go of Regina's hand.

"It was during the time I...while he kept me in the basement. He was drunk and outraged, maybe because of the baseball game or something. I don't really recall. But I remember him yelling upstairs...most likely at the TV. He had been down in the room a few hours earlier, giving me some pills...so I was pretty out of it...but I remember him freaking out when I still would not budge...wouldn't agree to...you know...he unchained me and threw me through the room like some doll and I remember hitting something sharp on one of the walls...but that's pretty much it. I lost consciousness not long after that and when I woke up my whole back was on fire", Regina explained, dropping her head once again, "And I'm stuck with this ugly thing ever since."

Emma moved closer to Regina and put her free palm under Regina's chin to make her look at her, "You're beautiful."

Regina wanted to laugh at the absurdity of the statement because she considered herself a lot of things, but beautiful definitely wasn't one of them.
And yet the sincerity in Emma's eyes startled her into silence.
It was the way Emma looked at her, had always looked at her, it was the respect and the adoration she had received from Emma, that made her almost believe it.
Emma obviously saw something in her nobody else ever had.
And Regina came to appreciate that more and more.
--------------------------------------------------

When Emma had wanted to go to sleep Regina had insisted that they both could sleep in the huge bed and had kept ranting on and on about how she should have offered that from the beginning, but Emma had stopped her before Regina could have beat herself up about it even more.
And so they found themselves in the same bed for the very first time since they had met each other, both women unsure if they would be able to sleep at all.

"If...if you feel it's too much...just say a word and I'll go back to the couch. It's no problem, really", Emma assured, "With me...everything you do will always be your choice. I'll never force anything on you. I hope you know that."

Regina tried to swallow the lump in her throat but failed, so she just nodded.
A choice.
That was the magical thing about Emma.

Emma tried so hard to give her a choice whenever possible.
Regina had not been aware how precious that was for a long time although she had prayed for choices all her life, but only now that she really had one she truly understood that having a choice was what had set her free.

She had no doubt that Emma would let her live in the apartment even if they would not be friends because Emma simply was this good-hearted person.
Even if she would want nothing to do with her at all, Emma would try to help her anyway.
That realization had hit her while they had not on been on speaking terms before Christmas and Emma had not made any attempt to get rid of her, but it had never occurred to Regina how important that realization had been.

Now that Emma was lying next to her it finally hit home.

She was here because she wanted to be.
And Emma was here because Regina wanted her to be.
With that thought and a smile on her face Regina drifted off to a night of dreamless sleep, free of nightmares, but with the knowledge that she was safe.
--------------------------------------------------------

When she woke up the next morning Emma was lying on her side, facing her, but obviously, sound asleep and it gave Regina the time to study her closely.
Emma looked so peaceful and fragile.
As if she could be shattered into a thousand little pieces any second.

Regina had expected to freak out, at least a little, to another person in the same bed, but she had woken up feeling nothing, but comfort and warmth.
And then she had smiled again, knowing that it was Emma, who was lying next to her and the world had been fine.
--------------------------------------------------------

Emma did not dare to blink.
She was aware that Regina was watching her.
She could not remember falling asleep, but she remembered thinking that Henry had been right.
They had to do something nice for Regina and a plan had started to form in her head right then.

Obviously, she had fallen asleep during her scheming, just to wake up in her personal hell.
She had woken up way before Regina but had not dared to move, afraid to startle a peacefully sleeping Regina.

The sight had made Emma's heart ache in ways she had never known before, in ways she had never known possible.
She had fought the urge to move closer to Regina, to wrap her arms around her and hold her close, but it had almost killed her.
And of course, it had done nothing to make the longing go away.
God, what she would give to be able to wake up holding Regina.
It was ridiculous, really.
And painful.

She just wanted to hold her.
And never let go again.
This was not about getting physical with Regina, not even about kissing her, although Emma wished she could steal a peck from Regina here and there. For the first time in Emma's life, she was more interested in the person than in simply having sex.
She was so completely and utterly in love with Regina that it scared her.

She had never felt anything like that before.
Not even with Jade back in the day.
But of course, she had to fall in love with the one person she could never be with.

And that was the reason why Emma could not enjoy the bliss of the morning for what it was.
It simply hurt too much.
It was pure hell.
--------------------------------------------------------

Henry's appearance had made it all better for Emma because he had provided the distraction she so desperately needed.
The kid had not been bothered by finding both of them in the same bed either.

He had noticed it with a smile and had jumped right in between them, tickling Emma till she had groaned to indicate that she was awake.
Which she had been all along anyway.

To Regina's surprise, Henry had begged to spend the day with her and her alone and Emma had only smirked at the kid – of course, he had found a way to ensure she had enough time to plan a surprise for his mom.
Henry was too smart for his own good and for hers as well.
For everyone's good, really.

And so Henry and Regina had left after breakfast and Emma had headed off to talk to the receptionist, a plan already in mind.
--------------------------------------------------------

By the time Regina and Henry returned to the suite it was close to 6.30 pm.
They had forgotten time over shopping and writing postcards to some of Henry's friends from school. They had also gotten some more for Emma because clearly Killian and the others expected one as well.

Regina cursed herself for being so late, but as soon as she realized that the suite was empty she frowned.
Where was Emma?
Had she gone to dinner without them?
Had she gone to dinner with someone else?

Right that second Henry appeared next to her and handed her a note – definitely Emma's handwriting.

Meet me on the beach at sunset. Ask the receptionist for directions. - Emma-

What the hell?
But then it dawned on Regina.
Henry wanting to spend the day with her alone and now a cryptic note from Emma - that was hardly a coincidence.

"Henry Mills!", she glared at her son, who was trying to sneak away without her notice, but her voice stopped him dead in his tracks and he turned around, looking as guilty as it could get.

"Care to tell me what this is about?", Regina demanded, but he only shrugged, "I don't know."

She raised her eyebrow suspiciously, "Why do I not believe you?"

"Mom, listen...I...I really wanted to spend a day with you because you work a lot when we are home and I miss you but..I admit it was kinda...catching two flies with one stone...because it gave Emma time to prepare, well, her surprise. Don't ask me what it is though because I really don't know", he tried to defend himself and Regina chuckled, "Why is it that you always team up with Emma on me?"

"I'd say we try to figure that one out another day because sunset is in about half an hour and we have to change clothes...and figure out where to go", Henry suggested with a wink.

"Right."
--------------------------------------------------------

The first thing Regina saw was countless lit torches leading the way.
She felt Henry taking her hand and dragging her along in excitement.

It took them only a few minutes to catch sight of Emma, who was standing at the shore in a colorful summer dress, her feet bare, the water playing at her ankles, and her face illuminated by the downgoing sun.
Regina thought Emma had never looked more beautiful than at that moment.

As soon as Emma recognized them she headed their way, a warm and welcoming smile on her face and Henry bounced once she pointed at a blanket a few feet away, where food and drinks were already waiting for them.
Emma bent down to hug Henry and whispered into his ear, "Good surprise?"

"The best!", he answered and stormed off towards the blanket, leaving the two women to themselves and Regina chuckled, "He's starving."

"You don't say", Emma joked and laughed out loud, "I hope you had a great day."

"In fact we had", Regina nodded, but then she looked Emma straight in the eye, "What's all this?"

"A surprise?", Emma suggested innocently.

"So I've heard...but what's the occasion?", Regina kept asking, obviously not willing to drop the subject without an explanation.

"No occasion. I had the time and the place...I mean...do I really need a reason to do something nice for my family?", Emma prayed that Regina would let it go because she was not sure how long she could keep quiet anymore when it came to her feelings.

"No, I guess not", Regina agreed and Emma let out the breath she had been holding.

She wanted to join Henry, but Regina took her hand and made her stop, "Thank you for doing this for me. And for Henry. For doing this for us."

"You're welcome."
--------------------------------------------------------

Dinner had been absolutely delicious once again.
Henry had given Emma a full report of his day with his mom and Regina had told Emma that there was no way they would go home before Emma had helped them write postcards to their friends.

When one of the resort's waitresses showed up to gather the empty plates Henry announced that he was tired and wanted to go to bed, much to Emma's and Regina's surprise.
Neither woman wanted to leave yet, but before one of them could have said anything the waitress had offered to take Henry to the suite.
And then they were alone once again.

Emma fighting against herself and Regina completely oblivious to the battle going on right next to her.

"I've been thinking of going to Graham's cabin for a couple of days when we are back home...taking Tamo-tsu and going there...to see if everything's alright, you know", Emma announced all of a sudden, because she needed to get her thoughts off of the woman sitting next to her.

"That sounds like a lovely idea, dear."

"Yeah. You might think I'm insane, but I really miss that furball. I totally forgot to call Ruby and check if he's doing fine", Emma admitted, looking slightly embarrassed.

"He is", Regina answered and blushed, "I might have called her...once or twice...to see if they were doing okay."

Emma chuckled, "You love him just as much as I do...admit it already."

"Never."
Regina chuckled as well, "Oh, by the way...Ruby obviously ended up in a shrub, because Tamo-tsu appears to be madly in love with the poodle of Ruby's neighbors."

Emma laughed out loud at that, not able to get rid of the image her brain had created – it was simply too funny.
Regina could not hold back the laughter either, because she could see it all the same and she wished someone would have videotaped the incident for them to watch once they returned to Boston.

And so they kept sitting at the beach while the sun disappeared and the night rose around them, with nothing, but the sound of the waves surrounding them and the silence between them became comfortable once again.

Maybe Regina's presence was enough after all.
But Emma knew at this point she was only kidding herself.

They kept stealing glances at each other unnoticed and Regina's subconscious and heart slowly began to register that Emma Swan could be the answer to her every prayer.

At the same time, Emma realized that she needed a more permanent distraction than Henry.
The kid would not always be around to save her.
And her feelings were slowly getting the best of her.

Chapter Text

The last two days of their vacation had gone over smoothly – much to Emma's surprise.
Although waking up next to Regina had her heart aching more and more, Henry had saved her from going insane all over again by being the perky kid he was.
And then he had come up with what Regina had feared since their arrival – he wanted to go for a swim in the sea.

Regina had almost fainted at his plea and horror scenario after horror scenario had played in her mind, but in the end, Emma had managed to calm her down, reassured her that nothing bad would happen to them.
And they had gone for their swim in the ocean - together.

It had been a delightful experience in the end, even for Regina, and it had brought the two women closer to each other once again.
They were growing with every challenge they mastered, with every obstacle they got over and they knew it.

But all good things came to an end at some point and so they headed back to Boston – with an unspoken promise to come back to Turtle Bay soon.
-------------------------------------

Settling back into her routine with work and all the other distractions had put Emma at ease.
At least a little.

It was weird to be home again, to have Regina and Henry stay in their own apartment when they had shared a suite for a full week, when they had spent most of their time together – day and night.
But it also gave Emma the chance to put a bit of distance between them.
A distance she needed to get back to the point of pretending that the family she had was everything she needed.
That what she had with Regina was all she wanted.
That it would be enough.
-------------------------------------

The next few weeks were filled with work for everyone, but then Ruby had announced that it was damn time for a night out since they had not done that in forever.
And to Ruby's big surprise Emma had agreed without much convincing.

Regina had tried to wiggle herself out of it because she never had been the partying type.
Well, she could have been if Daniel had not happened.
But he had.

Henry had tried to talk her into going out though since she had never done that – not once since he could remember.
Of course, Regina had come up with the argument that she had to work late anyway, but Killian had gotten her to agree that she would join them if she would not be too tired.
And Mary Margaret had offered that she could go home with her because she would leave earlier than the others anyway, simply because she did not want to leave David alone the whole night.
The pixie-haired woman's fiance volunteering to watch Henry had been the last nail to Regina's coffin because everyone had looked at her expectantly and she had known that nobody would take 'No' for an answer anymore.
Not even her son.

Emma Swan and her insufferable friends be damned.
But secretly Regina could not help but feel happy that Emma and her friends seemed willing to move heaven and hell to have her with them.
And so Regina found herself in Killian's car the next Friday, in higher spirits than she had expected and her friend and boss seemed to be excited as well.

"Care to tell me why you are smiling, Mister Jones?", Regina asked curiously, a smile on her face as well. She was glad that Killian was doing fine, especially since it was the first time they were going out without Graham.

"A friend of mine is in town. A friend I haven't seen in a while. And she'll be joining us tonight and I really can't wait to see her", he commented and Regina wondered who this mysterious friend could be, but she would find out eventually.
-------------------------------------

Entering the club through the VIP entrance was a completely new experience for Regina, but Killian had simply dragged her along and straight to the bar where they met Mary Margaret, Belle, Ruby – and to Regina's surprise – Jefferson.

"Where is Emma?", Killian shouted and Ruby tilted her head to the left and winked, "Maybe you should ask your friend from London."

The make-up artist turned around to catch sight of Emma dancing with a familiar brunette and he squealed, "Oh my God, oh my God!"

Regina had turned as well and frowned.
Who the hell was that?
But before she knew it the beautiful tall brunette caught sight of Killian and rushed over, Emma hot on her heels and Killian pulled the stranger into his arms, "I can't believe it, love. It's been forever. It's so good to see you!"
And then he turned to face Emma, pointing his index finger at the blonde, "And you...don't you dare steal my Milah from me!"

Emma chuckled, "I wouldn't dream of it, Killian. She's all yours."

Laughing at Emma's comment Killian turned to face Regina once again, "Love...meet my friend Milah. We've met years ago in London while I was there for a job. She's this very talented pediatric surgeon."

Regina nodded and Killian kept the introduction going, "Milah...this is Regina Mills, friend, and outstanding make-up artist. And part of the family."

The taller brunette offered her hand to Regina, who took it hesitantly, "It's a pleasure to meet you, Regina. Emma has been talking about you non-stop. All good things, I assure you."

"Well, the pleasure is mine", Regina rasped out, slightly overwhelmed.
God, this situation was awkward.
But why?

"Drinks", Emma interrupted all of a sudden and Killian grabbed Milah by the arm to go to the bar and order just that, leaving Emma and Regina behind to talk to each other.

Emma eyed Regina warily because something was off, but she had no idea what.

"What's wrong?"

"N-nothing. I'm just...tired I guess", Regina shrugged.

Emma was nowhere near convinced, "You sure?"

"Yeah, I'm good. Don't worry about it, Emma."

And truth be told Regina would not have been able to give Emma another explanation because she had no idea what was going on either.
-------------------------------------

The evening had turned to be a fun one in the end – even for Regina.
There was a lot of laughter and yet she had decided to head home with Mary Margaret because she was worn out from her week after all.
That had not been a lie.

Emma had offered to come with them, but Regina had insisted that she would stay with her friends and enjoy the night.
There was no point for Emma to go home already since Regina wanted to head straight to bed.
And she had done just that, completely unaware that her decision would open the door to an emotional chaos she should have seen coming from miles away.
But unfortunately, she hadn't.
-------------------------------------

Saturday morning Regina made her way over to Emma's apartment to check if Emma was up and ready for breakfast, but when she opened the door to the penthouse she stopped dead in her tracks.
There was no sign of Emma, but standing in the middle of the living room was Milah, wearing sweatpants and one of Emma's tanktops, a cup of coffee in hand.

She must have heard Regina, because she turned around with a warm smile on her face, "Good morning, Regina."

"Uh...good morning?", she eyed the taller woman closely, but could not hide her confusion while her heart was beating out of her chest.
What the hell was that British...woman doing here?

Milah chuckled, "Emma went for a run and said she would get some fresh bread on the way back...for breakfast. Do you want a cup of coffee?"

Regina needed all her strength to stop herself from yelling at the other woman.
Who the hell did this Milah think she was?
Acting like she would be living here already when she had met Emma only yesterday.
But they had spent the night together.
And that was the moment Regina felt the bile rising in her throat.
Oh God...they had spent the night together.

"Are you alright? You seem awfully pale", Milah looked at her in worry and her statement brought Regina back to the here and now.

Hell, why did this woman have to be nice? She looked as if she cared.

"I...I better get going. Sorry for...interrupting", Regina stammered out, not knowing what else to say.
Or do for that matter.

"Don't be silly. Emma said you would come over for breakfast. Together with your son...Henry, right?"

As if on cue the boy came rushing through the door and stopped right next to his mother, eyeing the stranger in as much confusion as Regina and Milah had to laugh.

"Who are you?"

His demanding tone made Milah laugh even more. Yes, the boy was definitely as adorable as Emma had said, "I'm Milah. I'm a friend of Emma's. And you are?"

Regina wanted to snort at that comment. They were hardly friends after one night, now were they?
But of course, she did not even blink, because she was uncomfortable enough as it was.

"Henry. Henry Mills", he stated before he grabbed Regina's arm and pulled on it to get her attention, "Can we make apple pancakes? You know how much I love them...and Emma."

It took Regina a moment to register her son's request, but then she nodded, "Very well."
-------------------------------------

Emma headed out of the elevator, cursing that she had forgotten time over her run with Tamotsu, and rushed over to Regina's apartment, knocking fiercely.
She had to talk to her before Regina and Henry would come over for breakfast because she had a feeling that Regina would not take too well to the news that somebody else would be joining them today.

When nobody answered the door it hit Emma that Regina and Henry would probably be already at her place.
Oh crap!

She went back to her penthouse, dreading to enter and she had no idea why.
But of course, Tamotsu had no mercy and no patience for her to figure it out, because he started to jump up and down like a maniac and so Emma unlocked the door and entered, the dog rushing straight over to the stove where Regina was standing, almost knocking her over in his excitement.

"Somebody missed you", Emma announced with a smile while Regina petted Tamotsu's head.

Henry was watching cartoons on TV and Emma took in the smell of apple pancakes, her smile only growing, but catching sight of Regina's tense shoulders made her realize that this breakfast could easily turn into a disaster.
----------------------------------------------------

It had not been a complete disaster, but an oddly silent affair in the end.

Milah had announced that she had to go because she had to make an appearance at the hospital since she had been consulted for a difficult case by one of her colleagues, but she had promised Emma to call later, had asked if they could meet for lunch somewhen next week.
Regina had dropped her fork at the question and had excused herself, much to Emma's confusion, and she hoped that they would be able to talk once Milah would be gone.
But of course, Regina had shut her down, had told her that she was just tired, that she had one too many drinks last night - needless to say, Emma had not believed her one bit.

Clearly, something was bothering Regina and she would be damned if she would not find out what it was.
Unfortunately, she had not gotten the chance, because Regina had asked her to watch Henry, stating that she had some studying to do for a shoot next week and that Killian had told her to look into some books for inspiration.
----------------------------------------------------

Regina had been hiding in her apartment most of the weekend, avoiding Emma as much as possible, not even sure why.

So, Emma liked this Milah.
She could not even blame her.
She was pretty, she was successful and she seemed to be nice.
What was wrong with her?
She should be happy for Emma.

Maybe Emma was finally ready to let go of the past, had finally gotten over her pain.
That was a good thing, was it not?
But something did not sit quite right with Regina, she could not put her finger on what it was yet though.
----------------------------------------------------

During the next week, Emma had met Milah for lunch almost every day and they were getting along just fine.
Emma's relationship with Regina was getting worse by the day on the other side.

Regina seemed distant and tense, but Emma did not understand why.
She tried so hard not to miss any family time, dinner, or anything – meeting up with Milah only when nothing relating to Regina or Henry was on the schedule.
And yet Regina treated her differently.
It made no sense.

Till Milah pointed out over lunch one day that Regina might be afraid of losing Emma.
That she would probably fear that something would change between them now that Emma was dating again.
Kind of.
Because Emma had made it clear that she was not looking for a relationship, that this was merely a distraction.
Some fun while it lasted, because Milah would return to London eventually.
And they had been on the same page from the beginning.

Obviously, Milah had gotten out of a relationship only recently and was not looking for anything, but a good time.
And that was fine with Emma because she didn't have more to give anyway.
----------------------------------------------------

Regina felt not only helpless but also desperate.
She had always known that Emma would eventually meet someone, but she had grown so accustomed to the life they shared that she could not handle the sudden change.
But what had changed exactly?

Because Emma did try to be there as often as possible. She had not missed out on anything although she was seeing this Milah.
And yet Regina felt like everything had changed when the only one who was acting weird was her.

She simply could not wrap her head around why, because it did not make any sense to her.
So Emma was seeing someone.
But she was as committed to her little family with Regina and Henry as ever.
What was the big deal?

Probably it was the fear that at some point it would get too exhausting to live two lives for Emma – one with them and the other with her girlfriend.
Because clearly, no one would tolerate this behavior of putting a friend and her kid first forever.
And why would they?

One wanted a relationship with one person, not with a whole family.
And yet Regina had a feeling that she was missing something.
Something big.
----------------------------------------------------

Emma decided to go home early because she knew Regina had a day off.
Maybe it would give them the time and the opportunity to sort a few things out because Regina was pulling more and more away and Emma did not like it one bit.

Sure, things had happened in a rush, but she had barely been able to look at Regina anymore, afraid that she would spill her secret.
She had been so scared that she would not be able to keep quiet any longer that she had jumped right into an affair with Milah, who was a lovely woman – no question.
Milah was beautiful in and out and under different circumstances maybe they would have had a real chance, but the circumstances were what they were.

And Emma was as much in love with Regina as ever, no matter how hard she tried to get rid of her feelings. No matter how hard she tried to keep herself distracted, but it simply would not work.
Spending time with Milah was fun and all, but she missed Regina and what they had.

This certain closeness and understanding for one another, because lately, it seemed that all that was left of their relationship was merely a part of a bridge.
A part that was obviously not stable enough to let her cross over anymore.
But how had that happened and why?
It did not make sense.
No sense at all.

Eager to rebuild that bridge Emma knocked on the door of Regina's and Henry's apartment, her heart racing in her chest.
Waiting for Regina to open the door turned out to be a painful experience altogether, but once Regina appeared in front of her the pain only grew stronger.
What the hell?

"Emma, what are you doing here?", Regina seemed to be truly surprised, causing Emma to shift her weight from one foot to the other and back, "I...uhm...I thought maybe we could talk?"

Regina opened the door wider to let her in and gestured for Emma to take a seat on the couch, which Emma did without question and Regina followed suit, "What did you want to talk about, dear?"

"Well", Emma had to force herself to look at her, "The thing is...I mean...Regina, what's going on? Everything is so weird lately...and I just don't know what happened."

Milah happened.
But of course, Regina did not say that.
"I think you are worrying too much. Maybe we just grew tired of one another or something. I mean we spent so much time together and then we saw each other nonstop during our vacation...and..."

"You can't be serious, Regina! This is bullshit and you know it. Things are awkward...is this about me seeing Milah?"

Emma regretted the question as soon as it left her mouth, because Regina's expression darkened instantly, "Your private life is none of my concern. Not when it comes to that. You are free to date whoever you want, Emma. I'm not your mother. You don't need my permission."

But what if I do?
"I know I don't need it...but something is bothering you and I want to know what it is...because you are my friend, Regina. You are my family and I don't want to lose you over someone I..."

Regina's stare became intense and uncomfortable, "Someone you what?"

Emma shrugged helplessly.
Someone who should keep my thoughts off of you, but clearly it's not working.

"Milah and I, we are not exclusive or anything you know...this is just...fun. It's not like she's going to move in or anything. It's nothing serious...get what I'm saying? If me seeing her will rip us apart...then I don't want it", Emma tried to explain the situation.

"So, this is what? Someone to pass time?", Regina could not understand why Emma would not be head over heels in love with this woman.
Milah was as perfect as it could get.

"Yeah, something like that...and Milah knows it I've been honest with her from the beginning", Emma tried to defend herself but was not sure if her explanation had made it better or worse.

Regina frowned.
Nothing made sense to her anymore.
So, this Milah was not as big a threat as she had thought, but still.
She could not shake the feeling that something was off, but if it was not Milah...what was it?

"Will we be okay?", Emma asked desperately and Regina wished she could say 'Yes'.

She wished she could pull Emma into her arms and assure her that everything would be fine, but unfortunately, she could not do that.
Simply because she did not know.
----------------------------------------------------

Milah had stopped by on Sunday because Emma had promised her that she could use the printer in her home office.
Regina had not been too happy about it, but she could not forbid Emma to see her, now could she?
Henry had talked her into playing on the X-Box when Milah had arrived and Emma had been preparing lunch.

Of course, Henry had invited Milah to eat with them and Regina had almost cursed herself.
She was glad that Henry was not so suspicious of people anymore, thanks to Emma and her friends and the feeling of safety they had provided them with from the beginning, but not this day.
Since Milah had introduced herself as one of Emma's friends a week prior Henry did not consider her a threat anymore and everything seemed to be fine for Henry.
But things were nowhere near fine.
----------------------------------------------------

Henry had taken up on the general tension between her and Emma, but Regina had told him that they were both just stressed out with work.
If he had believed her she did not know, but since they still got together for dinners and family time he did not consider it too serious a situation.
Yet.

And as if Regina had not already been in hell Henry suggested taking Tamotsu for a walk together – to show Milah the harbor and the ships.

They had done just that in the end and Henry had gone on and on about ships and how he wanted to work in the field once he was grown up.
And of course, Milah and Henry had gotten along just fine – she seemed to have a thing for children after all.
She was a pediatric surgeon for heaven's sake.
What had she expected?

Emma had been silent most of the afternoon, obviously too afraid to talk and scare Regina away even further and Regina's heart broke, because she knew their bond had gotten so fragile that it could shatter any second.
----------------------------------------------------

Seeing Milah joke with Emma, seeing them stealing glances at each other, witnessing how somebody else made Emma smile cut through Regina like a knife, and she felt so utterly helpless.
But then it finally dawned on her what was so very wrong.

It was her.
It was her who should make Emma smile.
She should be the one to laugh with Emma, they should be glancing at each other.
Where the hell did that come from?
And more important – what did it mean?

Regina's mind was one big jumble once they returned to the penthouse because she had not the slightest clue what was going on.

Henry stormed off to feed Tamotsu and Milah was talking to Emma in front of the door, because she had to leave for dinner with a colleague soon.
And while Regina was relieved about the news she could not deny that she was feeling weird.
Weirder than before.
Confused.
Devastated even.

Where the hell did all that come from?
She kept asking herself the same question over and over again, but she had no answer.
And so she excused herself – to get something from her own apartment – but the truth was she just needed to be alone for a moment.
She needed to breathe.

Unfortunately, her timing was as bad as it had always been because when Regina was ready to head over to Emma's apartment again she caught sight of Emma, who was kissing Milah – right there in the corridor.

It was the exact moment that understanding finally hit Regina as if she would have been struck by lightning.
It finally dawned on her what had been wrong all this time.
And as the very reason washed over her like a gigantic wave all color left Regina's face while her eyes grew wide in utter panic.
This could not be true.

Chapter Text

Regina could not breathe.
She closed the door and slid to the floor, her left hand clutched to her chest in an attempt to calm her aching heart.
At least she managed to do it quietly because she would not be able to handle a worried Emma right now.

She was not sure if she could be anywhere near Emma ever again.
Leaning her head against the door Regina sighed heavily, trying to regain her composure, but to no avail.

She was jealous.
Hell, she was jealous!

Regina did not want to think about why that was, but that specific can of worms was already open.
She was jealous because she had feelings for Emma.
Feelings that reached deeper than mere friendship.
God help her!

How had that happened?
And how had she not noticed?
Regina closed her eyes in horror.

She wished she could deny it, wished she would be just overreacting, but as the picture of Emma kissing Milah showed up in her mind once again Regina had to admit, at least to herself, that it was too late.
The truth was out.

It had caught her completely off guard, had hit her over the head.
And Regina had no idea what to do.

She could not have feelings for Emma.
It was not possible.
It wasn't.

And yet she could not shake the thought that Emma kissing Milah was all kinds of wrong.
That Emma should be kissing her.
Not that it would happen.
Ever.

She was not into women.
Absolutely not.

But then again Emma was not just any woman.
Emma was, well, Emma.

Emma was beautiful – Regina had to admit that.

It weren't Emma's looks that made her so special though.
It was what was in Emma's heart.

Never had she met such a kind and loving soul.
Never had she crossed paths with someone as protective as Emma Swan.

She had been as uncomfortable as she could get whenever some woman had hit on her at The Rabbit Hole and Regina did not even know why.
Because she should have been more scared of the men after all she had been through, but oddly enough she had brushed their advances off easier.
Probably because she had been through the worst thing that could happen to a woman by the hand of a man already.
Probably because no man could hurt her more than Daniel already had.

Emma did not make her uncomfortable, not at all.

It had been awkward in the very beginning, yes.
But then she had gotten to know Emma, had gotten to trust her.
And since that day Regina felt warm and safe whenever Emma was around.
She had gotten used to the hugs, to the hand holding, even to sleeping in the same bed as Emma.

Regina stopped at that thought.
Hell, she had stared at Emma for God knows how long when she first woke up next to Emma during their vacation, studying her face intensely until Henry had stormed into the room, demanding breakfast.
But the point was she had been studying Emma's face, her peaceful expression like a lovesick teenager.
Had her subconscious tried to tell her something that day?

She was so confused, so overwhelmed.
What should she do?
She definitely could not see Emma right now.
First, she had to get a grip, had to find a way to lock her chaotic thoughts away.
Preferably forever.
Because she could not have feelings for Emma.
It would ruin everything.
-----------------------------------

Emma was miserable.
Truly miserable.

Regina had not shown up at her place anymore although she had said so and although she wanted nothing more than to go over to Regina's place and check on her Emma knew better than that.
Pressuring Regina, forcing her to talk could only backfire and the situation was complicated enough as it was.

Emma felt like their whole friendship, their whole family would break apart any second, as if this whole thing would blow up right in her face if she so much as blinked.
And she had a feeling that Regina was as miserable as her and that broke Emma's heart even more.
If only Regina would talk to her – they would figure it out together.
Whatever it was they could figure it out, right?

Henry was playing with Tamotsu, giggling excitedly and completely oblivious to her worries.
Sometimes Emma wished she could forget all about reality and look at the world with the innocence of a child, but her sorrows were weighing too heavy to even get close.
-----------------------------------

Regina was still sitting on the floor, she was still leaning against the door.
The only difference was that she was crying now.

She could not wrap her head around the possibility of having feelings for Emma.
If it were true though she was not sure that she could handle it.
She had never been good with feelings, she did not know how to love very well.
Except for Henry.

Not that the thought of loving someone else, but her son was completely ridiculous anyway.
Because even if she had feelings for Emma – it did not matter.
She could never act on them.
They were friends and she would not ruin that.
Well, if there would be anything left to ruin once she found a way to deal with this whole mess.

Then there was Milah.
No matter what Emma had told her – Regina was sure that Emma and the doctor would make a great couple, much to her own disdain, and they would realize it eventually.
And even if that would not be an issue there was still the fact that Emma was not interested in her anyway.
Emma had made it pretty clear from the beginning that she had no intention of getting Regina into her bed.
Clearly, Emma was not attracted to her.

And if all of that would not be reason enough to stop this madness before it could get worse, before the impossible happened and she really fell in love – there was still her past.
And Regina knew that it would never let her go.
She would never be able to have a "normal" relationship, not after everything she had endured.
So, all in all, she was doomed.
Whether she had feelings for Emma or not.
-----------------------------------

Emma and Henry had ordered pizza and of course, the boy had caught up on the fact that his mother had not shown up. Emma had offered that he could go and check on her, but Henry had said that it was fine, that probably Regina needed some time to herself since she had been weird lately.
-----------------------------------

Regina's cries had died down by the time Henry had returned to their apartment.
And she had not been on the floor either, but in her bed, curled up into a ball, tissue in hand and eyes bloodshot.

"Mom, are you okay?"

She closed her eyes and wished that she could say 'Yes', that she could pretend for Henry's sake that she was, but she did not find the strength to make an attempt to convince him, so she shook her head and a new sob escaped her lips.
Without saying another word Henry climbed onto the bed and lied down next to his mother, facing her, pulling her close.
Regina wrapped her arms around him instantly, holding on to him, because he was the only real thing in her life, silent tears running down her cheeks.

"I know you are sad", Henry whispered, "I don't know why...but everything will be fine. You have me and we'll figure it out together. I promise."

Regina felt like breaking down completely because Henry should not have to worry about her.
She was the mother, he was the kid, but right now she felt like the roles were reversed because he was looking out for her more than she was looking out for him.
She was such a disappointment.

"I love you, mom."

Henry's words had her out of her thoughts in the blink of an eye and she pulled him even closer.
He always knew what to say and how to make everything better for her.
He always had.
-----------------------------------

Emma had canceled lunch with Milah the next day and had decided to surprise Regina and Killian instead.
The moment she had shown up on the set they were working on she regretted it though because she did not miss the frown on Regina's face when she saw her.

Regina looked like she wanted to bail, but Killian dragged her over, excited about the bag of food Emma had brought along.
And to everyone's surprise, lunch turned out way better than expected.

The conversation was flowing, there even was some laughter, but the situation remained tense nonetheless.
But Emma was glad that they were at least talking because lately, they had not even managed that.
Things were so confusing and nothing made sense to Emma, especially not Regina's behavior.

Killian must have caught up on it too because he shot Emma more than one worried look, but she only shrugged helplessly.
She could not tell him what was going on if she wanted to, because she simply did not know.
And then Killian had to share his excitement over the fact that Milah would be staying longer because the case she had been consulted for turned out to be a lot more complicated than she had thought and there would be some huge surgery she would be an important part of.

Emma almost choked on her water, because she had not heard about that yet and she could not shake the feeling that Milah's prolonged stay was not only about the surgery. They definitely would have to talk about this and soon.
And Regina went dead silent from one moment to the next, her hands balling into fists in an attempt to not lose her composure while she stood up in a rush and then stormed off without even so much as a goodbye.

Emma hid her face in her hands and sighed and Killian tried to process what had transpired only seconds ago.
What the hell was going on?
-----------------------------------

Regina was standing in the bathroom, splashing cold water on her face, breathing hard.
While she had been startled about Emma's appearance she had come to enjoy her little triumph over lunch.
So Emma had canceled on that British doctor to come and see her, she had even brought food.

Regina had been moved by that realization and although things were still tense, she had enjoyed having Emma there – more than she cared to admit.
This whole emotional debacle had them growing apart and she did not like it one bit, because she did not want to lose Emma, but she was on the best way to do just that if she did not get a grip.
She had to pull herself back together and get a handle on her emotions.
On her feelings.
On her feelings for Emma.

No, that was just an illusion.
Some wicked joke her heart and her mind were playing on her.
Right?

She knew she could keep telling herself that day and night, but it would not make it true.
Deep down Regina was very much aware that she had indeed fallen for Emma Swan, but she had no idea what to do about it.
But there was always denial.

Until Killian had brought up that Milah would stay in Boston for longer of course.
Because then she had seen that vivid image of Emma and Milah kissing once again and everything had gone downhill from there.
She had to get away, she had to...well, what?
Had Emma already known?

Was that why she had brought lunch? To smooth things over?
No, that could not be, because Emma had looked truly uncomfortable when Killian had broken the news to them. Not that Regina had stayed long enough to know for sure.
This was not going to work, but what would?
-----------------------------------

Needless to say that family dinner was a painful affair that evening.
Regina and Emma had barely spoken a word and Henry had looked back and forth between them as if he could force the answers out of them but to no avail.

Emma and Henry were sitting on the couch, playing cards, while Regina did the dishes – she had insisted that she would do it alone, much to Emma's surprise.
They had done the dishes together forever now, it had become part of their family dinner routine, but obviously, Regina did no longer need her help.
Did no longer need her.

Her heart was aching and she kept stealing glances at Regina, longing for the family they had been.
The family that seemed to be lost to her now.

When her phone rang Emma felt the urge to throw it against the wall, but then she caught sight of the caller ID and picked up with a smile, "Hey...what's up? Uh...sure. I'm still in my work clothes, but if that doesn't bother you...drinks sound nice. Okay...see you in twenty."

Regina's hands were shaking and she could barely hide it while she dried a plate with a kitchen towel.
Of course, Emma would head off to meet this...this...whatever.
They had missed their lunch, so what had she expected?

"Kid, I gotta go but I'll see you tomorrow, okay? Maybe we can take Tamo-tsu for a walk?"

"That would be awesome!", he grinned at her and petted the dog's head, "Can he stay with me tonight? Since you are going out anyway?"

Emma nodded, "Uh sure...if your mom allows it of course."

When Regina did not reply she sighed, "Very well. If he doesn't behave just bring him over to my place. You have the keys."

With that Emma stood, kissed Henry on the forehead, and with one last look at Regina she headed for the door.

"Tell Milah I said 'hi'!", Henry called after Emma when she was about to open the door.

The next thing they heard was a plate breaking when it hit the floor.
The plate Regina had been drying only seconds ago.

Henry and Emma stared at Regina in shock, but when Emma made an attempt to step closer and help Regina clean up the shards Regina only shook her head and snapped, "Just go. We don't want you to be late for your date, now do we?"

"Date? I'm meeting Ruby for a drink because she had a shitty day. She won't die if I'll be a few minutes late", Emma stated in confusion.

Regina looked at her then, completely dumbfounded, before she sighed, obviously embarrassed, "Please, just go."

Emma nodded sadly and did just that and Regina punched the cupboard with her hand in frustration.
God, what had she done now?
Could she be any more obvious?

When she turned around again she caught sight of Henry, who looked at her in confusion, "Mom, what's going on?"
-----------------------------------

Emma and Ruby were sitting in a booth at their favorite Irish pub, neither of them able to hide their worries.

"You go first", Ruby announced and took a sip of her whiskey.

"No, you called me...so spill it!", Emma countered and took a sip of her glass as well.

For a moment Ruby did not say anything, obviously debating if this was worth one of their childish arguments, but she decided it was not, so she cleared her throat instead, "Jefferson wants a relationship."

Emma sat still for a while before she chuckled, "And that's why you look like you are about to get executed? Jesus, Ruby...he is a nice guy and he really likes you. And as far as I know you like him too. So what's the problem?"

"The problem is that I do like him. But I don't want a relationship with him. What we have is good, but it's not forever. You and I both...we know it. Relationships are not my thing...I'm more of a lonely wolf", Ruby stated and took another sip.

"Yeah, but does he know that too? Have you talked to him about that?", Emma asked, swallowing some whiskey as well.

"I don't know how. I don't want to hurt him and I know once I tell him...everything will change."
Ruby dropped her forehead to the table in defeat.

"Yeah, everything changes. All the time", Emma stated absentmindedly and Ruby could not ignore the sadness in her best friend's eyes.

"What about you?", she asked when Emma did not say anything else, "Shouldn't you be all smiles now that you've got that hot doctor from London? Really, what is it with you and British women?"

Ruby chuckled, but Emma only sighed, "It's complicated, Rubes."

"Of course. It's always complicated with you."

Emma shook her head, "No, really. Milah is great, but she's..."
She's not Regina.

"Don't be like that. You said it yourself...she's great. I mean she is hot, damn. Don't just say 'No' from the start. You'll never know...maybe the two of you could have something great", Ruby encouraged her, but Emma only shook her head again, "No, I shouldn't have started this to begin with. It was a stupid idea and it did not help anyway...just made everything worse. And now Regina is weird and we barely talk...and everything is just...so messed up."

"Whoa, now slow down", Ruby held up her hands, "What are you talking about? You and Regina are inseparable and I get that. But it was time you went out again...you've played house long enough."

When she looked at Emma and recognized the lost expression in Emma's eyes it dawned on Ruby though, "Oh no...are you trying to say what I'm thinking?"

Emma shrugged, "I don't know what you are thinking."

With that, she emptied her glass and gestured at the bartender to let him know she wanted a refill.

When the waitress showed up with her new drink Emma stopped her, "You know what...bring a bottle."
She emptied the recently ordered glass of whiskey in one gulp and met Ruby's concerned eyes.
Fuck it. It can't get worse.

"I'm in love with Regina."

There. She said it.

"I've been for a very long time. And I've never handled it too well, but Graham...he knew. He just knew. And I...at least I could talk to him and then...he was gone and I was...well, it's been so hard. Not just losing him...but also...you know...and then we were on vacation and I was around her even more and I got so scared, because I almost spilled it...and she can never...never know", Emma dropped her head.

"I'm so sorry, Em. I didn't know. Why didn't you tell me?", Ruby was baffled by her best friend's revelation.

Emma shrugged helplessly, "I couldn't. I was...we all were...Graham...and everyone was so caught up...in their own pain...and then I thought if I...ignore it...the feelings I have...that they would go away...but..."

Ruby took Emma's hand and squeezed it, "No such luck, huh? So Milah is what? A distraction?"

"That was the plan...but that has backfired in every way possible because I feel miserable. And Regina is...I don't know...she thinks I'm trying to replace her and Henry or some crazy shit. And Milah...God, I don't know. I told her from the beginning that I was not interested in a relationship or anything...just...well, you know...and she was okay with that", Emma desperately tried not to cry, "But Killian said she's staying longer because of her job...but I don't believe that. I mean sure...she is trying to help this one kid...but I have a feeling that it's more than that...and if I'm right...God, this is so fucked up!"

"Hey! Em, listen", Ruby tried, but Emma was too caught up in her own thoughts, so she squeezed her hand again to get her attention, "Look at me, Em."

When Emma finally complied she smiled at her, "Milah is not your problem. I mean you were honest...you told her. If she expects more now that's on her. And no, don't even try to tell me this is your fault...she's a grown-up. If this makes you so miserable then go tell her that it's not working, because clearly, it isn't. Okay?"

Emma nodded hesitantly, "I know you are right...it's just...I never meant to hurt anyone...but that's exactly what I did."

"I guess most of all you've hurt yourself", Ruby stated the obvious, "And you need to talk to Regina. Maybe you should tell her."

"No! She can't know. She can never know!", Emma insisted, slightly panicked.

"I'm sure she would understand", Ruby tried again.

"And that's where you are wrong. She would never understand. She feels safe with what we have...after everything she's been through. She feels safe again. She's not into women...back then when we first met...and she should have done that lap dance for me...it was obvious that even thinking about a woman touching her makes her uncomfortable...Regina can never know!"

"I...I'm sorry...I had no idea", Ruby emptied her glass and grabbed the bottle that had been put on their table without them even noticing, "This screams for another drink."
-----------------------------------

When Emma and Ruby finally stumbled into the penthouse it was almost 5 am.
They were quite intoxicated, but not nearly as drunk as Emma wished she would be.
The rain had sobered them up on their way home and she felt worse than ever.

It was then that Emma's eyes stopped on the photograph Graham had taken of her, Regina, and Henry.
Another wave of pain spread in her chest and she could not hold the tears back any longer.

The whole night during her conversation over whiskey, lots of whiskey, with Ruby she had managed to hold them back, but now the dam finally broke and the desperation she had tried to ignore the last couple of days made it to the surface with full force.
Before she knew it she was lying on the couch, wrapped up in Ruby's arms, her head hiding in the crook of the brunette's neck.

"I don't know what to do", Emma mumbled between sobs, and Ruby's heart broke for her devastated friend, "I don't know either."

She kissed Emma's hair gently, "But we'll figure something out."

Chapter Text

Regina stormed out of the elevator and headed for the penthouse as if the devil would be after her.
She had been on her way to work when Mary Margaret had called her and had asked if she had seen Emma in the morning.
But of course, she hadn't.

She tried to avoid Emma whenever possible, but when Mary Margaret had informed her that Emma had not shown up for a meeting and that she did not answer the phone either Regina had become alarmed.
Emma was a responsible person, she would not stay away without an explanation.

Emma had been out with Ruby, had probably had a drink or two.
And then Regina remembered how Emma had collapsed after she had gotten drunk after their fight before Christmas, how she had suffered a panic attack because she had been so sure that she had lost Regina.
A shiver ran down Regina's spine at the memory, because she realized that Emma must feel pretty much the same now – the situation was truly painful.
For everyone.

What if Emma had gotten drunk with Ruby and something happened?
What if she was lying on the floor unconscious or...
No.

She had called Killian right then and had told him that she needed to check on Emma and of course, he had understood.
And now here she was – in front of the penthouse with a racing heart, afraid of what she might find once she unlocked the door.

But it was not the time to be scared or full of doubt so she opened the penthouse door and rushed inside, just to stop dead in her tracks mere seconds later.
All she could see were entangled limbs, brunette and blonde hair, and Regina wanted to puke.
God, she was so naive.

She had been worried sick while Emma and her doctor friend had...no!
She would not go there.

Regina wanted to turn round and leave when one head was lifted up from the couch and she stared right into the eyes of a confused...Ruby Lucas.
What?

"Regina?!"

"Ruby..."

It was barely a whisper.

"Regina, are you okay?"

When Ruby tried to sit up she felt the heavy pounding in her head and rubbed her temple, "Oh God."

That did the trick and got Regina moving, "I'll make some coffee."

"Thanks! What time is it?"

"Almost eleven. Emma did not show up for a meeting...Miss Blanchard called and I thought I better check on her", Regina tried to explain her presence although she did not even know why she felt the need to.

"She had a rough night."

Regina winced at Ruby's comment and she knew there was no point in asking what this was about, but she had to do it anyway, "What's wrong? Emma seems so sad sometimes. And not only recently."

She grabbed a mug to bring it over to Ruby, but to Regina's surprise, the leggy brunette was standing right behind her when she turned, "It's not my place to tell. If you really want answers I suggest you talk to Emma yourself."

Regina nodded in understanding and wondered why Ruby appeared to be so tense but decided that she would most likely not get an answer to that question either.

"Shit! I forgot...I need to be at work in an hour", Ruby announced and downed the almost burning hot liquid in one gulp, causing Regina to frown.

And before Regina knew what was going on Ruby headed for the bathroom, mumbling something about Emma sure would not mind.
----------------------------------------------------

She did not know why, but she had taken a seat on the couch next to a still comatose Emma and watched her once again.
It was a stupid idea and Regina knew it, but she could not stay away.

Blonde locks were covering some of Emma's face and Regina was so very tempted to move them away, but she did not dare.
But she caught herself wishing that she would be in a position to do just that without hesitating or doubting herself.
More than that she wished that she could just lie down next to Emma and sleep, knowing that she was safe, feeling the warmth she was missing desperately since this whole ordeal with Milah had started.

Since she could not do either she kept staring at Emma, wondering what it would be like if they were together.
And for a moment Regina could really picture it.
Waking up in Emma's arms, Emma's smile the first thing she would see in the morning, . . .

"Regina?"

The hoarse whisper pulled her out of her thoughts and she looked straight into Emma's confused eyes, "Miss Blanchard had me check on you because you didn't show up for your meeting."

Regina thought it might be best to explain her presence once again because Emma seemed to be a little disorientated.
A groan escaped Emma's lips at the reminder and she tried to sit up and her hands immediately shot up to her head, "Oh God..."

Regina chuckled at the gesture because Ruby had looked pretty much the same only minutes ago.

"I'll get you some coffee...and you should probably call your assistant."
----------------------------------------------------

Emma had followed Regina's advice and had called her office to instruct Mary Margaret to reschedule all her appointments, including the dinner with Milah, but to her surprise, her pixie-haired friend and personal assistant had already done that, and Emma was relieved.
She knew she had to talk to Milah sooner rather than later, but she felt as if she had been chewed up and spit out so it would have to wait another day.
Or two.
Today she would not leave the couch.

She had felt okay when she had come home, but now not so much.
But she was glad to see Regina, was happy that Regina still cared enough that she had come to check on her when she should actually be at work.

Work.
She wanted to ask Regina about that, but right that second Ruby came out of the bathroom in nothing, but a towel, wearing a fake smile in an attempt to hide the pained expression on her face – clearly she was having a major headache too.

"Hey Em, can I...borrow some clothes?"

"Sure...you know where the wardrobe is."

Regina stood next to the kitchen counter, staring at the floor uncomfortably, but Ruby disappeared into Emma's bedroom before she knew it.

"I'll go and take Tamo-tsu for a walk. When you didn't pick him up in the morning I left him in my apartment", Regina mumbled quickly, already heading for the door.

"Thanks."

It was all Emma could say, because the whole situation was simply too confusing.
Things were getting out of control.
----------------------------------------------------

By the time Regina returned, dog in tow, Ruby was already gone.
Tamotsu must have sensed that Emma was not feeling well, because he jumped right onto the couch and curled up right next to her without a word from Emma or Regina.

"I better go to work then", Regina announced, playing with her keys.

"Uh...sure. Thanks for checking in on me...you didn't have to do that", Emma answered weakly.

Hearing those words Regina froze.
Did Emma really think she did not care anymore? Did Emma really think she would not worry?
How had things gotten so bad between them?
They had to find a way to save their friendship, their family.
She would worry about her feelings later.

"Do you want me to stay?", she asked carefully and her question caught Emma off guard if her dumbfounded expression was anything to go by.

A dismissive gesture, then a shake of the head, "Nah, I'm good. Go to work...I don't want to get you in trouble or anything."

But they both knew it was just a lame excuse because Killian would never give Regina a hard time for looking out for one of his best friends.

"That's not what I asked, Miss Swan. Do you want me to stay?", Regina repeated the question and Emma stayed silent for a long while, but in the end, her heart beat reason, "Yes."

"I'll give Killian a call then."
----------------------------------------------------

They had spent the whole afternoon in silence, except for the TV noise in the background.
Both of them had been aware that neither of them was ready to have a conversation about what was going on and forcing each other into talking would ruin the little bit of "peace" they had created.

Sitting next to each other on the couch was enough – at least for now.
Because it was quite obvious that their truce would not last forever as if they would be at war.
And somehow they even were.
At war with themselves, with their feelings, and in some sense even with each other.
But this particular day they were as okay as they could be, considering the circumstances, sitting next to each other and finding comfort in the presence of one another.
----------------------------------------------------

Regina had made chicken soup for Emma because her stomach was still revolting from all the whiskey.

Thankfully dinner had been far more relaxed than the last couple of days.
Henry had noticed it too and had been overjoyed that Emma and his mom seemed to be working through whatever it was that was going on.
Although he had a fairly good idea of what was going on.
Well, at least he had a theory.

And he would check if he was right because if he was his mom clearly needed help.
----------------------------------------------------

Emma had gone straight to bed after dinner and Regina and Henry had taken Tamotsu for a walk to end their evening with a bit of fresh air.
Now they were both sitting on his bed because Regina had promised Henry a story, but when she was ready to start reading Henry took the book out of her hands and closed it before he looked his mother straight in the eye, "You really like Emma, don't you?"

To say that Regina was startled by her son's question would be an understatement.

"Yes, sweetheart. I like Emma, but don't you know that?"

"No, mom. I mean...you like Emma...like like her. Like Roland's mom likes her girlfriend", Henry stated carefully and Regina's eyes went wide, "Henry, that's...no. You're wrong...Emma and I...we're just..."

Henry frowned.
Yep, this would be a piece of work.

"So, it doesn't bother you that she is dating Milah?"

Regina's face darkened instantly at the mention of the doctor. She wanted to deny it, she wanted to tell Henry she was happy for Emma, but she could not bring herself to say it out loud, because the truth was that she did not want that British...whatever...anywhere near Emma.

"That's what I thought", Henry grinned.

"Henry, it's complicated, okay? You don't know...", Regina tried to convince her son to drop it, but he would not have any of it.

"Mom, I might only be ten, but I'm not blind, duh."

A small smile appeared on Regina's lips although she felt more like crying, Henry was simply too adorable, "I know. And I also know that you are too smart for your own good. Or mine."

"So?", he challenged.

"So what, Henry?"

He looked at her expectantly, "Are you going to tell Emma?"

A heavy sigh, "I can't. Henry, please understand that this is not easy for me."

He took his mother's hand and squeezed it, "I understand that, mom. Just know that if you and Emma would want to be together...I'd be fine with it. I think she is awesome and she treats you well. That's all that matters."

A single tear escaped Regina's right eye, overwhelmed by her son's concern for her well-being, "Oh Henry."
She hugged him close, "I wish it would be that simple. I have no idea if I will ever be able to have a relationship...and even if...Emma has Milah...and..."

"She's not in love with Milah!", he protested.

"Henry, you don't know that", Regina tried to reason with him.

"But I do. I do know. Because she said it herself...just the other day. When we had dinner without you...after Milah left", he started his rant, "She said that she likes her, but that it doesn't feel right...and that she would always choose you...that she would always choose us over anyone else."

Regina did not know what to say to that.
First of all, because she had not even been aware that Henry had known about Emma and Milah dating, but clearly he had. Otherwise, he would not have started this conversation in the first place. He really was a damn smart kid and she remembered once again to never underestimate him.
And second, because Emma and Milah seemed to be a great fit.
Why would Emma not try to pursue anything with her?
Hell, this Milah, she was beautiful, she was a doctor with an outstanding career, her family was wealthy and she obviously really liked Emma. What more could Emma possibly want?
The Swans would love to see Milah by Emma's side for sure.

"Think about it, okay? You don't have to talk to her right away...but maybe one day?", Henry suggested and Regina sighed once again, "Maybe...one day. But no promises, okay? Because I don't want to lose Emma as a friend...in case she doesn't...and then everything becomes even worse than it is now."

"I get that", he answered, but Regina honestly doubted that he did.

"Please, Henry...you can't tell anyone. Or do your famous scheming or anything. I'm not ready for this kind of...thing", she pleaded, begged almost and her son hugged her instantly, "Your secret is safe with me, mom. I love you."

"I love you too."
-----------------------------------

Regina could not sleep.
She had rolled around in bed for almost an hour – to no avail.
Her conversation with Henry had been overwhelming, especially since he had taken her by surprise.
She would have never seen this coming.

A part of her wished she had denied everything, wished that she had told her son that he had gotten it all wrong, but she had made a promise to herself when Henry had been born.
She had promised to never lie to him if not necessary and the only time when she had withheld information had been when it had come to his father.
She had not lied, but she had not told him the truth either, because she had not said anything at all.

Lying about her feelings for Emma though – it had felt wrong since he had already figured it out anyway.
Realizing that her son would be supportive of the both of them had given her some kind of much-needed peace though and she felt calmer now.
And yet again she could not sleep.
Because she was thinking about his words, about him pointing out that Emma would always choose them.

Emma had said pretty much the same thing to her as well, but hearing it from Henry, hearing him so confident and full of faith in Emma, made it real.
And now Regina's mind was playing the famous 'What if...' game, robbing her of her night's rest.
What if she found the courage to tell Emma?
What if Emma returned her feelings?
What if not?

What if they would be a couple? Could she handle it?
She doubted it.
Did she want it?
Well, at least a part of her did.

When she had first realized that she was falling for Emma she had freaked out.
It had scared her to death.
But the more she thought about it the more she got used to the idea, especially now that Henry had given his 'okay'.
Just in case.

Probably she should tell Emma, but Regina knew that she couldn't.
She was nowhere near ready for a conversation like this.

And there was Milah.
Whether she liked it or not.
For now, she would try to save their friendship because if today had proven one thing, it was the fact that their bond was not completely broken yet.
It was fragile, but it was still there.

And that knowledge was what provided enough comfort for Regina to drift off at last.
There was still hope.
-----------------------------------

Since the summer holidays were not far away anymore and Henry had managed to convince Regina to let him go camping with David and Mary Margaret for a few days she found herself in need of a shopping trip to get some proper outdoor clothes for her son two days later.
And since she had no idea where to go and what to look for Regina had asked Emma for help.
Maybe it would be a good way to get rid of some more of the awkwardness between them.
She just had to ignore her growing feelings and act "normal".
And she had to pray that Emma would not bring up the doctor from overseas or Regina could not guarantee anything.

At least she felt up to saving their friendship – thanks to Henry.
Even if she could not tell Emma what was going on, talking about it with her son had taken the edge off and now she did not feel so tense anymore.
Thank God.
-----------------------------------

When Regina and Emma got out of the cab they were both laughing and it felt good.

They had spent an afternoon at the mall, buying camping gear for Henry and having a lot of fun in the process.
Emma could be such a goofball, it had made Regina forget all her worries. At least for the time being.
Sure, there had been some awkward moments here and there - where they had stared at one another and neither of them had known what to say, but all in all, they had spent a great time as the friends they were supposed to be.

Regina had stolen some glances when she was sure that Emma would not realize it and she was proud that she had been bold enough to do that at least.
It was something.
It was a start.
A start of what she was not sure yet.
For now, it did not matter.

They had made plans to cook dinner together like they had done countless times in the past and Regina looked forward to it.
And so did Emma – that much was obvious.
They headed for the entrance of their building, countless bags in hand, Emma following right after Regina, when Regina was hit by a sudden realization, "I knew I forgot something! We're out of..."

She turned around, almost bumping into Emma, who was only mere inches away, simply because Regina had stopped unexpectantly and Emma had not managed to react faster.

"Red pepper flaaakes", Regina's voice became a whisper when she met Emma's eyes.

Eyes that were sparkling curiously, so very intense in color and telling a story of their own.
She was captivated by them, not able to blink, nor to move.
Neither was Emma.

Regina could feel Emma's breath on her face and the tingling sensation surprised her more than she cared to admit.
It would be so easy to lean in, but she would not dare, not even in her wildest dreams.

Emma seemed to be struggling for composure as well, blinking frantically now, obviously in an attempt to get her mind under control – her eyes were locked on Regina's though.
One moment of bravery, one moment of courage was all she needed to do something, say something that could change everything.

Maybe it would be her one and only chance.
Would she ruin everything by taking it?
What if the banter from today would not last?
Because Emma had a feeling that it would not last for long.
Today she had been able to push her feelings for Regina to the back, but they would not stay there.
And then?
What would be tomorrow?

What if Regina's strange mood would return and somehow she was even sure that it would – sooner or later.
It had been a good day though.
She should be grateful. She was.

Would it be stupid to say something?
Yes.
But it was also stupid to stay silent.

She blinked again.

Regina had not moved from her spot, their noses were almost touching.
All background noise had disappeared when they had connected in their own little bubble.
As if the world would stand still.

This was it and Emma knew it.
Now or never.

"Regina..."

Her voice was trembling.
She wished it would not be.

"I need to tell you something", Emma rasped out with force.

God, she did not have the strength for this.

"Regina, I..."

And then Regina's face darkened, a wave of pain washing over her face, and Emma's lips pressed together while her own eyes grew wide in confusion.
Seeing the hurt in Regina's usually warm, brown eyes made her heart ache, made her chest clench and Emma did not understand what just happened.

Until she heard a familiar voice with a certain accent, "Emma, I'm sorry for the interruption...but I really need to talk to you."

Chapter Text

Milah.

Emma wanted to scream.
Could the timing be any worse?

She closed her eyes and took a deep breath, debating what she should do.
Should she really send Regina away to talk to Milah?
She did not want to, but Emma was aware that she could not avoid the conversation with the doctor any longer. She had to get it over with, the sooner the better.

Emma wished that the ground would open up and swallow her whole.
God, how much she wished.
But of course, she had no such luck.

When she opened her eyes again Regina had already stepped back and the moment was gone.
The chance was lost.
And Regina looked more hurt by the second.
This was going all wrong.

They had just managed to fix the cracks in their friendship, at least they had started to.
And now everything seemed to be in pieces once again.
Goddammit!

"Regina."

A dismissive gesture of Regina's hand was the answer, "Thank you for your help and your time. Your presence and attention are required elsewhere now. I take it you won't make it to dinner, Miss Swan?"

Emma cringed at the name.
Hearing Regina talk to her like that tore her apart and she wanted to hide and cry.

"I...Regina...I'll be back as soon as I can", Emma forced out, but both women knew they would not cook together this evening.
Nor would they spend it together.
--------------------------------------

Emma had taken Milah to a small café not far from the building she lived in.
Neither of them had said a word during their short walk there, but now that they were taking seats with their coffees in hand Milah broke the silence, "You're avoiding me."
It was not a question, much more a statement.

"Not intentionally. Ruby and I got pretty wasted the other day...and work is busy...and then Regina asked if I could help with the camping stuff for Henry's trip with David and Mary Margaret and...well...yeah, I guess I've been avoiding you...kind of", Emma admitted and shrugged.

"Care to tell me why?"

Emma considered what she could tell her, how she could word it in a gentle way, but she came up empty and so she ended up blurting out the only thing that came to her mind, "This isn't working."

Milah looked startled, "I'm not sure I understand."

"Listen", Emma explained, "This...thing...we started...it was a mistake. It's not working...and it's not your fault...it's mine."

"I see", Milah dropped her gaze.

"I'm so sorry. I am. It's not you...I mean it. I've just...I've been stupid enough to believe that...that it will help me get over my feelings for someone else", Emma stated, wondering why on earth she would tell Milah that. But the words were out and she could not take them back.

The doctor nodded, "Well, I'm not really surprised, to be honest. It's Regina, isn't it?"

"What is?"

"The woman you are in love with, the one you want a relationship with, the one you are committed to...it's Regina...am I right?", Milah eyed her closely and Emma felt like breaking under the intense gaze.

Lying was pointless, that much was certain.

"Uh...yeah. Is it...that obvious?", a shy smile appeared on Emma's face.

"You're talking about her all the time, you are so invested in each other's lives...well, at least it's quite obvious to me", Milah replied and took a sip of her coffee, "But that reminds me...didn't you mention that she is straight?"

Emma winced at the comment, but it was the truth she could not run from.
Regina had told her from the beginning.
And that was the moment she became glad that Milah had interrupted "their" moment, had stopped her from a revelation that would have most likely driven Regina even further away.
How had she even considered telling her about her feelings?

"She is."

Milah nodded again, "Happens to all of us...falling for the straight girl I mean. Always ends in lots and lots of heartache."

"Yep", Emma sighed, "But there's nothing I can do, now is there? We can't choose whom we fall for."

It was Milah's turn to sigh, "No, we can't."

They sat in silence for a while, but then Emma remembered that Milah had wanted to talk to her about something, "So, what's the important thing you wanted to discuss?"

"Forget about it, Emma. It's been about a job offer. Would have given me the opportunity to come here more often in case...well, it's no longer relevant", Milah answered and took a sip of her coffee, never meeting Emma's eyes.

"I'm so sorry", Emma whispered, "I never meant to hurt you...or for any of this chaos to happen."
Although she had been honest with Milah from the start she felt terribly guilty still.

"I know."
Milah sounded so very understanding, but that made Emma only feel worse.

"The irony is...you are the perfect woman. And I mean that...if the circumstances would be different", Emma started but drifted off because things were exactly how they were and it would not change anytime soon.

They drank the rest of their coffees in silence and it was not before their goodbyes that Milah found her voice again.

"Will you be okay?", Milah looked at Emma, concern written all over her face.

Emma only shrugged, "I hope so. Things are...complicated right now. I have to try to fix it. Somehow."

Milah nodded in understanding once again, "There's a lot of heartache and misery in your future, I hope you know that."

Emma nodded as well, fully aware of what was awaiting her.

"Will she be worth it?", Milah asked without a hint of judgment.

Emma didn't hesitate to answer that, "She already is."

"I know part of our subconscious always has hope...even if there is none. So, if you and Regina will never be more than friends...will it be enough?"

Emma had asked herself that question more times than she could remember and the truth was she did not know.
The only thing she knew with certainty was that she could not lose Regina.
That she could not lose Henry.
That she could not lose her family.

Emma met Milah's worried gaze, "It has to be."

Neither woman commented on the doubtful, sorrowful tone in Emma's voice.

Milah hugged her quickly and kissed her on the cheek, "Good luck, Emma Swan. And take good care of that kind heart of yours."
------------------------------------------

Emma had returned straight to her penthouse, had locked herself in her bedroom, and had cried herself to sleep that night.
------------------------------------------

Regina had barely gotten any rest all night either and now that she found herself in front of the penthouse door she wanted to puke.
But she had to talk to Emma.

They had spent a great day together yesterday and it had almost been as it had been before certain realizations had hit her and she wanted that back.
She wanted it back for good.
Her stupid jealousy would not ruin the one good thing in her life – except for Henry of course.
It would not ruin her family, she would not allow it.

Regina knocked twice and hated it, but she did not dare to unlock the door with her spare key, because she did not want to interrupt – just in case.

A surprised Emma answered the door a few moments later, coffee mug in hand, looking like death warmed up, eyes red from crying and Regina reached out without thinking about it and took Emma's hand to squeeze it gently, "What's wrong?"

Emma was stunned into silence by the brunette's reaction because she had expected Regina to yell at her for "choosing" Milah over her yesterday.
She just stared at their link hands and enjoyed the contact while it lasted, because she knew – sooner or later it would be gone.

"Emma, what happened? Did Milah..."

"No. This is not about Milah. I'm sorry...I just can't talk about it", Emma answered hastily, praying that Regina would let it go.

And let it go she did.
Not just the topic, but also Emma's hand.

It made Emma cringe, especially when she saw the expression on Regina's face.
One of disappointment, one of hurt.

Obviously, Regina believed she did not trust her enough anymore to confide in her.
If only Regina knew.

But that was the problem – she could never find out.

"Very well...I won't disturb you any longer then", Regina announced and cleared her throat, "I hope you'll feel better soon."

She turned, ready to leave, but Emma's voice stopped her, "Why did you come here, Regina?"

Her shoulders tensed and Regina took a deep breath to ground herself before she managed to face Emma once again, "I just wanted to let you know that Henry and I had take-out yesterday. So the groceries we bought are still in the fridge...just in case you'd feel up to join us for dinner tonight."

It was not really what she had wanted to say, but it was not necessarily a lie either.
It would have to do for now.

"Would seven be okay?", Emma asked hesitantly and Regina nodded, "Perfect. See you then, dear."
------------------------------------------

Regina wanted to scream.
Not only was she not able to concentrate on work because she was worried about Emma – Emma had looked truly devastated in the morning – but also because Killian would not stop talking about one certain doctor Regina had no intention of ever meeting again.

Damn this British...this...this...Milah.

Killian's ongoing babbling was the reason why the model whose makeup she was supposed to do was currently wearing blue eye shadow on one side and purple on the other.
Oh, damn everyone!

When Killian caught sight of the mess she had created he burst out in laughter, "Well, darling, it looks terrific, but I'm not sure it will go with the dress."

"Please, just shut up. The day is crappy enough as it is. I don't need a speech from you on top of it", Regina growled and Killian held up his hands in surrender.

He had noticed that his employee and friend was in a strange mood the second she had shown up at the location, but he had not thought anything of it.
Regina had acted quite weird for some time now, but it had never affected her work before, that's why he had not mentioned it.
He had thought Regina would talk to him once she was ready, but clearly, he had misjudged the situation.

"Maybe you should come out with us tonight. I think that's exactly what you need to clear your head...a night out on the town...and since it's Milah's last day", Killian offered with a smile.

That could explain Emma's tears.
Regina winced at the realization.

Killian watched as Regina's face darkened, how she flinched when he spoke Milah's name and how relief washed over her features when he announced her departure.
Weird.
But the more he thought about it the more Killian realized that Regina's behavior had changed exactly the day Milah had shown up in Boston, had it not?
Hm...
Had Milah probably said something inappropriate?
No, he doubted it.
Besides – Regina and Milah had only seen each other when Emma had been present.

Clearly, Emma would not have tolerated any form of rudeness towards the woman she called family.
And then it hit Killian like he had been struck by lighting.
Emma!
Of course!
How had he not seen this before?
Regina had a problem with Milah because she was seeing Emma.
But that made no sense, now did it?

Except...
Except Regina had feelings for Emma.
Oh...

"Oh my god!", Killian exclaimed, "Oh. My. God."

"What now?", Regina snapped while she started to re-do the unamused model's makeup.

"You are coming with me, right now!", he ordered and Regina looked dumbfounded, but complied anyway.

Once they found an empty room to talk in private Killian decided to grab the bull by its horns, because he was not sure another way would work with Regina anyway, "Why didn't you tell me?!"

"I'm not sure I understand...why didn't I tell you what?"

Killian sighed, "That you're jealous of Milah, obviously."

Looking away uncomfortably Regina shook her head, "Don't be ridiculous. I'm no such thing, Mister Jones."

But Regina's body language gave her away and Killian sighed even heavier, "So, you don't care about Emma..."

"Of course I do! Of course, I care about Emma...she's..."
Everything to me.
She closed her mouth shut before she could say it out loud though.

"Regina", he said carefully, giving her a moment to interrupt him, but when she made no attempt of doing so he continued, "You're in love with her, aren't you?"

Regina closed her eyes to stop the tears from escaping her eyes and took a deep breath.
She wanted to deny it, but she could not bring herself to do it.

A few minutes of painful silence ticked away, but then she opened her eyes to look right into the worried ones of Killian and nodded.
It was the only way of admitting because her tongue was dry and the words were stuck in her throat.

Killian's face softened instantly, "Why didn't you tell me? I would have never...introduced them if I had known."

Regina was touched by his words, but shook her head, "You couldn't know. Hell, I didn't even know...till I saw them together."

"Oh, sweety...I'm so sorry..."

"Don't be. Emma deserves to be happy. That's all that matters in the end", Regina stated and closed her eyes again.
How she should ever be happy for Emma was beyond her, but she had to try.
She had to try her hardest, because losing Emma, losing her family was even worse than losing part of Emma to another woman.

"Does she know?"

"No! And she can never know! Killian, you have to promise me that. Emma can't"

He did not even let her finish her little rant, "I won't say a word. It's not my place...but Regina...maybe you should."

She shook her head vehemently this time, "Absolutely not. I can't lose Emma. She's the best friend I ever had...and telling her...it could ruin everything. I can't...I won't risk it."

While Regina felt slightly proud that she found it in her to open up to Killian, to talk to him, she could live without his advice. Of course, he would try to convince her of telling Emma – like Henry.
Why did no one understand that she simply could not do that?

But she was glad that she could talk to Killian because the isolation of the last days had taken a toll on her. And it only proved once more how far she had come since Emma had entered her life.
She had found a family, she had found friends. She had a good home and a job she loved.
It was truly a miracle.
And now she was confiding in someone else, but Emma, which was pretty close to becoming the next world wonder.

"I hate to point it out to you", Killian started again, "But your friendship is already suffering...you've been...well...you've been weird lately and from what I've heard Emma's been confused, hurt even...so, why not talk to her? I'm sure she'll understand, darling. If there is one person in the world capable of understanding pretty much anything...it's probably Emma."

Regina cringed at the mention of Emma being hurt by her behavior.
Of course, she had known – she had seen it herself – but hearing someone else say it was like a punch in the gut.
Had Milah told Killian?
Had Emma talked to that British whatever about her in the first place? What had she said?
Had she disappointed Emma?
Of course, she had! What a stupid question.

She stood up and paced the room, trying to calm herself.
The thought of hurting Emma was unbearable, was it the only thing she never wanted to do in the first place.
What a lousy friend she had been.

"Regina."

She registered his voice, but it sounded so far away.
What should she do?
She could not tell Emma, now could she?
Would that make anything better? Or would it make everything so much worse?

"Regina!"

Killian's voice sounded so strange like he was talking through fog, and she had no idea why.
She knew he was in the same room as her and yet she felt as if he would be miles away.
As if her whole life was sliding through her fingers.
Until she felt a hand on her wrist.

That had her back in the here and now in a heartbeat.
It also had her in a full-blown panic mode in the blink of an eye.

"Let go...let go! Let me go! Killian...let me go!"

Regina screamed, her eyes wide in terror and he released her instantly, clearly shocked by her reaction, "I'm sorry, Regina...I didn't mean to hurt you."

Regina stepped back till she hit the wall, all the while staring at her wrist, trying to fight off the images her mind provided, to no avail.
Deep down she knew that Killian meant no harm, but her past and everything that had been done to her had such a strong hold on her that she could not stop herself from getting caught up in some horribly torturing flashbacks.

Daniel...that other guy...Gold...chains...blood...pain...so much pain...broken trust...shattered heart...wounds that would probably never heal...her mother...more pain...Daniel again...the drugs...the addiction...the first time he slapped her...the first time he...

She dropped to the floor, burying her face in her hands.
She could not handle this.
------------------------------------------

Killian had no idea what to do because clearly he had done something wrong and while he was aware that things were quite complicated, he also knew that Emma would probably be the only person who could help Regina.
And Regina needed help, that much was obvious.
So he grabbed his phone, praying that Emma would not be in a meeting or something of the like.

It rang.
It rang again.
And again.
Come on, Em, pick up!
And it rang again.

"Killian?"
Oh, thank God!

"Em, you gotta come here...like five minutes ago", he blurted out helplessly.

"What? Why? And where is here?", Emma asked in confusion.

"No time for explanations, love. I'll text you the address."

"Killian, what the hell is going on?!"

"It's Regina...we talked and then...I don't even know what happened...she just...I don't know...she was so caught up in her thoughts and I...I just grabbed her arm to get her attention."

"Oh god.2

"She totally freaked out and now she's on the floor, sobbing...what do I do?"

"Stay with her, but don't...under any circumstances...touch her, Killian...do you understand? And text me that damn address...I'm on my way."

And before he could have replied anything the line went dead.
------------------------------------------

Emma put her SUV to a screeching halt right in front of the location, not bothering to park the car properly.
She had driven like a maniac, not bothering about speeding limits or nonsense like that either, because this clearly was an emergency.
And if somebody would try to stop her so God help her.

"Where is Killian Jones?", she barked out and some scared-looking girl pointed into the direction of a building right behind her.

Emma stormed off before the girl could have said anything, pulling the door open with full force, almost knocking herself over in the process, "Killian, where the hell are you?!"

Of course, no one answered and Emma grabbed her phone and called her friend, who picked up instantly, "Tell me where the hell you are!"

Before she knew it a door at the end of the corridor was opened and Emma ran as if her life would depend on it, not bothering to hang up or anything else.
She put the phone and her car keys in Killian's hand when she rushed by him, barking a "park my car and make sure nobody comes in here" at him before she sprinted over where Regina was sitting on the floor, her legs pulled against her chest to shield her body, arms wrapped tightly around them, head resting on her knees and shaking like a leaf.

Emma slowed down when she was right in front of her and knelt down, thoughtful not to touch Regina because she thought it might cause even more damage at this point.

"Regina", she stated softly, trying to sound calmer than she felt because the truth was that she was close to freaking out. Seeing Regina in so much distress was killing her.

It took a few moments before Regina lifted her head and met Emma's eyes, pain and confusion written all over her face, "Emma? What are you doing here?"

"Killian called and said you had a rough time. You gave him quite the scare", Emma explained and tried to lighten the situation with a grin, but Regina did not even blink.

"It was not his fault...he couldn't know", was all Regina rasped out eventually.

"What can I do?", Emma asked carefully, still unsure as to how to proceed.

Regina eyed Emma for a few moments, obviously thinking about the question before she reached out a shaking hand.
She needed the comfort, she needed the assurance. She needed the warmth and the safety only Emma could provide.
And the need was stronger than her fears.

Emma took her hand without hesitation and pulled gently – surprised that Regina gave in without doubt and let Emma pull her into a hug.
In the end, Emma repositioned herself so Regina could lean into her more comfortable and that had led to Regina landing in her lap, her head buried in the crook of Emma's neck, her trembling hands around Emma's waist.
And although the situation was painful because of the state Regina was in both of them were relieved anyway.
Simply because it was the first time in what seemed forever since they were close again. The first time they could feel their connection, their bond, strengthening instead of weakening in a while.
------------------------------------------

It had taken almost an hour before Regina had calmed down enough for Emma to take her home.

They had met a worried Killian on the way to the parking lot and Emma's assurances that everything would be okay had only done so much to make him feel better.
He had insisted that Regina took a day off tomorrow and he had promised to make sure that someone would drive Regina's car over to their garage.

Now that they were sitting in the penthouse, wrapped up in a blanket, each of them a mug of tea in hand the tension finally started to fade away from Emma's body.
She had been worried sick when she had received that phone call from Killian and all her worries, her heartache, everything had been forgotten in the blink of an eye.
And right that moment she had realized that her feelings would always come in second.
Her friendship with Regina was what mattered and that was what she would focus on.

She would focus on the family she had found in Regina and Henry because that was something real, something she could have.
There was no point in longing for something that would never happen.

"Emma?"

Regina's voice had her out of her thoughts immediately.

"Do you need anything? More tea maybe?"

Regina shook her head, "I want you to tell me why you were so upset this morning."

Emma looked a bit startled and uncomfortable, "It's not that easy to explain, Regina."

"Please try. I need us back. I need what we had back. Like us talking about everything...I need it. I want it. And I'm sorry I've been such a bitch lately. I don't know what's gotten into me. I'm really sorry. We are family, Emma...and friends. I don't want to lose this...I don't want to lose you. I need us to get talking again...so please, tell me. Why were you so upset?", Regina took a deep breath, "Is it because Milah is going back to London?"
God, speaking the name of that woman out loud hurt more than she ever thought possible.

"No. I told you...this is not about Milah. Actually...the only reason I left yesterday was to break things off with her", Emma replied simply.

"Oh."
Regina felt so relieved and so heartbroken at the same time. Had Emma felt the need to break up with her because she had acted so weird. Had she ruined Emma's happiness because she could not handle her emotions?
Oh God.

"Before you beat yourself up over it", Emma seemed to be able to read her thoughts, "This had nothing to do with our differences lately. Milah and I...it would never work out. She was an attempt to distract me...which did not work out anyway. It was a stupid idea altogether."

"I don't understand. You seemed to get along quite well...and she's beautiful...she's...well...", Regina was looking for words that wouldn't taste so sour in her mouth but came up short.

"Perfect?", Emma suggested.

"Well, I wouldn't go that far", Regina countered, "Nobody is...but I thought she was pretty damn close."

"She is", Emma agreed, "She's the perfect fit for someone, but this someone isn't me."

Regina tilted her head and studied Emma for a moment, "May I ask why?"

Emma closed her eyes and sighed.
Here she was again.
Facing the unspeakable truth and she was tired of excuses. She was tired of lying.
Regina deserved so much better.

And before she would lose courage again she whispered, "Because I'm in love with someone else. I've been for quite a while now. Someone I can never have."

Regina thought she must have heard wrong, but the truth was shining in Emma's eyes, it was shining right back at her.
Emma was in love with someone else?
But with whom?

This new information did not make any sense.
Not at all.
And while Regina was a fairly intelligent woman – emotions and feelings had never been her strong suit.
Neither had been math.

And the more she thought about it the more convinced she became of knowing the answer.
While one and one clearly made two, this was an equation Regina would not be able to solve unless someone would do it for her, right in front of her eyes. And maybe not even then.
Because when Regina thought about Milah the only woman resembling her she could come up with was Ruby Lucas – Emma's best friend.

Leggy, brunette.
Plus they had known each other forever.
And when she thought back it had all started with Ruby.

Ruby had dragged them to The Rabbit Hole, Ruby had organized the lap dance, it had been Ruby Emma had gotten up for in the middle of the night when Emma had picked her up in the rain.
It had been Ruby's arms in which Emma had fallen asleep not too long ago, it was Ruby Emma had eyed with worry and sadness when they had been out with the girls.
So, it had to be Ruby.

And Emma could not have her, because Ruby was with Jefferson.
Never would Regina consider that she could be wrong.
Simply because she would never see herself as anything else, but broken. Haunted even.

She had never thought too highly of herself thanks to her mother, but Daniel had taken away the last remaining bit of dignity and pride she had left.
And while Emma had made it all better and more bearable, some wounds might heal, but the scars would forever be too present to be forgotten.

It was not long after Emma's confession that Henry came home and Regina told them that she would go to bed because she felt completely drained.
But of course, she could not sleep that night and neither could Emma – both of them lying awake with an aching heart, longing for each other.
Burdened by the secrets they could not share.
And unaware of how close to the truth they had actually gotten.

Chapter Text

Rain was falling from a grey, dull sky and drummed against the windows.
Regina was sitting on her living room floor, knees pulled up to shield her body, arms wrapped around her shins in an attempt to hold herself together.
The pain she felt in her heart had brought her to tears as soon as Henry had left for school and now she could not stop crying.
She felt completely devastated, desperate and she had no idea how to get out of this painful place she was caught in.

She was in love with Emma.
All attempts of getting rid of her feelings, of stuffing them down and locking them away – preferably forever – had failed.

She was in love with Emma Swan.
And she couldn't be.

Emma was her friend, her family.
Also, Emma was struggling with her own heartbreak.
God, this situation was so fucked up.
This could not be happening, because it could ruin literally everything.

She had given Emma such a hard time when they had gotten to know each other, pointing out again and again that she was not into women, just to fall for Emma in the end.
Oh, the irony.

Life was punishing her once again.
She had yet to understand how her feelings had snuck up on her like that without her notice, how Emma had become so essentially important to her.
Never had she thought she would end up in a situation like this – not after Daniel.

And here she was – in love with this amazing woman.
Craving her presence every minute of every day.
She needed Emma, she wanted Emma.
She wanted Emma in her life, longed for Emma's warmth, for her breathtakingly beautiful smile, for these sparkling eyes.

She would never have it though.
And Regina knew it.
And boy, did it hurt.

It hurt so much that she thought it might kill her one day.
This was torture.
Slow and painful torture.

She was aware that her son and Killian were right – she probably should tell Emma.
But she could not bring herself to do it, she was too scared of the reaction.
What if Emma would laugh about her confession?

Sure, it was unlikely, because Emma was too kind a person to do that, but that did not mean that Regina's mind was not providing worst-case scenarios anyway.
Would Emma even believe her if she told her?
What if Emma thought it was a trick? That she was after her money after all or something equally disgusting?
She could never handle that – if Emma accused her of using her.

And so she was stuck right where she was, crying on her living room floor, because she did not know what else to do with the pain, but to allow it to leak out with no witness other than herself.
God, she really needed to get a grip and pull herself together.
Emma was hurting too and she would need a friend, she would need her to be there.

That was what friends, what family did – they were there for each other.
And she would find a way to do just that.
No matter how much it would hurt.

She had promised to Emma – and even to herself – to always be there for her, but she had also sworn to herself that she would protect Emma.
At all costs.
And she had no intention of breaking one of these promises.
Ever.

She would shield Emma from pain to her best ability, would protect her from harm, even if it meant to follow Emma to the end of the world.
And if she had to take a bullet she would do it too.
At this point, Regina knew that she would do anything for Emma and not only because Emma would have her back as well.
No, she would do it because she wanted to, because the connection they shared was one of a kind and she could not even imagine leaving Emma's side.
Not anymore.

The thought of losing Emma had scared her from the beginning, but after everything that had happened it was simply no option anymore.
It would rip her apart.
It would rip Henry apart as well.
She might not be able to love Emma the way she wished she could, but she would make sure that Emma would always be a part of her life. And she would be the best friend to Emma she could be – till she would take her last breath.
But for now she would just cry.
-----------------------------------------------

At the same time, Emma was sitting on the couch in her own living room, wrapped in a blanket, crying bitterly.
She should be at work, but she had called Mary Margaret to cancel all her appointments for the day because the tears had come as soon as she had hit the shower in the morning.
And they had not stopped since.

She knew she should go and check on Regina after that debacle with Killian yesterday, but she could not do that either.
Thinking about Regina alone made her cry even more, made her heart heavier than it already was.

No, she had to stay away from Regina – at least until she could calm herself.
There was no way she would break down in front of her because then she would spill everything.

Hell, she had been so close to telling Regina yesterday.
So close.
But she was too afraid of the consequences to confess.

Then again Regina would probably know anyway.
Regina could have figured it out from what she had said yesterday, could she not?
Was that the reason why she had not shown up for coffee this morning?
It was possible, but Emma doubted it.

Not that Regina was not smart, but she did not think very highly of herself so she would most likely assume that it was someone else.
Not that that option was any better, but it would buy her some much needed time.
Time to get herself together, time to get a handle on her emotions.

She wished she could tell Regina the whole truth, but Emma remembered quite vividly how much it had stung when Regina had accused her of trying to buy her way into her pants.

No, she would not risk telling her.
What if Regina would still believe that everything had been nothing, but a scheme to get her way?
Or Regina laughing at her, not believing her?

No, she could not live with that.
She also could not live with scaring Regina away.
Simply because she could not lose her.
She could not lose her or Henry, she could not lose her family.
But what should she do?
What if she could not get her emotions under control?

God, this was one big mess.
And why did it have to hurt so much?

She might not be able to love Regina the way she wanted to, but they were friends, they were a family.
Why could that not be enough?
Why did she have to be so miserable when she had so much?
So much more than she had ever thought possible.

She had never felt like this, not even back in the day when she had been with Jade.
Before she had found out about the betrayal.
When her world had been okay, before her heart had been shattered into a million pieces.
Any yet she had never experienced anything like this.

Regina was everything.

She could remember how she had told Regina how she had no interest in her whatsoever because she did not do commitment.
Oh, the irony.
She had never been so committed to anything or anyone.
Not like this.
Not like the way she was committed to Regina and Henry.
To this little family of theirs.

Why had things to be so damn complicated all the time?
Of course she had to fall in love with the one woman she could never have.
And of course, her feelings had to haunt her, no matter if she was awake or sleeping.

This whole situation was driving her insane, but there was no way out of it, now was there?
Only time could help her heal – although at this point she was not even sure if that was true.

A lot of time had passed already.
Since the day she had discovered the true nature of her feelings for Regina.
But it had never gotten "better", just worse.
Her feelings had gotten stronger every day since.
Never had they started to fade.
Not even for a bit.

What if time would not work its magic?
What if things would only go "downhill" from here?
First of all – could it get any worse?

She saw Regina practically every day while fighting to keep her feelings under the surface while being as close as they were was a nightmare.
It was torture.
So, could it get worse?
Well, couldn't it always?!
Countless horror scenarios popped up in Emma's head – from Regina falling in love with some guy, who was not nearly good enough for her to her snapping and telling the truth to Regina being completely disgusted and leaving her.

The bare thought was unbearable and Emma knew she would do everything to make sure that Regina would never feel the need to turn her back on her.
She would make sure that no one hurt Regina ever again either, no matter what it might cost her.
Hell, she would practically die for that woman.
Or her son.

And since she could not love Regina, at least not like that, there was only one thing she could do – be there, be her friend.
Be her family.
And love her from afar, love her in secret.

Yes, it would hurt.
It would hurt a lot.
But at least she would be close enough to watch over Regina, to ensure she would be safe.
At all times.
Because in the end being a family had to be enough, no matter what else her heart desired.

She might not get the big happy ending, but life was not a fairytale after all.
And she had found a family to come home to every day, which was so much more than she had ever expected.
It would be enough, she knew it would be.

Of course, it did not mean that the pain would just stop, but she would learn to deal with it.
Tomorrow.
Today she allowed herself to cry.

Chapter Text

When Henry came back from school he found his mother asleep on the couch.
Tear streaks still evident on her face he decided to let her rest instead of waking her up like he had planned originally and headed over to Emma's penthouse.

The sight that greeted him there was not that much better though and he wondered what had happened this time.
He hoped that his mother and Emma had not gotten into a fight again, but Emma must have sensed his worries and assured him that she just had a crappy day and did not feel too well.

Of course, he had not believed her, he was not stupid.
Something was off, he could tell. He just had no idea what it was, but he would find out.
He had to be careful with his questions because clearly, Emma could not figure out that he was outright interrogating her, but he would get to the bottom of this.

Emma had been crying if her red-rimmed eyes were any indication at all, his mother had been crying as well – so much so that she had obviously worn herself out enough to fall asleep in the middle of the day.
And while Henry figured that his mother's condition had something to do with her feelings for Emma he was not sure what was going on with Emma herself.
He had his suspicions, but he had to confirm them before he could continue with his plan because if he was wrong it would end in a disaster.
Then he would only cause his mother more pain.
And that could not happen.

"Where is Tamo-tsu?", he decided to start with an easy question.

"Still with Mary Margaret. You know I left work early yesterday to check on your mom...and since I did not go into the office today he's still with her", Emma explained.

Henry giggled, "I bet he is home with David...he really loves our big bear."

A smile appeared on Emma's face. The first one today.
Our big bear. Our. Because we are a family.

"I think you are right, kid. I just wondered the other day how long it will take for them to get their own dog."

Henry giggled even more, "I think you have a point there. Can we cook dinner together?"

"Uhm...sure. What did you have in mind, kid?"

"Chicken curry?", he asked with a grin and Emma could not resist doing the same, "You really love my curry, huh? Well, I have to get changed the .because we need to do some grocery shopping I'm afraid."

"Awesome. I'll leave mom a note", he replied and headed for the door.

"Is she at work? I thought she'd be home", Emma said, more to herself than to Henry, but he caught up on it anyway.

He debated how much to reveal to Emma for a second before he shrugged, "No, she's home. But she's taking a nap."

Emma seemed startled by his answer but she recovered quickly, "Oh. Okay. Meet you at the elevator in five."
With that Emma disappeared into her bedroom and Henry took a deep breath.

Thank God Emma had not questioned him further, because if he had mentioned that his mother had been crying Emma would have gotten worried and would have insisted on checking on her, which was usually a good thing, but in this particular situation, he was not so sure if it would have helped them.
Both of them.
So he decided to stick to his original plan of evaluating the situation first.
------------------------------------------

Henry had succeeded in turning the grocery shopping into something fun by chasing Emma through the store and they had picked up Tamotsu on the way home, much to the boy's and the dog's delight.
Emma was just as happy to have the furry monster back because she had become quite accustomed to his presence and missed the dog dearly when he was not around.

Now that the ingredients were sliced and cooking Henry watched Emma like a hawk while the dog tried to steal some leftover chicken from the kitchen counter.

"I'm sorry that Milah had to go home. I like her, she's nice. And she has a funny accent", Henry stated carefully, waiting for Emma's response.

Emma only shrugged, "Yeah, she's great. But she has her life in London. She had to go back eventually. She belongs there."

"Don't you miss her? Because I thought you really liked her...like...liked her", he could not stop himself from saying it although he was well aware that it was a bold move.

Emma chuckled, "You really are too smart for your own good. Or at least for mine."

She chuckled again, "I know this has to be a little confusing for you, kid...especially since I told you that I liked Milah...kind of. But here's the thing, Henry. It wasn't meant to be. Milah and I...it doesn't work...because I'm not in love with her and you should be...in love I mean...if you want to be with someone. Do you understand that, kid?"

Henry nodded eagerly, "Yeah. I guess that makes sense. So, you are not sad because she went home?"

"No...well, I'm a lil sad...because I like Milah...just not like that", Emma frowned at her own explanation. She sounded like a dork.

The boy grinned, "Right. Because you are not in love with her. But she is your friend."

"Exactly", Emma agreed.

"So, why aren't you in love with her? She's pretty...she's also nice. And a doctor!"

Emma had to laugh out at Henry's enthusiasm, "Sorry to say that, kid. But you sound like my mother."

They both giggled, but then Emma turned serious again, "I'm sure you know that it's not important where someone comes from or what job they have...that does not automatically make them a good person. Milah is great, but she's not..."
Your mother.

"She's not the one you want", he suggested and Emma nodded, "No, she's not."

Henry eyed her closely.
Uh-huh.

"So, whom do you want?"

Emma's eyes went wide at his question, but she managed to croak out a "No one."

Though it was not very convincing, she had to admit that.

Sure.
Henry rolled his eyes when he was sure that Emma wouldn't look.
"Oh, okay...thought there might be someone else."
Like my mom.
"Seems I misunderstood", he shrugged it off as he had actually believed her, which he had not. Not even for a second.
"Oh hey, Emma...I think the rice is done."
--------------------------------------------

Dinner had been a weird affair altogether.
Henry had woken up his mother just in time and had told her there was no way she would miss Emma's chicken curry, especially since he had helped to cook it.
He had also pointed out that she looked pale and clearly needed to eat something.

But once Regina had entered the penthouse the tension in the room had started to grow and a heavy silence had fallen over them.
Not even Henry's attempts at conversation had been able to ease the mood, which had been quite surprising because usually, the boy could save pretty much any situation.
But not this time.

It had made Henry realize that he had to change his tactic because there was no way it would work if his mother could barely look at Emma and the other way round.
He had to get them talking too.
Conversation was the key anyway he figured.
If only he had known how right he was.

He was pretty sure that Emma was in love with his mother although he had no idea why he was so convinced by it. It was some sort of a feeling and he had learned to trust his intuition over the years.

"Can I spend the weekend with David and Mary Margaret?", he asked all of a sudden and caught both women by surprise.

"I don't know, Henry. I mean you are going camping with them next week already. Maybe they even have made plans? And I thought we could do something fun this weekend," Regina answered, careful to choose her words wisely because she did not want to make Henry feel like a burden.

"Okay. I just thought...because David said he wanted to go for a hike before our camping trip...but if you want to spend time together it's fine", Henry replied and grinned.

"You know what", Regina took his hand and squeezed it, "Maybe Emma can call Mary Margaret real quick and ask if it would be okay for you to stay over?"

She looked at Emma, who nodded, "Uh...sure. Give me a second."

Emma got up and left for her office to make the call.

"It's fine, mom, really. I'd love to hang out with you", he assured her once again.

"I know, sweetheart. I just remembered that I have to work on Saturday. So if David and Mary Margaret have time for that hike you might as well go", she smiled at him.

He nodded in understanding, "Okay, cool. Maybe you and Emma can check out that new burger place she wants to go to all the time once you are done with work."

Regina sighed heavily, "I don't know if that's such a good idea at the moment...things are...complicated."

"But mom...you are still friends", Henry pointed out, "And we are a family. You always say you want to do something nice for Emma...because she helped us so much. That's your chance...invite her to dinner!"

She wanted to decline, but Henry looked at her with so much determination that she caved after only a second, "You are right, Henry. I'll call for a reservation."

"Awesome."

Right that moment Emma returned with a smile on her face, "Mary Margaret is picking you up Saturday after breakfast...David and she are looking forward to seeing you."

"Yeah!", Henry jumped up and pumped his fist, "Don't make any plans for Saturday evening...mom is taking you to eat burgers."

"Henry!", Regina's face flushed with embarrassment, but it was too late.

Emma looked at her in confusion, eyebrow raised in expectation of an explanation.

"Henry is right. I thought we could check out that new burger place you can't seem to stop talking about. Consider it a small Thank you...since you've done so much for me...for us", Regina smiled at her son and then at Emma.

"That's really not necessary...I...", Emma tried, but Regina stopped her mid-sentence, "I insist."

"Very well", Emma agreed.

"Make sure to be ready at seven", Regina announced and watched Emma nod in agreement.

"Perfect."
Henry put his hand over his mouth in an attempt to stop himself.
He had not meant to say that out loud.

Both women stared at him in confusion, but he just shrugged and gave them his best innocent grin.
--------------------------------------------------

Regina had tried to give her dinner plans with Emma not too much thought, but once she entered the location for the planned photo shoot on Saturday morning the realization hit her with full force.
She would go out with Emma tonight.
Just her.
And Emma.

Henry would not be there to calm her down once she came back from work, he would not be there to do the talking if the conversation would stall once again.
Oh God, how on earth had her son convinced her to go for it in the first place?
This was a stupid idea.
She should cancel.

No.
No, she would not do that. This dinner was supposed to be a Thank you for Emma. Just a little something. She would not cancel.

Maybe she should invite the others?
Good one, Regina. Invite whom?
David and Mary Margaret are hiking with Henry, Killian will work even longer than you, and hadn't Emma mentioned the other day that Belle would accompany Robin Locksley to some event this weekend? That would leave Ruby...no. Definitely not.
For Emma's sake of course. It has nothing to do with me.

So, that left Regina.
And Emma.
Great, just great.

"Good morning, love...I brought you coffee. And I wanted to apologize again for the other day...I...I didn't mean to...you know", Killian entered the room and held the coffee-to-go cup towards her, but Regina did not even blink, too lost in thought.

"Regina."

No reaction.
He cleared his throat, nervously shifting from one foot to the other. How would he get her attention?
He would not touch her again, that much was certain. He had learned his lesson.
He had learned a lot more than he had wanted to that day.
Because clearly, Regina had suffered some massive trauma in the past to react to someone's touch like that.
That realization had given him a sleepless night or two – together with some horrible nightmares.
And his heart had broken for Regina.

The smell of fresh coffee worked its magic on its own and brought Regina out of her stupor and she grabbed the cup out of Killian's hand, startling him in the process.

"The photographer is late...again", he announced with a sigh, "The day he'll be on set on time I'll mark in my calendar...I swear."

His statement made Regina chuckle, "Might take a while for that to happen."

Killian sighed again, "I'm afraid so. Regina, I..."

"Don't. No need to apologize. You couldn't have known...it's okay. Just...don't do it again", she gave him an apologetic look of her own.

"I won't. I promise."

Regina nodded and took a sip of her coffee, her hand trembling slightly.

"Is everything alright, love? You seem nervous...or aren't you feeling well?"

Regina shook her head, "No, I'm good. Just a little...I don't know."
Should she tell Killian? Maybe he could give her some advise?

"I'm...Emma and I...we're going to dinner tonight...and I'm not sure if that's a smart idea", she said after a short internal debate.

"You asked her out?!", Killian clapped his hands excitedly.

"It's not a date", Regina tried to reason, "Henry suggested it...because Emma wants to go to that new burger place since forever...and she's done so much for us...I thought it was time to...you know...do something for her."

The make-up artist seemed to think about it for a moment before he concluded, "But Henry is with our charming couple this weekend...so it could be a date."

"And that is where you are wrong", Regina sighed, "It can never be a date. Because Emma is in love with Ruby."
She had never meant to say that, but that was the thing with the truth – sometimes it just came out.

Killian's eyes went wide, "Emma is what?! Why would you think that?"

"Because she said so herself", Regina's shoulders dropped in defeat.

"Let me get this straight. Emma told you that she is in love with Ruby?", Killian glared at Regina expectantly, but she could not look him in the eye so she dropped her head as well and mumbled, "Well, not quite...she said things with Milah would have never worked out because she is in love with someone else...that she has been for a while. And that she tried to distract herself because she can never be with that woman."

"But she never mentioned it to be Ruby?", Killian pressed on.

"No, but who else could it be? Think about Milah...leggy, brunette...sounds familiar? And Ruby is her best friend...and she is with Jefferson", Regina tried to reason, but her boss and friend stopped her with a gesture of his hand, "I think you got it all wrong, love. Because if I know one thing...with absolute certainty...then it's that Emma is not, under no circumstances, in love with Ruby."

Regina scoffed at Killian's comment.
He seemed so certain, so convinced. But if he was right – whom had Emma been talking about?
She was confused.

"Listen, darling. I know you outright despise the idea of telling Swan how you feel about her...but I promise you that you'll feel so much better if you tell her. She's suffering from an unrequited love as well, she'll understand. If anyone can understand what you are going through...it's Emma. She'd never judge you, you have to know that, Regina...you know her better than most of us."

"Maybe."
It was barely a whisper, but then Regina looked up, meeting Killian's warm eyes, "Do you know who it is? The woman she's in love with?"

"I'm afraid not, love. But maybe she'll tell you if you'll ask."
Of course, he knew exactly who it was and he could barely believe that Regina was too blind to see it. He was so very tempted to spill the beans, but he was not sure if Regina could handle the truth. Clearly, she was not ready to hear it, but he praid she would be once it happened.
Because he was certain that at least one of the two ladies involved would reveal her secret soon.
-------------------------------------------

"Emma..."
Ruby tried to get her best friend's attention for about five minutes – to no avail.

Emma was pacing her bedroom, clothes spread out all over her bed, "I just don't know what to wear. It's a freaking burger place...so I better not wear one of my fancy dresses or anything. Would be totally too much...but I don't want to appear too casual either."

"Jesus, Emma...it's just a date. Breathe", Ruby tried to calm her down, but the blonde only glared at her, "A date? It's not a date. It's much worse...it's dinner with Regina."

"Oh."
Understanding hit Ruby instantly and for a moment she seemed at a loss of words, but then she slapped Emma on the arm, "Wait! You asked her out and you didn't tell me?!"

"I did no such thing!", Emma defended herself and rubbed her arm, "She said she wanted to take me there because I've been talking about that place since forever...some kind of "Thanks" because I helped her out a little."

Ruby beamed, "That's really nice of Regina. But if you don't have a date...why do you stress so much about your outfit? It's not like you dress to impress then, right?"

Emma let herself fall onto the bed and sighed, "It's not that easy, Rubes...I want to look nice. Not because I want to get into her pants, but because she invited me and I want to make the effort to look halfway decent...simply out of respect for Regina."

"Damn", Ruby fell into the spot next to the blonde, "You really love her, huh?"

"Yeah, I do", Emma admitted and wiped a single tear from her cheek.

"Em, stop worrying. You look great...everything will be fine."
-------------------------------------------

Ruby gave her best friend her best smile while Emma studied herself in the mirror.
She had to admit that her outfit was acceptable and more important – comfortable.

Ruby had convinced her to wear dark blue jeans, a white tank top under a black button down shirt. Her red chucks were completing the outfit nicely, together with the light make up Ruby had applied to her face when her own hands had trembled too much.
A single braid highlighted her ponytail.
Emma almost felt confident – at least as long as she did not think about Regina.

"You can do this. It's going to be alright. Just have fun tonight, enjoy your burgers...you are friends. Hell, you practically raise that kid of Regina's together", Ruby tried to encourage her best friend, but all she managed was to make Emma frown.

"Whatever...let's talk about something else before I lose my mind. How are things with Jefferson?"

Ruby laughed bitterly, "I ended things the other night."

"I'm sorry, Rubes. Are you okay? I still think you'd make a great couple", Emma hugged her quickly.

Ruby shook her head, "I'm good...honestly. Did you know he has a kid? Because I sure didn't. And he wants to play house with Grace...and me. But I can't. I never wanted a family. That's not me, that's not who I am. You know me, Em...it would never work."

"Yep, I know, Rubes. You'll always be a lonely wolf...but isn't it ironic? You could get it all. The house, the kid, the family, the love...and you don't want it. And I want it so badly and can't have it."
Emma sighed heavily, "God, this is so messed up."

"It really is...but hey, Em...I better get going. I need to help Belle with her dress", Ruby announced with a wink.

"Sure. Thanks for helping me. I'll call you tomorrow."

Ruby laughed, "You better! I expect all the details."
That said she hugged Emma once more and left.
-------------------------------------------

Regina had picked her up at seven like she had said she would, wearing a white floral dress and sandals, her make-up light as well.
Her appearance had brought a huge smile to Emma's face and she had not been able to help herself – she felt like a teenager again.
A teenager on a first date.

Now that they were seated at the diner, waiting for their burgers to be served while they enjoyed their milkshakes and the feeling only intensified.
The situation was a bit awkward, tense, but as soon as they started to talk about Henry they found their "safe" topic and things got a bit better from there.
By the time their burgers arrived they were chatting about work, both of them laughing over something that had happened during the photo shoot earlier today.
It involved Killian ending up in the pool by accident and Emma had to use all her willpower not to start crying because she was laughing so very hard – about the image her mind had created of Killian looking like a drenched poodle, his eyeliner running down his cheeks.

Regina watched her closely, enjoyed the moment of joy and fun they were able to share.
Maybe this evening would turn out alright
And maybe she would find the courage to tell Emma one day.

"Gosh, I really feel like a teenager today...with the burgers and milkshakes and all", Emma announced all of a sudden just to close her eyes and wince. She silently cursed herself for the inability to keep her mouth shut, but it was too late.
The words could not be unspoken anymore.

"I agree. Me and my summer dress and you with your outfit...I feel a bit like...I don't know how to explain it", Regina replied with a shy smile.

"Yeah, I know exactly what you mean", Emma smiled right back at her, "And if I wouldn't know any better I'd say it's a date."

And that brought the awkwardness on once again.
Both of them dropped their eyes, an uncomfortable silence spreading between them.
Emma wanted to smack herself.
Why on earth was she trying to flirt with Regina?
She had to keep silent before she would scare Regina to death because she remembered all too well that Regina had told her once how uncomfortable it made her when women tried to hit on her.

Meanwhile, Regina was caught up in her own dilemma, trying to fight off the sadness she felt about Emma's comment.
If she wouldn't know any better...

Of course Emma knew better. Of course Emma would not even consider this a date.

When the silence became unbearable Emma decided to approach a different topic – one that would keep the conversation easy.
Or at least she hoped so.

"I...uh...I'll leave on Monday...to go to the cabin...Graham's cabin. I wanna check if everything is alright or if I need to have something repaired...stuff like that."

Regina nodded, "Sounds reasonable. How long will you be gone?"

"Only two or three days. Is it okay if I leave Tamo-tsu with you? I considered taking him but it's such a long drive...if I'd stay longer I wouldn't ask. But I don't want to drag him all the way out there for nothing. Because I'll be busy checking the property and
will come right back afterward. I can't afford to take off too much time from work at the moment, it's a busy time", Emma smiled apologetically, hoping Regina would buy the excuse.

The truth was that Henry would most likely be focused on nothing, but his camping trip with David and Mary Margaret and Emma did not want Regina to be alone. Or feel alone.
And she knew how much the brunette secretly loved the dog.

"No, it's fine. I'm sure I'll survive", Regina replied dramatically.

At that Emma had to chuckle and she remembered how Tamotsu had stolen the chicken leftovers from the kitchen counter the other day – while she had been cooking chicken curry with Henry.

"You might want to keep him away from the kitchen...then you'll have a chance at survival because I swear...that dog is hungry all day long."

Regina chuckled as well, "One could think he gets that from Henry."

"Well, they are both growing", Emma fired back, realizing that they had found a second "safe" topic.
Her dog, which was more like their dog anyway.
And so she continued sharing stories about Tamotsu from the office and how he seemed to enjoy stealing stuff and hiding it from Mary Margaret.
They shared a laugh at that and Emma felt immensely relieved.
Maybe the dinner and their evening were not lost yet.

"Oh, and you might want to watch out when you enter the apartment. The fur monster knocked Ruby over earlier today...at least she fell onto the couch...and it was quite funny to watch her lame attempts of getting away from him. He was so excited...he wouldn't let her leave", the memory made Emma laugh even more.

But Regina turned serious all of a sudden.

"Ruby was at your place today?"

No matter what Killian had said – she could not control her jealousy. Especially since she was so sure that it was Ruby whom Emma was in love with.

"Oh yeah...which reminds me...I have to clean up my bedroom once I get home...looks like a mess...and I really should try to check in with her before I leave for the cabin. She ended things with Jefferson and she said she was okay, but I'm not so sure", Emma sighed, unaware of how tense Regina had gotten.
-------------------------------------------

Regina could not breathe.
She did not even want to know what Emma and Ruby had done in Emma's bedroom.
And if that was not nightmare enough Ruby had also broken up with Jefferson.

God, she was doomed.
And she could not handle this.
Not for a second longer.

She pulled some bills out of her purse, slammed them onto the table and before Emma could say or react, stormed out of the diner, fighting to keep herself under control.
At least until she was alone.

"Regina, wait!"

When Emma finally caught sight of her Regina was through half of the nearby park already and Emma took off in a sprint right after the woman, whose behavior became more and more confusing.

"Please, wait", Emma stated and reached for Regina's arm, who turned around, eyes sparkling with fury, "Don't touch me!"

Emma took a step back immediately, hands help up in surrender, "I...just...Regina, talk to me. I don't understand."

"There is nothing to talk about, Miss Swan...this was a stupid idea."

"What? What was a stupid idea? Us having dinner together? You have to be kidding me! We've had dinner together more times than I can count for months now", Emma felt the headache coming.
God, this situation became less and less bearable.

"Just let it go, will you?", Regina gave her a challenging look, but Emma shook her head vehemently, "I can't. I can't let it go."

Regina opened her mouth to fire back a reply, but Emma beat her to it, "I don't know what's going on, but things have been weird...for weeks now. And I can't stand it anymore."

"Oh, so this is all about you now?", Regina challenged darkly.

Emma scoffed, "Oh, come on, Regina! As if you would have been happy lately. Don't even try to deny that you're miserable...everyone knows it. First I thought it was Milah...that you somehow thought I'd replace you or some bullshit or something like that, but that can't be it, right? Because Milah is gone and history...and you're still...I don't know...you're just so..."

Regina put her hands on her hips in an attempt to intimidate Emma, "I'm what?"

"Distant...moody...angry I guess...sad. And I really just want you to be okay. I want us to be okay. I want back what we had...I don't understand what happened", Emma explained, her voice filled with sorrow.

Regina's expression softened at the visible desperation and admitted weakly,"I don't know that we can go back there, Emma. I don't know if we can get us back."

"But why? Regina, help me to understand what happened! Because I'll do anything...anything at all...but I can't lose you!", Emma yelled out in frustration and Regina cringed, "I can't...I can't talk about this...don't make me. Please, don't make me."

Emma dropped her head, ready to give up, "It's me, isn't it? What did I do? Just tell me what I did, Regina...tell me and I'll try to make it up to you."

Regina sighed in frustration, "You didn't do anything. At least you did nothing wrong. You've been nothing, but good to me. To me and Henry."

Emma seemed not convinced, "Then I don't understand...if I didn't do anything...then what's wrong? You can tell me...we'll figure it out."

Regina was the one to shake her head this time, "No. This is something I have to figure out for myself."

"Bullshit! You're hiding something from me...I know it. Just spit it out!", Emma demanded.

"No."

"Regina, just fucking tell me!", Emma yelled.

"No!", Regina yelled back.

"What the hell is your problem?!", Emma screamed, her voice breaking.
God, she was so frustrated and desperate. Hurting and scared.
She needed to know.
Everything was better than this. Not-knowing was killing her.
She was ready to sell her soul over to the devil to fix whatever this was.

"My problem?! You want to know what my problem is?", Regina shouted, clearly too worked up for her own good, "I'm in love with you!"

The words were out of Regina's mouth before she could stop herself and her eyes grew wide in horror.
She had never meant to say it, Emma should have never found out.
But it was too late.

Emma felt like someone had slapped her right in the face or pulled the rug from under her feet.
She had expected a lot, but never that.

"I..."

She wanted to tell Regina that she was in love with her as well, she really wanted to, but the words simply wouldn't leave her lips.
She was too stunned, too surprised, by the unexpected revelation.
And then all the feelings she had tried to stuff down, the feelings she had tried to fight for so long came crushing down on her, drowning her in a pool of emotions that would bring her to her knees any second.

It was completely and utterly overwhelming and she could not handle it.
It was simply too much.
The desperation and the pain of the last months had a chokehold on her heart and not even the revelation of love could bring her enough relief to breathe again.
Mixed with confusion and surprise it made Emma's mind squirm and dash around in her head, fighting a battle with reason and understanding.

Emma tried with all her might to calm her raging mind, her racing heart, but to no avail.
Ultimately she panicked.
And so she ran.

Chapter Text

Emma darted through the park as if the devil would be after her.
She could not wrap her head around what Regina had blurted out, what Regina had outright yelled right into her face mere seconds ago.
How could that be?
Emma could not even begin to understand what was happening.

Regina was in love with her.

She ran.
And ran.
And then she stopped.

Regina was in love with her!

Why the hell had she stormed off like a maniac?
Regina was returning her feelings for heaven's sake!
She should be happy, celebrating. Screaming it from the rooftops.

Regina was in love with her.

This was good news, was it not?
Of course, it was.
Well, maybe it was.

She had panicked because all the different emotions she had felt in that moment of truth had almost buried her.
She had felt so much – from relief to joy to desperation.
God, how ironic it all was.

They were in love with each other and neither of them had dared to say it, which had caused them so much heartache and pain.
And to top it all she had bolted out of panic because Regina's unexpected confession had completely overwhelmed her.
She had fucked up
Big time.

Gosh, she was such an idiot.
What would Regina think?
Probably that she was disgusted by the mere idea, that she did not want to have anything to do with her anymore – if she knew Regina at all.
She had to make this right. She had to tell Regina.
And the truth this time.

No more deflecting, no more excuses.
With that thought in mind, Emma turned around and headed back to where she had come from, only to find Regina gone.
Dammit!
---------------------------------------

Emma had searched the whole park, had tried to call Regina twice only to be met with the brunette's voicemail.
She wanted to scream, but considering that she was standing in the middle of the street it probably would not be such a smart idea.
And so Emma decided to head home because there was still a chance that Regina would be there.
If she would not be then Emma would wait for her return.
And if she would wait all night.
She had to make this right.
---------------------------------------

Of course, Regina had not been home by the time she arrived there. Would have been too easy, would it not?
And so Emma had set camp right in front of her penthouse door to wait for her because she knew Regina would probably think she had ruined everything and Emma could not have her believe that for a second longer.

By the time she finally heard the elevator doors open on their floor, it was close to 2 am.
Emma jumped to her feet in an instant, just to stare right into Regina's bloodshot eyes and her heart broke once again.
God, she had really screwed up this time.

There was so much pain sparkling in usually warm, brown eyes that she could barely hold Regina's gaze, but she had to.
She had to say something before Regina would turn around and leave again because Emma was sure that Regina was just waiting for her to blink or breathe too loud.
Something that would give her reason to flee.

"Regina...can we...can we please talk?"
Emma felt like passing out right then and there because her heart was racing at a pace that could not be healthy anymore.

At that Regina made a first, hesitant step towards her apartment, "There is nothing to talk about, Miss Swan. It's late and I'm tired."

Emma closed her eyes because she felt like slapping herself.
Regina's reaction was in no way unexpected, but she had no idea what to do.
Or what to say.
Clearly, she could not just blurt out that she was in love with Regina too, because at this point it would only make Regina run. She was sure about that.
And she was also well aware that one wrong word could in fact destroy everything.

"You don't understand", Emma tried, "I...this is all...so messed up...one big misunderstanding...and...and I really...please, let me explain, Regina."

But Regina only glared at her, furiously at that, but at least she had not left yet, "What is there to misunderstand? It's not like you said anything. But I assure you, Miss Swan...your silence spoke volumes. And now excuse me, I really need to get some sleep."

That said Regina started to walk to her apartment, but before she could have walked past her, Emma's words brought her to a halt again, "Regina...you really don't understand...I mean how could you? You are right. I didn't say anything...and I shouldn't have run away...but I couldn't...it was all too much and I...I got scared, okay?"

"Scared?", Regina scoffed, "You sure you don't mean horrified? Disgusted?"

Emma's eyes grew wide because although she had known that Regina would conclude that, hearing her spit it in her face was so much worse, "What? Regina, no! I would never think that, feel like that."
Regina really did believe that, did she not? Of course, she would assume something like that.

"Just forget I said anything, to begin with", Regina commented with a sigh, "You are right, Emma. It is messed up. So just forget it. You shouldn't have made me say it in the first place. I should not have let you provoke me either. I shouldn't have said anything, I never meant to...so, just let it go. Pretend it never happened. Maybe then we can be friends again."

Regina's words cut through her like a knife, each and everyone hurting more than the one before and Emma dropped her head, "I can't. I can't forget...and I can't pretend either."

"Why the hell not?", Regina snapped.

Looking up, right into Regina's eyes once again Emma lost her courage completely. This was not the time and so she admitted defeat, knowing full well that it was a stupid move, but what else could she do? Revealing her feelings now would get her nowhere. Regina would probably think she would make fun of her or something and she could not live with that.
"Because I'm done pretending. I know you don't understand. and I also know that I owe you an explanation...but you clearly are not interested in hearing anything I have to say right now...so, go to sleep, Regina. I'm sorry for acting the way I did. I know it gave you a completely wrong impression. You're hurt...I get that. And it's my fault, again. I'm so sorry...good night, Regina."

She wanted nothing more than to grab Regina, drag her into her apartment and make her listen, but Emma was aware that she was in no position to touch Regina at the moment. Regina would probably freak out if she did and that would be a major setback, it would ruin everything they had built, so she turned around instead, unlocked her door, and slipped into her penthouse, a heavy sob escaping her lips when she closed said door behind her.
---------------------------------------

Regina headed towards her own apartment, dumbstruck by Emma's broken appearance.
She had not been able to ignore Emma's heartbreaking sob, but she was so furious and worked up as well as hurting that she did not find it within herself to care.
She was about to put the key into the lock when it struck her – she was furious!

She was angry and she wanted that explanation.
She needed that explanation.
And that's why she turned on her heel and stormed back to the penthouse, just to knock only a few seconds later.
---------------------------------------

Emma hastily wiped the tears from her face and pulled the door open, not knowing what to expect.
Except for the fact that Regina had to be the one on the other side.

Without so much as a word Regina entered the penthouse, her tense posture causing Emma to flinch.

"Do you want something to drink? Tea maybe?", Emma offered, careful not to invade Regina's personal space, who eyed Emma closely for a moment, "What I want is the truth. I think you owe me that."

Emma gulped, but nodded, "I guess that's only fair."

So the moment had come after all. She had to tell. If only she could get herself to say it.
Where was her courage when she needed it?

"The truth is", Emma closed her eyes and took a deep breath, struggling for words.
There was no way out of this, now was there? No, there really was not. And Regina was right – she deserved to know.

"The truth is", she looked straight at Regina, because she owed her that too, "The truth is...I'm in love with you too. I've been for a while now."

There.
She had said it and for a moment Emma felt proud.
But then she caught sight of Regina's face, which had paled considerably within a second and worry replaced every other feeling she might have had a moment ago.

"I need to sit down", was all Regina said before she stumbled over to the couch to do just that.

Her fury, her anger gone.
As if somebody had wiped it away in one swift move.

Emma felt weak in the knees as well and followed suit, making sure to keep a safe distance from Regina, who seemed to be struggling to stay conscious at this point.
A heavy silence fell over them while the realization that they were in love with each other slowly sank in, burdening them in a way they would have never expected.
All this time they had thought they were miserable because their feelings would not be reciprocated. That they would have to deal with their pain and that would be it. That nothing would ever come from it.
Learning that their feelings for each other were mutual – well, that opened a new can of worms entirely.
And it left them both asking themselves one and the same question.
What now?

It was Regina who broke the silence in the end, "Why didn't you say anything?"
Her mind was still trying to wrap her head around Emma's confession, especially since she had been so sure that it was Ruby whom Emma was in love with. Could it really be her?
Why would Emma like her? She was broken, she had done some really disgusting things in the past. She was not nearly good enough for Emma. Hell, she would never be – no matter how much she had changed.

"Are you kidding me?", Emma looked at her and chuckled, "I was scared out of my mind. That I would scare you to death...that you'd be disgusted or whatever. That you'd run for the hills. Remember when you accused me of only being nice to you because I wanted to get you into my bed? How on earth could I have risked it? How could I have said anything when I thought you'd leave as soon as I would since you always were so uncomfortable when women hit on you?"

Regina dropped her head in shame, "I'm sorry. I..."

"It's okay. I understand. I always have. But why didn't you tell me?", Emma asked expectantly.

"Me? How could I've told you? As you said, women hitting on me had me freak out all the time...and then...when I realized that I...that I have feelings for you...I was terrified...it took me a while to get used to the thought...that I had feelings for someone at all...and that it was a woman...and then that it was you...of all people...I mean...it's not a bad thing that it's just...but you are my friend and", Regina shut her mouth, embarrassed by her own rambling.

"I get it", Emma assured quickly, "That was the other reason why I never told you. Besides the fact that I was so sure you could never feel the same. I thought...if I said anything...it would ruin everything."

Regina nodded in understanding, "Sounds familiar. When Milah showed up...I...it hit me with full force how much I care about you...and I lost my handle on my emotions completely...as you might have noticed."
She chuckled bitterly, ashamed of her own jealousy.

Emma chuckled awkwardly as well, "I've noticed, but I would have never expected that it was because you were...jealous or something. Well, at least not in that sense. I thought you were scared that I'd forget about our family and stuff, that I would replace you...which is the absurdest idea...like ever...nothing or nobody can ever replace you."

Regina fell silent once again because she did not know what to say. She had not the slightest idea what Emma could possibly see in her.

"I'm sorry for running off", Emmy admitted after a while and cleared her throat nervously.

"Then why did you?", Regina could not hide the hurt in her voice and Emma flinched, "I...uhm...I panicked? When you said that, you know... you are in love with me... at that moment it was all too much. So many emotions crashed down on me. I was so relieved and I felt unbelievable joy but there was also the desperation, the heartbreak I've battled over the last months...and so much more. I...I couldn't handle it and I didn't know what to do. I was too overwhelmed to think...I guess. So I ran. I know that doesn't make it right and I assume it made you feel pretty bad...I'm so sorry."

"It's alright...I...understand", Regina admitted, wondering how she would have had reacted if their roles would have been reversed. She might have fainted. Hell, she nearly passed out earlier when Emma had confessed that she had feelings for her too.

But Emma shook her head vehemently, "It's not okay, Regina. What I did was stupid. I acted like a fool. Again. And when...when it hit me what I was doing I ran back but you were gone. I thought you might be home...but you weren't. So I waited...and here we are."

"And here we are", Regina repeated with a sigh, "But the question is...what now?"

Emma shrugged helplessly.
She really did not know how to answer that.
Yes, they were in love with each other and while usually, that would be a reason to celebrate, she was not sure if it was in this particular situation.

If it would be any other person she would pull them into her arms right now, maybe there even would be kissing.
But this was not any other person – this was Regina.
And with Regina everything was different.
Because Regina had this awful past and that made all of the above pretty much impossible right now.

They had hugged each other before, but this was a completely new situation and she had no clue where to go from here.
Well, that was not entirely true – Emma was very much aware that now that they had said it out loud, now that they had confessed their feelings for one another, they could not take it back.
So they could not go back to simply being friends either.

That was the thing with the truth after all.
It was like Pandora's box – once you open it you have to deal with the consequences.

"I just don't understand how you...how you could be interested in someone...like me", Regina whispered all of a sudden and the words hit Emma like a bucket of ice water.

She turned sideways, tempted to take Regina's hand, but not nearly brave enough to do so. At least she managed to meet Regina's gaze and hold it, "Regina. You have to know that you deserve to be loved. You do. I'm aware that you don't think too highly of yourself, but Regina...to me you are an outstanding woman. You are so brave and strong...and smart. You are also kind and loving. Caring. Compassionate. You're an amazing mother...and...don't freak out on me now...you're insanely beautiful as well. What's not to love about you?"

Regina ducked her head, but could not hide her blush, "I'm broken. I'm..."

"No, Regina. You are not broken", Emma insisted, "You have flaws, yes. We all have them. Nobody is perfect. And you've suffered a massive trauma...hell, more than one...and that causes you problems, that's understandable...but you are not broken. You might have been broken once but you've also put yourself back together. It might not be perfect but you don't have to be. None of us are. But you are not broken. You are still here...you're still fighting."

Silence spread in the penthouse once again and the tension rose with every second that ticked by.

Until Regina sighed heavily and then looked at Emma, sadness shining in her eyes, "I don't think I can do this. Being in a relationship I mean."
And while she said it she watched Emma's heart break, while she said it she also felt her own breaking as well.

"Let's face it, Emma. There's more to a relationship than having dinner together and holding hands. There's the physical aspect. There's also the emotional aspect...and I'm not even sure if I can handle the feelings stuff. I don't even want to think about the rest."

Emma could not stop herself from scooting closer to Regina at that, "Regina, don't get me wrong because I would never force anything on you. I hope you know that. But don't give up on this just yet...or say 'no' from the beginning, because you have doubts and fears. I have them too. I'm scared out of my mind because I'm not really good with emotions either. It takes time to settle and adjust to changes...and...the physical aspect. There's no need to talk about that or worry about that at this point. This is not about sex, this is about so much more. This is about us. We've come so far since we've gotten to know each other. We hugged, we held hands. We even slept in the same bed together. All of the things you said you are not capable of. So, just give yourself the time to get comfortable with what you feel...and see where it leads us from there?"

Regina sighed again, "Emma, please listen to me. It means so much that you have so much respect for me and you are right...we've come so far...but there's no guarantee that I will ever be able to have a halfway 'normal' relationship. The other day I freaked out on Killian although I trust him and I know he would never harm me...and yet I totally snapped. Maybe I'll get to a point where I can kiss you or have you touch me without getting a heart attack or whatever, maybe not. But nobody's patience is endless. I'm not that naive and you are not a nun. You have needs...hell, everyone has them. Except if you are as damaged as me. That's nothing to be ashamed of but that's a real issue for me. And not one that can be fixed easily...or fixed at all. Because I just don't know that yet. I'm also not good at sharing as the recent events have proven and I don't know if I can take the risk of trying...because let's say we date...and it goes well...but at some point, we realize we'll never be able to move forward because of me...don't you think we would be even more heartbroken then now? Besides that, we'd lose our friendship...and there's Henry to consider as well. You said it yourself...there's no bigger commitment than a child. And while you already are committed to us...it's still different when you are in a relationship."

"I know", Emma whispered, "I know all that, Regina. And I admit that it was easier when I thought you would not reciprocate my feelings...because I did not have to deal with all these possibilities and risks. But the point is, I know now...and honestly...I can't go back to simply being friends knowing what could be...knowing that you are in love with me...can you?"

"I'm not sure", Regina admitted weakly, "I really don't know. But what I do know is that we can save our friendship now...but if we take this further and fail...we might not be able to. And that terrifies me the most. Besides, Henry would never forgive us and you know that."

Emma nodded, "I'm very well aware of that. Of all of it. I guess it's a good thing that I'm going to the cabin for a few days. It will give us time to think about the whole situation. About what we want and what we are willing to risk, what we are willing to do. Just please, Regina...try to be open-minded about this whole situation. Can you...can you promise me that? To just think about it without being all pessimistic...that's all I'm asking."

"I can...try", Regina answered honestly before she got up, "But I really think I should go now...we both need some rest. All this talking has been draining."

"I agree. But see...that's another thing we've gotten better at...talking", Emma stated and gave Regina a small smile.
---------------------------------------

Regina nodded and squeezed Emma's shoulder on her way out.
Only for a second, but it was a touch nonetheless.
And it made Emma wish even more that Regina would see reason.

Every relationship came with risks.
With the risks of failing at some point.

But of course, Emma was also aware that Regina was right.
There were so many things to consider, especially when it came to Henry.

Her own issues after her relationship with Jade were a problem too if she was honest, but of course – the big obstacle was and would always be Regina's past and all the horrible things she had gone through.
And while they had managed to get over every obstacle so far even Emma had to admit that this was the one obstacle she herself was not sure they could get over.
She had been so convinced that they could make it work when Regina had entered the penthouse earlier, but now that she had listened to Regina's arguments, now that she knew about Regina's doubts and fears Emma was not so sure anymore.

Things had been utterly complicated lately and their friendship had barely survived it.
They were standing on thin ice right now.
What if they would risk too much?
What if they would lose it all?
What then?

Chapter Text

Regina had fallen asleep only seconds after she had made it to her bed, much to her own surprise, because she had been sure she would not be able to sleep at all.
But obviously, the events of the evening had taken even more of a toll on her than she had thought.

When she woke up she realized that she had not slept too long though since it was not even 8 am.
She also realized that she had not felt that miserable in a long time and yet she also felt so utterly relieved, it was truly ridiculous.

If she was honest Regina was glad that the truth was finally out, but at the same time, it scared her to death.

She was in love with Emma.
And Emma was in love with her.

That was a good thing.
Well, usually that was a good thing.
But it was not nearly as simple for her, nothing was ever simple for her since Daniel.
Of course, Emma was right – she had come so far, they had come so far together.
And she would never know what could be if she would not risk it.
Regina just was not sure if she was willing to take that risk because she wasn't even sure if she could handle it in the first place.

She needed time to think, needed time to come to terms with this whole situation before she could make a decision and she was grateful that Emma would give her that time.
But there was this one question that would not leave Regina alone anyway.
Their feelings were mutual, they were in love with each other and she was not sure if they could go back to simply being friends again with that knowledge.
What if telling each other the truth would ultimately tear them apart?

And although she knew she should not do it she headed for Emma's penthouse anyway.
She needed to see her, needed to talk to her, needed some kind of reassurance that they would survive this – as a family.
-------------------------------

Emma stared at her packed bags, wondering if it was the right thing to do to leave in all this chaos.

She needed the time though because everything was so overwhelming at this point that she could not go on without taking a break.
Without taking a moment to breathe.

A knock on the door startled her out of her thoughts and Emma made the few steps to open said door, just to find Regina standing in front of her.
Regina's eyes fell onto the bags and Emma could see fear washing over Regina's face instantly.

"I'm going to the cabin, remember?", Emma stated carefully and it took Regina a moment to register those words before she nodded, "You're leaving early."

"Yeah, checked the weather report earlier and it said there are some nasty storms coming...so I thought I better leave while the weather is still good", Emma shrugged helplessly.

For a few minutes, they stood there in silence, both of them contemplating what to say.

It was Regina who broke the spell in the end, "When will you come back? Two or three days you said, right?"

"Uhm...well...the thing is...with the weather and all...Mary Margaret is clearing my schedule as we speak. I might stay a bit longer", Emma replied, uncomfortably shifting her weight from foot to foot.

Regina's face fell even more, "I see."

"Please, Regina", Emma started and reached out with a shaking hand to take Regina's, "Please, understand. I feel horrible for leaving but we need it, don't we? Time apart I mean. We have a lot to think about...the both of us."

Regina's head dropped, "You're right, I know that...but...that doesn't mean I have to like it, now do I?"

Emma gave Regina's hand a soft squeeze, "No, I guess you don't have to like it. And let me tell you...I don't like it either."

That statement brought a small smile to both of their faces.

"I better get going", Emma said and let go of Regina's hand, missing the simple contact immediately, "I'll try to call you once I'm at the cabin but don't freak out if you don't hear from me because last time I was there...there was zero phone reception...but maybe they've improved things in the area by now."

Regina's heart sank even more.
So that meant that she probably would not be able to talk to Emma at all while she was gone.
Oh God.

"Tamo-tsu is out on the balcony...or should I take him with me?", Emma asked all of a sudden and Regina almost jumped, "No...no, it's fine. I look forward to taking him on a walk or two."

Emma nodded, grabbed her bags, and headed for the door, "Could you please lock up when you leave? You can stay though...whatever you feel like...you have a key after all."

Regina nodded as well, "Be safe, Emma. I'll see you...well...when you come back."

"Take care of yourself, Regina. See you soon."

Emma turned and headed for the door, but Regina's words made her stop, "Emma...will...will we be okay?"

Regina looked as desperate as she sounded and Emma had trouble turning around once again to face Regina, but she did it in the end, "I don't know."

It was the truth because she really did not know and maybe that was what made it hurt so much.
-------------------------------------

Regina had to close her eyes when Emma finally stepped out of the penthouse, kept her eyes shut when she heard the door close, battling with the feeling of loss.
All this time she had been scared that she would lose Emma, but when she opened her eyes again to stare at the penthouse door she realized that she probably already had.
-------------------------------

Henry had sensed right away that something was wrong when he had come home in the afternoon and although Regina had not wanted to tell him about the mess she was currently in he had not backed off and she had given in in the end.
Of course in a child-friendly version, but he got the concept of the problem at hand.
There was no point in lying to her son anyway.
And Henry surprised her once again.

"I get it, mom. You're scared that things don't work out and that you'll lose Emma. But I don't think you will", Henry stated after thinking about what his mother had told him for a while.

"You can't know that, Henry."

"Mom, we are talking about Emma. She has never given up on us...on you...even when you were not really nice to her. She always came back. Why would she give up now? We are family, even if the two of you are not together...we'll always be a family."

Henry sounded so convinced and grown-up, it startled Regina for a moment. Maybe he was right?

"It is your decision to make and I know that. But mom...I want you to know...whatever you decide...I'll always love you. And if, for some reason, things with Emma don't work out...I'll still love you. Because you are my mom...and I'm proud of you."

Regina hugged him close, a tear sliding down her cheek, "I love you too, Henry. More than anything."
-------------------------------

The first few days of Emma's absence had been okay. Kind of.
No.
Whom was she kidding?
It had been pure hell from the moment Emma had left.

She missed Emma in a way she had never missed anyone before and the more time went by the more she could feel it.
But at least she had Henry, who tried everything to cheer her up and distract her, and sometimes he even succeeded.

Work was helpful too because it kept her busy during the day and in the evening they would take Tamotsu for long walks, chatting about God and the world and Henry sharing his excitement over his camping trip with David and Mary Margaret.
The worst hours were the ones where she would lie awake, trying to fall asleep – to no avail, because all Regina could think about was Emma and their completely messed up situation.
And the more she thought about it the more confused she got.
Needless to say that Regina was not closer to answering the question of what she wanted than when Emma had left and it frustrated her to no end.

By the time Thursday came around and Henry left for his long-awaited camping trip with Mary Margaret and David things only got worse.
No more distracting chats with her son, no more deflecting.

She had not heard a word from Emma in days and it made Regina's heart ache in ways she had never experienced before.
Deep down she had hoped that Emma would be back before Henry would leave, but obviously, she had no such luck.
And Regina found herself wishing more and more for a way of contacting Emma to beg her to come home.
To come back to her.

She had even tried to call Emma once, or maybe twice, just to be greeted by her voicemail.

Regina felt like crying, but then again – she had cried so much over the last few weeks that she was sick of it.
She needed to focus and she needed to make a decision because Emma might be away now, but she would return eventually.
And by then she better had a clue about what she expected to happen now that the truth was out, so they could face the consequences head-on.
But she would not be able to sort it out all by herself and Regina knew it.

Where she would have tried to ignore that fact in the past she would not do it this time – simply because she had friends now.
Friends she could turn to, friends that would help her and stay with her, hold her hand if necessary – and no, it was not just Emma.
And at this moment she was truly thankful for that because clearly, she could not talk to Emma about this. At least not yet.
First, she needed to put things into perspective.

That was why she called Killian a few minutes later, asking him if he would be available for dinner and some advice and he agreed before Regina had been able to finish her sentence, much to her relief.
He would head right over and the knowledge alone calmed Regina's nerves immensely.
She would not be alone in this.
-------------------------------

Dinner had gone well and they had talked about some projects that were ahead at work, but then Regina had not been able to keep quiet any longer and she had told Killian about recent events with Emma.
He had not been too surprised to hear that Emma was in love with her, which had her scoff for a moment, but then again – Emma and Killian had been friends forever.
Of course, he had seen it or at least suspected it.

Now they were sitting on the living room couch, Killian watching her every blink, waiting for Regina to continue.

When she did not say anything for about ten minutes he cleared his throat carefully, "What's going on in that beautiful head of yours, love? You are in love with Emma and Em is in love with you...you should be celebrating, not spending time apart."

"It's not that easy", Regina whispered and sighed.

"Because you're making it complicated", Killian replied, eyeing Regina expectantly.

She shook her head, "No, I don't...well, maybe I do...a little. But Killian...you need to understand...I...I have a really messed up past...and it's not that Emma doesn't understand it because she does. As far as she is capable of...she knows it all...but...there are things, things I can't handle because of that past...and that would affect our relationship too."

"You are talking about physical abuse, don't you?", the question was out of his mouth before he could have stopped himself, "I'm sorry. You don't have to answer that. It's none of my business...I just...well, I figured because of what happened when...when I tried to...you know...grab your arms."

Regina dropped her head in shame, "Yeah. It's a lot more complicated than that though."

Killian nodded in understanding, "That's nothing to be ashamed of, love. I'm sorry you had to go through whatever it was you experienced. Clearly, it has been pretty bad if you still react so strongly to it...nobody should suffer through something like that. But you and Emma...I've seen you hug...or holding each other's hands...so, you are comfortable with her on some level, aren't you?"

"I am. It took a while though", Regina admitted weakly, "But you know...relationships are more than holding hands and occasional hugs. I don't know if I'll ever get to a point where I can handle more than that. I mean I can barely deal with my feelings, with being in love with Emma...but the physical thing...that's...a completely different thing altogether."

Killian seemed lost in thought for a moment, "So, the problem is that you have some issues...with physical contact...and that you don't know if you'll ever be able to have sex with Emma in case you would decide to give this a try...is that correct, love?"

Regina hesitated for a second, but then she nodded, "Yes. It's not the only aspect to consider, but it's the biggest problem I'd say. Of course, we have to consider Henry and our friendship. There are so many risks and I'm not sure if I'm willing to take them...but even if I would be, even if I would dare and risk it...what if we end up realizing that I'll never be okay with Emma touching me? Or me touching Emma? What if we are happy, but can't get over that particular obstacle...I mean...all these feelings scare the hell out of me, but I'm getting better in that department...but the physical thing would be an experiment so to speak...and it might as well fail...and then what?"

"Can I ask you a question, Regina?"

She looked at him in confusion, not sure where Killian wanted to take this conversation.
But then again she had called him for advice, for help and that was what he was trying to do, right?

"Go ahead."

"Are you attracted to Emma?"

Well, that was the last question Regina would have expected and she had to admit that she had no idea. She had not really thought about it until now.
Yes, Emma was a beautiful woman, stunning even. And there might have been one or two occasions, especially while Milah had been around, where she had wished that Emma would be kissing her...but she had not thought about having sex with anyone in forever.
Not since Daniel and what he had done to her.

"I...I don't know. I thought about...kissing her...and I guess it didn't scare me as much as I thought it would. But I've never imagined...you know. But Emma is beautiful...I think she's the most beautiful woman I've ever seen", Regina said after a few moments of consideration.

"So you are not outright disgusted by the mere thought of kissing her or her touching you...your thoughts did not send you into a panic attack or anything, correct?", Killian wanted to know.

Regina took a deep breath and closed her eyes.
And for a moment she could see it.
Emma's fingertips sliding down her arm, the gesture soft and caring. Loving.

She gasped when she opened her eyes again, "No, I don't think so. I know Emma would never hurt me. It's just...there has always been this irrational fear...that people would stop being nice at some point...like he did...and that everything would turn into pure hell once again."

"I understand", Killian replied, reaching his hand out to offer it to Regina.

She took it slowly and he squeezed it reassuringly, "It makes sense...but you are right. Emma would never hurt you. I was wondering..."

"What?" Regina looked at him, curiosity shining in her eyes, but also worry.

"Love, you have to know that I mean well. I don't want to offend you or anything but have you ever thought about...about going to therapy? About seeing a psychiatrist? Maybe they could help you deal with what you've been through", he stated carefully.

Regina sighed, "I've thought about it...back then when Henry was still an infant...but I couldn't afford it. Maybe I should consider it after all."

Killian retrieved his wallet from the back pocket of his jeans and pulled a business card out of it, "In case you want to go for it...call Wendy. She's a good friend of mine. I'm sure if you mention that I've sent you. She'll make an appointment for you right away."

Regina took the card from his hand and studied it for a moment.
Maybe she would call this Wendy Darling.
At least she would think about it.

"How do you know her?"

Killian laughed, "Did her makeup for a few events of course. But the first time I met her I was there to see her father. He was a psychiatrist too."

Regina's eyes grew wide, "You went to therapy?"

Killian nodded, "Yes. I went through some shit too when I was younger. It's not easy being gay. Well, it was even harder back then when I was a teenager. But he helped me a great deal...and I'm glad I found the courage to seek help in the first place."

"I'm sorry", this time it was Regina who squeezed Killian's hand.

"It's alright, love. It's all in the past now. I worked hard and I got what I wanted. Mostly", he stated with a smile, "Which reminds me...what do you want, Regina? All your issues aside, if you did not have to worry about them...what do you want?"

She expected to need a moment or two to think about a proper answer, but the words just started to fall from her lips immediately, "I want Emma to come home. God, I miss her so much. You have no idea. It hurts. I mean I miss Henry too but that's different. He's my son and I always miss him when he is not around...but Emma...I crave her presence. She makes me feel safe and warm. Content. I want her to come back and...if my stupid past wouldn't be in the way...I guess I'd want to be with her because I can't imagine being without her. Now that she is gone and I can't even hear her voice I've realized how much I truly want her in my life...I want her...to be with me. With no one else."

There it was.
The truth she had tried to deny for so long, but now it was out.
And like before it could not be unsaid.

"Well, darling, I think you don't need me to tell you what that means...because you've already figured it out. The answer to your question, I mean. The question you really need to answer is...what are you willing to do to get there? To make it happen. Because clearly, there's a piece of work ahead of you."

Regina nodded in understanding.
She would have to give this some real thought because she was aware that she had to go to great lengths to get to where she wanted to be.
-------------------------------

When she showed up at work on Monday she was quite anxious – for different reasons.
Emma had not returned from the cabin until now and she began to worry about Emma and her well-being.
But the main reason was that she had thought about everything she had talked to Killian about Thursday night and after several long walks with Tamotsu to clear her mind she had called this Wendy Darling, who had agreed to see her this afternoon.

She would have never expected to get an appointment that fast, but once Wendy had learned that Killian had told Regina to call her in the first place it had all happened so fast.
And she was glad because she had waited long enough.
She only hoped that she had not waited too long.

"Is everything alright, love?", Killian appeared right next to her with a cup of coffee in hand and she took it gratefully, "Thanks. You are the best. Any chance I can leave half an hour early today?"

"Sure thing, darling. Is Emma back home?"

Regina shook her head, "Sadly no. But I have an appointment with Wendy."

A smile appeared on Killian's face, "I see. Good for you, love. Just let me know once you are ready to leave and it will be fine."

"You are the best boss that exists, you know that, right? And an even better friend", Regina stated, tears welling in her eyes.

"You're welcome, love. Anytime", he turned to leave, but then he stopped dead in his tracks and turned again to face a confused Regina, "You are in charge Friday afternoon because I need to go to the airport. I trust you can handle that fashion shoot by yourself."

"What? You want me to...to...the others will never accept that", Regina sounded as insecure as she felt.

"Then make them. I know you can. And I really need to go to the airport", Killian on the other side sounded completely convinced.

"What are you doing at the airport anyway?"

Killian smirked, "I have to pick up a Neal Cassidy. Apparently he was a friend of Graham's...and that sneaky bastard convinced him to plan the fairytale wedding of our little pixie-haired Snow White. From what I understood it's Graham's gift to the happy couple.

"He got them a wedding planner?", Regina chuckled.

"Not just any wedding planner. Neal Cassidy seems to be one of the best."
-------------------------------

Her first session with Doctor Wendy Darling had been painful, but it had also lifted a heavy weight off of her shoulders.
Especially since the psychiatrist was positive that they could work on Regina's issues, that there was hope for her to get better.

They had agreed upon a schedule that would work in Regina's favor – she would go see Wendy Darling once a week on Wednesdays after work, which was perfect because Wednesdays she usually finished early and it was also Wednesdays Henry went over to spend time with David right after school so she would not have to worry about that either.

Yes, things started to look up for Regina and she felt like hugging the world.
That was until she unlocked her apartment door.
Because once she caught sight of Emma, who looked like hell, dark circles under her eyes, a certain loss of weight clearly evident, Regina's heart dropped.

"Emma."

It was barely a whisper.

"Regina...we need to talk."

Chapter Text

Regina paled visibly.
She feared that her knees would give out on her any second.

"Regina, we need to talk."

Fear was wrapping itself around her throat, choking her earlier optimism and hope right out of her.
We need to talk – that never meant anything good and everybody knew that.
Oh God.

Regina closed her eyes, battling against the tears.
She would not cry.
No matter what Emma would tell her.
She would not cry.

Emma's long absence should have told her everything, to begin with.
How had she allowed herself to become so optimistic when Emma had not given her any indication that it could be warranted.
If anything Emma had shown her the cold shoulder – she had not called, had not written, had not come back as planned, but much later.
God, she was so naive.

"Regina, would you please sit down? You're making me nervous", Emma's voice was small, pleading and Regina could barely suppress the bitter chuckle which wanted to escape her lips.

She was making Emma nervous? It was more the other way round.
But she took a seat on the couch anyway, careful to put a safe distance between Emma and herself.

Emma instantly scooted closer, which had Regina panic slightly, but before she could react Emma took her hand and squeezed it softly, "I need you to listen to me...and closely."

Regina felt frozen, unable to speak or even blink, but she managed to nod after a few seconds.
She heard Emma taking a deep breath and pressed her eyes shut firmly, awaiting what everyone would await after We need to talk.
Namely the worst.

"I've been thinking and theorizing for a week...thinking about pros and cons, about reason, consequences and God knows what", Emma began, sounding as tired as she looked, "Needless to say it lead me to no real conclusion, but a bunch of sleepless nights. And I've been working out a lot, went for hikes and runs...to clear my head."

"And you forgot to eat properly", Regina interrupted, making it clear that Emma's poor appearance had not stayed unnoticed.

Emma shrugged, "I didn't pack enough food for a week and I was too lazy to drive to the next town...to do some shopping...because I told myself every day that I would go back home."

"Why didn't you?", Regina asked, fully aware that the answer might break her. But she had to hear it nonetheless.

Emma dropped her head, "Because I didn't know what to tell you. I wasn't sure what I..."

"Do you know now?"

Regina held her breath.
Here goes nothing.

When Emma did not say anything Regina forced herself to look at her, just to catch the desperation in Emma's eyes.
It startled her how small and fragile Emma looked at that moment, how terrified and it made Regina wonder if she had misjudged the situation.
It would not be the first time.

Clearly, it was her turn to squeeze Emma's hand, to encourage Emma to tell her what lasted so heavy on her heart.
And so she did just that.
Emma's grip on her hand tightened immediately, holding onto her like the lifeline they had been for each other time and time again over the months.

"I can't lose you, Regina."
It was barely a whisper, but it could not be overheard in the otherwise completely quiet room.

"I can't lose you and what we have", Emma continued, "But I can't go back to being friends either. Because I'm in love with you, Regina. And it hurts to know that you feel the same for me...but that our overthinking and theorizing might keep us apart."

"Emma", Regina started, but was interrupted by Emma the same second, "Please, let me finish before I lose the courage."

Emma waited for a moment and when Regina did not say anything else she continued, "I know you are tempted to deny us this chance but Regina...finding love has become rare these days. I know it's not going to be easy and there will be obstacles and it might be hard at times. But I believe we can do it...together with Henry. We can become a real family, I know we can. And I'm willing to do whatever it takes...to help you...with your issues or whatever you need. I'll give you all the time in the world to get comfortable with whatever you want to do...one step at a time...no rush...no pressure...and we'll deal with the whole physical aspect once we are ready to cross that bridge."

Regina opened her mouth to say something, but Emma shook her head, "I know. I know...you might never be ready to cross that bridge. I'm aware of that. And if that happens...we'll find a solution for that too. Together. Because there's always a way...but I refuse to give up on you...on us...without a fight. We can do it and I think we owe it to Henry...to try. We can't teach him to run away from all the potentially good things in life because we are scared. And I know how scary this is, Regina. Believe me. I'm as scared as you are. I have a past too. Not as horrible as yours...but I had my fair share of heartbreak and loss...and I can't lose you. I just can't. What we have is special...hell, I'd even go so far as to say it's unique...because truth be told...I've never felt like this before. We share a connection that goes way deeper than friendship or what most people have and you know it, Regina. I always ran from commitment, even back then when I was with Jade. And the more I think about it...I wasn't ready then, not as ready as I thought I was. Thank God too considering the circumstances. But the thing is...I am committed to you and Henry, to our family...and it's the first time that it doesn't feel like a burden, but a privilege. It feels like freedom. And I want it. And I want you...flaws, issues and all...I want it...because you are everything to me, Regina. You should know that by now...so I hope, I truly hope...that you are willing to risk it too.."

Regina sat there, stunned into silence.
Emma had rendered her speechless. Completely and utterly speechless.
For one because of Emma's words, which had blown her mind and touched her heart at the same time.
But also because Emma had seemed so convinced, so confident that they could make it work.
Emma truly believed in her, in them.
And in what they had, in what they could have.
Emma had been so brave and strong only a few seconds ago, but now she was sitting next to Regina, awaiting her decision, her "verdict" looking like a child driven by fear, Emma's eyes hoping and pleading, begging at the same time.

"I had my first appointment with Wendy Darling today", Regina admitted after debating what would be the right thing to say, "Killian gave me her number. And she agreed to work with me...to...get better."

"That's good."

Regina nodded, "It is. I could never afford therapy before...and I'm glad I finally got the chance...because I...I want...I want there to be an us too."

Emma's eyes went wide in realization, "You...you do?"

"I do."

And Regina pulled Emma right into her arms to prove it.
To the both of them.
And as soon as she wrapped her arms around Emma, Regina became aware that it felt different than before because it was the first time that she had admitted openly what she wanted and that she was willing to work for it.

It felt different because it was the first time that Regina hugged Emma as the woman she was in love with, the woman she could imagine having a future with.
At least that was what she wanted and from what Emma had told her she wanted that too.
Now they only had to find a way to make it happen.

But if their embrace showed her one thing it was that they were stronger than ever.
Together.
------------------------------------------------------

Regina had suggested that Emma should take a nap while she would cook them some dinner and although Emma had wanted to argue at first Regina had managed to convince her without much of a discussion.
It had not even taken two minutes and Emma had been asleep anyway.

Cooking had turned out to be a challenge and that had been a total first, but Regina had caught herself watching Emma sleep on her couch every other minute.
She had felt the urge to make sure Emma was comfortable which she had seemed to be if the peaceful expression on Emma's face had been any indication at all.
-----------------------------------------------------

Now that dinner was ready Regina hesitated to wake Emma though.
Truth be told she was worried because Emma had worked herself into the ground while she had been at the cabin.

Regina was well aware that Emma was not good at dealing with loss, simply because she had lost too many people already, but the fear of losing her and Henry had taken quite a toll on Emma and Regina felt an irrational amount of guilt.
They had to figure things out on their own and they had, but it had ripped Emma apart.
All this time Emma had been considerate of her situation, her issues. All this time Emma had held back and had suffered in silence because her happiness had been Emma's priority.
It was about time that she got over herself and gave something back.

Emma would never do anything to hurt her.
At least not on purpose.
But she would never harm her, not like her mother had.
Or Daniel.
Emma would never beat her or force herself on her – that Regina was sure of.
And that gave her the confidence to figure something out to help Emma sleep. To make Emma see that she would not go anywhere.
But first Emma needed to eat something.
------------------------------------------------------

Emma woke up to the smell of homemade pasta and grilled cheese sandwiches.
And to Regina smiling down on her.
It made her heart flutter in the best of ways and she was on her feet only a few seconds later, because truth be told – she was starving.

As soon as they were seated there was nothing that could have stopped her from digging in, she had not been that hungry in forever.
It must have amused Regina to no end, because Regina kept chuckling throughout dinner, smiling happily at Emma's attempts of slowing down her eating, but failing miserably.

"I hope Tamo-tsu was not too much trouble?", Emma asked between bites and Regina nodded, "He was on his best behavior. He's with Killian at the moment, because I left the location early for my appointment with Wendy Darling. He should bring him by soon though."

"Without makeup, I would hope. I don't have the nerve to bathe that furry monster tonight", Emma commented and started to laugh at her own ridiculous idea.

"Well, maybe he is wearing a tiara because I think Killian suggested taking care of Tamo-tsu to impress the wedding planner in the first place", Regina answered chuckling.

"Wedding planner? What wedding planner?", Emma asked in confusion.

"It appears that Graham made arrangements for Mary Margaret and David as well. He convinced a friend to plan their wedding. A Neal Cassidy if I remember correctly", Regina explained carefully.

"You're kidding me! Neal Cassidy?! He's the best freaking wedding planner I've ever heard of...Mary Margaret was trying so hard to hire him, but not a chance...Graham, that sneaky bastard! She might faint if she hears the news. I hope I'll be there to see her reaction...it will be priceless, no doubt", Emma admitted sheepishly and it was the first time she thought about Graham without that sadness that usually hit her.
Sure, she was missing him still, but she had gotten to a place of acceptance by now.
She had come to understand why he had done what he had done and she had mourned his death, but she was not angry anymore.
And she had decided to keep his memory high, to smile instead of crying because of all the good memories they had made together over the years.
She was grateful that he had been a part of her life at all because she did not know where she would be today if their paths had not crossed all these years ago.

"Killian said he wants to introduce him over dinner on Sunday...once the campers are back. By the way. Henry called earlier today and said they were having a fabulous time", Regina informed Emma, who nodded in agreement, "I think that's a great idea. So why would Killian need to impress that famous Mister Cassidy?"

Regina shrugged, "No idea...it's just some sort of a feeling."

"Uh-huh."

There was a knock on Regina's door only a few moments later and as soon as she pulled said door open the dog in question stormed into the apartment, almost knocking Emma over in the process.

"Hello, my beautiful boy...I missed you too", Emma announced under giggles, watching the dog jump up and down the couch in excitement.

"Look who found her way home", Killian teased and stepped forward to hug Emma while Regina petted Tamotsu on the head.

"It's good to see you too, Killian."

Emma was truly happy to see her friend, especially since they had not spent too much time together lately, "Care to meet me for lunch tomorrow?"

"Only if you get a decent amount of sleep before that because you look like you need it, darling", he commented with a raised eyebrow.

"I will."

"Very well. Pick me up around one then. I'll text you the address in the morning", Killian agreed with a smile.

"See you tomorrow", Emma replied, smiling as well.

"I'll leave you to your evening then, ladies. I'm sure you have some catching up to do."
He hugged both of them quickly and was gone before either of them could have invited him to stay for a drink.

"I should probably go and take a shower", Emma started to head for the door herself, but Regina grabbed her hand and held her back, "Or you can shower here and we talk some more afterward."

"Uhm...are you sure? I can go to my place and come back afterward too?", Emma suggested, feeling a little helpless.

Regina shook her head, "Nonsense. How many times did you let me stay at your place although I'm just living next door? You might as well use my bathroom. Towels are in the cupboard and I'll get you something to change into. I'll be back in a second."

Emma sat there, stunned by Regina's reaction, but before she could question it Regina was back, a dark blue tank top and black yoga pants in hand.
------------------------------------------------------

Regina had taken a quick shower as well once Emma had returned from the bathroom.

While the water was pouring over her body Regina debated whether it was the right move to have Emma stay, but she knew overthinking the situation would only drive her crazy as usual.
If she was honest she had not been ready to let Emma go again, even if only a wall would have separated them.
She needed to know that Emma was here for good as much as Emma needed reassurance from Regina.

When she returned to the living room she found Emma lying on her back on the couch, Tamotsu curled up at her feet, his head resting on her lower legs and Regina had to smile.
It was so good to have Emma back, especially now that they finally were on the same page.
Had taken them long enough.

Emma wanted to sit up when she caught sight of her, but Regina gestured for her to stay where she was and grabbed the blanket which was hanging over the backrest.
She took one last breath, reminding herself that this was Emma.

That this was the person who deserved her trust, that this was the person she was in love with and who was in love with her just as much.
No game, no joke, no trap.
This was honest and true.
And real.

With that thought in mind, Regina lay down next to Emma, covered them both with the blanket before she wrapped her arm around Emma's waist to pull herself closer.
Once they were side by side Regina put her head on Emma's shoulder as well.

Emma seemed to be a bit tense, unsure of what to make of the situation and it showed Regina once more that Emma would never rush anything when it came to her.
It gave her a feeling of safety, made her feel treasured in a way she had never experienced before and it put a smile on her face.

"I won't bolt, I promise", Regina said confidently and although she could not see Emma's face she knew that Emma was smiling.

This was the first step in the right direction.
It was their beginning.
And both of them were aware of that.

"So, what did you want to talk about?", Emma asked carefully.

"Well, where do we go from here? What do you think will work for the both of us?", Regina wanted to know, more nervous than she cared to admit.

Emma seemed to give the question some serious thought and it took a few minutes before she answered, "I suggest we take things slow. Really slow. You set the pace. Whatever feels good for you we'll do. Personally, I think it would be nice to start with doing things together...with Henry. But also only the two of us on occasion...going out, having dinner together or whatever you want to do."

"Like going on dates?"

"Not exactly. I don't think you're ready for an actual date yet. But we'll get there...in time. For now, I think we should try to get to know each other...not just as friends, but as two people who are in love. Get an even better understanding of each other. Check out likes and dislikes...figure out where we want this to go, get comfortable with the idea of us. There's no point in pressuring yourself into something you might not be ready for yet. Sounds good?"

"Sounds perfect. But if you ever get tired of my snail's pace you let me know, okay?", Regina moved her head up to catch a glimpse at Emma's face.

"I'll never get tired of spending time with you, Regina. No matter the pace. But if I have a problem with something...I'll let you know. I expect the same from you too."

"I can do that. I think communication will be a really important thing for us...which reminds me...Wendy Darling suggested that you might join me in my sessions...sometimes. Not right now, but at a later point. She thinks it would be good for both of us. Only if you want to of course", Regina was not sure about Emma's reaction. It was not the usual procedure after all. Accompanying your potential girlfriend to the psychiatrist to fight the demons of her past.

"Whatever you want. If you think it could help you I'll be there. Just tell me when."
There was no hesitation in Emma's voice, just warmth. And an offer of support.

Regina let out the breath she had been holding, another smile appearing on her face and she let her head drop to Emma's shoulder again.
This time Emma wrapped her own arm around Regina's shoulders in a loose embrace as well, causing Regina's smile to grow even wider.

It felt sensational to be held by someone.
Well, not quite someone.
It felt sensational to be held by Emma Swan because Emma was the only one who could make her feel so warm and safe.

Protected and cared for.
Respected and loved.
Only Emma could make her feel so much more than that too.

"Good night, Emma."

"Good night, Regina."

It was then that Regina felt Emma's lips on her forehead.
Only for a second and in the most gentle of ways, but the gesture had not stayed unnoticed anyway.
It was also that moment that Regina realized how much she had needed that small sign of devotion, which was such a big step for the both of them.

They were moving forward.
Slowly.
Step by step.

They would do it together.
There was no more question if there would be an us for them.

There already was.
And it felt amazing.

Chapter Text

Waking up holding a peacefully sleeping Regina Mills in her arms had been sensational.

For a moment Emma had feared that Regina would freak out once she would open her eyes, but Regina had only smiled happily before she had gotten up to make them breakfast.
Seeing Regina so free of concern for once had been a delight.
-----------------------------------

She had enjoyed her lunch with Killian later that day, it had made her see how much she had missed him in the first place.
It had been nice to catch up and to hear stories about Regina's work – clearly, Regina had risen like the phoenix from the ashes and was shining like the brightest star in the dark night sky by now.
And Emma had felt so very proud.
She did still.
-----------------------------------

Unfortunately, it turned out to be a merciless week only a few hours later when Emma sat down with her laptop and opened the various emails she had received during her absence.
God, she had so much work to catch up on.

When Emma finally left her office on Friday night it was close to midnight.
She cursed herself for not coming back from the cabin earlier. It would have saved her a lot of trouble and time.
Time she could have spent with Regina, whom she had hardly ever seen all week.

Regina had been busy as well and their schedules simply had not fit together.
Emma had hoped to be done early today so she could have dinner with Regina, but some last-minute changes for an event had ruined her plans completely.
She was frustrated to no end by the time she entered her penthouse about twenty minutes later, especially since she was aware that it would not get much better in the upcoming weeks.
And she had yet to set up a meeting with Gold to make arrangements for his second event.

The thought alone made her skin crawl.
Oh, how much she despised that man.
But there was nothing she could do.
She would call him first thing Monday morning and face him head-on. Still better than this creepy old man sneaking up on her unexpectedly.
----------------------------------

Emma woke up to a knock on her door and realized that she must have fallen asleep on the couch.
In her work clothes.
Great.

She stumbled through the room, almost fell over Tamotsu, who seemed way more enthusiastic than her, but as soon as she opened the door and caught sight of Regina her sour mood was wiped away.

"I brought breakfast", Regina announced balancing a tablet filled with food and entered the penthouse when Emma gestured for her to come in and a smile spread on the blonde's face, "Oh thank God!"

Regina chuckled, "I figured you could need some since you obviously came home late. Which reminds me...Henry will be home in a bit."

"Awesome. I really missed the kid", Emma stated and frowned, "I...uh...can I take a shower before we eat?"

"Sure. But hurry...I'll make coffee in the meantime."
-----------------------------------

When Emma returned from the bathroom a few minutes later the table was set and Regina was awaiting her with some freshly brewed coffee and a warm smile.

Emma took her seat, but hesitated to start eating, "Uhm."

"What is it?", a worried expression appeared on Regina's face instantly.

"What...are we going to tell Henry? Are we telling him anything at all?", Emma asked hesitantly.

What if Regina had changed her mind altogether?
They had not spent too much time together lately, they had not found time to talk either.
So what if...?

"I think it would be the best to tell him the truth", Regina interrupted Emma's thoughts, "He knows that...that I have feelings for you anyway. And if we want to do this...spend time together...with him...as a family...and even without him at times...I think he deserves to know why."

A smile started to spread on Emma's face, "You sure?"

"I'm sure."

There was no hesitation on Regina's part and that was what made it all the better.

Emma was about to get up and hug Regina when the front door flung open and Henry stormed into the penthouse bouncing with excitement.
He almost jumped into Regina's arms, thrilled to see his mother who seemed as happy and all Emma could do was watch their interaction with this feeling of utter content and belonging in her chest.
This was it.
Her family.
-----------------------------------

Regina had made the decision to sit down and talk to Henry right after breakfast because he already knew about her feelings for Emma anyway.
He had taken the news even better than expected, his eyes sparkling, his smile heartwarming and he had hugged them both – the joy literally radiating from his embrace.
Of course, they had explained to Henry that it was not as easy as simply being together, but that they both were willing to work hard for their blossoming relationship and their family with him and he had assured them that he wanted to help make things better too.
And his look left no doubt that he knew it was mostly his mother's burden that made everything complicated, but Henry was eager to see Regina happy, Emma as well.
So of course the smart boy would move heaven and hell to make it happen.

They had spent the afternoon and evening together as the little family they've become, walking Tamotsu, watching movies, eating pizza.
And while Emma had missed Regina and Henry the instant they had left for their own apartment to go to sleep she also felt relieved.
Because truth be told she did not know how to react around Regina sometimes.

She did not want to walk on eggshells, but she was well aware that one wrong move, one rushed action could destroy everything they had.
Yes, they had hugged and held hands before and they had slept in the same bed during their vacation. They had even slept together on the couch, Regina in her arms.
And it had been the best feeling, one of her fondest memories.
But since the both of them had been so busy lately Emma felt like they had made a step back instead of forward and it was nagging on her like nothing else.

Regina was not ready to go on a real date yet, so how should she act towards her? Like usual?
That did not feel right.
Acting like the couple they were not, at least not yet, was not going to work either.

So Emma found herself in a dilemma of sorts. One she would have never expected.
And what was worse was that she did not know how to talk about it with Regina because she did not want to pressure her or come off as too demanding.
----------------------------------

Needless to say, she had not been able to sleep all night.
She had gone for a morning run with Tamotsu to clear her head, but she was not that much wiser when she returned to her penthouse.

And tonight all her friends would be at her place and she did not know what to say to them or how to act in front of them and it was stressing her out.
Emma knew she should not worry so much, but she could not help it.
This was Regina, not some random girl.
This was the woman she was truly in love with. It was also the woman she could imagine spending her life with.
She could not screw this up.
-----------------------------------

Regina and Henry were preparing breakfast while he shared stories from his camping trip with David and Mary Margaret and Regina was glad that he had such a great time.

"Henry, could you run over and tell Emma that breakfast is ready?"

He turned to look at her, "She's your girlfriend, not mine. You go."

Regina was startled for a moment by his comment because they were not there yet and they had tried to explain that to Henry as well, but obviously, he had not understood them correctly, "Henry."

"I know what you told me, mom. But even if you are taking things slow...Emma can still be your girlfriend. She is in love with you...and you are in love with her."

His logic baffled her once again, but in the end, he had a point, had he not?
What exactly were they?
Because clearly, Regina did not want Emma to date someone else. Nor would she date anyone, but Emma.
And even if they were not really dating yet it felt like they were together.
Somehow.

Sure, she did not need a label, but they should probably talk about it anyway.
Because they had to know what to tell their friends since at least Killian and Ruby knew that they had feelings for each other.

"Fine. I'll go. Put the pancakes on the table in the meantime...please."
With that, she headed out of the apartment and over to the penthouse.
She had to talk to Emma.
-----------------------------------

Emma just came out of the bathroom, wearing yoga pants and a tank top, her hair still damp from the shower when she heard a knock on the door, and a smile appeared on her face.
That had to be Henry.
But when she pulled the door open she was quite surprised to find Regina there instead, seemingly nervous and worry immediately crept up her own spine, "Is something wrong?"

Regina shook her head, "No, no. Nothing is wrong. I just came to let you know that breakfast is ready."

"Oh...okay. I'll just grab a hoodie and be right over", Emma turned to head back into her bedroom, but Regina's words made her stop, "Emma, can I talk to you for a moment?"

Emma spun around again, "Uh sure. Come on in and take a seat. I'll be right back."

While she headed to the bedroom to grab a pullover Emma could not suppress the panic she felt rising in the pit of her stomach, but there was no running away from this.
No running away from Regina.
Not anymore.

When she reappeared in the living room Regina was sitting on the couch, her hands playing with the hem of her shirt and it made Emma feel even more worried than before.
What was weighing so heavy on Regina's heart?
Something clearly was not right.
She walked over to the couch with wobbly legs, praying that they would not give out on her, and sat down, leaving a bit of space between herself and Regina.

"What is it?"
Emma hated how weak and insecure her voice sounded, but there was nothing she could do about it.

Regina moved closer to her and took her hands in hers, "Emma, relax. It's nothing bad. At least I hope it's not."

She took a deep breath and nodded, "Alright. What is it then?"

"Henry said something that had me thinking", Regina admitted, trying to put her confusing thoughts into words, "I wanted him to tell you that breakfast is ready...but he said I should go myself...since you are my girlfriend, not his."

Emma could not stop herself from chuckling at the absurdity of the statement, "I think he misunderstood what we were trying to tell him yesterday, huh?"

Regina felt insecure all of a sudden.
Was it the right time to talk about this? They had hardly seen each other all week.
It was too early, was it not?

"Regina?"

"Did he really? I mean...misunderstand", Regina forced over her lips, aware that her words might as well blow everything.

Emma seemed to be confused, "I'm not sure I understand. What are you saying?"

"I...well...I mean...we are in love with each other, right? And we want to be a family with Henry...so technically...aren't we...together...kind of?"

Emma laughed lightly, "You are adorable when you ramble, Regina. So you mean, even though we decided to take things super slow to be safe...you want to be my...girlfriend?"

"Yes. I think I'd like that. Because...because I don't want you to date someone else...and when someone hits on you...you could say you have a girlfriend...because...I...I really want to be with you. Does that make any sense or am I just a jealous fool?", Regina asked, sounding as helpless as she looked.

Emma brought their joined hands to her lips and put a kiss on Regina's palm, "Maybe a little bit of both. But I agree...I mean we are in love with each other. And we want to be together...so..."

"Girlfriends?", Regina suggested hopefully and Emma nodded, "Girlfriends."

Regina pulled her into her arms and hugged her close, putting a gentle kiss on Emma's temple.
Yes, they were definitely going somewhere.
They were moving forward.
-----------------------------------

Emma and Regina had agreed that they would not hide their feelings for each other from their friends, but they would not scream it from the rooftops either. If they caught up on it they would not deny it, but they did not want to make a statement just yet.

Now that the whole troop was gathered in Emma's living room and everyone was laughing about Henry's story of how Mary Margaret had almost gotten a heart attack when they had crossed paths with a snake on their camping trip, which had been harmless as David had pointed out, Emma felt the pressure she had been under finally fade away.
This was exactly what she needed.
Time with the people she considered her family.
Time with her friends and with the people she loved the most.

That was when there was a knock on the door and Killian jumped up, eager to answer it, only to stumble over his own feet, spilling red wine all over his shirt, "Bloody hell!"

Regina chuckled at the sight, knowing full well why he was so nervous, but keeping it to herself.
Emma went to answer the door while Regina dragged her friend to the bathroom to get him cleaned up.
Through the door came a handsome man with frog green pants, a white dress shirt, and pink tie, and Emma's first and only thought was Oh my god, he's just as gay as Killian. Minus the guyliner.
She chuckled at her own nonsense and offered her hand to the man who introduced himself as none other than Neal Cassidy – the wedding planner.

Mary Margaret was about to pour herself a glass of orange juice when she caught sight of the guest and the glass slid out of her hand in slow motion while she froze for a moment.
When the glass hit the floor and shattered into pieces she started to pace hysterically though, "Oh my god, oh my god."

Emma rolled her eyes at her friend's behavior but had to smile nonetheless while the rest of their friends looked at them in utter confusion, so she cleared her throat, "Everyone, please listen. Meet Neal Cassidy. Apparently, he was a friend of Graham and our sneaky bastard talked him into planning the fairy tale wedding of our two love birds."
-----------------------------------

By the time Regina came out of the bathroom, everyone was talking excitedly and she wondered how the room had turned into a chicken coop within a few minutes, but she was on a mission to find Killian a shirt to wear so she could not focus on the madness that once was the living room.
She went into Emma's bedroom and tried to find a shirt that would possibly fit the makeup artist.
Well, this would be an adventure.
-----------------------------------

When Killian finally appeared in the living room, wearing a pink V-neck shirt that was not only too tight for him but also way too short by ending mid-stomach, everyone stared at him and broke into loud laughter only a second later.

"Not funny", Killian grumbled and went to pour himself a drink.

"You know", David appeared next to him, putting an arm around his shoulder, "I didn't know you felt like coming out again. I thought you were aware that all of us already know that you are gay."

"Haha. You are so funny, Charming", Killian spat back sourly.

Neal Cassidy seemed to be highly amused by the sight, but he kept talking to the bride-to-be, who looked literally radiant.

When things finally calmed down everyone sat down to eat the food Regina and Emma had prepared earlier and Neal told them how he had met Graham a few years ago during a rainy night in New York.
The picture of Neal being dressed as 'Rocky Horror's Frank-N-Furter' did not disturb them as much as one would think – it merely made them laugh more – especially when he pointed out that Graham had only agreed to share a cab with him because he had looked like a drenched poodle dressed as a drag queen with his make up running down all over his face.

It was then that Emma's phone rang and she excused herself to take the call after she caught sight of the caller's identity.
Regina wondered for a moment what could be so important, but let it slide when Neal continued to tell the tale of his friendship with Graham.
-----------------------------------

Emma returned from her office seemingly worried, but trying to hide it and for the most part, she succeeded.
And yet Regina saw right through her.
But she knew better than to ask her in front of everyone.
It would have to wait till later.
What if it had been Gold?

There was still the second event Emma had to organize for him.
What if he was giving her a hard time?
The thought alone made Regina squirm.

But then Neal took a letter out of his pocket and when she caught sight of Graham's handwriting it distracted her enough to calm down for the moment.

"Is it okay if I read it to all of you?", Neal asked, seemingly unsure how to handle this specific task.

Mary Margaret nodded, "I think that's a wonderful idea."
She grabbed David's hand, who squeezed hers reassuringly.

"Alright."

Neal cleared his throat and pulled a piece of paper out of the envelope with slightly shaking hands, unfolding it quickly as if not to lose the courage.

To the happy couple,

you didn't think I've forgotten you, right?
How could I?

You are living the fairytale romance everyone dreams of and you deserve it.
And to make sure that you'll get your fairytale wedding as well, my beloved Snow White, well, that was why I hired Neal for you.

I know you tried to contact him for weeks, but I told him to shut you down – I hope you can forgive me for my little scheme.
I only had the best intentions.

I wish the two of you a life filled with joy, love, and laughter. And a happiness that shines through the dark moments, a happiness that lasts a lifetime.
It saddens me that I won't be able to attend your wedding in person, but I promise you, I'll be watching from above.
And I know that I'll be there in your hearts.

Mary Margaret, David - I love you both.
You and your love have inspired me immensely as well as you've given me hope.
I can never thank you enough for that.

Be happy, live truly, and love endlessly.
Graham

Most of them were crying or at least teary-eyed by the time Neal finished the letter.

Emma got up and walked over to the kitchen counter, wiping the tears from her cheeks, and returned to the table a few moments later with a bottle of champagne and glasses, "I bought that bottle to celebrate Graham's gallery opening but we never got the chance. We might as well open it now."

Ruby did the task and filled the glasses, handing one to all of her friends including one with orange juice for Henry.
Raising her own she smiled, "To an amazing friend and an outstanding man. To Graham."
-----------------------------------

Henry had gone to sleep at some point – in Emma's guest room of course – together with Tamotsu, who had been pretty quiet all evening, probably because there had been too many people at once.
When the guests had finally left Regina remembered Emma's worried expression from earlier and she tensed immediately.
What had Emma so on edge?
It had to be Gold, right?

Emma was putting the dishes into the dishwasher when Regina appeared next to her, putting a hand on Emma's shoulder, causing her to jump.

"I'm sorry. I didn't mean to startle you."

"It's alright. I'm a bit...", Emma debated what to say, "My father called to tell me about dinner plans for tomorrow."

"Oh."
Regina did not know what to say to that, simply because she had not expected it, "Uh...but that's a good thing, right? Him calling you I mean."

Emma shrugged, "Usually my mother calls about stuff like that. My father only calls when there is something to be discussed."

"I understand", Regina dropped her head, "Most likely it has something to do with me, don't you think? Because he is not too fond of me."

Emma let her shoulders slump, praying that would not be the reason because she did not have the strength to fight her father on that matter again, "No idea. He wouldn't say. But you can ask him yourself because you are expected to come to dinner too."

Chapter Text

To say that Regina was a nervous wreck was an understatement.

When Emma had told her that the Swans expected her to come to dinner she had wanted to run away and hide, but of course, she could not do that.
No matter what Roger Swan had in store for her – Regina was very much aware that she had to face him and deal with it if she wanted this relationship with Emma to go anywhere at all.
But of course, that was easier said than done.

Luckily for her Killian and his monologues about how awesome of a wedding Neal would plan for Mary Margaret and David and how much of a genius the handsome wedding planner was, in general, had kept her distracted for the most part of her workday, but now that she was standing in front of her wardrobe she felt like puking.

Henry would be spending the night over at Roland's place and considering that she might be a mess after this dinner it had been a smart decision to agree to it.
Marian Locksley had been so excited to see her, it had been ridiculous.

Now that Regina thought about it she had to chuckle though because not too long ago she had wanted to have a talk with Marian to set her straight about her relationship with Emma being nothing, but a friendship.
Well.

A glance onto the alarm clock made her jump.
She barely had half an hour to get ready and she still had no clue what to wear.
Clearly, she could not show up in jeans and a simple shirt, but she did not want to be overdressed either.

A knock on the door had her out of her thoughts in an instant though and she hurried over to pull the door open, certain it would be Emma.

And it was, but what Regina had not expected was the startled look on Emma's face, "Uh."

"What?", she watched Emma in confusion till it finally hit her that she was not wearing anything, but a bra and panties, and Regina blushed furiously, "I...apologize."

"No need to", Emma chuckled sheepishly which made Regina blush even more, "Let me guess...you can't decide what to wear?"

Regina nodded and stormed off to her bedroom all of a sudden, Emma following right behind her.

"Just wear something you are comfortable in", Emma offered, sitting down on the edge of the bed.

"Easy for you to say", Regina growled, "You always look like you've jumped right out of a fashion magazine."

Emma got up and made the few steps over to her, moving a strand of hair out of Regina's face, "You are beautiful...you know that, right?"

"I...thank you."

Emma only smiled at her and stepped back, "I'll go sit in the living room and wait for you to get ready, okay?"

Regina nodded, aware that they had been so awfully close only a second ago and it impressed her once again that Emma always managed to treat her with so much respect, never even trying to push her into something she was not ready for.
She truly was one lucky woman.
------------------------------------------

In the end, she had decided to wear a dress in a darker shade of red because she loved it and it made her feel a bit more self-confident.
And she would definitely need that tonight.

The whole drive to the Swan mansion was a silent one, simply because Regina could not manage to say a word.
Her nerves were slowly getting the better of her.
And once the huge estate appeared in front of them her eyes grew wide.
That was where Emma had grown up?
Good God!

Emma put the car in park right in front of the staircase that led up to the main building and joked, "Perks of being the daughter of the house."

When Regina did not respond she took her hand and squeezed it reassuringly, "It will be okay. We can leave any time. Just say a word, okay?"

"Okay."
------------------------------------------

Christine Swan already awaited them when they arrived at the front door and Regina had to admit that she would not have expected that.
She had thought some servant would probably let them in, but she was positively surprised to see Emma's mother instead.

"It's good to see you again, Miss Mills", Christine announced with an honest smile and offered her hand to Regina, who took it immediately, "Thank you for the invitation, Misses Swan. And it's Regina."

"Very well, Regina. Please call me Christine then."

That said Emma's mother led them through the house, right into the living room, where she offered them a drink, but Emma declined because she was driving and Regina did because she was sure if she would start she would get hopelessly drunk out of fear what Emma's father might want from her.
Or them.

But before she could worry about it any longer the man in question entered the room and Regina realized there was no escape anymore.

"Emma", he went over and pulled her into a hug, "How are you?"

"I'm good, dad. Just been really busy lately", Emma wiggled out of her father's embrace, chuckling, "You wanna choke me?"

He chuckled as well, "I'm sorry. I got a bit too excited over seeing you it seems."

"It's okay", she smiled, glad that her father seemed to be in a good mood.
That was the man she knew and loved, the one she knew how to handle.

Roger Swan turned to face Regina, "Miss Mills. Thank you for coming."

She shook the offered hand, aware that her own hand was trembling, but Emma's father did not comment on it – thankfully.

"Please, call me Regina, Mister Swan. And thank you for the invitation."

He nodded in acknowledgment when Christine Swan clapped her hands together, "I think dinner is ready. Let's go."
------------------------------------------

Impressive was not nearly enough to describe the Swan mansion, but Regina had not expected anything less.
The whole furniture, the decoration, everything was really exclusive and fit well together and was chosen wisely.

Once seated at the dining table Regina finally calmed down a bit although she feared the almost friendly greeting had only been the quiet before the storm.
She could not put her finger on it, but something was up.

Dinner started out in silence, but it took not long till Roger Swan began asking questions about Emma's current projects and seemed satisfied when she told him that everything was going well, especially with the new deals she had gotten lately.

"You haven't forgotten about Ingrid's charity event at the opera next week, have you?", Roger asked all of a sudden and caught Emma off guard.

Of course, she had not forgotten about it. How could she?
She had attended that specific event every year since she was fourteen.

"No, I haven't. I already filled out my check", she commented with a smile.

Her father nodded in appreciation, "You don't mind accompanying Elsa, do you?"

"What do you mean?", Emma looked at him dumbfounded.

"Ingrid told me that Elsa broke up with her girlfriend recently, so I suggested that you could accompany her. You know Ingrid. Her nieces are everything to her. And I figured since you're single it wouldn't be a problem", Roger stated as if it would be the most obvious thing in the world.

Emma dropped her fork, "I...uh...dad, I'm not sure that's a good idea."
She looked towards Regina helplessly because truth be told she had no idea what to do.
They had agreed that it was too early to tell the Swans about their blossoming relationship, but her father had put her in an impossible position.

"Why not?", Roger eyed her in confusion, "You always liked Elsa."

"I do like Elsa, but...can I think about it?"

Christine chimed in, sensing that there was something Emma had not told them, "Of course, honey. Just let us know tomorrow."

Emma nodded and took a deep breath.

"The other thing I wanted to talk to you about is the cruise. You know we're presenting our new cruise ship on New Year's eve", Roger Swan looked at his daughter questioningly.

"Yes, dad...I know. You're talking about it constantly although it's still months away", Emma chuckled.

"I want you there with us. Your mother and I will go on this first cruise and I want you to be with your family", he announced, making sure that this was not up for discussion.

And yet Emma could not keep quiet, "Dad, I...I'd love to go and I think it's going to be beautiful, but I'd rather spend New Year's eve with..."

"Regina and Henry. Yes, I know", her father interrupted, "That's why I invited the both of you for dinner. To talk about that."

Regina almost choked on her water.
Here it comes.

"What do you mean?", Emma eyed him warily, fearing the worst from one second to the next.

"I knew right away I would not get you to agree to go because of your commitment to Miss Mills and her son. That's why your mother and I decided we might invite her and her son along. In case that's okay with her?", he looked directly at Regina, who basically squirmed under his gaze.

"I can't accept that. It's too much, really. And I don't want to intrude on your family vacation, but thank you", she managed to say after a minute, but Christine shook her head, "It's not a problem. It's our own ship after all. And you're welcome, Regina. Otherwise, we wouldn't have suggested it."

She did not know what to say, because that was not what she had expected, not at all.
But then she felt Emma's hand squeezing her knee and she finally snapped out of it, "Thank you. I think it would be nice...to go on a cruise. My son would be thrilled. He loves everything about ships."

"Is that a yes then?", Roger asked curiously.

"It's a yes", Regina nodded.

"Emma?", he looked at his daughter expectantly.

"Uh yeah...fine with me. Count me in."

"Very well", her father seemed pleased, "I'd like to talk to you in private for a minute once we are finished with dinner, Miss Mills."

Of course, it had been too good to be true.
He would probably tell her that he expected her to "fall sick" right before they would leave or something like that.
Never would Roger Swan allow for her to go on this cruise for real – that Regina was sure about.
------------------------------------------

"I won't lie to you, Miss Mills. I'm not too happy that Emma is so attached to you", Roger Swan said as soon as he closed the door to his study behind her, "But you already know that. I have to admit that Emma is a lot happier lately nonetheless. And that's why my wife and I decided to give you a chance. A chance to prove to us that you are trustworthy. And we can't do that when we never get to see you. Because let me tell you one thing, Miss Mills. I will have an eye on you, is that clear?"

"Of course. I completely understand that", Regina answered quietly.
Roger Swan intimidated her to no end and that would not change any time soon.

"Good. Your son Henry. Is he really that into ships?", he asked all of a sudden, catching Regina by surprise once again.

"Yes. Henry is obsessed with ships since I can remember."

Roger Swan seemed to think about it for a second, "One of our ships is in for repair at the moment and I'm going to check on it before it gets cleared to leave again. I could give him a tour if you want to."

"I...I'm sure Henry would love that", Regina managed to say, not sure about his motives.

"Alright. I'll let Emma know about the time and date as soon as I know", he grabbed a book from one of the shelves and handed it to Regina, "Give this to your soon. It was my favorite when I was his age."

She took the book, an old copy of Moby Dick, and met Roger Swan's intense gaze, "Thank you, Mister Swan. I will. I'm sure Henry will be delighted."

He did not let go of the book though, eyeing her even closer, "And now, Miss Mills, tell me. How long has this been going on?"

"I'm not sure I understand."

"You and Emma, you aren't just friends, are you?"

Regina contemplated to lie for a moment, but she was aware that Roger Swan probably already knew and how should she ever gain his trust if she lied him straight in the face?
And so she took a deep breath and braced herself for the storm that would inevitably follow after her answer, "No...no, we aren't."

"So you did lie to me when we first met."
It was not a question.

"No! We really didn't, Mister Swan. Emma and I...we've only started seeing each other as more than friends recently. This is all new for us. Especially for me. I never thought...that I would fall in love again. At all. And surely not with...a woman. But Emma...she's...I don't know how to explain it. She's everything."
Regina was not sure if it made any sense at all to someone else, but her – then again she was not prepared for this kind of conversation with the father of her girlfriend just yet.
And it was not supposed to happen anyway, but here she was.

"I hope you are serious about this, Miss Mills. Because if you hurt my daughter you will regret it."
And with that Roger Swan let go of the book.

"I assure you, Mister Swan. I've never been so serious about anything in my life. I know you might not believe me but I would never intentionally hurt Emma. That doesn't mean I never will. Simply because people sometimes fight and then they say something stupid and it hurts. But I would never betray Emma as her ex-girlfriend has done. I'm not after her money, I never have been. I'm here for her. Because she is the most amazing person I've ever met", Regina stated and was proud that her voice sounded as strong as she had intended to.

He nodded, "Alright."
------------------------------------------

They had driven home in silence not long after Regina's conversation with Roger Swan because she had no idea how to tell Emma that her father knew about them being together.
She should have never told him, at least not without Emma being there too or knowing about it and Regina feared the blonde would get mad as soon as she found out.

Entering the penthouse she felt as nervous as when they had left for dinner with Emma's parents and Regina was aware that it was not a good sign.
Because Emma would ask what was wrong eventually and she tended to snap when she felt cornered.
She put the book Roger Swan had given her on the couch table, sat down, and took a deep breath.

"I hope my father did not insult you or anything", Emma said and took a seat right next to her.

"No, he didn't."

"Well, good. He better not treat my girlfriend like crap or else", Emma smiled, "He knows, doesn't he?"

Regina nodded and dropped her head, "Yes. I'm sorry. I didn't mean to tell...but he asked me and I thought lying would only make it worse."

"Hey", Emma took her hand, "I'm not mad at you. I'm glad you decided to be honest because you are right. Had you lied to him it would have been a disaster."

"So we are good?", Regina glanced up and Emma simply pulled her into a hug, "Of course we are. I'm proud of you. I know my father can be scary."
------------------------------------------

Emma had been quite surprised when Regina had announced that she wanted to stay with her that night but had agreed gladly.
They had ended up sleeping on the couch again though, simply because they had kept sitting there for a while once they had changed into their pajamas, enjoying the view out of the floor-to-ceiling windows while they talked and had been too lazy to move in the end.

She didn't care where they slept as long as she got to hold Regina in her arms, because to Emma it was the best feeling in the whole world.
Regina wanting to be with her was like a miracle to her still and she enjoyed every second of it, no matter the pace.
------------------------------------------

The next two weeks took quite a toll on them both, especially after that charity event Roger Swan had mentioned at dinner.

Regina had insisted that it would be alright if she would take this Elsa as her "date", telling her that she trusted her and that Emma should have fun since she would not be able to go anyway because of a night shoot she was working at.
She would not even have gone if she had been free, simply because it was not Regina's world and Emma knew and respected that.
But once Regina had seen the pictures in the newspaper – pictures of Emma laughing and smiling, enjoying the event and the company of Boston's high society – doubt had started to eat away on her.
Emma belonged to this world, but she did not.
What if they were too different after all?

It had taken Emma a few days to figure out why Regina had been so distant, but once the cat was out of the bag she had assured her time and time again that she did not care about this life.
That she did enjoy seeing some of the people she had met at the charity event because she had known them her whole life, but that she could live without all of it.
That Regina and Henry meant more to her than anyone else ever would.
That she would give up all of it in a heartbeat because all she needed to be happy was her family, was Regina.
And Henry.
------------------------------------------

Since the last two weeks had been busy at work and had also been an emotional roller coaster of sorts Emma and Regina had decided that they would stay in on the weekend.
Henry would spend it at David's and Mary Margaret's, who had volunteered to take the boy to see Emma's father and the ship he had mentioned to Regina.
Emma truly was too exhausted to go there and so was Regina.
In the end, they had taken Tamotsu too at Henry's insistence and Emma was thankful for it.

She had thought about ordering take-out, but Regina had only glared at her and so she had caved and gone grocery shopping with Regina's shopping list in the end.
Looked like they would be cooking together again.
Oh, how much she loved it.
------------------------------------------

Cooking with Emma had always been something she had thoroughly enjoyed.
From day one.
It had always put her at ease, no matter how difficult or exhausting a day it had been.
Standing next to Emma in the kitchen now calmed her nerves immensely.

Regina was aware that she had been awfully tense lately.
She worried too much.
She had caught herself overthinking the whole situation more times than she cared to admit.

Her sessions with Wendy Darling had helped her a great deal and Emma being as patient, supportive, and understanding as ever had done the rest to make it possible for Regina to settle into this slowly blossoming relationship with Emma emotionally.
Unfortunately, her fears had a chokehold on her still and made it impossible for Regina to move forward.

She had been so frustrated by herself the last couple of days, but Emma had been there for her all the same.
Emma had been the rock she had needed from the moment they had first met at The Rabbit Hole all these months ago if Regina was honest.

Emma.
A smile appeared on Regina's face while she stirred the chicken curry they were cooking.

Emma had saved her and more.
Emma had given her happiness and freedom.
Safety and warmth.

A home.
And love.

Regina turned around and caught sight of her leaning against the kitchen counter, chewing on a piece of pineapple and she could not stop the chuckle that left her lips.

"What?", Emma feigned innocence, but Regina was not impressed and took a step towards her, "I told you not to touch those because I need them for the curry."
She put her hands on her hips and glared at Emma playfully.

"But", Emma seemed to contemplate her answer for a moment before she continued, "They are delicious...and I'm starving."
Her expression was childlike and carefree.

Regina shook her head and chuckled again.
God, Emma could be such a kid.

"Well, we can't let that happen, now can we?", she challenged, causing Emma to shake her own head 'no', a smirk appearing on Emma's face because she believed she had won.

Regina made the few steps over to her, took a pineapple cube out of the bowl, watching Emma, who was focusing on the piece of fruit in anticipation, out of the corner of her eye.
Emma's eyes followed the pineapple holding fingers until Regina plopped it into her own mouth in one swift move.

"Hey!"

The pout on Emma's face was heart-melting and Regina almost caved.
Almost.
She kept chewing enthusiastically though, "You're right. They are delicious."

"You're evil", Emma whined.

Raising an eyebrow Regina countered, "Am I now?"
A devilish grin appeared on her face.
She enjoyed this playful banter they would occasionally engage in.
It always made her heart lighter.

"You are. But I wouldn't have it any other way", Emma gave her an honest smile, affection dancing in her eyes.

Regina's smirk turned into a warm smile at Emma's loving comment, because she knew it was sincere.
Emma kept smiling as well, looking absolutely radiant, her eyes sparkling wildly, almost blinding Regina because of their close proximity.

Regina became aware of how close they actually were when she reached out to move a strand of hair out of Emma's face.
God, Emma was so beautiful.
She was so lucky to have her.
And while Regina stared at Emma, whose confident smile had turned into a shy one, the whole situation shifted as well.

Gone was the playfulness, replaced by a cloud of appreciation and emotion.
And before reason could stop her once again Regina cupped Emma's cheek and closed her eyes.

When she felt Emma's hands on her lower back, carefully holding her like the precious treasure Emma considered her to be, Regina knew that it was time to jump.
And so Regina leaned in to meet Emma's lips for the first time.
The moment they did her knees went weak, but Emma's strong arms held her upright and kept her safe like they always did.

It was just a simple kiss.

And at the same time, it was so much more.
It felt like the touch of a feather.
Unbelievably soft, but powerful enough to make her shiver.

The sensation tore her apart and glued her back together at once.
It soothed the wounds of the past, made whole what had been broken.

This simple kiss, this gentle touch of lips shattered Regina's world and everything she believed in.
It blew her mind and healed her heavy heart.
This first, simple kiss connected her with Emma in a way that ran even deeper than her feelings and made them one.

It was not just a simple kiss at all.
It was everything.

Chapter Text

Regina pulled back slowly, startled by her own behavior, by her own boldness, obviously struggling to get a hold of her emotions.
A slight blush crept up her neck and she dropped her eyes shyly, not daring to look at Emma, who did nothing but stand there, holding her, seemingly debating whether to say something or not.

Regina was glad that she was given the time to process in silence though because she really needed a moment.
She had kissed Emma.

She. Had. Kissed. Emma.

She did not know what had come over her, but she had indeed kissed Emma.
And not only that – she had initiated it.

Did she regret it?
If she was completely honest she had expected she might, at least a little, but she did not feel even the slightest hint of regret or doubt.
It had been a chaste kiss and yet it had felt so amazing, Regina would even go so far as to say it had felt magical.
Her lips were still tingling from the sensation.

Kissing Emma had also felt so right and Regina was quite relieved about that because a part of her had worried that she might freak out if it ever happened.
Clearly, she had come a long way since she had first met Emma months ago.
No, she had come a long way since Daniel, but she would not be here today without Emma.

But of course, kissing Emma had opened a new can of worms now that she had time to think about it. She had made a step forward, she had made a form of progress she had not been sure she would ever achieve.
The question was – what now?
Her own actions had taken her by surprise and Regina felt a little helpless. One moment of courage had sent a huge wave of insecurity washing over her and she felt herself getting caught in a downward spiral of overthinking once again.

Right before she got swallowed by this darkness Emma saved her though by putting a soft kiss on her temple, "You are amazing, Regina. And I'm so lucky that you are in love with me."

The honesty and the pride in Emma's voice baffled Regina once again, but it also brought her back to the here and now and she finally looked up to meet Emma's eyes, "I..."

Emma moved a strand of hair out of her face and smiled warmly, "I know. I'm surprised too. Best surprise ever. And no worries, no pressure, no expectations. It means nothing."
At that, Emma's eyes went wide, "No, that came out wrong. It means everything, but what I was going to say..."

Regina could not stop herself from chuckling, Emma was simply too adorable when she got nervous and started to ramble, "I understand. Shall we return to the cooking?"

"Yes, your majesty", Emma nodded, rubbing her neck in embarrassment.

Of course, the kiss and especially the fact that Regina had initiated it, meant something, everything really, but Emma was aware, even more so than Regina herself, that they had to keep the pace slow or it could backfire. She did not mind though, she was simply glad that things were going so well for them and that Regina seemed to get more comfortable around her, more comfortable with them being together and in love with each other every day.

They shared one last look of understanding and then returned to the task at hand – cooking chicken curry for dinner.
-------------------------------------------

Conversation had flown easily over dinner and plans had been made to find some time to take Henry to a museum, the zoo, or something else he wanted to see in the upcoming week. They had also discussed the cruise they would go on with Emma's parents.

It was difficult for Regina to wrap her head around how much her life had changed at times but more than that she was nervous when it came to Emma's father.
She knew the man did not trust her and the feeling was mutual, but that did make things immensely hard for her. While she loved the idea of going on a cruise with Henry and Emma, the fact that the Swans would be there as well had her a bit conflicted.
Emma had understood her worries and doubts though and had assured Regina that going on the cruise together did not mean that they would have to spend their whole time with her parents, who would most likely be busy mingling with their friends and business partners for the bigger part of the cruise anyway.

The original plan of watching a movie after dinner had been dismissed while they had cleaned up because both of them were too exhausted to stay awake for a whole movie, so they had agreed to get changed and talk for a bit longer before going to bed.

Once Emma and Regina were wearing their pajamas Emma made an attempt to lie down on the couch, but Regina shook her head, "I think we can sleep in a bed together. I mean...we did while we were in Hawaii...only if that's okay with you though...of course."

"Sure is", Emma nodded and headed to her bedroom, Regina right behind her.

As soon as they slid under the covers the awkwardness was back though because Regina had started to wonder why she had assumed that they would sleep together in the first place and Emma could barely hold in her excitement that Regina was obviously craving her company.
She did not want to scare Regina or make her feel pressured or anything which led to Emma barely daring to breathe, lying stock-still on her back, staring at the ceiling.
Regina was in the exact same position, silently debating why she acted like a lovesick teenager who felt like she could not be separated from her sweetheart for even a moment and it was then that she realized it was the first time she could feel like that without any limitations.

Back then when she had met Daniel they had shared a few stolen moments here and there until that horrible fight with her mother had happened and she had fled straight into hell.
But with Emma she was safe.
She was respected and cherished. And she was also loved.
Truly loved and not a means to an end.

"Emma", her voice was shaking a bit, but she ignored it, "Would you mind holding me?"

"Absolutely not!", Emma was thrilled and it could be heard in her voice and she cursed herself for slipping, but Regina found it absolutely endearing and scooted closer, glad that she was always welcome when it came to Emma.
Once she was snuggled safely against Emma's body, her own arm wrapped around Emma's waist, she yawned, "Tell me one thing you have never done, but always wanted to do."

Emma thought about the unexpected question for a long time before she finally answered, "I always wanted to have breakfast in Paris. I've been there a few times for model jobs, but never found the time to do that. What about you?"

"I've always wanted to go to Alaska...to see the Northern Lights."

Emma smiled and kissed Regina's forehead, "We should do that sometime. Go to Alaska and watch the Northern Lights I mean...it has to be beautiful."

"Maybe. Or we can go to Paris so you can have your breakfast", Regina suggested and snuggled even closer.

"I don't really care where we are going, Regina. As long as we are going together."

A smile appeared on Regina's face, "Together."
That said she drifted off to sleep, knowing that she would never be alone again.
-----------------------------------------

Henry had talked about ships all afternoon once Mary Margaret and David had dropped him off at home Sunday afternoon.
Emma's father and his ship had left quite the impression on the boy and he bounced through the living room excitedly.
Needless to say, Henry was ecstatic once they told him that they would go on a cruise with Emma's parents on New Year's eve.
While Roger Swan was not too fond of her, he had obviously taken to Henry, and Regina was relieved about that.
Maybe that cruise would not be that bad after all.

Emma had called Gold the first thing Monday morning, telling him that it was probably time to start planning his second event and he had agreed eagerly. He had also let her know that he had quite a few ideas already, which had caused Emma to wince once she had heard his psychotic giggle.
The unwanted client was out of town at the moment but would get back to her about a meeting once he would return. And yet Emma was happy that she had a bit of time left to come up with ideas of her own and although she hated to start planning on short notice – when it came to Mister Gold she was glad about every day she did not have to see him.
And she would find out what he had in mind sooner rather than later anyway, not that she was looking forward to it because she was pretty sure that the sneaky old man would come up with an almost unsolvable task.

Regina had told Wendy Darling about her kiss with Emma during their next session and her therapist had been pleased that Regina was obviously on the right path. She was healing slowly, step by step and Wendy also seemed pleased about Emma's behavior and how she supported Regina no matter what.
She had seen enough impatient partners of clients over the years, who had managed to destroy hard-earned progress in a single moment because they had grown tired of waiting.
But Emma Swan seemed to be different and she was happy for Regina because her newfound client was really trying and Regina had been through more than enough.

"So, you said that the last few times one of you stayed over you slept being held by Emma. How does it make you feel?", she asked and looked at Regina expectantly.

"Safe".
Regina answered immediately and without hesitation, "Emma...she makes me feel so safe and protected. In the beginning, I thought I might end up having nightmares if I fall asleep like that...but I didn't. It's...I don't know how to explain it...but even in the moments I overthink, in the moments I'm on this downward spiral again...I've never questioned Emma. I know she would never harm me. I trust her."

Wendy Darling nodded, "That is very good, Regina. We discussed this already...trust is of the essence in your case. In every case really."
She eyed Regina closely for a few seconds, debating whether she could ask the question or not. Probably it was too early.

"I woke up before her this morning", Regina said all of a sudden, "And I kept wondering how it would feel to run my fingers through her hair and over her neck. Down her arms..."

Maybe it was not too soon after all.
"Did you?", Wendy asked curiously.

Regina shook her head, her eyes filling with sadness, "I didn't dare. If she would have woken up...it's not fair."

She sounded so frustrated, so defeated and she hated it, "I mean...imagine how this must feel for Emma. She's this sweet and understanding person...I can't just start experimenting like that...even someone as patient as Emma has a limit. I can't just touch her the one second and get scared the next. It's even driving me insane."

"Have you ever talked to Emma about this?"

"No."
She had not sounded that small since forever.

Wendy tilted her head, "Then how do you know that Emma couldn't handle it? From what I understand she's being very supportive. I think you should talk to her about it, see what she has to say about all of this. If you don't think you can do it on your own bring her with you for our next session."

Regina nodded hesitantly, "Okay. But I think I'd rather talk to her about this on my own."

"That's alright. The offer stands though."
-----------------------------------------

Her session with Wendy Darling had shown her once again that she had to work on her communication skills and Regina had spent the better part of the next two days thinking how she could bring this topic up in a conversation with Emma.
The problem was she had no idea whatsoever.
Alone time had not been on their schedule all week, but they had managed to have dinner together with Henry every evening, much to her son's delight.
When Regina had mentioned that Friday was her day off Emma had suggested to take the day off as well so they could have a family day and Henry had stated that he wanted to go to the zoo.

And here they were, watching hyenas, and Regina could not understand for the life of her how Henry and Emma were so taken by those creatures.

"They are so awesome! Watch, mom...it really looks like they are laughing", Henry pointed into the direction of the faraway corner of the compound where three hyenas stood together, somewhat "grimacing" and Regina instantly remembered the days when Henry's favorite movie had been The Lion King.
She silently prayed that he would not want to watch it again tonight because one could only watch a movie so often before it started to annoy the hell out of one and they had crossed that point long ago.

"Is everything alright?", Emma wanted to know, seemingly without reason and Regina nodded, "Yes, dear."

"Are you sure because you zoned out there for a moment, a frown on your face", Emma stated worriedly and Regina was touched by Emma's concern for her well-being as all the times before, "Everything is fine. Just make sure that our lion king DVD magically disappears when we come home."

Emma chuckled, "Ah. The hyenas."

"Oh yeah. Where is Henry anyway?", Regina turned around, but could not see her son, instantly panicking, but Emma put her hand on her arm to calm her down, "He's right there."
She pointed to a large board that held a map of the zoo, right next to them, "He's trying to figure out where the camels are."

Regina rolled her eyes and growled, "Aladdin has to go as well."
-----------------------------------------

Since she had to be at work early the next day Regina went to bed earlier than Emma and her son and it was the first time that she allowed herself to admit that going to sleep by herself had become something she did not appreciate at all.
Emma had slept in the penthouse all week and it had been somewhat okay, but now that they had spent all day together once again Regina felt that she truly missed Emma by her side and she wondered if their complicated relationship would ever get easier or if it would stay the minefield it currently was, mostly because of her own issues, forever.
-----------------------------------------

She was trying to fix the makeup of an extremely bitchy and infuriating redhead when Killian announced that she had a visitor and Regina's heart skipped a beat in anticipation of seeing Emma and was all the more surprised when Mary Margaret entered the room and she jumped to the worst-case scenario within the blink of an eye, "Did something happen to Emma?"

Mary Margaret looked at her in surprise at the question but realized quickly why Regina would come to a conclusion like that and shook her head, "No worries, everyone is fine. I came here to ask you something."

Regina let out the breath she had been holding, "Can it wait for two minutes. I'm almost done."

"Of course. I'll wait outside", Mary Margaret turned to leave the room, "No need, Miss Blanchard. You can stay. As I said...I'm almost done."

And so the pixie-haired woman simply watched Regina work her magic until the unfriendly redhead stalked off and left them alone in the dressing room.

"What can I do for you, Miss Blanchard?" Regina eyed her curiously.

"First of all, it's Mary Margaret. And I came here because I wanted to know if you would be willing to do my make up...for my wedding", she explained and shifted nervously from foot to foot.

To say that Regina was surprised would be an understatement, "Shouldn't you...well, you know...ask Killian? He is one of your best friends after all and you've known each other for years."

"Actually, I...", Mary Margaret started, but Regina did not let her finish, "You did ask him and he said he wouldn't do it. That's why you are here."

"Not quite, no. I asked Killian if he would do my make-up because...as you said...he's our friend and...anyway...he said if I wanted the best I should come and ask you."

Mary Margaret's words threw Regina for a real loop. Killian had said that?
Regina could not shake the pride she felt at that moment and she could not wait to tell Emma about it over breakfast tomorrow.
Henry would leave early to go fishing with David so they would have the day to themselves and she was looking forward to it, but first, she had to survive this day without strangling that exhausting redhead.

"So, what do you say?"
Mary Margaret's voice brought her back to the here and now, she had obviously gotten lost in thought, "Of course I'll do your make-up. It will be my honor."

"Thank you so much, Regina! I don't want to disturb you any longer. I know you are busy and I need to go anyway or I will be late for lunch with Belle...see you next week."

Before she could answer Mary Margaret was already out of the room and Regina wondered what the pixie-haired woman had meant by See you next week. In the end, she shrugged and started to put some of her utensils away and clean the mess that was the dressing table.
She would find out soon enough.
-----------------------------------------

Regina was standing in her kitchen, preparing breakfast the next morning, her mood and her heart light although she had come home awfully late thanks to that idiotic redhead, she would not let some megalomaniac wanna-be model ruin her day with Emma.
When she heard a knock on the door her heart fluttered and she almost dropped the plate she was about to set on the table in excitement.
She headed for the door, ready to pull Emma into a much-needed hug, but her smile died on her lips as soon as the door opened and she instantly froze.

"Hello Regina."

Chapter Text

Regina stared at her mother in shock, unable to do so much as even blink.
She wanted to throw the door right in her mother's face, she wanted to run, hide, anything really, but she could not move.
Not even an inch.

"Is that your idea of properly greeting your mother?", Cora spat out dismissively.

"I...what...", Regina fought for words, her mind racing, "Mother...w-what are you...doing h-here?"

At that, the older woman openly glared at her distraught daughter, "What a silly question! I came to see how you are doing of course."

Regina knew better than to believe that, "How...how did you even find me?"

Cora only chuckled, "Have you forgotten that your little...", she said the next word with so much disgust that it gave Regina chills, "dalliance with the Swan heir was all over the news? A woman. Really, Regina?"

She stared her daughter down, but then she shrugged, "Well, at least she is loaded. It could have been a lot worse...considering the street rat you dragged home the last time...that...Daniel."

"I don't care about her money...and Emma is nothing like", Regina started but was cut off by her mother instantly.

Cora sneered, "Of course not. All you care about is love. Don't think I've forgotten all your babbling. You were such an insufferable child, Regina. No wonder your father left."
She looked her daughter up and down, taking in her sweatpants and t-shirt, a deep frown appearing on her face, "What are you even wearing? Haven't you learned anything from me?! Always dress your best, behave your best, be your best."

Regina winced and dropped her head. Of course, she remembered exactly what Cora had tried to instill into her for the bigger part of her childhood.

"Same goes for the bedroom. Or do you still believe you can keep someone with your precious love? Or that they will keep you for holding hands? Daniel didn't, did he?"
Cora's voice was filled with so much disgust that Regina could feel it cover her to the bone.
She did not dare to say another word.
How did her mother know all of this in the first place?

Her mother started to laugh darkly, "Regina, don't be so naive. I've known Gold since way before you were born. I know everything. I was so ashamed when he called me to tell me that he had taken in my daughter. Addicted to drugs and pregnant no less. So, so ashamed. At least do it right now, Regina. You won't get another chance. Whatever Daniel did to you...it served you right for running away as your father did!"

"Emma is not like that!", Regina sounded so small, so defeated once again.

Cora only laughed again, "Good grief, Regina! God only knows what she sees in you, but she's only a human being. And she has needs like everyone else. You better see to them as a good partner does."

Regina's thoughts were somersaulting and she struggled to cope with her mother's presence and what she was throwing at her when she heard the BING of the elevator.
Emma.

She felt so helpless and she started to panic because there was no way in hell Emma could meet her mother, only there was no escape.
The next thing she realized was that Tamotsu stormed towards her and took his place in front of her, shielding her, snarling and growling at her mother.

Cora seemed appalled, "Regina, take that beast away right this instant!"

That was when Emma appeared next to them as well, "Our dog is going nowhere, but I think you should, lady."

But of course, Cora Mills did not have any intention to leave just yet and smiled sweetly, "Miss Swan, it's a pleasure to meet you."

Emma could not care less about the stranger in the hallway though, having eyes only for a completely shaken Regina, "Are you okay?"
When she caught sight of the tears welling in Regina's eyes she turned to look at Cora furiously, "Go. Or do you want me to call the cops?"

Cora frowned in surprise, "Excuse me? Is that a way to treat your lover's mother?"

But Emma's eyes only darkened, "I don't care who you are. If I see you anywhere near Regina ever again you'll find yourself in a jail cell, Miss Mills. You've failed Regina often enough and I won't let that happen ever again. You are not welcome here so I suggest you leave my property. Now."

The older Mills held her head high, grumbled a "Very well" and headed towards the elevator.

Emma entered the apartment, closed the door, and led a trembling Regina to the couch so she could sit down.
Tamotsu instantly jumped up as well, taking the spot right next to Regina, still in protection mode.

"Good boy", Emma praised and petted his head quickly before she found a blanket to wrap around Regina.
Once that was accomplished she sat down as well, on the other side of Regina, and took her hand carefully, "Regina, it's okay. She's gone. I'll talk to the security guys later and instruct them to make sure she never sets foot in the building again, okay?"

All Regina could do was nod, she was simply too overwhelmed by the situation and nowhere near able to cope with it.
She had not expected to see her mother ever again.

"Did she hurt you?", Emma's voice was filled with worry, which finally brought Regina out of her trance-like state.

"No. No, she didn't do anything."
Physically that was true, but Cora's words had hit too close to home. Her mother knew everything, had known all along, and had not bothered to help her. That was what hurt the most.
-----------------------------------------------

Breakfast had been a silent affair because Emma did not want to push and Regina did not know what to say.
Cora's appearance had shaken Regina a lot more than she wanted to admit and the words her mother had thrown at her made her feel like a failure and unbelievably helpless.
Emma was not like that. She knew that.
And yet Cora had a point.
No one's patience was endless, not even Emma's.
What if she would never be able to have sex with her?
What then?

She could not get rid of that thought, no matter how hard she tried.
What if therapy would not help her all that much in the end?
What if she could not be fixed?

Regina was aware that she was pressuring herself too much, but she could not stop.
She should have a conversation with Emma like Wendy Darling had suggested, but she was not even ready for that.
She was such a mess.

"I'm going for a walk", she announced quietly and she felt so guilty for running instead of confiding in Emma, but she had to sort her thoughts and find some courage first.

"Take your time. I'll be here if you need me", Emma replied with a smile that did not nearly reach her eyes. She had meant to hide her worry but had failed miserably.

Emma's understanding made the guilt weigh even heavier on her heart, but Regina needed to be alone for a bit nonetheless.
Tamotsu followed her to the door without a command and Regina knew there was no point in trying to stop him from coming with her since he was obviously set on looking out for her and if Regina was honest she was immensely grateful for it.

She looked at Emma, who only nodded, "Take him. He seems to be determined to be your bodyguard today."

"Alright. I won't be long."
That said Regina grabbed the dog's leash and the duo left while Emma watched them sadly.
-----------------------------------------------

As soon as Regina and Tamotsu had left the apartment Emma started to pace.
What had Cora Mills said to her daughter that had thrown Regina off like that?
She grabbed her keys and headed over to her penthouse. She would need to do a little research.
-----------------------------------------------

Regina and Tamotsu had taken a big walk before they had ended up in the park.
Emma's favorite park.
God, she felt so stuck.

And while Regina was aware that impatience would only make it worse she could not stop with the 'what ifs'.
Losing Emma would be worse than everything she had endured in her life so far.
She could not lose Emma.
-----------------------------------------------

During her walk home, Henry had called to ask if he could stay over at David's and Mary Margaret's because they wanted to go to the shelter in the morning to look at dogs.
She had allowed it without hesitation because she did not want Henry to see her so distraught once again.
And Henry being gone would also help her to set her plan in motion.
A plan born out of desperation and fear, a plan capable of ruining everything.

When she entered the building her heart started to race in her chest and she passed William, the new head of security, without even noticing him, which had him look at her in confusion for a second before he shrugged it off.

The elevator ride up almost drove Regina crazy, but then she felt Tamotsu's nose in the palm of her hand and she looked at him, giving the dog a small smile, "Thank you for protecting and looking out for me, my bear."
Tamotsu licked over her hand in understanding.

Regina entered her apartment, followed by the loyal dog, just to find it empty. Emma was nowhere to be seen.
She sighed, a new wave of guilt washing over her. She had not meant to be gone for so long, but she had forgotten about time because she had been so caught up in her thoughts.
But then she saw the note on the couch table.
She grabbed it and sighed in relief once she had taken in the message.

Forgot some files in my office. Need them for a meeting in the early morning. I'll be back soon.
Love, Emma
Ps.: I'll bring dinner :)

Regina decided to take a shower while she waited for Emma to come back.
It would calm her nerves.
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Emma entered Regina's apartment a few minutes later, files in one hand, a bag of food in the other hand.
She felt accomplished.
The security guys of the building, as well as the receptionists, were instructed to keep their eyes open for Cora Mills and that they had to stop her from entering the building no matter what.

She had called in a favor from her friend Merlin, who had gotten his nickname because he was quite the wizard when it came to computers and hacking, as well. He would do some research on Regina's mother.
There had to be a reason why the old witch had shown up.

Emma sat down on the couch next to her excited dog and petted him, "Thanks for taking care of Regina, big boy."
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She had heard Emma's voice when she had stepped out of the shower and a part of her had been so relieved that Emma was back, but the bigger part of her was anxious, terrified even.
And yet she had dried her hair, had put on her silk robe and now she fought to swallow the bile in her throat.
She could do this.
She had to overcome the fears that were paralyzing her. She had to.
Regina took a last deep breath and left the bathroom.

Emma looked up and smiled at her as soon as she noticed her presence, but it made her feel only worse.
Her whole body was tense, but she forced herself forward, forced herself to stop right in front of Emma, who watched her with rising concern.
Regina's hands shook heavily when she untied the belt of her robe and she winced when it fell open and revealed her naked body, the taste of bile on her tongue once again.

"Regina, what are you doing?"
Emma's eyes went wide in shock and she almost looked scared, but Regina knew she could not answer because she would lose her nerve if she tried to voice a single word.
And so she sat down on Emma's lap, her stomach revolting, her hands trembling, but she managed to wrap her arms around Emma's neck, who sat still as a statue.

Regina felt the tears stinging in her eyes, but she willed them away with all the strength she had left at this moment, about to lean in to kiss Emma.
She would give Emma what she deserved, she would...

But right then Emma did get out of her stupor and grabbed Regina's wrists, halted Regina's every movement, "Stop."

Regina immediately tried to pull her arms away and get up, get away, but Emma held her back. Gently though.

"Regina, please...stop. Just talk to me. Everything is going to be fine...I promise you."

She could not hold the tears back any longer and a gutwrenching sob escaped Regina's lips.
She was so scared and so exhausted, so miserable and devastated and the pain was overwhelming, so she let herself fall against Emma's chest, let herself be held by the one person who had never failed her.

Emma was too good to be true.
And yet here she was, holding her, saving her from herself once again.

"I'm sorry...I'm so sorry", Regina mumbled through her tears, but Emma only shook her head, "No need to be sorry. Everything's fine. I've got you."
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It took Regina a while to calm down, but once she did she felt not only guilty, no, now she also felt ashamed.
But Emma must have sensed it because she took her hand and squeezed it encouragingly, "Don't beat yourself up, Regina. Just go, change into your pj's. I brought dinner from your favorite sushi place."

Regina got up and stumbled back to the bathroom, leaning heavily against the sink once the door closed behind her.
What had she been thinking?
That she could go out and have sex with Emma forced by her own idiotic mind?

It would have never worked and Emma had realized that way before she had because the place her mind had been in had been simply too dark.
But Emma, sweet and loving and kind Emma Swan, had done the right thing as usual.
She had seen right through her, had stopped her from making the probably biggest mistake of her life.

Regina splashed some cold water in her face and did change into her pajamas at last and returned to the living room with a sigh.
Emma had seemed okay, but Regina knew better. Emma had to be confused as hell and she had no idea what to do about that.

She did not want to talk, mainly because she did not know how to explain what exactly she felt, but she knew she owed Emma at least something. She was also aware that she could not do this without help and so she cleared her throat once she sat down next to Emma, "There are a few things I want to talk to you about, Emma. But I don't know how and...I'm aware that it is short notice and that you are awfully busy, but...is there any chance you could join me for my session with Wendy Darling on Wednesday?"

Emma did not even hesitate to answer, "Absolutely. If you want me there I'll make the time. Busy or not, I'll be there."

A small smile appeared on Regina's face, for one because of Emma's willingness to put her first at all time, but mostly because Tamotsu's neck had grown three times longer in an attempt to steal some sushi from the plate Emma was holding.
-----------------------------------------------

Later that evening when she was lying in Emma's arms, Regina cursed herself once again.
What had she been thinking?
She was so very lucky that Emma was the decent, kind-hearted, and understanding human being she was.
Thankfully she had stopped her.
And thankfully she had not pushed for an explanation either.

Regina did not even want to think about what could have happened if she had managed to go through with her absolutely idiotic plan of having sex with Emma.
How could she have grown so desperate? How had her mother managed to push her buttons that well after all this time and out of the blue?
Especially when Emma had never asked for anything, but to take things slow, to take things one step at a time.
Why had she lost herself like that, why had her confused self decided she should force this on herself?

Clearly, the consequences would have been severe, irreversible even.
And it would not have been Emma's fault, but her own.

She snuggled more into Emma's arms, drowning in the warmth and the safety they provided when she did not try to force anything upon herself.
Henry had been right.

While she did not necessarily qualify as The Evil Queen per se, Emma Swan truly was her savior.

Chapter Text

Regina had called Wendy Darling first thing Monday morning and had requested a longer session for the upcoming Wednesday. She had also informed Wendy that Emma would join them, but that she needed to talk to her alone first.
Wendy had immediately understood that something must have happened and had told Regina to simply come an hour early, which had comforted her immensely.
She was so grateful for Wendy's help because Regina was well aware that she could not do this alone. She would be lost without her psychiatrist.

Emma had been incredibly busy Monday and Tuesday, but so had Regina and so the time had flown by.
Regina had tried not to think about that dreadful session too much, but now that she was indeed sitting in Wendy Darling's office she could not ignore her anxiety any longer.

Emma would arrive any minute and she was not sure if it had been a good idea in the first place. The truth was she was nowhere near ready, but she was aware that there was no right time for a conversation like the one they were about to have.
She had filled Wendy Darling in on what had happened after her mother had visited and to her great surprise, the psychiatrist had understood a lot better than she had anticipated.
Would Emma understand as well? Regina was not so convinced about that.

Emma had been so incredibly patient, supportive, and understanding all this time and Regina had started to wonder when the blonde would reach her breaking point when she would finally realize that this was not worth it.
That she was not worth it.

A knock on the door pulled her out of her thoughts and the next thing she knew was that Emma stumbled into the room, completely out of breath, "Am I late? I came as fast as I could, but that meeting...I'm sorry."

Wendy Darling smiled warmly at the blonde woman and got up, offering her hand to Emma, "No worries, Miss Swan. Everything is fine. It's a pleasure to finally meet you. I've heard so much about you."

Emma took the offered hand and took a deep breath, "Thank you, Miss Darling. The pleasure is mine. Killian speaks very highly of you. And so does Regina."

"Please, take a seat."

Wendy watched as Emma sat down on the couch next to Regina, squeezing her client's hand encouragingly before Emma returned her attention back to the psychiatrist, fidgeting with her hands in her lap "So...um..."

It sounded a little helpless, but Wendy Darling was aware how weird and probably even uncomfortable Emma had to feel, "Can I get you anything to drink, Miss Swan?"

"No, thank you. And please, call me Emma."

Wendy nodded, "Very well."
There was a short pause before she continued, "Regina and I have been working on her issues for a while now, but we've reached a point where we are a little stuck...and that's why she invited you to come here today. To clear up some things."

"Sure. Anything I can do to help her", Emma stated and smiled at Regina, who seemed awfully tense.

"Regina and I had a conversation about what happened the other day and I think she came to some understanding, but it's up to her to explain it to you. I hope you don't have any plans this afternoon 'cause this might take a while. As you sure know this is anything, but easy for Regina", Wendy stated and watched Emma closely.

"Not a problem. I've cleared my schedule. We have all the time in the world 'cause you are right...I'm well aware how difficult this is for Regina", she squeezed Regina's hand again.

Wendy leaned back in her chair, "Alright...Regina, whenever you are ready."

Regina visibly struggled for words while the minutes ticked away.
Emma glanced at her worriedly, feeling absolutely helpless while Wendy Darling simply observed the situation.

The silence had become almost unbearable when Regina reached out a shaking hand to grab Emma's and hold on for dear life.
A few moments later she did indeed find the strength to start talking, drawing comfort solely from holding Emma's hand, "My mother...she knew. Everything. Apparently, she's friends with Gold."

Emma's eyes went wide in disbelief, at a complete loss of words.

"And", Regina obviously fought back the tears, "She pointed out that...that I better...that I better see to your...n-needs...because that's what a good partner does. That's why I tried to...", she dropped her head in shame, "It was a stupid idea...I'm sorry."

"Regina", Emma tugged on her hand carefully to make Regina look at her, "There's nothing to be sorry about. Please don't beat yourself up over it."

"My mother is right though", it was barely a whisper, but it was enough to make an expression of confusion show on Emma's face and Regina sighed, "Emma, don't even try to deny it...everyone has...needs."

Emma closed her eyes and took a deep breath, "So, we are having that talk now."

Regina paled visibly, "I don't know that we can avoid it any longer."

Wendy Darling spoke up then, "Regina, do you feel up to sharing your thoughts on the matter? I know we've talked about it earlier, but if it's too much..."

Regina shook her head, "No. I'll do it. I can do it."

Wendy nodded at her encouragingly and Regina took a moment to sort her thoughts before she turned to face Emma fully, "You're probably the most beautiful woman I've ever seen, Emma. And you've been incredibly patient with me, but I know that you do have...needs. While I have made a lot of progress ever since I met you...I'm nowhere near ready to...to have...to have sex. I'm very frustrated that I can't just...like switch off my mind or something...to just forget what happened and move on...and I'm so scared that you will run out of patience before...before I'm ready."

Emma let Regina's words sink in before she answered, "I don't know why you are putting so much pressure on yourself, Regina. I told you, and I meant it...we have all the time in the world. If I only wanted sex I could find someone, sure...but I want love...and a family. I want a life. And I want all of that with you. With you and Henry. And we'll never just have sex...we would make love...there's a huge difference."

"And what till then?", the words sounded harsher than Regina had intended.

Emma felt a bit defensive all of a sudden, "Do you think I can't live without sex for a while? There's more to life than that...besides...if I really wanted to get off so badly I could handle it myself."

When she caught sight of the frown on Regina's face she added, "Sorry for being crude."

An onslaught of pictures flooded Regina's mind, pictures of Emma touching herself, running her fingers over her perfect skin and she had no idea where that had come from. She shook her head vehemently, trying to shake those images, wondering what her subconscious was going to tell her, but deep down she was well aware of what it meant.
It had not happened the first time either, but should she say something?
Was it fair to get Emma's hopes up?
Then again they were here to figure out what to do, right?

"I think I want to...to touch...you", Regina forced out, fighting her fears with all she had, "But I don't know...I mean...I've never been...and I...I don't want to get your hopes up...or work you up and then...it wouldn't be fair."

"Can I ask you something?", Emma wanted to know and Regina signaled for her to continue, "Regina, have you ever thought about me...touching you?"

Regina wanted to deny it because she was aware if she admitted it there would be no way to unsay it, but Emma deserved the truth.
And the truth was that she had indeed caught herself thinking about it here and there lately and it had not sent her into a panic attack like she had thought it would.
Feeling unable to speak Regina nodded and looked down at her feet because she was not sure if she could hold Emma's gaze.

When she felt Emma take her second hand as well Regina knew she had to look back up and face whatever was going to happen now.
She met Emma's sparkling eyes once again and saw nothing, but sincerity which calmed her nerves a bit, and then Emma said something she would have never expected.

"Then I need you to stop worrying altogether now, Regina. Because when we first discussed the possibility of there being an us you weren't even sure you would ever get to a point where you could imagine being with me...physically. You've made a lot more progress than you realize and I'll wait as long as I have to...because I want to be with you. No matter what."

A single tear made it down Regina's cheek then because Emma seemed so sure of what she wanted and was willing to do whatever it took to make her feel safe and comfortable. It should not surprise her at this point, but she had expected Emma to jump with excitement at the prospect of them having sex somewhen in the future and that would have added more pressure to the already difficult situation, but Emma had stayed calm and focused on her well being as usual.
It was hard for Regina to wrap her head around that, especially after her mother's visit, but Emma kept proving to her that there was still good in this world.

"I think Emma has a point there", Wendy Darling interrupted Regina's thought process all of a sudden, "You've made a lot more progress than you've realized. The most important thing for the two of you is to talk...talk about everything that goes on in your head. Especially the things that scare you and you'll see...once you've talked about them they won't be so scary anymore."

Emma squeezed Regina's hand once again and Regina sighed in relief.
This had gone way better than she had expected.
------------------------------------

Emma had been busy for the rest of the week while Regina had taken a few days off to spend with her son and they had enjoyed a great time together.

Henry was growing up so fast, she could not even believe it, but he was happier than he had ever been – thanks to Emma and her friends.
They had become a real family and Regina still had trouble accepting that this was her reality now from time to time.
It seemed so surreal and yet it was nothing, but the truth.

On Saturday Henry went on a sleepover at Roland's and Emma and Regina went out to dinner with their friends and Neal Cassidy.
There was a wedding to plan still.

Killian was hanging on Neal's every word, much to everyone's amusement and Mary Margaret could have literally illuminated the whole restaurant with the blinding smile that had appeared on her face once she heard Neal's ideas for the ceremony and reception.
It simply was a great evening with delicious food and a lot of laughter.

When they returned to Emma's apartment later that night Emma asked Regina if she could probably unzip her dress.
It was no big deal, but Regina's hands were shaking, but not out of fear like she had expected, but out of anticipation.
She moved the zipper down slowly, the dress falling open, revealing Emma's bare back and Regina took in an involuntary breath.

Emma wanted to step away, probably to change into her pajamas, but Regina's hand shot forward, grabbed her arm, and stopped Emma's every motion.

Neither of them dared to speak, but Regina put her trembling hand between Emma's shoulder blades, her fingertips grazing the soft skin of Emma's back.
Regina felt Emma shiver under the light touch, which sent an unknown sensation through Regina's own body.
Her heart was hammering in her chest, but Regina could not bring herself to stop her hand from wandering further south.

Touching Emma's skin was like an instant addiction. It also set her own skin on fire and Regina could have sworn she was tingling all over.
She would not take it any further because she had no intention of torturing Emma, but Regina also realized she might be torturing herself as well. She did take a step forward though, her front softly pressing into Emma's back, her arms finding their way around Emma's waist.
She held Emma close, inhaled the familiar scent that was so uniquely Emma, and put a soft kiss on her neck.

A kiss that made Emma shiver.
A kiss that made Regina realize she wanted more.

Chapter Text

Emma did not dare to blink, breathe or move.
She had no idea what was happening and she was too surprised to do anything.
Having Regina touch her, even in this light and innocent way, was mind-blowing. Her thoughts were literally somersaulting and her heart was racing at a pace that should concern her and yet all Emma could focus on was Regina's breath on her neck, their bodies so unbelievably close.

Meanwhile, Regina came to her senses and realized what she was doing.
A part of her wanted to step back and run, but the bigger part of her wanted to stay like this forever. That part of her also wanted to feel Emma's skin against her own and while she was nowhere near ready to actually have sex or, how Emma had stated earlier make love, with her girlfriend just yet she did want to feel closer to her.

Could she handle it or would she freak out?
The truth was Regina was not sure and although she knew that she needed to trust herself she did not want to risk too much too soon because it could end in a major setback.

"Emma."

Emma tried to step away again, "Uh...right. I better go change."

"Wait, please."
Regina tried to sound calmer than she felt but was not sure that she was successful.

Holding her dress securely in place Emma turned around to face Regina, "Are you okay? Is there anything I can do for you?"

It should not surprise her anymore, but Regina was taken aback by Emma's question nonetheless.
Even now Emma wanted to make sure that she was alright.

"I'm not ready to...you know...but I...I want to feel your skin...against mine...at least a little", Regina managed to say, "I know it's probably stupid."

Emma smiled at her, "Not at all. I might have an idea. I'll be right back."
And with that Emma did step away, only to disappear in her bedroom, leaving Regina to her thoughts.

Before Regina had time to think too much about what she was doing Emma reappeared, wearing panties and a sports bra, holding out another one for Regina, "You think this could work?"

Distracted by the sight in front of her all Regina could do was to nod robotically.
Emma Swan truly was one hell of a woman.

Emma had put the sports bra into her hand and had told her that she would get ready for bed.
Then she had disappeared again.
----------------------------------

It had taken Regina a minute to get moving, but then she had headed for the guest bathroom to change and get her nightly routine done as well.

Now that she was on her way to Emma's bedroom her heart hammered in her chest and she could hear the blood rushing in her ears.
She was a nervous wreck, but not because she was afraid. Regina was certain that Emma would not push her, would do nothing to make her uncomfortable.
Ever since their session with Wendy Darling Regina felt more daring, probably because Emma had managed to relieve the pressure she had been under with her words.
She was safe with Emma, that much Regina knew without a doubt and it helped her to be more courageous.

So Regina was nervous simply because she looked forward to being close to Emma and making slow, but steady progress.
Progress she had not thought possible a couple of weeks ago and yet here she was.
Taking a deep breath Regina entered the bedroom where Emma was already under the covers, waiting for her.
The sight made Regina smile and she went over to the bed and slid in, eager to run her fingers over Emma's delicate skin once again.
-------------------------------------------------

Emma had let her roam her hands all over her upper body and Regina had found great pleasure in it.
She had fallen asleep wrapped in Emma's arms, feeling the warmth of Emma's smooth skin against her own and Regina had decided right then and there that she wanted to fall asleep like that for the rest of her life.
-------------------------------------------------

She woke up to Emma running her fingertips over her neck while she was still half asleep and Regina had to smile.
Even more so because she had not woken up panicked because someone was touching her, rather enjoying the feeling of Emma's gentle caress.
Things really did look up for her and Regina couldn't believe how lucky she was.

She had even said goodbye to Emma with a peck to the lips because her mood had been so overwhelmingly good and she felt like she finally was getting closer to having a "normal" life and a "normal" relationship.
-------------------------------------------------

Regina arrived at the studio where she would be working the next couple of days with a huge smile on her face and bumped right into Killian, who was sporting an even bigger smile – if that was even possible.

"Hello sunshine, whatever happened to you...make sure it happens again", Regina announced with a chuckle and surprised them both by kissing him on the cheek.
God, life was so good.

"Good morning, love! Nothing happened to me...except", he made a very dramatic gesture with his hand, holding a make-up brush, "Nealaskedmeoutonadate!"

"What did you just say?", Regina watched him closely, pretty sure she heard something about Neal and date, but she wasn't sure and she would rather have confirmation before she congratulated her friend on something that might have been nothing, but a misunderstanding.

Killian took a deep breath, trying to calm his nerves, "Neal. As. In. Neal. Cassidy...asked. Me. Out. On. A. Date."

Regina flashed her best smile, "That's wonderful news, Killian. Congratulations. I'm so happy for you!"

"I know! I'm so excited! But...we need to keep this quiet for a while", Killian started to whisper all of a sudden, which made the whole situation seem pretty ridiculous and Regina looked at him in confusion, "Why is that?"

Killian sobered up instantly and dropped his head, "Because...Graham. I mean...what if they think it's too early...what if Emma hates me...I can't lose anyone else...not over a stupid date."

Regina reached out her hand, waiting for her friend to take it. As he did she squeezed it encouragingly, "Emma could never hate you. She loves you and she wants you happy. I get that you are scared because every one of you loved Graham dearly, I included, but he is gone. It's sad and it hurts, but he isn't coming back. He would want you to be happy. He wants all of you to be happy. Do you think he would have spent so much time planning all those surprises for you guys otherwise?"

"I miss him", Killian's voice was barely a whisper, "I miss him. Every hour of every day. I knew our relationship was rocky at best, but even when we took a break...we've always been friends. Why didn't he tell me, Regina? He shouldn't have died alone...he shouldn't have died to begin with! He's gone and I'm here...swooning over a wedding planner...it's...it's not fair."

"Life's not fair, I'm afraid", Regina stated, "I wish he had decided to let everyone know so we could have been there for him, I should have known that something was wrong when he took me on this walk to the gazebo. But we need to accept that he made this decision for himself. Not for everyone else. It was his choice...and he loved you. That's why he let you go. If he were here today, he'd be happy for you. He would want you to go for your dreams...and for what you want. It will be weird in the beginning...dating someone else. But it will be okay. Neal is a great guy from what I can tell...try to be happy, Killian. For Graham."

"Regina?"

"Yes?

"Can I give you a hug?"

She thought about it for a second and realized that, no, she wouldn't mind, "Of course."

Killian pulled her into his arms, careful for the embrace not to become too tight, "Thank you. For everything."
He took a step back, his hands on Regina's shoulders, their eyes locking, "I admit...when Emma first told me about you...I wasn't sure what to think of the whole story. After Jade and all that crap that woman pulled. But Regina Mills, you are a godsend. For all of us. I'm so glad that Emma saw that golden heart of yours right away. I get it now. I get why she loves you so damn much. There's simply no way not to."

Regina was completely taken aback by Killian's statement, "I...I owe you all so much. you've done so much for me...and I...Emma...she's...I have no words. She's everything."

"You don't owe anyone anything, love. All we did was help you out a little. We might have provided the wings...but the way you have risen like the phoenix from the ashes...that's all you."
-----------------------------------

Meanwhile, Emma was pacing in Gold's office, her mind racing.
That sneaky bastard had revealed his wishes for the second event she was supposed to plan and of course he had asked for the one thing that was impossible to arrange.

"Mister Gold, we both know that I can't do that", she tried to stay calm, but he was really testing her temper.

"And how is that my problem, deary. We have a deal, remember? And you better keep your end of that deal or Regina will come back here where she belongs", his trademark giggle echoed through the room.

"She doesn't belong here! And she sure as hell doesn't belong to you!", Emma barked.

"Then see to it that I get my party", Gold said, got up from behind his desk, and stepped right in front of her, "See to it or our deal is obsolete."

Emma closed her eyes, trying to will back the tears.
She would make it happen if she could.
The problem was she couldn't.
He truly had asked the impossible of her.
What now?

Chapter Text

Emma stood in the living room of the Swan mansion, her shoulders sagged, her eyes dropped in defeat.
She had gone to see her parents as soon as she had left Gold's office because she had been aware that she was in way over her head. She had also known that there was nothing her parents could do to help her.
Well, theoretically they could, but at what cost?

Her father was eyeing her with a mixture of worry and anger, "You should have never made a deal with that horrible man, to begin with. Emma, what were you thinking?"

"I know. I should have seen it coming from miles away. Of course, he would ensure that I fail at last. So close and yet", Emma looked at her parents with nothing, but desperation in her eyes, "What am I going to do? Regina can't go back...I won't allow it...it would ruin her."

"I'm afraid there's nothing much you can do though", Roger Swan commented, "Gold is not to be messed with from all the stories I've heard. You made that deal, knowing that if you can't fulfill your end of the bargain...she will have to go back to work for him."

"I did, but I had no clue that he would ask something impossible of me for this second event. That bastard!"
A lone, angry tear rolled over Emma's cheek, causing her mother, who had been silent to this point, to get up, but Emma backed away before Christine Swan was anywhere near her.

"We're not talking about some business transaction here. We are talking about a person. This is Regina", Emma's voice cracked and she continued in a whisper, "I love her."
And after a moment she added, "I need your help, dad. Please."

Roger Swan sighed, "I knew that woman would be trouble. I knew it! Right from the beginning...and you know that we can't help you, Emma. You know. I would if I could because I think that Mister Gold is a disgusting human being, but I can't. It's not possible. You have to understand that."

"I know."
Of course, she knew. She had known as soon as Gold had stated his conditions, but Emma had refused to accept the truth of the situation, an irrational hope driving her right over to her parents' house, every fiber of her body willing to keep fighting a lost battle.
She took a deep breath in an attempt to pull herself together because she could not afford to fall apart right now, "I better get going."

"Emma, what are you going to do?"
Her mother's voice was filled with worry and Emma finally took a couple of steps closer, taking her mother's hand, squeezing it weakly, "I'm trying to come up with a plan b, I have to. 'Cause he's not getting her back. I will protect Regina and if it's the last thing I'll do."
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Meanwhile, Regina was trying to do her job and deal with Killian's excitement about his upcoming date with one Neal Cassidy, completely unaware of the turmoil Emma was in.
Regina was so ridiculously happy, she couldn't put it into words if she tried, and she was looking forward to going home and spending the evening with her girlfriend.
Girlfriend.

She smiled at the thought.
Emma was her girlfriend.
And they were slowly heading in the direction of going on real dates, on having a real relationship.
Yes, the road ahead of them was still bumpy, but she could admit now that she had made progress, that she was making progress. She could feel it in every fiber of her body and it was amazing.

When had life started to become so good for her?
When Emma, beautiful and kind-hearted Emma Swan, had decided that she was worth it while she had tried to fight her tooth and nail.

While it was still beyond her what Emma saw in her, Regina did not doubt Emma's love for her, because Emma managed to show her with every look, every word, every gesture that she was the most precious thing in her life.
And Henry as well.

Regina never thought she would have any of this, but Emma had turned her world upside down, had opened a door to a new life, to a world that felt like Wonderland to her and they had found so much more than "just" love and a family. They had found friends, loyalty, and real opportunities.
They had been given a choice.
That was what Regina was most grateful for.

She took her phone out of her pocket and sent Emma a quick message before she returned to do her job, a smile on her face. She could not wait to see Emma tonight.

Regina: Just in case I don't say it often enough...I love you, Emma.
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The text message had come out of nowhere and it had hit her right in the face. Regina was not one for big displays of affection, because she was still battling with her past and while they were on the same page regarding their feelings for one another, they did not throw I love you's at each other all the time.

Emma sat in her office, staring at the display of her cell phone, and tried not to cry.
Regina loved her, Regina trusted her and Regina counted on her and here she was, ruining everything because she had made a deal with the devil.
A deal she could not fulfill.
What was she going to do? What was she going to tell Regina?

Henry and Regina were finally happy, were finally getting to a place of peace in their lives and now she had to take it away from them because she knew that Gold would burst their little bubble soon.
Emma felt like the ultimate failure for not making a more precise deal with that man, for not stating some rules, but she had been too excited that he had agreed to the deal in the first place that she had not thought about it and now she was going to pay for it. Regina was going to pay for it.

"So, what are you saying? That we should throw our reputation out of the window? That we should risk everything we worked for, everything we built...for that...for a stripper?", Roger Swan looked at his wife in disbelief, "My father, my grandfather...they've worked their whole lives to turn this company into the big success it is today. And there are contracts in case you have forgotten...contracts that are binding."

"I know, darling. I know. But there has to be a way. We need to help her, we need to help Emma. She's our daughter!", Christine Swan fired back.

"She is and I love her more than anything, you should know that", he insisted, "But there is nothing we can do. She shouldn't have made that deal with that scumbag, to begin with."

Emma's mother sighed, "You might not care for Regina, but Emma loves her. She also loves Henry and you do too. Don't even try to deny it. Roger, we need to do something!"

"We can't."

"Is that your last word?", Christina Swan looked at her husband challengingly. When no answer came she grabbed her purse and coat and headed for the door.

"Christine, where are you going? We have to be at the country club in an hour for Brian's party", Roger Swan looked at his wife in confusion.

"I'm sure you'll have a great time explaining to everyone how you let down your only child", Christina Swan commented dryly, "I'll go back to the office and try to find a solution. And then I'm going to check on Emma. In case you haven't noticed, she was really upset."

She did not stay long enough to give her husband a chance to say anything else. She simply got into her car and drove off, her mind already busy with possible scenarios that would help Emma fulfill that deal, but even Christine Swan had to admit that it might not be possible.
------------------------------------

Emma had not texted her back, but Regina had not worried, because she knew how busy Emma was these days.
She had spent a lovely evening with Henry and Tamotsu, cooking lasagna and playing cards, but Regina couldn't deny that she waited for Emma to come home.
She could not wait to cuddle up next to Emma, to feel the warmth of her skin on her own, but Emma never showed.
------------------------------------

When there was still no sign of Emma the next morning Regina started to worry. But more than that she was confused. Something had to be off or Emma would have texted or called her. Was there a reason why Emma would become distant from one moment to the next?
She headed over to the penthouse while Henry was eating breakfast, but Emma was not there either. And from what it looked like she had not been home all night.
Was Emma avoiding her? And if so...why?

If Emma would have pulled an all-nighter at her office she would have let her know. She always did. She took her phone out of her pocket and called Emma's phone, but no one answered.
She tried to call the office next to find out that the line was busy.
What the hell?

It was not even 7 am, so clearly, Emma wouldn't be talking to a client.
At least she knew that Emma was there.
But it only proved Regina's point that something was going on and her nerves and fears started to get the better of her.

What if Emma had finally realized that this was not worth it? That she was not worth all the hassle and waiting? Had Emma finally enough?
Was that why she had not come home, why she had not talked to her?

The bare thought of the possibility broke Regina's heart, but at least she had learned something over the last months.
Battling with her fears alone in the dark would not get her anywhere, it would only drive her crazy. The conversation might not be pleasant, it might feel like ripping her heart out of her chest, but she would talk to Emma none-the-less.

And so Regina found herself entering the building where Emma's office was located only a couple of minutes after she had dropped Henry off at school.
She had been surprised that Henry had not caught on to her anxiety or maybe he had and had decided to cut her some slack for once. Either way, Regina was grateful that he had not said a word.

She was not sure how to approach Emma, but she would not back down. And she would get Emma to tell her what was going on. It could not be that bad.
But then she rounded the corner and stopped.
The assistant desk was empty, but clearly, there was someone in Emma's office already because she could hear voices.

Regina moved closer until she could take a look through the floor–to–ceiling windows of Emma's office and her eyes went wide in horror.
Mary Margaret and Christine Swan were sitting there, the most serious expressions on their faces while Emma had buried her face in her hands, obviously sobbing and Regina knew right then that her life was about to change once again. And probably not for the better this time.

Mary Margaret caught sight of her in the end and must have announced her presence to the other two women present in the room because she found both Swan women looking at her only a second later.
To Regina's surprise, it was Christine Swan who stepped outside to greet her and that in itself was even more alarming to her.
Something was definitely wrong.

"Good morning, Regina."

"Misses Swan."
Regina was so incredibly tense, she felt close to fainting.

"Christine", Emma's mother corrected, "May I have a word with you?"

All Regina could do was nod and she followed Christine Swan into the conference room, where they both took a seat – opposite from one another.

"Just tell me what it is. It has to be pretty bad when you are here in the early morning and Emma is crying. Is everything alright with your husband?", Regina hoped that Emma's father was okay. He might not like her, but Emma loved him dearly and Henry had taken quite the liking to him as well.

"My husband is fine I assume", Christine said. "I haven't spoken to him since yesterday because we had a bit of a...discussion. I'm afraid it's a lot worse than that though. It's about your former employer, Mister Gold."

It felt like a slap to the face. Hearing his name after all this time felt as if someone had literally slapped her. She had known that Emma would have to talk to him eventually about this second event, but she had tried to ignore it. Seemed like she could not do that any longer. And from the state Emma was in Regina could tell that it had not gone well.

"I'm not good at sugar coating things, Regina. I don't think it does anyone any good either, so here is the thing. Mister Gold wants to throw that party on one of our cruise ships. One specific ship to be precise – the MS Neverland. The problem with that is that the ship is not available...and don't think I don't want to give it to him, I would. But we have a contract with a Russian company since 17 years. They always go on a cruise that time of the year. On that exact ship. Everyone knows that, so I think Mister Gold is aware of it too. As I said, I would let him have it, because I know how much you mean to my daughter, but", Christine Swan stopped for a moment, "Sadly it's not that easy. We have a contract, there is a lot of money involved, and it's just not possible to get out of that contract on such short notice since they booked the ship for years in advance. I'm not sure we could get out of it at all that easily in general, to be honest."

"I see."
Regina was a lot calmer than she thought she would be, "Is that why you fought with your husband?"

"He's not a bad man, my husband. He's just really mad at the moment. At Emma for making a deal with Gold in the first place. At Gold for being such a deceiving man. Our shipping company has been in his family's possession for generations. It's his whole pride and joy and", Emma's mother took a deep breath, "He really liked Jade, you know. He did. He saw that relationship going somewhere and then...Emma had been heartbroken...but he had been hurting as well, even though he would never admit it, but I know my husband. And ever since he's...well..."

"I understand."
Regina was still calm, almost too calm, but she needed time to wrap her head around all of this.

"Please, believe me when I say that I am so sorry, Regina. And it's not over yet. Mary Margaret and Emma are working full speed to come up with a plan b and I'm helping where I can as well. If someone can find a way, it's Emma", Christine Swan said and tried to smile.

Regina only nodded, "Can you give me a minute?"

"Of course. We'll be in Emma's office."
------------------------------------

Once she was alone in the room Regina took a deep breath. Gold, that bastard!
She felt the anger rising in her chest, but not because she might have to return to work for him, but because he had made Emma feel so miserable.
She did not kid herself – she would have to go back.

She appreciated everyone's effort, but she had known Gold a lot longer than Emma and he would not budge. Plan B or not, he would not give in one inch.
That's how he made all his deals and money – by asking for the impossible.
He found great pleasure in seeing people fail and owing him.
And Regina knew all too well how far he would go if people didn't pay up.
Gold was a truly evil man, a sadist that couldn't be bought off, and he stopped at nothing.
People, who had tried to fool him had paid dearly, some had disappeared altogether.

Maybe she was still in shock or maybe she had seen it coming all along and that was the reason why she was not freaking out right now.
It had been too good to be true all along and Regina had waited for the other shoe to drop for months and it was finally happening.
Regina was not all that surprised.

She hated The Rabbit Hole, she had hated to work there, but this time she would protect Emma because she did not want Emma to do something drastic, something she would regret, something that would cost her and her family everything.
Because Gold wouldn't just stop or give in. He would blackmail them, would dig up some dirt, and if he wouldn't be able to find any then he would spread well-placed rumors, would fake evidence, and destroy the Swans as he had done with so many before.

And while she loved her new life, loved working for Killian, she would go back anyway.
She would protect Emma this time because she loved Emma the most.

The only thing that really scared Regina was losing Emma.
Would Emma still want her around? What would it mean for them?
Would there still be a relationship to fight for or would it be the end of everything?

She had to know, she needed to know, but Regina's decision was made already.
Emma had saved her so many times, it was time someone saved her.
------------------------------------

Regina entered the office a couple of minutes later, calm and collected and Emma rushed to her side faster than she could blink, pulling her into her arms, "I'm so sorry. I'm such a failure."

"You are no such thing! Gold is a bastard...it's not your fault!", Regina pulled back and looked into sad and defeated green eyes, "Emma...none of this is your fault, do you understand?"

"It is though. I should have been more specific in my agreement with him, but I...I was just so...so excited...and I...I forgot...I'll find a way...I'll do whatever it takes...but you're not going back...I won't let it happen, I promise."
Fresh tears ran down Emma's face and Regina's heart broke for her. Emma was beating herself up over something she had no control over.
How could she have known that Gold would play her like that? She could not have.
Emma did not know him the way Regina did.

"I'll get some breakfast", Mary Margaret announced, "I'll be right back."

"That's a good idea. I'll head to the hotel to shower and get some fresh clothes. I'll be back in about two hours", Christine Swan added and both women left without another word, wanting to give Emma and Regina some privacy.

"I appreciate what you have done for me, Emma. And I appreciate what you are trying to do for me, but I won't allow it."
When Emma wanted to interrupt her Regina put her index finger over the blonde's lips to silence her, "Your parents are fighting because of me. I don't want to cause more damage than what has already been done. You could lose everything. Your father could lose everything. Everything his family has worked for, for generations. You can't just break contracts because you want to...I know you, Emma. You would in a heartbeat, but you can't. Not when it comes to Gold. It will be fine. I worked there before, I can do it again. I can go back. It will be fine."

"Regina, no."

"I only need to know one thing", Regina locked eyes with Emma, barely able to face the pain her girlfriend was in, "Will you still love me?
Regina hated to be so insecure, but here she stood, right in front of the woman she loved, hoping and praying that the past she had never wanted would not ruin the future she had never even dared to dream of.

"I will always love you, Regina. No matter what."
Emma put a kiss to her temple before she rested their foreheads together, "But don't you dare give up just yet, Regina Mills. There's still time. We'll figure something out."

"Okay."
But deep down Regina knew that Emma's hope was ill-fated and would only lead to more heartbreak, would only lead to a disaster and she could not have that.

And that was why Regina was headed towards The Rabbit Hole only a couple of hours later.
Back to a life long forgotten.
Back to what she had always considered her personal hell.

Chapter Text

She had been calm during the whole drive, but now that the car was parked Regina thought she might get sick.
The mere sight of the building caused the bile to rise in her throat, but she managed to swallow it back down, determined to do right by Emma.

It took her a couple of minutes to collect herself before she felt strong enough to face what was ahead. She dreaded the conversation, but there was no point in delaying the inevitable, so she got out of the car, took a deep breath, and entered The Rabbit Hole on wobbly legs, praying that she would not faint.

The smell of expensive cigars, cold smoke, and whiskey hit her harder than she had anticipated, causing Regina to stagger for a moment before she found her footing again. She would have to be more careful, she could not afford an injury such as a sprained ankle, especially not on her first day back.
The Rabbit Hole was almost empty, except for two young blondes she had never seen before. Obviously new additions to Gold's ever-growing crew of strippers.
The girls were so caught up in their rehearsal that they did not even notice her and she was glad about it. She had no desire to have small talk with the competition or anyone else for that matter.

It had been months since Regina had last performed, but it felt like it had been another lifetime, and she was not sure if she could still do it, but then again she had to find a way.
For Emma.
----------------------------------------

She found Gold sitting in his office at last and he seemed genuinely surprised to see her, "Regina Mills, what a glorious sight in my humble establishment! To what do I owe the honor of your visit?"

"Don't play dumb, Gold. You know exactly why I'm here", Regina spat out through gritted teeth. God, she hated that man with every fiber of her being, "Your deal with Emma is off, I'm coming back."

He eyed her curiously, "So there won't be a party? Shame."

His trademark maniacal giggle echoed through the office, causing Regina to wince.
Yes, she really, really despised that man!

"Happens when you give people impossible tasks, ones they can never fulfill", she snapped, "Then again that's how you make a living, isn't it?!"

"Now don't be so dramatic, Regina", he grabbed his cane and got up from behind his desk, "It's not my fault she didn't state more precise rules...or any rules to begin with."

"Only cause she doesn't know you", Regina fired back, wondering where her confidence came from.
She had never managed to stand her ground around that man, but now all of sudden she was speaking up and she was aware that it was Emma's doing. She had made her so much stronger, had made her see that she mattered, that she was valuable. She could do this.

He took a few steps towards her, "Be that as it may, dearie...Miss Swan and I had an agreement and as it seems she is unable to fulfill her end of the bargain, which means our deal is invalid and the Swan princess owes me."

"She owes you nothing!", Regina's eyes sparkled furiously, "You are not going to make her pay for my sins, you imp...or I swear to God I will find a way to have this little establishment of yours closed for good", Regina barked out.
She knew Gold was involved in all kinds of illegal stuff, but unfortunately, the man was smart and she could not prove it. At least not yet.

He came even closer, heavily leaning on his cane, "You wouldn't dare."

Regina met his gaze, determination written all over her face, "Try me."

Gold seemed to weigh his options for a moment, aware that Regina had changed a lot ever since she had left The Rabbit Hole.
She was stronger, more confident, and driven. More than anything she was trying to protect someone she loved.
She might have had nothing then, but she sure had a lot to lose now and people like that were not to be underestimated.

"So, what do you propose, Regina?", he tilted his head, "Do tell, dearie...my attention is all yours."

Regina took a deep breath, "I'll come back to work for you and you leave Emma and her family alone. You destroy the contract that you surely had Emma sign and you'll never talk about her or the Swans ever again. No spreading rumors, no blackmailing, none of your shenanigans. You forget that you ever met her, that she even exists. The same goes for her family."
She was aware that she was pushing her luck, but what other choice did she have?

Gold did not say a word for a while and it creeped Regina out, but she could do nothing, but wait, which was the worst, really.

"Tell you what, dearie", he giggled, "Why don't you do a test run tonight. I mean you've been gone for a while and I need to make sure that you still have it in you to drive the crowd wild. If it goes well we have a deal. It's up to you, Regina."
He held out his hand, ready for her to shake it and seal the deal. Regina took another deep breath before she did indeed take that hand that was offered to her, "Alright."

She wanted to pull away, but Gold tightened his grip on her hand, "And just so we are clear...in case I allow you to come back you'll do more lap dances and you're not to complain about it ever again."

Regina only nodded, aware that she would never win this argument. Gold was set on making the most profit possible, of course, there would be conditions for her return, especially since he would lose a lot by losing the Swan connection. But for some reason,e he would rather have her back than have Emma throw that event for him and Regina did not bother to ask why. At the end of the day, it did not matter. Emma would be safe and that was what counted.

"Go then. I'm sure you remember where your dressing room is. I'll have someone bring your costumes."
With that Regina was dismissed and she rushed out of the office, glad to get away from Gold for the time being.
----------------------------------------

Meanwhile, completely unaware of Regina's plans, Emma and her mother were calculating and plotting for a plan to save Regina and it was not as bad as they had initially thought.
The MS Neverland was out of the question, but Christine Swan might have found a solution as close to it as it got.
Emma was not sure if she could get Gold to agree to it, but what worried her, even more, was the question of how they would get her father to sign off on it, to begin with.
Her mother seemed to be optimistic, but Emma was not so sure.
Her father had made it pretty clear that he had no intention of helping her the other day and Emma honestly doubted that he would change his mind, especially since he did not like Regina.
And that was why she was even more surprised when her father entered her office a couple of minutes later.

"I called him", her mother whispered quickly before she stood to greet her husband, albeit distantly.

He glared at all the papers on the table, "What is going on?"

"Roger, I need you to sit down and hear us out", Christine Swan countered sternly, so he did.

They explained to him the offer they wanted to make to Gold and his eyes widened in disbelief, "Have you completely lost your mind? Absolutely not!"

"Roger, calm down. It's going to be fine. I already talked to Alfred and he doesn't mind", Christine tried, but he only shook his head, "The answer is NO. If Emma wants to ruin her life by engaging with people like Gold, fine. But I'm not dragging my family name through the dirt by making business with that bastard. That you even suggest such a thing is a disgrace, Christine. I'm so disappointed in you."

Christine Swan could not contain her anger any longer, "I might be your wife, but I'm also Emma's mother!"

"ENOUGH!", Emma barked out and got up, furious as well, "Dad is right. It's my problem, not yours. I shouldn't have asked. It's my battle to fight and I will. I'll find a way, don't worry. Thanks for your help though, Mom. It means a lot. But I don't want the two of you to fight over this. Neither does Regina for that matter. She already offered to go back to work for Gold to keep us and your precious family name out of trouble."

She glared at her father while she said the last part and the news seemed to take him by surprise, "I thought she hated that place?"

Emma laughed bitterly, "She does. You have no idea how much...but she loves me."
She felt a wave of pride wash over her, because yes, Regina Mills did indeed love her, and even in all this madness that was all that mattered.

"Don't get any ideas though...as much as I would love to see your face if we would make headlines 'cause I'm dating a stripper. Not a former one, but an actual one. Because let me make one thing perfectly clear, dad. Regina and I will not break up, no matter what happens. We are a family and we'll deal with whatever life throws at us. We've overcome so many obstacles, we'll get through this as well. Even without your help."

It was the moment that Roger Swan realized that he basically knew nothing about his daughter's life.
"And what if Gold doesn't agree to your terms, what if he simply declines the offer altogether?"

Emma locked eyes with her father then, allowing him to see her determination, "I'll do whatever it takes. I won't let Regina go back to this hell. I'd rather go and work there myself. I'm sure Gold wouldn't mind me stripping at his club."

"Emma!", Christine Swan looked absolutely horrified by the mere thought, "Promise me..."

"I have to protect her, mom. She's everything to me. And when it comes down to it, I'd rather it be me than her. I can take it...she might not."
And with that Emma headed for the door, but her mother grabbed her arm and held her back. She looked at her husband for a moment, "I hate that I have to do this, Roger, but you leave me with no choice."

She looked back at Emma, "The Atlantis was my wedding gift from your father and grandfather. She is mine. So I can authorize this deal...go to Gold and make the offer."

"Christine!", Roger Swan jumped up, completely outraged.

Emma looked back and forth between her parents, but ultimately directed her questioning look at her mother, who only nodded and smiled, "Go."
----------------------------------------

Regina was sitting in her old dressing room and stared at her reflection in the mirror.
Her hands were shaking as she tried to apply her trademark Evil Queen makeup, dropping the brush in frustration.

She had held herself together all day ever since she had heard the news, but now that everything had fully sunken in she was confronted by what it meant.
She would do anything for Emma, without a doubt. But it did not mean that it did not hurt to give up the job she loved to trade it for this nightmare.
It did not mean that the bare thought of all those needy men staring at her, watching her undress and giving away her privacy and part of her dignity, did not kill her inside.
It did not stop her from emptying the contents of her stomach all over the floor only a few seconds later either.

At the end of the day, she would still have a home though, she would still have Emma.
And that was worth the sacrifice.
----------------------------------------

Emma rushed through the location in search of Regina, because she wanted to talk to her about the offer she was about to make to Gold, hoping Regina would have some suggestions on how to sell it to the shady businessman.
Unfortunately, Regina was nowhere to be seen, but she found Killian instead.
Killian, who was holding hands with none other than Neal Cassidy.

As soon as they caught sight of her they sprung apart as if they would have been burned. Emma made a mental note to talk to Killian about this later.
Now was not that time for this conversation.

"Have you seen Regina?", she asked instead.

"She isn't here, love. She called in the morning and said she needed some days off 'cause she had to take care of an important private matter. I thought she was with you", Killian answered in confusion and watched all color draining from Emma's face, "Is everything alright, Em?"

"I don't know."
She pulled her cell phone out of her pocket and dialed Regina's number nervously. The call went straight to voicemail.
"Shit!"

Killian's expression went from confused to worried, "Did something happen? Did you fight?"

"If only", Emma buried her face in her hands, "I think Regina went back to Gold."

"WHAT?! Why on earth would she do that?", Killian stared at her in complete disbelief.

Emma looked up, desperation and defeat sparkling in her eyes, "To protect me."
----------------------------------------

Regina was trying to tie her corset by herself but failed miserably. She definitely was out of practice on that one.
It had taken her forever to get her make-up done properly because she had started to cry while she had been in the middle of applying eyeliner and once the tears had started flowing she had not been able to stop them anymore. Something had broken inside of her like a dam.
She felt so hopeless and defeated.

Emma would be mad that she had gone behind her back, that she had not kept the promise to wait, but she had to protect Emma this time.
And Henry.
God, she did not even want to think about her son.
What would she tell him? He would be so disappointed.

"Do you need help?"

The voice behind her, though familiar, made Regina jump.
She had not even realized that someone had entered the room. Regina turned around and a mixture of guilt and relief washed over her, "Ashley."
----------------------------------------

Emma's heart was racing faster than her car, her hands clawing at the steering wheel as if it would be her lifeline.
She wanted to be mad at Regina, but she was too worried about her for that. And besides that, she understood what Regina was trying to do and why. Regina simply wanted to protect her as much as Emma wanted to protect her, no matter the cost.
The difference was that being back at The Rabbit Hole would destroy Regina.
----------------------------------------

Ashley had helped her to get dressed and Regina felt lightheaded, not used to the constricting corset anymore.

"I'm so sorry I never called", Regina wheezed out and dropped her eyes to the floor.

"I'm sorry you are back here", Ashley answered with a sad smile, "It has to be so hard considering what you have achieved ever since you left."

Regina nodded, "It's my choice though. If that's the only way to keep Emma out of trouble and safe, so be it."

Ashley eyed her curiously, "So, the two of you...are you like...exclusive?"

"We are a family."
A smile appeared on Regina's face at the mere thought of Emma, "I love her. God, Ashley...you have no idea how amazing she is. I never thought I'd ever fall in love again...even less that it would be a woman, but she's the one. I just know. Emma is everything."

Ashley smiled as well, "I'm happy for you, Regina. I always have been. It just sucked that..."

"I know. And I'm so sorry", she finally looked at Ashley, but it was hard because she felt so ashamed, "I feel horrible for abandoning you."

"It's okay", Ashley shrugged, "There's no telling what I would have done if I would have been in your position. Probably the same."

"Still."

The blonde shook her head, "It's in the past. Just don't do it again."

As miserable as Regina currently was, and she knew it would only get worse once she set foot on that stage, she was so glad to see Ashley because her blonde colleague and friend was the only one who fully understood this part of her life and the horror that came with it at times.
----------------------------------------

Emma stormed into Gold's office without so much as knocking, almost bumping into him in the process.

"Miss Swan, what a lovely surprise! I take it you are here to see Regina's performance?", he giggled and Emma fought the urge to punch him in the face.
God, she hated that man!

"You're not getting her back!", she hissed and he eyed her in surprise, "Did your father secure me that little ship of his then?"

"No", Emma took a deep breath, "But I'm here to make another offer."

Gold limped over to his desk and took a seat, gesturing for Emma to do the same, which she did, albeit reluctantly.

"So, here's the deal", her voice was trembling, but she continued anyway, "I'm sure you've heard of the MS Atlantis. Basically the same as the Neverland, but more luxurious since the Atlantis was built a couple of years later. We can secure you the ship for the whole weekend, which means a full three-day cruise. You said you are expecting around 1500 guests...well, as it happens the son of a family friend wants to throw a massive bachelor party that weekend. That would make for another 400 to 500 guests. He'd be willing to join your festivities, which means a lot more profit for you 'cause his guests are insanely wealthy. In case everything is kept discreet and what happens on the cruise stays on the cruise of course. What do you say?"

Gold stared at her for a while before he finally spoke, "I'm impressed to which lengths you've gone, Miss Swan, but I'm afraid I have to decline. As tempting as the offer is. I requested the MS Neverland and that's what I want and I'll stick with it. So either you give me the ship I asked for or no deal."

Emma wanted to tell him to go hell when the door flew open and in walked Neal Cassidy, a breathless Killian in tow.

"What are you doing here?", Emma asked in confusion, but was ignored as Neal kept staring at Gold, "You better take that deal, dad. I'm sure it's a good and fair one which is an unfamiliar concept for you. Surely it's way more than what you deserve."

"Wait", Emma looked back and forth between Gold and the wedding planner, "He is your son?!"

"Sadly", Neal commented, "We haven't seen each other in years 'cause I don't want anything to do with what he calls business."

He turned to face his father again, "Graham Hunter was my friend, dad, and you know how much these people meant to him as he was part of the initial deal. That makes them my friends too. I swear to God, if you don't stop this madness right now I will sell you and your criminal ass out to the cops...and you'll never see me again."

Gold started at his son in disbelief, not because he tried to threaten him, but because he had, in fact, thought that he would never see him again anyway, "Neal...will you have dinner with me?"

Neal, albeit mad, knew that he could win this battle.
He was the only one who could get his father to give in to something and it was about time the old man did something to prove that he really loved him, "That depends...will you leave my friends alone?"

Gold nodded, "Regina is free to go...and as for Miss Swan...I'm sure she'll throw me a spectacular party on the MS Atlantis. I accept her offer and her conditions", Gold caved to everyone's surprise.

"No tricks or so help me God", Neal glared at his father, "Do you understand?!"

"Perfectly."

To prove his intentions Gold limped over to his safe, retrieved the contract Emma had signed back in the day, and ripped it into pieces.

Killian, relieved beyond words, kissed Neal in gratitude, "You are the best!"
Only then did he realize that Emma was in the room as well and he gulped, but she simply went over and hugged her friend, "I love you, Killian. And I'm happy for you. I'm sure Graham would be too."

Killian pulled her even closer, "Thank you."

Once Emma got out of the embrace she turned towards Neal, "I don't know what to say...but THANK YOU! If you ever need anything..."

The wedding planner smiled at her, "It's fine, Emma. When Killian told me what was going on I knew I had to come and help...just go and get your girl."

Emma smiled at him, nodded, and rushed out of the office only seconds later.
----------------------------------------

Regina stalked out of her dressing room, shaking like a leaf. She might look like an evil queen, but she surely did not feel like one. She felt more like she was on the way to her execution. Only then the nightmare would end soon while hers only began.
She turned around the corner, headed for the stage when she saw her.

Emma.
Emma, who was running down the corridor, straight in her direction.

"You stubborn fool!", Emma rasped out breathlessly, "What do you think you are doing?!"

"Emma, you can't be here. Please, go home", Regina begged. She could not do this with Emma present. Not this time.

"I will. And you are coming with me", Emma stated with a smile and reached for Regina's hand, but she backed away, "I can't."

"And that's where you are wrong, Regina...or should I call you Your Majesty?", Emma winked at Regina, hoping that her girlfriend would realize it was a joke, "You are free to go. Actually, we both are."

Regina eyed her suspiciously, "Emma, what did you do?"

Emma only shrugged, "Made an offer Gold couldn't resist...Neal made sure of that."

Confusion spread on Regina's face instantly, "What does Neal have to do with this?"

Emma chuckled as the bizarre turn of events finally caught up with her, "Well, turns out he is Gold's son."

Regina was rendered speechless for a moment as she stared at Emma in disbelief, "We are really going home?"

Emma nodded and held out her hand once more, "Yes, it's time."

This time Regina did not hesitate to take it.
The nightmare was finally over.

The Rabbit Hole - Chapter was closed at last.

Chapter Text

Regina had not bothered to change, she had only wanted to get out of The Rabbit Hole as fast as possible. She had left a note for Ashley though, a note with her phone number and address and an invitation for dinner on Sunday, hoping Ashley would take her up on it.
Emma had handed Killian Regina's car keys and he had promised to bring it by later.
He had also told Regina to take the next day off to breathe and relax and Emma had promised him that she would make sure Regina did.

The drive home had been silent, Regina had buried her hands in the pile of clothes in her lap to keep them from shaking while Emma kept stealing glances at her, but Regina did not even blink.
They had called David briefly once they had gotten home as he had picked up Henry, who was already sleeping, but both Mary Margaret and David had assured them that he was fine and had no clue of the whole Gold debacle.

Regina had disappeared into the bathroom wordlessly after that, leaving Emma to stare after her in worry.
----------------------------------------

She hated her reflection in the mirror.
The fake hair, the heavy makeup, it simply was not her.
And yet Regina could not stop staring, could not stop looking at this part of herself.
A part she had thought she would never see again, but here she was.
Emma had to be so disappointed, probably even disgusted.

She kept staring at the stranger in the mirror that was so familiar at the same time.

The Evil Queen was a part of her past, it was a part of her, whether she liked it or not. She would love to say that it was just a job, just a way to get by, but the truth was the queen had become part of her everyday life, part of her reality. She might not have had another choice, but to work for Gold, but she had not fought him either.

She had not noticed that she had been standing there motionlessly for quite a while, it was only when Emma knocked on the door and asked if she was alright that Regina realized that she needed help, even if Emma was mad at her.

"You can come in", she rasped out and Emma appeared right behind her only a moment later.

What a stark contrast that was – the two of them reflected in the mirror.
Emma was the light and she was the darkness and she really should send Emma away, because Emma, of all people, should not have to see her like this, but she couldn't.

"What can I do?", Emma asked carefully and put her hands on Regina's shoulders, squeezing them encouragingly, "Just tell me what you need, Regina."

"Hair."
It was the only thing she could say without her voice breaking, but Emma understood all the same.

She maneuvered Regina over to the bathtub and made her sit on the edge, "Maybe you want to get out of those killer heels, your feet must be hurting like hell."

Regina's gaze dropped to her feet. She had not even realized that she was still wearing shoes.
But so was Emma, who seemed to catch onto it as well.
Emma slipped out of her heels unceremoniously, moved them to the side, and knelt down in front of Regina, gently taking hold of her right leg and removed the black high heel in one slow motion, causing Regina to wince, which did not go unnoticed by Emma.

"Hurts?", Emma asked, looking up at Regina worriedly.

"It's okay".
The truth was that Regina was quite in a bit of pain, but she did not want to add any more weight to Emma's guilt-laden shoulders as the burden seemed to be crushing her as it was and yet Emma was still strong for her, for the both of them.
Regina felt Emma's hands on her other foot and the shoe was taken off as well. She was glad that she was sitting already because Regina was sure she would have keeled over otherwise. How she had worn those heels for hours on end on a daily basis back in the day was beyond her.

While Regina was lost in thought of the past Emma got up and started to take out clips and hair needles, together with strands of fake hair. She worked in silence, allowing Regina a moment to breathe and pull herself together because Regina was shaken up way more than she was letting on.

Once she was done Emma went to get some of wipes to clean Regina's face.
Regina looked so different with all the dark colors and it was not that Emma did not like it, but it simply was not Regina.
It was like an armor, a mask Regina wore to shield herself from the world outside and The Evil Queen persona might have been part of Regina's past, but it had nothing to do with who she was now although Regina would clearly disagree on that.

Regina blamed herself for most of the choices she had to make, for most of the things that had happened to her and she was convinced that it made her a bad person.
Emma, of course, saw it differently.
Regina had done what she had to do in order to survive and protect herself. And her son.

She felt Regina closing her eyes while she wiped the makeup off of her face, always careful not to put too much pressure onto the soft skin, not wanting to cause Regina any pain.
The rich, blood-red lipstick was the last thing Emma removed in soft strokes, revealing the last part of the real Regina.
Gone was the armor, the mask had fallen, and a smile spread on Emma's face as soon as Regina opened her eyes, "There you are."

Emma's eyes sparkled happily, "Let me draw you a bath."

Regina was so captivated by Emma's gentle touches that she could only nod.
She heard the water running only seconds later.

The light of countless candles was providing a rather relaxing atmosphere together with the smell of the cinnamon and vanilla oil Emma had added to the water.
She was ready to leave the room, but Regina held her back, "I need help with my corset."

Emma nodded robotically and helped Regina to her aching feet. She turned her around, her fingers trembling as she untied the laces, holding her breath as the corset fell open to reveal Regina's scarred, but beautiful back.
Emma was not keen on seeing all the dents the tightly tied corset had left on Regina's skin, knowing full well that it must have been painful to wear.

As Regina loosened her grip on the constricting piece of clothing it dropped to the floor like an old rag.
Emma instantly closed her eyes as she realized that Regina was turning around to face her.

"You can look at me, you know", Regina husked out, her voice shaking, "Unless you don't want to."

Emma opened her eyes and met Regina's gaze, "Never think I don't want to, Regina. You're so beautiful. Breathtaking, really. I just don't want you to be...uncomfortable. I don't want to push you."

Regina smiled then, really smiled, "I know. And I love you for that, Emma. But this relationship isn't just about me, it's about the both of us. You matter just as much as I do."

Emma nodded, "I know, Regina. But you're working so hard to get better and I don't want to cause any setbacks. Besides..."

"Yes?"

"A relationship is about two people, true. But Regina...I do respect you, I hope you know that. And whatever you are willing to share with me, emotionally and physically, will always be your choice."

Emma's eyes were so sincere and so full of love, Regina thought she might drown in them.
She pulled Emma into an embrace, leaning against her for support and warmth, feeling Emma's hands on her bare back and she reveled in it.
Regina loved the feeling their skin on skin contact provided, she literally craved it.

"Can you just hold me?", Regina did not like how fragile and needy she sounded, but Emma did not seem to mind. She simply put a gentle kiss on Regina's temple, "Always."

They stood like that for a couple of minutes, right there in the candlelit bathroom, but then Regina's feet began to hurt so badly, causing her to sigh heavily, "I wish I could stay like this all night, but I'm afraid I need to sit down 'cause my feet are really killing me."

Emma nodded, ready to step back and let go, but then she decided to do something Regina would have never expected.
Emma simply got into the bathtub fully clothed and gestured for Regina, who looked at her in disbelief, to do the same. Eventually, she did, her back leaning against Emma's front, Emma's arms securely wrapped around her waist.

"You ruined your clothes", Regina mumbled, her head resting against Emma's shoulder, her eyes closed.

"Doesn't matter."
----------------------------------------

The water had started to turn cold when Regina finally got out of the bathtub and therefore out of Emma's embrace.
It was also the moment she got rid of her black hot pants and panties and wrapped herself in one of Emma's big, fluffy towels.

Emma stepped out of the bathtub then as well and Regina grabbed another towel, holding it out for her, but when Emma wanted to take it Regina shook her head, "Clothes off first."

Emma looked at her with wide eyes, clearly not expecting that, but Regina held her gaze, her mind set.
Wendy Darling had pointed out the other day that she was the only one who held herself back and Regina knew Wendy was right.

Sure, they had to keep the pace slow, but they had to keep moving forward still or they would be stuck in some purgatory-like state forever and that was the last thing Regina wanted.
And now that the potential threat that was Mister Gold was dealt with they could finally move on with their lives.
They were a family and they were in love and after countless hours of therapy, Regina could admit, at last, that she wanted to be with Emma.
She wanted to be with her in every sense of the way and she would get there one day.

The sound of wet clothes falling to the ground had Regina out of her thoughts and she caught a glimpse of Emma's naked body before she wrapped her girlfriend in a towel.
She was not entirely sure where her sudden boldness came from, but Regina figured it was long overdue.
She knew, without a doubt, that she could trust Emma.

She did not even want to know to what lengths the Swans had gone to make this new deal with Gold, but it was not the fact that Emma had saved her once again, but the devastation in Emma's eyes when she had thought she that she wouldn't be able to. It had touched something within Regina, something she could not quite grasp, but it had made all the difference.
It had been the reason Regina had decided to go back to Gold, to protect Emma, because Emma was willing to do the same.

She was aware that Emma would have sold her soul over to that devil in a heartbeat had she gotten the chance, if it would have been the price and Regina could not put into words how loved and treasured it made her feel.
It also made her feel incredibly guilty that she had broken her promise.

"I know you are mad at me", she stated, at last, sounding utterly defeated for some reason.

Emma looked at her in confusion, "Mad at you? Why would I be mad at you?"

It was a bit of a ridiculous sight, both of them illuminated by the candlelight, wrapped in big fluffy towels, one looking miserable and one rather clueless, but it was them. It was their dynamic.
It could have been rather romantic, but that would be too easy, wouldn't it?

"I shouldn't have gone to see Gold without telling you...I promised I'd wait", Regina dropped her head and Emma stepped closer, lifting her chin with her index finger, "What you did was so brave, Regina. I'm not mad. I was scared as hell that he did something to you, but...I know why you did it and I would have probably done the same...if anything I am proud of you."

Regina was not sure how to react to that statement just yet, she had to let it sink in for a moment, "What about your parents? Are they okay?"

Emma only shrugged, "I have no idea. My father wasn't too thrilled that my mother decided to help me. They might face a bit of a rough patch I think...but then again...it was time that my mother finally stood her ground. Sure, I would have wished for more joyful circumstances, but well...that's life."

"I don't want them to fight because of me."

"Hey", Emma ran her fingers over Regina's cheek, "I told them I'd deal with this myself. Hell, I told my father I'd rather go strip for Gold myself than to send you back there."
She chuckled, but Regina glared, "Emma!"

"What? I would have. And it would have been my choice. It also was my mother's choice to help. No one made her. I know the concept is a little foreign to you, Regina, but have you learned nothing from Lilo and Stitch? I'm sure Henry made you watch it on one or two occasions", Emma chuckled and rolled her eyes dramatically, but then sobered up quickly and quoted, "Ohana means family. Family means no one gets left behind."

Regina took Emma's face in her hands then, looking into Emma's sparkling eyes, "Thank you for staying true to your word. You did show Henry...you did show me...that there is still good in this world, Emma."

"You heard that?"
She could remember the moment vividly, although it had been months ago. Back when Regina had been so sick and she had given Henry those seven-hundred dollars when she had left.

"No. I was out like a light. But he told me when I woke up...when he handed me that money", Regina confessed, "It helped us out a lot, you know. Even if I would have never seen you again...it made all the difference. I don't know what I did to deserve you, Emma Swan, but don't think I'll take you for granted for a second...Henry loves you. I love you. And not because you helped us out so much, but because you are the most beautiful human being I've ever met. I love you...and you are everything to me."

Regina kissed Emma then, kissed her without hesitation, kissed her with everything she was as a wave of emotions washed over them, drowning them in their love for one another.
It was pure and it was beautiful and it was warm.

When they finally broke apart it was Regina's smile that illuminated the whole room, putting the candlelight to shame.
Emma grabbed the candles nonetheless and brought them over to the bedroom while Regina dropped her towel to the floor and got under the covers. Emma debated for a second whether she should do the same when she caught sight of Regina nodding at her and so she got into bed as well.

The moment Regina snuggled into her, the moment their bare skin connected everything fell into place.
They were together, they were one.

They were exactly where they had always been meant to be.
As Emma ran lazy circles over Regina's back with her fingertips, feeling the shiver that ran down Regina's spine, Emma finally found peace.
After the emotional rollercoaster Gold had sent her on, after the pressure being taken away, at last, she felt content.

"Regina?"

"Hm?"

"I think Mary Margaret knows", Emma stated, realizing that Regina might not understand, so she added, "That we are together I mean."

Regina lifted her head off of Emma's shoulder and looked at her, "Is that a problem?"

"Of course not. She just asked if she should send two separate wedding invitations or one", Emma chuckled.

Regina smiled as well, "What did you answer?"

"Nothing yet. It depends."

Regina raised her eyebrow, "On what, dear?"

Emma cleared her throat nervously, "Regina Mills, will you do me the honor of accompanying me to the wedding?"

"As your date?", Regina asked to clarify.
It was a big step so she wanted to be sure that they were talking about the same thing.

Emma only nodded shyly, not sure what to expect. Maybe it was too early, maybe it was...

"Yes."
Regina's answer came without hesitation. If anything she sounded relieved, confident, and happy, "I'd love to."
She put a kiss to Emma's bare shoulder before she put her head back down, snuggling even more into her.

It was then, in the warmth and safety of Emma's arms, that Regina found solace after a lifetime of pain and she fell asleep, knowing, that the next day would be beautiful.
And every day after that.
Because no matter what else life might throw at her – she had Emma and Henry.
They had their love for one another.
It was honest, it was pure and it was good.
And really, nothing else mattered.

Chapter Text

Regina reveled in the warmth she felt when she woke up.
She also reveled in the feeling of being so close to Emma, of having no barriers between their bodies anymore.
Regina ran her fingertips over Emma's arm, careful not to wake her still sleeping girlfriend, and took a moment to take in...everything.

Ever since Emma had shown up at Gold's establishment Regina felt like she had fallen down the "real" rabbit hole as her life had taken so many turns, but all of them for the better.
It was so surreal and yet it was her reality now, only that her reality felt like Wonderland had come to life.

She had friends, she had a great home and a job she enjoyed every minute of every day, no matter how difficult some of her clients could be.
And then there was Emma.

Regina could not even begin to describe what Emma meant to her or how much she loved her.
She had been so convinced that she was unworthy of anyone's love, other than Henry's, that she would spend the rest of her life alone. She had not been able to even imagine being with someone ever again to begin with and yet here she was, in the arms of the woman, who had proven to her time and time again, that she did matter.
That she was worth something, anything really.

The lengths to which Emma had gone to protect her was something Regina still had trouble understanding and accepting, but she would do the same for Emma in a heartbeat.

She felt Emma stir then and Regina could not even believe how giddy she felt at the prospect of looking into Emma's eyes again.
She propped herself up on her elbow to watch every twitch of Emma's facial muscles until those sparkling green eyes finally opened, reflecting pure joy and happiness, and a beautiful smile spread on Emma's face, "Hi."

Regina chuckled and bent down to kiss Emma, "Morning, dear. Pancakes?"

Emma shook her head, "You have to be very strong now, Regina."

Regina blinked in surprise, unsure of what was to come, but Emma, sweet, kind, and caring Emma Swan, of course, knew she would immediately expect the worst, so she grabbed her hand and squeezed it gently, "I love your pancakes. Your food in general. More than anything I love you. So I'm going to make you breakfast today. And we're going to have it in bed. Crumps and all. Deal with it."

She pecked Regina on the lips quickly and jumped up before Regina could have protested.
Living with a control freak like Regina was a bit of a challenge sometimes, not that Emma minded. She had gotten used to it fairly quickly.
Not that they were actually living together as Regina and Henry had their own apartment, but then again they spent as much time together as possible, and sleeping apart became a bigger dilemma every time. It was too early to talk about it, Emma was aware of that, but she knew that the day would come eventually.
---------------------------------------------------

Regina had laughed out loud when Emma had appeared with a tray full of scrambled eggs, fruit, croissants, jam, freshly pressed orange juice, and coffee, wearing nothing, but her kitchen apron about twenty minutes later.

Emma raised an eyebrow in challenge, "Is there a problem, Miss Mills?"

"No problem at all. Just get back into bed, I'm starving", Regina chuckled and Emma smiled, "As you wish."

She handed the tray to Regina and was about to sit down when Regina shook her head, "I'm sorry, but the apron has to go. It's hideous, it can't be in this bed."

Emma burst out laughing at Regina's sassy comment.
God, she loved their easy banter.
And she loved Regina's flirty side that was coming out more and more because Regina felt comfortable and safe around her.
It was heartwarming and truly wonderful.
There was nothing that made Emma happier.

So she took off her apron and slid back under the covers, ready to dig in when Regina cleared her throat, "Can I...can I ask you something?"

"Of course."

Regina tried to keep her hands still, but failed miserably, so she started drawing circles on the comforter, "I...uh...you asked if I wanted to...to be your date...for the wedding."

"If it's too early...it's not a...", Emma tried to reassure, but Regina interrupted her, "That's not what this is about. I want to...I...just...I don't know...it's stupid...but I don't want our first date to be quite so...uh...public."

Emma's eyes grew wide instantly, "Shit, Regina...I didn't even think about that...I'm sorry...I..."

"Hear me out?"

"Uh, sure...sorry. Please, continue."

Regina reached out and took Emma's hand, "I just thought that maybe we could go on a date...before...before the wedding. I just remembered that Henry has a sleepover next week...on Saturday...you know it's Owen's birthday party."

"Oh", Emma smiled, "Of course. Yeah, absolutely."

Regina lifted their joined hands and put a kiss on Emma's palm, "I'll pick you up at 7."

"I'm looking forward to it."
---------------------------------------------------

Emma and Regina had spent most of the day cuddled up in bed, sharing stories of their childhood, both of them trying to focus on the good memories for a change.
Regina had told Emma about her father mostly, but one or two nice things about Cora Mills had found their way into the conversation as well and it had made Emma wonder what had happened for Regina's mother to turn on her daughter the way she had.
Emma had told Regina about her fondest memories with her parents once she had been adopted and it had reminded her that she had to call her mother to check in on her and thank her for her help and support once again.
She was not ready to talk to her father although she knew that he had only tried to protect her, to protect his family, but she was still so mad that he did not trust her judgment at all.
That he was not willing to give Regina a chance.

Once Henry had come home, Tamotsu in tow, they had gone for a walk together and the boy had immediately recognized that his mother and Emma seemed so much closer. They had flirted and joked around all evening and he could not have been happier about the development because he wanted them to be together more than anything.
He might not have a father, but he had found a second mom in Emma and he wanted things to stay that way.
He wanted them to be a family. A real family.

Regina had suggested that Emma should invite her mother for dinner, which Emma had done without protest and Christine Swan had gladly taken them up on the offer.
---------------------------------------------------

Dinner had been a lovely affair, but Emma had known right away that things between her parents had to be terribly wrong when her mother had mentioned that she would be staying at the hotel for a while and she could not stop herself from feeling guilty. Neither could Regina.

When Henry had insisted on showing Christine his book collection Regina had taken Emma aside and had told her that she thought it best if Emma would offer her mother to stay with her for the time being as Regina did not want the woman, who had done so much for her, to be on her own during this surely difficult time.
Emma had agreed and had talked to her mother once Regina had taken Henry to bed.

Christine Swan's first reaction had been to decline, not wanting to burden anyone, but Emma had insisted and had assured her that she would enjoy having her. That her whole family would love to have her around for the time being and it had been that moment that Christine Swan had fully realized how much Emma had changed.
How family orientated she had become and how well it suited her and she could not have been happier for her daughter. It had made her see that she had done the right thing and it had also given her the strength to face the consequences, no matter what they might be in the end.
---------------------------------------------------

Neal had called Emma the next day, asking for help in regards to Mary Margaret's and David's wedding as he was planning a little surprise for the charming couple and Emma had been all too willing to help.
While they had been talking business Neal had offered to help her plan the event for his father, which Emma had accepted gladly and not only because she would have more time with Regina and Henry, but also because she liked working with Neal.
He was competent, reliable, and creative and she had a feeling that she had found a new friend.

Neal had opened up about his complicated relationship with his father eventually, telling her that his mother had left them when he had been only seven because his father was so obsessed with money and power. He had also mentioned that there had to be a reason why he had always been so focused on becoming wealthy as if Gold had wanted to prove something, but that his father had never revealed his reasons. They had been close, Neal and his father until Neal had become a teenager, capable of understanding what his father did to make money and how he treated people in order to achieve his goals. Everything had gone downhill from there. Neal had left for college and things had been okayish for a while, but during one of his visits, he had witnessed his father hitting one of his employees because she had been too sick to work that day and that had caused the fall out they had faced afterward, following a massive fight he had had with his father that day. Neal had made a career for himself far away from his father and had only now found his way home because he had promised Graham. He had not had the heart to deny his dying friend his wish.

Neal had also told Emma that he was looking into staying around after a long and serious conversation with his father, but also because he wanted to know if things with Killian could go anywhere and that he was looking for an office. Emma had promised to let him know if she heard anything about available locations, but then another idea had popped into her head. An idea she had to give some thought before she would voice it to anyone, but one that was definitely worth considering.

Ashley had shown up for lunch on Sunday together with her little daughter Alexandra, much to Regina's delight. She had been surprised how much the girl had grown during the last couple of months and they had spent a lovely afternoon while Emma and Henry had been to the zoo with Ruby.

It had made Regina see once more how lucky she was and she wished that there would be something she could do for Ashley, especially since another winter would be coming soon and God knew that building was in a horrible condition.
But the truth was there was nothing much she could do because she could not risk crossing Gold again, well aware how much the people around her had sacrificed to get her away from him.
She had offered Ashley to come to stay with her though in case it would get too cold or any other emergency would arise and her former colleague had been rendered speechless for a moment as she had never expected anything like that.
She had known that Regina was a different person as soon as she had caught sight of her when she had been at The Rabbit Hole, but it was only then that she saw how much Regina truly had changed. For the better.

Regina was happy and although Ashley was a little bit jealous, she was also well aware that if anyone deserved it – it was Regina.
---------------------------------------------------

Regina and Emma had talked about Ashley for a while that night, simply because Regina was worried about the young blonde and her child and she had not been able to stop her thoughts.
Emma, who had stayed with Regina every night ever since her mother was living in Emma's penthouse, had listened patiently, understanding quite well where Regina was coming from as she could remember all too vividly how much she had worried about Regina all those months ago.
She had made a mental note to talk to Neal about the whole situation while a plan started to form in her head. Maybe they would be able to help Ashley out, but Emma would keep quiet until she knew because she did not want to get Regina's hopes up for nothing.

Regina had been quite restless that night and it had taken her forever to fall asleep, but Emma had managed to calm her down eventually, simply by being there and holding her in her arms, providing the comfort and the safety Regina needed.
---------------------------------------------------

Work had been busy the next week, but Regina and Emma had managed to get home at a reasonable time every day to spend some quality time with Henry. They had taken him to the movies and to the harbor, had played video games and even a few board games together and Henry had pointed out that they were basically living together Thursday night after they had shared a delicious dinner with Emma's mother like every evening lately when the trio had made their way over to Regina's apartment.

Emma had winced at his comment, sure that it was still too early for a conversation like that, but Regina had only smiled at him and had told him that that was what family did and he had nodded enthusiastically.

It was only when they were lying in bed together that Regina addressed the topic once again because Emma's reaction had not gone unnoticed, "No worries, I'm not planning on moving in with you, Emma."

"What?", Emma's eyes went wide, "I...what did I do?"

"Nothing. But I saw you wince...I know it's too early", Regina stated softly, but Emma eyed her closely, "Is it really?"

Regina was confused. Emma had looked outright miserable when Henry had pointed their current living arrangement out while she was so glad that she got to fall asleep and wake up next to Emma every day. She had never thought she would ever crave anyone's presence like that, but she did.
She knew it was selfish and that Emma probably wanted some peace, silence, and alone time, but she dreaded the moment Christine Swan would leave and Emma would go back to her penthouse.

The Swans had not made up yet, but at least they were on speaking terms again, so it would happen eventually and Regina did not look forward to being on her own again.
Their work schedules conflicted at times and they were both busy in general and she had no problem with that, but the thought of Emma not holding her during the night truly made her feel lost.

"I've been thinking about our living situation for a while now", Emma stated all of a sudden, "But I thought it would be too early for you. And I didn't want to pressure you...that's why I winced when Henry mentioned it."

Regina let that sink in for a moment, "So you...you wouldn't mind...us living together...like really living together?"

Emma smiled, "Of course not. As you already pointed out. It's what a family does...and we are a family."

"That we are", Regina agreed, "We really can't do anything in the right order, can we?"

Emma chuckled, "Well, our whole situation is a bit...unusual...I agree. But it works for us, so what does it matter?"

"You are right. So, are we really considering this?", Regina asked to clarify and Emma nodded, "Yes, we are. It's a stressful time with the upcoming wedding and all, but we could sit down and talk about it once that is out of the way, what do you think?"

"Sounds good to me", Regina agreed and smiled.

"Before I forget it", Emma took Regina's hand and squeezed it, "I think I'll go to the cabin for a couple of days after the wedding, to check if everything is okay out there."

Regina's face fell instantly, "Oh. Okay."
She remembered all too well how horrible it was the last time Emma went there with no reception and everything. Then again the situation had been different as everything had been so uncertain. They were in a way better place now, but that only meant that she would miss Emma even more.

"I was wondering if you wanted to come with me?", Emma looked at her expectantly and Regina looked at her in surprise. The cabin had been Graham's sanctuary and now it was Emma's and that she was willing to share that with her, well, it meant a lot.

"I already talked to my mother. She said she'd watch Henry since Mary Margaret and Charming will be gone...honeymoon and all. Only if that would be okay with you. Otherwise, we could ask Ruby and Killian or...", Emma added, suddenly unsure, but Regina only smiled at her girlfriend's thoughtfulness, "I think that's a wonderful idea. Henry loves your mother. Your parents really. And I know your mother would never let anything happen to him. She's been incredible around him."

Emma nodded, "I know. I think all this fighting with my dad was good for her in a way. She finally stood up for something. I always knew that she is a strong woman, but she always did what was convenient and now...it did her good. And I know it's probably a horrible thing to say considering things between my parents are shitty right now but I'm so glad she did this for me. That she put me first and helped me to keep you safe."

Regina pulled her closer wordlessly and put a kiss on Emma's forehead, "They love you, Emma. The both of them. I get that you are mad at your father, but please talk to him. He was trying to protect you as you were trying to protect me. You can't blame him for that."

"I'll try to talk to the both of them because I don't want them to fight when things could be okay for all of us."
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Emma met up with Neal on Friday to offer him the vacant room in her office and he agreed instantly as he too loved to work with Emma and they agreed to work together more often in the future. Sure, they both had their clients and everything, but some projects would definitely allow collaboration and since they were both well known and successful in their field of work it was a promising idea.

"Why isn't your last name Gold?", Emma asked completely out of the blue, but she had been wondering ever since she had learned that Neal was Gold's son.

He laughed, "Well, I took my mother's name after that nasty fight with my father...for two reasons. I wanted to get back at him for being such a horrible man and second...Neal Gold...sounds like a pimp, doesn't it? And considering I wanted to specialize in planning weddings", he laughed out loud and Emma chuckled as well, "Fair enough. But...do you regret it?"

"No. I might be able to forgive him if he keeps his word and does better in the future. But I don't want to be associated with him all the time, you know? It's not that I'm ashamed of him or anything...but he and I...we are two very different people."

Emma nodded in understanding, "Yeah, I get that. I really hope you can fix your relationship though. He made a lot of mistakes and he surely is a very flawed man, but he's also still your father."

It dawned on her then that the same could be said for her own father, who had not done anything wrong or terrible like Neal's father had.
He had tried to look out for her and while Emma was not happy about his decisions or the way he had handled the situation he was still her father too. And they really needed to have a conversation somewhen soon.
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Regina was ready to leave work Saturday afternoon when Killian stopped her with a smile on his face, "Nervous?"

She nodded, "I know it's ridiculous, but this is a big thing for me...a big step. I mean we are going on our first real date...and I want it to be perfect."

Killian reached out and Regina took his hand, allowing him to squeeze hers, "And it will be. Emma will love it, Regina...'cause she loves you."

He reached into his jacket pocket with his free hand and pulled out an envelope, "There was a post-it – note on it, saying that I would know when the time is right...I think it is now...God, I hope it is or God knows Graham will haunt me or something."
He chuckled and Regina smiled at him before she took the letter with a slightly shaking hand.

"I'm sure you got it right, Killian", Regina raised herself on her tiptoes and kissed him on the cheek, "Thank you...for everything."
---------------------------------------------------

She only opened the letter once she was home, sitting on her couch with a steaming mug of tea. She was aware that she should get ready, but she also knew that she had to read Graham's letter first.
And after staring at it for ten minutes Regina finally found the courage to open it and reveal the message Graham had left for her.

Dear Regina,

No, I've not forgotten about you.
So, you are going on a date with Emma after all. Good for you!
(Gosh, I really hope Killian does not fuck this up and has the good sense to give it to you at the appropriate time or I might have to pay him a visit in his dreams and scare the crap out of him!)

I know you are nervous and probably even scared, but we're talking about Emma here.
We both know you'll always be safe with her.
I also know that the two of you are meant to be together. I knew from the moment I first saw the two of you together and even more so when I saw you two together with Henry and I took that picture I sent to Emma.
I just knew.

Emma is in the best hands, I could see that right away because your love for her is so evident in your eyes. You might not have been aware of it during our conversation in the park, but clearly, you are now.
Be assured that you are in the best hands as well.

You and Emma, you are one of the lucky ones. You have something very special, I would even go so far as to say what you have is unique.
It is the stuff fairytales are made of.
Trust one another, respect one another and love one another and you will always be fine.

Have a great life together.
I'm sorry that I won't be around, but know that I will be watching over you and your family, Regina. I promise you that.

We might not have known each other for long, but I will miss you anyway.
I'm glad Emma found you – because I know you'll have each other and therefore you'll always be okay and taken care of. The both of you.

And now hush...it's not the time for tears. You can't show up looking like a crying mess although Emma wouldn't care. She'd love you all the same. I'm sure we can agree on that.
But still...go, get dressed and enjoy your date!

Love,
Graham

Chapter Text

The penthouse was deadly silent while Emma stared out of the window and Ruby watched her best friend closely.
She could tell how nervous Emma was, how worried. But also how very excited.

"Emma, you know that it's going to be okay, right?"

"Yeah", she finally turned her head to look at Ruby, "Of course. It's just...I'm so happy, Ruby. Like...sooooo unbelievably happy. I'm scared that I'll do something...or that something happens and it all goes to hell. Just think about David and Mary Margaret. He almost died only a couple of days before the initial wedding...we almost lost you too."

Ruby smiled at Emma sympathetically, "Don't you think you and Regina have been through enough? You've slain enough dragons for a lifetime, Em."

"But what if it never stops", Emma hung her head, "Losing Regina would destroy me."

"I know", Ruby pulled her into a hug, "I know. And you have to believe that everything will be fine because as you said...David almost died...and so did I. But we didn't. We're still here. And we'll have that Charming wedding soon enough. It's going to be completely over the top and the media circus is going to drive us all up the walls, but they'll get their happy ending and so will you."

When Emma did not say anything Ruby added, "And besides...what I learned from all of this...and from Graham...if it taught me one thing...then it is that we really shouldn't waste our time. Not a second of it...'cause tomorrow is never guaranteed...for anyone."

At that Emma finally nodded, "You're right and I'm being pathetic. I'm sorry."

"Don't be. It's okay to get scared once in a while. That's what we have friends for...to help us through it. To battle the darkness and to come out the other side stronger", Ruby gave Emma's shoulder a squeeze, "Have I ever told you that Graham left me a bunch of post-it – notes? Hiding in all kinds of places...all over the apartment?"

"No", Emma chuckled, "But it sounds like something he would do. God, I miss him so much."

"Me too."

Emma eyed her curiously, "What did the notes say?"

"Well", Ruby snickered, "Some were just random stuff. Things I needed to know about the place. Like that his one neighbor was annoying as hell, that old hag, Misses Finegold. That I should bring her truffles from that one shop in downtown here and there...and guess what, it works. She even baked me a cake the other week and it was delicious..."

Emma laughed out loud at that, "Oh yeah, I remember her...she's a piece of work."

"She really is", Ruby agreed, "Most of the others were basically inside jokes, little reminders of something funny that made me laugh...and I truly needed that. Especially during the first few weeks I lived there. There were times when I thought I really couldn't stay there for a moment longer and then I found another note and it made me smile and remember...and I realized I couldn't leave either. I still find one here and there...actually, I found one only two days ago."

She reached into her pocket and pulled out three blue post-it notes that were attached to one another and handed them to Emma, who stared at them for a while.

One of these days you will fall in love, Rubes. It will happen, that's a promise. And don't roll your eyes at me now 'cause you know I'm right.

Love isn't so scary, you know. You don't have to be alone for the rest of your life. Take Swan for example – you only needed to mention the word commitment and she chased off at lightning speed.

And yet she has a family now. A family of her own. I don't say you have to play house and have kids, but let someone love you. I promise you it will be worth it. And I'll take care of you from above.

Emma wiped a stray tear off her cheek, "That idiot! How could he just die...without saying a word? I mean I get it...I do...but..."

"I know", Ruby sighed, "I know. But I'm so glad he did all these things...wrote all these letters...to all of us. It made things...well, not easier, but..."

"Yeah", Emma looked at Ruby then, "He is right though, you know."

Ruby winked at her, "You know me, Em...but I guess we'll see. Maybe...one day."
-----------------------------------------

Regina had barely managed to get everything ready in time after reading Graham's letter, but here she was, standing in front of Emma's door, nervous and excited all the same.
As soon as Emma opened the door Regina stepped forward and pulled her into a hug that grounded them both.

They were both dressed casually as Regina had pointed out that they would not go anywhere fancy, much to Emma's relief.
For one because she did not want Regina to feel like she had to impress Emma with something that was not Regina and secondly because it was not them either.

"Ready?", Regina eyed Emma carefully, but Emma simply nodded, smiled, and intertwined their fingers, "Let's go."
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Emma's eyes went wide as soon as they entered the park and she caught sight of the gazebo from afar.
There were countless candle-lit lanterns everywhere, bathing their rapidly darkening surroundings in warm light and providing a relaxing atmosphere.

As soon as she stepped into the gazebo she also caught sight of blankets, pillows, wine glasses, bottles, and food containers and Emma was rendered speechless for a moment before she met Regina's gaze, her eyes sparkling in the dim candlelight.

"This is...it's perfect, really."

An almost blinding smile appeared on Regina's face then, "I'm glad you like it. Please, make yourself comfortable."

She poured two glasses of wine before she joined Emma on the gazebo floor that was quite comfortable with all the pillows and blankets.
It was not overly chilly during the nights yet and Regina had deemed that place the only one fitting for their first date considering its history and importance in Emma's life.

Emma raised her glass, "To us. To our future."

"May it be a bright one", Regina clinked her glass against Emma's, her eyes never leaving her girlfriend's.

Graham had been right. They were the lucky ones.
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There had been some easy-going conversation about their teenage years where Regina had revealed that her favorite subjects in school had been history and art, which had not surprised Emma all that much. There was something truly artistic to some of Regina's makeups and Emma had asked her if she had ever painted and Regina had told her then that she had used to for a while, but that her mother had not approved of it and so she had given it up eventually.

Emma had admitted then that she had always been a bit of a math geek, which had earned her a frown and a raised eyebrow from Regina, who had a love/hate relationship with numbers.
Minus the love as Regina had pointed out, which had caused Emma to chuckle for two minutes straight.

They had managed to stay away from the nasty topics for the most part - thanks to Emma's stories about her high school years with Ruby.
The two of them had gotten themselves into quite a bit of trouble at times and Regina had not been able to stop laughing for a while after Emma had admitted, face flushed, that she had needed to cut off her hair after they had tried to make themselves dreadlocks with some homemade concoction of sugar, honey and some other ingredients she could not remember and how Ruby's grandmother had chased them through the house with an umbrella because she had been so furious with the both of them.

Lying on the gazebo floor in a bed of pillows now, snuggled together and covered by one of the blankets they just enjoyed the silence and being together, because truth be told, that would always be enough for the both of them.

"Are you happy?", Emma asked all of a sudden and it threw Regina for a bit of a loop.
How could Emma even ask that?

"I am. Of course, I am. Why are you asking?", she managed to rasp out in confusion at last.

Emma smiled, "Just checking."

"Are...are you?", Regina eyed her expectantly, but Emma's smile only widened, "I think it's truly impossible for me to be happier than I am right now. I never thought I'd have anything like this and I thank God or fate or whatever it was that brought us together...every day...'cause for the first time in my life, I really feel like I'm home. I've always been so restless but lying here with you...yeah, I'm home. That's how it feels like. I'm where I've always been meant to be."

A single tear fell from Regina's eyes because while she knew that Emma loved her, and she did, she really did, it was still such a foreign concept to her that she could mean so much to someone other than her son. That Emma saw something so unbelievably precious and beautiful in her while all she saw was a broken woman, who was damaged beyond repair. Well, that is what she had seen for the longest time anyway, but with Emma's help she had started to put the shards back together and it had made her remember who she had always wanted to be and who she actually was under all those layers of broken.
She would always be flawed and there would always be cracks, but it did not bother her so much anymore, because she was stronger now. The glue that was Emma Swan had helped her to, as Emma had said so many months ago, rise and shine, and she was standing on her feet firmly now, stable enough to carry whatever weight would be put on her shoulders.

Yes, she was damaged, but she was not useless. She was not worthless. Emma had shown her that, mostly with her incredible patience and kindness.
And of course because of the love they had found in one another.
---------------------------------------------------------

It was close to midnight when they finally started to pack up, ready to go home when Emma eyed a small container in Regina's hand, "What's in there?"

"Don't tell me you are hungry again", Regina teased, but took off the lid and Emma openly glared at her, "You brought pineapple cubes and didn't even tell me?!"

A bark of laughter escaped Regina's lips, "God, you really are such a child sometimes."

"And you love it", Emma fired back, her eyes never leaving the pineapple cubes, "I need to have one of those."

Regina raised her eyebrow, "Really, Miss Swan? You should know better by now."

Emma watched in slow motion as Regina took one of the cubes and popped it into her own mouth, "Hm...yep, they are quite delicious."

A smirk grazed Regina's lips and she put the container down while Emma glared even more, "You're playing dirty. How's that fair? That's so...so evil."

"Poor Emma", Regina mocked, "I'd say I dare you to come and get one, but..."

But before she could have finished speaking Emma had rushed over there and had stolen the sentence from her lips by kissing Regina passionately, taking all common sense away from Regina in the process.
When they finally broke apart Emma bent down and snatched a pineapple cube from the container while Regina was caught up in a daze from the heated kiss.
Emma smiled triumphantly while Regina reveled in the sensation of her tingling lips and racing heart.
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They had agreed, in a moment of utter madness, to sleep apart that night – first date and all – but in the end, neither of them had even wanted to imagine falling asleep without the other. Or how it would feel like to wake up alone and so Emma had stayed with Regina in the end. Like every other day prior to that.
And it had turned out to be a good decision too, because now that Emma was on her way to the Swan mansion she was at least halfway calm and collected. She did not even want to know how much of a wreck she would be if she would have had to spend the night alone in her penthouse.

Once she had parked her car she rushed up the stairs and into the huge house before she could change her mind, because she really had to talk to her father.
She found him sitting in the garden with a glass of, what she assumed had to be Scotch, and it broke Emma's heart to see him so conflicted as he stared at nothing in particular. And it was way too early to drink.

"Dad?"

He didn't even bother to turn his head, to look at her, "Why are you here, Emma? You've got you wanted."

Emma stepped right in front of him and took the glass out of his hand, "I never wanted this. All I wanted was to protect Regina."

"Right", he growled, "The stripper."

"She's not a stripper anymore! And she never wanted to be one, to begin with", Emma fired back, glad that her father wasn't too drunk to have a proper conversation. He had probably just gotten up anyway as it was early.

"Look, dad, I don't want to fight. I really don't. And neither does mom. And Regina...she's miserable because she blames herself for all of this. And it's not her fault. If anything it's mine. It was my choice and everyone else just tried to help me...to help her. She never asked anything of me, she's not the enemy", Emma continued and prayed that her father would at least pay attention to what she was saying, "She's my family now...as much as you are. I don't want to choose but I will if I have to. Please, don't make me."

Roger Swan studied his daughter in silence for a while, "I don't trust her."

Emma sighed, "I know, dad. I know. And it's not your job to trust her...but trust me."

"What is it about that woman that has you so...so smitten?", he was not even sure if he wanted an answer to that, but he got it anyway.

Emma gave him a smile, an honest smile that made her eyes sparkle even more, "When I first met her she was all prejudice, anger, and edges."

She laughed at the memory, "She thought I'm some rich kid, who just throws her parents' money around. That I thought I'm better than her...that was at Mary Margaret's bachelorette party. For some reason I found my way back to The Rabbit Hole after that which was mostly Ruby's fault. And the more I think about it, the more I suspect she did it on purpose. Regina refused my help time and time again. Hell, she fought me tooth and nail...but Henry, and you know Henry...when she was sick and I saw how he took care of her, how decent a kid he is...I realized that she really is the amazing person I suspected her to be under all the anger and behind all these walls. But ultimately, it was Henry who brought us together. As roommates and later as friends...as a family. She had flat out told me...that she is not into women the first time we met. It didn't keep me from falling in love with her t