Regina woke up with the first sun beams warming her face and the smell of the forest filling her body, they had fell asleep on the same spot where they had made love. Robin's strong arms were around her, anchoring her to his body, keeping her warm, protecting her from the world. Still with her eyes closed, Regina concentrated on memorizing every single detail from that wonderful moment, for she was sure it would be a one-time experience.
She memorized the birds' twitter and the sound the wind made as it slipped through the forest. She memorized feeling of the Sun on her face and how it made her feel energized. She memorized the way Robin's body fit with hers, in a way no other body had ever fitted and would never fit. She memorized Robin's warm breath that clashed against her nape and made her feel safe.
It was the dream of any woman, to be held like this, she was sure of it. But this life was not meant to be hers. She was meant to have a life of misery, pain and sadness, and sacrifice; but that was a life she was willing to have if it meant she would save Robin's life. She needed to do this, she couldn't hide anymore. The Queen was ready to return to her castle, to her real life. And then she opened her eyes.
Untangling her body from Robin's was harder than she first thought, luckily she had plenty of experience from the nights that the King had decided to sleep by her side and managed to slip away without waking up the man that had slept with her. She got dressed, quickly and silently, and then walked back towards the Merry Camp, leaving Robin alone in the woods. It pained her to go without saying goodbye to him, but she knew he wouldn't let her go if he knew about her plan.
Peace reigned in the camp, Regina knew that everyone was still sleeping, everyone except one person. In front of an already extinguished bonfire, Will Scarlet was waiting for her. He was drawing on the dirt with a stick, but Regina didn't get to see what his doodles were about because when he noticed her walking towards him he erased his work with one of his foot.
"About time," he said, standing up and cleaning the dirt he had gotten on his pants "I've been waiting for ages,"
"Did you prepare the horses?" Regina asked, not bothering to give an explanation for her lateness.
"I did, I'll go with you until the edge of the forest, I trust you will be able to return to the castle from there?" Will commented, as they walked towards the fences that the Merry Men used as stable.
Regina nodded at his question, "It's less than one day ride, right?"
"Around five hours if you keep a steady gallop," he replied, "Once you are in the Castle, let the horse loose and he'll return to the village, where I'll pick him up,"
She knew the horse he had prepared for her; it was Robin's, the fastest and strongest horse in the Merry Camp. She wished she could keep the horse as a reminder of her happy days at the camp, but that was a luxury she wouldn't be allowed to enjoy. Regina knew that the moment she walked through the Castle's doors, these days wouldn't even be a memory, they would just be a dream. A knot appeared on her stomach and it made her uneasy. But she couldn't back off now.
"I need ink and paper," the Queen told the man as she caressed the horse that would take her to her prison. "He'll never believe you if you tell him this was my choice,"
"I suspected you would ask for something like that," Will handled her a folded paper that he had kept in his jacket's pocket and from his small backpack he took out a small bottle of ink and an almost broken quill "It was the best I could do,"
Regina thanked Will for the ink and paper and wrote a note to Robin. It was not among her most versed writings, it was raw and it carried all her feelings, thoughts and emotions. But she knew Robin wouldn't care, she knew he would be too disturbed by her leave and she hoped it would bring some closure to him. The woman folded the piece of paper as if it would be her heart and handled it to the Merry Man.
For some odd reason, Regina trusted Will; she had confide him with the mission to take her out of the camp, and now she was confiding him the letter that carried all her thoughts and feelings. Will Scarlett took the folded paper with the same care Regina had showed moment ago and placed it inside his jacket.
She climbed the horse with no help, her muscle memory kicking in as soon as she placed one of her foot in the stirrup, and rode away from the camp. Not looking back once though, she was too afraid she would regret her decision, she was too afraid she would see something or someone who would make her want to stay. The Merry Men and their camp had become a family and a home to her.
Regina rode in silence, trying to conceal her feelings, to remember how she was supposed to behave and speak. She felt Will turning to look at her every few meters, she could see the worried look in his face by the corner of her eyes, she could hear him thinking if this was, after all, the best solution to their problem. But the Merry Man never said anything out loud, and Regina thanked him for that. Because she knew the moment he voiced his doubts, she would start thinking about them too.
"Promise me you will stop him if he tries to go after me," she said as they reached the forest's edge.
"I promise I'll try," Will replied, "But I don't know if I'll succeed,"
"See that you do," Regina replied using a regal tone.
All traits of the woman who had lived in the woods among outlaws had disappeared from Regina's surface, they were buried deep inside her heart and mind, next to the girl she used to be when she was loved by Daniel. And without saying anything else she rode off, away from the woods, away from her happiness, away from the love of her life.
If it took her five hours or more, she never knew. As far she was concerned, she hope she'd never reach the Castle. But she did. One tiny man ran inside the Castle as she let Robin's horse ran away to let everyone know that the Queen had returned. The Queen, not Regina. They didn't care about her, they cared about what she represented.
Snow White was the first one to appear through the Castle's doors, she ran down the stairs and into Regina's arms. Her cheeks were wet from crying.
"You are back," the princess said, squishing Regina tightly, "I've miss you so much," she confessed, "Things haven't been good since they took you, father has...," the girl's voice trailed off, and Regina wondered how much had the King changed, "It doesn't matter now, you are back!" Snow cleaned her tears, "And we will be a family again, I know we will,"
"Yes, Snow," Regina replied, hoping her voice wouldn't betray her real feelings, "We will," she added, hugging the girl back.
Regina no longer held a grudge against Snow, Robin had fixed her heart and the darkness that once clouded her mind was now gone. She will never love or be loved again, but she would try to be less unhappy when she was around the Princess, after all, it was not Snow's fault - it had been Regina the one that had chosen to return to the King.
"My Queen," she then heard Leopold's voice, and her blood froze. He had never spoken in a loving tone to her, but at least it was one that showed respect, now that was gone - she could only hear fake-enthusiasm in his voice. "You've come back," he stated, as if it wouldn't be obvious.
The Queen looked at him, but didn't let go of the girl she was holding. Moments ago, Regina had hugged Snow for Snow's benefit; but now, she was holding the girl to keep herself anchored to the safety of a child's love. "Yes, I have," she spoke clearly and coldly, "They let me return, with the idea that you would let the child you have in the dungeons go,"
She felt Snow hugging her tighter and burying her face below Regina's armpit. Regina looked at the girl confused, Snow had never behaved like this, she had never hid, especially not from her father. Her brows furrowed more when she heard Leopold chortling.
"The boy?" he said between laughs, "You want me to free the boy?"
"Yes," Regina replied dryly, "That is what I said,"
Her blunt reply earned her a slap from Leopold, he didn't seem to mind that he had hit his wife in front of everyone that had come to welcome her. "I hope you didn't forget your place while you were living among peasants, woman,"
One of Regina's hands covered the cheek where Leopold had just stroke her, but her other hand clenched Snow White, as if she would be protecting the princess from her father. The irony was not neglected by Regina: she was protecting the same girl she had wanted dead for a long time.
"Yes, Your Majesty" Regina said in almost an inaudible tone. She hated that he had already broke her, she hated that she was already the same weak girl she had been before she met Robin. But she couldn't let her sacrifice go to waste, if she wanted to save David, she needed to act as Leopold wanted her to act. "I apologize for my behavior, and I implore you to show mercy on the boy,"
"I will not do such thing," the King's reply came fast and lacked any emotion, "The people need to learn the consequences of helping the outlaws."
"Father, please," Snow spoke for the first time in a pleading tone, "Please, let David go, his family must miss him,"
"I said no," Leopold said, and Regina noticed that the lack of affection was not only towards her, but towards the princess too. The King had changed, and not in a good way. "I am the King, and you know better than to second-guess my orders, Snow White," he scolded his daughter, but at least she wasn't physically reprimanded.
"Yes, father," the princess replied, looking at the floor and not letting Regina go. "Forgive my bluntness,"
"It seems I'm in a very forgiving mood," the King stated, and Regina used all her will power not to roll her eyes, she knew in how much trouble would that manner get her, "I take offence by none of your attitudes, but I hope you will remember to behave from now on," Snow nodded and Regina decided to stay quiet, afraid that any movement would give away her hate towards the King "Now, Snow, go and help Regina out of those rags and in some decent clothes for when we dine together,"
"Yes, father," the girl repeated and without letting go of Regina, she walked into the castle.
Snow didn't speak as they walked through the castle's hallways, but her silence spoke volumes to Regina. The princess had never been a quiet girl, so her new actions told Regina something had changed since she was taken by the Merry Men. Maybe her kidnapping had shown the King's true colours, colours that no one had ever seen before, specially not his beloved daughter. But a man with a hurt pride could do unspeakable things, specially when he was used to get everything he desired.
"Snow, what is wrong?" Regina asked when they were safe between her room's walls. She hadn't missed it, and green wallpaper just made her feel more nostalgic.
"Father has changed," the princess replied almost in a whisper, "I thought it had to do with your kidnapping, but now I'm not so sure anymore,"
Regina furrowed her eyebrows, "Why do you say that?"
"I've seen when messengers bring bad news, he never holds a grudge against them," Snow said, "He never hurt anyone before,"
"That's debatable," Regina let out before she could think what she was saying, so she tried to fix it with a "He's the King, he sure punished some people,"
"But old people!" the girl said in a cry, as if it would make a difference that Leopold until hurt adults, "David is my age,"
"And how would you know that?"
Snow blushed at the question and looked away, "I have been visiting him," she confessed studying her hands, "I know a secret way to the dungeons,"
"Then, why don't you free him?"
"Because father knows where he lives, and he's afraid father will go after his mother,"
"Please, don't tell father I've been visiting David," Snow said, taking Regina's hands into hers, and looking into Regina's eyes.
It took Regina by surprise, what she saw in Snow's eyes. They shone in a very particular way, Snow White was in love, with a shepherd. Leopold would not like that, the Princess was meant to marry someone of equal or higher above rank, which meant that she could only marry a prince - why did that story sound so familiar? She looked at Snow White on a new light now, the Princess would too, have to marry someone she didn't love.
"Don't you worry, child," Regina said, using a motherly tone with Snow for the first time since she became the girl's step-mother, and brushing one of girl's locks away from her face. "I will find a way to convince your father," the Queen added.
'Yes,' Regina thought with a decided mind. After dinner she would go to the King's room, and she would let him have his way, she would even pretend to enjoy it. And then she would sweet-talk him into letting David go.
"I promise," Regina nodded, and that was a promise she would keep. The Queen wasn't sure she would succeed in her task, but at least she would try. Not because she had promised it to the girl she had recently stopped hating, but because she owed it to David and to Robin.