Two more days remained to pull their plan together, but Emma was certain everything would work out well enough. Regina was already able to alter her appearance for long enough to walk around the palace to get the stationary and she herself was almost done perfecting her mother’s hand. A few more times through and she was sure that she could reproduce everything flawlessly.
She picked up her quill again and set to work. It was late, long after diner, and her candle was almost burned to a nub, but one more time through wouldn’t hurt. Regina wouldn’t be back for a while, flitting around the palace at the late hour cataloguing the new guard rotations. Despite the change in appearance Regina was still convinced that breaking in at night was the best option. There were fewer guards on duty at night, which Emma found to be rather stupid. Everything vaguely suspicious seemed to happen after the sun set, but she wasn’t the one who set the guard schedule.
By the time she went through the paper once more Regina was walking through the door. The façade of the library girl shimmered for a second before fading, revealing the olive skin and brown hair Emma loved. Emma pushed her work back and got up from her desk, walking over to Regina.
“How’d it go?” Emma asked, drawling Regina into her arms.
Regina sunk into Emma tiredly. “Well enough, most everything was the same, but the guard route in the east wing has changed to everything fifteen minutes instead of every twenty, inconvenient to be sure, but nothing undoable.”
“If you’re sure. I only want this to go forward if you’re sure that you’ll get in and out without a hitch.”
Regina pulled back and shot Emma a look. “We’ve been over this, darling. I’m sure. This scouting was part of everything to make sure I’m right. I’m being careful.”
“Ok. Just…” Emma brought a hand to cup Regina’s cheek. “I can’t lose you. I care for you too much.”
Regina leaned forward and kissed Emma gently. “I know, I love you too. Nothing is going to happen.”
“I know, and yet I’m going to keep bugging you anyway until this is all done, until it’s all for sure.”
Regina shook her head. “I suppose I can make it through another two days of you being worried. It’s quite cute in its way.” She kissed Emma on the forehead. “But come, it’s late. We should sleep. There’s a long day of lovely council meetings and reports on top of other things.”
Emma nodded and let Regina tug her along to the bedroom. She looked back at the things she had scattered on the table she had been working at and shrugged. The mess could wait until tomorrow since the candle had truly burned out while she’d been talking to Regina. Instead, she slipped out of her dress quickly and slipped into bed beside Regina and fell almost promptly into a dream about just how good it might feel to have Regina pressed up against her without any clothes between them.
She woke in the morning to a pounding on the outer door of her chamber. She wearily looked around. Regina was still sound asleep, curled on her side, hand stretched towards Emma. She looked peaceful and Emma didn’t want anyone to disturb that. She quickly got out of bed, careful not to bounce Regina, and slipped on a dressing gown. She scowled as the knocking sounded again, didn’t anyone know how to be patient in this palace? She hurried a little more, hoping that last round hadn’t disturbed Regina.
She wrenched open the door, ready to reprimand whatever servant was at the other side of the door, but stopped short at the sight of her mother staring at her almost too calmly holding a few pieces of paper with her forged writing on them. She swallowed hard. The jig was up.
“Mother,” she said, looking the other woman dead in the eye, gaze as blank as she could make it.
Her mother pushed past her without even asking admission. Emma took a step back to keep from falling on her ass, nostrils flaring. If she wasn’t in one of the most precarious positions of her life she would let her mother have it for such petty actions. It was disrespectful to them both, really.
Snow White down in Emma’s favorite chair and crossed her legs daintily, arms resting on the side of the chair like it was her throne. She motioned for Emma to sit in the other chair in the room straight across from her. Emma instead circled around to the couch and sat down. Her mother’s eyes narrowed but she said nothing, instead setting the papers on the coffee table in front of Emma.
“Explain,” was all she said to Emma before sitting back again.
Emma stared at her mother for a long moment. She had no story prepared for this. There really was no way to spin this story that made her look good. There was, however, a way to spin in so that Regina wasn’t implicated in anything. She had to take the fall for this.
“Exactly what it looks like mother, I was forging your writing.”
“I can tell that, but to what end?”
“Because you banned me from talking to the peasants directly this was what I was doing instead. The record keepers collect whatever information you tell them. If I forged another list of questions with just one question added no one would really be the wiser and I would get the information I wanted around your restrictions.” She swallowed hard again. Her throat felt like a desert. How she was forcing words to leave her mouth was mystery.
Her mother reached forward and grabbed one of the papers. “I admit, it is quite similar, even in the early stages. You’re quite good at this.” She crumpled up the paper and threw it in the already lit fire. “You’re also quite careless. These were sitting out on a table in this room. The maid found them earlier when she came to clean, just sitting in plain sight. She brought them to me immediately, thank the gods. I thought you were smarter than this, but I see that’s not true.”
Anger flowed through her, but for once she was listening to the little voice in the back of her head that told her to shut up instead of fighting. It would be better in the long run, probably anyway.
“Emma,” her mother sat forward in her seat. “you tell me that Regina is making you this great princess, but do you even realize what would happen if word of this stupid move got around? It could destabilize the kingdom and invite the invasion that we’ve been trying to keep out by marrying you off. So you see, I’m not quite so inclined to believe you when you say Regina is so good at teaching you. You should’ve been listening to me this entire time and perhaps this wouldn’t have happened.”
“Regina knows nothing about this. It’s all my idea. I never told her about it, I knew she wouldn’t like the plan so I did it on my own. It wouldn’t have happened if you had listened to me for once. I want to make changes in the kingdom. I see the White kingdom as a grand thing for the smallest person to the noblest lord. It’s already quite the good place for those of the upper class, as most kingdoms are, what I want to work on is making it better for peasants and you’re stonewalling me over the tiniest things. What harm could asking a few questions do? What could talking to a few farmers do?
“Our peasants are nowhere near the most loyal subjects because they hardly ever interact with us and our laws only just allow them to live as they need. I wanted to start on the road to a better kingdom, but you call it stupid and foolish without offering any advice. I get that I’m new to all of this, that I don’t know the ins and outs as well as everyone else, but being told that I’m stupid instead of offering actually constructive criticism isn’t a way to teach me.
“Regina is a good teacher because she listens to me. She may call me foolish, but she tells me what I need to do differently. And yes, I may be biased because she agrees with me, but no one who disagrees with me has anything to teach. That’s why I did this, because this kingdom needs to change, and I’ll see it become what it needs to be no matter how I have to get it there.” Emma looked at her mother, posture straight and commanding, eyes daring her to contradict anything she had just said.
“Through war, Emma? Because that’s what this kind of tactic is leading us to and that’s good for no one in this kingdom. That’s what you’re failing to see here. I’ve blocked your ideas because it’s not the right time. Change is good when there is time for it, but right now our kingdom, as you’ve pointed out to me so many times before, is on the verge of bankruptcy and war. Change is not what we need right now. We need to be on more stable ground before anything can be done.”
“But that kind of thinking is what keeps everything the same!” Emma gripped the arm of the couch hard. “That’s what you’re not seeing. The system we have is what got us here. If we change it, then perhaps we wouldn’t be bankrupt and on the edge of chaos. I get that you can’t risk everything at once, I do, but if you would just let me do something small, anything at all, then maybe we could find some sort of solution.”
Snow White shook her head. “I won’t let you do anything after this stunt.” She grabbed the papers left on the table and threw them in the fire. “Starting today you will stop attending council meetings until I see fit. Regina will go in your stead, as much as I’m not fond of the idea, if she really had nothing to do with this little plan of yours then one of your should be present at least for appearances. Your trip with the record keepers is cancelled. I’ll be going in your stead to get the information you need as well as make sure you try nothing else foolish. You’re still bound within the palace until I return. After that everything will be reevaluated based on reports from servants around the palace about your behavior and we’ll see where we stand from there.”
Snow stood and started to make her way out of the room. “I know we haven’t been on the best standing as of late, Emma, but you have to see that every decision I make has consequences which you’re only beginning to understand. Perhaps I haven’t been a good teacher and maybe a little too stubborn and stuck in my ways and maybe we can change that together when I get back, but this is how it has to be for now.” She glanced at her daughter once more before departing.
Emma just sat and stared at the door for a long time. She didn’t quite understand what had just happened. She was chided, for sure, disciplined as well, but somehow…it had almost been something of an olive branch there at the end. She wasn’t sure if it was a real offer, or just something to get her to behave, but she didn’t think she could let it slip past either. Somehow they had fought so much that the worst thing Emma had done had actually brought them back to a place where they might reconcile. It baffled her. How had this even happened? She wasn’t sure she’d understand if she sat and thought about it for the next century.
Regina came out to the sitting room in the middle of her reverie and sat down beside her. She looked at Emma concerned, laying a hand on her arm. Her expression grew a little more frantic when Emma didn’t respond. She shook the blonde gently.
Emma managed to look at her wife. She swallowed once and then again. She couldn’t speak. Words would fail her anyway, she was sure. Instead she put a hand on top of the one Regina had on her arm and squeezed.
“Emma, what’s wrong? Did something happen?” Regina’s other hand came up to cup her face. “Are you hurt? Did I sleep through some sort of attack?”
The pain on Regina’s face at the last question hurt Emma as well. She couldn’t stand to see the other woman feel such a horrid emotion. Words rushed out of her mouth just to take the expression of Regina’s face. “No, no, gods no. I’m…not fine, I think, but I might be, if that makes any sense to you.”
Regina relaxed a little bit. “Well, what’s the matter then? You had such an almost… distraught look on your face.”
Emma sighed. She could feel the words at the back of her throat now, ready to come out, if only she found the right order. “My mother, she was here,” Emma said slowly.
“You didn’t have a fight, did you? Surely I would’ve woken for that.” Regina sat forward and took both of Emma’s hands.
“It wasn’t a fight, not really. I’m not sure what it was. It just, it was an argument, but not an uncivil one for once. There were no raised voices. There were no insults. We just talked. I’m not sure how.”
“Why was she even in here?”
Emma looked up at Regina. “She found out about our plan. I took the fall for all of it, she has no idea you even knew about it. We’re not going on the trip because of it. But even still, after all of that, she should be more furious than ever, but she wasn’t. She actually explained things to me in a reasonable tone and didn’t blame it all on you. It was the strangest thing. And then at the end of all of it she offered an olive branch for when she returns. Or at least I think it is. She told me that maybe she hadn’t been a good teacher and too stubborn and that maybe we could work together on that when she got back. Is that an olive branch?” She looked at Regina like she held all of the answers.
The corners of Regina’s mouth pulled up just slightly. “I think you’ve finally tipped down off the precipice, and on the right side of it, darling. It’s an olive branch. But I think that you’ll have to work just as hard as she will to maintain the peace.”
“You’re sure?” Emma laced her fingers through Regina’s.
“As sure as I can be. Your mother has proved to not be the most predictable or smartest, but I know she does love you. I don’t know about this set her on the right path to reconciling with you, but I’m glad it’s happened.”
Emma nodded. “I am, but like, I’m really angry at her still, but…” she trailed off. She didn’t know what she meant.
“Mothers can make you the maddest of any person on the earth. They know exactly what buttons to push and when to push them for the most effect. They’re the person who knows you best. And as much as you hate them, you still want their approval and love, as I’ve said before.”
“Yeah, it’s just confusing now that there’s a chance. It was less confusing when we were locked in almost a battle. Battle comes with rules and now those are thrown out the window.”
Regina leaned forward and kissed Emma on the forehead. “You’ll figure them out again. I have faith. You’ll set your own rules and figure out your mother’s quickly enough. I think you’ve both established what’s important to each of you already. It might be hard to find a balance, but it’ll be there.”
Emma leaned into the other woman. “I hope.” She sighed heavily. “But now we’re a little set back in that whole thing about helping the peasants. And we’re still bound to the palace for who knows how long. And I’m banned from council meetings until further notice, you’re going in my stead since you had nothing to do with the plan.”
Regina made a displeased noise. “That won’t teach you anything, to be banned like that.”
“She has to do something more to punish me, I suppose. Putting me in a position of power while she’s gone isn’t exactly something to give to someone being punished. I’m sure she’s come up with another reason why I’m being taken off the council. From how she made it sound this all could sort of destabilize the kingdom.” Emma shrugged. “She did kind of have a valid point there, I guess, even if I don’t like it.”
Regina gasped. “Gods, she does, how did I not see that?” She pulled back from Emma.
“We were both a little caught up in the end goal but not the consequences I guess.”
“I can’t afford to be like that, I never have to able to. I’m so stupid.”
Emma grabbed the other woman’s shoulders. “Regina, we all make mistakes.”
“I can’t, my mother will take any mistakes we make and she will use them against us. We have to be perfect, Emma, absolutely perfect.”
“But she didn’t even show up to the wedding, how do you know she’s even watching us?”
Regina swallowed. “I just, I have a feeling, Emma. She may not be here, but she’s out there somewhere.”
“Of course she is, but how long will it take you to relax when she doesn’t show up and doesn’t show up? You can’t keep worrying about this forever.”
“I have for the last five years, what’s stopping me now when she actually knows exactly where I am?”
“I am.” Emma stroked Regina’s hair, still loose down her back from sleeping.
Regina looked up. “I love you, that worries me even more. She thinks love is weakness. She’ll use it against me and kill you and make me watch.”
Emma drew Regina into her arms. “Hush, my love, we can’t worry about things we don’t know about, only plan contingencies just in case, and we’ve already done that. Worry about everything about your mother when there’s something to worry about.” She froze a little bit. Had she just called Regina her love? She wasn’t quite sure.
Regina relaxed into her slightly. “I’m going over everything again.”
“Ok, I’ll help you. I’ll have the time. I won’t let anything happen to you.”
“You can’t promise that.” Regina shuddered against Emma.
“Neither can you, really, and yet you do and it always makes me feel better.”
Regina nodded into Emma’s chest. “Me too,” she said in a small voice.
Emma pulled Regina up off the couch. “Come, you have a council meeting to go to.”
Regina followed her willingly regaining composure by the second and when she was finished dressing and out the door it was like nothing had ever happened at all.
Emma was the perfect princess, seeing her mother off at the gates to the palace with her small entourage with her father at her side. He was going to take care of the everyday affairs while her mother was gone with the councils help. While she understood why she wasn’t the one in charge she couldn’t help but think that now would be a perfect opportunity to learn just what it took to run the kingdom from day to day. Perhaps on her mother’s next trip she would gain enough trust back to do so.
Her mother hugged her goodbye, giving her one last piercing look that screamed for her to behave before her face softened again. She squeezed Emma’s arm once before turning to her father and kissing him on the cheek. With that she mounted her horse and her little procession was off to the next village over to meet the record keepers.
Regina appeared at her side as soon as her mother’s horse turned the corner and rode out of sight. “That went quite well.”
Emma shrugged. “As can be. I still got the death glare, but no shouting matches in public, not that any of our arguments really were in public. As much as anything isn’t in public for royalty anyway.” She turned towards the palace.
“Emma!” Her father called from behind the both of them, brushing his hands off on his tunic, leaving a smear of dirt on the bright red.
Emma smiled, her father never could quite keep clean when he was out in the yard. He always was inspecting the animals there and feeding them or, if not that, then sword fighting with the guards. He really was the shepherd king and that wasn’t an insult like so many thought it was.
He jogged up to them and smiled at Regina before speaking to Emma. “I know your mother banned you from council meetings, but we all know that politics isn’t my strongest suit. I was wondering if you might help out? I know you want experience and I don’t want to burn everything to the ground while you’re mother is gone. She’d never forgive me.”
Emma laughed at that. “No, I don’t think she would.” She bit her lip. “But I don’t want to anger her any more than I already have.”
“She did give me permission to call on the both of you for help if need be.” He looked between Regina and Emma. “She didn’t say I had to wait until I absolutely needed it. By that point I think it might be a bit late don’t you?”
Emma was torn. This was exactly what she wanted and exactly what she didn’t need. The story going around the palace about why she was being punished and forbidden from going on the trip was much tamer than what she had actually done, what was sneaking out of the palace to her garden in comparison to forgery and borderline treason? But still, if she did this then she would be rather publically defying her mother’s will again. Reconciliation was so close and she hadn’t quite understood how they had gotten there and she wasn’t sure she could get there again. Her mother was more important than a few weeks of ruling experience. If she and her mother made up then she would get that anyway.
“I’ll tell her it was all my idea and that you only did it to help your father if she gets angry,” her father continued, seeing her reluctance.
Emma glanced over at Regina. The other woman shrugged subtly. Gods damn it this wasn’t one of the things that she wanted Regina to let her make her own decision on, but she was. Then her father shot her the same puppy dog eyes that had broken every single one of her nannies when she was small and she groaned.
“Fine, fine, but you are taking all of the heat if mother gets mad and you have to make it well known to the court that the only reason I’m stepping back in is on your request and not of my own volition.”
Her father nodded eagerly. “Done.”
She glared and sighed at her father. “You know, after twenty-three years of ruling beside mother you would be fine ruling on your own for a few weeks.”
“Your mother makes all the final decisions, I just contribute a different perspective. She’s the one who knows how to handle the upper class types. I have no idea, wasn’t exactly in my upbringing.” He shrugged. “Animals are better company and don’t kick you just because they want to hurt you.”
Emma snorted at that. “True enough, but you aren’t as dumb as you make yourself out to be and we both know it.”
There was a twinkle in his eye as he stepped around them and headed back towards the palace. “Who’s to know?” He called over his shoulder.
“Brave man, your father, to want to face the wrath of your mother just for you,” Regina said watching her father’s retreating back.
Emma laughed. “Not really, mother can’t stay mad at him for longer than a day. He’ll come in and kiss her on the cheek and all will be better again. But he always has been a good father, risking whatever was needed to get me what I deserved.” She smiled fondly. “The one man on earth who would’ve been happy as a peasant ended up a king.”
“The world works in funny ways.” Regina started walking towards the palace.
Emma hurried to catch up with her. She looked over at Regina and looped her arm through the other woman’s. “Yeah, it does, but I don’t think that’s a bad thing sometimes.” She squeezed Regina’s arm and lead them back towards the palace.