Author's Note: I will definitely be finishing Give Me No More Than Just Enough - in fact, I only have one finicky chapter left to wrap up (the next one to be posted, unfortunately) before that one will be completely written. But sometimes ya gotta take a little break from the angst for some... less angsty angst and silliness.
This installment of the story is rated T, the rating will change for the next part.
Many thanks to J and her brother, for imparting the wisdom that you really CAN do that with an apple.
He is not sure why he is here, not sure what exactly has convinced him it is a good idea to seek her out. He knows, he is certain, that she does not want his company. She so rarely does. No, that's not correct - never has she ever, since her party first returned, bedraggled and forlorn, to the Enchanted Forest, desired his company. She has tolerated it, on occasion, rued it more often than not, and downright derided it on certain days. Today, he is sure, it will be the last of those options, and yet here he is. Compelled. Invading her privacy here, in her inner sanctum, in the shade of the apple tree that he's been told has traveled worlds with her she holds it so precious.
He wonders why, and he considers asking, but he thinks if that was his opening, she would surely turn him away.
She sits on the bench that rings the tree, spine straight as an arrow, her hands gripping the stone tightly near her hips. She must know he's here, she is nothing if not always aware of her surroundings, but she hasn't acknowledged him.
He feels like an intruder, and rightly so - this is a private place, and it is a painful day.
She'd walked into their council meeting that morning a few minutes late - a rarity for her - and the very second she'd passed through the door, the whole room had colored with her dark mood. She did not look well, though she was dressed as regal as ever, clad in leather and velvet and crusted with jewels enough to feed a whole village for a week. Her hair had been severe and tight, twisted up on top of her head. There was a storminess to her, a tempestuous undercurrent far beyond her usual caustic self (he rather thinks she fakes it most days, and he wonders if it isn't tiring to keep up that level of determined ire, but today her fury had seemed to radiate from her very bones).
"Is this really necessary?" she had hissed at Snow White, every word bitten off and hard. "Today, of all days?"
He had looked from her to the Princess, and watched as something had dawned over her face, horror and apology and sadness all at once. So expressive, Snow. He imagined she couldn't hide behind any pretenses of her feelings if she'd tried. And she had shaken her head, and said in a voice full of kindness, "No, no, it's not. I'll make sure you're informed of anything important; you should go. I didn't think."
Regina had snorted, and sneered, "You never do," and she'd turned and stalked from the room, a mere raise of her hand all it took to send the chamber doors crashing shut with a loud bang.
"Snow?" the Prince had questioned, and all eyes had swung to her.
Her own gaze had dropped into her lap, to her hands, and she'd said quietly, "It's Henry's birthday. I completely forgot," and there had been guilt there, and a hint of tears, and Robin had wondered if they were for Regina or for her own forgetfulness.
He'd heard stories of the boy - of Henry. Not from Regina, never from Regina, she brooked no conversation of the boy she was persistently mourning the loss of. But Snow loved to speak of him, of the grandson they'd left behind. Of his kindness, and his strong belief in all that was true and pure, and in the goodness he'd brought out in Regina. Of the former queen's fierce loyalty to him, even at the cost of her own desires.
So yes, he'd thought, a bit of that sadness must have been her own, but Robin had looked back at the doors Regina had shut so soundly on them, and had felt the same kindred sort of sadness he'd experienced when they'd first snuck into this castle together. When he'd told her of Marian, and she'd told him of Henry, and her misery had been so great she'd wished simply to sleep forever. He knows the way grief can feel heavy and choking on certain special days, and he worries for her. He cannot say why, considering her sharp tongue and her glaring eyes and her efforts to belittle him every chance she gets. But he worries, all the same.
So here he is, seeking her out, sneaking up on her in her private moments, just to assure himself that she hasn't succumbed to the desire for that endless middle again. Just to ensure she's safe. Perhaps to offer her a bit of comfort if she'll have it.
She's changed her garments, and she looks less queenly now, clad in a simple black dress and coat, her hair loose, tumbling freely over her shoulders. He's seen it pulled half up, half down, still curled and coiffed, but he's never seen her quite like this. Undone. Like she'd pulled it from the knot it had been so pristinely twisted into before and simply let it fall. He thinks she is stunning, a beauty, and despite the sadness that comes off her in waves, she looks soft. Almost approachable.
Almost. But not quite.
Yet approach her he does, although he isn't sure exactly why, or what he'll say. He'd thought he might try to comfort her, to tell her he understands her pain, but that hadn't gone well the first time he'd tried it, and he doesn't imagine it will go over any better today. Still, he walks to her, sits beside her, and since he doesn't know what to say, he says nothing.
The only indication that she has even noticed his presence is a quiet sigh of irritation. Otherwise, she stays silent, eyes trained ahead on the beautiful vista of her kingdom, lit up with a fading sunset. It's stunning from just this spot, but he imagines she's in no mood to recognize its beauty.
Still, she doesn't ask him to leave, doesn't ask anything of him, and so he remains, shifts slightly to lean back on his palms, and takes in the view as well. Maybe he'll just sit with her a while.
Breathe in, breathe out.
That's what she tells herself. That's what she tries to focus on.
Breathe in, breathe out.
Nothing else. Nothing more. She tries to clear her mind of everything but the simple act of breathing, of the cool night air filling her lungs.
It isn't working.
Her thoughts are too loud, too insistent, too painful. Deafening and agonizing, and she has been sitting here so long that she can feel a dull ache in her tailbone where it rests on the stone bench, and her fingers ache where she has them pressed hard to the underside of the seat, but she is trying, God, how she's trying to push everything back. Away. Down.
It is Henry's birthday.
He is twelve years old today, and she is not there to see it. He is opening gifts, and none are from her. And even if there was some way, even if she could send him a token across the realms to let him know that she is thinking of him today, and every day, every minute, it wouldn't matter one iota, because Henry has no idea she has ever existed. She wiped his every tear, and changed his every diaper, and soothed his every fever, and helped him master long division, and every memory is hers and hers alone. To him, she has never been there. To him, it has always been Emma.
The loneliness is punishing, a loud cacophonous thing. Memories assaulting her, smothering her, pressing in on all sides until she feels like she can't breathe under the weight of them.
And then he is sitting next to her, the thief, the last person in the world she thinks she wants to see (no, that's a lie, the last person she wants to see is Snow, with her simpering apologies, and her desire to share, to make everything better), and Regina lets out a huff of annoyance, all she can manage, and thinks that maybe if she just ignores him resolutely, he will take the hint and leave.
But he is persistent, as ever, and he stays, puts down roots it seems, grows into the bench much like she has. They sit there, in silence, for what seems like hours, although Regina knows, logically, in cannot be, because the sunset has only faded to dusk, and the stars are only just winking into life above them.
It would be a pretty night, she thinks hollowly, if she wasn't so miserable.
And just as she thinks it, he says it, "It's quite the sight, isn't it?" his voice quiet, but not pitying, and for that small favor she is grateful.
She wants to give him some sort of barb, some sort of snide retort, but she has lost every drop of her anger to this thick, cloying sadness, so all she does is cant her head slightly to to the side. She doesn't look at him, doesn't speak.
Robin shifts next to her, settles his hand on the front of the bench now instead of the back, mirroring her, shifting closer, and she can't help the glance it pulls from her, quick and furtive, just for a moment. Not to his face, not that far, just to his knees as they move closer, and then he settles, and he is so close that she can feel the heat of his hand next to her own, their skin only a whisper apart, so close that if she released her grip on the bench just a little, she thinks they'd touch.
And so she does.
She's not sure what compels her, but she relaxes her fingers, lets her palm go soft and pliant instead of clenched hard, until she feels the warmth of him flush against her. He seems to take it as invitation, his pinky sliding across hers and hooking around it. Nothing more, just that little bit of contact, and she's not sure how or why, but it unscrews something wound tight inside her, chinks at her carefully constructed armor, and all of a sudden her breath is shuddering out roughly, and there are tears spilling silently from her eyes.
It is horrifying, mortifying, and she rips her hand from his, lifts both of them to wipe furiously at the tears and bites at the inside of her cheek until she tastes the salty copper of blood.
"Leave," she sneers at him, trying to put enough fury into her voice to overpower the sorrow. She's only marginally successful, and it all sounds far too rough and tearful for her liking.
"I'm fine here," he says casually with a shake of his head, and he is looking out at the sunset again, as if she isn't sitting next to him sniffling and crying and generally making a fool of herself.
He is infuriating.
And also merciful.
He says nothing about her tears, just keeps surveying the vista before him as she tries to tamp them down, and after a minute of heaving breaths and sniffling, she manages. When she thinks her voice will be steady again, she asks - demands, "Why are you here? Did Snow send you?"
Although why she would send him of all people, Regina has no idea. She thinks back to the princess musing on how good looking the outlaw is, the day they'd first hitched their parties together, and hopes this isn't some horrible attempt at a fix up. If it is, she may kill the simpering little bitch for her inappropriate timing alone.
"I've been sent by no one," he assures her. "The princess merely mentioned that today is your lad's birthday, and I thought perhaps you could use some company," he tells her simply, plain as day, as if sharing each others' company is something they ever do willingly.
"I don't want company," she bites, and his retort is instant, and kind, and familiar: That doesn't mean you won't need it. Regina rolls her eyes so hard it actually hurts, but she finds she doesn't truly mind his presence as much as she thinks she should. And for the first time in however long she's been sitting here (long enough for her ass to go tingly and numb), she is not shackled into her own brain - not completely anyway. Henry's face still swims in front of her, smiling, happy, without her, always, forever, until the end of time without her, but for a moment she'd been more wrapped up in ridding herself of the thief than in thoughts of her son.
Regina's chest squeezes painfully, and she has the sudden urge to just get blind, stinking drunk. Isn't that how normal people deal with their problems? People whose first urge in the face of grief isn't to slaughter preteen girls, and the thousands of people who stand in between them? She looks at the thief, imagines he's spent many a night carousing drunkenly around a campfire, and wishes that if he insisted on coming here to bother her under the guise of helping, he could have at least been kind enough to bring her something with which she could drown her sorrows.
"What I need is something to quiet my mind for a spell," she tells him, a rare parcel of honesty to be doled out, but at least she does it with a sneer. It's a weary one, not quite up to her usual level of ire, but she's bogged down with this cloud of misery, so it's the best she can muster tonight. For good measure, she gives him a scathing up-and-down perusal, and grumbles, "If you're so insistent on sharing my misery, you could've at least brought wine."
Robin smirks, shakes his head, and smiles at her. "I find alcohol isn't all that kind to me when I'm weighted by grief. After my wife passed, I took to drinking. Especially on the hard days. But I'm afraid I'm not the most pleasant of depressed drunks, and it doesn't do a thief much good to be hungover. Doesn't do a father much good either."
She thinks of his boy, of Roland's dark hair and deep dimples, and his cheerful little laugh - and then she thinks of her own son and the tears well up again, hot and traitorous. He really should've brought that wine.
"Well, I'm neither a thief, nor a father," she points out. Robin continues speaking as if she's said nothing.
"Little John introduced me to an alternative, something gentler. A bit more pleasant."
Regina blinks, wipes at the tear it dislodges, and frowns at him. "An alternative," she repeats, doubtfully (although inside, she's hopeful. She'd take anything to dull this pain right now.)
The thief nods, and fishes into his pocket, pulls out something slim and white, and when he lays his palm flat it sits there, and Regina just stares at it for a moment. It's a joint. A slim, hand-rolled cigarette, and is he offering her pot? Regina looks up, meets his gaze, one brow lifted incredulously. "What...?"
"Rookweed," he supplies, and no, it's not marijuana, because that's not of this land, but she imagines it's the closest equivalent, especially when he adds, "Dulls the brain a bit, helps get rid of those pesky painful thoughts."
"And you're just carrying it around with you?" she questions, wondering if he's the Enchanted Forest equivalent of a stoner, if he spends his nights by the fire getting baked and giggling with his Merry Men while his boy sleeps. Irresponsible, she thinks. Unattractive.
But then he tells her it's not something he makes a habit of, but, "I didn't happen upon you by accident, my queen - and a flagon of wine might have been suspicious as I traversed the castle, no?"
"I suppose," she reasons, although there's no reason he couldn't have filled a wineskin, or hell, just carted a bottle. This was a castle, not a convent.
He shifts the joint from his palm to his fingertips, holding in out in offering. "If a quiet mind is what you're after, milady, this will do the trick with little trouble, and afford you a few hours' dreamless sleep on top of it."
Regina eyes it warily, and then reminds herself that such things are perfectly legal here. It's not an illicit substance, but a folk cure. Something common, something she might get from a healer in a land without Prozac or Xanax, and hell, why not? If it will soothe this terrible ache in her chest, why shouldn't she? So she meets the thief's eyes, and thinks this is probably not one of her wiser decisions (although certainly quite low on the list of things she's done wrong), and shrugs agreeably.
Her acquiescence draws another grin out of him, and she thinks that Snow wasn't entirely wrong about him being attractive. He has a very nice smile, she has to admit that. Inviting, she thinks. That's the word for it.
"A bit of flame, if you would, majesty," he requests, and Regina smirks. He comes with the plant, but without a light. Of course he does.
"If we're going to be getting stoned together, Robin, I think it may be time for you to call me by name."
He chuckles, and it's a warm, pleasant sound, she thinks, when she's not so determined to be irritated by him. "My pleasure, Regina," and she likes the sound of that, too.
She produces a fireball in her palm, and he leans back a little bit, away, looking at her as if she's crazy if she thinks he's putting his face anywhere near that for the second it takes her to focus the flames down to a small flicker.
"I have no interest in scorching off that pretty face," she assures, lifting the flame up toward it. She realizes what she's said when that permanent smirk on his lips turns into another broad grin, his hand pausing in its rise to his mouth.
"I'm pretty, am I?" he taunts, and to her horror, Regina feels her cheeks heat with a blush.
She tries to scowl at him as he leans forward, the joint between his lips now as he brings it to the tiny flame, but his cheeks hollow out a little on the inhale, and she finds her attention pulled away by his jaw, the stubble there, the column of his throat and yes, he is pretty - handsome, rather, distractingly so - she has the sudden urge to plant a kiss on that rough skin, feel the scrape of his whiskers beneath her tongue. That blush on her cheeks flares hotter, and she hopes the night is dim enough to hide it, and forgets to be angry as she watches him lean back slightly as he inhales, pulls the cigarette from his lips, chest expanding broadly before a cloud of thick, white smoke blows from his mouth. It smells sweeter than she expected, fragrant and pleasant as it dissipates around them.
He offers the joint to her with a pleasant frown, a raise of his brows, and she cannot believe she's doing this, but she takes it, brings it to her lips, and draws on it. Hot smoke fills her mouth, sucks down into her lungs, and it burns a little, but not unpleasantly so. The smoke is smooth, but still catches in her throat as she breathes out, and she coughs lightly. She eyes him sheepishly, but he simply shrugs and says, "Virgin lungs," as if there's not a drop of shame in her toking like an amateur.
She tries to pass it back to him, but Robin shakes his head, gestures toward her again. "Take another pull," he urges. "You need it more than I."
He's right about that, she thinks, and so she does, inhales slowly and deeply, and when her lungs are packed full he reaches for the cigarette and urges her to hold the smoke for few moments. She holds her breath for a beat, two, three, four, then exhales slowly. She doesn't cough this time, and the smirk she gives him is smug and self-satisfied.
He takes another puff, but it's noticeably shallow, just a quick drag. He's saving the bulk of it for her, she observes, and as her head starts to feel a bit like a floating balloon, she finds she's grateful for the consideration.
They exhaust the joint quickly, Robin dropping it to the ground and stubbing it out with his boot when the embers begin to lick at his fingertips. Lucky embers, she thinks vaguely, and she wonders if the weed is an aphrodisiac, can't remember, and in any case, it's not as though she's never had a single traitorous erotic thought about the man sitting next to her.
"How's your mind?" he asks, and she finds that it's a bit disconnected, that her first thought is to answer wondering how you'd taste, and so she knows that it must be working, but she is still bound down to the reality of her pain. She still feels that oppressive sadness that she hasn't been able to shake since the moment she realized what she'd have to do to save them all from Pan's curse. What she'd have to give up.
She tells him so, in not so many words, and his hopeful expression dulls into a frown. "If you need a bit more, I've plenty, but I am, unfortunately, out of paper to wrap it in." She's thinking about how easy it would be to conjure some, wishing she'd known to take better note of the texture of the paper, the thickness, of it, when he points to the tree above them and asks, "May I?"
Regina quirks one amused brow. "Someone have a touch of the munchies?" she teases, and Robin just looks at her curiously as he stands - it's clearly not a term he's familiar with, a remnant of Storybrooke in her speech.
Robin's fingers are gripping the bottom of one plump, red apple, and he looks at her questioningly - Regina realizes she never answered his request, and nods gamely. What's one apple in a tree hanging heavy with dozens more? When he follows up plucking the apple with yanking free a thin branch from a limb nearby, though, she scowls. She hadn't granted permission for that.
"I said you could have an apple, not destroy my tree," she gripes.
"Apologies, milady, but it's necessary for the task," he explains, and Regina's scowl deepens. What task? Robin twists the stem from the apple easily, then stabs the stick straight into the top of it, wiggling it around a little to create a slim channel. Her brow knits together in confusion, watching as he scrapes a bit around the mouth of the hole, makes it a little wider, and then he's plunging the stick into the apple's side, clearing a small tunnel there as well, juice dripping down his fingers. He tosses the stick away and brings the apple to his lips, blows hard into the hole in the top until some pulpy bits of apple fly out the other hole into his hand, and my god, he just made a pipe from an apple, she realizes.
Regina's forehead smooths, then her brow lifts, her expression some cross between impressed, amused, and doubtful. "That seems to be a practiced maneuver," she remarks, and he's smirking again.
"The plant grows freely, milady, as do the apples, but the papers come at a price." He reaches into a pocket and pulls out a small cloth bag, no bigger than his boy's palm, she thinks, and he works a few fingers into it, pulls out a bit of dried plant, plugging the hole in the top of the apple. "One has to be creative when one doesn't have a vault of gold at their fingertips."
Regina smirks, creative indeed, she thinks, but now he's frowning, saying something about how he should have brought matches. No need, Regina thinks, reaching down and nabbing the stick he'd used to bore the holes into the apple. She conjures a flame in her palm and holds the stick in it until it lights - the wood is still very much alive, so it smokes and sputters. Not the best light, but there's a flame there, steady enough, and she can always light it again. She passes it to him with a smile, soft and pleasant, and she realizes suddenly that she's been smiling for nearly a minute now, can't quite help herself, and that clinging sadness still lingers but she can feel her head lifting above it slightly.
Robin takes the stick with a grateful nod, then brings the apple to his mouth, seals his lips over the hole in the side, and dips the lit end toward the packed hole on top. His eyes nearly go cross-eyed as they linger on the flame, and Regina watches the plant burn red, then go grey and charred where the flame had touched it when he draws the fruit away from his mouth. A tendril of smoke curls lazily from the side hole and Robin lets his eyes close for a moment, then releases a generous cloud of smoke from his lungs.
Not being so conservative now, she notices. He passes the apple to her, and she eyes it a bit warily as she takes it. The joint had been fairly straightforward, but this?
Robin seems to sense her hesitation and lifts it toward her mouth, guiding her. "Just cover the hole with your mouth, and inhale - gently - when I tell you to." Regina nods, and seals her lips around the fruit, and maybe if she hadn't been watching him so carefully, she'd have missed the way his gaze flicked to her lips, the way his Adam's apple bobbed with a heavy swallow. But she was looking, so she does see, and the thought that he might find her as distracting as she finds him almost makes her smile. Almost, but then he's dipping the flame to the apple again, and telling her to inhale, and she does, the smoke somehow hotter this time, still sweet, a hint of burnt apples and ash, and she fills her lungs up again, then closes her lips and hands the apple back to him.
Not so hard after all, she thinks, and she has to relight the stick before Robin can draw another pull.
And then she really starts to feel it. The high hits her slowly, expands under her skin as she takes another hit, and soon she feels pleasantly... pleasant. That's the best word for it, really. Pleasant. Her breathing goes slow and even, and everything feels a bit soft-focused. She is fully herself, and fully aware, but also feels a bit like her eyes are windowpanes set a few inches in front of her, like she's detached from the whole scene. Observing. And yet not. Every breath she breathes in feels cool and crisp, refreshing, and her skin feels flushed but in a good way. Her fingers feel creaky, tense, so she flexes them out and back in a few times, a new awareness of her muscles.
He's right, she thinks vaguely. This is better than wine.
Regina lets out a contented sigh, wishing the bench she's sitting on had a back she could lean against. She blinks, slowly, and Robin's low, warm chuckle slithers over her skin like velvet.
"There she is," he murmurs, and she turns to him with a lazy smile and he is smiling back at her, and Regina's not sure why but she lets out a little snicker of her own.
And her mind, finally, is blessedly quiet.