The hunch to Emma’s form was impossible to ignore. The swaying of her body when she thought Regina’s eyes had slipped away, the press of her hand to her chest, the fingers that gripped and dug far too hard.
Yet Regina said nothing. The leather of Rocinante’s reins curled around her hand, acted as a source of comfort – one that had always been.
Perhaps she imagined it, for when her gaze rested heavily on Emma, she was as strong as she always was, her head held confidently, back straight and determination flowing from her.
It muddled her mind, confusing her with conflicting proof – fears – panic –
Her neck throbbed, the skin pulled, shooting spasms of pain through her when she started and turned at the rustling of a bush or a tree. Something oft repeated, enough so that she would have grown embarrassed if things were not so dire.
That paths and roads weren’t safe, something she – or perhaps Rocinante – knew instinctively when they ran, straying quickly onto overgrown tracks and bridle paths.
It was almost all a blur now, but with the little she could recall of only the night (day?) before brought her mind back to that ill-fated race with the knights and Emma, of smiles and pride –
Then her mother… her mother…
The pull was instant, above her left breast, such a sharp tug that she stumbled in her rush forward. Her right arm stretched back, Rocinante trailing behind, his head low.
She caught Emma’s hand, the touch soothing the pull even as Emma in shock or unease tripped over a thick branch.
She righted herself immediately, and strode onwards – both of them.
They continued that way, silence wrapping around them like a fog, their fingers tangled loosely as they ducked under tree limbs, avoided roots and sudden dips in the ground. Pausing only for brief moments to assist Rocinante if needed. So far he seemed to be coping well enough. Better than them in any case.
The calls of birds surrounded them, never ceasing. At first she had listened, but soon their calls merged and muted until they were all but forgotten. Just ambient sounds to add to the weight on their shoulders.
Where had this feeling of distance come from?
She didn’t know for certain.
Reality perhaps, finally catching up with them. It made sense, didn’t it?
Her dress dug in painfully at the hips, her feet were quick to numb with her heels slipping between roots or catching on hidden stones. She wasn’t dressed for this – clearly – perhaps it was even holding them back. If she were dressed more sensibly, she knew she would move faster. She hoped she would.
There hadn’t been a suggestion to ride Rocinante, her clothing ill-suited and him far too tired. He hadn’t been rode properly in so long, and in her panic she had pushed him, and herself, far past any limits they had. The bearing of an extra body, especially of one not conscious, could not have helped matters any.
She tripped, much as Emma had, but the blonde’s grip steadied her.
The ground was too uneven for him anyway, even if they could have had him carry them – one of them. She couldn’t thrust two upon him yet again, not so soon.
Thankfully the trees sheltered them from most of the unexpected heat of the day, which at least took one issue from them.
Her thoughts, at first, had been enough to take her mind from the knot that had settled in the pit of her stomach, gnawing and angry. Its demand growing and growing as the sun moved over the canopy of leaves.
The knot grew, caused a scratching stress that stretched to her throat after a time, her head overwhelmed as an ache grew in her temple.
It became apparent, shocking slowly to her fatigued mind, that another distraction was needed. She finally freed her tongue – something she had been fighting to do all day. Her voice cracking from disuse and thirst.
“Why did you do it Emma?” Her fingers slipped from the blonde’s, the accusation heavy enough it caught at her.
Accidental as it was, Emma marched on ahead even as Regina’s pace slowed as near to a stop as it had all day.
“I did not –
“It doesn’t matter.” Emma dragged one hand through her curls. Regina winced as she saw her fingers catch roughly at tangles.
Emma paused, the rims of her eyes red when she turned to Regina. With a motion Regina caught up, still clinging to Rocinante’s reins like they were a lifeline. Perhaps they were.
They lapsed into silence, but it was far shorter than their last pause.
When she spoke, Emma’s voice was soft – perhaps from her own distracted thoughts or from lack of use, much as Regina’s had been.
“I heard a rumour.”
“A rumour?” It was a pointless question – anything to hear Emma’s voice. To know this was real, no matter what that meant.
“I thought it likely a lie, but even the most dubious rumours carry a kernel of truth.”
“What made you believe it to be true?” There was little point in asking the contents of the rumour, no matter what it was, the truth was known now.
Emma’s tone was still tentative; it was unusual enough that Regina vowed to hold her tongue. To let Emma say what she needed to, lest she seize up – something that made Regina’s grip on Rocinante’s reins tighten. She was uncertain where the fear came from, only that it had lodged in her mind and refused to shift.
“Partly due to what you said, and partly due to what I heard.”
As she spoke, Emma’s pace was slowing, leaves and twigs crunching beneath her boots.
“So it seemed the right thing to do – investigate that is.”
Emma’s cheek dipped in, a sign she was chewing it as she scuffed her boot at a moss covered tree root.
“I didn’t tell you, so you wouldn’t worry.” Regina turned her head away, Rocinante pulling at the reins, his foot having caught on a large stone, “I imagined you were under enough stress as it was – why add more, especially if it turned out the rumours were false.”
“You just said they all hold some truth.” It seemed she was not as capable of holding her tongue as she thought.
“Not always what it may seem to be.”
“And that one was true.” A foolish question, and one she had sworn not to ask. Emma, it seemed, knew she did not wish to speak of that, her gaze gentle when their eyes met and words lacking the detail that they could have carried.
“All of it, or rather all of what little they did know.”
The silence that followed drowned out all of the sounds that surrounded them, it was an odd feeling – deafening in some bizarre way.
“This is all…” Emma sighed, shaking her head, her words forgotten.
They moved slower now, even though the ground had grown more even, the heat beating down on them even as the sun moved ever westward.
Emma’s head was bowed, at first Regina assumed she was minding her step, but that was foolish of her. She could see the truth in the curling of Emma’s hands, the slight furrow to her brow when she caught sight of the blonde’s face.
An unexpected sound startled her, sent her heart hammering. Rocinante nudged at her shoulder, grounding and calming her.
She was still looking over her shoulder when Emma spoke.
“Regina…” Emma’s gaze slid away as she faced forward once more, Regina keeping a pace or two behind, “Don’t think my feelings have changed –
Where was this coming from? “I would never… you know that.”
“– It’s just that –
Emma froze suddenly; Regina barely avoided walking into her. Though would that have been a bad thing? A part of her craved the warmth of her body against her own. Needed that comfort now more than ever.
“Can you hear that?”
Regina’s heart jumped, a cold wave of emotion washing over her, “Hear what?”
“Sounds like a celebration.”
A celebration? The fast beat of Regina’s heart slowed, her breathing returning to the norm when the panic left her system.
She closed her eyes, her chin dropping as she focused.
It took time – time they did not have – but yes. She could just make out the sound of raucous laughter.
“Or some people having a good time.”
Leaves crunched beneath foot as Emma moved, Regina opening her eyes slowly.
Emma had lurched into motion, her hands jumping and gaze shifting from Regina to their left and back again.
Rocinante huffed, the sound weary, a perfect mimic of how she, and Emma she assumed, were feeling.
Emma chewed at her cheek, brow creasing as she turned again in a flash of blonde hair.
“I…” Emma’s foot hit the ground heavily as she turned, stepping closer to Regina and Rocinante.
“Shit…” Emma hissed, running her hand through her hair roughly as she turned again and paced, “Shit, I need to...”
Regina swallowed hard, heart picking up its pace at Emma’s quick movements and sharp curses.
“Stay…” Emma rubbed at the back of her neck, the movement sharp and jerky unlike the familiar embarrassed motion, “…just stay here.”
“Stay?” Regina choked on the word, heart hammering beneath her breast, “Stay?”
Emma shook her head, eyes wide as she finally stood still in front of Regina.
“Just – not for long,” Emma’s hands slid over Regina’s upper arms, gentle and light in their touch, “I swear, just – just for a moment.”
She wished to close the distance between them, just for that feeling of familiarity. So needed in that moment.
But Emma stepped back, already turning.
“You wait here, I’ll go see if…”
“… If what?” Regina asked softly.
Emma rolled her shoulders, rubbing at the back of one.
“Err, you know. See if I can get anything that could help us.”
That… that did make sense, but the thought of Emma leaving her… even if only for a short few moments made her stomach drop and breathing hitch painfully.
“And some clothes that are easier to travel in.”
Pushing back her rising panic, Regina’s face scrunched up. Emma’s clothing was fine, her usual working attire more than suited for travelling.
Regina’s own however… well, she had already complained about that to herself.
“I understand, but can I go with you?”
Emma shook her head, looking down guiltily.
“If, err, if there’s anyone there… and they recognise me then at least you will have time to get away.”
Why would she… oh… right.
Her need to argue faded, understanding what Emma meant even though she wanted to protest – wanted Emma to remain by her side.
“How are you going to pay for them?”
Regina nodded without even a second of pause.
“I swear Regina, I will be back…”
Her heart jolted at the words clearly left unsaid, her breath catching in her throat.
No – Emma couldn’t be suggesting…
Emma reached into Rocinante’s saddlebag, drawing out her cloak.
She paused for a moment, looking down at the material.
In a stride she was before Regina, wetting her bottom lip and moving with more hesitancy than Regina had seen for a long while.
“It’s getting colder.”
She unravelled her cloak, bringing it with a shake of her hands around Regina’s shoulders and fixing it there.
“It’ll keep you warm.”
“I’m not cold.”
Emma smiled, shifting the fixing on the cloak so it was settled on Regina’s shoulders properly.
She stepped back, taking in a deep breath. An action that had Regina’s heart hammering, pounding against her ribs – anymore and she was certain it would outright burst from the strain.
“If I’m not back before the sun sets, leave.”
Regina’s throat tightened, her free hand shooting up, “No, Emma, no.”
Emma took another step back, looking through the trees behind her – the path she would take.
“You will,” Emma’s tone was low, a tremble that spilt her sentence, “If it’s for the best.”
“No – no I won’t –
Regina tried to move forward, to hold onto the blonde, but was held back by her grip on Rocinante’s reins and his unmoving form.
In a messy rush, she tried to untangle her hand from the reins, her eyes slipping from her target.
“The longer you argue, the sooner it will get dark.”
Emma shrugged, her voice lacking emotion.
Regina’s shoulders slumped, the fight leaving her but heart still beating hard, “Emma…”
“Before the sun sets.”
She looked up in the hopes of green eyes meeting her own, but Emma was already disappearing through the trees.
She had nothing.
What was she supposed to do?
All that time to think – to ignore what needed to be ignored – and she had come up empty.
Emma raked her fingers through her hair, paying no mind to the way they snagged. She had tugged the tie out long ago, thinking it would relieve the pressure in her head.
Distracted she stumbled again, catching herself on a tree trunk.
“Damn it!” She hissed, hands throbbing, white lines marking soon to bleed grazes on her palms. She had had worse, but the surprise and her aching body amplified it.
She dragged her sleeve across her forehead, shrugging off the pain as she surveyed the small village before her.
There were more people milling around than she had expected, most concentrated around a building to the far end of the village. But then again, she had never been to a place so small. Assumptions could be wrong; just like hers for just where they were… she shouldn’t base such a thing something so trivial, but…
A man shouted, his voice louder than the rest, lacking the accent she had not had time to grow use to in – in that other place.
They were back in Viadori after all? Well, that certainly explained why there was no sign of anyone behind them yet. And feel of the warmth she had missed.
She dusted her hands over her tunic, wincing only a little at the pull on the damaged skin of her palms. Hopefully the small drops of blood would not stain… or stand out.
She had already wasted so much time.
Maybe once in the centre of it, she would know just what to do. It was a long shot, but it was something. Right?
There were no looks, the few people she saw on her way darting into or out of houses. Emma’s mouth watered at the rich smell of cooking.
There was something familiar about the scent, deep and minty.
It hit moments later; a young boy sitting on a doorstep, biting into a large, crumbling biscuit. He laughed, trying to catch the large parts that broke away.
It was Summer’s End?
What an idiot! She berated herself, hurrying past the boy as her stomach rumbled.
Of course it was, she had only felt a little disappointed that she would miss it, her excitement to see Regina again overwhelming all else. That had been what was truly important – after all, who knew when she would get the chance again?
Not until they had planned accordingly with their letters.
It had been a good idea – her chest had swelled with pride when it came to her, more so when she began grasping beyond more than the odd single word.
Sadly, it wasn’t to be.
Emma jumped, heart racing, her head snapping up.
“I didn’t know you were from around these parts!” As the man swayed, a large smile fixed on his face, Emma’s heart slowed back to an almost normal rate. Tension remained, of course. How could it not?
“Talmadge?” She breathed out, relieved that this wasn’t what she had thought at first.
Now, as she looked over his shoulder, she spotted a few men baring King Xavier’s crest. Guards, celebrating the harvest – none would know. Not so soon.
God she hoped she was right.
“So, where are you from?” He slapped a hand against her shoulder. She covered her wince easy enough as he rattled off a long list of names that made her mind spin.
“Err…” Emma shook her head, trying to catch up to what was being said, “You wouldn’t know. Pretty small place.”
“Ha! But I know all the places around here!”
“Where is your wife? And your daughter?”
“Hmm…” He blinked slowly, mind sluggish enough she hoped, “Oh. In Laca, with her parents. Making what I hope will be a great feast.”
“Yes,” she drew the word out, pushing back the thoughts food roused in her, “I’m sure it will.”
“I haven’t seen you at a gathering before?” The question came fast, throwing her off balance. At least he had forgotten his previous line of inquiry. “Come to think of it, I haven’t seen you around for a while?”
“Oh, you know. Busy,” she replied, hoping if she answered his last question he would forget those that came before.
“Ah…” He hummed, thankfully mistaking the red of her face for something else, “I see. If only my daughter would finally take such an interest, I’m starting to wonder if she ever will.”
He winked, and then his head fell back with a laugh.
She chuckled, it sounded forced, but he didn’t seem to notice.
“Next year you shall travel with us.”
“It will be easier and cheaper.”
“Err, alright.” Her eyes dropped down, noticing the mud and scuffs covering her boots. She shuffled, her feet, not the best thing to do when she need to distract him from noticing, “If I can.”
“I will ensure you can – as long as you current replacement can perform his job adequately.”
Emma gritted her teeth, tried to ignore the ache growing stronger in her. Tried to cope with how demanding her consciousness of the movement of the sun was.
A shout startled her. Talmadge turned, yelling back at a friend. Emma took the chance to rub at her eyes, to piece together the floating nag of something in the back of her mind.
The knight had implied that all the villages gathered there. Gathered there because… ah! The tavern! Of course.
Tavern, she squinted at the thought. It tugged at that inkling in her mind, but why?
It came to her like a sudden rainstorm.
“I believe we have a wager to settle.”
“Hmm?” Talmadge turned, a furrow to his brow.
“Remember? A wager on a race,” she prompted, growing more sure with each moment, “An ale for you and your friends from me if the race was lost…”
She motioned with her hand, and he caught on.
“Ah yes, I do believe you won that one.” He stroked his chin, looking at little unsettled even in his tipsiness, “I was uncertain if it would count, after what followed.”
Emma lips parted, but she shook off the memories, focusing instead on what was important in that moment.
“It does, and it is time it was settled.”
She breathed a little easier at the understanding on his face – and his smile.
“Of course, never let it be said I do not honour my promises and my debts.” He placed a hand above his heart, surprisingly lucid in that moment.
Emma gave a short useless nod of her head, preparing to put as much strength into her next words, ones that only came once Talmadge’s bleary eyes met hers.
“A sword. I would like a sword.”
Her words hung in the air, or perhaps it only felt that way due to the buzzing of her nerves.
“Pardon?” He asked when the long moment passed, a hint of humour tilting his lips further, “A sword? Whatever for?”
“Hunting.” She rushed out. Her teeth digging into her cheek, and nails pushing into her sore palms far too hard.
How stupid. What a complete idiot she is!
He blinked rapidly, his mind clearly struggling to catch up to his senses. Emma swallowed hard, shoulders tense enough she feared the muscles would snap.
“Wouldn’t…” He scratched at the hair on his jaw, “A bow be better?”
“Oh,” Emma spluttered out on the end of a forced chuckle, “Of course. But it’s, err, for a challenge. For the challenge. I mean, if you can sneak up to a boar within stabbing distance –
“Yes, striking distance. To get that close, shows some amazing skill. The kind of skill I would love to possess.”
He shook his head, eyes losing more focus as the conversation went on – the ale taking further affect? It could take time with some, but was that just wishful thinking on her part? Just as wishful as her hope that her hurried story would be accepted.
“Be that as it may, I have no sword to give you. And if I did it would be far too valuable and, hmm…” He waved his hand in half a gesture. Emma caught it however, or was too jittery not to notice even the slightest of motions.
Her eyes drawn back to the tavern, to the men outside. Knights, in their uniforms rather than armour, and with their arms…
One of them turned again, shouting something unintelligible at Talmadge. The blonde knight looked over his shoulder, lifting his hand in acknowledgement.
“Well then,” Emma drawled with a fake smile when he turned back to her, “How about an ale?”
“Now that…” The man grinned broadly, his stance wavering, “I can do.”
The tavern was full, tables set up outside to handle the influx of people. That’s where Talmadge and some others, knights and some guards in their different uniforms sat.
The men, distracted as they were by a game of dice, didn’t notice as Emma slipped away. Not too far, just so she could watch, hidden in the shadows cast from a low building next to the tavern. She nursed the tankard in her hand. A sip for courage, nothing more.
No one noticed, too involved in the excuse of a holiday, the chance to drink as much as they could.
Her eyes jumped up to the sky, the sun was getting ever lower. She was wasting time, but she couldn’t let this slide, she needed something to protect Regina with. The idea had struck her and had swiftly taken root – there was no forgetting of it now.
She took another sip, felt her head spin, her stomach protesting. Right, how could she forget that?
Pressing her hand to her head she steadied her mind, ears pricking at a bellowing shout from the rowdy table. One man’s voice rose above the rest, recognisable from before, “Gotta sober up the wife’s best friend.”
She spied him, wobbling as he stood. A knight from the looks of his uniform.
“You’re gonna let ‘er fly?” Another man chimed in, the rest of the table laughing.
Shooting a look into the tavern, he shrugged sluggishly, “Jus’ to wa’er the flowers.”
He stumbled away, past her, his sword hanging from his belt.
Emma shook her head, disposing of the mostly full tankard by a hitching post. This wasn’t a ‘could she?’ She had to. She was no larcener, but there was no choice.
Knights had plenty of funds anyway, that’s how they got a title. Most of them.
Sticking to the lengthening shadows, she tailed the man.
He didn’t get far, stopping by a nearby building (a closed store?), and heading around the back.
Oh… she saw where this was going.
She hesitated, staying close to the wall of the opposite building to summon some much needed strength. A glance of the ever moving sun was enough to spur her on despite the sweat on her brow and falter in her step.
She pressed against the building’s wooden wall, peering around the corner to spy the back of the stout guard.
This was her only chance, she reminded herself, swallowing down nausea.
His sword and belt getting in his way, he pushed at it, from what she could see, the action doing no good.
He grunted in annoyance, tugging clumsily at his belt until it was free and he dropped it behind him, whistling merrily in his drunkenness.
Well, this wasn’t the worst thing she had to witness. So that was something?
She dropped down, moving in a crouch towards the man’s back and the sword resting barely a step away from him.
Her breath stilled, her eyes glued to the man’s back, ready for any sign of movement as she reached out.
The leather was warm against her hand, she pulled her arm back. The ends of the belt clinked.
Her muscles tensed, ready to run.
Oblivious, he continued whistling his merry tune.
As slowly as she could she moved back, not standing until she was around the side of the building and the man’s whistling grew fainter.
She took off in a quick walk. One that turned into a jog when she saw how long the shadows now stretched, covering almost the whole of the path.
She fiddled with the sword, fumbling as she fixed the belt around her waist – if only she had her cloak she could have wrapped it around it, and hidden the sword from sight.
“Shi – sorry,” she stammered out, the old woman she walked into frowned.
Emma skirted around her, chest aching when a thought hit her.
“Actually,” she called, spinning around as quickly as she could manage. The old woman turned back, face as sour as when she collided with her, “Which way is the nearest town, err, market town. I’m looking to source passage on a ship.”
The woman’s eyes narrowed, either from distrust or strain – Emma wasn’t sure.
“Vendima, biggest one outside the capital. Far smaller though. About a day due west, but you won’t find a ship there.”
“Do we look like we are on the coast?”
“You would have to join a caravan up, or get a boat on the river and find one across the border.” The woman shifted the bundle in her arms, cradling it harder to her breast, “Or go to the capital.”
“Of course, silly me to forget.” Emma tugged at the sword belt, it was far too loose, she would need to cut another notch. Or two.
“You might be clueless.” The woman eyed her hard, “But you don’t sound much like a traveller.”
“I was born here?”
The woman’s nose wrinkled, but she said nothing more. It sent chills down Emma’s spine, the words more than the hard, dark eyes that studied her far too deeply.
“Thank you,” Emma said automatically, already rushing away.
There wasn’t much time – if Regina would actually do what Emma told her to (which was doubtful if Emma was to be honest with herself) – what else did they need? She knew where they were heading, knew what they needed to do once there, but what else?
Near the edge of the town, where the houses were even sparser, she spied a young girl and a large tree.
Her steps faltered, slowing as she saw the girl picking fruit and dropping them into a bucket.
She had no coin; nowhere she could buy food regardless.
Perhaps she should have asked the knight for something like that, or some sort of wager in their game of dice. A free roll or two.
It was too late now though.
She dropped her head, trying to act inconspicuous – not that the girl had noticed her – and resumed her trek as slowly as she could manage without being to overtly noticeable.
“Nieve get the dog out of the kitchen!”
Well, it seemed she was fortunate.
As soon as the girl was out of sight she hopped the fence, staggering slightly on the other side as pain shot through her.
Catching herself, she forced her mind from the white pain and on to the shiny red apples.
Her stomach roiled, her throat feeling tight as she crouched before the filled bucket.
They probably didn’t have much. The apples might be their own supply, or for selling either as they were or as part of something. Pies or pastries, who knew?
Her stomach rumbled.
She had done many things in her short life, questionable and not. Others had taken things as part of a deal, like the wine that started all of this, but she had never done it herself. Had never asked another to obtain things in that way.
The sword, well the man was a knight. They had plentiful wealth; it would be easy for him to pay for a replacement. To be in such a role meant a comfortable life, even with a debt like that.
These people however… she could see they didn’t have much. Most didn’t. She didn’t. She had even less really. No home of her own, few belongings. No family.
She couldn’t just take from them.
Her hands felt clammy.
The sky grew ever darker, the red and oranges of the setting sun giving ways to purples and deep blues.
She chewed her bottom lip, there wasn’t much time.
And… in spite of everything… they needed it too. Just a little. Just one or two.
This wasn’t hers, she shouldn’t take.
But… but there were plenty… surely they wouldn’t miss a few.
And they needed it more, to keep them going until they were further away and she could figure something else out. It would do, for them both, until she could get something better for Regina.
She grabbed as many as she could, stuffing her pockets with them even though they dug into her. She would have used her cloak like a makeshift sack, but she had left that with Regina. No, this would have to do.
Tucking some into her elbow and holding them against her chest, she clambered back over the fence and jogged away, a few apples falling out of her arms and tumbling to the ground.
Half juggling the fruit, she twisted her head, watching behind her for any sign of the girl or, more importantly, her dog.
Gulping down a breath she tripped away, but past the last house her jog slowed. Her gaze caught by fluttering material.
In for a coin… may as well…
She bit her lip, made her mind as blank as she could and easily entered the rickety gate into the garden behind the house – it was still in darkness, there couldn’t be anyone at home.
The thick rope strung between two trees housed what she needed. With some difficulty, she freed one arm, and yanked the clothing off the drying line, small pegs sent flying.
Folding the clothes as best and as swiftly as she could, she rolled the apples held against her body into the cloth, picking it up in both arms and carrying it like a bundle.
Something snapped behind her.
She took off as fast as she could.
Regina didn’t notice her approach, too focused on the dark sky. Emma placed her bundle of items down, unbuckling the sword belt as quietly as she could, before she laid it down behind some thick shrub to her right. Once hidden, she hurried forward.
“Emma!” Regina’s hair was free of the pins that held it before, the jewellery gone too, save for a glimpse of silver around her neck. Emma’s heart jumped at the sight.
Now wasn’t the time.
Regina was before her in a second, hands hovering between them, “I wasn’t sure if… with what you said and –
A pinch to the bridge of her nose marked the abrupt end to her words, the princess – former princess? – Emma wasn’t sure which, if either, Regina would consider herself, breathed out in a long sigh.
Emma wanted to hold, to protect, but she restrained herself. Protecting was just what she was doing. She would force nothing, and – God, her mind was so muddled, nothing was making sense anymore.
“I’m here,” she soothed, watching as the brunette relaxed, her smile eager, though on the edge of faltering. The underlying reasons for, well, this, not an easy burden to lift.
“How did you get those?”
It took a moment for Emma’s mind, sluggish as it was, to decipher what Regina was referring to. Though a cursory glance to Regina and where her eyes were fixed would have answered her confusion far more swiftly.
“You’ve braided your hair?”
“I thought it made sense.”
“Right…” Emma ran a hand through her own hair, palms stinging, she spied the white string Regina had used to secure her hair in place.
“I used your tie.” Regina’s eyes seemed wider, something shifting in them that made Emma’s heart hammer a little harder, “You can have it back if you need it. If you’ve changed your mind.”
“Don’t worry Regina, it’s fine, really.”
“You avoided my question.” Regina blurted out, as if afraid she would be distracted again and forget what she wanted to ask, “How did you get those clothes?”
“Struck a deal.” The lie rolled from her tongue easily enough, though it left a bad taste. She shrugged as if it would rid her of the bitterness in her mouth, “No matter now, you need to change. This might be a little big, or maybe small, but it will do until we find something better.”
Regina’s nose scrunched, unconsciously no doubt. It was only natural, clothing for people like her were fitted and overly designed, while clothing for people like Emma, well, they made do.
It was not an accusation or with malice that Emma thought that, she knew Regina was different. Knew she wouldn’t look down her nose at her, hell, they had known one another long enough to know that. More than that. But some things were just ingrained in people. Or forcibly ingrained in to them, whether wanted or not.
Emma crouched, unwrapping the bundle and revealing what was inside.
“Here.” She offered an apple – the biggest she could see – to Regina, who eagerly took it. And another.
Emma watched, baffled, until Regina headed straight to Rocinante, offering him the larger apple Emma had given her. The smaller one, it appeared, Regina had picked for herself.
The blonde gnawed at the inside of her cheek, partly at the unnecessary loss of an apple (grass was enough in this weather to fill Rocinante), and partly at her own biter thoughts. The callousness – for that was how it felt – unexpected, and foreign to her.
What did it matter? They would have proper food soon enough.
Maybe it was an aftereffect of what had…
Emma blindly grabbed for an apple of her own, biting into it fast and hard.
When all that was left were the cores of the fruits, Emma had to coax Regina to discard of it on the floor, the brunette protesting at first for that was simply not something she had ever done. She was always so neat with such things.
“Well,” Emma said, lifting her tunic and placing the apples in the fold she created, “That has certainly helped my thirst some.”
Regina gave a short nod, her gaze focused on the dress Emma had secured.
“I figured a change of clothes would make things easier.”
“Oh,” Regina replied, her eyes shutting as she let out a long breath, “Of course.”
“I can’t imagine it was easy getting this far in a dress that tight, err…” Emma’s cheeks pinkened as she wondered, not for the first time, if her mind was a little one tracked. Even now.
In the weak moon light she could just make out Regina’s lips tilting up, but it wasn’t enough to catch the emotion in her eyes.
“So, a change of clothes,” Emma croaked, holding the dress up for Regina to take.
Regina took the dress, but rather than retreating to change, she remained still, nipping at her bottom lip.
“What’s the matter?”
“I,” Regina sighed, “I will require assistance.”
Emma’s cheeks heated further, she didn’t understand why exactly. She had seen far more. Not to mention…
“Err, right, what do you need me to… do?”
“The ties on the back are a little tricky to undo on my own.”
Swallowing a lump in her throat, Emma struggled to her feet , one hand holding tight to her tunic to keep the apples in place. When had she got so skittish?
Regina slipped her cloak from her shoulders, folding it and placing it over Rocinante’s saddle. She brushed her braid over her shoulder, presenting her back to Emma’s gaze.
Emma was thankful for the darkness, for this at least.
Saddling a horse, hitching strong knots, working with her hands was second nature to her. This however; she tugged too hard, grappling with the too small ties. All made even harder when she had only one hand free.
She had started at the top, a guess, but one that seemed to have been correct. As the dress parted, half of the ties still in place, Regina stepped forward. Emma wet her lips, glad for the distraction from the smooth skin she could just make out.
“Thank you.” Emma barely caught the words, her eyes opening wide when Regina reached back with one of her hands –
“You need privacy,” Emma’s voice cracked in the middle, her free hand jumping up, “I will be here.”
Regina’s eyes met hers over her shoulder.
She stood, awkwardly as she tried to keep the apples in their temporary place.
After a time, Regina responded with a simple, “Of course.”
Emma turned her back, shutting out the flicker she caught in Regina’s eyes, waiting until she heard her move away.
She moved as quickly as she could, balancing the apples and trying to keep noise to a minimum.
A quick glance back showed no hint of Regina, she hoped the same could be said of her.
She grabbed the sword from its hiding place and returned to Rocinante’s side. She pulled out the horse rug from the saddlebag, and wrapped the sword in it, before forcing it back into place as much as she could – not helped by using only one hand. Rocinante huffed, but remained relatively still. There wasn’t enough room, leaving the sword sticking out but hidden by the cloth.
She caught an apple as it tried to make its escape in her rush to return to where she previously stood.
She cleared her throat, pushing at leaves with the toe of her boots in a mockery of casualness. Regina returned mere seconds after the beat of her heart calmed.
“It feels a little big.” Regina was pulling at the material at her waist, eyes no doubt narrowed in consideration, “Just a little.”
“I will see if I can do better next time, I had to grab what, err, what I could.” Emma looked away for a beat, frowning at herself for slipping.
Reeling her composure back in, she motioned for Regina to move closer, which the older girl did immediately.
“Your dress, the old one,” Emma prompted. The brunette caught on, not surprising considering how in sync they could be, and held the neatly folded dress out to her.
With some fidgeting and manoeuvring, they got the dress in the position Emma wanted, allowing her to stretch her tunic and roll the apples forward.
Hands free at least (and a slight ache in her back) Emma made quick work of folding the dress around the fruit.
Regina startled Emma when she spoke, her voice soft, “What happened to your hands?”
“Huh?” Emma glanced at her palms, and as if sight was tied with pain, as soon as her eyes landed on the grazes her hands began to throb, “I fell.”
Regina’s brow was furrowed when she looked up, her lips pursed. The familiar expression calmed Emma some, memories of bumps and grazes, and Regina fussing over them flickering through her mind.
Emma shrugged, standing with the bundle of dress and apples in her hands. Regina watched, far too carefully, as Emma headed straight to Rocinante and placed the bundle in his saddlebag, “It’ll heal, probably in a day or so.”
She stepped back, her stomach churning.
“The apples though,” she began quickly trying to steer the conversation elsewhere, “They should be alright there, well, they’re as protected as we can manage at the moment.”
“What’s that?” Regina asked, Emma’s words during her attention to the new item in Rocinante’s saddlebag. Regina reached forward, but Emma darted in her way hands held out.
“Just something we need.” She would explain, not now. Tomorrow. She would explain tomorrow.
“That’s awfully evasive, Emma?” Regina’s expression was pinched, her words carrying a hint of something.
Hurt, Emma realised. The delay in her thoughts connecting just as much of a punch in the gut as the upset she had caused.
At least Regina was distracted from the pointless concern over her.
“I know.” Emma exhaled a long breath, shoulders slumping, “I promise I will explain.”
With only a slight shake to her hands, she slid them along Regina’s upper arms. The material of the new dress coarser, reminding her of the pain in her palms.
“I promise.” She could feel Regina’s warmth as she stepped closer, the intimacy a soothing balm to her body and mind, “I just need to make sure you are safe.”
Regina’s breath ghosted across her cheek, Emma’s muscles tensed, her own breath hitching.
Then the closeness was gone, “We.”
There was a moment of blank stupidity as Emma scrambled to understand just what Regina meant with that singular word.
She shook her head, directing her thoughts to more productive matters.
“We should get moving.”
“We have no light.”
“We have the moon. If you hadn’t noticed.” Emma swallowed hard, her weight shifting between her feet unconsciously as her attempt at humour fell flat.
The moon did provide some light, though it was a thin crescent shape. It’s light filtered by the canopy. It would be difficult moving in the dark, but they couldn’t stop. Not yet.
“We’re going to Vendima.” Emma retrieved her cloak, but rather than wrap it around Regina as she had earlier, she handed it over, “It’s a merchant town.”
The night was already shaping up to be cooler than the day, not that it really meant much. There was a moment of hesitance before Regina fixed Emma’s cloak around her.
When Regina responded, Emma could tell it was not the first question she wanted to ask, “Why a merchant town? Is it the nearest?”
Oh, damn, Emma hadn’t thought to ask if there was somewhere closer.
But, it was only a day away, they could manage that easily. They would find a stream or river or something to get water, it would all be fine.
“We need supplies, and, well, it’s on the way to where we need to go.” Emma scratched at her neck, brow furrowing, “I mean, if we are still sticking to that plan of ours – mine – ours?”
“It was incomplete,” Regina said carefully, her voice low, “And we unprepared. But yes, we will follow it, and… and find sanctuary somewhere. At that kingdom you mentioned, the one with ties to the fairies.”
“Of course Emma, why wouldn’t I?”
Thankful for the dark, for it hid her red cheeks, Emma managed to unstick her tongue and answer, “Then we will have to find something to offer them in return.”
“I’m sure we will think of something.”
Emma nodded, her lips tilting into a lopsided smile, “Yes, I’m sure we will.”
When Regina’s eyes moved to Rocinante, a hint of concern in them, Emma turned ready to set off – even with their eyesight impeded.
She heard Regina talking to Rocinante, then the rustle of leaves beneath shoes and hooves.
Emma reached back, her breathing slowing as the soft warmth of Regina’s hand slid into her own.