A/N: hi lovelies! I'm so, so sorry about how long this took. My life got quite hectic quite fast but hopefully this chapter makes up for your long wait. Thank you to everyone who follows, favorites and review! You have no idea how much it means that people enjoy this story 3

His heart stopped when her eyes found his. Gods below. He didn't understand how she could look more beautiful than before but somehow it had happened. She was a vision, a siren that'd left the sea to entrance him and pull him back under.

And then she had winked at him. Winked at him. As if he wasn't already ruined by her, she'd had to go and be adorably bold in front of the whole of the ball, knowing no one would guess or possibly even notice.

He could hear Ariel laughing softly beside him but Killian only had eyes for Emma. She strode across the room with her parents; looking every bit the princess her birth had named her, until she stood before her guests. She smiled demurely but he saw the hint of nerves buried in the small wrinkle of her brow and the wash of relief the set of her shoulders revealed.

Her shoulders. The gown she was wearing left them gloriously bare and damn him if she wasn't temptation incarnate. The bodice of the dress appeared to fit her perfectly, the deep blue material gliding over her curves in a way that left him breathless. Her skirt wasn't overbearing and amusement trickled through the haze she'd created over the thought of her fight for a manageable dress.

Warmth flooded through his chest even as a small drop of doubt slid down his spine. She really was a princess. Standing before the crowd of guests, emanating nothing but confidence and regality, it had never been more clear.

He'd be lying if it meant he loved her less.

Snow smiled brightly at her daughter and the tiny hint of relief that flickered across her face upon reaching her parents. The look was so distinctly Emma her heart swelled happily.

The three Charmings walked to the front of the ballroom, Emma standing between her parents, and Snow took the moment to lean over towards her daughter.

"Well done, sweetheart."

Gratitude flushed her cheeks and she bit her lip. "Thanks mom." She squeezed Emma's arm in reassurance before stepping forward with David to address the room.

"Thank you all for joining us on this very special day. Though I'm sure you're all expecting a long speech and will lament the absence of one," a chuckle rippled through the guests. "Now is the time for celebration, not a verbose welcoming."

David grinned and took his cue. "Please, join us in the merriment. Eat, drink, dance, and laugh to your heart's content. And help make tonight a wonderful celebration for our wonderful daughter, Emma." He winked at her. "Happy Birthday, my dear."

A warm round of applause broke across the room and Emma checked her blush before smiling out at the crowd. Both of her parents hugged her warmly, her father kissing her on the forehead, as the music began to play.

"So," David grinned with amusement. "You survived the hardest part. How does it feel, birthday girl?"

Emma snorted which made her father chuckle. "Like one weight has been removed for another to be added on." He quirked an eyebrow at her. "Dancing. There's still dancing to partake in."

He nodded and failed to hold back a smirk. "Oh, yes. I forgot. My graceful swan." Emma punched his arm. "Well, were you a bit smaller I'd offer the tops of my feet but your shoes would probably kill the both of us."

Despite the eye roll she sent his way her chest clenched happily. Always her knight in shining armor. "Thanks dad."

"Anytime, Ems." He kissed her forehead once more. "And despite your lack of waltzing ability I still request a dance with the princess this evening."

Deep emotion lodged in her throat. "Of course."

"Now go mingle." He winked at her. "Impress the stuffy royals with your razor-sharp wit and inherited charm."

Emma laughed as she stepped down towards the main floor, walking tall and proud and strong. "Just like her mother," he muttered to himself.

Emma knew she had to be a good host, truthfully she did, but there was a pull deep in her belly that kept leading her across the room. Courteous smiles and cursory greetings fell from her lips to friends and family and allies and yet her feet dragged her across the marble to where she knew he was waiting.

He was standing against a pillar, leaning casually and damn him if he hadn't been leaning his whole life. He stood as though he belonged there; against the pillar, in the ballroom, in the castle, in her world. His eyes followed her, something deep and terrifying brewing in their depths even as a small smile perched itself across his lips.

She could feel a blush work its way across her cheeks as his stare continued to penetrate the seemingly endless line of people wishing to speak with the princess. He wouldn't stop staring. They needed to be subtle, be careful. She knew her mother would be watching and waiting to see if some prince or lieutenant caught her eye and if he kept it up their secret would be found out before anything even happened.

Whoa she thought. Since when is anything happening? Ever? Emma tried to chastise herself but the small bubble of hope he'd created earlier refused to burst. He was here and walking and standing and staring and absolutely ruining her without so much as a single word.

"Emma!" She blinked, snapping out of the fog his stare at created and met bright blue eyes that danced with mirth.

"Ariel!" The redhead immediately rushed forward to pull her into a hug, ignoring any formality. "I'm so glad you're here! My mom didn't say you were coming!"

Emma's eyes met Killian's over her friend's shoulder and her brow wrinkled in confusion. Something warm and new was settling over his face and she didn't understand why he appeared so floored.

"Of course we were coming!" Ariel poked Emma's side playfully making the blonde giggle through a faux glare. "How could we have missed the birthday bash of the year? Or, dare I say it, the decade?"

Emma groaned. "Please don't tell my mother that. She'll start thinking we need to have one every year to top the previous and I'll be stuck in a stuffy dress annually." Ariel laughed. "Where's Eric?"

Her inquiry was met with an eye roll. "Last I saw he was with your father and Thomas, the three of them were sneaking off to spike one of the punch bowls." Emma snorted. "That I will be telling your mother about for the simple fact that it's fun to watch her lecture him." Her eyes crinkled in amusement.

"I can't believe your prince would leave you all by your lonesome," Emma teased.

"Oh, I'm not alone." A mischievous smile twisted across her lips. "My cousin is here with me, as a guest." Her blue eyes flitted over Emma's shoulder to find the wide eyes of her cousin who was gaping at her. "Emma, this is my cousin Killian. I'm sure he'd be honored to make your acquaintance."

Silence. The rest of the party prattled on and yet silence stretched out in the few feet between Emma and Killian. He was staring at Ariel with something close to betrayal and Emma's mouth formed a perfect 'o' in shock.

"Um…hello." She gulped so loud she was sure half the party heard her. "It's, er…nice to meet you. Killian."

He was about to begin his own, equally stinted, greeting when Ariel's voice cut through the tension between them.

"Oh stop being ridiculous. Emma, I know you two are friends." Green eyes widened in shock and shot over to the blue, which were glaring at his cousin. "Stop being formal and give the poor boy a hug."

"Ariel," he huffed.

"What?" She swatted at his apparent impatience with her. "You two have been making goo-goo eyes across the hall, even if I wasn't fully aware of your illegal meeting I could have guessed."

"We have not– "

"Yes," she interrupted Emma. "You have." Her eyes darted over Emma's head before smirking once again at the two before her. "Your parents are both occupied, I'll go throw David under the carriage and give you some time to," she wiggled her eyebrows. "Get acquainted."

Killian's glare followed her as she wove her way across the crowd to find Snow. "She is the most annoying cousin ever."

"Cousin?" He blinked before his gaze settled once more on the girl he'd been staring at since her entrance.

"Ah, yeah," he scratched the back of his neck and Emma bit back a smile. He always did that when he was feeling uncomfortable. "I sort of figured you'd guessed that. You said your mum knew a mermaid, yeah?" He nodded his head in the direction Ariel had just walked. "That's her. My favorite cousin." He paused. "Most of the time at least."

Things began to click into place. "So her father is your uncle. The king." Killian nodded. "And she…left? I thought…" Her nose scrunched in confusion. "I thought you said you all weren't allowed?"

He chuckled, eyes leaving hers to stare at his shoes. "We're not. She's partially the reason." His blue flashed up to her before diving back down towards the floor. "Went and fell in love with a human, left her family and the throne, and her family never forgave her."

"But you said…"

"I'm the exception." A tiny smile quirked her lips up. Of course he was. "I was the only one who thought she should go. Mind, I was only…seven? Eight?" Killian shrugged. "But after she found a way to keep her legs I told her to go." His eyes finally strayed up to hers and she felt his stare burn into her core. "Told her love was worth anything, everything, so long as she knew it to be true."

Emma's who body buzzed as his words trailed over her shoulders and collarbones before falling down against her heart. "Pretty wise for an eight year old." She said breathlessly.

He smiled cheekily, apparently pleased with himself. "I always have been mature for my age."

She snorted and realized that somehow they'd gone from standing feet apart to being mere inches apart. He smelled like the ocean and it was familiar and safe and so distinctly him she almost sighed. Almost.

"You're ridiculous." Killian grinned and opened his mouth but she cut him off. "Don't you even think about making that joke." He pouted.

"You're no fun."

"I'm loads of fun." Emma bit her lip playfully, canting her head to the side. "Isn't that why you're here?"

"Well," he shifted his weight, running his tongue across his teeth and gods above is that even legal? "I am here for fun, but perhaps not the usual kind." Her heart stuttered in her chest and she could feel the warmth rolling off of him and is he…? "You did promise me a dance."

Wait, what? "Excuse me?"

"A dance." His eyes danced with amusement but she could see the pink creeping across his cheeks. "Two actually. But for now I think I'll settle for the first." Her mind struggled to catch up with the sudden change of direction while her body continued to buzz with the word fun pumping through her veins heatedly. His finger brushed against the back of her hand tentatively and she had to reign in the impulse to snatch his hand and never let go.

"A dance?" Despite the happy butterflies swarming her belly she couldn't quite keep the grimace off her face. "Really? Me? The graceless wonder with the boy who's had less than twenty-four hours on legs?" He chuckled deeply and it ricocheted around her chest.

Killian held out his arm and her arm automatically wound its way under his, grasping on the forearm she loved so much. "You never know," they stopped before the dance floor and he spun her in front of him. "Maybe you just haven't found the right partner."

Emma meant to reply with a witty comment but all the air in her lungs escaped with a gasp as he pulled her close; his palm warm and rough against her own, his other hand a welcome weight against her waist, and their hips dangerously close together. It felt perfect, he felt perfect, and her chest ached in the best possible way.

"No comeback, princess?" He was grinning brightly at her, no trace of humor in his eyes just pure happiness.

"Give me a minute," she bit her lip against a matching smile and he looked extraordinarily pleased to have left her speechless. "Oh, hush." His laugh flowed out across the dance floor as the first notes of the song drifted through the air.

"What on earth were you thinking?" Her stern voice hissed into his ear. "At your own daughter's birthday ball?"

David winced. "Oh, c'mon Snow." He hunched his shoulders and ducked his head with a small, guilty smile, his hands dancing out to grab hold of her clenched fists. "It wasn't going to hurt anyone." She continued to frown and swatted at his hands. "It was Eric's idea!"

"Oh yes," she drawled sarcastically. "And you, king of the realm," he winced again. "Are incapable of resisting peer pressure."

This time she allowed his fingers to tangle with her own and tug her close though her frown remained. "I'm sorry." He kissed the wrinkles on her forehead and they soothed slightly. "I'm sorry, my love. My queen, my darling, my heart." He dropped a kiss to her pursed lips with every word. "Forgive me?"

She tried to stay mad, truly she did, but he was far too experienced in winning her forgiveness for her to resist. "You're lucky you're handsome," she grumbled against his shoulder.

"And charming," he chuckled. "Don't forget charming."

"Don't push your luck." She spun in his arms and he dropped a quick kiss to the top of her shoulder that burned through the fine silk. "If Emma finds out she'll probably try doing it her…her…" Snow's eyes widened as her words failed.

"Hmm?" David nosed against the side of her head with a content smile. "What will our troublesome daughter do?"

"Dance," she whispered.


"She's dancing." David's head shot up quicker than lightening. "Willingly. She's smiling and laughing and…"

Her husband frowned as his stare found their daughter in the arms of the young man Ariel had introduced them to earlier. His hand clenched at her hip and something akin to a growl rumbled through his chest.

"Down papa bear." Her hand settled over the one at her hip. "She actually looks comfortable."

"I wonder how they two of them will survive this," he said tensely. Confusion wrinkled her brow once more and he elaborated. "If he doesn't usually dance," he said meaningfully. "They're bound to tumble at least once."

I…I can't tell you. Emma's words from years ago echoed in Snow's head as she watched the two stumble gracefully across the floor and all of a sudden it made sense.

"Oh, Emma." She whispered to herself. It all fit; her secrecy, her sadness, her refusal to accept suitors. Her daughter had fallen in love with a merman and, from the look on his face and the smile on his lips, the feeling was mutual and so devastatingly forbidden it broke her heart.

Well, she thought, if true love was easy, what fun would it be?

In the corner, a dark-haired guest watched the dancing pair with narrowed eyes and tight lips. Oh. This wouldn't do.

"You know," she quirked a teasing brow at him. "You dance pretty good for a fish out of water."

Killian snorted, twirling her out before pulling her more tightly against his chest. "It appears I'm a natural." Her hand squeezed his arm and tiny sparks went off in his belly. "Quite a sight better than you, I dare say."

Emma stuck her tongue out at him but laughed. They waltzed across the floor, with a small amount of grace and abundant amount of hilarity that had some of the older guests shaking their heads in amusement.

It was so easy and so simple. The whole moment felt suspended, as though time had faded away and the very air in the room had stopped moving for fear of breaking their spell.

A third song began to open and he showed no signs of releasing his hold on her. "Glad you came?" She smiled tentatively up through her lashes and his heart skipped.

"Emma," his voice deepened and oh gods. "I wouldn't trade any part of this evening for the world." Heat rose to her cheeks and who did he think he was? He wasn't allowed to just say things like that…

"Me either," she whispered.

His answering grin is so bright and so beautiful and so honest it steals every bit of air from her lungs. She tries to smile back but she feels a bit frozen and settles for brushing her thumb over his where their hands are joined. It's soft and subtle but she sees the small flash in his eyes and he knows. He knows how much this means and how wonderful it all is and that it's possibly their first and last.

Emma was mid-laugh at a horrible joke Killian had made when she heard a soft cough from behind her. She offered Killian a small smile before releasing his hand and turning to the interruption she had expected for two songs.

"Father," she said formally.

"Daughter," he mimicked, making her face split into a grin. "I do believe you promised me a dance earlier." His gaze flickered to Killian and she could see the hint of challenge her father thought he was hiding and rolled her eyes.

"That I did." She turned to Killian with a wink. "Thank you for the dance, sir."

He bowed, amusement playing around his lips. "It was my pleasure, your highness."

David's eyes followed the dark haired man as he walked off the dance floor and when he turned back to Emma found a raised eyebrow and very Snow expression on her face.


"Remember how we had that discussion about a lack of tact?" He shifted under her stern gaze. "That was a prime example."

He reached for her hand and she smiled exasperatedly at him but allowed herself to be led into the formal pose. "I can't ask for a dance with my own daughter? Is that what this world is coming to?"

Emma snorted out a laugh and he grinned in return. "Sure, that's all it was."

David shrugged, entirely unrepentant. "It had been nearly four songs."

"Overprotective," she sang teasingly.

He spun her out with a laugh and Charming sighed. She really was growing up.

Emma had begged out of another dance after she and her father had stumbled and laughed and twirled through two. She was in the middle of a hilarious story from Red when her mother swooped in and excused the two of them with a conspiratorial look.

"Well, hello there crazy."

Snow huffed. "What a terrible thing to say to your very favorite mother."

Amused green eyes met a matching, rolling pair. "You and dad really were made for each other," she said drolly. "How many times are the two of you going to make that joke?"

"Until it's no longer funny."

"So when I was twelve then?"

Snow hummed and pretended not to hear her. They wove there way through the crowd of guests, several smiling and attempting to earn the attention of the princess. Weird she thought. Usually her mom was extraordinarily for her mingling and creating a rapport with the allies she would one day deal with.

"Um, mom." Her eyes scanned the crowd, unconsciously seeking dark hair and blue eyes. "Where are we going?"

"We're just going on a walk." Emma narrowed her eyes. She had the voice again. It was the same tone she used every time she tried to wheedle information out of her or her father: a little too innocent and a little too light to be completely true.

She arched her brow. "Lie."

Snow huffed. "Fine." She peered behind Emma and apparently decided the spot in the hall she'd chosen was secluded enough. "I have a question."

"No, I will not allow a line of young titled men to dance with me."

Rolling her eyes, her mother adopted her father's favorite pose and placed her hands on her hips. "Like I don't already know that, Emma." She shrugged unapologetically. "I just…that young man you were dancing with, he's very handsome."

Her tone was leading and Emma's spine stiffened immediately. "He is."

"He's also Ariel's cousin, she introduced him to your father and I when she arrived tonight."

Emma swallowed thickly. "Yes. She, um, introduced the two of us earlier this evening."

"And you appeared to be having fun with him. While dancing, I might add."

She swallowed thickly. Damn. "He was able to make up for my lack of grace and possesses a sharp wit."

"Hmm," her mother hummed. She watched Emma fidget and try to conceal the fact that she was fidgeting when her face softened with understanding. "He's your secret, isn't he? He's what you couldn't tell me all those years ago."

A pained expression broke across her daughter's features. "Please don't say anything," she begged. "He's…he isn't even supposed to talk to me, let alone be here." Her hands began to twist in on each other and her voice cracked. "He…I…we're best friends. He's- Killian is- god, I don't even- you can't stop he's too…too much and if we were to just stop…we can't and…"

"Hey." She placed a soothing hand over the twisting fingers of her daughter. "Breathe, Emma. It's okay." Desperate green eyes sought her own and she smiled softly. "It is, I promise. The two of you are obviously…" in love. "Well, you mean quite a bit to one another." Emma nodded with pink stained cheeks. "And he clearly makes you happy." Emma ducked her head and nodded once more. "Then your secret is safe with me."

"Really?" She asked quietly.

Snow brushed back an errant curl and smiled gently. "Really. As long as the two of you are careful, I won't be the one to try and change anything. Your father on the other hand…"

Emma groaned. "We could just not tell him."

Her mother snorted indelicately. "Yes. Because whenever I try to hide things from him it goes so well. Do you remember his birthday a few years back?"

"He figured it all out in less than a week," she chuckled.

"Exactly." Snow watched as some of the tension seeped out of her daughter's shoulders and relaxed just a bit. "I promise it'll be okay, Em. We love you and we only want you to be happy."

Emma flung her arms around her mother's waist and tucked her chin against her shoulder. "Thanks mom."

"Anytime sweetheart."

Killian's heart nearly stopped when a hand reached out and grabbed his arm.

"What the…"

"Shh!" He turned to find Emma pressed up against a shadowed wall with a finger against her lips. "Be quiet or people will hear you."

He threw a glance over his shoulder before joining her against the wall in a section of the party that was currently unoccupied. "And why don't we want people to hear me?"

"Because," she threaded their fingers together and tugged him along, her dress swishing against her legs. "Otherwise people will notice and I'll be dragged back in to the fray."

He laughed. "You act as though being in there is a battle."

Emma glared at him over her shoulder and he smirked at her. "You'd think the same if half the room wanted to talk politics with you and the other half wanted to try and steal a dance."

Her words sobered the quip he'd been prepared to throw out. "Ah." Without realizing his hand tightened against her own and his thumb caressed over the back of her palm. "Well then, lead on."

Back in the ballroom, Snow watched two figures sneak out towards a far hallway and bit her lip in amusement. She leaned into David, whose arm instinctively curled around her waist, as she recalled a few balls they themselves had snuck out of. Oh Emma she thought. You don't even realize…

They had finally moved far enough away from the party that only small notes of music could be heard and he watched as her whole body sagged with relief. Her hand remained tightly wound with his own and, whether it was on purpose or simply because she'd forgotten it was even there, he cherished the warmth and perfect that was her hand with his.

Her steps began to slow and they were now walking lazily through the castles corridors. The silence overtaking them neither awkward nor stinted, it was peaceful and comfortable. They finally arrived at a door he insisted on pushing open for her.

"Oh," he breathed. She had brought them to a garden balcony. The small terrace overlooked the sea and mountain backdrop while being filled with colorful flowers and brush. "Is this…"

"The garden I told you about?" Emma nodded. "Yeah. Other than the beach it's my favorite place to think." She released his hand to walk forward and he missed the contact immediately. "My parents typically leave it alone so it's my own secret getaway. When palace life is just a little too much and I need to breathe." His eyes traced her movements as she walked through the grass, heels left behind by the door. "A little piece of paradise, you know?"

"Yes," he spoke quietly, eyes never leaving her. "I know." He finally followed her path to stand at the ledge as she stared out at the water.

"It's so beautiful." She rested her head on his shoulder and sighed. "And big and wide and open. There's so much adventure out there."

Killian was nearly positive his heart had stopped and his lungs would explode but his body seemed to remember how to move when his mind could not. He reached an arm around and traced a line from her shoulder down her arm and back again, a soothing pattern that she melted in to.

"I don't know," he answered quietly. "I'd say there's still plenty of adventure up here."

She scoffed. "You only say that because you've never had to stay here more than a day."

"Well," his fingers stopped at her shoulder and grazed over her warm skin. "I'd say my one day has been quite the adventure. I got legs," Emma grinned, "I've attended a royal ball," she rolled her eyes, "And I've danced with the crown princess."

Her breath caught in her throat. "You know," she released a shaky breath. "I did promise you two."

His hand dropped to her waist and curled his fingers around her hip. "That you did. However," he turned her to face him. Her breath puffed against his cheek and he could see the gold flecks in her eyes. "I'm hard pressed to go back in to the fray, as you called it." Killian lifted her hand, dropping a kiss to her knuckles and tugging her infinitesimally closer. "Why don't we dance out here?"

"But," her words fumbled over her tongue at his nearness. "There's no music."

Killian tsked her. "Sure there is." His thumb grazed over her hip where his hand was placed and she swore she could feel the heat through the layers of silk. "Just listen: the wind, the sea, the sky, it's all creating a symphony for us." He ducked his head so his breath danced over her ear and neck, the small scratch of stubble causing her heartbeat to trip over itself. "Feel it, Emma."

As he led her around the garden, carefully avoiding the flowers and bushes, she was absolutely certain she was feeling something, though whether it was what he intended or not she was uncertain of. Somehow the two of them managed to twirl around without stumbling or stepping on one another and a part of her, a deep and hidden away part, thought it was perhaps because they were made for this, made for each other.

"I think you lied to me."

Her head turned sharply to meet his blue eyes, which were dancing with mirth. "What?"

He grinned down at her and licked his lips before answering. The small action made her stomach flip and sorely tested her ability to concentrate on the actual words he was speaking and not on the mouth making them.

"You told me you didn't know how to dance." He turned them and she pivoted perfectly, her body snug against his. "I'm not sure if you've noticed but we seem to be doing just fine."

Emma rolled her eyes but couldn't quite keep the small grin off her face. "Maybe we just work well together."

He hummed and, if she didn't know any better, his eyes darted down to her own mouth. "Perhaps."

"What else could it possibly be, fishboy?"

Killian's eyes crinkled at the nickname. "Perhaps," his hand tightened at her hip. "You just wanted to be held all evening." His voice was teasing but something flashed across his face. "Perhaps you just wanted to have me holding you all evening."

"And if I did?"

His heart stuttered. "Emma…"

She swallowed thickly and repeated herself more forcefully. "And if I did?"

"Then I'd say your plan worked exceptionally well, princess." She smiled nervously at him and he released her hand to graze his thumb over her cheek. His feet stood rooted to the spot, not having realized they'd stopped dancing, as she leaned into his touch. "Exceptionally well," he whispered hoarsely.

Her previously occupied hand settled on his chest and she could feel the rapid thud of his heart. "Good."

He gave her a small smile before closing the space even further and brushing his nose against hers sweetly. He inhaled deeply and watched as her eyes, bright and green and everything, fluttered prettily. Killian whispered her name once more and she tilted her head up with a small nod and…


She cursed more violently than he'd ever heard and ducked her forehead against his chin. He could feel his own disappointment mingling with her own and sighed.

"Emma! Sweetheart, where are you?"

"You'd best get back," he whispered, still stuck in the tailwind of their almost. She tilted her head up and smiled sadly at him.

"Duty calls."

"Aye." He hesitated for only a moment before dropped a kiss to the apple of her cheek. The soft skin became a touch rosier than before and he nudged his nose against her forehead. "Go on, I promise I'll be right behind you."

Emma huffed, her fingers tightening in his coat before finally releasing their hold. "Fine. But you still have one more formal dance left. I'll not be stuck with some nobleman with heavy feet."

"Of course, princess."

"I'll see you soon, fishboy."

His eyes followed the sway of her hips as she walked towards the sound of her mother's voice and he smiled crookedly when she finally slipped back into her heels and sent a quick glance back to him. So close he mused.

"Stealing the princess away from her own party is frowned upon, even in the human world." Killian resisted the urge to roll his eyes and groan. "Not that I don't approve of your little dalliance but, you know…"

"Ariel," he huffed a breath through his nose. "You are, without a doubt, the single most annoying cousin in all the realms."

"I disagree completely."

Killian snorted. "You would." She smiled cheekily before winding her arm around his. "And we've had no," his cheeks flushed, "Dalliance to speak of."

The redhead hummed and watched as his eyes darted over the heads of guests until they reached a certain blonde. She saw his deep blue spark to life and a subconscious smile tilted his lips up.

"It may not be an ordinary dalliance, but I've no doubt the two of you find your minds far beyond the walls of this ballroom. You know I'll support you," his chin tilted down until their gazes met. "Through thick and thin, you know my spot beside you will never waiver."


"How did you know there's a but?"

He quirked his brow at her, "There's always a but."

"But I just want you to know what this means, what she means."

He scoffed. "I bloody well know what she means, Ariel. She means everything."

She swallowed, her heart aching for this boy, this man, whom she adored so dearly. He had always loved more fiercely than anyone else she knew, and Emma was no exception. "I know that. I can see that. But choosing her means choosing this and means leaving everything else behind." He released a heavy breath and she squeezed his arm. "I'm not saying decide now, I'm not saying which way to choose, but I am saying you will have to one day."

His eyes trailed back over the her smiling form; blonde hair shining under the candlelight, wide grin stealing his breath, and her eyes brightening the whole room. "I can't live without her."

Ariel kissed his shoulder. "It's kind of wonderful in it's difficulty isn't it?"

He turned his head and dropped a kiss to the top of her head. "Just a bit."

The conductor stood on stage and announced the beginning of the final song for the evening, a cause for lighthearted complaint amongst the guests. Emma bit her lip and searched the crowd for her favorite mop of dark hair until she was met with familiar blue eyes.

"Dad," she started. "Shouldn't you be whisking mom around like the teenagers you two still think yourselves to be?"

David sent her a droll look but held out his hand regardless. "Your mother is tired of me." Emma clucked her tongue. "Oh hush. I thought it might be nice to finish the evening with my favorite girl, keep away the masses."

She smiled weakly and took his proffered hand. She knew he was being sincere but she was acutely aware of the fact that he had been watching her like a hawk all evening. The violins began to swell and she placed her hand on his shoulder.

"I think you have a double motive, sir."

Wide-eyed innocence met her sharp stare and he exhaled his disbelief. "My own daughter," he lamented. "Doesn't even believe my honest intentions for a dance. What has our kingdom come to?"

A loud snort escaped her. "This coming from the man who spiked the punch!"

His warm chuckle fluttered over the room as he twirled across the marble floors.

Killian watched with a sad smile, enjoying the happiness radiating from her but wishing to have her in his arms once more before his evening ended. He was in the middle of calculating how much time he had left when a soft hand roused him from his thoughts.

"Do you mind?"

Eyes so startlingly familiar he felt his heart stop met his own in a moment of confusion. "Beg you pardon?"

Snow smiled warmly and held out her hand. "My husband is otherwise occupied playing papa bear, would you mind escorting me around the dance floor?"

His heart rate stuttered to life and he could feel he resisted the urge to scratch the back of his neck. "Of course, my lady." He offered his arm and walked her to the marble floors, carefully avoiding the curious gaze of the princess. "I must say I'm both surprised and honored."

She turned to face him and they fell in step with the music with ease. "Oh?" An ounce of smugness slipped into the grin she offered him. "And why is that, Killian?"

Oh bloody hell. "I'm but a guest of your friend," he replied smoothly. "And to dance with the queen is a privilege few but your husband have been bestowed with."

"Good parenting is taking an interest in the life of your child." She watched his eyes widen fractionally and nodded discreetly. "And you, dear boy, are clearly a significant part of that."

Killian swallowed thickly and squashed the urge to run as they opened their stance before falling back to facing one another. Bloody, buggering hell.

"What is she saying to him?" Emma's eyes were zeroed in on the utter panic etched into her friend's face. "This is all your fault."

"Excuse me?" He spluttered. "This is most resolutely not my fault as I have not broken any laws." She sent a bored look his way and he amended his statement. "I mean recently."

Her eyes continued to follow the pattern of his expressions: watching the rise of panic, the breath he took to try and calm himself, wrinkled confusion, and…relief?

"You didn't answer my question."

David shrugged. "True love we may be but I've yet to figure out a way to read your mother's mind. My life would have been infinitely easier had I mastered that particular skill." A rebellious smile curved her cheeks and he stored away the little victory. "She's not scaring him off. She's probably just giving him the same warning I've dreaded having to give you."

"And what's that?"

The skirt of her dress flared out as the music swelled and she spun out before being pulled back in his arms

Trepidation slipped down Killian's spine at her words and he struggled to steady his hands. "Your majesty?"

"Be careful," she repeated. "You and Emma..." She sighed heavily. "There's clearly no point in telling you two to stay away from one another or stop seeing each other." His eyes steeled over and he nodded curtly. "But you can tread carefully. Both on land and at sea."

"We have been careful," he defended. "Until tonight nobody knew. And even now it's those who needed to or figured it out."

"Ariel, myself, and Charming." He nodded again, seemingly more relaxed. "All I'm saying is that, together, the pair of you are not the picture of discreet." Heat flooded his cheeks and he attempted to interrupt but she shushed him. "I know. I know. But please just," she turned a glance over her shoulder, smiling at what appeared to be her bantering family. "Please be careful with her."

"I'm not china doll," Emma complained.

"Trust me." David smirked. "If there's one thing I know, it's that my daughter, the best swordsman beside myself," Emma grinned proudly. "Is not a china doll. I am also aware that her heart is something not as easily defendable."

She felt her swell oh. "Dad…"

He shook his head. "No…just…" He swallowed thickly. "You're my little girl, Ems." He smiled warmly down at her and she saw a tinge of sadness in the crinkle of his eyes. "No matter how old or wise or independent you are you will always be my little girl." He tugged their conjoined hands to his mouth and he brushed a kiss over her thumb. "And all I want is for you to be safe and happy."

"Dad…" Her cheeks turned pink but she plowed forward. "He- he makes me happy."

A nod that spoke of defeat was accompanied by a small grin that had her biting her lip. "He does, huh?" She nodded jerkily and he closes his eyes as though pained. "Fine."

"Thanks dad."

"You're lucky I love you." Emma giggles at his words and he dips her in retaliation at the end of the song.

Emma is standing beside her parents, bidding polite goodbyes to their guests when Ariel and Eric come before them. Killian is standing slightly behind them and winks at Emma making her blush.

"Thank you so much for inviting us!" Snow throws propriety away and pulls her friend in for a hug. "It was worth it for more than the fabulous company."

"Of course!" She responds happily as David pulls the redhead close and drops a kiss to her temple. "It's never quite the same without the two of you here. Even if Eric does enjoy enabling my husband into childish endeavors."

The men chuckle and Emma slips away for a moment, smiling at Killian.

He bows slightly and she resists the urge to roll her eyes. "Your majesty," he takes her hand and drops a lingering kiss to the top of it. "You truly made this evening unforgettable. I cannot thank you enough for inviting me."

There's an undercurrent of emotion lodged behind the deep blue she usually reads so well and it makes her heart leap into her throat. "It was my pleasure, Killian. And," her voice softens. "Thank you for coming tonight. It meant more than you could know."

His eyes dart to her parents then to the other guests, most of who have left, before he takes a step into her personal space. "Emma," his voice is rough and low and gods above. "Meet me down by the water when you're done."

She doesn't even hesitate. "Okay."

The smile that takes over his face is startlingly bright. "Happy Birthday, princess."

"Thanks, fishboy."

The trio walked out of the ballroom and down towards their carriage and Snow pinched Emma's side with a smug grin. "You're staring."

"Am not!"

Another guest stepped forward to her father and Snow merely grinned before whispering. "Yes you were."

A blush accompanied Emma's curtsey and the ringing laugh of her mother danced across the hall.

The last guest to leave the hall simply bowed before her parents with a tight-lipped smile. Her eyes, a darker brown than Emma had ever seen, seemed to pierce through her in an entirely disconcerting manner.

"Thank you for an enlightening evening, your majesties." Her parents smiled politely but Emma couldn't muster up the decorum. "And princess, I wish you luck and good judgment in your future endeavors."

Emma tilted her head in acknowledgment and fought the urge to question further as she walked away.

Good judgment the woman sneered viciously and a foresight you so desperately lack.

Emma had shed her gown the instant the door to her suite had closed and began clambering down the wall of the castle to the beach. She landed soundlessly and nearly jumped out of her skin when two warm hands steadied her waist.

"Killian!" He grinned down at her. "You scared me! I thought you'd be back in the water?"

He shook his head and hair fell into his eyes. "Not yet. I've still got," he turned to stare at the tide then checked the moon's placement. "A bit less than one hour."

Excitement buzzed through her. "What do you want to do? We could go to the horses and we can ride out to the hills or the lake or wherever or I can show you around the castle because the guards are all exhausted or…" His eyes crinkle with the warm smile overtaking his face. "What?"

"I was thinking we could just…" he toed the sand and canted his head. "What if we just stay out here for a bit? You, me, and the water."

His hands still hadn't left her waist and the heat from his hands so acutely she was she a burn would imprint her skin forever. "You just want to sit here on the beach?" Her fingers trailed up his chest and straightened his shirt. "Truly born for the water," she teased.

"Says the landlubber who loves it more than me." The apples of her cheeks pinkened with laughter. "C'mon, let's just sit with our toes in the sea."

She chuckled lowly, allowing the hand on her back to guide her over to her usual spot by the shore. He helped her down and struggled with his boots before joining her with a wide grin. And it hits her, he doesn't want to run off and explore the world above, he doesn't need to, he just wants to sit here and have a normal evening with her. He only wants this one moment between the two of them.

"Quite the romantic, aren't you."

Her head dips to his shoulder and he adjusts so she's leaning more comfortably against him. "I have my moments."

His grin is wide and soft and he ducks her head against his chest. "You certainly do."

"An omission from the princess herself?" She shivers and his arm curls around her waist. "I do believe tonight genuinely is my luckiest ever."

Emma snorted inelegantly and bit her lip. "Sweet talker."

Her words trip down his spine and settle low in his belly, igniting a warmth he's come to associate with Emma and her every nuance. His hand tightens at her hip and she falls deeper into his embrace and every little spark of hope he's ever had begins to culminate below his breastbone.

"Did you have fun tonight?"

"I did, a surprising amount. Plus," she goes on with humor. "I avoided falling and stepping on anyone's toes. Relatively successful at least." She can feel his head nod against the top of her head and she grins. "What about you? I know tonight was…a lot."

His free shoulder shrugs. "It wasn't too bad, really. I'm quite used to royal affairs, you know. It's only the walking that's a bit different, and the company…"

"And the dancing."

"And the dancing," he laughs. "I told you, love, tonight was bloody brilliant."

Happiness lodged itself in her heart and, hard as she tried, she couldn't keep the thought that he fit; with her, her family, her life. He fit seamlessly into every nook and cranny and gods if it didn't make her pulse stutter.

"Killian." Her voice is soft and when she tilts her head up to find his eyes there is a small smile resting on his lips. She feels herself trip over some imaginary edge she knows she's been staring at for ages. "Thank you for tonight. You being here, dancing and laughing and just," her eyes flutter against his breath as she searches for words. "It meant everything."

His throat constricts. "Emma…" He drops his forehead against hers and exhales heavily and her heart stops. "There was nowhere else I wanted to be tonight. On any night."

Her breathing hitched and she tilted her head up, meeting the eyes she knew so well and adored so much. He brought his other hand to cup her cheek, running a sea-roughened hand over her warm skin. She nodded, just as before, with the hint of a breathless grin around the corner of her lips and he brushed his nose against hers for a brief moment, as though waiting for an interruption. But there isn't one, just her breath puffing warmly against his lips and her heart beating in time with his. And the she closes the almost nonexistence space between them and his world stops.

Her lips brush over his, soft and inviting and everything, and he presses against her with all he has. He tilts his head and she sighs against his mouth and nothing could have prepared him for this. His hand slips from its place on her cheek and glides through her messy curls and he groans just a little because he's waited years to have this moment, to have her.

His groan rumbles against her lips and Emma feels fireworks erupt in her belly because she did that and gods he was acting like she was oxygen and he was a dying man. She brushed her hands up his arms, squeezing at the shoulders she'd lusted after for ages, and pulled him closer with a gentle tug at his neck.

Killian smiled against her lips at the insistence burning from her hands and he nipped at her bottom lip in retaliation, making her gasp. He pulled her lip into his mouth, sucking just enough to make a throaty whimper stumble out of her mouth. She scratched a hand through his scalp and he wrapped his arm around her waist, pulling her so close and so tight and fuck.

Emma, bold and fearless and wanting, slips her tongue past his lips to tangle with his and the heat of his mouth nearly sets her on fire. His arm around her waist and his grip in her hair and the unrelenting, blinding, finally pressure of his mouth makes her feel like an inferno. She can feel his chest heaving alongside her own and the strength of muscles she's seen and ached for pull her deeper into the haze that is simply Killian.

A growl builds in the back of his throat and he tugs her into his lap, tugging on her hair to angle her head and she groans breathily, fingernails digging into his shoulders and pulse firing rapidly beneath her heated skin. His hands travel up and down her side, enjoying the small shiver that runs through her at his touch. He maps out every part of her lips, memorizing and exploring and imprinting every breath and touch and moment into his memory.

They break apart, gasping desperately for the cool air and he ducks his head, kissing at the hollow under her ear and scraping his teeth lightly. Her eyes roll back and she tugs head closer because yes, gods yes as his tongue soothes the spot over. His nose traces the line of her jaw as his lips find the flushed skin of her throat and liquid fire pools deep within her. His mouth works softly against her skin, teasing and nipping and licking his way down to where her neck meets her shoulder.

"Killian," she breathes out his name when his teeth scape against her shoulder and she arcs into him.

Impatient, she pulls him back to her mouth and deepens the kiss immediately, feeling his smile against her lips. He kisses her reverently, cherishing her with his mouth and hands and gods. She frees his shoulders and traces up to his neck, loving the dull thud of his pulse against her thumb and the tiny scratch of stubble under her palms. When he exhales she inhales and it's like they've finally figured out where they're supposed to be.

He pulls away before going back and kissing her once…twice…three times for good measure and then nuzzles his nose against her cheek, murmuring her name in a tone she's never heard. (It's deep and throaty, one full of awe and wonder and meaning and lo-).

She drops her forehead back to his, keeping her shut to try and hold on to whatever is left of this. Emma can tell the moment he opens his eyes because his stare has always seen through her and now is no different. When her lashes finally flutter open her vision is hazy and all she can she is blue.

"Hi," she exhales quietly.

A tender smile twitches his cheeks up and she traces the lines of his smile without a moment's hesitation. "Hi."

"That was…um," she swallowed nervously and played with the edge of his collar.

He resisted the urge to pull her mouth back to his and finished the sentence for her. "Bloody brilliant. Amazing. And about damn time."

She finally grinned back at him and relaxed into his arms. "Oh really?" The hand on his collar tightened and she dipped her lips to the corner of his mouth before meeting his eyes mischievously. "Have you been thinking of kissing a princess for a while then?"

His hand traced the stitching of her slip as a slow blush overtook his cheeks. "Years." Her eyes widened and he felt a bit smug at rendering her speechless. "Since we were teenagers, Emma."

"But…" Her eyelashes fluttered as he trailed his mouth back to her jaw, ghosting his lips over he sensitive skin. "You never said anything."

"Neither did you," he mumbled. Emma huffed out a laugh that was silenced when he pressed his mouth against hers sweetly. "But it appears the fish is out of the net now, isn't it?"

He was staring up at her with so much affection and so much trust and she felt the last little part of nerves and wariness and what ifs crumble away before she dropped her head against his neck. "Thank the gods."

They shifted and he pulled her down against his chest, enjoying the warmth of her body covering over his, and tugged her hand over his chest to lace their fingers together. His thumb soothed over her palm in a gentle circuit. Her breathing finally evened out and her body melted against his.

"I wish we could just stay here forever." He kissed her temple and she sighed against his chest.

"Me too. But," he tilted his chin up and smiled sadly. "My time is nearly up."

Emma's hand tightened in his and he squeezed back reassuringly. He could feel the words caught in her throat and he shushed the worry with a small breath and the brush of his chin over her forehead.

"Hey. Breathe, Emma."


"All that will change is my bottom half." She leaned up on her elbow and traced his cheekbones. "I will still be Killian and you will still be Emma and we will always be us. Tonight just finally," he canted his head at her. "Cleared the air, a bit. This," he tugged her down to press an insistent kiss against her lips. "Won't change. Ever."

She nosed his cheek, trying to hide her smile and failing. "Sweet talker," she teased again.

"Only for you, love."

After saying goodbye (several times), he finally treaded back into the water, shedding his shirt before and divesting the rest once under the cover of the dark water. A shudder rippled through him and she could tell the moment his fin came back because she recognized his movements in the water. She grinned at him and he smiled back and gods they really were terrible at hiding their feelings.

"I'll see you tomorrow, princess."

"You better, fishboy."

He sent a wink her way before diving beneath the water and she clambered back up the wall to her room. After she'd washed and changed and settled under her covers she sighed and pressed herself into her pillow.

Yes they were in trouble and yes this would be hard but…

He had finally kissed her.

The thought, and every memory of that night, helped settle her into a warm and restful sleep.

It appears she thought angrily. That luck will no longer matter because you lack the foresight I so craved you find. Sharp ripples broke the water beneath Emma's window before the darkness lay still again. It appears I'll have to handle this myself.