It barely reached her ears, the footsteps as they approached her through the still rain-soaked grass. There were some birds whistling in the tree-branches above her and something was moving through the underbrush nearby. None of it was cause for an alarm, but she still sat up a little straighter and pushed away the thoughts that had been plaguing her for the better part of the day.
“I’ll admit I don’t blame you for wanting to return here every now and then.”
Regina smiled at the words, having known right from the start who it was that had entered her domain, though she didn’t turn around to face Emma yet.
“It really is as if the outside world doesn’t exist here, isn’t it?”
Peering at the motionless pond of water in front of her, Regina’s smile grew. “I would say so yes, if it wasn’t for the fact that I keep having unannounced visitors.”
There was a soft sigh coming from somewhere behind her in response. “My mother I take it?”
“Hmm,” Regina hummed. She dangled her feet down from the rock she had been sitting on and turned a little to face Emma.
The smile vanished when her eyes landed on Emma who was leaning against a tree in front of her. She was clad in dark brown leathers interleaved with iron, protecting most of her body and arms. A sword sat in a scabbard hanging on her hip and she was wearing a familiar looking black hooded cape. Though she had been actively trying to block the memory from entering her thoughts, the sight of the cape still brought it back. Pursing her lips, Regina banished the unwanted throwback to the past from her mind again and titled her head towards her guest.
“She thought she had wronged me I suppose, since I left while the celebrations were still ongoing. I had to reassure her that it had nothing to do with that. She stayed over a little while longer, before stealing some of my fruits and taking her leave again.”
“Stealing?” Emma’s eyebrows rose.
“I suppose since she is the Queen it can’t really be considered as such.”
Snorting, Emma toyed a little with some loose strand of her cape. Regina shook her head upon doing another quick once-over. The armored riding gear wasn’t exactly standard wear for a woman, even one that often rode on a horse. And especially not one who was a Princess as well. But then again Emma had only ever worn the proper attire for women in her position a few times since they had all returned back to The Enchanted Forest, so she supposed she shouldn’t have been so surprised.
“You’ve brought her freshly harvested fruits from your trees a few times now, you can’t tell me that you are upset about her grabbing a few while she was here.” Emma grinned as she launched herself away from the tree. “You know what I think? That secretly you are actually a little flattered that she likes them so much.”
“Though I can’t blame you for leaving early though,” Emma continued as Regina watched her walk towards the pond. She bent down to grab a small pebble and skipped it across the water. “I have no idea what’s the point of celebrating a two year old’s birthday for that long. It’s not like he’s going to remember any of it anyhow.”
“It’s tradition dear.”
“Yes, well, you know as well as I do that tradition and I don’t exactly mix very well,” Emma remarked sourly. She skipped another pebble and then just stood motionless staring out at the water.
“Is that the reason you are out here again instead of following proper court etiquette classes at the Castle.”
“Noticed the lack of royal escorts huh?” Emma turned her head and smirked. “I have kind of mastered the art of ditching one’s babysitters.”
“And made yourself a giant target for any of your parent’s enemies as well,” Regina fired back, though she wasn’t able to hide the twitching of her lips, belying her amusement at Emma’s antics.
“You don’t think they are being a little overprotective here? From what I’ve seen most people in this Kingdom love them.”
“Within this Kingdom, perhaps. But outside of it? Just because your parents are paranoid doesn’t mean there’s no one out there to get them, Princess.”
“Using a Joseph Heller quote to convince me I’m suddenly in mortal danger, cute,” Emma remarked as she placed her hands on her hips. “I’m still not buying it but..funnily enough rumors of an outside threat is the reason I stopped by actually.”
“Oh?” Regina stood up and took a few steps towards Emma. “And you’ve come to me, because…?”
“My Orcish is a little rusty,” Emma offered up, a lopsided grin plastered across her face.
Huffing, Regina narrowed her eyes. “Indeed? Orcs? They live close to two weeks ride away south of here and they know very well trespassing these territories would be considered an act of war.”
“Yeah I know, I have paid some attention during these classes you know?” Emma said, sounding a bit miffed. “But yes, Orcs. I travelled to Holbeck a day and half ago and since I was incognito no one paid me much mind but… Some woodsmen had returned from their cabins a bit spooked. They said they had heard noises coming from the dense forest near the borders. Two of them even claimed to have seen a large group of Orcs passing through, but the soldiers stationed at Holbeck just laughed it off.”
“You put too much stock into grossly exaggerated stories told by easily frightened peasants, dear.”
“But what if it’s true?” Emma insisted. She walked closer still, until they were practically forced to look each other in the eyes and it made Regina’s heartbeat accelerate. It was too close, and it made her think of things she much rather wanted to forget.
Swallowing thickly, Regina walked around Emma without another word. She wondered if perhaps coming here had been a mistake. It was too obvious of a location and she should’ve known Emma being as oblivious as she was, would seek her out here, despite the subtle hints she had dropped that she would’ve liked to be left alone for a while.
She ignored Emma calling out for her attention and continued on her way towards the small cottage looming up between the trees ahead of her. Though she had to admit she was at least intrigued by these stories, despite knowing that Orcs would never travel this far up north. There was always the chance something else was lurking in the forest. Perhaps a simple group of bandits or marauders having crossed the mountains to the east. But the thought of accompanying Emma for however long the journey would take them was turning her stomach into knots.
It was too soon.
“Come on, where’s the harm in at least checking it out?”
Sighing, Regina stopped a few paces away from the fenced off cottage. “The harm is that even though I don’t believe there are actually Orcs out there, that doesn’t take away the fact that there might be something else out there waiting for someone to walk into a trap.”
“Now who’s being paranoid?” Emma grumbled. She threw her hands up in an exasperated gesture and turned towards the bay horse tied to the far side of the fence. “Orcs or not I’m going to take a look just to be sure. I just…figured since we haven’t spend so much time together lately, this would’ve been something you’d enjoy. You might even get to kick some green ass.”
“Grey,” Regina corrected, her amusement with Emma’s pleading puppy-dog eyes winning out over any irritation she had been feeling.
“They are grey, not green. I have no idea why your world kept persisting on portraying them as an savage green horde. They have a really rich culture and are decently well mannered. They’re just very different than humans, and humans do tend to fear that which they don’t know or understand.”
“So does that mean you’re going to accompany me on this trip?”
Throwing Emma an exasperated look, Regina opened the door to the cottage and walked inside. “I have no idea how you came to that conclusion from my explanation, but I have known you long enough to know that you’ll likely keep badgering me until I give in.” She walked straight to the closet in her bedroom, sensing that Emma was following after her. “I suppose it finally gives me an answer to the question where Henry got that trait from.”
“Hey!” Emma muttered from somewhere behind her. Regina could hear Emma letting out a soft undignified huff as she walked across the small room until she was standing next to her. “Henry isn’t that bad…” But then there was a contemplative look on her face as she turned towards one of the open windows. “Well he does have my parents wrapped around his little fingers, so I suppose you have a point there.”
She sorted through her closet for some clothes suitable for this particular journey, and mentally made a list of whatever else they would be needing. Every now and then she stole a look Emma’s way, but the other woman seemed oblivious to it all and content to peer out of the window, gazing at the lush garden Regina had planted by hand. She had needed to use a little bit of magic to speed up the growth of some of the plants and trees, but overall she was satisfied with the result.
The cottage had taken a lot less work, it had been in a surprisingly good state when Snow and David had given it to her a year and a half ago as a gift. The only thing she had needed to do was buy some new oaken-wood furniture to replace the old set as well as a few rugs for her bedroom and fireplace. Though she enjoyed the spacious chambers they had given her in the castle, she enjoyed retreating here all by herself every now and then. She had brought Henry over a few times, and Emma had basically just invited herself over shortly after she had finished refurbishing the house.
As she retrieved the rucksack from where it was lying on the floor next to the closet, her mind automatically flashed back to the last time Emma had been here. They had been arguing then, ending in a frustrated and furious Emma riding off by herself.
She glanced at Emma once more, only to find her looking right at her. Things were different now. But there was a remnant of old hurt shining in Emma’s eyes before she looked away a second later, and Regina wondered how different things really were. Perhaps they were just fooling themselves with the idea that everything could go back to the way they used to be.
“I got some supplies and food stored away in the saddlebags if you’re wondering about that.”
“Enough for two people I take it?” All she got was an impish grin in return. “Why am I not surprised. Well I suppose a small detour before heading back to the Castle isn’t such a bad idea. Though I maintain the opinion that these people likely got scared by a deer rustling through the underbrush and promptly turned it into the sighting of a horde of Orcs.”
Instead of receiving some kind of witty remark back, Emma remained silent and it was enough for Regina to stop fiddling with the string that kept the rucksack closed.
“Emma?” She questioned, after she had studied the other woman for a little while longer. Something about the hard lines drawn across her face made Regina a little anxious.
Though the moment Regina spoke up, Emma seemed to snap out it almost immediately. “Hm?” She questioned, sounding a bit confused and Regina was sure she had missed most of what she had said moments before.
“Something on your mind?”
“No,” Emma replied immediately. She offered up a seemingly half-hearted attempt at a smile, before walking back to where Regina was hovering over the bed. “Just thinking.”
“Well, you can continue your attempts to do so in the other room, I need to change.”
Snorting, Emma gave her a quick once-over. “What’s wrong with the dress?”
“It’s not exactly suitable for riding around on a horse.”
Emma immediately opened her mouth to no doubt say something in return but Regina would have none of it. Grabbing Emma just above the bracers protecting her lower-arm, she pushed her towards the door. “If you want to make yourself useful, go saddle up Alastor. I would prefer we reach Holbeck before nightfall.”
“You must think me crazy to come near that demonspawn you call a horse again, have you forgotten our last encounter?”
Rolling her eyes, Regina closed the door, shutting Emma out of her bedroom. “And don’t touch anything,” she called out before she started to undress herself.
“I’m not making any promises.” She heard the disembodied voice of Emma rang out and Regina groaned and closed her eyes.