A dreamy waltz found its way into the garden as Emma slipped into it. The subdued sounds of the party accompanied the song, and dimly the lights from the palace illuminated the gravel path into the secluded area.
This was her favorite part of the grounds. Tall bushes and the first low castle wall enclosed the small glade, interspersed with high trees, flowers of all kinds, and grounded in pristine green grass. Most didn't know of the place's existence - it was too hidden by the thick foliage and not magnificent enough in comparison to the rest of the grounds to be lingered near. Emma herself had only found it when she was eleven years old exploring the gardens, and had since put a marble bench into the space to make it her own.
She came here to find peace. Though she counted the blessings of her full and busy life, the role of Princess could be loathsome and tedious, and Emma much preferred the gallop of her horse in the forest and the swing of steel in her sword to dancing and making nice with nobles.
It was that thought in mind that brought the young lady into the gardens - a place of escape from the ball in full swing that she had snuck away from. The occasion was her own 18th birthday, and though high to-do affairs were abhorrent to Emma, her mother had insisted that such a dance was traditional when a princess comes of age. Naturally, she had stayed only long enough to greet all the guests that had come, and then promptly ducked out as soon as the suitors started asking for dances.
Under the moonlight, Emma plopped ungracefully upon her solitary bench, tugging layers of fabric from under her red dress out of the way as she struggled to become comfortable. A long sigh fell from her lips as she considered her boredom.
It was then that a small thump made her aware that she was no longer alone.
Emma whipped her head to the direction of the sound, and saw a stranger heaving himself over the palace wall. His movements were efficient and graceful, as though he had performed similar feats before. A thief, then.
Even so, Emma had no fear of the man. He had no visible weapon and his face was not covered in any attempt to hide his identity. No matter his wall-scaling ability, he probably was no master thief, and after a brief period of observation, it was clear he was alone. Besides, her father had trained his daughter in combat, and if worst came to worst, palace guards were posted out the doors to the ballroom. A call would bring them running. Resolved, Emma decided to scare him off herself.
"Impressive," She called out lightly to the stranger. His face flashed to hers in panic, and the surprise made him lose his footing. The man fell from the vine to which he was clinging and landed at the foot of the stone barrier with a sturdy thump. Emma laughed as he tried to right himself, standing and dusting himself off. "But really, you could have just asked for an invitation."
The first thing she noticed about the intruder was his clothing. A brown, ragged cloak was tied around his shoulders, covering a simple tunic and cloth pants. A loose scarf was tied around his neck and rough leather boots reached his knees. His unkempt brown hair was short enough to reveal a young but worn face and scruff suggested he hadn't shaved in days. Altogether a very cute face, if Emma did say so herself. A shame he was breaking into her home.
He met her gaze with chocolate eyes, eyebrows arched in the very image of innocence. A moment passed, and his defensive stance relaxed to contemplative as she did not rise from her bench and called for no guard.
"Yeah, well. It seemed rude to invite myself to a party," The stranger replied in a gruff voice, playing along cautiously. "Especially since I don't have the get up," He gestured to his poor attire.
"It's ruder to break in." Emma scolded.
"I just snuck into the Royal yard," He said bluntly, confused as to why the lady was so unalarmed. "Your life could be in danger." The princess took the statement as a question.
"My life is not in danger."
"How are you so sure? I could be an assassin, you know."
"I watched you scramble over that wall. Your belt has no sheath, and the way you moved suggests that a blade is not hidden under your clothes or else you'd have stabbed yourself by that fall," She replied confidently. "Perhaps you have some smaller weapon hidden, but your clothes suggest you don't have the means for anything more dangerous. Now, who are you and why have you snuck into the Palace?" Emma demanded.
The man took a few steps toward her. "Neal," he said, indicating his name, paused, and then looked at her expectantly.
Emma smirked. "Yeah, I'm not telling you my name. You're no assassin, but still. You might be a jewel thief."
"I might be a jewel thief," He conceded, strolling nonchalantly closer to where she sat with a small smile threatening to take his features. "But you are definitely dressed too finely to be alone in this garden while the Princess's birthday ball plays on."
So he was a charmer, then. But harmless, she knew instinctively. "Who are you?" Emma demanded.
"The name's Neal, I already told you. Maybe I came here to talk to a beautiful lady in the moonlight,"
"What, are you trying to flit your way out of a robbery charge?" Amused disbelief colored her tone. Yes, this was much more interesting than her birthday party.
"That depends," It was his turn to smirk. "Is it working?"
She snickered. "No. What are you doing here?"
"Maybe that's not your business." He said coyly.
"Maybe you broke into the Palace grounds and made it my business." She shot back.
It was all so bizarrely casual. The stranger - Neal - was intriguing. He smiled too easily. Strange, considering he was most likely a criminal of some sort - but Emma had always been a fantastic judge of character, and this man was clean, if misguided.
"How about this," Neal proposed. "I'll answer any questions you may have, if you will stand up and join me for the next dance." He offered his hand in an exaggerated approximation of a gentlemanly gesture, and motioned with his head to the source of the music that still floated toward them softly from the open windows of the ballroom.
More amused disbelief. "Let me get this straight - you successfully sneak into a guarded castle-"
"-you are caught by a lady in the garden-"
"-but instead of running and avoiding being arrested, you ask her for a dance?"
"And if I say no, what will you do then?"
"I'll climb right back over that wall and we pretend this meeting never happened."
Emma's first response was to tell this benevolent stranger exactly where he could shove his offer, but it seemed like a better idea to get answers first. And it was hard to resist the playful gleam in his eye.
"Any funny business," The blonde threatened as she rose to take his hand. "And you'll have much more to worry about that me calling for the Palace guards."
"Yet you don't call for them," Neal observed as he placed a hand lightly on her waist. Emma's free hand went to his shoulder, and they began to sway on the grass. "So I'm going to make the assumption that you don't want them to find you, either."
"Slick," Emma complimented. "Toying with thieves is much more fun than ballroom dancing." Neal started to twirl them around, and Emma was surprised at how graceful he could be.
"So that's what this is. You're just toying with me. And here I thought we had something special." He feigned back with an over-dramatic sigh that nearly earned her laugh. Nearly.
"The relationship between an intruder and the person who catches him has always been tenuous at best." She replied with mock solemnity. "Which brings me to the real question of the day - why did you sneak into this garden?"
"I heard a rumor that I wanted to come and check out." Lifting his arm for Emma to spin under it, Neal answered with a vague truth. "My turn."
"Your turn? What are you talking about?"
"To ask a question."
"This is not a conversation, Neal, this is an interrogation. What rumor?"
"I won't answer honestly till I get a solid answer from you." He sidestepped the question once more.
"Seriously, just let me ask you something."
"You are insufferable," Emma groaned. "Fine."
"Why don't you want the guards to find you?"
"Ha. They would see you to the dungeon and me back to the ball, and I wouldn't know who to feel worse for."
"Not one for parties, huh?"
"This ball, this dress, this music, it's all crap. Boring, stuffy tradition that I have been forced to attend."
"Oh, come now, it can't be that bad."
"You're right," Emma conceded with a sardonic grin. "The food is always great. But the company is disastrous. Most of the women my age are fluffy twits who would rather talk about posies than politics, and most of the men are arrogant fools who assume I'm just as dainty as the rest of them."
"You don't like being seen as weak."
"Don't presume," Emma was a little startled at how well he seemed to read her. "But yes. And none of it is made any better by the fact that fancy dress is made to torture."
"Aww, the fair maiden is uncomfortable," Neal sarcastically intoned.
Emma scoffed in feigned offense. "You're so rude! I'll bet you've never had to endure a corest, have you?"
Neal grinned. "No, I'll stick to my britches and shirts, thanks."
"And so now, it's my turn to ask a question. What rumor led you to sneak into the palace grounds?"
"No, no, it's my turn. You just asked a question just a second ago." He contested.
"The one about the corest?" Emma questioned in disbelief. When Neal looked at her pointedly, she protested. "That wasn't a question."
"Yes, it was! It's my turn now."
"You can't be serious."
"Those are the rules, sweetheart."
"'The rules'? What are you, twelve?"
"That was another question! That means I get a second. Gods, you're bad at this game." She had to pretend her heart didn't stutter at the mischievous light in his eye. She could already feel that his hands on her waist were growing tighter and the space between their bodies as they danced was shrinking, but she just couldn't bring herself to mind. Still, the young woman had enough pride not to be flustered.
Neal looked up then as if to think for a moment, then returned to meet her gaze. "How about this for the first one: What, exactly, is your name?"
She debated for a moment before deciding on honesty. "Emma."
"Thanks. My parents picked it out for me and everything." She teased.
"Okay, second question. If you do not enjoy dancing at fancy balls, what exactly do you enjoy, Lady Emma?"
"Just Emma will do." She hated the fuss people made about her status. "I love the forest, and riding through it on my thoroughbred. I train with a sword three times a week." Trying to think of a way to say 'I help my father, the King, manage the kingdom, its people, and its ministries' without revealing her royal status, Emma settled for "I study politics in my spare time."
"Swordplay? Do you know Mr. Emmett Myles?"
"Yes, I do, actually. Mr. Myles is the best sword smith in town." She wrinkled her brow. "How do you know him?"
"Well, for the time being, he's my employer. I've been making a few spare coins here and there while I'm in the area helping him keep shop. He loves to brag that his swords are so fine, even the King and Queen buy from him."
Well, that was ironic. "Oh, yes, I've heard that too." And she had - especially considering she had been in that very shop many times before for her own royal blade. "And made a few spare coins? I thought you were a jewel thief. Or an assassin."
"Ha. I already told you I'm not an assassin. And I'm not a jewel thief either, I swear."
Emma smirked once more. "That remains to be seen. But now, finally, it's my turn. What rumor led you to sneak into the royal garden?"
"Are you sure you don't want to ask me what I do in my spare time?" Neal evaded with chagrin. A pointed glare made him yield. "Fine," After taking a beat to decide whether or not to tell the truth, Neal composed himself as he carefully decided on honesty. "I heard that Prince Charming and Snow White had Rumpelstiltskin locked up. I came to see if that was true."
Emma's face grew grave. "Rumpelstiltskin? What business do you have with the Dark One?"
"So it is true? He is here?"
"He's been locked up here since before I was born."
Neal sighed in something akin to relief and trepidation. The dance halted, though the two did not let go of the other.
"So that's why you are here. To see the Dark One."
Neal smiled at her weakly. "Guilty."
Already on the way out, the light mood dried up entirely.
Emma broke their embrace by taking a step away. "Neal," She warned seriously. "No matter what you may think, nothing good comes of deals with Rumpelstiltskin. No matter what you want or what you could offer, I can't let you see him. He is too cunning, and his magic is too dangerous."
His face, though still guarded, crumpled in disappointment Emma guessed she wasn't meant to see. "So he still has his magic?"
"Still?" She questioned softly, sorry to see the glimmer of pain in his expression.
"I had hoped that if he was locked up, that must mean he wasn't so powerful anymore."
"Only the truly desperate seek out the Dark One to get what they wish. But if you wish him powerless, why bother? Why would you want to see him if you hoped that he wouldn't have the power to grant you anything?" The princess questioned suspiciously.
"It's not to break him out, if that's what you're thinking," Neal said sharply. Emma was taken aback by his sudden anger and contrite about her distrust. Seeing her tacit apology, he elaborated calmly. "He deserves his time where he can't hurt anyone. I just wanted to see if he was really there. Maybe speak to him."
Emma couldn't stop herself from asking. "Why?"
"Did you know that Rumpelstiltskin has only ever broken one deal in his lifetime?" He met her eye intensely, though he didn't seem to notice her shock. "It was a very long time ago now, but it was with me. And it cost me my home...I just wanted to see if...justice was served, like the rumor held." Neal took a deep breath, but it still didn't stop his voice from breaking. "But I can't. I can't speak to him if he still has his magic."
"I'm so sorry."
The odd pair was silent for a moment.
Neal exhaled loudly, awkward for the first time that night, and avoided her gaze. "No, no, I'm sorry. I shouldn't have just unloaded that on you."
"I did ask for it," She quickly assured him. That didn't seem to be enough, though. "Thank you for telling me the truth."
Neal gazed at her contemplatively for a moment before saying, "You deserved it."
For one wild second, Emma could imagine how easy it would be to lean in and kiss this strange, handsome man, but she quickly banish that thought before he could read it on her face.
"It's your turn," Emma grasped for a chance to end their somber conversation, not sure how else to comfort the man. In spite of herself, the princess determined that the stranger who had broken into her castle grounds was, against all odds, a good and honest man, and the sadness in his eyes pained her for reasons she was too proud to investigate.
Said young man looked up at her, relieved for the change of subject, though it seemed too late to completely revive the banter. In its place was a new intensity, a comfortable intimacy that resulted from the confidence he had shared. It seemed to heat the air between the two.
"Okay, fine. Hmm…" Once again, Neal offered his hand to continue the slow dance, but his tone was low and earnest. She was happy to see some of the light in his eyes restored. "Why would a high born lady dance with a suspected jewel thief when he asks her to?"
Emma took the proffered hand and they began to sway, much more slowly than before. She replied in an equally muted voice. "Maybe because she could tell he was never a threat. And he ended up being quite witty and pleasant company." The music in the distance was the only noise for another long moment. "Why would the man who just snuck into a palace ask the high born lady to dance?"
"Maybe because he had gotten too far to turn back because some woman caught him. And that young woman was very beautiful, and he wanted to dance with her." Emma ducked her face against his chest to hide her blush at his compliment.
Why was this happening to her? Never had the princess felt so enamored with a boy. Sure, she had had her flirtations, but nothing had ever been material. But this one was different, magnetic. In easy silence they continued to dance until the song ended.
"Well, it seems I've overstayed my welcome." Neal broke it with a self-deprecating sigh.
"You weren't welcomed." Emma reminded him frankly.
"Oh, right. Sorry about that." He gave a little bow. "Thank you for the dance." She curtsied back.
He turned and walked a few feet to prepare to climb back over the wall from whence he came, but halted when Emma called from behind him, "Neal, wait. I'm sorry you didn't get what you came here for."
"It's okay," He faced her for one moment and gave her a sad but meaningful look. Then his countenance relaxed into an earnest, genuine smile. "Maybe I found something better. Come find me if you're ever in town, eh?"
Turning back before Emma could answer, Neal broke into a run to spring himself back onto the wall. He caught some vines and quickly scaled the wall, leaping fluidly over the edge and disappearing into the darkness.
For one long second Emma's mind whirling, thinking this and that of the curious, interesting, charming man with whom she had just danced in the moonlight. She plopped back onto her bench with a defeated groan. And then, only one thought.
I'm so screwed.
So this monstrosity was the result of an English assignment turned fanfiction. I have a squeal in mind and I hope to get it out sometime but I can't make any promises. And it was intentional that he introduced himself as Neal and not Baelfire -the reason why will be in part 2.
Title is from Taylor Swift's "Holy Ground".