Okay, so I was going to wait on Meriel's story, but it just wouldn't leave me alone. I'll keep my series of one-off's (Captain's Choice) going for awhile as well, but this story needs to be told. Settle in, everyone. This will be a long one.
"Meriel, love, who are you talking to?"
Her father's voice carried from the wheel deck, and she looked up at him, smiling.
"I'm talking to Kai." She reached over, pouring a healthy splash of tea into a cup. "Would you like to join us for tea, Papa?"
"Is there cake?" He asked, raising an eyebrow.
"Of course there is." She gave him an exasperated look. "It would be silly to have tea without cake." She shifted her eyes to the side. "Don't you think so?"
Killian Jones, also known as 'Hook', also known as 'Papa', stepped down off the wheel deck and started to sit down across from his daughter.
"Papa!" She squealed. "Don't sit on Kai!"
"Oh," He said, straightening back up. "My apologies." He glanced at the stuffed unicorn and the carved wooden dragon sitting on the other side of the carefully spread tablecloth. "Which one of them is Kai?"
She gave him a giggle that made him want to join her. "Don't be silly, Papa. You can't see him. And he's right there." She pointed to a spot on the corner of the tablecloth. "You can sit here, closer to me."
Hook hunkered down, shifting his leather coat out of the way. "Well that sounds like a very fine place to be." He leaned over, dropping a light kiss on her silky black hair.
Meriel carved off a generous portion of cake for her father and for each of her tea party guests, then poured her father a cup of tea.
"I know you'd prefer rum," She said, "But there are children present, you know."
He nodded sagely. "I quite understand," He said, taking a sip of his tepid, heavily sugared tea and managing not to grimace. "Kai isn't a grown-up, like me?"
"No," She explained. "He's my age. My age exactly."
"Oh, so he's a "he", is he?" Hook studied her over top of his teacup. "I'm not sure I approve of a young man paying you court."
She gave him a look of reproach that would have done her mother proud. "I'm nearly five, you know."
"Hmmm," He said, thoughtfully, putting his teacup down. "Well, let's not have you moving out on your own just yet, all right?" He pulled her close, settling her on his lap and tickling her ribs until her laughter rang out. "I'm not in any hurry for you to grow up."
Meriel raised her head, looking across the tablecloth.
"What is it, love?" Hook asked.
"Kai says he's not in any hurry, either."
Hook reached down, picking up his teacup and toasting Meriel's imaginary friend. "Kai, I do believe you're growing on me." Now, if you'll excuse me, love, I'll get us back to port. Your mother will skin me alive if we're late for dinner."
He shifted her off his lap as she smiled up at him fondly. He was climbing the stairs to the wheel deck, and didn't notice the fork hovering in mid-air, holding a slice of cake.
"Would you like some more tea, Kai?"
She smiled widely as he told her that he would.
Twelve year-old Meriel slammed the door to her room, locking it firmly behind her. She jumped on the bed, hugging her knees to her chest.
"Meriel!" Her mother's voice shouted from the other side, "Open this door!"
"We're not done with this discussion," Her mother warned.
"Yes we are. You made sure of that." Meriel said nastily. "Go away. I want to be alone."
"I'm giving you till three and I'm opening the door," Her mother warned again. "One...two...three..."
The door pushed open and Meriel shifted her eyes up to the ceiling, shaking her head. Having a mother that used to pick locks for her livelihood was a real inconvenience sometimes.
"What?" Meriel said, as sullenly as possible.
Emma sat down on the bed and looked at her daughter. Her beautiful blue eyes were clouded with tears of anger and the set of her jaw made it clear that her mother was about as unwelcome as she could be right now.
"Can we just talk about this a little? I need you to understand - "
"Understand what, Mom? That you don't trust me? That you think I'm a baby?" Meriel's buried her head in her arms. "Just go away."
"Emma? Meriel?" Snow's head peeked around the corner of the door frame. Emma shook her head and rolled her eyes, making it clear she was getting nowhere with this child of hers.
Snow gave her a sympathetic smile, tapping herself on the chest as if to say "Let me give it a try."
Emma nodded, then reached out to rub her hand along Meriel's arm. Meriel pulled away, turning her whole body so that she didn't have to face her mother.
"I'm gonna let you calm down," Emma said with a sigh. "But we're not finished with this, okay?" She got up and walked to the doorway, squeezing Snow's hand gratefully as she passed through. Snow stepped inside, pulling the door closed behind her.
Meriel looked up sullenly. "Grandma, I'm really not in the mood to talk, okay?"
"Okay," Snow said, nodding her head. "But sometimes, it helps just to have somebody sit next to you. Your Mom did that for me more than a few times."
"I'm not my Mom." Meriel reminded her.
"No, no I guess you're not. But you have a lot of her in you. And your father, as well." Snow reached out, pushing aside a lock of hair from Meriel's eyes. "You have his spirit of adventure - something that runs on our side of the family, too, you know - and you have your mother's guts and smarts."
"Tell her that, please," Meriel said with derision. "She seems to think I'm still wearing diapers."
"Meriel, realm jumping isn't something you do just anytime with a group of friends," Snow explained patiently. "There are dangers in going to a new realm that you might not see right away or have the experience yet to deal with."
"I would have been with a group," Meriel defended. "We would have kept each other safe."
"You should have turned those beans over just as soon as you saw them. Your uncle should have known better, too."
"Leo thought it was a good idea! And Lorelei said there was nothing to it."
Snow shook her head. "Lorelei should have never taken the beans from her parents. I would imagine Neal and Tink are dealing with her right now, just like your grandfather is dealing with Leo."
Meriel buried her head in her arms once again. "It's so unfair."
"You'll get a chance to do it all, Meriel, but portal jumping without a responsible adult along is a bad, bad idea. Your parents would never have forgiven themselves if something happened to you." Snow bumped Meriel's shoulder with her own. "It's a good thing Finn told Henry what you were up to."
"Henry's the biggest hypocrite of them all. By my age, he'd already been to other realms."
"Not by choice, Meriel," She replied, shaking her head. "And we almost lost him. Do you have any idea how terrifying that was for your mother, and for me? Is it any wonder she wants you safe?"
Meriel let out a sigh. "I guess."
Snow wrapped an arm around her. "You have a whole life ahead of you to live as an adventure. Don't be rushing off before you're really ready for it. Don't be too angry at your parents for wanting what's best for you. "
Meriel looked up at her grandmother, but still couldn't smile. "I'll think about it."
Snow leaned in, kissing her on the cheek. "I know you will. Someday, you'll understand their point of view, I promise." She got up off the bed and walked over to the door. "Don't shut your mother out for too long, Meriel," She said with a sympathetic smile. "Emma loves you very much." Then she pulled the door shut behind her.
Meriel lay back on the bed, lost in her own miserable thoughts until she heard a tap at the windowpane. She shifted her eyes, looking over, and then giving a nod in that direction.
A moment later, the bed dipped beside her as he laid down next to her.
"She's right, you know. Don't fault your mother for loving you. You'd protect her just as fiercely."
"I know that, Kai." Meriel stared up at the canopy over her bed. "I'm just so ready to be...out there. Do you know what I mean?"
"Out there isn't always a grand adventure, Meriel. And I can only protect you in this realm, right now."
"I don't need you to protect me," She said, turning her head to look at him. "I can take care of myself."
He smiled. "Yes, you can. But I'm here, anyway. You know that."
"I know that." She reached over, twining her fingers with his. They laid in comfortable silence for a moment before Meriel sighed again. "I guess I'd better go talk to my Mom."
He nodded. "I'll be going, then."
She sat up, watching him go to the window. "See you tomorrow?"
"Most likely," He said. "I'll find you."
Meriel smiled. "You always find me."
"It's that one, over there," Emma said, narrowing her eyes. "Look at how he's looking at her. He's going to be the one."
Hook took another drink from his goblet. "I don't know how you think he's looking at her any differently than all the others," He remarked darkly. "They're all looking at her."
Emma tapped her foot. "Yeah, but he's looking looking."
"She's bloody beautiful," Hook said with exasperation. "How can they not look?"
"And you're okay with all these teenage boys ogling your sixteen year-old daughter?"
"No. Most definitely not. But your father assures me that I can't gut them unless they actually do more than look, in which case, he'll hold them down while I do so." Hook took another long drink. "Why in the hell did you invite so damn many of them?"
"I didn't. Blame Mary Margaret." Emma took a long swig of her own drink. "It's Meriel's coming out ball, and apparently, every eligible guy in the kingdom and any surrounding kingdoms was on the list."
"Hmmph." Hook said, lowering his brows into a good, hard glower. "I don't like it."
"She's growing up," Emma said, her voice sounding melancholy. She leaned her head into her husband's shoulder.
"Oh, love," He said, putting his drink down and embracing her. "Don't start that again. You'll have us both sobbing all over the dessert table." He glanced behind him at the array of pastries and sweets. "And I have plans later for that chocolate fountain."
"Reginald, stop." Meriel said, pushing against his chest.
"You can't mean that. One kiss is hardly enough," Reginald said petulantly. "It's not as though you're a child anymore, Meriel. You're a woman now." He put his hand over his heart, his face a study in rapture and longing.
She wasn't buying it for a minute.
"I really need to get back to my party." She made a move to go around him, but he put a hand against the wall, stopping her.
"Let them wait." He leaned in, uncomfortably close. "I'm entranced by your magical eyes, and I simply must have more than the paltry peck you allowed me."
"No," Meriel said carefully. "I really don't think you must." She pushed at him again, but he wouldn't budge. He made the mistake of trying to snake his arm around her, and a second later, that arm was twisted painfully behind him, with his fingers turned at an excruciating angle in Meriel's hand.
"Aauugh! What are you doing?" He cried out. "Are you mad? It's just a kiss!"
"Yeah, well, it'll be a disembowelment if her father sees you creeping on her." Emma's voice came from just behind her daughter's shoulder. Meriel released Reginald, who was cupping his hand and shaking his arm, trying to get the feeling back in his fingers.
"You do know who her father is, right?" Emma asked him, raising a brow. That seemed to give him pause.
"My apologies, ladies," He said, with a stiff bow. "I've quite forgotten myself."
"Uh-huh." Meriel arched a brow, looking entirely like her mother for a moment.
"Well, I won't forget you," Emma called out as he walked away. She turned to her daughter. "You okay?"
"Nothing I couldn't handle." Meriel shrugged.
Emma threw an arm around her. "That's my girl. Now I'd better get back to your father before he puts two and two together and hangs poor Reginald from the main mast." She sauntered off to do just that, and Emma shook her head, laughing.
"You handled him well," Kai said, stepping out of the shadows in an alcove nearby.
"I thought sure you'd step in again. Last time you tossed Geoffrey over the balcony," She reminded him with an arch look.
"He had it coming. He tried to put his hands on your -" Kai made a gesture with both hands out in front of him. "Well, you know where. And you got angry at me."
"You could've been discovered," She said reasonably. "He had no idea how he got pushed when I was too far away to do it. You have to be careful, Kai. And I've told you before, I can take care of myself."
"I know. That's why I backed off this time." He stepped out a little further, looking down over the balcony. "Do you want to take a walk? The gardens are really beautiful."
She glanced around. "You know, I really could use a break. Are there a lot of people down there?"
"No, not since they put out the food. I don't think anyone will catch you talking to yourself." He held out a hand, and she found herself noticing - and not for the first time - that he was awfully handsome in the moonlight. It glowed off of his dark blonde hair and shimmered in his blue-green eyes.
"You're dressed up tonight," She said, making conversation as they walked into the garden maze. He was wearing a silver waistcoat, and an ermine-trimmed cloak in shade of deep aquamarine that clung to his broad shoulders. It almost put her own gown of sapphire blue to shame.
"It's not every day that your best friend turns eighteen," He said, squeezing her hand.
"But it's not like anyone else can see you. Why bother?" She said with a shrug.
"Maybe I wanted to impress you," He replied, looking at her sideways. His eyes held hers a moment, and she found herself strangely nervous, which was silly, really. She'd known Kai her whole life - in fact, she couldn't remember a time when he wasn't there, nearby or right next to her. She'd accepted long ago that he was just a magical part of her world, meant for her and her alone.
"Well, it's working," She said, with a smile. "You could fit in with any court in the kingdom. It's like you were born royal."
"Why did you kiss him?" Kai stopped abruptly, forcing her to do the same.
She raised a questioning brow. "What?"
"That idiot. Why did you let him kiss you?"
Meriel considered for a moment. "I suppose I was curious. With a father like mine, you must know I haven't been kissed a lot."
"Well, you can certainly do better than the likes of him," Kai said crossly. "You were nothing more than a conquest to him."
"With my family to get past, maybe I need a conquerer," She said wryly. "He's got a lot to overcome."
Kai stepped in, taking both her hands in his. "You don't need to be conquered, Meriel. You need to be treasured. And most of all, you need to be kissed by someone who knows what he really wants from you."
She only had a moment to raise her eyes in question before he pulled her in and kissed her like she'd never been kissed before. His lips were warm and his arms tight and strong around her. She felt herself melting into him as he parted her lips and gently slid his tongue in to circle and play with hers. Meriel made a tiny sound of surprise, but a moment later, her arms were twining around his neck and she was kissing him back with everything she had.
"Meriel!" A voice sounded from just a few rows away in the hedge maze.
"My father!" She whispered against his lips. Kai stepped back, unable to hide the look of wonder on his face that matched the astonishment in her eyes exactly.
"I have to go," He whispered shakily.
"Kai - "
"I have to go." He pulled away from her. "Meriel, I...that was..."
"Wonderful," She said, with a smile. "It was wonderful, Kai. The best kiss ever."
They stared at each other for one more, charged moment, before he turned, running off through the maze. A second later, her father rounded the corner.
"Where is he?" He said threateningly, raising his hook. "Who brought you out here?"
Meriel reached out, pushing his hook down gently. "No one, Papa. I brought myself. It was hot in there and I needed to get away."
Hook blew out a gust of air that ruffled his hair. "What a relief. I thought sure I'd be gutting someone. You need to get back inside, little love. They're cutting the cake." He reached down, twining a lock of her silky black hair around his finger and moving it off her shoulder.
"What the devil...?" He said, staring down at her. He reached out, lifting up the talisman pendant that never left her neck.
The stone was glowing.
Kai stared out over the water, mentally berating himself. He shouldn't have kissed her. It was dangerous. He could have called attention to her prematurely, and that would've been bad. Very, very bad.
He needed to distance himself. Take some time and figure things out because being near her every day was becoming harder and harder. He was old enough now that he could cross realms, seek out answers, find a way to fix this. He raised a hand, and a large wave swelled in response. He watched it crash with a sense of despair.
The curse would be upon her in three years' time.
Surely by then, he could find a solution.
He could find a way to save her.