ONCE UPON A TIME AND AGAIN

Chapter 25: Meet Me in Seaborn

Seaborn

"She's probably just as frigid a bitch as that stepmother of hers."

Nova lifted her head from the silver she was polishing, shocked at the malice and contempt dripping from one of the head maids'—Heather, she placed her name after a moment—tone, as the tiny brunette focused on her gossiping colleagues. "Who?"

Heather rolled her eyes. "Princess Snow White, of course!" she told her scornfully, as if Nova should've known exactly who they were talking about.

Perhaps Nova might've known if she'd actually been paying attention to the spiteful nattering, but early on in her employment at Seaborn Castle she'd gotten into the habit of tuning their typically unkind words out, especially since they were so often directed at herself. Nova more than willingly admitted that she was clumsy and still unaccustomed to daily human life, which led to more than a few justifiable mistakes, but the other maids saw it as idiocy and well within their purview to mock her, making snide comments and humiliating her at every turn. Some days she questioned why she ever chose to become human, but then she remembered: Dreamy.

Oh, how she missed her Dreamy! The all too familiar ache of regret for allowing him push her away clenched her chest in its unyielding grip. It had seized around her lungs like a vise the moment after she walked away from him, and she just knew that she'd made the wrong choice, that she had to go back and find him and prove to him that they could be together, were meant to be together, but he'd already disappeared form the hilltop. So she'd gone to Blue, gave up her wings to become a mortal—against all of the other fairy's continued advice and pleas to "see reason"—and gone in search of her true love.

Nova had checked the mines first, only to find that Dreamy, along with his brothers, had left on a journey to a new kingdom for work. She continued searching for him, going from town to town asking after a group of dwarf brothers, and sometimes she'd find someone that had seen such a group but usually it all resulted in a dead end.

Along the way she came to understand certain realities of being mortal: Humans required food, clothing, and shelter; and to get those things you had to have money, and to get money you had to get a job—or you could steal, but Nova was entirely too klutzy to even contemplate that, and she'd felt guilty at even the thought of taking something from another person that way. Through very good timing and no small amount of luck, the former fairy had secured a position in Seaborn Castle as a maid. She'd had to learn all the basics that humans already knew, such as what a garderobe was or how mortal clothing worked, but she never gave up and the heads of the household saw that and were willing to overlook her lack of knowledge, which could be taught at any rate, in favor of someone who didn't quail at or shirk any job handed to her.

Nova frowned at Heather, normally she'd avoid getting involved in any gossip—lest she make herself an even bigger target for it herself—but that needlessly catty comment struck a chord. "I don't think you should say such things. Not just because she is our future queen, but we don't even know her." She set down the fork she had been working on, picking up a spoon next. "And Prince James is a good man, and very kind; I doubt he'd want to marry someone who isn't the same."

As expected, there was a chorus of mocking scoffs from the other maids.

"Well—"

Whatever Heather had been about to say, most likely something very insulting judging from her expression and tone, was cut off by a throat being cleared—loudly—and all heads whipped to the door. Several of the other maids' faces, but especially Heather's, drained of color.

The housekeeper stood in the doorway, face red with embarrassment and fury, glaring at the maids, but more frightening was the fact that Prince James himself stood just behind her, expression tight.

Nova was the first to recover, shooting to her feet and nearly upending the small table she was working at in the process but managing to catch it before it tipped over; quickly, she dropped into a curtsey with a murmured, "Your Majesty."

The other maids followed suit after a beat, scrambling to their own feet and clumsily executing curtsies, faces a mix of bloodless and flame red.

Face nigh on purple, Mrs. Cuthbert, the housekeeper, turned to their prince. "I beg your pardon on behalf of my staff, Your Majesty." She shot a glare that, were it possible, would've struck the maids dead on the spot, before looking back at him. "I had thought that my girls had more propriety than this, but apparently I need to clarify proper behavior for them."

"It's fine, Mrs. Cuthbert. It was actually quite illuminating," Prince James informed her stiffly, before shifting his gaze to Nova, and striding right up to her.

The ex-fairy swallowed at suddenly being under the crown prince's scrutiny.

"Your name, please?" His voice had gentled and a soft, coaxing smile was on his face.

Nova blinked a couple of times at being singled out by a member of the royal family. "N-Nova, Your Majesty." She tacked on another curtsey just to be safe. Normal humans were odd enough about customs, she could only assume royalty would be even more so.

Prince James' smile widened. "Nova, the reason I came here is because with my fiancée, Snow, coming to the castle, she's going to need a maid here. Would you be willing to be her maid?"

Nova knew that letting her mouth hang open and staring at the prince wide-eyed and speechless had to be considered very rude, but she just couldn't help it. "S-sire, I—" Her mouth opened and closed several times, probably looking like that one time she saw a live fish out of water. She took a deep breath, finally managing to put her thoughts into some kind of order. "I'm just a junior maid, Your Majesty. Surely a more experienced maid would serve Princess Snow White better?"

He shook his head. "I know Snow's anxious about visiting here for the first time and meeting everyone, she could use a friendly face in the castle." Prince James tilted his head slightly in the direction of the other maids.

Nova's eyes flickered to Heather and the others who were gaping in shock at the prince asking her to be maid to the future queen. A feeling of near gleeful satisfaction at someone treating her with more than grudging tolerance rose in her chest and she turned back to the prince. "I would be honored to accept such a position, Your Majesty."

ONCE~ONCE~ONCE~ONCE

James sat at the desk in his study feeling positively buried under various contracts, agreements and grievances that his father was having him handle as heir, along with all the preparations for the Everland party's arrival. Liam and Thomas helped lessen the burden by handling the invitations to the engagement ball George was throwing for James and Snow. For once the trio were near silent except when it came to what they were each working on.

"What is this world coming to where the first I hear of my best friend's engagement is through the grapevine and not from him?"

The Seaborn heir rolled his eyes at Phillip's theatrical entrance to the study, lifting his head to look at his friend properly. "I've been a little busy, Phillip, preparing for Snow and her family and friends' arrival, and the ball my parents are planning in celebration of our engagement along with the preparations for all of the guests that will be attending that."

"And it takes so much time and effort to simply write: 'By the bye, I'm engaged to the woman I've been mooning over for the better part of the last six months.' And then ponce your lovesick ass over to send a pigeon."

Thomas and Liam snorted, smirking at James' answering glare.

"Well, the next time I have a life-altering event I'll try to keep your delicate feelings in mind and be more prompt in informing you." Pulling a fresh sheet of paper towards him, James bent his head again to write.

Phillip sprawled indolently in one of the chairs surrounding the desk, eyeing his friend. "So, how did dear King George take the news of your impending nuptials to Not-Abigail?"

"Pleased as Punch," James glibly informed him without looking up.

"He forgave James almost instantly for giving them barely a week's notice of Snow and her parents' arrival since she will be here as his fiancée," Thomas put in.

"You'd have thought the king was a boy who'd just been told Yule was coming early," Liam sardonically added.

James made a sound of agreement as he stood, taking the paper he'd been working on with him and heading toward the door. He slapped the sheet to Phillip's chest as he passed by, the dark haired prince's hands automatically rising to catch it.

"What's this?"

"Your notification," James told him over his shoulder.

"Bit late for that," Phillip snarkily replied.

"It's not for my engagement," the fair haired prince corrected him as he went through the door.

Phillip looked down at the paper.

"You're going to be a what?!"

ONCE~ONCE~ONCE~ONCE

Everland

From her bedroom window Snow watched as the carriage and wagons were loaded in the early morning light. The party travelling to Seaborn would be large; along with Snow, her father and Regina, Red and Ella were going along; ostensibly as Snow's female companions, all seven of the dwarfs would also be in attendance as the primary members of Snow's personal guard and so that Doc could care for the still-recovering king, and of course there was the requisite contingent of guards for the king and queen each.

The dark haired princess smoothed her palm over her stomach, a gesture more to soothe herself than anything. She was happy and excited that this day had finally come—she was going to Seaborn to be introduced to what would be her people as well, to celebrate her engagement to her true love—but nerves still had what felt like a herd of dragons flapping around in her stomach.

"You're as twitchy as Happy on too much coffee."

Snow spun around at Red's wry comment to find her two friends standing in the doorway, both in their cloaks, ready to go. She twisted her engagement ring around her finger, chewing on her lower lip. "Well, I do have some justification for it." She ran her hands pointedly over the skirt of her white lace dress, a brand new one of a style designed both to allow for and conceal the changes her pregnancy would bring. "This is James' kingdom, his home, his people…" Her fingers convulsively twisted the soft material between them. "What if they hate me?" Tears blurred her vision.

Red and Ella shared bemused looks before moving forward to hug their princess.

"Snow, I find it exceedingly difficult to believe that anyone could truly hate you." Ella worked to keep her voice even, knowing that the older woman hadn't reacted well before to any perceived amusement at her worries.

Blinking furiously, Snow pressed her face into her friends' shoulders. "I just… I love James so much and I want this to work, but what if I embarrass him, or his father doesn't approve of me?"

Red pulled back, Ella following suit as the other woman cupped Snow's face between her palms, making sure her sister was meeting her eyes. "George would be mad to not approve of you, and even if he didn't James wouldn't care, he loves you, and nothing his father could think or say will change that ever."

The princess' lips trembled before she bit down on the bottom one, both hands curving protectively around her still-flat belly. "What about the baby? What if they—"

"Snow," Red quickly cut in, "you know there's going to be scandal and talk, but you and James love your baby. Whatever may come you will deal with it together."

Ella squeezed Snow's hand, drawing her attention. "And we'll all be there to help and support you both, always."

Tears glittering in her eyes, Snow's lips curved in a tremulous smile as she pulled them back into a tight hug. "Thank you, both of you." After a few moments she released them, swiping at the tears that'd fallen. "Ugh, I'm sorry. This pregnancy just seems to have made me an emotional mess."

Red smirked as she helped her sister wipe away the evidence of her tears. "I have yet to meet a woman that wasn't so affected by pregnancy, and considering I've been assisting Granny since I was 10 we know that says something," she teased.

With a half-hearted huff, Snow swatted her friend's shoulder.

Ella gently carded her fingers through the princess' dark curls. "It's all going to work out, Snow." The absolute faith and assuredness in her tone drew both of her friends' gazes, and determination shone in her eyes. "I know it will."

"And if anyone tries to ruin things we'll just shut them up permanently. I believe between two kingdoms there're plenty of places to lose a body or ten," Red cheerfully chimed in.

ONCE~ONCE~ONCE~ONCE

Seaborn

James had to force himself not to squirm or bounce on his toes impatiently, gaze fixed on the lane leading up to the castle. His father's presence beside him on the palace steps was a reminder that it wouldn't do well for all their subjects crowded around them to see him twitching like a cat's tail. He clenched his hands together behind him to keep from fidgeting with his more formal clothing, the red velvet stiffer in quality and cut than his usual leather doublet, the collar feeling even more constricting with the cravat.

Most of the townspeople lined the streets, along with many more coming in from the outlying villages, all curious to get their first glimpse of their future queen, and the Everland party should be arriving at any moment.

He breathed slowly in and out through his nose, trying to calm himself so that he would remain still for however long he had to wait. Just then he could hear a slowly increasing roar from the main road, the sound drawing and coming closer. The party had entered the town, and James' hard-earned, even breathing was lost; he sucked in a breath, fingers nearly white-knuckled in their grip behind his back.

After seemingly interminable moments the carriage, attending wagons and guard appeared around the bend, the horses trotting through the gates. James' heart tripped in his chest, need vibrating through his entire body. The week without seeing Snow, being unable to hold her in his arms, place his hand over her stomach and feel that the two most important people in the world to him were safe had been much more difficult than he'd thought it would be, and these last minutes were excruciating.

The horses came to a stop with the carriage at the foot of the steps; James was supposed to remain with his parents and brother at the upper landing, but he was just too impatient.

With an aborted, admonishing "James" from his father, which the prince pretended not to hear, he bounded down the stairs, reaching the bottom just as the door to the carriage opened. James came to a relatively graceful stop, once again adopting a proper stance as the king and queen of Everland stepped out.

Regina eyed him, an eyebrow raised, with a less than impressed look at his over-eagerness, before turning to help the attendants aid Leopold out of the carriage. Meanwhile the king, once he was standing straight, met James' eyes with outright amusement.

Trying to ignore the warmth crawling up the back of his neck to his ears, the prince executed a perfect bow, figuring that properly observing such a courtesy would cover his sin of impatience. "Your Majesties."

They both nodded their heads in response before moving away so that he could be put out of his misery.

Though not immediately.

Red climbed down next, smirk broad on her face as she allowed him to hand her down. "One would think you were anxious for something…or someone, Prince James."

He barely suppressed an eye roll—royals do not roll their eyes, at least not in public—glaring at her instead. "Does Liam know what he's getting into?" he muttered back.

Her smirk became a grin. "He thinks he does."

James nearly choked on a laugh as she walked away, covering it with a light cough, before reaching back for Snow's hand, only for a different one to shoot out and take his.

"How very kind. Thank you, Prince James." The smile Ella gave him was completely and utterly proper…but the mischief sparkling in her eyes was another story entirely.

"I think I liked you better when you were afraid to even say a word to me," he bit out.

A giggle managed to escape the blonde before she could stifle it as she joined Red a few feet away, waiting for their princess.

James stepped closer to the carriage and peered inside at his fiancée, finally able to make her out in the more shadowed interior: white teeth biting her ruby red lower lip, trying to hide a grin, and the amusement dancing in her eyes…and the nerves.

"So, are we done stalling, or should I hop inside with you and we can go find someplace secluded to camp?" His voice was light, teasing, but he noted all the signs of anxiety in her closely, truly ready to spirit her off if she asked him to.

Snow gnawed on her lip for a moment longer before taking a deep, bracing breath and reaching out to him; his hand instantly catching and twining with hers. "All right, let's go."

Slowly the dark-haired princess allowed him to help her down from the carriage and into full-view of his people for the first time. James' fingers tightened around her trembling ones as they climbed the steps up to his family, her two best friends falling in step behind them—he would never say it, but he was unspeakably grateful to have them there for Snow.

He could make out the hum of murmurs from the crowd behind them, and knew Snow was not what they'd been expecting. She hadn't done her hair up in a complicated up-do, instead leaving it in her favored style of only pulling a little back at the sides, the silver and diamond comb holding it back her only adornment; the rest of her dark curls tumbled carelessly down the back of her pure white, embroidered cloak, again far simpler in style and ornament than most nobles would have it. A smile curved James' lips, because he knew that that very simplicity, one of the things he and her own people loved most about her, would be one of the things that his people would grow to love her for.

Finally they reached their parents, her father and stepmother having already greeted the Seaborn monarchs; James drew her with him to stand before his own.

"Father, Mother," he began the formal presentation. "I would like to present Princess Snow White of Everland, my fiancée."

Snow curtseyed deeply, murmuring, "Your Majesties," before rising again and meeting their gazes with bated breath.

James fancied that he could hear the heartbeats of the crowd, all waiting the formal acceptance or dismissal of the engagement, but that was probably just the thunder of his own pulse in his ears.

King George stepped forward, hands reaching for the princess', which she took, and speaking clearly and loud enough to carry to the crowd without shouting, "Princess Snow White, my wife and I are thrilled to be welcoming you to our kingdom and to our family."

The release of tension was palpable, James could hear the breath that Snow released as the people gathered cheered. As both of his parents embraced their daughter-in-law-to-be, James knew that the applause from their subjects was more formality than actual joy, but given time and knowing his beloved, someday soon the shouts would contain real happiness.

He took Snow's hand, both of them turning to wave to the crowd, his eyes frequently straying to her face, still able to see how nervous she was, and James thought in that moment that the hardest part of all might be convincing Snow herself that she would be accepted. Something James was more than up to the challenge of doing because if there was any subject he wouldn't have a problem with it would be telling and showing his fiancée all the different ways she was truly amazing.

ONCE~ONCE~ONCE~ONCE

So, not an overly exciting chapter, I know, I'm sorry, I was setting things up for what is going to happen next, though I've been looking forward to finally bringing Nova in FOREVER. XD I'm excited for quite a lot of what I have planned now that they're there and everyone knows they're engaged. Thank you for reading! Please, let me know what you think!

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