Chapter 1: pilot
In her weaker moments, Regina closes her eyes and imagines what it will be like when she meets the love of her life. She allows her mind to dress him, paint him in the softly tanned skin and glowing green eyes. He will be beautiful, handsome, charming. He will disarm her with a smile and leave her as breathless as a bird before landing, as free as well. He will be, in a word, perfect.
She tends to have these moments on days like today, when the sunlight streams through the curtains of her chambers just to taunt her. To make her pine for the world that she cannot experience. Her mother would be furious were she to go out before she was ready. Her hair must be brushed. Her clothes pressed. Her skin free of blemishes. She doubts it will matter much one way or another. There are no suitors. No one will take her hand if it means being near her mother. How ironic since that is the only way for Regina to get out.
Out. Such a simple way to say all that she desires. She wants to be out from under Cora's grasp, out of this prison she's forced to call home, out of this whole world if she could do it. The only thing for her here is her father, and even he is not enough to make her want to stay.
She watches her reflection in the mirror before her. She's foolish to think that she can find someone to love her. It won't be hard to make someone want her. Cora's said often enough that her body is one of the few things that seems to be right about her. It's her personality that needs work. Her quick responses and her tendency to talk without thinking first. Her manners. Her everything.
But at least she's beautiful.
She glances up at her name, using the mirror to find her guest. A sigh nearly escapes her lips when she sees it is her father. He needs to stop doing this. She does not want a pep talk after a lashing, or an extra sugar cube in her tea. She only wants to survive these next few months and get out of this palace once and for all. Judging by the saddle draped over his arm, perhaps her father wants it as badly as she does.
"Daddy," she responds. The simple greeting is enough to bring Henry into the room. He walks hesitantly, as if a dragon nests before him. It almost pleases her in a way. A dragon is powerful, strong, loved.
She reminds herself that he loves her. He would do anything for her. Well, she thinks bitterly, anything but stand up to Mother.
He holds the saddle out towards her and says in his gravely, pleading tilt, "You should take up riding. It is late in your years, I know, but you could find happiness there."
Regina scoffs and turns, her raven hair flying behind her like a cape. "Happiness?" she barks. "I have no happiness. Only a few spare hours permitted by her highness." She chuckles bitterly. Her mother is as royal as she is. There is nothing majestic or worthy about Cora. Only heartless and empty, driven by an innate need to do better. Be better. No amount of gold will ever do that for Cora, and not a thing in the world will make Regina like her. Make Regina act like her.
Henry speaks up again, a bit stronger this time. "You will have more time if you are riding. Time outside of the castle, in the open air with nothing but your horse and your soul for company. You will like it. I swear to that."
Regina wants to mention the other times that he has sworn to something. Sworn to speak to Cora, sworn to take her away. Still, his words reach her. He's saying that she will have freedom. It will be limited, but she will be out of reach of this prison and its inhabitants. She'll get to live, however briefly, the way she would like to. With that in mind, she rises from her seat and takes the saddle from his arm.
She nods. "I will require someone to teach me."
He grins. "The stable boy is already waiting out by the stables."
The stable boy. Regina has hardly had the pleasure of interacting with him. He tends to the horses for their carriages and is nothing more than the worker who takes the creatures once Regina and her family dismount. She wonders how Cora will react to hearing Regina is speaking to someone of such low stature. Maybe she'll have a heart attack at the thought.
"The stable boy," Regina repeats. "What is his name?"
"Daniel!" she shrieks. The cry pierces through the otherwise quiet wood, shaking birds from their trees and the slightest of laughs from the boy in question. From his spot, a few feet away, Daniel smiles. The act fills Regina with a bit of contempt. How very like the peasants to take pleasure in the pain of the rich. He is exactly how she expected him to be, only he's far worse.
He does not offer simple words of help. He tries to show her, moves her hands and her body in the way that he believes to work the best. He babies her. He makes her feel like a child. She is not a child. She is seventeen, more than old enough to handle riding a horse. More than old enough to handle anything. Were Fate on her side she would be married with a child of her own by this point. She does not need him to look down his nose at her or poke fun at her expense. She simply requires help.
He holds his hand out to her. It hangs in front of her face, a block for the sun from her new vantage point on the ground. She considers ignoring it in spite and pride. Then she considers the state of her dress. It is already in disarray. Dirty. Cora will not be pleased. Then again, when is she ever?
Regina accepts the hand and finds herself hoisted up, practically into his arms. Quickly, she steps out of them. She has no interest in standing close to this boy, or in being civil.
She snaps, "You let me fall."
With a grin, he points out, "I told you to slow down. You are not ready to wander that far or that fast. I'm quite surprised you lasted as long as you did."
She huffs. "Do not underestimate me." This is exactly her point! Everyone in her life is awful. This is why her future marriage to a prince is important. This is why she puts up with all of the other nonsense, to avoid drivel and imbeciles like him.
He remarks, "I would never." Her eyes narrow at him. More mocking? Honestly, the nerve. The pure audacity. Doesn't he know what she could have done to him for this? Doesn't he understand? Obviously not since he retains his carefree grin and says, simply, "Let us take a break."
The break he mentions involves retiring to the stable. It's a cold sort of place, drafty. Daniel seems right at home there.
"Do you live here?" she asks him.
He laughs and shakes his head. "I live in a cottage a short ride away."
A cottage. How... quaint. "It is small I assume."
He nods. Meets her gaze. "It is not the size of the home that dictates its comfort, but the size of the hearts it houses."
That makes Regina laugh. Chortle. She flushes at her reaction, explaining, "You must strive to be a poet. Do you write your words in the hay?" She laughs again at her joke.
"In the wood actually."
She stills, quirks an eyebrow. Is he serious? He holds her gaze a moment longer before laughing himself. Oh. He must be joking too. She grins. She plans to stop there, but his mirth is contagious. So much so that she stumbles back and bumps into a nearby gate. Regina turns quickly to see what she has undone. She finds herself peering into the eyes of a horse. For a moment, she's convinced she is back in her room, watching her mirror. Surely the longing and dejected nature she feels cannot also be in this creature. This marvelous creature.
This horse is calmer than the one she rode earlier. Lighter as well. This horse is deep brown whereas the other was black as her hair. In certain lighting, she knows that this one could appear the same way, but looks can be deceiving. In fact, they often are. What is not is what is inside. Who a person is. And this person, this beast, is broken.
"This horse," she says, glancing back to Daniel briefly, "What is its name?"
"He doesn't have one, not officially. He's not very social."
Neither is she. "Perhaps he has reason to be," she says. She wants to know them. Wants to understand. She already feels like she does, but she can't be sure without being closer. Without truly looking into the eyes of the beast, the horse, him. "I would like to take him out. Can I do so?"
Daniel's eyes widen. She worries a moment. Has she said the wrong thing? She has a tendency to do that as well.
"You may. Do not take it personally though if he does not like you."
As he opens the gate, she mumbles to herself, "I never do."
The horse's eyes grow darker when Daniel enters his confines. It's another thing Regina understands. She was wary herself, but he isn't so bad. Still slightly condescending, but most people she interacts with are. At the very least, he seems to listen to her. And the way he listens, with his honey colored gaze solely focused on her, with his entire body angled in her direction, it's captivating. He pays attention. He's soft in his interaction, and he even guides the horse around to Regina.
Once face to face, Regina reaches out a hand to the horse, leaving it floating in the air between the two of them. After a moment or two, the horse inclines his head towards it. She strokes down the head of the animal. Feels its warmth. Its hesitant trust. She imagines what it must be like to be a horse in the stables. To be used strictly for the joy and travel of others and then locked away in the cold, dark outdoors to wither and wait until needed once more.
"He should have a name," she decides, "He should have freedom."
"A name does not mean freedom," Daniel points out.
Oh, she knows. "A name is a trap, a tether to a world that does not always want you. But it can also mean protection."
Daniel leans back against the gate then. He tells her, "I named my horse Hermes."
She looks to him. "As in good luck and swiftness."
He shrugs. "As in a messenger, treated as mixture of man and God. Do you have a better name?"
He means no judgment. She gets that much from the lightness in his voice. So she says the first thing to pop into her mind.
"Remy." She meets Daniel's eyes briefly before looking back at the horse before her. "As in Remedius, or remedy." Her face burns. This is ridiculous. She sounds ridiculous. "It does not date back to Gods, but -"
"It's a fine name," Daniel says. He reaches out, lets his hand smooth over Remy's back. "Tomorrow, if you wish, you could ride him."
She likes the thought of that. Likes the thought of tomorrow. With him. Both of them. She purposely allows her hand to stray a bit further down Remy's neck. Her fingers brush Daniel's. Then, as lightly as the flush rising to her cheeks, Regina says, "I would like that very much."
Later that night, when Regina sits by her mirror and imagines her prince, she sees an open grove and eyes as rich as honey.
Chapter 2: the thing you love most
Remy is truly the most remarkable horse that has ever walked the planet. When he leaps, it's as if he's flying. Learning to ride with him is easy. Natural. In Regina's eyes, he can do no wrong, even if he eats far more than what his share should be of apples.
His nose brushes against the palm of Regina's hand as he finishes yet another of the treats. Regina smiles at him and glances down to the basket she brought for lunch. The woven wood stares back at her.
"That's the end of them, Remy. No more apples."
"For him anyway," Daniel says. Regina turns her attention to her stable boy. He's sprawled across the grass of the field they've stopped on. One elbow holds his body upright while the other swings his arm around so that he can take a nice large bite of what must have been the last apple she packed.
"Daniel! That wasn't for you," she says, crossing towards him. He rolls over lightly to keep himself out of her reach. He takes another bite.
"But it's too delicious to leave only to the horses. They're amazing. Besides, I was curious as to what was so important that you spend hours away from the three of us." By that he of course means himself, Remy, and Hermes. They've been riding for nearly two weeks by this point. Every day, she cuts the lesson short to tend to her apple trees before tea time.
She tells him, "Well, when there's only thing you do correctly, you should do it." Once that's in the air, her eyes widen and her hand goes up to cover her mouth. Why did she say that? She would never -- she should have never -- "I apologize. That answer was not appropriate. I shouldn't have said such a thing."
Daniel's quick to shake his head. He leans forward to look more firmly at her. "Regina, stop. There is no reason to hide yourself from me. I will not judge you. I will only match you, blow for blow." She wants to laugh. If he thinks he has enough to match her, he is sadly mistaken. He says, "The only thing I truly do right is raise horses."
She does laugh, briefly, lightly. "Horses are magnificent, Daniel."
"You are as well," he says. Her cheeks warm, and she ducks her head to hide it. His voice rings in her ears as she does so. She brings her head back level, lets him see the effect his words have on her as she fights to speak.
"You're far better than I expected. You're..." She trails off and their eyes meet, his hesitantly hopeful and hers searching. Searching for the right word, the right emotion, the right anything. She's been raised to be perfect to live as properly as possible, but what is proper about this? About them? Why should she try so hard when there is no one to impress? "You're something."
His hopeful eyes grow a bit brighter. He asks with a laugh, "Is that a good thing?"
She nods. "I think it is." She thinks that 'something' is exactly what she needs.