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All's Fair in Love and War

Chapter Text

King David sat perched on his throne, the room dark save for the lantern placed at his foot. He leaned back in contemplation, the plush upholstery of the throne a luxury against his weary back, his deep sigh echoing through the cavernous space; his was face weathered by age and laugh lines. It was times like this that he felt a sharp pang in heart, missing his late wife beyond belief. Elizabeth was a wonderful stepmother to his daughter, but Snow would always be her mother.

He clutched the missive in his hand, not knowing how to break the news to Elizabeth. Despite promising to never hide things from her, this was news he knew would break her. He couldn’t bear to see her in pain, watch as she lost herself in her grief, much like he imagined she would. They had both been broken when they’d first met, a marriage arranged between their two kingdoms, him agreeing because of pressure from the council for an heir, and her because of her father’s coercion. Neither entered the marriage sharing love, but with changing time, so did their feelings. Even though Snow will never stop being his True Love, never stop having a hold on his heart, he had learnt to move on from his grief. There were many days he still missed her, the pangs in his chest just as painful as the day she left them; but he knew that this was what Snow would have wanted. For him to find love again, for him to be the King only she believed he could be.

Ever since he’d re-married fifteen years ago, Emma had been fully supportive, understanding not just the political pressures and need for a male heir to the throne, but how much he craved the intimacy that existed only in such a relationship. She had been so strong in the face of her mother’s death, supported him during his grief - which had seemed endless - in his anger, his pain. Stood by him at every moment, offering the support in a way only Emma could. And over the years, she blossomed into a wonderful young woman, one he was proud of, and knew that Snow would have been too. Despite having lost her mother at such a young age, Emma never resented Elizabeth, the both of them sharing a very special bond, much like two friends. He couldn’t help but smile, thinking back to all the times he had fallen prey to the wiles of those two women, combined.

David was drawn from his reminiscence when he heard the large doors to the throne room creak open, his expression softening as he watched his Queen approach him, draped in her dressing gown, her eyes puffy from sleep and her mouth set in a thin line, her raven hair in tumbling curls down her back – a woman much different than the one she revealed to anyone else. This gentler, walls-down version was reserved only for him and Emma. He smiled, holding out his hand for her; Elizabeth pulled herself up the dais to the throne, taking her designated seat next to him. He wished to hold her close, hoping to stay in this moment for relative peace, before he was forced to reveal the real cause for his turmoil. And once he did, he was sure to lose her.

“Must you steal yourself from our bed in the middle of the night, Your Majesty?” Elizabeth asked, her voice soft and teasing, breaking him from his wild thoughts.

“Apologies, my dear,” he smiled endearingly at her, squeezing the hand he still held in his own. “I seem to have lost track of time.”

Her brows furrowed in worry, turning to see him properly.  The low light of the lantern throwing shadows across his face, his laugh lines more prominent, the whites in his short stubble glowing red. “David,” she began, her tone reflecting her concern, “What troubles you? This isn’t like you.”

“I heard back from the physician,” he relented, feeling her tense next to him, and turned more fully to face her, eager to reassure her. “It’s going to be fine, Liz,” he soothed, his free hand cupping her cheek. “It will be fine. I promise you.”

“What did it say?” she demanded, her expression stony, and her grip on his hand tightening. “Was it what we-”

“Yes,” he answered her before she could finish the sentence, not ready to hear the words out loud. His eyes burned with sudden tears, watching as she struggled to hold back her emotions, always the strong one. “Liz...” he began, unable to form the right words to comfort his wife.

“I’m fine,” she whispered, her voice rough like gravel. “We expected this news, David. I am prepared to deal with whatever comes next.”

Elizabeth’s hand slipped from his, his heart clenching as he watched her close herself off from him. “Don’t do that; don’t pull away from me,” he implored, getting up to follow her.

She whirled around, her eyes shining with angry tears. “David, I need a moment, and I would be grateful if you could grant me that,” she snapped, her hands clenched at her sides.

“No. You’re my wife, and you’re in pain,” he protested, stopping her with a hand on her arm. “I will not lose yet another person I love.”

“You’re not losing me, David. I am right here, aren’t I? I am by your side, despite everything. But right now, I need a moment. I did what was right all those years ago. I love you, but I don’t love only you. Just like I’m not the only one to hold your heart. You must understand, please.” Her voice went from stern to pleading, breaking at the end with barely restrained pain.

He felt a flash of hurt at her words, but remembered how she never let it his enduring love for Snow bother her; if anything, he owed her that much. He swallowed thickly, letting her go. “I’ll have a carriage ready for you at dawn, then,” he promised.

Elizabeth smiled despite her pain, drawing him towards her and wrapping her arms around his neck. “Thank you for understanding. I-I cannot thank you enough for this, David.”

He held her closer, already feeling like her heart was far from here. “Always, darling. I do love you.”

“I do love you as well,” she whispered. She pulled back, “What are we going to tell Emma?”

“Why can’t we tell her the truth?”

“Not about this, David. We talked about it. She can’t know about it,” Elizabeth sighed, weary of having the same conversation.

“She wouldn’t think any differently of you, I promise. She loves you,” David tried, but she just shook her head.

“I must go and pack. We will tell her I need to visit with a friend, and leave it at that.”

David couldn’t help but feel conflicted, watching as his wife left him alone once again.

-/-

“Oh, do you really need to go, Lizzie?” Emma murmured, hugging her stepmother tight. “I shall miss you!”

“I’ll be back as soon as I can, darling. I promise you.” Elizabeth squeezed her tighter, before pulling back and wiping the tears from her stepdaughter’s cheeks. “Now, you better not miss any of the council meetings. With me gone, you should help your father with the council, yes?”

Emma rolled her eyes, shaking her head. “I really hate those meetings. They bore me to death with the politics.”

“You’re the Crown Princess. Remember what I’ve always told you, follow your heart-”

“-but not at the cost of my people, I know,” Emma sighed. “It’s really unfair. They will look to me, with you gone. I’m not sure I’m up for the task.” She ducked her head, her blonde ringlets falling to cover her face.

Elizabeth lifted Emma’s chin with her finger, her other hand, pushing her hair away from her face. “Never hide yourself away, Emma. You need to believe in yourself, because your father and I do. You’re smart, strong and beautiful. We couldn’t be more proud of the woman you’ve become. And when the time comes, you’ll make a wonderful Queen.”

“But not to our people.” Emma muttered with a frown, remembering the ruling of the council against a woman taking the throne.

Elizabeth looked impassive for a moment, her lips spread thin, before she smiled tightly, “You never know what life holds in store for you, darling. All I know is, you, Princess Emma, are meant for great things, grand adventures and all that,” she waved her hand in a flippant manner, making Emma’s sour look turn into a grin. “Chin up, alright?”

“Yes, stepmother,” she replied, albeit a little sardonically, earning her an eyeroll from Elizabeth.

“I shall miss you, and your shenanigans, Emma,” she chuckled, pulling the younger woman into her arms for a last embrace, before she climbed into her carriage. “Take care of your father,” she added, shooting a glance at her husband, who stood brooding behind Emma, his arms crossed and brows pulled together. But when he noticed her stare, his glare softened, and he raised his hand in farewell.

And at that moment she knew, while he may have his apprehensions about her leaving, and might even want to stop her, he understood. Because he would have done the same if it had been Snow. David may not have been her first love, and she may not love him as deeply, but she loved him nevertheless, and leaving him, even though it was her decision, made her feel a heavy weight in her breast. But instead of running back to him, much like she longed to do, her longing to visit her old friend was just as fierce. So, she simply smiled, waved and rode off, leaving her husband and stepdaughter behind, looking back until they were too far to see.

-/-

Emma sighed, turning back to her father, sharing a bittersweet smile with him and walked back inside. David watched as she went past him, his throat constricting because of the news he’s been keeping from her. Protecting the women in his life from bad news seems to have become a pattern now. He knew that she had a right to know, it was about her life after all, but a big part of him avoided telling her, seeing her still as a young child, not as a woman grown of four and twenty years.

Elizabeth had told him the sooner he’d confessed to Emma, the less likely she was to react in badly, but he simply pushed her concerns aside, hoping he could reason with the council. Alas, it had been two months of negotiations, and the end result was the same – Emma must be married or at least betrothed by the end of the year. Then, and only then, would the crown remain in the family - with Emma ruling alongside her new husband in the event of David’s death. Otherwise, the council would be ‘forced’ to appoint a new successor.

David and Snow had fought against this rule from the day they were wed, wanting to allow some leniency for their heirs, but as archaic as the council was, the plea was swatted aside, never to be tolerated no matter how many times they’d brought it up. And when Snow passed away, the council backed away from his personal life for a while, focusing more on the land and policies. But they came back, urging David to remarry, to produce a male heir to take over the throne. Now they were back again, like hounds in pursuit of the fox, bloodthirsty and looking for any signs of weakness.

Ever since Snow’s demise, Emma had become very reclusive, closing herself off from love, believing that that would be the only way to protect herself from feeling that same pain he’d gone through. She hadn’t left his side, refusing to leave him alone, needing the constant reassurance that her father was still with here, the sudden loss of her mother too much of a shock for her young heart to bear. And in many ways Emma’s need to be close to him, saved him from drowning in his own grief. Emma grounded him, made him want to live on, and bring her up the way his late wife would have wanted – the life she’d wished for Emma, all the confessions she had made to him in the cover of the night, the shadows dancing on her face from the crackling fire; the whispered conversation about all her hopes and dreams for Emma still remained etched in his memory.

All those years ago, he’d made a promise to Snow – and later to Emma, when she’d come of age – that he would never allow the council to gamble with Emma’s love. And for so long, he’d fought tooth and nail to keep that promise.  But the more support the council garnered, the more tenuous became his hold on the crown. He’d be damned if it fell in the hands of the Duke of Estiven (the Northern Lands of Misthaven), Bravian, who also happened to be the President of the Council of Misthaven, the representatives of the Crown selected by the people. It was the regime that the Late King Leopold has brought in, and David wished to honour it. But with men like the Duke, a cunning man with a taste of power, it was harder to understand the reasoning behind King Leopold’s decision. David always believed that a man who sought ultimate power was far more dangerous than a man who sought ultimate riches. Power was an enticing mistress, addictive and relentless, leaving you wanting more with no regard to the consequences.

He couldn’t let a man like him control the land that remained in his wife’s family for centuries – one that his late father-in-law had died protecting, one that Snow had worked tirelessly for. If not for himself, he owed to his family, both past and present – and his people – to protect them from a tyrannous ruler. Even if it meant doing something that would disappoint them.

David let out a shuddering breath, looking up at the cloudless sky, the blue stretching endlessly. With Elizabeth gone away, and the weight of his guilt, he couldn’t help but wish for some of Snow’s everlasting hope. He could use that now; use her light to guide him through this very bleak and dark period. He’d vowed his allegiance to this land the day he’d married Snow, and he feels like he’d let both Misthaven and Snow down.

“What do I do now, Snow?” he breathed out in a broken whisper, with silence the only thing he got in response. The part of him that’d always felt that Snow was watching over them seemed to diminish with every passing day.. He shook his head, clearing his mind and went to find his daughter. He had something to tell her, after all.

-/-

Emma flipped through her stepmother’s daily planner, noting all the duties that she was expected to take over in Elizabeth’s absence. Although she had been trained to take over at a moment’s notice, it was still jarring now that she had to actually do it. As glad as she was to still have her father to rely on, she was also extremely unsure about her own ability as a leader. As a Princess, most of her duties were basal, nothing that would require her to make imperative decisions for the people.

But if she hoped to ever be a good Queen one day, even if not the people of Misthaven, she must learn how to be one. Just as she decided to venture back to her suite and plan for the upcoming weeks, unsure about when Elizabeth would return, the doors to opened, her father’s head peeking through the gap.

“Papa.” She smiled warmly. “Can I help you?”

“Hello, Sweetheart.” He grinned back, walking over to stand next to her. His eyes trained on the planner she’d been looking at; David’s fingers tracing his Lizzie’s neat and curling hand across the parchment.

“I need to tell you something, Emma; and I’m afraid that it’s not very pleasant.” He sat heavily on a nearby chair.

Emma’s posture stiffened, dread curling in her gut. “Whatever it is, you can tell me, Papa,” she assured, raising her chin regally.

Emma already had a feeling about what it could be. She knew that there was a lot of friction between the council and her King and Queen. In the meetings that she was allowed to sit in on, she could gather that it had to do with her unwed status. In this land, a lady of four and twenty who had still not a found a husband was unheard of, much less when said lady was a Princess. But she’d hoped to all the Gods that it wasn’t the case. She couldn’t bear to give up on the one thing she had a freedom to choose - love.

“I tried, Emma. I did my best, but we just received a missive about King George gaining more power, he’s roped in the Southern Isles, and more than ever we need to stand united, all of us in the North of the Enchanted Forest. We need more manpower and-”

“Father,” she interrupted, her voice cold and expression stony, making David suck in a sharp breath. “We both know what this builds up to. The council wants...” She let out a heavy breath, swallowing down her disappointment. “ You want me wed.”

“Emma, darling, no. That is not true. I want you to have your free will, you know that,” he protested, rising swiftly from his seat.

“I meant you, my King, not the part of you that is my father,” she clarified, moving closer to him, her hands grabbing his. “I know that as my father, this is the last thing you want. But as a King, you should have married me off to a stronger kingdom ages ago. We need the power to fight this war, and I do respect that.”

David’s vision blurred, his eyes searching his daughter’s, the same glass green ones she’d inherited from Snow, seeking to find any sign of resistance, any sign that Emma was not fully alright with this. But she looked back at him, almost defying him to question her decision, her walls up and locking him out. Not for the first time, he wondered just what he was getting his daughter into. He wished she would trust him enough to tell him how she really felt, but Emma had always been the kind of person who would never willing let anyone see her weak, not even her own father. He squeezed her hands, “You don’t have to do this,” he whispered, his gaze never leaving her daring ones.

She cleared her throat, her posture becoming less rigid and her expression softening slightly, allowing him a glimpse at her own turmoil, breaking his heart. “I do,” she sighed. “Mother would have wanted that, too.”

“Never,” he protested vehemently, his voice rough with guilt and disappointment at himself, for being weak, for letting his family down. “Your mother would sooner fight in the war herself than allow you to marry for anything but love.” He pulled her into his arms, his one arm tight around her shoulder, while his unoccupied hand cradled the back of her head, much as he did when she was a child. “I am so sorry for putting you in the position, Emma.”

“We all need to pay our dues, father. This is what is expected of me. I do however have one request, before I agree,” she added, standing to her full height. David’s heart squeezed with pride at the wonderful leader his daughter had grown into.

“Anything.”

“Allow me an audience with the council, papa. Perhaps they might listen to reason from their princess than they would from their... tenacious king,” she tried, smiling as he grimaced at the word ‘tenacious’.

“Darling, if you could charm them into changing the law, then by all means. I shall set up a meeting at the earliest. However, you need to know how these men think-”

“Father, you grossly underestimate me. Who said anything about charming them? They are men of law, are they not? Well, we have the biggest library in all of Misthaven, and we have Belle, who knows all of the laws like the back of her hand. Between the three of us, perhaps we could change this archaic rule.” And in that moment, with Emma’s eyes full of hope, he saw the answer he was seeking from the skies outside. Snow wasn’t anywhere outside, she was here, living and breathing, in their daughter.

“My darling girl, you never cease to surprise me,” he chuckled, leading her out of the room and towards the library. They had a bit of research to get to, after all.

-/-

After an entire morning spent looking through the heavy volumes on the laws of Misthaven, Emma took a respite, excusing herself from the company of her father and musty books. Now that she had sent word to Belle to return to the castle, she could await her arrival, knowing that Belle's unparalleled mastery of all legal matters would be of immense help in their endeavour.

She walked towards a broken-down greenhouse, which encompassed a now decrepit garden. Emma’s fondest memories of her childhood were spent in this garden, especially in spring time, back when her mother had still been alive. She loved spending time with her mama here in their own little nook of a garden, far away from the castle grounds, something which was all theirs and theirs alone. This had been a tiny haven for Snow to shed the airs of a Queen, and simply revel in being a mother.

The garden had flourished under Snow’s care; Emma could still hear the ghost of her mother’s laughter echo within the enclosed space as she knelt down at the stone marker her mother had placed there, mere weeks before her untimely death. A reminder for my darling girl , she’d claimed, when young Emma has questioned her about it.

Emma’s fingers trembled as she traced the letters etched into the stone, a lone tear slipping down her face.

“To my darling girl, let it forever remain spring in your heart.”

When Emma saw the bright petals beginning to fall on a cold, autumn day, the colours all fading to brown, the little girl cried, hugging her mama’s leg, thinking that the colours were gone forever. Snow laughed despite herself, the mind of her child fascinating her beyond anything.

She picked up Emma, twirling her around the leaf strewn garden, until her tears of sadness turned to those of laughter.

“Mama, stop,” Emma shrieked, her arms tight around Snow’s neck. “Mama!” She giggled as her mother kept spinning her around.

“Alright, alright, my sweet girl.” Snow chuckled, finally stopping and putting her down. She bent down to Emma’s level. “Now, I know that you’re sad that the colours are gone. But if they never go away, you’ll never realise how much you love them, right?” Snow smiled softly at a slightly subdued Emma. “Cheer up, honey. They will always come back, but remember, it will always remain spring, right here,” she pointed to Emma’s heart, before tickling her and making her giggle again.

Emma shook herself from the memory, brushing the tears away from her face. There was a reason she rarely came here; most of the memories she could recall with her mother were spent in this garden. That was why she’d let it go, watching as her mother’s beloved garden withered away, much like her own memories of Snow did.

For so long, Emma had thought that avoiding this place would help her deal with the loss of her mother better, but being back here after so long, brought up the guilt that she always felt whenever she came here (as infrequent as her visits might be). She swept off the dried plants from the stone marker, vowing to bring spring back there.

“I’m sorry, mama,” she whispered, and she could swear she felt the wind pick up for a moment before everything was still again. This was the sign she didn’t know she needed, a sign that her mother would always be with her, no matter what.

Chapter Text

Killian slid his cutlass over the whetstone over and over, in a consistent motion, the sound of steel against stone a rhythm that he was used to, letting his mind wander as muscle memory took over. As a former Navy Lieutenant, and the current Captain of the King’s Guard, he knew a thing or two about war . And the one between the Southern and Northern lands seemed have been going on for ages, far before his time, or even his father’s. Killian personally did not see the point of the war, only that King George associated himself with the practitioners of Dark Magic, and guessed that he continued to do so still.

All he knew was this: if King George and his supporters got control over even one of the Northern kingdoms, especially Misthaven, all hell would reign over the Enchanted Forest. Misthaven had somehow seized the Dark One’s dagger and had him imprisoned. While Killian might not know how King David and Queen Snow managed that, he did know that the Queen lost her life to that mission. Only the Gods know what would happen if King George were to get his hands on the Dark One’s dagger again.

He suppressed a shiver, startled out of his thoughts when he heard a twig break behind him, his shoulders tensing. He felt, before he saw his attacker, ducking and rolling out of the way just in time before a dagger impaled the wood panelling, exactly where his head had been nary a moment ago. His heart still racing from the adrenaline, he growled at his attacker, his scowl deepening as she only laughed at his fall, reaching to pry the dagger from the wood.

“What the bloody hell was that?” he spat, getting up from the ground, refusing the hand that his attacker lent him.

“I was just testing your reflexes, big brother ,” Regina rolled her eyes. “I knew you would get out of the way; you were never in any real danger.”

“You’ve lost your bloody mind, Regina,” he snapped, dusting off his breeches.

She shrugged, fiddling with the edge of her dagger and looking with great fascination at her boots. “Father has asked to see you.”

“Did he now?” he murmured, going back to sharpening his blade. “Well, you can tell him I’m busy,” he shot back.

“Killian...”

“Now is not the time to antagonise me, sister! You know what day it is today, and I would prefer to be alone, if it would please His Majesty.”

Regina bit her lip, not knowing what she could say to comfort her brother. It had been five years now since the woman he loved was murdered, and since that day her brother hadn’t been the same. He’d changed, become closed off and brutish; gone was the ever-grinning boy she remembered growing up with, replaced by a man hardened by the endless misery life seemed to throw at him. While they did grow up in less than ideal circumstances, being the children of the King’s mistress, Regina had never lacked for love – not from their mother or Liam or Killian. Not even from their father, in the times he had been able to spare for them. But when their mother withered away from illness, and their brother lost to the sea a decade ago, all they had was each other. But now it seemed like with each passing year after Milah’s death, Killian seemed to pull away more and more, becoming a shell of a person, one obsessed with avenging Milah.

They’d returned from a long journey, for a mission that their father had entrusted only Regina and Killian with. And she could still remember how giddy he had been, talking endlessly about how he had every intention to ask Milah for her hand, no matter her status of a widow. He even had a ring purchased. But they were greeted not with pomp and glory when they reached Camelot, but awful bloodshed, with many innocents slaughtered and a coup to overthrow their father’s rule. When they rushed to the castle, it was to even more fighting, one which they had no choice but to join. Things had only gone downhill from there, and soon enough they found their King and Queen, along with their half-brother, William – held hostage in the throne room. Killian and Regina reached in the nick of time, succeeding in saving their father and half-brother, but in their rage, the attackers murdered their Queen right in front of Brennan, taking advantage of their anguish to escape, only to be stopped by Killian. He’d managed to apprehend almost all of them, taking them prisoners to be executed the next day at the Town’s Square.

And in retribution, a week later, the rest of the men - the ones who had managed to escape - found Milah’s hovel in the middle of the night and murdered her in cold blood, leaving her corpse to be found by Killian. And when he did... Regina shuddered, just thinking about that day made her heart wrench. She’d never seen her brother more broken than he been that day, and had remained broken ever since, hell bent on finding the men who’d killed her.

Regina’s brow furrowed with worry as she observed her brother at work, the tension obvious in his posture and the aggression with which he sharpened his blade. But when the King wanted something, it was unwise to deny him, especially at a time of war. While King Brennan loved his children, they were still his bastards; a disgrace in the eyes of many. They may have royal blood, but they would never be royal. She’d learnt that lesson the hard way after all, the scars on her back serving as a stinging memory and warning to never stray from her station.

“Killian, he wasn’t asking. We just got a missive from Misthaven. The Southern Isles have joined King George in his cause ,” she spat the word. “The North needs to stand together, and father wants us to go to Misthaven, to discuss our options.”

That caught her brother’s attention, making him abandon his task and turn back to fully face her. “If it is so important, why send us?” he questioned, his brows furrowing. “I am sure the members of the war counsel are better equipped for that.”

At that, she shot him a smirk. “Ah, but that is simply our cover, brother. Father wishes to negotiate an alliance with the King of Misthaven. A marriage alliance for William to Misthaven’s princess, Emma.”

“He wants us to go as bodyguards to William?” he barked out a laugh. “That’s quite the step down from what we used to do.”

“Says the Captain of the King’s Guard,” Regina sassed. “Father still is cautious to let me on any journey to other kingdoms, considering what happened the last time,” she added icily.

“Well, after what they did to you, you can’t really blame him. They tried to have you killed for something you didn’t even do,” he argued, his concern evident in his wrecked voice and deeply furrowed brows, the memory of his sister with her back marred with lash wounds something he could never forget.

“It wasn’t like I didn’t choose to do what I did,” she murmured, rubbing the back of her neck and looking down in shame. “I loved her, and I would do it again.”

“You’d be a fool twice, then,” he replied, stepping closer to her, his index finger lifting her chin so that she would meet his gaze. “You’re all I have left. Don’t sacrifice your life for love; all it brings you is wasted years and endless torment.”

Regina’s vision blurred as Killian pulled her into his arms, and she let him think that she was mourning for her lost love. It was safer than the truth – she was mourning for him, for how much his suffering had led him to here, a man who was so blinded by the darkness in his life that he gave up looking for the light.

“I love you, brother.”

He sighed, his heart clenching at the pain in his younger sister’s voice. She was so stubborn sometimes, quick to anger and quicker with her dagger. But she was as soft-hearted as she was hard-headed, her mind and heart constantly at war. He might have been a spitfire as a child, but she was something else altogether; growing up with two brothers made her more competitive than necessary, constantly trying to one up him and Liam. She was far stronger than he could ever imagined; while he lashed out after Liam’s death, getting into drunken brawls and making dangerous deals, she withdrew into herself, going away on long journeys alone, not telling him where she went and driving him up the wall. But she was his family, and he would never, ever stop wanting to protect her. Even if she had been the one to take care of him time, and time again, lending him a shoulder to lean on in the darkest of times, while she kept all her pain hidden away.

In retrospect, he was not proud of the way he’d handled Liam’s death – first refusing to believe that his brother, his Captain could ever be defeated by the thing he loved most, the sea. He had wanted to go in search of Liam, believing with all his soul that his brother would have survived, and he did not let go of this madness until he’d found the remnants of the shipwreck, and along with it, Liam’s water-bloated body. That was what broke him, staring at Liam’s murky, dead eyes – everything in him stopped. He’d fought Regina tooth and nail against seeing their brother like that, even going so far as to bodily block her, and he had been right to do so. Her scream of horror and devastation was etched deep in his memory, making him feel like he’d failed both Liam and their mum by not protecting his little sister from this savage, savage world. And at a moment when he had to be strong for Regina, for his father, who had too lost a son, he was a coward.

Killian watched in silent contemplation as Regina walked out of the little shack that served as a haven from the sometimes stifling castle walls. He knew he needed to go see his father, see about this diplomatic mission he was to set out on. But he had been so close to finding out who had ordered the raid on the castle all those years ago. It took him years of tracking down each of the men involved, relishing in torturing them, picturing Milah’s slaughtered body in his mind’s eye. But none of them would talk, willing to rather die than reveal the name of the man who’d hired them. One of them even had the gall to laugh in his face.

“You think that wench of yours is worth all this, you fool!” the man spat, blood and spittle spraying as he spoke.

“Shut up,” Killian growled, twisting the dagger deeper into the man’s side, making him groan. “and tell me who hired you.”

“You don’t mess with a man like him, and I’d rather die than tell you who he is. If he finds out-” the man laughed bitterly- “Oh, trust me, what you are doing is mere play compared to what evil that man is capable of.”

“Was it King George?” Killian tried instead, hoping with all his heart that he was right. If the raid had been ordered by King George, the raid that led to the murder of the Queen of Camelot, that warranted a reason to call war upon George and his kingdom; Killian could finally avenge Milah’s death - and his father, his wife’s.

The man began laughing hysterically, ignorant to the dagger digging painfully into him. “This man is far more sinister, lad. You’d be better off not knowing. So, for the last time: Fuck you.”

And at that, Killian’s restraint snapped. As did the man’s neck.

-/-

“You’d called to see me, Your Majesty?” Killian entered to find King Brennan bent over his desk, quill rapidly scratching at parchment.

At Killian’s terse greeting, he looked up, the worried frown on his face softening ever so slightly as he nodded at his son.“Killian! Good, you’re here. I had hoped that sending your sister would have persuaded you better than sending some guard after you. Sit down.”

“Regina tells me you wish to send us on a diplomatic mission? If I may be so bold as to ask, what makes you think a former naval lieutenant could handle something like this? Negotiating during war is much different from negotiating for the hand of a King’s daughter.”

King Brennan chuckled. “Must you make everything so morbid, Killian? You’re simply to accompany your brother. I will be sending men from my council to negotiate this marriage, if there even will be one,” he added the last part under his breath, but Killian caught it.

If? I thought you’d always intended for William to marry the Princess of Misthaven?” Killian brows furrowed as he leaned forward in his seat. “Is that not the case anymore? Has another lass caught the lad’s eye?” he asked, a salacious smirk adorning his features.

“Don’t be silly, Killian,” King Brennan admonished, a frown marring his expression. “David and I have been good friends for years now, and while we may have jested about our children coming together, it was nothing worth considering seriously. David is not the kind of father to force a marriage against his daughter, and yet he has sent a missive through his council inviting William to Misthaven, to court Princess Emma.”

“Do you think something more sinister than a marriage alliance is underfoot, father?” Killian sat up straight, any threat to his family one he couldn’t ignore. Not after having lost as much as he had.

“I’m not certain of it, but this is very unlike David. Especially considering the situation in the South, a wedding is hardly appropriate.”

“Ah, and you wish for me to find out what is going on there? Spy on your friend for you?” Killian tilted his head, regarding his father with a curious gaze.

“Spying is too harsh a word, Killian. I merely wish to find out what is going on. If my friend is in danger, I want to know immediately.”

“And if his intentions were true? If he really does want William for his daughter? What then?”

“Then, I guess, we will be having a royal wedding.” And with those words, King Brennan dismissed Killian.

-/-

Regina panted, leaning against the wall for support as her overexerted muscles screamed in protest with every slight movement of her body. She glared at her opponent, wiping the sweat off her brow, her brown eyes filled with fire as she observed the slow smirk take over the other woman’s face.

“I told you, you couldn’t handle it,” Lily whispered, her dark stringy locks falling over her eyes as she moved closer to Regina, making the brunette back up further against the wall until she was flush against it.

“You’re very good at distracting me,” Regina huffed, her eyes drifting down to Lily’s chapped lips before swiftly returning back to meet her gaze.

“You will always have distraction when you’re fighting, Regina,” Lily smirked, backing away, even as she enjoyed the obvious reaction she was able to elicit from the other woman. “You must learn to use them to your advantage,” she added, wetting her lips, her own gaze drifting down Regina’s form.

And the next thing she knew, her legs were swiped underneath her, and she was on her back, as Regina straddled her, her thighs pressing her arms against her sides, restricting her movements. “You mean, like this?” Regina smirked, her eyes glinting dangerously. Now it was Lily’s turn to glare at Regina as the other woman’s expression darkened. “I don’t know what reaction you are trying to elicit from me, Lily, but you will not find what you are looking for.”

“Are they untrue then? The rumours about you and the dainty princess from-”

But before Lily could finish with her taunting, Regina’s fist met her jaw, her head turning to the side with the force. “You shut your mouth,” Regina growled, her hands grabbing the neck of Lily’s tunic. “You don’t have any rights to even say her name, you hear me?”

Lily bared her teeth, trying to buck her off. “What the hell is your problem? Touch a nerve, did I? Still in love with that naive little girl? Well, she wasn’t so naive after all, was she, Regina?” She taunted, smirking wickedly.

Regina saw red, her fury rearing its ugly head, her blood humming with power. She clenched her teeth, trying to reign in her anger, lest something unwanted happened. “I’m warning you, Lily. Never, ever speak about her again. It will not end well for you,” she hissed, her tone cold as ice, before she pushed herself off of Lily and walked out of the training arena, her hands clenched at her side in tight fists, her heart racing and eyes stinging.

As she retreated, Lily’s loud voice boomed through the room, “You’re damaged goods anyway,” making her want to turn back and unleash her rage on that spiteful woman. But the last time she showed that part of herself, it did not end well. And so, she walked away, her heart breaking all over again for a woman who betrayed her beyond belief.

-/-

William raised his broadsword, parrying the thrust of his trainer, sweat dripping into his eyes and his muscles burning from the exertion in the best way possible. The grounds were filled with the sounds of swords clashing, the men training for the upcoming battle. While William may be the heir apparent, he had never once shied away from battle because of his privilege. Both his half-brothers and half-sister had served the kingdom in some way or the other, and when he came of age, he hadn’t intended to sit on the sidelines. If he was to take over the kingdom one day, he was damn well going to earn it, not have it handed to him.

Just as he was about to land the final blow on his opponent, his gaze catching the unprotected area on the side, all the men stopped training, standing straight as they looked towards their right. Following their sight, William caught his father walking towards them. William stood up straighter, his eyes meeting that of his father. The King responded with a solemn nod, a grim expression on his face.

“William.” His eyes narrowed on the slight graze on his left shoulder. “Still need improving, I see.”

William gritted his teeth, trying not to let his frustration show. No matter what he did, the King had never been satisfied with his work, always the first to find fault and the last to applaud. But not to Killian and Regina, no – they may be the result of his affair with the Lady Amelia, but he always held them with high regard, giving them positions with high ranking in the navy, even making Regina their foreign ambassador. And now, Killian was the Captain of the King’s Guard. But William? William had always been the boy in a man’s body to his King, never living up to the standards his father had set for him.

When his mother, Queen Alanaa, had still been alive, she had always told him that his envy would only lead him down a dark path. She had her own experiences with it after all, and it had almost resulted in her losing Brennan forever. And eventually, as he got to know his half-siblings better, his envy fell – but not his anger, towards his father, at least. And he doubted if it ever would, knowing that King Brennan would never look at him the same way he did Killian or Regina, or as he did Liam.

“Did you need me for something, father?” William resisted the urge to cross his arms. He would not dare disrespect his father like that in front of all the men.

“You will be leaving to Misthaven in a week’s time. I want you meet with our privy council, and learn all you need to about your journey.”

William’s eyebrows rose “And what would be the purpose of me visiting with King David?”

“That is not something I wish to discuss right now. Do as I say, William.” King Brennan turned his back on his son and walked  away.

William stared open-mouthed at his father’s retreating back, his hurt and anger apparent on his face for just a minute, before a mask fell over it, his eyes stony and not letting anyone see a thing. If his father was going to order him around, then he needed to know what was so important about going to Misthaven. And there was one person who would have all the answers. It was time to find his reclusive brother.

-/-

Regina let out a deep breath, sinking deeper into the cast iron tub, brimming with water so hot, it was just a smidge away from scalding. But it soothed her overworked muscles, and helped calm the fire inside her. She ran a wash cloth over her arm, her mind wandering to a better, happier time.

“Regina, you need to stop this,” The princess giggled as Regina backed her against a pillar in an empty corridor.

“Mm, but this is more fun, highness,” she murmured, her lips peppering kisses down her slender neck, her fingers running up and down her ribs, brushing against the underside of her breasts.

“I never- I never said it wasn’t,” the other woman muttered, her eyes rolling to the back of her head, as she stretched her neck to Regina’s questing lips, always the tease.

Regina smirked, pulling away long enough to revel in the flush spreading across the princess’s cheeks. She’d been sent here to negotiate with King Stefan about his allegiance to the North.

The last time King George had decided to take control over the North, he had had a powerful ally in the Dark One, until King David and Queen Snow of Misthaven had managed to steal back the blade and had thwarted his attack. The Dark One had been imprisoned, somewhere far and deep, deep underground, if the rumours were true. Ever since the news of King George’s re-emergence, the whole of North had been on edge, hoping to unite far and distant kingdoms to maintain their positions and hold fort against the imminent attack. It had been almost eighteen years since the last war.

But the moment she’d laid eyes on the princess, seen the sly glint behind the carefully constructed facade of innocence and purity, hinting at the devil inside, she was enamoured. Regina had never met a more contradictory woman, shy around everyone but her, ever since the beginning, her coquettish side revealed in dark rooms and empty corridors as hands wandered and moans were muffled by intoxicating kisses.

Regina’s finger reached up to graze at a flushed cheek, her smile softening along with her heart. She may have had relations with more than one woman, but not one have them had made her feel what she felt now – like she was floating, no care in the world, but for the woman in her arms. And in the moment, she had to say the words almost bursting from her mouth. “I love you....Briar Rose.”

Chapter Text

Emma has always prided herself to be someone brave enough to fight her own battles; she had never been a damsel in distress, nor does she intend to be one now. But the fact was this: the council is an ancient system that answers to the people and not to the rulers of Mistahaven. She may have been taught many things, learnt a multitude of skills, but none of that could help her face an absolute entity like the Council. The Council came into power many years ago when, even before King Leopold's time, Misthaven was ruled by a greedy and cruel king, one whose tyranny forced the citizens to rebel and make sure that the subsequent rulers were monitored by a council, the members for which are chosen by the people.

At least, that was what it was supposed to be, and for a while, it had been. However, over the years, this had changed, and now only the nobility get to decide who is appointed to be on the council. And the ones who do not favor the way that David and Elizabeth have chosen to rule, tend to support men like Duke Bravian. And even those who wanted to be loyal to the crown couldn't because of their fear of the Duke's men. The fear of the Duke was widespread throughout Misthaven's nobility, making him a dangerous man to anger.

It was not the fear of what the Duke would do to her that made her apprehensive about defying him, but how it would affect her father. She knew if the Duke were to make the people question the authenticity of their King, he would have all the reason he needed to overthrow the authority of the crown. And if that were to happen, it would only be the beginning of the end of peace in the North. A man like Bravian, in possession of so much power, one could only imagine the devastation that would plague the land. She took a deep breath, running her clammy palms down her skirt before knocking on the door that led into the chamber that hosted the members of Misthaven's Council.

"Enter," called out a sharp voice, startling her slightly, but she strengthened her resolve and walked inside with her head held high.

"Your Highness," the gathered men greeted, all except the Duke, of course, who simply stared at her like a bug he wanted to squash.

"You had requested to meet with this humble group of men, Your Highness?"  he asked instead, leaning back in his chair, with a barely concealed sneer on his face.

"Yes, I did request a meeting, Your Grace," she smiled through gritted teeth. But one with just you, and not the whole council , she thought to herself. This man had always been one step ahead with her rulers, and now he would do the same to her if she wasn't careful enough.

"I was hoping that we could re-negotiate the marriage clause," she stated, taking a seat on one end of the table, with the Duke on the other end.

All the men turned to look at her, Lord Estoban even laughed out loud before he was silenced by a stern look from Duke Bravian, before he turned his glare on her, his eyes intense as they took her in. She wanted to shiver under his scrutiny, something in his gaze giving her the feeling that he was staring at her bare bones. She stifled the urge, but her hands gripped the handles of the chair a little tighter.

"Princess Emma, with all due respect, I am going to have to decline your request. There has never been a female heir to take the throne without a husband by her side. We did not make this rule, it existed long before this council was formed. I would not want to dishonor the tradition that has been established by our ancestors, and I would advise you to do the same."

As Emma tried to speak, to reason out with the Duke, Lord Harold spoke up, his tone condescending, "I don't see why it should be so hard. Your father remarried out of his duty, after all, and they seem happy enough."

Emma resisted the urge to roll her eyes, choosing to ignore the Lord's comment instead.

"Your Grace,"  she addressed the Duke. "If you could just give me a chance to prove myself as a worthy Queen, I promise that I would not disappoint you."  Every word out of her mouth felt wrong, having to prove her worth, her love for this land, as if she was lower than a man, who would have to do nothing but be himself. She was just as worthy as any prince, if not better. She had learnt sword-fighting from the finest trainer, had been taught the intricate political life by the Queen. She was tutored by the best teacher and learnt to survive in the woods with the help of Aunt Ruby. She knows how to run a country, far better than any poncy prince they wished to marry her off to.

"I did not make the rules, Princess Emma. And I do not have the authority to change them,"  the Duke replied icily. "Now if we are done here, the Council has some work to take care of," he finished in a dismissive tone, making Emma bristle.

She clenched her fist, her cheeks flaring with anger and shame. She took in deep breaths, trying to calm herself down, but seeing the utter lack of respect only served to increase her anger. She stood up from her seat, her hands clenched at her side and her eyes sharp and full of rage. "You listen to me, Lord Bravian. You may be the head of the Council of Mistahaven's Royalty, but you are not the ruler of this land. My father is, and soon enough, I will be too. You can try to stop me from taking my rightful place on the throne, but Misthaven is my land, and I love my people more than you could ever imagine. And I will find a way to break this ancient law. I will not let my fate be decided by anyone but myself. You may have had the upper hand for so long, but rest assured, you will fall. When that day comes, I will be there, rejoicing with the rest of the land.

"We formed the council so many years ago to protect the people of Misthaven from being treated unfairly by people like you, Duke," she spat. " I will not let my family's legacy be taken over by a man so power hungry that he is willing to go to any lengths, no matter how pathetic and despicable it may be. You think forcing me to marry gives you some kind of power over me?" she barked a laugh. "You have absolutely no clue who you are dealing with." With those words, Emma stormed out of the room, leaving all the men but the Duke dumbfounded. Bravian glared at her retreating back, his rage building as the men shot him looks that reeked of judgment. That Princess just bit off more than she could chew, and he was going to make sure she knew that.

-/-

Killian stared at the expanse of ocean water below him, the view from the cliff as enthralling as it was deceptive. The ocean had been his first love, memories of serving with his brother still fresh, as if they'd happened just yesterday, and not ten years ago. But the same ocean he loved, was the one that took his brother. Liam, the man he'd looked up to most his life, was now nothing more than just a figment of his memories. Liam had been his shore, his rock to his stormy waters, never letting him down. There hadn't been a day that had gone by, since they'd buried Liam, that he didn't feel the guilt weigh him down. He was supposed to have been on that journey instead of his brother, but his father had needed his assistance, and so Liam had to leave - leave as soon as he'd returned from another tiring journey, leave so Killian didn't have to, leave because that's who he was, a man who was willing to do anything for his land, and his King.

Killian never blamed his father for Liam's passing, for that man, that King , had been just as devastated by the loss of his son as Killian and Regina were at the loss of their brother. But a part of him resented his brother for being so stubborn and undertaking a journey he was too weary to handle, for refusing more than the bare minimum of crew. He resented that he couldn't be there - it all came boiling down to that, though. Even after all these years, having found and lost love, he still could not relinquish the guilt that ate at him. It should have been him, but it wasn't; and now, Liam was dead.

He was startled out of his morose thoughts by a the sound of boots thudding up the steps of the lighthouse he had been standing at. "Killian," William panted, the exertion from running up the steps making it hard for the younger man to talk.

Killian tensed, having an inkling to why William sought him out. His father must have told him about the journey to Misthaven. Killian wasn't naive, he knew that Brennan treated him differently than he did William, he was stricter with his half-brother, but he had good reason to. At the end of the day, Killian was still his bastard son. He was not the one to take over the throne next, he had no need to behave in the way William was expected to. He was not bound by any obligation, not to anyone or anything.

But William did, and for all that he thought he knew, he was still a green lad and had much more to learn. While the two men never saw eye-to-eye, there had never been much in the way of animosity between them, at least not as far as Killian was concerned. William never treated him like he was beneath him, and for Killian, that was good enough. William would be his King one day, and he had to be ready for that. If the only people that Killian cared are his family, William tended to fall under that spectrum more often than not. William may be tiresome, but he was a good man, and he wouldn't hesitate to fall under his command when the time comes.

"William," Killian acknowledged, his eyes still on the horizon. "What can I do you for, your highness?" he asked, only slightly sardonic.

William rolled his eyes, choosing to ignore Killian's attitude. "I need to speak with you. Father wants me to go to Misthaven, and he has very conveniently left out the reason. Care to share the oh-so important issue that needs my presence?"

Killian resisted the urge to groan out loud at the task that his father had saddled him with. He simply had to tell his half-brother that he was to be betrothed to a woman he has never even met. Not very hard, was it?

He knew that his father and William never had a good relationship, father's expectations for William only mounting without the presence of the Queen, who had acted as a buffer between the two royals, and Killian did feel for his brother. Being the sole heir to Camelot was not to be taken lightly, and ever since the attempted coup, King Brennan had been even more harder on William. But as much as the man lamented to Killian about how strained his relationship was with William was, King Brennan hardly did much to change the situation. So, no, Killian couldn't really blame William for his perpetual anger towards their father.

"What exactly did father tell you?" Killian asked, finally turning back to face William.

William scoffed, crossing his arms, “Nothing, which shouldn’t really surprise me.”

Killian ran his hand through his hair, suddenly uncomfortable to tell his brother the real reason. Apart from being the one to tell his brother of his inevitable betrothal, he didn’t know how William would react knowing that their father seemed to trust Killian with this information but not William, especially when it is something that concerned the man in question. “William, I don’t know how to tell you this. I don’t want you to think that I- that we-”

“Spit it out, Killian. I can take it,” William interrupted gruffly.

Killian sighed, rubbing at the back of his neck uncomfortably. “Well, with the news of another war, the Northern Kingdoms must unite. And King David, he and His Majesty are very close, and he has a daughter, Princess Emma, I think. And since you are old enough, and she is too, King David wanted to arrange for you to meet her- Emma – so you could get to know each other, and, um…” Killian trailed off, noticing as William’s face grew red with each word.

“He wants me to marry someone I don’t even know?” he demanded, his anger bubbling under the surface. “And what? He was too craven to tell me that himself?” he growled.

“Watch it, William,” Killian snapped. “That is our King you are speaking of.”

“No, brother. That is our father. He has no right to treat me this way,” the other man spat, turning away from Killian and running down the steps of the lighthouse.

“William! Hold on, brother!” Killian shouted after him, but his calls fell on deaf ears, as William raced down the step, with rage powering his every step.

Killian slumped on the steps, knowing that this was one fight he could not get in between. He had never been one to condone his father’s treatment of William, but he did as much harm by not stopping him.

-/-

“You want me to marry Princess Emma?!” William thundered, as he burst into the throne room. King Brennan looked up, surprise clouding his features before he masked it into a stony façade.

“William,” he warned, aware of all the noblemen from his privy council who were witnessing the outburst. But William didn’t heed, instead striding into the room with purpose, his glaring eyes trained on his father.

“You didn’t have the gall to me that yourself, Your Majesty?” he spat, stopping right in front of King Brennan’s throne. The entire room seemed to stop breathing at William’s defiant comment.

King Brennan stood up, his eyes dark with anger as he stared William down. “That’s enough, boy.”

Any other day William would have stood down, his father’s towering frame one he had always feared. While King Brennan could hardly be described as cruel, he was a man who instilled great fear in his enemies, and anyone else who dared to defy him. He was a formidable man, that is for certain, but this was one fight William was not going to back down from.

“I will tell you what’s enough, father . You treating me like I am your puppet, always following your orders. You are my king, and I am yours to command. But you cannot dictate every aspect of my life. I am your son, for God’s sake!” he threw his hands up, his voice raised, echoing in the otherwise silent room.

The King bristled, his own anger now clear by his clenched fists and tense demeanour. “I am your son,” William repeated, his voice breaking at the end. “And you don’t tell me anything. You don’t even treat me like I am worthy of being your heir, father. You think I do the things I do because I want to? I do it to impress you. I sit in on every meeting, I contribute as much as I am capable of, I fight in all your battles, both on the field and off. And all I want in return is for you to look me in the eye and tell me I’m worth something!” William was close to breaking down, but he would not give his father the satisfaction. “I don’t know what I can do for you to treat me like you do Regina and Killian. I would never resent them, I know they did nothing wrong. I just wish you would tell me what was it that I did so wrong,” he finished in a resigned tone.

Brennan’s jaw clenched as he regarded his son, his heart clenching painfully at the hurt he’d caused his son. He was aware that he had been harder on him than he was with Regina or Killian, or had been with Liam; but this was how his father had been and this was how he thought was best to teach his son. But before he could say another word, William stormed out of the room, leaving him behind with the whispers of men and the heavy guilt of a man realising how wrong he was.

Brennan sighed deeply, his eyes closing for a brief moment, a voice that very strongly resembled his late wife’s loud in his head, berating him for his actions. He longed to follow after William, but he was a King first. He would find his boy later, and fix whatever has broken between them over all these years of neglect he had subjected William to.

“Let’s get back to work, gentlemen,” he said finally, taking his seat again, even as his mind was clouded with the guilty pangs of his conscience.

-/-

Emma sulked, watching as her father paced back and forth in front of her, making her feel a little dizzy. “Alright, tell me again, what exactly did you say?” he demanded, arms crossed and brows furrowed.

“Father, I told you everything I said. I am sorry I lost my temper,” she repeated, perhaps for the hundredth time.

“Emma, I thought you were going to convince them to at least postpone your betrothal! Not enrage them into getting it to happen faster. This was not the plan!”

“I know that!”

“Are you sure? Because it doesn’t seem like it. You claim that you are ready to be a Queen, that you are ready to prove yourself, darling. And that outburst was the opposite of queen-like behaviour,” David reprimanded, wincing to himself as the hurt flashed across his daughter’s features.

“You don’t mean that,” Emma whispered, pain lacing her words. “You don’t really believe that I’m not fit to be queen, do you?” she questioned, standing up and approaching her father. “I know what I did was wrong, but I will fix it, I promise.”

“Emma,” David sighed, turning his back to her, his eyes resting on the embers in the fireplace, crackling as the logs shifted. “I- I don’t know what the consequences of that meeting are going to be. Bravian is not a man you should mess with.”

Emma felt her anger emerge, tenfold now. “I am not sorry for the things I said, father, just so we are clear,” she began icily. “While I regret the manner in which I said it, in retrospect, I would do the same thing.”

David’s head snapped up at that, incensed at her callousness towards the council. He whirled around, eyes flashing dangerously, her father showing a face she’d never been exposed to before. She staggered back at her father’s expression, shivering from unbidden fear.

“You are being very reckless, Emma. The council, as much as I am loathe to admit, does have the power to dissolve our rule. That was the way it has been for so many years-”

“But it is such a corrupt system!” Emma argued, cutting him off.

“-and that is the way it shall be! We cannot do anything to change it, and your actions only served to make a bad situation worse. Your outburst was uncalled for.”

“Uncalled for?” Emma laughed mirthlessly. “You have to be joking, father. The way those men treat us, that is what is uncalled for. We are supposed to be the leaders of this land, and yet they show us no respect. This kingdom has been our family’s responsibility for years - no, centuries! And the council is hardly a few decades old,” she huffed.

“But this is our reality, Emma. It’s time you accept it and abide by its rules.”

“The council was given power to stop leaders of a land from abusing their power, not be the ones to wield it,” Emma argued. She moved away from her father, reaching for the door when her father spoke again.

“We cannot afford to step out of line anymore, Emma,” his words of warning stopped her in her tracks, her hands curling into fists and her shoulders tensing.

She turned back to face him, slowly, her throat thick with tears but her eyes were stone cold. “Were you like this when mother was still alive? Or did you lose your courage along with her?” she spat back, before walking out of the door.

David watched, stricken, as she slammed the door. He felt his legs give out as he fell into the chair behind him, his hands clutching the handles in a death grip, his heart shattering. Not only because of what Emma had said, although that did contribute greatly to his heartache. Of course, there was also the matter of her being right. He had become more complacent without Snow; she had been his lifeline, and ever since she passed away, he’d only been going through the motions, hardly caring for much of it. Which was why he’d never fought back the council’s demands – all excepts ones that concerned Emma, until recently. Over the years, a part of him had given up on trying to fight for what was right, what was the moral thing – a part of him that had thrived when Snow had been alive.

He felt the tears build up, his daughter’s cutting words echoing in his head, making it harder for him to breathe. For the first time in a long time, he felt all alone – as if he was stranded in a deserted island with all the things he’d want for and none of the people he needed. When he’d first married Elizabeth, his heart had been in a state of conflict, his eternal love for Snow and his blossoming affection for Elizabeth, and when the guilt of it ate him up, it had been Emma who’d helped him move on, accept the love that he had, while still honouring the one he had – they had – lost. Of all the people in Emma’s life, he was the only one who understood how much losing Snow affected her, and when she pulled back, kept pulling back, after a while without even realising it, he let her. He never wanted Emma to have to hide herself from him, but the grave error he’d done was hide the part of him that loved Snow from Emma.

For she knew all of their stories, none of them were from him. She knew of her mother, but not like how he had known her. He wanted to be strong for her, for his little girl, but he lost that battle. Emma is strong, but him? He’d lost his strength when he lost Snow, and all he was left with was a shadow of it, a mere imitation – not something he ought to be proud of.

He squeezed his eyes shut, leaning his head back. It had been too long of this selfish and cowardly behaviour; before he tried to earn his daughter’s forgiveness, he needed to find the man he’d lost ages ago – to death, to oppression, and most of all, to his own inability to move on.

-/-

Emma rushed through the doors of the glasshouse, tears a torrent down her cold, reddened cheeks, stinging sharply. She felt to her knees, a sob wrenching free from her tightly held control, the rough ground scraping her palms as she fell. Emma hissed, pulling her hands away and cradling them to her chest, looking at the wreckage around her, her chest constricting painfully. She’d visited this place – one sacred to her and her mother – twice in a week now, when before she’d hardly visit it once a year, if that.

But now, more than ever, she needed her mother. The problems with the council would only escalate from here, and her argument with her father only served to further sour her mood. She was desperate for a distraction, for something to soothe the ache of loss she felt – so sudden and acute, beyond anything she could bear. And as desperate as she was, there was only one thing she could do. Unleash it.

-/-

If anyone had passed by the worn-down greenhouse, they would have witnessed a bright light emanating from within the glass walls, as powerful magic flooded the place, transforming it back to its original glory.

Chapter Text

One week later

“William, let’s go,” Killian stated, patting his half-brother on his back as he walked past him, startling the man from his thoughts. William stared up at the window to his father’s chambers once more, their conversation from last week still fresh in his mind.

King Brennan found William quite easily after his outburst in the throne room. His late wife used to come here all the time, it was only natural for his son to seek out this place. He approached William tentatively, knowing that he was aware of his presence, the quiet of the library not doing much to mask the sound of his footsteps. The only acknowledgement that William gave to his father’s presence was his body going rigid, his hands clenching tight on the book he was holding.

“William,” he greeted, his tone as polite as possible, wanting the conversation to go as smoothly as possible.

“Father,” came the detached response.

“Son, can we talk?” Brennan tried again, his brows furrowed in worry as William seemed to ignore his request.

“Of course,” he answered finally, closing his book and standing up, offering a seat to his father. “What is it that you want to talk about?” he asked once both men were settled.

Brennan sighed, having expected William to be difficult. He had made mistakes as a father, especially since his wife passed away. Just when William needed him the most did he push him away. “William, I want us to talk about what you said.”

“I’m not going to apologise for that, father.”

“I never expected you to. But the way you did it, it was out of line, William. You cannot question my authority in front of anyone, not the way you did.”

“I was just-” he huffed, looking down at his lap before he met his father’s gaze. “I was very angry.”

“I understand that, but-”

“With all due respect, father, no. No, you do not understand. You don’t understand what it feels like to be brushed aside, when my half-siblings are favoured much more. You’ve always treated me differently, and I have never questioned you. But you didn’t even bother to ask me if I wanted to marry Princess Emma.”

“Well, why not her? She’s a lovely girl,” Brennan tried to reason, despite knowing how utterly weak the argument was.

William scoffed, “Be that as it may, the fact remains that you didn’t ask me what I wanted. Or if I have someone in my life. You didn’t even tell me yourself; Killian did. You have to know how that would have made me feel, that you trust Killian much more than you do the heir to your throne.”

“That was never my intention, William. Everything I do, that I keep from you, I only do it to protect you. I just lost sight of what is more important.”

“It’s been five years since mother passed, father. I’m not a nineteen-year-old green lad anymore. I’ve grown up.”

“And it seems that I have missed it,” the king finished.

William hesitated, not wanting to hurt his father, but not wanting to lie either. But he was saved from answering when his father simply nodded, his silence more than enough for him. “I am sorry, son.”

“I am, too, father. Maybe one day we can move forward.”

Brennan smiled at him, his eyes crinkling at the corners, laugh lines deepening. “I hope so, William. Now, would you like to go over anything, about Misthaven?”

After their conversation, he’d half expected his father to be there to send them off, but maybe he was just too optimistic. William shook his head, turning away and heading towards the carriage  waiting for him when he heard a voice call him. He turned, eyes widening in surprise as he saw his father walk towards him.

“Father. I expected you to be busy,” he said in greeting, making the king chuckle lightly.

“Well, if things go well, the next time we see each other, it will be during your betrothal,” he patted his son on his shoulder. “I wanted to give you something before you leave,” he pulled out a velvet box from his robes, handing it over to William.

When he opened it, he had to stifle a gasp. It was his mother’s engagement ring, and his father was giving it to him. “This is – this is mother’s ring,” he whispered brokenly.

“For your future bride, even if it isn’t Emma. It’s yours now, to give to whoever you wish.”

William smiled at his father’s words, his words meant more to him than any gesture ever could. His vision blurry from tears, he choked out “Thank you, father. This means- It means a lot,” allowing as his father pulled him into his arms for a short embrace.

Once William got into the carriage, Killian approached his father, a slight smirk on his face. “Seems like things worked out for you and William,” he said smugly.

Brennan shook his head at his son, his expression growing sober as he observed his daughter from afar. Killian, curious about the change in his father’s expression, followed his gaze, his own resolve hardening as he saw his sister stand by her lonesome, obviously feeling left out.

“Take care of her. She’s-she’s been through enough,” Brennan exchanged a meaningful glance with Killian, who simply nodded, understanding his father’s worry for Regina.

“Have you spoken to her, about what happened?”

“No. She didn’t want to talk about it. You know well how she had been when she’d returned. We just got her back, I didn’t want to-” he cut himself off, sucking in a deep breath. “You understand what I mean, lad.”

“Of course, father. We should be on our way.”

-/-

“You did what?!” Emma cried incredulously.

“It wasn’t my decision!” Her father snapped back. They had been dancing on eggshells around each other for the past week, their fight still a wall between them, both of them too stubborn to apologise first.

“Well, you gave your approval, father, so yes, it is!” Emma shouted back, pacing in front of him.

“Emma, all I said was that I would consider it. The council twisted my words and sent an invitation to Camelot in my stead,” David tried to reason, even as he realised how feeble it was.

“That meeting was pointless. They had already sent the invitation by then; they never intended to even hear me out,” she realised, her eyes widening in disbelief. “Do you see what I mean? We have no authority in this kingdom! I told you I wanted some time to think about my decision to marry, and now the Prince of Camelot in on his way here!” Emma started pacing, wringing her hands together in anger. ”What should I do now - go along with this charade for the rest of my life?” she demanded, eyes blazing with fury.

“Only until we find a loophole, something that would allow you to rule the kingdom,” David replied placatingly.

“I say we go ahead and dissolve the council all together. The people love you, and Elizabeth. You are fair rulers.”

David sighed, shaking his head. “They still think that the presence of the council gives them security, Emma, and it will be hard to change their minds.”

“But we can try,” Emma implored, but her father was unwilling to listen.

“Let’s handle one problem at a time. Until any of us can find something, we need to host the people of Camelot. Besides, Brennan is a good friend of mine, and we cannot afford to lose his friendship at this crucial time of war.” David paused, trying to see if his next words would be accepted. “Maybe you might even like William.”

“Not enough to marry him, I assure you, father.”

-/-

Ever since Lily’s unwanted advances last week, Regina could not stop reliving her memories with the Princess Aurora – a time where she did not know the harsh reality of the world as she did now. While she might have had some semblance of a good time with Aurora, all of that has been buried under layer after layer of the pain that followed - both physical and emotional. She’d spent such a long time blinded by her own love for the woman, she’d failed to notice that her feelings were not reciprocated as intensely, and that had led to her downfall. The physical pain she’d endured would have been worth it, if only Aurora hadn’t betrayed her so. Just thinking about it made the rage swirl in her heart, her grip on the reins tightening. This was precisely the reason she never wanted to even think about her time in King Stefan’s kingdom. The moment she had stepped foot in that place was where all her misery escalated.

Regina was brought out her musings when she heard Killian yell for their group to stop for the day. She was surprised to see how dark it had become, so lost in her thought she had been. She dismounted from her steed, landing with a soft thud and stretched her stiff muscles, still coming down from the daze she’d been in. How was she going to be of any use if she was lost in her own thoughts to notice her surroundings? She took a deep breath, the fresh air soothing her turmoil addled mind.

“Regina!” She turned to see Killian approaching her, and tried to rein in her urge to sigh. She recognised the look on his face, one that seemed to appear with greater frequency lately.

“Killian,” she called back, a frown in place.

“How are you?” he asked, brows furrowed in concern. For some reason, his constant worry only seemed to enrage her, causing her frown to deepen.

“Why do you ask?” she gritted out through clenched teeth, as quick to anger as ever.

Killian raised his hands in surrender, not wishing to push boundaries any more than he has with her of late. “It’s only been a few months since the incident with Princess Aurora, and this is the first time you have been outside of Camelot since then. As the man in-charge of Prince William’s safety, I need to know if you are fully invested. I cannot have you distracted, lest something happens to the Crown Prince,” he responded, almost mechanically.

Regina posture straightened at that, wanting to show him her strength. “I am capable of performing my duties, I assure you,” she snapped back, before adding. “Do not underestimate me, brother. What happened with Aurora will never happen again. Now if you will excuse me, I am going to scout the area.”

Killian watched, jaw clenching, as his sister stomped away from him as fast as she could. He could feel the guilt fester; never once had he ever doubted her strength before, not when their mother passed, not when Liam did either. She had always faced adversity with her own unique boldness. But she’d also never been as betrayed as she had been by Princess Aurora. He could remember with startling clarity the look on her face right before he’d stopped her execution – the look of someone so defeated and broken beyond repair. He had wanted to tear everyone that way limb to limb for making his sister go through that anguish, but the only reason he had been able to rescue her was because of the last bit of “diplomacy” he held on to with King Stefan.

“Please, Your Majesty. You cannot punish my sister any further, especially for something she did not do!” Killian implored, unable to look at his sister for even a moment longer, chained and bloody and broken as she was. “You’ve already done enough.” His voice cracked at the end, his heart strings pulled taut, imagining the pain she must have endured.

“Ser Killian, you sister has been accused of assaulting the Crown Princess, forcing her to engage in nonconsensual sexual activity. Do you realise how big a treason that is?” the prime minister retorted, as King Stefan glared down at Killian.

Killian’s head snapped up at that, his disbelief evident in his next words, “That is preposterous! My sister would never do that. I cannot allow you to tarnish her honour with such fabrication!”

“Be careful of your words, boy!” King Stefan spoke finally, his words echoing through the throne room. “Let me remind you that your alliance with our kingdom has been tenuous enough even before your sister’s actions.”

Killian clenched his fist, resisting the urge to lash out at the man. He fell to his knee, head bowed in obeisance, “Then punish me, Your Majesty. Please do not punish Camelot, or my sister. I take responsibility, completely.”

Regina’s eyes widened at that, her breath catching in her throat at her brother’s acquiesce. Her only crime had been to love that deceitful Princess, and as much as the scars seared pain through her body, Aurora’s betrayal seared her heart. “Killian, no,” she protested weakly, her voice worn and rough, stumbling forward in her chains.

Killian flinched, but held his position, even as every part of him protested against it, wanting to get to his sister. His fists tightened further, the nails biting into the skin of his palm centring him. He looked up at King Stefan from his position, “We are in a time of war, You Majesty. We need to stand united against King George and his troops. Camelot needs you just as much as you need us. Let us move past this-” he paused, unwilling to admit, even for the sake of his kingdom, that his sister was guilty of treason. “-this offence,” he choked out. He could feel Regina’s eyes on him, and he could very well imagine how betrayed she must feel, with him practically agreeing that she committed the crime. But he had to do this, not just for Camelot, but for her .

King Stefan regarded him with a cautious gaze, before shifting to Regina, the look of contempt clear on his face. Regina had never been one to back down from a fight, always ready to face her opponent in the eye without flinching. But the moment she saw the King’s expression, she averted her gaze, the shame apparent in the slump of her shoulders. She longed to believe that Killian’s words were just to appease King Stefan, but she was already burned because she believed in someone she loved; she would not make the same mistake twice.

When King Stefan drew his sword, both Killian and Regina’s eyes snapped up at that, eyes wide with fear. Killian’s hand went to the hilt of his own sword as he swiftly got to his feet. But before he could do much else, the King’s guards surrounded him, grabbing his arm and preventing him from any movement, even as he struggled to get to his sister. King Stefan approached Regina, his hand clutching the sword with a white-knuckled grip and his gaze trained on her as she tried to stumble away from him.

“NO!” Killian shouted, pushing at the men who held me at bay, watching with his heart in his throat as King Stefan brought his sword down, resting the blade against Regina’s throat. She looked up at him expressionlessly, even as her heart pounded in her chest. “I should kill you,” he spat in disgust.

“Go ahead,” she challenged, eyes hard and cold as ice.

“Regina, stop it,” Killian growled out. “King Stefan, you do not want to do this. If you lay another hand on her, you will regret it,” he warned.

“You think your father is going to wage a war against our kingdom for his bastards,” the King laughed cruelly, his sword pressing harder against Regina’s throat, making her swallow hard. He drew back, however, snarling at the siblings. “Get this wretch out of my sight, and you do well to tell your father that Camelot will not have our support in this war.”

Killian did not have time to think of the consequences of losing his support, not when Regina was released from her shackles, and thrust into his arms.

He rushed to catch her, her body too weak to hold herself up anymore, even as her face crumpled in pain. “Killian, I’m so sorry,” she rasped out, her hands clenched tightly on his arm. “I’m so sorry.”

Every part of him hurt seeing his little sister in such a vulnerable state, her tunic barely held together, saving the last bit of her dignity. He shrugged out his coat, draping it over her trembling form. “I’ve got you, sister. It’s okay,” he assured her, allowing her to rest against him.

Swallowing against the bile that raised in his throat, he glanced up at King Stefan. “Thank you, King Stefan, for your kindness,” he gritted out, before he led his sister out of the throne room. How was he going to face their father now?

-/-

Regina grumbled to herself, cursing her idiot brother for bringing up Aurora yet again. They had been on road to Misthaven for almost five days now, and it was the most free she’d felt ever since returning to Camelot after King Stefan had released her. She let out a harsh breath, running her hands through her cropped hair, eyes sliding closed. Ever since she’d returned to Camelot, King Brennan had barely said a word to her, and when he did, it was only for her to call on Killian. After King Stefan’s declaration about withdrawing support, every step had been made to mend bridges – which definitely meant nothing good for Regina. She had been the kingdom’s ambassador, sent as an official to King Stefan’s kingdom; she had been someone, meant something. And when she had returned, she’d been dismissed from her duties, sent to the training grounds to assist the trainers.

For all the pain she’d endured at the hand of King Stefan, for all the heartbreak Aurora’s betrayal had caused, she’d never felt more devastated by anything than by her father’s actions. He refused to talk to her for a solid month since her return, Killian being the only one to visit her in the infirmary as she recovered from her wounds. She’d floated in and out of consciousness the first few days, and she’d been certain that she’d seen William, even. But not her father, never her father. She’d never felt more like a disappointment, more alone than she did then – and every part of her yearned for her mother, for Liam, for anyone really, to simply hold her and soothe her broken, bruised and burnt heart.

Even thinking about that time made it hard for her to breath, her chest constricting painfully with repressed tears. She squeezed her eyes shut, pressing the heels of her hands to them and rubbing hard, when she heard a twig snap, alerting her to the presence of another person. Her eyes snapped open, teeth clenching as she fingered the dagger at her side, having an idea on who could be lurking. Her brother never really was good at being stealthy.

“You should trust me more, brother,” she growled out, her dagger flying through the shrubbery and towards the intruder. Regina’s triumphant smirk fell as she heard a feminine gasp, realising that whoever had been spying on her was not her brother. Ever so alert, she grabbed her spare dagger from her boot, walking towards the sound, trudging through the greenery in her way.

“I’m not your brother,” sassed the voice as Regina stumbled through to the other side.

Regina regarded the brunette with a curious gaze, eyeing the dagger that pierced through the woman’s cloak and held it against the tree trunk. “Who are you?” she demanded, holding up her spare dagger against the woman’s throat.

“Your manner really need work.” The brunette rolled her eyes, before introducing herself, “Belle French. I’m on my way to Misthaven, so if you would be kind enough to let me go, I’ll be on my way, and you yours.”

“What a coincidence. I’m headed to Misthaven as well.” Regina narrowed her eyes, “First, I find you spying on me, and then, you tell me you’re headed in the same direction. Who are you, really?” She pressed the dagger harder, unable to understand how this Belle didn’t even flinch a little at her underlying threat.

“Listen, huntress,” Belle sneered. “I was well on my way to Misthaven before I stumbled across you. You seemed like you were having a moment, and I didn’t want to be rude ,” she smiled humourlessly. “It’s called being considerate, something I’m guessing you wouldn’t understand.”

“I’m not a huntress, and you know nothing about me, woman. So, you’d do well to shut up. You’re coming with me.” She pried her dagger from where it was wedged, before she grabbed the woman’s arm, pulling her along with her.

“What do you think you’re doing?” Belle cried, squirming in Regina’s grip. “And who the hell are you?”

Regina resisted the urge to scream, whirling back to face the infuriating woman. “Listen, Belle, was it? Now, I’ve been instructed to bring in anyone who seemed suspicious. And you, milady , all alone in the woods, travelling to the same place we are, lurking in the bushes – you don’t seem as innocent as you claim you are.”

Belle rolled her eyes, following Regina, knowing well enough not to argue with her obstinate captor. “At least, tell me who you are,” she tried, but Regina simple dragged her towards the clearing the travelling party had made camp.

Killian was just starting to worry about Regina, preparing to go in search of her when he heard the sound of footsteps and feminine voices, getting louder by the second. He turned towards the sound, spying Regina and another woman walking into the camp. He frowned, looking closely at the woman. While she looked like no forest dweller, her worn travel cloak and dirty boots spoke of long days on the road.

“What’s the meaning of this?” Killian questioned, walking up to his sister and her companion.

“I found her in hiding in the woods, and she claimed be heading towards Misthaven.”

“And?”

“What do you mean, “and?” She was clearly spying on me, to get to our camp. She probably knows that William is with us,” Regina reasoned, shrugging her shoulders and glaring at the woman beside her, distrust barely concealed.

Belle shook her head, pushing Regina aside in favour of trying to reason with Killian, who seemed to her as the man in-charge. “I was not spying on her – I don’t even know who she is. I was walking and I saw her having a breakdown-”

“I was not having a breakdown!” Regina cut her off with a protest.

Belle growled, continuing, “-and I wanted to give her the moment she very clearly needed. And the next thing I know, a dagger was flying at my head, and very nearly missed.”

“Oh, trust me. I don’t miss,” Regina sneered.

By that time, Killian had had enough, raising his hands to stop both woman from bickering further. “Regina, maybe you should leave. I will handle it from here.”

Regina turned to him, taken aback by his words. But unwilling to question his authority in front of a stranger, she gritted her teeth and stalked off, leaving Killian alone with the woman.

“Forgive my sister; she doesn’t take kindly to strangers.” He scratched behind his ear in embarrassment. “Ser Killian Jones of Camelot. And you are?”

“Belle French. I’m from Misthaven, originally. I was visiting...erm, my aunt, a few towns over,” Belle explained, smiling softly. “It is nice to make your acquaintance, Ser Jones.”

Killian was not fool enough to believe that this Belle was truly visiting her aunt, but she wasn’t dangerous, either. Of that he was sure. “Well, Lady Belle, we are on our way to Misthaven as well. You are welcome to join us, if you would like,” he offered.

“I-I’m not a Lady,” she corrected. “If it wouldn’t be too much trouble, I would not mind joining you. Thank you,” she curtsied.

“It would be no trouble at all, Miss Belle. It’s just a day’s journey, if I’m not wrong.”

“If you don’t mind me asking, what is a travelling party doing hereabouts all the way from Camelot.”

Killian hesitated, before smiling at her. “We are accompanying Prince William; he is to court Princess Emma.”

That made Belle stop short, bewildered at his claim before she schooled her expression. “Courting her, you say?”

“Aye. Is that a problem?” he asked, brows pulling together.

“No, no. I wasn’t aware that Princess Emma agreed to court anyone…” she trailed off, making Killian’s frown deepen. How does it concern a peasant woman, the life of a princess? he wondered.

Belle shook her head, smile replacing the confusion. “I’m sorry. I work at the castle, and I know Princess Emma quiet well, so this news is still new to me.”

“Well, we received an invitation from King David, himself.” He glanced around, suddenly uncomfortable around the woman. “If you would excuse me, I should make sure my sister is alright.”

Belle watched, her thoughts a mess in her head. Had this been why Emma had wanted her back? To help her get out of this betrothal? she wondered. Oh, Emma. What has happened now?

Chapter Text

 

Killian approached Regina, straddling the log she was sitting on, observing her as she gazed at the freshly built fire, and ignoring his presence. Killian’s expression softened, lips stretching into an involuntary smile. Regina reminded him of Liam so much, in all the best ways. They were both so bloody stubborn, and they never could deal with losing gracefully. Liam had outgrown it…mostly. But Regina was what one would call a sore loser, especially in front of people she was not fond of. While Belle seemed like a sweet enough lass to him, he wouldn’t make the same mistake as he had done with Princess Aurora, not when it concerned his sister.

“What’s on your mind, sister?” he finally asked, bracing himself for her to dismiss his concerns.

And right he was again, for all she did was shrug in reply, stretching her fingers towards the fire, trying to warm up in the chilly afternoon. “There’s nothing to say, Killian.”

He wanted to shake her, tell her that he wasn’t blind. That he knew that she didn’t sleep nights and that she barely ate. That he noticed her long absences when the set camp for the night and the haunted look on her face when she returns. But most of all, he just wanted her to be alright – and every part of his heart hurt from how helpless he felt, not knowing where to even begin with Regina. Her mind had always been a mystery to everyone but their mum, but she was no longer with them and he was all she had.

“Regina, love, we both know that that’s lie.” He clasped his hands over hers, making her turn towards him. “ Talk to me, ” he beseeched her.

Regina shifted in her seat, her expression hesitant and scared. For all that she knew how much her brother cared for her, and wanted to protect her, she wanted to protect him just as much. And the darkness of her thoughts that threatened to take over her every waking and slumbering moment, that was hers to fight, and hers alone. She would not cause any more problems than she should for Killian, or anyone else, for that matter. She had to do this herself. The people she loved only seemed to make promises they could not keep – Mother promised that she would be alright; Liam promised to come back and Aurora promised to love her for all eternity – and with each promise broken, so did a piece of her heart, the pain of each one more excruciating than the last. So. as much as she wanted to tell it all to Killian, she couldn’t – wouldn’t – do that to him.

Just as Killian started to try and convince her, everyone at the camp was startled to their feet by the sound of hooves thundering their way through the woods, a man in gilded armour wearing their King’s crest breaking through into the clearing. Killian and Regina rushed to William’s side, their swords drawn in defence.

The man disembarked, out of breath and clutching a piece of parchment in his hand. “A missive from the King for Prince William,” he announced, falling to his knee.

William stepped forward, his brows furrowed in concern, as he grabbed the parchment from the messenger, eyes quickly scanning the letter. He sucked in a sharp breath, but that was the only reaction he gave before he quickly masked his expression into a cool mask. “Thank you,” he murmured. “Grab a drink and some food before your return,” he said in dismissal.

William turned towards Killian, “Ser Jones, join me in my tent, would you? Along with Lord Cramwell.”

Killian’s eyebrow raised, wondering what could have possible been in the message that William wanted to meet with not just him, but the old Commander who’d accompanied them. “Of course, Your Highness,” he bowed.

“Your Highness, shall I-” Regina began, but William raised his hand to stop her. “Just Ser Jones and the Lord Commander, thank you, Regina.”

Regina took a step back at his icy tone, puzzled and disconcerted by his curtness. “Of course, Your Highness,” she curtsied clumsily, the action unfamiliar for her person, before she walked away, her heart heavy with guilt she couldn’t understand.

“What’s this about, my liege?” Killian questioned William, once the three men had gathered.

William sighed, not knowing how to find the words to tell his half-brother the news that had been delivered. While it affected Camelot to a great extent, this might have more drastic effects on Killian and Regina. But he was the Prince, and when the time came, he would become the King of Camelot. He must do what he needs to, even when he didn’t want to.

He breathed deeply. “King Stefan has decided to join King George’s side. We will lose their support, and they will cut all ties with Camelot. Our King received word from King Stefan himself, and he wants King Brennan-” he paused, closing his eyes. “- Our father , to deliver him Regina. Alive. If he doesn’t, King Stefan will surely change sides.”

Killian’s heart skipped a beat, his eyes wide with fury. “Absolutely not. She- she has done nothing wrong.”

“His threat is real, Killian,” William warned. “We will lose their support and George will gain a strong ally at a time where we hardly have any.”

“She is one of us. Your Highness,” Killian gritted out, adding William’s title as an afterthought. “Is father- Is our King honestly considering King Stefan’s demand?”

William was quiet for a long moment, allowing Killian to jump to the worst conclusions, before he spoke again. “Father thinks Stefan is bluffing. He thinks King George would never accept the alliance of a traitor to the Northern Lands.”

Killian breathed a sigh of relief, before regarding William with more scrutiny. “If father thinks that there is no cause for concern, why call this meeting at all?” he questioned, his arms crossed.

For the first time since the men gathered in William’s tent, Lord Cramwell spoke, “Because our Prince here thinks King Stefan’s threat is real,” answering Killian. “Isn’t that right, Your Highness?”

William pursed his lips, trying to hide the guilt he felt. His concern was justified; Regina might be his half-sister, but she was also the reason Camelot was in rough waters with King Stefan, and it was either losing her or the support of King Stefan in the war. He had to at least consider-

“No,” Killian whispered, his betrayal clear in his tone. “That can’t be it. She is our sister .”

“She is your sister,” William snapped, his eyes ablaze with fury. “If she truly was my sister, she would not have jeopardised our alliance with King Stefan for a romp-”

But before William could finish his sentence, Killian lunged for him, grabbing him by the front of his shirt. “ Don’t you dare, ” he gritted out, his knuckles turning white from his grip. Lord Cramwell tried to pull him off of William, but Killian ignored him. “She is our sister. You said so yourself when you sent me to fetch her back from those beasts. Where has your loyalty gone now?” he snapped, letting his brother go with a look of disgust.

“I might care for her, but Camelot is my kingdom. It is my duty to protect my people.” William brushed out the wrinkles from his shirt, glaring at Killian.

Regina is a part of that!” Killian exclaimed. “She was falsely accused, and whipped to the bone like a bloody animal! She did nothing wrong, and still she endured all that . If you think for one moment that she couldn’t have escaped if she had wanted to, you don’t know her as well as I do. She stayed because she knew escaping would only hurt your beloved Camelot ,” he spat, rage and hurt warring in his heart, just the memory of his broken-down sister making him burn. “King Stefan would never stop, brother,” he implored, his tone softer than it had been all this while. “We hand her over, and then what? You think that that would satisfy that man? He will not rest.”

“He is right, Your Highness,” Lord Cramwell stepped up, his hand resting on Killian’s shoulder. “Regina has always been loyal to Camelot. We cannot repay that loyalty like this, milord. That would be an insult to your father,” he added boldly.

William bristled at that comment, “How dare you? I am thinking about what is best for Camelot.”

“With all due respect, milord, you are thinking of the convenient way out,” Lord Cramwell defended. “You may not want to listen to an old crone like myself, but listen to your consciousness. I have served the royal family all my life, I will always be loyal. But I implore you to listen, Your Highness; you cannot concede to this threat.”

William swallowed thickly, eyes darting between the two men, both of them looking at him earnestly. He sighed, taking a seat and running his hand down his face. “I- I don’t know what to do. I apologise for my behaviour.”

Killian clenched his jaw, hesitant to believe William’s sudden change of heart. Exchanging a glance with Lord Cramwell, he let out a long breath, “I trust that you will not harm my sister?” he asked.

William stared up at him, noticing the defiant stance and tense shoulders. “I do. I spoke from a place of fear, brother. I did not mean anything by it. Your loyalty means a lot to Camelot, and to me.” He stood up, offering his hand to Killian. “I hope my words have not changed your opinion of me.”

Killian hesitated before smiling tightly, taking William’s proffered hand. “Of course not, William. I will always remain loyal to my family.”

Stepping out of the tent, Killian looked around, spotting Regina laughing with a couple of men. The joy on her face was unadulterated, something that he rarely saw since her return to Camelot. He was loyal to his family, and that included her. He would never let anyone hurt her again – even if it meant defying his own king and crown, he would protect his sister.

-/-

Emma pressed her forehead against her bed post, sucking in a sharp breath as her handmaiden tightened her corset. She let her mind wander, her last conversation with her father playing over and over in her head. Even as she tried to suppress reality, spending all her efforts in restoring her mother’s garden and taking over Elizabeth’s responsibility, she could not ignore the changes taking place in the castle as everyone bustled to prepare to welcome Prince William and his entourage. It only made her dwell on just how helpless she really was – no matter how unwilling she was, she would have to meet and welcome this prince into her home. And even worse, her heart.

Emma sighed, squaring her shoulders as her handmaiden finished lacing her up. “Thank you, Lisa. I can dress myself,” she dismissed her, walking towards the full-length mirror in her room, holding up the dress that had been laid out for her against her person. She wrinkled her nose, the ghastly orange print on the dress looked as unappealing to the eye as it did against her. She tossed it aside, choosing one in a light blue, smiling as she laced up the front of the dress. If she had to fight for control over everything in her life, she might as well rejoice in the small victories. Brushing her hand down the soft material of her dress, her eyes drifted to the mirror, the reflection of a portrait catching her attention. She turned around, the corners of her mouth lifting in a sad smile as she took in the painting of her mother on the day of her coronation as Queen. She remembered admiring that painting ever since she was a child, wanting to be just like the strong woman her mother had been.

When Snow had passed, she’d insisted on having the painting transferred to her room. Her father had been concerned that Emma lacked understanding about the nature of her mother’s passing, about death and how absolute it was. But he had been wrong – Emma understood. She understood that she would never hear her mother’s tinkling laughter or feel her warm embraces or witness her sweet, dimpled smile that made Emma’s heart feel so full of love. She would never learn to shoot arrows or talk to birds. She would never again hear another story about her mother’s many adventures or listen as her mother spoke about light and hope. But she would never hide herself from the memories, much like her father had chosen to in the initials years of her passing. Emma would never dishonour her mother by forgetting her.

Which was why it felt like a betrayal to Snow’s memory, this whole political marriage. She’d closed herself off when her mother died, and as she grew up, her armour grew with her. She’s always hoped that there would come a day when someone would be willing to scale her walls, and share with her the kind of love Snow and David had. But all that was lost now – even if she did end up having feelings for this prince, a part of her would always wonder if it was the situation that made her love the man or if it was the man himself. She would never have the luxury of finding out, if she never fought for it. If not for herself, she would have to fight to honour her mother’s memory. She would have to fight, so that she would never have to live a life of regrets.

Steeling herself on her decision, Emma took out a piece of parchment, her ink-dipped quilled scratching across the paper as she penned a letter to the only person she could turn to, now – her stepmother.

Dear Elizabeth,

I hope this letter finds you in good health, and your friend as well. Please do pass on my wishes for well-being and swift recovery to your ailing friend. While I do feel concern, a part of the reason is because I miss your company terribly. Your duties, while tedious, are being carried out to the best of my ability; but much has changed since your departure.

I am sure that father must have discussed with you about the council’s request for me to wed. Things have progressed much further from a request now, I am afraid. Father refuses to listen to me, and the council even more so. I am not sure if I should go along with this charade, but it seems like I have no choice.

I just wish that you could be here, talk to father. Tell him that this is wrong. We could fight back, Lizzie. We could contest the council, or try to get them to change their mind. We could have an alliance with Camelot without marrying me off to Prince William. Anything. I hope you return home soon; everything seems to be falling apart in Misthaven.

Love,

Emma.

-/-

Elizabeth stood at the entrance of the small, seaside cottage, her gaze transfixed on the horizon. The setting sun created a hue of dark oranges and soft pinks, the chill in the air picking up as dusk descended on them. She wrapped her shawl tighter around her form, looking over her shoulder at the sleeping form on the cot, beads of sweat collecting on the man’s forehead. She closed her eyes wearily, letting out a shuddering breath.

It had been as trying as it had been tiring, this past month at Nathanial’s bedside, nursing him as much as she could, despite knowing that it was futile. She closed the door partially, knowing that while the cold air might make him shiver, it would still help bring down his fever. It was a battle, meeting his comfort and at the same time helping him recover. She took vigil next to his bed, just as she had been doing all these days, her hand resting on his wrist, his pulse beating rapidly against her fingers, the heat radiating off of him in waves.

“El,” he whispered through chapped lips, voice roughened by his dry throat. His brows furrowed in distress, as he squirmed in his bed. “El.” His voice was louder now, clearer.

“Shh, I’m here,” she reassured, wringing a wet cloth of excess water before pressing it to his forehead, trying to alleviate some of his discomfort. She smiled when he sighed as the cool cloth came in contact with his clammy skin; he relaxed slightly, her free hand brushing his sweaty hair away from his brow.

His eyes fluttered open, the haze of the fever still having a firm grasp on him. He squinted at her, licking at his chapped lips. “El?” he breathed in surprise.

“Yes?”

“Is that really you, my love?”

Elizabeth froze at the endearment, her heart growing warm with adoration, yet, at the same time, the guilt weighing heavy. David had been so understanding of her need to be with Nathanial, of her remnant feelings for him, even after all these years. He was her husband, her best friend – she cared for him, loved him in the same way he loved her – not deeply, not passionately, they would never be True Love – but at least honestly . She could not betray that. She swallowed down her guilt, smiling down at her old love. “Yes, Nate. It truly is me.”

He let out a sound that was half-laugh, half-sob. “I truly must be dying, if you came all the way here to be with me,” he chuckled humourlessly.

“Nate, hush. Don’t say such things,” she chided him, grief pulling on her heartstrings.

“It’s been years, Elizabeth. Years and not a word from you. What else do you wish for me to think?” he replied sardonically.

Nate .”

He turned his head away, closing his eyes as if being in her presence caused him more pain than the imminent death. Tears escaped from his eyes, rolling down his temple, making her own well with pain she caused him. “I’m tired, El. I think I’ll sleep for a while,” he finally said, his voice soft and broken, before he drifted off to sleep.

And she finally allowed a sob to tear from her throat, more following quickly.

-/-

Emma squinted at the scenery in front of her, her paintbrush held loosely between her fingers. Dipping her brush in the mix of paint on her palette, she brushed a smooth line in her painting, adding ripple to the pond with even stroke. After a moment, she leant back in her chair, observing her handiwork with a critical eye. Her stepmother was the artist, not her. She dabbled in painting whenever she felt restless, but unable to expend that energy. If it had been her magic she had trouble reining in, she turned to physical activities, but even the most tiring training does nothing to stop her tumultuous thoughts.

Emma was startled from her reverie by a booming voice shouting her name. She gritted her teeth, unwilling to see him again. She had come out here to get some peace of mind, and more importantly, some time away from him. But of course – of course – her father would not understand that. She tried to ignore him, childishly hoping that would ward him from her. Unfortunately, that would not be the case in this instance. She did get her stubborn streak from both her parents, after all.

She felt her father come to stand behind her chair, his hands gripping the back tightly. “That’s a lovely painting, sweetheart,” he complimented, trying to break the tension that had built between them in the past few days.

“Hullo, father. Here to tell me that my wonderful groom is ready? Is it time for me to recite my vows now? Or have you taken it upon yourself to do that for me, as well?” she sassed, refusing to turn around and face him.

“Emma, there is no need to be difficult,” he replied wearily.

She resisted the urge to growl, getting up and whirling around to face her father. “Oh, I am being difficult now, am I?” she snapped. “I think finding out that some nameless prince is on his way to court me is difficult . Of course, there is also the fact that the courtship is all a sham! I don’t really have a choice, now, do I? I would say that that is difficult . What I think you mean to say is, I am being an inconvenience, fighting for myself, instead of complying with the council’s demands, much like you have been doing all these years.”

Through her whole speech, David’s face grew redder, her last words making him see red. “ That is enough, Emma! ” he bellowed, making her jump, surprised by his ferocity. “That is enough,” he repeated, in a more controlled, albite piqued, tone. He breathed out deeply, running his hand down in face. “I understand that you are upset. You were right the other day, when you said that I have lost my integrity. I lost a part of me when I lost your mother.”

Emma’s eyes widened in surprise. Her father had never willingly spoken about Snow to her in years, and after he barely relented in the initial years, she realised how much it hurt him to talk about her mother, so she’d stopped asking. But to hear him open up about her mother, it made some of her anger dissipate. When David noticed that she seemed willing to hear him, he barrelled through.

“She had been the love of my life, Emma. You don’t know this, but in the months that followed her death, I went down dark paths to get her back. I was even ready to release the Dark One if it meant I got her back. I had gone mad with grief. The council had stepped in during that time, and had handled my affairs without letting anyone know that I was incapacitated. This was just before Bravian joined them, of course. They were honourable men, Emma. That was why I agreed to re-marry. While I grew fond of Elizabeth, she is not your mother. And I was not her first love either,” he confessed. “We sought comfort in each other, and we built our friendship and trust. I would lay my life down for her, but not my love. That is how much I still love your mother.

“If Snow could only see me now. She would not approve of how far I’ve let Misthaven fall under the control of the council. She had always wanted to foster a better leadership, take back all that power from the council without dissolving their purpose. I was supposed to take up her desire, but I gave up on it. I was weak, Emma. And now I see the consequences of my choices, how it is affecting you. I can only imagine how helpless you must feel, my darling. I had promised your mother that I would always protect you, but I have failed in protecting the most important thing – your will,” he hung his head in shame, tears burning the back of his eyes. After a long moment, Emma reached forward, grabbing his hand, making him look up at her.

“Help me fight this system, then, father. Help me make mother proud, and bring back glory to Misthaven. We need the support of the people behind us, we need them to believe in us. But how can we do that if we don’t believe in ourselves?” She gave him a small, encouraging smile. He was astounded by how much of Snow he saw in her; this was the olive branch that he was hoping for, and he would do anything to make a better life for her.

“You have my full support, darling,” he vowed, squeezing her arms. “We will do everything we must, as a family.”

Emma smiled, her gratitude swelling in her chest. “Thank you,” she breathed. “Now, until we find a way out, I promise to go along with the charade. We cannot keep defying the council and build suspicion.”

David began to say something, when Emma’s handmaiden approached, alerting him to divert. “Prince William is set to arrive in a day or two, I believe,” he said. When she raised a brow at him, he leaned down to whisper, “No one can know but us.” In a louder voice, he added, “I must be leaving, Emma. I will see you at dinner time,” and departed with a kiss to her forehead.

Emma walked back to her chambers, feeling lighter than she had that morning. She had finally got her father to see her side of things, and once Elizabeth received her letter, she would join them too. They may not have Snow White, but between the three of them and Belle, they would figure something out. Smiling to herself, she nodded absently at the guard at her door.

“Your Highness,” the man began. When she turned to him, indicating her attention, he continued. “Duke Bravian had called upon you in your absence. He’s left a gift for you in your salon.”

“Thank you. Did he say what he needed to see me for?” she asked, shuddering at the idea of that man in her room. When the guard replied in the negative, she shrugged, going inside to see for herself what this gift was.

She found a cloche covered plate on a table, with a note attached, intriguing her. Better luck next time, it read, sending a chill down her spine. She snatched the cover off the plate, stifling a scream as she stumbled back, almost falling over in her fright. There, on the plate, sat a dead pigeon. Not any dead pigeon, the one that was meant to take her letter to Elizabeth. She covered her mouth, bile rising in her throat. That bastard seems to always be ahead of her. How was she going to fight against a man like him?

Chapter Text

“Did father tell you anything about this princess?” William asked Killian, for what seemed like the hundredth time, making him roll his eyes.

“Nothing, brother. I promise you, all he told me was how much this alliance would mean for Camelot, so try not to muck it up, aye?” he groused, earning a scowl from William.

“I just want to be prepared,” William mumbled, his eyes darting away from Killian’s sharp gaze.

Killian resisted the urge to chuckle, knowing that as experienced as his brother was when it came to leading a troop of soldiers, he was nothing but a green lad when it came to women. Usually somewhat stoic, William hardly gave much importance to learning the art of wooing women, preferring to learn how to best run a kingdom. Killian on the other hand was anything but saintly; he enjoyed the company of women, and while he has not entertained the idea of committing to anyone since Milah passed, he hadn’t exactly been celibate.

Clapping William on the back, he spoke in a reassuring manner, “You never can prepare for women, brother. So, at ease, Your Highness , you aren’t approaching enemy lines.”

“I’d much rather face off an entire army than a woman, right now, Killian. We are at a time of war, this isn’t the time to ‘woo a lady ’ as you say,” he said, almost whiningly.

Killian tried not to roll his eyes again, smirking at William. “Believe me, brother, you will soon be singing a different tune.”

William shook his head, as if he disagreed before nodding forward. Killian turned toward the road, the ride uphill finally tapering off to the castle gates. More than a week of travel, and they had finally reached their destination.

“Are you ready, Your Highness?” Killian asked, sending a sidelong glance his brother’s way.

William nodded curtly, looking forward as the gates slowly rolled open, King David’s entourage awaiting Prince William’s arrival. Killian easily recognised King David from his previous visits to Misthaven. The man was charming to a fault; he’d even heard that his late (first) wife used to call him ‘Charming,’ a fact that had made him chuckle then.

Killian was the first to dismount, standing behind William as he got off his horse and walked the short distance to greet King David.

“Your Majesty,” William smiled widely. “I am Prince William, Heir Apparent of Camelot. I thank you for welcoming us into your home.”

King David shook his proffered hand, grinning back at William. “Welcome to Misthaven, William. It is a pleasure to have you and your people with us. I must apologise for my daughter’s absence.”

“Oh, not at all, Your Majesty. I would much prefer to meet the Princess for the first time in a more formal setting - er, and perhaps not weary and gritty of days on the road.”

David had a twinkle in his eye as he asked, “But it is alright to meet the King in such a manner, is it?” he questioned, eyes narrowed.

Killian suppressed his chuckled, watching his brother sweat.

“O-of course not, Your Majesty. I-”

“Calm down, son,” David laughed. “I was merely jesting.” He clapped William on the back, making the prince let out a sigh of relief. “Come. I will have someone show you and your people to their quarters. I am sure you would want a warm bath and bed.”

-/-

Emma leaned against the edge of her balcony, watching as Prince William’s group walked towards the castle. She sighed deeply, her gut churning with anxiety. She was still reeling from Duke Bravian’s ‘gift’, her heart racing from simply thinking of the jeopardy she and her father were in. She hadn’t confided to her father about the dead pigeon, not wanting to put him in any more danger than he was already in. As much as she wanted to stop the duke, she had to be more careful. She couldn’t even try to contest against him, and the council until she had something up her sleeve. The only thing that would work would be an ambush; they cannot suspect anything.

Which meant that she couldn’t passively avoid Prince William’s courtship, let alone refuse to partake in it. As far as the council was concerned, she was to wed Prince William. She didn’t really have any choice in the matter. As a political leader, she could understand how this was a move towards a stronger alliance, especially at a time of war. But this fight that she was set on fighting, it wasn’t just so she could marry whomever she wanted. It was to fight against corruption – corruption was the reason the council was formed, it was fitting that it was also the reason for its end. If the duke’s warning meant anything, it meant that he wanted her to be docile, to conform to the council’s - no, to his demands. She was trapped in her own kingdom, and she had just seen a taste of what was to come.

She pressed her forehead to the stone railing, the dew from dawn still clinging to it, chilling her. She felt a tightness in her chest, an urge to rip the laces on her corset so she could breathe freely until she had to fight for that too. But no matter how much she tried, she would never get enough air to rid herself of this breathlessness. Over the years, she had become used to this feeling – this restless energy that made her nerves itch and bones ache. All the signs usually pointed to the same thing – her magic needed release.

Her magic, as she had discovered, had been a part of her from a very young age. But she had also grown up with stories of how dangerous magic was, how the Dark One and his powers wreaked havoc on the lands, terrorising people. Magic had always been seen as a curse, as something evil. Emma had initially tried her best to hide her magic, afraid of it and unable to control it. She became recluse, not knowing what to do and too young at the age of four to understand it any better. Both her parents had worried and tried coaxing the problem out of her, but she hadn’t known what it was at the age to voice it. All she knew was if she became too angry or upset, or even too happy…things just happened.

She had been so horrified with her discovery as a child, and when her mother inevitably found out, she had been certain that she would be punished. While Snow was beyond happy, understanding that Emma’s magic was born out of True Love, her eyes had welled with tears when she had seen how much her daughter feared this part of herself. Snow had taken it upon herself to make sure Emma learned to not just accept her magic, but love it, nurture it. See it as a gift and not a curse. They had decided to tell her father the same week her mother had passed. And after that, Emma could never find the courage to tell him for a long time, and when she had decided to tell him, he had decided to marry Elizabeth. Out of fear that they would reject her, she had decided to keep it a secret.

Now, even knowing Elizabeth as well as she did, she could not risk anyone finding out. People were still wary of magic, despite it being practically non-existent in the last couple of decades. Fairies were now the only known wielders of magic, anyone else was seen as an enemy. She had heard stories of people who were suspected of witchcraft being burnt at the stake, horrified at the maltreatment. Despite all that she’d accused her father of being, she was as much a coward, if not more.

A soft knock on her door startled Emma from her thoughts. She cleared her throat, calling for her visitor to enter, retreating from the balcony, and into her much warmer room. She heard a familiar voice call for her, her mood immediately lifting.

“Belle!” she exclaimed happily, rushing to hug her friend. “How are you? It has been so long!”

Belle laughed, hugging Emma back hard. “I missed you as well, Emma.” She pulled away, her hands holding Emma’s arms. “You don’t seem well, Emma. Are you alright?” she asked, taking in her friend’s paler-than-usual complexion.

Emma smiled slightly, touched by Belle’s care. “Well, much has changed since you went to visit Aunt Ruby. Prince William is here to ‘court’ me. Which is more a formality, than anything else. The council is tightening its grip on Misthaven.” Emma shuddered.

“I actually travelled some distance with the prince and his group. I never actually talked to the prince, but his half-brother seems nice enough. Can’t say the same for his half-sister, though,” Belle wrinkled her nose at the mention of this half-sister.

Emma’s brows furrowed. She wanted to ask further, but she could see how tired her friend looked. “Worry not about this woman, Belle. You look exhausted; I shall have my staff prepare your quarters.”

“Oh, Emma, that’s not necessary!” Belle protested. “I am fine back in my cottage.”

“Nonsense! I will be needing your assistance in the upcoming days, and your cottage is quite a distance for daily commute. I insist, you must stay here. I shall have your room prepared in a minute.”

-/-

William adjusted his cuffs, staring at his reflection in the mirror in the quarters provided to him. From his short time here, he could see how much bigger Misthaven was compared to Camelot. Misthaven was more powerful than Camelot could ever be. This alliance could be beneficial for Camelot, especially with King Stefan’s threat hanging over their heads.

He turned around when he heard his door open, Regina standing there with her hand over her eyes. “I hope you are decent, Your Highness,” she called out, a hint of teasing in her voice.

He laughed, shaking his head. “You do know that it’s customary to knock before you enter. I am your future king.”

She scoffed, removing her hand from her face. “William, you may be my future king, but you are also my brother!” she teased before her expression shifted to something more serious, her gaze dropping. “Unless, of course, recent events have made you question our relationship, and my loyalty? I-I know that it’s not typical for bastard child-”

“No, Regina. Of course not!” he cried, cutting her off. The look of offense on his face only made her shrink more into herself. He felt his conscience prick him, a small voice telling him that she had every reason to doubt his affection towards her, considering how quickly he had been ready to give her up for the sake of Camelot in a moment of panic and weakness. It was not the mark of a true leader - nor a brother.

If Killian’s reasoning from a few days ago hadn’t made him see the light of day, this would have. He had grown up with Regina, and never in all these years has he seen her look so unsure of her place with their family. And yes, while it was unconventional for illegitimate children to be so close to the heirs, that was not the case in Camelot. Not only was it a small, tightknit kingdom, so was the family. He never really did speak to Regina once she’d returned from King Stefan’s capture, but he was quickly realising that he should have. For that trauma to have changed her so much, it really must have been worse than he had initially assumed. He felt a deep shame rise up, remembering his reaction when Killian had brought her back - his concern for country had once again won over his own family.

His throat felt tight, heart hurting, seeing how skittish Regina was being. He crossed the distance between them in two long steps, gathering her in his arms. He couldn’t ignore how she froze in his embrace if he wanted to. “You will never stop being my sister. Ever. You are so bloody strong, sis. I’m sorry if it seemed like I was avoiding you. That was never my intention. I just never knew what to say.” He pulled back, meeting her gaze. “I am so sorry. I was so worried that I would say the wrong thing. You were barely conscious your first week back home, and you- you just-” He cut himself off, unable to get the words out.

She pulled away, her expression sharp. “I am not weak, William,” she snapped, arms crossed and back ramrod straight.

“I know that! I never said you were! I am . When it comes to my family, I am weak. But I can never show that weakness on the outside, because I can’t risk anyone taking advantage of it.” He looked ready to break down, his eyes wildly moving around the room, a sudden restlessness gripping him.

“William, calm down. What are you talking about?” Something clicked in her mind, prompting her next question. “Does it have anything to do with the letter you received from father?” When he hesitated to respond, Regina clamped tight to it, already having an idea on what it could have been about. No matter what, she had a right to know. She was tired of everyone hiding things from her in the name of protection. “Tell me.” And then as an afterthought, added, “Please.”

William sighed, knowing that he would have to face Killian’s wrath for this. But their sister had a right to know, and she was much stronger than his brother and father seemed to believe her to be.

The more he revealed the more she seemed to unravel before his eyes. When he realised his mistake, it was already too late. Regina was quickly backing out of the room, eyes wide with horror.

“Are you insane?!” she shouted. “You cannot lose King Stefan’s support. Then we would lose the support of more kingdoms, maybe even lose this alliance with Misthaven. If it’s me they want, let them have me! I will not let you sacrifice the future of our home , bloody hell, William!”

“Regina, calm down.”

“Don’t tell me what to do,” she snapped. “I am leaving right now,” she hissed at him. “I would ideally wait until after your welcome ball, but time is a precious commodity and we cannot afford that now.”

“What the bloody hell do you plan on doing, once you leave?” he challenged, frowning at her.

“Surrender myself, you idiot. You should have told me, William. Killian and father are sentimental fools, but you know better. If it had been you, you would gladly sacrifice yourself.” And with those words, she stormed out of the room. William slumped on a chair, hands cradling his head, dreading the consequences of his actions.

-/-

Regina felt her heart pound loudly, William’s revelation leaving her reeling. She could not believe that Aurora would allow this to happen. She had taken the blame when King Stefan had found out about their dalliance because she thought that that would protect her love from suffering the wrath of her father. She’d been to many kingdoms in her years, and there were still a few which view love between people of the same sex as an abomination, as something against nature. And in those places, she had been careful not to reveal that part of herself. And yet, despite knowing how much danger she was putting herself in, she had fallen for the princess.

The part that makes her sick to her stomach was the knowledge that Aurora never loved her, not like Regina did. If she had, she wouldn’t have let Regina take the blame, not when she’d been aware of how severe the punishment would be. Regina had not anticipated the literal whipping she had received, even now able to hear the sound of the whip as it flew through the air, the blinding pain of it as it seared the flesh of her back.

Regina stopped walking, her breathing too rapid for her to control. She was in an empty corridor, her mind too fast and her heart too heavy. Her legs gave out from under her, leaving her slumped against the wall, her knees pulled to her chest as she tried to regulate her breathing. But try as she might, she did not seem to get enough air in her lungs, she felt like she was underwater, drowning with no way to resurface. She heaved, her face wet with tears and her throat thick with a need to sob out loud.

She would look a sight if anyone were to walk this corridor. And as her luck might have it, she heard the padding of footsteps, growing louder and louder in the empty corridor. She tried to get up, to move from her position on the ground, but she was paralyzed. She leaned against the wall, giving up on trying, breathing shallowly. She heard a soft voice float around her, feminine and accented. She tried to hold on to that, to help pull her from her state of mind.

She felt a hand on her shoulder, the contact startling her into reality as she looked up at the girl who travelled with them, a look of deep concern etched across her face. She seemed to have been trying to get her attention for a while now, Regina realised, blinking at her.

“Regina? Are you alright?” Belle asked, shaking her.

She swallowed thickly, blinking again as spots began to appear in her vision. She shook her head ‘no’, gasping as she struggled to breathe. She closed her eyes, her heart racing faster as her panic became worse. Just as her senses began fading from the lack of oxygen, she left a great relief in pressure around her chest, forcing her to suck in a sharp breath.

Regina’s eyes watered, her lungs burning from her struggle as she gulped in air. When her mind cleared of the haze of her panic, she looked back at Belle. “Wha-what did you do?” she asked, panting.

“I ripped your corset at the back,” Belle replied, almost shyly. “It relieved the pressure on your lungs. You- you were having a panic attack, weren’t you?”  When Regina took too long to answer, Belle shook her head, helping the other brunette to her feet. “Let’s get you into a fresh set of clothes and a cup of hot tea, alright?” She led Regina down the hall, and to the rooms assigned to herself.

-/-

Prince William, Killian, Lord Cramwell and Camelot’s royal legal advisor were announced into the throne room. This was a more formal welcome for the prince, as well as an opportunity for him to meet Princess Emma. To say that he was nervous would be an understatement, but beneath that, he was extremely worried about Regina. He had gone in search of her, hoping to stop her before she did anything drastic, but before he could find her, she found him. Or more, the woman who’d travelled with them – Belle. She’d assured him that while Regina was fine at the moment, she seemed to have suffered from a panic attack and needed rest. He could not find the words to express his gratitude to this woman, and had vowed to return to his sister’s side at his earliest.

Killian nudged him, whispering, “Have you seen Regina?”

William stiffened, nodding curtly. Before Killian could say another word, the double doors to the throne room opened, King David striding through them as everyone stood in respect. A woman he could only assume to be Princess Emma walked behind him, a soft smile gracing everyone present.

He heard Killian suck in a swift breath behind him, and he couldn’t agree more with that reaction. Princess Emma’s beauty was breathtaking, without a doubt. Everyone in the room settled back down as King David took to his throne, Princess Emma sitting on one on the lower dais.

“Welcome to Misthaven, Prince William.”

“Thank you for your kindness, Your Majesty.” William bowed his head in respect. He turned back, grabbing the dagger and scabbard from Lord Cramwell. “Allow me to present Princess Emma with this token from Camelot, sire.”

At David’s acquiescence, William approached Emma with an open smile. Kneeling in front of her on bended knee, he offered her the dagger. “I’d heard that you were a warrior by every right, Princess Emma. I hope that this gift would be more appreciated than any other treasure that I could present you with.”

Emma looked taken aback for a moment, eyes wide and mouth gaping, before she quickly composed herself. She stood up, smiling at Prince William as she took his proffered gift, drawing the dagger from its scabbard, testing the weight in her hands. Impressed by its lightness and steal work, and resisting the urge to examine it much closer, she looked back at him with a grin. “This is definitely far more appreciated than your gold or treasures, Your Highness,” she replied graciously. “Welcome to Misthaven, Prince William,” she added, almost blushingly.

“Please, Princess. Call me William,” he insisted.

“Then, please call me Emma. This was a thoughtful present, William.”

-/-

Killian observed the exchange between his brother and the princess with a look of pride, knowing that his gut instinct at been right. Killian had heard that Princess Emma was well-versed in all forms of swordplay, especially at throwing daggers with great precision, and preferred being out in the field, fighting, rather than cooped up in the castle. She had her mother’s fighting spirit, and having had the pleasure of meeting Snow White as a child, before her unfortunate demise, he’d felt that the princess would appreciate a weapon more than any expensive jewelry. Which was why he’d had this dagger commissioned, giving it to William a day before they’d started their journey.

The way his brother’s eyes had lit up at that, already having begun fantasizing about competing with the princess in a duel, Killian had to suppress a chuckle. For all his seriousness, William was still very much a young lad.

He admired the interaction between the princess and his brother, his eyes trained on the princess for longer than was appropriate. But her beauty was enchanting, her laughing eyes pulling him in. Killian had to physically shake himself from his reverie, chiding himself for his fantasies. That woman was to be betrothed to his brother, and even if she wasn’t, she was royalty. He was nowhere near her station, and he should learn his place. His sister had paid the price for trusting her heart with royalty, he wasn’t about to do something foolish like falling for his brother’s to-be-bride.

He scoffed at himself, sounding like a love-sick bard. He’d just seen the woman, and no matter how astounding her beauty, he would never fall for royalty. He was brought out of his thoughts when King David announced a ball to be held in the following evening, in Prince William’s honour. Brilliant , Killian thought, a chance for him to let loose, and maybe find charm a Lady-in-waiting back to his rooms .

When he felt eyes on him, he looked up, his gaze meeting striking emerald ones. A jolt passed through him, as he held the princess’s gaze for a moment longer than necessary before dropping his gaze, the tips of his ears burning. He heard William and Emma exchange few more words, Emma welcoming him to break fast with her and her father, which his brother accepted readily.

Killian exchanged a smiling glance with Lord Cramwell, knowing that things had gone swimmingly in their favour. King David looked content enough, and Princess Emma seemed impressed with William. If everything else went this well, they would be engaged in a few weeks and Camelot would have a great ally. He breathed a sigh of relief as King David dispersed everyone to breakfast. While Killian has worn his fair share of formal attire, he was far more comfortable out of all the layers, preferring a shirt and vest to their more formal counterpart.

He rushed out of throne room as quickly as he could without running outright. Now that his worry about William’s meeting with the princess had dissipated, he was more anxious about Regina’s absence. She was supposed to be with them, not in any official capacity, but his father had hoped that she would take back her position of foreign ambassador. If she had missed something this important, something bad must have happened. That had to be the reason, which only made his worry multifold. Just when he started to feel desperate, having no clue where to start looking for her, he spotted Belle, who was quickly approaching him.

“Ser Killian! I am so glad I found you!” she exclaimed.

“Just Killian, lass, please. What happened?” he asked, his hand resting on her shoulder to steady her.

“It’s your sister. She- I found her having a panic attack in the corridor a while back, and took her to my room. She’s resting, but she seems very agitated, so I came to find you.”

Heart in throat, Killian asked hoarsely, “Where is she?”

Chapter Text

“So, William. I’ve heard that you were a master strategist,” David commented as he took a sip of his drink.

William nodded as he chewed, washing it down with water before he cleared his throat. “That’s a little bit of an exaggeration, Your Majesty. But yes, I have been involved in that area.”

“No need for modesty, son. If you are good at something, own up to it. There is nothing wrong with a little gloating once in a while. In fact, I think it’s healthy.”

“That’s because humility is an acquired trait, father,” Emma teased, popping a grape into her mouth. She flushed a little when William’s gaze cut to her, amusement dancing in his eyes.

“Well, Princess-”

“Emma. Please.” she cut him off, smiling.

“Alright, Emma . I was wondering if you would join me for a walk after breakfast. I would very much like to get to know you.”

Emma hesitated, glancing at her father. While William seemed nice enough, she was already growing weary of this charade. She simply had no interest in a courtship, no matter how pleased she had been with William’s present. She sighed to herself when her father nodded. “I would love to join you, William,” she smiled.

-/-

Killian sat vigil next to his sister, her clammy hands clutched between both of his. He had been waiting for the past hour for her to wake up, his eyes never moving from her for even a moment. When Belle had first shown him to her room, he almost collapsed in relief when he saw her simply sleeping. He had been waiting for this kind of breakdown from her ever since she’d returned to Camelot after the ordeal with King Stefan. But she had held herself together, refusing to allow her memories to resurface so she could deal with the trauma in a healthy manner.

Killian felt like he’d failed her, not being there for her when she truly needed him. But he had to accept the fact that he can’t always be around. He had to stop feeling guilty for what happened to her at the hand of King Stefan, as much as she should stop blaming herself. Neither of them did anything wrong, and the fact that she still seemed to believe it was a testament to how much he’d failed her.

“I’m sorry, little sister,” he whispered brokenly. He jumped when he heard her mumble, her eyes fluttering and her hand squeezing his. “Regina? Love, can you hear me?”

Her eyes opened slowly, as she squinted up at him. “Killian? What happened?” she asked, her voice sounding scratchy. He poured her some water, watching as she greedily gulped it down.

“You tell me, love. That lass, Belle, told me that she found you in the middle of the hallway, having a panic attack. Gods, I was worried sick, Regina!” he cried, anxiety seeping through his every word.

Everything came rushing back to her, William’s confession included. Her anger flaring up at Killian, she snatched her hand back, sitting up too quickly. Ignoring the lingering dizziness, she fixed him with her fiercest glare, her arms crossed across her chest.

“What is it?” he asked warily.

“You don’t have to hide it anymore, brother. William already told me about father’s letter. About King Stefan’s demands.”

Killian froze, not knowing how to explain things to Regina. But she beat him to it, her eyes narrowing at him. “How dare you hide it from me?!”

“I just wanted to keep you safe, Regina!” he snapped. “I wanted to protect you!”

Regina repressed the urge to scream, so bloody tired of hearing everyone walking on eggshells around her, throwing around this excuse. “I do not need your protection, Killian Jones!” she shouted, throwing her hands up. “I can take care of myself!”

“Clearly,” he scoffed, gesturing to her place on the bed.

She growled, pushing herself off the bed, and away from her brother. He caught her hand, forcing her to stop in her tracks. “Do not walk away, Regina,” he warned.

She whirled around, eyes blazing furiously. “What makes you think you have the right to tell me anything?” she spat, wretching her hand from his grasp. “You always think you need to be in control, Killian. You think if you keep me hidden, if you keep watching over me, protecting me that nothing would happen to me. You are always so fucking paranoid that I would end up like mum, or Liam. Or god forbid, murdered like Milah.”

His eyes flashed with hurt and anger. “Watch yourself, Regina,” he gritted out, clenching his hands into fists.

“No, you need to hear this. You need to stop trying to control all the people in your life because of your paranoia. I can take care of myself!”

“Well, you did a fine job of that a few months ago. Because if I correctly recall, I had to come and practically beg for your life. Father risked a great deal to rescue you!”

“I never asked for it,” she hissed, pushing him.

He stumbled before he found his ground. “You didn’t have to. That’s what family does, Regina. We have each other’s backs.”

Regina let out a long breath, before she locked her gaze with Killian’s. “Exactly. We have each other’s backs. That is why I need to leave.”

Killian’s heart raced, suddenly not wanting to hear her next words, wanting to remove himself from this situation, from this room. “What the bloody hell are you on about, Regina?” he demanded, his fingernails biting into the skin of his palm with how hard he was clenching his hands.

“I have to surrender myself to King Stefan.”

Are you insane? ” he breathed out, all the air leaving him. He could already picture her broken and beaten body hanging in King Stefan’s courtyard, the image making his knees weak as he stumbled back on the bed behind him. “ARE YOU BLOODY INSANE?” he shouted, watching as she closed her eyes and swallow thickly. “He will kill you. He will- Regina, love, no .”

Regina felt tears burn the back of her eyes, but she held strong. She could not let him sway her decision. “I know,” she whispered softly. “But I cannot – I will not – let you save my life and damn all of Camelot, Killian. Not again. I need to do this.”

He grabbed her hand desperately. “No, you don’t,” he argued. “You did nothing wrong. Regina, please don’t do this. You’re all I have,” he begged, tears in his eyes and voice cracking dangerously.

“Killian…” She sighed, her brother’s words hitting home. She understood what he meant; no matter what, they were not King Brennan’s legitimate children. William wasn’t really their brother. They only had each other and Liam growing up, after their mother passed. And after Liam’s death, they both needed each other. She knew that her sacrifice would break her brother. But they kept doing this, putting their kingdom at peril to save each other. It had to end at some point. And if it meant it was to end with her, she would gladly do it. Not for the sake of Camelot, as she claimed. Her reasons were more selfish – and Killian would never understand them.

For the first time in her life, she looked inside herself, calling forth her magic as she cupped her brother’s cheek. He looked relieved, thinking that she’d changed her mind. But when he noticed the purple light emanating from her hands, he had only a second to react before it washed over him, surrounding him in darkness as he fell unconscious. “I’m so sorry, Killian,” she whispered, brushing his forehead with her lips before she quickly and quietly slipped out of the room.

-/-

Emma walked alongside William, their arms brushing occasionally, as she gave him a tour of the castle grounds. “In the winters, we used to take a sledge all the way down the hill from the castle, and my father used to get furious because of how unsafe it was. And one time, he came marching out, shouting at me and Belle for being so reckless, and he was the one to slip on the ice and fall down. His ego wasn’t the only thing bruised that day!”

William laughed, imagining King David falling right on his bottom, with two little girls laughing. It was quiet the picture of hilarity, especially considering how much he feared the man. “That story has definitely made your father more real in my head, and less, um, terrifying,” he smiled, rubbing the back of his neck shyly.

Emma grinned, turning towards him. “Oh, trust me, he could still be ‘terrifying’ if he wanted to be. But, he seems to like you, so you have nothing to worry about.” She squeezed his arm before she strode past him, walking towards the stables. “Come, I shall introduce you to Buttercup.”

His brows furrowed in bemusement, following after her. “Buttercup?”

“Yes, my horse,” she announced, approaching a tall, chestnut mare. She whispered soothingly to it, stroking it in gentle sweeps before gesturing for William to approach. “Come, say hello.”

William approached the horse warily, hand held out so that Buttercup wouldn’t be startled. “Don’t worry, she’s very friendly,” Emma reassured, feeding Buttercup a carrot.

“I’m not worried,” he huffed. “I’m just making sure not to startle her.” He touched the horse’s nose first, letting Buttercup familiarise herself with his scent before moving closer, running a soft hand down the horse’s neck. He grabbed an apple of his own, feeding Buttercup, laughing as she snatched it from his hand. “She’s sweet,” he confessed. “Almost as sweet as her mistress,” he added, making Emma’s cheek redden.

She was more embarrassed than shy, but he didn’t have to know that. She looked down, suddenly more interested in her shoes than the man before her.

-/-

Regina grabbed her knapsack, pocketing a sack of coins, enough to acquire passage on a ship to King Stefan’s kingdom. She had to move, and she had to move now, before Killian regained consciousness. She couldn’t face him again, not if she wanted to actually go through with her plan. As she began stuffing a few more things into her bag, something rolled out of one of the pockets, landing with a minute thud on the ground. Grumbling, she went to pick it up, stopping mid-bend as she recognised it.

Gingerly picking it up with trembling fingers, she rubbed her thumb against the motif on one side, a dismal look on her face. It was the coin that Liam had given her, before he embarked on the journey that took his life. Said it was his lucky coin, that it would bring her luck. She had scoffed at it then, but she cherished it now. She swiped at her wet lashes, stopping the tears before they were shed, pocketing the coin and grabbing her bag. She figured if she took to the forest, say she was going hunting, it would buy her enough time to put good distance between the castle and herself, and if she was lucky, she might have even garnered passage by the time Killian woke up. She was very sure that no search party would be sent after her; even if her brothers wanted to, Lord Cramwell had enough sense to talk them down. If King David found out, they would have no choice but to reveal why she had escaped, which would put the entire alliance at jeopardy.

As guilty as she felt for doing this to her family, she could only hope that they would understand why she needed to do this. She had caused nothing but trouble ever since meeting Aurora, and it has already cost her family, and her kingdom enough. No matter how much Killian tried to convince her that she wasn’t at fault, she couldn’t fully forgive herself, not now when the stakes are too high. She’d grown up listening to stories of brave warriors who’d sacrificed their lives for the greater good; Regina didn’t want to be a hero, but she knew that her sacrifice would lead to a greater good. This was the only way she could repent for all that she’d caused her father and brothers.

Taking a moment to send a small prayer, she walked out the room, the door closing with a resounding bang.

-/-

Killian’s eyes snapped open, as he sat up swiftly from where he’d sat slumped on the floor, head resting against the bed. He felt anger like he never had before, wanting to find Regina and shake her until she saw reason. Find her and tell her how selfish she was being. But most importantly, just bloody find her . Before he did that though, he had to find his brother and give him a piece of his mind. He glanced out the window, his heart dropping as he saw the setting sun. Regina had quite the head start. She could have gone a long way already.

He barged through the doors to his brother’s suite, ignoring the protesting guards. William looked surprised to see him, gaping at him as he crossed the room in quick steps, grabbing him up the lapels of his jacket.

“What the bloody hell were you thinking?” he growled, shaking him.

William stared at him, stunned by Killian’s show of violence. “Killian, wait-”

“No, you wait,” he snapped. He felt one of the guards grab a hold of his shoulder and snarled at the man, “Lay a hand on me again, and you will lose it.”

William, not wanting to arouse any more trouble, quickly dismissed the guards. He pushed Killian away from him, glaring at his brother. “I am your prince. You will treat me with respect, Killian.”

Killian clenched his jaw, repressing his anger, lest he punch William right in his big mouth. “What the hell did you tell Regina?” he demanded.

William paled, his powerful stance replaced with slumped shoulders. “I- I told her about the letter from father. She had a right to know, Killian.”

“You knew she wasn’t herself. You knew what that bloody bastard had done to her. How could you let her go, and not tell me?”

“I thought I had time. To fix this, to talk her out of her decision. I- I didn’t want to push her.”

“Well, it’s too late now isn’t it? She’s gone,” Killian snapped, wincing when he saw the hurt flash across his brother’s face before William schooled his expression. “Listen, I know you care about her. But you don’t understand where we come from. We will never amount to anything, not like you will. She’s all I have, of my mum and Liam. And I am all she has.” Killian sat wearily on a nearby chair, shoulders hunched as every part of his heart clenched in fear for Regina’s life.

William took a seat next to him, his hand resting on Killian’s shoulder. “I understand how you feel, brother. I may not fully understand your circumstances, but I grew up with you as well. I remember Liam fondly too, and I miss him, dearly. I may not be a part of your situation, but everything that hurts either of you, directly hurts both me and father. I never wanted this to happen.”

“William, you say this now. You sang a different tune when you first found out. What if because of this, we lose not just King Stefan as an ally but the others as well? Regina would be the first person people would blame- in fact, she would be the only person people would blame. This is why I didn’t want her to find out in the first place, because I knew that she would do something so stupid.”

“We could still stop her,” William tried, earning a humourless chuckle.

“She knocked me out hours ago, William. She’s probably already hopped on a ride out of Misthaven.” The moment he said the words, the reality that she was really gone set in. He suddenly felt benumbed, everything around him stopping.

“No. No, no, no, no. We could still do something, Killian. Come on, brother. Let’s just go down to the docks, and we will send a search party to the woods. We will find her if we hurry,” William prattled on, the panic clear in his voice.

“William, she- she’s gone,” Killian breathed out, his voice wobbling. “You- you stay here. You can’t leave.” He reasoned, holding a hand up when William began to argue. “We cannot let this matter slip. I will... I will do my best to find her,” he tried to reassure him, already knowing it would be futile.

“What if you don’t find her?”

After tense silence, both brothers contemplating a future without Regina. “Then she would be hailed a hero. She did this for us, and we shall honour it,” Killian said finally, his voice soft and broken. “I’m off.”

“Brother, wait.” William drew in a shuddering breath, “I am sorry. I hope you can find it in you to forgive me.”

Killian stared at him long and hard, unable to repress the anger he felt towards William. No matter how good he had thought his intentions to be, it was because of William that Regina had left on this suicide mission of hers. If anything were to happen to her, Killian could not in good conscience say that he would ever forgive William. “I shall let you know what happens,” he said instead, marching out the room.

-/-

Emma let out a weary breath, her back resting against her door. She’d just spent the entire day with Prince William, and while he’d seemed nice enough, she’d felt…nothing. Well, that wasn’t exactly true. Sure, the man was very nice to look at, handsome and of strong build. But there was more to a person than just how they look. Or what gifts they give you , she thought to herself, turning her head to look at her new dagger, placed on her desk. It was a thoughtful gift, and she’d been surprised by the gesture, of course. But something about his words, they just didn’t seem genuine.

Emma had always prided herself for her ability of being able to spot a lie, no matter how small or insignificant. And while what he said rang true, it just did not seem like he actually believed his own words. Furthermore, it had been evident in his reaction to her stories about sword-fighting, his expression amused more often than not, as if he had simply been humouring her. Maybe she should challenge him to a duel, see what he thought of her then.

She quickly divested herself of her clothes, leaving her in her shift and corset. Contemplating for a moment about the idea that had been brewing in her mind since mid-afternoon, she quickly donned another set of clothes she’d kept reserved for a specific occasion: grabbing a drink at the tavern by the docks. She smirked at herself in the mirror, flipping the hood of her cloak over her head. While she might be reckless enough to sneak out of the castle so late at night, she wasn’t stupid enough to forget disguising herself as best as she could.

Emma had a feeling that this would be the last time she could do this. Escape from this life for a while, surround herself with some loud noises and semi-strong ale, losing herself in the crowd, not worrying about someone always having a sharp eye on her every move. These stolen moments of freedom were the ones she cherished most. Knowing that it would soon come to an end, one way or the other, only made her more determined to go. The only thing holding her back was her fear of the Duke; not of him finding out that she was sneaking out, for that was of no concern of his. No, she was afraid that she was providing him an opportunity to be rid of her once and for all. Just then, she caught sight of Prince William’s gift in the mirror’s reflection, a sly smile working its way across her face.

Grabbing the dagger and hiding it on her person, she made sure all parts of her were covered before climbing over the side of the balcony with great agility, years of practise helping her quickly scale down the walls and to solid ground. With one last glance around, ensuring that no one saw her, she slipped into the night, her feet carrying her to the place her mind was already at.

-/-

“Are you sure you saw her board the vessel?” Killian asked desperately. “Cropped dark hair, dark clothes, wearing breeches?” he described to the old harbourmaster, hoping that he was mistaken, perhaps due to senility, hoping that maybe, just maybe his sister changed her mind last minute.

“I am certain, young man,” the man answered. When Killian’s expression spoke of his heartache, the older man felt his own soften. Remembering something else about the woman in question, he added. “I saw her in the company of another brunette. Long hair, wild and curly, pretty smile. She was wearing a blue dress, if I’m not wrong.”

Killian immediately recognised the person from the description: Belle. He felt his hope renew; if Belle had been with her, maybe she knew which port Regina was headed to. He could beat her there, stop her before she did anything else. “This woman, where did she go?”

-/-

Killian spotted Belle almost immediately, her floral cloak a stark contrast to the seedy bar. He waved to grab her attention, eyes narrowing at distraught expression, dread settling in his gut. “Belle,” he said in greeting, his tone too gruff to be friendly. “Where is she?”

“Killian, I just want a chance to explain myself,” she began, wincing at his glare. “Listen, nothing that you think happened, actually happened.”

“Belle, you need to stop being so cryptic.”

She nodded, beginning her side of the tale.

Belle spied Regina talking to Captain Phillipe, gold exchanging hands before the captain nodded, handing her a piece of paper. Regina shook his hand, disembarking from the vessel and pulling her jacket tighter around herself. Belle rolled her eyes; this woman seemed to love her dramatics. It was her luck that she’d spotted her exit into the woods and followed, initially worried about her health, and then, suspicious of her behaviour.

She followed her into the tavern, the mid-afternoon a little too early for the usual crowd, allowing her the chance to take a seat in the back while still keeping Regina in her sights. From just the few days she’d spent around her and her brothers, she knew that those men cared for her. How they could see beneath Regina’s callous exterior was beyond her, but she liked those chaps, and if stopping this impulsive woman from whatever it was she was doing - something likely reckless - was what was required, she would just have to do it.

Steeling herself to deal with Regina’s sass, she approached her gingerly, as one would a wounded animal – of course, the animal in question was more a tigress. “Didn’t expect to see you out of bed so quickly,” she called, startling Regina.

Once Regina recognised who it was that had spoken to her, she rolled her eyes. “Oh, you.”

“Yes, me.” Belle took a seat next to Regina, hiding a grin when she shifted away from Belle. “So, what are you doing here?”

“None of your business, maid,” Regina scoffed, her eyes trained on her tankard of ale.

Belle hummed, sending her a side-long glance. “Not that it matters to you, seeing as you seem to be leaving, but I’m a librarian.”

Regina had choked on her drink when Belle revealed that she knew of her plans to leave, prompting the other brunette to pat her back. “How do you know?”

“I saw you with Captain Phillipe.” Belle shrugged, reaching over and grabbing Regina’s tankard and taking a sip, ignoring her indignant expression. “What? I’m thirsty.”

Regina shook her head, snatching her drink back, even as she gestured for another for Belle. “If you are here to stop me, you can forget about it,” she mumbled into her drink.

“Now, why would I do that?”

“Why else would you follow me?” Regina huffed, finally shifting so that she sat facing Belle.

Belle mimicked her, turning in her seat so that she could meet Regina’s gaze straight on. “Curiosity.”

“Haven’t you heard, curiosity killed the cat.”

“Ah, but satisfaction brought it back.” Belle smirked, accepting her drink from the barmaid, taking a large gulp. Licking her lips, she continued, “So, what you do say? Want to sate my curiosity?”

Regina clenched her jaw, her irritation flaring. “You want to know what’s got me so dark and twisted? Well, first my mum died before I really knew her. My brothers and I grew up as social outcasts, no matter how much my father tried to change it. My brothers worked hard to earn their positions, only for Liam to die at sea, and for Killian to have his love murdered! Oh, and me? I fell in love with this girl, and she told me she loved me too. Expect, she apparently didn’t, because when her father found out about us, she told him that I’d forced myself on her. I was captured and flogged to my bones, before I was released back to my family.”

Regina has tears swimming in her eyes, but she refused to shed them, boldly holding Belle’s gaze. “And you know the funny part? That man is a king, and now he wants my head or he will ruin my kingdom, and leave us bereft. So, now I am going to surrender to him. Put an end to all this.” For all the fire she had when she’d started, all of it tapered off in the end, as Regina chuckled humourlessly, looking away from Belle. She didn’t need any pity, she’d accepted what had happened to her, and there’s nothing anyone can change about that.

“You’re such a fool,” Belle blurted out, her eyes widening when Regina’s head snapped back towards her.

What .”

Belle cleared her throat, figuring that she’d already made her bed, might as well sleep in it. “I said, you are such a fool. Alright, yes, you are telling yourself that this sacrifice that you are making is for your family’s sake, for your kingdom. But you are fooling yourself, Regina. You’re doing this because you think you deserve this.”

Regina pulled back at the affront, her magic pulsing from her rage. But Belle pushed through, her hands covering Regina’s clenched ones. “You are still in love with this girl; and you are still trying to protect her. You have resigned yourself to the belief that you did something wrong. But you didn’t,” Belle implored, making Regina meet her gaze and hold it. “If what you did was wrong, then almost everyone in the world is guilty, Regina. All you did was fall in love, and give your heart to someone who didn’t deserve it. Trust me, I know what it feels like.” She swallowed thickly, smiling at Regina, albeit slightly sadly. “What you are planning? That’s a suicide mission, and we both know it. You have so much to live for, and family who are willing to support you, which is far more than I can say for myself.”

Regina bit her lip, absorbing Belle’s words. She remained quiet for so long, Belle feared that she’d crossed a line. Just as she went to get up, Regina stopped her with a hand on her arm. “Do you want another drink?” she asked, shooting Belle a tentative smile.

-/-

“You’re saying that Regina didn’t leave?” Killian clarified, relief rushing through every part of him when Belle nodded. “Where is she, then? Why didn’t she come back?”

“You should ask her that yourself,” Belle replied, nodding behind him. He whirled around, eyes landing on his sister at the bar, getting drinks. Not waiting for her to notice him, he marched up to her, ready to give her a piece of his mind. But it all dissipated when she turned to find him, her lips stretching into a genuine smile – the likes of which he hadn’t seen in a long, long time.

When he was within ear shot, she said, “I’m sorry I gave you a fright, brother.”

“A fright? I’m half sure I’ll grow grey because of you,” he huffed, glaring at her. “What you did was completely reckless.”

“Absolutely.”

“And insane.”

“I agree.”

“You will never, ever do something so daft. You understand me? I don’t know how many times I need to repeat this, but I cannot lose you.”

“I know. I love you, too, big brother.” She held up a tankard of ale as a peace offering, smiling when he took it.

“I am going to need something stronger than ale, lass.” Taking a hearty gulp, both of them sat at the bar in silence before Killian broke it. “You have magic.”

Regina froze for a moment, trying to read through his stoic exterior before nodding. “Alright,” he nodded, downing the rest of his drink, before ordering a bottle of rum. “I will see you in the morning, sister.”

“Killian, wait!” Regina stopped him, suddenly nervous. “The magic doesn’t bother you?”

“It’s a part of you, why would it?” he shrugged, downplaying it on purpose, letting her know that he wouldn’t make a big deal out of it yet. He might have heard Belle’s account of the events that changed Regina’s mind. But he knew his sister better by now; so he was simply going to rejoice in the fact that she was here, and alive. And hopefully on her way back to the castle so he could drown himself in a bottle of rum. The rest of the story can wait.

Regina nodded gratefully at him. “Killian I do need to tell you something else,” she began tentatively, but he held up his hand.

“This has been quite a day for us both, sister. Let’s take a reprieve and discuss whatever you need to discuss tomorrow, aye?”

She agreed, hugging him before promising to return to the castle. But it was only after Belle’s assurance did he let her out of his sight. He spied himself an empty table in the back of the establishment, thankful for the partial solitude it seemed to provide. It was only after he plopped himself down, did he realise that there was already someone sitting there, their dark cloak having blended into the darkness of the corner. He moved immediately, but even that hadn’t been soon enough, for he’d already managed to topple the person’s ale all over them.

“My apologies….” He trailed off, his eyes widening as the person’s cloak fell off, revealing a head of golden blonde curls. “Princess Emma,” he breathed out, making the woman look up at him with a glare.

Chapter Text

King George paced up and down his throne room as darkness shrouded it. He was growing more agitated by the minute, and he had to know what the verdict was. If King Stefan was as enraged with Brennan as he assumed he was, then George would finally have another big ally on his side. Just when he thought he could not wait any longer, ready to get the next phase of his plan started, a messenger burst through the doors.

King George practically ripped the paper from his hand in his hurry, breaking the seal and reading quickly, a smirk quickly taking over his morose expression. He had finally caught the fly in his trap. Soon, Camelot would be his, followed by all the Northern Kingdoms.

-/-

King Brennan stared at the missive from King Stefan in his hands, still unable to believe the contents of the letter. While he had always suspected that this would be the end result, he was still surprised to be proved right. This was one instance where he did not want that, even if he still does not regret his decision to protect Regina. He could still remember clear it was yesterday, the day she was born.

“Come on, Amelia. Just breathe,” he urged, holding her hand.

“You shouldn’t be here,” she cried out.

“You are giving birth to my child. Of course I should be here.”

“But I’m just-” she was cut off by her own scream, her contractions painful but still far apart. “You know what I mean.”

“Yes, I do. And I’d like for you to not insult the love of my life in such a way, thank you.”

“Brennan, I’m serious.”

“So am I, Amelia! I may never be able to marry you or claim our children, but you cannot begin to understand how painful it is for me to have to do that. I want to give them the world, and all I can give them is this – myself, my love and my protection.”

Amelia smiled through her tears, pressing her forehead to his, “That’s all they ever need. I love you.”

“I love you, too, darling. I’m going to go fetch the midwife.” He left with a swift kiss to her forehead.

-/-

Once the baby was out and cleaned up, Brennan held her for the first time, his little girl. He was secretly glad that it was a girl. He knew that Amelia wanted another boy, but he had enough sons to teach and guide. He needed a little girl to pamper – after all, fathers and daughter do share a special bond. He smiled down at the sleeping child, pressing his lips to her wispy forehead.

“What do you want to name her?” Amelia’s voice broke through the fog in his head.

“Regina Jones.”

“Are you certain? Just because you acknowledge her, doesn’t mean she can ever be legitimised.”

“It’s fitting.”

He wanted to give her the world, and he did, in a way, by making her his ambassador – allowing her to travel all over the land and take in everything that life had to offer her. She had loved that she could travel and still get to do something useful for her kingdom. To see her now having given up on the thing she loved to do most, was beyond heart breaking. He had been furious, not only did he have to beg for King Stefan to spare his daughter’s life, he had to do so even when she hadn’t committed a crime. When he had seen the state she was brought back in, he was ready to wage war on King Stefan, diplomacy be damned. He had to be restrained by William, and forced to sit at Regina’s bedside as she recovered so he wouldn’t take an impulsive decision that would affect the entire kingdom.

He had been ready to stake his kingdom’s future that day for Regina, and nothing has changed now. He would still do it, and from the letter that he has received it was evident that he would have to. He could only hope that the other rulers would still believe in him, and stay with him.

-/-

David balled up the letter in his hand, fury blazing within him. He’d always known King Stefan to be fickle and underhanded, but to shift completely over to the enemy lines, and abandon the other northern kingdoms was extreme even for him. He wasn’t oblivious, he had heard the rumour mill that had been going around for days about the possibility that Stefan would shift sides, but he also knew that his political tensions with Camelot must have been a big cause for it. While he would never question the integrity of his friend, he needed to get some answers if he was going to have to make a decision regarding Emma and William’s future.

And if he did find something worthwhile, he could still call off the wedding, without completely abandoning Camelot. It would be a win-win for both kingdoms, and Emma and him would finally have the upper hand that they had been struggling for with the council. If only he could find someway to overthrow the Duke’s power, or bring him under doubt for questioning, he could finally find a way to fix what had long since been broken between the kingdom and the council.

He took out a plain parchment, quickly writing out a letter to his wife. She had been gone long enough, and as understanding as he wanted to be, her rightful place was next to him. Especially in a time like now.

Dear Elizabeth,

I hope that Nate is feeling much better with you by his side, for I know how much comfort simply your presence can provide. I am in desperate need for your presence next to me, my love. It is time for you to return home; it is time for us to prepare for Emma’s wedding, and she needs her stepmother with her.

I implore you to return to us at your earliest, even as I hope that you reach home much before this letter reaches you.

Awaiting your arrival,

Yours, always,

David.

He sealed the parchment with his official seal, choosing to send it with a pigeon rather than a messenger. He was aware that his correspondence would be read either way, but that was why he had been so careful in his wording. There could be no proof that a rebellion against the council was imminent until the last possible moment. I would not do them any good if the council is alerted of their plans.

He could only deceive them if they had no clue of his intentions. If they get even a whiff of his ideas, they would definitely see it as enough reason to overthrow the monarchy. He could let that happen, and if it meant he had to comply with the demands of the council for a while longer, he would have to.

Taking out another piece of parchment, he began penning a letter to his dear friend, inviting him to Misthaven and hoping to clear all doubts he had regarding the situation with King Stefan. Brennan would never betray him, after all.

-/-

Elizabeth held Nate’s hand as the physician examined him. “He’s been complaining of discomfort a lot more nowadays, doctor. Is there anything that you could give him to help relieve his pain?”

“I’m not sure, madam. I can give something that would help him sleep, but at the stage of illness, there is not much that we can do.”

“What are you saying? That we simply give up?” she demanded. “We can’t do that unless we have explored all our options!”

“El,” Nate protested weakly. “You need to stop this.” Turning to the doctor, the sickly man smiled gratefully. “Thank you for all that you have done for me, doctor. I know that I have reached the end of my time.”

“You don’t know that!” Elizabeth cried, angry at how callous he was being.

“Yes,” he wheezed, coughing before he continued. “Yes, I do, El. This is why you came here, to be with me during my dying moments. So be with me. Let’s not waste time, when we have so little left with each other.

“Nate,” she whispered, looking down at him with a forlorn expression. “Please. There has to be something else.”

“Nothing short of a miracle can keep me alive, El. We all have to go someday. I’m just glad that the woman I love is with me when I do.”

“Don’t say such things, Nate.”

“I have to, El. I need to. I know that you have moved on from me-”

“I never stopped being in love with you,” she cut him off in protest. “You are, and will always be, the love of my life.”

“It is such an honour to have loved you, Elizabeth. Such a privilege to be loved back by you.”

“Nate, don’t do this, don’t say goodbye.” She was crying now, trying desperately to stop and failing miserably.

“We said our goodbyes years ago, El. You will be fine without me.”

“The only reason I even left you was so your life would be spared by my father. You know that. How could you think that I would survive this?” she cried.

“Because you are the strongest woman I have ever met. If anyone can get through this, it would be you. Just stay true to yourself, El. Get back to your family, they need you.”

“But you need me more, Nate.”

-/-

King Brennan had just finished up a meeting with the army general, his bones aching from tiredness. He pressed the heels of his hands to his eyes, rubbing hard to get rid of the haze of sleep gripping him tight. He knew that he needed his rest, but King Stefan’s decision had opened up too many avenues for problems and it was best if he found solutions for all possible problems instead of waiting for them to come up. He closed his eyes, memories of a dark time drifting into his unconscious.

“What do you mean that she has been imprisoned?” Killian demanded, forgetting his station as he addressed his father. “It has to be some kind of misunderstanding.”

“Of course, it has to be. She has been charged with sexual assault against the princess, Aurora.” He crumpled up the letter in his anger. “Who the bloody hell does he think he is, falsely accusing my daughter?”

William piped up, the voice of reason. “Father, from his point of view, he isn’t accusing the daughter of a king. He’s accusing the ambassador of a kingdom. We could use this to our advantage. Because if Princess Aurora relents and accepts that everything that happened between them was consensual, she would be cleared of all charges, and King Stefan would owe you a debt, for insulting the kingdom like this.”

While Killian was more of a punch-first-ask-questions-later type of person, William always had a political agenda and a diplomatic way to deal with things. Brennan nodded at William’s suggestion, looking at Killian to see what he thought of it. After a moment of reluctance, he nodded, “William is right, father. We do need strong allies in the upcoming war. But I also think that this has the potential to go sideways. I think it would be a good idea for us to have open communication with King David about this issue. So even if we lose King Stefan’s support, we could still maintain good relations with the other kingdoms, if we have King David’s. Everyone follows his lead.”

Brennan’s expression grew pensive as he considered both his sons’ reasoning. They both had sound arguments, and the both were right. It was always best to anticipate and prepare for the worse and hope for the best. He nodded, turning to William first. “William, Killian is right. We need to strengthen our other allies, and make sure that the loss of King Stefan’s support wouldn’t be staggering. I will write to David myself. I want you to write to all the other kings, making sure that we still have their support. But do not disclose what is happening with King Stefan. We cannot afford to spook anyone.”

When William left, he turned to Killian, hand clasping his shoulder. “You go and bring your sister back. No matter what Stefan says or does, whatever he asks for – just bring her back.”

Killian looked taken aback by his father’s demands, knowing that it was the opposite of what William would have said. “But William-”

“William doesn’t understand.” His father sighed, running a hand down his face. “He always thinks about what the politically correct decision is. And he is right to. But this is Regina, Killian. Nothing can happen to her. Whatever the consequences are, we will face it together, as a family.” Standing up straighter in all his regal glory, Brennan ordered. “Bring her back.”

Of course, back then he never anticipated things to do go as they had now. He’d expected Stefan to be more understanding. But the moment he’d seen Regina in Killian’s arms, he knew there was no coming back from that. No matter what Stefan had done after, it would have never been enough. In some ways, he was glad that this happened, so he wouldn’t have to be any sort of relationship with such a heartless and cruel man. He was better off with the Southern Kings. Even now, after all these months, after knowing that Regina has physically recovered, the anger seething in him was as much as it had been the day she’s returned home, if not more.

Brennan and William were in a meeting with Lord Cramwell when the healer’s assistant burst through the doors, creating a commotion.

“Sire, your daughter. She’s back,” he panted from the exertion of running all the way. “She’s in the infirmary with Ser Killian.”

Both men rushed to the infirmary, only to find Killian pacing outside, his hair sticking up in all directions, as if he’d repeatedly run his hand through it. “Killian, how is she?” Brennan asked, already fearing his answer. But before Killian could say anything, they heard an agonising scream from behind closed doors, giving them the answer they had dreaded.

“Is that- What happened to her?” William breathed out, horrified by his sister’s screams as they rang through the corridor.

Killian cupped his mouth, unable to answer them for a while, just praying that she would pass out from the pain so that she wouldn’t suffer as much, as he had been doing the past several minutes.

“Why haven’t they given her any sedatives?” his father demanded, her every scream tearing open his heart.

“They cannot give her anymore without risking her health. We had her sedated for most of the journey,” Killian explained, finally finding the words to talk. “King Stefan had her flogged within an inch of her life, like she was a low-life criminal, father. He had her chained up and thrown in the dungeons in her condition. She has an infection and she’s had fever for the past two days, and no sign of it going down,” he rushed out, heart in his throat.

“Gods have mercy,” William prayed, turning towards the doors to the infirmary as Regina’s cries softened.

Brennan could not find words to comfort both his sons, his own heart plummeting to his feet at Killian’s news. An infection could mean the end of her, she could die from her wounds. Anything could happen to her. He couldn’t lose her, he could not lose Regina. She was-

“Something must be done about Stefan,” he growled, startling both his sons. They had never seen their father so angry, his face turning purple and eyes blazing. “He cannot get away with this.”

“There’s nothing we can do, father,” William reasoned. “We do not have the manpower to go against a man like King Stefan and remain victorious. We cannot cause wars between the Northern Kingdoms right now, we cannot afford to with King George’s attack imminent.”

“That is enough, William,” Brennan snapped. “That is your sister in there. And more importantly, Camelot’s foreign ambassador. King Stefan held a trial against her, without the presence of a proper representative from Camelot. That is treason.”

William, always being the level-headed one, knew he had to talk his father down before he did anything drastic. “Father, that rule is overlooked if the King views the defendant as a threat to the crown, or in this case, his heir – Princess Aurora. He was well within his right to do-”

But before he could finish his sentence, Killian had him pushed against a wall, his arm at his throat. “You tell me he was well within in his right to almost kill my little sister, I will rip you apart,” he threatened, his eyes wide with rage. He growled at William before releasing him.

William cleared his throat, knowing that neither his father nor brother were ready to listen to reason. So he simply chose to wait with them, hoping that when a new day dawned, things would be much better.

-/-

David had just finished composing his letter to King Brennan, his eyes going over the text once before sealing it.

My dear friend,

I have received word from Stefan that he has chosen to ally himself with King George, because of some grievance with you. I hope that this is not true. But if it is, I believe that you would have done the noble thing, my friend. We have known each other since we were but children, not knowing much about anything except the ball and grounds. I do not doubt you for a second, but I am afraid the others might.

I only wish to hear your side of the tale, and I welcome you to Misthaven. If you are unable to leave Camelot in this tumultuous time, I hope that you would grant you son, Prince William, the permission to disclose the details of your issue with Stefan. While I am happy to assume that it was that spineless bastard at fault, it would not be just for me to take a decision and appeal to the other rulers without some credibility.

At this outset, I am writing to Stefan as well, hoping to bring him back into our fold. We will need all the allies we can gather, for the war against King George was hard won the last time, and with more than just his kingdom being him, it would be that much more difficult.

I invite you to agree to a truce with King Stefan, in the instance that I am able to negotiate it. We are stronger together than we are apart, my friend. I hope that you will reconsider my offer.

Your friend,

David

While he was usually more formal in his letters, he had known Brennan all his life. He knew his friend enough to trust that he would never have done any of the things that Stefan had claimed. He was an honourable man, and never once has he proved David’s belief in him false. He would only have to have faith in his friend, and wait.

-/-

Elizabeth had just returned from fetching fresh water when she saw Nate start to try and get up. She rushed to his side, place the bowl next the bed as she helped him up.

“You ought to be resting, Nate,” she gently admonished, ever as she allowed him to lean on her for support.

“I just needed a breath of fresh air. I thought we could go outside for a bit? Sit at the beach and look at the stars, like we used to?” he suggested, smiling winningly at her. She hadn’t been able to resist it when she had been twenty, she couldn’t resist it now.

Rolling her eyes at his obvious attempts at charm, she agreed, slowly but surely guiding him out of the stuffy cottage and into the fresh, if slightly chill, atmosphere. When he began to shiver, she draped her shawl around him, allowing him to hold it close. “Let’s go sit by the water, Nate.”

He nodded, taking slow, measured steps with her. When walking became too much, they both sat down, listening to the sound of waves crashing against the shore.

“May I lie on your lap?” he asked, and when she nodded, he placed his head on her lap. She used the shawl to cover him fully, her fingers carding through his hair, making him smile in contentment. “This is nice, El.”

She hummed in agreement, knowing that words would only ruin the moment. So, they remained quiet, Elizabeth watching over him as he stared up at the stars, his gaze occasionally shifting to hers, smiling every time it did. Soon enough, his breathing slowed down, and his eyes drifted closed. She stayed with him until he breathed his last, unmindful of the cold. And when he stopped breathing, she finally let out the sob that she had been holding in all these days, her anguished cries drowned by the sound of the ocean.

Chapter Text

Killian spied himself an empty table in the back of the establishment, thankful for the partial solitude it seemed to provide. It was only after he plopped himself down, did he realise that there was already someone sitting there, their dark cloak having blended into the darkness of the corner. He moved immediately, but even that hadn’t been soon enough, for he’d already managed to topple the person’s ale all over them.

“My apologies….” He trailed off, his eyes widening as the person’s cloak fell off, revealing a head of golden blonde curls. “Princess Emma,” he breathed out, making the woman look up at him with a glare.

“Do you not see where you are going?” she snapped, looking up at him with a murderous frown. However, once she seemed to recognise him, her expression morphed into one of panic. “Oh, God. You’re one of Prince William’s men,” she muttered, pulling her hood back up and getting up to leave. But Killian was blocking her path and was in too much of a shock to react in any other way. “Please don’t tell anyone,” she pleaded, when it seemed like he wasn’t going to let her out.

Killian snapped out of his momentary lapse, blinking at her. “I- I won’t,” he stuttered, not entirely sure what he agreed to. “What shouldn’t I tell anyone?” he asked, bemused.

She stared at him as if he’d grown two heads. “That you saw me here,” she said slowly, trying to get him to understand.

Realisation dawned on him, as he blinked at her again, a small smirk taking over before he could stop it. “You snuck out, did you, Princess?”

“Can you not call me that?” she snapped. “I want to have a low profile, and you calling me princess at every turn is not very conducive to that.”

He nodded, biting his lip to keep from grinning. She was even more beautiful up close, her eyes shining like two emeralds, mesmerising him. “If I cannot address you by your title, what should I call you then?” he asked, sitting a respectable distance from her, while still close enough for her to hear his whisper. “Swan?”

Emma resisted the urge to roll her eyes, shooting him a less-than-amused glance. “Swan? Really?”

“Seems to suit you, Pri- I mean, Swan . Graceful, elegant and ready to attack at moment’s notice,” he teased.

Emma was taken aback by this man’s familiarity with her. It was, however, refreshing to talk to a man who did not seem to have an agenda with her. She shifted so her hood fell further to cover her features and, perhaps even her blush. That was if, of course, she were to admit to herself that his candor made her blush. “You seem to know so much about you, and yet, I know nothing of you, good sir,” she said instead, her curiosity winning over her need for some privacy.

“You had already guessed it, Swan . I am one of Prince William’s men. Ser Killian Jones, the Head of the King’s Guard at your service,” he mock-tipped his hat at her. “And his half-brother.”

“His half-brother. How – Oh.” She was embarrassed by her late realisation, unsure if she should assume or apologise. “I-uh…”

He chuckled, “It’s quite alright, highness. My mother was never married to the king, if that’s what you are wondering.”

She shot him a small smile before going back to what was left of her drink, both of them unsure of what to say. “Do you mind me asking,” Killian began, after he’d down a couple of shots of rum. “What is someone like you, doing in a place like this?”

Emma wanted to be offended by his question, but she understood by his look of genuine curiosity that he didn’t mean to question her status, but her intention. She could give him that much. He was going to keep her secret after all. “I just needed to get away for a while,” she said, shrugging. “You don’t get a lot of time to yourself when you’re the…. princess ,” she whispered the last part, her breath hot in his ear, sending involuntary shivers down his spine. He swallowed thickly, nodding as if he understood. But everything seemed to reduce to a meaningless buzz with the princess so close to him.

As if she realised her proximity to him, she quickly pulled away, ducking her head down to hide her blush. She was never so familiar with a stranger usually, and the fact that she seemed comfortable with this man gave her pause. Breathing in deeply, she stood up, making him look up at her. “I must take my leave now, Ser Killian. It was a pleasure to make your acquaintance.”

“O-of course,” he agreed, standing up quickly before she could move back, both of their heads bumping.

“My apologies, Your Highness,” he muttered, quickly moving out of her way.

Emma rubbed her forehead, shooting a quick glance around, hoping no one had heard him. “I thought we agreed you’d call me ‘ Swan. ’ A little discretion is all I asked, Ser Killian.”

Killian nodded, scratching behind his ear. “If it isn’t too forward, I’d prefer to accompany you back home, Swan,” he said softly.

Emma pulled back in affront, frowning at him. “I can take care of myself, thank you very much.”

“Oh, of that I have no doubt. But you are a sovereign, perhaps even soon to be mine, and it is my duty to protect-”

“Let’s get one thing clear, Ser Killian. You might be in the King’s Guard, but I am not your king and I do not need your protection, simply because you assume I am too frail to defend myself.”

Killian’s shifted back, insulted by her insinuation. “I never claimed that you were too frail to defend yourself, simply because of your gender. Pardon my language but my sister has kicked my arse enough for me to have a healthy respect for a woman’s ability with a blade. But it is late at night, and this isn’t necessarily a safe place. It would bring me some comfort to escort you home. So if something does happen, I would not feel guilty for leaving you without my assistance.”

“How nobel,” Emma deadpanned. “Alright, fine. You can accompany me back to the palace,” Emma relented. “But you better keep pace with me.”

“I think I can handle that much, Swan ,” he winked. It was only a moment later did he realise how inappropriate he was being with the Crown Princess of Misthaven, not to mention the woman his brother was to be betrothed to.

-/-

“Am I right in assuming this isn’t your first visit to the tavern, Princess Emma?” Killian asked after they’d walked almost half the distance in complete silence, Killian always a step behind.

“Back to ‘Princess Emma’ now, are we, Ser Killian?” She teased.

“Just Killian is fine, Your Highness.”

“Well, then I must insist you must call me Emma.”

“I- Somehow, I don’t think arguing with you would work, so I relent….Emma.”

Emma glanced over her shoulders, surprise evident on her features. “That was easy.”

Killian huffed out a laugh. “I know to choose my battles.”

After a moment, Emma stopped suddenly, making Killian pause in his tracks. “Something wrong, lass?”

“Uh,” she hesitated, looking around them. She’d chosen to take the path through the woods, knowing she was less likely to run into any of the palace staff there. But with the threat of the Duke out there, maybe it wasn’t the wisest decision. “I just thought I heard something.”

“Well, aren’t you glad I came alo-” but he was cut off by an arrow that whizzed right between them, missing the princess by a hair’s breadth. “Emma!” he cried, reaching for her with one hand as he unsheathed his cutlass with the other. “Are you alright, Princess?”

“Y-yes, I am. The arrow, it came from our left.” She started walking in the direction, leaving Killian to stumble after her.

“Oi, where do you think you’re going?” he called after her. “We need to get you to safety and alert the guards.”

“But that would be too late. Clearly, whoever tried to kill me didn’t want to reveal himself. If we go back now, he will get away,” she argued, picking up her pace. “Hurry up, Killian.”

“Princess, this is not safe.”

“Oh, for fuck’s sake.” Emma whirled around to face him, her face scrunched up in frustration. “Fuck safe. Fuck it. I cannot keep hiding. That is not who I am. I do not just defend myself. I attack back. Now, you’re either with me or you’re not; but I am going after that man and finding out who sent him.”

Killian clenched his jaw, staring down the stubborn princess. “Alright. I will come with you, but you let me lead.”

“Why, because you’re a man?” she scoffed, crossing her arms. “I know these woods better.”

“Listen, Princess. We do not have time for me to convince you I am not a misogynist arse. You may know these woods, be the better tracker and whatever else - but I need to protect you. Let me do my job.”

Emma wanted to argue further, but the more time they spent arguing, the further away their attacker got. “Fine.”

-/-

They had trekked through the woods for a good while before they chanced upon an abandoned cabin.

“Well, isn’t that convenient,” Killian commented, stalking closer and crouching behind some of the shrubbery, tightening his grip on his cutlass.

“That used to be my Aunt Ruby’s cabin,” Emma murmured, drawing her own dagger. Killian eyed it, surprised that it was the one he had had commissioned for William, to present to the princess.

“Quite the dagger you have there, highness,” he commented, looking away and back to observing the cabin for any movement.

“You should thank your brother for it,” she replied back. “Focus, Ser Killian.”

“No need, m’lady,” came a gruff voice from behind them, making both Emma and Killian freeze. Killian was the first to react, jumping up from his crouch and charging at the man.

But whoever the stranger was, one thing had to be said about him - he was a skilled fighter. He easily parried Killian’s blow with a broadsword, swiftly knocking it out of Killian’s hand, before pressing the tip of his own weapon against Killian’s throat. “You need to work on your speed,” the man smirked, before turning to Emma.

“Who are you?” Emma demanded, getting up as well, concealing her dagger behind her back.

“Doesn’t matter now, does it, Princess?” he sneered, shaggy brown hair falling over his face. “I have a job, and I usually finish them.” His grin turned sinister as he grabbed a dagger from one of his pockets, pointing it at Emma. “Now, I was hoping that you would be alone and this would be easier. I was told you had left alone, and yet-” he pressed the tip of his broadsword deeper, making Killian clench his teeth. “-yet, you have a bodyguard. You see, Princess… I don’t like witnesses.”

“Leave him alone,” Emma snapped, inching back a little, hoping the man would take the bait. And he did, narrowing his eyes at her, as he shifted forward, his sword still aimed at Killian.

“I wouldn’t take another step if I were you, Princess,” he warned.

Emma’s eyes shifted slightly to her left, catching Killian’s gaze before refocusing on the man in front of her. “You wouldn’t dare harm a princess in her own kingdom, and so close to the palace,” she challenged, summoning her magic from inside her and hoping she had enough control to carry out her plan. She felt the weight of the dagger disappear from her hand just as her attacker’s focus shifted to her.

She heard Killian’s sharp intake of breath, and hoped he’d understand her message and wouldn’t overthink it. She hardly had time to doubt however, as she saw movement from her periphery and the next moment, her attacker was howling in pain, clutching his arm, blood pouring from the end. It took Emma a moment to notice that he was clutching at a bleeding stump, his severed hand lying at his feet. Emma stumbled back, stifling a scream, watching with wide eyes as Killian pulled his arm back. He punched the man square in jaw, knocking him unconscious, and his howling stopped.

Killian panted, looking at Emma in concern, but wisely not approaching her. “Are you alright, Emma?” he asked, pushing his sweaty hair away from his face.

“Did you- did you just cut off his hand? With a dagger?” She wrapped her arms around herself.

Killian focused on wrapping his belt above the man’s stump, serving as a temporary tourniquet. “Aye,” he answered finally, looking up at her. “I did. Isn’t that what you intended for me to do, Emma? When you put that dagger in my hand?” he asked, getting up and crossing his arms defensively. “And how did you do that exactly? Magic, perhaps?”

“You cannot tell anyone,” Emma whispered, her heart in her throat. She hardly knew this man, and yet, she had revealed her darkest secret to him.

“Not a soul, I swear. But you need to stop looking at me like I am a monster.”

“I am no- I’m just processing what happened here. I need a moment,” Emma said, turning her face away from him. Clearing her throat, she nodded to the unconscious man. “What do you intend to do with him?”

“Find out exactly why he tried to kill you, and who paid him to do it,” he grunted out, pulling the man upright. “Grab his other side and help me get him to the cabin.”

-/-

“We need to cauterize his wound,” Killian informed Emma as he finished tying the man up. Between the both of them, they had managed to drag him to her Aunt Ruby’s abandoned cabin, making quick work of restraining him before he woke up. “We need to get a blacksmith down here.”

“Why do you need a blacksmith?” Emma asked, trying to wrap her mind around everything that had happened in the span of the last hour.

“To cauterize his wound, lass. We do not want him to bleed out on us.”

“Yes, I understand what cauterizing means. No need to patronize me. But why do you need a blacksmith when you can do it yourself?”

Killian turned, looking at her with a raised eyebrow. “You think you can handle that?”

“You have no idea what I can handle, Ser Killian. Now, hand me his broadsword,” she instructed, rolling up her sleeves. She grabbed the weapon from Killian’s hand, hovering her hand over the blade. Never before has she used her magic so liberally, and having to keep such control over it once had exhausted her. But they could not afford to wait any longer. When the sword refused to heat up from her magic, Emma squeezed her eyes shut, concentrating and willing it to work.

“Emma, are you alright?” Killian asked, watching as she gritted her teeth and sweat beaded on her forehead.

“I’m fine, stop talking,” she snapped. Just when Killian was about to interrupt her, the sword started glowing faintly, the light slowly growing brighter until it stood out starkly in the dark room, turning a fiery red. “Cauterize the wound with this. It’ll not hold long,” she said, breathing shallowly from the energy the magic had sapped out of her.

“He will wake up from the pain, you need to hold him down and keep him quiet, alright?” Killian waited until Emma nodded in the affirmative, positioning herself behind the man, a torn sleeve stuffed in his mouth and her hands bearing down on his shoulder.

The next moment a muffled scream ran through the cabin, Emma’s grip almost jostled off from how much the man was squirming. But the job was done.

-/-

“I will stay here, Emma. You need to get back before someone notices that you have gone missing.” Killian said, after walking her until the edge of the woods.

“I will ask Belle to come meet you with some supplies to bandage our friend up. Are you sure you will be alright?”

“Aye, your highness. I will move him to a secure location after that, do not fret.” He smiled, hoping to alleviate the princess’ concerns. “It has been quite the night, hasn’t it?” he quipped.

Emma huffed out laugh, “You could say that.” Her expression quickly turned serious. “We need to find out who sent him, Killian.”

“Aye, and we will, Emma.” He hesitated before adding. “And don’t worry, you’re secret is safe with me.”

Emma let out a shuddering breath, relief sweeping over in waves. “Thank you,” she said in a whisper. “Are you sure you are fine by yourself, Ser Killian?” she asked, hesitant to leave him behind with a mess to clean up.

“You will be missed more than I, your highness. It’s better I do the dirty work.”

Emma’s expression softened, their bizarre camaraderie on their adventure tonight sparking something in her. “Thank you, Killian.”

Killian looked bemused, an unsure smile on his face. “You already thanked me, lass. I only did what any gentleman would do.”

“Not just about helping me. I just wanted to...thank you, I guess, for being a friend? I do hope that we are friends now.” Emma flattered towards the end, unsure about where she stood with the half-brother of the man she was to be betrothed to.

“Of course, Swan ,” he smiled kindly at her. “Adventures, no matter how dangerous, have a way of bringing people together.”

Emma felt the heat rise in her cheeks, chiding herself for her reaction. This was not the first time a man has flirted with her, so why did Ser Killian’s words make her feel that tell-tale flutter in her gut? Clearing her throat, she said, “I should get back.”

He let out a shuddering breath, his heart beating uncharacteristically fast as he watched Princess Emma walk away. She reminded him so much of Queen Snow, in her strength and her kindness, in her innate goodness. But whatever feelings he felt blooming towards her, he had no right to them. She would be his sovereign one day, and he could not allow something as simple as a schoolboy’s crush get in the way of his brother’s - and Camelot’s - future. He needed to stay away from Princess Emma; dalliances with royals would never, ever end well.

And so with one last glance at the retreating princess, he walked back to the cabin. He had someone to interrogate, after all.

-/-

Emma slipped through the servants’ entrance, her heart in her throat. She had never been away from the palace for so long during her other night-time excursions. Considering how someone was sent to murder her, it was even more dangerous to be out of her quarters. While she could quite easily guess who would want her dead so badly, she could not go to the council without solid proof. She needed her attacker to confess, and Killian was her only choice for now.

Emma managed to reach her room with no trouble, resting her back against the doors once she was safely inside. Just as she was contemplating telling her father, she froze in her spot when she saw a figure sitting on a chair. They slowly rose, walking towards her, their face illuminated by the moonlight pouring in from her large, french windows.

“Where have you been, young lady?” her father asked, adopting an imposing stance with his arms crossed and a deep frown marring his features.