a/n: this has a kind of similar structure to another Once Upon a Time story I've written, is almost a kind of updated and revised version, but it was fun to write, and hopefully it isn't too similar :) also, I noticed in 1x06 that Mary Margaret makes something of a déjà vu face when David says something, so I had to reference that in this. I hope it doesn't seem out of place! title and lyrics are from The Fray's Heartbeat. and thanks to Naomi for editing it!
Oh, you got a fire, and it's burning in the rain.
Thought that it went out, but it's burning just the same.
And you don't look back, not for anything.
'Cause you love someone, you love them all the same.
If you love someone, you love them all the same.
The memories are like smoke.
He has no doubt of who he is. He remembers when he played football in high school; he remembers when his father died. He remembers his wife. He remembers when he met her in the laundry room of their freshmen dorm in college, and he remembers their wedding, and he remembers the way he loved her, the way that love fell to the wayside. He remembers all of it.
And he does what his memories demand. He walks away from Mary Margaret, and he returns to Katherine, and he tries to start fresh, to pay his memories and his life and his wife due respect.
The problem are the large swatches that he hasn't remembered. And he tells himself he has, because he can't think of a moment he doesn't remember, can't think of a question he can't answer about his life, yet he knows missing moments still exist. He would do anything to pinpoint them.
He can feel the holes in who he is, and they gape painfully inside him, a constant reminder.
He thinks for brief moments that he understands, that he realises what might be amiss, but when he tries to focus on it, his life turns hazy, like it really isn't his. That doesn't make any sense, of course, and he shakes his head of cobwebs, and he smiles at his wife and takes her hand across the table.
He works as a landscaper. He even has his own small business, and he easily falls back into routine, happily welcomed back by all his old customers. Granny offers him lemonade and tells him that teenage boy who cut the lawn since David had his accident was nothing but trouble, and David smiles, nods, and remembers how much he always loves her lemonade, even in the winter.
As she talks, he sips the lemonade, the glass cold against his fingers, and he thinks of her like a mother. He misses his own mother, and Granny is so sweet, so kind, so much like the woman who raised him, and he knows he can trust her, knows in the very way she so kindly touches his arm.
"Are you all right, dear?" Granny asks, leaning against the porch railing, a crease in her brow.
"Yes," he assures her. He clears his throat. "Yes, I'm fine. I simply lost my train of thought." And he remembered something, didn't he? He can't remember now, though, what he remembered. He tries, but he can't, because it wasn't a memory, was it? It was only a feeling, and it's since fled.
"Oh, don't worry," Granny replies, her smile warm. "A few more months, and it'll be as it was."
She reaches out to pat his arm, a sweet reassurance, and he can only nod, his smile practiced. She takes the empty glass of lemonade, and he returns to her yard, frustration heavy on his shoulders.
This castle feels like a prison to him.
No one here knows who he really is, and he tries to becomes who they think he is. James. He doesn't know proper dinner manners, however, doesn't know how to dress himself in the only kind of clothes they provide, doesn't even know the basic geography that Abigail mentions.
It makes him feel like a fraud.
And the only person at the castle that doesn't bow and avert their gaze in his presence is Abigail.
It's lonely, in a way, and he wants to shake the courtier and the servants and tell them he is not a prince. He is a lowly shepherd, and they need not duck their heads for his benefit; he would do anything not to have to swallow back another protest when they address him as "your highness."
Abigail acts like that kind of treatment is natural, and she should. She is, after all, a princess.
And he is a prince. He repeats the words in his head. He is a prince. He is Prince James.
This is his life. He is Prince James, and soon he will marry Princess Abigail.
She isn't the kind of bride he imagined he would have. She is beautiful, and she is so wrapped up in herself that she doesn't notice how uncultured her newly betrothed is, and that is all the good he can say of her. He wonders if, someday, once he's learned to love her, he'll be able to tell her the truth, tell her what his name really is, tell her the childhood he really had, tell her who he is.
He doubts it, but that isn't his biggest concern.
The woman who stole from him is what should occupy his mind, and she does.
He can't believe a thief who would set up such a calculated scheme would be a woman, a young woman, a beautiful woman, he admits, with bright eyes and a loud smile, so loud he can imagine the sound of her laughter whenever he pictures her face in his mind as she rides off with his ring.
And she did ride off with his ring, a thief.
He asks a few of the servants what they might know of a female robber in the forest, and he expects little from them. This kind of robbery is probably standard, and he's simply never been the victim, as he's never had anything of any value to a thief like that woman.
Instead, the servants say it might have been Snow White. "The fallen princess, your highness. She lives in those woods, and they say she is a bandit now." They show him a wanted poster.
It is her. He knows it. He asks Abigail about Snow White. "I thought she died," Abigail replies, clearly uninterested. He doesn't push the subject with her; instead, he looks to the library next.
Snow White was the only heir of the seventh kingdom, born with hair as black as ebony, lips as red as blood, and skin as white as snow. Her mother died in her childbirth. That's all the books can offer him. That's it. She was born a princess, and she is now a bandit, a thief, a criminal.
It makes him wonder how many people in the kingdoms that circle the enchanted forest are really who they say they are, and how many have taken another identity, like he, like Snow White. A week and a half after he arrives at the castle, a week and a half spent in a life that isn't really his own, he finally escapes back into the world he knows, into the enchanted forest.
He needs that ring. He needs to find Snow White.
Mary Margaret avoids him.
She must. This town isn't that large, and he would have run into her by now if she hadn't purposely made sure he hadn't. It isn't that he wants to see her, except that it is. She was his friend, wasn't she? He knows what he did to her was cruel, regardless of his intentions, and she has every right to avoid him if she wants. But it would be nice to know she still lives in Storybook.
He finally sees her at the diner on a Tuesday morning, and his heart skips a beat. Her hair is a little longer, swept back with a headband, and her smile is sweet as she talks with Emma, two mugs of hot chocolate between them. He thinks it's hot chocolate, anyway. She loves hot chocolate.
She told him, back before he begged her to trust him and she did and he broke her heart.
He can't gather the courage to talk to her. He orders his own mug of hot chocolate, and he sits in a booth by himself, eyes on the newspaper he brought to read, ears on the sound of her laughter.
As they leave, he really hopes Mary Margaret spots him, so he can have an excuse to talk to her.
And then she does. She falters in the middle of a sentence, her eyes widening slightly on the sight of him, and he hates that they widen with panic more than anything else. "Mary Margaret," he greets.
She nods in acknowledgement. "David." An instant later, she walks out the door. Emma watches her, and then she looks back at David, and she doesn't look well, her hair messy, sleepless purple smudges under her eyes, but a kind of tired amusement plays on his lips.
He ignores that, and he hurries after Mary Margaret. He should probably leave her be, but he can't.
She stops a few feet from the diner, arms crossed over her chest, and turns back to face him, her expression guarded. He hates it. He hates that this is their relationship. "I really need to head to school," she tells him. "I have to set the room up for today, and I'm already a little late."
"I don't mean to keep you," he says. "I just — I haven't seen you in a while. I haven't seen you at all, actually, not since —" He stops. Her eyes are on the ground. She won't even look at him. "I've missed you," he says. "As hard as it might be to believe, you really were one of my best friends."
"I may have been," she replies, "but surely you remember your actual friends now?"
"That doesn't mean I've forgotten you. I couldn't even if I tried."
She shakes her head, and her smile is annoyed as she finally meets his gaze. "I really can't do this with you, David, I'm sorry. I want to be better, but I'm not. And I can't do this. I'm sorry."
"We can't even be friends?" he says.
"No," she replies.
"Mary Margaret," he murmurs, "I know I hurt you, and that is my greatest regret, but —"
"Stop," she snaps. "If you want a friend, David, be friends with your wife."
A part of him wants to tell her that he comes to read the paper at the diner every morning as a way to spend a little less time with his wife, but that wouldn't be fair to her, just like it wouldn't be fair to tell her that even with all his memories, he doesn't feel whole, doesn't feel like who he is.
He can't thrust his problems on her.
She closes her eyes for a moment, taking a deep breath. She looks at him. "You are a good person, David. You are honourable. And you certainly have more charm than anyone I've ever met. But I do not want to be your friend, and I'd like you to respect that." She doesn't bat an eyelash.
And she turns around, shoulders tight, and walks away. She doesn't look back. He imagines for an instant that she does, and her smile is bright, and her eyes are triumphant.
It's only his imagination.
"You have to admit," Emma says, and David spins around. He didn't know she was there. "She kind of deserves at least that much from you." Her eyes are unsympathetic, but her voice turns a little softer. "I want to like you, so don't be that guy, okay? You chose your wife, remember that."
She walks away, too.
He remembers that he'd do anything to keep Emma with him. He frowns at the sudden thought, watching Emma disappear around the corner, and he tries to place the feeling that grips him, to understand what exactly he remembers. And then it all all simply slips through his fingers, lost.
He tries to come up with an excuse to find Snow White again, but he can't think of anything.
His trips into the forest to hunt aren't enough; she stays hidden, no matter how much he hopes to cross paths with her accidentally. And perhaps she's already left. It shouldn't matter, he knows.
A clear path for his life is mapped out for him.
The wedding preparations are in full swing. It's all Abigail wants to talk about. He lets her talk, and he lets her plan, and he tries not to think about Snow. It's not as if he wants to dwell on thoughts of her, but he does, despite his best efforts. His mind continually returns to her, to the way she handled the trolls, to the way she called him charming, to the way the ring looked on her finger.
This ring is supposed to bring him to true love, isn't it?
He shakes his head at the thought. The ring is meant for Abigail, not for Snow White.
And he will give it to Abigail when the moment is right. He will. He must.
A few times, he lets himself imagine if he had met Snow before all of this, when he was still a shepherd, when he still believed that he would marry because he loved a woman rather than learn to love the woman he married. What would she have thought of him as a shepherd?
He doubts she would have cared.
The preparations for his own wedding come to a halt when he and Abigail are invited to another wedding in the eighth kingdom. "It's on a boat," Abigail says. "Who planned that? The guests will freeze. It's ridiculous, absolutely ridiculous." She glares murder at her breakfast.
"We don't have to attend if you don't want," he offers.
She raises an eyebrow at him. "Of course we have to attend." She talks like he's a fool. He is in these matters, but the way she treats him has long since started to grate on his nerves. He wants to think the best of her, he does, but he can't help but find her utterly selfish and insensitive.
He would think it's simply how princesses are raised, but Snow is an example that proves otherwise.
Abigail refuses to ride through the enchanted forest to the wedding. He doesn't try to argue with her. He feels uncomfortable in his clothes, and he's worried that she'll expect him to dance with her.
He hasn't ever been to the eighth kingdom. The sea is endless, and it takes his breath away. "It smells awful here," Abigail says. He bites his tongue rather than snap at her to enjoy her life for once. Her nails dig into his arm even through her gloves, and he leads her onto the ship.
It looks beautiful, a palace on water, and a part of him can't believe this is his life now.
He would even call it a kind of gift, if it didn't come with obligations and separations and a future he doesn't want. He won't focus on that today, though. He'll focus on the good. He nods at people who nod at him, and he lets Abigail talk to everyone, and he finds himself grateful for her gossip.
"And of course Princess Belle is here," she says, voice sour, "that woman is the most tasteless woman I have ever met. And she acts so superior to everyone because she enjoys books, as if that is any great feat." He nods, and when the pretty brunette holds her hand out to him, he smiles, kisses her gloved fingers, and says it's lovely to see you, Belle, and her smile in return is pleasant.
She doesn't seem so terrible to him.
A few minutes later, his eyes catch on the dance floor, and the dread starts to build inside him.
It turns out to be a baseless worry, because no one dances, not after the entire wedding turns into utter chaos, because the bride isn't the right bride, and suddenly the sea beneath them is alive, and the sky turns black, lightening spiraling. He loses track of Abigail, her screams lost among the screams of one hundred horrified princesses, because the ship is under attack.
And the bride has tentacles.
He draws his sword to fight, but he can barely see through the rain that pours down. The groom is tossed into the air by a tentacle, and another tentacle sends a dozen knights flying, and then his eyes land on a mermaid a moment later, an actual mermaid, with thick red hair and terror in her eyes.
A tentacle snakes out of nowhere to knock him off his feet as he tries to raise his sword to protect her, and another sword swings through the air and slashes the tentacle, forcing it to recoil. He has enough time to take a breath before the whole ship rolls, and he would have fallen overboard if the other swordsman hadn't caught him, and then he looks at the man and it isn't a man at all.
"Hello, Charming," Snow says, beaming from under her hood, rain pelting pink into her face.
And she lugs him back to his feet. The mermaid is gone, but he raises his sword to fight off some kind of demonic underwater creature that springs towards him. He doesn't know where Snow found a sword, but he doesn't care, especially not when another tentacle swings towards them.
They trap it between their swords to cut it clean off. A kind of furious roar splits the air, and an instant later the ship lurches once more. Snow doesn't catch him this time; she's sent overboard with him. It's a sudden plunge, and the icy water bites his skin, cuts into his chest, and steals his breath. He keeps a hold of Snow, though, keeps her hand held tightly in his, afraid to lose her.
He feels himself start to sink, and he can't think from the cold, but Snow tugs him to the surface. He takes a deep, desperate breath of frosty air, and he kicks his legs, trying to keep himself a float. He can't swim, hasn't even been in a lake let alone a sea before, but Snow has found some kind of barrel, and he latches onto it, even with her hand still tightly clasped in his own.
He looks back up at the ship, and he can't really see anything through the black sky and the rain.
"We have to swim for shore," Snow shouts. "We can't help any more."
He nods, and he tries his best to copy her motions, but he knows she's the reason they reach land.
He slumps against the rocks, gasping, his heart a hammer in his frozen chest. The ship is almost entirely sunk, but a light splits the sky. He looks over at Snow. Her hood has fallen, and her dark hair has fallen loose and curls are plastered around her neck as she sits up, her skin so white he could mistake her for a ghost. "And to think," she says, "I wasted an invisibility stone on that."
She grins despite everything, and he chuckles, his throat raw.
"Why did you?" he asks, struggling to sit up. "Why even risk it?"
"I've known Eric since we were little," she replies. Eric is the groom, he thinks. "Our kingdoms are neighbours. He's one of my oldest friends. I wouldn't have missed his wedding for anything."
He wants to ask more, wants to ask everything, but now isn't the time. They've triumphed, he realises, the forces of good have won, they must have, because the rain starts to abate and the darkness starts to part. Snow is already on her feet, and she holds a hand out to him.
"Thank you," he says, and he hopes she knows for how much.
She nods, and she pulls her soaked hood back over head, hiding her face from the world. She has to run before anyone recognises her, he realises, although he doubts anyone is of a mind to spot the treacherous Snow White at a time like this. He isn't about to risk it either way.
As she turns to leave, though, he can't help it. "Wait —"
"It's okay," she breathes. "Your betrothed must be worried about you. If you listen for nagging, I'm sure you'll find her." She grins behind her hood, he knows it. "And you'll find me, too."
"I will." He doesn't need an excuse. At the first chance he can, he'll find her.
She takes off down the shore, and she disappears into the last of the darkness before the sky is pink with the sunset again, the nightmare over, nothing left but a ship in ruins and a shore filled with soaked, terrified royalty. He would do anything to follow Snow.
He only shouts for Abigail.
The kid that Mary Margaret loves so much crashes his bike outside David's house.
He knocks on the door to ask for David's help with a flat tire, and David has barely started to pump air back into the tire before the kid brings up Mary Margaret. "I think Ms. Blanchard misses you," he announces matter-of-factly, and David almost cuts his hand on the air pump. "You miss her, too, don't you?" Henry asks, and he stares at David so expectantly, so intently.
"It's been a while since I've talked to her," David admits. It isn't really an answer.
"She went out with Dr. Whale," Henry says.
And David does cut his hand on the air pump. "She what?" He shouldn't care, but —
"She went out with Dr. Whale," Henry repeats. David focuses on the tire. Mary Margaret is free to date whomever she likes. Henry suddenly puts a hand on his shoulder, though, and he leans close, his voice lowered to a whisper. "She's supposed to be with you, Mr. Nolan. I know it, and you do, too. You're supposed to be together. You can't just give up on her. You have to fight for her."
He looks at the kid. "I like Ms. Blanchard a lot," he says, "but I'm married, Henry, and —"
"You're married to Ms. Blanchard," Henry interrupts, eyes bright. "You just don't remember. It's the curse! This whole town is cursed, all the happy endings have been taken away. Yours is with Ms. Blanchard, and you have to fight for it, you just have to! It's the only way to break the curse!"
David shakes his head, at a loss for words.
"Listen," Henry says, "you're not really David Nolan." And he carefully explains that an evil queen put a curse on everyone who lived around an enchanted forest, and sent them all here, to Storybrooke, where they would be trapped in time, alone and unhappy. He explains it all.
"You think I'm Prince Charming?" David asks. "And Ms. Blanchard is —"
"Snow White," Henry supplies. He nods eagerly. "Look, I know you probably don't really believe me, but just think about it, okay? It makes sense if you think about it. That's why you tried to find Ms. Blanchard in the woods when you first woke up. You were looking for Snow White. And that's why you already love her so much, even though she isn't in any of your fake memories."
It starts to snow, the sky darker. "You should probably head home, kid," David says. He doesn't even know where to start with all the fairy tale talk. "I can drive you if you want."
"It's okay. My house isn't far." Henry takes his bike back from David. "Just think about it, please?"
"I'll think about it," David says. "I promise."
Henry grins, climbing onto his bike. "Thanks, Prince Charming!"
And he peddles off triumphantly. David stares after him, and he's seen that grin before, so bright and so sure, but he can't remember where, and charming suits you, and does this kid truly, honestly believe they're all cursed fairy tale characters?
He heads back into his house. He feels bad for the kid, who claimed that his own mother was the evil queen, but she wasn't really his mother, because his real mom was Emma, and "she stayed to help me break the curse!" The kid clearly has issues with his mom.
And he invented up a whole world to make sense of his life. David can half understand that.
A few hours later, the town is two feet deep in snow, but David promises Katherine he'll be safe, and he walks to the bar downtown. He needs a drink, and the white wine Katherine keeps in the fridge isn't enough. The place is pretty empty, and he orders a glass of scotch.
"I wouldn't have pinned you for a scotch man," Emma says. Her hair is pinned up loosely, her face tired, and he wouldn't have thought he'd find her here, especially not tonight.
He shrugs. "How are you?"
"I've been better," she replies. "You?"
"I've been better, too." He takes a sip of his scotch. "I talked to your son this afternoon."
"Oh, yeah?" She smiles a little. "I have a guess about what, Prince Charming."
He chuckles. "Yeah. I'm pretty sure he purposely let the air out of his bike tire so that he could have an excuse to knock on my door." He pauses. "I have to admit, though, as crazy as it sounds, as crazy as his whole cursed fairy tales story is, I. . . ." He doesn't finished.
He doesn't even know why he started.
"It'd be nice if it were true," Emma says. "It'd be nice to believe in happy endings."
He watches her take a long swig of her drink, and he thinks about the Sheriff. He's heard they were close, and she was even with him when he had a heart attack. It was only a few weeks ago.
"It'd be nice to have an explanation," he says. "I know who I am. I remember who I am. I remember my whole life. But it's like it isn't my life." He shakes his head and takes a drink of his scotch. "I don't even know if that makes any sense. I'm probably just crazy."
"It makes more sense than you think." Her voice is soft. It's quiet.
He's circled around these thoughts for months. They're the same thoughts that keep his marriage so tense, that make him unable to hash out what went wrong with Katherine, that consume him even as her sweet demeanour gives way to annoyance because she can't seem to make him listen to her.
He can't seem to make himself listen to her, to be honest.
"According to Henry," Emma begins, breaking the silence, "I'm Prince Charming and Snow White's kid."
He frowns. "That would make me your —"
"— father, yeah." Her eyes are amused, and they both start to chuckle at the same time.
"He's a sweet kid," David finally murmurs.
"Yeah," Emma says. "He is."
He knows he shouldn't ask, but he does anyway. "How's Mary Margaret?"
"She's pretty well, actually," Emma says. "She's been a really great friend lately. She's stronger than she looks, you know." She smiles softly. "She's at the school right now, some kind of Christmas party for the teachers and the parents, or something like that. I don't know."
"I, um, I heard she went out with Dr. Whale." He clears his throat.
"She did," Emma says. He waits for more, but he isn't surprised when that's all she offers. It's quiet again, and he drinks the last of his scotch. "You really don't love your wife, do you?" she asks. He frowns, and her smile isn't much of a smile. "You're at a bar on Christmas Eve, David."
He nods "I remember that I used to love her," he admits. "but it's like I said. I remember what I felt before, but what I feel now isn't the same." He feels guilty at the admission, and he clears his throat again as he looks at Emma. "I do want to try to do right by her. I really do."
"Yeah," Emma says, "but you don't actually want her, do you?"
He doesn't answer.
"Look, it's honourable of you to try to salvage your relationship with your wife," Emma says, and she finally faces him fully, "and you're a helluva lot better than most men for that. But if your heart isn't in it, it doesn't matter how hard you try." She looks at him sadly, and he nods. "I'm sorry."
She downs the last of her drink and stands to leave.
He knows what his heart does want, still, after everything, and Emma probably knows, too.
"Merry Christmas, Emma."
She nods. "Merry Christmas, David."
Abigail tells anyone who will listen of his valiant deeds, how she swam to safety as he stayed behind to help Prince Eric defeat that monstrous creature, and people nod and smile and look at him as if he really were a hero, and he thinks a kind of affection blooms in Abigail for him, too.
It's born of pride, and isn't the sort of affection he would choose, but it's something, at least.
He still hasn't presented her with the ring, despite all her talk of a spring wedding. The invitations are even sent to hundreds of courtiers, nobles, and royalty across the kingdoms, and still he keeps the ring in his breast pocket. King George visits and demands in a low voice to know why she doesn't have a ring. "If you need a ring, I have plenty. We don't want to offend King Midas, James."
He replies that he intends to offer her a ring on the winter solstice.
"Romantic," King George murmurs. "Very well. It will be the highlight of the ball."
He nods, lets his father clap him on the shoulder, and changes the subject to the weather.
It's strange to talk to this man, the only person still who knows his true identity, but a part of him craves the company of the king if only because his life seems less like a lie around this one man.
The only other person that makes him feel that way is Snow White.
And he doesn't even realise until they've arrived in the seventh kingdom that this is her kingdom, that the castle rightfully belongs to her, that this is her home, this is where she grew up. He looks for a trace of her and finds nothing. It is a cold place, and the woman who wants Snow White dead is equally as cold, with dark, cold eyes, a pale, cold face, and a polished, cold smile.
The dancing starts, and he begs off. Abigail doesn't seem to notice or to care, and he finds himself in an empty hallway. He doesn't know what he wants to find, but then perhaps he does, because his breath leaves him when he finally comes across a grand painting, the frame encrusted with gold.
It is the last in a row of paintings that reach as high as the ceiling, and it features a seated king, balding, his eyes kind, and the queen stands by him, her hand on his shoulder, young and beautiful and so cold even in paint. And on the lap of the king, dark curls spilling over her shoulders, immortalised as a mischievous child with a toothy smile and bright eyes, is Snow White.
It's been exactly a month since he saw her, and he told himself he would find her at the first opportunity he had, but he hasn't yet had an opportunity. He takes leave of Abigail to hunt, and she doesn't care, but half a dozen knights offer to accompany him, the opportunity lost.
He wants to visit a blacksmith, he claims, but the servants only introduce him to the castle blacksmith. There isn't a reason for him to leave by himself, isn't a reason that he would need to travel through the forest alone, and he's never had so much power yet so little freedom in his life.
"That is the princess Snow White, you know."
He spins around to face the stranger, but he knows it isn't supposed to be a stranger.
It takes him a moment. "Prince Eric," he finally greets.
"Prince James," Eric replies. He is a tall, thin man, his dark hair unkempt, and Abigail claims he is the most uncultured prince of all the kingdoms, but all James can think is that the man defeated a monstrous witch to save the mermaid he loved, and it leaves him with only respect for Prince Eric.
They both stare up at Snow White. "She was a pretty child," he tells Eric.
"She was a beautiful child," Eric replies. "This painting does not do her justice." He sighs. "It is the only that remains, however. The Queen has seen all the others burned, but this particular painting is a piece of history, is meant to immortalise the eleventh king, and she cannot destroy it, too."
He watches Eric for a moment. "You were friends, weren't you?" he asks. "With Snow White?"
Eric nods. "I've known her my entire life." His smile is sad.
"And do you believe she is guilty as the Queen accuses?"
"No." He doesn't hesitate, and they both stare silently at the painting for a moment. But finally Eric says they should return, and they should, because Abigail will miss him eventually, and King George expects him to present the ring to her tonight, and he can't hide from his responsibilities.
They return to the ballroom, and Abigail rests her hand on his elbow, and she giggles something incomprehensible to him, apparently a little drunk. He smiles indulgently, and she wants to dance, but he tells her he'll join her in a minute, and he loses track of her. He talks to a few knights.
And the night wears on. The Queen makes a speech, lifting her glass to everyone as she stands overlooking the crowds, and all he can think when he looks at her is that she tried to kill her own stepdaughter. He applauds with everyone else, though, and he finally does a two-step dance with Abigail, and he can feel King George watching, waiting, expectant.
He knows he must offer Abigail a ring. The wedding will be held in only five months.
But, despite what his mother said, he cannot let Abigail have this ring. He'll find another for her.
The celebrations end, and, avoiding King George, he insists they return to their castle that same night. The next morning, the sky still gray, most everyone still asleep, he tells a kitchen servant he wants to hunt by himself, and he sets off on horseback before anyone can offer to accompany him.
It snows every day now, and David shovels more driveways than he can count.
He starts to blow out sprinkler systems, too, and almost every morning he takes the snow plow his small business purchased years ago out onto the streets. He likes the outdoors, he feels as if he can breathe easier outside, even when he can feel the frost inside his chest with each breath he takes.
He tells that to Katherine, and she insists he drink more coffee. "I don't need you to freeze from the inside out!" she exclaims, sweetly running a hand over his hair. And what lies unspoken between them keeps them both a little on edge, but she still finds ways to act like a doting wife, and nothing changes in their relationship no matter how much they talk about what went wrong before his accident.
His heart simply isn't in it. Emma hit the nail on the head.
The elementary school asks him to plow the snow around the parking lot and salt the sidewalks as often as he can spare the time, and he's been by every other morning for almost two weeks before he sees Mary Margaret, bundled up in a coat and a knit cap. He doesn't plan to approach her.
But she approaches him. "David, hi," she greets. Her nose is pink from the cold.
"Hello Mary Margaret." He smiles. They haven't spoken in months. "How are you?"
"I'm well, thanks," she says, nodding. "You look so cold. I have a water heater in my class room, and I thought I'd make myself some instant coffee to warm up. You want to come in for a cup?"
He agrees in a heartbeat.
She asks him what kind of works he's done since it started to snow. "I don't actually know what a landscaper does in the winter," she admits. He chuckles and tells her about his work, and he tries not to stare at her as she pulls off her coat and her hat and bustles around her classroom.
They turn two desks to face each other, and she takes a sip of her coffee, and she apologises.
"I was far too abrupt with you the last time we spoke," she says. "And you've only proven to be so wonderful with the way you've respected what I asked, despite the way I asked it." Her eyes are apologetic. "I truly am sorry. I was simply a little lost for a while, but I would like to be friends."
"I'm glad," he murmurs. "I've missed you."
She smiles down at her coffee. "I've missed you, too." He asks after Emma, and after all her kids, and her face lights up when she talks about them. He loves that about her. He loves everything about her, and he won't deny himself that confession. He loves everything about Mary Margaret.
It's simply fact.
He has to go back to work eventually, but she tells him not to be a stranger.
A week later, he buys two Valentine's Day cards. He presents one to his wife along with flowers, and she looks so happy he almost feels guilty that he bought another card for another woman. But it isn't like that. Mary Margaret is his friend, and the card he sent her is entirely platonic.
It even had little mice and a joke about cheese. It was cute. He really hopes she likes it.
They start to have coffee every morning he clears snow from the school, and he hates the way it starts to snow less and less, making his visits to the school and to her fewer and farther apart. And he runs into a maintenance worker, Leroy, and he feels like someone tore his heart from his chest, because he's come too late, and she's gone, and he's lost her, and he never even kissed her once.
The feeling comes and goes like all the others, and Leroy glares at him, and David realises that even with Mary Margaret back in his life, nothing has really changed: he still hasn't found a way to fall in love with his wife again, his memories are still unreal even in his own mind, and somehow he finds that all he does now is wait, for something to change, for something to begin.
He waits for his life to be his own again.
He knows he shouldn't, but he says something to Mary Margaret. He tells her that his mind is a hazy place, and his memories don't always fit together right. "I don't feel like who I'm supposed to be, even though I have no reason not to." He frowns to himself.
"The only person you're supposed to be, David," she replies gently, "is who you are. You can't define yourself by your past, or by what other people expect. At this moment, you, David Nolan, are who you choose to be at this moment, and that's all that matters."
He smiles, and he can hear her voice in his mind, so firm, so clear, as she tells him that you're a prince now, and that's all that matters, and why would Mary Margaret call him a prince? He remembers it, though, remembers it so well, and it doesn't fade, doesn't slip from his grasp as quickly as it came. It's real. It's a memory, those words in her voice, soft and sure.
He thinks of Henry and all his tall tales.
"Are you okay? David?" Mary Margaret looks a little worried.
"I'm fine," he replies, "but I think it's just easier said than done, to be who you are, I mean."
She smiles sadly as she offers him another cup of coffee. He nods, her hand brushing his as she takes his empty mug, and he silently promises himself he won't forget what he just remembered.
He finds a cave that Snow uses only two days into his ride, but it's long since been abandoned. All traces of her point deeper and deeper into the forest, past the paths that he knows so well, but he follows the same stream that he suspects she followed, and he can see her all around him.
It makes him smile to think how much this forest belongs to her.
A week exactly after he leaves the castle, he wakes up to cold water on his face, and as he sputters, blinks his eyes, and automatically reaches for his sword, an axe presses against his chest, the blade at his neck, and he curses how carelessly he slept. "You lookin' for something?" a man growls.
The figure comes into focus, short and fierce, a snarl on his face, and he isn't alone; half a dozen others are with him, and they're all dwarves, he realises. He has been ambushed by dwarves.
"I am on a hunt," he says, and he tries to sit up properly. The dwarf only presses the axe harder, sure to draw blood. "I mean you no harm," he insists. "I am here alone, barely armed."
"He doesn't look dangerous," another dwarf says, rocking on the balls of his feet.
"But why is he this deep in the forest?" a third asks.
"I told you," he says, looking into the angry face closest to his. "I'm on a hunt."
"You're a huntsman, then?" the dwarf asks. He leans closer. "I don't like huntsmen."
"I am not a —"
A bird swoops suddenly past him, nearly knocking the dwarf backwards, and it sings as it disappears into the trees again, a burst of blue gone as quickly as it came, and the dwarf mutters under his breath and pushes the axe forward again. "You're not welcome here, whoever you are."
"If you'd like me to leave, I shall. But you'll need to remove that axe from my chest."
"Maybe I'll put it in your chest," the dwarf threatens.
"I'd really prefer you didn't, Grumpy." Snow walks calmly forward from behind the trees, a blue bird on her fingers, and the dwarves all greet her, even as she grins, clearly pleased with her entrance. "He doesn't mean any harm." The bird takes off, circling Snow and disappearing.
"Who is he?" the dwarf asks, voice low.
"He is the most charming prince you'll ever meet," Snow replies, and she looks expectantly at the dwarf, who mutters something again and steps back. Snow holds out her hand to help pull him to his feet. He can't take his eyes off her; he hadn't realised how very much he missed her until he sees her now, her hair pinned up, her eyes clear and bright in her smudged face as she smiles at him.
"If this is what you mean when you say you'll always find me," she says, "I'm unimpressed." She doesn't give him the chance to respond. She introduces him to the dwarves instead, and she has nicknames for all of them. They're all pleasant, he thinks, that is, when they don't want to kill him.
The dwarf named Grumpy still isn't too kind, but his name seems to imply that'd be the case.
He starts back towards their cottage with Snow, the dwarves walking ahead of them, so rowdy that he doesn't understand how they took him by surprise. It doesn't matter. Snow explains that she's spent the winter with them, a warm place to stay in exchange for some help around the house. He tells her he went to her castle for the winter solstice, and her happy expression flickers a little.
"And did you see my stepmother?" Her voice is careful.
"I did." He nods. "It made me curious as to what, exactly, you'd done to her."
She glances at him. "I'll tell you," she says, "if you tell me how you became a prince."
He frowns. "How I became a prince?" he echoes.
She nods. "It's fairly obvious you weren't always one."
He plans to deny it for a split-second; the protest is on his tongue, but he can't lie to her. "Is it really?" he asks quietly, and he keeps his gaze straight ahead, refusing to look at her.
"I was raised among princes," she says. "And I never met one quite like you. You are as regal as they, yet you are something more." She shakes her head, as if to shake away the thought. "And you can't swim," she adds, more playful, "a skill most princes possess."
He looks down at the ground, and he tightens his hold on the reigns of his steed, and he tells her.
It doesn't come out as well as he would have liked; he can't look at her as he explains that his parents were destitute farmers, that they made a deal with Rumpelstiltskin, that he impersonated his brother to slay a dragon, and the title of prince became inescapably his. "It isn't what I wanted."
She doesn't reply, and he finally looks at her. "A shepherd defeated a dragon?" she asks.
He smiles despite himself. "A stroke of luck, I know." He pauses. "And does this change your opinion of me? To know the truth of who I really am?" He cares more than he should.
"You are who you are, Charming," she replies lightly, and his heart swells in his chest.
"I must admit," he says, "it isn't easy to be a prince. It's been months, but I still feel myself such an impostor, and I fear that at any moment my true identity will become painfully clear."
"I think you overestimate people," she says. "If a person doesn't have any doubt, he won't search for a reason to doubt. What grounds would they have to suspect you aren't who you say you are?"
He wants to point out that she suspected he wasn't who he said he was, but it doesn't really matter.
"I think the fact that I don't know how to be a prince serves as plenty reason for doubt," he tells her.
"I can teach you how to swim," she offers, playfully innocent, and he chuckles, shaking his head.
"It isn't only that," he says. "I can barely read and write passably, I don't know any sort of court mannerisms, and I can't even dance properly. It is painfully obvious to me if to no one else that I am a sheep in wolf's clothing every moment I stand in that castle, Snow."
"A prince isn't made by his mannerisms, Charming," she replies softly. "It is simply who he is at the very heart of his being. It doesn't matter that you were not born a prince; you're a prince now, and that's all that matters." She sounds so certain, and she even stops walking to look at him.
The dwarves have long since left them behind, and the forest is quiet around them. A smile slowly blooms on her face as she stars at him, as if she sees in him exactly what she says, and he wants so badly to reach out to her, to trace his fingers over the lines of her smiling lips, to kiss her.
He swallows thickly.
And she abruptly drops her gaze. "I can teach you to dance as well as to swim," she says. She takes his hand. "It's really rather simple, in fact. All you need to know is how to waltz." She starts to direct him before he can protest, and he squeezes her hands and lets her lead him. "And you'll have to learn how to lead yourself, obviously," she replies.
"But perhaps I'll only ever dance with you," he says, "and you can simply lead us."
She only smiles, swings his arms up, and twirls gracefully, a born princess.
"Your sweet nag needs a strong lead," she finally replies.
He nods, and he stumbles a moment later. "The root," he says, motioning at the forest ground.
"Oh, sure," she says dryly, "blame the forest."
He twirls her, and he catches her waist in his hand this time. It's easier than he thought it would be. And he watches her for a moment as she circles him, holding her head high. "You owe me your story now," he reminds her. "I told you how a shepherd became a prince."
"And now you'd like to know how a princess became a bandit."
"Yes," he says, and she laughs a little, guiding his hands as they dance.
"This is where you'd change partners," she says. She pretends to circle to someone else and then takes his hands once more. "The Queen isn't much older than I," she starts. "She came to the castle as such a young bride, and we became friends. I adored her." She bites her lip. "I'd never known my own mother, and here was this beautiful woman my father had found — for me, I imagined."
She finds his gaze. "It took me a long time to realise she wasn't happy. I loved my father so much, and I couldn't understand why she wouldn't. But I understand now." Her voice turns softer. He can see the memories creep into her face, can see the sadness sweep over her features. "She married a man too much her senior because she had spun gold from straw, and it wasn't her choice. She bore a stillborn child. She was young, and she was beautiful, and she had so little in this world to love."
"She had you."
"Yes," Snow murmurs. "Yes." She clears her throat. Their dance has stopped; he simply holds her hands as they stand alone, and she continues quietly. "She loved me. I was her friend. And she told me a secret. Who else did she have to tell? She told me that she had fallen in love." A kind of distress flickers in her eyes. "I was still a child. I didn't understand. I thought she loved my father."
He can see how the rest of the story plays out. "You told your father," he says.
"I told my father," she echoes. "He killed the man she loved. And I finally understood."
He can't help himself, then. He touches his gloved hand to her face, cups her cheek, and she turns towards his hand, covers it with her own as her gaze drifts back to him. "If I had known what it would mean," she whispers, "if I had understood the consequences, Charming, I swear I wouldn't have acted as I did." It's a kind of apology, and it makes his heart hurt a little.
She closes her eyes, and a tear slips free. He wipes it away, lets it dissolve into his glove.
A moment later, she drops her gaze, moving away from him, and he drops his hand. He clears his throat. "We should catch up with the dwarves," she says, voice lighter, "or they'll worry. As protective as they are, it'll be a little while before they all trust you."
He nods, and follows her, and he doesn't know if he is a shepherd or a prince, but he is absolutely certain that Snow White is a princess, even now, even in the depths of this forest, with dirt under her fingernails and her face drawn on wanted posters.
And he knows, too, that his mother was right about her ring. It led him to true love.
"I think we need to talk, David."
He pauses, his coat still in his hands, and Katherine looks at him with guarded eyes. He sighs, hangs his coat in the closet, and sinks into a seat at the kitchen table. He hasn't been home even five minutes, but if she wants to talk, they can talk. They certainly need to, he knows.
She seems to soften a little. "I made apple pie." She holds out a plate to him.
He loves apple pie. He knows that. As he stares down at it, though, fork in hand, all he can think is that a slice of apple pie is poison. He can just imagine the way a bite of apple would lodge in his throat, would choke him, and she isn't afraid of apples, says that one poisoned apple by an insane woman isn't reason to fear a fruit, but he does; he hates apples, hates what they almost cost him.
He frowns. He loves apple pie. He eats a bite. "It's good," he murmurs.
Katherine sits across from him. "It's been six months since you came home," she starts, taking a deep breath, "and said you wanted to try to save our marriage, but nothing has really changed in these six months." She pauses, and looks at him imploringly. "I still feel so distant from you."
"I don't mean to make you feel that way," he says. He really doesn't.
She looks like she might cry. "How did we become like this, David?" He shakes his head, and she stares down at the table. He takes another few bites of pie. "We've talked about what went wrong," she finally continues. "We have. I want to say we haven't, because our whole relationship still feels so tense, but I know we have. This distance isn't from old wounds, David."
"I — I don't know what to tell you," he admits.
"Am I just crazy?" she asks.
"No," he says. "No, you're not crazy."
She reaches out to touch his hand. "David, I want to have a baby with you. We've talked about it before, remember? Ages ago. And I still want that, but I want to fix us first. I thought by now we would be fixed, and I thought we would be ready, and. . . ."
He stares at her.
"You want a life with me, too, don't you?" she asks. "You still want to fix us, right? You still want to have a baby, if not soon, then someday? I need to know that you do." The plea colours her eyes.
"I want," he murmurs, swallowing thickly, "I want to want it."
She draws her hand back to curl her fingers, knuckles white, around a coffee mug.
"I remember our life together, Katherine. I remember that we talked about a baby. I remember it all. I remember how much I loved you. But I don't think — I don't think I'm in love with you anymore, and I've tried to be, but it hasn't worked." He takes a deep breath. "I'm not in love with you."
He doesn't feel anything for her, really, or at least he doesn't feel more than a kind of fondness born of months in her company, of baked goods and a sweet smile and memories that are his despite what his heart says, but that isn't really enough; that isn't enough at all, in fact.
"I can't say I'm still in love with you, either," she whispers. "I used to be. So much."
He reaches for her hand this time. "I'm sorry. I don't want to run out on you again."
She nods, and she tries to smile. "We should take a break," she says. He nods as she pulls her hand away, and he doesn't miss the warm. She moves to the counter, putting her mug in the sink. "You should stay at Granny's," she says. "I'll help you pack. And you can have the leftover pie."
An hour later, he books a room indefinitely, and Granny rubs his back sympathetically.
He can't fall asleep that night. The bed is plenty comfortable, and he doesn't feel guilty, like he expected he would. Instead, all he feels is a kind of confidence that he somehow lost when his memories returned. He won't simply wait anymore.
And he can hear her voice in his head, you're a prince now, and he smiles.
He'll find out what it means.
He stays with Snow and the dwarves for three days.
And when he returns, King George and King Midas are both at the castle.
King Midas claps him on the back and asks him what he brought back. He lies through his teeth and claims he gave all his catches to the local villagers. "A man of charity!" King Midas exclaims. Abigail chatters to him about all the arrangements for the wedding, sweeter than she ever has been before, and he pretends not to feel King George stare at him all throughout dinner.
The man corners him as soon as King Midas and Abigail leave to take a walk on the grounds.
"Where have you been?" King George demands. "And why did you not present Abigail with a ring on the winter solstice? Kind Midas might not have noticed anything amiss, Abigail might not have noticed anything amiss, but where I am from, son, a man offers a ring to his betrothed."
"I do not want to marry her." If he is a prince, then he will act as such. He will not be bullied.
King George stares at him. "I don't care. We've already had this conversation. You will marry her."
He stares right back at the king. "I intend to marry someone else."
"And who is that?" King George snaps. "A milkmaid from your village, perhaps?" He looks so spiteful in that instant, and he doesn't wait for an answer. He turns away, his hands clasped behind his back. "I am sorry that you have been thrust into this position. I truly am. But this kingdom, your kingdom, requires wealth, requires the friendship of King Midas, requires this marriage."
"I mean to marry Snow White."
The king turns back to him, clear surprise lined in his face. "I am not sure if you are aware of the current political situation in the seventh kingdom, son," he says, "but the princess Snow White is wanted for the murder of her father. She is fallen from grace, accused of treachery and of treason."
"She is innocent," he replies. "Her stepmother wanted revenge, and it was she who killed the king. Snow White is innocent, and she is the true heir to the throne, the last child of the House of White. The seventh kingdom is hers, and I plan to help restore it to her. And then I plan to marry her."
"You want to risk our kingdom to dabble in the turmoil of another?"
"I might be mistaken, but those with whom I've spoken have claimed that the seventh kingdom is significantly larger and significantly wealthier even than the fourth kingdom, than King Midas. If I were to marry Snow White, our kingdom would be saved beyond any doubt."
The shock, the frustration, and the fight all fade from King George. He sits, and he runs a hand over his head, looking suddenly so tired, so old, and so small. He raises his gaze again. "You are so much like the brother you never knew. He, too, had a ferocity of spirit that I admired."
"I am sorry never to have met him," he admits quietly.
"A king cannot grieve when his kingdom needs more of him," King George murmurs, "but I dearly miss him." He closes his eyes briefly, and his gaze is softer when he opens them. "The preparations for your wedding to Princess Abigail must continue unhindered. We cannot risk our entire kingdom. But the wedding is not for five months." He starts to smile. "And you must tell me, brother of my son, what it is I can do to help you restore Snow White to her rightful throne."
He runs into Mary Margaret at the diner when she comes to pick up dinner for herself, and he convinces her to eat with him. "Emma works late almost every night now," she tells him. "It reminds me of before she came, and how I was just kind of. . . ." She trails off, eyes on her plate.
"What?" he encourages.
She meets his gaze. "Lonely." Her smile is sad. "Anyway," she continues, shaking her head, "I've missed you at the school every morning now that the snow isn't so constant. How've you been?"
"I've been well," he admits. "I don't have much work, you know, with the ground still frozen, but soon I'll be in demand again." He smiles, and he reaches for his drink. She starts to answer, but her gaze falls on his hand, his left finger bare, and she looks up at him, clearly surprised.
"Yeah, um, Katherine and I have decided to take a break," he tells her.
She looks genuinely sympathetic. "I'm sorry, David."
He shrugs. "I owed our marriage a chance. It just didn't work." He takes a bite of his burger, and he can't bring himself to look at her. It's quiet for a few minutes. "You know one of your kids," he finally murmurs, "Henry, how he believes that we're all cursed fairy tale characters?"
She nod, half smiling. "It's a little crazy, but he means well."
"I know. The more time passes, though, the more tempted I am to believe him." He almost expects her to laugh, but she just waits for more. He takes a sip of his water. "I look at people," he says, "and I remember how I know them. But, somehow, what I feel about them is different, what I feel just jars with what I know. And I can't seem to put the pieces together."
"That sounds frustrating," she says.
He chuckles. "Yeah. It is. And I have this single memory, it's just a voice that, well, that calls me a prince, if you can believe it, and it just feels like it's from another life." He finally looks at her. "But I'll probably be sent back to the hospital if I start to believe that I'm a fairy tale character, right?"
She smiles a little. "You're actually not the first person to mention something like this to me. The sheriff, before he died, he talked about other lives. I thought he was sick. I don't know anymore, though. A lot doesn't seem to make sense to me these days. And, oh, we might not be fairy tale characters, but I think if you're lost in this world, you just want something to believe in."
"That sounds about right," he says.
He changes the subject to her class, and she tells him they've started to work on the spring musical, and, "you know, a lot of parents have volunteered to help out, but I haven't really found somebody to help with building the set. You wouldn't be interested, would you? It might be good for you to be around kids. I find them pretty helpful when I'm most in need of a little hope."
"Yeah, actually, I'd like to help out."
Her smile alone makes his heart beat a little faster.
They talk about the play for the rest of dinner, and he offers to walk her home, but she waves him off and says she planned to stop by the station to try to convince Emma to call it a night. She looks back at him from the door of the diner, and she waves, another soft smile on her face.
He waves back, and he can't take the smile off his face as he orders a decaf coffee and grabs a newspaper from the rack at the back of the diner. A shadow crosses over his paper, though, and he looks up to the see the mayor, a distinctly unpleasant look in her eye even as she smiles at him.
"I see you didn't waste any time after you left your wife," she says.
"Madame Mayor," he replies. "It's nice to see you, too."
"You aren't really about to put Katherine through adultery a second time, are you?"
He sets his newspaper down. "I have never put her through adultery. And if you weren't aware, we're on a break. It was her idea. We both admitted we aren't in love with each other anymore. But, of course, this isn't actually any of your business."
"This is my town," she replies, "everything is my business. And Katherine is my friend."
"If Katherine is your friend, then why don't you talk to her, rather than harass me." He stands, and he knows this woman is a respected mayor, knows she found him and was his emergency contact for years, know his wife adores her, but all that he knows is nothing compared to what he feels.
He looks at her, and the hatred is hot and black and heavy in the pit of his stomach.
"And as for your position as mayor, maybe it's time you had a little competition. As far as I can tell, you haven't done much more for this town than meddle in other people's business."
She smiles tightly. "I see you aren't so naive anymore, Mr. Nolan. I wouldn't necessarily label that a positive development for you." He doesn't bother to reply to that threat, and she starts to leave. She glances back at the door, though. "This will always be my town, no matter what you do."
He watches her strut out, only to realise that the entire diner just witnessed that exchange.
"No worries," Ruby says, "I kind of hate her, too. I'd totally vote for you."
He snorts despite everything. That wasn't what he had intended, but maybe it wouldn't be such a terrible idea to stand up to the mayor. It certainly feels like the right thing to do.
He now knows exactly where to find Snow, and it only takes him four days to reach the cottage.
The dwarves are still at the mines, and she ushers him into the house and offers him a mug of beer, and she tells him that she hasn't run across any guards in ages, and she suspects her stepmother has begun to search for her outside the forest. She looks so pleased with herself, and her face glows in the orange light of the kitchen fire as she cooks a half a dozen quails.
"And do you still intend to make your escape to a faraway land?" he asks.
He needs to know why she hasn't yet. He needs to know it's the reason he hopes it to be.
"I certainly haven't abandoned the idea," she replies, "but I recently met with an old family friend. I hadn't seen her since she was a child, but she still remembered me." She pauses. "She told me that my father's kingdom had fallen prey to famine. The most respected knights have been dismissed as my stepmother favours her own personal guards. The kingdom is near ruins."
She talks with a kind of purposeful calm, but she can't entirely hide how upset she is.
"Your stepmother does not belong on that throne," he tells her.
"She lets her anger rule her, and she rules with it," she replies, shaking her head, "and what will become of the kingdom? What will become of my father's people, Charming?" She looks at him as if he really has answers for her, and the only sound for a moment is the pops of the cooking quails.
"They're your people now, Snow," he finally replies. He stands, and he moves closer to her.
"But what can I do for them?" she asks.
"You can reclaim your throne," he tells her. "You were beloved in your kingdom, Snow, you must know that. And you still are. The knights are loyal to the House of White, to you, and if you will lead them, they will fight for you. You aren't a child. You aren't a princess. You are a queen."
He takes her hand. He bare fingers are warm in his. "You really have such faith in me?" she whispers, and he steps still closer to her. He touches her neck, brushing his thumb along the line of her jaw, and he can see her breath catch, but she doesn't drop her gaze, and he doesn't drop his.
"I am in love with you."
"Charming," she breathes, and she starts to shake her head.
"I am in love with all that you are," he replies, "and I believe I fell for you from the very start, from the moment I first saw your smile, saw your spirit, saw you, Snow White." He takes her hand and holds it to his chest, knowing she can feel how his heart races. "You fear the woman who wants to take your heart, Snow, but you must know that I will freely give you mine."
"I'm scared," she whispers, tears flooding her gaze.
"You need not be. If you give me yours, I will protect your heart with my life."
She closes her eyes, and he leans his forehead against hers. "Marry me."
"I cannot," she says.
A moment later, the sound of the dwarves, loud and rowdy as they crash through the forest, floods the cottage, and they'll storm in at any moment. Snow stumbles back from him. She wipes at her eyes. "You must leave," she says. "You mustn't entertain ideas of us any longer. You must leave."
"You shouldn't have come at all." She won't look at him. "I told you once that your ring didn't fit me, and it still doesn't. You are a prince, but I am not a princess any longer, and it would not be right for us to marry, for us to risk both our kingdoms in the name of true love —"
The door opens, and Grumpy calls out for Snow.
He touches her elbow, and he pulls her gaze back to his. "I know you feel as I do," he tells her quietly. "And I will leave now, but two weeks from now a secret council with representatives from most every kingdom will meet to dethrone your stepmother, and this is your chance. If you want to take that chance, if you want to take a chance on me, on us, meet me at troll bridge at nightfall a week from tonight. At least think about it. If you don't come, I'll know, and I'll never bother you again. If you do," he pauses, "if you do, the ring will be yours."
She doesn't reply, and the dwarves pour into the room. He nods a greeting at a surely Grumpy, turns back to smile at a stunned Snow one last time, and leaves, his heart still hammering.
All she has to do now is meet him.
David doesn't know how Mary Margaret manages to stay calm while fifty kids run amok around her, but she does, and all she has to do is say a name sharply and the kid skids to a stop and says sheepishly, "I'm sorry, Ms. Blanchard." They're kind of adorable, actually.
"You have no idea how glad I am to see you," Mary Margaret says, taking his hand to walk him down the auditorium. "The risers are broken. You can fix that, right?" She looks at him with wide eyes. He bites back a laugh and tells her that he can fix that.
"And then I need you to help build a stable," she says, "and actually Henry is our director of the set, so if we can find him —" She looks around. "— well, if we can find him, he'll know what to do. I really appreciate this." She smiles, and he starts to reply, but — "Zachary!"
He chuckles. "I'll fix the risers," he tells her, "and then I'll find Henry, don't worry."
It's actually Henry who finds him, but he doesn't want to talk about the set. "You haven't remembered anything yet, have you?" Henry asks him eagerly. "You're here to help Ms. Blanchard, so you must be friends with her again, and did you remember something?"
"I haven't remembered my life as Prince Charming, Henry, no." He smiles apologetically, and tightens the last bolt on the risers. Henry looks truly disheartened, and David tries to change the subject. "How's your mom?" He realises a second too late that it's a loaded question.
"She believes me, you know," Henry replies, and David doesn't know if he means the mayor or Emma. He answers that a moment later. "That's why she stayed in Storybrooke, like I told you." He lowers his voice. "I still think you'll remember if you try, Mr. Nolan. You've only had the fake memories for a few months, so you can fight them off. I know you can."
"I'll try my best to remember, Henry, I promise," he says.
Henry nods. "Awesome." He looks so thrilled.
And he finally turns his attention to the musical, and he shows David all the pictures he drew from the set. It's actually pretty easy work, since it's really just about painting cardboard and finding a way to prop it up to serve as a background. The hour flies by.
It becomes the highlight of his week, actually, the hour he spends at the school with Henry, the other kids, and Mary Margaret. He starts to bring her coffee, cream and three sugars included, because the sweeter, the better, she says. He helps her demonstrate to the kids how to dance, and suddenly David finds himself surrounded by a dozen little girls who want to dance with him.
Mary Margaret claps her hand over her mouth, but she can't hide the laughter from her eyes.
After almost two months, he finally finishes with the set, and there isn't a reason for him to come to the next rehearsal. He wants to come up with an excuse to stop by anyway, and a part of him hopes that Mary Margaret simply suggests he continue to come just to help out with whatever is needed.
They're the last out of the school, and he watches her lock the double doors.
He also wants to tell her that Katherine served him divorce papers yesterday.
"Are you busy tonight?" he asks instead. "We could grab dinner."
"I, well, actually, I have a date. Or well, drinks, at least." She doesn't look at him as she shoves her hands in her pockets and starts towards her car. He tries not to be upset, but he can't help it. "It's actually Dr. Whale," she says, and she winces, like she hadn't meant to say that. "It's just drinks."
"You've been out with him before, though," he says, "haven't you?"
He stops, and she does, too, looking at him as if she's guilty. "He's actually not a bad man."
"And I'm the man who led you on," he says.
She closes her eyes, shaking her head. "That's not what I mean."
"I know it isn't. It still kills me, you know, how everything happened. I never meant for it to be like that. I never meant to hurt you." He swallows thickly, and she meets his gaze hesitantly. "And, I know you probably don't want to hear this, but I'm more drawn to you now than ever before. I was never not drawn to you, even while Katherine and I tried to revive our failed marriage."
"It was the right thing for you to do," she replies.
"You wouldn't ever let me have another chance, would you?" The words simply slip out.
"I honestly don't know," she says, her voice so soft it's nearly a whisper.
"If it helps," he says, "I'm not simply in love with you for inexplicable reasons anymore."
"You're in love with me?" she repeats, almost breathless, her eyes wide with disbelief.
"I am," he admits. "I'm in love with all the funny faces you make, with the way you adore your students, with how you put cinnamon in your hot chocolate and far too much sugar in your coffee, with this woman that I've finally had the chance to get to know. I'm in love with you."
He hadn't meant to say any of it, but it's true, he feels it with every fiber of his being, this utter truth, and he won't question it the way he questions everything else. He is in love with Mary Margaret.
"I have feelings for you, too," she says. "But I don't know if I can do this with you."
He nods. He understands.
She leans up and kisses his cheek, lingering for just a moment, her lips soft against his skin. She smiles sadly as she pulls back, and she turns to walk away, towards her car. His is on the opposite side of the parking lot. He watches her leave, and he knows he has to let her walk away.
A bird soars suddenly in front of him, singing loudly, the blur of blue almost blinding him, and in the hazy smoke that clouds his mind, something solid forms, real and tangible and his.
At midday he starts for the bridge to meet Snow.
He arrives before the sun has set, and he knows it could be hours still before she arrives. He hasn't stood above the abyss for more than a minute, however, before he hears footsteps behind him, and his heart soars as he turns around, only to recoil at the sight of the impish man.
His hand flies to his sword, and Rumpelstiltskin laughs a little, that awful, jarring giggle. "Hello, Prince Charming!" he exclaims. "You didn't come all the way here to meet me, did you?"
He only glares at the creature. "What do you want?" he demands.
"I thought you might need my help, and I came to offer my services, of course!"
"I want nothing from you," he replies, trying to control himself.
"I think, dearie, you underestimate me. And some might say I've only helped you. Because of me, a shepherd," he pauses, splaying his hands, "is a prince!" He laughs his manic laugh.
"You do not help people, Rumpelstiltskin. You are a plague to all."
"But, ah, I'm here to help you!" Rumpelstiltskin exclaims. "You are about to lose that which you love most, and I can help you prevent it. I ask only a basic courtesy of you in return."
"And what is that?"
"A name," Rumpelstiltskin replies. "Yours, actually. I realise I don't know it. Isn't that funny? And how can I call you a friend if I don't even know your name? It's just good manners, really."
He stares for a moment, and he slowly shakes his head. "If you know my name, you have power over me. You have manipulated my parents, cost me a life with a brother, and torn my mother from me, but your deals have all run their course. You have no more power over me or mine, not if you don't know my name." He smiles a little. "Without my name, any curse you might thrust on me will be weak. Without my name, any deal you make that concerns me won't be truly unbreakable."
"Yes, you're a clever prince!" Rumpelstiltskin says. "But now is not the time for that." He wags his finger. "You need my help, and your name is the price I ask. What say you, Charming?"
"I will not let you fool me. And if you do not leave now, I will cut your throat." He starts to draw his sword. Rumpelstiltskin shakes his head, laughing, but he backs away, his eyes bright.
"You must remember this moment! You'll come to regret it! I could have helped you!" And he disappears with a sudden snap of his fingers. The only sound is the rush of the river below.
The sun has started to set, and he sheaths his sword.
It doesn't take long for night to fall. He waits. Any moment, she'll appear. The moon is bright above him, bright enough to let him see her from a distance. But he doesn't see her. She doesn't appear. He stays at the bridge all night until a new day dawns, but she never comes.
She doesn't meet him. This is her answer.
He had honestly expected her to come. He had believed she felt as he did, and she needed only to summon the courage to admit it. He stares at the abyss beneath the bridge, and he does not know what to do. His father will expect him to marry Abigail now. And what of the war council?
His mind flickers to Rumpelstiltskin. Is this what he knew would happen? No. He spoke only lies.
It isn't a long ride back to the castle.
As soon as King George sees him, he knows. "I'm sorry, son."
He only walks past the king. He changes into a finer outfit, the kind of which Abigail would approve, and he looks at the ring. A part of him still wants to save it, perhaps for his own son to present to a woman he truly loves. He pockets the ring, and he pockets another from King George, and he'll let fate decide which he pulls out to present to her.
He stares out at the forest from the balcony, and his heart still refuses to admit that she did not meet him, that she does not want to fight for her kingdom, that she does not want to be with him.
The war council will still meet. The throne does not belong to her stepmother.
If Snow does not want it either, another in line shall have it. But it belongs to Snow.
He shakes the thought from his head, and he makes to leave the balcony. He does not take a single step before a bird swoops low, cutting through his path, singing. He waves it away, but the bird only circles him, refusing to fly off, and the brilliant blue prickles his memory suddenly.
"What is it?" he breathes, and the bird quiets, landing on the railing of the balcony. "Snow?"
The bird takes flight, circles him, trilling loudly, and lands again in sudden silence. "It is Snow," he says. "What's happened?" The bird stays silent, doesn't move, only stares, and he doesn't understand, but something has happened, something that makes his stomach twist painfully.
Rumpelstiltskin said that he was about to lose what he loved most.
"Is it her stepmother — has she found Snow?"
And the bird chirps madly, circling him still again, and he can't breathe, afraid for his own sanity, but Snow is what he loves most, and if Rumpelstiltskin is right, if this bird isn't an illusion —
The bird disappears suddenly into the rising sun, and he stumbles off the balcony, breaking into a run through the castle until he makes it to the stables, to a horse, and he takes off for the forest.
He rides blindly towards the cottage. It starts to snow as the trees thin, and he knows soon they'll thicken once more and he'll find her. She'll be perfectly well, and he will admit that he let his own desperate insanity drive him. But then he sees the dwarves among the trees, and he tumbles off his horse, breathing hard, and they look to him with knowing sadness that stops his heart.
"You're too late."
He shakes his head. "No." He won't believe it. "No." She looks as if she has simply fallen asleep, her cheeks still pink with life, her skin surely still warm. He can't let it end like this. "Open it."
It has already ended. He has already lost her.
And Grumpy says it, but she doesn't belong in that glass coffin, doesn't belong forever frozen in time, a lost princess. He never even had the chance to love her like she deserved, never had the chance to hold her in his arms, never had the chance to kiss her, and he just can't let her go.
And then she draws the breath from his lungs, her eyes wide, awake, alive, and his heart strums with happiness, and he can't look away from her, alive. "You found me." He will always find her, always. And she must know that, her eyes so bright as she looks at him, and he promises it to her.
He'll promise it to her every day for the rest of their lives. "Always."
Her smile has never been so sweet. "I do love you," she whispers. "And I'd like my ring."
He laughs, and he fumbles in his pocket to find the ring. "It has always been yours." Her warm fingers brush his as she takes it from him, slipping it to her own hand. It fits perfectly.
"And we will defeat your stepmother."
The battle has only just begun. He doesn't know how her stepmother found her, but they must strike back now, they must finally stop that woman, and they must reclaim her kingdom.
They'll do it together.
She nods, and she takes his hand and holds it to her chest, the ring warm against his knuckles as he feels her heart beat against his palm. "Yes. We can't let her take what belongs to you."
He only kisses her, and he whispers the promise into her lips yet again. "I will always find you."
"Mary Margaret!" he shouts.
She turns back, and he almost runs to her, his breath short for completely other reasons. It sits among his other memories, this new memory, as clear as glass, like it had never been lost to him. It doesn't fit, an imp and a night on an empty bridge and the warning of a blue bird and racing through a forest to find a woman in a glass coffin and the first kiss of true love.
But somehow it does fit, even out of context, because he knows without the smallest doubt that, unlike all the others that make so much more sense, this memory belongs to him. He doesn't know what it is, but he knows that it means he can't lose her, his true love, not without a fight.
"What is it?" she asks, her eyes searching his face.
"I don't understand half of what's inside my own head, but I understand how much I love you, and I know you need time, and you're not sure if you can start down this road with me again —" The words pour out of him, and she reaches out to touch his face, and he holds her arm. "I might not be Prince Charming," he whispers, "but I will be your prince if you can find it in your heart to let me."
She shakes her head, but she starts to smile. "You really are charming, aren't you?" she whispers, and he smiles, and he leans forward. She doesn't draw back. The tips of her fingers press into his hair, her ring is warm against his cheek, and he kisses her at long last.
The weight lifts from his shoulders. He knows who he is. He is the man who loves her.
I know the memories rushing into your mind.
I want to kiss your scars tonight.
I'm laying here, 'cause you've gotta try,
You've gotta let me in, let me in.