Ok, after the emotional upheaval of last night's episode, I have a new chapter for you guys! And after everything revealed in The Shepherd I have officially said a complete "bonsai" to cannon; I am going to change names as they are revealed – which I just did in the last chapter for James's mother and father - but for the most part whatever we learn about Fairy Tale Land from here on out don't expect to see much of it in this…

I hope that you all enjoy my now official AU-post-curse story!


Chapter 3: Spiraling

Oh, how Snow hated these formal dinners with the local nobility. The only thing she hated more than the dinners themselves was the time before and after where she was force to mingle with the nobles. Some of them were all right, but most…ugh. She took a sip of her wine, watching the clock for the earliest possible time she could politely escape.

Out of the corner of her eye she saw one of the more odious single noblemen coming toward her, she pressed her lips into a thin line. Once he was within speaking distance she didn't give him a chance to say anything. "Lord Willoughby," she began in a voice just low enough that only he could hear, "come any closer and you will lose an appendage that, I promise you, you'll sorely miss." She smiled with faux sweetness at him, while he turned and walked right back in the direction he came. She took another sip of her wine, getting very sick of fending off the would-be suitors.

A soft chuckle from behind her had her turning. Charming was standing just a few feet away, leaning against the wall.

Snow narrowed her eyes at him; he just smirked in return and approached her with his easy stride.

"What," he inquired, "has 'Lord Willoughby' done to deserve such a threat?"

"What hasn't he done?" she snapped. "The man's a toad."

Charming raised an eyebrow. "Easy, Princess. You know, you're not the only one who's had to fend off interested parties all night."

She looked at him, eyebrows raised.

He gestured discreetly to a few of the women across the room from them, who were eyeing the prince with interest. "Some of your noblewomen have more tentacles than an octopus."

Snow choked on the sip of wine she had just taken. She waved off a few concerned looks that were thrown her direction while Charming handed her a napkin from a nearby table. She glared at him; he continued to smirk at her, his eyes filled with mirth.

Her eyes flicked over to where Regina was glaring at her, and then she looked back at the amused prince. "Are you trying to get me in more trouble with my stepmother?" She dabbed at her lips and coughed a few more times into the napkin. "I managed to avoid an argument over my being late yesterday; I don't need her getting mad at me for improper behavior among our 'peers'." She took a sip of wine to calm the irritation in her throat. "She has a litany of sins she's just dying for the chance to read to me."

He glanced at the Everland Queen, who had turned her attention back to the group she was speaking with. "My apologies, Princess," he said quietly; surprisingly, his voice was a little more contrite than usual.

Snow raised an eyebrow at him. "Prince Charming apologizing…they must be pulling out their ice skates in Hades," she teased.

He smirked. "I can always take it back."


"Indeed, heaven forbid you are ever thought to be wrong about something!" she was using an overly scandalized voice.

James cocked an eyebrow. "I believe the saying involves a pot and a kettle…"

Snow rolled her eyes, as she sipped her wine.

For an evening that had been going so atrociously, James was now in quite a good mood. The women of this kingdom still managed to annoy him as much as ones from all other kingdoms he had been to. None of them had much to say beyond the same dull topics, and none of them would banter with or tease him. Except Snow. Snow was nothing like any royalty he had ever met, particularly the princesses. Ever since he had been of marriageable age he had women falling over themselves for him, trying to show themselves to be the perfect future queen for him. Not Snow. She rolled her eyes at him, insulted him, teased him, refused to just be a damsel in distress, occasionally swore, hurt her hand fighting bandits, and cut open his chin with a rock. She preferred to spend her time helping with the work in town, trudging around in the woods; she sat more comfortably on the ground among the peasants than she did at a grand table among the royalty. No, she was nothing like any noble-born woman he had ever met, and he liked her all the more for it.

A maid came over with a decanter; she topped off his glass, and then moved over to Snow. However, rather than doing the same for the princess she leaned over and began whispering in her ear. Snow bent her head closer; her brow slowly furrowed as worry slid into her eyes. Once the maid had moved back she quietly thanked the girl who hurried off again.

James was about to ask what that was about when Snow, set down her glass and said a distracted, "Excuse me." He watched through narrowed eyes as she went over to her father and spoke to him quietly. King Leopold looked at her questioningly; she gave him a pleading look and James saw her lips move saying, "Please." The king nodded his agreement to whatever she was asking; she pressed a kiss to his cheek, saying, "Thank you," before hurrying as unobtrusively as possible away.

James waited a few moments, waiting until no one was paying him any particular attention, before setting down his glass as well and following after the princess.

He caught up to her midway to the kitchen. "What's wrong?"

"Nothing you need worry about, Your Highness." She was more waspish when she was worried he'd noticed.

James gently but firmly grabbed her arm, turning her to face him. "Snow, there's worry written all over your face. Now what is wrong?"

Genuine fear flared in her eyes; not fear of him but of whatever had pulled her away. She swallowed hard. "I don't know," she finally admitted. "All I know is that someone is asking for me. And no one would have come here tonight…unless it was the direst of circumstances."

He pressed his lips together, releasing her arm and following her once more toward the kitchen. The head cook, Hannah if he remembered correctly, looked up upon their entrance. Relief flooded her face at the sight of the princess and surprise flashed into it faster once her eyes fell on him.

Snow walked straight up to her, taking the proffered cloak. "Where?"

"Just by the door," the older woman told her, her eyes kept going to James but she said nothing otherwise.

The princess made her way over to the door to the outside. Sitting on a stool beside it was a dark haired, scruffy looking dwarf who stood at her approach.

"Grumpy, what's wrong?" She spared no time for pleasantries.

"Grumpy's" eyes went to James for a moment, scowling.

Snow, noting his look, cast a glance in James's direction before looking back at the dwarf. "That's Prince James. Now, what's wrong?"

The dwarf didn't seem too happy about the prince's presence but he turned his attention to the princess. "Doc needs ya. The tailor's wife went into labor and it's not goin' well."

"Of course." She gestured toward the door.

Grumpy eyed the prince. "He coming?"

"One," Snow began testily, "we don't have time for this." She went to the door. "Two, you know how these things can be, we may need his help." She yanked the door open. "Three, even if we tell him not to come he'll just follow us." She rolled her eyes, as she swept out the door.

The dwarf cast a glare at the prince, who raised his eyebrows, before they both followed Snow outside.

James caught up to her and leaned over to say quietly, "I wasn't aware you were a midwife."

"I'm not," she said shortly. "What I am is a pair of capable hands, a strong stomach and a level head." She glanced at him for a moment. "Which is what Doc requires."

"And who is 'Doc'?"

"The local physician and all-around genius." She nodded to Grumpy who was a few steps ahead of them. "He's one of Grumpy's brothers."

He frowned curiously. "I was under the impression that dwarves tended to be miners and metal craftsmen."

"He's those too."

James faced forward. "A busy man, then."

He saw her grimace out of the corner of his eye. "Sometimes not quite busy enough," she muttered.

That was a story he was going to have to ask her about when they weren't rushing into a medical emergency.

They had apparently reached the house as Grumpy opened the door to let them in.


How she managed to carry on a fairly normal conversation with Charming while they were rushing to aid a woman who might be dying Snow had no idea. In a strange way carrying on the conversation had a calming effect on her. Though she wondered how he'd handle things once in the house; he kept his head during the fight, but some men couldn't take the pressures of childbirth and other medical situations.

The very air of the house seemed to reek of fear and panic. The tailor was pacing the room; he looked up, eyes wild, when they entered. Snow took in his state and the three sobbing children in the corner. She took a deep breath and strode in with a confidence that belied her own fears for the woman within.

"Where is she?" she inquired in a gentle but authoritative voice as she swept her cloak off.

"Sh-she," the husband was stammering so badly he could get little out.

Thankfully Red chose that moment to sweep in from the kitchen, lugging a large pot of hot water with her. Relief flooded her face at seeing Snow there. The princess immediately moved over to help her carry the pot into the sick room.

"Momma gonna die?"

Snow's heart dropped like a stone at the soft, quavering voice. She paused and turned to the youngest of the three children, a little girl not three years old. The princess knelt down next to the child and gently brushed a hand through her hair. "Your momma is going to be fine." She smiled warmly at the little girl. The eldest of the trio, a boy of eight, caught her eye; she could easily tell he hadn't been convinced in the slightest, but she gave him as hopeful a smile as she could muster. She then rose and went back to helping Red, feeling her insides twisting at the knowledge that she might have just lied to the children. She lifted her eyes to see Charming standing near the door, an island of calm amid the storm of fear and pain. She met his eyes; he nodded to her encouragingly and she gave him a weak smile before disappearing into the room.


James kept his eyes on Snow until the door shut behind her, and then he turned his attention to the other occupants of the room. Grumpy hadn't come inside, seeming to be uncomfortable; the prince supposed that he was either still outside or had gone home. The tailor had collapsed into a chair, head in his hands, haggard. The children were still huddled in a crying cluster in their corner.

He undid the fastenings holding his formal cloak as he moved to the brother and his two sisters; once he reached their side he swept the velvet, soft fabric around them against the slight chill in the air and for, hopefully, comfort. The prince then crouched down beside them, their eyes watching him warily. "My name is James. What are yours?" he inquired gently.

The eldest looked at him watchfully. "I'm Mikhail. These are my sisters, Marta," he nodded to the middle child who nodded to him solemnly, "and Sophie," the youngest gave a whimper of sorrow.

Marta looked to be about four or five; she was sucking on her thumb staring at him. She pulled her thumb out of her mouth. "You're the prince who ate lunch at the festival with us."

He grinned at her. "Yes, I am." He stayed crouched but began to remove his brocade shirt, revealing the simple white one underneath, hoping the less formal wear would make the children feel more at ease. He then sat down on the floor near them.

The youngest leaned forward, one finger outstretched; she pressed that finger delicately against the cut on his chin. "Owie," she stated.

He gently caught her hand. "Yes, that is an 'owie'," humor colored his voice.

"It hurt?" she asked innocently as she slowly pulled away to sit back against her big brother again.

He shook his head, smiling. "No. It did, but not anymore."

"Momma hurt." She turned fretful eyes toward the door to the room.

"They're trying to fix that." He ran a soothing hand over her soft brown locks.

She looked back at him, eyes so trusting. She rose from her spot at her brother's side and scooted over to James. His breath caught in his chest as she settled into his lap, looking up at him. "Story?"

He swallowed hard, looking up to see the other two giving him equally pleading looks; begging him to take their minds off of the fact that their little world was being tossed asunder. "All right." He wasn't sure he knew any stories suitable to tell children, but for them…he'd try.

He was casting his mind about for something to tell them, when Sophie's tiny fingers reached up and traced the cut on his chin again, and his mind easily settled on one. The way to word it for the children came to him with surprising ease.

"Once upon a time, there was a prince. He was riding along the road in a neighboring kingdom when he heard shouting…"


The sky was just starting to lighten when Snow finally exited the bedroom.

The husband had been sitting in a chair with his face buried in his hands, at her entrance his head shot up and he looked at her hopefully as he rose to his feet.

Charming had been standing by a window, his forearm braced on the frame, staring out into the slowly approaching morning; he too looked to her.

The children though were fast asleep in their corner. The two elder snuggled under what she recognized at Charming's cloak, while the younger was wrapped securely in his thick outer shirt.

She met the husband's gaze and took a deep breath.

A tremulous smile slowly spread across her face. "She and the baby will be fine."

The tailor let out a strangled cry of joy, impulsively sweeping her into a hug, and then releasing her before she could respond, looking at her grinning. "May I see them?"

"Yes," Snow said, her voice shaking the tiniest bit, but well controlled. "Doc has a few things to discuss with you."

He was practically skipping as he entered the bedroom.

She closed her eyes, tilted her head back, pressing her hands into the small of her back, and let out a weary, emotion laden breath. When she lowered her head again and opened her eyes it was to meet the concerned blue ones of the prince.

She managed a weak smile before looking down and heading for the door. She needed to get out of there; she needed to breathe.

She could hear him following after her, but she was too tired to care one way or the other.

Snow walked through the dew dampened grass to a fenced-in field. Her back to the buildings she gripped the top rail, looking out over the rolling hills, breathing in the cool air and trying to draw in some of the serenity of the early morning for herself.

Charming leaned against the fence next to her; she had been trying very hard to ignore how appealing he looked in just shirtsleeves, pants and boots. He seemed much more relaxed and at ease in this clothing; he had looked entirely comfortable in the rough surroundings of the tailor's small house, and now overlooking these fields he seemed equally at ease. She wasn't oblivious, she could feel something happening between them, but her mind was crying out against it. He wasn't like any of the men she had ever encountered before. He didn't discount her because she was a woman; instead he treated her as an equal. He didn't back down from her sharp tongue and hot temper, but rather met her with his own acute mind and wry humor. In his fighting she had seen not just a pampered prince who had been taught as a mere formality, but a man who had truly seen battle. It unnerved her how quickly she was becoming comfortable with him and a part of her mind screamed for her to run the other direction, but she just couldn't seem to stay away and the fact that he always found her when she tried didn't help matters.

They stood in a comfortable silence for several moments.

"How bad was it really?" he asked quietly.

She let out a shuddering breath and rubbed a hand over her forehead. "I truly thought most of the night that I was going to become a liar to those children." She looked down at her hand as she pulled it away to find it shaking; she clenched it in a fist and pressed it against the rail, taking another deep breath. "Doc had to perform an operation on her…" She stared down at the ground. "The complications…" She swallowed. "She can't have any more children."


Snow had pulled her hair back hurriedly, curls had, as usual, worked their way loose to hang about her face and neck; James could see her eyes were blinking quickly, trying to hold back tears.

He watched her. "But she and the child will live?"

She nodded, keeping her head down. "Yes."

"Good," he said softly.

"But what will this do to her and her husband?" she asked challengingly, her sadness contorted to worry and pain. "I have seen marriages ripped apart because one or the other couldn't accept such a thing." Her lip trembled. "I've seen lives destroyed over such a case," she finished softly.

Her emotions were raw on her face for him to see; it made him wonder why this hurt her so much.

James straightened, turning to face her properly. "I do not know them well, but I do know that she now has four wonderful children who love her, and that she can raise and love for the rest of her life." Her eyes were locked with his, unable to look away. "And she has a husband," his voice was a little thicker, "who, if he loves her as much as I think he does, will be so happy to know that he will be able to raise their children with her," there was an ache in his chest, "and not alone, and to know that they will grow old together." Her lips had parted and her breaths were coming a little faster than normal. "That is what all men who love their wives, whom I have known, wish for." His heart was pounding.P>

There was something there between them, alive and crackling in the air, they could both feel it, but somehow he knew they weren't ready for it. Knowing how she would likely react if she were the one to interrupt the moment he decided to break the atmosphere a little more gently.

"We should get back to the castle," he said quietly, he hoped that his voice didn't sound as husky to her as it did to him, "it's nearly dawn."

She looked down, breaking the connection. "Right."

They headed back to the house to gather their cloaks and his shirt.

When they arrived back at the palace through the kitchen, James was introduced first-hand to Hannah's mothering – smothering Snow later jokingly called it, though there was no bite in her words, only love. She forced them both to sit down at the kitchen table before setting before them each a bowl of oatmeal and a cup of hot chocolate, leaving sugar and common spices for the prince to add to his preference.

She asked after the tailor's wife and babe.

"They'll be all right," Snow quietly told her, blowing on a hot spoonful. "She'll be abed for a while though. There were a lot of complications."

Hannah clucked her tongue. "I'll head out to check on her after breakfast."

Snow cast her a grateful look.

The cook turned back to the stove. "The Queen wasn't pleased that you left so early last night."

"Regina can bite me," the princess informed her, though her words came out more tired than anything.

James looked over at her, taking a drink of his cocoa, smirking at her less than ladylike words.

Snow scrubbed a hand over her face. "This is going to be a long day," she groaned.

He rubbed a hand over his own eyes, trying to clear the encroaching bleariness. "I don't remember all-nighters being this hard a few years ago," he concurred.

Hannah discreetly looked between the pair as she poured them both more hot chocolate. "Rumors have started to fly among the nobles about you two, after you both disappeared around the same time last night."

Snow's spoon fell with a clatter; James choked on the sip he had just taken. They looked at each other, frozen. Somehow he didn't mind for once being romantically linked to a woman, but he knew that Snow wouldn't take it well and he didn't want her reputation damaged.

"You both can most likely not worry too much," she reassured them, handing the prince a glass of water, which he accepted gratefully. "All of the town, palace staff and your father, Princess, know the truth, and the rumors likely won't go too far with our kingdom being so small and closed."

Both royals relaxed substantially.

"Now, you two finish up your food and head upstairs," she told them soothingly.

"Mm hmm," Snow nodded, taking a bite of oatmeal. "I have so much to do to get ready for the day."

"My parents are probably wondering what happened last night," James agreed, setting down the glass.

Hannah pinned them both with a sharp look. "You two think you're staying up after this?" She planted her fists on her hips.

Prince and princess looked up at her, a little cowed.

"You are both going straight up to bed and getting some sleep," she informed them.

They looked at each other, before looking back at Hannah.

"But you just said that rumors are going around about the two of us," Snow pointed out.

"And the two of us remaining in bed so late in the day would likely perpetuate those rumors," James added.

"The rumors will die," she said dismissively. "You two have had a long, hard night and you both need sleep. So no arguments."

"Hannah, the preparations –"

"Will get done just fine without you, Princess."

"My parents –"

"Will be informed of the great service you performed for a family in need last night, Prince." She gave them both a glare before turning back to the stove.

James and Snow looked at each other again, him raising his eyebrows in surprised questioning; she rolling her eyes skyward in response.


It was still very early when Snow and Charming made their way up the stairs; only the staff were awake, exceedingly busy with all of the guests in the castle and the ball that was to take place that night.

"I'm sorry about Hannah's pushiness," the princess finally said after they had ascended halfway up the stairs.

He shook his head grinning tiredly. "It's fine; it makes me feel like I never left home in a way. Our steward and housekeeper are much the same." A fond smile spread across his face. "Our cook is actually the more indulgent one."

She gave a soft laugh. "So you're close to your servants as well?"

He nodded. "Not quite as close as you are," there was a slight teasing in his eyes. "But in some ways," his expression became thoughtful, "I'm closer to them than my parents." He looked at her. "I love my parents, but growing up there were some things that I couldn't really talk to them about; I went to Shaw, our steward, or Mariah, our housekeeper."

Snow gave him a sad smile. "I understand." She looked down at her hands. "After my mother's death, there were just things I couldn't talk to Father about; I went to Hannah." She looked up to see him looking straight ahead of them, a troubled look on his face. "What's wrong?"

He was quiet for a moment, thinking. "Now that I'm thinking about it, it really bothers me that a child should feel they can't go to their parent." He glanced at her. "I can understand for you that there are certain things that a daughter can't talk to her father about, but in my situation…" He frowned. "I don't want my children to go to servants rather than me when they need help or have questions."

She bit her lip, wondering how on earth they kept managing to stray into such personal matters, but she foraged ahead anyway. "Then don't let them feel that way," she told him simply, coming to a stop where the hall split and their ways parted; turning to face him.

He mirrored her, giving her a half smile that did strange things to her heart. "I will keep that in mind." He bowed his head to her. "See you later, Princess."

She rolled her eyes, smiling. "Until later, Prince Charming," she said turning.

"I told you that it's 'James'," he reminded her.

She turned back to him, walking backwards. "Not to me." She turned back around and hurried to her room. She didn't know what had prompted her to say that but she couldn't take it back and the look on his face was certainly worth the possible embarrassment later.


Snow's words had James stopping dead in his tracks and staring after her. How she kept managing to throw him off kilter he wasn't sure; he shook his head and finally headed toward his room.

He opened the door and walked in; just as he did so he heard his parents' voices from their room moving closer, he quickly moved the rest of the way into his room and quietly shut the door. As his latched he heard their door open; he stood by the door waiting to see what they would do. Their voices came closer…then passed by his door; he let out a relieved breath, not particularly wanting to have the discussion about his whereabouts the night before at that moment.

He tossed his brocade shirt and cloak onto a chair on his way to the bed. The thick curtains had been drawn closed over the windows, for which he was thankful. He sat down on the edge of the bed and pulled off his boots, then lay back. The beautiful dark haired princess still lingered in his mind as he fell asleep.


Dark clouds swallowed them. Which way was up? Which way was down? Dread clawed at them as triumphant, evil laughter resounded.

A cinnamon and chocolate flavored kiss was pressed to his unresponsive lips.

She buried her tear streaked face in an evergreen and leather scented shoulder.

The world was dissolving around them.




Snow shot up in bed, searching her room with wide eyes. Fear still had its claws in her but they were withdrawing as she surveyed the safe, familiar surroundings. She sat back against the headboard, her right hand going to her left to… She frowned and looked down at her hands; she spread them out for her inspection. She wore no rings; she never did, so why had she been reaching to fiddle with one?


James sat bold upright in bed, body tense, his hand going for his sword, but then slowly easing away as no threat was revealed; he pulled his hand back from the hilt of his sword. He turned and looked at the other side of the bed, where his hand had automatically gone to check… He frowned. Check on what? He had no wife. No mistress. No lover. So why had he reached as if to check on one?


"I cannot believe you'd be so irresponsible!"

Snow had been listening to similar phrases and had had other sins thrown in her face by her stepmother for the last fifteen minutes. Her father wasn't around, they would never upset him like that, but that also meant that Regina was going to let loose like she rarely did.

"The gossip has been horrible! What were you thinking going off with an unmarried man without a word?" The tall woman was pacing back and forth. "Absolutely selfish! You could have ruined all of your chances!"

Snow had had enough. "What bothers you more, stepmother?" She stood. "The fact that the gossip would ruin my viability for marriage?" She stepped right up to the older woman who had her beat solidly in height, but this did not deter the princess; if anything it made her all the more determined. "Or the fact that he didn't compromise me?"

The woman's mouth fell open at the princess's gall while the younger woman spun and headed toward the door.

"How dare you turn your back on me, Snow White?"

She said tartly over her shoulder, "Oh, perfectly," she opened the door and turned to find herself face to chest with a man; her eyes followed the brocade fabric up to the piercing eyes of Prince Charming, "…easily," she finished, her voice a bit softer.

The prince's sharp gaze had gone over her head to the Queen, narrowing. He looked back down at the princess, giving her a wry half smile. "I was coming to see if you'd save me from the ladies of court?"

She glanced around. "I don't see them anywhere." She cocked an eyebrow at him.

He gently cupped her elbow, those same sparks danced over her skin but she suppressed the urge to pull away, and he led her out of the room. "Yes well, they seem to find me no matter what." He closed the door behind them.

"I thought that was your job?" Snow teased.

"No, I said that I would always find you," he corrected, grinning at her.

She rolled her eyes. "Thank you, for that," she tilted her head back in the direction of the library he had just pulled her out of.

"My pleasure," he nodded. "I take it that your reprieve from your stepmother's wrath ran out?"

She shrugged. "Not the first time and it won't be the last time. Thankfully it happens very rarely."

"So," James began, "are you as excited for this ball as I am?"

Snow made a face, the spring equinox ball was that night; it was the reason that all the nobles had come. "If what you mean by 'excited' is dreading it, then yes, very."

He chuckled. "You seemed so insistent about being involved in the 'preparations' earlier."

"Not for this," she assured him.

He looked at her questioningly. "What then?"

She eyed him consideringly. "I'm not sure you're ready for that, Charming."


James had to laugh at her tone, mockingly serious. "'Ready for that'?" he countered.

"Mmmm," she nodded seriously. "It is highly sensitive information."

He bent his head closer to hers in a confiding manner. "Well, seeing as we are both under suspicion of having an affair," she choked on a laugh, "I think I can probably be trusted with such 'sensitive information'."

Snow coughed lightly, looking back up at him, amusement sparking in her eyes. "Ask me later."

"I'll hold you to that," he muttered as they approached the ballroom.

James was grateful that King Leopold had chosen to forgo having a caller so that what attention they attracted at their entrance was not compounded. Those who had noted their presence whispered amongst themselves.

James leaned close to Snow again. "These people really do think I'm much more interesting and daring a person than I am," he muttered.

She raised an inquiring eyebrow at him.

"Having an illicit affair with my host's daughter," he elaborated.

Snow smothered a laugh with her hand; once she had her amusement controlled she cleared her throat. "No, you are much more boring than that," she agreed with barely contained amusement, "fighting a gang on the way here, helping peel potatoes for a festival, running off in the middle of a party to help a family, letting yourself be cowed by a fierce cook, then saving me from my Wicked Stepmother." She looked up at him, mirth sparkling in her eyes. "Very boring indeed."

James grinned at her description of the events over…had it really only been three days? It had seemed much longer with all that had happened. He had grown so used to her in such a short time; he knew little things about her that, when he thought about it, it was a little disturbing that he knew. He had known last night her sharp tone wasn't really directed at him but a result of stress and distress, anticipating her reaction to the moment between them that morning, and he had instinctively known how to handle both situations. He had always been good at reading people, but her face…it wasn't just an open book, it was like a book he had read a hundred times before and had memorized. It was all very unnerving; his mind refused to inspect it all that closely, as if it knew that he wasn't ready for what he would find if he did.

He was drawn out of his thoughts by Snow's voice.

"You know I've never really been involved in any real scandal before," she remarked offhandedly. "I find it actually quite amusing."

He raised his eyebrows at her. "Princess Snow, am I to understand that you are enjoying scandalizing your family's court?"

She smirked. "The old biddies need to be shaken up."

That had him laughing. "Indeed, Princess. Indeed."

She grinned up at him brightly.

They approached the drink table and he requested one for each of them; after they had their drinks he steered them off to the side. He was taking a sip when he looked down the room, over her head.

"Oh, hell," he muttered, stifling a grimace.

"What?" she asked, concerned; looking in the direction that he was, before looking back at him.

"That lady." He nodded to the redhead who was obviously trying to catch his eye.

"Lady Stone?" she inquired with a cocked eyebrow.

"Yes, Lady Stone…" He took a deep breath. "You remember how I likened some of these ladies to octopi?"

"Mm hmm?"

"Well, she's more like a leech," he finished.

In that moment he got his wish from the previous day, to hear a full laugh from her. It was as sweet and lyrical as he had thought it would be and had him smiling in return.

She cast him a smirk. "That is not an incorrect assessment of Lady Stone," she agreed, humor still coloring her tone.

The band struck up a song and Lady Stone began making her way over to them.

He looked down at Snow. "Do not leave me with her," he said, his voice half command, half pleading.

She canted her head to the side in a thoughtful manner, as if considering it. When he tightened his hold on her arm she looked back at him, her eyes danced merrily as she set down her glass. "Do you dance, Your Highness?" she asked teasingly.

He lifted his eyes heavenward part in thanks and part in exasperation; setting down his own drink. "I can be convinced to, Princess." He grasped her gloved hand in his and led her out to the floor to join the other couples.

Dancing with Snow was either the most exquisite pleasure or torture, he wasn't sure which. She fit perfectly in his arms and they moved in absolute synchronization. It felt so right, natural to have her in his arms and when he had to release her to dance with someone else all he wanted to do was pull her back into him again. His intense feelings for her made no sense, but he couldn't get rid of them.


It was one of the last few dances of the night; Snow was quite ready for the ball to be over. She was tired of having to keep a smile pasted on her face and holding her tongue so as not to embarrass her father, when all she wanted to do was scream at the top of her lungs. When she was with Charming it was better; she was able to really smile while they bantered and picked fun at the other guests, but even with him it was an emotional upheaval. Her heart was pounding whenever they danced and she could hardly breathe, but when they separated to dance with others almost everything in her was crying out to go back to him, and every time another woman danced with him she wanted to claw their eyes out. It was terrifying, but she couldn't stop herself from returning to his arms each time he claimed her for another dance or stood with her on the side talking.

The young Marquis Jerome, whom she was dancing with at the moment, was, thankfully, a childhood friend who was happily engaged to another lady in the court. Dancing with him didn't feel right like it did with Charming, but it was comfortable, easy; without the emotional tumult inherent with the prince. Their conversation was light, pleasant; filled with childhood memories and his own excited talk of his upcoming nuptials. She had seen Regina casting glares in her direction for dancing with a completely unavailable man. Once the song ended the marquis led her over to the side of the dance floor where they both got drinks and stood chatting. Charming approached them; he and Jerome exchanged formal bows, and then they both looked at her expectantly.

"Oh, have you two not been formally introduced?" She looked at Charming, gesturing to her friend, "Prince James, this is Marquis Jerome du Massaude." She looked at Jerome and gestured to the prince, "Marquis Jerome, Prince James of Seaborn."

The two gentlemen exchanged pleasantries, before Jerome's attention was drawn off.

"Excuse me," he requested of the prince and princess, "my fiancée appears to finally be available and I would like to claim her for a dance before she's swept off again."

They both nodded; he bowed and headed off in the direction of his pretty brunette betrothed.

Charming moved to stand beside her, watching Jerome take his fiancée's hand and led her out onto the floor, the widest, brightest smiles imaginable on both of their faces.

"They appear very happy," he commented.

"Mmm…" she agreed, an ache opening in her chest. "We all grew up together in court; I think they both knew who they wanted before we were even old enough to imagine courting, much less marriage."

He nodded. "They're the lucky ones then."

"Yes," she said faintly. "They didn't have to look and they don't have any contentions at home either."

"Truly blessed," he murmured.

They watched the happy couple for several moments longer.

The prince set down his drink and turned to her. "Well, Princess," she turned to him as well, "one last dance before the night is over?"

She rolled her eyes. "You know, us dancing together so many times isn't going to quell any gossip," she remarked, though she was already setting down her own drink.

He grinned at her, mischief glinting in his eyes. "I'm willing to weather it if you are."

Snow smirked, placing her hand in his. "Bring on the storm."


He couldn't sleep. Even though James knew he'd needed the sleep Hannah had insisted he get that morning and early afternoon, he had not looked forward to this particular consequence of throwing off his sleep cycle. He was heading for the kitchen; normally he wouldn't presume to do so but he needed something to try and help lull him to sleep or he wouldn't be able to function in the morning.

There was a glow coming from under the door once he reached the kitchen; he cautiously pushed it open.

He wasn't surprised to see her inside, not really.

Snow looked up from where she was bent over a pot on the stove. Her eyebrows shot up and she reached down to wrap her dressing robe about her. "Charming!"

"Princess," he returned, letting the door close behind him and walking over toward her, but taking a place on the opposite side of the counter, keeping it as a barrier between them. "Couldn't sleep either?"

She shook her head while belting her robe closed and turning back to the stove. "No; I was making hot chocolate…would you like some?"

"Please," he nodded.

Snow brought down a mug from a cabinet and set it beside a second already sitting on the counter next to the stove. She lifted the pot from the burner, recovering it, and then carefully poured the contents into the two mugs. She sprinkled something from a small bowl into one of the mugs; she glanced at him over her shoulder. "Would you like cinnamon in yours?"


"Mm hmm, I like mine that way."

He nodded. "I'll try it."

She gave the other mug the same treatment; she spooned up some whipped cream from another bowl into her cup. She glanced questioningly at him; he nodded his agreement so she did the same for his. She finished off by sprinkling a little more cinnamon on top of the whipped cream and adding a cinnamon stick to each. She picked up both mugs, turned and set them down on the counter, sliding his across to him.

James quirked a smile at her as he lifted his mug. "You really like cinnamon in your cocoa."

She leaned on the counter, both hands wrapped around her mug. "It's been my favorite way to have it ever since Sleepy showed me as a little girl."


She smiled. "Another of Doc and Grumpy's brothers," she explained.

He cocked an eyebrow. "And I take it his name is just as apropos?"

Her eyes danced merrily. "Quite."

He took a sip of the cinnamon laced drink and found himself pleasantly surprised by the flavor. "Well he certainly is wise in his knowledge of hot chocolate."

She laughed softly, taking a sip of her own drink.

He watched her over the rim of his cup. "So, is now later?"

"Hmm?" she looked at him questioningly.

"You said I should ask you later about the 'sensitive information'."

Understanding came over her face and her lips formed a wordless "Oh."

"Is now later?" he asked again, amusement tingeing his voice.

She set her mug on the counter, turning it slowly in her hands. "What I wanted to help prepare for was the final, large celebration in the village tomorrow night - well, actually," she frowned thoughtfully, "it's tonight, I guess."

"Hmm," he acknowledged, sipping his cocoa. "The equinox was tonight," he remarked, thoughtfully, "why do they hold their main celebration the night after the equinox?"

She gave him a secretive smile, lifting her mug to her lips. "Becausethey aren't celebrating the spring equinox."

He leaned forward on his elbows, now intrigued. "So whatare they celebrating then?"

She grinned at him, drained the last of her cocoa, setting the mug in the sink to soak, and then leaned over the counter so that their faces were only inches apart. They were playing with fire, and they knew it; being so close to one another when neither was properly dressed and they were entirely alone.

"You'll find out tomorrow night," she told him. She moved back again. "It's fairly obvious once the sun sets." She moved around the counter, heading toward the door. "And you'll be there anyway."

He caught her hand, as she passed him; he ignored how the contact made his heart pound. "I will, will I?" he asked challengingly.

She had been momentarily thrown by his touch, but quickly overcame it and gave him a saucy grin. "Yes, you will."

He let her hand slip from his, watching her sashay to the door.

"Good night, Charming," she sang as she exited.

"Good night, Princess," he returned.

He continued to stare at the door long after it had closed behind her.

Whatever this was between them was spiraling very quickly toward going out of control, and while he should stop it immediately, he couldn't honestly find it in him towant to.


Sooooo…how was that?

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