ONCE UPON A TIME AND AGAIN

So this chapter is unbeta-ed and I'm very nervous about it because I'm adding more characters to it that, while familiar, we haven't seen yet in the series… They likely will be little to nothing like they are in the show, once they are brought in. I hope that you still like how I portray them!

ONCE~ONCE~ONCE~ONCE

Chapter 5: Interweaving Fates

Fate picked up several other strands and, with deft fingers, began picking them across the loom, adding complications and diversity to the weave.

ONCE~ONCE~ONCE~ONCE

Snow was standing in the doorway to their balcony staring out at the glitteringnight sky. She was still dressed in her lilac colored, strapless ball gown, but she had removed all of her jewelry, save her engagement and wedding rings, and taken her hair down from theridiculously complicated up-do that her maid had put it in. Her arms were wrapped around her middle and she was smilingserenely at thestill peace of the darkness. It had been a lovely night, the perfect end of a day that had begun with wonderful news; she hugged herself tighter at that thought. She had been waiting all day to share this news with her husband, whoshould be coming up shortly after checking in with the guard.

As if her thoughts conjured him, the door to their room opened andJames came in, divesting himself of his outer shirt in the process. He saw her standing at the balcony,smiling at himover her shoulder. A grin creased across his own face as he tossed his fine shirton a chair and walked over to stand behind her, wrapping his arms around her waist; she settled her arms over his, entwining their fingers.

He pressed a kiss to the side of her neck. "You look happy, darling," hemurmured.

Happy was an understatement since she could barely contain her joy at the moment. "Very."

"It's good to see. Youhaven't been feeling sick again?" he inquired with concern.

Snow bit her lip, trying to keep from grinning; she shook her head. "Not since this morning." She looked down at their hands and began to fiddle with his wedding ring, the sight of it on his hand matching the one on hers eliciting ecstatic joy, love and apossessivenessin her at the knowledge that he was herhusband; her one true love. They found each other, fought for it and built their"happy ending".

"What, it's not enough for you to play with your own ring; now you have tofidget with mine?" he teased her.

She grinned at him, tangling their fingers together. "I did put it on your finger," she teased back.

His arms tightened slightly around her. "You did." He kissed her temple.

Her eyes slid shut, blissfully happy.

"Snow," she heard the change in his tone, the worry that slipped in,"if you get sick again, I want you to see, Doc."

She suppressed a grin. "Ialready did."

He released her and turned her to face him. "You did? When?"

"Thismorning." She loosely looped her arms around his waist. "He told my why I've been getting sick."

He frowned in concern. "What's wrong?"

She barely restrained the joyous laughter that wanted to bubble up. "Nothing," she told him simply.

"Snow…" he said reproachfully.

Shegrinned, pulling her arms from around him; she took his hand and tugged onit to get him to follow her.

He gazed at her in confusion, but allowed her to pull him along behind her from their room and down the halls of their castle. "Snow, where are we going? And why aren't you telling me what's wrong with you?"

She gave a giggle. "I told you, nothing is wrong with me… And you'll see in a moment." Shepulled him into Geppetto's workshop.

"Snow, what are we doing here?"

"You'll see…" she repeated, leading him around the different projects the craftsman was working on to a new one in a back corner. It was mostly just a pile of pieces of wood that were just starting to take form, not reallyrecognizable yet.

James ran his fingers over a carving that the woodworker had begun on one of the pieces. "Who's this for?"

Snow bit her lip. "Us." His eyes met hers. "I had it commissioned this morning." She twisted her rings.

He stepped close to her. "What is it?"

She drew in a deep breath. "A cradle."

He sucked in a breath, with trembling hands he reached for hers. "Snow…are you…are we…?"

She released one of his hands to grasp the other in both of hers andplace it against her stomach, looking down at their hands resting there. "Baby, this is your papa, who is about to become even more overprotective of your momma than-"

He swept her up in his arms, spinning them around, laughing like a pair of fools.

"A baby!"

Her heart leapt at the joy

"Snow?"

The princess was rudely dragged out of the memory of her dream by Red snapping her fingers in front of her face and calling her name.

Snow blinked a few time and glanced at her friend. "Sorry. I was drifting."

The other woman looked at her a little strangely. "Yeah, you've been doing that frequently."

Snow looked back down at Dopey's damp shirt she was supposed to be hanging and lifted it to the clothes line, pulling a pin out of the pocket of the apron she wore. She had drafted Red into helping her with some of the dwarfs' chores while they were both still looking around for a maid for them. "I've just had a lot on my mind."

Red cocked an eyebrow. "The prince really leave you with that much to think about?"

Snow rolled at Red's twisting of her words. "Who said anything about Prince Charming?"

The younger woman propped a fist on her hip and gave her a droll look. "Well, it's kinda a safe assumption since this 'drifting' started just after he left," she drawled.

The princess grimaced; she had been hoping that she hadn't been so obvious. "Nothing was said or arranged," she stated; only partially untrue considering their "agreement" in the kitchen wasn't exactly formal.

Red rolled her eyes. "Maybe you should have, because then you might not be lost in thought half the time."

Snow gritted her teeth, deciding it best not to respond. Her mind truthfully had been occupied much over the last few weeks since Charming's departure by visions during the day and dreams at night. All of them involved Charming and her being together. The daydreams were generic enough, but the dreams…those, most of the time, were far more detailed and felt more like memories, like the one she had been lingering on before. It was interesting how her old family friend had been incorporated into the dream; she hadn't seen Geppetto in a year or so, but he had always been wonderful to her. Many of her dreams had such details woven in; others had details that were more…intimate. Snow just barely kept from blushing at the memory of what had happened in the dream shortly after she had revealed to him they were having a baby. She would have never believed that it was possible to feel anything like that but for what she had felt in the kiss she and Charming had shared at the Spring Festival. Mornings when she awoke after dreams like that left her restless, achy and wishing that Charming wasn't a kingdom away.

"We really need to find the dwarfs a maid," Red grumbled, drawing Snow once more from her thoughts.

The princess, managed to pull her thoughts to the here and now. "I know, but there just aren't really any women available at the moment who are willing to take on the job." She gave her friend a level look. "You know that it is a little intimidating a thought, working for seven men, and they are already not known for neatness."

Red continued to grumble under her breath as the pair continued with the laundry. After a few moments she turned to the princess. "You and the king and queen are going to be visiting Riverdon soon, aren't you?"

"Mm hmm," Snow nodded, hanging a pair of Grumpy's trousers. "Once he is ready to step up to the throne, Prince Thomas will become king of it and it will no longer be just an annex of Seaborn, but a kingdom of its own right. Father and Regina want to look into it since it also boarders us."

Red shook out the shirt she was holding. "Maybe you can find someone there," she commented.

"I'll ask around," Snow agreed. "I'm visiting Gaspard tomorrow; I was planning on asking him as well."

Red cocked her head to the side. "Are Aurora and Eric going to be there?"

"Mm hmm," Snow confirmed. "Would you like to come?"

Red bit her lip. "I'll have to ask Granny. It'd be nice to see them again." She hung a pair of socks. "It's been a while since we've all been together."

"Indeed," Snow agreed and then grinned. "Poor Gaspard and Eric, they are just always so outnumbered!"

The other woman snickered. "It's good for them." Her smile became sly. "And I'm sure they'd be interested to hear about your 'Prince Charming'."

The princess leveled a finger at her friend. "Don't you dare!"

The younger woman cackled gleefully. "Feeling a little protective of your prince, Princess?" she taunted.

Snow rolled her eyes, hanging a coat. "He isn't 'my' anything," she refuted, even though everything in her was agreeing with her friend calling Charming "hers".

"Of course he isn't…" Red snorted.

The princess rolled her eyes, but her lips were tingling with the memory of the kiss they shared, how it had indeed felt very much like he was hers…and she had felt like she was his.

ONCE~ONCE~ONCE~ONCE

THUNK

James reached down for the next arrow, notched it in his bow, drew it back, and released it.

THUNK

It hit center. Just like all the others he'd fired off that morning.

He repeated the process.

THUNK

"Feeling any less frustrated?"

He turned at the mocking voice. "Phillip," he greeted his friend absently.

"He's been at it for hours," Thomas informed the other prince from his spot against a tree.

The dark haired prince's eyebrows rose and he turned back to James, who was once again firing off another arrow…to hit dead center. "What has you this tense?"

The elder prince didn't respond, just drew another arrow.

"We think it has something to do with the visit with Princess Snow White," Liam, one of James's oldest friends and generals, put in.

The arrow flew wide.

Phillip snorted, smirking. "Looks like that hit the mark."

James really didn't want to get into this with his friends. He went over to where he had left his vest; his valet, Bates, handed him a drying cloth which he accepted with a thank you.

"It really went that badly?" Phillip inquired.

"He won't say," Thomas responded.

"He hasn't said anything about the visit at all, actually," Liam added.

Phillip turned back to the prince in question. "So that means it went that 'badly' or something happened and he's not dealing with it…"

James rolled his eyes. "Don't the three of you have better things to do than discuss my affairs?"

"Oh, so it's an 'affair' is it?" Phillip countered.

James spun on the other man, his eyes flashing angrily at the implication about Snow, but any words died on his lips at the glint at the other prince's eyes, knowing it all too well. He had played right into his friend's hands. He clenched his jaw as Phillip's eyes lit with triumph.

"Something did happen," the dark haired prince crowed.

James handed the towel back to Bates with a "thank you" and gathered his jacket, getting ready to head off. "You all gossip like old women," he informed them shortly.

His brother and two friends followed him.

"Can you blame us for being a little worried, big brother? You haven't been the same since you came back from Everland. You're so preoccupied all of the time," Thomas told him, the slightest hint of worry evident in his voice.

James gave his younger brother a smile over his shoulder. "I just have a lot on my mind, little brother."

"I think the target that you nearly disintegrated illustrates that point fairly well," Liam informed him wryly.

"Did you two come to some kind of understanding?" his brother inquired.

Not any that he could speak to them about. "Princess Snow White and I have no 'understanding'," 'officially', he added mentally.

"Well, then what has you so in knots over her?" Phillip countered.

James's jaw went tight.

She held his hand to her abdomen, his heart was racing as she looked down, saying. "Baby," his breath caught at that word, "this is your papa…"

"Papa." He was going to be a father! Joy rushed through his veins.

"…who is about to become even more overprotective of your momma than-"

He scooped her up in his arms and spun them both around, laughing joyously. "A baby!" he cried exultant.

He finally set her down, not releasing her from his arms, and looked at her shining face, which he cupped between his palms. "We're going to be parents."

Her smile became impish. "Well, that's generally what happens when you have a baby," she teased him.

He bent his head and kissed her beloved, impertinent mouth; they were both still smiling into the kiss. He pulled away and lowered his hand to rest over where her womb was, where she carried their child, a being both part him and part her. One of her hands joined his once again over their baby; her other rose to cup his jaw, her thumb feathering over the scar there. His eyes rose to hers, the humor he felt reflected back at him in her hazel orbs. He could have never imagined that day they first met, before or after taking a rock wielded by her to the chin, that they would be here, but somehow he didn't think they could have ended up any other way.

He stroked her cheek with his thumb. "I love you."

Her grin widened; she rose on her toes so that their heads were closer. "I love you too, Charming."

His head ducked down, closing the small distance, to kiss her once again; her lips were already parted and they immediately deepened the kiss. His hand that had been resting on her stomach wrapped around her waist to pull her form into the protective curve of his. Her hand rose up to grip his shoulder, trying to lever herself closer to him.

"Snow," he mumbled between kisses, "I don't think Geppetto would appreciate us doing this in his workshop."

This prompted her laughter, which was slightly muffled from their kiss. "Then why are we still here?" she saucily inquired.

James forced himself away from the memory of the dream before his mind wandered to what happened after he carried Snow out of the shop and up to their room.

How could he tell his friends that after only knowing a woman for four days he couldn't stop thinking about her; that he dreamed and daydreamed about her constantly. That he dreamed of having a child with her, watching her become swollen with their baby. How he dreamed of sneaking into the kitchens late at night to make hot cocoa with her, and laughing and teasing each other over their mugs. Curling up in front of a fire with her in his arms and the two of them talking about whatever might come to mind or was bothering them. Always having her by his side and sharing each other's burdens; raising their children together, growing old side by side. How could he expect his friends and brother to understand these dreams and desires for a woman he barely knew, when he could hardly explain them to himself? The dreams where she's in his arms crying out in ecstasy are easily explainable; she was without a doubt the most beautiful woman in every way he had ever met, and as shown by the kiss they shared she was naturally very passionate. What man wouldn't dream about such a woman? Why did she have to be so far away? a voice in the back of his mind complained.

"Who exactly is this Princess Snow White that she does this to you?" Phillip all but demanded, completely confounded that James would act his way. "What on earth is she like that she could distract you so completely?"

James spun on him. "Do you want to hear that I liked her when I didn't think I would? Well, I did. She is kind and intelligent; has a sharp wit to match her tongue and temper, which I would pay dearly to see her unleash on the three of you at the moment. I respect her greatly as a person, and one day she'll make an amazing queen, whether she marries or not." He turned back on heel continuing down the hall toward his room, not saying half of what he could about Snow; not wanting to give them even more fodder.

"What do you mean 'if' she gets married?" Liam questioned.

"She's not required to by the laws of succession in her kingdom," James elaborated, not turning.

"Lucky her," Phillip grumbled. He'd been complaining more and more loudly over the years about the marriage his parents had arranged for him as a child to the, at the time, infant Princess Aurora; he hadn't seen her since she was about six years old; by now she would be full grown, and the time for them to marry was closing in.

James gave an aggravated sigh. "Phillip, when are you going to stop complaining to us about your betrothal and either tell your father you want no part in it or actually go meet your fiancée and give it a try?"

"At least you have some choice," the dark haired prince said sourly.

James's temper finally snapped. "Yeah," he agreed sarcastically, turning to look at him. "Two. And if I'm not careful in handling the situation I could incite war," he added darkly, looking at his friend levelly in the eye. "At least if you were to break things off with Aurora you wouldn't have to worry about her parents threatening your kingdom." He spun back around and this time when he stalked off they didn't follow.

They all knew this to be true. Phillip's father and Aurora's parents dearly wanted the marriage, it would benefit both of their kingdoms to merge them together, and their families had always been close friends; a marriage to unite the families had always been a hope for them. However if the prince or princess were to decide not to go through with it, while their families would be disappointed, they would cancel the betrothal on good terms.

James had no such assurance, and he wasn't even betrothed.

ONCE~ONCE~ONCE~ONCE

"Welcome, Princess Snow White and Mistress Redell," a portly man bowed to the pair with all the pomp and circumstance that he usually embodied.

"Thank you, Cogsworth," Snow said as she and Red dismounted from their horses. "Have Aurora and Eric already arrived?" They allowed the stable hands to lead their steeds off.

"Yes, Your Majesty. They are with the Master in the garden." He made a sweeping gesture for them to follow him. "Right this way."

Once his back was turned, both women looked at each other with matching expressions of barely contained laughter. Snow's family had several characters who worked in the castle, but nothing compared to the ones that Gaspard employed.

"Ah! Princesse Snow White! Mademoiselle Redell!"

And yet another character sped up to them, claiming each of their hands to kiss with great flourishes and complimenting them both over and over in French.

The pair barely managed to contain the laughter that wanted to flow forth, particularly at the annoyance on Cogsworth's face, which of course was part of the reason Lumiere was putting on the ridiculous show.

"It's good to see you, Lumiere," Snow greeted, her voice a little strangled from her efforts to keep from laughing.

"Lumiere," Red just barely managed.

Cogsworth cleared his throat, shouldering Lumiere to the side. "The Master, Princess Aurora and Prince Eric are this way," he gestured in the direction of the gardens.

Lumiere swept a flourished bow to both women as they passed by him and followed behind them.

Snow had long been of the opinion that one of the main reasons Gaspard's parents had originally hired the two men was for the pure comedic value; which was probably part of the same reason that Gaspard had retained them in his employ. The other reason that the squabbling pair retained their jobs was that, for all their fighting, the two of them and Mrs. Potts, the housekeeper, kept the castle and external affairs running in perfect order and between the three of them there had yet to be a problem to arise that they couldn't handle. Cogsworth tended to be Gaspard's ambassador and inter-kingdom negotiator; he knew how to sooth the most ruffled royal feathers and the customs of all kingdoms. Lumiere, for all his looking and acting like a fop, was a keen spy among the nobility, he was prodigious in his ability to read people and sort fact from fiction in news and gossip. Mrs. Potts was a sweet, dumpy woman who maintained order in the castle with a bright smile and gentle word, as well as a firm hand and shrewd mind. Outsiders were consistently underestimating what Redell liked to refer to as the "triumvirate" because of how they appeared; those who knew them however made no such mistake.

The women were finally shown out onto the terrace that led down to the gardens. Gaspard looked up from where he was staring out over the green at their approach; a grin spread across his face. With his longer, light colored hair, ocean blue eyes and height, King Gaspard of Rosewood would have been considered a handsome man by conventional standards…were it not for the vicious scars that marred his face. When he'd been eleven he and his parents were in a terrible carriage accident that took their lives and left him alive but horribly scarred, both physically and emotionally. He'd been a boisterous, somewhat proud boy, but after the accident he'd become almost reclusive, pained and humble. He likely would have withdrawn from the outside world entirely had it not been for Snow, Red, Eric and Aurora weathering his temper, which in his pain and grief had lashed out frequently in the early days after the accident, and refusing to let him pull away.

"Snow; Red," he greeted warmly, leaning on his cane.

They exchanged embraces that revealed the close, filial-like bond between them.

"Cogsworth said that Aurora and Eric are here?" Snow questioned after kissing his cheek.

Wry amusement infused his expression. "Oh, they are." He nodded to the green, where both women now realized they could hear some faint clacks and thuds; they moved over to the railing where Gaspard had been standing.

The blond princess and dark haired prince were sparring back and forth below. The usually calm and demure princess's harder than usual strikes and movements revealed a great deal of frustration and annoyance. Eric, whom they all knew was a better swordsman than the young woman, was harder pressed than usual to keep his blocks up with the wooden practice swords.

Red's eyebrows were high on her forehead as she turned to the prince beside them. "What's has Aurora so mad? And why'd Eric sign up for this for this self-flagellation?"

Gaspard leaned back against the railing. "Apparently Aurora's parents have become more insistent about her and Prince Phillip meeting again to set up a formal engagement and a wedding date."

The two women grimaced.

"Yeah," the younger woman acknowledged, "that would set her off."

Aurora hadn't seen her betrothed since she was a small child; her few memories of him weren't positive. After Snow, the only princess in high court that she'd liked, had stopped attending she'd begged her parents to no longer make her; they had agreed and she had not seen the prince since she was six.

"Well, that explains Aurora. What's Eric's excuse for taking this abuse?" Red asked, raising an eyebrow.

Gaspard shrugged. "I have no idea. They arrived at the same time about two hours ago and once Aurora had changed they started right into sparring. She was muttering quite loudly about her parents, which is how I know what's wrong with her, but Eric, as you both know, plays things close to the chest until he's ready to talk about them."

"Mm," Snow nodded, a little worriedly.

Eric's family was a new monarchy; their kingdom, Seaside, had been created only about two decades ago, his parents were the first rulers. They were still working out many of the issues involved in building a kingdom; it left them with little time to socialize so they didn't involve themselves with the High Court yet. Aurora's kingdom, Glenbriar, and Gaspard's were their closest neighbors so the families had managed to build friendships between them. Through them Eric had met Snow and Red. The princesses and princes had bonded over being the "outcasts" of the High Court and Red had slipped into the group through her lifelong friendship with Snow.

Eric apparently noticed the two women standing beside Gaspard and said something to Aurora, who lowered her practice weapon and looked up at them; they both waved at their audience, who responded in kind. The prince and princess then began heading up the stairs toward their friends.

"You know," Red muttered to Snow, "it's really rather odd seeing Aurora in breeches."

"You see me in them all the time," the dark haired princess, responded in an equally low voice.

"Yeah, but that's you. This is Aurora we're talking about," Red commented wryly.

"I'm not sure if you just insulted me or not," the older woman sardonically returned.

"It's more of an observation."

Snow rolled her eyes, but she had to admit that her friend had a point. Snow was more inclined to wear breeches since she was always running around in the woods, riding, practicing swordsmanship and archery, and doing other things where a dress would get in the way. Aurora wouldn't even let her friends talk her into touching a wooden practice sword until she was twelve, and while she exhibited a greater aptitude for the weapon than even Snow, she still preferred spending her time painting, singing, dancing or embroidering.

"Snow, Red; it's wonderful to see you both," the blond princess greeted them with her usual gentle smile, though there was an edge behind it. The three women exchanged embraces.

"Aurora, it's good to see you," Snow grinned before turning to the dark haired prince who had followed her up the stairs. "Eric." She moved over to hug him. "It's been too long."

He returned the embrace. "I'm sorry about being away for so long. I was happy to get Gaspard's invitation; I needed get away for a couple of days."

"Well, it's about time," Red informed him as she took her turn, hugging him. "Honestly, I thought we'd never see you again."

"I've been rather preoccupied lately."

Aurora gave a cough that sounded suspiciously like she was covering up a laugh or a scoff.

Mrs. Potts chose that moment to bustle out with a few other servants to lay a lunch out on the terrace table for them. All of the young people chimed in "thank you"s, which she responded to with a fond smile at them and then hurried back inside the castle.

"So, Aurora," Red began as they headed for the table, "Gaspard was just telling us about your parents pestering you about Prince Phillip."

The usually proper Aurora scoffed and nearly threw herself into a chair, annoyance vibrating through every line in her body. "I don't see why they're so insistent on this stupid betrothal."

Snow settled into a seat across from the other princess. "Your parents would permit you to break the betrothal if you wished, wouldn't they?"

Aurora made a face. "Yes, but only after I've met him again and made an honest attempt at the betrothal."

"That's reasonable, 'Rora," Gaspard commented from across the table, using their nickname for the blond princess.

She grimaced; nodding reluctantly as she slowly stirred her cup of tea. "I know," she admitted. "It's just that, what I remember of him is a boy who picked on me and pulled my hair."

"That was a long time ago," Snow reminded her, though she herself had few fond memories of the prince as well. "Perhaps he has managed to grow up."

Aurora scoffed again.

"People do usually mature as they grow up, 'Rora," Eric chipped in.

The blond princess turned on him, eyes narrowed. "Hmm," she began, sarcasm thick in her voice, "perhaps he's learned to think with the head on his shoulders rather than other parts of his anatomy."

The other three choked on whatever they were eating or drinking in that moment at hearing such a crass comment coming from her. They looked back and forth between the fair haired princess and dark haired prince. While their group had always been close Aurora and Eric had what was basically a sibling relationship since their castles were only a short horseback ride apart. Right now Eric was glaring at her with a clenched jaw and Aurora met him head on with a mutinous look of her own.

"Umm," Red began, "what exactly are we missing here?"

"Oh, yes, Eric!" Aurora said in a saccharine sweet voice. "Why don't you tell them exactly why you've been so 'preoccupied' lately?"

The three other friends traded wary looks before turning back to the pair who seemed to be having a stare-down. They said nothing for the moment, allowing the two to have one of their silent fights that they would have. There were several moments of them just glaring with little change to their expressions. Aurora raised an eyebrow, he narrowed his eyes, she canted her head to the side giving him an almost droll look, he clenched his jaw again, and triumph flashed in her eyes as she sat back, arms crossed over her chest.

"I met someone," he ground out through gritted teeth, eyes still burning holes in the woman he considered his sister. "A woman."

There were dropped jaws and raised eyebrows from the three audience members.

Eric, noticing their expressions out of the corner of his eye, turned to them frowning. "Why are you acting so surprised?"

Red cocked an eyebrow at him. "Hmm, gee, Eric. Maybe it has to do with the fact that in all the years we've known you, you haven't even mentioned a woman in a romantic context ever?"

Aurora gave a mirthless laugh. "That's not even the real news yet." She turned to the dark haired prince. "Tell them who she is."

He gave her a cutting look.

"Eric…" Snow began, a little uneasily.

He pressed his lips together. "Her name is Ariel."

Snow and Red glanced at each other, sharing confused looks, but Gaspard had frowned for a moment and then comprehension dawned.

His eyelids slid shut and he rubbed a hand over his face. "Oh gods, Eric. Really?"

"Umm…" Red raised a hand. "Would someone care to clue the two of us in?" She gestured between herself and her princess.

Gaspard let his hand drop and looked at Eric and Aurora. "Would one of you care to explain, or shall I?"

Aurora was looking fit to be tied and shook her head. "I'm too mad right now."

Eric gestured for the other prince to go ahead.

Gaspard turned to the other two women. "Ariel is one of the seven daughters of King Triton." He glanced at Eric and Aurora. "The youngest if I'm not mistaken."

"You're not," Aurora assured him sourly.

Red's jaw had nearly hit the ground. "Oh, hell! Please tell me you're joking!"

Snow's head had dropped into her hands. "Eric, do you have a death wish?" She looked back up at him, incredulous.

"I'm not an idiot!" he snapped at them testily as he shot out of his seat. "I know that it is impossible." He moved over to the railing. "I know I can't ever be with her, not only because she's a mermaid and I'm human but because her father would never allow it. But…that doesn't change what either of us feels."

Silence reigned. Aurora had calmed substantially now that she no longer was carrying the burden of worry for Eric alone, and she was feeling somewhat guilty for lashing out at him.

Snow glanced around the group. Aurora, who normally would have been the one to talk Eric back, was feeling too guilty at the moment. Gaspard, while a brilliant man, had never been good with talking to others. Red…well, Snow wouldn't trust her to have the tact to handle the situation. And the fact of the matter was, Snow was probably the one most able to empathize with him on matters of the heart at the moment, not that she'd ever admit to it.

The dark haired princess rose from her seat and approached the prince. She laid a gentle hand on one of his arms. "No, Eric, it doesn't change it," she agreed softly. He looked over his shoulder at her, and she gave him a tight smile. "We can't help who we love."

Eric gave her a slightly pained smile, resting a hand on top of hers, squeezing it gently. "Thank you."

Her smile softened. "You're welcome."

He allowed her to pull him back to the table.

As he sat down Aurora caught his hand; he turned to her to find her looking at him with a mixture of sadness and guilt.

"I'm sorry, Eric," she told him softly. "I shouldn't have said those things. It's no excuse, but I was just so stressed from my parents' insistence, and I'm so scared for you with everything involving Ariel…"

He leaned over and kissed her forehead. "I shouldn't have asked you to bear that burden alone."

She gripped his hand tightly and looked up at him pleadingly. "Forgive me?"

He gave her a wry smile. "Getting there," he promised.

She returned it with a small one of her own. "Thank you."

After the emotional turmoil they ate for several moments in a pregnant silence.

Gaspard finally cleared his throat. "Speaking of love lives." His eyes discreetly cut to the dark haired princess. "I heard that Prince James of Seaborn paid your family a visit, Snow."

She choked on her hot cocoa; her head whipped around to Red, who smirked but raised her hands in a silent protest of innocence.

"It wasn't exactly a secret, Snow," Eric commented drolly.

She rolled her eyes. "Perhaps not, but I didn't expect it to be enough of a deal to catch you three's attention."

Aurora commented dryly, "When a viable suitor visits you, of course we're going to take an interest." She took a bite of the salad. "What was he like?"

Snow was having trouble deciding what to tell her friends, she was terrible at hiding things and they knew here all too well, which was precisely why she'd been hoping to avoid the topic of Charming entirely.

"Oh, he was quite charming," Red told them, meaningfully.

Snow pressed her lips together, glaring at her friend; the younger woman met her stare, smirking.

Red raised an eyebrow. "You can tell them about him or I will quite happily do so…"

The dark haired princess closed her eyes and took a deep breath, and then opened them again. "Prince James –"

"You don't call him 'Prince James'," Red tauntingly said.

Snow glared at her friend again.

"What do you call him?" Eric asked, raising an eyebrow.

The two dark haired women looked at each other, Red's eyes dancing with mischief, and Snow's telegraphing "don't you dare". The younger woman gave her a look that clearly once again told her "you do it or I will".

Snow closed her eyes again, bracing herself. "Prince Charming."

Aurora choked on her tea, Eric threw back his head laughing and Gaspard was coughing into a napkin.

The dark haired princess looked at the three narrowly. "I first called him that when he was being not so 'charming'," she told them by way of explanation. She then shrugged a little uncomfortably. "Then it just stuck."

Aurora dabbed at her mouth, eyes dancing with laughter. "So he wasn't being charming in that moment, but he proved to be afterward?"

Snow rolled her eyes. "He can be." She sipped her cocoa. "On occasion."

"That's not all that he can be," Red informed their friends gleefully.

"Red…" the dark haired princess said warningly through gritted teeth.

"Do tell," Eric smirked.

"He's also excellent with children."

"Really?" Aurora was grinning broadly.

"He pretended to be a dragon for the children to 'slay' and helped watch the tailor's children while his wife was going through difficult birth," Red elaborated.

The three royals looked to the fourth, who was staring off at the gardens, jaw set.

"There's more," Red said in a sing-song voice.

Snow's eyes cut to her friend glaringly.

"He let Granny boss him around and peeled potatoes for the celebration in our kitchen."

Three knowing grins turned on the dark haired princess.

"He helped with other preparations for the festival; was quite happy to mingle among us 'common folk', and quite relaxed about it too, he's spent time doing so before," Red finished.

The Cheshire cat grins that were turned in Snow's direction had her glaring back at her friends.

"So, when's the wedding?" Aurora asked cheekily.

Snow rolled her eyes skyward. "You're all ridiculous," she informed them tartly. "There's no such understanding between us." She stood. "And likely never will be." She turned and headed inside, ignoring pang in her heart at her own words.

ONCE~ONCE~ONCE~ONCE

James quietly stepped into the library, glancing around. It was the second largest collection in the realm, out done only by King Gaspard's library. He wandered down the center aisle, looking down each of the rows, searching. About three-quarters of the way across the vast room he finally spotted her in the fantasy section up on a stool, the skirt of her blue dress brushing over her calves and long, curly, brown tail swaying down her back. She was trying to reach a shelf that was just a few inches out of her reach, even on the stool.

He kept his footsteps silent as he approached her; coming to a stop directly behind her. "Need some help?"

She yelped in surprise, spinning around on the stool; she would have gone toppling off her perch had he not reached out and grasped her waist to steady her.

She gasped a few deep breaths, trying to calm her racing heart; once her pulse had slowed somewhat she scowled at him. "Do you enjoy scaring the living daylights out of me, James?" She swatted away his hands, brow furrowed down at him.

He grinned, shrugging. "Just trying to remind you that there's a world outside of this room, Belle, and keep you on your toes." He nodded to the book in her hands. "May I?"

She handed the tome to him, accepting his proffered hand down from the stool. "Might as well find some use for you," she stated sourly.

James chuckled softly as he stepped up part way on the step stool and easily reached up to replace the book.

"So, I heard that you have taken an interest in the princess of Everland."

He fumbled the book, nearly dropping it. He looked down at his friend who now had her arms crossed and was smirking up at him with some satisfaction. James rolled his eyes as he looked back up at the shelf and slid the book into its proper place.

This done he stepped back down and mirrored her posture. "Which source might this come from?"

The librarian pressed her lips together and looked upward in mock thoughtfulness. "Let me see, I believe that I might have heard three men who were gossiping on like the merry wives of Windsor."

James scoffed, rolling his eyes. "Not an incorrect description of those three."

Belle gave a soft laugh and turned to begin heading down the row, him walking beside her. "Well they did seem genuinely worried about you, or at least Thomas was."

He sighed. "He need not be."

"Shouldn't he?" she countered, stopping again and turning to face him; he did the same. "You have a lot of pressure on you right now, James. A big decision to make and less than a year to make it in."

He looked away, jaw clenched.

Belle canted her head to the side, giving him a look. "You can't just forget about it, James."

"How well I know that, no matter how much I wish it weren't so," he told her grimly.

She hugged the books still in her arms to her chest. "I know how you detest Princess Abigail." Her expression became inquiring. "But how do you feel about Princess Snow White?"

The prince looked down. "There is no understanding between us to speak of."

Belle watched him through narrow, assessing eyes. "No…official understanding…"

He lifted his eyes to her shrewd, brown ones.

Her expression cleared and her lips formed a wordless "ah".

He gave a soft snort and his lips quirked into one of his half-smiles. "You always have been good at reading between the lines."

"Well," she stated as they turned and continued their leisurely walk down the aisle, "I may spend most of my time with my nose in books, but I also have spent a great deal of time watching people."

"True," James acknowledged. "Snow and I…" He didn't know how to really begin. Unlike his brother and two friends he knew that Belle would listen to him without judgment and it would never go beyond her.

Belle kept silent while he arranged his thoughts.

"What happened between us…" He shook his head; this time it was he that brought them to a stop. "It was fast, sudden and so very intense."

The librarian looked at him searchingly. "Are you in love with her?"

His head snapped to her, expression unguarded.

Shock flared into her face. "Oh goddess!" she gasped. "You are!"

"I didn't say that," he returned firmly. He crossed his arms over his chest as Belle raised her eyebrows at him. "It's – it just –" He let out a frustrated sigh, rubbing a hand over his face, and then he looked back at her. "We only knew each other four days and – ah, gods, Belle!" He scrubbed both hands over his face, running them back, over the crown of his head to fist in his hair. "I don't know how she got so far into me. It's like…" He let his hands drop and looked around, searching for inspiration; seeming to find at least a vestige of how to phrase what he was trying to say, he looked back at her. "It's like she was already in my heart to begin with."

She was staring at him wide-eyed.

"What?" he asked frowning.

She bit her lip. "It's just…" She shook her head, as if dismissing what she was about to say. "Never mind." She began to move off again

James caught her arm, gently bringing her to a stop again. "What, Belle?"

She took in his intent interest and took a deep breath, hugging the books to her chest tighter for comfort. "Just that…what you're describing sounds a great deal like…" she bit her lip again.

"Like…?" he looked at her expectantly.

She swallowed. "Gods, this is going to sound ridiculous," she muttered to herself, before continuing to him, "It sounds a lot like how I've heard and read soulmates being described."

His hand dropped from her arm, his expression stunned.

"The sudden, intense feelings and connection between you two. Feeling as if you've always loved her." She looked at him evenly. "These are things I've heard and seen applied to soulmates; one true loves."

James stared off to the side. His first thought was Snow's words on the subject: "True love? It doesn't exist." But he was having a difficult time arguing with his friend's words, since he too had heard similar things. He pinched the bridge of his nose. "When the hell did my life become so damned complicated?"

"If you were to choose Princess Snow White, King Midas couldn't claim too much insult since the gain in such a marriage would be greater than one between you and Princess Abigail," Belle pointed out.

The prince gave a bitter laugh, and looked back down at her. "This is King Midas we're talking about; we can't be sure how he'll respond if I were to reject the proposed engagement, even for one of greater material gain."

She winced, realizing that the prince was right.

He shook his head. "Can we discuss something else?"

"Of course," she agreed as they began heading back down the aisle, turning into the next row where she needed to replace a book.

"Have you heard from Jasmine recently?" he inquired.

"Oh, yes," she informed him wryly. "She told me how Raja helped her get rid of her father's most recent potential suitor for her."

James laughed softly. "She just seems to become more and more creative in her ways of ridding herself of them."

She slid one of the books into its proper place. "I just wonder when her father is going to figure out that she'll never marry for duty. Knowing her she'll fall in love with a street urchin." She continued down the row.

He grinned at her sardonic words. "Why do you two pick on each other so much?"

"Because we like each other," she told him simply.

They stopped at one shelf. "So because you like each other so well, you poke fun at each other?" he clarified.

She snapped the book into its spot before turning to him. "Exactly. Now you're catching on," she told him in a mock patronizing tone before turning and starting off again.

He rolled his eyes skyward. "You know, aside from Snow and Jasmine, when she even deigns to speak to me, you have to be the only woman who makes fun of me, to my face at least."

"Yes, well, Jasmine and I have absolutely no marital interest in you, so there's no reason for us to sugar coat things," she informed him offhandedly as they reached her desk. She leaned against the scarred wooden surface saying, "Now, as for the fact that Princess Snow White has no problem poking fun at you, that actually makes me feel even more hopeful at your chances at marital bliss together."

He frowned in mock thought. "Somehow I feel like that should not be logical in the least."

"And yet we both know that it is," she smiled at him brightly.

"And Phillip has wondered all these years why I avoided getting romantically involved with anyone," he commented wryly.

Belle laughed. "I believe your reprieve is up," she gently teased him, as she moved around to sit behind her desk. "So was there something in particular you wanted to see me about?" she inquired once she was settled.

"Yes," he confirmed, switching tracks. "I wanted to let you know that I'll be heading out of town for a couple of weeks with Thomas to Riverdon. Father says that it's about time he starts spending time in his future kingdom." He watched her closely. "I wanted to see if there was anything you needed before I left."

She cast her eyes at him wryly. "Translation: you want to know if I'm going to be all right with you being gone for so long."

He gave her a self-deprecating smile in response.

She took a deep breath. "You can't always be around, James, particularly once you get married. I have to get used to my stalwart protector being gone."

He covered her hand with his. "Belle, you don't have to be strong all the time. I know that you still rarely go to the market, and never without Thomas, Liam or I."

She looked down, pressing her lips together, frustration lining her face. "I hate it that he can still make me feel this way!" she hissed out fiercely.

Fury flashed in his eyes. "Just because the source of our fears is gone doesn't mean they automatically disappear."

She stood agitatedly and went to stand at the nearby window. "Doesn't make it any less frustrating."

"No," he agreed, joining her. "But things take time."

Her hand pressed against the glass. "And meanwhile I live in under the tether of fear."

He rested a comforting hand wordlessly on her shoulder.

They stood like that for several moments.

Belle allowed her hand to slide down the pane; she took a deep breath. "Go on, James." She looked over her shoulder, giving him a tight smile. "I will survive." The smallest amount of amusement touched her lips. "Who knows, I may finally decide to go to town on my own while you're gone."

James gave her a teasing, wry smile. "What, now are you trying to make me not go?"

ONCE~ONCE~ONCE~ONCE

"Thank you for handling my turning the tables on you earlier so well."

Snow and Gaspard were walking through his rose gardens; he was trimming dead roses off of the bushes. Though he had gardeners, whenever he was able Gaspard would tend to the roses himself. After his parents' deaths he had found peace in his father's splendid library and caring for his mother's roses. The library and garden were still his sanctuaries when he needed to pull away from his duties for a time. He was the first of them to take up his kingdom's throne; his coronation had been the past summer. Snow, Aurora and Eric didn't envy his new burdens; they were all grateful that they each still had time until they needed to step up to their respective thrones. However they had been increasingly pulled more and more into the day-to-day running of their kingdoms by their parents, to prepare them to take over. This had made it more and more difficult for them to get together, which made them all the more grateful for the two days that they had now.

Snow cast a wry smile at him. "It's fine. We needed the mood broken after the news with Eric…" They were all still worried over that situation.

He snipped off a particularly lovely white bloom and presented it to the princess. "And I'm sorry that we gave you such hell."

Snow smirked, thanking him as she lifted the rose to her nose and inhaled the delicate fragrance. "We're friends; part of our jobs is to give each other hell."

He chuckled softly as they continued their stroll. "That does seem the case."

Snow stared down at the flower in her hand, gingerly twirling it between her fingers.

Gaspard's steady, limping gait kept pace beside her; she knew that he was waiting for her to talk. He knew the reason she had really wanted to come with him when he tended to the roses was so they could speak alone. It had taken several years for him to cultivate the art of listening to and reading people, but once he had, he'd proven to be quite adept at it.

She took a deep breath before beginning. "Gaspard, you remember all of our discussions about true love?"

"Mm," he confirmed, nodding. "We haven't had one in a couple of years, though."

"Indeed," she agreed. She bit her lip. "Do you believe in it?"

He stopped for a moment to trim a couple of deadheads; using the task to give himself time to contemplate his words. When he'd finished he turned back and they continued walking. "What my parents' shared makes me want to say yes."

Snow nodded, knowing that this was nowhere near the extent of what he had to say; she looked at him watchfully.

Gaspard kept his gaze forward. "But then I look in the mirror and call myself a fool, because what woman would want me for anything other than my title?"

Snow grabbed his arm, looking at him fiercely. "Don't say that!" she snapped. "Any woman who can't see your worth – beyond your crown – is the one who is a fool!"

He gave her a wry smile, placing a hand over hers. "Thank you, Snow, though we both know you're biased. But while you and I have romantic hearts, we're both realists as well, and while we might wish to the contrary, we both know very few women would be able to look beyond the surface."

She grimaced, but didn't disagree.

He shifted her hand on his arm into an escorting position and they continued once more.

Snow rested her cheek into Gaspard's shoulder. "They don't deserve you," she told him.

He looked down at her with an affectionate smile. "Again, you are somewhat biased."

She gave him a humorous smile. "Doesn't make it any less true," she countered.

He chuckled. "So what is between you and the heir of Seaborn?" he inquired.

She held the rose with her thumb and index fingers and used the other three to rub her forehead. "I wouldn't even know how to begin."

"The beginning is always a good place," he teased her.

She tossed him a droll look. "Cute. The question is: where is the beginning?"

"Ah…I see." He nodded in comprehension.

"Wonderful, then maybe you can help me, understand it," she told him dryly. "Gods, this is insane." She pressed her face into his shoulder with a groan. "A hardly even know how to describe what I feel for him." After a few moments she lifted her head to stare upward and then looked back down at the rose she was holding. "You're right about us both being realists," she agreed. "You've heard me say many times before that I don't believe in true love."

"Which we both know is just you trying to protect yourself," he put in.

She pursed her lips, annoyed at how well he knew her, but didn't argue. "It all just happened so fast."

Gaspard pulled them to a stop, frowning worriedly down at her. "Just how far did you two go?"

Snow glared at him. "Not that far. You'd think with my lack of history with men you'd give me some credit," she groused.

"You, yes," he confirmed. "Him…I don't know. From what I've heard he has not involved himself with many, if any, women, and he is a true gentleman. However, he is friends with Prince Phillip, and we both know that he has a reputation as a flirt, at best."

Snow sighed softly. "Poor Aurora."

"It is mostly rumor," Gaspard, put in.

"But…" she tacked on.

"Indeed, 'but'." He shook his head disappointedly. "I truly believe that things would be a lot better off if parents wouldn't meddle in the romantic affairs of their children."

"You and I are fortunate that our parents weren't interested in such affairs," she commented.

"True," Gaspard agreed. "Though I think it has also made us reluctant to entangle ourselves at all."

"Mm," she reluctantly confirmed. She rested her temple on his shoulder again.

There had been a time when she and Gaspard had considered the possibility of them becoming involved. By the standards of their ilk they were a good match, and they cared for each other a great deal, loved each other even, which was more than many royals had going into marriage. But neither of them could really get around the idea; to them if felt too much like marrying their sibling. So the idea had died a quiet and early death and they had slipped right back into their old, easy relationship. He was the big brother she'd never had, but was oh-so-grateful for; a willing ear and a sturdy shoulder.

"You know," she began quietly. "Someday, you'll find the right woman," he gave a soft laugh, but she continued in a definitive voice, "and she will be the luckiest one in the world." She looked up at him smiling.

He gave her a soft smile and pressed a kiss to her forehead. "You have a good heart, Snow. You will make some man the happiest man alive."

She took a deep breath. "For the first time in my life…I hope that you're right."

ONCE~ONCE~ONCE~ONCE

So, I gave "The Beast" from Beauty and the Beast the name "Gaspard"; this was actually pulled from a Beauty and the Beast young adult novel by Cameron Dokey called Belle, where the Beast's name was Gaspard. I hope that you liked the chapter, and that my characterizations of different Disney-fied fairy tales did them some justice. You will be seeing more of them and others, though some of the more recent - like Rapunzel and the Frog Prince – may or may not show up at all, since I'm not as familiar with them. Thank you so much for reading! Please let me know what you think!

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