Story: makes me feel like a madman on the run

Summary: Snow wears the engagement ring around her neck as a pendant for all of her childhood.

Notes: Alternative summary: Snow and Charming are always endgame.

So, this is really AU masquerading as currently canon-compliant by the skin of its teeth, and halfway through I couldn't decide if I wanted it to be The Swan Princess or, like, a historical romance novel, so I guess it went for broke and did both. But really, in its pretentious little heart of hearts it's about the different kind of loves that fuck us up.

James comes to the celebration of her birth. She doesn't remember—obviously —but it was fairly clear, according to the two nurses and three governesses who apparently felt the need to relate the story over the course of her life, that something clicked. Not between James and Snow, because Snow was thirty days old and didn't have the ability to move her own neck, but between their fathers.

"A brilliant idea was born," explains Snow's third (and last) governess, who likes history and lecturing and wears thin round spectacles on the tip of her nose. "The two kingdoms are geographically ideal for a more solidified trade agreement regarding your father's ports and King George's mines, and naturally the best way to make such agreements permanent is by marriage."

According to Willa, Snow's second nurse, "It's awfully romantic, isn't it? Engaged from birth."

"That sounds awful, plainly," replies her friend Gertrude, who works in the castle library. "I thank the stars every day I wasn't born a princess."

"But she's so lovely, and he's so handsome," sighs Willa. She is mending one of Snow's tunics by a fire in the sitting room allotted to the princess' primary caregiver; she doesn't know Snow is still awake, huddled by the door to her bedchamber, or else she wouldn't be speaking so freely.

Snow likes Gertrude, who works in the library as though she would like to suck up all of the words from all of the books. She's a veteran from the Ogre Wars; the bottom half of her left leg is mangled, and she walks with a cane that clacks against the stone of the library floors as she briskly moves up and down the stacks. "She's eleven years old," says Gertrude, quietly. "She's bright and quick; it's hard to see her with that thing around her neck."

Willa sighs again, stabbing her needle through the hem of the tunic. "Gertrude," she says, "the princess knows her duties. I've been teaching her nothing else."

"I know," murmurs Gertrude, reaching across the distance between their chairs. "I just think it's a shame, tis all."

It's the first time Snow hears of her engagement being something other than delightful, pragmatic, or romantic. She doesn't know James—he's far away, and six years older, and has to learn sword-fighting and diplomacy and lots of other things Snow can't learn because she's too busy picking at embroidery and riding side-saddle—so he's just a man she's going to one day marry. People marry people they don't like all the time.

"It's about tactics," declares Snow's first governess, on the princess' twelfth birthday. She has arranged with Gertrude for a table in the library, and they sit together, surrounded by piles of books and two clean slate tablets. "Marriages are about the exchange of power."

Snow carefully writes 'power' on her tablet, and then frowns, biting her lip. She wants to ask—how, why, what power?—but she's been trained to sit silently since what feels like birth.

Smiling, the governess continues, "Power is about balance." She holds up two books, one in each hand. "If there is a drought, your responsibility as queen would be to feed your people." She lets the book in her left hand begin to fall. "How do you get food?"

Snow awkwardly clears her throat. "From the neighboring kingdom?" she hazards.

"Exactly," agrees the governess. "But they won't just give you the food, will they?"

Snow has been allowed to visit the market since she was eight. She says, with slightly more confidence, "No, you need to pay for it."

The governess moves the second book from her right to left hand. Now she has two books. This is an awful analogy; it's more confusing to look at her juggling than to listen to her words, so Snow diagrams on her slate an empty box, then a bowl of apples, then circles meant to represent the gold pieces they use in the lower town. "How do you pay for it?" the governess asks.

"With gold," says Snow. "From the treasury."

"How do you get the gold?"

Snow frowns. "From taxes?" she tries. She's not completely sure what taxes are, but people complain about them and her father collects them and there's money involved, so it seems a likely answer.

"Yes," replies her governess, patient and still holding the books in her left hand, her right one level and empty. "But you get it from other places—treaties you make with other kingdoms."

"Like marriage treaties."

At this, her governess beams. She's easy to please, Snow's first governess, and overenthusiastic and full of confusing analogies and metaphors. As the poor woman begins to shuffle her books, Gertrude stomps by, cane in hand, and she sneers a little bit at the disarray. "Try not to muss with my library too much," she tells the governess. She must still be upset that Willa has been replaced by a grinning upstart with too much teeth; that's what she'd been yelling three days previously, as Willa packed up her things from the bedchamber adjoining Snow's.

"Oh, we'll put everything back," the governess assures her, and Gertrude makes a noise high in her throat, like an annoyed mare, and huffs as she continues on her way.

"Let's talk about taxes," says the governess.

Snow wears the engagement ring around her neck as a pendant for all of her childhood. She loses it twice early on, once during a flight from the kitchens with a stolen teacake and once playing hide-and-seek in the castle with a ragged group of stable urchins. Both times someone finds it for her, comes to her, lifts the chain over her head and lets it fall down her chest, heavy and hard.

She becomes a woman; her curves bloom, under the cotton of her nightgown, and the ring comes to rest between her breasts as she sleeps. The circle is warm against her skin, and sometimes the stone scratches her skin and she wakes up with little angry lines over her heart.

The third time Snow loses the ring she is sixteen. There are lots of analogies to be made by Gertrude, who guards the library with an iron first, and most of them involve ripening fruit and apples being plucked too soon. Snow likes the sharpness of Gertrude's tongue, the way she swats at the legs of runners when they try to use the library as a shortcut between the treasury and the throne room. "This isn't a hallway," she yells at them, and whack, fast as a snake she hits them across the calves.

"You're growing," she continues to tell Snow as the runner limps off, grumbling under his breath. "You're becoming a lady like your mother, the dead queen, and you have to be careful or else some of those boys who don't know any better are going to get pert."

"Get pert?" echoes Snow, grinning. "I haven't the faintest idea what you mean." She cocks a hip and rests her hand over it. "I'm a lady, after all." She sashays away, before Gertrude can respond with a swat, and she laughs through the rest of the day, right until dinner.

"I think we should invite James," says her father that night, over roast chicken. Regina is quietly picking at hers with a fork; she doesn't like using her fingers. "He's been of age for a year, and you've just celebrated your name day. It's time you two met each other."

The fat of the chicken slides through her fingers; she almost loses her grip on the leg, and then she recovers it. "Oh, you're probably right," she agrees, voice still pleasant. It's not that Snow is upset about marrying James—she's been taught all her life to know that's an eventuality she cannot fight—but the idea of leaving home, abandoning the castle she loves, grips her securely around the throat and chokes the breath from her lungs.

Still, she's been trained better than to let that show. Beaming, her father says, "Wonderful. I'll send word to George, and we'll have the boy this time on Thursday."

They have him by Wednesday, because he was already in the forest on a quest that ended early. Her maids dress her in soft white linen trimmed with lace the color of fresh peaches, weaving her hair into a braided coronet. She doesn't have her mother's jewelry yet, and won't receive most of it until she marries, but she has the engagement ring around her neck and a bracelet from her father jingling at her wrist.

In the courtyard, she and Regina flank her father. James rides at the head of his team of knights, dashing and golden and glittering in the sun that splashes across the cobblestones. Her father and Regina go forward to meet him, and Snow trails behind them, tamping down any fluttering in her chest. "James, my boy," says her father, the eternally cheerful. "A man, now, of course."

James leaps from his horse, his sword no hindrance. "Your majesty," he replies steadily, and bows. When he looks up, it is directly at Snow. She has to force the smile to her face, because she is rosy with embarrassment and she would like nothing better than to scurry back to the library and hide in the stacks.

Her father continues with the introductions, beginning first with Regina and then reaching for Snow. "My daughter," he says, the affection making his voice deep. "Your betrothed." There is something symbolic in the way that he takes her hand and passes it to James. The prince, her future husband, has a handsome face, and it is almost breathtaking as he accepts her hand and presses his lips to her knuckles.

"Hello," he says, and his eyes greet hers. They are mostly serious but maybe a little amused at the dramatic moment, the presentation of the beautiful girl in the speckled sun.

Fighting the urge to kick him in the shins and run away, she says, "Hello," in a small voice. Luckily, he does not force further intimacy; he releases her hand, she makes her excuses, and then immediately resolves to disappear for the rest of the afternoon. It won't even be rude; he and his men need time to settle in.

In the height of the summer no one is foolish enough to be out in the gardens at midday, not even the gardeners. She passes them in the queen's courtyard, clustered around the transplanted apple tree, murmuring to each other. They do it whenever they have a free moment; the tree is a constant mystery to them, and its ability to produce apples all year round enthralls them.

Because of that, Snow offers silent thanks to her stepmother when the lake to the west of the orchards is empty. She'd come with the intention of wetting her feet and hiding in the maze for the afternoon, but now the glistening expanse of water calls to her. She gives a moment's thought to propriety, and another to how angry her maids will be that she's destroyed their careful work, before she strips off the linen dress and the muslin underskirt and dives into the water.

Lake water is much different from the sea; it's pleasantly slick, and the water that she licks from her lips is sweet. She swims to the opposite shore, when the water is shaded under big, swaying willows, and she tries to catch frogs and then chases fish and gets in a staring contest with one of the miniature kelpies that lives in the lake. It's hard to be scared of them; they are fat and lazy and do tricks for sugar cubes, like the horses that they imitate, and although they are cousins to the big, dangerous kelpies that live to the north, the ones in the lake are gentle and funny.

The sun has begun to dip when Snow pushes back some of her hair with wrinkled fingers and halfheartedly makes her way back to her crumpled clothing on the shore. It's when she's begun to emerge that she realizes the necklace is gone.

Because no one is around, Snow lets out a very unladylike curse and immediately dives under, kicking her legs in the air. She spends twenty minutes combing the bottom with frantic fingers, scrabbling over slime-covered rocks and flat fish and the sandy pebbles that line the bottom, and then she surfaces for a brief breath and lets out a shrill scream.

From the shore, James laughs. He's removed his sword and is standing, arms crossed, in a leather jerkin and riding breeches, watching her. "You aren't drowning, are you?" he asks.

"No," snaps Snow, and immediately regrets her spurt of temper. "I apologize, I'm just upset—I've lost my necklace."

"It can't be that important," says James, with studied and slightly awkward casualness. "Unless it was from a sweetheart?"

Belatedly, Snow looks at his feet and sees her dress. She sinks a little in the water as her face warms at the realization that she is, in fact, completely skyclad and someone—Gertrude, one of her maids, maybe her stepmother—is going to hear about this and kill her. "It's from you, actually," she tells him. "The engagement ring."

The stilted flirtation in his eyes dies, and he stares at her for a second, and then swears. "For the love of the gods," he says sharply as he begins to strip off his jerkin and kick off his boots, "are you a child? Why were you wearing it swimming?"

Before she can reply, he yanks his shirt over his head and dives into the water. "Where were you when you noticed it missing?" he asks, and then they spend thirty minutes thrashing around before Snow makes it out deep enough to find the miniature kelpies, and via awkward miming she conveys to them what she's looking for. With the help of the kelpies, finding the ring and its chain—snapped—is a matter of minutes.

For lack of anywhere else to put it, Snow slips the ring onto her finger and rises to the surface. When she crests, James is treading water a few feet away, recovering his breath. "I found it," she tells him, and waves her hand. Against the paleness of her skin, the stardiamond gives off a brilliant, almost blinding glow.

"Thank the gods," says James, and immediately begins to swim to shore. Once there, he hauls himself onto the shore and shakes himself out like a puppy. "What were you thinking?" he shouts, picking up where he left off. "That's not a toy—it's expensive."

Snow tries to think of a way to come out of this with her dignity and, failing to imagine one, says, "Can you turn around?"

"Why, so you can drop it again?" he says. Still dripping, he picks up his shirt and begins to pull it on. It sticks to his chest and his back and the curve of his arms. He looks like a statue, carved from stone, although his hair is sticking up in the back and his face looks funny as he yells.

"No," says Snow. "I need to get out."

It takes a few seconds, and then the blood drains out of his face and he spins on his heel, wobbling a little. His fists clench at his side as Snow pulls herself out and the water against her skin slides back into the lake. Gooseflesh rises along her arms, and she hurriedly scrambles to where her dress is pooled over her shoes. "I'm done," she tells the line of his back as she finishes haphazardly pulling at the laces of her dress.

When James turns to look at her again, his expression is inscrutable. "Were you wearing a shift?" he asks her.

It seems like an odd question; he would've been able to see it if she had. "No," she says.

With a soft groan, James puts a hand to his face. "Unbelievable," he mutters into his palm. "You're an idiot," he tells her, still speaking into his hand.

"I'm an idiot?" Snow echoes, and she stomps over to him, all the better to kick him in the shins. When she gets closer and realizes he is half-giant and over a foot taller than her, she rethinks her rash decision to do him bodily harm and settles for angrily crossing her arms. "All I did was lose a ring—which I then found—and swim in a lake!"

It sounds a little foolish, and she flushes. "Never mind that," she continues. "If you excuse me, I have to get ready for dinner."

With as much dignity as she can muster, she turns and, shoes in hand, disappears into the orchards. As predicted, when she makes it back to the castle at sunset, her maids all turn white and as they wrench combs through her hair and dump buckets of perfumed, soapy water into the tub for a quick scrub, they cut her down to half her size.

Meekly, she enters the dining room an hour later and finds James, dressed in pale finery, talking to her stepmother and father. He says something that must be witty, because it evokes from her father a genuine laugh. Snow, hovering in the doorway, reminds herself that she is a princess and James is to be her husband and he's right—it was very, very foolish, what she did.

"Hello, Snow," booms her father, reaching for her with his hand. The smile that the gesture brings to her mouth is real; she loves him too much to stay angry for long in his presence. "You look lovely."

To give her maids the credit they deserve, she looks very good, in pale blue and green with white roses in her hair. Whatever James feels, in light of their midafternoon swim, his face when he stands is nothing but pleasant. "Hello, princess," he says, and the anger and awkwardness from earlier have been erased.

Dinner is so pleasant that Snow is half-convinced that perhaps marriage to James will not be so bad. He charms her father, makes her stepmother laugh, and once, he nudges Snow's foot with his and, as she looks up, he catches her with a soft smile. In the low light from the candles, it is very effective. Snow doesn't move the ring from her finger, and it is dazzling as she lifts the glass of summer wine to her mouth.

James stays with her family for a month. During that time, fourteen people fall in love with him. Thirteen of them are her father's knights, whose practice he leads in the mornings, and the sound of his competent shouts wakens Snow instead of the sun. "One, two, three, four," he counts, and she sneaks out of bed to curl against the window and watch him guide their strikes. He's younger than half of them and he defers a lot to the eldest, Sir Gramayare, who likes him much for it.

Watching him, Snow is the fourteenth to fall in love.

Showing a lot of the tact she hadn't suspected any of them capable of, no one says anything about it to her. She isn't foolish enough to think it's because they don't know; every time she blushes, fusses over her clothing, or sighs out a window, it feels as if at least four people see her do it. The first time Snow brings James to the library, Gertrude glares at them from her desk and looks eager for an excuse to eject them.

By the third—and fourth—and fifth times, Gertrude melts and, grumpily, stops yelling at James not to touch things. Snow feels filled with light and music; she wants to sing, even though she'd probably only make everyone else unhappy doing so. In the library, she flits around and shows James all of her favorites, not only the books but also the spaces—the places where she sits and reads, dreaming of policies and taxes and reforms.

"She's filled with love for her people, our Snow White," Gertrude tells James as she clatters by. Snow clamps her mouth shut.

"I'm sorry," she says in Gertrude's wake. "I can talk about this for hours—I forgot not everyone is interested."

"It's nice to know my queen will love her people," James tells her. He still looks a little shell-shocked, though, at the flush of information. Snow finds it adorable, but she resolves all the same to take a step back. Her enthusiasm for her future rule is not lessened, but she tries to temper it.

One of the results of this attempt is that she talks him into teaching her how to fight. She does it sneakily, by watching him practice for three days and then petitioning her father. By the time James has been maneuvered into giving her lessons on how to throw a punch, it's a royal decree, informal or not, and he doesn't have a choice.

"That was very clever, princess," he tells her as he corrects her form. "Now, twist as you follow through." Obligingly, she arches her wrist and twists her forearm. He catches it against his, and then steps back and gestures her to do it again. Trapped in the shady end of the central courtyard, surrounded by the bustle of the court, there isn't much chance for romance in his lessons, and Snow is too excited by the process to attempt a seduction.

By the time James leaves, at thirty days, Snow has gotten used to the ring where it is snug against the knuckle of her ring finger, and she feels buoyed by happiness. All of her fear and apprehension about her approaching marriage have vanished. In their wake are contentedness and excitement and a thrill, low in her belly, about his laughter and his steadiness and his strength.

She says good-bye in her white dress with peach-colored lace, and she leaves her hair loose and curled against her back. He kisses her hand, bows over her stepmother's, and as he and his men disappear in a rush of hooves and the clanging of their armor Snow waves and waves until her arm hurts and her chest feels tight.

She goes inside and, accompanied by a bit of quill and roll of parchment, she disappears into her favorite corner and settles to write the first of many letters. My dear James, she writes, and because her hand is shaking the letters are all but illegible.

The final draft, which she settles on two hours later, is witty and bright and she hopes it makes him laugh at least four times. She signs it, All my love, Snow. It seems foolish to send the letter immediately, though, so she waits four days and then gives it to a courier over breakfast.

His reply takes three days, and almost overnight they become correspondents. At first, Snow attempts to keep her conversation light and fluffy, but she's not good at light and fluffy and eventually their letters are just excuses for exchanging ideas about statecraft. They argue heatedly about the Ogre Wars, then about tariffs, then about port development and building a navy. For three weeks, Snow buries herself in books about logging, and she creates a credible defense for the preservation of the western forest.

I don't know what on earth you think you're defending, she writes to him, but what you're actually doing is creating a completely arbitrary set of rules whereby the king can do what he wants and the people just have to listen.

Don't be ridiculous, says his reply. I'm not saying that at all. Of course the king has a responsibility to his people, but he cannot rule solely for their expressed desires. The people don't have the advantages of the king, if simply in scope of view if nothing else. His burden is to rule for the good of his people.

Snow takes the letter to the library and flaps it at Gertrude. "And he calls me ridiculous," she huffs. "Listen to this: The king must, foremost, keep the council of those whom he would trust. Well, of course, but when I tried to tell him that a king should, foremost, keep his own council, he called me short-sighted!"

"I have to say," replies Gertrude as she writes a number on the inside flap of a new book and then copies it into her records, "this is a pleasant change from all that mooning about this summer."

"It's hard to moon about in letters," says Snow absently. "Besides, we spend so much time talking about whether or not to establish a college in the capital that we haven't time for romance."

Still, Gertrude's response makes her wonder if she should try harder to move James' thoughts in another, more passionate direction. It's hard, for all the poetry she digs out of the library and tries to work into her letters; when James was at the castle, striding around in his glossy boots and listening to her speak and smiling at her across the dinner table, it was much easier for her thoughts to turn pale and light and soft. Now what she wants to do is win all of their debates.

The next time, it is Snow who is invited to visit James and his father. As she alights from a completely unnecessary carriage—it isn't as if she doesn't know how to ride a horse—James is there to lend her a stabilizing hand. As she closes her fingers over his, the sizzle she's waited for, over six months of letters, is barely perceptible.

Their eyes meet, and James gives her a deprecating half-grin. Oh well, it seems to say. At least we tried. Her responding is genuine and affectionate; she traps his hand with her other and gives him a quick kiss on the cheek. She is still smiling as he introduces her to his father, who is grave and tall and doesn't appear capable of any expression other than dour disapproval.

Dinner is dry and formal; the wine is exquisite, and Snow drinks just enough to dull the small nugget of pain in her chest. She is glad, in some ways, that her passion for James has faded. It feels like a remembered infatuation, and what they have built, in their letters, feels like a much more stable and pragmatic beginning for the many years they will spend ruling his kingdom together.

Snow has been trained to like stable and pragmatic things, and in light of so many years of not knowing what to expect from her husband, the friendship she has received feels like a gift. Under the banner of his father's table, she is grateful for even that. The castle his home is cold; this far north, it captures the sharp wind and turns even the mildest of weather vicious. James and Snow, in deference to this, spend a good deal of time in his study, playing chess and arguing about the cost and benefits of repaving the main road to the east.

Living in such a place breeds a joyful longing for good weather; when the sun shines, James drags Snow away from his father's library to the extensive training grounds that have replaced his mother's gardens. "She died long ago," he explains as he guides her with a hand in the small of her back, "and it's not a friendly place for gardens. Considering how many knights we train here, it's a more practical use of the space."

Snow runs a hand along a dummy that has been mostly hacked to bits and is leaking straw. "Very practical," she agrees, and she thinks that one day, when they are wed and this is her home, she will gain back some of the gardens. There is something she finds calming about orchards and mazes and fountains, and it's not the same as the kitchen's gardens, which are filled with packed rows of vegetables and herbs and only a single rose bush, for making scented water.

The training grounds serve their own purpose; through guile and nagging, Snow convinces James to teach her how to use a bow. It takes such lengths to convince him, as James is respectful of her intellect but wary of her physical prowess.

"I wasn't imagining it, was I?" he asks her as he shifts her hips in their position over her knees. "This summer—between us—"

"No," says Snow, sighting down the arrow. His hands are warm, but the rush of fire is gone. "There was something there, but it has drifted away. I'm not upset; it turned my brain to mush."

She takes in a breath, lets it go, and releases the string. The arrow flops to the ground three feet away from the target, and James swallows half of his guffaw. "You'll get it eventually," he assures her, and she reminds him that she's retained at least some of what he's taught her when she sucker punches him in the stomach.

"If I were still infatuated, I doubt I'd have done that," she tells him with a quick grin, and he wheezes, a little theatrically, before launching into her and tackling her to the ground. In the tussle, as they laugh and shout, she elbows him in the nose. Two hours later, a healer finishes setting it and gives Snow a nasty look over James' shoulder.

"I can't believe you broke my nose," he tells her over dinner. It's just the two of them, and the absence of his father makes the room feel larger and brighter. They sit closer together, and she pulls at the pieces of pork with her fingers, licking them and giggling over the ruination of his magnificent profile. "All because we aren't in love. How vindictive of you, princess."

"Bite your tongue," she says.

"I can't," he informs her. "If I do that, I'll suffocate."

The last night of her stay, he gives her a present. Inside the small wooden box is a long chain, silver and tensile like a liquid snake. "It's more practical," he says as she pours the chain out into her palm. "I've seen you fiddling with the ring—it gets in your way."

Slowly, Snow works the ring off of her finger and slides it onto the chain. "Will you clasp it for me?" she asks. Looking slightly nervous, James fumbles with the clasp with his callous-rough fingers, before finally managing to connect the two halves.

"I'm sorry," he whispers against her hair. "It's not—what you wanted."

"It's more than I ever expected to have," she tells him truthfully, and slips the ring under her dress to rest against her heart. "Your friendship is the most beautiful gift I've ever received."

Because Snow has been taught to keep her word, when a year and a half later her father dies and her stepmother tries to have her killed and she sprints away from the huntsman with his soft, cold eyes, the first chance she has she takes the chain from around her neck and puts it in an envelope. Then she knocks out a royal courier, picks his pocket, and slips the letter in amongst all the other mail being sent to James and his father by her stepmother's new kingdom.

She doesn't love James, and she cannot help him create the kingdom that they dreamed about in their letters. It doesn't feel right to hold onto the ring, and she hopes that it conveys to him the message that she wants: Find love. Make our dreams come true.

It takes a while to get used to the absence of the ring against her chest, but a year of being a wanted woman teaches her to get used to many things. The first time she kills a deer with pilfered arrows and a truly horrendously made bow, she slits the deer's throat and sends her thanks to James and his lessons and his large, wide hands as they patiently guided hers in stringing a bow. Then she thanks the kitchen staff as she skins its carcass and drags what of the meat she can to roast over the flame.

She never expects to see him again, so it's a bit of a surprise when he tackles her as she makes her way off with a dour princess' jeweled pouch. When he rolls her over and yanks at her hood, she stares at him in minute shock.

After a beat, he says, "You're a girl," and she catalogues in a second his voice, the line of his nose, the strength of his shoulders, and her stomach ripples and she grabs for a rock, because this isn't James. It looks like James, but it isn't him.

She sends out queries through a few connections as she makes her deal with the trolls, but there hasn't been word about Prince James' twin's miraculous appearance. Remembering his father and the coldness in his face and bearing, Snow wouldn't be surprised if this wasn't his doing, somehow. The confusion makes her thoughtless, careless, even, things she thought she'd stopped being years ago, and it's her distraction over her former fiancée that leads her straight into his doppelgänger's trap.

As if she needed further confirmation of his identity (or lack thereof, really), the self-satisfied way that he unrolls her wanted poster and gestures between her and it tells her that her first, lurching instinct was correct. She wants to yell at him—where is James, where is he, you cretin—but she settles for sneering and refusing to call him by the name that is not his and before she can even really think about it, she's out of her net and on the ground and has been trapped into his stupid agreement.

He is and isn't James. They look the same, they both suffer from more chivalry than was ever really necessary in a single person, and his smile strikes at a piece of her heart that used to be kept warm by a small circle of silver and diamond fire. But Charming isn't James, and she's reminded of this when she looks at his face, and the ring on her finger isn't brilliant and it doesn't flash like the diamonds in her hair or the crystal glass in her hand but his face has a real, true hunger to it that says, I want you.

There is a corresponding fire in her stomach that pools in her chest and sends liquid light along her limbs. Even after months of living on her own, it never goes away. Without nourishment or encouragement, it grows in strength and it lends itself to her. Snow has never loved anyone except her father, and the experience is new and painful and she is deeply, woefully unprepared for how the feeling in her heart binds itself to the rest of her life. After two decades of practicality and being sensible, the tears and the moping and the daydreaming fills her with self-loathing.

"I d-don't know h-how to stop-p-p," she wails, and Ruby gently rubs her back.

"It's love, hon; it doesn't," Ruby tells her. This is essentially as sympathetic Ruby as ever really gets, and the briskness of her response reminds Snow of Gertrude, which is far more comforting than the words themselves.

Feeling slightly ashamed of herself, Snow pulls herself together and rubs at her eyes. "It'll be fine," she says, half to herself and half to slightly over Ruby's left ear. "I was just—unprepared, for such a rush."

"What, have you never been in love before?" Ruby asks. "Not even as a small child? You know, a crush on someone's older brother?"

"No," says Snow. "There was never anyone else. Not in the same way."

It's a lie, that Snow was worried that he wouldn't find her. It's become a catchphrase, the sort of thing she read and at which she scoffed in the books that Willa had liked and Gertrude despised, but she knows, like she knows the best way to settle a diplomatic incident and her father's many types of smiles and how to climb a tree, that he will come for her, as she would come for him.

After such a long sleep, it doesn't make sense for her to be tired, but she is. As he lifts her gently onto his horse and they take their leave from her dear friends, clustered still around the glass prison, she is exhausted down to her bones; she almost collapses when they arrive back to the castle and he collects her half-limp body from the back of the horse. "Easy," he murmurs, "it's all right, I've got you." In a terribly charming, gallant way, he sweeps her up into his arms and crosses the courtyard.

It's a picturesque scene, with the light streaming down on them and Snow, pale, dressed in white, the feathers still curled in her hair. Almost as one, the occupants of the courtyard sigh and one of them says, quite distinctly, "That's the most romantic thing I've ever seen. Imagine it, together again after being torn apart by that nasty queen."

Charming doesn't pay any attention, but it stirs Snow out of her languor and she remembers, abruptly, that she has been here before in a separate capacity. "Wait," she tells him as they exit the courtyard and he turns unerringly towards the private residence wing, "I have to tell you something."

"It can wait," says Charming, "for a time when you haven't been dead recently."

Two maids who Snow recognize both stop in the middle of the hallway and stare. "Is that—" one of them says before she collects herself. The other quickly manages a poorly formed curtsey and says, "Welcome back, my lady."

"Thank you, Jenna," replies Snow.

She can feel Charming's stare against her forehead. "I told you," she continues once they are out of sight of the maids, "I've got something I need to tell you. About your brother."

In Charming's defense, he doesn't drop her, but he picks up the pace and before she can say a word about how unseemly it is for her to be in his private rooms, he kicks the door shut behind him and deposits her in a chair by the empty fireplace. "As I light this," he says, "you're going to tell me about my brother."

"James and I were engaged from my birth," Snow tells him as he efficiently stacks the wood into a small pyre and fusses with kindling. With him facing away from her, she cannot read his expression, and the line of his shoulders is hard to distinguish beneath his heavy fur cloak. "As children, we barely knew one another, but when I turned sixteen our fathers took a more active role in our meeting."

She is so tired; she takes a second to rest her head against the back of the chair. "We became very good friends, and corresponded for two years, before my father died and my stepmother had me exiled." Under her closed eyelids, she thinks of James, twenty-two and smiling at the shore of the lake, unsure of his footing with his future bride. "We made many plans for the time when we would marry and rule together."

Against her better efforts, the tears begin. With a trembling sigh, she presses the heel of her hands against her eyes. Charming is still fiddling with the fire; she can hear the sound of the kindling rustling, the tapping noise of a struck flint. "I love you so very much," she finally manages, "but I know that for you to be here, something must have happened to James, and he was a dear friend."

Finally, Charming stops and faces her. She reads the truth from him before he can open his mouth. After so long a day, it is unsurprising that the tears cannot be stopped. Charming finishes with the fire and then he draws her down onto the rug and holds her in his arms as she cries, bitterly, for the death of her friend and what it has given her. Eventually, she falls asleep, and she wakes wrapped around him, stiff-limbed after the long ride, with his hands tangled in her hair. His hands are infinitely gentle as they carry her to his bed, and she should protest—the maids are probably in a tizzy—but she's still exhausted.

She sleeps for another few hours; when she awakes for the second time, he is standing in front of the fire with a focused, blazing expression on his face. "What is it?" she asks, struggling to prop herself up with arms that feel like limp noodles after her spelled sleep.

Charming turns towards her. "Nothing," he finally says. The focus in his face doesn't disappear, but he shifts his attention to her. He looks hungry, thirsty, and tired, and the scar on his chin stands out starkly in the light of the fire. She tries, for not the first time, to determine why it was so easy to know he wasn't James. The broken nose was a clear indication, but it's something more than that.

The way he looks at her is not the way James had looked at her, not even during those few bright days when she was sixteen and surreptitiously watched him lead drills in the morning sun. When he tells her, matter-of-factly, I will always find you, it makes her spine drop to her knees and her head spin dizzily under her hair. Right now, if she invited him to her bed—his bed—she knows that he would accept, with not a single thought towards propriety or responsibility. With one outstretched hand, he would love her to the extent that his eyes promise.

It is so very tempting, after the age and a half of laconic, spelled sleep. She still doesn't feel completely human; a part of her feels frozen. It might be the dress. Quite suddenly, she wants it off.

"Do you have something I can wear?" she asks.

He stops making love to her with his eyes and swallows. "Yes, of course. Let me get you a maid."

"I don't want a maid," she says, kicking back the blanket and struggling out of the feather-stuffed bed. She can't remember the last time she slept in a bed. "I just want to get this dress away from my skin."

Charming stares at her for a beat, and then he mutters under his breath, "Gods preserve me," and crosses to the wardrobe by the window. "I've got leggings and a tunic. They'll be too big, but it's what's on hand."

It's unfair to keep comparing him to James, to both of them, so she tries not to imagine James throwing her a white lawn shirt and fawn-colored leggings from his closet. He would've insisted on the maid, and then vacated the room, and patiently waited for her in a private sitting room with a tray of tea things.

He, too, would have held her by the fireplace as she cried.

Numbly, Snow begins to unbutton her dress. As she stares at the shirt, stark against the red and gold brocade of the bed quilt, her eyes begin to fill again. She knows now that James' death wasn't because of her stepmother's machinations, but she cannot help feeling, in her bones, responsible. So many deaths have been laid at her door; some of them by her own fault, some of them by her foolishness, but she had always had some comfort in the thought that James was well.

"I'm such an idiot," she says, fingers trembling and her dress half-undone. As she moves her eyes from the shirt to Charming, through blurring eyes she see his hunger shift to dismay and he crawls across the ridiculously large bed to pull her into his arms.

"Oh, Snow, no," he assures her in a panicked voice. "No, of course not."

"I knew you weren't him," she sobs, digging her fingers into his shoulders and clinging. "I knew, but I never thought that he was dead—how could I be so stupid?"

One of his large hands comes up to cradle the back of her head. "Snow," he tells her, pressing his cheek to her hair, "you had no way of knowing what had happened. That was the point of George's ridiculous plan."

Over him, she continues, "I was distracted—oh, gods, I've never felt a love like the one I feel for you. It blinded me to everything. I've made so many mistakes because my heart is filled with you." She lifts her face to his and says, "I cannot bring myself to regret it, but I wish I could. I thought for many years I was practical and sensible, but really I was just waiting for you to come along so I could lose half my wits and bury the rest with a magic potion."

She will never forgive herself for the potion.

Charming frames her face with both palms. "Snow." He speaks slowly, his fire-warmed hands gentle and his eyes firm. "My brother regularly slayed dragons, beheaded harpies, and fought off power-addled court ladies. Expecting him to be able to take care of himself was understandable. No one could expect you to fight for your own life and care for him like a mothering hen."

His love fills her, like it does every morning when she wakes and remembers, but it cannot cut through the loathing she feels for herself and the deep pain of having lost the last of the family of her heart. "Thank you," she whispers, and kisses him. "You're awfully fine with words, Charming."

"I try," he tells her, half-seriously. "We shepherds aren't known for our smooth speaking, but I thought I should at least give it a bit of effort."

With that, he detaches himself and hands her the shirt and the leggings and gracefully excuses himself with the promise that he'll return with a pot of tea and something to eat. Drained of tears and sick from sleep, Snow stumbles through dressing and has to dig out a belt to keep the leggings from falling to her knees. She is warming her bare feet by the blaze, sprawled on the rug in front of the fireplace and combing through her hair with her fingers, when Charming returns with a tray.

"I was told by three maids, a footman, and the cook herself that it was a fine thing to have the Princess Snow back in the castle, and that none of them believed a word against you all the years you were exiled." His grin is self-deprecating as he arranges his long limbs on the floor beside her. "Also, if I didn't get my ring back on your finger in three days, I'd be a fool and a half."

Snow examines her hand as she teaches for a slice of thickly cut bread. She can't remember the last time she'd had bread that wasn't brown and lumpy, or undercooked. "It was quite a ring," she agrees. "A stardiamond of the best quality. I wore it on a chain around my neck for eighteen years." She curls her hand into a fist. "I would prefer your mother's ring. If you were asking me for my hand, which you aren't."

"Of course I am," says Charming as he hands her a cup of tea. "I wouldn't have put you in my bed last night if I didn't have the intention of keeping you there."

A warmth unrelated to the fire and the tea curls up Snow's chest, through her neck and into her cheeks. "Oh," she murmurs, and then she almost drops her teacup when she sees that his mother's ring is on a saucer on the tray. "Oh," she repeats. "You really are—"

"I'm no fool," Charming explains. "Marry me, Snow. I will love you even if you don't, but I want you to be my queen, and to stay by my side and help me with this kingdom I know nothing about running." He's lost his conversational tone; he sounds rushed and worried and his words trip over themselves. "More than the people here need you, though, I do." He fumbles to pick up the ring, and he offers it to her across the tea tray. He is as brilliant as the sun in the firelight.

"Yes," she says, surprised and pleased that she isn't crying. "Yes, of course." Her hands tremble as she offers him the left one, which is still holding half a slice of bread. At a loss, she stuffs the bread into her mouth and then offers him her hand again.

The ring is warm and fits like it had the day in the woods, and when she looks at him over it, the hunger from before has mellowed into respect and love and his regard crackles across her skin.

Over the course of the following days, together, they go through James' impressively organized correspondence, avoiding for the moment King George's cold, empty study, and find her letters, wrapped in a blue ribbon and stored with his other kingdom-relevant paperwork. It almost sets Snow off again, but she rubs her thumb and forefinger along the faded ribbon and allows herself a small smile, before she takes the packet of letters and puts them in the fire.

"Those were our dreams—his and mine," she tells him as he watches, eyes hooded, from the desk where he is sorting outdated and still relevant information. "It's time we make our own." She will always remember James, in her heart and throughout her life, and doing so is not a betrayal of her marriage. It's a sort of peace.

The morning after the wedding, James traps Snow in bed and kisses his way up her chest to her neck, and then down her left shoulder and around her elbow and to her wrist, where he presses his lips for a long, slow moment, and he finishes against her knuckles, where his ring will sit for the rest of her life.

Afterwards they make love, again, and James is languid and his body ripples against her fingers. His hands with their wide palms pin her hips against the mattress and her skin reddens under the brush of the fresh hair on his chin. "I love you," he whispers against all the secret hollows of her skin, into her hair, and then he rasps it into her ear. "I will always love you, Snow. Every moment of every day."

The shiver that runs down her skin makes her tremble, and she links her arms around his neck and her legs around his hips and she cries, loudly enough that half of the castle is probably going to hear, "James, James," and then much later, softly, "I love you, too." It was always you.