The gnarled branches of the enchanted forest whip his clothing as he rides, but he is impervious to the sting of their lashes on his cheeks and chest as he urges his steed faster over the undergrowth. The pain is nothing compared to the growing, gnawing fear that clenches in his throat.
His heart races and he must ride faster, faster, and when he finally reaches the clearing and makes a leaping dismount from his horse, chest heaving for breath, he can see the solemn faces and bowed heads of the group that has gathered and his heart sinks because he realizes
You're too late.
He hears the words from Doc but they don't quite register, so he denies it aloud, first in a desperate whisper and then vehemently, as if commanding it not to be so before being resigned to something already determined.
The untied horse is forgotten – let it run if it wants; let him be left here with her. It's just him and her, as the dwarves part to let him through. His face crumples as he gazes into the coffin.
It does not seem like anything terrible has happened. Through the glass, he can see everything. She is perfect and serene. Paler and stiller than he has ever seen her – the last time they were together, her cheeks were flushed with exertion and laughter. Now, her skin is porcelain, smooth and lifeless, and her perfect lips stand out like rose petals on a background of virgin snow.
He wants to touch her. To kiss her. Just once – the thing he never got the chance to do while she was alive because she would have laughed at him or refused him, because he was supposed to marry someone else. And surely the dwarves, her guardians, in death as in life, as they all surround her, as if protecting her – from what? from him? – would want things to remain this way, and they will deny him too. But he must try.
Open it. It is not a plea but a command, albeit a quiet and pleading one.
I'm sorry. She's gone.
He knows something is truly wrong when Grumpy apologizes.
His lip quivers and as he sinks, broken, his tremulous fingers skate across the unforgiving glass of the coffin. He can see her, but not touch her, and she is so close, but infinitely and impossibly distant. Even if he opened it, her body would still be empty; she would still be gone.
But as tears roll down his cheeks and congeal, freezing in their tracks, he looks up to meet the gaze of her strictest protector.
At least let me say goodbye.
He asks not as a mighty prince whose every wish is to be obeyed, but as a lost and broken man. Without her, he has nothing.
And this is what moves Grumpy, at last, to silently instruct the others to help him remove the lid of the coffin.
James steps back only long enough for this to be done, and his eyes do not leave Snow's placid face. He leans in, reverent, and braces his hands against the wood. This is not a kiss of passion, of demand, not a complaint of what would never be; it is a kiss of worshipful love, his gentle goodbye to her.
In the chilling air, there is a warm breeze as he presses his lips to hers. They are not cold or firm like he thought they would be, but velvet, pliant. He lingers for a moment, willing the moment to last, but he must look up to see the look on the dwarves' faces and the source of the odd whoosh of the wind.
She sucks in her breath and her eyes snap open, hands unfolding – perhaps reaching for him. And O God, it is the most beautiful thing he's ever seen when she gasps another breath, chest rising and falling.
Her green eyes flit to him and her soft hand cups his jawline, thumb tracing the scar on his chin, and she breathes You, and he laughs in breathless disbelief and euphoria.
You found me.
His hand sweeps from stroking her hair to caress her smooth forearm as she smiles.
Did you ever doubt I would?
He helps her sit up, hand squeezing in hers, and it feels so right. She is alight with life and motion and it is the most wondrous sight he's ever beheld.
He moves in closer, breath hitching in his throat.
Truthfully? The glass coffin gave me pause.
He laughs, choked up, and shakes his head at her as she trails her palm along his cheek, because of course she had to throw in a comment like that. Perhaps neither of them know how to take this moment as what it is – a miracle. It is impossible to quantify happiness like this, and the only way to really believe the truth of it is to make light of it.
But he has to wonder how anything else could have happened. Were they not destined to be together? Surely, the way he could have felt for her… that was fated for a romance, not a tragedy – a hero and a heroine for the ages, a prince and princess. Suddenly her death is just a memory, for she will never be gone from him again.
One hand supports the small of her back and with the other he smooths the mass of dark hair back from her face.
Well, you never have to worry – I will always find you.
She looks at him with such trust and adoration and he can see it all at once, the disgruntled bandit caught in his trap that he first fell in love with, and the perfect angel she appears to be now who has clearly trapped him.
Do you promise?
He swallows, hesitating not because he doesn't know the answer but because the emotional gravity of it means more than just finding her in a wood. It means pursuing her every day for the rest of their lives, and that is what he wants.
She cups his cheeks in her hands and kisses him, because she wants to remember it this time, and even Grumpy doesn't complain as the dwarves all look away discreetly. She is so warm and alive in his hands as she presses against his chest.
When she pulls away, he takes her hand and kisses it, and does not even ask before slipping his mother's ring onto her finger.
"Not you at all?" he asks – hopeful, expectant; waiting to be told otherwise.
She admires her hand, the glint of the gem rivaling the sparkle in her green eyes as she smiles crookedly at him.
"I'm only the jewelry type when it comes to a special someone."
He hugs her tightly to him, determined to never let her go, and he doesn't, not even when he boosts her onto his horse to carry her back to the castle, where the dwarves will meet them for the wedding that will take place as soon as possible. He doesn't plan on losing her again.