Hello, my lovely readers! :-D Yes, it is FINALLY here! I'm sorry that the chapters have slowed down so much, but it is in part due to the fact that it is now summer and summer is the busiest time of year at my work. Thank you for all of your support and encouragement! You have no idea how much your reviews, tweets, messages, alerts and faves mean! :-D I hope that you like the chapter I had quite a good time writing it!

Sassy18, sweetie…how do I thank thee let me count the ways… ;-D


Chapter 13: Man is a Giddy Thing…

He should have seen it coming, really, James would later reflect ruefully. It was a bit before lunch when he entered Henry's kitchen; Geppetto was the sole occupant, sitting at the table. With a smile and a nod to the older man, James moved over to the cupboard for a glass.

The kitchen door slammed shut with a loud clank; prompting the prince to look up.

Red stood just in front of it, arms crossed, eyebrow raised.

Oh, hell… he mentally groaned, easily able to read the expression on the woman's face. He turned to Geppetto, hoping for some help, but found the craftsman had also leveled a very direct look at him. He sighed, letting his head drop forward for a moment before shifting to face them both. May as well get it over with… "Yes?"

"I have the strong desire to beat you senseless," Red remarked flatly through clenched teeth. "You slept with my sister!" she abruptly exploded.

James' eyes closed for a moment, swaying back slightly at the force of her shout, ears ringing a little. When his eyes opened again he met the young woman's gaze levelly. "As Snow pointed out before, that's not really your business," he countered firmly.

"Snow is familia to us." Both young people turned to Geppetto at his chastising tone. "It is our business if you have taken Principessa as your mistress."

"She is not my mistress!" the prince snarled, advancing on the pair, deeply insulted that they would even think he'd do such a thing to Snow. "Nor would I ever ask her to be!"

"Then what do you call it?" Red sneered back.

James went toe-to-toe with the woman; she didn't back down in the slightest from the fury burning in his eyes. "I love her. I'm going to marry her. She is going to be my wife and queen."

Not even slightly appeased, her eyes narrowed and she demanded, "Then why the hell haven't you asked her yet?"

"Because I'm not going to send her home to face her father with an engagement ring on her finger alone," he shot back hotly. "And, as Snow has repeatedly reminded me, I have to go set things right with my own family and straighten out several other matters first." James turned his head to look at Geppetto, who continued to gaze at him evenly. "No matter how much I wish to do otherwise." He brought his attention back to Red. "Snow and I have discussed this. We have made our feelings for each other and our desires for our future plain. She knows my intentions."

Red's piercing eyes stared into his searchingly for several moments longer. "Fine," she snapped. "But that doesn't explain or make right you sleeping with her!"

James had been leaning forward slightly, he shifted back, straightening up, and the anger in his gaze cooled a little. "Perhaps not in society's eyes or yours. But it was our choice. It was what we wanted and we're not going to apologize for it. Though, neither are we going to make excuses."

Before he'd even finished speaking Red was already cutting in, "What if she's pregnant?"

"Then she'll let me know and we'll get married sooner," he immediately informed her. The prince raised one eyebrow. "Red, if we had our way–if our lives weren't so governed by politics, social strictures and structures, and family; if we weren't both heirs to large kingdoms–we would have been engaged long ago and we'd already be married."

The two young people continued to stare each other down, neither giving an inch. Geppetto, at least satisfied that the couple he cared for so much intended to do right by each other and their respective kingdoms, reached up to place a calming hand on Red's arm. "Redell," his accented voice was soft and soothing.

The young woman scowled for a moment, but finally gave a jerky nod. "Fine." She spun on her heel. "But I still don't like what you two did."

The prince rolled his eyes. "I'll note your opinion and make sure to take it under advisement in the future," he dryly informed her.

His cheek earned him a snort of laughter from Red just before she exited the kitchen. At the doorway she stopped and turned back to him. "James, you now know that I turn into a wolf for three days every month. My next transformation is in a week; if my sister doesn't have a ring on her finger by the following time I change, I might find myself wandering into your kingdom without my hood…" Hazel-brown eyes pointedly bore into him.

His eyebrows shot up. "Duly noted."

She nodded sharply and finally left.

James chuckled ruefully and went over to the cabinet and pump to get a glass of water.

Geppetto shook his head amusedly, satisfied that the pair was at least going to get along now. He looked down at the table, returning his attention to the plans he was drawing up, he wouldn't need to finish the project for a few months but he wanted it to be perfect…


Liam and Ella were sitting at a table on the porch facing the water, working together to liberate the juicy seeds from pieces of a pomegranate when Red came through the door.

"So," the general casually began, "am I going to be picking up my prince's body parts from around the kitchen?"

Ella choked on a laugh around the seed she'd popped in her mouth.

The dark-haired woman rolled her eyes as she dropped into a seat between the pair with boneless grace. "Don't worry; I left your liege in one piece and still breathing." She eyed them both quizzically. "You heard that?"

"A bit of it." Ella's tan hands gently worked the crimson, jewel-like seeds loose of the fruit.

Liam lifted one eyebrow. "Which of you said something about Snow being James' mistress? Because that was probably the angriest I've ever heard him."

Red's long, pale hands had joined their efforts. "Geppetto."

Matching surprised looks were cast her way, the general's eyes narrowed slightly.

"He was mostly trying to provoke James to see his reaction." She gave a dismissive wave. "Neither of us actually believed any such thing."

"And did you two get the reaction you were looking for?" Liam inquired archly.

Quite absorbed in trying to work a few particularly stubborn seeds loose, she didn't look up as she responded offhandedly, "Oh, he's so in love with her he can't even see straight."

Ella stifled a laugh.

"By the by, where is Snow?" Red asked.

"Down by the water with Pinocchio and Jiminy." The blonde nodded toward the beach.

The dark-haired woman looked in the direction indicated to see Snow by the water's edge with the child–the cricket presumably in his habitual spot on the boy's shoulder–crouched down beside him and showing him something in her palm. The ginger-haired boy stared down at whatever the princess held with wide-eyed curiosity, hanging on her every word.

"That woman needs to be a mother," Red muttered. "Hope 'Prince Charming's' prepared to have a whole passel of children."

"Well, we're certainly planning on having several."

The trio turned at the prince's wry tone as he came through the door; he cast them all a sardonic look before his eyes went unerringly to Snow.

"Red," James began absently, "word of warning, Liam gossips like an old woman…please, don't encourage him." He ignored his general's choked protestations and the two women's ringing laughter, heading straight for his beloved. "Oh," he called over his shoulder as an afterthought, "congratulate Geppetto, he's adopting Pinocchio."

Their heads turned as the prince gestured over his shoulder in the vague direction of the door where they found Geppetto standing, rolling his eyes heavenward at the prince's nonchalant way of springing the news.

The woodworker leveled a pointed gaze at the three young people at the table. "Yes," he confirmed amusedly, "your machinations did work."

They had the good grace to at least look abashed.

He shook his head before casting his eyes toward where James was now crouched with Snow and Pinocchio. The prince listened to the child rattle on, likely about what the princess had been telling him, with a warm, indulgent grin on his face. He reached up to lingeringly brush a lock of hair behind her ear in an absent and familiar, loving gesture. Her body naturally leaned into his a bit, hand coming up to curl around his elbow and cheek resting on his shoulder. Geppetto doubted that either was fully aware of these affectionate exchanges that were as natural as breathing to them.

Yes, he inwardly mused, that was going as it should.


The sun was nearing the horizon when their group reached Adder's Cove which was already abuzz with people setting up for the gathering. When their friends noticed their arrival cheerful greetings were called out and a few of the children ran over to grab Pinocchio and pull him off to play; the adults meanwhile moved to help with the preparations, laughing and chatting with friends from the village. There were probably about twenty-five to thirty people, including children, in attendance, large for a small gathering but nowhere near the size of the summer festival. The local beekeeper broke out a few bottles of his best mead for the occasion alongside the ale and wine.

Red, Snow, James and Liam found themselves pulled to-and-fro by friends who wished to talk to them and catch up on things that they hadn't gotten a chance to since they'd been in town.

Ella was a bit overwhelmed by the inundation of people and all the names and faces that were being introduced to her. She tried to remain close to one of her friends throughout all of this, so that she didn't feel quite so lost.

Pinocchio apparently was settling in now that he had the reassuring stability of knowing Geppetto was adopting him and tore around the crowd with other children. A mischievous streak, which had been toned down until now, was coming through and sending a few amused head-shakes his direction.

James and Snow were separated a great deal more often than either really liked; Liam meanwhile somehow managed to maneuver things so that he was with Red almost constantly.

Only a tiny sliver of the sun still hung above the horizon when Snow attempted to, for what felt like the dozenth time, make her way over to James. However, tiny hands latched onto hers, stopping her; she looked down to see Pinocchio and a few other children staring at her pleadingly.

"Snow, they said that you can sing really nice," the ginger-haired boy said, tilting his head at his new friends. "Can you sing a song for us?"

Snow opened her mouth to respond with a "Maybe later."

"Please?" the group begged, drawing out the "e."

The princess sighed, casting a longing gaze at her prince, who had noticed her approach and turned to face her, giving her a questioning look. She shrugged helplessly at him and then looked back down at the boys and girls. "All right."

"Yay!" they all cheered, jumping up and down excitedly.

James watched curiously as the children pulled his love over in the direction of the fire where logs and benches had been set up. Snow stopped by Red and quietly voiced a request to her friend who nodded, eyebrows raised, in agreement. The younger woman had then gone over to one of the musicians who was strumming on a guitar and apparently asked to borrow the instrument, to which he agreed, handing it over with a smile. Each of the dark-haired women took a seat, the children eagerly settling close around them on logs, benches and the sand. Geppetto was seated near them and Pinocchio opted to settle in his new father's lap, snuggling into the man's chest; the woodworker rested his cheek atop his child's ginger curls, a contented smile on his face.

The prince lowered himself to sit on the ground with his back against a rock, near enough to hear whatever they played; Snow's eyes frequently turned to him, smiling at him but also biting her lip a bit nervously. Red plucked the strings of the guitar, tuning it a little, once she was apparently satisfied she nodded to the princess with a softly voiced "Ready?"

To which Snow responded affirmatively, hugging the thin wrap she was wearing tighter around her arms. James settled in to listen.

The younger brunette's fingers gently began to caress the strings, soft notes flowed out; after a few beats Snow's voice joined in and James' breath caught in his chest. He hadn't realized she could sing so well. The song was unfamiliar to him, sweet, soft, soothing but at the same time haunting and bittersweet. During the chorus Red's smoky voice harmonized with Snow's crystalline one.

A movement near the women caught his eye; a couple of their friends had settled near Snow and Red, the raven-haired woman, Calla, carrying a drum and the man with a short ebony ponytail, Ash, held a stringed instrument that he began to draw a long almost mournful sound from, a counter point to the clear tone of the guitar. With the start of the next verse Calla's hand gracefully thumped against the skin on the drum, a low thrum resonating from it. At a certain point in the verse Ash began harmonizing with Snow, drawing her attention; she smiled warmly at him and he grinned in return.

James knew the exchange was just a friendly one, at least on Snow's part, but for some reason he still felt a sting of jealousy. Gods, did he ever hate feeling like that, especially when it was over something so harmless.

Ash continued to lend his voice to Snow and Red's, their varied cadences blending and weaving into the music. When the final notes faded, James, to distract himself from the jealousy, wondered if the song had been a lullaby or a lament, or somehow perhaps both.

Snow seemed ready to quit, but at the pleading of others she acquiesced to doing two more songs. When considering the next song her eyes drifted to meet James' blue ones and her lips curled into a knowing smile; she leaned over and whispered to Red low enough that no one else could hear, but likely it was her request because immediately after Red played a new song. Snow's emerald orbs never wavered from his as she sang what was blatantly a love song…to him, her eyes sparkling with love and teasing, but also with the slightest hint of shyness that she was doing a creditable job of masking. James' lips lifted into a responding half-grin. It was hard to tell in the flickering firelight but he thought that the lightest of blushes might have spread across her cheeks, reading the promise in his eyes.

The third song was a request from one of their other friends, an old folk song that was from Phillip's kingdom originally, but it had spread to many others. Snow sang of fay-folk, more ancient than the fairies they knew now, more mysterious and elusive, lost to legend and the mists of time. She closed, letting the last word trail almost seductively through the night air and for a beat all was silent, but rather than remaining so the impromptu band suddenly struck up a fast-paced jig and Snow found herself pulled into the dance along with several others. The group all but laughed themselves silly, barely keeping up with the familiar song that had been sprung on them unexpectedly. They spun and whirled, clapping and cheering along with the song until it ended–finally in James' opinion. Some of the dancers tried to draw Snow in for another but she begged off, promising, "Later."

A smile spread across James' face as his princess made her way to him, barely pausing to respond to comments from friends.

Her answering grin was warm and loving, teasing alight in her eyes. "Is this seat taken?" she inquired with faux-innocence.

James chuckled, reaching up to cinch his hand around her wrist and gently tugged her down beside him. "It is now." His arm wrapped around her shoulders and she nestled into his side.

"Was that jealousy I saw earlier?" she asked in a mock-scandalized voice.

He groaned, squeezing his eyes shut. "Just maybe…a little."

She giggled, tilting her head back to meet his gaze. "What on Earth do you have to be jealous about from Ash? He rarely is romantically interested in women; men are usually more his preference. And he prefers redheads either way."

With a roll of his eyes he pointed out wryly, "It's not exactly a rational emotion."

Her fingers slid up to trace the scar on his chin. "You know you don't have any reason to be, right?" Her hand stilled. "I don't want anyone but you."

His free hand curled around hers, lifting her fingers the scant remaining centimeters to his lips and pressing a kiss to their tips. "I know," he assured her, bringing their joined hands to rest over his heart. "I know that it's foolish for me to feel any such thing but I still do." He rested his forehead against hers.

"If it makes you feel any better I have been irrationally, momentarily jealous of you and a woman," Snow admitted.

James quirked an eyebrow. "It does. Who?"

Pink stained her cheeks. "You're going to laugh," she mumbled.

"Why would I laugh?" he gently countered.

Snow took a deep breath before confessing, "You remember when we met Ella and you had to carry her?"

Both of his eyebrows shot up. "Ella?"

She flushed. "I said it was a moment of irrationality." She turned her face into his shoulder, inhaling his scent deeply.

James buried his nose in her hair, the petals of the stargazer lily adorning her curls brushing his cheek as he did so. "I guess we're both just a little possessive about each other." His arm tightened around her. "I don't share, Snow," he murmured.

Her fingers had curled into the front of his shirt and clenched in the fabric. "I don't either." She tilted her head back to meet his eyes.

He covered her furled hand with his, lips curling into a half-smile. "I suppose that clears up any misunderstandings on that issue," he softly joked.

She grinned in response. "Indeed." She tugged on the collar of his shirt pulling him down for a kiss, which he happily obliged. "Hmm," she sighed contentedly after they parted and settled back into his side.

James held her closer to him, thinking that nothing compared to having her in his arms.

Snow's fingers idly tracing over his chest found the leather cord of his pendant under his shirt, she allowed them to follow the raised line to where it lay. Frowning slightly, her hand splayed where the sliver of Verum Aquilonem was; her head lifted to look at James. "Where's your mother's ring?" She hadn't felt it on the cord alongside the pendant like she'd expected.

With a half-grin her prince unwound one arm to reach into his pocket and drew out the circle of gold, showing it to her.

"Why did you take it off?" Her eyes went back to his curiously.

James gazed at the ring thoughtfully. "I haven't told you the story about this, have I?"

"Beyond the fact that it was your mother's, no," Snow confirmed with a shake of her head. Snuggling closer to him, preparing to listen to the story, she gazed up at him. "Tell me."

"It actually is from my…father's family." From his pause and obvious unease at using the word Snow knew which father he meant. "My mother gave it to me years ago, shortly after David was killed, but only told me the story behind it when she told me about my paternity."

The princess could see how much the subject still unsettled him; she ran a soothing hand up and down his chest, before resting it once more over his heart, reassuring him she was there.

He pressed a grateful kiss to the top of her head before continuing, "It was passed down in his family to the first child to get married as an engagement ring."

Snow's breath audibly caught, eyes snapping to his face; James had to force himself to keep his eyes focused on the ring in his grasp, knowing that if he met her gaze that he would become distracted.

With a deep, bracing breath he continued. "My father gave it to my mother; she told me that true love follows this ring, through her marriage to my birth father and with me and my brothers." His eyes finally turned to hers as he sat up, prompting her to do the same, heart in his throat as he took her right hand in his, cradling it palm-up.

"In Riverdon I left you with 'nothing but a kiss on the hand,'" he quoted her self-deprecatingly; Snow choked on a laugh, hardly able to breathe for want of to see what he was going to do. "I'm not going to send you home with an engagement ring on your hand and let you face your father alone." His eyes gazed into hers piercingly. "But I'm also not going to leave you with just a kiss." He placed the ring in her palm and closed her fingers over it, brushing a kiss across her knuckles. "This is my promise to you that I will be back to propose properly and place this on your finger, which I never want it off of."

His princess' eyes were filled with tears, a bright smile on her face, unable to speak.

His thumbs caressed over her curled fingers. "Unless you want a different ring?"

"No!" she exclaimed, yanking her hand from his and cradling it protectively to her chest, as if afraid he'd try and take the ring from her. "I only want this one."

A wide grin split James' face, happy to hear Snow say that; he brushed a hand through her hair. "I'm glad."

A responding smile lit her face; she lowered the hand and uncurled her fist to look at the ring, fingers running over the band and jewel, examining all of the tiny nicks and how it was the slightest amount bent. She loved the ring all the more for these imperfections, they gave it character and history, each one holding a story, a memento of every woman who had worn it. She inwardly wondered if Queen Ruth might know any of those stories; Snow made a note to ask her the next time they saw each other.

"Hey, you two!"

They both looked up at Red's voice; she was striding toward them with Ella not far behind, shaking her head ruefully, and Liam trailing after them both, smirking.

"The point of tonight is to spend time with friends, not for you to hole up together." She propped a hand on her hip.

The couple rolled their eyes at their brazen friend.

"And you don't get to sneak off together early!" the brunette continued, glaring at them. "This isn't going to go that late and we don't need a repeat of last night," she finished low enough that only their group heard.

Snow buried her face in her hands, torn between laughing and blushing madly.

James cocked a sardonic eyebrow. "Yes, mother, dear."

"You might want to get Doc to check your eyes if you think I'm your mother," Red called casually over her shoulder.

Liam and Ella were doubled over with laughter; he hurriedly scrambled to catch up with Red as she passed them and casually draped an arm across her shoulders, whispering something in her ear.

James cast a sidelong look at Snow who was shaking with barely suppressed laughter beside him. "She's going to be the death of me, isn't she?"

She pressed her lips together, eyes sparkling at him. "She's going to be the death of everyone."

The prince rolled his eyes and rose to his feet, giving the princess a hand up; Snow, with nothing else to do with it, opted to put the ring on a finger. She had to consciously stop herself from slipping it on her left ring finger–which felt strangely natural to do–sliding it onto her right middle finger instead. She wanted James to be the one to put it on her left ring finger.

This done she reached out and threaded her fingers through those of the hand James had extended to her. Eyes on hers he lifted their joined hands and kissed the ring where it rested on her finger; the promise he had given her for the future bright in his eyes.


The evening was winding down and the musicians were playing what was likely the last song of the night. Ella sat off to the side watching Snow and Red dancing with their respective men, trying to quell the jealousy she felt. Honestly she was rather happy that they were heading home tomorrow because she'd finally be closer to her Thomas and would likely be able to see him soon.

Wait, her Thomas? a somewhat scandalized, more conservative part of her mind yelped. Since when did she have the right to claim a prince as hers? Ella decided to pointedly ignore that voice, instead remembering what Geppetto had told her. Maybe they hadn't said it in so many words, but they both felt it, and it was in all of their interactions and correspondences.

In his last letter he had asked that she let him know when she returned to Everland; subtly inquiring if a visit would be welcome soon thereafter. She had sent one back just before leaving that she expected him as soon as humanly possible after she returned. Goddess, she missed him so!

To try and distract herself from her lonely thoughts, Ella lent her hands to the clean-up that had been started by those not otherwise "occupied." Eventually the couples broke apart and the musicians put aside their instruments and pitched in as well. It didn't take too long before the leftover food had either been packed away or scattered for the animals, and the benches and tables hoisted into nearby wagons for transport back to town. Parents then lifted sleepy children into their arms, musicians slung their instruments across their backs and over their shoulders, and amorous couples sauntered off hand-in-hand.

Geppetto headed directly home, Pinocchio leaning heavily into his leg, more asleep than awake and likely soon to be carried the rest of the way home, and Jiminy perched on the woodworker's shoulder. James and Liam opted to escort the three women to their "cottage" before heading to Geppetto's. Once they arrived at Henry's house James pulled Snow aside, speaking with her softly, while Liam kept blocking Red from going inside, a roguish grin on his face, likely looking for a goodnight kiss. Ella averted her eyes from both couples and went through the door. Being the odd-woman-out really made things awkward.

She headed straight to her room, closing the door behind her; she was reaching behind her neck to begin undoing the fastenings on her dress when a soft cooing had her head snapping to the window. A dove sat on the sill, a small roll of parchment attached to its leg.

Changing into her nightgown momentarily forgotten, a grin spread across Ella's face and she moved to take the note from the bird. There were only five words on it.

Are you coming home soon?

Ella laughed out loud at the annoyed and desperate note that she knew must fill Thomas' voice with that single sentence.

She pulled out a small piece of paper and scribbled an equally short response.

Two more days…

She paused lifting her quill momentarily from the parchment, biting her lip as she debated writing the two words she felt so compelled to end with. After a moment she took a deep bracing breath and put nib to paper.

my love.


James couldn't sleep. His body expected a smaller form to be curled up to it, and his nose anticipated the mixture of flowers and chocolate and cinnamon to meet each breath he took, but all of that was absent and it felt all wrong. How had he grown so used to sleeping with Snow in his arms when they'd only shared a bed once? However that was, it was causing sleep to be elusive.

With a frustrated groan he furiously scrubbed his hands over his face and rose from his bed. He had pulled on clean breeches before going to bed so he just threw a fresh tunic on and shoved his feet into his boots. He as quietly as possible opened his door and closed it behind him, trying not to disturb the others in the house, and also not wanting to alert them to his restlessness. James kept his tread as soft as he could until he made it out of the building and began down one of the many paths; he tried to convince himself that he wasn't picking the one that lead to Henry's cabin on the off chance that he might see Snow, but it was too much of a lie for him to maintain, even with just himself.


Snow had spent about an hour tossing fruitlessly back and forth in bed, beating her pillow with her fist and laying back down before rolling over again, unsatisfied. Her pillow was too soft; it wasn't firm and smooth–like James' chest, a traitorous part of her mind taunted–she wrenched away from that thought–and…she mentally sighed, finally giving up trying to fool herself – as if there had really been any chance at that–and admitted the truth: There weren't strong arms wrapped around her, making her feel safe and loved, even in her sleep. The sheets didn't even smell of him any more since she'd forced herself to wash them that day. Snow rolled over on her back, staring up at the ceiling, admitting to herself the truth: She was a woman missing her beloved…a lover she'd only slept with once. How the hell did that make sense?

She buried her face in her pillow, muffling the scream of frustration she gave before shoving herself out of bed. After lighting a couple of candles she snatched up the book she'd found in Henry's library and plopped sulkily down in the window seat. It was obvious that sleep wasn't forthcoming so she might as well get some reading in. She delved into the comedy of loves, mix-ups and meddling fairies.

All the while her heart and body ached for her Charming.


James was surprised to see the glow of a light coming from the otherwise dark cottage and allowed his feet to carry him closer. He wasn't surprised so much as heartened to see Snow's dark head through the open window, brows furrowed, focused on something in her lap. He came to a stop a couple of feet from the porch, staring up at her, watching her graceful hand as it tucked a stray lock behind her ear.

"Snow," he finally called, loud enough for her to hear, but softly enough not to alert anyone else in the house.

Her head came up and turned; when her eyes alighted on him a bright grin lit her face. "Charming," she greeted as loudly as she dared without waking the others. "One moment." She held up a finger as she scrambled from her seat and momentarily disappeared from sight.

James, hearing the lock on the door being unlatched, moved to the steps, planting a foot on the bottom rung, hand resting on the railing.

The door swung open. James had expected that Snow would have put on a dressing robe, but apparently she either decided not to or hadn't thought to. Her white nightgown with its scooping neckline, thin straps and near-translucent material left little to the imagination, her curves silhouetted by the candlelight through the cloth. He clenched his hand ruthlessly around the railing, forcing himself to stay where he was and not run up there, scoop her into his arms and carry her over to the bed, not to leave for the rest of the night.

He was wrong. Red wasn't going to be the end of him, she was!

Snow stopped at the top of the stairs. "What are you doing here so late?"

Her obvious pleasure at seeing him kept him from even thinking that it was a chastisement.

"I couldn't sleep, so I went for a walk." James nodded to her window. "What were you doing up?"

"Reading. I couldn't sleep either."

He smirked. "Shakespeare again?"

She grinned. "Midsummer Night's Dream."

A soft chuckle slipped from his lips. "You did say that you enjoyed comedies…"

"I do like my happy endings," she easily admitted with a shrug.

In the ensuing silence, James' gaze wandered over Snow, noticing that her nightgown revealed the numerous red marks on her shoulders and upper chest that he'd left–he felt ridiculously satisfied at the sight of those marks. Also there was a thin, delicate gold chain just barely visible against her skin in the pale moonlight that hadn't been there before; whatever hung from it disappeared under the neckline of her gown between her breasts. Against his better judgment he ascended a few steps and reached out to hook a finger beneath the chain at her collarbone–forcing his mind not to think about how amazing her skin felt–and pulled the item into sight.

His mother's ring glowed softly in the dim light against the white material of her nightdress.

"I never wear rings."

James' gaze lifted to meet hers; she was biting her lip.

"I wanted to keep it with me," Snow continued her explanation, "this seemed the best way without it being too noticeable and raising too many questions."

His hand had remained suspended just centimeters from her skin, their eyes locked together. Without his permission the backs of his fingers closed the distance and skimmed from her collarbone, ghosting down her arm. She shivered at the caress, breath catching and swayed closer to him, eye-to-eye with him two steps below her. Her breath fanned across his lips.

Gods, he wasn't leaving here tonight.

In one motion he curved his hand around the back of her neck, cleared the last two steps and slanted his mouth over hers.

Her hands gripped the collar of his shirt, pulling herself closer; she slipped her tongue into his mouth, sliding it against his teasingly, taunting him to reciprocate, which he did with a groan.

For once that noble voice at the back of his mind seemed to know it had lost before the fight had even begun and remained silent as James' hands eveloped her waist and lifted her. Snow's legs wrapped around his hips and arms locked around his shoulders, more than happy to let him carry her into her room and close the door behind them.

She had heard a number of women, especially among the nobility, refer to being with their husbands as the "obligations of the marriage bed." But as James' hands pushed her nightgown from her shoulders allowing it to puddle at her feet, mouth passionately mapping every centimeter of her skin, and she divested him of his own clothing with equal enthusiasm, hands and tongue tracing each muscle, Snow knew that that didn't and never would describe what happened between them in their bed.


James' hand drew long, languid lines up and down her arm; Snow's fingers traced sleepy patterns across his chest.

"I got reamed out by your sister earlier."

Her hand stilled and head lifted slightly. "Red?"

"Umm hmm," he confirmed, letting his hand drift down to capture her now still one and lift it, letting their fingers dance and tangle together. "And Geppetto claimed I was making you my mistress."

She almost shot up, but his arm around her shoulders kept her from doing so as he continued.

"But I think he was just trying to get a rise out of me. See my reaction." His eyes continued to gaze into hers. "I told them that I would never ask such a thing of you and explained to them exactly what my intentions were for you. They were somewhat appeased by that."

With a groan Snow buried her face in his chest. "Why do people keep doing that? Acting as if I'm this helpless damsel or child who needs protecting?" Her head lifted to meet his gaze again, stubbornness fierce in her eyes. "I'm neither! I can take care of myself, for goddess' sake!"

His hand released hers to cup her jaw. "They love you, Snow. Dearly. Deeply. And I certainly can't blame them, or be angry with them for that. Or for them wanting to protect you."

She frowned opening her mouth to testily reiterate that she was entirely capable of taking care of herself, but James stilled her voice with a press of a finger to her lips.

"I know you can take care of yourself, you are very capable." He tilted his head to the side, tapping the scar on his chin with a finger, smirking. "But don't you get protective of your loved ones?"

Her lips pursed, but she slowly nodded, reluctantly admitting that it was true.

His wide palms smoothed up and down her back. "Us choosing to share a bed before we're even engaged isn't considered right in most people's eyes, you know. And men," his arms tightened around her into protective bands at the thought of what he was about to say happening, "taking advantage of women isn't unheard of." James set his jaw at a furious angle.

A concerned frown furrowed Snow's brow; she reached up a hand and drew it softly along the clenched muscles of his jaw. "That thought angers you."

"No man should ever mistreat a woman," he said tightly.

Her head slowly shook from side to side. "No, it's more personal than that. You know a woman who was hurt like that?"

He glared up at the ceiling; Snow just waited silently for him to speak.

"Her name is Belle," James finally began. "Thomas, Liam and I have been friends with her most of our lives. She's like a sister to us. She has always loved books; she's the Seaborn Librarian. She is also very beautiful and has caught many eyes over the years."

The comment about Belle's beauty was said without a note of attraction, more as an observation. Snow was willing to admit to herself that this soothed any possible jealousy that might have pricked her over the comment.

"One of the men whose attention she caught was Gaston," he nearly snarled the name, "a brute that loved himself, hunting, beer and female company–in that order–and was far too aware of his own looks and ego. He was determined to have Belle, but she rebuffed him at every turn." James paused in his narrative, trying to rein in his fury at the memories. "Belle was working at a small book shop in town; she'd ended up staying later than usual shelving a new delivery. Gaston snuck in through the backdoor and attacked her…tried to rape her."

Snow's eyes slid shut and she pressed a hand to her mouth. A low, "Oh, goddess," slipped from her lips.

"Thomas, Liam and I walked in before he could commit the act; we'd stopped by earlier in the day and when she told us how late she was staying we insisted on coming back and walking her home." His arms tightened convulsively around his beloved. "Gods, I've never wanted to murder someone before but in that moment, goddess help me, I wanted to. As it was I broke his jaw and a few bones in my hand."

He held up said appendage; Snow looked at it, she had noticed before that a few of his fingers had been broken and reset along with the knuckles being more scarred than those of his other hand. She caught his hand in both of hers and stroked her thumbs over the back of it.

"Liam dragged the monster to the dungeon, Belle wasn't comfortable with letting any men touch her, but she didn't want to be left alone. Thomas went to the nearby midwife for her help, I stayed with Belle. I talked to her the whole time; I don't even remember what I said, I don't even know if it did any good. I had just never been so angry, never felt such hate." Those vivid blue eyes turned to Snow's. "Belle is one of the strongest women I've ever known–you, Red and Ella would like her–but seeing her curled up in that corner looking so broken, shaking so violently…"

A tear trickled from Snow's eye. "I'm sorry," she whispered, bringing his hand to her lips and pressing kisses to it.

He kissed her forehead, holding her closer still. "After that I recommended her to become the next librarian. The old one was looking to retire and agreed to take her on as his apprentice. As the kingdom's librarian she was entitled to living in the castle; it took a little convincing but after we assured her that we wanted her father to come as well she accepted." His lips pressed into a thin line. "She's come to feel safe in the castle and secludes herself away in the library a lot, both in Seaborn and in Riverdon. Belle's still afraid to go out into town alone. It's painful to see such a vibrant, independent person struggling so much with such crippling fear as she does."

"Has she made any progress?" She continued to run her fingers over the back of his hand.

"Slow." James grimaced. "Most of the time she's more frustrated by her fear than we are. But she has been fighting tooth and nail to get back to the person she was."

Snow's eyes traced his features. "She's very brave. I have known women who were hurt by men like Belle was and weren't able to overcome it. It takes a great deal of strength and courage to do so." A small smile curled her lips. "I can't wait to meet her."

His gaze finally met hers and for the first time since he first mentioned the topic his expression softened and he smiled. "You'll like each other."

"I already like her," she countered, grinning.

He grinned crookedly back at her, dipping his head down to slide his lips across hers in a soft kiss, hand stroking her hair. "You need to sleep," he told her. "You have a long ride home in the morning."

"Hmm," Snow reluctantly acknowledged, settling her head back on his chest, ear over his heart to listen to the steady thump of it, allowing the sound to lull her to sleep. "I love you, Charming."

Cheek pressed to the top of her head, James smiled. "I love you too, Princess."


Snow's lips pressing small, teasing kisses across his chest and running her tongue over his pulse point drew James into the waking world. A grin creased his face at the pleasurable wake up call. Her body lay atop his, fingers skimming across his chest and abdomen, seeming like they were going lower but not. He caught her teasing hands in his and rolled her under him, blue eyes finally opening to see her impish smile.

"You're being a tease, Princess."

She grinned cheekily at him, slipping her hands from his grip to trail up his chest. "I'm only a tease if I don't fulfill my promises, Charming." Her emerald gaze sparkled, arms wrapping around his neck to pull his head down to hers. "And I fully intend," her lips pressed into his neck, "to keep mine."

James curled his hand around her neck, using his thumb to tilt her chin up and settled his mouth over hers. "We stay in bed much longer," he murmured as he slid his lips across her cheek, "Red and Ella will know that I've been here all night."

Her fingers splayed across his shoulders, drawing him even closer. "I don't care."

With the threat of her immanent departure they made love slowly, lingering over each other, trying to burn into their memories every inch of each other, the textures of their skin and hair, the taste and feel of their kiss, the feeling of their bodies pressing together, every inch touching. Anything they could cling to for however long they were forced to be apart.

James paused in kissing his way down her chest when his lips encountered the ring; he lifted the hand he'd been using to brace himself on the mattress, and placed his palm over the gold circle. Snow's head had lifted when she felt his mouth leave her skin and she watched his actions; her hands came up to cradle his face between them, drawing his aching gaze up to meet her matching one.

"Promise me we'll see each other soon," she begged.

A wry smile quirked his lips. "Well, since Red has only given me a month to get this ring on your finger I think that I can safely promise that…" Any teasing fled his face and a breathtaking tenderness filled his eyes, his hand skimming up her arm to slide his fingers between hers. "And even without her insistence, nothing could keep me away from you for long."

Snow grinned, her thumb tracing the scar on his chin. "I'll hold you to that."

He smirked. "See that you do," James murmured before pushing himself up to couple his lips to hers, hands spanning her ribcage, prompting her to arch into him.

One of Snow's arms wrapped around his shoulders; her other hand slid from his cheek down to rest against his heart. Her mouth trailed across his cheek to his jaw. "James," she sighed against his skin as he dragged his fingers down her sides to her hips, firming his grip there and pinning them to the mattress.

When Snow wrapped her legs around his, gasping as she arched to meet him, he buried his face in her neck, moaning. Their arms were wrapped tightly around each other, holding on as if the other were life itself.

For a while after they lay tangled together on the bed, neither really wanting to move, and definitely not wanting to let each other go.

Sunlight was flooding the room and there were the faintest sounds of clattering of dishes and the creaks of floorboards, alerting them to the fact that the other occupants of the house were awake. They couldn't ignore the rest of the world any longer, much to their dismay.

Snow and James didn't bother to hide from Ella and Red the fact that they were both coming from the princess' bedroom, exiting it hand in hand.

The blonde pretended not to notice, just casting them both a bright smile as she went about pouring juice in each of the glasses on the table.

The fiery brunette on the other hand narrowed her eyes at them and looked like she wanted to say something but instead pressed her lips together and turned back to the stove where she was cooking. "Breakfast is almost ready. And the others should be here shortly."

The couple exchanged amused glances.

"Do you need any more wood for the stove?" James inquired.

Red didn't look up but responded fairly politely, "A couple of logs would be helpful."

The prince rolled his eyes, heading toward the door outside. "I'll get those."

Snow clasped her hands behind her back. "I'm going to strip my bed, would you like me to do both of yours as well?"

"You don't have to, Snow," Ella protested.

The princess was already shaking her head. "You're making breakfast; it's the least I can do to help." She turned back to the door to the bedrooms.

"Sleep well last night?"

Emerald eyes cast heavenward at the other dark-haired woman's wry comment and turned back toward her. "Yes, actually." She faced the door again adding offhandedly, "Especially when we weren't awoken in the middle of the night by someone shrieking at us."

"Really? I personally can't imagine too much sleeping got done."

"Oh, I found it quite restful."

Ella clanked a plate down on the table exasperatedly. "Can we not discuss, even in oblique terms, what you and James were doing last night?"

Red cocked an eyebrow. "Someone's frustrated…"

The blonde gritted her teeth.

Snow waved a hand over her shoulder at Red. "Ask Miss Nosey over there. I'm quite happy to not talk about mine and James' relationship. I'll be back in a few minutes," she called as she disappeared into the hall.


"Well, someone was up early."

James looked up from where he'd just split a log at his general's snarky tone, eyebrow raised.

Liam smirked, continuing once he stood close enough to his prince not to be overheard by the three following just behind him, "Or should I say late?"

"You know," James commented as he lifted the requested logs into his arms, "I'm seriously wondering if you and Red spending time together is really a good thing." He straightened to eye Liam wryly.

The general grinned broadly. "What are you talking about? It's a great thing."

The prince snorted as he turned to greet Geppetto, Pinocchio and Jiminy; the group then went into the house.

James glanced around the kitchen as he set the logs down beside the stove. "Where's Snow?"

"She decided to go skinny-dipping in the sea," Red promptly informed him.

The jaws of the three men hit the floor.

"Red!" Ella yelped, drawing their attention to her. She rolled her eyes before turning to James. "She's stripping the linens from the beds."

James turned a glare on Red, who ignored him entirely in favor of tilting her head to allow Liam to kiss her cheek, but denying him a kiss on the lips.

The prince shook his head, rolling his eyes. "I'm going to give her a hand with that."

"Sure you are," the brunette sarcastically called after him.

He could hear Pinocchio ask Geppetto what "skinny-dipping" was as he headed down the hall. Glancing into Red and Ella's rooms he saw that their beds were already bare so he went straight to Snow's.

She had one of the pillowcases lifted to her nose, but at his footsteps turned her head to look at him.

A half-smile quirked his lips, he moved toward her. "What were you doing?"

She flushed, lowering the pillowcase, nervously folding it over her hands. "Nothing."

He wrapped his arms around her waist, hands catching hers, still holding the cloth, against her stomach. James pressed his lips to her temple. "It didn't look like nothing."

"It's just–" Snow broke off.

James waited the beat of silence that she took to gather her thoughts.

With a deep breath, she released the pillowcase and turned in his arms, burying her face in the crook of his neck, inhaling deeply. "They smell like you," she murmured against his skin. "And…I want to hold onto what it is like to have that surrounding me."

His nose was pressed in her hair, her sweet scent permeating each breath he took. "So do I," he murmured. "I'm going to miss you so much."

Her arms tightened around him. "I'm going to miss you too."

James stroked his hands up and down her back. "I wish I hadn't made such a mess of things that us being apart is necessary."

She tilted her head back to look up at him; her hand rose to rest against his cheek. "You were just trying to do what you believed was the right and honorable thing, Charming." A smile quirked her mouth. "Like you always do."

A chuckle slipped from his lips. "Well," he bent his head, rubbing his nose against hers, "I haven't exactly been doing the 'honorable thing' with you the past few nights, at least not according to Red."

She grinned, emerald eyes dancing. "I'm not complaining," she teased.

"Hmm," he confirmed amusedly, pressing his lips to hers.

They just stood wrapped around each other, enjoying the kiss for several moments before Snow finally pulled back.

"I have to finish with the linens," she told him.

"I'll give you a hand." He pecked her mouth once more before they disentangled themselves and set about removing the sheets.

After a few moments James glanced at her. "You know," he began in a humor-filled tone, "when I asked Red where you were she had quite the rejoinder."

His princess looked at him, a wryly amused expression on her face. "Really, and what did my oh-so-witty friend have to say?"

He placed the sheet in the pile with the others. "That you were skinny-dipping."

She cast her eyes to the side thoughtfully. "That actually doesn't sound like a bad idea."

His head snapped to look at her, movements stilling.

At his shocked expression she burst into laughter. "I'm kidding!" But then she looked at him more closely and cocked an eyebrow. "Or would that be something you're interested in?" Her eyes sparkled teasingly.

Her prince rolled his eyes, wrapping his fingers around her wrist and pulling her to stand facing him between himself and the footboard of the bed. "In broad daylight where anyone can see you, no." James braced his hands on the railing of the board on either side of her. "I have a strong aversion to other men seeing you unclothed," he informed her frankly.

Snow stared at where her fingers were idly playing with one of the toggles on his shirt. "And what if it was just the two of us?" Her eyes coyly lifted to his bright blue ones. "Somewhere secluded…maybe even at night?" She caught her lower lip between her teeth.

He grinned. "That…" his hands moved to circle her waist, "that I would be interested in."

"Well," her fingers curled into the fabric of his shirt, pulling him closer, "then maybe we should see if Henry would let us borrow this place from time-to-time."

"Hmm." He lowered his head to hers. "We should definitely do that." He kissed her sweetly, lovingly.

"Hey, you two, breakfast is ready!"

They pulled back, rolling their eyes at Red's shout from the kitchen.

"We'll be there in a moment!" Snow called back. She pulled James over with her to help pick up the bundles of linens.

They dropped the sheets in a large basket outside the front door; a local washwoman was going to pick them up that afternoon. The couple then went back inside and headed toward the kitchen, Snow threading her hand through his elbow.

"You know," she gazed up at James, biting her lip, "I was also thinking that we could ask Henry if we can borrow this place for not just ourselves."

He looked at her questioningly.

"Maybe bring our children here," she continued softly. "A place for us to take them where they don't have to always be princes and princesses…"

His other hand came up to tangle with hers, thumb stroking over her fingers. "I like that idea…a lot."

"What's taking you two so long?" Liam shouted.

"Two of a kind," James muttered while Snow laughed quietly.

"Coming!" they both called to their friends.

Snow let her hands slide down from his elbow until their palms kissed and fingers intertwined.

Something her mother used to say, one of the few things that was still so vivid in her memory about her mother, drifted through the princess' mind: "Remember, Snow, hope is a singularly persistent flower, e're blooming…even in the most desperate of times."



Two days later…

King George was in a foul mood. Had been since his elder son had taken off. Inwardly he was worried for the young man he'd adopted, but he refused to let it show.

Ruth knew. She always did, but she never said anything.

They weren't in love with each other; never had been. Affection had grown over time between them. Respect had been inherent from the beginning of their relationship. They understood each other on an unspoken level, read each other's moods with the ease that comes with a long marriage. But there were boundaries that they never crossed with each other. Boundaries that hadn't existed with their first spouses, but that had been another life for both of them.

So the queen sat going over the kitchen ledger, eyes focused on the numbers and not on the king's fuming form bent over his desk.

"Agrabah raised the tax on fish another four shillings!" George all but snarled. "How is this to be born?"

"Well, perhaps if we didn't tax a fortune on their primary export they wouldn't tax ours so heavily."

Both monarchs went dead still at the familiar, dry tone. A voice they hadn't heard in weeks. They looked up.

"James!" Ruth gasped at the sight of her son standing in the doorway, hands clasped loosely behind his back; the book fell from her fingers to thump loudly on the floor.

"Mother," James inclined his head, affection and apology in his eyes. He turned to the king. "Father," he bowed, tone respectful, there had never been much affection between them but the near-hostility from before he left was gone.

"So, you finally decided to come home?" George finally managed to say gruffly after he recovered enough from the shock of seeing his son again. He turned nonchalantly back to the paperwork on his desk.

The prince strode into the room.

Snow stared up at him with watery eyes, but stubbornly held back the tears. "I love you, Charming," she whispered, pressing her lips to his one last time before having to mount Aravis and return to Everland. She pulled quickly and abruptly away and made a dash for the horse.

James caught her arm and pulled her back, cupping her face between his palms he kissed her again. Her hands gripped the collar of his tunic. After indulging themselves for a few moments–though not near long enough for them–their lips parted and they pressed their foreheads together.

"I'll see you in a few weeks," he promised. His thumbs stroked her cheeks. "I love you, Snow."

James pulled himself from the bittersweet memory of parting with Snow in Lochdubh. "It was time." He came to a stop in front of his father's desk.

"Well, there is plenty of work to do," the king told him brusquely.

Ruth glanced toward the door to find her younger son, arms crossed, smirking; his eyes turned to meet hers with a grin.

The mother let out a quiet sigh of relief. Her family was whole again.


Thomas watched his newly-returned brother discussing taxes with their father as if the prince hadn't been gone for two weeks. The king wasn't one to talk about matters involving family and emotions, and James was content to leave well enough alone.

As he turned and headed down the hall, the younger prince stuck his hand in his pocket, fingers closing over the note there. A smile curled his lips as he remembered how his Ella had addressed him as "my love." He was leaving for Riverdon in the morning; his mother wouldn't be happy about her family being separated once again so soon, but she'd accept it. And as much as Thomas loved his mother he'd been away from Ella too long and desperately needed to see her.

"She should be home by now."

Thomas turned at Liam's voice, the general was sauntering along just behind him. The prince stopped and waited for his friend to catch up and they continued walking together.

"So, you know about Ella," the prince commented.

"She was missing you something fierce," Liam assured him. "She should be back in Everland by now and I know she wants to see you as soon as possible."

"I let my parents know a few days ago that I'd be leaving tomorrow for Riverdon." They reached the end of the hall which led to a balcony and leaned against the railing, staring out over the water. "I'll be heading to Everbrook to see Ella in a couple of days."

The general eyed his friend. "Have you told your parents about her yet?"

Thomas shook his head. "Mother will be happy for me, but I'm not looking forward to my father's reaction." He rubbed the back of his neck. "Father's opinion would be that I should marry a noblewoman or someone at least of wealth."

A smirk spread across the general's face. "But that's not your plan."

The prince looked at Liam with a grin. "Not in the least."



"Enjoy your solstice?"

Snow's back went ram-rod straight, body tensing. She was never sure of what to expect with her stepmother. Most of the time they managed to get along all right, but frequently they ended up at each other's throats. It was only when it came to her father that they were really united in purpose, wanting to protect and take care of him as much as possible.

She slowly turned to face Regina. "It was wonderful." She loosely clasped her hands in front of her. "I hadn't seen my friends from Lochdubh in a long time. It was nice to have the chance to catch up with them, especially Geppetto."

The queen was just as statuesque as ever, eyes distant as she looked her stepdaughter up and down. "It's rather childish, abruptly running off for a holiday."

Snow restrained the scathing retort that was hanging on her lips, knowing that if she gave in it would just lead to a blow-up argument and that wasn't something her father needed to walk in on. She took a deep cleansing breath. "Someday I'll have to take over ruling and I won't have much time to visit my friends. I wanted to take the opportunity to do so while I still had that freedom."

Regina opened her mouth.


Both women turned at Leopold's delighted tone, schooling their features into relatively pleasant expressions.

"Father." The princess moved to her father and hugged him, kissing his cheek.

"Did you have a good time?"

"I thought that you were going to propose to me."

"I was."

"Then why didn't you?"

"I went to your father to ask his permission, his blessing… He refused."

She felt a flash of anger at her father for the agony she'd gone through.

"…he was just trying to protect you."

The memory of James' hands worshipfully tracing over every inch of her skin, his lips pressing to hers with passion and devotion, his voice telling her over and over that he loved her washed over Snow, drowning out the anger.

A bright smile spread across her expression. "It was wonderful."

"And how was Geppetto?"

"Great." Her eyes sparkled happily. "He just adopted a little boy named Pinocchio. I haven't seen him so happy since Alessandra passed."

Delight lit her father's face. "I'm glad to hear that." He turned to Regina. "Isn't that wonderful, my dear?"

The queen smiled serenely. "Yes, it is."

"Well, the traveler has returned!"

"Henry!" Snow escaped the slightly awkward moment and hurried over to embrace her surrogate grandfather.

His arms hugged her tightly in return. "It's wonderful to have you home again, Snow."

The princess pulled back to look him in the eyes, still clasping his hands. "It's wonderful to be back." Her fingers tightened around his. "Thank you," she told him meaningfully.

He gently tugged her forward to press a kiss to her forehead, when he pulled back his gaze met hers with understanding. "You're most welcome, my dear."


So, what do you think? Did you like it, even though we had to leave Lochdubh? All the sarcasm and snark in the chapter had me quite entertained while I was writing. XD Did you guys like that James gave Snow the ring as a promise? Charming telling her about Belle actually wasn't originally planned… O.O I kinda got it to that point and then suddenly the characters took over… XD Anywho, I have a pretty good idea as to what's going to happen in the next chapter and there SHOULD be Ella/Thomas…as long as the characters don't start changing their minds again… XD James and Snow won't be separated for too long…pending the character's changing things on me of course… XD I hope that you liked the chapter! :-D Thank you so much for reading and let me know what you think! :-} Brownie points to those who get what the chapter title references. ;-}

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