Sometimes, Snow White still returns to the woods.
James tries not to take it to heart. The woods are a part of her now -- they were her home, her protection for so long -- but he wishes he could be solace to her the way the trees and enchantments of the forest seem to be.
It has been like this since the wedding. She may think she’s sparing him by keeping her worry to herself, by constantly repeating that it’s nothing when he asks, but instead, he becomes more concerned. Her independence is one of the things he loves most about her, but he wants to help, he wants to make this easier.
The Queen’s curse suddenly presents James with a problem he cannot solve.
He can slay dragons and save two kingdoms from certain war and destruction, he can adapt to the life that was forced upon him and choose a new path to make it his own, but he cannot assuage his wife’s fears or determine what adversity will befall them.
Finally, not two months after their wedding, James cannot bear it any longer. When she disappears into the woods late one afternoon, he mounts his own steed and rides off in search of her.
It does not take long before he finds her in a sunny clearing not far from the cottage where she had lived with the seven brothers. She is sitting beside a brook; her knees are curled up underneath her, the skirt of her day gown spread out on the ground. It is still an adjustment at times to see her dressed in palace finery, never more than here in the forest, though she looks as lovely in these gowns as she does in breeches, her hair mussed, at her wildest and most untamed. She is the one who has been a princess all her life, but it seems that their new life at the palace is even more of a struggle for her than it is for him.
Her back is to him, but she does not even look up before acknowledging his arrival.
“You found me,” she says, her voice muffled slightly as she keeps her head facing forward. Here in the privacy of the forest, the true weight of the burden she carries replaces the cheerful demeanor she puts on for the benefit of their subjects.
He thought she might be angry that he invaded her solitude, but her shoulders slump forward in relief. He dismounts and ties his horse beside hers, fastening the reins to a low branch on a nearby oak tree, then rushes to her side. “Did you ever doubt I would?” he asks.
This earns him a half-hearted smile, just the slightest curve of her lips. “Never,” she turns to fasten the last of the laces on his tunic, which has come loose during the course of his ride. “I know you better than that.”
“You do,” he agrees succinctly, enjoying the way she settles back against his chest without a word. The woods around them are full of soft, soothing sounds: the quietly babbling brook, the sweet songs of birds chirping overhead. It is peaceful here, their own safe haven. He can see why she chooses this as her escape.
James hates to break this comfortable moment, but the enchantments of the forest are only a temporary relief.
“So,” he begins gently. He does not want to press her, but he needs answers that only she can give. “Will you tell me what’s on your mind?”
The tensing of her shoulders is an immediate, involuntary reaction. She leans forward, wrenching herself from his arms. She shifts her position until she is facing him, her eyes dark and level with his.
“Do you think maybe things would be better if I had stayed here, or if I had left the kingdom completely like I had planned?” She sighs, choosing her words slowly and carefully, but her eyes never once break contact with his. “There would be no curse. Our people would be safe; you would be safe.”
“But the Queen would still be trying to kill you,” he insists, a deep crease forming on his forehead as he frowns. “Your life would still be in danger.”
“I would have gotten out eventually, escaped to another kingdom. I would have found a way.”
“You would have found a way out.” Of this fact, he has no doubt; it was only after she became entangled in his messes that her plans shifted and she stayed longer. “But I don’t think the Queen would ever stop looking for you, and we wouldn’t be together. Are you having doubts, Snow? Because you can tell me.”
“About the Evil Queen and her curse and our Kingdom,” she answers. Her hand goes to the knee of his breeches, adjusting the seam and brushing the dirt that has collected there. “But not about you. Never about you.”
The speed and certainty with which she replies alleviates some of his own fears. At times, he still feels like a poor farm boy playing games in the palace; she is the only person outside of those who witnessed his brother’s death who know his true identity, and what is more important, she is the only person he has trusted with this truth by choice. Keeping it from her had never been an option.
“Prince Charming,” she teases, the light, carefree tone in her voice not concealing the seriousness that is evident in the narrowing at the corners of her eyes. The hand on his knee squeezes gently. “Are you having doubts?”
“Only if you are.” James reaches out to tuck a loose tendril of hair behind her ear, then trails his hand to cup her cheek. She leans into his touch. “I want a life with you and that means your doubts are mine, but I have none of my own. Every moment I waste on doubts is a moment when I’m not with you.”
“Oh, James,” she whispers; a wide, shy smile plays at her lips. Her body leans forward and he thinks he can feel the thundering of her heart in her chest through the small distance that separates them. He knows the look on her face well, the one that says, ‘I never imagined anyone would love me this much.’
He knows it because he supposes his own face frequently mirrors the same thought.
He studies the hand that rests on his knee, from the delicate fingers and soft skin to the faded scar at her wrist, from the bend of her knuckles to the ring that adorns her fourth finger. His fate -- their fate -- had been sealed the moment he saw his mother’s ring on her finger; after that, the ring would never have looked right worn by anyone else.
His own hand falls from her face to join hers where it rests, their fingers twining together much like their lives have.
“I’m not afraid of her, or of what she might do to me,” she explains, her every word exuding that quiet confidence that he has come to know so well. “But I worry for you and for our kingdom. I don’t want any of you to suffer because she hates me. We don’t know what she’s planning, or when, or how. We have no way of preventing it.”
“We can’t prevent it, but we can be prepared. We’ll consult all the finest advisers and raise protection around the borders. I’ll do whatever I can to ease your mind.” James realizes that very little can be done, but that doesn’t mean he won’t try. “And until then, our best revenge is to be as happy as possible. The Queen will hate that.” He considers this for a beat, then adds uncertainly, “You are happy... aren’t you?”
She laughs at this heartily, some of the sparkle returning to her eyes. “Of course I am, Charming. And I want a life with you too, I don’t want to let her ruin what we have. I just don’t want you to resent me for it.”
“I never will. I promise you.”
He meets her lips with his, kissing her to seal his promise. It is all the reassurance she needs.
She rises from the ground and brushes the dirt and leaves from her skirts. The late afternoon sun casts a warm glow over her as it shines through the treetops, a glow that matches her own, and he wonders not for the first time -- nor for the last -- how he ever came to be so lucky.
“Come with me,” she says. “Let me show you the woods so that you will know them as well as I do.”
“It will be getting dark soon. The court will be wondering where we are,” he reminds her.
“Then let them wonder.” She takes his hand in hers and pulls him to his feet. She smiles, her eyes wide and brimming with laughter. “They can wait.”
In a flash, she unties her horse and climbs up into the saddle; how she manages in her gown is beyond him, just another one of her many mysteries. He watches, unable to tear his eyes away from the sight of her.
“Are you coming?” she asks.
He is already standing, halfway to his horse when he answers, “Of course.”
And as they ride away together, he thinks that he would follow her anywhere as long as she asked.