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Meet Me Halfway

Chapter Text

The Wooden Whale was packed for a Saturday night. The regulars sat at their usual spots at the bar and around the pool table, women pressed against them grinding to the sound of the upbeat techno pop music blaring through the speakers, while the overload of people happily crowded the bar eager to get a peek at the sultry bartenders behind the counter.

Emma Swan grinned as she tossed a shaker in the air and caught it behind her back, bringing it to the side to continue to shake the mixture in it while simultaneously filling up the beer of a patron from the tap. With easy movements, she poured the cocktail into a glass while sliding the beer over to its owner. She cast a wink over to the gentleman who tipped her lavishly.

That was the beauty of her job. Emma had been manager of this unique little bar for five years now. August, the owner, had taken her in when she had been in a tight spot six years ago, and he hadn't regretted it since. She was his best bartender, entertaining the crowds, building rapport with the customers, and always working hard, doing whatever she needed to do to get the job done.

That's probably why she was the best dancer in the house too.

The Wooden Whale was well-known in the seedier parts of New York to have cheap beer, good music, and hot bartenders. On weekends, the bartenders would provide a little show for the regulars, dancing on countertops, taking shots with them, and keeping the customers happy.

Just like serving drinks, Emma rose to the top at being the most-tipped dancer, flirting with men and women alike to ease a few dollars out of their pockets. It never bothered her, the rowdy groping atmosphere. In fact, it was the one place where she had complete control over her life.

After years of being tossed around from family to family in the foster care system and years spent working far worse jobs than what she was doing now, Emma had a steady job, an income, though it wasn't as high as she would like, and a family consisting of her son and work friends whom she called her own.

For six nights a week, Emma danced on tables, poured shots, and collected just enough tips to pay rent and feed her eight-year old. It wasn't the life she dreamed of, nor was it the life she wanted for Henry, but she got by and would sometimes have enough leftover to save for the day when she would one day own her own bar.

This night was a good night for Emma. With the sudden influx of customers who were drinking quite heavily, it was easy for the blonde to earn her wages in tips. She laughed, rolling the wads of bills she'd received and placing the roll in between her cleavage tucking it safely into her bra.

Ruby held her hand out to help Emma down from the counter as the heavy bass of the song died down. "I don't know how you do it," the brunette said.

"What?" Emma asked already refilling a round for a group of college boys. She looked up to the counter where her friend was pointing to their makeshift dance floor, this particular section where the pole was stationed, and shrugged noncommittally. "Come on, Rubes. You make just as much as I do."

"I don't have people regularly coming out every weekend requesting me to dance," the leggy brunette replied pouring a tray of shots, downing the one offered to her, and cheering with the crowd she had served.

Emma just laughed, shaking her head as she grabbed the shaker and mixing a drink, already back in serving mode.

Hours later when the blonde stood on the counter, cupping her hands around her mouth and yelled out last call, she performed one more dance, bringing Ruby up on stage with her making the crowd go wild. By the end of the song, she was ushering people out to close for the night, tucking her tips safely away. She got almost a hundred dollars from that dance alone.

Emma leaned over the counter, wiping down the spilled alcohol and gathering any stray tumblers. She waved a hand to Ruby and the other bartenders as they left the bar for the night, or rather, early morning.

As soon as the door shut, Emma released the yawn she had been holding in since she arrived for her shift the night before. For a brief moment, she allowed herself to rest, leaning her back against the bar to catch her breath and rub the tiredness from her eyes. She hadn't had a night off in weeks, and the lack of sleep was starting to catch up with her.

The minute rest was up, and Emma moved to the register, counting the night's profits. After double checking, she locked the bills in the safe behind the bar and began shutting off the lights. Her eyes rolled when she noticed the passed out patron sitting in a booth at the far back. Lucky for her he wasn't a huge guy, so she called a cab, poked at him for a minute until he was groggy enough to let her help him out of the bar and into the awaiting cab.

She checked her phone, loathed to find it was almost 3am. She'd be up in four hours to get Henry ready for school. Noticing she had a voice mail, she clicked the icon and listened attentively to the tinny voice of her landlord saying her rent from last month was overdue.

Emma kicked back on the brick wall she was leaning on as the message continued. Only now had she remembered that she used the rent money to get Henry some clothes for school. The kid loved his new outfits, so the blonde couldn't even really be upset at the fact. So much for a good night though. Most of what she had made tonight would be going towards her apartment with the leftover used for necessities. The dream of owning her own bar was moving further and further away.

She kicked at a garbage can angrily, frightening the alley cats and causing a couple of lights from overhead apartments to turn on in anger. Emma was beyond caring at the moment. Right now, she just wanted to go home and sleep, to forget about money and rent and everything.

Heels clicking on the wet pavement sounded behind her followed by a stern clearing of a throat. "Excuse me?"

Around the time Emma was rolling her tips into a wad and stuffing it down her cleavage, halfway across town, Regina Mills was sitting in an extravagant auction house, purchasing art and rare treasures for small fortunes with New York's elite.

The items up for bid held their own value, of course, what with one of a kind vases circa 1882, throw rugs worth the equivalent of a college student's tuition, and original canvas paintings, the real value of the night came in the form of who among them had the most money.

Regina sat near the front, her family name already prevalent in the minds of the auction goers with her parents owning a multimillion dollar chain of hotels. Despite having her name in the society section of the newspapers since birth, Regina had made a name for herself with her photography, her gallery garnering quite a following with both elitists and amateurs alike.

Now she sat bored with her friend Kathryn, a wealthy heiress due to the fact that her father's company stumbled upon black gold years prior.

"What's wrong?" The blonde nudged. "You're usually buying out the whole place at these things."

"No, dear. That would be you," Regina said sipping her champagne.

Kathryn nodded her head in agreement. "Well you must buy something."

Regina rolled her eyes before holding up her paddle, apparently placing a five hundred dollar bid on an intricately designed Chinese hand fan. "Must I?"

"You seem to be doing it now," the blonde quipped.

"Why do these auctions go so late anyway? I have to make sure the gallery is in order for my next showing." The brunette complained before raising her paddle again to up the bid.

"Your gallery is fine," Kathryn insisted. "You just want to get out of here."

"Is that such a crime?"

The blonde laughed. "Grab your car. I know a friend who is entertaining tonight, and you need to get your mind off your gallery for five minutes."

Regina held her paddle in the air at the last minute, stealing the bid at a thousand dollars while the room clapped at her purchase. She eyed the woman beside her as she stood and made her exit to the door.

What harm could following her friend to a social event do?

The harm, Regina soon found out, came in the form of losing Kathryn's Volvo as it weaved through the streets of Manhattan at a speed that was ungodly even in the big city. Her Benz couldn't prevent the blonde woman who sped up during a yellow light to leave Regina stranded at an intersection. By the time Regina had continued the journey, she had to guess which direction her friend had gone.

She had pulled over numerous times, attempting to call Kathryn, but every attempt had her call being sent straight to voicemail. So Regina drove hoping to find her way back to familiar territory, but as the street lamps began to become more and more sparse and the people walking the street became more grunge looking, Regina knew she was in a part of town she didn't want to be in.

Her fingers clenched tightly around the steering wheel as she looked for any street signs that weren't vandalized or any sort of landmark to direct herself back home.

She was in no such luck.

She mentally cursed Kathryn for convincing her to leave the auction, and she concocted ways at getting back at her friend. Her scheming was cut short when a loud pop sounded beneath her, and her Benz lowered to the ground at an awkward angle.

Her mouth dropped at what just happened. Of course her car's tire popped. Of course it had to happen in a seedy part of town. Why wouldn't it have happened where there was actually civilization?

She let her head drop onto the steering wheel before putting the car in park. She was driving a Mercedes. No doubt someone would attempt to steal the car especially in this neighbourhood. The last thing she wanted to do was be attacked in some thug's quest to turn her precious vehicle into scrap metal. She needed to get out of here and fast.

Scrambling in her glove compartment, Regina pulled out her cell phone only to be met with a black screen. She pushed any available buttons but was met with the same result. Her phone was dead.


What was she supposed to do? Hope someone came looking for her? She was no damsel in distress, that much was clear when she refused to go into the family business and instead took up photography.

Looking around for any sign of civilized life, she saw a taxi cab pull up in front of her. A man was being dragged out of some establishment and placed in the cab leaving the person who helped him alone and turning to lock the door they had exited from. Regina squinted at the neon sign above the person's head, an outline of a bright blue whale squirting out water from its blowhole shined brightly in the night under a flashing sign proclaiming the place as The Wooden Whale. Oh god what had she gotten herself in?

The sound of a boot hitting against brick had her looking up to see the person under the sign pace. Upon closer inspection, Regina could see that the frame of the person was thin and toned, small and feminine, and to her relief she realized it was a woman.

Grabbing her coat, wallet, and phone, any truly valuable items she could carry, Regina slammed the door shut and cautiously made her way to the woman who seemed to be groaning on the phone. She paused her track when the woman kicked at a garbage can, a mangly feline yowled from the shock before sprinting away.

As soon as the other woman seemed to calm, Regina approached closer, her head held high and her voice strong despite the very real possibility that she could be mugged at any moment and cleared her throat. "Excuse me?"

Emma turned at the sound of the soft voice, taking in the lithe brunette with diamonds around her neck, her short hair perfectly coiffed, and no doubt the hoity toity dress she was wearing was worth more than what Emma made in a month. Raising an eyebrow at the diamond in the rough, Emma spoke. "What's a girl like you doing in a place like this?"

The blunt question distinguishing her difference from her environment made Regina falter for a moment, but she stepped closer, insistent, using her tone of authority with the younger woman before her clad in jean shorts, cowboy boots, and a tank top that reaked of alcohol. "I need to use a phone. My car broke down."

Emma looked past the brunette to see her lopsided Benz and whistled impressed. "You're a long way from home."

"Don't I know it," the brunette mumbled, tilting her head to the side. "Are you able to provide me with a phone, or do I need to scour these streets for someone more accommodating?"

The manager raised her eyebrow again, this time in surprised curiosity. For a fish out of water, the older woman before her was definitely ballsy. "Lady, I'm the most accommodating person you're gonna meet tonight."

With that Emma tossed Regina her phone, the brunette fumbling to catch it before quickly reciting off the number of Michael's tow truck company. Michael had gotten her out of one too many roadside accidents. She wandered off a few paces to let the woman have her time, mentally smirking at the shocked tone she had when no doubt Michael yelled at her for waking him at an ungodly hour. Emma was more than surprised and impressed when the woman yelled back, demanding he provide his services, and gasped glaring into the phone when he had apparently hung up on her.

Emma was tired and just wanted to go home, but this little show was totally worth the extra minutes she wasn't in bed.

"No luck?" She asked.

"I need another company. Apparently Mr. Tillman isn't open until he's open, and there is no way in hell I am waiting for the oaf," Regina said to the device already waiting to input numbers.

"You're gonna have to."

The brunette whipped her head up.

"Michael's is the local shop. No one else comes down here," the blonde explained holding her hand out for her phone.

The brunette begrudgingly gave it to her, her eyes narrowing at the younger woman as if tonight was her fault. "So I'm just expected to wait here until then?"

"Yeah, that's generally what it means," Emma answered snippily.

Regina mentally fumed, turning to stalk a few paces away before releasing a calming breath through her teeth. When she turned, her angry expression was replaced with that of a practiced smile that even Emma could tell was a ruse. "Forgive me, Ms.-?"

"Swan. Emma Swan."

"Ms. Swan," Regina said then returned to the blonde to offer her hand which Emma took cautiously. "It's late. I'm sure you have places to be as do I. I really need to be getting back, and I am in dire need of a tow truck."

Emma looked around as if looking for back up against this insistent woman before running her fingers through her golden locks. "I think I got a spare in my car. I can-"

"Absolutely not."

Emma stared at her dumbfounded.

"I said I needed a tow truck and a mechanic. No offence, dear, but you look like neither."

The blonde folded her arms across her chest, all pretenses of being polite thrown out the window. "Look lady, Michael's not gonna come until he feels like it now that you've yelled at him, so either let me put a tire on your car or find someone else to talk down to."

"Don't call me 'lady'," the brunette huffed. "My name is Regina Mills."

She brushed back her head as if her name alone would have the blonde cowering in fear. It did nothing. All it served to do was make Emma turn down the street mumbling under her breath. "Yeah, you don't act like a lady."

"Excuse me?" Regina rushed forward pulling on Emma's arm.

Emma spun to face her, mirroring the brunette's annoyance and aggravation in her own green eyes. "Okay, Regina. I just want to go home, so if you want, I can let you into the bar as long as you promise not to steal anything."

Emma didn't give her a chance to consider her offer before she was already in front of the entrance, pulling out the keys to unlock the place. She opened the door, waiting for the ice queen to step through which she did with an indignant huff.

As soon as Emma turned on the lights, the bar usually filled to capacity with rowdy men and women was blessedly empty with the stools turned up onto their tables, the floors mopped and the counters dried. She watched as Regina surveyed the area with obvious disdain.

"You own this place?"

"No," Emma said, taking down a bar stool and placing it on the ground before habitually moving around the counter. "I'm just the manager."

She watched as the brunette eyed the bar stool and quickly shrugged out of her coat to settle it over the chair before sitting. "You're not from around here, are you?"

"What tipped you off? The Mercedes stranded in a rundown gutter or the Chanel coat draped over a barstool that hasn't been cleaned in years?" Regina replied sarcastically.

Emma pointed at the stool. "That's new."

Regina rolled her eyes in disbelief.

"Water?" Emma offered pouring herself a glass from the tap.

The brunette eyed the water from the tap and visibly shuddered. "No thank you."

"Suit yourself," Emma mumbled before downing the glass and rinsing it before replacing it back in the rack. "So you'll be okay here right? I'll be back when Michael gets here to lock it back up."

"You were serious?" Regina asked her mouth agape.

"Yeah, it's like three in the morning," the blonde answered obviously, lingering awkwardly by the door.

"Precisely why you shouldn't leave a stranger in your bar," Regina reasoned.

"I'm pretty sure you're not gonna steal anything," Emma snorted.

"Will your boss really want you to take that chance?" The brunette had swivelled in her seat, staring intensely at the blonde bartender.

Emma held her gaze, wondering whether the woman before her was absolutely serious. Judging by her need to have things done immediately, Emma didn't doubt that this posh woman would call August up or do something that would incriminate Emma. Growling under her breath, Emma moved to a booth and plopped down in the seat.

Both women remained quiet, the soft staccato clicking of Emma's cell phone as she sent a text was the only sound in the quiet of the bar. She desperately fought through the tiredness, forcing her eyes open. When she felt them drift shut again, she sat up abruptly, slightly pleased that she had made the brunette sitting at the counter jump. Smirking to herself, she shook off the sleep before resting back against the booth.

"So what were you doing here?" Emma asked to make conversation.

"I was supposed to meet friends," Regina provided easily. "I got lost."

"Where were you coming from?"

Regina paused to eye the hidden blonde in the booth. "That's a bit personal, don't you think?"

Emma grunted a response, already losing the battle to sleep.

"Aren't you supposed to be used to the night life?" Regina asked.

"Just because I work night shifts doesn't mean I sleep away my days," Emma answered.

"Let me guess," Regina mused. "You have a second job that requires your morning attention."

The blonde snorted but smiled to herself thinking of her son. "You could say that."

"By all means, rest away then."

"Can't do that," the bartender gruffed. "You might steal something."

Emma didn't have to see her to know Regina had rolled her eyes. Slowly losing the battle to sleep, Emma got up and started pacing, slapping at her cheeks to keep her awake. She pulled out her phone to send a text to Michael, begging him to come sooner. When she was met with no response, she moved to a pool table and started racking up the balls.

"What are you doing?" The brunette asked haughtily.

"Pool," Emma answered removing the triangle frame. "You play?"

When Regina didn't answer, Emma just moved into position making the break. For two hours, the women just settled into the room, Regina not leaving her spot from the bar and Emma improving her pool table skills as much as she could despite her inability to remain upright for too long. The time was cut with sporadic questions, but Emma was too tired to pry, and Regina was too private to reveal.

Emma had bent over the table, prepared to take a shot when her tiredness got the better of her and her eyes slipped close for a few minutes. Huffing, she dropped the cue stick on the table, the balls rattling against the felt and wood before grabbing her keys and heading out.

"Where the hell are you going?" Regina said appalled, grabbing her purse and coat and following the blonde. The last thing she wanted was to be alone in a place like this.

Emma didn't answer and instead walked across the street to her beetle, popping the trunk and yanking out a tire. She turned sharply to Regina, barely registering how close the brunette stood beside her. "I am fixing your car. End of story."

She rolled the tire to the Benz on the other side of the street before retreating to her car and pulling out a jack.

"You can't just do that!" Regina shrieked.

The blonde ignored her anger, positioning the jack under the driver's side hood and cranked the tool to lift the car.

"If you get one scratch on my car–"

"Relax, your Majesty," Emma grunted sprinting back to her car to grab the tools needed to change a tire. "I've done this before."

Regina held herself as she watched the blonde remove the broken tire from her Mercedes then rolled her own spare in its place. The new tire wasn't a perfect fit, but according to the blonde's words, it would do for now. She took a step back when Emma straightened, wiping the grease off her hands by transferring it to her jeans.

"There," Emma said more annoyed than satisfied. "You can go back home to your penthouse now."

She brushed past the brunette, depositing her tools in the trunk and slamming it shut.

"It's not a penthouse, it's a condo," Regina found herself saying. When she spoke again, her voice was snippy and curt. "Don't let me keep you from making children's happy meals."

Emma turned but continued walking backwards to her car. "Head straight and make a left. Follow that road and you'll hit the interstate. You're welcome."

She turned before she could see Regina's annoyed expression, but the sound of her door slamming shut indicated she was every bit aggravated. By the time the blonde was in her car, Emma watched as Regina sped away in her high and mighty sophisticated glory.

She was pulling up to her apartment an hour later, somehow stuck in traffic that was ever-present in New York, and bypassed her floor to head to the one above where her friend, a young mother named Ashley, watched her son most nights. She helped herself into the apartment, throwing a sleepy hello to the young blonde in the kitchen alcove who was feeding her baby as she dropped onto the sofa, finally letting her eyes rest.

Less than a minute later, a heavy weight sat on her back. "Hey Mom!"

Emma cracked open a bloodshot eye before sitting up and pecking her son's forehead. "Let's get ready for school, kid."

Chapter Text

"Where were you last night?" Kathryn asked over a late lunch with Regina. When she realized the brunette hadn't been following her, she attempted numerous times to call her only to be directed to her voicemail. The text message she'd receive that morning had her breathing out a sigh of relief that her friend was in one piece.

"You drive like a maniac," Regina answered clearly annoyed. "And you left me stranded in the slums of New York."

"No," Kathryn gasped, a hand on her chest for emphasis. "Did you get mugged?"

"No. Thank god," the brunette answered piercing a fork into her apple salad.

"Then where were you all night?" Kathryn leaned in, her voice low. "Did you meet someone?"

Regina glared at her friend. "My phone died and I got a flat tire. Luckily enough it broke down a few blocks away from a bar."

"So you did meet someone," the blonde grinned wickedly, sipping from her wine glass.

"If you call a stubborn, manner-less, rude bar manager good company then yes, I suppose I met someone," Regina grounded out, already angry at the mere memory of Emma Swan. "She eventually replaced my popped tire."

"So that's why your Benz was in the shop this morning," Kathryn pieced together. After a beat, she pointed to Regina with her fork, mischief and wonder in her eyes. "What was it like?"

"Dirty. Wreaks of alcohol and body odour."

"So it wasn't that bad based on a normal human standard?" The blonde quipped.

"I beg your pardon?" Regina gaped.

Kathryn ignored her friend's expression. "Do you remember where it is?"

"It was called the Wooden Whale." She eyed the blonde carefully, brown eyes narrowed in questioning. "Why?"

Kathryn simply grinned mischievously.

Emma had managed to get her sleep when Henry laughed and reminded her that it was Sunday. After pulling herself up and off the couch and thanking Ashley again, Emma led her son downstairs to their apartment before crashing for a solid eight hours. She usually spent as much time as she could with Henry, but as the boy got older he was all too aware of the late hours his mom kept and let her sleep as much as she could, preoccupying himself with books or homework.

It pained her that when Henry had suggested to eat out that night, she thought about the overdue rent and was forced to say no, but the boy didn't seem one bit disappointed, and instead helped his mother crack open a box of KD before he had to go back to Ashley's for the night.

It was that guilt of sleeping through the day and not being able to provide her kid with a simple fast food meal that made Emma hit the counter more often than usual that Sunday night, wearing her shortest shorts, a ripped v-neck t-shirt with a black lacy bra, and bring all too eager men on stage with her. She didn't realize that in her fifth dance, an unlikely person had begrudgingly stumbled into the bar and had kept her brown eyes locked on her all throughout her dance. With a final swing around the pole that August had jokingly installed but turned out to be a great crowd pleaser, Emma stepped down from the counter, pocketing tips into the strap of her bra before nodding her head at a young blonde woman who looked much too dignified to be in a bar like this if her designer jeans and Louis Vuitton clutch were anything to go by.

"What can I get you?" Emma asked wiping the table in front of her.

"You tend the bars too. Impressive."

Emma did her best not to roll her eyes and simply smiled tightly. "Let me guess. Cosmopolitan?"

Without waiting for an answer, Emma began mixing the drink when a familiar voice sounded beside her customer. "Actually make mine an Apple Martini."

Emma looked up quickly upon hearing the voice, legitimately surprised to see the one and only Regina Mills. The blonde bartender smirked as she shook the cocktail and used her free hand to prepare the martini. "What's a girl like you doing back in a place like this?"

Her blonde friend raised an eyebrow between the brunette and bartender and spoke none too quietly to Regina. "This is her?"

"One in the same," Regina answered, her eyes never leaving Emma's.

"Let me guess," Emma said as she shook the martini shaker before pouring both into two cocktail glasses. "Your car broke down."

Regina laughed. "Please. Like that's ever going to happen again."

"Then I want my tire back," Emma said with a shrug sliding over the women's drink.

Kathryn took hers, sipping on the alcohol as she watched the back and forth exchange.

"You want your tire back?" Regina asked appalled and amused. "Here I was about to pay you for your mechanical services, but if all you want is your tire."

Emma shook her head smiling tightly before moving down a few people to refill a few pitchers from the tap. When she passed by Regina again she was surprised when the brunette slapped down a few hundred dollar bills. "That should suffice, yes?"

Emma eyed the money, knowing she could desperately use it, but the self-righteous smirk currently plastered on Regina's face made the blonde push the bills back towards the brunette. "Thanks, but no thanks."

"Excuse me?" Regina asked following Emma down the bar as she catered to patrons, leaving behind her friend who quickly took an interest in the brunette hunk who began chatting her up. "Surely that's more than what you make when you swing around that pole."

"I'm not a stripper," Emma retorted defensively, nearly yelling over the loudspeaker as she grabbed a bottle of gin and tossed it around her body effortlessly like some juggling act.

"Oh I'm sorry. Exotic dancer." Regina's eyes sparkled challengingly until she noticed Emma's attention was on the men enjoying her bottle show. "Can you stop that?"

"Am I distracting you?" Emma turned abruptly, nearly leaning completely over the counter and poured a gin and tonic mixture for them men while keeping her eyes firmly on the brunette. "Call me what you want, but I actually work to make a living, and I don't need your charity."

The blonde collected an empty tray of glasses before depositing it on the rack for the dish boy to wash then turned sharply back to Regina.

"And if you're just here to mock me, then you're out of luck because sister, you're in my world now," the blonde said with an arrogant eyebrow raise as she twirled two bottles of vodka in her hands before pouring them in a row of shots. A crowd of men pushed forward taking one and cheered, leaving Regina uncomfortably squished in the middle.

Breaking free Regina scoffed attempting to regain some sense of dignity and popped the cherry from her drink into her mouth. "I'm not here to mock you." She retrieved the wad of bills from her clutch again handing it over like it was nothing more than scrap paper. "I pay my help."

Emma rolled her eyes at the money and nudged Ruby out of the way when the leggy brunette offered to take it if Emma wouldn't. She leaned over the counter again pouring two shots and sliding one over to Regina. "So you're paying a debt?"

"Precisely." The brunette leaned forward, matching Emma's stance and closing the distance as if a bar wasn't in between them.

Their gazes held, both refusing to be the first to break when Emma smirked. "Bullshit."


"I think you're here looking for a good time, and what better place to do it than at some lowly bar where no one here knows your name," Emma answered leaning back with her arms folded.

"You think this is my idea of fun?" Regina motioned around her. "A tightly packed bar that's a step above a brothel and a poorly made martini?"

"That is the best martini you've ever had," Emma pointed at the brunette defensively. She took a step closer and downed her shot. "Yes. I think you're looking to let loose."

With no preamble, Emma turned and sat on the counter, swinging her legs up and stood. As if on cue, music blared for the blonde as she sauntered around the bar, pulling up the bartenders one by one as all the girls took the stage and performed a choreographed sexy cowgirl dance. The blonde grinned as she stole a man's cowboy hat and placed it on her head and winked when she caught Regina's eye.

She may not have had much, and she was damn sure aware of her status when it came to Regina, but hell did she find sport in toying with the woman.

By the time Emma had announced last call and the last drifters had filtered out, she cleaned up the bar, and had only enough energy to don her red leather jacket instead of changing all together. She leaned against the brick wall letting her muscles relax in anticipation for the day off she had the following evening and the lucky haul she sprung tonight. She already had a good chunk of her rent money and she'd have enough to surprise Henry with a trip to Chuck-E-Cheese.

She pushed off the wall, glad that she was able to close just after half past 2 and moved to make her way to her car when she almost bumped into the one and only Regina Mills.

"You're still here?" Emma asked skeptically. "Are you stalking me or something?"

"Why would I want to stalk you?" The brunette asked with disdain. She motioned her head to the side where the friend she had come in with was leaning against the brick wall batting her eyelashes at the hunk she had been talking to all night. "My friend seems to be indisposed at the moment."

"And you stayed with her," Emma nodded impressed. "That's friendship."

"I couldn't leave her out here alone, could I?"

Emma shrugged. "We're not all thieves and murderers, you know? Frederick's one of the good ones. He runs the gym at the community youth center."

Regina glanced over to where Emma was staring. "Kathryn seems smitten."

"Maybe you should cock block. Wouldn't want labourers mixing with family money."

The brunette whipped her head back to Emma prepared to argue with her but the ringing of the blonde's cell phone interrupted her before she got the chance.

Emma looked at the screen worriedly before flipping it open. "Hey Ash, is everything okay?" She waited a moment and spoke again. "Yeah, put him on."

Regina raised a curious eyebrow at Emma who responded by taking a step away from Regina. The brunette looked back to Kathryn and Frederick who were still very much deep in conversation and felt foolish standing alone on the sidewalk. She sighed aggravated, unwillingly picking up Emma's side of the conversation.

"Hey buddy, you had a nightmare?" Regina's ears perked at that. She never heard the blonde's voice soften like that and she never imagined Emma would have a child at home. Of course, when would she have the opportunity to find out? "I know, but it was just a dream. I'm coming home right now, okay? No, I'm done working. I'll see you in a bit. I love you."

She watched as Emma flipped her phone closed and shoved it into her pocket. The blonde turned back to her with a tired smile, the only genuine smile she had ever shown Regina, and held her hand up in goodbye. "Maybe I'll see you back here."

Without waiting for a response, Emma stepped off the sidewalk to walk across the street, but before she could get very far Regina found herself calling the blonde's name. "Ms. Swan. Wait a minute."

Emma turned her head but kept walking. "I really need to go."

Regina caught up to her, forcing the bartender to face her and pressed the bills she had attempted to give her earlier into the younger woman's palm. "It's not charity."

"I really don't need your money, Regina."

"Forgive me for begging to differ," Regina said with only just a hint of arrogance, which was saying a lot judging by how confident the woman presented herself as. "You changed my tire and you worked hard for this money."

Emma stared intensely at the older woman, wondering what she was getting at but all she saw was genuine sincerity which seemed out of place for a woman like Regina. Finally she nodded minutely, taking only one of the hundred dollar bills and returning the rest to the brunette. "If that's how much you're paying to get a tire fixed, you're getting scammed."

Regina whirled her eyebrows at Emma's response.

"Thanks," Emma mumbled sheepishly motioning to the money. "I hope you had fun for once."

With that, the blonde turned and got into her car, the engine backfiring before she sped off.

Kathryn returned by her side, her phone shining with the addition of a new contact and her face smiling from ear to ear. "Tonight wasn't a complete waste."

Regina stared off at the fading red taillights before the horrendous yellow bug made a turn. "Yes. I suppose it wasn't."

Chapter Text

It was a good day, Emma decided. She had actually gotten a decent amount of sleep before bringing Henry to school. She paid utilities, bought some groceries, and even surprised Henry at lunch with Subway. Now she and her son were kicking a soccer ball around the grass in Central Park. She couldn't afford to put him into any organized sports, she was damn lucky that the programs at the center were free, but she made it a point to get the kid outside whenever she could, even if he was a little uncoordinated.

It was a gorgeous day in the park. The sun was shining, the sky a ridiculous bright blue that Emma usually slept through, and the park wasn't particularly crowded save for a small bridal entourage that insisted on having their pictures taken outdoors. Emma had carefully avoided that scene knowing that Henry would get ideas and start scheming up ways to set her up with one of his teachers.

"-and Ms. Blanchard wanted me to read my story in front of the entire class," Henry said paying more attention to his words than the ball flying past him. "And I did, and Paige really liked it."

"Paige, huh?" Emma smirked. "Is that the girl who sent you a candy gram at Christmas?"

The boy's ears turned bright red before he scurried off after the soccer ball leaving behind a laughing Emma. He picked it up, running back to his mother before drop kicking the ball, misjudging his aim, strength, and direction and sending the ball flying towards the bridal party.

"Kid," Emma groaned watching it soar through the air.

"I'll get it!" Henry yelled already taking off towards the ball.

"Kid!" Emma called after him then sighed when her son didn't even look back. He was as stubborn as he was determined, so Emma jogged back to the picnic table they had snagged and quickly grabbed his bag before walking after her son.

Henry was a bright child, if just a little narrow-sighted. When he focused on something, that was all he tended to see which made making projects with him a hassle since it had to be exactly as he envisioned. This tunnel vision was the reason that Henry didn't even comprehend the group of people dressed in tuxes and similar dresses surrounding a bride and groom. Instead his eyes had zeroed in on the soccer ball that landed behind them, and with his target in sight, he ran towards the ball.

The bright flash of light got his attention, however, and the boy stopped his mission to look up, his hazel eyes widened as he looked up to the source of the flash and the bridal party behind him.

"Oh my gosh, I'm so sorry," Henry apologized profusely to the brunette behind the camera and the still giddy blushing bride.

The photographer looked up from behind her camera, a raised curious eyebrow but an otherwise friendly face. "It's quite all right, dear." She motioned to the screen on her SLR showing a clear profile of Henry with the bridal party colours of pastel blues, blacks, and white blurred in the background. "You're quite photogenic."

Henry smiled shyly apologizing again before running behind the group and retrieving his ball. "I'm sorry again."

The bridal party had already preoccupied themselves with chatter, but the brunette laughed softly. "No need for apologies. Are you lost?"

Henry shook his head. "My mom's around here."

"Are you sure?" The brunette kept an arm around his shoulder looking around.


Henry turned then grinned, pointing over to the blonde who was jogging up to them. "There she is!"

Emma had picked up the pace when she saw Henry walk into the shot, but she began to jog when she noticed he was talking to someone for far too long. Like hell she'd let her son be kidnapped right in front of her nose. She watched those cop shows when she could. She knew how those kidnappers worked.

"Henry!" She called out, glad when both her son and the woman turned, but as soon as she saw who it was her step faltered.

No way. That wasn't Regina freaking Mills. God, didn't she ever get a break? She did a double take just to make sure and found herself lingering on the short skirt and pinstripe blazer the older woman was wearing. Even in the day time the woman seemed to look seductive and own the room she walked in, which was quite the feat seeing as they were in the middle of a large park. Mentally preparing herself for a verbal sparring, Emma ran up the final few yards to her son and the other woman. She was pleased when the older woman looked completely shell shocked by her appearance.

"Regina," Emma said draping her arms around Henry's shoulders. "Sorry if he ruined the shot. Kid doesn't know his own strength."

Regina continued to stare at her before directing her attention to the bridal party, agreeing to meet them back at the reception. She turned her gaze back to the blonde woman and her son. "I didn't expect to see you here, Ms. Swan."

Henry looked up between either woman. "You two know each other?"

"We've met," Emma said.

"More like acquaintances," the brunette reassured him. She walked purposefully to a local bench where her equipment sat and began putting them away.

"Are you a photographer?" Henry asked escaping his mother's grasp and running up to the brunette woman, watching curiously as she dissembled the flash piece.

"I am," the woman answered.

"I'm Henry," the boy grinned happily.

Brown eyes twinkled with mirth before she bent down to Henry's eye level. "I'm Regina. It's a pleasure to meet such a little gentleman."

The boy blushed then turned his attention back to the camera.

"Henry," Emma called, still left standing in the middle of the field where Regina and Henry had left her. "Come on. Chuck-E-Cheese?"

"I believe your mother's calling you."

"Can you show me real quick?" He motioned towards her camera with his best puppy dog eyes.

Regina chuckled quietly, shaking her head as she quickly put the lens back on. She snapped a picture of Henry then turned the lens and snapped another one before sitting beside the boy. She showed the display to him. "See this one you are the focus." Flipping to the next picture she spoke again. "Here, it's your mother."

"That's so cool!" Henry beamed then waved for Emma to come. "Mom, you have to come see this!"

Emma looked conflicted then reluctantly walked over sitting on Henry's other side. She avoided Regina's smirk before looking down at the pictures, thoroughly impressed with the brunette's skill. "I didn't know you were a photographer."

"You don't know me very well, Ms. Swan."

"You don't work at the bar, do you?" Henry asked Regina suddenly.

Emma stifled her laughter at the brunette's shocked expression, no doubt attempting to hide her scoff. "No, I take pictures, remember?"

Henry shrugged. "My mom used to work two jobs, but I didn't get to see her a lot, so she quit one."

"Okay, Henry," Emma put her hand over the boy's mouth. "That's enough sharing for today."

Henry smirked up at his mom before standing up, playing keep-ups with the ball for one kick until it sprang away from him, forcing him to chase after it again.

"Sorry," Emma muttered to Regina, nodding her head in Henry's direction. "He likes to talk."

"Just like his mother?" Regina asked.

"You've never had the privilege of having a real conversation with me."

"I learned enough from what I did hear," Regina replied smartly, dissembling the camera again.

Emma moved the back of the bench to keep Henry in her sights while also facing the brunette. "What do you know about me?"

Regina looked up, her tone confident but the malice it once held was gone. "You're a single mother, struggling to get by for your son."

"That's not hard to pick up when you meet the kid," Emma shrugged.

"You're confident at your work, but when you're with him you worry you don't provide enough for him," the brunette answered simply.

Emma's lips thinned, her usual smirk gone.

"You hate that I know that about you," Regina grinned as she put the pieces of her camera into its bag.

"You picked up all of that from two nights of hanging out at the bar?" Emma asked.

"No," Regina caught her eye. "But you just confirmed it for me right now."

Emma rolled her eyes, shaking her head at the woman before her. She glanced back at Henry to see that he was returning to them, the ball under his arm, and then moved her gaze to Regina. "I learned something new about you too."

"What's that? I'm not a robot?"

"The jury is still out on that one," Emma replied smartly. "You're actually a very good photographer."

The brunette looked taken aback, her gaze drifted down ever so briefly before she looked back up at Emma again.

"Thank you," Regina responded with a hint of pride, nothing like the cocky arrogance the blonde had witnessed for the past two nights.

She turned, draping a camera bag over her shoulder and carrying two fairly large briefcases.

"You need help there?" Emma asked.

"I'm fine."

Henry was already tugging a briefcase out of her hands when he returned, struggling to lift it with two of his while keeping the ball balanced. "Don't photographers have assistants?"

"I prefer to work alone," Regina answered, attempting to retrieve her case but pale nimble fingers beat her to it.

"Why doesn't that surprise me?" Emma asked with a chuckle. "Where's your car?"

"It's really not necessary," the brunette said, but Henry was already tugging on her sleeve.

"So what else do you take pictures of?"

"You're quite curious, aren't you?" Regina laughed.

"My mom calls it annoying," Henry joked.

"Hey!" Emma ruffled her son's hair.

Regina laughed despite herself and led the way to her car.

They began their walk away from the center of the park, through brushes of trees and families picnicking, past runners and dog-walkers as Regina answered any and all of Henry's questions with professionalism yet warmth that was surprising even to her. She'd never had much interaction with children, and Henry seemed like a child who saw everything as fascinating.

"Wow!" Henry gasped. "So you have a dark room and everything? And you go places just to take pictures?"

"I take pictures of everything really," the brunette said to the boy.

"That sounds like the life," Emma commented with a tight smile.

Regina motioned to the Benz parked along the street and clicked the button of her keys to unlock the trunk.

"I gotta say," Emma admitted, placing the briefcase into the trunk. "I didn't peg you as a wedding photographer when I met you."

"What did you peg me for?" Regina asked with a raised eyebrow.

Emma shrugged. "Your daddy a CEO of some company?"

"Close," Regina admitted. "I don't usually do weddings."

"Not your style?"

"Mom doesn't like weddings," Henry piped up. "She said they're a waste of money and depressing."

Regina cocked a questioning eyebrow to the blonde who glared at her son. "Believe it or not, Ms. Swan, I pay taxes just like everyone else.

"It's hard to believe you took another job to pay the bills," the blonde snorted.

"It's hard to believe you own something aside from cut off shorts and ripped t-shirts," Regina responded smartly earning a sideways glare from the blonde.

"I clean up when I have to," Emma motioned to herself, missing the way Regina's eyes roved over Emma's skintight jeans and fitted long sleeve

Regina kept a careful mask of indifference as Henry helped maneuver the briefcases and camera bag perfectly into her trunk. "It's a favour for a friend. I'm leaving the reception early since I have my opening gallery tonight at Sisco's."

"I've passed by there. Elite crowd."

Regina tilted her head as if it were a given.

They lingered by the open driver's side door of Regina's Mercedes, Emma shifting from foot to foot and Regina looking everywhere but.

"Thank you," Regina said finally breaking the silence. "For helping me carry my equipment."

"No problem," Henry beamed leaning into Emma.

Emma grinned down at him. "We better get going if you want your Chuck-E-Cheese."

The boy pumped a fist in the air. "Bye, Regina. Thanks for telling me about cameras."

The brunette smiled warmly at him before stepping into her car and driving out into traffic.

"Wait, you bumped into her?" Ruby asked from the kitchen, tossing a ball over Emma's head as she threw it to Henry.

"Yeah! Regina," Henry answered from the lounge chair in the living room catching it. "She's really cool and funny and pretty."

Emma silently shook her head at her friend trying to block Henry's attempt at throwing the ball to Ruby.

"She's a photographer," Henry continued rambling. "Mom, can I get a camera?"

Emma turned her head to face her son. "Like Regina's? No way."

"No, just a regular one," the boy reasoned. "When are we gonna see her again? I want to see more of her pictures."

Ruby laughed chucking the ball back to Henry. "Kid has a crush."

The blonde snorted.

"She's an upper class princess who will be dining on wine and cheese tonight at her bourgeoisie art gallery that her father probably funded," Emma said into her can of beer.

"I think she's nice," Henry shrugged.

"Bed time," Emma said pointedly to her son.

"But Mo-om," Henry whined.

"He-enry," his mother mocked. "Come on, you got school tomorrow."

He sighed catching the ball before running back to the table to hug his mother and Ruby. "Night, Mom. Rubes."

"Night, handsome," the older brunette winked as Henry disappeared into his room with Emma following close behind to tuck him in and read a story.

Fifteen minutes later, Emma returned and headed straight for the couch where Ruby was already settled into, tossing the ball into the air and catching it. "God we needed this night off, huh?"

Emma leaned her head back nodding in agreement.

As soon as Ruby saw her friend relax by closing her eyes, she leaned forward. "So what's up with you and Regina?"

Emma peeked an eye open. "Nothing?"

"Come on, I saw you and her bickering for like ten minutes."

"Yeah, that's all we were doing," the blonde responded defensively.

"Mmhmm." Ruby leaned back. "You have to admit she's pretty hot though."

"She's gorgeous." Emma didn't hesitate to agree earning a guffaw from her friend.

"She's got a gallery tonight?" The brunette asked tossing the nerf ball to Emma.

The blonde caught it. "Yeah. At Sisco's."

"Fancy." Ruby grinned catching the ball and held it up to her chin in thought. "You should go."

Emma choked on her spit. "What? No."

"At least just to mess with her."

Emma laughed catching the ball tossing it from palm to palm. "She would be pissed, wouldn't she?"

"And I know you had fun ruffling her feathers," Ruby grinned.

The blonde just whipped the ball at her friend's head.

The brunette laughed catching it with one hand before tossing it back and speaking softly. "Go. I'll watch Henry."

Emma mulled over the proposition wondering why on earth she even considered it. She had already tucked her son in, treated him to dinner, and spent a normal night out with her friend. She should be eager to get to sleep. But seeing Regina earlier in the day looking so normal and happy intrigued her. She had to admit, the brunette took some really nice pictures, and it'd be interesting to see her work up close and personal.

"I don't know," Emma drawled uncertainly.

The younger woman grinned wolfishly. "Do it."

Chapter Text

What was Emma doing there? This was the last time she'd give in to Ruby's peer pressure. The last time she had done that she had gotten herself a date with the sleaziest guy she had ever met. This was starting to be a frequent occurrence, Emma thought to herself. She glanced at the time to see it was almost nearing ten. How late did these things go anywhere?

Weaving her way through the crowded streets, the street lamps illuminating the sidewalk quite differently than they did where she lived, Emma found the only open shop on the street, bright lights, people still sparsely mingling inside.


It was a space for artists of any kind, be it modelling, photography, or art, to use as their gallery. For a generous price of course.

Emma had joked with August one day that she'd buy out that place and turn it into a classy bar. The man shook his head, laughing at that. At the time Emma had been offended, but staring up at the brass sign looking worth more than what she had in the bank, she gulped.

Parking her bug, she stepped out. The old door creaked and strained against the rust, but she shoved her hip against it to slam it shut. She zipped up her leather jacket, wondering for the first time that maybe this was an invite only event. She scoffed to herself. If it was, she could probably find a way to sneak in. Though why she wanted to was the mystery.

Despite dancing every night on a bar counter looking like a Daisy Duke impersonator, Emma felt nerves creep up her spine as she approached the gallery. Through the glass windows, she could see people dressed in suits and fine dresses, waiters walking around with trays of champagne flutes and hors d'oeuvres.

Five minutes, Emma promised herself. She'd go in, say hi to Regina, see what the big deal was with their fancy champagne, and get out of there. She'd tell Ruby what she wanted to hear, but like hell Emma was going to actually mingle with these people.

She walked through the open doorway easily enough. The group of people chatting by the door paused their conversation just to gawk at her, but Emma simply grinned, waved and kept walking in.

Maybe she should have changed.

Once inside, her red leather jacket, skinnies and boots stuck out like a sore thumb in the midst of all the dressed up people. It wasn't even a crowded room, most already on their way out the door, yet Emma couldn't help but feel as if every eye in the room had turned to look at her.

She held her chin up and steeled her jaw, grabbed a flute from a passing waiter, and stuffed her free hand into her pocket as she walked casually along the walls and partitions to examine the photographs.

Emma never really thought much about pictures. They were nice to look at, but it didn't seem that hard to do. Looking at these ones, though, "New York Perspectives" as the theme was called, Emma began to see how the other side lived.

Sipping daintily on her champagne, which was actually quite good, she examined the photos, looking at the sepias of old churches with a couple in its archway, the stone decor of museums, the reflection of the city in the water, and the view from a penthouse. That would be the closest Emma would ever get to places like that, this gallery excluded.

She gulped the rest of her champagne but jumped when a tall frizzy haired blonde came to stand beside her, her dress tight and coloured in deep black and purples. "Marvelous, aren't they?"

She coughed as the alcohol slipped down the wrong tube before straightening up to glance at the woman. "Yeah. They're amazing."

Emma felt under scrutiny as the taller woman raked her eyes over Emma's body from head to toe, taking in Emma's unruly blonde hair to her knee-high boots.

She grinned and leaned in, extending her hand. "I don't believe we've met before. Maleficent."

The younger blonde took it briefly. "Emma."

"Which is your favourite?" Maleficent extended an arm out indicating the rest of the collection.

"This one," Emma said hastily pointing to a photograph taken on a bridge over a highway. The colours of the cars blended together in a fury of light except for the silhouette of a couple embracing on the bridge.

"I find it quite generic. Once you've seen one you've seen them all, don't you agree?"

Emma moved her head up and around, not quite a nod but not exactly shaking her head.

"This one, however, is just exquisite." Maleficent tugged Emma over to a picture of a thicket of trees, light shining through the space of the leaves. "Look how well she managed to capture the light so that you can see the rays as it beams down on you."

"Yeah," Emma nodded along. "It's a good technique."

The older woman chuckled to herself as she took Emma's empty champagne glass and exchanged it for two new ones, handing a flute to the blonde. "I doubt I'm wrong, but I suspect you have no idea what I'm talking about."

Emma's eyes widened ever so slightly as she shimmied from foot to foot. She looked around the room, significantly emptier since the ten minutes she had arrived. "It's getting late," she said giving the glass back to Maleficent. "I should get going."

Before she could turn to leave, Emma felt a hand on her arm to see the taller blonde grip her, a leering and mischievous grin on her face. "Are you here for somebody?"

"Ms. Swan?"

Emma turned at the sound of her name to see Regina, out of the skirt and blazer she had been wearing earlier in the day and dressed in a sleek, black knee length dress. Stepping away from Maleficent, Emma had never been more happier to see the brunette. "Hi."

"What on earth are you doing here?" Regina hissed.

"Now dear," Maleficent mused into her glass. "I think she's here for you."

Emma felt her skin heat up, uncomfortable with the questioning of her presence, uncomfortable feeling the many eyes still on her, and uncomfortable with the embarrassed blush gracing the brunette's cheeks.

This plan backfired big time.

She seriously regretted handing back that drink, so instead, she put up her hands in defeat. "I should go."

She didn't let either woman stop her, and neither woman tried, as she glided through the crowd and made a break for the exit.

Maleficent turned expectantly towards Regina, her eyebrow cocked and her lips pursed in a playful pout. "Who was that?"

"What did you say to her?" The brunette questioned. The threat in her voice made Regina falter and the blonde giggle deliciously.

"Are those feelings, Regina?" Maleficent gasped dramatically. "I imagine you'd be thrilled I scared her away."

Regina rolled her eyes before sauntering off to bid more guests goodbye.

Emma sat in the driver's seat of her bug, still parked outside Sisco's with her legs planted firmly on the road as she fidgeted with her hands. Since her abrupt departure half an hour ago, Emma had been contemplating going back in just to prove to Maleficent and everyone else that she deserved to be there just as much as anyone else.

She couldn't get the look of shock and embarrassment on Regina's face out of her head though.

She didn't know why, but she felt the sudden urge to apologize to the brunette for interrupting her show. Regina clearly didn't want her there; she would have invited her otherwise. Besides, they didn't even know each other. She basically just crashed a stranger's photo viewing.

Good one, Emma.

She glanced up when the last of the laughter and chattering died down as the final few guests made their way to their cars. She watched as Regina hugged and kissed the cheeks of many of them before turning to lock up the studio. On a whim, Emma stood, kicking back at her car door to shut it, the creak echoing noisily in the quiet night.

Regina turned sharply at the sound of the car door and already had a can of pepper spray out and her finger on the nozzle.

Emma smirked seeing the can. "I'm not armed."

Regina sighed relieved before replacing the can back into her purse. "I thought you left."

"Pepper spray?" Emma said with the hint of a laugh.

"It's New York," Regina replied obviously. "And still not an answer to my question."

"Well you technically didn't ask one," the blonde pointed out, grinning internally at Regina's huff. "I wanted to apologize."

Regina raised a curious eyebrow.

"It wasn't my plan to embarrass you in front of your friend," Emma explained.

The older woman chuckled. "Maleficent is just barely my friend."

"Yeah, she seemed like a bitch," Emma laughed.

"So what was your plan?"

The blonde shoved her hands into her jean back pockets, shuffling from side to side. "Honestly? To piss you off."

"At least you're truthful to an extent," the brunette smirked. "Here I thought you came to appreciate some fine photography."

"You're a humble one, aren't you?"

Regina rolled her shoulder casually before stepping down from the overhanging archway to level herself with Emma still standing on the sidewalk in the orange incandescent glow of the street lamp.

"So let me get this straight," Regina began holding up a finger indicating she was not to be interrupted. "You left your son alone to travel halfway across town to an art gallery simply to aggravate me?"

Emma sighed holding out her hands at her waist to make her point. "He is tucked in and in bed with Ruby watching him."

"And you didn't travel halfway across town to aggravate me?" The brunette quipped.

"Maybe I just want to look at some fine art," Emma retorted, her eyes roaming up and down Regina's body appreciating the contrast between lightly tanned skin and the smooth black dress.

Her eyes drifted back up when the brunette cleared her throat and turned back towards the door.

"Right this way," she spoke quietly as she unlocked the gallery.

More than a little surprised, Emma followed Regina into the studio, the brunette not bothering with the lights finding the sporadic flood lights in the ceiling to be sufficient.

Standing in the room with just herself and Regina and no gawking judgmental people, Emma felt significantly more at ease, her shoulders relaxing as she followed Regina along the partitions. "How did the night go?"

"As well as I could hope," the brunette replied taking a deep breath as she examined her photographs.

"It looks like you're a big shot." Emma came to stand beside her, both staring at the photo that Emma had claimed was her favourite.

"Perhaps," the brunette replied with a wry smile.

Emma glanced at the woman beside her, grinning to herself when she caught brown eyes shine with pride as she stared at her photographs. The blonde's grin widened, and she shook her head attempting to wipe it off her face.


The blonde shook her head. "You really love what you do, don't you?"

Regina sighed turning her back to Emma. "My mother wanted me to learn how to run the hotels and to network with other businessmen to support our companies. She wasn't pleased when I went to an arts school."

"Wow, you defied your mother. Who would have thought?" Emma smirked.

"I assume with your vivacious career path you love what you do as well?" The brunette asked turning back to Emma.

The blonde shrugged. "It pays the bills."

"You look like you enjoy it," Regina questioned.

"It's not a bad gig, but the hours suck," the younger woman admitted. "I really want to own my own bar someday."

Emma wandered off, leaving Regina to watch after her and taking the time to truly appreciate the other woman's photographs. Scenes of sepia-toned cobble stone streets, black and white pictures of historical manors reflected in the glass of high rises, and unfiltered shots of New York's views.

"You don't do people," Emma commented making her way around the pictures and back to the brunette.


"Not 'do' like that," the blonde clarified. "I mean there are no people in your pictures. If they are you can't see them."

Regina furrowed her brow, glancing across the room then raising her eyebrows in surprise. "I didn't realize."

"You should have more life in your pictures."

"Are you giving me photography advice?" The brunette scoffed lightly.

"School taught you good," Emma said changing the subject, bringing herself up to sit on the bar where the champagne was stored.

"Not all of us could simply walk into a bar and claim a job, Ms. Swan," Regina answered her face scowling slightly at Emma's choice of seat.

"I took a course in mixology," the blonde answered proudly. "And you can call me Emma, you know."

"I don't know you that well."

The blonde slid down from her spot and walked up to Regina, the brunette refusing to back down and upped the ante, stepping into Emma's personal space so close they were almost touching.

The glow of the dim flood lights cast a peaceful halo over Regina's face, her olive toned skin illuminated in the darkness around them, her hazel eyes shining with challenge. They were so close Emma could feel the older woman's chest rise and fall as she breathed, could see how that perfectly manicured eyebrow rose daring Emma to back down.

Emma was stubborn, evidence by the fact that she had toyed with the brunette for two days, but there was something in those fiery brown eyes that made her want to accept this unspoken challenge between them. The blonde cocked her head to the side before whispering. "Find out."

"What?" Regina looked taken aback.

Emma stepped away and headed towards the door walking backwards as she stretched out her arms to the side daring Regina to follow. "Get to know me."

"Why would I want to do that?"

The blonde curled her lips into a half smirk. "You look like you need a little life back in your life."

Regina was loathed to find herself trailing after the blonde. After locking up the gallery, Emma was already halfway down the sidewalk forcing Regina to speed up in her heels. She could have just gone home, but she was Regina Mills, after all. She never lost a challenge and certainly not one to Emma Swan.

"Where are we going?" Regina asked for the second time as they rounded another street.

"Do you trust me?"


"That's not how that's supposed to go," Emma said to herself before stopping abruptly in front of a hole-in-the-wall bar. She motioned to it with her hands and offered a shy grin.

"Why am I not surprised that we're at a bar?" The brunette began to rethink going after Emma.

"It's different, will you just get inside please?"

"Aren't you sick of these?"

Emma gave Regina a little shove into the establishment, rolling her eyes and muttering to herself before following.

Before Regina could turn to yell at Emma for manhandling her, the smell of alcohol flooded her senses and the sound of off-key singing rang in her ears.

She was in a karaoke bar.

She turned abruptly as Emma grinned at the atmosphere already taking off her coat. "No."

The blonde halted her movements before laughing. "Seriously? You've been in here all of two seconds."

"I don't frequent these types of establishments, Ms. Swan."

"Well you could have fooled me by showing up at my bar two nights in a row." Emma tugged on the older woman's elbow leading her to a table near the front.

"My car-"

"Yes, yes your car broke down." She motioned over for a waitress. "Have a drink, sing a little, and then I will take you back to your safe little gallery."

"I will not sing in public!" Regina yelled, her voice impressive against the speakers.

Emma ignored her and spoke to the waitress. "Sour Amaretto and an Apple Martini."

Regina seethed. "I'm not singing."

"Tell me that once you get a couple drinks in your system."

Regina sat petulantly on the stool doing her best not let any part of her clothing or body touch anything. In the back of her mind, she briefly thought that Emma's bar was significantly cleaner than this place even though it wasn't too far from where she worked. She looked around, a permanent frown on her face as drunken voices belted out the lyrics to 'Don't Stop Believing'. Although no one paid attention to her, which was strange in its own right, Regina couldn't help but feel as if she was too dressed up for the occasion. She fiddled with her rings before thanking the waitress as she stopped by to place their drinks.

She drank much too eagerly.

"Feel better?" Emma asked, smirking into her glass as Regina toyed with the cherry, pressing it lightly against her lips.

"No." The cherry disappeared between red lips before a martini glass was lifted to them, a healthy amount ingested.

"Okay," Emma said sipping her own drink. "What's your idea of fun?"

"Not this."

"You've been before?"


"Then how do you know it's not fun?" Emma questioned.

"I don't need to experience it to know it's not for me," the brunette answered exasperated as if she were talking to a slow child.

"That's exactly what you have to do." Emma got up from her seat and stole the songbook from a nearby table. "I'm gonna pick a song for you."

"Why don't you sing?" Regina questioned, leaning forward and turning the tables back on Emma.

The blonde smirked meeting the older woman halfway. "I will if you will."

Regina's eyes narrowed. Green eyes shined with mirth as they bore into deep brown ones. If this is the game Emma wanted to play then so be it. She leaned back and downed the rest of her martini already motioning for another.

The crowd was clapping in time and singing along as Emma swayed her hips moving from one end of the stage to the other as the final chords of her song ended.

"I love rock and roll so put another dime in the jukebox baby."

The crowd sung along cheering on the blonde bombshell as she turned her back to audience then turned her head, winking at Regina.

"I love rock and roll so come and take your time and dance with me."

They cheered wildly, and even Regina couldn't stop the pleased grin from appearing on her face, shaking her head as Emma hopped off the stage high fiving people on her way back to their table.

"So?" Emma asked sipping her coke. She had stopped drinking long ago realizing she needed to drive home.

"You were adequate," the brunette inclined her head towards her. "Though I wouldn't quit your day job."

Emma laughed. "Well I wouldn't be so cocky there, Ms. Mills."

As if on cue the MC took the stage calling up their next performer. The one and only Regina Mills.

Regina's face flushed suddenly. She wasn't drunk enough to do this. She glared at Emma who simply held her soda up to her lips, cocking her eyebrows towards the stage. "You can back out if you want."

Though the exit was there the tone the blonde had used infuriated Regina. With another glare she dropped her purse and coat onto the table, striding up to the stage as if she had every business being up there. As soon as she stood in the spotlight, panic caught up with her though her careful mask of indifference refused to show as much.

With the light shining in her eyes she could barely make out the faces in the crowd, but one lone face, that of raised surprised eyebrows, parted curious lips, and surprisingly pretty golden locks stood out.

"Sing pretty lady!" A man wolf whistled from the back causing Regina's panic and irritation to grow.

She was better than this, she decided. She was about to escape off stage when the choir-like intro of Queen's "Somebody to Love" began, and Regina found herself caught on stage as the lyrics on the screen flashed before her.

She held the mic and its stand firmly as she sang the words softly. "Each morning I get up I die a little, can barely stand on my feet..."

A woman in the back whooped her encouragement as Regina sang.

The brunette chuckled breathily. "...I've spent all my years in believing you. I just can't get no relief, Lord."

People clapped as Regina's voice increased in volume and confidence.

"Can anybody find me somebody to love?" Regina sang with a grin, shrugging her shoulder casually glancing at Emma who threw her a thumbs up.

She continued singing, gaining enough confidence from the hollering crowd to remove the mic from its stand and sway from side to side on the stage. Soon the entire room had joined in singing, belting at the top of their lungs.

During the guitar solo Regina looked shocked that she had managed to sing, holding the mic in one hand and the stand away from her as she caught Emma's eye, both women grinning and laughing as the lyrics appeared back on screen.

Regina and the crowd had started a chant with the song - find me somebody to love, find me somebody to love - until they quieted for the brunette to finish off the last line. "Can anybody find me somebody to love?"

She replaced the mic, swaying with the stand as the music kept playing, the final piano beat dying down all the while keeping her eyes locked on the blonde sitting at her table with her hands cupped around her mouth and yelling out her joy.

"Holy crap that was amazing!" Emma laughed into the night as both blonde and brunette left the bar. "I didn't know you could sing."

"There's a lot you don't know about me, Ms. Swan," Regina replied, but the slight upturn of her lips indicated she was thoroughly pleased with the blonde's reaction.

"Emma," the younger woman corrected.

"Emma," Regina amended.

They began the short walk back to the gallery, the high of the evening still buzzing around them.

"So," Emma said nudging the other woman. "Did you have fun?"

Regina smirked. "I made the best of a bad situation."

"That's a long way to say yes." The blonde replied smartly.

Regina laughed once shaking her head as they turned the corner back onto the gallery's street. "How did you know there was a karaoke bar so close?"

"I applied there once," Emma answered with a shrug. "The owner's a little handsy."

"Coming from the woman who dances on counter tops?"

"Coming from the woman who can handle herself with drunk customers and doesn't want that kind of attention from her boss," Emma defended.

The brunette eyed her, surprised at the response. "Fair enough."

By the time they were back at the gallery and at Regina's Benz, it was already just past midnight.

"So," Emma said, her thumbs hooked into her back pockets. "Tonight was fun."

"I suppose," Regina drawled, her car door already open.

Emma laughed. "I could see your smile."

The brunette rolled her eyes before stepping into her vehicle. "Good night, Ms. Swan."

"Emma," the younger woman reminded.

Regina grinned. "Emma."

With that she shut the door and sped off into the night leaving the blonde to stand in the same spot mentally replaying her name slipping past sultry red lips.

Chapter Text

Regina stayed off to the side, loathed to be dragged back to this end of the city by Kathryn who had become infatuated with the man she met at the bar. The youth center she found herself in didn't look like much of a place for children on the outside with its concrete walls and steel infrastructure, but inside it did its very best to make it more homely for the kids gracing its hallways.

On the walls that weren't covered by peeling wallpaper were hand painted pictures of stick figures around a blue and green circle of the earth, a wall dedicated to painted hands, and a wall filled with signed names. It was the hand drawn pictures on the walls that was any evidence that this was meant to be a happy children's place instead of a penitentiary.

Regina walked back towards Kathryn, smiling up at Frederick who had a mesh bag of various balls slung over his shoulder. He looked up when Regina came to stand beside the blonde and offered her a friendly smile.

"It was really nice of you two to come down here," he said mainly to Kathryn. "I'd offer you a tour, but there's not much to see other than this."

He gestured to the hallways, the few classrooms that held smaller extracurricular activities, the viewing area over the gym, and the gymnasium itself.

He grinned shyly down at Kathryn. "Maybe I'll see you after I'm done with the kids?"

The blonde smiled placing a hand lightly on his shoulder. "I'll be here."

Regina smirked at the obviousness of her friend as she watched Frederick exit through a door and descend down a metal staircase to what she assumed was the gym.

"You're quite smitten," the brunette noticed. "Here I thought he was nothing more than some man you met at a bar."

"He's actually very sweet," Kathryn defended, her eyes flashing defiantly.

"What will your father think?"

Kathryn turned suddenly towards her, her hand on the door Frederick had exited through. "He'd be happy for me."

Regina furrowed her brow as Kathryn opened the door and let it shut behind her leaving Regina to stare after her dumbfounded. The Mills, her mother specifically, were notoriously known for her wealth and high social standing that associating with anyone beneath her had been disallowed and bred into Regina as soon as she could walk and talk. To have Kathryn, a woman whose wealth rivaled her own, speak so surely about something as whimsical as the heart was something Regina was not used to. Then again the brunette was still suffering at the hands of her mother due to her career choice, and god forbid if Cora found out she had gone to a seedy bar last weekend and a karaoke bar the next night.

Shaking her head, Regina pulled open the door, taken aback that on the other side was a simple catwalk that hung ten feet over the gymnasium floor. There were kids of all ages already there. The older ones had claimed a basketball net for a game of pick up while Frederick had rallied the younger ones, a handful of balls distributed among them as he carefully explained the drill to them.

"Do you know him well?" Regina asked inclining her head downwards towards the man as she leaned against the railing.

"Regina." Kathryn's tone know cared she would not stand there if the brunette was planning on ridiculing Frederick.

"I only ask because you're my friend," the brunette answered honestly.

Kathryn offered a small smile before casting a sideways glance down below. "I saw him on Wednesday. He's quite the gentleman. He didn't even know who my father was."

Regina placed a tentative hand on Kathryn's arm, her way of showing support for the blonde. She had been on the receiving end of one too many late night calls when the blonde had gotten her heart broken by a man only eager to dig their paws into her family fortune.

"If only all of us could be so lucky."

Kathryn laughed. "And what about you? I hear from Maleficent that you had a visitor at your gallery last week."

Regina rolled her eyes. That blonde gossip would be the end to her. "It was Ms. Swan."

"From the bar?" Kathryn asked surprised.

She nodded. "I suppose she thought it would be funny to show up."

"How did she even know about your opening?"

"I might have mentioned it to her at park," Regina mused, aghast to realize she had released that bit of information.

"You saw each other at the park?" Kathryn was struggling to hide the amused smirk from forming on her face. "As in a date?"

"No." Regina's eyes flashed with indignation as as held herself around the middle. "I was working and she happened to be there with her son."

"She has a son?" The blonde asked curiously.

"It surprised me too, dear. Though he's nothing like his mother."

Regina turned so her back was to the railing, her mind dazing from the many encounters she had had with Emma Swan over the course of a few days alone. She vowed to herself she would never admit to seeing Emma after the gallery, and she was damn well to take the fact that she had sung on stage in front of drunken strangers to her grave. Luckily Regina had received a week's worth of reprieve from the unruly blonde, but more often than not she found herself still revelling in the thrill of being in her presence.

"This son," Kathryn began. "Does he have brown hair?"

Regina knitted her eyebrows. "How do you know?"

Kathryn grinned wide and nodded her head down below them to where Henry was running into the gym from an entrance down below, looking awkward and uncoordinated against the other kids as he caught the basketball and dribbled around pylons.

Emma had followed him in after, waving her arms animatedly as she talked to Frederick, apologizing for being late. The teacher just smiled and dismissed her apology, ruffling Henry's hair as he passed the boy before glancing up at Kathryn to give a bashful smile.

Regina gasped when Emma lifted her head up towards the catwalk, and the brunette almost wanted to duck and hide, but her pride made her lift her chin up as if she had every right to be there. Judging by her knee-high boots, pressed skirt, and silk blouse, Regina stood out like a beacon in the ocean.

"Her son is adorable," Kathryn commented.

Regina didn't answer her. She was acutely aware that the blonde had made her way towards the stairs of the catwalk and began climbing up two stairs at a time. When she was finally levelled, Regina did her best to act surprised to see Emma there.


The brunette turned her head, her eyes widening slightly in alarm. "Oh, Ms. Swan."

"Emma," the younger blonde corrected.

"Right," she said with a nod of her head. "Emma."

"What are you doing here?"

The brunette ignored the question and motioned to Kathryn who was watching Frederick coach. "You remember my friend? Kathryn."

"Yeah," Emma answered extending a hand to blonde. "Cosmopolitan."

"Dancing bartender," Kathryn said back smartly earning a shrug from Emma.

Emma tilted her head at the stifled air between the three of them. Kathryn had returned to appreciating Frederick's skills with children while Regina looked like she wanted to be anywhere but there. She took a step closer and lowered her voice for only the brunette to hear.

"Seriously, are you stalking me?"

Regina's eyes flashed. "I didn't come here for you."

Emma chuckled to herself. "Let me guess. You heard of the free pick up game and decided to try your hand in embarrassing six and up year olds."

Regina glared turning to face forward, her hands outstretched as she gripped the rusting metal bars tightly. "Kathryn mentioned she was meeting a friend down here, and I didn't want her going alone."

"You still think we're all bad news?" Emma scoffed.

"It doesn't hurt to be cautious."

"It hurts to be ignorant."

"I am not ignorant," Regina hissed.

"Please," Emma said crossing her arms around her chest. "You didn't even know you liked karaoke until you sang in front a crowd."

Regina hushed her for fear that Kathryn had heard, but her friend had only turned when her exaggerated "shhh" went on longer than necessary.

Emma smirked taking a step away and pleased when Regina followed suit, effectively creating a distance between themselves and Kathryn. "It's not a crime to have fun."

"There are other ways to have fun that don't involve alcohol."

"I don't doubt that, but your idea of fun is vastly different from mine. Humour me. What does Regina Mills do in her spare time?" Emma asked with a raised eyebrow.

"I take pictures," the brunette answered pointedly.

"That's your job."

"And your job is bartending while you spend your free time in bars."

Emma opened her mouth to disagree but realized that based on how Regina met her, that assumption was pretty damn accurate.

"That was once," Emma defended. "And that was to get you out."

"And I'm to believe you have better interests?"



"You still don't know me."

"I don't plan to."

"Tell that to the Regina who got a crowded bar to sing along to Queen with her," Emma pointed out with a smirk.

"A moment of poor judgement," Regina dismissed with a wave of her hand.


"Fine," Regina huffed turning away from Emma to engage Kathryn in conversation.

Before she could even open her mouth, Emma sauntered over to Kathryn's other side, gaining her friend's attention much more quickly than Regina could. "So how do you like Fred?"

Despite doing her best to ignore Emma, Regina had to admit the blonde was very good at making people around her feel comfortable. Kathryn was easily swept into conversation about the man she came to see and before long, Emma had descended down the steps to help Frederick and the kids. Whatever she thought about Emma, she couldn't deny that the blonde was doing well by her son.

When Frederick gave the kids a water break, Regina was surprised when Henry had bounded up the stairs in order to greet Regina with an excited "hi!"and a wave. She ignored her friend's curious stare as she bent down, automatically grinning from ear to ear as she praised Henry for his efforts on the court.

The boy had blushed and rolled his shoulder, a trait that was distinctly Emma.

Things took an awkward turn when Henry quite openly asked if Regina was there to see his mom. Kathryn stifled her laughter, nudging the shell-shocked brunette who remained dumbfounded and had yet to answer.

Regina gave a practised smile, shaking her head in the negative, but that she was happy to see Henry play nonetheless.

The moment Frederick blew his whistle to bring the children back to the centre of the gym was a blessed relief for the brunette who still seemed quite rattled by the young boy's question. Kathryn had attempted to question what was truly going on between her and Emma, but a well placed glare had her friend quietening and dropping the subject.

Just before the hour was up, Frederick settled all the kids down in the middle of the gym, squatting down to their eye level as he praised them for their efforts. Their pleased faces soon turned to disappointed frowns. Frederick stood and moved to a bench on the side giving each child a donut as they slowly made their way out of the gym through the various exits.

Regina noticed the teacher's change of demeanour as soon as all the children save for Henry left. The man looked conflicted and upset that even from their height both Kathryn and Regina wondered what had happened in the last hour.

She watched as Emma approached Frederick, the same disappointment on her face as the two adults conversed and made their way up the stairs.

"Is something wrong?" Kathryn asked as soon as they had reached the catwalk.

Frederick held the door open for them allowing all three women and Henry to step into the main hallway. "I guess you picked a good day to drop by. Today was the last day of the open gym for the kids."

"When does the next one start up?" Kathryn asked.

"The center can't afford to have their facilities used for free," the man explained.

"So what are we going to do on Saturdays?" Henry asked staring up at his mother.

She ruffled his hair and gave a tight smile. "I'll take you to the park, kid."

"But what about the other kids?" The boy asked worriedly.

Emma just tightened her lips unable to provide an answer to her son. She looked up to the rest of the group as she wrapped an arm around her son's shoulder. "We'll see you later. Thanks for everything, Fred."

Regina watched as the blonde mother and son walked away, Emma looking down as she talked to her crestfallen son. It struck her then how many children would be out of a place to go on their weekends, the children who had painted their hands on these bleak walls in an attempt to make this space their own only to be kicked out.

"Have you considered a fundraiser?" Regina chimed in suddenly interrupting Kathryn's attempt to comfort the teacher.

He nodded. "We've had a few. We don't make as much as we'd like, but it gets us by."

Regina nodded, taking in the life that was in the walls despite the gloomy and ominous atmosphere its outer walls presented. She glanced around at the other children still milling about in the hallways, relaxed and happy with second hand sports equipment in their possession or rushing to one of the arts and crafts room. She was vaguely aware when Kathryn and Frederick had walked a distance away, the man smiling down at her friend despite it all, but the dejected face of Henry and the other children hit a soft spot within the brunette she was unaware she had.

Every child deserved that chance for their own niche, a place or a hobby they could call their own. Regina knew that more than anyone. The gears in her head shifted as she turned and strode purposely towards Frederick, a plan to save his program already in mind.

Chapter Text

Emma wiped the bar clean for the thousandth time. She hated working the early shifts, and by early, August meant evening before the real night shifts, if only because the place was a bore and there was nothing to do. Unfortunately she had been stuck with them for the last few days in order to get some girls trained. August had offered her incentive, but it was nothing like the tips she would have made otherwise. With only a handful of patrons looking to get away from the realities of their lives for only a few hours before returning to their hobbles of homes, Emma entertained herself with cleaning and taking inventory.

She was looking forward to going home just before Henry's bedtime, but the boy was still upset about the youth center. She couldn't blame him. It was the closest thing he had to an organized activity, and Emma couldn't afford to put him into any real classes. Another reason why she was pissed about taking an early shift. She was planning on making extra tips to put him in a real program, but that plan was getting further and further away.

She sat on the floor behind the bar, browsing through a binder of lists and scanned the shelves to see what needed to be restocked. She growled. Someone was stealing the Grey Goose again.

"Is Emma in?"

Emma whipped her head up at the sound of her name. She reared up onto her knees when she heard a grunt in response before popping up from behind the counter. She smirked when she noticed the person asking for her jumped and looked annoyed.


"Hello," the brunette said offering her hand.

Emma squinted at it. "Are you lost again?"

Regina looked from the blonde to her unshaken hand. Realizing the attempt was futile she pulled it back, mumbling about rudeness. "I have a proposition for you."

"How did you even know I would be here?"

"I asked your friend last night," Regina dismissed.

"You came here last night?" The blonde asked incredulously with a laugh. "To look for me? Here?"

The older woman ground her teeth as she gave a tight smile. "Did I not just say that? Now are you done pressing the how I came here and ready to know the why?"

Emma motioned with her hand for Regina to continue.

With a huff and a wave of her head, Regina sat on a bar stool across from Emma. "I need Henry."

"Excuse me?" Emma's body reflexively tightened and her voice had taken a low tone.

"I'm working alongside Frederick and Kathryn on a project, and it would be effective if Henry was involved," the brunette answered cordially.

"What exactly are you working on that involves my son?" Emma asked slowly giving a wary eye.

Regina leaned in close, a practiced smile on her lips. "We're hoping to save the youth center."

Emma adjusted her beetle into the spot she had parallel parked in for the hundredth time, cursing the fact that even after twelve years of driving, doing that stupid move was necessary and still unmastered. She swore quietly under her breath, glaring briefly at her son who openly laughed at her.

She eyed her side view mirror seeing that her bug was askew but shrugged. "Good enough."

Henry laughed as he opened his door. "So what exactly does Regina need my help for?"

"She wanted you to be a model or something," Emma answered coming across the car and nudging him lightly. "Did you practise your catwalk pose?"

He narrowed his eyes, unamused by his mother's antics as he stepped through the door she held open for him.

Emma chuckled, following him into the center. They looked around, finding no fancy lights or backdrops.

"Maybe we're early?" Emma offered, walking towards the gym door as the sound of sneakers squeaking on hardwood echoed.

"I thought we were late," Henry mused to himself, following his mother.

"Maybe Regina's late," Emma snorted to herself.

She pulled the door open, letting Henry follow her onto the catwalk over the gym. The pair enjoyed watching the older boys play, Emma providing her own commentary on the players' skills and moves as Henry rolled his eyes affectionately at his mother.

The boys were playing all right, but the unlikely person standing on the sidelines had Emma double taking.

"I don't think Regina's late," Henry smirked.

Sure enough the brunette had her camera pulled up to her eyes, adjusting the lens and snapping pictures.

Emma tilted her head as she leaned her arms over the railing, watching the brunette move as she walked briskly up and down the sidelines, getting pictures at various angles. Regina was so immersed into her camera that she didn't see the ball headed straight for her.

Emma snapped her head up when she noticed the basketball hit off of someone's elbow headed straight for the woman and nearly yelled out a warning, but Frederick beat her to it, smacking the ball out of harm's way. Emma relaxed and resumed her position, smiling lightly at Regina's frazzled yet grateful appearance. The brunette resumed her picture taking, cautious this time of any wayward equipment and made it a point to look up from behind her lens every so often.

Emma had to admit that Regina looked pretty being immersed in her job. She just had to learn to admit she looked pretty always.

"Mom," Henry said for the third time, tugging on Emma's sleeve to get his mother's attention.

"Hmm?" Emma finally turned towards him.

"I said can I go down now?"

She looked down to the gym and saw the teens were clearing out and gave her son a nod. She followed him down the steps, shoving her hands into her back jean pockets, watching as Henry ran directly to Regina.

"Do you need an assistant?" Henry asked eagerly as the older brunette replaced her memory card.

Regina smiled down at him, her eyes twinkling. "Hello to you too."

"Manners, kid," Emma said as she approached.

"Hi," he amended bashfully.

"You'll be my assistant." Frederick appeared and ruffled the boy's hair.

Emma smirked at her son's slightly disappointed pout but nodded politely, leaving with the older man as he set up for the toddlers coming into the gym with their mothers. She placed a foot on the bench Regina was currently sitting on as the brunette rifled through forms allowing her to photograph the children.

"So your big plan is to take pictures?"

"Yes," Regina answered simply, replacing the forms back into her folder.


Regina raised an amused eyebrow. "Perhaps by incorporating more life into my pictures."

She stood from her seat and took a step past Emma as the blonde followed her gaze thoroughly intrigued.

"Wait." Emma turned from the bench to catch up with Regina's stride. "What does Henry have to do with it?"

If Emma hadn't been scrutinizing the older woman's gaze, she wouldn't have noticed the slightly pink tint her cheeks took.

"He's clearly devoted to the center, and I thought it would be a great opportunity for him to help in any way that he can," Regina explained. "Frederick said he wasn't enrolled in any other programs, so I thought he could help him out for today and be here for the shoot."

Emma stared at her for a moment, knitting her eyebrows at the woman's explanation.

"If that's all?" Regina didn't wait for an answer and immediately went onto the court, crouching down behind the toddlers as they sat cross-legged in the center of the gym staring up obediently at Frederick and Henry.

"Are you sure I'm helping?" Henry asked as he sat next to Regina on the bench.

The brunette was editing one of the pictures on the device but stopped to direct her attention to Henry. "Of course you are. I got some excellent shots of you."

She saved her progress and scrolled through the library, holding up the screen as proof.

Henry grinned, taking the camera gently in both hands as he looked at a picture of himself from the profile.

"How come you smile in pictures for her and not me?" Emma teased, coming over and sitting on the opposite side of her son.

"I'm just very good at my job," Regina quipped, allowing Henry to continue looking through the pictures.

"Yeah? What else are you good at?"

"How to dress," the brunette smirked off-handedly, but the tone of her voice was playful.

Emma narrowed her eyes. "Funny. Laugh it up."

Regina tilted her head as if the notion was obvious.

"Seriously, you never told me what you do for fun."

"Why would she tell you that?" Henry piped up though his gaze was still on the camera.

"We've hung out," Emma answered ignoring the brunette's questioning glare.


Brown eyes caught green, and Emma internally grinned that Regina had been so surprised at Henry's intuitiveness.

Before Emma could answer, Regina leaned down to Henry. "I lost a bet."

The boy finally looked up and have the older brunette a smirk, chuckling conspiratorially with her at his mother.

For her part, Emma rolled her eyes annoyed at the double team. By the time Frederick had called Henry back to help with the clean up, Emma had scooted closer to Regina, snatching the camera from the brunette's grip.

Before Regina could reprimand her for her behaviour, Emma observed casually. "You're really good with kids."

Regina snapped her jaw shut having not expected the comment.

"Do you have any?"

"Children? No."

Emma browsed through the camera's library, grinning at some of the goofy faces the toddlers had made when they discovered the pretty lady's toy was more fun than the bean bag toss Frederick had attempted to get them to play.

"I would never have guessed," Emma said. "The kids really took to you."

"Children can be quite the responsibility," the brunette responded, craning her head to smirk at the picture where all the children, Henry leading the charge, had chased Frederick around the gym.

Emma closed the distance between them, their shoulders touching as she settled the camera in between them. "Aren't you all big on responsibility?"

"Of course, but it is not something I'd take lightly," the brunette answered. "Children deserve your unconditional love and support."

"You make it sound like it's something you can't provide." She pointed at a picture of Frederick arm palming a ball, a thinner, teenage looking arm following his and a child's arm overlapping. "I like that."

"Thank you, though Frederick kept fumbling." Regina rolled a shoulder noncommittally at Emma's previous statement. "I just want to be sure before I venture into caring for a child."

"Well you're already doing a pretty damn good job of it." Emma held up a picture of Henry with a giant smile on his face. "Can you send me this?"

The older woman nodded before knitting her eyebrows. "What do you mean?"

"Henry," Emma answered simply. "This project of yours to help the neighbourhood kids. That's some instinct in you, isn't it?"

Regina furrowed her brow, boring her eyes into Emma's trying to dissect just exactly what the blonde meant even though it was clear as day.

"Anyways," the blonde said resuming her photo looking, "if this being a famous photographer thing doesn't pan out, you should do something with kids."

"I'll take your professional input into consideration." Regina recovered, taking the camera from Emma and watched as the blonde gave her a grin and stood to make her way over to Frederick and Henry.

Emma didn't notice that Regina had held the camera back up and had snapped a picture of her giving Henry a noogie.

It had been a long three weeks. Emma was back on the night shifts, she and Henry had spent their last three Saturdays in their apartment courtyard kicking around his soccer ball, and she hadn't heard from or bumped into Regina in all that time. How long did it really take to develop some pictures? A part of Emma, a larger than normal part, was disappointed when the brunette had ceased to make appearances in her life.

It was an odd feeling. A feeling she didn't know how to name.

The text she had received from Frederick that Monday morning had him asking her to bring Henry down to the center. Despite her reluctance, explaining she had to work later on that night, the teacher had persuaded her that they should drop by.

So Emma found herself struggling to parallel park again and cheering in small victory when she somehow managed the challenging feat on her third try. She checked the time again to see that she had a few hours before she needed to drop Henry off at Ashley's. Bumping into Henry made her head snap up.

"What are you-" She stopped when she saw outside the center's building were painters and contractors, men in safety gear milling about as they navigated the landscape and added some shrubbery to the bleak outside.

The boy looked up to his mom and shrugged as they walked into the main lobby. Immediately, the change in atmosphere was noticed. The usual grey and bland walls were repainted in vibrant colours, the original hand print wall still in tact. The waiting chairs and tables all matched. Words like 'community' and 'friends' were painted along the walls along with motivational quotes.

"Woah," Henry said amazed as he walked slowly through the halls.

On a hunch he yanked open the gym doors to see new basketball nets, and he was willing to bet there was new equipment in the storage unit too. He turned suddenly into his mom who whistled impressed at the new designs. "This is so cool!"

Emma nibbled her lip and nodded along. It certainly was different from the prison-like community center the building was just last month. It looked cleaner, happier, and much more friendly for children. She smiled tightly at Henry as she ushered him back to the lobby in search of Frederick to congratulate him. No doubt the changes involved their project.


Mother and son turned when the man they were looking for stepped out of his office with a bag full of various coloured community center shirts. He jogged over to them, his face beaming.

"How do you like the new changes?"

"It's amazing," Emma nodded.

"Those shirts are awesome," Henry said eyeing the makeshift jerseys. "Are they for the older boys?"

"All the kids get one," Frederick answered pulling out a blue one and holding it up for Henry. "Like this one?"


"Yeah?" Emma asked at the same time. She knew Henry had been eyeing them, and she mentally concocted ways to break it down that he still didn't go to the center anymore.

"Yeah, Em," Frederick laughed and shouldered the bag. "You think we're going to renovate without opening up the free gym hour?"

He tossed the shirt to Henry before leading mother and son closer to the main desk where a large portrait hung to the left of it beside the information board.

"Hey," Emma said surprised, her lips turning upwards into a pleased smirk as she took in the picture.

"Hey," Henry mimicked. "That's me."

On the wall were three vertical portraits, each one higher than the other ascending upwards like a staircase, all black and white, all looking out onto the gym court. The first one was a profile of a little boy, the urge not to smile prominent on his face. The middle was Henry's profile, his shaggy hair draping over his eyes. The last was one of the teen boys' side view as he stared seriously out ahead of him. Underneath all three pictures was the quote "Children are likely to live up to what you believe in them." - Lady Bird Johnson

"Look at you, kid. You're famous," Emma grinned ruffling her son's hair.

"Go on down to the gym and check out the new additions," Frederick said nudging him along.

"The program's really back up?" Henry asked hopefully.

His face broke out into a grin at Frederick's nod before he sprinted away and disappeared behind the gym door.

"So I don't get it," Emma said as soon as Henry left. "What happened?"

"Regina held a benefit auction for the pictures she took. Most of them were even donated back to the center, but this one Regina donated herself," the man answered motioning to the frame. "She helped raise a lot of money."

Emma's eyes widened in surprise. She had assumed Regina would sell her pictures, but she never even imagined that the brunette would make enough to have most of the center freaking renovated. That was above and beyond the call of friendship or merely helping a boy she met at the park. Perhaps she underestimated the woman after all.

"Hey you have Kathryn's number, right?" Emma asked suddenly.

Emma was anxiously checking her phone for the time when she realized how close she was cutting it on being late for work. Still, she knocked on the door of the studio and only wondered whether it was too late to warrant a visit when she heard shuffling on the other side. Her thoughts were interrupted when a moment later Regina answered the door still sporting dress shorts that were much too short to be considered professional and her blouse unbuttoned, hanging loosely over the undershirt she wore beneath it.

The brunette's mouth parted in surprise as she slipped her glasses off her face and leaned against the door. "Emma?"

Emma's mouth had parted in its own right when she took in the other woman before her. Obviously Regina had relaxed while in the comfort of her studio, but never had Emma seen her so informal, and the glasses the brunette tucked into her sleeve was damn near endearing.

"Emma?" Regina questioned again, though not angrily, Emma was pleased to note. "How did you find this address?"

Emma's snapped her jaw shut coming to her senses. "Kathryn."

"Is there a reason you're visiting so late?"

"I just wanted to say thanks." Emma began shoving her hands into her pockets. "For the center and everything. Henry was thrilled."

The brunette shrugged as if it were no big deal, but the twinkle in her eyes told another story. "So how do the children like the new area?"

"I'm pretty sure they're more psyched about the shirts that they get to wear."

Regina chuckled making Emma grin at the older woman.

They remained quiet as the laughter fizzled down. Standing in the doorway of Regina's studio, Emma swayed while Regina just watched her amused.

"Work?" Regina asked motioning to Emma's cut offs and cowboy boots.

"Yeah, I'm just on my way over there now," the blonde nodded hooking her thumbs into the belt loops of her shorts.

Regina nodded and waited as Emma studiously observed the door jamb. The brunette had to admit that Emma pulled that look off exceptionally well. She had to remind herself to maintain eye contact, but she was no fool; she saw Emma falter when she answered the door.

"Is there something you need?"

Emma gave Regina another obvious once over. Her plan had been to thank the brunette, but seeing her in her comfort zone always did something to Emma that the blonde couldn't explain. She struggled with wanting to find more topics of conversation and being very aware of the time ticking away.

At Regina's raised eyebrow, Emma reached her hand to squeeze the older woman's arm briefly. "I just wanted to say thanks."

She turned abruptly to go but the sound of heels stepping forward got her attention.

"Wait," Regina said hastily. "Come inside for a moment?"

Emma nodded a little too quickly for her liking before she followed Regina into her studio. She stopped in the middle of the wide open room to see black and white pictures lining the walls and a fantastic view of the city lights filled her vision as she stared out of the floor to ceiling windows.

"Wow," Emma whispered taking in the scenery.

She turned at the sound of a door closing where Regina emerged holding a small stack of photographs in her hand.

"I assumed you would want these," Regina said holding out the pictures.

Emma was confused but immediately broke out into a smile as she looked at the top photo of Henry grinning into the camera. She studied them to see that all of them had Henry in them in some way or another. Her apartment held pictures of the boy, but never had she seen a photo so clear with obvious thought taken into account.

"Thank you," Emma said when she was finished thumbing through them. She moved to retrieve her wallet from her back pocket. "I can pay you for them-"

"It's not necessary." Regina stopped the blonde's action with a hand to her arm. "Consider it a gift."

The blonde chuckled and shook her head lightly. "You're full of surprises, you know that right?"

"That's the only way to be successful," the brunette replied coyly with a tilt of her chin.

Neither mentioned that Regina's hand remained on Emma's arm or that they had been holding this staring contest for far too long.

"I should head to work." Emma motioned her head to the door.

"Of course, I'm heading home shortly as well."

"That penthouse?" Emma smirked.

"Something along those lines," the brunette replied smartly.

Emma walked to the door and held a hand on the doorknob for a moment briefly contemplating her next move. She turned suddenly with a brave face and determined eyes. "Do you want to do something?"

"Do what?"

The blonde shrugged. "On Friday. I finish a little earlier if you wanted to meet up and stuff."

"Are you asking me on a date?" The corner of Regina's lips twitched in amusement.

"Something along those lines," Emma repeated back the lines pointedly. "It won't be to a bar."

Regina held herself as she looked around the room in contemplation. She took far longer than what was comfortable for Emma, and before the blonde could chuckle awkwardly and take back her request, the brunette's words had her smirking but grinning internally.

"I suppose one date won't kill me."

Emma had to double take to make sure she had heard right. "Is that your version of a yes?"

Her answer came in the form of a glare that said Regina would not be repeating her statement. Emma grinned and nodded before bidding the older woman goodnight.

"Friday then?"

"Friday," Regina confirmed coming to close the door.

By the time Emma was left alone in the hallway, she let out a breath she wasn't even aware she was holding. Suddenly the hallway lights seemed brighter and she swore she heard angels sing. Holy crap she just scored a date with Regina Mills.

Chapter Text

Regina held yet another dress up to her body as she examined the royal blue material against olive skin. She didn't know why she was worried over something as simple as a date, with Emma Swan no less, but Regina found her anxiety eating at her all day. Her lips curled into a smile deeming this outfit appropriate as she slipped it on just as her phone rang.

Who would be calling at this hour? The momentary thought that it was Emma calling to cancel flitted through her mind and didn't leave even when she picked up the phone.

"Good evening, dear. I'm glad I caught you before bed," her mother greeted.

"Mother," the younger brunette responded politely. She shouldered the phone and continued to shuffle around the room as she got ready.

"I read about your benefit auction for the less fortunate-"

"They're not less fortunate, Mother. It was a old youth center that was in danger of being shut down permanently."

"Don't interrupt, Regina." Cora's tone was not to be taken lightly as Regina mumbled an apology. "Regardless, your humanitarian work may actually be your saving grace."

Regina rolled her eyes, something that would not be tolerated had her mother actually been in the room before she put the phone on speaker and applied her make up, rummaging through the many bottles and tubes.

"It would have benefitted if you had a picture in the paper alongside a few of the children to show your support."

"There was no need to exploit the children, Mother," Regina argued.

"Dear, it's not exploitation when it's charity, and what on earth are you doing?"

Regina gently placed her make up down as quietly as she could. She was hoping her mother wouldn't ask since she never took much of an interest in her personal life unless it conflicted with Cora's views on what her interests should be.

"I'm going out," she said slowly, loathing the feeling of being questioned like a child.

"Why, it's nearly ten." Despite her statement being a simple observation, Regina knew her mother was asking where she was going and with whom.

"I'm aware, Mother," Regina answered picking up the phone and pacing the length of her washroom, picking at imaginary specks of her clothing. "I'm meeting someone."

"Regina," Cora's tone was low and dangerous. "Who are you meeting?"

Regina knew that as soon as she gave a name her mother would be investigating the type of family they came from, and she had no time or want for lectures. "Just a colleague from the youth center."

"At this hour?"

"Yes, Mother, I'll call you in the morning." Without waiting for a goodbye, Regina hung up, cringing at the conversation she was going to have with her mother in the morning whether she liked it or not.

She slipped into heels, fluffed out her perfectly coiffed hair, and checked the time, seeing that Emma should be arriving any moment now. Leaving her bedroom, she wandered aimlessly into her kitchen thoroughly debating whether a glass of wine would soothe her nerves.

It had been a long time since she had been on a date. A real date. She was no stranger to having a companion for galleries or openings, but she couldn't even remember the last time she had accepted an invitation from someone she wanted to go out with.

There was something about Emma Swan that was infuriating and endearing all wrapped into one. Truth be told, the weeks she had invested herself into setting up and promoting the auction with Kathryn had her scheming some ways to involve the younger blonde, but her thoughts looked suspicious even to her.

She had been wrong about the short-tempered bartender she had met over a month ago, and she was determined to find out more about the younger woman who found it sport to get under her skin. The blonde was opinionated, outspoken, and over-confident, but remembering her awkward shuffle at her studio and the way she had raised an eyebrow daring Regina to go out with her that night at the gallery made all those traits tolerable. The blonde was also late, Regina noticed taking in the time.

She was reaching for a wine glass when she heard a loud thump and mumbled cursing echo throughout her hallway. No sooner did Regina return her stilettos to the ground was there a knocking on her door. Straightening her already pressed dress, she strode across her kitchen and through her living room to open the door. Her eyes roamed before she even had a chance to properly greet the woman on the other side.

Brown eyes skimmed over a black tight leather dress that left nothing to the imagination as it followed a path down toned legs she had never thought to appreciate before ending on ruby red pumps.

Emma tilted her head to the side sheepishly, her wavy locks falling over her shoulders as a braid kept hair from falling into her face. "Hi."

"Shit, shit, shit," Emma mumbled as she jumped off the counter and rushed behind other bartenders as they twirled bottles, flipped tumblers, and poured a quick fire round of shots.

Her shift had officially ended ten minutes ago, but it was fifteen minutes ago when the crowd had chanted her name and August all but carried her onto the counter. She had made the extra cash, but she was pushing it for time. She still had to change and get across town. She nearly screeched when she felt a presence close behind her and fingers fiddling in her hair. She was about to turn her head but Ruby kept her jaw forward.

"What are you doing?" Emma questioned trying to escape her friend's space.

"You really gonna go with your hair looking like this?" It was then Emma felt the makings of a braid form along her hair. "Now move faster and get dressed."

It was awkward, to say the least, as Emma slipped into the back room to the lockers with Ruby making sure her hair was presentable. The brunette let up when Emma stripped and slipped on her dress and smirked causing Emma to roll her eyes.

"Where are you going?" Ruby asked sitting on a bench watching Emma frantically apply make up.


"Ooh, fancy," Ruby grinned and stood, coming to stand beside the blonde to adjust her own make up.

"You think so?" Emma asked hopefully.

"Relax," the brunette said holding down her friend's shoulders. "Nervousness doesn't suit you."

Emma glared playfully then slipped carefully into her red heels to complete the outfit, blushing when her friend gave an encouraging whistle. She nodded her goodbye and slipped back out into the bar, waving to the other girls now on the counter as she navigated her way through the rowdy crowd. Her regulars stopped and stared openly at their favourite bartender out of shorts and in a dress, but Emma evaded all their glances as she exited the bar and drove quickly to Regina's.

She managed to slip by the security desk of the condo when a family of four had opened the door to leave. Standing in the lobby of, Emma was momentarily dumbstruck and briefly wondered if she had wandered into the Hilton. She had to double take at the fountain spewing water out of stone angel mouths and into the buckets they were holding.

When the security guard looked at her warily, she gave a friendly smile before shouldering her purse and found the elevator, pushing the button numerous times as if it would make the elevator come faster. Before the guard could approach her, the doors thankfully opened, and even inside this small moving box, Emma was impressed by how clean it was.

She fixed her hair in the mirrors that substituted as walls, silently thanking Ruby for thinking to fix it for her. Her leather dress was the best thing she owned, and standing in the floor to ceiling mirror elevator with golden railings and a speed that rivaled that of her car, Emma was starting to wonder if she should have shopped for a better dress.

The doors opened suddenly, an automated voice announcing she had reached the third floor, and Emma took a steadying breath before stepping out.

She tripped almost immediately.

"Fuck!" She yelled loudly, cursing her choice in heels. Pushing herself off the wall that had prevented her from completely falling on her ass, Emma took another deep breath.

Come on, Emma. She already said yes. Now just don't mess it up.

Leave it to Emma to find solace in a Will Smith movie, she strode purposely to door 3B and knocked twice.

Her breath caught in her throat when she saw Regina standing on the other side, a tight fitted royal blue dress hugging her body, pearls lacing her neck, bangles dangling on her wrists. If anyone looked like a million bucks it was Regina Mills. It took a moment before Emma realized that the brunette had taken in Emma in a similar fashion, and by the time their eyes met, the blonde smiled. "Hi."

"Here I thought you had forgotten," Regina said tilting her head, her lips twitching upwards.

"About you? Next to impossible."

"I was about to have a glass of wine. I'd offer you one, but I assume we have reservations." She moved to collect her bag and coat from the wall hooks beside the entrance.

"Inviting me in already? I'd say you were doing this date thing backwards," Emma joked with a grin plastered on her face.

Regina glared, buttoning up her coat and shouldering her bag. She went through her purse to make sure she had all the necessities and then looked up to see Emma giving her a closed mouth smile. "Is there a problem?"

Green eyes travelled down Regina's body again despite the fact that the photographer was more clothed than she was five minutes earlier. They finally settled in a sea of brown and locked there.

"You look really nice tonight." Emma instinctively placed her hands at her hips to dig them into pockets that weren't there. "I didn't think you'd say yes."

"You clean up pretty nicely yourself," Regina complimented. She leaned her head in slightly and whispered conspiratorially. "I didn't think you'd ask."

"Wait, what?" Emma furrowed her brows, wondering if she had heard right.

"It seems as if tonight is full of surprises, don't you agree?" Regina quirked her eyebrows, smirking at the dumbfounded Emma before making her way to the elevator. "Shall we?"

By the time Regina had brushed by her, Emma turned and caught the older woman's arm closing the distance between them. Their faces were inches apart, Regina's eyes wide and surprised.

"Just in case we don't get to the end of the date," Emma whispered closing the distance between them.

She left the smallest gap allowing Regina to make the ultimate decision and was surprised when she felt her lips touch hers as they pressed together. It was all lips as Emma opened hers to move softly over Regina's, her hand tightening around the older woman's elbow to steady herself. Even from the short contact, Emma could feel her mind swimming, and judging from Regina's insistent step forward hers was suffering a similar fate.

Emma pulled back and smiled, internally clapping herself on the back for making Hitch her dating guru before offering her hand to Regina who looked pleasantly surprised and slightly confused all at once. "Ready?"

Emma thanked her lucky stars that her bug stalled only once. She had conned Henry into helping her clean it, claiming most of the mess came from him and his inability to properly keep food in his mouth, so mother and son had spent an afternoon after school cleaning the vehicle. Whether Regina noticed or appreciated it, Emma wasn't sure, but she was pleased that the brunette hadn't said a word about her not always so trusty steed. In fact, she hadn't been much of a talker since she entered the car. Swallowing a gulp, Emma proceeded to break the silence.

"Did I ruin it?" Emma asked, subconsciously clutching the wheel tightly.

Regina turned from staring out the window to knit her brows in confusion. "Ruin what?"

"Our date," the blonde explained. "Did I kiss you too early?"

"By the rules of proper first date order I'd have to say yes."

"And by your rules?"

The brunette rolled a noncommittal shoulder but gave a sideways smirk making Emma release the tension her body had unwittingly held.

"Why so quiet?"

Regina turned back to the window, lights from skyscrapers illuminating her face. "I enjoy the scenery."

"What do you like so much about it?" Emma asked before turning onto a side street.

"The lights."

It was all the answer Regina had given, but Emma didn't get the chance to question when she pulled into a parking space across the street from the restaurant.

"You like Italian?"

Emma had only heard stories of Marco's. The once little whole in the wall restaurant had gained enough recognition to move to a better location in upstate New York to become one of the most authentic Italian restaurants around. Luckily for Emma, Marco was also August's father, a kindly old man who used the money he had received from selling his restaurant to open a small out-of-home wood shop. A word from the original owner had gotten her the reservations. Theoretically she could have Marco's cooking whenever she wanted if she visited the old man, but to actually have a meal in this place was impressive in and of itself.

Sitting in the restaurant now, the instrumental music playing softly in the background, candles illuminated on every table and surface to give off a warm glow, and the woodwork and architecture of the place intricately designed gave quite the intimidating feeling. Emma had never been in a restaurant where the menu was encased in some sort of leather bound journal. The plates and cutlery were precisely arranged on the table - two forks to her left, a knife on her right, and smaller spoon above the plate. Her water glass was never empty. After simply taking a sip, a waiter with a cloth on his arm would come by to refill her glass and silently slink off.

"I'm impressed that you managed to get a reservation here on such short notice," Regina admitted as she browsed through the menu.

"I know people," the blonde winked.

"Networking will get you everywhere."

"That sounds like your motto." Emma cut herself off when she opened her own menu, squinting at the Italian words on the page. What the hell was an antipasti?

Her eyes skimmed the page but then widened when she caught sight of the prices. Jesus, it was a wonder that August had opened a bar if his father was making this much. The man could be an heir. She cleared her throat before looking up at the waiter who had returned. She motioned for Regina to start, noting how seamlessly she was speaking to the waiter with careful instructions on her meal.

He turned towards Emma who ordered dishes she was familiar with and could properly pronounce. You couldn't go wrong with ordering a plate of spaghetti with bruschetta to start.

"So what's your motto?" Regina asked as soon as the waiter was gone with their menus.

It took a minute for Emma to realize what she meant before shrugging. "I think hard work gets you everywhere. You can know the whole world, but what good is that if you just sit around expecting to go through life being held by the hand?"

Regina cocked an eyebrow and sipped her water. "It looks like we agree on that."

"We're agreeing on something?" Emma feigned a shocked look.

The brunette grinned and shrugged a shoulder. "You're working on owning your own bar?"

Emma nodded. "I didn't really have a drive to do that until I had Henry."

"Why the sudden change?"

"He's my kid, you know?" Emma fiddled with the cloth napkin in her lap, her eyes downcast before raising them up again. "I want to give him better than I ever had. When I found out I was pregnant, everyone told me I wouldn't be able to raise him. I would mess up his life or that he has a better chance with an adopted family. I almost listened to them."

"You have an inquisitive and intelligent young son," Regina said softly. "I think you've proved them wrong."

Emma chuckled bashfully. "I hope so. It's still a work in progress."

"What made you change your mind?"

The blonde wrung her hands and furrowed her brow before answering. "I was in foster care. I got bounced around from place to place more often than I didn't. I didn't want him to go through that. Not having a real family, real parents, it's the crappiest thing you can go through."

Emma gulped her water before placing it down a little too tensely. "Anyway, what about you? Did you always want to be a photographer?"

"Yes," Regina admitted. "But I've only been doing it for a couple of years now."

"Really? That's hard to believe."

"My family owns a string of hotels. I went to business school and did human resources to earn my degree."

"I thought you said you went to photography school," Emma inquired.

"I did," Regina said fingering the stem of her water glass. "My mother wasn't pleased."

"Ohh," Emma nodded in understanding. "You went away from the family business. How'd your dad take it?"

"He passed away just before I enrolled," the brunette said quietly.

"I'm sorry," Emma offered, her arm extended on the table and her finger gave a shy stroke on the older woman's arm.

"It's fine," Regina said before smiling fondly at a memory. "He was surprised I had opted to learn how to run his franchise, but when he died he left me an inheritance that I was supposed to use only if I should venture into a different field."

Emma grinned. "He knew it wasn't for you."

"Yes, well convincing my mother otherwise is still a work in progress as you say," the brunette said into her glass.

"Your mom wasn't like your dad, huh?"

"She just wants what's best for me," the brunette insisted, though the hesitance in her eyes spoke volumes. "She's proud that I was successful in my career."

"Is she just proud you didn't disappoint the family name?" The words were out before Emma could catch them, and when she realized what she had said, she cringed at how slow her brain caught up with her mouth. "I'm sorry, I didn't mean that."

"It's fine." Regina didn't refute Emma's question, and the blonde duly noted the fact.

She leaned forward and fully placed her palm over Regina's arm, watching as the older woman stared at the hand for a moment before catching green eyes. "I'd be proud of you if you were my daughter."

"Luckily I'm not or this date would be awkward and illegal," Regina quipped.

Emma laughed and leaned back in her chair, removing her palm but immediately missing the warmth and the smooth skin that was just beneath it. "Look at you cracking jokes."

They were interrupted when the waiter brought their appetizers. The smell of Regina's braciola wafted over to Emma. The thinly sliced pan-fried beef roll smelled heavenly. She should have ordered two plates of that instead and called it a night. She watched as Regina lifted a fork and ate a bite, grinning when the brunette shut her eyes in satisfaction.

"Good?" Emma asked when the brunette could see again.

"It's delicious."

"I'm not much of a cooker," Emma said taking a bite out of her bruschetta and motioned to it. "I would probably burn this fancy toast."

Regina laughed lightly, a sound soft yet sincere, and Emma found herself wondering what a real laugh from her would sound like. She would make it her mission to find out.

Dinner was successful, at least Emma hoped it was. They had talked all through it, about their jobs, their hobbies - which involved heavy teasing when Regina admitted she enjoyed attending broadway plays resulting in Emma joking that she probably sang the songs out loud in her car.

All throughout the meal, Emma was careful not to spill any sauce on her dress or her face, but she was unsuccessful when Regina leaned over the table and wiped a spot on the corner of her mouth with her napkin. The blonde had blushed profusely, but Regina just smiled and returned to her seat continuing on conversation.

Emma had called for the bill, playing with her fingers under the table as she waited in anticipation, silently glad that she had made those extra tips just before arriving tonight. She smiled politely and opened the bill book, internally wincing and mentally making a note to let Marco know his place got ridiculously expensive after he sold it. Her face remained impassive though as she dug through her purse, pulling out a crumpled roll of bills and counting out the majority of it. Flattening them out as best she could, she placed them back in the book and handed it to the waiter who looked surprised at the stack of fives, tens, and twenties he held before bidding the two women goodnight.

Emma stood and shouldered her purse which felt significantly lighter before taking Regina's elbow and leading them out. It was already half past eleven, but Emma didn't want the night to end just yet. She tugged the older woman's sleeve when she headed for the car.

"Wanna go for a walk?"

"Right now?"

"Do you want to go home?" Emma asked suddenly uncertain.

"I don't want to be mugged," the brunette answered pointedly.

Emma laughed taking Regina's waist and leading them to the bright lights and noisy sounds of a heavily trafficked street. "You have mace. You can protect us."

The brunette rolled her eyes but found herself leaning into Emma's grip. They walked comfortably, their heels clicking on the sidewalk, fading bass beats sounding from clubs they passed, and the odd car horn from a tired, frustrated driver. Regina looked up at the building and billboards, watching the lights pulse and glow in the darkness.

"What do you like about the lights?" Emma asked, her lips close to Regina's ear.

"They look like stars," the brunette answered as they stopped walking to look up at a skyscraper with lights sporadically turned on throughout the building. "The stars are difficult to see, so when I was a child I used to wish on the lights instead."

"What did you wish for?"

Regina laughed to herself and shook her head embarrassed. "To play outside. A puppy. Candy."

"You weren't allowed candy as a kid?" Emma asked appalled. "I thought I had it rough."

"I assume you spoil Henry with that way of thinking," Regina jested allowing Emma to lead them back when the temperature became too chilly.

"I try," Emma admitted. "He likes comics, but that adds up quickly. He wants to go to comic con when he's older."

"You'll get him there." Regina's statement was a fact rather than a question.

"What makes you say that?"

"You'd do anything for him."

"He's my kid."

"That doesn't necessarily mean parents break their back to give their children what they want and need," the older woman explained. "Most parents are not like you."

The blonde shuffled from foot to foot, her hand moving from Regina's waist until it found her hand. She was acutely aware when their fingers intertwined. "How come you helped him? With the charity auction and stuff. I mean he didn't really need to be there."

They turned a street to see the beetle in sight down the road. The blonde could see Regina was mulling over her words and let her take the time to find them. By the time they reached the bug, she spoke.

"I understand what it's like to need a place of your own, where you feel safe and you are cared about," the brunette answered carefully. "The children need that, and Henry needed that, to feel like he was making a difference because if he didn't you would have worked yourself to the bone to put him in a program and you'd never see him."

Emma stared at her dumbfounded. She knew the woman was observant, but that was uncanny. "You're really good at that."


"Caring about people."

Regina faltered. That was not a trait generally associated with herself. The people who knew her feared her wrath and her take charge attitude and perfectionism. The people she worked with knew she would be unforgiving if things were done incorrectly or not to her standards. For someone to say she had a heart and used it was something completely out of the ordinary.

She looked up at the blonde in wonder then whispered. "Thank you."

Emma grinned before opening the car door for her then slipping into the driver's seat.

The ride back to Regina's condo was too short, and by the time Emma had walked the brunette up to her floor, they hesitated at her doorstep.

"So we kind of did this backwards," Emma joked. "Kissed first, talked about deep non-first date stuff. I don't even know your favourite colour."

"Purple," Regina answered with a smirk. "Is that a bad thing doing this backwards?"

"I just screwed myself with kissing you first," the blonde stated scratching her head. "Did you have a good enough time that you want to see me again?"

"Surprisingly I did," Regina admitted.

"Don't be surprised," the blonde smirked again squeezing the older woman's arm. "When have you not had fun with me?"

"When I had to wait two hours in a bar as you attempted to keep yourself awake," the older woman answered pointedly.

Emma grinned then released the grip she had on Regina. She smiled with her eyes as they caught Regina's, and before she had time to comprehend, Regina had closed the gap between them, her lips coming within an inch of Emma's.

"Perhaps we can start moving forward," she whispered into Emma's mouth. The hot air passed between them was intoxicating.

The blonde gave no answer and simply pressed her lips against Regina's, their mouths moulded against one another's as they moved fluidly. Emma swiped her tongue along Regina's bottom lip and was pleased when plump red lips parted to allow her entrance. She teased the older woman with her tongue just once before pulling back, her palm resting against Regina's cheek. She took in the pink blush on olive skin before placing a peck on her cheek.

"So was that kiss your trademark wrap around way of saying yes without actually saying it?" Emma asked hopefully.

Regina smirked and opened her door before stepping in. "Yes."

Chapter Text

"So," Ruby began elongating the word. "You avoided me last night, how was the date?"

Emma made a face, inclining her head towards Henry who was piling his hot dog with a mountain of ketchup as Emma waited for her own by the vendor. They had decided to take a stroll and found themselves midtown and starving finding street meat to be the most logical solution.

"What?" Ruby placed a hand on her hip. "The kid knows what a date is, right Henry?"

"Mom was giddy all yesterday morning," the boy ratted her out earning himself a glare from his mother.

"Giddy?" Ruby repeated with a knowing smirk. "So at what time were you stumbling back home? Or was it the Walk of Shame?"

"What's the Walk of Shame?"

"Nothing." Emma took her hot dog and distracted herself by pouring condiments on it before turning back towards her friend and whispering. "You know I don't do that on the first date."

"But it was good?" Ruby pressed.

Emma couldn't contain the smile from forming on her face as she remembered the night she had spent in Regina's company. "Yeah. It was really good."

"That good?" Kathryn said as soon as Regina walked into the coffee shop where they had agreed to meet.

Regina was a sight for sore eyes, that much was obvious, but nothing could deny the way she smiled and how she glowed this Sunday morning.

"I beg your pardon?" Regina asked with a furrow of her brow though her smile remained on her face.

"Your date."

There was a glint in Regina's eye as she offered a casual shrug before waiting in line to order her gourmet coffee.

"Do you see what taking a chance gets you?" Kathryn asked standing beside Regina. "So how was it? Tell me all about it."

Regina turned her head to look at her friend though her eyes were just a little bit distant as they recalled Friday evening. "She kissed me."

The blonde squealed grasping the older woman's arm. "That must have been a great date."

"No, it was when we were leaving for the restaurant."

"You kissed her at the beginning of the date?" Ruby gawked.

Henry scrunched up his nose at the image. Sure, he loved his mom and was happy she was on a date with Regina, but there were some things he didn't need to know. He made the decision to eat his hot dog on a different bench and made it a point to let his mom know.

"I didn't not want to at the end, and I figured we could get through the awkward fumblings then," Emma defended.

"Couldn't resist, could you?"

"She's different," Emma said after devouring the last bite of her hot dog and tossing the napkin into the trash from where they sat on the bench. "She's more than just some princess."

"She's been through a lot, and she's doing well by her son," Regina said as they walked down the street with their coffees in hand, passing by a group of jazz street performers. "I underestimated her."

"Well when you first met me you thought I was an airhead heiress," Kathryn pointed out.

Regina shrugged apologetically as she sipped her brew. "She has a way of getting information out of me."

"It was a date, Regina. Not some interrogation. People reciprocate when they share personal stories."

"Do you exchange details about your family and upbringing on first dates?"

The blonde's silence answered her question.

"She's surprisingly easy to talk to, yet there's something about her that's so defiant."

"Like you."

Regina faltered in her step and looked curiously at her friend before shaking her head and proceeding to turn the corner.

"So when are you going to see her again?" Henry piped up as they began their walk down the street. He looked to Ruby. "What's the rule? Three days?"

Ruby opened her mouth to answer but was immediately cut off by Emma. "Ah, do not give my kid dating advice. He's eight."

The brunette just winked at the boy and subtly flashed him an a-okay sign.

"I don't know," Emma answered stuffing her hands in her pockets. "Soon."

She turned the corner and collided into another body, hot liquid splashing on her shirt, but nothing compared to the scream coming from the other person.

"Oh shit, I am so sorry." She stumbled forward in her haste to clean the person up but paused when she saw just who she had bumped into. "Crap."

"Lovely to see you too, Ms. Swan," Regina responded dryly as one hand held her shirt away from her chest. The silk was clearly ruined, the dark blue now a murky black.

"No, I mean, not crap seeing you, crap your shirt." The blonde fumbled looking for anything to offer as a tissue as she and Regina were ushered to the side of the street away from the traffic of the crowd.

"Here." Henry offered his napkin, stained with ketchup and mustard.

"You are certainly quite calm under pressure," Regina said graciously taking the napkin and dabbing at her shirt with the cleanest part of it. "Your mother, however..."

"She panics," Henry shrugged while puffing up his chest happy to help.

"Oh, honey," Kathryn sighed taking in Regina's state.

The aggravation on Regina's face was clearly etched, and with coffee spilling down her soaked shirt, no one could blame her.

"Come to my apartment," Emma blurted out. "I live only fifteen minutes away. I'll get you a shirt or something."

"Or something?" Ruby waggled her eyebrows before turning to the older blonde. "Kathryn, right? Want to walk with me and Henry while Regina gets cleaned up?"

Kathryn looked to Regina who sighed and gave a wave of her hand telling her friend to go. As soon as they were down the street and lost in the crowd, she glared at Emma.

"Sorry," she said sheepishly.

Regina took one final look down at her shirt before tossing her empty coffee cup into a trash can.

Emma watched her movements before slipping off her leather jacket and held it out for the older woman like a peace offering. Regina looked at it for a long moment then looked down at her soaked shirt. For a brief moment Emma thought the brunette was going to parade herself down the streets with a coffee-stained shirt, but as soon as she felt the jacket leave her fingers she smiled softly as Regina shrugged it on and zipped it up closed, cringing at the way the coffee, now cool, remained damp against her skin.

Even though the garment stood out shockingly against Regina's pressed slacks, Emma couldn't help but notice the way that Regina looked good in her jacket. She pulled off the badass look quite well.

"This way," Emma said as she tilted her head and stood close to Regina, their hands not quite holding but their fingers brushing with every step. "What are you doing in my neck of the woods?"

"Kathryn and I intended to grab some coffee, but you clearly had other plans for that." Regina's voice was playful and light though her pointed eyebrow was every bit as serious.

"This will probably be funny in two weeks."

"Probably." Regina looked around as they walked surprised to see that the neighbourhood they had turned into was nothing like she had imagined. It wasn't the cleanest or the safest, that much she could see by the graffitied signs and building, but it wasn't the infested dump she originally thought the blonde lived in. "I wasn't aware you lived here."

"That's another thing you don't know along with my favourite colour." Emma replied as they approached a small brick building with a few teens hanging outside it. "It's green, by the way."

"I'll make note of that."

Emma grinned as she pulled back the front iron bar door and allowed Regina to go in first before stepping in and unlocking the lobby door. Emma usually ignored the apartment-smell that lingered in the air, but being with Regina made her acutely aware of it and every water stain on the ceiling or mismatched furniture in the lobby. When Regina headed for the elevator, Emma steered her away from it, explaining it was under maintenance for the past two years but assured her it would be fixed any day now. As they climbed the stairs, Emma greeted her young neighbour who had her apartment door open and was playing with her daughter. Ashley and Alexandra returned the smile before Emma led Regina up one more flight of stairs to her own apartment.

Emma opened the door to a quaint two bedroom apartment. The entire main room was a living room and kitchen open concept that could easily be walked through in ten steps or less. Despite its size and minimal furnishing, the living room containing a couch and TV with a shelf of movies and only five paces away from the kitchen, it was clearly a space the blonde did her best to maintain. An air conditioner sat in a window, but judging by the thin humidity in the apartment, it was either broken or never used.

"Sorry," Emma mumbled running wildly through the apartment to pick up some discarded clothing hanging from the backs of chairs or couches. It irked her to see that most of them were hers. "Wasn't expecting company."

Regina had shut the door behind her and surveyed the room as Emma cleaned frantically. She walked over to the fridge and grinned to herself as Henry's tests and various art projects were proudly displayed. School pictures of him throughout the years were held up by magnets, and to Regina's surprise, the photos she had given the blonde were up as well. Regina couldn't help but feel a twinge of pride that she was included, but she quickly hit herself on the head for thinking that. They were pictures of Henry. Of course they would be hung up for all to see.

"That's his wall of fame," Emma said coming to stand behind Regina with a few shirts in her hand. "After a while I had to start putting them in boxes."

"He's very bright."

Emma nodded proudly pointing to his science test. "103%. Who does that?"

"Your son." Regina turned from the fridge to find Emma less than an inch away from her.

She moved a hand between them to unzip Emma's jacket from off her shoulders and shrugged out of the leather. She smirked at the way green eyes followed the trajectory of her hand as it travelled down the length of her torso. "The shirts?"

Emma shook her head and finally looked up to lock eyes with Regina. "Right." She muttered handing the brunette her nicest shirts. "You can change in my bedroom."

"Presumptuous," Regina smirked making her way to Emma's room.

"Not like that," Emma huffed as the bedroom door closed.

Regina had been in her room for nearly fifteen minutes now. How long did it really take to change a shirt? Maybe she didn't like them and was scouring through Emma's closet herself. That was likely. Emma, however, took it upon herself to find something more suitable and immediately went into the hallway closet to dig through the pile of clean laundry she had yet to fold. Pulling out a few articles that seemed appropriate, she held them out in front of her, inspecting them carefully before making her way to her room.

She opened the door without much thought. "I found more clothes for you."

She inhaled sharply when Regina's bare back was presented to her. "Uh sorry, I-"

Regina turned her head, her arms over her chest and an eyebrow quirked, but the faint rosy tint to her cheeks gave away her embarrassment. "It leaked through." The brunette motioned her head towards the bed where indeed, her white lacy bra was now stained a deep brown.

Emma took a step forward, her hand outstretched with the blouses she had found. "These might be better."

"Thank you." Regina made no move to turn around or grab the clothing.

Emma finally took the hint before dropping them on the bed beside Regina's bra. She took off from the room and shut the door behind her, leaning against it and laughing to herself over what had transpired.

Emma looked up when Regina finally exited the room wearing a baby blue blouse that Emma had found and long forgotten she had owned with the cuffs folded up to her elbows and the ends tucked into her high-waisted slacks. On Emma, the shirt would have hung limply, but on Regina it seemed as if she had bought it herself and had it tailored to fit her slim body. What made Emma swallow hard was the fact that she knew Regina was going braless under that shirt, and she could have sworn under her gaze she could see a hardened nipple, or maybe it was due to the draft in her apartment.

"How do you do that?"

"Do what, dear?"

"Make everything look good. It's like everything you touch turns to gold."

Regina chuckled to herself. "That would be Kathryn's father."

"Well you look good," Emma said from her spot by the counter.

"Perhaps you don't have awful taste after all," Regina teased.

Emma pushed off from the counter and slowly made her way to the brunette. "Coming from the woman who mentally undressed me on our date."

"I did no such thing." Regina crossed her arms over chest defiantly, and Emma was sad to see that pert little nipple go.

Emma laughed and slowly extended a hand out to unravel the arms crossed tightly around Regina's chest and held both of Regina's hands in her own. "So are you busy today?" She asked under a hooded gaze.

"I have plans with Kathryn." Regina smiled apologetically.


"I have a shoot at my studio." Regina frowned. "I'll be finished by 9."

"I work," Emma said attempting to hide her frown.

"Well we seem to be at a stalemate." Regina tightened her lips at their conflicting schedules.

"No," Emma decided smirking at Regina's curious eyebrow raise as she squeezed the older woman's hands. "Prepare yourself for a second date."

"And when will that be?"

"It's a surprise." She led them towards the door and held it open for Regina. When the brunette passed Emma, Emma leaned down a placed a chaste kiss on Regina's cheek.

"Sorry for the coffee," Emma explained with a hand behind her head.

Regina smirked. "A peck for a ruined shirt? You're already losing your touch."

Emma rolled her eyes as she locked the door behind them.

"So is Regina your girlfriend?" Henry asked as he and his mother walked back to their apartment after school.

"I'm not sure," Emma answered truthfully, shoving her thumb into the back pocket of her jeans and using her free hand to hold Henry's hand as they turned into their neighbourhood.

"Why not?"

"Because we've only been on one date."

"How many do you need?" The boy continued his curious interrogation.

"Well," Emma fumbled feeling uncomfortable discussing the ways of dating with her eight-year old when even she herself was an amateur on the subject. "It doesn't really matter as long as the two of you both want to be with each other."

"Do you want her to be?"

Emma gave him a sideways glance before nodding minutely in the affirmative.

"Are you going to talk to her?"

"Henry," Emma whined aggravated.

"What?" He shrugged innocently. "I like her."

Emma smiled softly as they turned into their building and she held the door open for her son. "Me too."

He headed for the stairs and held onto the railing, craning his neck to speak with his mother. "So are you going to ask her to be your girlfriend? Is she going to live with us?"

"Woah, kid. One step at a time," Emma said as they came up to their floor and she let them into the apartment. She crouched down to his level making sure he understood. "I'm gonna see her before work, and you know, I really like her too." She chuckled before smiling at Henry.

Henry made a show of crossing his fingers before mimicking his mother's smile. He ran off to the kitchen table, flinging his bag on the counter top and pulling out his homework. "Maybe she can come to my birthday!"

As soon as Henry was fed and brought to Ashley's, Emma mentally praised herself for her sense of timing. She had just enough time to head uptown and catch Regina at her studio. She drove quickly, taking back streets and finding herself at the studio in record time. It was a few minutes before seven when Emma knocked on the door.

Regina opened the door a moment later, dressed entirely business-like in her black slacks and blouse with her SLR hanging from her neck. "Emma?" She asked pleasantly surprised. "I thought you were working."

"In an hour," Emma nodded. "Want a fly on the wall? You won't even know I'm there."

"What's the purpose of that then?" Regina tilted her head and leaned against the door frame.

"Are you going to invite me in because you have already wasted-" Emma glanced down at her wrist watch. "Two and half minutes of our date."

Regina grinned but didn't budge for a full minute. When Emma raised an eyebrow, Regina let out a breathy laugh before making way for Emma to step through.

The change in the studio had Emma faltering. She had seen the wide open space of the loft before, decorated masterly with tones of white and black, but it now held a giant white backdrop against the western wall, complete with the giant flash bulb lights Emma had always assumed was part of a photo shoot. What threw her off though was the very naked man lying down in the middle of it, a fur blanket covering his pelvic region.

"Uh…" Emma couldn't help but stare at his defined muscles and chiseled abs. It was all but in her face. She whipped her head suddenly to Regina. "There's a naked man."

"Graham," Regina said to the model. "This is Emma. My…" Regina looked around the loft as if her studio held the answer she was looking for. "Emma."

"Hello Emma." His Irish accent was thick as he gave a wave from his spot by the backdrop.

"I thought you only do landscape," Emma whispered none too quietly to Regina.

"People seemed to enjoy the community center photos, so I've decided to take on a variety of different assignments," Regina answered casually.

"With a naked man?"

"It's for a magazine."

"For what? Playgirl?"

Regina laughed lightly. "They don't pay enough, dear."

"Is he gay?" Emma attempted.

Regina motioned to Graham who was watching their exchange with an amused expression, his shaggy hair falling into his eyes and his scruff adding to his defined chin. "Does he look it?"

"You don't look it," Emma argued.

Regina stopped her eyeroll midway through to tilt her head curiously at the blonde. "Are you jealous?"

"No." Emma's answer was too quick even for her, and she couldn't help but feel embarrassed under Regina's amused gaze.

"He's just a model," Regina said insistently reaching out to take a hold of Emma's hand. "Besides, you've now wasted three and a half minutes of our date."

Emma let out a chuckle at Regina throwing her words back at her before squeezing her hand in return. She turned to face Graham who smiled at finally being acknowledged. "Hey. Emma."

He gave a wolfish grin then turned to Regina. "We ready?"

"I don't know, dear. Are we ready?" She teased Emma.

"Just do your job." Emma gave Regina a slight nudge towards the backdrop before taking a seat on some ottoman of a chair just off to the side.

Whatever notions Emma had about photo shoots, the idea that the photographer constantly told their models to work it or to be fierce was thrown out the window when Emma watched Regina command the room by telling Graham just exactly how to pose or by positioning herself appropriately whenever he was to act natural. Despite taking control, she had a way of fixing the most minuscule of details - a simple turn of the chin or an adjustment of light - then she would smile down at her screen at a job well done.

Every so often over the hour, Regina would show Emma the pictures, describing in detail how all it took was this or that to cast the perfect shadow or to define a certain area. Emma grinned, watching Regina talk animatedly before the brunette would be off snapping another picture.

Emma winced when she noticed the time and knew for sure she would be late. She stood and waited for Regina to look up before motioning her to the side.

"I've gotta get going," Emma said apologetically. "I'll see you for date number three?"

"Already have it planned?" Regina let their fingers tangle naturally as they walked to the door.

"Henry's birthday's coming up," Emma said offhandedly. "We were going to do something on the weekend if you wanted to come."

Regina smiled lightly before nodding. "I'd love to."

"Great," Emma mimicked her smile before leaning down and pressing a light kiss against Regina's lips. She pulled back just as Regina was starting to kiss back and smirked at the brunette's frown. She turned to look pointedly at Graham who was adjusting the cuff links on his three-piece suit that he had changed into. Her voice held no nonsense as she spoke to the man. "No funny business."

He chuckled before nodding understandingly.

Regina rolled her eyes again before pushing Emma out the door and shutting it with a grin.

"Feisty one, isn't she?" Graham asked as he stood by the backdrop.

"Yes," Regina smiled to herself. "I believe she is."

Chapter Text

Regina knocked on Emma's apartment door the following Saturday, a birthday gift clutched firmly in the nook of her arm wrapped precisely in blue wrapping paper with cakes and multicoloured balloons decorating it and a smaller gift bag hanging from her other hand. Judging from the music and loud chatter happening just behind the door, the party was in full motion, and Regina internally cursed New York traffic for making her late. It wasn't by much, but it mattered to Regina.

As soon as the door opened, a blinding flash overtook her vision, and by the time the spots cleared, she looked down to see Henry beaming up at her with a bulky Polaroid hanging from his neck as the still grey picture escaped its cartridge.

"Regina!" He greeted happily as he launched himself on her in a hug. "You came."

She crouched to accommodate him with a smile on her face mimicking his own. "Of course, sweetheart. I wouldn't miss my favourite little man's birthday."

He blushed before remembering the picture in his hand as it cleared to show Regina with widened eyes and parted lips, surprised at the sudden picture. He laughed when he showed it to her. "You look silly."

She gave a playful glare as he continued to laugh before giving in to her own laughter. "I suppose I do, don't I?"

He nodded happily then held up his Polaroid. "Look what my mom got me."

She glanced down at her own present before widening her eyes in appreciation at Henry's gift. "That is a very special gift. You don't see those often anymore."

He nodded again, proud this time, before turning his back to her and pressing his back to her front and pushing their heads together. He extended the camera out in front of them, but the strap around his neck and his short arms prevented him from getting very far.

Regina chuckled to herself before helping him remove the Polaroid then lifted the camera out in front of them.

"Say cheese," Henry nudged her slightly.

"Cheese," she smiled along with Henry as she snapped the picture.

The flash lit up and the camera whirred as the picture was being printed. Henry eagerly reached for the picture eyeing it impatiently for it to load.

Regina ruffled his hair before standing and finally taking in the scene. Streamers hung all over the place in no organized fashion, and Regina chuckled to herself that it was a toss up whether it was Henry or Emma who was tasked with that particular job. A large 'Happy Birthday' sign hung over the windows, and a small pile of gifts was nestled in the corner.

A few adults, Ruby and Ashley being among them, lingered in the kitchen helping themselves to drinks and chips. The source of the noise she had heard earlier was gathered in the living room where Emma was standing in the center surrounded by all the children pathetically attempting to evade their attacks of silly string and confetti. Her own can was useless against the the small army of four children as she gave up trying to attack back and resorted to protecting her face as the rest of her body was covered completely in the yellow, orange, and blue string.

Regina let out a breathy laugh as she took in the sight of the blonde. As if sensing her presence, Emma looked towards the door and created a small opening around her eyes from all the silly string that now formed her into a multicoloured Cousin Itt look alike. She gave a soft smile and a wave before finally pulling the string off her and waded her way through the horde of children who refused to let her escape. Regina watched as she leaned down closer and whispered something to them. The children released her and immediately began swarming around Ruby who was being dragged to the living room with a deadly glare at Emma.

"Interesting tactic," Regina mused as Emma approached them.

"Careful," Emma said with a threatening finger before pulling herself clean of the string. "I could have them on you with just a word."

Regina pulled off a lengthy piece of silly string from behind Emma's ear with an amused raised eyebrow. "Oh, the horror."

Emma laughed before leaning down and pressing her lips on the corner of Regina's mouth. "I'm glad you could make it."

"Me too," Regina answered with a soft smile. She remembered the gift in her hand and looked down to Henry. "If I recall it's somebody's birthday, is it not?"


Regina handed him the wrapped gift. "Happy birthday, Henry."

In true curious fashion, he shook the box then pouted when nothing sounded inside it. "What is it?"

"You'll find out when you open presents," Emma said giving him a nudge. "What do you say?"

Henry held the small box under his arm before giving Regina another hug around the waist. "Thank you, Regina."

With that, he ran to the small gift pile and placed Regina's gift gently down along with his Polaroid before joining his friends in attacking Ruby.

Regina and Emma watched him play for a bit before Regina held up the small gift bag. "And this is for you."

Emma eyed it curiously. "Did I miss something already?"

She opened it to find her blue blouse, laundered and pressed and smelling just like Regina. Emma chuckled then feigned a surprised face, her hand pressed to her chest. "I love it. How did you know?"

Regina rolled her eyes before pushing the blonde back a few steps as she shrugged out of her coat. Compared to everyone else who was dressed in jeans and tshirts, Regina felt thoroughly overdressed in her simple dress and heels. Her attention was diverted when she felt a hand on the small of her back and Emma's lips near her ear as she whispered. "You look great."

She gave the blonde a smile, her eyes crinkling with its sincerity as she leaned forward an inch to peck the younger woman with gratitude.

Emma grinned down at her before ushering her towards the kitchen and introducing Regina to her friends.

Regina was impressed with the amount of energy children had. For four hours, she watched as they drained all the cans of silly string dry around most of the adults. She only effectively evaded the attack by pulling Emma in front of her to take nearly all of the impact which earned her a less than amused glare from the woman who had just managed to clean herself up. Even after eating their weight in pizza and pop, they still managed to be as lively as ever with Henry turning his living room into a makeshift soccer field. When Regina saw the mini soccer ball come out, her eyes nearly popped out of her head and she looked towards Emma wondering if the blonde was going to reprimand them. Regina knew if she had pulled that kind of stunt as a child there would have been serious repercussions as a child. But to her surprise, Emma just gave a word not to kick the ball too hard or towards the TV, and the children complied.

It was a different world as Regina came to realize. The clear mess would be cleaned up after the party. There was no one there to be impressed. There were just children enjoying their friend's birthday and friends coming together for a good time.

It was something she could get used to.

"Mom!" Henry ran over to his mother who was pouring herself a drink. "Can we do presents now? Please?"

She nodded with a sip of her drink as Henry celebrated with a fist pump to the air before scampering off to tell his friends it was present time.

"Our gifts may conflict," Regina admitted to Emma quietly as they stood at the back watching as he tore through his first gift - a Captain America shield from Ruby.

"You got him a Polaroid too?" Emma asked skeptically. "You shop on eBay?"

Regina shook her head. "I got him a camera. It's just a small thing."

Emma laughed. "You would." She stepped away to grab a garbage bag and began tossing the ripped and discarded wrapping and tissue paper that Henry was throwing out of his way haphazardly.

Regina sipped her bottle of water when she felt a presence beside her. She looked over to see a scruffy-bearded man, August if she remembered correctly, dressed in all black as he gave her a nod of acknowledgement.

"So you're the girl."

"I'm sorry?"

He extended his hand. "Booth. August W. Booth."

She took his hand politely though her face showed no recognition.

"You're the girl Emma begged me to get my father to give her reservations to his restaurant," August provided.

She took in his leather jacket and and black denim jeans skeptically. "Your father is Marco?"

"Family resemblance is uncanny, huh?" He said with a grin. "I'm also Emma's boss."

"Oh." Regina immediately straightened feeling foolish for not knowing. She would have thought Emma would introduce him as such, but the informalities were ever present. "You have a hard worker, Mr. Booth."

"Emma's a special one," he agreed as they continued to watch Henry open his gifts with Emma having to constantly remind him to say thank you. "She seems to really like you."

"What makes you say that?"

"She hasn't been late to work in six years," he answered. "You must be something special."

"Does it bother you?" Regina asked warily. "I can assure you that'll be the last time."

He laughed at her worry. "Relax. It's nice she's finally doing something other than work and watching her kid."

"It's nice to know she has people looking out for her," Regina agreed watching Emma smile as Henry showed her his new baseball set.

August nodded as he kept his gaze forward but his voice low. "I don't want to see her hurt."

Regina turned at the blatant implication in his voice. She set her jaw as she studied the man. His protectiveness was purely platonic judging from the brotherly way he spoke of Emma and of how he took on a fun uncle role with Henry when he was teaching him and his friends some magic tricks. She inclined her head acknowledging his words.

"Regina!" Henry called interrupting their conversation. He held her gift in his lap as he motioned her toward the spot beside him on the floor.

August saluted her with his cup as she set her water down and made her way to the middle of the living room, kneeling down and resting on her knees to settle beside the nine-year old.

Henry shook his gift one more time but decided tearing into it was the way to go.

"Easy, kid. You'll rip up the gift," Emma teased sidling up beside Regina.

"He's the birthday boy," Regina reasoned. "He can open it however he likes."

"Yeah," Henry agreed, moving closer to Regina to back up their double team.

Emma just shook her head as the final wrappings were thrown away.

"Woah!" Henry held up the small box with a black Samsung digital camera displayed on the front. "No way!"

Regina smiled down at the joy on his face when she felt a puff of air release sharply from behind her.

"You actually got him a real camera," Emma said impressed as she watched her son open the box eagerly. "You didn't have to do that. That must have been expensive."

Regina turned her head to fully look at Emma, swearing that the blonde's tone had a degree of flatness. "It's his birthday." She said obviously. "I know Polaroids are rare to come by."

Emma smiled tightly before nodding. "He loves it."

Sure enough the boy had opened the box and was avidly reading the instruction manual, eager to get the battery charged and to start snapping his own pictures.

Regina locked eyes with Emma, wondering what had made the blonde so uncomfortable. As quick as it came, Emma blinked and her eyes lightened thanking her for the gift before standing and claiming it was cake time.

It was another hour before the last child was picked up and Henry was hugging August goodbye.

"Thanks for the trades, August."

He ruffled Henry's head. "Anytime." He looked up at Emma and waved. "I'll see you later." He gave a final wave to Regina before shutting the door closed behind him leaving Henry, Emma, and Regina alone in the apartment with the mess to clean up.

Emma dropped on the couch, moving slightly when an Incredible Hulk action figure dug into her hip. "That is the last birthday you're gonna have."

"You say that every year," Henry dismissed as he inspected his haul.

Regina moved some fallen streamers to take a seat beside Emma, their thighs touching as their fingers intertwined in Emma's lap. She leaned over the blonde to pull a dried up piece of silly string from the crown of her head and held it in front of Emma teasingly.

"What?" Emma said offended at the strong and ran her hand through her hair. "I thought I got it all out."

"Your mane of hair seems to be a vortex," Regina quipped.

Henry smirked as he went over to the corner to retrieve the camera battery that was charging and placed it into the device. He purposely set himself in between Regina and Emma, forcing their hands to separate as he nuzzled into the confined space.

"Come here," he ordered as he held the camera up in front of them.

"So demanding," Regina tickled his side.

"Please?" He asked with a pout.

"You're lucky you have good genes," Emma said nestling her head against Henry's as Regina did the same.

Emma's arm came around both Henry and Regina as it nestled protectively on the older woman's shoulder.

It took a few tries before Henry finally succeeded, with only a little bit of Regina and Emma's foreheads cut off this time. He beamed at the screen. "My first picture."

Regina nodded impressed. "You might have a career in it yet."

Emma kissed his temple before ushering him off the couch. "Go put your stuff in your room before you go to Ashley's."

Regina stood as he did with confusion written on her face. "You have work?"

Emma nodded as she began to clear away stray paper plates and cups, finding pizza crusts on the tables.

"On his birthday?" She asked again as she held the garbage bag open for Emma.

"Yeah," the blonde huffed coming up from the floor to clean some crushed chips.

"Wouldn't August have given you the time off?"

"It's the end of the month," Emma reasoned. "Bills." She shrugged.

"Of course," Regina said with a furrowed brow.

They continued cleaning with Regina washing the glass cups and silverware while Emma cut up the pizza boxes and set them aside for the recycle. Emma leaned against the counter beside the sink, nudging Regina with her foot as the brunette glared at her in response.

"I am not a dog that needs poking."

Emma smirked before taking the final glass and placing it in the dish rack and inching herself between Regina and the sink. "I'm really glad you came."

"Henry wanted it," Regina said with a flourish of her head.

"Right, Henry," Emma rolled her eyes playfully. "And if I wanted it?"

"I'm not so sure I would have been able to make an appearance," Regina answered coyly.

Emma shook her head tugging Regina closer to her, her hands wrapping around her waist. "Please?" She mimicked her son's tone.

Regina grinned and leaned her head in, capturing Emma's lips between her own. As her lips moved over soft pink ones, Regina unconsciously leaned further into Emma, which wasn't difficult as the blonde was tugging on her hips until their bodies were pressed firmly against one another's. Regina's fingers traveled around Emma's neck as her arms extended to hang lazily around the blonde's shoulders.

This kiss was different from the other ones they had shared in the past. Where the others were soft and hesitant, the signs of the beginning of a blossoming relationship, this one was passionate and full of desire, needing to soak in one another.

Regina let out a breathy sigh when she felt Emma's tongue gently swipe against Regina's lower lip, and the brunette complied immediately letting Emma explore her. A moan was caught in Regina's throat, but she wasn't able to release it when they heard the sound of a door knob turning, and just in time, they sprang apart, their cheeks flushed and their chests heaving as Henry stepped out of his room.

Regina cleared her throat, gaining composure more quickly than Emma and made her way to Henry making sure all his toys were put away.

Regina walked Emma down to her car after Henry was settled at Ashley's with hugs for both of them. Their fingers found each other in the light of the slowly descending sun as they approached Emma's car.

"Where did you park?" Emma asked getting out her keys.

Regina motioned down the street where her Benz was still parked miraculously untouched.

"I'll drive you over."

"Because I'm incapable of walking?"

"Because I'm trying to milk the time I'm able to grace you with my presence," Emma answered smartly.

Regina rolled her eyes but didn't argue when she slipped into the beetle. Her expression turned smugly amused when the engine sputtered pathetically as Emma turned the key in the ignition.

"Come on, baby," Emma soothed her bug as she turned the key again. It continued to sputter, but this time her engine backfired loudly sounding much too like a gunshot. "Dammit!" Emma slammed her palm on the dashboard.

Regina remained quiet as Emma got out of the car and lifted her hood. Regina didn't need to be a mechanic to know that the smoke coming out from under the hood was not a good sign, so she stepped out and watched as Emma cleared the air and leaned under the hood to fiddle with the contraptions.

Ten minutes passed, and Regina was all too aware of August's earlier words that Emma had never been late in six years. Without a word, she rifled through her purse to remove her phone and flipped it open to call a tow truck.

"No no no," Emma said quickly stealing the brunette's phone and ending the call. "I don't need a truck."

"Your car won't start," Regina argued insistently before taking back her phone.

"I'll take the subway."

Regina scrunched up her face in disgust. "That is highly unsanitary."

"And breathing in this fresh, non-polluted air is just as good," Emma argued before moving back to the driver's seat and fishing out change from the cup holders. "Seriously. I'll be fine."

Regina marched over to Emma's side and tugged the blonde out of the car.


"I'm driving you to work." The finality in Regina's tone was nothing to be messed with, but it was Emma after all. She had a tendency to do the opposite of what she was told.

"No you're not."

Regina just kept her grip on Emma while locking the beetle before dragging the blonde down the street. "It looks like you don't have a choice, dear."

They sat outside the Wooden Whale just before Emma's shift was due to start. Already some early birds were filtering into the bar as the sun had finally made its descent.

Emma glared petulantly at Regina. "You didn't have to drive me."

"What, I can't be nice to you now?"

"It is a little disconcerting," Emma teased before getting out of the car. She was going to stick her head in and bid Regina goodbye but was surprised when the brunette stepped out as well.

"You'll need a ride home," Regina answered the unasked question as she came to stand next to Emma.

"I don't want to have to wake you at three in the morning," Emma attempted to dissuade the brunette.

"Good because I plan on staying awake." With a sway to her hips, Regina sauntered towards the entrance, bypassing the men who lingered near the doors and obviously ignored their wanting stairs as she beckoned Emma to her.

Emma caught up with Regina noting the bar was beginning to crowd, but nothing like it would be later on. Already music rock music was blaring from the speakers and rounds of drinks were being served.

"You're going to stay here all night just to drive me home?" Emma asked skeptically.

"Consider it date number three," Regina said shrugging out of her coat and thrusting it along with her purse into Emma's arms. "Keep those safe."

Emma eyed her as she took a seat by the counter, and when she properly deduced that Regina was not leaving, she hopped on the counter and turned to quickly deposit the belongings into her locker. Emma would be lying if she said she wasn't attempting to impress the brunette, so she pulled on her cut offs and ripped tank, slipped on her boots, and added a cowboy hat for a last minute effect.

The way Regina's eyes raked up and down her body as she returned from the back was worth it, and she decided she liked having Regina there.

It was a moderate pace for the first hour with Emma making time to stop by Regina every so often to refill her drink of ginger ale with lime. Emma had tried slipping her a shot after her first and only apple martini, but the brunette reminded her she was driving for the evening. Emma subtly offered that she could drive them home, but the glare she received from even thinking about driving Regina's Mercedes let her know that option was not even on the table.

As the night went on, Emma continued to tend the bar while swirling bottles around her. More than once did she light a row of shots on fire smirking internally at the way Regina looked completely aghast at the spectacle, but Emma could see the underlying intrigue there. When she stepped onto the counter, she danced and flirted, earning bills and swaying her hips to the beat of the music. By the end of her song, Emma sauntered over to Regina who looked up at her unamused for fiddling with a man's tie and promptly placed the cowboy hat on Regina's head. She winked at the older woman causing the crowd to howl at the show. Emma caught Regina's eye roll, but she also noticed the blush on her olive skin and the very obvious fact that she hadn't removed the hat.

Regina leaned against the wall of the bar at quarter to three, her coat firmly cinched around her waist, her purse protected under her arm, and Emma's hat still lodged on her head. She waited as patiently as she could for Emma to lock up, but every so often her eyes would droop close and her head would nod off. She snapped to attention when she realized she had almost fallen asleep standing up and looked around to see if anyone had noticed before repeating the process again.

When her eyes dropped shut a third time, it was a gentle tug that woke her. Emma stood in front of her with an apologetic frown on her face.

Regina shook her head quickly. "I'm fine."

"I can drive?" Emma offered meekly. "Or call a cab."

"Don't be foolish," Regina dismissed and pushed off from the wall. "Come on. I know a sleeping little boy who will be happy to see you."

True to her word Regina remained alert on their drive back to Emma's apartment. Though her mind obeyed the rules of the road, she couldn't help but notice how Emma seemed more than fine. She recalled seeing Emma during the day and deeply wondered when the younger woman slept. Mother had always said that her beauty sleep would be her key to success, and even as a child enforced her with a strict bedtime that Regina only broke due to her sporadic lifestyle as a photographer. Regardless, she was impressed and more than a little worried that Emma was spending at least twenty of her twenty-four day awake and mobile.

"Come up," Emma said as she slipped out of the Benz.

"The third date rule applies even now?" Regina teased though the tiredness in her voice was evident.

Emma smirked and wrapped an arm around Regina's shoulder. "That could be arranged, but I'm pretty sure you'd fall asleep on me."

Regina couldn't suppress the yawn that escaped her mouth. She did her best to cover her mouth, but it just felt too good. "You must not be very good then."

Emma chuckled as she half-carried the older woman up the stairs straight to her apartment.

Regina felt the cowboy hat leave her head and the thin cushions of the couch beneath her legs, springs digging into her thighs, as the comforting warmth from Emma disappeared. By the time she finally realized she was lying on her couch, Emma quietly crept in with a thoroughly knocked out Henry, shutting the door behind her with a foot, before slipping into the boy's bedroom and placing him in his bed. Regina was about to sit up to help, but in no time at all, Emma emerged from his room and quickly made her way toward the couch, nestling in beside Regina.

The brunette tried to wiggle out of her grasp, but Emma held her close. "I should get going."

"You're tired," Emma argued. "It's late. You have a tendency to get lost. Stay the night. I'll keep my hands to myself."

Regina huffed, unable to deny the fatigue that was settling in before finally wiggling free and stripping herself of her coat and heels. She settled back down into Emma's side, hesitant to wrap around Emma. It had been a long time since she had a stable relationship, and the protocol for cuddling wasn't exactly fresh in her mind.

Emma took Regina's hand and pulled it around her middle, letting the older woman rest her head against her chest.

It was a few minutes of comfortable silence where both women suspected the other had fallen asleep, but it was Emma clearing her throat indicating she was just as awake as Regina.

"When do you sleep?" Regina asked suddenly, her voice a soft timbre in the early hours.

"Now." Even in her half awake state Regina could tell Emma was over exaggerating the tiredness in her tone.

The brunette scoffed lightly at Emma's answer, pressing firmly against her in order to get a proper answer.

Emma shrugged. "You get used to it. I catch a few hours now and after I drop Henry off."

Regina mulled over her words. "Have you ever considered a different field of work?"

Underneath Regina, she could feel Emma tense ever so slightly. She remained rigid as she gave her answer. "I can't do anything else," she admitted quietly. "I barely got through high school and college was never an option." She let out a long breathy sigh releasing the tension from her body. "I was a mess until I found out about Henry."

"The father?"

"Not in the picture," Emma answered tersely.

Regina nodded, and despite wanting to push she refrained. She lifted her head to meet the green-blue gaze of the younger woman's in the moonlight. "What about going to school now? Take some business classes for your bar."

Emma chuckled dryly. "So they can teach me what I already know how to do? I don't need a degree to get a lease."

"It doesn't hurt to have one," Regina offered.

"It doesn't work out like that for people like me," Emma said soothingly. "I don't go to school, I do trades and hard labour for people like-"

"Me." Regina finished for her sitting up from the blonde entirely.

"Not exactly the words I was looking for," Emma muttered.

"Then what were you looking for?"

"Nothing, it's just-" Emma huffed and sat up, bringing her knees up to rest her elbows on them. The space between both women grew as Regina moved to the other side of the couch. "Yeah, growing up, I had to learn pretty quickly that some people are more privileged than others. Some people were smarter or more athletic or had more money. Some people can just buy whatever they want and damn the consequences while others had to learn how to deal with how to keep something that's broken."

Regina remained quiet as Emma looked up at her and continued. "I'm one of those people who have to keep around broken things and who need to work back to back shifts if they want something nice."

Regina furrowed her brow as she watched Emma clutch her knees tighter to her chest. "Are you upset about my present to Henry?"

The blonde sighed, but it was all Regina needed to know she was right. "No, he really does love it."

"He loves yours as well," Regina pointed out.

Emma slipped her legs down so she sat cross-legged on the couch and looked directly at Regina. "I know. It's just, I'm trying to teach my kid the value of a dollar, and I don't want to spoil him into thinking he can get whatever he wants if he just asks the right person."

She tucked her knees back up to her chest again, and Regina could see the conflict behind jade eyes. Regina sighed. Perhaps her gift had been a bit much for a nine-year old, and there was always an unspoken rule never to get something better than the parent. She swallowed hard and leaned over placing her palm over Emma's where they were clasped around her legs.

"I'm sorry." She said sincerely. "I didn't mean to overstep my boundaries."

Emma shook her head. "No, no, forget I said any of that. We're breaching into deep stuff again for date number three and I haven't even asked you to be my girlfriend yet."

Regina raised an eyebrow while Emma parted her lips in a total foolhardy manner. She contemplated briefly continuing their conversation, but it was past three in the morning, and Emma had no intention of keeping up with the subject, so naturally she chose to tease the blonde at her slip up. Crawling her way over to Emma until she was seated directly in front of her, she leaned over the blonde's raised knees and smirked. "You want me to be your girlfriend?"

Emma cringed embarrassed. "Can you forget that too?"

Regina shook her head. "Pick one."

Emma tilted her head to the side thoroughly contemplating which was the lesser of two evils, and decided embarrassment was the way to go when she nodded her head. "Yeah, I mean, Henry wants it."

"Henry?" Regina asked amused tugging Emma's hands free and pushing apart her knees to settle in between them. "Perhaps I should be discussing this with him."

She grinned wickedly when Emma's ears turned red and she swallowed thickly, locking their gaze as she leaned fully against the blonde. She feigned a yawn that had unfortunately turned into a real one. "If you're going to ask me then I suggest you do it before I fall asleep or die from old age."

"Did anyone ever tell you you're bossy?" Emma narrowed her eyes petulantly.

Regina simply shrugged noncommittally before finally settling down with her face mere inches away from Emma's.

The blonde averted her gaze for a long time until Regina tugged her chin forcing her to look.

Emma swallowed again before muttering. "Want to go out?"

Regina laughed lightly. "Those would be dates. This is a more personal matter."

"Patience is a virtue."

"Not one that I possess. It isn't that hard to say 'will you be my girlfriend'."

The words were barely out of her mouth before she felt Emma's full lips on hers. Her hands automatically weaved around Emma's neck as she returned the kiss only for the blonde to pull back a second later.

"Yes," she grinned smugly. "Thought you'd never ask."

Regina glared then rolled her eyes before standing up and moving off the blonde. She headed straight for Emma's room as she called over her shoulder. "There is no way in hell I am sleeping on a couch."

Emma chuckled to herself feeling especially light and relieved as she followed Regina into the room and shut the door behind her.

Chapter Text

An errant spring dug into Regina's hip and the sound of a firetruck wailed loudly in the distance just outside the window. It took her a moment to clear her head and realize that she was not in her queen size bed back in her condo and was in fact in Emma's double bed with scratchy sheets and a heavily sleeping blonde curled around her. Small sacrifices, she supposed with a soft smile on her face.

Emma had clung to her in her sleep, the blonde's right hand had slid under Regina's body to wrap around her stomach while her left was approaching dangerous territory and bordered on cupping her breast. She couldn't help but notice her own left hand had found solace over top Emma's right and made no immediate moves to remove it. Instead, she turned slowly in Emma's arm, smirking at the younger woman's parted lips and smooth features.

A sudden snort was released from the blonde and she lifted her head up suddenly taking in her surroundings confusedly. Regina raised an eyebrow watching Emma's movements, and when Emma smiled lazily, jade eyes still hidden behind barely open lids, and dropped her head back down on the pillow, Regina laughed.

"Go back to bed," Emma muttered into her pillow, her arm snaking around Regina's waist pulling the brunette into her side.

"Or else what?"

Emma lifted her head again, this time looking down at Regina from the result of pulling her close. She smirked and used her free hand to rake a few fingers through her hair. "I'll make you."

Regina's hands had wandered up from Emma's wrists up toned arms to rest on her shoulders. "How do you plan on doing that?"

She wasn't surprised when their lips met in a heated kiss. Already she was becoming accustomed to the feel of Emma's tongue moving languidly in her mouth, tasting every crevice and finding little spots that made Regina moan. On their own accord, one hand tangled in Emma's wild hair, mussed from slip, while the other pressed heavily along the blonde's spine until it rested on her lower back, pulling Emma further onto her.

It had been too long since she had felt a burning desire for someone, too long since she had wanted someone's lips on hers in any way offered. Past relationships had always had her mother's stamp of approval, and only one relationship had her feeling the fluttering of butterflies and the light heartedness in her chest, but that had taken a turn for the worse. Ever since then Regina had always kept herself closed off, thriving on dates that didn't make it past the first night, but Emma was different. Her confidence didn't come from her family name or the size of her bank account; it came from something that was entirely Emma.

She felt the blonde's confidence as Emma kept a hand on Regina's hip, her fingers dancing on the edge of her blouse enough to entice and tease. She felt it as Emma pulled back for just a second to smile down at Regina before connecting their lips again. She most certainly felt it when the blonde's hand tangled their legs together and her knee had unintentionally positioned itself in between Regina's legs, an inch away from the brunette's center.

As soon as it connected, Regina pulled back, easing Emma with a soft kiss before trailing her hand up from her back to cup the younger woman's face. Their breaths mingled in the space between them, and Regina knew Emma was confused by her sudden pull away but quickly assuaged the blonde's confusion with another quick peck before sitting up in the bed, the iron bed frame rattling behind her back as the mattress squeaked. "As much as I'd love to continue, I think this can wait for a time when your son isn't in the living room watching cartoons."

Sure enough, the sounds of the Justice League Unlimited theme song sounded just outside the bedroom door. Emma bowed her head and sighed before nodding, rolling off Regina entirely. "Good morning, by the way."

"I'd say so," the brunette grinned lecherously watching as Emma rolled back onto her stomach and let her eyes fall close.

They suddenly snapped open when Emma pushed herself up looking embarrassed. "Shit. Breakfast. You'll probably want that."

"You can go back to sleep," Regina said sliding out of bed and using the freestanding floor length mirror leaning on Emma's wall to check her hair. "Henry..."

"It's fine," Emma assured as she dug through her closet to pull on some yoga pants.

Regina took a moment to glance at Emma's legs trying to remember when the bartender had slipped her pants off during the night.

"Ruby sleeps over sometimes," Emma explained. She turned when Regina glared at her, feeling the intensity of the stare from behind. "Just to sleep. She hates the couch."

"If you say so," Regina said dryly though her eyes remained unconvinced.

Emma walked over to her giving her a reassuring squeeze. "Breakfast?"

Regina was unsurprised to find that breakfast consisted of cereal, though how tiny marshmallows and an unnatural amount of chocolate milk instead of white milk constituted as breakfast she'd never know, but she enjoyed watching as Emma opened a cupboard to pull down three bowls, all mismatched, and handed them to Henry who immediately set them down on the small breakfast table. Regina, being their guest as Henry so adorably put it, was not allowed to lift a finger, not even to help carry the full jug of chocolate milk from the fridge to the table. She grinned as the nine-year old poured the cereal and kneeled on the chair to lift the jug in both hands. His furrowed face was so concentrated he hadn't noticed that Emma had sidled up behind him to use a finger to help tilt the jug up from the bottom, but Regina caught the action, smirking at the gesture.

She was surprised, however, when they took their bowls to the couch beckoning Regina to follow. She looked uncertain with her large bowl of Lucky Charms in her hands as Emma and Henry sat on the couch, both cross-legged and both bringing a spoon of cereal up to their lips. It was only when Emma looked up from her slurping and let her spoon drop into her bowl did she pat the space beside her.

Sighing, Regina sat, unsure how exactly to sit with a bowl filled nearly to the brim of chocolate milk. Henry had been quite generous with his helping of her breakfast seeing as she was a guest, but the gesture made it difficult to move without spilling, and gods knew Regina would not like to have a stain anywhere on her clothes or on the furniture.

So Regina brought the bowl to her lips, sipping as much as she could until the milk level had gone down to an appropriate volume. Already she could feel her teeth decay from the chocolate and sugar combination, but she smiled when Henry asked how her breakfast was.

They sat and continued watching Henry's cartoons, the first season of JLU which he had received as a gift yesterday. Regina never took much of an interest in comics as a child, her mother preferring she stick with canonical texts, but her father used to always read her fairy tales whenever he could. It was their little secret. Henry, however, was shocked to hear such a thing and made it his duty to educate the brunette on the ins and outs of the DC universe.

For a child who had barely lived for a decade, his knowledge of superheroes, comics, and its backstory was impressively extensive, and Regina found herself enthralled in the fantastical universe. Already she had found herself finding Huntress, or rather Helena Bertinelli, to be one of her more favoured characters, but Emma had disagreed claiming Black Canary was the best and had a better costume.

Henry had laughed and shook his head knowingly as the cartoon continued playing, their empty bowls nestled in their laps as Emma and Henry both snuggled into Regina's side.

By the time the fourth episode finished, Emma reached over tugging Henry up from his spot on the couch. "Come on, kid. Brush your teeth now, it's past ten."

"What?" Regina asked shocked before looking down at her watch to see it was, in fact, half past. "Shoot, I have to get going."

"Hot date?" Emma teased.

"You're going now?" Henry whined halfway to the washroom.

She gathered her coat in her arms before moving around the couch to crouch in front of Henry with an apologetic frown on her face. "I do, but I wish I didn't."

She truly meant it knowing already being late was going to put her on the receiving end of a lecture.

She opened her arms for his hug, wrapping tightly around him. "Thank you for inviting me to your party."

"Thank you for coming," he responded politely, releasing his grip on her allowing her to stand.

She turned when she felt Emma place the cowboy hat on her head. "Looks better on you," Emma explained.

Regina rolled her eyes playfully, waving when Henry disappeared into the washroom before walking slowly towards the door with Emma's hand on her lower back.

"Busy day?" Emma inquired when they stopped short of the door, her hand trailing to Regina's hip.

"An important appointment, you could say," Regina answered with a shrug of her shoulder.

"Good luck."

Regina gave a small smile before meeting the blonde halfway for a kiss that lingered a little too long though neither women were complaining about that.

"Wait!" Henry ran out of the washroom, not noticing how the two women sprang abruptly apart, with toothpaste foam on the edges of his mouth.

"Henry," Emma winced at her son as he ran into his room, noise and clutter following in his wake, before exiting and running up to his mother and Regina.

He wiped the foam on the sleeve of his pyjamas before holding up one of his Polaroids to Regina. "You can have this one."

Regina took the picture, a wide smile on her face when she saw it was the one of herself and Henry. "I couldn't take this-"

"We'll take more," the boy promised, rocking on the balls of his heels.

His response was simple, obvious in his mind, but to Regina it had struck a chord in her chest, a chord that had never been strum before. She bent down again engulfing him in a hug.

"Why do I get the feeling you like him more than me?" Emma asked crossing her arms with a pout.

Regina grinned, keeping a tight hold on the photograph before straightening. "Because I do."

"Then you're grounded," Emma pointed menacingly to Henry who rolled his eyes at his mother before returning to the living room and his cartoons.

Regina tucked the picture into her pocket, keeping her hand in there for extra reassurance before leaning over and pecking Emma's cheek. "You come a very close second though."

"I better."

"You're late."

Regina refrained from muttering any excuses as she sat down at the restaurant table for brunch. She knew her mother wouldn't appreciate them and simply nodded her head in shame. "I'm sorry, Mother."

She tensed under Cora's scrutinizing gaze, no doubt taking in the fact that her daughter's clothing looked previously worn and her face nearly make-up free. Regina gulped praying her mother wouldn't comment. She hadn't had time to stop at her home to change or shower and simply made due with the make-up in her purse and a quick press of her clothes with the flat of her hand. She was lucky the dress was a clingy material, but it didn't hide the smell of alcohol from sitting in a bar for nearly six hours. If Cora had noticed she didn't say it, and for that, Regina was relieved. The last thing she wanted was to explain her personal life to her mother.

"Where were you?"

Regina distracted herself by picking up her menu though the move was useless knowing her motherr would have already ordered her a garden salad.

"I lost track of time." Regina made the obligatory eye contact when addressing her mother, and her response wasn't technically a lie.

"Doing what, dear? How much effort could be put into pushing a button on a camera?" Cora asked bringing a glass of wine to her lips.

"It's more than just pushing a button, Mother," Regina insisted on deaf ears.

Cora leaned over and pulled Regina's menu down, shutting it and passing it to a waiter with his arms full of dishes. "I already ordered for you since you kept me waiting."

Regina nodded appreciatively before tucking her hair behind her ear.

"So, dear," Cora began excitedly. "You'll never guess who I ran into the other day."

"Who?" Regina asked taking a healthy sip of wine.

"The Jones." Regina's face remained neutral as she showed no recognition of the name making Cora sigh at her daughter's inadequacy. "Their family has trades for some of the finest gold and jewels in the world."

"Do you mean they mine it from third world countries?" Regina asked sharply.

Cora glared, her eyes narrowing to threatening slits. Regina held her mother's gaze, her face impassive, but her mind mentally preparing her body for any lashing, verbal or otherwise, she would receive. She breathed out quietly when it didn't come as their salads arrived at the table.

Cora leaned over the table to take Regina's hand in hers, the freshly manicured nails of her mother digging into Regina's wrist as Cora smiled affectionately. "Their son is in town. Remember how you used to get along as children? Perhaps you should invite him to one of your events."

Regina remembered him all right. Killian Jones. His wealth was as notorious as his libido. She wouldn't deny his attractiveness, but the man was absolutely foul and utter slime. Even growing up, he had attempted a few moves on Regina, but she never gave him the chance, and she damn sure was not going to give him one now.

"I highly doubt a man of his stature and interests would like to go to a gallery," Regina attempted to dissuade, the stinging bite of her mother's nails pushed to the back of her mind.

"It wasn't a suggestion, Regina." Cora finally released her grip on her daughter's wrist and stabbed an olive fiercely before popping it in her mouth. "You two make a lovely couple."

Regina remained focus on her salad, piercing leafs of lettuce with an unnecessary force. "I'm afraid I can't."

"Why?" Cora's tone was low and dangerous.

Regina chanced a glance up at her mother, pulling her hands into her lap to prevent Cora from seeing her fidget. "The next gallery I'll be attending is a dear friend's, and I'm afraid I've already extended my plus one to somebody else."

"Tell them you cancel."

"I can't cancel, Mother," Regina argued. "How would that look on our family name if we were unreliable and dishonest?"

It was a long shot, Regina knew, manipulating her mother like this, but too many times had Cora played matchmaker, and too many times Regina had had to fend off men who couldn't take no for an answer. It was a long moment of locked brown gazes before Cora finally turned her head and inclined it ever so softly. "We can't have that, now can we?"

"No, Mother." Regina tried her best to keep the relief and smile out of her voice.

"Regardless," Cora dismissed with a wave of her hand, summoning a waiter to take away the salad she had barely touched. "I've invited them over for dinner at the end of next month and I expect to see you there."

Regina repressed the urge to eye roll before nodding dutifully. "Yes, Mother."

Emma was awoken suddenly by the constant ringing of her cellphone two days later. It was midday and the blonde had opted on taking a nap before picking up Henry. She had gotten an hour's worth of sleep before her ringtone blared near her ear.

She wiped her face clear of sleep before picking up her phone, smiling at the caller ID. "Hey, stranger."

"Hello," Regina said politely into the phone.

Emma squinted at her tone and sat up. "Are you okay?"

"Yes," Regina answered in that same aloof way.

"Is something bothering you?" Emma clarified as she stood from her bed and made her way to the kitchen. The silence on the other end had Emma worried, but she had a sense that the brunette was thinking. "Regina?"

"I have to ask you something."

"Okay." Emma cradled her phone in between her shoulder and ear as she scoured her fridge for some leftovers. She found half a sub and promptly sat on the counter, biting into it.

"A friend of mine is having a showing next Friday, and I was wondering if you could accompany me."

Emma slid off the counter and walked over to her calendar hanging on the wall beside the close that held her schedule.

"I realize it's short notice, but there is a good possibility that my mother has mentioned it to a particular person, and-"

"You want me there?" Emma cut her off, her finger on the circled day indicating she'd have to work.

"Very much so," Regina admitted abashedly. "I'm sure you'll enjoy the gallery as well, I just-"

"Regina," Emma smirked into the phone cutting the brunette off again. "I get it. And warding off unwanted attention is sort of in my job description now."

Emma didn't have to see her to know the brunette was either smiling or rolling her eyes. Hopefully both.

"You'll come?" Regina clarified.

Emma took another glance at her marked calendar and decided one day couldn't hurt. "Of course."

She moved back to the kitchen, picking up her sandwich again and pulled herself onto the counter. "So who are we trying to avoid?"

"An old friend of the family," Regina dismissed. "He's nothing serious."

Emma swallowed a big bite, suddenly tense. "Is he an ex?"

"God, no." The scoff in Regina's voice had Emma relaxing. "Just a pest."

"I'll take care of him," Emma reassured her, tossing the wrapping of the sandwich into the garbage bin under the sink.

"Just like you took care of Graham?"

"He didn't try anything, did he?" Emma reminded her smugly.

"No, dear," Regina answered flatly. "You gave him a piece of your mind."

Emma laughed letting her legs kick the counter. "This thing is formal?"


"Okay," Emma nodded slipping off the counter again and rifling through her clothes in the closet. "How formal? Like going to a wedding dress? Son's high school graduation dress?"

"Like a prestigious opening gallery dress."

"Well my prestigious opening gallery dress is at the dry cleaners." Emma huffed hair out of her face before moving to her bedroom closet hoping to find luck there. "I'll find something. Don't worry."

There was a beat of silence before Regina finally responded.

"Thank you."

Emma had arrived to Regina's early with a borrowed dress from Ruby and a borrowed pair of heels from Ashley who claimed she would never be fitting in those again after having Alexandra. She had successfully traded her shift for a day one and had rushed out from that shift to quickly get Henry dinner and drop him off, but Regina didn't have to know that. She knew Regina was already in a stressful state with her friend's gallery, and she had no idea why. I mean, didn't she go to these for a living?

So she tried to help by arriving at her condo early, smiling politely at the red-headed, good natured front desk man she had gotten accustomed to seeing every time she swung by. She had even struck up a conversation once or twice with Archie as she waited for Regina in the lobby and was pleasantly surprised to find that one did not need to have a Hamptons bank account to work here.

This time she would not be waiting with her new friend. She had gone straight to Regina's and knocked purposefully on the door. She shifted from foot to foot waiting for it to open when she received a text telling her to come in. She opened the door and stepped in, expecting Regina to be tinkering with some last minute adjustments on herself that didn't need tinkering, but the brunette was nowhere in sight.

"Regina?" Emma called, placing her clutch on the table and slipping out of her heels. They looked great on her, but she'd be damned if she didn't have to wear them right this second.

She wandered the front foyer, absentmindedly strolling past the black and white forest printed walls and the black leather sofa. The art on her walls were all paintings that Regina had told her she had purchased at auctions. Emma tilted her head at a particular one that was nothing more than a vertical stripe down the canvas and wondered what the hell was so impressive with that.

Truth be told, Emma would never have guessed Regina, or anyone for that matter, lived there. The place was too orderly and perfect like a model home. The stainless steel kitchen reflected with the black marble countertop and the bare fridge was a stark contrast to the one at her own home filled with pictures and tests. She only knew Regina lived there because she knew the woman and for the simple fact that her glasses were perched neatly on a strategically placed pile of books on her coffee table, but even that effect looked rather planned.

"Come upstairs," Regina called.

Emma made her way to the glass staircase reinforced with steel. She looked at it warily and hesitantly stepped on it finding it to hold her weight. She made a mental note to never jump on these stairs, though she doubt Regina would allow such a behaviour before slowly making her way up the stairs, subconsciously keeping to the edge of the stair as she walked before arriving in an open bedroom.

The arrival was almost jarring seeing as it was a platform upstairs that contained Regina's massive bed with dresses laying on it, but she supposed a one-bedroom apartment didn't need a door when you had a walk-in closet and master suite bathroom.

"Regina?" Emma called again.

The brunette exited her closet wearing nothing but a strapless bra and matching panties. Emma gulped and blatantly stared.

"Which one?" Regina held up two dresses, one a long black dress with a single strap across the shoulder and the other a burgundy dress with a single long zipper down the centre of it.

The dresses partially hid her body from view, but it was enough to have Emma clear her mind and think rationally and not just think about which she wanted to tear off.

"This one is too businessy," Emma said pointing to the burgundy.

"So the black one." Regina held the long dress up to her body as she turned to look in her mirror.

Emma's eyes zeroed in on Regina's ass, curved and deliciously accentuated by the very thin piece of material meant to cover it but barely doing its job, and for that she was grateful. These were the times Emma was grateful she wasn't a man or the evidence of her arousal would have been awkward.

"Not the black one, I'm wearing black," Emma said motioning to herself when she finally remembered her voice. "We can't look like we're going to a funeral."

"Then what do you suggest?" Regina huffed tossing the garment aside and placing her hands on her hips.

Emma both wished she wouldn't have done that and was simultaneously thankful for the view. She couldn't stop her eyes from wandering, and frankly she didn't want to. So instead, she grinned lightly and approached Regina, easing her hands away from her hips and pulling them around her own. "Have I said hi yet?"

"I have to get ready," Regina said pointedly attempting to turn back into her closet.

Before she could move, Emma cupped her cheeks and leaned down capturing the brunette's lips. She grinned at the familiar feeling, smirking internally when Regina pressed closer to her.

"I have a better idea," Emma whispered moving her kisses from Regina's lips to along her jaw. Her tongue danced along the shell of the older woman's before it flicked lightly with Emma pressing a kiss to it. "I say we just stay here," Emma continued breathily, peppering kisses down Regina's neck, pleased when she released a breathy shudder.

It was Regina who pulled Emma's chin back toward her to reclaim their lips, but Emma was surprised when the older woman's hands moved from their spot around Emma's waist and clutched possessively around the back of Emma's neck. Emma's hands found purchase on Regina's ass as she pulled her closer to her by the handful, moaning when Regina stood on her tippy toes to gain an equal height. The move surprised Emma, and in favour of keeping Regina tightly in her grasp, she fell backwards onto the bed as Regina moved her lips from Emma's down to her slender neck, unfazed by their new position.

Emma was loathed to let go of Regina's ass that was just too damn enticing, but she managed to pull at least one hand away to weave it into brown locks. She tugged, revelling in the moan vibrating against Regina's throat as she pulled the older woman back to suck on her pulse point, loving the vibration as she purred softly in contentment. Pulling back with a loud pop, she barely cared about the mark she left in her wake before trailing down Regina's collarbone and kissing the top of her breasts. A good tug would have set them free, but Emma found she was out of options to do so as her left hand was preoccupied on Regina's well-endowed asset while her left was tangled furiously in cropped hair. Using her face would have to do.

She leaned down more to free Regina's breasts from their restraints, but a firm hand brought her chin up, and soon enough, she was facing a heavily panting woman with very dilated eyes.

Emma pouted when she turned her head to kiss Regina again, but the brunette reared back up and grinned.

"Hi," Regina said pointedly.

"Hi," Emma grinned leaning up ready to rectify this distance situation Regina had put between them.

She was out of luck when the brunette pressed a firm peck against her lips and moved off Emma completely, leaving the blonde pinned to the bed as if a force were weighing her down.

"I have to get ready," Regina insisted as she disappeared into her closet.

Emma shut her eyes and clenched her legs shut. The ache that had grown there in the last ten minutes alone very desperately called for attention, but the most the blonde could do was bite into her fist and squeeze her legs shut, breathing in and out deeply, trying desperately to push the image of a nearly naked Regina straddling her out of her mind. It wouldn't go, so Emma shrugged deciding it could stay there.

As she sat up, something on the nightstand caught her attention. It was the picture of a good-looking man with a little girl in his lap as they sat under an apple tree, both smiling from ear to ear. Emma smiled to herself as she lifted the picture up to examine it more closely. If she was right, Regina couldn't have been more than six in this photograph, and seeing that smile on her face, one that had even been directed at her or Henry more and more as they continued to see each other, made Emma feel the familiar tugs in her chest pull happily in haphazard directions. It wasn't until she put the frame back did she notice a smaller frame beside it, and Emma couldn't help but laugh lightly at the Polaroid Henry had insisted Regina take with her.

"I was right," Emma called out holding up the small frame when Regina exited the closet in a sea foam green floor length dress. The straps criss-crossed around her neck leaving her shoulders bare.

"About?" Regina asked as she fluffed out her hair, frowning at the purple mark on her neck.

"You only dated me to get to Henry, didn't you?" Emma teased putting the frame back.

"Well, he is more well-mannered," Regina quipped as she hid the mark with make-up before putting on a healthy amount of lipstick.

"Nice dress," Emma said appreciative as she sidled up behind the brunette.

Regina turned giving Emma's own outfit a once over, the knee-length black dress with a red strip down the side and the smoky make up gave the blonde an air of mystery. Regina grinned wickedly. "You'll do nicely."

Emma couldn't stop the pleased grin from forming on her face before offering her hand to the brunette. "Ready?"

This was not the gallery she had expected, Emma thought as the town car Regina had ordered pulled up to a lavish mansion with photographers, a red carpet, and a bouncer out front. It seemed like more of a party than a gallery, and Emma suddenly felt more than a little overwhelmed. She turned to Regina who was looking at a compact to touch up her make-up. "I thought this was going to be in a studio."

"Why'd you think that?" Regina asked as she snapped her compact shut and dropped it into her purse.

Emma gave a weak smile before turning at the sound of the door opening for them. She accepted the extended hand and slid out of the car then turned to help Regina out. As soon as she was by her side, Emma felt the change of demeanour in the older woman as Regina tugged Emma's elbow to lead them past the bouncer who checked her name off his clipboard. The yells of "Ms. Mills!" from the reporters sounded as Regina expertly turned them when they got to the top of the steps and took Emma's waist as flashes blinded the blonde's vision.

Emma could barely comprehend the last two minutes when Regina finally tugged them inside the mansion where music blared and people mingled.

"That was..." Emma paused looking for a word. "That's never happened to me before."

"Jefferson has a flair for the dramatics," Regina admitted. "His work is very avant garde, as is his home."

Emma took a moment to look around the room. If she didn't know any better she would have sworn she was in some sort of club, granted one that was designed by a colourful Tim Burton, as she took in the twisted furniture and floor to ceiling aquariums with fish she was sure was genetically mutated. "He lives here?"

"When he's in town," Regina nodded and grabbed two flutes, one a neon pink and the other a neon green. She handed one to Emma. "Drink. He's a little eccentric."

Emma eagerly accepted the neon green champagne glass and chugged its contents. Working at her bar and raising a nine-year old, Emma thought she had seen it all, but from the bartenders dressed in silver leather to the guests with hair to match the colour of her glass, Emma decided she must have fallen into the rabbit hole sometime between now and the drive from Regina's.

Emma found the photos that Jefferson had taken but had yet to have the pleasure to meet the man. She had wandered off when Regina had gotten caught up in a discussion with some fancy looking people who were apparently company directors and loved Regina's work. Emma had gone through two glasses of neon coloured champagne before she finally put a hand on Regina's back and whispered that she was just going to look around. Away from the music and from the crowd, a spacious room was opened up and lined with photographs of some twisted interpretation of Alice in Wonderland. The room also held the costumes featured in the photos, designed intricately by Jefferson himself, encased behind glass shelves on mannequins with eerie likability to the models of the pictures.

She stared at a particular one under the glow of a flood light of the infamous tea party scene. The models had painted faces of mice or rabbits with Alice and the Hatter sitting at the head, all in various stages of undress and inebriation. It bordered on looking like an orgy. She rolled her eyes at the photograph at the obvious sexualization of it all and scoffed.

"Don't like it?"

A curly haired blonde woman, one who looked familiar, came up behind her, whispering the question in her ear.

Emma jumped at the voice and turned, squinting her eyes at the taller woman with teased hair and a tight red leather dress over top her fish nets.

"Maleficent," she introduced. "We've met before."

"Right," Emma nodded quickly shaking her hand.

"I'm surprised to see you again," Maleficent tilted her head and locked gazes with Emma. "I would have thought Regina would have had you arrested for interrupting her gallery."

"She invited me, actually," Emma pointed out growing increasingly annoyed with her. She thought back to what Regina had said about her and was glad that she had only called Maleficent barely a friend. Regina couldn't be too mad if Emma accidentally punched her in the face.

"Really?" Her eyes widened and lightened with intrigue as she took a step closer, her hand on Emma's bare arm. "You came together?"

Before Emma could answer another voice behind her interrupted, this one a man's. "Are you surprised, Maleficent? Regina has quite the taste."

Emma turned to find a man dressed in a suit, his jacket forgone leaving him in his vest and ascot. The oversized top hat on his head was a little disconcerting, but he removed it as he approached, a practised grin on his face. "You must be Emma Swan. I'm Jefferson."

He took her hand and kissed it, but Emma only let out a breathy laugh before pulling it back toward herself. She took in the man, the owner of this eccentric house and the designer of this twisted up gallery. Aside from the hat, he looked relatively normal though the suit looked a little too thirties, yet his voice was low and polite. Quite frankly, she was expecting Chris Rock from Fifth Element.

"Yeah," Emma nodded. "That's me."

"Emma here was just admiring your work," Maleficent spoke up. "Weren't you, dear?"

"Yeah, your photos are interesting," Emma confirmed.

Jefferson's lips twitched upwards. "Interesting?"

Emma looked behind her to the wall lined with photographs. They were interesting. Did she like them? Not really. They bordered on creepy and from the imagination of a man, which clearly was the case. Still, she didn't want to embarrass Regina and smiled politely. "Yeah. Interesting."

"What about them?" Maleficent questioned.

Emma motioned to the tea party scene behind them. "I don't see much of Wonderland in this one. It just looks like a college frat party at Halloween, and it's interesting that you're exploring the rabbit hole as falling into modern day vice."

Jefferson tilted his head giving an impressed shrug in Emma's direction with Maleficent as if the smaller blonde couldn't see their actions. It made Emma grind her teeth at that. Thank god she had gotten adept at bullshitting excuses as a teen since the words that had just come out of her mouth were dripping in them.

"Jefferson," Regina called out with a smile as she approached the group.

He turned to lean down and kiss her cheek as she gave Maleficent a questioning glare before standing beside Emma. "I see you've met Ms. Swan."

"I have. Her opinions are quite enlightening."

"Oh?" Regina raised her eyebrows and turned to Emma who gave a quick smile.

The foursome walked the length of the gallery, Jefferson stopping every so often to greet a guest while Maleficent turned her gaze to Emma.

"Your dress is nice, dear, is it cotton?" Maleficent asked sipping her wine glass.

"What?" Emma floundered, her cheeks taking on a pink hue.

"Maleficent," Regina hissed.

"It looks..." she let her eyes wander over Emma's form. "Cozy."

"Your dress looks constricting," Emma pointed out to the red leather.

Maleficent tittered. "Worth every penny."

Emma set her jaw and was about to say something when Regina's hand took her waist, leading them just a step away from the infuriating taller blonde. She relaxed with Regina leaned into her side and whispered in her ear. "You look amazing."

Emma smiled softly, leaning down to peck Regina gratefully before turning back towards her friends. Try as she might, Emma couldn't ignore the angry embarrassment that bubbled up inside her every time Maleficent commented on something about Emma from her scuffed heels to her counterfeit clutch. She also felt stupid every time Jefferson asked her opinion on one of his pieces. She was having a more difficult time linking global real-world metaphors to his pictures as they walked along. The hand on her lower back from Regina did little to alleviate the inadequacy Emma felt, though she appreciated the gesture nonetheless. Her patience was wearing thin in this place, specifically with Maleficent, though the people who approached them to greet either Jefferson or Regina while ignoring Emma completely had another thing coming to them.

"How do you like this one?" Jefferson pointed out a picture of the Queen of Hearts at her court. She was clearly not the Disney original portrayal if her scantily-clad body and very minimal clothing was anything to go by. Added in with the dripping heart in one hand and head in the other, Emma had had enough of this artsy crap.

"You know what?" The blonde started interrupting Regina's sentence. "It looks like something out of my kid's comic books. Men drawing half naked women in fantasy situations? It's been done."

Jefferson knit his eyebrows at her while Regina stared aghast. Maleficent looked positively amused.

"You have a son?" She asked intrigued.

"Emma," Regina hissed at the same time.

"The idea is good, I'll give you that, and the costume designs are amazing, but I would see this in the Zenescope Grimm Fairy Tales trade," Emma continued before smiling as politely as she could and sauntered off.

Fuck. She really messed up this time. Emma leaned against the wall of the mansion, kicking back at the brick in her moment of stupidity. Regina was gonna rip her to shreds. She pushed off the wall hoping to bum a cigarette from a group huddled by the hedges, but by the time she stepped forward a familiar brunette in a seafoam green dress stopped her. Regina was not impressed.


"Save it." Regina tugged on Emma's arm as their town car pulled up, and she ushered her into the back.

The ride back to Regina's was tense and uncomfortable. They sat on opposite ends with Regina staring out the tinted windows and Emma chewing nervously on her thumb nail.

She had never seen the brunette so upset before. True, when they first met Regina was more than a little aggravating and forward, but Emma had never purposely driven her to such a state before. She wanted to apologize for how she acted, but at the same time she hated thinking that lashing out to people she didn't even like was uncalled for rude behaviour. She was so screwed.

When the town car pulled up to Regina's condo, Emma got out, turning to see if Regina needed help only to discover the brunette had hopped out of her side. She chanced a glance at her beetle sitting in the middle of the guest parking lot and had no idea what the hell she was supposed to do now. Regina was already making her way into her building, the security door opened, and as a last minute decision, Emma followed.

She figured that since Regina didn't scorn her as soon as the elevator door closed was a good sign. She also relaxed just a little bit more when the brunette didn't slam her apartment door in her face, but as soon as Emma had the door shut behind them, she panicked when Regina suddenly turned, advancing on her quickly.

"What the hell was that?"

Emma sputtered before getting her bearings. "They were making fun of me!"

"Maleficent mocks everyone, and Jefferson was doing nothing to you," Regina reasoned though the volume of her voice had Emma cringing.

Emma ran her hands through her hair before placing them firmly on her hips. "It's just, I stick out like a sore thumb there."

"You didn't," Regina insisted. "Up until your final departure that is."

Emma shook her head, mentally going over the evening. It was overwhelming and different and totally out of her element, but aside from Maleficent's jabs, it wasn't completely terrible.

"If you're going to act like this every time we go somewhere like that-"

"How often are we going to go somewhere like that?" The question was out before Emma could stop it, and she knew it wasn't the right thing to say.

Regina crossed her arms and glared. "Fine. I'll remember not to invite you next time."

"No, no, no that's not what I meant," Emma rushed to clarify. "I just, I'm not used to that."

"Are you not the one who told me to live a little?" Regina threw Emma's words back at her.

"Yes," the blonde sighed dejectedly taking a cautious step forward, relieved when Regina didn't step back. "Yeah, I said that. I said you should try new things and do fun stuff, and going to galleries and parties like that are fun for you."

Regina shook her head. "Perhaps this evening was a mistake-"

"No." Emma forgot all sense of caution and closed the distance between them, taking Regina's hands in hers. "No. It wasn't. I actually had a really good time. I could go without seeing Maleficent again, but everyone else was really nice." Emma released a hand to cup Regina's cheek. "I'm sorry I acted out. That won't happen again."

Brown eyes locked with green, and Emma hoped Regina would accept her apology. Her heart pounded in her ears, and she was sure it was loud enough for the whole building to hear. Regina remained silent for a good minute before slowly shutting her eyes and inclining her head.

"She can be overbearing," Regina admitted reluctantly.

Emma's lips upturned into a small smile before she took another step eliminating all space between them. "Are we okay?"

The nervous frown on Emma's face was kissed away when Regina closed the distance between them and pecked a reassuring kiss on Emma's lips. "We're okay."

Chapter Text

"What time are you picking up Henry?" Regina moaned breathily as she straddled Emma's lap, the blonde unbuttoning her blouse with an agonizingly slow pace, pressing hot kisses along each inch of new revealed flesh.

Emma licked a line up from between the valley of Regina's breasts to just under her chin and sucked. She released the skin with a pop when Regina dug her nails into Emma's shoulders. "He's helping Frederick for another hour."

Regina leaned back with a grin, her shirt open revealing a red lacy bra with Emma's own shirt hanging off a shoulder. Her fingers travelled lazily down Emma's front until they came to rest at the clasp of her jeans. She bit her lip in anticipation, her heart beating rapidly under the flimsy lace material as she watched Emma's eyes darken, the blonde's desire evident even without the marks that frequently adorned her neck. Keeping her eyes trained on the deep green ones just below her, she popped the clasp and lowered her face toward Emma's. "Would you like to come upstairs?"

Emma's eyes fluttered shut, gasping breathily when Regina rolled her hips over Emma's pelvis. Her hands shot out to Regina's waist, either to stop or aid the brunette in her roving, she wasn't sure. What she was certain about, however, she voiced with unrestrained tension in her throat. "I don't think I can make it up there."

Regina rocked her hips over Emma's again, and then once more when Emma helped move her more languidly right over her mound. They both shuddered at the contact. With deft fingers, she eased Emma's zipper down, keeping the palm of her hand over Emma's core as she rocked into her. "Then I suppose we better stay here."

Emma didn't need to voice her agreement. Instead she thrust her head forehead and captured Regina's bruised lips with her own, her teeth nibbling softly on the plump bottom lip before her tongue dived into Regina's mouth, teasing the moans out of the brunette.

The shock of the force made Regina lose her balance and fall forward, her hands stopping from a complete crash when they landed on her couch, one on either side of Emma's head with Emma's hands roaming tightly up and down her back. She broke the kiss, panting hotly into Emma's ear as the blonde peppered kisses along her jaw, her ear, the column of her neck. Regina couldn't stop her hips from rocking even if she wanted to, and she sure as hell didn't want to. Another moan escaped her lips when Emma moved her lips from Regina's neck down to her collarbone and lower still.

Her chest rose and fell with how heavily she was breathing when Emma pulled back slightly, her eyes glancing up toward Regina before falling back down to her bra-clad chest. Regina grinned and leaned down, pressing a gentle kiss that contrasted greatly against their rapidly beating hearts and throbbing desires before grabbing Emma's hands and moving them under her shirt to the clasp of her bra.

Not completely obtuse, Emma worked quickly to release the clasp, shrug off Regina's blouse and tug down the red lace to reveal the small rounded breasts and pert brown nipples she had gawked at since the first time they met. She wasted no time to bring a nipple into her mouth, and Regina wasted no time with letting her satisfaction be moan with a whimpered groan and pulling Emma's fiercely clutched head to her chest.

Regina's mind was clouded with Emma's mouth on her, but she fought through the haze, placing kisses all over the top of Emma's head as the blonde continued to lap at her chest. Regina's hand snaked out of Emma's hair, traveling down her front to bring Emma's own breast into her hand and massaged it through the fabric of her shirt and bra. Giving it another squeeze, Regina released her breast and travelled down to Emma's open jeans, sneaking a hand into the fabric.

"God," Emma moaned, pulling back from Regina's chest.

Regina simply pressed the heel of her hand to the dampest part of Emma's panties and rocked against it.

"Regina," Emma whimpered, forgetting her previous task and rocking into Regina's hand.

"Yes?" The brunette grinned and used her free hand to tug Emma's chin up, kissing the blonde languidly as her hips continued to thrust forward into her hand pressed possessively on Emma's core.

"Don't stop," Emma muttered against her lips.

Regina shuddered as she pulled back, feeling another gush of wetness coat Emma's panties and dampen her fingers. Just seeing the blonde with her head leaned back and her eyes slammed shut in satisfaction made Regina ache. She needed more contact, and more than anything she needed Emma out of those clothes and certainly out these skintight jeans.

She removed her hand, laughing lightly when Emma clutched her wrists and her eyes screamed silently asking what the hell she thought she was doing. But a simple kiss from the brunette told Emma to trust her. She lifted her hips a few inches above Emma then moved her palm over the top of Emma panties, easing a few fingers inside the silk. The feel of damp curls against her fingers made Regina sit down sharply on Emma, both women groaning at the oh so needed contact. Finding Emma's entrance, Regina shuddered into Emma's ear feeling the blonde's fingers dig deep into her waist.

"Regina," Emma moaned again, pleadingly this time.

"Emma," she responded in kind, moving from Emma's ear to her lips.

Before they could connect or Regina could thrust her fingers upward as she had intended, a loud, furious knock sounded on her door.

"Ignore it," Emma pleaded, tugging on Regina's wrist begging the brunette to continue.

With a roll of her shoulder, Regina connected their lips, toying with the wetness at Emma's core making the blonde squirm.

"Regina!" The knocking had turned into a pounding, and the voice on the other side of the door sent chills through the brunette.

She whipped her hand out of Emma's pants and scrambled off the blonde as if they had been walked in on.


Regina pressed a finger to Emma's lips to silence her, her voice wide and pleading. "It's my mother."

"Okay," Emma answered unsure as to why Regina was freaking out. She tugged her pants shut and righted her shirt before running a hand through her hair to fix it up.

Regina, however, struggled to put on her bra and shirt as the pounding on the door increased. "Go upstairs."

"What?" Emma hissed.

"Please." Regina tugged Emma up and ushered her toward the stairs. "Stay up there until she leaves."

"It's just your mom, Regina," Emma shrugged, resisting the brunette's pushing until they were at the foot of the stairs.

"Regina!" Cora called again.

Regina eyed the door fearfully before turning back to Emma. The blonde sighed and nodded, giving Regina a reassuring kiss to her cheek before quickly making her way upstairs.

Regina straightened her blouse, tucking it into her slacks then fluffed out her hair. Taking three deep breaths on her walk to the front, she opened the door.

"What on earth took you so long?" Cora entered the condo with no invitation, thrusting her coat and bag into her daughter's arms. "I was about to have someone tear down the door in my worry."

Regina rolled her eyes as she hung up the coat and bag on the rack beside the door. She knew her mother wasn't worried. Cora Mills was just a woman who did not like to be kept waiting.

"I'm sorry, Mother," Regina replied moving toward the kitchen to wash her hands from any evidence of Emma. "My mind was on what I should eat."

Cora made a noise of acknowledgement as she sat at the head of the dinner table, clutching the arms of the chair like she was seated in a throne. Regina scurried to pour water into a kettle and set it to a boil on the stove.

"What brings you by, Mother?" Regina asked grabbing a tea cup and her mother's tea from the cabinets. She kept her back to the older woman eyeing the kettle willing it to boil faster.

"How are you, darling?" Cora's tone was too sickly-sweet for Regina's liking, and she was sure that if she were to turn around she'd find her staring knowingly at Regina.

"I'm well," Regina answered, taking the kettle off the stove as soon as the first whistle sounded. She poured the water into the cup, letting the peppermint waft into the air. "And you?"

"I've been better."

Regina turned with the tea, settling it down in front of her mother as the older woman watched her like a hawk. "I'm sorry to hear that. Is there anything I can do?"

"Yes," Cora answered taking a sip of her tea. "You can tell me who Emma Swan is."

Regina froze as she sat, resisting the urge to glance up toward her bedroom where the subject of her mother's interrogation now hid. Lying to her mother was moot and dangerous. No one lied to Cora Mills, let alone her daughter. So Regina sat in the chair adjacent to her, her eyes trained on the intricate details of the woodwork before she cleared her throat.

"How do you know of her?" Regina asked quietly.

Cora leaned over and grabbed Regina's chin between her thumb and forefinger forcing her attention. Regina ignored the sting of pain as nails dug into her flesh before Cora released her fiercely, her jaw set and lips pursed.

"There was a beautiful picture of you two in the society section of the paper. You think Jefferson's events don't make news?" Cora took another sip of her tea. "Or were you planning on upstaging him by bringing a woman as your date?"

"I had no intention of upstaging-"

"Honestly, Regina, I thought you were over this phase."

The younger brunette averted her eyes but remained quiet.

Cora shook her head in disappointment. "How do you know she's not some trollop?"

"She's not a trollop," Regina insisted, the aggravation in her tone rising.

"She's probably after you for your money." Cora's eyes brightened in revelation. "Is she the colleague from the youth centre?"

Regina nodded making Cora tsk and shake her head disapprovingly.

"Well, I can see why you devoted so much attention to such a project."

"It's not like that, Mother."

"Then what is it like, Regina?" Cora demanded with a bang of her fist on the mahogany.

Regina flinched at the noise, but after a moment of quiet she stared directly at her mother, defiance written all over her face. "She is my girlfriend."

Cora scoffed with a shake of her head. "I thought you had grown up. Throwing away your life and your reputation, for what? A pool boy? Some experiences in college? This Emma Swan?"

"You don't know her."

"She's just a bartender, and she has a son, and not to mention a juvenile record." Cora caught the flash in Regina's eyes. "I assume you didn't know that one, did you?"

Regina knew Emma had had a past, and her stints with the law were some of the things that had spoken about. She just didn't want her mother to know that she knew. The things Cora would say if she knew Regina was dating a a known felon would have the younger brunette grounded even in her adult age, and being grounded by Cora Mills was not something Regina liked to do.

Cora stood and walked toward the door shrugging on her coat. Regina obediently followed holding out her mother's purse for her. She stared distant as Cora cupped Regina's cheek in her palm and spoke soothingly.

"Darling, I'm just looking out for you."

"I can take care of myself," Regina insisted.

"I know you think that, but remember that your mother knows best." Cora slung her purse over her shoulder before putting a hand on the door. "Bring her and the boy to dinner next month."

"Henry," Regina interjected. "Henry and Emma."

Cora smiled but it was obvious she didn't care. "I expect to see them there." She opened the door and stepped into the hallway, but before she disappeared she called to Regina over her shoulder. "Your lipstick is smudged, dear."

Regina shot a hand to her lips, wiping around them and coming away with the lipstick that would have no doubt been smeared on Emma's lips and neck. A shock of blonde hair descended from the stairs, but Regina didn't move from her spot leaning against the closed door. Emma was in a similar position, placing her weight on the banister of the stairs.

"So," she drawled. "That's your mom."

"I'm sorry," Regina rushed to get out.

"I've been called worse," Emma mumbled, shifting from foot to foot. "Were you trying to hide me or something?"

"If I was trying to hide you would I invite you to a gallery where I knew there would be photographers?"

Emma muttered an obscure response before moving to the couch and dropping down hard on it. After a moment, Regina followed suit, but she sat on the the opposite end, her leg curled under the other.

"My mother, she isn't the easiest person to speak with."

"I can tell."

"I'm not keeping you a secret."

"You hid me in your room when your mother, who found out about us in the paper from a section I didn't even know that we had, came knocking," Emma pointed out. "It all seems a little secretive."

Regina mulled the idea in her head. When she spoke, she spoke slowly, choosing her words carefully. "She's not an easy woman to please."

"You mean she wouldn't like me."

"It's not you-"

"Just where I come from?"

"Emma," Regina ground out in irritation. "Are you dating my mother?"

Emma wrinkled her nose in disgust. "No."

"Then it's not her you need to impress," Regina reasoned. "And judging from our precious activities, I'd say you've already done your job impressing me."

Emma couldn't help the smirk escaping her lips. She leaned back, her brows furrowed in contemplation. "But she's your mom."

Regina simply nodded before standing and moving to a side table where she poured healthy amounts of cider into two tumblers. Bringing the drinks over, she forced one into Emma's hand as she sat next to the blonde.

She watched out of the corner of her eye as Emma sipped the cider, made a surprised face, then downed the glass in appreciation. Finally Emma put the glass on the coffee table before sidling up to Regina, interlacing their fingers as Regina sipped the cider quietly. She felt the blonde's head on the back of her shoulder and leaned into the touch.

"You don't care?" Emma asked quietly.

Regina shook her head.

"So if I go to this dinner and she says she hates me-"

"She won't do that," Regina interrupted. "It'll ruin her image."

Emma rolled her eyes and squeezed Regina's hand to play along. "What if she wants you to stop seeing me?"

Regina turned her head, placing her drink next to Emma's on the table before leaning her head closer to the blonde's, their gazes locked.

Regina had only ever felt passionate about one other person in her life, and he had left her out of the blue. She had never been the same after that, trusting a select few and loving even less. But Emma was different, as she'd always known she had been. Gazing into the swirling orbs of blue-green, Regina could see the vulnerability in them, the fear that Regina would drop her, like the families that had abandoned her in the past, on a moment's notice.

She never wanted to see that fear in Emma's eyes again.

She turned fully to face the blonde, both hands clasped protectively in her own. "Then that will be the last dinner I spend with my mother."

Emma looked down with a pleased blush on her cheeks. "You know, I like you."

Regina smirked. "I like you too."

"Not as much as Henry?" Emma teased.

Regina gave a playful shrug. "Speaking of which, I believe he's waiting for us."

"Can we have a movie marathon tonight?" Henry asked, jumping up and down as soon as he, Emma, and Regina stepped into their apartment.

"We just spent over an hour at the park," Emma pointed out.

"Please?" Henry turned his wide eyes to his mother and then to Regina.

Regina laughed once but looked to Emma for approval. Emma laughed crouching to his level.

"I told you, kid," Emma said ruffling his hair. "We can do anything you want on my nights off."

"Can I stay up late?" He pressed.

Regina smirked giving Emma a look clearly indicating the blonde was trapped.

"No," Emma said pointedly before placing her hands on his shoulder to scurry him towards his room. "Clean up a bit, and then we'll make dinner."

He pouted at the chore but didn't complain as he ran off to his room.

"That's the iron fist, dear," Regina teased hanging up her coat in the closet that was primarily used for storage.

"Mock all you want, but the teachers never complain about him being the messy kid, or the disruptive kid, or the kid who smells like pee," Emma said pointedly as she moved through the kitchen and rifled through the cupboards for a couple boxes of Kraft Dinner.

Regina wrinkled her nose as she spotted the blue boxes of macaroni and cheese in a box. "What is that?"

Emma held up the box. "You never had? It's really good."

"No, dear." Regina took the boxes and put it back in the cupboards.

She rummaged through them, moving her search to the fridge and pantry as she pulled out ingredients as she went along. Soon the counter was topped with half a bag of macaroni, a block of cheddar cheese, the milk jug, butter, and flour. She turned swiftly, not noticing Emma's amused expression. "Pots and pans?"

Emma simply motioned her head towards the top of the fridge where the pots and pans remained stacked.

Regina eyed the location but said nothing as she stretched to grab one of each before turning toward the blonde. "I'll let you in on a secret."

"Oh?" Emma sidled up behind her as she filled the pot with water.

"If you really want to impress me," Regina began easily moving out of Emma's grasp to set the pot to a boil, "you'll stop eating that garbage."

Emma sat on top of the counter crossing her arms with a smirk. "Maybe I just don't don't want to impress you."

"You should consider it," Regina said with a tilt of her head as she eyeballed a tablespoon of butter. "You'll be surprised where it can get you."

"So what's all this for? Fancy mac and cheese?"

"It's hardly fancy, dear. It's just better than that processed powder companies dare to call cheese."

Emma reached into the drawer between her legs and picked out a knife before cutting herself some cubes of cheese and nibbling on it. "So you are the heiress daughter of a multimillion dollar hotel chain who is a pretty big up and coming photographer, and you can cook to boot. Did I get all that, princess?"

Regina shrugged coyly as she poured in two cups of macaroni into the water. "You also failed to mention I'm fantastic in bed."

Emma coughed on her cheese but raised an eyebrow intrigued. "Well, I'd have to test that one out personally."

Regina gave a sideways grin as she tended to the pasta.

"What's a girl like you doing with a girl like me?" Regina turned to look at the blonde who had reiterated her words from their first meeting, but this time Regina could hear the genuine awe and curiosity in her tone.

She moved to sidle in between Emma's legs, her hands placed firmly on the blonde's thighs as she gazed upwards, her lips tilted towards Emma's. Leaning in close, she whispered breathily into Emma's mouth. "Remind me."

Emma wasted no time capturing Regina's lips, and just like always, the raging fire within them doubled from the other's mere touch.

"Gross," Henry groaned standing in the doorway of his room.

Regina pulled back with a furious blush to her cheeks, trying desperately to escape from between Emma's legs where the blonde had wrapped around her.

"Henry," Regina sputtered flabbergasted when she realized Emma was not letting her escape. "Your mother was just-"

"Were you kissing?" He asked with a wrinkle of his nose.

"No, dear, we-"

"Yes," Emma winked before placing a loud exaggerated raspberry kiss on Regina's cheek.

Henry rolled his eyes though the tilt of his lips told the women that he was amused by their antics. Regina, however, was not pleased with the slobber on her cheek and forcibly pushed away wiping at it with a dish towel as Emma sat with an innocent smile.

Her cell phone ringing pulled the smile away forcing Emma to hop off the counter and move further into the living room to answer the call.

"What are we having?" Henry asked peeking over the stove.

Regina heated a large saucer pan, dropping the two tablespoons of butter and flour into the pan before pouring the milk into it.

"A different sort of macaroni and cheese," Regina answered. She leaned down conspiratorially. "With a secret ingredient."

"What is it?" He loudly whispered.

Regina simply tapped her nose and pointed at Emma, signalling that she would tell him when the coast was clear. Henry beamed, eager to be in on the plan.

"How come you're heating up milk?"

"I'm creating a beschmel for the cheese."

"A what?"

Regina glanced down at him, narrowing her eyes in thought before she pulled a chair over to the stove and motioned for him to kneel on it. She handed him the whisk and helped guide his hand as he stirred the white roux. "A beschmel is flour and butter cooked in milk. If you put it on a low to medium heat, the milk with thicken to a sauce similar to an Alfredo."

"The white sauce over the noodles?" He asked, taking more of a lead on the whisking though Regina's hand never left his.


"As soon as this has thickened up nicely, we can add cheese and we will get a very delicious and homemade macaroni and cheese."

"I can help?" He asked shyly.

"Aren't you already?" The thickening roux under his whisking attention made him grin at the realization.

"Kid," Emma called from the living room, placing her phone none too gently on the breakfast table. Her shoulders were slumped and a frown in place, but her eyes were apologetic. "I'm sorry, Henry..."

"Work?" His tone was casual, as if he had asked it numerous times in the past, but his eyes, like his mother's demeanour, held the same disappointed glint.

She nodded. "I'll call Ashley over so you guys can finish."

"You have to leave now?" Regina questioned.

Emma nodded again. "A few of the girls caught mono or something. August is understaffed, and he needs me there before the other girls get too overwhelmed with the crowd."

"Okay," Henry said quietly before turning his body back to the whisking task.

It didn't take an idiot to know that Henry had been looking forward to having his mom home for the day, or that Emma was beating herself up over having to leave her child for work yet again. And Regina was no idiot. She couldn't stop Emma from working, but perhaps she could bring a smile to at least one member of the Swan household. With a quiet request to man the beschmel, Regina left Henry to the task, lowering the heat just in case, before meeting Emma in her bedroom where she was changing for work. She caught her as she pulled on a tank top, stopping midway to frown apologetically to Regina.

"I'm sorry," Emma immediately said. "I wouldn't go if I didn't have to."

Regina wanted to argue that she didn't have to, but already she could foresee the consequences of opening that wound. Instead, she offered up the only plausible solution she could think of.

"I'd like to watch Henry tonight, if that's okay with you."

"I'm sure he'd love that, but you know how late I get home," Emma replied as she scurried through her closet and pulled out a leather vest crop top and slipped it over her head.

"It wouldn't be the first time I've slept over, Emma."

The blonde slowed her movements of fluffing her hair out as she thought about Regina's request. "You wouldn't mind?"

"I believe it's part of my job description."

"You don't have to-"

"I want to," Regina insisted, closing the gap between them.

Regina could see the conflict behind jade eyes. Even within days of meeting Emma, Regina could see that she didn't trust her son with just anyone, and she refused to ask for help unless absolutely necessary. Entrusting Henry into her care would not only be a big step for Emma, but a step in their relationship. Having a child was a big commitment, Regina knew that. But being in a child's life and suddenly disappearing was a risk both women had to take.

"Are you sure?" Emma asked one more time.


Regina was caught off guard when the brunette kissed her swiftly, but before Regina had time to react Emma was already out of the room and into the kitchen announcing the change of plans to Henry. His whoop and cheer made Regina grin before she remembered she had left a little boy in charge of the kitchen.

Quickly taking the whisk from him and checking on the noodles, she used her free hand to steady the chair as he hopped down to kiss his mother goodbye.

Regina tried not to listen in as Emma spoke quietly to him by the doorway, but with Emma down on one knee in front of an attentive Henry was just too difficult to turn away from.

"Regina is in charge, Henry," Emma spoke firmly as he nodded. "And I don't want to hear how you tried to con your way into staying up late."

"It's a weekend," Henry argued.

A firm stare had the boy sighing with defeat.

"I love you," she whispered before hugging him tightly, placing a kiss on the side of his head.

"I love you too," he responded leaning into her.

Regina turned back towards the boiling pot of macaroni and the thickening roux before Emma stood and made her way over to her. She smiled to herself when Emma took her waist and hugged her from behind, pressing a similar kiss to the side of Regina's head. The domesticity of the situation wasn't lost on Regina as she turned her head to claim a proper kiss from Emma.

With a squeeze to her hip, Emma winked before whispering low. "You don't stay up too."

"If you think you have control over when I sleep you are sorely mistaken," Regina said with a raised eyebrow.

"I could probably think of things that would wear even you out for an early night," Emma whispered huskily directly into Regina's ear making the brunette shudder and widen her eyes at the implications.

Emma kissed Regina's cheek again before finally leaving the apartment.

Henry sidled up to Regina, kneeling up on the chair as he watched her stir the roux and macaroni alternatively.

"Would you like a little assignment?"

"Not like homework?" He questioned.

Regina laughed and shook her head. "A cooking assignment."

"Okay." Henry agreed eagerly.

Regina set the whisk and wooden spoon aside to dig through Emma's unorganized drawers to find a grater. She set it in front of Henry on the counter and placed a large block of cheese and plate in front of him. "Grate as much cheese as you can."

"How much?" He asked already starting his task.

"How cheesy do you like your mac and cheese?"

"Extra, extra cheesy!"

She grinned patting his head affectionately before returning to the stove. "If you're able to grate lots and lots of cheese, then we can have an extra, extra cheesy meal."

Henry's eyes brightened grating more determinedly though keeping an eye on his fingers against the grate. By the time he was finished with his enormous amount of grated cheese, Regina had already strained the pasta and added salt and pepper to the creamy mix. Her face was furrowed as she rummaged through the cupboards, but with a satisfied "ah ha", she pulled out a never opened bottle of red pepper flakes.

"My secret weapon," she whispered before adding a dash of the flakes on the mix turning it into a light pink.

"Cheese." Upon request Henry dropped the grated cheese into the mix by the handfuls as Regina whisked it into a thick cheesy mixture. Soon enough the pasta was added, mixed evenly with the cheese.

Regina looked through the cupboards for a serving platter, but Henry had tilted his head in confusion and said his mom just plated food from the pot. Not one to break habit, she took two plates and scooped a large serving of the pasta onto both plates. Henry eagerly hopped down from his spot on the chair to grab glasses and juice, setting it down on the table.

Regina watched with a hopeful eye as Henry stabbed a fork into his meal and popped the helping into his mouth. His face scrunched up, no doubt from the spice of the cayenne pepper, but she was relieved that he hadn't spat it out.

"So?" Regina asked hopefully, seeking the approval of her girlfriend's nine-year old son.

"It's good!" Henry beamed digging into the pasta with gusto.

Regina had faced rooms filled with executives, looking to invest in her parents' hotel chain lines, prestigious buyers of fine art, and some of the hardest critiques she had ever met, but Henry's approval meant more to her than all of those combined.

"I can't believe you've never seen the X-Men trilogy before," Henry said after dinner, the first two X-Men movies, and brushing his teeth.

He climbed into bed, snuggling into his Iron Man sheets wearing his matching Iron Man pyjamas.

"Next time we'll have to finish the last one," Regina said still standing in his doorway, unsure of what to do next.

"We could finish it now," Henry suggested with an innocent shrug.

"Nice try, mister," she scolded playfully.

Henry pouted then glanced up at her shyly. "Can you read me a story?"

"Of course, dear." Regina stepped fully into the room and found no space to sit as Henry scurried to pick out a book. She shrugged and sat on the edge of his bed as he pulled a large fairy tale book onto his lap.

"Fairy tales?" Regina asked curiously flipping through the pages.

"My mom used to read it to me when I was younger," Henry explained. "She hasn't tucked me in a long time."

The sadness in his voice was evident no matter how hard the boy tried to sound indifferent. Regina instinctively placed a palm to his cheek as she lowered her gaze to meet his.

"Do you get upset that your mother works so much?"

"She needs to." His answer was one Regina was sure he told himself whenever he needed convincing.

"Yes, but that doesn't necessarily mean she wants to," she insisted. "If she had a choice, she would spend all her time with you, tucking you in, watching movies-"

"Making Kraft Dinner," he added in making Regina smirk.

"Yes, she would still be doing that, wouldn't she?"

Henry nodded smiling softly.

"You miss her." It was an observation rather than a question, but the boy looked hesitant to confirm that. Regina moved her palm down to Henry's hand, holding his in both of hers and squeezed reassuringly. "I can guarantee you that your mother would rather be here with you more than anything in the entire world. Do you know why?"

He shook his head.

She smiled tapping his nose. "Because you are so special and so intelligent, and above all, her son whom she loves very much and would move the sun and stars to make you happy."

Henry was quiet for a moment in contemplation. Regina had to refrain from smiling softly that both he and his mother shared the same glint in their eyes when they thought hard on a subject.

"I know," he began after a moment before lowering his voice and whispering the last part, "but what if I just want her home at night?"

Regina bit her lip knowing she was encroaching on dangerous territory. She knew exactly how Henry felt, desperate for a mother's attention, but she was grateful that the boy at least knew that he was Emma's world. Words were part of Regina's arsenal when it came to acquiring many things in her life, but words failed her at this moment, not knowing how to assuage Henry's sadness.

She kissed the top of his head affectionately, pulling him closer to her in a lingering hug. "Soon," she promised. "Your mother will be home soon."

Henry nodded, and after a beat, he flipped to a specific page in the book of Regina's lap and pointed to the story. "Can you read that one? That's mine and mom's favourite."

"Gladly," Regina nodded as she glanced down at the page. "The White Knight and the Evil Queen. Once upon a time there was an Evil Queen..."

Regina had never babysat before in her life. Her teenage years were not spent earning wages babysitting for her mother's friend's children or the local neighbours. It was spent taking piano lessons, being president of her private school's student council and debate team, organizing events that made the front page of her school newspaper, and taking advanced classes. None of those classes were Parenting, her mother deeming such a class as trivial since motherhood should be instinctual. Regina never commented on the fact that Cora never acted like any of her friend's mothers, but like always, Cora knew best.

Watching over Henry had been relatively easy if not nerve wracking. She wasn't sure what the protocol was for bath time or if the boy needed a certain night light on, but with Henry's help, she had gotten through the evening with nothing to report. It was just when Henry had fallen asleep right when the Knight had broken the Evil Queen's curse with True Love's kiss did Regina start to wonder what on earth she should do now.

Leaving Henry's door open a crack for good measure, Regina set about tidying the place, washing the dishes and replacing them back into their proper homes. Plating the leftovers into the fridge. She picked up Emma's wayward clothes and Henry's misplaced toys, putting the clothes into a laundry hamper in Emma's closer and the toys in an organized pile in the corner of the living room. She couldn't suppress her yawn as she peeked into Henry's room at eleven, finding the boy sprawled haphazardly in his bed.

Regina couldn't help the worried feeling that gnawed at her. She was responsible for Henry and if anything happened to him during the night, it would be her fault.

So Regina attempted to stay up all night, checking in every half hour just to make sure he was safe in his bed. On the half hour mark, Regina's phone would vibrate, waking her from the small nap she was able to get by sleeping in Emma's bed, dressed in one of Emma's old band tshirts as a night gown, and she would tread quietly into Henry's room, pleased to find him asleep. By the time three am came around, Regina shuffled blurry-eyed into Henry's room, but her eyes snapped open as a shadowy figure loomed over him.

Senses alert now, Regina didn't hesitate to march over to the bed, grabbing Henry's fairy tale book she left on his nightstand and smack the intruder on the back.

"Ow Jesus fu-!"

Regina turned on his lamp, shocked to see Emma, half leaning on his bed with a hand to her back.

"Oh my god, Emma." Regina immediately rushed over to the blonde and tried to steady her.

"Mom?" Henry's sleep-ridden voice sounded, his head coming off his pillow a few inches trying to get a handle on what was happening despite his sleepy haze.

Emma hissed as she leaned toward him, soothing him back down with a hand to his head. "I'm here, bud. Go back to sleep."

Within an instant, he was asleep again, unaware that Regina was still holding the fairy tale book she had used to briefly incapacitate his mother with. Regina set the book down and helped Emma to her feet. "I thought you were an intruder."

"So your weapon of choice is a book?" Emma asked, turning off the lamp and letting Regina lead her out of the room.

"It clearly worked."

They turned, already entering Emma's room with Regina leading her to the bed. They sat as Emma stretched, getting a feel for her stinging back. "Remind me not to piss you off in the future."

"That's just good advice, dear."

Emma glared. "Come on, you attacked me with a book."

"Stop being such a big baby," Regina rolled her eyes. "If you'd like, I'll kiss it better."

"Yes," Emma answered, already pulling off her leather vest and tank top leaving her in a neon green cotton bra. "Kiss it better."

Regina rolled her her eyes but gently pushed Emma down onto the bed, nudging her to turn her onto her front. She straddled Emma's lower back, her bare thighs squeezing around the blonde's hips as she settled forward, massaging the place between Emma's shoulder blades before lowering herself and pressing feather soft kisses on the spot she had hit. The moan that escaped Emma's throat didn't go unnoticed as soon as Regina's core, covered only by her lace panties, came in contact with Emma's bare back.

"Better?" She whispered into Emma's ear.

The blonde exhaled breathily as her eyes fluttered shut. "I don't know, I got assaulted with a weapon."

Regina chuckled lightly still flushed firmly against Emma as her hands massaged the blonde's tense shoulders. "I thought you were tough."

"And you are very skilled with your hands."

Regina nipped at Emma's earlobe. "You should see what else I could do with them."

Emma tilted her head as far back as she could with a raised eyebrow. "Oh really?"

"Mmhmm." Regina reared up on her knees back to straddling the younger woman's waist. She lifted herself up a few inches to allow Emma to turn onto her back, the blonde's hands travelling up Regina's thighs as they settled under the band shirt and on Regina's taut stomach.

"Show me." Emma's eyes had darken to near black, blonde curls fanning the pillow beneath her like a halo.

Regina subconsciously rocked into Emma's hips, her heart beating rapidly from Emma's words alone. She took a deep, shuddering breath, placing her hands over Emma's as they dug into her flesh.

"I believe I already gave you a preview, dear," Regina whispered huskily as she trailed their hands up her front, her shirt riding up as they went to reveal the bottom of her breasts. "It's your turn to show me."

Emma took the lead, pushing their hands up over Regina's breasts massaging the soft mounds beneath her fingertips with Regina's hands still covering her own. With Regina's soft moans and her rhythmic hip rocking, Emma didn't hesitate to lift the long tee off the brunette's shoulders leaving her naked except for those damp panties.

"My weapon of choice," Emma breathed out as she sat up making Regina gasp at the shock, "isn't my hands."

Emma made her point with a hot kiss right above Regina's panty line, leaning Regina back a few inches to give herself space to suck and lap just below Regina's belly button. Licking so close to where Regina needed her most, the brunette faltered in keeping herself steady and leaned back on the palm of one hand while the other clutched the back of Emma's neck desperately. Emma moved her kisses up slowly, nipping the skin every so often before she finally returned to the breast she had unfortunately abandoned earlier that day. Sighing contentedly, she brought it to her mouth, eager to complete her previously unfinished task. Her tongue moved over Regina's nipple, the bud hardening in her mouth while her hand massaged the neglected one, twisting the bud between her fingers and earning herself a deep and loud moan.

"Shhh," Emma eased pulling back with a pop.

Regina swallowed and nodded, biting her lip to keep her moans at bay, and the sight of her rocking on top of Emma becoming more and more turned on fueled Emma's fire. She moved her mouth to the other breast, giving it the same treatment before finally claiming Regina's lips within her own. Emma barely registered the fact that Regina had unclasped her bra and and tossed it to the side. She was too busy pulling Regina into her and lifting her hips to turn them over, Emma leaning over the brunette with a predatory glean.

The surprised yelp Regina gave had Emma smirking, but she pressed a sweet kiss to her lips as a reminder. "We have to be quiet."

"Easy for you to say," Regina ground out feeling Emma's knee against her wet heat.

She grabbed a fist full of blanket feeling Emma's lips on her skin again, her flesh heating up and quivering with each stroke of pale, plump lips as they descended down to her pelvis where Emma pressed a firm kiss to the center of her red lace panties. Her hips bucked up involuntarily, needing more contact, needing Emma on her immediately. Sensing her desire, Emma reared up on onto her elbows and slipped Regina's panties off her legs leaving her completely bare.

Emma sucked in a breath seeing Regina exposed before her, chocolate eyes gazing up at her with lust, wonder, and something else entirely. Her chest was heaving with anticipation, but her legs had come together in an attempt to remain modest as Emma began memorizing everything about Regina's body from her slender curves to the small mole to the left of her hip.

Determined to even out the playing field, Emma unbuckled her jeans, her eyes never leaving Regina's as Regina watched Emma tug her jeans down her thighs and then lifted to shimmy them down her legs with her underwear. She crawled over to the brunette with her hands on both of Regina's thighs, her voice soft and tentative. "Can I?"

"Yes." Her answer came out breathily, ridden with desire and impatience.

Regina remained leaning on her elbows as she watched Emma ease her legs open, pushing them upwards toward the bed, exposing Regina's dripping core entirely.

"Jesus," Emma said in reverence as her gaze zeroed in on the wetness between Regina's thighs.

With an experimental finger, Emma brought her index up to the bottom of Regina slit and stroked up, collecting as much wetness as she could. Regina moaned at the sensation, tilting her head back and shutting her eyes as her pelvis rocked closer to Emma. Bringing the finger to her lips for a taste, Emma waited until Regina opened her eyes to watch her as she sucked her finger clean, loving the tangy taste that was uniquely Regina.

"I thought your weapon wasn't your fingers," Regina reminded, though the pleading in her tone didn't go unnoticed.

Emma smirked before pushing the back of Regina's thighs higher, opening up her heat before bringing her mouth down to lap at the wetness coating her folds.

"God," Regina groaned at the first contact.

Emma grinned into her, licking up and down her slit, teasing Regina's entrance. When a hand snaked into Emma's hair, the blonde took the hint and thrust her tongue into Regina's waiting heat already feeling the the pull of her muscles. The grip in her hair had Regina encouraging her, asking silently for more.

Emma grinned again before pulling away entirely, enjoying the small whimper and wide eyes from Regina when Emma sat up and crawled over to her. Before Regina could even think to ask why Emma stopped, Emma kissed her fully, letting her tongue explore the older woman's making sure she knew just how good she tasted.

"You taste so good," Emma voiced kissing her again as her core unintentionally ground against Regina's.

They both moaned out from the unexpected contact, but Regina pulled Emma's lips to hers in an attempt to swallow the noise before it got too loud.

"Then why did you stop?"

Emma understood the implication and didn't need to be told twice. In a moment her mouth was on Regina, making the older woman fall back onto the bed and arch her back. She needed Emma to touch her, to kiss and suck her there.

With a strangled cry from Regina, Emma thrust her tongue into her core once more before completely sucking her throbbing clit into her mouth. Regina pressed further into Emma's mouth, her hips wanton as they sought the sweet and delicious attention Emma was providing. She alternated between flicking and lapping then moving to her entrance again to thrust her tongue inside her before moving back to her aching nub.

The breathless pants and the gush of wetness let Emma know that Regina was close and with a firm suck and with two fingers plunging into Regina, the brunette came hard all over Emma's mouth. She twisted her fingers, groaning at the muscles that squeezed them tightly as her head bobbed up and down with Regina. Soon, Regina eased her hips down permanently, her thighs quivering to the touch as Emma pulled out her fingers and gave Regina's core one final kiss before crawling up and over the panting brunette.

Regina's eyes fluttered open with a lazy smirk on her face as she tugged Emma down onto her, the mouths instantly seeking each other.

"You said you wouldn't use your hands," Regina muttered against pink lips.

"I don't hear you complaining." Emma pressed their lips together again before laying down on the older woman, half her body on Regina's torso while the other half lay on the bed.

Regina shrugged coyly as her lips moved from Emma's mouth down the sleek column of her throat. She easily moved aside letting the younger woman lay on her stomach on the bed before curling up over her and pulling them up on their sides with Emma's back pressed against Regina's front. Regina kept her mouth on the base of Emma's neck, sucking and kissing lazily as perfectly manicured fingers trailed over Emma's breasts, her nipples pebbling at the touch alone. Her mouth never wavered once as her hand continued southward, pressed firmly against pale, goosebumped flesh, until it reached the apex of Emma's thighs where the blonde moaned out in anticipation, clutching the free arm Regina had wrapped around the younger woman from behind to keep her steady.

Instinctively, Emma parted her legs, her right moving behind Regina's as the brunette used her right knee to place it against Emma's dripping mound. The blonde ground automatically upon contact, but Regina removed it just out of her reach and tsked in her ear. Before Emma could argue or beg, Regina inserted a finger into Emma, thrusting once then twice before adding a second and then applying pressure from her knee.

Emma gasped at the pleasant intrusion, bringing Regina's arm up to her face to bite down on the moan that desperately wanted to escape. She licked the bite mark but continued to rock with the rhythm of Regina's fingers while the brunette absent-mindedly continued sucking on Emma as if she wasn't bringing the blonde to the best orgasm of her life.

The heated make out sessions and this morning especially had been a wicked form of foreplay for Emma, and with deeper thrusts and harder more precise grinds, Emma was coming, her mouth opened in a silent scream before Regina forced her head to turn back and swallow the sound that was sure to come out when she added her thumb to Emma's clit. Emma tore her mouth away releasing a guttural growl as another wave of pleasure took hold of her. It was only due to Regina's right hold on her did she not thrash uncontrollably.

Her hips eventually stopped rocking, and when Regina moved her knee and let her fingers slip away, Emma turned suddenly in her eyes and kissed the brunette senseless.

Emma pulled back, her eyes back to their normal blue-green but there was a hint of wonder and amazement in them as she lowered her forehead onto Regina's and breathed out contentedly.

"What's a girl like you doing with a girl like me?" She asked again, quietly but seeking a true answer.

Regina weaved her behind the base of her neck and smiled up at her. Her own eyes were wide and vulnerable, but there was no way she could deny what she was feeling at that moment.

"I must really like you," Regina whispered, her fingers playing with strands of sweaty blonde locks.

"Thank god for my natural charm," Emma smirked lowering her head to kiss the brunette's nose.

They peppered kisses on one another, wrapped in each other's embrace whispering into the darkness. Neither had ever held such a substantial relationship in years, but they were both beginning to realize just how easy it was simply holding on to one another. They were both beginning to realize that it was becoming much more than simply liking each other.

Chapter Text

Emma carried up a crate full of shot glasses from The Wooden Whale's basement. When she first started working at the bar, it amazed her how many glasses August went through in a month alone what with people breaking them in their drunken haze and excitement. Not to mention the amount of glasses Emma herself broke when she first learned how to toss them around none too gracefully. It took her a few months to finally pay August back for all those broken dishes, but the practice had made her one of the best.

Every few months August would close down the bar for a day or two and take inventory, recording what needed to be restocked, what he could stop buying, and if anything needed replacing. So far, they could use a new pool table and fix one of the speakers in the back. As tedious as a task it was, Emma loved inventory days. She was usually home by dinner and August paid overtime, so it was a win-win for the manager.

She hummed along as Survivor blared over the speakers, using her back to open the door that led to the bar to find Ruby sitting cross-legged on the bar counter with a newspaper in front of her and a clipboard in her lap as August called out how much alcohol was still on shelf.

Ruby looked up when Emma placed the crate on the counter and lifted herself up to turn onto the other side. The brunette grinned wickedly. "Hey, Mystery Woman."

"What?" Emma asked, rinsing out the shot glasses and placing them in their proper spots.

August laughed from under the counter. "You haven't seen, have you?"

"Seen what?"

He popped out with empty bottles in his arms and deposited them into a box for recycling.

Ruby held up the paper and made a show out of clearing her throat. "Also seen at Jefferson Hatter's opening gallery was Regina Mills accompanied by an unnamed woman featured left."

She held up the aged paper from over two weeks ago and showed Emma the picture of herself and Regina outside Jefferson's party. Emma furrowed her brows and crossed the bar to get a good look at the picture. She remembered hearing Regina's mom saying something about it but actually seeing it with her own eyes was different. Regina looked poised and elegant as always, but even Emma could see that she looked uncomfortable with a forced tight smile on her face. She cringed remembering that night.

"Why do you still have this?"

"'Cause my little princess is growing up," August teased squeezing the blonde's cheeks before she could swat him away. "I was thinking of getting it blown up and framing it on the wall so that people will know you used to work here before you leave us when you become famous and Regina's trophy wife."

Emma glared lightly pushing him away before returning to putting the glasses on the racks.

"You looked hot," Ruby offered taking back the paper. "The dress suits you."

"They didn't think so," Emma muttered under her breath.

"Who said that?" August asked as he continued with his counting.

"If you ever run into a woman named Maleficent, stomp on her overpriced Manolo Blahniks."

Ruby gave a dutiful salute in confirmation. "So it wasn't fun?" She asked making a note to order more gin.

Emma shrugged. "It's not my scene."

"Why do you keep going?" August stopped his counting and moved to leaning on the counter beside Ruby.

"Yeah, you're going to one next week, aren't you?" The brunette added.

Both her friends had stopped working and were staring expectantly at Emma. She ran a hand through her hair feeling like this was an interrogation. She nodded, hoping that was enough to provide an answer, but their intent glares told her she wasn't so lucky.

"Regina asks me to go, and the one next week is a small party thing at her studio, so I kind of have to go to that one," Emma offered.

"Wow," August said with a smirk. "You're whipped."

Ruby provided the whipping noise almost immediately.

Emma glared with her hands on her hips. "I am not whipped."

"You've given up more shifts and taken day shifts in the time that you've known her than all the time you've been working here," he pointed out. "Have her swirling chocolate eyes, lean, languid frame, and voice that sounds like sex after months of separation really tamed the famous Emma Swan?"

Emma glared at his comments. She hated that he could get all poetry and stuff whenever he teased her, but his previous observations hadn't been wrong.

August suddenly turned serious eyeing the blonde. "Are you gonna make rent this month?"

Emma's mouth opened at the question. She was initially offended at his audacity, but when she thought about it, Emma began to realize that it was a legitimate concern. She knit her eyebrows thinking back to how much she had made this month, how many times she had given away a shift and mentally added up all that she had to pay off. Crap. She forgot Henry's birthday present was a pretty penny. Plus she had to pay to get her car fixed last week. She refused to tap into Henry's college fund, but she had some saved for a rainy day. She hoped.

"Yeah," Emma answered but her voice was uncertain. "Yeah, I'm good this month."

"Emma," August said sternly.

"Really," she replied turning her back and getting to work. "I've got it covered."

"All right, princess," August sighed. Emma didn't miss the look he gave Ruby indicating he didn't believe the blonde one bit.

"Don't call me that," she groaned.

"I like Mystery Woman," Ruby decided. "You got a Jessica Rabbit thing going on here with that."

Emma and August shook their heads laughing while Ruby squinted. "What? She does." She scooted off the counter and sauntered over to Emma, lacing her arm through the blonde's and turning her away from her task. "So what do you do at these things?"

Before Emma could answer, Ruby tugged them over to August who tilted one side of his mouth up in amusement. Ruby lowered her voice to a husky octave and narrowed her eyes, her lips pouting suggestively. "I'm Regina Mills, and this is my lover, Emma."

Emma laughed out loud stealing her arm back. "One: she does not sound like that. Two: she would never introduce me as her lover."

"This is what I pay you guys for?" August muttered to himself before grabbing the full box of recyclables and moving around the counter. "You guys better be working by the time I get back."

They ignored him as he left the bar, leaving a flustered Emma and a determined Ruby behind the bar. The brunette grinned and hopped back up on the counter, her stilettos crossed about her ankles lithely. "So you're really just arm candy, huh?"

"I am not," she huffed, grabbing Ruby's clipboard and crouching down to complete August's job. "I talk to her friends, and we discuss art and stuff."

"Sounds boring."

"Told you, not my thing."

"Well here." Ruby's long arm span allowed her to reach over and tug Emma up. The confused blonde wasn't given a chance to speak when Ruby pressed Emma's shoulders back, tilted her chin upwards and forced the blonde to make eye contact. "No one will give you trouble if you walk around like you own the place."

The brunette slid off the counter and surveyed the blonde, walking around her and making adjustments to her posture. "Talk like you know what you're talking about. Rule of thumb when you're feeling lost: talk about them."

"Why would I do that?" Emma turned her head to question but Ruby forced Emma's chin back keeping her posture and poise.

"Because everyone loves talking about themselves, and I'm sure Regina would appreciate it," the brunette winked saucily as she made her way back to Emma's front.

"How do you know this'll work?" The blonde asked warily. "Those people can smell the subway on me."

Ruby grinned. "How do you think I got this job?"

"You look marvellous, darling," Regina whispered in Emma's ear as the blonde toyed with a loose strand of hair in front of the mirror.

The party had been in full swing when she had arrived at Regina's studio, and already Emma had gulped down two glasses of champagne. The new deep midnight blue dress bedazzled with beads along the collar had not been easy to swing by, but she needed to rectify how she had acted the last time she was at one of these things. Plus the look on Regina's face as she took in the dress with the low v-neckline made Emma grin foolishly.

Feeling Regina's breath in her ear, Emma relaxed her shoulders and held her head high, her chin tilted up just as Ruby had showed her and her eyes dark and narrowed, taking in the scene. She didn't know any of the suits or fancy dresses milling about the studio as they networked with one another, and quite frankly, in any other circumstance she wouldn't give a damn to find out, but this was an occasion for Regina. This was Regina's turn to expand her horizons and get her name out there on her own accord. The woman deserved Emma on her best behaviour, and she was going to give it to her. With a peck to her cheek, Emma took two flute glasses off a passing waiter and handed one to Regina before leading the woman around the room where some of her past work stood on display.

Regina stopped them by a man nursing a tumbler of scotch, and Emma and Regina alike refrained from outwardly rolling their eyes as they watched him ogle any and all woman walking on two legs.

"Victor," Regina tapped his shoulder lightly gaining his undivided attention as he raked his eyes up both women. "It's good to see you here."

"Likewise," Victor winked.

With a hand on her lower back, Regina pressed Emma forward though kept her close. "Allow me to introduce my partner. Emma Swan."

Emma gulped lightly mentally rehearsing every single step she had to take into account. She tended bars every night. Working a room of dignified stiffs couldn't be harder than wrangling a bunch of drunk college boys. Though judging by the look on this guy's face he could be classified as a college boy from an Ivy League.

She tilted her chin upwards and smiled dazzlingly, her eyes lighting up to show sincerity before she extended her hand. "How do you do?"

"Better now." Victor took her hand and held it in his for much too long since Regina very obviously drew Emma back to her. "I see Regina's met a fine catch."

"Have you seen her work?" Emma said motioning about the room before smiling at Regina. "She has quite the eye."

"That I believe." His eyes were predatory, but Emma made it a point to sidle closer to Regina, her arm wrapped possessively around the older woman's waist.

Regina's name called from the other side of the room caught their attention. The brunette looked loathed to leave, either because she didn't want to leave Emma alone with Victor or because Emma tended to run her mouth when she was alone was a toss up, but with an apologetic frown Regina excused herself, not before whispering into Emma's ear. "Watch for his hands."

Emma nodded minutely as she sipped her champagne.

As soon as Regina was out of earshot, Victor closed the distance between them. "So what do you do that impressed the elusive Regina Mills?"

Emma knew admitting her occupation would get her scorn, but she wasn't about to lie. Though how cool would it be to pretend to be some celebrity for the evening? Instead she did what she does best and worked at making the patrons she was serving feel good. "It could have easily been you. Let me guess. Lawyer?"

"Doctor," Victor answered with a smug grin.

Emma quirked her eyebrows feigning impression, but the man bought it nonetheless.

"I'm a buyer," Victor continued as his eyes trailed up and down Emma's body. "I have a taste for the fine arts."

"I'm sure you do," she murmured into her glass.

"She is a very lucky lady," he insisted, his voice lowering an octave.

Emma bit her tongue, desperately wanting to knee this guy in the balls and then some. Instead she smiled politely, watching as he took another step forward to close the gap between them. Before he could successfully complete his task, Emma held out a hand and pressed it on his shoulder, pushing him away gently but firmly under the guise of inspecting his suit. "A doctor huh? That explains this Armani suit."

He chuckled appreciatively, straightening his tie before sipping his scotch. "There are benefits to the job."

"Tell me about them."

Emma stood there listening to him going on and on about his lavish lifestyle and all his successful surgeries as she tried her very best to seem interested, nodding politely and making sounds of acknowledgment. It worked since he continued oblivious to Emma's feigned disinterest. With a dazzling smile and a hand on his arm, Emma excused herself, relieved when he didn't follow though she felt his eyes on her ass as she left.

She milled about aimlessly, casting a glance to Regina across the room who was still engaged in conversation with an older gentleman she had met at Jefferson's. The soft sound of Regina's laughter seemed to travel across the room landing on Emma's ear. The blonde smiled softly as soon as she locked gazes with Regina who subtly turned her attention from the man to Emma, brown eyes twinkling with mirth and plump red lips quirking upwards before her attention moved back to the man. In her distraction, Emma backed into someone, the surprised yelp from the other person causing her to jump.

"I'm so sorry," Emma turned reaching a hand out in apology.

"It's perfectly all right." The woman she had backed into smiled, her petite stature deceiving her impassive pixie-like face.

She was perfectly put together though looking quite simple in her navy blue long sleeve dress and primmed brunette locks, and despite her friendly tone, there was something about her that made Emma wary.

"Ghorm," the woman said extending her hand. "Rachel Ghorm."

"Emma Swan." Emma took the proffered hand in hers with a firm shake.

Rachel pressed a finger to her chin as she narrowed her eyes in recognition. "I've seen you in the paper with Regina."

"Yes," she smiled. "That would be me."

"My, you're nearly famous."

Emma chuckled nervously. "I'm sorry, I can't say I know who you are."

"That's okay," Rachel's eyes twinkled knowingly as they walked along the floor-to-ceiling windows where Regina's collection from the youth center was displayed on stands. "I've been following her work since she came out, and I have to say I've noticed a difference in it."

"She likes her black and white prints, that's for sure," Emma agreed motioning to the collection done exclusively in that colour tone.

"What do you think changed?" Rachel turned an inquisitive head toward Emma, eyeing the blonde as if her answer was a make-or-break decision.

Emma swallowed the final swig of her champagne, eyeing the room and Regina's various pictures in it hoping to buy herself some time. By the time she pulled the flute away, she tilted her head realizing it would be futile to bullshit. She hadn't known Regina for long but watching her at her shoot at the center was one of Emma's fondest memories of her. She knew Regina loved what she did, but watching her at the center brought a sparkle to chocolate eyes that even Emma couldn't deny.

"I think she's finally getting a feel for where she belongs," Emma answered eventually.

"What do you mean by that?" Rachel narrowed her eyes curiously.

"Well like these ones," the blonde motioned to the photos before them, one of a four year old with a basketball much too big for his size in his hands as he looked up to the net with the shadow of an older teen over him in the same position. "You see a lot more of Regina's personality in this set of pictures alone versus the ones she did before." Emma nodded her head to the other side of the room but quickly held out her hand in reassurance. "Not that those weren't any good, I mean they were, I think she's great, but these ones, she put herself in these ones and it shows."

Rachel smiled lightly and nodded her head. "Well it was very nice to meet you Emma Swan."

Emma watched the small woman walk away but was instantly greeted by Regina returning to her, casting a look over her shoulder as Rachel stopped her for a moment to talk briefly with Regina before finally reaching Emma. Within moments of kissing her cheek, Emma was swept away making small talk with the crowd with Regina by her side.

Emma leaned against the hallway wall as Regina locked up her studio, frowning at her phone as she replayed the voicemail she had just listened to from her landlord in her head. It was no surprise she was late on rent again. The lady who had been her landlord was more than lenient with Emma, sympathizing with her situation and allowing payments to be late with no immediate repercussions, but this time she wasn't sure if she had the money to pay her, not until well into the month at least, and Emma was sure even kind Mrs. Johnson wouldn't stand for that. She could ask the bank for a loan, but she knew the interest rates weren't worth a couple hundred bucks for right now. Ruby would definitely lend her the money, but she already owed her from the last time she was down on funds, and there was no way in hell she was asking her boss for a hand even if he was more a friend than authority figure most times. She bit her lip and shook her head. Looks like she was going to have to make a trip to the bank tomorrow.

"What's wrong?" Emma snapped her head up and quickly hid her phone in her bag as if the mere presence of the device would reveal her problems to Regina who had snuck up in front of her.

Emma smiled weakly and shook her head. "Ready to go?"

"Emma," Regina insisted, tugging the blonde when she pushed off the wall. "Did someone say something again?"

"I was on my best behaviour."

"I wasn't talking about yours. I was asking about theirs."

Emma's lip twitched upward, mentally fist pumping in a small victory that Regina trusted her. "Victor was kind of gross, but I've dealt with his kind before."

Regina closed the gap, placing a soft kiss on the corner of her lips. "That's not all, is it?"

"It's nothing," Emma insisted, lacing their fingers together as she walked them down the stairs. Her voice was uncertain and her tone was flat, but Emma hoped that Regina didn't question her. When the brunette stopped them just short of the exit with a look that told her they would not be moving unless Emma caved, the blonde sighed dejectedly, pulling her hand away from Regina's and hugging her own waist tightly. "I'm just late on my rent again is all."

Regina pursed her lips and furrowed her brows. "That wouldn't have you so flustered as you are now."

"It isn't the first time I'm behind on bills," Emma admitted.

"But," Regina offered slowly before her mouth formed a small 'o' in realization. She stepped closer and placed a tentative hand on Emma's wrist. "It's the first time you can't pay it?"

Emma averted her gaze, her cheeks blushing pink as her body tensed tightly even under the warmth of Regina's palm. "It's fine."

Regina caught Emma's chin forcing the blonde to look at her. Green eyes shifted desperately, but eventually they landed permanently Regina's. "I can help-"

"No." Emma pulled back her chin immediately and winced at Regina's face of rejection. "I mean, I just, I can get by. I can pick up more shifts and-"

"Isn't Henry's Thanksgiving recital this week?"

"Yeah, but-"

"No." Regina's tone was firm and not to be messed with, and it was reminiscent of when Emma initially met the woman. "You will not be missing his recital under any circumstance."

"He'd understand-"

"Have you missed any before?" Emma shook her head looking sheepish. "Then this will not be the first. Is that clear?"

Emma nodded her head, the blush on her cheeks darkening.

"Let me help you," Regina implored, her voice significantly softer from the authoritative tone she had just taken with Emma.

Emma shifted from foot to foot as her gaze drifted downwards. After what felt like long minutes, she looked up at Regina from under her lashes, a meek and nervous expression plastered on her face that usually held such confidence. "I'll pay you back."

"Dear, you're already forced into dinner with my mother. Consider it compensation." Regina held her breath hoping Emma would take the rare joke she had made to lighten to the situation.

"I will," Emma promised whole heartedly.

Regina nodded and untangled Emma's arms from around her waist to reclaim the blonde's fingers as she pushed open the door and stepped out into the late night air. The sound of their heels clicked rhythmically along the sidewalk as they walked down the street toward her Benz. She wasn't sure if staying over at Emma's tonight was still an option since the blonde still seemed uncomfortable about their prior conversation, but as soon as Emma released their hands to wrap her arm around Regina's shoulder, the brunette knew the worst had passed.

By the time they were on their way back to Emma's, Regina kept her gaze focused on the road as she contemplated just how to bring up what she wanted to ask Emma for a majority of the night.

Her concentrated face wasn't lost on the blonde, and soon, Emma had draped her hand by Regina's headrest and nudged the brunette. "Your turn."

"What for?" Regina questioned as she made a turn onto the interstate.

"What's on your mind?"

Regina sighed but it didn't take long for her to realize Emma had shared a bigger problem than hers. "What did you say to Rachel Ghorm?"

"The fifties looking lady?" Emma clarified, receiving an affirmative nod from Regina. The blonde suddenly looked panicked and sat up straighter in her seat, turning to face Regina. "Why? Did she say something to you?"

"She complimented me on my work," Regina answered though she sounded disbelieving.

"Oh?" Emma sat back in her seat thoroughly confused. "Is that a bad thing?"

"Of course not. She's just never done that before."

"You need some new friends," Emma muttered under her breath.

"She's not my friend, she's a critic," Regina explained with a quirk to her lips. "And she has never once given me a positive review. Until now."

Emma beamed and sat up again. "Look at you impressing stiff critics. What did she say?"

Regina paused at a red light and looked intently at Emma as she quoted the woman's words. "'Whatever is inspiring you, hold on to it.'"

The corner of Emma's lips tilted upwards under Regina's stare until it turned into a full blown smile. "Yeah, maybe you should."

Regina rolled her eyes and stepped on the gas when the light turned green. "If you handled Rachel Ghorm perhaps my mother won't be such a terrifying event after all."

"Regina," Emma sat on the brunette's bed as Regina fussed over her hair. She had just changed into a fourth dress for the evening and already Emma could see that she was deeming it unacceptable. "Regina."

The brunette didn't hear her, muttering something in Spanish as she retreated to her closet, and if Emma's knowledge of the language was correct, she was pretty sure it was a curse. They were preparing to get ready to leave for long awaited dinner with Cora Mills.

Emma, dressed in a simple green cocktail dress courtesy of the one time she tended a wedding, and Henry dressed impeccably in a little suit had arrived at Regina's condo early. Henry had insisted, making the claim that he had never been there before and it was about time he got to know Regina's place. His face was priceless when they stepped into the lobby and had even tossed a penny into the fountain. Emma didn't have it in her to say she was pretty sure he wasn't allowed to do that. Instead, she ushered him to the elevator and into Regina's condo where Henry's eyes instantly widened at the size and cleanliness. He was now sitting downstairs, watching cartoons on Regina's flat screen as Emma continued trying to get the brunette's attention.

"Regina," Emma enunciated the name in a sing-song voice.

"What?" Regina snapped.

"Can you relax?" Emma asked standing from the bed and cornering the brunette in her closet where she found Regina attempting to zip up dress number five, which was really just a high waisted skirt coupled with a purple sleeveless blouse. She caught Regina's hand behind her back and helped ease the zipper the rest of the way, leaving her hands to rest on the older woman's hips as she placed a sweet kiss on the side of her neck. "You look phenomenal in whatever you wear. And your Spanish is hot."

Regina turned, glaring at Emma's afterthought only to receive an unapologetic smirk from the blonde.

"I know your mom is a little on the scary side, but I promise, she will love me," Emma insisted holding Regina's face between her palms. "And if she doesn't we have Henry to turn on the cuteness."

Regina relaxed at that, falling easily into Emma's support as she pressed closer, but the nervousness and fear in her eyes didn't dissipate. "Just, be careful what you say around her, and don't take anything she says too personally."

"Okay." Emma searched Regina's eyes, suddenly uncertain about the emotion she found in them. She remembered how scared Regina was a couple weeks ago when Cora came banging on her door unannounced, but she had attributed that to sheer panic of almost having her mom walk in on her while she was making out with the girlfriend she had yet to tell her mother about. But this fear was something Emma had seen far too often for her liking and had even seen it reflected in her own eyes in one or two foster homes. How bad could Cora Mills possibly be?

"Woah," Henry whispered as they approached the mansion. Even Emma had to refrain herself from mimicking her son's word choice as they drove up in Regina's Benz to the residence of Cora Mills.

The mansion was huge, far larger than even Jefferson's, and Emma thought that was outrageous. Its dark exterior would have blended in with the night if it weren't for the floodlights lining the house distinguishing it from the dark. They had bypassed a gate to enter, and the amount of land on the drive up was big enough to build a plaza on. Emma had only seen these houses in movies. Never in her life did she think this was actually real and she'd be experiencing it first hand.

"You used to live here?" Henry asked in awe as they pulled up in front of the house.

"Yes," Regina answered flatly. Emma whipped her head to the brunette. Regina never talked to Henry like that. She was always enthusiastic and indulgent whenever the boy was curious with questions or observations, but Regina simply sat in the driver's seat clutching the wheel tightly as she stared up at her childhood home.

Henry, blessed with youth ignorance, didn't catch Regina's tone and eagerly unbuckled his seat belt. He didn't bother waiting for the adults to come out and hopped out of the car, examining the house and its many statues lining the entrance.

"Regina?" Emma asked quietly, unraveling the brunette's grip on the wheel. "It'll be okay."

Regina scoffed. "Unlikely."

"You know, I had crappy foster parents before," the blonde tried.

"I love my mother," Regina insisted like a mantra.

Emma nodded, squeezing the hand between hers before she leaned over the gear shift and cupped Regina's face, kissing her languidly until she responded willingly.

"Feel better?" Emma asked quietly with their foreheads pressed together.

Regina nodded, her eyes still closed from the kiss before a soft smile graced her features. "Thank you."

"Don't worry. After this, we'll go home and laugh about all the awkward tension that will sure be happening tonight."

"'Home'?" Regina repeated hesitantly.

Emma inhaled sharply realizing her slip up. Regina and Emma were no strangers to sleepovers, though they were relegated to Emma's apartment since they both agreed Henry would be comfortable in his own bed rather than the couch in Regina's condo. The brunette's presence in her life and in her home was becoming more and more natural with Emma even surprising Regina at her studio throughout the day. It was hard not to think that the space they occupied together looked like a home. "Yeah," Emma stuttered. "I mean, unless you're too tired or something."

Regina grinned and was the one to initiate the next kiss, all lips and pleased pressure. "Then let's get this dinner over with."

A manservant met them at the entrance, already shedding their coats for them while another stood with a tray of champagne. Regina and Emma took one, and though Henry attempted at conning his way for a taste, they were ushered into the study, a room made of dark mahogany decorated with black leather chairs surrounding a blazing stone fireplace. With a promise that Cora would be arriving to meet them any minute, the trio sat on the couch with Henry nestled in between them. He was fidgeting, eager to explore, but a calming hand on his shoulder from his mother told him he had to restrain himself.

He kept himself busy by taking everything in with his eyes, surveying the large desk in front of the maroon tapestry-draped windows and floor to ceiling book case before finally settling on the family portrait that hung over the fireplace. He nudged Regina before pointing up at the painting. "That's you?"

Regina followed his gaze and smiled softly at the portrait of herself and her parents when she was eighteen. Her mother sat in a chair before her and her father where Regina had sidled up next to the man, a genuine smile on her face. "Yes, it is."

"Where's your dad?" Henry asked, staring up at the good looking tan man with his arm around his daughter.

"He passed away almost five years after that painting was done," Regina answered quietly, unconsciously leaning into the arm that Emma had weaved around her shoulders.

"Oh," Henry said meekly. "My dad's gone too, but it's okay because my mom took good care of me."

"That I did," Emma teased, patting down Henry's hair.

"Never forget how lucky you are to have Emma as your mother," Regina whispered to him with a grin before kissing his forehead.

"Regina." All three turned their head at the sound and looked to find Cora standing in the doorway, he hair up in an intricate updo looking powerful in her pantsuit.

Emma involuntarily gulped as they all stood to greet the woman as she walked into the room. She had never physically met Cora, only having heard her voice and that alone sent chills up Emma's spine. Despite her small stature, Cora walked with an air of authority, no doubt something Regina had inherited, but with dark beady eyes, Emma could already sense why Regina was so fearful of this woman.

"Mother," Regina greeted meeting the woman halfway to give her a light kiss on the cheek before turning to motion to Emma and Henry, the blonde with her hands around her son's shoulders keeping him close to her. "May I introduce Emma Swan and her son, Henry. This is my mother, Cora Mills."

Emma remembered herself and smiled politely, moving with Henry to offer her hand. "Hi. It's nice to finally meet you."

"Of course," Cora replied only briefly taking Emma's hand. "Though I wish we would have met before my daughter plastered your relationship in the paper." She turned a bright smile to Henry, oblivious to the dumbfounded looks on both Regina and Emma's face. "Hello."

"Hello," he responded shyly. "You have a really nice home."

"So well-mannered," Cora noticed quite impressed with a nod to Regina as if she was solely responsible for Henry's manners. She straightened and turned, already halfway to the door. "Come along."

The dining room, like any other room in the house, was decorated in dark woods of black, brown, and deep red. Emma had imagined the table would have been one of those fifteen foot dining room tables where passing the salt from one end to the other would have called for a small game of hot potato, but seeing the dining room table that looked like one in a model home, large and decorated with flowers and candles and never used before now, Emma felt marginally better.

Cora sat at the head then directed Regina to her right and Emma to her left where Henry rushed to sit next to his mother. The man who had greeted them with drinks at the door returned and poured each adult a glass of wine and poured Henry sparkling water in his own wine glass. Emma smirked as the boy drank eagerly from the glass.

"Are we waiting for someone?" Regina asked indicating the place setting beside her.

Cora raised an eyebrow at her daughter. "Did you forget that Killian would be joining us for dinner?"

"I assumed it would have been canceled considering Emma and Henry are here."

"Nonsense," Cora smiled before turning toward Emma. "Killian Jones is an old friend of the family. He and Regina grew up together. They were inseparable in their youth."

"Oh," Emma said with a nervous chuckle and a forced smile. Perhaps she shouldn't have based tonight's events on the size of the dinner table. She caught Regina's apologetic eye from across the table, shrugging lightly in reassurance before directing her gaze back to Cora. "He sounds like a good friend."

"I was more than a friend, love." Killian Jones, entering the dining room looking every bit as the tall, dark, and handsome man Emma assumed he would be, stalked right up to Cora and gave the older woman a hug before stopping by Regina and taking her hand in his and pulling her up from her chair, placing a lingering kiss on her cheek.

Regina tensed under his lips and glared at him before pulling away and sitting back down in her seat. He made his way over to Emma and took her hand in his bringing her knuckles to his lips as he kept his blue steely gaze on hers. "And you must be Emma Swan."

"Yeah," Emma replied tightly pulling her hand back uncomfortably. She draped a hand behind Henry's back and said pointedly. "And this is my son."

To Emma's surprise, Killian crouched down by Henry's chair and held out his hand, allowing the boy to shake it. "You've got a strong young lad here, Swan."

He didn't wait for a response and moved around the table to sit next to Regina, winking at the brunette before holding out his hand, and within moments, a tumbler of whiskey was in his hand. "I apologize for my late arrival. There were some shipments I had to take care of by the docks."

"It's quite all right, Killian," Cora conceded for him then turned toward Emma. "Killian and his family import fine jewels from all over the world. What is it that you do again?"

Emma widened her eyes momentarily knowing just how bad a dancing bartender sounded being compared to an importer and the CEO of a hotel chain. Thankfully the soup was served before them, earning the blonde a few precious minutes to work out a suitable answer in her head. She stalled further though by tasting the Italian wedding soup, hoping to gain points for complimenting Cora on it, but the older woman dismissed it claiming she had a renowned personal chef in the kitchen. Under Cora's scrutiny, Emma finally answered her question. "I'm a manager at a speciality bar downtown. The Wooden Whale."

"The Wooden Whale," Killian chuckled at the name. "I can only imagine what its speciality is."

"We entertain," Emma insisted narrowing her eyes at the man who kept stealing glances at Regina thinking Emma hadn't noticed. "We can juggle the bottles and pour fire shots." Emma took a moment to add as an afterthought. "And dance."

"Impressive," Cora drawled. "So it's like a circus."

"No, Mother," Regina piped up.

"My mom says they're like the Harlem Globetrotters of bartending," Henry added as he slurped his soup.

The adults turned to him, Emma patting his back affectionately while Regina smiled at him sincerely.

"I'm sorry, I'm unfamiliar with that term, but I assume that's a good thing what with Emma being the manager and all," Cora replied coolly. "Though you serving alcohol around your son is a little disconcerting."

"What?" Emma couldn't help but snap. "I've never brought him to work with me."

Cora didn't have to reply. The accepting condescending look was enough of an answer that no matter what Emma said, the preconceived notions the older woman had already made of her were her template.

"Mother," Regina pleaded, pressing her hand against Cora's wrist. "Emma is the best employee at her job and she is more than capable of being responsible for her son."

Cora's eyes simply moved to their connection and Regina released her as if she had been burned. Her mother glared between the two women before snapping at her butler to take her bowl away. Soon enough their soup bowls were removed and replaced with their meal consisting of a large helping of salmon, steak for Killian, grilled vegetables and roasted potatoes.

"So how is your picture taking, dear?" Cora asked as she divvied up her salmon into slices.

"I imagined you would have retreated back into the family business by now," Killian commented cutting into his steak.

"Very well," Regina spoke up more confidently than she had all evening. "I believe Ms. Ghorm is coming around, and that's all thanks to Emma."

Regina smiled brightly at the blonde with Emma returning the gesture.

"To Ms. Swan?" Cora asked. "I would have hoped your work would have spoken for itself. Tell me, Emma, what did you have to do to soften up one of Regina's toughest critics."

Emma frowned at Cora's statement, noting the smile suddenly gone from Regina's face and replaced with rigidity and distant eyes. Emma had seen that look before, and it pained her to realize she had seen it on Henry whenever she was called in for work on short notice. It was disappointment and practiced indifference. It was something Regina, a grown independent woman with a career to her name, nor Henry should ever have to feel. She stared directly at Cora, matching the intensity in the nearly black eyes that bore into her. "I told her the truth. Regina can take good pictures, that much is obvious, but she's found her niche. She's found the genre of photography that she excels at, and she doesn't need someone like Rachel Ghorm to tell her that she's good at her job."

The table was quiet at Emma's firm argument. Cora matched Emma's defiant gaze while Killian looked bored with the turn of conversation. Regina, however, looked impassive, but Emma could see from the slightly widened eyes that seemed to have glossed over that the brunette was grateful yet amazed. Henry, for his part, only looked up with the sudden silence but quickly dove back into his roasted potatoes.

Emma tilted her chin upward, daring Cora to counter her statements before speaking again. "I think you should be proud to have a daughter like Regina."

"I am," Cora insisted with a raise of her eyebrow.

The blonde sipped her wine glass and shrugged noncommittally, mimicking Cora's air of indifference. "I'm sure."

"So a bar, Swan?" Killian asked as the tension between the two glaring women grew to the point of uncomfortable."You must meet a lot of colourful people."

"I've also met colourful people at Regina's galleries," Emma replied smartly popping a broccoli in her mouth. "They're not privy to backstreets of New York."

Killian grinned before turning to face Regina. "Do you remember the weekend after your debutante ball we found ourselves at one of Jefferson's more flamboyant parties with performers hanging from the ceiling and him claiming it was art?"

Emma smirked into her glass when she saw the woman in front of her struggle to refrain from rolling her eyes as she chewed slowly, stalling from answering his question for as long as possible.

Regina finally swallowed and turned with a tight smile. "I remember you sneaking off with several of the performers there that night."

"To do what?" Henry piped up playing with his vegetables.

Emma snorted and bit her lip to refrain from laughing while Regina blushed and Killian raised an eyebrow to the boy. Cora examined them all carefully.

"Perhaps you can ask him, dear," Regina said jokingly.

Killian leaned closer toward the table and grinned at Henry. "It's just you and your mother, is it?" Henry nodded. "Ask me again when you're thirteen."

"Ah, no." Emma wrapped an arm protectively around Henry.

"What's a debutante ball?" Henry asked since his first question didn't receive a sufficient answer.

"When Regina turned eighteen, she received a ball to present her coming of age as a woman to the public," Cora answered fondly. "Killian, you were her escort for the evening."

He grinned winking at Regina, but it was the arm he draped over her chair that had Emma clenching her jaw.

Henry scrunched up his nose. "So you two dated?"


"No." Regina's voice was firm as she set her cutlery down a little too harshly.

"Regina," Cora scolded. "We're all adults here, save for the child. Past relationships are not ones to be ashamed of."

"Yes, well I wouldn't consider escorting someone to family functions while disappearing every hour doing god knows what with god knows who as dating," Regina said shortly. She softened her tone when she spoke to Henry, whispering conspiratorially across the table. "I have much better taste."

"Regina!" Cora hissed over Henry's giggle and Emma's proud smirk.

Regina whipped her eyes back to her mother but offered no apology. Killian laughed before sipping from his tumbler. "Same Regina. Fiery as always."

"You wouldn't know," Regina grimaced.

"You would, wouldn't you, love?" Killian leered at Emma knowingly.

The 'yes' was on the tip of Emma's tongue begging to be released to wipe that all-knowing grin off the man's face. She would have loved to have a claim over Regina, and seeing Cora's face blanch at the implication would have made this dinner enjoyable, but Henry was there, and Emma didn't know if her action would embarrass Regina or not. She simply smirked and narrowed her eyes, neither confirming nor denying Killian's question.

Cora cleared her throat with a look that silenced the adults at the table making them feel like bickering children. To everyone's surprise, she turned her attention to Henry who looked up feeling her stare.

"Henry," she said with a practised smile and an uncharacteristically softer tone. "You seem like a bright, young boy."

He nodded. "I'm getting all A's, even in gym."

"That's a good lad," Killian commented.

"Yeah, my class got extra credit in drama for doing the Thanksgiving pageant this past week," Henry continued gesturing wildly with his hands. "I played a pilgrim and Mom and Regina helped with the costume."

"My daughter did?" Cora clarified.

"Emma doesn't know how to sew," Regina teased to the blonde in question who glared playfully.

"Yeah, Regina made it. My mom watched," Henry grinned earning himself the glare from his mother. "She took pictures of the pageant if you want to see."

"You went?" Cora questioned her daughter.

"Of course I did," Regina answered obviously. "I understand how important school events are and for children to know they are supported."

"What was that?" The jab in Regina's tone wasn't loss on anyone at the table and it certainly wasn't loss on Cora.

"Nothing, Mother."

"I only ask because I'm sure Henry's father would have found it unusual a strange woman was at his son's performance."

"No," Emma replied quickly. "He wasn't there."

"Couldn't make it?" Cora egged.

"No," the blonde replied through gritted teeth, uncomfortable that this woman was talking so openly about a subject she could barely breech with Henry.

Henry, for his part and eager to appear mature, rolled a shoulder, brushing aside the locks of hair that fell in his eyes. "I haven't met my dad. It's no big deal."

"Oh." Emma tensed at the way Cora's lips turned upwards ever so slightly, unsurprised at the revelation. "Well the boy does need a male figure in his life," Cora continued airily as she sipped her wine.

"He has one," Emma said flatly, all pretences of pleasantries out the window as she slammed her knife and fork down with a loud bang. "He has lots actually."

Cora looked amused at the implication before Emma continued.

"I have guy friends and he has teachers and coaches he can look up to." Emma's voice rose angrily. "And even if he didn't have that, even if it was just me and no one else, he doesn't need a male figure to grow up to be a kind-hearted, compassionate human being, and he is all of that and more, and he didn't need his father around to get him that way. Look at your daughter. She grew up with someone like you, yet she turned out amazing."

Emma's eyes widened as soon as the words were out of her mouth, her lips parted in horror as Cora leveled her gaze on her. Emma's mouth had gotten her in trouble before, but the deadly glare Cora aimed at her had her wishing she could rewind time. Emma thought herself tough, facing authorities from cops to teachers and foster parents with a temper, but never had she felt fear until Cora looked at her like that. Regina remained stock still as if any sudden movements would warrant unwanted attention, but Killian leaned back in his chair thoroughly enjoying the show. Henry, ever the smart boy, found interest in organizing his untouched vegetables by colour.

"I didn't mean it like that," Emma stammered, rushing to amend her words.

"I'm sure," Cora dismissed before turning to Killian. "Your parents. How are they?"

Dinner was awkward, and that was putting it nicely. Cora led most of the conversation throughout the rest of the evening, and by the time their main course was finished and taken away, an important call had her departing early but not before sweetly insisting that Henry be taken into the kitchen for a bowl of ice cream. The pleading look on Henry's face when he heard of the creamy delight made Emma sigh and reluctantly allow him to follow the butler into the kitchen leaving Emma, Regina, and Killian at the table.

Killian stood with a laugh as he made his way over to the side table to help himself to another round of whiskey. "I have to say, loves, that was the most entertaining dinners Cora has ever hosted."

He lifted his glass in salutation before taking a healthy swig.

Emma ignored him, pulling off the napkin from her lap and moving around the table to sit in his vacated spot.

"I am so sorry," Emma said sincerely, her hand itching to hold Regina's but the woman made no sign she was allowed to do so.

Regina was quiet for a long moment, her only movement was picking up her wine glass and draining it dry. As soon as she placed it back on the table, she turned to face Emma, eyebrows knitted in confusion. "Did you really mean that? All that you said about me?"

Emma smiled shyly. "Yeah."

Regina returned a hesitant grin before frowning again. "My mother-"

"I've met worse," Emma said cutting her off. "Though your mother comes a close, close second."

Regina tilted her head, making a face saying she didn't disagree before the manservant from earlier appeared in the entrance way.

"Regina," he called. "Your mother wishes to speak with you in her study."

Regina tensed but squared her shoulders, letting her hand graze down Emma's arm before she left the room.

"Sit." Cora ordered as soon as Regina shut the door behind her.

The younger brunette sat in front of her mother's desk, her legs crossed as she waited for the inevitable.

"She will ruin you."


"And you just sat there as she talked back to me. To your mother, Regina. What would your father think of a woman like her?"

Regina's eyes softened at the mention of her father. The bond she had shared with him was what got her through her childhood, attending all of Cora's parties, involved in activities Cora deemed acceptable, and thickening her skin whenever Cora was disappointed. She always wondered how her parents ever married one another, but whatever the reason, she was grateful that her father taught her to become the headstrong woman she was now. "If Daddy was here right now he would appreciate Emma's outspokenness and the way she raised Henry to become more than she ever imagined."

"Your father would not have let a woman like her speak to me that way," Cora pointed with a threatening finger.

"And what is a woman like her, Mother?"

"She is rude, first of all. Honestly Regina, do you think she would be able to give you everything you deserve in life?" Cora asked, dropping her tone an octave in an attempt to sooth her daughter.

It didn't work when Regina lifted her chin and stared back defiantly. "She already has."

Cora pulled back into her winged-back chair, clutching the armrests tightly, her nails almost piercing the leather. "What do you mean by that?"

The question came out slowly, each word sliding out making sure Regina heard it in its entirety and warning her to be careful of her answer. Regina didn't answer right away. Instead she turned her gaze up toward the family portrait, studying Daddy's smile and praying, not for the first time, that he could offer his advice once more.

"Do you love her?" Again the question came out slowly.

Regina had learned long ago love was a very powerful word. It was only used in special occasions when it came to her mother, but the word bounced around freely between herself and her father. But that was familial love. She knew the love that Cora was referring to was something much deeper, more passionate and intimate, lasting if shared with the right person.

She had thought she found the right person once, a long time ago, but like Emma, he was a person Cora refused to accept. What could a pool boy offer a woman like Regina? Love, Regina had thought. She had loved Daniel, wholeheartedly, and she was sure he reciprocated her love. But when Cora got wind that Regina was thinking of switching out of her Ivy League university in order to be closer to Daniel, Cora made it her mission to deter her daughter from her decision. Regina had been set, ignoring her mother's request, but when Daniel had left her a simple letter one weekend when she was visiting home with a single word of 'goodbye', Regina was heartbroken and stayed at Harvard.

She promised herself she would never let anyone that close to her again, but that all changed the day her tire popped in front of Emma's bar.

The sound of Cora slamming her palm on her desk jarred Regina from her thoughts with a startled jump. She finally looked at her mother who was still waiting for an answer. "I believe that's something I should share with Emma before I even think about sharing it with you."

Regina didn't waste another minute waiting for a reply and stood from her chair, stalking out of the study with her mother following, a grimace on the older Mills' face.

Emma fiddled with her wine glass as soon as Regina left the room. She debated thoroughly about finding her way to the kitchens to see if she could score some of that ice cream Henry was lucky enough to get. Despite the stilted conversation during dinner, the food served was practically orgasmic, and she could only imagine what the ice cream would taste like. Not only did she want to escape after her debacle with Regina's mom, she was sure fighting Tyson was easier than arguing with Cora, but being alone in a room with Regina's almost ex was something she did not want to be doing.

The red liquid in her glass rose, and it took a turn of her head to realize Killian was refilling her glass.

"You're tense," he said topping her off nicely. "Would you like me to alleviate some of that tension for you?"

"You're aware that I'm here as Regina's girlfriend, you know that right?" Emma asked skeptically taking a large drink from her glass. God, did she need alcohol right now.

"I'm aware that despite you being here as Regina's girlfriend, as you say, you also have a son which implies I may have a chance after all." He winked as he took the seat beside her. "What do you say?"

Emma scrunched up her face in disgust. "Here's the thing, I am not here for you to look at, nor am I here to watch Cora try to set Regina up with you like she's been doing since forever. I deal with guys like you on a regular basis, so what I say is, back the fuck up."

Killian's smirk grew more pronounced. "Perhaps I was wrong. It seems you're the feisty one, Swan."

He finished his whiskey and left the empty glass on the table before standing and leaving his card beside her. "If you're ever interested in a tete-a-tete," he explained, turning to go.

Emma scoffed at his forwardness but immediately straightened when Regina and Cora entered the room. He said his goodbyes to Cora with a kiss to her cheek but was promptly rejected by Regina, her hand pushing him back enough for her to brush past him.

"Regina, why don't you go check on Henry?" Cora asked. "I'm sure his bedtime is approaching soon."

Regina glanced between Emma and Cora, unwilling to leave her mother alone with Emma, but knowing that the faster she got Henry the sooner they would be able to leave. With a simple nod, Regina exited the dining room again.

Emma stood as Cora approached, but the blonde didn't get more than a step away from her chair before the older woman was right in her face.

"What is your angle, Ms. Swan?"

"I'm sorry?"

"What do you want with my daughter?"

Emma sighed. "Look, I'm sorry about what I said earlier, but Regina is old enough to make her own decisions, and if we want to be with each other-"

"Can you support her?" Cora asked. "If she were to quit her little photography job right now and sell her home, would you be able to take her into yours and give her everything as needs? The luxuries she has grown used to?"

Emma's silence was all Cora needed.

Cora smiled wide, a starking contrast to her cold facial features. "You may love her, and I know you do. She may be just as foolish as you and love you in return. But be realistic, dear. She could never be truly happy with you. I raised my daughter to expect the best in life, not hand me downs and purchases from Goodwill. Are you really willing to take her down that path with you? And if you are how certain are you that eventually she won't realize what kind of life she'd be living and leave?"

"She wouldn't do that," Emma insisted though her voice wavered.

"Regina spent two years getting her MBA only to suddenly go into this picture taking business. She is capable of changing her mind without warning."

Emma grimaced at Cora's words, but the older Mills allowed them to stew in Emma's brain for a minute longer.

"Think about it."

Chapter Text

Emma squinted her eyes as soon as the first rays of light hit her face through her bedroom window, waking her from her restless night's sleep. Last night had been disastrous. She was supposed to have charmed the pants off the older Mills woman with the customary meeting the parents routine, but she had failed miserably, albeit with flare. The added bonus that Regina's basically ex had been there just sent a curve ball Emma's way. God, what had she been thinking that last night would have been fine? She should have taken Regina's cue and been a nervous wreck. That should have been her biggest indicator of what was lying ahead.

She cracked her eyes open, staring up at the ceiling that held a collage of water damage and questionable stains. It wasn't long before Regina murmured in her sleep and wrapped her arms around Emma's waist, all but laying directly on the blonde. Emma's lips tilted upward at the motion briefly as she brought her hand up to Regina's head to thread her fingers through the brunette locks. Regina's apple shampoo wafted up to Emma, playing with the blonde's senses as she tugged Regina closer into her, snuggling her tighter just a little bit more than usual.

Maybe Emma was just overreacting. Cora was an intimidating woman, and her words were striking, but they couldn't hold up. Not when Regina was here now, curled up beside her and had been for the past three nights.

Her thoughts were interrupted as soon as Regina stirred, her body stiffening to stretch out her legs as she murmured a groan. Emma grinned down at her as soon as Regina lifted her head to meet Emma's eyes.

"Morning," Emma greeted with a peck to the brunette's nose. "I don't remember signing up to be your bed." Her eyes motioned downward as they looked to see Regina sprawled on top of Emma.

The brunette shrugged playfully. "Perhaps if you got a new mattress that didn't prick me with every spring I wouldn't have to."

Emma squinted at Regina's statement feeling herself blush unwillingly before pushing it back to her mind. Instead she smiled at Regina who didn't notice Emma's momentary lapse of silence as they slid out of bed. Emma couldn't help but notice Regina twist her torso getting out all the kinks before stretching out her arms.

"See something you like?" Regina toyed.

Emma, once again pushed out of her reveries, smirked and crossed her arms casually. "Nothing special."

"I highly doubt that." Regina shed her sleeping shirt, one of Emma's band shirts she had claimed as her own ever since she had first babysat Henry, before rifling through Emma's closet where she had left a blouse hanging on the rack.

Emma chuckled to herself. "Coffee?"

"Yes, please," Regina said, fluffing out her hair in Emma's free standing mirror.

Emma left the room, turning immediately to bang on Henry's door. "Wake up, Henry!" Her only response came in the form of an exaggerated groan before she knocked on it once more for good measure.

She found jogging shorts draped over the back of her couch and slipped them on over her bare legs then walked over to the counter to fill up the kettle and plug it in. While she waited for the water to heat, she brought down two mugs and opened the cabinet door to retrieve the instant coffee, scooping a spoonful into each mug. She heard her bedroom door open and saw Regina slip out dressed impeccably for a woman who was wearing designer jeans before she crossed the hall and headed into the bathroom. By the time each mug held a steaming cup of coffee and Henry was groggily seated at the table rubbing sleep from his eyes as Emma placed a bowl of Fruit Loops in front of him, Regina exited looking as if she hadn't even spent the night or even met sleep. How the brunette managed to look the way she did with little to no make up was a feat Emma desperately needed to learn. Emma offered her the cup of black coffee as she passed before sitting at the table next to Henry, Regina on his other side.

"So what are we doing today?" Henry asked after swallowing a mouth full of cereal.

"Didn't you have enough fun last night?" Emma teased.

Regina chuckled then sipped her coffee, wincing at the instant coffee taste. The minuscule gesture meant for no one's eyes stopped Emma in her teasing before taking a sip of her own. It wasn't that bad.

"The food was good," Henry admitted honestly and decided the easy way out of further questioning was to take his bowl of cereal and bring it to the couch leaving his mother and Regina at the table.

Regina scooted over to his vacant seat, sliding her mug over with her before taking another sip and moved her hand over Emma's to gain the blonde's attention. "Emma," she spoke slowly. "Last night-"

"It's fine," Emma rushed with a wave of her hand. "I mean, I wasn't on my best behaviour or anything like that, so I'm sorry for embarrassing you."

Regina's face softened and she sighed. "I realize my mother can be quite harsh."

Emma snorted dryly. "Tell me about it. But we survived, right?"

Regina sipped her coffee casually. "It wasn't the most pleasant of dinners, but that was to be expected."

Emma squinted her eyes. "What do you mean you expected it?"

Before Regina could answer, her phone went off in her purse. Excusing herself from the table letting Regina take the call, Emma worried her lip as she took a sip of coffee. Did Regina really expect her to lose her temper? Was she that predictable for Regina to know that she and her mother wouldn't get along? She leaned against the counter to watch as Regina frowned into the phone before making eye contact with Emma then leaving to take the call in her room. Emma sighed. Cora really was trying to get into her head. She knew Regina better than that; Regina wouldn't just bring any old stranger home. It meant something to her. She meant something to her.

For how long, dear?

Emma groaned as Cora's voice sounded in her head. She poured her coffee down the sink unable to drink anymore when the realization that she didn't really know Regina all that well struck her. What's a few great months versus a lifetime of knowing her? Cora clearly had the advantage on that front, but the woman's word couldn't be held in high regard for Regina since she was terrified of the woman.

But Cora was right. She couldn't give Regina everything she had gotten used to, everything she had grown up with. She wouldn't just be a step down, she would be ten steps and twelve levels below Regina.

She ran her hand through her hair, pulling apart the tangles as her insecurities ran rampant through her mind. She had to have faith that they could make it. She liked Regina way too much to let something like a bad dinner get in their way.

With a resolve to forget about the whole thing, Emma rinsed out her coffee mug turning her head when she saw Regina exit the bedroom with a frown.

"What do you mean you expected it?"

Regina squinted at Emma's question only to be distracted by the ringing of her phone. She grimaced at the caller ID to see it was none other than her mother calling much too early and much too soon after last night's dinner, but living with Cora had conditioned Regina to expect as much no matter how much she wanted to avoid it. Despite Emma leaving the table to give Regina privacy, she knew better than to answer this particular phone call in front of Emma and left to attend to it in the blonde's bedroom. With a heavy sigh and the ringtone playing its second rotation, Regina answered the call.

"Good morning, Mother." She kept her tone flat hoping to hide any dismay from having to deal with Cora.

"Regina," Cora began customarily. "Am I right in assuming you are at Ms. Swan's home?"

"You wouldn't ask if you didn't already know."

"I just wanted to hear it from you since I already called your home without an answer."

"Then why did you ask?" Regina couldn't help but snap. She shut her eyes and mentally braced herself for the lecture that was sure to come from her mother's mouth.

"Regina," Cora's tone was low and dangerous, and Regina couldn't help but swallow audibly. "Do not take that tone with me. I've been your mother far longer than you've known that Emma Swan and already she's having a negative influence over you."

Regina refrained from reminding her mother that she had always been like this, but attempts at such a conversation in the past always remained futile. Stubbornness bred stubbornness apparently. Instead, she took another steadying breath to ease her voice back into activity. "I appreciate your concern, Mother, but I am capable of taking care of myself."

"I'm just interested in your well-being, Regina. You can't blame your mother for worrying."

She made a noise of acknowledgement but didn't confirm the claim.

"Your infatuation is clouding your judgment. People like this Emma Swan are only looking to take advantage of you."

Regina paced around Emma's bedroom doing her best to keep her mother's words out of her head. She had had years' worth of practice, but when Cora became persistent, it was difficult to block her out. With a hard thud, she sat down on the bed, still unmade and mussed from Emma's rather unique ability of utilizing every inch of space as she slept whether or not Regina was sleeping in it. The scent of the blonde still lingered within the sheets with the faint hint of apples that distinctly came from Regina's shampoo. She resisted the urge to lean back on the bed and inhale the combined scents when she heard her mother call her name impatiently. She couldn't let her mother dictate her decisions, especially not her love life. She had worked hard to break free from her mother's grasp and it was going to stay that way. With a determined jaw and a clear cut resolve, Regina took another breath before speaking.

"Mother," Regina said softly but firmly leaving no room to be swayed otherwise. "I have no intention of listening to you if the only purpose of this call is to bring Emma down. You taught me to be decisive in my life, and that is exactly what I'm doing. This is what's best for me."

Regina held her breath, waiting for Cora to say something, anything, or even just to hear her breathe. The line was silent for far too long, and if it weren't for the faint sound of the clock ticking on Cora's end, Regina would have been certain that her mother had hung up on her.

"Very well." Regina narrowed her eyes in confusion as the words ran through the line and into her ears. Her lips parted in shock as Cora continued. "Your choice in a lover may be less than ideal, but Henry hasn't turned out worse for wear."

Regina looked at her phone making sure she was still speaking to the same woman. Cora was never this easily persuaded, but here she was all but complimenting Emma's motherhood skills. She couldn't quite comprehend what she was hearing and words escaped her.

"You'll invite them to Thanksgiving. Introduce them to our friends if you choose to keep them," Cora stated as if she were speaking to a child on how to care for their new puppy.

Regina rolled her eyes at the implication but nodded. "Yes, Mother."

With no goodbye, Regina was met with silence as the call disconnected. Pocketing her phone, she frowned as she exited the room, still baffled over what the last couple minutes had involved. Perhaps her mother was being more open-minded. She truly had taken to Henry even if her ways of affection were not as clear, but apparently Cora had valued Regina's choice in Emma. She released a breathy laugh as she made her way to the blonde in question. Things were finally changing.

Emma mimicked Regina's frown as soon as she saw it on the older woman. She turned her back to the sink and leaned against it, her head tilted to the side as she examined the brunette. It wasn't until Regina released a breath of laughter did Emma squint in confusion. "You okay?"

Regina looked up as if finally realizing Emma was there and nodded. "Yes."

"Your mom?" Emma asked warily.

"Yes." Regina leaned against the counter beside Emma, their bodies shifting to face one another.

"And you're okay?" Emma asked again, ducking her head to meet Regina's eyes.

"Surprisingly, yes," Regina admitted. "She's invited you and Henry to our Thanksgiving party."

Emma visibly tensed, her eyes widened like a deer caught in the headlights. It was a trap, Emma knew it. Cora wouldn't have invited them if she didn't have an ulterior motive. And it didn't sound like some standard run of the mills holiday dinner with the family. Regina had said party. There would be people there. People Emma didn't like, and after last night she was not looking forward to doing that again, especially not with Henry. Her stunned silence drew on too long, for Regina took a step closer so that they were toe to toe and extended a hand onto Emma's arm squeezing in reassurance.

"You don't have to go..." Regina offered.

Emma did little to hide the exhale of relief, but as she shrugged a hand through her hair, she mentally winced at her blatant reaction. "It's not that I don't want to, I mean, that's nice of your mom for inviting us."

"Traumatized, dear?" Regina asked with a hint of teasing in her voice.

Emma chuckled nervously, nodding in the affirmative. Regina smiled softly though it didn't quite reach her eyes as she leaned over and pecked Emma's cheek. "Let me know if you change your mind."

Before she knew it Emma was left standing in the kitchen alcove as Regina walked the few steps into the living room and sat down beside Henry. She listened to them speak as she picked up Regina's still full mug of now cold coffee and placed it in the sink.

"Any plans for today?" Regina asked Henry who immediately gave the brunette woman all of his attention.

He shrugged. "Mom and me just hang out on Sundays before she goes to work."

"It looks like today will be unusually warm. Are you sure you wouldn't like some fresh air?"

"Are you staying?" Henry asked, the makings of a puppy dog face already forming on his features.

Emma snorted from her place in the kitchen at her son's blatant attempt at monopolizing Regina's time. She had to hand it to the kid. He had ways of getting what he wanted.

Regina smirked, looking to Emma who nodded her head before plopping down beside her on the couch.

"It looks like I'm staying," Regina grinned tapping Henry's nose affectionately.

"So where do you want to go, kid?" Emma asked, none too subtly wrapping an arm along the back of the couch and tugging Regina into her side. She gave a sideways smile to the brunette who quirked an eyebrow up at the middle-school gesture, but Emma continued directing her attention to Henry.

He put a finger to his chin in thought before breaking into a grin. "Coney Island."

Emma mimicked her son's expression and tapped Regina's shoulder to ease her off of her side so Emma could stand. "We haven't been there in a while."

"Yes!" Henry cheered as he stood with his mother. They both faced the couch just as Regina stood and made her way to collect her coat.

"I thought you were staying," Henry called after her as he bent to push the couch aside aiding his mother.

"Are we not going out?" Regina asked, pausing her movements of slipping on her jacket entirely.

Emma caught Henry's eyes and both shared a secretive grin. She stood as soon as the couch was out of the way and extended her hand motioning Regina to them. "Just wait and see."

Within the hour, Emma and Henry had transformed the living room into their version of Coney Island's amusement park. Emma had brought out the Christmas lights and strung them along the walls as they flashed brightly like the lights of the Ferris wheel. In each little corner of the room there was an amusement park activity from knocking down a pyramid of cans to a cardboard wall pinned up with half blown balloons left over from Henry's birthday and a few darts sitting on a table beside it. Behind each activity was a small pile of Henry's toys to be won as prizes. Not only had there been games, but there was a poster board set up with a hole cut in the middle attached to a headless body of a hula dancer to take pictures with. On the couch were the pillows from their bedrooms; they'd be using those to play bumper cars, but Regina didn't have to know that yet. Regina had been relegated to the kitchen to make hot dogs, and every time she attempted to take a peak at the Swans' transformation of the living room, one or both of them would toss a pair of rolled up socks at her, their simulation bean bags for the bean bag toss.

By the time Regina had plated nearly the entirely package of hot dogs, she was still forced to keep her back turned until Emma came over and offered her hand with a smirk. She enjoyed watching Regina's face as she took in the scene. It wasn't much, and it was nowhere near the level of actually going to any amusement park let alone Coney Island, but she was glad Regina seemed to be enjoying their makeshift kiosks.

"Come on." Emma tugged on Regina as she brought her to the stacked cans. "I'll win you a stuffed bear."

Regina laughed as they approached Henry who was sitting behind the cans with a wicker hat on his head. "I hear these games are rigged."

"That's just what the people who can't win them say," Emma said with a smug expression as she caught the soft plush balls Henry tossed her way. With a wink, she reared back her arm. "Watch and see."

It took eight tries for Emma to knock all the cans down. She refused to give up her turn when Henry boasted that he could knock them down faster than she could, but as the last can teetered on its side and fell to the ground with a clatter, Emma cheered with her hands in the air rubbing her victory into Henry's face as he handed her the largest stuffed bear with a roll of his eyes. He immediately dashed off to the balloon wall to practice his shot as Emma, cheeks tinted red from concentration, offered the bear to Regina. She accepted it with a pleased grin, rewarding Emma with a chaste kiss before tugging them over to Henry to help him with the darts.

They went through all the games, Henry winning at balloon darts while Regina had surprised everybody by being quite adept at the ring toss, made with empty beer bottles and rings from a toy Henry had during his toddler days. They had stopped for lunch, Henry and Emma scarfing down two hot dogs each before they convinced Regina to try their homemade corn dogs.

Emma smirked, watching Regina's nose wrinkle as she set a batter-covered hot dog into a deep pan filled with sizzling oil.

"That is an excessive amount of grease and fat," Regina said with disdain.

"That all goes away when you add mustard," Henry insisted, pulling a bottle out of the fridge.

Regina opened her mouth to correct him, but the sizzle of Emma dropping in two more corn dogs made Regina jump back wary of the splash.

"You two are like bottomless pits," she said with a shake of her head.

"Yup." Emma grinned as she caught the brunette's eye, winking slyly. "Never satisfied."

Regina rolled her eyes and within minutes, Emma was using tongs to pull out the corn dogs and placing them on a paper towel covered plate to dry off the excess oil. Already Henry was collecting his and pouring an excessive amount of mustard onto it while Emma held out one for Regina enticingly who eyed the dog suspiciously. "One bite won't kill you."

"It'll certainly bring me one step closer to death."

"If you don't I'll never kiss you again," Emma threatened.

Regina cocked an eyebrow and tilted her head. "Whatever will I do without your kisses?"

"One bite and you won't have to find out."

Regina shook her head but opened her mouth and bit into the corn dog. The breading was surprisingly good but the dog was bland. Judging from her hot dog that was to be expected, but she made a point of chewing it and showing Emma she had swallowed.

"Good," Emma said pleased and handing the rest to Regina. "Now you gotta finish it."

"I don't remember agreeing to that." Despite her protest Regina took another bite as they stood around the kitchen, working on their after-lunch snack.

Regina's phone beeped before she could swallow, and she set her corn dog down and shimmied her phone out of her pants pocket reading the text. She rolled her eyes at the device and sighed frustrated.

"I'm afraid I have to leave," she announced as she typed a reply and placed her phone back into her pocket.

"Your mom?" Emma asked automatically.

Regina shook her head. "There's a problem with the space I'm renting out for my next showing."

"Will you be back?" Henry asked. "You can watch me again."

"Henry," Emma nudged him for his presumption.

"If I'm done soon enough, I'll check with your mother," Regina promised, crouching down to hug him.

She walked to the closet and collected her jacket and dress she had worn the night before protected in its cover bag.

"Sure you're just not trying to skimp out on eating your corn dog?" Emma asked as she walked Regina to the door.

"Here I thought my plan was flawless," Regina answered without missing a beat.

Emma grinned and leaned down to kiss Regina, pulling back slightly to cast a sideways look at Henry who had immediately returned to his meal. "You don't have to watch him again or anything."

Regina pressed a hand on her arm. "I'll call you to let you know if I can get him from your neighbour."

They shared another kiss, lingering this time, and with a wave to Henry, Regina was gone with Emma shutting the door behind her. She looked at the time and saw they still had a couple hours before it was time for her to get ready for work and clasped her hands around Henry's shoulders. "Bumper cars?"

Emma sat at her kitchen table staring down a whomping five thousand dollar check signed by none other than Cora Mills. It had been over a week since having dinner with the woman and though Emma's thoughts drifted to 'what if's' in the dead of the night, or rather mid-morning when she usually caught her sleep, she thought the woman's invitation to Thanksgiving had been an olive branch of sorts. Had she been sorely wrong. This is what Emma got for letting her guard down. For thinking just maybe things were going to be different. She got bought like a piece of property to be used and discarded whenever the time was suitable.

What angered Emma the most was how she sat there, staring at the check wondering what she was going to do with it.

She had been working when Cora had come into the bar, and though Emma never saw the woman walk in, she knew she must have caused a little scene when a disgruntled August had tugged Emma down from the counter as she was collecting her tips to whisper none too quietly that there was someone she needed to see right away. Confused, she pocketed the bills into the strap of her bra, a good haul after many weekends of giving away her shifts, before dodging the other bartenders and following August into the back and up the stairs where his office was. When he hadn't even moved to enter the room, Emma knew something was up when she pushed the door open. A cold chill had settled over her body as Cora turned slowly, looking dignified as ever even while standing in August's cluttered office.

She shut the door behind her, knowing her curious boss would try to eavesdrop and decided the more barriers she put between others and this conversation the better. "Hi, Mrs. Mills." Emma shifted from foot to foot, wiping the thin sheen of sweat that had built up from her dance off her forehead. She was all too aware that her bra was showing under her v-neck tee and her leather pants clung to her like a second skin. This was not something anyone should be wearing meeting their significant other's mother, even if it was their second meeting.

"You're quite the dancer," Cora commented then motioned to the wad of bills sticking out from Emma's bra strap. "And I'm sure everyone else here agrees."

Emma chuckled nervously, running a hand through her hair in a desperate attempt to make herself moderately presentable. "Thanks...uh, is there something wrong with Regina?"

"I came to see you." Cora closed the distance between them and pressed a hand against Emma's cheek as she smiled, one that was practised and held no emotion, only to simulate trust. "You wouldn't mind if we talked, do you dear?"

Emma shook her head, Cora's palm leaving her face as the older woman moved to sit behind August's desk as if it were her own. Taking the hint, Emma sat in the chair in front of it, feeling as if she were called down to the principal's office though for what she wasn't sure.

"You care for my daughter, don't you?"

Emma nodded animatedly. "Yes, I-"

"Let's be honest, Ms. Swan, I'm not here to make amends between us." Cora folded her hands over the desk as her dark and beady eyes bore holes into Emma's. The blonde refrained from showing any emotion that signalled surprise, though her heart beat erratically, panic settling into her chest. "You're a hard working woman. That much is clear. And you must know that my daughter has overcome obstacles to get to where she is, and her trajectory is only leading her up."

The need to say that Cora was probably many of Regina's obstacles faded on Emma's lips when she processed what Cora was saying. She narrowed her eyes and sighed exasperated. "I understand that you don't think I'm good for your daughter-"

"It's not my opinion, Ms. Swan. It's a fact." Cora inclined her head pointedly and waved her hand in the air dismissing Emma's statement. "You're a sweet girl, Emma. You've raised a fine young boy in Henry, and you have so much potential should the cards be in your favour."

"And you're here to put the cards in my favour?" Emma asked warily, sitting back and crossing her arms over her chest.

"Precisely." Cora brought her purse onto the table and pulled out a single check, sliding it over to Emma who refused to look at it. "I'm not doing this to intimidate you, dear. You and my daughter are just too different. Sooner or later you'll grow to resent each other, and I'd rather protect you two now than later on when broken hearts are in the midst."

"You're trying to buy me off?" Emma scoffed as she waved the check. "Lady, you must be crazy-" Her eyes widened as she caught sight of the figures on it. She had never seen a check so big. "Holy crap."

Cora's lips turned up at the edges just a little bit, though Emma was still gawking at the check to notice. "Think of it as a new start. I realize you two have invested quite a bit in each other, but that all can be rectified when you're able to put Henry in a good school. The delays on rent will be a thing of the past, and this seems like a good start up to even run your own business. You wanted that, didn't you?"

Emma clenched her teeth and hardened her jaw, and even with the dull thud of the rock music blaring below them, she couldn't help but think that Cora had a point.

Cora stood and took the check from Emma, folding once and then again before tucking it in with the rest of Emma's tips. "There will be more of that when you actually keep away from my daughter."

Emma groaned as she shook her head, banging the memory from only hours earlier out of her head as she dropped her head on the kitchen table. She should have ripped the check right there and then and threw the tiny pieces of paper in Cora's face, but as soon as the woman disappeared, August had wandered in cautiously claiming the crowd was chanting her name. It took everything in Emma not to let Cora's presence put her off, but by the time she had found herself alone after walking Henry to school, counting her previous night's earnings and finding the check nestled in with them, she really had no idea what to do.

Had Regina told her mother about lending Emma rent money? Was that why she thought Emma was so easily bought? The familiar feeling of guilt washed over Emma when she realized she hadn't paid Regina back yet, but the burning embarrassment overtook her as Cora's voice resonated in her ears.

You'd be able to put Henry in a good school. The delays on rent will be a thing of the past, and this seems like a good start up to even run your own business.

She lifted her head halfway, dropping them unceremoniously into her hands trying to sort out her options. Maybe she could use the money and still be with Regina. God, no, that was stupid. That was basically stealing from Regina's mom, and Emma was out of the petty thievery game long ago. Though if she thought of Cora as someone other than Regina's mom, it got a hell of a lot easier to take from her. Who the hell did she think she was, buying people as if she had the right? Emma was used to being treated like a piece a property, a meal ticket, or someone to take the blame, but there was no way in hell she was going to let Cora put a five thousand dollar price tag on Regina. Regina was worth more than that. Priceless even.

She scoffed and grabbed the check, her resolve decided as she went to the sink and put the check under water. When it was sufficiently soaked, she tore it into tiny pieces, releasing her anger for Cora out on the rectangular piece of paper that was once in the older woman's possession and held her scrawled signature before dropping it in the trash.

It took a moment for Emma to fully grasp that she had washed away five grand. She'd by lying if she said it didn't sting just a little, but Emma didn't do charity or a buy out. She could provide for Henry and Regina, and she'd damn well prove that to Cora and anyone who thought otherwise.

Chapter Text

The two weeks leading up to Thanksgiving had kept Emma busy with taking more shifts and working longer hours. With the holidays just around the corner, Emma used it as her excuse to keep working. She didn't breathe a word to Regina or anyone about Cora's visit. When August had questioned her the following day about the scary dragon lady, Emma had dismissed him, but even she knew her tone was flat. She opted out of telling Regina because she knew Regina already had a questionable and strenuous relationship with her mother, and despite their differences, Regina really did love, or at least respected, Cora.

That's what Emma told herself at least.

She hated that she didn't rip the check up right in front of Cora and called her out on her tough love bullshit. She hated that even after bringing it home, she sat at her table for over an hour contemplating her next move. She could argue all she wanted that she had absolutely no intention of breaking up with Regina, but the fact of the matter was that she had considered keeping payoff money, and in her books, even that was low.

So she had made it a point to prove Cora wrong thus resulting in her accumulation of shifts. It was because of her extra shifts that Emma couldn't spend as much time with Regina, or Henry for that matter, but she was hoping a wicked awesome Christmas gift would make up for that. It was also because of her extra shifts that Emma had declined Regina's offer of spending Thanksgiving at Regina's family home arguing that she wanted to have some quality time with Henry, and the brunette didn't fault her for that. Though both knew the real reason why Emma had declined. The blonde was scared, there was no doubt about that. She couldn't hide behind Henry forever, and it was true, she wanted a nice quiet evening alone with the kid, but she just couldn't deal with Cora or Killian or whoever may be at the Mills mansion. Not right then. She had hinted to Regina that she was more than welcome to share Thanksgiving with them, and although brown eyes had brightened at the request, she was reluctant to accept claiming Cora had some news for her and her attendance was mandatory.

Emma fretted over what Cora's news could possibly be as she retrieved the small turkey from the oven. She hadn't heard from Regina all day, and Emma bit her lip in worry. What if Cora had told Regina that she had taken the money? It technically wasn't a lie since she had left with it, but surely Cora had noticed that five grand still remained in her bank account, though Emma was certain Cora could suffer a loss like that and go on with life as if she had just dropped a penny.

The stinging burn of the hot pan grazing her exposed wrist pulled Emma from her thoughts, and with great strength, she held firmly to the tray and set it down gently on cooling racks before removing her oven mitts to inspect the damage, relieved to find nothing more than reddening flesh.

"Henry!" Emma called as she rinsed her wrist. "Dinner's ready soon, come out and help me make the gravy!"

The boy raced out of his room just as Emma pulled out a saucepan and began tearing into the gravy packet. He paused and retraced his steps as soon as the phone rang and ran to the wall to answer it.


"Hello Henry," Regina's smooth voice sounded on the other line.


Emma whipped her head up at the name and held her breath. She knows. Why else would she be calling? Emma set the gravy on low as it simmered then took a few steps toward Henry and the phone with her hand stretched out. Better to come clean now than face her wrath.

Her plan was stopped when Henry turned his back to her and kept the phone cradled to his ear. "How come you're not here?"

"I'm sorry, Henry," Regina apologized. "Perhaps you can save me some stuffing."

"Okay," he agreed happily. "My mom makes the best."

"Does she now?"Regina asked genuinely surprised.

Henry chuckled. "I know, it's weird, but she's good at it."

"Henry," Emma nudged impatiently, but all he did was take the phone and turn the corner toward the small entrance of the hallway that shielded his view of the kitchen and continued to talk to Regina about what he had been up to, and Emma's cooking apparently.

Emma sighed with the hint of a smirk on her face then returned to the stove to tend to the gravy. After ten minutes of hearing her son giggle and ramble on to Regina, Emma poured the gravy into a bowl and wiped her hands before coming behind Henry and swiping the phone from his ear. "Stop chatting up my girlfriend and go wash up."

With a grumble, Henry said his goodbyes to Regina and made his way to the washroom. As soon as the door was closed, Emma brought the phone up to her ear, her fingers dancing around the cord. "Hey. Happy Thanksgiving."

"It could be better," Regina mused.

Emma inhaled sharply, biting her lip in contemplation before responding. "Bad news?"

"The company here is less than appealing." It was then Emma finally registered the soft instrumental music in the background of Regina's line and the very faint murmuring in the background.

She relaxed realizing that for some reason Cora hadn't told Regina about their interaction, and she was thankful for the small miracle. Leaning against the wall, significantly at ease now, Emma smirked into the phone. "You know you can say that you miss me. You don't have to be coy about it."

Regina laughed once. "Don't flatter yourself, Ms. Swan."

"It's Ms. Swan, now? Why do I feel like I'm in trouble?"

"You generally find yourself in that state."

"What are you gonna do about it? Punish me?"

Regina's throaty chuckle sent shivers down Emma's spine. "Don't give me ideas."

"You could come over after your party," Emma offered none too subtly about her intentions. "Unless you're all talk."

"You don't work tonight?"

Emma shook her head despite being on the phone. "It's Thanksgiving. I've got the night off."

"I just assumed since you've been working every night."

"Yeah," Emma sighed guiltily, rubbing the back of her neck with her palm. "The extra shifts. But good news. I made enough to pay you back."

"For what?"

"The rent," Emma muttered quickly as if admitting her shortcomings would make them stand out further.

"Oh," Regina said casually. "It's not necessary, dear."

"Regina..." Emma drew the word out between her teeth as she fidgeted with the cord, twirling it into a tangle.

"Use it for this month's rent," the brunette insisted.


"Emma." Regina's voice was firm and unwavering. "I know you need it. Just use it for this month and don't worry about paying me back."

"You don't need to pity me," Emma mumbled running a hand through her hair in aggravation. Even as the words left her mouth she knew she would be regretting them, but she couldn't help but sit back and listen as they spilled forth.

"Excuse me?" Regina's tone took a cold turn. When Emma's only response was incoherent words strung together, Regina spoke again. "Is this why you've been cancelling on me to work extra shifts? You think I pity you."

"No, no it's not that, I just-" Emma sighed to collect her thoughts. "I didn't mean that. I know you're just trying to help. I've just been stressed and tired lately."

It was a long moment before anything was said between them. Emma could hear the string instruments play, and she held her breath wondering if she had messed up. Again. It seemed to be a habit of hers lately.

"It's fine." Regina finally responded, but Emma couldn't help but hear the curt dismissal in it. It so was not fine.

Her saving grace came in the form of Henry finally exiting the bathroom, his eyes dead set on the turkey and mashed potatoes sitting on the kitchen counter.

"I gotta go," Emma said hurriedly. "Dinner's ready and you know how Henry eats." She winced when she didn't even get a chuckle out of Regina. "I'll call you later?"

"Very well. Tell Henry I say happy thanksgiving."

With that Emma placed the phone back in its cradle on the wall and released a breath. She sighed heavily before putting on a smile and heading toward the kitchen, thankful that at least she hadn't upset Henry in any way.

Regina held her phone tightly in her hand, staring at the black screen with aggravation etched into her face. She knew Emma had been acting strangely, and with her cancelling dates on her left and right, she had an inkling that Emma's guilt had finally gotten the better of her. She didn't think Emma would react to it. They had been doing well with communication, Regina especially making an effort she didn't usually make in most relationships but wanting this one to be different. She'd brought the woman home for god's sake. Didn't Emma understand that? Granted, her mother was something else entirely but still.

She tapped her toe, continuing to stare at the blank screen wondering if she should call back and discuss the matters further. The unsettling feeling churning in her stomach made her feel like they had left off on a bad note, and granted, they did with her vague dismissal, but this feeling just would not do. Resolved to do something about it, Regina's finger hovered over Emma's name in her contacts.

"Problem, dear?"

Regina growled at the sound of Maleficent's voice as she entered into the empty hallway Regina had isolated herself in to make her phone call in peace. The knowing smile and leering eyes of the blonde made Regina realize why Emma had such a problem with her. Placing her phone into her clutch with a firm snap, she tilted her head up to address Maleficent. "Nothing that's any of your concern."

"It sounds to me like there's trouble in paradise." Maleficent stalked over to Regina, a wine glass clutched between her forefingers as she sipped daintily on the deep purple liquid. "Quite frankly I have no idea why you put up with a girl like her."

Regina's eyes hardened. "A girl like her?"

"Well I can see why you would want to dip into the wild side, but for this long?" Maleficent tsked. "You seem to be softening at the edges now. Getting the chance to play family now, are you?"

"You seem to be needing a new dress." Maleficent looked down at her dress immediately, confused at finding nothing wrong. Under the guise of bringing her clutch under her arm, Regina tipped Maleficent's glass causing the red wine to pour down the blonde's champagne coloured dress, staining the front a deep purple, the blonde's nearly exposed cleavage getting the worst of it. "Oh, how clumsy of me."

Regina smirked at Maleficent's gaping mouth before exiting the hallway and returning to the grand dining room, hips swaying in victory as Maleficent stomped her foot and growled furiously.

Dinner had been a long drawn out affair filled with speeches of thanks to another prosperous year with so-and-so's company or business. The only thing that kept Regina going was the fact that Kathryn had sat next to her all night as the two exchanged stories and caught each other up on their personal lives. The blonde was pleased to note that Frederick had gotten along famously with her father, which was a shock for Regina to hear. Alexander Hawthorne kept his one and only daughter heavily protected, and very few dates had ever made it past the stage of meeting him. It seemed Frederick had captured more than one of the Hawthorne's hearts, and Regina was more than a little envious of the fact. Regina had refrained from recounting all the details of Emma and Henry meeting her mother, though she went on about the fact that Killian was still as insufferable as always.

She was relieved, and more than a little smug, when Maleficent was nowhere to be seen, but she had caught word that the temperamental blonde had excused herself early that evening to attend to a pressing matter. No doubt Regina would be receiving a dry cleaning bill, but it was worth it to shut her up in the end.

The combination of the dull dinner and the tension she still felt from her less than pleasant conversation with Emma made Regina weary, and by the time her mother tapped incessantly on a wine glass and stood at the head of the table to gain everyone's attention, Regina was ready to go home and forget the night. So much for an evening of thanks. Maybe if she had accepted Emma's invitation to begin with this evening could have been salvaged. Though she was certain if Emma had accepted her own invitation dinner would have been far more easier to endure. Regina looked up when Cora tapped her wine glass again.

"As this is a time of thanks, I would like to show my gratitude for my daughter, Regina." Cora smiled proudly at her, and the younger brunette couldn't help but blush at Cora's admission. "As you all may be aware, Regina has chosen to stray from the family business, but no matter. I am thankful for a daughter who is incredibly talented in her craft, and she's finally gained the recognition for it."

Regina furrowed her brow wondering what her mother meant as Cora held out a hand and waited for one of the servers to hand her a newspaper.

"My daughter, Regina stand up dear, has been featured in Rachel Ghorm's article as a promising rising photographer!"

Regina snapped her head toward her mother as she stood and refrained from ripping the newspaper right out of her hands as the guests clapped and nodded their congratulations. Instead, she managed to gently retrieve the paper and flip open to the Arts section where half a page's worth of words about Regina and finally finding her niche was on display for the world to see. She gasped as she saw her name in print under Ms. Ghorm's column, praising her for her photos and eye for art. A verbal compliment from Ms. Ghorm had been enough to make Regina ecstatic, but this, a printed article from one of New York's toughest critics would change her career overnight.

"Where did you see this?" Regina asked as she continued skimming the article.

"The editor of the newspaper gave me an advanced copy of tomorrow's paper, dear," Cora answered, squeezing Regina's shoulder affectionately. "You finally did something right."

Regina beamed, allowing Cora to pull her into a hug before they both sat down, Regina still furiously reading the article, soaking up every word.

"It's a shame your little lady friend and Henry couldn't make it," Cora commented casually under her breath so only Regina could hear. "I suppose they had more important things than to celebrate your good news with you."

Regina set her jaw and let her mother's words roll off her back as Cora turned to address a business colleague, ignoring the impact her statement had had on Regina. Regina knew Cora had a unique way of showing affection, and despite her backhanded mention of Emma and Henry, the fact that she could speak openly about them said a lot. It didn't ease the sting of regret though, and she soon realized she needed Emma and Henry to know of her good news. She stared down at the article again and sighed a deep breath of relief. She was right. Things were going to be changing.

It was the third time around of watching A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving did Henry finally knock out, his head in Emma's lap as he snored softly, his belly full and his dreams filled with Snoopy and Woodstock. Emma inched his head up and slid out from under it before bending over to shoulder the limp and heavy nine-year old and carry him to his room. She figured he could sleep in the sweats he was already wearing and found no use in waking him to change into his pjs. With a kiss to his forehead, she flicked off the lights to his room and shut the door quietly.

Wide awake despite the late hour due to her erratic work schedule, Emma began tidying up the apartment, cleaning up the kernels of popcorn littering the floor and couch from their movie marathon. Normally Emma hated cleaning, but her earlier conversation with Regina had her on edge. She wasn't sure if Regina was mad or not, and she didn't want to interrupt her party to find out. Deciding a turkey sandwich was her best bet at keeping her distracted, Emma removed the half a turkey from the fridge and set it on the counter, using the knife and fork she had left embedded in it to carve out thick slices of turkey.

It was the soft knock on her door that prevented Emma from tying up the bread bag after retrieving two slices. Wiping her hands on her jeans, she made her way to the door and checked the peep hole, surprised to find Regina on the other side. She unlocked the chain and pulled the door open with a tilt of her head. "Hey."

"Hi," Regina said with a hesitant smile on her face. "I realize it's late. May I come in?"

"Yeah, yeah of course." Emma stepped aside allowing Regina into her apartment. They dawdled by her front door for a moment as the silence surrounded them.

"Look I-"

"Emma I-"

The blonde chuckled and rubbed the back of her neck. "Go ahead."

Regina bit her lip and took a step closer. "Earlier, I had no intention on offending you in any way."

"I know," Emma insisted resting her hand on Regina's forearm. With a heavy sigh, she nodded once, deciding now was as good as any to open up to Regina about her most recent interaction with her mother. "It's just your mom-"

"Did she say something to you?" Emma's eyes shifted uneasily, but Regina continued her questioning. "I know the dinner wasn't pleasant, and I don't blame you for not wanting to attend tonight, but if she said something to you that night, I hope it wasn't enough to let her sway you."

Emma shut her mouth at Regina's vulnerable state, her hand clutching Emma's wrist tightly as her eyes widened with hesitance. She had never seen Regina like that before, hopeful and fearful at the same time. Over a month ago Regina had promised her that nothing her mother would say could tear her away from their prospering relationship, and still, weeks later Regina held tightly to that promise. Why make it worse with unnecessary drama? What she didn't know couldn't hurt her, and like Regina said, it wouldn't matter if she knew anyway.

So Emma leaned down, capturing the woman's lips between her own, finding solace in the breath of relief puffed against her lips as Regina eagerly kissed her back. Pulling back, Emma played with the strands of brown hair between her fingertips as their foreheads came into contact. She placed another tender kiss on Regina's cheek before speaking. "I'm sorry for earlier. The holidays, they stress me out."

"They're my mother's favourite. Everyone flocking into the city from across the country to watch the Macy Parade or to watch the ball drop on New Years," Regina said dryly. "She says it's good for business."

Emma chuckled before pulling back entirely, helping Regina shrug out of her coat before leading her to the kitchen and grabbing a bottle of water from the fridge for her. She continued to make her sandwich, but before she took a bite, she leapt back to the fridge and pulled out a prepared plate and set it in front of Regina. "Henry made me promise to give this to you."

Regina grinned down at the plate with turkey, mashed potatoes, cranberry sauce, and an unnatural amount of stuffing on it. "And what do you have to give me? I'm told this is the best stuffing I'll ever taste."

"I'm still waiting to see if you'll dish out that punishment," Emma winked before taking a bite of her sandwich.

Regina rolled her eyes playfully, placing the plate back in the fridge with a promise of eating it tomorrow. "Oh!" She turned suddenly and walked to her coat draped over a chair, pulling out a folded newspaper clipping. "I want to show you something."

Emma set her sandwich down at Regina's obvious excitement and waited as she joined her against the counter.

"Read it," Regina urged, thrusting the clipping into Emma's hands.

Emma eyed Regina as she leaned over Emma's side as if the close proximity would make her read faster. She smirked before directing her gaze to the page, her lips curling into a smile from the first sentence alone. Her smile grew as her eyes tore through the page as she read the critique.

"'-Mills has found her forte, a collection of stills emulating and capturing real life while integrating a sense of storytelling will surely be a strength in her future projects. I look forward to see if Regina Mills fulfills her potential for surely great pieces will come from her great imagination and creativity.'" Emma quoted the script, her voice edging on excitement with each passing word. She turned to Regina who sported a proud beam on her face, Emma's expression matching the brunette's. "Holy crap Regina, this is the hard to please lady!"

Regina rolled her eyes at the language but clapped her hands in front of her and nodded excitedly. "Ms. Ghorm, yes. She praised my work."

Emma extended her arms out. "You are amazing." With little thought she cupped Regina's cheeks and pulled her into a deep kiss, causing a giggle to erupt from the usually stoic woman. Emma tugged her body close, Regina's toes barely touching the ground as her arms wrapped around Emma's neck.

"Am I now?" Regina asked breathless as Emma dove for her neck, moving the brunette backwards toward Emma's bedroom door.

"Mmhmm," she nodded into her neck. "Want me to write out why?"

Regina shook her head using a free hand to blindly turn at the door knob behind her while the other one was preoccupied with pulling Emma's lips back toward her own by the base of her neck. "I want you to show me."

Chapter Text

I can't make it. I have a shoot all day today in Newark.

Emma stared blankly at the message on her cellphone fighting back disappointment and the slight sting of yet another canceled date. It had been like this all week with Regina as soon as the article had hit the newsstands. Apparently this Rachel Ghorm or whatever was like some fairy godmother, and one good recommendation from her set your career in motion. It was no wonder Regina was getting commissioned left and right to do shoots for magazines or to sponsor her for her next gallery. Emma was happy for her, thrilled that Regina's work was finally paying off, but she couldn't help but feel put off. She had taken the night off, feeling bad that all of her time from the last couple weeks had been spent at the bar, and had organized an outing with Henry and Regina to the mall. Her son had been ecstatic and even Emma was looking forward to a little quality time with her two favourite people.

But now that excitement had faded with Regina unable to make it. It was the third time that week Regina had been too busy with some work-related event or something, and who was Emma to deny her that? She couldn't even be upset about it. She had canceled on Regina as well over the past couple of weeks and not once did the brunette hold bitter feelings over her.

Sighing dejectedly, Emma typed a response and set her phone down. It was time to break the news to Henry. She stood and made her way to her son's room where he lay on his stomach, a pillow under his chin and a few comics scattered around him. The latest Wolverine comic was opened before him as his eyes roved over the page to soak up the story and drawings.

Her soft knocking on the door alerted him to her presence, and Emma leaned against the door frame, her arms crossed and her head resting on the doorjamb as Henry looked up and pushed up on his arms to acknowledge his mother's presence.

"Are we going now?" Henry asked, already rolling off of the bed and putting on his shoes. "Is Regina here or are we gonna meet her?"

Emma gave him a tight lipped smile, the apology in them evident as she remained quiet just a half a second longer. Henry paused in tying his laces, and Emma couldn't help but notice he was giving her the same look she always got whenever she was unexpectedly called in to work.

"It's just gonna me and you today, kid," she explained.

"Oh." He dropped his other shoe.

Emma stepped into his room and sat beside him, nudging him lightly. "Thanks, kid. I feel the love," she said dryly, but her voice just wasn't in the teasing.

"Is she working too?"

There was something in his voice that sounded familiar, something she had heard numerous times over the years, several times a week when he was younger and couldn't understand that Mommy couldn't tuck him in at night. Instead of trying to figure it out, she nodded and draped her arm over his shoulders. "Yeah, remember the clipping she showed you?"

He nodded his understanding.

"It was a big deal for her, so now that everyone knows how amazing of a photographer she is, they want her to work for them."

"We knew first," Henry pointed out petulantly.

Emma chuckled before leaning in conspiratorially. "Yeah, but that's because we're smarter than those critics."

He smirked, but like Emma's teasing, it didn't quite reach his eyes. He turned to look at her suddenly fearful. "Are you gonna go to work now that she can't come over?"

"What? No, Henry, why would I do that?" She asked confusedly.

He shrugged mumbling incoherent words before finally clearing his throat. "I haven't seen you that much lately either."

Emma's lips parted dumbfounded and speechless, guilt etching away at her as her son looked away from her, terrified of the consequences. With a heavy sigh, she tilted his chin upward with her free hand, their blue-green eyes locking. "I know," she whispered, the apology in her words not hard to find. "But tonight I'm here, and we're gonna make up for some lost time, okay?"

He nodded with a small smile, leaning into her for a one-armed hug.

"Come on, let's go to the center."

"This is the longest line up in the history of line ups," Emma complained not for the first time as she leaned against a giant candy cane, unzipping her red leather jacket and brushing it back to avoid the heat from standing in cramped corners for a long period of time.

Henry smirked and offered up his bag of Superkid Kernels popcorn to ease his mother's grouchiness. "We're almost to the front."

She mumbled her acknowledgment but accepted the popcorn nonetheless. She had made it a mission to give Henry a good day, so after his time at the youth center where Frederick had the kids play dodgeball, she took him to the mall as planned where they visited every toy shop, candy store and bookstore it possessed. She made a mental note of some of the things he truly had his eye on before ushering him off to meet Santa.

She remembered being a kid and seeing all the TV show Christmas specials where the children got to meet Santa in the mall, sit on his lap and get their picture taken, but Emma wasn't as fortunate. Her foster parents rarely got off their asses let alone take the kids to the mall and stand in line to see some dressed up man. But still, every time those specials came on, she was always reminded that she couldn't see Santa and couldn't get her Christmas wish to him. She had vowed to make it a tradition with her own kid, so from the moment she found out she was pregnant to now, waiting in line with her nine-year old, Emma and Henry had gotten their picture taken with Santa.

"So what are you gonna ask Santa for this year?" Emma asked happily munching away on the snack.

"I can't tell you," he said obviously, giving her an incredulous look. "Then I won't get it."

"It's not the same thing as a birthday wish, kid."

"It's more important. Only Santa can know."

Emma rolled a noncommittal shoulder as the line moved forward. She craned her neck to see how many people were in front of her. Sweet. Only two more families to go.

"What did you get Regina?" Henry piped up suddenly.

Emma whipped her head to him, gawking for a moment too long.

"You got her something, right?"

Truth be told, Emma had been thinking of what to get for her girlfriend for a while now. She initially thought of doing something simple, having an intimate dinner with her and going ice skating at Rockefeller Center, but just as they had passed by Peoples, Emma spotted a sterling silver bracelet with pearl-shaped amethyst stones embedded in it. That was something Regina Mills would love for Christmas, not some simple outing to go ice skating. Catching sight of the price tag, Emma debated if she should buy it. She had made more than enough for Christmas gifts and then some. When Henry tugged her off into another direction, Emma made a mental note to return for the bracelet.

"I'm working on it," Emma finally answered.

Henry raised his eyebrow skeptically, but Emma nudged him forward to avoid his questioning gaze. He didn't budge, however, and continued to scrutinize his mother before she broke.

"I was thinking jewelry," She answered shyly, inadvertently spilling popcorn to the ground with her exaggerated shrug. "It'd be our first Christmas, and you know, it's a big holiday, and what do you get a woman who can afford everything?"

"Nothing," Henry shrugged. "Do something for her."

She raised her eyebrow as if he were on to something. "Like what?"

"I don't know, I'm nine," he pointed out. "But you're good at doing stuff when we can't go out."

Emma pondered his suggestion as she gave up the bag of popcorn when Henry tugged it from her. That ice skating idea didn't sound half bad anymore, and Emma couldn't get the image of Regina clutching onto her as she skated backwards to keep her upright. Her lips tilted upwards at the thought, but the bracelet would be so perfect for Regina. There was no way she wouldn't love it.

She was so lost in thought she barely even noticed that it was their turn until Henry was tugging on her hand to pull her under the intricately carved archway that held Santa's chair and the big man himself. Henry shrugged off his coat and scarf, decked out in a red woollen sweater, before taking his spot beside Santa in his enormous chair.

Emma lingered by the archway allowing her son some time to speak with the jolly old man with wiry white hair and half-moon spectacles. She was strategically close enough to hear Henry speak with Santa though.

"I don't really want any toys or anything this year," she heard Henry say.

"Oh?" Santa asked surprised. "And why is that?"

He shrugged. "It'd be nice if my mom was home more often. She works a lot, but I know she does it for me."

Emma's heart sank as she shut her eyes to hide from the guilt that gnawed at her.

Santa nodded understandingly. "I think she does that for you."

"I know."

She opened her eyes just in time to catch Santa's eye. She smiled, a small hesitant smile showing she had heard all they had said.

"I will try my best," Santa promised before motioning over to Emma with his head. "Is that your mom there?"

Henry turned his head to look and grinned. "Yeah."

Emma walked over when Santa motioned over for her and took her spot beside his chair.

"You have a good young man here," Santa said with a nod of approval. "You raised him well."

She chuckled bashfully. "I try."

Before long, Emma and Henry were posed with the man, Henry smiling from beside him on his chair and Emma seated on his other side as the flash went off for the picture. Henry collected his candy cane and belongings while Emma waited for the picture to print. By the time he joined her again, she showed him the picture and wrapped an arm around his shoulder, giving it an extra tight squeeze. "Think you're gonna get what you want this year?"

He looked up at her with a hopeful smile. "Yeah. I think so."

Emma's determination to make this a fun day for Henry had her cracking lame jokes and teasing the kid as soon as they pulled away from the mall. He would roll his eyes at her, but she could see the corner of his lips tug up happily.

She looked at him out of the corner of her eye as he gazed intently at the photo. "What's up, kid?" She asked as she smacked her dashboard a few times to get the heater to work.

"Do you think we should take one with Regina?" Henry asked holding up the photo. "She would have been in it if she were here."

Henry was right, Emma thought. Regina would have fought it, claiming it was their tradition, but she would have been secretly pleased when Emma would undoubtedly drag her to Santa. "You know what? You want to go see her?"

"Really? Are we allowed?"

"Yeah, I crash her shoots all the time. How do you think I met her?"

"I thought she lost a bet."

Emma scowled remembering the day Regina had told him that. "No. Plus it wouldn't be losing a bet meeting me. I'd be the prize."

"Okay, Mom," Henry said, letting Emma feel better about herself.

"Ready for a road trip?"

Nearly an hour later, Emma and Henry found themselves pulling up to Cathedral Basilica of the Sacred Heart where Regina was scheduled to be all day. She zipped her jacket all the way up as she shut her car door with a creak then stepped around the front of the car to walk beside Henry who was quickly pulling on gloves to protect from the cold as he gazed up at the stone church with wide eyes, its towers standing proud against the harsh wind.

"Woah," he breathed out. "It's like Notre Dame."

"Without the hunchback," Emma added, taking his hand and leading him up the steps.

"So why is she here all day?"

Before Emma could answer, she saw to the left of the field of land the church stood on was a gathering of people, models Emma presumed, dressed in gothic Victorian era clothing. The women's hair, high, teased and curled, wore corsets with big flowing skirts of blacks, dark purples, and deep blues and greens, while the men, with their slick backed hair, wore fitted trousers and tailored vests to match the women, the ruffles of their shirts sticking out from the v-neck design.

Emma looked taken aback by the sheer number of models. She had never seen one of Regina's shoots this big or including so many people. Usually it was just Regina and one or two models at a time, but this was an entire event. It was as if Emma had stepped into a Tim Burton movie.

"Well that's probably why," Emma answered drawing her son's attention to the group under a tented area. Veering him off the path to the group, Emma and Henry weaved through the models in search of Regina.

It took them a while to find her since Henry was soaking up the scene with wide curious eyes. Being Emma's son, he had noticed the snack table filled with beverages and finger sandwiches, and despite how tasty they looked, Emma had to remind him they were for the models, but his pleading eyes and his ever grumbling stomach had her relenting, sneaking him a few sandwiches and situating him beside the table as she went off in search of the brunette. It was only because of Regina's harsh and very loud yelling into a phone was Emma able to find her.

She was located by the side of the church with a group of models who lingered about under the archway of the windows as she continued giving whoever was on the other end a firm tongue lashing. Seeing Regina act out like that made Emma thankful she was on the receiving end of Regina's temper only a handful of times. With an aggravated huff, Regina ended her call with an infuriated push before turning back to the models, who for their part looked intimidated by their photographer. She smirked as Regina's disposition immediately changed from infuriated to professional.

Emma sped up her walking as soon as she saw Regina was off the phone and mentally grinned at her brilliant idea to surprise her. She was within earshot now, and Emma could hear Regina apologize for the delay as she voiced their positions and snapped pictures. Carefully sneaking up behind Regina, Emma poked the brunette's side and stole a kiss on the cheek causing Regina to shriek out in surprise. In her shock Regina had nearly dropped her camera, and it was only due to Emma's quick reflexes from all those nights of just barely catching shaker bottles did the SLR not crash to pieces on the ground.

"Emma!" Regina yelled as soon as she saw the shock of blonde hair in her vision.

"Hi," Emma greeted sheepishly holding out the device as a peace offering.

"What are you doing here?" Regina deadpanned, taking the camera back and clutching it to her chest.

"I miss you too," Emma replied dryly earning herself an impatient eyeroll from Regina. "We just wanted to surprise you."


"Henry's around here. He found the food table."

"The caterer seems to be the only competent person here today," Regina replied snippily.

"Rough day?"

Regina opened her mouth to answer but remembered the models behind her. Emma could tell Regina was still in photographer mode, and Emma had sat in on more than her fair share of shoots with Regina to know that not only did Regina mean business and was professional through and through, but she was scary when she was stressed and that combination was something Emma did not want to witness. So with an understanding nod, Emma watched as Regina pulled the strap around her neck and turned back to her models, positioning them precisely against the stone structure as she moved around to capture the light in just the right way.

Emma lingered for a few minutes more hoping Regina would take a moment to speak with her like she did in her in-studio shoots but awkwardness took its toll over Emma for the blonde shoved her hands in her jean pockets and turned to scamper back to the tent to search for Henry.

"Yeah, but how can you like DC after they rebooted the entire universe?" She heard Henry's voice as soon as she wandered into the tent and found her son standing in the middle of a group of models dressed from the Victorian era. It was a sight to see.

"Henry," she called and caught his attention. She gave him a confused look, her eyes squinting unsure how to process the sight before her then chuckled when Henry waved off his newfound friends and made his way to his mother.

"Did you find her?"

Emma nodded. "She's pretty busy though."

"Oh." His face fell disappointed.

"Hey," she nudged him. "Maybe we can catch her on break."

It was a long day waiting for Regina to be done. Problems seemed to be arising left and right frustrating the brunette to no end, and all Emma could do was stay clear out of her way. There was a miscommunication with the parish priest, and Regina nearly tore her hair out when the Father said he received no word that Regina could take pictures inside the cathedral. After an insistent request to double check his records, the priest apologized and allowed Regina and her models inside. That instance alone delayed her close to an hour, and that was just one of many. More than once Emma had offered her help, but Regina had become even more flustered and short leaving Emma to her own devices since Henry had entertained himself with talking to the remaining models.

As the air became nippier, Emma was ready to go home after sitting around eating cut up sandwiches and listening to Henry rant about comics. She stood and silently motioned for Henry to go which he did with reluctance. Apparently not all models were airheads and some were in fact pretty cool, Emma had figured out after observing her son interact with them. She didn't want to bother Regina just to say goodbye, so she took Henry's hand and led them back to their car.

"I didn't get to hang out with Regina," Henry complained with a pout as they walked back to the main path.

"I know, kid," Emma sighed. "Maybe sometime this week."

Emma's phone beeped, and she let go of Henry's hand to reach for her phone in her back pocket. She furrowed her brows when she saw it was from Regina.

You left?

Emma typed back a response. Yeah. It was getting late, and we didn't want to get in your way.

She took Henry's hand and continued walking to the car. By the time they had slipped in and were buckled, her phone buzzed again.

I'm sorry you drove all this way just to watch me work.

Emma kicked herself over the head as she read the text. What was she expecting really? Regina had told her she would be busy. It was hard to be frustrated at the brunette, but there it was. Emma had hoped Regina would have made more time for them, and when it didn't happen, disappointment settled in.

My fault. Rain check this week?

I can't. I'm meeting with some colleagues in Michigan, and I won't be returning until next Tuesday.

Emma squinted at the phone. When the hell was she going to tell her about Michigan? Biting the inside of her cheek, she sent a quick text saying they'd figure something out before starting the ignition and driving away.

"Do you ever go home?" Ruby asked as she caught a shaker a fellow bartender threw her way before swinging it around her body like nunchucks and tossing it back.

"You make it sound like I live here." Emma flung two beer dispenser guns at her side like she was in a western before pressing down on the nozzle and filling up a round of beer. How she was able to keep a saucy smile on her face without yawning was quite the impressive feat.

"It kinda looks like you do." Ruby grabbed the tray of beer and began sliding them across the bar to the respective patrons, giving a man's lingering gaze a playful wink. She was quick to grab a tequila bottle from under the counter and as soon as Emma began flinging out shot glasses her way she poured the alcohol into them. "You're here way before I am and you close whenever you work, which has been every day this week. You might as well move a bed into August's office."

"It's the holidays, Rubes," she explained. "People are extra nice tippers then."

"I think you're just missing Regina," the brunette teased. "Got used to those warm nights?"

Emma scoffed shaking her head amused at her friend as she began pouring alcohol into a shaker. Ruby wasn't far off the mark. She was missing Regina, but she had been missing her long before Regina had left on her trip. God, when was the last time either of them had spent the night together? The realization made her nervous. She couldn't help but hear a familiar voice telling her that Regina was where she was supposed to be, extremely successful in her career, well off, happy. She pushed the voice aside and took her frustration out on the shaker, tossing it harder than intended. She dropped the bottle.

"Wow." Ruby eyed the fallen aluminum shaker with shock. "You must really miss her."

Emma flushed furiously and picked up the bottle. Shit, she hadn't dropped anything in years. She did one more toss behind her back for good measure before pouring the drink and sliding it over to the thankfully too inebriated to notice man. "The bottle was slippery," Emma defended.

"Right," Ruby dismissed. "How is the Princess, anyway?"

"Amazing," Emma answered automatically, stammering when Ruby gave her a knowing look. "No, not like- I mean yeah. I mean she's doing well. She's been really taking off."

"You sound disappointed," the brunette noted before holding up a finger to take a drink order. As soon as it was filled she looked expectantly at Emma who had busied herself with drying off tumblers fresh from the dishwasher.

"I'm not disappointed," Emma defended. "I'm happy for her."

Ruby raised an eyebrow and walked over to Emma, taking the glass Emma had been drying for the last thirty seconds. "Then why do you look like that?"

"Like what?"

"Like you have some plan that you know nobody will like. Are you seriously intimidated by a woman with a good job?"

Emma huffed and ran a hand through her hair. "No," Emma shook her head with a resigned sigh. "It just feels like lately I've been waiting for the other shoe to drop. When she realizes that I'm holding her back."

Shaking her head and ignoring Ruby's silent plea to talk, Emma turned to a man with a scruffy chin and hair to match. He leaned over the counter resting on one arm and motioned for Emma to lean in closer. She resisted an eye roll, knowing men like him thought there were perks to her job, thinking a sizeable tip could persuade her. Instead she put on her best grin, mentally scoffed and leaned in closer.

"What's your speciality?" He asked, his voice just as gruff as he looked.

Emma pulled back playing coy. "I hope you mean drinks." Without waiting she grabbed a tumbler from under the counter and scooped ice into it before tilting up a bottle of their most expensive whiskey.

He laughed, his cheeks crinkling into large dimples. "I'm Neal."

"Hi," Emma answered with a tilt of her head as she slid his glass over to him.

He took his glass and slid over cash. "What's your name?"

Emma shrugged playfully and slid over his change. As soon as her hand crossed over the counter, he placed his hand over hers. Dammit. It was one of those nights.

"You're not gonna tell me?"

She knew guys like him. Hell, Henry's father was a guy like him, and there was no way in hell she'd go down that path again. She glanced down at his hand before steeling her glare on his, intent clear. He pulled his hand back in mock surrender, taking a long sip of his drink. "All right. Maybe I'll find out later."

Emma smirked. "If you're lucky."

Suddenly the music changed and increased in volume. The familiar bars of Def Leppard's 'Pour Some Sugar on Me' ringing throughout the speakers. "Emma!" She mentally shut her eyes hearing her name from several of her regulars. "Dance, Emma!"

The other bartenders began clapping over their heads in time with the music as the crowd started to cheer. She unfortunately locked eyes with Neal who raised his eyebrows. "Emma, huh? Must be my lucky night."

Rolling her eyes, Emma stepped onto the counter and almost instantly it was free of glasses or bottles. She whipped her hair back and turned around, swaying her hips suggestively before bending over, her leather pants hugging her ass tightly making the crowd go wild. With a snap, she pulled back up and slapped a hand on her hip as she turned her torso to look out and grin.

Already bills were held up in the air as the tip jar was being passed around. She continued dancing, sliding down onto her knees so she was nearly chest to chest with the counter, gyrating her body to the beat as she whipped her hair back and trailed her fingers down her chest. Leaning over the edge to playfully use the head of a man to help her up, she stood and danced to the other side of the counter, smirking at the man who was the envy of all his friends for nearly having his face in Emma's chest.

The chorus built up when Emma got to the other side and took a hold of the pole, swaying her hips as she danced around it before grabbing it and swinging herself up and upside down as the chorus hit. She descended slowly, but before she touched back down she used momentum to swing rightside up and hook her legs around the pole, holding on with one hand as she let the other fall over her head while she leant back.

The song continued on as Emma danced, but the highlight for the crowd was when Emma was sliding down the pole and Ruby had the genius idea to spray her friend with water, soaking her white t-shirt completely through. Emma made a mental note to return Ruby's Christmas gift for that antic, but by the time she was finished the dance in the middle of the counter with a final wet hair flip, she had caught sight of the tip jar and was ecstatic to see it full. Adding that to the tips she had made on her person, and Emma counted this one as a very good night.

She walked the length of the counter closest to their backrooms in the hopes of changing, but her dripping form was leaving droplets on the bar and her stiletto boots held no friction at all. She tripped on a small puddle of water, and, Emma being Emma, it was neither graceful nor sexy. She nearly fell on her ass, but before she could smack against the counter, a strong pair of arms caught her.

The adrenaline from the dance and the fall had Emma's heart racing, and quite frankly, she was just happy she hadn't made a fool of herself. She pulled her hair back to thank her saviour, immediately losing the grateful smile on her face.

"It must be my lucky day," Neal said with a grin.

Emma chuckled awkwardly as she squirmed to get out of his grasp. He eventually put her down, and Emma gave him a thankful nod. "Nice catch."

"Usually I would offer to buy you a drink, but you'd end up pouring your own."

Emma chuckled half-heartedly. How many times had she heard that one? "Thanks, but I'm on the job." She stepped by him and weaved through the crowd, but he kept blocking her path. She groaned obviously annoyed at his persistence before taking hold of his shoulders and keeping him steady so that she could maneuver by him.

When she thought she was in the clear, she felt his hand on her arm tugging her back. "What time do you get off?"

She crossed her arms over her chest and looked around for any witnesses. If this guy couldn't take a hint she'd be force into some rash action she was all too willing to do. Instead of reacting she took a calming breath and spoke, her tone leaving no room for discussion. "Here's the thing, I'm really not interested in you, so unless you want to get escorted out of here, I suggest you walk away."

He chuckled, a mixture of his buzzed state and his lack of common sense causing him to lean forward nearly colliding face to face with Emma. "Come on, one drink won't kill you."

"She said no."

Emma's eyes widened when she heard Regina's voice. Not only was she not expecting her girlfriend, but Regina was clearly pissed off. Emma was temporarily stunned that Regina was there, three days early, and clearly hadn't stopped at home to change if her fitted grey blazer, pencil skirt and stockings were anything to go by. She looked reminiscent of the first time Emma had met her, out of place in a hole-in-the-wall bar like this. Emma was all too aware of the stark contrast, but before her mind could do anything about it, Regina was storming right in front of a momentarily dumbfounded Neal. She pushed him aside with a firm finger to his chest. "I highly suggest you take your inebriated self away before you do anything you'll regret."

Neal simply looked Regina up and down before glancing between both the blonde and brunette, his night entirely made with two gorgeous women by his side. He stepped toward Regina, his fingers brushing her arm. "How about you, beautiful?"

Emma almost scoffed at his blatant misogyny, but it died on her lips when Regina's lips were suddenly on hers, her tongue immediately in Emma's mouth as she made a show that the blonde was clearly taken. Dazed and pleasantly light headed and still in shock that Regina was in the bar, Emma could only listen as Regina's arms were still weaved around her neck before she turned a threatening gaze to Neal. He enjoyed the show a second too long before scampering off, message loud and clear.

Even as they watched him disappear, Regina's hold on Emma was possessive, and judging by how close they had pressed together when Regina had attacked her lips, the brunette's own blazer was beginning to dampen. "You're back early," Emma smirked, remembering herself and weaving her hands behind Regina's waist.

Regina turned her glare to Emma. "Do not flirt with other people."

"I was not," Emma said offended. "He hit on me."

"And do not dance like that again," Regina said seriously. "Do you have any idea how enticing you looked up there?"

Emma forgot to be offended and was thoroughly amused by the brunette's jealousy. She dipped her head to kiss the corner of Regina's mouth before whispering against plump lips. "How enticing?"

Even in the dim lighting of the bar, Emma could see Regina's eyes darken with lust. Grinning wickedly, Regina tugged Emma down by the nape of her neck catching her bottom lip between her teeth before their lips moved over one another's in a familiar dance of lust and desire.

A burst of cold water shot at Emma's exposed lower back causing her to shriek in surprise and press closer to Regina in her haste to get away. By the hysterical cackling alone, she turned a displeased glare at Ruby who had decided the rarely used water nozzle was in sore need of attention. "You're on the clock, Emma," Ruby smirked before winking at Regina. "Maybe Emma can breathe again now that you're back."

Emma shook her head as Ruby sauntered off and was met with an amused smirk on Regina's face. "'Breathe again'?"

"Don't listen to her." Emma gave the older woman's arm a squeeze before heading back to the change room. "I get off at two."

"Must be my lucky night."

Emma lay wide awake under Regina's cool silk sheets, the naked brunette lying on her side away from Emma. Regina's room didn't have any windows, but the open concept of her bedroom allowed Emma to see down into the main living area where the room was basked in a deep blue light from the moon. If she focused hard enough on the shadows, she could see faint specks of snow. Henry would love to wake up and see snow on the ground.

She winced at the thought of Henry, sleeping at Ashley's place while Emma was here, laying on a memory foam mattress with silk sheets around her and her head on a goose down pillow. Who would have thought Emma Swan would ever get to experience that? Slipping out of bed, Emma scoured the floor in search of her clothes. She found her underwear and pulled it on, giving her shirt the same treatment.

Regina's breathing had broken its even pattern, and soon Emma was watching as Regina turned around to face her, sleep etched on her face. "Where are you going?"

"Cold," Emma explained half-heartedly, hating that she had almost thought about sneaking out on Regina. She eased back into bed staring up at the ceiling again when Regina sidled closer and rested her head the hand of her crooked elbow.

Regina stretched out her legs, allowing her body to sink into the bed then gave Emma a lazy smile. "How come we don't sleep here more often?"

"Getting sick of my place already?" Emma half joked.

"I don't miss your mattress," Regina teased.

Emma pursed her lips but said nothing, her gaze focused on the unblemished ceiling.

"What now?" Regina had pushed herself up on her hands to gaze down at Emma. There was concern in her tone, but Emma could swear she detected irritation.

She turned her head to face the brunette and placed a reassuring hand on her waist. "Nothing. I'm just tired."

"Then you should get some sleep."

Emma shook her head. "I gotta head home soon."

Regina nodded understandingly. "I brought back something for you and Henry."

"You didn't have to."

"I know," Regina shrugged casually. "Perhaps I can pick him up from school on Monday and we can have an early dinner before you work."

Emma brought up her work schedule in her mind, but she already knew she would be working doubles as she had been for over a week. "I work early."

Regina looked pleased. "Then we'll pick you up from work."

"No, I have a back-to-back shift," Emma explained.

"Oh." Regina looked confused and disappointed.

Emma perked up and pressed a hand on Regina's arm. "How about Wednesday? Me, you, and Henry. Dinner at Marco's?" She had cash to splurge after all.

Regina shook her head. "I have an important meeting the following Monday morning and need time to prepare." She gave a small smile accompanied with a proud blush. "The owners of Gold Photogrpahy have requested to see my portfolio. It will really open up doors if they approve."

"Of course they will," Emma smiled softly at her news, but the smile didn't quite reach her eyes.

They barely saw each other as it was. How were they supposed to keep this up when Regina would be traveling for shoots or holding extravagant parties like Jefferson, or when Emma worked just as often? The thought terrified her.

She masked the uncertainty in her eyes by pressing a kiss to both of Regina's eyelids just before the brunette settled into her side.

"I'm glad you've decided to grace us with your presence," Regina teased as Kathryn walked into their usual coffee shop the following Sunday over half an hour late.

"I could have very well said the same for you," Kathryn defended. "How is Emma anyway?"

Regina dipped her head as they stood from the table Regina had waited at in order to stand and order their coffees. "I probably know as much as you do to be quite honest," the brunette admitted quietly.

Kathryn whipped her head to her friend and held her shoulder to capture her gaze. "What do you mean?"

Regina shrugged a noncommittal shoulder, but she knew her friend looked concerned. "We've both been quite busy the last month. I've seen her only a handful of times."

"Is anything wrong?"

"No," Regina answered far too quickly, but she continued staring ahead examining the overhead menu even though she already knew she wanted a hot apple cider.

Thankfully Kathryn had remained silent, and within minutes they were leaving the counter with their drinks in hand and sitting down in a secluded booth near the back of the cafe. Regina popped the lid of her cider and blew gently into the steaming brew to cool it down to drinking temperature.

"Regina..." The brunette knew that tone of her friend and shut her eyes briefly before staring down hard at her.

"Don't." Regina cut her off with a wave of her hand. "There's nothing to discuss. It's perfectly normal."

"Just because you two work funny hours doesn't mean you go a month without seeing each other."

"I saw her last week," Regina countered.

"And?" The blonde pressed, placing a firm hand over Regina's.

Regina knew that as soon as Kathryn initiated contact that she was not going to relent. Her friend had a way of drawing information out of her, and it irked and relieved Regina to have someone to talk to, but right now she didn't even know what to say, which was unusual for the brunette who hid behind her words.

Regina sighed and sipped her uncovered cider, her gaze fixated on the liquid when she brought it back down to the table. "She seems distant, I suppose."

"Wait, Emma's the distant one?"

"Is that so surprising?" Regina snapped.

"Yes," Kathryn admitted honestly. "Regina, it's no surprise everyone has their defences, but yours are thicker than most."

"Apparently it rivals Emma's then," the brunette responded bitterly.

"Well, how exactly is she distant?"

Regina mulled the words over and over again in her mind. Quite frankly she was unable to truly pinpoint what is was that seemed distant about Emma, but the biting voice in the back of her mind that sounded too much like her mother reminded her that perhaps Emma stopped feeling anything for Regina, that she was pulling away, making herself busy as an excuse to grow apart. She fidgeted with the ring on her finger, using her thumb to loosen it just a bit before twisting it around her middle finger.

"I'm not sure," Regina said hesitantly, hating how quiet and weak her voice sounded. "It's as if we don't have time for each other anymore, and when we do see each other, sometimes it's like she's not completely there, or that she has other things on her mind."

"Why don't you talk to her?"

"When? I just said we barely see each other anymore," Regina said indirectly agitated at the blonde. "Do keep up, dear."

Kathryn pursed her lips and rolled her eyes at Regina's retort. "When you do see her."

"She's already stressed out as it is with her working overtime. If you think I have a temper..." Regina drawled dryly.

Kathryn sighed complacently before giving Regina's hand a final squeeze. "You two need to talk. You seem happier with her, and I'd hate for you to lose a good thing."

Regina gave a curt nod, a final dismissal on the subject just as Kathryn retracted her hand. Regina busied herself by drinking her cider, mentally hissing at the hot sting sliding down her throat, but it was better than looking at Kathryn who was clearly not done with the subject but resigned anyway.

"Are you ready for tomorrow?" Kathryn asked excitedly.

Before Regina could answer, her phone beeped indicating a text. She rifled through her purse to pull out her device and found the message to be from Emma.

"Her ears must be ringing," she muttered to herself before opening her messages.

Hey, can you do me a huge favour?

She murmured an apology to Kathryn for the interruption before responding.

Is something wrong?

I have work at 1 today, and Alexandra came down with a really bad fever, so Ashley can't take Henry. Would you be able to watch him?

Of course.

Regina immediately typed back her response then looked back up to Kathryn. "I have to go."


"Technically Henry." Regina stood and replaced the lid on her drink before collecting her purse and weaving her scarf back around her neck. Kathryn smiled softly at the affection in her voice as she nodded understandingly.

"Talk to Emma while you're there."

Regina gave her friend a sideways glare just before exiting the shop.

It was supposed to be a simple babysitting job. Regina had done it countless times with no incident. She would watch Henry, Emma would climb into bed at some point during the night, and then they would have breakfast. Some mornings Emma and Henry would walk Regina down on their way to drop Henry off at school while Regina headed off to her studio.

But this time wasn't as simple.

Emma hadn't climbed into bed sometime during the night. In fact, she hadn't climbed in at all. She had come walking in through the door well after ten that morning, well after Regina had woken up to an empty bed and had to prepare Henry's breakfast and lunch herself, after she had dropped him off at school, and certainly well after her 9 am meeting with Gold Photography.

With no call or text as to her absence, Regina was livid by the time Emma walked in, gauze taped to her chest, as she kicked off her boots and slumped on the couch, grabbing pillows to cover her face to shield it from the light of the sun.

Regina snatched the pillows away from Emma who squeezed her eyes shut. "I'm tired," she moaned.

"Where were you?" Regina snapped whipping the pillow back at Emma's face. The blonde scrambled up on impact and got to her feet, though Regina refused to back up as Emma glared down at her for the attack.

"I was in the hospital," Emma said as a matter of fact, crossing her arms over her chest in defiance. Regina's eyes softened as Emma continued. "I broke up a bar fight at closing and some guy cracked a beer bottle to get at the other guy and I stepped in front of him and got cut. The cops had to come by, and there were reports and then I needed stitches-"

"Wait." Regina held up her hand and pulled her head back taken aback. "You inserted yourself into a bar fight?"

Emma dipped her head in surprise. "Uh, yeah. It's part of my job."

"Your job is to serve alcohol. August should have been there to handle it."

"He was there."

"Then you just put yourself in harm's way for the sheer pleasure of it?" Regina crossed her arms with a sneer.

"People could have gotten hurt."

"You did!" Regina's tone increased reflexively. "How deep was the cut?"

"Just a couple stitches," Emma said with a shrug while Regina rolled her eyes. "So you're mad at me for doing the right thing?"

"I'm mad at you because you refuse to look at the bigger picture in life, how your actions affect everyone around you." Regina waved her hand around the room to emphasize her point but her lowered tone had already sent the message loud and clear.

"What is that supposed to mean?" Emma asked with her hands on her hips.

"It means your son had to wake up and you weren't there. He was the one who already knew how to make himself breakfast and make his own lunch and he basically walked to school by himself with me trailing behind him."

Emma scoffed and shook her head. "You're mad because you couldn't get him ready for school all by yourself? He's nine, Regina. He knows how to do these things."

"He's known how to do them since he was six!" Regina spat.

Emma's eyes flashed dangerously. "Don't. Don't even go there."

Regina could see the threat in Emma's tone, but still she continued to spit fire in her fury. "If the fact that you're not part of your son's life isn't enough, how about that your failure to have common sense made me miss the opportunity of a lifetime."

"Oh, now we've brought this back to you, have we?" Emma threw her hands in the air in annoyance. "It's your career, your success. Why the hell do you think I've been working so much? So that you don't have to. So that Henry can go into any toy store and pick out whatever he wants. So that for once things would be easier."

Emma turned gritting her teeth and opened the fridge to pull out a jug of water and poured herself a glass. She downed the drink like a shot.

"That's it?" Regina lowered her voice, but the scoff in it was evident. "You've been cancelling on me and, more importantly, missing out on your son's childhood just to chase wads of paper from drunken men?"

Emma slammed her glass down on the counter. "No." She turned and pointed a menacing finger at Regina. "You don't get to say that. Wads of paper? It's only like that to you because you were sucking on a silver spoon as soon as you were born."

"Oh, like you would know."

"I do!" Emma yelled. "People like you will never know what it's like to be like me, to live paycheck to paycheck and to debate if you want a roof over your head or food in your stomach. People like me can't just drop everything and decide to go to a whole new college after graduating from the first one just because Daddy left us an inheritance that could have solved world hunger!"

Regina jabbed at Emma's shoulder before grabbing her chin with her free hand and bringing her face closer to hers. "Never speak about my father like that."

Emma's eye twitched in defiance just before Regina released her by pushing her away. Regina stalked to the door and pulled open the adjacent closet door with force.

"No, you wanted to talk, let's talk." Emma grabbed Regina's peacoat from out of her hands and tossed it on the table. "What do you want me to do, Regina? Quit my job? Be your arm candy to parade around to your friends while they snicker to my face?"

"Don't be ridiculous."

"No, what's ridiculous is that you think what I'm doing is wrong."

"I never said that-"

"What do you expect me to do, to tell your mother to keep the checks coming?"

Regina froze, her eyes widened as Emma's face moved from angry to confusion to horrified shock. Regina pulled back, her palm up to press Emma away in realization. "My mother – you…"

"No, she gave me a check and I just took it home and–" Emma stepped forward and rushed to clarify.

She could barely process Emma's words. All she knew was that Emma had accepted money from her mother, and despite Regina's naivety, she had an inkling that her mother was behind the downfall of all of her relationships in some shape or form, but this was something else entirely. It was more than just an ominous threat. It was a payoff and Emma had accepted. Emma wasn't supposed to be like everyone else. She was supposed to be different.

Regina stepped back, her eyes shining with unshed tears before a blink of the eye had them dry again, her expression cold and hardened. "She warned me about people like you," Regina said flatly, cutting off Emma's sentence as she turned to the door and wrenched it open.

Emma stilled and looked angry all over again. "People like me." Her voice was flat as her arms dropped to the side.

"Don't worry, dear. You won't have to worry about somebody like me anymore." Regina slung her purse over her shoulder and slammed the door shut behind her. In her haste to leave, she had left her coat sitting on the breakfast table, but as soon as she stepped onto the stairs she could feel the sting of betrayal well up behind her eyes.

She ignored Ashley who had a fussy Alexandra slung on her hip as the young mother smiled tiredly and waved to Regina and continued to rush down the stairs. It wasn't until she was safely behind the wheel of her car did she release the gasp she had been holding in and allowed the tears to stream down her face.

Chapter Text

"Where's Regina?"

Emma shifted uncomfortably in her chair, her hands clenched around the edge of the table as she sat with Henry that night at dinner. "Why?" She asked tightly.

"Is she coming to Christmas?" He asked innocently, shovelling the tater tots from his plate into his mouth.

"I'm not sure, kid," she answered quickly. "But I was thinking we could go down to the yard and get a real Christmas tree."

She motioned over to the corner of the living room where their artificial tree stood, still bare as per tradition to wait until Henry's first day of break before decorating it. Today was his last day of school, and god, what a day it had been. Not only had he questioned her of her location that morning, but he was frazzled when she told him she was at the hospital getting stitches. His nervousness died down as the hours passed, but it clearly didn't remove his interest in where Regina was.

"A real one?" He piped up excitedly.

"Yeah," she grinned relieved at the previous topic forgotten.

"Can Regina come?"

Emma's smile dropped. Or not. She gave a small smile before standing with her half eaten meal and placed it in the fridge. She answered him while her head was still in the confines of the cold box. "She's busy."

"Oh." Emma didn't have to see him to hear the dejectedness in his voice. She had been on the receiving end of that one too many times not to know what it sounded like, and the words that Regina threw at her that morning still stung. She hadn't even bothered to chase after the brunette after she had left. All she could think to do was slam a glass across the room in a mixture of anger and frustration before falling into a restless sleep, waking just in time to pick up Henry.

She stood up straight and closed the door with her hip, crossing her arms over her chest as she leaned against the appliance with a thin smile. "So you want to get that tree?"

"You're in luck," the young teen employed at the Christmas tree yard said as he led Emma and Henry near the back, past the small and scrawny trees that no one had wanted. "There's at least one good one hidden in the back here."

Emma sighed out relieved as she placed her hands on Henry's shoulders from behind as they sloshed through the wet ground that had dampen from the evening's light drizzle of rain. She guided him through the sparse collection of trees until they were in front of a real Christmas tree, one that Emma had always wanted since she was a child. It was no bigger than five feet, but it was full, healthy and alive. She inhaled deeply, a pine scent filling her nostrils as she squeezed Henry's shoulders in confirmation. "This one?"

"Yeah," he grinned excitedly.

"Ow!" Emma muttered as she pushed the tree into the corner in the tree stand after she and Henry had disassembled their artificial one and placed it back in its box. "The damn twigs are poking me."

"They're called needles, I think."

"Yeah, well they're doing their job."

"I think you were supposed to keep the burlap on it before setting it up."

With a final push, the tree remained standing on its own, Emma wiping her hands in satisfaction for a job well done. "Too late for that."

She wiped the thin layer of sweat that formed on her brow before catching Henry looking up at the tree in her periphery. She nudged his shoulder lightly until he looked at her. "How about we break tradition for this year and start decorating early?"

"Really?" He asked glancing at the clock inconspicuously.

Emma smirked. "Yeah, it's your break. Stay up and decorate with your mom."

He grinned and ran to the closet where the ornaments were kept. It was a randomized collection of silver and gold balls with intricate designs painted on them along with homemade ornaments Henry had made throughout his years in school. At the bottom of the box was the tangled mess of multicoloured Christmas lights that Emma was designated to unwind. The centrepiece was the bright golden star, generic in its make, but Emma had always allowed Henry to place it atop the tree.

It took Emma nearly an hour to untangle the mess of lights, and in that time Henry had popped a bowl of popcorn and began weaving a string and needle through each kernel, another of their own little traditions.

"You know Regina's never strung popcorn before?" Henry said as he stuck his tongue out, carefully pressing the needle and thread through the kernel.

"I believe that," Emma murmured, her focus intent on trying to undo the last knot in the plastic cords.


"She doesn't seem the type."

"There are types?"

Emma coiled the lights around her arm into a neat bundle as she stepped to the tree and began unravelling it around its branches, cursing none too quietly with each poke. The fake tree never gave her this many stings. She sighed when she glanced back at Henry to see he was still waiting for an answer. "Some people string popcorn, other people get a decorator for their tree."

Henry furrowed his brows. "Maybe she just doesn't know how. We can teach her. She can come over tomorrow and-"

"Henry," Emma snapped. "She's not coming over tomorrow."

"Why not?"

"She has better things to do," Emma said bitterly as she turned back to the tree, lacing the lights around it.

"But I talked to her last night," he reasoned. "She said she'd talk to you to see if it was okay."

"People change their mind." Her tone left no room for discussion, and by the time she kneeled to the floor to plug in the lights, she hadn't realized Henry had remained silent until she stood, brushing her hair away from her face and turning to see her son looking crestfallen. She sighed. "Henry..."

He looked up giving a tight smile, his expression masked much too expertly for Emma's liking. She walked over to him and slumped on the couch beside him, adjusting the bowl of loose popcorn on the cushions to prevent any unnecessary spills. She bit the inside of her cheek, trying to get her words in order. God, this was why she never dated. People got attached and people got hurt. It just sucked that Henry was in the middle. She sighed heavily again before speaking. "Regina and I..."

"Are you guys fighting or something?" His question was blunt and to the point, and his wide imploring eyes demanded an answer. "We don't get to be together as a family anymore."

She ran a hand through her hair, frustration ebbing at her insides from still being angry at the brunette woman and hating that Henry had to suffer indirectly for another one of her actions. The word he had chosen to use had stung Emma as well, but there was only so much she could deal with at the moment. Despite her mind telling her to answer, all she could keep thinking was that they could have been a family, if things were different. If she was different. "We just need some time apart," she explained, gesturing with her free hand.

"That's all you two have been doing," he said accusingly, daring her to prove him wrong.

"Look," she sighed, her eyes wandering for a moment before looking back at her son. "It's complicated. It'll be fine."

"What happened?"

"No offence, kid, but that's really not any of your business."

"I'm not a kid anymore," Henry huffed, crossing his arms mimicking a position Emma took up often.

"You're nine." All she received was a look that said 'so what?', and even in that look she heard Regina claiming that he'd been able to take care of himself since he was six. She pushed the guilt aside, choosing instead to focus on the bitter feeling that Regina had the audacity to use Henry against her, to turn Henry against her. She shook her head fiercely and shot up from the couch. "Henry, I know that you want to see her, but you gotta learn that we don't always get what we want."

Henry glared at her before speaking, his voice low and pressing making sure she heard every word. "I know that." He leapt from the couch, the string of popcorn on his lap falling to the floor before retreating to his bedroom where the sound of him slamming the door echoed behind him.

Emma groaned under her breath, tugging at her hair. Perfect fucking day this turned out to be.

"Regina." Kathryn knocked on the brunette's dark room door in her studio for the third time, again receiving no answer. "I know you're in there, I can hear you moving around." The motion behind the door stilled causing the usually even tempered blonde to start banging on the door. "Regina!"

The door suddenly opened with Regina stepping out into Kathryn's space and shutting the door behind her to keep the light away from the room. Regina's glare was deadly, and despite Kathryn having rushed over to her friend's studio as soon as she got word that Regina had missed her meeting, the blonde kept her stance and leveled her own glare.

"Clearly if I didn't answer you the first two times means that I am preoccupied or wish not to entertain, so if you could be so kind as to get out, I would be much obliged." Regina's tone was sharp, and if she had said that to any other person, they would have quivered at their knees and sped off with their tail between their legs, but Kathryn had been friends with Regina for years and knew the brunette only lashed out to hide her feelings.

Kathryn didn't respond immediately and simply eyed Regina, watching the mixture of emotion swirl in deep brown eyes. Finally she asked softly, "What happened?"

There was a brief flicker of sadness fluttering across Regina's face, but with a blink of her eye it was gone, and Regina was pushing past Kathryn and walking to her side table where she kept a decanter of cider and poured herself a healthy amount, not even bothering to be a good host and offer Kathryn some. The blonde had already come over unannounced so to hell with pleasantries. "Nothing."

"You missed the meeting," Kathryn pointed out gently.

Regina slammed her glass down onto the table. "Let me guess. My mother found out and told you to get to the bottom of it."

"Yes, but I would have if she didn't. Have you tried calling and rescheduling?"

"No," Regina replied sarcastically. "The thought never crossed my mind."

"Regina," Kathryn said sternly, indicating she was in no mood for her friend's sarcasm. "You wouldn't miss it for no reason. Something happened this morning, and I refuse to leave until you tell me what."

They glared at each other for long minutes. Regina could count on one hand how many times Kathryn held her ground against her, but she refused to give in. She didn't want to talk. She wanted to rip apart everything within her reach. She wanted to scream and yell.

But Kathryn initiated contact and pressed a hand to Regina's arm, and the brunette couldn't help but spill to her friend.

She told her everything from the night before. Taking care of Henry, anxious about the meeting, angry with Emma, worrying over Emma, being angry with Emma again, fighting with her, crying over her.

Kathryn had never, in her entire friendship with Regina, seen the brunette so vulnerable. Regina was the hard one, the most put together, and never let her emotions interfere with her decisions, but sitting on her couch with the brunette wiping her eyes with Kleenex made Kathryn realize just how much Regina put into this relationship, why she rarely ever ventured into one, and she could faintly see the regret etched in brown eyes for going against what her brain warned her heart of.

She placed a hand on Regina's shoulder and squeezed gently. "So that's why she's been distant."

Regina nodded before rolling a shoulder and tossing her crumpled up Kleenex on her coffee table, her face a perfect mask of indifference, a stark contrast from what it was mere seconds earlier. "It was all in due time, I suppose." She scoffed to herself before standing and straightening the outfit she hadn't bothered to change from since the day before. "Her plan worked. She got what she wanted and she doesn't have to deal with me ever again."


"No." The brunette turned sharply glaring down at Kathryn who still remained seated. "Mother was right. Mother said that she was one of those people constantly chasing money, and I defended her. I told my mother she was wrong, and look what happened. She used me."

"Your mother was the one who gave it to her," Kathryn pointed out.

"To prove it, no doubt." Regina dismissed hastily as she paced the length of the room before slowing her steps to chew on her thumb nail in thought. She kept her back to Kathryn as she stared out the window and watched what little snow that accumulated on the ground turn to slush from the drizzle that had began an hour earlier. "I know what my mother's like," she admitted hesitantly, draping her free arm around her middle. "I just thought..."

"That Emma was different," Kathryn provided for her, standing to move closer to her friend.

Regina didn't nod or confirm, but her jaw set and her eyes shut not denying the claim.

Sighing sympathetically, Kathryn switched the topics. "What about Gold? Let's explain the situation and set up a new meeting."

Regina just nodded once before putting her tumbler back on the coffee table and moving to straighten the throw pillows on her couch. After the last pillow was fluffed, Kathryn didn't expect Regina to grab it and toss it across the length of her studio in fury. "God, she wasn't even apologetic about it! She was angry at me because I had somewhere important to be. She didn't care that I was worried sick about her. What kind of idiot doesn't pick up their phone to let someone know they've been in the hospital all night? Goddammit, am I really not worth it if given the choice between me and a check with some zeros on it?"


"She didn't choose me, Kathryn," Regina snapped, the hitch in her voice strained her words and made the brunette tense her body. Her chest rose and fell from breathing heavily, seething out her frustrations but with a hard gulp she quieted down to a horrified whisper. "She didn't want me."

Kathryn closed the distance between herself and Regina and pulled the brunette into a hug that she immediately resisted. Regina pushed against Kathryn, but the blonde held on firmly until Regina couldn't help but relax and allow herself to be held. She didn't cry then, just stared off to one of her many white walls that held her black and white photographs, looking past the picture as if it weren't even there.

"Did you love her?" Kathryn asked quietly.

Regina stiffened, wanting to scoff and laugh at the blonde's question, but if she were asked that a month ago, her answer, though not direct, would imply that she was well on the path to no matter how hard she tried to deny it. But now, for once in her adult life, she didn't know what to say and simply pulled away from Kathryn, grabbing her glass of cider and the half empty decanter to retreat into the solitude and safety of her dark room.

"Hold on, she said what?" Ruby paused her sweeping of her grandmother's kitchen as Emma recounted her tale of the day before while pounding the bread dough she was meant to knead much too fiercely.

"Yeah," Emma said flatly. "Pretty much said I was a bad mom."

"You're joking."

The blonde shook her head just as Granny came in looking at the two girls over the top of her glasses. "I see you haven't managed to destroy my kitchen."

"Not this year." Emma gave the older woman a smile as she rolled the dough into a loaf and set it in a pan.

"Need I remind you Christmas four years ago?"

Emma blushed as Ruby cackled, the brunette rinsing her hands in the sink before moving to the counter to begin making sugar cookies. Granny whipped a dish rag at Ruby's waist who immediately stopped her laughing. "I've got stories about you too, girl."

It was Emma's turn to smirk as she sidled up beside her friend taking over the task of mixing dry ingredients while Ruby handled the wet ones. Granny moved fluidly around the kitchen, grabbing ingredients from the pantry and fridge and cooking as if it were already Christmas Day. There was nothing like a two day head start, Granny had insisted.

Emma never minded. She was grateful that Granny always invited her and Henry for dinner during the holidays, and with her son still upset with her from their spat the day before, Granny's baking and cooking was a pleasant distraction.

"So wait, what's this thing with her mom?" Ruby asked quietly as she creamed the egg, butter, and vanilla concoction in her metal bowl, mindful of her grandmother wanting no lolly gagging in her kitchen.

Emma bit the inside of her cheek, flushing at the question. "She tried to buy me off."

"What? Did she?"

"No of course not." Emma glared at Ruby. "You really think I would do that?"

"No, but does Regina know that?"

Again Emma bit the inside of her cheek, but this time she couldn't come up with a proper response. No, Regina didn't know that. The brunette had cut her off before she could explain, but the way things ended had left a foul taste in Emma's mouth, and she wasn't sure if she could handle speaking to Regina knowing how the brunette thought of her.

All it took was Emma's silence for Ruby to drop her fork and smack the blonde across the arm with the back of her hand. "Emma!"

"Ow!" She clutched her arm out of shock rather than pain, the baking clearly forgotten on the encounter. "What the hell was that for?"

"She doesn't know!" Ruby smacked her again.

"Okay, one: stop hitting me," Emma said moving her bowl to the furthest end of the counter avoiding Granny's watchful stare. "Two: what does it matter? She already thinks I'm a gold digger."

"What sort of mess are you in now?" Granny asked with a raised eyebrow and a hand on her hip.

"Nothing," the blonde muttered before stealing Ruby's bowl and adding the dry ingredients to it.

"She fought with her girlfriend because she doesn't know how to talk," Ruby provided dryly, crossing her arms over her chest.

"It's not only Emma who has that problem," Granny said pointing a wooden spoon at Ruby. "That was your grandfather's specialty." She turned back to the stove and began stirring the chilli in her pot. "So what doesn't your lady friend know?"

Emma sighed and kept her gaze focused on smoothing out the sugar cookie batter with her hands before she moved the big wad of dough onto a piece of wax paper and found the rolling pin. She thought she had stalled sufficiently until Granny sucked her teeth. "I ain't got all day, Emma. Spit it out or suck it up."

"It's nothing, really," Emma finally said as she thinned out the dough. "Regina - the girl I was...yeah - her and her family are pretty well off. Like, ridiculously well off. She's basically a hotel heiress." She ignored it when Granny whistled impressed. "Me and her mom sort of got into it when we first met, so she doubly doesn't like me since she thinks I'm a stripper and she thinks I'm no good and couldn't take care of her daughter and she tried to pay me off," Emma said in one breath.

The questioning look she received from Granny made her rush to clarify what the older woman was sure to be thinking. "But I didn't take it. And then I ended up having to deal with stuff at work the other day, so she had to take Henry to school and wound up missing this meeting, and then we got into an argument and she agreed with everything her mom said."

"So you're mad she said things in the heat of the moment," Granny stated more than asked.

Emma snorted and began slamming the snowman shaped cookie cutter into the dough with added force. "I'm mad because I knew this would happen. She looks down on me because I'm not like all those hoity-toity rich people she hangs out with, and I tried so damn hard to do what she liked, and I even got her this expensive bracelet for Christmas that she probably wouldn't even give two shits about, and for what? I called it the second I saw her, but still, I was this big idiot who thought otherwise."

Granny stared at her for a long moment, and even Ruby had her gaze focused on the blonde. The only sound permeating the kitchen was the soft echoes of the narrator from The Grinch as Henry sat in the den watching the cartoon. With an incline of her head, Granny dismissed Ruby, the brunette begrudgingly leaving the kitchen to keep Henry company letting Granny have a word with Emma.

Emma swallowed hard as she continued to be scrutinized by the aged woman's stare. Finally Granny slipped her glasses off and let them hang from the chain around her neck. "Did Ruby ever tell you about her grandfather?" Emma shook her head. "Stubborn fool. Died when she was eight just before her parents did. Now I'm not gonna tell you we had some romantic love affair with our families hating on one another like those Shakespeare plays, but we did have our issues. He couldn't tell me if my cooking was aggravating his allergies no more than he could tell me that he hammered his thumb in, which he did twice. The thing nearly fell off until I stumbled upon him wrapping it in ice and tape.

"What I'm saying is," Granny continued placing a hand on Emma's shoulder, "is that he didn't like to talk. It caused a lot of problems especially when he kept the big things quiet like the factory laying him off. We fought hard after that, but we loved harder. And maybe with you and Regina, if she's really all that she's cracked up to be, you'll be able to see that this keeping secrets from each other business is just gonna hurt you. She sounds like she was hurt just as much as you, hon."

With a pat to her cheek, Emma returned a half smile to Granny as she walked briskly back to her stove. Emma clutched the counter top fiercely, staring down at the arrangement of sugar cookies waiting to be placed in the oven as her mind processed the last five minutes, hell the last two days. Her feelings were hurt and her pride wounded, but she couldn't help but wonder and even hope that Regina was thinking of her too, if only for a little bit.

"I appreciate your help, dear." Cora sat behind the desk in her study sipping daintily on a glass of wine as Regina sat on the sofa, her mother's bookkeeping and bank statements organized precisely on the coffee table. "Your father was always the one to handle the numbers."

Regina nodded mutely not wiling to reveal her other motive for accepting her mother's request. She had originally arrived at her mother's mansion to confront the woman under the ruse of getting an early start on the holidays with it being Christmas Eve and all, but Cora's request of going over the budget reports that left no room to be denied gave Regina the perfect opportunity to snoop into her mother's finances.

Kathryn had made Regina wonder and hope that Emma hadn't taken the money and it was nothing more than a huge misunderstanding. Why would Emma do that and continue to work twice as hard as she already did? It made Regina curious, her mind automatically wandering to the worst case scenario of being phased out and betrayed, but there was a tiny part of her hidden deep inside her heart that prayed she was wrong.

When Cora excused herself from the study, Regina quickly and carefully rifled through her personal statements, looking for any suspicious transfers or deposits but found nothing out of the ordinary. What were the odds her mother gave cash? That was fairly untraceable. Still, it had to show up somewhere. The clacking of her mother's heels on the hardwood made Regina pause. She lifted the pile of papers to shuffle them into order when a small rectangular strip slipped free. She picked it up quickly, her lips parting to see it was indeed a copy from her mother's check book with Emma Swan penned neatly into the recipient line.

Her stomach dropped and dread filled her as she stared at the four faded letters comprising Emma's name. She didn't want to believe it but there it was clasped between her fingers. God, how could she be such a fool? She didn't even want to glance at the number, but when she did she shook her head, her lips still parted and feeling so small. The copy of the check was still in her hands just as Cora stepped back in, whatever words that were on her lips died as soon as she saw Regina's hard glare.

Regina didn't have time to mask the reality of the shock of her discovery as she looked up at her mother. Her fists involuntarily clenched into a tight ball, the paper between her fingers crumpling beneath its force.

"Oh sweetie," Cora began sympathetically after a quick sweep of her daughter's eyes to the copy in her grasp.

"No." Regina leaped up from the couch and waved the check around angrily. "What the hell are you playing at?"

"Now, now, Regina."

"For god's sake, Mother!" Regina yelled exasperated as she turned away briefly, unable to meet Cora's eyes. With a harsh whip of the air, she turned, crushing the copy in her hand with her gaze set on Cora. "Did she ask this of you? Did she need help with something?"

Regina couldn't help the small hitch in her voice as she spoke, her will clinging to the last remaining shred of hope that there was more to this story, that she was wrong somehow. Cora tilted her head to the side, evaluating her daughter with narrowed eyes. Regina waited impatiently, but her anger didn't allow her to see the minuscule tilt of Cora's lips before it went to the usual stoic and cold expression.

"I told you what kind of girl she was, didn't I?" Cora insisted. She stepped forward when Regina ran a hand through her hair in disbelief. Disbelief at her mother's audacity and disbelief at Emma's betrayal. But how could she still be in denial when the proof was right there in front of her?. "Regina, she isn't what's best for you."

"What do you know about what's best for me?" Regina asked flatly.

Cora leveled a glare at her daughter before tilting her chin up and steepling her fingers underneath her chin. "Well, you'll be happy to note that I've pulled some strings and Mr. Gold has graciously decided to meet with you in the new year. Just make sure you attend that one and nothing prevents you from it."

"I didn't need your help for that. I would have been able to do it myself."

"Really?" Cora asked mockingly. "Before or after you tended to your broken heart? Regina, how many times have I told you that if you want to get ahead in your career then little affairs like this will only get in your way." Cora continued as Regina paced the length of the study unable to get her thoughts organized. "She's shown her true colours, can't you see that? I know you're hurt, and if you want me to be the villain then so be it, but I am just looking out for you, dear."

Regina slowed her pacing and came to a stop in front of the fireplace looking up at the family portrait above it. She shut her eyes briefly before turning her head to face Cora, her eyes dark and distant. "That is the last time you will interfere in my life," she spoke clearly.

Cora didn't even have time to scoff before Regina dropped the crumpled ball of paper to the ground and left the room, slamming the door behind her.

It had been snowing mercilessly since the evening before, more than Emma had ever seen in her adult life. She remembered trudging through the snow growing up in nothing more than second hand boots with the soles held together with glue, layers upon layers of sweatpants, and a ratty hoodie under her fall jacket, so the sudden blizzard-like weather had the blonde surprised. Quite frankly she was expecting a rainy Christmas as it had been for the past three years, but all that meant was the big gift she had gotten Henry this year would be put to good use when spring hit and the sidewalks would be free of snow.

It had been a quiet Christmas Day so far. Henry, like every other year, had woken up at six am, knocking furiously on Emma's door until she opened it with a bleary eyed smile and a kiss to the top of his head. Before she had even managed a Christmas greeting, Henry had run to the tree and began rummaging through his gifts, some signed from Santa, others from family friends.

As he opened his gifts, wrappings and tissue paper strewn about the floor, Emma had borrowed his digital camera, ignoring the fact that it was Regina who had purchased it for him, and began snapping pictures, having Henry hold up each gift as the boy gave a toothy wide grin. Despite the air being clear between herself and her son, Emma couldn't stop the feeling that there was something missing, another body that this small room was meant to have. With every click of the camera, Emma slowly began to realize, and almost hated herself for doing so, that she had missed the idea of Regina spending Christmas with them, of them opening up gifts together and sharing in small traditions. It tore her apart and gave her a headache. It was hard to miss Regina when she was still so mad, but apparently her heart didn't give a damn.

Nearly four days of silence was enough to make Emma hesitant about calling the brunette herself, and to be perfectly honest, she didn't know what the hell to say. Apologize and explain to her the truth, Ruby and Granny had all but pestered her into eventually doing, but talking to her, letting Regina in on Emma's feelings, that was something the blonde didn't even know how to begin to navigate. So instead she snapped pictures, her mind's eye betraying her heart as she wondered just how different today could have been.

She shook her head as she turned from the window clutching a mug of hot chocolate between her hands as she watched Henry attempt to split his attention from The Polar Express currently on the TV to the latest Iron Man trade August had gotten for him. Still in his plaid pyjama bottoms, he sat cross-legged on the couch with the various books and games he had received from his honorary aunts and uncles - the Spider-Man zip up he had put on immediately after opening it from Ruby and the Artemis Fowl series from Frederick (and Kathryn ostensibly) to name a few. Emma had presented him with several super hero shirts, but she had yet to reveal his big gift. She had purposely waited for it to be the last he opened, hoping that giving it to him would make him realize that she was trying her best with him.

Crossing the small distance to the breakfast table, Emma set her cocoa down and tapped Henry on the head. He turned and raised his eyebrows silently saying what?

"Close your eyes," she said with a pleased smirk. "Come on, it'll be cool."

Obligingly, Henry shut his eyes then covered them with his hands to prevent himself from peeking. Making sure he wasn't looking, Emma creeped into her bedroom and pulled out the bike she had managed to hide in her closet. As soon as it was in between the kitchen and the living room, she put the kickstand down, marvelling at the rocket red six gear bike and helmet. She moved to the couch and kneeled beside Henry where he was still crouched over the back of the couch with his hands over his eyes. "Okay, open them."

Henry removed his hand and peeked his eyes open. Within seconds they widened and he stood up on the couch. "No way!"

Emma grinned mentally patting herself on the back. She was so pleased with herself she didn't even bother to scold Henry for hopping over the back rather than moving around the couch in order to sit on his new bike.

"This is awesome!" He pulled the helmet on with a click and began peddling slowly around the apartment, careful not to bump into anything.

"You can ride it inside today, but come tomorrow that's only for outside. We gotta get you a lock too."

Henry didn't bother to respond, too busy either slowly peddling or using his feet to weave around objects. It wasn't until there was a knock on the door did he stop and remember to hop off and wrap his arms around Emma's waist as she made her way to the door. "Thanks, Mom."

She wrapped her arms around his shoulders and smiled into his hair. "Anything for you, kid."

He released her and hopped back onto his bike as Emma turned to answer the door.

"Hey," she greeted Ashley and one year old Alex. "Merry Christmas."

Ashley smiled brightly holding onto Alex's hand with one hand while balancing a gift on top of a covered platter of cookies with the other. "Merry Christmas, Emma."

The older blonde let Ashley and Alex in, taking the present and cookies off of the younger girl.

"Hey Ash!" Henry called from the middle of the living room still on his bike. Alexandra waddled over to Henry, holding her hands up to be lifted. Henry picked her up and sat her in his lap, letting her hold the handles as he pretended to ride.

"Big year," Ashley commented at the bike.

"Tell me about it," Emma laughed and looked at the gift. "You didn't have to, you know."

"Oh, I found that in front of your door."

"In front of my door?" Emma repeated, snagging a cookie from its platter before examining the bag to see who it was from. Her breath hitched when she examined the writing on the sender sticker, seeing it was unmistakably Regina's handwriting addressing the gift to Henry. "Did you see who dropped it off?"

Ashley shook her head. "I went downstairs to do laundry about an hour ago and nothing was there when I passed by. I just saw it on my way down here."

The idea that Regina had driven in this weather to drop off a gift was unnerving for Emma. Or maybe she had gotten someone else to do it. Or maybe she was over thinking this too much. Regardless, there was only one gift clearly marked to her son, and the idea of calling the older woman to talk things out became a distant idea.

"Henry," Emma called holding up the gift.

"Another?" He asked excitedly, helping Alex to the ground before racing over to the newest gift. He eyed the intricately wrapped golden paper, beaming at the sender. "Regina's here?"

Emma shook her head awkwardly. "Just dropped it off."

Henry frowned but proceeded to tear into the wrapping paper to uncover a leather bound book titled Grimm Fairy Tales. "Woah," Henry said in awe, elongating the word for emphasis. He flipped through the book, the old-book smell wafting lightly in the air.

Ashley picked up Alexandra and placed her on her hip. "You guys enjoy your Christmas."

Emma nodded, walking her neighbour to the door before remembering to give her their gift. By the time the door was shut, Henry was seated on his bike again, using it as a chair as he rifled through the book. He looked up at Emma in contemplation, his lips parting slightly as he began to speak before thinking better of it.

"What, kid?"

He looked down to the book then back at his mother. "Didn't she want to come in?" His voice was low, and despite having matured well for his age, it still held the innocence of a child.

Emma ran her hand through her hair before stuffing her hands in her jean pockets. "She probably had a lot of things to do."

"Can I call her?"

She plopped down on the couch, pulling her leg underneath her other one as she worried her lip.


Emma shut her eyes while lifting her hips to pull out her phone from her back pocket and hesitantly dialed Regina.

"Do lighten up, Regina. It's Christmas." Cora sat at the opposite end of the dining room table, a feast laid out before them with Regina sitting at the other end.

Regina rolled her eyes, absent-mindedly picking at the food Mother's chefs had slaved away for in the kitchen. She had given Mother the silent treatment since the night before. Quite frankly if it wasn't due to wanting to spend Christmas in the house with the fondest memories of Daddy, whom she desperately wanted to see right now, Regina would have just gone back to her empty apartment. It lacked the festive spirit that Mother's decorator had spent painstaking hours to show within these walls, but at least she knew there was a full decanter of cider (along with a few bottles of the best wines and perhaps a bottle of scotch if memory served her correctly) that Regina could indulge in to her liking.

She had almost gone back home, but after she had dropped off Henry's gift in front of their doorstep after trekking it out in the heavy snow, the soft sounds of some child's musical movie played with low chatter and laughter. Her eyes burned, whether it was out of anger or regret she was unsure, but Regina held her head high, tucking the box that contained Emma's gift under her arm and made her way back down the stairs. She realized in the car that she didn't want to be alone, but sitting across the table with her mother made her reevaluate that plan.

Cora stopped her eating, her knife and fork poised elegantly over her meal as she sighed frustrated as if dealing with an unruly child. "Honestly, dear, if you're going to be acting like this all night then-"

Regina openly scoffed. "What are you going to do, Mother? Pay somebody to be a better daughter? There isn't enough money in the world."

"Regina!" Cora slammed her cutlery down.

The younger brunette tilted her head with derision, no longer fearing what her mother could do. For the first time in her entire life, she stood from the table without being excused, bringing her glass of wine with her as she walked into their large parlour room where the twelve-foot pine tree stood, decorated perfectly to match the decor of the house. Pleased to find the fireplace burning brightly with stockings hung over the mantle with their names cursively stitched into the fabric simply for decorative purposes rather than trinket-giving, she sat back against the leather sofa, crossing her leg over the other and pulling down on her beige-knitted sweater dress to come over her legging-clad thigh.

She figured she had three minutes before Mother came storming in, yelling curses and wreaking havoc. She had three minutes where she could stew in her own thoughts and allow her heart to hurt for just a little bit before locking up the feeling again for another day. God, she thought sipping her wine. Do all relationships feel like this when they end? Perhaps not. Not every relationship ended with a five thousand dollar price tag on somebody's head. She shut her eyes as she swirled the wine within her glass, unable to stop the flooding of questions filling her mind. Maybe it's me, she thought. There must be something wrong with me.

"Regina." Cora slammed the door to the parlour open forcing the younger brunette to snap open her eyes.

She mentally rolled them as she looked up at her mother. It looked like Cora granted her the mercy of only one minute.

Cora took Regina's jaw within her grasp, red-painted nails digging into her olive-toned flesh. "Can't you see that you are acting like some petulant child over what? Some call girl?"

Regina ripped her face away, her eyes narrowing in defiance. "Don't think this is all about Emma."

"Your heart is weak, dear. I did what I-"

"What you had to do was be supportive for once in your life!" Regina stood up, towering over Cora by a few inches. Her wine glass had tumbled to the floor on her rise up, the juices seeping into the hardwood. "Yes, Mother. You've taught me yet another lesson on who to trust. Thank you for being so inconsiderate on how it would affect me."

Cora's lips parted and her eyes widened, unused to her daughter speaking back so bluntly and so emotionally. Before she could say another word, Regina's phone rang, and with a glance into her pocket, she pulled it up and held it to her ear without looking as she stepped out into the hall and began to make her way up to her old room.

"Regina Mills speaking."


"It's Henry!"

Emma sat on the couch watching as her son paced back and forth as he spoke with Regina. She briefly wondered if the brunette would even pick up her call, or if she would yell into it without realizing it would be Henry on the receiving end, but the sound of Henry's excitement and the beam of his wide grin made Emma relieved for the time being. Her head moved on a plane as it swivelled watching Henry walk from one end of the living room to the other.

"I just wanted to say Merry Christmas," he said absently kicking at a loose wrapping paper on the ground. He smiled, presumably receiving a similar response. "Yeah, I got your gift. Thanks for it."

Emma watched him turn around, the other side of the living room his destination.

"I've only seen Disney and I heard the Grimm brothers were cooler," he told her. "I got you something too."

Emma's ears perked up at that, and she glanced under the tree, but all she saw were loose needles and tissue paper and bows.

"It's no big deal," he shrugged with a blush, turning back around. "Maybe my mom can drop it off next time she sees you."

Emma leaned her head on her hand as it rested along the back of the couch, watching Henry's face as it shifted every so slightly to reluctant understanding. Whatever Regina had told him clearly wasn't the entire truth since Henry wasn't shooting daggers or pleadings with either of them.

"I got some really cool stuff. My mom got me a bike." He listened to Regina's reply before chuckling with an added sigh. "Yes, I have a helmet. I'll be careful. What did you get?"

He did another rotation, stopping his tracks in front of Emma on the couch where he smiled and nodded. "You can come over if you're bored."

Emma's eyes widened and she sat abruptly. Judging from Henry's furrowed brow Regina was giving him a similar reaction if less obvious.

"Okay," he said dejectedly. "No, it's okay. My mom wants to talk to you."

Before Emma could say no, Henry had thrust the phone at her and walked back to his bike, going over every inch of his new prized possession carefully. She squeezed her eyes tight, holding the phone against the belly of her shirt before standing and exiting the apartment quietly. She wasn't ready for this conversation. Not by a long shot. So there was no way in hell she was having it in front of Henry.

The halls were empty, so she sat on the top of the stairs that opened to their apartment door. She glanced down at her phone, seeing the time elapse and realizing that Regina had waited for some unknown reason. With trepidation, Emma put the receiver to her ear. "Hi?"

"Ms. Swan," Regina said flatly.

Emma visibly cringed at the title and swallowed hard. Neither of them spoke for another thirty seconds. Taking another gulp, Emma began to speak. "Regina, look about the check-"

"My mother explained it to me. No need to waste your breath."

"She did- what did she say?"

"What else does she have to say?" Regina snapped. "Apparently your dignity costs five thousand dollars."

"Woah, Jesus, that's- that's not what that is," Emma said attempting to keep a cool head, but Regina's jabs and derisive tone was poking at Emma's frustration.

"Oh I'm sorry, is that just the price of what I'm worth?"

"No! You're obviously worth more than that." Apologize, Emma, her brain told her. Explain.

Regina scoffed amused. "What price is that then? Aim high, Emma, I'm sure my mother would gladly accommodate."

Emma finally realized the extent of her words, shaking her head furiously as if to push what she had said out of her mind and away from her mouth, but the damage was already done.

"I understand, Ms. Swan," Regina interrupted Emma's train of thought, her tone professional and indifferent. "There are more important things in life than sordid affairs."

"Is that what this was to you?" Emma asked appalled and bitter.

Regina laughed out loud, a cold and distant laughter before ending the call. Emma stared at her black screen unable to process what had just transpired. That was it. They meant nothing. Emma was probably just one big fuck you to Cora. Nothing more than a 'sordid affair.'

She dropped her head into her hands, her chest clenching with a pain so unfamiliar she was sure she was having a stroke or heart attack or something. But as she lifted her head, sniffling and wiping her face on the sleeve of her shirt, Emma stood up and turned to head back into the apartment unaware that across town Regina was curled into her old four-poster canopy bed thinking she was nothing more to Emma than a taste of the good life.

Chapter Text

They hadn't spoken in over a week. Numerous times Emma had picked up the phone or had hovered over Regina's name in her contact list, but what was the point? She had made it very clear that they were never serious, nothing more than a tryst, so why should Emma look like a fool chasing a loss cause? Maybe it was because of that unsettling feeling deep in her stomach that told her this, them not being together, wasn't right. Or maybe her heart had ached too much from being abandoned, from being not good enough. Whatever it was Emma hated to dwell on it, but there were little places she could hide that didn't remind her of a certain brunette.

Henry had pestered her to call Regina again in the following days after Christmas, and it broke Emma to sit him down and explain as best as she could that they weren't together, that he had to stop asking about her and that was that. Her eyes were wide and imploring, begging him to understand before he begrudgingly muttered a 'fine' and hid himself away in his room.

She had gone back to work on Boxing Day, back to the bar, and back on the counter. It wasn't the first time she had to work during the holidays, hell she had had to work on Christmas Day a few years prior, but it was the first time she saw Henry shake his head, disappointment etched into his eyes before nodding and bidding her goodbye from his spot on the couch. Emma had asked Ashley to come down to their place that day, hoping some familiarity would help alleviate his mood, but it wasn't until she ended the call did she realize that Henry probably spent just as much time at Ashley's if not more than their own place. Familiarity was shot out the window.

She broke six glasses that night and dropped four bottles of beer.

August had approached her by the end of her shift, asking if she was okay, but all Emma offered was a half-hearted smile and a nod before cleaning up her latest mess and driving home as fast as she could to spend time with her kid.

It was the fourth day of his holidays where Henry had insisted he didn't need a babysitter that Emma had decided to find August in his office during her break and slump haphazardly across his beaten down couch and cover her eyes with her forearm.

"Bad day?" He asked cautiously.

"Henry hates me," she mumbled to herself.

"No he doesn't."

She removed her arm from her face and tilted her head to face him. "Am I a bad mom?"

"No," he said firmly, moving from his desk to pull up a chair beside her. "What's all this about?"

Emma stared up at the ceiling then shook her head profusely while trying to sit up. "Nothing."

August pushed her back down on the couch and gave her a look that told her she wasn't going anywhere. "Come on, do you want me to send you home early?"

"Maybe," she said to the ceiling.

"Maybe?" He repeated with a curious gaze.

"Henry's growing up," she mused to herself.

"That's generally what kids do."

Emma levelled a glare at him before taking a deep breath. "Did you know I was almost late to his Christmas pageant?" When August remained quiet she continued. "Regina ended up taking him and saving me a spot. I made it just before his class went on stage."

"You're not a bad mom, Em," August comforted. "Henry knows-"

"I always promised myself I'd never let my kid grow up the way I did," she interrupted. "When he was born, I swore I'd take care of him and make sure he was never alone."

"You're doing that."

She sat up then, running a hand through her hair. "He grew up just as fast as I did. Yeah, he's kept his nose clean, and I'm grateful for that, and it could have been so much worse, but-"

She cut herself off and placed both hands on her head, staring up at the ceiling as the rock music from the bar drifted up through the vents. "I feel like I miss him."

August smiled softly and patted her head in a brotherly manner. "You do."

She moved her head away from his hand and let it drop to her chest as she examined her hands in her lap. She fidgeted for a long moment before shaking her head with a sigh. "I gotta get back to work."

Without waiting she stood and walked to the door, her hand on the knob.

"Emma," he called after her. "You're fired."

"What?" She shrieked and turned fully with her hands on her hips and her eyes wide, confused and angry. "You're firing me."

August grinned before shrugging nonchalantly as if he hadn't just dropped a bombshell on her. He turned back to his desk, rifling through papers.

"August!" Emma stormed over to his desk. "What the hell?"

He didn't answer and started pulling drawers open, his face lighting up when he found a small contact card and extending it out to Emma. "I have a friend. He's got this pretty nice restaurant and bar uptown."

Emma didn't take the card and continued to glare at her boss. Former boss, apparently. "You want me to leave my manager position here to go somewhere else and work my way up at this place?"

"He's looking for a manager," he explained. "You'd work during the day, manage other people, and still work the bar. People tip nice up there too."

Emma eyed the card warily.

"Em," he said imploringly. "It's a step up from this place, and it looks better too. You'd actually be home for dinner and you can tuck Henry in at night."

She shifted from foot to foot until August held the card out further. "You don't always have to do things the hard way," he insisted. "Call him."

Emma gave him a call a day later, had an interview the day after and was hired on the spot. August had apparently gushed about her and her work ethic, and after Emma had passed a mini test of spewing off ingredients from any drink he named, the owner was deeply impressed. The look of relief on his face when she said she could work immediately mirrored the look on her own face when she realized she got the job. She walked out of there with a giant grin on her face and the sudden need to punch the air in victory.

When Henry heard the news, Emma knew she had made the right decision. She had caught him staring up at the Christmas tree star that night with a pleased smile, muttering a thanks to Santa.

It was now New Year's Eve, and Emma had opted on throwing a party at their place, hoping that this new change of scene would continue into the new year. Their friends were invited, Henry was loaded up on sugar to stay up late, and midnight was less than an hour away.

"Danny tells me you're fitting right in," August said, sidling up beside Emma as she mixed another kid-friendly punch.

"It's different," Emma said with a shrug. "I wear a lot more, and the staff is nice."

"You have to look professional and all," August teased, earning a playful glare from Emma before turning serious. "If you really don't like it, there's always room for you back at the bar."

Emma smiled softly before turning to watch as Henry and Alex danced around the living room as the latest performer at Times Square did their number. She still wasn't over Henry's face every time she walked him into his room and helped him into bed, grabbing his fairy tale book to read for the night. It was as if both of them were waiting for the other shoe to drop, but it wouldn't come. This is it, Emma realized, and she wouldn't change that for anything.

She shook her head to August and actually smiled. "I'm good. My boss is so much better anyway."

"Ouch," August smirked pressing a hand to his heart.

The rest of the night went by quickly with laughter ringing throughout the apartment. But by the time the ball descended and midnight rolled around, Emma's good mood slowly dwindled as she looked around the room to see Ruby getting a kiss from her date, Billy, a mechanic who worked with Michael and was always sweet on her, August who had given Ashley a hug and a kiss on the cheek, and various other friends coupling up, while Henry had tickled Alexandra into a fit before pecking her forehead.

She lingered awkwardly for only a moment before Henry looked up catching her eye and ran over to wrap his arms around her middle. "Happy New Years, Mom."

She smiled softly into his embrace then leaned down to brush her lips against the top of his hair. "Happy New Years, Henry."

He pulled back and looked up at her, his smile soft but his eyes conveying understanding. He tugged her down to his level and wrapped his arms around her neck before whispering in her ear. "You should call her."

Without giving her a chance to respond, Henry ran back to Alexandra and led her to the punch, hoping to milk staying up late as much as possible.

Emma remained in her crouched position staring off after him, lingering on the final thought he left in her mind. It was Ruby who tugged her up a little too roughly, no doubt the effect of how much alcohol she had consumed taking its toll on her, pulling Emma into a tight hug. "Happy New Year, Ems!"

"Yeah," the blonde responded with a tight smile. "Happy New Year."

Fireworks went off in the sky, the once sleek blackness rippled with bright reds, blues, and whites as the crack of the fireworks rivalled that of the parties going on in and around New York. Somewhere below her condo Regina could hear the party room cheer as midnight hit. Noise makers rattled and laughter rose through all the floors. Of course, there were many parties Regina had been invited to, but after a less than pleasant Christmas, she simply wanted to ring in the New Year by herself.

Her mother was furious when Regina flat out refused to attend Cora's annual New Year's Eve masquerade at one of their larger hotels as Killian's date. Regina was still getting angry voicemails from the woman, and even Killian had attempted to persuade her. It took a levelled glare and a well-placed slap for him to back off.

She flitted about aimlessly in her apartment, descending from the stairs where she had changed out of her dress and nylons and opted for leggings and an oversized knitted sweater. She may not have been in the most celebratory of moods, but she always made it a point to dress impeccably. The wine in her glass swirled precariously close to spilling, but Regina drank it before it even had a chance to tip.

The lights of the city reflected off her floor-to-ceiling windows as she stood before it, an arm wrapped around her midsection while the other held her wine glass firmly.

Cheers to a new year, she thought bitterly, draining her wine in one go before turning to deposit her glass onto a side table. She sat on her couch where her portfolio was scattered along the coffee table. The photographs were more greyscales than coloured, and even the coloured pictures were strategically blurred or silhouetted against the light. Her recent work had involved more models than landscape, and for the first time Regina worried that her skill wasn't up to par. Her meeting with Gold was in three days, and she couldn't even decide which photos she wanted to show. After missing their first meeting, Regina felt her initial portfolio wouldn't cut it, but now none of these photos looked presentable.

She dropped the pile in her hand onto the table with disgust, but a coloured picture stood out in the midst of black and white. Picking it up, she recognized it immediately and frowned. It was of Henry and Emma that day at the centre where she had come down for the fundraiser. Neither of them were looking at the camera. In fact they didn't even know she had taken the picture. Mother and son were walking toward the middle of the court, their heads turned toward each other, smiles adorning their faces. She smiled softly, examining every little tiny expression on their faces. It had seemed so long ago when she had taken this. God, was it only a few months ago she had met the Swan family? How had she let them into her life so easily?

Her fingers tightened around the picture but as soon as creases formed on the page, she released her grip and smoothed the corner down, setting it gently on the far side of the coffee table away from everything else. Rifling through the photographs, she decided she couldn't use any of them. Every so often she would see either Henry or Emma in the background, and before long, she gave up on the task of organizing her portfolio. The laughter and singing of her intoxicated neighbours continued to ring up to her floor, and every so often she would hear a drunken cry of 'Happy New Year!' which made her cringe and tense. There was nothing happy about it, and it was only day one.

"All right, so we've got the open gym on Saturdays, you sure you don't want to do soccer or basketball or something?" Emma asked as she and Henry sat at one of the tables in the youth centre going through the yearly registrations. Henry was due back at school the following day, and program registrations were already opened up for spring activities. Emma wanted to make sure Henry got a spot in any of the ones he wanted, so she drove them down to the centre, signing him up early for the activities.

"I can?" He asked looking over the list.

"Yeah, kid. Even ones that are on weekdays. Things are different now, remember?" She gave him a nudge with her elbow while he gave her a shy grin.

"What about this one?" He pointed to a program. "It's every Wednesday."

"Writing?" Emma asked reading the description. "Your child will write and share stories, helping them gain a sense of structure in their writing and get their creativity flowing. By the end of the program they will put together their very own book to take home to share with your friends and family. Your own book, huh? We can read your stories for bedtime."

Henry blushed but couldn't hide his pleased smile as he waited while Emma filled out the form. When she was done, they stood and headed to the reception desk to hand in their registration. By the time it was their turn, the usual lady was replaced with none other than Kathryn.

"Hey," Emma said awkwardly as they walked up to the desk.

"Hi," the blonde said curtly, her face showing no emotion toward Emma but brightening up to greet Henry. "How have you been, Henry?"

"Good," Henry smiled. "Thank you for the books."

Kathryn laughed lightly. "It's no problem. I know Frederick was having trouble picking something out." She accepted the form from Emma without a second glance and began inputting their information onto the computer.

"You work here?" Emma asked making small talk.

"Volunteering," she answered flatly without taking her eyes off the screen.

"Mom, Nick and Ava are here, can I go say hi?" Henry asked tugging Emma's sleeve. Quite frankly she didn't want to be left alone with Regina's best friend, but she knew if she kept Henry there as a barrier it would be obvious that she was hiding behind her kid. Reluctantly she nodded, and soon it was just her and Kathryn in the lobby. Great, it was like the whole universe was against her.

"So," Emma said elongating the word. "Volunteering, that's really good of you."

"I don't do it to look good," Kathryn answered sharply, flashing Emma a knowing glare.

Emma floundered, unused to this snappy Kathryn. She thought the blonde was always really sweet. She flushed and leaned in closer to whisper. "Here's the thing, we're probably gonna run into each other here a lot, so can we not let whatever happened between me and Regina get in the way of that?"

Kathryn raised an eyebrow, probably having learned it from the brunette herself. "You broke her heart, Emma."

Emma pulled back not expecting such blunt honesty. She had always wondered how Regina was the past couple of weeks, but heartbroken? She swallowed thickly, unable to respond.

"It wasn't about the meeting," Kathryn continued. "All her life people haven't seen past her family name, and then she met you, and she thought that changed."

"I didn't even know who she was when I met her," Emma defended.

"Did that stop you from taking Cora's money?"

"I didn't," Emma said through grounded teeth. Her insistence was so clear, Kathryn narrowed her eyes in confusion before widening them in understanding.

"Regina doesn't-"

"I know."

"Then why are you letting her believe that?"

"Did you ever think that she wasn't the only one that got hurt?" She answered abruptly, but immediately began fidgeting and running a hand through her curls before sighing exasperated. "Are you gonna charge me for the program?"

Kathryn rolled her eyes and rang her up, all the while Emma was taking her sweet time using the debit machine while the older blonde waited impatiently for an answer to her previous question. Receipt in hand, Emma was turning to go, but Kathryn reached over the desk and held her steady. "Are you honestly over her?"

All it took was Emma's silence to give Kathryn her answer.

"I shouldn't be helping you, but whatever you need to say, you have to say it to Regina," Kathryn said with a reluctant sigh. "But she really liked you. Likes, actually."

"She's mad at me," Emma countered, disbelieving the older blonde's statement.

"And she has every right to be," Kathryn defended haughtily. "She doesn't forgive easily, but I know she doesn't love easily too."

Emma's attention snapped to the older blonde across the counter at her implication, her eyes wide swirling with a mixture of fear and hope. "What?"

"She's at Sisco's," Kathryn continued. "She has a gallery to display some new stills for Gold."

"I shouldn't-"

"You should," Kathryn insisted. "Frederick and I will take Henry with us for the day if you'd like."

"Where are you going?" Henry piped up from behind Emma.

She turned, facing Henry who looked up curiously at his mother. It took a moment for Emma to fully absorb the information Kathryn had just thrown at her, but for the first time and after weeks of contemplating her relationship with Regina, Emma knew it was time for her to step up and reach out. She crouched down to her son, rubbing her hands up and down the sleeves of his jacket. With a scared smile, Emma whispered, "I'm gonna go talk to her."

Henry beamed automatically, wrapping his arms around her neck. "Good luck."

Regina held her head up high as she walked from person to person, thanking them for their presence or answering any of their questions. She had still yet to meet the elusive Mr. Gold who agreed to attend her gallery in lieu of a meeting. It was an innovative way of displaying her portfolio to him, and to impress him further with her recently found niche, she had done an impromptu shoot, traveling to Coney Island with only three models to pose as the family in the photographs. The pleasant murmurings among her guests gave her hope that she had chosen well, but the fact of the matter was that Gold had yet to make his presence known and the thought unnerved Regina.

So she continued to walk purposefully through the crowd, a shawl wrapped around her shoulders over her dress to protect her from the chill of the air every time the door opened and a wine glass in her hand. She examined her pictures for the thousandth time, wondering if perhaps the picture was too dark or if she should have used a different lens. Stopping at one, she tilted her head and thought pensively of the photo. It was simply of the family's hands on the banister of the boardwalk railing, the father's hand covered protectively over the son's, with the son's pinky of his free hand just touching the mother's. She sipped her wine and thought best not to dwell too much, but when she moved on to a picture of the family walking through the crowd, the boy on the father's shoulder with a smile just reaching his eyes as he stared down at his parents, and the father looking down to his hand where his fingers grazed his wife's, Regina felt a sense of longing for something she wasn't sure what.

"Trouble in paradise?"

Regina turned suddenly at that sound to find an aged man just over her mother's age dressed in a fine tailored suit and leaning on a walking cane. Regina gave a practised smile. "I'm sorry?"

"Your display. I assume that's what you've named it," he explained.

"This particular shoot has yet to be named," Regina said. "I like to think my work can speak for itself."

His lips twitched upward in amusement which made Regina want to grind her teeth. She refrained from rolling her eyes, and instead moved to the side when he stepped past her and pointed out the picture she had just been examining.

"They don't look at each other, this couple," he said motioning to the man and woman. "They barely touch. Even the boy knows something is wrong."

Regina narrowed her eyes in thought as she took in the scene.

"Interesting location as well," the man said with a grin that claimed he knew much. "However did you pick it?"

"Coney Island is quite historic in its own right," Regina explained as soon as her eyes were away from the photo. "It was easy to choose a location where a family can spend some quality time together."

"Judging by your photographs I wonder how long the happy family will continue to be so," he said. Before Regina could respond he leaned over on his cane and extended his hand. "Forgive me. I'm Mr. Gold."

Regina's eyes widened at his admission, and she did her best to compose herself and push away the thoughts that this man was annoyingly infuriating. She smiled widely and extended her hand. "Mr. Gold, I'm Regina Mills."

"Yes, well your mother has spoken very highly of you," he replied shaking her hand briefly.

"Good things, I hope."

He gave a smile which bordered on a smirk but turned back to her work. "You've certainly put a lot of yourself into this particular collection. It's quite the improvement."

"There's always room for growth."

"It appears so," he waved a hand motioning towards the photographs. "Which do you think is your best?"

It was a loaded question, Regina knew that much. Even within mere minutes of meeting Mr. Gold, Regina knew that he was a man who was not easily pleased and could trap a person with his words alone. With a cool expression, she inclined her head and beckoned him to follow. Decisive, she thought of herself. Don't appear hesitant. She walked briskly to a picture hung up in the center of the room that showed only the mother and father positioned in the distance of the top left corner of the frame walking along the whitened beach made so by the fading snow with their fingers just barely intertwined.

"Why that one?" Gold asked, leaning heavily on his cane.

Regina took a moment to study the picture. The couple had their backs to the camera with the man staring straight ahead and the woman looking outward to the sea as their footprints trailed behind them. Handing her wine glass to a passing waiter, she cleared her throat and began to speak. "This particular photograph doesn't have them as their focus. It's their footprints that take up the main focus of the shot, and you can see that as they walk further ahead, soon the waves will wash them away."

"Tragic," he said with little emotion. "Your collection tells a tale despite their smiles."

Regina have the photograph another once over before nodding slowly. "I suppose it does."

"What was your inspiration?"

She froze at the voice, but she knew without turning around who would be there standing behind her.


Emma sat inside her bug parked across the street from Sisco's. It wasn't lost on the blonde that this scene was reminiscent of the first time Emma had actively sought out Regina and had taken her on an impromptu date of sorts. Now here she was, months later to surprise the brunette again.

Her hands were clammy, and it wasn't due to the faulty heater in her car making the interior nearly as cold as the outside world. She rubbed her palms on her jeans to generate some heat, and some courage if she was lucky. A part of her wished she had changed her clothing, but she shook her head. That was the problem last time. She was uncomfortable last time. This time, she needed to believe that she wasn't completely obtuse, though her actions these previous weeks would say otherwise.

With a final resolve, she stepped out of her bug and slammed the door shut. The bobbles of her knitted hat swung against her collar as she walked determinedly toward the entrance of the gallery. She ignored the looks of those who stared at her as if she had just stumbled onto their event by accident. She shook her head lightly to get rid of the small amount of snow that had accumulated on top of her hat as she took in the room, navigating it with her eyes as she searched for Regina.

The brunette was nowhere in sight, and lingering by the doorway made Emma more nervous than she already was. She briefly thought that maybe she should just wait for Regina to be free and maybe send her an email or a text or something, but she knew that if she didn't do something now, she never would. So she pulled off her hat and ran her fingers through her hair to ease the tangles out of her curls and walked slowly, taking in the displays.

She narrowed her eyes when she saw a familiar Ferris wheel and roller coaster in the background of one of the pictures. Coney Island. Emma smirked, suddenly feeling better about her arrival. As she walked from photo to photo, Emma could see just a little bit of Regina within every one. They were taken with minimal light giving the pictures a natural dark tint, but it was the far off and distant looks in their eyes that caught Emma's attention. It would be easy to think Regina's collection was a bunch of photographs of a family outing, but Emma didn't need to be a critic to know the modelled family was putting on a front and there were secrets behind their smiles. The dissection of Regina's pictures made Emma think about how the brunette subconsciously displayed such a statement in her work.

Her thoughts were pulled away when she heard the familiar melodic tone of the one and only Regina Mills, and Emma turned her head in time to see her leading an aged man to one of her photographs. Shoving her hat into her jacket pocket, Emma set her jaw and strode forward just in time to catch Regina explaining the photograph. "This particular photograph doesn't have them as their focus. It's their footprints that take up the main focus of the shot, and you can see that as they walk further ahead, soon the waves will wash them away."

"Tragic," the man said. "Your collection tells a tale despite their smiles."

Knew it, Emma mentally congratulated herself for picking up on the meaning. Her stance shifted as she waited for a lull in conversation to make her presence known. She watched as Regina inclined her head in resignation, as if hating to realize that the man was right. "I suppose it does."

"What was your inspiration?" Emma heard herself blurting out. She held her breath as Regina's shoulders visibly tensed and her head turned every so slightly. Emma knew Regina had seen her as soon as she turned back and offered the man an apologetic smile before turning to fully face her. The hardened chocolate eyes that bore down on her were almost enough to send Emma cowering away, but Regina's eyes caught the light and Emma could see them glisten for just a moment before Regina blinked and the vulnerability was gone.

"I'm sorry, I'm in the middle of something at the moment," Regina dismissed before turning back to the man in the suit.

"Now I'd like to hear the answer to that one," he said holding a finger in the air for emphasis.

Regina dipped her head, avoiding Emma as she watched her every move. She looked back up but her gaze was distant and not directed at any particular person. "I lost someone in my life," Regina began. "Someone I cared about, and it turns out the feeling wasn't mutual."

Emma's stomach flipped, but even as Regina turned her back to her, she continued to press on. "What if it was?" She asked. "What if you could get them back, and they told you they cared about you too?"

Regina turned a little too sharply and answered matter of fact. "If they had done that initially then I wouldn't have been inspired to produce these photographs, so I suppose I should thank them for their poor timing."

The man chuckled lightly to himself. "The true sign of an artist is the emotion they make us feel."

Emma shook her head ignoring his comment before stepping forward and hastily putting her hand on Regina's, preventing her from turning away. "Regina, wait-"

The brunette pulled her arm away, her eyes dangerous and silently letting Emma know that this was not the time to be discussing anything. The blonde sighed and released her, but not until she took another step forward, invading Regina's personal space as she whispered determinedly. "I'm sorry," she insisted with wide desperate eyes. "I'll wait."

With a hopeful half-smile, Emma turned and exited the gallery, pulling her hat over her ears as she stepped into the light snowfall. She crossed the street and leaned against the side of her car, thankful that despite the snow, the temperature wasn't ridiculously freezing and even tolerable. She was more thankful for the fact that through the gallery window she could see that Regina had been watching her leave.

"Interesting fan you've got there, Ms. Mills," Gold said as he started to walk alongside the rest of the displays.

Regina remained staring out the window where she watched as Emma situated herself against her car. It took the tapping of Mr. Gold's cane to remind her to move on and impress the man.

"I have to say, there's been great improvement in your work," he said when Regina finally caught up. "What changed?"

"I finally realized what I wanted to say through my work," she answered, finally facing the man.

"And what is that?"

Regina glanced one more time out the window before holding a hand up in apology. "I'm sorry, will you excuse me for a moment?"

Without waiting for an answer, Regina turned on her heel and weaved through the crowd to get to the exit, not oblivious to the scowl on Mr. Gold's face as she left the gallery. She tightened her shawl around her shoulders as she stepped onto the road to cross the street, approaching the bundled up blonde quickly.

"What?" She snapped at Emma who rushed to stand up straight.

"Jesus, Regina, you need a jacket," Emma answered eyeing the brunette's barely covered shoulders.

Regina waved her hand dismissively. "Is there any other particular reason you are here other than interfering with another one of my meetings with Gold?"

"That's- oh." Emma glanced past Regina and frowned, no doubt meeting the curious and watchful glare of Gold as he stood watching from the inside.

"Yes, so what do you want?"

Emma bit her lip and glanced down briefly before meeting her eyes with intent. "I didn't take the check."

Regina paused, condensation building up around them as she breathed in deeply attempting to process what Emma had confessed. "What?" She asked again, softer this time.

"I mean, yeah, I took it home but I didn't cash it. I tore it up," Emma rushed to explain.

"You tore it up," Regina repeated, her flat tone masking her emotions.

"Technically I wet it and pulled it into tiny pieces," Emma mumbled.

Regina took a step back and looked off down the street, her head shaking and her jaw tightening. Emma wasn't sure what she had been expecting, but it certainly wasn't what Regina did next. "Then what the hell have you been doing the last two months?" Regina snapped, back handing the air. If Emma had been an inch closer she would have been on the receiving end of the blow.

Emma opened her mouth to speak, but Regina beat her to it, coming back into her space and glaring down her nose at her. "You were avoiding me, and cancelling on me, and getting mad at me when I was the one who had plans, so what sort of idiotic game were you trying to pull there?" Regina continued.

Emma fidgeted with her thumbs, not even knowing where to begin, but the hardened stare of the woman before her told her she had only so much time left before it was too late. If she were honest with herself, Emma would have realized sooner that missing Regina was taking its toll on her, but there was no time like the present for epiphanies to happen. "I don't deserve you," Emma finally got out.

Regina rolled her eyes, dipping her head in the process. "I'm not interested in your self-pity right now."

"No," Emma cut her off. "I really don't, but I know I want you, and I wanted to give you everything. I wanted to give you the life you're used to, the parties, the dresses, the jewelry, but I couldn't. That's why I worked so much, I just- I don't know, I thought if I could take you to fancy places and hold up against your friends then maybe people would stop looking at me like what the hell is a woman like you doing at my side."

Emma took off her hat and started running her fingers through her hair in nervousness before bunching up the hat in her hands and pulling at the yarn. She looked up under her eyelashes to glance at Regina who remained standing with an unreadable expression on her face. Taking another gulp, Emma continued, gesticulating with her hands to prevent them from fidgeting. "Being with you, it was like, waiting for the other shoe to drop, where you would turn around and realize that you could do better, and I just-"

"You ran," Regina finished for her dryly, crossing her arms over her chest. "Because being with me was so difficult."

"No, not like that," Emma rushed to clarify, her green eyes wide under the sunlight. "Being with you was the most natural thing I've ever done."

Regina scoffed.

"I'm just- god, Regina I'm trying to actually tell you what I've been feeling."

"And what is that?"

"Scared." The answer was one that took Regina by surprise, but it was one that took more strength than Emma cared to admit. She leaned back against her car, letting the nape of her neck rest on the roof. When Regina narrowed her eyes in confusion and brought her shawl more firmly around her arms, Emma shook her head and let out a breathy groan at her own frustrations. "You must be freezing."

"You wanted to talk, so talk," Regina said quietly, the malice leaving her voice and giving no indication that she was leaving.

Emma shrugged before unzipping her jacket and handing it to the brunette whom Emma was sure didn't even realize or care that she was shivering. The giant sweater Emma was wearing underneath was enough to stop the cold, so she held out her winter coat, giving it a shake so that Regina would take it.

Regina rolled her eyes and slipped into the oversized jacket, shoving her hands into the pockets for warmth. Emma smirked lightly as she watched Regina take a deep inhale, and she hoped that Regina was enjoying being basked in Emma's scent again. "I can take care of myself," Regina muttered as she zipped up the coat to her chin.

"I know," Emma said softly. "God, I know you can, and I love you for that-"

"What?" Regina snapped her head up.

"What?" Emma's eyes widened.

"What did you say?"

Emma rubbed her face as if she could wipe away the words that had left her mouth. She really needed to learn how to control her word vomit. "Nothing, I-"

"Nothing?" Regina questioned with a ferocity that told Emma that it was do or die time.

With an aggravated sigh, Emma groaned out and glared at the older woman as if upset she was forced to admit her feelings. "Yeah. I do. I love you, and I-"

"You're telling me this now?"

"Jesus Christ, Regina, can you let me finish a sentence please?" Emma yelled out exasperated.

The brunette pursed her lips, but she held herself tightly, her eyes still wide at Emma's confession.

"I messed up," Emma huffed out. "I just, I felt like I had to be someone else if I even wanted to be near you, and then your mom got into my head telling me I was holding you back, and then we fought and it was messy 'cause of both of us, and god I was so mad at you for, for everything you said, and that you listened to your mom about me, and I hate that everything you said about me and about Henry was right, and I was hurt, and all I kept thinking for this past month was that I miss you, and how am I supposed to miss you when I'm mad at you and I'm so mad at me."

Emma breathed out heavily, vapour building with every exhale as she searched the brown eyes before her. Flecks of snow caught on Regina's eyelashes, but the brunette didn't try to blink them away. Emma was tempted to reach out and brush them off, but after all they had gone through, Emma wasn't sure if she was allowed to touch Regina, let alone clear away flecks of snow. So she kept her hands to herself, absentmindedly pulling at the bobbles on her hat before dipping her head, making sure she had Regina's attention. "I realized I miss you so much because I love you, and I know that doesn't change what's happened, but- I don't know. I needed you to know."

Emma stared breathily at Regina who had been immovable since the beginning of her rant. Still, Emma remained quiet, waiting for any sort of response, but as the seconds ticked on and the chill was starting to set in enough to make the flesh of Emma's sweater-covered arms prickle, Emma started to get nervous, shifting from one foot to the other before letting her arms drop to her side. "Now would be a good time to interrupt."

Regina's eyes fluttered as her lips parted to speak, but before she could get any words out, an irritated voice called from behind them. "Ms. Mills."

Regina turned, Emma stepping to the side to look past Regina and see the man Regina had been speaking with earlier.

"Mr. Gold," Regina answered.

"I hope you are aware that my time is valuable and should you decide to step back inside, I may be inclined to offer you a contract of sorts." Though his speech was flowery and polite, even Emma could hear the blatant get inside or else in his tone.

Regina shifted uncomfortably, and if Emma were to have looked upon her face, she would have seen the conflict behind chocolate eyes, unsure which path she should take. Instead, Emma simply saw a woman who neither confirmed nor denied his request, so with a dejected but understanding sigh, Emma stepped forward. She was already the cause for making Regina miss her meeting with this unnaturally frightening man. She would not be the reason for making her miss it a second time. So she placed her hand on the small of Regina's back. The brunette turned slowly, and even then Emma was still unable to see the conflict. With an encouraging smile, the blonde nodded. "Go inside." She leaned closer to whisper into Regina's ear. "No one deserves this more than you." With a spontaneous peck to Regina's cheek, Emma pulled back and leaned against the car, waiting to see Regina's decision.

Regina shook out of Emma's coat, barely looking at the blonde as she handed it back to her. Emma took it, not even bothering to put it on as Regina walked briskly toward Gold and accompanied him inside.

Emma shut her eyes when Regina's back disappeared behind the door. What was she expecting? Some over the top profession of feelings and all would be well? That's not the way they did things. They skirted around reality until it slapped them in the face. From her spot on the street, Emma could see through the gallery window as Regina shook hands with Mr. Gold and turned to address the crowd in the room. A small smile creeped onto Emma's face as Regina so effortlessly directed the room. With a proud nod, Emma unlocked her car and slid into the driver's seat, tossing her jacket onto the seat beside her as she put her keys into the ignition. Her heater was thankfully cooperative at that moment for a gush of heat warmed her hands as it slowly permeated the space of the beetle.

She meant it when she said Regina deserved this. She knew the battle Regina had to put up with her mother, and Emma knew just as well as Regina that only success could impress Cora Mills.

Still, the reality that this was it for them hurt like a bitch.

Emma dropped her head onto the steering wheel, the horn whimpering at the contact as she breathed in deeply, exhaling just as slowly. She had waited too long. She should have chased Regina down that day and explained then. God, why the hell did she think she knew better?

'Cause you're too proud and too damn stubborn.

They didn't even get to finish their talk. She didn't know what Regina was thinking or what she was feeling, but Emma was the last thing Regina needed right now. God, she was an idiot.

The door to the passenger side opened, and before Emma could lift her head from the wheel, Regina had slid in, shutting the door with a creak to prevent the snow from falling in. Emma stared wide-eyed and slackjawed as the brunette lifted her hips to pull the jacket from under her and placed it over her legs.

"You said you'd wait." Regina finally turned and just barely looked Emma in the eye, as if her presence there was enough explanation.

Quite frankly it was, and it made Emma grin, tilting her head in acknowledgment. "I'm still here."

"Then let's talk."

Chapter Text

Emma fiddled with her thumbs as her hands clasped around a take-out mug of hot chocolate. She concentrated on the steam bellowing from its spout and the ripples in the cardboard of the cup's sleeve, anything to prolong the inevitability of the conversation she was meant to have with the woman across from her, sitting stoically and blankly as she sipped her own spiced cider.

Her stomach had tightened and her lungs constricted simultaneously in anticipation and relief when she had seen Regina slide into her car less than five minutes after departing with Gold. As soon as they had driven away, though, neither of them had spoken. Emma didn't want to just leave her engine running and talk in the car, so she had driven them to where they were seated now, inside a quaint little cafe across the street from an outdoor skating rink and seated at the furthest most isolated table at the back. The most either woman had spoken since Emma's sudden confession outside the gallery was in ordering their drinks, but now that they were placed in front of them, there was nothing stopping them from getting things out in the open.

Emma swallowed hard as she caught Regina's eye. Here goes nothing, she thought.



Emma chuckled nervously. "You go first."

The brunette glanced down at her cider briefly before gazing back up at Emma. "How is Henry?"

Emma smiled softly. "He's good. He misses you." She paused when the smallest of smiles touched Regina's lips. "He got you something for Christmas. I was supposed to drop it off, but..."

Emma trailed off, unsure how to further proceed. Thankfully, Regina caught on and nodded her head in understanding. "He mentioned that when we spoke."

Another awkward silence overtook them. They both knew they needed to talk. Most of the important things had been laid out on the table, especially with Emma coming clean, both about the check and her feelings. God, that was an unexpected twist she hadn't planned for, but all through the car ride she couldn't help but realize that it was true. Emma loved Regina, and she wanted to make things right again.

"I should have told you sooner," Emma said suddenly, dipping her head to meet Regina's eyes. She noticed the brunette had begun flicking the ring around her finger, a sign of her nerves, but she had Regina's attention just the same. "About everything, the money, how I felt, just, I should have said something sooner."

"Why didn't you?" Regina questioned.

"I didn't think the money would matter, I didn't use it."

"It just pushed you into believing my mother's lies."

Emma frowned, sliding the sleeve off her cup and picking at the corrugated cardboard as she muttered. "So did you."


Tiny little pieces of cardboard littered the table, and with a deep sigh, they scattered, some falling to the ground while others found their way over to Regina's end of the table. Emma looked up again, a combination of hesitation, fear, and hurt written all over her face. "You said your mother warned you about people like me." Her tone was flat, but the way she repeated the words were enough to let Regina know that Emma had committed those words to memory. And she had. Emma had repeated them to herself for the better part of three weeks, unable to turn off the memory that held Regina's sickened face and disgusted tone.

Regina's cheeks reddened as she placed her hands against the table, furiously playing with the ring to provide a distraction. When she didn't respond right away, Emma panicked and immediately told herself to get out while she still had her dignity and before her eyes could betray her with tears in this very public setting. What if Regina still agreed with that? What if Regina still thought she was scum?

"I was hurt," she heard Regina whisper to her mug, carefully avoiding Emma's gaze. For that, Emma was relieved Regina hadn't notice her visibly relax. "To be honest, I still am."

"I'm hurt too," Emma said gently, sliding her hand against the table but stopping just in the middle. Regina's eyes flashed defiantly, and she leaned back in her chair, her arms crossed around her chest as a scoff waited at the edge of her tongue. Emma shook her head and leaned forward, her voice insistent as she spoke. "Look, I'm not good with the touchy-feely things and the wearing my heart on my sleeve, but I really missed you too, and I want us to be better. I want us to get back together, and if that means that we have to do things we don't usually do then okay. The thing is, Regina, I was hurt by what you said, and it's more than just about me and Henry."

Regina eased her arms free and kept her hands on the edge of the table, her head inclining for Emma to continue.

"When you said that, I felt like everything I did for you, the parties, the dresses, the bracelet, it was just all for nothing and you didn't even care how much effort I put into being who you needed me to be, and it was like I've been doing that for months, and when you looked at me right in the eye and said that your mother was right, that people like me were nothing and easily bought," Emma sighed dejectedly before continuing, "it felt like such a stab in the back that all you could see was what your mom said."

Regina furrowed her brow slightly. "You didn't get me a bracelet?"

"Christmas gift," Emma dismissed. "But that's not the point. I'm not a gold digger, and I'm not one of those young moms who use their kids as just another check. And I thought you knew that from the start."

"I know. I do know that," Regina insisted, her eyes drifting down to her lap before she forced herself to look back up to Emma. "Everyone always wants something from me, my name, my body, a meeting with my mother, my money. They want to be my friend because I have good connections or they want to date me because my mother favours them and perhaps they can become a business partner with her in the long run."

"I didn't," Emma reminded her. "I just liked pissing you off at first."

Emma chuckled hoping to alleviate some tension but Regina remained impassive.

"But I only found that out less than half an hour ago," Regina pointed out. "For weeks, all I thought was that you and my mother had made some deal for you to stay away from me, and for weeks I tried to find a reasonable explanation to prove that it wasn't true, but when I looked back on everything, all I could see was you pulling away, and you purposely making yourself too busy for me."

"That's not what I was doing."

"How was I to know that?"

"I told you that I had to take on more shifts."

"You didn't have to," Regina argued. "I understand that you felt like you did, but from where I stood, it didn't look that way. You never told me the why, and when I found the check in my mother's study, I was devastated. Too many people had treated me like I'm nothing more than some object or stepping stone, and you of all people, someone I actually-"

She stopped herself before she revealed too much. Her fists clenched around the edge of the table as her eyes shone with moisture at the memory. With a blink it was gone, but her grip on the table remained. "All those weeks spent trying to come up with an explanation, and all those times I spoke back to my mother seemed like a waste of breath when I found out what you did and you didn't even deny it."

"But you know now," Emma said determinedly. "And I'm telling you now that I would never do that. You know me better than that."

"Do I?" Emma snapped her mouth shut at the question. "You have felt this, this inferiority or some lowliness when you're with me, and I had absolutely no idea. If it's really that much of a strain on your well-being, then perhaps this is all for the best."

Regina rose as she spoke, collecting her purse and cider in one fluid motion, but Emma had reached out a hand to stop her. Regina was halfway out of her seat, but Emma's pleading eyes made her sit back down.

"This is the problem," Emma said exasperated. "I didn't want to tell you I felt like some second-class citizen because it's embarrassing. And now? There's not even a chance to fix it? That's just crap."

Emma leaned forward, moving their drinks out of the way and placed her hands in the middle. She was all but fully out of her seat as she closed the space between them to whisper with intent. "If you don't want to keep doing this, if you don't feel anything for me at all, then I'll suck it up and take you home. But if there's even the slightest chance that you'll forgive me, then I would really love it if you could stay."

Regina stayed quiet for a long moment, her foot tapping incessantly on the hardwood of the cafe. Finally she inched forward as well. "I don't like that you feel that way, but I don't know how to fix it."

"We don't need to know right now."

Regina's fingers slid across the table top, moving slowly toward Emma's but hesitating to make the final contact. "I missed you too," she admitted on an exhale.

Emma grinned wide for the briefest of moments before it changed into a small, curious smile. "I didn't get to apologize for making you miss the first meeting with Gold. I know it was a big deal, and I should have called to let you know where I was. Did you sign the contract?"

Regina shook her head. "I ended the viewing early, apologized, then left."

The smile on Emma's face was quickly replaced with one of shock. Her lips were parted and her eyes were wide. Instinctively, she covered Regina's hands with her own and squeezed. "What do you mean? Did you get the job?"

All the brunette offered was a simple roll of her shoulder. "I came here. With you."

Emma ran a hand through her unruly curls looking frantic. "You have to go back and call him."

"Weren't you the one who was eager to talk not five minutes ago?"

"Yeah, but you've been waiting for that for how long, and you shouldn't miss it again."

This time it was Regina who took Emma's hands in her own, her thumb habitually stroking Emma's skin there. "Some things are more important."

Emma stilled, wondering if she had heard right. Her lip twitched uncertainly. "Yeah?"

"Yes," Regina answered firmly, giving Emma's hands a squeeze before releasing them and taking a hold of her drink. "One of those being my mother."

"She's a piece of work," Emma agreed.

With a long drink, Regina replaced her cider back on the table. "What exactly did she say to you?"

Emma absent-mindedly began picking off her nail polish. Though it had been months, the sting of Cora Mills' words still held its effect over Emma. "That I was never gonna be good enough for you. That I couldn't give you the life you're used to. That I'm just some fling you'd drop in a heartbeat as soon as you were done with me."

"You believed her?" Regina's voice dropped down low, her eyebrows raised at the audacity.

"Well not all of it is a lie, is it?"

"If I wanted that don't you think I would have been married to Killian by now?"

"You could be married to anyone you wanted to, to be honest."

"But I chose you."

"What?" Emma tilted her head at the implication, her eyes just as wide as when she had unwittingly released her own confession.

Regina's lips parted in her attempt to backpedal. "Not like - you know what I mean."

"What do you mean?" Emma asked breathily.

Regina looked around for a moment of reprieve, hoping that when she returned Emma would stop looking at her as if she were a child opening a gift where the contents were known and wished for. Her wishful thinking was useless for Emma looked exactly that causing Regina to swallow hard and weave her fingers through her hair to tuck hair away from her face and behind her ear. "I mean," she began slowly, "that out of all the people who have ever wanted me, out of everyone who had any sort of attraction to me, it was you I wanted to love in return. And I did."

"Does that still stand for right now?" Emma asked cautiously, hope lacing her every word.

"Right now I want to smack you for being such an idiot," Regina confessed dryly before sobering up. "I want to. But how do I know we won't end up fighting again about the exact same things?"

It wasn't necessarily the answer Emma wanted to hear, but it was better than nothing. Though the doubt was evident in Regina's mind, Emma clung to the small sliver of hope that Regina had, at some point and maybe even right now, loved Emma.

"I don't think you're anything like what my mother says, and I'm sorry for agreeing with her," Regina apologized. "And I overstepped my boundaries with you and Henry and-"

"Actually, it gave me a kick in the right direction," Emma said cutting her off. With a proud smile, she shared her news. "I got a new job. I still manage a bar, but it's better hours, better pay. I've seen better tips though."

"You don't dance on the counters anymore?" Regina asked surprised and more than a little pleased.

The blonde shook her head, draining the last of her hot chocolate. "Henry stays at Ashley's for only a few hours before I come home."

"He must love that," Regina commented offering a smile of her own.

"Yeah, he's been happy with the new arrangement," the blonde nodded before glancing outside the window. "Do you want to take a walk with me?"


"We can talk outside," Emma reasoned, already standing and donning her winter jacket. She waited for Regina who eventually stood and slipped into her trench coat then grabbed her cider.

The snow had stopped somewhere between ordering their drinks and fiddling with their thumbs waiting for the other to speak. Left behind was a thin layer of snow on the ground, covering every tree and statue, and frosting every window. The decorative Christmas lights shining from above the skating rink gave the snow a bright twinkle, adding to the already light and warm atmosphere from the visitors, parents teaching their children how to skate for the first time, couples holding hands, and friends huddled together with mugs of cocoa in their mitted hands.

"I was gonna take you here," Emma commented motioning to the rink as they strolled leisurely by it. "For Christmas. I thought we could have used another date."

"I thought you said it was a bracelet."

"Yeah, I did. I still have it. I figured you'd like it more," Emma answered as she tugged her hat onto her head.

Regina stared off at the rink where sounds of classical and instrumental music played through speakers surrounding the rink. "I would have preferred this. I was never allowed to go as a child, and it never crossed my mind when I grew up."

They had slowed down considerably until they were leaning against a stone pillar overlooking the scene before them. Emma sidled closer to Regina. "Maybe we can go before they close it for this year," she wondered aloud. "I mean, Henry can come too. He'd love that-"

"Maybe," Regina whispered before Emma could finish.

They watched the skaters glide around the rink, both content with the comfortable silence between them for the time being. Emma wasn't sure where they stood exactly in their relationship. Neither had brought up if they were going to continue it, but neither had said it was irreparable either. She would take her small victories wherever she could get them.

"I'm sorry," she heard Regina whisper. When she looked up the brunette was still directed at the ice rink, but her jaw was inclined ever so slightly toward Emma. "For not listening to you, and for what I said about you and Henry. I was angry."

"It's okay," Emma replied. "I'm sorry I even took the check home, and I'm sorry for thinking I knew what you wanted better than you did, and for this past month-"

Emma stopped when she felt Regina's fingers slip through hers. The brunette finally turned toward her and gave small hesitant smile, but it was genuine in its sincerity. "It's okay."

Her fingers clasped around Regina's firmly as she felt as if she could finally breathe. She took a step closer to Regina, linking their fingers of their other hand until their foreheads were nearly pressed against one another. "Are we okay?" Emma asked hesitantly.

Regina's answer came in the form of tilting her head upward just a fraction of an inch as her lips just barely grazed Emma's. Praying she wasn't wrong about the signs, Emma pressed her lips softly but insistently against deep red ones as they moved against one another, dancing in their reunion and hoping to never go that long again without another kiss. Their kiss was brief, but it had spoken volumes of all the things that were still left unsaid, of all the things that still needed to be said, but all that could wait for now because now they had time to sort their relationship through.

Today just seemed to be a day full of miracles. Emma had finally gathered the courage to seek out Regina, Regina had escaped her own gallery for Emma, and now they were in the blonde's car, their fingers linked over the gear shift.

"We need to talk to my mother," Regina mused aloud to herself.

Emma snorted. "Yeah I'd like to give her a piece of my mind."

"I think you should be there as well," the brunette said turning to face Emma.

Emma couldn't help but reflexively tense at the idea of seeing Cora again. The hand holding the wheel tightened just as the one nestled under Regina's palmed gripped the shift. "Oh, I was kind of joking."

"I know, but it's something we need to do." Regina's thumb had started to stroke the back of Emma's flesh, and already the tension in her hand was lessening. "If we are going to continue to be together then she needs to know that."

"Honestly, I don't really see her pulling out the welcome wagon and suddenly accepting us with open arms," Emma confessed bitterly. She had only met the woman a handful of times, and that was a handful too many. She could go without seeing Cora again, Cora who belittled her and humiliated her and pinned her against her own daughter. And therein lie the problem. No matter how much Emma hated it, if she wanted to be in Regina's life, Cora would always be right around the corner.

"No, she wouldn't," Regina agreed. "But she needs to understand that she can't keep meddling in my life, and yours ostensibly."

Emma sighed deeply, momentarily taking her hand off the wheel to run it through her hair, a maneuver that made Regina gasp since Emma's free hand was currently clasped with the brunette's. The blonde didn't notice, however, and reclaimed her position on the empty steering wheel. "What's going to happen when she doesn't?"

"Then that's her loss."

"You've said something like that once," Emma muttered, more to herself than anything. Out of the corner of her eye she could see Regina's brow crinkle in confusion then rising in understanding. Her lips parted in a small 'o'.

"This time I'm not hiding you from her," the brunette finally said.

They had come to a red light, and Emma had offered a smile at Regina, letting her know that she understood that this time would be different. Glancing at the opposing lights to find them still firmly green, Emma released Regina's fingers and leaned over in her seat to tug open the glove compartment. The brunette scooted back to allow Emma the room, but as soon as it opened, the only thing it housed was a book that fit snugly inside. Emma retrieved it and dropped it onto Regina's lap just before their light turned green.

"What is this?" Regina questioned, running her fingers along the canvas that was the front cover.

"From Henry." Emma provided no other explanation as she pressed her foot against the gas.

Regina flipped open the cover and instantly beamed. The page was filled with red and green glitter in the shape of Christmas trees and ornaments. In his best cursive writing, Henry had written 'Merry Christmas!', one word on the top of the page with the latter below. Dead centre in between the words was the picture Henry had taken of himself, Regina, and Emma at his birthday party all those months back. Her fingers traced over the page, flecks of glitter coming loose at her touch and scattering on the bottom of her dress. She couldn't have cared less though, as the smiles grinning up at her were so infectious her cheeks were starting to hurt from mimicking them. So enraptured by that picture alone, it took Regina a great deal of strength to turn the page and finally realize what exactly he had made for her.

He made her a scrapbook, of pages filled with pictures he had mostly taken himself of all of them, construction-paper figurines glued in the margins, and little anecdotes beside most of the shots.

Mom wanting private time with Regina. Emma had an arm draped around the brunette, but most of the picture was blocked out by Emma's hand trying to push the camera away.

Beetlejuice, Captain Emma, and Morticia Addams. Regina smiled softly at the picture that they had gotten Ashley to take just before they had taken the kids out trick or treating. Henry was dressed in a black and white pinstriped suit, his face painted white with dark grey circles around his eyes, while the salt and pepper wig on his head stood upright. He stood in between herself and Emma, who was dressed in leather pants, a white blouse, and a leather vest, with a pirate hat and eye patch on her head and face and a sword cinched at her waist, while Regina had bought a sleek long black wig and matching the sleekness of her dress.

Henry and Regina at the park. Regina laughed out loud at the collage of pictures Henry had scraped together to make this page. She had been babysitting him that day and had taken him out for a few hours where they enjoyed ice cream before having a mini photoshoot with their heads pressed together and every picture sporting a different goofy face.

Pages and pages of pictures were glued into the book. She was torn between wanting to devour them all, but wanting to linger on every single shot. She was enjoying one of herself and Emma, taken from what it looked to be the kitchen in the Swan apartment. It was just the back of their heads as they sat on the couch, unbeknownst to them that they had garnered a mini paparazzi while the light from the television illuminated the background. Emma's head had fallen to Regina's shoulder while Regina had her own pressed against Emma's hair. Studying the picture, she didn't realize the car had stopped and they were parked in front of a townhouse.

"I'm just getting Henry. Frederick and Kathryn are watching him," Emma explained.

"Of course." Regina slipped the scrapbook back into the glove compartment before unbuckling her seat belt and stepping out to meet Emma on the sidewalk. They walked side by side, snow turning to slush under their steps, and with every foot forward, their fingers brushed together though neither made the move to join hands. True, they had held hands in the car, but they had rarely done that act as a couple, and neither were sure if doing so would look like an attempt to be overly affectionate, but not doing it seemed to look like distance was between them.

So instead, they allowed their fingers to brush, and every so often one of them would curl their digits around the others, but the effect was so brief yet still all the more electrifying as they would catch the twinkle in the other's eye and grin.

Emma turned onto the small set of stairs that led from the sidewalk up to Frederick's townhouse and knocked on the door.

It was Kathryn who opened the door. She had spotted Emma first, so her eyebrows shot up behind blonde bangs, but as soon as the door opened fully and she saw Regina was standing beside her, a knowing smile broke out on the older blonde's face. "Emma and Regina," she greeted.

"Hey," Emma greeted sheepishly, attempting to contain her blush because of Kathryn's over-excited grin. She glanced down meeting Regina's gaze out of the corner of her eye and tilted her eyes upward at the brunette before turning back toward Kathryn. "Was Henry good?"

"Yes, come on in." Kathryn held the door wider allowing the two women in. "They're just out back."

Emma nodded her thanks and walked up the short amount of stairs to the kitchen where the exit to the backyard was located. She didn't see Kathryn tilt her head knowingly at Regina, and Regina respond with a shrug and a hint of a smile. She left the two friends in the foyer and slid open the glass door, finding Henry and Frederick outside making use of the snowfall and building a miniature snowman.

Henry was just placing the head on top when he looked up and saw his mom. Alone. Emma was too far away to see his shoulders slump, but she watched as he bid Frederick goodbye and marched his way over to her.

"Hey, kid, did you have fun?" Emma asked kissing the top of his hat-covered head.

"Yeah." He kicked off the snow from under his boot before stepping into the kitchen and leading the way down to the foyer.

"I gave Regina your present."

"Did she like it?" He asked looking up at her.

"Why don't you ask her?"

His eyebrows furrowed in confusion as he took the first step on the stairs. Looking ahead to watch his steps, the sight of the brunette brought a smile to his face. "Regina!" Henry flew down the rest of the steps, all but jumping four of them and launched himself into the brunette's arms.

Regina caught him around the middle but eventually crouched in order to give him a proper hug. Their faces lit up, and their smiles were infectious as Emma made her way to the bottom and leaned against the railing.

"Are you and my mom back together?" The kid didn't beat around the bush when he wanted to know something.

Regina glanced up quickly at Emma before addressing the boy. "Yes, we're working things out."

"Is that good?" He asked confused and more than a little worried.

"Yes," she assured him before catching Emma's gaze again and holding it. "It's a very good thing."

Henry dropped his knapsack unceremoniously on Regina's floor by the door as he surveyed the large open concept apartment as if he had never been there before. Emma realized he had only been there one other time, and that was simply for a few minutes as they waited for Regina to get dressed for their dinner with Cora. The thought didn't sit well with Emma, and judging by Regina's face, the brunette had come to the same conclusion.

"Are you hungry?" Regina asked the mother and son as she set the scrapbook on a side table before she helped Henry out of his coat.

"Can we cook together?" He asked putting on his best puppy dog face.

She chuckled lightly. "Lasagna?"


"Go wash up first." Emma nudged him in the direction of the washroom which he ran to almost immediately.

When they were finally alone again, the air was thick around them. They stood awkwardly by the front door for a moment before Regina cleared her throat, picked up the scrapbook and placed it on the kitchen island before gathering the ingredients. "Is lasagna okay with you?"

"Anything is better than my cooking," the blonde joked, shedding her jacket and her sweater, leaving her in only a thin camisole long sleeve.

"This is true," Regina quipped.

A smile tugged on Emma's lips, but she didn't want to give her the satisfaction. "Anything you need from the fridge?" She asked as the older woman stood on her tippy toes in her stocking clad feet to reach the pasta.

"Yes, can you bring out the mushrooms, tomatoes, and cheese. There should also be some beef there."

Emma moved to the stainless steel fridge and paused with her hand on the handle. Right in the center held up by a single magnet was a picture of Emma giving Henry a noogie as they walked back to the middle of the gym. She couldn't recall ever doing that or ever seeing this picture, so she plucked it from its place on the fridge and held it up for Regina to see. "When was this?"

The brunette turned her head from her place at the stove where she was getting a pot of water boiling. When she saw what Emma had in between her fingers, she blushed and cleared her throat, moving lithely to take the picture out of Emma's hand. "It was the day I came to the gym for the fundraiser."

Emma watched as Regina kept her back to her, at a loss of what to do with the photograph. She clearly didn't want to hide it away, but her embarrassment that it had been found on display mixed up her feelings.

"That wasn't up there last time I was here," Emma casually mentioned, leaning against the counter with a smirk playing on her lips.

Regina finally gave up searching for a hiding spot and leaned against the opposite counter glaring at Emma's observation which only made the smirk all the more pronounced. "Do you want me to tell you I missed you again?" Regina asked dryly.

"A little bit, yeah." The blonde pushed off the counter and walked slowly toward Regina who was trapped in the corner. "'Cause it's the same reason I never gave you the scrapbook."

Regina's eyes softened in understanding. She relaxed the tension in her arms and let one drop to the side while the other still held up her photograph. She tilted her head to the side and questioned playfully. "So you stole my gift?"

"More or less." Emma chuckled as she finally made her way in front of Regina. Her demeanour changed when a sudden thought came to her mind. "We weren't dating when you took that."

Regina shook her head agreeing.

"Wait, I didn't even know you liked me like that," Emma said on the fringe of excitement.

This time Regina rolled her eyes as she realized that Emma had put two and two together.

"You liked me first," Emma accused playfully, dipping her head in closer.

"Though now I'm wondering why." Regina pushed past Emma and opened the scrapbook to the very end were a few pages were still left blank.

"Wait, you liked me first," Emma repeated, more seriously now as the truth of her statement finally clicked.

"Perhaps," Regina admitted reluctantly.

Emma bit her lip to contain the grin that wanted to make an appearance. The doubt that Emma still harboured about their relationship was dwindling more and more as she stayed in Regina's presence. What other feelings had they felt that both were too scared or too nervous to convey? Whatever the answer, it didn't matter now, for now Emma promised herself she wouldn't make that same mistake again. Instead she sidled up beside Regina along the island and took the picture from where Regina had placed it on the blank page and moved back to the fridge and replaced it back on its home. "I like it out here," Emma said casually. "Gives the place more life, don't you think?"

Regina shook her head suppressing a smirk before she retreated back to the boiling water just as Henry had shot out of the bathroom.

Emma didn't realize how late it had gotten until Henry was knocked out on the couch. The scrapbook was on the coffee table in front of them with a half empty platter of lasagna and dirty plates and glasses littering any free space. The mess would usually bother Regina, but the brunette was more than content to lay back on the couch with Henry's head nestled into her side.

Their evening was spent eating dinner on the couch watching whatever movie Henry had decided on for the night. The child continued to act as a buffer between the two women who would act so naturally with one another it was as if no time had passed then go right on to tip toeing around each other be it with little touches or prolonged eye contact. They had yet to find a happy medium with how to act toward one another, but they took solace in knowing that they had time to find out. They had gone through the scrapbook with a fine tooth comb and relived the days of those pictures. Henry had asked if he could remove the one he had taken at his birthday and place it on the fridge. With a nod, he had run over to the appliance, finding scotch tape in a drawer, before pinning it up beside the first one. Emma had grinned and muttered 'life' under her breath earning her a playful push from the brunette.

But now that their buffer was knocked out, neither Emma nor Regina knew how to proceed next. They barely did relationships, let alone attempt to salvage one, so they remained quiet as the sounds of Henry's soft snores filled the silence between them.

Regina glanced at the time and sat up a little too suddenly, almost jarring the boy awake. She turned to Emma. "You don't have work?"

"New job, remember? I don't work nights, and mainly every other weekend." Emma said leaning her elbow on the back of the couch and pressing her head against her palm. She pulled Henry's legs further into her lap to make him more comfortable. "You're not gonna get in trouble for walking out on Gold?"

"I'm sure my mother has filled my voicemail," Regina mused. "But I don't need him."

"No, you're good on your own."

"Most of the time." They held each other's gaze for a long time, both understanding the dual meaning.

Regina turned her head, covering her moth to suppress a yawn.

"It's getting late. We'll get out of your hair," Emma said already lifting Henry's legs to scoot out from under him.

"No," Regina said hastily. She leaned the boy up and settled him back gently before turning to face the blonde again. "Would you like a coffee?"

Emma nodded just as quickly as Regina spoke. "Yes."

Regina made her way into the kitchen, preparing the coffee maker, while Emma tugged a blanket off the back of the couch and tucked it around Henry. She gathered the dishes and the leftovers, settling the plates on the island before popping the dish into the fridge. Without another word, she brought the dishes to the sink and began washing them, unsurprised when Regina had stood beside her and began drying.

They settled into a comfortable silence, but Emma couldn't help but notice the mechanical way Regina was doing the dishes, the way her brows furrowed and her eyes clouded in thought. She was so tempted to just drop it, hoping Regina would bring it up on her own when she was ready, but waiting was never their forte since all waiting ever did for them was to allow them the time to hold everything in. So as soon as the last dish was placed in the rack, Emma shut off the water and leaned with her back against the sink. "What are you thinking?"

Regina's lips parted, a dismissal already on her tongue, but she shut her mouth and held her midsection tight. "How many times did you call in sick to come to one of my galleries?"

The question took Emma by surprise, and frankly it was one she didn't want to answer. She knew that if Regina knew, the brunette would feel guilty, but she wasn't about to lie to her now. "Just a couple here and there. I usually switched shifts with someone."

"If I had known-"

Emma held a hand up stopping the words from coming out of Regina's mouth. "I know. But I wanted to go and support you."

"You hated them," Regina said wryly, moving her arms to around her chest.

"But I liked being with you," Emma said insistently, trying to make the brunette see what was so obvious to her. "Yeah, I felt out of place and some of the people there sucked, but I liked it when you would point out techniques or little things about the photos, or when you would introduce me as your girlfriend like it was no big deal."

Regina eased her arms down a bit but kept them firmly wrapped around herself. She bit her lip in contemplation making Emma worry that perhaps she was rethinking all this. "How many dresses did you have to buy?"

It was another question Emma had not seen coming. Her mouth opened and closed as she floundered for an answer. "I borrowed most of them."

"I've seen inside your wardrobe, Emma."

"Only two or three," Emma muttered. "But I returned one."

Regina shook her head. "Why didn't you tell me you were going out of your way just to go to some event?"

"Because it mattered to you." Emma unclasped one of Regina's arms and took her hand, squeezing it to get her to understand.

Regina bit her lip again. "Please tell me you didn't cancel anything with Henry for one of those."

"I didn't," Emma promised.

Still Regina's gaze looked far off, and for a moment, Emma wished she could read minds because she had no idea what was going on in Regina's head. Suddenly lips were pressed against her own, and instinctively, Emma kissed back, an arm cupping the older woman's cheek as the other slid down to her waist.

"Thank you," Regina whispered against her lips.

Emma pulled back confused but kept her hands on the brunette. "For what?"

"I appreciate all that you tried to do to blend in and appease my colleagues," Regina explained slowly, trying to formulate her thoughts into words. She pressed a finger to Emma's lips when the blonde opened them to speak. "But it wouldn't have mattered if you had worn jeans or that leather jacket you insist on wearing."

Emma smirked knowing Regina secretly loved it.

"I didn't date a woman who wears high-end dresses and goes to the theatre every weekend." Regina raised her hand from where it rested on the counter behind Emma and pressed her palm against Emma's cheek. "I dated a woman who owns five pairs of the same skinny jeans and who can make a delicious apple martini and moves mountains for the people she cares about, and I don't ever want her to change because the woman in the fancy dresses is not the one I - well, she's not you."

Emma's cheeks heated up, both from feeling Regina's palm pressed against her and from the words she was saying. It lifted a burden off of Emma's shoulders that she had been carrying since meeting the woman and realizing her feelings for her. "I don't think your friends would appreciate my collection of skinnies though," Emma said cautiously.

"As long as Kathryn likes you," Regina responded as she unconsciously closed the gap between them that had grown when they pulled apart from their kiss. She chuckled to herself suddenly. "Did I tell you I poured wine down Maleficent's dress?"

Emma pulled her face back in shock and amusement. "You didn't."

"She said something about you, and my hand slipped." Regina shrugged with a coy smile before scoffing. "I need to stop inviting her to my galleries."

"You think?" Emma said with a snort. She pulled her head in and pressed their foreheads together, smirking lightly. "My hero."

Regina rolled her eyes but moved her palms up Emma's arms and around her neck just the same.

Emma's eyes fluttered shut as Regina tilted her head upward, seeking to join their lips together once more. Her lip caressed the plump red ones beneath her ever so slightly before pulling back completely and holding Regina back by the shoulders. Her eyes bore into confused chocolate ones.

"I just need you to know something," Emma said imploringly. "I don't know and I don't care what your mom said about me to you, but I don't want you for your money or for your name or anything. I know I said it before, but I need you to know that. I just want whatever part of you you're willing to share with me."

Moisture looked in chocolate eyes, and before Emma knew it, Regina had wrapped her arms around her neck and hugged her close. She inhaled deeply the scent of the older woman she hadn't got to smell in weeks. Her floral shampoo was intoxicating, so Emma pulled her closer, their faces buried in the other's hair.

When they finally pulled back, the coffee, long forgotten, had already been brewed for some time now. Regina pulled back from Emma's embrace, using a pinky to wipe under her eyes when she caught sight of the time. It was nearly midnight and much too late to be drinking caffeine. Emma followed her gaze to the time on the machine and stuffed her hands into her pocket. "I should probably get going..."

"Of course," Regina drawled, turning away from the kitchen and into the living room. "Though it is late."

"It is, isn't it?" Emma caught on, still dawdling by the island.

"You shouldn't be driving this late either."

"Plus, Henry's already knocked out."

"So you might as well just stay the night," Regina said offhandedly.

Emma grinned, catching the same smile on Regina's face. She walked over and sat beside Henry on the couch, thankful that her son was a heavy sleeper as she sat him up and pulled off his sweater that was already starting to make his body warm. When Emma glanced up, she saw Regina's face burrow in thought again. "What's wrong?" She asked settling Henry back down and bringing the blanket up to his chin.

"He should be in a bed."

"He's okay."

"This place isn't necessarily child-friendly, is it?" Regina said in realization.

"It is the ultimate bachelorette pad."

Regina shook herself out of her reveries. "He can sleep with us upstairs."

Emma raised an eyebrow. "Are you sure? He's a kicker."

"As are you." Regina didn't wait for Emma to move and instead closed the distance herself to pull the blanket off of Henry and struggle to lift him into her arms.

When Emma was sure Regina had a good hold of him, she kept a hand on the brunette's back to steady her as they walked up the stairs and into Regina's bedroom where she eagerly dumped the still sleeping Henry in the middle of her queen-sized bed.

"I didn't know you were that strong," Emma commented impressed. Though Regina's chest was rising and falling from the exertion, she had made it up the stairs without any incidents.

"Pilates," was all Regina provided as she slipped a hand behind her back to undo the zipper on the back of her dress, disappearing into her closet.

Emma busied herself with adjusting Henry in the middle of the bed, brushing back his hair from his face and planting a kiss to his forehead. As she straightened, Regina had exited in silk pyjamas while holding out a pair of running shorts and a workout shirt for Emma. She thanked her for the clothes and moved toward the washroom, bumping into the woman who was heading there as well.

They chuckled their apologies as Emma slipped inside first, already unclasping her jeans and slipping into the shorts. Her long sleeve and bra was replaced with the workout shirt, and by the time she had pulled it over her head, Regina was offering her a new toothbrush.

The domesticity wasn't loss on either of the women, and though it would have unnerved them mere days ago, now, with everything out in the open, it simply felt right. Normal, even.

Emma shut the lights off in the bathroom and Regina lifted Henry's legs to turn down the sheets and slide into bed. Emma crawled on the other side of Henry, and with a flick of the bedside lamp, the room was plunged into darkness, the glow of the moon casting shadows from the windows downstairs.

Emma turned onto her side to find Regina doing the same looking content and light and beautiful. She brought her hand to the brunette's side and tangled their fingers together before letting it rest over top of Henry. Like a clockwork, as soon as their fingers brushed, Regina's thumb was rubbing circles against Emma's hand. Even in the darkness she could see the twinkling mirth in chocolate eyes and felt a sense of calm and peace and warmth being here, in this moment.

Of course, their insecurities and doubt and stubborn pride would not be fixed overnight. Not by a long shot. But they had made it very clear that they were willing to do whatever takes in order to make their relationship work.

Chapter Text

Regina was no stranger to sleepovers when it came to Emma. In fact, Emma was the only person she had shared a bed with in the last few years. Usually Regina would find herself wrapped in the blonde's hold with Emma nuzzling her cheek in between Regina's shoulder blades as she unconsciously hugged the brunette tightly from behind. This morning, however, she wasn't trapped in Emma's pseudo koala hug. In fact, there was a comfortable weight nestled into her side as a mop of hair tickled under her chin. It wasn't Emma since the blonde's shampoo hadn't wafted up to her nose like it had done in the past, unless Emma had started to use L'Oreal Kids. The slight gruff snoring coming from beside her had her weeding out that it must have been Henry who was pressed against her, and without even opening her eyes, Regina imagined what they all looked like nestled together in bed. A smile graced her lips as she settled deeper into the bed. She would have drifted back to sleep if it weren't for the tugging on the blanket wrapped comfortably around her, but despite the hard pulls, there was resistance keeping Regina nice and warm.

She popped an eye open to find Henry on top of the comforter, though how he managed to accomplish that was a mystery, and Emma, sitting up trying desperately to reclaim the blanket that was lost to her because of Regina and Henry. The blonde froze sheepishly, the comforter clenched in her fists and pulled up to her chest before motioning toward Henry who had managed to sprawl himself spread eagle on the bed. "Told you he was a kicker," Emma commented meekly in greeting.

"At least I didn't get the brunt of it." Regina's voice was low and hoarse, still laced with sleep. She tucked Henry's legs off of Emma and settled him in between them before glancing back at the younger woman. "Did you manage to get enough sleep?"

The blonde chuckled with a nod. "I'll live." Averting her eyes for a moment, Emma laid back down and inched her hand underneath the pillows that lay under their heads. It wasn't until Regina felt fingers dancing with her own did she realize the blonde's intention. "Morning," Emma whispered.

"Good morning." Regina returned that same shy smile but accompanied with a squeeze to Emma's palm. Her thumb was just beginning its habitual duty of stroking Emma's hand before the blonde had yanked her hand away and pushed herself up on her arms suddenly. Regina followed suit, terrified she had done something that had caused the panic in Emma's eyes. "What's wrong?"

"Shit," Emma mumbled, racing out of bed. "Henry goes back to school today."

Regina let out a sigh of relief but caught sight of the alarm clock on her bedside table just the same. It was half past six, and quite frankly, she couldn't remember a time when Emma woke earlier than eight. "Does his school generally start earlier in the new year?" Regina asked genuinely confused about Emma's rush.

Emma shook her head. "I promised him pancakes today, and I didn't get to make his lunch last night, and he needs to get in the shower."

Regina took a moment just watching Emma as she hurried to change out of her sleepwear and back into her clothes. Her lips twitched upwards and her heart swelled as the blonde leaned over her son and gently coaxed him from his sleep, or tried to at least. Many times she had witnessed the Swan family morning routine, but it had generally consisted of cereal in front of the television before Henry and Emma maneuvered around each other in their apartment in their haste to grab his last minute belongings. When Emma had announced the night before that she had gotten a new job, she knew for a fact that Henry had approved in that change of lifestyle, but imagining Emma waking up early just to prepare her son a hearty breakfast and making up for lost time was a sight she could see herself waking up to every morning.

Regina leaned over, mindful of Henry who still remained dead to the world despite Emma's best efforts, and placed a warm hand on Emma's bare arm. "Perhaps you could have breakfast here so you're not rushing when you get home?" Regina asked tentatively before she enticed further. "I'm sure I have the ingredients for pancakes."

"Are you sure?" Emma asked cautiously. "We don't want to put you out."

Regina slid out of bed in response. "Have you ever had apple pancakes before?"

Emma shook her head in the negative.

Regina grinned. "You'll love them."

Emma had allowed Henry to get in an extra half hour of sleep as she and Regina set about making breakfast. Emma had been relegated to flipping the pancakes while Regina started to cut up fruit and put the coffee on. She laughed when out of the corner of her eye she saw Emma concentrate on flipping a hot cake in the air but fail to catch it. The blonde stilled and turned wide eyed at having been caught, but Regina simply returned back to her cutting, the smile never leaving her lips.

As Emma had predicted, Henry had woken when breakfast was made and wafting in the air. He made his way down the stairs, his socked feet nearly slipping on the glass of the steps in his rush for food. They are their breakfast at the table as the adults sipped on their coffee while Henry, as he did the night before, filled the conversation with things he was excited for in the new year.

By the time the Swans were fed and ready to head back to their apartment, Regina was nervous to see them go. The last twenty-four hours had moved from being a stressful blur to feeling content and light and, dare she say, happy. Thrilled even. She didn't want Emma or Henry to leave, terrified that if they separated now then all their problems would come back to bite them in the other's absence and the happy bubble they managed to find themselves in would finally pop. Her face must have betrayed her mind's inner battle, for Emma paused in zipping up her jacket to squeeze Regina's shoulder in concern. "You okay?"

Shaken from her thoughts Regina nodded once.

Biting her lip, Emma stuffed her hands into her pockets as she sidled closer to brunette, thankful that Henry had decided to sit on the couch to put his boots on. "Can I call you tonight or something?" Emma asked uncertainly. "If you're not busy."

Regina released a breath she hadn't realized she had been holding before nodding much more vigorously. "Yes."

"Great." Emma leaned over pressing a firm kiss on the corner of Regina's lips before pulling back and winking at the brunette. "Come on, kid. You still gotta get dressed."

"My clothes are clean," Henry argued as he trudged up to his mother and Regina.

Emma snorted, wrapping her arm around his shoulder then glancing back up to Regina. "I'll call you tonight."

Regina nodded, unburdened this time as she held the door open for them. Henry had stolen a hug before Emma could usher him to the elevator and whispered into Regina's ear. "I'm glad you're back."

She squeezed him extra tightly. "Me too."

"-so I caught the shaker before it hit the ground and spun it behind my back. You should have seen their faces, it's like they've never seen something like that before," Emma said regaling Regina with how her day had gone. True to her word, Emma had called Regina after dinner, though it wasn't the blonde Regina had begun speaking with. Almost immediately, Henry had stolen the phone from his mother as soon as Regina's name was out of her mouth. Regina had reigned in her laughter when she heard some muffled scuffling over the earpiece and couldn't help but imagine Emma and Henry battling in some way over the phone. Henry had won out in the end, but as soon as Emma had reminded him of his homework and bedtime, Emma's smooth voice rang over the telephone.

They had been talking for over an hour, simply going over what they had done all day with Emma finishing up her story on how some of her co-workers had asked her to teach them her mixology tricks.

"You should be proud," Regina added. "Not a lot of people can do what you do so fluidly."

"Who knew those skills were transferable?" Emma quipped as the bed creaked underneath her. The blonde went silent for a moment before she cleared her throat. "Did you get in contact with Gold?"

Regina couldn't stop the disappointed sigh from escaping her lips. "I didn't get it."

"I'm sorry," Emma said softly.

"It's okay." And she meant it. Regina was disappointed, of course. She had aspired to work in such a prestigious company like Gold Photography ever since her college years, her mother's voice ingrained in her head telling her to aim only for the best, but if Regina were to do it all over again, if she had to choose between a career with Gold and something much more with Emma, well, that answer was obvious. "Really, it's relieving in a way," she pressed further.

"Relieving?" Emma asked uncertainly.

Regina nodded into the phone as she drew back the bed sheets. She glanced around her bedroom finding it eerily empty. One night with company, and Regina was already missing the blonde's presence after weeks of separation. With an internal groan, she slid into bed, sitting up against the headboard as she replied. "I no longer worry that whatever I produce next will catch his eye. He already knows what I can do, and I'm fairly certain he's impressed by that."

"But he could have given you a contract."

"Emma," Regina coaxed gently. "It's not your fault."

Emma's sigh amplified in Regina's ear, and already she could hear the gears turning in the blonde's head even without seeing her.

"It was my decision," Regina continued. After a beat, she hesitantly added, "and I think I made the right one."

Emma chuckled bashfully before sobering again. "Did you, uh, did you call your mom?"

It was Regina's turn to hesitate, fiddling with her ring as the mere thought of calling Cora still aggravated and unnerved her. "Not yet," she admitted.


"I'm not stalling, Emma."

"No, I know," the blonde rushed to agree. "But you were right. We need to talk to her, and sooner rather than later."

"I know," Regina agreed before admitting, "Mother and I aren't currently on speaking terms at the moment."

"We just gotta clear the air."

Regina slipped off her glasses, biting down on the end of an arm in contemplation. "Tomorrow?"

"That's soon," Emma mused aloud.


"We'll go together?" Even over the phone Regina could hear the hesitance in the blonde's voice.

"I was hoping so." As soon as the words were out of her mouth she could all but see the pleased smirk toying on Emma's lips.

"You could come over after if you wanted," the blonde drawled.

This time Regina was the one unable to contain the grin from appearing on her face. "I'd like that very much."

Emma chewed on her thumb nail as she and Regina drove up to the Mills mansion. She had only visited the house one other time, and the memories associated with it brought her insecurities to the surface. It wasn't necessarily Cora she feared, though the scary dragon lady knew how to intimidate. It was the consequences of this evening. The past two days being back with Regina had felt like breathing again. They voiced their concerns for tonight, and both had promised that whatever happens wouldn't interfere in anything they were trying to fix.

But Emma knew promises could be broken.

She hissed when she bit on her thumb hard enough to break the skin and immediately clutched the digit in her hand. She squeezed her thumb to stop the small amount of blood that trickled through but was surprised when Regina had reached over and wrapped it in a handkerchief.

"It'll be okay," Regina reassured.

"I know, it's just - I don't want to mess up again," Emma admitted looking down at her hands encased in Regina's.

"I don't either," Regina agreed quietly. "My mother has had her hand in my life for a long time, and now I'd like to reclaim it."

A smile played on Emma's lips before she glanced back up at the brunette. "I can help with that."

Regina's eyes smiled at her, and without so much as another thought, Emma leaned forward and caught Regina's bottom lip between her own and kissed her insistently. They moved fluidly around one another, and soon her hand was up and cupping the brunette's cheek. She grinned when she felt a tongue teasing entrance into her mouth and eagerly pushed forward and opened up for Regina only to whimper at the immediate loss of contact when Regina pulled her lips back but kept their foreheads pressed. Emma hadn't noticed that Regina had weaved her hands into her hair until she felt fingers tug at the hairs at the nape of her neck. Her eyes narrowed in confusion but let up when she saw the the smile playing on red lips.

"I missed that," Regina admitted breathlessly.

Emma chuckled into her mouth. "So that you have no problem admitting to missing?"

Regina grinned and pulled back completely, staring up at her childhood home from Emma's passenger door window. Giving one last squeeze to Emma's hand, Regina slid out of the driver's seat. Emma faced forward, looking up at the mansion from behind the windshield before exhaling shakily and nodding animatedly. You can do this, she told herself. You both can.

Emma was back in Cora's study, sitting uncomfortably on the leather couch as the fire blazed from the hearth. She picked at her white blouse and black slacks, her clothes for work. They had wanted to get this over with, so as soon as Emma was off work and Henry was dropped off at Ashley's, Emma and Regina had taken the Benz down to Cora's as they waited for Regina's mother to return from her meeting.

She was still pissed at Cora for putting a wedge between her and Regina, but she was more than beyond pissed that this woman would use and manipulate her daughter as a means to an end. Who the hell did she think she was?

Her hands clenched, and soon her fear of what might happen was overridden by what did. Too many people in her life had told her she was never good enough. She would never graduate. She would never get a job. She would never be able to take care of her baby.

She proved them all wrong.

And Regina sitting by her side, her hand draped over Emma's on the brunette's thigh, told her she was proving them wrong again.

Before the relaxed smirk could fully come to completion on her face, the door to the study opened as Cora stepped in. Her body tensed automatically and the brief courage she had was instantly wiped.

"Regina, you've finally decided to grace your mother with your - " Cora paused when she saw Emma sitting beside her and frowned. "Oh. Ms. Swan. You're here. With my daughter."

"Hi." Emma smiled in a way that she knew would aggravate the older woman and purposely squeezed Regina's thigh under her palm.

"If you'd be so kind I need to speak to Regina on private matters that don't affect you." Cora dismissed the blonde with a wave of her hand before taking a seat behind her desk.

"Actually Mother, we'd like to speak with you," Regina said with a raise of her chin.

"I'm far too busy with whatever you two want to say." Cora slipped wire glasses onto the bridge of her nose before flipping open a file.

"I think you should make time for your daughter," Emma insisted.

"The way you make time for your son?" Cora asked without so much as a glance up from her files. "Because the way I see it, Ms. Swan, is that you are here, not only wasting my time but Regina's as well, and where is little Henry?"

"Don't try to bring my kid into this," Emma defended. She glanced at Regina briefly meeting chocolate eyes before turning back to the older woman with a glare. "You tried to buy me off."

Cora laughed once still engrossed in her files. "I didn't try dear, I did."

"I didn't take the money," Emma huffed before muttering to herself. "God, I need to get a shirt that says that."

"And yet you still stayed away from my daughter, did you not?" Cora looked up at the pair sitting on the couch over her glasses. "Perhaps I should have just let nature take its course and allowed you two to fall away naturally."

"I didn't stay away from her because of you," the blonde argued.

"Oh, so you simply grew weary of my daughter?" Cora asked calmly. "Well, that is quite the turn of events."

"No, that's - you're twisting my words."

"You said my influence had nothing to do with you breaking my daughter's heart, so how exactly, Ms. Swan, am I twisting your words?" Cora's lip twitched upward in a way that made Emma gulp and come in on herself as she batted away the older woman's voice from her brain. She hated how Cora's logic always seemed to short-circuit her brain.

It, however, had no effect on Regina for the brunette tensed under Emma's palm and glared. "Mother."

"Regina," Cora cut her off with a raise of her hand. "Don't think I don't know why the both of you are here, and if you're expecting an apology or some blessing then you are wasting my time."

Regina shook her head, her hands unconsciously clenching into fists. "Mother, when will you open your eyes and realize that I am a grown woman and am capable of making my own decisions, and who I decide to date is none of your concern. Why can't you just be happy for me?"

"Dear," Cora said with a sickly sweet smile. "I am happy for you. When you make the right decisions for yourself."

"You mean for you," the younger brunette said bitterly.

"Look at where you were before her," Cora said casting a sideways glare toward Emma who was still getting her wits about her. "You were going to be the best photographer in New York and you were going to be working for Robert Gold, Regina, do you have any idea what that would have meant for you?"

"You thought my career was just some past-time up until two months ago."

"Correct me if I'm wrong, but that's around the time you and Ms. Swan began having problems," Cora said with a grin, daring them to prove her wrong.

Emma mentally calculated back to that time and cringed. That was roughly around November when Emma began taking more shifts and pulling away. The idea that perhaps Regina was better off without her flitted through Emma's mind before she pushed it away.

"Regina," Cora said in a sickly sweet tone. "I have told you over and over again that mother knows best, and this tryst you mistake for a relationship is doing nothing but harming you. She hurt you, dear. Or do you not remember your attempts at hiding your tears during Christmas?"

Emma whipped her head to Regina with wide eyes, feeling like she had gotten punched in the gut. Of course they had both been hurting, but to actually hear it made the guilt churn deeper in Emma's stomach. It took her by surprise when Regina stood and made her way to the front of her mother's desk. "I remember," Regina said in a low voice. "I remember wondering how my mother, of all people, could use me as an example not for the first time."

"How else will you learn?" Cora questioned from her seat. Despite the height difference, Cora still managed to have a supremacy about her.

"Shut up," Emma finally spoke up after minutes of slack-jawed silence. She stood from the couch and stood beside Regina who, despite her anger toward her mother, looked at Emma as if she were crazy for telling her mother to shut up. Cora was less than amused by Emma suddenly finding her voice, and the scowl on her face told her as much.

"Excuse me?" Cora's tone was low and dangerous as her eyes bore into Emma's as she stepped up to the desk, pressing her palms face down into the mahogany as she leaned over the wood. Her stare was deadly, and any other sane person would have uttered their apologies and scampered away, but Emma pushed forward, refusing to back down. "What did you say?" Cora asked as a final warning.

"I may not know much about being a daughter, but I damn well know how a mother should be, and I know they're nothing like you," Emma answered in a tone that rivalled Cora's. She ignored the heavy glare and flaring nose of the older brunette, and even ignored the wide eyes as Regina stared on at her as she continued. "And there's a huge difference between wanting what's best for your child and controlling every aspect of their life, and as good as you think your intentions are, all you're doing is living vicariously through your successful, beautiful, and put-together daughter just so you can hang her on your wall like another award instead of encouraging her and supporting her and never putting her down, but you don't even see that because you're too self-absorbed about your image. And maybe I'm not the best person for Regina, and maybe I can't give her the life you think she should have, but I can guarantee that I care about her more than you do."

Emma was breathing heavily by the time she was done, pulling back from the desk not once taking her eyes off Cora. Her only break of attention came from the small intake of breath beside her as Regina gasped softly at Emma's words. The words weren't new, and Emma had to give Regina credit for knowing exactly what her mother was like, but the shock on her face made Emma hurt for her. She couldn't understand how Cora could be anything other than proud of Regina.

"You think I don't care for my daughter," Cora repeated with a raised perfectly trimmed eyebrow.

"I think your definition of caring is twisted and distorted." Emma moved off completely from Cora's desk and found purchase on Regina's waist, her gaze softening instantly at the contact. "And yeah. I hurt her. I was probably the first person to hurt her in years, and I'm never gonna be okay with that. But you raised her well, and she's the strongest woman I've ever met, and she doesn't go into anything blindly." Emma glanced between Regina and Cora as if speaking to both women. "I know you think I'm bad for her, and honestly, there are times I think that too, and because of that, I almost let her slip through my fingers, but I'm not interested in her money, or her influence, or her status. I'm just interested in her."

Emma gulped as the room was engulfed in silence. She held her staring match with the older Mills woman and her only comfort was the fact that Regina remained sidled up beside her. She didn't know how long they had all remained quiet. The ringing silence around the room was a stark contrast to the near yelling she had been doing only minutes earlier. For a moment she wondered if she should continue, but she was fresh out of steam and the silence was making her uncomfortable. Finally Regina spoke, almost startling Emma from her thoughts of taking the younger brunette and getting out of there.

"I just want her too," Regina added softly, a quiet determination in her eyes as she made eye contact with her mother. "Please don't make me choose between you and her, Mother."

The thudding in Emma's heart pounded in her ears, and she had to fight to keep the pleased smile off her lips. It didn't stop her from squeezing Regina's hip and glancing at her under her lashes. Their eyes twinkled with mirth and knowledge as they absent-mindedly pressed closer together.

Cora lowered her glasses from her nose before removing them altogether as she stood from her seat. Emma could have sworn she heard a tsk as Cora shook her head once. She moved to the fireplace as it burned brightly, the warmth heating the room despite the chilly atmosphere the women had brought to it.

"Why?" Cora questioned, breaking the silence as she stared into the fire.

Emma and Regina both exchanged glances, attempting to decode Cora's cryptic question.

Cora turned suddenly staring firmly at her daughter. "I have given you everything, put you in the best schools, opened up endless opportunities for you, and now you just want to throw it all away for her?"

Emma watched the conflict behind brown eyes as she looked toward Regina. Her hand was squeezed before the brunette left her side and took a step forward, placing herself in the middle between her mother and her lover.

"I'm not throwing anything away," Regina began softly. Emma noted that Regina had a hand outstretched as if she were approaching a wild beast, and it amused her to realize the comparison wasn't far off from the truth. "You taught me to be headstrong and ambitious and to persevere to get what I want, and I want Emma and Henry. And they want me too."

If it weren't for the small rise and fall of Cora's chest, it would have looked as if the older Mills woman had been turned to stone with her hard pressed glare and chin resting on the tips of her fingers. Finally she moved and shifted her eyes a fraction of an inch to stare past Regina and focus on Emma. "You'll ruin her," She said with the certainty of a seer.

Emma tilted her chin up defiantly. "I'll try not to."

Cora scoffed and turned haughtily, leaving the room without another glance in their direction as the door to the study slammed shut behind her.

Regina flinched at the noise, still rooted in her spot between the fireplace and Emma. Emma wasn't blind to the tense muscles in Regina's shoulders or the way her eyes remained locked on the spot her mother once stood in. Emma continued to linger by Cora's desk, stationed between the two winged-back chairs placed in front of the mahogany as she played with the hem of her blouse, uncertain about what she should be doing now.

She cleared her throat and weaved her way around the chairs, touching Regina's elbow. "Hey," Emma encouraged softly, attempting to coax the older woman to turn around. She held her breath as Regina turned slowly, a whirlpool of emotions drowning in her eyes.

Then Regina smiled. A true genuine smile laced with just a hint of disappointment as she stepped into Emma's space, the blonde instinctively wrapping her arms around Regina's shoulders.

Emma pressed her cheek against Regina's temple as they embraced for a long moment. Finally, Regina pulled back and pecked the blonde firmly. "Ready to go home now?"

Emma's lips twitched upwards before she narrowed her eyes in confusion. "That's it? That's all we're gonna do about your mom?"

Regina laced their fingers together as she tugged them to the door, picking up her purse from the couch on the way before leading them out of the study with Emma following blindly.

"What else can we do?" Regina asked, nodding her head in goodbye at the manservant Emma recognized from her first and only dinner here.

"She's mad," the blonde pointed out obviously.


"And you're okay with that?" Emma stopped them as soon as they slipped out of the mansion and stood under the floodlights of the porch.

Regina dipped her head, looking far off into the garden that decorated the front lawn before nodding back at Emma, content in her eyes. "Yes. I'm okay with that."

"Really?" Emma asked, a mixture of disbelief and wonder.

"Don't sound so surprised," the brunette answered wryly, tugging Emma to move again as they walked toward the Benz. "I told you." She stopped them at the car's passenger seat, keeping one hand laced with Emma's fingers while the other trailed to her waist. Emma couldn't help but inch forward, closing the space between their bodies as Regina tilted her head upward to speak almost directly into Emma's mouth. "I chose you."

Emma released a single breathy laugh before pressing closer, their lips just grazing. "Home?"

Regina's eyes fluttered shut as she nodded, but as soon as she moved her head forward, Emma pulled back entirely with a wide smile lighting up her face, her eyes twinkling to match. She grinned wider when Regina looked floored by the sudden space between them, but Emma squeezed her hand and pulled open the passenger door. "Let's go home."

Chapter Text

Emma's eyes snapped open at the sound of her alarm. She was still unused to the early wake up calls, but it was a habit she needed to reinforce if she wanted to get Henry up and well-fed before dropping him off at school. The previous night had been a blur of emotions. Her nerves, anger, and frustration had mixed together and exploded on Cora Mills, and quite frankly, the woman had it coming. But Regina had reigned them in as soon as they were left alone, as soon as the brunette had wrapped her arms around her and drove them home. Emma felt like she could breathe. The chill who suffocated her and penetrated her mind was finally taken care of.

Now all that happened between Emma and Regina would remain as that. Between her and Regina.

The thought terrified the blonde momentarily. Being responsible for the well-being of a child was one thing but for another human being? Well. There was a reason she rarely got along with her foster siblings.

But it was Regina, Emma reminded herself. She wasn't just some stranger on the street. If she really thought about it, it wasn't difficult to take care of Regina, in whatever way the brunette would allow. It was just that commitment was a scary word to Emma no matter how many times she exhibited the trait. It was a flaw Emma had trouble shaking, most likely due to the amount of people telling her she would never amount to anything.

But she had. She was a mother. A hard worker. A girlfriend. And it was about time she realized that.

She sat up with a content smile on her face, the momentary fear gone as quickly as it had come, only for it to disappear when she realized her bed was empty. She furrowed her brow and palmed the bed, finding it still having some traces of warmth, but clearly some time had passed since Regina had left the bed. She must have slipped into the bathroom, Emma concluded, her worry never making its presence known, before throwing her legs over the edge of the bed and getting up for the day herself. She stretched out her back and yawned as she scurried to put on pants and a zip up.

She opened her door and grinned to herself as she leaned against the door jamb, her hands folded across her chest. Regina was found, the tips of her hair still wet as she moved fluidly along the kitchen alcove, humming no less, with a frying pan on the stove, a loaf of bread out, and by the smell of it, slices in the toaster, and coffee steaming in mugs. Emma leaned her head against the frame in content thought. She could most definitely see herself waking up to this every morning, and the settling realization that she could made the inward grin come out in full force.

"Hey," she called out making her presence known. She would have been lying if she said she hadn't hoped of startling the brunette who simply turned her head, her smile reaching her eyes.

"Hey," Regina responded in kind before turning back to the stove and cracking eggs in the pan. "Henry's in the shower."

It was then Emma registered the running water as it coursed through the pipes in the walls as she pushed away from the frame and made her way over to the brunette.

"So," Emma began reaching the counter just as the toast popped up. She threw a sideways glance to Regina who tilted her chin to indicate she was listening. "We talked to your mom."

"We did," Regina confirmed with a raised eyebrow.

"So it's just you, me, and Henry then," Emma said without further explanation, buttering a piece of toast, glancing at the brunette under her lashes.

"I like the sound of that."

Emma's lips tilted upward as a surge of weightlessness settled into her chest. She popped two more slices of bread into the toaster before an irrelevant thought struck her. "How'd you get the kid up and in the bath?"

Regina chuckled, grabbing a plate from the cabinet to transfer the cooked eggs. "I enticed him with properly made food."

"Hey," Emma paused her task to glare with a hand on her hip. Regina simply removed the pan from the flame and leaned against the edge of the stove amused. Emma made a move behind her and grabbed a tall plastic cup from the dish tray beside the sink. "You may be able to cook better than me, but can you do this?"

The cup was tossed in the air, spinning and falling precariously close to the counter's edge before Emma snagged it the last minute.

"Why on earth would I need to know that?" Regina placed a hand on her hip mimicking Emma's earlier position as the blonde continued to juggle with the glass without even batting an eye.

"In case I do this." Without warning Emma tossed the cup over to Regina. It was a move she and Ruby had perfected over the years of working with each other, but Regina had no idea what to expect and fumbled the cup, attempting to cradle it into her chest but instead knocked it on her elbow. Emma laughed and stepped forward, catching it before it could hit the ground. The position left her with her head at Regina's waist, her free hand on the brunette's hip to hold her steady while the other was inches from the ground with the cup in her hand.

"Emma!" Regina hissed. "What if that was glass?"

"Relax," Emma chuckled, her eyes darting upward at the woman above her before straightened by tossing the cup in the air and catching it for good measure. "I'm good with my hands, remember?"

The joking smile on her face faltered when she stared directly into Regina's eyes and noticed the usual chocolate colour darken just a shade.

"I remember," Regina whispered huskily.

Emma didn't try to stop herself as she placed the cup on the counter and reached out to tug Regina to her by the waist. Her head was already tilted toward the brunette's but was impeded when Regina pushed back on her shoulders, the distance between them growing.

"Do you smell that?" Regina asked, her nose twitching in aggravation.

"What?" Emma hadn't bothered to look around but it was only when Regina looked just past her with widened eyes did she turn.

"Smoke." The toaster was on the fritz and smoke wafted from its entry where the toast inside it was burnt black. Emma pulled the plug out quickly while Regina grabbed an oven mitt and fanned the air. It took them a couple minutes before the smoke and smell dissipated, but by then the toaster was less than salvageable.

"Did you burn something again, Mom?" Henry asked as he emerged from the washroom, his hair damp and dressed for school.

"Technically I didn't do it." Emma turned the toaster upside down though one burnt toast was still stuck inside.

"You broke the toaster again?" Henry asked incredulously.

"Again?" Regina questioned amused as she fought to contain her laugh.

"Just-" Emma dropped the toaster onto the counter with a loud clatter. "Eat your eggs."

Emma knew she didn't always come up with the best plans, but anyone who knew her knew her intentions were generally good. It was why she was kicking herself over the head as she leaned against her kitchen counter, bored out of her mind. Henry was engrossed in a project, work was over, dinner was cooked, and Emma had no idea what to do next.

Around this time for the past two weeks or so, Emma and Henry found themselves in the company of Regina, nesting in either apartment when the mood suited them. Right about now, Henry would be sent to do his homework, and she and Regina would curl up on the couch, sometimes watching whatever program Emma had decided to stay on, but most times Regina would break out her reading glasses and pull out her book of the week. This week's book was Lord of the Flies which impressed and surprised the blonde when Regina had pulled it out. She was going to tease Regina about her choice of political anarchy books, but judging by who her mother was, Emma wasn't surprised Regina appreciated novels like that. The evening then would be littered with sporadic kisses, some more heated than others, but by the end of the night, they usually found themselves simply curled onto the couch together. It never went any further than heated kisses and insistent touches since neither women wanted to push. Rekindling relationships was not something Emma nor Regina were familiar with, and if they were being overly cautious about their intimacy, then Emma wasn't going to fault them for that if it meant something a whole lot more in the long run. And she knew it was a whole lot more than just great sex. Emma had even started to bring a small bag of clothes should she and Henry spend the night at Regina's, which was generally the case. It was now just assumed the second drawer in Regina's dresser was designated for the Swan family belongings, and the pack of drinkable yogurt in the fridge was designated for Henry's snack.

But of course, Emma had to open her big mouth.

Emma was very aware of how much time they were spending together and seeing each other nearly every day. It didn't strike her that it was the same amount of time they spent together before Christmas. All that she was aware of was that she might be looking clingy, and she knew being that girlfriend was a one-way ticket out the door.

So she voiced her concern the day before to Regina who was just as eager not to do anything that would cause a premature end to their relationship, and with surprising understanding they had agreed to spend the night apart.

What a load of crap.

Emma's fingers twitched with the need to call Regina, but the voice in her mind told her no! She had gone nearly a month without seeing the brunette, surely one night couldn't be this bad. But it was different then, and things were different now, and dammit it all if Emma wanted to spend a little time with her girlfriend. She groaned and rolled her eyes at herself before pushing off the counter and quickly checking in on Henry who lay on the floor of his bedroom, gluing pieces of construction paper letters and pictures onto bristol board. She briefly thought about annoying him, but the kid got unnaturally mad when he was in project-mode. Plus, she could hear Regina's voice in her head scolding her for interrupting Henry while he was preoccupied with his studies. Then that voice in her head turned into an image of herself suggesting the various ways in which Regina could keep her preoccupied. Emma groaned again.

Fuck it.

She slipped into her bedroom and retrieved the cordless phone from the cradle on her bedside table and dropped on the bed, punching in the familiar digits of Regina's cell as the phone rung quietly in her ear.

"Hello," Regina answered knowingly on the second ring, apparently having seen the caller ID.

"Am I being clingy?" Emma outright asked.

Regina snorted out a laugh.

"So that's a yes," Emma concluded for herself slightly irritated.

Regina continued to laugh lightly before quieting for a moment. Her next reply came out just as softly. "I miss you too."

Emma forgot her irritation and simply settled into her pillows with a pleased grin on her face. It comforted her to know that she wasn't the only one feeling this way.

Regina cleared her throat quickly before maintaining her normal tone. "If I come over will you promise to be quiet so I can get editing done?"

It was the blonde's turn to chuckle as she shook her head into the phone. "I make no promises."

"Your loss," Regina replied playfully.

"Pretty sure it's yours." Emma fluffed a pillow against the headboard and leaned back in thought. "We haven't gone on a date yet."

"I believe I was promised a trip to the skating rink."

"Yeah? You'd want to go?"

"Of course."

Emma grinned. "Okay. We'll go to the rink this weekend."

"How are you good at everything?" Emma complained as Regina began to skate backwards and took Henry's hands in hers to help him get his balance.

"Kathryn competed in figure skating," Regina answered obviously.

"So you just sucked up her skill?" Emma asked incredulously, gliding slowly to keep pace with her stumbling son.

"I accompanied her to her practices and at times her coach would allow me to skate." She crouched lower, grinning at Henry's concentrated face as she slowly released his grip from her hands, impressed that he remained upright. "Well done, dear."

Emma caught Henry under the arms when he flailed preparing to fall before settling him on his skates again. She looked pointedly at Regina. "You said you'd never been skating before."

Regina grinned wickedly. "I said I had never gone to a public rink." She leaned back down and took Henry's hands again, skating backwards as they picked up a little speed, mindful of the other patrons on the ice.

Emma smirked to herself as she watched them gain distance on her. Her plan had been to all but reenact those cheesy holiday rom-coms where Regina would have no idea how to skate giving Emma the excuse to hold her all night. She had worked at one of these outdoor rinks in her youth and had a pretty decent handle of the ice. She didn't expect Regina to have one as well, but watching her girlfriend lead her son around the rink, glaring at the rowdy teenagers who were nearly close into colliding with him, made up for the foiled plan.

Pushing off of her skates, Emma raced after them, playfully poking at Henry when she reached them and skated circles around them. The boy was determined to get back at his mother, so he tried skating after her, only to slip and fall hard on his behind.

"Emma," Regina scolded, halting the blonde in her playful laughter as they helped to pick Henry up off the ice. She brushed the snow off Henry's snow pants making sure he sustained no injury before throwing another reproachful look at Emma for her antics. She took Henry's hands in hers squeezing tightly. "Come, dear. Another few laps with me and you'll be chasing down your mother soon enough."

Henry grinned at the prospect before eagerly taking Regina's hands allowing her to lead them around the rink. It was him sticking his tongue out at Emma that made Emma snort out a laugh.

"Sure I can stay here," Emma called after them sarcastically, earning a playful smirk from the brunette woman as she looked over Henry's head.

Instead of following after them, Emma stepped off the ice where their belongings were and swapped her skates for her boots then waited in line at the Snack Express. From her spot in line, she could see that Regina had forgone skating in front of Henry and started to skate beside him, watching him like a hawk as she allowed him free reign but always there for even the tiniest of slips. She waved back when Henry looked up and caught his mother's eye, and from his exaggerated mouth movements and his beaming smile, she guessed he had yelled out "I'm doing it!" She threw him a thumbs up before stepping up to the barista and ordering them hot drinks.

By the time she returned with two hot chocolates and a hot apple cider, Regina and Henry had stepped off the ice and were sitting on the bench they had claimed earlier.

"Did you see me?" Henry piped up as soon as Emma was within hearing distance.

"Yeah, kid. We gotta sign you up for hockey soon." Emma handed him the to-go cup which he graciously accepted between mitted hands. "Careful, it's hot."

"How on earth are you warm in that?" Regina questioned at Emma's red leather as she accepted her own cider. It was then Emma noticed Regina kept shifting from foot to foot in an attempt to keep warm.

Emma shrugged and placed her drink on the bench beside Henry and walked up to the brunette. She rubbed her hands up and down over the older woman's arms in an attempt to generate heat. She kept her grin at bay when Regina stepped closer into Emma's space, all but forcing the blonde's hands to move around to her back into a pseudo hug. "Better?"

"It's getting there." Regina tilted her head in confirmation. "Though you should really keep your hat on or you'll catch a cold."

Emma rolled her eyes just Henry chuckled into his drink at Regina's comment. "Says the woman in the thin trench coat."

Regina didn't respond and simply plucked the hat Emma had stuffed into her pocket earlier and pulled it over the blonde's head, the bobbles bouncing in Emma's face.

"Look at you taking care of me," Emma teased, but the mirth in her eyes spoke so much more than the playful tone she was taking.

The brunette rolled her eyes with a satisfied smirk toying on her lips before she sat next to Henry, praising him for his progress on the ice. It wasn't long before Emma joined them on Henry's other side, draping her arm around the back of the bench and around the nape of Regina's turtleneck. She caught Regina's eye the moment Emma had started to rub there in an attempt to generate heat for the brunette, and with a smile that reached her eyes, Regina sidled closer to Henry and Emma as the boy continued to ramble on about how fast he would soon be able to go.

Emma's fingers drew lazy circles on the exposed skin of Regina's waist as they curled into the couch that night. Henry had knocked out on the way home, and frankly, neither women were surprised. After hours on the ice, food truck dinner - a huge surprise to Emma since Regina had suggested it, and a small walk around the city, Emma had had to carry the ever-growing nine-year old up the stairs to their apartment and quickly deposited him into his bed.

Now she and Regina, just as worn out as Henry, lay on the couch, the brunette with her legs curled under her as she nestled under Emma's arm with the news playing on the television on a low volume.

"I had fun," Emma voiced quietly, her fingers leaving goosebumps in its wake as they continued to drag across warm flesh.

Regina pressed closer into Emma as a contented sigh left her lips. "Me too."

Emma leaned into the cushion of the couch, her fingers exploring of their own volition navigating higher under the base of Regina's turtleneck. She couldn't help but notice that Regina had begun weaving her own fingers in between Emma's belt loops, tugging the blonde impossibly closer to her.

Emma turned her head so her lips were pressed just above Regina's temple. "You weren't supposed to know how to skate so I could teach you," Emma admitted shamelessly.

Regina laughed and leaned her torso up to look at the blonde. "Is that why you were pouting for the first half hour?"

"I wasn't pouting." Emma sat up, her hand leaving its home on Regina's waist to travel to the back of the brunette's thigh and all but tug her on Emma's lap.

"You just wanted an excuse to hold me," Regina taunted with a wicked smirk as her hands travelled up and around Emma's neck.

Emma stared at her with a hooded gaze. She wasn't sure when exactly the space between them had become nonexistent but she wasn't complaining. Not with Regina nestled in her lap and their breath mingling in what little space was left. "Do I need one?" Emma asked huskily.

Regina shook her head as their lips grazed before whispering into Emma's mouth. "Not at all."

Their lips pressed fiercely against one another, and as it had for the last two weeks, hell every time they kissed, the passion burning deep in Emma's belly ignited upon the sweet contact of Regina's plump, red lips. It didn't take much for Emma to slip her tongue past Regina's lips, coaxing Regina to respond. Within moments, the brunette had tugged on the hairs on the back of Emma's neck and rose to straddle Emma's waist, taking control of the kiss leaving Emma breathless.

Regina may have taken over the kiss, but the whimpering moan the brunette had released was all due to the fact Emma had slipped a hand into the back of Regina's designer jeans and grabbed a palm full of ass. Oh, Regina certainly picked a good day to wear a thong as Emma kneaded the bare flesh under her hand while simultaneously pushing the older woman closer to her. Her free hand teased and enticed just the same with Emma raking the very tips of her fingertips just under Regina's bra, a sensitive part of the brunette Emma had discovered during their time together.

As soon as her nails brushed over that sensitive spot, Regina's stomach quivered and her lips parted in a gasp giving Emma the opportunity to take over the kiss while flipping Regina onto her back along the length of the couch, Emma nestled in between toned legs.

Normally Emma would be decorating Regina's neck right about now, but that damned turtleneck barred her from even looking at the long expanse of skin Regina looked oh so ready to expose. With one final kiss to her lips as a promise that she would return, Emma moved her way down Regina's torso and pushed up the fabric of Regina's top exposing the tan stomach beneath it. From her position Emma could feel the heat radiating from Regina's core as she placed open-mouthed kisses on quivering skin. Her tongue dipped into Regina's belly button briefly before she placed a hot kiss just above her jeans, sucking in a breath when Regina bucked her hips upward.

She nibbled on the skin there as her hand slid upwards and tangled with the fingers of Regina's right hand. As soon as Regina's free hand weaved it's way into Emma's locks, the blonde shot up and captured Regina's lips in another searing kiss, nibbling on her bottom lip and keep it's between her lips as she pulled away.

They remained close even when Emma released her lip, their chests falling and rising rapidly in time with their over active hearts. Emma took in Regina's swollen lips and her flushed cheeks, but it was her eyes she was captivated with. Eyes that would make heat swell between her legs when darkened with lust. Eyes that would twinkle with such amusement and happiness Emma would feel the uncertainties of her actions fade away. But Regina's eyes now expressed so much more as they stared deeply into one another, Regina's fingers still rubbing Emma's hair between them and Emma's own hand squeezing Regina's in their embrace.

As a child Emma always wondered what it would be like to be in love. Now she knew this was it. Staring deep into her eyes, pressed against her body, pining after her, watching the evening news. With Regina. That. That was what it was like to be in love.

"What?" Regina questioned uncertainly, unconsciously bringing Emma closer on top of her by the nape of her neck.

Emma smiled softly and shook her head before gently capturing Regina's lips again for a brief yet lingering kiss. When she pulled back she peppered kisses across the brunette's cheeks, pleased when Regina let out a contented mewl as she stretched further along the couch. Emma extracted her hand from Regina's and placed them beside her head as she leaned on her forearms, hovering over the older woman. "I'm happy," Emma provided simply.

Regina's smile was radiant despite her smudged lipstick and her flushed cheeks. She tugged Emma to her by the back of her neck and placed a small kiss on the corner of her mouth. "Me too."

Emma grinned and turned her head to place kisses along Regina's arms as they supported Emma's head before the blonde finally found solace by resting her head on Regina's chest as they both turned back toward the TV, perfectly content.

"Don't do that, that's corny." Ruby slid over the back of Emma's couch and plopped herself onto the furniture as she popped a chip in her mouth, the open bag clutched possessively in her hand.

"It's not corny, it's meaningful," Emma argued, bringing over soda cans and settling them on the coffee table.

"Can you get any more cliche than telling your girlfriend you love her on Valentine's Day? You've got two weeks to think of a better plan," Ruby snorted with derision.

"It's sweet," Emma argued defensively though her brows furrowed in contemplation as she settled into her end of the couch. After a beat, she bit her lip worriedly. "Is it corny?"

Ruby nodded apologetically.

"But I already told her I love her," Emma mused to herself.

Ruby sat up with wide eyes and smacked Emma's leg in shock. "What? When? Then what's the problem?"

Emma glared at the smack but made no movement to pull her legs back. "When I went to see her, and the problem was that it just kind of came out, and she technically hasn't said it either."

"I think you spent more than enough time hiding your feelings from her," Ruby argued as she settled back down, reaching a long arm over to the table to pop open her drink and engross herself in the movie they had playing in the background.

Emma bit the inside of her cheek in thought. It wasn't as if she was trying to hide her feelings for Regina, hell, they were basically laid out on the table for all to see, but she wanted to do this right. Emma had never felt like this before, had never had complete and utter trust in another person. She had taken a huge risk in falling for Regina, and despite their bumps in the road, she knew Regina was a person she'd suffer through them for. So why hadn't she told her she loved her again yet? If Emma was honest with herself, she'd admit she was just a little bit frightened, but the greater part of her, the part that brought her to Regina's gallery all those months ago and egged her onto the stage at a karaoke bar told her she was being dumb and just wasting time. Her past had always taught her that time was of the essence and all things were fleeting. Why should she wait any longer?

With a determined nod to herself, Emma scooted her hips up and retrieved her phone from her back pocket and punched in Regina's number.

"What are you-" Emma cut Ruby off when the line connected and Regina's familiar voice filled Emma's ear.

"Hey, Regina," Emma cut off the brunette's greeting. "I know you're busy right now, but I wanted to tell you something."

Emma blocked her body when Ruby smacked her legs in excitement. "Ow, Ruby, stop."

"Hello to you too, dear," Regina chuckled. "I'm actually just outside your apartment."

With a hand to the shoulder, Emma pushed Ruby back down to her side of the couch before whipping her head to the door. "You're outside?" Emma asked in a high voice, her heart beating rapidly and the momentary courage she had gone.

Instead of a verbal answer, all Emma received was three sharp rasps on the door, and with a knowing smirk, Ruby swung her leg over the back of the couch and jogged to open the door. "Hey, Regina!" Ruby greeted perkily.

Emma ended the call as she stood, rolling her eyes at her friend just as Regina stepped into the apartment with her camera bag and equipment slung on her shoulder and in her hands.

"Hello, Ruby," Regina greeted politely. She turned her head in time for Emma to greet her with a quick kiss. She barely registered that the blonde had swiftly taken Regina's equipment and bag off of her and moved it into her bedroom.

Ruby just stood there grinning and rocking on the balls of her feet. As soon as Emma stepped out of her bedroom, Ruby clapped her hands. "I gotta go." Without no other goodbye, Ruby slipped on her red winter jacket and left the apartment.

"Is she okay?" Regina asked confused.

"She's weird," Emma dismissed, crossing the hallway to Regina to give her a proper kiss. She grinned when she felt Regina's own lips tilt into a smile before she pulled back and helped the brunette out of her trench coat. "I thought you had a shoot?"

"I finished early. Henry?"

"Sleepover," Emma answered before her eyes lit up. "Oh!" She grabbed Regina by the hands and made her sit at the table. "I made something."

Regina cocked an eyebrow as Emma grabbed a plate and rushed to the oven where the smell of something delicious wafted into the air. Before Regina could question her, Emma had put a plate of baked salmon with steamed veggies on the side in front of Regina. "I cooked," Emma grinned proudly and took the seat adjacent to the brunette.

"I must be rubbing off on you." Regina's eyes twinkled before she lifted her fork and pierced a piece of salmon then lifted it to her mouth.

Emma sat with bated breath as she watched Regina chew the piece of fish slowly. "So?"

Regina swallowed and nodded approvingly. "It's not absolutely terrible."

"Ha ha." Emma glared as Regina laughed to herself. Despite her tease, the brunette dug into the meal with gusto. "You are allowed to say you love it, you know? I won't get a big head or anything, though I think some form of reward would be good seeing as I am capable of listening to cooking instructions."

Regina put her fork down and looked at Emma thoughtfully. The blonde furrowed her brow at Regina's insistent stare, and for a long moment, Emma had wondered if there was something on her face that had drawn the brunette's attention. "What?" Emma asked nervously, self-consciously wiping around her mouth for any chip crumbs or soda stains.

"Have I ever told you I love you?" The question was so soft Emma wasn't sure she had heard it correctly, but judging by Regina's wide vulnerable eyes, Emma knew that her ears hadn't failed her.

She placed her hand over Regina's finding it slightly clammy before she squeezed and leaned over the corner of the table, her eyes crinkling. "You show me plenty of times."

They smiled shyly at one another, both having to glance away as if to make sure what had occurred was true, before they instinctively moved their heads toward the middle, their lips gravitating toward one another as they shared a kiss, one that was filled with promise and hope and love, one that made their hearts soar and press closer to one another.

When they pulled back, Regina still had her lips brushing against Emma's as she whispered, "I love you."

Emma chuckled into Regina's mouth which caused the brunette to pull back curiously. "What?"

Emma shook her head and pulled her back for another kiss. "I was calling to tell you that."

Regina smirked and reattached their lips, her hands automatically weaving into Emma's hair as the heat built up between them. Before it could escalate any further, Emma kissed her firmly once more before pulling back and staring insistently into brown eyes. "I love you too."

Their wide grins mimicked each other's before they kissed again. Neither knew who had initiated it, and neither had cared as their lips sought each other in a dance they had perfected long ago. Emma cupped Regina's face between her palms, all but pulling the older woman up and out of her seat and into Emma's lap. One of Regina's knee settled itself on the chair beside Emma's legs as the other was planted firmly on the ground to keep her balance.

Emma gasped when Regina slipped her tongue into her mouth and toyed with Emma's tongue, coaxing it to respond but retreating whenever Emma rose to the challenge. She growled deep in her throat when Regina did it a third time and pulled away altogether, smirking when Regina whimpered from the loss despite initiating the power play, and nibbled on Regina's jaw line all the way up to her ear.

"Are you just trying to get out of eating my cooking?" Emma asked huskily, licking the shell of Regina's ear before nibbling on the lobe.

Regina began to rock her hips involuntarily into Emma's stomach from the sensation, her hold on the blonde's shoulder tightening with each nibble. She shook her head and turned it so that her own lips were pressed against Emma's ear and kissed it once before pulling back, meeting blue-green eyes that were wide and light and everything that was reflected in Regina's own. "I want to show you," she said earnestly.

Emma had all but carried Regina into her bedroom, bringing the brunette to the tips of her toes as she squeezed the back of her thighs refusing to release even a small part of Regina. The food was ignored. The door was shut. And all Emma could think of was that it had been too damn long since she had properly touched Regina.

Regina had apparently been thinking the same thing since she bunched the bottom of Emma's band shirt in her fists and tugged upwards, forcing their kiss to break before reattaching themselves together again.

The uncontrollable need surging through them was thick in the air as they scrambled to get the other in as little clothing as possible. Their breaths mingled. Their teeth clashed. Their hands found sweet solace on heated flesh. And still they weren't nearly as close enough.

By the time Regina was down to her bra and thong, Emma, in a similar state of undress, pulled back and took a big gulp of air to even her breathing as Regina stood before her, olive skin dancing in the glow of the street lights filtering in from the world below. Regina's lace-encased breasts were rising and falling just as fast as her beating heart which Emma swore she could hear, or maybe it was her own? Whosever it was, it didn't matter, for they were finally going to do this right.

Dropping to her knees on the small pile of clothing pooled at their feet, Emma kept her gaze locked intently on Regina as the tips of her fingernails trailed lightly behind Regina's thighs. She kept her gaze locked when she placed barely there kisses, earning herself a strangled moan from the brunette who nearly stumbled back at the enticing sensation. Their gazes remained locked even as Emma slipped her fingers into the thin band of Regina's thong, kissing just above her pelvis in a silent request for permission, before Regina nodded lithely, using her own hands to cover Emma's as they pulled Regina's underwear down toned, tanned legs.

The familiar heady scent of Regina's arousal intoxicated Emma to no end, and she wanted nothing more than to press her face into where Regina was glistening with want for her, but instead of giving into carnal desire, Emma placed a kiss onto her sex promising to return before shooting to her feet and cupping the brunette's cheeks as she thoroughly explored her mouth.

Emma barely registered when her back had hit the mattress, but all of a sudden Regina was crawling over her, her naked sex mere millimeters away from Emma's clothed one as Regina pressed her torso against Emma, hot open-mouthed kisses spread all around the blonde's face.

When Emma quirked an eyebrow to question how exactly she had gotten into this position, Regina grinned and pulled Emma's bottom lip into her mouth with her teeth before letting it go. "I believe it's my show and tell, dear."

Emma couldn't suppress the pleased grin as she sat up on her elbows, waving a hand out in motioning to herself to give Regina free reign and absolute control of her body. "Then show me."

Emma nearly laughed when Regina suddenly pulled her into a sitting position, the brunette sitting on the heels of her feet beside Emma as her hand trailed from Emma's wrist to just below her shoulder blade where her crimson nails dug into the flesh there. The blonde hissed, the bubbling laughter inside her dying and replaced with a need to have Regina touch her everywhere. She needed them closer. Never before had she wanted something, someone, so much that she was willing to give them everything. But Emma knew from the first day she met her that Regina was different, that Regina was a safe that couldn't be cracked unless she willingly gave up the key, and as the brunette breathed heavily into Emma's ear, promising that she would show Emma just how much she meant to her, Emma knew she was lucky enough to have been granted access to the woman who captivated all that she was.

The thought made her dizzy, the good kind of dizzy where the clouds and sky all mesh together in a blue and white blur, and the only grounding force was to fall head first into the ground and wait for the world to stop turning. Regina was the simultaneously Emma's ground and sky, and she was loving every minute of it. It was only fair to let her know in kind.

So weaving a hand behind Regina's back, she fiddled with Regina's bra clasp only for the brunette to tug her hand away and link their fingers together.

Regina shook her head. "Not yet."

The pout on Emma's face would have been more pronounced had Regina not kissed it away, but it was immediately replaced with parted lips and breathy gasps as Regina moved her lips down Emma's jaw, licking down the long expanse of neck, before settling on the blonde's collarbone where she sucked and nipped relentlessly. The feeling of Regina's tongue on her sent a wave of arousal in between her legs, Emma squeezing and rocking to ease the tension building up there. When Regina sensed Emma's discomfort, she released the skin not without one final nip before moving her hands to Emma's back and undoing the clasp. With slow, fervent fingers, Regina brushed them over Emma's bra strap, and the garment gave way, revealing the small globes that fit so perfectly in Regina's mouth.

But Regina didn't place her mouth around Emma's pert nipples, no matter how much either woman wanted her to. Instead she kept her hands at Emma's shoulder, letting her eyes rake up and down the blonde's exposed front in appreciation.

"Have I ever told you you're beautiful?"

Emma's skin flushed pink in pleased embarrassment. "Here and there."

Regina couldn't resist and placed a kiss on Emma's nipple and again on the other one before closing the space between herself and Emma as their heads were a hair's breadth apart. "You're beautiful."

Emma's eyes fluttered shut, her hand finding purchase on Regina's waist as the brunette hovered over her, her hot breath teasing Emma's lips so much so that it had captivated and muddled Emma's brain. "Thanks," Emma breathed out.

Regina chuckled at Emma's response, and before the blonde could connect their lips, Regina had placed a hand on the middle of Emma's chest and pushed. The mattress squeaked under the sudden weight causing Emma to bounce, but she slammed her head back down into the pillow when she felt Regina tug Emma's underwear down to her thighs and wrap her mouth around Emma's already engorged clit. Her hips bucked up involuntarily as something between a strangled groan and a desperate whimper escaped the confines of Emma's throat.

"Christ, Regina," Emma panted with her eyes closed, parting her legs as much as it could go with her panties still tangled around them.

The brunette had simply grinned into Emma's sex before turning her head to look up at the squirming blonde. With a hand curled under Emma's thigh, her nails brushing Emma's slick opening, and another massaging one of Emma's breasts, the brunette remained kneeling beside Emma. "Yes?"

Her fingers began to draw lazy pictures using Emma's nether lips as her canvas and Emma's wetness as her paint, but no amount of art would ever amount to the beauty of the way Emma was looking at her right now.

"I need you." Emma's strangled tone came out in a whisper when Regina ceased her drawings and tugged Emma's underwear the rest of the way down.

Regina straddled Emma's thigh, her own wetness making her glide against the creamy skin eliciting a shudder as Regina's clit rubbed against Emma. Emma sat up then, her hands shaking with need as they moved swiftly to the back of Regina's bra only to have them covered by the brunette's again. This time, Regina didn't turn Emma away and only moved the blonde's hands to the front where the clasp was hidden. In less than a second, Emma had Regina just as naked as she, and tossing the bra to the side, Emma took one of Regina's breasts into her mouth, using the very tip of her tongue to flick at her nipples until they pebbled. Before Emma could add her teeth to the mix, Regina took Emma's face in her hands and kissed her with such ferocity and intent it stole Emma's breath out of her lungs, finding the only form of oxygen coming from breathing in everything that was Regina.

"I need you too," Regina whispered into Emma's mouth when they had finally parted, but Emma couldn't find it in her to respond other than a pleading gasp when Regina had pulled Emma up the small distance on her thigh so that they straddled one another, and without further prompting, Regina began to rock her hips into Emma while pressing her leg straight onto Emma's sensitive core.

A moan sounded, and then a whimper, and as their sex rubbed precisely on one another, their breathing shortened forcing them to take long shuddering gulps of air. The friction of their thighs grinding against the other's pussy had been building the tension higher and higher, but by happy accident, when their clits had come into contact, they both fell into each other at the hot sensation.

Regina's pace had faltered momentarily to better position their sex on one another, but as soon as their wetness mingled and their clits kissed as passionately as their lips, Regina had resumed her earlier pace and all Emma could do was claw at the older woman's back in her desperate need to ground herself in reality and hold on.

"Regina," Emma ground out just needing to say the older woman's name in praise or reverence, Emma wasn't sure. "Regina."

"I know," Regina gasped against Emma's lips and nodded her head as the tension inside them begin to overwhelm and threaten to release by any means necessary.

Regina's toes curled. Emma's head spun.

All it took for Emma to reach that precipice was by pressing her forehead against Regina's and stare into the chocolate eyes that despite had darken in lust, shone with the love Regina had proclaimed less than an hour earlier.

And then Regina smiled and let out a breathy laugh as if they were just sitting down eating dinner or curled up on the couch not watching the news.

Emma fell over that edge with a shuddering cry, clutching desperately to Regina's shoulders and pulling the brunette head first with her into the sweet release.

Emma had tugged them down onto the bed with Regina panting heavily on top of Emma. Their legs were pleasantly sore from their position and their sex coated with the other's release. Emma had wrapped lazy arms around the brunette, palming her sweat-slicked back in order to ease the angry red lines she had caused and pressed kisses along Regina's shoulder. She grinned when she attempted to move her leg in order to accommodate the brunette and inadvertently brushed her knee against Regina's still-sensitive clit. Emma laughed as Regina lifted her hips upward in an attempt to scramble away but Emma could see that Regina was fighting with herself on whether she wanted yet another round of pleasure so soon.

When she felt Regina begin to kiss and lap at her breasts, Emma weaved her hand into brown locks and tugged Regina up so that they were face to face. She didn't have to wait before their lips found each other again in a sweet and sensual kiss that was all lips.

"I love you," Emma whispered against bruised lips before claiming them once more.

Regina sighed contently against her and had to forcibly pull herself back even the sliver of an inch that she did to nod and smile again. "I love you too."

Emma grinned before they sought each other again, Emma's hands already pressed possessively against Regina's ass, and Regina moving her own hand between them to massage the breast she had yet to thoroughly taste.

This had always been right between them, Emma determined. All they had to do was open their eyes to realize that, and now that their eyes were wide open and their hearts on display, it could only get better from here.

Chapter Text

Regina grinned as she hung up the pictures to dry on the line in her dark room. She found she had been doing more of that lately. Smiling for no particular reason. Being happy.

But she had a reason to be happy. It was staring at her in the form of Emma and Henry's smile as the picture hanging on the line began to take form.

The red glow of the room provided enough of a light source to make out the picture of Henry and Emma with their heads pressed together, the blonde holding the camera up with both hands as she snapped the shot. It was a pleasant surprise to find this picture in her camera roll as she scrolled through its library that morning. Apparently they had taken it when she was in the shower. It wasn't the only one they had taken. Various shots of them lined the room, Regina smirking at a particular one where Emma had given her son a wet willy just as the picture was snapped. Her face was contorted in laughter while his was of disgust as he moved to wipe at his ear. Henry's sour disposition at his mother had suddenly made sense when she had exited the washroom to find Henry throwing glares at Emma, and it made Regina shake her head at the childish blonde she had learned to love.

Regina walked the small space to the furthest corner of her dark room where she examined the pictures hanging there, kept away from any prying eyes though Regina rarely allowed anyone access back here. Still, this corner was meant for her eyes only and for good reason.

It was mainly of Emma, covered by a thin bedsheet and her hair even more unruly than it already was. The morning after they had made love - and Regina meant that in every sense of the word having never experienced such an influx of emotion and intensity before - Regina had woken to find Emma nestled under her arm, her head using Regina's breast as a pillow as she wrapped her arms around Regina's middle and her leg wound around the brunette's.

Regina hadn't even tried to hide the content smile from appearing on her lips as she expertly shimmied her way down to Emma's eye level as the blonde remained sleeping to the world. She had looked so serene and satisfied if the marks on her collarbone that Regina had given her were anything to go by. Regina couldn't resist as she trailed her thumb across Emma's features, the pink sun of dawn breaking the horizon seeping in from the cracks in the curtains to light up Emma's face as if she were a gift sent from heaven.

And then Emma sneezed in her sleep breaking the angelic image and causing Regina to break out into a small fit of giggles. Leave it Emma to find ways to spruce things up with her charms even in her less than conscious state.

Just as Emma was settling back into her pillow still oblivious to Regina's gaze, Regina had leaned over the edge of the bed and hooked her finger around the strap of her camera bag that Emma had left by the bedside table. With expert fingers, Regina pieced together her Nikon and sat up in bed, holding the camera up to her eye as she focused the lens and snapped a picture of the sleeping blonde with her lips parted and a strand of yellow hair threatening to spill over her eye.

The flash and shutter of the camera jarred Emma from her sleep. She opened a bleary eye and pushed up on her forearms, still too sleep-ridden to get her head up more than a few inches.

Regina bit her lip before smirking and held the camera up again, getting a picture of the barely awoken blonde.

Emma squinted this time and held a hand in front of her face to protect her from the flash before shaking her head clear of sleep and pushing up on her arms, unfazed by the fact the sheet had slipped down to her waist and her breasts were on display. "Is this part of a shoot I don't know about?" Emma asked in greeting as she stretched her neck to give a lingering kiss to Regina's lips.

Regina grinned into the kiss before Emma pulled back and leaned against the headboard beside Regina not even bothering to cover herself up. "It's part of my new collection," Regina teased as she snapped another picture of Emma mussing up her hair even further.

"Oh yeah? You'd be a perfect model." Regina didn't have time to react as Emma snatched the camera from her grip and draped the strap around her neck, holding the camera to her face. "Say cheese."

"Emma," Regina playfully scolded as she struggled to pull up the sheet to cover her chest but failed since it had bunched up around their legs.

Emma pouted as she looked at the picture on the screen. "It's blurry."

Regina smirked at the adorable, confused pout on Emma's face as she crawled over to her, forgoing the need to cover herself as she navigated the camera with the blonde. "Turn this to put the picture into focus," she said as she showed Emma the focus on the lens of the camera before moving her fingers to the other dial to show her the zoom. "And this to zoom in and out."

Emma held up the camera to her face again and adjusted the shot. A part of Regina knew she should feel embarrassed from being on display, but she just didn't care as the shutter clicked and the flash went off. She leaned into Emma again as they examined the picture together, the blonde containing her proud smirk that the picture of Regina, her head turned with a quirked eyebrow and the top of her breasts peaking through, came out well.

"That wasn't so bad," Emma said as she removed the Nikon from around her neck.

"Try doing that for hours on end as you battle with the light."

Emma shrugged before using a her forefinger to tilt Regina's chin toward her, but Regina pulled back just out of the blonde's reach with a breathy laugh. Emma tried again, but Regina kept teasing just barely grazing their lips until Emma moved her hand around Regina's neck and pulled her flush against her and captured her lips again, humming into the sensation and in her hard fought victory. Regina sighed happily into the kiss and wove her hands around Emma's neck but pulled back a sliver of an inch when the flash went off. She turned her head to see Emma had held the camera above them. The blonde grinned, clearly pleased with herself as she looked at the picture.

"Oh yeah. We should definitely be models."

Regina rolled her eyes and took the camera from the blonde and set it on the side table before crawling over and kissing her senselessly.

They had made love again that morning, the camera finding its way back into the bed to photograph a few choice positions.

A small blush rose to Regina's cheeks as the memories of that morning flooded her brain with each developing picture. She could have stood there all day revelling in the immortalized photographs of her naked lover before a knock on the door pulled her away. A small smile curled at her lips as she exited her dark room, already knowing Henry and Emma would be at the door.

"Ready for lunch?" Henry asked bounding into Regina's studio even though she was already in the process of donning her coat.

Emma shook her head at her over-eager son before greeting Regina with a smirk, extending out a hand for Regina which she took instinctively. Emma squeezed her hand affectionately as she led them out of the studio.

Regina found herself grinning again, and this time, she revelled in the reasons behind it following her makeshift little family. The thought made her gasp inwardly, and she reflexively squeezed Emma's hand seeking comfort.

"You okay?" Emma asked worriedly, she stopped them at the top of the stairs as Henry bounded ahead of them already near the bottom.

Regina glanced between Emma and Henry, who now looked up at them, leaning against the railing as he waited for them at the bottom. When had all this started? When had the Swans become such an integral part of her daily routine? Regina was tempted to think it all had to do with Emma and herself confessing their feelings for each other, but that was only a few days ago. No, she knew there was something more between them long ago. Perhaps even well before she had brought them home to meet her mother. They had always been this family unit, and they filled their roles with ease. Suddenly the word hadn't seemed so scary anymore. It was simply a word, one that she had been searching for even as a child.

Now she found it. Or the makings of it at least. It was far from scary at all.

"Yes," Regina reassured clutching Emma's hand in both of hers. "More than okay."

Regina adjusted the two grocery bags in her hands as she made her way up to Emma's apartment quite early for the fourteenth of February. The holiday made Regina anxious, not that she had anything to worry about with Emma herself. No, it was the mere idea that for the very first time in her life, Regina had someone to spend Valentine's Day with. A part of her scolded her for acting like some frivolous school girl, but the bigger part of her couldn't help but feel excited, though she'd never admit it out loud.

Their plans for a dinner out had already been foiled with Emma finding out that she had to work until close on the fourteenth. Apparently a portion of her coworkers had already booked the day off in anticipation for the holiday, and Emma, despite her managerial position, couldn't do anything except pick up the slack for the understaffed bar. Before, Regina would have taken that as a sign that things were not meant to be, but not now. Now she was simply adamant of making their first Valentine's Day memorable. Hence, the grocery bags.

With their dinner plans forgotten, the couple had opted to reschedule for the following day, but Regina at least wanted to do something for Emma on the actual day. Couples did couple things on Valentine's Day, no? They had already agreed that gifts weren't necessary which Regina was struggling to commit to. She was sure she could find a loophole in it somehow, so she had opted for another plan. With her mind made up, she had managed to contact Henry two days prior with permission to surprise his mother for breakfast. She could hear the mischievous chuckle in his voice as he spent the next five minutes coming up with operation names for their mission, as he called it, before the sound of the shower in the background quieted and Henry rushed to frantically hang up the phone.

Regina laughed to herself at the memory as she moved both bags into one hand, standing outside the Swans' door. She shook her head at the key taped right in the middle of the door and made a mental note to tell Henry to at least pick a less obvious location next time. She let herself in quietly, moving the key ever so slowly so that the click signalling entry was almost inaudible. Opening the door with just enough room to maneuver, Regina slid into the foyer of the apartment and took great care to shut the door quietly. So far so good, she thought, mentally calculating the time Emma should be awake and deciding she had ample enough time to make crepes and eggs Benedict.

"What are you doing here?"

Regina jumped and pressed into the door at the voice, nearly dropping the bags to the ground in her surprise. Emma stood at the entrance of the hallway that led to the full apartment with her hand behind her back and an eyebrow raised. And very much awake and not in bed sleeping, Regina noted bitterly.

"What are you doing here?" Regina found herself saying before internally wincing at the idiotic question.

Emma let out a laugh. "I live here."

"Right, of course." Regina used her free hand to brush her hair and slight frustration and embarrassment out of her face. This wasn't how this morning was supposed to go.

"How did you get in?" Emma wondered out loud.

Regina shoved the key into her pocket, hoping she could still somehow pull off her great breakfast plan, though that was looking like a distant dream. "What's behind your back?" Regina asked turning the tables.

Emma raised an eyebrow as if impressed by Regina's change of subject, but the object behind her back crinkled just the same. "A surprise."

Regina's lips quirked. "I suppose we were thinking the same thing."

Emma let out a breathy laugh running her free hand through her still sleep-mussed hair. "Close your eyes and turn around." Regina offered her own raised eyebrow. "Please?"

With a sigh, Regina shut her eyes and turned to face the door. She could hear Emma move quickly, her shuffling muffled as she left the hallway for a moment, the rustling of a plastic wrap sounded just before Emma's slight jogging began again as she rushed back to the hallway. A tug on her hand caught her attention, and Regina turned to see Emma grasping her free hand and peeking into the bag of groceries. Regina evaded Emma's questioning look, allowing the blonde to lead her into the kitchen.

Regina had to laugh as soon as she took in the scene before her. The table was set with a white cloth and plates already stacked with eggs, sausages, and waffles. A small fruit bowl sat beside the meal with coffee already sitting in mugs. Apparently great minds think alike, Regina thought as a smile tugged on her lips. "Did Henry tell you I was coming?"

"Henry?" Emma asked as she led Regina to the table by the waist. "Kid's gonna be sleeping for at least another three hours. I was just about to call you actually."

Regina held up the grocery bags. "He was supposed to make sure you stayed sleeping for another three hours."

Emma snorted out a laugh as she took the bags and peered inside, shaking her head at the breakfast items. She placed both bags in the fridge not bothering to sort out the contents and rested against the handle with a grin. "Looks like I win Valentine's Day this year."

"It's a competition now?" Regina shrugged out of her coat and tilted her head to indicate to Emma to move to the table.

Emma made a show of scratching her head. "Pretty sure. That's what Google says at least."

"You shouldn't believe everything you read on the Internet, Ms. Swan."

"Really? Because it also said flowers were a good start on Valentine's Day." Emma pulled open a cupboard where the familiar rustling sounded again and drew out a small bouquet of white lilies. She extended them to Regina with a sheepish grin.

The brunette took them, unwrapping them carefully and inhaled their scent. "Thank you," she said quietly, glancing up at Emma from under her lashes. "You kept them in the cupboard?"

"You surprised me," Emma defended.

She finally made her way over to the brunette and took her chin between two fingers and pressed their lips together. Regina could feel the smile creeping onto Emma's face and couldn't help but do the same as she pressed a palm to her creamy cheek and leaned in.

When they pulled apart, Regina held up a finger and walked to her coat, pulling out the key and handing it over to Emma. "Your son didn't have a very good hiding spot."

Emma took it and snorted, but it was in her grasp for less than a minute before she extended it back to Regina. "Keep it."

"What?" Regina froze.

"Keep it," Emma repeated, holding up the key.

Regina didn't say anything as she stared at the small piece of metal with wide eyes. It was a casual gesture that Emma didn't seem to over-analyze as much as Regina was, but even the brunette knew it was a big deal.

"It'll save me from having to answer the door when you come over," Emma mumbled off-handedly when the silence proved too much. "And we're usually here anyway, but you could be here on the days you get Henry from school and don't have to drive back all the way to your place and-"

Regina took the key in her hand, closing her fist around Emma's palm in the process. "Well I can't argue with efficiency, can I?"

"Smart woman," Emma smirked sheepishly.

Regina rolled her shoulder as if it were a given before she felt a tug on her waist and looked down just in time to see Emma pull her close before she pressed a firm kiss on her lips.

"Love you," Emma muttered against her lips.

Regina grinned as her hands trailed up and around Emma's neck. "Love you too."

Regina stalked into the restaurant later that evening, nodding once at the hostess without a second glance and made her way to the bar room where couples sat facing each other. It almost made her gag how lovesick they looked until she saw Emma, not realizing she was sporting the same expression. Her breath caught as Emma was grinning at the patrons seated at her counter and dressed in a fitted black suit and tie, her hair pinned out of her face with a braid. She bit her lip and unconsciously clutched the gift bag in her fist at the sight of the blonde. She had seen Emma in dresses before, and her token skinnies and tank outfit always did wonders for the blonde's well-endowed assets, but seeing her now made Regina forget for a moment why she was there.

It took a passing customer to push her from her less than clean thoughts, and as luck would have it, the customer had vacated his spot at the bar leaving it free for Regina to slip into just as Emma was wiping down the area.

"What can I- Regina!" Emma grinned surprised. The brunette mimicked Emma's expression, her eyes traveling slowly up and down Emma's torso now that she had a closer look. "What are you doing here?"

"It's Valentine's Day," Regina stated.


"And I know we implemented a no-gifts rule this year," the brunette continued.

Emma furrowed her brows and crossed her arms suspiciously. "Uh huh."

"And I know we're planning to spend the day together tomorrow."


"I technically didn't break it." Regina lifted up the gift bag and placed it on the counter, pushing it towards Emma. "It was your Christmas present, and quite frankly, I wanted to give you something today, so I am."

Regina hoped the tilt of Emma's lips was the blonde keeping her smirk at bay, and by the time Emma rolled her eyes and cast a glance around the bar to see that there was no customers in immediate need of attention, she stepped toward the counter and fingered the gift bag. "You didn't have to."

"I wanted to," Regina insisted before adding shyly. "Couples exchange gifts on Valentine's Day, no?"

"Mine's in the car," Emma admitted with a shake of her head. Regina raised an amused eyebrow but said nothing as Emma carefully removed the silky intricately designed tissue paper. She bit her lip as Emma tilted the bag toward herself and peered inside. The blonde's eyes widened as she gripped the gift, pulling out a thick, black leather jacket with a black wool lining.

Regina had wondered if it had been too much, but granted, it was initially a Christmas present, therefore the brunette was allowed to splurge a little on gifts. The look on Emma's face as she held the jacket up to her body, pale fingers caressing the belt at the waist where it would cinch to her form, eased Regina's worries.

"Regina, I-" Emma began with trepidation smeared on her face. The look was gone in a fleeting moment before she hugged the jacket to her chest. "I love it."

The brunette grinned pleased with herself and moved forward in her seat to meet Emma over the counter.

"Em," a bartender called out before their lips could meet. "This guy needs a drink."

The blonde nodded before carefully folding back the jacket and replacing it in its bag. She turned to Regina apologetically. "Are you staying?"

"The cab I took here says yes." Regina removed her trench coat and draped it over the back of the bar stool, her hands firmly on the counter top as she settled into her seat.

Emma smirked and brought the gift down to a small cubby hole before popping up and leaning over the counter briskly, surprising Regina with a firm quick kiss.

Despite the fact that Emma had been preoccupied working, chatting up customers, and providing a bit of a show in mixology for those feeling particularly lonely, Emma always made her way back to Regina, whether it was to give her an appletini or two, or to simply make whatever round of drinks she was making in front of her. Regina found herself making small talk with the blonde's co-workers whenever Emma was otherwise indisposed, and before she knew it, the bar had begun to thin as couples and patrons filtered out. Soon the only one tending the lonely bar was Emma, but by then, all Emma was left to do was dry out glasses and clean up the counter for closing.

Aerosmith's Dream On faded into the background by the time Emma was tossing her rag into the sink well after midnight and turning on the tap to wash her hands. "This wasn't how I planned on spending our first Valentine's Day," Emma admitted, giving her hands a few shakes to clear them of the water before drying them on a towel.

"Oh," Regina quipped with a raised eyebrow. "And what exactly did you plan for today?"

Emma closed the distance between them and stretched out her hands lengthwise on the counter, leaning over slightly, inclining her head to the brunette. "You'll just have to stick around till next year and find out, now won't you?"

"I suppose I can hold on for another year," Regina teased.

Emma smirked before leaning down and grabbing the gift bag. She shook the jacket out and slid it over her suit jacket, buckling the belt so it formed to her waist and shoved her hands into the pockets. Regina knew Emma had an affinity for jackets, even if one or two of them were a complete eyesore, but she was pleased she had guessed right as Emma continued to snuggle into her new coat.

"You ready to go?" Emma had already made her way toward the coat rack behind the bar and picked up the winter coat she had came in, stuffing it into the gift bag.

Regina nodded, sliding off of the stool and slipping into her trench coat. Emma met her around the bar, linking their fingers together as the blonde shut off the lights to the bar. She nodded to the restaurant manager before leading them outside where Emma's beetle sat in the middle of the empty parking lot.

It took a while for the car heat as soon as they were safe within its confines. The cold was soon forgotten as soon as Emma tossed her winter jacket into the back seat and leaned over Regina to open the glove compartment.

Checking the time on the dashboard, Emma frowned as she held the small rectangular box in her hand, still wrapped in its Christmas wrapping of red and green stripes. "It's technically not Valentine's Day anymore," Emma mused to herself, holding the box up for Regina.

Regina eyed the box and had a very good idea of its contents. Emma hadn't exactly been secretive of what she had planned on giving Regina, but knowing what Emma was feeling at that point of time, she could infer it must have cost Emma more than she would care to admit.

"You already made me breakfast, Emma," Regina began to say before the blonde pressed the box into her hand. Emma curled Regina's fist closed and gave her hand a squeeze as if reading the brunette's hesitation.

"I saw it and it reminded me of you," Emma comforted. "And if you want, it can just be us exchanging Christmas gifts two months late."

Regina let out a breathy laugh before nodding and unfurling her fingers from around the box and eased the flaps of the wrappings open. Emma laughed at Regina's precise way of opening, but a glare silenced the blonde for the time being. With careful fingers, Regina released the box from its paper and held her breath as she lifted open the lid with a snap. Her breath caught as a glittering diamond bracelet set with teardrop amethyst stones shone up to her even in the darkness of the beetle.


Regina was going to say that it was too much, that Emma shouldn't have, but the blonde took the bracelet from its casing and with nimble fingers clasped it around Regina's wrist. With a small smile, Emma kissed the vein at Regina's wrist and rubbed her thumb over the kiss. The sheepish look on Emma's face was worth more than any present combined, but the insistence in Emma's actions made one thing very clear to Regina. Emma would go to lengths and beyond for her. The thought was overwhelming in the best way, knowing without fail that someone - Emma - would do all in her power for Regina's happiness. She had never had that before.

Using the hand Emma had taken hold of, Regina reached toward the blonde and grasped at the nape of her neck to pull her close for a deep kiss. The emotions she had only recently come to terms with were flooding out into the kiss. When Emma responded in kind, Regina knew their silent communication had been understood as she pulled Emma closer to her, all but yanking her over the gear shift in an attempt to close the distance between them.

Emma laughed against her lips but didn't part them as she muttered into Regina's mouth. "You like it then?"

Regina nibbled on Emma's bottom lip and pulled it with her as she leaned back. "It's beautiful," she said before closing the distance between them again.

"You're beautiful," Emma said breathlessly, feeling Regina's fingers fiddle with the zipper of her jacket. The brunette had succeeded in partially opening it and pushing her hands inside Emma's jacket in an attempt to push the suit jacket away from Emma's shoulders. The cinched belt around the leather made all of Emma's clothes stay put. Regina released her frustration in a growl against Emma's throat. "Henry's at Ashley's," Emma mentioned casually, attempting to keep her voice light all the while pressing her fingers into Regina's hair to hold her in place.

Regina pulled back with a lecherous grin, toying with the collar of Emma's jacket as her fingers danced on the exposed skin there. She glanced down to her own body where a sliver of lace and frill peaked through her blouse. "Would you like your real Valentine's Day present then?"

Emma followed Regina's gaze and zeroed in on the lace. She gunned it out of the parking lot.

A deep shudder ran through Regina's body as Emma chuckled breathily into her ear, the hot warmth of the blonde's breath contrasting strikingly from the cool chill of Emma's room on her exposed skin. Her blouse was hanging off of one shoulder, her pants unbuttoned and pushed down to mid thigh revealing the top of her deep red stocking and garter, teasing Emma from the visual alone. Emma's finger teased the lace covering Regina's sex before easing her finger beneath the strap of her garter and snapped it back. Regina hissed at the sting as it reverberated to her core. "Did you plan this?" Emma asked huskily, biting at Regina's ear for good measure as the brunette felt the back of her legs hit the bed and dropped back landing on her forearms.

"I did not plan on you wearing that." Regina's eyes raked up and down Emma's body as she sat up and grabbed the blonde by her tie and pulled, crushing their lips together. "Leave this on."

Regina worked quickly to undo the buttons of Emma's blouse, eager for it to join her suit jacket on the floor.

"If I had known a suit would have done it for you I would have worn them to your galleries." Emma's breath hitched when Regina finally opened the shirt and shrugged it off. Emma's bra soon followed until the only thing clothing the blonde's torso was her black, skinny tie.

"Believe me, dear," Regina said kicking her legs free of her pants, her blouse following suit as she reared up on her knees on the bed, her palm tracing paths up and down Emma's bicep as the other fiddled with the tie between her fingers, "if you had worn these to my galleries we wouldn't have left the bedroom."

Regina smirked feeling Emma shiver at her admission and continued using the tie to pull Emma toward her. By the time the blonde reached the bed, Regina fumbled with the clasp of Emma's slacks but was stopped when Emma yanked Regina's hands from her waist and lunged forward, pinning her to the bed with her hands above her head.

Regina didn't bother to hide the quick rise and fall of her panting as Emma leaned beside her, a forearm keeping her wrists locked while her free hand was tracing the seams of the lingerie. The amount of care Emma took tracing the lines of the lace, following the contours of Regina's body, made Regina ache. She clenched her thighs shut, purring low in her throat as Emma continued her drawings on Regina's bare skin. Her stomach quivered when Emma leaned over and placed a kiss just above her panty line, and she yearned for freedom of her hands to pull Emma flush on top of her.

"You're my present?" Emma asked in a hushed tone, gaping at Regina's body in reverence before finally catching the brunette's eye.

Regina nodded once, bringing her knee up and between Emma's still clothed legs, running her stocking foot up the inseam. The fluttering eye roll she elicited from Emma made Regina bite her lip and squirm under sheer anticipation.

"That's more than enough for me," Emma said before dipping her head, focusing on a pulse point on Regina's neck.

The hickey she left there was one of many that night.

Regina bit the side of her thumb nail as she leaned against Emma's counter, her phone clutched in her hand, and a personal email from Rachel Ghorm sitting open on the screen inviting her to attend an art festival in a month's time. She was flattered, and nervous, and anxious, and Regina hated this swirl of emotion building up inside her. It wasn't bad, not in the slightest. In fact, it spoke volumes about how much her work had affected the critic, enough to get her invited to an event where some of New York's best portrayed their very best work. That wasn't what made her bite her thumb. It was wondering whether Emma would even want to accompany her to the festival.

She was conflicted with wanting Emma to share in her work and with wanting Emma to be comfortable. There was a chance that Emma could just decline, and while Regina would understand, the idea still made her feel unsettled. Did it make her a little selfish if she wanted the blonde there? There was always the option of not mentioning it, but if she didn't bring it up, though Emma may feel grateful, there was still the probability that she would be offended and then they'd be back at square one, keeping secrets to stave off the other's feelings.

Regina shook her head rejecting that idea as soon as it came to fruition. She locked her phone and steepled her fingers against her mouth in contemplation. They had progressed so much, and the last thing she wanted to do was bring up their insecurities all over again because of some event. But still, she had to give Emma credit and the chance to make her own decision.

"You okay?" Emma's voice sounded from the doorway just as the kettle behind her began to whistle. The hot water would have gained her complete attention had Emma not stood by the frame of her room, hair mussed with the single braid pathetically attempting to stay in place and tie still very much on over the blouse Emma had shrugged on but made little effort to button correctly. Her legs remained bare, and Regina knew if Emma turned around, she would see that the blouse would do little to cover the blonde's ass, and she was banking money that Emma wasn't wearing any panties under there.

Regina swallowed thickly and nearly forgot all that she had been nervous about mere seconds prior as Emma raked a hand through her hair and shuffled toward the kitchen. "The view is significantly more appealing," Regina said finally finding her voice.

Emma smirked and held Regina's waist, her fingers clutching at the fabric of the oversized tee as she leaned in and pecked the brunette. "You looked tense," Emma noted when she pulled back.

Regina opened her mouth to speak, but the whine of the kettle eventually made her turn and pull the plug from the socket. With her back turned to Emma, she shut her eyes and quickly weighed the pros and cons of whether she should bring up the festival now. She knew if she kept putting it off, it would come back to bite her in the ass, and not the kind Emma was so good at. If she could praise her mother for one thing, it was that she was raised to push through things head on and damn the consequences. Pouring the hot water into two mugs filled with instant coffee, Regina turned and handed one to the blonde.

"I've been invited to an art festival by Ms. Ghorm," Regina said slowly, watching carefully as Emma moved to sip her coffee then paused.

Green eyes lit up, and Emma smiled. "That's really great, Regina."

The brunette smiled shyly, keeping her pride at bay. "She hosts one every year. This is the first time she's extended an invitation."

Emma set her coffee down behind Regina and stepped forward, her hands coming to press against Regina's arms. "I'm proud of you," she said sincerely.

This time Regina couldn't keep the smile off her face, though she did try to hide it behind her own coffee mug clutched in her hands. "Will you come with me?"

Regina watched Emma's eyes intensely for any flicker of hesitance or uncertainty. There might have been a blink of surprise or a widening of the eyes, but if it was just due to Emma's still half-asleep state, Regina's paranoia, or Emma's masking of emotions, Regina wasn't sure. It could have just been a blink after all.

Then Emma dipped her head and tightened her hold on Regina's arms. "If you want me to be there-"

"There's no obligation," Regina rushed to explain.

Emma shook her head and squeezed again. "If you want me to be there," she repeated.

"I do."

Emma smiled and placed a reassuring kiss on Regina's nose. "And if you want me to wear the suit..."

Regina rolled her eyes and let out a dry laugh, giving Emma a push to free herself from against the counter as she made her way back to the bedroom. "I do," she called over her shoulder before nudging the door closed.

Chapter Text

Regina bit the side of her thumbnail. Her manicurist had seen her at least twice this month because of her little nibbling habit, but with the festival being only a couple weeks away, Regina was more than a little nervous. She had yet to pick out a piece that would be presented in her honour. Not only was this her first, but hopefully not the last, of Ms. Ghorm's art festivals, but there would be a mixture of artists in attendance ranging from painters, sculptures, and performance art. Regina Mills was never one to be intimidated, but she had spent the better part of her career with her mother in her ear claiming that any person with capable fingers could do her job and failed to see extraordinary art behind picture taking. She still hadn't spoke to Cora since confronting her with Emma that night, but now her mother's voice was ringing loud and clear as she navigated her portfolio once again.

Her saving grace was that Emma seemed calm about the situation, though she knew the blonde had a poker face that rivalled her own. If both she and Emma were a nervous wreck for this festival, who knew how it would turn out? It was unspoken how important it was they both dealt with it in a mature and open manner. This festival shouldn't be a make-it-or-break-it point, but there were times when it felt like it was.

Regina couldn't spend too much energy worry about that now. Her photographs were in a pile around her on the dining table and none of her stills seemed good enough when she knew marble statues and perspective art would be present. The point of the evening was to see what the various artists could produce in a month's time, all given their invitations at the same time, and all having until the day of the festival to prepare something unique. So far, Regina saw nothing that stood out to her.

It was like preparing for her gallery with Gold all over again. The obsolete, insignificant feeling crept up Regina's spine, and soon she was nibbling on her thumb all over again. It seemed so much easier when she was younger, finding the beauty in nearly everything she saw. Her mother had never taken a particular interest in any of her extracurriculars that didn't improve her trajectory. Regina was lucky that Daddy had managed to persuade Cora to allow Regina her horse riding lessons at the ranch in the summer and fall. She would go up there nearly every weekend, just her and Daddy. He would point out the colours, changing from solid greens to vibrant yellows, pumpkin oranges, and deep browns as the season changed. Some weekends they wouldn't return until Sunday evening, which Cora always reprimanded her father for, but Regina loved it, for on their ride back as they left the ranch, he would point out the stars to her and tell her stories of the skies.

She remembered the feeling, even then nearly twenty-five years later. She remembered why she picked up a camera and began sharing her joy of photography with her father. Regina always had a tendency to hold on to things she loved a little too tightly, and her father chuckled lightly at the idea that she wanted to immortalized all she saw in a snapshot.

A sad smile flitted to her lips at the memory of Daddy. She looked down at her portfolio in her hands. When had the colour faded from her life? Literally it seemed as her earlier work sported her trademark greyscale finish, but she remembered having a wall full of photos in her childhood room. There were the yellows and reds of autumn, the white snow glowing in the light of a street lamp, the greenest pastures she'd ever seen.

Another wave of doubt flooded Regina at her skill. These were generic pictures, nothing entirely special, she thought as she rifled through a stack. But she supposed that Ms. Ghorm wasn't interested in her early work. She was interested in what Regina had been producing recently, the still lifes that told a story in just one shot.

She bit her lip and began arranging her photos on the table from earliest to latest, watching as the greyscale began slowly began to filter in colour. Soon enough, her dining table had filled up. She took a step back and reached over for the glass of water on her kitchen island, holding the glass to her lips as she took in the pictures placed on the table.

Her head shot up at an idea. Maybe she did have a story to tell after all.

Emma rummaged through her closet, tossing jean after jean over her head and whipping back tank top after tank top. It wasn't until the sixth pair of dark blue skinnies and tenth wifebeater did Emma stop to think that maybe she owned one too many of the items, but she came across a pale blue blouse, the one that Regina had borrowed when Emma had, in true Emma Swan fashion, collided into her and doused her shirt with coffee. Upon seeing a change of clothes she deemed her wardrobe eclectic enough and continued frantically to tear her closet apart.

"Are you spring cleaning?" Henry asked as he sat on her bed with Alex sitting in his lap, the two year old holding a Cinderella doll in her hand. Henry had been relegated to Charming and was bouncing his own doll up and down in a sort of dance with the female doll. Ashley was asked out on a date for the first time since she was pregnant with Alexandra, and Emma all but pushed the younger blonde to accept and offered to watch her daughter. It was the least she could do for watching Henry all those years.

Emma huffed and reared up onto her hands and knees, looking behind her and noticing the whirlwind of clothes she left in her wake. "No. I'm looking for something to wear."

"What's wrong with what you're wearing? You have seven pairs of it."

Emma glared but a blush nearly stained her cheeks. Lo and behold she was wearing skinnies and a tank. She set her glare even harder on her son, but the smirk on his face had her know she had lost, so she turned back to the closet, standing up and on her tippy toes to check the shelf over the hanger. "It's for Regina's thing."

"That's like two weeks away. Is she coming over today?"

"'Gina!" Alex clapped excitedly. The two-year old had been just as infatuated with Regina as Henry had been upon first meeting her and always trailed after the brunette whenever they were in the same room. Emma smirked remembering how nervous Regina had been with Alexandra at first. She was the youngest child that had ever crossed her path and was terrified of the babbling then eighteen-month old. The nerves were gone as soon as the toddler wrapped her arms around Regina's neck and pressed a kiss to her cheek.

Apparently there was nothing that Regina couldn't do, and Emma didn't want to be the first on the list of things Regina failed at. They had an understanding that Regina's events made Emma feel uncomfortable, but the need to share in something so close to Regina's heart outweighed Emma's need to forego the festival entirely and kick back with a case of beer. So she continued to rummage through her closet. "No," Emma answered Henry's question. "She said she needed to go somewhere to help find her muse."

"When will she be back?"

"I don't know, kid, but it might not be for a few days."

Emma brightened as she found a red cocktail dress, the one she had worn to their first date, and held it up to her body. She turned to face the freestanding full length mirror and examined it against her.

"Pretty Emma," Alex piped up.

"You think so?" Emma turned to examine the dress from the side as Alex nodded enthusiastically. She nodded along with the toddler and tossed the dress onto the bed beside the kids. "Then that's in the running."

She returned to her closet and continued to pilfer through it.

"Why are you still looking?" Henry asked, stifling a grown when Alex kneed him in the stomach to stand up and start jumping on the bed.

Emma turned her head briefly and raised an eyebrow at her son who had joined the toddler, the springs of Emma's mattress protesting under their weight. "When you start dating, kid, you're gonna realize some girls will take forever to get ready. Some boys too."


"Why?" Alex mimicked, landing on her bottom before struggling to get up again as the mattress dipped and rose from Henry's jumping.

"To look nice." Emma pulled out her suit jacket and smirked at the memories this little gem elicited. Maybe she'd save it for special occasions.

"It takes two weeks to choose an outfit?" Henry dropped and reached an arm to bring Alex down with him, the little girl laughing in his grasp.

Emma rolled her eyes. "Yes." Her eyes lit up when she found something small and black in the back of her closet. She held it up to her torso and squinted before quickly grabbing a white button up and holding both up against her chest.

"Pretty Emma!" Alex squealed in between giggles.

Emma carefully placed both articles of clothing onto a wire hanger before collecting the dress and hanging it beside them. With a few well placed kicks, she managed to drag the flurry of clothes that littered her floor back into her closet before turning and leaping on the bed, tickling both her son and Alexandra. "Well if the princess says so!"

Henry laughed and tugged the toddler off the bed. The duo couldn't contain their screams as Emma hopped off the bed and curled her hands into claws. They skidded out of the room quickly just as Emma began her chase.

"You're gonna be there another week?" Emma asked despondently, sitting on her kitchen counter with her back against the connecting wall. She struggled to keep the pout out of her voice and off her face.

"I'm afraid so, dear. When I get back I need to get everything ready for Saturday."

"So I won't see you until Saturday night?"

Regina sighed. "I can try-"

"No no no, it's cool," Emma rushed to alleviate Regina's guilt. "This is important to you and everything needs to be perfect."

When Regina didn't answer right away, Emma tried to tease to lighten the mood. "I can wait as long as you're wearing something sexy."

Regina let out a bark of laughter before dropping her voice down an octave. "Don't I always?"

Emma smirked and bit her lip, pushing away images of Regina in various states of dress and undress. "You sure you want to stay there another week?"

"My father used to take me here. It's calming."

"It sounds nice," Emma said, happy that Regina found a moment of solitude. "Oh. I found my outfit for Saturday. You'll like it."

"If it's that suit and tie again I'm going to be very upset if you make me late for the festival."

Emma laughed. "Hey, not my fault you can't control your libido."

Emma could practically see the eye roll Regina just gave her. "Coming from someone who acts like a 16-year old boy?"

"You love me for it."

"That I do." Emma leaned her head back against the wall, blushing at the fondness and sincerity in Regina's tone. "Emma, I really appreciate you attending this event with me. I know it's not easy for you-"

"I'm good," she interrupted. "Really, Regina, it's okay. I'll be on my best behaviour and you're gonna have the best piece there."

The brief silence on Regina's end had Emma knowing Regina wanted to say something more, but whatever it was died on her lips, and Emma used the opportunity to fill in the gap. "Just come home soon."

"I will."

Emma cradled her cell phone between her ear and shoulder as she fiddled with the buttons on her blazer. "Look, Ash, thanks again for watching Henry."

The younger blonde on the other end dismissed Emma's thanks, but before Emma could insist, the door to Regina's apartment swung open and Emma's jaw slackened at the sight. She wondered when the sight of Regina Mills would stop short circuiting her brain, but for now she would bask in the beauty of Regina in a simple black dress with a cream coloured blazer. Ashley's voice rang in her ear in concern. Emma blinked before clearing her throat and averted her eyes to hide the fact that she had been starring. "Yeah, Ash, I'm here. Thanks again. I'll pick him up when we're done."

Flipping her phone closed, Emma shoved the device into her blazer pocket before taking in Regina once more. "Remind me again why you went on a two week work vacation."

Regina laughed as she pushed the door wider to allow Emma inside. "So that I would be able to get a perfect shot for tonight." Her hand draped down Emma's arm as the blonde passed, making Emma smirk as Regina took in Emma's own fitted blazer and skin tight black dress pants. "You clean up well."

"It's not quite a suit," Emma said self-consciously as she glanced down at her torso, catching the vest and blouse combo she had hidden under her blazer.

Regina's finger forced Emma to look back up, and with a gentle smile and a kiss to her cheek, Emma felt more relaxed. "You look lovely," Regina reassured.

Emma didn't let her get too far away before she kissed her deeply, her tongue sneaking past Regina's defences to stroke the roof of the older woman's mouth.

"What was that for?" Regina asked breathlessly, her eyes partially closed.

"You've been gone for too long." Emma leaned and gave her another kiss of the same degree, letting this one last longer as she felt Regina's fingers pull at Emma's lapels.

"And that?"

"A sorry in advance for anything that happens tonight."

"Emma-" But the blonde didn't let her finish when she tugged at Regina's own lapels and brought them in for a brief, hard kiss.

"And that was just because I needed some lipstick."

Regina rolled her eyes as she turned to the table side mirror, finding the red lipstick she had just applied smeared off and on Emma's lips. She shook her head as she lifted the tube she had discarded there and reapplied her lips as Emma was wiping away any evidence that they were less than ready.

Emma grinned when she caught Regina's eye in the mirror and reached in front of Regina to grab the brunette's clutch sitting on the side table. "Nervous?"

Regina's eyes widened just a fraction of an inch before she took a steadying breath, lipstick perfectly applied, before turning around. "Perfectly fine, dear. Shall we go?"

Regina made to turn, but Emma grasped her elbow gently and in one fluid motion, pulled Regina against her wrapping her arms protectively around the older woman's neck. "We'll be okay," Emma reassured this time. She waited until Regina took another breath and the tension in her clenched fists slacked before Emma lead them out of her apartment to the waiting town car below.

"I feel like a waiter," Emma mumbled to herself, tugging her hair furiously behind her ear to keep it in place while simultaneously trying to sip the champagne she had received from a server who was given an outfit that resembled Emma's far too much.

Regina stilled Emma's roving hand by taking it between both of hers. Emma didn't let Regina reassure her before she mentally kicked herself over the head. This was Regina's day, and they had been there all of ten minutes and already Emma was starting to feel the walls close in. Downing the last of her champagne she smiled. "Forget I said that. When do I get to see your piece?"

"It's the meet and greet first, dear. Would you like to meet some artists?" Emma couldn't help but note that Regina began fiddling with her ring. It pleased and terrified Emma that they were both feeling some form of anxiety. At the very least, she and Regina were in the same boat. In its extreme though, who knew what both of them mentally freaking out could cause? So without much thought, Emma nodded and laced her fingers with Regina's, calming the older woman's fidgeting before allowing her to lead them around the large room.

Emma had to admit, this Rachel Ghorm knew how to pick her venues. Emma had no idea where they were headed as soon as she and Regina slid into the back of the town car, but when the driver had headed toward the water and pulled up at Pier Sixty, Emma sucked in a breath from the location alone. The building was located by the Hudson, and as Regina led Emma through an arched hallway giving off a warm, bright red glow from its floodlights, Emma had to refrain herself from gawking at the high ceilings.

The meet and greet room equipped with passing waiters offering various champagnes and gourmet finger foods also housed a bar and a long table stretching along the middle of the banquet hall filled with even more of a selection of appetizers, fruit, and dessert. What made Emma falter and truly appreciate the venue was the view.

The wall looking outward toward the Hudson was all glass and overlooked a balcony cleared free of the lingering early March snow. The space had been closed off due to the low temperature, but Emma were to bet that it would have been a sight for sore eyes. Even from her place inside, the lights of the sky scrapers across the river contrasted strikingly against the low metallic blue of the lighting in the banquet hall. She was sorely tempted to make her way through the already forming crowd and sneak her way out to the balcony and take in the strangely soothing smell of the water in the chilly night.

That little adventure would have to wait for Regina's hand in her own tensed slightly. Before Emma could question Regina's alarm, Emma looked up to see Jefferson, flamboyant as ever and heading toward them.

"Look who's finally in my neck of the woods." Jefferson clapped his hands once, grabbing a champagne flute from a passing waiter, draining its contents, then handing his empty glass to a new server. "And you brought your lady friend."

"Jefferson," Regina replied tersely and released Emma's hand to press it on the small of Emma's back. "You remember my partner, Emma Swan."

Emma straightened her posture and refrained from shoving her hands into her blazer pockets as she offered up a smile to Jefferson in greeting. She refrained from rolling her eyes when he gave her a quick once over, a quirk of his eyebrow signalling his inspecting of her complete, before extending a hand out. "Of course. How could I forget Emma? She said my work came out of a fairy tale comic book."

Emma chuckled awkwardly but couldn't bring herself to apologize. Perhaps it was a bit uncalled for, but Emma was vaguely sure he deserved it. Instead, she clasped his hand in return. "To be fair, they're well-written."

"They just offer misogynistic visuals? " Jefferson questioned, resting his chin against his fist for a moment before speaking wildly with his hand. "Perhaps that's what they were going for. Male-gaze and all that."

"Maybe they know their demographic tends to drift toward man-childs? Or was that what you were going for too?" Emma answered reflexively before wincing, opening her mouth to take back the retort. She couldn't blow it. Not this early in the night. She didn't even get to chance a glance at Regina in apology before Jefferson laughed and turned toward Regina.

"I like her," Jefferson said, tilting his head toward Emma.

"What?" The blonde blurted out and looked between both Jefferson and Regina to see if she had heard right.

Regina nodded once after his statement had finally sunk in. "I like her too."

"You'll want that insight for tonight," Jefferson addressed Emma.

Emma simply shrugged. "I guess I should be congratulating you too for being here." She furrowed her brow when Jefferson chuckled and looked to Regina for explanations.

"Jefferson has been featured by Ms. Ghorm for five years now," the brunette woman supplied.

"But Regina is making her debut." Jefferson stepped forward and placed his hands on Regina's shoulders, squeezing them as if he were a proud parent and Regina his graduating child. He leaned down and pressed a kiss to Regina's cheek. "I hope you brought something that makes them remember you."

"She did," Emma spoke up and gave Regina a reassuring smile.

Jefferson looked between them with a playful glint before bowing his head. "I'll leave you two to enjoy the party then."

Emma released a breath she was all too aware she was holding as soon as Jefferson's back receded into the distance and swallowed up by the flood of people in the room. She looked to Regina and motioned toward the bar. "Drink?"

"Yes." Regina led them swiftly toward the bar, already ordering her appletini.

"Was he serious?" Emma asked when the bartender set Emma's ginger ale in front of her and turned to make Regina's drink.

"Yes, Ms. Ghorm admires his creativity and work, though others seem to think he border on insani-"

"No, he likes me?" Emma thanked the bartender and dug through a small wallet to tip him before handing Regina's drink to her.

Regina toyed with the olive against her lips, raising a coy eyebrow. "Are you interested?"

Emma rolled her eyes with a scoff, walking with Regina alone the long expanse of window where the people were scarce. "I thought he would be pissed after what I said to him, I mean, you were, and it wasn't even your art."

Regina sighed, taking her time to pop the olive into her mouth and chewed methodically. By the time she set her eyes on Emma again, she spoke. "I apologize for that. I understand now how you felt then and I-"

"Was embarrassed." Emma filled in for her. She had said it so non-chalantly though neither woman could deny how Emma's eyes widened just a bit. Her ears had started to burn with an embarrassment of her own, and that voice in her head that she had managed to suppress for over a month came back full force telling her this was a bad idea.

Emma shut her eyes when Regina had muttered a 'yes.' She knew it was coming but having it confirmed like that validated all her fears. She felt a hand on her arm and opened her eyes to see Regina squeezing her forearm and opening her mouth to speak before someone had bumped into her. Emma would have laughed at the hard pressed glare she had sent the young man if all her blood hadn't been rushing to her cheeks.

Regina glanced beside her toward the windows before looking back at Emma. Before the blonde could react, Regina tugged Emma with her as she opened the door to the balcony enough for them to slide through.

The air was warmer than usual for mid-march, but being near the water dropped the temperature down enough that Regina pulled her blazer tightly around herself before flipping out her hair from her face. "There were too many people in there."

"And they won't even know we're out here," Emma said dryly, pointing out the windows where the party was still left inside, oblivious to the women's departure.

Emma made her way to the edge of the balcony where the shadows of the night would swallow them and looked out toward the river. She inhaled the salty scent of the air and allowed the tension to seep from her body and out through her fingers. She couldn't fault Regina for being honest. Hell, the woman had every right to want to cover her face in shame, but over the past few months, Regina had just taken it in stride. It was about time Emma did the same and let it go. After three steadying breaths, she turned and leaned against the banister to face Regina who looked like she was struggling to form words. It was a face Emma rarely saw on the older woman when they had first met, but in recent weeks she had seen it more and more.

"It's like I'm walking on eggshells for tonight, huh," Emma offered with a shrug.

"I'm not embarrassed by you," Regina said hastily.

"Not anymore." Emma held up a hand before Regina could get defensive. "Look, I know. I know I suffer from word vomit and I don't have the greatest manners, and I would have been embarrassed too. You don't need to pretend like you weren't. I'm a big girl, Regina."

Regina shook her head once before cautioning a step toward the blonde. When Emma outstretched a hand, Regina took it and turned Emma so they were both facing the water.

"I was embarrassed," Regina began slowly. Emma instinctively tensed under her hand, but Regina's thumb caressing the back of her hand had her calming instantly. "But I've learned to find it endearing."

Emma snorted. "Endearing? Not exactly the word I would use."

"True, you tend to talk yourself into a hole, but I love that about you."

Emma cast a covert glance to Regina, a smirk playing on her lips. "Yeah?"

"Your face is cute when you get flustered," Regina said matter-of-fact.

Emma laughed before sobering up, taking their linked hands and pressing a kiss to the back of it. "I'll contain that hole-digging."

Regina shook her head and pulled Emma into her, using her free hand to cup the blonde's cheek. "And I won't be upset if you can't."

"This is getting easier," Emma said with a chuckle. "No head-biting and the claws were retracted."

Regina rolled her eyes. "It's called growth, dear."

"It's not as scary as I thought it would be. So let's go knock the socks off of those people with your photo." Emma led Regina to the door, rushing when she noticed the crowd collectively start to leave the room. She used her free hand to grasp the handle and tugged firmly, but the door did not budge. "Oh shit."

"What?" Regina's tone was deadly.

"It's locked."

"Of course. This is just perfect." Regina's gentle disposition was immediately replaced with aggravation to hide the panic in her eyes.

Emma yanked the handle a few times, but the closest people were at the back of the crowd in the middle of the banquet hall, their backs turned and their eyes oblivious to the stranded women.

"Hey, it was your idea." Emma used an open palm to bang on the window.

"Emma!" Regina hissed. "You could break the glass."

"Everyone in that room is deaf," she grumbled to herself before closing her palm into a fist and banging louder. She stopped when she noticed Regina wasn't at her side and had moved to the railing, watching Emma. Her shoulders moved up and down in laughter.

"You certainly know how to make these things more eventful," Regina said in between laughs, responding to Emma's raised eyebrow.

"I could say the same for you. Do you usually run off to secluded corners with your dates?" Emma asked abandoning her mission of gaining anyone's attention when the final person left the room and made her way back to Regina.

"I usually wait until these are over to sing in a seedy karaoke bar with them."

Emma laughed out loud. "This'll probably be a funny story in two weeks."

"You said that about spilling coffee on me. I've yet to find it amusing."

Emma glanced back between the empty banquet hall to Regina, biting her lip in worry. "We have to get you inside. You worked too hard to be locked out now."

There was a clatter behind them, and Regina looked past Emma to see the door had been opened by a petite curly blonde woman in a forest green pixie dress. "Are you two decent?" She asked in a thick New Zealand accent.

"How'd you know we were out here?" Emma asked, running back to the door with Regina in tow.

The woman looked directly at Regina. "I didn't think the rumoured Regina Mills would willingly leave her work unattended. I overheard people wondering where you were."

"Thank you," Regina said sincerely as they stepped inside and followed her to an even grander room that was entirely open space.

The artwork was grouped by medium - sculptures from clay to marble were along the east wall, painters and sketch artists lined the north wall, to the west were the photographers, and in the center of the room were the performing arts on a raised platform.

The woman who had rescued them bid them goodbye and Regina good luck as she ran through the crowd back to her post where Emma could see a sculpture made out of branches and vines. It didn't look like much until the woman got there and turned on a spotlight, shining it onto her piece. The shadow it cast on the blank hall behind it showed the silhouette of the New York City skyscrapers.

"That was nice of her," Emma commented as Regina led them to left where a large photograph remained covered by a large cloth tarp.

"Tania Bellil, quirky and a fire cracker, temperamental as hell."

"This coming from you?" Emma teased as they reached Regina's photograph.

She took in the large 24 x 36 print and moved the cloth to peek. Her hand was swatted away before she even lifted the cover. "Hey!" Emma soothed her hand. "I don't get special privileges?"

"You get to come home with me." Regina gave a saucy smirk before catching Ms. Ghorm's eye and putting on a practised smile.

Emma moved aside and allowed Ms. Ghorm and a few critics, Emma presumed, ahead of her to stand in front of Regina's piece. She remained in the back, her two-inch heeled boots doing little to allow her to tower over the small crowd in front of her.

"What have you brought for us today, Regina?" Ms. Ghorm asked.

Emma watched as Regina's chest rose just a fraction of an inch to catch her breath before stepping forward to address the crowd with all the presence of a queen. Emma resisted the urge to whoop and holler, if only just to aggravate and tease Regina, but she figured now would be a good time to exert maturity and just enjoy watching Regina take control.

"Myself," Regina answered simply. A few critics turned to the each other in confusion but she continued on. "Over the past few years, I've struggled finding in which category I excel in, and as Ms. Ghorm pointed out, I've hopefully found my niche. It wasn't an overnight process, but I believe all my experiences have brought me to where I am now, and it's most certainly been for the better."

Turning gracefully, Regina lifted the cloth from the photograph and let it fall to the floor. In the frame was a picture mosaic, hundreds of tiny pictures in specific hues and colour tones strategically placed in order to compose a grand picture of Regina's headshot. The left side of the photograph was darker, the lines of her face harsher, but the right side showed more colour, more pink to her cheeks, laugh lines around her, the background a burst of vibrant colours.

Ms. Ghorm and the critics moved in closer to get a better look at the tiny pictures. Almost everything Regina had ever done was included. To the left were her pictures of scenery, her black and whites of lovers' silhouettes over a fast-moving highway, or the light shining down through the cracks in trees. To the right, to Emma's amazement and fascination were the raw images of the center photoshoot, even a few of that male model Emma had not initially liked at all, and the candids she and Henry had taken whenever they stole Regina's camera. She wanted to push forward and look at each picture in detail, but she caught Regina's eye, whose face looked a mixture of pride and worry as her gaze shifted from Emma to the crowd in front of her photograph.

I'm proud of you, Emma mouthed to Regina. The worry was gone with the appearance of a wide smile. Thank you, Regina mouthed back.

Emma had finally made her way to the front to get a look at Regina's piece up close while Regina was busy entertaining questions from Ms. Ghorm. A blush formed on Emma's neck when she noticed that part of the collection of pictures that made up Regina's olive tone on the right side of her face were some of Emma herself basked in the morning light. Some were of her profile while others were of her facing the camera with a goofy grin, though Emma knew by her bare shoulders when those pictures had been taken. She was just glad Regina had cropped them to hide their indecency.

Making up the deep brown of Regina's eye was the picture of Regina and her father when she was just a little girl. Emma had seen it on the brunette's bedside table many times, but there were others of the man she had never met in Regina's eyes and in her hair. He was holding a toddler Regina up on his shoulders, dancing with her as a teenager, riding alongside with her on horseback. She had always feared meeting people's parents, never growing up with any herself, but Emma was sure she would have liked this man, and it pained her that Regina had lost him too soon.

It irked Emma just a little when she saw a picture of Cora and Regina on the right side of the photograph, but Emma knew even she would yearn for a mother's affection despite their differences. Pictures of Henry was placed in the condensed area making up Regina's hair. She grinned at the goofy faces her son was making at the camera in nearly all of them.

As her eyes travelled to the background, she saw unfamiliar pictures of scenery - the bright orange-pink of a setting sun, vibrant greens from forests, the bluest lakes. She wondered if they were simply the raw images of photos she had previously taken, but she couldn't find their match on the left side. Her little matching game was interrupted when a clicking sound approached and grew louder. The clicking sound turned out to be Mr. Gold, limping his way over to Regina's area but his eyes trained on Emma.

"Ms. Swan, I believe," Gold said, standing shoulder to shoulder with Emma and taking in Regina's photograph. "And how are you?"

Emma tensed in his presence. The man was minuscule, half a head shorter than she was and as fragile as a baby, but his beady eyes and all-knowing attitude made Emma realize why Regina had been so intimidate by him. "Mr. Gold," Emma said finally finding her voice. "Good, and yourself?"

"Just fine." He motioned a hand toward the frame in front of them. "It's an interesting piece by Ms. Mills."

"If you want personality from her then there it is."

"Quite." He leaned in and examined the pictures on the left, quirking his lips as he no doubt found Emma and Henry in more than a few of them. "She certainly has a bright future ahead of her. I'd hate to see such talent go to waste."

Emma turned to eye him intently. "Don't worry. She won't waste it."

His lip quirked again before he dipped his head and made his way over to Jefferson's piece. Emma watched him leave before a hand on her shoulder blade had her turning to meet the curious gaze of Regina. "I didn't say anything bad," Emma rushed to explain.

"I know." Regina squeezed her shoulder. "I trust you."

They met each other for a brief kiss before Regina pulled back. "I have to stay here to field any questions, but you're more than welcome to look around at the rest of the pieces if you'd like."

Emma looked out toward the rest of the room and found the eclectic artwork building her courage. With a nod and a promise to return, Emma set out to view the other artists.

"Did you see the one where the guy took a picture of on old person in a nursing home and their reflection was their younger self?" Emma didn't give Regina time to answer as they stepped into the elevator of the brunette's condo after the festival had come to a close. "And that Tania girl who let us in, her shadow thing was really cool too, and those hyper realism sketches, Jesus, how do people draw?"

Truth be told, Emma had been nervous when Regina had given her free reign to explore the rest of the artists' works. She knew nothing of art history or techniques, but as she wandered the grand ball room, moving from artist to artist, Emma could finally see why people made their living out of art. Photographers had one moment to catch a perfect picture, sketch artists drew until their hands were permanently clasped around the pencil, and sculptors carved until they found the art in the marble. She had been enthralled by it all, and once she simply immersed herself into the art, her self-consciousness dwindled away. She had even summoned the courage to speak with some of the artists and asked what they thought of their own work, and it surprised her when she was met with nothing more than a friendly answer and sometimes the question asked back to her where she would timidly reveal what she thought before the artist would sweep her up into a conversation about her interpretation.

By the time she had returned to Regina where crowd after crowd had indulged themselves in her work, and some prominent publishing companies giving her their number, Ms. Ghorm had taken up a microphone by the southern end of the room and thanked everyone for their attendance.

Their town car had arrived at the end of the evening once Regina's piece was packed away to be displayed by Ms. Ghorm, dropping the women off at Regina's condo with Emma talking the brunette's ear off about everything she had seen.

Regina shook her head with mirth and tittered. "I take it you enjoyed the festival."

Emma grinned, pleased she had genuinely liked it and didn't have to lie to Regina about her comfort level. "Yours was still my favourite piece though."

"Good answer, dear."

They stepped out of the elevator and headed toward Regina's door. Regina reached into her clutch to retrieve her keys simultaneously asking Emma if she would be staying the night.

The blonde shook her head. "I gotta get back to Henry. But you can come over if you want to grab some clothes first."

Regina inserted her key into the lock and shook her head as well. "I'm afraid I have some post-work to do."

Emma nodded understandingly as Regina opened the door and stepped in blindly, keeping her gaze on Emma. "I have next week off for Henry's March break, so you better make some time for us."

Regina's smile reached up to her eyes. "I think tonight's success calls for a real vacation."

"Because you didn't just come off of one."

"A work vacation," Regina insisted.

Emma would have grinned at the answer if she hadn't noticed a figure sitting at the head of Regina's dining table. She instinctively pulled Regina closer to her until she realized who it was just as Regina turned to see what had made Emma go mute.

"Good evening, dears," Cora said sipping from a tea cup.

Chapter Text

"Good evening, dears," Cora said sipping from a tea cup.

"Mother?" Regina gaped at Cora, completely flabbergasted of the older woman's presence.

"Close your mouth, dear, it's not becoming of a lady." Cora stood and placed her tea cup into the sink.

Emma's grip on Regina's shoulders tightened before she shook her head confused. "How did you get in here?"

Cora turned from her place in the kitchen, sporting her best smile. "It is my daughter's home after all."


Regina finally shook off her momentary paralysis, shutting the door behind them but making no movement of walking towards her mother. "Yes, Mother, I believe Emma asked you a question."

Cora inhaled as if she were speaking to children and her patience was wearing thin. "Your doorman allowed me entrance into the building, and I have a copy of your key."

Regina's lips parted in shock again as she looked at the keys in her grasp.

Emma's own eyes widened at the information. "You gave your mom a copy of your-"

"No." Regina hissed. She took several deep breaths and rolled her shoulders, before tossing her keys and clutch onto the side table with indifference. "Whatever you need, Mother, it's late. I'm sure it can wait until the morning."

"I can't congratulate my daughter on her big night?" Cora moved from the kitchen and walked gracefully toward the pair still lingering by the door. She cupped Regina's face between her palms and smiled, eyes roving over the younger Mills as if taking her all in. "I am so proud of you, dear."

Regina swallowed hard once, her own brown gaze searching her mother's for any hint of insincerity. She dipped her head ever so slightly in acknowledgement. "Thank you, Mother."

Emma shuffled from foot to foot as Cora pulled her daughter into a hug. Regina was stiff in Cora's arms, but just as Cora was going to release her, Regina relaxed and hugged back for just a second before pulling away herself.

Cora remained fixated on her daughter, proud and genuinely happy for her. Emma couldn't deny Cora's sincerity. She could see the edges of her eyes crinkle in her smile, but she couldn't help but shake her head at the woman who only seemed happy whenever Regina was doing something "right" for her career and their family name. The joy left Cora's face when she turned to properly acknowledge Emma, a look of forced acceptance replacing her previous expression.

"Ms. Swan," Cora greeted with pursed her lips.

"Mrs. Mills," Emma replied just as tersely.

"You look well."

"I am."

"And Henry?"


"Splendid." Cora clapped her hands together once before turning her attention back to Regina. "I'll let you get to bed, dear. It'll be a busy few days ahead of you, but I'll see you at Sunday brunch."

Regina looked taken aback. "What?"

"Dear, this cold shoulder you've been giving me is a little too immature even for you." Cora moved past them to get her coat from the rack by the door. "I expect you at brunch."

Cora had her hand on the door and was ready to turn it when Regina spoke. "No."

Cora turned slowly. "I beg your pardon, dear?" As always her words were dripping with intent, and if Regina knew what was best, she'd take the out Cora was giving her.

But Regina had forcibly removed herself from her mother's vice-like grip after so many years of being ruled under her thumb that what was best for her wasn't what Cora wanted. Emma, however, widened her eyes at Regina's blatant insubordination. While she mentally cheered for Regina, she couldn't help but wonder what Cora would do. She took a step back when she felt the frustration seep from Regina's every pore, and she was glad that, for once, it wasn't directed at her.

Regina stepped away from Emma and closed the gap between herself and her mother, her hands up and her head shaking, almost laughing at the situation. "Mother, nothing has changed."

"You are still upset over some silly check?" Cora asked haughtily.

"That isn't the point," Regina insisted, slicing the air with her palm to emphasize her words. "I will not leave Emma and Henry, and you may not enter my life whenever it benefits you. When you accept that then perhaps we can have a civilized conversation like mature adults, Mother."

Cora's lips were thin, barely hiding the scowl and her narrowed eyes. Her wrinkles seemed more pronounced and if she hadn't dyed her hair, there would have been a few grey hairs on her head from all the years of dealing with such a rebellious daughter. With a single calming breath, she dipped her head once. "Well then, I guess I'll be seeing all of you again at brunch."

She didn't wait for a goodbye and simply pulled open the door and strutted toward the elevator, the apartment door slamming behind her loud enough to resonate in the vast apartment room.

"Wait, brunch at your mom's?" Emma's face was scrunched up, an expression her son had inherited especially when brussel sprouts was on the menu for dinner. "Are we going?"

Regina shook her head and sighed, kicking off her heels and shrugging off her blazer as she made her way into the kitchen to rinse out the mug her mother had left. "I don't know," she answered honestly, her gaze focused on her task.

Emma leaned against the island opposite the sink and crossed her arms over her chest, watching the tension in Regina's shoulder tighten with each passing second. "Do you want to?" The blonde asked cautiously this time.

Again Regina sighed as she scrubbed a sponge through the already spotless tea cup for a second time. "I don't know."

Regina didn't even bother to dry the cup and opted to settle it beside the sink where a small puddle ring formed around it. Her hands clenched around the edge of the counter, her back still turned toward Emma.

With a resigned sigh, Emma stepped forward and traced Regina's back with her palms, feeling the brunette tense once more before relaxing at her lover's touch. Emma worked her way up to Regina's shoulders, quickly moving the hair that hid Regina's neck from view before kneading out the tension there.

Regina released a contented breath of air, loosening her grip on the counter and pushing back against Emma where the blonde had plastered her front to Regina's back as she massaged. Emma's hot breath tickled the nape of her neck just before she planted a sweet kiss right at the column of her throat.

Emma continued to massage for a few more minutes, letting the comfortable silence fill the air and revelling in the small flurry of kisses she was able to grant Regina's neck whenever the brunette tilted her head to the side in satisfaction.

"I feel like we must," Regina said finally breaking the silence.

Emma nodded against Regina's temple, her hands giving one final squeeze before sliding down Regina's body and wrapping around the brunette's waist. "She's your mom after all."

Regina made a noise of acknowledgment before quickly turning her head to capture Emma's lips in a brief kiss. Emma was too surprised to realize Regina had turned in her arms, but as soon as they parted she was face to face with the brunette once again.

"She's always going to be hovering over our heads," Regina murmured more to herself than anything.

"It helps she likes Henry."

Regina nodded her agreement. Her hand came up to her mouth ready to nibble on her thumb before Emma caught it halfway through. "I'll tell Henry. Brunch with the in-laws."

"In-laws?" Regina asked with an amused lift of her eyebrow.

Emma stiffened, her hands gesturing wildly in an attempt to get out what her mouth could not. "Not like that, I mean, not that I wouldn't want to - I'm not proposing or anything." She huffed and crossed her arms over her chest glaring at the smirking brunette. "You know what I mean."

Regina shook her head once before walking with Emma back to the front door. "Go home, dear. Your brain rambles when you need sleep. And when you're hungry. And excited. And-"

"I get it." Emma cut Regina off with a sound kiss which Regina returned with enthusiasm. Before she could deepen it any further, she felt a hand to her chest and looked up to see Regina pushing her out the door.

Emma lifted the last of the bags into Regina's trunk, cursing to herself when the Benz's gate wouldn't close from the three bags and cooler stuffed into it. Honestly it was a miracle Emma had managed to squeeze all their stuff into the tiny space, but now that it wouldn't slam shut, she was both frustrated and smug that she had been right in guessing Regina's car would be too small to house all their stuff.

As promised, Regina had taken the following week off after scheduling appointments and bookings for future events that companies wanted her to work for. It had been an exciting week after the festival, but all Regina wanted once it was over and done with was time to relax. It was why she had offered up the cottage by the ranch, the one she had recently visited and returned from. It was also why she had postponed brunch with her mother for when they return, which Emma had absolutely no qualms about. Emma was excited to be getting away from the city. She couldn't remember the last time she had left it, and if she was guessing right, Regina's summer cottage would be a perfect place for the family to get away from the fast-paced lifestyle of the city.

She grinned to herself as she shoved an elbow onto the trunk lid. She had been thinking of them as family more often than not. Even after Cora's impromptu visit, which still freaked the hell out of Emma - what sane parent makes a copy of their child's key? - the reality that she and Regina and Henry were becoming a family resonated deep within her.

The trunk kept popping up pulling her from her thoughts, and even after she rearranged and shifted the bags thrice, it still refused to close. She spotted Henry and Regina exiting the condo with Regina clasping Henry's hand firmly and reigning the nine-year old in as he attempted to pull her faster toward the car. An idea struck her as soon as they approached, and without preamble, Emma lifted Henry up under his arms and plopped him down onto the trunk. There was a resigned click under his weight.

Emma grinned and huffed hair out of her face. "I knew I had you for a reason."

"To be your personal trunk closer?" Henry asked skeptically, feigning looking cross.

Emma leaned in closer and lowered her voice to a staged whisper. "You also help me pick up chicks."

Regina rolled her eyes and offered her hand for Henry to take as the boy slid off the trunk. "And how often do you use your son as a wingman?"

Henry contained his grin and leaned into Regina's side. "You're in trouble."

The blonde rolled her eyes. "Yeah, yeah, what else is new? Get in the car, kid."

"You know," Emma began as she handed over Regina's keys back to the brunette. Sure, she could bring the car to the front of the building and pack their belongings, but god forbid she drive Regina's baby past the parking lot. "My bug has more space."

"It's also the sole reason for the hole in the ozone layer." Regina walked around the car and slid into the driver's seat just as Emma was seated in the passenger's and buckling herself in. "Henry, seatbelt."

The boy in the back dropped the comic he had been reading and obeyed.

"Hey, my car passes all the emissions testing. And your car eats up just as much gas as mine does," Emma argued.

"And my car can go faster than 50 miles per hour." Regina started the engine and drove away from her complex, seamlessly entering traffic.

"How long is this drive?" Emma could already hear the whine in Henry's voice. They had been on the road for all of four minutes.

Before Emma could tease him about his impatience, Regina caught his eye in the rear view. "I couldn't last the drive either when I was a child. My father used to play games with me to keep me busy. Would you like to play?"

"Okay." Henry leaned forward eagerly, his face nearly in between the headrests of the front seats.

The License Plate Game, it seemed, was not a car favourite, especially since the Swans tended to become a little too competitive, going so far as to covering each other's eyes or yelling over each other in their haste to complete the alphabet in spotting letters in license plates. They had the common sense not to cover Regina's eyes as she was the driver, but adding Regina, a determined woman in her own right, to the mix only proved to turn their playful bickering into full blown accusations of cheating of who spotted the final X, Y, and Z letters in license plates to win the game.

As they travelled further North, they opted out of starting a new game, not only for their sanity's sake but for the lack of cars on the interstate. As soon as Henry had asked "Are we there yet?" for the second time, Regina had turned off the car's stereo and announced a new game.

Humdinger was far more successful. Both Emma and Regina had difficulty in deciphering Henry's hums and whistles not only because the boy was just slightly tone deaf, but because his choice in songs predominantly revolved around mainstream pop culture. Regina had no idea there was a song about a speaking fox, but she was fairly certain, after hearing Henry belt out the lyrics once she and his mother gave up their guesses, that fox did not say that.

They were veering off the highway and encroaching on back roads that were lined with trees on either side as Emma hum her verse. Regina scrunched up her face as she tried to decipher the tune.

"What is it?" Henry asked from the back, giving up for the both of them.

"Oh come on, you guys don't know Paradise City? Guns N Roses?" Emma turned in her seat to gape at both brunettes in the car. "You guys have terrible taste in music."

"Yes, dear. We are the ones with terrible taste in music," Regina chided.

"At least I'm good at this game. Come on, Regina, me and Henry are kicking your butt. Try to guess this one." Taking up another turn, Emma began humming, her eyes closing and her expression exaggerated to emphasize the emotion behind the song.

"Oh! Oh! I know." Henry opened his mouth to answer, but the warning glare his mother shot him without stopping her hum made him shut his mouth and pout at the denied victory.

Emma continued to hum, looking solely at Regina. The side of her mouth twitched in amusement when Regina squinted her eyes in recognition of the song and furrowed her brows concentrating intently.

The building crescendo to the chorus came and Emma belted it, as best as she could in hum-form. She grinned when full recognition crossed Regina's face.

"I don't want to close my eyes," Regina sang along with Emma's humming, "I don't want to fall asleep."

"'Cause I miss you, babe. And I don't want to miss a thing," Emma joined in, exaggerating the length of the final word.

Regina chanced a glance at Emma who sat smug in her seat, still grinning at the brunette. "Happy now?"

"Oh yeah."

"I would have gotten it," Henry grumbled.

Emma laughed at her son's disgruntled pout. "You already won, kid."

Henry immediately beamed and leaned forward again. "I didn't know you could sing," he looked to Regina.

"Did I ever tell you about Regina and a karaoke bar?" Emma asked turning around completely to face her son.

"We're here," Regina announced before Emma could tell the story.

Regina drove up the gravel driveway up to the small cottage her father used to take her to as a child. It looked as it always did, save for a sore need of a gardener, but the quaint little house boasted a sense of care and familiarity etched deep into its walls. Regina had loved coming up here with her father. If they weren't inside the cottage cooking or sipping tea on the back porch, they were at the ranch a few miles down the road where they spent most of their time, her father holding onto her as she rode her first pony until she had gotten big enough to ride alongside him.

She smiled up at the cottage as if seeing it for the first time. True, she had only just left the secluded place, but this time she was returning with Emma and Henry, able to share something so close to her heart with them. She shut off the engine and turned to grin at Henry who continued to look up in excitement at the quaint cottage before bounding out of the Benz.

"This is your place?" Henry asked running up to the windows and peering inside.

Regina rolled a shoulder. "I suppose my father left it to me, but it's always been Daddy's."

Compared to the Mills mansion, this cottage was supremely unimpressive in its design yet perfect in its simplicity. The bungalow-styled cottage was something out of a fairy tale with its wooden exterior and pull-away shutters guarding the large windows. The wildlife was wayward, but Emma would bet that it had been worse upon Regina's arrival three weeks prior. She imagined it cleared, the vines draping itself against the outside of the cottage and making itself one with its surroundings. Even the atmosphere of the changing seasons where the snow was becoming non-existent, the weather warming, and the early blooming wildlife waking from its sleep added its effect to the quiet and pastoral area.

"I thought your father was some hotel tycoon," Emma thought aloud as she slammed the door shut and wandered to the large stone walkway leading up to the cottage. She stopped by Henry who had crouched down by a large poured boulder at the foot of the walkway that had the word 'Mills' etched into the rock and two hand prints, one large and the other a small child's.

"He wasn't a tycoon," Regina said almost defensively as she opened the trunk. Emma moved when she remembered the bags in the back and was quick to relieve Regina of the burden of the cooler. "He simply inherited grandfather Xavier's business."

Regina settled Henry's bag, the smaller of all three, on top of the cooler before grabbing the remaining two and shutting the trunk closed.

"Got you out of it while he still could?" Emma noted curiously.

"I thank him every day for that. Henry, come on inside," Regina called over her shoulder.

Henry popped up from his place by the boulder where he had placed his hand inside the larger handprint of Regina's father and raced after the two women.

Emma had a hard time believing that this was Mills property after seeing the inside of the Mills mansion, Regina's condo, hell, even Regina's Benz. The inside of the cottage was just as simple as the outside yet giving off a woodsy feel. The door opened up to a sitting room where a beige polyester couch was situated in front of a grand stone fireplace. A single winged back recliner was adjacent to the fireplace nestled beside a small bookcase of worn and dusty books.

"The bedrooms are down this hall," Regina said, pulling Emma away from her inspection of the room.

Before Emma followed, she set the cooler by the back of the couch and asked Henry to put away any perishables. She left the boy just as he found a bag of Cheetos and popped it open, already distracted from his task. Regina had stopped at a door and held it open. "Henry can have this one."

Emma peered in to find a single bed with generic covers. She tossed Henry's bag on the bed and turned to fully examine the room, grinning at her realization. "Was this yours?"

Regina nodded, waiting by the door as Emma stepped around and fiddled with the few possessions Regina still kept there. She had once heard of a passing childhood reference that Regina had been a bit of a tomboy growing up, but Emma had a hard time believing that since she was the very definition of a femme fatale down to her killer legs and murderous yet innocent eyes. Being in her childhood room though, one she was willing to bet that Cora had no reign over, Emma could see from the well-used soccer cleats in the corner and equestrian trophies that Regina had once been a completely different child. It was amazing to see evidence of the transformation from a child Regina to the adult now.

"No way." Emma spotted a photograph on a dresser and picked it up to see a ten-year old Regina in a princess dress caked from head to foot in mud holding up a cat with a bandage over her lip. The smirk on little Regina's face was one Emma had seen countless times. The girl in the picture was mischievous just as the woman she grew up to be. Emma held up the picture to show the brunette. "This has to be a twin or something."

Regina's cheeks flushed pink as she entered the room to get a closer look. "My mother had entered me into a pageant that year and I didn't win," Regina explained. "I was upset for disappointing her, so my father immediately brought me here, not bothering to even allow me to change out of that dress, and as soon as we arrived I found a stray cat sprinting past with a dog chasing after it, and I followed them into the woods. That dog didn't quite like me for helping that cat, but we found it a good home after that."

"You saved a cat?" Emma asked impressed as she set the picture down and followed Regina to another bedroom, not much bigger than the one they had just vacated but with a larger bed. "In a dress?"

"Mother wasn't happy about that." Regina subconsciously pressed her fingers to the scar above her lip as she set the bags down on the bag. "She almost forbade me from coming back. I've never seen Daddy get so upset with her before then."

Emma squeezed her shoulder before sitting down on the edge of the bed. Regina zipped open her luggage and began to methodically remove the clothes from it, moving from bed to dresser placing the clothing inside it. After a beat, Emma asked, "What do you think she wants?"

"Mother?" Emma nodded. Regina rolled a shoulder holding back a sigh. "I don't want to worry about that right now."

"Okay." Emma stood and grabbed the pyjamas in Regina's hand and bumped their hips to get her out of the way. "You go make sure the kid doesn't eat all the Cheetos."

Regina stood with a hand on her waist and a raised eyebrow. "And just how many bags of trans fat did you bring?"

"I had to toss some of your veggies to make room," Emma said with a teasing smirk.

Regina rolled her eyes but smacked Emma's arm just the same. "You better be joking."

Emma laughed as Regina marched out of the room calling Henry's name.

They had been at Regina's cottage for two days, and although the weather was still quite chilly to do anything more than hike around the woods, Regina had taken the Swans through the paths which her father had shown her when she was a child. She pointed out the lake she had once swam in until her mother had turned her off on doing such by showing her the repercussions of bacteria and leech-infested waters. When Regina had refused to re-enter the water after that, that's when her father opted to take her riding. In some ways, Regina thanked Cora for putting up a fuss about swimming in a lake, for Regina never would taken up horse back riding if she hadn't.

Today, the family had made the three miles walk down the road to the old ranch. They hadn't walked onto the property. Instead, they remained by the road where an old wooden fence barred them from the pasture and leaned, or in Henry's case, sat upon the fence and watched as the horses were released for their daily exercise. They had watched for nearly an hour with Regina sharing old stories of the days when she competed as a rider. She wondered aloud what had become of her favourite horse, Rocinante, but when reality hit her that it had been nearly twenty years since she had ridden him, let alone seen him, Emma took it as her cue to lead the family back to the cottage.

Henry, completely awestruck by the giant beasts, had rattled on about it on the entire walk back to the cottage. "Do you think we can ride the horses next time we come here?"

"Next time?" Emma gave her son a look at his presumptuous nature.

"I haven't spoken to the family who owns the ranch in a very long time," Regina mused to herself. When a brief look of disappointment flashed across Henry's face, Regina squeezed his shoulder reassuringly. "But I'm sure they would love to meet you."

Henry grinned and sprinted ahead of the ladies when the cottage came into view, already pushing past the gate that led to the backyard.

"Hey." Emma bumped shoulders with Regina with a shy smile. "Thanks for letting us stay here. The kid loves it."

"I'm just glad you he's enjoying himself. I was worried he would become bored with the lack of television and computer."

Emma chuckled as they turned onto the cottage's gravel path. "Yeah, me and Henry never really got to travel out of the city a lot, so this is great for him. He always wanted to go summer camps."

"And you?" Regina asked.

Emma took a moment to stuff her hands into her pocket and take a deep breath of the fresh cool air as she took in the scenery around her. She inclined her head and bumped shoulders with Regina again, if only just to see the aggravation in brown eyes flare at stumbling on the gravel. "It's your childhood home, Regina, what's not to love?"

"You've been to Mother's."

Emma shook her head. "I know, but I don't know, this place, this was special to you, and I love that you shared it with us."

Regina tilted her head to hide the pleased tint forming on her cheeks as they reached the gate and walked into the back to find Henry kicking around a soccer ball. The women sat on the back porch swing, their hands entwined together in Regina's lap as they watched Henry. Every so often, Emma would offer words of advice or encouragement to her son who was practising ball handling around strategically placed pine cones acting as pylons, but for the most part, they simply enjoyed one another's company.

It wasn't until Emma shifted and stopped Regina's roving thumb over the back of her hand did she speak quietly to the brunette. "I wish I had somewhere to show you of when I grew up." Regina looked up at Emma with curiosity etched into her face but Emma continued. "I know I don't like to talk about my time in foster homes, but it's not really the happiest of stories. There's this park I used to always go to after schools, even until the street lights came on, when I lived in Boston, but the last thing I heard about it was that it got demolished." Emma shook her head bitterly. "I can't even just bring you or Henry to a grave site and introduce you to my parents."

Regina squeezed Emma's hand until the blonde turned to face her. "Your parents would have been proud of you."

Emma couldn't help but let her gaze drop down for a second. "Just seeing all that your dad did for you, and your mom is a little on the overbearing side, but at least she's there, and it just made me feel this weird mixture of happy that you had that and wondering what it would be like to have that."

Emma knew it was unorthodox for bringing up her past, but playing family – being a family – with Regina and Henry got Emma thinking of what she had missed out on in her youth. It struck a chord within the blonde, not one that made her sad necessarily, but one that would always be in her no matter how many times she revisited the wound.

"You got Henry," Regina offered quietly and almost hesitantly. "I don't know how much I believe in fate or things that are meant to be, but if you didn't grow up the way you did, no matter how horrible it was, you wouldn't have had Henry."

At the mention of him, Emma looked up to see her son finally complete his trick before scoring in between an imaginary net, raising his arms in triumph before noticing the women staring at him with smirks on their faces and promptly dropping his arms and running to get the ball with a blush painted on his cheeks.

"And if there's one thing I know about you," Regina continued, "it's that Henry is the most important person in your life."

"He is," Emma replied without any hesitance. Turning to face Regina with a lazy grin on her face, Emma leaned back into the porch swing and removed her hand from Regina's grasp to wrap it around the older woman's shoulders. "I'd say we're doing a pretty good job at giving him a pretty good childhood."

"We?" Regina's voice rose an octave.

"Yeah," Emma said obviously. "We."


Regina couldn't help but reflexively turn at Henry's call, and Emma was quick to notice it, smirking at the brunette's instinct. Regina, however, hadn't noticed and continued to look concerned at what Henry could want.

"Can we eat soon? I'm starving."

"Of course, dear," Regina answered before standing and holding her hand out for Emma to do the same. "The little prince calls for a feast."

Emma simply smirked and accepted the hand. It struck her then that neither she nor Regina had had prime examples on how to be a mother, but they were doing their best, and with Henry growing bigger, becoming smarter each and every day, Emma realized they weren't doing such a bad job. It also struck her then that she had been thinking of Regina as part of their family, another parental figure for Henry, and something even more to Emma, for quite some time now. She couldn't pinpoint the exact moment when they had become a family. All she knew was that she, Henry, and Regina were one now, and no one, Cora or anyone, could take that away from them anytime soon.

Henry happily chomped on his second smore as he sat in front of the fireplace. He had never had the real thing before; a failed attempt when he was seven had been done when he and his mother had tried to use a candle as their fire but only came up with weird-tasting and browned marshmallows, so they had just decided on microwaving the marshmallow. It was still a delicious gooey delight, but having the real thing in front of the fireplace made it taste that much better. It was their third night in Regina's cottage, and once she had gotten the fire started, his mother had surprised him with a package of marshmallows, graham crackers, and chocolate. Roasting the marshmallow to perfection was harder than it looked. Emma's strategy was to put it into the hottest part of the flame and let it catch fire. Regina's advice was that the marshmallow alone was pure sugar and why they decided to add it to even more empty calories was beyond her, but she was promptly ignored when Emma and Henry devised a way to get the perfect tan around the confection. Emma was too impatient to rotate it ever so slowly on a high flame like Henry was, but she chewed on her burnt marshmallow all the same, hoping neither Henry nor Regina noticed her cough around the crispy outside.

When he was putting his third marshmallow onto a stick, he looked up to his mother and Regina, the former laying against the corner of the couch with a beer and the latter leaning into her side, her glasses firmly on her nose and her camera in her hands as she scrolled through the pictures they had taken over the last few days. "Regina?" He called, keeping an eye on his marshmallow. "What are those books over there?"

He motioned to the bookcase beside the fireplace in front of the winged back recliner.

"Oh." Regina placed her camera in Emma's lap as she removed her glasses, holding them between her fingertips as she stood and making her way to the bookcase, running the fingers of her free hand along the leather-bound books it shelved. "My father used to read them to me whenever we would come up for the weekends." She pulled out one book in particular and sat in the winged back chair. "This was my favourite."

Henry tossed his stick and marshmallow, now burnt to a crisp after leaving it unsupervised to watch Regina move, into the fire and stood from his spot on the floor. He wedged himself half on Regina's lap and half on the rest of the seat beside her as she wrapped her arm around his shoulders to make him more comfortable. "Little Women," he read the title aloud.

Regina slipped her glasses back on as she flipped to the first page where a messy scrawl was scribbled on the blank page. "To my little princess, I wish you all the happiness in the world. Love, Daddy," Regina recited with a sad smile. "He gave this to me on my seventh birthday. I've lost count how many times he's read it to me, though I haven't read it myself in years."

"Will you read it to me?" Henry asked, his large green eyes that were so much like Emma's wide and imploring.

Regina looked up to Henry and glanced past him to see Emma put her beer and Regina's camera onto the side table and stood to collect the wayward graham crackers, pieces of chocolate, and marshmallows. When she had set those down on the side table, she nestled in front of them on the floor, her back leaning against the edge of the fireplace.

"Read it," Emma encouraged.

With a nod, Regina flipped to the first chapter and cleared her throat. "'Christmas won't be Christmas without any presents,' grumbled Jo, lying on the rug…"

"I was thinking about what you said the other day," Regina said as soon as Emma returned to their bedroom after putting Henry to bed. Regina's suitcase and Emma's duffel were nearly repacked and sitting on the bed, waiting to be hefted into the trunk of Regina's Benz for the following morning.

"About what?" Emma moved to the drawers and gave one final look inside to see if anything was left behind.

"How you feel like you're unable to share your past."

"Oh, yeah." Emma moved to the bed and busied herself with making sure everything was in there.

"Perhaps you can." Regina moved her suitcase off the bed and sat in its place, looking up at Emma who was finally zipping up her duffel.

Emma paused as she tossed her bag beside the door. "What do you mean?"

"We can go visit Maine where you were born."

"That's what they tell me," Emma interrupted.

Regina sent her a look that told her to listen. When Emma did and made to sit beside the brunette, Regina continued. "There's not much we can do about reclaiming the past, but perhaps we can show Henry how far you've come in your future."

Emma took a minute to think about that. She hadn't been back to the diner where she was found since she was born. She had attempted once when she was seventeen, but the miles of woods where she was presumably found was too much to take in. Being abandoned on the side of a freeway, fresh out of the womb, tended to do things to people. But with Regina offering and Henry older now, Emma couldn't see why not. It's not like Emma was looking for her parents again; she had all the family she had right there.

"We don't have to," Regina said quickly after Emma's pregnant pause.

"'We?'" Emma repeated the question Regina had asked a couple days prior with a smirk.

It took a moment for Regina to catch Emma's drift before rolling her eyes. "Unless you see us as separate units."

"I'm pretty sure we've been a 'we' for a very long time." Emma stood and removed her bra from under her shirt and tossed it in the general direction of her duffel. Her fingers moved to the clasp of her jeans. "But yeah, I think that's a great idea."

Regina rolled a shoulder but Emma could see the relief and joy in her eyes, so she stood and kissed her soundly. "When did the stone cold Regina Mills get so sentimental?" Emma teased, whispering into her mouth.

Regina scoffed and pushed Emma away with a side glare and a suppressed chuckle as she removed her clothes slowly in favour of her pyjamas.

The calm of the cottage life was gone as soon as they had entered the city again with its bright lights and its never ending sounds. They had purposely arrived home Thursday night to allow everyone a day's reprieve at home before they all returned back to work and school the following Monday. It was a short-lived reprieve, though, when on Friday night, as Henry was organizing the pictures he had taken from his Polaroid from their camping trip as he liked to call it, Emma had taken Regina aside and suggested they should see her mother this weekend, sooner rather than later. Emma had rambled about making amends, or at least trying to, and how she should try to get along with the mother of the woman she loves, before Regina kissed her rambling lips and agreed.

Emma was grateful that Regina had taken an interest in Emma's past and had wanted to start new memories. And if what she was feeling was true, which she pretty sure was, she could be linked with Cora for the rest of her life. The thought was scary simply because the woman herself was the closest thing Emma had met to a dragon yet, but if that meant she got to be with Regina, then so be it.

So that Sunday for brunch, Emma knelt by Henry and adjusted his sweater as the boy fussed at the scratchy material at his collar."Come on, kid, you only have to wear it for a couple hours."

"Do I get to have ice cream again? It was really good last time."

"Probably." Emma straightened his outfit for the third time before Henry had the sense of mind to push her hands away.

"I thought you said Mrs. Mills didn't like you," Henry thought aloud.

"You told him that?" Regina asked as Emma stood from her spot.

"It wasn't a lie," Emma defended, but Regina's glare had Emma turning back to her son. "We just have a misunderstanding."

"Maybe if you guys got along she'd give you ice cream."

"Right," Emma nodded and nudged Henry and Regina up the familiar stone steps of the Mills mansion. "That's the plan," she mumbled under her breath just before the door opened.

Chapter Text

The only sound that came from the Mills dining room was the sound of cutlery grazing the china. The noise generally came from Henry who was picking at the berry goat-cheese salad with a scrunched up nose and a heavy sigh. He clearly was not in the mood for salad. Emma was sure he had moved it around on his plate more often than he actually tried eating it, and Emma couldn't blame him. She was usually pretty good when it came to any type of food, but berries and goat cheese were not what she had signed up for when she suggested lunch. All she had to do was hold out until their main course arrived, and knowing Cora Mills, she would dish out something good.

In the meantime, she, and Henry apparently, had to suffer through their salad. Catching her son's eye, she gave him a pointed look and glanced down to his plate. He stared back, holding a staring contest with his mother silently telling her the chances of him finishing the salad was near non-existent. Emma tilted her head and implored him silently, uncrossing her legs with every intent on nudging her son into action. Before she could do so, she felt eyes on her and looked up to see Regina, seated beside Henry and adjacent to Cora who sat at the head of the table, oblivious to her guests' silent interactions. Regina sent Emma the same look she was giving her son as Regina glanced at the blonde then down to her salad.

Emma rolled her eyes, spearing some spring lettuce and blueberries onto her fork and chewing pointedly. A stifled chuckle squeaked from Henry alarming Cora to their antics. He quickly gave an innocent smile before turning back to his plate, keen on eating only the berries.

Cora pursed her lips at the unusually quiet guests at her table as she picked up her wine glass and swirled its contents before taking a dainty sip. She set her glass down beside her plate and folded her hands over one another as she set them along the edge of the table. "Regina," she began, gaining her daughter's attention as Regina looked up rather doe-eyed from her almost finished plate. "I've been hearing nothing but splendid things about your work after Ms. Ghorm's little event. The Mills family name is proving to be quite versatile and formidable."

Regina dipped her head in appreciation. Despite the strenuous relationship she had with her mother, compliments from Cora were few and far between, so Regina took them where she could. "Thank you Mother. I try my best."

"I always knew you'd make me proud one day." Cora leaned over the corner of the table and pressed her palm against Regina's cheek. If Regina had noticed the backhanded compliment, she didn't show it as she leaned into her mother's touch and offered a shy smile.

Emma, however, did notice it, and it made her clench her fist around her fork and spear a cranberry much too fiercely. She only narrowly avoided the juicy backlash before placing the berry in her mouth and giving the older Mills woman a tight-lipped smile. It was comments like those that made Emma remember why Cora Mills struck such a nerve with her. She had promised herself when she and Regina had confirmed this lunch that she would make an effort. She would try to be accommodating to her girlfriend's mother, but it was getting harder and harder. Cora was the foster mother who always put her birth daughter ahead of Emma, even when Emma was sick. She was the foster father who got a little too angry and a little too drunk on the regular. Cora was the playground bully who always used to beat up the kids who were too small or too poor.

But Cora was Regina's mother. Like it or not, Emma was stuck with this woman well into the foreseeable future, and that information made Emma's stomach churn. Forgive and forget was not Emma Swan's style. It was more like forgive and wait for the ample opportunity to screw them over. But Emma couldn't screw Cora over even if she tried. Hell, the closest she had come to personally offending Cora was just by dating her daughter, and no matter how upset Regina was about Cora trying, well successfully, breaking them up, there would always be that part of Regina that craved her mother's affection.

So Emma bit her tongue and finished off the last of her salad, doing her best to give Cora a warm smile. "That was a great salad, Mrs. Mills. You have exquisite taste."

"Of course," Cora said with a roll of her shoulder as she sipped her wine.

Emma leaned back when a butler moved to take her plate away while another placed a bowl of lemon angel hair pasta in front of her. She contained her smirk when Henry lightened up at the change of food and dove vigorously into the pasta, but she immediately sobered up when Cora stared blankly at their interaction.

"It smells great, is this your own recipe?" Emma asked, twirling a forkful into a neat ball.

"I have a personal chef, if you recall," Cora answered.

"Right." Emma took a bite of her food and chewed quickly. The quick swallow caught in her throat for a moment before a harsh cough had her breathing again. Well that was attractive, she thought as she sipped from her water glass. There had to be a way into this woman's good graces. Glancing up at Regina in front of her, Emma cleared her throat again and set down her water glass, turning to Cora once more. "I just figured you would cook a lot since Regina must have learned it from someone."

"She makes the best lasagna!" Henry contributed with a grin before hastily adding, "but this is really good too."

"Regina was taught by some of the most renowned chef's in the city growing up," Cora stated with pride.

"And Daddy," Regina added fondly.

Cora rolled her eyes. "Your father was an expert on adding hot sauce and jalapeño peppers to nearly every dish that crossed his path. I'd hardly call that culinary skills."

"He said it fueled the fire in his blood," Regina recalled nostalgically, laughing quietly at the memory. "He used to say that's why I was so hot-tempered."

"Your husband sounds like he was an amazing man. It's a shame I didn't get the chance to meet him," Emma said with a comforting smile.

"Yes." Cora dipped her head in reverence though it was more out of obligation than affection it seemed. "He was. But enough about that. How have you been, Henry?" She rested her chin on her folded hands as she bent her elbows on the table and stared expectantly at the boy.

Henry swallowed quickly, remembering at the last second to wipe his mouth with the napkin in his lap. "I've been doing good, Mrs. Mills. We just came back from spring break."

"Oh? And where did you go?"

"Regina's cottage."

Cora turned her gaze to her daughter who halted in bringing her fork up to her lips. "You brought them up to your father's cottage?"

"If you remember, he left it to me."

"Just as he left you the means to pursue this career of yours. I just assumed you'd want to sell the old house." Cora waved a hand airily as if it was a trivial matter.

"I liked it," Emma piped up. "It was nice up there."

Cora gave Emma a once over of contempt as she pursed her lips. "I'm sure you would."

Emma took a moment to give Cora another tight-lipped smile, holding the older Mills' glare before she averted her eyes back down to her bowl. A string of profanities ran through her mind as she felt Cora's superior smug smile trained in her direction, and she physically had to bite her tongue to keep from saying what she really thought. It was a mental game, Emma realized. If Cora couldn't buy Emma off, then she would make Emma uncomfortable and constantly remind her that her place was beneath her daughter, and not in the good way. Well, Emma could say that she at least tried to be civil with Cora.

She forked pasta into her mouth and chewed slowly, nodding in acknowledgment before she swallowed and wiped at her mouth with the corner of her napkin. Her glare was set on the older Mills when she looked up. "What are you implying?"

"What makes you think I'm implying anything, dear?" Cora asked with a chuckle that bred the absurdity she found in Emma's question.

"Your tone, for one," Emma pointed out. "But I'm sure I might just be misunderstanding it, aren't I?"

Emma raised an eyebrow to indicate there was no misunderstanding. Cora knew what Emma was getting at, and if she responded then she would be taking the bait instead of setting the trap.

But Cora was never one to back down. "I simply assumed an outing in the woods would be your style of living."

"No offence, Mrs. Mills, but it's clearly a lifestyle your husband and daughter wanted. I wonder what that says about the prestigious Mills family name."

"It says we know our roots." Cora's tone was hard.

"Maybe they do," Emma shrugged and turned back to her bowl. "Great pasta, by the way. Can I get the name of your chef?"

Cora pushed her bowl away and turned to face Emma completely, her thumb under her chin in calculated contemplation and her eyes narrowed in thought. "What are you getting at, Ms. Swan?"

"I wasn't getting at anything."

"It sounds to me, dear, that you're insulting my family, and if that's your perception of us then might I suggest courting someone of more suitable tastes."

"What?" Emma scrunched up her face in confusion. "How did you even jump to that? I'm actually a part of your daugh-"

"Emma." Regina's pleading tone stopped the blonde from continuing, grinding her jaw to hold back her words. Regina turned to her mother and gave her the same pleading look. "Mother, that's enough."

The older Mills woman raised an eyebrow in acknowledgment before downing the rest of her wine glass in one go. As soon as she set it down, the butler refilled it and scurried away. As soon as it was filled, Cora turned back to Henry, dismissing the altercation with Emma completely and gave the boy a large smile. "Well I'm glad you enjoyed your time there. It is quite beautiful up there, isn't it?"

"Yeah," Henry nodded politely, though his eyes shifted to every adult at the table. "We got to hike a lot, and I took a lot of pictures. Regina says when it gets warmer we might be able to ride the horses there."

Cora visibly shuddered. "Wild beasts. How you spent your childhood on them, I'll never know."

"You appreciated the trophies I received from riding, Mother," Regina reminded her.

"Well, that was the one good thing coming out of your obsession with them." Cora moved to fork a dainty amount of pasta into her mouth, commending her chef for his work to her guests.

"I take it you've never ridden, Mrs. Mills," Emma asked.

"God, no." Cora laughed as if the idea alone was absurd.

"Regina's told me it takes quite a lot of patience and skill." Emma inclined her head toward her counterpart. "Regina was raised well if she was winning those competitions."

Cora looked Emma over with a wry smile. "Of course she was." The older Mills turned to her daughter and placed a hand over her forearm. "We should take a trip back up there soon. You know how much I miss it."

"You've never been," Regina said with a scoff in her tone. "You said it was a breeding ground for infestation, poorly decorated with tacky furniture, and a waste of our time and money."

Cora glared at Regina. "Well I've seen the pictures."

"I took those."

"That was the first sign of your prospect." Cora gave a practiced smile and covered Regina's hand with her own.

"Only you pushed me into my MBA," Regina pointed out dryly with her fork.

Cora pushed Regina's waving hand down. "Can you blame me? You've only just recently broken through the thousands of struggling artists in this city alone. Now all we have to do is make you international."

"International?" Emma asked. "Like world-wide?"

"Yes, dear, that is what international means," Cora said patiently.

"Are you gonna be famous?" Henry asked Regina.

"Yes," Cora answered for her.


"I've already spoken with Mr. Gold, and he's reconsidering his offer with you, but I've received offers from publishers in Europe. They would love a Mills on board working with them. You remember how you always wished to travel in your youth."

A flash of longing crossed Regina's eyes, and for a moment, Emma saw that Regina was intrigued by the prospect. She couldn't blame her. Regina had shared that dream of traveling all over the world with Emma long ago, and if Emma had lived with Cora all her life, she'd want to run too. The look on Regina's face was gone as soon as it came, though, as the brunette shook her head, pulling her hand back to herself.

"I'd prefer to stay in the city, Mother."

"Regina," Cora offered softly, smoothing her thumb across her daughter's wrist. "I understand that you currently have. . .commitments in your life, but sooner or later, you need to start thinking about your future in the long-run."

"But you can't go to Europe." The adults turned to Henry who looked shaken, his lips parted and his eyes wide. "What about us?"

The look on his face nearly broke Emma's heart. It was the same look he had when she had told him that she and Regina were no longer together. Hell, it was the same look whenever Emma was called into work on her days off when she was working for August.

"Henry. . ." Emma said softly, leaning over the dining table to take her son's hand and squeezed until his gaze meet hers. Her eyes spoke volumes that they would talk about this later, and that it grown up talking time. He sucked his teeth and leaned back, crossing his arms over his chest and glared at the place setting before him. Clearly lunch was over for him.

"No." Regina patted Henry's hair down until he glanced at her under his bangs. She squeezed his shoulders reassuringly before turning back to her mother. "I am not going to Europe."

"Regina," Cora began again in the same tone that indicated this was not up for debate. "I am just looking out for-"

Cora didn't get to finish her sentence when Regina threw her napkin onto the table and stood. Emma nearly jumped at the sudden movement and widened her eyes at the younger brunette.

"Regina?" Emma questioned cautiously.

"Let's go." Regina tapped Henry on the shoulder who looked to his mother for validation.

Emma looked between Regina and Cora and back to Regina again. Regina hadn't even bothered to wait for Emma to stand before she had wrapped an arm around Henry's shoulder and led them out of the dining room.

"Regina!" Cora stood from her spot at the head of the table.

Emma caught Cora's eyes and simply shrugged, throwing her napkin onto her bowl and standing. "Tell your chef I say thanks for lunch, Mrs. Mills."

Emma knew Regina was mad, not by the way Regina had talked back to her mother or by the way Regina had all but stormed out of the mansion. No, Emma knew Regina was mad because Regina had tossed Emma the keys to her Benz and settled into the passenger seat silently fuming to herself.

Instead of arguing, Emma just slid into the driver's seat, caught Henry's eye in the rear view and silently told him that now was by the time to quench his natural curiosity. Emma pulled out of the mansion's drive, ignoring the smooth drive of the Benz, and watched Regina out of the corner of her eye.

She placed a hand on Regina's thigh and rubbed absentmindedly as Regina continued to stare out the window. It remained that way for the duration of the ride with the only sound coming from the faint music on the radio. Regina's cell phone had rung twice, but after seeing the caller ID, Regina muttered something in Spanish before finally turning it off by the second time.

Emma pulled into Regina's condo and parked the car. The silence continued to permeate well into the building and even after Emma let them into Regina's condo. Henry, however, had had enough of the quiet, and broke it as soon as the door shut behind them.

"Are you okay?" He asked Regina, turning suddenly to face the brunette sporting the same look he had at the dining table. Hesitant fear was etched into his brows as he stared up at the brunette.

Regina nodded and bent down to his level. "Yes, Henry, I'm fine. Thank you for asking, and I'm sorry you had to witness that outburst."

Henry shrugged but chewed the inside of his cheek shyly. "Does that mean you're not gonna move?"

"Of course not, dear." Regina pressed her lips against his forehead until he grinned back, pleased at her answer.

"But if you wanted, like if it was for work, you don't have to stay," Henry muttered.

Regina turned to look at Emma, both women understanding that Henry was all too used to his mother leaving for work. Emma frowned, but there wasn't anything she could do about it now. She was just grateful Henry didn't have to deal with an absent mother any longer. And from the looks of it, he didn't want to deal with an absent Regina either.

"Don't worry," Regina reassured. "Even if I did have to travel for any reason, I'd come back."

Henry's arms suddenly wrapping around Regina's neck nearly startled the brunette, but she only faltered for less than a second before she hugged back, rubbing his back soothingly.

The sight of Regina and Henry embracing pulled at Emma's heartstrings. Hell, if she didn't know any better, the way Regina and Henry interacted with one another made them seem like mother and son. Regina could say she was terrible with kids all she wanted, but the truth of the matter was that almost every child she had ever interacted with was drawn to her almost instantaneously. Emma leaned against the back of the door and crossed her arms with a smirk playing on her lips.

It was almost surreal, standing inside some fancy condo that her rich girlfriend lived in as she promised her son that she wasn't going anywhere. For some reason, Regina was willing to give up a hell of a lot just to be with Emma and Henry. Emma couldn't even begin to fathom the reason why Regina would do that, but she knew she was grateful for it. So many people in her life had left her, her parents, her foster homes, even Henry's father. But Regina liked, no, loved Emma enough to stay.

Emma gasped at the thought and allowed her smirk to turn into a full blown grin. Regina and Henry pulled apart just then, both glancing at the blonde before straightening.

"I've been meaning to show you," Regina said excitedly as she moved to the couch.

"Oh, it's new," Emma noticed for the first time as she pushed off the door.

The usual black leather couch had been replaced with a charcoal grey armless plush sofa.

"Nice?" Emma shrugged, uncertain why Regina was making a big deal out of the new addition.

Regina rolled her eyes and moved to the back, fiddling with something until the back of the couch reclined into a bed. "It's a futon. For Henry. I realize when you two sleep over here the bed becomes quite cramped, and I don't have a spare room, so I thought I could improvise."

"That's mine?" Henry asked, already toeing off his shoes, pulling off his scratchy sweater, and leaping onto the flattened cushions.

Regina nodded and smiled affectionately before turning quickly to Emma with concern on her face. "Is this okay?"

"It'll be nice not to wake up with a foot in my face whenever I sleep here." Emma extended her arm for Regina to sidle underneath it. "Thanks for that, you didn't have to."

"I like having you two over," Regina said honestly. "I also value my back when I sleep."

The blonde laughed, pulling Regina in closer to place a kiss on her temple before releasing her and sliding onto the futon with her son. "Crap, this thing is comfy."

"You have your own." Regina playfully swatted Emma's leg as she sat on the edge of the bed.

"Yeah," Henry agreed before lighting up at an idea. "Can we have a movie marathon on here?"

"You're going back to school tomorrow, kid." Emma stretched along the cushions, deciding at the last moment to use her legs to bring Regina down with her.

"Emma!" Regina hissed at the surprise, nearly collapsing on top of the blonde.

Emma just smirked and wrapped her limbs around the brunette from behind, pinning Regina down until she just settled into the groove of Emma's body with an aggravated sigh.

"That wasn't a no," Henry said, ignoring their antics.

Emma rolled her eyes at his puppy dog look and threw her hands up in the air in defeat. "One movie after dinner."

The family simply laid on the sofa bed for the rest of the day, laying on top of one another as the television played in the background. Regina had brought out sheets and spare pillows, enticing the Swans off the cushions with snacks in order to make the bed. As dinner time crept closer, Emma and Regina had left the warmth of their little nest to begin making mini pizzas for all of them to eat. It was a rarity that Regina had allowed them to bring their dish back to the living room where Henry had already picked out a movie to watch. Both Henry and Emma were careful to eat over the table and not to let any crumbs fall onto the bed.

He had fallen asleep just before the credits rolled, his chin on top of his folded hands as he leaned into his mother's side. It was Emma who noticed he had fallen asleep, using her head to nudge Regina, alerting her to the sleeping child. Carefully they extracted themselves from the sofa bed, Regina cleaning up their dishes while Emma positioned her son onto the middle of the bed, lining a pillow on either side of him as a precaution. His flailing limbs in his sleep told Emma that it wasn't unlikely that Henry could fall off a bed or futon alike.

As soon as Regina had finished placing the dishes in the drying rack, Emma turned off the TV and flicked off the lights, reaching out a hand into the darkness for Regina to take. Thin fingers wrapped around her own as the women navigated their way through the room by light of the street lamps from the city below them. They had become so familiar with one another that they had easily slipped into their nightly routine. Emma turned down the covers as Regina removed her make up. By the time Regina was freshened up, Emma would enter the bathroom in nothing but her tank and underwear just as Regina was handing over the toothpaste for Emma to use.

"So Henry stole my schpeel," Emma mentioned as she squeezed toothpaste onto the brush she kept at Regina's.

"Your wha?" Regina asked with a mouthful of foam.

Emma didn't respond until she gave her mouth a once over before spitting. "I was gonna ask if you were okay."

Regina lifted her chin in acknowledgment before rinsing out her mouth and wiping her face dry. "I'm fine, dear."

"Yeah, that's what you told him." She spat again then rinsed out her mouth, stealing the cloth Regina had just set down to wipe her own face.

"I have no desire to move if that's what you're implying," Regina guessed, waiting for Emma to move ahead of her before turning off the light.

Emma crawled into her side of the bed, tucking herself under the thick satin comforter with her back pressed to the headboard, waiting for Regina to retreat from her closet. "He's right though, I mean, it's your work. You should follow your dreams."

Regina came out of the closet donning a baby blue teddy and climbed into the bed on her hands and knees as she crawled her way up to Emma. The blonde couldn't help but gulp at the sight and proximity of Regina. Her hands found the brunette's waist instantly and tugged her into her lap so that Regina's knees were on either side of Emma's legs.

Regina pressed their heads together, her hands cupping just under Emma's jaw as her thumb stroked the familiar path there. She whispered, "Maybe I have new dreams now."

Despite the darkness, the twinkling in chocolate eyes couldn't be missed. It harboured certainty, yet fear. Confidence yet vulnerability. Emma cast her own eyes downward though she tightened her grip on Regina's waist until their fronts were flushed against each other. "Yeah?" She asked quietly.

A perfectly manicured nail tilted Emma's chin back up and soon plump lips met her own ever so softly. "Yes," Regina breathed into her mouth.

Emma's lips tilted into a smile as she closed the distance between them. She pulled back at the last second, much to Regina's disappointment, and looked up at the brunette with trepidation. "What about your mom?"

Regina sat on her heels with a sigh but remained in Emma's lap. "She never approved of the people I chose to be with. I suppose I'll have to speak with her sooner or later."

"Do you think that will help?" Emma asked as Regina crawled off of her and slid under the blanket.

Regina reached behind her and pulled Emma's arms around her waist as they settled onto their sides. "I'm not sure," Regina answered honestly.

Emma still felt uneasy about the whole thing. Cora was Regina's only living parent, and no matter how much she disagreed with her, Cora would always be a fixture in Regina's life. Today was supposed to help change that. She had planned to make amends with Cora, but dammit if that woman was just as stubborn as she. The tension in Regina's shoulders was enough to let Emma know that Regina was fussing over the same thing. If it came down to it, who would Regina choose? Henry and Emma or Cora? She had chosen Emma more than once, but how many times could Emma press her luck?

She sighed heavily against Regina's back and pressed a kiss to her shoulder blade.

"What's wrong?" Regina asked quietly, squeezing Emma's hand under her own.

Emma shook her head and vowed that she wouldn't put Regina in a position where she had to cut off her mother, her only family tie. She pressed another kiss just under Regina's ear and felt the brunette shudder under her touch. "Love you."

Regina brought Emma's hand up to her lips and kissed her knuckles. "Love you too."

Emma stared up at the building, feeling insignificant and small in front of one of the grandest hotels in the city. She swallowed hard, looking down at the address in her hand before mentally prepping herself and stuffing the scrap paper into her pocket.

Emma had managed to get into contact with Cora's personal assistant, and according to the snippy woman, Cora was supposed to be in this building for the duration of the week, overseeing its profit and guest logs and all that other business-y stuff. It had taken nearly three days for Emma to work up the courage to make the trip there. Nearly every day, she had called the snippy woman to confirm Cora's whereabouts, and nearly every day she had rambled some excuse as to why she didn't want to book an appointment.

But she was there now, and had been for the last seven minutes. She was fairly certain the doorman was on the verge of calling security if he hadn't been too distracted on holding the door open for every guest that was entering and exiting the hotel. When the doorman saw a lull in traffic, he left his post and took a step toward Emma. The move jolted her into action, and with a maneuvered side step and a wide grin to the doorman, Emma slipped inside to the lobby.

Emma stopped in her tracks and inhaled sharply. If she thought Regina's art galleries and family mansion were fancy, that was nothing compared to the hotel lobby. The high arched ceiling boasted a painted canvas of cherubs, gods, goddesses, and landscape, extending into the intricately carved golden columns. Not only did the decor stink of wealth, the patrons milling about the room were all in business suits, designer dresses, on Bluetooth headsets delegating orders to subordinates or having hotel workers carry their bags up to their rooms.

Emma needed to remind herself that not everyone in the room was staring at her, knowing she neither had a reservation nor did she work there. In fact, no one took notice of her which eased the lump in her throat.

"Excuse me." Emma jumped and turned to see a well dressed woman with a pleasant smile.

"Oh, sorry," Emma said once she realized she had been blocking the door. She moved aside, earning herself a thanks from the woman before setting her jaw again.

Not everyone was stuck up. Just the woman she was looking for. So she pulled her leather jacket more firmly around her and strode toward the concierge. The man dressed in the same red vest and white blouse uniform as the rest of the employees looked up from the computer with a polite grin. "Welcome to the Mills Hotel, how can I be of service to you?"

"Hey, I was told that Cora Mills would be in. Is there any chance you can get a hold of her?"

The concierge looked uncertain. "She doesn't like to be disturbed when she's overseeing her projects."

"I know, she's kind of a hard ass," Emma said hoping to ease the tension. The deer caught in the headlight look the concierge was currently sporting told Emma that insulting Cora probably wasn't the best way to get her employees to cooperate. She winced, leaning over the desk and speaking quietly, "My name's Emma Swan. She knows who I am. I just really need to talk to her."

When the man didn't move, Emma added hastily, "it's about her daughter."

He looked conflicted, but eventually he nodded once and picked up the phone, pressing a few buttons and speaking into the device. "Hello, Mrs. Mills, there's-" He turned pale. "I'm sorry I realize you said not to contact you. No, I'm not hard of hearing - Yes, I'm so so-" He glared at Emma while simultaneously looking fearful for his life, and Emma couldn't blame him. She just hoped she didn't get the poor guy fired. "There's a woman here. She said it's about your daughter. Yes, a Ms. Swan."

He listened on the line, a "mhmm" and "yes I understand" muttered every few moments before hanging up the line. His ears were red as he looked up apologetically to Emma. "As I said, Mrs. Mills is busy going over the quarterlies with the manager."

Emma ran a hand through her hair and huffed out frustrated. "All right. Thanks for your help."

Emma turned and zipped up her black leather jacket all the way to her chin, preparing herself for the journey outside. Maybe she'd actually have to book that appointment if she wanted to talk to Cora. Or maybe she could use Regina's phone and call the woman. That seemed like a solid plan. Cora would want to pick up not knowing it was Emma, and Emma saved herself a trip from being in the presence of the scary dragon lady. It was a win-win really. A cowardly plan, perhaps, but Emma didn't have anything better, and she didn't have the time or the patience to scour each and every room of of this hotel looking for Cora. Maybe she could just find a trail of scared, crying employees, that would totally lead her right to Cora. Emma laughed at the thought as she shoved her hands inside her pockets, narrowly avoiding a trolley cart full of mini sandwiches and a coffee and tea machine.

"Sorry," she muttered, stepping back to allow the trolley to pass.

The young hotel worker shot her a grateful look as she hurried her pace at the bark of her superior just a few feet ahead of her. "Do not keep Mrs. Mills waiting!"

Emma paused. Her gaze was trained on the retreating figure of the young girl pushing the trolley as she turned into a hallway. Before she could even comprehend it, Emma's feet were moving, following the girl at a distance until she disappeared into a room at the end of the hallway. Emma barely noticed the fine wallpaper and marble flooring or the statues and paintings that boasted the hotel's elegance. All she focused on once she got to the end of the hallway was the closed door in front of her.

Conference Room. Well, Emma had no doubt that Cora probably was working, but as her heart hammered in her chest, it felt as if this was her only chance to set the record straight with Cora. She raised her hand to knock, wondering what the protocol was for conference room doors. Protocol was thrown out the window as soon as Emma followed the girl to Cora, but still, there was probably people in there with her. People with fat bank accounts and fancy pants and monocles. Or they could be really nice and just trying to do their jobs. Or maybe Emma was over-thinking this whole thing. Yeah, that was the most likely explanation. Why knock when she could just have a mental freak out? That seemed like the better option.

"Oh!" The girl she had followed in had opened the door, nearly colliding into Emma on her exit.

"Hi." Emma dropped her raised fist lamely. "I'm looking for Cora Mills."

"I told you to close the door on your way out." Cora appeared behind the girl, her hair down but in a business suit an older Regina would wear with a scowl etched onto her face that only grew at the sight of Emma. "Ms. Swan, I thought I specifically told you that I was busy, yet here you are interrupting me at my work."

"Call it even," Emma replied, her heart still hammering in her ears even behind the attempt to ease the tension.

The girl's eyes widened at Emma's response, and she was quick to scurry away, leaving Emma and Cora to stand in the threshold as the hotel manager along with other people in business suits were still waiting inside.

"I'm busy." Cora pursed her lips, her hand on the door ready to slam it shut.

Emma quickly glanced at her watch before holding up her palm to keep the door open. "Just give me thirty minutes, tops."

"I would suggest you go back to that brothel you call work before your lunch break is up, dear."

"Please," Emma implored, doing her best imitation of Henry's puppy dog look. It seemed to have worked for Cora sucked her teeth and turned to the other occupants in the room, apologizing for the disruption, and suggesting a break for the time being.

A flurry of business suits and red uniforms flew past Emma until the room held only Emma and Cora. Cora shut the door soundly behind the blonde and took a seat at the far end of the table, her arms poised over the armrests and her eyebrow cocked. "You have problems with my daughter?"

"What? No." Emma scoffed, unzipping her jacket and sitting in the chair adjacent to Cora. "Why would you think that?"

"What else would you have to discuss with me?"

"Well, it is about Regina," Emma explained.

"And you've only just realized you're holding my daughter back?"

"You know, when I came here to talk, that generally means that at some point you have to listen too," Emma said pointedly. When Cora waved her hand for Emma to continue, Emma bit her lip, wondering where to start.

"Enlightening conversation, dear," Cora drawled. "You now have twenty-eight remaining minutes."

Emma glared and set her hands down firmly on the table. "I love your daughter. I love Regina, and nothing is going to change that."

Cora pressed a hand to her chest in shock. "You're not actually thinking of proposing to her."

"No, not yet," Emma dismissed with a shake of her head. She ignored Cora's look at the "yet" part and ignored the burning of her own ears, opting for treading on head first in her speech rather than take the time to dissect the meaning behind her response. "You love Regina too, and we both want what's best for her, but have you even asked what she wants?"

"You're a mother, dear," Cora reminded her. "There are times when even Henry cannot make a proper decision and that is when you step in."

"But Regina is an adult, and she shouldn't have to choose between disobeying her mother or pushing away her girlfriend." Emma threaded her fingers through her hair and leaned in closely. "Here's the thing, the best thing that either of us can do for Regina is to get along."

Cora laughed. "Would you like me to accept you as an honorary daughter-in-law?"

"It would be nice if you realized that, like it or not, I am in Regina's life. For some reason that even I don't understand most times, I'm important to her. She wants me and my son around, and she also wants to make you happy."

The clock on the wall behind Cora ticked ominously with each passing second. Cold, beady eyes were trained on Emma's as they absorbed her words. The silence was near deafening, that Emma couldn't help but break it. "Mrs. Mills, I know you wish it was anyone else but me. I doubted myself too. But Regina, she makes me better. I don't work at August's anymore, and it wasn't a brothel by the way. I'm not a stripper. I got a better job, and I'm doing better than I normally was, and I didn't use Regina's influence to get there. I have goals of my own, and one day, I'm gonna be my own boss, just like you and your husband, and no, Regina won't need me to, but I will be able to take care of her." After a beat, she added, "you know, you were right."

Cora cocked an questioning eyebrow.

"Me and Regina, we are different, but being different didn't really make us break up. We had to work through things, and we did, and we did that together, and I mean it when I say that Regina is part of my family." She continued even though Cora had scoffed at the idea. "I don't know what's in store for us in the next year, or the next five years, or the next twenty. I just know that I'm going to try my best to make it work with her, and doing my best means that I have to start by apologizing to you."

"You came all this way for an apology? If that's the case then you are wasting your time, Ms. Swan."

"I came all this way to try to be civil with you, hoping you agree. If I'm being honest, you terrify me, and I'm not a fan of how you treat Regina, but she loves you, and so yeah, I'm sorry for talking back to you."

"Well, now that that's off your chest, I take it you know the way out. Good day, Ms. Swan." Cora turned back to the files on the table, sifting through them before casually slipping her glasses onto her nose as she began to read.

Emma's lips parted in shock. She wasn't sure what she was expecting, but a casual dismissal didn't seem to make it on her list. What the hell was wrong with this woman? Emma offered her an olive branch, and all she got was a slap on the wrist. She mentally sucked her teeth and kept her curse words to her most inner thoughts. Cora could act that way all she wanted. Emma would continue to try, and if Cora wanted to act that way, it was out of Emma's hands. Biting her tongue and offering a tight-lipped smile, Emma nodded. "You have a good day too, Mrs. Mills."

Emma loved date nights, and judging from the breathy moan currently escaping Regina's lips as Emma pressed the brunette against the edge of her kitchen counter, Regina loved date nights too.

Things had finally settled down into a more routine pace after returning from their vacation. Regina was signed to work on a new art project, Emma had deposited her spare earnings into a new savings account, and Henry was back at school, pretending not to like that pretty brunette in his class. Since they got back together, Emma and Regina had decided to plan date nights every couple weeks where Henry was watched by either Granny or Ashley or even Kathryn for the night while the couple either went out for a movie, a dinner, or staying in at either woman's place. Even Henry enjoyed these nights for more often than not, he'd be allowed to stay up past his bedtime and eat more junk than what Regina thought was appropriate, which seemed to equate to the amount of junk he was eating before.

One thing was for sure, though. They loved Henry, that much was true, but so rarely would Regina and Emma find themselves alone with one another that these date nights were a godsend. And more often than not, it ended up with them in some form of their current position.

Regina's lower back was pressed against her island counter with her right leg swung up and around Emma's hip. She would have been knocked off balance ages ago if it hadn't been for Emma's vice-like grip on her thigh and waist keeping her steady as the blonde continuously nipped and sucked on Regina's lips. Emma moved her trajectory southward, scraping her teeth down the expanse of throat Regina presented beneath her as the hand holding Regina's waist left home base to travel nimbly to the button of Regina's slacks. With practised ease, Emma popped the button and pulled the zipper down, all the while sucking on the base of Regina's throat.

Emma managed to tug the slacks down enough for her to slip her hand into the waistband, feeling the heat emanating from underneath Regina's satin thong. Regina gasped out loud and clutched Emma tighter to her when the blonde gripped Regina's sex in a firm squeeze. "Dear god."

Emma chuckled into Regina's neck, pressing a kiss at the mark she had left there before moving her lips back up to Regina's ear. "Didn't you say you wanted to take your time tonight?"

Regina bit Emma's ear in response, her hips rocking into the hand that had claimed her so fiercely. "I changed my mind."

The blonde chuckled again, claiming Regina's lips in a heated kiss before grabbing her by the waist and hoisting her up the small distance until she was seated neatly on her black marble counter, her legs open and accommodating, fitting Emma perfectly.

Emma pressed closer at the feel of Regina's nails trailing along her jaw line so softly they were barely even there. The feel of the older woman's tongue pressed heavily against her own made her moan, tasting the hint of peppermint from an earlier tea. There were times when Emma wondered when the spark would disappear between them, but with each kiss and every firm and confident touch, Emma was beginning to believe it would always be like this with Regina. She pulled back when her breathing became too laboured but allowed her lips to scatter kisses southward along Regina's throat down to the valley of her breasts.

Perhaps it was because of all her years bartending, but multitasking was a skill Emma had mastered, and as she licked along Regina's collar bone, dipping her tongue in between her breasts, her hands were quick to tug on Regina's slacks. Regina caught on, wrapping both arms around Emma's necks to lift her hips up for the blonde to remove her slacks. The cool marble beneath Regina's buttocks and thighs was a stark contrast to the way her skin was aflame with want. She kicked her legs free of her constricting slacks and crossed her ankles behind Emma's back, removing her grip on Emma's neck as she leaned back on the counter on her palms with a lecherous grin.

Emma's naturally blue-green eyes darkened to a near charcoal grey hue as she eyed the woman before her, splayed out on the island ready to be consumed. Her nails raked up and down olive thighs, toying with the thin strap of Regina's thong at her waist before leaving long, red lines down her flesh. All they had done so far was have a thorough make out session, and already Regina looked like a sex goddess ready for another round with her tousled hair, swollen lips, and wrinkled shirt. Emma made to close the distance between them when her phone rang.

She shut her eyes and dug her nails into Regina's thighs in unrestrained frustration. "Fuck."

"I was hoping so," Regina muttered, pressing a hand to her chest to control her breathing.

"It might be Henry." Emma was grateful for her wingspan when all she had to do was reach over to the counter behind them for her ringing phone, already glaring at the person who had the audacity to interrupt them on date night. Her glare was immediately replaced with a grin as she pressed Ignore and slid her phone back onto the counter, giving Regina her full attention once again. "Unknown number."

Taking her bottom lip in between her teeth, Regina played coy until she crooked a finger for Emma to come closer. Emma didn't hesitate and took Regina's bottom lip with her own teeth, tugging once before pressing hotly against painted lips.

Again, Emma moved her kisses down Regina's neck, but as she got to the top of Regina's blouse, Regina, seemingly having read her mind, aided the blonde in unbuttoning her own blouse as Emma followed the glorious trail that exposed more and more of Regina's toned figure. With every downward kiss, Emma bent down until she was kneeling on the kitchen floor, her head at Regina's waist with the brunette's bare legs locked on top of Emma's shoulders. A determined tug got Regina to the very edge of the counter, but with the ferocity of the tug and Emma's persistent kisses, her final kiss landed right on top of Regina's covered core.

"Emma!" Regina groaned at the sensation, rocking her hips into Emma's mouth as one hand held steadfast in blonde hair while the other was planted on the marble behind her for balance. "Please..."

The blonde grinned against the satin, flicking the wet spot with the very tip of her tongue and enjoying the half-restrained growls coming from the woman above her.

"I know," Emma promised. She pulled back just enough to slip her fingers beneath the waistband and pulled.

Regina was quick to respond, already unlocking her ankles and aiding Emma in slipping one of her legs from the satin material.

"Impatient?" Emma asked, returning to her position between the brunette but grabbing an ankle on its way back to wrapping around the blonde. Emma kissed the bone there and tickled the underside of Regina's calf as her lips trailed closer and closer to Regina's exposed and glistening sex.

"You have no idea." Despite the lust in her voice, the way Regina curled wayward locks of Emma's hair behind her ears was what did it for the blonde.

With no preamble, she closed her mouth around Regina's clit and sucked hard. Regina nearly fell backwards from the shock of pleasure that coursed through her body all the way down to her curled toes, but the hold she had on Emma's hair was enough to keep her moderately upright.

Emma curled her hands around Regina's hips for better leverage, pulling the feast that was Regina's pussy closer to her hungry mouth. Regina's legs quivered. Her grip tightened. Emma's name was chanted from her lips like it was the only thing that made sense. The pressure building inside her made her near breathless. It still amazed Regina that Emma could get her off with her tongue alone, and with every flick of her clit and every inch of her inner walls searched by Emma's roving tongue, Regina came hard, bucking once then twice into Emma's mouth as her juices coated the blonde's jaw.

Emma didn't even have time to lap up the excess before Regina was pulling her up hard by her hair and crashing their lips together, her tongue nearly shoved down Emma's throat in her need to taste herself on Emma. The blonde moaned and fell into Regina as if she were the one who had just came off a high, but the orgasm gave Regina a renewed energy.

With a surprising amount of grace, Regina slid off the counter, her open blouse and still encased breasts billowing from the shift, as her hands moved quickly and worked deftly on Emma's belt buckle, removing it without even blinking an eye or breaking their kiss. Regina hissed when Emma bit her tongue, shocked to find herself now pressed against the opposite counter.

"My turn," Regina promised, unbuttoning the blonde's jeans and tugging down enough so the material bunched just under Emma's knees.

"Yes please," Emma moaned, steadying herself by gripping Regina's shoulders.

Regina connected their lips again, their teeth knocking in their haste to be touching. The feel of Emma's pink swollen lips beneath her own was almost enough of a distraction to make Regina forget about the wet cotton panties that still needed to go. Her mind was going hazy at the feel of Emma, and with much reluctance, Regina pulled back, solely focusing on pulling down the final barrier separating her from Emma's sex. Regina trailed a single finger along the wetness that gathered along Emma's thigh and brought it to her lips, her tongue swirling around the digit and her eyes closing at the unique taste that was Emma Swan.

"Do you have any idea how sexy you are?" Emma whispered, pulling Regina's body closer until the brunette's knee was pressed hotly against Emma's core.

Regina bit her lip again, but this time it wasn't the mischievous grin that made anyone want to fall to their knees in front of this woman, but it was the shy pleased smile that made Emma love the older woman even more. Emma pecked her hard once before crossing her arms to the base of her shirt and tossing it haphazardly to the ground where Regina's slacks and thong lay. Regina's gaze zeroed in on Emma's chest just as she swatted pale hands away from the clasp behind her back. "That's my job," Regina warned, freeing the milky white breasts to her penetrating gaze.

Regina wasted no time in filling her hands with Emma's chest, paying particular attention to a scar on her top left bosom left there from a bar fight Emma had broken up ages ago that had resulted in one of the most detrimental repercussions of their relationship.

But that was in the past, and they were in a better place.

She lapped at the scar before bringing a pink and already erect nipple into her mouth, massaging the breast rhythmically enough for Emma to moan and tilt her head back. Her head collided with the cupboard behind her, but neither Emma nor Regina paid any mind as Regina's free hand found its way back to Emma's dripping mound. She slipped a finger inside, moaning at the warmth and the way Emma's walls instinctively squeezed around it before pulling out just enough to slip another finger inside, stroking the ribbed flesh there.

"Fuck me," Emma hissed, moving a hand to cling desperately in Regina's hair.

Regina released the nipple from her mouth and gave it a hard tug with the tip of her teeth. "I thought I was."

Emma smirked and rocked into Regina's hand, moving herself up and down slowly on Regina's penetrating fingers as they continued to stroke Emma's walls, moving instinctively to the place that made Emma shudder and stop breathing for just a second.

"God, Regina..." Emma bit her lip, whipping her head back at the pleasure only to have her head smack the cabinet again.

The brunette grinned and doubled her efforts, adding a third finger and using her thumb to press hard circles around Emma's clit. The blonde gasped and moved onto her tippy toes as if the pleasure was too much to bear, but Regina wrapped her free hand against Emma's waist, pressed her knee against her pumping fingers, and used her body to thrust into Emma. With every thrust, Emma was pushed upward on her tippy toes, the pleasure heating up from her core flowing through every vein in her body. Her blood was on fire and her ears were ringing. Nearly all of her brain cells were focused on the pleasure Regina was giving her, and only a handful of them caught the words Regina whispered breathlessly into her ear. "Dear god, I love you."

That was enough to push Emma over the edge. She yelled out Regina's name as her orgasm shook through her in waves. Her hips bucked of their own accord into Regina's still clever hand, but the brunette did her best to steady the blonde, using her body to pin her down to the best of her ability while pressing kisses on every inch of sweat-slicked skin she could find.

When Emma settled back down to the balls of her feet, Regina removed her knee and her glistening hand, using her Emma-coated finger to trace patterns over the blonde's heart. Emma cupped Regina's cheeks and gave all she had into the kiss, stealing Regina's breath and leaving her whimpering beneath her touch. As she walked the brunette back to the island, she shimmied out of her jeans and panties, pressing her flushed naked body against Regina's, giggling into the kiss.

"What?" Regina whispered, cupping under Emma's jaw just the same.

"You drive me crazy." She nipped at Regina's jaw line.

"Good," Regina whispered back, weaving her fingers in between Emma's to free her face. She shrugged off her blouse and eased the straps of her bra off of each shoulder before removing the clasp, letting the matching satin material fall to the ground in a heap of clothing. "I plan on doing it again."

It was during breakfast with Regina in nothing but her terry cloth robe and Emma in her panties and tank when Emma got the message. They were sitting at the dining table, the counters and the island all wiped down and cleaned, with juice, coffee, and eggs set before them where Emma saw she had a voicemail. With her ear pressed to the phone, she reached over the table to grab the pitcher of orange juice when a voice she hadn't heard in weeks filled her ear.

"Ms. Swan, I expect your family to be at the mansion for weekly brunch this coming Sunday."

"What's wrong?" Regina asked, halting her own eating movements when she noticed the flabbergasted expression on Emma's face. "Is Henry okay?"

"No, yeah, he's good." Emma pressed 7, repeating the message again just in case she had misheard. Still, Cora's voice filled her ear inviting her over for yet another brunch. "It was your mom."

"My mother?" Regina set her fork down and looked at Emma like she was growing a second head. "Why does my mother have your number?"

"I don't know. You know your mom does weird things. We had to change your locks, remember?" Emma pressed 7 again and handed over her phone to allow Regina a listen. Regina sported the same bewildered expression Emma had as the message replayed.

"Did she say something to you?" Emma asked, taking back the cell phone and ending the call.

"She never asked about you when I've spoken to her the last couple of weeks. She attempted to persuade me to pursue that meeting with Gold," Regina admitted. She pressed a closed fist to her chin in thought before tilting her head and narrowing her eyes confused. "When she said 'your family'...?"

Emma blushed and rolled a non-committal shoulder. "I guess she means all of us? I may have talked to your mom after the last time we had lunch there."

Regina's eyebrows shot up. "You spoke with my mother? Alone?"

"Yeah, did I forget to mention that?" Emma scratched her head.

Regina scowled. "Well?"

"I just said that I'm not going anywhere and she should suck it up," Emma offered.

Regina raised an eyebrow in disbelief.

"More or less," the blonde shrugged before adding hastily, "and more politely."

Regina stared down at her plate attempting to process the new information she had just received. She pressed her fingers to her temples and rubbed. After a minute, she looked back up at Emma in realization. "She said 'your family'."

"Yeah, Regina, we established that," Emma said obviously, spearing some scrambled eggs onto her fork and placing it in her mouth.

"And she called you," Regina pointed out.

It took a few bites before Emma finally caught on, surprise etched onto her face. "Wait, so maybe she's gonna be okay with us?"

Regina gave a hopeful smile, bringing her coffee up to her lips. "Maybe."

Chapter Text

~ 112 Sunday Brunches Later ~

Emma brought the orange juice to her lips and decided that anything put into a wine glass or goblet was immediately made fancy and tasted better. That, or it could have just been that Cora always purchased the best of the best, and hand-squeezed orange juice made that list. She thanked Claude, the butler whom, after a particularly stressful Christmas Eve dinner, she had bonded with over the iron fist of Cora Mills, as he refilled her glass with juice.

"So when will you two be leaving?" Cora asked Henry, who in the last two years had sprouted like a weed.

He swallowed the large bite of turkey sausage he had placed in his mouth before grabbing his napkin and wiping at the corners of his lips. "Next Saturday. We'll be back by Monday night the latest."

"You've just finished school, dear, and you're already leaving so soon? Don't you think you want to fully settle in?" Cora had still yet to visit the cottage even after Regina and Emma had spent a weekend cleaning it up. Most of the furniture remained, but dusting the place did nothing to evade the insects and wildlife of the woods, which Cora continued to remind the family that no amount of bug spray could make them immune to the bacteria they possessed.

"Yeah." Henry beamed. "I have my first riding competition at the end of the summer, and Regina says I have to practise as often as I can. Are you gonna come watch?"

Emma smirked and turned a curious eyebrow to Cora. "Yeah, are you gonna come up?"

Cora pursed her lips and refrained from rolling her eyes. "We will see."

Emma caught Henry's eye, and they both shared a silent laugh. The boy had oddly taken to Regina's mother, which sometimes worried Emma, but he didn't exhibit traits of evil cackling or manipulation (other than conning his way into a later bedtime and a bigger allowance), and for the most part, she was happy to know that her kid got through to the scary dragon lady. That didn't stop them from teasing the older Mills, however. Every time they would return from their trips at the cottage, they would tell her stories of the biggest spiders they'd ever seen, rabid wolves set on the loose, and wild mustangs running free in the pasture. The look on Cora's face when she imagined such creatures was priceless. It nearly rivaled the look on Regina's face when she realized Emma and Henry had found a way to get under Cora's skin and live to tell the tale. Regina thanked Emma graciously, over and over, when the blonde first purposely annoyed the older Mills, and now it had become a past time of Emma's, and Henry's apparently.

"How is that. . .animal of yours?" Cora asked, bringing some cut up fruit to her lips.

"Donny?" Henry asked, continuing when he received a nod from the older woman. "He's just learned to do jumps now. We've been going up there whenever we can, and he's getting more lean and faster. It's like he knows when people are watching though 'cause he gets nervous."

"You'll just have to break him in," Cora said obviously with a wave of her hand. When Emma raised an impressed eyebrow, Cora continued. "Yes, I know things, Ms. Swan."

"Right," Emma muttered to herself, forking a piece of her spinach and goat cheese omelet into her mouth and nodding along.

"I've recently got in touch with Charlene Tremaine," Cora said.

It took Emma a moment to realize that Cora was speaking to her before straightening, her eyebrows shooting up high in curiosity. When she didn't recognize the name, she scrunched up her face. "That's. . .nice?"

Cora rolled her eyes and sighed as if talking to an imbecile. "She's the headmistress of the private school Regina went to as a child."

Emma tried to look excited at the news but failed to see what that had to do with her. "That's . . .also nice."

Cora glared at Emma, frustrated at her idiocy. "I'm able to get an interview with her if Henry is to attend her school. Usually they like to inspect the parents' background, their home, all the necessary inspections, but I'm sure I can persuade her to visit here."

Oh, Emma thought, mentally rolling her eyes. That's what Cora was up to. Emma was pretty sure that 'inspect the parents' background' was code for 'how much are they worth?' Though the disparity in their wealth had stopped causing drastic problems between Regina and Emma long ago, Cora never failed to bring it up. It was the one thing that Cora seemed to hold over Emma's head, but she was hoping after tonight, that would all change. "I appreciate that, Cora, but it's not necessary. Henry goes to a good school already, and he's the smartest kid ever."

The boy in question shrugged his shoulder but rolled his eyes affectionately at the compliment.

"Of course he is, dear, but just imagine how bright he can be and all the opportunities presented to him should he go to a reputable school," Cora argued.

"He can still have those opportunities regardless of where he goes. Bill Gates dropped out of college and look at him now," the blonde pointed out. She mentally high fived herself at that argument. She knew that fun fact would come in handy one day. "Plus, isn't private school like twenty grand?"

"And?" Cora dismissed with a flourish of her hand.

"A month." Emma deadpanned.

"If it's money that you're concerned about - "

Emma held up a hand and stopped the older woman with a dry laugh. "No. It's not." She turned to Henry who had silently watched their altercation. Before he had been nervous whenever they argued, but now he enjoyed watching it like a tennis match. Or an old-fashioned war. "Do you want to go to private school?"

"Do I have to wear a uniform?"

"But of course," Cora tittered at the question.

Henry scrunched up his face and shook his head. "Not really."

Emma smirked and motioned to her son while keeping her gaze on Cora. "Thanks for your suggestion though."

Cora huffed unamused at her foiled plan just as Regina strode in from the hallway, replacing her cell phone back into her purse. "I apologize for the interruption. There seems to be a problem with the stills I sent to the community center in Brooklyn."

"Are you still on that charity project, dear? I would have thought that by now you'd be running your own publishing company," Cora commented as Regina took her regular seat beside her mother.

"A lot of community centers are in need of public funding, Mother, and a lot of wealthy people like to be seen doing a good deed," Regina reiterated to Cora not for the first time. "I enjoy my work, and if I wanted to be sitting down in meetings all day, I would be running the hotels."

"It's never too late to do that as well," Cora muttered loudly to herself and drained her juice like a shot. Regina sent Cora a look that told her not to push her luck, but Cora glared in response and looked past her daughter to Henry. "My dear boy, how old are you now?"

"Turning twelve," he muttered with his mouth full of Belgium waffles.

"Are you aware we have an internship program? It's highly coveted, but I could guarantee you the job when you come of age," Cora enticed.

Before either Regina or Emma could say anything, Henry shrugged and shook his head. "I like writing. Business is more mom's thing."

Cora looked aghast as she turned to gawk at Emma who grinned smug at the older Mills and popped a roasted potato wedge into her mouth. "Regina taught me a lot. Planning on leaving me your empire?"

Cora scoffed and snapped for her plate to be taken away. "I'd rather frequent your brothel."

"Really? That's saying something," Emma shrugged in thought before catching Henry and Regina's eyes. "Speaking of which, we gotta get going."

"I assume brunch is cancelled on Sunday," Cora said as she followed the family to the front door where Claude was already waiting to open the door for them.

"Yes, Mother, we have far too much to do this weekend," Regina said.

"It's only Friday, dear, how much can you possibly have planned?"

"You can visit my brothel," Emma offered, biting her cheek to keep from laughing.

Cora looked sick at the thought and turned to kiss Regina's cheek goodbye. "Next week then."

The family hesitated, eyeing one another. Emma scratched the back of her head and shrugged. "It'd just be me and you next week."

Cora's face remained impassive. Although Cora and Emma could stand to be in the same room with each other, they never willingly bonded without some sort of buffer between them. Cora continued to make snide remarks about Emma's upbringing, and Emma continued to back talk to the older Mills, but there was always a line neither woman dared to pass for fear of losing the affection of their one common ground: Regina. It wasn't the greatest relationship, but they weren't tearing at each other's throats (as much). They were civil, and that was more than either Mills or Swans could ask for. Despite being civil, the idea of brunch with just Cora and Emma made both women flinch. Emma opened her mouth, ready to spew out a list of excuses to get her out of it, but Cora scoffed and turned to Regina and patted her daughter's arm for a hug. "I'll see you when you return, dear."

Emma exhaled relieved at the mutual understanding as Henry stepped up, giving the older Mills a hug when she released Regina. Both Regina and Henry looked at Emma expectantly. She winced stepping forward, but Cora had stepped back with a glare that said don't even think about it. Emma nodded at the silent understanding and waved. "Please thank your chef for breakfast."

Regina shook her head as she led Henry out the door, bidding Claude goodbye. Emma stayed behind, running her hands through her hair in an attempt to keep them busy as she tilted her head at Cora. "Would you actually teach me the hotel world?"

Cora raised an eyebrow surprised. There was no teasing in Emma's tone, and by the way she looked behind her to see that Regina and Henry hadn't noticed her absence yet told Cora she was serious. But she had learned over the last two years that Emma Swan had motives just as she did and huffed her disdain. "Goodbye, Ms. Swan."

They had a busy day ahead of them and they needed to get as much done as possible, which included their weekly meal with Cora. Now that breakfast was over and done with, all Emma and Henry had to focus on was in the form of the empty apartment they were currently standing in. They had taken separate cars to the Mills mansion for efficiency's sake. Right about now, Regina would be directing Ruby and Billy on what were the more fragile of her items. While they were working on Regina's condo, August and Frederick had returned that morning before the Swans had left for breakfast to complete the rest of the moving they had started the night before.

Now the apartment was eerily empty for the first time in eleven years. The couch with the loose spring was donated to Goodwill, all of Henry's comics and toys were packed away and on their way to the new house, and the only thing that remained was an empty fridge, bare cupboards, and the shower with the leaky faucet.

"It looks so much bigger without anything in it." Henry came to stand beside his mother, lacing their hands together.

A soft yet sad smile graced her face as she circled the big empty room. They lingered by the corner where the TV had been and recalled the countless hours they spent marathoning Star Wars. "Did you ever think we'd move out of here?"

The boy shrugged. "I think you always wanted to give me the best."

Emma released their hands and wrapped her arms around his shoulders from behind. "I tried at least."

He squeezed her forearm reassuringly. "You did more than try, Mom."

Emma kissed his temple before releasing him and walking to the middle of the room. "You took your first steps here." She pointed to the kitchen drawers. "And you once hid yourself in that drawer, and I freaked out when I couldn't find you." Her fingers trailed over the edge of the wall when she made her way to the wall that once held their corded telephone. The edge boasted markings of Henry's heights throughout the years causing Emma's eyes to water. It was like the end of era leaving this place, but she knew there'd be happier times ahead of her. Still, this was Emma's first real home. She was going to miss it.

"Hey Mom." Before turning, Emma wiped her eyes free of the moisture. When she looked up, Henry had walked up to her with his Polaroid in his hand. He had been walking around with it for days snapping their final moments in either apartments. He offered it to her with an understanding grin. "One more for the road?"

Emma grinned at the genius of her son, grabbing the camera just as Henry lined himself up with the height markings. He was a full three inches taller than the last time they had checked his height, and it blew Emma's mind that his teenage years would be spent in a new house just out of the city he had spent his entire life in. The camera flashed and it whirred to life, dispensing the picture out slowly. Emma pulled it out and let it dry on the counter before sidling up beside Henry and holding the camera high above them. "One more."

Henry and Emma made a stop-over at Regina's condo where the moving van was currently parked in front of the entrance, its back open and loaded with almost all of Regina's furniture.

"Hey Billy!" Henry ran ahead of Emma to greet the mechanic and part-time mover for the day.

"Hey little man," Billy nodded at Henry as he carried a carefully bubble wrapped photograph into the bed of the van.

"I thought Aunt Ruby was here."

"She's here. Now ask me if she was helpful." Billy nodded his chin behind him where Ruby was sitting on the futon just in front of the building's hedges.

Emma laughed apologetically and helped move other photographs into the van. "That's Ruby for you."

Regina had exited the building just then with her luggage in tow and followed Henry's sight line to see another woman currently on the sofa, grinning widely at the brunette bartender as they continued to chat.

"Who's that?" Emma asked as she joined the family, eyeing the pale, auburn haired woman.

Regina rolled a shoulder, frowning at the stranger sitting on her couch. "Her surname is French. She lives in the building."

Emma nodded at the information before patting Henry's shoulder. "Go upstairs and see if any of your stuff got left behind."

The boy nodded and sprinted into the building with his mother's key.

Regina turned her head just in time to see Billy attempt to lift her dining room table single handedly. "Be careful!" Regina barked. "You will chip the mahogany."

Startled, Billy gently set the table down, hands up in a surrender before calling out to Ruby. "Rubes! Stop flirting and come help me!"

Emma smirked when Ruby turned her head and glared before standing with her new friend. She saw her pull her phone out of her pocket and tap into it just as the French woman was doing the same. "Huh," Emma muttered low enough for only Regina to hear. "I thought Ruby was into Billy."

"Hmm?" Regina followed Emma's line of sight back to the two women by the couch just as Ruby was looking over her shoulder, grinning when she caught the auburn woman's eye as she made her way back to the van. "It just goes to show some people will surprise you."

They were both eyeing Ruby as she returned, both sporting the same knowing smirk on their face as Ruby frowned at them. "I guess it's true when they say, couples do start looking like each other after they've been together a while."

"Does that mean you're gonna stop tanning and take that red streak out of your hair?" Emma teased.

"Or perhaps you'll verse yourself in Ulysses. I hear she's a librarian," Regina added.

Ruby rolled her eyes and muttered "you guys suck" before lifting the dining table, its corners and edges newly wrapped in cardboard and bubble wrap and setting it inside the van with Billy.

Emma and Regina shared a laugh at Ruby's embarrassed sulk, but they had remembered they were in a hurry and proceeded to pack Regina's Benz with her luggage.

Ruby and Billy had done well to clear out Regina's condo while the family was at breakfast. Henry had come racing down to say that everything he had kept at Regina's was packed and in the van but the women had decided to have a look of their own. As soon as they stepped into the condo, big, white and ominous, Regina was already on her way to the fridge, pulling down the pictures she had collected of them over the years and stacked them into a neat pile. The stainless steel fridge Emma had first been acquainted with grew to include photographs of the family and art projects Henry had made at school. Now, with everything plucked from its magnetic hold, the fridge returned to its original stainless steel plainness. Emma retreated to the bedroom as Regina put the magnets in a baggie, checking all the closets and drawers in the washroom for anything forgotten, but just as her own apartment, everything that wasn't already part of the pre-furnished condo had been packed away.

She jogged down the steps, nearly losing her footing on the glass and held onto the railing tightly before she could fall. "That. That I will not miss."

"That's why I made sure our stairs were made of oak, dear." Regina placed the small stack of photos into her purse and sighed as she looked around. "This is it."

"Yeah." Emma held her hand out, coaxing Regina to stand with her in the center of the room.

Regina didn't hesitate to move around the island and latch onto Emma's hand. They edged their way to the grand windows and looked down onto the city below them. Regina leaned into Emma's side and wrapped her arm around the blonde's waist. "Are you ready?"

Emma chuckled. "We've been basically living together already. Now we just have a mortgage together."

"Not that. About..." Regina dipped her head as her mind swirled with the enormity of today, "...everything."

Emma looked amused for a moment before her nervousness shone through her eyes. "That's a lot to be ready for," she quietly admitted.

"So what are you saying?" Regina looked almost fearful as she caught the vulnerability in blue-green eyes.

"I'm saying," Emma pulled Regina to her and gave her one final, sound kiss. "Let's go home."

Regina murmured pleasantly against Emma's lips, intertwining their hands together before leading them toward the door. They nearly collided into Henry upon their exit, but luckily the boy had stopped short.

"There you are," Henry huffed. "Aunt Ruby said you guys had to do something quickly or something."

Emma rolled her eyes at what Henry had inadvertently overhead but thanked the gods he had misunderstood. She remembered at the last second that she had a copy of Regina's ring on her keychain and moved to the island to remove it and place it down firmly on the counter. Upon seeing Emma, Regina was prompted to removing her own key, along with the one that opened the lobby door, and left it beside the blonde's.

With a heavy heart, they gave the condo one final goodbye before making their way to the door again.

"Wait!" Henry stopped them from leaving and wedged his way in between the two women. He raised the Polaroid up above their heads, making sure they squished in together. "This is the last one."

The camera flashed as the picture dispensed of the trio as they stood together in a home they had called themselves a family in.

The house in Queens offered a bigger space for the growing family, and it was located in an area that was nearby a good school while still close to the city for Emma and Regina to work. It had taken weeks of courage for Emma to propose the idea of living together, but when Regina chuckled and asked what they were currently doing since their belongings were split between the two apartments, Emma had jokingly answered they were overpaying in rent.

Emma's apartment was too small and out of the way from Regina's studio, and Regina's condo, while lavish, didn't have the space for an ever growing Henry. It had been a gruelling year, visiting open houses, communicating with realtors and financial advisers, and saving up the funds for the down payment, but they had finally gotten it - a house they would all be living in as a family.

It was a simple three-bedroom house that was in sore need of a paint job if Regina had any say in it, with a small lawn out front along the driveway and a yard out back that connected tightly with the neighbours behind and beside it. There was no white picket fence or tire swing hanging off a tree, but as Emma exited her bug with Henry, catching Regina's eye as she slipped out of the Benz, she grinned feeling like it was already home.

August and Frederick were already inside putting together Henry's bed when the family and the moving van arrived. In their haste to empty the van in time for Ruby and Billy to use it, August and Frederick had littered the lawn and living room with the Swans' belongings. Emma could tell it was a mess that made Regina wince.

"Already on it," Emma assuaged before Regina even thought to speak up as she tied up her hair into a loose bun and lifted a box labelled with her clothes into her arms.

"Hey, you made it," Frederick greeted, exiting the house and clapping Emma on the shoulder.

"Where's Kathryn?" Emma turned, walking backwards toward the house - her house - her house with Henry and Regina.

"She's not feeling too well right now, but she's coming tonight. Wouldn't miss it."

Emma gave an embarrassed smile then nodded her head to her old mattress resting against the brick wall of the exterior. "Can you bring that into the spare room? There's one already in the master."

Regina cocked an eyebrow as she tugged her luggage free from her trunk. "Frederick, if that mattress doesn't make it into the house, it won't be the end of the world."

"Hey," Emma whined. "There are good memories on that."

"Gah, don't!" Henry covered his ears and bolted into the house.

Ruby laughed out loud as she exited the backed-in van and air high-fived Emma. "Good one."

Billy jogged over to help Frederick with the mattress and smirked. "Should we get some disinfectant first?"

Regina sent both laughing men a death glare that shut them up immediately. They quickly scampered into the house with the mattress, Ruby following close behind with one of the bubble-wrapped photographs, leaving Regina to direct her glare at Emma. "Put your clothes away."

Emma looked down sheepishly. "Yes, dear."

It took a good few hours to get everything inside the house. Once the van was cleared, Frederick bid the others goodbye and drove it back to the rental agency with Billy. They were nowhere near unpacked, but as morning turned into afternoon, the major necessities were out of the way. That being said, everyone inside the house realized that the air conditioning had was in need of replacing making the house as hot as the outside with its summer blazing sun. August had finished setting up Henry's bed, and he and his honorary nephew decided to spend their time laying about the room with a few of the kid's comics and a fan blowing their way. His clothes at least were hanging in the closet, but his new desk had yet to be set up.

Dozens of Regina's photographs were lining the main hallway, still encased in its protective bubble wrap, waiting to be hung up on the walls. The futon was situated in front of the flat screen that remained unplugged and unhooked to any sound system, DVD player, or VHS player, an item Emma refused to part with claiming there was no other way of watching Disney classics than by rewinding the cassette. Still, she enjoyed the DVDs Regina had gifted them with, only for the special features, of course.

All that needed to be set up was the bed in the master bedroom, a task delegated to Emma and Ruby. Their only hindrance in the whole process was when Emma accidentally dropped the bag of screws for the bed frame causing both women to scour on their hands and knees for the missing screws, washers, and bolts. After less than an hour of getting the frame ready, they heaved the queen sized orthopedic mattress onto it nicely.

"So you had sex on this bed too?" Ruby asked with a smirk as they placed the bed sheets onto the mattress.

Emma made a face and shook her head, tossing the pillows by the headboard. "No, I'm not gonna answer that."

The brunette laughed out loud and plopped down onto the pathetically made bed. She stared up at the ceiling and patted the spot beside her. Emma followed suit and laid down beside her best friend.

"Granny's gonna watch Henry tonight, right?" Emma confirmed with the younger brunette.

"She wants to see your place too, but you know what she said?" Ruby's face scrunched up and her voice deepened to a gruff to imitate her grandmother. "I wouldn't miss Emma's opening if my joints were as spry and limber as they used to be."

Emma laughed at the impression with the brunette as they settled comfortably on the bed for a moment of relaxation.

"He's sleeping over too, so if you and Regina want to..." Ruby waggled her eyebrows and grinned wolfishly, earning herself an eye roll and a smack from Emma.

Realization sunk in after a few minutes when Emma finally took in the fact that she was now her own boss. She sat up partially at the thought. "God, it's only in a few hours. I have to go there soon."

"Well who told you to move the same day your bar was opening?"

"We had to be out of our places by today," the blonde argued. She covered her eyes with her fists. "It's gonna be a busy weekend."

"You'll get through it," Ruby said with a squeeze of Emma's arm. "You always do."

The blonde smiled shyly, a silent thank you in her eyes as they continued to rest from the exhausting day that still wasn't over yet.

"You're all grown up," Ruby whispered.

Emma nudged her shoulder bashfully. "I'm older than you."

"I'm happy for you," Ruby said seriously, turning her head to show her intent. "You've got a house now, Em. You have a family and your dream job. Everything you always wanted."

There was fear in Emma's eyes for a moment as she kept her gaze on the lightbulb above them. "All I gotta do is not mess it up."

Ruby threw her arm over Emma for a lying down hug. "You won't."

Emma jogged down the stairs, oak as Regina had promised, and bypassed the living room, making a mental note to call the cable guy by the end of the weekend before pushing her way through the swinging door and stepping into the rather large kitchen. Regina's dining room table had already been set up in the dining room, but they had managed to clean up the breakfast table from Emma's to match the cabinets and counters of the new house. The breakfast table and kitchen floor was littered with appliances, mostly Regina's since Emma's best friend was the microwave, but the couple found out the blonde had a penchant for baking, and most of the cupcake and cookie trays belonged to Emma.

Regina was putting away the groceries they had managed to salvage from either apartment into their proper locations. Despite the mess, Regina looked every bit as comfortable as if she were standing in her old kitchen.

"Hey," Emma greeted with a grin. "Our bed's done. All settled in?"

Regina walked to a box on the table and pulled out a large baking pan and fluffed out her apron. "I was going to make them something as a late lunch."

Emma aided the woman by unpacking the dishes, utensils, and the newspaper wrapped glasses from a separate box. "I don't think there's time to make a lasagna. Raincheck?"

"Are you turning down my lasagna?" Regina feigned shock, hanging the apron on a newly installed wall hook. "That's a first."

Emma rolled her eyes, unable to admit the butterflies in her stomach that wouldn't settle down were squashing down her appetite. Instead, she continued unpacking in their comfortable silence, placing what they could in cabinets or drawers. Emma had finished her box first and lifted herself up onto the counter and began popping wayward bubble wrap. She smirked when Regina looked up at her with a glare and popped another bubble defiantly.

"You know," Emma said casually, dropping the bubble wrap onto the counter beside her. "We have a whole house we have yet to christen."

Regina stopped her unpacking, pausing as she stretched up to place mixing bowls on the highest shelf of a cabinet. Inches of skin, browned from the sun peaked from under her thin t-shirt and denim cut offs. The heat proved to be too much even for the Latina, and Emma couldn't help but be more than happy about that. Regina raised a coy eyebrow and drew back on her heels, leaning back against the counter opposite Emma and mischievously played with the collar of her shirt. "And how do you plan on rectifying that?"

Emma swallowed hard, not expecting Regina to take the bait. She composed her features and rolled a shoulder non-chalantly, but her eyes darkened considerably. "Well, the kid will be at Granny's soon, and I don't really have to go into work. See I'm a business owner now."

Regina shook her head, a content smile on her lips before she finished with her own box and made her way to nestle in between Emma's legs.

"Shouldn't you be on your way soon?" Regina questioned, checking her watch for the time.

Emma nodded animatedly, her hands finding Regina's sides and tugging at the shirt she was wearing to bring her in closer. "I'm gonna go in an hour or so."

"You can't be late to your own grand opening, dear," Regina said lightly.

"I like to make an entrance," Emma shrugged coyly.

"You did learn from the best."

The blonde grinned and leaned her head in to close the distance between them. Before their lips could connect, she felt Regina's arms snake their way up and behind Emma's neck and tug on the strands of hair there. "I'm so proud of you," Regina whispered breathily into Emma's mouth.

"Of me?" The blonde asked in almost disbelief.

Regina nodded. "You'll do an amazing job, Emma."

"You're the one that helped me get the loan," Emma downplayed with her eyes averted though she pressed their foreheads together.

Regina shook her head. "I taught you how to talk to investors and how to efficiently manage a business. You can lead a horse to water but you can't make them drink."

Emma chuckled. "Your mom was right about that horse obsession, huh?"

Regina rolled her eyes and pushed on Emma's shoulder before joining her hands behind the blonde's neck again. A flash of nerves passed through Emma's eyes, but before it could come to full fruition, Regina leaned forward, eager to kiss the fears away.

Before their lips could connect, the ringing of Regina's phone separated them for the second time. The brunette huffed and extracted herself from Emma's legs and fished into her purse for her phone. Emma took the time break up the cardboard boxes and flattened them against the wall to be taken to the recycle bin. When Regina had ended her call, she found the brunette with a frustrated frown on her face.

"I need to return to my studio. There's something wrong with the prints I sent to the community center, so I have to make sure I still have the originals at least." Regina was already pushing her way out of the kitchen and pulling on the thin cream-coloured cardigan she had draped on the coat rack. The heat may get to her, but Regina always made it a point to dress appropriately for business, and the cardigan hid the casual attire the sun had forced her to wear.

Emma followed with her purse and her brows furrowed. "How long will that take?"

Regina stepped into Emma and pressed a firm kiss to her lips. "I promise I will be there tonight."

"Okay." Though neither could ignore the uncertainty in the blonde's voice. "Love you."

Regina pulled open their front door and called up the stairs. "Henry! I'm just on my way to the studio. I'll be back in a few hours."

"Okay!" Henry's muffled voice sounded from his room.

Regina gave Emma a smile that reached her eyes as they lingered in the doorway. It was an exhausting day, and it was only going to get more stressful, but in that reassuring smile, Emma calmed down some. Regina winked. "I love you too."

The Barrel was bustling with life ever since Emma had removed the red rope of the entrance line over an hour earlier. Before opening, she had gone to her bar in midtown hours earlier to make sure everything was clean and set up for the night. The live band that would be performing for the time being were already set up and doing their sound check, and by the time the rest of her employees came in, a motley crew of people whom she had become friends with over the past few weeks, she was ready to give them a pep talk. Instead, they had joked around for the better part of the hour before Emma sobered up as opening grew closer and closer, wishing everyone good luck.

An hour into service, and so far, things were running much smoothly than Emma had anticipated. She wiped down the counter as her workers tended the bar and took a moment to take in the scene before.

She remembered walking by the place on one of her and Regina's trips of scouting residences. Back then, it was just a large empty space with a small room above that Emma had converted into an office space. She had persuaded Regina to take a look inside, but when she inquired about the lease, the down payment on the space made her turn her tail. It was Regina who encouraged her to take out a loan after Emma had flat out refused the brunette's offer of buying out the lease for her. They had been in a precarious situation then, old wounds nearly torn wide open, but after careful communication where Emma relented on help from Regina, and with both Henry and Regina's encouragement, Emma had gotten the space and remodelled it as she pleased.

The walls were made of dark wood that boasted photographs of the city taken by Regina herself. A large area in front of the bar was designated dance space that stopped just short of the raised platform that held the live band. Emma planned on supporting upcoming artists by hiring them as the band of the week, and so far, she had quite a few inquiries about it. The music brought in new people, and she was hoping it'd be a mutual benefaction. So far, so good by the looks of the dancing crowd. The far side was lined with booths that were more secluded and away from the general populace. It was closer to the back where the pool table and dart boards were located.

The Barrel was a place where Emma could see herself just coming in to every Friday if she was just a regular patron, and by the happy chatter around her, she was hoping it would become a place others would frequent regularly as well. She knew she couldn't base her predictions on this one night. Hell, she'd probably still be in the red after a year, but she had her own place and her family beside her, and that was a start.

Speaking of which, she noticed that Regina had yet to return from her studio, and that had been hours ago. She bit her lip in worry, debating on calling Regina, but the presence of a familiar person shook her out of her thoughts.

"Look at you, hotshot," August grinned. "Do I have competition?"

Emma laughed, bringing the loose strand of hair that escaped her pony tail back around her ears. She adjusted her tie and suit and tossed the rag into the sink behind her. "Gin, right?"

Emma wasted no time in grabbing August's favourite brand of gin, smirking when she tossed it in the air and caught it, pouring his drink behind her back.

"Now you're just stealing my thing," August teased, accepting the drink.

"Please, you know how many good bartenders can do that?" Emma scoffed motioning to her own as they did various tricks with shakers and shot glasses. "Your thing was the smoking hot babes dancing on the fireman's pole."

August shrugged, not denying the fact as he held out a twenty for Emma. "Your first dollar."

Emma waved it off. "On the house."

"Come on, how poetic would it be that your first dollar at your own bar came from your favourite boss?" August argued. "And not some stranger ordering a beer?"

Emma retrieved a twenty from her inner jacket pocket and held it out proudly. "Actually he ordered rum, and my first dollar came from-"


Killian emerged from the crowd with none other than Maleficent under his arm. The sight of the curly haired blonde made Emma share a silent look with August. "Another, if you please, love. And surprise the lady."

Mal feigned boredom as she glanced around the area, lingering on the band before finally turning back and catching Emma's eye.

"Hey, never thought I'd see you here," Emma mused as she replaced the bill and poured rum into a tumbler for Killian. She made her most expensive, girliest and strongest drink for Maleficent. Oh, sweet revenge. "Having fun?"

Maleficent scoffed and rolled her eyes. "Hardly."

"Not too shabby there, Swan," Killian saluted with his glass, ignoring Maleficent's comment. "Though if I recall correctly, you claimed to be a dancer, did you not?"

"Yeah, not really in that business anymore, Jones," Emma said crossing her arms over her chest.

"Pity," Killian said. "Though if you pull yourself away from the counter for a moment and find me on the dance floor, I'd be much obliged."

Before Emma could remind him that she was still very much with Regina, Ruby came stumbling over, completely crashing into Maleficent, spilling the blonde's drink over her dress, and stomping on Maleficent's six-inch heels.

"Oh no," Ruby apologized profusely, making little attempt to clean her mess. "I'm so sorry. I must be drunk."

Maleficent gaped at her ruined dress, noticed the suppressed smirk on the "drunken" Ruby, and growled. "Does everyone around you have a problem with holding their liquor?" She stomped away, not bothering to wait for an answer.

Killian watched her leave, continuing to sip his rum as if an angry Maleficent were an every day occurence. "I suppose I should follow her."

They watched him trail after her, but when the familiar sight of Tania Bellil crossed his path, he immediately detoured and followed Regina's new friend.

"What the hell was that?" August questioned Ruby with a laugh.

Ruby ignored him and leaned over the counter to whisper to Emma. "That was the girl with the Manolo Blahniks, right?"

Emma gaped at her best friend completely bewildered but nodded.

"Told you I keep my promises." She reared back and suddenly her face brightened. "Oh! There's Belle."

As quick as she had come, Ruby was gone as soon as the auburn haired woman from Regina's condo had walked in through the door. August turned to Emma with a curious look but shook his head, deciding not to ask. He promised not to make too much trouble and left Emma at the counter where she filled in a few more orders and greeted a few more familiar faces who had made it out for the night, one of them being from the newly legal Ashley.

"Emma!" The young blonde squealed as she leaned over the counter to give her a hug. "This place is awesome! Congratulations!"

Emma grinned at her enthusiasm and shrugged her thanks.

"I'm gonna miss having you as a neighbour," Ashley admitted with a sad smile.

"You know we'll still visit each other. I owe you how many years of babysitting jobs?"

Ashley waved her hand dismissively. "As long as Alex and Henry can still play together, don't even worry. You guys have only been gone a day, and all I keep hearing is Alexandra asking where Henry is."

The two blondes shared in a laugh when the sound of one of Emma's employees at the other end of the counter caught her attention.

"I'll get back to you, Ash, but I gotta check this out real quick." Emma grabbed the closest bartender beside her and motioned to her friend. "Here, Sean. Can you get her a drink?"

Emma was off just as Ashley and Sean held gazes and grinned shyly at one another.

"Sean," he offered his hand to her.

"Ashley." She shook it, pink tinting her cheeks.

The classic rock covers mixed with the originals the band was playing permeated the air as the crowd danced to the beat. Emma maneuvered past the other bartenders to get to Tamara, the furthest one at the end. When the broken bottle of Grey Goose crunched under Emma's foot, Emma could see the reason behind the worry in the woman's face. She reassured her, simply telling her to clean it up and get a new bottle and not to worry. She released the breath she had been holding and decided that if that was going to be the only thing going wrong tonight, then Emma counted herself lucky.

She remembered that an important aspect to any business was to keep customers happy, so she removed herself from the bar once the broken bottle situation was handled and mingled with the crowd. She greeted familiar faces, co-workers who had worked with her at both August's and the restaurant, and introduced herself to new ones. She was building rapport, as Regina had stated, and rapport bred customer loyalty.

She found Fredrick and a newly pregnant Kathryn at the back by the dart boards. They were laughing at the fact that despite Frederick's athleticism, the millionaire heiress was schooling his ass in darts. Killian had apparently made it into Tania's good graces as they were dancing in the middle of the dance floor, Ruby and her new friend Belle not too far off. She caught August's eye as he no doubt was attempting to con someone out of their money in a game of pool. He would complain about shin splints in his leg for the first two games, losing intentionally, but when the third came around with the stakes at double or nothing, we wiped the table clean, shrugging innocently at his winnings.

She had good friends who had come out to support her in her new bar, and Emma couldn't be more thankful for that. Woah, the thought hit Emma suddenly. This is all mine. She bit her lip to contain her euphoric grin, but the feeling of something missing struck her hard. Regina still wasn't there. Resolved on her decision, she disappeared past the washrooms to the small office room upstairs. She had all the time in the world to build rapport and serve drinks. She wanted Regina to be with her tonight to celebrate.

As she pushed open her door, she stopped in its entrance, the worry she had flooded out of her at the sight of Regina. The brunette had apparently gone home - to their home - and changed into the sleek black number she was wearing now as she sat with her legs crossed on Emma's desk.

"That certainly took you long enough." Regina's voice had lowered an octave to a tone that did unnatural things to Emma's core.

"What's a woman like you doing in a place like this?" Emma asked coyly, reiterating the first words she had ever spoken to the woman. She shut the door behind her with a resounding click and closed the distance between them.

"My partner owns the bar, though she seemed to have forgotten about little old me."

"What an idiot." Emma trailed her nails up Regina's thighs, parting them enough to situate herself between them. "Were you here all this time?"

"Just the last fifteen minutes." Regina tugged Emma towards her by the tie, eyeing the outfit with approval. "I had to find ways to entertain myself."

"That's a euphemism if I ever heard one," Emma teased, planting her hands on the desk of either side of Regina's body. "Are things good with the stills?"

"All settled," Regina reassured. "Jefferson sends his congratulations."

Emma grinned. "I think Tania and Killian are hitting it off."

Regina laughed out loud as her hands settled on Emma's shoulders, kneading out the tension there. "She'll eat him for breakfast."

"Not really the image I want when I'm between your legs, Regina," Emma joked, leaning completely into her. "I'm so glad you're here."

"Where else would I be?" Regina asked, moving her head up just a bit to press her lips against Emma's.

The kiss was slow and insistent, and Emma put as much gratitude and affection as she could into it. She wouldn't be here if it weren't for Regina. Sure, she had her dreams of being her own boss when it was just her and Henry, but when Regina presented the idea that her dream could become a reality, Emma grabbed onto it, thankful that Regina had been there the whole time through offering advice and business perspectives that Emma wouldn't have known otherwise. She knew businesses failed because owners went into it for the wrong reasons, but Regina had helped to map out why Emma could succeed. Now all Emma had to do was not fail.

Regina pulled back and placed a gentle kiss to the corner of Emma's lips when she felt the tension return to Emma's shoulders. "What are you stressed about?" Regina coaxed gently, her words as melodic as the soothing rhythm of her massage.

Emma bit her lip and let her fears flood her for a moment more as she grabbed onto Regina's waist as if she were a life raft. "Do you know that 33% of start ups fail within the first year?"

Regina raised a curious eyebrow at the factoid.

"I read that book you suggested," Emma shrugged.

Regina tugged Emma in closer by the shoulders as her hands continued their massage. "Then you also know that 44% of businesses are still up at the five year mark."

"That's less than half," Emma complained.

"It's a risk," Regina said assertively, ever the voice of reason.

Emma sighed and grabbed Regina's hands and brought them in between them, squeezing them tightly. "It's going to be really hard at first," Emma warned.

"I know."

"I could be working a lot."

"We've already talked to Henry about it."

"I just-"

Regina removed her hands so that it was she who was holding Emma's. Her thumbs roved soothingly over the back of Emma's hands as she dipped her head to lock gazes with the worrisome blonde. "I know the risks. I know the sacrifices you have to make, the ones we all have to make. I'm not going anywhere, Emma. I hope you aren't too."

Still Emma continued to avert her eyes. "It might be a while before we're in the black."

"Then we will handle it. Together. Whether you accept it or not, I am your partner in this, wherever you need me." Regina cupped Emma's face to hold the blonde's gaze.

It was a simple enough promise, but right then and there, it was all Emma needed to hear. She wasn't alone in this, and although this bar could be sink or swim endeavor, she and Regina wouldn't let it go without a fight. She smiled genuinely, feeling almost foolish at her near panic attack. "I love you, you know that, right?"

Regina smirked. "Do you think I just buy a house with any old stranger?"

"Old?" Emma scoffed. "You are six years older than me."

Regina pulled back entirely, her hands retreating to cross over her chest and her death glare etched expertly on her face.

Emma tugged Regina's hands away and laced them back around her neck. "And super hot, might I add."

Regina rolled her eyes but allowed the contact. "Good save, dear." She pecked Emma quickly before sliding off the desk and tugging Emma's hand along with her. "Come along, dear. You have people to charm."

"So I was thinking," Emma began as Regina held the door open for them, "karaoke Wednesdays. Think it'll be a hit?"

Regina stopped in her tracks and gaped at Emma. "You cannot be serious."

"Just you and me then, huh?" Emma smirked. "Do a little Total Eclipse?"

Regina rolled her eyes and left Emma standing in the entrance of her office door as she descended the stairs. She looked over her shoulder and grinned wickedly at Emma. "We could do that, or we can christen your office."

Emma laughed, biting her lip just to contain the grin that wanted to burst across her face. There was still so much to be done with the new house and the new bar, but Emma just had a feeling that it would all work out. It wouldn't be easy, and it'd be a hell of a bumpy ride, but it would be worth it. She had her kid, happy and healthy, and she had Regina, a woman she never believed could ever love her, picking her up whenever Emma doubted herself. She was pretty damn lucky.

She patted her jacket pocket, feeling the small velvet box she had hidden in there before leaving the house, and chased after Regina, pressing her lips to the brunette's ear when she caught up with her. "I have to ask you something."