The tale of the lost princess is one known by subjects from kingdoms far and wide. A soul who hasn't heard the story whispered in hushed tones with mournful eyes is few and far between. The king and queen who lost their first born were beloved by many and respected by most. That their daughter was stolen in the night was a tragedy, and it was felt by more than just her parents. The entire kingdom mourned the loss of their princess. Search parties were sent out every few months. Anytime a rumor of her whereabouts drifted up to the castle, the king and queen both rode out with their knights to investigate it. But their hopes were always dashed. Their princess—their daughter—was well and truly lost to them. However, as you will learn from any fairy tale, a happy ending is always waiting just around the river's bend.
'Morning' was a dirty word to Emma Swan. The rising of the sun meant being roused from her creaky bed and scuttling across the cold floor to the hearth. It meant tying on the same apron she'd been wearing nearly every day since she turned fourteen and stuffing her blonde curls under a mob cap to keep them out of her eyes. It signaled the start of a very long day and the end of the night she took such comfort in. But the daughter of an innkeeper could not lay in bed all day. She could not lament the fact that she was up with the roosters, hauling water from the well and scrubbing potatoes for breakfast. Emma wasn't happy with her situation but she wasn't stupid either. The innkeeper and his wife needed her, just as she needed them.
For precisely this reason, Emma lingered at the window only a moment to watch the first rays of sunlight poke their narrow fingers over the horizon. When the light had shifted to a faint purple, she tied her apron around her waist and hurried down the back stairwell to the kitchen. The innkeeper's wife, Annabelle, stood over a simmering pot. A few notes of her humming carried across the warm room as Emma gathered up her buckets and slipped outside. The well was only a short distance from the back door—thank goodness the innkeeper had made friends with the former magistrate—but she enjoyed the trip. It was one of the few times she was allowed outside the inn without her parents. Emma attached the first bucket to the rope and let it drop into the well. The slap echoed up to her and she cranked the lever, slowly bringing the full bucket up. She repeated the process once more before turning back to the inn.
In the kitchen, the innkeeper—Thomas—was standing next to his wife. Their voices were quiet but Emma caught the worried looks on their faces. She set the buckets down, careful not to slosh any water on the floors. A puddle in the kitchen was a disaster waiting to happen.
“What is it? What's wrong?” Emma asked, her curiosity winning out over any ideas of slipping away for a few moments to herself before the real chaos of the day began.
Thomas looked up quickly, his expression guilty. “It's nothing to be concerning yourself with, Emma.”
“She may as well know,” Annabelle added, her voice gentle as she turned back to her pot.
Her husband hesitated a moment before shaking his head in defeat. “It really is nothing to concern yourself with, dear. But if you must know, there's talk of a ship just off the shore. With the way she's angled and the tide, she's likely to come into port this evening or the next.”
“A ship?” Emma's eyes brightened. A ship full of sailors meant a full inn, and a full inn resulted in a large flow of money into the inn. The look on her father's face was enough to tip her off that something about this particular ship was very much not a good thing. “Papa, what's gotten into you? Ships bring sailors and sailors bring business. This is a good thing!”
“No, Emma,” Annabelle spoke up. “Not this ship. This ship brings--”
“Enough,” Thomas interrupted, causing both women to halt. “There's no use worrying ourselves over something that may or may not come to pass. Work is plenty and the day is long. I suggest we keep our minds focused on the task at hand—keeping this old inn running.”
Emma nodded her understanding, moving to gather the vegetables that needed chopping. Her father's voice stopped her. Once again, the worry on his face had her desperate to know what Annabelle had been about to say about the inhabitants of the mystery ship.
“Emma, you will stay inside the inn today.” Her father held up his hand before she could protest. “I'll ask Jacob if his father can spare him for the day. If you need water from the well, you will ask Jacob. He will accompany your mother to the market this afternoon. This is not a request, Emma. You will stay inside.”
It was unusual for her parents to hand down commands. Even when they were working, they spoke to Emma as their equal. She was as much a cornerstone of the inn as they were. Without her, they would flounder and business would likely suffer. This show of—quite frankly—fear told Emma more than her mother's half-sentence. Something was wrong and her father did not want her to know what it was. But like any smart daughter, she gave him a tight smile and agreed, forcing her hands to keep steady while she skinned a bowl of carrots.
The tension from the morning never seemed to pass throughout the day. Instead, it faded for a few moments, only to be brought back to glaring clarity when Emma had to stop her feet from automatically steering her towards the well when Annabelle called for more water. At eighteen, she was more than capable of doing any task that needed to be done at the inn. She tidied rooms and changed sheets. She swept halls and scrubbed floors, stacked tankards and wiped tables, scooped up the stew and delivered it to the tables with a smile as big as her heart. The older men who frequented the inn—friends of Thomas' or husband of Annabelle's friends—had come to treat her like their daughter. All of the townspeople knew her name. They greeted her with smiles and good wishes. Emma was well-liked. But the isolation that her role at the inn provided set limits to her social life. All but a few of her days were spent bustling around the inn, tending to every need that should arise.
Her closest friend, Ruby, was the granddaughter of the woman who was responsible for all of the inn's linens. Granny, as the woman had come to be called by the townspeople, acted much like what Emma expected a grandmother to act like. She was firm with Ruby and Emma, but she made sure to slip the girls a treat as often as she could. Granny was even more protective of her charge than Thomas and Annabelle were. The difference in the relationships was that Granny was more likely to explain the danger than to outright forbid someone from doing something. Yet Ruby had received the same edict that Emma had—she was not to so much as look at the door of the inn until further notice. The girls had been given a stack of linens and sent off to the rooms, leaving Granny and Emma's parents to speak in the kitchen alone. Once upstairs, Emma couldn't help the sigh that escaped her throat.
“Still trying to puzzle out why we've been confined to the inn?” Ruby guessed.
Emma nodded, pulling the pillows off of the bed. “I don't understand it. They've never looked so worried.”
“Granny looked the same way.” Ruby stripped the blankets and sheets from the mattress. “When I asked her what was troubling her, all she'd say was that 'a storm is coming'.”
Emma wrinkled her brow. “I got even less than that. Papa said there was a ship off the coast. When I asked why he looked upset over the possibility of sailors, Mama spoke up like sailors weren't what they expected to walk off the ship. But Papa stepped in before she could finish and told me Jacob would be coming around to help with the outdoor chores.”
A spark of mischief caught in the brunette's eyes. “I wonder what they think the ship carries. Maybe it's one of the Evil Queen's ships!”
“Let's hope not,” Emma groaned. “The last time one of her ships was sighted, Papa made Mama and I go off into the woods until the ship left. Grab that corner, Ruby.”
The other woman straightened the sheet, smoothing out the top. “I'll ask Jacob this afternoon when he returns from the market with Annabelle. If it's one of the queen's armada, there will be talk of it in town.”
“What else could it be, though?” Emma wondered, her gaze drifting to the window. There was a clear view into the harbor from her parents' room, but from the guest rooms, it was obscured too much for her to make out anything in the water.
“We'll find out soon enough. Granny expects the ship to pull into port tomorrow morning.” Ruby gathered up the dirty linens and moved to the door.
Emma called after her. “Ruby? I'm going to run and check the candles upstairs. I'll only be a few moments.”
Without waiting for her friend's reply, Emma took off up the stairs. She navigated the squeakiest steps with a precision that came from years of sneaking up and down the stairs on various adventures. She slipped into her parents' room and crossed to the window, taking a moment to let the air coming from the sea fill her lungs. Her eyes scanned the horizon, catching on the slightest of smudges off the coast. The flags were too far away to discern anything aside from the sails, but she could tell from their color that it didn't belong to the Evil Queen. Her ships sailed under dark colors. This one did not.
“So,” Emma murmured to herself, starting back down the stairs. “If the Evil Queen isn't what's got them so worried...what is?”
“Pirates!” Ruby exclaimed, her grin wide.
Emma stared at her friend. “Pirates? Ruby, tell me you're joking. Pirates don't come here.”
“Well, they do now. Jacob heard it from the blacksmith. Apparently the ship belongs to a pirate by the name of Killian Jones. Oh, Emma, can you believe our luck? Pirates! When I thought I'd wither away in this village, bored to tears for the rest of my life!” Ruby clapped her hand together, looking for all the world like she was about to swoon.
Emma glanced around the hall, making sure no one was listening in. Ruby had pulled her aside in the midst of the dinner crowd's arrival. It was a downright miracle no one had come looking for them yet.
“Ruby, keep your voice down,” Emma pleaded. “Pirates or not, if my parents find out you bribed Jacob for that information, we'll both be in for it.”
“Now don't pretend you're not as excited as I am at the prospect,” Ruby admonished.
Emma couldn't hide the smile that pulled at her lips. “Fine, fine! Pirates are exciting. Now let's get back to the kitchen before my mother comes looking for me. Or worse—Granny.”
The girls slipped back into the clamor of the kitchen without anyone noticing their absence. The rest of the evening was spent running back and forth from the kitchen and the dining room, platters of food and ale balanced precariously in their hands. Being a waitress, it seemed, was wonderful training for anyone interested in joining a circus. But the hours whizzed by until the crowd dwindled down to only a few. Annabelle emerged from the kitchen with a tray of food and handed it to Emma.
“You and Ruby go on up and eat. She'll be staying in your room tonight,” Annabelle told her, reaching out to brush aside the stray curls that had fallen from underneath Emma's cap in the frenzy. “Jacob will be back again tomorrow but I'll need plenty of help inside, so don't stay up too long, girls.”
“Yes, Mama,” Emma smiled, following Ruby up the stairs. They were both shocked to find Granny pulling up a chair outside the door of Emma's room.
“Granny, what in the world are you up to?” Ruby demanded.
The older woman fixed her with a stern gaze, shooing them inside. “Don't you worry about it, Ruby. You two just get some sleep so you can pull your weight come morning.”
The girls traded confused glances but did as they were told, settling on Emma's floor to eat their supper. It was Emma who spoke first, pitching her voice low to avoid being overheard by Granny.
“Do you think all of this is because of the pirates?” she inquired.
Ruby nodded, the gears turning behind her eyes. “It's the only explanation that makes much sense. The only other time I've seen your parents this on edge was the night you showed up. And I barely remember that as it is.”
“Oh, Ruby Lucas, you don't remember it!” Emma laughed. “You're only a few months older than I am. You wouldn't remember my arrival. We were both less than a year old when they found me.”
“Hey, now, we both know I've got a gift for remembering things!” Ruby protested, laughter seeping into her voice.
Emma shook her head, gathering their empty dishes onto the tray. “That may be so but I don't believe for a second that you remember that night.”
Ruby shrugged, climbing into bed. “I can imagine it. The way your parents act around you, you'd think you were their own little treasure. They're always careful to keep you away from greedy eyes.”
Emma didn't have a response for that. She blew out the candle and slipped under the blankets, calling goodnight to Granny through the door. Through the open window of her bedroom, she watched the stars as Ruby's breathing slowed and became uneven. Once Emma was sure she was asleep, she slipped out of bed and curled up on the ledge of her window. It was just wide enough to be a stable seat and it allowed her a view almost as nice as her parents'. She breathed in the night air, its cool prickle settling over her skin like a protective layer. Off in the distance, she could make out a speck of light, bobbing in the water. Had she strained her ears, she may have even caught a note or two from the lutes being played on board. Instead, she pulled the shutters closed and returned to bed, falling asleep in minutes.
The next day was much like the one before it. Her father sternly forbade her from leaving the inn, citing a danger he wouldn't elaborate on. Once again, Emma didn't protest. She set to work helping her mother in the kitchen, her gaze growing wistful every time Jacob went out to fetch water from the well. By the sixth time her daughter sighed, Annabelle was nearly ready to let her go out herself.
“Emma, dear, if you keep blowing air out like that, you're likely to put out the fire,” she observed, stooping to poke at the logs burning under the kettle of stew.
The blonde gave a sheepish smile, drying her hands on her apron. “I'm sorry, Mama. I'm just tired of being cooped up without a reason. Maybe if you told me why Papa's so intent on keeping me in, I could deal with it better.”
Annabelle shot her a knowing look. “I may have born at night, my dear, but it wasn't last night. If your father doesn't think you need to know, then you'll have to do as he asks. He's doing what he thinks is best. That's all anyone can ask of a person.”
Emma wanted to protest. She knew if she pressed the issue hard enough Annabelle would relent and tell her. But the bags under her mother's eyes kept her from opening her mouth. Whatever this was, it was causing her mother to lose sleep. If pushing for answers made it worse, Emma wouldn't be able to count it as a victory.
“I had better go find Ruby and start cleaning up the dining room,” Emma decided. “I'll ask Jacob to go out for another load of water so I can mop the floors.”
Annabelle nodded her thanks and watched Emma leave, her eyes sad. She wished she could tell her daughter what she was feeling. Oh, how she wished she could explain to Emma why she and Thomas feared foreign travelers with connections. She wanted to pull the girl to her bosom and promise her that she would never be taken. But to do that would be to reveal the truth about her lineage. And Emma was sure to run if it was revealed to her. Why remain a peasant when you were born to be a princess?
Thomas' voice jerked Emma out of her thoughts. She hurried to catch the stack of platters she had been wiping down. The last thing she wanted was to start the process over again. Sure that they would stay where they were, Emma hurried toward her father's voice. She found him in the front hall with her mother and Granny, a wild expression in his eyes. His gaze landed on her and he paled. Annabelle saw this and stepped between them, turning a bright smile on her daughter.
“Emma, go up and change out your cap for one of mine. Your curls are sneaking out more and more. Find Ruby on your way back and both of you get to the kitchen,” the woman instructed, her smile never faltering.
Emma didn't question it. She made her way up the stairs, confusion swirling low in her belly. Standing in front of the small, slightly tarnished silver mirror in her parents' room, Emma traded her cap for one of her mother's. The clean white lace lining the edge shadowed her eyes, obscuring most of her looks without impairing her vision. She didn't understand why her mother had asked her to do such a trivial thing when it was clear that her father was in distress. But a good girl was to follow her parents' words. That's what she had been taught and how she had been raised.
Ruby found her in the stairwell, her face full of excitement. “Emma! Oh, Emma, they're here! They're coming!”
Emma's eyebrows knit together as she tried to play catch up. “Who, Ruby?”
“The pirates!” Ruby whispered excitedly. “Captain Jones' ship pulled into port half an hour ago. He and his crew asked for a recommendation of lodging and someone pointed them toward the inn. Can you believe we'll be in the same room as pirates? What will I say? What will I do?”
The tension that had begun to build in Emma's stomach tightened into a thick ball. “I'm sure you'll think of something. Just imagine they're Jacob and you'll be fine.”
Ruby stood in front of her, blocking her path down the stairs. “Would you be careful what you say about Jacob? If Granny hears you, she'll have him barred from the inn and I'll have no one but you to pester when I'm bored.”
“My lips are sealed,” Emma relented with a smile. “Now would you move aside, please? Mama wants both of us in the kitchen. If a crew and its captain are coming ashore, there's sure to be more than enough work for us all in store. “
“Pirates!” Ruby grinned. “It's like my birthday's come early this year.”
And plenty of work there was. Emma barely had time to take a breath from the moment she stepped into the kitchen until the moment she burst into the dining room behind Ruby with her arms laden down with tankards of ale. Her mother had pulled her aside a few moments before, wasting precious time on talk.
“Now, you listen to me very closely, Emma Swan,” Annabelle had warned, her hands moving to adjust the cap, tucking a few loose curls back under the cloth. “You're to keep your head down tonight. The only reason you're not being kept back here is because poor Ruby would perish out there by herself. I want you to stay away from the newcomers. Let Ruby and your father handle them. If you have to talk to them, keep it short and polite, then move on.”
“Yes, Mama,” Emma had nodded, ducking out of her mother's grasp. “I know your rules.”
But the moment she entered the dining room, she couldn't help but scan the crowd for unfamiliar faces. It took only a moment to recognize the outsiders, seated at the far table by the front window. They were a motley crew, for sure, but not a one of them looked like what Emma had imagined pirates would look like. For the most part, they were all decently dressed. Their clothes were plain, but not threadbare. Their bodies were brawny and wide, but not unclean. She watched out of the corner of her eye as Ruby approached their table, off loading her platter of ale. Emma's eyes caught on the only man at the table whose face was obscured from her view. He sat straight, with an air of regency about him—though she suspected it was a self-appointed regency rather than a divinely appointed one. His hair was dark and the leather he wore gave the impression of a coat of armor. He turned his head to say something to Ruby and Emma caught a swing of motion near his jawline. An earring! Emma turned her full attention to the table now, not quite aware how brazenly she was staring. Perhaps she had dismissed Ruby's excitement too soon.
A throat cleared at her elbow, jerking her back to the present. One of the inn's regulars smiled up at her, nodding towards the table she had been inspecting. “They're an interesting bunch, dear, but I suspect your father would have a fit if he saw you giving them that much attention.”
She laughed, the tinkling sound carrying through the din. “I admit he would. But they're a sight to behold. One I haven't encountered much. A little excitement is hard to ignore.”
“That is is,” the man agreed. “Your father has no need to worry. I've heard talk of Captain Jones. He and his crew can be ruthless when they need to be, but the man's got a sense of humor in him. Unless Thomas pushes him into it, he won't start trouble. Well...most likely.”
Emma chuckled again. “Captain Jones will have to face my mother if he starts trouble in her dining room. I've a feeling not even King Triton himself could withstand that fury.”
This had the man laughing loudly. He slipped Emma a gold coin, winking. “You're a good daughter, dear, and a wonderful young lady. Your parents found a pearl in you, Emma Swan.”
Emma thanked him and made her way back to the kitchen. Just outside the door, she turned to find Ruby. What she found instead was a pair of startling blue eyes watching her. She nearly jumped, the blatant staring catching her off guard. It appeared the good captain was just as curious about her as she was about him. Feeling a blush creep over her cheeks, Emma rushed into the kitchen and nearly collided with Ruby.
The brunette pulled Emma closer, whispering in her ear. “You'll never guess what just happened.”
“Then why try?” Emma deadpanned, shooting her friend a look. The heat in her cheeks was receding, replaced by the heat that swarmed the kitchen.
Ruby ignored her, barreling on. “When you gave your little fairy laugh, Captain Jones asked your name. He turned around mid-sentence and stared at you. Good Lord, Emma, that man's got a set of eyes! Then he turned back to me and asked your name! Emma, you made a pirate ask your name!”
“Fairy laugh? I do not have a fairy laugh, Ruby,” Emma frowned, pulling out of her grasp. “And it's not all that unusual for someone to ask the name of a stranger. In fact, it's actually quite common.”
Ruby frowned but Emma didn't miss the twinkle in her eye. “You're in a mood, Miss Swan. Maybe somebody needs to be dipping into the ale a little early.”
Emma gave an exasperated sigh, biting back a giggle. “Oh, go on, would you? There's plenty more tables out there that need attention.”
“Aye, aye, Captain Swan,” Ruby saluted seriously, whisking a full tray of tankards out to the dining room.
Emma, on the other hand, lingered in the kitchen as long as she could. She rearranged the tankards on her tray three times, trying to fit as many as she could. Then she did the same with another tray, unsatisfied with the way Ruby had arranged them. She checked the stew that her mother had already checked. She tested the temperature of the water for tea no one would drink for a while. She wiped down the counters that were almost immediately covered in another lay of flour. Finally, Annabelle whirled around and led her to the kitchen door, thunking a full tray in her arms and pushing her out into the dining room. Emma froze, scanning the room wildly, but no one was looking at her save for Ruby. The girl winked, making her way through the maze of tables.
You're acting like a fool, Emma Swan, she chided herself. A young lady doesn't run from the glance of a stranger. He probably didn't even realize he was looking at you. Now, get to work before Ruby asks you why you're standing here like an imbecile in front of the whole room.
With a mental kick in the backside, Emma forced herself to pay attention to her work. Soon, she was whirling through the room even faster than Ruby, collecting empty dishes and replacing tankards of ale. She paused every now and then to share a few lines of conversation with a regular but she was careful not to stay in one place too long. If she did that, her mind would wander and she'd find herself acting like a ninny again. She didn't notice how long she'd been at it until Ruby snagged her arm, pulling her towards the front hall.
“Your mother sent me out here to stop you. You're bouncing around the room like a top,” she grinned. “If you keep moving like that, there won't be any need to sweep the floor tonight. It'll all have joined into your little whirlwind.”
Emma shrugged, suddenly noticing the sweat on her brow and the beating of her heart. “It's easier when I don't think about it. And I like working in the dining room. The life of an innkeeper's daughter might not be all that glamorous, and it's certainly not what I dream about at night...but my, my does it feel good to slip through that crowd.”
Ruby's grin turned secretive as she leaned forward. “Well you've certainly been catching the eyes of a few of the inn's guests tonight.”
“What?” Emma's eyebrows shot up. “Ruby, don't you start.”
“I'm not the one flaunting their fairy laugh,” she teased. “If you let down that hair of yours, you'd have every one of them flocking after you.”
Emma rolled her eyes, fanning herself. “Oh, hush. You go back to charming the pirates. I'm stepping out for some air. I'll only be right outside the door.”
“I'm not the one charming the pirates, Emma,” Ruby called after her.
“My right eye,” Emma muttered, stepping out into the cool night air. She leaned back against the wall of the inn, closing her eyes. The pandemonium of the inn could be distracting, but she much preferred the solitude of the night. It allowed her to think more clearly. After a moment, she could feel someone watching her. Without opening her eyes, she spoke. “Staring is rude.”
A soft chuckle sounded to her right, closer than she had anticipated. Emma's eyes flew open, her guards snapping up immediately. A couple of yards away, bright blue eyes studied her in amusement. Her mind placed them as the pirate captain's almost instantly. She straightened to her full height, her chin rising without her consent.
He smiled at her, leaning one shoulder against the wall. “No need to go on the defensive, lass. I was only enjoying the night.”
“Well unless I've started sprouting stars from my skin, I believe your eyes are lost,” she countered.
She could see his grin widen at that. “Fair enough. I was enjoying the scenery, then.”
Emma said nothing, trying to judge if she could make it to the door before he could.
“Now, there's no need for that,” the man scolded, feigning offense. “We've not even exchanged names and you think the worst of me.”
“I already know your name, Captain Jones,” Emma replied without thinking.
Oh, and how the delight shone on his face. “Well, well, well. I find myself at a disadvantage, Miss...?”
“What makes you think I'm silly enough to give a pirate my name?” She challenged. “Particularly when I know you asked my friend what it was earlier.”
“Oh, lass, that's not fair,” he warned. “A pirate isn't a heathen. He's only a man with a different code.”
She was quiet for a long moment, sizing him up as best she could in the dark. “Emma. My name's Emma.”
“Emma,” Killian repeated. “It suits you.”
“It should. It's my name,” she answered drolly.
He laughed. “Emma, the innkeeper's daughter, with plenty of spunk to go around.”
“Killian Jones, the pirate with plenty of leather to go around,” she mimed, failing in an attempt to mirror his accent.
His laughter came loudly and he took a step closer. “I think I'm going to like you, lass-”
The blonde whipped around to face the door, barely noticing Killian slip around a dark corner. Her mother's eyes showed relief when they landed on her. “Emma, what on Earth are you doing out here?”
“I'm only catching my breath, Mama,” Emma assured her, thankful for the pirate's disappearance. “I needed some air. Really, Mama, it's not like I wandered down the street with a sailor.”
Annabelle fixed her with a look but her voice was soft when she spoke again. “You can stay out here a few more moments, but Ruby will need help before long.”
“Yes, Mama,” Emma agreed, waiting for her mother to disappear back inside before turning back to where Killian had been.
He gave her a small finger wave when she caught his gaze. “You and your mother don't look alike.”
She blinked at his bluntness. “No, we don't. Nor should we. I was an orphan left on this very doorstep. She and my father aren't my true parents.”
Killian let this sink in for a moment before nodding. “Go on.”
“Go on?” Emma asked. “What more is there to tell?”
He quirked an eyebrow. “Judging from your expression, lass, I'd wager there's quite a bit. And I could use a good story.”
Emma toyed with the idea of telling him it wasn't any of his business and slipping back inside to hide in the kitchen again. But the thought was pushed aside and she took a deep breath. “When I was a few months old, my parents—Annabelle and Thomas—found me on their doorstep. I was in a basket, with no note attached. The only thing they knew about me was my name. It was stitched onto the blanket I was wrapped in. They had been trying to have children for years. When it didn't happen...they gave up. And then I landed in their laps and they took it as a gift from God. For a while, they tried to find my real parents. To make sure there wasn't a family missing me somewhere. I guess there wasn't because...here I am. The daughter of the innkeeper and his wife.”
Killian was looking at her again, the same way he had been earlier, in the dining room. “How charitable of them, to take you in.”
“Mama says it never had anything to do with charity. They wanted a baby, I just happened to show up,” Emma shrugged, her fingers toying with the ties of her apron.
“How convenient,” he smiled. But it didn't quite reach his eyes. There was something almost...distracted about the way he was studying her. Like there was a clue buried deep inside her that he couldn't quite make out.
“Right. Well, I should be getting back inside. Ruby's probably—Oh!” Emma's cap caught on a loose splinter in the wall. Her curls tumbled free from their linen prison, cascading down her back to almost her waist.
She huffed, working the cap free of the wood while muttering under her breath. Gathering up her blonde locks and shoving them under the cap was a chore in itself, and one that took all of her focus. Emma didn't see the look of shock cross Killian's face. She missed the look in his eye as the pieces of a mental puzzle finally clicked together. When she did finally look back at him, he only smiled.
“A terror, that hair is,” he teased, his kohl-lined eyes crinkling at the corners.
“You don't know the half of it, Captain,” she laughed, stepping toward the door.
He reached out, his fingers barely brushing her shoulder. “Emma.”
She turned back, looking at him expectantly. And with all the gentlemanly flourish one could infuse into a gesture, he produced a white lily, it's red stamen a stark contrast against the petals even in the dark.
“For sharing your story,” he explained, flashing her a smile.
Emma was thankful for the darkness that hid her blush when she accepted the flower, tucking it carefully in the pocket of her apron. “Thank you.”
Killian nodded. “My pleasure. Now I suggest you get inside before your mother finds you entertaining a pirate on her front step.”
Emma's laugh lingered behind her even as she slipped inside, disappearing into the crowd. Killian watched her go for a long moment before withdrawing the worn sheet of folded parchment from the pocket of his coat. He unfolded the poster, entirely unsurprised to find a face very much like Emma's smiling back at him. Missing Princess, any news to be dispatched directly to King David and Queen Snow.
“Oh, Emma,” Killian muttered. “If only you'd kept that cap on, I could have fooled myself into thinking it wasn't you.”
The night passed far too quickly for Emma after that. Killian's lily was burning a hole in her apron. She was far too aware of it, constantly pausing in a dark doorway to take it out of its hiding place and study it. Her father didn't notice her behavior, but Ruby caught on right away, cornering Emma while her parents were busy speaking to the captain about lodging arrangements for the evening.
“What happened?” she demanded, squeezing Emma's arm in excitement.
Emma detached her wrist from the other girl's hold, wincing. “Nothing. The captain and I ran into each other outside, is all.”
A look of pure joy crossed Ruby's face. “Emma Swan, if you don't give me every single detail, I swear I will scream!”
“Okay, okay!” Emma laughed. “Relax, Ruby. We just talked. He asked me about Mama and Papa. When I mentioned that they adopted me, he asked me to tell him my story. And when I finished...he gave me a flower.”
“Show me!” Ruby hissed, attempting to keep her voice low.
Emma carefully withdrew the flower from her apron, glancing around to make sure no one was watching them. Ruby all but cooed, pressing one hand to her chest.
“I knew these pirates would make things interesting!” She chirped.
“Yes, Ruby, you're nearly a seer,” Emma teased, returning the flower to its place. Her eyes scanned the room again, catching Killian's. He shot her a wink, her parents too busy speaking to each other to notice.
Emma grabbed Ruby by the arm, yanking her into the kitchen. “This is ridiculous!”
“I know,” Ruby grinned. “I always imagined I'd be the one who became a pirate queen.”
“Ruby!” Emma yelped. “I'm not...running off with the man just because he gave me a flower.”
“It is a nice flower,” Ruby pointed out. Emma glared at her. “Don't look at me like that. You know I'm joking.”
The door to the kitchen swung open, Annabelle peeking in at them. “Girls, you're free to go to bed. Granny and I just finishing up with the floors. You two stay together again tonight and Thomas will sit outside Emma's room.”
Emma resisted the urge to roll her eyes, giving her mother a peck on the cheek as she passed, Ruby in tow. “Good night, Mama.”
Sleep didn't find Emma nearly as easily tonight. Ruby had long since given up on staying awake with her. She could even hear her father's soft snores slipping through the door. Yet she still sat on her perch at the window, knees hugged to her chest and hair sliding easily through her fingers as she braided it. Her gaze wandered over the water, lingering in the harbor on the one ship she couldn't place. The stars shone brightly tonight, reflected on the surface of the waves. Even for a tame village like this one, tonight was quiet.
But the silence didn't last. A simple hymn drifted up to her ears, the deep humming sending a shiver down Emma's spine. Below, she heard the noises she recognized as the nesting of someone in the window seat. It was a process she'd become quite accustomed to. Moving to lay on her belly, Emma leaned over the ledge, her knees keeping her from flipping too far forward. She was willing to bet the look on her face closely mirrored Killian's when she appeared suddenly. He jumped in his seat, though, Emma noted, not enough to upset his balance.
“Why, lass,” he grinned. “Hasn't anyone ever told you staring is rude?”
She returned the smile, her thick rope of hair brushing against her cheek. “I may have heard it once or twice.”
Killian reached up, tugging lightly at the end of her braid. “This beast again, eh?”
“I seem to have tamed it for now,” Emma laughed.
“Or perhaps the beast is tired,” Killian teased. “This is the time most ladies are fast asleep in their beds—not hanging about the windows of pirates. Only heathens are up at this hour.”
“I thought pirates weren't heathens,” Emma shot back.
Killian conceded this. “I did say that. Well then, heathens and us.”
“Heathens and us,” Emma agreed. “Though it does beg the question...why can't we sleep?”
Killian played along, tapping his chin in thought. “Perhaps you've had too much ale.”
Emma shook her head, an action that caused her braid to slap her in the face. “That has the opposite effect.”
“Then perhaps you've got something on your mind,” he suggested.
She nodded sagely. “That would make more sense, wouldn't it?”
“I suppose so. That's certainly why I find myself out of bed,” Killian admitted.
Emma shifted on the ledge, adjusting her position. Killian's hands rose to steady her out of instinct, though he wouldn't have been much help if she had really been falling. “And what's on your mind, Captain?”
“You can call me Killian, you know,” he told her.
She nodded. “I know. I say again, what's on your mind?”
“In truth?” he asked, raising an eyebrow.
Emma thought for a moment before nodding.
“You,” he answered bluntly.
Though it was admittedly the answer she expected, Emma could feel the heat spreading across her face. “Oh.”
“Oh, indeed,” Killian repeated. “And you, lass? Why are you still awake with the heathens and I?”
“You,” she told him simply.
Killian's hand moved to her braid again, his thumb running over the bumps and twists. “Suppose we stopped thinking about each other. It stands to reason we'd both be free to sleep then.”
“It does,” Emma agreed. “Except that I've got a snoring brunette in my bed and a lily staring at me from my nightstand.”
“I've got room in my bed, if you'd prefer,” Killian countered, his tone cheeky.
You walked right into that one, Swan, Emma thought drily. “I'm not so sure that would help the issue of us thinking about each other.”
“Hmm,” he nodded. “You may have a point there. Maybe putting the lily in a drawer and a pillow over your head would help.”
Emma smiled. “It's worth trying. And what about you?”
“Oh, darling, I'm a lost cause,” he smirked, his hand moving to brush against her cheek.
“It's your turn,” she said suddenly.
Killian looked at her, confusion screwing up his face. “Pardon?”
“It's your turn to tell a story,” Emma explained. “I told you about my arrival here. Now it's your turn.”
Killian shifted on his ledge, folding his hands in his lap. “I'll make you a deal. You'll get your story tomorrow, but only if you go on and force yourself into sleep. I'd rather not have the innkeeper come after me for keeping his daughter up all night.”
Emma studied him through narrowed eyes. “Promise?”
“Pirate's honor,” he vowed, winking.
Emma rolled her eyes, heaving herself backwards into her room.
“Goodnight, Emma,” Killian's voice drifted up to her.
“Goodnight, Captain,” she called back quietly, catching the exasperated sigh he sent her way in response.
Crawling into bed, Emma pulled the covers tight around her body and stifled a yawn. Next to her, Ruby shifted.
“Pirate queen,” she whispered, poking the blonde in the side.
When Ruby shook her awake the next morning, Emma took care to ignore the knowing smirk her friend had pasted on her face. She dressed as fast as she could and hurried down to the kitchen, not waiting to be told she couldn't go to the well again. After two days of being cooped up and befriending the pirate captain, she decided it was worth tempting her father's anger. The morning was cool and the grass wet with dew. Emma strode to the well happily, lugging the empty buckets with her. The first splash of wood on water was followed by the clearing of a throat behind her. Emma turned, unsurprised to find Killian watching her.
“Good morning, Miss Swan,” he smiled.
Emma studied him, noting the tired lines around his eyes. “Good morning, Captain. I gather sleep still hasn't paid you a visit.”
“Unfortunately not,” he admitted. “But if it had, I wouldn't find myself out here with you this morning. So I suppose the sacrifice is one I can take in stride.”
Emma laughed, turning the crank to bring her bucket back up to her. “Oh, of course. You always have the charming answer, don't you?”
“It's a gift and a curse, lass,” he quipped. “Would you like a hand with that?”
She waved him off, untying the knot from the handle of the bucket. “I've done this myself for years. Besides, you've got a deal to uphold.”
“The story,” he guessed.
Emma nodded. “That's the one.”
“All right. I've got a story for you. Have you ever heard the one about the lost princess of the Enchanted Forest?” Killian waited for the shake of her head before continuing. “The Enchanted Forest is ruled by King David and Queen Snow. Shortly after their marriage, they banished the Evil Queen to another kingdom and began to rebuild the Forest. Her tyranny had taken a toll on the land. In the midst of their rebuilding, the queen found herself pregnant. The kingdom waited on bated breath for her to give birth. And when she did, it was to a princess. Princess Emma, to be exact. Now, don't look at me like that, it's the truth.” He admonished.
She bit her tongue, gesturing for him to continue.
“Not long after she was born, the Evil Queen sent her Huntsman after the princess. She was taken from the Enchanted Forest, taken from her parents. The king and queen all but tore apart their kingdom looking for the princess. The king himself led a search party over the borders. Nearly nineteen years have passed and still the king and queen search for her,” Killian finished, gauging her reaction.
Emma shook her head. “You made that up, Captain. I applaud your creativity, but it takes more than that to fool me.”
“Oh, I assure you, lass, it's no tale,” Killian warned. “It's the truth.”
“What's the probability that two girls born eighteen years ago were named Emma, with one going missing and the other landing on a doorstep on nearly the other side of the world?” Emma countered. “My name isn't a common one and neither is my story. If you want me to believe all that, I'm going to need proof.”
Killian hesitated only a beat before withdrawing the creased poster he kept in his coat. “There's your proof, lass.”
Emma shot him a wary look, setting her bucket down to take the paper from him. She unfolded it, smoothing it against the edge of the well before her eyes scanned the words at the bottom of the parchment. When her gaze moved to the sketch above it, she froze. The face staring back at her was familiar, but it was one she couldn't quite place. Without a word to Killian, Emma took off towards the inn, abandoning her buckets by the well. She bypassed the kitchen, using the back entrance to nearly fly up the stairs to her room. Emma tore open her drawers, tossing aside old mementos until she found what she looking for. In one hand she held the poster Killian had shown her—his proof. In the other, she held a sketch one of the regulars had given her parents shortly after she arrived. The similarity between the two was beyond undeniable. The face was the same.
A wave of anger swelled in her chest, sending her reeling towards the stairs. She burst out into the courtyard again, stomping over to Killian. His eyes showed no surprise at her state, though he did seem to be a bit taken aback that her anger was directed at him. Emma held up the poster, her hands shaking furiously.
“Where did you get this?” she demanded, voice low.
Killian's gaze shifted from her face to the paper. “They were posted throughout the Enchanted Forest after the princess' disappearance. This one was originally taken by my father. I was too young to have given her kidnapping much thought at the time.”
“Don't lie to me!” Emma shouted, shoving both papers at him. “That is not the lost princess! That is me!”
Killian stared at her, not bothering to look at the papers. “Lass...I know you're a smart girl. Don't make me spell it out further.”
That is me! Emma sucked in a breath, her heart hammering in her chest. No, no, he was toying with her. She wasn't the lost princess. It wasn't possible! She was an orphan. She wouldn't give him the satisfaction of seeing his trick hurt her.
She squared her shoulders, purposefully avoiding his gaze as she gathered her buckets and turned back toward the inn. “Breakfast is in an hour, Captain Jones. You should wash up.”
Killian let her go, knowing she was too angry to listen to anything he had to say. He returned the poster to his coat pocket, tracing the other paper she'd brought down thoughtfully before tucking it next to the poster.
“What's got you so fired up, Miss Emma?” A voice teased, barely heard over her slamming the cleaned platters into a neat pile.
Emma turned to look at Jacob, her glare speaking for her. He held up his hands, stepping back. “Hey, now. I was only asking.”
She went back to her task, though with a little less force. “I'm not in the mood to joke today, Jacob. Go find Ruby.”
“She and Granny went to the market with your mother,” Jacob said, distracted. “Come on, Emma, tell me what's bothering you. We've been friends since you weren't any taller than my knee. You can trust me, can't you?”
Emma stopped her work, heaving a sigh. “This is going to sound ridiculous, but I have to ask. Have you ever...have you heard the story of the lost princess?”
“King David and Queen Snow's daughter?” Jacob replied. “Of course. Everyone has. She had the same name as you, you know. You were probably named after her.”
“Probably,” Emma muttered. “Uh, thanks, Jacob. Could you bring these out to the dining room? I'm going out to get some air.”
So Killian hadn't been lying. There was a lost princess and her name was Emma. But if he wasn't lying, then what explanation was there? Her parents weren't allies of the Evil Queen. They would never have agreed to house the kidnapped princess!
Unless they didn't know, a small voice in her head amended. Emma groaned, sprawling in the grass to stare up at the sky. This was all too much for her to puzzle out.
“A pirate captain told you you were a princess,” she muttered to herself. “Not only a princess, but the lost princess. And you believed him. Emma Swan, you are a complete idiot!”
“Well, not a complete idiot.”
Emma shot up, knocking her cap askew with the action. “Ruby! How long have you been standing there?”
Ruby smiled, settling into the grass next to the blonde. “Long enough to know there's a story I'm missing.”
To Ruby's credit, she didn't react nearly as violently as Emma had to the tale. When her friend finished repeating Killian's words—complete with her terrible impersonation of his accent—Ruby nodded once, clapping her hands together.
“Well, it was bound to happen eventually,” she said.
Emma blinked in surprise. “What?”
Ruby shot her a look. “Emma, it was obvious. Anyone with half a brain has put the pieces together. Why do you think we're all so protective of you? Granny told me the story a few years ago when I asked her about it. She told me it was something I couldn't tell you, that it would put you in danger.”
“Ruby, please,” Emma begged. “You have to tell me. I need to know!”
Her friend smiled soothingly, patting her shoulder. “I never could keep a secret from you. You were kidnapped by the Huntsman on the orders of the Evil Queen. But something in the journey from the Enchanted Forest to the Evil Queen's lands changed the Huntsman's mind. He brought you here, to Thomas and Annabelle. He told them the danger you were in and pleaded with them to take you in. They agreed to keep you safe and raise you as their own. They believed that keeping you away from the Enchanted Forest would keep you safe.”
Emma fell back in the soft grass, her body stiff with shock. “This is ridiculous. Why wouldn't they tell me about this?”
“Because, Emma,” Ruby sighed, her voice sad. “They were afraid you'd run...Just like I am.”
Emma turned her head, looking up at the brunette. “Where would I go, Ruby? No one would believe me if I marched into the Enchanted Forest and declared myself the lost princess. I'm three weeks away from turning nineteen. They've probably already given up on getting their daughter back. I've given up on meeting my true parents. I had a long time ago.”
That evening, Emma found herself more distracted. She still moved through the dining room effectively, but she did so almost out of memory, not because she consciously wanted to. This was made clear to her when she walked right up to the table of pirates and cleared away the empty tankards. She didn't even notice where she was until she heard Killian speak, his voice low enough to reach only her ears.
“Careful, lass. Weren't you expressly ordered away from us pirates?” he murmured.
Emma kept her head down, focused on her tray. “I'm sorry. For earlier. It was unfair of me to brush off your story.”
“Does that mean you believe it?” he asked.
She could feel more sets of eyes than just his on her. “Not here. Meet me outside in ten minutes.”
Before he could reply, she disappeared into the crowded room again. Halfway to the kitchen, a hand caught her elbow. She half-expected it to be Killian, but she turned to find her father instead.
“Were they bothering you, Emma?” His eyebrows knit together in worry, looking her over for injuries.
An inexplicable rush of annoyance spilled low in her gut and she yanked her arm from his grasp. “I'm fine. I'm not a child.”
Thomas opened his mouth to say something but Emma was having none of it. She pushed through the kitchen door and dropped her tray of dirty dishes on the counter. Annabelle glanced up, her eyes widening at the expression on her daughter's face.
She stepped toward her. “Emma-”
The blonde held up her hand, stepping around the older woman and striding out into the night. She walked without thinking, her feet carrying her to the well. Emma slid to the ground, her back pressing against the cool stone as she closed her eyes. Quiet footsteps came towards her, halting a few feet away. Emma opened her eyes, tilting her head up to look at Killian.
“I believe you,” she whispered. “But I don't want to.”
Killian's smile was sad. “I can't blame you, lass.”
She dropped her head into her hands. “What am I supposed to do? How do I stay here with the people I've thought of as my parents my whole life when I know it's all been a lie?”
There was a soft rustling as Killian settled onto the ground in front of her, long legs brushing against hers. “I don't know, lass. But you don't have to.”
Emma turned her head, peering up at him through her fingers. “What are you talking about?”
The darkness shadowed Killian's face too much for her to read his expression. “I could take you to the Enchanted Forest. A pirate I may be but I have connections with the royals in that kingdom. I could take you back to your home.”
Silence stretched between them. Emma didn't know what to say. Her curiosity about her true lineage was fighting to get the best of her. At the same time, Annabelle and Thomas came to mind when she imagined leaving. What would they do without her? Would they even let her go? But her mind made itself up. Emma needed to know who her real parents were. It was the one great mystery in her life. She couldn't bear to let the opportunity to get answers pass her by.
“Yes,” she decided.
Killian was watching her, remembering the way she had so quickly closed off that morning. “Yes...what?”
She straightened, meeting his eyes. “Yes, I want you to take me to the Enchanted Forest.”
“Are you sure?” He asked, his voice careful.
“I have to know,” she murmured. “I have to know who they are. I can't let them live their lives thinking their daughter is dead.”
Killian nodded slowly, rising to his feet. He offered her his hand, pulling her up with him. “My crew and I are leaving in the morning. You'll need to ready yourself tonight unless you wish to explain to your parents why you're following the pirates to the docks in the morning.”
Emma shook her head, imagining the scenario. “No. I can't tell them. I'll leave a note for them.”
“It's your choice,” Killian conceded. “But I suggest we get back inside before someone comes looking for one or both of us.”
Ruby hadn't cried when Emma told her that night. The girl had bitten down on her lower lip before throwing herself into the blonde's arms and hugging her with all her might. Ruby had promised to keep an eye on Thomas and Annabelle. She made Emma swear to write as soon as she reached the Enchanted Forest and agreed to cover for her in the morning so she could get a head start. The girls had stayed up a long time, talking quietly. Emma wished Ruby was coming with her, but she knew there was no way she could escape without Ruby to cover for her. Especially not with Granny sitting outside the door. A few hours after midnight, Emma curled up on her window seat and looked out over the mouth of the harbor that opened into the sea. This time tomorrow, she would be on board a ship, sailing that ocean.
“Emma?” A soft voice called.
She shifted to her stomach, returning to the position she'd been in the night before. Killian didn't look nearly as surprised when her face appeared above him this time.
He leaned his elbows against the ledge. “Nervous?”
She nodded. “Nervous, scared out of my wits...same thing.”
“You'll be all right, lass,” he smiled.
“I know,” she sighed. “But...I can't help but worry. What if the king and queen have already given up? If I come bursting into their life and I'm not their daughter, then I'll have ruined their lives. Or what if they—what if they don't like me? I wasn't raised to be a princess. I was raised to run an inn. I've never worn a corset in my whole life. I don't even know how to waltz!”
Killian laughed. “It's remarkably easy, really. You needn't worry about that, darling. They'll be happy to see you. Ecstatic, even! Trust me on that, Emma.”
Emma blinked, surprised to feel tears pricking at the corners of her eyes. “If you say so.”
“I do.” Killian straightened. “You should get some sleep while you can. We'll need to leave in a few hours.”
Emma nodded, starting to wiggle back on the ledge. “Thank you, Killian.”
Something in his eyes shifted. “You're welcome, Emma.”
Emma took only a small bag with her. She didn't have much in the way of a wardrobe but she folded what she had into the bag along with the baby blanket that had been given to her by her true parents. The only other thing she tucked into the bag was the lily Killian had given her the first night they met. She couldn't say why exactly she wanted it, but the thought of leaving it behind was too much. When Killian gave a low whistle, she moved to the window, passing down her pack first. She carefully lowered herself from her window ledge, feeling Killian's hands rise to hold onto her waist. Her toes brushed the edge of the sill and she let go. Killian steadied her, helping her slip in through the window. They froze when her feet hit the floorboards, waiting for someone to come running.
When no one came, Killian flashed her a smile and slung her bag over his shoulder. Silently, he motioned for her to follow his lead and crossed to the door. The hallway was empty and dark. They crept down the stairs with only the quietest of footfalls. Killian led Emma to the back door, holding it open for her. She stepped out and sucked in a breath, halting in her path when she caught sight of a shadow ahead of them.
“Relax, lass,” Killian whispered, his mouth close to her ear. “He's one of my crew.”
Emma swallowed past the sudden lump in her throat and started walking again. The trip to the docks was a short one. As soon as she set foot on the deck, she stumbled, nearly barreling into Killian. He caught her by the shoulders, raising his eyebrows.
“Careful, there, lass. You haven't quite got your sea legs yet. Keep a hold on something when you're walking. Don't fight the motion,” he guided.
Emma followed his instructions, holding onto the rail as he led her towards his cabins. “We'd best keep you hidden until we make it out of the harbor. It'll be an hour or so until sunrise. The rest of the crew has orders to meet us here then.”
She glanced around the room, taking in her surroundings. The scent of leather and ocean air hung heavily in the room. Light came from a lantern perched on top of a desk littered with maps and papers. There was a bed in one corner and a wardrobe on the opposite wall. The desk chair had been pushed aside, up against the wall, and a small chest peeked out from under the bed.
Killian's hand rested on her shoulder, bringing her attention back to him. “Are you all right?”
“I'm fine. Just tired,” she replied, the excuse easy.
The look in his eyes told her he knew it was a lie. “You're welcome to get some sleep. As I said, it'll be a while before we set sail. I've a few things to attend to before my crew returns. If you need me, just call.”
Emma smiled, waiting for the door to shut behind him before she moved further into the room. In truth, she was tired. But the anxiety that prickled just under her skin was the real problem. Deciding to give sleep a try, Emma curled up on the bed, certain she'd be up and about long before the crew joined them.
“Lass, wake up.”
Emma groaned, turning away from the voice invading her dreams. “Go 'way.”
A laugh sounded at her response and a set of hands reached out to shake her shoulders. “Emma, if you wish to say goodbye to your land, you'll want to come out on deck soon.”
She sprang up, nearly falling to the floor in her surprise. “I slept that long? I can't have slept that long!”
“You did sleep that long. And this isn't the first time I've tried to wake you,” Killian smirked, watching her struggle to keep herself upright. “Remember, lass. Don't fight the motion.”
Emma took a deep breath and stepped forward. This time, her body moved exactly as she wanted it to. Behind her, Killian slapped his hands together. “Look at that! A natural sailor.”
She shot him a glare over her shoulder. “I'll warn you to keep in mind that I was raised in an inn and I know how to hit a moving target with a shoe.”
Killian laughed, standing. “I'll remember that, lass. Now do you want to say goodbye before your land slips over the horizon?”
Emma hesitated, biting her lip. “No. Not anymore. I don't want to see it drift away.”
“Technically, we're the ones drifting,” Killian corrected. “But I can understand the sentiment.”
“How long will it take to reach the Enchanted Forest?” She asked.
“Thanks to a shortcut I learned from a fairy, we should be there by this time tomorrow,” Killian estimated. “When we reach land, I'll send word to the king and we'll stay on the ship until he sends a reply.”
Emma smoothed a hand over her skirts anxiously. “And if they don't want to see me?”
“They will,” Killian promised, reaching up to tuck a curl behind her ear. Her cap had been knocked off in her sleep and she didn't see much reason to put it on when she wasn't working. “Trust me, darling. They'll want to see you.”
She decided against protesting, instead opting for a joke. “They won't make me waltz, will they?”
I had the desired result, causing Killian to laugh loudly. “No, Emma, they won't make you waltz. I believe royal decorum saves waltzing for the at least the third meeting.”
The first time Emma worked up the nerve to step out onto the deck, she could almost feel the members of the crew turn to look at her. Conversation was stunted for a moment as they watched her. Emma glanced around for Killian, wondering what she was supposed to do. She caught him grinning at her, steering with one hand. No help there, Emma thought.
“Um, hello,” she started with a small wave. “Nice...ship.”
Laughter rained down on her from the rigging. She felt a warm blush flood over her face and she moved to return to the cabin. An older sailor blocked her path, sending her a small smile.
“Aw, lass, don't run off,” he chuckled. “You're amongst friends on this ship.”
Emma smiled gratefully, forcing herself to stand up straight. “Thank you.”
He winked, tipping his worn hat to her. “You should go see the Captain. Perhaps he'll let you steer.”
She got the distinct impression that there was another meaning behind his words, but he disappeared before she could press him for details. Trying not to pay attention to the stares she could still feel on her back, Emma made her way up to Killian. For once, she was able to keep her balance. He raised an eyebrow at her as she leaned against the rail to his right.
“Decided to grace us with your company?” he teased.
Emma didn't dignify that with a response. She tilted her chin toward the helm. “That thing steers the whole ship?”
Killian smirked, letting her know he caught the change in subject. “It controls the rudder which, in turn, steers the whole ship. You want to give a go?”
She shrugged, nonchalant. “Princesses probably don't steer ships.”
He laughed. “True. But you're not a princess yet. You're Emma. Come on, lass, you'll like it.”
Emma let him pull her towards him, placing her hands in the proper spots.
“Take us two notches starboard, lass,” he instructed.
“I don't speak ship, Captain,” Emma muttered.
Behind her, she could feel Killian chuckle. “To the right, love.”
Emma turned the wheel, surprised at the resistance she faced. The change in course wasn't noticeable to Emma, but Killian reached out to correct it, his hands resting over hers. She held her breath for a moment, waiting for him to remove his hands. When he didn't, she forced herself to relax, tightening her grip on the smooth wood. Killian's thumbs brushed the backs of her hands.
“You know, lass, you're not terrible at this,” he said, feigning surprise.
“I'm not terrible at anything,” she shot back.
Killian gave a snort. “Except waltzing.”
“I can't be terrible at something if I've never tried it,” she argued.
“Then let's have you try it,” he replied. “I'll teach you.”
Emma twisted to fix him with a look. “I can barely walk in a straight line on this ship. What makes you think I can dance on it?”
“Why, Miss Swan, are you scared?” Killian challenged, leaning close.
Her eyes narrowed. “No.”
Killian removed his hands from the wheel, stepping back to sweep her a bow. “Well, then, let's see what you've got, lass.”
Emma took the hand he offered, biting back the dry remark that threatened on the tip of her tongue. Killian placed her left hand on his shoulder, grasping the other in his left. His other hand snaked around her waist, settling just behind the curve of her waist.
“Now,” Killian began, “The waltz is quite simple, particularly if you're the woman. Just follow what I do. Move your right foot back and to the left.”
Emma did as he instructed, almost losing her balance when he followed. Killian smirked down at her and she shot him a glare.
“It was a wonderful first attempt,” he assured her. “Step together. Just like that, lass. This time, I step back first and you follow. Look at that, the innkeeper's daughter can dance!”
She slapped his shoulder. “I'm stumbling around like a toddler.”
“Emma, you've taken four steps. Generally, it takes more than that to make a full waltz,” Killian said, voice dry. “Stop glaring at me like that and pay attention to your feet.”
Before long, she and Killian were waltzing around the upper deck like they'd been born to do it. At some point, a member of the crew had located a set of pipes. The song wasn't exactly traditional for a waltz, but it worked well enough. Despite the discomfort she had felt at being taught in front of his entire crew, Emma was content to dance with Killian, laughing when he muttered comments under his breath. She may have missed the look on his face when he made her laugh, but his crew surely didn't. When Emma finally dropped her hand from his shoulder and stepped away, she found she was exhausted.
“Being a princess takes a lot out of you, doesn't it?” Killian joked.
Emma laughed, brushing her hair away from her face. “I'm not a princess. I'm just Emma. And just Emma is plenty for me.”
“That I can agree with,” Killian murmured, watching her cross the deck to his cabin.
Emma found the sea to be surprisingly soothing. Though she had expected to have trouble sleeping after spending so long in bed that morning, Emma fell asleep almost as soon as her head hit the pillow. Killian had told her to stay in his cabin for the night, promising she wouldn't be disturbed there. She had grown more comfortable around the crew but the prospect of sleeping below decks was more than a little off-putting.
Emma was pulled out of sleep by the quiet thud of footfalls. She froze, her breath catching in her throat. A thousand impossible scenarios flashed through her mind before Killian's voice broke through the darkness.
“Relax, lass, it's me,” he whispered, his voice coming from the far corner. “I'm looking for something. Go back to sleep.”
She sat up, the blankets pooling around her, and fumbled with the lamp. A moment later, the flame caught and cast a warm glow over the room. Killian blinked, waiting for his eyes to adjust before nodding his thanks. Emma peeked out the small window, trying to determine how long she had been asleep this time. Something hit the ground and Killian straightened, triumphant.
“Sorry about that, lass. You can go back to...bed,” his voice faltered when he turned, fully seeing her for the first time since entering the room.
She looked down at herself, confused. “What? Do I have something in my hair?”
“No,” Killian after a moment, drawing out the word.
Emma stood, pulling the blanket around her shoulders. “Then why are you staring at me like I've grown another head?”
Killian walked towards her slowly, his pace measured. His fingers moved to wrap around the thick braid of her hair, giving it the smallest of tugs. When he still failed to speak, Emma raised her eyebrows.
“Are you...having trouble sleeping again?” she asked.
He nodded, his eyes meeting hers.
“Are you still a lost cause?”
Killian nodded again, a faint smile pulling at his lips.
The smile, Emma reasoned, was what pushed her over the edge. She surged forward, her lips landing on his. Killian's mouth was warm under hers, his lips responding without a second thought. His hands tightened on her waist to pull her closer. Emma relaxed into his warmth. Save for a few sloppy kisses from boys who were too full of ale to care much about her and the son of the carpenter who had taken her far more roughly than she wished, Emma had little experience with being intimate. But she did know what felt good, and her body was practically singing everywhere Killian touched her. One hand skated up her back, tangling in her silky blonde hair. The blanket around her shoulders slid to the ground. Emma's hands came up to rest on his shoulders, slipping beneath the leather coat and pushing it aside.
Killian let out a low laugh, trailing his lips along her jawline. His hands dropped to her thighs, picking her up and moving her onto the bed. His body pressed into hers, a comfortable weight that had her squirming under him. He parted her legs with his knee, teeth grazing the sensitive skin at Emma's throat. She sucked in a breath, her fingers tightening on his shoulders. Killian readjusted to hover above her. His mouth returned to hers, tongue brushing against her lips gently. Emma pawed at his clothing in a show of impatience. One of Killian's hands caught hers, stopping her frantic motions.
“Patience, love,” he whispered, barely pulling back from her kiss. Emma made a noise of annoyance and he laughed. “Oh, that's the way this is going, is it?”
Emma's hips rose to press against his in response. Killian groaned, pulling back to meet Emma's eyes. “I want this,” she said, reading the question in his expression before he could ask it.
A few moments and a slightly ripped skirt later, Killian's eyes took in the sight of Emma, bared beneath him. His lips found hers once again, though this time movements were more tender, less frantic. He could feel Emma's body respond to it. Her legs wrapped around his waist, rubbing her core against his length. His hand moved between their bodies, slipping a finger into her warmth. The slickness he was met with told him she was ready. Their bodies melded together, Emma giving a small cry at the union. Killian buried his face in the crook of her neck at the sound. He murmured nonsensical adorations against her skin. After their peaks had crashed over them, they lay wrapped in each other's arms, silent.
Finally, Killian propped himself up on his elbow, looking down at her. “I should have taught you to waltz the first night we met, if this is where it gets me.”
Emma laughed, pushing his shoulder. “It wasn't the waltzing.”
“Of course not,” he grinned, tightening his hold on her as he rolled them over. “It was my charm, my agility, my grace-”
Emma let out a yelp as they went tumbling over the side of the bed, a mess of flailing limbs and sheets. Silence followed the fall, both of them holding their breath for a moment. Emma burst out laughing, covering her face with her hands.
“Are you all right, oh graceful one?” she choked out between giggles.
Killian grinned, pressing a kiss to her forehead. “It was definitely the grace that got you.”
When morning dawned the next day, Emma found herself dreading it more than she ever had. Her excitement over meeting her parents had spiraled into anxiety and fear of what they would think when they say what their daughter had become in her absence. She didn't want to see the smudge of land on the horizon, a dark spot growing larger as the minutes passed. She wanted to crawl back into Killian's bed and pull the blankets over her face. In fact, she decided, that sounded like a remarkable idea. Striding across the desk purposefully, she pushed open the door to the captain's quarters and flopped unceremoniously on the bed. Somewhere between silently cursing the universe at large and calming herself down, she heard Killian step inside and cross to the bed.
“Normally, I wouldn't protest to finding you in my bed,” he began. “But normally I wouldn't be delivering you to your long-lost parents in your homeland.”
Emma turned her head to look at him. “What are the chances that I could convince you to keep sailing past the Forest?”
Killian's smile was gentle. “Nonexistent.”
“That's what I was afraid you were going to say,” she sighed, rolling onto her back. Killian sat on the edge of the bed, his fingers twining through her hair on the mattress.
“I'll be with you, Emma,” he promised. “You didn't think I'd throw you to the wolves, did you?”
She pushed herself up to her elbows, meeting his eyes. “I don't know what to think about anything, Killian. I haven't exactly done this before.”
“No, lass, you haven't. Which is why I'm telling you that this is something you should do. Knowing your true parentage, meeting them...it may bring you the closure you need,” Killian murmured.
Emma dropped her gaze to her hands. “I know that. I'm just not sure this will turn out the way I'd like it to.”
“I'll make you a deal,” Killian announced, his forefinger and thumb catching her chin. “If you go along with this and meet with the king and queen, and what you find isn't what you want, I'll take you back. Or you can come sail with me.”
Her smile was genuine. She leaned up to brush her lips against his. “Thank you, Killian.”
“You're welcome, love,” he murmured. “Now let's get back on deck before we reach shore.”
It had only taken one hour for the man Killian sent to the castle to return with a response. From what Killian had told her of the layout of the land, that would have meant the response was issued almost immediately. And, as he had assured her, the king and queen had invited her to the castle. They wanted to meet the girl thought to be the lost princess. Emma was pacing the deck, her impatience wearing on her nerves. A strong hand caught her by the arm, pulling her to a stop. She looked up at Killian, her face grim, and he laughed.
“Lass, you're not being sent to the gallows. You're visiting a castle,” he teased.
Emma shot him a look. “Can we leave yet? Sitting around is driving me up the wall.”
Killian pulled her forward to plant a kiss on the top of her head. “We're leaving now. I thought it might be a good idea to bring this along.” He held up the baby blanket, the purple stitching standing out against the ivory yarn. “It was the only clue about your past. Perhaps it will mean something to them.”
She took it from him, her fingers running along the stitching. “Then let's get started, shall we?”
The journey to the castle didn't take nearly as long as Emma had hoped. When they came to a stop, she was still planning what to say. Killian gave her hand a gentle squeeze as they were swept into the castle, directed to the Grand Hall where the monarchs waited. They were left at the doors, a servant warning them that they would be announced in only a short moment.
“Remember, Emma,” Killian whispered. “You are the lost princess. These are your parents. You will be fine, love. I promise you.”
Emma sent him a grateful smile, any response she might have come up with cut off by the booming voice of a servant announcing them. The doors swung open and Killian led her forward, his hand on her elbow. At the opposite end of the hall sat the monarchs. Emma could tense the tension and anxiety in the room. The tired lines around the king's eyes came into greater detail as they neared. The queen looked like she was struggling to stay in her seat. But what struck her the most was the genuine hope in their eyes. These people, despite the eighteen years that they have lived with her absence, still missed their daughter. And they felt that loss everyday of their lives, just as she had.
Killian stopped just short of the steps leading up to the dais, sweeping a low bow. Emma quickly dropped into a curtsey, remembering what Killian had showed her. A rustling signified the king's shift to stand before his voice boomed throughout the hall, dismissing all but Emma and Killian. When the hall had emptied, he gave them leave to rise. Emma straightened, careful to keep her eyes from the faces of the king and queen.
The queen was the first to speak up, prompting Killian. “Captain Jones, it's a pleasure to see you in our kingdom on good terms. Won't you introduce us to your companion?”
Killian gave her a broad smile. “Of course, Your Majesty. This is Miss Swan. I stumbled upon her in a port city to the west. She told me the unusual circumstances of her adoption and, naturally, I asked her to come along so that you and His Majesty could pursue the lead.”
“Miss Swan,” the king spoke, his voice surprisingly gentle. Emma raised her eyes, meeting his steady gaze. “Would you share your first name with us?”
“Emma,” she answered, proud that her voice never wavered. “Your Majesty.”
The queen leaned forward. “And your age?”
Emma didn't hesitate this time, their hope spurring her on. “Eighteen. Nearly nineteen.”
The monarchs exchanged a look. Queen Snow turned her gaze back to Killian. “Captain, what convinced you that she was a lead?”
Killian withdrew something from his pocket, stepping forward to pass it to the queen. “The first is one of many posted throughout the kingdoms. The second is a sketch Miss Swan produced from her personal items.”
The woman blinked quickly, as if to fight back tears. She handed the parchment pieces to her husband, clearing her throat carefully. “Miss Swan, do you have any further proof to add to your friend's claim?”
“Just this blanket, Your Majesty,” Emma admitted, producing the neatly folded item. “It was the only thing that came with me when I was left on the doorstep of the inn.”
Before her sentence was fully out, the queen had sprung from her chair and hurried down the steps. She pulled Emma into a hug, choking on a sob. Emma stiffened in surprise for a moment before relaxing into the embrace.
“Oh, Emma, I thought we'd lost you!” Snow sobbed, moving back to study the blonde's face. “I tried to tell myself we would find each other but I was beginning to lose hope. You're all grown up but I'd know that face anywhere.”
Emma's own quiet sobs were muffled as the king joined his wife, the two of them close to smothering Emma in their embrace. After a few moments had passed, David extricated himself from the group, turning towards Killian, who had been watching the scene with a soft expression. “Thank you, Captain, for bringing our daughter back to us. We are forever in your debt.”
Killian shook his head, his eyes going back to Emma. “That's not a debt you can pay, Your Highness. Your daughter...she's an incredible woman. She deserved this.”
David gave him a strange look, but didn't expand upon it. Snow and Emma joined them soon after, the queen keeping her arm looped through her daughter's.
Killian swept a bow again, fixing Emma with a smirk. “Well, princess, I should give you and your parents some time alone-”
“No!” Emma burst out. “I mean, you should stay.”
“She's right,” the queen agreed. “At least stay for supper.”
Emma's words to Killian about never having worn a corset came back to haunt her. When the group finally split apart, Snow took Emma to change her clothes. Along with the corset, Emma donned more skirts than she had even owned in her life. Her dress was a soft purple material, swishing around her feet when she walked. The golden locks she had spent years tucking under a cap where brushed out and arranged in a neat pile at her crown. Snow cooed over her the whole way to the dining hall, fussing with her skirts and rearranging the simple chain she wore around her neck. Oh, but it was all worth it when the doors opened and she saw the look on Killian's face. She imagined she could have knocked him over with a feather.
“What's the matter, Captain,” she whispered as he pulled her seat back for her. “Cat got your tongue?”
“Actually it's a minx,” he shot back.
To Emma's delight, their group fell into an easy rhythm, conversation flowing freely. More than a few times, she turned and caught her father studying her and Killian. His expression was unreadable but something about it made her want to ask what he was seeing. This dinner was unlike any she had been a part of. For one, she wasn't exhausted beyond belief, forcing herself to chew faster so she could crawl into bed. The food was far different from the simple stews Annabelle made. That thought had Emma staring down at her plate, blinking back tears. She told herself she shouldn't miss them, but she did. She missed Thomas and Annabelle, Granny and Ruby—she even found herself missing Jacob. Killian's hand moved to rest on her leg, squeezing gently. She sent him a watery smile and covered his hand with her own.
“So,” David spoke, pulling their attention back to the present. “The pirate and the lost princess. I never would have seen that one coming.”
Emma's jaw dropped while Killian fumbled for a response beside her.
Snow laughed. “Oh, don't look so surprised. The two of you aren't subtle in any way, shape, or form.”
Killian was the first to come back to his senses, laughing. “That isn't going to be a problem, is it?”
“Not as long as you don't make it one,” David answered drily.
“Take me back,” Emma muttered, covering her face. Next to her, Killian only laughed.
The news of the lost princess' return spread through the kingdoms like wildfire. For the next few weeks, Emma was introduced to royal life. She attended her first ball, danced her first formal waltz—with Killian, of course—and had her coronation. Killian stayed with her through this, just as he had promised. But she knew he missed his ship. She had to admit even she missed the freedom of the sea in comparison to the structured schedule she faced as a princess.
Tonight was one of the very few that she wasn't needed at a social event. The king and queen were meeting with advisors, leaving Emma and Killian free to wander the gardens on their own. They had found a quiet corner, stretching out in the grass. Killian's head rested in Emma's lap, their hands intertwined on his chest.
“We could leave,” Emma said suddenly.
Killian shifted to meet her eyes, brows knitting together. “What?”
“We could leave,” she repeated. “We could go back to your ship. I know you miss it.”
“I do,” he admitted. “But I promised I would stay with you and I don't think the king would take kindly to us going off an adventure when you've only just come back to them.”
Emma's free hand rested on his cheek. “I can't keep you from your ship, Killian.”
“You're not,” he assured her. He turned his head, pressing a kiss to her palm. “When you've all had more time to adjust, then we'll go back.”
Emma nodded reluctantly. “Together?”
Killian reached up, tugging on her braid. “Wouldn't have it any other way, love.”