Ahh, I've failed you! I really meant to have this chapter up much sooner, but things got crazy. I took an impromptu trip up to Canada, had tons of fun, was eaten alive by mosquitos, and now I'm back just in time for work, a road trip across a couple of states, a wedding, a graduation party, and a new boss. :/ Mmllehhhggg. I've somehow managed to keep working full-time during all of this, so when it's all over, I can finally get back to writing. I know interest in this story has dwindled, and I have no doubt it's due to my inability to semi-regularly update, so I'll try to do better!
I've still got four hours of work left, a wedding shower and a drive across one full state today, so I'm gonna go make myself an Americano and pretend for five seconds that I have any free time at all. Hope the wait was worth it for this one, and I'd love your feedback! You guys are the greatest (and most patient)!
Pride Before A Fall
Ruby narrowed her eyes when Regina sat down across from Robin and Roland. It was strange enough the woman was spending her lunch hour in the diner, but to be eating with someone other than Henry was nearly unheard of. She sauntered over casually, smiling down at the little group and pulled out her notepad.
"Madame Mayor," she said sharply, raising her eyebrows at the woman with a look that clearly said she wasn't happy to be helping her. "What can I get for you?"
"Ruby…always a pleasure," she replied sarcastically. "I'll be having a roast beef sandwich with a side of fries."
Ruby hummed, scribbling it down and looked to Robin and Roland, her smile becoming genuine, widening even further at the sight of Roland's face scrunched up in concentration as he tried to read the menu. "And for you two?"
"I'll have the same," Robin said, smiling politely. "It sounds delicious."
"I want…" Roland leaned his head in as close to the menu as it could go and ran his finger along the words, "Pe-ah-nut…peanut…buhh…butt…butter! Peanut butter! And jelly! Both please!" He smiled at Ruby when she chuckled and took the menus from them.
Robin was staring at Roland, who was tracing patterns on the tabletop. "Roland? You can read?"
Roland stopped and looked up at his father in confusion. Then he suddenly grinned. "I readed! I readed, papa! All by myself!"
Robin ruffled his hair. "That you did, my boy. But when did you start doing that?"
Roland tilted his head in thought but then scrunched his shoulders up to his ears. "I don't 'member."
Sitting back in the booth and sighing, Robin looked across and met Regina's smiling gaze. "I feel as if I'm forgetting many important things from this missing year," he told her, and frowned when her smile dropped almost immediately.
Regina thought of the child growing inside her and nodded. "We all do."
The rain was deafening, and with the added noise from the thunder, it took her a minute to realize the other noises she was hearing. The men outside were shouting – about what, she couldn't tell, but with every second, the sound grew more frantic and louder as more voices were added in. Thinking they might be under attack, Regina wrapped her cloak around herself and exited her tent.
Merry Men were running everywhere, shouting and looking anxious. Her brow furrowed when she noticed none of them held weapons. She turned her head up, squinting against the rain, but saw nothing to indicate they were being attacked. She moved closer toward the center of camp to catch a hint of what was happening and her blood turned to ice when she finally understood what they were all shouting.
Regina whirled to find a breathless Little John approaching. For the first time since they'd met, his sarcasm with the title wasn't there; gone with the fear of the missing child. "What's happened?"
"Roland is missing!" the man panted. "Is he with you?"
Regina shook her head, and because of how impossible it was to see in this storm added, "No." The same panic that had spread quickly through the camp gripped Regina and she grasped Little John's arms firmly to get him to focus on her. "What happened?"
"He was…he was upset. About the storm, about Robin being gone. More so than usual. I tried to help, but he didn't want anyone but Robin. And he asked for you. That's why I thought he might be here."
"How long ago?"
"Only minutes! I left to see if Robin had perhaps come back across the river and when I returned, he was gone!"
"He must be looking for Robin!" Regina told him, not understanding why the man hadn't thought of it himself.
"But Roland is afraid of rivers," he said, as if that explained everything. "He fell in once, and ever since, he's stayed clear of them."
"But he's terrified!" Regina practically screamed, already rushing toward where the river ran next to the camp. With the limited visibility and the ground slippery with mud, it took several minutes for her to reach the bank. She held her hand up in front of her, attempting to summon her magic for light, to clear a field of vision, to block out the noise; anything that might help her find Roland. She was still exhausted, but with the burst of adrenaline, there was a spark. The rain grew silent, only for a second, but it was enough. She heard the small cry off to her left and followed it, moving as quickly as she could while keeping her footing so as not to slide into the river. Little John attempted to keep up with her, but he was having more trouble with his footing then she was. The mud pulled at his shoes, and Regina's had already come off.
"Roland!" Regina cried, finally spotting the child. He'd slipped off a steep part of the bank and had wrapped his small frame around a root sticking off the edge to keep from falling into the rushing water. If he'd heard her, there was no sign. He clung paralyzed to the root, not even turning his head.
She finally reached him, leaning down to pull him from his perch. At first, he held tighter, squeaking in fear, but she yelled to be heard over the storm, "Roland, sweetheart, let me help you."
Roland finally looked up, and the second he saw Regina, he loosened his arms, allowing her to pull him up. Once he was in her arms, she took a good few steps back away from the edge and wrapped her arms tightly around his shaking form. He was sobbing, speaking incoherent words to her, so she pulled his head in. "It's okay, I've got you, you're safe," she said into his ear, trying to shelter him from the battering rain and wind as best she could. When she turned, she found Little John coming up, out of breath, but looking greatly relieved.
"Roland!" he bellowed happily, but the little boy turned his head further into Regina.
Instead of trying to take him from her, Regina was surprised when the man extended his hand to help her find her footing back up off the muddy bank. She readjusted Roland, clutching him against her hip with one arm as she allowed Little John to take her hand and pull her up onto more stable ground. He stayed with her as they moved back toward the camp, and she felt his hand lightly on her back as the Merry Men took notice of her, and cries of relief and surprise sounded at the sight of Roland clinging to her.
Little John noticed the looks directed at the woman and had he not seen with his own two eyes the way she'd desperately searched for him, he may have had the same look. He'd had it only hours earlier. But he saw the way Roland refused to even lift his head from her breast, and the ferocity with which she protected him. Many had not noticed the queen wore no shoes; her feet and the bottom half of her gown and cloak were covered in mud.
He followed them to her tent, where he held the flap for her, and once inside, the sounds of the storm were blocked just enough for them to hear that Roland was still muttering into Regina's chest.
"Roland, sweetheart, what is it?" Regina asked, swaying him softly in her arms as her hand rubbed circles on his back.
"Herrrr," Roland wailed miserably, unable to get more words out.
"Her?" she questioned, her brow furrowing. Then a thought came to her and she asked, "Do you mean the wicked witch?"
Roland nodded through his sobs.
"Oh, honey." She brushed his wet curls from his forehead, trying to dry his tears, but they were both drenched from being out in the rain and Regina found it was nearly pointless. Still, the touch seemed to soothe Roland, so she continued gently running her thumb across his cheek. "She's not here, it's alright."
Little John was nearly glued to his spot, not understanding what he was seeing. In the past, he'd encountered villages recently visited by the queen, and the stories they had to tell were of a ruthless, cruel, heartless woman who spared nothing and no one in her path of vengeance against Snow White; not even children were safe from her wrath. The few times he'd spotted her himself, he couldn't find reason to disagree with them. She was beautiful, but lacking any of the emotion or light in her eyes that made her human. Now, she was a completely different woman. She had a mother's touch, and the warmth in both her voice and her eyes surprised the man. Suddenly feeling like he was intruding, and wanting to be helpful, he caught Regina's eye. "I'll go fetch something dry for you and Roland."
She nodded before immediately returning her attention to the boy.
"What made you think this was the wicked witch?" Regina asked quietly once they were alone.
"There's never been a storm this scary," he told her. "She's mad because we left."
"No, darling, it's just a bad storm."
"Are you sure?"
She nodded. "I'd know if she was here. We're safe – it's just a bit of nasty weather."
His crying softened slightly and he rubbed a wet sleeve over his eyes, scrunching his face as it left behind a smear of mud.
"Here, let me help," she told him. She reached for the cloth in the small wash basin in the tent and used it to wipe the dirt as he blinked to keep it from his eyes. "All better," she said when she finished. "Roland, why did you run off?"
He looked down, playing with the embroidery of her dress with a finger. "I was afraid."
"Wasn't Little John with you?" she asked, trying to get him to look up at her, but he continued running his fingers over the beading.
He nodded almost imperceptibly. "But papa was gone, and I was afraid the witch would get him. And then I knowed you'd save us, but Little John said no and I couldn't find you. I sneaked away when he went to find papa, but there was too many tents and I didn't know where you were. But papa was 'cross the river. I tried to see him but I fell." He finally looked up, and there was such an expression of misery and shame on his face that her heart nearly broke. "Are you mad?"
"No, I'm not mad. I was scared, though." She hugged him tightly to her chest, kissing his forehead and lingering there as she breathed in relief, trying to calm herself down after the terror of him being missing.
"Me, too," Roland whispered.
Little John reentered the tent then, a bundle clutched to his chest. "A fresh nightshirt for Roland," he said, laying the stack on the bed. "And I'm afraid we have no women in the camp to borrow from, so I brought a night shirt that seemed it might fit you. There's an extra blanket and more cleaning cloths as well."
She noticed for the first time that she was shivering, as was Roland, both of them soaked to the bone from the harsh rains outside. Little John was the same, but his cloak was thicker, and he still had his shoes.
"I've alerted all the men that Roland is returned safely and there is broth being heated as we speak to help warm you."
"A fire is surely impossible in this weather," Regina frowned.
"One of the larger tents is equipped for such instances as these. It won't be kept long."
"Thank you," Regina told him sincerely, now having to consciously keep her teeth from chattering.
"I'll leave you to change," the man told her. "And be back with the broth as soon as it is prepared."
Regina nodded once more, and when he was gone, made quick work of changing Roland into his nightshirt before changing herself. It was difficult, as Roland was reluctant to let go of her for even a second, but she finally managed and once they were both cleaned up and dry, she sat upon her makeshift bed and opened her arms to Roland, who eagerly rushed into them. She wrapped the blanket around both of them, rubbing his arms and back underneath to warm him up more quickly, and it was only a minute later that Little John and another man appeared with the warm broth. It had sloshed in the weather, but there was still steam rising from its surface, and when the bowl was extended to her, she lowered the blanket and took it gratefully.
Turning Roland, she settled him in her lap and handed him the bowl before taking the other from the stranger with Little John. His eyes narrowed on her, but she paid no mind as she took the first spoonful and hummed when the hot liquid slid down her throat and settled in her stomach, instantly warming her from the inside out.
Roland wiggled around until his back pressed firmly against her and he continued to eat his soup, unaware of the intense gazes upon them.
"You can go," Little John said to the man with him and with one more look at Regina, he listened to their group's second in command, not without a growl of disapproval.
"May I?" Little John asked, gesturing to the floor of the tent, and Regina nodded.
Settling down in an awkward cross-legged position, John looked at Roland, still steadily ladling broth into his mouth. "I'm sorry, little one," he said finally when the boy refused to look up at him.
Roland's eyes raised as he continued to eat and watched the man intently, his gaze unnerving with his slow blinks and wide eyes, as if he was searching for something.
"I shouldn't have left you," he continued, and at the continued silent treatment, he sighed. "And I shouldn't have stopped you from seeing the Queen. You were frightened, and it was wrong of me to keep you from what you needed."
The spoon paused and Roland inhaled deeply, letting all of it rush out at once, sounding weary and exhausted. "I can stay with Gina?" he asked, and some of the fear returned.
"You can stay with her, yes." He watched the queen for any signs that she disagreed, but she only had eyes for Roland, and seemed wholly unperturbed by the statement.
"And I can see her tomorrow still?" he asked quietly. "You and papa will stop making us be apart?"
Little John flinched. They'd hoped Roland would have been too distracted to notice. They'd also hoped that his odd relationship with the queen would be a passing one which would fade with the loss of contact. It appeared that the bond had already solidified beyond what they'd expected, and Robin was in for a rude awakening when he returned in the morning.
"We'll talk to your papa in the morning, hmm?" Little John asked instead of answering. He smiled good naturedly when Roland finished his bowl and put it on the floor.
Roland twitched his nose and looked down with a frown, reaching for the hand Regina had let fall to her side after setting her own broth down. He tangled his fingers with hers and pulled her hand into his lap, playing with her hand between his. "Do you think papa's okay?" he asked.
"He'll be alright," Little John assured. "You know your papa. He never lets anything keep him away for too long."
"But the storm is evil," Roland whispered.
"Robin knows these woods like the back of his hand, and we've been through storms like this before. Don't you worry, Roland, he'll be alright. Don't you think?" He ducked his head down to capture the boys attention, and Regina felt guilty for the way Roland clung to her hand while he spoke to a man who obviously cared for him as if he were his own.
She gave Roland a tiny nudge, and finally, Roland looked up again. "Yeah," he answered. "Papa's strong."
Little John smiled, encouraged by the boy's optimism. "The strongest. And I happen to know he had his bow with him."
"He did?" Roland asked, a smile starting to spread.
"Of course!" Little John assured. "And you know what that means?"
"He'll never miss!" Roland cheered.
"Never." LIttle John smiled. "What do you say we get some sleep now so that we can see your papa sooner?"
Roland nodded aggressively, and letting go of Regina's hand, he stood, toddling the few steps to Little John and wrapping his arms around the giant man. His hands barely met, even around the man's neck, but the hug was no less meaningful, and Little John clung to him gratefully.
"Sleep tight," he started, prompting Roland.
"No bugs shall bite..."
"And we'll see each other at first light." He smiled as Roland giggled at their usual exchange of words the nights Robin was away, grateful that Roland seemed to be returning to his usual self. "Sleep well, Roland."
"Goodnight, Little John. Love you!"
"I love you, too." He finally managed to pull himself to his feet with a heavy groan and gave a small wave as he exited the tent.
Roland wasted no time in returning to Regina. Lying back on the bed, she made room for him to crawl in next to her, and once they were settled, she extinguished the lamp. She felt Roland clutch her night shirt tightly as the shadows flickered across the walls of the tent and jump when another flash of lightning illuminated everything for a split second. The sounds of the storm became more pronounced in the darkness, and she felt his shivering; this time stemming from fear, not cold.
She hummed a soft tune, both of them too tired for a story to distract him, and slowly, he began to relax.
"Gina?" he mumbled sleepily as she continuously traced her fingers over his back.
"I love you."
The words were muttered in exhaustion, but she heard them as if they'd been shouted, and she stiffened.
How? How was it that in so short a time, such a sweet and innocent child had come to say he loved her? Especially one who'd been so terrified of her. And what should she do? She and Robin had only discussed her separation from Roland that afternoon – what would he say to finding out his son had run from a man who'd helped raise him to find her? And as much as she wanted to return the sentiment, she wasn't sure she could. She definitely felt love for this boy, but saying it? It felt both a betrayal to Henry, and like a selfish indulgence. But what would the sweet boy think if she said nothing? She opened her mouth, searching for the proper response, when she realized it didn't matter. The steady breaths against her collar bone and the way his small fingers had loosened their tangle in her shirt told her he'd already fallen asleep.