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Treading A Fragile Line

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Her mother was away for a short period of time, a blessing really. It gave Regina free rein to do as she truly wished until her return, something her father was more than happy to encourage with no hesitation. As such, they had spent their morning horseback riding, after a leisurely breakfast of many of their favourite foods. Of course her father spoiled her with treats, as he was prone to do when her mother’s was absent.

She felt far lighter that day than she had in a significant length of time, it was both freeing and uplifting, yet it was sadly to be painfully short-lived. Her mother, and her father on the occasions he went with her, were never gone long when away on Royal business. Even so, a day of true happiness amongst many of pressure and stress almost made all those hard days worthwhile.

Even though she was more than happy to continue riding, they decided to make their way to the stables. They travelled at a steady pace, allowing their horses time to calm down before they were stabled once more. After spending the morning riding she could see her father had begun to wane, for he was not as young as he once was,  and she had to state – very strongly – that she was fine with their ride coming to an end ‘so soon’.

Their silence was a companionable one as they transitioned from grass to gravel to cobblestone, the clopping of the horses’ hooves soon drawing the stablehand’s attention. Regina’s smile widened, if that was even possible, at the familiar blonde who came jogging into view and skittered to a halt before them, hurriedly bowing to Henry then Regina herself.

Pushing a few errant curls out of her eyes, she grinned up at Regina, “I take it you enjoyed your ride.”

“Very much so,” Regina replied, halting Rocinante so her father could move ahead and dismount first.

Emma’s face had lit up at her answer, her form surprisingly jovial and relaxed even with Henry’s presence.

“It has been a long time coming,” her father added as Emma stepped forward to grip the reins of his horse, “So I am glad it was worth it.”

“You should have had no doubt, father.”

With only a small amount of embarrassment, Henry gestured for Emma’s help. With her free hand and shoulder Emma helped him climb down from his mount, taking his weight with almost unexpected ease. It was not truly a shock for Regina to see strong her friend was, Emma had been working there since childhood, it was only natural she would have built up the strength she had.

Once solidly on the ground, her father pressed a hand to his back, stretching slightly as he worked out a cramp. The reminder of how much older he seemed to have become quite so suddenly weighed on Regina, but soon he was standing tall once more, cheerful without her mother’s presence, and that was enough for Regina to dismiss her worries, even with how often she found herself struggling with them.

Henry placed a hand on Emma’s shoulder, a supportive gesture rather than a domineering one, though it had Emma blinking unsurely, “Swan isn’t it.”

“Yes, Your Highness.”

Regina guided Rocinante to stand near to her father’s own horse, Rucio, the grey horse waited patiently as Emma still held his reins.

“Let us keep this to ourselves; it is best if my wife does not know.” His words were spoken carefully, as if testing the waters, even though that was unnecessary – Emma would say nothing.

“Of course Your Highness, I wouldn’t dream of telling her. Not that I would lie regularly, or keep truths to myself. Err…”

Emma scratched at the back of her head with her free hand, her eyes jumping around.

Regina tried to keep her face impassive, but soon a smile broke its way through at Emma’s sudden awkwardness and inability to speak straight – she usually had no problem, especially when it was just the two of them.

“That is, I value Regina more than her. Or rather, my loyalty is –

“I understand.” Her father replied, a sparkle of amusement in his eyes as he patted Emma’s shoulder, “I’ll take Rucio.”

Emma’s face had turned red as she had stumbled over her words, and in her moment of rarity (at least in public) she did not protest, instead she handed the reins over with only slight hesitancy.

Henry smiled, before leading his horse away.

The stablehand took a breath and approached Regina instead, clearly expecting some sort of mockery, though she still smiled sheepishly regardless.

She held out her hand, but Regina shook her head causing the blonde to shrug as Regina swung her leg over Rocinante’s back.

“Well don’t blame me if you embarrass yourself by falling,” Emma whispered after ensuring Henry was leading his horse into the stable before them.

Regina shook her head again as she skilfully dismounted to the ground, sparing a glance to her occupied father before swatting at Emma’s arm.

“Hey.” Emma pouted, rubbing at her arm as if Regina’s weak attempt at slapping her had actually hurt.

Regina huffed, placing her hands on her hips and tilting her head up in a weak façade of arrogance, “Sometimes I wonder why we still employ you.”

Emma crossed her arms, cocking an eyebrow, smirking, “You would miss me if I left.”

Regina paused, her lips twitching into a smile even while she tried to maintain an air of disinterest, saying coyly, “… Perhaps.”

“See.” The blonde splayed her hands before her, pink lips pulled into a smile.

“I would definitely miss seeing you make a fool of yourself.”

That familiar pout found its way back to Emma’s face. One that made Regina instantly laugh, a sound Emma tried her best not to join in with, but failed miserably, her own chuckle a deeper sound that warmed Regina greatly.

Their combined laughter dwindled out slowly, and when it did they were both suddenly all too aware of a heavy silence, one that settled over them both unexpectedly. They both turned to the right.

Henry was standing in the stable doorway watching them with a small smile on his face, Emma immediately bowed her head, Regina flushed for reasons she could not be sure of.

Rocinante chose that moment to nudge Emma’s head with his own.

“Right,” Emma muttered, “I’ve got two horses to tend to.”

“It would be beneficial for you to preform your job.”

Emma returned Regina’s smile with one of her own, winking with the eye Henry could not see just to ensure Regina would become as flustered as her. Not that it was necessary, her face was already warm from being caught doing… well she was not sure exactly what, but it made her embarrassed nonetheless.

Taking up Rocinante’s reins which previously had simply hung there (he was far too behaved to bolt), Emma led him towards the stable.

Approaching her side, her father said with a smile, “You may stay with your friend if you wish.”

His smile was one of pride, though she could not fathom why. It made her head drop briefly and her hands tug at her riding jacket.

It was a scarcity to be able to spend time with her father, to truly bond without the sometimes oppressive air of her mother hanging over them.

She didn’t want the chance to escape her.

“We very rarely get to spend time together, I can always return later.”

Emma looked over her shoulder, somehow managing to look both taken aback and elated. Though she really shouldn’t, they had spent whatever time they could together since their youth, and without the worry of her mother at the forefront of her mind, they would have no need to be constantly on edge for the first time in a long while. Not that Regina truly felt on edge with Emma anymore, the blonde calmed her and freed her from those concerns.

“If you are sure that is what you want.”

She wrapped her father into a hug, one he happily returned. Once it was over, they both bid goodbye to Emma, who was pulling out the required tools to groom both horses – something Regina loved doing herself, but was willing to sacrifice that day.

She took her father’s arm as they walked along the path back to the castle, the weather’s brightness mimicking their mood.

There was a pleasant stretch of time and a significant distance between them and the stable before her father spoke, “I am glad you have found a friend. You need someone you can confide in.”

She and Emma had been friends for a long, long time, but this was the first time her father had mentioned it.

Regina bit her lip in a rare action she had long been told to control, “You won’t tell –

“No.” The rest of his words did not need to be said, for they both knew what they were. If her mother found out she had a friend to distract her, she would simply discard Emma and find another stablehand. That was easily done, and it would cost them nothing. Though what it would cost Regina personally, not to mention Emma, was much greater.

It hurt in a way, to know that her father truly did want her to be happy, to indulge her and love her, and yet be unwilling to stand up to her mother’s ways – not that her mother did not love her. Of course she did.

Still, Regina could only hope he would not cave, and would keep her secret, she was sure he would, but a small kernel of worry would always remain. Her mother had… ways of ensuring nothing escaped her notice, of controlling everything. Yet, despite her father’s ‘weakness’, she could not bring herself to feel anger towards him. She loved him, just as she loved her mother even with how stern she was – a sternness that grew now she was nearing the age where her marriageability would only drop.

“I was thinking, as it is such a nice day, that we could dine outside. I have already asked the cooks to prepare your favourite foods again.”

But Regina was only half listening, her body growing tense as the unwanted thoughts circled in her mind. She had wanted today to be free of such things, but no day ever could, could it? Her mother may be away that day, but by the very next day she would have returned and everything would be back as it usually was.

Her breathing grew faster and shallower. She barely noticed as they stopped. Her father turning to her in a near panic, cupping her cheek as he tried to get her to meet his eyes.

“Regina?”

“I don’t want to get married.” She blurted out, her eyes wide and shining, “Why can’t I live my life as I want? I am sure I will find someone eventually and marry them when I am ready. When I know them and love them.”

“Your mother just wants what is best for you.” The words were often spoken by her father, and she knew them to be true, but that did nothing to lessen the tightness in her chest and throat. The panic deep-seated.

“But it is not what I want.” She pleaded, repeating long said words of her own, “I will never be Queen despite her insistence and my constant lessons.”

“We do not know that.”

Perhaps, but unless something drastic and terrible occurred, it would never happen. Not when she had four uncles, all older than her own father, and all with families of their own.

“I just…” She trailed off, finding herself in her father’s comforting embrace again, “Want to be happy.”

His breathing wavered, his arm’s tightening around her, “You will be, someday, I promise.” The heavy tinge of sadness to his words caused a sob to catch in her throat; her finger’s digging into the material of his coat.

They stood that way for a long time, free from interruptions on the quiet path to the Royal Stables. And soon Regina felt her breathing calm, her head clearing and her muscles freeing themselves of the tension that had swiftly built in them.

She pulled back slightly, wondering when she had pressed her face into her father’s shoulder.

“Are you alright now?” He asked, his brow furrowed and his voice filled with care.

“Yes…” Regina replied after a time, “I rather think I am.”

His smile faltered slightly, and she could see how she had affected him with her uncontrollable actions moments prior.

“I am sorry,” her voice was weak, her head dipped.

“There is no need to apologise. You did nothing wrong.”

She pulled out of their hug gently, straightening out her riding clothes though they did not need it.

“Never keep your emotions bottled up, it can only case harm. You always have myself and your friend to speak to.”

Regina nodded her acceptance at his words, detecting that he was speaking from experience. Knowing that he was willing to listen to her was uplifting, yet at the same time she knew her mother would be displeased if she were to find out. If she would even let them have any more time together to do just that. Not if the Royal business was what she feared it to be.

Though Emma, she had her, and she knew she would never judge, and that she would always listen. Just the thought of her friend filled her with happiness and warmth.

“And Rocinante.”

“Yes.” Her father paused to chuckle, “And Rocinante.”

Regina returned his smile, hers only slightly watery. She could still remember the time when all she had was her horse, unsurprisingly that was how she and Emma had met. She had snuck out to talk to the only one who would listen, and there Emma had been, all puffed out chest and over-the-top frown – until she found out Regina wasn’t an intruder. They had been only young girls then, she barely in the double digits, and Emma only a few years younger than she. It was hard to believe they had known one another for so long.

“Now, how about we go see if the cooks have finished our private fest.” She took her father’s arm again, thankful at his attempt to help ease her mind.

In the end, one day of happiness did help her cope with those other days, even when they outweighed the lighter days considerably.

She would spend the rest of the day with her father then later see her friend, with no pressure upon her. She merely had to keep her mind free of worries, and that would be easy if she tried. And she did try so very hard.

----

Originally, years ago, she had been reluctant to climb up into the hayloft, worried that the loose hay would cling to her and she would be scolded for being unkempt. Now, however, she did not care. Not that anyone would see her anyway, not that day.

After arriving at the stable, she paused to fuss over Rocinante, squinting only slightly in the lamplight before, with practiced ease, she climbed the ladder to the hayloft and settled down.

Emma had long ago shifted the square bales of hay to make a small area to lay her bedroll down, she rested it atop loose hay to soften the bedding – something that still made Regina’s nose scrunch in abhorrence, to think that Emma had to sleep outside on the bare minimum of a mattress!

At least she had the shelter of the stables, and it was oddly cosy, surrounded by the bales and the soft glow of a lantern, but Regina still felt the younger woman deserved better.

But Emma never complained, and so Regina said little on the matter nowadays. The first couple of times she had brought up Emma’s sleeping arrangements, the younger woman had dismissed it. After that however, Emma explained that compared to the conditions she once lived in, this was a vast improvement. The answer had been difficult for Emma to say, and to know the stablehand was willing to describe something she clearly felt so uncomfortable with to her, only made Regina realise just how close the two of them had grown.

While she waited for Emma to finish her last checks for the night, Regina moved the lantern beside her to the head of the bedroll, she might not know much, but she did know that leaving it so close to a bale as Emma had was a recipe for disaster.

Emma appeared quickly, her head popping up over the ledge of the loft with her usual easy grin.

Regina smiled, and Emma pulled herself up.

They sat opposite one another, each resting against a bale of hay, Regina’s legs folded under herself while Emma splayed hers out in front of her, uncaring that her boots rested on her bedroll.

As if by magic, Emma produced a wine bottle in her hand; in all likelihood she had pulled it out of hiding from the closely packed hay. It wouldn’t be the first time.

“I must say I am surprised to see you tonight.” Emma tugged at the cork in the bottle with a furrowed brow, the look vanishing into a bright, goofy grin when the cork gave way with a squeaky pop, “Though I am pleased, most definitely pleased.”

“You knew I was coming tonight, why else have that ready.”

“Ah, you know me too well,” Emma replied, offering Regina the bottle. She accepted more out of courtesy than any desire to partake in liquor, taking a dainty sip before returning it to her friend.

“I’m sure the fact I told you as much earlier had nothing to do with it,” Regina inquired, her smile tilting.

Emma simply grinned again, the corners of her eyes crinkling cutely as she took a drink of her own.

“You sure you won’t get into trouble for being here?” Emma asked once she parted her lips from the bottle, her concern obvious.

“I… may have snuck here, but my father did encourage me to spend some time with you before it will become significantly more difficult to do so.”

Emma’s mouth opened to immediately question her, and Regina swiftly realised she had perhaps said too much. Her gaze darted about trying to locate something to distract the blonde with, her eyes soon drawn to the bottle in Emma’s grasp.

“How did you even get that?” Regina asked, only now recognising the label as some of the cheaper wine used for the less important guests. The why did not need to be asked, Emma was entitled to her fun as much as the next person, and it was not as if it was a habit. Emma rarely drank in front of her, and when she did she always tried to share the beverage, in a way, it was her way of celebrating with Regina. Though what on earth Emma deemed worthy of celebrating at that precise moment, Regina could not even begin to ponder.

Unless…

“Is this because my mother is away?” Regina inwardly cringed at the question, after all, that was the topic she was originally trying to avoid, even though her own mind had lingered upon it most of the day.

Emma’s sheepish grin was all the answer that she needed.

“Emma…”

“Yes, but you’re so much lighter when she isn’t around, freer in a way.” The sudden explosion of words had the stablehand scratching at the back of her head self-consciously; she paused before adding softly, “It makes me happy to see you happy.”

Regina crossed her arms over her chest, trying her best to put forward an air of annoyance, but knowing she was failing miserably, “And I repeat my earlier question, how did you get it?”

When they were younger Emma often snuck out to a nearby tavern, but as they grew closer the visits there dwindled. Regina doubted such a place would sell wine anyway, and if it did, not the kind in Emma’s hand.

It was possible Emma had brought it, but her wages were merger, the house and board she was granted deemed payment enough. The wine, while cheaper than most, was still far more expensive than someone of Emma’s rank could comfortably afford.

Regina’s face noticeably fell.

She did not mean to look down on Emma, even in the privacy of her own thoughts. Ranks were not important to her; people were. A person’s rank only mattered to her mother, and she was not her mother, despite how her mother seemed to be trying to live through her.

“Well, I…” Emma paused to take a long drink from the bottle, her gaze wavering slightly as she began to explain, “I made a deal with one of the scullery maids.”

“What sort of deal?” Regina quickly asked, eager to escape from her spiralling thoughts.

“Err…” Emma mumbled, the unfamiliar and unexpected hesitation immediately catching and raising Regina’s concern rather than her suspicion.

Her arms relaxed back to her sides as she watched Emma’s face carefully, a pretty flush highlighting the cheekbones Regina had always admired.

“A kiss.”

“On the cheek?” Regina asked, genuine in her surprise that Emma was embarrassed of that of all things. It was not uncommon to greet one another with kisses to the cheek, but that was typically an upper class greeting. Not something associated with the ‘peasants’ perhaps that was why Emma seemed so abashed.

One of Regina’s eyebrows rose when Emma shook her head in a short, sudden motion.

A silence grew suddenly, boarding on awkward as Regina built up the courage to hazard a guess.

“On the lips?”

The sheepish look had appeared on Emma’s face again, but was swiftly hidden as she took another long drink from the bottle before answering, “In a manner of speaking.”

“But you are not married.” Regina stated with a crease between her eyebrows, her head tilting to the side in an action that was more often seen on the blonde rather than herself, “And you are both females.”

Emma scratched at her cheek, her eyes dropping to her knees as she shuffled uncomfortably.

That action, coupled with Emma’s peculiar behaviour, had Regina focusing on the wording of Emma’s reply, which only made her all the more baffled, “What do you mean ‘in a manner of speaking’?”

Another drink, one that had Emma spluttering a little at the end, one booted foot tapping against the wood beneath them, “Err… Well, a woman has more than one pair of lips.”

Oh.

Oh!

Regina’s cheeks flushed darker, her eyes wide as she understood just what Emma was referring to. Or so she thought.

Emma shrunk in her seat, her knee bouncing as she tried to look impassive, her hand tightening around the bottle.

Regina squirmed in a very unladylike manner, her eyes barely able to rise past Emma’s knees for longer than a few seconds at a time.

Strangely enough, it did not bother her that Emma was partaking in behaviour deemed ‘inappropriate’ to the upper classes. What did, however, was that she had no idea Emma had someone. And that… well that hurt. It opened up an ache in her chest that she had never truly felt before, it settled upon her shoulders, wrapped around her and pressed down. It pulled at her, forcing a depression upon her that was honestly frightening.

And she didn’t understand why.

Was she jealous? Jealous that Emma had happiness when it was a faraway dream for her?

Or upset that Emma had kept it a secret? She had thought they trusted one another completely.

“Who is it?”

Emma’s head jerked in surprise, her eyes unusually wide, “Who is what?”

“Your lover.”

Emma shifted on the spot again, unable to maintain eye contact, as she looked down at her free hand where she was tracing a score in the wood with her nail, “It was Dalia, and we aren’t lovers.”

The words were rushed, the second part of the sentence stressed unusually so. But Regina focused on the name as she tried to picture a face to go with it, and managed after a time to do just that. If she was correct, the maid in question was similar in age to Emma, but without the light hair or complexion that was still so foreign to their home region.

It was Regina’s turn to shift where she sat, a feelingly of awkwardness washing over her. She moved her legs from under her, propping them up instead and resting her chin on her knees in order to distract herself from something she did not fully understand. That was often the case in her interactions with Emma; she could only assume her awkwardness and inability to understand stemmed from having little contact with anyone else, and as such, little social experience to rely on. Even after all the years they had spent together she still found herself more than a little lost at times.

“You…” She began carefully, trying to block out the logical voice in her mind that so often stopped her from verbalising so many of her thoughts, “Said you, erm, kissed her, there…”

At Emma’s somewhat pinkened cheeks and nodding head, Regina continued, feeling far more confident than she had only seconds before. If she could not trust and confide in Emma than who else did she truly have? She could not ask such things of her father, and Rocinante could not speak back to her.

Emma was really the only one capable of, and willing, to help broaden her restricted mind. To teach her of things she was never aware of, or never allowed to know.

“I had no idea of such things.”

“Of what exactly?” Emma asked carefully, her head tilting to the side as her natural curiosity outweighed any discomfort with the matter at hand. A feeling that was mirrored in Regina herself in that moment; something she was both thankful for and baffled by.

“My mother has told me what will be expected of me when I am married.” She bit her bottom lip, her gaze dropping to her arms, which were now wrapped around her legs, “It is not something to garner enjoyment. Yet you offered it as payment for a favour, and she asked for it rather than you demanding it of her.”

Emma’s brow furrowed even as she shrugged, “I didn’t mind it, and she most definitely didn’t.”

Regina watched as Emma hurriedly brought the bottle back to her lips, her eyes wide as she realised she had, perhaps, said too much. Once again, Regina did not feel disgust, but a sense of irritation most foreign to her.

“But it is supposed to hurt, is it not?”

The stablehand’s head snapped up, the violence of the action causing Regina to sit up straight, her legs lowering to rest much as Emma’s own did.

“You believe that?”

“I have read books, snuck from a tucked away part of the library, but they do not exactly fill me with a sense of comfort.” She explained as best she could, especially given her flushed features, “They lay back and wait until it is over.”

“No, no, no, Regina.” Emma shifted, lifting one leg and resting her arm across her knee as she leant forward slightly, one hand held up and moving as she verbally rejected Regina’s belief, “It’s not like that, not at all. Or it shouldn’t be.”

Even with her belief of Emma’s words, for the blonde had never intentionally lied or mislead her, Regina could not help but ask in a rather small voice, “It shouldn’t?”

“Regina.” Emma breathed, and the tenderness on her face tugged at something deep in Regina’s chest, caused the air in her lungs to catch on its way out, and her fingers to pull at the material of her riding beeches which she had been able to wear all day – much to her joy, “Who ever told you that is so wrong. You shouldn’t have to live in fear like that.”

And Emma was right, yet again, for Regina did fear what she had to do more than anything else accompanying her unavoidable marriage to come. And it would come sooner than she would ever want it to.

“It’s meant to be something you do out of…” Emma trailed off, her eyes focusing on the bale of hay behind Regina’s head as she searched for the word she wanted to use, “… enjoyment, I guess is the best way to put it.”

“Perhaps that is true for the lower classes.” Regina cringed at her almost derogatory use of the term, that wasn’t her speaking, not at all. She recalled how her mother thought of those ‘beneath’ them, how she considered them to be on the same level as animals – her mother not seeing animals in the way Regina did – with none of the grace or strength of those above them. She knew it could not be true, yet she struggled with herself to deny what she had always been told, “But not for us.”

Emma ran her hand through her hair, her expression so intensely confused that Regina found it a challenge to meet her eyes. Emma huffed, her cheeks puffing out as she grappled with something within herself in much the same way as Regina was doing herself.

Emma placed the bottle besides her, wetting her lips before she spoke, “Have you never…” Emma motioned with both hands in a rolling action Regina could not begin to understand

“Ever what?” She asked, clearly bewildered.

“You know…” Emma breathed in deeply as if steeling herself before adding in a rush, “Brought pleasure to yourself?”

Regina’s face was ridiculously hot now; she looked towards the lantern as if its glow could save her from this situation she had gotten herself into. Yet, there was a part of her that wanted to tell Emma such things. That wanted Emma to, well, ‘help’ her. To give her the truth of such matters, for now she had come to fully accept the realisation that she knew so little, and what she had been told was far from sufficient. Emma would not lie to her, not even to protect her from things her mother deemed ‘necessary evils’ at worst, and ‘useful tools’ at best – whatever that meant.

“Perhaps,” she began carefully, thinking back with more than a little hesitance, “I made an attempt, but it frightened me.”

Emma tilted her head again, but remained silent, knowing Regina needed time to come to terms with what she was trying to say.

“It was intense, I didn’t understand what was truly happening, and that is what scared me.”

“And the thought it was supposed to hurt?”

Regina gave a small nod, before she took a deep breath, so many questions circling her mind and wanting answers. In truth, she could not recall just what had led her to attempt such an improper act – or was it truly improper? Emma did not seem to deem it so, or at least that is how it appeared to her.

From Emma’s earlier confession on just how she had gotten the wine, and her almost casual way of talking about such a topic and the things she had already said, it was obvious she had a far greater knowledge than Regina. Which naturally suggested she had a wealth of experience also – even with her being the younger of the two.

“You said it is not supposed to hurt, but does that not mean that it can? What was it like for you?”

Emma’s face was a deep red, and her answer was not immediate, the pause between Regina’s question and the younger woman’s answer long enough that Regina became acutely aware of the shuffling of the horses beneath them, and the call of a bird outside even though night had long since fallen. 

“Well, I won’t lie, it did a little,” Emma admitted softly, before adding in a stronger voice, “But neither of us really knew what we were doing and I don’t think I was as ‘invested’ as I believed I was at the time.”

“That was also with a woman?”

“No. But I discovered my preferences rather quickly.”

“And a woman doesn’t hurt?” Regina felt so terribly naïve, but she knew in her heart Emma would never mock her. Never cruelly or when speaking with such importance.

“That all depends Regina,” Emma seemed to be calming now, her face a light pink, it made Regina feel far more at ease, “on whether the person you are with cares, whether time is taken. It’s not really something I can explain.”

“Then show me.”

Emma choked on nothing, her eyes wider than Regina had ever seen them. Hers were much the same as she realised just what she had said aloud, just what it could mean – no, not could mean. What it did mean. She pulled her bottom lip between her teeth, biting it in her uncertainty.

“What?” Emma wheezed out.

It was too late to go back now; and after the words left her it occurred to her, quite suddenly, just how much the idea appealed to her. How now it was in the air between them she wished she had said something so much sooner, so her incorrect thoughts could have been amended and she could learn long before that moment.

That did not stop her gaze from falling from Emma’s face, or her ears from burning, however.

She trusted Emma far more than anyone else; she knew she would be safe with her. And was this not something common amongst the lower classes? Had Emma not revealed she had… pleasured another as part of a deal that seemed to bare no weight on her? That only seemed to suggest to Regina that it was a common occurrence between women from the class, or at least that was what she assumed. After all, if it was not, then why was Emma not lovers with that servant?

And if it was normal for them to aid and help each other in such away, then why would that be any different between the two of them? Just because Regina was higher up the social ladder?

They were friends, and friends helped one another. Why not be shown such a thing by someone she knew and trusted above all else?

That’s what those who were close did.

“I – that is… I trust you to show me, or rather teach me.”

Emma’s mouth hung open, her complete and utter bafflement made Regina shrink into herself, chewing on her bottom lip once more in the action she had long been scolded for.

“You…” Emma dropped her raised leg, stretching it before her, “May have had too much to drink.”

“I’ve only had a sip,” Regina informed unusually snappy, and looking pointedly at the near empty bottle once again in Emma’s hand.

“Well that may be true,” Emma relented, cheeks puffing out in an awkward smile, “But I can hold my alcohol, and you can’t.”

“I think you’ll find that I can hold wine just fine. Balls go on for so long and much wine is passed around. You have to be able to stomach it, lest you make a fool of yourself.” And how her mother would hate for that to happen.

“I wouldn’t know about all of that, but that doesn’t mean it makes sense.” Emma’s tone was reluctant, almost as if she were taking to herself rather than the woman across from her.

Regina pressed her hands together as if to ground herself, or push herself forward into saying what she knew was out in the open, but which she reached to repeat, even if it turned out to be something that she would regret in the long run. A thought that was rapidly growing in size in her mind at Emma’s reaction, perhaps Regina’s belief it was common was not correct after all.

“I trust you Emma.” She put as much conviction into her words as she could, her fingers trembling against her own hands, “Teach me.”

She could see the twitch of Emma’s jaw in the low light of the lantern, a peculiar look in her eyes, but one that did not leave Regina at anymore unease. Emma shifted, parting her legs and, with a long moment of hesitation, patted the straw covered wood before her.

“Sit here.” The shortness of her words was not out of ire, but clearly from a sense of anxiety. An uncertainty that Regina felt herself, but it was overpowered by her... desire for this.

She trembled as she moved across the small distance between them.

She settled with her back to Emma’s chest, the solid warmth of the other woman pressed against her, surrounding her in a way, did something to her that she did not understand but felt comforted by. It was pleasant – No, it was far more than simply pleasant, it was something else entirely. Something indescribable. How strange it was to feel so much from such an action that many would deem as simple, or perhaps it was caused by the vague knowledge of what was likely to come.

“Do you want me to tell you –

“No,” Regina answered quickly. Too embarrassed by the thought of doing such a thing herself, but less so by the thought of letting another do it for her. How odd that was. “Can you…”

“I…”

“Please Emma.”

Then there was the weight of Emma’s chin on her shoulder, and she could hear her swallow she was that close. Closer to her than she had ever really been before, and they had shared the rare all-encompassing hug on occasion, usually when she was feeling jovial and free, or when the crippling weight she carried on her became too much to bear.

“There should usually be build up,” Regina’s eyes fluttered shut, focusing on Emma’s voice, “Think of someone you desire.”

There was no one. Regina wasn’t sure one was needed, but if Emma said –

Emma’s hands shook as she brushed them over Regina’s arms, trailing down and over the backs of her hands to play briefly with her fingers, before sliding back to her shoulders.

It was a simple series of actions, yet Regina found her chest rising and falling faster, her need for air increasing from the warm, gentle pressure of Emma’s hands. Something that was intensified as this time when Emma’s hands moved down, they did so softly, barely touching her chest and sides. It made something tighten in her chest, made her squirm as she felt a heat settle low in her stomach, spreading further down and tingling.

“But often, on you own or if in a hurry, it is preferably to go straight to the point.” There was a waver to Emma’s voice, barely noticeable.

Emma guided Regina’s legs up, her feet pressed to the wood beneath them and knees raised high. The change of position made her acutely aware of a sudden dampness at the apex of her thighs; it made her heart squeeze in panic at the strangeness, an emotion she was distracted from when Emma spoke.

“Could you…?”

Regina caught onto what Emma was referring to swiftly, with a slight hesitation she moved her own hands from her side where they had laid unmoving, to unfasten the top of her breeches.

“Are you certain about this?”

Unable to verbalise in that moment, Regina instead opted to place her hand atop Emma’s were it sat on her hip, hoping the stablehand would take it for the encouragement she intended.

Her gaze dropped to her lap just in time to see Emma’s hand slip from under hers and into the newly opened gap. There was something about the sight that caused her breath to hitch, that made it a struggle to remain still.

There Emma paused, between two layers of cloth, the warmth of her hand seeping downwards. The weight of her hand seemed to grow, and for some reason Regina wanted Emma to press down rather than simply letting her hand rest there. But more than that, she wanted to feel Emma with no barrier, for she knew that would intensify the foreign feeling quickly permeating her form.

“Are you –?

“Yes.” The sound of her own voice startled Regina, the strength of it – the depth of it – something that had never been heard before, and it spurred both her and Emma on.

Her breath hitched when Emma cupped her, the pressure and heat beyond what she had imagined in the brief time she had given this thought. It felt far better than when she had attempted such a thing herself.

She found herself pushing her hips off the floor without realising, wanting something she could not describe.

The voice in her that doubted this was something common and right, as she had convinced herself, was nothing but a whisper, not even something she would spare thought for anymore. After all, how could something that Emma had suggested was normal and pleasurable, or something that felt so wonderful, be degrading or disgusting?

 She felt Emma’s fingers twitch, a sound escaping her own mouth that she had also never heard before, but one that left her with more frequency when Emma began rubbing just shy of firmly.

Her hips jerked.

Regina tried to keep her breathing steady, but her attempt was futile; her breath continued to catch in her throat over and over again.

She whimpered, tilting her hips up towards the sweeping pressure unconsciously. Seeking something else.

“Keep breathing, Regina.” Emma’s breath tickled her ear, and it made everything that more heightened, that far more acute.

On the next exhale, a singular word escaped Regina, barely audible to herself let alone Emma, “More.”

Emma brushed her lips against her cheek when she spoke; Regina tried not to turn her head into the touch, “If you’re sure.”

A rare whine left her when the movement and weight of Emma’s hand left her, only to return a mere breath later when it slipped beneath her underclothes.

Her cheeks burned knowing Emma would now feel the wetness which she had all but forgotten about. But when she felt the first press of Emma’s fingers, the stablehand made a noise in the back of her throat, a positive one or at least one that felt that way. Either way it eradicated Regina’s embarrassment.

“That’s a good sign,” Emma explained as if sensing Regina’s fading mortification, her fingers skimming lightly over Regina’s most intimate area.

Regina trembled, a motion that turned into a visible twitch upwards of her hips when Emma’s fingers pressed down, slipping between her. Opening her to questing fingers.

Emma’s other arm moved from Regina’s hip to circle her stomach in a half hug, one Regina nestled into.

Regina’s senses seemed heightened in those moments, noticing for the first time the shape and press of Emma’s breasts against her shoulder blades, separated only by their thin spring clothes. The internal reaffirmation of what was occurring made her mind whirl, but she was too encompassed by the new feelings she was experiencing to stop and analyse the thoughts that were bounding around in her head.

When the tip of Emma’s finger brushed her hidden nub, she mewled, the gentle action shooting liquid heat through her body, leaving her shuddering as she gasped for air.

“Are you…” But Emma trailed off as Regina clutched tightly at the arm wrapped around her middle, needing to cling to her friend for reasons she could not comprehend.

Emma’s name left her in a confused, overwhelmed pant.

“It’s okay.” Emma’s lips brushed the shell of her ear as she spoke, “I’ll stop if you want.”

Regina shook her head, sobbing out, “No.”

A second finger joined the first, pressing lightly and tracing small circles that had Regina’s hips rocking without her consent, heat shooting from the spot.

It did not take long for her to reach that point that had scared her so, her fingers and toes tingled, her ears buzzed and the bubble of heat in her centre bloomed and grew into a raging fire.

The muscles in her thighs tightened, she could feel her toes curling in her boots, pressing hard into the bottoms of them as her hips jerked in short, sharp movements she could not control.

A whimper; her eyes closed tightly now, she felt frozen to the spot, the only movement the demanding rocking of her hips. The heat curling in her, searing through her leaving her desperate for more and more.

In that position, even breathing was becoming a challenge, each breath shallower, each intake needed sooner after the last.

“Don’t fight it.” Emma encouraged softly, “It’s nothing to be afraid of.”

And she didn’t, her back arching and head pressing back against Emma’s shoulder as her breath stilled in her lungs, her body freezing for one long moment.

Then suddenly, a rush of movement; her hips jolting back and forth and a loud keening cry leaving her lips; keeping relatively silent far beyond her control now. Her body folded forward this time, Emma moved with her to keep her supported as Regina continued to tremble, moving with her own purpose against Emma’s fingers, until, at last, she exhaled long and hard, relaxing even with the smouldering fire still coursing through her body.

She was guided back into a sitting position, still held snugly against Emma’s chest. Her head rolled to the side, her eyes barely locking onto Emma, for she was far too distracted and consumed by the feelings still sparking beneath her skin, still racing through her body. It was pure instinct that had her run her left hand over Emma’s cheekbone, that had her tracing her hand across her skin to the back of the stablehand’s neck, holding here there. A beat, and she pulled Emma forward to press their lips together.

And what a feeling it was. So soft, gentle even when their noses bumped as Emma altered the positions of their heads, ensuring the kiss was a proper one and not the feeble attempt Regina had made. Her hand slid up, resting now in Emma’s curls, the soft texture making her wish she could comfortably allow her other hand to join.

The sound that escaped her throat as Emma moved her lips against hers was startling; the warmth it invoked consuming her as she mimicked the younger woman’s actions while pushing forward harder, wanting more. Needing it. She felt herself being to burn again.

Emma tasted faintly of the fruity wine she had indulged in, and somehow on Emma the cheap wine tasted far better than the more expensive wines that had passed her lips.

A deep groan, one she realised came from Emma had her pull back slightly so their lips were still brushing, her breathing which had yet to settle had begun to increase rapidly again. That sound, from somewhere deep in Emma did something to her. Something glorious. Sheneeded to hear it again.

“You don’t know how long I’ve wanted to do this,” Emma murmured, tilting her head to press their lips together once more.

God. How she needed this.

She could happily spend the rest of her days here, in a dark, draughty barn surrounded by horses and wilderness; with Emma.

The blonde’s hand moved across her own leg, and then both of her dry hands were cupping Regina’s cheeks, coaxing them both into a position that was even more enjoyable. Oh, how much more was there Regina knew nothing about?

She shifted forward, not knowing when she had moved to her knees, only aware that she wanted to be closer to Emma. As close as she could. Her other hand, free now to move without awkwardness, clutched at the back of Emma’s shoulder, her fingers pulling lightly at the material of her tunic. One of Emma’s hands remained on her cheek, but the other moved to wrap around her hips, pulling them closer until there was only a hair’s breadth between their bodies.

“Regina…” Emma breathed into their kiss. Another simple sound Regina needed to hear again, for the way Emma had said her name was so different from anything she had ever heard, even from Emma’s own mouth prior to this moment. She needed it to repeated again and again, and –

They pulled apart abruptly, a whiney startling them.

Emma’s pupils were wide, in the soft light of the lantern her face was clearly flushed; Regina had seen her embarrassed many times before, but this was something so much different.

The sound that had forced them apart was slowly absorbed by Regina, her brow dropping with concern.

Rocinante. She would recognise his ‘voice’ anywhere.

“Someone’s coming.”

With that, Emma was gone, rushing down to ladder into the almost blackness beneath them.

Regina shuffled backwards as silently as she could, hoping the bales surrounding her would be enough to hide any shadow she may cast. The warmth that had settled low in her gut forgotten, but still there, throbbing weakly, something made more apparent when she fastened her breeches – having forgotten about them in that kiss.

“Swan?!” Came a gruff voice she recognised as that of the stable master.

“I’m right here.” Emma’s reply was heavy with a cockiness that the man had always tried to rid her off, to little success.

The man huffed, but said no more on the matter, instead choosing to get to whatever point he needed to say so late at night. His boots scuffed noisily against the floor as he moved; Rocinante snorted softly.

“There’s been tell of horse thieves in the area.”

“And you think they are foolish enough to try to steal from here?” The tilt of laughter to Emma’s words brought a small smile to Regina’s face.

“We wouldn’t want anything to happen to the royal horses now, would we?” The annoyance in his voice was easily detectable, but as always Emma didn’t seem affected.

“Of course not, that’s why I stay here after all.”

“No smart mouthing,” he snapped.

“I wasn’t.” The faux air of innocence in Emma’s voice made Regina’s smile grow, even as she worried over Emma enraging the man to the violence present in her youth. When they had first met, after the initial suspicion, Emma had been as joyful as she always would be and had grinned at her despite her heavily swollen eye.

“Keep your eye out for anything suspicious.” She could hear the scowl in the stable master’s voice, “If anything happens it’ll be on my head, and that means it will be on yours also.”

“I’m fully aware.”

“Good.” He moved with steps that echoed loudly in the still night air, “And lay of the alcohol, I don’t want to find the horses missing and you passed out in the horse trough.”

“That was once.” It was a joke, but the man obviously did not find it amusing as he grunted, the stable door creaking as it was opened and banging as it closed.

Regina stayed still until the crunch of gravel had long faded. Only when certain there was no sign of him returning did she move slowly across the loft.

Peering over the edge, she saw Emma looking around the stables, scratching at the back of her neck. It took her a moment to realise she was being watched, then she was looking up at her.

“We should get you back before someone notices.”

Regina found herself frowning, even though she knew Emma was right. She had been gone for a rather long stretch of time, and though she was certain no one would enter her rooms and realise she was not there, the panic that tonight could be the exception re-emerged as always. Still, she found herself saying what she often did, “No one will notice my absence.”

“I would.” The sincerity of Emma’s words sent Regina hurrying to hide her face, an action made easy by turning to descend the ladder.

As soon as her feet touched the ground and she moved back from the ladder, Emma scurried back up it, the light cast in the stable jumping when she moved in the hayloft, she was back quickly, climbing back down with the handle of the lantern clasped in her teeth.

To stop herself from scolding Emma’s carelessness, Regina walked past the other horses in the stable to find Rocinante who had, indeed, woken when the stable master had arrived.

She ran her hand softly over his muzzle; his head was still dipped from sleep even as he snorted softly.

“Goodnight, Rocinante.”

When she turned from him, she saw Emma standing at the bottom of the ladder watching her with a curious expression. When their eyes met, Emma looked away, saying nothing and remaining still until Regina approached her.

Emma held the door open for her, an unnecessary action but one the blonde always did.

They began their journey back to one of the servants’ doors in silence – by that time all of the staff had retired, making it easy to sneak in and out as long as you avoided the guards and the odd knight – The silence was not uncomfortable, both content to listen to the sounds of the night and the tread of their boots on the ground.

Regina was not worried about the horses, even with them being left temporarily alone; any thieves would have a challenge getting into the grounds, and wouldn’t stand a chance of taking the horses if they did get in. She knew little of the designs of foreign castles, but knew many were not walled like theirs.

No longer distracted as she had been, Regina found she could still feel the twitches of something within her, a realisation she steadfastly chose to ignore.

The light from the lantern seemed to strengthen the definition of Emma’s features; the curve of her cheekbones, the strong set of her jaw, the straight slope of her nose. Or perhaps Regina was simply more sensitive to seeing these characteristics in the near darkness, and with the exhaustion she could feel seeping through her form.

A muscle in Emma’s jaw ticked; Regina felt a need to touch the irregular movement and was confused by the urge.

“Have you ever thought of competition riding?”

“Pardon?” Regina asked not entirely sure she had heard correctly, feeling tiredness descend on her like a charging herd. Of all the possible topics they could talk of, that one was most assuredly out of the blue.

“Competition riding?” The light from the lantern sent the shadows around them dancing as Emma gestured with her words, “Racing?”

“I cannot say that I have.” She enjoyed show jumping, though the only ones to see that were her father, Emma and occasionally her mother with her lips pressed into a tight line. She disliked that Regina refused to ride as she was apparently supposed to, something Regina never truly understood. Riding side-saddle was far more dangerous and far less comfortable for both the rider and the horse, or so she believed.

“I think you should try it, not that I’m trying to force you into something or anything like that.” The hand holding the lantern jerked, clearly Emma wished to run a hand through her hair as she often did in such situations, “I just think perhaps it would be worth a go. Give you the chance to try something new that you might like.”

“What makes you believe it is something I would have some skill at?” Regina asked, still taken aback by the unexpected topic. Especially after what had happened such a short time ago.

“You are the best rider I have ever seen, you’re a natural in my opinion and I am sure as Hell that you and Rocinante are not just a fantastic team, but would leave any competition in the dust.” Emma explained with a surprising level of enthusiasm, but not enough to outweigh Regina’s own ingrained doubts.

“You are just saying that because of who I am.”

“Well, Princess, I like to think we are friends before we are employer and employee – even if it is your father that employs me, err…” Emma went a little cross-eyed when she tripped over her words, but soon gave a shrug and continued, “I never lie to my friends.”

Regina was thankful for the shadows cast by the lantern because, as always, when Emma stressed that they were friends it left her feeling a flustered sense of flattery.

“The ones I like that is.”

She side-glanced Emma at the unnecessary addition, but the crinkles at the corners of her eyes gave her true feelings away, if Emma looked close enough to see them.

“Think about it, I don’t want you to think I’m trying to force anything upon you.”

“Thank you,” Regina replied, already mulling over Emma’s words. A rumination that lasted for the rest of their walk.

It was a rather significant walk to the servant entrance usually, but that night they seemed to arrive in mere moments.

Emma placed the lantern on the step of the door and located a key in the crack between two bricks besides it. Regina had already brought up her concern over a key being there, but Emma insisted no one would find it unless they knew where to look. Where Emma had even obtained it was a mystery, the only keys Regina knew of for the entrances were on hooks in the kitchen, naturally on the other side of this very door.

A soft click and Emma was holding the door open for her, Regina fiddled with her own fingers as she moved past the younger woman, a nervous concentration to her form.

“I do not think that is wise,” she said at last, the darkness of the kitchen making her feel small.

Emma nodded her understanding; understanding what Regina was referring to, “If that is how you feel.”

“Thank you though,” she added her tone soft, “for thinking of me.”

Emma’s gaze averted to a spot near Regina’s left ear, the lantern jerking again after she picked it up, “No need to thank me, it’s my job. Well not really, but you know what I am trying to say. At least I hope you do.”

“You’re babbling.” Regina shook her head gently, smiling at Emma.

Emma returned the smile, though hers was decidedly more lopsided as one side of her mouth quirked higher than the other, “There’s a faint possibility that I may be.”

The longer they stood there, the higher the likelihood someone may wander upon them, “Sleep well, Emma.”

“Yeah.” Both their smiles were still firmly in place, Emma’s own leaving a familiar warmth beneath Regina’s breast, “Goodnight Regina.”

Emma stepped back out of the kitchen entrance, pulling the door closed as she did. Regina moved swiftly to the kitchen door, but hesitated there until she heard the click of the lock behind her. Only then did she leave.

With practiced ease she returned to her room with no incidence.

The fire was lit, as it had been when she had left soon after a servant had stoked it for her, though it was of course noticeably lower in the grate. The warmth of the room was a little too high for her liking, though it was likely only due to the temperature difference from coming from outside.

She disrobed and dressed in the simple nightdress left on her bed, and hung her riding clothes up herself, only discarding what needed washing in a nearby basket.

It was only when she was beneath the covers that the full awareness of what had occurred that night washed over her.

Yet, despite knowing that she should be ashamed, horrified even; she wasn’t. Emma was her friend, and as her friend she had helped her come to terms with, or rather, gain more experience with something of which she knew nothing. And that was what friends did, wasn’t it?

Still, as she laid there in the almost darkness, the events replied in her mind. But more than that, she could still feel the roughness of the tips of Emma’s fingers, could still feel the shooting of fire beneath her skin, could still hear clearly that groan that had rumbled from Emma’s throat as they had kissed. God they had kissed as if old lovers!

Heat pooled low in her stomach. She squirmed beneath her blankets, as if that action could rid her of the building moisture at the apex of her thighs. Just thinking of what had occurred had caused it, so she desperately tried to think of anything else, even as she felt the overwhelming urge to press her hand between her thighs to dispel the heat. But she couldn’t. She couldn’t do that because now she knew it would not rid her of the feeling, only intensify it.

Pressing her thighs together tightly, she tried to lessen the feeling and ignore it, willing sleep to take her.