For those of you wondering what the hell took so long in writing this chapter, in Word it is over 40 pages long and 18,500+ words, and I have been struggling and obsessing like crazy over getting it right. Hopefully the obscene length will make up from the long wait at least somewhat… Thank you so much everyone for the reviews, tweets, messages, faves and follows! :-D I really hope that you guys enjoy it!


Chapter 15: The Best of Times and the Worst of Times…

Snow, Red, Gaspard, Belle, Thomas and Ella were up early, loading their baggage for the journey to Rosewood. Gaspard, Belle and Red were going to be riding in the king's open carriage; Gaspard's bad leg made riding difficult and long journeys painful, Belle was not a horsewoman and Red…well, very few horses were comfortable around her and she generally preferred traveling by carriage or wagon when given the choice. The ride to and from Lochdubh had difficult for both her and the gelding she rode.

The other half of their party would be riding horseback, Thomas on the steed he'd brought with him, being as accomplished a rider as James; Ella after admitting that she had been enamored of horses and riding since childhood and her father taught her well; and Snow of course was going to ride Aravis.

"Why is it young people are always in a rush to be off somewhere, always leaving and traveling around the realms?"

Six heads turned at the voice; all save Belle's were alight with affection and amusement. The young librarian had only met Lord Henry the night before, however she was struck by the man's ready smile and easy nature, comforted by it. They had spent quite a bit of time during dinner and afterward discussing books that they both had read, having differing views on them but equally interesting opinions and arguments for their thoughts. She had found herself unable to help feeling at ease in his presence, the sentiment similar to how she felt around her father.

The elderly man spread his arms wide, grinning broadly at the group. "Do I get a hug goodbye?"

Snow went into her surrogate grandfather's arms at a run, overenthusiastically diving into his embrace with a lighthearted laugh. He chuckled, holding her close, eyes closed, reveling in holding the closest thing he ever had to a grandchild. "Well, that's quite a hug!"

She laughed as she pulled back, humor sparkling in her eyes. "Just wanted to give you a proper goodbye," she joked.

Red was next in hugging the older man and laughingly instructed him to "be good" and to make sure that Granny did so as well; there were several snorts at that.

When Ella gave Henry a hug he winked teasingly and told her to have a very good time, making the blonde blush furiously and shake her head at him amusedly.

Gaspard shook his hand firmly, bowing his head out of respect for the older man, while Henry reminded him of a book he'd promised to lend him; the king promised to send it back with Snow and the others.

Thomas however was told to have a good time but not too good of a time; when he asked what had happened to "have a very good time" Henry had said that he knew Ella's definition of a good time full well, but he was still learning Thomas'. This had Ella again blushing brilliantly, Thomas' eyebrows taking up residence near his hairline and the others choking on laughter with Snow attempting to sound chiding…and failing miserably at it.

Finally he turned to Belle, a gentle smile on his face. "Well, my dear." He reached out with his hands to take both of hers, a gesture she couldn't help reciprocating with a grin of her own. "Remember to take full advantage of access to the library at Rosewood," his eyes twinkled with laughter, "not that I would expect anything less."

She gave a soft laugh. "Oh, I do plan to do that."

"Though, you might want to drag yourself away from the library at least once to take a turn or two of the gardens."

Grin bright, she nodded. "I fully intend to do so, perhaps even pass some time reading in the gardens as well."

"Good." His answering smile was wide and pleased.

She hesitated a moment and then gave in to the slightly out of character impulse to peck his cheek.

Shock was obvious on his face, but then a smile once again spread across it; he gave her hands one last affectionate squeeze. "Thank you, my dear."

With a slight pink tinge to her cheeks and a sweet smile, Belle moved over to the carriage where Gaspard gave her a hand up.

Snow approached her surrogate grandfather once more.

His eyebrows rose in teasing. "Always running off on a visit."

She laughed and softly explained. "Well, this time it's more as a chaperone than for myself."

Henry's mouth pulled into a grin. "I had thought as much."

The princess' eyes cut to the two couples. "Yes, they aren't subtle."

One eyebrow cocked. "No less so than another couple I know…"

Snow was torn between blushing and laughing at his pointed words and look, hand rising to press over where the ring hung around her neck. She shook the urge off though, mischief glinting in her eyes. "Well, if you think James and I are bad wait until Liam gets here."

Now that intrigued Henry. "Really?"

"Hmm," she confirmed with a nod. "Red's reaction will be interesting."

He threw his head back with a laugh, drawing the attention of the other young people who were already either in the carriage or on horseback.

The raven-haired princess' gaze was full of laughter as well; she leaned in to kiss him on the cheek and hug him again.

"You'll need to tell me all about that when you return," he muttered to her lowly before they drew apart.

Snow nodded her promise.

After he bestowed a kiss on her forehead she finally went over to Aravis and swung up in the saddle.

"Have a safe journey, all of you!" He waved as the horses were urged into motion, watching until they disappeared through the gates.


Phillip was checking the girth on his mount, James and Liam standing nearby as his farewell party. When he'd finished making sure it was tight enough, the dark-haired prince turned to his two friends. "Well, another fun-filled visit at an end."

"Good riddance to bad company," James swiftly rejoined.

The other prince staggered exaggeratedly with a hand to his heart, as if mortally wounded, but inwardly glad at seeing his friend closer to his usual humor. He still had trouble sleeping, was frequently lost in thought and refused to talk about what was wrong when he was agitated, but the dark mood that had been prevalent when Phillip first arrived had lightened considerably. The visiting prince mentally patted himself on the back for managing to help draw his friend out of his melancholy.

The fair-headed prince rolled his eyes amusedly at his friend's antics before stepping forward and clasping him in a hug. "Don't be a stranger."

"Oh, I don't plan on it!" Phillip gave him a wide grin when they released the embrace. "I still have to meet this princess of yours."

James rolled his eyes again. "You have met her."

"I don't think a couple of meetings as children nearly two decades ago really qualify," Liam piped up.

"Exactly," their brown-haired friend agreed, pointing at the general. "She was a very young child then, she's an adult now; a totally different person."

A half-grin quirked the sandy-haired prince's mouth. "Oh, she's not all that different."

One dark eyebrow rose. "Really?"

The grin became a smirk. "Gods help you," James added.

"I take it she remembers when we were children, then?"

"As I said," his friend told him, humor continuing to glint in his blue eyes, "gods help you. Especially when it comes to Aurora, from what I understand they're still very close friends."

Phillip grinned broadly. "Oh, I never liked things easy. Drama makes things so much more entertaining."

Liam snorted. "And here I thought I was a masochist!" He and his prince shared all-too knowing smirks. "I think I'll agree with the 'gods help you' assessment, especially if you meet them all at once!"

"Mm." James nodded, one corner of his mouth still tipped upward. "Did Red mention that even Ella has begun to grow some claws?"

"Oh, yes!" The pair continued to keep the conversation between themselves, pretending to forget Phillip's existence. "And now Belle has joined them. Gods help us all once they meet Jasmine!"

The mahogany-haired prince rolled his eyes. "You two are quite the double-act, you know that?" He gave a few fake, sarcastic laughs, drawing both of his friends' smug gazes. "I'm getting out of here before you start to think you're real jesters." He swung up in the saddle. "Or I catch this insanity that both of you and Thomas have decided to fall prey to."

"Watch out, Phillip," James warned, smirking, "love has a tendency of finding you when you least expect it… Who knows, maybe you and Aurora will find out you really are each other's true love."

Liam was thrown into a coughing fit, turning his back to try and hide his chuffs of laughter.

"Right," their friend said drolly, "and the sun rises in the west and sets in the east." He shook his head. "I'll see you two in a few weeks." He reined his horse around in the direction of the gates. "Try and regain some of your sanity before then."

"Not particularly missing it," the other prince stated after a moment of faux-thought; he turned to the general beside him. "What about you, Liam?"

He was grinning broadly and unashamedly. "Bid it quite the cheerful farewell."

Phillip rolled his eyes once again. "Farewell to the both of you."

"Safe journey, Phillip," James called after him.

Liam tossed a wave in their departing friend's direction, silently hoping that the good humor Phillip's visit had restored would hold at least until James could see Snow again.


Upon arriving at Rosewood castle Belle and the others found themselves swept up in the enthusiastic bustle of the servants, who were quite excited at having guests since Gaspard entertained so rarely outside of his tiny circle of friends. Red was fairly certain that she hadn't seen Cogsworth so puffed up with pride before. Lumiere was beside himself with the new visitors, being even more over-the-top than usual. Mrs. Potts was just bubbling over with excitement; Snow had the feeling, seeing how the housekeeper's eyes were extra bright whenever they landed on Belle, that the older woman had at least an inkling of Gaspard's feelings for the librarian.

Chip was his irrepressible, precocious self, charming both Belle and Thomas right off the bat, but quickly latching onto the quiet brunette upon learning her profession and firing off question after question, eager to learn what she might know. It took his mother gently chiding and reminding him that their guests had had a long morning of travel and likely wanted to freshen up before lunch to even slow him down. The towheaded boy cheerfully waved to them all before dashing off to his "secret" playhouse; Gaspard, Snow and Red exchanged an amused, knowing glance. At Belle, Thomas and Ella's curious expressions the trio explained about the tree house that had originally been theirs as children.

The four women were settled in rooms in a different wing from the prince and king; Belle's chamber was next to Ella's while Snow and Red's were directly across the hall from them.

It seemed as if whoever designed this palace favored windows. Floor-to-ceiling ones had graced almost every inch of the entrance hall, and now Belle was gaping at bay windows and French doors leading out to a balcony in her room, all of them open to let the cooler air off the lake blow in. The fireplace, which was as tall as she was, was empty and clean as a whistle. The canopy bed was a comfortable size with sky blue drapes and linens embroidered with white and darker blue thread in swirling patterns. Crème-colored rugs were placed by the bed, in front of the fireplace and at each of the doors; with the way her shod feet sunk into the one at the door, Belle secretly ached to slip off her shoes and see if they were as soft as they seemed.

A maid, Babette, efficiently helped unpack her few belongings, even though Belle had protested that she could do it herself. The woman laughed and told her in a thick French accent that she was a guest and the "Master" wanted nothing less than the best for his guests.

At the barely smothered laughter coming from the door, Belle turned to find the princess and her two friends trying to stifle their amusement at the librarian's perplexed expression. Ella was the first to choke back her mirth and informed their new friend that lunch was waiting if she was ready.

Having realized that trying to convince the maid to let her unpack on her own was fruitless, Belle allowed them to lead her off.

"Gaspard arranged for us to take lunch on the terrace," Snow explained as they headed through one of the many open sets of glass doors. "He thought that you might enjoy the chance to see the rose gardens from here and possibly go walking in them later."

Belle's eyes went wide at the sight of the many different colors of roses stretching beyond the terrace railing, the dark green of the bushes interrupted occasionally by lighter green grass or white gravel walkways. A few fountains and statues were littered throughout as well. And beyond the gardens the lake sparkled in the sun and curved around farm land and open fields with animals grazing upon the lush grass. "Oh!" she gasped.

"It's one of my favorite views," the king quietly agreed.

She turned to find him standing by a small table, he and Thomas already helping the other three women into their chairs. Belle moved to join them, Gaspard making sure that she had a seat facing the view off the terrace.

Mrs. Potts lead a bevy of servants out to set the food on the table and take drink orders, her sharp, watchful eyes on every single one of her staff's moves, even as she spoke cheerfully with her master and guests.

"Gaspard," Snow carefully ladled herself some of the chilled soup, "if they're available, I was hoping to use a couple of your targets after lunch. Red laid out another challenge the other day and I must of course answer it."

Her best friend was smirking broadly. "As if you could do better than I," she taunted.

Emerald eyes cast drolly at her. "Let's put a throwing knife or sword in your hand and see how you do."

"Except we already agreed on archery," Red pointed out smugly.

"You two are so competitive at times." Ella shook her head amusedly.

"No more so than any other pair of siblings." Gaspard grinned, lifting his glass of iced tea for a sip.

Belle couldn't quell the question that sprang to her lips. "Siblings?"

"Oh," Snow waved her hand lightly, "you'll hear the terms 'sister' and 'brother' tossed around with us and Aurora and Eric all the time."

The blonde's eyes were sparkling with humor. "No blood may bind them but they just love picking at each other like siblings and they're certainly overprotective enough of one another to call each other such."

Thomas and Belle shared a grin.

"We can certainly relate to that," the prince assured them. "Belle has been a sister to James and I most of our lives."

"And the feeling is mutual," the brunette assured him, one eyebrow raised. "Goodness knows you two hover worse than nursemaids sometimes. And Liam and Phillip are little better."

Snow's head shot up from where she'd been lifting a spoonful of soup to her lips, green eyes snapping to Gaspard's blue, meeting hers over the rim of his glass.

"Prince Phillip?" the king asked for clarification, setting down his drink.

"Mm," Belle nodded, sipping the cup of tea Mrs. Potts set in front of her with a "thank you" to the housekeeper.

Snow dabbed her lips with her napkin. "I haven't seen Phillip since we were children, but he was rather…"

Thomas was chuckling only halfway through the princess' statement. "Yes, Phillip can still be rather…"

"Smart?" Snow offered dryly.

"That's one way to put it." He smirked. "How does Aurora feel about her betrothal to him?"

Four amused glances were exchanged by those who knew the blond princess.

"Oh, she's just thrilled," Red told him with faux-excitement.

He snorted. "Same with Phillip."

Belle leaned toward Snow. "James mentioned that you three knew each other as children. How did you meet?"

The princess choked on her mint lemonade.


"She looks exhausted," Gaspard murmured to Red, pulling her aside after lunch, the first real chance he'd had to speak with her privately.

The dark-haired woman grimaced. "She is." Her eyes cut to the object of their discussion.

Snow was laughing with Thomas and Belle over some story Ella was telling, the dark circles under her eyes standing out against her pale skin despite her mirth.

"She's not sleeping much, and when she does I don't think it's soundly," she continued.

"I thought seeing Prince James would help." He leaned heavily on his cane.

"Oh it did," Red quickly assured him. "She's much happier and they settled things between them."

His eyebrows rose. "They're engaged?"

"More like…" her hazel gaze lifted skyward in thought for a moment, "engaged to be engaged." She briefly explained what James and Snow had told her about the situation, choosing to spare him certain details of what happened between the couple.

Gaspard's eyes went to Snow again. "Then why is she having trouble sleeping?"

"She misses him," Red stated simply. "And I think she's having nightmares."

His gaze snapped to her sharply. "She wouldn't admit to that."

"No, she wouldn't," she agreed. "But the way she is now reminds me a lot of how she was a few months after her mother died and she was having nightmares then."

"What should we do?"

Red shrugged. "Nothing we really can do. The situation will resolve itself eventually. Either she'll find a way to sleep or the exhaustion will be too much for her body and it will force her to slow down and sleep, either by just being too tired or getting sick."

A blond eyebrow cocked at her. "Those last two don't sound particularly healthy," he commented wryly.

"Our best bet is her Prince Charming getting himself out here to visit soon." A smirk curled her lips. "And I'm pretty hopeful on that front."

Gaspard narrowed his eyes at her. "Do tell."

Her eyes met his, dancing with smug humor. "Oh, I gave him until my next transformation to get an engagement ring on Snow's finger."

His smirk matched hers. "And how did he respond to that?"

"I don't think it was too much of a hardship for him to make that promise, even without the threat," she snickered.

Laughter danced in the king's eyes. "Good."


The lake water was cool and refreshing on Ella's feet; she'd removed her shoes, leaving them on the shore, and tucked the front part of her skirts into the thin leather belt she wore to keep them from dragging in the water.

After lunch Thomas, Gaspard and Snow had disappeared into the king's study to discuss something that related to their kingdoms–promising not to take more than half an hour–Red had gone to set up the targets for her and Snow's little competition later and Belle was wandering the rose gardens at the moment. The lake had called to Ella with the siren promise of its revitalizing coolness and she'd quite willingly given in.

She bent down, mindful of her dress, and picked up another smooth flat stone from the bottom and added it to the small collection she'd started in her hand.

In the years Ella had been under her stepmother and stepsisters' control she'd never had the chance to take even one day off to relax and have fun. The dwarfs hadn't even blinked when she'd asked to take a few days to go to Rosewood, gladly agreeing even though she hadn't even been back a month since her trip to Lochdubh. With all she had gained in such a short time, a real home, friends, a good job with wonderful bosses, her first real vacation since her father's death, and an incredible man who wanted her, loved her and was courting her, it all sometimes made tears well in her eyes.

She'd been living this new life so briefly but that life before almost felt like it had happened to someone else a lifetime ago. She'd been able to survive, to get by under her step-family's harsh treatment, but now, the very idea of having to go back to that…she couldn't breathe. Losing everyone and everything she'd gained, she didn't think she'd survive it; after getting to see what it was like to really live she couldn't go back to that existence. It just wasn't enough anymore.

Ella looked down at the rocks she'd collected in her hand and decided she had enough for now. She dug into dusty, blurry memories from hot, long ago summers where her father's laugh and voice were the music she woke and fell asleep to, trying to angle her body and arm correctly. She tossed the rock, which immediately splashed into the water and sank without skipping even once. Her eyebrows furrowed in a determined line and she tried again, to the same result.

A small stone flew past her to skip effortlessly three times across the water before sinking.

It wasn't a surprise to her when she turned to find Thomas standing behind her grinning broadly.

The blonde fisted her free hand and propped it on her hip. "Show-off."

He shrugged with a remorseless grin still on his face before pointing to her handful of rocks. "Would you like some help?"

She tilted her chin defiantly. "No, thank you. I just need to practice."

The prince did a poor job of stifling his laughter at her next three failed attempts; he finally stepped forward, catching her hand before it could fling another rock. "Here." He ignored her stubborn attempt to pull her hand free of his, gently correcting her grip on the stone. "Like this." He then guided her into the correct form, one hand still clasping hers and the other resting on her waist.

Ella decided to blame the heat in her cheeks on the air temperature, trying to focus on what he was teaching her.

Thomas worried that he was being too forward with Ella, but she wasn't protesting or pulling away and he honestly couldn't deny himself the chance to touch her and hold her close like this.

Forget concentrating on that stupid rock! a part of her brain snapped. Focus on him! Ella couldn't deny that having Thomas pressed so close was a rather delectable distraction. Giving in to the voice in her mind, she turned her head to watch him over her shoulder, waiting for him to notice her gaze.

It didn't take long for him to realize that her attention wasn't anywhere near the stone in her hand, and to meet her blue eyes with his, searching them. "Ella, am I being too forward–"

"Thomas," she cut him off. She let the rock slip from her fingers and flipped her hand around to clasp his, pulling that arm to wrap around her, her head canting so her lips lightly brushed his. "Stop thinking so much."


"You know," Red commented, drawing back the arrow on her bow, "you and I being here is rather ridiculous." She released the arrow which struck dead center of the bull's-eye.

"Nice shot," Snow commented, notching her own arrow.

"Thanks," the younger woman responded absently. "I mean, it's not like any of them are you and James."

The princess' arrow thudded into the bull's-eye, though not quite as centered as Red's; her shot made, she cast a pointed look at her best friend.

Red cocked an eyebrow at her. "You're not really going to deny that you two actually need a chaperone after what happened in Lochdubh, are you?"

Green eyes rolled as the ebony-haired woman drew another arrow.

A smirk spread across Red's face. "Thought as much." She notched an arrow in her bow. "Back to our two couples at hand." She drew back the bow and released for another perfect shot. "Ella's made it clear that she wants to take time to become her own woman before taking things further with Thomas and he seems content enough with that. Gaspard and Belle have only just met and we both know that icebergs move faster than he does."

Snow made her shot and then lowered one end of her bow to rest on the ground, both hands clasping the top of it. "Other than the fact that I think I've been insulted more times in the last five minutes than in the last five months, we both know the reason we're here isn't for them really." They began to unstring their bows. "Regardless of whether they need us here or not, what people see from the outside is what matters, and preserving their reputations is the only reason we're really here."

"I know," Red grumbled with a roll of her eyes as they retrieved their spent arrows and began to make their way to the lake, thinking to splash cool water on their faces. "But it just seems so ridiculous us having to be here when nothing's going to happen."

The princess was about to respond when they rounded a bend and immediately came to a dead halt, not expecting to find Ella and Thomas locked in a passionate and rather heated embrace. They then spun on their heels and went back the direction they came from.

"You were saying?" Snow asked sardonically.


After several pleasurable minutes locked in each other's arms Ella and Thomas finally drew apart.

"Wow," he murmured, still holding her against him.

"Hmm," she agreed with a grin, eyes still closed. Her hand rose to cup the back of his neck and pull his forehead down to rest against hers. "I love you, Thomas."

He didn't think the grin that spread across his face could get any wider. "I love you too, Ella."

She drew back a bit, eyes opening to meet his. "You know that that isn't why I want to wait on getting married, right?" Her gaze was worried, fingers stroking along his cheek. "I want to marry you–"

"Ella." He stopped her rambling with a finger pressed to her lips. "I know. I understand. And even though I'd love for us to get married tomorrow, I want to court you properly and for us to have a proper engagement and wedding…" He pulled her even tighter to him. "And I want it all to happen when we are ready. However long it takes for both of us to be ready to take those steps."

Barely restrained tears glittered in her eyes as she gazed up at him with love and gratitude. "Thomas…"

The prince brought his hand up to gently cradle the side of her face. "I love you, Ella. And you are more than worth any wait to have as my wife."

There was another word hanging after "wife," they both knew it was there, but Thomas was worried that it would scare her.

So Ella said it for him. "And queen." It wasn't said eagerly or with dread, just as a simple fact.

His brow furrowed into a concerned line. "Ella…I understand if the idea…is overwhelming–"

It was her turn to stop his words with a finger pressed to his lips; once she knew he was paying attention she told him, "I knew what loving you meant from the start." Her hands smoothed over his chest. "Would it be easier if you weren't nobility, or at least if you weren't a king-to-be? Yes."

A wry smile quirked her lips. "The idea of one day being queen is rather daunting to someone who has spent most of her life as a servant." She clasped his face between her palms. "But I love you, and you are more than worth it. But…" Her eyes and hands lowered to his chest again, fingers plucking at one of the buttons on his shirt, taking a deep breath. "I need to know myself first; I need to truly feel strong, in order to be a good wife to you and queen to the people."

In Thomas' eyes there were few stronger than his Ella, but he knew that she needed to be the one to believe it before she was ready to step up, and he loved her all the more for thinking of not only him but of the people they would rule together. He took her hands in his and lifted them to his lips, kissing the backs of each finger. Her blue eyes lifted to meet his. "We have time, Ella. Whenever we're ready…"

A warm smile curled her lips. "Whenever we're ready," she agreed with a nod.


Phillip listened with half an ear while his father went on and on about how the cook was refusing to make any more fried food by order of his physician. He kept saying how he should fire her, but they all knew that wasn't going to happen. Wilda had been working for them since before Phillip was born; the most that King Hubert would do was bluster and puff up in indignation when she made a decree he didn't like, and she would just glare at him unimpressed.

Phillip loved the woman dearly; she'd become like a surrogate mother to him after the death of his own when he was 14, and before that had been like an aunt. No, Hubert would never get rid of Wilda. And in this case Phillip felt that the cook and physician were in the right, his father really needed to eat better; it set the prince's mind at ease that Wilda had now taken the matter in hand. Even though Phillip was an adult he still wasn't quite ready for his father to leave this world, goodness knew he'd like it if the man lived to bounce his grandchildren on his knee.

The prince pushed the thought of having children away, along with the spear of pain through his heart that it caused.

"So," Phillip heard the change in his father's tone and directed his full attention to the man who was leaning forward on one elbow, "how did things go in Seaborn?"

"Well," he continued to take bites between comments, "King George was a bit harder to sell on certain points than James, but we worked it out. I left a copy of the new trade agreement on your desk. They agreed to most of the things we wanted and what they asked for in return was quite reasonable."

The portly king clapped his hands and rubbed them together. "Wonderful! I'll look it over after dinner." He then proceeded to ramble on about various topics as he often did, requiring no real input from his son, so he once again only paid it half a mind.

His mind wandered to his earlier thoughts of going to visit Glenbriar as a means to meet Snow White. He truly did want to meet the princess, beyond curious about her. But if he was honest with himself he also wanted to finally be reintroduced to his betrothed. The prince was weary of his father's prodding to properly engage himself to Aurora, or to at least meet her, and he was tired of this decision dangling over his head. However Phillip also wasn't looking forward to his father's scheming to really intensify by announcing he wanted to visit Aurora. He sighed inwardly, but that was going to happen no matter what, though, he reminded himself.

His father paused between topics to take a breath; Phillip took the opportunity to speak up before he could second-guess himself.


Hubert was visibly surprised at his son speaking. "Yes, Son?"

He took a deep, bracing breath before saying with careful carelessness, "Could you arrange for me to visit Glenbriar next month? I believe it's time for me to meet my betrothed."

The king did a creditable impression of a fish out of water for several moments before shaking his head and, still in shock, saying, "Of course, Phillip. I'll send word to Stephan and Leah to arrange for the visit and the both of you to meet."

"Thank you, Father." Phillip went back to his dinner, ignoring the growing look of plotting on his father's face, fairly certain that he was already planning out not only the wedding but the nursery as well…


It was after midnight when Belle quietly made her way through the halls of Rosewood Castle seeking out the library Gaspard had shown her that afternoon.

The doors were already open wide and Belle's breath was stolen before she even stepped into the room.

"Oh!" she cried, feet carrying her forward without her even thinking about it to the center of the room and spinning around trying to take in the books that lined every vertical and horizontal surface in the room save for the monstrous fireplace and the two floor-to-ceiling windows. The ceiling itself likely being one of the highest points in the castle, and books reached from the floorboards to the top of it, ladders and steps scattered around various levels to make them all accessible.

"You like it?" There was the slightest thread of insecurity in his tone.

She was still engrossed in trying to see everything at once, head spinning at the sheer number of books. "It's wonderful!" She spun to face him, face alight. "How do you ever leave?"

He chuckled, limping forward, eyes scanning the room as well. "With some difficulty."

A smile spread across her face at the memory of that afternoon when Gaspard had sought her out in the rose gardens after his meeting with Snow and Thomas and had shown her his library. She had proceeded to flit around the room like a bird who couldn't decide which branch of berries it wanted to sample first. She was looking forward to venturing inside it again, especially after…

The smile fell from her face.

The young librarian wasn't someone used to changes in her environment, her world having always been fairly stable and rarely did she visit new places. While she'd enjoyed her time in Everland and so far in Rosewood, such abrupt changes as those she'd experienced the last few days with all the traveling had also left her feeling somewhat unbalanced and out of her depth. She could feel the nightmare-memories at the edges of her mind, like wraiths, looking for a way in. She couldn't sleep.

Belle was grateful that she was able to remember the way to the library after only being there once. Inside she could see through the windows an approaching summer thunderstorm gathering outside, lightning flashing, and much to her surprise, a fire quietly crackled in the hearth and one of the two wingback chairs in front of it already had an inhabitant.

"Good evening, Belle," Gaspard quietly greeted, setting the book he was reading in his lap.

Hugging her dressing robe tighter about her, she softly padded over to him, trying to ignore the way her pulse sped up at her name coming from his lips. "I didn't expect to find anyone else awake."

He gestured out the window. "My leg was aching with the storm coming."

A concerned frown pulled at her expression. "Is there nothing you can take to relieve the pain?"

He gave a dismissive wave of his large hand. "Medications help dull the pain a bit, but I find reading for a while helps more so, and if I cannot sleep at all it passes the time." His head canted inquiringly. "And yourself? Was there something wrong with your room?" he asked; from his tone she had the feeling that all she had to do was say the word and he would do whatever it took to correct whatever the issue might be.

"I just have a little trouble sleeping in new places." Her grip around her waist had loosened with the ease of the conversation between them. "I was going to find a book to read, loosing myself in a story always helps." She stepped closer to him. "What are you reading?"

"It is a series of books about a monk who solves murders in the small village around his monastery." He held the slim volume out to her; she accepted it, turning it over in her hands. "They've been some of my favorites since I was young."

Belle turned the book over in her hands, reading the title and opening the cover curiously. "I've never heard of these. Are they suspenseful?" Her brown eyes lifted to his blue, lowering herself in the other wingback chair a couple feet from him.

"Some," he nodded, "but mostly they're just interesting mysteries, especially seeing how he uses his knowledge of herbs and plants to solve the crimes." He nodded to the book. "That is actually the first one. Would you like to read it?"

Ever since meeting Gaspard, Belle had found her usual instincts regarding men going out the window when it came to him. Normally she would have taken the book, thanked him and hurried back to the safety of her room. But now, in this moment, she found the part of her that had, before her attack, leapt at the chance to take risks surging forward, pushing her to not revert to form. Not with him.

She bit her lip before holding the book out to him. "Would you read it to me? I'm not quite ready to return to my room."

Surprise flashed through his eyes, but he accepted it from her. "I would love that."

With a warm smile curling her lips, Belle drew her legs up under her on the chair and settled in; his deep, velvety voice wrapped around her, the sound both comforting and arousing. His cadence painted the world in the story in vivid color, bringing life to the characters and the shroud of mystery.

Gaspard knew that it probably wasn't the best idea for either of their reputations or self-restraint for them to sit so secluded like this; it was quite seductive, reading to each other in the deep of the night with little to no chance of being interrupted. But he hadn't the strength to deny her and she looked more than content curled up only a couple of feet from him.

At the end of the chapter he passed the book to her, "to rest his voice," he said, but he really just wanted to hear her read the story. Her soft, sweet tones rolled over the words, bringing light to what was a rather dark time; Gaspard dearly wished to hear her read one of Shakespeare's comedies and how her voice would play over the iambic pentameter.

They passed the book back and forth, each taking a turn reading a chapter, not noticing when the storm unleashed its fury, wind whipping the rain against the glass, thunder rolling loud enough to rattle the window panes. To them naught existed but each other and the story they shared in the warm firelight, shadows dancing outside their circle of light.


Snow kept her footsteps light, nearly silent, though she was fairly certain that neither party in the library would have noticed if she'd gone crashing through the halls, far too absorbed in each other. She'd thought to get a book from the library to occupy her, but–a smile played across her mouth remembering the image of Gaspard and Belle sitting together so intimately–writing a letter to Charming would probably pass the time even better.

A smirk pulled at her lips. And he'd probably be interested to know that his surrogate sister had a prospective suitor, if Thomas hadn't informed him already…


James eagerly settled at his desk with Thomas' letter. It had arrived that morning, but when he hadn't been supervising the selection of new members of the guard his father had kept him busy with matters of the kingdom and only now did the prince have time to read it.

Dear Big Brother,

You can stop worrying, Belle and I arrived at Everland safely. Though, knowing you you'll continue to worry no matter what until we get back to Seaborn. And as it is, by the time you get this we'll likely be in Rosewood.

He rolled his eyes at his younger brother's teasing.

Snow and Belle have taken to each other as if they've always been friends, which of course means that Red and Ella already adore her as well.

A grin lifted the sandy-haired prince's lips at that, glad to hear that his surrogate sister and wife-to-be liked each other so well.

Speaking of your paramour, since she likely hasn't told you, I feel I should mention that it appears she hasn't been sleeping well.

His grin immediately turning into a frown.

I asked Ella about it, and she said that they were fairly certain it was because she was missing you. I'd take that as a not-so-subtle hint from Red and Ella to get your butt here as soon as possible.

While he was worried for the woman he loved, he couldn't help snorting in amusement at that comment.

Oh, and in case you're interested…

The sentence just dripped with Thomas' faux-casual tone.

some Lord Willoughby was meeting with King Leopold when we first arrived; apparently he really wants to marry Snow.

A scowl darkened James' expression, remembering Snow's comments about the man from the dinner the night before the Spring Ball.

And another heads-up, apparently King Gaspard's interest in our Belle is a bit more than friendly and that interest is returned…

Blond eyebrows shot up. Belle hadn't even looked at other men since Gaston attacked her.

He seems as hesitant to begin anything as Belle is, but they seem to really want to see where this will go and their interests are similar so they talk nearly endlessly once they get going. In those moments she's happier than I've seen her in years…

Part of James wanted to threaten bodily harm to the young king the next time they met, but that last statement had the smallest of smiles pulling at his lips. He sighed almost resignedly. He'd best start asking Snow more about the man she considered her brother and make an effort to get to know him better.

Thank you for not being mad at me for deserting you with Father. I cannot begin to express how much I've missed Ella and how wonderful it is to be with her again.

A fond grin lifted his mouth. "You're welcome, little brother," he whispered to the empty room.

I hope that the time in Rosewood will give us the chance to talk more and truly settle things between us. She has agreed to attend my coronation with Snow, I want her there, but at the same time I worry that all the pomp and circumstance might scare her off.

James had a feeling that there was a very slim chance of that happening, but he understood the sentiment.

I hope that between Phillip, Liam, you and Father that the castle is still in one piece when I return. And my recommendation: If you want to really frustrate Father, leave for Everland with a little notice and as soon as you can.


James snorted at his brother's last comments, but certainly agreed with the idea of leaving for Everland as soon as possible. His eyes went back to the line about Snow not getting enough sleep and made a mental note to tell his parents he was leaving for Riverdon–with a visit to Everland while he was there–in less than a week.


She was rubbing her finger raw twisting the ring around it compulsively and ceaselessly. It was after 8 o'clock; he wasn't here…he wasn't coming…

Footsteps crunched over the rocks behind her, Mary Margaret spun at the noise. Her heart leapt. It was him. He was here!

"You came," David gasped out, his labored breathing indicating that he'd run a distance.

She grinned at him. "You sound surprised." Her green eyes took in the entirety of his expression, the softest brush of icy unease running down her spine. "In fact, you almost sound a bit disappointed."

"I remember."

Her heart dropped in her chest, falling somewhere near her knees, smile starting to falter. "Kathryn?"

His long legs brought him to a stop about five feet from her…it might as well have been the Grand Canyon. "Everything."

A vice began tightening around Mary Margaret's lungs. "And you love her?"

"I don't know." He looked just as confused as when he'd first awoken from the coma. "But I know I did. I remember how I felt, and…I think I have to honor that."

She felt like she'd been sucker punched, played a fool. "And everything that you said to me–"

"Is true," David immediately assured her. "I do have feelings for you. Intense feelings, feelings I-I don't quite understand." He actually sounded a bit afraid of the aforementioned feelings. Did he think it was any easier for her?!

The knife twisted in her chest. "You're going back to her." The teary green gaze she fixed him with was full of betrayal.

"It's the right thing to do." Mary Margaret wondered if he realized he sounded more like he was trying to convince himself than her.

Nodding her head, she swallowed hard. "The right thing to do…" there was a bitter note in her voice, "was not to lead me on."

David's face was lined with useless guilt. "I know."

"So you've made your choice." Strange how she didn't get any say in that decision when it affected her just as much as him, but she had to live with his decision.

His blue eyes stared at her with such anguish and regret. "I'm sorry." He reached for her; Mary Margaret didn't think he even realized he was doing so, the action seemingly instinctive.

She dodged his touch, raising her hands in a defensive gesture, but somehow maintaining the sad facsimile of a smile in place. "That's okay," she lied through her teeth. "I guess it just wasn't meant to be." Was it possible to still breathe when your heart had been carved from your chest?

Before she completely lost control over her tears, she turned and walked away from the man she'd been so sure was the love of her life. She wrapped her cardigan tighter about her, a flimsy shield against the elements and emotional beating she'd just taken.

Her back now to him she allowed the faux-smile to disappear, her face to crumple and the tears pooling in her eyes to finally fall.

How foolish. How silly she was, Mary Margaret inwardly scolded herself. What did she think this was? A fairy tale? No, this was the real world and devastatingly handsome men didn't leave their ethereally beautiful wives for lonely school teachers… She'd get over this... Someday…

Maybe if she kept repeating that to herself some miniscule part of her would start to believe it… Yeah, right…

Snow jerked her head up from where it had been resting on her crossed arms on the writing desk. Her wide emerald eyes flew around the room in confusion, mind disjointed from the far-too-real dream. Finally placing where she was, the princess propped her elbows on the desktop and covered her tear-streaked face with her palms. Her frame was trembling violently from the emotional agony she'd felt in the dream and the utter disorientation of being snapped back to the waking world.

What the hell was that?! None of it made sense! Why did she think of herself as Mary Margaret? Why did she call James by his brother's name?! What, by the gods, had they been wearing?! James' vibrant blue eyes looking at her with such pain, regret, longing and confusion while he told her he couldn't be with her but was going to be with Kathryn–his wife?!–whoever the hell that was! The pain once again sliced through her like knives, stealing her ability to breathe.

No! her mind cried out. James would never do that! He loves me! Me! No other! He's going to marry me!

Her fingers clumsily fumbled with the chain as she rushed to pull out the ring, James' ring, raising it with shaking hands so that she could see the band and reassure herself that it was in fact there. Snow pressed the green gem to her lips, tears still streaming down her face. Her head fell forward as weeping rocked her body back and forth in her chair, arms wrapping around herself, desperate for even the smallest comfort.

"Charming," she sobbed out, barely keeping her voice low enough not to carry through the walls or door. Pleading, not sure with whom, for him to be there right then; for it to be his arms wrapped around her, to have him there to listen to her and help her make sense of nightmares that felt all-too-real but made absolutely no sense.

Her gaze fell to the papers haphazardly fanned across the desk, remembering why she was there in the first place once she noticed the large ink stain on the top sheet where the quill had slipped from her slack grip and was left to seep into the parchment. The black blob encroaching on her lovingly inscribed "My Beloved Charming…" She hadn't made it past the salutation before she'd fallen asleep, though she had no recollection of the Sandman taking her.

Without her permission her hand crumpled the ruined letter and tossed it into the waste basket while the other grabbed a rag she'd been using to wipe the ink off her fingers to clean off the leaked substance from the desktop. This done, and still without her conscious mind deciding so, her fingers pulled a fresh parchment toward her and dipped the quill in the inkpot again.

My Beloved Charming,

I don't think I can ever convey how much I miss you, how nothing really feels right with you not here. I don't want to make you feel guilty or pressured, I do not write this to make you feel so. I just have to at least write it down somewhere. You may never even read this…I'll probably not send it, I don't want you to feel bad, it's not your fault. I'm not even making sense.

The days are fine, good even. I keep busy and I'm enjoying spending time with our friends and working around the castle and village. I'm generally happy, but I'm always missing you. I'll want to tell you something, or do something with you, I'll want your opinion, or just want you to be there in a meeting where a noble is being particularly pompous and long-winded to lean over and mutter something to me, making me nearly burst out laughing, even though it would be completely inappropriate, and making all of those stuffy nobles wonder what on Earth has us so amused. But you're not there. In those frequent moments it's hard, but usually something comes along and I am distracted for a while at least.

The nights are hell. I don't sleep much, if at all, and in the silence and solitude of the night I feel the loneliness most keenly. But it's worst when I actually do sleep. I have nightmares.

Her eyes squeezed momentarily closed, trying to fight back the wave of pain and grief that remembering those night-terrors resurrected.

Nightmares as real as the dreams we've talked about. Ones where you're dead or dying in my arms, so still; your blood staining both of our clothing and the floor beneath us and your lips so cold under mine, believing that I will never see your eyes open and look up at me again. Ones with places and things I don't recognize, calling each other names not our own and you saying that you cannot be with me. Gods, I can't breathe!

A hand covered her eyes as tears flowed afresh and her shoulders shook with new sobs. Her palm slid down to press against her mouth, eyes staring sightlessly at the wall in front of her. Snow closed her eyes once more before finally looking back down at the outpouring of thoughts and emotions in front of her. It was raw, unfiltered, her pain naked on the page.

Goddess, she couldn't send this to Charming! It would break his heart! She moved to crumple it as she'd done the other, but then stopped. Who said she had to send it? Her gaze drifted to the first paragraph about how he probably would never read it, and the only way he would was if she sent it, which she didn't have to. But, writing it seemed to be helping her cope at the moment…

After a heartbeat of indecision she once again dipped the quill in the inkpot and continued writing, letting go again, just letting her thoughts and emotions run.

I want–no, I need you so badly when I awake from those nightmares. I need you to hold me, to hear your heart beating, feel your skin warm under my fingers. To have you tell me that you love me and that you will for all eternity, that you will put this ring on my finger and we'll be together forever.

Come for me, James. Find me. Find me like you promised you always would.

I love you, for all eternity.

With all my heart,

Your Snow

She set the quill aside. A few stray tears still escaped occasionally down her cheeks, but she felt calmer and more in control, some of the poison of the excruciating emotional pain drawn out in writing the letter. She was about to throw it away in the waste basket, but changed her mind, she knew how nosey some of Gaspard's staff were and they'd see anything in the basket as fair game. She tucked it away in her copy of Much Ado About Nothing that she'd brought with her, making a mental note to burn it once she got home.

She was even more exhausted from all the crying and emotional outpour, but she didn't really feel like risking another nightmare. She glanced out the window, finding the storm had eased to a light drizzle and seemed to be fading further with each passing moment. Snow quickly dressed in breeches, a shirt and boots and headed out to the stables to indulge in some time with Aravis, needing the mare's patience and acceptance right then desperately.


The next morning dawned bright, smelling fresh from the storm the night before. Mrs. Potts set out breakfast in a sunroom with the French doors wide open to let the breeze in.

Snow was as pleasant and talkative as usual, but Red and Gaspard knew her too well to not notice how she looked substantially more tired than she had the day before and both suspected she'd been crying. But even in her exhaustion she was obviously having a good time over breakfast with her friends and the pair decided to let it slide…for now.

Cogsworth abruptly entered the room in his usual odd mixture of stride and waddle, looking rather flustered. "Master," he bowed to his king.

"Yes, Cogsworth?" Gaspard politely set down his silverware to address his majordomo.

"Prince Eric and Princess Aurora have just arrived."

Shrewd blue eyes snapped to the two dark-haired women whom he considered sisters and for a moment they tried to maintain looks of innocence…but that lasted about a second before they were both smirking broadly.

He glared. "You both have a sadistic streak."

"We just mentioned that you were having new visitors and they were quite eager to meet them," Snow countered, smirk still in place.

"That's cruel and unusual punishment."

"For you and Thomas perhaps." Red looked no more repentant than her princess. "They promised to be nice to Belle since she's new and we told them to be."

He continued to glare at the smug women across from him.

"Um…Master?" the portly servant questioned.

Gaspard rolled his eyes and waved for Cogsworth to bring their other two friends in.

Ella leaned over to her two dark-haired friends. "You guys can be down-right mean," she whispered, though humor reflected in her eyes.

"We know," they both chimed in with matching devious grins that had made many-an-appearance when they were growing up.

Their blonde friend shook her head amusedly before turning to Belle, who looked a bit ill-at-ease, with a reassuring smile. "Don't worry, Eric and Aurora have wicked senses of humor, much like these three," she gestured to the two dark-haired women and Gaspard, "but they are very kind and understanding."

When Cogsworth returned, stepping aside to bow the two royals through the door, they all stood and turned to greet the prince and princess as they entered.

Snow, Red, Ella and Gaspard went to embrace their two friends in greeting. Thomas hugging his cousin who took a few teasing jabs at him.

"You're all terrible," the king groused good-naturedly as he hugged Aurora.

"Would you really expect any less?" the princess pointed out and they drew apart, she and Eric now turning their attention to the two members of the party that they didn't know.

Leaning heavily on his cane, Gaspard gestured first to Thomas. "Aurora, this is Prince Thomas. Thomas, Princess Aurora."

Appropriate greetings were exchanged, Thomas felt a bit wary at the way the golden-haired princess looked him over, feeling that he was being sized up and that she was possibly plotting something.

"Aurora, Eric," the king visibly braced himself, "this is Belle of Seaborn." He completed the introduction almost reluctantly.

The brunette was a little surprised at how Aurora's eyes lit up, much like Snow's had done when they'd first met. "We're so glad to meet you. Snow and Red spoke so highly of you when they wrote." A slightly sheepish look entered her expression. "I hope it's not too much, us being here, we just wanted to meet you so very much, and I was so looking forward to finally being introduced to Thomas, since Ella has talked of little else."

The other blonde buried her face in her hands, mortified. "Thank you, Aurora."

"Oh, you're welcome," the princess returned, voice pure innocence, but eyes full of wicked laughter.

Eric shook his head, chuckling at Aurora's antics, before turning his attention to the librarian. "We are most pleased to meet you. Thomas and James have spoken of you often over the years."

Even though Eric was fairly close to James and Thomas, he and Belle had never met. The few times Eric had been to Seaborn was when they were all much younger, and while those times were after the librarian had become friends with the princes it was long before she became involved in the palace life. Eric hadn't been back to Seaborn since, the only times the princes had seen each other in more recent years was when James and Thomas, usually along with the king and queen, had been able to visit Seaside. So there hadn't been many chances for a real introduction.

"And they you, Your Highness." Belle bobbed a curtsey, but found herself pulled out of it before she'd even completed the motion.

"Oh, please, no," Aurora quickly interrupted. "Here, among our little fellowship, we don't stand on ceremony."

The raven-haired prince nodded his agreement. "We prefer to drop titles and formalities when it's just us. Levels the sparring ground, so to speak."

Even though she was unfamiliar with Eric, Belle wasn't too uncomfortable with him, his manner was familiar, reminiscent of James and Thomas…and he kept a careful distance between them, telling her that he at least had some inkling of what had happened to her. She inwardly rolled her eyes, having one of those moments where it was hard to decide if she was glad for her surrogate brothers' overprotectiveness or embarrassed by it.

Eric included Thomas in his gaze. "How's James? I haven't seen him in a couple of years." His eyes also flicked less-than-discreetly to Snow.

Her ebony curls swayed across her back as Snow shook her head, rolling her eyes; she returned to her seat, two more chairs having been added for the additions to their party. "Let's not perpetuate the pretense that you all don't know that James and I spent time together in Lochdubh, shall we? Especially not when there's new fodder for your nosiness…"

Red, who had been sitting down, snapped her head over to send a sharp glare at her best friend, which the princess chose to ignore entirely. Ella, meanwhile, was unsuccessfully trying to stifle her amusement at Snow getting the tables turned on their friend.

"Really?" A smirk danced along the line of Aurora's lips and the others had turned interested looks toward the two dark-haired women, having seen the exchange. "Do tell."

"Snow…" Red bit out from between her teeth.

"Quid pro quo," the princess swiftly countered her friend, before speaking again to their friends. "You of course know Liam, Thomas and Belle, and I expect that you do as well, Eric?"

The dark-haired prince nodded, a smirk growing on his face at seeing the storm brewing on Red's. "He's James' head general and oldest friend," he quickly explained to Aurora and Gaspard, though if he were a betting man he'd lay good odds that Gaspard already knew that and more.

"Indeed." Snow nodded. "Well, he's taken a rather strong interest in our Red."

Positively gleeful expressions were turned on the aforementioned woman, who was glaring daggers at her princess. "All that has happened is that he asked to court me and I agreed to try." She gave them all a pointed look. "That is all."

Aurora reached across the table and over-exaggeratedly patted her hand. "Baby steps." This earned her a swat from her friend, though Red was desperately fighting a grin as she did so.


They were thoroughly enjoying the morning with the joking and teasing that flowed freely through the group, titles not mattering among them. They had moved out to the garden where Red was cajoled into playing guitar with Snow and Gaspard singing along, surprising both the sandy-haired prince and Belle by revealing the king had not only a very good voice but also was an accomplished pianist – Snow's eyes had glittered with teasing as she said he'd have to play for them – and Aurora had pulled out her sketchbook capturing moments of the afternoon with her pencil and paper.

When Lumiere came briskly striding over to them it was around lunchtime so they assumed he was there to announce the meal. However, Gaspard knew his maître d' too well not to recognize the faintest hint of concern in the man's face.

"What is it, Lumiere?" the king questioned, brow furrowed.

"Your pardons, your majesties," he quickly sketched a bow to the royals before holding out a message in his hand…to Snow. "This just came from your stepmother."

Instantly worry flooded her expression; she had the seal open and eyes flying over the contents only seconds later, her brow furrowing deeper with each sweep of her eyes. Finally she stood, the paper crumpling thoughtlessly in her hand. "My father has fallen ill, Regina needs me home now."

Red rose as well. "I'll go with you."

"No." The princess turned to her friend. "There's no need for any of you to leave so soon. Stay the three days complete, like we planned. And besides none of the horses here will carry you."

"Snow," Gaspard's voice was edging on reproachful as he limped a couple of steps toward her, "you cannot make the trip alone."

"I can take care of myself," she countered, stubbornness gleaming in her green eyes.

"I'm fully aware of that," her "brother" assured her. "However, it will be full-dark before you reach home, which isn't a time for anyone to be out on their own." He turned to his maître d'. "Lumiere."

The tall, thin man stepped forward. "Yes, Master?"

"Would you please ride with Snow back to Everland?"

"Gaspard…" she protested, though neither man heeded her.

Lumiere bowed. "Of course, Your Majesty." He immediately headed back to the palace to prepare for his journey and inform the staff to have the princess' belongings packed as well.

Snow rolled her eyes at her friend's high-handedness, but said no more on it.

"Snow," Ella had moved to stand beside her and took the princess' hand, "are you sure you don't want Red and I to return with you?"

The dark-haired woman gave the blonde a warm smile, covering her comforting grip with her other hand. "I'll be fine. You two enjoy a couple more days here."

"All right…" She allowed her grip to slacken and watched her worried friend hurry up the palace steps. Once Snow was out of sight Ella turned to Red. "Do you think she'll be all right?"

She shrugged, expression illustrating how not pleased she was with the situation, but Snow could out-stubborn a mule and wouldn't be budging on them completing their stay. "This isn't the first time her father has been ill enough that Regina called her home from something. But he's recovered in the past…"

"But he's not young," Aurora spoke up from her spot, fingers rubbing at a mark the lead had left on her hand.

The words were left hanging in the air.


By the time Snow and Lumiere rode through the gates of Everland Castle it had indeed been full-dark for over an hour, and the princess was truthfully glad for Gaspard's insistence on his maître d' accompanying her, for she knew how foolhardy riding roads alone at night was. Apparently Regina had been watching for her return because only minutes after she'd arrived, while she was instructing servants to see to it that Lumiere had a room and a good meal, her stepmother appeared through the doors to the palace and was making her brisk way down the stairs. Snow broke away from the group, trusting them to handle everything, and met Regina half way. The queen took her hand and they rushed up the stairs side-by-side.

"What's wrong?"

The older woman's mouth was set in a thin, worried line. "You know how he'd had a cold, but seemed to be getting better?"

"Of course," Snow quickly responded, matching her stepmother's stride as they continued rapidly through the halls.

"Apparently he wasn't taking care of himself as well as we thought. He has pneumonia, his fever spiked during the night."

The raven-haired princess swallowed hard. "What does Doc say?"

She and Regina weren't close, which was fine with the both of them, and they quite often actually worked to hide things from each other, but one thing they both never hid was how worried they were when it came to Leopold.

"His lungs are not in the best condition from his bout with it last year, and his age…" The queen's jaw set.

Snow needed to hear no more, she could read between the lines perfectly; her stomach clenched in fear and worry for her father.

Regina pushed the door to the king's bedchamber open quietly, trying to make as little noise and fuss as possible, not wanting to disturb her husband if he was sleeping.

Granny looked up from where she was placing a cooling, damp cloth on Leopold's forehead. "Princess." She bowed her head, a little more formality in her address than there would be among just common folk.

Snow moved to the other side of the bed, her heart squeezing in her chest at the wheeze of her father's breath. She carefully settled herself on the edge of the bed, reaching out to grasp his hand where it lay slack on the coverlet, her fingers stroked softly over the back, tracing the raised lines of the veins and wrinkles. "Oh, Father," she breathed, fighting back the tears.

She couldn't break down, she was needed more than ever right now. She eased herself with equal care back off the mattress, setting his hand down once again, and leaned down to press a loving kiss to his forehead. "Just concentrate on getting better, Father." Her voice little more than a whisper. "I love you." Snow moved away toward the door.

Her stepmother took her place for a moment before kissing his cheek and joining the princess in the hallway, closing the door behind them.

Snow knotted her hands in front of her as she faced Regina. "Shall I take over Father's duties for now?" Whenever her father was ill, hers and the older woman's hostilities were set aside, their focus on caring for Leopold and keeping the kingdom running.

"That would be best." The queen nodded, she rubbed a tired hand across her face.

The princess reached over and covered Regina's hand. "You should rest, stepmother. The staff said that you haven't had enough sleep since last night."

The taller woman nodded, her easy acquiescence revealing the depth of her weariness and concern for Leopold. "Widow Lucas said she would stay the night with him. Doc will be returning in the morning."

"I'll check in Father's office to see what meetings he has planned in the next few days." Snow twisted her fingers back and forth, not nervous about stepping in for her father, since it was just temporary and she'd done so before, but worried sick for her father.

Regina nodded slowly, casting one last glance at the king's room before heading to her own chambers.

The princess rubbed her hands up and down her arms, turning her own eyes to her father's door, debating what to do, not really wanting to go to sleep with the nightmares that would come. Finally she decided and made her way to her father's office. Might as well get to work…


Beatrix's head lifted when the door to the king's chambers opened again, a frown crossed her face at the sight of the princess standing on the threshold in her dressing robe. "Snow, what are you doing still awake?"

"Couldn't sleep." She shut the door behind her softly. "How's he doing?"

The elder woman wrung out the cooling cloth. "Fever's running high."

Snow leaned over and kissed her surrogate grandmother's cheek. "Go home and get some rest, Granny. I can sit with Father."

"You are the one who should be resting, Snow." Beatrix leveled a pointed look at the dark-haired woman.

She squeezed Granny's shoulder. "You worry too much, and I couldn't possibly sleep tonight." Sad green eyes went to the man lying on the bed.

The white-haired woman pressed her lips together, obviously not liking Snow's insistence, but she stood and let the princess take her place. "Try and get some rest tomorrow," she sternly told her.

"I will," Snow assured her, though Beatrix doubted the veracity of that promise.

She watched daughter attend to father for a few moments before exiting the room.

"How is she?"

Beatrix turned at the voice behind her, a grim set to her mouth as she faced Henry. "Wearing herself out and likely to continue to do so in hopes of distracting herself enough not to fall apart."

The queen's father turned a worried gaze to the door. "That's what I feared."

"Goes for the both of us," she grumbled. "Bound and determined to do things on her own."

He placed an arm around her shoulders. "We'll just have to do what we can to help her, even if she fights us on it."

She nodded firmly, in whole-hearted agreement. It was a good thing that Snow wasn't the only one in the castle who could out-stubborn a mule.


Snow ran the damp cloth over her father's forehead, the labored rasp of his breathing clamping around her lungs like a vise. Her gaze roved his oh-so-familiar features, ones she knew by heart. Her parents weren't young when they had her, she hardly remembered a time when grey didn't dominate her father's hair, or when laugh lines hadn't run deep in his cheeks and the corners of his eyes.

King Leopold was a man who sought to bring happiness to all in his kingdom, even with the loss of his beloved first wife, Snow's mother, he'd soon found his way back to his smiling, laughing, pleasant self. He always looked for the best in people, trusting to a fault, and Snow had started out exactly like him, but had grown warier with time, perhaps brought on by the early loss of her mother.

"We're really worried, you know, Father." He probably couldn't hear her, or if he could likely didn't understand what she was saying, but it was soothing to her to speak as if he could. "According to Hannah, Regina hasn't slept since she found you with fever."

She swirled the cloth in the basin of water beside her, wringing it out once it was saturated and cooler. "I went down to your study and found the meetings scheduled along with all the paperwork requiring your attention. Don't worry I'll handle it all." Thin hands lifted his head slightly to dab the cloth at the back of his neck. "So much coming up in the fall with the equinox and the Riverdon coronation…"

She'd rather just forget about it all but she could hear her father's voice in her mind scolding her about not fulfilling responsibilities and insulting one of their closest neighbors and a good friend, though Snow was fairly certain Thomas would more than understand. She scrubbed her free hand over her face; honestly she welcomed all of the work, needing the distraction, needing to keep busy so that she could keep herself from dwelling on the worst-case scenario with her father.

Tears burned in her eyes; she bit down on her knuckles, squeezing her eyes shut to hold them back. Snow wasn't sure that if she let herself start crying she would be able to stop. Taking deep, slow breaths she gradually regained her composure; finally she was able to open her eyes again and return to trying to help bring her father's temperature down.

"We don't want you to worry about anything but getting well. Regina and I will make sure everything runs smoothly and all that needs doing is done. Just…" She bit her lip, swallowing back tears again before continuing, "Just…get well…please…"


Don't worry…

James frowned at those two words. Why did people insist on saying that when no matter what the one hearing it worried anyway, he sometimes wondered? His eyes scanned back over Snow's letter.

Dearest Charming,

I wanted to write before Red or Ella did and made you worry too much. My father has pneumonia; he's very ill.

Concern welled in him, knowing how much his Snow loved her father and how risky such a disease could be for a man as old as he was.

I know you, Charming, and I know you want to come racing here and help. I want nothing more than for you to be here, but if you come it will look…strange to others. You and I both know it won't be considered proper with you not being family, and us not technically engaged.

One corner of his lips lifted slightly in wry acknowledgement of the truth in her words. They weren't related or officially engaged and if he were to suddenly show up at Everland Castle under the current circumstances it would spark a flurry of gossip. He didn't care what people said or thought about him, but he cared very much about Snow and her reputation.

I promise that while things are stressful, Regina and I are handling it.

He still let out a short laugh at that line, seeing his beloved mentioning herself and her stepmother for once united.

Don't worry.

A grimace spread across his face once again at those two words. James let the letter drop against his bent legs where he sat in the crenel of the highest tower. One hand scrubbed over the back of his neck before falling to his side, he turned his head to look out toward Everland. She was absolutely right that every instinct he possessed demanded that he immediately rush off to her, but he also recognized her stubborn determination to stand on her own two feet. He ran a thumb along the scar on his chin, lips pressed into a line, knowing that he needed to respect Snow's wishes even though it was killing him. His blue eyes fell once more to the letter.

I love you, Charming. Now and forever.

With all my heart,


Fingertips ran over her signature. "I love you too, Snow," he whispered to the lonely night, letting the breeze off the ocean carry his words. His eyes were once again drawn away toward his beloved's kingdom. There had to be some way he could help her, comfort her, because despite her attempts to reassure him he could read the tension in her cramped writing and hasty scrawl instead of her usual flowing script.

After several minutes of consideration, most of which were after he'd come up with an idea, but was trying to decide if it was truly wise–which it probably wasn't but he couldn't let it go once it had taken hold–he briskly descended from the tower, headed to his room and sat down at his desk. A heartbeat later he was penning a response before doubt could creep in.


After Snow's departure the party had quickly sobered. Aurora and Eric had to return to their respective homes, having only a day to visit. Ella and Red, far too worried about Snow to stay for the previously planned three days, returned to Everland the next day, quietly giving Thomas and Belle rooms for the night at the inn, knowing that Snow and Regina had their hands full enough and didn't need to worry about guests. They left the next morning since Thomas had responsibilities in Riverdon to fulfill.

Now home, Ella and Red both began helping Snow and around the castle in any way they could. Red was sharing responsibility of helping care for the ailing king, and continuing to keep the inn and pub running while her grandmother was helping at the castle. Ella split her time between her chores with the dwarfs and helping at Granny's; Henry pitched in as well, freeing Red and Granny more time to go to the castle. But the pair kept their efforts quiet, not wanting Snow to feel like she was imposing upon them in some way.

The princess wasn't a stranger to the responsibilities of running her kingdom but the nightmares had persisted and with her daily increasing worry for her father, she wasn't sleeping more than a couple hours a night. It was really starting to visibly wear on her. As such, not only were her friends doing what they could to help but the servants anticipated hers and Regina's needs where ever possible, trying to lighten the load on the royal family members. Even the nobles in the kingdom stayed away for the most part, rescheduling meetings and talks out of respect. Both women grew more anxious with each day that Leopold didn't show improvement, and although he was trying to maintain a positive outlook even Doc's expression began to take on a grim cast.

Whenever she was in the castle Red's eyes cast frequently to Snow, worrying about the princess. Even with the recent disagreement between father and daughter, Snow loved her father devotedly, and Red knew it was going to break her friend's heart when he died. As well as Snow was able to handle the duties of running the kingdom, the younger woman wondered if the princess was truly ready for the death of her father.


She was supposed to be sleeping; at least that's what Granny told Snow to do when the older woman had insisted on sitting with the king that night. But the princess had no intent to do so, nor a real desire considering the nightmares. She didn't sneak through the halls, that would have looked suspicious in her own castle, but she did move with little to no noise, wanting to draw as little attention as possible. A dark green cape was draped over her arm, the temperature had already started to grow cooler at night with summer nearly gone; dressed in breeches, shirt, vest and riding boots she was unhindered in moving about.

The gloved fingers of her free hand pressed against where James' letter resided in the pocket of her vest, and she bit her lip in anticipation. He had asked if she wanted to meet somewhere, just for a few hours one night; Snow hadn't been able to deny the need to see her Prince Charming and immediately told him yes and where they could see each other. It had been difficult waiting the two days indicated in his response.

She only met two guards on her way out; they merely bowed to her, unfazed by her restlessness. Snow whirled the cape over her as she briskly strode across the grounds to the stables. Aravis was quick to rouse upon realizing they were going for a ride, cooperative in the tacking process and eager to get going. After double checking the bridle and girth, Snow led the mare out of the stable and through a smaller side gate so that they were less likely to be noticed.

Once outside the walls of the castle and out of view of guards the princess swung up into the saddle and urged her horse into a canter. It wasn't far, the place she'd appointed, the ride only took a few minutes before she reached the small pond that was secluded away in part of the forest. It was little used, not having any fish and the water too warm in the summer to swim in, save for the winter when it froze over solid and made for a good skating rink.

Charming was already there, her eyes easily recognizing his height and broad shoulders, even with the fur-collared cloak, from where he was standing before the pond. He turned, hearing her approach; even in the dim light of the waxing moon she could see the smile that spread across his face. When she swung down from Aravis' back he pulled her against his chest, her arms automatically wrapping around his neck, hood falling back off of her head as her lips eagerly met his. Her heart sang at his touch and scent, body relaxing in contentment to mold to his.

James allowed his hands to roam up and down her back and sides, taking in her familiar form, reveling in having her in his arms again. His nose was soon buried in her hair, breathing deeply, joy and contentment filling him as they only did with her. The morning after he received her letter in response to his recommendation for the date he'd left for Riverdon with Liam, arriving in the afternoon. He'd not told his brother or general about their meeting, not at all interested in having spectators, but he had left a note on the off chance that one of them discovered him missing. He knew that odds were they'd both know by morning that something had gone on this night, and Liam would be beyond pissed that James had taken off, but he could take his general's ire, if it meant he had this time with his love.

He pulled back to cradle her face in his hands, concern filling his gaze at what he saw in the moonlight. "Oh, Snow." His thumb stroked over the darkened skin just below one eye. "You look exhausted."

A dark eyebrow shot up, lips quirking in a sardonic smirk. "You're one to be calling the kettle black." Her fingertip tapped his cheek just below the dark circle under one of his own eyes.

Humor lifted the corners of his mouth slightly, though worry still colored his features. "But I'm not the one dealing with a seriously ill parent and having to run a kingdom mostly on my own." The backs of his fingers ran down her cheek. "How are you?" His cerulean gaze became pointed. "Honestly."

Snow glared at him but there was no real indignation behind it, understanding that he cared for her and was worried. Also she was also just too tired to fight him on this. She turned, prompting James to do the same, her hand curling into the crook of his elbow as they began to stroll around the edge of the pond.


"Exhausted," he corrected.

"Again with the pot and the kettle," she quipped back.

One blond eyebrow rose. "No changing the subject."

"Red, Ella, Henry and Granny are trying to be subtle in helping me…" An emerald gaze was cast to him, full of amusement. "They aren't very good at subtlety."

A chuckle rumbled through his chest. "They just are worried for you, as are Thomas and Belle, by the way."

She pursed her lips. "Yes, they are all very good at fretting, aren't they?"

The fingers of his free hand slid between the ones that gripped his arm. "How are things with Regina?"

"Oddly enough, going quite well." She leaned her head against his shoulder. "This is one of the rare occasions when we really get along and work together well, when my father is sick."

"That's certainly helpful." He watched her closely, needing to read her expression to assure himself that she was being truthful about what was going on for her and the stress she was under.

"Mm hmm." Snow nodded in agreement. "She's dealing with all her usual responsibilities and has mostly taken over the planning for the Fall Equinox festival."

James frowned. "You're still having the festival with your father being sick?"

Her head tilted back on his shoulder to face him properly. "It's two months away. By then he should be better at least. And I'm sure we could all use the celebration."

Neither of them said it but they could hear it between the lines, that if her father didn't recover he would have passed by then and after whatever the mourning period was in Everland they would certainly need some kind of celebration to lift people's spirits.

There was silence for several moments before James spoke again. "How is the kingdom?"

The small amount of tension that had crept into her frame at the reminder of her father's precarious mortality eased away again. "Good, it's nearly harvest time; I've started receiving reports so I've been working through them. A few minor disputes, though people have actually toned those down or even settled them themselves, or at least set them aside until Father recovers, not wanting to add to what Regina and I have on our plates."

"I'm surprised that at least some people don't try and take advantage of the situation," he carefully commented, not wanting to seem like he was trying to insult her people.

A smirk actually curled Snow's mouth. "Oh, they learned that lesson the first time I had to take over for my father." There was a rather smug glow in her eyes. "I'm not so easily manipulated or pressured."

James was grinning broadly at that, relieved she at least didn't have to deal with that too much. "Good."

Her head turned so that she could prop her chin on his fur-covered shoulder. "What about you? How have things been with your father?"

He let out a weary sigh. "I didn't come here to burden you with my problems; I came here to support you through yours."

She gave him a droll look. "I'm not made of glass, James, I won't break." A single fingertip rose to softly trace the scar on his chin. "And I want to support you as much as you do me." Both of her hands then slid down his arm to tangle with his fingers. "Tell me."

He gazed at their joined hands, trying to think of the best way to voice his thoughts. "Father and I…" The prince grimaced, rubbing the back of his neck with his free hand. "I just don't know how I'm supposed to work with him. Sometimes it feels like he disagrees with me just to disagree with me. He pushes and I push back." His eyes met hers. "I have never gotten along with him as well as Thomas does and David did, but since I got back it has become so much worse."

Snow pressed her cheek thoughtfully against his shoulder, the fur and velvet of his cloak soft against her skin.

"I don't know how much more I can take."

"Maybe he feels threatened."

James frowned down at his love. "What?"

Her head tipped back to look at him. "You discovered that he isn't your birth father, maybe he now feels threatened by that. Maybe he's afraid that he'll lose your love, your respect."

His feet halted them, staring at her dumbfounded.

She met his surprise with a level tone, "You have always been his son, and now he feels like that could possibly be taken away."

"How? My birth father is dead."

"Yes, but now you know the truth and he's probably worried that you don't think of him as your father anymore."

He continued to stare at her. "I hadn't…thought of that…"

Snow grinned up at him. "Well, that's why you have me."

Chuckling, he cupped her face between his palms. "Oh, I have you for more than that."

Her hands furled in his collar, reeling him in. "Hmm…good…"

Their lips pressed together, the kiss tender and passionate; their arms wrapped around each other tightly.

"We really shouldn't be caught missing come morning," James reminded her, though his grip on her didn't relax in the slightest.

She pressed her cheek against his chest. "Can we just sit here together for a while? I'm not quite ready to go back…" Her head snapped up. "Unless you need to return to Riverdon now."

His fingers splayed across her spine. "I can stay for a while yet…"

They moved over to an ancient tree that was wider than James was tall; he first settled into the cradle of mossy roots, back against the trunk. Snow followed him down, curling into his side, temple pillowed in the curve of his shoulder.

Her vivid eyes gazed up at him, a slight frown crossing her expression as her fingers rose to run along his jaw. "A beard." It was a simple statement, no opinion or question coloring it.

One of his arms had wrapped around her shoulders while the other hand had settled on her hip, he watched her closely and tried to judge what she was thinking. "I grew it to cover your more…obvious incriminating marks." Teasing colored his voice.

Her mouth twitched in humor while her digits still traced along the line of facial hair. "Understandable. How is that going?"

"They're nearly completely faded." His thumb absently traced over her hip bone.

"Hmm…" Her fingertips settled over the barely visible scar on his chin, unable to say "good" with complete honesty. Perhaps it was for the best at the moment, but that didn't mean she had to like it.

James' fingers sifted through her hair by her ear, trying to surreptitiously check to see if the love bite he'd put there was still visible.

"It's just barely there." Her voice was slightly muffled from burying her face in his shoulder; she tilted her head back, eyes glittering teasingly.

He grinned sheepishly. "A little obvious?"

A smirk lifted her lips. "Just a little…and I checked yours."

"And?" His arms drew her tighter into his side.

Her nose pressed into his neck. "The one on your collarbone is nearly invisible." One of her hands went to grip his waist, cuddling into his chest.

"Am I supposed to say 'good?'"

"I didn't."


Red had convinced Granny to go home to rest, taking her grandmother's place sitting with the king, bathing his forehead and neck with cooling cloths and helping him to his side when he went into coughing fits. After one such fit he slumped back against the pillows, breathing labored; his eyes cracked open and turned to the young woman.

"Snow?" he rasped.

She debated for a moment how to handle this, unsure of how lucid the man really was, but decided to try for the truth. "No, Your Majesty, it's Redell, Widow Lucas' granddaughter."

"Oh," he breathed out weakly, eyes closing again, "yes, Katrina's daughter."

"That's right," Red nodded, pleased with his level of comprehension at least for the moment.

"Where is Snow?" His eyes had managed to open to slits, anything more seemingly too difficult in his weakened state.

The dark-haired woman wrung out the cloth and ran it over his face. "Hopefully resting, if she actually listened to Granny," under her breath she added, "which is highly unlikely."

Leopold didn't catch the last part. "Ah…good…" He was silent for several moments after that; Red actually thought that he'd gone to sleep again.

"Is she avoiding me?"

She frowned. "Sire?"

"My daughter, is she avoiding me…because of what I did?" His voice was thin.

Red stared at him for several moments, mind sifting for what he meant and finally remembering the argument Snow had told her about a few days ago which had gotten pushed to the back of her mind with all that was going on. "No, Your Majesty. Snow sits with you as often as she can, but she believes that you would want her to keep the kingdom running as best she can."

"She's more than equal to it…"

She could hear the pride that threaded his frail tone. "She is." Matching pride filled her own voice.

The old man's brow furrowed. "I never meant to hurt her… I just wanted to protect her…"

Red ran the cool cloth over his forehead soothingly. "She knows."

Violent coughs racked his body and Red helped him onto his side so that he wouldn't choke, easing him back once the fit had passed again.

For several minutes all that was heard was a few softer coughs and the king's harsh breaths as he worked to recover from the fit. One of his eyes cracked open again. "You're her best friend…"

It was a statement, but Red answered anyway. "Yes, as she is mine."

"You know her…better than anyone."

She could think of one recent exception, but she wasn't about to bring him up with Snow's father. "I like to think so."

He slowly sucked in a breath. "You…you know Prince James…"

Never mind not bringing up James… "Yes, we have met and are…" Her head canted thoughtfully, as she considered what to call her relationship with the prince. "I suppose you'd call us friends…"

"You don't sound so sure." Even as ill as he was the king was able to pick up on her hesitance.

"Not for my lack of liking him," she quickly assured the monarch. "I think we just haven't had enough time in each other's company to quite make the step to really being friends."

Leopold gave a feeble nod. "Do-do you think that he truly loves her?"

Her answer was immediate and definitive. "Yes. More than anything."

"And he wouldn't hurt her?"

"He'd cut out his own heart before hurting her."

"And…other women?"

Red couldn't stop the smirk that spread across her face. "He's so in love with Snow that I don't think it even occurs to him to look at other women for anything beyond friendship. Though from what I've learned of him I don't thing taking a lover would be in his nature anyway. He strikes me more as the kind of man who will be a devoted husband and doting father."

"He makes Snow happy?"

"Happier than I have ever seen her."

"Good…" His voice trailed off.

While she watched his breathing slowed and his body relaxed…


The sun had risen over an hour ago by the time Snow was leading Aravis into the stables. She kept her stride casual, as if she wasn't just returning from spending the night in her beloved's arms, hoping that those who saw her would assume she'd simply ridden out early that morning. She and James hadn't meant to fall asleep by the pond, but after they sat down against a tree curled together her body had simply refused to not give in to its exhaustion, finally having Charming's comforting presence there to soothe her.

When she made it to the stables with hardly a curious glance cast her direction she breathed a sigh of relief.

She'd removed Aravis' saddle and bridle and was rubbing the mare down well when a sardonic voice from the door of the stall called, "Have a good night?"

The princess froze, head slowly turning to meet Red's cocked eyebrow, her crossed arms resting oh-so-casually on the lower door to the stall. Snow wasn't sure what to say to her friend, having a strong gut feeling that the other woman knew about her rendezvous.

"So, how was James?"

Yup, she knew. The elder dark-haired woman sighed and let her gaze return to watching her hands going through the familiar motions. "Frustrated and stressed out from the issues he's having with his father. We spent the night talking and accidentally fell asleep."

A smirk curled Red's lips. "Right…talking, and…sleeping."

The princess glared pointedly at her best friend. "Yes, talking and sleeping, not that it's any of your business. Did we kiss? Naturally. But that's all." She'd finished rubbing Aravis down and with a final pat she left her mare to the oats in her feed box, and then exited the stall. The two women walked down the aisle to the doors leading outside. "We didn't even mean to fall asleep like that. We knew people would worry about us." She rubbed the edge of her cape between her fingers, frowning worriedly. "I hope that he gets back to Riverdon safely." Finally Snow turned her head to look at Red again. "How's Father?"

A smile lifted her friend's mouth. "His fever broke last night."

The princess stopped dead, her eyes wide. "Truly?"

Red had paused beside her. "You know I'd never joke about such a thing."

A relieved and joyous laugh burst from Snow's lips as she nearly tackled her surrogate sister in a hug before dashing up the stairs to the castle and running the whole way to her father's room. At the door she forced herself to stop and take a deep breath, not wanting to rush in there and possibly upset the progress her father had made. Finally calm enough, she slowly opened the door, peeking in to see if he was sleeping.

Leopold was propped up in bed, Doc listening to the king's heartbeat with his stethoscope; both looked up.

A tired but genuine smile spread across her father's face. "Snow."

"Father." Relief flooded her voice as she made her way to sit on the bed beside him, wrapping her arms around him tightly. His were more sluggish to fit about her and his grip was so light that it was barely there, attesting to how the illness had sapped his strength. "Red just told me that your fever broke." She sat back, taking in his nearly limp form, and while exhaustion was obvious in his face, his eyes were clear for the first time in days, no longer glazed with fever. "I'm sorry I wasn't here earlier, I went out for an early ride before getting to work."

His hand slid across the coverlet, fingers encountering hers, trying to cover her hand with his, but too weak to do so. Snow took his hand in hers to complete the gesture. "It's fine, I know you haven't had a moment to yourself lately, and riding helps you clear your head." His voice was raspy and little more than a whisper; a cough shook his frame, the most movement she'd seen in her father since entering his chambers. "I'll try to be out of this bed to help you and Regina in a few days."

"You'll do no such thing," Snow informed him sternly. "We're doing fine; your being out of danger will be enough of a load off our minds." Her other hand covered their clasped ones. "You just focus on getting well, Father, and let us worry about things for now." She leaned over and kissed his cheek before leaning back again and looking him in the eye. "I'm not ready to lose you yet."

At the love in her eyes and the pain that the thought of his death obvious in her tone, Leopold truly started to believe that his daughter could forgive him for what he'd done, and had possibly done so already. His fingers tightened around hers an infinitesimal amount. "I'm not going anywhere."


"Well, look what the cat dragged in, Thomas."

James paused in hanging Cain's tack, rolling his eyes at Liam's mocking voice before turning to face his brother and general.

"Now, what time is it, Liam?" the other fair-haired prince asked in an equally sardonic voice.

"Oh, it's well after noon," Liam said in a faux-scandalized voice. "Now, where do you think he has been?"

"Well, a certain princess lives just in the next kingdom," Thomas pointed out, pretending to contemplate what that could possibly mean, "and since the last time I recall seeing my dear brother is yesterday evening just before sunset and he could have made said kingdom by sometime last night and if he left again…oh…sometime around sunrise this morning the timing would be about right…"

James glared at both of them. "Do you two really expect me to feed your gossipy ways?" He began to head out of the stables.

"Nah." Liam shrugged. "It's actually more fun trying to imagine for ourselves." He smirked.

"Hate to burst your bubble," James' wry tone said otherwise, "but Snow and I only really talked. With all the stress she's under she needed someone to listen, and we were both so exhausted from our lives of late we fell asleep. End of story."

The general maneuvered himself in front of his prince, eyebrow raised skeptically. "And you really expect me to buy that?" His gaze and tone made it clear what he was alluding to–they hadn't told Thomas about everything that had happened between Snow and James in Lochdubh and the elder prince preferred to keep it that way.

James looked at the other man levelly. "I don't expect you to 'buy' anything. It is the truth."

Liam still didn't look convinced but he moved aside and they continued up to the palace.

"That was a real risk, James," Thomas was eyeing him carefully, "for both your reputation and hers."

"Which is why we were keeping it a secret," the sandy-haired prince pointed out wryly. For all the travelling he'd done in less than two days he felt actually quite a bit better rested than he'd been in weeks.

"You two meet clandestinely far too often," was Liam's opinion.

James decided to not respond to that, informing them instead, "I'll be going to Everland next week, unless something happens and Snow tells me otherwise."

Thomas cocked an eyebrow. "And what do you plan to do in the meantime?"

His brother grimaced. "Go to visit King Midas and Princess Abigail in three days to break things off, hopefully without any need for our contingency plan."

The younger man winced. "Hopefully indeed…"


My dearest Charming,

Father's fever finally broke! I cannot convey my relief! The pneumonia was persisting so relentlessly and for so long that we thought it would take him. But Doc says that he's turned a corner and we should start seeing improvement. Though it will be a while before he can be up and about and Doc wants him to avoid spending much time outdoors this winter with how weak his lungs are. Regina and I will be handling things until Doc is satisfied that Father is well enough that he won't relapse. Hopefully with this stress now lifted things will calm down and start to return to relatively normal…

A tired but relieved smile lifted Snow's lips; she closed her eyes a moment, taking a deep cleansing breath, before once again putting quill to paper.

As for you waiting to visit next week, please don't wait! I can't wait to see you! I have missed you so, Charming. Writing letters isn't the same as being with you, being able to talk with you, and having you close enough to hold. And a few short, stolen hours by the pond certainly aren't enough!

A thoughtful frown crossed her face.

When I went to visit with him, Father asked if you were going to be visiting soon, I told him that you were. All he said was, "Good," and he went back to sleep. I'm not quite sure what to make of it…maybe he is more accepting of the idea of us being together now. I hope so.

Her free hand closed over his ring tightly.

I truly hope so.

She had pulled out the ring and was spinning it around her index finger.

You probably want to also bring Liam, and if you can manage it, Thomas as well. You didn't hear it from me but Red has been missing Liam quite fiercely. Ella, I know would love to see Thomas again so soon; she's agreed to attend his coronation with me. She's nervous; we just had her first appointment with the seamstress today so that she could get her measurements for a gown fitting the occasion. Poor Lilah–our seamstress–she was trying so hard to keep her patience but Ella was as jittery as Iris, one of my bluebirds, and the most excitable of them. I think Lilah is dreading the actual fittings possibly more than Ella is!

Oh, apparently Doc's new dishwashing machine has disappeared; supposedly no one knows where it went… It took everything in me not to burst out laughing when Ella looked at Doc with wide, innocent doe-eyes, telling him that she had "no idea where it went," and he believed her without question. So Ella is right back to doing the dishes by hand without a word of complaint and a quite satisfied smile on her face.

Snow's shoulders shook with silent laughter.

You never got the chance to really tell me about Phillip's visit, from Red's laughing allusions from her own letters from Liam I get the feeling it was entertaining… Something about the entire archery course ending up on the roof of the stables?

Worry suddenly creased her forehead.

Are you sleeping any better? I know you're downplaying it; Liam is much more forthcoming on that front. Have you contacted your father? I know you're frustrated with him, but do you think that the both of you can possibly work it out together? I know that you two don't get along well much of the time, but he is your father and he won't be around forever.

Green eyes were drawn toward her door, thinking of her own father who was sleeping just down the hall and how close she'd come to losing him. She knew that everyone died eventually, but she wasn't quite ready yet to let him go.

It is a relief that your mother is happy for us; tell her that I also look forward to seeing her again. I have so many questions for her about you before we met as children and while you were growing up. Stop groaning, Charming.

A smile lifted her lips knowing that that part would put a grin on his face as well.

Mikhail, Marta and Sophie have been asking when you are coming back to visit, dying to play dragon again and to hear more stories. You have gained quite the group of enthusiastic followers among the children of the village.

Snow looked back on all that she'd written, it was all things that she wanted to share with him but she'd also had to keep herself from reiterating too many times how much she'd missed him, and how much she wanted him to come back soon…preferably tomorrow. But she knew that he could have only just returned to Riverdon that afternoon, so it would be rude and impractical for him to take off again first thing the next morning… But it couldn't hurt to tell him one last time that she missed him…

The princess groaned, burying her face in her hands. Gods, she was being pathetic…she decided to blame it on the fact that, even with the good night's sleep last night, she was still living under sleep deprivation and had been for weeks and that it was obscenely late. She took a deep breath and finished the letter, forcing her tired mind to be relatively rational in writing it.

I miss you, my Charming. I can't wait to see you again in a few days. Give my best to Thomas and Belle.

All my love,

Your Snow

Letter finished, Snow rolled it up tightly and set it on her window sill next to a bowl of seeds, knowing that Azalea would be by to pick it up in the morning. This completed she turned to face her bed, eyeing it warily, like one would a skittish colt, debating whether or not she was tired enough to chance nightmares invading her sleep.

A soft but rapid knock on her door took the decision from her hands. Lucy was standing on the other side.

A frown creased the princess' forehead, not understanding why on Earth her maid, who was a day-worker in the palace, was there in the middle of the night. "Lucy, what is it?" Her exhaustion-addled mind finally began to process how pale the other woman's face was; her saucer-sized eyes and the grief and fear mixing in her gaze.

Blood drained from Snow's own face. "Is it my father? Has something happened? Did he relapse?"

The maid swallowed thickly. "Princess…"


Fate's child frowned as he watched his mother's fingers trail off the end of one thread, only straggling strands still stretching from it. He asked why that thread had ended; his mother explained that threads can't go on forever. However, she pointed to the pattern and how that thread had woven its way through it; it ending didn't mean that its importance and impact has ended with it. She told her child to watch. Fate pulled the straggling strands from the thread tight, the child watched with rapt attention as she began to twist those strands into other threads…


I know, I know, you guys are probably ready to kill me with that cliffhanger! XD But I couldn't help myself! I hope that the length makes up for the cliffhanger. The books Gaspard describes are based off of the Cadfael Mysteries by Ellis Peters. Now, I need to get to work on Hot Chocolate before my readers of that stage a revolt…

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