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Somewhere Only We Know

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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.

“Em –

“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.

“Why not?”

“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?”

“Trust me.”

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.

“Here.”

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.

“Emma…”

“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.

“Emma!”

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.”

Regina froze.

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.

Shit…

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.

“Ha! Swan?”

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.”

“Huh?”

“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?

Tavern…

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 –

“Striking 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.

Could…

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.”

“Why?”

“Do we look like we are on the coast?”

Oh, right.

“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.

“Coming Ma.”

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.

“Hey.”

“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.”

“You remember?”

“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.

Chapter Text

“Why can you not rest as well?”

Birds were already singing when they finally stopped, all exhausted from near a whole day of none stop travelling.

“I’m fine,” Emma replied.

There was a small stream a few feet away, Emma knelt there, scooping up as much water as she could in her hands to drink. Regina had her fill before.

She had tied Rocinante to a tree nearby, and he too drunk as much as he could, exhausted far more than them both.

“You rest,” Emma repeated. Again. “I’m fine.”

Regina hugged her knees, her back pressed against a tree a few feet away from the blonde. The material was itchy against her skin, but it took her mind off her heavy eyelids and sagging body.

A chill ran through her, her body quaking even as the sun began to reach out, further warming all in its wake.

She felt the scratch of her skirt beneath her chin.

A splash, her head jerked when she realised her eyes had slipped closed for too long.

Emma wiped her damp hands across her brow, her face downcast.

“Emma?” It came out in a near whimper, her fingers tight on her skirts.

She did not see her move, only that one moment Emma was crouching a few paces away and the next she was kneeling before her, the horse blanket in hand.

“Rocinante needs it,” she tried to say, her voice almost a whisper. The strength she tried to muster fleeing in the wake of the overwhelming need for sleep.

Emma chuckled, “Trust me, he won’t. Not today.”

Warmth slipped against her throat, the tie of Emma’s cloak undone. She was shifted forward slightly, and welcomed the familiar feeling of Emma’s cloak being wrapped around her like a blanket.

“Put your head here.” Emma coaxed her onto her side, her head resting on something almost soft – the horse blanket?

Her eyes fluttered shut against her will, even when she reached out to grasp for Emma’s retreating form.

“Stay,” Regina pleaded softly, her thoughts incomplete, “… like before.”

A thickly heavy moment of hesitance, one that broke through her tiredness to cut deep, and then Emma settled beside her. Her arms around her like so long ago.

She shifted, the cloak resting over them both in what would soon become the shade of the tree.

She must have drifted off again, for when Emma spoke, even though at a whisper, it startled her awake.

“Does it hurt?” Emma’s fingers brushed barely detectably along her throat.

The initial jolt of panic was easy to squash down; Emma’s voice so soft, her eyes, in the rising light of day, so caring.

“No… not really.”

The pained look across Emma’s face hurt more than any wound or bruise ever could.

Emma’s lips trembled, on the verge of saying something. If Regina was more awake, she knew she would press the issue, encourage Emma to share what she clearly wanted to.

But she was too far gone, the grip of sleep too demanding.

She tried to say her name, to say something. Anything.

The last thing she felt was the soft brush of Emma’s lips on her forehead.

 


 

Emma jerked awake, a loud snort waking her.

“Ah come on,” she muttered beneath her breath. Rocinante nudged her face one last time before wandering away.

Shit, she hadn’t meant to fall asleep.

And damn, who had tied Rocinante up? The knot obviously hadn’t been strong enough. Luckily, though unsurprisingly, he hadn’t roamed off.

She rubbed at her eyes with the palms of her hands, pressing hard to push back the stinging demand for sleep. But all she succeeded at was to remind herself of the grazes still marring her hands.

Sliding from under Regina as quietly as she could, she stood hoping to shake off any need for sleep and the unpleasant throb of her palms.

After checking Regina was undisturbed, she moved away, rubbing at her face with the back of her hand. She sighed.

Her eyes caught the sword in Rocinante’s saddlebag. The horse blanket that covered it now being used as an almost effective pillow.

She gave his flank a pat, “Thank you for waking me.”

He paused in his grazing to let out a short huff.

She gave him a sympathetic stroke, “Yes I know.”

He lifted his head partway up, meeting her eyes. She sighed, rolling her own and retrieved the sword when Rocinante resumed grazing.

It made more sense to keep it to hand anyway. She just… needed to find a way to explain it. That was all. She had promised herself she would.

She looked to Regina, slumbering contently – her face smoothed and one hand gripping tightly to her cloak.

Regina would understand. They needed protection.

Emma’s shoulders rose and fell with a sigh, it was the unspoken meaning of the word ‘protection’ that she knew Regina would react to – silently or not.

She wrapped the belt around her waist, tugging it around her as far as she could. It hung too much off her waist, slipping down awkwardly when she took a few steps.

What could she use to make another notch?

There was the blade itself, but that was just asking for trouble.

It would just have to do, for now.

With a long glance to Regina, she chanced a quick search of their surroundings. She stuck to the immediate area, where the small clearing gave way to large trees and thick shrubs. No further than that, she didn’t want to risk anyone sneaking up on Regina whilst she slumbered. Or at all.

She curled her hand around her sword belt, holding it until she grew more confident that it wouldn’t fall. She did her best to survey the area, to ensure there were no signs of anyone approaching, to ensure no one knew they were there.

In truth, she didn’t really know what she was doing. Sure she had kept an eye out for thieves back home, not that she – nor anyone else for that matter – honestly thought any horse thieves would get past the castle walls. But it was her job, part of it anyway. And she did it well, and the Stable Master ensured she performed her duties.

Okay, so there were a lot of occasions where she slipped out to her favourite tavern, or was distracted by Regina’s presence. But she was still keeping an eye out! You could do more than one thing at a time. Everyone knew that!

She rubbed at the back of her neck, heaving a great sigh as she stomped quite unintentionally back to the stream.

Regina had curled into herself at some point, head bowed and her visible hand clutching hard at her cloak.

Wiping her hands on her trousers, she bit her cheek at the return of the just subsiding pain. She swallowed it back, and crept closer, her body tense.

She breathed a little easier when she saw Regina’s face free of lines, calm despite the rest of her form.

Emma’s chest ached at the glimpse of dark marks against her neck.

She looked away, her breathing picking up speed as her hands curled tight. It made the pain worse, but it was nothing.

The birds sang proudly, surrounding the almost serene place. Emma’s eyes swept the area, body trembling.

There was no time for this – of course there is, she berated herself. There was always time. It was more important. It was… she had done…

Her head spun, body losing its strength as she wavered.

No, she had to be strong. She was strong.

And it was their priority to get moving as soon as Regina woke. That was important. That was the most important thing. Regina. Keeping her safe. They needed to move, but even so…

She had rushed Regina too much the day before, had put too much stress on her. Regina knew they had to move, but to have some brief token sense of ‘normality’ would help her – it would help them both greatly.

Rocinante didn’t lift his head from the stream as she rummaged around in his saddlebag.

Growing annoyed with her efforts to free some apples from the tightly wrapped bundle, she pulled it out and dropped to her knees a tad bit too fast.

A brief grumble of pain, and she made short work of undoing yesterday’s effort.

Smiling in triumph, she retrieved two apples and placed them to the side.

She wrapped the dress around the remaining fruit and returned it to the saddlebag – her knees and head protesting weakly when she jumped to her feet.

She slipped her prize into her pockets (uncomfortable, but temporary) and carefully trod along the bank of the stream, looking for something she could use.

She found a nice flat stone, dunked it in the stream a few times to wash it, and used it as a makeshift plate of sorts. Placing the apples neatly next to one another.

“No,” she scolded with no malice, when Rocinante caught sight of them, “These aren’t for you. But maybe you can have another later.”

He huffed, wandering over to the stream for a drink.

Damn, Emma scratched the back of her head; she really should have hitched him up again. There was not even the smallest hint of worry that he would run off, but he was a horse, and no matter how well behaved, they were easily startled.

“Come on, we can’t have you running off.” He looked directly at her as she spoke, ears twitching forward, “Yes, I know. Now come on, Regina would be upset.”

She clasped his reins, and with little fuss he followed behind her, and stood still when she hitched him to a thick branch. He could graze, was near enough to the stream so that he could drink, and near enough to Regina so that she would be happy. Or as happy as she could be all things considered.

Emma had just enough time to splash her face with the chilled water of the stream, and to drink as much as she could manage with her hands – an action that brought her attention to the fact they had no way of carrying water. And there was no guarantee they would find any more easily.

The stream though, appeared to flow in the direction they were going. True, it could veer off after only a dozen paces or so, the trees and shrubs were too thick for her to tell if it did from where she was. Hopefully it wouldn’t until later.

Besides, it only took a day to reach the trading town, and they had travelled through the night. With any luck they would be there before the next sunrise.

It would be difficult, but they would simply drink their fill while they could.

Yes, that would work. It would have to.

Soft murmuring had her turn her head and smile. Regina, still bundled up, stretched her arms and looked about before her eyes settled on her.

“You’re awake.”

“Obviously,” Regina managed to mutter teasingly around a yawn.

Emma stood with a stretch of her own, one that only pulled at her sore body a little. Huh, she was healing already, though what did she know of harm that wasn’t physical?

“Good morning.” Regina greeted when Emma plopped down before her, the sword digging awkwardly into her hip.

Emma chuckled, her mood lifting astonishingly quickly, “Are you always so formal first thing in the morning?”

“It’s too earlier to tease me.”

“Hey, you teased me a few moments ago.”

“That, Emma, is different.”

“How is it any different?”

Regina didn’t answer, instead turning to Rocinante and greeting him too. He nudged his head against her outstretched hand, snorting a ‘good morning’ of his own.

Emma rolled her eyes, but her smile remained.

“Breakfast in bed.” Emma announced moving the stone-turned-plate close to Regina, “… or as close to it as I could manage.”

Regina’s chin dropped, making Emma’s smile turn goofy as she looked at her from beneath her eyelashes.

To distract herself from what she was sure was a red face, Emma grabbed an apple and held it out.

Regina lifted her head, tutting playfully.

“Let me guess. You won’t eat until I do.” Their fingers brushed when Regina took the offered fruit. And as soon as she had, Emma grabbed the other and sank her teeth into it for something to occupy herself with.

They didn’t speak, which was perhaps for the best for Regina, as she took in their surroundings and the sky above. That wasn’t so much the case for Emma, who fidgeted on the uncomfortable ground and finished her apple far too fast.

Regina clutched her apple core long after she had finished, until Emma out her hand and she passed it to her.

Not really sure of what to do, Emma walked to the edge of the clearing and threw the cores with as much strength as she could muster. Her shoulder protested, but there was something soothing about the action. Something that shifted in her and felt light, if only for a moment.

She heard a thump as one after the other they hit the ground, or a tree beyond her eyeline.

When she turned, Regina was by Rocinante, placing the horse blanket away. Emma’s cloak resting on her shoulders.

“So, err, I guess we should get moving…”

Regina’s smile was soft, a hint of amusement in her eyes as Emma shuffled over to her. She fiddled with the bottom of her tunic, their gaze holding for long moments.

“You don’t have to be so... is that a sword?!”

Regina quickly looked at the saddlebag and back to Emma, a furrow forming between her eyebrows.

“How did – why do you have a sword?!”

“For protection –

The final syllable had barely passed her lips when Regina’s voice, high with rising emotion, cut in.

“How did you get a sword?!”

“From the village, I said I would get some things we needed.”

How did you get it?” Regina repeated, and the look on her face had Emma’s head dropping and feet shifting.

“You know… traded this and that, made a deal. That kind of thing.”

“Emma how did you get it?”

“It doesn’t matter Regina, we have it. I did what I needed to in order to protect you. Now let’s go before it starts getting dark.” The added bite to her words was uncomfortable for her to force out, but necessary. She needed Regina to drop the subject, she could already feel the guilt swirling in her chest, “We can get to the trading town before the next dawn if we –

“The clothes. The apples. Did you steal them all?”

“I didn’t –

“Don’t lie to me Emma. You never lie to me.”

Emma lifted her hands, a silent plea. Her walls crumbling as she felt that painful tug beneath her breast.

“I had nothing to sell or trade Regina,” she implored, hoping Regina would understand. She hadn’t wanted to. It was a necessity.

“You cannot take what isn’t yours.”

“I know that,” Emma stressed, shoulders slumping, “I know but I had to.”

“You didn’t have to.”

“What was I supposed to do Regina? You couldn’t wander around in your old dress, and we needed some sort of food! It’s not like I can hunt or forage, I wouldn’t know what to look for except the obvious.” Emma rolled her shoulders, eyes sliding away, “Besides, apples grow on trees, it’s not like someone used coin for them.”

“And that tree belonged to no one?”

Her teeth hurt with how hard she was gritting them, but something in Regina’s tone caused the tightness to lessen. Caused the feeling in her chest to fluctuate and arms to tremble.

“I did it to keep us going. To keep us safe.”

Regina turned her head, her gaze finding something Emma paid no attention to, too fixed on this moment to be distracted.

“But you can’t use one.” Regina’s voice was a soft whisper, hesitant in a way that struck Emma hard, “Can you?”

“No.” Emma couldn’t help but smile, relieved at the way Regina’s last two words rose in pitch, a mixture of disbelief and surprise. “But the threat should be enough, right?”

Regina’s nose scrunched, eyes flickering over the hilt and sheath. Almost as if she had seen it… oh. Oooh.

“Let me see it.”

Emma nodded with a thick swallow, hands shaking as she tugged at the sword’s hilt. It was harder than she thought. She flinched when it came free, shrinking as far back from the dangerous blade as she could with it being so close.

She breathed out in relief, when she managed the task with no damage. Her attention caught by an engraving of a raven at the top of the blade.

“I forgot to tell you,” Emma sighed, frustrated at herself. If it wasn’t one thing, it was another, “we are back in Viadori.”

Regina paid no attention to her words, and Emma suspected she had already concluded as much.

“That’s my Grandfather’s insignia…” Regina’s said, speaking more to herself than Emma. Her eyes shifting from the glinting metal to Emma’s wide eyes, “How did you get a knight’s sword? You cannot purchase one, not from anyone save for the King’s blacksmith. And then you have to be knighted.”

“I’m kind of surprise you know that –

“Do not change the subject.”

Emma’s mouth opened, but Regina spoke first.

“And no jokes.” The snap to her words startled Emma. The blonde dropped her head to compose herself. “I’m still angry with you. Even if I can see your point – ever so slightly.”

There was a bitterness to Regina’s words, a reluctant acceptance mirroring Emma’s own justification of her actions.

“Can I put it away before I hurt myself?”

“That’s not encouraging Emma.”

“Funny though?” She chuckled nervously, trying awkwardly (and very carefully) to return the sword to its sheath. Not an easy task for some unexperienced and more than a little weary of the sharp edges. She had seen many an ‘accident’ when she watched the squires training.

“No. It’s not.”

She breathed in relief when the sword was in no danger of harming anyone. She rubbed the back of her head, taking in the sight of her scuffed boots with a furrowed brow.

She heard the whoosh of Regina’s sigh, the scrape of her shoes as she moved away. To Rocinante no doubt.

She should have found some boots or something for Regina –

But that would have been another thing to add to the reasons Regina was angry with her.

She would buy some, when they reached the trading town. She already knew what they could part with; she just had to see if Regina would agree.

That, though, could wait.

They needed –

“We should be going now, shouldn’t we?”

“Just what I was thinking.”

 


 

 

She was breathless, chest aching.

Maybe it was the heat, which seemed greater somehow; maybe the surroundings – of which she had never spent an extended length of time – maybe something else entirely.

She swiped her sleeve across her brow, drawing it back near dry.

Rocinante huffed, wearier than they no doubt.

They couldn’t stop.

Not yet.

Through the leaves overhead the sun sat high.

She smacked her lips, throat dry. Near noon no doubt.

If they kept up like this they would definitely be in Vendima before the sun set. Or shortly afterwards. There would be a tavern open, she might be able to wrangle out a stay for the night with promises to pay them in the morning, hopefully a meal and a drink would go with it. They likely wouldn’t trust a couple of scruffy strangers, unless they offered them some guarantee until they could get payment. Rocinante would suffice, even if the thought made her uncomfortable, and would no doubt make Regina panic.

Would that even be a good idea?

She slipped down a slope, unseen and harmless.

Turning, she offered her hand to Regina, who took it, stepping down carefully. Rocinante found it far easier. Emma gave Regina’s hand a squeeze, then turned to continue, their hands slipping from each other’s.

Sticks snapped underfoot, birds still singing unaware of their procession.

No. Taking a room would be a massive mistake. It would leave them vulnerable, and if she was wrong and those who were bound to chase them were closer than she thought… it would not be a good idea at all. Those after them would have horses; they had a horse they couldn’t truly use. Not in any fair manner.

No. They wouldn’t be safe until they crossed the border. That would buy them time, and give them opportunity to truly become ‘lost’.

There was little chance the Prince and the King’s men knew where they were heading, but word travelled quickly if unrestricted. All it had to do was cross the border from The Mastlands to Viadori, reach the King, and additional messengers and search parties would be sent.

So no. She couldn’t take any chances that would risk them both. Couldn’t give away their location, for all the Prince and King knew, they were still in The Mastlands.

If they reached Vendima after darkness fell, they would camp on the outskirts and approach come morning, when the market would open. They could get supplies and prepare themselves. And find just where the border they needed to cross even was.

“Are we near home?” Regina’s voice rose high by the end of the sentence, startled, Emma stumbled. She regained her balance swiftly, though her body complained. She looked over her shoulder, only to see Regina doing the same.

“That’s, hmm…” Emma scratched at the back of her head, trying to piece together what little she knew of her homeland, “No, I don’t think so.”

“You never told me how you got that sword.” Regina’s eyes dropped to it. Emma swallowed, looking away before Regina’s eyes rose to meet her own. Her head lowered, under the guise of watching her footing.

“I told you.”

“I know you stole it,” Regina’s words still carried strained, bitter understanding, but also something else. “But for it to be a knight’s sword…”

“The village was small. Smaller than I have ever imagined them to be.” Emma shook her head, shrugging her shoulders, and reaffirming what she was certain Regina had missed, “I don’t think so – that we are near home.”

She may not know the lay of the land, but she could piece together what Regina was suggesting. Recognised the note of caution and beginnings of panic.

“But my grandfather’s knights were there? In a small village?” When she did not answer immediately, Regina sucked in a large breath, mutual panic settling on Emma’s already heavy shoulders, “Were they looking for us? Is that why they were there? Do they – no, word doesn’t travel that quickly, does it?”

She stopped, amongst the roots of some ancient tree. It offered some shade, but her skin burned hot, anxious of what even a slight pause in their march could lead to.

Thinking back on what Talmadge had said. About how next time she should travel with them, that it would be far quicker and cheaper, she knew they were clueless. Besides, if they hadn’t have been they would have captured her and made sure she revealed where Regina was.

“I’m certain they weren’t.”

No yet. Had much time did they have?

Regina didn’t look convinced, her expression more vulnerable than Emma had seen it since their reunion.

Emma’s eyes jumped to Rocinante, his head dipped and responsiveness reduced.

“I trust you.” Regina swallowed, bringing Emma’s attention back her, and to the dark marks on her neck.

Her heart clenched.

“They were celebrating Summer’s End, back home,” Emma added regardless of the emotion beneath her breast, wanting to ensure Regina that they were safe. As she had tried before Regina had spoken.

“So soon?”

Emma’s lips pressed into a thin line. Regina glanced over her shoulder again, her hands gripping reins with trembling fingers.

“Of course it is…” Regina’s voice was soft, a whisper on a gentle breeze, “They do not celebrate there. I had not realised.”

“Of course they don’t,” Emma scoffed, her grin vapid, her humour forced and flat, “They don’t know a good thing when it is standing before them.”

She turned, anxiety forcing her to continue forward.

Regina’s footfalls were close behind, and Rocinante’s hooves were heavy against the hard and heated ground.

Her chest ached. Ached even more now she broke the fragile connection between them, but they needed to forge ahead.

“We can’t stop,” she said to sooth the blow, “Not really.”

Regina made a noise in her throat, an affirmation more fitting of Emma than her, before falling silent. She was thinking, Emma could tell, always could. She was certain if she looked behind her there would be that little crease between Regina’s eyebrows, the barely detectable scrunch of her nose.

But she didn’t look. She kept her gaze on leaves and twigs and dirt, kept her mind off such things, and her tired muscles.

She rubbed at her eyes, the action pulling at her damaged palms. She unclenched her hands, hissing beneath her breath.

“Let me take Rocinante.” She said, as a way to push back the crushing feeling of silence between them.

“You needn’t have to.” Regina replied, as she had before. Of course.

Emma nodded, the action pointless and more than a little aggravating to her aches and pains.

Some bird she didn’t recognise perched ahead on a low branch, twitching its head this way and that way at them. Or perhaps something behind them. She squinted at its beady black eyes, and as if in retaliation her foot snagged on some thorny plant.

She frowned, lifting her leg to yank aggressively for a few moments before the plant released her. She heard a caw, and when she looked up, the bird was flapping away.

“How did you get it?”

“What? Get my leg stuck?” She chuckled, knowing that was not the source of the question at all, nor that it truly fit what Regina asked.

“No,” Regina replied as they resumed their trek. It would be so much easier to travel by road, but far too much of a risk, “The sword.”

Had they not already been over this? Twice? Regina knew what she had done, then again, that was before Regina had noticed it was a knight’s sword.

“They were celebrating, one wandered off. Drunk.” Emma’s lips curled down, still disgusted at what she could have witnessed, “I snuck up behind him, and took it.”

When Regina did not answer, Emma continued, voice a little higher.

“Don’t worry, no one saw me.”

“It takes a brave soul to steal from a knight.”

“Huh,” Emma chuckled, rolling her shoulders, “You almost sound impressed.”

“Not brave in stealing it, but that you were foolish enough to try such a thing.”

Emma rolled her eyes, unseen. In truth, she was rather shocked herself. Sure she had done some mindless things in the past, but that was something else altogether. She would feel impressed if it weren’t for everything else.

“And succeeded at that.” The note of almost awe made Emma’s chest puff out, a wide smile pulling at her lips.

“Definitely impressed.”

It took her a second to realise Regina was laughing, the sound subdued but true, “At your idiocy, yes.”

“Oh how you wound me.” Emma looked over her shoulder, poking her tongue out at the princess. The levity so very welcome.

They carried on, as the sun moved across the sky, and the birds’ songs changed. Her clothes rested heavy against her skin, aggravating her.

She glanced back every now and then, learning quickly if she kept her eyes on Regina’s for too long she would risk falling in a heap to the ground. So, short looks she stuck to.

Regina seemed fine, Rocinante too. As well as they could be.

And when she asked, Regina confirmed it with only the expected level of unspoken thoughts.

Emma understood, there was a lot to process. A lot to accept. A lot left unsaid.

Perhaps for the best.

They paused for just long enough to eat the last of the apples, sat upon a moss covered log. It was barely enough to touch her stomach, but enough to quench her thirst – which was far more important, and far harder to ignore.

Darkness fell, birds falling silent, insects replacing their chatter with chirps.

They continued. They were close, Emma knew they had to be close.

The ground seemed to grow more uneven, the moonlight filtering through the canopy offered little help. Their feet caught on roots and thorny shrubs and unseen obstacles.

Around another tree, avoiding another road. The ground beneath their feet warmed by the sun, the gentle breeze of the night leaving Regina pulling Emma’s cloak tighter around her frame. Their steps growing sluggish.

They pressed on.

They were close. A day it would take, and a day it had only just been.

She urged them on. Encouraged Regina to continue, and herself.

But come daybreak, weary and hunger ever gnawing. There was no sign of the town.

Chapter Text

She was an idiot. A complete idiot.

That old woman had said a day, and at first she cursed the woman and her deception – called her a lying old hag. Cursed herself for blindly trusting someone.

Then that blame shifted, moved solely to her. A day. Yes. By cart or horse, not by foot.

Stupid, stupid, stupid!

They wouldn’t get there. It was all a trick. A deceit.

No – no – they had to. They would. They would.

They would have been there already if it weren’t for her. It was all her fault.

All of it.

She fisted her hand in her hair, a sound escaping her that verged on a growl.

“Emma?”

“Huh.” She swiped her sleeve across her face, and hurriedly stood while wiping her hands on her trousers, “Yes?”

Regina rounded a tree, one hand pressed against its trunk.

They had found a trickle of water, a barely there pond. They had drunk their fill, then Emma had moved a few paces away to let Regina use the water to refresh herself.

Emma cleared her throat, and ran her hand through her hair, “If you’re done, then you can get some rest.”

Regina sighed, looking at Emma as if something was on the tip of her tongue – she said nothing however. Nothing about what was truly on her mind, Emma could tell that. Could tell she was holding back. Always could tell.

“That sounds as if you are planning not to rest.”

“I will,” Emma responded with a crack in her voice, “Just not yet.”

Regina narrowed her eyes at her before saying, in a careful voice, “I believe you need it more than I.”

“I’m fine Regina, honest.”

“Rest with me Emma.”

Emma shook her head. The responding look of dismay on Regina’s face gripped at her heart.

“Someone has to keep watch.”

“Keep watch,” Regina repeated in a low, distracted voice. Glancing back at, presumably, Rocinante.

“You know, there are wild animals out here, who knows what they might do if they stop avoiding us.”

“I,” Regina breathed, looking now to her right, “hadn’t truly thought…”

“I’m sure there’s nothing to worry about.” Emma stepped closer now, feeling it was safe to do so, “It’s just in case.”

Regina disappeared back around the tree. After a short pause to catch her breath, Emma followed her.

Regina was checking on Rocinante, to no surprise.

“Then,” Regina began when Emma stopped by her side, “rest with me.”

“I told you I can’t.”

Regina, satisfied, stepped back and settled down. Her head pillowed by the horse blanket, and her body covered by Emma’s cloak.

She had to be tired, to give in so easily.

“I mean hold me, as you once did.”

Regina’s eyes were closed, unaware of Emma’s pink face. At least visually.

Emma passed Rocinante, check his reins were secured properly, and gave him a pat on the side.

How could she ever deny Regina such a thing? How could she deny herself?

“As you wish.”

Not wanting a repeat of last time, Emma sat beside Regina, her back to a tree. The princess shuffled, head moving from the horse blanket to Emma’s lap.

“Thank you,” she murmured, her words already heavy with sleep.

“You don’t need to thank me for this.”

Regina hummed, gripping at the material of Emma’s breeches like a long forgotten object that brought childhood comfort. Emma ran her fingers softly through Regina’s hair, reassuring and earnest.

Emma’s eyes ached, her body cried for rest. But she remained, forcibly turning her thoughts to what needed to be done. What they could do for food until they reached the trading town, what they could trade when they got there. Sleep soon claimed Regina, though Emma did not stop the stroke of her fingers, it being as much to comfort the princess as it was to ground her. To keep her aware as the sounds of the dawn chorus surrounded them.

 


 

Regina didn’t sleep for long, waking sometime after the orange had faded from the sky. But some rest was better than no rest.

The pain in Emma’s eyes had spread to her head, that short time of rest had been a challenge for her. Her eyes fluttering closed every now and then, her chin dropping to her chest. She had pinched the skin of her wrists, later, the delicate webbing between thumb and forefinger. Old tactics that had not lost their effectiveness.

When Regina’s eyes had slowly opened, her head still in Emma’s lap and fingers tangled with her own, Emma had smiled as bright as she could manage and then helped Regina to her feet.

“I’ve been thinking, of what we can use to ensure we have coin,” Emma murmured, splashing her face with water from the clear pond.

“We do not have… oh.” A smile broke out on Emma’s face, a relief from the constant anger at herself for her grievous mistake.

Of course Regina knew what she was referring to.

“The jewellery.” Regina stood, them both having drunk as much water as they could stomach.

“I wasn’t sure if you would be upset or not –

“Of course I would not be – I am not upset.” Emma stretched, her back giving out a loud crack, Regina toyed with her necklace, stroking the silver metal, “It means nothing to me.”

Emma chuckled, almost nervously, but relieved most of all. Her face heated, feeling a little embarrassed for ever speculating that Regina’s reaction would be negative. She ran her hand through her hair, puffing out a breath. It must be the exhaustion.

“So, right…” Emma trailed off, to occupy herself she crossed to Rocinante, untying his reins and checking him over.

Regina appeared by her side a few moments later, her cloak around her shoulders. Their arms brushed as Regina returned the horse blanket to the saddlebag.

“When we get to Vendima.” And they would get there today. They had been travelling for a day and a half almost without pause. They would get there. They had to get there, “We find a stall in the market, we sell the jewellery – the hair pins – buy supplies.”

“Supplies, like food?” Emma dipped her head, breaking the contact between them under the guise of checking Rocinante’s hooves. What were they going to do about the shoes? She was no farrier. “Are there foods for travel? Most I know seem awfully… unwieldy.”

“There’s fruit and stuff. Apples.” Emma chuckled, “We’ll find something.”

The brief mention of food made her stomach rumbled, the gnawing feeling returning. She could deal with it, Regina couldn’t. She shouldn’t have ate the last of the apples yesterday. She should have let Regina eat, and then saved the last apple for her today.

“Err…” Emma’s brow furrowed in thought. She had spent most of the morning thinking this over, but now it was hard to recall. “Something to carry water in. A map – that’s really important.”

“I imagine it is.” Regina looked at their surroundings, beautiful but frightening in their unfamiliarity, “I cannot begin to imagine where we are; I never left the castle grounds all that often.”

Emma swallowed back her response of ‘me either’.

“And,” she paused, eyes dropping to Regina’s feet, “More suitable footwear.”

Regina smiled, half amused, half relieved, “That would be quite the reprieve.”

“I would have offered you mine but I think they might be a little too… cumbersome for you.”

“That is certainly one way to put it.”

“I would assume you are insinuating something, but I haven’t a clue as to what.”

Regina ran her fingers through Rocinante’s mane, a teasing tilt to her lips.

Emma lifted an eyebrow, feeling a burst of playfulness, “You don’t know yourself, do you?”

“I suppose we best set off.”

“Changing subject, not the best tactic, but a tactic nonetheless.”

“Have you drunk enough, Rocinante?”

Emma rolled her eyes, the action pulling a little at her head, but smiled nonetheless.

 


 

They continued, much as they had for the previous… how many days? Didn’t matter. They would be there soon.

In a way, this was their chance to explore places they had never been – had never thought they could see – or eventually it would be. Once everything slipped into place as it should.

Few words were exchanged, not that it truly surprised her. Or that she had even registered it at first, too lost in her thoughts.

If things had gone different. If she had done better –

They drifted upon the well-trodden road at one point, but quickly retreated. The distance between them and it significant, but not so much that it would take them a great deal of time to return.

The space between them grew greater, much as Emma’s already great concern for the princess did. Still, she encouraged her, pushed forward knowing how close they had to be to their destination.

Then Regina fell, struggling to right herself.

“I am fine,” Regina insisted as Emma crouched at her side, “I lost my footing, that is all.”

Emma’s hands hovered beside Regina’s arm and back, barely holding back from touching.

Regina stood without aid, Emma remaining by her side, hands ready to support and help if needed.

“I think –

Regina surged forward, wavering subtly, grasping at Rocinante’s reins.

Damn! How had she not…

Emma dragged her cold fingertips down the side of her face, standing uselessly as Regina caught her breath and her hands trembled against leather.

“We should stop.” The words were a blunt end to her earlier thought.

Regina’s eyes were still wide from panic – not that Rocinante would have run off, both of them knew that.

“We still have light.”

“You didn’t rest for long earlier. You can now.”

“We should have been there yesterday.” Emma’s head dropped at Regina’s words, her lips pressing together hard, “If it hadn’t been for me holding us back.”

“What?” Emma’s asked, far too loudly, hopefully they were as far away from the road as she thought they were, “No – why do you think that? Don’t, I made a mistake, but we will be there soon. Today or tomorrow. I know it.”

Regina’s gaze slid away, her shoulders low.

“Regina?”

“I think some rest would be advantageous.” Regina’s form straightened, her expression soothing, much as it once did when others – her mother was around. “For both of us.”

Their fingers brushed as Emma took Rocinante’s reins, leading them a short distance to where the ground was flat and absent from most hindrances save for leaves. With familiar fingers, she hitched Rocinante to the trunk of a small tree, he could probably pull the tiny thing out of the soil with ease, but she had faith he wouldn’t do so.

“Why do you not rest, and I keep watch?” Regina’s hands were folded, her fingers threaded together, “I have rested far more than you.”

“How many times do I have to tell you? I’m fine.”

Regina’s eyes narrowed, the top of her nose scrunching, “No you’re not.”

Emma fidgeted with her belt, the sword knocking against her leg.

“Rocinante and I will be fine.” Regina stressed, praying the blonde would listen “So rest, please Emma.”

Emma retrieved the horse blanket, refolding it haphazardly. She did not want to argue, and while it was uncommon for them, she knew when one was brewing.

“I’m a – I grew up as a stablehand, I can function with far less sleep than you.” She smiled, one-sided and shaking a little when it was not returned, “Princesses need their beauty sleep after all. Not that you need any, I mean, err, you wait here and I’ll go see if I can find any water or something.”

“Emma…” The way her voice was said, low and carrying a warning made her twitch. They locked eyes, both resolute in their stubbornness.

Emma clenched her jaw, determined not to back down for once.

“I didn’t say you had to rest. Just wait here,” Emma handed Regina the scratchy horse blanket, “If anyone approaches, just get on Rocinante and head in the direction I go in.”

“That is not the most comforting thing you have ever said,” Regina sighed, sitting down a couple of paces away from Rocinante, knees to her chest and eyes never leaving Emma.

“I’m sure you will be fine. It’s a course of action, just in case.”

Chin on her knees, Regina looked away, face stern. Emma took the chance, slipping her hand into the saddlebag and retrieving a strip of cloth which she hid under her tunic. It wouldn’t stay in place, but it would remain there for just long enough.

“I won’t be that long, it’s almost dark as it is.”

Regina’s arms tightened around her legs, her eyes heavy even as she frowned hard. Emma shifted from foot to foot, rubbing at the back of her neck.

“Regina?”

The girl in question sighed, the severity of her expression easing, her weariness showing, “It is not as if I have much choice, is it?”

To Emma’s relief, Regina met her eyes, a soft, tired hint of a smile on her lips.

“I promise, I’ll be back.”

Emma took off, as fast as she could, and before she lost her determination.

She would look for water, of course, but her thoughts about the road had brought with it an idea. The road, if they were close, was a trade route, the day was nearing its end… did that not present a possibility?

She slipped the cloth from under her tunic, heavy and richer than any material she would ever own.

As Regina had rested the night before, she had looked for something to sell, anything to keep herself alert. She had pulled out the dress Regina had worn when this began, it no longer having any apples to protect. They could sell it, she had thought, until her fingers had drifted down and dipped in a tear.

She had abandoned that idea quickly, rich people only liked perfect things, and people like her had no use for them.

She could make something of it though – it would get colder eventually, they would need something warmer.

So she had torn the rip further, freeing one thick strip of the dress. She had planned to cut another with her sword, so they both had a scarf, but Regina had shifted in her sleep, a sound escaping her that frightened Emma to her core. She abandoned her task, hurrying to Regina’s side to bring her as much comfort as she could manage.

The road, when they had seen it, was straight, if it had remained as such, it would not take her too long to reach it.

She saw no sign of water, nor any obvious food on trees or bushes. Her stomach growled, her hand a fist around the material she held.

When she reached the dusty expanse of the road, she saw it curled around the trees, winding out of sight.

This might not work, but she had done more desperate things in the past.

Stepping back into the treeline, she spied a low thicket. Squaring her jaw, she crouched down, shimmying herself through the tangle of shrubs until she rested on her belly, hidden by the leaves and branches.

She could see the road, but no one would see her.

She had never believed in a higher being, but for once she prayed that this would work, for Regina’s sake.

 


 

She must have dozed off, her body jerking awake and the sky consumed by burning orange. Her head pounded, too little sleep, too short a rest. Branches and twigs pressed hard against her skin, the scent of earth too strong to be pleasant.

She needed to get back.

It was as she pushed back, awkwardly and painfully, that she heard it. Amongst the birds’ final songs of the day; the rolling of wheels.

She threw herself forward, wriggling her way back to her previous resting spot, the hilt of her sword digging into her hip.

She saw it, appearing around the corner where the road disappeared. A wagon.

She still gripped the material and hurriedly wrapped it around her mouth, then higher still to hide her hair as best she could, until she hoped only her eyes were visible.

Nausea rose in her belly, protested against this plan of hers.

It was getting harder to breath, a pressure against her back. Or maybe that was the cloth over her nose, stopping her from drawing in as much air as she could.

Didn’t matter.

She had to do this, for Regina.

She just hope the wagon had what they needed –

It drew closer, a thickset beast pulling it and a man sat atop it, holding reins in a lazy grip.

Closer until she could make out the knots in the wood.

She gritted her teeth, biting at her lip with the force, and pushed herself up and out, charging into the middle of the road, sword drawn and pointed at the cart.

“Stop!” Emma ordered, trying to speak as gruffly as she could. The sword shook.

The man yelled, voice high, hands raised before him pleadingly, the reins of the beast dropping.

“Please don’t hurt me!” The man – boy begged.

Shit – shit. Why did that make it so much worse?

“What goods do you carry?” Her voice trembled, her mouth tasting metallic and aching from where her teeth pieced cheek.

“Please don’t.” The boy was whimpering, his nose beginning to run, “My Pa’ll be furious. He – he gave me some coin for a guard, but – but –

Emma shifted forward, her hands quaking, her eyes jumped around when the boy rubbed at his own, “Where is he?”

“I didn’t do it – used the money to get a gift for me sweetheart – my Pa’ll kill me.”

Emma breathed a little easier, though the cloth remained constricting.

“There’s never been no bandits here, not for a long time – I-I thought –

“What’s in the cart?”

“We make bread, and the neighbour gives us vegetables to sell for ‘em. Don’t have –

“Get off the cart.”

The boy yelped, trembling so hard and his face so pale Emma worried he might faint.

Her heart was a heavy weight in her chest, pulling down and down –

But they needed food.

And this boy – his family – they had a job, an income. They made their own food, they wouldn’t starve.

“Th – this is all I have.” He held out a pouch, the coins inside clinking.

Coin. They needed coin…

Feeling stronger, her hands were steadier.

Emma shook her head, sheathing the sword as the boy’s eyes grew wider.

She rushed around to the back of the wagon, keeping her eyes on him, though he stood a head shorter than her and was a skinny, waif of a boy.

She tugged the cloth covering the goods, eyes jumping over the leftover goods of a day at the market.

Hardening loaves, buns and limp vegetables.

What difference would taking some bread and a few vegetables do? It wouldn’t affect the boy or his family, they had more than enough.

Regina needed it far more.

She grabbed a loaf, a couple of carrots as her heart pounded.

The boy watch shaking, nose running and eye watering.

Damn her conscious! She should just take all that she could carry – so they wouldn’t fret or have to stretch out whatever she got. But no.

“We just need enough to get to the next – to last us a day.”

The boy didn’t notice her slip, edging towards the beast with twitching hands and a quivering lip.

“Th-that’s all?”

Emma nodded, eyes hard.

She backed towards the treeline opposite, face overheated and skin clammy.

He stared after her, she turned, jogging away, the food cradled close to her chest. Though she hesitated on the cusp of disappearing from his sight.

“And next time,” Emma said, only a slight unsteadiness to her words. The boy jumped when she turned, “Get a guard. Your sweetheart will understand if she loves you.”

She ran into the trees, hiding low to the ground until the shaking boy clambered onto the wagon and urged it away with a tight grip on the reins.

Emma breathed out, her breath a jittering mess. She juggled the food into the crook of her arm, tugging at the cloth around her head, freeing her overheated skin.

Darkness encroaching further, she returned to the road, heading to the opposite treeline.

If the boy sent people back, they would hopefully look in the place he thought she had disappeared into, rather than where they actually were.

She gulped in a breath of the cooling night air, hoping it would lift some of the leaden pressure from her shoulders.

 


 

It was not right. Emma was bearing the brunt of something she had no choice in, was being too noble and for what? For her? She was the one that caused this, no matter Emma’s efforts to refute the truth of her thoughts.

She could not rest, though her body begged for it, could not slip into unconsciousness without Emma near. Not when she was so far away, not when she was doing something that carried such risk.

She could run if someone approached, she had Rocinante. Emma could not…

Her hands were a little oily, dirt caked beneath her nails. It was a strenuous activity to try to groom Rocinante without the proper tools.

“We will find a way to wash you soon,” she murmured, sliding her fingers through his mane, trying to work out the knots.

It kept her on her feet, kept her occupied, and gave them some needed time together. Or more her. As selfish as that was. The repetitive motions of her hands was soothing, it allowed her to be lost, to seek some solace even as she felt so out of sorts. It had been a comfort in her childhood, and it still remained one now, even with everything so different.

“Maybe Emma will find some water, then we can wash all this dirt off.” Her fingers travelled with ease, all the tangles she could find gone now, “You will like that, to be clean again.”

Rocinante huffed, and she took that as affirmation. Though she knew how much he also enjoyed rolling in dust whenever he could, it could not be pleasant for him when he could not have it removed later.

“Thank you,” she murmured, “For getting us this far.”

“I think that was more on you than him, don’t you think?”

She gasped, spinning around, her heart hammering.

She had heard a man, a voice so close, but there was no one there.

Her back pressed against Rocinante, he remained still, solid and warm.

She pressed her hand to her chest, her heart pounding beneath her palm.

Had she been hearing things? Should she do as Emma said? Run?

But she saw no one.

That does not mean they are not there, she reminded herself.

“Didn’t mean to scare you.”

Her head snapped to the right, wide at the sight of a figure barely a step or two away. How had he gotten so close, how had she not seen? How had Rocinante not reacted?

Her hand jumped to his reins.

“Ah, I wouldn’t do that if I were you.”

She froze, fingers brushing leather.

The man grinned at her, teeth crooked and stained.

But he come closer, skin like scales and eye unlike any she had ever seen. No man, more like the monsters she feared lurked in the darkness.

“Oh,” he said dramatically, a hand to his chest, “No need to be afraid.”

Perhaps that was easy for him to say…

“I mean you no harm.”

There was glee in his voice, a high lilting edge that sent shivers down her spine.

“I am here to help you.”

Her hand curled tighter around Rocinante’s reins, trying to fight her body’s trembling.

“I need no help.”

“Oh you say that.” He laughed, high-pitched and terrifying, “But how much protecting can your knight manage?”

Her breath stilled, her hands shaking.

Emma, was he talking about Emma? How did he know about her? Had he been watching them? All this time? What was this… person? What did he know? How did he know?

“Why…” She drew in a rushed breath, “Why would you wish to help me?”

“I offer help to those that need it,” the… man responded. With a wave of his finger, he continued gleefully, “And you, sweet Princess, will need it.”

Regina’s heart clenched, her breath stilling in her lungs.

“How…” She gasped out, “How do you know who –

“Oh did I say too much?” The man giggled, the sound chilling Regina like no breeze could, “Of course I know who you are – or know of you. More people know than you will ever guess, keep your guard up, you never know who word might reach.”

She crept back, over and over, but he never seemed to get any further away. If anything, he grew closer, his eyes impossibly dark, long sharp nails as he flicked his wrist – less than a few steps away.

The tiredness that invaded her churned in her stomach, sent shivers through her form, her eyes barely remaining open as she reached back for something – someone who was not there – she stumbled over her feet. Heel snapping. A giggle reaching her ears, scratching against her damaged nerves, twisting and searing – God she couldn’t breathe –

“I can teach you.”

He waved his hand, a pastry appearing, steaming its scent rich and making her stomach roil.

“Magic,” he said low and mysterious, “It can do so much.”

Regina pressed her lips together in a tight line, eyes harder than she thought she could manage. He wanted to… encourage that venom in her. That poison that stained her, that ran through her veins?!

“I do not know what you are,” she managed to say, her voice mostly steady, “I do not know what you want, but I will never learn that…”

Evil.

He gasped, pressing his hand to his breast, “But I only want to help you. You have a gift. You can protect her. You need only say my name –

“Regina?”

She turned her head immediately towards the cheerful voice calling through the trees. Emma pushed her way past some shrubs, a bright smile on her face.

Regina wretched her gaze away, looked towards that man.

But saw nothing. Nothing but trees and shrubs, untouched. No sign of anyone, save Emma, Rocinante and herself.

Even the prominent scent of the pastry had vanished.

“Oh, I thought you would be asleep.”

If he had left, surely she would have seen or heard something. Was he still there?

Had the conversation even occurred?

“Hey, are you alright?” Regina met Emma’s gaze, the blonde’s smile had fallen, her brow creased, “You look… close to –

“I’m okay Emma, just exhausted.”

And exhaustion could make images appear before your eyes, real as the sky and sun. Could hunger do something similar? Could they feed of one another? Make it far more severe?

She rubbed at her eyes with the heel of her hands. When she lowered them, even in the near darkness, she could see the dirt clinging to her nails.

“Eating something will make you feel better. And rest, rest helps too.”

Emma’s smile was unsure, Regina noticing for the first time she was clutching something tight to her chest.

“As you keep saying.” Regina swallowed down the twisting fear in her throat, the confusion over what was real and what was imagined.

Emma shrugged, her smile a little stronger, and somehow that helped to lift the pressure of it in her chest.

Emma held out a loaf of bread, an unsightly lump of a thing, like none she had ever seen. It made her mouth water.

“How did you...?” The returning gnawing in her stomach was almost too much to ignore.

Emma avoided her gaze, looking to Rocinante in the diminishing light of day.

“Oh Emma,” she sighed, bringing Emma’s attention back to her, “Who did you steal it from?”

Emma’s face fell, her shoulders lifting defensively.  It was the bread her gaze slid to this time, her nails clawing at the hardened crust, “There’s no town nearby, except the one we’re looking for.” Emma’s next words were forced out, “A trader was passing and – look, I know you’re mad, but we need food! It’s better than starving. I could have taken more, or taken his coin, but I didn’t. That has too count for something…”

Emma’s fingers scrabbled at the bread now, her jaw tight.

Regina shook her head, a soft motion as she breathed out, took in what Emma was saying in an agitated rush.

“I am not angry, just disappointed.” And she was. She had always believed Emma to be better than this, better than the few others she knew. She was not ruled by greed like her grandfather, or cruel like her mother, nor as weak as her beloved father. She was supposed to be better.

Emma’s head was still low, her eyes hidden, the night an added mask. Regina looked away, to Rocinante as Emma had. He slept oblivious to it all – that could not be possible if that man had been there, surely?

She could feel Emma’s gaze on her, could see from the corner of her eye when the stillness broke and she twisted and clawed at the bread again.

And it was for her… Regina thought, her heart heavy. Emma had stolen the sword to protect her, had taken food to feed her.

It was all for her.

A thought only reaffirmed when Emma, having at last haphazardly broken the bread in two, shakily offered her the larger of them.

What did morals matter here… how would they survive if they did not –

It was to keep her going. To keep them going.

What could she do but turn to accept it?

Emma smiled, uncertain, as Regina’s fingers curled around the bread. Her stomach rumbled.

What had she done to deserve this? What had she done for Emma? She could not feed her, or protect her, she could barely comfort her.

She returned unsteadily to where she had been seated when Emma had left earlier. She curled into herself and plucked at the soft innards of the loaf. She tried to eat slowly, to savour the taste she had never thought much of before. It helped that she was unaccustomed to eating this way.

It was not lost on her that Emma did not begin eating until she had, the blonde plopping down a short distance away. Emma tore at the bread with her teeth, eyes closed blissfully while she chewed.

Her throat felt dry, the bread clogging, but it staved off her hunger. They would get everything they needed soon enough, Emma had promised that.

Emma popped open an eye, eyebrows lifting in realisation.

She wanted to speak, but with her mouth full, she knew better. Emma searched for something in her pocket, a strip of cloth tucked into her belt (likely to keep it from slipping). With a loud ‘aha’, Emma produced two carrots.

Emma, holding onto the bread with her teeth and one carrot balanced on her knee, lifted her tunic and used it to wipe roughly at the other.

Regina did not understand, not until she accepted the carrot and eagerly sunk her teeth into it, feeling the remains of grit against her teeth.

It made her nose scrunch, but she was thankful regardless. No matter the condition of the food, or even how they… obtained it, it fought off her hunger, and the carrot also went a little way to soothing her thirst.

With her mind still reeling, with the confusion and demanding need for sleep still clawing at her, all she could bring herself to focus on now was her exhaustion. That and the way Emma watched her with cautious glances and a crinkled brow.

She kept her head down, her jaw aching from trying to bite at the bread crust.

“Hey,” Emma said after they had finished their meagre meal, both feeling better for it, “We can save these for Rocinante.”

Regina lifted her head, her eyes aching but a smile on her face when she sees Emma waving the stalk of her own carrot in the air.

“He loves them,” Regina said, her words weighed down by sleep.

Emma grinned, she thinks, the blonde kneeling before her and easing the stalk from her hands. Things moved choppily, Emma close then far. The feel of something scratchy, but welcome around her frame. Then nothing more.

Chapter Text

Emma stretched, her back clicking loudly, and took a moment to enjoy the early light of day.

It would feel wonderful to lie down and bask in the morning warmth, but they weren’t home, and she couldn’t afford to laze about. Besides, she didn’t trust herself not to fall asleep.

She had still had no rest; no proper rest. But she had struck her second wind (or third, maybe fourth) and the knowledge that today had to be the day they finally reached Vendima, oh, that kept her going.

They would sell the jewellery and get everything they needed. She was fairly certain she had a complete list of items to buy in her head, after all she had spent long enough thinking on it. Keeping her mind active made staying awake so much easier.

Now, which way had they been moving in? Travelling was far simpler in the city, even where she had grown up.

They had stopped with the reddish barked tree to their left, so the needed to travel straight ahead.

Damn clouds getting in the way.

She turned at clinking. Regina was fastening Rocinante’s saddlebag, giving her a smile when she felt her eyes on her.

Emma smiled back, a little goofily.

Regina seemed better today, last night her mind had seemed occupied, her emotions roiling. She must have been thinking of home, Emma had finally concluded, Regina adored her father. Maybe she had realised she would never see him again.

She couldn’t say she understood, Emma had no one in her life like that. Though, she kind of did. Not a parental figure, but she did have Regina. That was similar, wasn’t it?

If they were separated, never to see one another again… well, that would…

Emma’s fingers slid over her neck, stilling when she didn’t find her chain there.

She chuckled, softly to herself, even months later she still forgot.

And that forgetting was always followed by a blooming warmth in her chest. A warmth brought forth by the recollection of where it now sat.

To no surprise, rather than stepping back when her task was complete, Regina turned, her hand running along the side of Rocinante’s neck as he grazed happily.

“Was that a laugh?” Regina asked, raising her eyebrows, her lips tilting up.

Emma’s eyes dropped to the chain, to the way it sat against skin and cloth. It had been with her, close to her, even when it had to stay hidden. Her smile grew wider despite herself, knowing they had to move but desperately craving this moment regardless.

“Oh, you are happy.” Regina’s eyebrow rose high, the sun catching her dark eyes and the spark of excitement in them.

Emma’s mouth opened, wanted to share that today was the day. Had to be the day. But she had already given too much false hope, promised too much.

“Today feels like a good day,” she said instead.

Regina hummed, eyes dropping to her shoes, “Thank you for fixing them.”

Emma shrugged, still a little uncertain that she had done the right thing, “Not exactly fixed. Just levelled.”

She had no idea when Regina had broken her heel, or why she hadn’t told her. It had only seemed right to snap off the remaining heel to make it easier for Regina to walk.

“Either way, it was most helpful.”

She tugged at the bottom of her tunic, stepping closer to Regina and Rocinante.

She didn’t want to interrupt him when he was eating, but they did not have time to wait while he filled his belly.

She reached for the reins, the leather supple in her hands.

“You don’t have to.” Regina’s fingers brushed her own, and Emma retreated, relinquishing her hold.

Emma nodded, noticing Regina’s smile falter as she took her first purposeful steps of the day. Emma shifted on her heels, giving a short nod.

“Let’s get moving then.”

 


 

“We’re close,” Emma said sounding far more astonished than she intended. She never imagined the sight of smoke curling through the sky would bring her such a sense of relief. Even obscured as it was.

“We are?” Regina’s nose scrunched, casting her disbelieving – yet hopeful – gaze around.

Emma laughed, earning herself a sharp, wounded look, and laughed again. Relief, excitement, the feeling of ‘at last’ – finally – things were righting themselves.

“Can’t you see?” She asked, delighted. Regina’s expression softening with each word, “Can’t you see it?”

She reached out, Regina’s hand sliding into her own, and guided her and the ever watchful Rocinante the short distant to the road – for they had drifted closer as the road curved and straightened. Regina’s hand was noticeably tense against her own.

“It’s fine,” she soothed.

Regina squeezed her hand, her fingers trembling.

After a quick survey of the area, they stopped in the middle of the road. Trees upon trees lining the dirt. Nothing more.

“Emma.” The panicked whimper broke through Emma’s elation, realisation harsh.

Oh. Oh. She released Regina’s hand, failed to ignore the way Regina’s fingers twitched towards her. In a smooth, gentle manner she wrapped her arm around Regina’s shoulders, a loose action at first, one that strengthened when Regina pushed into her side – subconsciously no doubt.

“See.” She pointed to the now unobscured sky, the faint trail of smoke now marring clear blue.

With a clink of his reins, Rocinante shifted his head. Regina turned to him, and then to Emma with wide eyes.

Emma grinned, the expression catching, Regina’s smile far sweeter than her own.

“But, can we be sure?” Regina’s joy wavered, but Emma knew her enthusiasm was not to be so easily dismissed.

She didn’t need to know she had never set foot out of the city. Rarely left the grounds to be honest. Even with that she still knew what signs to look out for, sort of, and she felt in her gut that her assumption was correct. If you couldn’t trust yourself, who could you trust?

Now she felt terrible for calling that old woman a lying hag.

Regina laughed, the sound warming her from the inside out.

“We did it, on our own.”

“Hey, we’re not in the West yet.” She tightened her arm for a moment, giving Regina a one-armed hug.

“I know that.” The words were huffed, only the crinkle besides Regina’s eyes giving her true feelings away.

“But we’re made it this far. With nothing.”

“You didn’t think we would make it?” Her jest earned her a playful shove and the older girl slipping from her loose hold.

Her instincts had better be right.

“Let’s go.” She started walking, casting a look to what she could see of the sun. It was nearing noon, so they shouldn’t meet any merchants travelling on the road. Buyers on the other hand… they would have to chance it.

Regina’s steps followed uncertainly, almost as unsteady on flat ground as amongst the trees. Rocinante’s hooves tapped loudly amongst the sounds of nature.

“On the road?”

“We’ll get there faster…” Emma’s pace slowed, as she looked over her shoulder, her brow raised in thought, “Actually…”

It would make sense, and it would help alleviate what Regina must have been suffering with. Damn shoes looked nice but must be torture. She couldn’t have brought it up before, but now?

“Get on Rocinante.”

“Pardon?” They stopped, that pained hint of crease reappearing between Regina’s brows.

“It’ll give you a rest, I’m sure you could use one.”

“If anyone needs a rest, it is you.”

“I can’t even ride properly,” Emma said with a chuckle.

Regina did not so much as smile, her lips remaining pressed together tightly.

“Regina,” Emma said lowly, trying to put forth as much authority as she could. Which wasn’t much if she was being honest, but the bluff of it should be enough. She had always been good at that.

Regina broke their gaze, pulling Emma’s cloak tighter around her.

“Fine, but I am not pleased about this.”

Emma rolled her eyes, earning a rather unimpressed glance out of the corner of Regina’s own.

Regina managed to get one foot in the stirrup, but when she pulled herself up her face crumpled and she faltered.

Emma caught her, stumbling. She found her footing, helping ease Regina into the saddle.

It didn’t slip by her that this was the first time Regina needed her help.

Regina thanked her, faintly, her pained expression easing as she settled.

Emma fell back into the complacency of old, her fingers finding Rocinante’s reins and holding them loosely. Regina clicked her tongue, and they set off, perhaps slower than before, or maybe not. She couldn’t rightly tell.

Hopefully, when they finally got to Vendima, she wouldn’t bump into that boy. But if they did, well, she had covered her face, hadn’t she. Or tried to.

He probably wouldn’t recognise her, they probably wouldn’t even see him anyway. It was silly of her to worry they would. It was bound to be a big place.

What else is there, ah!

“We’ll need a story.”

“A story?”

Emma looked up, basking in the comforting sense of familiarity, “You know, a story. So they won’t suspect us of fencing.”

If anything, her answer confused Regina further. The brunette staring down at her with a furrowed brow.

“Is that not a style of sword fighting?”

“Huh?” Emma scratched at the back of her head, completely lost. Had Regina misunderstood her? Was she thinking out loud? Or was she the one being an idiot as usual?

“Fencing,” Regina prompted kindly, “Is that not another name for sword fighting?”

“Is it?” Emma scratched at her cheek this time, eyebrows raised high and her voice revealing her cluelessness.

“I heard it was a favourite of King George.” Regina answered almost causally, eyes now fixed solidly ahead.

“How would…” Emma trailed off, answering her own question.

Emma snapped from her thoughts, noticing Regina and Rocinante had gotten ahead and the reins had slipped from her fingers. Regina had taken them up, of course she had.

Regina looked over her shoulder, her arms moving subtly back. Emma shook her head, jogging to catch up before Regina could bring Rocinante to a halt – even as her body protested against the action.

They had to keep moving. She had to stop getting distracted.

“Fencing,” she began after a few more strides, “Basically means dealing with stolen goods.”

What?” The look of complete panic on Regina’s face twisted hard in Emma’s chest – God, why was she always saying the wrong things?! “They will think we are thieves?”

Emma sighed, annoyed at herself. Rocinante’s reins were taut, Regina’s knuckles white.

“That’s what the story is for.” She reached up, her words soft as she rested her hand over Regina’s own. She felt the tight grip on Rocinante’s reins loosen, just enough, “We’ll be fine.”

The last of the rising panic left Regina in a deep exhale, her gaze soft on Emma’s own. It was more than a little uncomfortable to hold Regina’s hand like this, but she’ll be damned if she was going to let go yet.

“I’m sorry,” Regina uttered, near to a whisper, “I am just –

“I know,” Emma interrupted gently, feeling that spreading warmth in her chest which she had grown so joyfully familiar with, “Don’t apologise. I’m tense too. And unfortunately for you, I get cranky when I’m hungry.”

Regina’s lips quirked up, even as she said, “Don’t joke about it Emma.”

“You love it,” Emma responded, meaning her humour.

“I love you,” Regina answered, smile strong and distracting enough that Emma tripped. She caught herself before she met the ground, steading herself and looking up at Regina with a goofy grin.

“You’re not the only one.” Regina raised an eyebrow, Emma’s grin falling as she panicked, “Wait! I mean, you’re not the only one in love, not the only one in love with me. Err, I messed that up.”

“I know what you meant.”

“I’m glad one of us understood it.”

Regina huffed, a laugh mingled into the sound. A gentle shake of her head had Emma bouncing on her sore heels.

“So… about that story.”

 


 

“You’re a merchant’s daughter, and I’m your servant. Or his apprentice. Or something like that.”

Regina nodded, shifting in Rocinante’s saddle. The ache in her legs was hard to ignore, but at least her feet were being given a rest. Unlike Emma’s. Who stubbornly refused to trade places with her.

Why was she so surprised?

There was no point dwelling on it. That would change nothing.

She smiled down at Emma, who was gesturing as hard as she was thinking, her brow crinkled with concentration.

“And… you fell on hard times, and so you are selling bits and pieces here and there to get by. This is perhaps the last of it. Or something like that.”

“I understand.” Regina nodded again, finding Emma’s motions adorable.

“Good. Right. Good. So we’re all set.” Emma ran her hands over each other, an act of nervousness Regina did not miss. Nor did she miss the sight of her healing palms. They didn’t seem to be bothering Emma, but the sight did not sit right with her.

She turned her eyes to the uplifting sight in front of them, before her thoughts delved any deeper.

They would sell the jewellery. Get something to eat, and supplies and everything they needed (Emma would know better than she what they required). Maybe they would even find a bed for the night! Places like this offered rest, did they not? Long ago, and for reasons she could not recall, Emma had mentioned that the tavern she once frequented was also an inn. They all functioned like that, did they not?

She turned to Emma, questions in her mind and on her tongue even as her idea made her beam. It was short-lived. Tension overcoming her body as she caught sight of a man heading straight for them, pushing a covered handcart.

Her gaze shot from him to Emma, whose head was suddenly low and her posture formal.

Regina fought with her muscles to relax, aware of how she was gripping the reins too tight, her heels pressing into Rocinante’s sides too hard.

Breathing was difficult to control. Her gaze jumping again, locking this time with the quickly moving man.

Her stomach flipped unpleasantly, her skin feeling chilled even in the noon sun.

She forced her gaze ahead – how was Emma so calm? – conscious of the eyes watching her.

Only now could she hear the distant din, growing louder with each step. The rolling rattle of wooden wheels so close now.

She looked, against her wishes, to her left. Their eyes met again.

The man nodded curtly.

The cart moved past.

Regina sucked in a much needed breath, only now noticing how her heart hammered. How it echoed so demandingly in her ears.

They continued forward at the same pace, as if nothing had happened. Which it hadn’t, save for what her mind had conjured.

The sounds of the town grew ever closer, the buildings growing ever taller.

“Are you alright?”

The cart was long gone.

Regina wanted nothing more than to hold Emma. To find comfort in her; in the strength she could never wish to have. In anything Emma could grace her with.

Instead, she smiled, her emotions put forth in her expression. In her eyes.

Emma granted her that nervous, sweet grin of hers, the one that made Regina’s heart hammer for entirely different reasons.

The buildings began to creep up, like roots, reaching out, drawing in those from outside into the town.

Regina swallowed, excitement blooming in her chest.

She had never seen a place like this.

 


  

“Maybe you should wait here,” Emma said, quiet with the noise of so much surrounding them.

“Pardon?” Regina questioned just as quietly, not liking how her place on Rocinante made her look down at Emma. The difference so noticeable now, “I thought we had a plan?”

“Well yes, we do. But I was thinking, maybe this makes more sense, with… things and stuff.” Emma shifted her weight from foot to foot, rubbing at her neck as her gaze looked anywhere but at Regina’s eyes.

“Emma?” She said, drawing her name out low, knowing there was some deeper meaning beneath Emma’s incoherence.

The blonde sighed, lifting her shoulders in a tired shrug, “I was just thinking that it would be more comfortable for you.”

Regina could feel her confusion marring her face. Emma was still busying herself with fast glances around, mindful of the people passing and ever alert for anyone approaching.

Hoping not to make a fool of herself this time, Regina swung her leg over Rocinante, taking care of the hem of her dress and to avoid the hilt of the sword in his saddlebag.

Pain shot through her legs, sharp and searing, when her feet touched the ground.

She covered her pinched expression well, finding her footing after only a brief stumble.

“You are not going on your own.” Regina took in the horses, the lone boy nearby with a spade at hand.

Then she caught sight of Emma’s hands.

“We can’t just leave him here!” Regina gripped Emma’s forearm, her words hushed but filled with urgency.

But the knot was already tied, and Emma was stepping back.

Her hands were gently eased away, Emma tilting her head down, a sign of her ‘place’. She motioned, subtly, to some men nearby. Leather covering their bodies, the sun gleaming off the hilts at their waists.

Swords. Guards. Alert. Observing.

How had she not noticed?

A foolish question. She already knew the answer, of course; she had been too caught up in her surroundings, in the crowds and noise, seeing these buildings close for the first time, the mix of white stone and wood that formed them so different from those in the grounds of her home. Oh, and the swirling scents of food!

Able to move freely for the first time in her life.

“Emma.”

She caught the stablehand’s sleeve this time, fingers gripping tight at the coarse material.

Oblivious, or not, Emma patted Rocinante’s side, attention focused on checking him over, “They’re here to keep an eye. To make sure no one does something they shouldn’t. It’s their job.”

Emma drew back, satisfied. Regina had been checking Rocinante herself for long enough, she would have even done it here – but understood Emma’s intentions. Or she hoped she did.

The black mare behind her whinnied. Rocinante snorted almost in response, lowering his head to drink from the water trough in front of the hitching post. They had to leave him… but they would return soon. It would not be long.

Regina breathed out, sharp and sudden, much as Rocinante had. She released her grip, understanding dawning even as her body stubbornly refused to calm.

They shared a small smile, soothing to them both she hoped.

Emma soon reached into the saddlebag, drawing out that small pouch of red velvet.

Nausea rose in her stomach at the sight of it, made her chest ache and throat tight. She hadn’t so much as looked at it, even when she had placed the jewellery in it.

Emma shoved the pouch into her pocket, motioning with her head for them to start walking.

It took a long moment of them remaining there, surrounded by horses and the occasional passer-by, for Regina to realise what was intended.

She turned, the horses at their backs. The guards were watching, she realised, her stomach dropping. But it wasn’t her they had eyes on. She looked to Emma, saw a hardness to her features, a mask long recognised.

She started walking forwards, towards the market, Emma a pace behind, which did not help push back the nausea in any way.

Children ran past, dirty and ragged.

“Good thing we have empty pockets.”

Emma’s words were a welcome distraction.

“How is that a good thing?” She asked, though too close to the guards now, she received no answer. One of the guards nodded to her as they passed, his eyes lingering on Emma. Others too, looked, again and again when they noticed them. Had they been doing this before? When she had been so caught up in the novelty of it all?

Why?

Bile threatened to raise further, to burst forth. She wanted to turn, to look to Emma, to grip her hand and stand as one.

They could not.

Not here.

Not now.

So she did what came naturally. She diverted her attention, put forth an air of supposed comfort. Of a haughtiness not natural to her.

Distractions came easy as the market enclosed around them. Stalls and people, sights she had never seen, sounds she had never experienced, shouts and the mingling of rich scents, all beneath the open sky.

One stall, topped with fabrics of every vibrant colour she could imagine. Others displaying fruits, and powders, and little trinkets made of shells and stones. Another, holding paintings of lands and places she could never dream of. Mountains that reached beyond the clouds, endless plains, cities of gold and green. Forests wild and untamed, free from the hands of man.

“Over there.” Emma’s words brushed her ear, a hand, subtle against her side, guiding her to turn, to see what Emma had.

A stall, squashed between one covered in jars – the various coloured liquids within catching the sun – the other displaying many sizes of wooden carvings.

And the stall in the middle, the one Emma looked to, covered in an array of jewellery.

The woman behind the stall was elderly, hunched beneath an invisible weight. Her dark eyes flickering over them both when they approached, lingering over Regina’s shoulder.

“We – I,” she correct at a nudge to her back, “Would like to… partake in a deal.”

The woman squinted at her, sweeping her hand across her skirts.

She wished they had spoken more of just what she was to say. This was all new to her – and Emma, she imagined.

The woman said nothing, causing Regina’s voice to grow unsure. Fighting with the urge to run her fingers across her braid, or to nip at her thumb.

“I have some items that I wish to sell, I am certain they will be of interest to you.”

“Don’t have much time for business like this.” The woman sniffed, her voice like gravel, strained as if it hurt to speak, “What could you have?”

Regina’s shoulders tensed. She had never been spoken to in such a… dismissive way, not by anyone save –

“As I said; items I believe you will like to procure.”

She held out her hand, not turning her head. The weight of the bag settled against her palm, warmed by Emma.

She did not look down, working by a vague memory. She fumbled only once, carefully placing the earrings, bracelet and two rings near the edge of the table. They received barely a glance. Belatedly, she added the hairpins, mindful not to prick herself on them.

“May I?” The woman asked, already reaching over the table.

“Of course,” Regina said, the woman seizing one item and then another. It was intriguing, even with her feet numb and her stomach desperate for food, the way the woman rested each item in the palm of her hand for long moments, then lifted them to her eye and the sky. All save for the pins, which she instead turned in her hands and twisted to test their strength.

It was a couple of long tense moments before she lowered the items back to the table edge, her eyes flickering over them both once more.

“Twenty gold for it all.”

Regina covered her furrowed brow easily, thinking over the price in her head. Twenty gold… coins? Twenty…

“I’ll make it twenty five gold if you throw in those too.”

Composure lost, Regina’s hand jumped up to clasp her necklace, “No!”

The woman tutted, unaffected by the outburst that made Regina’s palms damp and heart hammer, “Then twenty it is.”

Regina inclined her head, her expression relatively neutral as indecisiveness froze her. Was this when she agreed? Or did she have to wait until the coin was in her hand? Or… “If I may, I would like to have a private word with my – servant.”

The woman huffed, an agreement Regina hoped.

 


 

“Emma?”

The blonde lifted her gaze from the table. She gave a subtle nod, and Regina guided them so that they could talk in some semblance of privacy.

“Yes?” Emma asked once a group of men had passed.

“Is that a lot?”

What? … Right, Regina wouldn’t know. Hell, Emma didn’t really know the value of such things, she just knew it was more than she would ever see in her life. Even the price the woman was offering was more than she had ever dreamed she could have.

“Sort of,” Emma replied, eyes focused on their items still atop the table.

“Sort of?” Regina whispered back, baffled.

“They are worth far more than that, but…” Emma shrugged.

“Then we should ask for more. For a fair offer.”

Emma shook her head softly, sparing a look only to see if the woman had grown annoyed with their delaying, “That will just draw attention to us. She probably thinks they’re well done fakes, or something like that. And in that case, we won’t get a better offer. We’re lucky she hasn’t accused us of being blaggards.”

“Are you sure?”

Emma’s stomach dropped, her throat dry – “No. Not really, but from what I do know, I feel it’s our best bet.”

Regina’s hand curled around her necklace making Emma’s stomach flip.

“If you’re sure you want –

“They mean nothing to me.” The reassurance, repeated as it may have been, was needed, though it still did not leave Emma feeling completely certain.

Regina smiled, gave a small nod and turned to the woman behind the stall. She picked up the jewellery that had been hers, and handed it over before Emma could respond – or change her mind.

“Good deal,” the woman nodded, her smile filled with gaps. Emma shuffled her feet, eyes already searching for a food stall.

“Yes,” she responded distractedly. The woman had counted out the coins when she looked back to her, and held out them out. When Regina did not reach for them, Emma did. There were too many, a few escaping her palm. She picked them up hurriedly, worried someone may come along and snatch them from her grasp, “Have you got a coin purse.”

Her question was rushed, she too occupied with all but juggling the coins in her hands.

“Cost you,” the woman answered with a greedy snap, “Five silver.”

“Fi – five?” Emma choked out, eyes wide.

She felt a hand on her shoulder, “Emma.”

Emma’s forehead creased in confusion, Regina simply smiled at her. The brunette lifted her hand, the velvet pouch grasped in it. Right, of course.

Emma took it from her, still uncertain where it had come from, and slid the coins into it. She pulled the drawstring tight and slipped it into her tunic.

“Thank you.” Regina inclined her head, mimicking an action she had seen enough on Emma. The blonde didn’t have the heart to tell her that such greetings were only from the lower classes to the higher – though she would have to at some point.

They were some steps away, a couple waltzing past with jovial whispers, when Emma in her eagerness, let her pretence fall – she could risk it now, they had sold what they needed to and she felt no eyes on them.

“Now,” she exclaimed, “Food!”

As if woken from a long slumber, Regina’s stomach rumbled.

“You agree! Good! I saw a stall selling pottage, that’ll keep us going while we get our other supplies, and then get some food for travelling.”

Her words came out in a blur, she knew but could not slow herself. Regina could only nod as she struggled to keep up.

“What’s a pottage?”

“You’ve never had it?” They rounded the corner of a stall, the holders calling out to all that passed. There was a little bloom of excitement in her tone, elation at the prospect of sharing something she enjoyed with Regina, “Oh, you’ll love it.”

She had seen the stall in the distance at some point, near the edge of the market if her memory was to be trusted.

In the main fairway the voices around them seemed to grow louder, men and women bartered, handcarts carried goods to replenish stalls, or to take away; children scurried past, weaving around it all.

She rarely saw the markets back home like this, typically she only saw when the traders were packing away or peddling the last of their stock before it turned bad. Got a cheaper deal that way.

Regina stuck close to her side, which Emma was thankful for, they needed to stay close. And that was as close as they could get here.

It was not long before she could detect the heady, spice filled scent of what she was looking for – even with all the other scents swirling around.

“Over there.” She gestured with her head, walking with purpose now to the busy stall. Through the throng of customers she could just make out the large pot and the stone fire beneath.

Regina followed her lead, and joined the rapidly moving queue. She bounced on her heels, much to Regina’s amusement, “Smells good.”

“You cannot honestly smell it yet.”

“Hey, I have a very talented nose.”

Regina bumped her shoulder with her own, disbelieving but still smiling.

Emma grinned back, reaching into her tunic to retrieve the pouch and sorted through it to find some bronze coins, confident that it couldn’t cost more than that.

“This is… different.” Regina’s eyes roamed over the stall.

Emma smiled, a little self-consciously; of course Regina hadn’t seen something like this.

“You’ll love it,” Emma repeated, noting how Regina peered curiously as the food was served to the burly man in front of them.

“Two please,” Emma stated when it was their turn.

“Bronze each,” the cook replied, stirring the pot and stoking the fire beneath.

Coin ready, Emma slipped two pieces into her left hand and handed it over to a young boy. She placed the others into her pocket.

Her stomach growled loudly, her mouth-watering.

“It’s beef,” the woman informed them as she took a hard pastry case from the boy and ladled in the pottage.

“Right.” Emma nodded, focused on the food more than anything else.

She was handed one, which Emma passed to Regina, and she took the other when it was held out.

The young boy gave them a piece of bread each and wished them a good meal.

There was a low wall around the far market edge. It was already occupied by many people siting along it, talking carelessly. They managed to find a space near to where the wall ended, and huddled together with their voices kept low.

Emma wet her lips, but held herself back from gorging herself as she wanted.

“Aren’t you going to try it?” She queried, watching Regina as she stared at the food, a furrow on her brow.

Emma’s throat was dry even as her mouth still watered. She fidgeted in her seat, the brick rough against her.

“Regina?”

The girl in question clutched her food closer to her, her nose scrunched up when she met Emma’s eyes, “We have no cutlery.”

Oh? Emma felt a bead of sweat roll down her neck, her smile returning. That was all that was wrong.

“You don’t need any.”

Regina’s wide-eyed, astonished expression made Emma choke on a laugh. Regina pouted, lifting her head as if uncaring of anything.

“How am I supposed to know?”

Emma floundered, face red and both hands moving agitatedly, almost losing her first decent meal in the process, “I didn’t mean to offend you. I just, you know, you’re face was funny – wait, no, that came out wrong, what I mean to say is –

Regina turned back to her with a smile that edged on a smirk.

“Don’t do that,” Emma squeaked, her pattering heart calming.

Regina poked out her tongue, a quick gesture that caught Emma off-guard in more ways than one.

Emma stared, flabbergasted yet overjoyed at Regina’s carefreeness, her playful elation. Emma smiled, feeling optimistic, an emotion that she knew was shared.

“Now, I would like you to show me how I am expected to eat this thing.”

“Well you use the bread.”

“Bread?” Regina lifted her hand, peering at the bread curiously, “But it is so flat.”

“Well yes, you wouldn’t be able to eat it with a thick slice, you know.”

With practiced ease, Emma folded the bread in a slight curve and used it to scoop some of the pottage. Regina observed her closely, mimicking the action easily enough.

“Like this?”

Emma nodded, the food so close, “Now you eat the pottage, but not the bread. You eat that last, it soaks up a lot of the flavour by then. And of course, if you ate it too soon then you can’t finish it all.”

“I reached that conclusion.” Regina smiled, raising an eyebrow.

“Yes well, best to be safe.”

Regina took her first bite, Emma following suit swiftly. The flavour exploded on her tongue. The tender meat, the rich spices, spinach and olives and the aftertaste of wine.

She had always enjoyed it, but somehow this was so much better. The best she had ever had.

“It is rather good.”

Emma affirmed Regina’s comment with a hum, her cheeks puffed out with food.

She coughed, her hand thumping her chest to free some food that had slipped down the wrong way. She rubbed at skin of her chest after, soothing it as she caught her breath and swallowed down the uncomfortable pain in her throat.

She should stretch it out, make it last, she did a good job of that. But even so, too soon the case was empty and the bread gone.

She lifted her head, just in time, to see Regina breaking off a softened piece of pastry.

Emma wiped her mouth with the back of her hand, eyes growing wide when Regina lifted the pastry to her lips.

“You don’t eat the crust!” Emma spluttered, sweat on her brow.

Regina looked puzzled, but lowered the pastry from her mouth, “It is pastry, is it not?”

“Well yes, but you don’t eat it. It wouldn’t do you any good, it isn’t like the sort you are used to.”

Puzzlement in her eyes, Regina accepted Emma’s words regardless.

“Then what do we do with it?”

There was a well nearby, Emma licked her lips, realising how parched she was.

“Oh, you just throw it down, the birds deal with it.”

Regina’s fingers twitched around the case, her brow creased, “That does not see right.”

Emma shrugged, “It’s what we do.”

“Just, drop it?”

“Not in the market, it has to be out of the way.” Emma shifted on the wall, gesturing behind it, and the litter on the ground. She dropped her own, and after a brief hesitation, Regina did the same, standing as soon as the case left her hand.

“So…” Emma drew out the sound, standing while dusting the back of her breeches, “Fancy a drink?”

 


 

It was as they drank from the well, that Emma was reminded that they had nothing to carry water in. So, that was what they searched out next. It was still only early afternoon, and Emma was sure they could get all they needed before the market closed that evening.

Currently, Emma was growing increasingly impatient with bartering with the flask seller.

“Ten silver?” Emma’s eyebrows twitched upwards, “We are not paying ten silver for a couple of flasks.”

“Ah,” the young man declared, unaffected by Emma’s rising temper, “That is ten silver each, my beauties.”

This time Emma could not hide her surprise, it was almost amusing. If not for the discomfort of the man’s attitude towards them.

“Ten? Each?” The blonde shook her head, taking a step back, “Do know how much ale I could buy with that?”

Emma ran her hand down her cheek and chin, shaking her head. “Coming to the first stall we saw was a mistake,” she muttered, the words intended for them alone.

“Wait!” The man shouted, hand outstretched. He lifted his head, and in that same bellowing voice he used to attract buyers, he spoke, “These flasks are the best in town, possibly in the whole of Viadori.  Made from imported materials from The Wealds, far better than what we have here. You won’t find any other as watertight as these.”

“What is the point of a flask that isn’t watertight?” Regina posed the question as innocent, though enough of an undertone seeped through that Emma had to hide a laugh in a cough. 

“Err, that is, erm –

“We can find another stall,” Regina said simply, “I am positive we can find some other flasks, perhaps better crafted too.”

“No, really you can’t –

“There is plenty here to see, I am certain of it. I am sure they would be more than willing to haggle for a fair deal for our coin.”

The seller dabbed at his neck with a handkerchief, “Err, well –

“So one silver for both?” Emma cut in, taking the opportunity the floundering man presented her.

“One silver?” The man rubbed at his face, a nervous chuckle catching in his throat.

“That is more than a fair deal for a flask.” Emma folded her arms, a confident smirk on her lips. Regina swallowed, distracted for a moment.

The seller’s face darkened as he mopped at his brow, his gaze flittering about, “Alright, fine – just, please, don’t tell anyone about this.”

“Not used to giving into beauties?” Emma handed over two coins, as if they were already to hand.

“Being waterproof is honestly your main selling point?” Regina queried, shooting Emma an amused glance, “And it works?”

“Look, people don’t tend to question you if you have imported goods – or say you do – you simply knock the price down a little and that appeases them. It’s all about the haggle and the ‘victory’.” His shoulders dropped, deflated as he looked at the two shining coins in his hand.

“And that is why your prices are so high?”

He handed over the two flasks, which seemed nothing special in Regina’s eyes.

“Everyone does it…” The man sighed, “Can you go before I lose my charm?”

“Yes,” Regina drawled, still a little bitter about being spoken down to, “Because you are clearly struggling with the demand.”

From the corner of her eye she could see Emma look to her, a titillated expression on her face.

“Please?” The man begged, his voice quiet and high.

“Good doing business with you.”

It was not too long a walk for them to return to the well, Regina watching as Emma pulled the bucket up towards their reach.

“How did you do that?” Emma asked, her expression of amazement bewildering to Regina. She shifted, self-consciously under her gaze, feeling her face heat.

“Did what?” She asked softly, watching Emma pull up the bucket onto the lip of the well, water sloshing over her boots and the bottom of her breaches.

“Get him to change his mind so fast.” Emma tapped her boots against the well, shaking off the excess water droplets, “The flask seller, I mean.”

Emma filled her flask, attentively watching her.

“It was simple really,” Regina replied, her tone less confident than her words, “There were no other customers, no one was sparing his stall a glance. And his coin purse was rather small.”

“Heh.” Emma ran her hand over her hair, smoothing curling strands, “How did you notice all that?”

“I have always been rather observant. Especially when it comes to new occurrences.” She dipped her flask in the well bucket, filling until the bubbles stopped, adding softly, “Unlike some.”

Emma looked up from tying her own flask to her belt, “Hey, don’t be mean.”

“There is nothing mean about the truth.” Her playful smile had Emma’s pink cheeks grow pinker still. Emma took her filled flask from her and fixed it next to her own, a grin on her face.

They moved away from the well, an old woman shooting them a suspicious look. It was not the first, nor would it be the last. Somehow, they had lost their effect on her. Maybe their lifted mood had something to do with it.

“We should get a map, then the rest of our supplies.” Emma said when they stopped a few paces away from the well and the edge of the market, “After all, we don’t know how much it will cost.”

Regina looked to the street leading away from the market. It too was busy, though the lack of stalls granted more freedom. She had felt it before, the clamminess of her palms, the tightness in her chest, but it was only now she realised what its cause had been.

“Should we get Rocinante?”

Emma shook her head, looking a little remorseful as she said, “No, we’ll be coming back soon, and I think it is best both of us are able to enter the shop when we buy it.”

Emma’s gaze slipped away by the end of her sentence. And Regina understood.

“There is not a seller in the market?” She asked, just in case there was a possibility that they did not have to wander too far from where Rocinante was. The sense of freedom that came with the greater distance between them and others could only do so much. It did not stop the niggling sense of worry in her chest. Guards or no guards.

“Not back home. Has to be the same here.” Emma looked to the street. To the people walking with purpose and without, to the brightly painted signs swinging above open shop doors, and the stone cobbled streets that, while attractive, could not be that easy to walk along. She was almost thankful her heel broke.

Emma was squinting up at the nearest sign, Fuentes Apothecary, her face creased in annoyance.

“You think the shop will be along here?”

Emma’s gaze snapped from the sign, her expression softening, “This is the main fairway, so it will either be here or off the main street. Or maybe in its own section of the city. I would bet an ale it is here though.”

“Should I hold you to that bet?”

The blonde’s eyebrows lifted high, her lips tilting up on one side in a shocked smile.

Regina smiled back, watching Emma’s smile grow as they made their slow progress forward, “You are certainly welcome to, though I feel wine would be appealing to you.”

Regina hummed, her smile giving her away, “And why would you think that?”

“More refined.”

Regina shook her head, Emma chuckled to herself. It was best to turn to more pressing matters, a thought strengthened when she turned her eyes to the sky – or rather, when Emma followed her gaze and informed her that time was speeding along.

So far, none of the shops on the long street were anything near to what they were looking for. For a moment she did consider asking a passer-by, but that idea was quickly squashed. Her appreciation of the stonework of the street, and her relief regarding the state of her footwear, did not last long however. Each step made pain burst forth through the numbness of her feet. At one point a step had been a shock enough that she nearly tumbled, Emma had jumped to catch her, though it was not needed in the end.

It did not take as long as she feared for her tolerance to return, the pain still there, but more a discomfort with each shop they passed. She did well to cover it.

Emma’s eyes were narrowed in thought, flickering from storefront to storefront, or dropping to the purchases people were carrying when they left the stores.

Their surroundings were still loud, there had been no reduction since they entered the town, but now Regina felt growing discomfort over it. Over the silence growing between Emma and herself, one that would normally not affect her.

She asked the first question that entered her mind, and luckily it was one that once asked, she found was useful.

“Will we not need a map for every region we pass through?”

Emma’s head lifted as if realising something for the first time, the flasks at her waist clinking together.

“I hadn’t thought of that, but I guess so.” She rubbed at her arm, then counted her fingers, talking low as if to herself.  “There’s here. And Oakenfell.” The name fell from Emma’s tongue awkwardly, “And past that is The Wealds.”

“Our final destination.”

“Yes, and when we are out of Viadori

“It will make it a challenge to follow,” Regina finished, feeling a little boost as all she had learnt – albeit most unintentionally on others’ parts – clicked into place. Or maybe it had been there already, just unrealised and hidden beneath so much else. But now, as the concerns lessened and narrowed, it was unearthed and rose to the forefront.

“That’s what I figured, though I don’t really know much about all that political stuff.” Emma shrugged, a habit Regina had noticed long ago, but had never seen her do to this extent. “I don’t know how much time it will give us, enough to loose traceability I hope.”

And though their voices were hushed, lest those they passed hear too much, Regina grasped Emma’s wrist and guided them swiftly off the street.

“Clean for an alley,” Emma noted as they stopped, but Regina wasn’t listening fully, too consumed by connecting pieces.

“The sooner we reach the border the better.” Regina looked to the street, no one noticed them, the space between the buildings barely enough for the both of them. There was a twinge in her chest, knowing they were nearing the end of ever standing on the ground of home.

“That’s what I figured,” Emma repeated, a flicker in her eyes. “That’s why we need to find a bookseller or a map person.”

“A cartographer.” Emma’s gaze slid to the right, a half-hearted jerk of her shoulders given in response. Regina bit the inside of her cheek, her correction instinctive but the cruelty of it cutting. She brushed her fingers over Emma’s hand, praying the gentleness of the action would sooth the sting so unlike her.

Her thought, she needed to finish it, before her guilt took it from her.

“When we cross, they may still think we are here. It will take time for them to consider sending search parties further afield, and when they do they will need to negotiate with those that rule over the region they suspect us to be in.”

“So… they don’t think the foreign soldiers in their land are attacking?”

Regina nodded, smiling, relieved that there was no upset in Emma’s eyes when they met.

Who would have thought lessons and eavesdropping would have such use? She had always thought it to be useless, unless she were a man.

“Or invading.” Emma nodded, engrossed with her words and, perhaps, impressed. Regina felt her face warm with something besides the afternoon sun. Only Emma, and her father when he could, listened to her so intently. She swallowed, composing herself, “Negotiations can take a significant length of time, restricted by duties and distance. Impacted by histories and relationships, both political and personal. For all we know they may not yet be searching Viadori.”

Emma’s smile fell, her expression following suit.

“But they already know,” she said as if her words tasted bitter, “A knight saw me.” 

Emma must be referring to the village they first stumbled upon. But she had said the one she had stolen off had not seen her. For that matter, had she not said that no one had seen her?

“Just because he saw you does not mean he recognised you. It was at the very beginning of our journey.” In reality, she knew only a few days had passed. And yet it felt so long ago.

“I don’t exactly blend in,” Emma muttered.

Regina’s nose scrunched, confused by Emma’s words, but this development had to be dealt with first, “Was he the one you… acquired the –

“No, no.” Emma stressed, “I just… I know, I was recognised.”

If Emma said she was, then Regina wouldn’t question it. Even if accepting her words made her stomach sink.

“Then I return to my earlier thought, the sooner we cross the better.”

“My thoughts exactly.” Braver, likely due to the feeling of almost separation from the bustling street, Emma’s fingers skimmed over her arm, across her sensitive wrist, and down to slip between her own. Leaving a tingling path of warmth in their wake.

Emma’s smile was bright and earnest, infectious as always. Hope bloomed in Regina’s chest, so much stronger than before.

She cupped Emma’s cheek, her skin hot against her palm.

“Then let us find our cartographer.”

 


 

“I believe this is it.” The bright orange sign swung in the gentle breeze, a goat brandishing a quill upon its surface.

“But it doesn’t have a name,” Emma replied, confusion on her face as she stared up at the sign, “Does it?” Emma rubbed at her neck, her brow still knotted as she looked through the window, “I can only see books.”

“They are often connected to books.” Emma looked to her, appearing a little lost, “Even If this is just a bookseller, I would – what is it? Ah, bet an ale he knows where our cartographer is.”

Emma’s face lit up, her smile one that could always brighten the darkest of days. There was still a sense of uneasy pride in Regina, whenever she affected Emma so. Bringing happiness to another was simply something she never thought she could do. She had brought about many emotions, but never anything light and uplifting.

The only ones that made her feel near capable of it were Emma and her father…

She took a deep breath, clearing her mind.

“Regina?”

Emma was looking at her with a similar troubled look as before, her hands playing with the hem of her tunic.

“If an ale is not to your liking…” Regina smiled, feeling apprehensive inside, watching as Emma returned an uncertain one, “I am sure I can find something else. What was it again, emplumeus?”

Emma’s eyes shone, her tongue peeking out to wet her lips, “As good as that sounds, there’s not much point in betting against yourself.”

Now it was Regina who looked confused.

A finely dressed man left the shop as a bell chimed in the distance.

Emma’s smile floundered, her head tilting down as she scratched at her eyebrow, “You know, because the only coin we have is ours.”

“I think you will find it is mine. After all, it was my jewellery.” She had intended the words to tease, though her humour fell as Emma shifted her feet and crossed her arms. The blonde’s head still low.

“Right. You’re right.”

Emma made towards the shop, but Regina caught her hand. It was a loose grip, Emma need only step forward to break it. She didn’t however, a relief to Regina.

“I meant it as a jest Emma. Nothing more.”

Emma’s eyes fluttered from their hands to Regina’s own gaze. A flicker of something in her eyes.

“Of course,” Emma said at last, or at least it felt to Regina as if she had waited an age, “I know that.”

Emma’s lips tilted up, but there was something that did not seem right. For a brief moment Regina felt her heart seize, memories of that night returning like a sudden storm.

“Regina?” Emma’s voice was a little high, emotion lacing her tone.

She blinked. Took a breath. And it was all over.

Emma was close to her, concern creasing her brow. The blonde, this time, was holding her hand.

“It will grow dark soon if we exhaust anymore time conversing,” Regina said simply, watching Emma give a slow nod before guiding them to the shop door, her fingers slipping from Regina’s own. The loss feeling so real.

Perhaps Emma felt it too, for she hesitated on the threshold, letting Regina slip ahead. Emma seemed a bit more confident at that.

The inside of the store was darkened by mahogany and lit by lamplight. It reminded her of her father’s disused study.

Bookcases were placed against every wall, leaving the shop open but no less cramped in feeling. And there at the far end of the shop was a man, his head rising at their arrival. His hand stopped moving abruptly, but he did not move to place his quill away.

Emma coughed behind her, and shuffled awkwardly in discomfort.

The shopkeeper regarded them with a look Regina was unaccustomed to. His face hardened and eyes filled with distrust. That is until Regina spoke;

“We are in search of a map,” she said as the severity of the look cast upon them lessened, “A few in fact. We were hoping you could be of help.”

“You could not have come to a better place, my sweet.” He rose to his feet, but remained behind the desk, placing his quill in its holder, “I am a scribe myself. My brother, too, is just as foremost of an individual, a cartographer who has made the most exquisite maps, he has even created some for King Xavier himself! Why if it were not for his expertise, we may not have won the Battle of Secha and fought off the Mastland invaders.”

It was fortunate she was accustomed to longwinded, often far more fanciful language, or she may have become lost in the shopkeeper’s pride filled boasting.

 “Where may we find your brother?”

He adjusted his oval glasses, smiling now, “Why the capital of course.”

The lift in her mood plummeted. Of course.

“Fine,” she said, a little too much of her annoyance seeping through, “Who may we find here?”

“If you had let me continue,” he began slowly, soothing down greying wisps of hair, “You would know that he receives my books, and I his maps. It has taken many years for our family to rise as we have, not many can claim to have one shop, let alone two!”

“Then you sell maps here?” Regina cut in, though the conclusion left her as more of a question than she would have liked, the wavering of uncertainty slipping into her words.

“Is that not what I said?” He looked cheerily to his right, and it was only as she and Emma drew closer that they saw, squeezed between the bookcases, was a rack filled to the brim with what looked to be scrolls.

Emma bumped into her back, Regina turned her head to see what she wanted, but stopped when she felt the velvet pouch pressed into her hand.

“Now you said maps.” The man adjusted the wire of his glasses over his ears, staring closely at little engravings on the shelves of the rack, “Which ones were you looking for, may I ask?”

“Oakenfell, The Wealds, and, err, Viadori,” Emma recited, drawing a curious look from the man. It stretched on for a long moment, before he turned away with a hum.

It took the man longer than Regina imagined, first crouching low, then standing, before climbing a ladder to reach the top, but at last he retrieved each map. Rolled and bound with a dark red ribbon, the maps were laid before them.

Regina cradled the coin purse before her, but the man did not spare it a glance.

It was Emma, in the end, who asked what she could not.

“How much for them then?”

“Hmm…” His eyes roamed over the maps, on the desk and on the shelves, before settling back on Regina, “Three hundred and Fifty Gold.”

“How much?!” Emma exclaimed, her posture shifting suddenly, growing almost defensive.

“You come to this store and squawk at the price? Are you unaware of how much effort goes into creating such masterpieces? No one can simply pick up a quill and do as we do, not with any skill that is.” His hands raised to rest on the solid wood of the desk, a mere finger’s width from the maps, “I had been pleasantly surprised that your voice betrayed your form, now though, I see you were just a pair of waifs all along.”

She could feel tension rolling off Emma’s form.

Regina’s hands were tight at her sides, a flicker of agitation, or perhaps upset, racing through her.

Emma stepped beside her, and for a taut, frightening moment, she thought she was about to do something brash.

She did do something, but not the unknown something Regina dreaded.

“I apologise, my Lady.” Regina turned to Emma fast enough she twinged a muscle in her neck. Emma’s head was low, her eyes averted, but it was her words that brought forth another flicker in Regina’s chest, “I did not mean to speak out of turn. I had thought the maps to be cheaper, that is all.”

Emma fell silent, her stance unchanging. Regina tried to respond as she should, but hesitance caught her, leaving her to trip over her words and scrambling to smooth over her mistake, “Ah, um… an insignificant action is easily forgiven.”

“I thank you, my Lady. May I speak freely to this gentleman?”

Regina nodded, or went to. She caught herself in time, the forced unnatural exchange playing between Emma and herself left a sense of nausea in her throat.

“You may.” Memories of similar interactions she had witnessed rose to the forefront of her mind, it seemed cruelly effective to add a sharp, “Though make it quick.”

Emma inclined her head, then lifted it to face the shopkeeper directly.

“My Lady is not of the habit of spending such money on her adventures.” The man’s brow furrowed, but he listened keenly, “Perhaps an atlas?”

“Now that is twice the work, my brother and I must both work on such things. The back and forth alone is taxing, now when we factor in the work itself –

“A price, please,” Regina cut in, her voice remaining surprisingly strong.

“Four hundred gold.”

A muscle in Emma’s jaw ticked, a slight shifting of her feet an action Regina recognised and made her front waver.

“A map that contains them all?” Emma’s eyes had dropped to the polished wooden floor, her words losing their forced attempts of formality. Others would not hear it, but Regina could – the rising desperation, almost fear.

They could try to push on without a map if it came to that, could they not? It – it would leave them blind, make a difficult task even more of a challenge. But if it came to that…

“Oh a map that size.” The man chuckled, looking to his previous work as Regina struggled with whether to see this through to a disheartening conclusion, or leave before that happened. “Planning a battle are you?” He stopped to laugh again, “Oh, a map of that size requires a great deal –

“You must have smaller ones,” Regina interrupted, knowing this was likely their last chance here.

“Yes, but they have little detail, are only a basic guide really. They are often brought by tutors to teach their charges about their location in the world. Good really, it guarantees a customer for life, for as they grow older they wish to know more, so they purchase maps of increasing complexity –

“How much?”

“Fifteen Gold,” the shopkeeper replied huffily, enough sudden halts to his lengthy dialogues affecting him.

Regina’s fingers dug into the velvet in her hand, the hard metal inside pressing into her palm.

Fifteen. They had enough left, did they not? But it would leave them with only what she imagined was a small amount.

Would it be worth it?

She bit her lip, eyes sliding to Emma, expecting another look of disbelief.

Emma though, still held her head low, a slight crease between her eyebrows the only hint of what was going on in her mind.

“Well?” The man asked, his gaze moving to the door and back to her, “Will you make the purchase?”

Perhaps they could find someone else? Someone whose prices were more within their ability to pay. Surely there were others in the town, it certainly seemed large enough.

A sudden movement to her right caught her attention. Emma locked eyes with her, and gave a short, subtle jerk of her head.

She broke their connection, swallowing her doubt down with difficulty.

“Of course,” she answered, her voice far surer than she felt.

 He turned slowly to the rack, retrieving a map quickly.

Regina had the coins in her hand by the time he removed the other maps from the desk, the new one in his hand. The coins were heavy and warm in her palm. She held them out.

The shopkeeper’s eyebrows twitched upwards, a little ‘oh’ escaping him.

He accepted the coins with his free hand, looking them other with a keen eye.

“It has some of the key cities on it, but –

“That’s no problem.” Emma snatched the map from his grasp, her shoulders high with tension.

The action surprised Regina, until Emma strode determinedly to the shop door – the light having grown far weaker.

“Thank you,” she said distractedly, hurrying to the door Emma held open for her.

“A quick word of advice, my sweet; do keep your servant under stricter control. Not everyone is as mild mannered as I. They may take it as an affront.” The shopkeeper called after them, the door closing with a jingle of the bell.

The coin purse was hastily handed back to Emma.

“How much time do we have left?” Regina asked as they took quick steps back towards the market, her feet protesting.

“Enough,” Emma responded with a puff of breath, “Food’s cheaper at closing anyway. We have plenty of time.”

“And coin?”

Emma smiled, relieving Regina from the pressure on her chest, “Enough. More than enough.”

“Good,” she said on a sigh.

The journey back seemed far shorter for some reason, leaving them passing by the well and towards the other end of the market seemingly in moments.

They made their way through the thinner crowds easily, finally stopping by a stall in view of the horses tethered not too far away. Regina’s interest was immediately peaked by the items on display; fine leathercraft, even riding equipment, though of less quality than that of home. A saddle took her attention, darkened leather and adorned with brightly shining metal, proudly displayed as if the main attraction on offer, Emma’s fingers hovered over her arm, bringing her attention back to her.

“Yes, it’s nice, but not what we need.” Emma smiled, her eyes shining with amusement.

“Well pardon me for having fantastic taste.”

Emma snorted, like there was a joke hidden somewhere.

Regina’s skin prickled, even as her chest warmed and she basked in the moment. Her gaze slipped to over Emma’s shoulder, catching sight of dark eyes upon them.

The old lady, the one they had sold Regina’s jewellery to was a few stalls over.

Regina noticed, a furrow to her brow, “Isn’t that the woman from before?”

Emma followed her gaze, twisting her body to look behind her, “Yes. I guess her family took over her stall or something,” Emma managed to say, her muscles tense.

“You’re lying.”

Emma pressed the map into Regina’s hands, shaking her head, “It’s nothing. I’m just tense, you know, with everything.”

Regina breathed a little easier when Emma smiled. The blonde glanced to her left, the woman gone.

“Take this back to Rocinante…” She untied the flasks from her belt, handing those over too, “We are going to need both hands free to carry the food.”

“Why do I have to do that?”

“Because I’m the one with the coin.” Emma winked, her mood feeling light, and from the way Regina’s form relaxed, she too was feeling much the same. Their journey finally becoming what it should have been all along.

Regina shook her head, and turned with a smile.

The chance to check on Rocinante was too appealing, and Emma likely knew it. She cast a look behind her, seeing Emma in conversation with the leatherworker behind the stall.

What was she up to?

The guards ran their eyes over her when she passed them, sending a chill of discomfort through her body. It was their job, she knew, to ensure she did not take another’s horse, but the guards at home never looked at her. Not even if she spoke to them directly.

The young man cleaning the area was kinder, pausing to give her a gentle smile before immediately returning to his work.

“Hello Rocinante,” she greeted when she reached his side, running her hand over his head to give him a nice scratch behind his ear.

He nickered, tail swishing lazily.

“Sorry we were away so long.” She slipped the map from where she tucked it into her elbow, and placed it in to the saddlebag after the full flasks.

Rocinante snorted.

“What is it, Rocinante?” Regina asked, sliding the leather strap of the saddlebag through its buckle. His tail flicked agitatedly.

Heavy footfalls rose above the din of their surroundings. Two more guards approached the two standing nearby, starting a hushed conversation.

She watched from the corner of her eye, a prickling chill running over her.

One of the guards, large and bearded, met her eyes with a hard look.

Something about it made her fingers drift down, across Rocinante’s reins down to where it wrapped around the hitching post. She fumbled with the tight knot.

The guards’ thick bodies blocked her view, Emma somewhere behind them.

Once they left, and took the tension in her with them, she would hitch Rocinante up again and return to Emma as swiftly as she could.

A shadow fell over her. She looked up, the two new guards a short distance away.

She looked away, pretending to be occupied with fiddling with Rocinante’s saddle.

“We heard there are lifters in the area.”

It took her a moment to realise the gruff voice was speaking to her. She swallowed, looking towards the guards. Over their shoulders she could see the other two watching them.

“Lifters?” She asked, her confusion genuine.

“That’s what he said,” the slimmer of the two answered, his dark eyes narrowed.

“I am afraid I do not know who you seek, or what.”

“ ‘Course you don’t,” the first replied, lips twisting in displeasure, “No posh voice gonna hide much. The descriptions match.”

They both took a step forward, one reaching for some metal at his waist.

“Shackle her.”

What? Regina’s heart jumped. What was happening?

The water trough cut into the back of her legs, nearly sending her tumbling. She caught herself on Rocinante’s reins, her chest aching with the sudden need for air.

Rocinante’s head jerked.

“I have done nothing wrong,” she spluttered.

The guard with the shackles lurched forward.

“Step away from the horse.”

Rocinante snorted, lifting a strong leg, sending him scrambling back.

The other’s eyes jumped to the sword in Rocinante’s saddlebag.

In one shift move he drew his own.

“Halt!”

In a burst of strength, Regina pulled herself up onto Rocinante’s back ignoring the pain. He whirled around, rearing back, leaving her scrambling to stay in place as the guards rushed forward.

“EMMA!” She bellowed, her voice high and piercing.

Rocinante charged forward, sharp metal so close she winced, tucking her body in as close as she could.

Blonde hair stood out stark in the crowd, a uniformed man gripping Emma’s shoulder tight as she struggled to hold onto the bag in her hand.

Her mouth moved, but Regina could hear nothing.

People jumped out of her path, yelling insults and curses.

Emma twisted her body, the bag colliding with the guard’s head. Regina stretched out her hand, in reaching distance now, she pulled as hard as she could, Emma clamoured upwards, stomach pressed across Rocinante’s back. The guard held on, dragged some feet behind before Emma’s boot found his nose.

Regina’s heart pounded against her ribs, sweat beading on her brow. Reins wrapped so tight around her hands it constricted feeling.

She reached back blindly, caught the back of Emma’s tunic and held tight. Heels dug into Rocinante’s flank hard, her body low as he cleared a stall, and another, sending it tumbling.

“Fuck!” Emma cried, scrabbling at Rocinante’s sides to stay put.

“Hold on!” Regina jerked on the reins, sending them veering to the left, alongside the stone wall, looping around the edge of the market, “Come on Rocinante.”

They galloped past the guards hurriedly mounting horses, Emma’s hand gripping her leg in white-knuckled fright, “That’s easier said than done!”

Her cloak billowed behind her, Rocinante’s hooves pounding hard against stone then dirt, the sky growing ever darker.

 

Chapter Text

They barrelled past the point of exhaustion, continued on even as Rocinante struggled and wavered. Their feet hit the ground, and they still pushed on. The harshness of her jerks on Rocinante’s reins, forcing him on even when he had already given them so much of his strength, burned into her mind and body. The searing pain stoked by every slow step.

They continued even as they tripped and stumbled in the dark – the moon shrinking persistently with each night that passed.

And when finally their bodies could truly do no more, they collapsed. Lungs and muscles screaming.

But rest did not find them.

Every rustle of leaves, every call of some distant animal, every sound no matter how unassuming, had Regina’s gaze darting around, her heart pounding.

No one came. The guards lost in a flurry of action and in the shadow of Rocinante’s speed and agility.

If it had not been for their lost goal, if not for the very real risk, she would have even called the chase exhilarating – if not also absolutely terrifying.

There had been a moment when Regina had no choice but to slow to a trot amongst the trees. A moment where time seemed slow, yet also too fast paced. There she was finally able to help Emma right herself. Regina’s waist still throbbed, though it caused her no true pain, from where Emma had held on so tight. Her knuckles white and palms damp.

Day broke, she almost disbelieving of it, when she shuffled closer to Emma. Something she had needed to do all night, but fought. Even now she fought, the distance between them greater than she would ever have wanted.

Emma stood, her arm around middle. The icy, creeping chill the simple action caused, made Regina shiver.

Emma retrieved the map from Rocinante’s saddlebag, looped the flasks around her wrist, and grabbed the bag she had miraculously clung to, even when flailing across Rocinante’s back.

Emma returned to her side, their legs brushing. Closer still, their shoulders bumping and arms touching.

Her flask was handed to her; it was light in her hand, nearly drained when they had finally been forced to a halt. She took a sip, cautious of how little was left.

“I thought we needed an extra bag, for, you know.” The blonde’s voice was rough, cracking on some of her words.

“We still have coin.”

Emma’s arm jumped, a hiss escaping her as her other twitched to cover her side. She reached into her pocket, her expression softening. She breathed out in relief, muttering softly about how ‘she still had it’.

Regina averted her eyes. They still had coin, they could still purchase food.

The bag slid into her lap, the leather already warmed by Emma.

“I got you these, not as good as your old ones, but they should last. And should be a lot more comfortable.”

Emma was looking at her hands, her lips pressed together tightly.

Regina reached into the bag, feeling the firmness of leather against her fingertips.

She knew what it was before she laid eyes on it.

“Thank you, Emma.”

She withdrew the riding boots, eyebrows lifting at the thick sock in each one.

Emma’s head moved in a subtle shake, her lips twitching as if she wanted to say something. Something churned in Regina’s chest, and though she waited, no words left her.

She removed her ruined shoes, not sparing a glance to her feet for fear of what she would see.

Even with the boots her feet still hurt, but the new footwear did not pinch and the pain was lessened. She was almost thankful for it. Thankful for the distraction it presented.

The map was unfurled in an agitated motion, and quickly rolled itself back up. Emma took the ribbon that had bound it, and knotted the material, tying her hair up messily. Much of it still hiding her face from complete view.

Emma scrambled around, soon locating two sizeable stones that she used to pin the ends of the map to the ground.

The bookseller had not been dishonest, there truly was little detail on the map. It was far plainer than she expected.

“That’s a dragon, right?” Emma poked at the top of the map, brow scrunched, “Why’s there a drawing of a dragon? Why are there always dragons?”

Regina’s gaze followed Emma’s to the intricately drawn creature on the parchment.

“I think that is a sea serpent.” Regina narrowed her tired eyes, trying to recall vague early memories. Her answer unsure, “They represent the dangerous unknown, I would assume that is also their place here.”

Emma scratched the top of her head, cheeks puffing out, “Didn’t you learn about all this?”  

“I am no man.” Regina replied bluntly, “Though I was taught much of our history and our relations with our neighbours, it was more for manners and internal politics than warmongering.”

Emma’s confusion grew at this, her red eyes wide and brow creased.

“I assume we know little of The Great Sea and what may be beyond it. It must signify that.” Regina paused, her voice lifting as she added, “Or it is where the serpents live.”

Emma snorted, crossing her arms with a slight wince.

“There’s no such thing as dragons – serpents, or whatever they are called.”

“How can you be so certain?”

“Seriously, Regina.” She tilted her head, eyes steady on Regina’s, “They’re just a story to scare kids into behaving. Like how if you aren’t good you’ll be whisked away by the Dark.”

Regina’s query about how dragons are always defeated fell silent on her tongue. Something about the second part sent a chill down her spine, perhaps caused by Emma’s gaze slipping away, or the meaning she could not decipher, or perhaps even from the heaviness behind the words. The sense of horror.

“I have never heard of the ‘Dark’? What is it?”

“Nothing important,” Emma responded, swiftly and clipped.

“Emma…” Regina began, the response she had hoped for did not appear. The younger girl a distraction as always as her finger moved further down the map.

“Look, there we are, and there…” Emma’s finger glided over the beautifully drawn lines of the map, across open expanses before finally coming to a halt, “… is where we’re going.”

“I never realised how small we are.”

Emma made a noise in the back of her throat that sounded like a broken hum.

“We’re, uh…” Emma’s gaze and hand had travelled back to the tiny section of the map that represented Viadori, “Here somewhere. See Vendima is here.”

Regina, as gently as she could, guided Emma’s pointing finger upwards, from the large letters that read Viadori to the smaller ones of Vendima.

Emma’s throat moved in a hard swallow, her eyes struggling to focus on the map, “Hey, we’re closer to the border than I thought.”

Emma smiled, though there was something about it that made an icy wave seize Regina’s heart for a tight, constricting moment.

“We still have time, we can still get supplies from elsewhere. The guards won’t wander out, and the ones actually searching for us won’t be here yet, they will have to negotiate like you said.”

Regina bit her lip, giving a soft shake of her head, “No Emma, we are from here. My Grandfather is the King, it would only take a word or two for the Prince’s men to be allowed passage. And my Grandfather’s men to be sent out.”

Emma’s throat bobbed, her eyes wide, “We have two… two… they will both be searching.”

The chill of the panic they had both been carrying worsened, clawing hard beneath her breast. Regina wished to say something, but her throat betrayed her.

Emma shook her head, determination setting across her face.

“Then let’s cross that border. We can get food over there. It won’t take long.”

Regina wanted to believe the words, but how could she when Emma herself did not fully believe them?

“All we have to do is go northwest.” Emma pointed in the opposite direction to where the sun was rising, “We’ll cross through Oakenfell, and eventually reach the… err…” Emma squinted at the line that showed the border of The Wealds, her lips moving silently, “The, err, fo – fot – foe.” Emma gritted her teeth, Regina’s heart ached to sooth her. Ached from holding back. “Err, foo – tfalls. The Footfalls!”

Regina bit back the urge to congratulate, to comfort, even as her chest burned with the need to praise.

She couldn’t. It would be too much like mocking or belittling. She didn’t want Emma to believe she thought of her like that. Like a child almost.

She had little praise in her own life, save from her father, though it lessened as she aged.

She could not bear to think Emma may believe she is pitying her.

As it was, Emma’s eyes shone and her chest puffed up. Regina slipped her hand over Emma’s and leant against her shoulder. Emma trembled, resting her cheek against the top of her head.

They both understood, actions more than words could say.

 


 

They could wander off-track, head to a town nearby, but the map showed few, and none close by – there was always the chance they would stumble across some small, unmarked village. But if those guards in Vendima knew who they were, they would surely send word to any towns and villages in the area.

She doubted that was why the guards had approached them, word surely wouldn’t have travelled that fast. But it had taken them longer to get there than she had first thought, and horses were far faster than they could be even if they had rode Rocinante.

Of course their story had fallen flat. Of course the woman who cheated them had gone to the guards – what an idiot she was! Taking a price she knew felt cheap after the story she had given reeked of desperation.  Was it any wonder the woman thought they were nothing but no good thieves?

Even if that was the reason, which seemed the most plausible, they still couldn’t risk going into a village in that area so soon. She wouldn’t put Regina at risk like that.

She could visit a town on her own, but after seeing how that affected Regina last time – and after what she had to tell her – she couldn’t do that. Besides, if she was caught…

Regina wouldn’t cope with continuing on her own. Hell she was barely coping herself.

What a fool she was for suggesting they separate that first night!

Neither of them would have made it far, perhaps she would have made a decent distraction, but how far would Regina have managed to get? She had even less knowledge than Emma did.

Emma ran her hand through her hair, cursing for the… well she had lost count.

The rough scratch of bark against her head when she dropped it back grounded her to the present.

She breathed out in a long sigh, watching the stars so high above it all. Her head hurt, a nauseating throb of a pain in her right temple.

At least it took her mind off things.

She dipped her head; Regina slept soundly, barely a pace away from her.

The smile that graced Emma’s face was the first unweighted one since they had left Vendima. She brushed a lock of Regina’s hair out of her eyes. Her skin was warm beneath her fingers, as Emma tried to focus on only the positive.

Not that there was much. It had been her stupid idea to get the map before food supplies. Her stupidity that came up with a story so flaw filled that it was no wonder it had failed. Her stupidity that they hadn’t thought to disguise themselves. Her stupidity that had gotten them into this mess to begin with!

Emma sucked in a breath, her left hand a fist against her thigh.

Shit… she couldn’t keep calm for even a few moments. Why was she such a –

She pressed her fist to her forehead, a full-blown headache rebounding in her skull.

They just… they just needed to cross the border. The sooner the better. Then things would be right – she could right them then. She could.

Her hand dropped from her head, and she roughly swiped the back of it against her eyes.

She focused on her breathing until her chest rose and fell normally, until the ache lessened if only a little. Until she could calm, to turn soft eyes to Regina.

Across the border. Then all would be fine.

 


 

It was much as before.

They would push on, as hard and determined as they could, and though each trek felt longer she feared they were making less progress with each exhausting march forward.

Days and nights passed, her loose grasp on a count failing quickly.

The songs sung by the birds seemed different, she feared it was a sign of madness for nothing else seemed altered. In fact, everything seemed terrifyingly the same, to the point she wondered if they were even moving forward, or simply circling the same area over and over.

There was no sign of smoke through the canopy, or against the backdrop of growing clouds. No sign of roads or paths, new or old. No sign of any other person save for each other.

They would stop, exhausted, unable to take another step. Emma would urge her to rest, then force her own drained body to move. To search.

She would return much later, her steps dragging and hands empty.

Regina would pretend to rest, unable to truly do so if she did not know Emma was safe – if she was not at her side. Though often she would find herself jolting awake in the dark, alone.

If Emma rested, she did not see her.

She had to be, though. Regina was, as best as she could, and she could still feel her hold on what was real slipping.

They found water, followed a stream that disappeared too soon beneath rocks and earth.

At least they could quench their thirst more often than not.

In desperation, and with shaking hands, Emma had seized a handful of leaves from a low shrub. Had shown her with a strained expression how to trick her body by chewing the bitter things and spitting them out when she could chew no more.

It was an awful, disgusting thing to do. Made them drink more to rid themselves of the awful residue of taste. It gave no energy, sated no hunger. But it distracted them.

That was all they had. Distractions.

 


  

The moon was growing, she noted, eyes fluttering open, head light from sleep.

When they opened again, the sun was rising, and Emma was sitting beside her. Rubbing at reddened eyes with her knuckles.

“Emma?” Her voice cracked as she pushed herself up, head swimming for a few long moments she had grown used to. The warmth at her side faded, leaves crackling underfoot and a barely hidden sound of exertion reaching her.

“You know what to do,” Emma said with a hint of solemnness.

Emma fiddled with her slipping belt, gave a shaky smile when she realised Regina was still watching her.

“How long will you be?”

Emma went to shrug, but clearly thought better of it, “We need to move soon. We’ll cross the border soon enough. Then we’ll find a town and fill our bellies.”

Regina nodded, the words long familiar.

Emma smiled, the glow it brought helping to combat the chill that seemed to constantly bite at her skin.

Emma disappeared from sight, the sounds made in her wake diminishing with each passing second.

She pulled Emma’s cloak tighter around herself, the cold returning. Her brow furrowed as she focused on trying to get herself to move, her body heavy and rebelling. Still she persisted, she did not know for how long, but eventually she found her way to her feet.

She knew the chill would not leave her even if she moved, but still, she tried. It was better than slipping back into sleep.

Rocinante pushed through fallen leaves with his nose, his tail flicking lazily.

Regina struggled away from the tree she used to brace herself, and wandered over to him. He remained still as she lifted his feet, one at a time, to inspect them.

One of his shoes had become loose at some point, another two lost. He had managed, somehow, but she had not noticed which made guilt settle deep in her. Stirring up many emotions she had tried to suppress.

Emma had simply made a comment about ‘not being a farrier’, and pulled at it, again and again until it finally came loose.

It did not take long for Rocinante to free himself of the final one as his foot caught between two rocks and he did not wait for her to help him.

It had been a long time since he had not been shod, so she fretted, crouching now to inspect his feet. Perhaps it seemed foolish to worry about such things when there was so much else to worry over, but it kept her occupied. And to worry about that stopped her from worrying about other things.

“What a noble steed.”

Regina whirled, her vision blurring and mind struggling to catch up.

That dreadful creature… it had all been forgotten. Its taunts and manipulations. She had surely conjured it from a weary and starved mind. Surely it had only returned for it was far worse now. It was imagined. Was it not?

Rocinante was still at her back. Her heart beat hard and her head ached from trying to comprehend what was happening.

“What a noble fool.”

The corner of their horse blanket pinched between two fingers, held like something revolting.

It fell from his fingers, as he twisted his hand, posing with a ‘aha’.

“Does she expect food to appear magically?” He laughed, trailing off with an exaggerated expression of realisation, “Actually, in a manner of speaking.”

With a flourish, much like so many days prior, he was holding food. The smell reaching her in seconds, the sight of it, the memory of eating something so similar in Vendima making her mouth water.

Her hands trembled, clutching her cloak tightly.

“Ah, a dish of the paupers!” He gestured with his hand carelessly, the food so close to tumbling from his gnarled fingers. She felt nauseous, food so close, she would not care even if it did fall to the dirt and leaves. She would still devour it like a filthy beast.

She swallowed down the burn rising in her throat, wavered on her feet.

“But even such a… simple thing can be made exquisite.” He giggled like he had made a great jest, “This one, oh, entirely edible. Wonderful in all ways.”

Her eyes followed the food despite herself, niggling thoughts emerging in the very back of her mind – thoughts of what she could do if only –

The darkness in her veins, it flowed through her. How long had it been there? The man offered to help before, but no. She did not want this. Want it.

If she turned her back to it, her mind from it, it would lose its power over her.

No. No. She would never encourage that evil. She would never be like her –

“What are you?”

“Oh!” He pressed his hand above his heart, his fingers fluttering, “What a surprise to hear something so uncouth come from you.”

“You do not know me.” Though, as the words left her lips, the vague memories of what she was certain she had imagined took form. Grew stronger.

No… even if he knew of her title, he did not know her.

“I told you before, I will not learn –

“Even when it can do so much?” His eyebrows raised high in mock surprise, he took a step forward.

Her fingers twitched with the need grip Rocinante’s reins.

But she would lose Emma.

And you could not run from magic.

“It can aid you both, even more so now. Why would you ever say no? No one ever says no.”

“I said no.” She put as much bravery, as much strength as she could in those three simple words.

It was to no effect, he simply tilted his head and smiled, his teeth crooked and yellow.

Her stomach churned, her bravado faltering – he was almost looking at her with pity.

She pressed her hand to her stomach as if it could steady her, “Leave me alone.”

He threw the pottage up, the food disappearing in a dark swirl of smoke.

“Hmm, is that an order?” He cupped his chin, inhuman eyes glittering dangerously, “Ah, but you are royalty, and those habits can be so hard to shift.”

Her hands shook, knuckles pale against her stomach and below her throat.

“I – I asked you to leave.”

He rolled his eyes, sighing dramatically.

“You try to assist someone and this is how you are repaid…” In a blink of her eyes he was only a pace or two away, eyes boring into her own, “I will leave, if that is what you wish. But do remember what I offer you. Both of you. If you ever change your mind, you need only say my name three times.”

Her shoulders were high and tense, her own gaze fixed on his own, born not from strength, but from lessons long ago learnt, “I need nothing from you.”

He tilted his head, leaning uncomfortably close, “It is an offer to teach. To help you if you so require it; nothing more than that.”

She tried to move back, but was unable to. All she could do was shake.

“Rumpelstiltskin.” He smiled, “Remember it. And remember my offer.”

Regina’s eyes slammed shut, smoke blinding her vision and a scent of age flooding her scenes. It did not sting as it should, the magic evaporating in mere seconds.

She opened her eyes, alone save for Rocinante.

 


 

Regina was sleeping longer, more often – and not from feelings of safety. Emma knew that much, just as she knew she would be doing the same if she didn’t fight it. She refused to let Regina see her like that, to know how heavy her eyes were, how weary her body truly was.

So she let Regina sleep. Wandered off (not far! She couldn’t go far!) in search of anything that could help them. Anything.

The gnawing was driving her mad, it clawed at her insides, tearing and shredding, bringing with it memories long suppressed. The thirst was a scratching demand at her throat, soothed for the moment by the stream they had staggered across when they teetered on the edge of being unable to press forward another step. But flasks emptied quickly, especially when a distraction was needed.

Rocinante was faring better, he was unable to eat as much as he should with their continuous movement forward, but he had food, thankfully. If they lost him…

She swallowed thickly, stepping over a fallen branch. Regina wouldn’t cope. She needed Rocinante. Needed the familiarity and the connection. Emma didn’t know what that was like, but she understood the importance of it to Regina.

There was nothing.

All around trees and plants and there was nothing. Even if there was, what did she know? She might have known how to saddle a horse and calm a distressed one when she was barely eight years, but she had never learnt how to survive, how to forage and sustain herself on nothing.

She had only been taught to work. To do as she was told, and well, and she would eat. She would be provided for. And before that – well she was to be good and she would eat. Though she tried, she had rarely been good.

She was wandering too far – too occupied with thoughts to take her mind off her hunger. Too occupied trying to find something to stop the hunger. She couldn’t leave Regina, or let her think she had left.

This was all her fault. If they – if she had ensured they had obtained food first, none of this would have happened. The hunger and thirst. Or if she had told a better lie, or demanded a higher price, suspicion wouldn’t have fallen on them.

Why – why did she have to ruin everything?

Why did she have to be so –

“Ow!”

She hissed in pain, cupping the side of her face with a quaking hand.

She hadn’t seen the low hanging branch, but it had definitely made its presence known.

She poked at her cheek, the skin was tender, but there was no cut nor would it likely bruise. It had simply been a shock. She deserved far worse.

Ducking under the branch, she straightened up, another step and she wobbled on her feet, catching sight of something and desperately tried to avoid crushing it beneath her heel.

She braced herself against a tree to her left, staring with wide, confused eyes at what lay before the toe of her boot.

She dropped down, too fast for her body as her head spun and sickness rose in her belly. Closing her hand around the object she felt it was soft, holding it up the scent of too sweet apples made her nose scrunch. It was bruising, dark brown blemishes marring bright red.

But it was an apple. Solid and real in her hand.

It was food.

She scrambled full to her feet, barely avoiding catching her head on that branch again. Searching wildly with her eyes for the tree the apple must have fallen off.

But there was nothing but greens, a brief glimpse of red, and the occasional browns, more frequent now.

Of course, her stomach sank, the harvest was likely over. There would be no apples to pick.

She bit her lip, hard and sharp, an awful tang spreading in her mouth. Jarring her mind and distracting herself from her nagging hunger.

Then, she looked to the apple in her hand, where had it come from?

Maybe someone had dropped it? Maybe there was a village nearby.

She searched the area, straying further than she had wanted to. Risking it to find any sign of people besides them; but the sky was clear, and there was no path, hidden or obvious.

And no more apples.

She retraced her steps, apple in hand, stopping where she had found it.

“Damn it!” She growled, kicking at leaves and twigs with energy she did not know she still had. Kicking as if they would reveal their secrets, allow her to uncover more substance – unseen, waiting for her.

But there was nothing, nothing but soil and dirt.

“Damn it,” she repeated, forlornly as she looked over shoulder toward where she had hoped to find some sort of salvation.

Greens and browns and reds –

Reds?

A shrub, a few dots of red amongst the green leaves. Berries?

She slipped the apple into her pocket, a bird fleeing the bush with a glint of red in its beak.

If the birds were eating them, it had to be a good sign.

She plucked them, as carefully as her shaking hands could manage. There weren’t many, barely enough to cover the palm of her hand.

She bit her dry lip, ignoring the pain. Just looking at the apple made her stomach rumble and mouth water – Regina needed it. Regina. She couldn’t let her own need overshadow that. The berries rolled in her damp palms, bright and enticing.

Berries weren’t exactly filling, unless in a pie or maybe on top of porridge. But it could keep her going. And as long as it gave her enough energy to get to the next town – well, that was all that mattered.

They could distract her, keep her going. It wasn’t much, but it was something.

They would cross the border soon, this would just ensure she got Regina there.

It would do no good to gorge any food down at once, but there was so little, and it so small. She just needed enough to cross the border, they had to be close now.

Her stomach growled, demanding and painful.

Lifting her hand to her mouth, she took them all in.

Her teeth broke into the flesh of the berries, her mouth filling with a sharp taste that made her wince. She had hoped to chew for as long as she could, to trick her body as she had often done years ago.

Instead, she forced herself to swallow the bitterness.

“Urgh,” she spluttered. Coughing. With swift movements, she unclasped her water flask from her belt and gulped down more than she ought, washing back the taste.

Smacking her lips, her mouth numb, she retrieved the apple from her pocket. Now she could focus on feeding Regina.

Better than chewing leaves at any rate. Her head throbbed at the reminder; that she had shown Regina that. That she had made Regina resort to it.

Regina was watching Rocinante when Emma returned, the horse pushing at fallen leaves with huffs to reach the grass underneath.

A pull in her gut; Regina was still awake. She had wanted her to fall back to sleep. Hadn’t wanted her to panic or sit fretting.

She swallowed. Shook her head, and approached Regina’s back as quietly as she could.

There was an odd feeling of elation in her, though her stomach clenched at the sudden return of food, or the accompanying guilt.

When she was as close as she could manage (thanking Rocinante for not giving her away), she surged forward, “Look what I found.”

Regina yelled, jumped from the log she had been seated on, spinning around to lash out with her hand, barely catching Emma’s arm.

Rocinante’s head had shot up, his ears stiff, as he watched them.

“Emma!” Regina hissed, giving her a weak shove when she tried to hug her.

She would have pouted, if she didn’t know the signs meant no ill will.

“What if you were someone who wished us harm?”

Emma felt her smile falter, her weight shifting between her feet.

“Shouldn’t I, err, be the one saying that to you?” Maybe you need to practice keeping your guard up?”

She chuckled nervously, but Regina barely blinked.

“Because then that… wouldn’t happen?”

Regina rolled her eyes, sighed, then nodded her head.

“Maybe if I had more practice…”

“Do you want me to sneak up on you again? Because I can do that!”

“I meant if you let me keep watch more often.”

“Oh…” Emma drew the ‘O’ out, gut not liking the thought any more than when Regina had first brought it up.

Then her eyes caught something.

“You dropped what I got you”

Regina’s brow scrunched, following Emma’s eyeline.

“An appl – you never gave it to me?”

“No, but I held it out to you.”

“In front of my face, while shouting in my ear.”

“I didn’t shout – No Rocinante!”

Regina followed her gaze and, faster than Emma could with a light head, grabbed the apple before he could creep a step closer.

Regina looked down at the apple in her hands, then to Rocinante, guilt crossing her face –

“No Regina,” Emma said far too sharply. She coughed, clearing her throat and calming herself, “Err, I mean to say, Rocinante has plentiful access to food. We don’t. He’ll understand.”

Regina’s head was low, but with a sigh, she turned to face Emma directly.

“What you… got me?”

“That’s what I said.”

“What about you?”

“I’m fine,” Emma said with as casual a shrug as she could manage.

Regina shook her head, her eyes fluttering with discomfort at the action. Emma felt a lurch in her gut, her hands jumped to reach for Regina.

Regina’s eyes met her own, a familiar glint in them. Emma knew what was coming, and cut her off before she could voice it, “I’m fine, Regina. Eat, you need it.”

“What about you?” Regina asked, not for the first time, “At least have some - we shall share it.”

“Bite off half each?” Emma scratched at the back of her head, lips twisting into an uncomfortable smile, “Kinda…”

“I mean to split it in half.” Regina’s gaze fell pointedly to the belt that hung too loose, and the hilt of the sword.

Emma rubbed at the back of her head, brow furrowing, “I can’t cut an apple with a sword - I can barely swing it.”

“I will not leave you without.”

“I’m fine, really.” Emma repeated, stressing the words as the truth.

“Did you find another?” Regina’s throat moved hesitantly, her swallow painful, “Have you eaten?”

Emma grinned nervously, Regina’s nose scrunched, a sign she knew Emma was not being completely truthful, but after a moment her shoulders sagged admitting ‘defeat’ as she delicately bit into an unblemished part of the apple.

It wasn’t lying, not really.

Besides, she had some more energy now, and they would soon cross the border.

 


 

“What are you doing?”

Emma caught her hands on the first buckle, confusion furrowing her brow.

Regina looked to their hands, and back to Emma, feeling the blonde’s fingers retreating from her own.

“Taking off Rocinante’s saddle.”

The sun was high in the sky, though it did not beat down with the heat she expected. Still, they sought out the shade cast by a large rock formation amidst the tall trees of the forest.

“What if we need to make a quick getaway again?” Emma’s eyebrows rose high, her forehead furrowed.

“We can go no further today.” Regina’s shoulders sagged, her body begging for rest. For food, “We will be there soon.”

Emma’s mouth remained parted for a moment, her throat bobbing.

“There’s not enough room regardless. We would have to ride bareback until safe. Rocinante would understand.”

“… I might be wrong,” Emma mumbled weakly, then turned her wide eyes to Rocinante. Her lips pressed into a thin line, brow dropping low, “The saddle rubs. Master Saddlers can’t do much for extended wear, huh?”

Emma turned, posture stiff.

“Emma…” Regina sighed, quickly loosening the buckles of the saddle, at least he would have a break form that. She stepped after the blonde, hand trailing along Rocinante’s flank in a sympathetic gesture. “Emma don’t.”

“Don’t what?”

“Get angry at yourself.”

Emma turned with a tight smile and a forced shrug.

“I’m not –

“I can see it.”

“Well you must be imagining it.” The smile, a fake thing that frustrated her, remained fixed on Emma’s face. The tension in the younger woman’s form lifting.

Hiding it. How long had Emma been hiding it?

Frustration rose in her, filling her as her hand curled tight at her side.

Shock, like icy water trickling down her neck.

She looked away, swallowed thickly as she forced her hand to relax.

She took in a sharp breath and returned to Rocinante’s side, finally freeing him of his saddle. Patches of his hair had rubbed away, the skin raised and hot to the touch.

Leaves shuffled behind her; more here, the unfamiliar trees growing more frequent, the leaves more numerous. They had to be close.

She was uncertain what Emma was doing, but could feel the agitation.

She felt an agitation of her own scratching at her skin, different, she was sure. Doubt still raged in her, settled heavily in her chest. She had said nothing the first time, certain it was all a figment of her tired mind. But now… now how could she still think that?

Rocinante’s ears twitched, his body shifting uncomfortably when her fingers brushed a particularly sore spot. She whispered her apologies.

Secrets were bad, could cause pain and misery. There were exceptions, she knew that as clear as she knew day.

This… this was not an exception. It couldn’t be.

 She sucked in a breath, stepping back from Rocinante, mindful of his saddle on the ground.

Emma’s back was to her, her arms crossed and shoulders high.

“… Emma?” She said slowly, her steps cautious.

“Hmm?” Emma’s smile was feeble, sweat beading on her brow, “What is it?”

Regina’s lips trembled, the words caught in her throat. Concern flickered in Emma’s eyes, though the words that left her sounded as if spoken by reflex, “You know you should be resting.”

“Someone came to me – when you were gone.”

Emma’s eyes grew wide, her mouth falling open. Her body seemed frozen in midstep, even as her gaze snapped around, “What?

Emma’s hand jumped up to wipe at her brow, the leaves crunched beneath Regina’s boots as she took a pace forward.

“When?” Emma’s voice cracked, anxiety flowing from her.

“Yesterday, I –

“You didn’t tell me?” Emma dragged her hand through her lose hair, the ribbon tied to her wrist, “What if they have followed us? What if…”

Emma trailed off with a wince, her breaths coming harder.

“Emma I could not tell you, I was not sure if it was real. If I had not imagined him due to hunger and exhaustion… I did not know what to do for the best.” Regina broke off her confession, doubt rising again as to whether she should tell Emma of both visits. She swallowed, her throat tight.

“What?” Emma said softer, eyes searching.

“It was sudden, as if he appeared from nowhere. It was over so quickly I was not sure if it had truly happened.”

“Regina?” Emma was closer now. Close enough to reach for, but Regina held back, her chin dropping.

“It was a man. But he did not look like one.”

“Regina?” Emma asked cautiously, her fingers hovering alongside Regina’s hands, “What do you mean by ‘he didn’t look like one’?”

“He did not look human. Not like any I have ever seen.”

“What did it want from you?”

“Nothing”, Regina replied, a hint of bafflement in her voice, “He – he used magic, offered me food. I asked what he wanted, and he said nothing… he just wanted to – he offered to… encourage…”

She trailed off, waved her hand, could see Emma shifting her weight. Watched the realisation dawn on Emma’s face.

“And he offered you a deal?”

“A deal? No – no, he said he only wanted to –

“I got that,” Emma interrupted, knowing Regina could not bring herself to finish the sentence yet again.

Regina caught her hand, but Emma’s fingers slipped from hers after a short moment. She strode past, bending down with a small sound to pick up Rocinante’s saddle.

“You refused? Tell me you refused.”

“Of course I did!” Regina snapped, startled by the volume of her own voice.

There was relief on Emma’s face, brief but there for a flash of a moment.

“We can’t stop.”

“Emma?”

“We can’t stop, not if that man is what I think it is.”

“What do you mean?” Regina hurried to Emma’s side, muscles tensing as Emma resaddled Rocinante, her expression sympathetic.

“Not if it is here. We need to get across the border.”

Regina’s head swam, “We cannot go any further yet, we are all exhausted.”

“We need to go Regina.” Emma snapped, the bite unexpected and making Regina shrink back, “If that thing ever comes to you again… you refuse anything it says.”

“I did. I want nothing to do with…” She spread her hands, tried to catch Emma’s gaze, but it was fixed on the buckle she was fumbling with, “… what is in me.”

A muscle twitched in Emma’s jaw, her breathing faster.

“I know that. But if it ever comes back,” Emma repeated, “You said no. Agree to nothing it says. A thing like that can’t be selfless, it wants something. It will try to trick you. Try to take you.” The green of Emma’s eyes was as dark as the canopy overhead, her lips curled in a scowl.

Regina had never felt fear with Emma before, save for the night she had her control stripped from her. It hit Regina solidly, squeezed the air from her.

“Emma?” Regina repeated, her gaze shaking, anxiety knotted in her chest. She wanted to protest, to ask what Emma was talking about. What she knew that she did not. But she couldn’t, not with the wild look of utter panic – of utter fear – in Emma’s eyes.

Emma’s hand caught hers, her palm damp as she gave a squeeze, her expression was stern, more serious than Regina would ever have thought possible.

“Please promise me,” Emma stressed urgently, eyes a little wider than was common, “You will never agree to anything that demon says – never listen to it. Even if you think you can bargain with it, you can’t.”

Emma’s words hung heavily, filled with truth and the desperate need for her to accept. To listen. She did, she understood as much as she could. She could see there was more beneath her words, could sense something deeper in Emma’s dread and panic.

“What makes you so sure?” Regina asked, though she was not sure why. The question leaving her mouth without permission, pushed far more than she would ever allow.

Fingers twitched against her hand, grew surer even as Emma’s eyes betrayed her.

“Trust me.”

Regina followed in Emma’s unsteady steps.

 


  

She stumbled to a halt yet again, pulled back by a stubborn, exhausted weight.

The sunlight was growing weaker, casting dancing shadows of the leaves high above them. It made her eyes hurt.

“Come on Rocinante.” Her knuckles stood stark against her skin, his reins wound around her hands. She jerked her hold again, the action unfamiliar and cruel, “Rocinante!”

He remained steadfast, snorted but stayed focused on pulling at tuffs of grass, barely registering her.

Regina’s grip grew lax, her shoulders aching and hands marred by temporary darkened lines.

“Emma…” She sighed.

The reins were loose in her left hand now, her right running over Rocinante’s side when she stood close to him.

“I know you’re hungry and tired,” she soothed, fighting back an irritability most foreign. It was the hunger, that was all. It had to be. “We are too, but we need to try to keep going. We will have more than enough to eat soon, and can rest for as long as we need, will we not Emma?”

She sighed again, knowing this was all futile. Despite her words, she knew they could travel no further that day. Her muscles screamed for rest, and her body for sustenance.

“No… we cannot go any further today Emma. It is impossible.”

Some animal rustled through the undergrowth, her skin prickled as the biting irritation rose again – hunger, it was the hunger –

“Are you going to answer me at… all?” Something jumped in Regina’s chest, her words trailing off when she turned, “Emma?”

The blonde was pale – paler than she had ever seen. The darkness that had grown beneath her eyes more pronounced than it had so far been. The reins slipped from Regina’s fingers, her hand hovering against her stomach.

This was more than panic. More than the fear she had seen in her eyes before. This was something else entirely.

“Emma? Emma what’s wrong?” She grasped her clammy hand with her free one, could see clearly now the beading of sweat across her brow. It had been there before, yet now it seem far more noticeable. Far more concerning.

“Noth – ” Emma shook her head. Winced. Turning unfocused eyes in Regina’s general direction with a feeble smile, “Nothin’ wrong.”

Regina’s heart was hammering, her hand tensing against her stomach, her breathes growing shorter –

“Emma?” She managed to get out, the blonde’s slow, jumbled words spiking a panic in her chest.

Emma blinked, the movement long and dragging, her smile a barely concealed grimace.

“Fi – fine…”

Emma toppled.

Her weight, heavy and unwieldy fell against Regina. Further still. Slipping from a weak grip onto her knees.

Her face contorted, Regina’s own creased in fear.

She shouted her name, her words an unintelligible, shouted mess. Her trembling hands trying desperately to steady the shaking blonde.

The horrible, sickening sound of retching. Foreign intermittent whimpers of pain.

Emma was ill?

Why had she not noticed?

Regina gently lifted blonde curls, falling back on treasured, but now almost forgotten memories, rubbed her hand over the dips and rises of Emma’s spine. Ignoring her own damp cheeks. Her own rapidly beating heart.

She tried to sooth, her words a jumbled wreck, her voice breaking on vowels and syllables the same.

A nudge against her shoulder.

Why had she not noticed?

The retching, painful and dry ceased as Emma collapsed forward, arms giving way. Regina caught her, guided her to her side. Away from the sparse contents of her stomach.

She saw her eyes shut.

Saw her still.

Chapter Text

“Emma?” The word struggled to leave her throat, strengthened only as she stared down at Emma’s still body, “Emma!”

She clutched at her shoulders, the strength she always felt there gone. Feeble and narrow against her palms. She shook her, gentle at first but growing harder in the desperation spreading in her chest. Rapidly consuming her whole body.

“Emma?” She tried again, her hands shaking, her mind racing, “Wake up! Emma!”

She could hear her own heart pounding in her ears, a nausea of her own rising in her throat.

Her chest heaved, her actions stilling but her grip still firm on Emma’s shoulders.

What… what was she meant to do?!

Her fingers slipped along a damp brow, brushed curls from Emma’s closed eyes. Cold, her skin was so cold.

A breeze stirred Regina’s hair, caught the tears rolling down her cheeks.

She slumped forward, an ache in her temple. What should she do? What could she do?

Was Emma even…

She pressed her hand to Emma’s stomach. Waited with bated breath, her eyes closed as she tried to wrench back control over herself. Tried to quieten her frenzied thoughts.

There – a barely detectable movement.

She gulped down a breath, blinked away the tears clinging to her eyelashes. Not enough, it was not enough. Could so easily be imagined, or a result of her trembling hands.

Her eyes darted across Emma’s form, landed on pale lips.

Memories forced their way through her chaotic mind, left her further confused. Her a child, Rocinante tired from a gallop, she scratched the bridge of his nose, watched as his nostrils flared, felt the puffs of air against her wrist.

Oh – oh.

She blinked hard, eyes stinging.

Gently, hesitantly, she held her cupped hand barely an inch from Emma’s mouth and nose. It shook so noticeably, but she felt her breathing ease at the first weak puff tickling her palm. Then another and another. The gap between them longer than her own.

Alive, alive, repeated in her head like a mantra.

Of course she was. Emma was just ill, just ill. She would wake. She would wake.

Rocinante shifted, nudged her shoulder.

The border. They had to cross the border – she did not know how to tell when they had crossed, but she would have to figure it out. Find help, they still had coin, she could pay a healer to help ease Emma’s illness.

Unless this is something more

No, no. No!

She sucked in a breath, her ribs aching. Focusing her mind was like dragging a great weight, one she managed, just barely.

Emma.

The sweat on her brow contradicted the iciness of her skin. Regina shook her head, felt the heaviness of her braid at her back.

It was easier to cool down than warm up, was it not?

She fumbled with the fastening of her – Emma’s cloak, freed it from her selfish hold, and tried to wrap it around Emma the best she could.

But Emma was on her back, and Regina was having no luck sliding the cloak beneath her.

“Wake up,” she pleaded again and again.

The breeze seemed much colder now, even though the cloak was only a meagre barrier.

She trembled harder, her hands trembling.

She lifted Emma’s head, which tried to loll back frighteningly, and wrapped the cloak the wrong way around her. It would have to do until… until.

Rocinante snorted, she turned to him realising only now that she had left his reins dangling. He stared ahead, ears forward and tail twitching.

“Rocinante”, she called, or said to let the idea in her mind solidify. She forced herself to break contact with Emma, for just a moment so she could scramble to kneel behind her head.

She slipped her arms beneath Emma’s back, nearly lost her footing amongst the leaves as she gripped the front of her shoulders.

Emma’s head dropped forward, her body a dead weight against Regina’s chest, knocking the air from her lungs.

Her hold quaked, her tired muscles straining. Her breaths came short, her knuckles growing paler as she fought to stand.

Futile.

She gasped, fingers losing their grip. She fell forward, pain shooting through her knees and arms as she used them to try to lessen the impact on Emma.

A sob caught in her throat, her forehead pressed into the cloak, Emma’s body weighing down her trapped arms.

What was she thinking? She could not lift Emma. Could definitely not lift her on top of Rocinante. She was not strong enough, never would be.

She sniffed, her face wet again. She rolled her head, rested her cheek against Emma’s breast even as the position sent twinges along her back.

“Please…” She all but whimpered.

Leaves crunched as Rocinante paced forward, head high.

A makeshift mounting block, she thought feebly, but there was nothing around and she would still need to lift Emma.

Her fight fled her.

An odd taste persisted in her mouth.

She had bit her cheek, she realised.

She could not do this on her own. It was an impossible feat.

But… she lifted her head, her tear tracked skin tight, she could get help.

She need only call for it and it would be there.

With some effort she managed to free her numb arms, choosing to cradle Emma’s head in her lap.

Her back protested, even as she knelt with her upper body straight. Her heart still beat forcefully beneath her ribs, harder still as the idea in her mind started to gain strength.

She only had to call – they could get help. Emma could be kept warm, maybe even healed –

Regina’s heat skipped a beat, her whole body feeling as if she had been dropped into an ice filled bath.

She pressed a trembling hand to her forehead, gasped in a breath and tried to steady her jittery breathing.

What is wrong with me?

Magic was a venom, an evil. It could not heal, it could not protect or comfort. It could only cause pain. It could only harm.

It was the reason for the situation they were in.

It was the reason Emma was…

Perhaps it was even the reason for this… her confession to Emma, related to it all as it was, had made Emma panic, had caused a fear in her that Regina had never witnessed nor imagined possible.

She had been the reason they had to push on, even when it was nigh impossible. It was she who had not noticed Emma’s unwellness. And now Emma lay unmoving, cold and so pale.

She ran her fingers across Emma’s cheek, brushed wild curls from her eyes, praying they would flutter open and Emma would give her one of those large grins that warmed her chest so.

Of course, nothing happened.

The only sound her stifled sobs and the wind playing through the trees.

She had to mend this.

There would be no asking for help. Not from that man. Not with what he used. Not with Emma’s panicked, but vague warnings.

Taking as deep a breath as she could managed, she tried again. Slipping her arms beneath Emma’s own, she struggled to find her footing.

She managed, barely, her back bent painfully but she was standing – in a manner of speaking.

She had no idea where the sudden strength came from, but she prayed it would last, at least for a little while.

A groan escaped her at her first step back, her muscles tight and face hot.

She forced another, and another, managed to click her tongue despite her breaths growing even shallower.

Rocinante perked up, reaching her in only two steps and keeping to her side.

“When you wake up,” she ground out, her whole body burning, “No more emplumeus for you.”

She did not expect at answer, but the words made the lump in her throat lessen just a little.

 


 

She collapsed a short while later, night having finally descended and impeded her efforts. Her body felt wrong, as if her limbs were losing their solidness, as if she was a moment away from falling through the ground itself.

The trail through the dirt and leaves was clear for anyone to see, Emma’s heels having left it. She doubted they had made it far at all.

Why had she even thought she could succeed at such a feat?

At least she had managed, somehow, to twist Emma’s cloak around her the best that she could, and tugged at it to wrap around her. She had finally noticed the sword still at Emma’s side, and removed it, placing it in Rocinante’s saddlebag, before she wrapped the horse blanket around Emma as well, to cover what the cloak could not, and to add an extra layer of warmth.

Regina’s throat was tight, her heart still beating hard, as she pulled Emma too her. It was just as much of a challenge for her completely exhausted body, but she managed to settle her into her lap, ran her hands over Emma’s own, tried to bring warmth back to her frozen digits.

She was still breathing. They both were.

She told herself that, over and over, even as her eyes stung and tears rolled down her cheeks. Told herself that even as she brushed her lips against a frighteningly cold forehead, her skin prickling as she whispered words that meant so much but which she could not recall.

She felt empty, her mind helpless.

It had occurred to her that Rocinante could pull Emma, but she had no way of securing her, and no way of doing it in a way that would be comfortable.

There was nothing… nothing –

Her head dropped, shoulders shaking, her voice broke, a whispered strain.

“Please don’t leave me.”

 


 

The sun was high when she woke startled, fighting for lucidity, trying to make sense of her surroundings, to untie the dregs of a nightmare entwining with the harshness of reality.

A sound, wretched from the fading memories of sleep, made her twist her gaze around, straining painfully stiff muscles in her neck.

It was the subtle, barely there movement that drew her to the true source.

“Emma?” She gasped, heart fluttering with the disbelief of it all. The fragile hope teetering on a perilous edge.

Another groan escaped cracked lips –

“Rocinante!” Regina called, motioning urgently to him. He approached dutifully as her cries shifted to Emma, to try to bring her back to herself.

With a bit of manoeuvring while she struggled not to topple or cause Emma to roll from her lap, she managed to seize their flasks. She succeeded in untying them with one hand, somehow, her other cradling Emma’s head, as if her touch could work as a lifeline.

The flasks were near empty, but that mattered nothing in the wake of this.

Emma’s eye weakly fluttered, her brow marred by deepening creases. Her eyes opened, barely, they were duller than before, unfocused. Regina choked on a sob, Emma’s gaze resting on her own, but appearing as if she was looking straight through her, as if her vision was engulfed by something else.

Regina shook, from fear, from remembrance.

That look different, yet similar enough to a night she had tried so hard to forget. Her nails stung her palms, her grip on the straps of the flasks so tight.

“I’m here,” she said brokenly, watching as Emma’s eyes twitched as if trying to find her. Her lips moved, near silent save for a deep, gravelly sound that broke through infrequently.

“Emma? Emma please sit up,” Regina pleaded, struggling to lift her limp body, the flasks dropped as she tried pulling at her in a way that felt so cruel.

Her teeth gritted painfully, at last able to cradle Emma’s heavy weight against her, nestled against her shoulder. Held against her as a mother should a child.

This was the best they were going to manage, she realised, her heart beating so hard she was certain it would bruise.

“This – this will help make you better,” she breathed as if she believed it rather than praying it to be true.

She pressed the flask she had managed to open to Emma’s lips, tilted it slowly.

Emma shifted slightly, squeezed her eyes shut.

“Drink please,” Regina pleaded. Emma’s weak protest fled, her eyes half open. Her throat moved, but more water escaped her mouth than was taken in, spilling down her chin to soak through Regina’s dress.

Emma’s chest lurched with weak coughs, though her throat still moved, gulping down what she could.

And though more water was lost than drank, Regina knew it was better that some was drunk than none. So she helped Emma as best as she could until they emptied both flasks of their scant contents, finding solace that Emma had managed some.

It took mere moments before Emma jolted from her grasp, coughing and retching, no bile, just water leaving her.

“No, no, no!”

She grasped, desperately, tried to bring Emma back, but just like that, Emma slipped from her like water through her fingers. The meagre strength there for only a moment before it vanished.

Regina grasped for her, rolled her unresponsive form against her, scrambled for something, hands against frigid skin and unmoving limbs. Pleading even as her ragged breathing grew weaker and weaker.

“No, no, Emma?” She cupped her face, brushed her thumbs against her cheekbones. Hoping, perhaps, that her warmth would be taken, given freely as it was to Emma.

“You cannot leave me!” Her hands trembled, a boiling, rising tide of distress stealing her breath. Made her skin prickle. This wasn’t her. This wasn’t her.

Like a blink, it was gone as quickly as it had begun, leaving Regina keeled over, cheek to Emma’s breast, hands clutching tight.

And though she still breathed, soft and slow, Regina cried. Cried until her throat was dry and her eyes burned impossibly. Cried until her shoulders no longer shook and her chest felt empty.

She stared unseeing at a blurred mass of greens and browns and wondered if this is how it felt to have no heart.

No emotions. No power. Helpless.

With her cries silenced, she could hear it now. The quiet, subdued beat of Emma’s heart. She shifted, pulled the horse blanket down that little bit further, pressed her ear to the valley between her breasts.

There was strength in that sound, or she found strength in it. Either way, she knelt back. Wrapped Emma up as best as she was able.

Time. Again they found they had no time.

She pressed her lips to Emma’s, reverently, and stood on unsteady legs.

It was as she picked up their discarded flasks that she heard it. The sound of distant voices amongst the birds and leaves.

Real or not, the decision was made in a single moment.

“Stay here Rocinante.” She tied the flasks to the saddlebag, her gaze drawn to the sword, “Protect Emma.”

She lingered on Emma, blonde curls framing her pale features. She almost didn’t look real…

The voices. She could not risk losing their only chance.

“I will be back, soon,” she promised, her teeth digging into her lip.

She took off as quickly as she could with her body so heavy and heart aching for her to go back.

There was no choice.

They had to be cautious, but she could not be now. Now when Emma was –

As long as they were not soldiers or knights, she would risk it. She had to, for Emma.

The trees and plants were no longer as overgrown as they were earlier in their journey, allowing her to move easily and quietly enough. The wet patch on her dress was uncomfortable, but the distraction kept her alert.

The voices grew louder seemingly with each careful step.

She found them quickly; they were so close, may have been for a significant length of time.

Possible help so close…

She held her breath, peered through the bushes into the clearing.

There were three men sitting there, dirty and fair skinned. Her brow scrunched up. Their voices were loud, but she could not discern what they were saying. Her hope wavered, then snapped like a threat pulled taut.

She shrunk back, saw the weapons at their sides, the gruffness of them. Something about them sent chills through her.

Her heart sank, they had to get away from here, lest they be found be those men.

She had no idea how she was going to achieve that, but she had to do something.

The beat of her heart was still blatant in her ears, her movement seeming particularly loud even as she crept away as silently as she could.

Those men may have made her skin prickle, but they could be a sign of a village nearby. Perhaps they were having a rest from hunting, or whatever else it was they did. But swords were not useful in such things, nor daggers.

She returned to Emma in moments.

If there was a village, she would find it.

She crouched by Emma’s side, stroked her fingers over her cheek, her whispers urgent, “Emma, please wake up, we need to go.”

It was futile she knew in her heart it was.

Her hands slipped down, tried to lift Emma, only for her to topple down to her knees beside her. Her breaths came hard, but she persisted, hopeless as it was to repeat her failed attempted of yesterday.

Rocinante stamped his hoof, snapping a branch. Another, and another.

Regina froze, the sound accompanied by others, growing.

She swallowed, slowly looking over her shoulder.

They had seen her.

Of course they had. Of course she had not been careful enough.

She wrapped her arms around Emma, pulled her still body close.

Emma wouldn’t have. Emma would have been good enough.

Their first words were a blur, made her eyes widened even further. The one who spoke curled his lips in anger.

“What do you want?” His words were clearer now, an unfamiliar accent and her surprise having stolen her understanding.

The three men stood close, too close. One of them glanced to Rocinante, his gaze lingering.

There was not much difference between them; large, dirty, dark hair and beady eyes.

“He asked you something,” the one on the right commented, scratching at his beard.

Regina shook, cradled Emma tight to her chest, fighting for her tongue to move.

“Help,” she said weakly, “My friend needs help. I just want to help her.”

All three looked to her, to Emma, unmoved.

She had been right. They would be of no help.

Close as they were now, she felt the sense of unease and distrust return, larger and more undeniable than before.

“Help huh,” the middle one said with a sneer, “And money would be a big help, wouldn’t it?”

“Money?” She spluttered, shrinking back, gaze shaking.

What could she do?

Hopelessness encased her heart, sweat beading on her brow.

“I can pay you, if that is what you require.”

The one to the right scoffed, eyes narrowed in his disbelief.

The middle one’s hand settled on his hip, “Hand us in for the price. That would be mighty ‘helpful’ for your friend.”

“The price?” Regina gripped Emma’s shoulders tighter, holding her closer to her, “I don’t know what you –

“Pretending ignorance, eh?” The left one spat, lips twitching.

“Please, I will say nothing.” She guessed, mind unable to comprehend, “Please leave us.”

“You wanted help a second ago. Offered coin you don’t have.”

They laughed mockingly, plucking at a nerve, bring forth memories. Of similar laughter. Of weakness.

They were not going to leave, were they?

Her eyes squeezed shut, her cheek pressed to the top of Emma’s head.

“Please, take what you want. There truly is a little coin in the saddlebag,” she begged, “I will say nothing.”

“She thinks we need permission?”

A snort, heavy steps creeping closer.

“I’m sorry,” she whispered, audible to she and Emma alone, her arms tightening around her, tears leaking from the corners of her eyes.

A chuckle from the right, “I haven’t had a horse in a long time.”

Her head jerked up, anger roiling beneath her skin in a sudden flash, erupting in a burst, “He would never let someone like you ride him.”

Her eyes burned, glaring with as much intimidation she could muster.

“Who said anything about him being a mount?”

It took a moment for the meaning to sink in. And when it did, the men laughed at the horror on her face.

“Gotta survive girl, and I’m sick of rabbit.” The middle one pulled the dagger at his hip free, twirling it in his hands.

The right one snickered, “Maybe if you had done that, your friend wouldn’t be a dead weight.”

He was a step away, his friends armed.

A lurch forward, her heart stopped. His thick fingers around her necklace. Around Emma’s ring. The boiling anger and sharp needles pressing into her skin reach its breaking point. Shot up, stole her breath.

“No!” She screamed, trying to kick out, to force him away.

She twisted, kept Emma against her, eyes wild, threw her arm out.

A yell.

He staggered back, empty handed. Red trickling from his nose.

Heat searing, like a brand against her skin. Like a knife in her head.

Red exploding, choking, flowing from nose, eyes, flying from his mouth. So much red.

“Fucking hell!” One yelled, the other scrambling away.

Gasping in a breath, heart hammering, everything rushing past her ears and through her body, Regina found a surge of strength. Called for Rocinante, got Emma on his back, like they had in Vendima.

Clamoured upwards, kicked her heels, and surged forward.

 


 

They could not go any further, she could barely keep her eyes open – was certain she had fallen asleep in the saddle at times, mind filled with images that cut at her chest. Rocinante’s steps grew slower and slower until he stumbled, nearly fell to the solid ground.

She held onto Emma throughout.

She slipped from the saddle, tried to gently lower Emma, only for her to fall, back hard against the ground, Emma a solid weight against her chest.

She wheezed at the impact, head thumping, body slumping.

She sobbed, even though she had no more tears left. She curled around Emma, pulled her pale and cold form against her, her cloak wrapped over and around them. The horse blanket lost.

Her own strength was gone.

Hope snapped. Forgotten.

Closing her eyes, she prayed, futile as it was, that Emma would wake. Her cheek settled against Emma’s chest, hearing the weak beat of her heart beneath her ear.

 


 

She awoke with a jolt. Rocinante whinnied.

Regina jumped, heart hammering, “P-please don’t –

“Are you okay?” The voice was as panicked as she felt, a small wavering voice of a girl, accent the same as those men.

Regina’s breath shuddered out of her, her body trembling as she sat and held Emma tight to her chest.

She could see now, the brightness of the sudden awakening fading. Her sight clear, her fear tapered, but dread remained in the pit of her stomach. She could see who disturbed them; a young girl with spindly limbs that looked too long for her body.

Green eyes dropped from Regina to Emma, widening with alarm.

“I’ll get my Granny!”

Chapter Text

She was too tired to run, too slow – too much lost hope.

She was barely able to right herself before the girl returned, panting with exertion and pushing dark hair from her eyes.

“She’s coming now…” The girl drew in a deep breath, her chest heaving, “… She will know what to do.”

Winding Rocinante’s reins around her hands – anything to keep her nerves focused – Regina’s eyes flitted to where Emma was still on the ground, her cloak wrapped around her.

She wanted to hold her, needed to. But her body forced her away, memories of what she could do fresh in her mind.

Regina bit at her bottom lip, her left hand pressed to her stomach.

The young girl was crouched by Emma now – Regina’s heart jumped in panic, the hand clutching Rocinante’s reins twitching. She wanted to shout, to push the girl away, but she could barely stand as it was. The girl shifted Emma further on her back, blonde hair moving and her skin so pale. The darkness around her eyes, a faint blue tinge to her lips new and pronounced.

This was bad, Regina realised with a sudden drop in her stomach. A massive risk, for them, and for those that may aid them.

But it was all they had. Their only chance. This was the help they needed so desperately.

She wavered as she stepped forward, leaves crunching underfoot. The girl was young, could not be more than eleven or twelve years. She had fetched her grandmother, so one who would no doubt be wizened.

They could get away, if they needed to.

Two women, one young and one old, they would not be like those men.

She could not fight it anymore, had no energy to do so, the force that had drawn her away from Emma crumbling in moments.

The girl shuffled back when she approached, clearing the way for Regina to drop besides Emma, to gather her in her arms and hold her. Praying what she was about to do would be right. Would be safe. Would bring Emma back and save them both.

She held on to her tears easy enough – she had always been so skilled at hiding her emotions when needed. One of the few things she was ever good at.

“Don’t worry, it will be fine.” The girl was smiling, eyes bright and so kind than Regina believed her, despite her naivety.

Regina looked away, brushing her fingers over Emma’s cold skin, moving strands of hair out of her eyes. Eyes that she felt she had not seen for so long.

Choking on her breath, her own eyes closed. The reality of it all trying to hit her, so very hard, but it could not yet. She could not allow it.

“What’s all this yelling about? I was in the middle of…”

Regina could barely tear herself away from Emma to glance at the new arrival. The elderly woman looked bewildered, her hands curled around something tight.

Emma’s body was limp in her arms, heavy against her chest.

“What’s going on?” Regina heard the snapping of branches, the woman’s shadow hanging over them, “Red?”

 


 

 It was all a blur, her mind lagging behind, or perhaps hiding. Burrowing itself into a tight little ball, praying that would protect it. Protect her.

One moment she had been clinging to Emma as if losing their physical connection would sever the fraying line that bound them, and in the next she wasn’t.

She struggled to hold onto thoughts and common sense, to hold onto herself, leaving her obedient. Allowing herself to be ushered into a squat building unlike ay she had ever seen, pass one door and through the only other, pushed onto something cushioned and warm.

And that was that. The last lingering remnants of energy left her.

 


  

She awoke, her nose twitching at a smell so rich and enticing.

It was a fight to open her eyes, and though she succeeded they stung and ached as they never had before.

“Here.”

It was as much of a challenge to lift her heavy head, her heart jumping and body tensing before she recalled, foggily, what had happened.

The elderly woman who had brought them into warmth held out a bowl. Reflexively, Regina reached for it, only then realising her arms where caught partway up by a thick blanket.

“Where is –

But her bleary, wild eyes found her as her fingers brushed the warm wooden bowl handed to her.

Beside her was a bed, and bundled in many blankets was a mop of blonde curls.

She looked so small.

Regina breathed easier even as her heart flipped and stomach roared at her to forget it all and eat until she could eat no more.

“Will she –

“Eat girl,” the woman interrupted, the sternness like a shock to Regina’s skin, “You’re not alone now.”

She could not, the hot wooden bowl was left in her lap, even as her head spun and stomach flipped, not with Emma so close to – not with her so unwell.

Her eyes remained on Emma, on her stillness. Regina’s heart was still hammering beneath her ribs.

The old woman moved to her side, pouring water from a jug into a wooden cup. Regina wet her lips. The woman held the cup out, and this time there was no resistance. Regina took it, drinking the contents greedily.

“Eat,” the woman repeated, patting her shoulder with a heavy palm. Regina coughed, some water spilling down her chin. “There isn’t much more we can do now. Not until she wakes.”

The lack of an ‘if’ lifted the weight partially from Regina’s shoulders – though she knew, after seeing as much as she had, that perhaps the woman’s words were only there to placate her and not the truth. Her full trust, as it had existed throughout most of her life, she now knew was flawed. At least a little. She had to be more cautious, as Emma had told her.

Ridiculous really, she promised Emma to be less trusting, and yet she found herself trusting this stranger. Both of them.

The empty cup was taken from her too firm grip, leaving her hugging herself. It did little to comfort her, but it was something. It was a start.

She would much rather be holding Emma – or be held by her.

“So eat.”

Regina’s stomach rumbled, the hunger gnawing at her for so long exploding in a rush.

Body trembling, she held back, looking at the woman rather than the bowl, “What is it?”

The woman tilted her head down, looking at Regina over the top of her glasses.

Uncomfortable with the weight of the gaze, Regina shifted, eyes sliding to Emma – to her unmoving hands.

“Stew.” The woman was stern, but not unkind, and Regina’s mouth was watering too much to respond. “More broth really. It’ll do you good.”

“What about –

“Can’t very well fed her if she can’t eat, can we?”

Regina’s gaze dropped to the bowl in her lap, the rhetorical question hitting her sharply.

“We’ve done everything we can, and we will keep doing that until she wakes. So do as I said.”

She was barely able to cling to her manners, managing to thank the woman and spooning the substance into her mouth in as controlled manner as she could manage. It was warm, the heat pleasant for her still frozen body, the taste surprisingly full of flavour.

Regina had never eaten such a thing before, her mother would frown at such a meal – one fit only for those she said were so far beneath them.

“Dig deeper.” The woman was smiling, amused at Regina for reasons the brunette did not understand, “Won’t get the meat and vegetables if you only swallow the liquid.”

“Sorry,” Regina mumbled into her chest.

The woman just rolled her eyes, tutting softly.

Regina busied herself with eating, guilt twisting beneath her chest that she was having her fill or food and drink while Emma had nothing. Could have nothing.

“Here!” The young girl, Red, came running in carrying a wooden plate carrying two large cuts of bread. There was excitement in her form and eyes, bubbling at the surface. She placed the plate on the table besides the bed and turned to her grandmother with a smile, eager for praise.

“Calmer, Red.” The woman said instead. The girl did not seemed fazed, though her voice was quieter when she turned to Regina.

“Would you like some more?” Red bounced on her heels, so very eager, “I can get more, Granny always makes too much and –

“Not yet.”

“What, why? You said they haven’t eaten and we have plenty and –

“Red…” Her grandmother peered at the girl from over the top of her glasses, her eyebrows raising, “What have I taught you? If someone is starving, you fed them a bit. Then wait. Too much will only make them ill; could even kill them if you aren’t careful.”

Regina swallowed thickly, looking at the empty bowl as if it were suddenly deadly.

The woman laughed. Regina’s gaze shot up, hard at the woman in reflex. That only made the woman smile proudly at her.

“I wouldn’t have given you too much.”

Regina nodded, it shot a twinge through her head. Now her thirst was stated, and she had eaten as much as she was able, she could feel the pounding behind her eyes, tiredness aching at her despite having only just rested.

“Can you stomach the bread?”

Regina blinked slowly, working her mouth for a moment before she could speak, “I want to, but I fear it will turn my stomach.”

“Sleep some more then,” the woman said, standing straight from where she had been bent over the opposite side of the bed.

When had she moved there? What was she doing to Emma?

“It won’t go anywhere.”

“I – not until she wakes…”

The woman pushed her spectacles up her nose, expression unreadable.

“If you rest, you won’t have to wait so long, right Granny?” The girl gathered the bowl but left the plate, and placed the cup back on the bedside table after a brief moment of thought, “I would do what Granny says.”

The girl looked to her grandmother, the woman motioned to the door with her head and, after a brief smile sent Regina’s way, Red hurried out of the door, managing despite her full arms and small frame.

“The bread will be fine, just eat slowly. We’ll bring some more food later, drink as much as you need.” The woman followed after her granddaughter, pausing at the door, “Need anything shout, I’ll be back to check on you both soon.”

The door shut with a soft click.

Regina’s fingers curled hard at her dress, the material rough against her palms.

She sucked in a breath, body and mind straining.

The ache behind her eyes grew, stinging hard as tears burst forth. Her body shook, her lungs compressed by reality crashing down on her.

She choked on a sob, cupping her hand over her mouth to stifle any sound. Emma, God, Emma.

She reached across, gripping Emma’s left hand in both of her own. Her skin was still so cold and pale, her body so still.

It was impossible to remain in the chair.

Still holding her hand tight, she clambered onto the large bed, pressed as close to Emma’s side as she dared – fearing that she may cause more harm if she was not careful. The fear did not stop her completely, perhaps she was just that selfish. She rested her forehead against Emma’s shoulder, the small semblance of normality helping to comfort her, helping to still her tears.

Her hand slipped over Emma’s stomach, above the sheets, relief filling her mind at feeling her steady, slow breaths. Regina sniffed, shifted her head lower to hear Emma’s heartbeat. The position so familiar, though this time, now, there was a sliver of hope deep within her.

Emma would wake. She had to wake. She couldn’t… she wouldn’t leave her on her own.

She had promised –

They had been through too much…

She would. She would...

Emma would not leave her on her own.

 


 

 She awoke later, shock reverberating through her for the a few long moments before she recalled what happened. Where she was. A repeat of the day – night – the last time she was awake.

The blanket covering her and the fire burning to the right of the bed warmed her pleasantly.

Her eyes felt puffy and sore.

She lifted her head from Emma’s shoulder, looking to her face for any sign, any change. But she looked the same as before, not even a subtle shift or a crease or furrow. She brushed her fingertips across Emma’s cheek, shaking at the coldness still firmly there.

With a heavy heart she slowly accepted that the change she hoped for was not there.

“Wake up, please,” she whispered, pressing the gentlest of kisses to Emma’s cheek.

Footsteps approached.

Reluctantly, she slipped from the bed, returning to the chair before the rattling of the door handle stopped and the door opened.

Red bounded in, wide green eyes alight.

It only occurred to her, when she saw the young girl’s cheerful face, that someone had placed the blanket over her and it certainly had not been herself – or Emma.

There was no time to dwell on the flare of emotions still constricting her chest, not when Red rushed towards her with a bowl in hand.

“I’m glad you’re awake, Granny said if you weren’t then I had to wake you. But I didn’t want to.” The girl sucked at her cheek somehow managing to smile, “Granny gets grumpy when I wake her – I thought you might too.”

Though her hunger had returned seemingly more demanding than ever, Regina drunk deeply from the cup beside her, and gave a small shake of her head when Red finished, “No, I do not think I would.”

Regina took the bowl, her eyes flickering to Emma. Would she be as unfamiliar to wooden bowls and cutlery as she?

Then again, she recalled with a smile, on the rare occasion she saw her eat, Emma always used her hands. And how many times had she told her not to use the mounting block as a place to store rolls? Especially the half eaten ones.

Valiantly, she held back the urge to take Emma’s hand – though a part of her could not care less what their audience may think.

She took her first spoonful, recognising by sight and then taste the meal she had yester – the last time she ate. And though her stomach rumbled more, she knew gorging herself would do no good, so she slowed herself in a way she had long ago been taught. It had always been useful in more ways than one.

The bowl was partly filled, as it had been before. Maybe they did not have much to share, but the small amounts added up. And what Red had said before –

“Don’t worry, Granny always makes too much,” the girl chirped, seeing the expression Regina could not hide, and confirm Regina’s memory. “We trade it usually, but you need it more.”

If that was the case, then why the small amounts?

She shook the idea from her head, guilt once again squeezing her heart that she was eating when Emma needed it far more. She remembered what the old woman had said when she voiced that thought, and that was enough to ease the grip of the emotion a little.

“Is it just you and your grandmother here?”

Red nodded, cast her eyes around, and dropped down to settled cross-legged on the rug beneath them.

It was a relief to have her suspicions confirmed she realised as another strand of the knot in her chest came loose. The only two she had seen, the only two she had heard were all there was. Though whether that was a positive remained to be seen.

“We became lost.” Regina wet her lips, ready to try to confirm her suspicion, “Where in Oakenfell are we?”

“Berrington – though not really, that’s further south-east. Granny didn’t want to live in a town, so she said they didn’t.”

They had made it…

When? Why had they not realised? If they had known they were over the border…

Regina nodded, forcing those thoughts away, and taking another mouthful of stew.

“Granny said you’re a gull, what’s that mean?”

Regina’s brow dropped, as did her spoon (though that was lowered carefully). She waited for the common few breaths after eating before answering, with a furrow to her features.

“I do not know.”

Red fidgeted absentmindedly, her head tilting, “Why do you talk like that?”

Unconsciously, Regina realised she had tensed, her back straightening and fingers clutching harder at her spoon.

“Like what exactly?”

“All fancy and funny, and – ” Red dipped her head, dark hair hiding her eyes but doing little to cover her red cheeks. Or the way she plucked at the threads of her dress.

“Red!” Her grandmother came bustling in through the door, hands on her hips, “Don’t bother the girl when she’s eating.”

Red twisted awkwardly to look at her grandmother, and though Regina could not see her expression she could easily picture it from the pleading in her voice.

“But Granny –

“You should be working, not chirruping away like the birds in spring.”

The girl sighed, climbing to her feet in exaggerated slowness as her grandmother, bowl in hand, took the few steps to the opposite side of the bed.

Regina’s appetite fled at seeing the woman looming over Emma, but she forced herself to eat, distantly aware of the door clicking closed.

“Don’t worry,” the woman said, wringing out a cloth, “Just helping.”

The woman looked Emma over, dabbing at her face with the cloth.

Regina’s knuckles grew paler, her hands clutching the bowl and spoon tight, fighting the need to reach for Emma.

Sometime later, with her stomach feeling fuller and her mind far clearer, she laid the bowl aside.

Her eyes had not left the pair, part protective over Emma, the other curious as to what the woman was doing. She would wet Emma’s lips on occasion, and wipe her face, but little more than that.

It made no sense, but her visits to a healer had always been rare, more so as she grew older.

She played with her dress, feeling old manners resurface.

“You have not even asked for our names.”

“They aren’t always important you know.”

She did not completely understand the woman’s meaning, but continued regardless, “I apologise wholeheartedly, it did not occur to me…” Such a simple lesson, one of the first she had been taught, and yet it had slipped her mind? If this had happened at home she would have – it would not have been pleasant.

“You had a lot more on your plate, so don’t apologise.” Regina’s bafflement must have been clear on her face, for Granny added, almost a tad bit too slowly, “You don’t have to apologise, not at all. There was a lot happening.”

Regina’s chin had dipped towards her chest, her tight grip on her skirt relaxing, even though the knot of anxiety still remain tight in her chest.

“I apologise,” she repeated reflexively, “This is Emma, and I am Regina.”

“Good names.” Once again, Regina found herself more than a little confused by Granny’s words, but the lifting of her lips into a smile, and the gentle nod she gave was enough to settle her.

“I know Red’s name, but what of yours?” She asked, truly curious. This woman was caring for them both, had done so for two complete strangers – something she had never thought possible.

“Call me Granny.”

“Granny?” Regina queried, certain she looked a mixture of sceptical and bewildered. Granny just nodded.

Regina exhaled, not understanding nor certain she could manage it. Her gaze found Emma.

Lying there in the large bed, free of the subtle shifts of emotions, Emma seemed small. So young – were they both so young? She would never have imagined that less than a handful of months could feel like a lifetime.

The image of safety, of such strength had been stripped away, and realty was harsh. It was a cutting, bare truth.

It stung.

“Why is she like this?” Her voice cracked. The woman – Granny – looked up, something unreadable in her eyes.

“That’s for her to tell us.” She stood straight, eyes returning to study Emma’s face. There was no audible sigh, but Regina felt it in her words. Her heart seemed to sink lower, what if this was not some passing illness – what if this was something more.

“Unless you can shed some light on this?” The question was not taken as presented, Regina knew when One was prying for information, and knew how to avoid it too. This, though, was not a moment to avoid. This could help, even if the chance was slim and the recall painful.

“We were travelling, she collapsed for no reason. I tried to catch her, but she fell and… relieved the contents of her stomach.”

“Vomiting, huh. Then what? She got up?”

Regina’s throat tightened, a slowly inward pressure that would not be stopped.

“No.” She dropped her head, eyes watching the fidgeting of her hands, “She was much as she is now.”

“How many days ago?” The edge to her tone frightened Regina, made her mind whirl and chest ache with so many possibilities, few of them good.

“I am… not sure.”

Granny’s sigh was heard this time, and for a moment it made Regina flinch, stomach dropping at what she expected to come.

But it did not, of course, but still Regina fought not to retreat. Not to curl into herself.

“She…” She managed after long moments of uncomfortable silence and slowly shrinking fear, “She did wake – at one point. I tried to give her water, but it would not stay down.”

“She was coherent?”

Regina shook her head.

Granny made a sound in her throat. Regina did not look up, but she could feel the sudden tension in the woman. Could feel it like a thick, choking cloud of smoke.

The creaking of the floor boards seemed to echo in the room, seemed to shoot straight through her mind.

She clutched her head, tried to silence the sudden pounding there, but it only seemed to make it worse. The sense of sickness flared deep in her, rising ever upwards.

“You will feel a lot better after a bath.” She chanced lifting her eyes to the woman, swallowing down her nausea. Granny stoked the fire, adding lowly, “And so will I.”

Regina bit her cheek in her effort not to snap back. Thankful for the distraction regardless. She was unsure what the old woman meant by those words, but her tight grip on her emotions was slipping, leaving her flailing for some sense of control.

But she could not risk angering their only chance.

“I will not leave her.”

“No offensive girl, but she isn’t about to go anywhere.”

Regina shook her head, jaw tensing. Granny lifted her eyebrows.

“You are in desperate need of a wash, and I will not let lice into this home.”

“Li – lice?” In an instant Regina’s skin felt itchy, her hair heavy with grease. Her whole body caked in dirt. Her nausea forgotten.

“We’ll deal with those clothes too, I’m sure I have some that will fit you.”

How – how dare this woman imply she was filthy – that they both were.

Though… now she looked she could see clearly where the sleeves of Emma’s tunic had reached, could see where the collar of it ended and left her skin exposed.

“You’ll feel better Regina,” Granny said, her words carrying a warmth and sense of care. Regina’s eyes found her hands again, heart beating harder if not faster. “Trust me on that. Go ask Red to make one.”

She nodded, throat constricted, and stood. Her legs felt weak, almost wobbling as she took one step and another.

She had not left the chair, she realised, save for slipping onto the bed. How long had she been there?

“Good girl.” The praise felt wrong coming from her, though Regina knew it was meant to be kind.

She dipped her head in silent thanks, and with shoulders tense and steps reluctant, did as she was told.

She closed the door behind her, Emma’s still form her sole focus until hidden from view.

“It’s almost ready,” a voice called, finally breaking her attention from solid wood.

Red watched her with wide green eyes, which did not fail to leave her unnerved for reasons she did not understand.

But Red broke her gaze, heaving a heavy pot in both hands from the fireplace, Regina felt a spike of panic, certain the child would spill the steaming contents over herself.

Thankfully, she did not.

Red took surprisingly long strides to the area of the room reserved for the kitchen it seemed – and the thus far unnoticed wooden tub that sat there.

Red carefully tipped the pot into the tub, and once empty stepped back, pot in hand, with a satisfied, “There.”

Red looked to her proudly, her cheeks pink with the force of her smile.

“Your bath is ready.”

Her… her bath…?

“… It’s in the kitchen!” Regina spluttered before she could still her tongue.

“Would you prefer it outside?”

Regina had half a mind to snap back at the girl’s response, until she saw her wide, curious eyes.

“We sometimes have it inside this time of year, and Granny said you’re from a warmer place so we thought it made more sense to have it here – was I wrong?”

“How does she know we come from somewhere warm?” Her jaw tensed, realising the mistake in her wording. The question showing a confusion she rather it not.

Red placed the pot on the study wooden table at her back.

“Granny said that’s why your voice sounds strange.” The girl’s eyes grew larger still, pink spreading across her face, reaching even her ears, “That’s why I asked you, to see if Granny was right. I shouldn’t have. Sorry, I didn’t mean to be mean –I don’t get to meet many people.”

Regina felt a pull in her chest, one that lead her to say, before she could think the words over, “I do not think you are mean.”

The girl looked up at her through dark lashes, eyes containing a mixture of surprise and hope.

Something about her expression made Regina shuffle awkwardly on her feet – so much like Emma it made her chest ache.

“Your grandmother asked me to tell you to make a bath, but you already have?”

Red perked up, her moment of mortification passed.

“If Granny wants something to happen, it will.” Red’s smile grew sympathetic, “Best not to question it.”

“What if…” Regina’s skin felt itchy and dry, the thought of a bath, however bizarre, growing more welcoming by the second, “… someone comes in.”

“Red shook her head, dark locks falling into her eyes, “There’s only Granny and me remember. We’ll be in my room. Just come in when you’re ready.”

Red pointed to a chair at the table, “Granny put some clothes on here, said they’re for you once you’re clean. She said she’ll deal with yours after.”

Regina could only nod, standing still with her gaze on the tub, as Red hurried back to her room with hurried footsteps.

The door closed, leaving Regina only with a steaming bath – of sorts – and a crackling fire.

She bit her bottom lip, glancing around the small room. No trinkets, sparse furniture, a bundle of blankets near the fire; she had never seen a place so… basic – that seemed the best word.

 She shivered, though the fire warmed her.

She could not stand there doing nothing. And, truly, the thought of a wash, even in the thing before her, was growing more appealing the longer she stood there.

And …Granny, the name seemed odd to say even in her mind, is probably correct.

So even though her nerves were bared, and her fingers shook, she scrambled around for a hint on how to take off her dress. It had been so long since she had first put it on – God, how long had she been wearing it?

At last, she found a small tie beneath her collar hidden by a fold in the fabric.

The dress fell from her, her underclothes soon joining it. The expensive material contrasting starkly with the rough, dark fabric of the dress.

She fiddled with her braid, untying it with more than a little difficulty.

She did not hesitate to step into the bath. A sigh unknowingly escaped her as she sunk into the water.

Her eyes fluttered open, the warm water lapping gently at her skin. The tension in her muscles seemed to be washed away, though her concern remained unshifted – and how could it not? Emma was… how could she not be concerned for her? How could it not make her heart ache?

No – now was not the time to fall back into those thoughts. That could wait until she was alone, with Emma. She would wake. She had to.

She breathed out deeply, flexing her toes and fingers beneath the water. She glanced around, but saw no bottles of lotions nor any soaps.

What was she supposed to wash with?

Her hands? And no lotion?

With a sigh she dipped her beneath the water, a challenge with how cramped the tub was and how her body ached – something she had only just become aware of.

She tried to wash her skin, but it felt strange and uncomfortable with nothing but her hands. The water, she hoped, would be enough. She ran her fingers through her hair, tried to smooth out the tangles and knots the water did not loosen. It was not much, but it would help at least.

Her breath caught, as she opened her eyes, her head tilted down.

Bruises large and small that she had not noticed nor felt marred her skin, she looked closer at them, saw with a fast beating heart that bones seemed visible where they had not been before.

She strained her legs, lifting from the water, gazed down at her sides, saw the definition of her ribs. Brushed her fingers over them, felt the solidness beneath her skin.

She dropped back down, water sloshing over the sides of the tub, a sharp lump in her throat. She rose her knees, dropped her chin upon them, struggled to even the spike in her breathing.

She remained like that, until the water turned lukewarm, her mind racing but not focusing on any thoughts.

The once clear water was a murky grey, leaving her unable to even see her hands beneath the surface.

She lifted her head, heavy as if she had been slumbering, and struggled to climb out of the tub.

She hurried towards the fire, holding the bundle Red had pointed out, the clothes wrapped in a towel.

She dried in a hurry, uncertain how long she had spent, the need for rest resurfacing in a demanding press down on her sore body. The need to be with Emma still so much stronger.

She would wake. She had too.

Chapter Text

Warm water splashed over the sides of the bowl as she wrung out the cloth.

She folded it in the neat way she had been shown, and laid it on Emma’s brow. Granny said it would help, Regina did not see how, but she was in no position to question it.

Emma seemed even paler now with the layers of grime and dirt gone. Her lips though seemed pinker.

That had to be a positive sign.

Even so, Emma remained still, to the point Regina had to slip her hand beneath the thick and heavy blankets to feel Emma’s covered stomach. The movement of each slow breath bringing relief for a short while.

When she woke – which she would, she had to – Emma would enjoy a hot bath, just as she had. It would do far better than the minimal cleaning with a cloth Regina had been able to do to her arms, neck and face.

Emma would feel a lot better then.

Regina remained dutiful in her task, even when the door creaked open, signalling that Red had brought her something to eat.

“Here.”

She jumped, her surprise obvious when she looked to Granny. The woman placed down a dress on the cabinet opposite the bed.

It did not look like the others of varying dull colours she had been given, the skin above her nose furrowed, but she maintained her manners, “What is it?”

Granny rolled her eyes, flicking out the material and lifting it up.

“Ah,” Regina breathed, realising.

“You can’t very well believe I would let you continue sleeping in that. Not especially comfortable for you.”

Hesitantly, Regina accepted the plain shift, “Thank you.”

It did not look like any she had ever seen, not just because it was less intricate than the ones she herself had owned. No, the very design of it was different. Like the clothes here in general.

“If you won’t move from that chair –

“I will not.”

“ – you can at least be more comfortable.”

Regina thanked her softly, her gaze returning to Emma.

Regina had been given a few items of clothing now, all too long and a little too wide on her frame. They were still far more pleasant to wear than what she had been wearing up until then, however.

Regina looked to Emma, wiping her brow with the damp cloth.

“Where are our clothes?”

Granny furrowed her brow, peering at Regina as if he had asked something most peculiar.

“Ruined mostly. Not much use at all, probably best to make rags of them.”

Regina’s free hand clutched at her stomach, her jaw tightening.

“They are ours,” Regina stressed, an odd sense of possessiveness driving her. It niggled at her chest, ran over her skin icily. The unfamiliarity of it catching her off-guard.

“And they are almost nothing more than torn scraps.” Granny shook her head, muttered something under her breath and continued, softer, “You can keep the clothes I gave you, might have to take them in or up a bit later. It won’t be so easy to fix what you arrived in though, if I can at all.”

“Emma’s cloak, can you fix that at least?” Regina paused to swallow, “If you can, please. She wouldn’t want to lose it. Neither of us would.”

Granny sighed, then nodded, “I’ll see what I can do for you.”

Regina unclenched her jaw, her back teeth aching from where she had gritted them tight. Granny was helping them, giving them both so much, and now she was making her do this – it did not seem right. She did not like making people wait on her, never had.

“You could always fix them yourself.”

“Pardon?” Her brow twitched, understanding taking her a moment.

“Got too much to deal with,” Granny muttered as if talking to herself, “Don’t have time to sew, do you?”

Granny nodded again, turning to leave.

Regina, distracted as she was, did not register the twitch beneath her hand. Not until she turned.

“G-Granny,” she called unaware.

The cloth dropped to the bed, her hands shaking.

Emma’s brow creased, a tiny mark Regina barely caught, but it was there. And it was growing.

“Emma?” She called, voice high and close to breaking. She cupped her cheek, watched her eyelids flicker as they fought to open.

Her heart pounded beneath her breast, as if it were growing fit to burst.

“Emma?” She tried again, her voice cracking between syllables.

A groan, half-lidded eyes seeking her blindly. Memories assaulted her, fear and panic creeping at what may be repeated.

Green eyes found her, focused though a cloud remained, her lips moved, a strained, broken sound escaping her at a whisper.

Emma’s tongue peeked out, tried to wet her lips, she spoke, voice confused and rough, “Need to get back.”

Regina clutched her hand, still cradling her face with the other, her mind spinning. The pure confusion racing through her veins like ice.

“Before they notice.”

“No one notices,” she said, voice weak at words long ago said. Emma smiled, face growing soft with the increased reach of sleep.

“I would.”

Her eyes closed.

No – no – not again.

“Emma? Emma wake up, you can’t leave me again!” She leant closer, held harder as if that would stop Emma from slipping from her grasp once more, “Please.”

Her plea seemed to work, Emma’s eyes opening further this time. The green clearer, the fog lifting.

“You look different.”

Emma’s eyes grew wide, shining with confusion and something else that had Regina’s heart pump harder.

Emma’s body jerked, hands slamming into the mattress and throwing herself up.

“Where are –

Regina lurched forward, Emma’s words dying as her eyes rolled upwards.

“Emma!”

She fell heavily, body slumping.

Regina felt frozen even as she grasped for Emma, physically and verbally. The panic in her chest returned in flashes, behind her eyes, Emma collapsing, leaving her alone.

She whimpered, a sound she did not recognise as her own at first.

Emma groaned.

Her thumb brushed against chilled skin. She encouraged Emma to roll her head, to face her, needed that contact.

The furrow between Emma’s brows was soothed by the gentle circling brush of her thumb.

Her own breathing was still shaky, even as Emma’s grew stronger and she watched her eyelids twitch, the line marring her face lessening.

“You are safe now,” she said soothingly, voice akin to how she had long ago comforted a once easily spooked Rocinante. As her father had once comforted her.

Her heart clenched, but she banished the thought before it could worsen – she had enough pain to deal with at present.

“I am here.”

Emma’s eyes opened, slowly and only halfway, the green bright and shimmering.

“You are not alone.”

Emma’s gaze remained on her, as if entranced. And Regina, even if she wanted to, could not turn away. Could not break their connection and the warmth that swelled within her. The panic ebbing.

She ran her fingers through golden curls, mindful of the tangles and knots. Emma made a contented hum in the back of her throat.

“When she’s able, she’ll need to drink, and eat.”

Regina tensed, but did not turn.

She had forgotten they were not alone, yet did not feel the creeping sense of dread she expected, nor the prickle of icy fear.

Granny appeared on the opposite side of the bed, bowl in hand.

“Best to be calmed by someone you know than a stranger,” Granny informed, it almost felt like an apology of sorts. It had not stopped the woman from manhandling Emma before, the thought caused Regina’s muscles to try to stiffen again.

She took a calming breath. Granny knew what she was doing, far more than she in any case.

“Come on Emma,” she said quietly, “You need to sit up.”

“Slowly now. Don’t want a repeat of before.”

Regina nodded, already having concluded as much.

Emma whined, but obeyed Regina’s wishes as much as she could. In the end, it was Regina who took the brunt of the work, leaving them seated much as they had when Regina had given Emma the last of their water.

This time, she hoped as she retrieved the full cup beside her, Emma would keep it down.

Regina tilted the cup, and though careful, water still slipped down Emma’s chin. She drank though, Regina could feel each swallow, could feel the weak clutch of her fingers where her dress lay over her thigh.

“Not too much.”

Regina wanted to snap, but she held it back. Granny had been right so far, and though she had not been where she and Emma had, her tactics had made Regina feel better – physically at least.

“Finish the cup, Emma.” She lifted her gaze to Granny who gave her a nod.

Emma did just that, tried to say something but tiredness slurred her words. Her gaze rose to Regina’s, and what she could see there told her all she needed to know.

Emma nestled against her, a croaked but pleased sound escaping her at the stroke of Regina’s fingers along her back. Regina rested her cheek against her head, remained still until Emma’s breathing grew deeper and even.

“The worst is over,” Granny said. And Regina believed her.

The brief moment of comfort though was short-lived. Granny insisted they settle Emma into bed properly, and while Regina had been happy where she was, she did not wish to chance worsening matters.

“There’s something amazing to be sure.” Granny shook her head after helping ensuring the blankets were around Emma, and that no water had spilled upon them.

Even now, Regina was unable to break shift her gaze from Emma for too long, lest she lose her again.

“Pardon?” She replied, curled up in her chair, so close to the bed. Still fighting the temptation to hold and embrace.

“Not common for someone to wake after so long unconscious. And when they do, they don’t tend to keep all their faculties. Seems she has, at least so far.”

Regina’s lips pressed together in a tight line, her teeth gritting even as she watched Emma slumbering peacefully.

“This whole time… you believed there to be no hope.”

Granny did not flinch at the bitter bite of her words. Simply crossed her arms and lifted her eyebrows.

“Never said no hope. But still being whole? It’s common sense.” Her response was clipped, though her gaze remained soft.

The anger, however, took it for pity. Used it as fuel.

She was not to be shielded, nor to have the truth held from her. Granny should have told her. If she had been aware she could have – could have done something.

She cradled her head, winced at the growing spot of pain that formed behind her temple. Spreading behind her eyes.

She forced herself to breath. Out for longer than in. Again and again.

What did it matter? Emma had woken, and save for a brief chilling moment of confusion, she was there. Complete.

She had to be.

“You were in a terrible state, both of you,” Granny’s voice, gentle this time, reached her, “I had to look out for you both.”

Regina’s inhale hitched. She rested her hand over Emma’s own, found her skin warmer than it had been.

Emma’s eyelids twitched, unused to seeing another sleep, it took Regina a moment to realise she was dreaming. The movement, so normal, having been absent thus far.

She understood, how could she not now she had time to breath? But she could not bring herself to voice that, not yet.

“I’ll send Red in with some food for you. When she wakes next call me.”

“Of course.”

She did not look to judge Granny’s reaction, could not bring herself to.

Emma was awake. She was safe, they both were, and now, she could finally have a deep and restful sleep of her own.

She did not however, even if she felt drained emotionally and still physically, she would not sleep. Could not.

Not yet.

Chapter Text

“What happened?”

“I was hoping you could tell me.” Regina lifted the spoon to Emma’s lips, she obliged, opening her mouth and accepting what was given. Emma had put up a fight at first, but Regina suspected she had been too tired and too hungry, which is why it did not amount to much.

That did little to stop the red tint that spread across Emma’s cheeks, however.

This was the first time they could actually speak, for the first few feedings Emma had been too listless to do more than chew, swallow and drink. From the look in her eye when Regina took over that duty from Granny, she suspected she did not recall those occasions at all.

Emma tried to shrug, but her shoulders barely shifted.

“I don’t know,” she answered instead, that familiar little crease appearing between her eyebrows.

“Well – ” Regina lifted the spoon, and Emma opened her mouth “ – what do you remember?”

Emma chewed slowly, an action Regina could tell was a struggle for her to manage.

“I – we were walking, I didn’t feel well, it was like everything was moving slowly, jaggedly, like they were, I don’t know. Just not moving normally.” The furrow to Emma’s brow deepened, growing more severe, “Then… nothing. I saw you, I thought we were – then you were here, telling me to eat.”

Regina abandoned her task, for just a moment, to stroke her fingers through Emma’s hair. Emma smiled sweetly, her eyes closing in bliss.

“You did well, Emma. Remembering all that.”

Emma hummed, trying to shift closer to Regina’s touch but being unable to.

“But we’re not safe, are we.”

Regina started, Emma’s expression and tone having changed so swiftly. She stared across the room, at the shuttered window. For a few long moments all they could hear was the patter of rain outside. Regina gathered herself, quicker than she thought, and answered with certainty.

“I trust them.”

Emma’s eyes did not shift from the window, leaving Regina uncertain as to whether she had heard her. Or believed her.

“Where are we?” Emma asked not for the first time. As before, Regina answered while trying to ignore the budding worry in her chest.

“Oakenfell.” A smile pulled at her lips, a peculiar lightness reappearing in her chest, “We made it Emma.”

“How long have we been here?”

“I… I am not sure, but we are in the middle of nowhere. Red – the girl – she told me the nearest settlement is near an hour away.”

“We have time then.” Emma’s gaze dropped, her fingers lacing together nervously, “I need to regain my strength. I am useless like this.”

“Relax,” Regina soothed, Emma did, though it was not until she raised the spoon, and the distraction promised by food, that the concern fled from Emma’s expression. She was not useless, never had been and never would be.

“I do,” Emma said around a mouthful of stew, “Trust you.”

Regina’s heart fluttered, her smile warm. She felt almost… complete, and a sense of happiness she thought she had lost forever. And she understood Emma’s other meaning in those words completely.

They would have time to figure everything out later. They had that now.

Emma swallowed down the last few spoonfuls eagerly, her eyes so alive.

After a few moments of Emma staring at the dish, she uttered, “I wish I could lick the bowl.”

“Emma! What kind of habit is that?”

The wide grin told her all she need to know. As did the lifting warmth in her chest.

“Really, Emma, what am I going to do with you?”

“I’m sure you’ll think of something.” Emma’s grin grew, her cheeks rising with the strength of it.

“I’m sure I will.”

The door opened, catching them both by surprise. And making them aware of how close they were.

Regina slid off the edge of the bed, returning to her chair. Emma remained where she was, though let slip a sigh as if she had lost something dear.

“You are looking better aren’t you?”

“I feel better if that’s what you mean.”

Granny raised an eyebrow, taking the bowl from Regina silently.

“Be glad I didn’t send Red in, I’m not sure she would contain herself.”

Emma blinked, confusion evident.

“She’s excitable.” Granny rolled her eyes at her own explanation. Folding her arms, her gaze fell to Emma, an odd quirk to her lips, “Never would have pegged you as one from Viadori. Especially with that name.”

Regina pursed her lips, struggling not to correct the mispronunciation.

Emma shrugged, as if Granny’s words had no effect on her, “Wouldn’t be the first.”

“Would have bet good coin you were Oakenfelldian raised and true. Or, hell, even part of the Arthurian Court.”

“The what?” Emma tilted her head and scratched the back of it. More energy in that simple action than she had shown in a significant length of time. It was relieving.

“The Royal Court of this land,” Regina supplied.

“Oh, right, of course.” Emma chuckled nervously, but the old woman paid her no mind.

“Count me surprised.” It was Granny’s turn to shrug, a hand on her hip, “Don’t make no difference either way.”

“That’s… nice?” Emma’s voice lifted, growing high as her creased brow grew ever more severe.

“Call me Granny. Nice to finally meet you, Emma, just try not to be any trouble.”

“How do you know my – never mind, that’s a stupid question.”

“You know what I think of eavesdropping.”

Emma and Regina turned to one another, looks of equal confusion on their faces. More so when Granny’s eyes refused to leave them.

Understanding came to Regina first, tinged with mild surprise. She had not expected such behaviour from her.

At Emma’s continued bewildered look jumping between them, Regina rested her hand on her shoulder. Smiling as Emma calmed beneath her touch.

The door opened slowly, Red hiding mostly behind the doorframe.

“I didn’t mean to.”

“Of course you didn’t.” Granny cocked an eyebrow at the girl, who ducked her head hiding her red face.

Emma watched the exchange, an almost melancholic look of amusement in her eyes. Regina slid her hand down from her shoulder, brushing against warm skin.

She pulled her hand away, startled by her own reaction. It was still so strange to see Emma without her being so covered, but to have such a reaction based on it!

Emma seemed oblivious, attention rapt on the scene before them, as Granny pressed the bowl into Red’s hands.

“So.” Granny’s arms were still crossed, and though her tone and expression were rather stern, Regina had learnt to detect the kindness hidden beneath.

“So.” Emma lifted her brow. Granny gave her a hard look for that, one that appeared to be judging her. Emma seemed unaffected, or maybe the bout of illness was still leaving her lagging behind. Or too tired to care.

“I know you’re names, I know where you are both from.” She stopped as Red reappeared at the door, jug in hand. Regina had not seen her take it, but was thankful regardless. There was barely enough for a sip or two left, and she had not wanted to ask.

She accepted the weighty thing, but as she went to pour it, Emma stopped her. The blond twisted her body, a grimace on her face, and poured her drink herself. It spilled a little, even as Regina held the cup steady, but the drops were quickly absorbed by the thick blankets.

“As I said,” Granny began again, Red shifting through the cabinet at her back, “That’s all I know.”

Regina bit her lip, tried to think quickly, but as her mind fumbled Emma spoke, a determined set to her jaw.

“We had to leave, we had no choice after our mother passed. We had nothing, or little that mattered.”

Regina caught on quickly, even though she did not wish to deceive.

“Mother?” Granny adjusted her spectacles, something flickered in her gaze that Regina could not place.

“We are sisters.”

“Half-sisters,” Emma cut in, barely a second after Regina had stopped, “We lost what little we had, we had no choice but to try to start anew somehow.”

Granny squinted, a slight tilt to her head, “You have a sword.”

“Our father’s – my father’s. He died too.”

“He did.”

Emma nodded. Regina could tell her mind was blank. It was easier than she thought to aid her, to join in the lie.

“He was caught in the Border Skirmishes, the sword was sent back as evidence of his passing.”

“Border Skirmishes? I haven’t heard of those.” Nor had Regina until recently – well, it was not so recent anymore.

Regina held her tongue, cautious of revealing too much knowledge. Especially as she sensed the surprise in Emma too.

“Your mother didn’t teach you how to survive? Basic skills?”

“She did everything.” Emma managed a shrug of sorts, not that anyone but Regina could tell.

But now, with the lie out and grandmother and grandchild seemingly believing it, that feeling of heart tightening guilt returned. Not as severe as when Emma lay there unmoving and cold, but still strong and nausea inducing. It felt wrong to be untruthful after all Granny and Red had done for them both.

But, a voice whispered in her mind, they could not know the truth. Could never know. It would endanger Emma, and herself. And them if they chose to keep it.

No, she realised as the grip on her heart loosened, a lie was preferable. Was safer.

“I’m sorry to hear that.” Granny’s smile was kind, supportive. Red wrung her hands, eyes wide and her sorrow clear to see.

Regina tried to thank them, but nothing left her lips.

“But don’t you worry, I’ll make sure you’re right as rain.”

Emma gulped from her cup, eyebrows twitching in noticeable perplexity. Regina kept her own hidden well, or so she thought.

“Don’t matter, it’s getting late and you both need some rest.”

Emma pulled a face that clearly showed her displeasure – even though her eyes were heavy, as they been during all her waking moments.

Regina took Emma’s cup, a bit of a challenge as the blonde’s fingers had curled tight around it, and nodded her agreement.

Granny pointed at them, lifting an eyebrow, “I’ll know if you don’t. You both need it.”

“Goodnight, and I’m sorry to hear about your, um, mother.” Red shifted awkwardly, clutching at her sleeves, she still smiled though, even if it was tinged with sadness, “At least you have each other.”

The confliction of guilt and warmth in Regina’s chest was jarring, and though it threatened to steal any response from her, Regina was able to manage it, somewhat.

“That is kind of you to say, Red.”

The girl’s smile grew wide, a glimpse of teeth hinting at an embarrassed grin. She lingered there, until Granny ushered her out the room, saying nothing more as the door closed.

Regina shifted in her chair until she was curled up facing Emma. She seemed lost in thought, gazing unfocused at the end of the bed, or where the blankets rose in a slight bump where her feet were.

Regina rested her hand over the back of Emma’s own, knowing it would help ground her, and support her in her thoughts. And, in truth, she too needed that physical contact, almost as if she was reminding herself that this was real. That Emma was there. Dark under the eyes, paler than normal, exhaustion evident; but there all the same.

Emma smiled, turning her head just slightly to meet Regina’s eyes, but it was a short-lived moment of contact.

Regina gave Emma’s hand a squeeze, turning to blow out the candle beside them.

She pulled the blanket further over her, though thought second of it when her eyes slipped past Emma.

“Should I stoke the fire?” It was something Granny had shown her, and though the fire was burning bright and hot she feared it would dim too much during their slumber.

“You gave our real names?”

Regina, her bare toes brushing the rug, pulled herself back into the chair, her expression questioning.

That was what stuck in Emma’s mind?

“Of course…” Regina’s furrowed brow smoothed in seconds, her lips parting as realisation hit her, “I should not have done that, correct?”

“Probably – hey, hey, it’s alright Regina,” Emma soothed, twisting her hand to run her thumb reassuringly over Regina’s knuckles. Regina’s throat was tight, regardless of Emma’s attempts, her heart picking up its pace, “We’re in the middle of nowhere; I doubt they have heard anything. Isn’t that what you said? Implied. One of them.”

There was an edge to Emma’s words, a sharp side that she had attempted to soften but still broke through. Like her panic when she had first realised where they were, and what she had done.

“It was foolish of me.”

“No, no.” Emma smiled, the expression weak through lack of energy, but shining strong in her eyes, “You didn’t know – didn’t think, it’s understandable.”

“You are just saying this to –

“Ah.” Emma tried to tap her on the nose, but missed, poking her cheek instead, “It’s done now. Nothing will change what is already done. It would be like throwing water into the sea. I, err, probably would have done the same.”

Regina sighed, catching Emma’s hand and threading their fingers together.

“But next time.” Emma yawned, wincing a little with the movement. Regina fought the immediate urge to fuss over her, to try to sooth the pain. Emma would not appreciate that, not at the moment, “We need false names.”

“False names?” Regina repeated, her mind blank. Though when it registered it made little difference, she was still unable to conjure up a name immediately. A challenge that grew even greater when she looked to the blonde, whose bottom lip jutted out and her cheeks swelled, clearly deep in a different kind of thought.

It was so much like her younger self that Regina could not fight of a cherishing smile, nor the way her heart fluttered.

“How about… I be Leia, and you be… Wilma.”

“What kind of name is that?” Regina spluttered indignantly, her mood shifting in a blink of an eye, “If anyone should be called Wilma, it should be you.”

“Ooo, getting all high and mighty there, Princess?” Emma lifted her eyebrows, her dimples appearing.

“What, of course not.”

Emma chuckled, the light in her eyes dancing.

Regina puffed out a breath, face turning stern.

“Do not tease me.” She shifted in her chair, pulling the blanket up over her shoulders, “We should rest.”

“Ah,” Emma sighed, choosing to ignore her ‘order’, “but you get all adorable when you’re annoyed.”

Two could play that game, and rather well.

“Be careful what you say Emma, you are not the only one who can goad.”

“Oh really.” Emma grinned, something changing in her eyes that made Regina’s stomach flip pleasantly, “Is that a promise?”

“What is your game, Emma Swan?”

“I guess we will both have to find out.”

Regina shook her head, and gave a roll of her eyes, “You have no clue yourself, do you?”

“Never said I was smart.”

Regina, who just realised how large her own smile was, gave Emma the softest of pushes to her shoulder. Emma simply laughed, the sound lifting Regina’s heart up high.

 


 

Emma grumbled to herself, something that was fast becoming a habit. She was fed often, but the quantities where so small! Just enough to stave off her hunger each time, but nowhere near enough to sate it.

Sure she had lived with worse, was accustomed to it even, but those days were long gone, and she tried not to dwell on them. There were better ways to focus a person’s time.

“They did the same with me, though I was given slightly larger portions.”

Regina knocked her shoulder, taking the empty bowl from Emma’s lap.

She laughed nervously, leaning a little into Regina’s side.

“I, err, said that out loud?”

“Hmm hm.”

Regina placed the bowl beside the jug of water, before sitting back on the bed, shoulder to shoulder with Emma. It had become a habit, though Emma was stronger now and could feed herself, Regina still sat close beside her watching her closely with those entrancing eyes.

The sooner she could move properly, the better, she hadn’t left the bed since she had woken and she was getting antsy, (Granny had brought her a bedpan, though the less said about that the better – really, that was the only thing Regina did not help her with. Or know about).

She fidgeted with her hands, though her whole body near trembled with the need to move, but she daren’t. Not wanting to disturb Regina, or lose their closeness.

“Can’t we at least open the windows?” Emma whined, though she did not mean to.

Regina smiled, but gave a soft shake of her head, “Granny says you have to stay warm.”

With a groan, Emma leant more into Regina’s side, the simple closeness warming her more than any fire or heap of blankets ever could, “I miss the breeze on my face.”

Regina’s arm slipped around her, her fingers skimming over her bare skin. A supportive gesture that was more like a tease to Emma’s frustrated, weak body.

“You will feel it again soon.”

Regina’s lips brushed her forehead, leaving her to murmur happily.

“The bed is too soft.” She could tell Regina was rolling her eyes, she nuzzled closer to distract her, “But you feel nice.”

Regina’s chin brushed the top of her head as she shook her own, a breathy hint of amusement carried in her voice, “Thank you, dear, but you cannot sleep on me.”

“Not yet,” Emma mumbled without thinking, her face immediately burning in the aftermath, “I, err, didn’t mean it like that!”

She pulled away, or tried to, but Regina’s arm remained tight around her.

Regina’s cheeks were dark with her reaction, her smile sweet, “I know what you meant.”

“Phew.” Emma tried to chuckle, “I’m glad one of us knows what I’m talking about.”

They remained like that for a long while, finding needed comfort and reassurance in one another. Contentment flooding through Emma’s body, warming her heart.

She spoke again, sometime later, if only out of habit, and in order to prevent herself succumbing to the convincing call of slumber.

“This bed is too soft.” She repeated.

“I thought we already agreed you can’t sleep on me?”

Regina softly untangled them, slipping back into her chair. Red would be there soon, or Granny, to collect the bowl or bring more food, that knowledge stopped the action from hurting.

When had she got so needy?

Emma shrugged, wetting her lips.

“Or would you prefer the floor?”

Grinning, her eyebrow lifted, which only made Regina raise her own.

As was often the case, Granny had expert timing.

The door closed as quickly as it opened, Granny as usual, straight into whatever it was she had in mind.

“Didn’t think to bring the bowl out?”

Regina’s head jerked a little in her surprise, but Granny gave her a wink and her expression softened.

“Thought you would like to know I’ve finished what you asked me to do.”

That piqued Emma’s interest, she hadn’t heard Regina requesting anything at all.  

“Honestly?” Regina too seemed surprised, which only made Emma more curious. She shifted as best she could, her legs heavy and not responding how they should.

Granny pulled some cloth from the crook of her arm, the material something Emma recognised as soon as she laid eyes on it.

“Is that my cloak?”

Granny flicked the material, lifting it high. With a quick brush of her fingers against her hand, Regina stood to get a better look.

“It needed fixing.” Granny nodded slightly to herself, watching as Regina lifted parts of the cloak to run her fingers over it, or peer closer. “Took a lot of work too.”

“You cannot even tell.” Regina shook her head, and though Emma could not see her expression, she could hear the amazement.

Huh. She rubbed the back of her head, mind a little slow from the grip of exhaustion. Had it been that bad? She couldn’t recall.

“Thank you, Granny. I – we appreciate this, truly we do.”

Granny nodded, a smile tugging at the corners of her mouth, as Regina returned to Emma’s side. She folded the cloak, placing it on top of the dresser.

“You’ll need something thicker this time of year though, I’ve get one you can borrow.”

“Thank you,” Regina said again, politely shifting in her chair, “But I have no plans to go outside yet.”

Granny shook her head, crossing her arms.

Uh oh, Emma could see something neither would like forthcoming.

Granny’s eyes slid to her.

Emma fought back a yawn, her lips pressed together tight and jaw aching from holding it in.

Did no good to try and hide it from the old woman though.

“You need to give her some space.”

“Pardon?” Any attempt by Regina to keep her voice steady failed, the pitch spiking with anxiety, “I will not leave Emma.”

“Regina,” Granny said slowly, giving away no emotion other than solid reason, “The girl needs her rest, and she can’t do that with you by her side day and night.”

“I – I cannot…”

“Regina,” Granny said far firmer.

“I’m fine, really, not tired in the, err…”

Granny shot her a sharp look.

Regina’s fingers were twitching between resting on and gripping her skirt tight. Emma gripped her blankets, biting at the inside of her cheek to distract her from reaching over and stilling Regina’s hands.

“It’s not as if she will go anywhere.”

“I’m sitting right here,” Emma mumbled to unhearing ears. Regina’s eyes grew wide, their focus fading. Whatever thoughts or memories were conjured forth by Granny’s words left Regina visibly shaken – to Emma’s eyes.

Her heart was tight in her chest, beating hard.

“Regina?” Her voice came out weak, easily mistaken for the effects of exhaustion.

 “It is not as if I have…” Regina’s head snapped up, breaths coming fast. “Where is Rocinante?”

Rocinante? Shit, Emma hadn’t even thought. He hadn’t crossed her mind. And it seemed she wasn’t alone in that.

Still, when Regina spoke again, louder this time, Emma’s heart seized. She stepped back though, figuratively, there was nothing she could say. Not in another’s presence.

“Where is he?” Regina’s voice was edging towards a cry, “If you will not allow me to stay by Emma’s side, then I deserve to know where Rocinante is.”

Her hands were in fists, shaking in her lap. They both knew she would regret her attitude later, but for now she could not control the snap of her words, or the anger that encompassed her face.

Granny seemed unfazed, save perhaps for a little annoyance, “Your horse is fine, Red will show you where.”

The floor creaked loudly as Granny went to the door to call for her granddaughter, a little too loudly in Regina’s opinion as she winced.

“It’s okay, Regina,” Emma whispered, when her gaze returned to her. She stretched her fingers towards her, a slight gesture Emma caught. She entwined their fingers, a brief hidden moment that she hoped brought comfort to them both.

“I will not be long.” Regina’s brow twitched, her uncertainty clear and understandable.

Emma smiled, their fingers sliding from one another as Regina stood, and reluctantly headed to the door and Granny, who still stood there looking for Red.

 


 

Red’s footsteps made little sound amongst the others of the forest, unlike Regina’s own.

The girl, for one so young, knew far more than Regina did.

It was a shame, she wished it posed more of a distraction.

It had not occurred to her, as wrapped up and consumed in Emma as she was –

God… how could she?

Rocinante… how could she? He had been her only friend for so long, the only one who would listen and not judge, for so, so long.

“We put him in with the chickens.”

“Hmm?” It took a second for Regina to be pulled fully from her thoughts, and when she did, her expression revealed her horror, “He is where?”

“With the chickens.” Red seemed unaware of the rise of her voice, simply stopping a short distance from the cottage, “In there.”

Regina caught up, rounding a thin strip of trees that she would guess were planted there. They stood out compared to the others.

There was a barn, smaller than any she had seen, and looking more than a little worn.

Red pushed her hood back, her ears pink despite its protection.

It was only her ingrained politeness that stopped her from rushing to the barn door and yanking it open.

She waited, playing with the sleeve of her too long dress, for Red to do what she wanted.

Red opened the barn door, and with it released the sound of clucking and scratching, and motioned for her to follow her – not that it was needed.

“Chickens.” Regina’s comment added nothing, simply existed to fill in silence. Something that felt so unlike her.

Red nodded, pulling the door shut behind them.

“Yes, but don’t mess with that one though,” Red whispered far too loudly, pointing at a plump hen, “She’s Billina. Basically the chicken version of Granny.”

Not the first thing she expected to hear, but something about it brought a smile to her lips.

To the left of the knee high wooden fence enclosing the chickens, were a few empty stalls, save for the one furthest away.

Regina beamed, rushing to the end stall, “Rocinante.”

His head jerked up when he saw her, and he neighed and nickered happily.

“I am sorry,” she whispered as she reached him, climbing up on the bottom of the wobbly stall door.

He nudged at her arm, and obediently, she started stroking his head.

A warm looking rug was settled around him, slightly big though it was. She brushed her fingers over the material, the gesture a surprise, yet a welcome one.

“It used to be Facey’s, but we don’t have her anymore.” Regina turned her head to look at Red, the girl shrugging her small shoulders, “Granny said he’ll be cold, and you didn’t have one, so we used the one we had.”

The rug was certainly thicker than their own, maybe it was a positive thing that they had lost it.

“You had a horse?”

Red shook her head, eyes wide, “Oh no, I’ve never seen a horse in person before.”

Regina’s eyebrows rose at this, though the girl was too busy searching for something to notice.

“Facey was our cow.”

Scratching Rocinante’s nose, Regina tilted her head, taking in the horse – cattle blanket?

“Was she rather small?” It wasn’t as if Rocinante was overweight or oversized.

Red make a sound in her throat, apparently the universal sign of affirmation.

The girl, who had picked up a bucket at some point, went into the first stall and disappeared from sight when she crouched down.

“Have you been good Rocinante?”

He snorted, something she took as a yes. Hopefully they had some sort of grooming equipment here, there was only so much she could do with her hands and fingers. The white patch on his face did appear to be more on the grey side, or perhaps that was a result of the less than bright light filtering in through the propped open hatches.

“What kind of name is Roshinant?” Red stood up, and carefully made her way out of the stall.

“It’s Rocinante, and there is nothing wrong with his name.”

Red lifted the bucket onto the edge of the hen enclosure, and dipped her hand into the contents.

“Seems strange to me. Yours too.”

She lifted whatever was in her hand (seeds?), and scattered it for the hens. Their clucking, which had settled down after their initial entrance, grew loud and piercing.

“Says the girl named after a colour.” Regina snapped, though immediately felt swept under with guilt. She should not have done that, not to a child. Red spoke again before she could apologise.

“It’s not my proper name,” Red mumbled the answer into her chest, cheeks pink.

“Pardon.”

With a huff, Red crossed her arms and lifted her chin, “First part’s Rose. But I hate it so everyone calls me Red for short.”

“Red is short for Rose?”

The girl sighed again, placing her hands on her hips as her face turned redder and redder, “I said it was part of it.”

“Ah, I see.” Regina smiled, fitting together the fragments in her mind, “If it helps, I think it is a nice name.”

Red grumbled, pretending to be focused on throwing food to the hens.

Regina’s smile remained, her chest feeling that little bit lighter. There was comfort in this, something that plucked at the knot of anxiety and loosened its threads. There was only one absence, and soon that would be no more. She pressed a kiss to the top of Rocinante’s head, laughing softly at the tickle from the twitch of his ears.

“What have you been feeding him?” She queried, looking around for some hint of an answer.

“Dry haylage, we had a store of it for the cows, but they don’t need it anymore.” Red sighed, her small shoulders heaving.

“Haylage,” Regina said, hoping to distract the girl from her forlorn thoughts, “That is rather sweet, is it not?”

She would feed Rocinante whenever the chance presented itself, often only during the days of great heat, or when the rainstorms would leave the ground a sodden, mire.

She would give him treats of course, but the true feeds were rarer. In fact, most of her knowledge regarding such came from Emma –

She sucked in a breath, concern gripping at her heart and lungs.

Emma is awake, she is improving by the day. Stop being so foolish.

“Yes, but Granny says he can use some fattening.” Red looked away at that, face pink, “There isn’t much left, which is good. It’s not pleasant when it goes mouldy. We have hay we can feed him after that though, so don’t worry.”

“Thank you for the reassurance.” Regina smiled, which only made Red more flustered. It reminded Regina a little of herself, before she had any interaction with anything resembling a friend, “Thank you for looking after him, Red. We appreciate it.”

“I- I’m glad. I like him.” Red’s smile grew shy, and with fast movements she returned to feeding the chickens.

Regina thought for a moment, looking from Red back to Rocinante.

“Perhaps we can take you for a ride one day.” Regina pressed a kiss to Rocinante’s head when he dipped it almost expectantly, “If you would like that.”

“Oh, very much so.”

 


 

“What time is it?”

“Gone noon.”

She never slept late. Never. She rose with the birds – before even the first hint of the sun.

“You’re teasing me.”

Granny turned, peering at her from over her eyeglasses, “Does this look like the face of a jester to you?”

“But – but I never sleep late.”

“Granny rolled her eyes, muttering something that sounded suspiciously like ‘children’.

“I never – where’s Regina?”

Emma tried to push herself up to her feet, panic laced with determination granting her a surge of strength. A surge that fell flat when Granny pushed her back down with just the tips of her fingers.

“Your main concern first – Regina is with that horse of yours again, Red’s with her.”

Oh, Emma realised, just like the day before. At least she thinks it was the day before.

“It was a pain to convince her to leave your side, even after yesterday. Some sort of stubbornness she has.”

Emma sighed, the tension in her ebbing ever so slightly. They couldn’t trust these people she reminded herself. She couldn’t let herself be put into an even more perilous situation than the one she was already in.

They both had to maintain their guard.

“And the sleeping, that’s your body’s way of healing.” Granny thrust her hand forward suddenly, sending Emma flinching – her arms thrown up to protect her chest.

“You feeling alright?”

Her chest heaving, and her breath caught in her throat, Emma cracked on eye open.

And saw the spoon being held out for her.

“Yes, umm, of course.” Emma lowered her hands, a shaky smile on her face, “I just don’t feel myself is all.”

“Of course you don’t. Now eat.”

A warm bowl and the spoon handed to her still trembling hands, Emma breathed out in relief. At least she had a distraction.

She lifted a spoon full of the murky contents to her lips, Granny nodded at her before leaving the room. As soon as she was out of sight, Emma grumbled beneath her breath. Sure the food was good, but there was only so much a person could eat of the same food.

“I heard that.”

“God!” Emma jumped, painfully jarring her body and missing her mouth, spilling hot liquid on her chin, “… shit!” She cursed rubbing at her chin to remove the stinging substance.

“Serves you right.”

Was that woman physic or something? Not that Emma believed in that sort of thing.

“If you make a mess you clean it up, or fix it.”

“Godda – ”

Maybe it was a wise idea to keep any words to herself, at least for a little while. She huffed instead.

She dug into her meal, aware vaguely of Granny returning.

“Stop that,” Granny snapped with a whack of her wooden spoon against Emma’s knuckles, “Scoffing like that will just make you sick.”

Emma froze, her mouth overstuffed and one hand cradling the other.

The old woman rolled her eyes, hands on her hips, “That wasn’t even the hardest tap I could have given you – now behave or out with the both of you.”

It was an idle threat, but enough of one that Emma slowed down and began taking bites more typical of a normal person – more like Regina.

Where had that spoon even come from? And why was the woman watching her for?

“You need a bath.” Granny sniffed, “Sooner the better.”

She must have narrowed her eyes, or given away her thoughts somehow, for Granny tilted her head down.

There was something really unnerving about the way she would look at her over the top of her glasses like that. Emma shook her hand, flexing her fingers out, before picking up her spoon.

“Someone has to keep an eye on you.” Emma chewed with exaggerated slowness, glad it was far easier to swallow now than it had been at first, “Especially after that last showing. Near choked yourself eating like that.”

“Isn’t anything wrong with it,” She mumbled, steading the bowl in her lap. She didn’t want to waste any if it if it toppled, or experience whatever Granny’s reaction would be.

“She’s right Emma.”

They both looked to the door, one more surprised than the other.

“Regina,” Emma greeted, beaming brightly, her whole mood lifting. It had been boring without her yesterday, and a chore to try to sleep. She didn’t recall her returning, though she must have. All she could remember was Granny waking her to eat, then nothing until now.

Regina swallowed, clear even with the distance between them, her gaze on Emma and Emma only.

Her voice had grown weak by the time the words she wanted to say worked their way free, “I don’t want to see you like that again.”

Averting her gaze, Emma’s head dropped the words biting at her. She bit at her lip, and by the time their eyes met again, she could see the tiredness in Regina’s eyes, and the sad expectation.

“Not my fault,” Emma muttered so only Regina could hear, “Lived with the animals remember.”

Regina shook her head, the fire light catching the shine in her eyes. Her attempt to lift the sudden weighted mood failed.

“Sometimes I just wished you would be serious.” Regina stepped back, turning her gaze away.

“Regina?”

But she had gone, back through the door, leaving Emma feeling cold and alone, even when she was anything but.

Chapter Text

“Regina…?” Emma pushed herself up on her elbows, the difficulty forgotten in her relief, though that didn’t make it ache any less.

Regina had returned to her side. All seemed right.

There was no break in Regina’s stride, however. She entered, closed the door, and did not stop until she was curled up in the chair, blanket lifted to her chin.

Paying no mind to the pattering of disappointment in her chest, Emma tried again, “Regina?”

Regina’s eyes slid to her, face blank and a tightness behind her eyes. An expression Emma recognised, but one that had never – had rarely been directed at her.

The pain, hidden almost from her notice, pulled at her heart. Twisted it like it was in a ragged grip, one that plagued her in her darkest moments.

“I’m sorry Regina.” Her hand had rose, tried to cross the space between them, but she snatched it back, “I’m not sure what I did, but know I never intended to cause you such hurt.”

Regina shook her head, turning to Emma fully, “How can you be apologetic for something you are ignorant to? How can I accept any apology with that standing?”

Emma bristled, though her mind spun with confusion. The reaction contrasting sharply.

“I…” She tried to say, but Regina’s unexpected sharpness, the unspoken words beneath it, stole her words.

The fire flared at that moment, bringing Regina’s features into stark clarity, and causing any anger in Emma to shrink away into the depths of the shadows.

“I mean it, Regina. I am sorry, I never want to be the cause of any pain or hurt in you.” Emma’s breath hitched, catching on a breaking word. She stomped it down, she wasn’t the one in need of comfort. “I swore to be the one to take those feelings away, to protect you from them.”

“You never promised such a thing.” Though Regina was still trying to be firm, her words left her in a whisper, her eyes widening just enough for Emma to notice.

“Well – ” Emma dipped her chin, embarrassment creeping up her neck and tickling in her chest, “ – I never said it out loud.”

“I… ” Emma knew her gaze was hopeful, but she met Regina’s eyes regardless – only for the hope to break when Regina’s expression shifted, “I do not need protecting. Especially without my knowledge.”

“I don’t even know what I did!” She clutched her head, gripping some of her hair tightly.

“Joking about such… things. I have told you before, and yet you still do it!”

Emma’s shoulders slumped, surprise leaving her skin feeling cold.

Joking? When had she –

Oh… oh.

Though her body wished to desperately turn away. To hide. She forced herself to remain still, to remain firm. Her heart thumping.

“I only made a joke to –

“Lighten the situation. I know,” Regina snapped, her eyes shining. Emma’s heart clenched.

“To cope,” Emma finished in a whisper, too distracted to be aware of her answer, not that she was alone in that.

“I almost lost you, Emma! I felt your life draining away and I could do nothing!”

Emma shook her head, reflexively, each beat of her quickening heart painful.

“I did.” Regina’s voice cracked, her arm wrapped around her middle, before repeating in a whisper, “I did.”

Though she tried to control it, Emma could see how Regina’s eyes shone and watered.

“Are you even aware of how long you were unconscious? Of what – what happened then?”

We’re safe now, she tried to say, but her throat was tight, as if it had swollen closed.

“I almost lost you…” Regina curled into herself, forehead almost touching her knees. Emma shook, her hands most of all as she tried to close the distance between them.

“I’m here.” She tried to say it loud and strong, but it came out in a whisper, but with no less conviction, “It’ll take more than that to separate us.”

Regina shook her head, lips quivering even as she tried to fight the tears struggling to escape.

Emma dragged her hand through her hair, tried to hold back from touching. But her words, they did not seem enough.

“I’m sorry Regina, I just – I don’t know how to handle this kind of thing.” Or any of it really, Regina knew that, surely. “Hell, we never even talked about – you know…” Emma trailed off, the implication obvious. And that just made her heart ache all the more.

“I almost lost you Emma. Again.” Emma smiled, sad though it was, tried to convey her emotions as best as she could. “Once almost destroyed me. I… I don’t know what I would do if – if –

She was in Emma’s arms in an instant. Both clinging to one another.

 


 

Come the next day, their brief falling out – if it could be called that – was all but forgotten. What came after though, remained clear, and she hoped that was true for both of them.

Yes, Emma’s light-heartedness was often a comfort. There were many moments it lifted her high, shook of the negative thoughts and the darkness that surrounded her, but there were times when it was too much. Where it hurt to hear her try to make light of what was happening, and though what she had said to start it all was, in hindsight, something so minor. So insignificant. She did not feel embarrassment for it, nor regret, for in the end it brought forth what it needed to. What had been festering inside.

Her fingers danced idly across Emma’s collarbone as she stared unseeing at the shuttered window.

Emma snorted in her sleep, jerking awake.

Regina smiled, turning to nuzzle into Emma’s neck as she smacked her lips and rubbed at her eyes.

“Oh.” Regina sniffed, lifting her head, “You do need a bath.”

“Bath?” Emma’s face scrunched up, her brows drawn together as she was still trying to shake off the grip of sleep.

Regina shifted to sit up, Emma’s loose grip on her waist falling away. She left it though, stretched out on the mattress behind Regina.

“Are you saying I smell?”

Emma chuckled to herself, a little self-conscious, but in good humour regardless.

Regina looked down at her, feeling an odd stirring in her stomach and chest. She sitting in bed, Emma lounging beside her after a night spent slumbering together. She smiled at her own thoughts, knowing now that this was something she could happily let occur every day. That she would like to happen every day. These peaceful moments when it was simply the two of them, free of worries and concerns, free to be themselves, to be together with no weight upon their shoulders.

Regina’s smile grew, Emma was watching her through half-lidded eyes, one arm pillowing her head.

She brushed her fingers across Emma’s brow, pushing aside some mussed curls.

“You need a bath,” Regina repeated, face warm.

Emma made a disgusted noise in the back of her throat, her earlier expression returning.

“Why the sour face?”

“Not exactly pleasant to be neck deep in hot water.” Emma rubbed at her temple, lips teasing at a pout, “Not exactly a common thing for us lower class, you know.”

Back when, she had a bath every night or morn, not so now.

“Then… how did you…?”

She had seen Emma wash, from a bucket of all things, once. In fact that had led to her…

Her face warmed further at the memory.

“You know, cloth washing, or, well…” Emma tried to sit up, eyes lighting with excitement. Her smile growing coquettish and eyebrows rising high, “Or, rarely, skinny dipping.”

At Regina’s continued look of confusion, and more than a little upset at finding out such a terrible truth, Emma’s expression faltered.

Regina spoke slowly, a little shy as always in revealing something she lacked knowledge in, “I… do not know what that is.”

“Oh,” Emma’s grin grew again, her stretched arm drifting forward to play with the ends of Regina’s hair. “Well, it’s when, you…”

Emma gesture with her hand, a short almost wave of it, drawing out the moment with barely concealed joy.

Regina rolled her eyes, though she still smiled.

“Strip naked and jump in the river, or lake, any body of water really.”

“Strip…” Regina’s smile fell, wide-eyed shock taking over. Emma did what? Her mind flew to the large lake in the grounds back home, to the pleasant track that circled it. Had Emma…?

“And not always on your own.”

“What?” Regina shook her head, disbelief and sharp, irrational jealousy swirling inside, and though Emma grinned teasingly, she could tell this was no goad. The latter emotion was soon forgotten, the former demanding her attention.

Was that… did they truly clean themselves like that? Why? Was it common? Was…

Her questions refused to leave her, however. Instead she remained still, lips parted and expression unchanging.

The chuckle that left Emma rumbled deep inside her, not helped by the sudden images flooding Regina’s mind. Images that soon morphed more into visions of what may have occurred if she happened across Emma one day, out on her ride.

The amused sound moved to laughter, bright and strong, Emma’s dimples clear.

“Come on, no need to be so shocked. It’s all good fun, and stopped you complaining about my smell.” Emma winked, but all Regina could do was slowly shake her head, the blonde’s good humour and her ease soon catching.

“I… I cannot believe you used to do that,” Regina breathed, disbelief even in her smile, “Was it not cold?”

“Nah.” Finally, Emma pushed her elbows into the mattress to sit. And though Regina’s hands hovered to help, Emma managed to do so on her own – though not free of a grunt or two. “I could say the same to you. I mean, with hot instead of cold. You know.”

Emma shrugged, leaning against the headboard her expression tipping towards goofy.

“I cannot begin to imagine what it is like.” Well, she could, but not in the sense that it was truly done.

“You know,” Emma said slowly, a familiar glint in her eye, “… maybe we should try it together some time.”

Regina batted her shoulder, the reflexive action causing guilt to seize her heart until Emma chuckled.

“No flirting,” she ordered even though her face was burning, and her stomach warm.

“Hey, I’m not flirting, just stating what we could do. Perfectly innocent. You are the one seeing something more… intimate in it. Not me.”

“And I’m Saint Oria.”

“Well, you do have her beauty.”

“What did I just say?” Regina tapped the tip of Emma’s nose, grinning as Emma grew cross-eyed trying to watch the action.

Laughter bubbled up from her, soon mirrored in Emma’s eyes.

Yes, this every day was exactly what she wanted.

 


 

“I don’t need help to bathe,” Emma exclaimed, spreading out her arms as if to strengthen her plea.

Granny, whose arms had been crossed in preparation for this, raised an eyebrow. Clearly she was not willing to accept Emma’s protests – even when they were feebly disguised.

“If you have it without someone to keep an eye on you, you’ll either freeze of drown before you’re done.”

“No I won’t!” The shout surprised Emma as much as Regina. With a startled widening of her eyes, Emma sat back, struggling to school her expression.

Granny’s expression remained stern, barely shifting, “I don’t want someone dying in my tub, or on my watch.”

“What?” Emma bit back, barely reacting to Regina’s supportive hand on her lower arm, “It’ll affect the resale value?”

“Exactly.”

Emma’s mouth gapped like a fish out of water, which only made Granny’s attempt at hiding her smirk harder.

“Emma,” Regina said with soft insistence. Emma met her eyes, desperation evident, “I understand how it makes you feel, but it is best to be overly cautious than not. Is it not?”

Emma’s eyes flickered with shifting emotions, no doubt recognising her own words and the depth of Regina’s understanding.

The moment between them stretched on, until Emma turned away at last, with a large sigh and her brow low.

“It’s either me or her. I would hurry up before I make the choice for you.” Granny’s eyes held a mischievous glint, one Regina felt glad she could now recognise. Though, bizarrely, she felt the sharp prick of irrational jealous beneath her skin. She scolded herself, and shoved away the feeling.

Emma crossed her arms, her cheeks puffed out before she muttered, “Regina.”

Regina sucked at her cheek to hold in a laugh. The expression and tone lost since their childhood. The memory of it all made Regina giddy.

“See? Was that so difficult?”

Regina gave Granny a small smile, while Emma just grunted.

“No need to rush, I have some sewing to do. And a disinterested granddaughter to teach.”

As if waiting for her cue, Red came through the door with a pout on her face, “Sewing?”

“It’s very important, unless you have plenty of coin to waste.”

Red placed the clothes she was carrying on the cabinet in the room, her eyes growing wide.

“Can’t I learn when I need it? There’s no point learning it now.”

Granny tilted her head, eyes hard over the top of her glasses. Emma had lifted her own pouting face to watch the exchange curiously.

After only a few moments, Red’s small shoulders sagged, leaving Granny with a satisfied smile on her face.

Regina took that as her own signal to move. She slipped her hand more noticeably along Emma’s arm, catching her attention.

“I won’t be here forever you know.” The door shut, and the two voices grew quieter.

“You said you did not want to stay in bed.” Regina lifted her brow, a smile playing at the corner of her lips.

“You know what I meant,” Emma replied, still the petulant child of old.

“Come on.” Regina gestured with a nod towards the still steaming bath, “Before it gets cold.”

Emma slid away from her, breaking Regina’s light hold on her arm. It would have pricked at her heart, if she did not connect the pieces together swiftly.

“Emma…”

But Emma had already swung her legs over the edge of the bed, determination set in her form.

“I’m fine.”

Emma pushed herself up to her feet with the minimal of groans, frozen in place with her arms read to steady her.

Slowly, she looked over her shoulder to Regina – who had found her way to her own feet at some point – raised an eyebrow, and smirked.

A smirk that fell with her first step.

Regina circled the bed in a flash, helping Emma back to her feet. Luckily Emma had managed to catch herself on the edge of the bed, and the rug beside it lessened the impact on her knees.

“It is okay Emma, it is just me.”

Emma’s knuckles were white, fingers digging in hard to the blankets, she stared hard at the rug, her shoulders trembling.

“Emma,” Regina breathed, kneeling beside her, she rubbed a reassuring hand over her back. Emma’s spine prominent against her palm.

Regina swallowed back nausea.

The blonde’s throat bobbed, her jaw tight.

“Emma?”

“I’m fine,” Emma gritted out, pressing her hand to the rub, fighting to stand. Regina slid her arm around her, encouraged her to lean against her even though she knew Emma would challenge such help.

She gave in, or was unable to protest as much as she wished, and somehow they managed to get Emma back to her feet, though Emma’s face burned, hot and angry.

They managed a few more steps, steady enough that Emma felt confident enough to use her free arm to tug free her undershirt.

They wobbled, Emma’s weight leaning too heavily. Regina caught her footing, heels digging into the rug for purchase, Emma released a sound torn between a yelp of surprise and a growl of frustration.

Regina guided Emma back, until she was seated on the foot of the bed. Regina gave her a shaky smile.

“It will probably be best to disrobe seated.”

Emma grumbled, but acquiesced. Or began to.

As Emma’s fingers slid beneath the hem of her undershirt she grew bashful, toying with the material. She looked at the wooden flooring, the tips of her ears burning bright pink.

Regina worried her bottom lip, confusion itching in her mind.

“Emma?”

She twitched at her name, eyes still on the floor but her profile no longer fully hidden. She wet her lips, shoulders tense.

“… It’s different.” For the time it took the words to be spoken, they were gone in an instant. Rushed, yet said so quietly Regina almost missed them.

Emma’s throat bobbed with a hard swallow, her free hand clutching at her knee, her knuckles white. Regina rested her own hand over Emma’s, hoped it would ease the too tight pressure.

“What is?”

But Emma shook her head, batted it all away.

“Nothing,” she said simply, though her face was hot and her gaze, though lifted, avoided meeting Regina’s directly.

She turned away easy enough, got to her feet and faced the shuttered window. Time. Emma needed time; she always had, and Regina had always given it. She had never pushed – or rather made it her goal not to – and yet it still stung.

Rustling came from behind after a few long moments. It soothed her breathing, like a salve to a burn.

“Regina?”

Her breath hitched; Emma’s voice was so small, so unsure.

“I am not angered –

But when she turned she saw her assumption was wrong, a perceived rage not the cause. Emma’s chin was low, her body turned in as if she was trying to hide herself. Regina kept her eyes high, and lifted her hands just slightly, the cue was taken, Emma reaching out with her arms.

It was easier this time to get her to her feet, easier still to get her to the tub. The difficulty came in stepping into it, Emma barely able to lift her leg. But they managed, though Regina’s body ached from when Emma fell into her. Miraculously, Regina had kept her footing, feeling strong in that moment. Or perhaps it was Emma who was weaker. Lighter.

Though, as help to lower Emma into the water her strength wavered, her grip remained though, even as Emma splashed frantically, sloshing water over the tub’s side.

“It is alright, Emma.” The water level was not that high, she had made sure of that – after all Emma was not accustomed to baths.

Emma clutched tight at her, as Regina had held her in her fear not so long ago.

“It is alright,” Regina repeated, rubbing her hand over Emma’s upper back and easing her the rest of the way down.

Seated there, Emma seemed to calm. One hand still clutched to Regina’s sleeve, but Emma almost seemed hunched into herself, her face hidden by her hair and head turned slightly away.

She seemed small, stripped away of the protection and facade of her clothing.

Regina swallowed, unable to ignore the way the fire made the darkness beneath Emma’s eyes more prominent, of how it highlighted the far too deep dips beneath her cheekbones. The definition she always admired too much now, too strong. She traced one, felt the prominence, swept Emma’s messy curls over her shoulder.

“I’m here,” she assured, stroking her fingers through Emma’s hair, untangling knots and tangles. Emma murmured, tilting her head into the touch, water sloshing as she unknowingly tried to push closer.

Slowly, Emma’s shoulders lowered, her breaths calmed. She raised her damp hands to her face, rubbing at her skin perhaps a tad too hard. Regina let her, though she wished she would be gentler with herself.

Regina stayed by her side kneeling, her touch remaining even as splashed water caught her skirt. The brush of her fingers through Emma’s hair supportive, and also reminded herself of Emma’s realness.

Emma’s eyes remained fixed on herself, while Regina’s gaze stayed on her face. On the subtle twitch of her brow, the soundless movements of her lips, the flicker of her eyelids when Regina’s fingers skimmed over her scalp.

There was something soothing about this, even with the obvious reminder of what she had done. What was her fault. Soothing enough that she was startled when Emma spoke.

How long had they remained in silence?

“I’m done.” Sparkling in the firelight, relief was clear in Emma’s eyes. It vanished soon after though, as Regina played with a curl beside her ear.

“Your hair.”

Emma huffed, shoulders shifting as she crossed her arms.

“Don’t worry, I will help,” Regina said carefully, a tightness in her chest.

“You’ll get your dress wet,” Emma protested weakly, “I can do this on my own, it’s an easy thing.”

“Just as you manage to walk here on your own?” She did not want to be cruel, nor remind Emma of something that clearly affected her, but what else could she do?

Thankfully, or unfortunately, Emma’s stubbornness did not rear as she feared it would.

Wordlessly, Emma struggled to push herself forward, there was no break to think, Regina had her arms around her, easing her forward then back so she could lower her head into the water.

She had wanted to offer care to Emma, as she always did for her. To be the one to do the protecting, the one to bring joy to the other. The one to be strong.

This had not been what she had envisioned.

 


 

By the time Emma was seated on the in front of the fire, Regina was shaking. The warmth from the fireplace helped ease it, but did little to stop it. It was pointless anyway, nearly the whole front of her dress was soaked through.

As Emma, wrapped in a thick towel, stared at her outstretched legs, Regina changed into her nightdress – only due to Emma’s insistence. Regina had been prepared to stay shivering and damp until Emma was tucked up safely into bed. As she ought.

She discarded her dress beside the tub, mindful of her bare feet and the wood dark with water, and placed her folded, and slightly dryer, underclothes beside the fireplace.

The cold remained, feeling as if it had permeated her skin, and, still shaking, she pulled her blanket from the chair and dropped beside Emma bundled in it.

She stretched out her arm, holding out the blanket like the trailing long sleeves of a dress, but Emma shook her head.

“I’m warm enough.”

At the disapproving look shot her way, Emma lifted her head as if she could sense it before she could see it.

“Honestly, Regina.”

With a sigh, she let her arm drop, but pressed closer to Emma’s side.

She followed Emma’s gaze when it slid away, a crease to her brow.

“What are you doing?” She leant her head against Emma’s shoulder, “Your feet will get cold.”

Emma wiggled her toes, “I can move them, and feel them, but they don’t want to support my weight.”

Regina freed her hand, brushing her fingers against Emma’s bare knee.

“They will eventually, I’m sure of it.”

“I feel so helpless,” Emma mumbled, low and quiet. Regina strained, but caught the words.

What could she say? She had felt that way too, and yet no words came to her or left her, even as she wished more than anything to offer comfort.

Emma… she probably did not mean to say it, nor let Regina hear it.

She lifted her head, brushed aside Emma’s hair, and brushed the softest of kisses against her cheek.

Warmth covered her hand, Emma’s settling on top of hers.

“When your hair is dried enough, it is to bed with you.”

“Aww…” Emma pouted, her thumb stroking over Regina’s ticklish wrist.

Regina smiled, Emma snuggling up to her, the pout giving way to a cheeky smile.

They remained nestled against one another, warmed by the fire and the body cuddled against them. Emma’s hair was wet, and though strands caught Regina’s neck on occasion, she did not shy away, merely moved them aside, which made Emma hum contentedly.

Regina helped Emma into the nightdress Red had brought in, and wrapped the towel over her shoulders. Still they remained together, until the fire dipped low and Emma’s hair was nearly completely dry.

Again, it was a challenge to get Emma to her feet, even more so from such a low starting point.

They managed, and, once on the edge of the bed, Emma slid her body across the mattress until she was in the centre.

Circling around to her chair, Regina cast a glance back to the tub, and the cloudy water within.

A grumble escaped Emma, and though Regina did not catch the words, she knew the cause.

“Emma…” She said as a way of warning, playful though it was.

Another rumble of discontent, but it was not until she was settled as comfortably as possible, that Emma clearly verbalised what Regina knew was bothering her.

“It’s just too soft,” she groaned, “How could this be comfortable to anyone?”

Regina shot a blank look at her, humour hidden, “Would you rather rest on the floor?”

“Actually, I would.” Emma pushed herself up with minimal effort, face stern in concentration.

“Emma Swan! You better lie back down this instance.”

Emma raised an eyebrow, a smirk on her face as she stubbornly tried to move her weak legs.

“Is that an order, Princess?” Emma’s smirk grew at the catch in Regina’s breathing, and at the way her eyes widened and cheeks heated.

“You…” Regina paused for a moment, her expression smoothing. Had they not been over this earlier? “You think flirting will work?”

“Flirting?” Emma chuckled, taking her mind off her body which still refused to obey her commands, “Whose flirting?”

Emma leant over as far as she could. Regina basked in the warmth of her skin so close to her own. She missed this, the closeness untainted by the fear of capture, by the awareness of danger snapping at their heels. For the first time in a long while, she felt free.

Regina’s fingers were soft against Emma’s cheek, brushing along the curve of her cheekbone down along her jaw. Regina closed the distance, as always. Her breath ghosted across her lips, then further, Regina’s lips a tender caress against Emma’s cheek. She barely fought back a groan, Regina’s laughter a teasing tinkle.

“Rest.” Regina pulled back, returning the distance between them to what it once was. Her hand slipped down, trailing heated sensations from jaw to shoulder to arm. At last, her fingers stilled, twinned with Emma’s own. “Rest,” She repeated, “Or… I’ll tell Granny.”

“You wouldn’t dare,” Emma replied, voice low and filled with as much menace as she could muster.

“Oh.” Regina smiled, Emma’s eyes drawn to her full lips despite herself. Her smile grew at the action, her cheeks a little darker, “Wouldn’t I? Or would you prefer I be sent away for stopping you resting again?”

Emma wet her lips, and laid back down.

 

Chapter Text

Regina set down their bowls on the bedside table. A gooey almost milky mixture for her, and the usual stew for Emma.

The morning light was gentle, and though it lit the room well enough, the fire still burned, its warmth a constant need here.

Emma stretched, yawning widely. There was no flinch or flicker of pain, making Regina’s elated smile grow as she basked in her contentment. Emma met her gaze, her smile lopsided and sleepy.

“Full?” Regina asked, recognising the expression from long ago.

Emma hummed, not that Regina needed the confirmation.

“So…” Emma drawled sometime later, not that the silence had weighed heavily on them.

“… So.” Regina tilted her head to face Emma more fully.

“What’s it like out there? I mean – ” Emma gestured sluggishly to the window. It was not shuttered, but the wind and the calls of nature were still muted, “ – beyond the little I can see.”

“Much the same.”

Emma’s lips twisted, almost as if she was disappointed.

“Honestly?”

And though they had already discussed as much, Regina answered regardless, “Beyond this home is nothing but trees. Not that I have ventured far.”

Emma stretched over to grab her cup, Regina successfully held in her sigh, and the scolding that tried to fall from her tongue. She tried to assuage Emma’s concerns instead, “I have seen no one else since we arrived here.”

Emma’s eyes flickered down and away, the light humour in her form gone in a split moment. It made fear creep in Regina’s chest.

“Emma? She tried with a slight waver, “Emma, what is wrong?”

She expected her to shake it off, to try to distract with a smile or a joke, even with their disagreement still so recent. But the expression remained, dark and unreadable.

“I don’t know whether that is a good or a bad thing.”

Regina shook her head, stroking her fingers across Emma’s forearm.

“Let us think positive, for the moment.” Neither of them believed her answer, if it could be called that, but she hoped they would be willing to try. At least until Emma was better.

Emma moved abruptly, trying to slide herself across the mattress, stopping only when Regina rested her hand on her shoulder.

“I want to try walking again.”

“Emma…” It had only occurred to her recently how much she was sounding like a parent. Or what one should sound like, “We already had a session today. Granny said –

“Not to push myself. I know. But how can you get better if you don’t try at every opportunity? You get kicked by the horse, you go charging back in. It’s still only morning.”

“I do not want you falling on me, not again.”

The beginnings of a smile faltered and fell. She caught Emma’s hand, lifted her own to her cheek. The hesitance was short-lived, and Emma’s hand soon settled over hers. She tilted her head into their joint touch, smile sad.

“I won’t, not again.”

“You should never promise what you cannot –

“When I make a promise, I intend to keep it.”

Emma’s eyes shone, the greens vibrant and strong, like the new shoots of spring. There was no holding back, even if she wanted to.

Their lips met, emotions palpable. Regina reminded of an old idiom about sealing a promise. Her hand slipped back, threaded through soft curls. The gentle press of lips turning into a slide, her eyes stinging with the strength of it all. Her body warming.

A whimper, Emma’s fingers brushing the sensitive spot above her collarbone, where a mark once sat. She shivered with the memory.

Emma cupped her chin, softening their parting.

Her lips tingled, and though her face burned it did not hurt.

“I promise.”

The emotion made her throat tight, their arms circling one another in a tight hug. A hug they did not break for a long while.

“We best be good, Red has warned me of Granny’s crossbow.”

“A crossbow?” Emma scratched the back of her head, her brow knitting.

“I thought you would be the one to know what that was.” Regina raised an eyebrow, suspecting what was forth coming.

“Of course I do,” Emma huffed, folding her arms, “The knights back hom – in Viadori don’t typically use them, they prefer composite bows for their size. But I know of them. Their this single handed thing that –

Regina rested her hand on Emma’s forearm, bringing her words to a quick halt.

 “I know what it is, Granny explained it to me.”

Emma hid her pout well, though not well enough to go unobserved.

“Then why did say you didn’t know?”

“I did not. You simply inferred it.”

There was no hiding her pout this time, Emma’s bottom lip jutting out in an overdramatic, exaggerated manner.

“Emma…” Regina ran her hand along her arm, hoping her smile belied the playfulness she intended.

Emma huffed, eyes slipping away as her cheeks reddened.

“I like telling you things,” she muttered.

Regina’s brow furrowed, just a little. She and Emma were always talking, always sharing, what did she mean –

Ah, it all fell into place.

“Oh Emma.” Her hand glided upwards until her palm rested against Emma’s neck, her skin hot beneath her touch. Idly, her fingers played with blonde curls.

Emma tensed, her eyes closed, then relaxed with an exhale, shifting until their sides pressed against one another.

She tilted her head, closer to Regina’s own, an odd little sound escaping her before she spoke.

“Makes me feel like I know something.”

Her words were low, but the distance between them small enough for Regina to easily catch them. Understanding, however, took that little bit longer.

“Oh Emma,” she repeated, a little breathless. Her free hand had settled on Emma’s own, rubbing tiny circles against warm skin, “Never think that.”

“That I know something?” Emma chuckled, the sound forced.

Regina cupped her cheek, encouraging Emma to turn her head until they were facing, the fingers of her hand still playing soothingly through her hair.

“That you are not wise.” Their closeness pulled at something deep within Regina, affected her more than she would have thought, “You are the smartest person I know.”

“You don’t know many peo – ”

“Emma. Don’t.”

Emma was the first to look away, shining eyes focused on her hands as they fidgeted in her lap.

Regina’s fingers slipped from Emma’s hot cheek, resting over her twitching hands. Her gaze dropped to her lips, far pinker now, back to how they should be. The clever tip of Emma’s tongue appeared, wetting her bottom lip. Her throat grew dry, her legs, one resting over the knee of the other, tightened.

She looked to the window, now so conscious of where their bodies touched. Even more conscious of where they did not.

“So… the crossbow.” Emma’s voice was rough against her ear, like it had been weakened by – her head snapped back, lips parted, “Why a crossbow? I mean, she’s just an old lady in a cottage.”

“Granny uses it for hunting.”

Regina snatched her hands away, both of them jumping to separate, though the distance they could claim back was minimal.

“How long have you been there?” Regina snapped. Her stomach dropped, both in shock and in sounding so unlike herself.

She sucked in a breath, standing to move to the window, her hands running over the skirt of her dress.

“Not long. I didn’t mean to listen in.” Red wrung her hands, though Regina was too occupied with breathing in fresh air. On cooling down.

“I am certain it was unintentional,” Regina said as a way of flustered apology, her heart still beating a fast tempo.

The girl beamed back though, smiling as she looked to Emma, “Granny does snares too. More often actually. I think she prefers them. Oh and also deadfall traps.”

She shut the door, and gave a short shake of her head.

“But that isn’t why I came to say good morning.”

She took a few steps towards Regina, playing with her sleeve.

“It’s a nice day today, I was wondering if you want to help me with the garden, Regina?” Red’s hand dropped from her sleeve, her confidence growing, “After you have tended to… Rocinante.”

The girl’s face remained creased in concentration for a few moments after her sentence, then pride enveloped her. Admittedly, it had taken a while of her repeating the syllables of his name for Red’s pronunciation to strengthen.   

Regina raised an eyebrow, the return of her bright mood making her playful, “You mean you want me to do your chores for you.”

“What? No. No.” Red shook her head vehemently, the teasing she intended registering before her guilt grew.

Emma was watching her curiously, a strong smile on her face.

“Oh…” Red’s lips tilted up, a small relieved laugh leaving her after a moment.

“When do you need my help?”

“Not yet, I just wanted to ask first.” The rest was unsaid, the girl’s face growing redder.

“I do not think you are rude, Red, how many times do I have to tell you.”

Red shifted her feet, smiling even as she remained flustered.

“You seem fine to me,” Emma said with a shrug, “Hold your head high.” 

Red’s gaze jumped to her, the uncertainty in her eyes giving way to a large smile, “You look really well.”

It was time for Emma’s cheeks to darken, she dipped her head and plucked at the blanket, “I just wish I was allowed to move around.”

“I can help,” Red chirped, near bouncing with excitement, “And when you’re better I can show you around!”

“That’s kind, Red, but –

“Red!”

The door opened, startling all three of them.

“What have I told you?” Granny sighed in aggravation, fists on her hips.

Red’s head ducked, the tips of her ears pink, “I know, Granny, I just…”

The girl shifted her feet, Regina’s chest ached, a glimmer of fear in her chest. She had seen such reactions in herself long ago – it never ended well. And though she knew that would not be the case here, Regina could not shake her fear.

“I know.” Granny shook her head, gave another sigh and patted her granddaughter on the shoulder, “Go start your chores.”

Red, though embarrassed and more than a little dejected, still gave them both a smile before she left the room with somewhat slow steps.

“Now,” Granny said once the door had closed, “To keep you still.”

Emma folded her arms, jaw tense, “How can I get better if you won’t let me try?”

“You can try, but not exhaust yourself. You already had some practice before the morning meal – ”

“How do you know that?”

“ – You can wait until this afternoon. Pushing yourself will do no good, we are not going back to how you were.”

Though Regina’s instinct was to protest, politely, Granny’s last words struck a chord in her. She was right, they should not risk doing anything that could make Emma worse, or make their progress diminish. And though a little more practice would likely not have that much of an impact, Regina could not bring herself to risk it. She could not let Emma return to the state she had been in.

God – the memories themselves still constricted her lungs and heart.

Emma’s fingers curled tight around her biceps, the only shift that gave anything away was the subtle tremble in her bottle lip.

“This afternoon, Emma.”

Emma turned to her as soon as she spoke, her eyes softening even as all else remained tense. She huffed, eyes slipping to Granny, or rather the spot beside her face.

“Fine. This afternoon.”

“Good.”

They both jumped when something hard landed on the bed.

“Take that,” Granny ordered with a point at a leather bound book.

“Me?”

“It’ll keep you occupied.” Granny lifted an eyebrow, “And maybe you’ll learn something useful.”

Emma tried to work her mouth, accepting the book by reflex.

“So, Emma doesn’t need rest now?”

“ ‘Course she does, but not so much. Keeping her mind active should keep her out of any trouble.”

“You clearly do not know her,” Regina muttered, growing embarrassed quickly when she realised what she had said. She reached over taking the book from Emma’s lose, twitching hold.

The Portable Herbarium By The Foremost Herbārius Of Oakenfell.

“How can a book on plants be of any help?” Flicking through all she could see where various shrubs and grasses, nothing like an apple tree or grapevine.

“Knowing what herbs can be used for is a very useful skill, and maybe it’ll stop this one eating something she shouldn’t.”

Regina looked up from the pages, remaining still for a few long moments. The book closed with a dull snap, “Pardon?”

“Err…”

Emma’s face was even redder, though she still maintained the beginnings of wide eyed panic.

“That’s what happened to her, ate some berries that she really shouldn’t have.”

“Berries?” Regina’s questioning gaze remained fixed on Emma, but Emma remained staring at the book.

Berries did that? That made little sense.

It did not take long for the weight of her gaze to bare down on Emma, and though guilt rose in her chest, it was nothing compared to the need to know just what happened. To know if she could have helped, if she could have stopped it.

“I, err… when I got you something to eat I saw some – only a few – I ate them so I could keep going.” Emma chuckled apprehensively, “I did think to give them to you too. Or share them. Glad I didn’t now.”

Regina searched her memories, jumbled as they were of the later days of their travel. It took her longer than she would have liked to place Emma’s words.

“Granny said it was those that made me ill.”

Her confusion must have shown, for Granny interrupted.

“The book will tell you all you need to know.” Regina turned her gaze to her slowly. Granny folded her arms, “Those berries are poisonous, luckily she only ate a few.”

“The birds were eating them,” Emma tried to justify, though her voice was weak. Her knuckles pale from her grip on the book.

Granny took their empty bowls, giving her a smile that hinted toward some sympathy.

“Just because birds can eat something doesn’t mean humans should.” Granny shook her head, Emma’s simplistic view catching at them both, “Shame you had to learn it the hard way.”

Emma’s mouth moved in a few subtle motions, but even with as close as she was, Regina could not hear a word.

“Make sure you do look at it,” Granny called over her shoulder, her tone reminding Regina of her old teachers, “I will be checking.”

The door closed, leaving an uncomfortable air in the room.

She looked to Emma whose expression and form tugged harshly at her heart. Her fingers trembled and heart pounded, each beat carrying a dull ache.

“Regina…” Knuckles white, Emma lifted her panicked gaze to her. “What do I do?”

The pure fear in Emma’s words twisted in her chest and stunned her thoughts to a halt, leaving words tumbling unthinkingly from her lips.

“You could tell her – ” She regretted the words before they had fully left her. Regretted them impossibly more when Emma’s breath caught and she seemed to curl into herself.

Clearly, she recalled Emma’s flustered confession, her uncertainty and self-consciousness. And her own reaction. She still could not understand it, but she still wanted to help if Emma would let her.

“I should not have said that.” Regina sighed, agitated by herself. By her lack of thought, by the loss of her careful consideration of all her words.

“People assume others are like them, know what they know,” Emma babbled, deaf to Regina’s words, her fingers tapping against the solidness of the book, “They don’t think, can’t possibly think, everyone must be like them – ”

Regina cupped Emma’s hands, stilling the insistent tap of her fingers. Emma fidgeted still, eyes flittering around the room.

Regina stayed firm and patient, stroking her fingertips across Emma’s hands as the blonde slowly calmed. And, surprisingly, she did too.

“It is alright, Emma.”

Emma shook her head, chin and shoulders low.

“It is.” Regina bit her lip, struggling a little as to whether she should voice her thought or not, more so after her previous slip.

“It is not your fault. And you have – do try, on your own no less. That is so remarkable. Your strength is to be admired.”

A short bitter chuckle escaped Emma, a sound full of self-deprecation.

Though it hurt her to do so, Regina realised another tactic was needed, and there was no waiting if she wanted to retain her conviction. Though her comforting hold remained.

“If you insist on thinking so lowly of yourself then I will just have to do the same.”

Emma lifted her head, an almost hidden furrow between her worried eyebrows.

“What?”

“I am certain it would be far more straightforward to simply agree with you then to squander my time deliberating.” Emma lifted her head a little higher, the distress from earlier almost entirely gone. “Or perhaps you enjoy it? Having your egotism fed. Maybe you bask in the attention –

“I’m not like that!”

Regina smiled, shocking the indignation from Emma with a quick kiss to her cheek.

“There you are,” she whispered, breath tickling a red tipped ear.

“Err…”

She slipped her fingers beneath Emma’s chin and gently encouraged her to close her mouth.

“What is done is done, correct?” Emma nodded, emotion stirring in her eyes upon hearing her own words repeated back to her. Surprised too, perhaps, that someone cared enough to listen and remember.

“I do not know why you were not taught, nor why you did not tell me – I would have helped. But you have tried, and succeeded to learn on your own.”

There was a shine to Emma’s eyes, one that revealed her presumption had been correct. Emma’s hands turned, gripping hers tightly, “You do not have to be embarrassed or ashamed – not for anything. Do you understand?”

“Only if you take your own advice.”

“Pardon?”

But Emma did not answer, she just maintained their contact, both physical and emotional.

Regina understood, after the initial surprise, and Emma knew it.

After a few moments of comfortable silence and basking in their connection.

“We shall read it together. I am sure it will be of benefit to us both.” She drew back, brushing Emma’s hands to the side and opening the first page, “And not just because it will keep you from fidgeting.”

Emma nodded, dimples clear with her smile.

She flipped to the first page displaying a stream of writing, and intricate drawings of a plant on the opposite page. It was not beyond her notice that some of the pages were dog-eared. Perhaps it would be beneficial to look at them next.

“Well, Emma, let’s begin.”   

 


 

With a growl of frustration, Emma threw the book down in her lap. It was no use trying to read it without Regina there – despite her help, the words were far too long and complex, she would never be able to learn to read them.

“I’m going mad here,” she muttered to herself, shifting in her seat. God, how does Regina manage to sleep in this thing?

Gritting her teeth, she glanced down at the book. Flaring her nostrils, she quickly changed her mind and began flipping through the book again, the words a blur of letters that soon grew to be nothing more than lines and shapes. She rubbed at her temple, her gaze focusing on the pictures instead. At least she would be able to recognise the plants, even if she didn’t know the names… or what they did.

What’s the use? She thought grimly.

At least she wasn’t stuck with the same old stew now. Not that she would stick her nose up at anything, especially not something so filling, but she was getting a little jealous of what Regina had been eating. Childish she knew.

She stretched her legs out, and let out a long, low sigh.

Well, she flicked to the beginning of the book, at least she could look at the ones she and Regina had read together, and try to remember what it said – what it was called if she was feeling exceptionally quick.

Regina would be finished with Rocinante, or with helping Red soon. Then they could carry on with this headache inducing thing, if only because they had nothing better they were able to do.

And it did keep Granny off her back.

 


 

It was colder outside the bedroom, though still warm even with a greater space for the fireplace to heat. Regina was used to the difference now, minimal though it may be. Even so, and though Emma insisted she did not need it, Granny made her wrap her cloak around her. If Emma refused, Granny had said, then she would be given a cloak more suitable to Oakenfelldian weather. With a grumble beneath her breath (which naturally, Granny caught) Emma had accepted her own, thinner cloak.

Regina had been pleased, Emma would be kept warm as Granny said she needed to be, and her scent would return to the material. Pathetic as it may be, Regina found comfort in it, and often snugged up to it at night. It made Emma smile with reddened cheeks, and that lessened her guilt.

Conditions aside, Emma was glad to be free of her confinement, and overjoyed at stretching her legs. Though that had taken time, and she had aided Emma the entire way. Now she had found her footing again, Emma had begun commenting on how she needed to regain her strength.

Regina had been surprised the first time she had been presented with something other than stew, invited to the table after a day of helping Red with the chickens and grooming Rocinante. Of course they had no specialised grooming tools, just a brush with stiff bristles and another wire brush that was too long for a horse. But she made do, and though it was difficult work, Rocinante seemed brighter and it lifted her mood as it always had.

Emma meanwhile, grew edgy, wanting to see more than the walls and the view from the windows. Though in private, without her defences as high, Regina could see there was more to Emma’s need than wanting a breath of fresh air. They had been here for a long time, though neither knew nor asked how much time had passed. Emma buzzed with energy, Regina could see the shine in her eyes, the sudden sharp movements, like a cornered animal looking for escape.

And though, over time, Emma seemed stronger – though her comments about her lack of strength grew no less common – Granny still refused to let her out. Even with how Emma’s complaints grated on her, Granny stood firm.

Today, much as before, was one of those days.

“If you want something to do, you can help Red dig up the last of the vegetables.”

“I’ll help,” Emma cut in, already pushing her way up to her feet.

“No you won’t.”

“Granny…” Emma groaned, still standing though her shoulders had slumped.

Regina, as much as she wanted to support Emma and be near her, soothed her fingers over a tense forearm instead. Resisting the urge to take her hand as challenging as always, “Granny is far more experienced in such matters.”

“I don’t care,” Emma whined like a petulant child. Red shifted her feet agitatedly, eyes no longer wide at an exchange long repeated. Emma spread her arms, her eyes pleading, “I’m fine.”

“I’ll be the one to tell you when you’re well.” Granny placed her knife down, and leant on the kitchen table with both hands, “Or do you want a repeat performance?”

Emma glared at the old woman, but complied when Regina encouraged her to sit back down. Though her jaw remained clenched, Regina could positively feel the energy brimming from her skin.

“It won’t be for much longer, Emma.” The blonde grumbled, but gave a sniff nod of acknowledgement.

She did wish she could stay with Emma, but she had also found a pleasure in her work. The vegetable garden, small though it was, had little left, thanks in part to her. It had surprised her how much she enjoyed such work. Perhaps it was due to how manual and dirty it was, rising a glimmer of rebellion deep within her. Perhaps it was something she was simply meant to do, like horse riding, perhaps she was a natural – as Emma said. Or perhaps it was because it was something new. No matter which was correct, she found a happiness in the feel of soil beneath her nails, and the knowledge that she was helping those that helped them so much.

A huff broke her from her thoughts.

“Emma…” She tried not to show too much amusement at how Emma puffed her cheeks out, or how her bottom lip twitched with the effort not to pout, “It will not be for much longer.”

The repetition seemed to do what she hoped it did, Emma sank back into her chair and breathed out slowly.

Regina wanted to press a kiss to her burning cheek, but held back, conscious of how that may appear to the grandmother and grandchild opposite.

They were – she was, and hoped Emma was, comfortable here, but not comfortable enough to feel safe in such actions. Cover story or not.

Emma’s fingers brushed against the small of her back as she stood, ready for another morning of work.

Chapter Text

“Why can I never go out?” Emma stood as if to strengthen her demand, by the jump in Regina’s arms it was too quickly for her liking, “I’m better now, maybe even better than before. You can’t keep me in here like a… a prisoner!”

“Emma…” Regina said trying to calm her, when she barely twitched, Regina rested a soothing hand on her arm. Yes they had talked about this – about her frustration – and yes Regina had convinced her it had to be for a good reason. That she needed to wait it out, that it wouldn’t be much longer.

But goddammit! She couldn’t cope any longer. Had barely been coping as it was.

Her eyes slipped to Regina, and though her anger remained, she tried to show Regina how sorry she was for failing to keep her promise.

And to think, she prided herself on keeping her promises – on keeping those she made to Regina.

“Not until you’re better,” Granny said not for the first time.

“I am better!” She ground out, ignoring how Red busied herself with something in the cupboard and Regina drew closer.

Granny banged her hands down on the table, sending cutlery jumping. It seemed whatever was keeping her temper bound had finally snapped, shocking Emma into floundering.

“You want to go out? Fine.” Granny flipped a cloth over her shoulder, fists on her hips, “Go get some eggs with Red.”

Emma’s eyebrows shot up, her mouth opening in genuine surprise. She never expected Granny to actually let her outside, even when her frequent complaints turned irate.

She made some faint sound, completely still as Regina’s fingers relaxed against her and Red rushed past.

She didn’t move until Granny left the table and returned to stand in front of her.

“Now, put this on.” Granny held out some heavy looking cloak. Emma took one look at it, her upper lip curled. Ah, so that was what she would have ended up wearing if she refused her own cloak.

“No thank you. I’ll stick with mine.” She strode to the door to unhook her own and through it on, fastening it with practiced fingers.

“Well, it ain’t that cold yet.” Granny shook her head, muttering something else under her breath.

Red was already prepared, a basket resting in the crook of her elbow.

“Soon as it is, you will wear that one,” Granny informed, hanging it back up before stepping back with her arms crossed.

“Sure, if you say so.” Emma shrugged, knowing it was unlikely she would ever have to wear something so weighted. She couldn’t imagine it was that much colder here.

“Ah, no you don’t Regina. Three people’ll startle them too much.” Emma peered over her shoulder, noticing Regina had appeared just behind her. “You can stay here and help me with some chores.”

Regina’s brow furrowed, barely noticeable to anyone else, a familiar sign of a rising protest. Yet to Emma’s shock, Regina’s forehead smoothed and her mouth closed, barely a sigh leaving her.

“Of course.” She turned to Emma immediately, fingers skimming her sleeve, “Greet Rocinante for me.”

Emma grinned, unable to stop herself or the brief chuckle that escaped her, “ ‘Course I will. Though you know you can come say hello yourself after, right?”

“Sure you can,” Granny called over her shoulder, busy looking for something in the kitchen cupboard. Or perhaps checking Red hadn’t misplaced anything, “After all the work is done.”

Regina shifted forward on her feet, than back on her heels, holding back from something. It was easy to guess what. As a sort of compensation, Emma brushed her fingers against the hand on her sleeve, and gave it a comforting squeeze.

“We won’t be long.”

“I know that.”

Regina’s cheeks darkened just barely noticeable, her eyes sliding away to focus on the kitchen table.

“Unless Billina is in a foul mood again.” Red appeared by their side, eyes as wide as her smile, “Or fowl mood.”

Regina held back with a laugh, “That’s terrible.”

“Made you laugh though, so it’s got to be funny,” Red boasted, smile becoming a grin.

Emma shook her head, completely baffled. Only knowing that they were the only people there stopped any panic from rising in her chest. That and the excitement she felt to finally be free of the walls of the cottage for even a short length of time. And, of course, Red and Regina’s banter combined with it to make her lips lift.

“Only because of how bad it was.”

Emma held out her hand, gesturing with her fingers to the basket. Red shook her head, cheeks turning pink.

“It’s alright, I can carry it.”

Out of the corner of her eye saw Regina watching them closely, her expression indecipherable from the angle.

“If you’re certain. Now,” Emma began as she opened door, a small gust of wind hitting her face, “Who is Billina?”

 


 

“We’ll feed them, and when they’re distracted we’ll see if there are any eggs.”

Emma nodded, already distracted herself by her new surroundings and the loud nicker rising above the scratching of chickens.

Red swapped her basket for a bucket as Emma wandered over to Rocinante, her nose twitching. This place didn’t carry the familiar scent of fresh hay as her home did, but the barn was comforting in its vague familiarity.

“Hey Rocinante,” she greeted, giving him a scratch behind the ears. He looked a lot better than the last time she had seen him, happier even, “Regina will see you later.”

He huffed, ears twitching.

“You have gotten plump.” She chuckled softly, “Good thing really.”

A snort this time, and if a horse could glare, she was on the receiving end of one.

“What, it is.” She shrugged, lips pulling wider into a grin as she still fussed him. Something she continued happily for a while, basking in the familiarity of it and the comfort it brought her. Not as much as when she was with Regina, but not far off.

“Regina said she’ll show me how to ride one day.”

“She did?” Emma said, her surprise genuine, “You are honoured.”

Red swung the bucket loosely in her hand, “You sound like you aren’t.”

Emma rolled her shoulders, conceding that she was. More than honoured in truth.

“Regina’s the horseman, I’m the…” She trailed off, unable to grasp the word that fit, “I’m the one that keeps her feet on the ground.”

“So you’ve never ridden him?”

Scratching the bridge of Rocinante’s nose, Emma tried to hide her embarrassment, “Not in the typical sense.”

Red tilted her head, her brow furrowing with a budding question.

“I might not enjoy it, but you may.” Emma shrugged, “If not you can always watch. Regina’s one hell of a talent. It’s spectacular to see.”

The memories raised by her praise had Emma turning her head, a false cough going some way to hide the growing redness in her cheeks. The shame was swift to follow, ashamed even now that she could not have been content with just basking in Regina’s talent and the elation that rolled from her when she rode. It was not perverse to let her eyes wander, or imagine things, but when it had been concerning her only friend… well that changed everything.

She dragged her hand over the side of her face, conscious of the eyes behind her. Those memories, those guilty feelings were in the past. Gone, hopefully never to fully resurface.

Besides, there would be little reason to hold back her full appreciation now – when they were alone, of course.

Regina would feign fluster, but she would enjoy the praise, Emma was certain.

Shit.

Somewhat calmer, she returned her gaze to Rocinante and glanced in Red’s direction. She hadn’t been watching after all, occupied with checking the strange contraption containing the chickens’ water.

I’m getting too comfortable.

They weren’t staying there – they couldn’t stay there. As soon as she was stronger, properly so, they were leaving. There was no alternative.

There was a ladder against the wall next to Rocinante’s stall, naturally, she had to investigate.

“This the hayloft?” Emma asked, already with a foot on the bottom rung of the ladder.

“Don’t –

Emma’s right foot touched a rung, and kept going, her vision rushing.

“Shit!” Emma’s arms flailed, her hold already broken. She landed on her back solidly, palms stinging and body aching from the shock, “… Ouch.”

“Ladder’s rotten,” Red finished slowly, just audible over the hens fluttering and cawing loudly in surprise.

Emma tilted her head, biting back a groan, Red looked torn between fear and apologetic laughter.

“Are you okay?”

“Huh uh.”

The upside down Red looked relieved, her small hands clutching tight to the bucket in her hands.

“Do you need help getting up?”

“I’m fine,” Emma wheezed out, rolling onto her side and pushing herself to her feet. It was a far more challenging feat than it once was.

“Are you certain?”

Emma dusted herself off, ducking her head while waiting for her cheeks to cool. It did little to help.

“I’ll take that,” she said, masking her embarrassment. She held out her hand for the bucket, noticing now the grain inside of it, “You’ll be quicker than me, I’m sure.”

Red nodded, face pink, though she still hesitated, walking over to the chicken pen before finally looking back to her and handing the bucket over. Emma nearly lost her footing at the sudden weight.

“Oh, wow, that’s heavy,” she ground out, back hunched, she lifted it with effort onto the edge of the wooden fence enclosing the chickens.

“You get used to it.” Red picked up the basket, hooking it over her elbow and bracing one foot on the wood ready to go.

“Yes,” Emma agreed, thinking back, “I guess you do.”

Emma dug her hand into the grain, the feeling of it sliding through her fingers odd, but not unpleasant. She clucked her tongue, out of habit more than anything else, and flung out the first handful.

 


 

Emma was starting to regret insisting that she carry the basket, and was more than a little offended at herself for struggling towards the end of their short trek back to the cottage. It felt like her own body was betraying her. Maybe she really wasn’t ready to go out.

Red hovered beside her, failing at hiding her concern even though Emma had already assured her that she was fine. More than twice.

She shifted the basket into her left hand, puffing out her cheeks in an effort to cover her huff. It was just some eggs for God’s sake.

“I’ll get the door.” Red jogged a few steps ahead to do just that. Emma lumbered a little behind her with straining arms, and a still aching leg.

“About time you got back.”

Emma rolled her eyes, out of sight, before stepping inside.

“We weren’t long, Granny,” Red sighed, though they all knew there was no malice in the old woman’s words.

With both hands, Emma placed the basket onto the table. Granny hummed, and Red appeared at Emma’s side reaching into the basket. Emma shared a look with Regina, who sat at the table smiling before turning to face Granny. And that allowed Emma to spot something over her shoulder.

She stepped back from the table, uncaring of Granny’s tut when she stepped on the edge of a rug with her boots.

“What’s this?” Emma asked, staring down at the two neatly placed blankets and pillows a short distance from the fire.

She wasn’t stupid, despite what people thought, she just spoke without thinking sometimes. So Granny’s sceptical look from over the top of her glasses didn’t faze her.

Emma lifted her shoulder in response, which brought her attention to the cloak she still wore. Eyes still on Granny’s she fiddled at the clasp around her throat.

“You’re well enough to go out. You’re well enough to give Red her bed back.”

Emma’s building scoff and comment about how she preferred this fell silent when she caught sight of Regina over Granny’s shoulder.

“Alright,” Emma said instead, feeling a little giddy in her chest. She grinned at Regina receiving an eye roll from Granny, “It’ll be better for your back.”

“Got to agree with her on that one.”

One of Emma’s eyebrows rose in astonishment. Granny turned back to whatever it was she and Regina had been doing, allowing Emma to slide her questioning – and rather impressed – look to Regina.

Regina grew bashful, which made Emma’s smile turn goofy – which only made the embarrassment worse.

Regina disobeyed Granny? Yet encouraged Emma to do all that she said? Either Granny gave in, which was doubtful, or Regina stood her ground.

Emma hung her cloak up beside the door, pride rising in her chest as if it were her own. Regina had a stubborn streak, it didn’t take a genius to figure that out, but usually only she saw it.

Well, save for the rare occasion she stood up to Cora. But that never ended well, something that she only realised was so severe recently. Even now her heart pounded with the memory of Regina being pulled and constricted with magic. She had suspected harm, known about some of it after a long time, but she would never have thought – it still heated her blood even now, if she had been aware she would have done something. Regina had never deserved it, she was good. Good people should never be treated as such. Never –

“Are you just going to stare at your boots or do some work?”

Red looked up from where she was dropping eggs into a bucket, and gave her a sympathetic smile.

“We’ve been working since you left, now help chop those carrots or you’ll be out on your ear.”

Emma sighed but dropped down beside Regina, who had apparently almost finished the task anyway.

Her earlier thoughts still swam through her mind, dredging up emotions she rather keep subdued for now.

Beneath the table she stretched her fingers out to Regina, brushed soft skin, and immediately felt their fingers entwine.

 


 

As the night settled in and they all wound down, excitement fizzled in the depths of Regina’s stomach. There was more than an edge of guilt at the way it flipped. Guilty excitement at having a moment of closeness that they never really had before, not intentionally.        

The fresh vegetables were a pleasant addition to their meal, and were definitely worth all the work that went into preparing them. It made her wonder how the kitchen staff back in Viadori managed to prepare such great feasts each day.

Soon it was just she and Emma, Granny and Red having retired to their own rooms once all of their chores for the day were finished.

Emma flopped back, sighing happily as she wiggled beneath her blanket.

“Careful,” Regina scolded though her tone was gentle, but Emma stretched in bliss, unaware of her concern.

“So much better,” she murmured around a pleased groan.

Regina slipped beneath the other blanket, surprised to find not a firm bedroll beneath her, but another thick, comfortable blanket. A surprisingly effective substitute for a mattress, though perhaps having gone so long without rest in a proper bed made anything feel wondrous. Even the chair had been remarkable.

Regina fiddled with her blanket, throat growing tighter with each passing moment – intensified by Emma’s shifting or the crack of the fire. In reality she was almost certain it had only been a few seconds, but her body and a determined part of her mind refused to accept that.

 She let her head drop to the side, cheek resting against the pillow.

The fire caught Emma’s hair and skin, dancing against her as if she were glowing.

Regina had never seen this – her like this – she realised, Emma resting peacefully, and beside her. One arm at an angle above her head, her lips tilted just shy of a smile.

Empty seemed the best way to describe the swirling feeling deep in her chest, a sense of something missing.

She reached across the small gap between them, fingertips skirting over the back of Emma’s hand. The response was immediate, even if the only other physical sign was the twitch of Emma’s hand above her head.

Their fingers entwined. But it was not enough.

Regina slipped closer, and closer still even as she felt Emma tense, saw one eye open wide and peer at her.

Like a string being pulled taut, unable to escape the pressure, Regina did not stop until two beds became one and she was flush against Emma, her head on her chest, the beating of her heart in her ear.

“Hey,” Emma murmured, wrapping one arm around her, and threading their fingers together with the other. She lifted their hands until they rested on her collarbone, a silent encouragement to hold each other closer, an encouragement Regina needed, and likely Emma too.

Regina exhaled, a long breath carrying away her tension, but not that tickling feeling deep within her.

This was something new, and yet not. Something she already knew she wanted for as long as she and Emma were to be together. A closeness that felt natural, that left her with a sense of happiness she had so rarely experienced before.

And yet, she realised with a tight swallow, there was a swirling coil in the depths of her being that needed more. That needed almost reassurance. Though reassurance of what, she did not know. All she did know was that she craved more.

She slipped her fingers down Emma’s side, brushed her nose against her jaw.

“Regina…” Emma breathed her name, a hesitance in her words.

“Emma,” She responded, pressing closer.

She tilted her head, shifted her body, to seek Emma’s lips.

She could feel the heat from Emma’s face, burning like the fire. Their lips met in a soft slide, gentle, almost worshipful. It lit a spark deep in Regina’s body.

Emma craned her neck, tried to maintain their connection when Regina pulled back to free her arm. Emma’s brow creased, a short-lived whimper of disappointment leaving her. A gentle movement, and Emma was rolling them over, a tremble in her arms.

Regina clutched at Emma’s shoulder, the brush of their lips growing more demanding. The spark caught and raced through her, centring at one point.

Emma’s arm tightened around her, her fingers stroking her side, leaving her skin tingling and impossibly warmer beneath her touch.

Regina’s hand slid down, Emma’s fingers twitched against the back of it. A moan escaped one of them. Her hand stopped, unintentional cupping Emma’s breast, the hard point of her nipple pressing into her palm, clear even through her layers.

“Regina,” Emma whispered, there was a hint of concern in voice, one Regina felt but was shadowed by so much else. And though Emma seemed to protest, she cupped Regina’s cheek and guided her back into a kiss. And though they pressed close, though she clasped tight and their kisses grew more consuming, it was still not enough. The flame in her was fanned, flaring, yet it still demanded more fuel.

Breaking the kiss she pulled at Emma’s shift, tried to ask her but found it impossible to be parted for that long, returning soon to kissing, trailing short, sweet ones down Emma’s neck.

The moan in her ear had her tugging harder. Emma shifted and the next she knew she could feel smooth skin, the full heat of her.

“Not alone,” Emma groaned. Regina brushed her lips against a bare shoulder. Not for long, her head dropped back and their lips met in a soft kiss, Emma’s hands travelled up her thighs bringing the hem of her own shift with her.

She glided her hands over Emma, over smooth skin, over her scars, skimmed over too prominent ribs. She choked on a sound. Emma’s lips brushed across her cheeks, soothed the panic that tried to rise in her chest.

The air was frigid when it met her skin. She shook, even though fire crept beneath her skin. She squirmed when the hem of her nightdress dragged over her tight nipples, lifted her arms to free herself of the barrier sooner. In moments Emma was pressed fully against her, breast to breast, Emma’s hips nestled against her own. Her eyes seeming to shine.

Their lips met, an unhurried kiss that had Emma’s hips twitching.

“Fuck,” Emma groaned, the twitch of her hips becoming a rocking that made Regina’s toes curl.

Previous thoughts vanished, her fingers pressed hard against Emma’s lower back, a gasp leaving her when Emma gripped her hips, her other cupping her cheek, reuniting their mouths. Their moans were muffled, almost pained in their desperation, the stimulation of their rocking hips delicious, building a steady throb but one that left her wanting, desperate for something more direct. An almost familiar wetness forming.

“Em – ” She shuddered, clenching around nothing, “ – ma.”

Emma’s words were lost in a moan, her eyes opened revealing her blown wide pupils. She pulled back, leaving Regina’s hips bucking, Emma’s arms trembled as she tried to shift to the side, but floundered, her thigh replacing her hips.

A strangled sound left Regina, and though shame tried to rise it was quashed by need, a brief moment where her hips rocked against Emma uncontrollably before she could seize back control.

Lips teased a spot below her ear, their nipples brushing as Emma’s weight settled comfortably on her again, her thigh pressing firmer. Though she seemed more confident, Emma shuddered against her, biting back a whine. Regina closed her eyes, somehow feeling stronger for it, and pressed back against Emma’s thigh.

“Emma,” she murmured, sliding gently against her, trembling with each tender movement.

Emma cupped her buttocks, guiding her slides which with each passing moment grew more eager. More desperate. Regina’s whimper was lost against Emma’s neck, her hand clutching her back, her voice growing higher, and though she grew closer, it still wasn’t enough. Not now.

“Emma…” she managed, a shudder running through her. Her hips twitched hard against Emma’s slickened thigh, prompted further by the kisses trailing from her cheek to her jaw to her neck. Only soft flutters of Emma’s lips, yet causing such fire within her. And Emma, so gentle, always so gentle until she asked her otherwise.

She did not deserve it.

Another barely suppressed moan escaped her, her fingers digging hard into Emma’s shoulders as the throbbing between her thighs grew more and more desperate. Emma’s encouragement, the shortness of her breath somehow enhancing the growing tightness in her stomach.

It was almost agony to stop, the time it took her to guide Emma’s hand between her thighs felt torturously long.

“I – I need…” She gasped, even now still unable to voice it.

Emma’s groan vibrated against her collarbone, her hand a light pressure against her. A miniscule shift and Regina was bucking before Emma’s fingers had even slipped between her.

“Please,” she croaked, the heat. The pressure too much.

Emma ducked her head, lips closing around her hardened nipple just as she slid in.

“Oh!”

The duel sensations caught her sharply, her head pressing hard into the pillow. She felt herself flutter around Emma, clutching hard when she sucked.

One of her hands found its way into Emma’s hair, fingers flexing and tensing at Emma’s teasingly slow pace. Emma’s moan reverberated against her breast, Regina’s toes curled, her hand pulling before she realised, and Emma followed, their lips meeting hard as another finger entered her.

Her eyes squeezed shut, a high moan muffled by their kiss, Emma thrusting faster now, brushing some wonderful spot deep within.

Their lips parted, barely a breath between them, Emma’s voice hoarse, “I love you.”

Regina pulled her back, encouraged their mouths to open, their kiss to deepen as tears formed.  

“It’s alright,” Emma murmured when she pulled back, so much care in her voice, “You don’t have to hold back.”

Her backed arched, her eyes slamming shut as her peak hit her in an unexpected rush. The syllables of Emma’s name separated by a choked sob.

She could feel Emma’s smile, the devotion in her eyes, “Good girl.”

It stung. It stole her breath and assaulted her with all the memories she wished to forget.

“Regina? Regina what’s wrong?”

Emma’s weight lifted, her voice gravelly, panic rising in her.

Regina wanted to twist away, to hide the tears stinging her eyes. Yet when Emma moved back, sitting on her knees all she wanted to do was pull her to her, hold her as close as she could.

“Regina?” Emma’s voice was still quiet, but was tilting up, growing higher, “Did I hurt you? I didn’t mean to upset you? Regina?”

Regina shook her head, the action bordering on violent. The air chilling her damp skin.

Emma’s touch hovered hesitantly, torn between comforting and trying to give her space to breath. Unable to hold back, Regina gripped her hands, her hold tight. She could not pull, but Emma understood, slipping beside her, a comforting arm around her middle. Emma’s trembling lips brushed against her cheek.

“It’s alright, Regina,” Emma murmured, uncertainty in her voice, “It’s alright.”

It was not right. It would never be right.

The words finally tore their way from her throat on a low whisper, “I killed a man.”

There was no movement, and for a moment she feared the world around her had frozen – or perhaps she hoped it had. Hoped she had been granted time, that she could wrench the confession back. That she could save Emma from the weight of knowing.

Emma’s mouth moved wordlessly, a slight twitch but it was not beyond Regina’s panicked notice. Another, stronger this time.

“What?”

That single word, harsh against her cheek, full of disbelief, was like a strike to her chest, one that did not lift, leaving her breathless as if someone was pressing hard on it, squeezing every last breath from her lungs.

She could not bear to speak those words again, could hardly breath as it was.

“You…” She heard Emma’s swallow, felt the tension in her body, “You...”

Regina could not look at her, she would not survive the look of horror on Emma’s face. Or the disappointment.

“When?”

Though the question was unexpected, Regina still shook, terror gripping her heart. Still, she tried to be brave, to do as Emma asked.

“When you were unconscious. Bandits cornered us, I… one of them… the poison… I used it. I killed him.”

Emma rose up on her elbow, just enough to meet her eyes, “You protected us.”

“No!” Regina shook her head, trying to speak through her panic, “I killed a man. I used that poison in me to take his life.”

“You protected us,” Emma repeated. The conviction in her words outweighed by the disappointment Regina could hear, “You protected us with what you had. You used your magic, and saved us.”

“No, Emma I – ”

She fell silent at the gentle shake of Emma’s head, the even softer feel of the pads of her fingers against her cheek.

“It’s like…” Emma trailed off, brow creasing as she struggled to continue. And why would she not? Surely she saw it now.

She bit the inside of her cheek, turned her head as if to hide in the shadows.

“Regina,” Emma said gently, despite the urgency in her voice. Brushing her fingertips over her jaw, encouraging her to meet Emma’s eye again. “It’s like a… a sword. It isn’t wielding it that makes you good or bad, it’s the banner you fight under.”

Emma shook her head, a panicked rumble in her throat.

“No. I mean,” she sighed, the exhale tickling Regina’s cheek, but still she remained unmoving, “A sword is just a sword. It’s how it is used that changes that, like… the bandits, they used it to threaten people. While someone else would use it to protect. It’s…”

Another sigh, frustrated this time, Emma’s struggle drawing Regina from her dark thoughts more than her words.

“What you use it for that decides,” she finished, looking up to see first relief than an apprehensive smile cross Emma’s face. Not a hint of the disgust or hatred that she feared so.

“Yes, exactly.” Emma’s smile grew a little lopsided, her gentle touch returning to Regina’s cheek, “Thankfully one of us knows what I’m trying to say.”

Regina’s chin dropped again, the weight of her deeds almost manifesting, pressing down on her shoulders.

“Hey,” Emma whispered, again a soft encouragement for her to meet her eyes, “It’s the way you use it. What you did was to protest us both… three. In those stories of yours that would make you a hero.”

“Now I think you are pressing it too hard.”

The fire caught Emma’s eyes as they lit up, even though she had mumbled her words.

“And you…” Emma swallowed, her throat bobbing, “And you put my heart back. That doesn’t sound like a poison to me.”

Regina gasped in a breath, squeezing her eyes closed.

“How- how can you just shrug it off, Emma?” Regina wanted to slip from her grasp, wanted to turn her back, to put some distance between them. Her body, however, refused to listen, “I took another’s life. I am a murderer. It felt –

Powerful – nauseating. Terrifying.

She clutched her head, eyes squeezed closed so tightly it made spots of light dance behind her eyelids.

It hurt. Rebounded in her head.

Emma’s arms tightened, just a little, a slight encouragement Regina leaned into. Lips brushed her forehead as she was guided into the crook of Emma’s neck.

Her hands shook, grasped at too prominent shoulder blades, wrapped tight around a body that had lost much of its strength.

Because of her.

Tears forced their way through her closed eyes, trailed down her hot cheeks to splash against Emma’s skin.

She hated it. Hated it.

Weak, she had always been so weak. Left to sob alone in the dark. Emma was stronger. Had almost died yet she was the one comforting. The one giving her everything.

Weak. She was so weak.

She spluttered out, voice quiet and cracking, “There is an evil in me.”

“No,” Emma said without pause, “No Regina, that isn’t true.”

Regina wanted to shout, to force Emma to see what she did. To understand.

But her throat felt tighter still, her body drained and desperate for a closeness she knew she did not deserve.

“You did what you had to,” Emma repeated, her words so soft, “I would have done the same… you know, if I could.”

“How can you say that?” Regina’s voice was almost a whisper across Emma’s collarbone. Her eyes open, but staring unseeing into the darkness.

“Because it’s true.” She could almost hear Emma’s unsure smile, it made her heart jump, “I would do anything to keep my love ones safe. And unluckily for you, you’re the only one I’ve got.”

Emma chuckled, but it was hesitant, self-conscious.

“You do not have this poison in you.”

“And neither do you,” Emma stressed, and Regina was not sure if she had ever heard her so certain of anything before, “It is part of you, and as I said, it’s how you use it that matters, and you used it to save us both. No one – nothing is inherently good or evil.”

Her eyes felt heavy, either from true exhaustion or just part of the aftermath of her tears. Though she knew she could fight it, she let her eyes close, almost wanting to feel the lull of sleep. To welcome the escape it could bring, to forget everything that weighed on her so until she was forced to face it again.

Emma’s words, though, settled in her mind. Lodged there firm as a boulder blocking the path of a stream.

“Nothing is inherent,” she repeated, sleep beginning to slur her words.

“Exactly,” Emma said cradling her close, “If you take no more of my words for truth, then please take this, Regina. You are a good person. You have a good heart. Please let no one take that truth from you.”

Regina tried to reply, but her tongue felt thick, her body heavy and unmoving, her attempt falling flat in mere moments as sleep claimed her.

 

Chapter Text

Emma jerked awake, her mind lagging behind even as her eyes shot around. She croaked, a garbled confused attempt at a question trying to leave her mouth. She made an effort to sit, but a warm weight held her down. She brought her gaze to it, and felt her cheeks warm. If the glimpse of silver around Regina’s neck hadn’t already affected her, then Regina nestling further into her neck certainly would have.

Emma swallowed, the sound loud to her own ears. Regina’s breath ghosted across her skin, raising goose bumps in its wake. She trembled, pressing her thighs together, which made her very aware of the wetness between them… and the unfulfilled throb that had made rest so difficult. Not as much as her concern for Regina – nowhere near as much – yet it had still been a persistent force.

 And she most definitely needed a wash.

The floorboards creaked near her head, Emma gulped in a breath, grogginess fleeing as she realised just what had woken her.

“Sorry to wake you,” Granny said, not exactly kindly.

“Err… erm…” Emma found herself swallowing hard again, frozen helplessly as Granny walked to the kitchen.

“Red’s out checking for eggs, doubt there’s many.”

Emma squirmed, trying to subtly untangle herself from Regina, so very conscious of how naked they both were beneath the thick blankets. Regina, still sleeping, had other ideas, her arms wrapping around her tighter, and her leg slipping between Emma’s own. Emma twitched, almost ashamed of the uncontrollable reaction of her body.

Granny grabbed something and Emma was unable to move yet again, instead clutching the blankets to her chin. Just in time too, as Granny turned around and headed back to her room.

“I hope you’re not planning to laze about again.” The door shut sharply behind her.

Growling out a curse beneath her breath, Emma swiped the back of her hand across her brow.

“Regina?” She whispered, brushing back the dark hair that had fallen across her face, gentle even as her blood felt icy and her heartbeat rose with panic.

Regina snuggled closer still, knee rising unhelpfully high.

“Regina!” Emma hissed, voice still hushed.

“ ‘s fine,” Regina slurred, eyes closed and sleep weighing heavily on her, “No one‘ll notice.”

Emma’s breath came out as a shudder, her throat beyond dry.

“Regina, we have to get dressed.” Regina’s eyes fluttered half open, the warm browns enhanced by the sun seeping in through the crack in the shutters, “It’s morning.”

Regina blinked, rubbing at her eyes with her knuckle as Emma cast frequent worried looks to Granny’s door, tense with apprehension of her return.

Blindly, she reached under the blankets, pawing for their nightclothes lost beneath them. At least she hoped they were there. If they weren’t… well, then Granny was bound to have seen something – or more than she already had.

Her hands closed around some out of place fabric, and she pulled out a nightdress. Her relief was brief, her heart beating harder as she turned the shift in her hands, squinting at it as she tried to remember whose it was. Deciding it was Regina’s, she passed it to her. She just hoped she was right.

“Oh,” Regina sighed, the blankets slipping from her as she sat up.

With strength she was surprised she had, Emma kept her gaze high. Though perhaps that had more to do with the close call than…

Their fingers brushed when Regina took her nightdress, and though her gaze was lifted, she caught the tilt of Regina’s head and her playful smile.

Emma swallowed hard, already searching for her own nightdress, blurting out what Regina had obviously missed, “Granny saw us.”

Regina’s expression morphed in a flash, her eyes wide and cheeks paling.

“Saw – saw us?!” Regina hissed, panic lifting her voice. She pulled back, clutching her shift to her bare chest.

Emma nodded, finally retrieving what she was looking for.

By the time she had pulled it the right way round, Regina was already redressed and hurriedly trying to separate their bedding back into two.

It was too late of course, Regina probably knew that too, but at least it kept her occupied rather than fretting. Which, really, she should be doing herself rather than sitting there still stark naked with nightdress in hand.

By the time Granny left her room, their bedding was tidy and they were both trying to start their day, their faces still burning with embarrassment.

Granny said nothing that hinted she so much as suspected the truth, and though Emma was relatively certain they had gotten away with it, her fluster refused to completely lift.

Emma had just finished knocking back her third cup of water when the cottage door opened, and Red returned, bundled up and with basket in hand. And so they began their day ‘proper’. Thankfully too, she was growing uncertain if Regina would not collapse from the heat of embarrassment, or if her own heart could take anymore.

 


 

Emma trailed after Granny, squinting in the daylight. Even after her few trips outside it all seemed so vibrant, so intense.

“Now you’re up and about, we can move to the next step.”

“Next step?” Emma queried, eyes roving over the area. She had ventured when she had been able, further than Regina – or so she hoped – and unsurprisingly, Regina had been correct. There was nothing in the immediate area, not even a hint of anyone save themselves. It helped to sooth her nerves, but did not eradicate them entirely.

They really couldn’t risk staying there, but… for at least a little while. Until she was better, despite what she said, despite what she believed, she knew her strength had all but gone. Even though she could walk and move and had her wits back, she wouldn’t survive out there, it would be worse than before, she would burden Regina down. Cause her more pain.

“To build up your strength.”

Emma’s brow lifted, her steps slowing.

God, how does she do that?

She caught herself quickly, and nodded, even though she faced Granny’s back.

“Of course,” Emma mumbled, a little bit of bewilderment escaping into her voice.

Granny hummed, saying nothing more. The awkwardness of silence was short-lived, as soon they stopped, just a few steps away a woven wooden fence sat behind a familiar stone structure. Emma approached it with fast strides, piecing things together.

“You have your own well?” Emma ducked her head beneath the gently swaying bucket to better peer in, straining her arms a little too much with the stretch.

“Built it myself when we moved here.”

Standing, Emma bumped her head but covered her wince well, “… You and your husband?”

Granny’s face darkened, subtle enough that it could have been a trick of the light. Lucky for both of them, just as she could read something, Emma also knew when to let something lie.

Still she rubbed at her head embarrassedly, and in an effort to sooth the weak throb of pain there and the slight ache in her arms, she cleared her throat and glanced around for Red and Regina.

“The garden is just –

“God!” Emma jumped, startled by the sudden appearance of Red’s face above the fence. She heaved in a breath, a shaky smile soon appearing at the surprise and joy clear on Red’s face.

“Are you done?” Granny marched past the well, and in turn her. Emma was quick on her heels though, managing to keep only a few steps behind.

“Yes.” Regina appeared, a dampness to her brow and smudges of dirt on her face. Her expression remained the picture of polite greeting, but when their eyes met Emma could see her pleased surprise.

“Good.” Granny turned to Emma, and ordered in no uncertain terms, “Make yourself useful. Grab the basket.”

Emma’s eyebrows shot up, her lips tilting as Red and Regina left the garden holding the basket between them, “Are you kidding? That thing looks –

“Well enough to leave the house, sleep on the floor and backtalk – you’re well enough to start building your strength up.” Granny rested her fists on her hips, narrowing her eyes above the top of her glasses, “Just as we talked about.”

“I –

“Ah.” Granny lifted a finger and slowly pointed at Regina and Red, the latter holding a handle in one hand, the former holding hers with two. And rather awkwardly so.

Emma muttered beneath her breath, uncertain herself about what she saying.

She wanted to build her strength up, of course.  After all, they might be in the middle of nowhere, but Regina was a missing princess, and she was likely deemed a traitor to the Crown. They would not forget about them, nor call off a search. Not until someone was found, and another punished.

She sighed, her shoulders dropping, and covered the few paces it took to stop before Red and Regina quickly. Red’s smile was a tad sympathetic, Regina’s remarkably encouraging.

With a bit of tension in her jaw, Emma motioned for the basket. She got a hold of it, though Red and Regina’s hands slipped beneath it to help her. She stumbled a little, the heft of it greater than she imagined.

Then the helping hands retreated.

“Shi – damn,” she cursed when she very nearly toppled, her face burning hot. She kept her eyes down, her cheeks puffing out with a hard exhale.

Either the assortment of vegetables were the heaviest known to man, or she had become a hell of a lot weaker than she had assumed.

Regina hovered at her side, trying poorly to hide her concern, no doubt holding back the urge to help only due to Granny’s sharp eyes. Emma took it all in, even as her she struggled, her arms trembling and her head feeling light. Somehow, Regina’s expression boosted her determination, made her eager to show her strength – or cover the lack of it – to not come across as some hapless child.

How were they heavier than the eggs? There were more of those, and they were in a larger container.

Granny was already striding away when Emma managed to fully turn.

“Does she even do anything?” She ground out bitterly, her steps slow and cautious.

“She used to.” Red looked over her shoulder, plucking at her sleeve with grubby fingers.

“I do more than you know,” Granny barked over her shoulder.

“Shi –

“Emma,” Regina scolded, her eyes flickering to Red.

“How does she do that?” Emma said instead, eyes wide in disbelief as she plodded behind.

 


 

“Here.”

Emma barely covered a flinch, silently scolded herself, and after a breath blinked down at the hand thrust towards her chest.

“Make yourself useful.”

A small scrap of parchment dangled from Granny’s fingers. Reflexively she took it, flipping it in her hands to see neat rows of letters – too many letters.

“Err…” She tilted her head, trying not to make it all so apparent.

“Head straight out the door and follow the track, it’ll take you to the path leading to town, just head east once there.”

“But –

“Those are what I need, don’t worry about trade. They owe me some favours. Tell them Widow Lucas sent you.”

“Shouldn’t –

A basket was thrown at her, which she barely caught.

“Only you go, Regina’s already got her job.”

The next thing Emma knew she was by the door, a cloak now pressed into her arms, and she was ushered out.

“Put that on, and be careful not to wander off the track, it is not well trod.”

The door shut behind her, leaving her dumbfounded, burdened, and alone in the cold breeze.

 


 

Two new arrivals would stick in the mind more than one. It posed a large enough risk as it was, one Emma was not particularly comfortable taking. But it was not as if she could refuse. So, with as much determination as she could muster, she slung on the cloak, held the list carefully in her hand, and rushed to find Regina and, red-faced and unsure, ask for her help.

As Red poked fruitlessly at the vegetable patch for anything they had missed in their search, Regina read the list to her in a hushed voice, a slim finger pointing to each word. There were a few moments where she stumbled over the pronunciations of the unfamiliar items, but they both got the gist of it in the end.

Emma muttered each item, squinting at each line as she tried to match the shapes to letters to words, and ingrain them into her mind.

Her face had still burnt as she thanked Regina, her voice relaxed but eyes shining. Regina watched her go with a mix of annoyance and concern – she couldn’t come, and Emma could not take their sword, no matter how much Regina insisted that she had to.

“Cabbage, carrots, beets, beans.” Emma repeated the first few items, face creased in concentration. She toyed with the handle of the basket, the list still clutched tightly in her hand. Parchment was a rarity back home – among people like her anyway. And though that was likely not the case here, or perhaps not even what she believed to be true in Viadori, she could not fight the feeling that it was valuable. That it was a treasure, that it was worth more than anything she had or ever would have. You couldn’t very well lose something like that.

“Wheat flour.” She lifted the list, eyes darting over its contents, but her gaze lost focus quickly and ignored her when she tried to force it to return.

She grumbled, raising her head to realise she had wandered from the barely observable path. It was no wonder neither she nor Regina had found it, fortunately Red knew where it was.

“Goddammit,” she mumbled, the mild curse making her feel a little better.

She stumbled back onto what she hoped was the path, and continued on, still repeating the words she had memorised and feeling a familiar deep sense of failure. Regina had literally told and shown her which words where which not a half hour before.

She growled again, kicking at the bare shrubs that got in her way. Well, at least she knew what to get, whether she was the one to read the list or not.

“Oh for fu – ” she rubbed at her face, turning on her heel to find the track again. There was still no sign of this town, and if she kept wandering off-track she wouldn’t get there before dusk.

Emma froze, as did her heart and lungs.

She drew in a sharp breath, twisting around to see nothing but mostly leafless trees.

What if this seemingly endless, wandering path was purposeful? What if Granny’s sudden change of attitude was not because she saw she was better, or because she wanted to help her regain her strength, but due to something far more sinister?

Telling her not to take Regina – Red consistently around both of them, and often with Regina on their own – the seemingly intentional separation of them whenever excusable –

What if, as she wandered through the forest, soldiers were on their way? Or were already there seizing Regina? Or already had?

She forced herself to breath, to take an unsteady step forward towards the unknown town.

Regina trusted them. And she trusted Regina, even when her mind begged her not to in this. Even when it wanted to shield Regina so.

And – she thought as her steps grew stronger and faster – wouldn’t they have come when I was bedbound?     

Of course, word took a while to travel, but even so, it surely would have arrived there by now. To the cities at least. Realistically speaking, how would Granny have even known who they were? She lived in the middle of nowhere, and apparently had little contact with anyone else from what Red suggested.

And even if it was true, wouldn’t the soldiers want her too? To punish her, or imprison her or kill her or whatever else they planned.

Emma ran her hand through her hair, glad she hadn’t tied it up, and shook her head, a self-deprecating smile gracing her lips.

Unless the soldiers were lying in wait –

She shook her head violently this time, stomping at twigs and rotting leaves to calm her mind and shred her paranoia. Regina said it took time to negotiate entry into another land. Lots of time. But word could still travel even if the soldiers could not.

No. She had to have faith that, for now, Regina was relatively safe.

With a groan, she began reciting the list once more.

 


 

There wasn’t so much as a tavern… so no inn. No thoroughfare. There was a glimmer of light even within her darker thoughts and suspicions.

Her hand curled tighter around the basket, the gazes of the village people on her felt like an itch she could not shake – one that begged her to turn and take it head on. But that rarely stated an itch, often made it worse. It would do no good to challenge anyone here.

She walked through the small village – fancy calling it a town – casting careful looks to ever house front, looking for any sign she may have missed. For any tell that would suggest a shop.

“You look lost, miss.”

Abruptly, Emma looked behind her, to the elderly whittler she had passed more than once. And though her first reaction was to dismiss his concern, maybe even continue on without a word, she knew she could not.

“I’m looking for the shop,” she said stepping closer.

The whittler doffed his hat, stunning Emma for a moment. He smiled, sympathetically, placing his hat back onto his balding head.

“I’m afraid,” he began, his accent, she realised, not typical of the Oakenfelldians she knew, “The nearest butcher, or grocer is a great trek from here. More so, on foot.”

“It is?” She mumbled, already feeling the creeping tendrils of her earlier fears returning.

“You don’t appear to be a traveller, and yet you are not from around here.” He placed down his tools, and his half-finished carving. His --- eyes flickering down to her hand. “Perhaps I can help.”

Wait… Granny said there were people who owed her favours – that I didn’t need to trade… God, you’re such an idiot Swan!

“This is Eugenia’s handwriting.”

Confused, Emma glanced down, and realised at some point she had handed the list over without realising it.

“Ah!” The man stood, a little too quickly if his wince was anything to go by, “You must be her great niece.”

“Err…” Emma blinked, catching up to herself slowly, “Widow Lucas sent me?”

The man nodded, though soon doffed his hat again, “Pardon my loss of manners, I am Geppetto.”

She thought quickly. If she gave the fake name like she and Regina discussed it would likely get back to Granny – but perhaps they only knew one another as neighbours. Yet it was best to be cautious, and she would rather avoid any more questions if she could.

“Emma,” she said with a nod, something that made Geppetto’s brow lift in surprise. Still, he smiled, returning his hat to his head.

He gestured to his chair, but at her polite refusal, he sat down slowly.

“So, Emma.” He placed her list on the small stool beside him, pinning it down with a long flat headed tool. The casualness of the action making her anxiety twist in her gut, “Let us start on this list – I must say I am surprised Eugenia would send you with the barest of instructions.”

He chuckled briefly, his smile growing stronger.

“Actually, I can.”

 


 

“Are you certain you don’t wish for a drink? Or a little something to eat? You have come so far with nothing.”

“I’m fine, Mister Geppetto, really.”

“If you insist, Mistress Emma.”

Still unaccustomed to such a term of address, she scratched at her neck and glanced down at the full basket at her feet, “Sorry if I got in the way of your work, but thank you for your help.”

Geppetto waved his hand, picking up his tools again, “It is nothing, more a way to occupy time than anything else.”

“Thank you,” Emma repeated, the carpenter – as it turned out – smiled and focused his reddening face on his work.

She picked up the basket, surprised a little at the weight of it. Thankfully it was not as full as they one Granny had her carry a few days ago.

“Do visit again if you wish.”

“I’ll bear that in mind,” she called over her shoulder, barely avoiding a young boy charging past, coils of thin rope around his shoulder.

She had better hurry up, the days were short here, her mind flickered back to her fears of not making it to the town by dusk. It would be awful to be stuck in the words at night – again.

Chapter Text

“Make yourself useful – ”

Emma groaned, having already learnt just what those words entailed.

“Ow.” Her hand shot up to cup the back of her head, the brief moment of shock ending when she shot an offended look at Granny.

“Keep acting like that and I’ll do more than give you a flick.”

“What do you want me to do now?” Emma grumbled, hand dropping from her head. She might have played up on it if Regina wasn’t still inside with Red, busy with the repetitive task Granny had set them.

“Follow me.”

Emma fought back a sigh – she had only wanted some fresh air… and possibly to avoid peeling anymore carrots… she jogged a little to catch up to Granny. That woman waited for no one.

It was only when they passed the barn that Emma piped up, her eyes narrowed in a suspicion she could never quite shake, “Where are we going?”

“Always questioning, ain’t you?” Granny didn’t so much as glance back, her pace still determined, “Only going a short ways. You’ll see.”

Emma fidgeted with the fastening on her cloak, growing irritated with the constant crunch of leaves. Soon, though, Granny stopped in a clearing and gestured with her head.

Emma didn’t see anything special, just a pile logs and a stump with an axe embedded in it.

She turned back to Granny, or rather went to only to step back when she brushed past her. With surprising strength Granny yanked the axe free.

“What better way to build up your strength. There you go.” She held the axe out, green eyes surveying Emma’s bewilderment, “Get chopping.”

Emma’s cheeks puffed out, disconcerted even as she tried to not show it. Of course she wanted to get stronger, it was just everything seemed almost too much and exhausted her too quickly – all of it a constant reminder of just how weak she was. It left her frustrated more than anything else.

“I’ve never split wood before?”

Granny sighed, adjusted her glasses, and let her arm drop with the axe at her side.

“Guess I’ve got to teach you this too,” Granny complained, though by now Emma felt that she did get some sort of enjoyment out of teaching them such things.

“Grab one of the logs from over there, and place it on the chopping block.”

“It’s a tree stump.”

“Emma…” Granny peered over the top of her glasses.

Emma shrugged, her grin nervous, and did as she was told. Frustrating or not, it needed to be done, and the sooner it was the better.

 


 

“Come on, both of you.”

Regina looked up, in the process of passing the last of their breakfast plates to Emma to dry.

Red dropped the dress she was attempting to sew, pushed her chair out with a screech and rushed to their side.

“Don’t worry, I’ll put it all away.”

Granny smiled at Red, and not for the first time Emma could see how deeply she cared for her granddaughter despite her sharpness. It was a stark contrast to Regina’s interactions with her father, but loving just the same. It pulled lightly at the old, nearly healed wound in her chest. Threatened to bring back the ache of loneliness within her.

Did Regina have that now? Separated from her father so? Emma prayed she didn’t, but knew the possibility of that was slim.

“You still have to practice your sewing, Red. I will be checking when I get back.”

“I know,” Red lamented, but still looked as cheery as always. Granny patted her shoulder and headed to the door. Emma followed obediently, waiting impatiently for Granny to open the door.

“Ow,” Emma muttered, jumping when Regina’s elbow found its way into her side. It didn’t hurt, but the surprise got to her.

Regina gave her a pointed look.

With a sigh, Emma grabbed the cloak she was forced to wear, and threw it on around her shoulders.

How was she ever going to get used to the cold if she wasn’t allowed to be exposed to it?

“Better,” Regina stated, her smile teasing as they followed Granny out the door.

Emma grumbled back a response, trudging behind them both.

“Now,” Granny called over her shoulder, leading them on some unknown path through the trees, “You need to learn about making a fire.”

“Can’t we do that in the cottage? You know, with one of the fireplaces?”

Granny shook her head, but didn’t look back.

“Don’t even know how to make a fire,” she grumbled beneath her breath, the cold breeze bringing the words back to them.

Emma recalled, her face pink from more than the chill in the air, how she had tried to start the fire to warm their meal the day before. Regina had tried to help, but even with the two of them they could not conjure even a hint of a flame.

She looked to Regina who gave her a soft smile, it never failed to lift her spirits some.

“We’re going to need to find kindling.”

“Why didn’t you use the wood I’ve been cutting? It is firewood right?”

There was not even a brief falter in the old woman’s footsteps, she simply forged on ahead like the rafts on the City’s canals.

Emma huffed, fidgeting under the weight of the thick cloak.

“Or was chopping all that wood without a true purpose?” Her fingers twitched, and though she knew it was to build her strength, it still felt like an exhausting, wasted effort. Regina, in step with her, brushed their gloved hands against one another. Emma sighed, her irritation leaving with it before it could take root.

“That wood is for the cottage, and the winter. This isn’t.”

“For the winter?” Regina queried.

“For inside.”

Regina’s lips parted, she cast a look of confusion Emma’s way. It was a look Emma shared, until it all slotted together.

“You’re teaching us outside.” Emma tried to scratch her head, but the cloak was too heavy over her shoulders, “Why not teach us inside?”

This time, thankfully she supposed, Granny actually responded.

“And extinguish the fire?” Granny snorted, which caught Regina by surprise, “By the time you get it, the whole place will be as cold as the West.”

“That is a little excessive.”

Granny met Regina’s eye and gave a shake of her head, “Trust me when I say it’s not that easy.”

“Not that easy.” Emma grumbled beneath her breath, “… Was saddling a horse on my own before I was even ten years.”

“There is more than one fire,” Regina said loudly in the aftermath of Emma’s hushed words, “Could we not –

“Nope.”

“You did not let me finish.”

“My road or no road.” Granny stopped abruptly, hands on her hips and sharp gaze roaming around. It looked much the same as everywhere else to Emma, but she was admittedly occupied with trying to make sense of what Granny had just said.

Eh, local sayings were a pain in the –

Regina tapped her hand, catching her attention. Just in time too, Granny did not look pleased.

“Good.” She nodded sagely to herself, “I thought there would be no distractions out here. Didn’t account for your own mind.”

Emma’s brash grin earned her a roll of the eyes from one and a knowing look from the other.

“Now first thing to do is find a suitable place.”

 


 

“Like this Granny?”

Emma looked up from where she was trying in vain to balance the sticks as she was shown. Regina, who had thus far watched in silence, made quick steps towards them, a neat pile of kindling in her arms.

“Perfect. Though we didn’t need that much.”

Poking her tongue out, Emma sat back, chest swelling with satisfaction at a task finally complete.

Until Granny breezed past, sending the sticks tumbling down.

“Oh for fu…” Granny met her eyes, frozen in the action of taking what she needed from Regina.

“Err… I’ve got no way of ending that sentence politely?”

“At least you’re honest.”

Granny knelt on the opposite side of the – hopefully – soon to be fire. Emma looked to Regina, who lifted an eyebrow with a smile that made Emma’s insides flip. She fought to keep an idiotic grin from overtaking her face.

“You don’t have to balance them like that.”

“What? But you said –

“I was showing you what an expert can do. And keeping your fidgeting hands busy.”

“Showing off more like,” Emma griped.

“Hush you.”

Her grumble this time was illegible and forgotten as Regina knelt beside her, hand on her shoulder.

“That’ll do,” Granny said, nodding at the messy heap of kindling, “Now the easiest way to do this is to use one of these.”

Granny pulled something from her pocket and held it up.

“A stone?” Regina asked, a hint of uncertainty in her voice.

Granny turned it around in her hand, as if giving them the opportunity to observe it from all angles.

Emma tilted her head, loose hair tickling the back of Regina’s hand.

“A rock?” She guessed. She wouldn’t be surprised if Granny was a finicky as to expect a specific word.

“It’s a flint. A very valuable tool if you want heat but don’t have any matches.”

“A stone will light a fire?” Emma shook her head, brow raising high enough to begin to ache. The look they briefly shared belied Regina’s own disbelief.

“I believe what you tell us, Granny, but I cannot see how this possibly works.”

Granny smiled at Regina, a glimmer of pride in her eyes.

“That’s what I’m showing you.” She held the flint close to the kindling, and produced another stone from her pocket, this one rounder and almost glinting in the light, “Now, this takes a lot of strength and precision. So pay attention, Emma.”

 


 

“Hey,” Emma exclaimed, already rushing out the door, still as eager for fresh air as she had always been.

Regina fiddled with the foreign clasp of her borrowed cloak and hurried out the door to Emma’s side.

Emma was gesturing at her, though Regina could not see why. Emma shook her head, eyes shining with a familiar excitement, “Look!”

Emma sucked in a deep breath, her chest puffing out.

Before Regina could ask what she was doing, Emma breathed out.

“Oh?” Regina’s head jerked, startled when a mist escaped her mouth.

Emma laughed, nose pink, “We can see our breaths.”

Regina’s nose scrunched, eyes focusing as best as she could manage before her mouth, and breathed out in a long low stream.

She smiled, watching as the mist of her breath disappeared.

“I feel like a dragon without the flame.”

Emma snorted, rolling her eyes.

Footsteps caught both of their attentions, as one they turned to see Red jogging out of the cottage, the door shutting loudly behind her. At their joint expressions, Red looked at them with her brow furrowed in confusion.

“Does it really not get this cold where you’re from?” Red asked once noticing what the commotion was about, or having overheard them, “It never gets cold enough to see your breath?”

Regina shook her head, embarrassed a little by her actions, “Not in my lifetime, or to my knowledge.”

She looked to Emma who nodded in agreement, breathing out with different expression every now and then.

Red blinked up at them, amazement on her face, “I can’t begin to imagine what it’s like there.”

“Who knows – ” Emma shrugged, “ – You might see it yourself one day.”

With those few words, Red’s face fell, her gaze dropping to the basket in her hand, “No, I don’t think I will.”

Regina placed a gentle hand on Red’s shoulder, who looked up to her with pink cheeks, “Do not sound so certain, Red. You can never know what the future holds.”

Red smiled, hopeful but weighed down with disbelief. It brought an ache to Regina’s chest.

“She’s right, kid.” Emma grinned at Red, offering her a wink, “I mean, I never thought I would leave home, yet here I am.”

Red nodded, smile growing timid.

“Now let’s get those eggs.”

Regina rubbed Red’s shoulder, keeping her arm around her as they walked to the barn. 

 


 

“Your cloak.”

“I don’t need it.” Emma yanked at the door handle, a gust of air catching at her hair and sending a shiver down her spine. She fought it, of course, covering up her response to the frigid air with ease.

“Yes you do.”

“No, I don’t.” She sighed, sliding her gaze to Granny cutting at some vegetable or other, “I’m hardened to the outdoors.”

“Not these outdoors you’re not.”

Granny frowned.

“Careful,” Red said in a loud whisper, “Granny’ll get her crossbow.”

Emma looked to Regina, who had dropped her chin to hide her smile. Their eyes met though, and the amusement there was both pleased and exhausted.

“Put it on, or I’ll put it on you myself,” Granny threatened, “You listened before, and you will listen now.”

Emma swallowed, Granny had lifted her hand, knife still held tight in it. The warning was filled with bluster, but even so...

“Like you would,” Emma muttered, pulling her cloak from the hook besides the door.

“See, that wasn’t so difficult.”

Emma rolled her eyes, back to the room.

“I’ll know if you’ve been slacking.”

“I don’t doubt that.”

Granny huffed, the sharp sound of chopping joining the crackle of the fire.

“We’ll come and help you when we’re done here.”

Emma looked back, greeted by the sight of Red’s enthusiastic expression and Regina’s warm smile.

She fiddled with the clasp of her cloak, and left, tripping out the door.

 


 

The cold here was far more severe than any she had ever experienced. Something she had never thought possible. She needed to toughen herself up, and she couldn’t very well do that being fussed over and bundled up. And now, left to her own devices, she was able to do just that.

As soon as she was able, Emma pulled the cloak off, shivering at the cold prickling at her skin, and stowed the cloak beneath the bags of seed in the chicken shed. Granny wouldn’t know, and she would get a chance to strengthen up. Everyone would be happy.

The clearing was closer than she remembered, meaning she was not as exposed to the cold for as long as she feared she would be. For, soon into her work, she warmed up even with the sweat that broke out on her brow. The heat in her muscles warmed her blood, the panting of her breath acted like insulation from the breeze and chill that nipped at her skin.

She brought the axe down hard, satisfied with the splintering sound of the wood. She placed the cut pieces in a pile beside the chopping block, and collected another log, lining in up properly before preparing for the next swing.

This had become routine, she realised with a shiver.

She swung the axe down, but it caught the log sending it toppling, and the blade lodged in the stump. Grunting she struggled to pull it free.

That wasn’t good, this routine. They had grown used to it, it had become too easy. Too much time had passed, not that she was entirely sure how much that was.

She placed one foot on the log, trying to hold it in place as she tugged hard at the axe.

She might not have seen anyone new in the town, but her visits there had been few and somewhat far between, and though she had originally been certain that there was no thoroughfare, she was no longer as sure.

And the more time that passed, the more likely an agreement would be made to allow those after them passage into Oakenfell. The more time that passed, the further afield the search would stretch. The further it stretched, the more likely it would reach even to little hamlets, even to lone houses. The more time that passed, the tighter the net around them would pull. The more time that passed –

The axe came free, sending Emma stumbling back, her breaths hard.

She rolled her shoulder, the muscles there already aching.

They had no supplies, beyond the little they managed to get in Vendima. But with no food, they wouldn’t get far, especially with winter coming.

They couldn’t stay there, not with as close to both regions as they were, not with those on their trail – or trying to find it – being so close. But what could she do? They had so little. They wouldn’t get far.

She picked up the fallen log, partly chopped, and rearranged in on the tree stump, ready to take another shot at it.

She and Regina needed to talk about it; too much time had passed with them sharing no words about just what situation they were in. They couldn’t be caught off-guard.

Her strike missed, chipping the side of the log. The next was no better.

“Stupid thing,” she muttered, throwing the log back into the pile. At least Granny hadn’t got her cutting trees down – yet. She grabbed another log to start clean with.

She had just managed to cut it, and one more, when leaves crunched behind her.

Emma whirled around, axe gripped tightly in one hand, and did little to hide her surprise.

“You’re…” Emma sucked in a breath, trying to steady her panting, “ – here… quick.”

“Not really.” Red looked up to Regina, whose eyes were focused entirely on Emma, both of them stepping into the clearing.

“No,” Regina added slowly, “It has been awhile. Past noon in fact.”

Emma tilted her head, breathing out heavily, “It… is?”

Nodding, Red strode to the small pile of wood beside Emma.

“It seems you got a little caught up.”

Emma’s lips tilted up into a lopsided smile, chest still heaving but breath no long as short as it was.

“It’ll be time to eat soon.” Red crouched down, picking up the firewood and rearranging it so it would be easier for her to carry some of it.

“Where is your cloak?” Regina had closed the distance between them at some point, lifting an eyebrow with a knowing expression.

“Oh, you know.” Emma turned, and swung the axe down at the stump. It rebounded, toppling off to the side.

Flushing a little with the creeping cold and embarrassment, Emma picked the axe up, aware of Regina’s eyes on her, and leant it against the stump.

She hesitated in looking up, until she saw Regina step to Red’s side to help her separate the firewood into three piles. Emma swallowed thickly, noticing the amused smile on Regina’s lips.

Well, that’s what I get for trying to show off.

Emma scratched the back of her head, a self-deprecating grin teasing her lips.

She blinked, feeling something drop against her face, like a raindrop. She looked up at the cloud filled sky, brow furrowed hard.

“Emma?” Regina called. Emma heard the rustle of her dress as she stood, but only lowered her head when she noticed something.

“What’s that?” Emma muttered, going cross-eyed in her effort to trace the dancing white fleck. It felt like rain, looked a little like it in size if nothing else. But it fluttered and danced.

“Oh…” The pure wonder in Regina’s voice caught Emma’s attention, a strange unnameable bubble of something stirred beneath her breast, “It’s snow.”

“Snow?” Emma parroted distractedly. Regina’s lips were parted, her eyes twinkling with wonder.

God, why was she so beautiful?

“But we get it all the time?” Red’s young voice snapped Emma back to herself, thankfully so. Red’s pink cheeks puffed out, her nose twitching when a flake of snow landed on it, “I used to like it, but now it’s annoying.

“How can it be annoying?” Regina turned her eyes away from the heavy sky, her confusion clear in her eyes.

As if someone was shaking loose the snow, it fell harder sending chills up Emma’s arms where it landed. Red, perhaps the wisest of them all, pulled her hood up.

Emma was starting to regret stowing her cloak away, and choosing her old tunic and trousers that day.

“It stops me from seeing my friend. And now I have to help Granny out – ”

Emma nodded, she knew that too well. Working in the summer rain storms was a challenge indeed. They came and went so fast…

“Oh! But now I have someone to play with!” Red charged up to her, grabbing her hands with pink fingers. Emma’s breath seized as she tensed, “We can have snowball fights and build things with it!”

“What?” Voice high and mind whirling, Emma could only stand there her mouth parted.

“We just have to wait for it all to settle. We are going to have so much fun! … If Granny’ll let me.”

Red bounced on her heels, green eyes dancing as Emma blinked flakes of snow from her eyelashes.

A melodious laugh drew Emma’s attention to her left.

Regina was watching the exchange, her smile gifting Emma with such warmth despite the chill slowly permeating her body, it did so much to ease the tension. Enough that she caught the glimmer of concern hidden in Regina’s eyes.

White specks clung to her dark hair, her cheeks darkened by the cold.

The wind surged, stinging at her eyes and mouth.

“We should get to shelter.”

Red released Emma, drawing back her frigid fingers at last. Red made quick work to get to the edge of the clearing. Emma, puzzled as she was, stood frozen – a description she would have laughed at if Regina had not approached her when she did.

“I hope you learn something from this,” Regina informed her, wrapping her cloak around them both as best as she could. Emma hadn’t realised she had been shivering.

“From playing?”

“From being a stubborn fool.”

“Ah,” Emma half chuckled, “This is about the cloak.”

“You should have listened to Granny.” Regina tried to scold her, it might have worked if her lips hadn’t tilted up.

Red crossed her arms, possibly to stop from bouncing with all the energy in her.

“I believe we are wanted.”

 “Come on!” Red called, flipping her hood up, Regina did the same, but tried to shelter Emma, their steps turning from a walk to a run as the weather grew worse.

 


 

They dived into the first shelter they found, the barn, which was probably for the best.

Emma drew reluctantly from her to dig under the bags of seed and, to Regina’s not so surprise, pulled out her cloak.

“We forgot the firewood,” Emma said, pulling her cloak around her shivering frame.

Regina nodded, though her mind had slipped to other matters, “Will Rocinante be well in this weather?”

She ran her fingers through his mane, touched him in various spots and most importantly his ears to test the warmth of his skin. On a few occasions she had taken him for a walk outside the barn, not far nor for long. He had been through just as much as they, he needed his rest and time to recover.

“He’ll be fine.” Red, it seemed, had apparently taken the opportunity to do some of her chores, carrying the heavy bucket to the cheerfully crowding chickens. “Facey and the others were fine, and the chickens. I’m sure it will stop soon.”

He felt warm enough, but even so.

Regina’s gaze slipped to Emma, caught her rubbing her arms through the cloak – though she stopped as soon as she realised she was being watched.

“He’ll be fine,” Emma agreed, “The barns here are made to stand such weather.”

She supposed that made sense, and it did appear to be the case. She relaxed a little at Emma’s words, but still looked around at the walls and roof.

“Hey.” She lowered her gaze to find Emma beside her, holding out some hay.

“Thank you.”

Emma smiled, her nose and cheeks still pink, and gave Rocinante a scratch as Regina fed him.

 She could hear the wind outside, not as loud or fierce as the summer storms of home, but intimidating nonetheless. She looked up to the hatches in the roof, open slightly to allow the light in as normal, but thankfully none of the snow managed to get in.

She hoped Red was right, and it did stop soon. Best they get the firewood and back to Granny’s as soon as they could.

Red dropped the bucket into the first stall when she had finished with it, her mouth dropping open in realisation.

“Oh!” Red bounced, hands moving frantically, “It might be annoying, but the first snow means it’s almost Ġéol!”

Emma scratched the back of her head, questioning gaze slipping to her. Regina, sadly, had no answer.

“Ġéol,” she repeated, working the unfamiliar term around her mouth, “What is that?”

“Honestly?” Red breathed, completely flabbergasted.

Emma chuckled, her nervousness clear.

Red seemed to jump from foot to foot, forehead creased as she reminded Regina of just how young she truly was.

“You give presents to your family, and to those that may as well be family.”

“Oh,” Emma realised, though Regina could detect a sense of forlornness in her, “Year’s End.”

“That’s a strange name.” Red’s gaze flickered to Regina, her face growing pink, “I mean, I haven’t heard it called that before.”

Regina gave Red a supportive smile, recalling a similar exchange from… well, now it felt a significant length of time ago.

“I imagine it is the same celebration.”

Emma’s stomach rumbled.

“Heh, sorry. Year’s End always makes me think of food.”

Regina lifted an eyebrow, smile teasing, “Now why does that not surprise me?”

“You don’t think of the presents?” Red asked, hopefully oblivious to the flirtatious energy before her.

“The food is the gift, well, that and being with your loved ones.”

“But you get food anyway – that’s not fair. You’re supposed to get a book, or a new cloak, or something like that.”

“You get food and something long-lasting?” Emma’s brow lifted in disbelief. Not for the first time Regina wondered if the less fortunate here were truly more privileged than those of Viadori.

“Granny even lets me drink Mulled Mead.”

“Really?” Emma tilted her head, the look of disbelief giving way to surprise, “I’m pleased to hear that’s a common drink here too.”

At her own questioning look, Emma looked to her, smile growing.

“I’ll describe it later.”

“We’re going to have so much fun.” Red shot forward, startling the chickens, and grasped Emma’s wrists. Her eyes jumping between them in quick succession.

“Kid,” Emma squeaked trying to cover her alarm.

“It might be an idea to calm down,” Regina said with as much kindness as she could, aware of the tension in Emma’s body. Once outside was enough, now inside a place almost familiar was riling up something in Emma. She did not know what it was, but she could almost feel it in the air like the tell of a forthcoming summer rain. Close and suffocating.

Regina placed her hand on Red’s shoulder, felt the jittering energy there calm.

“It is probably wise not to scare Billina after all. I fear what she is capable of.”

Red nodded slowly, eyes wide, “She pecked my leg once, still got the scar.”

“Really, how did that happen?”

Emma, it seemed, had calmed down some since Red’s lurch towards her and gave a strengthening smile to them both.

“I think it was because I ignored her.”

After a worried glance to the hen in question, Red returned her gaze to them.

Regina started, not expecting the loose touch to her arm. Red, holding loosely to both of them smiled broadly. “It has always been Granny and me. But not this year.”

Emma’s smile grew soft, something shining in her eyes, “Then we have no choice but to make it the best damn Ġéol you’ve ever had.”

Red laughed, there was no jump this time for either of them as Red, so very carefully, wrapped an arm around both of them. The hug leaving them both surprised.

 

Chapter Text

Fidgeting with the weighty basket on her arm, Emma took determined strides to the far end of the village. She had gathered what Granny asked for, and now she needed to head back.

Or, rather, she was meant to.

She had offered to do the usual chore this time rather than wait for Granny to ask it of her, perhaps it had been a little deceitful of her, seeing as she had an ulterior motive for doing so.

“Excuse me, Mister Geppetto?”

Geppetto looked up from his work, a smile spreading across his face when he saw her, “I’ve told you before, simply Geppetto is more than fine.”

She placed the basket at her feet, giving her arm a shake to return some feeling to it.

“Then, err, Geppetto, I was wondering if…” Emma shifted on her feet and rubbed at the back of her neck, standing only a few paces away from where he sat, “Err, if we could make a deal.”

“A deal?” He replied, she ducked her head before she could see his reaction, her fingers twitching at her neck, “If there is something you want, then you need only ask for it. Family of Eugenia are family of mine.”

Her gaze jumped up in a sharp motion, surprise shocking the tension out of her.

“That’s – kind of you,” she said, her voice a little faint as tried to gather her scattered feelings, “but I must insist on providing you with something in return.”

“When you have little you share what you can.”

“I insist.” Emma was firm, though she understood what he meant – for the most part. People should share, but more often than not, the stronger and bigger take what they want from the smaller and weaker. There were far too few people who lived by such true ideals. “Please.”

“Well…” he rubbed at his chin, eyes on the chisel still in his aging hand, “I can always use more wood.”

“Any special sort? I mean, you need something special to make things, right?”

“No, any will do.”

Emma had the feeling that wasn’t the case, but she held her tongue, just in time too as the carpenter had not finished.

“Small blocks will be fine, I am hoping to practice some finer carvings.”

Emma smiled, relieved at his words, “That’s great, I was hoping to receive such a thing in return.”

“Is that so?” Geppetto placed down the chisel, standing with a click of his bones, “Why don’t you come in, I just put a kettle on the fire, we can talk over a hot drink?”

She wanted to refuse the offer of a drink out of politeness, and more than a little discomfort, but her throat did feel dry, and the chill was setting in now the sun was no longer at its highest point in the sky. She smiled, genuinely pleased this was going better than she had hoped, and because of the man’s generosity – though a part of her would always cling to an unbreakable fragment of suspicion when offered such kindness.

“That is very kind of you.”

He smiled, the wrinkles beside his eyes deepening. He held the door to his home open as she picked up her basket and approached him, “After you.”

 


 

“You have cut an awful lot of wood today.”

“Gotta build my strength up, you know that.” Emma could hear the snow crunch beneath Regina’s boots, though she didn’t need that cue to know she was drawing closer.

“Perhaps, but these seem different.” Regina was looking at the pile of wood separated from the firewood for Granny. Emma grinned, an edge of nervousness in it.

“I guess.” Emma shrugged, hands dropping to her side, the axe clutched carefully in her right, “Worth trying something a little different.”

Regina narrowed her eyes, scrutinising her, “You are hiding something.”

Emma snorted, and lifted her chin, “What could I possibly be hiding?”

Regina stepped back, her sceptical look vanishing after a moment. It lessened the rising panic in her chest, luckily she had something to keep her hands occupied with or their nervous moments might have given her away.

“Granny will be pleased.” Regina turned a piece of wood over in her hands, as if she was interested in the fine grain and pale bark.

“With any luck.” Emma chuckled, “Might keep my back clear for a short while.”

“Hmm.” Regina smiled, placing the wood neatly back on the pile, “With you two, I am not so sure.”

“Funny.” Emma grinned, lining up another log on the tree stump, “You make me sound like a terror.”

She felt Regina’s eyes rove over her, and despite the chill she felt her face heat, keenly aware of the intensity of Regina’s gaze as she swung the axe, the log breaking in two.

“Perhaps you are,” Regina purred distractedly, a tone that was so unfamiliar that Emma’s face grew hotter.

And though Emma smiled, and grew bashful, it did not take long for her mood to turn sombre.

Regina’s gaze remained on her even as she rearranged Emma’s cloak on top of the wood pile that was still waiting to be cut, and sat down awkwardly on top of it.

“Don’t you have chores you’re supposed to do,” Emma tried to tease, though it tumbled from her lips wrong.

Regina pulled her own cloak tighter around herself, smiling.

“Why? Worried I am dragging my weight, as you say?”

Emma chuckled softly, placing her axe down and stepping to Regina to collect another log for chopping.

“If you must know, I came to help you carry it back.” Regina lifted an eyebrow, a mask of indifference in place, but it was as easy as always for Emma to see right through, “Unless you wish to make a few trips on your own?”

Emma snickered, laughed harder when Regina frowned at her for seeing right through her attempt to tease.

Though, as the short bout of laughter petered out, the dolefulness returned, heavier than before.

Sighing, she crossed her arms and let her chin drop. The mood settling like the snow on the ground. Fast and thick.

“We can’t stay here you know,” she said, her voice low.

“I know that, I cannot handle this cold as well as you.”

Emma swallowed down the tension in her throat, sensing Regina had purposefully misunderstood. Somehow, that made it all the harder.

“I mean here. With Red and Granny.”

She lifted her gaze, heart beating hard when Regina huddled closer into herself, her head turning away.

“We have been here for a long time – too long. I know we can’t leave yet, but with each passing day we are likely putting ourselves more at risk.”

“You think I am unaware?”

Emma dropped into a crouch before Regina, hands seeking hers.

“We are not the only ones at risk.”

Regina’s eyes flickered back to her, realisation shining in them.

“You said the town sees no travellers.”

“As far as I know.” Emma shifted forward, ignoring the cold and wet seeping in where she was keeling, “We might be safe for all I know, but there is always the chance…”

“Things will go wrong.”

That was the simplest way to put it, so Emma nodded gently.

“I…”

In truth, Emma did not want to leave. Even with her complaints and her being constantly on edge. Even with her always being dictated too and unable to do as she wished. This was as close to having a –

 “We should at least have some sort of plan in place.”

“The same one we had before.”

“But we didn’t get far, not before our unpreparedness and my lack of knowledge brought us to a situation we might not have survived.”

Regina’s eyes met hers, sadness shifting in a moment, catching Emma by confused surprise.

“Then we learn as much as we can, so we will know how to survive.”

Emma shifted, her knees numb, but her hands warmed by Regina’s own.

Her chest heaved, her mind swirling.

She dropped her head, eyes closing when she felt Regina’s fingers sweep through her hair.

That… perhaps it wasn’t the best solution, but it was a move forward. And… and they couldn’t go yet anyway. Not with the cold of winter, and the snow would make travel difficult – they just weren’t used to it. Rocinante had never seen it either, and they weren’t about to leave him.

Emma nodded, lips pressed tight in determination.

Regina smiled, pulling until she was halfway standing, and leant forward suddenly, a soft press of her lips to the tip of Emma’s pink nose.

“For now. It will have to do.”

Emma smiled tightly in agreement, standing fully though her numb legs were unsteady.

For now.

 


 

On second thought, perhaps this had not been her best idea.

That was not entirely true of course, there had been many bad decisions over the course of her life, and this was one she was actually determined to do. She had managed to secure Granny’s help, and Emma had gone to run errands in the town again. It should all have fallen into place well enough. The only wave in the sea, however, was that cooking was difficult.

Regina placed the large bowl down with a huff, turning back to Granny who was searching her pantry and cupboards while pulling out various jars.

“Will this work?” Regina queried, turning over a jar filled with dried berries.

“Substituting ingredients is a tradition. You gotta make do with what you’ve got.” Granny handed her some strange circular object filled with miniscule holes.

“It needs to be –

“Like what you described. I know, and it will – or as close as we can manage.” Granny stepped towards the table, gesturing for her to help carry the various ingredients and utensils over, “Would have been even better if you knew what ingredients we needed. Not that I suspect we can get most of them easily.”

Regina’s face warmed and she snapped with more bite than she intended, “I told you –

“You’ve never cooked yourself,” Granny shook her head, selecting a large knife, “You spoil a child and they’ll never know how to survive.”

“I understand that now,” Regina replied softly, guilt already settling in her chest for her brief flare of anger.

Granny patted her shoulder, putting the knife on the cutting board, “You’re doing well – both of you. But don’t let Emma know I said that, it’ll swell her head.”

Smiling, Regina shook her head. Even when one of them was absent, nothing changed.

“I reckon you’ve got a good sense of taste. If we follow your description, I’m sure it’ll be a good imitation.”

Regina handed Granny the jar she indicated to, and the old woman dropped a heap of dried, dark fruit onto the chopping board.

“I certainly hope so.”

Granny lifted her knife, her actions slow as she showed Regina how to cut the large fruit.

“This should taste like that fruit syrup you mentioned.”

Really? Regina couldn’t imagine. But even if the texture was wrong, hopefully the taste would be right.

“You must miss your home.”

The words startled Regina, made her throat tighten. She had only been watching intently, all she could assume was that Granny must have misinterpreted her expression. Though now as the words were out and her attention was brought back to it, she felt a tension in her chest that she had long ago hoped never to return.

“Yes. No.” Regina swallowed hard, and refocused on watching as Granny quartered the fruit and deposited the smaller chunks into a bowl, “… Sometimes.”

“It’s hard leaving everything behind. Even if there isn’t much to leave.” Granny gestured for Regina to take her place and handed her the knife. Granny stood beside her, carefully observing her as she mimicked her earlier actions. The knife was weighty in her hand, and her cuts were too slow, the fruit oozing out a juice that was unpleasantly sticky.

“You sound as if you have experience,” Regina pried, curiosity making her brazen. Or perhaps it was the need for a distraction that did that.

She looked to Granny from the corner of her eye, movement stilled by fear of what she may see.

There was no need to fear though, however the sight made her heart heavy. A rare moment of emotion beyond the usual. The smile on Granny’s lips sad.

“Most people do, in one way or another. It’s been just over a decade but it still affects me, more some days than others. But not all people are as fainthearted.”

“You are not fainthearted,” Regina said without pause, resuming cutting. “I never knew my grandmother… but I like to imagine she would have been like you.”

“Well,” Granny blustered, nodding before returning to the still ajar cupboard door, “Now you’ve got the hang of that we can start on the mixture. Then the rest of them.”

She had moved Granny, she realised, she might have handled it differently than others, but Regina could still tell.

The pile of fruit was rapidly dwindling, and rather than allowing Granny to stew in her emotions, Regina asked, “Which next?”

“The shelled nuts, when ground they give a kick of an aftertaste like the one you mentioned.”

She cut the last fruit and waited for Granny to show her what to do. A sudden question, and likely one that would lighten the mood, finding its way to her lips, “Can we make a horse friendly one for Rocinante?”

Granny shook her head, though smiled with it.

“We’ll see what we have left.

 


 

The snow, though light on the ground according to Red, made getting to Berrington more of a challenge than usual. She set off soon after the morning meal, basket in hand to get the last supplies before the worst of the winter set in. And, of course, to collect Regina’s gift.

She had secured the bag they had brought for Rocinante and hidden it in the clearing. Then it all took was to make a sneaky detour there, load up the basket with wood and shoulder the already filled bag.

Or that was the plan, and while it did go well, she underestimated just how much she could carry with ease. And how tiring it would be to trudge through the snow. Still, eventually she got there, and in relief, dropped the basket before Geppetto’s door.

She knocked, huffing a little of the weight of the bag hanging over her shoulder.

Emma stood there, protected by most of the wind by the thick cloak she wore, aware of the eerily empty town. It was small, yes, but there was always someone about.

Her head perked up at the barely detectable sound of creaking wood, then the shift of something before the door opened.

Even indoors, it seemed, Geppetto wore his hat. He doffed it with a smile.

“Ah, Mistress Emma, I didn’t expect you.”

Emma chuckled nervously, still not used to being referred to so highly, “Considering what our deal is, I thought it made sense to come before the day.”

“Oh.” He chuckled, “That is sound logic, and a relief to know I was correct about it being a gift.”

With more difficulty than she wished to show, Emma ducked to pick up the basket, and to hide her face at hearing how easy she was to see through.

“Where do you want it?”

“Come in,” he ushered her in, trying to help her. She shrugged his assistance off with a polite smile.

She added the wood to a smile pile beside the warm burner.

“You should have come earlier,” Geppetto said as she stood with a stretch and crack of her bones, “To see if you are pleased with it.”

“I’m sure it will be fine.” She pushed her hood back, feeling oddly relieved at not having to hide herself.

Geppetto flushed a little at her compliment, circling around his small table to reach a shelf on the far wall. Rather than sit immediately, as he gestured to her, Emma rolled her shoulders and flexed her hands, hoping to bring some relief to her aching muscles.

“You brought more than I expected, I should give you more.”

Emma pulled one of the two chairs out, rested her cloak on the back of it, and went to sit. Instead, she jumped up when something small and furry shot from beneath her.

She rubbed the back of her head and sat slowly, to which her body happily rejoiced, and met eyes with a cat as it gave a flick of its tail and left the room.

“No,” she responded when an oblivious Geppetto turned presenting the object in his hand, “All I wanted was this.”

She studied it, smile growing with wonder at the intricate detail.

“I take it you are pleased.”

“What can I say, it’s beautiful.”

Geppetto hid his embarrassed face, moving to the burner at her back to prepare drinks. She would protest, but thought better of it, instead choosing to look around his small home. Carvings were prominent everywhere, as were wood shavings in the far corner from her. The scent of fresh wood was oddly comforting, reminded her a little of the scent of new hay. It helped to settle her nerves.

“I must insist,” Geppetto said a short time later, placing his kettle on the wood burner, “That I offer you more for your work.”

Emma slid Regina’s gift from the table, secreting it into her pocket.

“And I said –

“I insist.”

The firmness had her turn a little too quickly, straining a tired muscle in her neck. She winced, but covered it up with a clearing of her throat. She stayed, head bent until she felt him circle around to the other chair.

“Viadori,” he said slowly, placing a cup filled with tea before her. It had a bitter taste here, but she had grown to enjoy it, “If I remember correctly, had these little cakes. With nuts, abundant this time of year…”

“Oh, turrón,” Emma supplied, stomach stirring at the thought.

“Yes, that’s it!” Geppetto sat down slowly, placing his own cup down, “My father would buy me some whenever we passed through – which wasn’t all that often. A wonderful treat, and one I was shown how to make once. Every so often I make some and share it.”

Emma nodded cheerily, sipping her tea and basking in the warmth of it sliding down her throat.

“You have been here for a while, you must be missing home. Especially this time of year.”

“I have… Granny and Red.” She busied herself with another sip, hoping to push away the unpleasant feeling of ignoring Regina’s existence.

“I have some honey, eggs, and almonds here…”

Emma got the hint, not that it was subtle enough to truly be called that.

“I told you, this is enough.” She patted the pocket on the inside of her cloak, but was unsurprised when Geppetto got up, abandoning his tea to search his lone cupboard.

“You have other errands, correct?”

“Of course.”

“Then you do that, and by the time you return it will be ready for you.”

“Geppetto –

“Or you can help me, it is your choice.”

Emma sighed before drinking back the rest of her tea in one regrettable, scolding gulp. Her protest growing weak, and her will to do so even more. Damn if the idea of having some turrón didn’t appeal to her, and her rumbling stomach.

 


 

Emma had planned to help Geppetto prepare the turrón, had even been a little eager to do so – she had seen others cooking, but not often, and had never done so herself – but he reminded her she had come to the village for more than fulfilling their agreement.

Everyone, it seemed was bundled up in their homes, hence the empty town. It certainly helped ease her discomfort some. She had rushed around, basket in hand, getting the last of their needed supplies – apparently Granny had already given them her part of the trade, though Emma was clueless of when she had found the time to do so. Or why she had not gotten what she needed in return at the same time.

But by the time she was kicking her boots free of snow on his doorstep, Geppetto opened the door and gestured to a bundle on his table.

“You finished them already?”

“You are disappointed?” Geppetto smiled, though there was uncertainty in his eyes.

Emma shrugged, offering a smile that seemed to settle the old man’s nerves.

Truly, now it was done, she was relieved. Now she had gifts for them all. Something she had honestly not thought of, her mind solely on acquiring a gift for Regina.

“I hope they will be satisfactory.”

“I am certain they will be.”

“I was able to make four. You can share the fourth.”

 Geppetto picked up her bag, handing it to her when she picked up the bundle of sweets.

She shouldered the bag, but fiddled with the bundle in her hands rather than immediately securing it.

With a soft exhale, she placed the bundle down and unfolded it just enough to sneak one of the turrón out.

“You have my one,” she told him, as if it would appease the sense of guilt that had rose in her chest. Something worsened when she realised her slip.

“I can make it anytime, as long as I have the ingredients.”

Emma shook her head, and placed it on the table.

“You have the spare then,” she said easily enough, covering her mistake smoothly, “Have a good Year’s End, Geppetto, I’ll stop by sometime in the new year.”

He removed his hat, seeing there was no use in arguing with her – much as she had seen with him earlier on – and bid her farewell.

She did the same, picking up her supplies and leaving through the door he held open.

 


 

“Is this what you have been doing all day?” Emma’s shoulders jumped up high, but when she turned she smiled, “I did not see you come back from town.”

“Well I did – ” Emma shrugged, expression cocky, “ – as you should be able to see.”

Regina’s brow lifted, and Emma couldn’t hide her smile.

“I think we have enough firewood by now.”

“Perhaps,” Emma drawled, “But I dropped off the last of the supplies, and thought I would do something productive.”

“Granny shooed you out?”

Emma chuckled, scratching at her cheek.

Regina shook her head, and trudged past Emma to being piling up the firewood ready for carrying. She fumbled some, gasping with a flinch at the whack of the axe embedding in the tree stump.

“Leave that for a moment, Regina.” The quaver in Emma’s voice had her standing, had her ignoring her own nerves as she folded her arms, hands resting over her stomach.

“What is it?”

“I, err…” Emma toyed with the edge of her sleeve, gaze wandering up towards the cloud heavy sky. Her breath came out in a visible puff, Regina’s matched it as emotion swirled in her chest, “Well here they don’t give food like you’re supposed to. They give physical gifts.”

“I remember, Emma, I was there.” Regina interjected not unkindly, she could already sense the forthcoming ramble and was trying her best to help Emma avoid it, as well as calm herself.

“Yes, of course, err, what I am trying to say is…” Emma lost her sentence, groping at her pockets, her eyes still on Regina’s despite the redness of her face.

Emma thrust her hand out, only the angle stopping Regina from seeing what was partially hidden within.

“I got you a gift.” And though it was easy to conclude as much, the actual admission had Regina’s heart jump, her lips parting as she stood dazed.

“I don’t know much about cooking, and then I thought this made far more sense because, you know, with everything…”

Surprisingly, or not that surprising, Regina did understand – or thought she did. Her smile pulling at her cheeks, helping Emma’s own sheepish one grow more confident.

Only when she stepped forward to throw her arms around Emma, did she realise she had yet to so much as glimpse at her gift.

She opened her palm, Emma eagerly pressed the gift into her hand.

Regina’s eyes grew wider, the slight flush of embarrassment on her face spreading. The stark whiteness of it, the intricate detail and effort put into it, the craftsmanship, all of it so captivating. But more than that, was the gift itself.

“I remember you said you liked them. I hope that hasn’t changed?”

Regina clutched the unicorn figure to her breast, wrapping her other arm around Emma. Her smile growing as Emma’s arms encircled her.

“I adore it,” she said softly against Emma’s ear, her heart fluttering. She was touched, a rare and unexpected emotion flooding through her.

Emma’s arms tightened, and for a fleeting moment she feared –  hoped! – Emma would lift and spin her around.

“But how?”

“I did a bit of work in exchange.” Emma shrugged despite Regina’s grip still being around her.

Regina pulled back, a playful tilt to her lips, “Well, Emma, I may just have a surprise for you of my own.”

“Is that so?” Emma’s eyebrows lifted, her smile growing cocky, “What might that be?”

“Remove your mind from the gutter, Emma, or you shall get nothing at all.” Regina teased, though it made her bashful.

“It wasn’t!”

“Hu huh,” Regina hummed, a smirk teasing at her lips.

“Honestly!”

“You keep telling yourself that.”

Emma tilted her head, face a deep pink, Regina skimmed her fingers over her goosebump covered arms, pushing forward across that last remaining gap between them.

“Ow!” Emma lurched forward, nearly knocking Regina off her feet.

Giggling came from behind Emma, Regina’s tight grip stopped her from turning entirely – but not enough that she could not see who had interrupted them.

“Red?” Emma’s arms slipped from her, “What the hell was that?”

Finally letting her hold fall, Emma turned around, rubbing at the back of her head. White clumps of snow sticking to her hair.

“A snowball.” Red scrambled from her hiding place behind a tree, nose pink and snow sticking to her boots.

“A what?”

Red dropped down, scooping at the snow until she had formed a small ball from it.

“You throw them at one another, it’s a game.”

“Oh,” Emma said, brow creasing in thought, “I remember you saying something about that.”

Red lifted the ball in one hand, strengthening her stance.

“Not today.” Emma smiled to soften the refusal, though her head dropped and she rubbed at the back of her neck, “I’m pretty damn exhausted.”

Regina’s sharp glance was ignored, at least in the sense that Emma gave her a grin but even now still did not taper her language.

Red’s head dropped, leaving Regina with the urge to say she would play the game with her – even though the thought of throwing snow at one another was not exactly appealing. The downfallen expression was short lived, however, and truthfully, Regina was surprised she was still not used to how Red’s cheerfulness always resurfaced so swiftly and demandingly.

“Tomorrow, we’ll have a hell of a… ”

“Snowball fight.”

“Yes, one of those.”

“Regina,” Red said brightly, turning to her, continuing only when their eyes met, “You can be the judge.”

“The judge?” Regina sighed before Red could answer, realising there was certainly no way of avoiding the uncomfortable game they wanted to play, “Of course, just tell me what I am expected to do beforehand.”

The rapid nod that followed made her feel almost dizzy, then Red was stepping closer, toying with her sleeve as she looked unsurely up at them.

“I… um came here for another reason too.” Red shifted from foot to foot, before stilling with a great puff of breath, “I made you a present each.”

Regina’s chest felt light, emotion stirring within, the wonder escaping into her voice, “You did?”

Red nodded enthusiastically, oblivious to just how her gesture had affected Regina – and Emma judging by the stunned, lips parted expression on her face.

“I hope you like them.” Red held out both hands, fingers curled around what was hidden within.

They accepted the gifts together. Regina brought hers towards her chest, gazing down at it. A small woven band of various dark threads.

She looked to Emma, just in time to see her slip the band onto her wrist.

“Thank you, Red. It’s nice.”

Red beamed at her, though her hopeful gaze soon found Regina.

“Thank you, Red.” She slipped it into the pocket of her cloak. Red’s smile twitched, a growing upset on her face, “I will use it for my hair.”

“Oh,” Red sighed, “You like it?”

“There’s no doubt of that.”

Red rocked on her heels, face flushing. Emma chuckled, patting her shoulder.

“It must have taken a lot of work.” Emma crouched down, picking up the wood.

“Especially considering how much you ‘enjoy’ Granny’s lessons,” Regina added as she assisted Emma.

She heard the familiar sound of crunching snow, bits of it kicked up as Red ran back to the tree she had ducked behind before. She grabbed something and returned to them, holding a basket out.

“Now why didn’t I think of that?” Emma shook her head, standing with the wood cradled in her arms.

“Give me a few moments, I am certain I can conjure up an answer or two.”

Emma stuck her tongue out, the gesture even now startling Regina. Red’s laughter gave her enough time to recover her senses, and return the gesture.

Filling up the basket, Emma chuckled, watching her from the corner of her eye.

Once all the wood was safely in the basket, they began their trudge back to the cottage. Despite her – or more determinedly, Emma’s – insistence to carry the basket, Red refused, managing well on her own. Regina’s hand found its way into her pocket, the tips of her fingers brushing the bracelet in there.

“Hold on,” Emma called as they passed the barn.

They both stopped, looking to Emma who had fallen behind.

“What is it?”

“I just… erm, forgot something.” Emma rubbed the back of her head, cheeks puffing out with her sheepish smile.

“Oh,” Regina lifted an eyebrow, “Your cloak.”

“Huh?” Emma blinked down at herself, grinning nervously, “Yes, I can’t believe I forgot that.”

“Granny wouldn’t like it if she knew what you were doing.”

“Of course not, but you’re not going to tell her, are you Red?” Emma asked jokingly, Red shrugged, the motion so reminiscent of Emma that Regina could not hold back a smile.

Emma disappeared back the way they had come, gone for long enough that Regina started considering visiting Rocinante again – they had spent most of the day together, and when she left him he had begun sleeping quite happily. The cake had certainly gone down well. But as her decision was made, Emma reappeared, cloak wrapped around her.

With a puff of air that sent loose strands of her hair floating, Emma nodded her head, “Let’s hurry back then. I can smell the food already.”

 


 

“So what’s my present?” Emma asked as soon as they stepped through the door. Giddily seemed the most apt way to describe it.

“Really, Emma, you’re like a child.” Regina smiled, humour alight in her eyes.

Emma’s eyebrows lifted, her voice dropping, “Are you sure it’s not something less than child friendly.”

A sharp nudge to the side made Emma’s smug expression fall.

Regina hung her cloak up, Emma refrained from doing so, rubbing at her covered arms as Regina gestured towards Red’s room.

“It’s almost ready,” Granny called over her shoulder, batting at the air when Red tiptoed closer for a better look at what she was stirring.

“We shall only be a moment.”

“I’ve heard that before.”

Emma rolled her eyes, opening her mouth to retort, until Regina caught her hand and tugged her across the room.

“Red! Leave the potatoes alone.”

Red pouted, letting the small potato fall back to the dish and no doubt silently complaining about Granny’s habit of knowing what was happening without looking.

 Emma snickered, reduced to a giggle when Regina poked her in the side.

“It was fortunate you were occupied with securing the last of our winter supplies, or you may have caught us,” Regina said when she closed the door behind them.

“Caught you?”

“I will freely admit I required assistance.” She turned around at that, no longer looking at Emma over her shoulder.

The inquisitive expression on Emma’s face was a sight to behold.

Emma’s nose twitched, and for a ridiculous moment Regina though she might sniff it out. Honestly, it was not that much of a strange thought. Not after her tracking down the pottage in Vendima.

Emma’s stomach rumbled.

With a slight smile, Regina closed her eyes.

“… Sorry,” Emma mumbled, “Granny’s cooking smells good.”

Emma shifted sheepishly, though the agitated movement calmed at Regina’s touch.

“It is on the dresser.”

Emma’s head snapped in that direction, the childlike excitement relit in an instant.

“Red let me put it in here. To ensure your keen eyes did not find it immediately.”

The privacy offered was an additional benefit, for them both. She had no doubt that if they had an audience, even one that was not paying attention, Emma’s reactions would be subdued or hidden – whether she would be successful at that or not, did not matter, it would have been a loss not to see this.

Wide green eyes jumped back to her, eager and catching the light of the setting sun.

“Go ahead,” Regina said with her smile still firmly in place.

Gently, Emma tugged her along in her eagerness.

Emma’s free hand hovered over the thin kitchen towel hiding her gift from sight.

“Can I?”

Regina squeezed her hand, Emma’s excitement leaving her too buzzing with energy. The pink flush of it staining Emma’s cheeks.

“It is your gift, you don’t need permission.”

The tips of Emma’s ears grew red, and after a quick glance to Regina, she folded the towel back.

“Oh…” Her eyes grew wider, her lips parted.

“I tried to make it look as much like a Year’s Cake as I could,” Regina found herself saying in a rush, worry niggling deep in her chest, “I tried to get the taste as close as possible. Hopefully that has worked, though the texture does look wrong. I –”

She stopped abruptly, hyperaware of the slight movement of Emma’s lips.

“No one’s made me one before.”

Regina wrung her hands, grip tightening.

They had often shared things in the past, though that was usually Emma sharing with her. Or offering to. It had never truly occurred to her back home to do such a thing, the selfishness of it was like a shock to her body now she recalled it. She drew in a sharp breath, taken from her thoughts when Emma turned watery eyes to her.

“Well they have now.” Regina bit her lip, looking to the cake and the knife beside it, “Have some, I believe it may still be warm.”

Emma’s grin was shaky, but the emotion there was genuine. Regina returned the smile, handing Emma the knife.

“And do be honest about what you think.” Regina cupped her hands before her, eager anticipation blossoming in her chest. Her next words fell from her lips carrying a clear uncertainty, “It is the first time I have cooked anything.”

“I’m sure it will be prefect, this, uh, means – you know…”

Emma moved the knife so the tip pressed into the centre of the cake, but hesitated in bringing it down. Regina assumed it to be due to the embarrassment burning at her face, that is until Emma placed the knife down.

“Emma?”

“I… we shall all share it.”

Regina’s brow lifted, yet the surprise did not last for long.

“That is very kind of you, Emma.” She rubbed Emma’s upper arm, observing closely the emotions on her face, “You should have the first piece though.”

“I will, but if I have it now I know I would end up eating it all.” Emma grinned self-deprecatingly, “You know me.”

“That I do…”

Emma wet her lip, her head tilting. Regina took the cue, smiling sweetly at the consideration Emma still showed her, and leant forward to brush their lips together in a short caress.

When they parted, Emma’s lips tilted up goofily.

“Behave,” she said before any words could leave Emma. The blonde lifted her eyebrows, grin still in place. Though that grew soft when Emma’s hand slipped into her cloak.

“I got you all something.” Emma produced a neatly wrapped bundle, handing it to Regina, “But I want you to have yours first.”

Regina turned the bundle over carefully in her hand, “You already gave me a gift.”

Emma grinned, face still red, “I know that, but that doesn’t mean you can’t have more.”

Regina peeled the cloth aside, brow furrowed as she stared at what was within.

Emma shifted her weight, the movement growing more agitated the longer Regina stared.

“It’s, err, turrón?”

“Thank you, Emma.”

“You…” Emma murmured, visibly deflating, “You don’t know what it is, do you?”

Regina swallowed, stomach dropping.

“I am sorry, Emma, I – ”

“You don’t have to apologise.” Emma smiled sadly, brushing her fingers along Regina’s upper arm, “It’s a sweet, common this time of year. I guess it’s something you don’t – didn’t – get.”

“You had it often?”

“Once or twice, if someone was kind enough to share.” Emma wet her lip, cupping Regina’s hand where she held the bundle, “It’s tasty stuff, try some.”

“I want to, but you should not eat sweets before the evening meal.”

“You offered me some cake…” Emma tilted her head, smile turning into a smirk.

“I know that,” Regina blurted out, flustered, “But this is… it is different.”

“After then,” Emma said with a wink. Regina lifted her chin, and Emma nodded to her cake, “Let’s go surprise them with this lot then.”

Regina agreed, wrapping the bundle up tighter just in case, as Emma picked up the cake and knife.

 


 

“Good,” Granny said when they placed the sweets on the table.

Emma’s couldn’t stop her eyes from roving over the full plates in the centre of the table. The table was filled more than Regina had ever seen it before, but even so it was nothing compared to the meals of home. Not that it affected her any, just that the stark contrast of it still struck her rather strongly.

“I didn’t make anything sweet.”

Red stretched her neck to peer at the new foodstuff, large green eyes taking in the unfamiliar sweets.

“The turrón,” Emma said rolling her shoulders, now free of the heavy cloak, and pointed to them, “That’s my gift to you all. It’s good.”

Emma sat then, head dropped. There was a flash of surprise across Granny’s face, her gaze warm though Emma was oblivious.

“And this is Year’s Cake, or as close to it as we can manage,” Regina added, surprised by how proud she felt.

Red’s chair scraped back as she helped Granny bring the last two plates over.

“It looks wonderful.” Red’s compliment made her grow a little flustered, Emma tugged at Regina’s sleeve to encourage her to sit.

Granny picked up a jug from beside the sink.

“Mulled Mead.” She said simply, “Make it myself.”

Red struggled to stay still, shifting in her seat and taking everything in with wide smiled glee. A smile that grew when Granny poured her some mead.

Regina’s cup was already full, she picked it up, taking a sip of water.

“Now – ” Granny sat, gaining their full attention in one movement, “ – Help yourself. But I will be watching, I don’t want any of you choking from eating too fast. Emma.”

Emma’s head snapped up, a roasted carrot hanging half out of her mouth.

 


 

Granny lifted her cup, Red followed suit while Emma and Regina trailed behind – baffled by yet another tradition.

“To starting a new year with family.”

“Hear, hear,” Red said taking a sip, to which they all followed.

Emma spluttered out a laugh, some of her mead dripping down her chin, “You must have drunk too much, Granny.”

She still grinned, something that did not so much as falter even in the presence of Granny’s usual intimidating expression.

Regina was too overwhelmed to contemplate scolding Emma, however jokingly.

Granny considered them family?

Red giggled, the noise befitting of the redness of her nose.

“Correction – ” Granny lifted her cup, they all followed her lead “ – To starting a new year with family… and the pain in my backside.”

“Hear, hear!” Red slurred, louder than she was aware.

“Hear,” Regina joined in softly, brushing her fingers across Emma’s knee. Emma’s hand soon rested on her own, hidden beneath the table.

Family.

“I will keep that in mind, Granny.” Emma’s smile grew mischievous, and she lifted her cup.

“Hear, hear…” Red mumbled, cheek flat against the table.

 

Chapter Text

Emma grumbled wordlessly as she stomped after Granny.

The day had been spent on snares. At first it had been tolerable, interesting even. Regina was an avid learner no matter the method, while Emma preferred learning by doing. Watching Regina, bright eyed and her face lit by a smile, Emma had felt that familiar warmth blooming in her chest. It was always there, of course – perhaps it had always been there, even in the early days – but at times it flared, burning hotter. As much as she enjoyed that unnameable feeling, it didn’t help her concentration, which Granny had been quick to pounce on. The fluster from that was enough for her to regain her senses some.

The snare was simple enough, just a length of very thin rope, some supple branches, and a couple of stones to mark the location. It was figuring out where the rabbits were likely to tread that was the tricky part, but Granny had pointed out the signs, and the snow – where it was thicker– helped a great deal to distinguish the trails from the runs.

Regina had fumbled with the required knot (or perhaps it wasn’t truly required and Granny was simply showing off again), while she had found it outstandingly simple. Granny had looked at her hard, and perhaps with a glint of surprise in her eyes, but Emma had acted oblivious and Granny said nothing.

A short while after that, Granny was satisfied and sent Regina on her way.

Emma had not been so lucky. Granny had seized her shoulder when she had tried to follow after Regina, and informed her that she had to assist her in setting up her real snares – or in other words, as she was quick to find, set them up herself while Granny loomed over her.

Regina had smiled apologetically before leaving. And in truth, once the disappointment ebbed and Regina had gone, Emma silently accepted that it was a good idea to practice as much as she could.

Then the snow had come. Again.

And she was without a cloak. Typical. The one day she had snuck out without Granny insisting on it, she caught her and dragged her away for lessons. To think! The morning had been bizarrely warm, now she could barely see for the snow!

She pushed her damp hair from her eyes, barely avoiding a branch Granny had pulled out of her way. It had already happened a few times, and being smacked in the face by a wet leaf or branch was not fun.

The breeze nipped at her bare arms, leaving her shivering and longing for the Summer Storms of Viadori. Of the warm rain and the wind that did not chill to the bone. Anything over this.

“Stop complaining,” Granny called over her shoulder, the amusement in her voice making Emma grind her teeth, “You said you wanted to toughen up.”

She bit back a mumbled retort, choosing to release a huff of breath instead.

Those snares better be worth it.

 


 

“I told you to take your cloak.”

“Don’t you start,” Emma moaned, though there was no cruelty in her words. Regina lifted her brow, her lips twitching to hide her amusement.

Granny chuckled, earning a glower. The old woman paid Emma no mind as she causally slipped off her cloak; surprising considering how heavy with water it must be.

“Wouldn’t have done much,” Emma muttered, eyes slipping to the item in question, then back to Regina, “Besides, someone was already wearing it.”

Regina’s cheeks darkened, the humour disappearing to be replaced by concern. She approached hurriedly, guiding Emma to the rug before the fire.

The warmth was more than welcomed, but intensified Emma’s shivers. She tried to grit her teeth, but it did nothing to stop them chattering.

Regina’s breath ghosted her neck, the heat of it searing against her icy skin, as she brushed her fingers through Emma’s hair. It was hard to control the tension in her body. The wet strands of her hair were gathered back up and tied in place.

Regina’s touch lingered for a second, then she was gone. Emma blinked hard, watching the dancing flames and only now aware of the chatter behind her. She toyed with the edge of her tunic, prying it from where it stuck to her skin. Removing it strangely made the chill worse, she let the material drop back and tried to stretch out her limbs as best she could. She was grateful, at least, that she opted to wear a tunic and trousers that day, a wet dress was far more unwieldy.

“Take off those clothes before you catch a chill.”

Emma shook off her startled reaction, meeting Regina’s warm eyes as she placed her nightdress beside her. Regina’s smile was so caring, her eyes so soft, that for a moment Emma stupidly thought their closeness would lead to a kiss despite their surroundings. But then Regina stood, stretching a towel out as a somewhat effective barrier.

Emma smiled, even as her face grew pink. She was so blessed, it made her heart swell.

She peeled off her clothes and changed swiftly. Regina sensed when she had finished and knelt beside her. Or perhaps Regina had seen when she was done, she realised she didn’t actually mind which was true.

“Red and I made stew,” Regina told her, slipping the towel, and briefly her arms, around her slowly warming frame.

“Been busy, huh?” She queried when Regina’s face was still close. Regina smiled, though there was a sense of shame in it.

“Not as busy as you.”

Emma grunted, huddling closer to the fire when Regina pulled away, the heat of her body a great loss, “We better get a rabbit out of this.”

“Only one.”

“As many as I can carry,” she rectified.

Regina patted her shoulder, almost consolingly and left only to return moments later with a steaming bowl and a spoon.

She accepted it hesitantly, even as her stomach roared.

“Wonders never cease.” Emma looked back, catching the tail end of the shake of Granny’s head. “She isn’t trying to inhale it.”

Emma lifted her chin up, as she had seen many an arrogant person do, but her inability not to smile gave her away, “If something tastes good, you take your time with it.”

Red ducked her head, pretending to be enthralled with her drink. Regina shifted beside her, a sigh brushing her ear.

One of Granny’s eyebrows shot up, her expression not changing as she took a slow sip of her drink, watching Emma over the brim.

She placed her cup down, drawing out the moment before she spoke, “I’m going to let that one run off my back and assume you’re just saying that to impress these two.”

Emma faced the fire again, smiling broadly, only a little disappointed their exchange was going to be short this evening. Granny hadn’t even scolded her for not eating at the table.

“Whatever makes you feel better,” she said with a condescending air, before taking her first mouthful.

Another sigh left Regina’s lips as she glanced from her to Granny before finally sharing a look with Red.

 


 

Regina ran her fingers through her hair, observing it in the small mirror Granny had brought out of her room.

“I had not realised how untidy it had become.” There was almost a sense of disappointment deep within her. Her hair would never have been allowed to get into such a state before, the knowledge that it had done so surged a little feeling of rebelliousness in her. Even though it now looked far better. The loss of that feeling was surprisingly strong.

“Been like that for a while. Harder to tell when you braid it.” Regina’s fingers froze in the process of doing just that, before she pretended to brush through her hair again, “But new year, new hair.”

Regina paused in her observation, her eyes flickering to Granny’s reflection.

Granny shook her head, scissors in one hand, her other a fist on her hip.

“Never mind.”

“Thank you, Granny. It looks a lot better.” Regina placed the mirror down, satisfied with what she had seen and returned to her seat at the table.

Red nodded, eyes on Regina’s hair still. She had never seen it out of her braid, and seemed fascinated with it now she had. It reminded her a little of –

“Emma!”

The blonde’s elbow slipped on the table, sending her head dropping. Regina could not say she was surprised she had been close to dozing.

“ ‘s what?”

Granny gestured to the chair in front of her.

Emma stared blankly at Granny.

“It’s your go now,” Red supplied as Regina lifted her hair over her shoulder and, with Granny’s attention shifted from her, began braiding it.

“My what?”

“Time for your haircut.”

“What?”

Red jumped from her seat, rushing to busy herself with cutting slices of the fruited bread on the table. Though both her and Regina’s gazes jumped from Emma to Granny and back again.

“It’s fine.”

“It looks like rats’ tails.” Granny strode to Emma’s side and tugged on her arm, pulling the blonde to her feet. “It needs cutting, just like Red’s and Regina’s.”

“You should listen to Granny or she’ll get her crossbow.” Red said sagely, and with an edge of understanding. She cut another slice of the bread, sliding the first in front of Regina before stepping back to find a plate for herself.

Granny deposited Emma in the chair, picking up her scissors again.

“Now sit still.”

“Still?” Emma squeaked, a sound Regina had never heard. Something about it sent a peculiar feeling prickling against her skin.

“Yes. Now stay still.”

Emma lurched forward, as if the words were a cue, only to be pulled back by a hand on her shoulder.

Regina abandoned her plate, startled by the exchange. It almost looked as if Emma was fighting, but surely she… it was just so her hair could be cut –

“Let go of me!” Emma flailed, trying to dig her heels into the floor to push herself up. Regina’s heart beat spiked, if not from that then from meeting Emma’s wild eyes.

“Calm down girl, I’m trying to give you a haircut – or do you want to stay looking like a mumper?”

“I really think you should let her go.” Regina panicked, fingers curled around the edge of the table.

Granny’s brow crinkled, as if she only just realised just how much of a struggle Emma was attempting. Or that it was not a joke. Emma tried to twist her way free. Dangerously so. Granny paled, her expression one new to her face.

Emma fell forward, the chair toppling as she scrambled away, looking lost as her head turned this way and that. She focused on the door and was gone in a whoosh of cold air.

“What just…” Red’s face was white, her brow furrowed. Granny gritted her teeth, placing the scissors down.

Oddly, it was the sound of metal tapping against wood that unfroze Regina.

She was outside before she knew it, the chill biting at her bare arms, as she was led by that pull in her chest.

Instinctively she knew where Emma would go, familiarity comforting to them both, even if that familiarity was gleaned from something so unfamiliar. A forgery they could pretend was genuine.

The barn’s door was closed, but not barred. She slipped in with ease.

Now, without the thrumming of her heart in her ears, or the wind as she ran, the creeping reality of what she had witnessed sunk in.

The fear. The panic.

She had never witnessed that. Not even when they were still running, not even when they were so close to starving.

The hens weren’t pleased to see her, their clucking loud and the occasional flutter of wings reaching her.

She squinted, the barn seeming so dull after the brightness of outside.

Rocinante lifted his head, ears twitching forward. She smiled, feeble as it was, and when she reached him she ran her hand over his nose.

Distractedly, her eyes wandered, from the hens growing swiftly accustomed to her presence, to the empty stalls and the broken ladder beside her –

She looked up, to the hayloft, which barely had enough room for the haylage itself.

Of course.

“Emma?” It was a challenge. Keeping her voice level.

She heard nothing, aside from the hens. Rocinante nudged her stilled hand.

“Emma?” Her voice was stronger this time. And there was a definite noise.

Emma poked her head over the edge of the hayloft, the familiarity of it all seizing her heart and her breath. It left her frozen for long enough that Emma meekly retreated, the wood beneath her creaking worryingly.

“Emma?” Her voice too seemed to creak, as if it had also been worn down, its former strength lost. The demand she intended in that single word did not appear, leaving it more akin to an uncertain plea, something that carried into her next words, “I wish to speak to you?”

Even with the sounds of scratching and clucking, the noise rebounding in the small space, Regina could feel Emma’s silence like a heavy weight.

Rocinante shifted his head. Her hand, needing something to do, scratched at his favoured spot behind his ear. Her other arm wrapped around her, fingers pressing hard into her skin even with the layers she wore.

A part of her knew this was fruitless, urged her to retreat. The small child in her wanting to run from such confounding emotions, to hide somewhere quiet where she was free of everything pressing down on her.

She clutched harder at her middle, anything to stop the tremble.

“What about?”

Regina breathed out in a rush, eyes closing with the action.

It took her another breath before she could speak.

“About what…” Regina paused, running it all over in her head, looking to Rocinante for help, “What just occurred.”

“I’m fine.”

Regina’s jaw tensed, eyes focused on dark wood now. The immediate answer, the strain in Emma’s voice, from the very first word, was cutting at her. The nonchalance overplayed and clear enough to see through.

For a moment, brief as anything, she was reminded of those balls she so detested. Of the mask she had to wear, only rarely in the physical sense. The pretence she had to maintain in case her mother noticed, for she had always remembered what her protests and complaints had earned her.

She swallowed, the action hard, her fingers twitching along Rocinante’s mane.

“I think I’ll stay here tonight.”

Regina blinked, trying to push away the dark thoughts to take the words in, “You must be jesting?” She glared at the ledge which still hid Emma from view, her outrage strengthening her voice, “This is more a coop than a barn, it is barely standing. I doubt it will keep the weather at bay. This is not Viadori.”

Not that she ever accepted Emma’s living conditions back home, but at least she had room to stand and light, and a bed of some sort. Though perhaps she was exaggerating the condition of the building, she would not leave Rocinante in a ruin, after all.

“Been in worse places.” Emma sighed, peeking over the ledge, “… Don’t want to go back.”

“Well,” Regina gritted out, struggling with the clash of her emotions, “If I find you in a heap on the floor it will be your own fault.”

“I’m not going to fall out,” Emma huffed, causing a small tilt to Regina’s lips. Her efforts working. “Never have. Kinda.”

I meant,” Regina stressed, “the rickety wood beneath you may give way. Just like the ladder did.”

Emma blinked, likely wondering if it was Red who told her, before she pushed herself forward, her head tilting and her eyes darting to the planks beneath her.

“Besides,” Regina added, her voice soft as the playfulness fled, “I am not here to take you anywhere you do not wish to go.” Her gaze slipped away, unable to maintain their connection. “I simply wished to talk. Or hold – we are rather skilled at that.”

She could see Emma clearly now, her eyes adjusted to the dim light and the blonde raising herself up on her knees. Even from here Regina could see the pinkness of her cheeks, the redness of her eyes.

Her heart beat grew painful.

And then she couldn’t see her anymore. A beat, and two boots appeared. Realisation dawned.

Her eyes widened, her mouth open but unable to vocalise as, thump, Emma dropped.

“Have you lost your mind?!”

The hens squawked, feathers fluttering upwards. Regina’s voice high and loud enough that it made her throat ache.

She whirled from Rocinante, staring in disbelief at Emma crouched on the floor.

 “You are going to hurt yourself, again, why would you –

“I’m fine.” Emma shrugged, standing with a twitch to her face and favouring her left leg.

“Yes, because you look it.” Regina shook her head, only now realising was clutching tight to Emma’s arm. “Do not – do not distract me.”

Emma had jumped. Jumped.

“You need to sit.”

Emma smiled, lopsided and tight, heading to the first stall along the short row. She was bearing her weight more on the side Regina walked on, her hold still on her arm.

“I’ll be fine in a moment, just shock.”

She knocked the stall door open and plopped down on the small pile of sacks within. Grain of some sort, Regina recalled, as Emma tugged her down beside her. Emma kicked the stall door shut with her left foot.

“I’m not sitting alone.” The pitiful excuse was mumbled, the truth clear beneath it.

With no cloaks they shivered, and pressed close in their search for warmth.

Emma’s chest heaved, a whoosh of air leaving her.

Regina slipped her arm around her, keeping her touch light lest Emma bolt again, wishing she could hold her tighter.

“There is no need to act unaffected, Emma. You can trust me.” She implored with her voice as much as her expression, trying to cross the distance between them, “It’s just us.”

Emma said nothing, remaining still until she shifted away abruptly, the distance catching at her, until the reason was made clear. Emma settled back down, her head in Regina’s lap.

With only a little hesitance, Regina slipped her fingers through Emma’s hair, gently playing with the strands.

They stayed in silence, finding comfort in it, a sense of security that they both desired.

She was uncertain how long it lasted, only that by the time Emma’s head shifted in her lap to speak, the chickens had fallen near silent, “I don’t like people touching my hair.”

Regina’s fingers froze, hovering just a breath from touching.

She jumped when Emma’s hand lifted, cupping the back of her own and gently pressing down until her fingers were touching her again.

Regina resumed the soothing stroke of her fingers, though there was a greater feeling of care this time.

“I did not realise,” Regina whispered, her heart clenching. There was more to it than Emma simply not liking it, but Emma was not telling, and Regina was not going to push her to. If she wanted to explain, then she would, on her own terms.

“I never said.”

Regina brushed her hair behind her ear, Emma’s skin was hot beneath her fingertips.

“I usually cut it myself.”

Emma sighed heavily, stirring some strands of hay on the floor. The heave of Emma’s breath lit an idea in her mind, but one that came with a heavy sense of caution. It left her silent for a few long moments as she debated whether to voice it, and the possible responses she could receive.

“Would you…” Regina swallowed, her tone soft as she tried to be as careful as she could be, “… prefer if I did it?”

She regretted the words as soon as she felt Emma tense, her breathing seeming to still.

“I am sorry, Emma, I…”

Emma’s breath came out as a shudder, she turned onto her back, eyes searching for Regina’s own. When they met, she saw how the green shined, but not from the upset Regina had expected.

“You would do that?”

“If it would make it easier for you,” she said, meaning every word. She would do anything if it meant Emma felt comfortable or safe or whatever else. “Though you would have to tell me what to do, of course.”

“I can do it on my own,” Emma muttered, her lips twitching, “You would do that?”

“You already asked that.”

Emma rose, startling Regina until she felt the lightest of brushes against the tip of her nose.

“Thank you,” she sighed, “For offering.”

 Smiling, Regina dipped her chin, warmth spreading across her cheeks.

“And don’t refuse my thanks, I mean it.”

Regina bit her lip, and when she gave a slight nod, Emma settled back into her lap, this time looking to the roof.

After a time, Regina spoke, her fingers again playing soothingly though Emma’s hair.

“How did you manage to get up there anyway?”

Emma shrugged as best as she could in her position, lips lifting in a grin, the question bringing forth a sense of levity that they were both definitely in need of.

 


 

It was long past noon by the time they returned to the cottage. It had not been without difficulty, Emma had again insisted that she would be fine staying in the barn, this time deciding she would sleep in the stall.

But the frequent reminding that she would not be without support, nor would Regina abruptly leave her stranded, was almost enough to convince her.

Still the walk was slow, and not just because of Emma’s sore leg, their comfortable silence peppered with soft grumbles and the crunching of the snow.

Two sets of eyes turned to them when they entered, the concern on Red and Granny’s faces was clear to see, even with only a short glance. Promptly, Red hurriedly turned away and half-jogged to her room, Granny too looked away though she stayed put.

Emma kept her head down, briskly moving to their beds to pointlessly tidy them.

Regina gave Granny a tight lip smile, one that she returned.

The silence stretched on, until at last, Granny stepped closer to Emma, her arms crossed.

“Emma?”

“What?” Emma shrugged, keeping her head down and back to her.

Granny huffed, but no sharp remark escaped her, surprising Regina.

“I thought you were being awkward.” Granny shook her head, lips pressed together tightly. Anger at herself? “You should have said something. I mean – more than you did.”

Emma shrugged again, a crease between her eyebrows.

Remaining silent was a challenge, one Regina coped with by biting her lip, allowing Emma the time she needed. She retreated, to the sink and the half clean utensils left there, but made sure Emma knew she was close.

Granny sighed, and when Emma stood, head still low, she gave her a pat on the shoulder and walked in Regina’s direction. Regina dropped her head and busied herself with finishing washing the dishes, surprised a little when Granny stopped beside her. She picked up a rag and Regina promptly handed her a clean dish.

They continued in silence for a while, one that went on until Emma’s voice, softer than it had ever been with Granny, rose from behind them, “What’s for supper?”

“I wondered how long that would take.” Granny smiled, and the air seemed lighter.

 


 

Emma woke to an empty room. She really was getting to her wit’s end with this oversleeping nonsense. Just when she thought she had gotten over it, it happened again!

It had to be Granny’s mulled mead, she had made so much of it that there was still plenty of it left to drink. And Emma had been quickly reminded that she had quite the taste for it, even though it wasn’t exactly the same as what she had used to drink. She had likely drank too much of it, and clearly she must have lost some of her tolerance to alcohol. Only just a little bit – not that she would let Regina know that. She would sweep up that opportunity far too easily.

She got up, and hastily tugged on some clean clothes with little finesse.

Distantly, like a dream, she recalled chattering voices – though they faded away quickly – another voice, whispered words in her ear as she groaned groggily. The faint brush of lips against her cheek.

She threw their thick blankets onto their beds, her stomach complaining loudly. She had learnt a long time ago, and reminded very recently, to take food when she could. And to ignore hunger when she couldn’t.

But the need to… what? Assuage her guilt?

Guilt for what?

She ran her cold hand over her face, frustrated at her inability to piece together her own thoughts.

Whatever it was or meant did not matter. She just needed to see Regina.

She patted her stomach, an apology of sorts, before rushing over the bare wooden floor nearly on her toes alone.

She dropped down – far too fast – by the door to grab her boots. She yanked one on (wobbling dangerously in the process) and had just retrieved the second when the door slammed open, passing by her face terrifyingly close.

“Shi –

Granny, standing in the doorway, narrowed her eyes.

“ –ut the door, please?” She ducked her head, only now noticing her fingers clutched nothing and the boot a foot away.

The door shut with a creak, forcing a gust of cold air into Emma’s face. Well, if she wasn’t fully awake before, she was now.

She rubbed her hands together, warming them then cupping her face to fight off the chill that clung to her cheeks.

Satisfied, she finished putting on her boots, and began the search for her own cloak – Granny still insisted it was not suitable, even though the weather was warming up – but what did she truly know? About what she was used to? She hadn’t spent all that time in the freezing cold to not build up some tolerance.

The cloak hook besides the door was unexpectedly empty. She rolled her shoulders, giving up, and feeling a little flutter in her chest when she realised where it must be.

Granny’s cloak flew past her face, landing on the cloak hook.

Perhaps she could wear the other… no, that thing was too warming even on the coldest day.

“Where do you think you’re going?”

Emma paused, fingertips brushing the door handle. She looked over her shoulder, throat bobbing, “To find Regina.”

“You think I don’t know that?” Granny raised an eyebrow with a tilt of her head.

“Then why ask?” Emma huffed, facing the woman fully.

Maybe a lack of food really did make her cranky.

“Because you are staying here and learning.”

“Learning what?”

For someone her age, Granny could move shockingly fast. Her arm was at Emma’s back before she was fully aware she was being guided forward.

The pressure of the woman’s hand disappeared, and Emma was being told to “sit” as Granny moved to the seat opposite.

The chair scraped noisily when pulled out, Emma sat, her body tense with caution and confusion swirling in her mind. She shifted forward with the chair, drawing out an aggravating sound.

Granny said nothing, choosing to sit only when Emma crossed her arms and leant on the table.

They sat in silence, surveying one another.

Emma swallowed thickly, panic creeping in her chest.

Was this it? The reveal?

Had her oversleeping been caused by something else entirely? Something malicious and intentional?

Was this a trick? That old thought crept upon her, closing tightly around her lungs.

She had been so certain! She had shook of these thoughts before, but what if she been wrong?! Regina was the smart one, not her!

Had Granny known all along? Had she been waiting for whatever their version of the Brotherhood was to come?

Had Regina been taken? Is that why her steps where halted?

Her knee bounced, foot tapping out a repetitive beat against the floor.

No. No. They were supposed to be safe here, across the border. Safe for now at least. Safe. Safe.

Granny’s lips pressed into a thin line – anger at their lies? Revealing her true feelings on them? Or perhaps simply annoyed by the sound?

“Now,” Granny began as Emma concluded she could bolt for the door, she could surely outrun an old woman, even if she was faster than most, “The book.”

Emma’s leg froze, heel off the ground and calf aching – her temple throbbing.

“B… book?”

The Portable Herbarium By The Foremost Herbārius Of Oakenfell, damn mouthful.” Granny smiled, eyes twinkling, “You remember – the one I gave you to keep still.”

“I thought it was to keep my out of ‘trouble’?”

“That too.”

“Huh uh…”

“This…” Granny said proudly, lifting a thus far unseen bag onto the table, “… is your test.”

“Test?” Emma pushed back in her seat, hands gripping the edge of the table as baffled relief set in.

“Yes. I said I would be checking,” Granny replied, far too happily, “These are three of the most common plants you will find in this area, relatives of them even turn up in some of the other regions too.”

Granny placed the plants out, leaves and all.

“They aren’t the best specimens, but they are all you can find this time of year.”

The berries were small, the leaves the fresh green colour of spring.

“Two of these are inedible. Well you can eat them, but it wouldn’t be pleasant. I’m sure you know that.”

Emma grunted. Heart beat slowly returning to normal.

“The other one is safe. You will eat the one you think that is.”

Her mind jogged to catch up, the panic from moments ago still ebbing. And when her mind did reach understanding, she could only splutter out a shrill, “You’ve got to be joking?”

“Need I remind you who saved you?” Granny was completely unfazed, strict, knowing, like some of the more notable ‘characters’ most knew of back home. She half expected her to pull out a pouch of ergot grain and force her to fence it. “And who has the crossbow.”

“You’re threatening me now?!”

Granny snorted, rolling her eyes, “ ‘course not. But a bolt to the backside is one hell of a motivator.”

“My…” Emma trailed off, shaking her head. The earlier panic spiking again, painful in her chest, “This is crazy!”

“Like teaching a duck to swim.”

“What?” She rubbed at her temple, cheek resting against her palm. Great, now she was getting a headache.

“You did read the book, didn’t you?”

“Yes,” she sighed, the half-truth rolling from her tongue easily, “Of course.”

She had forgotten about it, as had Regina, the both of them choosing to learn other skills that could help them. There had been a lot of practice starting fires lately.

This though, sprung on her as it was, could be a big help. And she and Regina had decided to learn as much as they could. But the last time she had looked at that book she had been bedbound with little else to do. And that was an awfully long time ago.

“Good.” Granny clapped her hands, looking pleased with herself, “You aren’t leaving this table until you show me.”

Emma growled, tilting her head to press her face further into her palm. Her slumping shoulders giving a forth a message she rather they didn’t.

“Take your time,” Granny said as if she had any choice. The badgering tone making Emma glare at a knot in the table.

She should refuse, get up and find Regina.

But this woman was housing them. Feeding them. She was still a liability to Regina. If she angered her, if they lost their only protection before the time was right – if they lost the only way Regina was being looked after, the only way Emma could return to her former strength and protect her…

Her elbow ached from the pressure she was exerting on it. Her right hand dug at the material of her trousers, fingers pressing hard into her thigh.

Goddammit.

Her eyes lifted from the knot, landing with reluctance on the plants.

Granny made a pleased sound, folding her arms as she watched.

They looked fairly identical at first glance, the berries were a dead start - or rather a lot harder to tell apart.

The leaves, she remembered, where easiest way to tell plants apart. Maybe? She hoped she was recalling that correctly from the book.

The leaves looked the same too at first glance. But when she peered closer, she saw two were toothless leaves, but the third on the end wasn’t.

Right, so the toothed one was definitely a no.

After all, red berries and toothed leaves are what got her into this in the first place, (or so Granny said – she couldn’t rightly recall it).

She pushed the third one away, towards Granny, and refocused her attention.

So it was either the first or second.

First or second. First or second.

Her arm fell to the surface of the table, her head lifting as she straightened.

Alright. Maybe she just had to study them both again, as if she had fresh eyes. There had to be something she was missing. There just had to be.

So it was either… either –

One had alternative leaf arrangement, the other opposite. With red berries and toothless leaves.

But that meant…

What the hell was she doing?

She gripped the back of her head, fingers pressing hard, hair tangling painfully around them.

“What’s wrong?”

Emma jumped, hand yanking her hair.

“Godd – ouch…”

She freed her fingers, and tried to soothe the sudden pain by rubbing at the back of her head.

“You’ve been staring at them a good long while.”

“Obviously,” Emma bit out, “How else am I meant to do this?”

“I mean like you’ve got an answer but you don’t want to spit it out.”

Emma ground her teeth, tearing her eyes away from the plants to glare at the woman. Her fingers twitched, nails pressing into the wooden table.

She didn’t want to make a fool of herself, but… this couldn’t go on. How long had it been since the whole thing had started? It hadn’t seemed long since she had sat down, but it felt as if she had been thinking for a good long while.

“I can’t decide,” Emma blurted, eyes back on the two plants she hadn’t pushed away.

“Didn’t you read that book?”

“Of course I did, but I can’t decide.”

“So you read it, but didn’t take any of it in?”

“No, I mean yes, I did take it in. But they both look inedible! But you said one of them is, and my head hurts from this whole damn thing.”

“So which is it going to be?” Granny adjusted her glasses, watching her closely, “It’s past noon and I need to get cooking.”

With a huff, Emma pushed away from the table with a scraping of her chair, “No. I’m not doing this. They all look like they’re going to make me ill. So no, I’m not picking and I am not eating any of them.”

Granny pressed her lips together, but Emma rose and stood her ground. This whole thing was nonsense and she was not about to put up with it – not any longer. Damn the consequences!

Shit, she thought even as she stood firm and defiant, What if I just lost Regina a roof over her head. What if –

“Good.”

“Wha…” Emma shook her head, her anger and panicked thoughts dismissed in a blink, “What?”

“You can’t go around always blindly trusting what others tell you. You got to trust yourself, and doubt the truth of others.”

“Trust myself?” Emma parroted beyond confused.

“They’re all inedible.”

They were what?! So struck by those few words Emma could barely get her words out, her mouth hanging open and a disjointed attempt of a response tumbling from her lips. She tried again, taking a deep breath and gesturing from the table to Granny, “You tried to trick me?”

“I didn’t expect you to eat them. I just said that as a motivator.”

Emma’s mouth again fell open, her eyes wide as her brain slowly processed Granny’s words.

“You tried to kill me!”

“Don’t be so dramatic.” Granny rolled her eyes and grabbed the plants.

“You tried to –

“Emma.” The firm way her name was said snapped her into some sort of sensible attention, “You did good.”

Granny disappeared to dispose of the plants, and Emma fell back into her chair mind spinning. A huff of breath escaped her, and somehow that made her feel a hell of a lot better.

Emma rubbed at her temples, relief slowly flooding her body. Thank God it was over, and she had done well.

But even so, trying to trick her like that was bad form. Though, as she sat there with her gaze on the ceiling she thought over it all. Over the point of the exercise, over Granny’s lesson. Granny was simply trying to teach her something, and with it she reinforced what she had long ago learnt.

Maybe she and Granny had more in common than she had originally thought.

The floorboards creaked, Emma turned quickly only to see Granny had returned.

“Now…” Granny smiled at her, Emma almost dared to call it a look of pride, “This won’t be your last test. It’s about time you started learning those important things you were never taught.”

Emma experienced the bizarre feeling of her stomach dropping heavily, and heart lifting hopefully. The contrast left her queasy.

 


 

The fire crackled, the sound subdued and by now comforting.

How had she ever slept without it? Or without Regina beside her. Emma smiled, turning her head slightly to look at Regina’s peaceful face. How had she managed it for so long?

Emma yawned, her aching eyes heavy but the discomfort of her bladder could not be ignored.

With as quiet a grumble she could manage, she nudged the blankets aside and slipped from under Regina’s arm. She rearranged the blankets around her slumbering form, and stood with a stretch.

The elongated shadows cast by the soft glow of the fireplace carried a strange sense of familiarity. Not too dissimilar from the patterns cast by her lantern back home.

She stoked the fire, and donned a thick cloak. It was so much easier back in Viadori, even the coldest nights were warm enough to travel unimpeded to the communal toilets.

The floorboards were cold on her bare feet as she sought out a candle from a drawer in the kitchen – nearly knocking a large pan over in the process. Once a candle was secured, she lit the wick on the smouldering flames of the fire. Pleased with the strength of the flame, she awkwardly pulled her boots on with one hand, and with a weary sigh she unlocked the door and slipped outside with a shiver. The candle helped, a little, as did the full moon filtering through the canopy of branches.

She huffed out a breath, mindful of the dancing flame, and with rapidly chilling skin, sought out what she needed.

 


 

Emma was just putting the candle away, hands still trembling, when her ears picked up on a new sound.

She tiptoed towards the fire, ears keen. Agitated shifting and frustrated groans – sounds of disturbed sleep, or someone unable to find peaceful rest. Sounds she had grown up familiar with.

She debated for a moment, sucking at her cheek.

A quick glance to Regina confirmed she still slumbered, one arm wrapped tight around Emma’s pillow. With only a little surety, she approached Red’s door.

Emma tilted her head, ear close to but not touching the wood, and gave the gentlest of taps.

The sounds stopped, but not naturally so.

She gave one more knock, saying quietly, “Red, are you awake?”

There was no answer, but as she was just about to retreat back to Regina and the comfort of their makeshift bed, she caught a whispered, “Yes.”

Emma opened the door, just a bit, to poke her head around the edge of it.

“You alright?”

Red, small in the large bed, nodded.

Emma was not convinced, even just in the glow of the fire, and with tired eyes, she could tell something was decidedly not alright.

She slipped into the room, closing the door behind her.

“You sure?”

The firelight caught Red’s eyes, watery from distress or upset. Red nodded again, making Emma smile sadly.

“Huh uh, I’m not convinced,” she said softly, and though her head and eyes ached with exhaustion, Emma moved and sat on the edge of the bed.

Red pulled the blankets from her chin, sitting up with a sigh.

“Can’t sleep, kid?”

Red shook her head, the lack of her usual talkativeness strangely making her seem more like the child she was.

“You want me to get your Granny.”

“No!”

Emma nearly toppled from her perch, startled by Red’s abruptness.

“Fine,” she said when her heart calmed, “No Granny.”

Another shake of her head was Red’s answer.

“Then I guess it’s up to me to try and help you sleep.”

Red gave her a small smile, cheeks red from embarrassment, or perhaps she had been shedding tears before.

“Did you have a nightmare?”

“No… I just can’t sleep,” Red mumbled into her chest, gripping her blanket tight, “I never can around this time.”

If this was happening every night, then how was this the first time she had noticed? She wasn’t exactly a heavy sleeper – couldn’t be when you were meant to be watching horses.

“Every night?” She shifted again, facing Red as well and as comfortably as she could.

“No.” Red’s voice was small, her gaze moving to the low burning fire.

“Then what?” Emma scratched at her head, already wondering if her tiredness was affecting her comprehension. Or if there was something she was missing. Hopefully it was the latter, “You don’t have to tell me, but if you did I wouldn’t say a word. Or you could tell Regina, she would do the same, she wouldn’t breathe a word. Not even to me.”

Red’s little shoulders rose up higher still, until she was hunched into herself.

Rolling her own shoulder, Emma’s heart felt heavy, the ache spreading from her eyes and back through her head.

“I know you won’t – it’s just… Granny doesn’t like talking about it. So I don’t… either.” Red’s bottom lip trembled, and when she looked up, Emma could see the red in her eyes clear even in the dim light, “My mother… I lost her on a night like this.”

“You saw it?” Emma asked gently, knowing just how such images clung to the mind.

“I was just a babe.”

Emma nodded and swallowed. This sort of thing, she had never been particularly skilled at it. Horses she could handle, people and emotions – not so much. That’s why it still amazed her that she and Regina had become friends.

She wet her lips, her body growing tenser and her palms damp.

“And it has plagued you since?”

“Granny told me a few years ago. It’s only gotten worse since.”

“It can take time to fully accept such things,” Emma said thinking back on words Regina once shared with her. “Perhaps that is what is happening.”

Emma looked to the fire, it spat stubbornly even though it needed stoking.

“And your Granny doesn’t like talking about it,” Emma repeated, though it was unnecessary.

Red frowned, hands curling into fists around the edge of her blanket.

“She doesn’t care.”

“Red…”

While grandmother and granddaughter did bicker, it was an outright shock to hear Red say such a thing, and with so much convection too.

“I know Granny can be harsh, but you of all people should know that’s just her way.” Emma patted Red’s knee through the thick blankets, but the girl shied away, “She cares about you, even I can see that.”

Red shook her head, and for the first time Emma saw anger marring her young features.

“Then why didn’t she tell me about my mother until I pestered?” Red stuttered, face growing red and tears building in the corners of her eyes, “And why won’t she let me do things I want to?”

Red was growing frantic, her words spilling from her faster until they dried up. The agitated energy jumping forth and lodging in Emma’s chest.

She slid from her seat and crouched beside the bed, closer to Red now. It seemed to help as Red sat straighter and began to rub at her eyes, her shoulders slumping.

“What ‘things’?” Emma asked, leaning one arm on the bed to keep her balance.

“I want to leave.” Her hands dropped, her face growing more determined, excitement starting to battle the sadness in her eyes, “I want to explore the world. Meet many people and make many friends. I want to see how other people live, and the different foods and buildings and weather.”

Emma smiled, watching as Red’s smile returned even though her cheeks were still damp, reminded of similar words from long ago.

“I once knew a girl with the same dream,” she said before she could stop. She was tired, that was all. At least the nostalgia it brought forth was enough to push back those other emotions. “You know where you want to go?”

“I want to go to Viadori first. Regina has told me a lot about it.”

“Has she now?”

“She said the capital is by the sea, but she never got to see it. I want to see it too – maybe Regina can come with me. You can both show me what it’s like there.”

“I can’t see why we can’t.” Emma’s smile grew tight around the edges, thankfully Red remained unaware. Though, soon, her expression fell again.

“But Granny said I can’t.”

“Of course not.”

Red’s back straightened, her eyes wide in surprise.

“You’re too young yet, and you have a lot to learn.” Emma lifted her eyebrows, making sure Red met her eyes, “Unless you want to end up like I did. Which trust me, you really don’t want to.”

“But I’m not that much younger than you both.”

“You might not think that now, but one day you will look back and be shocked.” Emma gave Red’s shoulder a gentle squeeze, “Kid, your Granny’s right.”

Red pouted, the action steeped in displeasure.

“She loves you, kid. A lot. I would have liked to have had a Granny of my own.” Though maybe one that was a little less sharp.

“But…”

“Hey, at least you’ve got someone. And a someone that cares at that. Some of us have grown up with no one.”

“I thought you had your mother?”

Oh shit.

Of course Red would be the type of kid to notice such things.

“That isn’t – that is. Regina had hers and…”

Making it worse you idiot!

One chance to fix it. And she lost it. Typical.

It was her tiredness. It had to be.

“I thought you were sisters? Half-sisters.”

Emma’s gaze darted to the fire, only a brief moment of aversion before it returned to Red.

Shit, Swan you idiot!

She kept herself together – on the outside.

Could that have gone any worse?

“Err, well…” Her gaze lifted as she struggled to grasp the threads of a believable lie, or a half-truth, “… we’ve been together since we were little; Regina’s family took me in. So, err, not quite sisters – so half-sisters, you know? Halfway to being sisters?”

Could she have sounded more stupid? Or made it sound more made up? ‘Halfway to being sisters’?

What the hell, Swan?

“Oh, so you were adopted? Is that why you look so different?” Red blushed at her last question, embarrassment stealing her words for a moment, “Sorry, I didn’t mean to say that.”

Emma shrugged, lips tilted in a nervous grin.

“But why did you lie?”

“It’s not a lie. Not really –

“Because you were adopted by them?” Red concluded, her question needing no answer in her own eyes, “So you grew up with no parents, like me. Even if for only a bit.”

Emma nodded, relieved she hadn’t completely messed things up, “And that is exactly why I know what I am talking about.”

Red sighed, chin dropping.

Emma rubbed at the back of her neck, she didn’t want to leave Red like this. The young girl looked so sorrowful, almost lost.

Briefly closing her eyes, Emma began, hoping she wouldn’t regret it.

“I always wondered what it would be like to have parents – to have a family. I dreamt of them finding me one day, or for someone to take me in as one of their own. But it isn’t like that for orphans.”

Red perked up, still clutching her blanket tightly, but with all of her attention on Emma. That was almost too much for her, almost making her stumble over her words.

“When I was taken in, I couldn’t believe it. That never happens, not really. Unless you’re a babe that they can pass as their own. It wasn’t exactly what I thought it would be, though anything was better than where I was before – you are beyond lucky you have your Granny, and that she took you in. Trust me on that.”

Emma was smiling, growing a little lost in her memories. Of just how much circumstances had changed, how she had what she never believed she could have.

“I was happier than I had been, and with time I realised I had found my home, and even with all the hardships and difficulties, I would never change my mind on that. I have something few manage to find. I am beyond lucky.”

“But you’re not at home, you are here and your mother has passed.”

Right, Emma had forgotten that part of their story. It didn’t matter though, for her answer was honest, and would be identical no matter the situation.

“Home is as much a feeling as a place, it is where you feel safe, where you are loved and protected. You have it here with your Granny, even if you doubt that. And I have it as long as I am with…” Emma trailed off. She had already revealed too much. Red was young, too young to see the full truth in her words. And she doubted she would tell her grandmother, she didn’t want her to know about this after all.

Or maybe that was wishful thinking. She liked Granny, but even so, her reaction might not be what Emma felt, or hoped, it would be.

“You really are close,” Red piped up, bringing Emma’s thoughts to an abrupt halt, “I wish I had a sister. It must be wonderful to have someone to share everything with.”

Emma’s face heated, likely the colour of the odd root vegetables Granny used in stews, “Err, yes, I suppose, but you have a friend in that boy from the village, that’s similar.”

Emma coughed gently, her voice having grown higher with each word.

Red’s nose scrunched up, “He’s my friend, I wouldn’t want him as a brother. He annoys me enough as it is.”

“He’s your friend but he annoys…?  You know what, I think you should be asleep kid. We’ve talked far too much.”

“But I like talking to you.” Red rubbed at her eyes, the edges of them pink.

“And I like talking to you, but the purpose of this was to help you sleep, and if Granny catches me…”

“Fine,” Red muttered, aiming to sound annoyed, but revealing her tiredness instead. Especially with the large yawn that followed immediately after.

“Good.” She gave Red’s knee a pat and stood with a stretch, fighting back a yawn of her own, “Sleep well, kid.”

 

Chapter Text

With a bang that seem unnecessarily loud, Granny placed an object before her.

Emma’s lips parted as she took it in, the curved wooden handle and the dark leather covering the dangerous half. Her hands lifted to touch, but she thought better of it and snatched them back.

“A dagger?”

Granny shook her head, barely holding back a roll of her eyes, “No. This here is a hunting knife.”

“So a dagger.”

“No,” Granny repeated, hands on her hips, “A hunting knife. There are many types of knives, and many differences. I’m surprised you don’t know that – though on second thought…”

Emma scratched at the back of her head, oblivious when Granny actually did roll her eyes.

With surprisingly nimble fingers, Granny flipped the dagger and drew the blade out from its sheath. She placed it back down, with the cover beside it. Emma did not even have the chance to lift her gaze, the moment went that fast.

It did seem straighter than the daggers she had seen before, the handle too. She was no expert though; what did she know about such things?

And though she had a suspicion that she knew where this was going, Emma still asked with a furrowed brow, “Why are you showing me this?”

“So I can show you how to properly skin and prepare your first catch.”

Emma nodded, a smile finding its way onto her face. She had caught something – at last! It was just one by the sounds of it, but it sure as hell was better than… her eyes grew wide, the words sinking in as her stomach roiled.

“But first, you have to kill it. Now the best way…”

But Emma’s focus fled, sudden like the passing of the summer storms. She worked her jaw, swallowing repeatedly to combat the increased, unpleasant feeling of saliva flooding the back of her mouth. Her stomach churned harder this time, she pressed her clammy fist to her mouth, covering the nausea with an obviously forced cough.

It did not help much, if anything it made it worse. Distantly, she heard Granny trail off, felt her eyes squinting at her hard.

“Are you alright?”

Emma nodded, lips pressed together tightly.

“Hmm, I’ll get you some water.”

Wiping her damp palms against her skirt, Emma rose to her feet, her voice filled with a forced strength she did not feel, “I’m fine. I… I just don’t see why this is necessary.”

Granny raised an eyebrow, peering over the top of her glasses.

“I mean, I do. But can we not start a little… slower? You do what you have to, and then show me how to cut the meat off. Next time we can move to skinning, and then – the rest?”

It was a stupid suggestion, Emma realised that before the words had finished leaving her lips. She should take what she could, learn while they still had the chance. After all, had it not been she who had told Regina they could not stay, that they would have to leave soon?

She rubbed the back of her head, teeth pricking at the inside of her cheek.

Just… the thought was…

Nausea again reared in the back of her throat. She leant against the table trying to fight it off.

You haven’t even done anything yet, you idiot!

“Fine.” Emma opened her eyes slowly and sought Granny. The woman didn’t look impressed, but her eyes were kind, “I’ll do that.”

“Thank you, Gra – ”

“Only because I don’t want you emptying your stomach contents over our supper.”

Granny grabbed the knife and marched away, and though she sounded annoyed, Emma knew better.

Emma slipped back into her seat, not confident in the sturdiness of her legs.

“It’s not a senseless death,” Emma muttered, nipping at her knuckle as she waited and tried to ignore what she knew was happening outside –

Shit… I hope Regina and Red don’t see it.

She dropped her head, leaning her forehead on her fist.

It was so much easier for something to be presented to you, all ready and done. Not just physically, but emotionally too.

Her palms were damp, her breathing picking up speed the more she thought about it. About what was to happen. What was happening. What was expected of her.

She swallowed, though it was difficult, much like swallowing a chunk of bread she hadn’t had time to chew.

But, at the end of the day, this was yet another useful thing to learn. And while it might not be pleasant, it was at least not as stressful as that damn berry test.

It was far more upsetting though – not that she could admit that.

She knew how to catch rabbits now, so it only made sense to learn how to prepare them.

The other option was to let them go, if by some chance they lived, or leave them to be eaten by some other animal while Regina and herself possibly starved.

They couldn’t go through that again. Couldn’t survive on plants alone even if they tried.

“It’s not senseless.”

The door opened. Emma’s breath caught, she covered it with a cough and kept her head down.

A canvas that seemed to be covered with something, wax or tar or something like that, was spread across the table. And then the body, pink and bright just at the very edge of her vision.

“It’s washed, but you still have to be careful.” Granny moved to her side, placing the knife on the table with a tap, “Just do as I tell you and it will be fine.”

Emma looked to the knife, to Granny, and finally to the table.

The sight made her dizzy, much like the time she dealt with the early birth of a foal that did not draw breath. The mother had still tried to tend to it.

She shook her head, not the best decision, but soon the world felt steady again, and she still fought to remain strong. She picked up the knife, the handle solid in her palm.

“Then tell me,” she said, voice hard even with how hushed it left her.

Granny patted her shoulder, and proceeded to do just that.

 


 

“I kinda miss the snow,” Emma confessed, resting Rocinante’s saddle back over the stall wall.

Regina hummed absentmindedly, gaze flickering from the closed door to Emma’s back.

“I think Rocinante enjoyed his jog, but he’ll need to get used to being saddled again soo – Regina?” Emma ended the sentence on a squeak. Regina’s smile grew as she pressed herself more firmly against her back, a playful boldness finding her in their pretend solitude.

“We don’t have long,” she whispered into Emma’s pink-tipped ear, her face further warmed by the burning heat in Emma’s own. She slid her hands from Emma’s hips to toy across her stomach, leaving her tense and trembling, “We will have to be quick”.

“And you quiet,” Emma murmured, before realising and turning abruptly, breaking Regina’s light hold, “We shouldn’t.”

Her heart was not in her words at all. If anything her eyes grew brighter. Emma stepped back, as if she needed some space. And if it weren’t for that light in her eyes, Regina wouldn’t have followed.

“When has ‘shouldn’t’ ever stopped you from doing anything?”

Regina leant forward, tilting her head in a sign of old. When her offer wasn’t immediately accepted, she hesitated as a creeping doubt rose. Perhaps she had misread Emma’s expression, perhaps she was only seeing what she wished to see.

The worry was for naught, for Emma’s heat was suddenly pressed against her, their lips meeting in what was almost desperation but a moment later.

Emma let her lead, a few steps and they were tumbling down onto sacks of grain. Emma groaned as her weight settled on top of her, Regina broke their kiss, her concern spiking, but it vanished at the brush of Emma’s lips along her neck. Her eyes slipped shut as she tilted her head to offer up more for Emma to explore. Emma’s fingers twitched against the small of her back as she shifted beneath her, faintly Regina registered the stall door closing.

“I missed this,” she said, her voice hushed by bashfulness. Emma nipped at her clavicle, Regina shuddered realising just how hot she was growing beneath her layers.

Emma’s nose brushed her cheek, her words a rumble against that sweet spot behind her ear, “Someday we will be able to do this whenever you want, wherever, however.”

“What about what you want?” Regina’s words were almost lost on a stutter, Emma’s hand trailing back and forth along her covered thigh leaving her tense and needy.

“I want only what you want.”

Emma sought her lips, but caught her cheek instead. Regina’s lips parted, a protest on her tongue – but whatever her response was to those words was lost in a fog of want as Emma’s hand had slid that little bit higher.

“I want you…” She managed to say instead, her previous argument having vanished completely from her mind. She took the hand at her thigh in her own, and the hem of her dress in the other, “… To stop hesitating.”

She squeezed shut her eyes, guiding their hands until she felt Emma cupping her through the last barrier blocking her full touch. Her hips bucked as if on their own accord.

She ducked her embarrassed face into Emma’s neck, felt her throat bob beneath her lips. She released her hold, clutching at Emma’s shoulder as her nimble hand sought bare, heated flesh.

Emma’s gasp was louder than her own as the rough pad of her finger slipped between her, found that slippery point that had her jerking into her touch.

“I did – ” Emma breathed in amazement, bringing forth a sudden memory of a hushed conversation from so long ago.

“For you,” Regina replied, brushing her lips against Emma’s own, her heart clenching at the shine in her eyes.

The touch grew more sure, Emma’s lips meeting hers just in time to stifle her moan. Emma’s fingers slipped over and around her clit, drawing out little sounds of pleasure and sending jolts shooting from that point. She tucked her head back under Emma’s chin, her growing ragged breaths brushing against Emma’s damp neck.

If she had not been so consumed by the moment, she would have stepped back and seen how improper it was to be atop Emma like this. Needy and desperate.

Her toes curled in her boots as she beared down on Emma’s hand, more wetness escaping her. She fluttered around nothing, a slim finger teasing around her entrance, but the position must not have been favourable, for though she felt a sudden need for Emma to be inside her, she did not push forward but back. Her focus more intent.

Heat coiled deep inside her, building with each pass and rub and circle of Emma’s fingers over her sensitive clit. Her own fingers trembled as she clutched at Emma’s shoulders, embarrassment or something else exploding in her as she tried to roll them over. Emma let her, but the shift of positions still caused a start, and Emma pulled her glistening hand away.

The loss tore a whine from somewhere deep inside her.

“You deserve better than this,” Emma murmured as if she was speaking more to herself than Regina, it was enough of a distraction to take her mind from the throbbing want between her thighs. Emma’s gaze slipped down, her smile sad.

“I want you Emma.”

Emma shook her head, eyes averted in her shame. Regina cupped her chin, tried to gently encourage her to meet her eyes.

“I mean this. A quick fumble in a chicken shed, or in a stable.” Emma’s gaze lifted as her words grew surer, their eyes locking, “You deserve roaring fireplaces, furs, fine wine and food and… you know, all those other expensive things.”

“That sounds faintly like those idealistic dreams we are all expected to have.” She brushed some hair from Emma’s eyes, her fingers trailing over hot skin, “But not the dreams of everyone.”

“Maybe it’s supposed to be? You deserve so much.” Emma shrugged, sucking at her bottom lip.

“It does not matter where I am, as long as you are there,” Regina said, this time her turn to be bashful.

“Err…” Emma scratched her cheek, then rubbed the side of her neck a moment later. Her face as red as it had ever been, “Sorta… over the top, you know?”

Regina smiled at that, unable not to prod further. Emma’s embarrassment was endearing, and though she wished to build on that, her own words were still so very truthful, “I feel at home with you.”

All of Emma’s agitated movements stopped. They both remained still, Emma crouched above her. There was something in the depths of her green eyes that shone, that spoke of something that seemed so far beyond her grasp.

Emma broke the stillness first, shifting forward on her knees and placing a whisper of a kiss against Regina’s lips. A soft caress that they basked in, time feeling as if it had slowed for them both. Perhaps even halted for them, allowing them to have this brief moment where nothing mattered but one another and the strength of their feelings.

Emma pulled back, a question in her eyes that Regina answered with a nod. And though she had, her breath still caught in her chest as Emma moved down, warm hands gliding over her hips before rucking her dress up high.

The first touch of her tongue almost made Regina combust.

She could not manage even a squeak of her name, her hips jumping and thighs trembling beyond her control.

Emma pulled back with a smile, her breath ghosting over sensitive skin as she slipped Regina’s legs over her shoulders. Regina’s breathing grew harder when Emma nestled into her with a happy rumble in her throat.

“There. Better,” Emma murmured before dipping her head, teasing the swollen point of her clit with the very tip of her tongue.

Regina’s eyes grew wide, but her focus lost as she shuddered at the far too light sensation. Her gaze snapped to the rafters, to the peak of blue sky she could see through a half open hatch.

She had already been so close, a firm touch was surely all it would take for her to peak. Her brow was damp and her chest heaving, and Emma’s touch so gentle – wanting it to last. To draw her along slowly. To draw the feeling out.

Emma said something, but the buzzing in her ears, and the desperate need for even more pleasure left her unable to understand. Emma drew patterns on the soft, delicate skin of her inner thighs, alternated between circling her clit with her tongue, skimming the sides, lashing lightly over the top.

“Ah,” she tensed, breath catching as Emma closed her lips around her for a long moment, dragging her tongue over her again and again.

She scrabbled at the rough material of the sacks beneath her, chest rising and falling rapidly, desperate to hold onto something.

She fought to lift her head, a whimper on her lips when her eyes landed on Emma’s head moving between her legs, face hidden by blonde curls.

“Emma.” Her voice broken by a moan, then a whine of disappointment as Emma slipped lower, her tongue teasing her entrance, lapping her essence.

Her stomach tensed, barely able to contain her trembling, certain she could feel Emma smile against her.

This time Emma’s name left her as a plea, one that must have reached her for in the next breath Emma was circling her clit, fingers teasing the seam at the top of her leg.

“God,” she groaned, feeling more wetness escape her. That urge to cling to something flaring again. She hesitated, fingers hovering, Emma seemed to sense her action or thought. She reached up, encouraged Regina. With a happy sigh, she slipped her fingers through Emma’s hair, looked down to meet her loving eyes.

She clenched around nothing. Fingers curling tighter in Emma’s hair.

The heat coiled, burned when Emma’s eyes fluttered shut and she could see as much as feel her bliss. Coiling tighter at the feel of a moan reverberating against her sensitive, hot flesh.

Her hips bucked harder, her confidence growing as Emma held tight, determined. She dug her heels into the floor, breath escaping her in short, sharp gasps as she slid herself desperately against Emma, each little brush of her tongue, or when her hold faltered, nudge of her chin or nose fuelling the building inferno.

“Don’t hold back,” Emma’s voice rumbled against her, the hoarseness tugging at the tightening knot of pleasure. A slim finger teased around her entrance, matching the slide of Emma’s tongue around her clit.

Her heart pounded in her ears, the world growing faint as the pleasure grew and roared demandingly.

She tried to string a sentence together, or a plea, but the words faltered, blurred together. A barely understandable cry of Emma’s name burst from her when the heat spiked.

Her back arched, barely avoided knocking her head on the stall wall behind her – the realisation faint as the heat grew and grew, driven by only one need. Emma’s lips closed around her clit, one sharp suck, and she was gasping through the convulsions, hips jerking beyond her control.

Then Emma was beside her, arms around her and slim fingers slipping around her clit to ease her down.

When at last her ragged breaths grew even, Emma carefully slid her underclothes back in place, and righted her dress, still pressed close to her. Thankfully too, Regina was not certain she could cope with her pulling away for even a short moment.

“You alright?” Emma’s voice was warm, but soft, Regina sought her lips to soothe whatever was circling in her mind. The kiss was gentle, a tender caress, a contrast to before yet one that still had her toes curl and sent a thrum of desire through her. Her taste clung to Emma’s mouth, but the glistening sheen on her lips and chin were gone.

She brushed some hair from Emma’s bright eyes, traced her fingertips along her damp cheek. Emma was already flushed, but the heat seemed to grow greater beneath her light caress.

Emma grinned nervously, bumping her legs against Regina’s when she shifted self-consciously.

“Oh,” Regina said on a breath, brushing her nose against Emma’s. The green of her eyes darkened with a barely restrained desire.

Regina’s still trembling fingers sought Emma’s waist, soon trying desperately to work free the button blocking her way – annoyed today had to be one of those trouser days. Now, she thought with a head still light from pleasure, Emma in breeches would certainly give me something else to appreciate.

“Hey,” she breathed when Emma took her hands and guided them back around her instead.

“Don’t pout.” Emma chuckled, her voice husky. Regina started, realising she was doing just that. She bit at her bottom lip, noting Emma’s sudden difficulty swallowing, “I’m fine.”

“But I want to – ” She cut herself of at Emma’s hearty laugh, “What?”

“Quite demanding aren’t you, princess.” Emma’s eyes sparkled with mirth, her smile broad before she grew a little more serious, “As much as I would like to lie here for a while more, I half expect Granny to burst in and drag me out by my ear.”

“She wouldn’t do that,” Regina sighed though she smiled, her hand drifting down Emma’s side, “Well, the bursting in part would not come as a surprise.”

“She might not grab my ear, but it certainly feels like she is.”

Emma caught her hand before it wandered down too far, Regina huffed softly and let Emma bring it from her thigh to rest at her hip.

“She likes you and you like her.”

“I never said I didn’t,” Emma said, a sheepish grin on her face, “Doesn’t stop her from being positively terrifying though.”

Regina shook her head, trying to keep a smile from her lips. When Emma lifted her brow she had to duck her head into her neck to hide her failure. Emma tensed, but soon relaxed when Regina wrapped her arms around her as best as she could.

Emma encircled her in her arms, the last bit of tension remaining from not getting what she wanted left Regina on a happy sigh.

“For just a few moments,” she whispered, shifting to rest her head on Emma’s shoulder.

“Don’t worry,” Emma replied, an edge of anxiety in her tone, but one drowned by a sense of pure bliss, “I’ll wake you.”

A small laugh slipped from Regina’s lips, she let her eyes flutter shut, more than happy to bask in this weightless moment.

 


 

“So I bet him a single silver – that I didn’t have – that I could drink him under the table.”

“You did?” Red leant forward, eyes as wide as ever at the insight into a world she had never truly known of.

Emma lifted a finger, and her brow, continuing only when Red settled back down in her bed.

“He was an arrogant and greedy man, and thought lowly of those ‘weaker’ than him. So naturally he agreed.” Emma repositioned herself on the end of the bed, her right leg tingling as the numbness slowly left it, “The others wanted a show, and figured it wouldn’t cost them much. So they supplied the ale.”

Red made to sit up, but recalled the rule swiftly.

“Cost them more than they thought. Only stopped when the coc – stuck-up idiot toppled from his chair.” Emma stifled a chuckle, “Won myself a nice silver coin for that – though Regina wasn’t pleased when I turned up swaying. I hadn’t expected her.”

Red covered her yawn, though her brow still creased. Emma thought quickly.

“You know, because she’s usually a deep sleeper.” Emma poked Red’s knee beneath the heavy blankets, “Like you should be.”

Red rubbed at her eyes, but they remained focused on her, “What did you do with the coin?”

Emma smiled, which didn’t do much to support the front of sternness she had tried to put forth. Not that she had succeeded at that, “I know what you’re doing kid, and I told you before. One story for every restless night. Or else I’ll run out of them.”

“No you won’t.” Emma reached over to tuck the blanket around Red better, paying no mind to her protest. The action came surprisingly easy, enough to have given her a sudden pause if it weren’t for Red speaking again, “Besides, it’s part of the same story.”

Emma raised an eyebrow, but soon realised that Red had a point. And in truth, there wasn’t much to it.

“I hid it in a gap in the – in my room’s wall. I wanted to use it for something important.”

Red tilted her head, curiosity still so bright in her eyes. It had made Emma uncomfortable at first, only a few had ever shown such interest in her, and any one – or two would that be now? – had been genuine, “Did you?”

“No. Never got the chance.” Emma shrugged, trying not to grow too lost in those memories, “It’s probably still there.”

Red blinked slowly, burrowing further into her sheets, “Why didn’t you take it?”

“Didn’t have time to.” She rubbed at the skin beneath her collarbone, holding back a shiver. Tiredness had a way of freezing you even if you sat before a fire.

She stood to bring some blood back into her limbs, and meandered over to the fire to stoke it. She expected a ‘why’ to follow, even if belatedly.

It didn’t come, and when she turned she saw why.

“Sleep well, Red,” she whispered, a small grin on her lips as she slipped from the room.

The main room was lit almost entirely by the light of the full moon. Sighing, she stoked the fire there too until it blazed before sliding beneath her blankets.

She looked to Regina, smiling softly at the way the light and shadows played across her face.

I’m blessed, she thought, eyes beginning to ache with a happy sort of sorrow. The conflicting emotions causing her throat to tighten.

As if sensing her presence, or reacting to her thoughts, Regina sleepily reached for her. Emma let her, and once they were sharing her pillow, she folded their fingers together. Emma closed her eyes, her cheeks growing damp.

 


 

“Hey. Watch where you’re going, kid.” Emma shook her head, a smile on her lips as she steadied the boy.

“Sorry, Emma.” He looked at her with wide-eyed excitement, dirt marring his face and his words breathless. He fiddled with the thin ropes over his shoulder and gave one a yank, “Look what I got.”

She nodded, still smiling as she crouched to meet his eye level. He fumbled, but revealed his prize with a proud puff of his small chest.

“That’s one hell of a rabbit…” Emma tilted her head, almost disbelieving of the sheer size of the thing. It was bigger than any she had caught, that was for sure.

“I’m gonna give it to Red.” He pushed his shaggy hair out of his eyes, and shrugged one shoulder, “Well, to her Granny. If I do she might like me, and then she’ll let me and Red play again.”

“Hey…” Emma shrugged, “It’s always worth a try.”

He grinned at her, slipping the rope the rabbit was tied to back over his shoulder.

“I’ll skin it right away.” He nodded to himself, already a few steps away, “Goodbye, Emma.”

“Goodbye, Peter.”

Emma shook her head, and with a slight groan, pushed herself back up to her feet. Peter was already disappearing down the overgrown path to the village.

Children.

She readjusted her hood, and continued on, basket in hand. There was no need for a list now, not a physical one, she was long accustomed to what Granny wanted and it was surprisingly easy to remember if anything unexpected was added, or something taken away.

The birds sang cheerily, clear even when she left the woods to head directly for the centre of the village. It was only as she did so she noticed the absence of the usual sounds of village life. It wouldn’t be the first time, but it still struck her as unusual.

But it was still early, and the dawn was emerging sooner each day. There were more berries around already, with more seemingly appearing each day, and Red had again been sent to pick them. As much as she would prefer to avoid berries entirely, the thought of the pie Granny said she would make made Emma’s mouth water.

Regina had grown quite fond of them.

I wonder what else they can be made into. Maybe I can surprise Regina with something different.

She rounded the corner of the Weaver’s house and stopped. Breath freezing.

The sunlight glinted from armour, bringing back sharp memories of her youth, of sneaking to the barracks to watch them train, or to witness their great parades. Of friendly acquaintances and nights of fun at the tavern.

Her brow felt cold, sweat building there even as the winter chill remained in the air.

It might not be them. She might just be paranoid. She had grown to be so, had needed to for her position in the stables.

She stepped back into the shade of a tree.

But, if it was –

She had not… she had not thought they would search such places. Not yet. Had convinced herself so.

Regina had said there would be time, that treaties took an age…

But she had feared such a thing would happen, especially with the more time that passed. Still, she had doubted they would get this far, even though she had brought the fear of it to attention.

Emma turned her head away, observing them from the corner of her eye. She shook, arms pulled tight into her, the edge of the basket pressed hard against her side. The cloak hid her hair, and though she appeared to blend in, she still feared a brief glance in her direction would give her away.

But it had been an age, had it not? They had travelled for long enough that they had lost the specifics of time, they had been with Granny and Red for – for long enough an entire season had passed. Perhaps more?

The solider, wearing a surcoat over lighter armour, turned and gestured. She took a step back, eyes dropping to the emblem emblazoned on his breast. The other soldiers separated into pairs and headed in different directions.

 “Shit…” Emma hissed. She turned, trying to remain outwardly normal even as she hurried along the road towards the trail that lead back to Granny’s.

She passed Geppetto who stood worried and with his hat twisted in his hands, and though he called for her, she did not stop, nor did she spare him so much as a glance.

Her blood pumped hot, her mind whirled. She couldn’t stop.

 

Chapter Text

Rocinante nudged her hand again, the warm air from his snort tickling her palm.

“You are feeling affectionate today,” Regina chided, yet still she obeyed, stroking his head before he gave a tilt of it and she settled on scratching behind his ears.

Dirt had been caught beneath her nails, and grease stuck to her palms. A sight that had once been tainted by fear no longer, now all she felt was the joy of being with him. Of doing what she enjoyed and still held so dear.

She looked up through the canopy of green to the clear blue sky, her heart feeling so free.

Rocinante dropped his head to pull at the grass, leaving her fingers to trail through his mane.

She felt light, her face still flushed from the short ride to the wood cutting clearing and back again.

If Granny had not sent Red to gather berries, she could have fulfilled her promise that day. While she would have liked to be helping Red, a part of her was grateful to be given a moment of freedom. And to spend that with Rocinante.

Perhaps when Red got back she could teach her. And while she was at it, Emma could stand to learn far more than clinging on to a horse for dear life.

Something about the thought of it made her feel warm, made her heart beat that little bit faster –

Rocinante’s head snapped up, his body still as he stared at some point deep within the trees opposite the barn.

The beat of her heart grew faster for another reason. The breeze no longer bringing a pleasant coolness. Her hand dropped to Rocinante’s back, her body turned ready as she watched the trees closely.

Amongst the chirps of birds she could hear a distant sound. One that swelled with each moment. A loud crashing growing, and growing until at last it broke –

“R’gina!”

“Emma?” Regina rushed forward, heart freezing for a beat when Emma nearly toppled over, she cupped her face, try to encourage her to stand straight. Emma’s breath left her in ragged pants, her skin searing against her palms.

Rocinante snorted behind her.

“You’re not hurt?” She asked, her voice high with panic, her eyes roaming over Emma’s still slumped form. Her head felt light, swaying as her heart pounded harder.

Emma’s gaze shook, the vibrant green nearly consumed by her pupils.

“Emma?!” She demanded, almost hysterical. Emma clutched at her, slid her hands to her shoulders to steady her wavering form.

“ – go.” She croaked, chest heaving hard and curls plastered to her face.

“What?” Regina breathed, blood chilling in her veins as a suspicion wrapped around her heart. Her hands shook, dropping from Emma’s arms.

No… it could not be. Not when they had found a place in the world. Not when they had found a ho –

Emma stumbled back, hand pressed firmly over her heart.

“Knights – soldiers… in the – ” Emma swallowed, shrugging off her cloak to wipe at her sweat dampened skin, “ – village.”

Regina shook her head, leaving herself dizzy. Nausea made saliva build in her mouth, made swallowing a challenge.

God, I’m going to be sick…

Regina pushed the sickness back, not far enough as it still tickled at the back of her throat.

“We do not know – ”

“The King’s…” Emma sucked in a breath, standing straighter now even though her body still shook, “… Insignia.”

“We are far away. They could bypass us.”

Emma shook her head, but crumpled forward, a hand on her stomach.

Regina dashed forward again, though it made the world spin, and ran her hand over Emma’s back even as she felt much the same.

Her heart was like a wolf clawing beneath her breast.

“Not going to lie to a solider,” Emma rasped out, this time standing up much slower.

Regina’s gaze flickered about, unable to stay still as she grasped desperately for anything, “Then we hide.”

Emma’s brow dropped low, lips curling as if with anger – but not one directed at her, “How do we explain that to Granny and Red? How do we hide Rocinante?”

“We tell them the truth!” Regina was growing frantic now, desperation stinging at her eyes, fingers gripping tight at Emma’s arms.

Emma’s face grew blank, though her lips were pressed together tightly. And though she now breathed easier, her shoulders still rose and fell rapidly.

“What makes you think they’ll protect us?” The calm emptiness of Emma’s words pulled at her, almost as much as the distant look in her eyes. “What do you think will happen if they do and are then caught in their lie?”

A shiver ran through her, she looked around as if an answer could be found elsewhere, but only saw the brightness of the day gone and Rocinante returning to the barn.

Emma brought the red cloak around her shoulders, her hands trembling.

She willed it all to be a dream. A nightmare. But when her eyes flickered open everything was tinged blue, but all the same.

She reached up, catching Emma’s hand when it tried to leave her shoulder.

“It would be best if we were never here – if all traces are eradicated.” She brought their linked hands to her stomach, breath catching when Emma rested her forehead on her shoulder.

Regina glanced down, saw how their shadows stretched forward. How they joined and merged to create something new, and almost frightening.

“Now?”

Emma’s voice was just as heavy, her breath tickling at her neck, “Tonight. They won’t want to try finding a single house in the woods on a moonless night.”

Emma’s hand twitched, holding her as if terrified she would lose her if she let go.

Regina’s gaze lifted, watching the soft passage of the clouds through the leaves, her heart like a leaden weight. Her words, though, were strong, “Tonight.”

Emma pulled back, the closeness sorely missed and the distance leaving her frozen. Emma nodded a bit frantically, running her hand through her damp curls.

“But…” Regina thought suddenly, gaze snapping to their innocuous surroundings, “What if they leave now? Or shortly after you had? They would get here before dark…”

“They won’t. They have the village to search and villagers to talk to. That takes… time.” Emma tried to smile, but it was feeble. Almost as feeble as the conviction in her words.

But what other choice did they have? They couldn’t leave now, they would be too visible. Too obvious. Is that not what Emma had told her so long ago? Night provided cover, and that is what they needed.

Besides, they could not risk Granny or Red seeing them. Could not risk them stopping them, or questioning them. It would put them – the ones that had sheltered them – at too great a risk. It was best to do as Emma said, to sneak away at night.

Though, the thought of doing so – without even a goodbye – made her heart constrict, made her breath catch again.

“There’s no debate, Regina. We need to leave,” Emma said softly but with as much strictness as she could manage, completely misreading her.

But before Regina could formulate a response to that, she grasped Emma’s arms again, expression growing stern as a sudden realisation spiked through her. Worse, perhaps, than knowing just how close they were to being caught, “We are not taking anything from them.”

“I wasn’t suggesting that we do!” Emma’s cheeks puffed out, anger lowering her brow – or perhaps that was the panic, or even resentment, “We take what is ours. We… we have no choice but to try to continue on. Like before.”

Her grip lessened, but she did not retreat, instead her hands slipped down Emma’s arms and she linked their fingers. Emma’s hands were clammy, shaking even when steadied by Regina’s. 

“We have our lessons now,” Regina said in an attempt to reassure herself as much as Emma. Even though she knew full well those lessons were useless without the correct equipment. All of that belonged to Granny, and they – no matter what, they were not taking anything more from them.

At least they knew what berries and plants were edible. That would keep them moving forward until they could barter for what they needed. They still had some coin left.

But if the soldiers were already there… they would just have to be more careful. Even more than before, but they could manage. They would manage.

Emma’s nod was stiff, her lips still pressed together tightly. And though Regina would usually take offense to her holding back in a situation like this, she let it lie. Though, that did not stop it from settling heavily on her already burdened shoulders.

“We have to act normal, like nothing has changed. We can’t let on that anything has happened, you know?” Emma rambled, she drew back, heel catching on her abandoned basket and nearly tumbling backwards. With her hold still on her arms, Regina easily steadied her, but that did nothing for the panic in her eyes, “Shit, how am I going to explain this!”

“Emma? Emma.” Regina cupped her cheeks, gently encouraging her to meet her eyes, pushing back her own fears in favour of easing Emma’s, “It will be fine. Just… we’ll think of something. It will be fine.”

Emma shook her head, shoulders lifted high. Regina ran her fingers over one, tried to ease the tension in her muscles, but Emma shook her off. The action slow, careful, but it still stung nonetheless.

“Let’s get back. It’ll be safer inside.”

She swallowed, the action difficult, and gave a small nod, her fingers slipping through Emma’s own as she hastened to secure Rocinante in his stall. Emma followed, collecting everything they had brought with them. It took Regina a moment to realise she was ensuring everything would be at hand.

It made her hands tremble as she stroked Rocinante goodbye, though it would not be long before they returned.

God, was it truly happening?

She felt Emma hesitate, her hand hovering above her arm before it settled at last, comforting and offering as much support as either of them could muster.

 


 

Despite Emma’s insistence that they maintain a sense of normality, and her own agreement, it was a far greater challenge than she had hoped.

They slipped into the cottage hoping, though they knew it would not be the case, that they could avoid any confrontation.

Granny immediately turned her sharp gaze to them, placing down the berries that she was cleaning. For a brief moment Regina’s heart constricted harder than it already was, her throat tightening as Emma balked under the weight of Granny’s scrutiny.

“And where are my supplies?” Granny lifted a brow, resting her fists on her hips.

Emma’s mouth opened and closed, eyes wider than Regina had seen them in a long while. She tried to think quickly, to help Emma, but her mind faltered, her thoughts halting. It did not help when Granny stepped closer. Red peeked over at them, pausing in her sewing.

“Well? You’ve been gone long enough.” Granny rolled her eyes, holding out her hand. Gingerly, Emma handed the empty basket over, gaze uncharacteristically dropping to the toes of her boots, “Don’t tell me you’ve decided to slack off now.”

“I’m sorry… I – well I have no excuse.” Emma shrugged, back tense. Regina rested her hand on the back of her shoulder, trying to offer some support.

Granny tilted her head, just slightly, something akin to concern flashing across her face. Followed by almost a wince at the scrape of Red’s chair against the floor.

“Well…” Granny began, her tone completely different to how it was mere moments before, “We have enough supplies. Just, no bread tonight I suppose.”

Red appeared at her side, as eager to help as normal.

“I could go – if – if Emma isn’t feeling well.” The usual spark in Red’s voice was diminished however, her worried gaze flickering from Granny to them and back again.

“I said it’s no problem.” Granny patted her shoulder, then gestured with her head back to the table, “Go finish your sewing.”

Red huffed, pursing her lips. Still, she paused long enough to spare them a glance before doing as she was told.

“I’m fine,” Emma tried to reassure them all, breathing easier when Granny stepped away to store the basket away. Just as Regina was fearing she would not seize the chance, Emma did just that, “Just a bit of a headache is all.”

Hand still at her back, Regina moved a little closer encouraging Emma to meet her eyes. She considered herself quite better at reading Emma now, and felt her previous words were no lie. She was not just taking the chance. Though, was it truly surprising? Her own heart still pounded faster than it ought, and her mind still swayed with panic.

Emma gave her a tight smile and gently moved away, letting her light touch drop.

“Drink this.” Granny pulled a cup from a cupboard and filled it from a jug before handing it to Emma.

“What is it?”

Granny shook her head, amusement quirking her lips, “Water.”

“Oh…”

The furrow to Emma’s brow lessened as she cradled the cup in both hands.

“It’ll help. And go get some rest – Red’s room.” Granny moved back to the berries, gesturing for Regina to come to her side, “I expect you to be at the table for supper, and back in your own bed tonight.”

Emma gave a stiff nod, and though Regina’s heart tugged, she could not risk raising any more suspicion – Emma would not want her too. So she took her place beside Granny, ears keen enough to pick up the soft click of Red’s door closing, nearly covered by the crackling of the fire and the rustle of Red’s sewing.

 


 

With supper prepared and cooking, Regina slipped away with the excuse of feeding Rocinante. It was no lie, but she did use the cover of it to hide the clothes they had arrived in beneath the grain sacks, and to check Emma had gathered everything they had in the barn.

She took a lingering moment to look at the figure Emma had given her, a sad smile on her lips. She went to hide it in their saddlebag, before changing her mind and stowing it with her old dress. She rather it be close.

When she returned she found Emma at the table, and quickly detected the thump of her heel against the floor. A rhythmic beat that surprisingly she was not scolded for. Not yet.

Regina took her seat beside her, as she always did, returning Emma’s soft smile. She settled her hand on her bouncing knee, feeling the tension ease beneath her light touch.

There was no sign yet.

It was not that she did not believe Emma’s reassurances – it was fear. It was not something easily shaken from a person.

And now, as Red asked how Emma was and looked at them both so warmly, the ache in her heart grew only greater.

 


 

Night came swiftly, yet somehow also seemed to crawl towards them. Each moment filled with tension, each little bang or knock – the typically sounds of a home – made her heart jump, but sent Regina flinching.

If Granny noticed she said nothing. Though Red had tried her best to, in her own eyes, cheer Regina up. And even offered Emma a share of her own meal to see if that would help her illness to pass quicker. She refused, and Granny had scoffed at the rarity of it – Emma would have herself, if her mind was not elsewhere.

They waited. Tense in their makeshift beds, fingers tangled, until Emma felt that night had settled.

If her heart was pounding as hard as it was, her palms damp and breath short – she could only guess just how Regina felt, no doubt her terror was far greater. She had never had to run like this before.

Though, as panic coursed through them, Regina still crouched to tidy their beds. Emma hovered by the cloaks, eyes on the door and hands twitching, but they couldn’t. Regina had said so, and she knew in her heart that Granny had already given them so much. She couldn’t do it, even though they needed more than their patched clothes, and Rocinante.

Even the little more they had this time, guilt-ridden as it was, would do little to help them. They knew more, far more, but what good would that do them when they had no tools with which to enact that knowledge?

Regina shifted behind her, brushing her fingers against her hand.

They had each other, and while that once felt enough, they had now lived through the reality. And it was cruel.

They held hands, took a short moment despite everything to take solace in one another.

“It will be alright, Regina,” Emma insisted, barely able to hold back the tremble in her voice.

Regina’s grip tightened, the firelight catching the shine in her eyes. Her lips parted, her chest moving that little bit harder with each breath –

“A dress?”

They jumped apart, turning abruptly on their heels.

Regina’s breath caught, like a choke sob. Emma, though her heart jumped, tensed, her fists tight. She wouldn’t let this chance be taken from them. Couldn’t let it.

“Won’t be easy travelling in that.”

A fear – or realisation – or something else twisted sharply in Emma’s chest, wrenched her emotions forth, slamming pieces together recklessly.

“Did you call them here?!” She lurched forward, in front of Regina, rage burning on her face, “You can’t stop us.”

“Call them?” Granny huffed, unaffected by Emma’s anger, “You’ll wake Red. Keep it down.”

Regina’s hand was on her shoulder, comforting or restraining, Emma was not in the right mind to differentiate.

“You’ll need travelling clothes.” Granny shut the door to her room softly, lifting her shoulder to bring their attention to the thus far unnoticed bundle in her arm.

The anger fizzled out, just like that, leaving Emma unresponsive and her skin cold. The grip on her shoulder slipped down, rested around her elbow. She barely registered Regina was now at her side.

“You…”

“Giving you some more help.” Granny rolled her eyes, something beneath her words catching at Emma’s chest, “Take your cloaks too. The thick ones. Don’t want you freezing to death.”

Granny moved slowly, as if they were both some easily startled animal. She placed the bundle on the table and stepped back. Regina was braver, stepping towards it.

It took Emma a moment to snap out of bewilderment, and a moment more to recognise that it was their bag on the table.

“Get changed when you get to your horse, there’s more supplies in his saddlebag.”

If this was a trick, it was already exhausted and was cutting at Emma’s bared nerves.

But she could detect nothing in the woman’s words or demeanour. Nothing that should leave her on edge, nothing that would explain why she was barely breathing.

“Why?” Emma croaked, finally tearing her gaze from the bag to settle on Granny.

“I know a thing or two about running.” Granny smiled thinly, though her eyes grew warm, “I expected this. And, I suppose you’ve grown on me.”

Emma snorted, accepting the attempt to lighten the suffocating mood that had settled heavily in the room.

It didn’t last however.

“Best get a head start, sooner the better.” Granny said sternly, and perhaps for the first time Emma found herself wondering just what she had been through in her life. Regina picked up their bag, a tremble in her hand, and Granny gave a firm nod.

“How can we ever thank you?” Regina said, the emotion in her voice catching at Emma’s heart, nearly pulling her own to the forefront. But she couldn’t. She needed to be strong.

“By leaving.” Granny’s gaze flickered to the fire, its flames catching the shine of her eyes, the subtle furrow of her brow, “The sooner the better.”

Emma lowered her head, feeling the heavy pressure on her shoulders grow greater. At once it seemed the air had been stolen from the small room, making each breath harder.

The fire flickered, Regina pressed her hand hard against her stomach and bit at her bottom lip.

Granny was right. The sooner the better. They couldn’t waste any more time, Emma sucked the inside of her cheek and held back the urge to reach for Regina’s hand. Instead she took the bag from her, shouldering it with a sharp, determined motion.

“We understand,” Emma said, softer than she realised.

Granny gave a firm nod.

When Emma took her first step towards the door Granny looked away, her expression strained.

She didn’t want to dwell on the reason why.

 


 

They took a candle and did not hesitate in their rush to the barn. They slipped inside, careful not to disturb the slumbering chickens. Billina, though, watched from her perch on the fence, chest puffing with each breath. Rocinante was not so fortunate, Regina woke him gently, unnecessarily – he was a horse, he would have woken as soon as they drew close. But Emma kept that to herself, and instead focused on wedging the candle in a dip in the stall wall of Rocinante’s stall.

The saddlebag was still resting beside his stall, Regina dropped the cloaks atop it and raced back to the first stall.

Checking the supplies should take priority, but Emma found she knew that Granny would not let them go with little or nothing. Even if she wanted them gone – which, truly, made sense. They had already put both grandmother and granddaughter at risk, the sooner they left the better for them all. Just as she had said.

And yet, she could not shake off that image of Granny’s expression from her last glance of her. Nor stop her gaze from lingering on the woven band on her wrist as she clutched the strap of their bag tight.

Her gaze broke moments later when she dropped the bag by their saddlebag, shouldered the saddle and immediately set about preparing Rocinante for the journey to come.

Regina left the first stall empty handed, but quickly found what she was looking for in the stall beside Rocinante’s.

“She has provided us with some clothes.” She heard Regina call as she finished securing the saddle and started attaching the saddlebag.

“Burdensome, but it will help. Same with the cloaks.” She paused to peer over the stall wall, caught sight of tunics and thick trousers. Certainly better suited to extended travel, and she supposed her own weren’t exactly suited to the colder climate – not that it mattered, they would get to The Wealds before winter came.

Finished, she bundled the cloaks and their change of clothes into Rocinante’s saddlebag haphazardly, before turning away to let Regina change. It shouldn’t bother her too much, Regina had always felt more comfortable in breeches, these weren’t exactly that, but it was as close as they were going to get.

“She didn’t have to do this.”

Emma lifted her gaze up to the hayloft and the broken ladder leading up to it.

“She wants to help,” Emma replied. It would have been so much easier if she hadn’t. So much easier.

“She didn’t have to…” Regina’s touch fluttered against her shoulder, signalling she could turn.

Taking Rocinante’s reins, she led him towards the barn door, glancing into the stall to find Regina had left her old dress folded neatly. A waste of time, but if it helped Regina…

She fidgeted with the reins, shifting from foot to foot until Regina appeared at her side.

Regina wet her lips as if she wished to speak, but no words came. Emma handed the reins over, and jogged back to Rocinante’s stall. She changed into her old clothes with a quickness born from practice, and – ridiculous though it was – she followed Regina’s example and folded the borrowed dress. Not as neatly, but it was the best she could do.

With a deep breath, she was ready. Using her mouth, she dampened her thumb and fingertip and pinched the candle’s flame out.

They left, neither able to chance a glance back.

 

Chapter Text

They made camp in a thick grove of trees when the sun was high, both reminded far too strongly of how it had been so long ago.

It was quite likely they had not gotten that far, not in the dark and on foot. They could ride Rocinante now if they needed to, but again they would be slower than if they moved to the road – wherever that was – and the burden on him too much.

Emma looked back in the direction they had come from, but aside from the occasional flash of movement from a scampering animal, there was nothing. An old feeling had returned, like a heavy weight in her chest.

She expected to feel tired, for her eyes to burn and body to ache. Yet she did not.

Instead she rooted through the saddlebags as Regina tried not to doze, her back to a tree and head hung low.

It would be better than last time.

They knew more – had more. They could do this.

Some dried meat wrapped in cloth, their water flasks filled, a couple of thin ropes for snares.

Her hand knocked something far firmer, she moved the folded cattle blanket aside and found the object beneath it. She pulled it out so she could see it clearly, turning it over in her hands as she did.

Granny’s hunting knife.

She closed her eyes and took a deep breath.

She returned it to the bag, and dragged her hand down the side of her face.

Regina let out a breath that sounded equal parts weariness and melancholic.

“We can rest for a bit,” Emma said softly, in case Regina was slumbering, but when she turned she met her eyes, “Or keep going.”

The sword had been fixed onto the saddlebag. She took it, surprised she had all but forgotten about it, and attached it around her waist. It slipped, not as bad as her memory recalled, and it made her feel that little bit safer.

“We best keep moving.”

 


 

 Regina pinned their map down with a few stones, using the last remaining light of day to discern just where they were.

Oh...

Her eyebrows rose, a small neat circle had appeared on the map. Her throat grew tight, worry curling around her heart like a vine choking a tree.

Still helping us, Granny…

Sticks snapped behind her, tension shot through her but did not last long. It was almost like a second sense, one that was supported when Rocinante lowered his head and resumed eating.

“Emma?” She called, just in case.

“Hmm?”

Regina let out a breath, looking over her shoulder to her.

“I set up some snares,” Emma explained, even though she had told Regina that was what she was doing before she left. Repetition no doubt born from nerves, “I can only hope they work.”

It was unlikely they would catch something in the briefness of their rest, but still worth the effort just in case fortune shined on them.

“You are certainly more adept at them than I.”

Emma rubbed the back of her neck, dipping her flushing face, “Not really – I mean – you know…”

A smile helped ease Emma’s fluster, and Regina turned back to the map to save her any further embarrassment.

Now, if her judgement regarding the scale and the distance they had already covered were correct, then they were near nothing save for Berrington at their backs. The coast was nearby, but the only mark on it was quite some distance westwards.

The nearest city was southwest, and was unfortunately the capital.

Their best bet was to stick to travelling dead west, towards The Footfalls and the valley that would lead them to The Wealds. They could make it – would make it, not only was there more naturally occurring foods to forage, but they had learnt a lot. They had skills they needed to survive. Thoughts often repeated since they were forced to leave.

“Emma, would you like to look at the map…” Regina looked over her shoulder again, the sight leaving her trailing off, “What are you doing?”

Emma’s tongue was poking out, her eyes narrowed in concentration as she sat hunched on the ground.

“Belt’s too loose.” She wiggled the knife against the leather which was resting across her lap, “I’m fixing it.”

“You will cut yourself.”

She shifted, back still bent, “Nah, it’ll be fine.”

“You are an idiot.”

Emma’s focus broke, meeting Regina’s gaze with a grin.

Naturally, that was the moment the tip of the blade pierced leather.

“Oh!” Emma jumped, pulling the knife free.

“You see!” Regina exclaimed even as she rushed to Emma’s side to ensure she was not too hurt. But Emma just clambered to her feet, chuckling to herself.

“That was close.”

Regina pushed her, but she was still amused and barely wavered at the force.

“You could have hurt yourself!”

“Could have – ” Emma held the belt up, grinning toothily, “ – but didn’t.”

“I cannot believe…” Regina shook her head, unable to resist the way her heart lifted whenever Emma looked at her like that. And the stablehand likely knew it.

Emma fixed the belt back around her waist, testing the looseness with her thumb and fingers.

“I wonder what goes on in that head of yours sometimes.”

“Err, probably best not to think of such things.” Emma tightened the tie holding her hair up, the woven bracelet on her wrist catching Regina’s attention, “You mentioned the map?”

Regina sighed, crossing the short distance back to it. She knelt again, thankful she had not damaged it in her rush to Emma’s side.

It took only a few moments before Emma was crouched beside her, attention focused.

Regina tapped the spot on the map she believed they were, and traced their path now almost straight westwards.

“Not much around according to this.”

“If we need extra supplies we could always chance a stop at a town or village we might stumble across.”

Emma made a sound of noncommittal, giving the top of her head a scratch.

“But that is a last resort.”

“Yes,” Emma said, lips quirking with a building determination, “Because we can, and we will do this.”

Regina placed her hand over Emma’s own, feeling her own confidence grow, even if neither of them truly felt it to that extent.

“I know we can,” she almost whispered, meeting Emma’s smile with a strong one of her own.

With a squeeze of her hand, Emma left her side.

Regina rolled the map up and stowed it back away in Rocinante’s saddlebag.

“Here.”

Regina turned to find Emma looking at her hands, or rather what was in them.

“Take it.” Emma turned the knife in her hand, offering the handle to her.

“Why are you giving it to me?” Regina hesitated, her finger’s skimming the wooden handle.

Emma shrugged, “Keep it close. Just in case.”

She wanted her to arm herself…

Who was she to refuse? Emma had the sword at her side from so early on, had felt its weight against her. And… if it came to it – came to her having to defend herself again – better to have a knife or dagger than to… to end up a repeating what had happened before. The memory flashed in her mind, soon forced back again to remain ignored, despite how vivid it still was. Despite how fresh.

She closed her hand around the handle, and gave Emma a nod. It was heavy in her hand.

“Alright, but I am not doing the skinning.”

Emma grinned, lifting her brow, “ ‘Course not, Princess.”

She poked her tongue out, fighting a smile of her own when Emma started laughing.

The light-heartedness of the moment was desperately needed, it lifted their spirits and their thoughts from the heaviness of so much else.

 


 

By the time they stopped again the following day, they had already settled into a routine and had managed to bolster their supplies. Nature truly did provide if you knew what to look for.

As always, Emma offered to take the first watch, and while she would normally put up an argument for her to do so in her stead, Regina found the exhaustion she had expected had finally caught up with her.

She woke sometime later to find the sun still in the sky and herself alone save for Rocinante.

Her initial panic soon tapered. The snares were nearby, and Emma had taken to checking them regularly, in part, she assumed, because they were never in one place for too long.

Regina rubbed at her temple, and gave Rocinante a stroke as she passed.

It did not take long to find Emma, though when she did her stomach twisted and she covered her mouth.

Emma met her eyes over her shoulder, and gave a shaky smile.

“Why don’t you get some kindling?” Emma said, rather than the many words Regina expected.

Regina lowered her hand from her mouth, eyes chancing a glance to Emma. She was standing up now, blocking her view from the trapped rabbit.

“Really I should have gotten some before, not much point having meat if you can’t cook it.” Emma smiled, lopsided and distracting.

And it did distract. No doubt done on purpose.

Regina did not voice her suspicions. Accepting the unspoken understanding, and the need to get away.

“Simple enough, I will not be long.”

“Take the knife…” Emma shook her head, unfastening her belt quickly, “No. Take my sword with you, and don’t go too far,” Emma’s voice rose, the calm of a few moments before breaking away.

The jagged edges of her worry were easy enough to sooth with a reassuring smile, and her quick return to their camp to retrieve the hunting knife from Rocinante’s saddlebag. She headed back to Emma with it tucked into her belt.

Emma lips still seemed a bit pinched, it did not take long for Regina to realise why. She had given her the knife for protection, and she had stored it away again. No doubt, Emma had probably expected her to keep it on her person. And Regina would have… but the weight of it had been heavy – just not in the physical sense.

Emma offered her the sword and she accepted.

“You know I cannot use it.”

Emma nodded and shrugged, “The knife makes more sense, but I kinda need it. Remember?”

“Of course you do.” Regina fixed the belt around her waist on the second to last notch. It weighed down on one side, irritatingly. How did Emma cope so easily?

“The threat should be enough, and I am only a shout away.”

Regina pulled the dagger free from her own belt, and offered the covered end to Emma who took it with a grim smile.

Regina left soon after that, returning to their camp again, but not stopping this time. She travelled through, and further still until she could be certain that the songs of the birds would cover any sounds coming from not too far away. She held firm to the handle of the sword the whole way to keep it in place, and to try to lessen the weight of it.

Regina crouched down, searching through the leaves and selecting the best branches and sticks for the fire, as Granny had shown them.

The tension in her shoulders became an ache, even so, she continued on until she had gathered more than enough for a fire. The smoke could give away their location, something both she and Emma had agreed on, but hopefully it would not be as much of a tell as the glow of a lone fire at night. Or at least harder to trace.

With a tight swallow she cradled the kindling to her chest, her nose scrunching up as it meant the sword was free to bang uncomfortably against her leg with every step.

With any luck Emma had done the deed by her return.

“Ow,” she hissed when she almost tripped, the sword hitting her with a solid whack.

How does Emma manage?

“Hello, Dearie.”

Regina whirled around her heart pounding, the kindling tumbling from her hands.

She fought back her surprise, forcing forward a front of expectation. Of calm.

“How many times must I tell you?” Regina snapped, her hands balled tight at her sides, “I have no interest in ‘harnessing’ this…” Poison. Darkness. Curse, “… Unwanted thing.”

“Oh, good afternoon to you too, Dearie.”

“Don’t – ”

“Say good afternoon? Dearie? Would you prefer Princess? Your Highness? Royal Consort? Queen Regnant?” He broke off his stream of words with a piercing laugh.

Regina closed the distance between them, her stride determined even when inside she was shaking.

“Leave us be. You have for this long.”

He simply laughed at her words.  Of how she looked down at him.

“Us you say?” He cackled again, dancing away to stand on a rotting tree stump.

“Me then.” Regina gritted her teeth, her shoulders aching from the tension coursing through her, “Leave me alone.”

He posed in dramatic thought, and she had half the mind to shove him from his perch. The anger consumed the fear, dominated it. Anger was better than the alternative.

“Hmm…” He drew the sound out until it rebounded painfully in her ears.

Her arm shot to her side in a wild gesture, the anger knotting in her chest, burning too furiously to ignore, “Leave.”

“Ah, you are no longer afraid of me or what I can do.” He mused, tapping his chin with a gnarled finger. It made her arms shake, her nails breaking skin, “People like you, well, you normally fear people with my capabilities.”

Her jaw throbbed, closed too tight, tense for too long. It felt as if he were trying to scratch at something. Or cut at her, his near inability to talk straightforwardly grating.

“Of course you are one of those very same people, ah, we so all have such similar beginnings – ”

“I asked you to go.”

He hopped down, leaves crunching beneath his pointed shoes.

“You ordered me.” He gestured as he spoke, his finger moving as if he were pointing at her. His voice lower than she had ever heard it. “And after I kindly offered to help you!” He shook his head, lips twisting, “Children can be so ungrateful.”

She wanted to raise her voice, loud enough to carry back to their makeshift camp.

Instead, she bit her cheek, eyes narrowed and carrying as much anger as she could put forth.

“I do not want your help,” she said, stressing each word as clearly as possible.

“Accidents happen.” He was before her, inches away, smile gone, shocking some anger from her system. He pointed at her, his nails long and sharp, “Separations. Harm done unintentionally. Deaths.”

Her hand pressed to her stomach, uncurled without her knowledge. She still shook, though the reason had changed.

“And they will keep happening unless you learn to control your gift. You cannot suppress it Dearie, it’s a part of you, and it should not be locked away, or trapped like a princess waiting to be free.”

“What do you mean…?” Her full question, though, was unable to leave her dry mouth.

“Oh magical mishaps,” he sighed as if he was speaking of a wistful memory, “Sometimes they can be entertaining, usually they aren’t.” He pulled back, at last, giving her room to breathe a little easier, his stained teeth showing with an inhuman smile, “Accidentally sending yourself elsewhere, accidently setting things alight with anger.” He stepped to the side, stamping on some dry twigs and leaves. He giggled, adding almost as an afterthought, “Killing a man.”

The thick scent of smouldering reached her. Her nose scrunched, nausea rising in her throat.

She looked away, eyes on blackened leaves, a thin curl of smoke still trailing from them.

“You – you did that.” She forced the accusation out. Forced her mind from other thoughts.

“Maybe I did, maybe I didn’t.” He wagged his finger, looking amused at her horror, “Magic is entwined with emotion. Maybe you would have been aware if you had listened the first time we shared words.”

Her head felt light, everything shrinking back until they were so far from her touch she felt lost.

“One day an accident is going to happen that will affect us all, unless you learn.”

Regina shook her head, lips pressed tight together, “You can never be certain such thing will ever occur.”

“You think ignoring it will help, but, my dear, it will only make it more determined. It will only make the pull greater. You need it.”

“Never.”

With a final laugh he flicked his wrist, as if he had won an argument or thought it beneath him, “I will heed your wish. But do remember my name, for you will need it.” And, like that, he disappeared in a whirl of smoke.

 


 

It took her a while to compose herself, and when she had she tried to salvage any kindling from the still warm pile she had dropped. There was not much, and with a heavy heart, she returned to camp.

Emma was back, crouched on the floor. At the rustle of leaves, she looked up brightly at her.

Regina swallowed, nails pressing hard into the sticks in her arms, “I am sorry, I could not get much.”

Emma just smiled, placing down the speared meat on a mat of overlapping leaves. Another rested nearby, some nuts and blackberries sitting in the centre.

“That’s more than enough.” Emma shifted to her knees, retrieving the flint and a stone from her pocket, “Everything is ready to go.”

Regina settled on her knees as Emma had, and set about arranging the kindling ready for Emma to light. The task helped refocus her mind, but was completed too soon.

The fire sprang to life, the warmth making her feel at least a little better.

Emma was grinning to herself, sitting with her legs crossed, and holding the speared meat above the flames.

Regina did the same, though she could not bring herself to look too closely at the pink flesh.

What had happened… she had remained silent once when she should not have. They had just lost what was almost their home, had left behind Granny and Red to an unknown fate. Lost what had become like a family to them.

But she had promised. And she had remained true to that.

“Turn it, before it burns.”

Regina blinked, shifted from the clouding of her thoughts. She did as Emma advised, though she did not raise her eyes to meet Emma’s concerned gaze.

The meat was darker now. She focused on that, watching carefully until it was ready.

Emma took both of their sticks and slid the meat off to join the nuts and berries.

“I’m proud of that, even if I’m the only one.” Emma chuckled, and handed Regina her food.

“Thank you.”

Regina bit her lip, she wanted to tell Emma. Needed to, but – but last time. Emma had been in such a panic last time, had pushed them forward until she had collapsed.

Yes, it had been due to what she had eaten, but surely the fear had not helped. Regina could still clearly see the wild look in her eyes, the heart freezing terror.

No. She could not invoke such feelings again. Emma would understand, she would tell her later, when all was settled. When they were far away from all of this.

She would.

Chapter Text

It had rained heavily, the small drops bouncing off leaves and hitting any bared skin sharply. They had tried to press on, but soon the mud grew thick and heavy, sucking at their feet and Rocinante’s hooves.

They sheltered beneath a short tree with thick branches, it did not offer complete protection, but there was enough. Fortunately the rain did not last long, and soon the sun beat heavily through the canopy. In fact, Emma would say it was the warmest it had been since they had reached Oakenfell.

Emma ran her hand through her tangled hair and gave one final huff, she retied it quickly and refocused her attention.

“Damn thing,” she muttered as she fiddled with the snare. Something had passed by, but had escaped the trap – or avoided it? Didn’t matter much, they still had some of their last catch left. It wouldn’t last long, but Granny had given them a small bag of salt which granted them a little more time.

Snare finally set up again, Emma let her hands drop, the bracelet on her wrist a stark reminder of what was best forgotten about.

She breathed out in a steady stream, fingertips skimming over the woven band.

Don’t dwell.

Red and Granny would be fine. They took any evidence with them, and Granny was more than capable of looking after herself and her granddaughter. Hell, she had looked after all five of them at one point.

Not that an old crossbow can do much against plate armour –

Emma slapped her palm against her forehead.

“Ow,” she muttered, though it didn’t truly hurt.

It was best to get to Regina before she wandered after her again –

Emma’s head snapped up, listening carefully.

Was that…?

She rose slowly, hand ready to pull her sword free.

It sounded like someone shouting… a woman?

Her blood froze.

She turned on her heel, breaking into a run before she even had chance to take a breath, barely able to blink before she barrelled right into the source of her panic.

An ‘oof’ escaped Emma, her head spinning slightly.

“Emma?” Regina wavered, but took her weight, her grip on a thick tree branch keeping them both standing. Regina lifted her brow, the proximity of their faces making Emma’s already warm skin grow hotter, even so, she could still see the trepidation swimming in Regina’s eyes, “Why the rush?”

“I thought I told you to stay at camp,” Emma said, her voice lifting high, the alarm she was trying to keep hidden creeping into her words regardless.

“And I told you that sounded suspiciously like an order.” Regina’s gaze slipped away, her smile disappearing, “I woke and you were gone, I – wanted to ensure you were well.”

Emma let her hands drop from Regina’s arms, and with a tight swallow she stepped back.

She looked over her shoulder towards where the snare was hidden. If there had been anything in the area it was likely scared off by the commotion. And no doubt would remain so until they left completely.

“I was just checking the snares.” Emma rubbed the back of her neck, praying her heart would finally calm, “Like I often do.”

It wasn’t Regina. She was safe. Perhaps it had even been her imagination, conjured by the heavy weight of her worry and too many dark thoughts.

“Let’s get back to camp, I might set a few more snares before nightfall.”

“It would certainly increase the odds of catching something,” Regina agreed, letting Emma lead the way.

But, as if triggered by her earlier realisation, a shout pierced the still air once more, startling them both.

“What was that?” Regina’s head turned quickly, her eyes widening and lips parting. But before Emma could respond or turn fully, Regina cut in her stance shifting, “It sounds like someone needs help.”

Emma gritted her teeth, her jaw a stern line even as her heart began to ache. She tried to continue on, but Regina stood firm, “It’s none of our concern.”

“Emma – ” Regina gripped her arm, exerting enough pressure to get her to turn and meet her eyes, “Someone needs help, we cannot just ignore it!”

She pressed her lips together, trying to put forth as much authority as she could – which was not an easy task when faced with Regina, “We can if it keeps us safe.”

Regina’s wide-eyed surprise, or plea, gave way to a frown. The pain in Emma’s chest only grew, so much so that she had to turn her head away.

She tried to justify, to implore Regina to understand, “We’ve wandered too far away – ”

“Emma!”

Regina’s glare burned through her, cut at her almost as much as the way her eyes shined with wetness.

“Where had that goodhearted girl gone?” Regina asked so low Emma almost missed it.

Regina turned, her expression sorrowful, and in a flash she was gone. Running in the direction of the shout.

Fuck – “Regina?!”

Emma ducked beneath a branch, slipping down a slope in her haste to catch up to Regina, her heart pounding solidly against her ribs. Each step furthering that sharp pain through her chest.

Her foot caught on a fallen log, her fingertips skimming fallen leaves, but she regained her balance. Pushed onwards.

In moments – though it felt an age – she caught up to Regina, reached out and seized her shoulder.

Regina jumped, twisting to free herself, the struggle only lessening when she met Emma’s eyes. But it brought them to a halt.

“You…” Emma sucked in a breath, though she was not as tired as Regina, “… scared me.”

Though her chest heaved, Regina’s lips remained pressed in a tight line, her nostrils flaring.

Another shout pierced the air, closer now.

Regina’s gaze did not so much as flicker, she looked at her as if she was staring right into her soul. Glancing into her very being.

“Fine,” Emma croaked, her hand dropping from Regina’s shoulder.

Regina’s last words were like a searing mark on her heart. Why didn’t she understand, you had to be cautious to survive? This was wasting time. This was a risk. This was dangerous.

But those words remained, their heat burning behind her eyes. Their sharpness swaying her to Regina’s will.

Regina’s gaze slid away, but not fast enough for Emma to miss the way it wavered.

“Then let us find her.” Regina slipped around a tree, and Emma followed, hand on her sword and not the least bit happy.

“We’re wandering too far from camp,” Emma tried to reason again, pathetically in her own opinion. She scrabbled at a tree trunk, the bark breaking, as they made their way down a steep, almost grassless, slope.

For the first time since the determination set in, she saw Regina’s pace falter, her back tensing.

“He will be fine,” Regina said after a pause, “And we shall be quick.”

The shouts had ceased, not that they had been frequent to begin with. Emma slid the rest of the way down the slope, her flask knocking annoyingly against her hip.

Perhaps someone else had heard the shouts. Perhaps no more help was required – one way or another.

The bitter darkness of that thought was a blow, leaving her stunned as she trailed after Regina.

She favoured realism, but that…

Her fingertips fluttered over her breast, and not for the first time she wondered.

“Are we too late?” Regina asked on a breath, coming to a halt where the trees grew sparser, seeming parting to make way for a murky pond.

Emma shook her head despite her thoughts, and though her heart still stung it now ached to comfort.

“No – perhaps.” Emma reached Regina in a few strides, “We should turn back. What ever happened is over.”

Regina lifted her chin, their eyes locking. For one long moment Emma thought she was about to blame her for what had befallen the unknown, a thought that left her fighting to remain strong – to not shrink back or hide.

Then Regina’s eyes slipped over her shoulder, and the moment was gone.

“We need to get back to Rocinante.”

Emma held back a relieved sigh, giving a nod instead. Thankfully, she was confident she could recall the way back to the snare.

“Greetings.”

They looked to one another, before their gazes slowly roamed around.

Empty save for the trees and the occasional stump.

“Did you – ”

“Yes. Can you – ”

“No.”

Emma took a slow step forward, avoiding a thick fallen branch. She could feel Regina at her back.

“Can you provide some assistance?”

As one they looked to the muddy pond.

And the eyes peeking over the edge.

“I’m stuck.”

She knew the bait of a trap when she saw one, and this was more obvious than most.

Regina looked to her, uncertain now. Her desire to help no doubt clashing with just how wrong the situation felt.

“You’re…” Emma tilted her head, taking another step forward, “Stuck? In a shallow pool?”

“Well it was a deep stream before, after the Above’s water fell, I swam to watch the people who passed, but it vanished behind me. I never did well in freshwater.”

Unconsciously, Regina shifted closer to Emma, her confusion morphing into a mild fear, “Emma?”

“Err…” Emma’s eye darted about, hand still on the hilt of her sword, the other giving Regina’s hand a reassuring squeeze before she moved away.

Standing now, a mere foot or two away from the strange girl, Emma took a breath before she crouched down. She could feel Regina fidgeting behind her, but she kept back. Thankfully.

“You need help then,” Emma said slowly, eyes darting about for any sign of an ambush.

“Yes, yes I do,” the girl said in a rush, splashing in the murky water.

Splashing?

She hadn’t moved her body in a way that could…

Another splash and Emma’s eyes grew large as she fell back, she stumbled to her feet, swiftly returning to Regina’s side. She seemed baffled by Emma’s reaction, not understanding until she saw the movement herself.

“A mermaid?” Regina breathed, amazement lighting up her face.

“No…” Emma shook her head, “They aren’t real.”

“My name is Ariel,” the girl informed cheerily.

The mermaid rose up, apparently having been hunched over. The water barely reached where her skin began breaking into scales.

A fucking mermaid?

“Nice to meet you, Ariel.” Regina greeted, a familiar light of curiosity sparking to life in her eyes.

Emma’s mouth fell open, the shock of something she believed not real and this whole meeting striking her silent.

Regina was braver, or quicker to recover, crossing the short distance between them and the pond and offering her hands.

“Regina!”

The look shot her way was questioning, but soon turned into a look that Emma assumed a parent would use to ease a frightened child.

“Worry not, I doubt Ariel will drown us.” Regina turned back to the mermaid. Emma’s mind could only spin and splutter in her attempt to understand, “As I am sure you heard, I am Regina, and this is Emma.”

“Drown?!” Emma squeaked rushing to Regina’s side, even though the water was surely not deep enough for that.

“You never heard the stories?” Regina met her eyes with that sorrowful look she always carried when it came to what Emma never had – never knew – it twisted at her heart.

“No.” Emma shook her head, fighting not to be swayed by Regina’s expression, “We are having nothing to do with something that will kill us!”

“Stories are not always true.”

“I am not like my sisters,” Ariel added brightly, “You need not worry that I will pull you beneath the waves.”

Emma gestured dramatically, eyes wide. How was Regina oblivious? Why was she not accepting the obvious?

But why did that surprise her? The only reason they were there was because Regina would not listen to her, or her warnings.

“You know not all is how people say it is.”

Regina reached for the mermaid again, once more trying to lift her.

Emma let her hand drop, her expression falling.

Goddammit.

Regina’s grip slipped, and with a frustrated sigh she stepped back, though her expression turned sympathetic when she met the large eyes of the mermaid.

A gut feeling told Regina to trust her… Emma huffed out a breath, her gut feelings are certainly far more trustworthy than mine.

This was just as reckless as following the shouts in the first place, and yet again, Emma found herself doing as Regina wished. Even as it went against every one of her instincts.

She rested her hand on Regina’s arm, who instantly perked up at the light touch.

“My strength is not in my upper body.”

“Got it,” Emma muttered, her feelings on this whole thing clear to see on her face.

Ariel’s smile grew (did she ever stop?) as she moved towards them as best as she could.

It was quickly apparent that lifting from the edge would only make it more of a challenge.

With no other choice Emma waded into the water, soon regretting not removing her boots first.

“Now what?” Emma complained when Ariel was in her arms, she was far lighter than Emma would have guessed.

“The sea is that way,” Ariel said cheerily, turning her gaze rather than gesturing. Luckily she could see where the stream had once been.

Emma pulled a face, displeasure clear.

“We said we would help.” Regina met her eyes for a split second before her gaze dropped to Ariel.

“Right.” Emma swallowed, trying to ease her frown, “Let’s be quick about it.”

 


 

The mermaid was bare.

Regina’s eyes shot away. Emma, who she assumed would be less affected by such a thing, stumbled over her feet and choked on her words when she realised. And that, perhaps most of all, was what caught her by surprise.

They both regained their composure quickly, Regina taking their first few steps towards their goal, and Emma followed with a roll of her shoulders.

“Can you manage?” Regina asked stopping a few steps ahead for Emma to catch up.

“Yes,” Emma grunted, her unwilling attitude almost pulling Regina’s mood down. They continued on side by side, close enough now for Regina to see how Emma shivered, the water clinging to the mermaid soaking her tunic, “She’s light. Really light.”

“Light?” Ariel tilted her head, her gaze flickering to the afternoon sun, “I am not light.”

“Not heavy,” Emma explained, eyes straight ahead and the red in her cheeks fading, “You don’t weigh much.”

“Weigh?” Ariel’s tail twitched, hitting Emma’s leg and drawing out a shocked, strangled sound.

Regina drifted away for a moment, a tree separating them.

“Forget it,” Emma grumbled, “Doesn’t mean much.”

She did just that when they passed a tree closely and Ariel grabbed at the bark, she failed to break a piece off in that short moment, but stared at her nails where bits of it had slipped under them.

Even with her own curiosity, she found herself hoping to see the sea through the trees soon. They had left Rocinante for far too long.

Regina turned to find Ariel tugging at the neck of Emma’s tunic.

“Why do you wear these?” She asked, peering at the material in her hand and the skin she could see, her face scrunched up in confusion. Regina ignored the strange sense of something that tugged deep in her gut.

“Err, well – the thing…” Emma trailed off her sullenness vanishing, she turned to Regina for help, looking so very lost.

The feeling dissipated, replaced by a sense of almost amusement at Emma’s distress.

“Well, Ariel,” Regina said slowly, thinking of how to explain it as quickly as she could, “We cannot wander around naked.”

Ariel tilted her head, wide eyes on Regina now, “What’s naked?”

“No clothes.” Emma’s answer was short, snapped out in her embarrassment.

“What is a clothes?” The mermaid’s head shot up as she instantly answered her own question, “Oh! The things you wear?”

Regina nodded, feeling oddly as if she were speaking to a child, “We wear them to keep warm, and for style, and to keep our decency.”

“What is wrong with… naked?” Ariel asked, repeating the word carefully, “Wearing things like you do would be uncomfortable, how is wearing them ‘decency’? What is ‘decency’? Is it not awful to be weighed down? Do they not itch?  We are all ‘naked’ – ”

“I noticed,” Emma grumbled under her breath.

“I do not understand, why – ”

“Slow down,” Regina said at last, finally able to politely interrupt the mermaid, “Please.”

The pause was long enough for a breath, with so many of her own questions rebounding in Regina’s mind it made concentrating a challenge. Holding them back was easier, though not the case for Ariel. The stream of inquires clearly exhausting Emma.

“I saw others before you, but they carried these glistening things that made those things fall.” Ariel gestured oddly, nearly making Emma lose her footing.

“A tree.” Regina supplied, “They are called trees.”

“Trees,” Ariel repeated, drawing the word out. The thought did not last long, “I hid. I think I made the correct choice, I would not have met you if I had not. Oh, what was that?!”

Regina’s gaze flickered from a squirrel scampering up a tree just in time to see Emma’s jaw twitch.

“A squirrel. How old are you Ariel?” Regina interjected quickly, and not just to sate her own curiosity.

Ariel seemed young in appearance and in speech, or maybe that was something common among mermaids. She certainly looked younger than she and Emma; maybe sixteen years?

“Why?” Ariel’s tail flicked out, catching Emma’s leg, “I’m the youngest of my sisters.”

“I apologise, so many questions have sprung into my mind.” Regina smiled kindly, “Just as so many are in your mind.”

Understanding seemed to cross Ariel’s face, and in a flash her head dropped, her chin low. She mumbled her answer.

“Pardon?”

Ariel sighed dramatically, though her mouth did not move, and lifted her head to stare at the sky, “I am only one hundred and six summers.”

Regina felt her eyes grow wide, Ariel’s answer repeating in her mind a number of times before it sunk in.

The mermaid, looking so small and frail in Emma’s arms, was over one hundred years old?

Emma’s brow had dropped low, her lips remaining parted for a few long moments before she uncharacteristically managed to compose herself.

“I… would never have guessed.”

Ariel lifted her head, eyes sparkling, “How many summers are you? How can you be surprised if you look older than I?”

“Younger,” Emma said with an odd sort of tension, “Significantly so.”

“Truthfully?” Ariel’s large eyes seemed to grow wider, jumping between them, “How? That does not seem possible.”

“Careful,” Regina interrupted, the warning unnecessary for Emma.

They ducked beneath a thick branch, slipping a little on mud that had yet to dry.

“Are you well?” Regina asked, concern hitting her, “You have been out of the water for a while.”

Ariel twirled a leaf between her fingers – where had that come from? – her attention engrossed with it, “It is not much further.”

Emma grumbled beneath her breath, though it soon broke into an exasperated, “Don’t eat it.”

Ariel pulled the partly chewed leaf away from her mouth, interest soon captured by the shout of some distant beast.

They dropped down a slope as the trees opened up. A great, unending blue before them.

“The sea…”

The land beside the dried up stream they followed rose and fell, the trees growing sparser and younger, the ground looser. In moments trees were replaced by shrubs and pale thin grasses.

“Sand.” Emma’s lips twitched, her gaze shifting from their path for the first time.

Regina seized a handful because Emma could not, letting the coarse grains slip through her fingers.

“Thank you,” Ariel almost whispered, a stark contrast to every earlier word, “Thank you.”

The sand grew stony, then wet, Regina stopped just before the sea, wringing her hands as Emma approached not caring as the water lapped at her boots.

Ariel’s tail twitched as she wiggled in Emma’s arm, besides the tensing of Emma’s shoulders, Regina could not see much more.

“Thank you.” She heard Ariel say one last time before Emma, waist deep in the water, lowered her down.

“Hey,” Emma said softly, but with a certain firmness. Emma held out her hand, as Regina had done to try to help Ariel before. It made her brow furrow.

“What are you…?”

Ariel placed something in Emma’s hand and ducked her head lower in the water.

Emma made her way back to shore, stopping by Regina and, with a tilt of her hand, answered her question. She slipped the flint back into her pocket and, with a frown, scrunched up the legs of her trousers, trying to squeeze out as much water as she could without taking them off.

Regina’s gaze found its way back to Ariel, a peculiar feeling settling in her chest. Another farewell, this one far shorter than the last.

They could not just leave, as they were forced to with Granny and Red. There had to be more to it. It had to be proper even if their time with her had been so brief. And, with the sun sinking in the distance, she believed she knew how.

“Emma?”

“Huh?” Emma asked, hunched over as she twisted the fabric of her trousers in her hands.

“I want to make a fire, for Ariel.”

“What?” Emma straightened up, her brow furrowed, “Why? I don’t think she needs it.”

“A gift.” The concise answer seemed enough, though Emma looked displeased. An expression that deepened when Ariel’s voice reached them inquiring just what she meant.

Before Emma could argue, Regina dashed off, gathering some of the wood littering parts of the beach. It was dry and brittle from the sun, but it would do.

A tiny fire pit was soon arranged, Ariel watched their actions intently her questions flowing – too many telling from the twitch of Emma’s brow.

“Right,” Emma mumbled, retrieving flint and stone from her pocket, “Watch carefully.”

“I do not think you need tell her twice,” Regina said with a smile, the strength of it making Emma fumble the flint, though her lips remained pressed tightly together.

With a few practiced strikes, the fire sprang to life.

“Oh! Oh…” Ariel swam as close as she could, to the point Regina feared she would become stuck on the beach in her effort to touch the flames. “It is beautiful.”

“It is our gift to you, it is how we say farewell.” Regina stood, brushing sand off her knees, “It will not last long, but I – ”

“Thank you,” Ariel repeated, the fire shining in her eyes, “For everything.”

The low burning fire crackled and spat, the feeling in Regina’s chest returned, a slowly seeping ball of bitter sorrow. The sense of something cut too short, too soon. She took a breath, harder than she had envisioned, and felt Emma, warmer than the fire, move closer beside her.

“Farewell, Ariel.”

 



“I had so many questions I did not have the chance to ask,” Regina said softly, gently ending the silence between them, “How she knew the common tongue for example.”

Emma’s brow twitched, “I can’t say I thought of that.”

“Perhaps it is something innate, or passed down amongst themselves.”

She felt Emma’s gaze like a weight, she looked to her hesitantly, and was almost surprised to find a soft smile.

“Your curiosity is…” Emma shrugged, smile gaining strength, “I can’t think of a word worthy of it.”

“How can you not be?” Emma watched Regina more closely than the ground, which in the darkness had grown even more treacherous, “We met a mermaid, someone who to many is just a story.”

Emma’s eyes slid away as she lifted a branch, holding it to let Regina duck beneath it before she followed.

“And yet you do not believe it, as if you think your own eyes – your own hands, are capable of deceiving you.”

“It’s, err…” Emma lifted her shoulders and let them fall, “It’s too much for me.”

Emma was by her side again, shadows consuming and encroaching forward – she wondered with a nervous swallow, what monsters they hid.

There was no lantern here to keep them at bay, just obscured moonlight, but there was Emma. As always.

They were both stronger than they realised.

“You made us waste time with that fire,” Emma grumbled. Regina rolled her eyes, though she found herself smiling. At least she was no longer complaining about helping her.

“It was a gift, and you did not protest.” Not that she had given her the chance to.

“It was your idea,” Emma said before mumbling, “As if saving her life wasn’t enough.”

“You should always part ways with a gift,” she replied, thinking of too many farewells incomplete.

“What a load of nonsense,” Emma huffed as they made their way up an incline, “That’s just what people with too much wealth say to get even more than they already have.”

“That is our way, Emma.”

“The greed?”

“No! The custom. It’s our culture, Emma.”  Regina wanted to pause, to rest against a tree and explain face to face. But they had been distracted enough, and left Rocinante alone for far too long. What if someone had stumbled across him? What if someone had harmed him?

Emma’s warnings returned to her. Earlier, in her desire to help, they had flowed off her like water over a boulder. But here, now, the reality of it struck her.

She should have never followed after Emma. She should have stayed with Rocinante, or gone to fetch him as soon as they heard shouting. It would have made carrying Ariel far easier, and swifter.

They had to be close now.

“It doesn’t matter how little or large the gift or gesture is, only the meaning behind it,” she continued, the distraction needed.

“Custom,” Emma scoffed.

Regina sighed, pushing aside branches and leaves in her path.

She heard a whack, followed by a hissed curse. She turned to see Emma rubbing her cheek, barely more than a shadow in the moonlight that filtered through the canopy.

“Never meant anything to me,” Emma mumbled, motioning for her to continue or perhaps to not apologise, “Not mine. Never been part of it.”

“Part of what?” Regina’s nose scrunched, trying to decipher what Emma’s low words were referring to.

“Don’t matter.” The words brought forth memories, a round smiling face, speech so uncouth. Regina had to shrug them off to press on.

Just like the topic, which she let slip by.

“It’s not as if you lost stone or flint with that gift,” she said after a time, hiding a smile at the way Emma’s head jerked up.

“We.”

“Granny didn’t teach me.”

“She taught us both.”

“Ah,” Regina let the sound draw out, “She taught you. I watched.”

“That’s what teaching is!” Emma shrugged, “… Isn’t it?”

Regina fought off a laugh at the doubtful addition, smiling widely at Emma’s resulting pout – a sign she knew her amusement held no maliciousness.

That is what they needed. What they both needed. Something to lighten the mood, to take their minds away from the awful reality of their situation –

“Are those lights?” Emma threw her arm out, halting Regina’s march forward with the palm of her hand.

Regina followed the blonde’s gaze, her throat tight. Down past the slope to their right, through the trees was a distant orange glow.

“There were no villages.” Emma let the sentence hang, realisation like a sinking stone in her stomach.

“We don’t know for certain.” Regina’s voice was high, contained a question she did not want the answer to.

“Rocinante’s just ahead.” The uncertainty would have made Regina shake if she did not feel as if she recognised the incline they stood on top of, “We just need to get to him.”

Regina nodded, unseen. They couldn’t be more than a few dozen paces away.

She turned to Emma, perhaps for guidance or something else entirely.

But Emma was still, staring down the slope towards likely danger.

Regina darted forward, closed her hand around Emma’s wrist and pulled. The urgent action spurred Emma on, and soon they were moving swiftly onward, practice leaving their movement far quieter than it had once been.

They just needed to get to Rocinante.

They would edge around the area – undetected.

It would take them off-track, but what did that matter now? Better another delay than…

“We – we don’t know it’s them,” Emma whispered, just loud enough to be heard over twigs breaking and leaves rustling.

Regina smiled despite herself, Emma’s attempt to calm her noted even as her heart beat hard and her blood pumped faster.

“Who else would be out so late?”

She stumbled. Barely avoiding the fallen tree trunk from earlier, Emma barely avoided colliding with her. The blonde skirted around her, hand warm against her upper arm.

Their eyes met in the feeble moonlight, Emma’s mouth quirking into a smile. A brief respite from panic.

“Do you want me to – ”

A figure crashed through the bushes opposite, his head snapping to them. Regina shifted closer to Emma, felt her hand shaking as it moved to her side.

Leather, a dark insignia on his breast, her body tensed further, fingers slipping against Emma’s, into her hand, guiding it away from her hip.

Emma’s hand jerked, but Regina held firm.

He was just one man. And who was already stained?

One man in their way. What was one more?

It pulled at her, like a thread wrapped tight around her heart. Consumed her attention – all thought. Tugged at the darkness and the white hot anger. At the feeling of power, that craved her, that needed her. Simmering beneath the surface, waiting. Demanding.

She was shoved off her feet, Emma falling hard against her.

An arrow embedded in a trunk.

Yanked to her feet. Pulling, running, tripping back the way they came.

The thread snapped.

A blast of sound, echoing all around them, sending roosting birds scattering away.

Nausea, in her stomach – her throat –

She had thought to kill a man.

She had tried –

She staggered, Emma pulling them to the right, at an angle that took them even further away. Each step further and further –

“… Rocinante?”

Branches and brambles cut at skin, caught clothes and pulled, held like it wanted them to slow, to wait for what was to befall them.

She was heaving for air, to stop her sickness from claiming her. Lungs aching, body sore. Emma was panting, hand damp against her own. Still holding, still strong.

“Can’t...” Emma choked out, “Called reinforcements.”

Her argument fell.

Head spinning.

They ran. Ran for so long her muscles seared and screamed. Ran for so long each breath was agony. Ran for so long she was certain to faint.

Perhaps she had.

They broke through the trees, sudden and abrupt, nearly tumbled. Short grass, the scent of the sea.

Regina was on her knees. When? How?

Body aching. Legs and chest burning.

The grass was cool against her forehead.

“A cliff?” She heard Emma mutter, voice hoarse, “I think…” Emma gulped in a breath, the sound rattling, “We lost them.”

Regina turned her head just in time, the nausea resurfacing in a sudden burst.

Emma stood straight, rushed over to her, steps uneven. Regina squeezed her eyes shut, felt Emma guide her to her feet and away from the treeline.

 “They were Prince Conway’s men.”

She lifted her head, leaning into Emma, “Are you certain?”

“The one we saw, which means the others are too.” The arm around her tightened, a slight tremble in her hold, “I recognised the insignia on his chest.”

“You have better eyes than I.” Regina said though her mind was elsewhere, trying desperately to take in all that had happened. In a small voice she added in a whisper, “Rocinante.”

Emma gave a nod, wincing at the movement, but said, “We can’t.”

Regina shook her head, throat burning, heart aching, “Could we not hide? Wait until they move on, then return for Rocinante?”

She heard Emma swallow, her lips parted as she met her gaze with wide eyes.

“Regina, I – ”

“Halt!”

Chapter Text

“Move no further.”

Emma stumbled back, scrabbling at her waist for the hilt of her weapon, each beat of her heart pounding in her ears.

She saw the man’s sword first, the torchlight reflecting off its sharp edge, glinting off armour and helmet – blinding in the night. She stepped back, purposefully this time, eyes darting to take in as much of their surroundings as she could. Stopping only when she felt the warmth of Regina’s body at her back.

One knight. She could handle one knight, she just had to ensure he could not call for the others. She had to be swift.

She shifted her leg forward, her body trembling in shaky preparation, baffled by a feeling of almost familiarity.

“I said move no further.”

Her brow twitched, creasing further. His face may be hidden, but it mattered little – for it was with a sinking realisation that she saw the familiarity was in his voice. That in just a moment she recognised it with such clarity.

She swallowed, her throat tight and dry, her voice a croak on the salty breeze.

“Talmadge.”

“Don’t.” He took a step forward, the force in that one word enough to confirm what she already knew, “You need not die here. Let the Princess go.”

“I am with her by choice.” Regina’s quavering voice was close to her ear. She was standing too far forward. Emma stepped to the side, shielding her.

“My apologies, your Highness, for being unable to take your words as truth.”

It is,” Regina pleaded, her voice high with a desperation she could not hide, clutching at the back of Emma’s tunic with trembling fingers.

He lifted his visor, the torchlight highlighting the disbelief in his eyes. A purposeful action, the shift of his hand allowing the torch to push back the dancing shadows from his face.

Showing his face… it was a gesture she did not misinterpret. Talmadge’s gaze moved back to her, though something seemed amiss in it.

Her hands twitched, her palms as damp as her brow.

“You know me, Talmadge, you know I wouldn’t do whatever it is they are claiming I have done.” Emma’s hand found its way to her chest, resting above her heart, “I saved Regina, I have done everything in my power to protect her. I swear, we ran for a true reason. For her safety.”

His lips twitched, his face set in a sternness she had never seen there before, “You deceived me.”

He sounded disappointed rather than rageful. Emma shook her head, her lips trembling, threatening to turn her words into a plea, “I did what I had to, I needed to make sure Regina would be safe.”

His eyes flickered to Regina over her shoulder, his throat moving with his swallow.

“You know me,” she tried again, voice near to breaking. They had gotten this far, it couldn’t end here. Not after everything they had been through. Not when Regina wasn’t safe yet. “Remember, when you caught me spying on the knights training? I had only been at the castle for a few weeks, you could have so easily made me lose it all, but you didn’t. You said you liked my cheek, said it reminded you of your daughter – ”

“Do not bring her into this,” he hissed.

“Please, Talmadge, let us pass.” This time she let the plea leave her, lifting her hands and letting her shoulders drop as she all but begged.

His lips pressed into a tight line, she could see what she prayed was a struggle on his face. But it was brief, perhaps a trick of the light. He shook his head, the movement slight.

“I will never betray my King.”

No. No.

Regina’s hand now clutched firmly at her tunic, the hold shaking.

“But you will betray your princess!” Emma’s chest heaved, sweat beading on her brow, her face twisting, “If you take her back, she will die!”

“I do not want to hurt you, Swan.” He implored, lifting the torch again, his face hidden in shadow, “Please stand aside.”

“Did you not hear what I said?” Her eyes burned, her throat aching, blood roaring in her ears as her heart constricted painfully over and over.

“I have my orders, now stand aside,” he barked, his stance shifting, the blade’s point facing her.

She shook her head, biting her cheek hard enough that her mouth filled with the dirty taste of blood. Strength filling her voice, determination rising even as inside she quaked.

“Never.”

He threw his torch aside, the flames licking at the grass, and reached for a horn at his belt.

“Then so be it.” There was almost sorrow in his voice, a heavy feeling settling over her, broken only when he lifted the horn to his lips and blew.

The sound was defending, and in its wake was a silence that was almost suffocating.

Shit, shit it was too late.

She should have tackled him when she had the chance! Now all she could do was stand there rooted to the spot, Regina pressed close to her. What was the point in running? They were trapped there. There was nothing she could do… she had failed –

Talmadge’s lips twitched down, a brief shimmer of remorse on his face, or so it seemed when the shadows shifted, “I’m sorry, Swan.”

It seemed only a breath later that light broke through the trees and five or so more men broke through the treeline. Some in metal armour, some in leather, soldiers of two lands. Weapons ready, some dropped their torches, others held theirs aloft.

Emma’s breath came hard and uneven. She couldn’t – couldn’t let it end this way! She needed… shit she didn’t have time to think of anything, but she needed to do something

She couldn’t let Regina go back there –

She couldn’t fail her.

She drew her sword gripping it with two hands to try to hide the tremble in them.

The men’s stances jolted, swords drawn and bows being readied. All pointed at her.

There was only one thing she could do she realised in her desperation, her grip tightening on her sword, her throat working in a dry swallow. One last effort, one that hopefully would be enough.

“Run, Regina.”

The hand at her back tightened, scrunched the material of her tunic hard, “What?

“Run,” Emma repeated, her voice tight, her eyes on the soldiers. On the weapons, “They won’t risk hurting you. I’ll hold them off, distract them – it will give you the chance you need – and then you go. You run. And you don’t look back.”

“No.” It was more difficult than she imagined to not look into Regina’s eyes, to keep her gaze elsewhere as her voice cracked and she held on desperately to her, “I am not leaving you, Emma.”

“Regina, it’s either run or go back there. And I won’t let that happen. You deserve your freedom.”

“Not at this cost.”

“Go,” Emma hissed, the blade trembling in her hands, “Please.”

“Swan, put the sword down.”

Emma’s jaw twitched and tensed, they hadn’t moved yet, though they were all prepared. It took her panicked mind a few moments to realise just why – it made her stomach twist.

“Please,” she pleaded lowly, the hand at her back tightened, trying to restrain her.

Regina’s words brushed her ear, strong despite everything, “I’m not leaving you.”

“Stand down,” Talmadge ordered, closer than the others, his voice dropping in volume as he cautiously stepped closer. His sword gleaming. “Make this easy Swan, I do not want to hurt you.”

Emma stood firm, her jaw tight but shoulders shaking. The arrows might take her down before she could fully engage them, before she could fully distract them, shit, no – she had to try.

Regina grasped her bicep, pulled at her arm. Emma tried to shrug her off, tried to stand her ground because there was no way they were surrendering, but then Regina’s voice broke through, sure and beseeching.

“We need to jump.”

Shock made Emma’s eyes slide to hers for the first time, wide and swirling with emotion.

Regina nodded, as if she thought that would strengthen what she just said as Emma stared, mouth agape.

“That’s enough.” Talmadge shifted his stance, motioning for his men to move forward, “Lay down your arms in the name of the King.”

The men moved forward slowly, weapons at the ready and eyes trained on Emma – on her closeness to Regina. On what they thought she could do in a blink.

Emma glanced behind them, wetting her lips. Her heart clenched, her stomach roiled, fear freezing her skin and stealing her breath.

Closing her eyes for a brief moment, she nodded.

Regina stepped back, her smile wavering, her eyes damp. Emma twisted back around.

The soldiers took the chance and charged.

In a flash Emma sheathed her sword. Regina caught her hand and pulled, turning and running, barely avoiding the men which were upon them. Something shot past Emma’s ear, breath seizing as she had moved just in time. There were shouts, but they were deafened by the choking sense of dread. Of what they were about to do – the ground ended in a few paces, the sea and the unending expanse of darkness before them. Tears sprang free, but neither slowed. Neither breathed.

“Stop!”

They jumped.

Chapter Text

The cold struck her hard, tried to make her gasp for breath, she fought, flailing her limbs to try to break through the water encasing her. For a moment she thought her eyes were open, a blurred distant glow overhead, but it was gone in an instant.

Salt stung her eyes. Her lungs burned.

She tried to kick, but her legs refused to move, as if something were holding them, pinning them and then her arms, pulling and pulling.

Water rushed by as she twisted, desperately needing to breathe, her mind dimming and the world fading, but then there! A cold surge of air against her face, a choked in breath, and another and another.

She clawed at rock, nails breaking, lungs searing. She kicked, fighting to pull herself from the icy depths. She dragged herself forward by her elbows and then knees until at last she collapsed on her side on solid ground, heaving.

Yet still she felt as if she were drowning – suffocating. As if all her strength was gone and she was deaf to all. An empty shell. Everything seemed to waver, as if it was part of some fragile dream she was desperately clinging to.

She scrabbled at her chest with sore fingers, a relieved breath escaping her when she felt her heart still beating beneath her skin.

Emma tried to open her eyes. Only to find they already were.

Her mouth fell agape, too panicked to form words, she raised her hand to her eyes, but could see nothing. The darkness impregnable.

Was she blind?

As if that thought was the key, the bubble of silence surrounding her broke. Her own ragged breath echoing, merging with the rasping breath beside her.

“… Regina?” She scrambled to her knees, an unpleasant shiver running down her spine. She groped blindly at wet stone, further still until her fingertips brushed chilled skin.

“I’m… fine,” Regina’s voice croaked, closer than Emma expected.

Regina shifted, raising upwards. Emma had the impression she was even closer.

How had they…?

Where were they?

“Can you…” Emma rubbed at her stinging eyes, letting the sentence hang.

“See?”

Emma flinched at a touch to her arm, it immediately jumped away, but after she took as deep a breath as she could manage, she groped for Regina’s hand and returned it.

“You cannot?”

Startled, they both pressed further into one another, both hearts beating a fast tempo.

Realisation was slow to pierce their minds, only succeeding when Emma was grasping for her sword, weighed down by sodden leather.

“Ariel?” She rasped.

“I can help!”

“Wait! Ariel!”

But it was fruitless, there was an almighty splash, a flick of frigid water against Emma’s already icy cheeks, and then nothing.

They both helped each other stand, a challenge with numb bodies and sore skin, and tried to steady their breathing.

They had been pulled under then. The feeling and the presence of the mermaid too much of a coincidence. She reached to her left, struggling not to hold her breath. The stone was damp beneath her touch, somewhere in the distance she could hear the tell-tale patter of water drops.

“There’s a wall here.” Her voice sounded odd, like it was echoing but somehow not.

Icy fingers slid though her own, a pause before Regina softly added, “And here.”

Enclosed then, save for their backs.

Was this what mermaids did? Not drown them as Regina thought, but take them somewhere – to what? Stay in cold storage until the inevitable unknown.

She shivered, and felt Regina shake. Her hair hung heavy and wet around her face and back, the tie holding it gone. Her free hand jumped to her pocket, relieved to find the stone and flint still there.

Regina lightly squeezed her hand, speaking as if she knew Emma’s earlier thoughts, “She saved us.”

Emma pressed her chattering teeth together hard, the pain grounding. They had survived the jump, aside from some aches she suspected would soon be bruises. But arrows were being shot, and even if they missed they would get them on the shore.

If they managed to get there alive.

But how? How had Ariel known? It’s not as if she could have followed them.

As if in response, water splashed closer than Emma remembered, she stumbled back, boots squelching.

“This.” Ariel’s voice made her jump even though it had been expected. Something tapped as it was placed before her feet, “And…”

Another splash and Emma could only assume she had gone again.

“Regina?” She called softly, cautiously touching her back in as much of an embrace as was comfortable with them both soaking wet.

“I am sure she will be back.”

That wasn’t the least bit what Emma intended, but tightened her arm, the supportive gesture earning a soft puff of breath against her cheek.

She looked around, though she could see nothing save for darkness. It did little to ease the tension in her gut, or the encroaching sense of something prickling against her skin.

Emma blinked, rubbing at her eyes with her free hand, certain she saw a shift to grey in the centre of her vision.

“I think I see something.”

“That’s a relief,” Emma breathed, guiding them back a step as the spot in her vision certainly grew, though the way it made her eyes ache and itch did not lessen. Closing her eyes she rubbed at them, and when they fluttered open she could just make out the cave they were in.

“Huh…”

The eerie blue glow came from a… plant Ariel was holding. The light from it reached far enough to show the small body of water Ariel was in, and the tunnel stretching into the darkness at their backs.

The white of Regina’s eyes were dark, no doubt red, and she looked at her as if taking her in for the first time. Emma shuffled her feet, boots waterlogged.

“I didn’t lose the flint at least, or this.” She patted the hilt of her sword, head tilting as Regina’s hand shot up. As soon as her fingers brushed her necklace she gripped it tight. Relief in her eyes.

Together they looked back to Ariel.

“Where are we?” Regina’s eyes flickered closed, in an attempt, no doubt, to hide a shiver.

“I brought you beneath the waves.”

“That much we figured out,” Emma snapped, even though she had tried to hold it back. Her fraying nerves were breaking faster than she had hoped.

“Emma.” Regina’s gaze was hard, her lips in a hard line even as water still dripped down her face, “Ariel helped us.”

“I know.”

“Then show some gratitude.” Regina returned her gaze to the mermaid, smiling sweetly as Emma fought with herself. “Thank you, Ariel. But how did you know?”

“You called for me, it is odd, I didn’t give you my shell, but I heard your call.”

Emma scratched the back of her head, fingers twitching at the coldness of her damp hair.

Her shell? They ‘called’ her? She didn’t shout, nor Regina. Perhaps Ariel heard the confrontation, but they had been so high up. Perhaps she had saved them, she wasn’t attacking them yet, and could have easily have drown them before. But that didn’t make any more sense of whatever was happening or had happened.

Regina caught her puzzled expression, even in the dim light of the glowing plant.

“It does not matter how, not truly.” Regina shook her head softly, taking another slow breath, “She was there, and we are safe.”

For now, Emma wet her dry lips, and took a swig from her flask – tainted by the slightest hint of salt – it was passable, and would have to do.

“How do we leave here?”

Emma tied her flask back to her belt, casting her gaze over Regina to make sure she hadn’t lost hers in the water.

“I can take you back the way I brought you.”

Emma’s eyebrows shot up, her alarm too sudden to hide. To those that weren’t mermaids at least.

Not only would that put them at great risk, from the soldiers and the sea, but she was not about to go through that again.

“I do not think that is wise, Ariel.”

Emma’s eyes jumped to Regina just in time to see her look behind them.

The only other option then. And she doubted Ariel knew what was back there.

“Does this lead anywhere?” Regina’s brow creased, a sign she believed she should have rethought her words, “Is there an exit you know of?”

“Not that I have connected to here.”

“Perhaps it ends inland,” Emma added, holding back a ‘if there is an exit’. If there was one, who knew where they would end up.

“We can try. If it looks hopeless we will return here, and have to follow Ariel’s suggestion.”

“We are not going far with little water, no food and soaked to the bone.” Emma seized some of her own hair, twisting it to try to rid herself of some of the seawater clinging there, “But it’s all we have.”

“Take my shell.”

Emma’s eyes dropped to her feet, and the large white shell that lay there.

“If you return here, use it to call me.” Ariel held the glowing plant up to her, Regina crouched to pick up the shell, “If you do not, please take it to the sea and call for me there.”

“We will.” Regina was already holding the shell close. Emma took the plant, lips curling at its slippery feel, “We will not run off with it.”

Ariel seemed to beam up at them even though she was not smiling, her tail flicking, “I hope to see you soon.”

“I am certain you will.”

Emma wound the plant around her wrist, above the woven band. Her heart grew heavier for a moment, her breaths sounding shallow.

It had all happened so fast.

“How long will the plant last out of water?”

Ariel tilted her head, and Emma noticed the slits in her neck for the first time. Her stomach turned at the unexpected sight, something that worsened when she watched them flicker, “I… do not know.”

“Then we best be quick.”

Emma didn’t linger, already moving with a determined pace, though slow enough for Regina to realise and match her strides.

“Call for me,” Ariel’s voice echoed at their backs, they turned their heads, still walking, Regina giving a smile and Emma lifting her hand. Ariel was nothing more than a rapidly fading shadow, but the splash she made rebounded off the walls.

 


 

The stone above slanted too far down at one point, they crawled and awkwardly shuffled forward for the long stretch of time it took for the rock above them to rise again.

Emma grunted, rubbing at her spine when she straightened. With a huff she tried to move some of her hair out of her eyes, it was still heavy with water, and she doubted she would get rid of the smell of the sea for a very long time.

She rolled her sore shoulders and checked on Regina, who had stepped beside her, visibly searching what little they could see ahead.

Regina took a step, and Emma followed, keeping by her side.

“I hope the sword doesn’t rust,” Emma muttered, looking down briefly at its hilt. Anything to take her mind off other things, and to keep Regina from sinking too deep into her own troubled thoughts. The pinch to her brow was telling.

Regina took a cautious sip from her flask, they had to be careful with what they had. They had no idea how long this would take, or if they would even reach an exit, and it was doubtful they would find freshwater where they were.

“Good thing the flasks were so watertight, huh?” Emma chuckled, but the sound carried no humour. She hesitated before casting a glance to Regina.

Regina’s lips remained parted for a few moments, as if realising something slowly.

“He said you deceived him.”

Ah. Emma cleared her throat, and not just for something to do.

“He was the knight that saw me.” The tunnel split off to the side, but a glance down it showed it ended a few paces in. “If you remember, during the first day or so of our journey.”

Emma ran her hand through her hair, tangled and barely drying.

“I can’t believe we survived,” she whispered without really meaning to. Too late she realised, feeling rather than seeing Regina tensing.

“What do you mean? That is why we jumped.”

Emma opened her mouth, gapping a bit like a fish. A lie – a half-truth came easily – but she held it back, even though it would be the kinder choice. She could not deceive Regina.

She looked up at the low roof, inhaling sharply.

“It was a longshot.” She swallowed, shrugging reflexively, “A last resort. Better than you being taken back there.”

Regina, though, connected the pieces of her disjointed words, seeing through her as she always did, “You jumped because you thought it would kill us?!”

“No. Yes. Not quite.” The shadows danced as her hand jumped anxiously, her eyes dropping to the plant rather than to Regina’s gaze, the heat of it on the side of her face. “There was death before us and beneath us. I… I didn’t know… Besides it was your idea.”

“I knew Ariel would help us.” Hesitantly, she met Regina’s eyes, the softness of her tone a wordless encouragement. “How could you possibly think I wanted to kill us both?”

Emma’s teeth cut into her cheek, the pressure in her chest like a solid knot, “How did you even know she was there, let alone that she would help us?”

“I… just did.”

In the glow of the plant, Emma could just make out the little furrow between Regina’s eyebrows, the slight aversion of her eyes. As if Emma needed any other sign.

And, if they hadn’t nearly been caught. If they hadn’t almost died, or though they were close to it. Emma would have let it rest. But as it were, her nerves frayed and Regina’s accusation rebounding in her skull, she couldn’t let it go.

“I don’t believe that.”

“You do not believe me?”

“I believe you, but not that.” Emma’s eyes narrowed, her pace slowing as Regina followed suit. But Regina kept her gaze focused solely ahead, as if she had only curbed her strides because she would have lost their only light source if she had continued.

“It couldn’t have been a previous plan, and there is no way you could have seen her. So what was it?” The knowing in her voice was not lost on Regina, she could see that in the tense line of her jaw, in the slight lowering of her head.

And when she spoke, it was terse, concise. Abrupt. “I had a feeling.”

“A feeling?” Emma repeated, the knot in her chest cold, icy, fighting with the heat of her fear and anger.

“Like my skin was tingling, like something was pulling at me.” The outburst made Emma lose her footing, hitting her shoulder against the wall. The cracking voice hurt more than the impact from a half-caught fall ever would.

Bracing herself against the slimy wall, Emma pushed herself fully to her feet. She rubbed her throbbing shoulder, head bowed. Regina had been right when she had said that it didn’t matter. They were safe, in a manner of speaking, and that was what was important. Now they just had to find a way out.

From what she could gather, she suspected she knew what had happened, and that was not something she was going to mention, not in this fragile moment, nor anytime soon after that. No matter her words from so long ago. Not when it caused Regina such pain.

Some time passed, the only measure the dripping of water. The path twisted, little changing until it split again. Regina chose the right, and Emma followed, but they did not get far.

“Looks like a dead end,” Emma sighed, stomach already turning. The constant tapping of water, the sea at their backs, the stone encasing them; it made her skin grow hot, made her heartbeat turn erratic, and yet still she shivered.

There was no possibility this could end well.

“Perhaps not.” Regina strode determinedly ahead, her steps faltering when she left the glow of the plant too far behind. Emma stumbled to get to her side.

Together they approached the dead end, the glow highlighting more of the stone the closer they drew.

A cave in? Emma lifted her gaze up when they came to a halt, could see clearly where the roof had broken away, and the regular fall of water drops through the cracks.

Emma swallowed.

That doesn’t bode well.

“Emma?”

With a start, her gaze dropped back to Regina. She worked her mouth to try to gather back some moisture. Regina didn’t look angered, however, but her eyes did look heavy.

“I said there is a gap.” Regina gestured, ensuring she had her attention this time. And though Emma’s face was hot, it was not from embarrassment.

Regina took a step closer to the fallen rocks, eyes roaming over them. Emma beat her to it, a sudden surge prompted by knowing just what Regina intended.

“I’ll check,” she said, one hand resting lightly on Regina’s shoulder. It seemed to be enough, as though Regina did not move, her shoulders did drop just slightly. At least she did not shake her off, the heaviness of their earlier argument still thick in the air.

The closeness made Emma a little more cautious as she tested the sturdiness of the fallen stone. They didn’t so much as shift at her pushes.

She only had to lodge the toe of one boot between two rocks and push herself up with the other to reach the gap.

“There’s enough room to climb through,” she called over her shoulder, biting back a cry when an icy drop slid down her neck.

“The other side is level?” Regina’s voice sounded strained, but that didn’t take away from the good point she made.

“Hold on.” Emma reached across the rock, finding the opposite edge, “Might be dark for a second.”

She pulled herself forward, teeth gritting when she found one of her bruises.

It was a bit of a squeeze, but a brief one. She stretched her left arm out, the glow around her wrist revealing the ground was only a short drop away.

It was still better than the alternative.

“It’s fine,” she called, louder than perhaps necessary.

Getting down – head first – was not the fastest or easiest method. Clinging to the rocks lower down, she tried to both ease herself forward, and support herself so she could get her legs free and swing them around.

“Shit!” She yelled just as her arms gave way.

She hit the ground hard.

“Are you alright?”

“Huh uh,” Emma groaned, clutching her side lightly. Ow, there’s another one.

“Emma?”

She blinked slowly, and rolled over to stand, grunting when her sword hilt pressed hard into her side. The panic barely hidden in Regina’s voice no longer for her.

She scrambled back up the rocks and stretched her arm as far as she could through the gap. Regina’s hand appeared and sought her own, clutching it tight. Next came Regina’s face, her eyes wider than normal.

The shell was handed to her. Emma leant down, trying to lessen the drop – it was that or let Regina go. The shell left her fingers, a small clatter all the sound it made.

Emma awkwardly climbed down, still holding Regina’s hand.

“It’s alright,” she reassured Regina as she crawled forward and finally stopped. Emma braced one foot on a lower rock and encouraged Regina to wrap her arms around her neck.

Together, and with more than a little difficulty, they both found their feet on the ground again.

“There. Wasn’t so hard.” Emma chuckled nervously, Regina stepped back from her, arms dropping to her sides. “Let’s get out of here.”

Regina nodded, retrieving the shell.

 


 

She tried not to blink, tried to avoid the dizziness that struck her every time she did.

Emma would lift her arm out straight, attempting to keep the glow of the plant highlighting as much as possible, but with the more time that passed, the less she was able to maintain the outstretch of her trembling arm.

Were they lost? Well, in one sense of the word, of course they were. But at least the majority of the forks they found had only had one path to take, the other ending in a blockage or a dead end. The real question Regina found herself asking, was if their path would lead anywhere, and if it did not, then would they make it back?

Her tongue felt heavy, and though she wet her dry lips, she felt it did very little.

She forced her hand from her flask, it was already far too light. She could feel Emma’s gaze slip to her every so often, and though they walked close enough that their shoulders brushed, neither acknowledged it.

Her stomach growled, but it was easy enough to ignore. What was not, however, were her other concerns. Was Rocinante alright? Had the soldiers found him? What happened next if – when they escaped the cave? They knew how to survive now, or at least the basics, but all of their supplies were with Rocinante.

No… he had to be alright. She would know if he was not. She would know.

They needed to get out of there, find him and put this whole thing behind them.

Her fingers twitched with the need to take Emma’s hand. She curled them tight instead.

She sucked in a breath, and for a brief moment she was certain she could see something ahead in the shadows.

At first she thought it was a trick of the mind, but as it continued she grew certain.

The darkness seemed to lift, not all at once, but in stages, like peeling away the layers of an onion.

The glow around them was dimming.

Her heart lifted.

Emma did not reveal if she had noticed, but she prodded at the slimy plant even as she stared resolutely ahead.

The darkness though grew less consuming. If Regina squinted she could see the outlines of rocks, of the tunnel further away than before, they no longer had to lean against the walls to guide themselves. And when they rounded a corner they saw it, like a speck in the distance.

“We made it?” Emma croaked, her lips parted in astonishment.

“You doubted we would?” Regina lifted an eyebrow, and even in the dull blue glow, Emma could see her teasing smile.

“Let’s get out of here. I’ve had enough of darkness and mazes.”

“You need not tell me more than once.”

Emma smiled tiredly. Their disagreement forgotten in their relief. Regina slipped her fingers between Emma’s own, and they crossed that last expanse.

Chapter Text

Emma flopped onto her back, Regina more sensibly chose to sit beside her, mindful of the water trickling into the tunnel behind them and the endless expanse of blue surrounding everything else.

Emma’s eyes were reddened, either by the salt of the water or the blinding sun.

Regina squinted down at her, basking in the warmth the sun brought. It was not like the sun in Viadori by any means, but anything would be warming after the eerie chill of the tunnels.

The sunlight made the water sparkle.

Is the sea back home this beautiful?

Emma snorted.

A quick glance at her, and Regina was unsurprised to see her rubbing roughly at her face with both hands.

“Are you alright?”

“Naturally.” Emma scrabbled at the rock, finally succeeding in pushing herself up after a few moments, though it was not long before she was hiding her face in her hands.

Regina’s grip finally relaxed on Ariel’s shell, she focused on it as she turned it over in her hands, biting at her bottom lip as she did, “It would have been beneficial to ask how to use this.”

Emma gave a short nod. She sat a little straighter now, and with surprising speed she untied the plant from her wrist, her face scrunching as she dropped it to their side.

“She said we should call her with it…” Regina shifted the shell to look at the underside, or what she thought was it. The shell opened up a little and curved like a funnel, “Do we speak into it?”

Emma rubbed at her wrist looking hard at the shell. After a few long moments of mutual staring, she leant forward, her mouth close to the shell, “Hello?”

As one they looked together at the nothingness around them, but aside from the sounds of the ocean, and some birds overhead, there was nothing.

Emma turned her gaze slowly to the rock face behind them, her forehead marred by a deep crease. Regina followed her line of sight, her throat tight.

I hope that is not the same one we jumped from…

“Hey, how about – ”

“We are not scaling that, we would not stand a chance.”

“While that had crossed my mind, I realised how mad it was. I was going to say this bit kinda looks like a horn – the ones the soldiers use.” Emma pointed to where the shell tapered to a blunt point, and yes, with a squint it almost did.

Regina lifted the shell to her lips and blew softly, it whistled through it, barely audible amongst the lapping of the waves.

“No – ” Emma shook her head, Regina let her take the shell, “ – like soldiers do.”

Shell in hand, Emma sucked in a great breath and blew with enough might that her face turned bright red. And yet the shell made no sound.

Emma pulled away with a panting wheeze that became a breathless cough.

“Emma?” She rubbed at Emma’s back, she slumped forward her fist thumping against her chest, “Do you have any breath left after that?”

Regina could not shake the peculiar feeling settling in her chest, one that grew when Emma handed her the shell.

“… I think it worked…”

“Huh?” Emma’s chest was still rising and falling rapidly, she worked her jaw and rubbed at her cheeks, “You… think?”

Regina’s nod was perhaps a little hesitant, but even so she still felt as if she knew. Just like on the cliff – though she was not about to bring that topic up again, her nerves had still not recovered and an argument was the last thing they needed. Or rather, another argument.

Emma straightened, though she was still a little hunched over. Her gaze lifted to the sun, and then back to the endless blue in front of them.

“Then I guess we wait.” Her breath was still a little short, but thankfully far closer to normal than before, “Not that we can do much else.”

Regina rested her hand over Emma’s, enjoying the warmth it brought and hoping she was right.

 


 

Their exhaustion, both physical and otherwise, coupled with a thirst made them both drowsy. Not even the possible risk of the tide could keep them completely alert.

Emma jerked awake, a sprinkle of water splattering across her cheek.

Sleep it seemed was something neither of them could fight.

It took another splash of water for Emma to turn from Regina, their faces close, and sit up.

“It took me longer than I thought.”

“Ariel?”

Regina stirred beside her, Emma let her wake slowly.

“I am glad it helped.” Ariel picked up the discarded plant and grasped for her shell. Emma took it from Regina’s sleepy grip, but paused before handing it over.

“How will you find us again if we don’t have it?”

Ariel tilted her head, the gills in her neck fluttering.

Emma had never been more glad for an empty stomach.

“I know where you are now.” Ariel smiled, and though her eyes were warm the expression seemed odd, it did little to soothe Emma’s growing emotions.

“How do we know you will come back?”

“I promised to help you, as you helped me.”

Emma felt herself begin to waver, but she clung tight to their only leverage, her attempt to remain firm making her gaze falter.

“Promises mean nothing.”

Emma was startled by a touch to her leg, a half-awake Regina blinking slowly in her effort to wake.

“Most promises,” she corrected before thrusting the shell towards the mermaid.

Shell in hand, Ariel’s odd smile only grew, “I will be back in the flick of a tail.”

Don’t make me regret this, Emma wanted to say, but she bit her cheek and Ariel was soon gone.

Emma rolled her shoulders as if to shake off the tension that had built up, and could only sigh when it did very little.

“Were you talking?” Regina mumbled, rubbing at her right eye.

“You were right,” Emma said, glancing up to see it was gone noon.

“Right?” Regina sat up, rubbing at the back of her neck, “Right about what?”

“It worked.”

“The shell?” Regina looked around frantically, her panicked gaze lurching towards the water before Emma could speak.

“I gave it back.” She rested a hand on Regina’s shoulder, kept it there until she turned to her, “Ariel will return.”

I hope.

Regina shook her head, a hand pressed to her forehead, “Of course you did. I heard the talking.”

“You’re just half-awake.” Emma saw the twitch at her last word and fought the furrowing of her brow.

“I suppose we have no choice but to wait,” Regina said with an air of someone wanting to ignore something.

With a short sigh, Emma nodded.

It was sometime later when Ariel returned. A far shorter wait than Emma had expected, leaving her wondering just how long they had been asleep for. She hadn’t exactly registered the position of the sun earlier.

“How do we get to land then?”

“If you follow me I will lead you.”

Emma coughed, the sound awkward and jarring against the waves.

“Follow you?”

Ariel smiled, before her expression grew quizzical, her brow creasing as it had when greeted with things so foreign to her.

“Yes. Follow, I can take you to a place where the land meets the sea.”

“Couldn’t that refer to anywhere?” Emma tried to joke, to no surprise it didn’t take.

“Ariel is kindly offering to help us. Again.” Regina enunciated clearly, catching Emma’s eye when she tried to turn her head away, “The more pressing matter – ”

With this she turned to Ariel who watched them with as much confusion as she did everything else.

“ – We can’t follow you,” she said softly, ignoring Emma’s grumble, “I cannot swim.”

“Huh?” Emma shuffled along the rocks until Regina saw her in the edges of her vision and turned, “But I can’t swim.”

Regina blinked, then blinked again. Perhaps Emma was making it sound like some great coincidence, or that she had claim of it.

“You thought I could?”

“You’re aristocracy, you’ve got time to learn such pointless things.”

“Yes, between the lessons and the meetings and the balls, and let us not forget the constant quest for a husband.” Regina trembled, and Emma could tell it was not from the sea breeze, “If anyone had time, it was you.”

Those last words, the way they were snapped out so sharp and venomous. That wasn’t Regina, that was…

Emma’s jaw was tense. Regina looked away, her eyes dark, but her head lowered.

“How can you live without swimming?”

Their gazes snapped to Ariel, who was now gazing in confused wonder at the sky.

Emma couldn’t tell if her interruption was strategic or born from straight obliviousness. She breathed easier either way.

“To be unable to move through the sea!”

“Rather like being unable to move on the land.” Emma’s arms were crossed over her chest, her face sour. It was difficult not to snap. She knew she shouldn’t be taking her anger out on someone else, but she couldn’t seem to rope that in as well as normal.

She didn’t want another argument, the remains of their earlier one was grasping for the torn threads of one not quite started.

Emma’s expression barely twitched when she registered Regina’s heavy glower.

“Oh, but I want to.” Ariel drew the words out, almost song like.

“Is that what you dream of?” Regina asked gently, smiling softly when her eyes found Ariel, willing to listen even as the remains of salt water clung to her. Even with the danger they were still in.

“Oh yes,” Ariel enthused, eyes shining, “I would love to.”

“It’s nothing special.”

A muscle in Regina’s jaw ticked, but she did not look towards Emma, or let her smile fall.

“Maybe one day you will. Who knows what the future holds.”

“So how do we get off this rock?” Emma cut in, her stomach roiling and throat painful, “Can’t you get a fish friend to carry us to shore? I mean, there’s got to be some big fish in there.”

Ariel tilted her head again, her eerily bright eyes starting to disturb Emma. The mermaid seemed unable to not stare.

“Why would I befriend a fish?”

“There is nothing wrong in befriending an animal.” Regina frowned slightly, taking offense to Ariel’s tone. The overzealous reaction to something that was no doubt innocent didn’t make Emma’s brow raise, the realisation of what was making her uncomfortable did.

Ariel’s gaze shifted back to her, eyes as wide as always.

She doesn’t blink… how am I only just realising that?

Emma’s boots still squelched as she pushed herself further back on the rock. 

“Oh,” Ariel declared, Regina’s comment rolling off her, “I can carry you.”

“I don’t think you can,” Emma said slowly, recalling the weight and size of the mermaid in her arms. And pardon her if she wasn’t exactly keen to get back in the water.

“We know little of her kind.” Regina looked back at her, surprised to see how far she had retreated, “It is possible.”

Emma shifted closer, only now chilled by the sea breeze.

“The stories do say they pull men beneath the waves. That implies some sort of strength,” Regina whispered when Emma was close enough. Emma doubted the gentle sound of the ocean was enough to cover their voices, but Ariel seemed unaware.

“That’s supposed to instil me with confidence?”

“She has helped us this far.”

Emma heaved a large sigh, again crossing her arms firmly. Even though she knew Ariel was being honest in all their exchanges she still couldn’t shake her feeling of distrust.

“I’m going first to make sure it is safe.” Or would it be better for her to go last? To get Regina out of harm’s way faster – unless it was a trick in which going first – I’m getting a headache.

“If you are certain.” Regina smiled gently.

“So,” Emma said louder, meeting Ariel’s eyes, “How do we do this?”

 


 

Regina sucked in a harsh breath, hands now at her back, a guiding force forward. Lowering her legs her boots touched the ground, waves lapped at her face, her neck, her waist.

“Regina?” Emma called, relieved, jogging to her with clothes and hair dripping.

She was steadied, Emma helping her the last few steps to the shore.

“Thank you,” she said breathlessly. The frigid water having gone someway to cool her head.

Regina glanced back to offer a shaky smile to Ariel.

“I’m never going in the water again,” Emma mumbled, her mind on something else, the hands that left her were shaking.

Regina pushed her braid over her shoulder, the weight of it unexpected.

“I can’t figure out where we are,” Emma groaned, frustrated, “Ariel brought us westward, but with the caves I don’t know if that took us backwards or forward.”

She could barely recall all the twists and turns in the tunnels herself. Regina glanced around, as if it would help, but all she could see were rocks, sand and the forest ahead.

There was no way –

“Ariel?” She called, glad to see the mermaid still amidst the waves. Regina stepped close to where the tide reached, her clothes clinging uncomfortably and the gentle breeze chilling.

Ariel swam as close as she could, the water nearly hiding her eyes.

“Where are we?”

Emma’s boots squelched, growing louder as she stopped by her side.

“I know in relation to the sea – I know little of the earth.”

“The cliff.” Emma’s brow furrowed, her words carrying an edge of panic, “The thing we dropped from, where is it?”

Ariel looked to her left, the small movement enough to lessen the tension in Emma’s body.

“Some lengths that way.”

“Then that is where they’ll be.” Emma turned in a flash of movement, “We need to go.”

“We should skirt around them, get to Rocinante.”

Emma snapped her head towards her, eyes wide and face flush, “We need to go.”

Regina’s heart beat froze for a split moment, her breaths still rough.

It sunk in, her hands curling tight.

“We are not leaving him!”

She stood firm, shoulders tense but strong. Her gaze was hard, unwavering, but Emma’s was too.

“We have no choice,” Emma ground out, lips barely moving.

“We can’t leave him Emma!”

“If we go back – ” Emma gestured sharply in that direction “ – we will be caught.”

“They do not know where he is.”

“They will have – and will still be searching the coast, probably even further to see where we were camping, to see if they can find any clues to anything.”

“I will not leave him,” she enunciated each word, as if she was biting them out. Despite the angry crease of her brow, the fists at her sides, Emma did not budge.

“We don’t even know where we are, we will never find him. Hell we are far more likely to charge right into the guards’ hands than stumble upon him.” Emma again gestured roughly, her lips curled showing a glimpse of her teeth, “Besides, they probably found him when looking for us.”

“No, they haven’t. I would know if they had!”

“How would you know that, Regina? How could you possibly know that?!”

“I would know!” She stressed, though she did not know herself, she just knew that she would. Emma’s body was trembling, her chest rising and falling in increasingly ragged breaths to match Regina’s own. She grasped frantically at the last argument she could, the last that could appeal to Emma – that could pierce through her stubborn mind, “And – and our supplies are in his pack. The map; we won’t know where we are going.”

“Ariel can guide us to the next town.” Regina shot a sharp look at the mermaid, who promptly ducked her head in the gentle waves in response, “We can trade – I don’t know, something for a map there. Steal one if we have to.”

“Stealing again?” Regina shook her head, skin prickling, “You are meant to be better than that!”

“We’ve been over this, Regina! More than once!”

“You are meant to be the strong one! The goodhearted one, but you have lost that!”

Emma’s expression twisted, filled with hardness. The words though, echoing those from earlier, Regina could see how they stung at her eyes. It caught in her chest, but she would not let that affect her. She could not let it.

“But I’m not, am I? I am not some great hero, I am not strong. And you’ve had so much evidence to tell you that, but you have never paid any mind to it – too obsessed with what you think I am, what you fooled yourself into believing. Even when I lay dying you couldn’t see it. I tried to be what you wanted me to. The person you thought I was!” Emma’s eyes were wet but blazing, so close now there was barely any space between them. Emma’s voice dropped low, the words gravelly with her anger, “Look where that has gotten us.”

Teeth gritted, Regina shoved past Emma, pressed her heels down hard into the soft sand – and ran.

Regina!

But Regina was already reaching the treeline, breaking it, amongst the trees. Only one thing in her mind.

Her head was spinning, but she still ran, even when her eyes struggled to focus she continued on, and there, now –

“Rocinante?”

Her voice was heavy, relieved, disbelieving.

He whinnied, jerked his head, annoyed at the unmoving knot that tied him to a tree. The branch his reins were wrapped around splinted and near broken.

Regina was quick, untying him, and as soon as he was free he was nudging at her shoulder and head.

Shivering, she pushed her damp hair back and quickly retrieved a cloak from their bag. She didn’t have time to dry herself, but she could at least try to keep the breeze off her, and put a barrier between skin and wet hair.

She had not heard Emma following, could not be certain she had.

“Come on,” she panted, breath still short as she curled his reins around her hand and stroked his head with the other, “We need to get back.”

The argument still stung, would do for some time she imagined, but this was one problem solved and in mere moments after their fight.

They would move past it – they had to.

She cast a glance around, grabbed the little they had left in camp and secured the saddlebag.

No matter their anger, no matter the emotional wounds, Emma would not leave her. She had not appeared, and though it stung that she had not followed, Regina knew she would be waiting, and surprisingly she had not had to venture that far.

She headed towards the shrubs she had trampled in her rush into the clearing and started to retrace her path. It had been straight and short. Though soon the disturbance she had made through the vegetation seemed to disappear, or was too subtle for her too notice despite the heaviness of her previous steps.

Something felt amiss, but she continued on. But time passed, the sky grew darker, her bruises aching and her legs tired, and there was no sign of the beach.

Chapter Text

It seemed impossible that she could have lost her way when her journey had been so short. Yet she followed what she was certain was her path and found nothing.

Then the weight of the coincidence of Rocinante being so close settled in. And the memory of the searing anger beneath her skin, and just what that had led to twice before.

Though she had always tried not to jump to conclusions, and though she was aware that it was likely what she was doing now, she could also recall so clearly how her mother would often seemingly appear out of thin air. And the very real way she appeared that fateful night.

Was it not possible she had done the same, however unaware?

It was the only possible explanation that came to mind.

She tried to push on, but the night disorientated her and she found herself tripping and falling more as it wore on.

Her exhaustion led her to the protection of some once mighty tree, fallen now and merely a place to rest against. To cower behind. Her body marred by painful bruises.

“They are out there,” she whispered to Rocinante, he huffed, leaves crackling under his hooves.

She pressed her forehead to her knees, wrapped her arms tight around her legs.

If she had somehow transported herself then she was no doubt far closer to those chasing them than she had been. But as Emma said, they would be searching the coast.

Emma.

Emma had wanted to move on, but now they were separated surely that would have changed. She would wait, wouldn’t she?

No. Emma would not abandon her, even if it put her at risk. She would wait for her at the beach. Or try to find her. Emma was far too selfless to leave her…

Even though Regina had said so much to the contrary.

Why had they argued?

Why had it ended on such a sour note?

Why had she said such vile things? Why had her anger been so uncontrollable?

Why had Emma said those things? What had she meant?

What if… God, what if they never saw one another again! What if that was the last – the end of them?

Her breath seized in her lungs; a choked, gurgle of pain. Her hands clutched her legs hard, her vision narrowing further.

The last words to her father so mundane.

The last words to Emma so venom filled.

The last.

The last.

A gentle nudge to the side of her head, comforting and known.

“I have you,” her voice was broken as her mind seemed to float. She turned her head so she could rest her cheek against the bridge of Rocinante’s nose, “I have you.”

It was distantly familiar, memories flowed, stirred by the action.

A child so lonely, seeking solitude as much as a sense of being loved.

Another so foreign, so new. Brash and rude in her ignorance.

Friendship, a novelty, a fragile tether slowly knitted, strengthening into something near unbreakable.

Other memories; happier, lighter, tinged with the hint of reality beyond their sanctuary.

Laughter, comfort, joy soothing away the aches and pains. Visible and hidden.

Her hand slipped from Rocinante’s warmth, a barely detectable jolt as her head fell the short distance back. Exhaustion claiming her.

 


 

Regina gasped, spluttering as something icy and sudden assaulted her.

Her mind whirled as she shook with hard, ragged breaths.

“Told you she was alive.”

Heart thumping, she swiped at her eyes harshly, willing the bleariness to vanish as sleep had – immediate and cruelly.

“There are far kinder ways to tell.”

Two men. Merely a pace or two away, one the tallest she had ever seen, the other far shorter.

“This was more efficient.” The smaller man gestured with the flask in his hand, noting she was awake and offering her a, of all things, polite smile, “One moment please.”

The other man nodded at her, brief and kind as if to reassure her, and then turned his attention back to his companion, “Efficiency isn’t always the best course of action.”

The bark at her back dug through her layers, trapping her as she shrunk back. A shadow falling over her to her left.

Rocinante. He watched the men, his ears flat and face creasing, he moved slowly as if to block her completely from view.

His saddlebag caught her gaze.

“This again,” the shorter man sighed.

Regina’s hands trembled, perhaps more than they had before. She had seen the weapons, she could not run.

But she could defend herself.

“Yes this again. How many times do I have to – ”

The man grumbled, Regina froze in place, her fingertips brushing leather. Two sets of eyes fixed on her.

Her heart pounded.

A surge of movement, she dived forward fingers grazing the hilt of the hidden knife, but arms wrapped around her tugging her from the ground.

Rocinante bellowed, rearing back, a silhouette against the sun.

“Please do not resist.”

She jabbed with her elbows, her legs kicking uselessly, her body pulled ever back. Her lungs burning.

Blood rushed in her ears, muffling the thump of Rocinante’s hooves, her shouts and panicked cries sounding so distant.

The hold around her stomach loosened, she tried to push forward, but the man’s arms shot up, pulling her arms back, holding them in place, her heels digging hard against the ground.

Fire in her blood.

Burning.

Searing.

Like a rage. The air crackled against her skin, pinpricks pressing against her –

“Put her down.”

The force snapped, the hold broken. She had nowhere to go but forward and down –

“There we go.” The giant of a man caught her arm, steadied her, “Sorry about that.”

She yanked her arm back, away from his touch. Unperturbed he patted her on the shoulder, which she tried to avoid unsuccessfully.

What was happening?

How did he expect her to accept an apology after that?

Her gaze jumped to Rocinante, he trotted quickly to her side and her eyes dropped to her bag again.

“Sorry about your rude awakening.” Regina, still trying to cover fast breaths, looked towards the new voice, the one whose order had freed her – from the physical hold at least. “I assume they woke you, that is.”

The woman, armed too, cast her eyes to the men. The smaller one grinning, the larger one looking down, “I was afraid she would get away before we could talk.”

Talk?

Regina pressed a damp hand to her forehead. Talk?

“You send Midge, then don’t wait for us.” The woman shook her head, a smile on her face, “You never make it simple do you?”

Regina took another step to her left, hands stroking Rocinante before she was aware of the action. Her heart still beat solidly against her breast. The men were further away now, but she could not outrun a bow.

She should have kept the knife on her, just like Emma said to.

Regina felt a little more at ease despite herself, the woman’s accent faint but so like her own, and her smile kind.

She hated herself for it. She had just been attacked by these people, they had stopped her from running. Why was she calmer?

“These woods are dangerous.”

“I can see that,” Regina bit back hard. The smaller man barked out a laugh.

“She has a sharp tongue.”

The woman shook her head, her smile still in place as she remained focused on Regina.

The large man shifted his weight, speaking in a voice which she only now truly heard, and it was far too soft for his form, “I am sorry for seizing you like that, but you see, we were trying to help. If you ran, then we would be unable to. You would be in much danger.”

“More than I am now?”

“We mean no ill will, truly.” The woman looked to the men who nodded their agreement, “Despite their improper attempt to communicate.”

It would not be the first time she had been deceived. They held weapons, they meant harm, and yet both men looked ashamed at the woman’s words. The action containing a sincerity that could not be faked. 

Her gaze met the woman’s, but where her own was hard, the stranger’s remained unfazed and open.

Long moments passed with nothing but the sound of the birds, and the wind through the trees.

The woman shifted her bow off her shoulder, for a brief moment Regina felt her body freeze in fear. Then it passed, the bow landing with a thud before her feet. A quiver joining a breath later. The men followed suit with their own weapons.

Of all the things she expected, giving up their weapons was not one of them.

“If you truly wish to leave, then do so.” The woman stepped back, motioning for the men to do so too, “We will not force you to accept our help. But the offer is there, and this time it will be done properly.”

There were many searching for her and Emma. These people, despite how this encounter started and her own suspicions, seemed truly kind. Though it was the woman she found herself more likely to trust, she knew how cunning a woman could be, but she saw none of that in her. Either she was very skilled at hiding her intentions, or she was genuine.

And they were offering her a chance to go. With the speed she could mount, and Rocinante’s ability, they could probably get away before the strangers seized their weapons and drew the first arrow.

Though it could still be a trick.

Emma would not risk it, but if they could offer her some protection, whether unknowingly or not, if they could guide her to where she needed to be…

She looked to Rocinante, her throat tight. The soldiers were out there, somewhere. And so was Emma.

“What assistance are you offering?”

 


 

“Our camp is not far.” Marian, she found out her name was, led them down a slope, pausing to give her time to guide Rocinante down carefully. There was more to her slowness than that, the manhandling of her earlier had pressed on bruises and sore spots alike. And now they still burned.

Marian did not carry herself like the others, something that seemed stark now.

“You can rest safely, fill your belly, and tomorrow we will guide you where you need to be.”

Camp? It had not occurred to her where these people had come from, nor their lack of horses.

“You are travellers also?”

“Yes and no,” Marian answered without pause, “The forest is our home, but we do not stay in one place.”

“Much like the nomads some would say.”

The smaller man, Allan, offered his hand to help her up a rise in the ground, she looked to Rocinante to cover her dismissal.

“How many of you are there?”

“Now that depends on the day.” Marian shifted her bow, looking back to Regina with a smile, “Some join for a while, some for life. Many just pass through.”

“You offer this kindness to all you meet?”

Rocinante huffed, so she turned to stroke his muzzle. The action soothing to them both.

“To those that require it.”

“One act of kindness can change a man or start a chain,” John, the tall man, said softly but with complete conviction. Regina craned her neck to meet his eyes, “There is a lot to be said for the simplest of gestures.”

Regina nodded, though she remained uncertain of why.

Allan fiddled with the brim of his hat, before turning his attention to her, “How long have you been traveling for, my fair maiden?”

Regina’s heart beat faster, the feeling unpleasant, as her shoulders tensed.

“Take no offense,” John said, “He calls everybody that.”

“Ah…” Allan waved a finger, brow lifting, “But it is a compliment to call a maiden that.”

Marian rolled her eyes, but her lips were still tilted into a smile, “What do you know of ‘maidens’?”

“I am a bard, former member of – ”

“The Arthurian court.” Marian finished.

A member of a Royal Court? Who were these people?

“I’ve been traveling awhile,” she answered vaguely, “I’m looking for the shore.”

“The shore?” The bard held back a laugh, a sound that set Regina’s teeth on edge even when she knew he meant no malice.

“That’s a long way.” Marian’s brow creased, but the action was swiftly dismissed.

Where was she? Regina felt the sweat on her brow return. The evidence that… that thing inside of her had transported her mounting further.

“A day, almost two if the weather is not favourable.” Marian explained, adding with a sigh, “It’s been a long time since I last saw the sea.”

“You are not the only one to feel that way.”

“Worry not,” Marian said, giving her shoulder a pat. She held back her flinch easy enough. “We promised to assist you, and we will.”

Rocinante nickered, lightly nudging her other shoulder.

Oddly enough, Regina found she believed Marian. Perhaps she had picked up some of Emma’s talent. Or, perhaps, she hoped she had.

“You know our names, but we have yet to hear yours?”

Regina’s gaze flickered away, she quickly pretended to be checking the sky as her mind worked.

“Wilma. My name is Wilma.” The words came out confidently, a sad smile trying to find its way to her lips.

“Well, Wilma, it is a pleasure to meet you.”

“Once again, I find I must apologise for our first impressions. I can only ask that you forgive me for my overzealousness.” For a man who looked as fearsome as he did, John was surprisingly gentle in his words, something that still took her by surprise.

“It is forgotten,” she said before she could think it over. But John’s giant of a smile was endearing, and she found she meant it.

“Here.” Marian held out an odd leather pouch to her, “You sound like you could use a drink.”

Regina wet her lips, accepting the offer and feeling the water through the leather.

So focused on her task as she had been, she had somehow completely ignored her thirst. Practice she supposed.

She drank with more eagerness than she would usually allow, the water soothing her throat and refreshing her mind.

For politeness she did not drink her fill, handing the flask back to Marian with a hint of thirst still irritating the back of her throat. Marian reattached the pouch to her belt, and gestured with her head, “And let us not forget, it is also a pleasure to meet your noble companion.”

That brought a smile to her face as she too looked to her first friend, “He is called Rocinante.”

Marian tilted her head to him, “A pleasure to meet you, Rocinante.”

 


 

A short walk later, as Marian had said, she could see the hints of a camp through the trees. Or rather, what she assumed must be one.

It was relieving to know they had been truthful, from as much as she could tell at that point.

“Welcome to our home,” Allan announced, sweeping out an arm as they reached the edge of the camp, “Temporary as it may be.”

It was certainly a grand difference to her and Emma’s own little attempt at a camp.

She sucked in a short breath, hiding her face by checking on Rocinante. He breathed out in a long stream, ears relaxed.

What appeared to be sheets hung from thick tree branches to form makeshift tents, others were fixed by pegs into the ground. As they walked past, Regina caught sight of thick blankets and a few belongings hidden within.

She could see the main fire burning in the centre of the camp up ahead, a shiver ran up Regina’s spine at the memory of the chilling water.

“You’re back!” A young boy, with messy hair and a large smile, shouted. It wasn’t until the child ran to Marian that Regina realised she had been mistaken.

The girl looked to her with wide, excited eyes and offered her hand.

“They call me Midge.”

Hesitantly, Regina shook her hand, the action still so unfamiliar, “Wilma.”

“Wilma will be staying the night,” Marian informed her, smoothing some of Midge’s mussed hair, “Tomorrow I’ll take her where she needs to go.”

“Can I come?”

Marian hummed, a teasing glint in her eye, “Now I thought we could move your hunting practice to tomorrow, considering the abrupt end today.”

“Really?” Midge bounced on her heels, and at Marian’s nod she charged away, declaring over her shoulder, “I’ll get everything ready.”

Marian watched her disappear with an affectionate smile, Regina glanced around, only just realising Allan and John were no longer with them.

They resumed their walk to the centre of the camp, Rocinante as relaxed as usual. That could only be a good sign.

“Is she yours?” Regina asked not to intrude, but due to genuine curiosity. Something about Marian made her easy to talk to.

“No, Midge was the child of a miller, before life brought them here.”

Regina gave a short nod, sensing a dark story beneath her words. Whatever the reason, the girl seemed happy now, and safe. What better ending was there than that?

Their attention was drawn to two arrivals, Allan and another man, taller than him and smiling warmly. Unlike the others he offered a bow of his head rather than his hand, she found a peculiar sense of comfort in the familiarity.

“This is our leader Robin Hood,” Allan declared with a puff of his chest before the other man could speak.

“I prefer Robin of Locksley, if a title is needed. And not to be glorified.” He lifted his brow and gave an odd sort of smile, “A pleasure to meet you, Wilma. As you have heard, I am unable to introduce myself personally. Not without redundancy.”

“A pleasure to meet you Robin of Locksley.”

Allan’s face twitched, disbelief spreading across his face, “You… you do realise who you are talking to?”

Robin of Locksley ran a hand through his dark hair, giving a short sigh, “Allan. Stop.”

“They sing of him and his band throughout West and East Oakenfell. In fact, I know a few myself – ”

“No singing, Allan, it is still too early in the day.” Marian rubbed her temple, though when she noticed Regina looking she gave her a smile.

“I am not from Oakenfell.”

“Of course! But you have been travelling here! And word spreads across borders, sure as the rise of the sun.”

Robin of Locksley seemed set to speak, but again was interrupted by the bard.

“You haven’t heard of the greatest archer in the Realm.”

Some call me the greatest,” the dark haired man stressed, “But no matter how skilled you think you are, there will always be someone better. Arrogance has fallen many a man.”

The bard’s steam ran out, leaving him looking down as if sobered.

“How about just a little lute solo?”

Marian closed her eyes and took a deep breath, “Not now, Allan.”

He sighed heavily, then gave an overly formal bow, “Best leave you to it then.”

“It’s where you left it,” Robin of Locksley said, smiling broadly.

Allan lifted his shoulders and let them fall, “Of that I have no doubt.”

He waited for no reply, and Regina watched him leave towards the far side of the camp, her gaze trying to take in a much as she could.

“Here, take my waterskin.” Her gaze returned to the supposed legend before her. He smiled genuinely, and dropped his gaze to his outstretched arm, “You look like you could use a drink. And so does your fine companion.”

“He’s called Rocinante,” Marian informed him.

“Oh, an interesting name,” he said still smiling, and his words ringing true, “Not like the usual names they get here.”

Though she had a drink a short time ago, Regina accepted his waterskin, though even now her first few sips were slow and cautious.

“And something to fill your stomach. It is fortunate Marian brought down a beast of a stag today.”

“Fortunate indeed.”

“And skilful,” he added, eyes warm as they followed the taller woman.

Now that was a look she could read easily, even if she had not experienced it herself. He took the waterskin, reattaching it to his belt.

“So, if it is not considered impolite, what found you wandering these woods on your own?” He lifted his hand to someone that passed, though his attention was fully on her, “According to Allan you are looking for the shore, but I would rather hear it from yourself, in your own words.”

“Allan is correct.” Regina adjusted her hold on Rocinante’s reins, it had grown firm without her knowledge, “I was am trying to find the shore, but grew decidedly lost.”

“No need to fret, we will get you there.” He scratched at the dark hair on his chin, a slight furrow to his brow, “But first, a warm meal and a night of decent rest.”

“As I have already told her.”

He chuckled softly, eyes filled with warmth as they settled on Marian, “Of course you did. Always one step ahead.”

“Never doubt that, my love.” That teasing glint had returned, shining in Marian’s eyes, “Now, Wilma, why don’t we get started by getting you somewhere to warm yourself.”

Robin of Locksley bowed his head, his smile still in place as Marian led her and Rocinante closer to the fire. She held firm to his reins, thankful that they had not been parted, no matter how unusual it may seem, for she had seen no more horses in their camp.

“Sit.”

Marian guided her over to a log beside the fire, Regina glanced around for somewhere to tether Rocinante, nothing stood out, so with slight hesitance, she let his reins go and sat. He stayed behind her, grazing happily.

“Impressive,” Marian complimented, “He will stay there, or…”

Pride swelled in Regina’s chest, a hint of smugness tilting her lips, “Of course he will stay.”

Marian shook her head as if she could not believe it, her amazement genuine. After a short few moments she turned back to Regina, “If you could just wait here, warm yourself, I will be back in a few moments.”

Apprehension rose the hairs on the back of Regina’s neck, but she smiled and gave a slight nod. Marian returned the pleasantness and disappeared around some tents, back the way they had come. She glanced at Rocinante, running her hand across his side.

There was no need for her to be on edge, and truly the reaction was mostly a dull niggle. Many people wandered past, but thankfully none approached her. If it were not for their occasional gazes she would have retrieved her knife from Rocinante’s saddlebag, just to stamp out that tiny ember of panic in her chest.

An odd group indeed. A giant of a man, a young child, a man apparently with a title. And it did not escape her notice that a Royal Bard had become a nomad, a change that raised her suspicions of him if not the others. Manners meant little in reality, politeness masking motives, and kind words a screen for true allegiances. Lessons soon learned by even those who had but a glimpse of a Court. But her gut feeling told her she could trust them, even as her mind protested and told her to remain alert. Emma would, and she knew better of caution than she. Though she knew better of negotiations than Emma, even if she had only observed them by chance. Perhaps knowledge of both was required, though it seemed a challenge to wield both entirely by herself.

Certainly a weighty challenge, one that occupied her as she sat alone on the log taking in as much of her surroundings as she could.

The fire burned hot, but peculiarly did little to warm her. She pulled her cloak tighter around herself and looked back to Rocinante. Just in time too, as Allan was approaching. He smiled charmingly as he stopped beside her, carrying something.

“A bowl of the finest sustenance in Eastern Oakenfell,” he declared proudly, offering the wooden bowl and spoon in his hands to her.

“He means stew,” a man with a sword at each hip said, appearing seemingly from nowhere. He crossed his arms as Regina took the stew, a slight hesitation in her movements, “Where’s mine? No one said it was ready.”

“Ah, but ladies must go first.”

The man smirked, a lilt of humour in his words, “I suppose you would know all about that.”

Regina dropped her gaze to her bowl, the rich scent fully hitting her. It really did smell good, and was certainly preferable to focus on than the men’s gibes.

“I think the better question is; where’s mine?”

They all turned to find Marian behind them, a blank expression on her face.

“Ah, but fair maiden, guests are the most important.”

Marian lifted one eyebrow, her face unmoving, “But what of those that lead you.”

“Uh, but you see – ” Allan floundered, glancing to the other man to find him gone, “That is to say…”

There was a slight tremble to Marian’s shoulders, a hidden glint in her eyes.

Regina took her fist spoonful of stew, unsurprised by Marian’s facade giving way to a laugh.

Allan groaned, trying to cover his red face.

Humour still clear on her face, Marian turned her attention back to her, “Sorry to leave you for so long. I thought I would be but a moment.”

“I see no reason to complain, you have been most kind.”

Marian sat beside her, a respectable distance between them.

“For the most part.” Marian’s gaze slipped to Allan who quickly made his excuses and hurried away, “You’re a well-mannered one, Wilma, more so than most.”

Unsure how to answer that, Regina resumed eating. Better to eat it hot, as Granny would say. From the corner of her eye she could see Marian was still looking at her. While part of her would rather keep her head bowed she lifted it instead, a questioning expression on her face. Marian’s mouth twitched as if to speak, but both of them were drawn to the pounding of feet.

“Here you go,” Midge said breathlessly, holding one bowl to Marian but then faltering, “Oh, you already got one.”

“Thank you for the thought,” Regina said gently hoping to soothe the girl’s frown.

Midge shrugged and dropped down by the fire with a broad smile, “Don’t matter, I don’t have to go back for mine now.”

Soon, Regina realised, more people were gathering, sitting on the ground or standing, including their leader – even though he dismissed the term. A surprising number of people, but not too many to be daunting. They ate, idle chatter being exchanged, some joked or told peculiar stories. Regina kept to herself, but listened, feeling almost supported by Marian sitting beside her.

The bowls were collected, and Robin of Locksley stood and a hush fell over them. She expected a speech of some sort, perhaps unwanted attention being drawn to her, instead he gestured to Allan who stood with lute in hand. He played a few notes, but the song soon turned into a tale as he sang. A grand story of good and evil, heroes and villains, past and future, of characters larger than life.

Ale was passed around, when she declined Robin of Locksley gave her his waterskin. For once she was not on her own, as Marian drank water from her own.

She almost felt at ease.

 


 

Huddling into herself, Regina was starting to regret declining the offer to sleep in one of the tents. But this was smarter, this was what Emma would do. No amount of relative comfort with these people would make her fully relax; she would not let herself.

The scent that clung to Emma’s cloak was fading rapidly, Regina clung to it tighter as if she could keep it from leaving her. Tried to hold onto it as strongly as she was to the physical reminder of Emma.

Rolling over again – she had lost count of how many turns – she saw only the central campfire remained, as strong as it had ever been.

She was far enough away that it was no bother, save for the chill in the air, and any voices were lost amongst the sounds of the night. She was not far enough though, that she could not see the shifting growth of a shadow.

Her heart jumped.

She shuffled back and glanced to Rocinante tied a few paces away, he stirred and lifted his head. She slipped her right hand as subtly as she could beneath Emma’s cloak. She gripped the handle of the blade Emma had given her, remembered again how she had told her to keep it close. Just in case.

The figure made no sound, and for the briefest of moments, she feared he had returned for her.

“Wilma?”

She gritted her teeth hard, even as she breathed easier.

“Are you still awake?”

“I am now,” she lied easily enough, letting the blade go.

“I apologise, but I had to speak to you, privately.” Marian crouched down a few paces away, Regina could see little but could tell she was doing something. In a moment there was a growing flame.

She could see nothing in Marian’s hands.

“How did you do that?” And so quickly?

Though the fire was small, it burned bright enough.

“You learn a lot living out here,” Marian said as if it were a dull fact, “It will not last long. Unless you wished to have some warmth?”

Regina did not respond to the question, it was one she had already dismissed earlier in the night. Besides, the rising hair on the back of her neck was an uncomfortable, and worrying, distraction, “You wanted a private conversation, and yet made something that draws attention?”

“I know who you are.”

Regina sucked in a breath, feeling as if she had been plummeted into icy water. But she hid her surprise with practiced skill, even as terror gripped her heart.

“Of course you do, I told you.”

“You know that is not what I’m referring to.”

“I do not know what you are talking about.”

A short sigh left Marian, the small fire highlighting the sad lift of her lips.

Regina’s fingers twitched with the need to slide beneath Emma’s cloak again, to settle around the handle there. Why had she let it go? Regina’s gaze flickered over Marian’s shoulder, but she could see no one else, nor any other shifting shadows.

“Regina Of House Conway of The Mastlands; Eleventh Grandchild of King Xavier of Viadori.”

“My name is Wilma – ”

“Regina – if I can call you that, it’s alright, you needn’t lie to us.”

She bit at her cheek, but held onto her anger. In a flash she could seize her knife. If she had to defend herself… so be it. It would take but a moment afterwards to untie Rocinante and flee.

“To be truthful, I wouldn’t have recognised you until recently.”

Her grip loosened, her breath stilling, “Why?”

Marian reached beneath her cloak, the sounds of parchment rustling before she produced a sheet, laying it before Regina.

“Oh…” Regina’s hands shook as she touched the parchment, seeing her own face staring up at her.

She drew in a rushed breath while Marian waited patiently.

“Where did you get this?”

Beneath her picture in large letters was written, ‘Alive’.

“From a nearby town.”

Regina tried to lift her eyes, to dart her gaze around again, fearful that she had been mistaken and some of this woman’s men were hidden in the shadows. Waiting.

“We only wish to know your reasons, however vague they may be.”

“Why?” Regina snapped, her anger tainting each word heavily, “So you can decide it is not worthy enough? So you can ‘justify’ claiming the coin on my head?”

She should have known!

Too convenient. Too ‘easy’. A cleverly designed trick to pull her in.

She tore her gaze from her own image, her eyes burning into Marian’s. Regina’s fingers trailed from the paper, slipping beneath Emma’s cloak.

It could not end there.

She would not go back.

She would not be parted from Emma.

“We have no interest in coin, Regina. We help those that need it. As long as they are just.” Regina refused to accept the kindness in Marian’s eyes. Her grip tightened on her knife, “Answer me one question, did you leave of your own freewill?”

“Yes.”

Marian smiled, reaching beneath her cloak to produce another roll of parchment.

“That is all we needed to know.”

“You expect me to trust you after deceiving me?”

“We merely let you believe your own deceit was successful.” Marian shifted from a crouch, sitting now before her, “Shall we call it even?”

Regina let the knife go, though chose to rest her fingers on top of Emma’s cloak.

“If it helps, it is only I and my husband that know. Many a wanted man has been guilty of nothing.”

Regina’s eyes flickered down, only then did she realise Marian was holding the other roll of parchment out to her.

Regina took it, her heart rate quickening as she connected the pieces. It was confirmed when she unrolled it, saw Emma’s face on the page.

“We won’t hand you in,” Marian said softly, “Not if this is what you want. I know what it is like, to want freedom, and I found that. With the man that I love.”

“Even though you are always running?” It was harsh to insult her lifestyle, but Regina was beyond caring at the moment.

“Not always – running that is. I would never regret my choice.” Marian said firmly, the resolve there strong enough it made Regina lift her head and meet her gaze. She believed her. “Do you – ”

Regina straightened up, certainty in her every move, “No. Never.”

“You are beyond lucky you have a friend willing to help you so much. I know what it is like. I know it is not easy.”

“May I have these?” Marian nodded. Regina pulled the pieces of parchment closer, hers beneath Emma’s as she settled them in her lap.

Regina traced the brushstrokes that made up the rough imitation of Emma’s face; the too angry brow, the emotionless eyes.

Unlike hers, there was no notation in large letters on Emma’s. The smaller writing on both too hard to read in the light of the minuscule fire.

Regina swallowed thickly, her free hand clutching her trousers tight.

Marian’s voice was careful, hesitant perhaps that Regina had not confirmed that she could continue.

Regina did not speak, to send her away or dismiss what she assumed, though she could have. Perhaps a part of her wanted this – to share with another – and who better than one so kind.

“To do so much for a person – I cannot imagine her leaving you until you were certain to be safe.”

Still, a part of Regina tried to resist, “What makes you think we did not split immediately?”

“At the end of the day, you are still a princess and she a servant. Even if you no longer view yourselves as such, it is ingrained in you. And for her to risk her life…”

Regina’s expression crumpled, even as she fought to keep it even. Her voice quavering, “I lost her.”

Marian’s brow lifted, a sympathetic furrow caught in the firelight.

“I am trying to find her.”

“The beach,” Marian concluded. “Were you separated there? Or made an arrangement to meet there if anything were to happen?”

She gave a small nod, eyes drifting again to Emma’s painted face, “Yes. She will be there, I know it.”

“Even more reason for morning to come swifter.” Marian’s smile was sympathetic, yet Regina did not feel as if she was pitying her. Though she knew she would if it were another. “I have kept you too long. As we have no horses, we must leave at dawn.”

“That did not escape my notice.” What difference would walking make? She needed them to lead her, and with the woods seeming more hazardous now, riding would be a challenge.

“Sleep well, Regina.”

Regina looked to Rocinante, he had returned to slumber but remained close. She heard the rustle of Marian standing, the shifting of leaves as she walked away.

“Sleep well,” Regina replied softly, her mind still spinning as she held the pieces of parchment close.

Chapter Text

Regina woke to the thud of hooves; she was clasping her dagger before the blur of sleep had fully left her eyes.

In the darkness she squinted to see, soon catching sight of a growing – and she was relieved to find – familiar shadow.

“My apologies for the sudden waking.” Marian stayed a few paces away, which gave Regina some much needed room to breathe and to free her tight grip, “Though it is no negative to have a companion as alert as he.”

Regina climbed to her feet, leaving both cloaks – and the knife hidden beneath them – on the ground. A twinge shot up her back, but it was the crick in her neck that she rubbed at.

“I am sure he is enjoying your praise.”

Marian laughed, the sound airy and light, and though it was short-lived the happiness in it carried through into her words, “Praise is given where it is due.”

The main camp fire burned brightly behind Marian, in its light she could see a few people moving around already.

Though she added nothing, Regina felt a sense of pride as she collected the cloaks from the ground. She donned Emma’s, and kept her knife hidden beneath the thicker – which had served as her makeshift blanket. A small smile graced her when she turned to find Marian scratching Rocinante behind his ears – or that is where she assumed she was petting him in the low light.

“Gather yourself, have some food, we shall leave come dawn. Any later and we will not reach our destination until after night has fallen.”

“Understandable,” Regina replied, securing her belongings in Rocinante’s saddlebag and, after a quick thought, slipping the dagger into her belt with a sly motion. Her cloak would hide it, she was certain.

With one last pat to Rocinante’s neck, Marian turned and headed to the centre of her camp. Regina followed with Rocinante after giving his tether a quick pull in the right place – the release knot gave way immediately. There was a tightness in her chest, apprehension she supposed, though she and Emma had been parted for a mere day or two it already seemed like an age. Perhaps it was caused by the circumstances of their parting, which now left her with that pressing need to soothe over their hurt. The feeling constricting like a vine around her heart. That anger in their parting, it must have all been due to a mix of fear and hunger and stress – she could not have lost Rocinante.

But neither could she have lost Emma. And yet that had happened… no, she would find her. Emma would be waiting.

But what use was there in reliving that moment? In dredging up those feelings? Why did their argument matter now? She had found Rocinante, now they need only return to Emma.

“Sit, I’ll get you something to eat.”

And Regina did, obediently and without thought, still not fully free from the depths of her mind yet.

Marian disappeared amongst the tents, and despite herself, Regina shifted as close to the fire as the log she was seated on allowed. Rocinante nudged her cheek, his presence as supportive as ever.

They were not alone for long, Marian returned with food and drink for them both. The firelight did little to show her what was in the bowl, but she ate without question, the contents milky and oat like. Whatever it was, it was filling, and that was all that mattered.

"I have no doubt you both know how to survive,” Marian said, breaking their silence partway through their meal, “You wouldn’t have made it this far if you didn’t.”

“You are not wrong.” Regina took a sip of water, the waterskin still a bizarre oddity to her.

Marian raised an eyebrow, her lips quirking into a smile. It was only due to her response that Regina realised she had sounded, dare she say, arrogant.

She set her bowl down and took another sip of water, but, though she wanted to, she did not avert her eyes.

“That waterskin is yours, we will refill it and any you may already have,” Marian continued before Regina could even begin to think to refuse, “And we have prepared supplies for you and your friend, they should keep you both going for a few days.”

“That is unnecessary.” Regina shifted her legs, mindful of the empty bowl beside her feet. She wanted to stand, to move, those simple actions always gave her a greater sense of strength. Yet she remained, hand curled tight around the neck of the waterskin.

“Hunting, trapping, gathering – they will all slow you down. What is important is to reunite with your friend and resume your travel as quickly as possible.” The conviction and sense of experience in Marian’s words drew Regina in, soothed her stubbornness before it could spike. There was no denying that the men she had met respected Marian, and truly her, not just who she happened to be partnered with, and Regina could certainly see why.

Still, it was not so simple a thing for her.

“But there are so many of you, it would not be right for me – ”

Marian rested her hand lightly on her arm, her voice a whisper, “Regina.”

A clench of her jaw, a long exhale, and she made herself relax – or rather, as close to it as she was capable.

“It is no burden to us,” Marian gathered their things and stood, her gaze remaining on her, “We shan’t go short. You owe us nothing.”

Regina’s protest bubbled up, but all that left her was a weak insistence that she did not need a waterskin. She handed Marian her flask to fill instead.

“John has everything ready, he will bring it shortly.” Marian tucked the waterskins and her flask into the cradle of her arm, her gaze turning from her, “I’m certain Rocinante will have no trouble.”

“He won’t,” Regina agreed. Marian lifted her eyebrows, sharing her smile.

The air shifted behind her, she tensed realising it was caused by movement.

Regina jumped at a brief touch to her shoulder, barely able to contain her panicked surprise. She turned abruptly, her expression apparently enough to cause the man behind her to balk.

From the corner of her eye she saw Marian shake her head, a smile still on her face.

Robin of Locksley cleared his throat and dipped his head in genuine embarrassment.

“Apologies for startling you.” He scratched at his neck, cheeks a little pink beneath the dark hair of his short beard, “I should know better than to sneak up behind a lady.”

“It is forgiven, I am…” She struggled to find the word to describe just what she was feeling, her heart still beating that little bit too fast.

“Eager to leave I would say,” Marian supplied. Regina gave her a smile, thankful for her help.

“Naturally,” he rumbled, still a little flustered from startling her, “A short word if I may, while your provisions are stocked.”

It took her a moment to realise he was talking to her, and when she did she acted as if she had merely been distracted, “I fail to see why not.”

The steel at her hip gave her a confidence she had been lacking the day prior, or perhaps she had simply grown lax, calmed perhaps by Marian’s friendly manner. Either way she stepped aside with him, secure enough to turn her back to Rocinante.

“Simply put, I am not about to send you off with no means to protect yourself.”

“There is no need to worry,” Regina assured him, more truthful than she felt. Yes she was fleeing from two kingdoms, and yes soldiers from both were nearby searching for them, but once she and Emma were reunited she knew everything would be well. Even if they had both escaped by the very tips of their shadows, “We will be fine.”

“My apologies again, but I must turn my ears from your insistence.” He reached for his belt, drawing a dagger from its sheath.

The bubble of annoyance in her throat tapered out by the sight of it. The shining silver, the intricate body and sculpting of the metal, the sparkling verdant of the jewels in its hilt, “We were planning to give it to a smithy to smelt down. It would fetch good coin, but you are in need also. To defend yourself foremost, and then to offer you more when your journey ends.”

“It’s astounding.” It was certainly worth more than just ‘good coin’, her brow creased slightly as she took it in, “Yet gaudy.”

“Belonged to a menace of a sheriff, and though it may look like a trinket, it is sharp as a wolf’s bite.” He rolled up his sleeve, a jagged pink scar consuming much of his arm. “Nearly stopped me from so much as nocking an arrow.”

“Thank you for the offer,” she said when she came to her senses, “But I will be fine. I have my own.”

She reached beneath her cloak and drew out her hunting knife.

“All this time.” He chuckled. “You remind me of my Marian.”

“As for a future,” she continued in the wake of the perceived compliment, “We shall find a way. That ‘trinket’ can help far more than one or two.”

“To help more or to help one. A dilemma we have fortunately faced only a handful of times.”

She turned her head, catching the sound of Rocinante’s impatient snort.

“Did I catch my name?” Leading Rocinante, Marian stopped beside them and offered his reins to Regina.

“A little slow on that one, my heart.”

“Oh, there’s an irony in there somewhere.” The humour in Marian’s words was lost on Regina, but she smiled politely nonetheless.

The look shared between the couple lingered, before at last Robin of Locksley turned to her with an almost sad smile.

It is a shame to see you go, I feel you both would have made fine additions to our group.”

Her foot shifted, almost leading her to move, she caught herself quickly, remaining still to cover her uncertainty. She did not languish for long, though it certainly felt like an age.

“May your journey be fortuitous,” Robin of Locksley said with a bow of his head, “Godspeed, Wilma.”

Before she could fumble for an answer, Marian handed Regina her filled flask. It was easy to distract herself with fixing it to her belt.

In hindsight, she could not shake the feeling that her talk with their leader had been some kind of test. Regina glanced up to the rapidly brightening sky, deaf to the quick conversation between Marian and a few others.

Regina checked the saddlebag was secure, oddly confident that what supplies she had been provided were within.

“We best leave.” Marian gestured with her head, her bow over her shoulder again, “Before the sun rises any higher.”

 


 

The sun was high above the trees, the shelter they offered a blessed gift. It was not hot by any means, and certainly not as warm as home, but their demanding march onwards – and the obstacles in their way – left her skin warm and breath that little bit too short.

Marian stopped again. At first Regina assumed it was due to her having heard something, or wanting to be certain it was safe to press on. But it soon became apparent it was for her, so that she could catch up. Nothing was said in this regard, and Regina could not tell if she was thankful that Marian was saving her the embarrassment, or frustrated that she was being treated like a clueless babe.

She tried to concentrate on her surroundings, and on each step, but the eagerness to reunite with Emma was swiftly turning into a fierce desperation that was encompassing her mind. It was terrifying in its intensity.

“Come, Rocinante,” she encouraged even though his pace had not slowed. She used the excuse to check on him, feeling a little calmer that he seemed unaffected.

Even so, she was thankful for the distraction when Marian spoke, but that too was short-lived when the words registered.

“I was to ask you something before,” Marian said softly as they made their way down an incline. Regina swallowed, her throat feeling dry rather suddenly. “But I thought better of it.”

“Ask me what?”

Marian looked over her shoulder, meeting her eye yet continuing on with ease. It was astounding how someone could be so at ease with such a life, how they could hold themselves as if it were second nature and move through the trees just the same.

“Why you came to be parted.”

Rocinante’s head was bowed, longing to eat the vibrant vegetation at their feet, though he still continued on at her command. He made for a far better sight that what she feared would form before her.

“We were chased. By those after us – though I doubt that needed explanation.” Her foot caught, her balance saved only by her grip on Rocinante’s reins. Her folly one long learnt, yet quickly forgotten. She fixed her gaze on the ground, daring not to raise it, “Due to that we became separated.”

Marian contemplated her words for long enough that Regina’s gaze lifted despite her determination, though it still frequently dropped down to ensure there were no more surprises hidden amongst the leaves. She was facing ahead again, that gave Regina a bit more confidence.

“Not that I wish to dampen your spirits,” Marian began, eyes darting to the right at the sharp call of a bird, “But if you were separated, then how do you know she is as you are?”

For a brief moment Regina’s eyes flickered closed, her jaw tensing with such speed she nearly caught the tender skin of her cheek in the bite of her teeth.

“I know I need not remind you of the wanted notices.” Marian let the sentence hang, the warning clear. But it was not a warning about the danger they were in, nor what they might face. No. It was a warning for her, a warning about her hope.

Regina’s shoulders lifted high, her gaze narrowing and her voice unknowingly low, “She is waiting, I am certain.”

Again Marian glanced back, something like worry or concern in her eyes.

“At the coast.” Marian shifted her bow, her head turning as she cast her gaze about. Ever alert.

“You seemed to be supportive earlier.”

“You were certain in your belief long before I showed any support.”

The sharp pressure of her nails against her palm grounded her, but even that did little to alleviate the prickly defensiveness consuming her.

The bitter retort stilled on her tongue though, the clarity of Marian’s true meaning – and her warning – combating the anger with a sudden wave of dread.

“To have high expectations felled is a blow as strong as any physical one.” The gentleness of Marian’s voice only made it worse. Only made that icy feeling grow. “Perhaps it is even worse.”

“This is no expectation,” Regina replied almost willing that building anger to return, her words clipped, “I know.”

Marian said no more, her bow shifting at her back.

Chapter Text

There was nothing.

Yes there was sand, shells, the endless stretch of the sea in front of her – but nothing more.

She marched forward, disturbing the ripple patterns in the sand, marched determinedly as if she was expecting Emma to leap out from wherever she was hiding.

She wanted to call for her, but when she opened her mouth her words fell silent and useless.

Her panicking heartbeat made her stomach churn, made her mind spin. Beaches can be long, she reminded herself as she tried desperately to remain calm.

On her right the beach veered off, there was every chance Emma could be hidden around there. Or perhaps she was further along the great stretch of beach to her left. She strained to see if she could see anything in the distance, even a faint blur of a shadow that could be a sign of another person.

Emma had to be there, she would not abandon her no matter the risk.

“I know there is little chance, but do you recall any landmarks where you were? Perhaps a rock formation off the shore or something noticeable in the treeline?” Marian approached from her right, a little short of breath.

How long had she been lost in thought? It certainly did not feel that long, but clearly a significant length of time had passed.

Marian gestured behind herself, where the beach veered off, “The shore ends that way. There’s nothing there.”

Regina’s heavy gaze slipped from her to where Rocinante’s hooves seemed to sink slightly in the sand. There was still more coast to search, much more, so why did that one comment – that confirmation – feel so heavy?

And why did it remind her that she had always been able to sense when Emma was around?

She struggled to swallow with her tightening throat.

“Regina?” Marian’s voice reached her, that simple call of her name conveying a level of thoughtfulness and concern she had rarely felt directed at her in her life.

“Nothing I can recall. Landmarks I mean.”

And there was not. It all seemed a blur now, like a faded dream she could only recall the bare remnants of. She could not even picture the position of the sun. In truthfulness any part of the beach she could see could easily have been where Ariel brought them.

She lifted her gaze to Rocinante who was watching the sea, his ears rigid.

“Perhaps further along then.” Marian passed them at a steady pace, one of Rocinante’s ears twitched and he turned his head to look at her, “It may come back to you.”

Despite the conviction in them, Regina suspected that Marian doubted her own words. Something supported by their earlier exchange.

Regina followed Marian, searching for any sign of Emma. Perhaps she was hiding in the treeline and any moment now she would come running out towards her. Or perhaps Ariel was still amongst the waves waiting to pass word or lead her to Emma.

They stopped briefly, but Regina only realised when Marian returned to her feet, finding nothing of interest in a pile of driftwood lodged against a rock.

“The beach is long, but no longer than most. There’s a town near the end of it.”

Regina looked away from a few shells that caught her eye – there was nothing significant about them, “She would not have ventured too close. Even without knowledge of the notices. She would have remained on the outskirts.”

“She’s a smart woman.” Marian shifted her bow and they continued their slow walk.

Regina found herself smiling, it was small and bittersweet, “She has her moments.”

Marian showed no sign of having heard her, for which Regina was thankful. Those few words had been filled with too much warmth, too much emotion to be excused away.

 


 

“Any further and we will reach the town. I’m afraid I can see no sign, unless I have missed something.” Regina refused to meet Marian’s eyes. A building pressure formed in her chest, her knuckles growing pale. “If she’s good at covering her tracks, or – ”

“This is the wrong place.” Regina lifted her chin, a growing certainty clear on her face, “The shore is wherever the land and sea touch, simply because this was the closest does not mean it is the correct place.”

“There is nothing but cliffs for days besides here. You could not have wandered off-track that far.” Regina’s stomach dropped, though it was the heaviness of her heart that hit her, “Unless there is something you are not telling me, this has to be the correct place.”

Her head dropped, each breath growing harder. She trembled, desperate to hide her emotions but now too open to be successful.

“She’s…”

Emma would never abandon her, had only suggested so the first night of this journey because she foolishly thought it would protect her.

Unless… Emma still thought that to be true.

“You implied it yourself. How do I know they did not find her?”

“You have conviction in your words, and despite what you may think, I prayed you were right.”

No! Emma would not… she would not abandon her! No matter what! She would not have been captured, she was far too smart for that!

But then why was she not there?

That damned argument. That poison swimming inside her, it was all to blame. Why could she not have controlled her anger? Why had she not done as she was always taught and used her words to convince Emma?

Why had their parting be so fraught?

Rocinante nudged her shoulder, she reached up, running her fingers along the side of his face as she slowly came back to herself.

They were alone.

Regina whipped her head around, feeling oddly relieved when she caught sight of Marian a short distance away.

Marian glanced over her shoulder and gestured for her.

“I thought you needed a moment,” Marian said as she and Rocinante drew closer, “Fortunate too. This is no natural occurrence.” Regina frowned, but when Marian crouched down she caught a glimpse of the stones she was looking at, and she understood. “At least I hope it’s your friend. It’s no sign I’m familiar with.”

Marian stood, offering her hand, without a second thought Regina handed her Rocinante’s reins and dropped to her knees.

It had to be Emma. Just had to be.

The stones had been placed in a rough approximation of a circle, but it was the pebbles inside of it that caught her attention. There were two rows, both like crescents but back to back and not touching. Her brow creased, she tilted her head to see if that would help, then climbed to her feet to look at it from different angles.

Nothing seemed to make it any clearer, and in her frustration she dropped to her knees once more.

“It’s not a letter, or a symbol.”

“Not a marker either,” Regina added, a hint of uncertainty in her voice. Marian shook her head, confirming her thoughts and smothering that glimmer of hope in her chest.

What was Emma trying to tell her?

If it had been Emma.

She turned her gaze to the sea, as if an answer lay there waiting for her. Her shoulders sagged, torn between heartbreak and rage at herself for her lack of understanding.

The tide rose and ebbed, washing over shells and stones.

Regina shifted on her knees, digging her fingers into the sand.

Perhaps there had been another clue, swept away by the tide. But Emma was no fool, she would not have placed it far away from this one, nor in the direct path of the tide –

Regina’s head snapped up.

She seized the closest stone, shoving it a short distance away, and the next and the next.

They were only there to protect the sign, not part of it. With them further away – even only the minimal distance she could manage – she felt the inkling of something familiar.

“Of course.” She heard Marian step closer, and the dull clop of Rocinante’s hooves, “A river perhaps? Or a road? Though I know of none that appear that way – ” Marian came to an abrupt halt, startled by Regina scrabbling in the sand, trying to get to her feet. She managed, and shot to get to her bag. Marian stepped out of the way, just in time as Regina found their map and rushed back to the pebbles.

The map shook as she unfurled it, she pulled at it a little too tight to try to hide her trembling hands. There, with a tilt of her head she could see what Emma intended.

The valley in The Footfalls. And the little town before the border.

“You know where she is?” And it was no question.

“Yes,” she replied, voice sure.

With quick motions she rolled the map up and returned it to Rocinante’s bag, almost tripping over her feet in her haste to get moving.

“It will be dark soon, we should get moving.” Regina lifted Rocinante’s head, checking his eyes and mouth carefully but swiftly. They needed to find shelter before it was dark.

“You do,” Marian agreed, crouching down to move the stones. Regina watched, confused by her words and her actions.

“What about you?”

“I know these woods like the back of my hand. Day or night.” Marian smiled, but it waned a moment later, “I wish I could help you further – ”

“Don’t,” Regina said simply, “You know who I am, and what we run from.”

“I know, but even so…”

Marian threw a stone towards the trees, looked towards the lapping waves and threw another there.

“I know it is of little comfort, but your supplies will last twice as long.” Marian finally turned back to her, “Though is there enough for you to reach her?”

“I am sure there will be.”

Marian glanced to the steadily sinking sun, a crease to her brow.

“I should not keep you any longer.” Stepping back, Marian bowed her head, “I pray you are both reunited.”

“We will be,” Regina said with a certainty that almost surprised herself, “…Thank you, for all your help.”

She fidgeted with her hands, and grasped Rocinante’s reins to hide the sudden shake of her nerves. She wished she had something, a parting gift – something that spoke of how truly grateful she was.

Marian simply smiled, the kindness displayed so openly on her face still catching Regina off-guard.

“There is no need for thanks.” Marian shifted on her heels, in the process of turning. Another thing to be thankful for, Regina knew she would not have been able to take that first step, “Travel well, Regina.”

Regina smiled, inclining her head before turning her attention to Rocinante.

“Then it is settled,” she said to him. His ears twitched and he lifted his head for a scratch behind his left ear, “We continue westward, find our bearings, and reunite with Emma.”

He snorted, she took it as an agreement.

And with that, Marian left and Regina turned, striding in the opposite direction. But not before Marian’s final words reached her.

“May you both find peace.”

Chapter Text

“Regina!” Emma bellowed, her heart thumping against her ribs.

Before Emma could scramble after her, Regina had reached the treeline, her body consumed by a swirling mass of violet smoke.

Emma’s heart twisted, her mind wrenched back to memories of searing pain and callous eyes. It couldn’t be her… it couldn’t be.

She rushed to where Regina had last been, her gaze whipping around even though she knew she would see no sign of her. The hair on the back of her neck stood up. The air felt heavy, like it did when there was a storm approaching on the wind.

“Regina?” She shouted again, aware it would go unanswered. She called for her again and again, and though she knew she would find nothing, she determinedly scoured the woods some distance in.

Emma searched until the breeze became too much against her wet clothes, until her shivering grew too great, leaving her with no choice but to seek out the beach again. The wind was stronger there, but there was no canopy blocking the warming sunlight.

She dragged her hand down the side of her face, pushing damp hair from her eyes, trying to turn her mind away from the ache in her chest.

Emma slumped against a tree, uncaring of how it jarred her bruises, and dropped her head back against the bark as her eyes fluttered closed.

Regina was gone – but it couldn’t be… it had to be Regina’s magic, surely? That seemed the most plausible explanation… the most hopeful. Where had she gone though? Where?

Emma pushed herself forward, wiping at the sweat on her brow after a few steps.

Whatever had happened, Regina was out there somewhere, and she would find her way back to her. Or… she would find her. There was no doubt about it. None at all.

Her chest heaved but she barely registered it.

Despite her thoughts, she felt the heavy weight of one familiar truth – she was alone again.

 


 

She woke with a start in the night, was certain she saw the light of torches. It was for but a few panicked moments, and though she knew it was impossible for them to appear and vanish in a blink of an eye, and though she was certain it was nothing more than the last threads of a nightmare, it still left her even more on edge.

Sleep, though it itched at the back of her eyes and pounded in in her temples, was ignored. The constant shifting of the sea ever present, somehow louder in the night though the wind barely stirred.

She sat with her hand close to her sword, her gaze turning often even though there was little to see in the weak light of the crescent moon.

 


 

“What happened?”

Emma had been startled by the voice, but had found her feet fast.

Her gaze jumped around, but she had soon found Ariel bobbing with the waves. And yet despite the distance between them, Emma had been able to hear her as clear as if she had been standing next to her.

“Magic.” Emma had busied herself with collecting a few scraps of driftwood, trying her best to ignore the dark storm in her chest.

“What is that?” Ariel had asked, “Did that take her away? Will she come back? Is it a good thing?”

“I’m…” Emma had fumbled with the driftwood, and bent to pick it back up, “I’m not so sure.”

“I will help.”

Ariel brought her a fish – though she didn’t know nor care to think how. With no tools and no suitable stones or shells to use as makeshift ones, she cooked it whole; a single stick speared through it as best as she could manage.

She spent far more time picking bones from between her teeth than eating – in fact, she was almost certain the fish were comprised of more bones than flesh – but the sustenance they offered was enough. As was the freshwater which bubbled up mysteriously from a depression in the ground some paces into the treeline. It quenched her thirst, enabled her to fill her flask, and allowed her to wash most of the remnants of saltwater from her skin, hair and clothes. Somehow that made her feel a little better.

With a slightly lagging motion, Emma pulled her sword free from sodden leather. The sheath she placed near the low burning embers of her fire, free from the shade of the trees. It was a poor way to distract herself, but necessary all the same.

She rested the sword across her knees and dragged her eyes slowly over its surface, searching for anything amiss. Though she tried to stretch out the time, one side was quickly swapped for another and that was soon over. With a huff she leant her head against the tree trunk behind her, and placed the sword down by her side.

Emma rubbed at her temple, the throbbing there trying to pull her back into her thoughts. With a groan she found her way to her feet and stretched, her bones clicking loudly and her bruises protesting. Sadly, moving brought her attention back to the water that still clung to her clothes even now. She could easily strip off and wring them out, Ariel would certainly not bat an eyelid… or flutter her gills. But it felt wrong, so Emma struggled on. After all, she never knew when Ariel would appear offshore.

Crack.

She snapped her head around, bent her knees and stretched her hand out towards her sword.

Her breath left her in a whoosh as a crow fluttered down a few paces away.

“God – damn thing,” she hissed, lurching forward to wave her arm at it in agitation. It cawed and took off back into the trees.

Running her hand through her tangled hair, she sighed.

“Getting all jittery over nothing,” she grumbled, looking back into the trees.

She had never been religious, but she prayed she was doing the right thing, even with the very real risk she was taking.

“Do not worry so.”

Her heart jumped.

She dragged the back of her hand over her forehead, catching her breath before turning to the sea.

“I am certain she will return for you, as long as the ‘magic’ allows her.” Ariel’s smile – which she seemed to have picked up from one of them – remained ever present. Fortunately Emma knew there was no cruelty intended in words or action.

“Magic isn’t an entity,” she tried to explain, attempting to squeeze water from her clothes, “The magic is Regina’s. It’s something she can use.”

At least she prayed it was Regina’s.

Ariel tilted her head, face unmoving, but Emma was sure she was thinking.

“Like how I can use my voice.”

“Exactly – I guess.” Emma shrugged weakly, wound up too tightly to converse with much effort. She gave up trying to wring her clothes, and dropped back down to sit in the same place as before.

“It will all be well.”

Emma had no doubt Ariel believed her own words completely. She only wished that she could too.

What was there to say Regina would even find her way back there? Or that she would want to? After all, the danger was lurking in the area, or close enough to it to act as a deterrent. And… there had been their argument, still so fresh in her mind. But, though Regina wanted to return for Rocinante, by now she would have had time to breathe, to think clearly, time for her to find common sense.

And common sense was to push on.

Regina was more than smart enough to know that.

And yet even though her skin grew warmer and pinker, and even though the same warnings rebounded through her mind again and again – Emma remained where she was, tense and unmoving.

 


 

A cooed ‘ooh’ dragged Emma from her thoughts, and if it wasn’t for the fact she recognised the sound, her hand would have jumped to her sword.

“Ariel,” she said instead, dusting sand from the back of her trousers as she left the shade of the treeline. She stepped over her boots and the fire drying them, heading straight to the glimpse of red amongst the waves.

Rolling her trousers up to the knee, she waded into the water and easily caught what Ariel threw towards her.

Another fish, this one thin with a glimmer that hinted at a blue stripe across its side. Her nose wrinkled at the feel of it – fish were so slimy – but it was no worse than the awful feeling of the sand sticking to her damp feet.

She was back on the beach before Ariel spoke again.

“What is it?” Ariel’s eyes were wide as they often were, as she gazed in wonder at her feet.

She must have some sort of eyesight.

“Hmm?” Emma glanced down and wiggled her toes.

Ariel squeaked, hands making a poor attempt at covering her eyes, “What are they?”

A smile found its way to Emma’s lips.

At least she was not alone, and while Ariel could be far too inquisitive and understandably clueless, she had grown on her.

“Toes.” Emma wiggled them once more for good measure. Ariel shrunk back, chin dipping beneath the waves, “They’re like… fingers, but for your feet. But they can’t pick up anything, or grip anything or really do anything much… but they help keep your balance though! … I think.”

“They look strange.”

Emma followed her gaze again, tilting her head slightly this time. “You know, they kind of do.”

She laughed, though she had no idea why, and though it was only a short subdued sound she felt better for it.

She lifted the fish, “Best cook it before it starts rotting.”

“Cook? Is that why you hold it above the thing I cannot touch? Why do that when you can just sink your teeth into it? That’s so strange. How is that an efficient way to eat?”

“We’ve been over this Ariel,” Emma said over her shoulder, a smile on her lips, “Remember?”

The mermaid got so overexcited and amazed by things that she barely took anything in for the long term. It was equal parts infuriating and almost endearing.

Emma washed the fish as best as she could in the trickle of freshwater in the treeline, before returning to drop down by the fire. She retrieved her trusty stick, it had become blackened but was still useable. It wasn’t the best way to cook a whole fish, but it sufficed.

A few curses and a sore thumb later, the fish was pierced and held above the low burning flames.

She could feel Ariel’s curious gaze on her, but she had long ago grown accustomed to it and the flurry of questions that would abruptly appear – usually when she was deep in thought. She turned the stick over in her hands, squinting at the fish to see if the one side had cooked enough. The last thing she needed was another bout of sickness. Especially if it would be accompanied by unending queries.

And it’s not as if she would have help this time. Or rather, not help that could actually get to her.

She jumped, a rustle in the bushes nearly making her fumble her food and drop it into the ashes. But it was just the wind; it always was.

“It should not be much longer,” Ariel said cheerily, voice reaching her clearly despite the distance. If Emma didn’t know better she would think she meant the fish – as it was, it was ready to eat a short time later.

An oily fish wasn’t the ideal way to break fast, but it brought a brief halt to the impatient rumbling of her stomach.

Her nose scrunched and gingerly she pulled a bone from her mouth.

Another restless night had left her with nothing but the pull of the darker parts of her mind. Those parts that were all-consuming if she could no longer ignore them.

She spat out a bone, swallowed down the suddenly tasteless fish.

“Damn it…” She whispered, rubbing at her aching eyes. That only made them worse, the sea salt that stubbornly clung to her skin turning the ache into a sting.

Blinking rapidly, she resisted the urge to rub at them again; she knew full well what little that would achieve.

Regina wasn’t coming to the beach.

It was a realisation she had made quickly, but one she did not want to accept. She knew Regina would be smart enough to carry on, and yet she had waited – just in case. Tried to fool herself in to believing that any moment now she would break through the treeline.

It was stupid of her. Stupid and reckless.

She had risked too much by remaining there for far too long. She didn’t know where she was, nor how far away the search parties were. Hell – what was the likelihood of Regina knowing where she was? And… Regina, she had disappeared in a swirl of smoke – like how Cora had appeared on that fateful night.

No – not that thought again!

Emma dropped the fish and ducked her head, threading her fingers through her lose, knotted hair.

Regina had said they couldn’t run from magic… what if that was what had seized Regina from her?

Emma shook her head, nails digging into her scalp.

No, no, no! Not again.

It couldn’t be. It just couldn’t. If Cora could do that, she would have taken Regina far earlier – and she would not have left her alive. Or free.

Wherever Regina was, she had to be safe. She had to.

But she couldn’t stay there, and Regina would know that. But where would she go instead? Would she travel to their final destination in the hopes of them reuniting there? She could only hope Regina had found Rocinante, as unlikely as that may be. That she had their supplies and their map, that she had the skills to get there – but she? She had nothing.

Furrowing her brow she tried to recall the map, or at least the part where it showed the nearest town to be. But what was the point? There were few marked on there, and she didn’t know where she was. The best she could do was to just head west and hope she stumbled onto one. Entering one was just a risk she would have to take, she needed supplies and she would get them – somehow.

Wait

There was a town, not nearby but by the valley – or in it, she couldn’t remember which, but if going through it was the only way into The Wealds, what better place was there to wait? And Regina would know that too – she had a map, she would see it and piece it all together, if she hadn’t already.

She would have to take risks to get there, but it was a hell of a lot safer than what she was currently doing.

I just hope I’m right.

“Ariel?” She called, a crack in her voice.

She knelt, using her hands to bury the remains of the fish beneath the sand – Ariel’s reaction when she had disposed of an earlier one in the water had been shockingly unpleasant.

To little surprise Ariel reappeared in her view, flicking up a spray of water droplets.

“Yes?” The eagerness to help was ever present and, as Emma walked closer to the waterline, she could even detect it in her expression now.

“Where’s the nearest town?”

“If you follow the sea you will reach it.”

It took less time than had become the norm for Emma to understand.

“How far away? From here.”

“A league.”

Emma scratched the back of her head, squinting her eyes in thought – and more than a little confusion.

“Say… if I left now, would I be there before the sun sets?” Emma pointed to the sky, just in case.

“It would take me moments,” Ariel mused, slapping the water with her tail, “Your speed across the earth is far slower. But if you match the movement to when you carried me – then yes, you shall reach it before the light fades.”

Emma huffed, running her hand through her hair. That was a longwinded way to say yes.

“I best get walking then.” She rubbed at her warm arms, the sun continuing to pinken her skin.

“But Regina will be here soon.”

“I don’t – ” Emma slid her eyes away from Ariel’s unblinking gaze, her throat tightening, “I was wrong, she is coming. Just not here. But I know where she will be, and I need to go.”

“But I like you.” Ariel’s brow dropped, appearing as close to sad as Emma suspected possible, “And you proved my sisters were wrong!”

“I can’t stay, Ariel.”

“I know, I do not want you to. You need to be with Regina.” Ariel nodded a bit too vigorously, a subtle shift of her expression telling of her brighter mood. It was almost enough to lift Emma’s spirts.

“Ariel,” Emma sighed, trying to remain sombre. She crossed her arms as if that would help. “I showed you. A nod is more gentle than that.”

“I will practice.”

Emma floundered, a small grin on her lips as she jogged back to the fire and retrieved her sword.

“If you wish to get there sooner I can carry you.”

“No.” Emma said sharply, then cleared her throat in thought, “Thank you, Ariel, but this way will be easier.”

She brushed the sand off the soles of her feet and pulled her boots and socks back on. A few swift kicks scattered her makeshift fire. But… she couldn’t just leave with no trace. Yes that was the best thing to do safety wise, but if by some chance Regina did return there…

Again her doubts began to surface, her previous urge to leave slowly overshadowed.

She bit at her lip until it ached. She needed to go, but even so… she… wait! She could leave some sort of message or sign. Just in case – even if only to make herself feel better. To ensure she could carry on.

Ariel – she could ask her to keep an eye out. But she had already helped them so much, and Regina may never arrive. It wouldn’t be right to ask Ariel to put aside more of her life – no matter how long it may be – for what was possibly a fruitless endeavour. Not to mention what would happen if someone else arrived instead. Ariel had been shy at first, only asking for help when she so desperately needed it, but now perhaps she was no longer. And not everyone was as willing to help, or as kind as they… well, as Regina.

No, it needed to be a sign. A subtle one, but one Regina would notice and understand. And one that wouldn’t be understood by another.

“Damn it,” Emma sighed, giving the back of her head a scratch. This was not going to be simple.

“I thought you needed to go?”

Emma’s gaze jumped to the water. She willed herself not to be foolish, it was just Ariel. Who else was it going to be?

“I’m…” She began, fingers twitching at her sides and her tongue peeking out to wet her lips. It was not that the words were difficult, it was that she could not take them back once they left her. She floundered, the words only budging with a great surge of effort, “I need to leave a sign, but I… err, I’m struggling.”

“You do not appear to be struggling.”

“Struggling to think, Ariel,” Emma snapped before wresting back some control, her tone softening, “I can’t think of what to do.”

Emma risked glancing at Ariel, only to find her head tilted in thought. Somehow that made breathing that little bit easier.

“We use the stone above the waves and in the shallows as signs. We will create makeshift ones where the tide cannot move them if we need to.”

Oh. That’s what Granny did with her snares. Made a little sign or mark so she knew where she had set them. Usually with –

Emma’s brow twitched, and she immediately cast her gaze about. Driftwood, no that was too flimsy. Same for the shells and pebbles. But there were a few larger stones, she approached one and bent to scoop it up. It barely had any heft, but if placed well above the tideline…

“What are you doing?” Ariel replied, but Emma was already engrossed in gathering all the stones and large pebbles she could see.

It had all slotted together, as if Ariel’s words had been the trigger.

I might not be good with words, but I know shapes, And she and Regina had certainly looked at their map enough times.

The sand was soft beneath her knees, fortunately too as it took her longer than she would have liked to arrange the stones just right.

I can only hope Regina sees it like I do.

She pushed her way to her feet, ignoring the twinge of her bruises.

If she comes here.

She didn’t dwell on her fears – she couldn’t. She just needed to push on.

“I…” She stammered, uncertainty rearing up. Ariel watched, her unwavering gaze not helping. Emma took a few slow steps in the direction she needed to go, grasping at her sword, “You know, for everything.”

“I do not understand.”

Emma coughed, fist pressed to her lips, “What you have done, it, err, means a lot. To both of us.”

“Oh.” Ariel drew the sound out, realisation clear in her voice, “There is no need. You are my friend, and helping friends is what you should do, yes?”

“Yes.” Emma nodded, turning her face away. She cleared her throat, taking another step, “I… need to – ”

“Of course, may our currents meet again.” Ariel dipped her head, her smile bright.

Emma nodded, and with a face that was a little pinker than it already was, began walking before she lost her nerve.

She couldn’t waver. Regina was out there, and she would be looking for her, just like Emma should have been doing – but like the idiot she is, she just sat there. She wasted so much time.

She marched on ahead, jaw set with determination.

And if by some chance her assumption was wrong and Regina did arrive there after her, hopefully she would understand the sign she had left and move swiftly on. If she lingered the danger would grow, for all she knew the soldiers would get there first and –

She rubbed at her head, teeth gritting as her fingers caught on tangles and knots.

Her pace sped up, not faltering even when the beach grew more uneven. She was conscious of the occasional flash of red amongst the waves.

But still the concerns continued to raise up in the back of her mind, faint but with a dominating voice that pierced through everything else. They grasped at her heart, their hold icy even as her skin burned. Emma gulped, hesitating even as she cast her eyes about. She could be wrong, it certainly wouldn’t be the first time, even if she thought she was being logical. She could be so very wrong. Her fears could be so very true.

Great, she thought letting out a short sight, Now I’m seconding guessing myself. Again.

The only person you can trust is yourself – she couldn’t even do that right.

She rubbed at her shoulder, trying to get rid of some of the tension there. It did little to lessen the overall stiffness of her muscles.

Again she reminded herself that the sign was there just in case she was wrong. As… insurance she supposed, or reassurance for herself. She knew – God did she know – that Regina was too smart to return to where the danger was greatest. The only reason she had stayed herself was because she hadn’t been thinking clearly.

The sea breeze caught at her clothing, carrying a chill she could have done without.

Emma frowned, she had to admit to herself if no one else that she was lying about why she had waited. Even if she had only stayed there for a short time.

“Damn it,” she muttered lowly, the curse barely audible over the rush of the sea and cry of the birds circling overhead.

She had to do something, for her own peace of mind if nothing else.

She knew where she was going, knew where she hoped Regina was heading. Yes, going to that town was the best option. And if she did get cornered all she had to do was hop over the border. Yes they could follow her, but that would risk some political trouble or something along those lines – Regina knew about it all far better than she.

It made perfect sense, and Regina was smarter than her. She was bound to conclude the same.

She followed the beach, refocusing her mind on her next course of action, but not too consumed to be unaware of her surroundings.

Partway along she caught sight of some poor sea creature, too long gone to identify. The putrid stench reached her even where she stood, and only grew worse when she approached it and sent the scavengers flying away. She cut some thin lengths of rope from the old net surrounding the beast, the odour unfortunately clung to them. But at least she could try to snare something now.

As she continued on, the seagulls returned to their festering meal.

Before she left the beach to seek out the road into town, she cast her gaze to the endless blue of the sea. She lifted her hand, gave a small smile, and headed into the treeline.

Chapter Text

She had stumbled across a path in her attempt to find the road, not a bad thing as she soon found it offered a quieter way into the port town. It did little to ease her nerves though, for the path was narrow and the town itself was not far from the beach. Still, she was calmer than she would have been if she had taken the road, for what little that mattered.

Don’t let this be a mistake. That thought reemerged and rang through her mind, she tried to shove it back, twisting her lips with the effort and sending some young boy scurrying away when she passed him.

She was doing the right thing. The smart thing.

Get in. Do what you need to. Get out.

The broken stonework, the peeling paint on some of the buildings, and the refuse in the gutters made it clear which part of the town she was in. Good, she wouldn’t stand out as much as she feared – not for the moment. She strode forward with as much confidence as she could muster and her sore body could manage.

After spending so long on the shore with little sound save for the sea, the wind and the birds, the noise surrounding her seemed deafening already. She darted around exhausted women, passed others slumped in alleyways, a sweat building on her brow.

With a few buildings behind her, a sound rose above the clamour of city life – loud and raucous. She rounded a corner and quickly spotted the commotion outside a ramshackle tavern.

A circle made of men, a familiar sound; the sickening yet dull impact of fist to body – to face – to head. Each blow accompanied by the crowds’ shouts of encouragement and bellowing of insults.

“I gotta piece of silver riding on that whoreson!”

Emma tried to slip past, for the group nearly stretched to the other side of the path. Her heart rate shot up, the crowd erupting into cheers and jeers, jostling her even as she gave up subtlety and rushed away.

She caught her breath and jogged a little in her haste. She chanced a glance over her shoulder, spying, through the crowd, a man staggering and bleeding.

She had seen worse, and yet it still turned her stomach, made bile rise in its wake.

She hastened on, swallowing it all down and fighting briefly against her nausea’s re-emergence. It didn’t last long, for when she lifted her gaze she found an armed guard a few paces away.

Her breath hitched, growing shorter as he took long strides towards her.

But he passed her without so much as a glimpse in her direction. To break up the fight she supposed, feeling relieved, only to look back fleetingly to see him pushing aside some of the men to get a better view.

She cleared her throat, shook her head, and determinedly carried on.

Soon the damaged doors and rotting wood of the buildings vanished, the stench of filth lifted, the state of people and surroundings alike grew gaudier.

The salt in the air was bizarrely stronger amongst the buildings than on the shore, it brought with it a sense of familiarity, enough to almost make her pause for thought.

She refilled her flask and washed her face in the water from a large white stone fountain. Distantly, she was aware of the hard looks of disapproval at her back, but no one stopped her – or had the time to, for she hurried away at the first glimpse of armour.

She dodged past two stumbling men in the noon sun, the breeze a welcome relief in the hustle and bustle. She slipped into an alley to escape the hectic rush of life – something she had long ago navigated with ease. She hadn’t missed it, not at all.

The smell of fish, much like the breeze, brought with it a faint reminder of home. And yet it seemed too pungent, too overwhelming, so much so it turned her stomach at times. Or perhaps that was the lack of a significant amount of food filling her stomach. Or the oily fish from that morning. The smell grew in strength when she closed her eyes in an attempt to focus past the shouts of people, the low drone of conversation, the piercing cries of birds overhead.

Again she found herself second guessing herself. She could wait here, but it would be too easy to miss one another. And how would she manage with no coin for a roof over her head? Nor a fire to keep her warm? She doubted the guards would allow her to make one in the street, nor would they be pleased with yet another vagrant in their town. She was already likely to draw too much attention, she could try to avoid it now, but later on? And with a sword at her hip? It would just grow harder as time stretched on.

Who was to say Regina would even pass through there? She knew it was best to avoid such places, didn’t she? What was to say she was nearby at all? Or that she would return to the shore?

Had she not been over this before?

Damn it, Swan.

She popped an eye open, leaning her head back against the gritty stone behind her.

There was no certainty Regina would try to return to where they had been, or go to where she was now, but there was certainty that she would go to the border town, even if she was only passing through –

If she’s still out there…

Emma shook her head, biting at the inside of her cheek as if to punish herself for the thought.

It would all be fine. It had to be. They would find one another.

The border town. Townsend? She recalled though the thought was uncertain. If Regina did return to the beach, and if she saw her sign she would hopefully understand. And even if she didn’t see it – even if she didn’t return there – wherever she was, she would hopefully follow their plan through. For once, Emma hoped Regina’s thoughts mirrored her own.

That town, the valley, was where they would meet again.

She pushed herself off the wall, scratching her palms on the rough surface. Besides a frown, it barely registered.

Then to a map person it was. For though she could picture the map somewhat clearly, and knew the town was to the west, she still did not know where exactly she was, or where exactly the valley was. Yes it was in The Footfalls, but they stretched along the entirety of the Oakenfelldian border. Pinpointing it with only a vague idea would not be a simple task.

Emma rubbed her tingling palms on her trousers, and slipped out of the other end of the alley just in time to see a seagull swoop down to snatch a fish from a man’s hands.

Near the docks then.

Her assumption was correct, in moments she caught sight of the docks but chose to avoid them. There would be more people there, more guards, and any stalls there were likely to sell only one thing, and that would not keep for long nor be easy to conceal. The tales played their part too, knowing what seamen were prone to doing.

The market was close by. She kept her head down as she walked in the shade of the large cloth canopy, mindful of the brisk march of wives and the slow jaunt of couples. With ease she slipped what she could beneath her tunic and into her pockets.

The evidence was gone soon after passing through the market, she paused only briefly to chew on a chunk of salty bread – which she was certain held no flour – and a cheese that was greasy on both tongue and fingers. It didn’t sit all that well with her earlier ‘meal’, and made thirst scratch at her throat. She waited until it was settling in her stomach before taking a hearty drink from her flask, careful of the mylates in her pockets.

Her gaze darted around, hidden by the slight bow of her head. She had to be on guard, no one had paid her any attention yet – not that she could see. But everywhere she went there seemed to be a great number of people, which meant there was no chance for reprieve.

She turned down another street where the stone grew damper and the buildings seemed to lean towards one another. Two men passed her draped in clothes like none she had ever seen.

She stumbled upon the mapmakers when she slipped through an alley to avoid a group of rowdy men with weapons at their hips. Sailors she assumed, though they looked nothing like any sailor she had ever seen before.

Emma was in the store before she had time to think it over, her eyes roaming over the maps. Each one had its place in an odd boxlike shelf that covered one wall, identified – she hoped – by a scrawl of writing above each square.

She rubbed at her temple, catching sight of somebody moving towards her.

“You a map person?”

“A cartographer, yes,” the man sniffed, drawing out each word. His gaze flickered to the window, to the shadow cast by a curious man, but returned to her in an instant.

“I’m looking for a map of this area,” she blurted out before she could second guess her decision, “it doesn’t have to be greatly detailed, just a simple one will do.”

He looked down his hooked nose at her, regarding her like she was some filth he had stepped in. Emma squared her jaw, willing herself not to respond.

“And how does someone like you hope to pay for such a thing?” He turned his head as if to hide a smug laugh, his eyes though dropped, lingering for a second on a map. The one beside it caught her attention though, identified by a word she prayed she recognised.

Breathe Emma.

She did so, with some difficulty, and slowly uncurled her hands.

“Directions then,” she gritted out rather than let slip even a hint of an offended remark. She knew where the mountains were – it wasn’t as if they could be missed – she just needed a way to find the valley.

But directions could make her traceable. Her stomach dropped, but she stood steadfast. Asking though could offer a distraction. Could offer her time to think.

“As much as it would please me to rid this town of yet another vagrant. You should know it is against the law to do so.” Emma felt movement behind her, turned quickly only to see another patron. “Begone mutt, before I call the guards.”

He didn’t bother to even acknowledge her with eye contact when he spat out the threat, his eyes and fake smile all focused on the new arrival. At least he hadn’t noticed her sword.

She knew when to not take chances, and she knew when she should. In the split moment before his beady eyes returned to her, she snatched the map and bolted out the door.

A few hurried strides away from the shop she switched to a brisk walk, and then a jog, listening sharply for any commotion following her before she broke into a full run. Her chest heaved, her head felt light, her muscles ached quickly though they once would never have. She darted around a boy pushing a cart, hopped over a misplaced net, brushed past oblivious people before she dived into an alley to catch her breath.

No one paid her the least bit of attention.

She slipped the map from her sleeve and unrolled it.

God, she thought as she caught her breath, I hope I was right.

She wandered further down the alley, her slow steps bouncing off the enclosing walls, her spirits lifting as she took in the map. A smile spreading across her face.

“Even better…”

She could almost laugh, her smile growing into a grin. The map didn’t show her where she was, nor a way in which she could judge where the valley was in regards to her current position. But it did show the valley, and further still an intricate and detailed layout of the entirety of The Wealds. All the lines and shapes nearly made her dizzy, or perhaps that was simply giddiness.

Wait until I show Regina.

Just like that her mood dropped like a stone.

Don’t be an idiot, Swan. She rolled the map up and, with nowhere to put it, tucked it into her belt for temporary safe keeping. You’ll find the valley and Regina.

How hard could it be?

“It was a good move, but not sly enough.”

Emma whirled around, hand on her sword. A man leant against the alley wall a few paces away, though now he had her attention he slinked closer. There was a faint familiarity about his face, but Emma had no time to place it.

“If someone was to, say, alert the guards, you would be in a lot of trouble.” Emma took a step back, but by now he was close enough that the overwhelming stench of rum burned at her nose. Surprisingly, he wasn’t drunk, “Even more so when they spy a weapon. Really, a lass has no place handling a sword. That kind anyway.”

Nausea stirred in her stomach, churning and demanding. She knew where this was going – where he believed it would. Her anger, though, grew stronger.

He leant close with an arrogant smirk, “There is one way to ensure my silence. I assume a damsel of your position is well aware – perhaps I’ll even give you something in return.”

His arm shot out, fingers pressing hard into her right arm. Prying it away from her sword. A surprised cry tried to worm its way from her lips.

Shit! Why hadn’t she drawn her sword when she had the chance?!

“What are you? A mute?” He laughed. “Makes no differ – ”

She slammed her left fist into his cheek, the impact shooting up her arm and spreading tingles throughout it.

He staggered, blood spilling from his mouth.

His grip gone she slammed her right fist into the side of his head.

His eyes rolled up as he toppled, collapsing into a heap.

She sucked in a breath, hands aching but shock conquering the pain.

That was easier than I thought.

She flexed her fingers, mind reeling.

Did I just

The sun beat down on her, the alley offering little shade. An alley that may be a shortcut…

She dropped down, instinct talking over as she pushed aside his leather coat and searched for a coin purse. It was easy to find, though unfortunately light.

She pocketed it and hurried away without so much as a backwards glance.

She didn’t take her eyes off her path, or let her mind stray, not until there was a considerable number of streets and turns behind her. Only then did she pause to blink up at the sky –

No way…

She could see the mountains through the chimney smoke, far away, but still clear. She kept them in her sight when she stopped again, she folded the map into as small a square as she could manage before hiding it in the coin purse. She had been so focused on her task she hadn’t seen them, or perhaps this was the point in the town where they were clear and she had been unable to spy them before. Either way, it didn’t matter all that much. She needed to get moving.

 


 

On her journey out of town she thankfully came across a long row of shops and competing stalls. Initially she debated waiting until the sun was setting and the prices fell, but that would waste time and so was easily dismissed. And of course it was best to have a camp set before it was night.

The mylates would suffice until she caught something. But even so, she bought some dried meat – or perhaps it was fish – whatever it was, it was something edible, to have just in case she failed at fending for herself.

She could manage on an empty stomach – for a time at least. She couldn’t afford to slow down. She had wasted enough time, and risked too much, by staying in town for so long.

It was as she left the row of shops that she spotted a child huddled in a rotten doorway, all large eyes and dirty clothes.

Larger kids probably hiding nearby.

Yet, despite knowing this old trick she couldn’t bring herself to walk past.

Emma closed her eyes, sighed, and briefly left her path to approach the boy.

“Af’ternoon, ma’am, do yous ‘ave –

She dropped the last of the coins into his hand and strode away.

It was no use in the forest, and remained evidence while she was in town.

She had what she needed.

Chapter Text

She awoke to a sharp scream – one that was torn from her own throat.

She was wrenched from the ground, pain searing in her shoulders. She lurched forward, tried to find purchase on the ground, threw her elbows back. The force holding her broke, she flung herself away, tripping over her feet, hand groping at her side as she spun on her heel. The sun was blinding, burning like the rage flaring beneath her skin.

Her hand scrabbled at leather and cloth.

“Looking for this?”

She shook the last remnants of foggy confusion and sleep from her mind. Saw a man before her examining her sword.

“Marvellous craftsmanship – I do wonder how much we will get for it.” He smirked, briefly glancing at her. Smartly dressed. Not the voice of someone who could wield a weapon. Not the body of someone used to a fight.

She shifted her weight forward, braced herself, all before all of his words registered.

We.

Her head turned, barely enough to catch a glimpse behind her before the wind was knocked out of her lungs. The hard impact at her back, and her position, throwing her off-balance. She hit the ground hard, her arms pulled back and roughly pinned.

“You have quite the familiar face.”

She struggled, fighting to catch her breath, her cheek pressed to the ground. The scent of dirt making her head spin and stomach churn.

“I can’t hold her!”

She bucked, yelped as her arms were yanked further back. But still she twisted, fought against the man restraining her. Blood pounding in her ears. Head buzzing.

She managed to get to her knees. Looked up.

Saw the hilt of her sword rushing down.

 


 

The first thing she was aware of were flickering, distant scenes; like an indistinguishable dream, full of bright colours that danced and merged. There was a sense of warmth in her chest, short lasting, taken over by a throbbing, stabbing pain like no other in her temple. The kind of pain that crept back, extending throughout her head. God, it was even worse than that time she had challenged the knights she was familiar with to an ale drinking contest.

She could not recall if she had won.

Didn’t matter much. She had fun, felt like she had friends.

Didn’t have many friends. Didn’t have any.

Except Regina – maybe she would take her to see the knights’ training, or see the regular inspection. So much gleaming metal, so much strength. Regina would like that, to see something different. To experience what she ‘couldn’t’, or ‘shouldn’t’.

Rocinante would like to run with the other horses – didn’t get to do that much.

A groan. A harsh breath in.

Was that her?

Her eyes hurt to open, sent the ache in her head spiking.

Where was the roof? She always woke to the wooden planks above, the hatch open occasionally. Unless she had fallen from the hayloft again. Would explain the pain. Would explain why she wasn’t greeted by the bleary sight she was used to.

She forced her head up – funny, why wasn’t she lying down? – her vision jolted at the action, the world losing its little colour for a few long moments.

God her head!

What had she done last –

Last night…

“Wha…” She tried to croak. Nose wrinkling at the musty scent of disuse.

She was sitting, it was dark and unfamiliar, a fire behind her glowed weakly, its light not reaching far. Memories returned in a trickle at first, a bothersome reality niggling at the back of her mind. Then the dam broke, the trickle breaking into a sweeping flood that froze her lungs, that left her skin cold and made her shake.

She wasn’t home. Hadn’t been for a long while – Regina was gone. But hopefully free. And she… was alone.

And somewhere unknown –

Emma threw herself forward, a cry tearing from her as the pain in her head exploded. The chair she was on rocked forward, teetered dangerously. She sucked in a breath – chest heaving – and pushed back. The chair’s back legs returned heavily to the ground, jarring her and ripping a groan from her lips.

She waited with short breaths until the pain tapered back to an almost manageable level, only then did she try to bring her arms forward. She winced at the way they were stretched, at the scratch of rope against her wrists. Her arms were tied firmly behind her.

She tried to move her legs, but they were tied to the legs of the chair.

She swallowed, trying to force down the burning sickness rising in her throat as her heart hammered against her ribs.

What the fuck was she going to do?!

“I see you are awake.”

“Huh,” she grunted, gaze snapping up – again it sent her vision blurring and her head spinning.

When at last she could focus, she saw a man on the other side of the room. His smile was smug as he circled a battered table and pulled out a chair. He sat on it a few paces away from her.

“I did fear for a moment that I had hit you a tad too hard.” He chuckled to himself, the sound rebounded agonisingly in her head.

“What…” She managed to say, her blood chilling at just how pained she sounded.

“Hmm?” He leant forward, lips still stretched in a nauseating smile.

She tried to sneer, but the pull of it made the pain in her head spike.

“What do you want?” She snarled.

“Oh. You speak? I had no idea.” He sat back, smiling as if he had just told a spectacular joke. He cupped his chin between thumb and forefinger, taking his time before continuing, “You know what I want.”

Emma tried to move her gaze, to try to take every little detail in – but it was as if her whole body was refusing to listen to her.

“You were a surprise, Emma Swan.”

Everything swayed. Her whole body ached with tension. The rope dug into her already sore wrists.

“Who?” She croaked, trying to sound as convincing as her hazy, spinning mind allowed, “I don’t know what’s going on. But you’ve got the wrong person.”

Her arms trembled, the pounding in her head throbbed with each sharp beat of her heart. How? Who? Why?

No. She knew why. Or thought she did.

If she was not bound, she surely would have been unable to stay steady on her feet. It felt like she was not in full control of her body – or had any true control over it – it was as if she was witnessing everything, but distantly, like she was in a dream unable to act.

Still, she fought to keep a tight hold over her reactions. To be certain nothing slipped. If she could convince him, perhaps he would let her go.

“Oh.” He chuckled, resting one leg over his knee, “A very transparent lie. I may be many things, but wrong is never one of them.”

Emma’s teeth cut at her cheek, catching at a sore, swollen spot.

“And, if by perchance, I had suspected I had been mistaken, then that crude accent of yours would have clinched it.”

“You’ve got the wrong person,” she managed to say around gritted teeth, each word a struggle.

“Now, now, we both know that is not the truth.” He brushed at his coat sleeves, sounding almost amused. “I’m going to ask you something most politely.”

“I told you. I’m not who you think I am.”

He pursed his lips, eyes flickering to her and then back to a loose thread on his sleeve. He plucked at it, the flicker of mild annoyance on his face vanishing as soon as it appeared. He smiled again, not looking the least bit swayed by her repeated claims.

“Where is the Princess?”

“Princess?” She spluttered, her voice gravelly. Her legs ached with the need to move, panic clawed beneath her breast and made her breath catch, “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“Do not play the fool – ”

“Don’t be dumb.”

Emma started at the second voice, jarring her body and causing pain to shoot through her.

“What have I told you about interrupting me?!” The man before her snarled, his demeanour shifting in a spilt second.

She only had to turn her head a little, painful though it was, to see another man sitting on the floor a few steps from the first.

Her heart thumped that little bit harder – why hadn’t she seen him? Why had she – shit, surely she hadn’t lost the sight in her left eye!

Her next breath was even harder, she fought to control her emotions. To remain calm… as calm as possible. She was already in a difficult situation, she couldn’t risk getting overwhelmed. She needed control.

It came back jaggedly, how she ended up there, but surely there had only been one man – but the memory of it all was not complete, like there were parts missing.

“Now, where were we?”

The other man had shrunk back, she sluggishly realised. She tried to slide her gaze to the questioner, but even that slight movement made everything edge on blurry again. She had no choice but to endure the shooting pain in her head and neck in order to face him.

God, she just wanted to sleep. How fucking ridiculous was that?!

“Ah, yes. The location of the other.” He fiddled with his cuffs, eyes never leaving her, “Where is the Princess?”

“I don’t know who – ”

“I swear upon my very honour that nothing will befall her. I only wish to return her from where she came.” He waved one hand carelessly, the firelight glinting off his fingers – rings? – “And you. Of course.”

Everything spun again, the pain in her head growing with each moment. Her eyes fluttered shut for far too long.

“I don’t…” She slurred, forcing her eyes – eye open.

“Do not be so stubborn,” he snapped, brow dropping low. For a spilt second she feared he was about to lurch to his feet, but then his face smoothed, a long sigh soon following.

“A slight miscalculation on my part – I should never have expected that feeble mind to comprehend the situation you are in, not after a blow like that. I am certain it caused a bit of a rattle.”

She lost focus for a moment, and when she was aware again he was standing. Her head had dropped, her chin almost to her chest. She tried to lift her gaze, but could barely stop her eyes from closing.

“Then perhaps I should grant you some time. Time to process your situation, to try to understand your options.”

She tried to respond, but the mix of pain and exhaustion left her unable.

It washed over her like a sudden storm.

 


 

When she was next aware, her head was clearer, but the pain she felt seemed more intense. As was the scratch of thirst in her throat.

But unlike before she could now move her head more freely, and that overrode the consuming need for a drink – and the throbbing pain which had now spread throughout her body.

She glanced around as quickly as she could, taking in as much as she could.

A hut, single door from what she could see. The only light was at her back from the fire, she still couldn’t move her neck fully, but from the corner of her eyes she could see boards, not shutters, over the windows – or window. She couldn’t tell.

There was only one way out then, but with her legs and –

Shit,” she hissed, the slight twitch of her arms causing the rope to scratch at her tender wrists.

An abrupt thud behind her made her jump, jarring her body and bringing the pain to sharp attention again.

Gritting her teeth made it no better, but at least it caused a flare of pain that seemed more localised. Easier to focus on. She forced her eye open to find the quieter of the two gazing curiously at her – a bit closer and she would be able to slam her head into his… though perhaps that wouldn’t be the best course of action.

She glared as best as she could. He seemed smaller than the other, perhaps not much taller than she. Scrawny too, if she was free she could probably overpower him.

Definitely could.

Without a word he pulled away and wandered over to the table. His attention shifted from her, Emma tested her bonds.

She could wiggle her toes, but certainly couldn’t move her feet. A twitch of her hands had her biting at the sore spot on her cheek, and earned a swift curse at herself – of course that would do no good!

He grabbed something from the table and took a bite –

Her gaze dropped to the surface, and the few belongings she had scavenged that were scattered across its surface.

Well, at least she knew where they were.

The door rattled, the shorter man dropped the dried fish on the table and hurried to hold the door open. It was dark out – or getting dark – maybe dawn, but why would he be travelling out in the dark? She closed her eyes, her thoughts not helping the ache in her head.

With the occasional spitting of the fire, and the pain in her head, she couldn’t be certain, but she was as convinced as she could be that there had been no sound of a lock turning. Something confirmed as the door closed and the red haired man did not pause before he strolled to the seat opposite her.

“Awake I see.” He removed his patched felt hat, dusting the end of the table before placing it down there.

“Obviously.”

He hummed, tight-lipped, and sat.

She couldn’t be too far from where she had been, neither looked strong enough to carry her far – not on their own. And he was certainly not the type to get his hands dirty.

She just needed to get free, grab her stuff, and get out of there. The problem was just how she was supposed to do that.

“I do not take kindly to such an attitude.” He spoke slowly, the warning heavy in his tone.

“Funny. I don’t take kindly to being abducted and tied up. Yet here we are.”

He frowned, jaw tensing. It felt like a small victory, though she wasn’t certain why.

His mouth opened and closed, clearly struggling to keep his next words level, “I would be more careful with your tongue.”

Emma tilted her chin up as best as she could, trying to put forth a strong air. Despite it all her stomach was heavy, her throat dry, and panic clashed with the pain in her head.

The man cleared his throat, the beginnings of menace disappearing.

“I’m going to ask you again, Mistress Swan.”

Emma forced her breathing to remain steady, tried to hold herself still, barely giving a twitch of recognition – but a twitch too much.

His smile grew, a glimpse of his teeth in the firelight.

He jumped to his feet with a clap of his hands.

She flinched.

Shit. Shit. Shit.

God damn it.

The brunette laughed, rocking in glee, but he wasn’t the one Emma was concerned about.

“Silence, Gideon!” The taller man snapped, shutting his companion up in an instant.

She was Emma Swan. This was nothing. Nothing! She had experienced worse, and gotten out of it. She would get out of this too.

She steeled herself, and glowered at the man standing tall with his chest puffed out.

Those that thought they were better than they were – they were the ones to be wary of.

“Now,” he said cheerily, dusting his hands over his clothes before he began picking at his nails, again taking his time, “Where is she?”

If she could, she would have tilted her head and scrunched her face up to strengthen the confusion in her voice, “Who?”

He looked up from his nails, eyebrows dropping low. The irritation, the building anger was obvious, even as he covered it all with a smile. This one tighter than the last.

“This does not have to be hard.” He began pacing, before catching himself, “I know the truth. You know that I know the truth. Just tell me where she is.”

“I’m travelling on my own.”

“With no supplies? None of any use that is.” His words carried a hint of mocking laughter that had Emma gritting her teeth, “I just told you I know the truth, so lying is pointless.”

“Maybe the other one ran. Took their supplies?” The brunette said, eyes turned to the ceiling in thought, “Could be waiting somewhere?”

“Waiting? Do you not remember what she did?” He jabbed his finger towards her, scowling at his companion before scoffing, “Waiting somewhere.”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“The Princess, Mistress Swan.” He leant forward, any hint of a smile gone, “The Princess. I know the blow was not that hard. And you have had time to recover.”

“If I knew a princess I wouldn’t be wandering around the woods with little food and no equipment, would I? Do I look someone who keeps company with royalty?” She asked, a hint of bitterness staining her words, “I think I would be enjoying a life of comfort somewhere. Definitely not here.”

“Is that why you abducted her? To obtain a ransom and live well?” He drew closer, trying to hide the frustration that rose in his voice, “Did she run? Is that why you are on your own with practically nothing?”

Her jaw tightened, but she covered it well with a harsh laugh, “Do I look capable of kidnapping royalty? Is anyone? Seems pretty impossible to me.”

He moved closer, his legs just shy of brushing her own. His hands fisted at his sides and eyes hard.

Was there any point in continuing to insist she was someone else? He didn’t believe her, and there was no doubt in his words. He knew for certain who she was, somehow.

And, even if he didn’t, they couldn’t afford to let her go. She had seen them, could lead someone back there.

The more she insisted she was someone else, the more enraged he was growing. She couldn’t afford to sustain any more injuries. And she needed at least a little time to begin to heal, and time to think. She needed to keep her head as clear as she could. Another blow and any progress she had made would be lost – if there had been any.

“Tell me Mistress Swan.”

Her jaw twitched, battling with herself to force any words out, and when they came they were surprisingly slow and strong, “I don’t know where she is.”

His expression brightened, brief though it was, “So you admit who you are.”

“I haven’t denied it.”

“Not this time.” He rubbed at his bare chin, eyes not shifting from her, “Where is she?”

Emma sighed, dropping her head to soften the spike of pain in her head, and the heavy feeling of regret in her chest, “I told you.”

“Yes, yes.” His shoes disappeared from her vision, his steps drawing away before he dragged the chair closer. It creaked as he sat. She lifted her head as high as she could, feeling so very drained again, “You expect me to believe that.”

“I don’t know where she is.”

“You must.”

Her tingling fingers twitched, her eyes flickered shut, her teeth gritting as she tried to push back the flare of pain, “I helped her. Now she’s gone.”

“You expect me to believe she would leave behind riches to live in the woods?” He straightened with a laugh, “How do you expect that lie to fool me?”

“It is no lie.”

His face twisted, any trace of humour gone. He all but growled, leaning close again.

“We do not need you to be breathing, do you understand?”

With some difficult she swallowed. She slid her gaze to the brunette who still sat on the dirty floor, his eyes on his companion.

“They do not care what happens to you.”

Emma tried to snort, but the sound gurgled in her throat, “And take away their only hope at finding her?”

His smile stretched into a grin, his eyes glinting dangerously.

Damn it, Swan, damn it.

“So you do know?”

“No, I don’t.” She tried to shake her head but the action made her vision jump. She bit hard at her lip, her chest beginning to heave.

“But you just said – ”

“I know what I fucking said,” she spat, pins and needles shooting along her numb arms, “How else was I supposed to answer that threat?”

“If you’re this uncouth when they question you…” He trailed off into a dark chuckle, but in a flash he was inches from her face again, “They will not be as mild mannered as I. Never interrupt me again – or perhaps I will give you a hint of what they have in store for you.”

“They?”

“Why the soldiers of course. Once word has been sent, well, I am certain you will see.”

Word… soldiers…

Emma’s lips trembled in her effort not to gasp in a breath, the pain in her head swelling as her mind spun and vision swam.

Shit – shit –

“So, what, you were hired to find me?” She asked in a rush, anything to keep herself focused. Anything to pull her mind from darker places. Anything to distract herself.

“Now, why should I answer that?” He leant back in his chair, smug again.

But his words were enough on their own to trigger a suspicion.

“No then. Just got lucky, did you?”

“Presumptuous one, yet you will not be truthful when I ask it.”

Emma smiled, wobbly though it was.

No, not hired then. Just opportunists hoping to be paid well. That raised the question of how they found out – not that it mattered at the moment.

“I told you the truth, I don’t know.” She had to pause before her next words, trying to work some moisture into her dry mouth, “No point calling for anyone when they will fare no better.”

Not that there’s anyone who would care.

She needed to stay calm, bide her time, however little of it she had left, and wait for them to make a mistake. Opportunists were never too smart.

And yet, despite her earlier thoughts, she could not stop herself from trying to provoke him, “Where I’m from they would call you a churl.”

“Truly. That is your only response. I think you should have bigger things in mind. Like, what will your King do to you? What will your punishment be? Decidedly unpleasant if they are anything like ours.” He paused to laugh; a dark, malicious chuckle, “But considering how far… simpler Viadori is, I envision something far worse will await you.”

Emma shrugged as best as her bindings would allow, looking at some questionable patch on the far wall. He thought he could scare her? It was a fear long embedded in her being, she had lived with it for so long.

“I hear they have a particular predilection for needles and eyes. Something you will likely avoid if you simply tell us where your Princess is.”

Her gaze slipped down to the table, to the split plate there.

“Look at me when I’m talking,” he growled, catching her jaw and cheeks in a hard grip and twisting her head sharply to face him, pulling at damaged skin and causing her to cry out. He leant close, his hold not relenting even when she locked eyes with him.

“Tell me what you know.”

His fingers twitched, his rings digging into her skin. Her head spun from the pain, blinking rapidly as her vision blurred. Stubbornly she still tried to glare.

“I. Don’t. Know.”

A growl of frustration.

She couldn’t hold on anymore.

Chapter Text

Emma woke some time later, her confusion clearing faster than before. She sucked in a breath, but the action made the world begin to tilt again. Squeezing her eyes shut, she prayed for the disorientation to vanish. It did for the most part, but she wasn’t alone for long – barely a few moments to breathe easier, certainly not long enough to think – before the door opened. The shorter man was ushered in by the taller man with whispered words and hasty gestures.

Emma cursed weakly. For a moment there she thought she had a chance – some time by herself was just what she needed. Time to go over everything in her head, to get everything sorted into the right place; a moment to just think.

When the man didn’t speak, her head was thankful.

The tawny haired man dumped a suspiciously flat bag on the single rickety table, grabbed himself a bit of dried meat – huh, they had already gotten through her supplies then – and plopped himself down opposite.

He bit at the strip of meat, tugging with his teeth and chewing hard. The sound grated on her nerves. Emma swallowed with some difficulty, trying to block out the sounds and the insistence of her rumbling stomach.

He pulled a face, coughing a little after he swallowed, and seized a flask – her flask. He threw his head back and took a long drink. She wet her dry lips, reminded of her own thirst.

Forcing her thoughts away from the scratch in her throat was a challenge, but when Tawny turned to the cupboards at his back, considering something, the opportunity gave her something to focus on instead. It gave her a chance to test just how firmly she was bound.

She flexed her numb hands as best as she could, then tried wiggling her fingers, but pins and needles shot from her hands and up her arms. Her palms stinging from where her nails had unknowingly dug in.

She drew in a deep breath, brow furrowing painfully. Ready, she steeled herself, biting at her cheek as she endured the pain necessary to stretch her fingers. An agonising cry tried to tear from her throat, but she held it back and soldiered onwards until her fingertips just barely brushed the thick rope binding her.

Too tight. No leeway.

Her breath came out in a sharp burst, the pain continuing to shoot up her arms and radiate from her wrists even when she had relaxed.

Tawny glanced to her, but was soon distracted by something else.

There was a single positive in all this, she supposed. They didn’t know where Regina was.

She rolled her head, eyes snapping shut at the way the motion pulled at her head.

She didn’t know. They wouldn’t know.

Even if she did – they would still have gotten nothing from her.

Regina had to be alright. If they were asking these questions, if they were trying to find her, then that meant Regina was still free. She was still out there somewhere. Wherever she was she had to be safe. She would find sanctuary with or without her –

No. No –

She would get out of this. She would get out of this and find Regina and apologise – make amends for their last words to one another and then finally get across that damn border.

Finally, all would be well.

When they got there – all would be well.

Tawny’s attention was firmly on rummaging through a near empty cupboard, Emma tried flexing her wrists again, biting back a hiss at the way the rope rubbed against tender skin. Next came her arms, but that just made the pain in her wrists shoot up her arms once more, but further somehow, reaching even to her head and pounding temple.

Her legs were numb, just as her arms had been, she tried to rotate her feet. The flashes of rapid aches were easy to ignore in comparison to her other pains.

But the rope had no give at legs or wrists.

She swallowed, the action a struggle.

Her chin dropped forward, rested as close to her chest as she could manage. It did nothing for her head, but at least it didn’t make it worse.

The screeching of chair legs, however, did.

She lifted her eyes, not her head, to see that Tawny had dragged his chair closer to her – no, the fire.

Fire…

She squinted in thought, body protesting even that.

He hesitated, one hand on the back of the chair before realisation flashed across his face and he returned to the cupboard.

For all she knew, the other one could be sending word at that very moment. Doubtful perhaps, or maybe that was just her hoping, but he did seem invested in getting a location from her.

Ah, she thought bitterly, Two prices rather than one.

“Hey,” she called, her dry voice startling Tawny out of his search.

His large green eyes found hers, surprise clear but he said nothing, and she quickly realised he wasn’t about to any time soon.

“The whole no food and water thing is sort of helping, but nature’s still calling, you know?” At his continued stare she found it was a challenge not to let any anger slip into her voice, “I need to relieve myself, it has been…”

Trailing off, she hoped he would fill in the blanks. Naturally, he did not, leaving her biting back a sigh. This was not doing her any good, the verbal reminder making her discomfort somehow worse. That, and the thirst and the Godforsaken pain encompassing her head. It was only that knot of anxiety and panic in her chest that was keeping her somewhat focused. Well, that and hoping Regina was out there somewhere – knowing she was out there somewhere.

“Look, how do you expect me to cooperate when that is a pressing need? Surely you know what that’s like.”

He fidgeted, shifting from one foot to the other before shaking his head, “No, you’ll run.”

Emma scoffed, regretting it immediately when it made the throb in her head grow, “I can’t even feel my toes. All you have to do is untie my arms, retie them behind my back and then free my legs. I’m not going to get far like that, am I? And especially not with you nearby.”

He took a few cautious steps closer, his brow furrowing in what she hoped was consideration.

“Someone once told me that a little kindness can go a long way.” She prompted, the heavy weight in her chest stirring at the memory. “I’ll be more comfortable, and likely more willing to talk. And that’ll make your friend happy.”

She put as much desperation as she could into her expression, struggling through the pain of it in the hope that it would sway him.

He tilted his head, lips pursing – hopefully in pity. But then he shook his head again, and returned to his fruitless search, “No. You have to stay.”

She closed her eyes with a short, frustrated sigh. There was no devastation, she hadn’t expected it to work. But still, that was yet another failed attempt or aborted plan, and she might not have many opportunities left. Especially if they followed through on their threats. It almost made her wish her injuries were more severe –

What?

That thought startled something in her, triggered the flow of icy dread through her veins. That wasn’t her, she wasn’t one to give up or hope for such a dark thing.

You push back. You fight, like you always have. Her focus was on some rotting floorboard just before her feet, the puff of her chest pulling at persisting bruises. A reminder of the cliff, of Regina’s accusation that she had only leapt because she thought that it would kill them.

No, just desperation. She had been willing to fight, if Regina had not pulled her away she would have. Regardless of the risk.

The odds were certainly not in her favour here, the risk perhaps at its highest. She was as cornered as it was possible to be, and unable to do anything about it. Physically at least.

Let the copper haired man gloat and spew threats, let him uselessly continue to try to pry something she did not have from her – Hell let him send word.

Emma Swan wasn’t about to stand down.

 


 

The fire at her aching back verged on uncomfortable, but left her front cold. The dual sensations startling.

She cleared her throat, unable to turn her head to catch a proper glimpse of Copper.

“A drink would be nice.”

“Yes, I am certain it will,” he responded, though she soon realised it was not in regards to her.

He reappeared fully in her vision, hands folded at his back and pacing where she could not help but see him. His amber eyes were lifted in thought. All for show, though why she had no idea.

A cough racked her body, yanking painfully at her throat and head.

He lifted a hand rotating his wrist in a gesture of thought, “I’ve been going over it all in my head. Why abduct her only to part?”

Emma squared her jaw, eyes following his leisurely pace.

“I considered that perhaps she escaped you. But with a weapon at your side and a threat on your tongue that seems unlikely. No ransom was asked for – that we know of – so then it hit me.” He halted abruptly, jabbing a finger in her direction with a proud tilt of his chin, “Perhaps you realising how deep you had gotten, got rid of the evidence.”

She tried to remain silent, stern and unaffected, but at that cutting implication she faltered, blurting out a hoarse, “What?”

“Got rid of her?” He took another step towards her, his lips tilting up smugly, “Disposed of the evidence? Surely you need no more prompting than that.”

Her jaw tightened, but she refused to let her gaze tremble or slip away from his. Her numb hands curled into fists at her back, the scratch of the rope against raw flesh helping keep her focused.

“Perhaps you sold, made her an everyman’s wife.” He chuckled, a glint in his amber eyes, “No doubt lost the money, or perhaps you foolishly hid it somewhere.”

He clasped his hands together, bending slightly to lean menacingly closer, “Or maybe it all stemmed from jealousy. Jealousy for a life you wanted. Maybe you did help her as you said, but as a deceit. Waited until you thought you were safe, and then you plunged a knife through her chest. Oh I do wonder what they will do to you for that.”

For a brief moment, her teeth flashed in a sneer, hot rage building steadily in her chest. It was all she could do to hold it back.

“Oh,” he said with an edge of humour, “Not a knife, hmm? The sword perhaps, or a push off a steep cliff, perhaps you left her to die from a slow starvation in the Wilds. Or maybe something more personal. Perhaps you choked the life from her.”

She lurched painfully in her bindings, completely uncontrollably, twisting against the rope, the pain not registering, “I would never hurt her!”

If she was free – when she was free –

“Ah, there it is.” He grinned, rubbing his hands together as she slowly realised just what had happened. And though that realisation pressed down on her, the fury was raging, burning hot and unable to be extinguished, “Now, where is she?”

She glared, channelling all the rage and hatred she could into her eyes – even though she had the use of only one. Her heart pounded, blood rushed in her ears. She bit at her cheek to try to ground herself, refusing to say anything more.

“She is alive isn’t she?” He loomed closer, proud in his apparent victory, “Where is she?”

“I don’t know,” she growled.

“Oh, you think I will believe that?” He shook his head, eyes lit by humour, “We have been over this, again and again.”

“I don’t know,” she repeated, teeth gritted and a hint of metal on her tongue.

“So you did sell her?” He tilted his head, cupping his chin in thought, “To whom?”

When she didn’t respond, instead turning her hard gaze to some spot behind him, his face twisted with anger.

“Tell me.”

She worked her aching jaw, but continued staring straight ahead, barely even blinking.

“Look at me!” He seized the front of her tunic, leaning down so she had no choice but to obey him. His lips pulled back, showing his teeth, “Answer me! Where is she?!”

“I. Don’t. Know.”

He shoved her back, jarring her body. She again bit at the inside of her sore cheek, trying to cover up a pained cry.

And like that the anger vanished, a look of almost despondency on his face as he straightened.

“This could be so easy for us both.” He sighed and moved away from her before rummaging behind a cabinet. When he stood he held a bottle in one hand, and a peculiar expression on his face. Plucking a tumbler from a dusty shelf, he crept towards his abandoned seat before her.

“If this is some effort to save your hide. To buy yourself some more time,” he said calmly, sitting down and pouring himself a drink, “It is without a point.”

He lifted the glass to his lips, reminding Emma of her own thirst, but more importantly giving her an idea.

Maybe if he got drunk, he would try something stupid – stupider than he already had.

If – when she got free…

“I’ll just send Gideon with word, no… I’ll go myself.” He smirked proudly, “I’ll go myself and when word reaches them, well, the result will be the same no matter what you do.”

Emma shrugged, or gave a motion as close to one as she was able, her heart still thumping wildly.

“You really care so little for your life?” He laughed, his smile returning as he took another long sip. “Or are you simply that ignorant?”

He laughed again, the sound biting at Emma’s ears, much like how the rough rope bit into her wrists.

“Your king has two options. The prince has two options. You have two options. You tell us where the princess is, we find her and you are granted a quick painless death for treason. Or maybe lifelong imprisonment if you are cooperative – though whether that is better or not… well you might be able to answer that soon enough.” He leant back, crossing one leg over the other as he took his time continuing, “Or you don’t tell me, and you are handed to the king’s men – or the prince’s; matters little which. In either case, I am certain they have many ways to extract information from unwilling individuals, far more than the few I enlightened you with before.”

Her heart pumped heavily, sweat leaving her tunic damp. Beaten, starved, a desperate thirst, and bound so tight. What way out was there now?

“Is that where he is now?” A pointless question, but anything to distract her from the looming sense of impending doom. The enclosing feeling of entrapment. The feeling that this was it. After everything they had been through.

This is where it ended.

He chuckled, standing with bottle and glass in hand, “Clearly you have not been listening. I hope, for your sake, you at least paid attention to your options.” He strode away, feet heavy on the creaking floor. He placed the bottle and tumbler away before opening the door, a burst of cold air chilling her damp skin. “For that is what you should now be considering. Time is short. Any moment now they could come, and you with no hint of when.”

What did it matter, threat real or not?

Nothing they did, nothing any guards or knights did, would make her give Regina up – whether she knew her location or not.

She had survived on feigned hope once. Had still gripped tightly to the final thread of it even after she had long ago claimed to have dismissed it all. But she had grown up, had understood at last what a fool she had been and severed it.

Now was not the time for its re-emergence.

She was not giving up – she was accepting the reality of it all. Her heart calmed with that thought alone. The fear grew more manageable.

No matter what happened; Regina would be safe.

Regina would find protection.

Regina would be safe.

And they would never see her break or see her fear.

“Do what you wish.” She locked eyes with him, delighted in the way his pupils narrowed in anger, “There is nothing more to ply from me.”

Chapter Text

She must have passed out, or become completely consumed by her thoughts, for when she was next aware Tawny was rushing through the door. His face was creased, and his eyes darted around after he had shut the door.

She barely moved, her head still hanging low.

His boots scuffed at the floor, and he sighed as he dropped something on the table.

She lifted her chin slightly, catching sight of the table and his bag resting on it. He dropped himself down heavily in the only other chair, it creaked loudly, but still she didn’t bother to glance in his direction. That bag of his though… she narrowed her good eye at it, and caught a glimpse of something just barely peeking out.

Surely not…

Her gaze jumped to him, her vision wavering slightly at the sharp movement.

“Rabbit huh?”

He lifted his head, the meat partway to his mouth, “You can’t have any.”

Emma chuckled, the sound dry and broken, “I don’t want any. Too salty.”

He nodded, tearing off another mouthful as her aching stomach growled. When she was sure he was occupied, she slipped her gaze to the bag again, trying to identify the hint of the contents she could just about see in the dim light.

He chugged from her flask, but it was short-lived. He pressed his lips together tightly when he realised he had drained the last of its contents.

Was there much point being subtle with him? Her heartbeat sped up, her palms growing clammier. She didn’t know how much time she had left, she knew she had to do something.

Perhaps this was her chance.

The small chunk of rabbit was gone in three mouthfuls. Again Tawny sighed, his shoulders slumping as his gaze slid to the bag.

“What’ve you got in there?”

“Not for you.”

“Hey,” Emma drawled, “I’m just trying to not go mad with the silence, you know?”

He looked to her with narrowed eyes, tilting his head as if to study her. Emma smiled as best as she could, mocking though it was.

If he found what he was looking for, she wasn’t sure, but he looked away and to her surprise pulled what he had found – or brought, or otherwise obtained – from the bag.

Her right eye grew wide, disbelieving. But if someone offers you a gift, you do not question it lest it be snatched away. Her mind, though foggy and aching, sped along swiftly.

“Berries, huh?” She gave a nod, barely able to cover how it made her head spin, “Can be filling. Certainly helps with thirst.”

“For both of us.” She knew well enough by now that he was not referring to her. He placed the berries on the table. He hadn’t even plucked them free of their curling leaves.

“Didn’t stop you from squirreling that rabbit away, did it?”

She couldn’t see clearly, could barely recall her old lessons in her current state. All she could do was hope, what else was there? Even though it was something she swore she would never do again. Certainty was what she needed, but in this situation…

He wet his lips, a familiar glint of hunger in his eyes.

“A few won’t hurt – I doubt he will notice. It’ll keep you going.” She swallowed, her throat tight and aching. She was being too forceful – too obvious – but this could very well be her last chance. And he was not as… keen of mind as Copper.

He shook his head, sitting back in his unsteady chair.

And though her stomach dropped, her last ember of energy sapped, Emma shrugged as if she did not care either way, “Do what you want. Wouldn’t surprise me if he left you with nothing. He does hide that liquor from you.”

Tawny glanced to her, his brow a deep furrow. His gaze settled back on the berries, his tongue again peeking out to run over his lips.

Emma tried to remain reasonable. Tried not to let her heart jump with hope. Dared not to.

“Just a few,” he agreed.

She remained outwardly stern, but inside –

He had a little more food in his stomach than when she had eaten them, but hopefully the effect would be the same.

Thank you, Granny. Just the thought sent a pang of pain through her head and her heart, but she simply bit her tongue and tried to carry on.

He pried them messily from the leaves, crushing some in his haste before pushing them past his lips. She couldn’t recall how many she had eaten, yet again all she could do was hope he would have enough.

She just had to wait until they took effect, then… then she needed to get free somehow –

The last resort, she thought a little queasily. What other choice did she had left? Better that than… than the alternative. Than doing nothing but sitting there and waiting for the inevitable.

How long had it taken them to affect her?

She slid her eyes away, didn’t want to be too obvious.

Now, again she had no choice but to hope, this time that the other would not arrive back during her escape. Then again, if they swapped positions once more, Tawny would collapse out in the woods – that would still be one down. But more difficult for her.

Or better yet, if he returned soon then maybe Copper would eat the berries too. That would be the best option, two down in one go.

Every now and then her gaze would flicker to him, trying to notice any of the signs without being too apparent. Not that she could recall it all that well. But soon, he had moved from where she could easily see him.

It was hard to keep her focus, with her throat and stomach and head demanding attention, but that faint hope lifted her heart, helped keep her grounded despite everything.

She had no idea how long had passed, for there was nothing disturbing the silence but the spitting of the fire and the creak of his chair as he shifted. A sound that seemed to have grown in frequency now she thought about it. Her heart thumped harder, but she couldn’t chance a glance – for she would have to turn her head completely.

Her whole body was tense, waiting for a thud or some other sound to show it had taken effect.

Her heart skipped a beat when he cleared his throat and his boots thumped as he jumped to his feet.

Don’t be stupid, Swan.

He was pacing, moving agitatedly in and out of her view. Rubbing his palms on his trousers, swiping his sleeve across his brow. Too lost in his mind to notice how closely she now watched him, or the determination set on her face.

Her breaths came short and often, muscles bunched as she balanced on the very cusp of either failure or freedom.

He wavered, caught himself on the edge of the table. Even in the poor light she could see how all the blood had seemingly drained from his damp face.

There was no chance to take pride in it, she was too focused on what she needed to do next. She was already in pain, what harm would a little more do? She needed to do it. It was literally a do or die situation.

Still, her breath grew shorter, sweat beaded more heavily on her brow.

He stumbled, caught himself on the edge of the table. She leant forward as far as she could in her constricting bindings, tried to even her breathing.

The door opened.

Shit!

Her stomach dropped like a stone, her eye burning. She turned her head slightly away, but caught sight of Copper charging straight towards Tawny.

Wait…

“What have I told you?!” Copper snarled, seizing the smaller man by his collar, “Do not touch my liquor!”

So enraged he didn’t notice the leaves, or the suspicious absence of a bottle.

Tawny tried to answer even now, but the words were slurred and jumbled. Copper’s face creased, his lips pulling back and his brow dropped low.

Emma straightened as best as she could, muscles tense with a fresh surge of energy. Perhaps this wasn’t the end of her plan after all.

“You are not even going to try to answer me? Blasted drunkard.” He tried to shove the shorter man away but Tawny had a tight hold of his lapel, he tried to speak even as his knees began to buckle, “I should have cut that thieving hand of yours off the first time.”

His arm shot back, hand curled into a tight fist. Emma held her breath, waiting for the sharp impact.

It didn’t come.

Copper cursed, retching quick to follow.

He succeeded in sending the smaller man sprawling across the floor, his horrified gaze dropping to the vomit staining his coat.

“You bastard,” he squawked, mouth open in absolute revulsion.

She was unable to hold back her laugh, crackly and weak though it was. Maybe she was losing her mind.

His gaze snapped to her, his shoulders rigid, “What are you laughing at?”

The chance to provoke him made her laugh fall more freely, still trickling from her lips even when he was before her, his eyes blazing.

“Something pitiful.”

Like the snapping of a twig he lurched forward, sudden and sharp, he had the neck of her tunic in a fist, his face a breath from her own. The stench clinging to his front burned her nose, but kept her in the moment.

“I’ve had enough of you!” He barked, “Enough of this!”

Unfazed, Emma scoffed even as a sense of dread wormed its way around her heart, “You certainly aren’t on your own in that.”

He growled in pure frustration and shoved her back, his rings pressing hard into her sternum and jarring her sores. She gritted her teeth hard enough to ache, useless hands forming numb fists.

“I am almost disappointed I will not get to see what they will do to you. What they will use to pry the truth from your traitorous tongue,” he sneered, a familiar glint in his eyes, “It will not take much longer now. They cannot be far away.”

She shook, but not from fear, so blinded was she that she couldn’t tell if he spoke the truth or a lie.

“I do wonder what state the princess is in. What will that do when they see what you have done to her.”

Unthinkingly, fuelled only by the heat that scorched beneath her skin, Emma slammed her head forward.

The impact stole her vision, nearly consumed her with pain. By instinct alone she threw herself back, the pain from that not registering nor even the heat of the fire at her wrists.

Gasping for breath she fought to regain her vision and clarity. Everything wavered, dancing like a mirage. She was on her side, had thrown herself further back than she thought possible. Too far. Pain finally registered in her hands, her arms, searing and panic inducing. She twisted, chest heaving for breath as she pulled and pulled at her bindings, frantic to get away from the fire – frantic to get free before her hands –

Before it was too late!

Copper struggled to stand from where he had keeled over, red staining his brow and his face twisted in rage. A mockery of a laugh left his lips as his gaze landed on her.

“Trying to burn yourself alive,” he spat, approaching her a little unbalanced. He grabbed her shoulders, tearing a cry from her lips as he dragged her and the chair forward by that hold alone, “So desperate to escape them are you?”

The world flickered in and out of existence, like jagged broken pieces that didn’t quite fit. Her pulse was a hard beat in her neck, echoed in her ears –

It couldn’t end like this! It wouldn’t end like this!

With a shout that was equal parts rage and distress she felt her bindings finally break, blind to the pain in her hands she lurched forward and rammed her shoulder into his stomach as hard as she could.

He fell back with a surprised cry, the impact jarred them both, before she could suck in a breath a hard grip seized her shoulders, threw her weakened form to the side. She barely had enough time to register him looming over her, a weight pressing down before his fist shot down on an old wound.

Her breath slipped from her grasp, leaving her aware of nothing but darkness and sharp, painful flashes.

She flailed, though she was unaware if her body was even responding, fighting and clawing her way out of the darkness, desperate not to lose hold of that last grip she had on consciousness.

Distantly she heard a shout. Felt an impact on her knee, again on her fist a split second later, the weight was gone. Wide, panicked eyes beneath her.

She slammed her fists forward, the pain a faint, insignificant feeling. Again and again and again.

Each sickening smack urging her own, rage tearing from her throat in indecipherable words.

Her vision stained red, her teeth gritted hard. He twisted his head away, breaking her stride.

Her hands clamped down on his neck, squeezed with all her might, he scratched at her hands, tried to pry her hold from his throat.

His eyes dimmed, his struggles and hits grew weaker and weaker.

He gurgled, the sound a faint rumble against her fingers.

Life leaving, like it had –

Regina.

Her hold broke. His head dropped to the side, the impact loud in the sudden silence of the cabin. Her chest rose and fell rapidly, her breaths fast and ragged. She struggled to her feet, the world tilting as she staggered forward, desperate not to let her unfeeling legs crumble. Desperate to push back her realisation.

The floor rushed up to meet her, a pained cry wrenched from her lips. She tried to scramble forward, but something held her back.

She twisted, crying out as she kicked at the hand on her ankle. Stomped again and again until the Tawny screamed cradling his hand to his chest.

She fought her way to her feet, collapsed against the table with a heaving chest.

Don’t stop now.

Her mouth tasted like blood. She lurched forward for her sword, swung it back, one hand on the table for balance, but the two men were in heaps on the floor.

Can’t stop.

She snatched the bag, scooped everything she could into it. Tripped towards the exit, paused only to retrieve the bottle from behind the cabinet, and yanked the door open and ran.

 


 

She ran, even as her vision blurred in and out.

She ran even when she tripped and the agony she felt flared.

She ran until she collapsed to her knees and could not push herself back to her feet.

She rolled onto her back, rose up on her hands and struggled back until she was nestled in the roots of a tree. Her head dropped forward, her chest rising and falling – each breath painful.

She barely had the energy to pull the bag to her chest. She swallowed, parched and starving and mouth swollen from where her teeth had bit at her cheeks and tongue.

Her body felt light, as if she were less solid than she appeared, she shook, panting, opened her eyes to finding everything swimming.

Alarmed she lurched forward – only to lose it all.

Chapter Text

She came to slowly. Was almost afraid to open her eyes.

Birds. She could hear birds. And the wind through the leaves.

The pull of sleep was heavy, but her determination was stronger.

Her brow twitched, one eye fluttering open. She tried to open the other, it jarred, tearing a sharp cry from her.

Emma caught her breath, and gingerly brushed her fingertips across her hot puffy cheek and further still to the solid swelling of her eye. Even that light touch shot pain through her head.

Shit… It seemed worse than before. Greatly so.

With a groan Emma leant forward, letting go of her sword. She must have been clutching it in her sleep. It hit her hip oddly, and when she twisted her head to see, she realised it was not her sword, but a bottle she had held in a painful grip.

Using the thick roots beside her for support, she found her way to her feet, even though her hands stung with protest. She bent down and retrieved the bottle, stumbling as she stood.

When the world ceased spinning, she closed her teeth around the cork in the bottle and pulled. It moved, but broke in her mouth. She spat out the pieces, the taste like rot, and tried again.

This time it came away, she threw what was left of the cork aside and lifted the bottle to her nose.

“Foul stuff,” she hissed, the smell overpowering and lingering, burning in her nose.

Though her thirst had yet to be sated, she knew what stuff like this would do. And knew what it would do to an empty stomach and dry mouth. Besides, she needed a clear mind.

She lifted her left hand, unsurprised at the damage she saw there. She may not have seen it before, but she certainly felt it. She pressed her lips together hard and poured the liquid over the rope burns on her wrist, over her split knuckles. She repeated the process on her right, tears now running from the corners of her eyes and her teeth cutting into her cheek.

She longed for a reprieve, a break before she used the last of it, but if she did that her resolve would wither.

With shortened breath and stinging skin, she closed her good eye and tipped the bottle over her right.

Her scream pierced the air.

 


 

Though the flint and stone remained heavy in her pocket, she avoided making any fires, even as her shivering grew.

It had already been a day but her right eye now opened at a near squint. The liquor had done wonders.

The mountains had to be near, though the increasing denseness of the trees made it impossible to tell.

Regina kept her going. Even just the thought of her. She had not been captured, not by those that trailed them at least.

There was no hint of just how long had passed during her capture. Or what that could mean.

She couldn’t stop.

She needed to find her.

She gripped the hilt of her sword, but snatched her hand back, wincing at the pain in her swollen knuckles. She shook her hand as if that would make the pain flee faster, she eventually settled for resting her palm on top of the hilt instead. The bag knocked against her leg annoyingly with almost every step, but she had no choice but to tie it in place until she could hold the strap properly.

The trees seemed taller, her vision shorter, the ground littered with more obstacles, as if it was all taunting her. As if it was all purposefully trying to make her journey harder – nonsense she knew, yet she could not shake that irrational thought.

The ridiculousness at the forefront of her mind was certainly better than the alternative.

She tripped, but caught herself before she hit the ground.

“Damn it,” she hissed, she had thrown her arm forward and halted her fall, but the impact had shot up her arm, had made her wounds throb once more. Or brought her attention back to the pain. Her gaze dropped, landing on the broken and bruised skin of her knuckles.

She scrambled back to her feet, leaves crunching beneath the toes of her boots.

She hadn’t killed him.

She marched onwards.

At least she didn’t think she had.

She was certain they had both still drawn breath when she had run – but the whole thing was a blur, a fractured and broken blur.

I’m sure I didn’t…

Her breath left her in harsh huffs as she struggled to climb up a small incline, wincing as she gripped at the trunk and low branches of a tree in order to pull her way up.

But I could have… I would have…

She swallowed, her throat tight.

At the top of the incline she hunched over, hands on her knees as she pulled in sharp breaths, her head swirling with a familiar lightness.

She couldn’t stop.

She pressed on, even though her body begged for a respite.

She understood now – Regina’s words from so long ago, of her reaction when she told her she had killed a bandit.

Regina had done it to save them. And she had done it to save herself.

Yet that knowledge did not make it any easier. It didn’t lift the shock or horror that came from the realisation that she would have choked that man to death – yet it was not for him she felt sorrow. She couldn’t care less what happened to him.

No, it was some selfish sense of… what, protecting her own soul?

What a load of crap!

Crap, or something else altogether, it nestled in her chest regardless. It rested at the front of her mind, but surely only from the freshness of it all. It had only been, what? A day more or less.

With time it would vanished, fade as she pushed it back.

And… at the end of the day, he deserved it. Deserved worse. He deserved to suffer.

I would do it again if I had to.

The light filtering through the trees glimmered in the distance, her heart beat harder, suspicion becoming certainty as staggered closer. A bubbling brook, she could almost laugh if her throat was not so dry.

Still, she hesitated. She needed to continue on, but God was she thirsty. Her mind ached, conflicted, yes she needed to keep moving. But at the expense of her own needs? Her own basic needs?

She shook her head and dropped hard to her knees.

She needed this. Needed it far more than food. And it would keep her going.

A brief stop – to fill her flask and continue on.

She drank greedily directly from the source, uncaring that most of the water slipped through her fingers and wet her chin and clothes. When she had a few hurried gulps, she retrieved her flask from the bag, washing it beneath the water before filling it. She drunk from that until she almost felt queasy, the water settling oddly, as if it had rose in the back of her throat and the slightest bump would cause it to come spilling forth. And though she knelt almost in the water, she refused to look at the surface, refused to see her reflection.

The thought made her feel sicker.

“How far can a one-eyed fellow travel? Oh, we might find out.”

She choked, nose burning as the water escaped her that way, her heart thumping as panic shot through her, and yet somehow through it all she still found her way to her feet, and was still able to spin around – even as the world tilted.

“I would have come calling sooner, but you were a little, hmm… preoccupied.”

Was there really no damn respite?

It leant against a tree, no more than a couple of paces away, its arms crossed and that terrible smile on its lips.

“Leave us alone, demon,” she snarled, hand curled tight around the hilt of her sword despite the pain.

It tutted at her, only the glint of amusement in its eyes preventing the disappointment in its voice from ringing true, “Continue like that and you’ll open old wounds.”

Her grip shook, yet the pain barely registered.

“You look weary, dearie, have you considered a rest?”

“Leave us be!” She growled, fumbling terribly in her attempt to draw her sword. The frustration like fuel to her burning rage.

“Us?” It giggled, light dancing in its eyes, “Truly delirious, aren’t you? Not that I find that so unexpected.”

It snickered, but before Emma could react, it was continuing, teeth shown in an exaggerated grin.

“Always struck me as sweet of the tooth.” She started, unable to stop herself from stepping back as it gestured with a flourish, a dark cloud of magic flashing above its palm. It held out its arm, a pastry resting on its palm, “Consider it a helping hand.”

Emma tried not to twitch, tried not to wet her lips as the wind shifted, bringing the scent of almonds and apples to her.

The demon’s grin widened at the gurgle of her stomach, but if there was one thing she was good at, it was remaining steadfast when faced with temptation.

“What do you want?” She growled, body still tense in preparation, her wounds and bruises pulled agonisingly taut. The edges of her vison blurred, her stance just barely wavering, but she was not about to relax.

It rolled its inhuman eyes, its expression overdramatic, and threw the food to the side. It vanished before it hit the ground.

“As I said, Little Swan.” It bowed graciously, though she knew it to be a trick, an act, “I am here to offer a helping hand.”

“I want nothing from you.”

“Ah.” It straightened, waving a gnarled finger at her, its voice lifted even higher by a sudden singsong tone, “I know where she is.”

“Don’t you dare go near her!”

“I mean only to help you.” It giggled, smile stretching as it snapped its fingers together, “I can take you to her just like that.”

That made her pause, made her gaze waver and her throat tighten further. A bead of sweat rolled down her face, catching in her eye.

Cora had appeared in a flash of magic. Regina had disappeared in one… it was no lie…

Its words meant that Regina was truly out there somewhere in the vastness of the world. Her thoughts had been right. She only wished the rest would be too. Unless this was more trickery, unless it was trying to deceive her further –

The demon tilted its head, lifted a brow as a titter spilled forth from its lips.

“Stunned into silence? Now I never expected that from you.”

“I will never take anything from you!” She bellowed, anger painfully creasing her face as the shock vanished. Her heart pounded hard behind her ribs, again her body failed her in her attempt to draw her sword.

“Even if it… ah, saved her?”

She wavered, her skin like ice and her fingers twitching –

It was lying – that’s what it did. Lying to trick her. To deceive her to get… to get whatever it was it wanted. It was pressing at bared nerves just to provoke a reaction.

Regina – she would find her by herself. She knew she could. She knew she would.

Then why did its words not feel like a lie?

“Go back to the Pits, Demon.”

“Perhaps she will be more willing to listen – ”

She lurched forward, lips pulled back to bare her teeth, “You go near her and I’ll kill you!”

It laughed. Laughed even harder when her hands curled tight, sending pain shooting up her arms.

You kill me?” The demon’s hand fluttered over its non-existent heart, its monstrous face pulled into such a level of fake shock that she barely stopped herself from slamming her fist into it, “Oh, where did all the fear go, Little Swan?”

She charged, her arm pulled back, but dark smoke stung her eyes, burned at her nostrils, and she fell hard to her knees.

Chapter Text

Regina swirled her spoon in her bowl, trying to find the elusive ‘lamb’ the dish was said to contain.

You fool, Regina, she cursed in a voice that did not sound like her. There she was complaining about the quality of the so-called stew when her real concern was far more pressing. She adjusted her grip on her spoon, stretching her fingers briefly to shake of the stiffness in them.

The fingers of her free hand drifted up, pressing briefly against the ring hidden beneath her tunic.

She was there for Emma, or so she hoped. And that was why she was subjecting herself to such stress. It was why she was sitting in a loud room that was thick with the stench of stale smoke and ale. Why she was still staying in a room where each night she shoved a rickety chair against the door because she had no faith in the lock. Why she spent every hour of light searching along the road and few streets. Why she was always looking.

She lifted her spoon, but the contents fell from it due to the unsteadiness of her hand. She placed it down, just for a moment, and slipped her hand beneath her cloak to clutch the small figure she kept there. Simply closing her hand around it seemed to help ease her nerves.  

She had not let on that the coin exchanged that day was the last of it, nor allowed them to see her unease – or the rising tide of panic beneath the surface. At least some of her lessons were useful out here.

It had been yet another day with no sign, and the night had fallen so rapidly.

The day was partway through when she began regretting not taking her meal in the morning. Perhaps if she had she would have been able to cover more ground faster, perhaps she would have at the very least been able to feel as if she had accomplished something. And perhaps she would have been more alert.

“I could get you something better to eat.”

Her surprise was hidden well, barely giving so much as a twitch of her hand at a man’s sudden appearance at her side. She released the figure, but let her hand drop to rest near her hip – and the hilt tucked away there.

“I am quite the marksman,” he boasted, but she kept her head down, hoping he would leave her be, “I can fell a beast, we could have a real meal outside. Far more impressive in fare and atmosphere than here.”

Her gaze slipped to him, a cold glare sent his way, but he barely even blinked at it. If anything his smile simply grew further, as if encouraged.

“Not one for talking?” He chuckled, pulling a chair out to drop beside her, “Is that why you’ve been alone for the last few days?”

She shot him a sharp look this time, her skin prickling, but again the blonde haired man was oblivious.

“You have been watching me?”

“How can a true man not?” He grinned, “You capture all the attention in the room. Perhaps I have even delayed my journey in the hopes of sharing a drink with you.”

“Nonsense.” She scoffed, her already pitiful hunger fleeing her completely, “I have met men like you before, so full of yourselves you cannot see beyond your nose.”

“And yet despite your harshness I still wish to buy you a drink.” Coin clinked against the surface of the table, as if to prove his words were true, “Worry not, we can stay right here.” 

She was in half a mind to retreat, to return to her room, and yet she remained where she was. Heavyhearted and drained.

When was the last time she had partaken in a conversation? With someone beside Rocinante? Even if said conversation was with a pompous fool it still felt tempting. And it certainly felt like an age since her last one.

And… and a drink... had it not helped her before? Had it not helped to dull and soften the edges of her pain and her anguished mind when she had been trapped in that palace with Prince Conway?

Had it not helped ease the suffering some –

Perhaps… perhaps just one. It would help, would it not? It would help to soothe her frayed mind and her desperate worries. It would help to steady her nerves.

She could have one, and then send the man on his way. They would both get what they wanted, him a moment of her time, and her with some relief.

“I…” She hesitated, considering a moment, her heart beating sharply as if ashamed that she had grown so desperate. But, it was something. Something to ease the pain, for tomorrow she was leaving. Tomorrow she would have no choice but to continue on. Tomorrow she… she would have to accept that Emma was not coming. That she was gone. Perhaps forever – she continued before a sob could escape her, turning her mind from the harshness of her thoughts, “I think I would rather like one.”

 


 

A small stream trickled down from the white capped mountains. She crouched down to clean her face, the frigid water like a shock to her body, but she was refreshed by it all the same, even as it burned at her pinkened skin. There was no avoiding her reflection this time, the emotion it brought forth roiled in her gut.

She prodded the tender skin around her temple with a wince. Perhaps it was slightly better than it had been, or perhaps it was much the same, either way, it took her mind away from her previous thoughts.

Standing, she bit back a groan, the muscles in her legs burning even now. There was no possibility of looking respectable, which made her shoulders tense further and raised the hairs on the back of her neck. She had strode into a town before, far larger than this, but she had not been there to search or linger. Now, alone, dishevelled, an unknowing foreigner, it made the need to run and hide stir demandingly in her chest. It was safer that way.

She glanced to the only building she could see, spotted a young woman washing clothes in the last light of day.

But the town had been her target this whole time. It sat before the only way into The Wealds, and Regina might be there somewhere. A part of her was hopeful that she had remained there despite her… delay. The other part prayed Regina had moved on – stayed safe. They could always reunite at their goal. But that small dark ember within her still smouldered, still spoke of Regina’s capture despite what she had learned – her captor may have been truthful, but she could not trust what that demon said.

Or, that ember spoke, perhaps she had been abandoned again

“Regina’s not like that,” she growled beneath her breath as she started walking.

She squinted painfully, realising she was talking to herself.

First sign of madness.

There was no guarantee Regina was even in the town, no guarantee she would even know where to go even if she was out there –

Emma slammed her fist into the side of her thigh, squeezing her eyes shut and drawing in a ragged breath. She had made her decision. There was no changing that now.

And it was for the best. She would owe that thing nothing. Even if it cost her.

She just prayed it had not done as it had claimed and gone to Regina instead, she would never forgive herself if –

God! There she was again! No, this wouldn’t cost her. Or Regina – it was taunting her that was all. Whatever it wanted would surely be a far heavier cost. And – and she had made her decision for God’s sake. Shit, why couldn’t she stop thinking about it?!

She shouldered her bag despite the pain and shook her head, picking up her pace. She had slowed when consumed by her thoughts, and that was no good. There could be no time for hesitation.

She had to trust in what she had done. She had to trust that somehow – someway – it would work out for them. That they would meet again, no matter how unlikely it truly was.

Passing the washerwoman, she considered asking if she had seen anyone fitting Regina’s description, but thought better of it and increased her pace again. The less attention the better, even if it did make her task harder. Border towns likely had a high number of people passing through anyway, the likelihood of remembering one in detail was slim.

If Regina is even here.

She shook her head, a minuscule yet painful action.

Damn it Swan.

She reached the building she had spotted in the distance and skirted around it to reach the road. She glanced around, spotted a few signs and short streets, but nearly everything was built around the road itself. Of course, it was a thoroughfare.

She passed another house, opposite a building with dried meat hanging outside. There were plenty of people around, some bartering with those outside of shops – or what she took to be shops – others sat on the steps of houses or were offering to tend to travellers’ horses, or fix their gear, or to trade.

Were all border towns like this?

None bothered her, perhaps due to the state of her clothes or her marred face. Perhaps all her concerns had been mostly unfounded, that didn’t mean she was about to change tactics, however.

Besides, just because you can’t see someone doesn’t mean they are not watching.

Night was coming swiftly, the number of people dwindling quickly, the road growing emptier.

Just what I needed, she thought bitterly, but there was no chance of her waiting until dawn.

Still, everything provided an opportunity if you knew where to look. A woman selling hard, heavy loaves of bread was packing the leftovers away in a basket by the time Emma reached her. She brushed past the stall, pocketing a couple of rolls.

They were dry, more than a day old, but she had water now and a longstanding hunger. She ducked in between two houses, eyes on the road and everyone that passed by as she took greedy bites out of the first roll. It scratched at her throat a little, made her cough roughly, but it was still the best thing she had eaten in a long time. To no surprise.

She pocketed the second roll as she left the alley.

What was she even hoping to accomplish by treading the road? If Regina was there she could be in any of the buildings…

No… not any.

She started looking around more intently, spied more people ahead travelling in the same direction even though they were not together. A good sign. She followed them, until a peculiar, yet familiar movement caught her eye in the shadow of the building ahead. Her suspicion was confirmed as she sped up and drew closer. A few horses were tied up beneath a shelter attached to the leaning building.

Emma tilted her head, squinting, the action pulling at her damaged skin painfully.

Surely not…

She closed the distance, just a pace away from touching the horse on the far end.

It… no…

“Rocinante?”

The horse lifted his head, ears snapping forward as he nickered at her.

“Rocinante!” Emma spread her arms, ignoring baffled looks by a few passersby as she laughed, when she was within reach she patted his side and ran hand over his neck in greeting.

He immediately nudged at her head, tail swishing.

“I can’t believe it…” She whispered, cheeks aching with her smile.

But if he was here… could that mean Regina was too?

Or had someone found him in their discarded camp? Had stolen him and just so happened to head this way.

At this point, anything was feasible.

She looked to the building he was tethered outside, not having taken it in before.

A tavern?

As if on cue, a man stumbled out the door, another appeared in his steps shouting obscenities after the first.

Oh definitely a tavern.

Well. It certainly was the place to go for gossip and advice, she had told Regina as much herself. And it was exactly what she was looking for.

God – her stomach fluttered, her heart rate speeding up – Regina could be in there.

Or a horse thief. She shouldn’t be getting her hopes up, not now.

No. Her gaze returned to Rocinante, her smile a small grin now, Regina is definitely in there. I just know it.

“That ain’t your horse.”

Emma jumped back, the ostler appearing with a lantern from wherever it was where he kept watch, his face grim. His eyes dropped for a second, taking in the dark stains on her tunic.

“My mistake,” she said simply, dipping her head as the large man’s hard eyes bored into her, “I’ll take my leave.”

“You better.”

She nodded at him, the action jarring, and hastened towards the entrance to the tavern. An eagerness in her step, even as she felt the ostler’s gaze following her. There was little chance he believed her lie, but she had no choice but to take a chance that he wouldn’t alert the guards. Not that she had seen any, but her mind and gaze had been on other things.

The tavern door was still blocked by the shouting man, who now glared in the direction the other man had gone. She took the few steps quickly, hoping that would prompt him to do more than stand and sway. Unfortunately not, he remained, though his bleary gaze now rested on her.

“W’at?”

“I need to get inside.” Her voice had grown strained, pulled taut by both an eagerness and a waning patience.

“Won’t let it stand,” he babbled, nearly sending Emma toppling when he charged past her.

She managed to catch her balance on the step below, heart hammering due to a flash of panic and the flare of pain it caused. She growled out a curse, took the steps again, and pushed through the door.

It was the smell that hit her first, the stench of ale and smoke and unkempt bodies. The noise had her head beginning to throb already, her gaze darted around, her body tense from just how many people had crammed into the place.

Not like Viadori. She slipped past two bulky men sharing tales in low voices, past another drunkenly trying to sing, and nearly crashed straight into a serving girl with dark circles under her eyes and a drawn in face.

“Sorry,” she said as she steadied the tray, though she was paying little attention to that or the protest from her damaged hands. There was a response, but she didn’t hear it as she had already caught sight of dark hair and was hit hard with familiarity.

It was as if the crowd had parted for her, though logically she knew that was not the case. Her heartbeat quickened, solid beneath her breast, so hopeful even as a creeping doubt rose.

Dark hair was not uncommon. Many people braided theirs. It could be any woman.

She stopped a pace or two away, her voice barely a croak, “Regina?”

And yet she heard.

Regina twisted in her seat, a cautious – hopeful? – shine in her eye.

Emma smiled, tired yet genuine, her voice taking on a nervous high lilt, “Hi.”

“Emma?!” Regina jumped up, the chair crashing to the floor in her rush to fling her arms around her.

“Hey – ” She was silenced by the desperate press of Regina’s lips against her own. Someone cheered, another shouted something she couldn’t comprehend.

“Re – Regina?” Emma pulled back, face burning, “Not here,” she uttered, but Regina was still eagerly following her, her smile lopsided and eyes bleary.

Oh. Emma managed to slip a hand between them, resting it firmly against Regina’s clavicle. It worked, though her face was still close enough that she could feel each breath against her lips.

Emma wet her lips, eyebrows raising jarringly when she recognised the taste of cheap ale. And now she thought about it, she could smell it on her too.

“You’re drunk?” It hadn’t meant to leave her as a question, nor sound so baffled, but it was a query that Regina didn’t acknowledge anyway. She did pout, though, when Emma untangled herself from her hold. She stayed close, however, with a hand at Regina’s back.

“I thought I lost you…” she breathed, a little unsteady on her feet. Ale and an empty stomach never mix well – or perhaps Regina had drank more than she ought.

“I’m not that easy to get rid of.” Emma grinned, though her voice wavered, “I take it you have a room?”

Regina nodded, eyes fluttering shut when she did. But that didn’t stop her from using the hand at her back as an excuse to draw close.

“Careful.” Emma winced, her utterance twofold with the very public place they were in and her sore and bruised skin.

“Oh, oh,” Regina was muttering, the tips of her fingers skimming over her cheek, “You’re hurt.”

She managed to pull away slightly, picked up the bag she had dropped, and guided Regina to a thankfully empty nearby table.

She needed a moment to think, to absorb everything. They both did she suspected. They only made it a few steps.

“Wait.”

Emma clenched her jaw, oblivious or perhaps used to the pain it caused, but stopped regardless, looking first to the hand on her shoulder then to the man it belonged to.

“What?” She snapped, shrugging off his hold.

He seemed startled at first, from her words or face she didn’t know nor care. Perhaps it was even from the sword at her hip. He regained his composure quickly.

“The Lady and I were sharing a drink.”

Emma narrowed her eyes, the pain growing but not enough for her to stop.

“We have an arrangement,” he continued, his lips pinched, “A drink for some time.”

“And?”

He gestured to the small table behind him, and the contents, “We had only just begun this drink.”

Emma snorted.

“I think she’s had enough.”

Regina nestled further into her side, her face flushed.

“You are welcome to join us… though you would have to purchase your own drink,” he offered, though he appeared to grimace at the thought. Or maybe that was what passed as a smile for him.

“I’m not in the mood for a drink.”

“She owes me.”

Forget sitting. She moved from the table, starting towards the stairs she could see through the crowd, growling out a warning, “Back off.”

She shot him a sharp look, he shrank back, but was still pig-headed enough to take a step after them.

“I owe you nothing.”

Emma almost stumbled, caught off-guard by Regina’s steady, cool voice. That was one she had not heard for a very long time, and it was remarkably sober.

Regina glanced to the man, lifting her chin high even though her eyes were still glazed. His severe frown deepened, but he reluctantly returned to his seat, relieved to see their abandoned drinks had not be swiped.

They resumed their walk.

Chapter Text

“It wasn’t a dream...”

Emma opened her eyes slowly, her entire body sluggish.

Not a dream indeed, she managed to think even though her mind lagged behind.

Their noses were almost touching, the cramped single bed having barely enough room for just one of them.

“What happened?” Regina all but breathed. Emma tilted her head into her touch, her eyes closing at the brush of Regina’s fingertips along her jaw.

“You appeared to have drank too much and – ”

“Before that.” Regina frowned, her gaze carrying a fretfulness Emma had never seen there, nor ever expected to see. Regina’s gaze flickered over her face, taking in every little detail or so it seemed – or as much detail as she could see in the little light available in the room. “After we were… separated.”

Emma’s throat bobbed with a hard swallow, her gaze darted away to the bare wall opposite, that urge to run surfacing in her chest. She forced herself to stay still, however it was not easy and left her fighting against herself. And though she remained, her gaze stayed firmly fixed on what appeared to be a dark patch on the wall.

Regina cupped Emma’s good cheek, caressing her hot skin with her thumb. She was careful of the bruises, her touch leaving Emma’s skin tingling in its wake.

A clattering of pans rose from beneath them, tearing a groan from Regina’s lips and stilling her touch. Emma smiled, with more than a little pain, and brushed her lips across Regina’s clammy forehead.

“Room for the least coin, huh?”

Regina nodded, her eyes slipping closed with a pained pinch of her lips.

And though Emma could easily slip back into the slumber she so desperately needed, she sat up, feet bare against the rough wood of the floor.

There was barely enough room to stand beside the bed, not that she could even attempt to. Regina’s arm circled around her waist as soon as she sat up, gripping tightly to her stained tunic, as if she feared that if she were to let go, Emma would disappear like smoke in the sky.

Emma glanced out of the rotten window, not surprised to see nothing more than brick. At least there was glass, and enough space between the buildings to allow some light in – though it made gauging the time difficult, it was likely later than she would have liked. Her nose twitched, the smells from the kitchen below were both a boon and a curse. Her stomach gave a growl, someone shouted from down the hall, and Regina pressed closer to nuzzle against her back.

Eventually the strong grip around her loosened. Emma let Regina sleep, and though her own eyes and body ached she could not bring herself to do the same. She found their saddlebag beneath the bed, her brow furrowing uncomfortably when she did, it could not have been easy to get it up there. She found her spare set of clothes in it, washed herself with the water from a dented jug she found on the floor, and changed out of her bloodstained tunic and dirt covered trousers. She would wash them when the chance arose.

She repositioned herself against the headboard, and tucked the ratty blanket and… her cloak she realised, her heart beating that little bit faster, around Regina.

Sometime later, when Regina woke, she still looked at her as if she could not quite believe she was there, and in truth, Emma couldn’t believe it either.

The room came with one meal a day, Emma didn’t expect much and was not disappointed. A bowl of stew that was more water than meat, and a piece of day old sopping bread. Even so, she savoured it like a feast. They shared the meal, and hoped no one would come check the room for it had only one paying guest, and only one there should be.

Regina’s gaze kept lingering on her swollen eye, the healing cuts and bruises, but Emma avoided her questioning eyes.

Regina looked healthy, though perhaps a tad weary, and that made Emma’s heart shed some of the pressure constricting it. And though she knew it would have been wise to have left as soon as they were able, Emma made herself calm and chose not to rush. They both needed a moment to breathe.

Later they sat in the cramped area at the front of the bed, feet almost touching the door, a stub of a candle giving them a little more light than the window was providing them. They pressed close with their thick cloaks wrapped around them, and she listened keenly as Regina told her of what she had gone through. About the group that had found her, and how even though they had seen through her guise they had still helped her.

It didn’t sit right with Emma. People don’t just help others for nothing. But when she asked if Regina had told them where they were destined for, Regina had said no, and that made her feel a little better about it all.

“But how did they know who you were?” Emma asked, resting her good cheek against Regina’s shoulder.

“Oh.” She felt Regina swallow, but it was the tension in that single word that had Emma lift her head from her comfortable spot, “They had something.”

Emma lifted her brow, fighting back a hiss when it pulled at her damaged skin. Regina paused to trail her fingers comfortingly over the side of her face, successfully distracting her from the pain, before she pulled away. With some effort, she retrieved their saddlebag from under the low bed and rooted through it, her eyes narrowed in concentration before finally she pulled a rolled up scrap of parchment from within it. Though when Regina unrolled the parchment, Emma saw there were actually two pieces.

Regina try to lay them out before them, but the struggle to keep them from rolling back up ended when she pinned one end with her foot and held onto the other. Emma mimicked the action on the other piece, her stomach already heavy from just a glimpse of the image on Regina’s parchment.

She wet her lips and tried to even her breathing.

“They’ve got my nose wrong.” Emma chuckled dryly, but Regina barely blinked in response.

Emma worked her jaw, as if it could bring moisture back into her mouth.

“So, there are wanted notices.” There was something different about Regina’s, besides the obvious. She bit at her cheek, frustrated at herself for her inability to understand, “What do they say?”

“Descriptions. Reasons for our capture.” Regina shifted, the distance between them growing, “Mine says I am to be delivered alive, while yours says, alive or…”

“Of course.”

Regina’s gaze jumped to her. Emma shrugged, it was easier than anything else.

“The rest of your journey here was without hardship?” Emma asked though that question was long ago answered.

“They gave me some supplies, though I did not want them to.” Regina’s gaze slipped to the door and the creaking of the floorboards outside it. Emma seized the moment, rolling the notices up and returning them to the saddlebag. It was damning to keep such things on them, “It is fortunate that foraging is fruitful this time of year.”

Regina smiled softly, which Emma returned knowingly, “Fortunate indeed.”

Silence followed, Emma’s heart slowed at the sombreness that spread across Regina’s beautiful face. It made her heart ache to see it, to know it. She never wanted to see it creasing Regina’s face again, one day all Regina would feel would be joy and peace, as she deserved.

“Hey,” Emma whispered, the word rumbling in her chest, “We’re together again, and we will be there soon.”

“It’s not that.” Regina turned, wrapping her into a hug, nuzzling against her neck. Emma held tighter than she normally would, as if afraid Regina would drift away. “You know you can trust me.”

Emma’s brow furrowed, though broke at the burst of pain it caused.

“I do. More than anyone.”

Regina’s breath hitched, and a sigh followed, the warm stream of air tickling her neck.

Again, Emma found herself battling with herself. Her teeth pricked at the inside of her cheek, and after a few long moments she finally settled on what just to share.

“I got into a situation. I got out. I found you, like I said I would.” Emma smiled weakly at the memory, “I’m not the one who came worse off.”

Regina lifted her head, shaky gaze meeting Emma’s own. There was a moment of understanding, of unspoken challenges. Of survivors.

But, as with many things, Emma found a way to break it. And she despised herself for it.

“If you think I look bad, you should see them.”

Regina’s expression shifted, looked pained, and Emma’s heart plummeted.

Damn it, she hissed in her mind even as she tried to laugh. To lighten the mood.

Regina stood, her back to her, and gathered their belongings.

“Regina…” Emma said uselessly, shoulders slumping after she had clambered to her feet.

“We need to vacate before evening, there is no coin left.” Regina picked up their cloaks, donning hers and handing Emma the thick one, “Best you sneak out, or – ”

“They will try to charge for an additional person.”

Regina nodded. Emma stuffed the thick cloak into their saddlebag, and grabbed her own from the bed to wear. She had expected some kind of reaction at that, but Regina said nothing.

 


 

They shared out their belongings and, after some reassurance, Emma slipped away unnoticed to wait at the far end of the town. Regina hadn’t a clue how she had managed it, nor how she had not seen her sneak away, but she was faintly reminded of Emma’s once frequent visits to a tavern at night. No wonder no one save her had ever noticed her absences.

Neither the fondness of that memory, nor the joy of their reunion helped eradicate the prickling tension niggling deep inside her. She tried her best to quash it, but it proved stubbornly resilient.

The three of us are together again, she thought as she reattached their saddlebag to Rocinante’s saddle. But that thought served as a reminder of what had caused their separation in the first place. The venom and the bitterness and the rage.

She closed her eyes and took a steadying breath. It should not matter now, they were together again, but yet there it was rearing up. It was certainly not helped by Emma’s nonchalant attitude and tight-lipped response about what had happened to her.

“I’d be careful.”

Regina jumped, freezing in place before she forced herself to breath and relax.

“Suspicious sort around, scared them off, but with you on your own…” The ostler trailed off, the warning clear.

“We will be fine,” she answered, lips pressed together tightly when he untied Rocinante’s reins for her and handed them over. “Thank you.”

He bobbed his head in a nod, soon retreating when he realised he would earn no coin for his trouble.

“Come along,” she whispered as she led Rocinante away, his ears twitched towards her as she spoke, “We need to find Emma.”

They made their quick way along the straight road, ignoring the hawking of sellers and the offers from those that ran up to them. By the time the road grew rougher and the sellers dwindled down, she was exhausted from it all. Many days of dealing with it did that to a person.

She stopped some distance away from the last building, partly to check the saddlebag had not been disturbed, and partly because of the rapidly quickening beat of her heart.

She glanced back to the building, her brow furrowing.

Where is –

“Regina.”

Startled, her gaze snapped back around.

Emma simply grinned, unfazed by her glare, “Sorry I scared you.”

“Where were you hiding?” She asked when her heart had calmed down.

“I wasn’t hiding.” Emma chuckled, but there was something off about the carefree sound, and it lingered like she was trying to get her to join in.

When she did not, Emma’s smile dropped just slightly. Regina turned her gaze to the mouth of the valley, to the sheer cliff walls and the slip of land in between. It was certainly smaller than she had expected. Images of the walls toppling inwards sprang into her mind, but Rocinante’s impatient huff helped her refocus.

Emma cleared her throat, shifting awkwardly on her feet. She had swapped the bag she had appeared with for their own one earlier, the strap thicker and no doubt easier on the shoulder, but she had left with them both. She could only hope Emma hadn’t been stealing again, but the disappearance of the other bag had her doubting that.

Regina gave a short nod and they left the town behind them.

Chapter Text

At some point Emma produced a small bread roll from her pocket and offered it to her, insisting that she take it, that she need not worry as their surroundings had quite the picking. Regina accepted, and with some difficulty managed to tear the bread in two, offering Emma the larger half which she reluctantly took.

They gathered what they could from their surroundings, but they could not stop for long nor burden themselves with too much. It almost felt like nature was teasing them with the bounty of food surrounding them. Even though they only gathered the berries they recognised, and some unfamiliar fruit, Regina still felt apprehension about them.

Apprehension not helped when she noticed that no one seemed to have travelled through before them, nor after, nor even a hint of other people taking advantage of the foraging opportunities present.

She could see no end to the valley, just more trees and shrubs and the looming walls to either side, the width between would barely grant enough room to shift Rocinante from a jog into a canter.

Tension roiled in her gut, not helped either by their lacking conversation or when, for the first time, she had the chance to observe Emma in the brightness of day. To see the dark circles beneath her eyes, to see just how deep the healing gash to the side of her swollen left one was.

Just what had happened? Why would she not tell her? Why did she have to dismiss such a matter? Why, even after all of their discussions, did she still try to make a joke of it all?

Emma’s pace had sped up, or Regina’s own had begun to lag, she increased her speed and they continued to move steadily onwards. It took some time before her words became unstuck, having been lodged in her throat, on the tip of spilling forth, for so long.

“What happened to you?” She asked, almost in a whisper, but Emma heard. She could see it in the way her back tensed, just barely noticeably.

“It doesn’t matter now.”

“It matters to me, Emma.”

Emma glanced at her, but her gaze focused just beside her head rather than meeting her eyes. Emma pursed her lips, but was unable to hide the way her eyes wavered and soon turned her attention back to the path.

“It’s in the past, Regina. No point dwelling on it.”

Her hand curled tight at her side, her teeth pressing together hard as her gaze burned into Emma’s back. Concern and worry merged into something new, smouldering like embers beneath her skin and escaping into her voice.

“It matters, Emma.” The bruises, cuts, the slightly unbalanced way she walked, “I am not something delicate. I do not need to be sheltered. You are hurt – someone did this to you. I want to help.”

Though exactly how she could help, she did not know. Offer comfort, perhaps, or protection… though how did she expect to do that?

“Regina…” Emma’s voice was strained, the syllables of her name spoken precisely, but the struggle not to break them clear, “I told you. I got into a situation, and then I got out.”

“Yes, because that vagueness explains so much.” Emma dipped her head, but did not turn, if anything her pace grew faster, “You are in pain, Emma, someone hurt you and I… I…”

“It’s done, Regina. Nothing is going to change that,” Emma snapped, her shoulders rising in a tense line, “Especially not talking about it.”

“I told you what Rocinante and I went through, and that is far removed from whatever happened to you.” Regina shook her head, her nails biting into the delicate skin of her palm, the embers flaring, “If you had just come with me you could have avoided it.”

“There’s no point thinking of ‘what if’.” Emma tightened her grip on her bag, the bruises on her knuckles and the sore welts on her wrist catching at Regina’s chest. Something akin to weariness edging into her voice, “And I am not apologising for my decision.”

“No one gets left behind, Emma.”

“He is a horse.”

In a flash Regina lurched forward, seizing the back of Emma’s tunic with a strength that would have surprised her if she was fully aware. A strength that nearly toppled Emma.

“Don’t you dare speak like that,” Regina snarled, nearly nose to nose with her. She was well aware she was overreacting, but she seemed incapable of holding it back.

Emma’s lips twitched, her gaze stern even with a swollen eye, “It was reckless going back. They could have gotten you.”

“And yet look who came worse off.” The cold cruelty of her words made Emma’s shoulder tense, her lips pressed tight as if to hold in a sharp retort, “Not us.”

“I made the right decision, I will not apologise for that.”

“Do you even care – ”

“I stand by my decision, Regina,” Emma interrupted sharply. She shook her head, though the action pained her, “Going back was one hell of a risk, and look how far back it has set us. Among other things.” The anger tapered down, leaving Emma rubbing at the back of her head, she turned as her gaze couldn’t cast about on its own, “And it’s going to be even harder now, we will be in the mountains soon – it will not just be a strain for us, but him too. If we can stick to the roads it wouldn’t be as bad, but we can’t. Not for long”

“He is not a burden, Emma.”

“Regina…” Emma sighed, but had the decency to look ashamed, much as Regina should look herself, “I told you before, if there is a choice between your safety and another, you pick yourself.”

Regina almost scoffed at the audacity, it like the final weight atop so much more, “And you would pick yourself over me?”

“What?” Emma’s eyes snapped to hers, her brow furrowing and pulling at the damaged skin there, “No. I was talking about you, not me.”

Regina let Rocinante’s reins hang, her arms crossing over her, “So you would put me first.”

“Of course, why wo – ”

The hypocrisy was almost too much, certainly enough to bring forth a venom that burned at her mouth, “How is that any different?” She gestured abruptly, making Emma twitch and step back, “You choose me, and I choose you, and Rocinante. No one gets left behind, Emma.”

Emma worked her jaw, her throat shifting with a difficult swallow, “It – ”

But Regina could not stand there for one more moment, nearly suffocating in the thick air. Taking Rocinante’s reins she skirted around Emma and resumed their trek, her hands shaking but each breath coming easier with every step. Her skin burned, the breeze – sudden though it seemed – cooled her, brought forth a sense of freedom as if she had just broken free. Oh so like that feeling that settled over her when she was free of the castle and riding through the grounds.

She pushed on, that feeling growing with the more ground she put behind her.

As did another feeling. Of guilt and horror.

She needed to breathe again.

 


 

No more was said, not until the sky turned orange and they made their camp. It, a simple and quick insistence that she would take the first watch, one that was greeted with nothing but a stiff nod.

With the town long behind them it seemed safer now to let a fire burn, Emma poked at the flames until they were steady, offering some much needed light. Satisfied, she wandered some distance away to set a couple of snares, just in case, and even though she saw no trails or runs. She remembered how to set them, but she still fumbled; the small, delicate actions required jarring her bruised knuckles.

She straightened with a groan, and took a deep swig of her flask before returning to Regina. She felt her eyes on her, and though she wanted to tell her she was supposed to be settling down, she held it back. Emma slid her eyes to her briefly, just in time to see Regina looking quickly away. And though the valley captured the heat of the setting sun, and despite the fire, Regina still huddled beneath her cloak.

There was a fruit core on ground, neatly placed near the fire. It reminded Emma of her own need to eat, sighing, she sat down and pulled out a piece of fruit from her bag, one of the large, apple like ones they had found on a low growing tree. But, even though her stomach growled, for once she didn’t have the appetite to eat, but she knew better than to refuse, so forced the fruit down regardless. For something so light it sat heavily in her stomach. She dragged her hand through her tangled mess of hair, her nose crinkling. She needed a wash – a proper one.

Her gaze flittered to Regina across the fire, the futile attempt to distract herself with her thoughts floundering

Damn it. Why did she have to fuck everything up?

She ducked her head, swiping her damp palm across her forehead, teeth gritting at the accompanying flare of pain.

Their reunion was supposed to be a happy one. They were almost where they had been trying to get to for so long. They were supposed to be elated.

But she had said the wrong thing again, had upset Regina again. Was it truly any wonder that no one had wanted –

She exhaled long and low, unable to see much beside the ground. She turned her head the other way, able now to see the sky and the twinkling of the stars.

I did what was for the best. I made the right decision. Her fingers flexed against her thigh, the sharp jolts of pain from her knuckles jarring her senses.

She hadn’t meant to hurt Regina – had sworn to never do so. Regina deserved that, to have someone fight for her, to have someone put her first no matter what.

Why couldn’t she see that was what she was doing? Why couldn’t she understand?

She lifted her gaze, surprised – though not completely – to find Regina had still not tried to settle down for the night. Her gaze on the fire, eyes hidden by the flickering shadows it cast.

“I’m…” Emma tried to speak, but her words left her like a croaked whisper, lost on the evening breeze.

“I am sorry,” Regina murmured instead, lips barely moving, “For losing my temper. I should have never said those things – not like that.”

Emma shifted, the cloak beneath her bunching up, having finally come to a halt, all the pains and aches she had steadfastly ignored had come barrelling forward. There was more to her awkward shuffle than that, however.

“I… there’s a great frustration, here.” Regina rested her hand over her heart, the gesture brief but startling something in Emma, “When I returned to the beach and you weren’t there I – I cannot describe it.”

“You went back?”

“Of course, Emma. I needed to find you.” At last Regina lifted her head, meeting Emma’s gaze, “And you left me a sign. Some part of you knew I would.”

Ignoring the pain, Emma blinked back the wetness in her eyes, trying to mask it with a rough clearing of her throat.

“I – I hoped. When you vanished I thought… I thought I had lost you forever.” The last bit was said in a rush, as if she was ashamed somehow, not of her feelings. Never of those. Emma’s gaze dropped to her knee, her shoulders shifting in a struggle not to tense, “In a cloud of purple. I thought… for a moment…”

Emma shook her head, standing with a shuddering breath.

“I’ll… I need to get changed.”

She had washed her soiled clothes in a stream earlier, or made a hurried attempt to, and then had draped them over Rocinante’s saddle to dry. Naturally, she had promptly stained her clean tunic with the sticky juice from some berries. That was probably no real reason to change, but she took it anyway.

Regina ran a hand over her braid, her forehead creasing. Wetting her lips, Emma looked away with a heavy heart and headed to Rocinante’s side.

It was when she stood still, thinking over what she was about to do – and show, that Emma changed her mind. She fidgeted with her hands, pacing from place to place aimlessly, trying to put forward some illusion of actually doing something.

When she finally returned to the fire to sit, she kept her back straight and gaze on the scuffed toes of her boots.

Regina had finally laid down, but the shadows or perhaps her inability to keep her eyes on her, left her expression a mystery.

She waited until Regina’s breathing grew deep and even before she found her feet again, wincing as her back clicked, and sought out the spare tunic she knew to be in Rocinante’s saddlebag, and pocketed two items. She changed and tried to fold her dirty tunic, but soon grew frustrated, bunching it up and throwing it into the saddlebag. Rocinante’s tail flicked, an annoyed snort following.

She gave his flank a pat, tapped the hilt of her sword and again returned to her resting place. Her eyes roved around, ever alert, but aside from the bushes and trees, there was nothing.

Her heartbeat spiked when Regina stirred, but calmed when all she did was burrow into her cloak until only her eyes and the top of her head were visible.

“Shame you can’t keep watch,” she whispered when her gaze moved to Rocinante, her heart wanting nothing more than to slumber beside the one who held it, despite everything. Rocinante snorted softly, his eyes closing again.

Emma sighed, and when the fire burned low, she retrieved what was in her pocket and threw two crumpled pieces of parchments into the embers. She looked away, catching sight of a pair of glowing eyes that vanished in a blink as the flames consumed both of their images.

Chapter Text

“What’s the matter?” There was a quake in Emma’s voice, a trepidation that she failed to hide. All that morning her steps had remained slow, leaving her following Regina’s lead, “You have said little… and our disagreement is long over, right?”

Regina’s gaze slid from the slowly descending stone walls on either side of them, her expression tight and her mind swamped by so much.

“We should have stayed in Townsend for a little while longer.” It was a realisation that had hit her when the burning emotion inside her had finally been extinguished. Or perhaps it had been slowly smothered out by the silence between them. Just as it seemed to creep up on her, it also seemed to slink away unnoticed.

“You had been there for more than long enough,” Emma tried to justify, a struggle almost hidden beneath her words, “And then with me joining you and the search parties on our heels – ”

“For you, Emma,” Regina snapped, finding herself irritated suddenly by the ache in her arm caused by holding Rocinante’s reins – it had never bothered her before. “We should have stayed until you were ready to leave. Until you were healed from whatever happened to you.”

Regina knew she was gesturing as she spoke, but was unable to stop her actions even as Rocinante’s loose reins hit her arm over and over. And perhaps if they had waited, the heat of the anger in her would have simmered down, would not have boiled over and their argument would have been avoided.

“I’m almost healed.” Emma shrugged, her lips quirking, “Besides, like I told you, if you think this is bad...”

Regina whirled, jaw tight even though Emma had cut her words short. That creeping anger returning, merging with the remnants of their last argument.

“What have we spoken about time and time again, Emma?” Rocinante bumped her shoulder with his nose, wanting to continue on. Regina ignored him, blinded by her rising fury which only grew when Emma who would not look at her. “You cannot keep acting oblivious, you cannot ignore serious events and just laugh them away, Emma! If you will not be clear about what happened you can at least not jest about it!”

“I’m not laughing.”

The intense emotions drained from Regina, her throat tight for another reason entirely as their eyes locked. All Regina could see was the darkness of Emma’s expression, the thick scab on her temple, the fading yellow and black around her eye.

Regina swallowed hard, but did not waver. Emma too, softened, but did not duck her head.

“I would have killed him.”

Killed…

No. No, Emma was supposed to be better than that. She was the one who was tainted not Emma. She… she should not have let that happen. If she had not run, if she had not vanished as she had…

“Hell…” Emma ran her hand through her hair, this time letting her gaze slip away again, “I might have anyway.”

She felt nauseous, but she could not say if it was Emma’s words or her own thoughts that caused it.

Her voice cracked slightly as she spoke, belying more than she wished, “You might not have.”

Emma shrugged, her gaze flickering back to her, “Not knowing somehow makes it worse.”

That resonated with Regina, caught in her chest like something sharp had been lodged there. The emotion in Emma’s eyes stung at the back of her own and almost stole away her ability to speak.

“They… captured you, correct? You only did whatever it was you had to in order to escape.”

“And you only did what you had to in order to save us both.”

Emma moved past her, intent on continuing, there was a sense of finality in her words and actions. It took Regina a moment to gather herself before she followed, Emma’s steps remained slow until she was beside her.

It took her longer than she thought to place Emma’s words, to narrow it down amongst so much else. And when she finally did, her heart ached even more.

It was sometime later when Regina spoke, her confession falling heavily from her lips, “I am truly sorry, Emma. I know I keep saying it and then recanting it with my actions... but there’s – ”

“It’s been an emotional time for us both,” Emma murmured, rubbing at her shoulder as she turned so she could face her fully. She smiled lopsidedly, a shine in her good eye. “You don’t need to apologise. Or explain.”

The protest bubbling in Regina’s throat collapsed into itself, falling back down into the deep depths of her being. Again Emma forgave her. Again Emma gave up the fight. It left a bitter taste in her mouth, but her lips twitched into a feeble smile, Emma’s own encouraging her even when she could not truly return it.

 


 

It did not take as long as either of them envisioned to reach the exit of the valley, and though the stone sides did drop in height, they still remained high above them as they finally left it.

The trees here were different to what they had grown accustomed to, at least the ones that she could see immediately. The stark difference and the absence of trees of a similar kind in the valley made it seem as if they had entered another world entirely.

They were there. Across the border. Finally. The relief brought by just that simple thought nearly took her breath away.

Now they needed only to reach the capital and do as they planned; seek sanctuary.

Or, perhaps, they could simply hide – live in the wilds – but a glance to Emma brought that thought to a halt as quick as it had appeared to her.

No. The stress of that life, the challenge of feeding themselves. To live like that long-term… it was best to stay firm and follow their original plan, at least for now, and hope it succeeded. She just needed to think of what they could possibly offer in return for protection.

“There is smoke ahead.”

Regina snapped out of her thoughts and lifted her gaze, seeking what Emma had seen.

Definitely smoke, and close too, though the thickness of the tree’s leaves hid the source from sight.

“A good sign?”

Emma pursed her lips and gave a half-hearted sort of shrug. They continued cautiously along the straight road, eyes set for the most part on their right. Emma’s fingers twitched, and despite the bruises and cuts, they hovered close to her hip.

“There was no town on the map,” Regina said, though she knew there was not enough smoke to suggest that this was one.

“Definitely not,” Emma replied, her pace speeding up, “Could be a lone cottage, other travellers. Let’s not waste time.”

“I agree.” Regina matched their strides, thankful for the comfort of her boots against the unforgiving road. At least it presented an easier and quicker way of travel than being amongst the trees.

As they drew closer the trees gave way, a clearing opening up as she recognised the familiar scent of a campfire on the breeze.

A camp indeed, she thought when their line of sight was no longer hindered. Mostly tents, but also a strange roofed wagon, decorated with what seemed to have once been a bright array of colours.

“Let’s go,” Emma said, but they were quickly distracted by a voice shouting in a language, or perhaps an accent, Regina was unfamiliar with.

The pause was short-lived, her attention swiftly returning to their journey, “Emma.”

Emma’s own attention was not so quick to return, but at her voice, she tore her searching gaze from the clearing, her fingers twitching at her side. Regina gestured with the slightest nod of her head.

They only managed a few steps more along the road.

“Wait! Travellers, please.”

They turned together. Regina’s fingers catching Emma’s sleeve when she saw the jump of her hand.

She released her when she felt the instinct fade, though Emma remained tense beneath her fingers.

A man ran up, his clothes loose but face full. He smiled crookedly, but put forth a friendly air.

“We aren’t interested in a trade.”

Regina’s gaze slid to Emma, a little bit sternly. While they had no need of supplies yet, there was no need to be short.

“We are sorry, though,” Emma added, sounding not truly apologetic.

When they tried to move forward, Regina’s arm was caught, the hold pulling her back.

“Let me go.” She yanked her arm away. And though the tug had not hurt, the shock of an unwanted touch had. Her heart pounded, the beat echoing in her ears.

“I apologise, my dear lady,” the man said in a thick accent, doffing his hat and bowing his head and yet maintaining eye contact. A most unusual bow.

Emma moved to her side, the man’s gaze drifted to her and he promptly balked and straightened, taking a step back.

“We mean not to trade, but offer our services.”

“What? You’re going to show us around The Wealds?” Emma crossed her arms, low over her body. The reason clear.

“No. No. We offer you something far greater than knowledge of this land.” He lifted his hand briefly, smiling brightly at them, “We offer you knowledge of anything – everything.”

Regina glanced back down the road, and though she could no longer see the valley she knew they were not that far away from it. She lifted an eyebrow, growing a little impatient, “And you offer this to all who pass through here?”

Around his form Regina could see a woman approaching, he must have known for he turned to her with a toothy smile.

“Only those my wife feels something special in.” The woman stepped beside him, smiling in a way that felt too kind, “She can tell you your future.”

“Bullshit,” Emma snorted.

“No,” the woman gasped, pressing her hand to her chest. Her eyes watered, but Emma was unmoved.

“No,” her husband said sternly, wrapping a comforting arm around his wife, “You are a blinded girl.”

The woman shook her head, her hurt giving way to her offence, “The world is so much more than your dim eyes will ever see.”

“Do not say that about her,” Regina snapped, her hands curling into fists with her realising.

“Oh please,” Emma spat, jaw tense and eyes burning with a disbelief born from anger, “I’m no fool. Besides, even if you could tell the future it would be horrendous. If you knew every possible outcome to every possible action to every little thing, then you would be helpless. You would be paralyzed and overcome, because there is so much, far too much. You would be useless, driven incapable of acting by simply having too much knowledge.”

Regina tried to meet Emma’s eyes, more than a little taken aback by just how much thought Emma must have spent on that concept. And that raised the question of just why?

“The best thing you can do is live everyday as it comes, overthinking – knowing too much – would ruin everything. So yes, it’s bullshit.”

The man lifted a finger, waving it mockingly at her, “Only if you do not know.”

“Yes,” his wife agreed, “Only if you do not know how to wield your power.”

The skin between Emma’s eyebrows furrowed, the line deep and her lips curling, “You are a charlatan.”

With narrowed eyes the woman looked hard into Regina’s own, apparently suddenly oblivious or unfazed by the growing rage rolling off Emma, “I can see you are on a strenuous journey.”

“Wow,” Emma breathed with as much enthusiasm as a horse asked to race through a pack of wolves, “I wonder how you could possibly know that?”

Regina shook her head, grasping Emma’s sleeve and encouraging her to follow. Again they only made it a few steps before they were stopped, this time by the woman grasping her hand.

“Let go of me,” she demanded.

“There’s no need for arms!” The man panicked, hands raised as he retreated a good few paces back from Emma.

“Then let her go,” Emma ground out, sword partly drawn from its sheath.

But there was something in the woman’s eyes that held Regina back, that left their gazes locked. She had not seen it before, or had not been affected by it. And yet now…

“You could change everything, do so much more than they think possible.”

“No one can,” Regina replied, aware of, but unable to react to the rising voices to her left.

“Ah, but you’re not ‘no one’. Come…” The woman enticed, slowly guiding her, “Let me tell you more.”

Regina followed, though she did not truly want to. It was as if she was unable to break away, as if she were under the influence of someone – or something else.

“Hey!”

Emma’s shout sounded distant, the impact of a shove or hit muffled.

She was pushed up the steps into the wagon, the woman’s arms leaving her abruptly. She turned, blinking down at the woman and the bruised, white-knuckled grip Emma had on her shoulder.

“What the hell do you think you’re doing?” Emma’s darkened green eyes bored into the woman’s, her face creased with a fury Regina had rarely seen.

“Offering my services as we said.”

“We want nothing from you.” Emma’s eyes jumped to Regina, the anger giving way to an unspoken panic, “Come on, let’s go.”

“The decision has been made.”

Emma’s gaze snapped to the woman, rage returning.

“You cannot stand in the way of fate. Terrible things befall those that do.”

“Bullshit.” Emma’s eyes were on her again, “Regina, come on.”

“It is fine, Emma,” Regina found herself saying, “It will not take long.”

Emma’s expression fell, her lips parted in shock. The woman climbed a step, her expression hidden from Regina’s eyes.

“You wait here, or you will upset the balance.”

“The balance? What the – ”

The door closed, silencing Emma’s shout.

“Sit, sit,” the woman insisted, cheerful despite the confrontation that had just passed.

The wagon was cramped, items hanging from the ceiling and cluttering the surfaces. Her eyes struggled to adjust, the lack of windows making her heart beat a little harder.

Why had she agreed to this? Or, rather, gone along with this?

Her head felt a bit clearer now, but offered her no answer. There was still a fog there, however, clouding her mind like when she dreamt but was conscious of it.

She ducked her head beneath a row of strange translucent gems that hung from strings, and carefully sat on the chair offered to her. The table between her and the woman seemed squashed, as if it had once been pliant and had been forced into the wagon, or perhaps it had been built in there.

There were a number of lanterns, but their light did little but glint off the many objects in there. The table cloth dragged on the floor and as she sat, it draped heavily over her lap.

What was she doing?

Her knuckles grew pale from her hold on her skirt.

Her whole life had been planned out for her, every decision made with no concern for her – for what she wanted.

It was different now, the unknown nearly choking.

If she had been aware of such people, before all of this, would she have sought one out? She already knew what was wanted of her, but if she had spoken to one of these people… would they have given her hope? Made her aware there was a way to be free of it all?

A moment, she decided, she shall have a moment, then we shall leave. And perhaps I will feel better after the brief rest.

The future teller – fortune teller? – placed her hands on the table, palms up.

“Your hands.”

Regina’s hands rose hesitantly, her eyes flickering from the woman’s own to the table.

“No,” the woman informed her when Regina mimicked her, “Your hands on mine.”

Regina did as she was told. There was something about the fortune teller’s hands that felt bizarre, that made her mind feel foggy again, but she did not have time to process why, for she was startled by a tight and sudden grip.

“Yes…” The fortune teller drew out, her head tilting back and eyes closing, “I can see much.”

Regina’s palms grew damp, her whole body tensing. The touch was unwanted in the first place, and now even more so. Her heart felt tight as she struggled not to cast the woman off.

There was something in the air, something that crackled and felt heavy, much like the feeling before a storm.

“Your journey will be fruitful, though perhaps not in the ways you wish.”

“Then in what way?” She asked without thought, the words tumbling out.

“Hush.” The woman’s eyes opened, her chin tilting and her glare pointed. “You will break the flow if you interrupt.”

 


 

“You can’t go in there!”

Emma glared at the man blocking her path, and again he paled, his gaze darting to her hip.

“Get out of my way,” she ground out, her body only growing more tense when he remained steadfast, his confidence returning now they were in his domain.

The other eyes on her did not go unnoticed, nor did the subtle movement of other bodies drawing closer.

“Move,” she demanded. Her hand shook to grasp her sword, but she resisted the pull, making the healing cuts and bruises on her knuckles twinge and jar.

“To interrupt, especially by one such as yourself, would lead to great misfortune.”

“So I heard.” She snorted, tempted to yank him from his perch into the mud, “You have no idea what true misfortune is.”

The others she had barely glanced at were closer now, if she attacked him, she wouldn’t stand a chance. Who knew what weapons they had concealed?

It would be worth it though, to get to Regina.

But the next thing she knew, two of the men who had been approaching stopped beside the wagon steps, their arms crossed across their broad chests and their sharp eyes on her.

The husband tried to maintain eye contact, but his gaze wavered again and soon – when he had grown certain she would not try for the wagon again, not with those men there – he jumped down the steps and skirted around her and away, only a short distance, but away nonetheless.

Though her first instinct was to keep watch on the door, she soon turned. Better to keep your back to two than to many, she supposed.

Her arms remained down, her hand close to the hilt of her sword as she waited, not from choice and not without pain. Her foot tapping against the solid earth with a nervous beat.

 


 

“It has been a long journey for you both, one that will soon come to an end. Sooner than it took to reach this point.”

Regina nodded, her brow marred by consideration. How did the fortune teller know it would be over soon? She did not know their destination. A fortunate guess perhaps? Or… it was true?

“Obstacles still remain, some greater than others. One greater than them all.” The woman’s lips quirked as if smiling at a loved one, “One wrong step, a shift onto the wrong path and it could all come crashing down.”

The pause that followed was clear enough for Regina to understand, and despite the battle in her mind she found herself going along with what was happening, “What is this obstacle? What will happen if we cannot pass it?”

“Such things change so easily, though they always appear insurmountable. In some cases they are, in many you need only find the correct path – hidden though it may be.” The woman tilted her head down, eyes still closed, “As for what will happen should you fail, why that too changes by the moment. The curse of the future, however it will always be something best avoided, though often inevitable.”

Regina’s lips twisted, the woman’s answers may be long and fanciful, but their depth was like a shoal in the sea. Deceptive and dangerous.

She was a fool for putting any stock into this, a fool for following the woman into there.

She tried to pull back, but the woman’s eyes popped open, her grip stronger than Regina thought, her fingers digging hard into the delicate skin of her hands, wrenching forth childhood memories that tore through her. Her heart jumped, beating hard. The dim light hiding most of the woman’s face in shadow, though it caught the unnatural shine of her eyes.

 


 

She should have just gone for the door as soon as she had the chance. Before those others had drawn close enough to scare her off. She could have gotten to Regina and set off in a run before they realised what was happening. They could have jumped on Rocinante and vanished in a blink of an eye.

At least Regina had a knife on her –

Why the hell was she still standing there like an idiot? It’s not like… not like she was truly afraid of those men, even if the two by the wagon looked capable in a fight. It’s not – Emma Swan was no coward!

She should just turn around and kick that door down, fight those men off. She could do it. She could definitely do it.

Then why was she still standing there?

Rocinante huffed, a sound she unknowingly mimicked.

Her stomach dropped, only realising just then that they had both left Rocinante in the middle of the road.

She shook her head and sucked at her cheek. One well-placed whistle had him trotting to her side, she felt a little more secure with him beside her. As if to apologise, or perhaps reassure herself, she idly scratched him behind his ear, her hard gaze on the scuffed and dirty toes of her boots.

This would make it even easier to run. She just needed to get past those men…

Damn it Swan, why are you just staring at your damn boots rather than doing something!

“Now…”

Emma lifted her gaze, though her head was still low, her look a menacing one if the husband’s audible swallow was any sign.

His lips tilted, teeth showing in an unsure smile, his attempt to build his confidence shaky at best, “Let us discuss your token of appreciation.”

“Appreciation?” Emma scoffed, “What the hell have I got to thank you for?”

“The gift offered and given behind you.”

Emma’s brow twitched and furrowed, her lips pressed into a tight line.

“Pay? You want me to pay?” Rocinante jerked his head, her hand slipped from him and dropped back to her side, “You made us accept this, something we do not want. Called it a service. And now you block the exit.”

“No one works for no coin.”

Emma’s gaze jumped from the man, her anger had narrowed her vision, hidden the guarded movement of the two bulky ‘guards’; they would not be as prone to intimidation.

 


 

“You will be given a great opportunity – one that can change everything. It rests on you.” The fortune teller shook her head, her eyes large and unfocused.

Regina tried to pull away, tried to twist and slip from her hold but to no avail. Her breath came short, catching in her chest, a familiar panic rising and threatening to consume her.

“Darkness – such darkness…”

“Let me go!” She screamed, voice high, tears stinging at her eyes, torn between what was happening now and memories of what had once happened.

“Such a black heart.”

“I have no such thing!” Regina yanked her arms back but was still held in place, the action jarred her painfully and left her pressed closer to the table.

The light flickered as if caught by a breeze.

“Consuming. It will consume everything, steal every last spark of light.”

 


 

“We have no coin,” Emma said around gritted teeth, her brow twitching as she tried desperately to keep a clear head.

“Then a trade of items – things of equal value.”

“You are getting nothing from us!” The husband skittered back as Emma charged forward, her shoulders tense and sore hand curled tight.

“Father…” A fourth man had approached, unknown to her, her gaze jumped to him for a brief moment before returning to the paling husband. The son, at least, seemed even meeker than him, “We should let them go on their way. They did not want this.”

The husband ignored his son, and though his lip quivered his eyes slipped past her and his words were still strong and insistent, “Bound to be something of value in there. Just a little token.”

Emma whirled around, gaze following his to Rocinante. She gripped the hilt of her sword with a trembling hand.

“Don’t even think about it.” She felt the men behind her move closer, she stepped back, body tense, to try to keep them all in view, “I told you, you won’t get anything from us.”

“Leave them be, please.”

“We offered a service, one that’s been accepted. You cannot do something so great for free,” the husband replied, a bit of colour returning to his face, apparently amused by his son’s words. But the son, shakily, refused to drop the argument.

Emma’s gaze shot back to the wagon door, her face growing hot and sweat beading on her brow as she weighed the two options she had as swiftly as she could. The guards had moved far enough that she could make a break for it, but she would have to be quick and hope she didn’t fumble.

Rocinante huffed, stamping his hooves.

“Hey!” She bellowed. A hard shove sent the man darting for Rocinante’s reins stumbling, the other immediately jumped towards her but froze at her voice.

“I said back off!” She drew her sword, widened her stance as if she knew what she was doing. Hoped that none of them would see through her.

 


 

“Something so pure, tainted. Stained. It will never recover. Can never recover.”

“No!” Regina wretched her arms back again, but the painful hold still remained.

The hanging trinkets swirled, the shadows sent dancing. The woman’s eyes were wide, wild, fearful.

“No path forward, none but to become their mirror. Grow even worse.” Her hands were like claws, seconds away from tearing her flesh, “Worse than all that came before.”

The rage burst forth, exploding like a geyser.

“Let go!”

The lantern toppled, flew back, darkness fell.

 


 

The argument between the man and his son fizzled out, the father shrinking back as the son stared at her in almost fear – it brought forth old memories.

“Regina!” She yelled over her shoulder, struggling to keep her eyes on all of the men.

The two bulky men seemed stunned, thankfully it seemed they had no weapons.

“Shit…” she muttered when she heard nothing from behind her, her gaze remained on the four men as she called again, “Regina!”

“You don’t look like you can use that thing,” one of the men sneered, the bravado false, still he crept forward slowly. The other hesitated for a moment before following his lead.

“Don’t be so sure,” she spat, fighting to steady her arms.

Sweat trickled into her eye, and with each desperate blink to remove it, the two men edged closer.

Rocinante pounded the ground, whinnying as he reared back, startling all of them. Emma, though, was quicker to recover.

A loud bang echoed behind her, stealing away her breath, but before she could turn a body brushed past her. She didn’t react, as if she instinctively knew who it was.

“Emma!” Regina called, grasping Rocinante’s reins and charging on ahead as if oblivious to the situation that she had just ran into.

The men seized their opportunity, racing forward, Emma jumped, throwing her arm back to prevent them taking her sword.

A cry tore through the air, causing even Emma’s focus to slip as she looked towards the source.

The wife stood in the splintered doorway of her wagon, gesturing wildly with her arms, shouting in a tongue Emma had no hope of recognising.

The two men barely a pace away retreated.

Emma’s gaze lost its hardness and flittered about, her lips parted in confusion as all the men fell silent and either remained still or slunk away. She stepped back, hesitantly, sword still held tight in her clammy hand as, finally, she turned and chased after Regina.

Chapter Text

“There’s glass on you.”

Regina shook her head, lips pulled tight as if the action pained her, but it was hopefully also a sign she had heard her. Emma reached for Regina’s shoulder, but snatched her trembling arm back at the last second.

“Here,” she called instead, tripping slightly as she tried to keep up with Regina’s pace, “Hold still.”

And, for the first time since this march had started, Regina stopped and faced her in the shade of some great tree. And though she avoided meeting Emma’s eyes, it was something at least.

Emma’s throat felt tight, each swallow bringing with it discomfort. She reached out, plucking a thumbnail sized sliver of glass from Regina’s hair, before brushing smaller ones from her shoulders. Thankfully her cloak had protected her from most.

“There…” Emma’s lips twitched up into an unsure smile, one that only grew more uncertain when Regina still refused to meet her eyes. Emma wet her lips, and brushed some loose strands of hair behind Regina’s ear, “I think that is all of it.”

It was only when she drew her hands back that she saw the small drops of blood on them, cut by shards of glass the eye could not see. But with the bruises, cuts, and the welts hidden beneath her sleeve, it mattered little to her.

“So you, err…” Emma shifted her weight awkwardly between her feet, her brow creasing as she wiped her hands on her tunic. “… Want to talk about it? About what happened back there?”

Regina’s gaze remained averted, but Emma had seen the clash of emotions in her eyes, could still see it across her face. It made her want to plead for an answer, to beg, or – or even demand one.

Something was pressing down on Regina and all she wanted to do was help. Yet all she could do was stand there, useless… if only she had done something back there! Perhaps then Regina wouldn’t be this way. She wouldn’t be struggling with something unseen.

Regina’s shoulders tensed and then slumped, the latter action catching Emma’s full attention at the unusualness of it.

Regina turned her head slightly, as if to look to Rocinante, but Emma could see her gaze was not focused on him. Or anything for that matter.

“I don’t know.”

Emma’s nerves tingled, sensing the half muddled truth in her words.

She worried the inside of her cheek with her teeth, hoping the gentle breeze would steal away the words she wanted to blurt out.

“I’m not sure.” Regina sighed, shoulders heaving with the effort. “I think it is best to focus on what we should do now.”

Regina finally met her eyes again, but there was something amiss in them. It took Emma a moment to realise they were guarded, just like so long ago.

And again, rather than protest or fight, Emma conceded with a heavy heart.

“Of course.”

Regina retrieved their map before moving to where the ground was more even to kneel and unroll it. Emma hesitated, even taking a deep breath before she cautiously crossed the distance to Regina’s side. Rocinante followed with no lead, and by the time Emma dropped down beside Regina, the map was laid out and Regina was studying it carefully.

“It appears that if we keep heading northwest we will reach the capital.” Regina tapped the lone marking in the section of the map that represented The Wealds, “It would certainly have been helpful if the map showed more than that.”

“Oh!” Emma’s lips parted, realisation washing over her tinged with an embarrassment for not remembering it sooner. She jumped to her feet, surprising Regina as she grabbed her bag and rummaged around the bottom of it to grab that leather coin purse she had all but forgotten about.

“What are you looking for?”

“I got a map,” Emma declared proudly, sensing a potential way to bridge the distance she felt between them.

“You did not think to show this before?” There was no accusation in Regina’s words, just a deep-seated exhaustion, one Emma knew was not due to her.

“I…” Emma began, scratching at her neck when Regina lifted her gaze to her, making her fumble for an explanation, “A lot has happened in a short period of time. It kinda got pushed to the back of my mind.”

She put her hands on her hips and shrugged, her lips twitching into a weak smile.

Regina’s brow lifted as she shook her head just slightly, a small smile gracing her lips for the first time in a long while.

Pride swelled in Emma’s chest, her smile growing surer as she lifted the leather purse to show Regina, who raised an eyebrow in question. Emma dropped to one knee beside her, pulling the new map free as Regina rolled the old one up.

“I got it at a port town, I think you’ll be happy.”

“You went to a port town?”

She hurried to unfold the map, wincing when she heard it tear. She took a breath and tried to be more careful, concentrating hard enough that her tongue peeked out.

“How did you… never mind.”

She placed it down and together they pinned it under some stones Regina had used for the other map. The tear was near the top on the right-side, but judging by where Regina’s gaze was focused, she hadn’t ruined anything important. She breathed a little easier at that.

“We entered here.” Regina explained, resting a finger near the bottom right.

“We were following the road,” Emma said able to see it lead to the first town on the map, “We can’t be that far from it.”

“If we continue north-west we should stumble across it or the main road. I doubt we have passed it.” Regina tapped at an empty expanse on the map, a furrow of concentration on her brow, “We are here – somewhere. It is only a guess, and with no proper instrument to measure the scale the likelihood of an error, or being incorrect grows.”

“I’m sure you’re correct,” Emma said, and she meant it. She smiled shrugging, “You actually understand all this?”

“Well,” Regina muttered, cheeks darkening, “It was imposed upon me. If only the basics.”

Emma hesitated, her fingers twitched against her knee before she gently rested her hand over Regina’s, “I’m complimenting you, Regina. You don’t have to try to justify it.”

Regina didn’t respond, keeping her eyes on the map as she sucked at her bottom lip. She didn’t pull her hand back though, which Emma could only take as a good sign.

“This is the next marked settlement no matter our destination.” Regina’s finger glided across the map to highlight the mark that represented it. Emma squinted at the name beside it, but she couldn’t decipher it.

“Kinda strange,” Emma muttered, forehead creasing in thought, “You would think there would be a town on the border this side. Or one a lot closer. That’s what it’s typically like, right?”

“Or a garrison of soldiers if you were thinking tactically. As this is the only known entrance to this land you would think it would be guarded, or otherwise monitored.”

The little flutter of pride in Emma’s chest was brief, sunken by an abrupt realisation.

“Maybe the map is old…” Then again, she had taken it from a store, so the likelihood of that being true was slim. Regina glanced up at her which only made her embarrassment grow, “Never mind, that was stupid.”

Regina looked back to the map, but her voice came softly, “That is feasible, there is no date on it and depending on where you secured it…”

“No, I was stupid. That must be the first town. The road leads to it.” Emma pointed at the marking in question, which went from the valley to the town – though the absence of any forks and the relatively few other road markings implied the map did not show them all. Or so she guessed.

“It only shows the main roads and rivers,” Regina said as if reading her thoughts, “That is common of this type of map.”

Emma hummed, giving a short nod.

“I believe it will take three, maybe four days to reach. Depending on the terrain, and if we are where I estimate we are.”

“There’s still a few hours of daylight, we can cover a lot of ground in that time.”

“Then we best continue, lest we get caught unprepared in the dark.”

At Regina’s small shift away, Emma pulled her hand from hers, her fingers twitching. Regina rolled up the map and got to her feet.

“I hear that’s not a good place to be.”

Regina glanced down at her, an almost sad smile on her lips, before she turned to place both maps in Rocinante’s saddlebag.

Emma got to her own feet and picked up her bag, approaching Regina and Rocinante with it over her shoulder.

“Besides – ” She patted Rocinante’s neck as she passed, letting him know she was talking to him, “ – You’ve had enough excitement for one day.”

He snorted, as if he agreed and stayed still until Emma pressed his reins into Regina’s loose grip.

Regina thanked her, and Emma gave her hand a tight squeeze, and together they pressed on, the air growing cooler as the day continued on.

 


 

The sun was setting as they were desperately looking for somewhere suitable to camp, or rather, Emma was. Regina was trying to – trying to do her best to help, the distraction it offered was tempting, but sadly out of her reach. She was too shaken up, and had been unable to tell Emma what she had experienced. But she would, once it was all settled inside her. Once she had come to understand it, then she would explain.

Even now she could feel it beneath her skin, simmering and building with each passing step. The birds sang, their songs harsh against her ears. Leaves rustled and twigs snapped, it all made her teeth grit and grind.

Yet there was a sadness beneath it all, forcibly dredged from the very depths of her mind and heart. Though Emma was beside her, and Rocinante, she abruptly felt a great sense of loneliness – of loss, like something she had only felt once before, when they were parted. And yet, this time, she could not bear the weight of it. It pressed down on her chest, making every movement or sound overwhelming to her.

That woman, she had caused this, or invoked it. Regina did not know which but it clung to her, wrapping tight around her throat like an invisible hold.

“Are you alright?”

Emma was watching her, that little crease between her eyebrows telling of her concern, showing it louder and with far more clarity than any words ever could.

“Fine,” Regina responded, though she doubted Emma believed her.

Even if she didn’t, Emma did not question her further.

A dozen or so paces later, Emma stopped with a dramatic stretch.

“This seems a good place to rest.” Emma looked up to the amber sky, sucking at her bottom lip in thought, “I’m sure we’ll get to the road come morning. Though I don’t know how long we should stick to it for.”

Regina looked around, taking in their surroundings as if for the first time. Or the first time where her vision was not blurred by thought. It looked much the same as anywhere else, the space between the trees large enough for a safe fire, and as a boon there was a stream of water nearby. Well, it was little more than a trickle, but sufficient enough for their needs, she immediately led Rocinante to it to fill his thirst.

It had become a routine for them now, setting up camp. With the darkness encroaching, Emma set about arranging their fire, while Regina – after securing Rocinante to the trunk of a sturdy tree – collected some additional kindling, for there was not enough littered around their little camp.

It was fortunate there was a sufficient amount in the immediate vicinity, she did not want to wander far, reminded of an occasion where she had been cornered when she had. Strange how that fear had not occurred to her before, but now hit her with a startling intensity.

“So, what’s wrong?” Emma chewed at the inside of her cheek, working on lighting the fire, but Regina could see her glancing at her from the corner of her eye every so often.

The nonchalance was appreciated, it gave Regina a chance to breathe and to try to wrestle back full control of her mind. She pulled her cloak more firmly around herself as if it would protect her. While before she had dismissed it all rather well, her weariness, or perhaps the darkening sky, or even the time that had passed, made her strength wane.

The fire was lit before she could reply, and Emma was sitting back on her heels, rubbing self-consciously at the back of her neck.

“It’s fine… you don’t have to tell me anything you don’t want to.” The green of Emma’s eyes seemed brighter, but her smile strained as she again focused on the fire. There was an edge of frustration in her words, but Regina was not convinced it was aimed at her.

“I…” She began, her throat constricting and a sudden rush of heat searing behind her eyes. She ducked her chin, turning her head slightly away to hide her weakness.

“ – I miss my father.” It was true, she had since this had all started. Thoughts of losing him, of never seeing him again, contributed to her reluctance to leave originally – though it was Emma’s words that had convinced her. And now… now all those thoughts and feelings had resurfaced, leaving her breath short and mind spinning. Frustration and distress consuming her further with each moment that passed.

“I understand that you miss him. But there’s nothing that can be done.” Emma shrugged, the sympathy in her eyes wrenching Regina’s heart, “Even when we reach our goal, even when we’re safe, you can’t go back. Or even send letters. You… just have to move on.”

“Move on?”

“I know it sounds harsh, Regina, and that wasn’t the best choice of words. But…” Emma shook her head, shifting onto her knees to draw closer, “If you did that, then they could find us. They could potentially trace the letters, or whatever other method of contact you use. The King, your mother, the Prince, they will never let you go. It will never be safe for you. Not until they are all gone. You saw the notices.”

The burning sorrow morphed in a flash, turning into a familiar and uncontrollable anger. It was as if she was watching what was happening from the outside, she could see it, feel it, but could do nothing to control it or change what was happening.

“How dare you!” She shot to her feet, fists tight at her sides.

Emma followed suit, the pain on her face barely registered, and the compassion struck Regina more like pity, “I know it’s hard to accept, but you have to. There is no other way, Regina.”

“Just because you gave up on your family does not mean I will.”

“They were never out there,” Emma snapped, her expression shifting, but that pity still shining in her eyes. It was like a knife in Regina’s gut. She surged forward, barely leaving any space between them.

“What do you know about family?” Regina spat, her words dark and cold.

Emma’s expression hardened in a blink, her jaw twitching as she clenched her teeth.

They remained locked in their almost confrontation, close enough to each other to lash out physically if either was so inclined.

Emma drew in a quick breath, something flaring in her eyes. But then she took a step back, her muscles relaxing and her gaze sliding away.

“Nothing,” Emma replied with a dip of her head, her voice almost lost on the wind, “I know nothing.”

Emma’s hands trembled, that muscle in her jaw twitching even as her shoulders sagged.

“I have you. That’s all I need.”

“I’m so important to you?” Regina scoffed, unable to fully take on board what Emma had said. She had heard, had understood, but the emotions she knew she should feel never materialised. “And yet you wished to leave Rocinante.”

Emma’s lips pressed into a tight thin line, “Of course you are so important to me. And you know why I said what I did on the beach.”

The softness of her tone caught Regina by surprise, so much so she finally felt something other than her anger. But all it did was make her rage falter for a brief moment before quickly returning to its previous strength.

“A choice had to be made back then. Your safety was more important – even more than your feelings.”

Emma dipped her chin, her tone clearly telling of how much she hated what she was saying. Or perhaps it was regret for the decision she had made. One Emma had made based purely on what she believed would keep her safe. It was always about keeping her safe, a complete contradiction to Emma’s insistence that if there was a choice between them or anyone else then she was to choose herself.

Her anger rose thick and fast, fed by what was already burning brightly within her.

“And yet you expect me to choose myself over you?!”

“I…” The front of sternness on Emma’s face faded, pushed back for the moment as the tip of her tongue peeked out, wetting her lip as her brow furrowed, “This isn’t about me.”

“Yes it is!” Regina stressed, frustration overshadowing her anger – surging further at the shake of Emma’s head, “You never think of yourself.”

The crease to Emma’s brow only grew more severe, her head tilting just slightly, “Of course I do.”

“No,” Regina exclaimed, moving agitatedly now, “Perhaps when I’m not near, but when I am…”

But Emma was still wide-eyed and oblivious. Regina moved too abruptly, startling Emma when she grasped her forearms, pleading – praying – for Emma to understand, “You are always putting me first. Always deferring to me. To my wants. To my thoughts.”

“I want you to be safe. To be happy.”

Her breath froze for a moment, Emma’s words – her conviction – so familiar. It took but a moment to place it, the beginning threads of realisation sown during a rushed embrace so long ago.

“You’re wrong. What about with Ariel? Or Rocinante?”

That flare of resentment smouldered again, but this time she was able to snuff it out.

“Why did you disagree, Emma?” She asked her instead, her voice still detached even though her rage had, for the moment, been reduced to a simmer.

Emma’s lips twitched, annoyed by that topic being brought up once more, but even so she responded almost calmly, if not with a bit more force than was normal, “I told you; because it put you in danger.”

“Yet you helped Ariel in the end. Because I asked you too, if not in so many words.”

“We want the best for those we care for.”

“Did Granny or Red fulfil each other’s every whim? Or ours?”

“No, but – ”

“It’s different?”

“Exactly!” Emma nodded, face lighting up. But it was quick to falter when she did not find understanding in Regina’s eyes.

“Love – real love – in every one of its forms is about give and take.” She found her voice growing stronger with conviction, a strengthening certainty now she had witnessed it. Felt it. “All you do is give, and all I do is…”

Oh… The beat of her heart quickened, each contraction echoing in her ears – the realisation hitting harder than any slap ever had. Regina shook, the searing heat scorching her from the inside fading in a rush, leaving her feeling so very empty. So very cold.

She pulled back, arms wrapped around her middle and her back to Emma. Memories rose up, bursting forth like the river floods brought by the Summer Storms.

Oh, but not just those of more recent times. Not just those times when Emma had defended her – even when she saw the force of her mother’s magic – or when she bargained for a treat as a surprise, or spent what little she had on something for her. No, it was those times when she had pressured Emma, twisted what she wanted from her. Demanded embraces, or when she insisted on Emma’s presence when she had her little free time, or put what she thought was the both of them at risk – for it was never truly the both of them, was it? After all, who would have come off worse if they had been caught? Hidden marks and magical punishments were nothing compared to losing everything… including possibly her very life.

I saved her.

And for a foolish moment she considered that perhaps having held Emma’s heart in her hands had left a lasting impact on her. But of course that could not be true, could it? Since they had become friends, Emma had always put her first. Without hesitation. Perhaps she had been doing so for long before then.

And I have always let her…

“It’s, err, been a long and… emotional day.” Emma’s voice was startling in the sudden stillness and silence, even though it to was hushed. She felt her step closer, but did not turn. She could feel Emma’s concern, and her cautiousness. Was… was Emma afraid of her? “Why don’t you get some rest? I can take the first watch.”

Regina turned to her, lifted her hand but left it hovering in the space between them. She gaped, trying desperately to find her words. And when at last they came, it was in a broken rush.

“I am sorry, Emma. I should not have snapped at you. Nor said that about your… family… I – I do not – that was not me.”

Emma nodded, lifting her head. She smiled broadly, though it did not reach her eyes, “I’m sure you can think of a way to make it up to me.”

Emma chuckled, forced though it was.

“No, Emma – ”

“It’s fine, really.”

“ – I am sorry, truly and completely.” She dared to move closer, to cup Emma’s cheeks. She brushed her thumbs across her heated skin, her heart sinking further, “I mean it. I am… simply so… and you truly do need to think of yourself.”

This time, as she smiled, Emma’s dimples appeared, “It’s fine, Regina. I know how frustrating this all is, how that can wear on a person. But we will be there soon.”

Regina rested her forehead against Emma’s, their fingers finding one another’s. But her stomach was heavy, though Emma did not shrink away she felt tense and their embrace felt wrong. And, again, Emma was ignoring – or oblivious – to what she had tried to truly say.

Or perhaps the hurtful things she had said earlier had overshadowed it…

God, why had she said those things?

What was wrong with her?

Regina pulled back, and for once Emma was quick to retreat, returning to her place on the ground. The fire crackled, the sound sharp, the night swallowing all outside of its reach. Regina sat before it, on the opposite side to Emma, and glanced to Rocinante.

Regina covered her frayed nerves well, or Emma chose not to mention it or put voice to whatever was going through her own mind.

It was as Emma unclasped her cloak that Regina spoke, fidgeting fingers clasped together.

“No. I will have the first watch.”

Emma didn’t look up, her eyes on her cloak as she stretched it out, feigning interest in looking for any damage, “You had the first one yesterday, let me have it today. I already said I would.”

Regina shook her head, squirming despite herself. As if she sensed it, Emma lifted her gaze and tilted her head, watching her closely. There were a few long stretched out moments of silence, of slow understanding.

“Alright.” Emma’s voice was soft, and carried more than a little reluctance, “Just, do wake me when you need to – earlier if you have to. Right?”

“Of course, Emma.” Her response was reflexive, her gaze not lifting from the fire. If it affected Emma any, she did not know. But had she not already caused her such hurt?

She heard Emma shifting, and knew without looking that she was settling down to sleep.

Regina’s mind was still buzzing with everything, leaving her on edge. It was doubtful she would ever find sleep tonight, not that she deserved any peace.

It did not take long for Emma to fall into a noticeably less restful slumber than was the norm, but even that did little to free her from the slowly consuming pull of her thoughts.

Though there was a chill in the air, she shuffled away from the fire. Not far, just a short distance to see if some space would help ease her mind or help her understand what had happened.

But, if anything, that only made it all that much worse. Any pretence of keeping watch was forgotten as she fell completely into her own mind. She dropped her head into her hands, threaded her trembling fingers through the strands of hair that had fallen from her braid. Her heart thumped heavily beneath her breast, feeling almost foreign – uncomfortable and unwanted.

She struggled to swallow, to breathe, to comprehend this sudden loss of control. Again, she felt like a stranger looking in, watching herself fall apart.

Even her thoughts were unclear – like a roaring storm, blinding and deafening her. Isolating her. Desperately she tried to tamper it down, to seize back some sort of control. She had practiced so long ago, why was she flailing now?

She latched onto one thought, dragged it forward in the hopes the rest would fall silent.

What she had said – not about Emma always putting her first. That was true and still weighed heavily on her, and it certainly would continue to do so until she could get Emma to finally understand.

No, it was the hurtful words that stung at her heart. And the so fresh memory of that complete and utter rage that had all but taken over her. That had twisted her into something else. Something vile.

That fortune teller’s words resurfaced, having burrowed so deeply into her mind. The anger she had felt, the energy sizzling across her skin and raising hair in its wake. The rush of power beneath it all, the almost elation in it. It was all seared into her mind.

The fear in that woman’s eyes.

The… fear in Emma’s…

No, no, it could not be. Surely not. She had been confused, was still confused, she had simply misread what she had seen.

Emma didn’t…

She couldn’t even control her temper anymore. Again and again she was lashing out at Emma, when all she had ever done was try to protect her.

And Emma just let her – yes she may retaliate, but never to the extent that she could. That she would with others. Again she was putting her first, again and again. She would always forgive her.

No – no, this was not about her temper. That anger was something else entirely.

God that anger.

She looked at her hands, recalled vividly what she had once done in desperation and rage. What she had almost repeated once before –

What if she had…

Emma did not fully understand, she still could not see that the poison in her veins was just that. Though, now, there was more of a glimmer of understanding beneath her words and in her expression.

How long would it be until Emma truly did have fear in her eyes?

How long until she would flinch from her contact?

How long until she saw the truth and… had no choice but to protect herself.

And yet, even after what she had said and done, Emma still tried to pretend that all was well.

She tugged violently at her tunic and cloak, grasping for the ring around her neck and when she touched it she gripped it with a desperateness she rarely felt. She clung to the warm metal tightly, until it was sure to leave an indentation in her palm. She squeezed her eyes shut tightly, prayed the ring would calm her as it once had. Prayed it would help her in her darkest moments as it once did long ago.

But if anything it made the ache in her chest grow, made the pain in her head spike.

She sucked in a breath, trying to keep quiet lest she wake Emma.

Her eyes stung with the need to free the tears trapped there. She would not – she could not –

She had thought turning her back on it all, acting as if that poison was not there would stop it from claiming her. But clearly it had not. It had only made its pull on her strengthen, it had only grown within her. Waiting. Escaping her in bursts.

She had lost any semblance of control she had –

Father? What would he think of her if he could see her now? Would he be ashamed? Would he see her as just like her mother?

God, was she just like her?

The flurry of elation that came with it – she had tried to block that from her memory but that had only made it worse. Had only made it stick in her mind more. It was as if she wanted to revel in it. If she had a mirror, would her eyes have danced with the same glee as her mother’s?

She prickled with the memory – of other memories too – of despair and pain and weakness. Of a rare and hidden comfort.

God, her head hurt! She pressed both fists to the sides of her temples. A surge of cold dread rising to swirl and twist in chest, lurching to spread like choking tendrils until its suffocating reach wrapped around her heart, trying to envelop her entirely.

She was on her feet. She did not recall how.

Warmth surrounded her, the sounds of the night and Emma’s gentle breathing drown out by the noise of her own mind – and then they were gone. Replaced by a strong, crackling fire and the subtle shifting of fabric.

Her eyes fluttered open, her heart flipping.

Solid walls, wooden furnishings lit by the dancing flames of a great fireplace.

She whirled around, wild-eyed and confused. Where was she? Where was Emma? She had been only a short distance away a moment ago – she had been in the forest!

Was she going mad?

She heard rustling again and realised she was not alone, she turned on her heel in the same moment a strained voice called.

“Regina?”

She was still, frozen in the moment as her mind struggled to comprehend what was happening. To try to make sense of it all. But even after that split moment,