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The Ak’tephari Prophecy

Chapter Text

March 30th

“Ah, Silben, my old friend! So nice to see you again!” Taking her eyes from the city before her, Emma Swan pulled off her helmet and pushed the strands of hair that had escaped her ponytail out of her face.

“You haven’t changed much in three years," she commented, sniffing meditatively as she nudged her horse forward with her knees. "I wonder if I can still get a room at the Come On Inn for two coppers and a flirt with the proprietress?" She smirked, then shook her head as if to clear it. “With any luck, I’ll be sleeping in the city guard barracks tonight and won’t need to bother.”

The city, perhaps prudently, did not reply.

Seeing that the trail would soon begin to descend from the hills, Emma checked to make sure her sword and bow were still tightly lashed to the saddle; it wouldn’t do to have them fall in the mud. This immediately became a distinct possibility as her palomino mare shied, throwing Emma off balance and partially off the horse. It was a momentary lapse of grace that probably saved her life, as an arrow aimed at where her heart had been a split second before passed harmlessly over her where she held onto the saddle with one knee. There was nothing quite like an ambush at the end of a long trip.

As Emma hauled herself upright and un-hooked her sword, Bug turned beneath her and snorted in the direction of her as-of-yet unseen assailant. Or assailants, she realized with a grimace.

“Show yourself, coward!” She spat.

“Dismount your horse, leave your weapons and flee, or you’ll not be so lucky as to miss our arrows again,” a low voice came from some dense bushes.

“Fuck you,” Emma snarled, hurling the dagger she had slipped from a sheath that rested in the small of her back while the man had been talking. A satisfyingly loud curse told her she had a least nicked him and she started wheeling Bug in a circle to fend off the arrow that she assumed would be coming.

She was not disappointed as a shaft flew her way from the opposite side of the trail, poorly aimed enough that she easily batted it aside with the flat of her sword into a nearby tree. Unable to tell how many lay in wait, she knew she had to act decisively. Summoning the Darksight spell, she quickly yanked the bandit's own arrow from the trunk and fitted it to her bow as she muttered the incantation.

She felt magic surge through her, and there, in the branches of the tree, she could see a vaguely human shape, and he was alone. She caught him high in the right shoulder with the arrow, hoping to disable him without killing him. She could do that later, if she had to.

Merlin had never believed she'd master that one, and the thought left her feeling a trifle smug, but she could spare no time for a warm memory of the Rowan palace mage as there was still one attacker to be accounted for. The man in question was just breaking his cover from the opposite side of the trail, and his unsteadiness on a leg leaking blood did not prevent him from abandoning his bow and bellowing in rage as he charged her with his sword drawn.

Emma set her jaw and urged Bug on as quickly as she dared on the leafy and rock-strewn ground, wondering what idiot on foot attacked a warrior on a horse. Reaching her assailant, she easily knocked the weapon from his hand, leveraging not only her superior position but also her considerable strength.

Twisting, she grabbed him by the hair with her free hand and threw him to the ground, then dismounted smoothly and laid a foot lightly on the back of his neck, muffling his shouts in the loam. “This is your last highway robbery,” she spat, silencing him with an increase of pressure.

It was then that she realized the bandit was more boy than man, and half-starved from the look of him. Removing her boot from his neck, she growled, “Get up. Slowly.” Raising her voice, she called out to the second brigand whom she could see struggling to rise out of the corner of her eye, “And you, stay down. You’ll bleed to death if you move too much with that wound.”

Turning her attention back to the youth in front of her, she said, “I suggest you find a new line of work.”

“Like what? No other way to survive around here, you horse-loving…”

She ended his tirade by flicking her blade up to rest under his chin. “Really, let’s not bring her into it,” she said, tilting her head toward the mare waiting a few yards off. “If you wanna die, by all means keep talking.” She paused to let it sink in, then continued, “I’m letting you go because I was an angry, scared kid once, too. But I got it together. Be glad you met me today and not someone else, and find. another. line. of work.”

This seemed to get through to him. “What about my brother?” he asked, his attitude fading as the adrenaline wore off and the pain from his leg set in.

She lowered her sword and said, “He’ll live, if you get him to a healer. Leave your weapons.”

“But . . .” he began, only to be silenced by her look, and, nodding once, hobbled toward his compatriot.

Emma waited until he was a safe distance away before she began cautiously searching the bushes for her lost dagger, keeping one eye on the pair as she did so. Recovering the weapon, she clucked at Bug, who trotted over. The warrior grabbed a few items from her saddlebag, then secured her bow and the bandit’s weapons and mounted, keeping her own sword at the ready.

Riding up the trail to where her would-be-assailant crouched next to what she could now see was his younger brother—almost a child, certainly no more than twelve—she tossed them a bundle of linen strips, a small worn flask of water and a hunk of stale bread. “Don’t try to take out the head by yourself. Break off the shaft and wrap up the shoulder to slow the bleeding. You should make it to the next village." As the older one turned to help the younger, she noticed the bow on the ground. "Hey," she barked. He turned back to look at her and she snapped her fingers and pointed. After he grimaced and reluctantly handed it up to her, she left them to their own devices.

As she rounded the next bend in the trail, she berated herself for not seeing the archer in the tree, thanking Bug's instincts but embarrassed that she'd had to be saved by them. This road had been perfectly safe the last time she was in Marna--a thief or two farther from the city, maybe, but never on this stretch, and certainly not farmboys turned bandit. Emma sighed, hoping that all of the country wasn't this lawless, or else her new job turn was going to be more than she bargained for.

Chapter Text

Staring down the city guard whose armor fit badly and who smelled even worse, Emma was in a decidedly bad mood. The ambush, it turned out, foreshadowed how her day was going to go. She had made it down into the city, her nerves far more frayed than they should have been at this stage of her journey, and begun the laborious process of making her way to the palace complex, where the city guards were headquartered.

She had made it through the outer checkpoints of the city easily enough, for, even road-dirtied, her clothes marked her as wealthy enough to have business in the inner city. Since the first few sets of guards only glared at her paperwork illiterately and handed it back, she was grateful for that particular prejudice. Despite the ease of getting past the guards, it had still taken Emma the better part of an hour at each checkpoint, and at this point she was reevaluating her previous positive assessment of the simple beauty and supreme defensibility of concentric walls with only one gate. It made for absurdly long lines as each servant, merchant, tanner, blacksmith, or farmer proved that he did, in fact, need to move into the next most exclusive circle of the city—which was compounded by the fact that the queue was pushed aside at regular intervals to accommodate the unhindered passage of the fancy carriages of the wealthy.

Now, confronted with the final obstacle to reporting for duty, her patience had run out.

“Look, here’s my offer of employment, and it says I’m supposed to report to the captain today. And here I am. So, please, let me in.” Emma hoped that it wasn’t obvious that she thought the man was an idiot.

“Impossible,” the guard insisted. He was pretty, but nowhere near good looking enough to get away with being this much of an asshole.

“That is what the letter says, isn’t it? And it has the seal of the Kingdom of Marna, right?” Emma asked sweetly.

“Yes, but it must be a forgery. Or you must be an impostor.”

“Why is that?” Having a guess at where this might be going, she surreptitiously scanned her surroundings for anything that might give her a tactical advantage. Spotting the pulley keeping the portcullis up, she formulated a plan.

“He can’t have hired you, because everyone knows women can’t fight well enough to be recruited. They beg to muster in.” At this, the second guard guffawed, clearly agreeing but marginally less inclined to be rude than his compatriot.

As expected. “Oh, is that all?” she asked. “Well then, no hard feelings,” she said, sticking out her hand to shake. As the belligerent guard grasped it, she hauled him forward, then immediately shifted her weight and spun him into the other. They recovered fairly quickly, but Emma had the element of surprise and so was quicker. Running to the pulley, she grabbed hold of the side with tension on it, drew her dagger, and cut it loose, riding the rope to the top as the portcullis dropped, trapping the guards outside.

Hauling herself over the ledge of a conveniently placed window, Emma dropped inside and went looking for the captain of the guard.

**

She was in his office, lounging comfortably in the chair across from his desk and joining him for a glass of wine half an hour later.

“And I’ll be damned if the horse didn’t drag him a full league before he could get it to stop!” David finished his story, laughing. The man was in his mid-fifties, Emma guessed, though his blond hair hid any gray.

"I just can’t believe you served in the Sharmar army with my childhood friend,” Emma chuckled, shaking her head. “It truly is a small world."

"Yes," agreed the veteran soldier. A silence fell, as the friend in question had recently gone missing and been presumed dead. 

David nodded once and rasied his glass. "To Robin."

"Yes," Emma said, seconding the salute, "May heaven watch over him."

 Their quiet moment was interrupted by a pounding on the door. 

 David cleared his throat and called out, "Come in."

It was the idiot from the front gate. “Sir, I regret to report that an intruder has,” and he faltered, catching sight of Emma. “You!” he exclaimed, fumbling for his sword.

“Hold it,” the captain bellowed, stopping both the guard and Emma, who had leapt to her feet to defend herself. “Emma Swan, you have some explaining to do,” he continued.

“Uh, yeah, about that,” and Emma hoped she managed to look embarrassed, “We got so caught up in telling stories that it slipped my mind. Our good,” and she peered at his rank insignia, “sergeant here refused to let me in and actually accused me of forging the letter I just showed you. When he wouldn’t listen, I took matters into my own hands.” She gave a tiny shrug.

“Killian, did you treat Lieutenant Swan so disrespectfully?”

The man gulped at the revelation that Emma outranked him. “I, uh,” he began, but, clearly realizing that he couldn’t explain his way out of it, finished, “Yes, sir. It won’t happen again.”

“Make sure it doesn’t. Now, show the Lieutenant to the women’s barracks. We’ll trade more stories later, Emma. I bet you’ve got some great ones. But do try not to make my guards look bad again until I’m done meeting with the steward and explaining away the alarm I’m sure Killian raised.”

“Yes, sir,” Emma said, then quickly downed the last of her wine and gestured to Sergeant Killian to precede her.

**

An awkward and silent walk through corridors and down stairs later, Killian pointed at a door ahead. “The women’s barracks, sir.” Figuring his stopping outside was probably due to not being allowed in rather than rudeness, Emma nodded, and he continued “Is there anything I can do to help you settle in, sir?”

Though she could almost hear him grinding his teeth as he said “sir,” Emma managed not to smirk as she said, “Can you send someone to the Come On Inn to retrieve my horse and gear? The proprietress will know what is mine.”

“Yes, sir. I’ll see to it personally and send someone up with your belongings,” Killian said flatly.

“Thank you, Sergeant,” Emma said genuinely. “You’re dismissed.” As he turned to go, Emma smiled a little to herself as she pictured Killian trying to get Bug to comply with his commands.

Opening the door, Emma stepped into what looked like common lounge area. Instantly, the air bristled and she automatically reached for the dagger strapped into the small of her back.

“Who the hell are you?” asked the source of the intense wariness that had prickled Emma’s senses--a woman emerging from the doorway at the back left of the room.

“I’m Lieutenant Emma Swan.” The woman, around Emma’s own age, looked at Emma’s proffered hand for a moment longer than would be polite, then visibly deigned to accept it.  

“I’m sorry, you are-” Emma prompted when the woman offered no introduction.

“Sergeant Mulan,” the woman answered in clipped tones and then added a belated, “sir.”

“Hello, I’m Corporal Snow, sir,” came an extremely cheery tone of voice, and the woman who spoke was beaming accordingly. Emma crossed the room in a few steps and the woman shook her hand warmly, as if making up for Mulan’s rudeness.

“And that’s Henry, who spends his free time in here so he doesn’t pick up bad habits in the men’s barracks,” Snow added.

Emma looked at the slight figure who she’d completely missed in the corner. He appeared to be barely fourteen.

“Sir,” he greeted in a quiet, but sure, voice as he crossed the room to shake Emma’s hand.

“I don’t know how Henry there managed to muster in.” Snow paused, smiling as if hoping Henry would offer some new information, but the young man shrugged noncommittally.

“That’s alright. You’ll tell us one day whoever or whatever got you here. Don’t get me wrong, young Henry, I don’t know what we’d do without you.” The corporal grinned and Henry ducked his head in acknowledgement.

“Well, now for the tour, which you can pretty much take from where you’re standing. This is the common area.” Emma took in the few chairs, a large broken piece of mirror and various tools to maintain weaponry and armor. As she faced the rear of the room, which seemed to abut the outer wall of the palace complex, there was a second door to the rest of the building on her right hand side. Snow followed her gaze and supplied, “through that door is the bathing room. Just a fire pit and a tub, but it sure beats how it was when I started. We had to share with the men, with just some tent siding up for some privacy.”

“If you’re starting in on ‘In my day’ stories again, I’ll leave,” Mulan said, then added a quick, “Sir,” before ducking out the door.

Snow shook her head as the Sergeant left, and as the smile left her face Emma could see that she was much older than she had appeared at first, fifty or more. But then she smiled brightly again and the years melted away as she continued, “We take turns filling the tub each morning – the pump’s in the courtyard, through there.”

“That’s the Sergeant’s room.” Snow pointed to the room from which Mulan had emerged, which appeared to be sizable and had an actual door. Upon inspection Emma figured it had been made from a discarded stable stall divider that had been sanded and mounted, presumably by one of the women themselves. “Though I suppose now you have your pick,” she tipped her head, indicating that Emma could have Mulan relocate. Snow chuckled at what Emma was sure was a bewildered look on her face. “I’ll let you figure out how to go about that, Lieutenant.”

Finally, Snow led her over to the two doorways on the back wall of the common area, each revealing a small stall-like room. The corner room, which was nicer because it had two exterior walls and a second window, was currently occupied by Snow herself. The empty room, which shared a wall with both Snow’s and Mulan’s rooms, had a decent looking bed with a locking chest at its foot and a small table. There were several hooks set into the somewhat ruinous walls and the small square window in the far wall was covered with lightweight linen to keep out pests.

“For now, this is available,” Snow offered, “I’m sure you’ll have to report for orientation soon enough. They’ve ended dinner at the mess already, but you’re welcome to anything out in the common area – there should be some bread left from today.”

Emma thanked the corporal, who replied, “It is good to have you here, sir.”

After lighting the single lamp, Emma unclipped her dagger and removed her heavy outer clothing, which was now stiff with dirt. She thought idly that the barracks weren’t quite to the standard she was hoping for, but they would do. It was nice to have regular employment and with a fairly prosperous and stable kingdom like Marna. She was content.

Emma removed her boots just as a runner arrived with her gear and a message from the Captain that she was to report to the drill grounds for orientation early the next morning. Realizing the fairly late hour and her own exhaustion from the aggravating day, she put on a lightweight tunic and dropped onto bed, but not before slipping her dagger underneath the pillow.

Chapter Text

April 1st

The next morning held an unpleasant surprise as Emma found out what Snow meant by “orientation.”

“You want me to what? I used to lead forces that size,” Emma blurted. David’s raised eyebrow reminded her to add, “Sir.” Being in a rank system again was going to take some getting used to, and briefly she missed escorting traders, who at least trusted her experience.

“Everybody’s gotta do it, Emma. It’s how we check out the new recruits, even the officers. You go to the first day of general training to check your basics, then the first day of officer training to make sure you know how to lead. With your history, you won’t need to actually take the full course,” he assured her, “but it’s a formality we always observe so everyone knows the process is fair.”

“Yes, sir. It’ll be good to get back into the pattern of formalized patrols, I suppose,” she said with a smile she hoped he couldn’t tell was fake.

“That’s the spirit. You’re dismissed, Lieutenant.” As she turned to go, he called after her, “Oh, and Emma? After that, you have to train on every job the guard does.” He grinned at the look of horror on her face. “That’s what you get for being hired on to lead the discretionary detail. We usually promote that one from within.”

**

Emma squinted at the sky. Two hours to sunset, and they’d be doing this same drill until then if the rest of the recruits in her training platoon couldn’t figure out how to do it right. It had been like this all day, with exercises that were simple enough to do as an individual becoming complete disasters when the rest of her group, the greenest of raw recruits, completely got in each other’s way. It was exhausting just watching them trip each other as they straggled beside her in ragged formation. She was definitely tired of the sergeant screaming at them that they were worthless, stupid scum instead of taking the time to explain more.

As they set up again to perform a maneuver designed to stop a mob in the city street, Emma was ready to solve it herself. She quietly addressed a few of the men closest to her. “Hey, you.” The young man looked at her expectantly as she continued, “when you start to move, keep your arm up like this," demonstrating with a precise motion. "And you, make sure that you get a better-fitting helmet and breastplate before the end of training or you'll get killed the first time you trip in a real fight.” The two men smiled grimly, but they were grateful for a little bit of help. “Alright guys, wake up,” she said, raising her voice a little to address the tight group, “Everybody relax and stop watching your feet. They aren’t going anywhere. Look up and keep your sword arm low until the last minute, and keep an eye on your neighbor and stay out of the way. We can do this!” Several men turned to face her, seeking the encouragement she was providing.

Apparently, the clump of turned backs caught the obnoxious sergeant’s attention. He crossed the yard to where she was standing with a swiftness that, frankly, Emma wouldn’t have thought he could manage. He ended up squarely in her personal space.

“What’s your name, recruit?”

“Emma Swan.”

The sergeant twitched just a little before demanding, “And what the hell do you think you’re doing?”

 “Just trying to raise the morale and get this thing done,” Emma replied, trying to sound calm and reasonable.

“That’s twice now you’ve been insubordinate. You will address me as ‘Sir,’ maggot!” the sergeant shouted, swinging the club he carried at her head.

 Emma stepped inside his swing and caught his arm easily, staring him down. “No, I don’t think I will. And since rank clearly matters so much to you, you should really address me as ‘Lieutenant,’ unless you want half rations for insubordination. Not to mention striking a superior officer.”

The sergeant’s mouth began to move, but no sound came out as he quickly drew back the club. Finding his voice, he said, both defensively and deferentially, “I didn’t know.”

 “Read the list they gave you and next time you will.”

“Fine, sir, but since you’re here can you set a good example and let me lead the platoon, since I’m the sergeant?”

Emma raised an eyebrow at that, but nodded. She’d have a word with the sergeant later, or maybe the captain, about his "teaching" style. Calling him out in front of the recruits would only make her look bad and probably wouldn’t help anyway.

**

April 3rd

After enduring the first two days of training for David’s idea of fairness, today hadn’t been so bad, Emma mused as she walked down the hall to the barracks. She had gotten to ride Bug around the exercise yard early in the morning and had then been asked to help with training some of the new recruits. Perhaps it was the drill sergeant’s way of trying to prove how hard his job was to someone he saw as a know-it-all outsider, but Emma accepted without hesitation. David had been happy to postpone her tour of the city to give her the chance to “break in the new kids” and, while that wasn’t really her idea of how training should work, she was glad he’d been flexible about her schedule.

As the day progressed, Emma began to remember what she loved about working in city guard companies. She taught some basics of hand-to-hand combat, and some small group tactics for breaking through an opposing force, plus a few sneaky defensive techniques that weren't in the regular curriculum. After a few hours, she found a genuine smile that she’d been missing for a while. It helped that the recruits, though they were inexperienced and awkward, hung on her words as if she were god herself. She realized that a few of them had been in her drill group on that first day and that they must have talked her up to the others.

At the end of the day, her team was pitted against the drill sergeant’s in several exercises. She rolled her eyes as she noticed she had been given, on average, the smaller and less muscular team. It didn’t stop "her" boys from winning decisively. To his credit, the drill sergeant gave her his genuine congratulations and later invited her to sit with him and some of the other officers in the mess.

She pushed the door coverings to her little room aside and sighed as she realized she’d have to confront Mulan about the rooming situation or settle with this. Emma had initially been hoping to avoid so obviously pulling rank on her, but the sergeant had made no offer to move and was consistently stand-offish--though, it did seem like this was Mulan’s attitude toward most people, and Emma concluded that the woman must be very good at her job, because no one would tolerate her otherwise. 

She heard someone push the door open from the hallway and made a mental note to oil the hinges as she poked her head out the doorway and saw Henry entering. Emma waved and said cheerfully, “Hey, kid.”

He smiled. “Good evening, sir. You’re in a good mood tonight.”

“I guess I am,” she said, realizing it as he pointed it out. “It’s been a good day. I got to work with some of the new recruits.”

“I heard they beat Sergeant Happy’s crew,” the youth said, then started, and corrected “Cole. Sergeant Cole. Please don’t tell him I called him that,” he pleaded.

Emam chuckled. “It’s a funny nickname, but your secret’s safe with me. So you heard that, huh?” Emma called as she went back into her room to grab her blades and whetstone.

“Yeah,” Henry answered, “the soldiers have started talking about The New Lieutenant.” Emma grimaced to herself, unsure if that was something to be proud or embarrassed about. As if he could see her expression, Henry added, “In a good way.”

Emma smiled as she returned to the common room and settled into a chair. Unsheathing the broad dagger, she turned it over in her hands a few times, lost in thought. It was distinctive, issued only to members of the Ilemenean palace guard. As one of the first tools she had really used as a professional, it held a lot of memories and meaning. She was proud of her abilities and glad she was starting to get the respect she’d need to do this job. Shaking off her nostalgia, she began to sharpen the dagger and had fallen into a slow rhythm when Henry came and sat next to her to mend a threadbare undertunic. They had passed several quiet and companionable moments when a loud clang from the hallway startled them both. Emma dropped the grainy stone and almost nicked her hand. Henry popped up and looked out the doorway.

“Hey! Are you okay?” he called down then hall, then turned to the Lieutenant and explained, “Kristoff’s just dropped a load of gear in the hallway,” before slipping out, probably to help him gather it up. 

Emma checked her hand, then shook her head and sighed, “Shit.” She had no idea who Kristoff was, but she was embarrassed that she’d been so easily startled. Looking on the floor for her whetstone in the anemic light from the lamps, she found it in small pieces by her feet, which was just great. She only had a few slim coppers to her name and it would be nearly a month before the soldiers were paid. She was low on supplies, having not found any of her usual odd jobs for a while before making the trek to Silben, so there wasn’t much she had to offer in trade except a pair of boot laces which, at least, were new and high quality.

She had gathered the pieces in her hand by the time Henry returned and sank into to the chair next to her, smiling faintly. “Henry, do you have a whetstone?”

“No, sorry. Snow always lets me borrow hers.” Henry looked pensive for a moment, but said nothing further.

“Oh, well, thanks anyway.” Trading the boot laces it was, then. Emma rose and excused herself, then headed to bed. Tomorrow would be another early morning.

Chapter Text

Emma was still awake when she heard Mulan return from duty after Midwatch. Insomnia was common enough for her, but that didn’t make it any less annoying. Tonight, it was probably for the best that she was already awake, as the sergeant had brought company--male company, from the heaviness of the tread and the timbre of the giggles. A few minutes later, there began to be a rhythmic thudding of the bed, just audible enough that Emma couldn’t ignore it, and she groaned and began searching for her clothes, needing to be anywhere else. She resolved to go to the one place in Silben where she was sure to find friends: the Come On Inn.

**

As Emma pushed the scarred wood of the front door open and let the low hum of many voices wash over her, she knew she'd made the right choice. Despite a reputation that landed somewhere south of respectable, the Come On Inn was well-lit and welcoming, and the soldier smiled to herself as she stepped over the threshold. As she crossed the room toward the bar, she acknowledged some of the eyes that looked appraisingly up at her with small nods, feeling her irritation with Mulan and with her own stubborn sleeplessness falling away as she basked in the familiar sights.

“What can I get you, gorgeous?” the young barmaid asked.

Emma self-consciously grasped the coppers in her pocket, knowing she didn't have enough to buy a proper drink. “I’m looking for Ruby, actually.”

The barmaid’s expression was suddenly less appreciative as she evaluated the soldier; Emma couldn’t tell if she was judging the competition or wondering if this meant she would not be getting a tip. “She’ll be back in a minute,” the barmaid said after a moment. “Anything for you while you’re waiting?”

“I’ll just wait by the fire,” Emma said, hoping she sounded nonchalant. The barmaid, and her quirked eyebrow, were clearly unimpressed. 

Emma entertained herself by scanning the crowd while she waited. She recognized only two people, which emphasized how long it had been since she’d been here. Once, she’d been a regular, passing through every few weeks with parties of traders.

She didn’t have to wait long, as the innkeeper soon emerged from the back rooms, followed by a knot of women laughing at some entertaining thing Ruby had just said. She looked a little more tired than Emma remembered, having taken over the running of the inn from her grandmother just before Emma’s last visit, but it was the same old Ruby. 

As the innkeeper passed on the way to the bar, Emma tried to catch her attention. “What’s good tonight, Ruby?”

Ruby looked at her appraisingly for a moment, then asked, “Are you trying to get a free drink out of me, Emma Swan?”

Emma winced a little at the use of her full name. “I wasn’t thinking free, more of," and here she paused and met the other woman’s eyes, letting a sly smile spread across her face before finishing "a barter.”

“Excuse you?” Ruby scoffed. “You don’t come by for almost two years, and then the first thing I hear about you is that you’ve dropped by while I was out and left your horse and stuff that I’m supposed to look after.” Emma tried to grin and bear it, because she knew she kind of deserved it. “And then you sent that dreadful man down here to pick up your belongings! I had to beg people to come back after he tried to hit on everything that moved.”

“And some that didn’t,” the barmaid added, having been attracted by the unfolding spectacle.

“You stay out of it,” Ruby snapped, “and get back to work.” The barmaid slunk away, but only far enough to placate her boss, then turned to continue listening as she pretended to wipe down the worn bar top.

 “Is that it?” Emma said levelly.

“Not even close, but go on, what do you have to say for yourself?”

Emma stepped a little closer, knowing Ruby had a thing for muscular women who got a little physical. The innkeeper was extremely annoyed, but Emma knew that she’d be forgiven–and quickly, if she played her cards right. “Ruby, I’m truly sorry that I haven’t visited until now to thank you properly for helping me with Bug." People’s attention started to wane as Emma continued quietly, “As for Sergeant Killian, I had to send him. It was politics; you know how it goes. And I’m sure you got yours back with some quick-witted insults he was too dense to follow."

“Yeah,” Ruby began to smile just a little. 

Emma smiled back and added, “Then that's another favor I owe you, since I really can’t. It was satisfying, wasn’t it?”

“Not quite satisfying enough, Emma.”

“Maybe I can find a way to satisfy you,” she asked, with the barest hint of a question, unsure if Ruby would go along. The innkeeper relaxed, and then tucked her arm into the soldier’s and began to lead her into the back of the Inn, where her residence was.

“You watch it,” Ruby growled in response to Emma's smirk at her own success, “you aren’t off the hook yet.”

**

“Fuck, yes,” Ruby hissed, gripping Emma’s hair as she canted her hips up into her mouth.

Emma had forgotten how much fun her old friend could be, responsive and demanding and always ready to talk dirty.

“That’s right, get that tongue all over my cunt, taste all of me,” Ruby panted, and Emma saw no reason to refuse the demand.

Soon, Ruby’s hips were bucking hard, and Emma wrapped both arms around her thighs to keep contact as she began to flutter her tongue rapidly on her clit.

“God, yes, fuck me, get those fingers inside now,” Ruby growled, and Emma let go of one leg and did, pressing in where she was slick and hot and eager. She gave the innkeeper more as she spiraled up, increasing the intensity of her touch as Ruby’s body tensed and her demands got more obscene.

“Suck me, right now, so I can come all over your pretty face,” Ruby demanded, and Emma’s lips were around her clit almost before she finished, swirling her tongue and adding a third finger too. She was damned if she wasn’t going to make this orgasm spectacular.

Then Ruby was coming hard, loudly, grabbing Emma’s head with both hands to keep her mouth in place as she rode it out.

When Ruby finally released her, Emma crawled up the bed and flopped beside her, rolling out her wrist, which had begun to cramp.

“D’you want another?” the innkeeper slurred.

“I’m good,” Emma chuckled, having come twice already.

“Mm, good. Get the nice brandy from the cupboard, will you?” 

As Emma rose from the comfortable bed, she felt thoroughly exhausted; she’d now been up almost twenty hours and done a variety of physical activities today. The fast-approaching morning would be tough, especially since she’d have to be both alert and courteous with the captain on his grand tour of Silben. But it had been worth it, mostly because it was nice to be with a friend in a familiar place. 

She handed the glass to her host, who asked, “So what have you been up to?”

Emma re-joined her in the bed and caught her up on her past few years of mercenary work and being hired for this position with the city Guard. Ruby, for her part, gladly shared gossip about some of Emma’s old friends and the happenings of the Come On Inn. 

“Ruby,” Emma blurted suddenly, “it is nice to see you. To- talk, too.”

Ruby looked at her for a moment, then accepted her rather incoherent pronouncement. “It’s nice to see you too Emma.” She was never prone to sappy sentiments, but her response was genuine.

“You know, I didn’t really come here for…this,” Emma indicated the tangled mess of sheets.

“Oh Emma,” Ruby shook her head, “you should have quit while you were ahead.”

 “I just meant-“

“I’m glad you enjoy my company for more than just sex,” Ruby said, pausing to sip more brandy with obvious pleasure. “I am,” she emphasized. “Because I don’t think we’ll ever be doing ‘this’ again.”

Emma was stunned. “But-“

“Don't get me wrong, I appreciate that you've picked up new tricks, but you’ve also gotten all stern and serious,” the innkeeper said factually, without cruelty. “I think you know me well enough to know that I make friends with serious people, but I don’t fuck them. Sex is best casual and light and- easy.” Emma suddenly had no idea what to do. Ruby, sensing her discomfort, lightened her tone as she added "Emma darling, a gorgeous, strong thing like you will have no trouble finding a new playmate. And I look forward to seeing you when you come back to browse the wares. Now, are you staying, or going back to your barracks?"

Emma raised an eyebrow, then made her choice clear, much to Ruby's enjoyment.

Chapter Text

April 9th

One of the strange things about Silben was that the docks were right next to the finer sections of the city. Wealthy residents had lovely views of the waterfront and easy access to yachts, state functions, and business transactions, but the dock laborers had to cross the city twice a day, and that created a lot of congestion and potential for trouble. It was also a lot more traffic near the palace than suited the newest lieutenant in the city Guard on her tour of the inner area of the city. Despite having spent plenty of time in Silben, Emma had stayed in the outer areas, having no reason to be near the palace.

The waterfront approach to the docks was well guarded against major attack forces by the Sister Towers at the end of the bay and the coast Guard, but it was the job of the city Guards to prevent illegal flow of goods and people. This was made even more difficult by a large park opposite the docks that the King’s father had had created for his wife to enjoy when they were married. Between the ornate fence and social custom, common people stayed out of Queen’s Park, but while it was mostly grassy and open it had a dense stand of trees in one corner that, to Emma’s eyes, looked like a perfect place for shady dealings.

Emma considered all of these factors as she planned the daily patrol of the waterfront, her first real assignment. While she didn’t want to draw too much attention to herself as she was "broken in," she did want to take a fresh look at the patrol route and practice. Things had a predictable routine, from what the corporal whose patrol she was taking over had told her, and Emma had been in this business long enough to know that predictability was often an irresistible invitation to break the law. After making a few marks on the sketched map she had been provided, she regarded the four soldiers that had been assigned to her detail. 

“Gentlemen, I’d like us to take a slightly different route today.”

“Sir?” asked the smallest of the four soldiers. Tom, Emma’s memory supplied.

“Instead of patrolling this way, we'll follow this route,” she pointed to where she’d sketched a path that included areas that weren’t normally included on this patrol, including Queen’s Park and the lower dock area that was overlapped by two routes and therefore likely be half-assed by each of them. The soldiers looked a little confused, but were well-trained enough not to object, so Emma rolled up her map and set out through the gate toward the main road, which was already teeming with traffic. Emma noticed that they got a few wary looks, but that the people of Silben didn’t fear or hate the Guard outright. That was definitely a good sign.

The unconventional patrol route took them through a corner of the Mage’s Quarter, and Emma rolled her eyes a bit at the way the men were jumpy about every shadow, doorway, and alley. It was definitely a change from Ilmena, where everyone had a magic-user in their family, or at least a family heirloom with magical powers.

Suddenly, there was a shout, and three of her four soldiers just about jumped out of their skins. She would definitely have to talk to them about nerves, but first things first: “It sounds like it came from around the corner. Form up. I’ll take point.” The relief on their faces at that last sentence showed they really needed to learn to keep their composure.

 Rounding the corner, Emma spotted a man cowering against a wall, a second man in mage’s robes standing over him and preparing what, from the smoke rising from the one on the ground, was at least his second lightning bolt.

“Hold it!” Emma shouted, then wondered if that had been a bad idea when the mage turned toward her patrol with a furious expression. One of her men gasped and Emma prayed they would hold their ground long enough for her to defuse the situation. “What seems to be the trouble, gentlemen?” 

“This man attempted to steal from me, but it’s none of your business,” the magic-user snarled.

“I’m afraid it is our business, sir. Crimes should be dealt with by the city Guard.”

“Ha! You’re never around when we mages need you.”

Emma glanced at Leroy, who had quickly become her main source of information, and his small shrug combined with the men’s general unease in the Mage’s Quarter confirmed that patrols didn’t come here much. “That’s been an oversight, Master Mage, and I intend to fix it. But you can’t take the law into your own hands.” She looked over at the man on the ground, who had, thankfully, stopped smoking. “Is this true?” When he glared up at her sullenly rather than answering, she added, “I can guarantee you that the city jail is more comfortable than whatever he’ll do to you.”

That did the trick. “Yes! Yes, it’s true. Just get me away from him! I was only trying to feed my family.”

“Save it for the magistrate,” Tom grunted as he and Walter pulled the man to his feet, Emma’s comfort with the magic user apparently making him much more comfortable.

“What is your name, Master Mage?” the Lieutenant inquired. “The magistrate will want to hear your evidence.”

“Isaac,” he said, begrudgingly, then stalked back to his shop, muttering about meddling youngsters with no respect for his age or power.

“You’re welcome!” Emma called after him.

**

After taking the thief to jail, they continued patrolling, and Leroy pointed out several places where fights were common or smugglers operated regularly. Out of curiosity, Emma suggested they stop at the customs house where two members of the Guard inspected goods arriving and leaving the port. She quickly realized this had been a mistake as the corporal, a bookish-looking man named Archie, threatened to talk her ear off about the finer points of customs duty. The other soldier said nothing, but wore a bored expression and looked irritated with each of Archie’s pronouncements about the excellent quality of imported Sharmarian silks or the fascinating things you might fight in unmarked crates.

Emma excused herself and the patrol as quickly as possible, placating Archie’s crestfallen look by pointing out that she probably shouldn’t neglect duty on her very first assignment.

“Maybe we can continue our conversation off duty then!” Archie called after the patrol as they quickly retreated.

Once they were out of earshot, Emma asked, “Is he always so," and she paused to find a diplomatic phrasing, "earnest?”

The four men laughed a little before Jeffrey answered, “Yes, sir. Archie’s an interesting guy. Loves his job.”

“Yeah, but did you see Victor’s face the whole time he was talking?” Leroy chuckled. “I wonder how long ‘til he finds some way to get reassigned, even back to Nightwatch.”

 “I wish you had warned me,” Emma sighed. “I never would have gone over there.” 

“Sorry, Lieutenant. I guess we thought it’d be kinda fun – Victor’s in my barracks and it’ll be great to have something to give him a hard time about,” Walter explained.

Emma just shook her head. She couldn’t really get mad about it, since visiting the Customs House was her idea in the first place. It was also a good sign that after only a few hours the men had warmed up to her a little and were willing to joke with her about their friend’s unfortunate assignment.

It was just past noon when they completed the first leg of Emma’s patrol route. It would have been warm, but there was a gusty wind blowing away poorly tied canvas on the docks and ladies’ hats in the street. As entered Queen’s Park, they got startled and contemptuous looks from several of the well-dressed visitors struggling to appear pleasantly disinterested while attendants tried to keep their tents and picnic blankets from blowing away.

“Do they always glare like that?” Emma asked.

“Yeah. Though we never come in here, really, unless we’re escorting the royals or something,” Leroy supplied.

“They think of it as their own private club, I think. Probably rubs them the wrong way to see us common types tramping through,” Tom added with smile at the thrill of irritating the privileged.

Now Emma was sure the park would be attractive to criminals, because there had to be ways to sneak in unobserved. She scanned the area, then headed swiftly toward the stand of trees. The soldiers fell roughly into formation behind her.

It wasn’t long after they had reached the little patch of woods when she heard it- an angry shout. 

 As her pulse began to race, Emma beckoned her men on and said, “That sounds like trouble. Let’s go.”

 Approaching the source of the noise, a small clearing toward the center of the trees, Emma slowed and peered through the leafy underbrush. The wind through the leaves made it hard to hear, so she signaled to the patrolmen to hang back for a moment so she could concentrate without contending with the breathing of four other people. She hadn’t heard clearly, but it sounded like a woman or a young boy had been shouting. She wasn’t sure what to expect. Kidnapping? Sex work gone bad? She ran through possibilities as she continued to move toward where she thought she had heard the noise.

“X’rak fahít!” a frustrated voice clearly enunciated. 

Emma was not expecting to hear cursing in a rare language, but she took it as a cue to take action and emerged from her cover. Her predictions were so far from what she saw that she almost laughed.

A dark-haired woman about her own age was dangling from a branch of one of the larger trees. She was swearing at a delicate blue scarf stuck on a higher branch too thin to support her weight. It was flapping, as if playfully, in the wind which presumably had blown it away in the first place.

The woman swore vehemently again in a language Emma didn’t even recognize, then abruptly started to make her way down the tree. Emma idly admired the ease in her movements as she descended. When the woman reached the ground and turned toward her, Emma was caught up in the quick play of several emotions on a truly beautiful face: First, surprise; then chagrin; and finally a sort of wry amusement. Jeffrey, coming up to stand on Emma’s right, stifled a squawk of surprise and averted his eyes.

Emma only then realized that the woman was dressed in nothing but a light shift and that the heap of richly colored cloth on the ground was a dress that would have been awkward for tree climbing. Judging from the quality of the fabric, this was a woman of wealth or nobility, and Emma also found a spot of bare ground to ponder--but more slowly than she probably should have. The woman redressed quickly and clasped a nondescript cloak at her neck before any of them spoke.

It was Emma who broke the silence with, “Hello, Milady. Might we be of assistance?” The woman looked surprised that the soldier had spoken first. She was definitely nobility.

The woman recovered quickly and replied nonchalantly, “I suppose - if you can recover my scarf, which that tree has obviously misappropriated.”

Emma turned to her men for a suitable assignee. Jeffrey and Walter seemed dumbfounded and Tom was posed oddly in a half bow. Emma glanced at Leroy, who had been bringing up the rear, and his grimace told her he wasn’t much for climbing trees.

“Fine,” Emma muttered under her breath. She handed her sword to Walter, then cracked her knuckles and cocked her head to study a route up the tree. She could and probably should send one of the men rather than do this herself, but she wasn’t above trying to impress a beautiful woman.

That didn’t stop her from feeling ridiculous and clumsy as she hauled herself up the lower limbs, wishing she had gotten around to learning even the basics of that damn wind spell. A fetching spell would have been beyond her capability, but a little magical breeze would’ve at least gotten the thing unstuck. She shook off the thought, reminding herself that people in this kingdom did not trust magic and she should keep it to herself, even if it meant scrambling around in trees.

Breaking a thin stick off a nearby branch, she was just tall enough to get the scarf. After an awkward dismount, Emma handed the elegant fabric over and tried not to smirk too much. She didn’t really succeed.

 “Thank you, soldier,” was the woman’s response.

“Highness, we should-” Jeffrey began, but his courage at addressing her directly faltered.

Fuck, the princess? Emma caught bright brown eyes that were distinctly laughing at her, then bowed formally and said, “You must be Princess Regina. I’m honored to meet Your Highness. Can we escort you back to the palace before anyone misses you?”

“You may,” the princess answered. She had a way of holding her mouth that made her look like she found everything amusing. Or maybe she really did find everything amusing.

Either way, Emma found it wildly attractive.

“Jeffrey, Tom, you two take point. Leroy, Walter, you’re rear Guard.”

“Yes, Lieutenant,” Walter said, returning her sword to her.

“And you, Milady, are with me in the middle,” she said, dipping her head.

“Delighted,” Regina replied playfully, falling into step.

Emma had to ask. “Princess, purely to ensure your safety, why were you out in the city? And unescorted?”

It became clear after several steps that Regina was not going to answer. A few moments later, she looked over at Emma speculatively and said, “I thought corporals usually led city patrol, Lieutenant. Are you a troublemaker?”

Emma chuckled a bit at the hopeful tone of that last. “No, Milady. Just new and learning all aspects of the job, even things I won’t have to do regularly.”

“Ah,” Regina answered, not quite hiding her disappointment. “That explains why I haven’t seen you around before. And what is your name?”

 Something about this woman made Emma feel bold, so she looked around to make sure no one else was in earshot before murmuring, “Emma Swan Rowan at your service.”

“Rowan? But that would mean-”

“That the king of Rowa is my father, uh-huh.” She grinned, then shrugged. “And my mother was a servant. And the queen was furious. Which is why it’s always been better for my health to go by Emma Swan. You’ll keep my secret, won’t you?”

A slow smile spread across Regina’s face. “Of course.”

As they neared the palace, Regina appeared to have a wild idea herself, bursting out, in a voice so quiet it was almost a whisper, “I walk in the garden every evening at sunset. Maybe you could join me sometime.” She quirked an eyebrow, smiled, then broke away from Emma’s patrol to enter through a side gate.

Emma stood staring after her stupidly for a beat, then shook her head. Leveling a stern look at the four men, she said very firmly, “I think it would be good for everyone’s careers to leave the princess out of any stories in the barracks tonight. Or any night. Understood?” While she was confident that they hadn’t heard their exchange, word of the princess wandering around in the city might cause all kinds of trouble.

After receiving four sufficiently solemn nods, she went on, “All right, gentlemen, back to the riverfront. Let’s hope no smugglers made it in while we were busy.”

Chapter Text

Emma was asleep this time when Mulan came in, and was woken up out of a lovely dream of a certain princess. By the sound of it, Mulan had both the dairymaid and the stable boy over tonight rather than seeing them on different nights the way she had so far.

"Fuck," Emma muttered, sure that the sergeant was intentionally being obnoxious in retaliation for Emma finally insisting on her due as Lieutenant and taking the best bunk. "Good thing I scrubbed up after patrol," she muttered as she pulled on her uniform, the only thing that was clean.

Exiting the palace complex, she headed to the Come On Inn, hoping to calm her buzzing nerves with companionship but willing to settle for a mug of ale, cheap though it would have to be since payday still hadn’t come. The Inn was busy tonight, which would probably increase her chances of finding at least some good conversation. As she crossed the common room to the bar, she met several pairs of appreciative eyes with an inviting smile.

She artfully walked the line of outrageous in her flirtation with the barmaid--who was, thankfully, not the blonde from the other night. She did, however, seem to have a knowing quality to her smile as she said, "First one's on the house for Ruby's friends" and passed over a mug of a much better ale than the swill Emma had ordered. The word choice stung a tiny bit, and Emma wondered just how much the events of her last visit to the Inn had become public knowledge. 

She briefly considered just walking out, but shook it off and gave the barmaid an overly enthusiastic grin, tipping her with one of her last coppers. She then turned and scanned the room, plotting her next move, only to find it made for her.

"So you're the cocky new lieutenant who prevented Isaac from taking the law into his own hands.” The woman seated at the far end of the bar was tall, blonde, and, Emma saw as she walked closer, dressed in flatteringly tailored mage’s robes.

“Emma Swan at your service, Lady Mage. But I wouldn’t say I was cocky, just doing my job. There was a crime, and we dealt with it,” she replied, taking a seat next to what she could now see was a very attractive woman who had at least a decade on her and almost hummed with magic.

“A member of the Silben city Guard confident enough to treat a mage like an ordinary citizen is quite rare.” The way her eyes raked over Emma’s body suggested that she was interested in being treated like an ordinary woman this evening.

“I’ve been around magic users most of my life, so it’s less confidence than familiarity.” Then, deciding that two could play at this game, she added, “I like mages.”

“Do you, now?”

“Yes, ma’am. And since you already know my name, what shall I call you, fair lady mage?” Emma asked, giving her the opportunity to remain anonymous.

“You may use my name, which is Maleficent.” They were really in full flirt now.

“Isn’t that appropriate,” Emma said, leaning closer. Between her earlier encounter with the princess and overhearing the party Mulan was having, Emma's entire being was sensitized; she'd barely touched her ale, but she felt a little out of control, and for once she didn't care. She really did not want to go home alone tonight, and, given Maleficent’s obvious interest, it seemed like she wouldn't have to.

“Mm?”

“Your name is Old Rowan for ‘intoxicating.’”

“Aren’t you bold,” Maleficent said rather than asked.

“Now ‘bold’ is a description I can get behind. Much better than cocky.” She paused, considering, then suggested, “What say we move this conversation someplace a bit more comfortable?” This startled the mage a little bit, and Emma smirked, having hoped the older woman would misconstrue her comment exactly as she clearly had. “Like, say, that table in the corner? It’s a bit more private.”

“Bold indeed, Emma Swan.” Maleficent picked up her drink and rose from her barstool. “The table would be delightful.”

**

Scarcely an hour later, Emma found herself going home with one of the most powerful magic users she’d ever met. Their conversation had been as full of banter as had her earlier encounter with the princess, but she had gleaned some important details. The Lady Maleficent clearly wasn't the average patron of the Come On Inn, but it was clear that even a woman of such great power and influence knew this was where to find the kind of companionship she wanted. The older woman was very cautious about disclosing much about herself, and though Emma's curiosity was piqued by the mystery, her body was practically burning with what she did know, and see, about her.

Fortunately for Emma's nerves and her reputation, they weren't terribly far from the Mages’ Quarter. She didn’t want to think about the gossip that would happen if she was spotted by one of the Guardsmen, particularly since her intended partner was a mage.

**

Emma groaned into a mouthful of shoulder at discovering how wet Maleficent was.

The mage’s hips rocked against her, trying to increase the contact with her hand. “Inside. Now,” she groaned.

Emma was happy to do it, but she did resent being commanded. Maleficent, it was clear, was used to getting what she wanted. The older woman’s legs wrapped around Emma’s hips, locking her into place, but she wasn’t about to go anywhere. Her body continued to thrust against Maleficent as she leaned down and captured her mouth for a kiss that was almost bruising in its intensity. It was clear that both of them had a lot of pent up need, and their coupling bordered on desperation.

As she slid down and began raking her teeth over Maleficent’s nipples, the mage groaned, “Mm. Fuck, don’t stop!” The raw, aching need in her voice drew a sympathy groan from Emma as she began to bite and suck in earnest, causing Maleficent’s hips to lift even higher off the bed and her nails to dig into Emma’s back. Her hands quickly shifted to pushing down on Emma’s shoulders, panting, “Use your mouth.”

“You’re not the boss of me, lady mage,” she growled, punctuating her disagreement with thrusts of her hand and hips. It was one thing to play like this with Ruby, and quite another for a near-stranger to order her around like a servant.

“I could make you.”

“You’re welcome to try,” Emma replied, stilling her fingers inside the mage. Sometimes, being immune to most magic was distinctly convenient. “But I think you’d probably prefer letting me do it my way.” Maleficent squirmed against her, trying to get some stimulation, but Emma was considerably stronger and, given the choice between sex on Emma’s terms or no sex at all, she reluctantly gave up her power play.

“Very well. But if I don’t come soon I believe I’ll explode.”

“Patience, dear Maleficent. You will come, and it will be worth the wait, and I will use my mouth.” The older woman’s patience was rewarded when Emma slid down her body shortly later, because the opportunity to taste her was too good to pass up.

 At the first brush of Emma’s tongue against her clit, Maleficent groaned, “Yes, fuck me!” Emma was only too glad to oblige this request, as hearing the obscene sounds her hand made as it pumped into the mage, tasting and smelling and seeing this irresistible woman in the throes of passion had her a bit delirious herself.

Skillfully, she flicked, licked, and sucked, bringing the older woman higher and higher, tearing ever new and more intense sounds from her throat. Just when she had stirred Maleficent to a complete fever pitch, she hooked her fingers to hit the spot high inside and sent her over the edge.

**

Emma's skin still tingled and she felt like the air crackled in her lungs when she let herself out quite a while later. Maleficent had indicated politely but firmly that the soldier was to leave before first light and Emma had willingly accepted the limited extent of her interest. She'd been surprised, then, when the older woman, admiring her languidly from the bed as she pulled on her clothes, had smiled very sincerely and added, "You, dear Emma, are welcome to come back. Soon.”

Chapter Text

April 13th

Emma flopped down on her bunk, dead tired and desperately wanting to scrub the road grit from her skin. She knew it was important to patrol the major trade routes, particularly since she’d been ambushed on her way in, but she really hated being the newest lieutenant and getting all the worst assignments. It was two long days in the saddle to the next provincial capital and two days back, and of course with nearly a dozen soldiers there wasn’t a robber in sight.

As she lay there, trying to get up the energy to go get clean and considering going to David to suggest changing the way they ran bandit patrol, she was struck by the color of the sky. It was shaping up to be a beautiful sunset out there, she thought drowsily, only to immediately remember the princess’s invitation and bolt up.

If she hurried, she could bathe in time to sneak into the garden when the Midwatch Guards did their first rotation.

**

“I was beginning to think you weren’t ever going to come,” Regina said, slipping into the shadowed corner where Emma leaned against a tree trunk.

“Bandit patrol," Emma spat. As Regina chuckled at her long-suffering tone, Emma let her eyes roam down the delicate line of her neck to where it met bare shoulders exposed by a dress that just missed being immodest. Reminding herself that she probably shouldn’t get caught checking out the princess of the realm, the soldier went on with her story. "I’ve been to Tyrell and back since you asked me to visit.”

The princess winced sympathetically. “They really are trying to break you in." Then, in a lighter tone, she asked, "And did you see any bandits?” She took the soldier’s arm, indicating that they should walk.

“Of course not. They know to run and hide when a whole herd of us go thundering by on horseback. It was very boring, to be honest.” Deciding that since the princess had invited her to an illicit sunset meeting and taken her arm, it was probably safe to be a little more casual, Emma asked, “What about you? Any interesting palace intrigue?”

Regina looked at her sharply, as if slightly offended at her presumption.

Emma shrugged. “Hey, I grew up in a royal house, too. I know how it goes.”

“Right. I’d forgotten,” she paused, considering the question. “No, nothing exciting. And no tree climbing.” She winked.

Emma laughed, “Oh good.”

Regina added, “Though, there was this awful toady little man here from Kranna. Some minor lord sent to ask for my hand on behalf of the king.” The princess shuddered. “Fortunately, Mother would never waste her only daughter on a rundown little mountain kingdom whose only claim to distinction is a dynasty that ended a thousand years ago.” Emma had heard that, though she had married in, Queen Cora was the real power in the kingdom, and this seemed to confirm it. Regina shrugged. “I’ll probably end up with Guinevere’s son. Sharmar is a landlocked hunk of sand, but they’re wealthy.”

Now it was Emma’s turn to shudder. She’d been away from Rowa long enough to forget the buying and selling of royal offspring, even though she would have been in for it if she was the king’s legitimate child.

Regina furrowed her brow. “What?”

“Nothing. Just- marrying somebody because it strengthens my kingdom’s position in the world- sounds unpleasant.” She had really been thinking that it was barbaric, but didn’t want to offend the lovely woman on her arm. “Even though I know it’s just how it’s done.”

“It’s utterly uncivilized, but it’s the way life is. It’s politics.” Regina shrugged, resigned. “And if you don’t like the one you end up with, you can always have an affair with a servant,” she continued with an impish grin. The princess slowed their pace and looked out at the last point of sun across the bay for a brief moment, and Emma drank her in, utterly captivated not only by her beauty, but by her quick mind. Then Regina’s smile widened into something that Emma could only think was pure mischief. “Or a good-looking lieutenant of the Guard.”

And with that, Regina pushed Emma up against a convenient tree and kissed her soundly. The soldier recovered quickly from her surprise at the bold approach and began to enjoy herself. Unable to really adjust their positions without stepping on Regina’s dress, she went with it, awkward and uncomfortable though it was, and kissed along the underside of the princess’s jaw and down her neck.

The two were startled from their play by a querulous “Princess?” from the direction of the main hall.

“You make me want to make bad decisions,” Regina murmured, “but I have to go. I’ll see you tomorrow. Or, whenever you’re in town.” One more kiss, mostly chaste, and she was gone, leaving Emma smiling and a bit dazed.

**

April 14th

Tapping on the doorframe of David’s office, Emma asked, “Captain, do you have a moment?”  

“Sure, Lieutenant, come on in. What’s on your mind?" He asked, gesturing her toward the chair.

“Bandit patrol doesn’t work.” That was not tactful, she realized when it was already out of her mouth.

“What do you mean?” Emma was thankful that he sounded more confused than offended by her bluntness.

“We have a set routine, so all they have to do is hide when they know we’re coming by.”

He considered that for a moment. “Or maybe we don’t have a bandit problem because we patrol." Now he sounded a bit defensive.

Trying to walk back her earlier mistake, Emma explained calmly, “Sir, I was ambushed on the way to report for duty by two villagers—boys, really—who thought they couldn’t find any other way to make a living. They’re there. The patrol just can’t see them.”

David still looked a little confused, but was clearly willing to hear her out as he asked, “What do you propose?”

“A small group, made up of soldiers with tracking experience or woodscraft training, could find them in their camps. It’d be a lot more effective than patrolling the road. It would actually stop them, rather than just making them have to pause when there are soldiers nearby.”

“I don’t know how we’ll support that, Lieutenant, but I’ll keep what you’ve said in mind.” Knowing that this was the best she’d get as an immediate answer, Emma nodded and left.

Chapter Text

April 20th

Stroking her fingertips up the back of Regina’s neck, Emma felt the princess shudder against her. She had managed to slip into the garden every evening this week for conversations that grew increasingly deep, Regina telling her about her latest readings in history, science, and literature as Emma regaled her with stories from a lifetime of travel. Each time, sooner or later, heads leaned together led to lips on the other’s cheek, a nuzzle to a neck, an embrace, and then kisses.

Oh, those kisses. Emma was very careful to always let Regina lead the way, both because she was the princess and because she would have with any less experienced partner. The way Regina explored her was both achingly sweet and made almost unbearably erotic by the fact that their contact was so limited and couldn’t progress.

Kissing Regina’s neck, Emma wanted desperately to sink in her teeth, to suck, to make the princess moan and- She took a deep breath to steady herself and Regina took the opportunity to become the aggressor, pulling her close and nipping at her neck, and Emma had to will her hips not to buck in search of touch.

“You’re so-” Emma began, only to have her groan answered by a far off, “Milady?”

They both sighed deeply. Regina released her and rested their foreheads together for just a moment, then moved quickly away before someone came to look for her.

**

“I want to try something different this time,” Maleficent murmured as she reached into the drawer by her bed.

“I’m game,” Emma replied. She had come to see the mage more than once lately when encounters with Regina had left her slick and needy, and the arrangement seemed to suit Maleficent as well as it did her. Her smile broadened at the sight of the strap-on. “Definitely game for that.”

“I thought you might have some experience with these,” Maleficent said, strapping her in with efficient motions, “but this is different.” She muttered a few words over it and suddenly Emma could feel it.

“Oh!” was all the soldier could manage.

The older woman’s grin was almost feral as she stroked her lover’s cock, watching her hips jerk in response. Then she pulled Emma onto the bed on top of her, wrapping her legs around her hips and using one hand to guide her in.

Emma’s senses were on overload between the typical visual hotness of seeing the toy disappear into her playmate and being able to feel herself being surrounded by wet heat. She groaned, “God, too much.”

“Does it hurt?”

“No,” and Emma had to take a moment to form words. “It’s just too good. I can’t focus.”

“Good,” Maleficent purred. “I like you a little bit out of control. Hips driving, rutting, needing to come,” she articulated, dragging her nails down Emma’s back and clenching her internal muscles around the cock. “And until I command it to do otherwise, it’s staying right where it is. Now fuck me.”

**

April 21st

Since David hadn’t said anything for a week after Emma had suggested the change to bandit patrol, she had admitted defeat and put it out of her mind. Accordingly, no one was more surprised than she was when the captain began the Lieutenants’ meeting with, “It has come to my attention that our current bandit patrol system is not working.”

Emma enjoyed a brief moment of vindication, which quickly became annoyance when he continued, “Lieutenant Swan will lead a special task force to find the bandits’ camps and get at the root of the problem on our roads. Each of you should ask for volunteers from your units. Soldiers with tracking or other woodscraft experience are particularly encouraged to apply. Have interested parties report to Emma the day after tomorrow at the beginning of Daywatch.” He looked around until they had all nodded, then continued, “On to the customs report.”

Emma didn’t hear much of the rest of the meeting between kicking herself for not realizing she was going to get stuck with this job and trying to plan how to deploy whatever mismatched collection soldiers she was going to end up with.

**

April 23rd

Mismatched turned out to be exactly the crew she ended up with. After dismissing the ones who just wanted to be reassigned from whatever shift they were stuck on and didn’t have any experience, she was left with three Rowans trained as foresters, Will, Graham, and a powerfully built man nicknamed “Little” John as a joke (she was glad it was not anyone she knew from her days in the house of Rowa), an Ilemenean named Billy, and three Marnans she’d already met: Leroy, Tom, and Victor. The latter, though desperate to get off Customs duty, had grown up in the foothills of the Cassus range and swore he was good at hunting and tracking.

She sent them to pack for an extended patrol of up to a week, to leave the next morning, and then she reported to David.  “That was a dirty trick you pulled, sir,” she complained, half-jokingly.

He chuckled. “You have to allow an old soldier some fun, Lieutenant. Besides, you’re the most experienced in this sort of work, and it's exactly the kind of thing your position is for.”

“Yes, sir,” she acknowledged. “Here’s the list of soldiers I’m taking. I’m sorry to short Mulan and Anton, but they each happened to have more than one I could use.” 

“You want to take Henry?” He looked up from the list, skeptical.

“Yes, sir. I think he’ll make a great scout. He’s much more useful to me out there than he is stopping street brawls. Honestly, he hasn’t grown enough yet for this work.”

“So put him somewhere where his size is an asset.” David nodded approvingly. “Good thinking.”

“I have them packing to head out tomorrow. I don’t expect to get much done, just get a feel for them, but if we can actually catch somebody, even better.”

David nodded. “Good. Take them out for five days. I passed along what you said about the marauders you met, that they couldn’t find work. The domestic advisor says that anyone you capture gets a choice—they can be turned over to the local authorities, or they can come join the Guard for a steady income. Something about having fewer bandits will increase trade and it will pay for itself.” He shrugged at the kinds of calculations the royal counselors thought were reasonable.

"Would the Guard have a permanent presence outside the city then?" she asked.

David shrugged again, "Maybe. Since apparently the Lords can’t be bothered to keep order in their regions, the crown may have to step in. I try not to get into the politics of the whole thing," he added. Sensing that he was easily frustrated by matters of the court, Emma didn't push any further. “Now, if that’s all, you're dismissed. I have a surprise inspection to conduct.” He winked at her as he rose.

Chapter Text

"I won't be able to see you again for a while," Emma sighed as they walked through the growing shadows of the garden that evening. She was surprised to realize how much she'd come to enjoy the princess's company—probably much more than she should as a lowly lieutenant of the Guard, if she was going to be honest with herself.

"Really? Why not?" Regina didn’t quite succeed at hiding her disappointment, and it made Emma feel a little better.

"I've been assigned to lead a team into the countryside to go after the bandits in their camps," she explained, "instead of the normal patrol."

"That's a good idea," Regina conceded, well-versed in the affairs of her kingdom. 

"Well, I'm beginning to regret it,” Emma complained. Then, before she could talk herself out of it, she blurted, “I’ll miss walking with you in the evening."

"You will?" The way Regina’s face lit up made Emma’s heart ache and reminded her that getting attached was almost as bad an idea for someone destined not to choose their own future as it was for her.

Emma clenched her jaw this time to keep from saying So much and nodded instead. She knew perfectly well this relationship couldn’t possibly go anywhere.

Regina looked at her thoughtfully for a long, long moment, and then murmured, almost to herself, “You've been here less than a month and you are already making an impression." Then she suddenly grabbed Emma and pulled her into a deep kiss. When they parted, the princess added with playful formality, "I believe I will somehow manage to remember you in your absence."

**

May 7th

David was pleased with the results of the patrol's first trip. They had broken up a fairly large encampment of bandits, but Emma felt cursed by her own success, because the captain had given her a hearty handshake and then a map of the eastern territories, near the Krannan border.

The capital gave the lords in the eastern part of the kingdom much more freedom, including leaving defense up to them, though it seemed like they didn't really bother. In this part of Marna, the land was rockier, the lives were harder, and respect for authority, particularly the authority of city-dwellers, was correspondingly less.

Emma wasn’t about to question orders when she was still so new, but she also knew there was plenty of work left to be done near the capital and along main commerce routes, and it would make more difference there, too. She suspected that David was continuing to test her out, interested in seeing just what she could do. So she sighed to herself, but didn’t complain, though she didn't stop the patrol from grumbling when she relayed the order, either.

While her reasons for wanting to work the hills around Silben were tactically sound, she also knew her motivations weren’t entirely professional. She would rather enjoy the comforts, and company, that she could find in the city than endure the hardships of the road and cope with a team of green foresters, particularly since the draw of a major city like Silben was why she had taken this job in the first place rather than continuing as a mercenary. 

At least she'd managed to see Regina again during the few days between patrols. Getting into the palace grounds was an interesting challenge, and she was getting good at sneaking past all but the best of the Guards. The princess seemed very pleased with her company, but their intermittent meetings definitely weren’t ideal, leaving Emma aching for more time with this enchanting woman even as the deeper bond forming between them terrified her. 

She'd also wanted to take an evening to explore the city more, especially the quarters she’d never visited, but found herself unable to resist the open invitation from Maleficent. Being in the mage's presence was addictive because the combination of friendship and sex was so easy, she had finally realized--and the most disconcerting part was that the older woman knew exactly how much she appealed to Emma.

Emma mentally shook herself and returned her focus to the trees around them. She had decided to make the best of the much longer mission and was working the soldiers through different scenarios that would improve their skills and let them get used to each other. The Rowans had taken the lead in helping the others lay false trails and obscure their passage. Victor had proved that his boasts were true and was teaching Leroy and Tom additions to their basic tracking skills while they slowly made their way into the less inhabited areas.

After a lot of assurances that they were, in fact, agents of the crown, the locals had opened up enough to admit that travelers had recently been going missing nearby. Emma agreed to investigate although the information was vague, but it made her silently question her orders again.

Victor, walking in front of her, turned back and caught her eye. She gave a quick nod in acknowledgment, and then he dropped back to walk beside her.

"Everything alright?" she asked.

"Sure, just wondering if we'd be stopping before full dark. It might be entertaining to practice some tracking with a game, like who can find a deer's grazing line first, that kind of thing."

Emma stifled a smile. Victor had been in line for promotion from his previous work and was clearly trying hard to adjust to supervising others now that it had happened. "Sure," she said. "If we find a good spot to set up, that would be fine by me." After a pause she added, "Good idea."

He smiled a touch smugly. Apparently feeling like her approval was an opening, he asked abruptly, “How’d you get hired on as a lieutenant, anyway? Most of us had to start as grunts and work our way up.”

The newly minted corporal clearly hadn't acquired any tact in the process, and she looked at him sternly as she answered, “The usual: a lot of experience and strong references.”

“Experience? But you’re hardly older than twenty." He took the hint and was more deferential, but retained his sense of entitlement to the details of her personal life.

“I’m older than I look, Corporal," she replied, using his rank to remind him who he was talking to, "But more importantly I’ve been in this business almost fifteen years.”

That did impress him. “How'd you get an army to hire you so young?” Clearly he'd forgotten Henry, who had, somehow, been with the Silben Guard since he was twelve. Emma was glad the youth was scouting far ahead, out of earshot, where his feelings wouldn't be hurt.

She considered refusing Victor's intrusive curiosity, but decided that she could only come out ahead by sharing some of the more remarkable details of her life. “I had connections with the Ilemenean palace guard. It was enough to get me in the door, and they liked what they saw.” Billy, the Ilemenean, perked up his ears at that, glancing back from where he was walking ahead of them. 

This was getting out of hand. "Heads up, gentlemen," she said, raising her voice enough to carry to the front of the line. "This is a patrol, not storytime." A bit sheepishly, they turned their full attention back to the task at hand.

It was a good thing that they did, because in the very next moment Emma heard the whistle she'd taught Henry for a situation he thought their patrol couldn't handle.

“Shit,” Emma hissed, looking around for a way for them to hide themselves off the trail, grateful that she had decided to leave the horses stabled at the last village to make less noise. The brush was patchy at best because the canopy of the trees was too thick to permit much growth on the forest floor.

Trees.

It wasn't ideal, but it was the best she could do. "Up the trees, guys," she commanded. Will, Graham, and John, her Rowan foresters, ascended competently, and Billy and Tom followed quickly enough, though with much less ease. Victor looked like he wanted to complain, but one look at the expression on her face convinced him to take the signal seriously, and up he went.

That left Leroy and Emma, and despite his best efforts, he was failing miserably at making it farther than the second branch. They didn't have time for this, Emma realized, able to hear, just barely, a large group in the distance. "Little John!" she hissed, and the largest soldier reached down and hauled Leroy up like a sack. Hoping their tracks weren't obvious, Emma sent out a silent plea to the universe and climbed her own tree.

A few tense moments later, the first of them appeared, and Emma bit back a curse. These weren't soldiers or bandits, they were- she didn't know what they were, and she could see why Henry had warned the patrol off, as there were nearly two dozen of the horrible things. Somewhere between human and beast, they prowled along the forest floor. Taller than the average human, they were darkly colored in mottled browns and greys, with a riot of mismatched features: this one had bull-like horns and that one had dog paws, and some had darker staining around their hands and mouths--or were they muzzles?

Emma's heart thudded not only because they were so monstrous to look at, but because an insidious feeling of evil seemed to come with them like a fog. She was deeply afraid of what the men would do when they spotted them. There was no way around it—she absolutely couldn't risk someone making noise out of shock and endangering all of them.

Taking a deep breath to clear her mind, she whispered the incantation, and the soldiers were completely immobilized except for the few motions of their heart, lungs, and eyelids needed to keep their bodies functioning. By the wildness of their eyes, this was the first time all but Billy had personally encountered magic, but there was no time to explain, nor could she relax in her concentration even a little, as the men were both spread out far enough to stretch her capabilities to their limits and fighting her control.

Then Emma had to consciously still her own breathing as one of the creatures--later she would remember that it was wolf-like--stopped below her tree and glanced around suspiciously. It didn't look up, and she hoped that its sense of smell was more human than animal.

After a long, long moment it moved on.

It felt like an eternity before the last of the beast-human creatures had moved out of sight, and even longer before she could no longer hear them. By this point, Emma was shaking and sweating from the effort of holding seven men motionless, about to fall out of her own tree, and she decided she had to risk releasing them. “Alright, guys," she gritted out through clenched teeth, "Stop struggling, or when I let you go you’ll fall.” When she felt the last of them relax, she released all of the magic she'd been holding, then slumped against the trunk of her hiding place, feeling wrung out.

Hearing Victor take a breath, she held up a finger in his direction and groaned, "No. Questions." She took a few more breaths, fighting the dizziness that washed over her.

"Is there anything we can do, sir?" Leroy said, clearly worried.

"I just need to rest. We'll stay here until Henry makes it back. Can someone toss me up a waterskin?"

**

Emma had recovered enough to climb down by the time the youth reached them, and was feeling well enough to praise him: “Good eyes, Henry. I knew I made you a scout for a reason.” He smiled and ducked his head in acknowledgement.

Turning to the rest of the patrol, Emma answered some of the questions that even Victor hadn't been brave enough to voice. "No, I don't know what they are, and yes, I am a magic user." She took another breath, still struggling to settle her stomach and wondering why she felt so wrung out. Magic wasn’t easy for her, but it wasn’t usually this hard. "Will, do you think you can get us back to the village by an alternate route?" He nodded. "Let's go then. Victor, use those stripes and lead until I'm able."

They were clearly still unsatisfied, but there was a chorus of "Yes, Sir" and they did as she told them.

Chapter Text

May 10th

"Sir, can I have a moment?" Emma asked, slipping into David's office.

He looked up from the scroll in front of him. "Emma! You're back soon. Did you find us some recruits?"

It wasn't until this moment that Emma really thought about her decision to cancel their patrol and ride hard back to the city to report what they'd seen. What did she plan to say, that there were strange beast-men in the forest near Kranna? She was pretty sure he wouldn't call her a liar, and even if he did the rest of the patrol could back her up, but it did sound irrational. Well, she was here now, so she was going to have to tell him.

"Not recruits, sir. We had a very disturbing incident that I thought I should report to you immediately." She took a deep breath, trying to plan her phrasing. 

"Sit down,” he commanded. “And relax. Tell it from the beginning."

As she did, his eyebrows threatened to crawl off his forehead. "Beast-men?" he demanded as she finished.

"Yes, sir,” she confirmed. “Not animal or human, but both and neither. I couldn't tell if the skins they had on were their own fur or some kind of clothing."

"This is hard to believe," David began, and when Emma tried to respond he held up a hand to cut her off. "Oh, I believe you, but I don't know if anyone else will. You've told your men to keep it to themselves?” She nodded. “Good." He paused for a moment, thinking, then said, "I think you made the right choice to report this, Lieutenant, but I don't know what we can do about it. Clearly there's a magic user in the area doing strange things."

"It's not magic, sir," she blurted, then clarified, "Not regular magic."

"Regular magic? What the hell does that mean?"

She tried to think of how to explain. "I've been around a lot of magic-users, and as you now know I've had some training too, and this was not anything that mages do."

He was clearly skeptical. "You can't know everything mages do, Lieutenant."

"No, sir, that's not what I mean.” She thought quickly. “Mages channel magic, and this isn't magic. Magic isn't good or bad, it just is, and those creatures were something else entirely. Pure evil." 

His face made it clear that he wasn’t convinced. "Sorry, Emma, but I don't really understand the finer points of how magic functions, and it's really not my business. Mages are different and do things most of us don't understand, and I have to assume that some of them do things you don't understand. Unless they break the law or threaten citizens, there's nothing we can do about those," and here he paused, "whatever they were. Our concern is bandits," he said, in a tone that was final. "So take your two days off-rotation now, since you're here, and then head back out. Though," he added overly casually, "you should stay closer to the city."

Emma just stared at him, unable to formulate a reply, even to ask for an explanation of his sudden contradiction of his previous orders.

 As if he read her mind, the captain nodded. "The king received some messengers from the Lords about the Guard's intentions in the eastern territories."

"What? We didn't do anyt-"

"I know you didn’t," he assured her.

"You’d think the lords would appreciate the help then, considering-" Emma stopped herself before she mentioned the beast-men, knowing he wouldn’t want to hear it.

"Let's just say people think you should stay closer to home going forward. Understood?"

 "Yes, Sir."

**

Despite David's skepticism, Emma was sure there was something terribly wrong with the monsters they'd encountered. Though the captain didn't have the magical experience to understand, she knew someone who did, and told herself that the fact that she was likely to do more than research with Maleficent was a secondary concern.

To prevent the older woman from assuming it was purely a social call, Emma jotted a request to meet on a scrap of parchment, but as she sealed it with a bit of candlewax and a quick, dagger-cut "E," she suddenly realized that she couldn't send one of the regular messengers. If they would even go into the Mage's Quarter at all, which wasn’t guaranteed, they would definitely gossip, which Emma did not want. Glancing up through her open door, she saw Henry enter the common area and called out to him.

Having caught his attention, she continued, "I'm wondering if you can do me a personal favor."

His face lit up. "Of course, sir."

"Can you take this note, discreetly, to Lady Maleficent? Her house is just inside the Mage's Quarter in the red zone. Biggest one, you can't miss it."

"Going to get lucky tonight, sir?"

"Watch your mouth, kid," Emma snapped, a bit harsher than she intended. Henry had an uncanny way of noticing everything going on around him, and it made it hard to keep secrets around him, but this wasn’t the kind of conversation she should have with him as his superior or his elder. With a small smile to soften her previous sharpness, she explained, "Unlike some people,” and she tipped her head toward Mulan’s room, “my personal life is private. Will you just take the letter? And can you wait for a reply?"

"Yes, sir," the youth said, still a bit wounded-seeming. Emma kicked herself for overreacting as she handed over the note. On his way out, Henry turned back, as if he'd just remembered something. "Sir, did you ever unload those boot laces you were trying to trade the other day?"

"No, and I tried everybody. Why?"

"Mine are wearing out. Can I have your spares and I'll replace them next payday?"

"Sure. Remind me when you get back." The lieutenant paused, before adding with great sincerity "Thanks, Henry."

The youth nodded, smiling to himself, and ducked out, leaving Emma to wonder what that was all about.

**

Henry found the lieutenant just as dusk was settling over Silben and handed her a reply note.

“Dinner is at 8. Bring wine," was all it said. Moments after Emma opened it, it disintegrated into dust. Wiping her hands on her pants, Emma wasn't sure if Maleficent was being overly cautious for some reason or simply showing off.

Henry looked a little startled at the parchment's sudden disappearance, but Emma just smiled reassuringly. "Thank you again, Henry. I owe you one. Here are the laces," she added, handing them over. Realizing that she could actually afford wine now that she’d been paid reminded her to pick up a whetstone tomorrow morning when the blade shop was open. Borrowing had gotten very tedious.

Chapter Text

Standing on the stoop of the large house, Emma tucked a stray strand of hair behind her ear and then realized she was stalling. The encounter in the woods had left her unsettled, but she wanted to be confident and clear when she told Maleficent the story. Taking a deep, settling breath, she reached for the ornate knocker, but before she could grasp it the door opened to reveal the mage in question. She was embarrassed to notice that she had started. 

"Right on time, Lieutenant."

"Lady," Emma dipped her head in acknowledgement, "I need to speak with you most urgently."

Maleficent stepped aside as Emma entered and then closed the door behind her. Emma glanced into the library that was just off the foyer, hoping that it contained an explanation for her strange experience.

Maleficent crossed her arms over her chest, a hungry smile spreading across her face. "In the library? I like the way you think" she murmured, clearly thinking that when Emma had asked to speak with her that it had been a euphemism.

Emma, her focus quickly eroding in the mage's presence, blurted, "I need your help."

"Really, Emma, is that any kind of a greeting?" Maleficent chided.

"Uh," Emma began ineloquently, her mind working frantically to recall the traditional Ilmenaen greeting for honored mages. "Estimare maja, bereke des imkahner," her memory finally supplied.

 A dry chuckle escaped the mage's lips. "Not what I meant."

"Oh." Emma wasn't sure why coherent thought had gone so completely out of her head, though she suspected it had something to do with the way Maleficent's robes clung to her. Resolving to get a firm grip on herself, she moved swiftly to kiss the honored, and amused, mage.

"Now that that's taken care of," Maleficent drawled, then paused just long enough to make Emma twitch before continuing, "It’s clear with all the formality that you have something on your mind. Since dinner is ready, we'll eat now and you can tell me what's going on. There will be plenty of time to play after," she concluded, beckoning her guest into the dining room.

It was probably the best meal Emma had eaten in years, as Maleficent employed an excellent cook, and she even managed to enjoy it while explaining what she'd seen in the forest. The mage, for her part, listened carefully and asked increasingly pointed questions, though she did laugh out loud at Emma's account of her struggle to magically freeze the men.

After Emma finished the story, they sat in companionable silence for a few moments. Then, abruptly, Maleficent finished her glass of wine and rose from the table. Emma followed her into the library, where the mage pulled down three books and started flipping through each in turn. Seeing that her input wasn’t required, Emma wandered around the room, trying not to be impatient, keeping herself occupied by admiring the sculptures and curiosities on various shelves.

As she leaned down to get a closer look at a small and very realistic statue of a hummingbird, Maleficent warned, "I would be careful with that, Lieutenant," though her eyes never left the texts in front of her.

"I know better than to touch anything in a mage's house," Emma replied with a smile in her voice. "Except the mage herself."

Maleficent chuckled for a moment, continuing to flip through pages. Finding what she sought, she looked up at Emma for the first time in several minutes. "Come, look," she commanded. "Were they like this?"

Emma crossed the room and peered at the illustration. "More or less. What are they?"

"Xendark," Maleficent began, and then trailed off as she continued to read. "There are few practical details; it's mostly legend," she said, extending the book for Emma to examine, which she did gingerly in light of the very real dangers mages' possessions sometimes brought. Turning to the cover, the soldier was surprised to see that it was a collection of myths for children. Before she could comment, Maleficent cautioned, "Don't think that makes it any less true."

"Xendark." Emma shook her head in disbelief. "I always thought they were something my foster mother made up to threaten me with if I didn't behave."

"Not to insult her ingenuity, but this tale is ancient." The mage picked up a second volume and scanned some text before adding, "If I'm understanding this text correctly-" she trailed off as she continued to translate, "You're right that they weren't made with magic. They're associated with the Xan, of all things."

"Forgive my ignorance, but- What are the Xan? I've heard the term before, but only vaguely. I always assumed it was some sort of ancient name for the destructive capacity of magic."

A fierce look flashed across Maleficent’s face, and Emma was afraid she had offended her. "No, Xan are pure chaos. Magical destruction happens as part of the natural cycle of death and rebirth. It’s limited so that the world may endure and its existence is linked with ours.” She paused, then added, “It has its uses. The Xan, however, have no such self-control. And they’re inimical to magic. That was what you felt." She stopped again, peering into Emma's eyes, trying to read something there. "If I'd told you this yesterday, it would have been an exercise in history. The Xan were banished from the world at the end of the last age. But, if you saw what you saw -"

"What?"

"I don't know. I can't tell you what it means other than danger." Maleficent paused, tapping at her chin with a forefinger.

Despite the seriousness of the situation, Emma did enjoy watching a fine mind at work, and smiled a little, which drew an answering smile from the mage, who then seemed to come to a conclusion. "My friend Philip is teaching at the Eyad right now. I'll write to him and see if there's anything more in their library than here. All the oldest texts can't be taken out," she added, in a long-suffering tone that suggested this policy at the magic academy had inconvenienced her before. Turning her attention back to Emma, her expression returned to one of speculation. "But why you, I wonder?"

"Wrong place, wrong time, I guess." She shrugged.

Maleficent shook her head. "No, there are greater forces at work here. I can smell magic on you, far greater than you actually wield. And not just that warding tattoo of yours."

Emma sputtered a bit at that. "How did you know about my tattoo?"

"We really couldn't become as," she raised an eyebrow, "close as you and I have without me noticing it," she answered, and Emma was feeling too exposed to enjoy the fact that Maleficent flushed a little in remembrance of their play.

In response to her obvious bewilderment, Maleficent tried to explain. "At your level, you sense the magic in me at the very edges of your perception, right?" Emma nodded. "And anyone less powerful than me doesn't register at all. For me it's more like," and she searched for a suitable analogy to explain it, "wine. As I can taste all the different subtleties of flavor, so I perceive workings of magic that are invisible to you. And that tattoo is intriguing- it's not incredibly complex, but it's derived from some very old magic-craft."

Emma was struck by the realization that Maleficent might have had an ulterior motive in getting involved with her. The older woman was, after all, extremely powerful for someone just into her fourth decade, which suggested a single-minded devotion to magic.

The mage cocked her head as if listening. "There is definitely something else there." Without warning, she murmured a string of words and brushed her fingers over Emma's forehead. As she scrutinized the results, her eyes widened slightly. "You’re touched with elemental magic," she said, sounding a bit in awe.

"What, I-"

Looking again at whatever signs her work had produced, she said, "Earth, and- another. This is quite rare." Her eyes going unfocused, her mouth moved as if she was trying to identify the flavor on her tongue. "I think it’s water. Very interesting," she concluded, and it was almost as if she'd forgotten Emma was even there. Then she refocused on the slightly stunned soldier before her and added, "Perhaps it’s unwise to associate with someone with so special a destiny."

Emma was now reeling from the combination of these revelations and the potential of another rejection. First Ruby, now this?

"Fortunately for you, Lieutenant, that’s not a kind of wisdom I care to be known for.”

And with that, Emma was no longer able to think about anything but a pair of very insistent lips, and she was glad to respond, pressing Maleficent back until the mage gasped a bit in surprise to find herself pinned against her desk.

“You wanted to do it in the library,” Emma murmured as she lifted the older woman completely onto the desk, pushing her robes up her thighs as she stepped between them.

“No complaints,” Maleficent replied, wrapping her legs around Emma’s hips and her arms around her shoulders, then tipping her head back with groan as the soldier began to suck on her neck.

A short time later, Emma pulled away from her now panting lover, feeling bold. “Stand up.” At the startled look, she quirked an eyebrow and coaxed, “Come on, be a good girl. You know it’ll be worth it.”

Maleficent snorted a little laugh, but stood.

“Take off your clothes and then turn around and put your hands on the desk.” Emma could hear the mage’s breath catch a little at that, but she went along. Admiring the way the position presented Maleficent’s ass, Emma licked her lips and traced a finger down her spine, drawing a shiver. “Damn, you look good. Don’t move until I get back,” she commanded. Maleficent looked unimpressed with the order, and started to turn around to protest, but was distracted by a hand between her legs.

“Come on,” Emma urged, sliding her fingers through the wetness she knew she would find. The slightest brush of her clit, the smallest dip inside, and then a slap to her exposed ass with her now damp hand, and Emma knew she had the mage right where she wanted her as her hips bucked uncontrollably and a little cry escaped her throat. She waited just a moment more to be sure her lover would do as she’d said before rushing to the bedroom to retrieve the toy they had used the last time.

Reentering the room, she found Maleficent exactly where she’d left her and murmured, “Now there’s a good girl” as she shucked her own clothes and strapped herself in.

Maleficent’s chuckle turned into a moan as the soldier ran the cock across her clit from behind, then she pushed back against her and breathed, “Fuck me.”

“Say ‘Please,’” she sassed.

“Please fuck me,” and the growl was a demand, not a question. Now it was Emma’s turn to groan, and she gladly pushed the toy inside.

“Oh, wait,” the mage said, struggling to concentrate and beginning to cast the spell that would give the cock feeling.

“No you don’t,” Emma said, reaching around to cover her mouth and thrusting into her. “This is my show. Now lay across the desk so I can fuck you properly.” This drew another moan from Maleficent, who complied without teasing her this time.

Emma gripped her hips and fucked her hard, fast, and deep, pushing them both close to the breaking point before finally commanding, “Come for me.”

Chapter Text

 May 11th

"Come in," Emma called lazily from her bunk where she had been unsuccessfully trying to make up for the previous night's lack of sleep.

"Morning, Sir," Henry said as he pushed the door open. Emma sat up clumsily and returned the greeting while she rubbed her eyes. Then she looked up in surprise as the whetstone she needed dropped onto the pallet beside her. Henry just stood grinning from ear to ear.

“What's this?”

“Remember the boot laces I asked you to lend me? I traded ‘em for it.” He was so pleased with himself that Emma smiled even as she was confused.

“But I tried that. Nobody wanted boot laces for a whetstone.”

“Well, I mean, the laces went to Archie for a polishing cloth, which I traded to Billy for an undertunic, which Tom wanted," Henry explained, counting them off on his fingers. "He had the whetstone.”

Emma stared at him for a moment, dumbfounded. "How?" was all she could manage. 

Henry gave another broad smile. "You’ve just gotta find out what people need. If you make enough trades, everyone ends up happy."

"That’s really impressive. How do you learn a thing like that?”

“Picked it up when I was little,” Henry shrugged and his whole demeanor closed down.

“Come on,” Emma said the way she’d speak to a spooked horse. “Whatever it is, I’ve probably heard worse.” She gestured for the youth to sit on the bed beside her.  

Henry's words, once they started, came out in a rush. “I grew up in an orphanage in Lukmán.” That was surprising. How had a twelve year old gotten from the capital of Ilmena all the way here? “When I was little, things were good there. The brothers had enough to take care of all of us. But as I got older, donations dried up and things got sort of hard. I was always good at listening to people, but once I realized I could figure out what they wanted and help them get it-” he paused, and Emma felt a pang of guilt remembering a baby she had given up long ago. He’d be about the same age-

“Trading made a difference day to day,” the boy went on, bringing her attention back to him. “And when I got old enough to go out on my own, I became that person who knew how to find anything a traveling soldier wanted, from boot leather to armor repair tools, trading around between three or four or even more until everyone got what they wanted." He shrugged. "They could have done it without me.”  

“No, they couldn’t. They’d never think to do complex trades. I know I would never have been able to see all the steps I needed to get that whetstone out of my spare bootlaces. You have a gift.” Emma chuckled. “And now we know how twelve-year-old got hired into one of the finest fighting forces in the land when he could barely lift a sword.”

“I still can’t, really,” Henry began to smile a little too.

“But you’ve got heart. And a mean dagger. Come on, let’s get fed.”

**

While they ate the mid-day meal, Emma was delighted to find out that the tall and scowly Sergeant Jefferson was ill.

"Oh, I don’t think it’s serious," David answered Emma's polite and earnest query. "He’ll be back by tomorrow, and Lieutenant Mig has already moved some men around to cover it."

Emma didn’t exactly enjoy the suffering of others, but she knew with Jefferson gone and the teams reconfigured at the last minute, the palace Guard would be less organized than usual. Jefferson insisted the soldiers follow a very strict protocol that most people found excessive; it increased the coverage overlap and was a lot more secure. Emma privately admired his thoroughness, but it made it tricky to sneak past him and his team. She hid her grin from the Captain, and even the watchful Henry, by taking a drink. She would be enjoying the company of Princess Regina of Marna in just a few short hours.

**

Regina smiled broadly when Emma emerged from a well-manicured hedge, then slid her arms around her.

"I’m glad you could come tonight," she murmured as her face came to rest against Emma’s neck.

"Me too," Emma hummed, letting the feeling of connection wash over her. Something this dangerous had no business feeling this right. 

"Was it too hard to get into the garden last night? I missed you." Regina asked, pulling back slightly and picking a leaf out of Emma's hair.

"I couldn't come. I had to get some questions answered."

"What do you mean? What questions?" 

Emma, realizing that Regina was the last person to be put off by vagueness, told her what she had seen in the forest and what Maleficent had told her. Then she paused, trying to figure out how to communicate to someone she couldn’t have sex with but was developing (very stupid) feelings for that she had a friend with benefits. She didn’t want to be keeping a secret, but how to even bring it up?

"Xendark?" Regina asked, interrupting her rapid thinking. "That doesn't sound right."

"They were definitely not right," Emma agreed.

"No, I mean linguistically. The 'ark' ending isn't Krannan, though the word is clearly is Krannan in origin."

"Oh," Emma said. After a moment she complimented, "You’re quite the linguist."

Regina grinned and darted her tongue along her lips, and Emma belatedly realized the double entendre.

She was still getting used to Regina's unique blend of sheltered curiosity, stunning intelligence and pure mischief. It seemed likely that the princess's regimented life had kept her from having any intimate relationships except maybe some casual exploration with another young noble. At the same time, Regina was insistent and playful--and occasionally, as tonight, bold--in their exchanges, which were growing more heated. She was intrigued and delighted and continued to follow Regina’s lead, no matter how frustrated it left her. Thankfully, Maleficent didn't much care when Emma showed up or why. 

Emma just shook her head with a chuckle. "So what happened since I've been gone?"

"Not much. There was a boring financial council." She paused, then added with excessive casualness, "I tried to sneak out into the city again."

"What? Regina-"

"No lectures, Lieutenant 'I sneak past the palace Guard regularly.' Regardless, I was unsuccessful. And I already got an earful from Mig."

"But why? You know you can take a complement of Guards and go anywhere."

"You wouldn't understand,” Regina sighed. “You’ve never had every movement and word scrutinized, every hour of the day. You’ve never had to make sure you’re always proper. You’ve had a wonderful life of adventure."

"Actually, it's been pretty lonely," the soldier whispered.

"What?"

Emma started to try to figure out a plausible cover and then had a realization. Unauthorized trips outside the palace and sunset kissing with lieutenants were adventures to a pent up woman like the princess. She must have known that on some level since they met, but now it was painfully clear. Telling herself firmly that she needed to remember her place in all this, she plastered on a smile she didn’t feel. "I said, only since meeting you, Your Highness."

"Very funny," Regina chuckled, elbowing her lightly in the ribs.

Chapter Text

May 15th

"Billy!" Emma shouted.

The soldier nodded grimly and rushed to help her fend off another oncoming assailant. Turning her full attention back to the thin and snarling man before her, Emma saw her opening and kicked him in the forearm to make him drop his sword. She whipped around to check on the other men in the scrap, then continued the motion to connect her fist with the side of her opponent's head.

"Fuck, you've got a hard head," Emma muttered as she flexed her hand. Billy had gotten the other bandit to the ground and was tying his hands with an efficient knot. "Are you all right?"

"Yeah," Billy said. Then, looking at the prone man, he growled, "You stay there."

Emma noted with relief and pride that every brigand she could see was disarmed and on the ground, either tied or held at sword point, while her own crew didn’t seem have any serious injuries. Emma's cheek was starting to throb where she’d caught the edge of a fist, and Leroy was dripping blood from his forearm, but it looked superficial.

"Sir, do you want us to try and catch the two that ran?" Javier asked. This was his first tour with her patrol, which she had expanded so they could take on some of the larger camps that were beyond the strength of eight fighters. Like the other new members, he seemed almost desperate to impress her, as if worried that he would be sent away from what the barracks chatter described as exciting and glorious work. 

Emma shook her head, "No, they're long gone. I'd rather not split up."

The man at her feet stirred and she yanked him up to a sitting position. 

"Henry!"

"Sir?" The youth popped up from where he had been binding another bandit. He reluctantly stayed at the periphery of fights on Emma's orders, but always made himself useful once the danger was over.

"Bring some water for our prisoners here."

"Yes, sir."

"All right guys,” she called out, “Round ‘em up, you know the drill."

The Guardsmen began herding the defeated brigands toward where she was standing. 

"Javi?" she asked as he stood looking panicked over a limp body.

"Sir, I'm sorry Sir, I tried to follow your orders."

Emma walked to inspect the still man at his feet. "I know you did," she reassured the Sharmarian; she really felt for him, because she knew it was much harder to disarm and subdue a soldier than to badly injure or kill them. 

She leaned in close to the man to check for a pulse, frowning because she really didn’t want to have to bury him or find his next of kin, but then a wheezing and foul-smelling puff of breath hit her. She suppressed a gag and watched closely as his chest rose and fell. His breathing was shallow, but he was alive.

"Get a stretcher together," she commanded.

"Yes, sir."

"Listen up," she said, turning to address the ragged group that her soldiers had brought together. "We'll be taking you back to Mydril in one of two ways: either as prisoners," and here she paused for effect and to ensure their attention, "or as our newest recruits. In the first case, you’ll be put in jail for the local magistrate to handle. In the second you’ll be given the opportunity to come to the capital and serve your king fighting with us."

A few of the prisoners snickered at the suggestion, but others looked surprised and curious.

"You'll be fed and housed and paid. You'll be trained under our finest sergeants," she continued, her mouth twitching. She always had a hard time not laughing during this part of the speech, remembering her own "training," but she managed to go on, concluding, "And kept under a watchful eye until you’re ready to swear to defend the citizens of Marna and serve the crown. I'll give you the walk to Mydril to think about it." With that, she whistled to Bug and, mounting, shouted, "All right, move out."

**

May 19th 

The patrol had gotten back to Silben in the earliest hours of the morning, delayed by an unexpectedly fierce storm and seven new recruits traveling on foot. The soldiers, including Emma herself, were exhausted, muddy, and bruised, but David was pleased when she delivered her report just before breakfast. 

"Well done!” he said, clapping her on the back. “Now get some rest. Since you got back so late and some of your soldiers are injured, why don't you take an extra day in the city before heading out again?"

"Thank you Sir, we will." 

David smiled, but waved her out with a gruff repetition of the command to get some rest.

**

Emma awoke suddenly mid-afternoon and was disoriented for long moments by what had been a dark and disturbing dream.

Groaning as she rolled over to sit up, she thought sourly that this was why she hated to sleep during the day. The images were fading, but she could still remember a powerful feeling of fear and confusion, and then a flash of one of the Xendark from the previous encounter in the woods. Trying to distract herself, she stretched her neck, until she felt a pop and wondered when she'd gotten so old that she was creaky. Shaking it off, she got up and got dressed, moving slowly and clumsily and being thoroughly annoyed that losing a night's sleep took this much out of her.

**

May 20th

It was another gorgeous sunset, but Emma had found something more beautiful to contemplate.

“You do have a great collarbone,” she breathed before she could stop herself.

“You say that like you’ve thought about it before,” Regina chuckled.

“I mean, some of the guys were going on about it,” Emma mumbled against the princess’s neck where it met the clavicle in question, hoping the brush of her lips would be distracting.

“They what? Emma,” Regina’s offense was palpable as she grabbed her face and made her look up.

“Don’t worry,” Emma insisted. “I put a stop to it. Rained fire on their heads, made them stand extra watches, made them terrified of what I’d do if they did it again.” She stopped rattling off the story and got serious for just a moment. “They won’t verbally caress you again. But,” and now again her tone was playful, “they were definitely right. And, speaking of caresses,” she trailed off, freeing herself from Regina’s hands and returning her mouth to her neck.

Regina hummed as her eyes fluttered shut, but soon she groaned, “I don’t want you to stop, but they’ll be wondering where I am.”

“Yeah.” The soldier tried not to sound too disappointed. She was beginning to resent not only how brief her time with Regina was, but how infrequent.

As if reading her mind, Regina said, “I wish I could see you more."

It was safe enough to agree, even if Emma would never have said it first. "Me too.” 

"Any chance you could get yourself onto my personal Guard detail?”

“That would be great and they do prefer women, but I just don’t have the seniority. And I probably couldn’t concentrate enough to guard anything but your lips,” Emma grinned, tracing them with the side of her thumb.

Regina smiled and nipped at the finger, but added “Still, it's vexing.”

Emma smiled at the formal language from a woman she knew could swear colorfully in every language, but her smile fell as she remembered, "I did notice that they’ve doubled the complement. What happened while I was gone?”

“A nasty letter from Leopold of Kranna, delivered by a rather large group of well-armored knights. He didn’t like being declined, and they’re worried he might try to take me by force.” Emma was a little appalled by how nonchalant Regina seemed to be about it, despite her penchant for pragmatism.

“Well, if they’re hiring, I might just be in line to Guard you,” she replied, managing to match the princess’s airy tone.

“In the meantime, do you think you can get into my room tonight?” Regina’s eyes sparkled with hope and challenge.

Emma was delighted. “Lucky for us, my magic teacher was also a skilled thief. I should be able to sneak past when the Guard changes at midnight.”

Chapter Text

Regina’s expression was half-way between surprise and excitement as she hauled Emma in from the balcony by a fistful of tunic. The soldier willingly went along, stumbling a few steps, then colliding with the princess and kissing her soundly.

Pulling back, Emma could, just barely, see the amusement on Regina's face in the shadowy room. "You couldn't come in through the door?" she teased in a whisper.

"Much easier to climb that," Emma replied just as quietly, tipping her head over her shoulder at the wall beyond the balcony, "than get past them," and she pointed to the door and the Guards in the hallway outside.

"But, how? I didn't see any ropes or pulleys."

"The stones are rough and easy to grip. And," and she paused, trying to decide whether to give up this secret, "I know a spell that makes it easier—makes my boots sticky for a while." She gestured at her feet.

"So that's what you meant about your magic teacher." Regina shook her head as she laughed soundlessly.

Emma’s heart stopped in her chest at the sight of her. Regina was almost luminous in the moonlight, inhumanly beautiful at the same time that her expression was joyful and open and she was just a woman with her hair loose and her cosmetics washed off, and-

The barriers Emma had put up against this meaning something cracked, and she cupped Regina’s face in both hands, speechless with awe and adoration as she looked at her with new eyes. Regina smiled back at her, expression softer and more sincere than she’d ever seen it, then stepped forward and kissed her slow, deep, sweet. It set Emma’s entire body on fire, and for once she didn’t suppress her moan. Regina echoed the sound, her hands roaming over Emma’s body as her kisses became more intense, desirous, hungry. Emma gave as good as she got, almost dizzy when she realized that there was nothing but a light gown between her and Regina’s skin.

Then Regina’s hands were pulling at her belt, only to break the kiss and when she encountered the dagger that never left Emma’s side. “Expecting to need to defend yourself, soldier?” she teased.

“You’re very dangerous,” Emma said with mock-seriousness, and they both giggled, a little giddy, as she set both belt and dagger aside.

As they pressed against each other again, Emma reveled in Regina’s scent as she nuzzled and ran her lips over her neck, not kissing really so much as just getting lost in touch.

Then Regina was pulling her tunic up and off and she had to step back to let it come off. Once they were both free of the wadded up cloth, Emma caught the princess’s hands in her own and began kissing her fingertips, knuckles, wrists, up to the inside of one elbow where her sleeve stopped.

“Get me out of this,” Regina grumbled. “And you- I want to feel your skin.”

They became a flurry of hands then, one piece of clothing after another falling to the floor with soft thwumps. As Emma straightened after stepping out of her trousers, her breath caught all over again. Fuck, she was beautiful.

“Thank you.”

Laughing at herself a little bit for saying it out loud, Emma changed the subject. “Now why were we taking our clothes off again? I just- I can’t rememb-”

Regina pounced. 

They kissed and laughed and caressed their way several steps across the room until Emma realized they were beside the bed and stopped, looking Regina in the eyes, needing to check in.

“I’m not a virgin, dear. I’ll just play one on my wedding night,” she teased, but then her expression became serious as she cupped Emma’s cheek. “You’re so ethical. So kind.”

Emma’s heart felt full all over again, so she swooped Regina up in her arms and laid her down on the bed to keep herself from thinking too hard, because when she joined her and every bit of their skin met all she could think was that their bodies fit together impossibly well. Then they were kissing deeply, legs tangling and hands running over each other everywhere they could reach.

But she needed more. She trailed hot, open kisses over Regina’s chin, along her jaw, and down her neck. In the next moment, she nipped lightly at her collarbone, then fluttered her tongue over its curve, enjoying the light salt taste of her skin. Then she kissed swirls across her sternum, stroked her nose and cheeks against every nearby bit of Regina, and then went back to begin again. Time seemed to lose meaning as she lost herself in the softness and warmth of Regina’s body until the princess gripped her hair to pull her head up.

“Emma, if you don’t give me more soon, so help me,” Regina half-growled, and Emma grinned up at her, because even her threats were attractive. Then she looked down again and wondered how she’d waited so long to touch those perfect breasts. They fit in her hands perfectly as she cupped them, nipples taut and just begging to be adored, and she closed her lips around the nearest one as she stroked her thumb across the other.

“Yes,” Regina breathed, arching into her touch.

Emma wanted to keep worshiping her slowly and she wanted to make her come until she lost her voice screaming, but this really wasn’t the time or place for either. Instead, she made herself focus, rolling one nipple between tongue and palate and the other between her fingers.

“Nnh, yes, harder,” Regina urged, and Emma did, switching back and forth, more intense each time, until she was sucking and pinching firmly and Regina’s hips were bucking and her hands were clutching at her shoulders.

When Emma slid her free hand down to cup between the princess’s legs, she found her so wet that she shuddered and moaned around the nipple in her mouth, only to hear it echoed by Regina. Then she immediately gave up resisting what she really wanted to be doing with her mouth, feeling Regina’s stomach quivering under her touch as she kissed and nipped quickly downward. Settling on her stomach between Regina’s thighs, she just looked for a long moment, because she was so ready, open and glistening and “Gorgeous,” and this time she knew she’d said it out loud.

Regina cupped her face to make her meet her eyes. “Emma, I- It’s never, I’ve never-”

“With a woman?”

Regina scoffed. “No, like this-” and she gestured between them with the other hand.

A relationship that meant something, Emma realized. “Lucky us.”

“Yes,” the princess agreed, then guided her mouth to where they both wanted it.

The first touch made both their breath catch, and Emma’s eyes fluttered shut for a moment. Maybe it was just the long wait, or the risk, but everything about this felt to Emma like the most powerful magic. She traced every plane and curve of Regina’s sex, trying to memorize the taste of her, the slickness and heat, the softness of flesh and the velvet hardness of her ready clit.

Slowly—so, so slowly—she began stroking circles, her tongue soft and gentle. As Regina’s breath began to come in shudders, she sped up her touches, making steady, long, flat strokes on her clit now, and fuck, she felt so good in Emma’s mouth, and looked so good watching her with her lip between her teeth—sublime and otherworldly but also deliciously tangible.

When Emma wrapped her lips around Regina’s clit and sucked gently, punctuated with swirls of her tongue, the hand that wasn’t in her hair flailed a little trying to grip the sheets. Emma had twined their fingers in the next moment.

“Please,” Regina breathed.

“Please what?” was out of Emma’s mouth, a reflex before she thought, because this was not the time to play power games.

But Regina had an answer. “Please, touch me. Go inside. Fuck me,” she urged.

The explicit request and the need in her voice set Emma’s body on fire all over again, and she groaned and gladly gave her what she’d asked, slipping in with first one, then two fingers. God, it felt so good, hot and slick and exquisitely intimate, and she wanted to be inside Regina forever.

They quickly found a rhythm, Emma’s fingers pushing slow and deep as Regina’s hips twitched, their eyes locked together and their other fingers still twined. Regina was breathing hard now, trapping little sounds behind her teeth trying to be quiet, and Emma loved how responsive she was. She gave her more, and more, curling her fingers now on the outward strokes as she sucked and fluttered her tongue and moving faster as she felt Regina’s body tensing.

Then Regina came hard, and could not keep herself from crying out. Emma winced, but was damned if ecstasy didn’t look good on her. Then she crawled up her body and pressed close, feeling the thumping of her pulse.

 “Give me a minute and then I want to taste you,” Regina murmured.

Suddenly, there was a tapping at the door. "Princess?" Emma winced. It was Snow, assigned to Regina's night security, and this was very bad.

"Yes?" The only saving grace was that Regina was not too loopy to talk her into going away.

"Are you alright?" Snow paused before continuing in a voice so uncertain that it was almost a question, "I heard a noise."

"I," Regina began, and Emma could see her mind working furiously, "I was having a nightmare and I woke myself up. Everything is fine, thank you." Emma closed her eyes and held her breath, hoping that would be enough.

It wasn't. The muffled voice said, "I really think I should come in and check, Princess."

"That's really alright."

"I have to insist."

Regina was apparently required to comply with security protocols, because she swore a streak in three or four languages and got out of bed. "Fine, Corporal, but let me get dressed to receive guests," she snapped.

Emma jumped up, too, throwing her clothes on to flee. This was not how this was supposed to go. She was supposed to stay until the watch changed. Going out now was a huge risk. The briefest of kisses, and the lieutenant was on the balcony in the shadow of the door frame.

Regina stalled as long as she possibly could, first in opening the door, and then trying to keep Snow in the outer part of the apartment, away from the bedroom. Emma watched the sentries pacing, counting steps, timing how long both of their backs were turned at the end of their respective runs, still hoping the princess could get them out of this without Emma having to do something incredibly dangerous.

But, of course, Snow was doggedly conscientious in her duty, and when she heard Regina exclaim, "For fuck’s sake, how could anyone be in my bedroom without my knowledge?" she knew it was at least partially a warning to her.

Eyes locked on the sentries and ears tuned to what was happening inside, Emma couldn’t spare any concentration to cast a spell to help herself. Just five steps more, then three, and there, the guards had turned. Over the balcony edge she went, her heart in her throat as her boots slid several inches before they caught on the masonry.

"Hey, did you see that?" She knew she had to get off this wall fast. Thanking the small bit of luck she had that this side of the building was in shadow, she climbed down much faster than she knew was safe, ending up in the garden where she regularly met Regina. She could easily get out from here, which was fortunate, she realized as she heard the clatter of boots on the stairs in response to the alarm the guard had raised.

Chapter Text

“Emma, get in here,” David called as she tried to stealthily pass his office.

It startled her, but she managed to answer, “Yes, sir.”

“Close the door and sit down.” Emma gulped. The telltale scrapes on her hands from her descent and her general disarray left her feeling very exposed.

Once she was seated, he launched right in. “Do you have any idea what would happen to you if you were caught with your hand up the princess’s skirt?” Dumbfounded, she just blinked at her captain as he continued, “This cannot happen again. And you absolutely cannot raise an alarm trying to sneak out of her room at night. You know everyone’s on high alert for her safety.”

"Sir, I-" she began, only to have him cut her off.

"Don't try to pretend it wasn't you. I know you sneaked into the south garden today, and last week, and who knows how many times you did it before that. You better hope nobody realizes that only one of our own could have gotten away just now. That would lead to questions you don't want asked.” He sighed and shook his head. “Damn it, Emma, you're acting like a complete idiot. It's like you want to throw your life away." He paused, momentarily running out of dire warnings. “I still don’t know how you got back in here unnoticed.”

“I was trained by the best thief in Lukmán, sir.”

David didn’t seem amused by her plucky response, but his tone was a little less angry as he went on, “You got lucky this time, but eventually your luck’s gonna run out. How will she feel if you end up in the dungeon, or dead? But,” and his voice and face hardened again, “if I ever hear so much as a whisper about this again I will personally order your arrest. Have I made myself clear?" Even after she nodded, he stared at her for a long moment. Then he continued, “Get your men ready first thing in the morning and be out by midday. You need some time away from the city to get your priorities straight."

“Yes, sir," Emma winced, stung with guilt because she knew her patrol was looking forward to an extra day off.

"Now, go. This conversation never happened.”

“No, sir.”

**

May 24th

It had been a short trip, since they’d finally found an encampment in the low hills surrounding Silben that had always eluded them during earlier missions. Word had gotten around that the Guard was really clearing up the roads, and some of the villagers had become a bit friendlier, producing some useful information. On top of that, the bandits had surrendered without a fight, and the men were in great spirits as they arrived at the Palace complex. 

Of course, focusing on nearby problems was deliberate, because Emma was very frustrated by David's decision to punish not only her, but her team. She was also anxious to return to the city and knew the only way she could do that was with recruits. Rushing out in a panic wasn’t exactly the way to treat a lady after an intense sexual encounter, not to mention that it had left her with many questions that she hoped would be answered by seeing Regina again.

It was very risky. Emma could vividly imagine herself in prison, and destitute afterward having resigned this position in disgrace. And for what, exactly? Some woman who was going to be married to someone else in a chess game of power and influence any time now? Her head knew she should just stay away, but remembering the way Regina had looked at her in those stolen moments made it impossible to stay resolved. 

As she walked to the barracks after stabling Bug, she ran through her limited options. Trying to get into Regina's room again was suicidal, so that left only her walks in the garden, except that she was fairly sure the princess wouldn’t be left alone anymore. The whole time she bathed and unpacked she racked her brains for a plan. Each idea was more stupid than the last, including trying to bribe one of her fellow Guards and disguising herself as one of the household servants, so she shook her head and went to dinner. Food often helped.

She returned the waves, nods and smiles from her colleagues as she scanned the dining hall. Then she made a snap decision and crossed the room to take an open patch of bench next to Snow, who she hadn’t spoken to in over a week. Emma not only truly liked the older woman, but was also desperate to find out if she knew that Regina had had a guest the other night. Or, god forbid, that she knew it was Emma.

“Good evening, Corporal,” Emma greeted, watching her reaction carefully. 

“Likewise Lieutenant,” she returned, sweet and genuine as ever. “How are things out in the country?”

“Good. We had a very successful week."

Snow grinned. "So I heard."

"People talk a lot around here, huh?" Emma tried, still wanting to gauge the gossip among the ranks.

"Oh, some of your boys were in earlier, and they were triumphant." Snow smiled. "They could hardly contain themselves."

Emma chuckled. "It's good that they're eager, isn't it?"

"Oh absolutely,” Snow agreed, painfully earnest. “It's getting some folks excited about their job again. In fact, if I were younger, maybe I'd join you in the saddle."

"That's saying something! I thought palace work was considered pretty nice."

The corporal gave a gusty sigh. "There was a time that was true. But-" Snow stopped herself, looking around at the hall that was starting to empty. "I shouldn't say, sir," she said, lowering her voice, "but it's not as easy as it once was."

"How so?" Emma kept her tone casual by sheer force of will.

Snow shook her head. "The royal family's lovely in general, but that princess- She's got a will of her own. I think you know what I'm talking about?"

Emma was stunned into silence.

Then Snow elaborated, "Mig told us on Her Highness’s detail about her unscheduled visit to the city last month, said you brought her in."

"Oh, yeah," Emma agreed, relieved. "Is that- uh- sort of thing common for Her Highness?"

Snow nodded sadly. "These days, every chance she gets, she's trying to lose us." She sighed. "It wasn't always so. She was such a sweet child. Loved horses." Emma couldn't suppress a smile, because somehow it was so Regina. "Now, she's determined and crafty," the older woman finished.

"I think those are good qualities in a person,” Emma said, feeling compelled to defend Regina’s honor somehow.

"In a soldier, maybe,” Snow half-agreed. “But a soldier you can discipline when they take it too far. What do you do with an unruly princess?"

Emma had a sudden vision of hauling Regina over her knee and spanking her, and quickly turned a chuckle into a cough.

"Are you ok?"

"Yeah,” Emma insisted, though she couldn’t quite look Snow in the eye until the image had left her mind. It felt like thinking about sex in front of someone’s mother. "How often are you having trouble?" she asked, trying to move the conversation along. 

"Oh, every day sir." Snow stopped, and frowned. "I'm sorry, I don't mean to complain and I'm sure Mig wouldn’t like it. He doesn't tolerate talk about the royals."

"My lips are sealed.”

"I do appreciate it, sir."

**

Stepping out onto the fortified wall that separated the Palace complex from the rest of the city, Emma waved to the Guard on duty, Enrique, who she’d met during her early weeks here. She couldn't begin to understand how he tolerated having Killian as his supervisor, given that his calm, kind nature was such a contrast with the Sergeant's empty boasting, but he had been in this unit long past the minimum required.

"Good evening Sir," the Sharmarian greeted with a polite smile.

"Good evening," she replied, looking out over the city.

"Can I help you?" he asked after a moment.

"No Corporal, don’t let me disturb you. I'm just here for the view, to clear my head a little."

"Very good, sir. It can be very- close, inside," he agreed, nodding toward the complex of buildings.

Emma tipped her head in agreement, then began to stroll along the length of the long, curving wall. When she was sure Enrique's attention was on the roads below, she turned to study the keep. Her conversation with Snow had settled her down considerably. If Regina was determined to elude her escorts, she eventually would, and Emma just had to wait and watch for the right moment. 

Chapter Text

May 25th

The next morning dawned brightly, and Emma was up early despite having lingered on the wall far into the night with her thoughts wandering. She was grateful that Enrique seemed to not mind her presence, or even feel the need to make conversation when his patrol route passed by.

She found David in his office finishing his morning meal and looking over some ledgers with a pronounced scowl. Though the door was open, Emma knocked on the door frame, not wanting to catch the sharp end of his mood by barging in on him. 

"Come in Lieutenant," he said without looking up. Emma had to smile a little at his impressive peripheral vision. "I didn't expect you back so soon," the captain continued, finally looking at her when she sat down.

"We had good hunting this time." She tried to keep her tone casual and factual.

"That's lucky."

Emma wondered just how long he was planning to punish her. "I came to make my report."

"Please do," he sighed, letting the tension go out of his shoulders. "I could use some good news. The financial advisor's little bird took a crap on me this morning." He indicated the reports written in a tight script.

Emma chuckled at the characterization of the small, nervous assistant. "He does remind me of a bird, now that you mention it."

"Yep."

Emma gave a summary of how their trip had gone, and by the end David had a genuine smile. "Please relay my thanks to your team for their service," he said, before dismissing her with a sigh to go back to the report in front of him.

**

Emma headed to the exercise yard, badly in need of distraction from her frustrations and thoughts of Regina. Wrapping her hands, she chose the sand-filled bag hung in one corner and started punching. For long minutes, she worked steadily, her blows soon falling into a soothingly consistent rhythm. After spending most of her time under continual risk out in the country for the last several weeks, it was nice to stop thinking and just do the physical part.

Gradually, the muscles in her arms began to burn in a very satisfying way, and only then did she slow her assault on the hapless burlap. Stretching, she looked around, appreciating both the sun and the light breeze that helped cool her down. As she unwrapped her hands to continue her workout, she stepped into the open part of the yard to check out the activity there. Everything was as it should be, with the new recruits training and the grooms exercising the horses. She took a deep breath, then belted her sword back on and started another series of exercises, working around some targets set up on the hard-packed earth. 

As she paused to take a drink a while later, she saw motion out of the corner of her eye. As she turned and saw that it was a piece of fabric fluttering in the breeze, she reached up and grabbed it, then moved into the shadows near the stable, without quite even deciding to do so.

In the next second, her conscious mind processed what she had unconsciously realized. It was Regina's scarf, the same one that had caught in a tree in Queen's Park a month ago. The princess's voice, sharp with the whip of command, soon followed. "Killian, for the love of- If I'm not safe in the Guard compound I'm not safe anywhere. Give me five minutes' peace to get my own damned scarf." 

Emma slid even further out of sight and waited, smiling at Regina's ingenuity and fierce tone. Soon enough, she came into view, glancing around to make sure that they were unobserved before making a beeline to where the soldier stood.

They ducked into the concealing, if musty, enclosure of the stable. As they clasped each other tightly, Emma felt their inexplicable, but profound feeling of connection wash over her.

"I was worried," Regina said, "but I heard David's update today and realized you'd been out on patrol again."

"Regina, he knows about-" Emma paused, searching for the right phrasing. 

Fortunately, the princess knew what she meant. "How?"

"He caught me sneaking back into the guard compound the other night. And it sounded like he, or somebody, spotted me leaving the garden before."

"Oh," Regina bit her lower lip in thought.

"So I can't see you again,” Emma said, aching to have to say it, but needing to be clear. “At least not unless we figure out something else. If someone saw me here now," she trailed off, suddenly afraid of the thought.

"I know. Thank you for telling me. For not letting me think- "

Emma interrupted her with a kiss that, though rushed, was tender.

"Your highness!" The extremely annoyed-sounding shout clearly came from nearby.

"You have to-" Emma started.

"I'll go," Regina said. "We'll try to think of something. I don’t want to have to miss you." Another quick kiss, and she was gone.

**

Emma tried the rest of the day to settle herself by moving through mundane tasks—caring for her gear and for Bug, looking over the map for her next patrol, even walking the walls.

By nightfall, she still felt like she was about to crawl out of her skin even though her workout had left her dead tired. She was in desperate need of a distraction. Once, that would have been an easy trip to the Mage’s Quarter, but it didn’t feel right to go back to Maleficent after Regina. She had this special- thing cradled in her chest even if she still couldn’t quite make sense of it, and the thought of distracting herself from that with the casual abandon of bodies made her feel more unsettled. But in the end, needing to stop thinking even if only for a little while, she washed up and headed out.

It was quiet, even as the Quarter went, as the soldier waited on the top step outside Maleficent's massive wooden door for a response to her knock. Several minutes passed with Emma looking up and down the darkened street increasingly less casually, before she hesitantly lifted the knocker again and paused, asking herself whether, if the mage didn’t answer, it meant she didn’t want to be disturbed. 

A moment more, and she decided there was no way around it and knocked a second time. The door was soon answered, not by the mistress of the house, but by her cook. Emma had met the young man once before, the night she had dined with the mage.

"Lieutenant," he greeted tonelessly with a slight dip of his head.

"Is the lady of the house available?"

"No." She remembered him as not particularly talkative, and he was certainly giving her the bare minimum now.

"Do you know when she might be available?" she tried again.

"The Lady Maleficent is indisposed for the foreseeable future."

"I see. Can you tell her I called?"

"I am afraid not." Emma was fighting the urge to physically shake information out of him when he suddenly seemed to remember, "She did leave something for you." He rifled through a small basket on the table near the door, which Emma could see had several folded pieces of parchment.

Emma managed to thank him when he finally handed over the latter. Once he had closed the door again, she sat down on the steps and opened it. A small silver charm fell out into her hand, and she looked at it in confusion for a moment before using the moonlight to read the finely turned script, so perfect and precise that it had to have been written by dictation spell.

Emma, darling,

There's been no response from Philip, which isn't at all like him. I'm leaving for Lukmán to investigate personally. Since the night you told me about the Xan, I have had a growing sense of unease; something is out of balance in the world and I'm beginning to feel it everywhere.

I am sure that between your tattoo and your elemental guardians, you will be fine, but should you require more tangible assistance I’ll do what I can. I trust that you can use magical artifacts despite your wards; this one has been imbued with Distance Speak. Read the incantation below, then concentrate on me. I hope that I am wrong and you'll have no need of it.

Do stay safe. I'm not through with you yet.

-M

Emma stared at the talisman for a long moment, then sighed and pocketed it. Turning to head back to her lonely bed, she wondered what else could go wrong.

Chapter Text

June 1st

"Finally, something’s going right," Emma said to the mirror, twitching her new formal uniform to make the cloth fall neatly. It wasn’t the fancy clothes she liked, though, but the occasion it was for.

This most recent patrol had been a short one. David told her to return to the city by the end of the month, whether they had any recruits or not. He hadn’t given her any other information, just said to report to him for an assignment. Even while Emma feared some new unpleasant surprise from her commander, her team was thrilled by their early return, as each year the kingdom of Marna had a huge festival to celebrate the beginning of summer. While they would each have to work a shift somewhere in the city to keep the celebration from getting out of hand, they would also have time to enjoy themselves.

Just that morning, Emma had found her own reason to smile as David called her into his office and finally explained her mysterious assignment.

"In addition to the soldiers regularly on palace duty, the Queen has ordered that all of the Lieutenants serve at this evening's ball." He placed the slightest emphasis on the word 'all,' and it would have given Emma pause except she was distracted by the realization that she was being asked to attend an event given by the royal family.

He continued, "Your formal uniform will be available from the armory after lunch. You will follow Mig's orders on anything about this assignment, without question, as you would mine. Your letters of recommendation said you’re familiar with the proper manners for royal functions?” She nodded quickly. “I trust that you won’t embarrass the King, myself, or the Guard."

"Yes, sir." Emma kept her tone carefully neutral.

He looked at her sternly for a long moment as if deciding whether to say something else, but then dismissed her without another word.

Emma found out later from Henry that the other lieutenants had known they were going to have this assignment for a couple of weeks, and that it was very common for the lieutenants to be attendants-at-arms at the palace during special events. She was angry for a moment, but then realized David could have just “forgotten” to tell her to come back in time. She took a deep breath told herself to be grateful.

**

The palace was full, as not only most of the high society of Silben but some of the nobles from the other parts of the country had showed up to partake of the King's hospitality.

Emma scanned the room, her face carefully blank, as she assumed a familiar role. Eyes and ears open, mouth shut, she'd been told all those years ago, and it had always been good advice. This evening was no exception. She'd overheard a few of the guests complaining at the extra hassle getting into the city and then the palace, but it was clear that the reason—the hostile messages from Kranna—was not widely known. There were almost no mages, and that was very different than she was used to from serving at royal functions in Ilmena, but even by comparison to her father's court, which she had occasionally spied on when she was little. It seemed foolish to ignore mages as the Marnans seemed to.

Emma was stationed in an outer hall, and consequently hadn’t seen any members of the royal family despite standing Guard for nearly three hours now. Her vigil was broken with a sudden, "You, there," barked in her direction. Emma turned and saw an older noblewoman in far too much fur for this late in the season.

"My lady." Emma gave a polite bow. "How can I help you?"

"Have you seen my husband? I'm just sure he's run off with the first mature, fleshy one that he came across," she added, half to herself.

"My lady?" Emma asked again, surprise making her voice raise in pitch.

"Wine, soldier, a nice flask of wine." She laughed loudly and unexpectedly, clearly having had a bit to drink herself.

"And who is your husband, Lady?"

"Isaac the Great, of course," she said, as if that should have been obvious.

"Yes, Lady, of course. Um, I haven’t seen Lord Isaac." Emma knew better than to confess that she wasn’t really sure who he was.

"Lord, ha!" The Lady leaned in, confiding far more loudly than necessary, "He may be magical, but I am the King's third cousin. By Blood!" she added triumphantly. Oh, that Isaac.

"Your Ladyship," Emma responded, her voice a little choked as she tried to sound deferent and suppress a laugh at the same time.

"Lady Cruella," she supplied. "You'll help me find him then," Cruella concluded.

"Yes, of course," Emma signaled to the nearest soldier. "The Lady has asked for my help,” she explained when he came over. “I’ll be back as soon as possible." He nodded and gave a brisk salute. Mig, planning for this kind of request, had rotating Guards ready to fill positions left by those helping guests.

Emma offered her arm to Cruella, and then they set off toward the main hall. As they got closer to the center of the party, it became loud and overly warm, but Emma had to suppress a smile as Cruella continued to enumerate, in a practiced way, the many faults of her absent husband. It was all she could do not to laugh outright at her manner and her creative insults that still managed to convey a familiar affection. She kept an eye out for the mage she vaguely remembered encountering once in the street, or at least another soldier she could ask, but it was difficult to make their way through the crowd.

"Damn you, make way!" Lady Cruella swatted in the direction of a knot of young men. "No manners, no sense of themselves," she muttered. "Not like you my dear," she added to Emma, groping her arm muscles a bit.

"Thank you, Lady," Emma replied with careful seriousness.

Gradually, they made progress through the room. Emma saw the King and Queen sitting at the head table surrounded by many people, but not their child. She frowned a little, but continued looking around.

"Do you see him?" the older woman tugged her arm, reminding her what she was supposed to be doing.

"No, I'm sorry my Lady."

"Your Ladyship," another voice broke in. Emma looked over in surprise as a blonde woman appeared beside the Lady Cruella with a deferential bow.

"And with whom am I speaking?" The older woman countered.

"I am Kathryn, my Lady, and I attend the Princess Regina. She greets her cousin and would like to speak with you."

Cruella glanced at Emma to make sure the soldier had noted how important she was. 

Emma could not have cared less about the lady's triumph, however, as she’d finally spotted Regina. The princess appeared to graciously dismiss the knot of companions that had surrounded her and obscured her from view, then gestured to them to come over. As they approached, Emma took a moment to just drink her in. She wore an elegant dress that clung to her body in all the right ways without being inappropriate, and Emma’s mouth went a little dry just watching her.

Emma bowed deeply as they arrived while the Lady Cruella gave a deferential nod.

"Cousin." Regina leaned in to air-kiss at Cruella’s cheek, defusing the formality. "How lovely to see you." Emma, appreciating the grace with which Regina moved despite how elaborate her skirts were, stepped back as Cruella unhooked her hand from her elbow.

"And you," the older woman replied. "I trust you’re enjoying yourself? Of course you are!” she answered her own question. “A pretty thing like yourself at the summer festival," she broke off in a knowing, if overly loud laugh.

"Yes. Thank you, Cousin." Emma quietly admired Regina's poise as she continued, "And how are you this evening?"

"The usual, darling. My husband has disappeared. Your father's hireling here was helping me find him." She wiggled her fingers in Emma’s direction.

Regina's mouth quirked only slightly as she glanced at Emma where she stood a polite distance away. Then she turned back to her attendant. "Kathryn, didn’t we see Isaac just a bit ago admiring the new barrel father had opened?"

"I believe so, Highness."

 Lady Cruella shot Emma another You see? look. Emma smiled noncommittally.

"Please then, Kathryn, take her Ladyship and reunite her with her husband. I would hate for them to not enjoy this evening together."

"My Lady," Kathryn replied in a low tone that Emma strained to hear without giving herself away, "you know that your mother ordered me to stay close to you."

"Help her ladyship," Regina repeated firmly. She then added in a softer tone, "I will be fine with this," and she flicked a casual glance at the insignia sewn on Emma's uniform shoulder, "Lieutenant. Perfectly safe, I'm sure."

Kathryn frowned, then curtsied to her mistress, before taking Cruella's arm. 

"Thank you, Highness. Your own attendant!"

"Anything for my dear cousin."

"Though," Lady Cruella added as she started walking away, "what will this brave soldier do without me?" She then laughed at her own cleverness while Kathryn gave her a bewildered look.

Regina turned back to the now smiling soldier, "Don't be too flattered, Lieutenant. My cousin is well into her wine." Her tone was pleasant despite the words, and Emma realized her intent and simply bowed her head slightly in acknowledgement.

"Do you know Isaac, Lieutenant?" Regina kept up an easy, conversational tone, not looking at Emma at all now as her eyes wandered the room.

"I stopped him from incinerating a thief once, but not really," Emma returned in the same way, her eyes also fixed on the crowd.

"It was very kind to help her ladyship look for him, then," Regina teased.

"And it’s generous of you to offer your own lady in waiting. Any assistance I can provide is my duty and my," she emphasized, "pleasure, Highness."

"In that case, I require your assistance in the hallway." After a beat, she added, "Now."

Regina slipped through a small side archway and Emma waited a few moments and then followed. The princess was nowhere to be seen in the empty corridor, and the soldier was bewildered as she started walking in the direction she seemed to have gone. Then, a delicate, but strong hand reached out of an alcove and dragged her in for a fervent kiss.

"Regina-" Emma hissed as they broke apart. "Regina- I can not do this. Not here, not now."

"Wrong, Lieutenant," she whispered in return, imperious, "You just can not get caught."

“I-” Emma began, trying desperately to overrule her heart with her head.

Then Regina leaned in and whispered hotly into her ear, “I’ve been thinking about you all night. I knew you were here and I couldn’t stop fantasizing about you taking me up against the wall, or bending me over, or getting on your knees for me. I’m so wet for you.”

“Oh fuck,” Emma moaned as Regina pressed hot, open-mouthed kisses to her neck. “How can we possibly-? You’re wearing ten yards of fabric.”

“And no panties,” Regina added.

Emma choked on air, then pointed out, “There’s no way your skirt can scrunch enough. I’d have to crawl under.”

Her heart wasn’t in the protest, and Regina knew it. “And?”

And, as Emma thought about it, giving Regina pleasure was absolutely worth risking arrest. So she got on her knees and raised the billowing skirt over her head, the intoxicating smell of Regina’s arousal hitting her immediately.

“You weren’t kidding.”

Regina responded by grabbing her head through the fabric and pulling her forward, and Emma went gladly. There was no time for slow build-up, because the risk that they would be caught grew with each moment, but there was also no need, because Regina was incredibly wet. Emma made quick, steady strokes on her clit, resisting the urge to rub her face in her wetness as well as to groan out her enjoyment.

She had just begun fluttering faster when she heard, “Highness?”

Emma froze, tongue still buried in Regina’s pussy and praying that her boots were covered by the large skirt.

“Yes?” Regina’s composure was impressive.

“Is everything alright?” It was Mulan.

“Oh yes,” Regina answered lightly. “I just wanted to get some air. It’s very crowded in the hall.”

“Do you need an attendant, Highness? Wasn’t Lieutenant Swan escorting you?” She would try to nail Emma for shirking her duty.

“Not that I have to explain myself,” Regina said, a touch of haughtiness in her voice, “but I sent her on an errand. Now kindly stop disturbing me.”

“Yes, Highness.”

As soon as Emma could no longer hear the sound of her footsteps, Regina’s hand was on her head again, clutching hard even through the layered skirt. “Emma,” she hissed. “We have to hurry, I-”

Emma was sucking at her clit before she could even finish the sentence, pulling a “Yes” from her throat, almost a sob.

Soon Regina’s hips were twitching hard and Emma slid her hands up her legs to the stiff edge of her corset to hold her steady as she sucked harder, her tongue swirling relentlessly as the tension built in Regina’s body.

Then she came, her moan muffled by the hand that abruptly left Emma’s head.

Emma knew she should stay under Regina’s skirt until she knew the coast was clear, but the princess’s legs were trembling so hard she thought she might fall, and she needed to see her. Fortunately, the hall was still deserted, and she pulled Regina against her as much as the dress allowed.

In the next moment Regina was kissing her own wetness off Emma’s lips, her hands under the edge of Emma’s tunic and pulling at the laces of her pants.

“It’s okay, I can wait. It’s really risky,” Emma murmured.

“I need it. I need to feel you,” Regina insisted, a hint of a whine in her voice, and fuck, so did she.

Between the two of them, they got the pants open enough for Regina’s hand to slip inside, and Emma gritted her teeth to keep from moaning when her fingers stroked her.

“So wet,” Regina breathed.

“Love touching you,” Emma explained.

Regina didn’t quite have enough room to push her fingers inside, but the way she rubbed steady, precise circles on Emma’s clit was plenty to make her go out of her mind. Then Regina was kissing her deeply, tongue filling her mouth the way her fingers couldn’t fill her cunt. Rational thought fled, and all Emma could do was hold on and moan into her mouth.

The princess knew with maddening certainty exactly what to do at any given moment, intensifying her touch exactly in tune with what Emma needed, and it was impossibly, improbably, unbearably good. Emma, already half way there from the exquisite pleasure of eating Regina, felt herself spiraling up quickly.

Then she came, hard, and it took every ounce of her will to be silent.

Regina rested their foreheads together, then kissed her sweetly. “I can’t stay any longer.”

“That’s ok,” Emma panted.

Regina smiled, then licked her fingers as she walked away.

Chapter Text

June 15th

“Holy shit,” Emma breathed, looking at the army spread out below her from the only hill for miles. “There’s gotta be ten thousand of them. And you said they had Krannan banners?” Tom nodded. “Alright,” she said, her mind working feverishly. “Bug is the fastest horse-”

“You can’t leave us!” Victor exclaimed.

“Let me finish, and don’t be a coward,” she growled. She held his eyes for a moment, then continued, “Bug’s the fastest and Henry’s the lightest.” She looked at the youngster. “Get back to Silben as fast as you can. Don’t stop for anything. Just make sure Bug gets a good rubdown when you arrive. And an apple.”

He gulped audibly, but nodded, and led his own horse over to trade with Emma. The lieutenant took a moment with Bug, rubbing the mare's nose and saying, “Alright, girl, you have to go fast now,” then tipped her head at Henry to mount up. She used the cover of removing her bow and quiver from the saddle to whisper, “Tell David they’re coming for Princess Regina. Don’t ask how I know,” she added warningly. “Just do it.” Then, louder, “All set. Now go!”

Once Henry had taken off, Emma took a deep breath. “Well, guys, if you’re done pissing yourselves in terror,” she said with another sharp look at Victor, “start cutting branches. Let’s go see what they want.”

“Are you crazy?” Billy demanded. “Take on an army of thousands with a fifteen—no, fourteen—person squad? We’re bandit patrol!”

“Do you think the branches are for decoration? It’s the international symbol for wanting to have a diplomatic meeting with an enemy-” They looked at her blankly. “What do they teach you in that damn training? Whatever. They may not be bandits, but they’re a threat to the kingdom, so we’re going to do our jobs and assess the threat. For fuck’s sake, there’s an army in our country.” Billy’s brow furrowed as if he wanted to remind her he wasn’t from here, and she added, “We’re soldiers paid by the crown. It’s our country for as long as that’s true. So get cutting, and then change into uniform. Let’s hope they abide by international codes of military honor.”

“And if they don’t?” Tom managed, just barely, not to squeak.

“Then we’ll make very attractive targets for their archers.”

**

"Who is addressing me?" The Krannan commander spoke in flawless, but distinctly contemptuous, Marnan.

"I am Lieutenant Emma Swan. And you are?" Emma's Krannan was significantly less impressive, but passable. 

"Kommandant Walsh. I’m here to retrieve something for my king. You, your men, and all soldiers of Marna will let us pass."

"What are you looking for? If it belongs to the Krannan crown, maybe we can help." She switched back to Marnan, but it didn’t really make her sound more convincing given his vast military strength, and insinuating that he had no right to Regina was all the defiance she could manage.

"That is between your King Henry, myself, and King Leopold. Your involvement would be- unwelcome."

"I see."

"Do you, Emma Swan? You see that we’ve passed peacefully through your country so far. But you must also see that I’m determined to fulfill my mission."

Emma just clenched her jaw, because what could she say to that?

"Tell your king this," he continued. "That’s why you’re here, isn’t it? My advance companies will be at the gates of Silben in five days. When we arrive, he’ll present to me, the emissary of Leopold the Great, what we’ve requested. Then we’ll leave his lands, and you won’t hear from us again. If he refuses, we will take Silben by force and extract what we want. We will kill all of his soldiers. We will destroy his country village by village."

Emma hadn’t been expecting anything different, but it still enraged her to hear it.

"We’re finished here," the Krannan said abruptly. "You should leave."

Teeth still gritted to keep herself from snarling something back at him that would get them all killed, Emma spun on her heel and exited the tent, flanked by Little John and Victor. The rest of the men, stationed outside but within earshot, snapped to attention as she came into view, though half looked terrified and the others ready to teach the Krannan manners with their bare hands.

"Move," Emma barked, then added in an undertone, "Walk tall, walk slow. We’re not afraid."

A couple of the men muttered something to the effect that yes, they were afraid to be turning their backs on an army threatening to sack the country unless it got its way.

Once they had left the Krannan camp and were out of earshot of the sentries, Emma explained, "Never show your fear to somebody stronger than you. Now we're out of sight, and we run like hell." 

**

They rode as hard as the horses could sustain, though Emma realized she didn’t have any information that would help. Being able to report on the Krannan forces wasn’t all that useful, it just made it painfully clear that the Marnan Guard didn’t stand a chance, particularly since Emma’s group would arrive only three days before the advance companies if the Krannan commander's statement was accurate.

Her patrol speculated endlessly about what the king would do and what the Krannans wanted. Even though Victor had, in a somewhat crude fashion, guessed the princess, Emma said nothing, though she couldn’t quite keep from scowling. The team took the hint and stopped asking her for her opinion after a few hours. She was tense and irritable when they did make camp, simply ordering the patrol to be ready to ride just after first light.

She inwardly cursed the king and his advisors for handling the situation with Leopold so poorly, though she could admit that the violent Krannan response was totally unexpected. How could an impoverished mountain kingdom even field an army this size? They must have conscripted nearly every able-bodied man. But then, they couldn’t be conscripts, because from what she’d seen in the camp they were distressingly well-trained and supplied. Regardless, the numbers Will had come up with when she told him to count their strength told her the situation was very bad.

Chapter Text

June 17th

When they finally arrived at the palace complex, she ordered Tom to take Henry's fatigued horse to the stables for her and immediately went to find David.

"Lieutenant," he greeted. "Henry arrived a while ago and I reported his message to the king and the advisors. Any further news?"

"Only that they’ll be here in three, maybe three and a half days. They'll take the princess or they’ll take the city by force. I can tell you about the details of the army if anybody thinks that’ll help." She certainly didn’t.

David shrugged noncommittally. "Well, the council wanted to see you when you returned." He frowned at her worn appearance. "Why don't you clean up a little and get something to drink while I request an audience? Report back here in a half an hour."

**

David met her at his office door and nodded at her improved cleanliness before leading her through a long hallway she’d never had reason to go in, which turned out to be a tunnel up to the keep. The Guards at the far end saluted as they passed and David waved them off distractedly. 

When they entered the council room, the king and queen were seated at the center of a long table filled with about a dozen people she assumed were the advisers. The princess was seated to her mother's left, looking down at her lap as if disinterested, but Emma would bet she was listening intently. When Regina did notice their entrance and look up, her expression was surprisingly unreadable. Their eyes met, but Regina looked away without showing any recognition.

"Your Majesties, Your Highness, My Lords and Ladies," David announced their presence to the group, and the room fell relatively silent. He and Emma bowed low before he continued, "I present Lieutenant Emma Swan."

King Henry waved his hand, "We don’t need the formalities Captain." David nodded in acknowledgement and took a step back.

He then addressed Emma directly, "Well, Lieutenant, under other circumstances I would say it’s nice to meet one of my newest officers. As it is," he sighed. "What do you have to report?" 

"Your Majesty, our scouts estimated that the Krannan army has eight thousand infantry, ten companies of cavalry and ten of archers with longbows. I met with their field commander, who told me the advance would be here on or around the 20th. He said he was here to acquire some- thing." She hoped her pause wasn't obvious, as she realized half way through "someone" that David had probably kept the extent of her knowledge secret to avoid questions.

"He must have conscripted the entire country and drained his coffers to outfit them!" Queen Cora exclaimed. Regina had always said her mother was the strategic mind in the household. "Did the Krannan commander say what it is they want, Lieutenant?" the queen continued.

It took all Emma's willpower not to let her eyes go to Regina in that moment. "No, Your Majesty. He seemed to think Your Majesty would know, and he said if the demand was met they’d leave peacefully."

"And if we refuse?" came the quiet question from the king.

Emma met his eyes and hesitated, then replied, "They will remove whatever it is they want by force and not spare the countryside as they leave." The room broke out into worried murmurs, and Emma wanted to be anywhere but there at that moment with the royal family and the collected advisers, who clearly knew what she was pretending not to. She clenched her jaw to stop herself from saying more, from urging them to hide Regina away on the next damn ship leaving the port.

"And could they do that?" the king asked.

"Highness, given how many there are, and their siege engines, I think they can."

"Are there other details that would be of interest to this council?" the queen prompted. 

"Not that I can think of, Your Majesty."

"Then you’re dismissed, Lieutenant,” Cora replied, taking control of the meeting fully. “I thank you and your men for returning to us so quickly. Captain, stay as we discuss this matter."

Emma bowed again, her stomach queasy with everything unsaid, and turned to leave.

**

Throughout that day and into the night, the royals and their advisers remained locked in the council chamber. Emma spent the time walking the walls, deciding that, if she wasn’t able to sleep anyway, she might as well inspect the fortifications to see if they had any hope to hold the city with barely three hundred Guards. Of course, even as well-fortified as Silben was, they didn't.

She had to speak firmly to several groups of soldiers as she went, telling them to stop spreading rumors and get back to work and refusing to answer any questions about what they had heard. One way or another, there would be an announcement soon enough.

**

June 18th

The following morning, David called the lieutenants into the meeting room early. Once they were assembled, he launched right in. "As some of you may have heard, a large force of Krannans has entered Marna. They’re coming toward Silben, and they’ve threatened destruction unless we meet their demands." He stopped, and took a deep breath as if making up his mind. "That demand is for Princess Regina." This provoked a lot of muttering among the assembled soldiers.

David held up his hand to silence them. “I’m sure you realize this is very serious, but the crown has put a plan in place. Each of you, in addition to covering regular duties, needs to get these messages delivered to the Lords in the countryside.” He paused to pick up one of the scrolls from the table to emphasize his point. “After delivering the call to arms, you or one of your Sergeants will stay with your assigned Lord to bring him and his men back to the city as quickly as possible. It is crucial that they arrive quickly. We must be able to move on Kranna within three weeks.”

Emma was stunned. Three weeks? Three weeks was fast?

“In the meantime, we have to maintain order, as citizens will of course be shocked by the invasion. King Henry will be addressing the people tomorrow, to announce the princess’ marriage to Leopold of Kranna, but there could be unrest. We have to keep order and prevent panic and lawlessness.”

David paused again, giving his next point more emphasis. “Gentlemen, we must execute these orders to our full ability and faithfully obey our king.” David seemed to focus this last statement particularly on the only non-gentleman in the room, though Emma had already recovered her composure and plastered on an expression of earnest attention. He continued, “The plan to raise an army is sound and history has proven that it works against this ancient enemy. We will strike back against this insult to our land and honor.” Then, almost as an afterthought, he added, “And, of course, ensure the safe return of Princess Regina. Now, for your assignments.”

He read off the list of lieutenants and their corresponding nobles, but Emma's name didn’t come up. As the other lieutenants collected the scrolls they were to deliver and filed out, she stayed behind. 

“Sir,” she began once they were alone, adrenaline singing through her veins, “my unit will be ready for a rescue mission immediately upon your command.” Obviously, that was why she didn’t have another assignment.

“That’s- admirable, Lieutenant. But your job is to make preparations for the incoming armies. The forces will camp in the fields south of the city. While the Lords are required by law to supply soldiers and materials, there are lots of other needs, as I’m sure you can imagine.”

"Sir, we can't leave her with the Krannans!" she exclaimed, not caring that she was bordering on insubordination. Once they got Regina into Kranna, extracting her would be almost impossible, regardless of the size of the army these morons thought they could raise in the next few weeks. 

"Think, Emma! What good does it do to rescue her if they turn right back around and destroy us? Our hands are tied until we have an army." Seeing the look on her face, he asked, "Am I going to have a problem with you, Lieutenant? I'd rather not have to relieve you of duty."

"No, sir." Emma saluted, then turned and left.

Chapter Text

June 20th

Inevitably, the day came.

Regina’s capture happened nearly invisibly, which was probably the only consideration granted to the Marnans in the whole situation. It was fully night when the group on horseback rode away from the palace, and the Guards on Nightwatch had been ordered to  make sure that the 'visitors' had a clear path, with extra patrols encouraging citizens not to wander the streets. The cloaked figured in the center could have been anyone, but Emma, watching from the walls, knew. She took another swig of disgusting but potent liquor, wishing the ache it tore down her throat could dull the one in her chest. 

Even though her bandit patrols were cancelled, Emma had been busy the last two days, beginning preparations for the army and pulling extra shifts patrolling the city at the captain's orders. Her head was uselessly swimming with the lists of requisitions and Regina's blank look in the council room and the entire Krannan army spread before them in the field. Her eyes were bloodshot not only from the awful booze, but because she couldn't sleep, and when she did she only had nightmares. 

She had tried to find a way to see Regina, or even to pass a message—anything to unravel the knot of impotent rage in her chest. With the crisis situation, however, there was no way. That brief, recognition-less moment of eye contact in the council chamber was all the goodbye she was going to get.

**

“What the hell, Emma?” Ruby demanded. Emma knew she deserved it, pounding on the door to the innkeeper’s residence in the middle of the night like this. She’d half-expected to catch the sharp end of Ruby’s crossbow and had a half-formed thought that it would put her out of her misery.

"Fuck me. Hurt me. Something. Make me forget," she pleaded, voice raw.

Ruby sighed and let her in, and her expression went from annoyed to horrified as Emma stepped into the light, confirming Emma’s suspicions that she’d made a mess of herself.

“What did you do?”

“Bar fight,” Emma said. She hadn’t had access to a mirror, but she could feel a split lip, a split eyebrow, and split knuckles. Blood was also leaking slowly from her nose and a long, but shallow knife wound to her ribs, and she was bruised in more places than she could count.

“Oh, Emma. Sit down,” Ruby insisted, pushing her onto a bench and crossing the room to rifle through a cabinet. 

Emma watched idly as Ruby pulled out a flask and some rags, then filled a shallow pan with water from the bucket by the door. Then she settled next to her and began cleaning her up with gentle but efficient motions.

“You want to tell me why you did this?” the innkeeper asked after several minutes.

“Did what?”

“Went out looking to get beat up.”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” she insisted, then winced as Ruby began applying whiskey to the cuts to clean them.

“You’re a terrible liar,” Ruby teased. Then she continued more seriously. “I’ve known you for a long time, Emma Swan, and I haven’t seen you like this since you gave up your baby. You lost someone important to you, and you’re trying to figure out how to go on.”

“He’s with his father. His father wanted to be a parent,” Emma insisted, reflexively, then trailed off into a whispered, “Don’t.”

Ruby didn’t push it. But when she’d finished tending Emma’s wounds and commanded her sternly to get home without getting any more, she pulled her into a tight, tight hug that went on and on and on.

**

June 21st

Emma jerked herself awake, the look on Regina's face seared into her memory. The princess's eyes had been pleading, even as her features contorted with pain, and they had never left Emma's. The soldier trembled, her eyes burning, unable to help remembering the way the man had cut off Regina’s dress, held her down, forced her. She tried to tell herself it was only a dream, but she just couldn't let it go.

Something shifted inside her and she realized she couldn’t let this happen. Her duty was to Regina, because it was the right thing to do and because she had trusted Emma so completely. David had been very clear: there wasn’t going to be an initial rescue effort, but while she liked and respected him, she couldn’t carry out his order that she stay and do her job. Someone else could figure out where the Lords’ armies would take a leak.

Leaping out of bed, she tore her saddlebags off the hooks in the wall and began to stuff essentials inside. Now that she’d made the decision, it was critical to get out of the city as soon as possible, and she took just a moment to scrawl a note: "Captain, I'm sorry. I have to try. -E." Leaving it in her now bare room, she went to the stable as quickly as she could without drawing attention.

Bug whinnied as her rider entered her stall and patted her side in greeting. “Hey girl, ready to run?” She slid the mare’s tack on smoothly, though she was sure the adrenaline rush would wear off sooner or later and she’d feel her aches and pains from last night again. Grabbing a pennant with the king’s seal that would help her exit the city quickly, she walked the horse to the side gate, only to find herself fumbling with the discs of the old lock. Though she turned them so that the symbols matched the master sequence David had shown her, the rusted metal wouldn’t budge.

Of course. She sighed and grasped the lock, bringing the unlocking spell to mind. She felt the tingle that accompanied spell-casting spread through her chest and down her arm, only to lose the gathering magic when the memory of just how large the Krannan army was pierced her concentration.

“Fuck,” Emma groaned, angry at herself for allowing her fear to distract her. She took a deep breath and cleared her mind. After repeating the words, she felt the magic channel through her and heard the small discs begin to spin. The lock clattered on the paving stones when it fell.

"Sir?" came a voice from behind her. It was Henry.

“Henry, um-” she floundered for a moment. She didn’t want to get him into trouble. “Henry, I’m just- ”

“Let me help,” the boy urged, his eyes widening as he took in her bruises. “I can help you.” 

“Henry, no, you can’t come. You have a future here. Just don’t tell anyone you saw me go. Do you understand?” The youth stared at her for a moment and then nodded once. “Thank you Henry," Emma dropped her bags to quickly enfold him in a hug. Then Henry helped her gather her gear and stepped out of her way with a thoughtful expression.

Emma pushed the heavy gate open and led Bug into the alley.

End of Part I

Chapter Text

June 25th

Laying belly down, the scent of moist earth tickling her nose, Emma observed the orderly and discouragingly well-guarded camp that was just beginning to still in the waning light. She had been on this small hill nearly an entire day, just watching, alternating between being encouraged and unnerved by the fact that the force that spread out below her was only about half of the army she had encountered days before, while Bug grew increasingly impatient.

She had seen the princess once during her vigil, and had to clamp down on a nearly overwhelming desire to just make a wild run for it. Regina hadn't looked as fully dressed as usual, and Emma's rage and fear had burned for a long moment at the thought of what Leopold might have planned for her. 

Her eyes had started to glaze over in sheer exhaustion when she heard Bug's warning snort and turned, heart pounding and dagger drawn, to peer into the evening light.

"Spirit compel me," she muttered, an Old Rowan entreaty, as she slowly crept toward where the mare was looking, trying to ignore the stiffness in her body. Once she was out from under the bush she’d been using as cover, she stood and traded her dagger for her sword as she headed further into the trees. It was a long moment before she heard anything other than her own breathing as she tensed to fight. Then came the sound of a stick cracking underfoot, and she crossed the distance in a few long strides and began to swing her sword.

"Aah! No!" the figure exclaimed, raising a dagger defensively.

As her mind processed that her stalker was way too small to be a Krannan soldier, Emma shifted the angle of her strike. And then there was that familiar voice that cried out again, "Wait!" 

"Henry?" Emma said as her sword thunked against a tree, inches from the young soldier. "What the hell are you doing here?" she demanded.

The boy shrugged a little and said, "I'm helping you save the princess."

"I told you to stay in Silben," Emma hissed.

"I know. But I thought you could use my help. So," Henry's confidence faltered a little, but he straightened his shoulders and finished, "so here I am."

Emma sucked in a breath to try and convince him to go, but looked at his earnest face and just let out an aggravated sigh.

"I'm not happy you came, Henry, but I'm glad you're here." He smiled broadly. "C’mon, let's take cover and keep quiet. How’d you find me, anyway?"

Henry grinned, "Well, finding the army wasn't that hard." Emma nodded. The Krannans were hardly making their presence a secret. "And, well, I've been paying attention during patrol, Sir. It wasn't easy, but I found the tracks of a single horse heading off from where the army passed, and figured you would have found some high ground," he indicated the little rise they were on. "And, I guess I was lucky."

Emma nodded, "Yeah, lucky it was me you found and not a Krannan scout."

Henry nodded back gravely. 

Emma let the last of her irritation go and smiled, clasping the boy’s shoulder, "Well, you have been paying attention on patrol—luck is one of the most important tools."

As they climbed back up into the tiny space under the foliage that was Emma's hiding place, she whispered, "Dear Henry, please tell me you've slept recently."

"A little."

Emma groaned in relief. "Could you take watch for a while? I'm exhausted."

"Yeah."

Once she was sure Henry knew what to look for in the camp below, she dropped into a fitful sleep.

**

June 27th

It was what Emma had been waiting for the past three days. A lone horseman left the camp mid-day and the road he was on passed through the forest not far from their position. They were clearly very confident that the Marnans wouldn’t attack to send a single soldier. Odds were good that he was a messenger, given the cylindrical parchment case strapped to his chest, and Emma was desperate for information.

She hissed at Henry to get his attention, then commanded, "We move now, quietly. There, to that place where the road narrows." Emma hoped that she'd be able to hatch a plan by the time she needed it. Fortunately, the rider was traveling at a steady but not fast pace and they were able to get in position in plenty of time. 

"Henry, listen carefully,” Emma murmured. “I don’t want to be talking once he can hear us. After I take him out, blindfold and tie him.” The boy gave a determined nod.

Then Emma turned her attention to the tilting, rotten tree she’d noticed by the side of the road, casting a spell to temporarily enhance her strength before bracing herself against a healthy tree and giving it a good heave. It was enough, and it fell across the trail. Then they hid out of sight just in time before the Krannan messenger came into sight. He cursed and dismounted, and Emma tensed, waiting for him to step to her side of the trail to lead the horse around.

There, he was close enough, and she hefted a sturdy branch, hitting him squarely on the back of the head and sending him down immediately. Henry was on him in the next moment and efficiently bound his hands and eyes while Emma soothed the horse. Then the boy stood over the Krannan, sword drawn, as Emma relieved him of the parchment case and opened the message.

It was a short note, but clearly addressed to Leopold, and she was glad to have her observations confirmed that the king was not in the camp. Emma had learned to speak some Krannan when she was growing up but rarely used it anymore—and reading the written language was definitely harder—but she was able to make out the general meaning: The commander was ready to move immediately north to the waiting place. The 'gift of blood' for the 'glorious ones' would create the expected change. It was signed 'Your loyal servant.'

It was the 'immediately' that made Emma most nervous, though 'gift of blood' and the absence of “marriage,” “queen,” or anything about Leopold taking Regina for his bride all sounded really bad. Emma wished the princess were with her to help translate, then nearly laughed at the irony of her thought.

"Change of plans, Henry," she whispered directly into the boy's ear as she tucked the letter into her shirt.

"There was a plan?" he mouthed in reply.

She gave him a sharp look, but continued her thought, this time out loud in the deepest, raspiest voice she could muster, in case the messenger was coming around. "Take everything valuable."

Henry looked surprised, but efficiently stripped the man of everything but his clothes while Emma rifled through the saddlebags. She worked quickly, then smacked the horse on the rump to send it running.

Emma then bound the soldier's feet with enough slack for him to take very small steps, which she hoped would allow them to rescue Regina before he could make it back to camp with any warning. It also made it unlikely that he’d die out in the woods. She couldn't quite bring herself to take out her rage at Krannans in general on this one in particular, especially since he might be a conscript.

"Let's go," she hissed, grabbing as much gear as she could and disappearing into the brush while the soldier started to groan and try to sit up.

Once they were out of earshot, Emma explained, "Making it look like a robbery will hopefully throw them off the track. We'll dump whatever we don't actually want to keep."

"What did you learn from the message?"

"That we need to move on that camp as soon as it’s dark."

**

"Sir, what's to keep them from assuming we've taken her back to Silben and attacking?" Henry asked as they approached the camp in the darkness.

Fuck. That was a very good point. "We'll just have to make sure they don't think she's in Silben," Emma replied airily, as if she had thought of that already. "Now go get in position. When you hear the signal, cut the rope on the enclosure and steal us a horse for Regina. Then get back here and be ready to run. With any luck, the rest of the horses will be spooked enough when I cast my spell to run off, and that’ll buy us some time." 

As the youth started off on his mission, Emma caught him by the shoulder and turned him to face her. "Be careful. And thank you."

He nodded and took off. In the meantime, Emma crouched out of sight to wait, and to concoct a way to misdirect that army.

Chapter Text

“You’re a sight for sore eyes,” Emma murmured as she slipped into the tent.

Regina, like a good ransom, was wrapped up all pretty, though instead of ribbons and colorful paper she wore a dress with a bodice so scant and plunging that Emma wondered how it stayed on.

 “What the hell are you doing here?” Regina demanded in a whisper. “You have to go! They’ll kill you.”

Emma just grinned. “You’re coming, too. I’m rescuing you.” She used her dagger to cut the ropes around Regina's hands and feet.

“Are you insane? There are thousands of soldiers out there! I don’t know how you got in here, but I certainly can’t just walk out.”

“I’ve got it covered.” Regina looked skeptical. “Hey, trust me.” She reached out and gave her hand a squeeze.

Regina’s glare softened, then disappeared, and she nodded. She rose, stretching, from the chair where she’d been bound, and Emma hastily put her note, scrawled on some extra parchment she'd taken off the messenger, on the seat.

"What’s that?" Regina asked

"A false trail," she picked up the note and held it out. It said, in misspelled and otherwise broken Marnan, "I steel yur prize. I reeturn it fur price" and was signed, “The Banditt Keeng.”

Regina wrinkled her nose. "I didn't know your written Marnan was that bad."

Emma rolled her eyes. "Not mine, his. Bandit King. Think uneducated.” She shook herself, realizing they’d gotten distracted. “Come on, we have to go. Now," Emma said, gesturing to Regina to follow her to the tent flap. “It’s going to be very dark out there, so keep quiet, no matter what happens.” Locking eyes with Regina, Emma waited until she’d gotten a nod, then cleared her mind and cast the spell.  Then she grabbed Regina’s hand and dashed out into the pitch black she’d just caused.

While the Krannan army stumbled around, cursing and unsuccessfully trying to relight the torches and campfires, Emma carefully guided the princess to the nearby stand of trees where Henry was waiting with three horses. Helping Regina mount, the warrior whispered “Henry, go. Regina, follow. Trust the horses.”

As she mounted Bug, Emma felt magic gathering, and she could hear distinctly another magic-user casting Darksight. Cursing to herself, she urged the horse into a canter, but she hadn’t gone far before pain seared through her arm. It was an arrow, her mind unwillingly processed, though just a flesh wound.

**

Though Emma had used every woodscraft trick she knew, laying a couple of false trails and having them cross every stream they came to at least once, she still didn’t feel safe stopping, particularly since it was dark enough that they weren't traveling fast.

As she called another halt to make it look like they had taken a branching trail headed back toward Silben, Regina pulled her mount alongside Bug. 

"Hey," Emma said from where she crouched on the ground, brushing over their real tracks with a branch to make the fake ones more inviting.

“Hey," the princess replied, her voice tight.

As Emma stood, she put a hand on Regina's knee, sticking out where they’d slit the dress’s wide skirt to let her ride more easily, eager for even this smallest physical connection after almost losing her. It was only then that she realized that the princess was terrified and vibrating like a bowstring. 

“Regina," she said in a low tone so as to not be heard by Henry, "You’re okay. I’m okay. We’re okay. We’ll get through this.” 

Regina's face was still an impassive mask for a moment longer, then she sighed and her shoulders slumped.

“If it makes you feel better, you hide it well. You didn’t seem at all upset,” Emma said with a slight grin as she re-mounted and they got moving down the trail again, Regina in the middle and Emma slightly behind.

“I should hope so. I’m the heir, and I can’t very well lead my people weeping like a child.” Regina’s tone was sharp enough that Emma could tell she wasn’t quite ready to talk about how afraid she’d been, and indeed she immediately changed the subject, asking, "Will the mythical bandit king throw them off the track, do you think?" Her question was mildly sarcastic, but also genuinely concerned.

"Hopefully, just long enough. I figure they’ll either wait a day for a ransom demand or send soldiers out after some of the bandit camps until they figure out there is no such person. I'm sure the field commander won't be in much of a hurry to tell Leopold they've lost you, so that should also create a delay before they mobilize the whole force."

Regina frowned back over her shoulder.

"It was the best I could come up with on short notice," Emma shrugged apologetically, wincing at the pain in her arm. Ignoring Regina’s concerned look, she went on, "It also might buy David enough time to gather the army before they return to Silben."

Regina didn't seem comforted, saying quietly, "Maybe I should go back."

"What? Are you out of your mind?" Emma knew she was speaking louder than she should and she pulled up alongside Regina now as the trail widened.

"I don't know what Papi was thinking sending you to rescue me before the Krannans stood down." Emma was silent, not having the courage to tell her that her father hadn’t ordered a rescue at all. "If my marriage to Leopold will save the lives of some of Marna's citizens, I have to do it. That's why I agreed to go in the first place."

"You did what?" Emma was furious.

Regina glared right back at her. "You would have done the same, to save your people. Being married off. . ." she trailed off and looked a little pained, unable to finish her statement with conviction.

"Regina, they will kill you," Emma growled, emphasizing each word. 

"What are you talking about?"

"I captured a Krannan message. I couldn't read it as well as you would, but it said a lot about blood and glorious overlords and nothing at all about marriage to a beautiful woman."

Regina's mouth quirked involuntarily at this offhand compliment, even as she asked, "What?"

"I don't know. It said something about a," and she paused to try to remember, "They were expecting something and it had to do with a gift of blood? I saved the letter, so you can look at it once it's light to see what I missed."

"Of course. What now?"

"I think we should go to the library at the Eyad."

"In Ilmenea? That’ll take weeks! What about returning to Silben? Surely that was part of the plan-"

"The plan the king’s advisors cooked up would never have worked!” Emma’s frustration came out, despite herself. “They were going to just let you go and then we would never have gotten you back from Kranna. We can't go back to Silben."

"What are you saying?" Regina's voice was dangerously low.

"I came on my own. Well, Henry followed me, but- I left my post because I- You- It was the only way,” she finished in a rush, stumbling over her feelings and leaving several thoughts hanging unfinished in the night air.

"What about my family? How will they know what happened?" Regina asked quietly.

Emma thought briefly about pointing out that she’d willingly agreed to be taken by the Krannans, who were probably not going to be hand-delivering letters to the folks back home. Instead she just looked at Regina earnestly. "Look, it's just a few weeks- weeks you'll be out of their hands." Ignoring the strange twinge in her chest, she continued, "We need to know more about what is going on. And since we can’t ask the Krannans, let’s go someplace they have a big collection of their books."

Chapter Text

They had to stop, Emma finally decided, and she led them a good distance off the trail into a sheltered hollow. She would just have to hope she’d covered their tracks well enough, because she was beginning to feel faint and Regina and Henry were probably not a whole lot better. Her fatigue caught up to her as she dismounted, as she’d now gone almost ten days without sleeping or eating well. She’d also lost some blood tonight, and that didn’t help.

Once she and Henry had cared for the horses with efficient, practiced motions after months of bandit patrol, she pulled out some supplies from her saddlebag and beckoned the boy over. "Help me dress this?" He nodded agreement.

Emma stripped down to her undershirt, peeling the outer layer away gingerly where the blood had glued it to the wound. Looking at it for the first time in the watery moonlight, she could see that it was a long, shallow scrape that, though it made moving painful, would heal quickly. Meeting Henry's eyes, she commanded, "Use the brandy.”

He winced in sympathy. “Are you sure?”

“Yeah, it’ll stop infection. Assuming they don’t poison their arrows.” Emma hissed as the liquor was applied. “Alright, wrap it up,” she groaned through clenched teeth. As he tied off the bandage, Emma regained her composure. “Thanks, Henry. You feel up to taking first watch?”

He nodded and moved away, leaving Regina and Emma alone for the first time in a long and stressful while. They looked at each other, and it was clear there was both too much to say and nothing at all. Emma held out her good arm and enfolded Regina in it as she stepped closer. Regina’s earlier steely determination seemed to have left her, and she melted into Emma and laid her head on her shoulder. They stood like that for a minute, but Emma, knowing they had to get down to business, pulled away before long.

“It’s-” she squinted at the sky, “about six hours to morning. That means you and I sleep two hours, then I get up and take second watch, then you in four.” Seeing the princess’s eyes widen, she added, “I’ll watch with you to teach you how.” She paused, eyeing Regina speculatively. “But first we have to get you out of those clothes.”

With a flash of her tendency to mischief returning, Regina quirked a suggestive eyebrow at that and smiled. Emma chuckled. “Not that, though I would love to. The fact is, as delicious as you look in that dress, it’s terrible to travel in. My spare clothes should come close to fitting. Closer than Henry’s, anyway.”

As she pulled on leather breeches and a sturdy traveling shirt behind the concealing blanket Emma held up, Regina looked at her once, twice, her brow furrowed as if she was trying to decide something.

Eventually, Emma caught her eye. “What?”

“Why do you have the royal symbol of Rowa tattooed on your shoulder?”

“Family heirloom,” Emma shrugged, wincing and mentally commanding herself to stop doing that.

“Don’t give me that! I thought you were illegitimate.”

“Oh I am,” Emma assured her. “And when the king arranged for me to get the warding tattoo it was the last straw with the queen. That’s when I had to leave.”

“A warding tattoo? And you never mentioned this?”

“I don’t really like to shout it from the rooftops that I’m immune to most magic and the poisons known to ancient Rowa. It’s more effective when it’s a secret. And,” she added dryly, “it doesn’t come up in everyday conversation, unless I’m, you know, stripped down to have a wound treated.”

"How did I miss that the other night?" Regina murmured.

Emma grinned, very pleased with herself to have been so distracting, and Regina rolled her eyes. "Fair enough," the princess mumbled, seemingly satisfied for the moment.

“Okay, so, um, sleeping arrangements,” Emma said, figuring it was best to move on. “We took a bedroll off the messenger, so there are technically enough for all of us, but I can’t guarantee what his hygiene is like and you can definitely share with me but I don’t know if you want Henry to know and-”

Regina chuckled and kissed the tip of her nose, cutting off her rant. “I’m sleeping in your bed, Lieutenant Swan. Whether you join me is entirely up to you.”

“Yes, sir!” Emma teased.

They settled down, Regina spooned in front, but then the princess had a sudden realization and looked over her shoulder: “If you’re immune to magic, how did that archer hit you? It was pitch-black out there.”

 “The tattoo can’t do a thing about the horse,” Emma said playfully, then got serious. “Let’s get some sleep. Watch will be here before you know it.”

 “Yes, sir!” Regina echoed back her earlier teasing.

**

June 28th

They broke camp quickly in the morning, all eager to keep putting distance between themselves and that army, and since there was only the food taken off the messenger between the three of them, breakfast didn’t take long. Before Emma saddled Bug, she dug out the note they’d captured and handed it to Regina.

"I'm sure you can make more sense of it than me," she said, and the princess nodded acknowledgement.

Regina scanned the letter quickly, murmuring to herself. "You got the main points. They were headed north to what the writer is calling the Place of Waiting, but it's odd, it's not just a 'meeting place' like you’d expect a message to reference. It's a title, 'Place of Waiting.'" Regina shook her head a little, reading the next sentence, "The gift of blood will bring about the anticipated- hm, actually, it's more accurately 'foretold,' the foretold transformation of the glorious ones. It seems like he's quoting a text, because the linguistic style is a little stilted for a note." 

"Foretold?"

"Yes, like a prophecy or a prediction," Regina stopped suddenly, looking up from the paper, "He's talking about me? A blood sacrifice?"

Emma nodded gravely. "It fits."

Regina's scholarly fascination with the task of translation evaporated and she mechanically handed the note back to Emma.

Emma pulled her into a quick hug, then tucked the note back into the saddlebag. "Hey, you're safe now. But, just to keep it that way, let's get moving."

It was fairly slow going, as they continued to lay false trails and Emma insisted they cross the wide stream they found multiple times. Regina was unhappy about splashing through the stream, because while she wore some of Emma's traveling clothes, neither soldier's spare boots fit and her own fine slippers quickly became squishy and wet. 

Chapter Text

June 29th

“Alright, Henry, we just need the most basic supplies: bread, cheese, dried fruit and meat, things that’ll keep on the road." Glancing at the princess, she remembered, "And a pair of boots for Regina.”

Henry eyed the small pouch of currency he'd been given skeptically, then returned Emma's gaze and gave a slight nod to signal his understanding.

Emma half-smiled, remembering what it had been like to be his age. That was when she left the Ilmenean palace guard and became a sell-sword, escorting traders. She’d found it unbearable living in the same city as her baby after she’d surrendered her parental rights to his father, despite knowing it was the right choice. She was a lot like Henry then, quiet and determined, but well-liked, and the bonds she quickly formed with her comrades-in-arms had helped her feel less alone. So had being based out of Silben for the following six months and becoming fast friends with Ruby.

She shook off her reverie. “One more thing before you go.” She walked to the edge of the small clearing where they had camped and plucked the tip of a frond from a fern, grimacing as she moved too abruptly for the cut in her arm. Then she took the plant over to the remnants of their tiny fire, grabbing a piece of charred wood from the edge that was cool enough to touch and rubbing the feathery side over it as Regina and Henry looked on, confused.

Walking back to them, she ordered Henry, “Come here,” and, grasping his chin to tilt up his face, brushed the edges of his eyes and the sides of his mouth with the plant paintbrush, then after a moment’s more thought she gave his jawline a light dusting. Instantly, Henry aged at least a decade, looking as if he’d seen far more of the world than was good for him as the charcoal gave the impression of deep lines on his face and beard stubble.

“That’s amazing,” Regina said, almost to herself, then asked, “How did you learn that?”

“I did a lot of traveling when I was way too young to be on my own.” Emma returned her attention to Henry. “Very well, young Henry. Or, should I say, old Henry.” He groaned at her bad joke, and she winked and continued, “We’ll meet you on the far side. There’s a rock formation about a mile outside town, just north of true east. See what you can find out about bands of soldiers in the area while you’re in town. Just talk to people, casually, without drawing attention to yourself. Try to project confidence but don’t seem cocky. Seem like someone they don’t want to mess with, but not like you’re spoiling for a fight. Keep a low profile.”

“I’ve done some traveling too, you know,” Henry grumbled as he mounted and turned to go.

“Alright, go on, if you’re such an expert,” Emma growled at him playfully.

**

Henry was not there to greet them at the other end as Emma had expected.

“We can’t take a break to stretch our legs, she says, it’ll take us much longer through the forest than by the road, she says,” Regina teased, half-serious in her annoyance at how hard Emma had pushed them.

"I’m sorry. I guess I got a bit intense trying to keep you safe," she added, a bit defensive.

"You still honestly think they’ll catch up with us, after all the process for the past day and a half?"

"It’s definitely possible." 

Regina raised an unimpressed eyebrow.

“They want to kill you, remember? And now, I’m sure they want to kill me, too. So I’m gonna be careful." Emma was a little irritated at how not-seriously Regina was taking this.

“I'm so sorry I put you in danger," the princess said sarcastically. 

That stung, but Emma recognized the fear behind the sharp words. She took a deep breath, then tried to defuse the tension between them, saying softly, "If you're in danger, that's where I wanna be, but you have to understand that-" she stopped, not sure how to finish her sentence. "I care about you. I’ll do whatever it takes, even if it means annoying the most gorgeous woman I've ever met. But I’ll always apologize when I should.”

"Oh you will?" This with the barest hint of a question mark.

"Indeed, fair lady," Emma said, turning up the charm as she sidled up to the princess.

Regina lifted her head, as if haughtily, but they both knew it was primarily to give Emma access to her neck. "And how do you propose to apologize, soldier?"

"Well and thoroughly," she replied, pulling her close and nuzzling along her jaw. “But we can’t right now.”

Regina caught her as she started to pull away. "I thought I'd never see you again." The emotion in her voice was genuine, and so was the tremble in her body.

“Me too,” Emma murmured, holding her tightly. “And I practically want to count the hairs on your head to be sure you’re okay,” she said, only half-joking. “Maybe I will in Lukmán. And make up for all this."

"Acceptable," the princess conceded. "And now, what is it you're going to be making up for?"

"You caught that, huh?” Emma asked playfully. “If you could clear a space for a fire," Emma began the instructions, pointing to a sheltered spot that would be nearly invisible to potential pursuers.

**

Emma spotted Henry headed their way just as dusk was beginning to give way to night. She sighed in relief, then whistled to him. He instantly changed direction to join them in the little clearing. 

"Good to see you. We were getting a little worried," Emma said in greeting as she took the bag he held out.

"Yeah, sorry sir. It was kinda tricky to get everything we needed without being noticed. It's hard to do multiple-direction trades with strangers without people getting curious."

Emma clapped him on the shoulder, then gestured toward the small fire where Regina was watching a small bird roasting with seemingly deep concentration as she turned it on the makeshift spit. When she saw Henry, she smiled genuinely.

"You made dinner?" Henry asked, a bit surprised.

"Yes," the princess replied.

 Emma snorted. "I did the hunting, dressing, and putting it on the fire parts, but otherwise-”

Henry laughed, then seemed to remember that this was the princess of the realm and turned it into a cough.

 Regina smiled grudgingly at the teasing, then added with an arched eyebrow, "Like I said, yes." 

Chapter Text

As Emma returned from throwing the remains of their meal off into the woods, she teased, "Well, Highness, that was a very nice dinner."

"Thank you,” Regina acknowledged, still playfully taking credit. “Love makes food a meal,” she said with exaggerated modesty.

"I've heard that saying before," Henry said, though he tilted his head as if it confused him a bit.

“It’s fairly common in Marna, but you’re probably more familiar with the Ilmenean ‘Courage whets the appetite’ since you grew up in Lukmán,” Emma explained.

“And in Rowa, it’s ‘Spirit brings good cheer,’” Regina put in, unable to resist showing off.

“Kinda weird that we all have such a similar saying,” the boy mused.

“Not as strange as you’d think,” Regina said, always ready to share her vast education. “In ancient times, all the lands believed in the five elemental powers that brought good fortune. Traces of that belief remain in some of our common phrases even if people can’t remember what they mean anymore.”

“What are the elemental powers?” the boy asked eagerly.

“Sort of taking the elements and believing they were alive,” Emma put in, having learned this as part of her magic training and not above a little showing off herself. “Earth, water, fire, air-”

“Spirit,” she finished, just as Regina chimed in, “Love.”  They stared at each other for a long moment.

Then Regina began again, her tone deliberately light, "Yes, of course, each land calls it something different depending on their cultural values. It’s actually quite fascinating. And legend has it that one elemental force is slightly more powerful than the other four, and that’s what makes the world just a little more good than bad.”

“Which one is it?” Henry stared at her with rapt attention.

Regina looked challengingly at Emma. “Love.”

Emma choked a bit, sputtering “Yeah, well, it’s about time for first watch. I’ll take it tonight, Henry, you should get some sleep.”

Then she moved briskly toward the perimeter of their camp, telling herself she was not running away. She tried not to notice her companions staring after her.

**

June 30th

Emma wasn’t quite sure how she had ended up here, standing guard in southern Marna with a fifteen year old while the Marnan princess gave herself the scrub she claimed she just had to have “To wash the captivity off.” The weirdness of it all made her chuckle a little to herself. 

Henry looked over at her, and, seemingly finding a chuckling Emma more approachable than a silent one, suddenly asked, “So you need a book to learn how to do spells? Or a teacher who knows the spells?”

Emma blinked, surprised at the sudden questioning, then answered, “That’s how people usually do it. I’m sure it’s much harder without a teacher.”

“To tell you the words for the spell?” Henry was eager in the way that only the young can be, and Emma could tell he had no idea how hard magic was. At least he was curious rather than suspicious, which was probably due to growing up in Ilmenea rather than Marna.

“Well, not really. I guess-” Emma trailed off, looking off into the distance as she thought. “I think most people misunderstand spells. It might be clearer to say ‘invocation.’ A spell is really a way to focus intention; the important part is pulling together the magic that’s always around us in the world and directing it into what you want to happen. ‘It's the purpose, not the prose,' ” Emma finished with Merlin's favorite saying. 

“I didn’t know that. Though I guess that’s why you use regular words.”

Emma tipped her head to concede the point, then continued, “The spells that people use have been tested and refined over time so they’re the most effective at channeling magic. In theory it could be done with different words or without words at all. Though it would probably be really hard to focus.”

“So you've never used magic without a spell, sir?”

“Henry, you don’t have to call me ‘sir’ out here. It’s just Emma.” She probably wouldn’t have a rank at all by the time this was over. She might just be thrown in prison.

“Emma, then,” he corrected. “Have you?”

“Used magic without a spell?” Emma snorted. “No. In fact, it took me a long time to get beyond the words at all. I’d say incantations without meaning, study books of spells endlessly, but Merlin used to say I might as well be reading poetry.”

Henry chuckled a little, then looked contrite.

“What?”

“Just picturing you reciting poetry,” he explained. Emma frowned. “I’m sorry, really,” the young soldier added.

Emma shook her head, holding up a hand for silence as she listened. There was definitely someone out there, and headed their way. She motioned to Henry to stay there and guard Regina, then slid her sword out and headed toward the sound of parting underbrush.

Emma and her target both entered a small clearing at the same moment. It was a lone man leading a horse who, upon seeing her, growled “Spirit’s left tit!” as he fumbled for his sword.

Emma had only ever heard one person use a curse that foul. “Robin?” He stopped, sword half out, and looked at her, and she was sure. “Robin Hood.” What were the odds that she would meet her best friend from childhood here? Now that she knew who he was, she wondered why she hadn’t seen the resemblance sooner—it was the same dark blond hair, the same stocky form, though he seemed to have aged twice over in the ten years since she’d seen him.

“Emma?”

“Shit, man, I heard you were dead.” She had certainly spent a night with a bottle and her memories—their years as children with wooden swords, being separated when Robin had chosen to apprentice to the Foresters who kept eastern Rowa safe and orderly, then reunited when Emma had joined later hoping the queen’s anger about her tattoo would die down. She’d grieved. But here he was.

“Aye, well, reports of my demise were greatly exaggerated.” He grinned, and she sheathed her sword and embraced him.

“What are you doing here?”

He cocked his head at the waterskin slung over the pommel of his saddle. “Out of water. I knew there’d be a stream in here somewhere, since there are trees. How ‘bout you? Have you finally lost your mind and taken to wandering the woods with a naked sword?” he teased.

Emma laughed. “I was just thinking that I might’ve lost my mind, but no. We ran into a little trouble a few nights ago, so I’m just being careful. Come on, let me go tell my friends everything’s fine."

Chapter Text

By the time they got back to where Regina and Henry had been—and they’d hidden themselves very well, Emma was pleased to discover—and Emma whistled all-clear to Henry, Robin was finishing up his story. He’d been on border patrol near Kranna with the Sharmarian army when he’d fallen down a ravine. When his patrolmates couldn’t find him, they’d left him for dead, but he had the very good luck that a shepherd wandered by the following day and nursed him back to health. “But by the time I was healed enough to leave, I knew I’d be executed for desertion.”

Emma shook her head. “Those guys did always take military service too seriously.”

“Tell me about it! So I’m headed to Lukmán, since there’s always mercenary work there.”

“And a lot of those merchants don’t ask many questions,” Emma added, thinking of her own lack of career prospects as much as his.

“Exactly!” Robin laughed, not noticing the serious look on her face.

Realizing her traveling companions were looking at her expectantly, Emma quickly made introductions. “Lady Regina, may I introduce to you my childhood friend, Robin Hood, whom I happened to meet just now,” Emma said, intentionally being very formal and hoping Regina’s quick mind would put the pieces together and play along. She wasn’t sure why, but she didn’t quite feel comfortable telling Robin the whole story.

After a brief pause where he seemed to be scrutinizing her unladylike travelwear, he bent, kissed her hand with more enthusiasm than was strictly necessary, and said, “Honored, Milady.”

“And Henry is my assistant,” Emma added once Regina had extracted herself. The two nodded at each other and then Emma turned back toward the princess, “I think it’s time to break camp, Lady.”

Regina nodded and, slipping easily back into her well-trained royal mannerisms, said, “Let me know when we’re ready to depart” and went to sit on a stump to braid her hair while Emma and Henry did all the work. It was the right thing to do to keep up the act, but Emma was sure Regina was enjoying it.

Robin pitched in as they packed up the gear, continuing their earlier conversation, “So what are you doing out here? I heard you had a cushy job with the Marnan Guard.”

“Not anymore.” Turning slightly away from him to pick up Bug’s saddlebags, she shot Regina a significant look, which she hoped would be enough for her to keep her mouth shut, then continued, “Ran into a bit of trouble with a nobleman’s daughter, if you know what I mean.”

“You?” He laughed. “That was always more my style.”

“Maybe it was contagious.” She shrugged. “Regardless, I’m not very welcome there anymore, so I took this job escorting Lady Regina to Lukmán.”

“And her father trusted you?” Robin was incredulous.

Emma coughed. She hadn’t considered that when she was spinning her lie and thought quickly how to cover herself. “My rate was very reasonable,” she shrugged, implying that Regina’s family wasn’t very well off and was willing to entrust her to a soldier they knew might not keep her hands to herself in order to save money—just like Regina’s refusal to work, it was all part of the deception.

**

A few hours later, not as many miles down the road as Emma really wanted to be, she heard Henry’s stomach rumble beside her where they rode rear guard. Chuckling, Emma called ahead to Robin, on point, and Regina, safely in the middle, “How about we have lunch?” There was general agreement, so at the next clearing they dismounted and led the horses off the road. Setting Henry to build a fire, Emma grabbed her bow and quiver to see if she could hunt something and stretch their supplies. “You still remember how to hunt, Robin?”

“I was the top of the class with the Foresters, Emma, not you, or have you forgotten?” the mercenary replied jovially, starting into the brush with her.

“What about that one?” Regina asked, disrupting their joking.

“Huh?” Emma asked, turning back to look at her.

“There’s a bird in that tree that looks like the one we had last night.”

“Well spotted, Lady,” Emma said with genuine approval, “but it’s out of range.”

“You can’t hit that?” Regina asked, a mixture of disbelief and superiority.

 That stung Emma’s pride a bit. “No, Milady, I can’t hit that. You say it like you can.”

“Lady Regina was the winner of the Marnan noblewomen’s archery competition last year,” Henry volunteered.

“O ho!” Robin chuckled, partially at the look on Regina’s face at this revelation.

“I liked it better when you were intimidated by me,” the champion archer in question said tartly. Henry just grinned.

Emma, on the other hand, was in full smirk. “Well then, Milady. Perhaps you can show me how it’s done,” she said, walking over and offering her the bow and quiver.

“Just because I can hit it doesn’t mean I want to kill a bird,” Regina objected. “I shoot targets, not animals.” 

“Are you all talk, Regina?” Emma challenged, way too casual if the princess were really her employer.

Fuming, Regina seized the bow and an arrow, nocked it, drew, and released so fast that Emma could barely see her, then marched over to where the bird had fallen out of the tree. She picked it up by the arrow and held it out to Emma with a “See?”

Once Emma had taken it, Regina realized it had dripped blood on her hand and groaned. Then she reached out and wiped it directly on Emma’s shirt, winking and very subtly caressing her breast as she did.

**

That night, Emma was awakened from the light sleep that she always had outside city walls as Regina ended her watch and went to wake Robin for his. “Hello there, beautiful,” he leered up at her, and Emma's eyes shot open to see him trying to pull her down on top of him. “How ‘bout you stay a while?” Regina fell to her knees with an undignified squeak. Just as Emma was tensing to spring up, Regina got over her initial shock and slapped him.

“Shit, Lady Regina! I’m so sorry. I just- I wasn’t quite awake.” He scrambled up and helped her to her feet, but then held her hand a little too long.

As she jerked out of his grip and turned to walk away, he explained, “You’re a very beautiful woman.”

She turned her head over her shoulder and snapped, “Yes. I am.”

In the light of the dying fire, Emma could just make out the look of surprise that crossed Robin's face as Regina crawled into bed with her. She promptly melded herself to Regina's back and nuzzled her neck, not sure whether she was doing it to show him or to reassure herself. 

“Fucking Emma. So that’s how it is,” Robin muttered.

Chapter Text

July 1st 

As the small valley below came into view, Emma's heart sank to see a company of mounted soldiers in Krannan colors. 

Robin, not expecting her to stop so suddenly, nearly ran into her. "What's wrong with you?"

She shushed him, dragging them both to the ground, then pointed.

“Spirit’s left tit," he hissed. "You said you ran into a little trouble, not that you had the whole Krannan army after you!”

Emma didn’t answer for a long moment, counting up just how big of trouble they were in. It was, thankfully, just half a cavalry unit. Relaxing a little, she remembered her companion. “That’s not the whole army. Trust me, I’ve seen the whole army.”

“Don’t be pedantic. You’ve several dozen soldiers on your tail, and you neglected to mention this to me when inviting me to travel with you.” As Emma started to speak, he cut her off. “And don’t tell me you can handle them. You’re good, but you’re not that good. You and I together are not that good. Five each of us and we could maybe swing it, with whatever help Henry and Regina’s mighty bow could provide.” His sarcasm was cutting, and his voice was close to rising out of a whisper in his frustration with her.

“Fuck, alright! Alright, I should have mentioned it," she conceded. "I just got into the habit of not trusting anyone after Regina was kidnapped.”

“Kidnapped? By who?” His eyes went wide as Emma tipped her head at the soldiers in the valley below. “What? Why? I mean, she’s right comely, but they sent an army after the daughter of a minor Marnan noble?” Emma watched the realization dawn across his face. “Regina. Who you met working in the Silben City Guard. Do you mean to tell me this is Princess Regina of Marna? And you rescued her from the Krannan army?" He stared at her for a long moment, then shook his head in disbelief. "I could tell you were hiding something, but I thought it was just that you’re sleeping together. I'd never have guessed this."

Emma didn’t answer, and they settled into an uneasy silence. Her mind worked feverishly, trying to come up with a way to get rid of the Krannans that didn't involve spells she couldn't possibly swing. She suddenly remembered the talisman from Maleficent, forgotten in the more immediate urgency of rescuing Regina and keeping her safe. She considered for a long while calling on the mage's aid before deciding to save it unless it became absolutely necessary. That kind of artifact was usually a one time deal, and she was beginning to suspect this would get worse before it got better.

"What the hell are you doing headed for Lukmán?” Robin asked abruptly, breaking her concentration.

"What?" Emma couldn’t figure out what he was talking about.

"If this is Princess Regina, shouldn't you return her now that you've rescued her?"

“I’m not stupid enough to take her back to Silben,” Emma scoffed. “The Krannans took her easy enough the first time, and this time they’d be mad.”

“Fair enough,” he conceded. “But what’s in Lukmán? Besides your mage friends.”

“Just my mage friends, actually.” Emma hesitated for a second, but if she couldn’t trust her oldest friend, who could she trust? “I need to get into the library at the Eyad. There’s something more going on with Regina and the Krannans than just Leopold stealing a bride. I intercepted a letter that said something about a prophecy and a sacrifice."

"Sounds like exactly the kind of thing they have at the Eyad," he agreed, though his tone held the mistrust of mages that Emma remembered from their youth.

They had fallen into their own thoughts, Emma still trying desperately to think of a way to get them out of this, when the company began to move. Her heart stopped in her chest, then she realized they were heading north, toward the main part of Marna, which would carry them away from the group's planned route.

"Luck’s with us today," she breathed as profound relief washed over her.

"Let's hope it hangs around," Robin replied.

**

July 11th

It had been ten days since they’d seen any soldiers, and a week since their reconnaissance missions into populated areas had produced so much as a whisper about Krannans. Even Emma had started to be less vigilant, no longer insisting on a scout ahead and a rear guard. She and Regina had developed a habit of riding side by side, as close as possible. Today, as usual, they had fallen into a conversation in low voices, punctuated by laughter and, when their traveling companions weren’t looking, the occasional kiss. Fortunately, Bug and Regina’s horse, who she’d named Rigby, got along.

Just before midday, Robin looked back at them a couple of times, and Emma wasn’t surprised when, during their stop for lunch, he said, "Emma, can I have a word?"

As she joined him a short ways away from the others, he launched right in. "We're going to be crossing into Ilmenea tomorrow or the next day."

"Yeah, I know, and we need supplies.”

He looked relieved. "Good. I really don't want to try to cross that sand without desert robes."

"Oh come on, where's your spirit of adventure?" Emma joked. "Probably two of us should go. I don't think one can carry all we'll need." Glancing at Regina, she felt her heart seize up in her chest at the thought of being away from her. Panicked at the realization that she felt so much, she turned back to Robin and said quickly, "I'll go."

"You will?" He was startled, unsurprisingly since Emma had consistently insisted on not only keeping Regina out of cities—so that no one, if asked (even tortured), would have seen her—but guarding her herself.

"Yeah. It's been pretty safe, and I'm itching to do something different than take the scenic route." Emma hoped this was believable. She just needed to get some distance before she completely lost perspective. Nothing about this adventure had changed Regina’s status as a princess. "And I'll take Henry. Sorry, old friend, but he's better at getting information. And you're a better guard for our precious cargo."

Robin chuckled. "Fair enough."

Regina, on the other hand, was not amused by the prospect of Emma going when she came to tell her.

"I just need a change of pace, to do something different for a day," Emma explained.

"And I don't?" The princess's tone was sharp.

"I'm feeling safer, but not that much safer. It’s still much better for you in the countryside. With Robin," she added, seeing Regina about to object to the choice of guardian. "I need Henry, and Robin's much stronger and more experienced."

"Yes, I noticed that the other night," Regina replied tartly.

Emma nodded acknowledgement of the point, but insisted, "He won't try anything."

"How can you be sure?"

"I’ve never known him to do anything like- that. It has to have been because he was asleep. And if nothing else he'll respect my claim to you, since you and I haven't been that subtle." Regina frowned a little at that, but then seemed to come to a decision, grabbing Emma and kissing her soundly.

She laughed at Emma's dumbfounded expression when they parted, explaining in a low voice, "So there's no doubt in his mind. And so you remember I have a claim to you too."

Blushing, Emma turned to look at their other companions. Henry was staring, wide-eyed, and Robin was quietly laughing. She would be hearing about this for a while.

Chapter Text

As day slid into evening and they neared the rendezvous point, Emma's spirits were high, looking forward to Regina's reaction to the candied fruit she’d bought for her in the marketplace. She was so far from thinking about danger that they were practically on top of the lone Xendark crouching in a thicket before she even realized it was there.

"Shit!" She fumbled for the bow on her saddle as the thing, whose tusks made it look boarlike, realized it was outnumbered and ran toward the woods where Regina and Robin were supposed to be waiting, squealing. It was almost out of range before Emma could nock the arrow, but she caught it in the back just as it reached the treeline.

She didn't even have time to feel relieved, because half a dozen more came out of the trees. Apparently, its squeal had been a warning.

"I don’t like these odds," Emma muttered, and Henry nodded, swallowing hard. "It’s lucky we finally got you a sword small enough to use, huh? Have you ever had to kill?" Henry's wide eyes were all the answer Emma needed. "Today might change that. Just remember, these aren't people."

Then there was no more time to talk as the beast-men rushed them. Emma dropped three more before she had to trade her bow for her sword, but once she was fighting hand-to-hand things got a lot harder. The two that flanked her were extraordinarily strong, and she struggled to keep the curved sword and club from doing serious damage, gaining a couple of cuts and many more bruises on her arms and legs in the process. Remembering that Henry was facing the remaining beast alone gave her a surge of strength, nearly severing one vaguely feline head, then whipping around to stab the other through its broad, furry chest.

Turning to catch sight of Henry, she could see that he was having a hard time. His horse was being backed up with every blow he deflected from the creature, and as he neared the trees he was about to find himself with nowhere to go. Pulling her dagger, Emma threw it. Her aim was a bit off, and the wound was superficial, but the distraction of the knife in its back gave Henry enough of an advantage to kill it.

After it fell, Henry stared at the bloody sword in his hand for a long moment, trembling. "It's alright. You did what you had to do in order to survive," Emma tried to reassure him. She walked Bug over to where he seemed frozen, then dismounted to retrieve her dagger. It was only then that she noticed that the body on the ground was that of a man. Snapping her head around to look at the grassy battlefield, she shuddered as she realized that all of them had turned into human bodies where they fell.

Looking up and meeting Henry's eyes, she had started to form some comforting words when there was a feminine scream from the woods. "Regina!" Emma exclaimed, sprinting in the direction of the sound without even making a conscious decision to do so.

Breaking through the trees into the clearing, she saw the princess perched in a tree, surrounded by Xendark both living and dead with another arrow at the ready. Emma was profoundly grateful that she’d insisted Regina carry the bow she had taken off the Krannan messenger after her skill at archery was revealed. The horses were nowhere to be seen, and neither was Robin for a moment, until he rushed into view from the other direction, his pants half-buttoned.

As some of the beasts left the tree to face her, Emma realized that the leverage from horseback had prevented a lot of injuries in the previous fight and wished she'd thought to mount up before rushing off to Regina's defense. But she was here now, and she threw herself into the fray with a ferocity that surprised her when she thought about it later. Afterwards she couldn't remember how long it had lasted, slashing and kicking, disemboweling one and hamstringing another, but finally the three of them dispatched all of the attackers.

Feeling kind of faint and with blood leaking steadily from minor cuts and claw-marks, Emma looked up at Regina and asked, "You ok?"

Regina’s expression was tight with suppressed terror, but she nodded.

Emma turned to their third companion. "Robin?"

"Aye, I'm here. Still need to take a leak, though," he grumbled, and Emma cracked a tiny smile.

"Henry?" When there was no reply, she turned and was startled to see that he wasn’t there. "Henry!" She met Regina's eyes again, stricken, then took off through the trees again to where she had last seen him.

Henry was still mounted on the small gelding near the treeline, but slumped in the saddle weakly, and it was then that Emma noticed the blood seeping from a gash in his ribs. "Fuck, Henry, I’m so sorry," she said, feeling completely stupid and completely responsible for having run off without checking him for wounds. "It’ll be alright," she said soothingly, grabbing the horse by the bridle and whistling for Bug, who had moved slightly away to munch on an unbloodied clump of grass, to follow.

Returning to where the other two were, she called out to Robin, who had emerged from the battle relatively uninjured, "Help me get him down." The facial expression he wore as he dragged the bodies into a pile suggested he'd be glad for a reprieve from their bestial stench, which persisted even after they had regained human form.

Regina, leaning unsteadily against the base of the tree, asked, very softly, "Is it bad?"

"Nothing I can't handle," Emma answered in a tone meant to reassure both Regina and Henry, whose breathing had gotten very shallow. "Stay with me, Henry," she said quietly, then emptied her mind of everything but the healing spell. It was the most complex she knew, and it didn't always work for her, so she took several deep breaths before trying it.

Chapter Text

When Emma regained consciousness nearly half an hour later, the first sight to greet her blurred vision was Regina's face. She was so gorgeous, and upside down, and then Emma realized her head was cradled in the princess's lap. She hummed and smiled.

"Don't scare me like that," Regina hissed, even as she covered her face in kisses, bruised eye, split lip and all.

"Sorry," Emma chuckled. "That spell’s hard, and I wasn’t at full strength.” Her eyes went wide as she remembered why she’d done it. “Did it work?"

"See for yourself," Regina said, sitting up to let her lift her head and see Henry, pale but sitting upright against a nearby tree.

"Oh good," Emma said, then let her head fall back, because even this small effort exhausted her. 

"Now use it on yourself," Regina commanded.

"I can't. Tattoo."

"Really?" They way Regina’s nose crinkled in disbelief was adorable.

"I don't think my ancestors thought it all the way through," she replied wryly. "Gimme a few minutes. Then we'll need to get going and find a new campsite. I don't really want to sleep next to those things."

Regina grimaced. "Robin is burning them."

"I definitely do not wanna be next to that."

**

It was well into the night before they stopped to make camp again. Emma was grateful that there was enough moonlight for them to put some distance between themselves and the charred remains of the Xendark, but she had also insisted they take precautions to cover their tracks again. Robin offered to take first watch, and Regina quickly offered to take second, silencing Emma's protest with a stern look before she could even get it out.

They made camp efficiently, though Henry simply sat on the ground, glassy eyed, instead of helping. Regina helped the boy into his blankets and Emma smiled at the tenderness in her actions. It wasn't long before Robin had begun to walk a wide perimeter around the campsite and Regina joined Emma on the thin padded mat that served as their bed.

Regina groaned a little just as Emma sighed, prompting her to ask, "What's wrong?"

"You won't laugh?" the princess countered.

"Of course not," Emma assured her.

"I miss my comfortable bed. Sleeping on the ground-" she sighed.

Emma nuzzled her shoulder affectionately. "Why would I laugh? I miss your bed too. Fortunately for us both, we'll be sleeping in real beds again soon."

Regina snorted in disbelief. "Not for at least two weeks until we get to Lukmán."

"No, before that. Once we cross into the desert, we have to go by the road. It's built where it is because that's where there's water. And if we're already on the road, we're not avoiding towns, and we might as well stay at an inn." She gave a little grin, but then got serious. "I was less worried about that before today."

"Not that I want to turn down the bed, but there's no other way?"

"No. If we had a guide from the desert nomads, maybe, but I don’t have the skill and neither does Robin.” She snorted a humorless laugh. “Compared to being guaranteed to die in the desert, I'll take my chances with Xendark or Krannans."

Regina hummed grim agreement.

"You were great today, by the way," Emma complimented sincerely.

"Thank you, Lieutenant," Regina said without the usual teasing. A moment later her stomach growled in a most un-lady-like fashion. "Damn it," she muttered.

“Oh! I forgot!" Emma startled her bedmate by rolling over with a giddy enthusiasm. She searched through the saddle bags on the ground nearby, only to add a dejected, "Shit, they got crushed."

"What are they?" Regina peered at the package in the silvery light, half crawling over Emma to see.

"A surprise. To eat." Regina arched an eyebrow. "Close your eyes," Emma added. She made sure Regina had done it, then turned her attention to extracting the fruit from the paper in the same size pieces as it had gone into the bag. Freeing a cherry, she brought it to Regina's lips and murmured "Open," then fed her the fruit.

When it touched her tongue, Regina’s eyes opened, and she smiled as she chewed. Licking her lips to get the last of the sugar, she asked, with what the soldier knew to be feigned innocence, "Another?"

With the second piece, Regina's tongue darted out to get the sugar on Emma's fingertips, and the soldier found her excitement at delighting Regina with the treats quickly being overtaken by a spark of desire.

“Uhhh” was all she could manage.

"Oh my, did I get you?" Regina smiled slowly, knowingly, and Emma wanted so much to kiss her, but her lip was still throbbing and swollen where it was split. As if she understood, Regina opened her mouth slightly again for another treat. This time the princess nipped her fingertip and Emma’s breath caught. Something about the moonlight and the teasing smirk on Regina’s face and the feeling of her body on top of her was threatening to overwhelm Emma’s better judgment.

"Regina," she whispered plaintively.

"Emma," she replied affectionately.

Then Regina grasped Emma’s hand, which was still lingering near her face, and kissed the palm. Emma felt a tingling spread through her that was so like when she was casting a spell that she shuddered. Then Regina seemed to accept her unspoken plea, putting her head down on Emma's shoulder and mumbling, "We should get some sleep."

**

The rest of the distance to Lukmán, fortunately, passed without dangerous encounters, though it was a learning experience for all of them. Emma learned how excruciatingly gorgeous Regina could look with only her eyes exposed in the sand-defeating robes. Regina learned that sharing a two-bed inn room among four people was not a sleeping experience she enjoyed. Robin learned that his patience for being cooped up in a room with two people who got lost in each other’s eyes every chance they got was very short. And Henry learned that being in the company of three annoyed adults was annoying.

Two weeks later, the irritable, sun- and wind-burned band of adventurers rode into the capital of Ilmenea at last, hoping for a bath and some answers. 

Chapter Text

July 25th 

"Estimare maja, bereke des imkahner," Emma said, sweeping into the office with an exaggerated bow.

Merlin looked up, startled, then stood as he recognized her. "Emma!"

"In the flesh, my friend. Or, should I say, Professor Friend. You could’ve written to tell me before I read it on the wall listing," she teased. She’d known him her entire life, and seeing him again brought back so many memories. He’d been palace mage in her father’s court and her first magic teacher. At least, he had been until he gave up his position to bring her here, protecting her from the queen's wrath after the king got her the tattoo on her twelfth birthday like he would for an heir.

"Shush," he said with mock irritation, stepping quickly around the desk to engulf her in a warm hug. In the three years that she’d lived in Lukmán full time, Merlin and his half-sister had become like family. He must be in his mid-sixties now, but he looked just as young as she remembered.

"Congratulations," Emma said more seriously as they parted. "Teaching at the Eyad is a tremendous honor."

"Indeed it is," he agreed. "And you? What are you doing here?"

"It's a long story, but basically the universe has decided to give me a hard time." She grimaced, then shook it off. "But, let me introduce my friends," Emma continued, beckoning to them to come in from the hallway. "You remember Robin," she said, nodding toward the mercenary, "and this is Henry. And then," Emma began, but glancing back at the Ilmenean she saw him looking hard at Regina and then back to her. "Seems like you’ve met?" she asked, dryly, tipping her head at Robin. He nodded and closed the door to stand guard outside.

"We haven't met, but unless I'm mistaken she was at the Spring Festival Ball last year at the palace."

Regina nodded in acknowledgement, and Emma smiled tightly. Good thing she wasn’t planning to try to keep the truth from him like she had with Robin. "In that case, Princess Regina of Marna, meet Mage Merlin of Lukmán."

"This sounds like a tremendous story," Merlin said, gesturing to chairs to encourage them to sit and tell it.

"Oh, it is," Emma assured him

**

Having taken Merlin up on his offer to stay with him while they pursued their research in the Eyad's great Library, they soon found themselves standing in his family compound's cool, thick-walled entryway while Merlin went to advise his sister that they had guests.

When she emerged from the inner chambers, Marian, too, didn’t seem to have aged a day in the last fifteen years.

"Estimare maja," Emma said, her tone somewhere between formal and affectionate.

"Ahlahvo," Marian greeted, then pulled her into a warm hug. Suddenly Emma was twelve again, a stranger in a strange land being taken in by this loving but no-nonsense woman.

"Tika," Emma replied, dropping the formality and using the affectionate term for aunt.

Marian held her tightly for a minute before releasing her to arm’s length. She held her there for a long moment, keen eyes searching her face, before continuing. "It’s very good to see you, Emma, and the sense of adventure about you fills me with curiosity. Tell me, who are your friends?”

“Henry here is my assistant,” she said, clapping him on the back. “And we escorted Lady Regina of Silben here to Lukmán.” Regina nodded gracefully. “And as luck would have it, we met Robin on the way.”

“Your friend from Rowa? What are the odds? There’s a very interesting story here, I can tell. But first, refresh yourselves. Your old room is available, and your friends can sleep in the boys' rooms. You remember the way?"

"Yes, thank you."

Marian smiled in acknowledgement and added, "Dinner is in an hour."

Emma led her companions through a maze of hallways before stopping in front of four doors. "I'm on this end," she said, gesturing with her right hand. "Robin, do you want to take the other side? Henry, you're next to him, and then Regina-" She trailed off, uncertain whether to direct her to the empty room or her own. The princess laughed and kissed her on the cheek, then strolled into the room on the far right. Emma smiled, delighted.

**

They managed to get in a good wash before it was time to sit down, barely. It took all of Emma’s willpower for them to bathe separately, but she managed it, knowing how distracted they would get if they didn’t. They were still last to the big table in the house's formal dining room.

As they began the meal, Emma commented, "I can't believe Khadja is still with you after all these years," speaking Ilmenean out of deference to her hosts and referring to the household's quiet but extremely competent cook.

"I tried to tell her she could retire, or we could hire an assistant, but she won’t hear of it. She says she wouldn't know what to do if she wasn't taking care of us," Merlin explained.

"She loves us," Marian added.

"Her face certainly lit up when she saw Emma," Regina added, apparently eager to hear more about Emma's youth.

"Yeah, well, I was half-starved when I got here, and we became very good friends," Emma replied.

"Anybody Khadja can feed is her best friend," Merlin quipped.

"Regardless, she is a wonderful cook," Regina complimented. "This is the best mekash I've ever had, and I've eaten at the palace."  

Marian nodded, blithely accepting this revelation and the compliment, then looked at Merlin with a dangerous twinkle in her eye. "Brother of mine, why is it that I have to wait for Emma to bring guests in order to have educated and pleasant company at my table?"

Merlin grimaced, Regina smiled slightly at the implied compliment and Henry, struggling to puzzle the meaning together, looked at Emma. Marian laughed. “My brother is a hermit,” she explained.

Emma swiftly went to her mentor's rescue, jokingly spearing her meat on her knife and drawling, "Tika, I don't like what you're suggesting about my manners."

"I suppose I have no one to blame for your manners but myself," Marian mused. Emma raised an eyebrow and tipped her head toward Merlin. Her hostess snorted. "You learned many things from my dear brother, but none of them were manners."

Regina covered a laugh a little too late to really be polite.

"So, tell me the whole story," Marian said suddenly. "I may have retired from adventuring, but I can tell there’s an adventure here."

Emma paused, weighing her words. "What I said in our introductions is true, Tika. What I didn’t say was that Lady Regina of Silben is actually Princess Regina of Marna."

Marian started to stand in honor of the station of her guest, but Regina, seated to her left, immediately rested a reassuring hand on hers.

"Please," Regina said. "You don’t need to pay me any special respect. Certainly not in your own home. I'm honored by your kindness and hospitality."

Marian smiled and settled back. "Thank you-" she paused.

"Just Regina," the princess supplied. "Please."

"Regina," Marian affirmed with a smile.

After a moment, Emma continued grimly, "We escaped soldiers from Kranna who wanted to hurt Regina. We think they’re trying to fulfill some kind of prophecy, and we’re hoping we can find something in the Library to help us understand what they want. And how to stop them."

"Are we in danger?" Marian asked calmly.

"I’m afraid we are, but I also don’t think anybody knows we’re here." Emma frowned, thinking about it. "I’m so sorry to bring trouble to your home. We've been on the road so long that Merlin's offer to stay was too good to pass up, but we’ll leave if you want."

"Emma, you know better," Marian insisted firmly. "I’ll do whatever I can to help."

"Thank you," Emma breathed in relief.

**

After another hour or so of spirited conversation, Emma reluctantly said goodnight, explaining apologetically that it had been a long journey. Though she was genuinely tired, she also wanted to spare Robin, who had exhausted the Ilmenean he knew that was appropriate for polite company after his halting greetings and thanks for the hospitality, and Henry, who could follow the conversation, but didn’t know the people or events involved as they got deep into Lukmanese politics.

As they parted in the hallway, Henry asked earnestly, "What time tomorrow, Emma?"

"Sleep yourself out,” she insisted, clapping him on the shoulder. “We've earned the rest. Goodnight." Emma smiled after him for a moment, thinking with a strange pride about how responsible and capable he was turning out to be, then followed Regina into their room.

Chapter Text

Regina was sitting on the edge of the bed unlacing her boots, and when she looked up realization hit Emma hard in the chest. She crossed the room with unsteady steps, then reached out with trembling fingertips to stroke her cheek, needing to touch her to be assured that she was real.

“What?” Regina asked quietly as she rose and slid her arms around her.

“I almost lost you,” Emma whispered, not trusting her voice.

Regina took a shuddering breath as she nodded.

Cupping Regina’s face in both hands now, Emma pressed their lips together with aching tenderness. The princess let out a little hum and kissed her more intently, pressing close. Soon they were kissing slow and deep, Emma letting her lips and tongue speak what her voice didn’t dare.

Eventually Regina pulled back just enough to look at her, eyes roaming eagerly over her clothed body. “I want to see you,” she murmured. “I want to touch you.”

Emma’s little chuckle had more than a hint of a sob, but she nodded. Regina kissed along her neck, collarbone, shoulder as she unbuttoned and peeled away the outer shirt. Then she stepped partially behind and kissed Emma’s tattoo.

Emma looked at her over her shoulder, surprised.

“For not letting that archer take you from me.”

Then they were kissing again, Emma guiding Regina back around in front of her and beginning to coax her out of her clothes with gentle hands. When Regina’s chest was bare, the first thing Emma did wasn’t touch her breasts, but press her lips where her heart beat steady and strong. Regina cradled her head against her chest for a long moment and kissed her hair before urging her upward again with gentle hands for more soul-deep kisses. 

Soon their hands were back to work pulling at clothes, and when Emma knelt to pull Regina’s pants down her legs and off, she found herself distracted by the preciousness of the princess’s toes. They were small and perfect and she wanted to kiss them and how was it possible that someone wanted to end this vital, brilliant, beautiful existence? Looking up at Regina, naked, luminous in the light from the small window, she wanted to say things better kept locked in her chest.

Instead, she murmured, “Get on the bed.”

Regina raised a teasingly unimpressed eyebrow.

“Get on the bed, please,” Emma amended, smiling as the weight of the moment lifted.

“That’s better,” Regina said. “And you, get your pants off and join me,” and she emphasized, “please.”

Emma chuckled and did what she was told, and as soon as they were on the bed Regina grabbed her and rolled them over until she was on top. The excitement on her face made Emma’s heart ache all over again. Her nipples so close to Emma’s mouth made her ache lower.

As she tried to sit up to reach them, Regina said, “No.” At her startled look, she clarified, “My turn. You have gotten to explore me, and now I want the same.”

Their eyes held for a long moment, Emma feeling her instinct to keep control well up. Then Regina bit her lip and brought out the puppy dog eyes, and as Emma smiled she let the anxiety go. “Okay,” she agreed, and lay back, watching Regina intently. 

The princess was at once thorough and eager to the point of impatient. She kissed along her jaw with incredible precision, then nipped at her ear and sucked at the spot just below it. Next she trailed hot, open kisses down Emma’s neck to her collarbone, but then sank in her teeth and sucked with a little groan of enjoyment that had Emma commanding herself to stay still. Then Regina kissed down her sternum and paused, hovering over her breasts, to just look for so long that Emma started to get self-conscious and involuntarily try to turn away.

Regina caught her chin and met her eyes. “Beautiful,” she insisted, before leaning down and taking a nipple into her mouth.

“Fuck,” Emma moaned as Regina sucked and bit, one nipple and then the other. She cupped Regina’s head and wished her hair was free to grip rather than still in the long braid she’d worn since they began traveling.

“I’m cutting it first thing tomorrow,” Regina murmured around her nipple.

“Huh?” the pleasure was enough to make it a bit hard to focus. Had she spoken out loud?                          

Regina pulled her mouth away to enunciate, “My hair. My mother would never let me, but now-”  

“Can we not talk about your mother right now?”

Regina chuckled. “My point is you should feel free to pull it tomorrow night”

“Tomorrow night?”

“When I tongue you again.”

“Fuck,” Emma groaned.

“So hungry for you,” Regina murmured, and then she was kissing down her body with intent.

Emma only barely had time to feel her clit throb with anticipation before Regina was on her belly between her thighs and breathing hotly against her. Then her mouth was on her, and Emma couldn’t think of much of anything at all.

Regina was as clever as a lover as she was in every other area of life, trying a series of touches one after another, slow and flat, then fluttering, then sucking, then the slightest edge of teeth, brow furrowed as she gauged Emma’s reactions. Regina was also as imperious as a lover as in other areas of life, because after her experiments were conducted she focused in on the ones that had gotten the greatest response and demanded Emma’s pleasure, sucking and swirling her tongue and wrapping both arms around her thighs to keep her hips from moving too far.

“Fuck, so good,” Emma groaned, her eyes riveted to the sight of this amazing woman, this princess, licking her like she was starving, and how was something this wonderful happening to her?

Then Regina was releasing one leg to press two fingers inside her, and Emma flailed for a moment before finding Regina’s head again with one hand and the sheets with the other and holding on for dear life.

“Fuck, fuck, fuck,” she murmured until the word slurred into a moan as she felt the pleasure building. Regina gave her more, and more, so exactly what she needed that it was like she was reading her mind, like they were some kind of perfect pleasure system, and how-

She came so hard the world went white.

Regina kissed back up her body eagerly, then propped up on one elbow beside her, stroking a sweaty strand of hair off her forehead as she watched her. Looking up, Emma’s heart felt impossibly full, and she knew, knew she should stuff it down, should keep this light and playful, should not allow herself to feel it, but just for tonight she wasn’t going to care. She was going to memorize every inch of this woman’s body so that she could lock it up in her chest with those things she wasn’t supposed to feel when this was all over.     

Decision made, she smiled as she reached up and cupped Regina’s cheek. Then she pushed up on her other elbow, kissing her slow and sweet and coaxing her over onto her back. After long moments of kisses, she pulled back to look at her, letting her eyes roam, and when she met Regina’s gaze again the princess was smirking.

“Hey,” she said, a bit embarrassed.

“Hey,” Regina answered, as if surprised, and Emma felt- she felt-

She leaned down and kissed Regina’s forehead and eyebrows and eyelids, the tip of her nose and her cheekbones, her chin. Then she went back to her lips for more of those slow, deep kisses. After long moments, she kissed over her chin and down her neck, pausing with her lips against her voicebox until Regina gave the little hum she wanted, then pressing her tongue where her pulse was strong and quickening and erotic and soothing. Emma nuzzled her way across Regina’s collarbone to her shoulder and down her arm, kissing the inside of her elbow and wrist, her palm and each fingertip.

A little golden laugh bubbled up in Regina’s throat as she very precisely did the same thing on the other side of her body.

“What?” Emma asked, feeling a little defensive.

“Happy,” Regina answered, and oh, she needed to not be looking in her eyes.

Regina’s breasts drew her gaze quite nicely, and she was struck by their perfection again, taut nipples gorgeous and demanding just like the woman they belonged to. She cupped both breasts in her hands, marveling at how well they fit and good they felt, then leaned down to kiss one nipple and then the other, closed-mouthed and sweet. She nuzzled and stroked her cheeks between, up, around, down and across her ribs, just feeling her, how warm and soft and alive she was.

Then desire welled up again and she needed to put her in her mouth. She swirled her tongue around one nipple, then opened her mouth to breathe hotly against her. But she needed more, wrapping her mouth around again and sucking eagerly. She lost herself in it for long moments, back and forth, reveling in Regina against her tongue-palate-teeth, Regina’s hand clutching at her head, hearing Regina’s “Nnh- nnh- nnh-!”

Her hand began to wander down Regina’s body, over her hip, between her legs, and fuck, she was so wet that Emma moaned around her nipple. She began kissing down her body, needing to taste her. But she took her time, kissing the underside where her breasts met her body and her ribs, scraping her teeth slightly over the softness of her belly and the hard ridge of hipbone.

Then Emma was between Regina’s thighs, and she needed this woman so desperately but made herself go slowly. She pressed soft, closed-mouthed kisses to the place where Regina’s leg met her body, to the fleshy part of her sex, to the swollen and ready little clit. They both shuddered. Next Emma slipped her tongue between her folds and made a slow, flat, soft swipe up one side and down the other, avoiding where they both wanted her most. She licked down and fluttered her tongue against Regina’s opening, and fuck, tasting her already felt like coming home.

Touching Regina was such profound pleasure. Emma let her tongue memorize the shape and texture of her for long moments, eyes closed to hear her every sigh.

“Emma,” Regina breathed, and she looked up at her, and she was so beautiful, eyes full of emotion and chest heaving with desire, that Emma couldn’t help smiling. “Stop teasing,” Regina insisted.

“Yes, milady,” Emma said, at least half-serious.

Emma gave Regina direct, steady strokes now, but was still utterly unhurried, curling her tongue at the top of the motion. She carefully increased the intensity every little bit, listening intently to Regina’s moans and sighs, feeling the tensing of her thighs against her shoulders, swirling her tongue now, then sucking at her clit.

“Fingers,” Regina demanded, breathy, and what a wonderful idea.

As she pressed her fingers in, they moaned in tandem. It felt so, so good to be inside her. How was she so lucky to be inside her? To have the pleasure of giving her this pleasure?

Looking up, their eyes met, held, locked for long, long moments as Emma’s touch became ever more intense. Then Regina was throwing her head back, her body tensing as the orgasm built, and Emma was in ecstasy herself with Regina’s fingers in her hair, Regina’s hips rolling to meet her, Regina rippling around her fingers.

Then she was coming, a perfect arc of taut muscle as she cried out.

Emma swallowed back a declaration of love.

Chapter Text

 July 26th

By the time Emma awakened the next morning, Regina, true to her word, had cut off her long braid. Now her hair reached only to her shoulders, and the way it framed her face made her impossibly more beautiful and had Emma wanting to pull her down into bed again.

But in the bright light of morning, the weight of that mysterious prophecy had settled firmly back onto her shoulders, so she suppressed the desire and got to business.

After wheedling a late hot breakfast out of Khadja, they found Henry and Robin in the house’s thick-carpeted library. Henry was reading a book of heroic tales that had been one of Emma’s favorites when she lived here, and Robin was carefully examining the large, intricate map of the city on the wall. The mercenary started at Emma’s “Good morning.”

“Did you sleep well?” Regina asked, light conversation a skill that came easily to her after all her training.

“Yes, thank you,” Henry answered with a genuine smile. It warmed Emma that they seemed to like one another so much, though she couldn’t put her finger on why.

She shook it off and asked, “So do you two want to go to the Library with us this morning?”

“No,” Robin insisted, almost too quickly. Then he explained, “That place gives me the willies.”

Emma chuckled. “That’s fair. And I’m sure you have people to meet and places to go in Lukmán anyway.”

“I want to go!” Henry insisted, eagerly, setting the book down and coming to stand by the door with them.

“You do?” Emma had thought the research would bore him.

“Yes, I love old stories,” he insisted, eyes bright.

“Really? What’s your favorite?” Regina prompted as she guided him out the door.

Emma laughed and shook her head, then waved to Robin and followed them.

**

The library at the Eyad, the largest in the world, was open to all—though "open" was kind of relative. Mages were free to come and go, but visitors had to be recorded and have a mage vouch for them. The city of Lukmán and the mage academy wanted to show off their collection, but that didn’t mean that they quite trusted non-mages to treat it with respect. Accordingly, Emma, Regina, and Henry presented themselves to the recordkeeping clerk with the letter of introduction Merlin had left for them at the house when he’d gone to teach this morning.

Emma was checked in smoothly, having not only been a mage candidate once but a frequent user of the library during the years she lived in the city.

“Henry Gold,” the boy said when prompted, and it was only then that Emma realized she’d never known his last name. She’d known a man named Gold once, long ago. Two, in fact, here in Lukmán. How strange. But she shook it off. It was a very common name.

When the clerk turned to Regina, Emma suddenly realized they hadn't quite thought this through.

"Regina-" the princess began, only to stop when Emma squeezed her hand in warning, glad that the clerk couldn’t see it behind his high desk.

"And your last name?" the clerk asked pointedly.

"Mills," she said. "I'm Regina Mills." She smiled.

**

“Regina Mills, huh?” Emma asked casually as they headed into the tall shelves.

“My mother was a miller’s daughter,” she explained.

“No way!” Emma had a hard time using a library voice at that.

“She keeps it very quiet. She outsmarted my grandfather once, and he was so impressed that he insisted she stay around to advise him. Then my parents fell in love.” She smiled softly.

A commoner had married into Regina’s family? In the last generation? Emma felt hope surge up in her chest that this relationship might not be doomed after all.

“It’s why she’s such a terror about me being perfectly royal,” Regina went on. “She wants to leave that part of her life behind forever.”

Emma stuffed down her disappointment. “So, where do we start?”

“History?” Regina suggested, and that seemed like as good an idea as any.

As Emma led them over to the right section, memories washed over her. Merlin had gotten her admitted to the Eyad to continue where his magical training had left off, and she’d tried for nearly a year, spending hours upon hours in this very Library trying to get the magic to be less of a struggle.

In the end, she and her teachers had agreed she didn’t have the temperament to spend years practicing meditation and pondering musty texts. Magic was a handy tool for her, but that was all. And while it was sometimes hard following an uncommon path for women, she felt sure becoming a soldier had been the right choice: the camaraderie of the company was a warm insulation against the empty vastness of the world.

She tried very hard not to think about that emptiness as she took down a book for Henry and another for herself.

**

Regina had her up against the wall the second their bedroom door closed behind them that night.

“Mm, hi,” she murmured as Regina attacked her neck. “Not complaining, but what brought this on?”

“All that knowledge is so exhilarating,” Regina murmured, then sank her teeth into Emma’s shoulder.

“Learning gets you hot?”

“You would put it that way,” Regina growled, but she didn’t stop yanking at the laces of Emma’s pants.

Emma’s chuckle caught in her throat when Regina abruptly dropped to her knees, taking the pants with her.

Her mouth was on Emma in an instant, and Emma was yanking at her shirt so it wouldn’t hang in the way, and oh- there she was, bright brown eyes staring up at her, full of fire as her tongue stroked around quickly, eagerly, avoiding Emma’s clit for now until she was more ready.

That didn’t take long at all, of course, with every bit of moisture in Emma’s body needing to be between her legs right now. Soon, Regina was giving her flat strokes, too fast to really be gentle but still easing her into it, and Emma’s fingers were tangled in her hair exactly the way she’d wanted it last night.

God, now Regina had taken her clit into her mouth at the same moment as pressing her fingers inside, and Emma’s knees were shaking with the intensity of it.

“You like having me on my knees for you?” Regina teased, pulling her mouth away but still breathing hotly on her, “You like having me suck you off?”

“Fuck, so good,” she moaned, the dirtytalk doing her in as much as the sensation.

Once again, Regina was reading her perfectly, so attuned to her body that she knew when to start fucking Emma hard with three fingers, and this was impossibly good, and she was going to come so fast, and-

Her head slammed back against the wall as she arched into her orgasm.

When Emma rolled her eyes down out of the back of her head, Regina was stripping out of her own clothes. She didn’t try to help, instead taking deep breaths to slow her heartbeat. By the time Regina was bare, she was ready, pivoting to pin her against the wall, one hand palming a breast and the other gripping her hair to tip her head back and expose her neck to Emma’s mouth.

Emma squeezed and kneaded and then started pulling at Regina’s nipple as she bit and sucked and tried very hard not to leave marks, until Regina grabbed her hand and brought it insistently between her legs. “Now,” she panted, and Emma groaned at how wet she was, and how demanding.

But she was damned if she wasn’t going to be just as demanding back. Removing her hand from where it’d been dragged, she slid both of them under Regina’s ass and lifted. The princess immediately hopped up and wrapped arms and legs around her. That made it very easy to press her against the wall and hold her up with one arm to push her fingers inside.

“Fuck, yes!” Regina hissed.

Emma used the full length of her fingers, pulling out to the tip and then pushing in deep, curling on the out strokes, slow at first but gradually faster.

Soon, Regina began to leverage the legs wrapped around Emma’s waist to be fucked harder, and damn, that was hot. Emma gave her a third finger and intensified her touch.

Soon they were both a bit sweaty, Emma trembling with the strain almost as much as Regina was shaking with pleasure but she was damned if she was going to give up before Regina had a spectacular orgasm, changing her motion to rub the heel of her hand against her clit.

Then Regina was sinking her teeth into Emma’s shoulder to muffle her scream as she came hard.

Chapter Text

July 28th

As they neared the end of a third day of fruitless searching, Emma flipped through what felt like her hundredth book and grumbled, "Would it kill them to put it under P for prophecy?"

Merlin, who had joined them today after a lot of pleading from Emma, raised an unimpressed eyebrow, then launched into an explanation about the journey being more important than the destination, which she didn't really listen to because the next page revealed a rubbing taken from a tablet. Parts of it were missing, but her Krannan was just good enough to see that it looked promising.

"Save it, Professor, and look at this," she commanded, gesturing her companions over. "The beginning is missing, but what's there says 'struggle'  . . . um, 'forever'? . . . Something about stars and lines.” She kept scanning for words she recognized. "'Five,' something about danger, 'chosen'—that's in the feminine form— 'greatest strength-'"

“That’s a mistranslation.”

“What?” Emma looked up at Regina, who leaned over her shoulder to get a better look, embracing her with one arm and pointing with the other hand.

“It’s not ‘might,’ it’s ‘power,’" she said, speaking closer to Emma's ear than was strictly necessary, causing her breath to catch. "In modern Krannan, ak’tephar means military power, but in classical Krannan it’s the term used for the elemental powers, and this has the diacritical marks of classical,” Regina continued as if she was not deliberately driving Emma out of her mind. "It says, 'the struggle eternal is once more renewed. As the celestial dance brings bodies into alignment, the boundary dissolves. The five contained, darkness falling, one bright star intervenes. She whom the five stars greet,' a piece is missing here, 'and the greatest power will prevail.'"

“How do you always know these things?” Emma turned to look at the princess, realizing as she did so that Henry and Merlin were doing their best to look anywhere but at the two of them. She made some space between their bodies.

“Royal education is all about dead languages.” Regina flicked an eyebrow in a way that was both elegant and shruglike. “It’s more cultured,” she continued, dryly.

“And you learned classical Krannan?” Emma found that hard to believe.

“The Xendek Dynasty produced epic war poetry that was a major contribution to world literature.”

Emma snorted. “Of course it did.”

**

July 29th

"I can translate that for you if you like, Lady Regina," Merlin offered. When she waved him off and kept reading, he looked at Emma, eyebrow raised.

"Oh, she's fine. She wasn't kidding when she said royal education is about dead languages. Near as I can tell, she knows all of them, modern and ancient. You haven't lived until you've heard her curse in Old Krannan," she joked, picking the language at random based on the conversation the previous day about the word ak'tephar.

Regina looked up, eyes wide. "Old Krannan. That's it!"

"What?" Merlin and Emma asked, almost in unison. Henry just leaned in eagerly.

"Xendark and Xendek are both corruptions of xaan'dhak, meaning ‘servant of the Xan.’ I don't know why I didn't see it before, especially when we know the Xan are involved."

Emma smiled, amazed. Henry’s jaw dropped. Even Merlin looked impressed.

Regina acknowledged them with a little satisfied smirk, then went on, "And now, if you could direct me to the classical Krannan section, I think we'll find the answer to our mystery."

"I can't," Merlin said, and Emma’s heart sank at his serious tone. "Those texts are considered rare and they’re off limits to non-mages," he explained apologetically, "You need to be somebody of note to even access them." Merlin cleared his throat to continue. "Fortunately-"

 "All right, Professor Somebody, we get the idea," Emma teased him. 

"It’s still grave news,” he said somberly. “It will take me ages to find what we need on my own."

"What about the book from yesterday?" Henry asked quietly. "That was old Krannan.”

“Right!” Emma encouraged. “Maybe we can find what we need in the general collection?"

Regina shook her head. "The book was in Ilmenean, remember? It was only the copy of the tablet in classical Krannan.” She paused, then she continued after a moment, “There must be something more to the restriction. Some of these volumes must be just as rare."

Merlin nodded. "I had wondered that myself." He peered at her sharply. "You think it is because of the Xan?"

"I think it makes sense,” Emma chimed in. “If the Xan are real and as dangerous as they seem to be, why shouldn't everybody know how to stop them?”

Regina was nodding. “Exactly. Someone cooperating with the Xan could have created the restriction to make sure that people like us fail."

Merlin stiffened at the suggestion. "Any mage who did that would only be harming themselves. The Xan are antithetical to magic. If they gained power-” He shuddered.

“It was just a thought,” Regina said lightly, with the grace borne of a life of politics, and appeared to abandon the line of thought.

Emma, having gotten to know Regina's stubborn nature, knew it wouldn’t be the end. She tried again, more cautiously. "The knowledge is sort of a double-edged sword, right? Understanding how to stop them is a good thing. But what if somebody wanted help them, like, say, Leopold?” She paused, then snorted a humorless chuckle.  “I'm sure he has a good collection of Old Krannan texts.”

Merlin’s brow furrowed in thought, and Emma looked away to let him think. Henry was looking from one to the other of them, fascinated, and Regina had a slight smile.

"So, when are we sneaking in?" the princess asked quietly after a long silence. Emma was delighted by the mischievous twinkle in her eyes, but suppressed her smile.

"Sneak? Into the Eyad?" Merlin hissed, incredulous.

 Regina raised a challenging eyebrow.

Merlin's frown deepened, in spite of—or perhaps because of—his companions' adventurous air. Regina's face fell and she remained prudently silent as he brooded.

“Merlin, we really need this,” Emma urged him softly.

“Alright. But only because you’d go anyway and get yourself killed. That amateur door-unlocking spell you use would set off every alarm in the building.” Emma, recognizing how badly she needed his help, resisted the urge to roll her eyes.

Chapter Text

Merlin insisted that they not talk any more about it until they had left the public reading room for his private office, but once they were there they all just stood around for a long, long moment.

“I’m guessing we’ll have to do this at night,” Emma ventured, just to break the silence.

“Yes, and this night, before I can think better of it,” Merlin muttered.

Regina and Henry looked at Emma, and she took a deep breath, then prompted softly, “Does the guard still change at midnight? That’s usually a good time to get past them.” She couldn’t help meeting Regina’s eyes briefly. The princess’s lips twitched.

“Yes, we can do that,” the mage conceded. “But four of us is too many, and two of you won’t be able to read the texts in any event.”

“No way,” Emma said. “Yes, Henry will stay home,” she acknowledged, silencing his protest with a firm look, “but I’m not letting Regina go into danger without me.”

Regina cleared her throat. “Fortunately, I want you with me, or we’d have to have a conversation about you unilaterally deciding things about me.”

“Sorry,” Emma muttered. “So we’re set? The three of us at midnight?”

“Yes, fine,” Merlin agreed. “But there’s still quite a bit of day left. I should get some work done. You can return to the reading room if you’d like,” he suggested.

“I think I’d be too anxious,” Regina said, and Henry nodded agreement.

**

Instead, they returned to the comfortable halls of Merlin and Marian’s home. Robin had not yet returned from his venture for the day, having set out to send a letter to his sister in Rowa and tell her that he was, in fact, still alive—and he was also keeping his ears open for information on Leopold's movements or anyone looking for the princess.

Then they had a bunch of time to kill, but Henry was not quite managing not to sulk at being excluded and went off to the household library, leaving Emma and Regina alone.

“I think I’d like to take a nap,” Regina murmured close to Emma’s ear.

“That’s a good idea. You don’t do well when you haven’t slept,” Emma reasoned.

“No, soldier, a nap,” and her voice dropped into a low, sexy register. Then she walked away toward their bedroom, slowly and with much sway in her hips.

“Fuck,” Emma breathed, following her.

“Such a filthy mouth you have,” Regina said over her shoulder. If the seduction hadn’t had her riveted Emma would have laughed at being told that by someone who could (and did) swear in at least six languages. The observation vanished from her head in the next moment, however, when Regina continued, “Come put it to good use.”

**

In no time at all they were skin-to-skin on the bed, Emma sprawled between Regina’s legs and half on top, cupping her breasts in her hands and just looking for a long, long moment.

“Emma?” Regina prompted.

“They’re so perfect. They fit in my hands just right and they’re all firm and perky and you have these taut, delicious little nipples, and-” She was sincerely awe-struck at her luck.

“When I said to use your mouth, describing my body in exquisite detail is not what I had in mind,” Regina teased.

Emma grinned up at her, then lowered her mouth, swirled her tongue around one nipple, and then wrapped her lips around it, letting out a little satisfied sigh as she made contact. Regina chuckled and ran her fingers through her hair.

“You feel really good in my mouth,” Emma murmured, defensive.

“And your mouth feels good on me,” Regina answered, gripping her hair to bring her back to her breast.

Emma sucked one nipple and pinch-pulled at the other, then traded, making little happy hums low in her throat echoed by Regina’s pleased “Mmh”-s. Emma lost herself in the feeling of firm flesh against tongue-palate-teeth. She would happily do this for hours, until Regina begged her to stop because it was too much.

But then Regina’s hips began rolling against her, and the startling slickness on her belly told her that her mouth was urgently needed elsewhere. She lavished kisses down the princess’s body and settled fully between her thighs.

“And are you going to tell me my cunt is beautiful now?” Regina teased.

“I wasn’t, but I mean it is,” Emma gave a little shrug.

“You’re absurd.” But Emma saw the corner of her mouth twitch just a bit toward a smile.

“No, really,” she explained earnestly. “You’re so wet and open and your clit is all firm and peeking out and ready for my mouth and-”

Regina dragged her head down. Emma chuckled briefly, but was quickly distracted by rubbing her face in that wetness and swirling her tongue around that eager little clit. She moaned with pleasure almost as much as Regina, who was watching her intently and rocking very slightly up into her touch.

Emma found herself almost afraid of how desperately she wanted and needed, how much she craved this closeness. When Regina stroked a thumb on her cheek where she cupped her face, it was too intimate, too much like-

She immediately intensified her touches, sliding her lips around Regina’s clit to suck and pressing two fingers inside, letting her eyes flutter shut at Regina’s “Nnh!”

Emma focused intently on Regina’s responses now, her breathing and moans, the motion of her hips and the slick clutching around Emma’s fingers. She gave her more, and more, lingering on the touches Regina liked the best, needing her pleasure.

She pressed a third finger inside now, pulling a “Fuck!” from the princess’s throat.

She was fucking her hard and deep, sucking and swirling her tongue in counterpoint, feeling the tension building in her body.

“Emma. Look at me,” and her voice low and rough with desire.

How could she deny her? Her eyes locked with those bright brown ones she could fall into, and this was everything.

Then Regina came hard, crying out and arching and damn, she was beautiful.

Emma kissed her way back up her body, running her nose and cheeks on soft, warm skin and then kissing her slow and sweet.

It lasted for only a few moments before Regina pushed her over onto her back and settled on top, one thigh between Emma’s and  beginning to rock immediately as she conquered her mouth, and fuck, Emma loved the way she wanted.

Soon she felt Regina’s hand between them, cupping and squeezing where she was so, so wet from the exquisite pleasure of tasting her. Then Regina was pressing inside with two fingers, all perfect rhythm, using her thigh and the motion of her hips behind her hand. It made Emma feel wanted and possessed and it was so, so good.

Regina gave her a third finger now, and all Emma could do was moan and hold on as the princess fucked her fast and deep and the palm of her hand rubbed her clit on every out-stroke. Regina felt so right on top of her, muscles flexing in her back and ass under her hands, and she was almost delirious with pleasure.

She felt her orgasm building, and it was like being weightless, letting Regina take her where they both wanted to go, trusting her, feeling-

Then Regina was curling her fingers inside, and Emma came so hard she saw stars.

Chapter Text

Regina did actually take a nap afterward, because she was tired out by their play, but also because Emma was right that she didn’t enjoy missing sleep.

Emma, on the other hand, was feeling unsettled. She pulled her clothes back on, checked on Henry—who still didn’t want to talk to her—and then went out into the city to try to walk off her restlessness.

Lukmán had changed some in the last fifteen years or so, but mostly it was achingly familiar. Emma let her feet take her wherever, alert to her surroundings only as much as necessary to not be a target for pickpockets. After wandering for over an hour, she was startled to realize where she’d ended up. But then, maybe it made sense. This was what she’d been unable to bear.  This was where she’d made the decision to leave. Maybe it was time to face it again.

Straightening her back, she walked up to the large, ornate house and pulled the bell cord.

The livery on the servant wasn’t familiar. “Is Neal in?” she asked courteously.

“There is no one by that name here, damkah,” he answered, using the Ilmenean honorific.

“Neal Gold,” she explained. “He’s the son of the lord who owns this house.”

“Gold,” the man repeated, his eyes widening in recognition. “Oh, damkah, I regret to tell you, but the House of Gold is no more.”

“What?”

“There was a fever here. It must have been almost fifteen years ago now. All perished,” he added gently.

“All perished? My son?” That would have been right after she left Lukmán. Blood was pounding in her ears now.

“That is all that I know, damkah, and only because the house was considered an ill omen for many years until my master purchased it. I’m sorry.”

**

It was long past dark before Emma managed to pull herself together enough to remember that she had a mission—and companions who were probably worried about her. She returned to Merlin and Marian’s house so late that all she had time to do was apologize that she’d lost track of time and force down some leftover dinner before they had to get going to the library.

**

There was a collective sigh of relief as they finally shut the door behind them and found themselves in the restricted archive of the Library of the Eyad. They had been silent for what seemed like an eternity as they moved stealthily through the halls of the building. Fortunately, they’d only had to sneak by one sleepy attendant, but Merlin's nerves alone had made the maneuvering tense.

The archive contained, they found as they scanned the small signs on the end of each rack and shelf, not only texts in classical Krannan, but books and scrolls on a variety of potentially incendiary topics in all languages. Emma wasn't sure whether to be relieved or worried that the other two seemed just as intimidated and unsure where to begin as they all looked down the rows of the long hall.

"I hope you appreciate what I'm doing for you," Merlin broke the silence at last in a voice just above a whisper.

"I do." Emma answered dully, her mind still on what she’d learned this afternoon.

"Do you? I'll have you know that the last guy who went mucking around in here wound up dead."

"What?" That roused Emma from her apathy.

"Strangest thing,” Merlin mused. “Philip never seemed interested in Kranna, ancient or modern. But suddenly one day he was in here for hours, and a few days later they were carrying him out of his residence in a winding cloth." 

"Philip," Emma whispered, struck with guilt as she recognized the name as Maleficent's friend at the academy.

Merlin, not hearing, went on. "Rumor has it he had big gambling debts, but the man taught at the Eyad! He wasn't all that powerful, even for a garim,” he said, using the Ilmenean pejorative for a pale Northerner, “but no petty gaming house owner should have been able to kill him."

Emma ignored the familiar insinuation that Northerners were less adept in magic than Southerners, focusing instead on the larger issue of just how dangerous this was. "At the risk of sharing his fate, we should probably start by looking at the texts Philip was examining." In response to the two quizzical looks, she reluctantly elaborated, "He was here because of me. Or, rather, because my mage friend in Silben called in a favor from him for me."

"Very well," Merlin said, clearly restraining his curiosity until a more opportune moment. "He was examining the volumes on mythology, over here. But I think we should divide up. You two take those, and I'll start in on magical texts."

With that, he moved away, leaving them alone.

They started looking through the texts silently, Emma doing her best not to get lost in her loss and not quite succeeding.

Regina glanced over at her once or twice, then tried to break the tension with a joke. "I don't know why we need to do this in the dead of night, anyway. I feel like we're in a melodrama put on by a very marginal theatre company."

"It's a cliché for a reason. Fewer people around. Harder to see. Merlin’s right to do it this way.” Emma knew she was being short, but couldn’t help it.

“What’s gotten into you?” Regina demanded. “First you disappear for hours and don’t say anything about where you were, and now you’ve completely shut down. Talk to me.”

“This isn’t the time,” Emma insisted, turning back to the book in front of her.

“Make time,” Regina insisted, stepping between her and the table to force her attention. She reached up and cupped Emma’s face. “Trust me.”

“I can’t.” Pulling away was one of the hardest things Emma had ever had to do.

"Why not?"

“Because I have lost everyone I’ve ever loved!” she snapped, the truth pushing out of her mouth before she could catch it back. She hoped Regina wouldn’t push and make her speak this raw pain.

“Not me,” Regina insisted, immediately, totally sure.

“Don’t.”

“Emma-” Regina began.

"Regina, someday, maybe more sooner than later, you’re gonna be married off in some grand political chess game, and this will end. And there is no sense in pretending our fates are anything other than what they are." She couldn’t quite keep the bitterness out of her tone, not tonight.

"Emma, you're very special to me," the princess said feebly, though she didn't dispute the soldier's point.

"And you are to me, too, but that doesn't mean we can afford to get attached.” Maybe if she kept telling herself that, it would be true.

“I don’t know if you can just shut it off like that, Emma Swan, but I doubt it. And someday you’ll admit it.”

Chapter Text

Finding herself almost irresistibly drawn to Regina, wanting to touch her, apologize, even just look at her, Emma decided it was a good idea to take a candle and move into another section. She went to work on a low shelf of Ilmenean texts regarding the history of magic and sciences.

The low-vaulted hall was eerie and quiet as nearly an hour crept by. Emma rubbed her eyes and put down the leather-bound volume she had skimmed, which chronicled all the known attempts to perform magical feats like mind-control and raising people from the dead. She had hoped it would explain the Xendark, but there wasn’t anything useful. The disappointment, combined with the long day and her grief, weighed heavily on her, and she hoped the others were having better luck.

Scanning the stacks, she came to an atlas of the stars that was yellowed with age. Remembering that the prophecy mentioned stars, she slid it from its spot on the shelf with a renewed sense of purpose. As she gingerly turned the brittle pages, covered with painstakingly drawn and heavily annotated representations of the night sky, she recognized careful calculations of the alignment of the stars corresponding to the elemental powers. Then a series of charts showed two columns of dates spanning thousands of years. The accompanying text made her jump up and make her way to the dim halo of lamp-light where Merlin was working.

"Merlin," she hissed, cocking her head at the startled man to indicate he should follow. She and the mage found Regina several stacks away, her brow furrowed in concentration.

"What is it?" the princess asked.

"Look," Emma said, putting the atlas on the table so they all could see. She began to explain, "You know that every five years, the stars that represent the elemental powers," she frowned. "Or, I guess, that are the elemental powers," she corrected, the book having been very insistent on that point, "align." Emma still didn't fully understand how the powers were stars, but she continued, "And it's auspicious and celebrations and whatever?"

Based upon the looks she was getting, Emma figured that seemed obvious to the point of ridiculous, so she hastened toward her point. "What most people don't know is that every Fifth Five, magic goes a little crazy."

"Most people who aren't mages," Merlin corrected, a little self-important.

Emma just nodded, then turned to Regina to finish her explanation. "At those times, magic is so intense that most spells don't quite work, and people who are particularly sensitive to magic can be overwhelmed by the intensity and behave in ways they usually wouldn't."

"There is often serious debauchery," Merlin put in.

"Yes," Emma conceded, "but it isn't just that."

"Right. The Purity Riots of Mendesh were on a Fifth Five. A mob went through the streets attacking petty criminals and unscrupulous merchants," he acknowledged.

"In the name of justice," Regina finished, knowing history pretty well herself and not above teasing Merlin a little for his suddenly professorial tone.

Emma gave a small affectionate smile at their interplay before adding, "The point is that people get caught up, because magic feels so intense and immediate."

"What does this have to do with the Xan?" Merlin was clearly skeptical.

"The realm of the Xan aligns with our own every forty-one years," Emma said, pointing at the ledger in the atlas, "a fact that this guy claims was told to ancient scholars by the elemental powers themselves. The author was looking for a star or planet to somehow prove it-" she shrugged. "And there was nothing visible in the sky, but in the course of his calculations he found this," she pointed at the lines of the text that were underlined. "Every thousand odd-years, the Xan's domain aligns on a Fifth Five."

"One thousand twenty-five," Regina murmured, doing the math in spite of herself.

Emma smiled grimly. "Every thousand and twenty five years, something happens."

"But what exactly?" Merlin voiced their shared thought.

 They were silent for a long moment, until Regina gasped, "The Battle of the Sea-side Fortress!"

Emma and Merlin looked at each other, and it seemed like he shared her concern that Regina had reached sleep-deprived delirium, but then she went on. "It's a heroic saga where gallant soldiers keep sea monsters at bay. I've always loved it, though I've only read it in translation. But I just saw it," She sorted rapidly through the books, finding one and flipping to a page with a large illustration.

"Now that you've shown me the stars,” she went on, “I think it's about the alignment. I always thought it was a metaphor about struggles in life, but now- Maybe it’s a veiled description of the actual elemental powers, represented by the knights, keeping the Xan at bay."

"So what happens?"

"The monsters come from the sea many, many times, and are repelled, until at last they succeed and destroy the fortress."

"How many times?" Emma asked, suspecting and dreading the answer.

Regina looked down at the book, then back at the soldier's tense face. "Twenty five."

Emma felt the hair rise on the back of her neck as they all looked at each other apprehensively.

"So the elemental powers stop the Xan every 41 years, until they come on a Fifth Five," Merlin said slowly.

"When the elemental powers can't keep them out," Regina added, then looked confused. "Because they’re too busy inspiring debauchery or riots?"

Emma answered, "No, it's like a flood overtaking a dam. Magic is so strong there's not a way to channel it like the rest of the time."

"That's what that meant!" Merlin exclaimed in a muted tone, flipping through the volume he held again. Seeing the others staring, he added, " The 'she whom the five stars greet' from the prophecy is referred to as a 'vessel.'" He pointed to the corresponding line. "It must be that she serves to channel magic so that it can still work."

"I don't do it alone, though," Regina said. "There's mention in this scroll of an artifact." She pointed.

Seeing Merlin and Emma staring at her, she added, "It has to be me. The Xan want to harm me. It makes sense."

Emma kept staring at her for a long moment. The lamp cast a soft glow on her hair and skin, and combined with the determination in her eyes she seemed so impossibly noble, brave, and beautiful that Emma's chest ached and her eyes stung.

The soldier shrugged off her reverie, and addressed her companions with a renewed sense of purpose. "Alright then," she said, taking command as came naturally to her even with this stuff where she was kind of out of her depth. "We have some direction now. I'll concentrate on this book and the ones it references to learn more about the Xan and what we can expect from them. Regina, you follow up on the artifact. Merlin, learn about what the vessel is supposed to do."

Chapter Text

"Can one of you help me with this?" Emma called softly a short while later. She shook her head to clear it as she handed the book to Merlin, who reached her first, explaining, "It's in old Krannan." Regina was a few steps behind. "Maybe I'm losing it, but I feel like I've seen this before."

"The gift of blood at the appointed hour will bring about the-"

"Foretold transformation of the glorious ones," Emma finished. The mage stared at her, and she knew she was right. She hastened to explain, "I knew it looked familiar. It's the message Henry and I took off a Krannan messenger before we rescued Regina. More or less. I mean, it was modern Krannan, but the phrasing was almost the same. At least, that’s how Regina translated it."

Merlin turned his eyes back to the text. "The prose gloss explains that if the vessel is sacrificed-"

“Oh, dear. I hope it doesn’t need to be a virgin sacrifice,” Regina muttered. The soldier choked, then recognized it as an attempt to lighten the impossibly grim atmosphere.

Merlin scowled slightly at the interruption as he resumed translating. "If the vessel is sacrificed on the altar at Kyna at the time of the alignment, the Xan can enter our world in corporeal form using the vessel's life force."

Regina's face lost all amusement, and she swallowed hard. "That's unfortunate."

"All you can say is that it's unfortunate?" Emma couldn’t believe it.

"Not that they want to sacrifice me. We knew that already,” she said, waving it away with her hand. “It's where they want to do it. The artifact has to be used at Kyna to seal the portal."

"My texts indicated that the vessel has to be at the Temple of the Powers as well," Merlin confirmed.

"That's just great. So in order to stop them, we have to be right where they want us?" Emma sighed.

“It’s rather worse than that, I’m afraid. Do you know where Kyna is?” Merlin asked. Emma shook her head. “It’s in the unsettled wilderness north of Kranna and east of Rowa,” he explained.

Emma groaned. “So to get there we either have to go past the Krannan army in Marna or through Kranna, taking Regina directly into the path of people who want to kill her?”

“Exactly,” Regina said, a little quiver in her voice.

And that little hint of fear, that reminder of how much there was at stake, shattered Emma’s determination to keep her distance, keep Regina out, keep her heart safe. She stepped closer and wrapped Regina up in her arms, and the princess was shaking hard and clutched her right back. They stood for a long moment, forehead to forehead, Emma breathing in Regina's scent, relieved that she was still able to have this moment. Then they were kissing with an intensity born of the fear of losing each other, on and on and on.

Merlin cleared his throat and they jumped apart. “I’ll just go back to reading about the vessel,” he said, already turning. “But we don’t have much night remaining.”

Feeling embarrassed at her loss of control, Emma turned back to Regina, who was looking at her with a soft expression that melted her all over again.

“Will you tell me what happened to you this afternoon?” Regina asked, completely unexpectedly.

Maybe it was the late hour. Maybe it was her renewed recognition of how precious Regina was to her, and how real the risk was. “My son. He’s dead.”

“What? I don’t know you had-”

“It’s why I had to leave Lukmán.” It was all spilling out now. “I knew I couldn’t be a parent, so I gave his father full rights, but it still hurt too much to stay.”

“What happened?” Regina prompted quietly.

“I was wandering through the city and I ended up there without meaning to. There was a fever. Everyone died.”

“Oh Emma,” Regina murmured.  

“It was years ago. Right after I left him. If I hadn’t left, maybe he-” She couldn’t go on.

“Or maybe you would have died too,” Regina pointed out. “And then I’d be in Kranna and we wouldn’t be about to embark on a grand quest to save the world.”

Emma huffed a half-laugh, half-sob. Regina slid her arms around her and had just taken breath to say something when Merlin was beside them, whispering “I heard something. It’s too close to dawn. We have to go.”

They quickly cleaned up all evidence of their illicit visit, then slipped out of the Library just minutes before the Eyad officially opened its doors for the day. As they walked through the streets toward home, the sun rose, and Emma hoped she didn't look as worn out as Merlin. She was about to tease him a little bit when she stopped herself. It was thanks to him that they'd had any kind of success finding out about this prophecy, and she still felt uneasy about consequences he might face if their breaking and entering was discovered.

She also wasn’t looking forward to turning around in an hour or two and returning to the Library. They had agreed to not interrupt what had become their normal routine and risk causing suspicion in the low-level mages who kept track of comings and goings. With any luck, they would learn a little bit more about the mystery artifact and not just be reading for appearances

They took a too-short nap and then had breakfast with the household at the regular time. Marian’s expression floated somewhere between curious and knowing. Henry had taken one look at how exhausted they were and cheered up. He went with them when they headed back out to the library, his pouting seemingly forgotten.

Robin, on the other hand, was nowhere to be seen that morning, but that wasn’t unusual. He had settled into a pattern of waking late and remaining out of their host's house as much as possible. When Emma spoke to him in passing, he always had a perfectly reasonable explanation for being gone—having his horse shod or his leathers repaired or getting new boots made—but Emma knew that at least part of it was that he wasn't comfortable with the upper-class company they were keeping. And, she admitted to herself, the other part of it was undoubtedly him taking advantage of the city's wide offerings in the way of taverns, brothels, and gaming houses.

Jerking herself awake, Emma realized she had nearly fallen asleep face-first into a book of Ilmenean translations of Krannan myths. She couldn't even remember arriving at the Library, much less picking out the book, and she shook herself. She'd gotten soft during her time with the Marnan Guard, or she was getting old. One missed night of sleep should not have taken this much out of her. Glancing at Regina, she saw a twinkle in her eye and knew her lapse hadn't gone unnoticed. She smiled weakly, commanded herself not to blush, and grit her teeth. Time to dig deep and find her focus.

Chapter Text

July 27th

The following morning, Regina and Merlin sat Emma and Henry down and announced to them, not unkindly, that they had decided their knowledge of languages was nearly useless and their constant requests for translation were slowing them down.

"So you can catch up on your beauty rest," Regina teased Emma with a wink.

Emma was embarrassed, but conceded that they were probably right. She also realized that this adventure was shaping up to mean they were off for another long trek very soon and that she should probably take some time to prepare now.

After breakfast, Merlin and Regina headed to the library and Henry went to the marketplace, tasked to source and estimate costs of provisions. Emma kissed Regina on the cheek as she went out the door, and when Merlin and Henry leaned in too for their turn she gave them big, obnoxious, smacking kisses. She chuckled as she watched them all go, feeling happy and surrounded by family in a way she hadn’t since she had lived here before.

Then, deciding that Robin's strategy of doing maintenance work on his gear was a good one, she dug out her armor. She hadn't worn it since before their arrival in the city, having decided it made her look too much like a mercenary, but she knew it definitely could use some quality time with the armorer.

Hunting through her pack for the last piece, Emma was surprised when a roll of parchment fell out and bounced on the floor. It was the letter from Maleficent, and she'd forgotten all about it when everything had gone to hell. She realized suddenly that the other mage might well have already uncovered what they were seeking, and resolved to look her up. 

This was rather more difficult than she had anticipated.

"I don't know how they treat mages wherever you're from," the clerk said haughtily, "but here we respect their privacy."

“I know it’s not the usual protocol,” Emma said placatingly, “but the Lady Maleficent did inform me personally that she was traveling here. Unfortunately, she didn’t mention where she’d be staying."

Emma had looked over the letter again carefully to make sure of that before concluding that she’d have to ask at the Eyad. It was well known that they kept tabs on mages coming and going in the city, and certainly they would be aware of the presence of someone of Maleficent's stature. Unfortunately, this seemed moot, as the representative had no intention of sharing that information.

"If she wishes to speak with you, she will contact you. Or, if you had the skill, you could do it yourself."

Having had enough of the young man's thinly-veiled contempt for non-mages, she thanked him through gritted teeth and left. She headed back to her room, where she sat for a long time, turning the Distance Speak charm over in her hand, scrutinizing it and its instructions carefully. She had never attempted a spell this complex, but she had to trust that Maleficent's magic would make hers work.

Clearing her mind and taking a deep breath, she murmured the incantation, then thought hard about Maleficent.

There was nothing. Not only did she not make contact, but there wasn’t even a shimmer of magic. She tried again and began to feel magic gather only to have it dissipate without coalescing. After several more tries, increasingly frantic, she concluded that either her spellcasting or the charm was faulty. She sighed and tossed it back in her pack, disappointed, then grabbed her armor and went on with her original plan. There was no sense in wasting the entire day.

**

A few hours later, Emma strode back toward Marian and Merlin's home with quick, bouncy steps, resisting her urge to whistle since Ilemeneans considered it bad luck. It had been quite a productive day after all, with her sword and daggers well-sharpened, her bow re-strung, and her armor under repair at her favorite shop. She had even had time to pick up a gift for Regina, a necklace that not only was the princess’s favorite color but was imbued with a charm that would help protect her.

Her good mood faded as she rounded the corner and spotted a member of the Ilemenean Guard standing at attention in front of the house. Though she suspected she was about to see the inside of the city jail for the first time since her misspent youth, she tried to act as nonchalant and innocent as possible, slowing to a more sedate pace and nodding at the man. 

Miraculously, he let her pass, and once inside the compound she leaned against the door with a sigh of relief and a whispered thanks to the universe, then strode quickly to the sitting room where, as she expected, she found Henry and Marian peeking out the window.

"What happened?" she blurted.

Marian ignored her question. "Emma, where is my brother?" she demanded as she rose and strode across the room to look directly into the soldier's eyes, gripping her arms almost painfully.

"Tika-" Emma faltered, considering her words.

"Don’t lie to me, dear one," Marian interjected firmly.

"He went to the library this morning with Regina. He’s probably there now." Marian’s face tightened with fear. Emma asked again, "What happened?"

"Soldiers. They came to arrest Merlin," Henry supplied.

"I told them he wasn’t here," Marian continued, "but I’m afraid they’re headed to his office at the Eyad now, and left that Guard outside to wait for him in case he escapes there."

“Fuck,” Emma muttered.

"What did you all do?"

"Two nights ago, we accessed the restricted texts. We needed answers." She hoped it would explain.

Marian looked almost relieved, clearly fearing something worse. "It’s silly to limit knowledge." Her relief lasted only a moment as she added, "There was a man in mage's robes with the soldiers who seemed important and deadly serious. Something was not quite right about him," she added, her brow furrowing.

Emma nodded, knowing that Marian's judgement would be not only based on her observations of the man's physical being, but his magical essence as well. She bit her lip, thinking. "Why did they come here? They have to know he’s at the library-"

"It doesn’t matter," Marian said. "They have to be warned."

"I can't get there before them if they left before I got here," Emma said, glancing around the curtain at the Guard, careful to remain unseen. As she turned back and took a breath to Marian to ask if the felt up to something as magically taxing as Distance Speak, she registered what she had seen, and turned back to the window abruptly.

"What is it?"

Emma held up her hand for a moment of silence, checking details until she was sure she was correct. "The uniform. It doesn't have the seal of the realm," she explained. To her knowledgeable eye it was clear, now that she was looking carefully, that the uniform was a fake. Most people wouldn’t be able to tell the difference, but she remembered the details of the first uniform she had ever worn vividly. The cut of the uniform and the markings, though a good forgery, weren't quite right. "They weren't real soldiers," she said as she turned away from the window, allowing herself a small sigh of relief. Then a renewed sense of dread washed over her.

"But who?"

"I don't know, and they might be worse." Emma paused to shake off the terror that rose at the possibility they might know who—or what—Regina was. "The only good point is that the desk mages at the Eyad would spot them as imposters in a second. That must be why they came here, and it gives us some time and some options." She turned on her young friend, "Henry, they're less likely to recognize you than me," she began, a hint of question in her tone.

"I'll go," he replied, starting for the door.

"Not that way. He'll guess why you're leaving and you won't get to the end of the block. You think you're agile enough to go out over the rooftops?"

He grinned a little and nodded.

"Good. You should be able to go into the library even by yourself since you were registered before. Tell Merlin to meet at our old hangout. He'll know what it means." Henry nodded again, a serious look in his eye as he drew himself up to his full, though relatively insubstantial, height. Emma gave him a small smile. "And keep your eyes wide open. Whoever is responsible for those fake soldiers will be positioned somewhere they can see the exit."

Chapter Text

Emma spent the next half an hour pacing and worrying. They clearly needed to get out of the city, but she couldn’t possibly sneak all their horses and gear out with that guy standing watch. She also couldn’t exactly walk out into the street and tackle someone who appeared, from a distance, to be part of the city Guard and expect no one to notice.

Her thoughts went around and around coming up with one implausible scenario after another until Marian came into the room and announced, “They’re fine.”

“What? How-”

The older woman smiled. “My brother and I have had magical charms imbued with Distance Speak since we were children. He doesn’t always remember to keep it on his person, which was why he didn’t answer earlier, but once Henry arrived to warn them he used it to speak to me. Come, it’s tea time.”

Emma followed her into the next room and joined her at the table. She was silent for a long moment, then blurted, "I just- I’m so sorry Tika, to bring this to your house."

"Please, dear one, stop with this line of thought. Focus on the step directly ahead of you and nothing else."

"I wish I had a way to reach Robin. Maybe he could help, or at least if he was here I could plan better. But I don't think anyone, even you, could ever Distance Speak with him."

Marian just nodded. "He’s not open to magic’s workings."

"Oh, Tika, that’s an understatement.”

"Leave it to you to have stubborn friends, Emma."

This pulled a genuine laugh out of the soldier, who poured for her host with a flourish.

**

It was nearly two hours before Robin returned. After tea, Emma had finally buckled down, pushing worry from her mind and getting to work. She consolidated their personal items and travel necessities, then paid a visit to their horses in the small stable in the compound's courtyard to check that they were travel ready. She was grooming Bug when Robin finally arrived and sought her out.

"There you are," he said as he stuck his head in the door to peer at her. "It took me forever to figure out what that old woman was saying. What's going on? What's with your friend outside?"

Emma frowned and wanted to fire back questions about his long absence—and maybe snark at him for referring to Marian as “that old woman”—but she managed to shake it off and respond lightly, "If only he was a friend, but we’re not that lucky." She smiled grimly. "He's some sort of mercenary posing as a Guardsman; there was a whole bunch of them here earlier, apparently. They are trying to get Merlin, possibly Regina."

"Shit," Robin groaned, then asked, "What's the plan?"

Emma's lips twitched into a little smirk. "We wait around for you," she drawled, and Robin smiled a little at the tweak. "Then we hope we get lucky so we can get out of here. Henry was able to slip out and warn them, and they're staying away rather than coming back here, but there's no way of knowing how long they’ll be safe."

**

Another hour passed as the two of them proposed and discarded idea after idea, trying to find some way to inconspicuously get out of the compound with everything they needed to leave the city. Staging a false delivery required resources that would be difficult to muster with only two of them and no outside collaborators, and disguising themselves would never work, and on it went down the list of things they'd done before or heard about for situations such as this. Despite the desperate situation in which they found themselves, the two fell back into the easy teamwork of their youth.

"This is ridiculous," Robin said at last. "There are two of us and one of him. Why bother with trickery?"

"We can't just club him over the head and drag him away. The neighbors would notice, and he looks like a Guardsman." Emma sighed. "We're not gonna be able to brute force this one." They sat in silence for a few minutes, their creativity temporarily exhausted. Then it hit Emma. "That’s it. We can’t brute force it."

"What?"

"We're thinking too much like soldiers. We have a powerful magic-user in the house."

"We do?"

"That old woman, as you put it, is about to save all our asses. Clearly, she even had you fooled."

**

The false Guard looked up warily as the front door opened, only to relax when he saw the lady of the house. Marian hobbled over to him, affecting far more than her sixty years. "My brother, it’s getting late and you must be tired. Please, come into my house to refresh yourself. I would never be able to forgive myself if a fine upstanding member of the Guard fainted from hunger on my account."

Marian was laying it on a little thick, Emma thought as she watched the scene from the shadows of the entryway. Fortunately, the kind of people who would take this sort of job weren't known for their intelligence, and the man readily entered the compound.

A short time later, the Guardsman strode jauntily out of the house, around the corner, and headed back toward the barracks. Onlookers might have found it strange that he stood outside all afternoon only to leave as sunset neared, but the Distance Speak charms the Guards all carried could give any of them new orders at any time, so nobody thought very much of it. What none of the nosy neighbors noticed was that after he got a few blocks away, the soldier turned down an alley and vanished into thin air.

**

In the house, Robin efficiently stripped the fake uniform away from the unconscious mercenary while Emma found some of Merlin's old, worn clothes to replace it with. Then the two doused him in liquor and made a show for the neighbors' benefit of hauling him out through the servants’ entrance while loudly complaining about the difficulty of getting good help.

That taken care of, they went back in to look over what they had taken from him to see if it could be of any use.

"The uniform could be useful," Emma noted, folding it up.

Robin nodded. "And the weapons aren't bad for a mercenary," he added, holding up a dagger with an intricately patterned handle. "In fact, I think I'll trade mine for this one."

"Be my guest," Emma chuckled, picking up the pouch that had hung on the man's belt. Probably there would be nothing useful in there—a handful of coins, or maybe some travel rations—but she should check. The soldier was surprised when her hand met parchment. Pulling it out, she felt her earlier dread return. They were sketches he'd clearly been issued to know who to pretend to arrest--and there, clear as day, was Regina along with Merlin. 

Noticing that Emma had stopped speaking, stopped moving, almost stopped breathing, Robin looked up at her. At the look on her face, he moved to examine what she clutched. 

"Well that's not good," he deadpanned.

Emma snapped out of her trance and glared daggers at him.

"There she is," he grinned, having apparently been going for that reaction. "Be reasonable, Emma. Life’s not more dangerous now than it was five minutes ago. Now we know why he let you and me pass, that's all."

She gave him a weak smile. "When did you get so wise?"

"Beats me. Can't possibly have rubbed off from hanging around you." He was back to his usual self.

"All right, all right. Let's get going," she said, barely managing not to laugh. Robin nodded and went off to get their gear ready.

Emma went in to say goodbye to Marian. She found her reclining with her eyes closed in the sitting room, smiling to herself. Emma could feel the residual magic swirling around her from here. It had been a powerful spell. The soldier hesitated in the doorway, feeling like she should let Marian recover from her exertions in peace.

"Ikeh," Marian said, slightly chiding. "I’m fine. It’s kind of you to concern yourself, but the spell’s not overly taxing. I was just enjoying it. It’s been a long time since I have had a reason to weave magic that complexly."

"I’m glad you’re well," Emma replied. "Robin and I will be going shortly to meet the others, and we won’t be back here, I don’t think." She sighed. "I don't like leaving this trouble at your door."

"This has been our family’s home for many years. It’s well protected, I assure you." Marian smiled. "And," she added in a slightly irascible tone, "I may be through with adventuring, but I’m sure it’s clear I can still handle myself."

Emma took the hint. "Of course you can, Tika."

Marian opened her eyes at last and stood to hug Emma tightly. "It’s been good to see you, dear one,” she said as she released her. “Now go. And take that," she said, nodding at a large pouch on a nearby table.

As Emma lifted it, she was startled at how heavy and clanking it was. Perhaps it wasn't a king's ransom, but it'd ransom a middling lord for sure. "Marian-" she started to protest.

"Stop," she commanded in a tone that brooked no contradiction. "You'll need it." She smiled, before adding cryptically, "And tell that brother of mine I understand."

Chapter Text

Though the day's bad luck made Emma brace herself for something else to go wrong, Regina, Merlin, and Henry were indeed at Achmat's Tavern, where Merlin and Marian had misspent many hours of their youth, and which Emma had taken to just as much when she’d been misspending her own. The three were so anxious that they were jumping at their own shadows, but they were there, at a table in the darkest corner. The two scholars were deep in conversation and Henry was scanning the room. His technique was a little unsubtle, Emma noted, but his instincts were good. 

As the two latecomers approached the corner, Regina looked up, and Emma felt her heart leap into her throat when their eyes locked. She wanted to wrap her up and kiss her and generally reassure the both of them that they'd made it through yet again, but she knew it was neither the time nor the place, and judging by Regina's expression so did she.

"Glad you could join us," Regina said lightly, but there was a wealth of meaning underneath.

"And you," Emma replied as she slid onto the free end of the bench beside Henry, nodding approvingly at him as she did so.

Robin snorted, though whether in amusement or annoyance Emma couldn't tell. "I'm going to go get whatever mystery stew they're serving. You want some, Emma?"

"I suppose I do," she replied, resigned. This establishment was not known for its food. Or, rather, it was, but not in a good way. "You three have eaten?"

"We have. Thank you for asking, Emma," Regina replied pointedly, her eyes on the mercenary who hadn’t been so considerate. He just shrugged and went off to talk to the barkeep.

"Assuming we weren't followed," Emma began, "I think we're safe enough here for the night. But we can't stay in Lukmán any longer. We barely got away, and the next time they will surely send more."

"And possibly someone smarter," Robin quipped, returning to the table with two bowls.

Merlin didn’t even smile at the joke. "I fear you're right."

"Please, for the love of magic, tell me you know enough to solve the riddle on this prophecy," Emma begged, looking between him and Regina.

Regina gave a small smile. "As luck would have it, it was in the last few books we looked at today. The artifact is called the Orb of Aern."

"What does it do?"

"The Orb helps the vessel focus magic, though the mechanics are hazy." Merlin sounded annoyed that such great magical knowledge had, just barely, eluded him.

"It's probably not vital," Regina pointed out teasingly. "The Orb once sat on the altar at Kyna. We have to put it back by the time of the alignment."

"That's not terrible," Emma said. "Any idea what it has to do with Leopold?"

Regina shook her head. "Not specifically, but I think our theory that he wants to restore the glory of the Xendek dynasty through an renewed alliance with the Xan is probably accurate."

Robin dropped his spoon. "I think I'd rather go hungry than eat this," he said, grimacing. "I'm going to go check the perimeter. Make sure there's no way into our rooms but the proper one."

"No," Emma said immediately.

His eyes flashed. "I'm not your step-on subordinate, Emma."

"Sorry, I didn’t mean to be so harsh," she said placatingly. "But nobody should be going off alone. That Guard we left unconscious got a good look at us, and he’ll wake up eventually."

Robin grumbled at that, but couldn't really argue.

"So where’s the orb?" Henry asked suddenly. He had an uncanny sense for relieving tense situations. Emma gave him a slightly impressed look before turning back to Merlin and Regina.

"That’s the challenging part," Merlin responded. "For safekeeping, the Orb was broken up into its five constituent parts. One remains at Kyna, but Aern put the rest into the Citadels of the Ancients. Or perhaps he returned them, I’m not sure.”

"Then there’s one in Sharmar, one in Kranna, one in Rowa, and one in Marna?" Emma asked, vaguely remembering her ancient history.

"That's conveniently symmetrical," Robin noted, a bit incredulous and still a bit irritated.

Regina scowled a bit at him, but answered. "The Citadels long predate modern political boundaries; when the Crassus Mountains were divided between the four kingdoms each insisted on having one for the prestige."

"And," Emma cut in before it could become an argument, "it's not convenient at all, since it means we have a lot of traveling to do before the end of the year, and those things have a fearsome reputation for magical traps. It also destroys the idea I had yesterday to just take a ship to Rowa and bypass the Krannan army.”

"There is some good news in that respect," Merlin put in. "The Sharmarians have removed all the contents of their Citadel and put them in the Museum of Heritage in their capital, so there's no need to go all the way to the Range for that one."

"See, now it will be just like a summer stroll," Emma said sarcastically to her oldest friend. "That is, if you're coming."

"Aye, I'm coming," Robin answered. "Wouldn't miss this for the world."

Even he winced a little at his choice of words, but Emma quickly changed the subject to spare them thinking about it much. "And Henry?"

"You'll take me?"

"I should make you stay here where it’s safe,” she said sternly, then smiled. “But I know you'll come anyway, so you might as well come officially. That way I can make sure you pack properly."

Henry had the grace to look sheepish at the reminder of how unprepared he'd been when he left Silben.

Then Merlin spoke up. "I'm coming too."

"You don't have to do that,” Emma insisted. “You have a life here. Your job. Marian."

"She would never stand for me letting you go off into danger alone," he insisted.

"So that's what she meant when she said to tell you she understood." Emma was amazed, once again, at Marian’s powers of intuition.

"What about your post at the Eyad?" Regina asked gently.

"My friend, it's only a matter of time before it’s found out that non-mages got access to those texts—by the real Guards. And, since there isn't anyone else who could have helped you, I'll be out on my ass doing tricks in the street for coppers. So I might as well save the world."

"Or die trying," Robin added darkly.

To which Regina replied dryly, "That's the spirit."

End of Part 2

Chapter Text

July 28th

They didn’t get on the road as early the following morning as Emma really would have liked. They needed to buy a horse for Merlin and the food Henry had sourced, and they needed to pick up Emma’s armor from the shop, and it all took forever because Emma wouldn’t let anyone go off alone and wouldn’t let Regina or Merlin leave the inn at all.

Finally, it was all done and they were outside the city walls putting distance between themselves and their pursuers. Emma pushed them hard at first, but when there was no sign of trouble by the time they halted briefly to eat in the early afternoon she relented and they went on at a less punishing pace, allowing them to get out of the saddle every couple of hours out of deference to Merlin not having traveled in a while, though she still had Henry scouting ahead while she and Robin took turns watching behind them.

The day remained uneventful, and Emma was almost ready to concede that they had made a clean getaway as they stopped for the night. They chose a site near a small rocky outcropping—really, it wasn’t much more than a boulder, but it had one of the small upwellings of water that made the route between the Ilmenean and Sharmarian capitals passable without guides.

They had begun setting up camp when Robin exclaimed “Spirit’s left tit! Emma!”

She looked up to where he stood atop the rock looking around, then followed his eyeline to where the road from Lukmán came over a rise in the distance. “I see them,” she replied grimly. “How many?”

“A dozen, maybe a few more,” he answered, squinting to pick out details.

“Not terrible,” Emma said, trying to be optimistic.

“There are still far too many,” Regina pointed out.

“Aye, especially since one is a mage,” Robin announced.

“A mage? Working with the Xan? Impossible!” Merlin was indignant.

Robin sneered. “I doubt the man is wearing a dress for sport. It has to be robes.”

“It doesn’t matter,” Emma said sharply to ward off the argument. “This is bad. They’re riding hard and almost here.” She held each man’s eyes briefly in turn to impress upon them that now was not the time, then began snapping out orders. “Regina, Merlin, get up the rock. You’ll have a clear angle up there. Robin, get down here and mount up. Henry-”

“I’m not staying out of it,” he said firmly, surprising Emma.

Raising an eyebrow, she replied, “Fine, but all I want you doing is grabbing them once they’re down and making sure they stay down, do you hear me?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Good. Get the rope out of my pack. Fast.”

There was only a moment more to meet and hold Regina’s gaze before their attackers were in bow range and the battle had begun. The princess managed to injure one of the mercenaries seriously and slow another two down before they reached the mounted Emma and Robin. Emma was grateful that only a few of their attackers had bows or crossbows and that they weren’t very good shots. The thugs apparently hadn’t counted on their prey having a top-notch archer among them.

It was a small blessing though, because there was much more danger from the robed figure that stayed back with two of the fighters for protection. After dumping one of her foes headlong from his horse, she spared a glance to see Merlin in deep concentration. He stood slightly behind an outcropping as Regina gave him cover, but Emma knew that he would have to be somewhat exposed if he hoped to counter whatever the other mage was going to throw at them. From the faint sound of chanting, the man in black was working up to something formidable.

Suddenly, Robin was struggling with his horse, swearing and looked wild-eyed as he tried to stay seated. Emma had no time to wonder what was going on, though, as her concentration was suddenly on dodging a blade thrust toward her belly.

She deflected two more downward hacks meant for Bug before going on the offensive. She was suddenly aware, though, that Robin had moved out of position at her back, presumably at the mercy of his skittish mount, and she was now exposed from that side. The man facing her noticed this too and called for the others to flank her.

Emma sent up a small prayer to the universe, then shouted, “Robin!”

“A little busy Emma,” came the gritted-out response and she whirled around for the briefest moment to see him fending off two men. She turned Bug again, trying to get a better angle, with little success.

One of the attackers swung wide around the knot of fighting and took an arrow in the shoulder of his sword arm as he gave Regina a clear shot, but there were still two more headed Emma’s way. On top of that, the magic-user had taken up chanting again, making Emma realize she didn’t know when he had stopped, but she put it out of her mind to focus on the task at hand.

Then, inexplicably, the belly strap on Bug’s saddle broke. Emma tried doggedly to hold on, but hit the ground hard, barely missing landing on her own sword.

Struggling to her feet as fast as she could, she saw one of the mercenaries bearing down on her, sword raised, and knew there was little chance to dodge what would likely be a killing blow. At the last second, the man roared in pain and his strike missed by a wide margin.

Emma couldn’t immediately make sense of it until she saw Henry dart around the side of her attacker’s horse, bloodied dagger in hand. As the animal turned, she saw the man had been hamstrung. Shaking off her shock at the boy’s savagery, she reached up and hauled the howling man off the horse, striking him hard in the temple to knock him unconscious as she did so. Then she left Henry to deal with him and mounted up on his horse to rejoin the fray. Things were not going well. Many of their attackers were wounded, but far too few were truly incapacitated.

“Come on Merlin, come on, something,” she muttered.

When she caught sight of him, though, she could tell he was trying his hardest, and she reminded herself that he probably hadn’t spent a lot of time practicing battle magic since there’d been no war for several generations. His face was a grimace of concentration, eyes half closed, and his lips moving as he wove some magic around the small group. She felt a little prickle wash over her skin—a protection spell, maybe?—but she couldn’t be sure.

A few long moments of slashing and dodging later, Emma felt Merlin’s magic again and saw the mercenary that had been harassing Robin’s left side stare at his now immobile sword hand, thanks to what was, she recognized, a more powerful and focused version of the binding spell she herself knew. His confusion was cut short by a brutal swipe with the flat of Robin’s sword, and he crumpled.

Slowly, she and Robin began to turn the tide. Regina had stopped raining arrows on their adversaries, but Emma had no attention to spare to figure out why, particularly when they were doing well enough without it.

Emma barely had a chance to register that the chanting faintly audible from the far-off mage had stopped again before agonizing pain raced through her and she heard Merlin and Regina cry out. It was like nothing Emma had experienced before, just overwhelming pain and confusion and especially a burning in her tattoo. Fortunately, it didn’t last long, as a sudden surge washed back over her that felt like Merlin.

Merlin’s fire spell was intense and Emma had an instinctive fear even though it left their group untouched as it seemed to seek out the remaining mercenaries and wound its way toward the opposing mage. It was lunacy to use a powerful elemental spell on the battlefield, and Emma knew Merlin must be feeling desperate.

As the fire approached their distant attacker it began to crackle and dissipate, but the mage turned to flee, then disappeared from their view as a gust of wind carried a sheet of sand that obscured their view. When it cleared, the figure was gone.

Emma heard some of the mercenaries cry out and felt her stomach try to revolt when she saw the charred bodies. At least the horses had been untouched, though all but their own had fled into the desert. Forcing down her nausea, she quickly walked to each of them that survived and put them out of their misery.

“So much for taking prisoners,” Robin joked, and in that moment, Emma wanted to punch him in the face for his total indifference to the human suffering.

Bruised and battered and bleeding, the two of them limped back to the boulder sheltering the rest of the party, but barely had a moment to breathe before they heard a keen whistling of the wind.

“What’s happening?" Emma looked at Merlin, hoping he could explain the sudden wind and roiling sand that had kicked up. The older man swayed on his feet, unable to answer, and Regina grabbed him to keep him upright, looking a bit dazed herself.

“It’s the hab’ub,” Henry said, using the Ilmenean term for sandstorm and raising his voice to be heard over the howling the wind was beginning to produce.

“What do we do?” Emma shouted. She hadn’t spent much time in the desert when she’d lived in Lukmán. The soldier was grateful that Henry had lived here longer than she had, because Merlin was clearly feeling ill.

“We have to take shelter. The sand will choke any living thing.”

“Great,” Emma muttered, then shook it off and focused on the task at hand. Wearily, she commanded, “Henry, Robin, set up the larger tent against the rock and put the horses in it. Regina, you’re with me.”

They worked as fast as they could, pitching their shelters on either side of the water source and guiding their addled horses--and friend--inside in minutes. Though they tried to cover up, they were still scratched and gritty through and through before they could shut the tent flaps. The tent, though it could accommodate three, was a bit tight for all five of them, though less so than the one holding the horses.

“What now?” Regina croaked, her throat raw from the beginnings of the storm.

“We wait.”

Chapter Text

It wasn’t until much later that Merlin came out of his trance, blinking and looking around.

“What the hell happened out there?” Emma demanded, knowing she should be easy on him if he’d been affected so strongly but needing answers too much.

“I don’t know,” he said weakly. “Something about that man was not right.”

“Everything about that battle wasn’t right,” Robin complained. “That damn horse has never acted so strange.”

“Yeah,” Emma agreed. “There was no reason for my saddle to give out.”

“Or my bowstring to break,” Regina added, answering Emma’s earlier curiosity as to why she had stopped firing.

“It was entirely too chaotic-” Emma began, then realized what she’d just said. “Chaos. Of course. He was working with the Xan.”

“I thought you said mages couldn’t work with the Xan?” Henry asked Merlin, bewildered.

“That wasn’t a mage,” Emma and Merlin said almost simultaneously.

“That last thing he cast, whatever it was, was hostile to magic. It burned,” Emma explained.

Merlin groaned. “And made me feel as if I was being turned inside out.” That was what had happened. He would have been the most affected of all as the most powerful magic-user.

“Me, too,” Regina added, and Emma looked at her in surprise. “But then something happened.” The princess turned to Merlin. “What was it?”

“When you and I grabbed each other to stay upright, I could suddenly access magic again. It was very strange-” He trailed off. They sat in silence for a moment, shaken to know that they couldn’t explain what had happened.

Emma had a sudden realization. “It’s not strange if she’s the vessel.”

Regina’s eyes widened, but Merlin just nodded in acknowledgement.

Emma looked at him, wanting to ask about the fire spell, but his expression stopped her. He nodded grimly, and it was clear had done something as instinctual and necessary as it had been dangerous and terrifying. Emma tried to think of some way to comfort him—the situation had truly been life or death—but nothing came, so she just clasped his shoulder.

He dipped his head, and refused to look up for a long time.

**

August 17th

Adli, the capital of Sharmar, was almost in the geographical center of the country. Its location in the Bas river valley made it quite habitable despite the land turning to desert mere miles outside the city limits. It was a bustling trade center, and in its renowned markets mountain shepherds rubbed shoulders with desert nomads selling fragrant tree resin, miners hawking gems, and traders looking to fill their river barges with wares to sell where the Bas met the sea in Lukmán.

That made it the perfect bustling place for them to disappear into the crowd. Emma insisted they not only vary their comings and goings, like taking indirect ways back to their inn, but also had been working with Merlin to ward them all with a forgetting spell so they’d seem unremarkable to the people they passed on the street. They hadn’t forgotten what pursued them.

Two days after their arrival, though they’d been all over the city gathering information, they were no closer to a workable plan to get the pieces of the orb. Certainly, the attack on the road had worn the shine off their sense of determination and purpose even though the rest of the trip had been uneventful. Emma was trying hard to still be calm and decisive, which felt like her job since she’d brought this mismatched group together.

Merlin tried to contribute, but—if his blatantly uncomfortable once-overs of the seedy establishments they were frequenting were any indication—he was clearly distracted by being out of his element. Thankfully, he didn’t complain, other than frequently passing on the food. Emma was worried about the older man after the battle in the desert and suspected that his withdrawal had something more to it than missing his comfortable lifestyle. Robin and Regina, on the other hand, each were full of ideas and, unfortunately, cutting criticism of each other.

They had just finished yet another rather meager meal in a nearly deserted tavern, and they resumed discussion of their conundrum in subdued tones.

Emma let out an audibly frustrated sigh just as Regina said suddenly, "I could get them.”

"How?" Merlin asked as he, Emma, and Henry turned to Regina. Robin just picked his teeth.

"Well, my parents had already been talking to Farrah about aligning our houses. I may be intended for his second son, Idris."

This caught Robin's attention and his eyebrows hiked up as he shot an unkind look at Emma, who scowled. Merlin seemed deep in thought, but that at least was usual.

"Won't he have heard you were married to Leopold by now?" Henry asked, sensibly.

"Maybe not. I could say it was a wild rumor. I mean, obviously, here I am, instead of in Kranna. I could go, maybe talk Idris into giving them as a gift for his intended." Regina was getting excited now as she spun out the plot.

"Absolutely not," Emma interjected. "It would be way too visible. People would know you were here, and maybe even tip off anyone working for the Krannans, or the Xan—or anyone else who might come after us—that we know about the Orb."

"It could work," Regina insisted.

"It would be highly irregular for you to show up unannounced with only two, forgive me, bedraggled Guards as an escort and ask for an obscure piece of Sharmarian antiquity on a whim, wouldn’t it?" Merlin offered in a kind tone.

"Maybe, but-"

"I am sure you could talk them into it, Regina, but it's way too dangerous," Emma insisted.

There was a long moment of quiet, in which Robin started to look around the room in a bored fashion before seeming to have an inspiration. "Can't one of you magic-users do it? You're both skilled thieves, right?"

Emma shook her head. "That might work in Rowa or Marna, but here in the southlands they’re well aware of the threat of theft by mage. There are wards that will set off alarms if magic is used anywhere near the museum."

They collapsed into disappointed silence again for long moments.

"Mimic clay," Merlin said, as if just thinking of it.

"That's magical," Emma objected.

"But it's such basic magic. It doesn’t even need an incantation!” Merlin’s enthusiasm was returning. “If they had the wards set that sensitively, no magic-user could even walk into the museum, nor even someone with a magical piece of jewelry."

"Can you two explain what you’re talking about to us regular people?" Robin asked, clearly a little irritated.

Emma, more familiar with Robin's limited world view, answered to head off a fight. "Mimic clay is used by beginning magic students who aren't yet trusted with artifacts. It makes a copy of whatever it touches, to let them study it safely."

"I take it these copies have only the physical properties, not the magical ones?" Regina asked, dryly.

"Yes, and it only holds its shape for about eight, maybe ten hours if no one handles it. But," Merlin concluded, "that should be long enough for us to get out of the city."

Emma nodded, starting to see how the plan could work. "So, we create a distraction in the museum, then I make the copies and take the originals."

"Why you?" Merlin asked, startled, clearly having assumed that, as the more skilled magic user, the job would be his.

"While you’re as powerful as ever, you’re not as agile as you used to be, my friend," Emma said placatingly, “and we’ll only get one shot at this.”

The Ilemenean grumbled a bit at that, but couldn't dispute it, instead quickly changing the subject. "So what kind of distraction?"

Emma looked at Regina speculatively. "A damsel in distress?"

Chapter Text

August 19th

Regina tried to resettle her fancy dress for at least the third time, sighing and shifting uncomfortably because what she’d worn when taken hostage in Marna was far too warm for Sharmar despite the low-cut bodice. Robin, in turn, leered at her, then tried to cover his actions with a very fake-sounding cough.

Wanting to avoid the brewing fight, Emma spoke up, asking him, "Mind giving us a minute?"

"Fine," Robin said, rolling his eyes. "Just make sure you're both ready when it’s time."

Turning back to Regina, Emma found her looking daggers at Robin's back as he walked away. "I just might kill him in his sleep," Regina muttered.

"Regina," Emma admonished, trying not to smile.

"Don't 'Regina' me," she snapped, and Emma realized that she was entirely serious in her frustration.

"What's wrong?"

Regina shot an exasperated look at her, "This isn’t going to work."

"We've done pretty well so far," Emma said, shrugging a little.

"No one will ever buy him as a man of wealth and culture."

"He doesn't have to have a formal dinner with royalty,” Emma pointed out, “just talk to the curator and a Guard or two. It just has to be a plausible diversion."

"Plausible, Emma." Regina pressed her point.

Emma changed tactics. "I’d much rather be with you, but I have to make the exchange. Nobody else could pull it off."

Regina’s expression didn’t change, and Emma sighed. Things between them had been so up and down lately, which had been really hard. She suspected their talk in the library had changed something for both of them.

"I don't think that’s what’s really bothering you."

"Insightful, Lieutenant." Her sarcasm was cutting.

Emma felt herself losing patience, but tried to keep the right perspective: museum, Orb, save the world. "When this is all over, you'll go home, see your family, sleep in that glorious bed of yours and read beautiful poetry from rare books. Everything will work out." She realized that the coddling approach had backfired when Regina's frown deepened. "Or- We'll take a night to just relax together, just as soon-" Emma steadied her pleading tone. "As soon as we get out of the city with the piece." She held Regina's eyes for a moment. "All right?"

"When?" Regina snapped back, "Robin's always there, with his disgusting looks and comments. Or Henry is sharing our room at the inn. Or Merlin sleeps through his watch. Or there's some other thing that only you can take care of."

Emma looked down at her boots for a moment, unsure of what to say but knowing that Regina wouldn't appreciate more desperate bargaining. Finally, she looked up and said quietly, "You're a good leader, Regina, and you know what that means sometimes."

"I know," Regina's shoulders slumped slightly, "I know, I just need-"

"What?" Emma asked softly.

Regina pinned her with a look, then sighed and shook her head a little. "Nevermind. I'm just tired." She paused. "Oh, and I know he's your oldest friend, Emma," Regina added with more vigor, "but Robin had better watch himself."

Emma sighed, "I know, I'll talk to him after."

Regina shook her head. “I can talk to him myself-”

"Talk to me?" Merlin asked as he stepped behind Emma and laid a hand on her shoulder. He looked strange dressed as a wealthy merchant instead of in his customary robes.

"Uh, no." Emma changed the subject. "Everything ready?"

"Yes." He handed her a plain-looking pouch, heavier than it looked because of the enchanted clay. "It's time."

**

As they passed between the Guards who were bracketing the large doorway to the museum, Regina pointed out important architectural features to Henry. The boy's quiet, observant nature was well-suited for his role as the lady's page, and Emma was grateful for Regina's quick mind and smooth social graces.

Emma let out a long breath, glad, at least, that they’d gotten this show on the road. The plan they had finally settled on had Merlin entering a little while after them and passing close to the princess. Regina would then accuse him of insulting her, and Robin, her “fiancé,” would loudly demand a duel to satisfy Regina's honor. With sufficient argument and theatrics, it would give Emma cover as well as a reason for them to all leave quickly afterward. Emma, posing as a simple body Guard for the wealthy couple, wore Henry's long dagger at her side rather than her usual blades and armor.

The woman at the front desk blinked at them for only a moment before greeting them. "It pleases me to see visitors of North," she intoned in Rowan that was rusty from disuse. "Why come you to royal museum?" she asked without suspicion, but Emma still felt a slight tremor in her stomach.

As the pause started to get too long, Regina nudged Robin and he remembered himself, "I promised to show my betrothed the wonders of the world. I understand you have some of that here."

Regina's eyes widened a little and Emma suppressed a laugh, grateful that the curator's Rowan was limited enough that she could understand what Robin had said but not notice that he didn’t sound at all like an aristocrat. The employee just nodded gracefully to Regina before inviting the guests to enter.

As Emma stepped forward to follow, she was startled by a firm hand on her shoulder. One of the Guards, wearing a stern expression, pointed at the dagger at her waist. "No weapons," he barked in Sharmarian, clearly assuming she would understand regardless of the language. He pointed to a cupboard to the side of the room and Emma winced internally as she complied and unslung the blade, hoping that she wouldn’t have to abandon Henry’s weapon given how their exit was likely to go. She made sure to give a pleasant smile to the Guard as he handed her a numbered tile to claim the dagger later, then hurried to catch up with her supposed employers.

After moving through a series of smaller rooms with collections of household items from ages past, they entered an airy hall full of pottery, sculpture, and even a section of tiled wall that had been salvaged from the old palace. There were a handful of other visitors in the room, mostly scholars from their looks. Regina became genuinely animated at seeing some stone figures along one wall, slipping into Sharmarian and setting off an animated conversation with the curator.

Emma discreetly began to scan the room, and her eyes were immediately drawn to a cluster of pedestals displayed prominently in the center. She felt a thrill when she realized that on top of one of them rested a piece of intricately carved stone with a curved edge that looked unmistakably like a segment of an orb. She caught Henry's eye and indicated the spot and Henry gave single nod.

As they moved slowly through the room she realized Robin had gotten a little too comfortable in his portrayal of Regina's fiancé. His disinterest in the artifacts around them was genuine, she knew, so his restless eyes, and increasingly his hands, moved over Regina's body. Emma gritted her teeth and subtly looked around, anxious for Merlin to arrive.

Chapter Text

It wasn't long before Emma saw Merlin at the end of the long hall. She briefly met his eyes, then Henry’s, then Regina’s. Then she wished it was all over and they were miles away, but kept her face carefully blank. She took a deep breath.

It was a few more minutes before the curator brought them to what Emma had correctly deduced was the piece of the Orb. She knew Regina was listening carefully to the woman's animated descriptions and so allowed herself to focus instead on preparing herself to make the switch. The Orb piece was a little bit bigger than they had estimated, but the clay would still work.

"Come on," she whispered. Merlin's incredibly slow progress toward them was giving her plenty of time for nerves.

She turned back to Regina and Robin, then kicked herself for taking her eyes off them. Robin had his arm around the princess's shoulders, and Emma could only look on in horror as his hand strayed lower and lower. She thought frantically about how to head this disaster off without blowing the entire plan, but before she could come up with anything Robin's hand dipped into the front of Regina's bodice.

The reaction was as violent as it was immediate. Regina whirled and slapped him hard. "What the fuck do you think you’re doing, you arrogant swine?" Emma's eyebrows raised in appreciation of Regina's creative insult and both appropriately and inappropriately foul mouth.

Robin was less impressed. "Listen here, whore," he began, stepping toward Regina menacingly.

At this point Regina completely lost her temper, cursing fluently in several languages as she leapt toward him.

"Everyone, please calm down!" the curator exclaimed in frantic Sharmarian.

Emma started to move to separate them before someone got seriously hurt, but Henry was closer. He got between the adversaries just in time, hands out to keep them apart.

"Out of the way, kid," Robin growled, trying to dodge around and grab the princess.

“No way.” Henry countered his movement, staying in front of Regina, then shoved Robin back when he lunged forward again. The mercenary stumbled and collided with the pedestal holding the piece of the Orb, knocking it to the floor. At this point the curator had had enough and ran out of the room toward the front. Emma knew she would be going to get the Guards and that she had to act now. Hoping Robin and Regina wouldn't kill each other while her back was turned, she knelt and quickly pressed the piece into the mimic clay, then put the original in the pouch and left the copy on the floor.

Robin had regained his feet and was shouting like a maniac, but Henry and Regina were both holding their ground. Emma stepped over to the scene, swiftly passing the pouch to Regina as she stepped in front of her and raised her hands as if to end the altercation between her “employers,” and shouted “Hey!” to draw attention to herself. The princess took the pouch in a smooth motion and tucked it away while never letting up her stream of invective.

Robin was clearly not happy to have Emma in the way, drawing back his fist and roaring, “How dare you?” His aim was wide, but hitting Emma’s ear was enough to stun her. In the brief moment it took her to recover, Robin had moved past her and angled in to pounce on Regina. Emma whirled and tackled him low on his legs. It was only a few seconds more until three Guards arrived and pinned them both with drawn swords and vicious stares. Emma sat up carefully, her ears ringing and her nose bloodied from colliding with Robin’s boot heel, while Robin seethed on the ground.

Merlin had been watching from the far end of the gallery as the scene unfolded, but now worked his way over to the group, pretending to be a curious bystander. As the Guards and the others worked through in various half-correct languages what had happened, Emma pretended not to notice as the mage “helpfully” righted the fallen pedestal and replaced the false piece in a decent approximation of the original display.

The curator, who had returned shortly after the Guards entered, cried “Halt! Thief!” and pointed at him.

“Well, I never,” Merlin said, feigning surprise and offense at being accused.

The Guard came over and demanded, with evident annoyance, “Empty your pockets and pouches.” The curator alternated between scowling at him and peering suspiciously at the antiquities nearby.

A few minutes later, Regina had played the aggrieved noblewoman well enough to convince the Guards to let her go, and she insisted that Henry be allowed to accompany her as her servant since he hadn’t been involved in the fight. The Guard looked the boy over suspiciously, but nodded. Regina didn’t go quietly, however, and sent a fresh set of insults at Robin on her way out.

Then the third Guard came back over where Emma and Robin were. “I didn’t find anything. Maybe we should just let him go with a warning to not touch anything again.” The curator agreed, and Merlin made a bit of a show of adjusting his clothing after the search he’d endured and walked away in a bit of a huff, muttering about small thanks for good deeds.

That left just Robin and Emma, and the Guards debating in low tones what to do with them. Emma had difficulty following all of the nuances of the conversation in Sharmarian, but eventually they seemed to conclude that since only the party themselves had been injured, and none of the museum’s holdings were harmed, they should just throw them out. Emma suspected that they were still worried that Robin was someone important or influential and didn’t wish to cause a bigger incident.

As the Guards marched them toward the front entrance, Emma paused for a moment, holding up her tile, “I don’t suppose I could get my-”

The Guard glared at her, then shoved her out the door wordlessly. Robin was unceremoniously tossed out right behind her. He rose and started to dust himself off.

“Leave now or we will have you taken to jail,” the curator intoned icily in Rowan. Emma ducked her head in understanding.

“How could you not take my side?” Robin demanded, then literally spat at her, but the glob fell a few inches short. He stormed out of the little square. Emma sighed as the door to the museum swung shut. She wiped at her bleeding nose and started walking when she heard the door open again. It was the Guard who had relieved her of her weapon. With an expression between pity and disgust, he tossed the sheathed dagger in the dirt. He shut the door again immediately, while Emma stooped to pick the dagger up.

Chapter Text

It was almost three hours later when Emma arrived at the rendezvous point with Merlin in tow. It was a little risky leaving the city together, but Emma felt better riding with him. She did feel a little bad for him having to endure her foul mood, though. She just couldn’t believe that Robin, who she’d known since almost before she could walk, would be so awful, and alternated between being furious with him for being gropey, being furious with him for almost ruining the plan, and being furious with herself for trusting him.

It didn’t help that they had to search for half an hour before finding the others, sending Emma’s anxiety ramping up again. They had agreed to meet on a small hill with an interesting rock formation that was a local landmark, but the area was big. Emma audibly sighed in relief when she finally saw Henry and Regina sitting and sharing some bread and cheese, with Regina’s bow close by her side.

The sight of Regina made Emma ache to hold her, and even though she couldn’t tell if it was jealousy over Robin touching her or pure worry for her safety, when she dismounted she didn’t hesitate. The way Regina melted against her told her she’d needed it as well.

When they pulled back, Regina frowned at Emma’s swollen nose, and Emma just shrugged. "Everything ok?" she asked, looking between them.

Henry smiled and nodded, and Regina’s raised eyebrow showed that she had noticed Emma changing the subject, but she didn’t push it, instead helping her care for Bug while Henry helped Merlin with his horse.

“Shall we look at our ill-gotten gains, then?” Merlin asked when they finished.

They gathered around as Regina emptied the bag gingerly onto a saddle blanket. Now that she wasn’t distracted by the stress of trying to steal it, Emma felt the magic in it tingling just at the edges of her senses. Merlin went to reach for the piece but stopped himself, fishing out the notes that he and Regina had taken at the Eyad. The others watched while he inspected the piece both with his fingertips and magically. He paused every few moments to make more notes.

After many long minutes, he confirmed, “I believe we have secured the piece of the Orb,” and Emma heard them all let out breath they’d been holding.

“Did you learn anything from the curator that could help?” Emma asked, turning to Regina. “I wasn’t paying attention at that point.”

She shook her head. “Not much we didn’t already know. It’s presumed to be several thousand years old and historical accounts associate it with the citadel of the ancients. It’s considered to be of magical interest, though the king banned its use by mages many years ago.”

Merlin frowned. “That seems odd.”

“Maybe,” Emma responded. “But for us, it’s lucky.”

“Otherwise, some ambitious or curious mage might have taken it long before us,” Regina mused.

“Maybe no one was desperate enough to try,” Henry suggested with a small smile, and Emma spared a moment’s pride at how he was coming into his own, able to tease and joke now, before having a sudden realization.

"Where's Robin?" The original plan had been for him to travel with Henry and Regina, but obviously they’d been separated. "He should have been here by now."

"Hopefully he went straight to hell," Regina growled.

"His horse was gone when we picked ours up. I thought you two changed the plan,” Henry explained. Emma shook her head. “I'll go keep a look out, then," the boy offered quietly, heading toward the road.

"I hope he’s all right," Merlin muttered. Then he chuckled, "But Robin’s bad manners came in handy, no?”

"He put his hands on my body and you think it’s funny?!" Regina was livid.

"I’m sure it was unpleasant, but it was effective,” Merlin said, just shy of pedantic.

“How nice for you for that my body was effective,” Regina said in a low, cold voice that pierced Emma more than shouting.

Emma looked sharply at Merlin, shaking her head slightly.

"But it worked, princess!" he insisted, oblivious to just how angry Regina was.

"You need to go take a walk, friend," Emma said to him, stepping between them.

Merlin seemed aghast and his outraged look would have been almost funny except for the waves of anger coming off of Regina. Emma's expression was inflexible, however, and moments later he started to follow in Henry's footsteps, muttering to himself.

That left Emma to face the princess’s wrath alone. "Was this all part of your plan? Get me in there half-clothed and let that man feel me up?” Regina sneered, her posture stiff with betrayal.

Emma stared at her for a long moment in total shock and confusion. Too long. “No, of course not.”

“Did you all sit down and decide this without me?” She was getting rolling now. “What’d you trade me for, Emma? I hope you got a good price. What am I worth? How are you any better than Leopold?”

Emma had a moment of terrible clarity. Everything that had happened recently had told Regina her body wasn’t her own to control—from Leopold’s demand to being marked for blood sacrifice to being elevated to the vessel by the prophecy. Having her body physically out of her control was probably the last straw, and it had happened exactly when Regina was trying to seize control of her own destiny. She must be reeling with this, and Emma wanted nothing more than to wrap her in her arms and make it better.

"Regina, I-"

Regina cut her off. "Enough, Emma. I don’t even want to look at you right now.” She turned away then, back very straight, walking deliberately rather than storming off, and the soldier knew things were very bad.

**

Without anything else to do, Emma started setting up camp, trying to stay focused on the work rather than indulging her frustration, sadness, and anger. It had been a long several weeks and she felt worn thin by trying to hold things to together and appease everyone’s needs. Plus, her face hurt.

As the minutes passed, her swirling thoughts started to focus on the fact that their lives were still deadly dangerous, and here Henry, Merlin, and Regina were wandering the desert alone. She began to worry. They needed to stick together, and a wave of fresh frustration washed over her. Just as she was about to go looking for them, Merlin returned. His eyes met Emma’s and while there was no smile, he nodded a slow and tired thanks before entering his tent that she’d set up.

Henry returned not long after, without Robin. “I did my best, sir,” he said simply. Emma smiled, and squeezed his shoulder. “I know.” After a moment of silence, Henry nodded and wandered over to the sheltered spot where they had tethered the horses.

Out of work to do for the moment, Emma decided to clean herself up a little bit and was using a cloth and some of their precious water supply to dab the crusted blood around her nose when Regina approached her with a markedly subdued air.

“Hey,” Regina said softly.

“Hey,” Emma replied, looking down and picking at the cloth in her hand.

"Emma,” Regina said after a moment, then waited for Emma’s eyes to meet hers before continuing, “I may have overreacted.”

"It’s fine. I would never, never do that to you, but I understand why it feels like everything is spiraling out of control. I should have been there for you. I'm-" Emma sighed, "just used to focusing on getting things done."

"That's a good skill for a soldier."

"But the disregard for people's feelings it requires is pretty terrible in a friend."

Regina smiled wryly. "Listen, I don't admit that I'm wrong frequently, so just go with it."

Emma smiled back, then added in an earnest voice, "I do wish I could make this all go away for you."

"I know. That's why I forgive you." Regina poked Emma’s chest playfully when she didn’t respond right away.

Emma’s mood lightened and she gave a little chuckle.

Regina smiled back at her for a long moment. Then her expression hardened, and she added without mirth, "I still don’t want Robin within 20 paces of me."

Chapter Text

Regina got her wish, because Robin still hadn’t returned by the time they went to bed several hours later. Merlin took the first watch tonight, and Emma was relieved to be able to follow Regina into their tent.

She was startled when the princess grabbed her and kissed her intently as soon as she’d tied the flap.

“Mmh, hi,” she said when Regina’s mouth moved to her neck.

“I want to forget the feeling of his hands on me,” Regina murmured against her skin. “And before you say it, I don’t care about losing sleep. Yes I know we have to be quiet. Touch me.”

Emma’s heart ached for her for a moment, then filled with determination to remind Regina that her body could be a source of pleasure and not horror. She cupped her face in both hands and kissed her again, slow and sweet. Then they crossed the short space to their blankets. When they lay down, she kissed and nuzzled methodically over Regina’s chin and along her jaw to the spot below her ear, her hands running over the princess’s body warm and flat and adoring as she gradually peeled away her clothes. 

“You smell good,” she murmured as her lips made their way onto Regina’s shoulder.

“Are you surprised?” Regina teased. “I did bathe today. In a full tub like a civilized person. Who knows when that will happen again,” she muttered.

“No, I mean- different, good,” Emma explained, nipping at her skin.

“Sharmarian soap,” the princess answered, her voice a shrug. A beat. “Why are we talking about this instead of you touching me?”

“No idea,” Emma admitted, then resumed kissing down onto the smooth plane of Regina’s chest. She paused for a moment and pulled back to admire her breasts, thankful that the moon gave them a bit of light even in here. She cupped them in her hands, felt the slight weight of them, their warmth and softness. Her nipples were taut already, and Emma’s mouth watered, but she stroked her thumbs over them first, not wanting to rush this.

“Emma,” Regina said quietly, and the set of her jaw when Emma looked up said she needed to be thinking a lot less and feeling a lot more right about now. Emma dipped her head to take one nipple in her mouth and didn’t quite swallow back a groan. She had missed this. She had missed Regina.

“It’s a good thing you didn’t try to lecture me about being quiet,” Regina murmured teasingly, then cupped the back of her head to keep her right there.

Emma chuckled soundlessly, but quickly returned her attention to Regina’s exquisite breasts. She sucked softly at one nipple and rolled the other lightly between her fingers, then traded sides, looking up at Regina in the dim light the entire time. As the princess’s breathing intensified, so did Emma’s caresses, sucking harder, pinching now, wishing that she could moan out how much she loved touching this woman.

Soon Regina’s hips were rolling up in search of contact, her pussy brushing wetly against Emma’s belly. Emma immediately slid a hand between Regina’s thighs, gasping at how wet she was at the same time as the princess gasped at her touch. She ran her fingers along the length of her at first, just loving how hot and wet she felt. Then she began stroking steady circles on her clit in counterpoint to sucking at her nipple.

Regina gripped her hair and her shoulder with needy fingers, her hips starting to work to meet her fingers. Then she was coaxing Emma upward with a not-quite-gentle hand on her jaw and kissing her intently. They found a rhythm, Emma’s fingers and Regina’s hips and the soft press of skin and the hot meeting of mouths. It was so good; so right; Emma had missed this intimacy so much. It couldn’t get any better, and she wanted it to go on forever, but then Regina’s hand was sliding down between them to stroke Emma’s clit too, and oh- it could get better.

Call and response, their touches intensified, Emma moving quicker and Regina following, Regina pressing her fingers inside and swallowing Emma’s moan, only to moan into Emma’s mouth just the same when the blonde slid inside her. This- This rhythm, this togetherness, this wholeness- was exquisite, two bodies becoming one emotion, one sensation. Emma felt her orgasm racing up far too fast when she wanted to stay in this perfect moment forever, hearts thudding, breath and sweat mingling, something greater than the sum of its parts seeming to emerge as they moved together.

Then Regina was coming, kissing her hard to stay quiet. Emma was right behind her, shuddering hard against her for longer than she could ever remember. 

**

August 20th

Emma was awakened by Henry’s voice outside the tent. “Sir, Robin’s here.”

Emma was disoriented at first, not remembering dozing off, but Regina’s skin against hers reminded her and she smiled. Then she slid from the blankets. “Just a minute,” she answered as she threw her clothes on.

“Okay, but I think you should hurry. He’s really hurt.”

Emma cursed under her breath, but moved faster, then exited the tent and followed the boy to where Robin was propped against some saddlebags. By the angle of the moon, it was a bit after midnight, but there was still plenty of light to see and she immediately began surveying the gashes and bruises and bumps on her friend.

“Hey,” Emma called softly to Robin, who looked like he was fighting to stay conscious. “Hey, stay with me.” She nodded thanks to Henry as he stirred up the small fire for them to see by and then brought over a waterskin and their medical supplies.

“Spirit’s left tit Emma, just let me sleep.”

“Just wait until I check out your head,” she insisted, because it looked like he’d been smacked hard enough to have a concussion.

“No, it’s fine, I made it here didn’t I?” He protested. “I’m alright, just let me sleep.”

“Maybe, if you can prove your brain’s not addled and tell me what the hell happened to you.”

“Just leave it,” Robin snapped.

“No,” Emma said firmly, taking some clean, dampened cloths from Henry and starting to dab at some of the nasty gashes on Robin’s forearm. “Shit, Rob, are these claw marks?”

“I went to the market. I wanted- wanted to buy some of that candy you got for Regina before.” He paused and shook his head. “As a peace offering, you know, since I screwed it all up so badly. But then- then just outside town I was ambushed by a pack of Xendark. There were so many of them. So many.”

“Henry, get that fire out,” Emma commanded, suddenly reminded how visible it would make them. She was also a little shaken at the extent of Robin’s injuries despite years of dealing with wounds as a fighter. She took a breath to still herself and then began gathering magic to heal him. The spell began to work as usual, but Robin suddenly cried out. Emma clapped her hand over his mouth, afraid of being discovered.

“What’s wrong with you?” Emma hissed. “Henry, can you go get Merlin?”

While Merlin was groggy at first, he quickly started working a healing spell after seeing Robin’s injuries.

“Hm, I can see how you had trouble, Emma” he said after several minutes of intense but gentle work, in deference to Robin’s continued pain at his efforts. “I’m not sure why, but these wounds are just not responding normally.”

Robin, panting hard, offered, “Maybe it’s poison?”

Emma looked at Merlin, startled. Merlin shrugged slightly and shook his head in earnest puzzlement. He bent his head again to the task, but came up short again.

“Would the orb piece help?” Henry suggested.

“Perhaps, but I have not studied it long enough to attempt such a thing.”

“What about me?” Regina asked from behind them.

“Regina! I’m so sorry, I was so out of line. Can you ever forgive me?” Robin pleaded immediately. Then he coughed, and a glob of blood and a tooth fell into his hand. “Damn it. That was one of my good teeth.”

Regina’s jaw tightened, but she didn’t look at him, focusing on Merlin.

“You, as the vessel?” Merlin asked rhetorically, also focusing on the problem rather than Robin’s outburst. “That I would be willing to try.” He thought for a moment, then directed Regina to put her hand on his shoulder to hopefully channel more magic to him as she had when they’d been attacked outside Lukmán. Feeling unhelpful as he started to cast the spell, Emma slid her hand into Regina’s other one, and immediately felt the magic intensify.

Startled, she looked at Merlin, but he was totally focused. Finally, Robin’s wounds were healing as easily as the spell would normally, but when it was done Merlin looked up at Emma and Regina sharply, his eyes settling on their joined hands for a long moment.

“Regina, milady, truly you are exemplary among women, using your great power to help me when I was so wretched to you today. I am forever in your debt,” Robin said, much more coherent now that he was no longer in pain. “I know that I can never undo what I did today, but I did bring you a gift to try to express my regret.”

“Maybe in the morning, Robin,” Regina said firmly, squeezing Emma’s hand and then turning to go back to bed.

“I’ll take the next watch,” Emma said, changing the subject. “Henry and Merlin, can you help Robin back to your tent?”  

Chapter Text

In the morning, Robin tried again to give Regina his gift, and Emma watched the scene warily, feeling responsible because she’d brought him into their group in the first place, but also not wanting to act as if Regina couldn’t handle this herself.

“Very well, Robin,” Regina said, resigned, taking the package from him. “But I need you to listen. This does not undo what you did.”

“I know,” he said immediately, then shut his mouth at her glare.

“You are not to touch me ever again. You are not to be within arm’s distance of me. Not when we’re in camp. Not when we are riding. Not at any other time. Have I made myself clear?”

“Yes, milady.” He was, Emma was glad to see, appropriately humble.

Regina took a deep breath, and then turned to Emma. “Where do we go next?”

Blinking, surprised by the change of subject, she reached for the map. “Merlin and I calculated that the Krannan Citadel is closer to where we are now than Marna’s.”

“Very well. Shall we get going?”

She was so poised and businesslike and beautiful that Emma just smiled at her and completely forgot to answer until Regina raised a questioning eyebrow.

“Yes ma’am.”

**

September 18th

Perched on a low rise above the encampment, Emma had a bit of déjà vu. She’d been in a very similar spot three months ago—watching an army and waiting for a chance to slip past the guards. But three months ago it had been the height of summer, and now the rainstorms were no longer warm and a few leaves were beginning to change here where the foothills began. Three months ago, she’d been on a simple rescue mission for a princess who was being married off against her will, and now Regina was by her side and they were trying to save the entire world.  

Perhaps most importantly, this was the Marnan army, and in theory not their enemy. Unless they decided that she and Henry were deserters rather than heroes.

They’d gone almost due north from Adli, planning to minimize the time in the mountains—and put off crossing into Kranna—by keeping west until they were near the Citadel. When they narrowly missed being spotted by a Marnan scouting party, they had realized that the army must still be in the field confronting the Krannans. After a long debate, they’d decided that the opportunity to get more soldiers was too valuable to pass up. Their supplies were also a little light after weeks on the road to go traipsing into the mountains. So they’d tracked the army back here, and now the others were hiding while Emma and Regina waited for an opportunity.

“There,” she whispered, “the guard is changing. We have to go now.” Regina nodded. Here went nothing.

**

David looked up as Emma entered his tent, and his expression hardened. “You should be tried and hanged for desertion.”

“You’ll do no such thing,” Regina snapped from behind her, in full royal form as she came in despite her nondescript travel clothing and road-worn appearance. “You may have a big army now, but you still answer to me in the absence of my father.”

“Your Highness? You’re safe! How?” He staggered to his feet to bow to her.

Regina gestured pointedly at Emma.

Recovering himself slightly, David went on, "Fortune has been kind. You're here and safe and we can call off this damn war."

“David, my friend, it’s more complicated-” Emma began, but David cut her off.

“We're not friends,” he spat. “Deserters are traitors. We've lost a lot of men, all because you just couldn’t follow orders. We didn’t know why they attacked, since they had what they wanted-” He trailed off in disgust. “Whole towns have been burned, and the people gone into hiding. The princess went willingly, and all you could think of was your own satisfaction."

Regina placed a calming hand on Emma's arm, then stepped slightly in front of her, asserting her power. "I am nothing but grateful that she did rescue me," she said calmly, though emphatically. David just pressed his lips together, clearly seething, but not about to directly challenge Regina.

Emma took deep breath, then tried again. “Captain- I mean, General," she continued more deferentially, "You’ve been around long enough to know that a man who’s strong and knows it tends to throw his weight around. Leopold wouldn't have raised that army and not used it. Regina's only part of a bigger plan.”

"What the hell are you talking about?"

“He didn’t want me for his wife. He wanted to sacrifice me to the Xan,” Regina explained, accustomed enough by this point to the facts to be able to discuss her death sentence dispassionately.

David scoffed, too incredulous to even remember who he was talking to. “The Xan? That old myth?”

“As hard as it might be to believe, it's not a myth,” Emma explained. "We’ve learned that they’re what made Kranna powerful during the Xendek Dynasty a thousand years ago, and Leopold wants to restore the kingdom with their help. And he wants to sacrifice Regina to do it.”

“If what you say is true," David shot back, "you should have immediately returned Her Highness to Silben where she could be protected.”

David's stubborn attempt to put Emma in her place aggravated the highness in question, who interjected tartly, “That would be stupid, because even if they don’t sacrifice me, the Xan will do damage unless we stop them. The lock on the portal to their realm has to be renewed, and the prophecy points to me.”

Seeing David’s baffled expression, Emma felt a twinge of compassion and gave him a small smile. “It’s pretty complicated. It took a mage and a half and an expert in dead languages to cobble together that much from some ancient texts.”

Regina continued, “The bottom line is that we have a quest, and we need soldiers and supplies to do it.”

“I’m just supposed to send you off with a couple of patrols and stroll home empty handed to the King? What am I supposed to do with this army raised to get you back?”

"You’ll keep Leopold looking here and not in his own back yard,” Regina said, her face and tone immovable.

**

Ultimately, David had to give in, despite his protests. According to Marnan law, he owed Regina his obedience. They refused his suggestions that they wait for him to get new orders, though they all knew that he would send a message to the capital as soon as they took their eyes off him.

After a refreshing night when their little band of adventurers didn’t have to kill their own dinner or stand their own watches, David allowed Emma to speak with her former men to ask for volunteers.

“Well guys, I can’t promise you safety, or riches, and it might be a long slog through the mountains without anything exciting, though we have been attacked by Xendark more than once, and it’ll probably happen again as we get closer to the seat of their power.”

“You really know how to sell the thing, Emma,” Robin muttered beside her.

“I want them to know what they’re volunteering for,” Emma insisted, then turned back to the men. “This is a very important mission, and we need all the help we can get, but it needs to be your choice.”

“I’ll go,” Billy said immediately.

“You have my sword,” Javier added right after, stepping forward.

“And my bow,” Will affirmed.

“And my axe,” Leroy put in.

One by one, whether it was from loyalty to Emma or out of a sense of duty to protect the princess, they all volunteered.

Chapter Text

October 13th

Emma looked around anxiously as she and Bug passed between the crumbling pillars that marked the Krannan border. She'd heard dark whispers about these lands since childhood, and she suspected, given the way her soldiers looked about to jump out of their skin, that she wasn’t the only one.  Of course, it wasn’t unwarranted—they’d been attacked by two bands of Xendark since they’d left the Marnan camp, including a large group that had injured enough of them that they had to take several days to recover enough to travel.

Glancing back, she saw that Regina was staring so hard at the stonework as she passed that Emma half expected her to suggest a halt to indulge her scholarly curiosity. Despite the fact that she now looked more like a seasoned traveler than a sheltered princess, her keen interest in knowing more reminded Emma strongly of the first time they had met.

"What?" Regina demanded, and Emma realized she’d been caught staring with a silly grin.

"I'm just thinking," Emma said. "About you."

Regina smiled. "Oh good."

**

October 14th

They reached the Citadel early the following morning, and, after a brief consultation with Merlin and Regina, Emma gathered everyone around.

"I'd like to leave some of the men out here to secure the area,” she announced. “If we get surrounded while we’re in there, we’re trapped."

"That’s a good point," Robin said. "I'll lead them."

Emma clapped him on the shoulder. "Thanks. I think you’re probably more experienced than the rest of them put together."

“That’d better not be a crack about my age,” he sassed.

Emma playfully elbowed him in the side, knowing he was joking to cover his nerves, then turned back to the group. “Anybody else have preferences?”

“I don’t like enclosed spaces,” Little John said immediately. Emma nodded.

“I explored caves on the Marnan side of the range when I was a kid,” Victor said. “I’ll go in.”

“What are we in for, in there?” Henry asked quietly.

Merlin raised an approving eyebrow at the question. “The texts aren’t as complete as we might like. But we know that there are- the rough translation is ‘obstacles’ to prevent the unworthy from taking the piece. We believe that because Regina has been chosen by the elemental powers we’ll find favor with whatever magic guards this place, but we do not know for certain what it is. This Citadel is associated with the element of water, but it’s not clear what that will mean.”

All the Marnans except Victor quickly volunteered to stay outside.

**

The interior of the temple was cool and dark and smelled, unsurprisingly, of water. But the air also held a weight, or a presence—magic. Emma held her torch higher as they got further from the door and the daylight got weaker.

“Over here,” Regina said, and they gathered around where she was looking at some carvings on the wall.

There was a series of pictures, and some words in a language Emma didn’t recognize. “What does it say?” she asked.

“I don’t know,” Regina said. “Merlin?”

“Nor I. I don’t even recognize the language.”

“Great,” Victor muttered. “Now what?”

“Well,” Henry said, “That picture looks like this room. See the columns? And that looks like that doorway,” he pointed at the wall and then the far end of the room. They’d given up trying to leave him behind during dangerous missions—because so often, as now, his observations were invaluable.

Graham clapped him on the back approvingly. “So maybe it tells us what we need to do?”

“Then what does the blue square mean?” Will asked.

“Didn’t someone say it was the water temple?” Billy pointed out.

“Yes, so probably we’ll have to cross it,” Merlin said.

“And that?” Javier pointed at a human-like figure outlined in blue.

“Some sort of test? Of our worthiness? From the water elemental?” Emma suggested.

“Could be,” Regina said. “But it could be anything.” She sighed in frustration, then tapped the wall with her finger. “I keep looking at these words. They feel familiar. They can’t be familiar, and I don’t know what they say, but-” She trailed off, then shook her head as if to clear it. “I’m sorry. I’m wasting time. Shall we?”

The next chamber was much like the last one—dark, stone, columns, scent of water, feeling of magic—and Emma felt the tension in her neck ease just a little. Yes, this place was powerful, but it wasn’t necessarily dangerous to them. They were expected, after all.

At that exact moment, there was a roar, and Graham and Billy, taking the lead, leapt back as a huge wall of water pushed up from the floor where their feet had been to block the passageway ahead. Emma flinched, expecting to be drenched and possibly washed out of the corridor, but it didn’t come. The water was literally just a wall, a foot or two thick, held in place by magic. Well, that wasn’t too bad.

Graham seemed to come to the same conclusion, and stepped forward to just push through it, only to be thrown back, crashing into Javier and Victor three feet behind where he’d been.

“So not just a wall of water, then,” Will noted dryly.

“Nope,” Emma said. “Regina, you’re up.” She nodded, but Emma could see her swallow hard even in the flickering torchlight. “Merlin, is there any reason I can’t go with her?”

“I shouldn’t think the magic would care,” he said thoughtfully. “But if you’re knocked flat on your arse we’ll know.”

Regina chuckled, and Emma realized the bluntness had been for the princess’s benefit as much as her own offer of going along had. She smiled at Merlin, then grabbed Regina’s hand. “Ready?”

“No, but there’s also no sense in putting it off,” she muttered.

Their hands tightened as they got closer, and Emma had to tell herself to breathe normally and to relax because hitting the floor would hurt more if she tensed.

But the instant they came into contact with the water it vanished, leaving them dry. They stopped and looked at each other, then back at Merlin, who shrugged.

“If we keep going it might close behind us,” Regina said.

“You could stand there and keep it open,” Victor suggested.

Emma shrugged. “I guess we can. Alright, get a move on.”

Quickly, their companions passed on either side of them.

“Ready?” Emma asked Regina. She nodded. “Okay one, two, three!” They hopped to the far side, trying to clear the space the water had been in.

Nothing happened.

“So we stood there for nothing,” Regina said.

“Looks like,” Emma chuckled. “Let’s go.”

Chapter Text

When they came through the hallway, the next room lit magically at their presence, and there was an altar at the far end.

“Finally,” Victor muttered.

“Don’t let your guard down,” Merlin said.

“Yes,” Emma agreed. “Form up. We don’t know what else is in here.”

Gradually, testing each step as they walked back to back facing outward, they crossed the large, empty room. Emma noticed a huge archway on one side that led to a shallow alcove and felt a little sliver of fear up her spine. She tried to shake it off. Then they reached the altar.

All that was on it was an ornate sword.

“Fucking hell! Really?” Regina said.

At that moment the door they’d entered through slammed shut with a heavy thud.

“Shit, get that door open,” Emma commanded, and the men started to run to do it.

Then another thud came. And another. And another. Almost like-

“Footsteps,” Billy said. “Something big.”

“Something very big,” Emma agreed. The archway filled with water, and Emma realized it must be a portal. “Regina, Henry, Merlin, get behind us. Give us whatever you’ve got. Everybody else, form up!”

"Are you crazy? Do you hear that thing?" Will demanded.

"She's right," Merlin agreed. "This is a test-" and at that moment he, and everyone else, was lost for words as the heavy footfalls reached the room they were in.

Emma couldn't help internally objecting that giants were supposed to be mythological, but then there was no more time to think as it roared and charged them.

"Spirit compel me!" Emma shouted, then ran forward, pulling her sword as she went, followed a bit slower by the rest of the soldiers.

The good part was that the thing's size made it pretty slow. Even if the battle was kind of like wasps attacking a bear, they were able to avoid, just barely, being crushed by the giant's huge club or feet as they hacked at its legs. Regina and Merlin sent a steady stream of magic projectiles and arrows from the far end of the enormous room. But whatever damage they did was healed almost instantly by the bands of water that flowed around the giant, and they weren’t getting anywhere fast. Emma was only dimly aware of the other soldiers, and then mostly by their shouts and curses, too focused on the task at hand to do more than avoid running into them.

Then Emma slipped, and as she scrambled to her feet she saw with sickening clarity the club heading toward her. There was no time to get out of the way. Her fate sealed, she put her sword up to at least die a soldier's death and looked over her shoulder to meet Regina's eyes.

But instead of the giant killing her instantly where she stood, she was knocked a glancing blow and sent sliding across the floor to slam into a wall as the thing roared in pain. Victor had leapt onto the back of one massive leg and was slicing away at the giant's hamstring.

Dazed from her collision with the stone, she could only give an inarticulate cry as the monster reversed its swing to bat at the source of its pain, and Victor’s broken body fell to the ground.

A second's pained recognition, and Emma groped furiously around herself on the floor for her sword. It wasn’t near her, and she couldn’t see it anywhere either, but the one on the altar was right there. It was bejeweled and potentially ceremonial, but she quickly determined that it was sharp enough.

"For Victor!" she yelled, and the soldiers roared back. A fierce determination filled her. They might die, but they had to try.

At that moment, the sword Emma held flared into a bright glow, and a feral smile touched her lips as she saw the giant cringe away from the light. Returning to the fray, she quickly finished what Victor had begun, hamstringing the giant and bringing it down, realizing as it hit the floor that its water shield and its healing had vanished the second this sword had touched it. Now they could actually do some damage.

It was over quickly after that, and as soon as the giant died it vanished as if it had never been, leaving only the piece of the Orb and the aftermath.

**

It was a long time before they stopped staring around, dazed from the experience.

Emma finally shook it off, but couldn't bring herself to start snapping orders at men who were shaken as much by the incredibly powerful magic as by being in a situation far more deadly than they’d ever faced. Body aching, she limped over to where Regina stood with her bow dangling from a slack hand.

Regina’s grip on her weapon was evidently also her grip on composure, because as Emma gently peeled it out of her hand and set both it and the sword aside to embrace her, she began to tremble violently. Emma held her until her body stilled, then pulled back and met her eyes. Regina sighed, and nodded to indicate that she would be alright for now. Emma kissed her on the forehead before retrieving the sword and trudging wearily to the entrance, where those on guard, even the usually irrepressible Robin, didn’t dare ask what had happened after one look at her.

She grabbed Victor's pack and returned to the great hall to do what came next.

As Emma carefully wrapped the corporal's shattered body in his blanket, she silently thanked him for his sacrifice. She hadn't always liked him, but the water elemental surely couldn’t fault his behavior in the Citadel. Stepping back, she nodded to two of the men to carry him out as Regina's hand found hers. They stood for long moments more, then began to walk slowly from the room.

Merlin cleared his throat. "Emma?" he began, his voice sounding as battered and weary as her soul felt. She met his eyes without speaking. "Should you-" he began, then swallowed hard and tried again, struggling to steady his voice. "Should you be taking that?" he asked, eyeing the sword in her hand.

She looked down at it as if not recognizing her own arm, having completely forgotten that the weapon she had been picking up and setting down and carrying around wasn't her own.

"Probably not," she answered in a toneless voice. She moved to return it to the altar, but before she had gotten far, she saw her own sword splintered where it had apparently been stepped on by the giant. She sighed, and looked at the weapon she held again. "Unfortunately, master of this temple," she said, addressing the abstract swirl of a statue above the altar as she approached it again, "I think I need to borrow this for a while." Then she traded the scabbard for her own.

Turning to go, she saw Regina and Merlin gaping at her. "What? I'm doing the elemental powers’ work, and it’s not like anybody else was using it."

Chapter Text

November 5th

A clearing opened in front of them, and there, at last, was the second Citadel of the Ancients. The journey through the mountains had become arduous with the first snow a few days ago, and everyone was tired. They were glad to be here, and Emma was planning to give them a few days’ rest.

Just as soon as they got this piece. Her adrenaline spiked as she thought about going in. Unlike the Krannan Citadel, the Eyad had had copies of extensive records from Marna about how this one functioned. This was the piece associated with fire, and they needed to use a torch held by the chosen one to unlock the chamber and then defeat a fire imp. Merlin had been refreshing his memory on every spell he knew to counteract flames. None of that made it any better, and from the way the soldiers were refusing to meet her eyes she knew none of them would volunteer this time around. But they had to do this one way or another, and there was no sense in putting it off since they still had plenty of daylight.

“Alright, let’s get to it. August, Walter, Leroy, Tom, Kristoff, and Eric, it’s your turn to come in. Robin, you’re in charge out here.”

They didn’t look happy about it, but they were too well-trained to grumble, and Emma took pity on them and took the lead as they entered.

It only took a few steps in for Emma to realize this Citadel felt different. It wasn’t just the difference of being dedicated to fire—it didn’t have that weight of magic pressing down on her. She wondered why.

**

“The piece isn’t here,” Merlin said finally.

They had searched every square foot of the Citadel, and Emma’s sense that there was no magic here had been right. The passage to the room with the altar hadn’t been sealed at all, and no guardian had materialized. She and Merlin had checked for secret passages with all their burglary knowledge, and Merlin had felt around with his magic, too. This was just an old stone building now.

“So someone got here before us?” Henry asked.

“It looks like it,” Emma said. “What are we going to do now? Can we stop this thing without all the pieces?”

“No,” Merlin answered. “And we might as well take Regina back to Silben to keep her safe-”

"Shit," Regina gasped in sudden recognition. "I know where it is. I saw it once."

"What? Where?" Emma asked.

"In the treasury. In Silben. It was taken from the Citadel during the rule of my grandfather. He thought it would bring good fortune to Marna." She shook her head. "He called it the Shard of Power- the Orb of Aern was never mentioned." She looked pained. "I can't believe I didn't remember before."

Emma squeezed her hand in sympathy.

"Luck has clearly abandoned us," Merlin muttered. "It’s a long journey back to Silben, and then to regain the road to Rowa-" He trailed off, sighing, then continued, "That's assuming we can get in and out of the city without incident, and that your father would let you go again." He directed the last at Regina.

Emma frowned. They could spare a few days to rest here, but nothing like the weeks that journey would take. They weren’t going to make it.

Regina sighed, then asked him, "Do you have any spells that can help?"

"Somewhat. If we were there, I could get in. You Marnans never spell-ward anything, so the thieving would be easy. And I could get there, but it would be so exhausting I’d have to stay several days before I could come back."

"How's your Distance Speak?" Emma asked, beginning to hatch a plan.

"Excellent," he replied casually. "Why?"

"Have you heard of Lady Maleficent of Silben?"

"Heard of her! She's infamo- ah, legendary."

"Do you think she could transport herself here? That would be a one-way trip."

"Undoubtedly, but even Distance Speaking to her to tell her what we need and why won't make her want to. Not to mention that she's unlikely to even take my call."

"No, but she'll take mine," Emma said without smugness. "I was acquainted with the Lady before I left Silben. She said to call if I needed help."

"I’m not one for magic, but it seems like you could have mentioned this sooner," Leroy grumbled.

She shot a quelling look at him, then explained, "I tried to use the charm she gave me, but I couldn't get the spell to work. But it just occurred to me that Merlin can cast the spell and use the charm as a focus point."

Merlin nodded.

"And, if I had called her in earlier, we wouldn't be able to call her now," Emma pointed out. Then she said to Regina, "Think hard for every bit of detail you can recall about what you saw. We're going to break into your father's treasury from here."

**

"Emma? Is that you?"

Emma was surprised to hear the usually unflappable mage's voice so strained. "Yes, Lady," she responded.

"Thank heavens. I was worried when I didn't hear from you. Why didn't you call earlier?"

"There were- That is to say, I- uh, had difficulties."

"Emma, dear, don't tell me you couldn't activate a simple charm."

"No," she answered, trying not to be too embarrassed by the exasperated tone.

"Why all the formality?" Maleficent asked. A moment later she seemed to realize, "Ah, I see, you've enlisted help."

"I did- Forgive me for not announcing the mage Merlin of Lukmán."

"I shall have to remind you of your manners when I see you next, Emma."

Emma looked at Merlin, hoping he wouldn’t catch the insinuation.

Merlin, perhaps too distracted by the spell to think much about it, simply greeted: "It’s a great honor, Lady Maleficent."

"I am honored to meet you as well, Merlin. Your name precedes you."

"Thank you, Lady," he replied, with a smile of obvious pride.

"And, of course, I saw the wanted posters all over Lukmán when I was there.”

Merlin's eyes widened. He’d clearly forgotten about the gravity of his transgressions in all the questing they had been doing.

"Lady," Emma said, trying as much to spare Merlin as to get them back on topic, "We've called about something urgent, and- delicate." Emma provided a very brief sketch of what had happened - Kranna's real reason for abducting of Regina, the prophecy, and their attempts to reassemble the Orb and travel to the temple at Kyna by year's end. Then she explained that King Henry held one of the pieces in Silben.

"Your story is fantastic, dear Emma, but I know it’s true. Philip was killed by a servant of the Xan for even seeking information about this prophecy. When I realized, I personally tracked the scum down and killed him, of course." The hatred in her tone was palpable even at this distance. "The trash even had the audacity to be walking around impersonating a mage," she added, and Merlin and Emma realized it was probably another agent of the Xan like the man who’d chased them leaving Lukmán. Maleficent, unable to see their facial expressions, went on, "In my investigation I learned enough to confirm what you've said."

"Lady, I’m sorry for the loss of your friend. Philip was well regarded at the Eyad," Merlin offered.

Maleficent didn't respond for a moment, then simply asked, "So, you wish for me to steal the piece of the Orb of Aern from the royal treasury of Marna?"

"Well, yes." Emma replied, a bit startled that Maleficent had understood her intent, though with the older woman's quick wit it shouldn’t have been surprising.

Maleficent laughed. "It’s no small thing, but it shall be most satisfying to show King Henry a thing or two about respecting mages. And, I'm sure I can imagine some favors to ask in return."

Emma closed her eyes briefly, wishing this conversation could have been conducted without Merlin's help so she could speak privately with Maleficent. Despite the mage's understanding of the importance of the request, she was half afraid she would reconsider if Emma denied whatever she asked in return. She knew she would have to tell both Regina and Maleficent about each other as soon as possible.

Before she could explain, Maleficent simply commanded, "Tell me what you know and I will bring it to you."

Chapter Text

“Regina, can we take a walk?” Emma asked after dinner. They’d set up camp to wait, and most of them had chosen to pitch their tents in the entryway of the Citadel, which Merlin agreed would be alright, magically speaking. The Marnans and Robin were still outside, not comfortable in the building even with it clearly abandoned, despite the fact that the sky looked like more snow. But it wasn’t falling yet, and Emma needed some privacy for this.  

“That sounds lovely.” Regina smiled and held out her hand.

Emma felt a twinge of uncertainty, but took it.

The air was crisp outside but not unpleasant with their cloaks. They nodded to the men sitting around the fire as they passed.

When they were out of earshot, Regina turned to her, expression serious. “Out with it.”

“What?”

“I can tell that something’s bothering you.”

“No- I-”

Regina caught her face in both hands. “Emma.”

She took a deep breath. “Maleficent is coming here. Soon.”

“Is that a problem? I thought she was your friend.” Regina’s brow furrowed in confusion.

“She is.” There was no sense in avoiding it. “She’s been more than a friend.”

“Oh.”

There was a long silence, and Emma found herself biting the inside of her cheek not to plead with her to say something, anything.

“For how long?” Regina asked at last.

“I met her the same day I met you, actually.”

“So you just carried on both relationships and didn’t tell me? Does she know? How could you do that to me?”

“I mean- It was- casual,” Emma sputtered. “Like we were casual until I decided to try to save your life and then we were on a quest to save the world together.”

Regina scoffed. “I’m so sorry I inconvenienced you that you had to save my life.”

“Regina, no. No-no. Of course not. I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else than here with you.” She was pleading now.

“But you could have said something. You should have,” Regina insisted.

“When? Walking in the garden at sunset? When we were on the run for our lives?” Emma felt herself losing patience.

“Oh, so you just forgot.”

“You’re kind of distracting,” she said with a hint of a smile.

“Don’t you try to flirt your way out of this!”

“I’m not! I’m trying to explain why it didn’t come up!”

“Didn’t come up,” Regina scoffed. “Just admit you liked having some sort of harem.”

“What the fuck, Regina? Why are you making a big deal out of this?”

“Because it is a big deal!” she hissed, and stormed off back into the Citadel, leaving Emma staring after her, stunned, for a long moment. Then she started to go after her.

Robin was the only one left at the fire as she passed. "So after everything, you've lost your beloved pet, Emma?" He looked strange in the flickering light. 

"You watch yourself Robin Hood," she replied, unconsciously reaching for her dagger. 

 Their eyes locked for a long moment, all of Emma’s frustration with Regina and the snow and the missing piece and the delay and the fact that she was going to have to do this all over again when Maleficent arrived bubbling up to the surface until she felt like she was going to explode.

Then Robin huffed a humorless chuckle. “What are we doing?”

Emma immediately stood down, scrubbing her face with her hand, "I'm sorry."

 "No," Robin sighed. "I'm sorry, Emma, I don't know what came over me. That was a terrible joke."

 "You always were grumpy when you couldn’t go to bed early."

“And sadly I’m on watch tonight.”

“I’ll stay with you,” Emma volunteered, not sure how to face Regina.

“You want to talk about it?”

“No.”

They sat in companionable silence for a long time.

**

Stepping into their tent, Emma found Regina on their sleeping mat under the blankets. From the tension in her body, she was still awake.

“So, in hindsight, maybe not mentioning it to you wasn’t the best choice I’ve ever made,” she began.

“I overreacted,” Regina admitted, turning over.

“No, you didn’t, not really. And I really didn’t mean to keep it from you. It wasn’t a plan or anything. I was just focused on you.”

“No,” Regina insisted, stubborn now. “I really did. I don’t like it at all, and I do wish you’d told me, but at the end of the day it’s not like we’re betrothed.”

Emma felt a little twinge in her chest at that, but ignored it. “But I do care about you, and I hurt you, and I’m sorry.”

“I’m sorry too. Now get in here. I’m cold.”

**

November 8th

Emma heard someone approaching and tensed where she was keeping lookout in a tree.

Their days waiting for Maleficent had been tense and unexpectedly bloody. They had been attacked by a band of Xendark that substantially outnumbered them, and they were all worse for wear. Fortunately, only six soldiers had sustained injuries more serious than cuts and bruises, though they still had recovery to do even after Merlin and Emma had healed them. It was fortunate that, as ferocious as the Xendark were, they didn’t work together in battle or seem to have any strategy when they came upon their prey.

In the aftermath, Emma had ordered a strict watch, hoping to at least have the element of surprise on their side if they were attacked again, but as the time wore on the exhaustion and strain was fraying the patrol's morale. Something told her that lone figure was Maleficent, but she nocked an arrow anyway.

A few steps into the clearing below and Maleficent stopped, crossed her arms, and looked directly up at Emma with uncanny accuracy. "You really are awful at hello," she teased.

"I’m sorry." Emma put her weapon away after one final glance around, then climbed down to meet her. "We've had some bad luck. Are you well? Did everything go alright?"

Maleficent nodded, seeming amused at her solicitousness. She added, "I'm sure I’ll have to answer to the Tribunal eventually, but given the circumstances I’m not concerned. I like a challenge. I used some delightful magic. Very exhilarating."

The residual magic ghosting around her from the intense spellcasting she had just undertaken prickled Emma's skin. Combined with the flush on Maleficent's cheeks and sparkle in her eye, it was an intoxicating combination. Emma cleared her throat to steady herself, then said simply, "I don't think I can express our appreciation. Without you-"

Maleficent swiftly claimed Emma's lips with her own, and the intensity of desire she’d always awakened in Emma hadn’t diminished at all in her absence. It was several seconds before she remembered herself and stepped back slightly.

"I- Maleficent, milady, I'm sorry." She sighed. "I am truly sorry. But I can't continue our relationship. At least, not in the same way."

"I see." Her displeasure was palpable.

"I’m- involved with someone," Emma tried to explain, still flushed and somewhat embarrassed.

Maleficent quirked an eyebrow. "And here I thought you dashed off after the princess out of the goodness of your heart. Of course you are. But I don’t see what it has to do with me.”

“What- how- you know?”

“I am known for my perceptive mind, dear. Knowing when you left Silben and where you ended up, it’s not hard to figure out. Let me extend my congratulations. Princess Regina is a lovely woman.”

“Well, um, I, she was less happy to hear about you.”  

“Does she know she can join us? I have had my eye on her for a very long time, but our paths never happened to cross and now here we all are.”

Emma gulped. “Um- I- uh- I think she’d kill me if I suggested it.”

“Very well then.” Maleficent shrugged elegantly. “Shall we go meet your companions?”

Chapter Text

Several of the men were out keeping watch as Emma had been, and several more had pulled hunting duty for dinner, so the camp was nearly abandoned. That was probably for the best for this meeting.

“She’s here,” Emma called out as she and Maleficent entered the Citadel. Regina and Merlin looked up from where they were plotting the next part of their journey on the map, and Emma could see Regina’s jaw tighten. When Emma came to stand beside her, Regina edged closer and laid a hand on her back in subtle possessiveness.

Emma couldn’t really take the time to think too hard about that, so she just moved on. “Princess Regina, may I introduce Lady Maleficent. I suspect you two haven’t run in the same circles.”

“No indeed,” Regina said, eyeing the mage warily. Then, remembering her manners, she added, “A pleasure to meet you."

"Oh my," Maleficent said quietly after taking Regina's hand. "The pleasure is all mine." Only after a moment did she add, "Highness."

The purr in her voice caused Emma to involuntarily cough in outrage and frown, which only provoked a small chuckle. "Don’t be silly, Emma. I've simply never met anyone like her."

Regina raised an irritated eyebrow at being discussed as if she wasn’t there.

"The elemental powers have woven a gorgeous tapestry in you," Maleficent explained, turning to her directly. "It's a wonder you can't feel it yourself. You practically hum- I daresay, sing- with magic." Her look was just on the polite side of a leer. She turned to Merlin. "You never noticed this?"

"I’ve been aware when we’ve come into contact,” he acknowledged. “Though as you know it requires touch.” 

Maleficent seemed unconcerned with his disapproval, but she did drop Regina’s hand and the subject. "Though I'm loath to give it up now that I've touched it, I present to you the piece of the Orb of Aern,” she said, summoning a pouch to her hand with a flourish.

"Thank you Lady," Regina said genuinely as she took it. "I don't know how we can ever repay you."

"For robbing your house?" Maleficent asked with a smile. Emma gave the ghost of a laugh.

"I suppose so, yes," Regina replied, smiling now too.

Maleficent's response was blunt. "Assuming we all make it through the year, you can speak to the king about improving relations with the more influential mages within his own city. Your family's denial of our important role is imprudent."

"Of course," Regina answered, recovering from her surprise quickly.

Emma felt an indulgent smile start to cross her face as she watched them play off each other. Powerful and intelligent and beautiful, both of them, and she’d been very lucky to have either of them, much less both. The smile vanished as she realized Maleficent was going to leave soon, and though she was getting profoundly attached to Regina—was terrified by her attachment to Regina—she felt a twinge at not knowing when she’d see the mage again.

"Do stop pouting, young one," Maleficent said suddenly.

Emma looked down, unable to meet her eyes. "What are you talking about?"

"You want me to stay."

She froze for a moment, but then nodded acknowledgement.

"Fortunately for you, I’m planning to do just that.”

Startled, Emma met her eyes and started babbling, “Oh- well- thank you. I didn’t want to impose, but- we- could really use all the help we can get- and-”

“I'm not doing it as a personal favor to you," Maleficent interrupted, a hint of reprimand in her tone. "We’re all invested in the fate of magic, and of the world."

**

The hunting party returned with a deer for dinner then, and guards needed to trade posts, and Emma was distracted with routine tasks for quite a while, leaving Regina, Maleficent, and Merlin to plan the next stage of their journey between the three of them. It was only much later, when she started to think about turning in for the night, that she realized an oversight.

“Maleficent, do you have a tent? I mean,” and she gestured vaguely at her, “magicked away somewhere?”

“No, I’m afraid I decided to journey with you while on my way here.”

“Allow me to extend the hospitality of our tent, then,” Regina said immediately, her manners courtly but her smile genuine. It seemed they’d bonded somewhat this evening. Emma wondered what they’d discussed.

“You are too kind, Highness.” Maleficent’s eyes wandered over her.

“Please, call me Regina,” she insisted. Emma rubbed her face to hide her smile. They were adorable.

Then Maleficent looked toward where Regina had gestured and came up short at the sight of it. “It will be a bit snug,” she said politely. “Unless you’d like me to improve it?”

Regina looked at Emma, who shrugged. “Go for it.”

With the wave of a hand, their tent was larger, sturdier, and, Emma saw as she followed Maleficent inside, better furnished. There was a large bed taking up half the space, not particularly luxurious in itself but looking like paradise after so many weeks on the road. She saw Regina looking longingly at it, and didn’t blame her. Their own sleeping mat and blankets, still on the floor on the other side, were comfortable enough, but never designed to be used long-term the way they had.

Maleficent noticed Regina’s look too. “You can join me, you know. There’s plenty of room.”

Regina blinked, startled. “That seems a bit forward in that we’ve just met, wouldn’t you say?”

The mage grinned. “Emma can come along as your chaperone.”

“Uh- no- I- Regina’s an adult- and- doesn’t need my protection.”

Maleficent’s laugh was full and rich. “Of course not.” Then she turned to Regina. “Well?”

She looked at Emma, biting her lip uncertainly. Emma pulled her in for a half-hug and kissed her temple. “Go for it if you want.”

Regina sighed in relief. “Oh thank you. And my back thanks you, too.”

In a few minutes Regina had slid into the bed, moving to the far side to give Maleficent space. Emma laid down on her mat, trying not to feel so keenly that she hadn’t been on it alone in a very long time. Maleficent gestured out the small lamp hanging from the tent’s support pole.

Silence fell.

“You’re really going to stubbornly sleep on the floor, young one?”

“Maybe?”

A sigh came through the blackness. “Get in here.”

After a moment’s more of hesitation, Emma did.

In the morning, she awakened wrapped around Regina, with Maleficent tucked against her back.

Chapter Text

November 21st

The snow was so deep that they had to walk the horses now, trudging single file along the rocky mountain path. Emma was just glad it wasn’t too deep to travel at all, and that they’d start to come down from the heights in a few hours to meet the road to the sanctuary of the Rowan foresters, who held the next piece of the Orb according to the texts Merlin and Regina had consulted.

There was a startled cry from behind her, and Emma snapped her head around just in time to see the edge of the path giving way beneath Regina. At some parts, the ravine sloped away relatively gently from the path along its edge, but here the drop was abrupt and lengthy.

She couldn't cry out, couldn't even think words in the horror of watching Regina fall to her death, reaching out her hand impotently as if to pull her back.

Then a surge of magic rushed through her, more intense than she had ever felt, and Regina was standing beside her, eyes wild.

They stood there for a beat, trembling, drinking each other in, and then clung to one another fiercely.

"How did you do that?" Merlin demanded after a moment, getting over his shock enough to speak. He’d been right behind Regina.

Emma looked at him blankly over Regina's shoulder.

"That's far, far above your level," Maleficent explained from the other side. She’d been in front of Emma.

"I- I don't know," Emma croaked, her voice broken by her terror and the exhaustion that was now settling over her from using so much magic.

"Apparently you do," Maleficent said.

"That doesn't make sense," Emma said slowly, her eyes still unfocused.

"No, indeed,” Merlin agreed. “Novices with only a few years of training simply can’t move something the size of a person. It’s tremendously difficult.”

“Not to mention a living being. No beginner would even try!" Maleficent was clearly disturbed by the violation of the rules of her craft.

"What do you mean?" Regina asked distractedly, her face still tucked against Emma’s neck.

"That particular spell is used to put the tea kettle on, get a book. Small things. Simple things. Living beings are incredibly complex." Merlin stared at them for another long moment, shaking his head.

“But you-” Regina looked up at Maleficent as she searched for the word, “Poofed- yourself all the way here.”

“Moving oneself is one thing,” Maleficent clarified. “But moving other living beings is very easy to abuse. The balance of magic in the universe requires that it be difficult. I’ve been studying magic for decades. Emma spent, what, two years?” Merlin nodded confirmation. "And she did this thing that should be impossible for her. Without uttering a word, which should also be impossible for her.” She trailed off. “It’s remarkable. I'm- I'm very much at a loss."

Regina had stopped listening to her, instead staring into Emma's eyes intently. For her part, Emma was struggling to stay standing as echoes of magic rebounded in her body.

“Yes, it’s really quite startling,” Merlin agreed.

"Can we talk about this later?” Regina broke in. “Emma doesn't look well."

"What? I'm fine."

“No you look like you’ve bled half to death, you’re so pale,” Maleficent chided, having moved to her side as soon as Regina had noticed it.

“Then our magical mystery can wait,” Merlin said.

Regina nodded. "Let's keep moving and find a safe place to rest."

Emma wanted to object, but felt too faint, and anyway Regina's expression told her that wasn’t a fight she wanted.

Then Henry slipped up to them, weaving through the men and horses. He’d been way at the back of the group, not scouting now because breaking the path through the snow was too hard for him. "What's going on? I heard a yell."

"The path caved in, it- it fell," Merlin answered, pointing at the spot he’d just passed. It looked so innocent now, just a bit narrower than the rest.

Henry’s eyes widened slightly. "Everyone's all right, though?"

"Yeah," Emma said, not sounding convincing even to herself.

Henry looked at all of them suspiciously, then asked Emma, "You'll tell me the whole truth later, right?"

Emma nodded and gave him her best effort at a grin.

"Henry, can you go up and tell Robin to keep an eye out for a place to stop?" Regina asked. "He's on point. Oh, and pass the word back about the path." She paused, then added. "Be careful."

"Of course," Henry replied, and left to make it happen.

Emma realized Regina was taking charge in order to feel like she was in control of something, and she could respect that. But she still had a goofy smile as she watched.

"What?" Regina demanded.

"I think you're trying steal my stripes," Emma teased softly. She took Regina's hand, and Regina squeezed hard, then took a deep breath and very deliberately let go.

“Alright, let’s get going,” Regina called out. Emma watched her with a small smile.

**

It took nearly two hours for them to find a spot where the entire group could rest comfortably. They stopped and ate and drank, and Emma and Regina clung to each other as subtly as they possibly could while Maleficent and Merlin and Henry fussed over them both. Emma allowed it, because she was too focused on her need to keep reassuring herself that Regina was here, and alive, and real, and it seemed pretty clear Regina felt the same way.

After that, Emma felt much more like a person again, and advocated that they continue on and get down into gentler terrain before sunset. But she made sure that Regina was directly in front of her where she could keep an eye on her. Once they finally passed from the exposed mountainside into the a small valley that would lead them down from between the peaks, the trail widened and the forest canopy kept it clear of snow, and they could ride again. Henry, who had been right behind Emma for probably the same reason she’d put Regina in front of her, came to ride beside her.

“So what really happened back there?” he asked.

“Regina was on the part of the path that collapsed,” she said shortly, suppressing the urge to snap at him. He didn’t know.

He gasped. “What happened?”

“I don’t know. I just- saved her. With magic. That I shouldn’t have been able to do.”

“Isn’t love the most powerful magic? You know, like Princess Regina said about the elemental powers?"

“I don’t know what that has to do with anything,” Emma said, too quickly.

“Don't you love Princess Regina?" 

“I can’t,” she said quietly.

“Because of Maleficent?” he asked. Emma winced. She had wondered if people were drawing that conclusion.

“No, Maleficent is just a good friend.” She was silent for a moment, thinking. "Regina is very special to me, more than anyone else, but she also has a special destiny. Aside from this mysterious prophecy," she clarified wryly. "She's destined to marry someone else, to become a queen. Love is," she sighed, "not an option for us."

"It’s not, huh?" Henry said dryly, cocking his head at her. "Seems like it might be hard to tell."

Chapter Text

Emma was awakened by a hesitant voice in her ear.

"Emma?"

"Yeah," she mumbled after a long moment. "Is it watch already?"

"Not exactly."

Emma cracked an eye and saw darkness, but felt Regina wrapped around her from behind. She smiled reflexively, then asked, "What's going on?"

Regina whispered, "I can't sleep. Will you take a walk with me?"

"Hm," was her only response for several seconds. Then she shook herself a little and added, "Of course."

They bundled up as quickly and quietly as they could, trying not to disturb Maleficent, but she just rolled over and kept sleeping. A few minutes later, they were moving carefully through camp, glad of the moonlight. As they entered the trees at the edge of the clearing, Emma signaled to Billy, not wanting to startle him where he kept watch.

Regina glanced at Emma out of the corner of her eye, then took her hand.

Emma chuckled. "This reminds me of our walks in the garden."

"That seems like forever ago," Regina said.

"I miss Silben," Emma admitted. "And if I do, I can't imagine how you must feel. I was just getting used to the idea of staying someplace for a while."

"I’m sorry I dragged you into this," Regina said in a deceptively light tone.

"No, don't be. You don’t have anything to be sorry for. I'm happy- well, grateful that I could be there for you."

"You are quite exceptional," Regina said softly.

"That’s a hell of a compliment coming from the chosen one." Emma smiled, but it faded at Regina’s serious expression. "What's wrong?"

"Nothing,” Regina said quickly. “Or- it’s not wrong, exactly. Just- challenging. There's something I realized today that I really need to tell you."

Emma felt her adrenaline spike, though she tried to keep her tone light as she asked, "What is it?"

Regina stopped walking and turned to her, then took her face in both gloved hands to look her as deeply in the eye as the dim light would allow. "I love you, Emma."

"You can't," Emma blurted, then immediately regretted it.

“I can. And I do. And I will not risk dying without making my feelings clear to you.”

“We can’t.”  

"The hell we can’t," and now Regina's tone was sharp. "You moved heaven and earth to save me today. And I would do the same for you. Fuck anyone who tries to get in our way."

Emma shook her head, her heart aching so much that she couldn't speak. She had to protect them both from this. Didn’t she?

Regina’s hands gripped her face firmly, almost harshly, now, and made her meet her eyes. "Listen to me, and listen well, Emma Swan Rowan. You think you're so worldly and so experienced, and that sheltered princess Regina doesn't know better than to get attached. But you're just scared."

Emma felt her pride prick her at that.

"No, not scared?" Regina continued. "Then maybe I was just a good time. Maybe you wanted to brag in the barracks about how good you gave it to the princess. Did you tell them how you made me scream?"

Emma recoiled as if she'd been hit. "No! No-no-no."

"I have to take that on faith, don't I? I have to trust that the kind, loving person I've fallen in love with cares about me too. That I mean something to you. And I give you that trust, like I give you my love, like I give you my body, gladly." She laughed humorlessly. "And I can tell you that if I die tomorrow—and I almost died today, Emma Swan, and you know as well as I do that we both might die tomorrow, or next week, or trying to stop this catastrophe that’s bearing down on the world—I won't have any regrets. I love you. Even though you clearly don't deserve it," she snapped.

When Emma spoke again, her voice was thick and she struggled to get the words out. "You don't have a lot of say in who you end up with, Regina."

The princess had to concede the point. "But it doesn't mean I don't love you."

"What good is it? I'm just a bastard Rowan. My bloodline is hopelessly diluted, and I don’t have any money to smooth that away. Even if you do love me, there will come a time when we can't be together anymore."

"Forget about that! What do you feel? In. Here." She poked at Emma's sternum hard enough to hurt.

It was a long moment before Emma answered. "I feel like I can't live without you. Like you're the first thing I want to see in the morning and the last thing at night and all day in the middle. Like I must have done something right, because the universe has given me the most precious gift. Like I love you." As soon as the words were out, the joy on Emma's face was replaced with pain. "It doesn't matter. Even if we can both manage to stay alive, you'll be married off and I'll have nowhere to go, except for maybe a prison cell."

"Is that what you really think? You think I would let that happen?" Regina looked angry now.

Emma dipped her head, but said nothing.

"Don't you understand? I'd give everything up for you."

Emma met her eyes, startled. "Regina, no."

"Yes. Fuck them. Either they let me rule with you as my consort, or I abdicate and you and I go see the world." She held Emma's gaze fiercely for a long moment, daring her to say no, then softened her tone as she finished, "This is real," pulling Emma in for a kiss.

A long moment later, they parted, and Regina reinforced her point. "Whatever happened in the past, whatever you’re afraid of, just trust me. I'm not going anywhere."

**

There was a moment of longing for a private, heated room in an inn where mouths and fingers and skin could reaffirm what voices had just said, because even if they hadn’t been sharing with Maleficent it was way too cold to try it, but since it wasn’t an option they had just headed back to the tent. The lantern was lit as they approached, and Maleficent was sitting up in bed when they went in.

Standing there still holding Regina’s hand, Emma had no idea how to even begin this conversation.

“You’re different,” Maleficent said, cocking her head at them.

“Um,” Emma said, not sure how to respond to that.

“After what happened today, we needed to talk,” Regina explained.

“I should think so,” Maleficent said. “But that isn’t what I meant. Your innate magic is- reacting to Emma’s magic, somehow. I can feel it.”

“Is that bad?” Emma asked.

“No, but it suggests something larger that makes me curious.”

“We are-” and Regina paused to find the word, “closer. Things have shifted.”

“And that makes me wonder if I should find another place to sleep.”

“Oh no,” Regina insisted. “What’s happening with us doesn’t mean anything about being friends with you.” She glanced at Emma, who nodded support.  

“I’m glad to hear that,” Maleficent said, smiling. “Now come back. I’m cold.”

Chapter Text

December 3rd

They reached the sanctuary of the Foresters early in the day, and Emma felt a sense of familiarity and peace settle over her immediately as she spotted the large, rustic building at the mouth of a narrow canyon. This place felt ancient and timeless, but also alive, as if the forest these acolytes were sworn to protect embraced them in turn.

It looked a little different in the snow, but her six months here had been some of the happiest days of her young life. She’d loved going out with the Keeper of the Knowledge to learn tracking and archery, how to hunt and respect the life she was taking, the ways of the web of life and how to feel whether all was in balance. She would have been happy to move from a temporary student to a full sworn Forester and dedicate her life to it, had Merlin not come to find her and tell her the queen wanted her dead and she had to leave Rowa.

As they got closer, Emma could see that there were a few students and foresters seated on the wide front porch, mending gear and telling stories. The foresters would have already known they were coming for at least half a mile, of course. But the scouts must have decided they should be allowed to pass.

“Hail, friends,” a forester said when they were close enough. She could see as he rose that he was wearing the leathers of a Forester, but he was so young he must have just been initiated.

“Hail, Keeper of the Forest,” she replied, the greeting surfacing in her memory immediately.

“You know our ways,” the young man said, pleasantly surprised.

“I studied here once, years ago,” Emma explained.

“Ah, and what brings you back?” His tone was polite, but she could see that he, and everyone else, was eyeing them keenly.

“We’re on a great quest,” Regina said, stepping forward to stand beside Emma. “And we believe that the Foresters can help us.”

“A quest,” the young man echoed, clearly impressed. “Well that explains why you’re such a large party. Otherwise we might have had to assume you were here to rob us.” There was a warning there, Emma could tell.

“Peace, Peter,” a woman said. She wore the deep green robes of the Order of the Eagle, the mystical branch that read the omens in the forest to help guide the management of the land. Her accent and her red hair, just beginning to turn silver, marked her as coming from northern Rowa. “You know perfectly well that they are expected. Please forgive my colleague,” she said, turning to the travelers.

“There are a lot of us, Eagle Master,” Emma said, dipping her head in greeting and then smiling. “It’s fair.”

“Please, call me Merida, and come in and be rested. Peter, you’ll have the students tend their horses, won’t you?”

**

Emma willed her breathing to slow. It had been a very long time since she’d tried to meditate, and longer still since she had been trying to empty her mind rather than concentrating on magic. It was hard not to be distracted by the scratchy robe Merida had told her she’d need to wear, or the chill of wearing thin slippers rather than her own warm boots.

Over lunch, Merida had explained that the Master of the Forest, the head of this order, had foreseen that one chosen by the elemental powers would be arriving soon among a band of adventurers to petition him for help on a great and important quest. The one who was expected would present their request to him at dawn tomorrow with one companion of their own choosing, and as a condition of passing into the deep forest sanctuary they would both have to fast and meditate from sundown to purify themselves. They had until sundown to rest and to select the companion.

It was obvious that Emma would accompany Regina, but they weren’t sure how to meditate properly for purification and thought they probably shouldn’t ask Merida. Maleficent and Merlin would have been willing to help, but explained that it was too different from magical meditation. Robin, Will, and Graham, who had been Foresters previously, had never had any interest in joining the Order of the Eagle with its meditation and mysticism. Emma had wanted to pursue it, but had barely begun the training when she had to flee Rowa and never got the hang of this part. It was probably for the best, though, because her later experience with mage school suggested she didn't have the temperament for it.

It was, ironically, the biggest Rowan, Little John, whose thoughtful demeanor seemed at first to be a slow wit, who had actually progressed the farthest down the road of the acolyte, and he sat down with them for an hour or two to help.

She jerked back upright at the sound of a tapping on the door of the monastic cell she’d been given to meditate in. She’d almost fallen asleep.

“Emma?” Merida’s voice came, “It’s time.”

Shit, she had dozed off. How long? Would she be pure enough?

“Emma?” Merida said again.

“Yeah, I’m coming.”

They went to Regina’s cell next, and she looked much more alert and thoughtful than Emma felt. Merida led them out the back door of the house and into the narrow canyon. Emma was relieved for a moment that the path was cleared of snow, but then realized that the members of the Order of the Eagle probably passed this way regularly, even though it felt as if no humans had been here in thousands of years. It was awe-inspiring, but it also made her feel like they shouldn’t be here. Regina’s hand slipped into hers, and a quick glance showed that she also seemed unsettled.

Emma didn’t know how long they walked. The sky lightened from almost black to deep blue to gray, and when the slightest hint of orange appeared, they reached a stand of ancient trees growing unnaturally close together.

“From here you go alone,” Merida said, pointing through the trees. Her voice sounded so unnatural in the silence that Emma winced.

“What? But there’s no path-” Emma sputtered.

“You’re expected,” Merida said firmly. “Go on.”

“Thank you, Merida,” Regina said, all royal poise. Then she squeezed Emma’s hand reassuringly and stepped forward with much more confidence than Emma felt.

Chapter Text

December 4th

Emma told herself it was an optical illusion that the trees seemed to part in front of them. There must just have been spaces that weren’t apparent farther back, right? It didn’t help that the trees felt even more alive and ancient here than elsewhere in the sanctuary.

But she also felt welcomed, though holding the hand of the person who’d been invited certainly helped.

The trees were thinning again, and then the forest opened into a clearing around a pool of water that looked perfectly round. An ancient Forester sat at the far side, eyes closed, barely visible in the dawn light and shadows. Emma turned to Regina, who looked just as lost as she felt.

“Come forward, my children,” the impossibly ancient man said, suddenly fixing them with a piercing gaze. The strength of his voice was at odds with his frail appearance.

As they approached him, they saw he was seated on a stone stool, and there were two others, which he gestured to them to take. Then he cocked his head at them. “I ask for the chosen one and a companion and receive two that are one. Interesting.”

“I’m sorry?” Regina asked, uncertain, glancing at Emma.

Emma shrugged and dropped Regina’s hand, in case that was what was bothering him.

"It’s no matter,” he assured them. “What is your purpose here?"

"The world is in grave danger, Forestmaster," Regina began, then hesitated.

"I have felt an imbalance of late, it is true," he agreed. "In the same omens that told me you would come to me to right it." He sounded skeptical.

"After a fashion, Father, yes, we do. It’s in your power to grant access to what we need to try,” Regina explained.

“What is it with this one?” the old man asked suddenly, tipping his head toward Emma. “Doesn’t she talk?”

“I thought that because Regina is chosen I should stay out of it,” Emma explained. It sounded silly coming out of her mouth.

He huffed a little chuckle. “But you’re in it. More, it seems, than you know.” He looked back to Regina. “What is it that you need?”

Regina came right out with it. “We request that you let us take from here the piece of the Orb of Aern that has been kept by the Foresters since the last age so that we can complete our quest."

His eyes widened, and he stared at them for such a long time that Emma started to shift uncomfortably. Finally, he responded. "That’s a great thing to ask, young ones. Few speak that name, nor know that these treasures are part of a greater whole. It is ours to keep it safe, just as it is ours to preserve the harmony of the forest lands."

"And they have been safe for over a thousand years,” Emma said deferentially. “But now the piece is urgently needed in the world. If we’re going to stop the spreading darkness, the Orb has to be reassembled."

"What do you know of Aern?"

It was an unexpected question, and Emma didn’t have much of an answer. "Only the name. I don’t even know if it’s a person or a place."

“Aern was a powerful man who lived thousands of years ago. Many cycles. He was a prince and a mage.”

“Did he make the orb, then?” Regina asked, eager to learn. Emma’s lips twitched trying not to smile.

“He did, eventually.” There was a hint of reprimand in his tone at not letting him tell the story in his own time.

“What happened first?” Emma urged.

“Aern was also chosen by the elemental powers as their vessel to stop the attack of the Xan in his time. And because he had so much power already, he did not appreciate the gravity of what was being asked of him. He was arrogant. He tried to focus all of the elemental powers through himself.”

Emma gasped.

“Ah, so this you understand,” the Forestmaster teased. “No mortal could do such a thing. He nearly died. It was sheer stupid luck that the one he loved was with him. His love let Spirit take control of him and guide his magic. But it broke his body, and it took many months before he could travel home. The full force of the elemental powers is not to be trifled with.”

Emma found herself wanting to be holding Regina’s hand again. She didn’t know why she had thought that the only risk was in being a blood sacrifice to the Xan. But the orb would keep her safe, wouldn’t it?

“Aern was brought here because this was the closest safe haven to Kyna. And here, as he healed, with the help of the Forestmaster of that time, he forged the orb, to give the magic a focal point other than the body of the vessel, and so it has been used ever after.”

“And so we need to use it now,” Regina said, and she was doing that noble and determined thing again that made Emma’s heart ache.

The old man gave a little amused snort. “Someone needs to use it now. It remains to be seen whether it’s you.”

Emma blinked. “Wait, what?”

“There is a test. There is always a test. How else to prove that you are in fact chosen?” He shook his head at her lack of understanding.

“Like in the citadels,” Regina said. Then she tilted her head. “Why aren’t they all in the citadels anymore?”

“Each of the four kingdoms claimed that it could protect the orb better than the others, and to prevent a war it was divided into its constituent parts and given to the four kingdoms to protect, with one piece remaining at Kyna. The citadels were built, and their magic worked for many centuries, with the chosen one gathering all the pieces as need arose.” He took a deep breath. “But over the cycles, things that should not have been forgotten were lost.”

“That’s convenient for the other guys,” Emma muttered.

The old man gave a small nod of acknowledgement. “Once the leaders of the four kingdoms had forgotten their sacred duty, the pieces were at risk. Some were removed as antique curiosities. Others forgotten altogether. We Foresters remembered, but we also knew that the Rowan piece was safest with us, so we brought it here for safekeeping.”

“Then what’s the test we need to pass?” Emma asked. “I assume we have to fight something. Will we be able to rest before we have to do it? And given back our clothing?”

This time he laughed out loud. “What a soldier you are. Do you know which piece this is?”

“Love,” Regina said with a smile.

“Yes, my child. And do you love?”

“Yes,” Regina said, openly, immediately. Emma couldn’t help smiling at her, because how was she so lucky to have this woman love her this much?

“And from her expression, I see who. Shall we see whether the elemental powers are equally certain? Come forward, my children. Hopefully, your time in meditation has rendered your Spirit clear enough for me to feel the truth of you.”

Emma swallowed hard, but didn’t look at Regina and just did as she was told, kneeling beside her on the thick patch of moss in front of the Forestmaster. He placed his hands on their heads and Emma felt magic respond, running through her and into his hands. But there was also a little tug sideways that felt like Regina. She fought back the confusion, trying to clear her mind, but she kept thinking about Regina—her smile, her quick wit, her incredible courage.

“Hm. Well that’s something you don’t see every day,” the Forestmaster muttered, then released them.

“What, Forestmaster? What don’t you see every day?” Regina asked, looking a little shaken.

“It would be dangerous for you to know too soon. But I am satisfied that you are indeed chosen of the elemental powers. The piece of the Orb is yours to use.”

Chapter Text

By the time they returned to the house, the others were finishing up breakfast. Emma called a meeting of their inner circle.

“So the old man granted your request,” Maleficent drawled almost as soon as she’d walked in the door of the sitting room Merida had directed them to again.

“What? How-” Emma sputtered.

“You don’t look disappointed, just perplexed.” Maleficent snorted. “He probably added some mystical mumbo jumbo while he was at it.”

“But you’re a mage,” Henry said, his brow furrowing in confusion. “How’s that different?”

“There is a difference,” Merlin explained. “Magic is more practical than this mysticism. And the Lady Maleficent is more strategic than most.”

“It’s all mumbo jumbo to me,” Robin said. “What now? Do we ride out?”

“That’s what I wanted to talk about. From here to Kyna is nothing but wilderness, which means no chance to get supplies and no safe place to rest.”

“So you think we should take some time here to prepare,” Regina said, catching on immediately.

“Yeah, at least today and tomorrow. We have more than enough time to get there before the end of the year, but whether we can hold out is another question.”

“Aye, I’ve been worried about the horses,” Robin said. “They’ve been a long way on bare rations.”

“That’s a good point. Losing a horse is the last thing we need,” Emma said, shaking her head. “Robin, if you would lead half of the men out to hunt and gather with the Foresters today?” He nodded. “And the other half can rest, and then I’ll lead when we switch them around tomorrow. The Foresters will supply us what they can, I’m sure, but they can give us more if we help replenish it.”

“We’ll spend our days in meditation and study of spells,” Merlin volunteered, gesturing between himself and Maleficent, who started to glare at him but then just shrugged and nodded agreement.

“And we will catch up on the sleep we missed last night,” Regina said, and with that tone Emma wasn’t about to contradict her.

**

Maleficent’s magic bed had made a world of difference in their sleeping, but having time for just the two of them had been sorely missed. Emma pulled Regina against her to kiss her soundly as soon as the door had locked behind them.

“Mmh, hello there,” Regina purred when Emma kissed down her chin and along her jaw.

“I missed you,” Emma breathed, then sucked her earlobe into her mouth.

“I thought we were going to rest,” Regina teased.

“I mean, if you want me to stop,” Emma sassed her right back, pulling away.

“Don’t you dare,” Regina said, already pulling at the scratchy robe Emma still wore.

They kissed and giggled and shed clothes across the room, falling onto the bed in a tangle of limbs.

Regina was on top, and Emma was struck by how beautiful she was, hair falling around her face. She reached up and cupped her cheek in her hand, just smiling up at her.

“Hey, guess what?” she asked.

“What?” Regina asked, an adorable little crease of confusion forming between her brows.

“I love you,” Emma said, and with Regina glowing golden in the sunlight slanting in through the trees it felt utterly right to say it directly for the first time, freely for the first time, not edged with pain for the first time.

Regina just smiled and leaned down to kiss her slow and easy and sweet.

Of course, it didn’t stay slow and easy for long, not with how much their bodies had missed one another, not with the dizzying press of skin on skin. Thighs fit perfectly between each other, and in no time they were rocking together while they kissed, desirous but also aimless, just enjoying the sensation without rushing to intensify it.

When Regina’s hand made its way up to roll her nipple between her fingers, Emma’s desire went from a pleasant warmth to something sharper, and her hips started working more urgently against Regina’s thigh.

“Hello, my love,” Regina murmured against her jaw as she kissed down. When her mouth reached Emma’s neck, her hand also cupped between her legs, rubbing and squeezing.

“Hi,” Emma half-breathed, half-whined. “Missed you.”

“And I, you,” Regina said. She was running the length of her fingers along the length of Emma now, slow but direct, and Emma was startled to feel how very wet she was, already.

The weight of Regina’s body on hers felt just right, and her mouth on her neck, and those methodically stroking fingers, faster now and swirling over her clit at the top of the stroke. Emma needed her close-closer-closest, wrapping both arms and legs around her. Regina groaned and intensified her touches, focusing in and rubbing circles just on her clit now.

“God,” Emma moaned. “You feel so good. Inside?”

“Mnh,” Regina hummed around a mouthful of her neck, pressing in with two fingers in the next moment, and when she started to move she rubbed the palm of her hand across Emma’s clit at one end of the stroke and pushed deep at the other.

Fuck, this was good, Regina filling her up as their bodies moved together, kissing her again now, and Emma felt her pleasure spiraling up intensely, quickly.

Then she was coming, moaning into Regina’s mouth.

“I do love making you do that,” Regina murmured, kissing wandering patterns along her jaw and where her pulse still pounded.

“That works out nice, because I love making you do that too,” Emma said, rolling them over and starting to kiss down onto Regina’s neck, hot and open-mouthed.

Regina’s chuckle was positively dirty as she threaded her fingers through Emma’s hair to keep her close. Emma paused for several moments to bite and suck along Regina’s collarbones, but when she caught sight of her taut, eager nipples her mouth suddenly needed to be there.

“God, you have the best breasts,” she murmured, cupping them in both hands and just looking at them for a long moment.

“Oh yeah?” Regina prodded, a laugh in her voice.

“Yes, they’re all perky and they fit in my hands just right, and-” she leaned down and gave the briefest possible suck to one nipple. Regina gasped. “They’re so sensitive,” she finished. Regina’s hand in her hair let her know she’d better get back there right now, and of course she did, taking one nipple into her mouth and sucking steadily while she rolled the other between her fingertips. God, she loved touching this woman, hearing her sighs turn into little moans as Emma switched her hand and her mouth and started sucking and pinching harder.

But soon Regina’s hips started twitching in search of touch, and that was her mouth’s other favorite place to be. She took her time moving downward as much as their collective desire would let her, pressing hot, open kisses between scraping her teeth down the planes of Regina’s belly and over her hipbone. When she settled between her thighs, Regina’s hand in her hair was too insistent to admire her pussy for as long as she wanted to, but then, she could admire with her tongue just as well if not better.

She made a long, slow stroke, and Regina’s sigh edging into a moan tingled over her skin, so she did it again, and again, and again. This was so good, the slick hotness of Regina and the way her body responded, her hand in Emma’s hair and the way she’d propped herself up to stare down into her eyes. Slowly, so, so slowly, Emma started tonguing her faster, flicking her tongue a little bit every few strokes. Regina’s breathing got faster, and her grip on Emma got tighter, and she couldn’t help smiling up at her for a moment until Regina groaned in frustration and she quickly put her mouth back where it belonged.

She was swirling her tongue in circles around Regina’s clit now, steady but still not quite fast, loving the way it made her twitch and moan and her fingers tighten in her hair. She kept on reading Regina’s responses, giving her more and moving faster as she needed more and faster.

Regina’s moans raced along her skin like fire, and Emma needed this pleasure as much as she did, sucking on her clit now and holding onto hips that were suddenly bucking hard. But she stayed with her, sucking and swirling her tongue even as Regina’s body started to tense and curl up on itself, wanting to wring every last drop of pleasure from her and make this spectacular.

And spectacular it was. Regina cried out loudly, shuddering hard, and Emma stroked her through it until she pushed her away with one floppy arm.

Crawling up to lay beside her, Emma just looked at her for a long moment, sweaty and flushed and beautiful and hers.

“Love you,” she murmured again, her mouth curving involuntarily into a smile.

“You too. Sleeping,” Regina muttered, her eyes already closing.

“Yes, Your Highness,” Emma said, covering them with the blanket against chill and pressing close.

Chapter Text

December 24th

Pushing through the last of the trees, Emma stepped out onto a large rocky outcropping overlooking the valley of Kyna where the Temple of the Elemental Powers lay. Then she felt her heart descend into her boots. As the others arrived and surveyed the view, their idle chatter stilled into shocked silence. Emma sat gracelessly down, not caring where, her head in her hands.

They had found the rest of the Krannan army that had been missing when Emma rescued Regina. It was between them and the Temple.

Devastation settled over them. All the work to gather the pieces of the orb, for nothing. All the miles they’d traveled, including the weeks since the sanctuary of the foresters where there had barely been paths half the time, for nothing. Blood and sweat and tears, the injuries they’d all sustained, including fighting yet more Xendark last week—Victor's life—for nothing. Emma had known, somewhere deep down, that they wouldn’t just be able to walk into the temple, but the reality of soldiers spread like ants over the valley floor was more than she could bear. There were simply too many of them to hope they could sneak past, even in the dark. They stood around, dazed.

**

“We can go around,” Henry said suddenly, breaking the despairing silence.

“What?” Merlin asked, blinking.

“We can go along the ridge instead of down into the valley, and get to the back side of the temple. They won’t expect it,” Henry explained.

“They won’t expect it because it’s stupid,” Robin muttered.

“Hey, it’s not stupid!” Regina snapped. “It might be too hard, though,” she said, turning to Henry. “We only have a few days and it won’t be easy going.”

“We can’t just give up!” Henry insisted.

“He’s right,” Emma said, her voice sounding rusty even to her. “We’ve come too far to give up now.”

“How do we decide whether to go along the north or south ridge?” Regina asked, and Emma so appreciated how the leader in her always came out at times like these.

“I can send my spirit walking one way if you can the other,” Maleficent said, looking at Merlin. He nodded.

Emma took a deep breath. Maybe the world wasn’t going to end after all.

**

December 28th

While the travel certainly hadn’t been easy, the hills along the southern rim of the valley were forested enough that they were fairly protected from being seen—though Emma still had them take every precaution to make no noise and leave no tracks. The fact that the ground wasn’t too rocky also meant that they could ride more often than Emma had thought they’d be able to, and were making good time. That was good, because last night had been cloudy and they’d had to camp early when they lost the light. The clouds were clearing now, though, and they could get an early start this morning.

“Hey, what are you doing?!”

Emma whipped her head around, looking for the source of the shout, ready to tear into whoever was making so much noise.

“Stop! Emma, help!” She was running toward the sound before her mind even fully realized that it was Henry.

She broke through the trees into the sheltered spot where they’d tethered the horses in time to see Henry slump to the ground, then realized the sword that had just impaled him was in Robin’s hand.

“Henry!” Regina called out, running up behind her. Her mind recognized what she was seeing much faster than Emma’s unwilling one. “You monster,” she growled at Robin, her voice full of hatred.

“Guilty as charged,” the man sneered.

That shook Emma out of her shock and she moved toward him, drawing her sword. Then she glanced at Henry, bleeding on the ground, and paused.

“I’ll stay with Henry. You get Robin,” Regina snapped, and Emma was moving again, her sword fully out and pointed at Robin now.

“What the fuck?” she demanded.

“He got in my way,” Robin said coldly. “But at least I let loose some of the horses first.”

“What- why?”

“You’re making too good time. You’re going to stop the masters. I can’t let that happen.” His sword tapped hers, testing her.

Emma didn’t let herself be distracted. “The mas-” Her eyes widened as she realized. “The Xan? Are your master?”

He laughed unpleasantly, and she saw his features distort, becoming more feral. “The Xan are very powerful, Emma." He rolled out his neck and shoulders as his body continued to transform toward a Xendark. "Very, very powerful. I have been in that temple down there. I have looked into the portal and seen their magnificence. My power is only what their servants can do! It makes your pathetic entreaties to the precious elemental powers so, so funny. And to think I used to be jealous that you could use your little spells!" He dissolved into cackles for a moment.

Emma took a slow breath, watching the center of his chest to see if he was going to move. “Were you always theirs?”

He laughed again. “Didn’t you notice that you started getting attacked only after I joined you?” He reached into his shirt and pulled out a pendant on a chain. It glowed sickly green in the dim predawn light.

“You used that to call them.”

“Smart girl. And I have again. They’re coming,” he sing-songed.

"How did this happen?" she couldn't help asking.

"You were blinded by love." The Xendark gave a look of utter disdain. "Some friendship long dead. It was easy to manipulate you.”

“So Robin really is dead.”

“No, he’s still kicking around in here, but as the power of the Masters grows he’s in charge less and less of the time. I do feel compelled to insist that the terrible manners are all his.”

“Oh, really?” Emma said more than asked.

The Xendark snorted. “Do you really think I’d risk being cast out of this group doing half the things he’s done? I have a mission. It’s been a relief that he’s not in control much anymore. He still fights me sometimes, trying to stop me, to warn you. But he’s weak. Like all of you humans are weak. He was so easily seduced with promises of power and wealth.”

Emma recoiled involuntarily, regripping her sword. She realized there was little of her childhood friend left. Robin might have agreed to help the Xan willingly at first, but now he’d been eaten away from the inside. The insidious, evil energy coming from him turned her stomach even as it disfigured his body. She could only wonder why she didn't realize earlier.

The Xendark didn't seem to notice her reaction as he continued. "We’re very generous to those who assist us, Emma Swan.” He smiled with his misshapen mouth. "Robin was promised all of Rowa for his service, but we could make a different arrangement if you cooperate.”

"That's not much of a trade-off for letting you kill the woman I love."

"Kill her?! Kill her?! You understand nothing! She will become the mother of the Xan. She will be Xan, and Xan will be made from her blood. She will live forever!” His eyes got more and more wild as he ranted. “But so be it. We can do this the hard way.” The Xendark swung Robin’s sword at her, and she deflected, but didn’t counterattack. Was there any way to get Robin out of there alive?

“Emma,” Robin croaked suddenly. “Kill me.” It was really him now, for a moment, before the sneer returned.

Emma charged him, her heart breaking at the sight of the figure that was both Robin and not. She swung viciously, her rage and grief giving her a surge of strength and letting her knock his sword aside. She ran him through in the next instant.

"It doesn't matter now,” the thing gasped. “They are coming!"

Chapter Text

As the Robin-Xendark slumped to the ground, Emma realized the rest of their party had arrived while they’d been fighting.

“Leroy, Tom,” she snapped, tipping her head at the Robin-Xendark. “Javier and Little John, see if you can find the horses he ran off. Everybody else, I need you packing up camp as fast as you can. He called reinforcements and we have to be on the move in the next 15 minutes, tops.”

Then she turned back to where Regina was pressing hard on Henry’s wound but not seeming to stop the red seeping into the snow. Merlin and Maleficent had knelt beside him already and were conferring in low tones. “How is he?” she asked, her voice breaking.

“Emma, I’m sorry-” Merlin began.

“No!” She threw herself down beside him, summoning her magic and the words to the spell.

“Emma,” Maleficent said, putting a hand on her shoulder. She shook it off. “Emma, this is beyond magical healing,” she said, a bit sharply.

“There has to be a way. Regina is the vessel, can’t she help channel magic?”

“We tried,” Merlin said.

“No. No-no-no.”

“Emma!” Maleficent said again. “Do you want to waste his last few breaths like this?”

That snapped her out of it, and she looked down at him. He was pale and grimacing with pain. “Hey, kid.”

“Emma, I’m so sorry, I wasn’t strong enough, I-”

“You did great,” she said, taking his hand. “I’m so proud of you. So, so proud.” She was fighting back tears, not wanting to make this about her.

“Yeah?”

“Yeah. You’ll be welcomed by the elemental powers as a hero, for sure.”

“I always wanted to be a hero-” he began, trailing off into a sigh as his body went limp.

Emma leapt to her feet, turning back toward the Robin-Xendark. “You fucking monster! I’m going to fucking kill you!”

She was half way there, ready to tear him apart with her bare hands, when Leroy spoke up. “You already did, boss.”

Turning back to look at Henry again, she saw that Regina had come to stand beside her and was reaching out to her. “Don’t-” she murmured. “I have to keep it together right now.” Regina swallowed hard and gave a tiny nod. Emma took a deep breath and straightened her back, then said louder, “Heave Robin’s body down the ravine, in case they can track it somehow. And then we have to go. Now.”

**

December 30th

The last three days had gone by in a miserable blur. Emma kept them moving as fast as they could while still covering their tracks. They needed to make distance, but she realized she had no idea what abilities the Xendark actually had—How much animal was in there? How long could they run? How fast? Would they be getting stronger now that the alignment was approaching? She almost regretted killing the Robin-Xendark because now she couldn’t get information out of him. Almost.

Regardless, not being tracked seemed like it was the safest course of action. Fortunately, their traitor had only been able to scare away three horses before Henry stopped him, and the men had been able to find one, so they were only short one. Merlin had cast a preservation spell on Henry’s body and they had solemnly wrapped it in his blankets and moved around gear on the packhorses to carry him home.

Emma ate and slept mechanically, forcing herself because she knew she needed to keep her body going. They needed to see this through. Henry’s life needed to mean something. During one of their brief rests, she saw Maleficent pull Regina into an embrace while she cried, and it was hard not to be able to be the one to do it. But if anyone hugged her right now she’d shatter, and she couldn’t afford to shatter, so she was glad Regina was getting the care she needed from their friend.

Now they were within a stone’s throw of the temple, hiding in the thick forest, and after watching the guard rotations they’d determined they would have a shot at sunrise, when the light would be in the guards’ eyes and the shadows long. Then Merlin, Maleficent, and Regina had banded together and firmly ordered Emma to bed, because she was getting to be no use to anyone.

She’d taken her boots, armor, and weapons off and started to lie down when Regina came into the tent.

“Did something happen?” Emma asked, getting up and reaching for her boots.

“No, I’m just here so we can have a minute.”

“You all sent me in here to sleep,” Emma pointed out. Regina raised an eyebrow and Emma realized she’d been managed. “Okay, what do you want to talk about?”

“You know.”

“I can’t. I need to just focus and fight through it.”

“No,” Regina corrected firmly, “You need to face it.”

“The men need a leader,” Emma insisted, gritting her jaw.

“And you can’t be a leader when you’re an automaton. Leaders feel.”

“I can’t let myself feel this.”

“It’s just me here, Emma. You have time to fall apart and put yourself back together.” She opened her arms, and Emma was so tired of holding it in, so tired of fighting and running and hurting, and here Regina was an oasis of love and care and a sob tore its way out of her throat. As she doubled over in more sobs, Regina pulled her close, tucking her head against her chest and laying back.

And Emma wept, for the bright young man who’d been snuffed out, for her guilt at being responsible for leading him out of Silben to this, for her fear that Regina was going to be next, because didn’t she lose everyone she’d ever loved? She wept, and Regina wept with her, until, spent, they fell into a deep, dreamless sleep, and Regina held her all the way through it.

Chapter Text

December 31st

After one last careful check to make sure the soldiers had wrapped every piece of metal that could glint or jingle, it was time.

Emma turned to Little John and Jeffrey. “Keep the horses safe,” she commanded, reaching out her hand to shake theirs one after the other.

“Are you sure we should stay?” Jeffrey asked again.

“Two more men won’t make much difference either way in there, but we’re going to need those horses to get home.” She kept telling herself that she was going to get her men home. Not one more soldier under her command was going to die for this. No matter what the odds were.

“Yes, sir,” he said, shoulders slumping.

“And you two are best with horses,” she pointed out. “It’s not a punishment.”

“Yes, sir,” Little John said, looking relieved.

“Emma, it’s time,” came Maleficent’s low voice in the half-darkness.

**

Every step they took felt like they crossed a mile and took hours. Half of them had their eyes on the Krannan soldiers, ready for any sign that they were going to turn this direction, not that there was anything they could do about it if they did. Maleficent was casting a spell to make the guards forgetful, but the odds of it holding on so many at this distance was small. The other half of the group had their eyes to the ground, picking out the best route and guiding their assigned partner to make sure they didn’t stumble or snap any sticks. Merlin was dampening their footfalls, but there again there were too many of them for it to be completely safe.

Slowly, so, so slowly, they crossed the distance from the edge of the trees to the side of the building, where the coming dawn was casting deep shadows. They were getting there. It was working. A hundred yards to the front edge now. Fifty. Twenty. The light was growing. Emma willed her breathing to slow and sent up a silent prayer to whoever would listen.

There, the sun had come over the ridge, and they made a break for it, moving as fast as they could while still trying to be quiet, hoping they were right that the sudden light would have the guards blinking too much to spot them.

Fifty feet to the entrance now. Twenty. They were going to make it.

“Hey! Who’s that?!”

“Run!” Emma yelled.

There were just two guards at the door itself, and before they’d stopped peering, confused, into the sunlight Billy and Eric hit them hard and tossed them down the steps.

Then they were inside the massive wooden doors, slamming them shut behind themselves, plunging the entryway into darkness.

“Merlin, Mal, light!” Emma commanded. As soon as she could see, she spotted a large, heavy timber that could be used to bar the doors from the inside. If it was as old as this building, it wouldn’t hold forever, but every minute would count. “Javi, Kristoff, get that door locked!”

The bar slotted into place with a heavy thump just as they heard boots come pounding up the steps outside. The door shook, but the bar held. For now.

“We have to get to the center where the altar is,” Merlin said.

“Do we know where?” Walter asked.

“If the map in the book was right,” Emma said.

“We better hope there are more doors between here and there,” Leroy grumbled. “That isn’t going to keep ‘em out very long.”

“Then grab the torches from the brackets and let’s go,” Emma said. “Tom, August, Kristoff, you’re on rear guard.”

**

“Why aren’t here any traps?” Emma asked, feeling jumpy that they were passing straight through a long corridor that seemed to burrow back into the mountain behind the Citadel without encountering anything. The powerful magic and that uneasy feeling that must be chaos pushing against each other on her skin wasn’t helping. “I was hoping there’d be something only the Vessel could pass, like in the Water Citadel.”

“No,” Merlin said, looking as anxious as she felt. “The Xan have just enough power here to prevent it, even with the portal sealed. They need people to wander in so they can possess them, and for their servants to be able to come and go.”

“Shit,” Emma breathed. “So all we have is one ancient wooden door.”

“Two,” Graham said, beside her.

Looking ahead, she saw it standing open in front of them, and by the way the air felt positively thick with opposing forces now it must be the central chamber.

“Hold it,” she said, stopping Will just before he crossed the threshold. “Is there anything else we need to know about this room?”

“We know almost nothing about this room. The books didn’t have any information,” Regina explained.

Just then a crash came from far behind them. The exterior door had given way.

“Emma! Company!” August shouted as he and the others ran into view.

“Well, in we go,” Emma said.

The room lit magically as they entered, glowing crystal spheres on the walls sparking to life when they crossed the threshold. It was vast, and they must be back in the mountain now because this would never fit in the Citadel. On one side was a huge circular portal, glowing the same sickly green as the Robin-Xendark’s pendant had been. It was pulsing, almost alive, but still seemed sealed. They weren’t too late.

Opposite it, as if to confront it, were five tall pedestals, almost pillars, surrounding a dais and an altar. It was much like had been in the other Citadels they had visited, except that here all the walls behind it were carved with designs and words Emma couldn’t make out. The whole thing had a feeling of decayed grandeur, as if it had once been beautiful but hadn’t been well kept, which wasn’t that surprising given that embodiment of evil was right beside it. Emma shook that thought off, leaving the soldiers to bar and guard the door and approaching the altar with Regina, Merlin, and Maleficent.

Emma was almost surprised to see the fifth piece of the orb still on the altar. “If I were them I would have gotten rid of that,” she muttered.

“The Elemental Powers have just enough power here to prevent that,” Merlin pointed out.

Maleficent gave a little snort of amusement. “So we just reassemble the artifact? And then what?”

“Then at the moment of the alignment the Elemental Powers can use it and Regina to focus magic and keep the Xan out,” Merlin explained, wincing a little saying the name here of all places.

“When is that?” Emma asked.

“We don’t know,” Regina said. “Just that it happens on the last day of the year before the next one begins.”

“You mean it could be any time between now and midnight? We don’t have that long!” There was a heavy thud on the door, like a battering ram.

“Shit,” Emma hissed. “We really don’t have that long.” Then she shouted to the soldiers, “We need more time! Hold that door!”

Turning back, she saw the other three fumbling a bit trying to put the pieces together, but they got it, and set the Orb on the altar.

Chapter Text

Nothing happened.

“What’s it supposed to do?” Emma demanded, one eye on the door and too terrified to be polite.

“I don’t know!” Merlin exclaimed.

“Stop complaining and look at the inscriptions on the wall,” Regina snapped. “Maybe we missed something.”

There was definitely a lot of information here but Emma couldn’t read any of it, even when she brought the torch close.

“I don’t know this language” Maleficent said.

“Nor I,” Merlin said. “Regina?”

“I do,” Regina said, tilting her head. “Or, I don’t- It’s totally unfamiliar- but I understand it. This is the prophecy we’ve seen before, and it includes the part that was missing on every other copy. And I know, I know what it says. It’s right on the edge of my consciousness.”

There was a crash and one side of the great door came off its hinge. Xendark in Krannan armor began trying to push into the room. The doorway was still a bottleneck keeping the whole force from entering, but their tiny group of soldiers wouldn’t be able to hold it long.

“Go,” Regina said. “All of you. You’re more help giving me time for this damn Vessel thing to become useful.”

Emma drew her sword and charged down the stairs to stop the first Xendark who’d slipped past the others and was running directly for Regina. She caught it by surprise with a ferocious swing that turned it half sideways, then spitted it through the chest in the gap between the plates of its armor. As she kicked it loose, a bolt of lightning shrieked past her to hit another beast that had been rushing up on her.

“Thanks!” she yelled out to whichever of their mages had saved her.

“I like you in one piece!” Maleficent shouted, her voice full of glee.

Emma’s world became one long blur of fighting then. Slashing and blocking, kicking and dodging, having too hard a time saving her own skin to show any mercy, only dimly aware of the others fighting and casting spells around her.

“Emma!” came Regina’s voice, pulling her out of the haze of battle.

“What?” she shouted, not able to spare a glance back at her.

“Emma, it’s you.”

“What?” she asked again as she kicked her latest assailant off her sword. It was one of the bearlike ones, and she was glad to have its stench outside her immediate range.

“The piece of the prophecy that was missing. It’s you. The secret of Rowa.”

Emma deflected a sword as she grunted, “I’m not that much of a secret.”

“It’s the only thing that makes the prophecy make sense. She whom the five stars greet joins with the secret of Rowa, and the greatest Power will prevail. It has to be. So get up here and help me shut the damn portal,” she commanded.  

Emma hesitated, not wanting to leave her already outnumbered comrades fighting without her.

“Go!” Merlin commanded, the strain of his near-continuous magic use clear in his voice. “Our only hope is to send this evil back where it came from."

Emma dashed up the steps to where Regina stood in the circle before the altar, sheathing her sword as she went. As their eyes met, Regina grinned and grabbed Emma’s hand in her own, pressing them both into an odd, asymmetrical, star-like shape on the altar that she quickly realized was designed for two overlapping hands. They fit perfectly, and Emma believed just a little.

Then the room began to tremble. With her free hand, Emma pulled Regina close and held her tightly. Suddenly, the two of them were bathed in light, and they could see their companions battling on, but not hear them, and everything outside the circle of light seemed to be slowed down.

They looked around in wonder as the light around them became swirls of different colors, which resolved into five figures of light on the pillars. The battle below them faded out completely, and they were left alone in a room with the Elemental Powers themselves. This was the Celestial Citadel, and unlike its earthly copy it hadn’t lost any splendor in the intervening epochs. It was awe-inspiring.

“Welcome, Princess Regina, whom the stars greet,” said Fire.

“And you, Princess Emma, the secret of Rowa,” added Water.

Emma blinked.

“You have come, as it was foretold, at the time of the alignment,” Air continued, as if there had been no revelation. “What is your purpose?”

“Esteemed Powers, we come to fulfill the prophecy and seal the Dark Realm for another cycle,” Regina said, fully in her element despite being in such exalted company. Emma was still reeling from being called “Princess.”

“Is this your wish as well, Emma of Rowa?” asked Earth.

"My wish?" Emma's confusion doubled.

"Regina of Marna does not wield all of our force. Your wills must be in accord," Fire explained.

“Then, yes,” she answered, even though she was still completely confused what she had to do with any of it. “The Xan have to be stopped.”

“Very well,” Water said. “Stand as close together as you can, and raise the Orb of Aern between you.”

Emma looked around, startled, and saw that it had come with them into this place and was sitting on the now gilded and jewel-inlaid altar.

Regina picked up the orb and lifted it high with one hand, holding out the other to Emma. But this wasn’t for her. This was out of her depth. She wasn’t special, she was just the soldier who’d helped Regina get here to fulfill her destiny. How could she do anything?

“Quickly, children,” Air commanded. “They will enter your world at any moment.”

She just had to believe, because these mystical forces were literally the only hope they had. She stepped forward to meet Regina, belly to belly and breast to breast and forehead to forehead and hand opposite hand on the orb. 

In the next moment, the most powerful magic she had ever felt rushed through them both, and they clutched at each other to stay upright. Then Emma felt curiously dislocated, no longer able to feel Regina pressed against her, or even her own feet on the ground. There was a moment of vertigo, and she saw all the different-colored light meet, swirl, mesh, and become blindingly white.

They rushed forward toward the portal which was glowing brighter and opening. They had to stop it! They had to protect the human world! It was a charge now, a wave of pure magic bearing down on the thick tendrils of sickly-green chaotic evil oozing their way out of the portal. They crashed together and everything came to a tense, trembling halt for a moment.

The Xan pushed. The Powers pushed back. Everything stopped again, and the opposing forces built, and built, and built, until the fabric of existence itself seemed to scream with the strain of it.

The light broke through the darkness, scattering it. It shrieked, trying to reform, to counterattack. But it was no use. The light was too strong. Like a massive wind it pushed all of the chaos back into the portal, and it went dark like a candle being blown out as a heavy silence fell.

End of Part III

Chapter Text

Emma found herself abruptly back in her own body, clutching Regina and the orb. They were both trembling hard, and Regina looked as dazed as she felt. Emma took a moment to set the orb down gently, then wrapped Regina up in both arms, needing to feel her, to know that they were here, alive, together.

“You have endured much hardship to fulfill this prophecy,” Earth said suddenly, startling them. They pulled apart a little as they turned to face the Elemental Powers again, but couldn’t quite let each other go.

“And it is within our power to grant you a reward,” continued Fire.

Emma and Regina met each other’s eyes, hopeful. “Henry,” Regina breathed.

“Yes,” Emma agreed, smiling.

“We beg you for the life of Henry,” Regina said, addressing the Elemental Powers again.

“Of course, your son,” Water said.

Regina blinked. “What? My son? No, I have no children.”

“But you do,” Air explained. “Emma may have birthed him, but from our perspective you’re two parts of a single being and he’s your son as well.”

“I birthed- Henry is my son? My son who was lost?” Emma felt like she’d been punched in the gut. This made leading Henry to his death impossibly worse, and she swayed on her feet a little until Regina steadied her.

“Yes. He is both of your son,” said Love, speaking for the first time. The timbre of her voice was richer than any of the other Powers. It resonated in the hall, and in the bodies of the two humans in its center. “What you ask has only been done a few times in human history, but I believe we can find it within us for our champions. And their son. He will be with your companions when you leave here.”

“Does he know?” Emma asked, voice breaking. “Does he know I’m his mother? Does he know his mother got him killed?”

“The dead can see many things the living cannot. He knows you far better than you know yourself,” Fire said.

“What was it you said about two halves of the same soul? Does he know that, too?” Regina asked.

“Will he tell you that, you mean,” Water said.

“Yes,” Regina admitted.

“We will tell you,” Earth said. “It would have been dangerous for you to find out too soon, but the time has come.”

“Emma Swan Rowan, you have been suffered a great injustice,” Air said. “You have been deprived of your birthright.”

“What birthright? Does this have to do with calling me ‘Princess’?” Emma was starting to lose patience with the roundabout way these beings explained everything and the casualness with which they were turning her entire world upside down.

“Indeed it does, young Emma," replied Fire. "Your mother was the Queen of Rowa, not a servant as you have always been told. It was necessary that you not be raised as a royal heir in order that the prophecy be fulfilled. Two princesses would have been unlikely to even meet, let alone undertake a quest of this magnitude. One of you had to be a soldier.”

"One of us?" Regina asked, her quick mind picking up on the implication immediately, even now.

"Yes, child. After the Vessel nearly failed in the last cycle, we decided that it was necessary to divide the responsibility among two mortals," Water explained.

"You are the greater, Regina," said Earth, "but Princess Emma is chosen of myself and Water.”

"So our fates were decided before we even met?” Emma asked. “All of this, meeting- falling in love- everything- is just some cosmic plot?” She was getting truly angry now.

“No, not at all,” Love said, her voice washing over them again. “All that was foreordained is that you should both be here now. You could have come to be here entirely separately. You could have met and disliked one another and traveled together only by necessity. Coming to love one another was the choice of your human hearts, not anything within our power.”

“Well that’s good.” A beat. “But I'm a princess?" Emma was incredulous, then horrified to realize that the woman who’d been out to get her throughout her childhood had actually given birth to her. "Queen Eva is my mother?”

“No." Air chuckled a bit, then continued more seriously, "Queen Ingrid was your mother. The child that she bore when she died in childbirth was not stillborn. It was you."

"But how could I not know?"

"Eva of Edán was wealthy and had the support of many of the nobles,” Fire explained. “The king needed her, politically, and her condition for marrying him was that her children should be the heirs. A servant had also died giving birth within a few days of Ingrid, and the child did not survive. The stories were traded, and you became who everyone has always believed you are. No one was to reveal it, on pain of death.”

“That must be why my father always tried to treat me like his legitimate child,” Emma realized. “The tattoo, the education. It never made sense.” She huffed a humorless laugh. “But the queen never forgot.”

“No, she did not,” Air agreed. “And that is why she made every effort to get rid of you, to protect the secret.”

“However, as it happens, you have acquired something that proves your birthright,” Water said, looking significantly at the sword hanging at Emma's side, which she suddenly remembered had come from the Water Citadel.

“It is also foretold that the heir of Rowa will return the Sword of Mairin to Marna and receive a great reward,” Earth explained.

“So I’m just the subject of all the prophecies, am I?” Emma was starting to feel controlled again.

“The good of the world has required a terrible price of you in particular.” Regina snorted but didn’t say anything, and Water went on. “It was only right that we contrive a way to make good for what we had taken. With that blade, given to you in my Citadel, you establish your true identity and status. And, in that it was a great treasure of Marna I should think they would reward you handsomely for returning it, giving you a good life.”

Emma blinked. “A treasure of Marna?”

“Yes, the Sword of Mairin was lost at the battle of Oran,” Regina said, her history impeccable as always. Then, realization flashed across her face. “It was supposed to be a wedding gift from the Marnan heir to his Rowan bride. Its loss created a rift between our kingdoms, because each one blamed the other. It’s also why magic was banned in Marna for centuries, because a mage stole it.” Her mouth twisted in amusement. “In the name of the Elemental Powers.”

“A wedding gift, huh?” Emma asked, swallowing hard. Everything that she knew about herself was wrong. She had an entire other life, an entire other history.

“I’m not asking,” Regina said, raising her hands.

Emma smiled. She didn’t know anything anymore and it should have been dizzying but she just felt free. “But maybe I am. My entire life is a lie. But that means the one thing that kept me away from you all this time was a lie. I didn’t want to let myself get involved because it couldn’t go anywhere. But now-” She took a deep breath. “I love you, Regina, and think I want to forever.”

“Yes?” Regina asked.

“Yes. Princess Regina of Marna, will you marry me?"

Regina’s fervent kiss was all the answer she needed.

Chapter Text

When the Elemental Powers sent them back to Kyna, it looked like very little time had passed while they were gone. Everyone seemed to have been knocked flat on their backs by the force of the magic, but the soldiers were right where they’d been, trying to hold the door. Then Emma realized the Krannans on the floor were just men again.

She had just breathed a sigh of relief when she heard a groan from in front of the dais, and they rushed to where Merlin and Maleficent had collapsed beside each other and were beginning to stir. Emma helped Merlin sit up and Regina helped Maleficent.

“Is it done?” Maleficent asked.

“Yes, and-”

“Emma?” came an uncertain voice.

“Henry!” As one, Emma and Regina ran back up the steps.

Henry was sitting against the far side of the altar, looking dazed but completely healthy. They flung themselves down to hug him, and Emma was crying and kissing his hair and promising never to put him in danger again.

“Mama,” he murmured, holding them close. “My mama. Both. The Powers explained it. I always wanted to find you.”

“And here I am. Here we are,” Emma said.

“And we love you so much,” Regina added.

“Well that’s unexpected,” Maleficent said. She and Merlin had come to stand behind them.

“You have no idea,” Emma said, starting to laugh a little at how much her world had changed in the last little while.

“Hey boss lady?” came Leroy’s voice. “These Krannans are starting to come around.”

“Shit,” Emma muttered, rising to her feet and drawing her sword. Her companions tensed too.

“We have no interest in fighting,” came a voice from the floor. Emma’s eyes picked out a Krannan commander holding up empty hands, his sword lying beside him, and she went to stand over him, her sword still drawn and pointed at him.

“You don’t?”

“No,” he insisted. “Thank you for freeing us from those horrible- things.”

Emma had suspected that the soldiers hadn’t gone along voluntarily, but that didn’t mean they were in the clear. “We’ll see if your leaders feel the same way.”

**

The Krannan encampment was startlingly ordinary, Emma thought as the company commander led them through it toward the king’s tent at the center. People were mending gear, making food, training—turning to stare at the strangers who were being escorted past them, but generally acting as if there hadn’t just been a world-changing event in the Citadel they were supposedly guarding. But maybe they didn’t know, Emma realized.  There was no way the Xan had been able to control all of them, so most of them must have just been following orders as if this was a regular military campaign.

“I don’t like this, Emma,” Billy said, coming to walk beside her. “I don’t trust them to just let us go after we go talk to their king. They could capture us.”

“They already captured us,” she pointed out. “This was a friendly invitation to talk, and he didn’t disarm us, but if we refuse they could make it unfriendly in a hurry. There are too many. They let us go, or we don’t go.”

**

“Seize them!” a man exclaimed the moment Emma and Regina were ushered into the central tent. His ornate uniform meant he must be a general. “It’s Princess Regina! She did this to our king!”

“Whoa, hold on, we didn’t do anything!” Emma protested, wishing they hadn’t had to leave their companions outside even as she knew it wouldn’t do any good if this really went south.

“Liar,” the man said, crossing the space to confront them. Emma put her body between him and Regina without even thinking about it, but he loomed over them both easily. “King Leopold was going about his business perfectly fine this morning, and then after you all showed up and did who knows what in that Citadel he had a horrible fit—convulsing and screaming and then he fell unconscious. You did this. We will make you pay.”

“No,” came a weak voice from behind him, and they all turned, startled, to see a man emerging from a curtained area at the back of the large tent. He could not have been past middle age, but looked as if he’d aged dramatically in a short while from suffering.

“Sire, the healer said that you should rest,” the general said, instantly solicitous.

“And rest I shall,” Leopold said. “But first, I wish to thank these brave souls who have freed me.” He settled, unsteady, into the ornately carved chair that served him as throne here.

“Freed you?” Emma said.

“Yes. Vilm,” he said, turning to the general again, “bring them seats so that we may talk.”

Once they were seated, Leopold began, “I made a terrible mistake.”

Emma bit the inside of her cheek to keep from loudly agreeing.

“My kingdom had become poor and isolated,” he went on. “Our mines were producing less ore. Our metalworkers were being surpassed in fame and skill by those of other lands. We have always been dependent on trade, so it was only a matter of time before we would be unable to even feed ourselves. And so I set the loremasters to work trying to find a solution to our predicament.” He began to cough and was unable to continue for a long moment until a servant brought him a cup to drink from.

Finally, he continued. “When they came to me and said that here at Kyna was a tremendous source of power that had served our ancestors well in the Xendek dynasty and could restore us to glory, I-” He paused, shaking his head sadly. “I should have known the answer would not be so simple, but I was too desperate to help my people to examine it closely.”

“What happened?” Regina said, her brow furrowed with concern for him, and Emma couldn’t share her compassion but loved her for it.

“The Xan possessed me and the senior members of my court who had accompanied me here,” he said, shuddering with horror. “They commanded us to secure you, and when we couldn’t do it by diplomacy they seized control of the entirety of our economy to raise this army to take you by force. And you know the rest.”

“We do,” Emma said, her voice hard. She could not forgive this man for what he had nearly done to Regina.

“I know that I have done incredible harm while the Xan were in control of me, and accept that responsibility. It cannot be undone, though I will make the best reparations possible to all who were affected.” Leopold turned to Regina. “In particular, Princess, I can never apologize deeply enough to you, nor repay my debt to you for saving me from my own folly by sealing the portal. If there is anything I can provide to you to assist in your journey home, it is yours.”

“We can think of some things,” Emma assured him.

Chapter Text

January 1st

Leopold had gladly given them provisions, and another horse to replace the one they’d lost, and some more cold-weather clothing. He also would have extended the hospitality of his camp to them for as long as they wanted to rest, but the idea of being quite that friendly with the Krannans did not sit well with any of them, so they left as soon as they could, even though it was almost midafternoon, and pushed on to get distance from the army until darkness forced them to stop.

The next morning, Emma wandered, stretching, out of their tent and saw Regina sitting on a log by the campfire, staring at it and poking it. No one else was awake yet—except those on watch, who were far out of earshot—and it was the first chance they’d had to talk since their entire worlds had been turned upside down at Kyna.

“I did notice that the Elemental Powers made an effort to make it all up to me and not you, even though you were, like, scheduled for execution,” Emma murmured as she sat down beside Regina.

“I was wondering if you had,” she admitted, voice tight and posture rigid.

Emma wanted to put an arm around her, but didn’t—not yet. “They seemed really fixated on getting me back to being royal. Maybe that’s all they care about, or all they think we care about.”

“Maybe,” Regina acknowledged.

“How are you?” Emma asked. She wished, not for the first time, that they’d had even a little privacy after everything happened, because it felt like too long to not have had a talk, but they’d been going, going, going, surrounded by the rest of their group.

“Unmoored,” Regina admitted. “Suddenly, you and I are the same cosmic being and share a son.” She huffed a big sigh.

“Yeah.” A beat. “Are you okay with that?”

“Does it matter if I am?”

“It does to me,” Emma said, and when Regina’s tension melted just a little at the statement it was time to wrap her cloak around her and pull her close.

Regina was silent for a long moment, but Emma was content for now just to have her tucked against her side with an arm around her shoulders.

“I-” Regina began, and her voice cracked. Clearing her throat, she tried again. “I am very happy to have you and keep you. Even marry you. All of that feels fine, because it was a choice I made.”

“Yeah. I don’t like the not having a choice part, at all.” She took a deep breath. “But- to be honest I do sort of like that the universe sees us as perfectly matched.”

“And I do like having an heir without risking childbirth,” Regina said with a wry little grin.

“Is he?” Emma asked, startled. At Regina’s raised eyebrow, she clarified, “Your heir.”

“I think I can talk my mother into it.” A devious smile slid across her face. “Especially given who his other mother is. And his cosmic pedigree."

Emma stifled a giggle. Regina caught her eyes, and they held it together for a minute, but then they both laughed, long and fully.

“Man, our lives got weird,” Emma said when they finally got it under control.

“They certainly did.”

**

The other conversation that needed to happen this morning was with Henry. So when, once everyone was up, they’d collectively decided they felt like this sheltered valley was a good place to rest, Emma and Regina took him on a walk.

Emma quickly realized she had no idea how to have this conversation, but the silence started to get oppressive and she found herself blurting out, “Henry I- I understand if you’re angry with me.”

He cocked his head in confusion. “Why would I be angry with you?”

“I didn’t keep you and raise you,” she said, dropping her eyes to her boots because she couldn’t look him in the eye.

“I used to be angry about it,” Henry admitted. “But now that I know what happened-” he scoffed a little. “Ma, you were my age. I’m not ready to be a parent!”

“I wasn’t either. Neal- your father, had a whole household with servants and a wealthy father, and he wanted to keep you. And I wanted to give you your best chance to grow up strong and happy.” The explanation came out in a rush. She continued staring at the ground, still unable to face him.

“And I did,” he assured her. Emma’s brow furrowed in disbelief, and he said again, “I did. The Brothers took great care of me, and then the other soldiers would look after me. And then you came. Everything happened the way it was supposed to.”

Emma looked up at him in wonder, and realized how tall he was getting, and then he was throwing himself into her arms and she was hugging him tight. 

When they finally parted long moments later, Henry turned to Regina.

“Hello, dear.” She did her best to dredge up a smile even though she looked like a deer about to take flight from a hunter.

“This must be really weird for you,” he said, shuffling his feet. “Ma at least knew she had a son.”

“Yes,” Regina acknowledged. “It will definitely take some getting used to, but the good part is that I was able to come to know and love you on this journey.”

Henry looked up at her sharply. “You- You love me?”

Regina smiled for real this time. “How could I not? You’re kind and brave and clever and my son. And, if you’d like, my heir.” At Henry’s confused expression, she clarified, “You’d become a prince. And rule after me.”

His eyes went wide, and Emma put a steadying hand on his shoulder.

“Can I think about it?” he asked after a long, stunned moment.

“Of course. There’s plenty of time before we’re back in Silben. And ask me as many questions as you want,” Regina assured him.

“I do have one,” he admitted.

“Yes?”

“Can I hug you?”

Regina chuckled and stepped forward to pull him close, and Emma’s heart felt full watching them.

Chapter Text

January 27th

"What did you say your name was again?" the steward asked as he escorted them to their audience with the Rowan king.

They hadn't. They’d decided that their best chance was for all of the Guards to put on their uniforms and have Regina seek an audience as a noblewoman of Marna on official business. The Rowan court would surely have heard of the war with Kranna, so the idea that Marna would send a representative to request assistance wasn’t unreasonable.

“Names?” the steward prompted again as the guards began opening the door.

"Regina of Silben,” Regina said.

Emma took a deep breath, then, not able to put it off any longer, said, “Emma Swan Rowan."

"And the mages Maleficent and Merlin," Maleficent added.

Taking a deep breath to project his voice, the steward began, "I now present to your majesties Lady Regina of Silben and Emma Swan Row-" He choked and turned to stare at her as he realized what she had said.

"And the mages Maleficent and Merlin," Maleficent added. "Really, Emma, your family needs to hire better help."

Emma would have smiled if she hadn't been busy striding defiantly down the hall to stand before the king and queen on their dais. She gave only a slight bow, like Regina beside her and like she had seen her half-brother do many times, rather than the fuller obeisance that had always been required for her.

"You are not welcome here, Emma," the queen hissed as Emma straightened.

"Well, Eva," she replied, using the queen's bare first name to underscore their equality, "I don't really care what you think."

As the assembled courtiers gasped, Regina put a restraining hand on her arm, reminding her that this wasn’t just about her personal grievance.  Eva looked furious, and the soldiers stationed throughout the hall started to move toward them.

"Hold it," the king commanded, raising a hand, then turned his attention back to Emma. "What brings you here, Emma?"

"I have been to the Citadel of the Elemental Powers at Kyna," she said, throwing back her cloak to reveal the sword she wore underneath. "I have found the Sword of Mairin, as it was foretold that the true heir of Rowa would. I know who I am." Then, turning to Eva again, she finished, "I know what you did," unable to keep the hatred out of her voice.

There were gasps all around again, which Emma was getting tired of already.

"And what do you intend to do with your new knowledge, my daughter?" King Ryain asked, his voice thick with emotion.

"I’m not here to insist on being named heir. Prince Kevin knows this country's problems better than I do, and the citizens know him. I’m not even staying. All I want is for my status to be recognized.”

“Why?” Eva asked. “What good is it to you?”

“It will let me get married,” she said simply.

"Married?” Ryain was surprised. "To whom?"

"To someone who deserves a royal spouse to match her,” Emma said, looking toward Regina with what she knew was a sappy smile, but she didn’t care. Then she raised her voice to carry as she turned back to them. “I am pleased to present Her Royal Highness, Princess Regina of Marna. As it was also foretold, the houses of Rowa and Marna are to be united when the Sword of Mairin is found and given as a wedding gift."

Everyone gasped again, but now Emma didn’t mind.

“My Emma,” Ryain murmured, rising from his throne and coming down to her. “Alive and well and loved.” He was standing before her now, opening his arms, and she slipped into them without hesitation, even though he had never hugged her before in her entire life. “It’s all I’ve ever wanted,” he said quietly, just for the two of them.

Emma felt tears spring into her eyes. “My papa,” she whispered, holding him tight.

**

They had been on the road for nearly a month on top of having traveled for months before that, so when, at a private dinner with just the king and Emma’s inner circle, he offered to send them back to Silben in his navy’s flagship, which would be faster and easier and make it very clear that she was plenty royal enough for Regina, she had to take the offer.

She also accepted his hospitality for the few days it would take to prepare the ship for the journey, even though she was not at all eager to stay in Kenn very long. After dinner, she and Regina had each been escorted to their own very fine rooms. Though she’d lived in this palace until she was twelve, she had never been in this part of it at all, since it was reserved for visiting dignitaries. In fact, she had never really been anywhere this luxurious except for visiting Regina’s chambers in Silben.

And it was really a very nice place to get to stay, and she got a chance for a bath, and then the discomfort set in. She felt like she should be wearing some grand silk pajamas or something, because this plain sleeping shift was hopelessly out of place here. Then she realized she couldn’t even remember the last time she’d worn it rather than sleeping in her clothes, and what was she doing here trying to pretend she belonged?

She paced the floor for long minutes, then willed herself to stop and sat, gingerly, on the heavily brocaded bedspread.

“Get used to it, Swan.”

Emma started, then turned to see Regina, who apparently had no problem with coming into her room, and she cursed herself for having resisted her own urge to go find Regina. “Get used to what?”

“To being royal. To being in excessively ornate rooms. To having every move scrutinized and managed,” Regina said as she came closer.

“Is it too late to back out?”

“Only if you don’t mind not getting this again,” Regina answered, straddling her lap and kissing her intently.

“What happened to abdicating?” Emma teased when Regina pulled back.

“That was before we knew you could satisfy the court.” Regina kissed her again, then murmured against her lips, “And right now I want you to satisfy me.”

Emma was intensely aware of Regina’s body heat and the press of their breasts together through thin layers of cloth, and she wanted her so much, and she was leaning in to capture her lips again when she stopped cold. “We can't have sex under my father's roof!"

"Why not? You fucked my father's daughter in his castle and I think it's only fair that I return the favor," Regina purred, kissing along her jaw and neck.

“I don’t think princesses are supposed to use that kind of language,” Emma teased.

“What, ‘fuck’?” Regina asked with false innocence. “Fuck,” she enunciated into her ear. “Fuck me. Make me come.”

“Yep, definitely not appropriate for royalty,” Emma teased, but her hands were untying Regina’s silk robe and sliding it from her shoulders.

“I think you’ll find royalty are very inappropriate,” Regina said, arching her back as Emma cupped and squeezed her breasts.

“It seems pretty straight laced to me,” Emma said, leaning forward to suck a nipple.

Regina gave a slow, dirty chuckle. “Oh, but my darling you’re going to have to kneel and swear fealty to me when we get home,” and damn, she made that sound dirty, and Emma’s breath caught when she realized she was sliding off her lap and kneeling in front of her. “And really, it’s only fair that I do it for you, too.” Her hands slid up the outsides of Emma’s thighs to the hem of her shift, then paused, waiting for agreement.

This was so hot that Emma immediately forgot her objections, nodding vigorously as she got the garment off as quickly as she could. The moment she sat down again Regina gripped her thighs and pulled her hips forward to her mouth.

“Fuck,” Emma breathed, gripping Regina by the hair.

“See?” Regina teased. “Very royal.”

Then her mouth was on Emma again, her tongue easy but steady, making long strokes over Emma’s pussy from opening to clit and back again, and she was so wet already. Damn, Regina felt incredible, and soon she was lapping at her faster, almost fluttering her tongue.

Before long Emma was moaning steadily as the pleasure built, looking down at Regina with desire and awe and so much love.

“Inside me, please,” she breathed, and Regina readily gave her fingers.

When, after long minutes, Regina slid her lips around Emma’s clit and sucked, swirling her tongue in a counterpoint to her fingers working inside, Emma’s abs gave out and she flopped back on the bed. But her hips were working, down onto Regina’s fingers and up to meet her mouth, almost pulling her hair now, she was holding on so tightly.

Then she was coming, clapping her other hand over her mouth because the last thing she needed was for some guard to come running.

Chapter Text

In the next moment, Emma was coaxing Regina up and onto the bed and pressing on top of her, kissing her deeply and hungrily, loving the feel of her own wetness on her mouth. She wanted to stay here kissing her like this forever, because Regina’s body felt so good under hers, soft in all the right places and firm in all the right places. But she was also so, so wet against Emma’s thigh when it found its way between her legs, and she needed to be there.

But she took her time on the way, kissing down Regina’s neck to bite and suck on her collarbone for long moments before she continued down her sternum to her breasts.

“Hello,” Emma murmured as she cupped them in both hands.

“Are you talking to my breasts?” Regina asked, stroking her cheek.

“I missed them,” Emma explained, leaning down to kiss and nuzzle a nipple.

“They’ve been on display all day in that dress, dear,” Regina pointed out.

“Trapped and mistreated when all they want is to be loved,” Emma said, nuzzling them.

“And all you want is to love them?” Regina teased, cupping Emma’s cheek in her hand.

“Exactly.” Emma sucked a nipple into her mouth now and rolled the other lightly between her fingers.

Regina’s chuckle became a gasp as Emma switched to the other nipple and added some teeth, along with pinching.

Emma lavished attention on her nipples for several minutes, back and forth, sucking and biting, then pausing just to stroke her cheek on a breast or press a sweet kiss before sucking again. But eventually Regina caught her hand and guided it down between her legs. She was impossibly wetter than before and Emma crawled the rest of the way down her body as quickly as she could.

“Gonna talk to my cunt, too?” Regina teased.

“Gonna do something that involves my tongue, at least,” Emma said, then moaned at the hot slickness that met her mouth as she stroked Regina.

“That will do very nicely,” Regina said, her voice low and rough with desire.

Emma thought so, too, loving the feeling of Regina in her mouth, the velvet hardness of her ready clit as she ran her tongue over it, slowly at first but increasingly faster and firmer as Regina’s desire and her desire for Regina built. Her long strokes became shorter and more focused, swirling adoring circles and spirals.

Emma’s eyes had rolled back in her head from the joy of it, but they snapped open when Regina’s fingers threaded through her hair to keep her close as her hips started to move more insistently now. Their eyes met and held and Emma loved this woman so completely, not only her body but her mind and her soul, and of course she did because it was part of her own soul, and she wanted to stay close to her like this forever, feel her forever, give her pleasure forever.

Regina went still as she got close, her body tensing, and Emma just kept touching her, on and on and not changing anything so that she could ride the edge of the pleasure for as long as her body could take.

Regina became a perfect arc of taut muscle as she came, and Emma’s heart felt impossibly full of love for her.

**

February 1st

“I wish that you could stay longer,” Ryain said as they stood on the deck of the flagship just before they were scheduled to depart. “I know I can’t make up for lost time, but I’d like to get to know you as an adult.”

“I’d like that too, Your Majesty.”

Ryain sighed. “Emma, we’ve been over this. I’m your father and we can acknowledge it now.”

“Yes, F-Father.” Emma stumbled over the unfamiliar name. She hadn’t ever been able to think of him as her father except abstractly, after all. He had just been the king. “But politics are still what they were then. Maybe after Eva has some time to get used to the idea and realize I’m not coming after Kevin I can come for a visit or something.”

“I’d like that,” he agreed. “If you can. I suspect you’ll find that being royalty has considerably less freedom than you’re accustomed to.” He gave her a wry grin.

“That’s what Regina said.”

“She’s both wise and clever, that one. You chose well, and I’m very happy to have gotten to meet your spouse, and your son. Henry is a wonderful lad. It’s more than I ever thought I’d have.” He was silent for a long moment, so long that Emma started to feel twitchy. “Can you ever forgive me?” he asked at last, his voice breaking.

Emma blinked. “Forgive you? For what?”

“For not acting like a father when you were a child. For not being able to protect you. For letting politics dictate my actions.” He had clearly been thinking about this for some time. Probably her entire life.

Emma had a sense of déjà vu. It was strange to be on this side of the conversation, but it did help her understand Henry better. She put a soothing hand on her father’s arm. “It wasn’t something you could control. And you gave me a lot of advantages-”

“You were raised as a servant!”

“And taught to read and ride and fight. And allowed to learn magic from the court mage. And given the powerful magical protection of my ancestors,” Emma pointed out.

“It’s not enough. You had to flee my kingdom when you were twelve!”

“And you sent Merlin with me. I grew up strong and I’m happy. And I was exactly who I needed to be to save the world. The Elemental Powers made sure of it. All of this-” she gestured vaguely. “It’s beyond even the political intrigue in your kingdom.”

“I’m still responsible for my own choices,” he insisted, and Emma knew where she got her stubbornness.

“Yes,” Emma agreed. “We all are. But I forgave you a long time ago. So try to forgive yourself.”

“I’ll try,” he agreed.

“Sire, we’ll need to depart soon to catch the tide,” the ship’s captain said, appearing by their side.

Ryain nodded acknowledgement and turned back to Emma. Their eyes held for a long moment, and then he opened his arms and she slipped into them again, sighing in a mix of contentment and loss.

Chapter Text

February 9th

“I confess I’m finding it strange to sleep alone after all those months with the two of you,” Maleficent said.

Emma, staring off the side of the ship, started. Then guilt rushed through her. “I’m sorry. I- I don’t know how to handle all this. They didn’t even want to let me share my cabin with Regina, and-”

“And the two of you are betrothed,” Maleficent finished for her. “I understand.”

“I’m sorry,” Emma said again.

Maleficent blinked, confused. “Why?”

“I feel like I’ve abandoned you.” Emma stared at her boots.

“Have you?”

Emma looked up, because now she was confused. “What?”

“Have you abandoned me?” Maleficent clarified.

“No!” Emma insisted, immediately. “I just- this is all so complicated.”

Maleficent smirked. “Being royal is very constricted.”

“That’s what everyone keeps saying.” Emma sighed and shuffled her feet. At least as a soldier she knew what to do, and if she didn’t somebody would give her orders. They were about half way back to Silben now, according to the captain, and she was starting to dread their arrival.

“But,” Maleficent added, “It does have some freedom, if you can figure out the loopholes.”

“You seem to know a lot about this,” Emma said, raising a questioning eyebrow.

“While I concede that things have gotten much more interesting lately, I had a whole long interesting life before I ever met you,” Maleficent pointed out.

“That’s fair,” Emma chuckled. Then she grew serious, looking at the water again, hoping the answer had appeared there in the meantime. “I don’t know what to do about this. I don’t want to abandon you. But I don’t think I have much choice.”

“Why not?”

Emma shifted uncomfortably. “People expect me to only be with Regina now.”

“People?” Maleficent prodded.

Emma had the distinct sense she was being played with, but she couldn’t figure out the game. “The court,” she said. “And- Regina.”

“What’s this about me?” Regina asked from behind her, and she winced.

“Emma here was just telling me that you will insist on not sharing her with me,” Maleficent said, and she was definitely playing with her, somehow.

“No, I- um-” Emma stammered, looking frantically between them.

“And it’s truly a shame that she is abandoning me in such ways.”

“Mal, she’s gone all pale. Don’t tease,” Regina said. Then she slid her arms around Emma. “Emma, my love, Maleficent is a dear friend to us both. Do you think I would make you give her up?”

“No, but,” she began, then looked around to see who was within earshot and whispered, “sex.”

Regina’s chuckle in her ear was positively dirty. “As long as I get to play, too.”

“Really?!” Emma’s startled squeak drew the eyes of the sailors. “Like, at the same time?” she asked, almost inaudible.

“Oh yes,” Regina purred. “She has promised me magical toys.”

“You know, Regina, after our last conversation I was thinking, and if we each wear one-”

She was going to die. They were going to kill her. She was going to die. It was going to be wonderful.

**

February 17th

“Do you have any idea how worried we’ve been?!” Cora demanded the instant the doors to the private meeting room had closed behind them. Emma had suspected that something like this was coming, based on the stiffness of Mig—who was the acting captain in David’s absence—when he came to escort them, but she hadn’t expected the ferocity and simply froze with her head half-bowed.

“Mother, I-” Regina began.

“Don’t interrupt me!” Cora snapped. “We had no idea where you were, and then it turns out you were off with your street rat lover on some grand vacation!”

Emma winced, but didn’t look up.

“Don’t you dare call her that, Mother,” Regina shot back. “That’s not what happened and I know David told you.”

“Yes, David sent a messenger to pass on what you told him,” Cora conceded, waving her hand dismissively, “but I don’t believe a word of it. You left here of your own free will to secure the wellbeing of our nation and then you just ran off and left us to be attacked!”

“And Leopold’s messengers pleading for peace will have told you the same thing, and I know they arrived before us,” Regina said, advancing toward her mother, gesturing vigorously. When the Marnan Coast Guard had stopped the Rowan ship for questioning outside the bay, they’d had lots of information once they recognized Regina. The war was over, but it hadn’t been for long and the army was still making its way back from the field.

“Yes, but that’s not-”

Regina cut her off. “So you know perfectly well that Emma saved me from being a blood sacrifice to the Xan. And you know perfectly well that the Xan were going to destroy the entire world if she and I had not intervened to save it. So what is your problem?”

Emma took a chance and glanced up now that Regina seemed to be turning the tide of the argument. She caught King Henry’s eye without meaning to, and he gave her a tiny shrug. She suddenly remembered that he was the born royal here, and that Cora had a humbler beginning. You wouldn’t know it to hear her raging.

“We will never be able to marry you to anyone reputable now that everyone knows you have been running around fucking a commoner!” Cora hissed.

Regina’s voice dropped into its lowest, most dangerous register. “Oh, fuck you.”

“How dare you-” Cora began

“No, you listen,” Regina demanded, getting into her mother’s personal space now in a way that had Emma both terrified and admiring. “That’s what you care about? Not my wellbeing or anyone else’s? What the hell is wrong with you?”

“You have to think about your future!”

Emma remembered now what Regina had said about her mother being very invested in maintaining her royal status since it had been so hard for her to get it.

“I wouldn’t even have a future without that so-called commoner, Mother,” Regina pointed out. “Not to mention, did you even notice that we came back on the Rowan flagship?”

“What does that have to do with anything?” Cora snapped back.

“Did it occur to you to wonder why the king of Rowa gave us the use of his navy?” Regina’s tone was cutting.

Cora was caught and she knew it, so she tried to change the subject. “And what have you done with your hair?”

Regina ignored it and just went on, “King Ryain sent us home in style to prove to you that his daughter,” and she whirled and pointed at Emma, “was fully royal enough for me, and I’m grateful that he did, with this greeting!”

“His daughter-” Cora murmured, shocked.

“This is Emma Swan Rowan,” Regina said, coming to stand next to Emma, who tried to straighten up and look appropriately noble. “Born of Ryain and Ingrid, she is the rightful heir to the Rowan throne but was stripped of her birthright by the political machinations of her stepmother. During our journey, Emma retrieved the Sword of Mairin in the Water Citadel and she is prepared to present it to me as a wedding gift. Exactly as it was foretold.”

“A wedding gift?” King Henry asked softly, startling them all.  

“Yes, Daddy,” Regina said, her tone and expression soft. “We’re going to be married.” She shot Cora a defiant look, but Cora was still staring at Emma.

There was a long silence as Cora seemed to size Emma up. Finally, she said. “The princess of Rowa, and a hero who saved our princess, and who saved the world with her. That I can work with.”

“Mother,” Regina sighed, exasperated.

“And she’s also clearly crazy about you to risk her fool neck.” Cora shrugged. “It’s a good match.”

Chapter Text

March 1st

“Emma, Princess of Rowa,” the Marnan steward called out, and Emma started a bit. She wasn’t used to that title yet. She wondered if she’d ever be.

Then the doors to the great hall opened in front of her. Taking a slow, deep breath, she strode forward, shoulders back and head high, passing between the long rows of nobles on either side of a wide path up the center of the room.

Henry and Cora were on their thrones, because officially this ceremony, quickly planned to coincide with the Spring Festival, was about presenting herself to them, but all Emma could see was Regina, standing at the base of the platform in a red gown. Waiting for her. She felt tears start to form in her eyes.

When she reached the dais, she unbuckled the sword from her waist and sank to one knee, holding it out in both hands, head bowed, as she greeted, “Hail Henry, King of Marna.” They had wanted to have her in a gown, too, until she’d pointed out that kneeling to present the sword would be impossible. Instead, the royal tailor had put together a thigh-length brocaded tunic that probably cost more than Emma had made in her entire life.

“Hail, Emma of Rowa,” King Henry responded. “What do you bring us?”

“I bring the Sword of Mairin, Your Majesty.” She had practiced this script until she could recite it in her sleep. It was very important to get it right. It would be anyway, but when the court had known her first as the Guard lieutenant they would need extra convincing to see her as noble now.

“And why do you bring it?”

“First, I wish to restore this great treasure of the Marnan people, lost for so many centuries, to its rightful owners. Second, I wish to complete what its loss prevented, the joining of our houses.” She took a deep, shuddering breath, trying to steady her nerves. “I ask your permission to marry your daughter.”

“Well that’s up to her, isn’t it?”

Startled, Emma looked up at him, even though she wasn’t supposed to, because that was definitely off-script.

He gave a slow wink, then went on with the ceremony. “Do you swear fealty to this kingdom? To defend it and uphold its laws?”

She dropped her gaze and went back to her planned responses. “I do.”

“And do you swear fealty to me as the king?”

“I do.”

“And do you swear fealty to my daughter who will rule after me?”

Emma’s lips twitched as she remembered their bedroom conversation about this very moment, but she managed, “I do.”

“Then we accept your gift and welcome you as a Knight of the Realm, with all the accorded privileges and responsibilities.” She felt the sword taken out of her hand by a steward, and then King Henry said, “Rise, Emma of Kenn, Princess of Rowa, Knight of Marna, beloved of my daughter.” That wasn’t in the script either, and as she stood she saw his eyes shining with unshed tears to match her own. Then she turned to Regina, who had come to stand beside her.

“Hey,” she said for her ears only.

“Hey,” Regina said back, her voice rough with emotion.

“Love you,” Emma said.

“And I you,” she answered, her expression soft.

“And now, for the fun part,” King Henry said, rising from his throne and coming forward to the edge of the dais. “Kingdom of Marna, you have gathered here on this first day of the Spring Festival to witness our acceptance of Emma as a knight of the realm. Now please also bear witness to an even happier occasion, a Joining of Emma and Regina.” He stepped down to stand beside them. “If you’ll embrace, we can begin.”

They had practiced this, too, because Regina’s full skirt didn’t make the logistics of it easy, but it meant so much more now that Emma was frozen in fear for a moment. But then Regina took a tiny extra step forward and reached down to grip the hands hanging by Emma’s sides and move them to her hips where they were supposed to be, then put her own hands on Emma’s shoulders.

“Thanks,” Emma mouthed. Regina tightened her hands in acknowledgement.

“Every Joining is a miracle,” King Henry said, drawing their attention back to him. “But this one in particular is hard-won. As has been the talk of the town since their return,” and he winked at them again because it was absolutely Cora’s doing, “Emma is a princess, but had her birthright stolen. She led an adventurous life, and then came to us as a lieutenant of the Guard almost a year ago. Here in Silben, in the course of her duties, she met our beloved princess and came to care for her.” Regina’s hands gripped her again, and Emma didn’t dare look at her because she knew she’d laugh. That was certainly one way to describe it.

“And so,” the king went on, “when Regina was cruelly stolen from us by the threat of war, Emma’s heart would not let her obey the order that she stay. She set out to rescue Regina, and the two of them, with many brave companions,” and he nodded toward Merlin, Maleficent, and Henry, in the front row as honored guests, “set off on a great quest to rid our world of the evil that threatened it. And through the power of their love, they succeeded.”

He paused for a moment, and then went on, his voice filled with emotion. “Love can burn hot and bright. Love can be mild and sweet. But the best love, world-changing love, world-saving love, is steel. It makes each party stronger, and makes the two together unstoppable.” He looked down and addressed them directly. “May you always love like steel.”

King Henry left a long pause, because he could be every bit as dramatic as his wife and daughter when he wanted to, then turned to Regina. When she nodded, he went on, “And now, they will speak the truth of their love, so that we may witness it. Regina?”

“At first,” Regina began, and her voice broke with emotion as she turned to Emma and their eyes met. Clearing her throat, she tried again. “At first, what I liked about you was that you had no idea who I was and just treated me like you would any other person you thought needed help. It was refreshing. And then I found that so was your conversation,” and she put a hint of emphasis on it, and Emma had to bite the inside of her cheek to keep a straight face.

“But what I liked when you came to find me in the Krannan camp, and what I have come to love about you, was how you ran headlong into danger to protect me. At that point, we both believed caring for one another could never have a future, and you still came. Since then, I have seen horrible things. Since then, I have seen wonderful things. And you’ve been there with me every step of the way.” She paused and took a deep breath, then continued, eyes shining with unshed tears, “I want you there with me every step for the rest of my life.”

Emma felt her own eyes pricking again and took a breath to steady herself, then nodded to King Henry that she was ready.

“Emma, speak the truth of your love, so that we may witness it.”

“It would ordinarily be impossible not to notice your beauty first, but I happened to overhear your, um, extensive vocabulary before I ever caught sight of you.” Regina’s lips twitched with humor.

Emma waggled her eyebrows, then went on. “And then when I saw you, so bold and so beautiful-” she paused, her throat tight. “Well, that’s been my story of you, always. I love you for your brilliance, and I love you for your beauty, and I love you for your steely determination. I was supposed to stay away, but my heart chose you anyway. I can wholeheartedly say that I would follow you into the abyss and back, because I just did. I will walk beside you anywhere, though I hope it’s a little less interesting going forward.”

The court chuckled.

“And now,” King Henry said, “in the name of the Kingdom of Marna, and its people, and the Elemental Powers who guide us”—there was a titter among the Marnans at that, because that phrase had fallen out of use in marriage ceremonies centuries ago and they weren’t quite sure about embracing magic again now, no matter what they were told about what had just happened at Kyna, but he just went on--“I proclaim you wedded. May you walk together in happiness, health, and love.”

As a cheer went up throughout the hall, Regina pulled Emma into a kiss that was slow, and sweet, and so full of love she thought her heart might burst.

Chapter Text

Marnan custom was that at the Joining feast the happy couple would sit at a table at the front of the hall and their guests would come up to give their gifts as the feeling struck them.

Emma was not at all surprised that Snow was the first. She had been almost vibrating with excitement ever since she heard that Emma was going to be married, and she positively beamed as she handed over a small, cloth-wrapped parcel.

“I’m so very, very happy for you,” she said, teary-eyed and almost squeaking.

Regina smiled politely and unwrapped the gift to find a beautiful little lacy baby outfit. “Oh how lovely,” she said, and Emma knew only she could tell she was faking.

“I made it myself. You two just love each other so much I think you’re going to want to have a child to share all that love with!” Snow explained. Henry hadn’t decided whether he wanted to be named heir, so while the king and queen knew he was Emma and Regina’s child, no one else did yet.

But Snow was so sincere that Emma had to rise and hug her. “Thank you, Snow, it’s very kind and it means a lot to me.”

The way Snow hugged her so tightly she could barely breathe made Emma regret the decision immediately.

**

There was a long string of Marnan nobles after that, bringing all kinds of finery that Emma had no idea what to do with, so she just smiled and thanked them all politely but mostly let Regina do the talking. Then David came by. Emma stood up immediately at his approach.

“Emma, I’m not your boss anymore,” he pointed out. “In fact, now you’re kind of mine.”

She blushed. “Habit,” she explained. She stepped forward to shake his hand.

“Congratulations,” he said, then emphasized, “to both of you. I know that I wasn’t the most sympathetic to your relationship-”

“You were doing your job, Captain,” Regina said firmly, and Emma nodded vigorously.

“I still feel like I could’ve-”

“For all any of us knew, this day was never going to happen,” Emma insisted. “You could’ve been a little nicer about it,” she teased, “but you did what you thought was right.”

“Alright,” he conceded. Then he handed her his gift.

Emma unwrapped a beautiful dagger, made of the finest steel with a jeweled handle and sheath.

“David, this must have cost a fortune,” Emma said, a little disapproving.

“It needed to be fit for royalty,” he said, waving off the question. “Ruby for health and sapphire for happiness.”

“It’s beautiful,” Regina said before Emma could protest more, her manners impeccable as always. “Thank you.”

**

“Henry, I know you’re not trying to give us a gift,” Emma said. She was sharper than she meant to be, still feeling uneasy after David’s generosity.

“Emma,” Regina chided. “Don’t be ungrateful.”

“But he’s our-” she gestured vaguely.

“And it’s because you’re my,” Henry said, mimicking her motion sassily, “that I want to celebrate your joining.”

“Alright,” Emma grumbled. “But it better not be expensive.”

“You’re impossible,” Regina chuckled, smacking her arm lightly. “What do you have for us, my dear Henry?”

He smiled and held up a whetstone, and Emma burst out laughing, her disapproval forgotten.

“What?” Regina demanded.

“Henry and I first became good friends, and I first realized how very special he was, when he helped me get a new whetstone. It’s a wonderful gift,” Emma said, standing and hugging him tight.

**

“There you are, darlings!” a voice exclaimed, and they turned to see the Lady Cruella, who apparently had lost track of them despite their prominent place in the room.

“Hello, Cousin,” Regina greeted politely. “I trust you’re well?”

“To be frank, it’s just ghastly. The bartender cut me off!”

Emma bit the inside of her cheek to keep from laughing. Regina murmured an appropriately concerned “Oh I’m so sorry to hear that” as if she hadn’t been the one who gave the instructions to keep people from getting out of hand.

“Fortunately, I always come prepared,” she said, pulling a flask from somewhere inside her fur cape. “And that is what every good marriage needs,” she went on, putting the first flask back and pulling out a second one. “So here! May you always have good cheer wherever you go!” she said as she handed it over. Emma did not fail to notice that it sloshed as if she’d filled it, but was only half full.

It was also elegant and beautifully engraved, and she and Regina made appropriate appreciative noises.

“Yes, good, of course it’s exactly what you wanted,” Cruella said. “And now, if you’ll excuse me, I must go find my husband. Joinings always make one randy, don’t they?”

They were spared the need to answer when she left without waiting to hear it.

**

When Emma saw her whole patrol worth of soldiers approaching, she murmured to Regina, “Now can I object about people spending too much money on me?”

“No.”

“Fine,” she hissed, then said to the men as they arrived, “Guys, you didn’t have to get me anything.”

“Sure we did, sir,” Leroy said. “You’re the best leader any of us have ever had, and we also feel like we had a hand in helping this day happen on account of helping you save the world.”

“Which is enough of a gift,” Emma said, then subsided when Regina elbowed her.

“You sure?” Javier asked with a grin, stepping aside to show that the men behind him were carrying a finely tooled new saddle.

Emma was touched. “Guys, it’s beautiful, but it’s too much.”

“Not when it’s split this many ways,” Billy pointed out, smiling. “Please, let us give it to you.”

“Don’t think this will make me go easy on you,” Emma growled, and then hugged every single one of them.

**

The last person Emma expected to see approaching them was Mulan.

“Sir,” she said in greeting, holding out a bundle.

“Thank you,” Emma said, equally stiff. Unwrapping it, she saw an exquisitely delicate wood carving. Looking closer, she saw that it was the perfect likeness of Bug and Rigby, leaning against each other affectionately. Startled, she looked up.

“I wasn’t the nicest to you when you came here, sir,” Mulan said. “I resented that they hired you instead of promoting me, and I tried to make things hard on you because I thought you didn’t deserve it. But I’ve come to realize that I was wrong and you’re brave and honorable, and I wanted to apologize for my behavior.”

Emma was speechless, but Regina came to her rescue. “It’s beautiful, Sergeant. Thank you.”

Emma managed to put out her hand, and Mulan shook it warmly as their eyes met and they nodded in understanding.

**

After that, there had been a long string of Regina’s royal cousins giving them silver dishes and jeweled brooches and all kinds of things they had absolutely no use for, and Emma was even more thrilled to see Merlin and Marian coming toward them than she would normally be.

“I’m so glad that you could make the journey,” Regina said to Marian, rising to hug her tightly.

“I wouldn’t miss it for the world,” Marian replied as they parted. “No pun intended,” she added, and they all chuckled.

Emma was next, and hugging Marian always felt like coming home. Marian held her through a long, slow breath, and then pulled back and held her by the arms, looking at her with love and pride. “Ikeh,” she said. “My child. I am so very happy for you.”

“Thank you, tika,” she murmured.

Merlin hugged her next, and Emma started to feel a little sad realizing that he would leave when Marian did, and she’d lose the closest thing she had to a family all over again.

“I know that face,” Marian said.

“What face?” Emma said, though she knew she was caught.

Marian just raised an eyebrow and handed her their gift. “Fortunately, we have just the solution.”

Unwrapping it carefully, Emma found a beautiful leather-bound book with blank pages. She looked at them in confusion.

“A Book of Days, to keep all your memories of your life together,” Merlin explained.

“It’s an old Ilmenean tradition that I think is good to revive,” Marian added. “With a little something extra.”

“Extra?” Regina asked.

“It’s magical. So, when you write down your happy memories, it will also appear in the copy we have back in Lukmán,” Merlin said.

Marian winked. “And we can comment in the margins about how happy we are for you.”

“It’s wonderful,” Emma said, her voice cracking.

**

“Lady Regina, Lady Emma.” Emma was startled to look up and see Maleficent inclining her head in as much as a bow as she would give.

“I’m not much of a lady,” Emma answered, smiling because she knew that she was playing with her.

“No indeed.” Maleficent’s mouth quirked a bit. Holding up a small bag, she added, “I bring a gift for your union, if I may.”

“Thank you,” Regina said, and then her eyes widened slightly as Maleficent pulled a wooden box far larger than the bag from it.

Then, handing the box to Emma, Maleficent quirked an expectant eyebrow.

Emma opened it and turned six or seven shades of red in succession before snapping it shut.

“It’s enchanted, of course,” Maleficent explained, as if Emma wasn’t struck dumb.

“Enchanted?” Regina asked eagerly, having caught a glimpse.

“Not like that one. You can produce an heir.” Maleficent smirked. "There are instructions, but in the event you can't figure it out you can always give me a call. Or if you just want to have a visit." Then she winked and sauntered off as if she knew Emma’s eyes were glued to her ass.

Emma caught herself and turned guiltily to Regina, only to find her doing the same thing. They chuckled, and then kissed.

“Soon,” Regina murmured against her lips. “Very soon.”

“With her, or just us?” Emma asked.

“Her later. You very soon. I miss you,” Regina said.

“Hey Emma,” a voice said, and they pulled apart to see Ruby.

“I’m so glad you came!” Emma said, hugging her.

“So am I,” Ruby murmured. She tilted her head in the direction Maleficent had gone. “Made a new friend, so forgive me if I make this fast.” She raised what was unmistakably a wrapped bottle.

Emma chuckled. “What else from our friend the tavern owner?”

“Yeah, but this is the good stuff. Aged apple cider. Hard to find. The finest booze in my whole collection.”

“You’re too good to us, Ruby,” Regina chuckled.

“I am, but lucky for you, you have very hot friends,” she said. Then she hugged Emma again and headed off after Maleficent.

Chapter Text

Finally, after what felt like every single person in the entire kingdom had come to give them something or toast them, the feast started to wind down and they were able to slip away.

“It feels weird to come in through the front door,” Emma said as they entered Regina’s chambers. Their chambers now, she realized with a start.

“I can send you out onto the ledge if you want, for old times’ sake,” Regina teased, then kissed her hungrily.

Emma moaned into her mouth. She had missed her desperately. They hadn’t been allowed to be alone since they’d gotten back, because now that they were openly together they had to be proper, and going two weeks without so much as kissing, let alone sex, had her almost desperate.

But then she got a grip on herself and slowed their kisses.

Regina pulled back “What’s wrong?”

“Tonight should be special, right? It’s different now.”

Regina gave her a soft look. “Still so ethical.” Then she grinned. “Should I play coy? No one has ever touched me there! Oh no, not with your mouth!”

“Hey, I was promised that you’d play a virgin on your wedding night,” Emma teased back, lightly poking her in the sternum. “The last time I was in this room, in fact.”

They broke into giggles.

When they got it together, Regina stroked Emma’s cheek. “You’re right. It is different, and it is special, and I do want to savor it.”

They began kissing again, and it was slower, deeper, more intimate, and their hands roamed over each other for long moments, just reconnecting. Then they turned their attention to getting Regina out of her dress, which was no easy thing. It had taken three servants to put it on, and it took some focus just for the two of them.

Eventually they got her out of it, though the royal tailor would fret at them about setting it on the chaise rather than whatever proper storage it was supposed to have.  Then there were layers of undergarments, and Emma had started to despair of ever seeing Regina’s skin again before they finally got her down to the final layer.

“That’s much more manageable,” she muttered, leaning in to kiss along Regina’s shoulder.

“Yes,” Regina chuckled. “Your turn.”

“Yes, Your Majesty,” Emma teased.

“Oh hush,” Regina said, nipping at Emma’s ear since it was nearby.

Emma’s clothes were much more cooperative, and quickly they were both in just thin undergarments. Looking up at Regina again, Emma froze. This was a princess. Emma might be a princess, but she hadn’t been raised as royal and now she was married into a royal house and she didn’t know how to be enough, and-

Regina cupped her face in both hands. “Hey, where did you go?”

“Nowhere,” Emma said, but she knew she didn’t sound convincing.

Regina kissed her lightly and then stepped back, reaching for her hand. Emma went willingly, still dazed by the weight of this moment.

“Emma?” Regina asked. She had crawled onto the bed and was looking at her expectantly.

“I- uh-”

Regina shifted until she was sitting with her back against the headboard. “Come here, please.”

Emma walked to the edge of the bed.

“No, here,” Regina said, holding out her hand. “Please?”

Emma swallowed hard and took Regina’s hand and let her guide her until she was astride her lap.

“Talk to me, my love,” Regina urged.

Emma couldn’t hide it. “I- just- I mean- me- here. I don’t belong.”

“Yes, you do,” Regina insisted.

“Because of who my parents are?”

“No, because I love you and we have been joined before the court and the Elemental Powers and our family.”

“Yeah?”

Regina’s “Yes” was simple, but firm.

Emma released a little shuddering half-sob of a sigh and cupped Regina’s face and pressed their lips together, feeling herself shake. Regina just held her for a long moment, and that gave her the calm to kiss her properly, slow and sweet. After many long moments, she rested their foreheads together for a moment, and then kissed her again. She felt Regina smile as their noses rubbed together, and then more kisses. They kissed each other’s nose, philtrum, cheek, eyelid, chin, just gentle and easy and adoring and so, so right.

Then Regina turned her head and kissed the inside of Emma’s wrist, her palm, her fingertips, and she felt desire spark in her chest as her breath caught.

“Is that good?” Regina checked in.

“Yes,” Emma said, kissing along Regina’s jaw and sucking her earlobe into her mouth.

“I want to feel you,” Regina groaned, pulling at her remaining underclothes.  

“Fuck, yes.”

They were efficient rather than methodical now, removing the last bits of cloth quickly, and Emma pressed on top as they lay back down, her earlier panic pushed out of her mind. She trailed hot, open kisses along Regina’s neck, from shoulder to ear and down the other side, and her fingers in her hair anchored them both.

A few more kisses and Emma’s lips found Regina’s collarbones. “Been waiting all night to do this,” she murmured. “They were taunting me peeking out of that dress.” Regina chuckled, then gave a little gasp as Emma began nipping and sucking and finally just sank her teeth in a bit.

“You know what else has been taunting you?” Regina asked after a moment, rolling her chest upward to emphasize.

“They weren’t as visible,” Emma pointed out, but she was kissing downward.

“I should hope not,” Regina deadpanned.

“But the part I could see was very tempting.” Cupping both breasts in her hands, she pressed sweet kisses to each nipple, then took one into her mouth as she stroked her thumb across the other.

“More,” Regina insisted, and Emma began sucking and rolling them between her fingers, trading from side to side every little while, gradually intensifying her touches until she was sucking greedily and they were both moaning.

Then Regina was saying, “My turn,” and pressing up against her to coax her over onto her back. Emma was torn between enjoying what she was doing and knowing she was going to enjoy what came next, but she went willingly enough.

Regina’s mouth on her earlobe, jawline, neck was amazing, and her fingers pulling at a nipple were even better. Soon Regina was moving lower, sinking her teeth in to the firm muscle of her shoulder, then scraping them along her collarbone and down her sternum. When she reached her breasts, she didn’t hesitate and began sucking one nipple and pinching the other, and all Emma could do was moan from so deep in her chest it must be starting down near her clit.

Okay, it was definitely starting down near her clit, because very soon she was aching with need and gripping Regina’s hand to coax it down where she needed it.

Regina moaned around her nipple at how wet she was, and immediately began stroking circles around her clit, and god, she felt amazing, but Emma also needed to be making those moans keep coming.

“Come up where I can reach you,” she said, breathy already, as she coaxed under Regina’s chin.

“Nn-nn,” Regina said around the nipple in her mouth, and the vibration of it was amazing but Emma needed her.

“Let me stroke you too,” Emma insisted, almost whining now. “Let’s come together. ‘Cause-” and she was losing her train of thought now because of Regina’s amazing fingers, “you know- we’re- together.”

Regina pulled her mouth off her nipple with a deliberate pop. “That I like,” she said, and she had moved upward and was kissing her intently in the next moment.

Emma moaned into her mouth, but didn’t let this distract her from sliding her hand between them to stroke where Regina, too, was soaked. Her weight on top of Emma felt just right, and the warmth of her felt just right, and the softness of her skin felt just right, everything exactly where they should be.

Soon their thighs slotted between each other against the backs of their hands, and they began rocking together, just a little too eager to be slow, while their fingers rubbed steady circles. They kissed deeply, hungrily, interrupted only by the occasional pant or moan into each other’s mouths, pressed together belly and breast and thigh and the mirrored thudding of hearts. They spiraled up, one continuous loop of pleasure as they were parts of one soul, tongues and hips and fingers and clits, giving more and more, perfectly in harmony even as the pleasure built and their motions became jerky and erratic.

Regina came first, but the way her cry felt against Emma’s mouth pushed her over the edge right after.

Chapter Text

 

Emma smiled as she felt Regina melt against her, stroking a sweaty strand of hair off her face and behind her ear.

“You have good ideas,” Regina murmured, muffled against her neck.

“More where that came from,” she answered, but they could wait because she was feeling pretty floppy herself.

“Oh yeah?” Regina was kissing her neck now.

“I mean, I think they’re great.”

“Tell me,” she demanded.  

“Wanna taste you,” Emma said, feeling desire stirring again as she did.

Regina’s moaned “Yes,” against her skin made the need sharp and immediate, and she was rolling them over and kissing her way down her body in the next moment.

Settling on her belly between Regina’s thighs, she felt a big, silly grin make its way across her face.

“I will never get tired of the way you love my cunt,” Regina said, stroking fingertips on her cheek.

“Good ‘cause I’ll never get tired of loving your cunt.” She leaned in and made a long, slow, easy stroke, and another, and another, setting out to re-memorize every curve, taste, and texture of her.

“I love your mouth,” Regina groaned. “I love you.”

“Love you too,” Emma said between strokes. She was mostly avoiding Regina’s clit for now, giving it only incidental brushes as she licked everywhere else, loving the hot slickness, the velvety softness, and the little groans low in Regina’s chest.

She was just starting to go a little faster and be more direct when Regina asked, “Can I have a finger?”

“Just one?”

Regina nodded. “Will feel even better when you fill me up later.”

“Fuck, you’re sexy,” Emma groaned, sliding one finger in, and Regina was so hot and wet and grasping that she wanted to give her more immediately. She didn’t, but she did move her tongue onto Regina’s clit, stroking in counterpoint to her finger pushing inside.

Soon Regina’s hips started to move just a little, reaching for more, and Emma began to flutter her tongue as she pulled out and pressed the tips of two fingers at her entrance. Regina canting her hips and pushing onto them was all the answer she needed, and damn, being inside her was amazing. They both moaned.

“Yes, go deep,” Regina demanded, her fingers threading through Emma’s hair now.

Emma made sure to get knuckle-deep every time, and was swirling her tongue around her clit now, staying with her and giving her more as her hips moved faster and her hand gripped harder.

“More,” Regina gasped. “Three. Fuck me.” Emma gave the third finger immediately, pulling a “Yes!” from her throat. “And suck,” she added.

All Emma could do was moan and do as she was told because fuck, she loved giving this woman pleasure. She felt Regina getting close and intensified her touches even more, sucking and swirling her tongue and fucking and curling her fingers, wanting to make her come spectacularly.

And Regina did, crying out louder than before and completely unmuffled.

Emma froze for a split second, and then chuckled.

“What?” Regina asked, panting.

“I’m just glad nobody’s gonna come charging in here to see what somebody’s doing to you.” The memory of the last time she’d been here had come back forcefully again.

“Yes,” Regina answered, laughing too now. “I’m sure Snow is very clear what you’re doing to me.”

Emma made a disgusted noise. “No, don’t mention Snow right now. She’s like someone’s conservative mother!”

“Well then maybe she doesn’t know what you’re doing to me and an eyeful would be educational,” Regina teased.

“Oh my god, stop,” Emma said, though she was laughing.

“Come up here and make me,” Regina challenged.

Emma obediently crawled up and kissed her soundly.

“Hm,” Regina said as they parted. “That’s good. But not the part of you I most want in my mouth right now.”

“Oh, hm,” Emma said, pretending to think hard about it. “How about this?” And she brought a finger up to brush Regina’s lips.

Regina’s tongue immediately flicked against it, and then she sucked the tip into her mouth, and Emma realized she was tasting herself. Her clit twitched traitorously, but she managed to keep a straight face as Regina let go.

“Very nice, but I was thinking,” and she paused to consider, “something a little less of an extremity. Someplace more sensitive where you’d need to be above me for me to reach from here.”

“Oh, well that’s hard,” Emma said, not daring to look Regina in the eye so she could keep a straight face. “Let’s try this,” she said, shifting upward slightly to brush one taut nipple against Regina’s lips.

Regina sucked it into her mouth, rolling it slightly between her tongue and palate and even giving a bit of teeth. Emma had to bite her lip to keep from moaning and was thankful Regina couldn’t see her face from this angle.

Just when she was going to have to give up, Regina let go. “Your nipple feels fantastic, my love, but I’m thinking of someplace slicker and hotter. Some part of you where if I suck just right you’ll come in my mouth.”

“Oh fuck,” Emma moaned, and she was done playing dumb, crawling the rest of the way up Regina’s body to straddle her face.

“There’s my good girl.”

About to lower herself down to meet her mouth, Emma paused and looked down at her, cupping her cheek. “Yours,” she said, smiling.

“Mine,” Regina agreed. “And I’m yours.”

“Lucky me!” Emma grinned. “Now please make me come with your perfect mouth.”

“Gladly.” Her hands gripped Emma’s hips and pulled her down with startling strength, but Emma didn’t have much time to think about it, because her mouth was so demanding.

Immediately she was fluttering her tongue against her clit, fast and firm and so, so good because Emma was so, so ready after eating her. Her hips started moving almost immediately against her mouth, and knowing that she was getting Regina’s face slick with her made this impossibly hotter.

When Regina pushed two fingers inside, she shuddered hard and tipped forward onto her hands. Regina took the opportunity to start fucking her fast and deep.

“Fuck, baby,” she groaned. “Don’t stop.”

“Never,” Regina insisted, then started to suck her clit while her fingers curled inside her, and all Emma could do was shudder and moan.

Regina was relentless, demanding every bit of pleasure that Emma’s body could give, pushing her farther and harder and right up to the edge of too much, leaving her almost delirious with it, but never taking her too far. Emma felt the orgasm building low in her belly, and her hips started moving again, working, reaching for it, toward Regina’s mouth, toward her fingers, as the heat raced through her.

Every muscle in her body tensed as she came so hard she saw white behind her eyelids.

She was trembling so hard it was all she could do to flop sideways off of Regina. Fortunately, the bed was enormous and there was plenty of space for it. 

**

Light in the room woke Emma. She smiled as she felt Regina against her back, half spooning and half just draped over her. She wanted to stay like this forever, in this cocoon in Regina’s bed. Their bed. Their bed where she was going to get to wake up with Regina like this every morning for the rest of their lives. A little joyous laugh tried to bubble up, but she suppressed it to not wake Regina.

“What?” Regina asked, her voice low and rough with not wanting to be awake yet.

“Just happy.”

“Too early to be happy.”

Emma did chuckle now. “Too early to be happy?” Opening her eyes, she could see that the sun hadn’t come over the castle wall yet, but the sky was turning pink. “Okay, it is pretty early,” she conceded. “But I think we can be happy anytime.”

“Yeah, maybe,” Regina grumbled, nuzzling and kissing Emma’s tattoo. “But there should also be more sleeping.” She rolled over onto her other side, away from the light, then commanded, “C’mere.”

“Yes, Your Majesty,” Emma teased, rolling over and slipping one arm under her neck and the other over her hip as she pressed against her back. They had all the time in the world, after all.

THE END