a/n: I'm playing on a new playground here, so be gentle with me :) title and lyrics are from The Civil Wars's Poison & Wine. I'm sure my speculation on the relationship between Snow White and the evil Queen and what happened with them will turn out to be wildly off base, but it's always fun to speculate :)
You only know what I want you to,
I know everything you don't want me to.
Oh, your mouth is poison, your mouth is wine.
You think your dreams are the same as mine,
Oh, I don't love you, but I always will.
It isn't as easy to forget Snow White as he needs it to be.
A thousand other concerns should plague him, complications with the merger foremost. But all he can think of as he stares out from his balcony at the forest is the girl it hides, and he can't seem to escape thought of her, of bright eyes, of a mischievous smile, of far too much charm for a thief.
And weeks pass like that, her face clear as day even when he closes his eyes.
The forest between their kingdoms stretches back into a dark abyss, and he knows most people don't explore past the first hundred acres. His uncle used to tell him stories about the nightmares that existed in the depths of that forest. A part of him always wanted to fight those nightmares.
He wonders if Snow White has. He thinks she must have, and that makes him smile.
It isn't hard to learn more about her. He asks Thomas, who mentions the classic story of the fallen princess who murdered anyone who might stand in her path to throne. She even murdered her father so that he couldn't produce another heir, only for her stepmother to reveal her evil schemes.
James won't believe that. He can't imagine how anyone who's ever met Snow White would.
Of course, it isn't really his concern whether or not Snow White is innocent. His concern would be better spent on the western kingdom ready to seek a merger via a marriage with his fiancée, as if they can sense his hesitation, as if they know he finds himself unable to make his proposal formal.
He does want to marry her, because his kingdom needs him to marry her.
As he stands yet again on the balcony, the forest laid out in front of him, the ring a warm weight in the palm of his hand, he tries to tell himself that he needs to offer it to Abigail. But he can think only of Snow White, laughter in her voice as she tells him she still likes Charming better.
She'd probably love how frustrated he is because of her, and somehow that makes him smile, too.
No one can really tell him what happened.
The doctors don't even have a solid timeframe. They simply say that he's been an unconscious John Doe for years now. He can't really focus on the ambiguity of it all, though, when Catherine hovers around him and tells him all about his life, all about the memories he doesn't have, as if that'll fix it.
He listens desperately to her stories, trying to make them into memories, but it doesn't work. Before long all he wants to do is leave the hospital, is escape her if only for an hour, is take a deep breath of the sharp, cold air that filled his lungs when another woman saved his life.
He doesn't have anyone to be but David Nolan, recovering from an unclear accident and dependent on a doting, loving, apologetic wife, but somehow he'd rather be nobody than be David Nolan.
It's terrible, he knows, but he can't help it.
And when Mary Margaret comes by, a small smile on her soft, pale face, her dark hair falling into her eyes, she asks him how he is, and he wants to pour out every thought in his head to her. He doesn't know why. He feels comfortable around her, and he tries not to question that.
"I'm sick of this place," he admits.
She looks sympathetic as she places a new cheap vase of flowers by his bed.
"It must be hard," she says. "But, you know, for somebody who's been in a coma for so many years, you really have a lot more muscle and a lot more dexterity than you should. That's something, right? I mean, they won't keep you here much longer."
He nods, and he manages to smile for her before she leaves.
A few days later, on her rounds, she brings him a book. "I was reading this to you when you woke up," she explains. "It's just a book of fairy tales, but if you want to escape for a little while, it always makes me feel better." Her smile is so sweet that he can't say no, and he takes the book.
A castle servant wakes him up, and James can smell the smoke in an instant.
He stumbles out of bed, races to the balcony, and feels his breath stop in his chest at the sight of the forest up in flames. His first thought is of Snow White. He hasn't seen her in over a month, and she could well have left the forest, but if she is still hidden within it, then she could be in danger.
Or, and his stomach clenches at the very thought, what if the fire is actually about her? What if the fire is meant to smoke her out? This could be yet another clever plot by the Queen to capture her.
That can't be his main concern, though: a fire like this threatens more lives than hers.
No one in the castle knows what started the fire, but James takes some of his best men, those who haven't already left ahead of him, and sets out on horseback. His plans to visit Abigail that afternoon will have to wait. He arrives at the forest to find chaos, smoke thick in the air, people everywhere, tossing water, screaming, begging him to help put out the fire.
He knows how fast fire can spread from the forest itself to the homes of those who live in the villages right on the outskirts of the forest, but he can't do more to stop the fire than his men can, and they've already been set to the task before anyone even bothered to wake him.
And as he repeats that yet again, his eyes fall on the woman who wants Snow White dead.
She looks more regal than he expected, and younger, too, with thick dark hair, thick dark lips, and a thick dark dress, and a kind of twisted pleasure lights her eyes. He asks her if she requires anything from him or from his kingdom to help put this fire out and to find the people responsible.
"That's a generous offer," she replies, and her smile makes a slick kind of darkness slide beneath his skin. "But I've been told the fire is already under control, and I'm sure those responsible will not be able to hide from the watchful eyes of my guards. You may rest assured, sweet prince."
He nods, and he bites his tongue to bite back a question about Snow.
The rest of the day he spends with the villagers, helping them beat back the fire, comforting them, and by the time the last of the fire has finally been extinguished, miles of forest are nothing more than blackened skeletons of trees that reach up a sky dyed bloody red from the sinking sun.
The sight is gruesome, but worse still is the sight of the Queen, her face tight as James overhears every word she snarls at a guard. "I don't need to hear your adamant belief that she must have died in the fire because we would have caught her if she escaped. I will accept nothing less than proof. If you can't find me a body, you've lost my interest. I know she was in that forest. Find her."
His hands curl into fists.
The fire was about Snow White.
He can't sleep that night, and he knows what he has to do. The moment the sun lights the world again, he starts to pack for a few days leave from the castle. On his way to the stables, though, his uncle catches him. "I've already brought the carriage out for you to call on Abigail," his uncle says.
James calmly replies that he isn't on his way to see her, and he steels himself for a tirade. "If you do not go to that woman today," his uncle tells him, "if you do not apologise for yesterday, if you do not formally propose, we could lose everything. You have a responsibility, James!"
"This isn't about that," he replies. "I have other matters to address."
"It isn't your concern."
His uncle explodes. "It should be," he snaps, spit flying. "You are not a child any longer! You are not free to gallivant around wherever you like whenever the fancy strikes you! You can say your responsibility to your people required you to remain by the forest until the fire had been put out, but your people require something greater of you now. You cannot ignore that, James!"
"I'm not about to ignore anything," he says. "I know my responsibilities. But they can wait."
He sets off to the sound of still more furious lectures from his still more furious uncle, and he turns his mind to Snow. The fire didn't push her to leave the forest, that much is clear, and she didn't die in the fire either. He refuses to believe otherwise. She survived, and that leaves a single alternative.
She went deeper into the forest, into the endless darkness that extends far beyond where he himself has ventured, beyond any trails, beyond any hunting trips, beyond any breath of civilisation.
And he'll find her.
"You know I have a kid in my class who thinks that book is based on a true story," Mary Margaret tells him, "and the curse at the end put all the characters in the book here in Storybrooke, trapped."
"And which character is he?" David asks.
He likes these moments, lives for them, really, when Mary Margaret comes by his room on her rounds. It's only been two weeks, but the best days of those two weeks are days when she visits, and her visits are longer and longer each time. She sits on his bed now, the book between them.
His wife is supposed to come by after work tonight, to bring him a decent dinner from the outside world, but he knows this conversation with Mary Margaret will be the highlight of his day.
"Oh, he isn't in it," she says. "That's why he can recognise the truth." She smiles, eyes bright.
"That works out well," he says.
"I know, right?" She laughs a little, the sound musical, and he can imagine her as a fairy tale princess, with a voice so melodic that birds befriend her, with a smile so sweet she can't possibly have anything other than a happy ending. "You know, you're in this book."
"Oh, yes. You're Prince Charming. It's very clever, see. At the end of the story, Prince Charming falls unconscious at the hand of enemy swords, and in this world you were trapped in a coma."
"He's a smart kid," David says.
Mary Margaret nods, and her voice turns soft. "He's a special kid."
"He was the one with us, wasn't he? When you — when you saved my life?"
She nods. "His name is Henry." It's quiet for a moment, and he watches her face as she looks down at her hands, fiddles with her ring. But then she looks back up at him abruptly, brow a little furrowed, half a smile on her face. "You wanna get out of here for a little while?"
"You mean leave the hospital?"
She nods. "A little fresh air?"
"Yeah," he says, "I think I could use some fresh air. I don't know if they'll let me out, though. I'm released in three days, but I'm barely allowed to walk across this room by myself."
Her smile is a little brighter this time. "Oh, I have some pull." She bites her lip.
And her pull works. The doctors have them jump through hoops, making them promise to return in an hour, making them sign a slew of forms, making Mary Margaret push him out of the hospital in a wheelchair. But at long last they do let them leave, because no one can deny Mary Margaret.
As they walk out towards the woods, he walks beside her, the wheelchair abandoned.
She tells him about her work, about some more of her students, and finally a soft, quiet, comfortable lull falls. They stand on the bridge and overlook the spot where she brought him back to life, and he finally admits it. "I think I'd rather be Prince Charming," he says.
He can feel her gaze flicker to him, but he only stares down at the railing.
"I know I'm supposed to be David Nolan, but it doesn't fit. I don't know what does."
Her smile is sad when he finally looks at her. "Prince Charming suits you," she says.
They both look out at the water, and a few minutes later they have to head back. They pick up the wheelchair on the edge of the forest, and he dutifully lets her wheel him back into the hospital.
He forgets to ask her which character she is.
It takes most of the day to ride through the ashes and dead trees and destroyed forest, but soon enough splashes of green reappear. And barely half an hour later trees with heavy branches and thick foliage that blocks out the evening sun surround him, the world once more untouched by fire.
He suppresses a shiver at the thought that the fire couldn't spread here because an old, deep magic is too thick where he now stands. It doesn't matter. If magic protects this forest, all the better.
He can feel the steed under him slow, though, the roots and the rocks and the magic in the air too much for the poor horse, and each night he sleeps with a hand on the hilt of his sword. He can't find a trace of human existence for days, but at long last he sees a bush, the berries picked clean, and he knows the difference between the bite of a deer and the hand of a human.
If Snow picked those berries, she can't be far.
It doesn't take him long to find a trail.
And as another day starts to fade, marking a week in the forest, he finds himself face to face with a misshaped cottage. Smoke rises from the chimney and the windows glow a golden yellow, lighting up the small clearing even as the sun sets. His first thought is of witches, but he can't be sure yet.
He needs to stake the house out.
It could be that Snow doesn't simply live in scattered caves throughout the forest. This could be her home now, or it could belong to someone friendly to her. He needs to find a way to hide his horse.
"I'd be more impressed," she says, "if I hadn't just walked up right behind you."
Hand on his sword, he spins around to face Snow White, a smirk on her face and a stack of firewood in her arms, and he can't help his grin. Her cheeks are pink from the cold, and her eyes glitter with amusement. "Prince Charming," she says, shaking her head at him, "why are you here?"
"I wanted to find you," he replies.
"And you always find me," she says, lips quirked.
"Always," he replies.
"But surely you had reason to find me, and I don't believe I've stolen anything from you recently."
"I should hope not," he says. "Actually, I — I thought you might need some help."
Her face is puzzled for a moment, but only for a moment, and then her expression turns fierce. "I'm not vermin in the ground," she snaps, "the Queen will have to do better than fire. The magic in this forest is far more powerful than that, and her curses can't penetrate the heart of these woods."
"She certainly managed to do a fair amount of damage," he replies.
"I know," she murmurs, anger dulled. "This whole forest came alive, and even from here I could see the smoke." She takes a deep breath, fingers pressing into the stack of wood in her arms. "But I'm fine, really. And I suppose you'd like a place to stay tonight, wouldn't you?"
He nods. "You live here?" He holds out his hand to take the firewood from her.
She ignores the gesture. "I only just started to stay here a few weeks ago," she explains, taking the reigns of his horse from him. "It belongs to seven brothers, and they've given me refuge."
"You live with seven brothers?"
She rolls her eyes at his expression. "It's not like that," she says. "They're dwarves, for one. They mine in the hills a few miles from here. And, like most of their kind, they aren't particularly skillful at domestic chores. I've started to repay their offer of refuge by helping around the house, cooking and cleaning, mostly. They're a strange set, but they've been good to me these last few weeks."
"I'm glad," he says. "You need people on your side."
She only shoots him an amused glance in response, and she takes his horse around to the side of the house, where more than enough hay and even a trough of water are all set up. He unsaddles the steed, and Snow leads him into the house. It's tiny, and he has to duck his head even to walk in the front door, but it's warm, and he likes that she has a place to stay, has a roof over her head.
He follows her into a kitchen, and he takes a seat at the end of a long, squat table as she crouches in front of the stove and starts to load the fresh firewood in. "How terrible is the damage?" she asks. She turns around to face him again. "From the fire," she adds, "how much did the forest suffer?"
"It isn't pleasant," he admits. "The fire ravaged acres of land, especially along the strip between our two kingdoms. It was magic in the end that really put it out. I suspect it was magic that started it."
She shakes her head, lips pressed together. "I can't believe she would really stoop to that."
And he stares at her for a moment, thick hair intertwined with flowers and falling around her shoulders, face pale and smudged but still so round and soft. She makes his heart flutter in a kind of indescribable way, but her eyes finally find his again, and he clears his throat.
"All things lost can be restored," he says. "The forest will recover."
"I hope you're right," she replies, turning back to the stove. "This forest is home to many more than me, and they don't deserve to run anymore than I do." She sounds simply tired now, her shoulders sloping down, and he wants to ask why. Why is she tired? Why is she on the run? Why has she let this become her life, if she really is as innocent as she says she is, as innocent as he knows her to be?
"And what about your plans to escape this forest?" he asks.
"They've been put on forced hold, actually," she says. She glances over her shoulder to look at him. "I have the wealth I need. But as if she can feel how close to freedom I am, the Queen has been particularly vigilant these past few weeks. Her guards surround the forest entirely, and if I try to make an escape now, it'll be a disaster. At this point I may need to wait out the winter."
"If you need true refuge, I'm sure my kingdom can provide it."
She turns around entirely, then, crossing her arms over the chest. "It isn't that simple. I'm a wanted woman in your kingdom as well as in any other. You're well aware of that, I'm sure."
He is. "But you didn't commit the treachery that the Quinn claims you did," he says.
"I've already told you I didn't," she says sharply. After a moment, his gaze steady on her, she sighs. "I've done the worst kind of treachery in her mind, and that's what matters."
He waits for more, but she doesn't offer anything else; she only pulls something out of the oven.
And before he can think of a singe thing to say, a rumble of voices turns his head to the hall and to the front door that bangs open, but he looks towards Snow to find her entirely unconcerned.
"Snow!" someone cries. "We're home!"
"We're home, Snow!" someone else shouts, and half a dozen voices all echo the same.
James pushes himself to his feet, banging his head on the ceiling, and moments later the dwarves pile up in the doorway of the kitchen at the sight of him. He nods, smiles, and starts to introduce himself. Snow interrupts him. "This is Prince Charming," she says calmly, and the dwarves all turn their eyes to her. "I told him he could stay for a night if he helped me fix the broken lock upstairs."
"I told you'd I'd fix that!" one dwarf says, stepping forward. "But welcome, Prince Charming!"
"That's Happy," Snow tells James.
"She has nicknames for all of us," Happy explains, smiling brightly. "She's a sweetheart like that."
James looks at Snow, who only shrugs, and he smiles as she introduces the dwarves one by one. They are an odd set, and they're loud and rowdy as they eat, each continually asking for still another mug of beer. They ask James all sorts of questions, even as they tell him how much they adore Snow. "She's just the best!" Sleepy declares, eyes half closed as he nurses his beer. "Isn't she?"
James bites back a smirk as Grumpy only grunts. Snow named them well.
It doesn't take long before the dwarf called Doc pulls out some kind of instrument, and Dopey begins to pound his hands against the table in time to the music. And all at once all seven dwarves break into some sort of folk song, and when they reach the chorus, Snow joins them suddenly.
Her voice is as powerful as theirs, and Sleepy and Sneezy hook arms and start to dance, kicking their feet up loudly. Snow tips her head back and laughs, face pink, clapping her hands and stomping her feet, and she looks over at James, nudges his elbow, eyes so bright. He claps, too, singing the chorus the third time around with them, and the dwarves roar their approval.
The lyrics are nonsense but easy to follow, and for the next song Grumpy pulls out a flute, adding to all the noise as all their voices rise up to the ceiling. Happy pulls Snow up to dance, and her laughter is even louder as Happy tries and fails to spin her around. Her eyes catch on James again, and she runs her hand over the slope of his shoulder. "You can dance, can't you, Charming?"
He takes her hand, and he can dance, but he can barely keep up with this fast, loud dance. He kicks his feet, though, and tries to follow her lead. She squeezes his hands tightly, lets him spin her, and for a moment he finds her pressed close to him, her warm cheek against his, her laughter against his ear.
Before too long, though, the song and the dance and the laughter fade away little by little, as the dwarves drunkenly fall asleep one by one, and soon enough most of the dwarves start to stumble off to bed, until only Snow and James are left awake. Snow now tiptoes around the sleeping dwarves to pick up their plates. James offers to help, but she waves him aside.
"You have to save your strength to fix that lock for me tomorrow," she tells him.
"What if I don't have the faintest idea how to fix a lock?" he asks.
She shrugs. "You seem resourceful. I'm sure you'll figure it out."
He smiles down at the table, and a few minutes later she motions for him to follow her out of the kitchen. As they sit on the fat living room chairs, she hands him a mug of beer, clinks it with her own, and downs half her glass at once. "If we're such fast friends now," she says, tilting her head at him, "will I have an invitation to the wedding?"
"Would you come?" he asks.
"No," she replies, "but it's nice to be wanted, you know." Her smirk is playful.
"Well, to be honest, it probably doesn't matter at this point," he admits, taking a sip of beer. It's warm and dark, and he meets her gaze again. "I'm not so sure the wedding will still take place."
"Really?" She looks genuinely surprised. "What happened? Your sweetheart didn't love the ring?"
"No, that's not the problem. I'm sure she would love the ring if I offered it to her."
"You haven't?" Her lips turn up a little now, her eyes bright, as if she's impressed.
He only shakes his head. "I'm not sure why, but I haven't." It's quiet. He doesn't want to talk about Abigail. He isn't here for Abagail. "You shouldn't have to hide," he finally murmurs. "This shouldn't be your life, however kind these dwarves are. Your stepmother married into royalty, but you were born a princess, and the throne still rightfully belongs to you. It always will."
"It isn't that simple," Snow replies.
"You're scared," he says.
"She wants to tear my heart out," Snow hisses, "of course I'm scared. It wouldn't be bravery to traipse into the kingdom and declare myself the rightful heir. It would be stupidity,and I like my heart exactly where it is, thank you very much."
He raises his hands up in mock surrender, and she sighs.
"Trust me," she says, "the idea has occurred to me, but it isn't in my future, I've realised that."
"What did you do to her?" he asks. "I've tried to learn the story, and I never realised how little I actually knew, or how little anyone really knew. But those with whom I've spoken say she's despised you since you were a little girl, and all the trouble began when your father died."
"That sounds right," she replies. She sighs. "She claims I murdered my father. It isn't true. He was the only person I've ever really loved, my father, and I would never have hurt him. But as far as she's concerned, I did take him from her." She pauses for so long he thinks she might not continue, but finally, sighing again, she goes on. "The Queen was the fairest of them all, a Miller's daughter whose beauty won her the love of the King, and with his love she had all the power she had always wanted. And then. . . ." Her gaze is over his shoulder now, her mind lost in the past.
"And then?" he finally murmurs, trying to pull the story from her as gently as she can.
"And then," she repeats, "and then she had a daughter that all the world, even her beloved husband, believed to be more beautiful. She grew to hate that little girl, with lips as red as blood, hair as black as ebony, and skin as white as snow." She drinks the last of her beer and looks at him.
He can only stare at her. "I thought — I thought she was your stepmother."
"No," Snow replies. "The Queen is my mother. After my father died, when I was still a little girl, she turned particularly cold towards me, and all sorts of stories flew, stories that I was only her stepdaughter. But stories can be a lie, and that story was. I'm her daughter, her only child. To her credit, my father did have a first wife who died in childbirth, but the child died, too."
It doesn't make any sense, yet at the same time it makes all the sense in the world.
He tries to think of something to say, but he can't find a single word, not before she puts together a makeshift bed on the floor in front of the stove for him, and then she disappears upstairs. The cottage becomes still and quiet, yet it takes him ages to fall asleep as he watches the fire in the hearth die.
But he must find sleep at some point, because Snow White kicks him lightly in the stomach to wake him up, and the house is as chaotic as it was the night before. The dwarves head off to work in short order, and Snow cleans the kitchen as James finishes his breakfast. She sends him upstairs to fix that damned lock, laughing as she does, but it isn't really a difficult task.
The fog that fell last night is still thick around his legs when he saddles his horse.
"Are you satisfied?" Snow asks, petting the horse.
"With what I've told you," she replies. "Your curiosity drove you here, didn't it?" She raises her eyebrows at him. "But you now know the story of how Snow White was chased from grace."
He shakes his head. "I'm glad the fire didn't reach you," he tells her
"Me, too." She smiles. "I hope you figure out what it is you want with your fiancee."
"Me, too," he echoes, but as he rides away, he looks back, and he finds her gaze on him. There's half a smile on her face as she turns away, lifting out her hand for a tiny blue bird to land on her fingers. He races onward, away from her, and he knows exactly what it is he wants.
The hospital releases him on a Thursday night, and Catherine drives him home in a Cadillac.
He likes the house, how bright the rooms are, how high the ceilings stretch, how much of the walls are taken up by windows. It's a strangely cold place, few pictures on the walls, few trinkets lining the tops of the fireplace or his dresser or the shelves in the living room, but it feels like a fresh start.
His own face smiles back at him from a picture atop her dresser, and he doesn't want to look at it.
As Catherine shows him from room to room, she explains little, simple details about the house, like how to use the washer and where she likes to keep the toilet paper. She tells him she doesn't much care to clean, so a maid service comes by on Monday afternoons. She doesn't like to cook much either, apparently, and she suggests they enjoy a celebratory dinner out.
It's nice to be out in the world, and the food is infinitely better than that served in the hospital.
He asks her what he does. "For a job, I mean."
"You're an accountant," she replies. She smiles. "The best in Storybrooke."
He can't say that's what he imagined, but she only continues. She tells him that she talked to the mayor about the employment situation, and the woman graciously offered him a position in her office, as they can always use another accountant. "She really is amazing," Catherine says.
Moments later, the bell over the door of the diner chimes and childish laughter breaks out as a little boy races in, face flushed. "I win!" he exclaims, spinning around to face the woman who comes in after him, her own face as flushed as his, her eyes bright. It's Mary Margaret.
"You had a head start!" Mary Margaret protests, laughing a little.
"It doesn't matter! I beat you here, and that means a slice of pie with my hot chocolate, right?"
Mary Margaret only shakes her head fondly at him and tells him to find a booth to sit in. She glances back at the door in time to smile at the woman who walks in, and David recognises her, too, because she was with Mary Margaret when he woke up. Her name is Emma, he thinks.
"David?" Catherine asks. "Are you listening?"
He looks back at her. "I'm —" He clears his throat. "I'm a little tired, that's all. I'm sorry."
Her face softens. "It's fine." She leans over the table and kisses him. And he tries to focus on her as she starts up the conversation again, as she talks about her work at the jewellery store on the edge of town. It isn't his fault that his attention drifts to the booth at the window, to Mary Margaret and to the little boy and to Emma, who all talk in softer voices now, too soft for him really to hear.
But when Mary Margaret goes to the counter for a moment, David interrupts Catherine, asks her if she wants a slice of cake, and she smiles sweetly and tells him something vanilla. At the counter, he touches Mary Margaret on the elbow, and her eyes fly to him. Her smile is instantaneous, and he loves her smile. "David! I didn't realise you'd been released yet!" Her gaze flickers to Catherine.
"It was only earlier this afternoon," he explains. "I've been awarded a clean bill of health."
"That's really great," Mary Margaret says, eyes back on him. "I'm so happy for you."
He nods. "Yeah, and I thought maybe — now that I'm out, I could maybe help you with something. I mean, just to repay the favour. You did save my life, and I can't very well do that, but if you need someone to, um, if you need anything — just let me know. I'd love to help you out."
He sounds like an idiot, but she doesn't call him on it.
"Oh, that's — that's really sweet of you," she says. "You're really sweet, David."
"Ms. Blanchard!" the little boy calls impatiently.
Mary Margaret smiles at the kid, and David orders a slice of vanilla cake. But then she looks at him again, a little more cautious, almost sheepish, even. "I'll definitely let you know if I need anything," she says. "And, um, you know, why don't I give you my address, okay? And if you need anything, like maybe somebody to talk to, you can stop by. I'll put my phone number, too."
He watches her write her address and her number in neat, loopy cursive on a napkin, and his fingers brush hers as she hands the napkin to him. He thanks her, and she abruptly hugs him, her skin warm and soft, her hair brushing his face. His eyes flicker closed as he returns the hug.
"I'll see you later, okay?" Her skirt twirls around her legs as she walks away, back to her booth.
And he looks at Catherine, who has her eyes on him, her smile tight.
It occurs to him for the first time that maybe the reason he feels so comfortable around a stranger like Mary Margaret is because she isn't really a stranger, and nobody has told him that yet.
His uncle is furious when he breaks off his engagement with Abigail.
And he sends a dozen people to James to make him change his mind, but no matter how much his uncle and those dozen people might insist that his kingdom requires this marriage, he won't bend.
He spends almost three weeks in her kingdom, first to break off the engagement with her as politely as he can. She huffs and tells him she's never considered them the best match anyway, and he thinks he can see a soft kind of relief in her gaze, despite everything else. The rest of the month is spent with her brother, wining and dining, trying to convince him that despite the failed attempt at a marriage, their territorial disputes in the North don't need to come to war.
It works, even if he leaves the kingdom with matters on edge.
He spends a fortnight down by the edge of the forest, and with help from Prince Philip, whose kingdom borders the southern most tip of the forest, he tries to clear the burnt, dead debris of the forest to make way for a fresh start. He sings that folk song from the dwarves as he works, much to the amusement of Philip, but the villagers who work with them simply sing along.
The Queen visits their encampment one afternoon, and she makes small talk with Philip as James watches from afar. He looks for similarities between her and Snow, but their thick, dark hair is all he can find; their demeanours are too different. He'll never really be able to reconcile the sweet, adventurous Snow White with the dark, awful Queen, who'd blast off her nose to spite her face.
"How did her husband die?" he asks Philip that night.
"He died in his sleep, I believe," Philip replies. "He was an older man, lost his first wife to childbirth, never had a son, and sickness took him, oh, ten years ago now, I think. The Queen accuses her stepdaughter, says she poisoned him, but she would have only been a little girl."
He speaks so casually, as if it means nothing, but he clearly doesn't think Snow White is guilty.
"The throne belongs to her stepdaughter, though," James says.
"That's a point of contention, actually," Philip replies. "She has a cousin, a little boy of seven, who would take the throne in most kingdoms as the next male relative in line, but courtiers of the kingdom says King George always made it clear he wanted his daughter to have the throne. The Queen, of course, claims that regardless of inheritance laws, the throne can't go to her stepdaughter, what with all the treachery and the treason she claims the girl committed."
James nods, and he watches as Philip scrapes the last of his soup from his bowl.
"If Snow White were to make a bid for the throne that rightly belongs to her," he starts, and Philip looks over at him, eyebrows raised, "and my kingdom were to support her, would yours?"
Philip doesn't reply for a moment. "You spend a lot of time in this forest," he says. "And this forest is supposedly where Snow White hides." It's a question, but James doesn't answer it.
"If she made a bid for the throne," James repeats, "would your kingdom back her claim?"
"If it would mean the kingdom would be in hands other than those of the Queen," Philip says, "and if it would mean that you trust Snow White, wanted as she is, then . . . yes. I think I would. And I can think of a few others who might as well, especially after the fire that nearly destroyed a forest that belongs to all our kingdoms." He stares at James for a moment, and James only nods again.
That's exactly what he needed to hear.
It isn't hard to find a routine, to find his way back into a kind of reality.
His job is simple, really, and the Mayor tells him to take his time as he relearns the ropes. Catherine always seems so eager to please, to find a way to entertain him, to take him for a night out, to help him remember what he begins to doubt he ever will. It isn't so terrible to be David Nolan.
But then he sees Mary Margaret across the street, or he spots her walking with Emma in the grocery store, or he hears her laughter from down the hall when he stops by the hospital for a check up, and he feels drawn to her to the point of utter frustration.
It doesn't help that he's assigned to look at the school budget, and suddenly he finds himself in her company every day at the tiny elementary school. He stops by her classroom at lunch his first day, and she invites him to eat lunch with her as he explains that his job will keep him at the school for a few weeks. They start to eat lunch together every day, then, a simple habit that neither questions, his lunch bought from the cafeteria, hers packed in a little brown bag every day.
He finally asks her on a Wednesday.
"We knew each other before my coma, didn't we?" He has to ask.
Startled, she only blinks at him for a moment. "No," she finally answers, shaking her head a little.
"If we didn't, then why did you read to me? Why did you run after me?"
"I — I read to you because I thought it might be good for you," she says, and she sets down her sandwich. "You'd been forgotten, no one to love you, no one to sit by your bedside, and I just felt like you needed someone. . . . And then when you woke, I felt responsible, and I —"
She shakes her head again, eyes almost apologetic.
"We really didn't know each other?" He searches her face. "Because every time I see you, I feel like I know you. And I feel like I —" He can't finish, and he doesn't think she needs him to.
"I think sometimes people are simply drawn to one another," she says softly.
"But shouldn't I be drawn to my wife?" he asks. She looks down, and he feels guilty. "I'm sorry, but I just don't know who I'm supposed to be, and I don't know how I'm supposed to lead a life that doesn't feel like my own. Everyone says the memories will return, but they haven't yet."
He swallows thickly.
"They still could," Mary Margaret says. Her fingers touch his, and he looks back at her. He lets her curl her fingers around his hand. "I know this must be so hard for you, but it was a miracle that you woke up after so many years, David. This is a second chance at life for you."
"What kind of life?" he asks. "The life I don't remember? Or the life I can imagine for myself?"
"I don't know," she says, voice still so soft. "I think that's up to you. It's your life."
She squeezes his hand gently, and he doesn't want to let her go, but he does, because she isn't his wife. She might say his life is his own, but a person doesn't have a life all his own; a person has a life shared with other people, and David can't abandon his people. It wouldn't be right.
Mary Margaret pulls her hand from his, and she keeps her eyes on her food as she opens her yogurt. He looks down at his tray of food, and then he glances around the classroom. He clears his throat a little. "Are those lima bean plants?" he asks.
"Yes, actually," Mary Margaret says. "I thought it would be fun for the kids to grow something."
They keep the conversation safe, and on his way home from the school he picks up flowers for his wife. Her smile is pretty, too, when he hands them to her. He thinks if he had never known Mary Margaret, he could imagine himself in love with Catherine. And what if that's exactly it?
What if a person meets his soulmate after he's already married somebody else?
That sounds stupid, though; soulmates and true love aren't the real world, and he needs to cling to the real world now more than ever if he wants any hope to remember his own life. That's what works best for him, a routine, a reality. But he eats lunch with Mary Margaret, and he eats dinner with Catherine. He dreams about Mary Margaret with longer hair, and he wakes up to a kiss from Catherine, and day by day even the real world turns too complicated for him.
He sleeps with Catherine three weeks after they release him from the hospital.
It's a Tuesday night, and they eat out again, and he tries to focus on his wife, on her constant chatter about her work and her friends and her parents. He tries to ignore the way, two tables away, Mary Margaret laughs until she cries at something Emma says.
And then at home he turns on the television, and he finds a football game, because Catherine likes when he watches football, since she tells him he used to love football. He expects her to fall asleep upstairs on the phone with one of her friends. Instead, she waits up for him, and when he climbs into the bed she kisses him. This kiss is different, more insistent, more pointed.
"I thought if anything might make you remember us," Catherine says, "it would be this."
But afterward, as she falls asleep, he stares at the lima bean plant in a painted pot that sits on his dresser. He remembers the way Mary Margaret smiled as she presented it to him, calling it just the kind of little cheer that everybody needs now and then.
It's easier to find Snow White than ever before, and he thinks maybe she wants it to be that way.
He doesn't even make his way too deep into the forest before, the midday sun bight enough to pierce through the trees and light the sprinkling of snow on the ground, he can see signs of her, signs of someone who knows this forest as well as he does. He waits for a moment.
"You wanted to sneak up on me again, didn't you?" he asks, leaning against a tree.
"I'll admit, I liked the idea, yes."
He smiles as he turns around to face her, and he finds her in a dress for the first time, with her hair piled atop her head. But the laced up boots, the dirt under her finger nails, and the smirk on her face are familiar sights. He can't seem to take the grin off his face, and she only smiles right back at him.
"And what do you need this time?" she finally asks, and she reaches out to pet his horse. "You can't possibly use the excuse that you were worried about me again, as I've seen little of the Queen or her guards in weeks, and you must know that."
"She has seemed particularly frustrated lately. The reward on your head has doubled."
Snow rolls her eyes, and she takes him by surprise, then, when she asks him if he wants something to eat. A cave of hers, an older one that she's only recently started to restock, is right up the hill. "The dwarves are well," she tells him, "but I thought I might try to make a run for it before the first heavy snow fall. I need to find a weak point in her wall of guards before I do, though."
"You still intend to leave, then?" he asks.
"At the first chance I can."
He watches her for a moment as she leads them through the woods. "I have another idea," he says.
She glances at him, and he stops, waiting, watching as her forehead creases and she stops, too. He can see her eyes search his face. "Another idea?" she finally repeats, a puzzled smile on her lips.
"I used to believe that a person learned to love," he says.
Her smile turns only more puzzled, but he doesn't let her interrupt. "I thought that love wasn't something without rhyme or reason," he says, holding her gaze, "wasn't spontaneous, wasn't something that came from first sight or first kiss — like you believed."
"I still believe that," Snow says.
He stares at her, watches her lips part a little, and then she drops her gaze, and he swallows thickly. He takes a step closer to her. "I was prepared to marry for my kingdom, and I firmly believed I would learn to love Abigail. But then I met you, and all I can think now is that to learn to love someone seems a terrible fate when true love exists." And she feels the same, he knows it.
"That's nonsense," she replies, shaking her head.
But he reaches out and touches his hand to her cheek, and he can see her breath catch.
"You don't have to run," he says, his heart hammering. "Come back with me, Snow."
She reaches up and rests her hand over his on her cheek. "I . . . I can't. . . ."
"You can," he murmurs, and he takes another step closer. "Your kingdom is yours, and I will help you claim it. Others will, too. You need only have the courage." He brushes his thumb against the soft skin of her cheek, flushed pink but still so cold. "The ring does fit you."
"No," she says. "We barely know each other, and you have — you have responsibilities, James. You're an honourable man. You can't walk away from that. And if I could take back my kingdom, I would, but it isn't as easy as you say, it simply isn't." Her eyes beg him to understand.
And he does understand, understands her fear, born of a mother who hates her, understands how easy it is to deny what a person really knows and feels and wants. It takes a different kind of fearlessness to face that, takes more than it does simply to survive in a magic forest.
He can't blame her for that. He turns her face just enough to kiss her cheek.
"Maybe you're right," he tells her. "Maybe I should do the honourable thing, and you should find an escape, and you and I shouldn't cross paths again. Maybe that would be best."
"James," she murmurs. But he takes her hand in his, and with his other hand he pulls the ring out from his breast pocket. He presses it into her hand. Her eyes fly from the ring to his face, and he smiles. "I can't —" He closes her hand around the ring, and her words cut short.
"Maybe it would be best, but I don't care."
He holds her fisted hand in both of his, and he steps close enough to feel her eyelashes flutter against his cheek, to feel her shiver. He kisses her cheek again, lingering for a moment.
"I'll take your kingdom back for you," he tells her. "And then I'll find you again."
He doesn't look back as he leaves.
He frowns when he sees Mary Margaret race suddenly down the fire escape of an apartment building, what must be her apartment building, he realises. He stops in the middle of the street for a moment as he watches her spins around in a panicked, frantic search for something.
It's below freezing out, snow fresh on the ground, and she'll freeze. What's the matter?
"Mary Margaret!" he finally calls out, and she spins around.
Her clothes are wet, her hair plastered to her head. "The bathtub in my apartment won't turn off, and the whole place is flooded, and the landlord told me to turn the water pump off out here, but I can't find it, and I don't know what to do! I don't have the money to pay for all of the repairs —!"
"I can help," he volunteers. He doesn't know anymore about any of this than she does, but she certainly needs someone to help her. He starts up the fire escape, and she follows after him.
It isn't hard to find the bathroom, water splashing out of the tub, and he sees that she somehow managed to break the tub water faucet. He finds the water closet down the hall, and he can see she fiddled around in there, too, but it doesn't take him too long to find what she didn't and to shut the water off. He can hear her sigh in relief from the down the hall. "It worked!" she calls out. "Oh, thank God, David, it worked!"
She looks so incredibly happy, even with water lapping at her ankles, and he finally realises that the buttons on her sweater are mismatched, and as soaked as she is she must have already been in the tub when this happened. That sends his mind to all other places. "You wanted to repay me," she continues, oblivious to his thoughts. "I think this more than does the job!" She laughs a little.
He chuckles, too. "I'd say my life is at least worth a little flood control."
"At least," she says, and she starts to pull towels down from the bathroom closet. He takes one from her, and it's soaked in a moment. She uses spare sets of sheets to soak up more water when they run out of towels, and they manage to make that work, but the apartment is still a mess.
And on the way to the kitchen to make some hot chocolate, Mary Margaret slips.
He catches her awkwardly by the waist, and hoists her up, her skin warm through her wet sweater, and she's so close suddenly that he can feel her breath on his face. He can see the gold in her eyes, eyes that flicker to his lips, and her own lips are so close, full and pink. Her hand touches his face, fingertips brushing his ear so softly and slipping into his hair.
He feels everything when he looks at her. He feels full and complete, feels alive and adventurous, feels out of breath, and he can't explain any of it; it almost terrifies him, really, how her face so close to his feels like the warmth of the sun against his skin.
He feels like he loves her.
And then her thumb brushes against the scar on his chin, and he thinks of Catherine, who told him he tripped as a kid and skinned his chin. He thinks of Catherine. Mary Margaret leans forward, and he turns his head, lets her kiss catch on his cheek. Her fingers slip from his face, and he sets her on her feet properly so that he can step away, away from her, from her kisses, from her love.
"I'm supposed to be at the grocery store," he says.
"Oh, right," she replies, nodding, and she takes a step back, too. She won't look at him.
But he looks at her. "I can't," he breathes. He shouldn't. He has a wife, and he knows he can learn to love her even if he never remembers how he once did. He doesn't even understand what he really feels for Mary Margaret; it's too much to understand. This is all too much.
"I know," she says, and her eyes are wet now, her smile as broken as it is pretty. And when he reaches the door, ready to leave, she says his name, brings his gaze back to her. The apartment is a mess, towels and blankets all over the wet floors, and she stands in the middle of the mess. "Maybe you shouldn't eat lunch with me anymore," she says. "Maybe we shouldn't be friends."
He nods, and she doesn't look at him as he leaves.
James talks with Philip again, and he meets with Eric as well, and he knows he'll have Thomas on his side. But even with all their support, he can't find a way to dethrone the Queen. They're all wary at the idea of war, and that would be the most likely course at this point. Her people don't support the Queen, but her guards do, and they keep her insulated, the kingdom tightly in her grasp.
A month after he tells Snow he'll do this for her, he feels useless. When a courier brings word from Philip that he needs to talk about rumours he's heard, James can only think of the worst.
His mind spins to the possibility that the Queen has begun to spread a new web of lies, or perhaps even that the terrible woman has finally caught Snow, and his stomach turns at the thought. As he saddlers his horse, he wonders how furious his uncle would be if he simply had his own kingdom declare war on the Queen. His own men are more than a match for the Queen's guards, surely.
Anxiety sweeps over his horse suddenly, and James tries to calm her down, but then his own eyes catch on the cause of her abrupt fear, and his hand flies to the hilt of his sword.
"It's Prince James, isn't it?" Rumpelstiltskin asks. "Or do you prefer Prince Charming?"
James only draws his sword. "I know who you are, and if you make a single move with your dark magic, I'll slit your throat." He knows how Rumpelstiltskin appears in the darkest hours of despair, and he won't let himself be tricked, even in his own darkest hour. "You are not welcome here."
"Now, there isn't any reason to be so hostile," Rumpelstiltskin says. "After all, I'm only here to help you, dear prince! You might be a little nicer to somebody who wants to help you."
"I don't want your help," James snaps.
"Are you sure about that? It seems to me like you could use a little help. And I'm sure we could come up with a deal that even you find agreeable." He tilts his head, his crazy smile still in place.
"I will not make a deal with you," James replies, trying to keep his voice even, "and this is a waste of both our time." His sword in one hand and the reigns of his horse in the other, he makes to move past Rumpelstiltskin. "You will win nothing from me."
"You won't defeat her without me," Rumpelstiltskin continues, as if James hasn't started to walk away. "But I can deliver her to you! It won't be much that I ask in return. After all, the Queen has slighted me, too, and I don't let a slight go unanswered."
James pauses. If Rumpelstiltskin has his own reasons to take down the Queen, reasons other than to manipulate James, then maybe an alliance with him, for this alone, wouldn't be a mistake.
"Oh, ho, you're curious now, aren't you, Prince Charming?" Rumpelstiltskin laughs. "It's a simple story, really. I once made a deal with a pretty little girl. I told her I'd help her win herself a king, but in return she'd need to give me whatever I asked. She agreed, but she broke our deal."
"I fail to see how this has anything to do with me," James says.
"It was the Queen, don't you see?" Rumpelstiltskin says. "The evil Queen, people call her now. She agreed to give me anything, but when I'd turned her straw to gold, when I'd held up my end of the bargain, she refused to hold up hers. She refused to give me her first born child."
James turns to look at him, and Rumpelstiltskin nods. "Yes, that's right. I mean Snow White. And when the Queen cried that she couldn't hand over her child, I so benevolently offered another deal. I am a reasonable man. I told her if only she'd guess my name she could keep her baby. But she didn't guess it! She overheard it! She cheated!" His eyes flash with a kind of abrupt rage.
"The baby should have been mine! But, oh, make no mistake, the deal she broke haunted her, took from her what she made the deal for in the first place. It even made her hate the very child she wanted so desperately to keep. You cannot break a deal, Prince Charming!"
"Snow isn't yours," James says.
"Oh, I know," Rumpelstiltskin dismisses. "I want nothing with her now. But you and I have a common enemy, don't you see? We can help each other. I'll tell you what you need to know to bring down the Queen, and in return. . . ."
"And in return what?" James asks.
"You'll owe me," Rumpelstiltskin answers simply.
James stares at him for a moment. "You think I don't know what that means? You think I would be so stupid as to promise you anything, and then when the Queen had been locked away, when Snow and I were married and she became pregnant, you'd claim the child for yourself?"
"Now, now, I never said that I would ask for that."
James lifts his sword, forcing Rumpelstiltskin to back away. "I will not make a deal with you."
"Oh, oh, calm down," Rumpelstiltskin says, raising his hands up, "if you're sure, I'll be on my way. But should you change your mind, I'm sure you'll be able to find me." His smiles his crazy smile again. "Never fear, my prince, this isn't the last you'll see of me!" And he disappears with a soft pop. Slowly, James lowers his sword.
And, still shaken, he sets off to talk to Philip. It's a two day ride.
But he understands why Rumpelstiltskin chose that moment to talk to him when he arrives two days later and Philip explains his news. That was his darkest moment, yes, but it was also his last dark moment, because the tide has changed. "It's a rising murmur in her kingdom," Philip says, "and it's spread to mine. Apparently, Snow White has reached out to the peasants, to her people, and they've promised her their loyalty. They want their beloved princess back on the throne."
James thinks of what Rumpelstiltskin said. The evil Queen, people call her now.
More importantly, James realises, Snow wants to fight. He smiles.
"If you want to march on the kingdom," Philip says, "my men will be with yours, as will the people, and we can count on the western kingdoms to support us. Her dark magic is a threat to all of us." He pauses. "We can easily force the guards to stand down, lest a revolution begins. The Queen cannot resist outer and inner pressure. If you want to make a move, now is the time."
James nods. "Now is the time."
He misses Mary Margaret before even a week passes.
This is the right thing to do, but he doesn't really have any friends, doesn't really have anyone but Catherine. And Catherine can be sweet, but he doesn't really know how to talk to her, and she doesn't seem to need him to talk to her; she talks more than enough for the both of them.
His work takes him from the elementary school to the middle school, and that makes it easier to avoid Mary Margaret. But he still sees her around the tiny town, especially at the diner, where it becomes painfully clear how much he doesn't want to avoid her. He can't help that his eyes always stray to her whenever she's nearby, and he loses track of the number of times her friend Emma catches his gaze and silently demands he look away, demands he leave Mary Margaret alone.
He thinks a lot about if he had let her kiss him, what it would have been like, if he would have felt something. And he kisses Catherine, and he waits to feel something, but he can't, and he can't make himself happy with her, no matter how hard he tries. A part of him wants to blame Mary Margaret.
If she hadn't come into his life, if he hadn't opened his eyes for the first time to see her face, then maybe it wouldn't be so hard to like the life that was already carved out for him. But she did come into his life, and her smile was the first bright picture in his mind when he took a sharp breath of cold air, and he can't fit into this life. He kisses Catherine, and he wants to kiss Mary Margaret.
After a while, he starts to doubt it's worth the effort to pretend otherwise.
The little boy, the one who believes they're all cursed fairy tale characters, actually comes to his house on a random Thursday afternoon and begs him not to give up yet on Mary Margaret. "You're supposed to be with Ms. Blanchard," he tells David. "You're supposed to love her."
He doesn't really know what to tell the kid.
But as he hangs up the Christmas lights that Catherine has him bring down from the attic, he tries to make the display something special, because Mary Margaret told him how much she loves Christmas lights. She likes to drive all around town to see all the lights. He wants her to like these.
No matter how hard he tries, he can't fit into this life, and he can't forget Mary Margaret.
As a new year dawns, he kisses Catherine at midnight and he decides maybe he and Mary Margaret can be friends, despite what she said. He makes up excuses to stop by the diner as often as he can in hopes he'll see her when Catherine isn't around and he can actually approach her.
Of course, Emma is always around when Catherine isn't, and her expression is never pleasant when she looks at David, as if to warn him off, clearly protective. He understands, he does, but he doesn't think she really understands. The last thing he wants to do is hurt Mary Margaret. He finally sees Mary Margaret come in to the diner alone, snow in her hair and on the shoulders of her bright red pea coat. She glances around, and he stumbles out of his booth, waving to her. Her face freezes when she sees him.
"Mary Margaret," he says, smiling. "How are you?"
"Oh, I'm fine," she says, and she holds her purse close to her chest. "How are you?"
"I'm —" He suddenly doesn't know what to say. "I've missed you."
Her eyes soften.
They both spin around, and another man with balding blonde hair stands, a large, toothy smile on his face. David looks back at Mary Margaret, and she won't really meet his gaze. The man hugs her, and she laughs awkwardly. "Hi Stuart," she greets, and Stuart kisses her cheek.
"This is Stuart," she tells David, "and this is David." She looks back and forth between them, and Stuart holds his hand out to David. He shakes his hand, nods at the smile Stuart offers him, and he looks back at Mary Margaret, who has her gaze on the floor.
This is a date. She came to the diner for a date.
"I'll let you two enjoy your evening," David says, and he retreats back to his own booth, even as he watches from the corner of his eye as Stuart helps Mary Margaret out of her coat and pulls out a chair for her. He shouldn't be surprised. Why wouldn't Mary Margaret date? She's single.
She isn't married. She has no reason not to go out, to live her life. He should be happy for her.
As he leaves, he doesn't let himself look at her table, at her and at Stuart.
A week later, he buys two Valentine's Day cards. He wants Mary Margaret as his friend, and he tells her as much in the card. A few days later, he sees her in the check out line at the grocery store, and he doesn't try to push his way through the crowded store to talk to her, but he waves.
Her smile is soft as she waves back. It's the highlight of his week. And he knows that he loves her. It isn't scary.
It simply is what it is: love.
He makes the decision at that moment.
And that night, at the dinner table, he pushes his peas across his place and waits for Catherine to finish her explanation of the surprise party they threw her co-worker, Cindy, and how tacky all the decorations were, but that's to be expected with Janice in charge of decorations, obviously, and do you want another beer?
"I actually need to talk to you about something," he tells her.
"Oh, is everything okay?" she asks. She doesn't look too concerned.
"No," he admits, "it's really not."
She frowns, and she slowly sets her fork down. "What's the matter?"
He sets his own fork down, too. "I'm not happy. And I know that sounds selfish to say, but I've tried for months now to make myself want this life that is supposed to be mine, but it isn't working. I don't belong in this life. I wish I did. I wish I could." He really is sorry, and he needs her to know that.
She closes her eyes, touches her hand to her mouth for a moment, and she shakes her head sadly. He expects her to tell him that he just needs to be patient, that he'll remember his life soon, but instead when she finally opens her eyes and looks at him again, her gaze is resigned.
"I should have known this would happen," she says. "After all, it happened before."
He frowns. "It happened before?"
"I told you we had a fight before your accident, but that wasn't entirely true," she says. She pauses. "And neither was our marriage." His frown deepens, and he isn't sure he understands, but she only continues, tears brimming in her eyes. "We aren't married, David. We never were. We were engaged, but you called it off. You said we weren't really right for each other, and you left."
"But —" He shakes his head. No. That doesn't make any sense.
"When the Mayor called me," she explains, "she addressed me as Mrs. Nolan, and she said that the courts had a record of the marriage license we applied for, and I realised that nobody seemed to know that we weren't married, and this was my chance to win you back. . . ."
He pushes back from the table. "All this time, all these months," he starts, and he finds he isn't angry, isn't even frustrated. "I've tried to remember a life that didn't exist. I tried to remember a lie."
It's almost a question, and her answer is tearful.
"I thought we could have a fresh start!" she protests. "And it wasn't all a lie, it wasn't!"
He swallows thickly. "I do need a fresh start," he says. Her lip trembles, and he stands, and she breaks into tears, burying her face in her hands. He can't think of anything to say to her, not now, anyway. All he can think of is Mary Margaret. He grabs his wallet on the way out of the house.
"It doesn't matter what you do to me," the Queen hisses, teeth barred. "You've already lost your happy ending, Prince Charming." The nickname on her lips is poison, and he hates the triumphant gleam in her eyes, but she has no power anymore. Her words are an empty threat.
His forces, along with Philip's, marched into the kingdom, and the people rallied behind them, cheering, throwing flowers as if for a homecoming. Her guards fought, but they were easier to take down than James could have imagined. It was easy to take the kingdom, really.
Still, the Queen fled, and it took over three days to find where she hid in the forest.
That doesn't matter now.
"You have been stripped of your throne," he tells her, "for attempted murder of the rightful heir, for treachery, for treason, and surely for crimes worse than anyone here would like to imagine."
He nods at the guards who have a hold of her, her magic so precariously suppressed, and they pull her to her feet. He grips the hilt of his sword, lest she try to make some last minute escape. He'll escort her to the dungeons down below, and he'll see any last vestige of power taken from her.
"It won't make a difference," she tells him, and she looks insane now, eyes wide, "you can lock me up for all eternity, it wouldn't save her, that foolish, trusting child."
He doesn't want to ask, but he has to. "What is that supposed to mean?"
"Your precious Snow White," the Queen says, her whole face contorted, "accepted an apple from a stranger, and a bite of that is the last bite she ever took." Her smile isn't a smile. "She took from me what I loved most, and now you can know how that feels."
His heart pounds in his chest. "You lie."
She laughs, and then she lunges forward suddenly, and the guards restrain her, and they start to drag her away. "I wouldn't lie about such a pleasure as this, dear prince! Snow White is dead!"
"No," he says, shaking his head.
"Yes!" she shouts. "You think I didn't finally discover where she'd hid herself away? You think I didn't find that little cottage with all those drunken dwarves? They leave her alone all day, you know, and when a sweet old lady comes with an apple, how can kind, pretty Snow White resist?"
He can't really breathe, but she tries to lunge at him again, and the guards start to drag her away. She only continues to scream the words. "Snow White is dead! Poisoned! Snow White is dead!"
The words turn his blood cold, make his breath burn, force his feet to start towards the door of their own accord, and within moments he finds himself in the stable. He won't believe that wretched woman, he won't. He'll see for himself now, see Snow alive, see her happy and finally free.
A sudden onslaught of panicked shouts reaches him, even as he rides away, and the Queen may well have just made her attempt at an escape with whatever last vestige of power she still holds. But he can't spare the time for that. He urges his horse on, to the forest, to Snow White.
He'll find her.
He takes the stairs up to her apartment two at a time, and his hand shakes a little as he knocks.
Emma answers the door, and she frowns when she sees him. "Is Mary Margaret here?" The words come out rushed, and for a moment Emma doesn't answer, but finally she shakes her head.
"She's on a date, actually, with Stuart. You've met him." She shifts a little, leaning her hip against the door. "Shouldn't you be at home with your wife right now?" she asks, eyes suspicious.
"I don't have a wife," he replies. "I never did. I don't know what my life really was, but it doesn't matter. I don't care anymore, and I don't need to pretend I do. Where is she? Mary Margaret?"
"She's on a date," Emma repeats, expression unreadable.
He nods. "I'll find her." He turns to leave, but Emma stops him, and for a moment she only stares at him. "The Italian place up on third street," she finally says. "They should still be there." He lets out a breath, and he nods, thanking her, and then he's back down the stairs and on the street.
Third is only six blocks away.
It starts to rain on his way, soft and steady, and he makes a scene when he stumbles into the restaurant. But he spots Mary Margaret right away, and she looks shocked as he weaves his way through the tables towards her. He doesn't spare a glance for Stuart. "I need to talk to you," he says, and Mary Margaret only gapes at him. "I need a minute to talk to you, please."
"I'm — I'm on a date, David," she says.
"I know," he says, "but I really need to talk to you, because you're really the only friend I have, and I just really need a friend right now. It'll only be for a minute. I need to talk to you."
She glances at Stuart, smiling apologetically as she pulls her napkin off her lap, and then suddenly she takes David by the hand and leads him to the back of the restaurant, where the bathrooms are, a small, darker space. She drops his hand, and she crosses her arms, expectant.
"I'm not married," he tells her.
"You're not —?" She shakes her head. "You are married. What are you —?"
"No, I'm not. I was engaged, but I broke it off. And Catherine wanted to try again, and she lied to the mayor, and she said we had married, but we hadn't. I'm not married. She isn't my wife."
Her brow furrows, and he knows she doesn't understand. He reaches out, touches her arms.
"Catherine lied to me," he explains, "and I have a feeling she convinced a lot of people to do the same. Everybody lied to me. But you didn't, and you are — you are the best thing in my life, and I know you're here on a date, and I know you and I haven't really talked in weeks, and I know —"
"You know what it means that I'm here on a date?" she interrupts.
"And I know that I don't have a single reason to deny the way I feel any more," he says. "I never really did, honestly, and I'm sorry that it took me this long, but I've found my way here now."
She starts to shake her head again, and she makes to move past him, but he catches her hand. She turns back around, eyes so wide, and he tugs her closer to him, even as he steps closer to her.
He kisses her, finally. And her lips are soft and sweet, and he can feel her eyelashes flicker against his face, even as her hands come to rest on his shoulders, and her lips part against his. He draws back for a moment, opens his eyes in time to see her own open once more, and, slowly, her eyes searching his, she smiles.
"Are you sure about all of this?"
He kisses her again, and he can feel her smile against his lips.
"I think I was always supposed to be with you."
I wish you'd hold me when I turn my back,
The less I give, the more I get back.
Oh, your hands can heal, your hands can bruise.
I don't have a choice, but I'd still choose you.