There are words. She floats inside, outside of herself, the world dark and her body far, far away, but there are words that reel her in close. She feels nothing but detachment and peace in solitary, but there is a voice that has grounded her before and weighs on her now.

He had a wife. The way he speaks of her, the pain and grief in his voice belies the love lost, and the heart that barely beats in her chest aches for him. And then he tells her that she is like his wife in heart and spirit, and that makes her neither happy nor sad, but it isn't supposed to; it just is.

Then there is nothing for a time - not long, perhaps, but long enough - and then there is warmth, and finally there is silence. She does not want the silence, but it comes and stays past the rush of breath in her lungs (hot from a thousand candles and summer air and life, from living), it stays as she takes her first barefooted steps down the cool stone halls and out into the night where everyone is as surprised as she is determined. Determined to gather her men, teeming with purpose.

She speaks, and her brethren cheer. They kneel, and he is among their faces, but there is a time and a place to single him out. They have words, so many words, but they can wait for plans to be made and and army to be gathered. She is more than certain she will not have to search when things settled for the night; he would find her when he felt the time was right. He was never, never far.

And she is not disappointed. Boots heavy upon the flagstone, he approaches her chambers, entering before he is bidden because his decorum is somewhat lacking. Of course she does not mind, but the maids are not so kind. Snow offers an apologetic half-smile when he is tutted and hustled out the door, a silly feeling bubbling and bursting warm in her chest as his expression in return is dazed and tiredly amused.

When the tittering old women bid her goodnight nearly a full hour later, she waits like a good girl tucked in bed until the click-clack-click of their heels disappear down the corridor. Then she proves to be less of a good girl by wriggling free of the heavy blankets and slipping off in the direction opposite of the one they had gone.

She knows not where his quarters might be, but she does not fret; he will know to find her (where, how, and why). He always does. Being a huntsman and a ferociously protective caretaker might do that to a man, give him that innate knowledge of her every move.

Indeed, she has only to peek around two, three corners in the Duke's castle before he steps out from the shadows and into her personal space. For all the things she expects him to say, the thing that surprises her most is his silence as he draws her into his arms and threads his fingers through her hair to hold her cheek-to-chest. Through his borrowed nightshirt, she feels the beat of his heart, and oh it races.

Once his heart calms and the muscles in her legs begin to shake, he releases her and dutifully walks her back to her room, carding one hand through her hair before she smiles at him in the flickering torchlight until it is returned from his eyes. They part for the night and everything has returned to normal the next morning as they scramble to fill their bellies before the coming journey: He keeps at her side and makes disparaging remarks that she chooses to ignore in favor of buckling and tightening the dwarves' armor.

She waits for him to mention it, the words spoken to her in her death-sleep, but he never does, so she too holds her silence.

"Don't flatter yourself," he'd said, so she doesn't, not in all the time they are together, which is why she is so taken aback when he smiles so courteously at her at the front lines, tells her she looks fetching in chainmail.

"Don't flatter yourself" meant she needn't feel warm and wonder at every stolen glance. "Don't flatter yourself" meant that whatever dreams her mind allowed itself to entertain had no bearing in reality, and that perhaps William's eyes should be the ones she sought for approval and affection and comfort. "Don't flatter yourself" meant she might keep herself from wanting and yearning, as it would be a fruitless battle to fight.

But the smile, the warmth, and the solid presence at her side accompanying that straightforward and honest remark - comment - compliment take an axe to the solid boundary of "don't flatter yourself" and lays it out until the blood of all its implications, restrained thoughts and feelings and desires, are bled bare for all to see.

For her to see.

When she takes her throne, he isn't around much anymore.

But that is inaccurate. In truth, he is around very often for a man not of the court, and she seeks comfort in his counsel. Eric is firm foundation when she slips or stutters on her slow climb toward perfecting the art of ruling a kingdom. He says what she needs most to hear, rebukes and indulges her when she is fanciful, walks with her in the bustling village of her beloved people when she has been inside for far too long.

He is not around much in the sense that he disappears when she is called upon by dukes and duchesses, by the monarchy of other lands, by William. He is not truly put off by William, and he wasn't in all the time they travelled together, and so she wonders at why he chooses now to keep his distance. Her childhood friend is never bothered by his presence, even seems disappointed when Eric takes his leave the moment William enters a room, so it cannot be a slight between them.

She ponders and frets for ages, but she does not, cannot let it affect her work for the people, so she does not let her troubled thoughts peek through the visage of queenship as she tends to her studies on politics and economics and language - a mad scramble to grasp at the knowledge of her kingdom that she should have been able to take in for all the years she'd been locked in the dungeon.

He can read her like a book, of course. Two evenings after the duke and his son depart from her home, their business finished, Eric waltzes into the dining hall and hastens to drop into a bow at the sharp look from two of her counselmen. She bites back a grin and bids him to stand, to which he responds by swooping back upward and sauntering over to take his seat at her side. The elders scowl and bring their heads together, tittering like hens back and forth. She pays them no mind, and neither does her huntsman.

Restless in the presence of guards with spears and old men that find anything and everything to Heavily Frown Upon, they eat quickly and slip from the dining hall to the main entrance to the courtyard to the wheat fields beyond. She breathes, and a calm settles over her that never does when she is anywhere but in the presence of the open air and -

He cuffs her on the shoulder, demand-requests that she tell him what troubles her, what makes her so tense that she deflates the moment she is outside the walls of her beloved home. She dodges another gentle blow when he grows impatient from her silence and takes a few quick steps to the left. He moves to follow, and something in her sparks, something childish and instinctual and before she knows it, the is running, running in slippers and yanking up her gown over acres and acres of wheat, the chilled breeze of mid-autumn stinging her throat and prickling at her scalp but oh, how it thrills her to run. How it thrills her to hear his thunderous footsteps behind her, just near enough to reach out and -

They tumble down a sudden slope of hill, and somewhere nearer to the bottom than the top she lands half over his stomach, gasping with windlessness and laughter all at once as he fights to catch his breath. Snow rolls back and makes to stand, but a hand around her ankle puts a stop to that and sends her stumbling gracelessly back to the ground, where he moves like lightning to pin her.

Eyes the color of sky and tumultuous sea spark with daring and danger and adrenaline, and she can almost taste the wine on his breath as his hair tickles her cheeks. He asks her again, slowly, softly what she is hiding from him behind her curtain of innocence, and she meets him in the middle with soft honesty.

She worries and wonders at his abrupt leaves of absence at the presence of any royalty aside from herself.

He tells her in the quiet of their nonexistent distance that he might know her as much as any person might know another, but as a queen, she is... beyond him. And so she lifts her hands from between their bodies, darkened somewhat with dirt, and curls them over his shoulders as she tells him that he speaks nonsense, for she is queen now, and in no sense of the term is she beyond him. He opens his mouth to retort, but she cuts in to ask why he no longer pays mind to William. She thought they were friends, at least, for weren't comrades-in-arms friends and brothers at their core?

Eric sits up and away then, and she is left almost gasping at the openness and emptiness of the air around her when he is gone.

Quietly, he admits that he does not believe in encroaching on the space of two people betrothed. There is an air of shame and frustration that surrounds him, and it tightens in her throat like she can feel it too. So she shuffles forward on her knees and settles at his side, near enough for their knees and thighs to touch, and another cool breeze moves between them.

She is betrothed to no one, and she says it with such absolution that he looks surprised. She may be somewhat embarrassed at the ferocity with which she used to make her point, but it had been made, so she meets his gaze without any hint of abashedness. She'd be damned if the tiniest of smiles didn't twitch at the corners of his lips before it vanished with some sarcastic remark about her being too troublesome for any wise man to try and wed, and then she shoves him in the shoulder and stands, brushing wheat and dirt from her skirts before holding out a hand to help him stand.

When William next visits, Eric never strays from her side, and that bubbling warmth starts up inside of her again.

Snow only hopes he will not notice her growing affection. He still has yet to mention her slumber and the confessions he spoke when he thought her dead. Because of this, despite his glances and his touches and his presence ever-growing at her side, there is doubt.

And doubt is a crippling ailment if love ever had one.

He will not take a position in her court. When she offers, he scoffs and jostles her lightly as they stroll along the faerie path. She cannot see why not; he already appoints himself as her guard and caretaker on diplomatic travels such as this. Why should he not be paid for it? But he eyes her so oddly that she drops the matter almost instantly, feeling foolish and not knowing why.

But Snow forgets to feel uncomfortable when a fae peeks at her from behind a cardinal's tail, and she does not notice his gaze on her when she moves to investigate every little wonderment her eyes do find.

It is three nights later in the middle of their journey back from her reigning monarch duty (and their privately-acknowledged friendly visit) to the dwarf caves that he eyes her from across the fire and explains that he will not take her money, not for something so simple as (one hand lifts to circle the air as he grapples for words) this.

But he eats her food, she points out, and he takes up occasional - frequent - residence in her home.

He must if he is ever to be with her.

Snow's lips part and she does not quite know what to make of that until he continues, voice thick and deep and rolling, pointing out quite plainly that she rarely leaves her palace, and if he is to keep an eye on her, he cannot wait for her to wander his way.

It makes sense, of course, but somehow she doesn't think that that is really all there is to his reasoning. But she keeps quiet and watches him tend the fire as the bubbles begin to burst against her ribcage and make it hard not to - to move - to do something. Whatever it is that rests inside her only to stir at the sight of the huntsman is spreading like an illness, prickling hot at her chest and the tips of her fingers and her cheeks, swelling and growing at everything he says and does until it is fit to bursting inside her. It is not fair that she has this thing that she can barely contain and has no idea what to do with it, no context with which to find similarities in other feelings, nothing at all to compare it to.

She wants to cry under the beautiful aching weight of it all, and it is all she can do to sit still, to not crawl around the fire and touch him, because that - that is something she thinks, or knows instinctively, might help the blossoming ache in her breast.

But there is doubt.

Doubt, she finds, is easily clouded by whatever the feeling is that makes her think she'll die if she doesn't have his permission to touch.

- for she could hold her silence no longer. His hand pauses halfway between tossing a log in the flames and being a safe distance removed from their campfire, eyes unblinking and wide as she tells him in a rush that she had heard him, heard every word as she slept. A year passed and still she remembers every word, every little jolt of emotion they brought, and he looks like he doesn't know what to do with the information.

So he does end up dropping the wood into the flames as she crawls closer, and once she's at his side, knees and thighs brushing, they watch the embers burst and the flames dance.

Did you know you broke the spell?

He shakes his head, but under his breath he admits that he might have entertained the notion. Her shoulder touches his.

Do you know why it was you?

He tells her very quickly that William kissed her first, and that had he not, Eric would not have dreamt of -

But she gives him a look and he silences himself, stoic once more. She closes her eyes and takes his arm, falling slowly until their backs rest atop blankets and their eyes meets stars. Then, slowly, as though he were a timid creature, Snow reaches down and presses her palm to his.

She knows that there must be a reason that he had broken her curse when William could not. And she wants to know why. She wonders, too, if Eric is just as curious. He tells her that if she insists on meddling with the affairs of magic, she would do well to leave him out of it.

Then he curls his fingers into hers and it tells her (as if she does not already know) that no matter what he says, that is something he will never allow.