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I'm Stuck With You (But I Wouldn't Want Anyone Else)

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Emma wakes up on the morning of her sixteenth birthday to a slight buzz - like the quiet static you would hear on the radio when there is no music playing.

She slowly opens her eyes, rubbing the sleep from them, and looks around her cramped room. Her foster sister's bed is empty, bedspread thrown haphazardly at the foot of the bed.

"I suppose I should tell you happy birthday," a voice says. Emma jumps looking wide eyed at the empty room.

What the hell? Emma thinks and crawls out of bed to see if the window has been left open. Again. But the window is latched shut and there is no one waiting on the other side.

There's a soft chuckle. "Are you really this dense? Tell me how old you are today?"

"Sixteen?" Emma says to the empty room.

"Exactly, and what happens when you turn sixteen?"

"Wha- Oh! Oh, you're… my soulmate," Emma says, coming to a standstill on the way to the door.

"Supposedly, at least," the voice says.

"I'm glad to see you put just as much stock in this whole soulmate business as I do," Emma says, and walks to the bathroom, shutting the door behind her. "Do I have to keep talking out loud or can you actually hear me if I just think it?"

"You're an idiot," the voice says.

"I love you two, Sweetie," Emma thinks, and hears a strange sound interrupt the buzzing. "Did you just snort? How do you even manage to mentally snort?"

"I did no such thing, dear, and you'd do best not to accuse me of such again," she says.

Emma laughs as she puts toothpaste onto her toothbrush and caps the tube. "Is it possible that the only reason I was made your soulmate was to help you get that stick out of your ass? I feel like a doctor would have had better luck with that," she thinks.

"These last few months of silence were a blessing."

"Well, you're not the only one who is sick of this already," Emma says and spits into the sink.

"Wonderful. You just stay in your head and I'll stay in mine."

"Pretend you don't exist? Consider it done," Emma says. Her mind goes quiet again, just a soft buzz that is easy enough to ignore, and with it Emma suddenly feels much more relaxed than she had over their course of their conversation.

Emma looks in the mirror as she throws her long, blonde hair into a ponytail, and that's when it hits her. The irritation that she felt during their conversation wasn't hers - it was her soulmate's.

...

By the end of the week Emma still hasn't heard another word from her soulmate. It's not like Emma wants to talk to her, definitely not. She just wants to know how it all works.

"How do I turn this thing on?" Silence. "Okay, obviously not like that. Am I supposed to call you? Because you hung up before I could get your name." Emma feels a growing wave of irritation and smiles. "What about cupcake? Snuggle bear? My queen?"

"Would you shut up already?"

"There she is," Emma says triumphantly, smacking her hands down on the math textbook on the bed in front of her. "Thank you for gracing me with your presence, My Queen."

"Don't call me that," the voice snaps.

"You're right, you're more of an evil queen if anything," Emma says. "I suppose I'll have to stick with cupcake."

"You're enjoying this too much," the voice says.

"And you're not enjoying it enough," Emma thinks, chewing on the end of her pencil. "Please just tell me your name though, because I keep thinking of you as 'the voice in my head' and it is making me feel like I'm going crazy."

"So it's not hearing a voice in your head that makes you feel crazy, but not knowing the name of the voice? Smart and logical, I just can't believe my luck," the voice says.

"Well somebody had to be stuck with you, I think I'm the one with the real good luck here," Emma says.

"Was there a point to this conversation?"

Emma shrugs and scribbles down the answer to a math problem. "Wanted to make sure I wasn't hearing things."

"Oh, and as the talking voice in your head, how is that going?" the voice asks.

Emma ignores the question. "I'm Emma."

"Okay?"

"It's nice to meet you. I mean, no, it's not really all that nice, but don't you think we should at least try to get along. We don't really have a choice, do we?" Emma says, erasing part of her answer on her notebook.

"I like to think that there is always a choice. You shouldn't be forced to be with someone just because the universe decides it must be that way."

"True," Emma says slowly. "But have you ever heard of someone not being with their soulmate once they've met them? And I mean this purely for curiosity's sake. Isn't your soulmate supposed to be your perfect match, like they're exactly what you need even if you don't realize that you need it?"

"But why can't there be multiple people in your life that fit your needs. It's completely unrealistic for there to only be one person in all the world," she says.

"No, I totally get that. But I've always been told that with your soulmate it's more, that any kind of connection you could have with anyone in the world, no matter how great or unbreakable, still dwarfs in comparison to the connection you'll have with your soulmate," Emma says.

The voice is silent, but Emma can tell that she's thinking what to say next. "I suppose there is no reason that can't be true, but I don't like the forced nature of it all. That you don't get a chance to explore that relationship or any other, you don't get to grow into seeing if they are your perfect match or if someone else is, you're just told that they are and are expected to believe it."

Emma leans back against the headboard. "But isn't that why we can't specifically use our connection to meet. We have to actually talk to each other and get to know one another and build a connection. It's still something you have to work for, even if you don't get a say of whose voice is in your head," Emma says and hears the voice laugh.

"No, we most definitely don't get a say," the voice says.

"You sure know how to flatter a girl," Emma says.

"I'm only calling it as I see it," she says.

"Are you ever going to tell me your name?" Emma asks.

"Undecided," the voice says.

"Well then, Cupcake, it's been swell, but I've really got to finish this math homework," Emma tells her.

"Studious. Shocking," she says.

"Why exactly would that be shocking? You know nothing about me, which is kind of the point of this whole mental telepathy thing - to get to know one another. But what's the point when you've already got me all figured out?"

"I'm good with first impressions," she says.

"You do realize that first impressions aren't always all that accurate, right?" Emma says with a short laugh, copying down the next problem in her assignment.

"Then by all means, prove me wrong," the voice says.

"That sounds like a challenge, and I'll have you know, I never back down from a challenge," Emma says and the voice snorts. "And you say that you don't snort."

"Emma," the voice says and their connection grows stronger for a moment, Emma feels her name reverberating first through her head and then down through the rest of her body.

"Yes, My Queen?" Emma can't keep the smile off of her face.

"Good night." The connection cuts out, and Emma laughs. As uptight as her soulmate may be there is something intriguing about her that Emma can't quite put her finger on. She turns back to her homework and focuses on it for the rest of the night.

...

"But what's it like?" her foster sister asks her a few nights later. "Having a soulmate, what's it like?"

Emma rolls away from the wall to lie on her back. "Like it was before? We don't really talk, and it's easy to just tune each other out. I forget she's even there - somewhere." No, she doesn't forget, she never does. But no one needs to know that.

"She? So your soulmate is actually a girl?" Cassie says.

Emma rolls onto her side. "Really, Cassie? You've known I was a lesbian almost from the day I moved in here, did you really expect anything else?" she says, the words hushed as she glances to their closed bedroom door.

"I just didn't think it really worked that way. Like you could think that you were interested in girls, but if your soulmate happened to be different than what you expected maybe you just weren't as gay as you thought you were."

Emma's mouth falls open in exasperation and she rolls onto her back. "If you thought I was an idiot, you should meet my foster sister, I've got nothing on her," she tells her soulmate.

"You do realize that's not much different that telling someone it's just a faze, right? You can be gay until your soulmate comes along, and then, as it turns out, you weren't really gay after all. It doesn't work that way, Cas. If your soulmate is the same gender as you it's because somewhere inside of you there has always been something that's been attracted to the same sex, even if it's so subtle that you don't even realize it at the time, it had to be there."

"She's probably been spending too much time around you then," the voice says.

"It's probably the opposite in this scenario," Emma says.

"I guess," Cassie says. "But what would you have done if your soulmate was a boy?" Emma hears her shuffle closer to the edge of her bed.

"I'm gay, Cassie. My soulmate couldn't have been a boy. It doesn't work that way," Emma says.

"And what exactly is this very rare scenario?" the voice says.

"She's surprised that my soulmate is a girl," Emma tells her.

"Did she not know of your attraction to women?" she asks.

"No, she's known about that for months. I think she's still stuck on the idea that two women can be soulmates. I think she thought my soulmate would turn out to be a guy and I've been wrong about being gay this whole time," Emma says.

"It's quite appalling how many people are of that mindset," the voice says, her words laced with a sadness that Emma can feel in the pit of her stomach.

"Did the samething happen to you?" Emma asks her.

There's a hesitation before, "Let's just say that when you're bisexual people like to forget the fact that you are attracted to two genders and not just the opposite gender. Some people were not too thrilled to find out that my soulmate wasn't a guy," the voice says softly.

"I'm sorry-"

"Emma," Cassie says as loudly as she can without risking waking anyone.

"Jesus, what, Cassie?" Emma says and hears the voice laugh in her head.

"I've been talking and you were just spacing out the entire time," Cassie says.

"I wasn't spacing out," Emma tells her.

"Yes, you- Oh. Your soulmate. You were talking to your soulmate," Cassie says. Emma can feel her excitement radiating in the space between their beds.

"Go to sleep, Cassie," Emma tells her and closes her eyes.

Emma doesn't hear Cassie's response as she says, "I am sorry that you have to deal with that. It's shitty that any of us have to deal with it, and I get that I'm probably not what you expected or what you wanted-"

"Emma, I've never had a problem with even the idea that my soulmate could be another woman, and I have no problem with that having come to be reality. While my- some people in my life may not approve, that is something I will have to learn to deal with."

"Either way though, it sucks," Emma says.

"That it does, dear. But hopefully one day it will learn to suck a little bit less," she says.

"That would be nice," Emma thinks as she yawns.

"Get some sleep, dear. I'll still be here when you wake up."

"Oh har har," Emma says, but her eyes fall shut and she pulls her blankets closer around her.

"Goodnight, Emma," she says.

"'Night," Emma says.

It isn't until Emma is almost asleep that she hears "Regina," said very softly.

"Hmm?" Emma says.

"Regina. My name is Regina," she says.

"Regina," Emma repeats just before sleep claims her.

...

"Hey, Regina," Emma says. She flips her test over, laying it face down on her desk, and rests her head in her hand as she surveys the rest of her class still testing. "Regina." She swings her legs under her desk.

"Yes, Emma?" Regina responds. Emma grins at how easy it is to annoy her simply by calling her name.

"Good afternoon, My Queen," Emma says, then frowns. "Or is it afternoon? It's afternoon here, but is it-"

"Yes, Emma. It is indeed afternoon."

Emma's grin returns. "Cool." She catches the girl sitting next to her giving her a strange look. "Note to self (and Regina): apparently people can tell when you're having a conversation in your head. Why do I have a feeling this is only the beginning of the strange looks that I'm going to receive?"

Regina snorts - and really? How could she possibly even try to deny it anymore. "Think real hard, Emma. Is this actually anything new since we developed our connection or have people just been giving you strange looks all along?"

Emma doodles swirls on the back of her test. "I have mentioned that you're a real charmer, right?"

"A time or two," Regina says, and there it is. Regina's amusement seeps through Emma's gut. Her grin grows wider.

"Why may I ask, are you suddenly feeling so smug?"

"Nothing you need to concern yourself with Regina, dear," Emma says as she draws a herd of stick figures. "You know, if you're not careful your eyes are going to get stuck in the back of your head from rolling them too much."

"I am doing no such thing," Regina says.

"Regina, you just did it again. Weird soulmate connection, remember? You get all annoyed, but then you secretly find me funny, and then you get all fondly annoyed. Then you roll your eyes." Emma swings her legs faster and catches her teacher's frown from across the room. She shrugs, but slows her pace anyway.

"You think you have me all figured out, don't you?" Regina asks.

"Not even close. You're way more complex than that, Regina - even if you continue to deny that about me. You're not one to be easily figured out in just a matter of weeks. It would probably take months, if not years to even really begin to figure you out."

Regina is silent for a moment. "Good answer," she concedes.

Emma chuckles out loud. Several faces whip around to stare at her, and her face darkens slightly as she looks back down at her desk. "Shit."

"You just laughed out loud, didn't you?" Regina's amusement warms her from the inside.

"...No." Regina's amusement is colored with disbelief. "Okay, so maybe I did. But that really didn't warrant the glare my teacher shot me. Just because a girl quietly laughs during a test - it was completely uncalled for."

"Should I be worried for your safety because of this connection? If you can cause this much trouble while sitting down, I loathe to know just what you would get yourself into while walking around."

"Rude."

"But truthful, dear," Regina says. Emma ignores her.

"So I'm stuck in this stupid history class. But what are you doing? Please tell me it's something far more interesting."

"Well I would say that it definitely beats taking a test," Regina says and Emma frowns. Who's the smug one now? "Riding lessons. It's actually one of my favorite activities - not that I really need the lessons anymore. But there is no way that my mother would allow me to ride in my free time, so I do it under the guise of lessons."

"What's wrong with being able to ride in your free time? I mean horses are terrifying-" Regina laughs. "What? They're big and tall and I'm sure getting trampled to death isn't all that unheard of." Regina laughter grows until Emma feels her whole body vibrating with it.

"It is no such thing. Horses are gentle creatures as long as you treat them properly," Regina tells her.

"Mmhmm I'm sure that they are." Emma taps the end of her pencil against her cheek. "How long have you been riding?"

"Since I was a young girl. I wanted to learn and so my father made sure that I did, despite my mother's wishes. It's been the one thing he has been able to fight her on."

"You're mother seems like a real piece of work," Emma says.

"You have no idea," Regina tells her. There is that sadness again, lacing every word, and Emma wants more than anything to make her laugh again.

"Tell me about your horse. Or is she your horse or just one that you ride?"

"His name is Rocinante." The sadness is gone at the mention of his name. "I've had him for years. Even if you don't like horses, you would like him. It can be hard to earn his trust, but once you've earned it there is no better horse than he. He is sweet and gentle. I was young when I got him and he was a young horse, so we've both been able to grow together."

"That sounds really nice," Emma says, and smiles softly. The bell signaling the end of class echoes through the classroom, startling Emma. She quickly packs her things into her fraying backpack and moves to the front of the classroom to add her test to the growing pile on her teacher's desk.

"You need to learn to control yourself better, Emma," her teacher says with no sympathy. Her soulmate must never make her laugh at all with an attitude like that.

"Maybe your not so bad," Emma tells Regina.

"What?" Regina says, mildly confused at the sudden change in subject.

"You make me laugh. Even if it gets me in trouble. Even if you are an evil witch sometimes," Emma says.

"I'm not sure whether to take that as a compliment or not," Regina says, and there's that amusement again.

"It's a compliment, definitely. My teacher just told me to control myself over my very minor outburst. It makes me wonder if her soulmate has ever really made her laugh out loud, even if she does try to control it. That seems rather boring, if you ask me," Emma tells her.

"Maybe she was like that in the beginning and she really has just learned to control her emotions."

"I think that might almost be worse. It's like the honeymoon stage is gone indefinitely and there's only a sense of complacency left."

"Maybe so. Or maybe you really do just have no sense of self control," Regina teases. That only proves Emma's point further. Here Regina is, making her laugh and teasing her like maybe they could eventually consider themselves friends, like maybe - hopefully - the universe had some idea of what it was talking about.

Maybe the universe got things right for once. Maybe she does have a chance for something in her life to go right for a change.

"I'll have you know I have perfect self control. I could have just skipped class altogether and not have had to take that god awful test in the first place. But did I? No, because I can actually control myself and do what is right," Emma says.

"Yeah, a class that you go to only to disturb everyone in it," Regina says.

"Am I the only one of us that has done something like that?" Emma asks.

"Yes, you are because I can control myself. At least one of us can do that much."

"Regina, I'm going to let you in on a little secret. I like to think of it as a superpower. And would you stop snorting? You're interrupting what I'm trying to tell you."

"Shut up, Emma." Emma smiles and smiles, but lets it drop.

"But it really is like a superpower. I can always tell when someone is lying. Always. And you, Regina, I can always tell when you're lying. So you want to tell me about when you interrupted whatever it was that you shouldn't have?"

"Really, Emma, you're being ridiculous," Regina says.

"I'm being truthful. At least one of us can do that much," she tells Regina.

"It was right in the middle of dinner. My mother, my father and I were all sitting down at the table and my mother was going on about some new high profile client she managed to secure. Right in the middle of her speaking I laughed. I thought she was going to murder me right there. Thought I'd be as dead as the turkey on the table.

But my father laughed, and then tried to hide it with a cough which my mother and I saw right through. I was glad that he was there to take some of the embarrassment away."

"So you're going to get me kicked out of class, and I'm going to get you turned into a dead turkey. I don't know, Regina. I think there might be something to this soulmate business," Emma says.

"Shouldn't you be in class and not in your head, distracted enough that you are obviously not going to pay attention?"

"I have a free period for the last period of the day. So nope. I only have to pay attention enough to not get hit by a car," Emma tells her.

"I suppose that would be rather unfortunate," Regina admits.

Emma's grin is back in place full force. "You can't even deny it anymore, you do like me."

"I find you tolerable at best."

"Mmhmm I sure that you do," Emma says.

"You sound awfully smug over something that you are completely incorrect about."

Emma turns into a neighborhood, taking the long way back to her foster parent's house, face turned up toward the sun that is just peaking out from behind the clouds.

"Where are you riding? Is it an enclosed area or are you out in the open?"

"I managed to talk my instructor into letting me go off on the trails by myself today. It's beautiful up here. You go through a heavily treed area for about a mile before getting to a clearing at the top of the hill. You can see for miles up here."

"That sounds wonderful, Regina," Emma says.

"It really is. I try to come up here as often as I can, preferably by myself. It's quite relaxing," Regina says. Emma doesn't mention the small part of her that wishes she could make the ride up there with her one day - she doesn't think Regina would take to kindly to that possibility.

"It doesn't sound like you get much time for yourself." Emma turns the block, bringing her closer and closer to her current home.

"I just keep busy is all. I have a lot on my plate, so it's on days like this where I'm able to get away and it's just Rocinante and I that I really get to breathe for a short while. It makes it easier to get through until I see him again. I don't know why I'm telling you all of this." Regina laughs softly.

"I'm glad that being with him makes you happy, and you can, you know? Tell me things," Emma says and waits for a response.

"You should know that I don't open up easily, Emma. I've had very few people in my life that I could truly trust. It can be hard to look past that sometimes," Regina tells her.

"I know what that's like. But in a way, we will always be there for one another, whether we're physically around each other or not. I- I've never had any sort of relationship with anyone in my life that's lasted more than a couple months for the most part. So trust me, if anyone knows what it's like to not have someone be there for you, it's me."

"Okay, so neither of us knows what it's like to have someone to count on. Don't you think that makes our odds of having some sort of friendship, let alone anything more, that much more difficult to make last for more than just a short while?" Regina asks.

"I don't know about you, but I wouldn't mind changing my track record," Emma says. She can see her home at the end of the street now. There's a car she doesn't recognize parked in the driveway, but she quickly overlooks it.

"It's a nice thought. I just can't promise anything, Emma. I don't know how…"

"We'll figure it out, Regina. We'll take this friendship as slowly as either of us need to. No expectations. Just two people learning how to trust one another. Does that sound doable?" Emma says, walking up the driveway.

"Yeah. Yeah, I think I could try at least."

"Okay, then we're in agreement," Emma says as she pushes open the door. It's as she makes her way into the house that she sees a familiar face sitting on the sofa in the living room. "Oh, shit. This is bad."

Regina must sense her worry because she quickly responds, "What's wrong? Emma, are you okay?" Emma feels her worry prickle at her skin.

"We'd like for you to have a seat, Emma," her foster mother tells her.

Emma sits without a word. Her social worker looks at her with a frown. "I'm being sent back again, aren't I?" She reads the answer in their silence. "What did I do this time?"

"Emma? Emma, what's wrong?"

"We've been informed that you have lied to us, Emma. That in itself may have been something that we could let off with a warning. But the nature of this lie is not something that we can overlook," her foster mother says, sitting on the couch across from her.

Her foster father stands behind the couch, hands resting on his wife's shoulders. "Cassie has let us in on the fact that you have been in communication with your soulmate, despite having told us that your soulmate must not be of age yet," he says, his gaze piercing.

"Emma!" Her name jolts through her entire body, and she flinches, but the conversation at hand is enough to disguise it by.

"I can't, Regina. Not right now," Emma tells her.

"You're scared, Emma. Why are you so scared?" Regina pleads.

"I'll talk to you about it, but I really need to focus right now. I'm sorry," Emma says.

Emma says nothing in response to her foster father's comment.

"Do you want to explain the truth, Emma?" her social worker asks. "So we can understand what exactly has happened."

"Just another case, of a lesbian orphan being sent back because she's gay. That's what's happening." Emma looks at her social worker with pure resignation. "I've been able to hear my soulmate since the day I turned sixteen. I lied about it because I knew it would get me sent back if my soulmate was a girl - which she is. So I lied," she says looking at her foster parents.

"It's time to pack your things, Emma," her foster father says, but Emma's on autopilot as she picks up her backpack. "You'll be leaving as soon as your things are packed." Emma walks to her room and roughly puts her backpack on her bed.

She pulls her worn duffle bag out from under her bed and pulls it open. She shoves the few belongings she has inside, and walks out the front door without another word, standing by her social worker's car as she waits for her to come outside.

As soon as the car is unlocked, Emma slips inside. They drive off in silence, nothing but the quiet hum of the engine filling the space around them. Emma looks out the window and does her best to block out Regina's worried questioning.

"I'm sorry, Emma," her social worker says a few minutes into their drive. "It seemed like you were doing alright this time."

"I was," Emma says, still looking outside, but seeing nothing. "It's always an issue though, no matter when I try to hide it. It always comes out and I'm back to the group home." She looks over at her social worker. "All the talks I've had about how much easier it would be if I would just change. How maybe I could actually find a family that would keep me if I could just get over this phase.

"But, I don't know. I think this soulmate business is kinda permanent. It's a little harder to try and beat the gay out of me now." She looks back to the window.

"Emma, please tell me you're okay?" Regina's worry encases her entire body as she finally lets her thoughts back in.

"Remember how we were just talking about how relationships in my life rarely last much longer than a few months?"

"Yes," Regina's voice is soft. So soft that it feels like a comforting caress.

"This is just further proof of that."

"Emma, what happened?"

"My foster parents are sending me back. I don't know why I'm surprised - I'm so used to it happening. But somehow I end up being just as blind sided each time it does," she says.

"But why?" Regina asks. Tears begin to stream down Emma's cheeks, and she tries to block out Regina's thoughts.

"Don't you dare do that, Emma," Regina says harshly, but her voice quickly softens once more. "Please, just talk to me. We said we were going to try and make this relationship be different from the rest. So talk to me, Emma."

"I'm afraid if I tell you why you'll blame yourself, and I don't want you to. It's no more your fault than it is mine. It's just the way the world works."

Regina waits for her to continue.

"They asked me if I could hear my soulmate on my birthday. I lied and told them I couldn't; I was scared something like this would happen if they found out the truth. So I lied. But Cassie must have slipped up and said something - I know she wouldn't have done it on purpose.

"But they found out my soulmate was a girl, and I guess that was just too much. I was too weird and disgusting to be under their roof any longer. It's not the first time it's happened. That's just the way the system works. No one wants to adopt a teenager, especially not a gay one."

"Emma, I'm so sorr-"

"There's no reason to be sorry. The first time it happened, I tried to change. I tried to convince myself that I did like guys that everything else was just all in my head. But it doesn't work that way. I had to accept the fact that this is who I am, and a lot of people out there are going to hate me for it. But as long as I'm okay with who I am, the rest doesn't really matter."

"I was wrong," Regina says. "Everytime I called you an idiot. Well, no, you are an idiot, but you are so much more than just that, Emma. I don't know if I could do what you've done. I don't know that I could be that brave."

Emma laughs softly. She sees her social worker glance at her quickly before looking back to the road. Emma sees the understanding on her face.

"I know you could, Regina. Maybe we're both braver than we give ourselves credit for."

"Maybe," Regina says. They say nothing more after that, but Emma can still feel her presence, knows that Regina is still there, trying to comfort her as best she can.

She lets Regina's presence envelop her like a warm hug as she steps out of the car and back into the group home. Regina feels her every emotion as she's given the speech of what's to expect while she is living here, and what is to be expected of her. Regina feels the fear, the anger, the loneliness.

With each new emotion Regina lets her warmth grow stronger and Emma clings tightly to it as she lifts her duffle bag over her shoulder and walks to what is to be her new room.

Emma puts her duffle bag on the foot of the bed and slips off her shoes. She curls up in the middle of the bed, arms wrapped around her legs. "Thank you," Emma says.

Regina says nothing in return, but doesn't leave her for the rest of the night.

...

The months pass and Emma falls into a routine: wake up at 6:00 am, get ready for school, go to school, come home, do homework, go to bed. It is that and Regina's growing presence that keep her mind off of her latest rejection.

Her foster parent's home was close enough to the group home that she was able to stay in the same school district. As such, the change in her living situation does nothing to affect her classes, but only makes her work harder.

"You're ignoring me again, aren't you?" Regina says with a chuckle.

"I'm sorry," Emma says genuinely, pushing her textbook away, further down her bed.

"No, you're trying to study and I was distracting you."

"I was, and you were. But that's okay, I could use a break anyway." She leans back against her pillow. "How was today's adventure with Roci?"

"I told you not to call him that. It's Rocinante," Regina snaps but there's no bite to it, not really.

"Don't be so uptight about it, Reggie," Emma says with a smirk. "Besides, have you honestly never seen an episode of Criminal Minds? There's nothing wrong with your horse sharing David Rossi's name."

"This is what I get for interrupting you, isn't it? Don't call me Reggie and don't call him Roci," Regina says.

"Fine, but you're really missing out. I mean, come on, Reggie and Roci? How cute is that?" Emma feels Regina start to retreat from her mind, but knows she's teasing more than anything. "Fine, fine. I'm sorry, Regina."

"You're forgiven, dear. Before you started being an idiot I was going to tell you that today's ride was quite wonderful - until it started pouring down rain. But even then, it was still nice just getting to be with him for a little while. Maybe-" She goes silent.

"Maybe?" Emma hints.

"It's nothing, Emma. Any word on-"

"Nope. You're not getting out of it that easily. Maybe what, Regina?"

"You would probably hate this suggestion anyway, but I thought that maybe it would be nice if one day, you were to go riding with us. But I know you're not a fan of horses so it was a dumb idea so just ignore it. Have you found-" Her words come out in a rush, and Emma's never heard her sound this flustered.

"Regina. Don't you think you should let me decide if I would want to do it or not?" Emma asks.

"Yes, I'm sorry," she says softly.

"I think I would like that, Regina." Emma replies just as softly, knowing how big of a gesture it is for Regina to offer this, to want Emma to join in on something that she enjoys doing alone. "I think that maybe if I actually saw a horse in person it may not be all that bad."

"I'd be there to show you exactly what to do. Although," Emma feels Regina's humor tickle at her skin, "I'm sure it would be highly entertaining watching you learn."

"That's the only reason you keep coming back to me, isn't it? Just to make fun of me," Emma says.

"Well, it's not the only reason, but it certainly is a perk. But… you really would want to?"

"Yeah, I really would."

"Okay, then it's a date," Regina says, and Emma feels her uncertainty.

"Yeah, it's a date," she says and feels Regina's joy mingle with her own.

...

"Have you finished your last final yet?" Regina asks.

"I just got out of class. We are both officially done for the summer," Emma says as she waits to get on the school bus.

"Yes, and I can't wait to see what my mother has planned to keep me occupied."

"Well, I can at least regale you with my many adventures in volunteer work, because I think it's official that that is the only thing anyone in the home is going to be doing all. Summer. Long," Emma says.

"Volunteer work isn't all that bad, Emma. Mother has had me doing it for years. It won't actually hurt you to do something to help someone simply out of the goodness of your heart," Regina says.

"There is no goodness in my heart," Emma says.

"How many months have be been sharing our thoughts for?"

"Since my birthday, so I don't know - seven or eight months?" Emma says.

"Exactly. So I call bullshit, Emma Swan. There is more goodness in your heart than you may ever realize," Regina says.

"I am touched. Sometimes I forget that you are possible of being nice with how you're constantly hounding me," Emma says, leaning forward slightly as the school bus makes a stop.

"I love how you're trying to deny the compliment I'm giving you by being as ass," Regina says.

"You're right, you never give compliments. I'm just going to stop now," Emma says.

"Good, you're learning," Regina says. "Mother is calling."

"Right, I probably shouldn't be in you head for that. Not after the last time," Emma says.

"Yes, and I didn't think mother could hate this soulmate business more, but we proved her wrong on that," Regina says with a giggle.

"My bad," Emma says and senses Regina rolling her eyes.

"Yes, your bad, Emma Swan," Regina says. "Tonight?"

"Of course. Go make mother proud," Emma teases.

"You're insufferable."

...

"So it's really happening then?" Regina asks.

"Yeah, it looks that way. As far as I know my social worker is on her way," Emma says.

"It's going to work out, Emma," Regina says.

"You don't know that, Regina. It never has before, so what reason do I have to believe that it could be different this time?" Emma says, pacing across her room, her packed duffle bag sitting on her borrowed bed.

"No, I don't know that. But you deserve for it to work out, Emma. You deserve it so much, I just wish there was something that I could do, something to guarantee you don't end up in another home like the last one - that no one out there has to end up in a home like that," Regina says. Emma's heart constricts at the passion in her words.

There's a knock on the door before Emma's social worker peeks her head inside.

"Are you all ready to go, Emma?" she asks. Emma takes a deep breath and nods. She picks her duffle up and slings it over her shoulder, exiting the room for what she hopes is the last time.

"I hope you're right, Regina. I really do."

"I really hope I'm right, too."

Emma gets in the car, and after a few minutes of driving, her social worker says, "I'm hopeful that this could work out for you, Emma. You only have a short time before you will age out of the system, and I'm hopeful that you won't have to continue transferring schools before it is time for you to graduate."

"I'm transferring schools? Again," Emma asks, her shoulders falling as she sinks back in the passenger's seat.

"I'm sorry, Emma, but you're transferring school districts this time. Like I said, hopefully you will be able to finish out the rest of your high school career here," she says.

"Where is here?" Emma asks, pulling a knee up to her chest.

Her social worker frowns and smacks at her leg. "Down." Emma sighs. "Storybrooke High."

"Storybrooke?" Emma laughs. "Never heard of it."

"Well now you have," she tells her.

They fall into a silence that lasts all the way until the pull into the drive of a small, robin's egg blue house with red shutters and a matching red door. The lawn is perfectly manicured and green, with white flowers at the grass' edge.

"Wow," Emma says.

"It's very quaint. Miss Blanchard is expecting you," she tells Emma, motioning for her to get out of the car.

Emma is halfway up the walk when the front door opens and a small, dark haired woman walks outside. She puts her hands on Emma's shoulders and gives her a wide smile. "You must be Emma."

Emma nods, and the woman's hand slides to her back, guiding her inside the house. "I've got your room all set up for you. Although we can go out later and get a few items to personalize it a bit, if you would like." She looks to Emma, who gives her a small smile.

"Wow, Regina. This is definitely a welcoming like no other," Emma says.

"Wow, that bad?" Regina asks.

"Actually no, although she could just be acting this way because the social worker is still here."

"I'm Mary Margaret Blanchard," her latest foster mom tells her as she leads her into the small living room. "You're welcome to call me Mary Margaret or Mary, whichever you prefer." She motions to a set of stairs against one wall. "I thought you might like to have the loft. It's large enough and you'll have to entire upstairs to yourself."

Mary Margaret starts up the stairs and, with her duffle bag slung over her shoulder, Emma follows. The loft is big, a bigger space than Emma ever dreamed she would have. She sets her duffle bag on the floor and surveys the room with wide eyes.

On the far wall there is a queen size bed that sits underneath the window. There is a small dresser and an actual desk. "Is that?" Emma says walking towards an open door. "No way. A bathroom?" She spins to face Mary Margaret again. "I get my own bathroom?"

Mary Margaret chuckles and nods, stepping closer to Emma. "I just want you to feel comfortable here. If there is anything you need, just let me know and we'll see what we can do. This is your home now, Emma." Mary Margaret smiles.

"I'll just go see if Michelle needs anything more," Mary Margaret says starting towards the stairs. "Go ahead and get yourself unpacked."

"Wait!" Emma says, rushing forward as Mary Margaret takes the first step back to the main level of the house. She pauses and looks up at Emma. "Is this- Is this for real? There's not some basement that you're going to lock me up in after she leaves, is there?"

Mary Margaret steps back into the loft. "I'm not sure what the homes that you've stayed in before have been like, but I want you to know that you are safe here. This space is yours while you are living here; this house is yours while you are living here. I hope you can think of this house as your home. I want you to know that any bad experience you have had before in your past homes is something I will do my best to try and prevent from ever happening to you again," she says and gives Emma a warm smile.

Emma takes a deep breath and closes her eyes, not wanting to get used to this life only to have it snatched away again. "I- My soulmate is a girl," she says and opens her eyes. "If you want to send me back because of that please just do it now. Please just do it before I start to get comfortable again." She's not going to cry. She absolutely will not.

"Oh, honey," Mary Margaret says and pulls her into a hug. "That doesn't bother me one bit, and if you happen to meet your soulmate during your time here, she is just as welcome to be here as you are." Her tears fall onto the fabric of Mary Margaret's shirt - and shit, she absolutely was not supposed to cry.

"Okay?" she says, pulling back to look at Emma.

Emma lets out a shaky breath and nods. "Okay."

"Go ahead and get unpacked," Mary Margaret says before descending the stairs.

Emma looks around the room - her room. She wipes at her eyes and then picks up her duffle bag and sets it on the bed.

"Emma?"

"Yeah?"

"Are you still okay?" Her voice is soft, hesitant.

"Yeah, Regina. I'm good, I'm really, really good. I've only been here for ten minutes and I can't believe any of this is real."

Regina chuckles. "Tell me about it."

"I have the entire upstairs to myself - and it's huge. I have my own bathroom, and this bed," Emma falls back against it, "is huge."

Regina laughs again. "I'm glad, Emma. I am so, so glad."

"Me, too," the thought no louder than a whisper.

...

"I don't know why I'm so nervous. I have no reason to be this nervous," Emma says.

"You're starting at a new school, anyone would be nervous," Regina says.

"Yeah, but I've done this so many times - most of them during the middle of the school year."

"You're going to be fine. Just watch, you're going to come out of today with at least a friend or two. They're going to love you, Emma. How could they not?" Regina says.

"Oh, really?" Emma says with a grin. "What, may I ask, makes you so certain of that?"

"I- Oh, shut up, Emma," Regina says sounding flustered. Emma laughs in response.

"My point was," Regina says, "that you are going to be just fine so you need to quit stalling and get to school before you're late."

"Fine," Emma says as she walks into the bathroom to check her hair in the mirror one more time. With a sigh she grabs her backpack off of her desk chair and heads down the stairs.

"Are you all ready to go, Emma?" Mary Margaret asks.

"As ready as I'll ever be," she says.

...

Mary Margaret drops her off in front of the school. "I'll pick you up here after school," Mary Margaret says as Emma opens the door. She takes a deep breath and gets out of the car. "You'll be just fine." Emma nods and shuts the door.

She goes to the office and picks up her schedule. History, room 205. She heads up the stairs, looking at room numbers as she goes.

She finds the room already half full and takes a seat in the back of the room. It's as she's pulling her notebook out of her bag that someone takes the seat beside her.

"Hi," the girl says with a grin. "I'm Ruby." She holds out her hand and Emma shakes it.

"Emma," she says.

Ruby brushes her dark, red striped hair over her shoulder. "I haven't seen you around here before and this school isn't exactly big."

"I'm new. Transferred in from out of the district," Emma tells her.

"Cool," Ruby says, leaning back in her seat as the bell rings and the teacher begins the class.

The class goes by without a hitch and Emma is almost surprised when the bell rings again.

"What do you have next?" Ruby asks when Emma pulls out her schedule.

"Algebra, room 136," Emma says.

"Darn, I have English next. But if you go back downstairs and take the hallway to the right you'll find it," Ruby says. They grab their bags and walk back into the hallway. "I'm this way," Ruby motions to the opposite direction. "But if you want, we can meet up again for lunch."

"I'd like that," Emma says with a smile.

"Awesome. Meet me by the entrance to the cafeteria?" Ruby asks, and Emma nods in response. "I'll see you then."

Ruby leaves and Emma walks in the direction Ruby instructed, hoping the rest of her classes go as well as her first.

By the time lunch comes around Emma is glad for the short break. She waits by the cafeteria entrance with her lunch, watching as students head inside. She nervously leans against the wall hoping Ruby wasn't planning on standing her up.

"How is everything so far?" Regina asks her.

"Not terrible," Emma admits.

"I told you that you would be fine."

"The day isn't over yet," Emma says.

"You need to learn not to be so negative," Regina says.

"I'm supposed to be meeting someone for lunch but she- oh, she's here," Emma says as Ruby comes into sight, smiling as soon as she sees Emma.

"Told you," Regina chimes.

"Whatever."

"Emma, there you are. Come on, Belle is saving us a seat." Ruby leads her to a table near the doors leading outside.

"Hey," a pretty brunette says to Ruby.

"Hey yourself," Ruby says taking the seat beside her and leaning over to press a quick kiss to her lips. "Emma this is Belle. Belle, Emma."

Belle smiles warmly at her. "It's nice to meet you, Emma."

"You, too," Emma says and takes a seat across from them.

"Emma is in my history class," Ruby tells Belle as she slings an arm around the back of her chair. Ruby's eyes are so bright as she looks at Belle; Belle notices her questioning look.

"Soulmates," Belle supplies, watching Emma's reaction.

"Yep," Ruby says with a smack of her lips.

"That's great that you two have found each other already. That doesn't usually happen this early, does it?"

"Nope. But it turns out that she had been sitting two seats ahead of me in our chemistry class for months, and we realized it was each other pretty quickly," Ruby says. "You haven't then?"

"Not yet. We talk so often though, that it's almost like we have, you know?"

"We never really had that since we met so soon," Belle tells her. "But I'm glad it's going well for you so far."

"I am, too. Even if she can be rather annoying and bossy sometimes," Emma tells them and Regina.

"Watch yourself, Emma," Regina says.

Emma laughs out loud and Belle smiles knowingly at her. "Well, you are, but you can be incredibly kind and supportive when you feel like it," Emma says.

Belle turns to Ruby and begins telling her about her most recent class.

"Better," Regina says.

"See, I'm not always an idiot. I know where to draw the line," Emma says.

"It's been almost a year so you better have learned that by now," Regina says.

"Of course I-" Emma nearly chokes on her sandwich when she sees a dark haired girl walking past her table laughing at something her friend just said. The girl is small, latina, and her eyes are so big and bright, that Emma is captivated instantly. The two girls pass by, talking so quietly that Emma can't hear a word that either is saying.

"Are you alright?" Regina says. Emma is instantly filled with embarrassment that only grows when she realizes Regina can feel it, too. "What happened?"

"Nothing," Emma says too quickly.

"Nope, not buying it. Tell me," Regina says.

"I don't think that's a good idea."

"Why not?"

"Because you're probably not going to be too happy with me for it," Emma says.

"Just tell me, Emma," Regina says.

"There was this- This girl just walked by and she's stupidly attractive, just wow," Emma says.

Regina's only quiet for a moment, before saying, "Just because we're soulmates doesn't mean that you're not allowed to find other people attractive - that neither of us aren't allowed to do so. It's not like you can help but appreciate how someone looks."

"This girl wasn't just attractive though, I mean holy shit. She- I should probably stop talking about this now," Emma says when she feels a hint of jealousy from Regina.

"Why don't you tell me how the rest of your classes went," Regina says. Emma's embarrassment mixes with guilt and she latches onto Regina's change of topics.

...

A few weeks into the school year and Mary Margaret is still holding good on her promise of Emma's home life and her promise that school will be just fine. Emma hopes more than anything this will be her last foster home.

She's sitting at her desk, textbook open in front of her, but paying no attention as Regina tells her about her day.

"Chemistry was uneventful as always. I'm honestly surprised the teacher is even still employed; there's at least one student sleeping during class every single day. Every day, Emma. It is ridiculous," Regina says.

"Does the teacher even notice?"

"If he does, he chooses not to say anything about it. Like I said, ridiculous," Regina says and Emma laughs.

"What about your day? See anymore gorgeous girls?" Regina teases.

"I never should have said anything. You're never going to let me live it down despite admitting that there is nothing wrong with us finding someone else attractive," Emma says.

"There's not anything wrong with it, which is why I'm simply asking about it."

"Well no one else besides that insanely gorgeous girl I saw on the first day. You know, we almost made eye contact today," Emma teases. Regina laughs loudly.

"Oh my, how your relationship is progressing. Should I be worried?"

"Well, maybe tomorrow we'll actually make eye contact and then I really can't make any promises," Emma says. "But honestly, Regina? You'll never have anything to worry about." Emma runs her fingers through her hair nervously.

"Good," Regina says.

...

"So your birthday is coming up," Mary Margaret says over breakfast one morning. "Is there anything special you would like to do?"

Emma's fork sounds loudly against her plate. "What?"

Mary Margaret smiles warmly. "There's got be something. Maybe have a sleepover with your friends, or we could go out to dinner and see a movie. You have a couple of weeks, go ahead and think about it, and whatever you would like to do we'll make happen."

"Okay," Emma says around the lump in her throat.

"She asked me what I wanted to do for my birthday, Regina. No one has ever done that," Emma says that evening.

"I'm so glad someone is finally treating you the way you deserve," Regina says.

"But I have no idea what to do. Most years my birthday has just been ignored and I've gotten used to it that way."

"Not last year. I distinctly remember waking you up by telling you happy birthday."

Emma laughs. "Yeah, last year is probably my most memorable birthday."

"Well if that was the most exciting birthday you've ever had we're going to have to work on topping it this year," Regina says.

"Oh, and how do you plan on making that happen?"

"Well, first of all you need to figure out what you want to do on your birthday. I think that's a good start,"

"Fine," Emma says.

"You should probably get some sleep. I should, too, for that matter," Regina says.

"Yeah, that sounds like a wonderful idea," Emma says though a yawn.

"Good night, Emma."

"Night, Cupcake."

"Good night."

...

"Happy birthday," Ruby says as she falls into her seat beside Emma.

"Thanks," says Emma, averting her eyes to her notebook in front of her. Ruby just bumps their shoulders together.

"Any plans for your big day?" Ruby asks.

Emma rolls her eyes. "Mary Margaret said she would take me out to dinner tonight and maybe to a movie."

"Ooh there's this new movie out-" Ruby says, before her voice is drowned out by the start of class.

As they're packing up their bags at the end of class, Ruby says," Make sure you sit at our table at lunch, Belle and I have something for you."

"Where else would I go?" Emma says with a laugh. "You guys really didn't have to do anything."

Ruby presses her finger to Emma's lips. "Nonsense, and it's nothing big so don't make a big deal over it. Just show up for lunch like you would any other day."

"I suppose I can handle that," Emma says.

Ruby gives her a smile. "I'll see you at lunch."

"Happy birthday," Regina says during her next class.

Emma fights a laugh. "You told me that this morning. And as I was getting ready for school. And on the way to school."

"I've been under the impression that you haven't heard it very many times in your life. I figure it's time someone makes up for that," Regina says. Emma feels her heart flutter and tries not to be too concerned with the fact that Regina can feel it too.

"I- I don't know what to say. It's not really a big deal-"

"Shush Emma. Don't say anything - it's not going to stop me anyway."

"Fine," Emma says.

"Happy birthday. Now pay attention in class."

Emma rolls her eyes. "So bossy."

...

Emma is already sitting at their lunch table when Belle and Ruby walk up. Ruby pulls a small white paper bag from behind her back and puts it on the table before she sits down.

Emma eyes the bag questionably before opening it. "Bear claws? Seriously?" She pulls one out of the bag and takes a bite. "You guys are the best," she says and takes another bite.

"Slow down, Emma. You're going to start choking," Belle says.

Ruby swats Belle's arm. "It's her birthday, let her have her fun." Emma ignores them and takes another bite.

"This birthday has officially topped all others. Topped every birthday I've ever had combined," Emma says.

"Oh?" Regina says.

"I've been given bear claws. Not just one, but multiple bear claws."

"Don't complain to me when you've made yourself sick," Regina says.

"It will be worth it though. God these are good," Emma says starting on yet another pastry. The bell rings a moment later.

"Uh oh, Emma. Looks like you're going to have to finish that one later," Ruby says.

Emma shakes her head. "Not if I eat it really fast," she says and takes another bite, chewing and swallowing as quickly as she can.

She's halfway through eating it when Belle and Ruby stand. "Suit yourself, Em," Ruby says.

She just takes another bite and glances at the clock. "Shit."

"So you said that I couldn't complain about a stomach ache, but I'm probably going to be late to class," Emma says.

"You're an idiot," Regina says.

"As you've been reminding me all day, it is my birthday. So you're not allowed to call me that today."

"Don't be one and then we have a deal."

"You're not the nicest person in the world," Emma says as she finishes the last of her bear claw and throws her backpack over her shoulder. "I'll have you know, I'm on my way to class now so I might actually make it on time."

Regina snorts. "I wish you the best of luck."

Emma rushes out of the cafeteria. "You're feisty toda- shit." Emma just about made it to class when she turns the corner and immediately runs right into someone.

"Oh my god, I'm so sorry. I was late for class and-" Emma reaches her hands out to steady the poor victim that paid the price for her bad eating habits.

"Shit. You were right I should have listened to you. Now I'm running into people," Emma looks up and sees the very girl that she couldn't help but keep her eyes from wandering to when ever she is near. Double shit.

Her eyes are wide as she looks at Emma, but she doesn't say a word. "You are an idiot," she says at last. Emma sucks in a breath because as if she hadn't heard that enough times today.

"Look, I didn't mean to, and I'm really sorry. I didn't want to be late to class, and-" The bell rings out. Emma's shoulders drop. "And now I am actually late."

"You're late for class, aren't you?"

"Shut up," Emma says, and the girl standing in front of her laughs softly.

"But I suppose I can't really give you any trouble for it since I, too, am also late."

"Hah."

"Although that's not entirely my fault because some idiot just ran into me," Regina says. Emma sucks in a sharp breath, eyes widening as she looks at the girl in front of her who is standing with her hand on her hip, watching Emma closely.

"You just- what?" Emma says, because no. There is no way.

"I said that I'm late for class because some idiot just ran into me," Regina says. She looks just as proud as Emma could have ever imagined, but looking carefully she can see the tension in Regina's small frame as she waits for Emma to take in her words.

Emma stares, mouth hanging agape. "Holy shit."

"Holy shit, indeed," Regina says.

Emma gapes at Regina. "Holy shit," Emma says again.

Regina laughs, and the sound is so much more than Emma has ever heard through their thoughts. It's warm and musical, and Emma doesn't think she'll ever get enough of it.

"Regina?" Emma says.

Regina smiles. "Yes?" Emma's never understood the feeling of butterflies in your stomach until this very moment.

"You're the ridiculously attractive girl," Emma says.

Regina laughs and laughs. "Well you did mention something about what would happen when you finally made eye contact."

Now it's Emma's turn to laugh, her cheeks turning a light shade of red.

They're still standing close after their encounter, close enough for Regina to lift her hand and rest it on the side of Emma's face. Emma leans into the touch without thinking. It feels so right that she relaxes instantly.

"Am I forgiven for being late to class now?"

Regina tries to give Emma a disapproving glare, but she's biting her lip to fight off a smile. The gesture warms Emma's heart all the more.

"You're an idiot," Regina says.

"But I'm your idiot. Right?" Emma's uncertainty fills her words and she holds in a breath waiting for Regina to answer.

Regina's thumb brushes across Emma's cheekbone. "Yes, yes you are."