The first time he sees her, it’s an accident. He’s not even the one supposed to be bringing in that day’s catch, but he had pulled the short straw after losing that night’s dice game, so he was stuck not only with dish duty, but then out on the dock by himself at dusk, pulling in the nets.
He’s drawn the short straw more times in his life than he would like to count, even at only seventeen, though many of them metaphorically. Sold to the sailors alongside his brother to pay off the debts of his father almost ten years before, treated as nothing more than a slave for most of that time, until the old foreman drowned and was replaced with Captain Nemo. At least under Nemo, he and his brother were treated like humans, welcome on some of their smaller adventures on the sea but always asked to stay behind if they planned to be gone for more than a few days.
At first, he took it personally, thinking that the captains and their crews had something against him, leaving him at home with the other men who were no help on longer journeys, with the men who have families of their own or duties to someone other than Nemo — or the eccentric Captain Shakespeare, with his airship and his constant humming and his uncanny ability to always know how Killian is feeling without him ever saying a single word. But it was Liam who finally explained it to him one night, a night the rest of the crew was set to embark on one of these very missions and Killian was unable to keep his anger to himself:
“They care about you, Killy. Care about both of us, more than anyone in our lives has managed to do since mum passed. They leave us here to keep us from harm, to protect us. You understand that, right?”
Finally, he did understand it. Captain Nemo taking over was not one of the short straws of Killian’s life. In fact, he’s come to learn, it was quite the opposite.
Physically pulling the short straw and standing out on the dock by himself tonight, however, he’s still a little unsure about.
At first, he thinks it’s his imagination — his exhaustion — anything other than real life. Because in real life , in the stories that he’s heard around too many fires and too many poker tables, she is the strongest omen of death to a sailor. When you see a mermaid the only thing that can follow is a painful downfall. But there she is nonetheless, sitting on the other side of the breaking waves, her blonde hair reflecting the colors of the sunset. She almost blends into the water, with the reds and golds of the dusk, but something about her catches his attention.
A mermaid .
There’s no way. It’s not possible. She has to be a figment of his imagination, or maybe a lost swimmer, because she can’t be—
And then she moves, ducking back under the waves, and there’s no way to deny what he is seeing anymore when her large, shimmering green tail breaks the surface of the water as she dives down.
“Gods above,” he mumbles, but can’t even bring himself to say the rest of it what’s on his mind:
He has to tell Liam.
He can never tell Liam.
She shouldn’t have done it. She knows when the leg-walkers bring in their nets and has been told of the dangers of approaching the shore her whole life, but her curiosity got the best of her for the first time a few weeks before, and now she is unable to help herself.
This is the first time anyone has seen her, though — at least, to the best of her knowledge. Because if the stories her parents tell her are true and those leg-walkers — those men — really believe her to be a monster, then she can be sure that someone would have acted already, would have tried to attack her, tried to catch her the same way they take so many fish from her ocean.
But she saw the way the young man had looked at her tonight, his eyes not filled with fear, but filled with the same curiosity that she herself knows all too well. He’s not the monster her parents have told her he is, can’t be a monster with eyes like that, she's sure of it.
Of course, no one would believe her. If anyone even learned of her trips to the surface, she would be barricaded in her room in the castle, held under lock and key and only able to leave under the watchful eye of her parents.
So she keeps her thoughts to herself, though sometimes she’s so overwhelmed by them that she feels like she’s suffocating. She’s even too afraid to tell Ruby, her best friend, her confidant — not in fear of Ruby taking the news to her parents, but in fear of her friend insisting on joining her on one of her escapades.
That has become her time away from the palace and her royal duties and everything she has ever known, everything she has been taught will someday be her whole life. Not always at dusk, but whenever she can manage to get away long enough without raising any eyebrows. Ever since her nameday, she’s been allowed certain freedoms, and that has come to include time away from her responsibilities — though she knows her mother would immediately revoke the privilege the moment she learned how Emma was spending it.
“What’s the point of being princess of the whole ocean if I’m never allowed to go into any of it?” she asked Ruby one night, a night that they could see the colored lights reflecting on the water. These nights had become theirs, long before Emma had any thoughts on royal duties or responsibilities or anything of the sort, when she was still free to just be a girl and live her life.
Ruby just laughed, her eyes shifting up to the surface where the lights danced upon the water. “Everyone desires things they can’t have, Em,” she said softly, but if she had more than that on her mind, she kept it to herself.
Emma already knew what Ruby was thinking, though. Emma was a princess, a fact that she was never allowed to forget, however much she sometimes wanted to — but she was a princess aware of the unfairness of the world around her, aware of the struggles of her people and the fact that, though Ruby had become her best friend, it was almost destined to be that way with Ruby’s family employed at the palace. Ruby’s anger towards her situation was not new to Emma, was in fact something that she had taken out on Emma on more than one occasion — and it was on Emma’s mind every time she complained about something to her friend.
But Ruby’s words are true, either way: everyone does desire something beyond what they are able to have.
And before too long, Emma found herself not desiring a life where she was free to explore, not a life without royal responsibilities, but a life spent with the young man with the shining blue eyes who lives with the fishermen.
He has to see her again. How can he explain to his brother that he has been spending all of his free time over the last four days by the water in hopes of seeing a mermaid ? Liam already thinks he spends too much time in his head, and he only fears this would make it worse.
“Liam,” he calls over his shoulder, tucking his book under his arm. “I’m going down to the dock for a while!”
Liam only lets out a small laugh, not even raising his attention from his own book as he lounges in one of the hammocks out behind the house. “Be back before dinner, little brother!”
In any other situation, he would turn around and correct Liam’s little brother to younger brother , especially since his last growth spurt shot him up to almost the same height as Liam. But not today.
Today, he barely hears the words as they leave his brother’s mouth, his head already looking out over the ocean waves in hopes of seeing her again.
It’s insane . Absolutely mad , he knows. He can only imagine what Liam — what the other sailors — would say to him if they were to learn. But he doesn’t care, at least not right now.
Right now, all he cares about is seeing her again.
So he positions himself on the end of the dock, one hand holding the book up on his chest and the other dangling down, barely grazing the water, with his satchel tucked under his head like a pillow. It’s not the most comfortable position, but with his mind already struggling to focus on the words of his novel with his looking out over the water every few seconds, his comfort is one of the last things he cares about.
There really is no reason for him to be this nervous. What are the odds that she returns to the same place again for the fourth day in a row, what with the whole ocean hers for the taking? He knows that if he had that sort of freedom, the last thing he would want to do is stay in one place. He would want to explore, would feel the same urge to explore that he feels humming under his skin even now. It’s one of the reasons he is so eager for Shakespeare to bring him on one of his journeys: his time at sea, seeing new places and experiencing life away from land, is exhilarating, but he can only imagine what it must be like in an airship, soaring high above the clouds and looking down at the land, knowing that you’re no longer trapped in one place.
Sure, he’s asked Shakespeare before, in moments of vulnerability, moments that he only shares with his brother and the open, caring white-haired man that splits his time between the clouds and their run-down little camp perched at the edge of the ocean. But Shakespeare has always just laughed — not to make fun of him, he knows, but just because he is the kind of man who laughs to let others know he is not angry — wrapping his arm around Killian’s shoulders or reaching across the table to set his hand on his arm, and smiled warmly at him.
“Someday, lad, but not yet,” was always his answer.
Maybe that is why he finds himself here, perched on the edge of the dock waiting for a mermaid — his deep-rooted longing for adventure, knowing that his life will someday be more than fishing and this camp and the few days at a time he is allowed to spend on the sea. Whenever his eyes make their way out to the crashing waves again, he knows that is what he craves more than anything, and possibly what he hopes to find with the arrival of the creature that everyone around him tells him should not exist.
Somehow, though, between the warm sun on his face and the calming sound of the waves, he finds himself unable to focus on either the words or the waves, nodding off under the afternoon sun.
She has to see him again. Yes, she has her royal duties and her responsibilities around the castle, but she rushes through them as quickly as she can, barely able to contain her energy during the meeting with some of the council members, until she is finally done.
Free to go.
She tries to keep her calm as she swims away from the castle, knowing that if anyone were to see her hurrying away, it would only raise suspicion and would most likely get back to her parents before she even returned.
But once she is on the other side of the rocks, away from what is technically the dominion of the castle even though her parents rule the whole ocean, she picks up her pace, her heart pounding faster and more wildly in her chest than she ever remembers it doing before.
Not only from the excitement of it all, but with the thrill of getting caught, she realizes, changing her trajectory to head closer towards the surface. Because she wants to see him, yes, but she also knows the consequences were she to get caught, were someone to see her scurrying towards the land — sometimes even towards the surface, depending on how strict her mother feels at the moment. Her pounding heart only makes her swim faster, and her increased pace only makes her heart pound faster, closer and closer to the surface until, finally , she breaks through the water to feel the warm sun on her face.
There is nothing like that feeling, even when the sun warms the water, and she smiles, allowing herself to pause for a moment as she lets it wash over her. And then, the moment is over, and she pulls her head back under the surface to take off once more towards the shore.
There really is no reason for her to be this nervous. What are the odds that he returns to the same place again for the fourth day in a row, what with the whole world his to explore? She knows that if she were allowed that sort of freedom, the last thing she would want to do is be tethered down. She would want to explore, would feel the same urge to explore that she has felt humming under her skin for as long as she can remember. The same urge that she feels getting pushed further down with every council meeting and every dinner with a potential suitor (even though both of her parents refuse to admit that’s what they are) and every mention of her someday taking her mother’s place as the ruler of the seas. It’s why she takes every chance she has to get away from the palace, whether it be longer journeys with her father to see other parts of their large realm or these small opportunities to have time alone and potentially see the boy with eyes the color of the sea.
The boy laying at the end of the dock not far from where she breaks the surface, one arm extended down to where it just grazes the water and a book spread open on his chest, though he seems to be asleep.
For a while, she does not dare to move, forcing herself to stay where she is instead of letting the tide bring her closer to the shore. Is it fear? Shyness? Her nerves getting the best of her? A mix of all three, she believes, between hoping she is not naive enough to be putting herself in harm’s way and being nervous about seeing the boy who has not left her thoughts since first seeing him the previous day. Finally, when she has convinced herself he really is asleep and not just baiting her to come closer to the dock, she begins to slowly move towards him, no faster than the calm current will take her, though sometimes fighting it to stop for a moment or two, her eyes never leaving him.
And then she is there, within arm’s reach of him, and he still has not moved. If not for the steady rise and fall of his chest, accentuated by the upside-down book, she would believe him dead, having stayed unmoving for so long. But it is also this, the obvious unwavering deepness of his slumber, that convinces her that no harm can come from just a single touch — though, not until she has committed the details of his face to memory: the way his long, dark eyelashes rest peacefully on his light cheeks, the curve of his nose and the crease in his forehead between his dark eyebrows and the small dimple in his cheek that forms when he smiles in his sleep. His hair moves slightly in the soft breeze off the water in a way Emma had never seen before, and she is halfway through the motion of reaching up and running her fingers through it before she can stop herself. It is soft in a way she has never experienced, between being dry and free of the salt from the ocean, and she finds herself repeating the motion a second time, then a third, lost in the small movements of his face in response to her — so much that she almost doesn’t notice when his bright eyes finally open, startled awake by her.
But once they meet hers, wide with fear and surprise and a handful of other emotions that Emma doesn’t have time to process, she realizes the mistake she has made and dives back under the water, swimming away from the shore as quickly as her tail will allow —
Though she does not miss the loud splash of the water as he finds himself so startled by her existence, and her proximity to him, that he falls off the edge of the dock.
Gods above . At first, he doesn’t believe it, trying to right himself in the water at the end of the dock. But, once the shock from the water has passed, he is able to focus on the questions moving a mile a minute through his mind:
Was it a dream? He knows he was dreaming about her, and it certainly felt real enough — but then the dream ended — or, he thought it did, but she was still right there, right in front of him, just inches from his face as she ran her fingers through his hair.
What was real? What wasn’t real? Given that he was still unsure that she was real in the first place, his mind is reeling as he pulls himself back onto the dock. He’s lost in the same daze as he makes his way back to the house, hoping that the sun will dry out his clothing enough to keep him from arousing suspicion. He hopes to quietly make his way to his room, not catching the attention of anyone — but, in a house as filled as this one, he is not surprised by his failure.
“Hello, yoing Mister Jones,” the familiar voice calls to him from the table, though his eyes never leave the book he holds in front of him. Shakespeare? How could Killian possibly miss his airship floating above the house? Was he really swimming that deep in his own thoughts that he missed that ?
But the man sitting at the table, a small smile slowly spreading across his whisker-covered face, proves it. “Hello, Captain.”
“How are you on this fine afternoon?” he asks, only raising his eyes from the book for a moment, but the still-growing smile on his face is all the proof Killian needs to know that the Captain has noticed the wrinkled state of his clothing, knows that it meant he was in the water when he most likely did not plan to be. Killian tries not to show his embarrassment on his face, but he can feel the warmth begin to spread across his cheeks. “Went for a nice dip, I see,” the Captain adds, which only adds to his embarrassment.
Without realizing it, he feels his hand raise to scratch behind his ear, as if he has no control over the movement. “Uh, yes, sir. I had a bit of a… falling in… with the water.”
Killian certainly intends for the joke, though he tries to keep himself from laughing at it, seeing which of them breaks first.
He wins, the Captain’s smile faltering before filling his face, his eyes squeezed shut as he lets out a soft chuckle. So Killian breaks, too, leaning against the chair beside him at the table.
“Sit with me, lad. Tell me about her.”
Killian’s jaw drops — again, his body reacting without his permission, his blush quick;y reaching the tips of his ears. “I don’t — I don’t know what you’re talking about,” he tries, but he knows it is futile.
Shakespeare shakes his head. “You know you can’t lie to me. Especially not about love. So,” He pushes the chair next to him out with his foot, moving Killian with it. “Sit with me and tell me about her.”
For just a moment, he is still, holding on to the hope that he can get out of his situation.
But he can’t. So, with a sigh, he takes a seat.
“I’ve only seen her a few times now, and I haven’t — haven’t found the nerve to speak to her yet,” he starts, though he is still too embarrassed to meet the man’s eyes. “So I keep going out in hopes of… wanting to see her again. Because she’s beautiful, the most beautiful sight I’ve ever seen.”
“And where are you going out in hopes of seeing this lady again?”
“The marketplace.” He knows it’s a lie. Killian can tell right away that he knows it’s a lie — but he says nothing about it, knitting his eyebrows low on his broad forehead.
For a moment, the two of them sit in silence, Killian hoping that he stops asking questions and Shakespeare hoping for the boy to tell him more. When neither of them break, Shakespeare sits back in his chair, his arms folded across his chest. “I am of the belief that you should allow yourself to fall in love whenever possible, young Jones, and to seize any and all opportunity to have that love reciprocated.”
Killian doesn’t know what to say, but with Shakespeare’s advice, he is sure of one thing: she is real and that she returned to the dock that day specifically to see him — and that the next time he sees her, he is going to try to talk to her.
“Oh, come on, Emma!” Ruby says — again — as they make their way away from the palace. “I know you’re hiding something, just tell me what it is!”
Emma rolls her eyes, but a smile quickly spreads across her face. It’s embarrassing, really, to be smitten with this dark-haired sailor boy who she’s never even spoken to, but the more she thinks about him, the more she knows it’s true.
But how does she tell Ruby? Sure, Ruby would be the one she would go to with any sort of boy trouble — if anyone knows boys, it’s her best friend. This feels different somehow, though, a secret that she doesn’t want to share with anyone including her best friend, like talking about it will make him disappear. At first, she knew it had to be a coincidence, even after she found him sleeping at the end of the dock, but after he continued to be there on the dock the next few times she made her way to the surface, after she took the chance to talk to him and he didn’t run away in fear, she knew it was more than just a coincidence.
It was a sign . A sign that just kept repeating itself every time he came to the shore to see her, with every conversation they had and every beautiful, bright smile he shared with her.
“It’s a boy, isn’t it?” she asks, most of the upset in her voice replaced with excitement. Emma doesn’t answer, but with the blush quickly spreading across her cheeks, she doesn’t need to say anything. “Oh my god! It is about a boy! Emma, tell me everything! Who is he? Is he someone I know?!”
Emma shakes her head. “No, it’s not — it’s no one you would know.”
“Emma!” she yells in a much higher pitch than usual. “How do you — wait.” She stops swimming, gripping her hand around Emma’s arm. “How do you know someone that I don’t? Unless—” Her eyes grow wide, somehow filled with more excitement than they were before. “Is he — oh my god , tell me that he’s a prince!”
Pulling her bottom lip up between her teeth, Emma realizes that this lie is much better than the truth, so she nods. “Yeah, he’s — he’s a prince. I’ve only seen him a few times, on diplomatic missions with my father, but I can’t —” The excitement that she feels, though, is real, and not every detail of her story has to be a lie, she tells herself. She smiles. “I can’t stop thinking about him, Rubes.”
“Tell. Me. Everything.”
Emma laughs, feeling much lighter now that she’s shared her secret with Ruby, even if she’s not able to tell the whole truth. “Fine, fine, but can we keep going? I don’t want to miss the sunset tonight.” Nodding, Ruby keeps swimming. “Alright, well, his name is Killian. He’s — he has an older brother, and he likes to read and to explore and—” Even she is surprised by the giggle that slips through her lips. “Plus he’s super cute.”
Her mind goes back to one of the first times she was him, when she dared to approach him at the end of the dock and ran her fingers through his soft hair.
“Well, what are you going to do?”
Really, this is the question she was afraid of. If he really was a prince, someone that she met on one of her trips with her father, she would be able to be courted and wouldn’t have to hide her secret from everyone.
But Killian is, of course, not a prince of another realm. He’s not a prince at all. He’s a sailor, an orphan, not even old enough to go on every trip with the sailors he lives with.
What are you going to do?
“I’m not going to do anything for now.” That, at least, is the truth. “We’re just — we’re friends for now, and I don’t think I’m ready for anything beyond that.” Okay, that’s also the truth. At least, Emma thinks they’re friends. Why else would he continue to try to see her? “What would you do?”
If anyone could give her advice about relationships, it would be Ruby. Her best friend, just a few years older than Emma, has far more experience with relationships than she knows what to do with.
“I mean, I’m not a princess , but I think if you want to be with him, and he feels the same way about you, then there’s no harm in seeing what comes of it. Especially before you’re even more trapped in a life of royal responsibilities.”
Ruby’s right, she realizes, though she’s not surprised about it. If she’s going to dare to follow her feelings for Killian, she needs to do it quickly, before her parents decide the time has come for her to have more responsibilities, before she can no longer leave the palace every night to watch the sunset and spend time with her blue-eyed sailor boy.
“Emma, I can’t —” he says one afternoon at the end of the first month, laying on his stomach at the end of the dock while Emma rests in the gently-moving tide below him, the tips of his fingers softly moving through the ends of Emma’s golden blonde tresses. “Something’s been bothering me lately.”
“Hm?” Emma hums, her gaze set on the changing colors of the sky as the sun makes its way below the horizon.
“You have the whole ocean to explore, and are able to explore further than just between where you live and this little shore, but you’ve been coming back here instead of taking advantage of that freedom.”
When he says nothing further, she turns to face him, a soft smile on her face as she presses her palm against his cheek. Her skin is colder than his, just as it always is, and slightly damp from the water, but it is a feeling he has come to love. “Maybe I’ve found all the adventure I need for now right here, on this little shore,” she says, softly smiling when he meets her eyes.
He has known since that very first time he saw her sitting in the waves, watching the sunset, that she was the key to his desire for adventure, but this was the first time he felt brave enough to bring it up. Over the last three weeks, since the first time he got up the nerve to call out to her as she sat in the surf, they have learned a lot about each other, spending as much time as either of them dared out here by the dock. Though they live very different lives, they’ve learned that they share a desire to see the world, to be beyond the limitations set by those around them, even though they may not understand the things holding the other back.
“I’ve told you before, Killian, I can’t just leave my family behind and explore the oceans, just like you can’t just leave Liam. Just because I dream of far away places doesn’t mean I’m ready to go out by myself.”
“One day, I’ll have a ship of my own and the ability to go wherever I want, wherever we want, and we could — well, I don’t know exactly how it would work for you, love, what with the tail and all, but we could see the world together. What do you think of that?”
For a moment, he can swear that he sees a flash of sadness in her eyes, but it disappears before he can decide whether it was real or not. He expects her to argue with him, really, to provide some sort of rationalization for this thought as she always seems to be doing when he talks about his dreams, though this is the first he’s spoken of his desire to one day be the captain of his own ship. But that’s not what she does.
Instead, she pulls herself closer to him, her arms wrapped around his neck, and presses her lips against his. He feels a blush rise into his cheeks, to the very tips of his ears, but tries his very best to memorize every detail of the way it feels to kiss her, from the soft tickle of her hair against his cheeks to the feel of her fingers around the back of his neck, not to mention the warmth of her lips where they meet his. It only lasts a few seconds, a few beats of his pounding heart, but he hopes to be able to hold onto that feeling for much, much longer.
“What do you think of that?” she whispers, though she has only pulled away from him enough to speak, her forehead still pressed against his. He’s glad to see that she also has a soft rosiness to her cheeks now that matches his, plus a new brightness in her shining eyes that he almost allows himself to define as love . It takes him a moment to realize that she is simply repeating the last thing he said and not really asking for his feelings towards their first kiss, but he answers in the only way he can think of, a smile on his lips as he finds hers with them again.
“There’s a big storm coming,” Ruby comments, and Emma nods, though her focus isn’t on the change in temperature in the water or the darkness of the sky above them as they continue to approach the surface, but on the hull of a ship not too far away. A ship that, once she breaks the surface, she recognizes immediately, her thoughts immediately turning to Killian, who she knows was planning on joining some of the sailors on a trip on the Nautilus in the next few days, the very reason she’s out in a different part of the realm with Ruby in the first place. But it’s too late — the ship has already met the storm, and the storm has won, the ship already sitting in pieces on the thrashing waters. How neither of them realized what was happening just beyond their vision is a mystery, but she can only spare a moment to stop and watch it before she’s on the move, swimming as fast as she can towards the wreck.
“Emma, no!” Ruby calls out, but follows her nonetheless. “The queen is going to kill me,” she mumbles under her breath — which may be the truth, but Emma has always swam towards danger and not away from it.
Most of the sailors are already under the crashing waves, unconscious, the ones who have not been knocked out trying their best to tend to them and keep their own heads above water. Emma focuses her powers to calm the waters under the surface, hoping to aid these men in whatever way she can. She is helpless against the waves caused by the winds of the storm, but she can still the waters beneath the shipwreck, making sure none of the drowning men are hit by the quickly-sinking debris before Ruby can help them to the surface. Emma is searching the whole time for her young, blue-eyed sailor, and is relieved when she does not find him.
But that doesn’t stop her from sitting in the surf, away from the storm that took down the ship, still searching for any sign of him
“Emma, we shouldn’t stay here,” Ruby says, trying to pull her back under the surface, but Emma is unmoving, her attention focused on one of the sailors as he frantically searches the beach. She can’t hear what he is saying, but he keeps yelling for someone — someone that he is unable to find, and she fears the worst, practically paralyzed by the thought that she somehow missed Killian in the wreckage.
Ruby can wait no longer, afraid of what may happen to her if the sailors realize they are sitting out there, but also knows that going back to the palace by herself would raise suspicion, so she quietly slips back beneath the surface, only planning on going back to the debris to see what she can find.
Emma’s eyes are still on the shore, barely realizing that Ruby has left her behind, when she sees another ship, this one moving across the land through the sky, land just beyond the shore in front of her. She’s heard tales of this ship before, many of them from Killian himself, but has never seen it with her own eyes until now. She knows this means that men have come to rescue those she helped out of the water, knows the danger this poses to her — but she is still paralyzed, even as she sees their heads start to appear, only able to dip her head closer to the waves.
This is where she watches them from, hoping that she is hidden enough in the sea to be safe as the small handful of men begin to tend to those on the beach. One of the older sailors, who she recognizes as one of the two who walk down by the tide together on the calmest evenings — the one with the heart tattooed on his cheek, with the soft blue eyes who recites poetry as he walks along the shore — finds the younger sailor, tears wetting his cheeks now, his face obviously pained with a fear so strong Emma can recognize it. They share a few words before the older man embraces him, turning his eyes out towards the water, almost as if he is looking specifically for her, she realizes as he meets her eyes, pleading with her. She knows somehow, as the younger sailor calls out for his brother once more, that Killian is the one he is searching for, and is not among the men taken to the shore.
By the time the storm wakes him, he fears all hope is lost. He was fast asleep below deck, alone and not awoken by the storm until it cracked the mast and splintered some of the deck above his head.
The floor beneath his hammock is gone, replaced by rushing water, he realizes as he swings his feet over the edge; and when he plunges himself into it, he's not ready for the shock to his body from the icy coldness. The few moments he takes to allow his body to adjust to the water prove futile, as the water begins to rise rapidly as more wood cracks and splinters around him. Pushing through it, the water almost up to his chest already as he moves across the room and tries to pull open the door to the crew’s quarters. At first, he can’t get it to budge, and his heart sinks in his chest, until, finally, he is able to pry the door open, using as much of his strength as he is able to find between his fear and the shock to his system.
He pushes through the water on the other side, slightly shallower than that in the cabin for the first few moments, but quickly finding equilibrium, once again at chest level. He pushes through the water as best he can, trying to keep his footing as he makes his way down to the end of the hallway. But, he realizes as he quickly loses hope, the hatch at the top of the stairs is stuck shut, the cracked mast having landed directly on top of it.
To get to the other exit, he must dive under the water and avoid the debris, a challenge that becomes harder the longer he waits, so he takes as deep a breath as he can manage before diving under the surface, his lungs feeling like they’ve collapsed once his head is under the water, surrounded by a new, eerie silence in comparison to the rushing waters around him in the air pockets — but, between the shock, his body still reacting to the cold shock of the water, and the remaining grogginess from his sleep, the task is almost too much for his body, and moving through the surging waters only becomes harder as he pushes to the other side of the ship, trying to find the pockets of air where the ceilings are highest.
He can feel his freedom, his hands against the hatch, relishing in the few inches of air left here — but this hatch won’t open, either, and moments later, water begins to rush through the holes in the grate.
One last gulp of air, and he ducks back under the water, trying to think of another exit, another option, but can think of none. There is nothing he can do, really. If no one has come to save him yet, he can’t imagine that anyone is coming now, hopefully all having found their own freedom and — rightfully — forgetting about him below deck as they tried to save themselves. Even Captain Nemo.
In the last moments before he gives up hope, he squeezes his eyes shut, seeing both Liam and Emma, the two closest things he’s ever had to friends, before everything begins to fade to black, his body succumbing to the much stronger pull of the water — and then he feels arms around his chest, barely registering what is happening, half-unconscious. He wants to open his eyes, wants to find out who is saving him, how they got in and how they are getting him out, but he can’t, only feels himself slowly slipping into a deeper unconsciousness, even as he feels air against his face.
When he opens his eyes, the first thing he sees is Emma, hovering over him. Her hair is dry (though he’s unsure why this is what he notices), and when he meets her eyes, they go wide, the green there flashing with excitement.
Behind her, he notices both Liam and Captain Shakespeare, the former with his arms crossed over his chest, noticeably confused, and the latter smiling broadly.
The three of them simply cannot be in the same location, and with this thought alone, Killian is sure that he didn’t actually make it out of the shipwreck, that he had been pulled beneath the waves and is sitting dead at the bottom of the ocean, still stuck below the decks of the Nautilus until the end of days.
“Killian,” she whispers, resting her hand against the palm of his cheek. Every other time they have touched, her skin has been cold, clammy, from being in the water, but that is not true right now, almost as if — ( same with her hair , he thinks) — she has been out of the water for a while, her legs curled up beneath her on the sand as she leans over him.
Before he has a chance to process this new information, with Emma’s hand still pressed against his cheek, Liam rushes towards him and wraps his arms around him from the side. These things together, Liam and Emma both touching him, feel too real, the burning in his lungs feels too real, and though he can barely believe it, he thinks he may actually be okay.
When he tries to talk, he coughs up a mouthful of salt water before any of the words he is trying to ask. “What — what happened?” he manages, focusing on Shakespeare, still standing on the shore behind Emma with a large smile spread across his face.
Instead, Emma answers, gesturing out into the water, where Ruby is keeping her head above the waves, and Ruby waves back. “Ruby and I saw the shipwreck from afar and rushed to help save everyone we could. Once we had everyone on shore, I stayed behind, uh, looking for you—” Her cheeks begin to glow a soft red, which Killian meets with a soft smile. “But Ruby went back to the debris, searching for anything she can salvage. Instead, she found you, and she thought it may have been too late, but she brought you back to shore anyway, though away from the other sailors, who were starting to gain consciousness. Somehow this man,” she looks over her shoulder, smiling at Shakespeare, who wiggles his fingers at them in a wave. “Knew where to find us, and they recuscitated you.”
“Why doesn’t she come ashore?” Liam asks, pointing out to where Ruby is still sitting on the other side of the tide.
Emma opens her mouth to answer, but is stopped by the sound of Shakespeare laughing behind them, and when they turn their attention to him, he is shaking his head. “You lads really don’t know much about your mermaid lore, do you?”
Confused, both Liam and Killian shake their heads, and Emma and Shakespeare share a smile.
“Well, Killy, I don’t know how to break this to you, but it seems that your mermaid love is also the princess, who is able to come ashore when she chooses.”
Both Jones boys are stunned, Killian by this new information which Emma never shared with him, and Liam by the fact that his little brother is apparently in love with a mermaid.
Shakespeare laughs again, resting one of his hands on Emma’s shoulder. “It appears we have some things to teach the young Jones brothers here, your highness.”
Three days have passed since Emma and Ruby came across the Nautilus' wreck, and so far, no one seems to have any more suspicion about where she has been spending her time away from the palace as they did before. She has spent more of these three days around her parents, hoping to quell any questions that they may have been keeping to themselves, and she feels like she has succeeded. Until—
“Emma,” August says, softly knocking on the door to the library as he pops his head into the room. “You parents want to talk to you.”
Sighing, she closes the book she has on the table in front of her, knowing this can’t be good — and having a growing fear that it may be about her time on the shore and her relationship with Killian. “Did they tell you what it was going to be about?”
August only shakes his head.
But when Ruby is the only other person in the room, unable to meet her gaze, she knows what happened. She completely ignores the matching glares on the faces of her parents, shaking her head as she crosses her arms across her chest. “Really, Ruby?” she asks.
“I’m sorry, Em, but your mother —”
With a light laugh, Emma nods. “Yeah, I know, Rubes.” Finally, her friend raises her eyes to meet hers, and she puts as much forgiveness in her eyes as she is able; none of this is Ruby's fault, and she never should have put her friend in the position she currently finds herself.
“Emma!” her father yells, and she remembers why she’s here. “You went to the surface?”
“We were just going up to watch the sunset,” Emma says — the complete truth.
“And then you helped humans!” Now it’s the queen’s turn to be angry. "You went to the shore!"
“They were drowning! They were going to die!”
Her father takes over again. “Emma, you know that’s not what we’re angry about,” he says, his voice soft but stern. “Ruby told us about the boy.”
Emma snaps her head towards Ruby’s, eyes wide with anger — though not at Ruby, she hopes her friend realizes — but Ruby just gives her a sad shrug. Emma’s been interrogated by the queen before, knows exactly how impossible it is to keep any secrets from her once she knows something is being hidden. It’s a good characteristic for a queen, but Emma would prefer her mother to be better at seeing through her lies.
“What were you thinking?” Her mother’s anger is back. “A human?”
“I wasn’t — I didn’t even approach the shore right away, I stayed in the waves the first few times! Actually, I’ve never even been out of the water in front of him until we saved them from dying!”
“But you should have known better than to be out there in the first place.” This is, apparently, one of those arguments where her mother is going to do all the talking, with her father standing behind her with a stern expression. He always was the softer of the two, the one who is first to crack whenever she is asking them for anything, and she wonders — in the moments between her mother’s angry words — if this argument is going to be the same way. "You put your life in danger, and for what? A human ?"
"He's not like the men in the stories you tell! None of them are. None of them are monsters, we've just been taught to believe that they are — and they've been taught to believe the same about us!"
"I don't want to hear it, Emma! You broke our rules, broke our trust , and you've let us down. I'm disappointed in you. I thought we taught you better than that.”
This is Emma’s in; the easiest way to break her parents is to bring up their true love , to use their teachings against them.
“You two have always taught me that the best thing for me to do is to follow my heart, so that’s exactly what I was doing!”
This was exactly the right thing to say, and the queen’s shoulders slump in defeat. For a few moments, the room is silent. Until King David smiles, wrapping his arm around his wife’s shoulders.
“She’s right, my love,” he says, always the one to end the argument, and usually in Emma’s favor. “She’s only taking our advice.”
Emma’s eyes go wide; she didn’t expect it to work, especially not this well, and certainly not this quickly.
"But it's for a human!" her mother argues, not even seeming to care that Emma is still there.
"We don't always fall in love with the people that we are expected to."
The queen — who fell in love with a common man and had to convince her parents to allow her to marry him instead of one of her suitors, a story that they are both very proud of — knows this is an argument that she is going to lose. Because, no matter how difficult it is to admit, Emma is just doing as she has always been taught to do: following her heart, even if it leads her down a different path.
When Emma finally breaks the silence that has filled the room, her voice is soft, believing that if she speaks too loud, the moment could shatter before her. “So, uh, what does that mean, then?”
The king and queen share a look. “Well,” her mother says, “We haven’t actually thought about that yet.”
“Obviously you still have to be here for your royal duties, meetings and dinners and those sort of things,” the king says.
Emma can feel a soft smile slowly growing across her face as she realizes that this is real — that her parents are really discussing how she can spend time on land… with Killian. “Of course,” she agrees.
“Plus diplomatic missions,” her mother adds, and Emma nods in agreement. “And he’s a sailor, right?” Emma nods again. “So when he’s out on the sea, I expect you to stay here at the palace.”
“I’m not going to make you take a guard with you to the surface, but if anything ever happens, know that will be the first change we make,” King David says with a definitive nod. “We’ll add to these rules when things come up. But for now…”
When Emma’s smile grows larger, her parents answer it with bright smiles of their own. She rushes forward to wrap her arms around them both. “Thank you,” she whispers, trying her best to hold back to happy tears she feels welling in her eyes. “Thank you both.”
Liam Jones is nowhere near as understanding when he finally talks to Killian about the situation. He asked the Captains to come with them to the shore to discuss everything, but Liam has always been hard-headed — not to mention overly protective of his little brother.
“I just — I can’t see any way that this works out for you,” he says, not for the first time, resting his hands on the back of his head while he paces across the sand. “She’s a mermaid , and a princess on top of that. There’s not — there simply cannot be a way for the two of you to be together.”
“Well, it certainly won’t be possible if you don’t give us a chance,” Killian argues from where he has taken a seat on the beach.
"But how? How would it even work? She lives under the sea , Killian, you do realize that, right? She can't just — just pack up her things and move to a little cottage like the rest of the sailors' wives. This is — you live in two different worlds, it just seems impossible."
“Sometimes you learn to do impossible things for love,” Shakespeare cuts in.
Nemo chuckles softly from behind him.
This is exactly how the conversation has been going, around and around in circles: Liam unable to change his point of view, Killian pleading for the freedom to pursue the feelings he feels so deeply in his heart, and Shakespeare giving half-helpful one-liners while Nemo stands silently on the sidelines.
And this is exactly how Emma finds them when her head breaks the surface of the water, bursting with the excitement from her agreement with her parents. Killian sees her first, and he jumps to his feet.
“Look, here she comes now! Maybe talking with her will change your mind about it all.” Killian rushes out into the tide to embrace her as she approaches, and the bright smile that covers his face is the most genuine Liam has ever seen.
“Doubtful,” Liam huffs under his breath, now crossing his arms across his chest as he watches them (though secretly hoping that Killian is right.)
“Emma, darling, what are you doing here?” Killian breathes, barely audible over the crashing of the surf, but Emma just smiles.
“I come with good news for all of us,” she says, sharing her smile with the rest of the group as Killian leads her onto shore, his hand on the small of her back. “Hopefully,” she adds, meeting Liam’s eye, though he does not share her smile. “My parents have given me permission to pursue this, though there are some stipulations when it comes to my royal duties. Those still come first, of course, but as long as I am not needed at the palace or on a diplomatic visit with my father, I am free to come ashore and, well—” She reaches her hand out to find Killian’s, turning completely towards him for the end of her announcement. “And be here, with you.”
In a fit of excitement, Killian wraps his arms around her, lifting her off her feet as he spins them together. “Oh, Emma, this is — it’s more than we ever imagined.”
Emma nods in agreement, and uses this moment to press her lips against his, Killian’s cheeks immediately reddening in the presence of his brother and his father figures.
Liam is still not convinced. “How could this possibly work, little brother? How much time is left over after you’ve seen to your royal responsibilities?”
“Every sailor’s lover has their own responsibilities, lad,” Nemo finally speaks up, wrapping his arm around Shakespeare’s waist as they share a smile. “Finding the time between them all is a challenge that every couple must go through.”
“Besides,” Emma comments. “We’ve managed to find the time to have a relationship without either of our families finding out for the last few weeks, I’m sure we can continue to find time for each other now that we’ve gained everyone’s blessing.”
Liam rubs his hand against his cheek before carding his fingers through his hair. “So, what, your parents — the king and queen of the sea — though I don't understand how that works, because there's a hell of a lot of ocean — are fine with this? They don't think that it's all a ploy for the monsters who live on land to take down the princess of the ocean? Isn't that what you said mermaids are taught to believe we all are?” They're all very valid questions, though Killian would appreciate if his brother could take some of the sarcastic scorn out of his voice.
Killian rolls his eyes, but Emma just shakes her head. “Well, my parents — who, by the way, are the king and queen of the whole ocean but allow many of the other realms to self-govern, so it's not like they have to watch over the whole thing all the time — are the definition of true love , or whatever, so they want to give me the chance to find that for myself. Isn’t that what you want for your brother? A chance for him to be happy?”
This, finally, is what makes Liam cave, though he takes almost a minute's time to think about it, pacing across the sand once again before turning to them with a sharp nod. "Okay. I know — I know I can't make all the rules for you anymore, little brother, but if this is what you want, I suppose the least I can do is be by your side through it, though I may not understand exactly how it's going to work."
A wide smile spreads across Killian's face, and he releases his grip on Emma's hand to wrap his brother in a hug. "That's all I want from you, brother," he says softly, looking over his shoulder at Captain Nemo, who is watching as his husband embraces Emma. "All I could want is the chance to see how this works for us, and to know that you are always by my side through it all."
On Emma's twenty-second name day, almost five years after the first time she saw Killian pulling in the fishing nets at sunset, she takes her place as Princess of the Sea, ready for more responsibilities handed off to her by her parents — but they honor the agreement that she has at least two days a week, as often as they can spare it, where she can go to the shore and be with her love. It's slightly less time than they've gotten used to during the time they have been together, but they never expected being together to be easy.
Killian is twenty-seven, Liam thirty-one when the Captains plan a large dinner party, inviting all of the sailors from both their crews along with their families. This includes both of the Jones brothers, Liam's wife Belle, and not only Emma, but also her father, though the invitation was extended to both the King and Queen. It's something that has never been seen in the remembered histories of both men and mermaids, to have the King on land for a non-diplomatic reason — but King David sees it as an opportunity to finally meet the man that he believes will one day become his son-in-law.
And to witness the moment when the men he calls his fathers, two older, grey-haired gentlemen in matching powder blue waistcoats, announce their plans to finally retire from their lives of adventure and move to their own little cottage along the sea until the end of their days.
The moment when the Jones Brothers are offered the ability to become captains of their own vessels, Liam's in the sky — a concept that the King of the Sea finds absolutely maddening, yet intriguing — and Killian's on the sea.
The two men accept the offers, of course, both of them finally moving closer to seeing their dreams come true — especially Killian, who is now able to plan his journeys in accordance with his lady love's schedule, even finding her sometimes able to join him on his vessel, allowing him to take her to far-off lands.
(And even when she is called away to the palace, she sometimes still manages to surprise him, finding his Jolly Roger on the water and catching his eye as she sits on the waves, just as she did that very first day.)