** The Enchanted Forest**
Regina walks into the stable, eyes on the bridle in her hands, and heads directly for Dark Secret's stall. She's been antsy to be excused and head out to the barn to try it ever since her father gave her the bridle over breakfast. Dyed a deep purple, she just knows the bridle will look magnificent against her stallion's bay coloring.
Stopping in front of the stall, Regina blinks in surprise to see it standing open and empty. "Stephen?" she calls, glancing around the barn. "Where's Dark Secret?"
Instead of the old stable hand that has helped train her in riding, a young man walks in, hunched over from the bale of hay on his back. He heads straight for the empty stall and nearly drops the bale when he realizes he's not alone.
"Forgive me, miss," he says in a throaty tenor tone as he sets down the bale. "I put the stallion out to pasture while I cleaned his stall."
He glances up at her, and Regina finds herself falling into eyes that can't quite seem to decide if they're supposed to be hazel or mossy green. Sunlight streaming into the barn highlights the flecks of gold and blue in his eyes, and Regina feels something shift deep inside. She's only ever felt something like this once before, and that's a situation she tries not to think about any more than absolutely necessary. Her mother has made sure of that over the years. Startled by the sensation, and the attendant memories, she shakes her head and glances at the empty stall again.
"Where is Stephen? And why would you do that? Don't you know that I always go riding after breakfast?"
"I'm sorry, miss," he says, eyes downcast. "This is only my second day, and no one mentioned that the stallion is ridden each morning. I'll go saddle him up right away for you, miss."
As he turns away, Regina realizes that she's being as harsh on the poor boy as her mother is on most people. Not wanting to ever treat another human being like that, she fiddles with the leather gloves she has yet to don.
He pauses and turns around to face her again. "I'm sorry?"
"My name. It's Regina." She smiles self-consciously. "If you're going to be taking care of my horse, you should at least know my name."
He smiles, a twinkle in his eyes, and sketches a rough bow at her. "Very well, Miss Regina. My name is Daniel."
He places an odd inflection on the name, and she vows then and there to remember it and, more importantly, use it.
"Pleased to meet you, Daniel, and you can just call me Regina."
"The pleasure is mine, Regina," he says, reaching forward to grab her hand and press his lips to her knuckles. "And the stallion? What's his name?"
"Dark Secret, but I call him Secret."
Daniel smiles and nods, heading outside to bring in the stallion. Once he leaves, Regina lets out a little squeak and kicks the stall wall, muttering, "What are you doing, Regina? Mother will kill you."
When Daniel comes back in with Secret in tow, Regina is once again the composed daughter of minor nobility, and no scuff mark shows on the stall wall. She coos at the stallion, offering him a piece of carrot before slipping on the bridle as Daniel puts the saddle on him. When she leads the stallion back outside and mounts him to go riding, Daniel follows her, watching as she rides off to the west.
"Well met, Miss Regina," he murmurs. "Well met."
"Daniel! Where are you, boy?"
Turning quickly, Daniel heads back into the stable to face the older man staring at him. "Sorry, Stephen. I was just helping Miss Regina--"
"Miss Regina don't need no help from you, boy. You'll do best to leave her alone. Lady Cora don't take too well to her daughter unnecessarily mingling with us commoners."
Turning out another of the horses to the pasture, Daniel catches sight of Regina riding Secret off on the hill. He pauses to watch her jump a couple of fences and smiles. Heading back into the stable, he stops for a drink.
"Stephen, where did Miss Regina learn to ride that stallion?"
"Master Henry taught Miss Regina everything she knows about horses. He learned it from his father and grandfather and passed it along to her."
Daniel simply nods and returns to his work. After a few moments, Stephen can hear him humming a song that only sounds vaguely familiar. Shrugging, the senior groom returns to his own work, vowing to keep an eye on his newest groom.
When she finally returns to the stables, Daniel is waiting to take her horse.
"I can do that, Daniel," she says with a laugh as she dismounts. "You don't have to."
"It's my job, Miss Regina," is all he says, a twinkle in his eyes. "What else should I do?" As he pulls off the bridle, he turns it over in his hands. "This is fine craftsmanship."
"Thank you. Da-- My father gave it to me just this morning."
"Your father has good taste," he replies, grinning when she flushes slightly. He points to a stall a few spots down. "Shared Secret down there, is she related to Dark Secret?"
"His dam. Though sometimes I feel like I'm his dam, considering I helped with his birth."
Daniel blinks at that. "No, it can't be possible. You must have been just a baby."
Her delighted laughter echoes in the stable. "I was nearly nine when he was born. That's hardly a baby, Daniel." Reaching into her pocket, she pulls out the last piece of carrot for Secret, who gobbles it up. "Hardly a baby at all, isn't that right, Secret, my boy?"
She continues to sweet talk the horse as Daniel removes his tack and begins to brush him down. A companionable silence falls between them, as if they've always known each other.
Daniel watches as she stiffens, sucking in a breath. Before he can question her, a regal woman in a gown the same shade of purple as Secret's new bridle comes walking into the stables, followed by the man who'd agreed to take him on as a new stable boy.
"What's taken you so long?" the woman asks. "We have a meeting with one of the king's advisors today about the new crop of foals. You know I need your help with that information."
"What about Daddy and Stephen?" Regina asks, still standing so stiffly in her place next to Secret's head. "They know the information just as well as I do."
Finally, the woman looks at her daughter. "Oh, this simply won't do, Regina. You've wasted too much time on that useless horse. You know that you must look your best when meeting with the king's advisors. We don't want to set a bad example, do we?"
Regina says nothing, eyes downcast. Daniel can see that she's fighting some deep emotion, but isn't sure what to do. Finally, he leans forward and starts to take Secret's halter, intending to put him out to pasture, and gently squeezes her fingers.
"Here, Miss Regina," he says softly. "Secret's all brushed out. I'll just turn him out into his pasture for a few hours."
"Thank you, Daniel," she replies just as softly as she returns the gesture, then presses a kiss just above the stallion's nose, not bothering to hide the smile curling the corners of her lips. "Go have fun, Secret, my boy. At least one of us still can."
As he heads out of the barn, Daniel hears Cora begin berating Regina over her messy attire. He bites his tongue -- it's not his place to contradict the lady of the manor -- but cannot get the image of the hurt in Regina's dark eyes out of his mind.
Regina watches, breath trapped in her lungs, as Cora moves to stand closer to Daniel. The older woman smiles at the stable boy briefly, and Regina almost thinks she can relax.
"Daniel, if you want to have a life together, a family" -- she stumbles briefly over those last two words -- "then there's one important lesson I can impart on you. It's what it means to be a parent. You always have to do what's best for your children."
Daniel's broad smile melts Regina's heart, and she feels the bands of tension loosening infinitesimally as he says, "Thank you. I understand, because that's what you're doing now."
"Yes," Cora says, and the dread fills Regina again at her tone. "It is."
Before Regina can do anything to stop it from happening, Cora reaches forward, with a magically glowing hand, straight into Daniel's chest and pulls out his still-beating heart. The startled look on his face falters and morphs into Emma Swan's face for just a brief few seconds before Daniel crumples to the floor.
"Daniel! Mother, no!"
Regina bolts up in bed, eyes wildly searching the room for any sign of her mother or her lover. Chest heaving, she scrubs at her eyes, willing the tears away and failing miserably. She turns on the lamp on her bedside table and takes a slow, deep breath in an attempt to calm down, but it doesn't work. Only after another half dozen tries is she able to accomplish the simple task without her breath hitching in her throat. Tears she refuses to shed burn in her eyes.
A quick glance at the alarm clock shows that it's only a few minutes past three-thirty in the morning. Sighing, Regina throws back the covers and shifts her legs to hang over the side of the bed. There's no way she'll get any more sleep tonight, not if the nightmares are beginning again.
"Memories," she whispers and cringes at the harshness in her voice, completely ignoring the whole Emma Swan twist. "Not nightmares."
A few moments pass before she finds the strength to stand up and head into the bathroom. Splashing cold water on her face, Regina flinches again at the haunted look in her eyes. She pulls the towel from its bar to scrub her skin dry, then heads back out into her bedroom. Robe and slippers are donned before she exits what she has always felt was her private sanctuary in this house she has lived in for the last twenty-eight years.
Without thought, she walks to Henry's room to check in on her peacefully sleeping son. As she steps inside to adjust his blankets over him again, gratitude floods her senses at the knowledge that her nightmares -- memories -- didn't wake him. Regina has absolutely no desire to explain to her son why she's up so late. And she's quite certain that he'll accept nothing but the truth in this particular situation, something she's definitely not ready to ever have to deal with.
Satisfied that her son is safe and happy, Regina presses a kiss to his forehead and continues downstairs. She briefly considers making a pot of coffee, but rejects that option for the time being. Instead, she heads into her office and pours a healthy amount of scotch into one of the expensive cut glass tumblers. She bypasses her desk for the black leather couch, leaning back into the cushions with a throaty sigh. If she thinks about it, the sound is more of a moan than a sigh, but she's steadfastly trying not to think about it.
"Why now, my love?" she whispers, gripping the glass tightly. "Why remind me of what I've lost, what she destroyed all those years ago? I have my revenge; she has absolutely no happiness in her life because she doesn't have her charming prince at her side, her precious true love. So why do I feel this need to relive what I can never get back?"
There is no answer, not that Regina actually expects to receive one. After all these years -- if she's honest, it's nearly forty now -- and all the pleas and demands she's made to get an answer from her one-time love, she knows that it will never come. Without thought, her hand moves to the narrow leather thong around her neck. Her fingers glide down the smooth length to stop at the warm circle resting between her breasts, tightening convulsively around it.
She can't say anything more, can barely get a breath past the lump in her throat. Lost in the memories, she brings the only wedding band she's ever treasured to her lips. Tears slip down her cheeks, unhindered for long moments, punctuated by the sound of strangled sobs.
The sound of Henry's voice filters into the haze of sleep clouding Regina's thoughts. For a moment, she doesn't even remember where she is or why she's not in her bed, and then it all comes back in a rush of pain and despair. It takes everything in her to keep the tears at bay; it will do her no good for Henry to see her crying.
At the tentative knock at her door, Regina takes a deep breath and rakes a hand through her hair before saying, "I'm in here, Henry."
He pushes the door open carefully, looking for his mother. When he finds her, his eyes widen, and he goes to her side instantly. "Mom, are you okay?" he asks as he sits on the couch and hesitantly touches her arm.
"I'm" -- she cringes as her voice cracks -- "I'm fine, Henry."
"When you didn't come to wake me up, I got worried."
His admission brings about the sting of tears to eyes that are already burning from far too many previously shed. All of this hassle with Emma Swan and his insistence that the fairy tales in his story book are true have caused such a rift between them, and this care about how she feels is the last straw. She pulls Henry into a tight hug, breath hitching in her throat when he returns it willingly.
"I'm okay, Henry," she finally says, voice barely above a whisper. "I just had a rough night, that's all."
**The Enchanted Forest**
two weeks later
"That was beautifully done, Regina!"
Regina guides Secret closer to her father, but doesn't dismount. A bright smile lights up her eyes at her father's words of praise.
"I've been practicing," she finally says.
"I see that."
Henry's smile matches Regina's; anyone looking at them can see the familial resemblance, though it's not as strong as her resemblance to Cora.
Henry follows Regina's sudden shift in gaze, noting the new sparkle in her dark eyes. The sight of Daniel coming closer, combined with Regina's reaction, makes Henry chuckle. He knows the signs of his daughter falling in love and, in this case, fully supports her choice. Regina's happiness is his only desire.
"You executed that jump perfectly, Regina," Daniel says as he comes closer.
Henry watches the two of them, all but forgotten, as they dance around their obvious attraction. The bright, shy smile on Regina’s face is mirrored, if a bit more guarded, on Daniel's face.
"I wouldn't have known how to fix it without your help," Regina replies, then glances guiltily at her father. "No offense intended, Daddy."
"It's quite all right. If Daniel was able to find a solution that I couldn't, well, I'm definitely glad he's come to our stable."
A faint blush tinges Regina's cheeks. "As am I."
two days later
Emma slips into the apartment as quietly as she can. She's still not sure why Regina never lets her spend the night after they've slept together. Okay, she does get it, because it involves Henry primarily, she just doesn't like it. But God forbid that the citizens of Storybrooke find out that their mayor is a human being with feelings and needs. And Emma has a strong feeling that Henry won't be nearly as upset as Regina seems to think he will. But Regina's been around him his entire life and knows him better than she does, so Emma doesn't fight it.
"You're in late." Mary Margaret's voice stops Emma in her tracks, and she grimaces at being caught. "Leroy causing issues again?"
Shaking her head, Emma turns toward her roommate's bedroom briefly. "No," she says, shrugging at Mary Margaret, then continues into the kitchen to make a cup of cocoa before bed, "just got caught up doing paperwork."
The brunette nods thoughtfully and leans against her doorframe. "And did the Mayor offer you a drink while you were doing it?"
"Regina always offers me a…" Emma spins around to stare at her roommate. "How did you know?"
"Really, Emma?" comes the reply as she pads toward the kitchen. "Your car was parked around the corner from the Mayor's house. I saw it when I took my walk tonight. Just like I walk every night and often see your car over there."
Emma sighs, not in the mood to fight Mary Margaret after already fighting with Regina about spending the night. "Look, Mary Margaret--"
"No, it's okay, Emma. You don't have to explain anything to me. I just want you to be happy. And if she does that for you, though I don't see how, then I'm happy for you. Just… Just be careful, okay? You haven't known Regina as long as I have, and you have no idea what she's capable of." She smiles and pats Emma's forearm before turning back toward her bedroom. "Oh, I probably won't be here when you get up in the morning. I've got an early teachers' meeting before school starts. Good night, Emma."
"Night, Mary Margaret," Emma replies, pouring her cocoa into a mug.
Letting it cool slightly, she quickly washes up her dishes and heads up to her room. Depositing the mug on her nightstand, she grabs clean pajamas before heading back down to take a quick shower.
While under the hot needles of water, she lets her mind wander back to her night at Regina's. This whole arrangement of them getting together only once Henry's gone to bed, with Emma having to leave without ever spending the night is getting tiresome. She doesn't mind the sex, because sex with Regina Mills is mind-blowing. She does mind that Regina seems to be pulling away emotionally again. There was a short time where she thought things might be getting better, but something changed and it's like they're back at square one again.
And then she notices it. "What the hell?" she mutters, trying to twist her body to get a better view. Right there, just under her left breast, along her ribcage, is a perfect thumbprint. She scrubs at it with her washcloth, but all that does is make her hiss in pain. "How in the hell did she give me a bruise there?"
She thinks back to their sexual escapades of the night and cannot remember any point where Regina held her hard enough there to leave a bruise in the shape of her thumbprint. Then again, Regina had been in a particularly aggressive mood tonight, so it was entirely possible to have happened.
"You are so beautiful," she says, stroking a calloused finger down Regina's cheek. "The fairest in all the lands."
"Oh, stop, my love!" Regina says, flushing hotly. "I am not."
She shakes her head and leans in to press a tender kiss to Regina's lips. "You are, and I shall make it my life's goal to remind you of that fact every single day of my life."
Regina pulls away, leaning against the bay stallion's side. "How can you say such a thing when the king's own daughter is rumored to have taken on her mother's looks? If she has, then she is the fairest in all the lands."
"Not to me, she's not." And with that, she pulls Regina closer again, carefully frames the carefree face and kisses her again. "No matter what anyone else says, my Gina, you are the fairest of them all."
"And the fastest," Regina teases as she pulls away and jumps on the stallion. "Catch me if you can, my love!"
Emma jolts awake, arms reaching out in thin air for the woman of her dreams. She can't help but feel disappointed when she recognizes her own bedroom and the distinct lack of said woman in her proximity. She sits up and scrubs at her face in frustration.
"What the hell was that all about?" she mutters, remembering the love and utter contentment on the youthful Regina's face. She can't remember ever seeing the woman looking so peaceful and beautiful before. Her counterpart in the dream was right in calling Regina the fairest in all of the lands.
Without thought, her hand moves to brush across the odd bruise on her side, feeling a dull throb when she touches it that is answered by a similar sensation between her legs. Despite their enthusiastic lovemaking earlier in the night, all these thoughts of Regina only make the ache more acute.
Sighing, Emma eases back down into her bed and closes her eyes again. Regina's face swims into focus in her mind's eye, calling her "my love" and shining with affection. Emma's hand glides down her stomach, past the hem of her tank top, and into her panties.