A/N: I feel obligated to warn you that I not speak language of your tribe fluent since birthing. Other than that, Applejack (whom some of you might recognize :) has a tiny cameo in this.
All there was, all there would ever be, was loneliness. Having long since come to terms with the irrefutable fact her days were numbered by moments spent in the company of her, herself and Regina, draining warmth and comfort from the porcelain that allowed her tea to remain an uninterrupted mass, the Queen didn't complain about the fate her mother had chosen for her any longer. Something else troubled her mind.
A flock of nightingales passed by the window as ghastly fog settled upon the hill, drifting lower and lower still until the moon seemed unreachable. It had always been, Regina knew that, but now there was an actual, tangible obstacle making it so much easier to see.
Something else, something else. Something that didn't present as much of a weight to bear, but was as persistent as a dying bee to deliver its poison. Something that stung beneath her ribs for many nights gone and many nights to come until she would acknowledge it.
The door to her chambers opened just enough for a basilisk to sneak in. Her visitor didn't want to wake her, unaware a curse had been placed upon her, preventing her from sleep.
There was silence at first, as means to process recognition of the other's presence as she locked eyes with the stranger, hunched forward from the force of fatigue. "Emma," the Queen finally spoke. "You're home."
Something else, something else. The correct word began with a W, but she hadn't used it since… well, since a long time ago, so she couldn't place it today.
"Yeah. Hi," answered the blonde, closing the door behind her and leaning against it for support as she began virtually tearing off her pauldrons by the shoulder straps. The last time Regina had seen them, the leather was gleaming with novelty and unscarred by war. Now it was covered in dirt, torn seams and several dark spots one could only hope didn't signify former presence of blood, and Regina would have been jumping in joy if that were the only thing that had changed. Judging by the hiss that escaped from behind Emma's teeth as she took off her gauntlets and threw them across the room, the real damage was underneath.
'Something else' bit hard on her lungs again and her breath hitched in her throat. Indifferent to the younger woman's objections, she took her hand and guided her straight to the candlelit expanse of her bed.
"Not now, Regina," Emma whined when her back met the sheets, looking up at the dark-haired beauty. "I'm… I'm tired. It's been a long journey."
"It's also been four months," Regina gave her a half-hearted smile that didn't match what was on her mind in the slightest. "Just let me see you," she pleaded, tracing manipulative little circles and curves along the other woman's jawline.
"Emma. Take off your armor."
"No. You'll do the… that thing you do. I don't like it when you use it. I don't want any magic anywhere close to me for a while." She paused as she took in her wife properly; her gaze ran down hair as black as the darkest corner of the sky but glossed by the stars brightly shining, the satin dress as smooth as the surface of marble, the long bell-shaped sleeves unwillingly caressing Emma's arms and a detail caught her attention. Really, an insignificant little trinket Regina's hairpin was, but it held much sentimental value because of its feather-like structure – just the thing to make the entire view picture perfect. "Except for the magic happening in front of me right now," she added and propped herself up on her elbows to capture the Queen's lips with her own.
'Something else' made a lone tear spring up in the brunette's eyes as she kissed her lover fiercely enough to make up for all the times in the past four months she had been suffocating in loneliness on cold, cloudy nights, but with softness neither of them had known she could muster, softness that was surely only there because of 'something else'. Slowly, Emma pressed her hand to the back of Regina's head and Regina complied, running her fingers through blonde locks greasy with the oil of war and resting half her weight on Emma, unusually careful not to apply too much pressure.
"You're hurt," said the Queen when they parted.
"How's Rumpel holding up?"
"Good. Too good. I sent a messenger to deliver him an offering of peace. All we got back was his head on a stake," Emma murmured, tilting her head to the side.
"He'll keep on fighting as long as you're leading the troops."
"But they need me," Emma snapped, a spark of determination lighting up in her eyes. "I'm the face of the resistance, aren't I? As long as he thinks he can do whatever he wants with no regard for consequences, I have to fight, Regina. I have to protect us."
It was rare moments like these that made the Queen's heart crack at just how much her lover had changed from the walled up runner she had once been. The war had transformed her. The war had carved confidence and purposefulness into her bones. The war had taken Emma from Regina, leaving only something else in her wake. "Yes, and he'll keep coming after you because it's not his wife that's risking her life out there! No, his wife is securely locked up in that mansion of his pouring tea into chipped cups and laughing at us while the war rages on!"
The candles whispered forbidden chants to each other and then fell into deadly silence, and with them their light, enveloping the two women in absolute, unified darkness interrupted only by pearls of white on the floor by the windows where the sky wept. "I apologize," Regina whispered and the candles came back to life with a single thought's command. "Emma," she pleaded, refusing to use the actual magical word (that habit had stuck), "I haven't felt anything in twenty eight years. I want to know what it's like. I want…" she paused to lick her lip nervously, her voice shaking, "I need to know what you've been through because you… here… you are my life."
Emma closed her eyes with a sigh and reached behind her back to unclasp her breastplate. "You're a fucking masochist, you know that?"
They undressed each other quietly, the unanswered question why lingering between them. Somehow, despite the wait and all the unrelieved longing, they were able to take their time and savor the moment; maybe because of it. To Emma, it reminded her of the first time, back in Storybrooke, back 'home' as she still called it even now (although Regina was relentless in getting her to drop this pet peeve). She would be deceiving herself if she were to say battles hadn't made her lonely and hungry for her wife's companionship – not that she would admit it. Luckily, she couldn't speak even if she wanted to when, having successfully rid the blonde of all bothersome iron-infested armor and underwear, the Queen straightened up and unlaced the back of her dress, letting the collar slide down her shoulders in one smooth motion to reveal her heaving bosom, and that was when Emma gave in completely, unable to resist stealing another searing kiss, familiar heat already spreading through her body. After draping the blanket over the two, Regina ran one hand up Emma's side and to her neck, where it lay upon the first scar. As 'something else' nibbled at her spine and made her hairs rise, Regina trailed light kisses down her jaw in the same direction until her lips landed on the roughly textured patch of skin.
Ghouls. Vile creatures. Because of just one moment of carelessness, she had been cut off from the others. Her father was leading another unit through a cove in an attempt to flank the enemy from the northwestern side. The situation was curious to say the least, given that ghouls do not possess enough intelligence to carry on with even a simple plan such as this by themselves; Rumpelstiltskin had no doubt ordered them clearly to focus on Emma for multiple reasons. Possibly to weaken the army's morale. Certainly to threaten the Queen. He knew it, she knew it and she should have seen it coming, but it was far too late for that when a set of serrated teeth dug into her neck.
Regina's forehead wrinkled into a series of shallow valleys, but she continued on, expanding her journey by venturing down the crook of Emma's neck and her shoulder. There she glimpsed it, another proof that part of Emma would never return to the castle to her family, something so miniature in comparison it seemed ludicrous to even attribute such importance to it. A round wound right where arm meets torso, just below Emma's clavicle. Regina ran a single digit over it, memorizing the new bump that was mocking her with its very existence. The four dashes grabbing outside the little circle as if it were their last hope of survival were a message from him and she was determined to read it, even – especially – the tiny handwriting between the lines in bland ink. So her lips replaced her finger.
This battle was different. It had been brewing for hours; darkness had engulfed this valley and all its passing residents. Both sides were exhausted; hits came heavy and slow and inaccurate, numbers were dwindling by the minute and Grumpy was grumpier than ever. Emma had once caught him complaining: "Shoulda given Rumpy's flag some thought." As soon as he saw Emma's expression, he knew she had overheard and was no doubt struck down by shame, but there was no way she could blame him when she herself had grown weary of this endless struggle, wishing she could cross the line of the battlefield as well. But she couldn't afford the luxury of considering that, not when her entire family depended on her.
"Retreat!" she yelled at the top of her lungs and listened to her command echo through the night.
From then on, it was pure madness, in which their foe's devilish laugh descended on their backs turned to him. She had made the right call; she was sure of it. Rumpel would come out with reinforcements in the morning, but little did he know the White Legion's supply of fairy dust was scheduled to have arrived by then as well. Always the aces up one's sleeve decide the value of the cards.
He was fully aware of that. Organization dissipated and all hell broke loose when arrows started flying through the air, concealed by the skies themselves, cutting down what remained of their cavalry and the centaur clan of Evergland one by one. Fuck. Archery must have arrived only recently for her not to notice in the heat of battle and while they weren't great in number, they compensated for that in deadliness. And Grumpy was standing right in an arrow's trajectory, taking a heavy swing at a fire imp whose unfortunate fate would have been certain unless…
It was an instinct, no more.
"Stop," Emma hissed and pulled the Queen up by her arm, forcing her to look the blonde in the eye. "I'll have forgotten sooner than you'll remember."
"I spent twenty eight years trying to forget. I'm done with that."
"You'll lose control. You'll lose yourself again."
"Only if you allow me to."
The W word, something else, beat a little stronger.
And her pained shriek got lost in the racket as she tackled the dwarf, knocking him to the ground. A cheeky chagrin spread over the imp's face. The creature half-hopped, half-flew off on its midget wings, knowing better than to stick around a very wounded, very pissed off Emma Swan. "Son of a bitch," she cursed as Grumpy put a steadying hand around her waist, hurrying her to Doc's tent.
"It didn't pierce all the way through," Doc scowled, his nose virtually buried in Emma's shoulder.
Emma adjusted herself the rag; it wasn't much, but they had to make do with what was available. However, it wasn't what she would lie down on that worried her. It was the fact that medical care wasn't perfect in places where there was a bed, let alone a field tent. "That's good, right? So why don't you sound happy?"
"It's not. We'll have to push it through the rest of the way, otherwise we'd do more damage pulling it out than it did going in."
"Thank god for leather armor," the knightess groaned.
Grumpy sidestepped around Doc's tools – most of which frankly looked more frightening than any injury they've witnessed so far – and, delivering a gentle pat to her good shoulder, handed her the one clean cloth he could find in this mess of kitchen utensils for dummies. Or pros, depending on your point of view. "Wouldn't want you to bite your tongue off," he muttered when he saw the confusion written all over Emma's face. "Regina knows you need it and she'll have my head on a silver platter if you die. So hang in there for both of us, sister, okay?" he said, his voice softening considerably at the end enough for Emma to drop that first remark.
All the strength Emma mustered couldn't have braced her for what she felt when the tip of the arrow broke through flesh and skin, emerging in front of Emma so that she could take a good look at the sharp steel stained with her blood and meat, and then she understood why Grumpy wanted her to bite on the cloth when an impulse ran through her spine, forcing her to clench her jaw so hard she thought she would make her own teeth fall out. Blood coursed through her veins at thrice its normal speed along with her heart beating in her ears. She could barely hear Happy's not too reassuring "It's going to be alright" and thanked whatever devil was looking up at her from hell for at least having the decency to have him squeeze her wrist when Doc grabbed the arrowhead, breaking it off with a loud crack.
The cry that forced itself up her throat bore a striking resemblance to a bull dying at the death grip of the combined teeth of a pack of wolves. She rocked forward, cradling her injured arm with the good one. Hot tears sprung from the corners of her eyes, no matter how tightly shut they were. Emma panicked. She tried to get up, to stumble, to run away, anywhere from the pain until strong arms pinned her back to the ground, letting her know it was far too late for that. The grip on her wrist became a prison and she tried to break free from it, wailing, writhing like the pitiful animal she was, crying for them to end it, to let her go, let her run to her imminent death. Either they couldn't understand or didn't care, because then came the sharp stab and sudden lightheadedness, a hint of freedom almost, and when she opened her tear-stained eyes, the arrow was no longer there.
Little did she know the worst was yet to come.
Regina circled her arms around Emma's waiting waist, holding her tightly as an involuntary tear ran down her own cheek – and brought what she considered a miserable speck of solace to the scar with its tender touch. Not daring to pretend watching – feeling – made her ache nearly as much as it had her knight, she blinked another salty drop away.
Her breathing was just starting to return to its regular pace, coming in periodical huffs, when searing hot iron met her skin, melting it, scorching it with purgatory fire to cleanse infected cells. Covered from head to toe in sweat and her own blood dripping down her chest, Emma spat out the torn cloth, a soul-rending scream cutting through every warrior, marking the only time the war had stopped, even if only for a second. They heard. They knew. They tried harder.
In the distance, Rumpelstiltskin chirped.
Happy wasn't happy.
The world disappeared in a blur.
Sighing quietly, the brunette laid down beside Emma, resting her chin on the knight's shoulder and subconsciously rubbing circles across the wound.
"Tired?" Emma hummed, running her fingers through pitch black hair, cherishing its softness because she know she wouldn't get to experience it long enough for her frozen heart to thaw.
"I thought being Queen would be different," Regina whispered, all the times she had said this very same thing to herself in the dream world she had created for herself running through her head. When Henry had been unable to love her, she had thought it would be different. When Emma had challenged her, questioned her authority – she had thought it would be different. When she had returned home… She had thought life would be easier.
"I thought being your knight in shiny armor would mean kicking ass, not having my own thrown off the twentieth floor. And repeatedly at that," the blonde chuckled.
Regina didn't find her reborn sense of humor particularly amusing, though. "Promise you'll return to me," she whispered inaudibly, scared to give voice to her own concerns, terrified that someone might hear. Someone vicious, unrelenting and brutal. Someone who had been tearing her heart out ever since she had gotten it back. For sport, revenge – it mattered not. Pain doesn't follow beggars over choosers.
There were still many roads for Regina to map, ranging from bruised elbows from when she was knocked down and used them to ease the fall and scraped knees from that time she had to break through one of his magical barriers to a cut on her hip, courtesy of a goblin scout – Regina traveled them all, closing her lips over each and every scar, every gash, every purplish bit of skin, relishing in making her lover moan and sigh in content at what she presumed was the only source of affection Emma could gain power from for the months to come.
"Wait up, mom! Stay!" the boy called out, following the bay mare Applejack and her rider through a labyrinth of corridors in the castle in the wee hours of morn, a red blush creeping up his cheeks from lack of oxygen. "Please, stay! My griffin's hatched! I need you to help me pick out a name for him!"
"She must go now, Henry."
"But she didn't even let me say hi," the boy cried, clinging to his mother, who held him back by the shoulders even though she knew he would never catch up to the knightess. "When will we see her again?"
"Soon, Henry, soon," the Queen cooed him into sobbing silence. It wasn't true, something else named Worry repeated over and over in her mind, making her rewrite Emma's last words into her memory again and again, etching an entire library in there consisting of this one single sentence, the only thing left to safeguard their future as the first snowflake descended upon the castle gardens, signaling the arrival of a newborn winter.
Remember that I love you.
Remember that I love you.
Remember that I love you.