as time goes by

Because childhood simplifies everything…even love. The tale of a young princess and the boy who never wanted to grow up.

"Wendy, Wendy, when you are sleeping in your silly bed you might be flying about with me saying funny things to the stars."

― J.M. Barrie, Peter Pan

At nine years old, Emma met a strange boy.

When her ninth birthday had finally come to pass, Emma thought she was more than qualified to be out traipsing around the kingdom's largest market town without even the remotest hint of supervision.

After all, the precocious princess was well-read, well-versed in self defense (as the poor stable boys who had thought to play rough with her had discovered to their physical detriment), and had an earnest thirst to experience the corners of the world that extended beyond brief family outings.

Unfortunately for the keen-eyed and sharp-minded child, however, the reigning monarchs of the land, who by an unhappy twist of fate were also her parents, did not exactly concur with that dubious opinion.

Their staunch refusal, born of natural parental worry, to allow their daughter beyond the castle boundaries unescorted had therefore resulted in Emma taking desperate measures.

Hence the reason she was now smothered from head to toe in a thick cloak, courtesy of Red Riding Hood. Emma felt the keen thrill of disguise, with her abundant golden curls safely tucked away from view beneath her hood, her finely-made dress concealed beneath the rough woolen fabric, and her feet clad in simple black slippers she had traded the milkmaid's daughter her own dainty shoes for.

The near-unbearable heat that resulted from wandering around the marketplace garbed in such a way, in the middle of spring with hundreds of other shoppers and traders was, to Emma, well worth the simple marvels of everyday life she was afforded the privilege of seeing there.

Anonymity was a wonderful thing—no one stopped her or stared blatantly. Tucked under her little cloak, she was no princess, no daughter of kings…just Emma.

And so, as just Emma, she was free to wander about in a state of ravenous curiosity, at liberty to view things without the restricting barrier of dozens of guards or her parents' hovering presence.

To say it was intoxicating would have been a light term to use.

She ran her hands reverently over brightly-woven afghans from Agrabah, and marveled at the sleekest silks imported from the mysterious depths of the Orient. She listened to fearsome tales of wild beasts that roamed the forest lands as she looked at intricate woodcarvings depicting them, heard the enthralling boastings of blacksmiths who showed off their wares, claiming that each sword had taken the life of a dragon or two.

Not that she believed a thing they said, but the far-fetched yarns were at least entertaining to listen to.

They certainly made a pleasant change from the somnolent lectures of her tutors.

And so she mingled, exposed to the small fragments of far-off kingdoms and intrepid lands that only the brave could traverse, knowing that this was likely as close as she would ever get to the stories of her parents' heroic deeds and travels that Mister Grumpy and the other dwarves regaled her with on their visits.

As her parents and their various friends had been occupied as of late with the furthering of diplomatic relations and the opening of new trade routes, leaving a bored Emma to the lackluster routine of eat, lessons, sleep, this was undoubtedly the most amusement Emma had garnered in quite a while.

Unfortunately for Emma's outing, however, this one took a turn for the decidedly worse when, like in most tales, hunger got the best of her.

The marketplace's vastness required that it be organized into sections—artisan crafts, carpenters' woodworks, smithies' steel wares, the flower sellers, etc. Emma knew when she had crossed the line from the sharp pungency of steel and crowded males that made up of the smithy sector, and into the one where various foods, both foreign and national, were set out for display, for the air took on a sweet quality and thickened with the scent of spices and sugars.

Walking along the pie stands and bread shops, fried meat stands and fruit carts, her gut had immediately clenched with longing.

She came to a stop before one of them, passing a hand apologetically over the complaining part of her body.

Those scarce few muffins she had hastily crammed in her mouth as she had slipped from the castle's remote stable exits were now thoroughly digested…making the fact that she was now standing directly before a cart piled high with luscious red apples all the more uncomfortably blatant.

She gave an idle glance around.

The adult who appeared to be the apple merchant, a rotund man with a coarse voice, seemed to be haggling animatedly with a farmer and his wagon full of round, tantalizing fruits. Engrossed as he was in the conversation, he didn't seem to take any notice of the small girl staring ravenously at his cart.

A low rumble disrupted her concentration, the audible hunger of her stomach translating visually in hungry look in her eyes at the sight of the shining red apples perched neatly atop one another, rows upon rows of blooming crimson glinting in the warm morning sunlight.

There were so many, she thought with a childish reasoning. The apple seller wouldn't be mad if she just took one, right?

Not thinking very much of it, she obeyed the grumbling of her stomach and took the very top one off the pile. Immediately she brought it to her nose, inhaling deeply. Her mouth watered at the scent, and she smiled contentedly as she prepared to sink her teeth into the crisp skin.

"You've gotta pay fer what ye take, girly!"

Apparently she had been wrong to guilelessly believe she hadn't been noted.

Emma yelped as the stall merchant materialized before her. He seized her roughly by the hand, the ground swept from beneath her feet as she dangled helplessly in the air. The apple, knocked from her grasp, went hurtling through the air and wastefully rolling on the dusty ground.

Eye-to-eye with the large man that had grabbed her, and a large distance from the ground, she could do little more then twist and struggle. The realization that, courtesy of her brilliant idea of sneaking out of the castle unaccompanied meant no-one would be rushing to her rescue, suddenly stilled her frightened movements.

Why oh why, had she thought this to be a good idea again?

Her nose wrinkled automatically as she was brought closer to the furious apple seller, the man's putrid odor washing unpleasantly over her. This was nothing like her mother's lulling cinnamon smell, or her father's comforting scent of steel and the woodlands, but a nastily pervasive stink that made her want to gag.

Emma clamped her mouth firmly shut. She didn't think the situation would be helped were she to vomit all over him.

"So," he rumbled, his voice deepening with anger. "Where's yer money for that apple, girl!"

There was no way around it—she would have to open her mouth to defend herself.

"I'm—I'm sorry!" she stammered, panic coursing through her and causing her heart to patter frantically against her chest. Her heart was also fluttering because it was rather oxygen-deprived, seeing as she was desperately trying not to breathe and accidentally inhale his disgusting smell. "I d-don't have any! I'm sorry!"

Yellowing teeth were exposed as the merchant gnashed them furiously, reminding Emma vaguely of a petulant horse that had once bared its large mashers at her in a similar fashion. "Then you shouldn't have stolen my apple then, should ya!"

Another rough shake and Emma's already-simmering temper flared, her demeanor slipping rapidly from contrite to annoyed. No one had ever handled her in such a rough way in her entire life, and it was fast becoming intolerable. "I already apologized—I didn't know I had to pay!"

Despair at her naivety coursed through her. Oftentimes when she was out and about with her parents, shopkeepers had been more than generous in imparting little gifts to her…she had foolishly thought that would apply at any time. But as she had delighted in when first setting out, she wasn't a princess at the moment. Merely a normal little girl without a cent on her and descending rapidly into the stifling grip of trouble.

"Excuses won't do the trick. Ya know what we do to thieves 'round here, girly?" The man sneered at her, looming in further until she could literally feel his putrescent breath against her face.

Unable to reply, she just gave a frantic shake of her head.

The merchant snickered. It was an unpleasant, nasally laugh. "We take 'em and toss 'em in dank cells—or even haul 'em before the king an' queen themselves to be judged. I've heard of many a crook who's 'ad their head chopped off as punishment!"

It was only with great difficulty that Emma refrained from rolling her eyes. This was utterly laughable for two reasons: one, her peace-loving, epitome-of-generosity parents were inherent believers in the redeemable side of everyone and were about as likely to carelessly order an execution as they were to wage war. Two, the scenario of her being dragged up to the castle as a thief and have her crimes scrutinized by her parents was both mildly alarming and amusing…although she had the distinct notion that neither her mother nor father would view it as such.

A curious crowd had half-gathered by this point, made up of partially interested spectators and worried faces. None, however, were making any move to give aid to her. Emma bitterly wondered how fast they would hop to it were her true identity made known.

Was this what she was missing out on then, in her regulated little life at the castle? Was this the grandeur of humanity she had been so enthralled with in the library's endless tales of heroism and nobility?

If so, Emma made mental note to chuck all of those lying books in the bin as soon as she wriggled out of this situation.

"Oi, mister!" A loud shout caught her assailant's attention. "Best look about now—some bloke just made off with a bunch of your wares while you was otherwise occupied!"

The merchant's eyes, already bulbous, bugged out even more at the shout.

Emma couldn't believe her good fortune at the timely distraction, mentally thanking the fact that there were deliberately dishonest people in the world who would rob someone blind at first advantage. Anything was better than the fate of being clapped in chains and tossed before her parents.

A small "Oomph" of pain escaped her as she was unceremoniously dropped to the ground in a heap. The merchant trundled off with a speed that belied his hefty size, and Emma was left rubbing her sore wrist in an anxious attempt to make sure it hadn't been irreparably broken in that oaf's grip.

Not a second later and she was being abruptly tugged up by two firm hands grasping her arms.

"Might want to run, lass," a boyish voice suggested lowly against her ear. "He won't stay occupied for long."

Emma squeaked, spinning about until she found herself gazing into two startlingly blue eyes, mischief writ across them plain as day. They belonged to a boy not much older than her, who was already tugging pointedly at her arm in an effort to get her to move.

But tired of being manhandled like a sack of potatoes, she opened her mouth to argue…

…and then rapidly decided against it after catching a glimpse of the exceedingly enraged apple seller, who had apparently figured out he had been tricked and was now bearing down upon them like some ferocious demon from one of her father's adventures.

As dull as the man might have looked, he obviously missed little when it came to monetary matters.

Her hand was snagged quickly, and Emma felt herself being pulled into what was fast becoming a frenetic sprint through the marketplace.

She kept her eyes firmly fixed on the back of her timely savior's head, which mainly consisted of several dark brown spikes of hair that couldn't seem to decide which way they wanted to lie.

Helpless to do otherwise, she vainly tried to keep up with every fluid dodge and quick maneuver the boy made—though without much success, for he seemed to navigate these labyrinthine streets with all the ease of a local who traversed them daily.

Determined not to lag behind, Emma swallowed her bewilderment and tampered down on the heavy feeling of over-exertion already beginning to steal over her, instead focusing on making her smaller, slippered feet follow carefully in the wake of the boy's long-legged strides.

Even for all her effort, however, if not for the unyielding clasp of his fingers about hers, she would undoubtedly have been hopelessly lost among the crowd. Emma looked down bemusedly at their joined hands, the rough feel of calluses and summer heat playing warmly against her soft skin.

She'd never held hands with a boy before.

It was…strange. Different. But the good kind of different; the type of different you received when you bit into a new dessert for the first time and let the flavors play deliciously across your tongue.

And so, shrugging off the tingling sensation on her skin, she curled tentative fingers around the boy's and lost herself in the run.

It was only when they had made it beyond the stone walls of the marketplace and into the safety of the surrounding forest that Emma finally called a halt to the endless dashing about. In a little copse of trees, she dug her heels stubbornly into the dirt and allowed her body to become a leaden weight to the boy guiding her as she leaned backwards.

The movement caught his attention, causing him to similarly slow to a halt and turn around—for the first time, Emma looked fully upon the face of the one who had rescued her.

Because of the fact that he stood a good few inches taller than her, the youthfulness of his features was surprising. The dark spikes of hair she had seen only from behind now messily framed a sun-tanned face (which also happened to be horribly smudged with traces of soot and dirt) with bangs that flopped haphazardly across his forehead. As she had briefly glimpsed when he had pulled her from the ground earlier, a set of blue eyes, the color of a clear winter sky, peeked out from beneath strong brows.

They stood in silence for a moment, Emma blinking up at him. The boy stared back, almost impertinent in his unwavering gaze.

Finally Emma coughed, and, noting their still-clasped hands, pulled hers away with a speed that almost implied rudeness.

"I'm not running anymore." She bluntly said the first thing that came to mind, most likely born of her aching feet and roughened breathing.

A chuckle met her proclamation, the boy flashing her an impossibly wide grin. "Wasn't asking you to, lass. Here's as good a place to stop as any." A strange accent lilted the words. Body arching and leaning up on tiptoe, he stretched like a leisurely cat. "I was just a little curious as to how far a tiny thing like you could run."

Her mouth fell open, quite inelegantly. "You mean—you mean—" Emma stammered, her quickly-rising ire making her tongue-tied. "Do you mean to say you hauled me all the way out here merely for your own amusement?"

"Weeelll," the boy dragged out the word, his laughing eyes twinkling in a way that irritated her for some indefinable reason. "That and the fact that ya seemed to be in a spot of trouble. I'm still awaiting the boundless gratitude for that, by the way."

His smarmy words instantly caused Emma's already perilously darkening mood to sour further. If this cretin thought she'd be showering him with anything even remotely resembling adulation, he had another think coming.

"I would have been fine," she snapped, folding her arms and attempting to ignore the blatant lie formed by her own lips. "There was no need for you to intervene!"

"Sure," he agreed instantly, smirking lightly. "I thought you were handling being dangled like a worm on a hook particularly well, lass."

"I was! Er…that is to say, I…um…" Blast it, Emma thought, employing a phrase that she frequently heard her father exclaim when his height got the best of him and he smacked his head on some of the lower door arches of the castle. This unbearable boy had a point.

But Emma was Emma, and she absolutely hated being made a fool of.

So rather than continue the argument, she gave a dismissive little sniff and a cold "Good day" before making an about-face and marching, stiff-backed, towards the direction of her grandiose home.

Or, at least, the direction she thought her home was in.

Only a few stomped steps away, however, and there was the rustling crunch of leaves behind her. Shooting an annoyed glance behind her, she found that insufferable and grimy face staring back at her.

"What?" she grumbled, wondering what he wanted and definitely not fancying the idea of having him follow her all the way back to the castle. "Go away, boy."

He interlocked his fingers, placing them behind his head—the very picture of careless ease. "Just had a question for you, that's all," he said, clearly unruffled by her snappish tone. "Figured you owe me at least an answer, seeing as I did just save your pretty little hide from landing in gaol."

Emotions warred with upbringing—the impulsive, emotional side yelling for her to simply grant him her best royal nose-wrinkle and swan off, and the proper, well-upbringing part of her pointing out sensibly that he was indeed entitled to a request, given the service he had just performed her.

"And that is?" Emma had a brief fantasy in which this boy was a fly, and she had to do little more than swat him away with her hand to drive him off. She would answer his stupid question and then be done with him forever.

"What's your name?"

She blinked, taking an uncomfortable step backwards. Names were intimate things—hers was one bestowed upon her by the mother she loved and respected most in her life, the father she trusted and adored more than anything. It was special. She certainly didn't want this uncouth boy knowing it.

There was only one alternative, then.

"You may call me 'Princess'," she told him formally. After a second's contemplation, she yanked off the concealing hood in one swift swipe, allowing a cascade of golden hair to tumble down her shoulders.

Her head and face fully exposed, Emma looked at the boy expectantly and waited for recognition to set in.

But instead of a gasp of realization, or some groveling for her to forgive his impertinence, all she received was a quirked eyebrow and a nonchalantly drawled, "Don't think so. 'M not calling you that."

And just like that, her suggestion was promptly discarded. In three words by a scruffy young boy in patched breeches, no less.

Emma stared at him, eyes rounding with disbelief and utterly flabbergasted. "Why not?"

"Don't cha have a name?"

She huffed, regarding him mistrustfully. "Of course, I have a name. But that doesn't mean you get to just call me by it!"

"How's that then?"

"Because I'm a princess!" The frustrated reply was automatic, firing from her lips before she really had a chance to consider it. It wasn't entirely her fault—after all, it seemed to Emma that most of her questions posed to adults were answered with the universal reply of 'Because you're a princess'.

The strange boy, meanwhile, had given a loud scoff at her words. His mouth crooked upwards in a half-smile as his eyes danced with bold amusement.

"Well, you're not my princess," he said brazenly.

The blonde-haired child blinked, lips parting in surprise. Emma was mildly offended, not quite used to being dismissed with such ease. "How do you mean?"

The dirty-faced boy turned and hopped effortlessly onto a splintered tree, his spindly build and lithe movements oddly reminding her of Jiminy for a moment. Despite her current disgruntlement, she smothered a soft giggle at the thought.

"I come from the western lands, see," the urchin explained, eyes trained firmly on the scraggly bark of the fallen tree he was pacing. His arms were thrown wide as he balanced himself, nimbly moving upon the wood with a strange grace. "And it isn't ruled by yer parents, is it now?"

Thinking back hard and finding that she recalled little of the admittedly boring geography and history lessons Emma had been repeatedly forced to attend by her adamant parents, she was a little remorseful that she had fallen asleep as often as she had. Though she still asserted that it wasn't through any fault of her own that she had the unfortunate tendency of rudely dozing off during those particular lessons, seeing as her tutor was quite possibly the most boring person in the land. Had her teacher held any of Mister Grumpy's penchant for storytelling, or Aunt Red's passionate manner of expressing herself, Emma might not have been so inclined towards slumber.

Even so, she vaguely remembered the distant Western lands as being very far away and markedly different from the region governed by her parents: less agricultural and tending more towards trading and the like. As a result that section had attracted an amalgam of peoples and a mixture of all different cultures—she supposed that was where this boy had gained his thoroughly odd, choppy accent.

"Still," she said slowly, mind still mulling over this. "You live here now, don't you?"

"Yeah. What of it?"

Emma smiled with satisfaction, a hint of slyness peeking through. "Then that means you're a subject of this kingdom. And therefore, I am your princess!" She finished the last part with no small amount of relish, pleased at having finally obtained the upper hand in this odd conversation.

Spiky dark hair flopped untidily as he neatly pivoted on one foot. The smirk on his face seemed unusually condescending for one so young. "Temporary relocation is all," he said. "I plan to leave soon enough."

His smug words stumped her. She glared at the wily boy, momentarily lost for a retort.

Did it make her a bad person if she really hoped he would fall off the stupid tree he kept prancing about on?

Daughter of the ever-gracious Snow White she may be, but at the moment she would have delighted in anything to wipe the dumb grin off his face.

As though reading the unkind thoughts whirling through her mind, the dreadful boy laughed, sprang adroitly from his perch and landed, cat-like, on his feet.

A blue gaze glittered with amusement as he pushed persistent bangs from his forehead. "So, now that we've established you're not my princess…gonna tell me your name then, lass?"

"No." Emma scowled, eyebrows forming a sharp V of displeasure. "And stop calling me that! You can't be much older than I am."

"Already ten, just this spring." His eyes swept her speculatively, his head tilting to the side in consideration. "You can't be anymore than…six. Am I right?"

A loud squeak of annoyance left her. She wondered if he was deliberately being a prat or if we was just naturally that obtuse. "I'm nine, I'll have you know!"


Emma imagined she could hear the snap as her temper broke cleanly in half. "And why is that impossible?" she demanded hotly.

The boy smirked again, eyes sweeping from the tip of her golden head to the toes of her slippered feet. "You're just so…short. Nope. I think you're having me on, lass."

"Cease. Calling. Me. That."

"Got somethin' else for me to call you then?"

"I already told you."

"And I already said that's not a name."

They stared at each other, each standing at the precipice of a yawning impasse.

Emma fumed wordlessly, wondering if all boys were naturally born into the world with such an impossible disposition, or if she was uniquely blessed in the fact that she had encountered the most idiotic of them all.

She could hear the grin in his voice when he finally decided to break the stubborn silence. "Well then, I'm—"

"I really could care less," she interrupted, stamping off.

Between continuing having this lout's presence inflicted upon her and facing her parents' disappointment sooner, she'd rather choose the latter.

A few days later after her escapade she was ambling through the woodland surrounding the castle, having finally had her house-arrest lifted by two still extremely disgruntled parents (although she had garnered the feeling from her mother's uncontrollably twitching lips during her father's ranting lecture about all of the dangers that could have befallen her that she was more amused with her daughter's willful adventurous streak than furious).

And even though it was quite pleasant to be sucking in lungfuls of fresh, forest air once again, Emma had to admit that the fact that these woods were enchanted with the Blue Fairy's magical safeguards rather detracted from the fun and venturous quality of her walks.

After all, the most dangerous thing she was likely to encounter here were fluffy little bunny rabbits and squirrels.

Hardly the stuff breathtaking legends of daring courage were made of.

Emma kicked moodily at a pebble on the ground. Trying to sate her boredom with another market trip was most definitely out of the question now, seeing as her father had quite firmly emphasized that she was not to leave the castle or the immediate surrounding forest grounds without an escort.

More importantly, without Jiminy as an escort. Having the propriety-concerned and nagging cricket hovering about her, clucking over her rashness, did not a exciting escapade make.

A heavy sigh filled the air, courtesy of one very mopey princess. It wasn't that she couldn't appreciate her parents' worry for her.

After all, Emma had heard tales of a wicked witch who had strenuously tried her best to separate her mother and father…who had even attempted to bring down a black curse upon the land in the cruel spirit of that revenge, and who would have succeeded had it not been for the actions of the royal families and scattered heroes that had rallied together to defeat the witch.

The witch, suffering from the ignominy of failure and dire wounds to match, was rumored to have disappeared long ago, right on the eve of Emma's birth, in fact.

Emma supposed it was the fear that she might one day return to exact vengeance that caused her parents to enact such strict measures to ensure their daughter's safety.

But just because she understood the root cause of her parents' overprotectiveness, that didn't mean she had to like it, and it certainly didn't mean she enjoyed being smothered with guards that made it impossible to run about and yell and play like the other children she caught glimpses of on trips with her parents.

Another exhalation of breath, this one accompanied by a frustrated "Ugh" that wasn't really a word, but darn it she was upset and disgruntled and would come up with as many non-words as she liked!

Emma continued in that fashion for a while, half-heartedly making her way down to the river by a path she had traversed hundreds of times in her youth already.

When she reached it, partly hoping there might be a horde of pirates that had accidentally drifted in by way of the sea (in a very small boat, of course), or perhaps a wily river-spirit that would demand she answer his riddles correctly or misfortune would befall her, she was disappointed yet again. The whispering waters of the river were the same as they always were: blue, rushing, and thoroughly unchanging.

Much like her life.

She was already resigning herself to another dull afternoon of aimlessly kicking her feet in the water, scaring away the odd fish that came to tickle her toes…

…until she caught glimpse of a bedraggled form with hopelessly unkempt hair lounging idly at the river side.

It was a very familiar bedraggled form, and she'd stared at those messy locks of hair for a good while when she'd been unceremoniously dragged through a marketplace.

A tingle of excitement at the unexpected coursed through her. Never mind the fact that she had never met someone so utterly irritating in her entire life—he was something different, and anything different was good.

Employing all of her considerable lightness of foot—

("Princesses float, Emma!" her mother reminded her cheerfully, demonstrating as she glided easily across the room. "They do not waddle, trundle, or do ungainly running about…except in dire cases."

"Like what, mama?" Emma had asked curiously.

"Hmm…running from monsters or unwanted suitors. Though I suppose they're really the same thing…")

—Emma snuck nearer to the prone body. His identity as her ill-mannered savior was confirmed the closer she crept, but he made no movement to acknowledge her presence.

From his heavy-lidded eyes and slightly parted mouth, she supposed him to be dozing.

The barest hint of a smile unconsciously curved upon her pert lips, a bloom of eagerness developing upon her round cheeks. Uncommonly mischievous, she cupped her hands around the outside of her mouth, inhaling deeply.

"Hello boy!"

The call, thoroughly unfeminine in its boisterousness, did what it was intended to: the snoozing adolescent jerked awoke with a startled yelp, his bleary eyes roving about wildly in search of the voice's source.

Emma couldn't quite suppress the triumphant smile rapidly stretching upon her face as his bemused gaze sought her out. She gave him a cheeky wave.

"Oh," he grumbled, with apparent disinterest as his eyes sought her out and familiarity set in. "It's just you, lass."

She watched as he yawned and sprawled back onto the lushly green riverbank, not as insulted at the apparent dismissal as she might have been upon first encountering him. One meeting had been more than enough to become mildly used to his blunt nature.

Heedless of her dress's hem, she plodded through the damp and dew-ridden grass and resolutely plopped down by his side.

One blue eye cracked open at her. "What?" came the tired grunt.

Emma folded her hands primly in her lap, even as she ignored the way in which her legs were ungainly splayed outwards. "I found you again, it seems. What were you doing, boy?"

"I was sleeping." This was followed by a few unintelligible mutters, inaudible even to Emma's sharp ears. "And I've got a name, ya know."

"As do I," she retorted in a saccharine tone. "But you've yet to use it."

A snort met her words. "Last I heard, 'princess' wasn't a proper name. 'Sides, I would've thought you'd be tired of fancy titles and the like by now."

His offhanded remark struck a strange chord in Emma, and she glanced down frowningly at her small hands. How had he, uncouth street boy that he was, known the discomfort and isolation her title often brought her, the cold jab that a lack of intimacy with others her age inspired?

"Propriety and royalty are synonymous with each other." The phrase rolled off her tongue almost involuntarily, Emma almost able to picture her mother's gentle eyes and lilting voice as she imparted it. She didn't add the mischievous addendum of 'usually' that her mother had tacked on at the end of that.

"An' who told you that?"

"My mother."

"And what does she call you?" There was a smile in his voice.

There was absolutely no chance that Emma was going to impart her mother's embarrassing endearments and her doting father's pet names to this boy. Teasing was obviously an inbred part of his roguish nature, and she had no desire to grant him any further material to use against her.

She sighed, blowing an exasperated breath out loudly. One hand slid gingerly among the grass, supporting her weight as she leaned over the indolent boy who seemed perfectly at ease among nature's cushioning bed. "You're being quite silly, keeping up with this pretense, you know," she told him quietly.

"What's that then?" His eyes were shut again, tone as placid as though they were involved in nothing more than the idle chatter that went on at tea time.

"Not knowing my name." She glanced away, plucking dispiritedly at rebellious weeds and random wildflowers. "It's not exactly a secret. Ask any person on the street and they'd be quite capable of telling you. I don't know why you persist in this…and I absolutely hate liars"

"Right." Emma gave a nearly imperceptible 'Eep!' of surprise as he abandoned all continued attempts at resuming his interrupted nap. Blue eyes regarded her contemplatively as he sat up with those unconsciously languid movements of his; soon enough an amused spark entered his gaze.

It was a spark bespeaking of cunning mischief yet to come, and it gave Emma a very, very bad feeling.

"What?" she queried with an air of discomfort, resisting the urge to squirm.

"How d'ya feel about games, Goldie?" he asked blithely, mouth curving up.

Her eyes narrowed, clearly communicating just how she felt about that particular form of address. Rapidly dissecting his words for any hint of trace of a trap, she replied reluctantly, "I…they're alright, I suppose."

Not that she was very familiar with many games beyond the sedate hours spent galloping her dolls about her nursery with her mother, or mock-wrestling with her father. Still, not wishing to lose face, she kept her features as stiffly nonchalant as possible, pretending her expression was as stiff as some of the court ladies' overly starched petticoats.

"Well, then. We're gonna play a particular favorite o' mine." He leaned forwards, surveying her with his unsettlingly keen blue gaze. Lithe fingers pushed unruly locks of hair off his forehead. "When I win, you're gonna tell me your name."

She raised an eyebrow at the overt self-assuredness in his tone, the fighting spirit that was natural in a daughter of Prince Charming and Snow White beginning to rally. "And when I win? What do I get?"

"You," he said, with a marked delight at her show of gumption. "Get to tell me to mind my own business and sod off, before marching away in a self-righteous huff."

Emma snorted, beginning to rise. "I hate to tell you this, boy, but I am quite capable of doing that anyways."

Her progress was halted by the light touch of his fingers upon her wrist. It was warmer than the kiss of daylight on her face, and was startling enough to give her pause. "But you won't." The smarmy smirk was back, making an infuriating reappearance.

"And why is that?"

"Because," he said confidently. "You're bored. And you think you can win." He paused, a devilish gleam dancing merrily in the gaze that assessed her. "Besides that, you like me, lass. I can tell." He tapped the side of his head. "Sixth sense, and all that."

Emma rolled her eyes heavenward, shaking off his hand as she reseated herself. She offered him a challenging look. "Fine. I'll play. If only to be rid of your irksome presence forever."

Long story short, Emma lost.


Dirty and uneducated the urchin boy may have appeared, but underneath the layers of grime lurked a shrewd intellect.

Staring resentfully at his outstretched hand, Emma grit her teeth and tentatively took hold of his fingers in a tiny shake.

"I'm Emma," she grumbled.

"Peter Jones," he introduced himself cheerfully. An amused grin played at his lips. "Nice to meet you, lass."

Yes, Emma thought darkly. She was definitely going to wipe that stupid grin off his face.

One day.

At nine years old, Emma met a strange boy and, by fate's intervention, became his friend.

At ten years old, Emma was pulled abruptly into the world.

Months after she first befriended that strange little boy by the riverside, he taught her how to climb a tree.

Oddly enough, that little interlude began with a pair of britches.

As well as copious amounts of mirth.

Emma couldn't help the thoroughly loud and incredulous horse-laugh that burst from her, violating most rules in the 'Appropriate Sounds Princesses May Emit' guidebook (sadly, such a thing did indeed exist—Jiminy was particularly fond of quoting it to her). She held up the stiff material he had pressed into her hands when she'd arrived, shaking it pointedly at him.

"And what," she asked, gulping in air between laughs, "Are these?"

"Breeches, of course," Peter said matter-of-factly, not even bothering to favor her with a glance. Instead, his attention was focused on critically staring at a tree of all things, rubbing the back of his neck in a gesture she had come to realize he performed whenever deep in thought. "Put 'em on. There should be a shirt in the bag over there," he finished, gesturing vaguely at a cloth sack she hadn't noticed before.

"You're in jest." Some of the laughter slid off her face as she realized that Peter was not, in fact, joining in her uncontrollable chortling. She blinked. "You're serious?!"

"Brilliant deduction, lass. Now, into the clothes. We can't do what I want if you're trussed up in that contraption." A ridiculing glance at her dress more than expressed his thoughts on her outfit.

"What you want?" she parroted bleakly. "And that is…?"

"Introducing you to the survival necessities o' life," he said without missing a beat.

"I know plenty!" she insisted, insult pricking her indignation. Did he think her a fool? And really, considering the drawling lectures that comprised her daily schooling, it was a bit rich for him to say she knew nothing of life. Desperately she clutched at her dress, eyeing him as though he might steal the very cloth off her back.

"Not how to climb a tree, you don't."

Her mouth dropped open at the glib rejoinder. "Climb a—why in the world would I have to know how to climb a tree," she demanded. Face paling, her eyes trailed up the behemoth of an oak that Peter had been contemplating before her outburst. "And there is absolutely no chance that I am scaling that."

Casting only a mildly irritated glance at her stubborn refusal, Peter turned and crossed his arms firmly. "It's useful, lass, that's why."

Scoffing, she began skeptically, "Useful? Really, Peter—"

"A hungry tiger's after ya," he cut in loudly, dark eyebrows raised and mouth mired in a tight scowl. "Miles and miles of clear land about, and one single solitary tree smack dab in front of you. What would you do then, Blondie?"

Smirking in a manner that was more suitable to something her friend would adopt, she replied, "Since no doubt you'll be nearby, having let the wildcat loose as some part of your daily mischief, I'll just point to you and say, 'See that boy, Mister Tiger? I suggest eating him first.'" Mirroring him, she folded her arms in a thoroughly obdurate gesture. "Problem solved, is it not?"

Peter merely scoffed, a reluctant hint of amusement peeking through his stern expression. "As though a tiger would eat me when there's a little bundle of sugary sunshine like you nearby, Emma."

The 'little bundle of sugary sunshine' promptly responded by unerringly tossing the pair of pants into a non-anticipative Peter's face.


Her attempt at simply walking away in exasperation was thwarted by an annoyingly swift Peter, who darted into her escape path with those bright, pleading eyes of his and tilted brows. "It's fun, lass. Give it a try." He paused, before plowing on rather indelicately, "And really, I think you could do with a spot of excitement. When was the last time you did anything more daring than try a new cookie at teatime?"

Oh, now, that was most definitely not fair, appealing to her sense of boredom like that. But still, Emma thought apprehensively, her gaze returning to the looming oak (she thought its wooden limbs were suspiciously shaped into the word 'DEATH', but that might have been a combination of her mind's over-active imagination and her reluctance). Between boredom and becoming a mother's warning tale about the folly of clambering up trees and subsequently breaking one's neck, Emma would have to choose the boredom.

At least she'd still be alive to taste the stupid cookies at teatime.

"Peter," she began, aping the no-nonsense tone that her mother often adopted when explaining to Emma exactly why roughhousing with the stable boys and soundly thrashing them in wrestling games was Just Not Proper. "There is absolutely nothing you can say, nothing you can do, that will persuade me to put even a foot on that tree."

Peter stared at Emma.

Emma stared evenly back at him.

Emma would later wonder exactly when she would learn to be more wary of the shrewd smile currently curling its way across Peter's lips.

The pants itched something awful.

She could almost ignore the rough sensation of bark through the thin cotton of the borrowed shirt, the tickle of leaves against her face as she tried to shimmy up the tree, and the bite of jagged twigs into her fingers, but she couldn't ignore the blasted pants.

Why boys ever wore them would forever be a mystery to her.

Grousing to herself about the foreign feel of boy's clothing on her delicate skin was useful in distracting her from the crushing panic of toppling from the beast of a tree she was climbing, but then she would catch a glimpse of just how far it was to the newly-appreciated sanctuary that was the ground, or Peter would say something like—

"You're almost there, lass! Just a little further is all—it's easy! I do it all the time!"

—well, something like that, immediately resulting in all of her initial fright to come rushing back in droves.

"You should have been born a bird, Peter!" Emma shouted without looking, fearful that if she did then she would make a misstep and go plunging straight down. Every sense she had was currently in a state of unrivaled turmoil, to the point that she couldn't even trust the surety of her own grasp. "If you like climbing bloody trees so much!"

"Language, Emma!" was the playful reply called back up, from the cocky prat who still had his two feet safely on the ground. "Remember—keep your mind off the height and think happy thoughts! Escaping from suitors, hiding from hungry animals—"

"Dropping my once-best friend from the very highest branch and see him take a gander at flying!"

Emma entertained the pleasing thought for a brief moment, and then sadly tossed it away on the reasoning that Peter would probably get caught by the forest winds and be swept securely downwards. He did have uncommonly good luck, after all.

"Yes," Peter's voice drifted up to where she clung tightly to a branch. "But in order to do that, you'd actually have to get to the highest branch. I don't see that happening anytime soon, what with the way you're dilly-dallying about up there!"

Emma glowered at a nearby leaf, picturing it to be Peter's smirking face. That was it. By hook or by crook, she was going to reach the top of this green giant and make him eat his own words.

It was with a triumphant yell, rather than the petrified one that she had started up the tree with, that Emma leapt to the soft dirt.

Unfortunately, the elation of her mood did nothing for the fact that the adrenaline was now fast draining from her body, leaving behind an inconvenient wobbliness. Her feet were still shaky and unconvinced that she was back on blessedly sturdy ground, and so gave a stumble that sent her careening wildly towards that aforementioned ground.

She squeaked as her fall was halted by Peter's warm grip—the same arms that had mercilessly pushed her up the tree now holding her close. Whereas she had felt that breathless exhilaration of adventurous fright up in those branches, ensconced in her best friend's embrace, she could barely remember what 'terror' even was. Sagging against him, she glanced up into a handsome face that held a grin wide enough to crack it.

It was with no little amount of pride that she returned it, momentarily forgetting her former irritation with him in the rush of her achievement. "I did it, Peter!"

"Told ya you could, lass," he said, raising his eyebrows at her. "Didn't doubt you for a moment."

A light snicker left her lips. "Is that why you were pacing below me with your arms spread wide? No doubt indeed, you worrywart."

"Saw that did you?" Peter sounded thoroughly unrepentant.

"When I wasn't staring up at the sky, praying that it wasn't the last sight I would see as I fell to my death? Yes."

Releasing her gently, Peter spun in place; arms flung wide as though mimicking the feathered creatures that soared above them. "But what a glorious sight, Emma!" He turned to look at her through messy bangs, earnestness in every boisterous gesture and every inch of his unlined face that had yet to be burdened with many of the cares and worries of adulthood. "If I were to die, that would be the final thing I'd want to clap eyes on."

"I don't want to die at all," Emma grumbled, trying in vain to remove all of the tree bugs and leaf litter that had found their way onto her person. "Which is why I'm keeping myself anchored to level land for a while, thank-you-very-much."

Peter gave her an understanding pat on the back, shooing off a ladybug and caterpillar while he did so.

"No more trees? That's fine. Next time," Peter said, with a positively wicked glee in his voice and a rascally look aimed at the river coursing soothingly beside them. "I'll teach you how to swim, Emma!"

And Emma, her formerly pale, milky skin now blossoming with purple, ground-and-tree induced bruises from failed climbing attempts and coated in a fine layer of dirt, replied in the most eloquent way she knew how.

Eyes crinkling in a bright smile, she put her foot firmly on Peter's back and gave it a swift push.

The resultant yelp and splash of water were, she had to say, most gratifying.

The summer months were spent disappearing into the forest to meet Peter at their special river spot, turning something that had once been commonplace into a near-daily event that Emma impatiently wriggled and squirmed with anticipation for whenever she was trapped behind the castle walls.

If her parents were curious about her sudden and newfound love for escaping into the surrounding woods they said nothing, content that the magic safeguarding the castle lands would protect their eager little daughter and understanding all too well the insatiable thirst for activity that youth brought with it. Emma stayed silent about her acquaintance with Peter, partly because he staunchly refused every attempt she had made at pulling him along to the castle with her, and partly because he was a vivid light that she wanted to selfishly keep to herself for as long as she could.

For friendship with Peter was never, ever boring. Many words could be utilized in describing what it was to spend time in the rambunctious and highly resourceful boy's company, but Emma sometimes thought there really wasn't any term unique enough to describe Peter.

Their adventures ranged from unexpected and novel—

(("Peter, a troll? A troll?"

"I didn't know it was a bloody troll cave!"

"Don't swear!"

"A big, man-eating troll here and you're lecturing me about my language? Really, lass?"

"The young lady has a point, boy. Improper language is the sign of a lazy mind."

"Thank you, Mister Troll!"

"Don't talk to the troll, Emma!"

"And why not? He's got more manners than you, after all."


—to the exciting and dangerous.

(("Hate to ask this, lass, but do you have any idea how we always seem to end up runnin' for our lives?"

"Yes, actually, I do! And I can say it five words, Peter: You and your brilliant ideas!"

"You were the one who wanted to venture into a shady back-alley shop! And then when you stumbled upon a secret wall, you just had to open it, didn't you!"

"Well, how was I supposed to know that forty thieves had all taken up residence there as a secret hideout! And what kind of password is 'open sesame' anyways!"

"Better question is, where the bloody 'ell did you even come up with that!"

"Don't blame me for your lack of imagination!"))

To be truthful, Emma quite felt as though she had been wandering through life as a sleepwalker, content to follow the comfortable paths lain before her without any real comprehension of what existed beyond the boundaries of those paths. In a colorless world, Peter was one of the few splashes of blinding color that penetrated the suffocating monotony. In a cocooned life, Peter was the insurmountable obstacle that refused to budge, forcing her to widen that narrow little world she dwelled in.

Not that she would ever tell Peter any of that, though.

The blighter had a big head and inflated ego as it was.

Emma sat at the tea table, mentally cataloguing all of the castle's books she could possibly remember and contemplating which would be best to bring along to her daily afternoon meeting with Peter.

The Iliad and The Odyssey were most definitely out—sometimes she thought he had scoured the pages so many times that the ancient words had been imprinted on his fingertips. Really, anything involving grand adventures and daring sea journeys and her restless friend was entranced.

She shook her head. Boys.

Emma had once offered to take along some of her favorite tales of dashing princes and romantic heroes as a change of genre, but his only response had been a slight snicker and a "Why would I want to read about a bunch of ridiculous ponces running about trying to rescue bird-brained princesses from a dragon's evil clutches? What tripe!"

To which she had frowningly pointed out that she was a princess, and therefore quite resented his rude generalization.

Emma hadn't known whether to be mollified or incited at his proclamation that he had every faith in her ability to out-shout and out-glare a dragon to its knees utilizing her impressive lungs and frankly scary gaze.

So she had settled for sniffing primly and whacking him on the arm with one such 'book of tripe'.

Their little tradition of the hours spent reading (interspersed between their wild gallivants through the woods) had begun quite some time ago.

Once she'd discovered that he possessed absolutely no degree of literacy (more like she'd had to forcibly drag the information out of a pink-cheeked Peter) Emma had taken it upon herself to adopt a role she never would have thought she'd enjoy: that of Peter's teacher.

Was he stubborn about it? Yes.

Did he complain loudly and relentlessly while she tried to make him sound out words? Most definitely.

Had she been forced to chase him away from whatever cave or tree he'd pelted off to whenever he saw Emma and the increasingly commonplace sight of her lugging a wagon of books behind her? More times than she could very well count.

It was an arduous task to be sure, but Emma reveled in the eventual spark of joy that found its way into his blue eyes as he had learned to appreciate the unparalleled beauty of words and the stories they crafted.

Of course, given that the little bugger held claim to an abnormally clever mind and honed wit, it had taken but a month or so before he had rivaled, and then gone on to surpass, her in reading ability. Irksome, but at least his eyes no longer glazed over in boredom when she so much as mentioned books.

Sadly, though, her lessons hadn't done anything for the atrocious spoken language he employed, which she sometimes believed was only one-fourths proper English and three-fourths horrid street slang.

Even then, Emma had the sneaking suspicion that Peter was perfectly capable of the former, but continued with the latter merely for the pleasure of watching her eye uncontrollably twitch when he butchered his way through a sentence. Emma was by no means exemplary of the refined and snooty princess type, but her ears could only suffer through so much before she tried to throttle him.

"Princess?" The nasally voice of the prince seated across from her loudly cut through her thoughts, jerking her back to the much-less-desirable present.

Emma flinched and dredged up a bleary smile. Speaking of suffering ears…

"Yeah?" She winced, refraining from smacking herself hard on the forehead despairingly. Clearly ruminating too deeply on Peter's bad habits translated far too easily from brain to mouth. "I mean, yes?"

In a rather new experience for her, the young prince regarded her with a frank stare that clearly communicated the fact that he thought her a half-wit. "Are you quite alright, princess? You seem…inextricably out of sorts."

Emme rolled her eyes.

Fourteen years old and already speaking like an old man—the toothless type that liked to pinch her cheeks and declare her the cutest little bug ever to exist.

Emma cast desperate eyes at the clock, biting back a frown when she saw the dratted thing had barely moved so much as a minute.

Had Peter been present, she would have immediately accused him of setting back the clock…one of his favorite tricks to play on unsuspecting folk, unfortunately. However, as she was well aware of his immense dislike for the castle and all of its perceived confinements and restrictions (no amount of cajoling on her part had ever been enough to persuade him to visit her there, after all) he wasn't a possible culprit.

No, she thought glumly, eyeing the droning boy seated there. It was more likely that she had earned fate's retaliation in some manner, causing it to vindictively slow time just when it was the most inopportune for Emma.

In other words, when she was being forced by her mother to entertain the adolescent son of Prince Philip and Princess Aurora.

A son who, as Emma had once admirably termed it to her disapproving mother and uncontrollably laughing father, 'had the personality of the icky slugs I find in my garden pond'.

She kept her gaze resolutely turned away from the beckoning window on the southern wall, which was temptingly thrown wide open in the hopes of capturing one of the cool breezes of the approaching fall weather. No matter the strength of her will, one glance out to the expanse of forest visible from the foyer and she would be utterly lost—abandoning the mealy-mouthed prince to seek out her lighthearted friend and a far more entertaining time.

Afternoons with Peter were always unexpected, with him eager to teach and tell her of all the nifty little tricks and crafts he knew, and Emma just as willing to soak up the information. They were just as likely to spend one sunny day lazing in the grass and cloud-watching as at the marketplace, Emma grumbling petulantly as Peter dragged her about trying to show her how not to stick out 'like a bloody sore thumb'.

Her hand absentmindedly fiddled with the outreaching edge of the strawberry jam spoon, surreptitiously tuning out the prince's voice (Goodness, she thought, was he still nattering away?) and sneaking another look at the clock.

Bloody hell, to coin one of Peter's favorite phrases. The treacherous thing had only moved only another minute forwards. It was doing that on purpose—it had to be.

She would have to see about Mister Geppetto crafting a new one come his next visit to the castle.

"Princess." The prince's voice sounded again, impatiently spiky and loud it enough that it sliced through Emma's dazed dreaminess.

Emma started with a jerk, her hand hitting hard against the handle of the jam spoon…

…which, unfortunately for the prince, went careening beautifully through the air in a smooth arc, splattering crimson jam in most directions—some of which landed on a surprised Emma, but most of which could now be located on the prince's silken cravat and vest.

There was even one particularly fetching blob which had landed solidly on the prince's forehead, making it seem as though he had a large pustule festering there.

Was it most unbecoming? Yes.

Was it one of the funniest sights she had been treated to during this very tedious day? Definitely.

Emma giggled—but forgot that instead of Peter, who would have helplessly joined in her laughter with his own vibrantly sunny one, it was His Royal Snippy-and-Boring Highness, who was currently bellowing at the top of his lungs about his spoiled clothing.

The heavy patter of approaching adult feet was already echoing in the outer hall, obviously heralded by the whining shout of her tea companion, and so Emma did what most guilty parties resorted to in such times:

Scooped up her skirts, jam-covered and all, and broke into a run.

Her laughter renewed itself as soon as she made her slipped out of the castle and located one very bored Peter, lounging around their climbing tree waiting for her. Peter, a befuddled look on his face, had swiped a fingerful of sweet red goo off her cheek, snickering at her gasping explanation of what happened and regarding her with a fond sort of pride.

"I forget you have to do things like that, Emma," he said, shaking his head. "Take tea with the likes of royalty. Don't you go mad?"

"If you're so worried about my state of mind, you're welcome to switch places with me," Emma called from her perch upon a low branch, which she had happily clambered up and was expertly balanced on. "I'll work in the smithy all day as Peter. And you can be Princess Emma."

She paused, mouth stretching into a suspiciously twitching smile. "Or would it be Princess Peter?"

Peter snorted, holding out hands callused by the proximity of searing flames and the scrape of rough metal. "I've seen the frivolous torture devices you're squeezed into, lass. And I think I'll take these any day of the week."

"Also you would have to actually clean up," Emma pointed out humorously, dubiously eyeing his handsome, if not soot-streaked, face, and untamable spikes of hair. It was such a pity his beautiful, rich brown locks were quite overshadowed by their wild appearance. "Which I think is a sheer impossibility for you, Peter."

Rolling his eyes and ignoring his friend's obligatory daily scolding about his state of cleanliness, Peter scuffed his foot upon the ground, kicking up a satisfying cloud of dirt. "Yup, never'd fit into the posh lifestyle, me. What with my lack of ruffled shirts and princely airs—I'd be tossed out on me ear just as quick as you please."

He glanced up hesitantly to where Emma was still languidly seated on their tree, hair loose and glinting in the summertime sun, and a small spot of jam decorating the tip of her pert little nose. Even in her leisure, every movement was still elegantly fluid, every inbred grace evident at first look.

She could spend each day traipsing hand-in-hand with him throughout the land, hollering like a wild child and rolling down grassy knolls, and yet she was still very much a princess—refined, beautiful, and a thousand times more worthy than any bloke in the world, him included.

Especially him.

Pasting on a too-bright grin and an uncertain chuckle forced from his lips, he asked, "Sure you wouldn't rather be back there, then, Emma? Being flattered and coddled by your various would-be Prince Charmings?"

In retrospect, he probably shouldn't have sprung such a question on her while she was so precariously ensconced in the high-placed branches.

There was a shriek as a surprised and horrified Emma slipped off the tree limb, toppling towards the ground. His body accustomed to prompt and speedy reactions to dangerous situations (honestly, it was surprising how few townspeople had a proper sense of humor when it came to his practical jokes) Peter immediately dove to catch her, and they collided in one solid thunk upon the ground.

"Ouch," there was a low whimper from Emma, and a corresponding one from the boy who had momentarily become her human cushion. Her elbow was jabbing painfully into the softness of his gut, and her hair covered his face in a thick curtain.

"Emma, love," came the muffled words from beneath her. "I'm tickled you're alive, but you're squishing me."

She rolled off of him immediately, getting to her feet and offering a hand to Peter.

"Idiot," she grumbled, grunting as she heaved the naturally heavier boy upwards from his ungainly sprawled position. "This is all your fault. Why did you have to go and ask a stupid question like that?"

"Why's it such a dumb question, then?" Peter returned, in a tone equally as peevish.

Emma wasn't quite certain as to why he so obviously refused to meet her gaze, busying himself with the pretense of sweeping away the dirt on his personage (Please, she scoffed to herself. As though Peter ever cared about his clothing's state of spotlessness). It was obvious something was bothering him, if his surly look and the frown lines gathering about his forehead were anything to go by.

They had had such a lark earlier, laughing about her little mishap with the prince. What precisely had she said to make him go spiraling down into such a contrary temper?

"Because," she sighed out, finding no other way to force the stubborn boy to look at her than lifting his chin up with one dainty hand. "You're my best friend. And before that closed little world of people who smile at me without your warmth, and look at me without your gallingly knowing eyes, I'll always choose you, Peter."

It was as though her careful words had flicked some instantaneous switch in her friend. There was a fair amount of relief as she noted Peter's stormy visage returning to its usual light-hearted expression.

"And besides," she continued airily, reaching out to assist him in brushing away twigs and dirt caught in his hair. "Why would I want to spend time with a boring old prince when I could be here listening to your tall tales? None of which I believe, by the way."

His laugh rivaled even the brightness of the sunlight tumbling down through the leaf gaps of the canopy. "Can't rightly think of a reason, lass."

One last flick at his head, and she was relatively satisfied at her work of divesting him of the earthen dust that had coated his hair. She stepped backwards slightly to survey him with pursed lips. "Are you quite finished with your bout of self-pity then?"

"I can draw it out a bit longer, if you like." His mouth crooked upwards teasingly.

Emma flinched at the thought of putting up with a moody, brooding Peter for the remainder of the day, and was quick to answer with a squeaky, "No thank you!"

She smiled up at him, anticipation flickering in the quirk of her lips. "Now come on, Peter! You promised to show me the fountain you discovered yesterday, right? Maybe we'll even find faeries there! You said it's their favorite spot to linger, didn't you?"

A flurry of blonde curls and a streaming dress flew past him as one eager princess darted giddily into the thick woods ahead, not catching the muted look of relief that had crossed her friend's uncommonly blue eyes.

Peter gave a mock groan of exasperation, shaking his head with a smirk. "So demanding. Oi, Emma! Wait up!"

At ten years old, Emma was pulled abruptly into the world, her hand clasped tightly by a laughing mischief-maker.

At eleven years old, a boy confided his desire to explore the unknown.

Emma tripped her way through the winding roots and snagging plants that littered the forest floor, her hasty movements spurred by the fact that her promised noon meeting with Peter had been delayed.

An impromptu visit from her Uncle Thomas and Aunt Ella had been the culprit behind this—and though she dearly loved her parents' friends, feeling a closeness to them as she would a blood relative, Emma always dreaded these visitations for one reason:

Dress up time.

Namely, a dress up time that involved Emma being whisked away by an evilly giggling mother and tittering Ella while her father and uncle guiltily slunk away. This then progressed into Emma being slipped into and out of so many of the gown-designing queen's creations that she swore a rash had spread like wildfire upon her skin.

For Emma had discovered that when you had a whole horde of mice and birds and assorted other creatures fluttering to attend to your sewing needs, it really sped up the manufacturing process and the number of gowns that were available for Emma to be systematically tortured with.

Needless to say, she had a much less favorable opinion of those aforementioned critters at the moment.

It was only after both queens had been urgently called away to deal with their respective husbands having set a portion of the castle on fire after having another one of their famous 'flaming archery competitions' that Emma, still confined in her ladylike prison garb (otherwise known as a fancy dress), had made a desperate break for the window.

Granted, getting out of the window had been transformed into a somewhat arduous process given the sheer number of frills and silken layers piled on top of her, but she had made it out eventually.

Even if Emma had felt akin to a cumbersome layer cake when trying to heave herself over the sill.

Unfortunately for Emma, the tribulations of the day were far from over.

About halfway to their secret place in the woods, the vicarious ring of shouts and wild cries met her ears. They were dreadful noises—screams that could threaten to rouse the dead from their slumber and send Emma into a state of statue-like petrification.

Another yell sounded—one she recognized to be Peter's. It was distinct for it was very much like him: coarse and unrefined, yet echoing with a power that belied his youth and slight build.

She hadn't thought it to be even remotely possible, but for the first time in her adolescence her heart skipped one of its life-granting beats. It was fear as she had never before felt it, not from the darkness of her bedroom at night, or when Mother brought in new horses that had yet to be tamed and therefore kicked viciously and ground their huge teeth, or when the horrible merchant had dragged her up into the air and threatened her.

This was…this was…

This was something that made her scramble through the woods, trampling heedlessly over pretty little wildflowers she usually took great cares to avoid and pricking her fingers on rough-coated vines that were impatiently pushed aside.

Her mind spurred her on, entertaining visions of Peter struggling hopelessly and at the rancorous mercy of yellow-toothed thieves that smelled like sour milk or cackling pirates that promised painful death by keelhauling (Emma wasn't really sure what 'keelhauling' was, but from what Peter had said it sounded horribly painful).

It was laughable that a petite little thing such as Emma would have been any match for villains as her imagination conjured up, but love makes fools of us all and clouds even the most rational judgment, and Emma was certainly not an exception.

So it was with fire searing in grey eyes and determination set firmly into her furrowed brow that Emma recklessly charged into her and Peter's special clearing…

…only to be met with the sight of a yelling Peter energetically laying siege upon a group of hapless bushes, a crude weapon obviously forged by inexperienced hands held tight within his grasp.

Out of breath, she fairly dropped to her hands and knees upon the muddy ground without the slightest consideration for the horrors it would wreak upon her dress. Despite the fact that returning to the castle with her attire in such a pitiful state would certainly mean getting a flea in her ear from Jiminy about 'how proper ladies should comport themselves' (and how would a cricket know anyways?), Emma was more concerned with not fainting from a lack of oxygen.

The boy turned at the rustling of the underbrush, the suspicion he wore on his face quickly morphing into a cheerful grin upon noticing that rather than the wild animal he had expected, it was a certain wild princess instead. "Emma!"

"What…in the world…are you…doing?" Her heavy pants, meant to regain her shortened breath, muddled what would have otherwise been a coherent sentence.

She received a bemused look, his messy dark hair falling into his eyes as he cocked his head curiously. "Did ya run all the way here, lass?"

Unable to manage another word, courtesy of the throbbing stitch taking residence in her side, she nodded. While normally her curls would have tumbled elegantly forwards at the movement, they now stuck uncomfortably against her warm neck.

Peter sauntered his way over to her, gaze bright as he crouched before her slumped body. That crooked, teasing smirk of his was back, the one she so very much loathed.

"Looks like prim an' proper princesses aren't cut out for forest jaunts, eh?"

He plucked pointedly at the hem of her dress, which was now sadly turning from Cloudy Sky Blue to Dirty Forest Floor Brown. Emma had never questioned her Aunt Ella's eclectic taste in naming the color of her clothes, but she had the nagging feeling the fashion-adoring royal wouldn't be overly ecstatic about this newest shade.

Grey eyes flashing indignantly, Emma leveled the sweat-speckled boy a warning look. "Who are you…pant…calling a prim…and proper…ooouch!" An embarrassingly sharp wail escaped her as the pain in her side stabbed again in protest. "Stupid Peter, this is all your fault!"

Peter rolled his eyes at the accusation, one hand already reaching out to probe cautiously at the felled princess's side. For all of his outward bravado, he still couldn't quite mask the small flash of worry upon his face.

"How is it my fault? And if you'd stop running your gob, the pain would be gone in a minute or so. I told ya you should've stuck to sipping tea and munchin' crumpets like other gentile princesses."

Still clutching her stomach, and wanting nothing more than to tell the insolent boy just where he could stick those aforementioned crumpets (in such language that most likely would have made her mother gasp) she nevertheless heeded his unwanted advice and stayed quiet. After focusing on taking in slow, measured breaths the aching sensation eventually tapered off.

Experimentally, she sat up, quite pleased when no immediate hurt assailed her. She offered a beaming smile to the boy still kneeling beside her.

Then without warning, one dainty hand sailed through the air and soundly smacked Peter's head.

"Oi!" He recoiled with haste, rubbing his wounded skull. His ire wasn't entirely faked, given that Emma, as the daughter of two very renowned warriors, had clearly inherited their strong punching arms. "What was that for?"

Emma climbed to her feet with no little satisfaction, staring down at his grumbling form as she absently rubbed her hand. "That," she informed him, "was for making me sprint through the woods like a horse because I thought you were being attacked by beasts or bandits!"

"You and your imagination!"

"Well, what else was I supposed to think, what with all the racket you were making!" Emma demanded, frowning disapprovingly at him. She paused in her encroaching tirade, attention drawn to the unsophisticated weapon still clutched in his hand. "And what is that?"

Peter glanced down at it, confused. "A sword."

"No. Really, Peter. What is it?"

"It's a sword. I made it meself," he defended with a glare. "I was practicing."

She sniffed, still feeling ruffled and more than a little vindictive from the turbulent events of the day. "It looks like a club. A misshapen club with nails sticking out of it."

An indignant squawk, emitting from one very insulted Peter, sullied the atmosphere. "Oi, it does not!"

"Does too!"

"Does not!"

"Does too!"


Emma's hand was smashed firmly against Peter's warm mouth, putting an abrupt finish to an argument that was quickly descending into the juvenile. "It does," she said with finality. "And why, pray tell, do you even need a sword, Peter? You hate being a blacksmith."

A muffled noise came from behind her hand—as well as the sensation of a warm tongue sweeping against her palm.

"Eurgh!" Emma was unable to stop the girlish shriek that flew from her as she whipped her hand away from a chuckling Peter's mouth and scrubbed it on her dress. She looked dolefully down at it, noting that in addition to Dirty Forest Floor Brown there was now Sticky Clear Peter-spit. "Peter," she sighed out, "that was utterly disgusting."

Hefting his sword up again, he threw her one of his carefree grins—the lopsided one that was meant to schmooze whoever he was in trouble with.

And bugger if it he wasn't successful with it a good portion of the time.

"Sorry about that, lass. But it made you remove your hand just as quick as could be, dinnit?" Emma ducked as a small clump of bush went spinning towards her, courtesy of Peter resuming his enthusiastic dueling. "And I never said I hate swords, just being a boring old smith."

Deciding that it was most likely less of a hazard to be on the ground, Emma sat indian-style on the soft grass, content to merely watch the amusing sight of Peter seemingly battling a siege of imaginary foes. From the look of intense concentration and grim set of his mouth, she could almost picture the hairy faces of ugly beasts and monsters that his sword swiped and slew.

"And what's brought about your sudden desire for practicing…swordplay?" Emma asked, while simultaneously wondering if 'swordplay' was actually applicable to Peter's flailing and random chopping motions.

After all, his form was definitely nothing like her Papa's controlled and elegant practices, his swings rippling with a restrained power, that she was sometimes allowed to be privy to. With the way Peter was moving, in fact, it almost seemed more likely that he was liable to poke his own eye out before laying even a scratch on an opponent.

"Preparing," was his distracted answer that only served to confuse her more.

"Preparing for what?"

Emma's nonplussed gaze followed Peter as he sounded off another one of those strange, hoarse-throated yells of his and jumped into the air, silver arcing as he sliced downwards to try and cleave a tree stump in two (she said try, because the sword merely ended up going partway through the wood and becoming stubbornly stuck there).

"Oh, curse it," she heard him mutter, grinning as she witnessed him try and pry away the weapon. But the stump didn't seem to want to relinquish it to him, and Emma giggled as Peter's frustrated oaths became more and more creative.

"Peter," she sang out, voice lilting and saccharine with playfulness.

"Mm?" His reply was only a grunt, as he seemed more preoccupied with irritably shoving his hair out of his eyes so that he could better glare at the sword and stump he was currently grappling with.

"You never said. Why the need for murdering innocent bushes and trees?" Emma propped her chin in her hand, her head tilting to the side.

"Because, lass," Peter said, a scowl in his voice as he braced a foot against the stump and pulled. "I'm training for the real thing."

"Evil sentient greenery that plans on attacking you?" Emma said skeptically. Living day in and day out in a world where magic swirled on the very air made for some very odd occurrences, but Emma thought that was taking things a bit too far. Busy picturing this in her head, she barely noticed when Peter gave a victorious yelp and went toppling backwards when the sword abruptly came loose.

"No," he groaned, hauling himself back up to his feet and rubbing the shoulder that had taken the brunt of the impact. "For when I finally leave this kingdom, and I meet foes of the non-plant variety who'd like to cut off my head."

Ignoring the rather graphic picture his words painted, Emma honed in on one acutely upsetting thing. "Leave?" she repeated, in a tiny, unrecognizable voice that approached muteness. "You mean…for good? Where?"

His eyes widening, as though realization of his own words finally sinking in, Peter assured her hastily, "Not immediately!" A corner of his mouth twitched up slightly, with an unspoken amusement. "I'm not going right away, Emma," he said again, with a soothing layer of calm. "Have to stick around to make sure you grow up properly, don't I?"

Her heart unclenching from its stricken state, and her throat allowing her breath to flow easier now, Emma attempted a tiny, answering smile, and pointed out, "Grow up? You're only a year older than me, Peter."

"But still older nonetheless," was his impenitent response.

Sighing with exasperation, and adamant that she not let him distract her from the topic at hand with his usual flippant manner, Emma persisted, "But where are you going?"

"In search of adventure," Peter said offhandedly, scratching the back of his neck. "To find wonders and riches and mythical creatures—that sort of thing, I suppose."

It wasn't horribly surprising, given that a majority of Peter's time was currently spent poking about abandoned caves and trailing through the forest, angering whatever people and beasts he stumbled upon in the process. One eyebrow rising in dubiousness, Emma pondered out loud, "But that would probably take you a while, wouldn't it? There's not really any one place to find all of that."

Predictably, Peter was never one to allow himself any discouragement—on the contrary, he heard the word 'never' and made it his mission to undertake some wild, risk-ridden task just to disprove it.

"Oh, but there is, lass." There was a devious Cheshire Cat-quality to that tone, the exhilaration of holding a secret unknown to others.

Emma blinked at him. "Truly?"

"Yep. My mam told me about it, back when I was just a lad in the Western Kingdom. An untamed and ferocious land—every night, tales and tales centered on it."

Oh. A surprising shock of disappointment jolted through her. "It's just a bedtime story then, Peter," she sighed. "Nothing concrete to go on."

She nearly jumped as a loud laugh snapped through the clearing, and cast an irritable glance at the culprit.

Peter was regarding her with a mirthful look in his eyes, twin flames of merriment burning in that gaze. "Nothing concrete?" he echoed, shaking his head. "Emma, we live in a place where people can waggle their fingers and turn others into toads. Where big scaly lizards fly through the sky, trolls dwell under bridges, and fairies get up to some right bloody mischief. I wouldn't go discounting anything on the grounds that it's just a story, eh?"

"Very well then," Emma huffed, annoyed as the chastisement. "If your fantasy land exists, then what's it like?"

"Don't know if I should tell you, Miss Doubter."


Wisely sensing that baiting the prickly princess would be a move resulting in an earful of reprimands about gentlemanly behavior, Peter relented. "It's the most beautiful place you'll ever see, Emma. Cross my heart."

Emma frowned. "Even nicer than the castle gardens?" Her mother and Doc had worked religiously on transforming the once-drab castle grounds into a world overflowing with exotic flora, flowers that nearly blinded with their color and twining plants that brushed lightly against you in greeting.

"Much nicer," Peter confirmed. "And a good deal more sensational."

"How so?"

"Cause everywhere you look, there's some new marvel, Emma." Peter's forehead wrinkled in recollection. "There's deep blue lagoons teeming to the brim with mercreatures and leviathans. Lonely mountains where dragons slumber upon hordes of gold, and green, green fields where the sun is perpetually setting. Day can switch to night in the blink of an eye, and you're never quite sure if you'll take a step in the summertime and fall straight into the dead of winter."

Peter's boyishly unpolished voice had dropped into a mysterious lull, the words a cascade of colors splashed onto a dull, blank canvas. "It's somewhere no-one can possibly be sad or hurt, where no-one ever has to be alone. Where boredom is the stuff of far-off dreams, and excitement spins the days."

Discarding his sword to the ground, he walked over to drop tiredly beside her—the most natural place in the world for him to be, as though the small curve of her side had been especially shaped for him to settle against. Emma was suddenly struck with how tall Peter had been growing as of late, for even sitting down levelly with her, he had to tilt his head downwards to meet her gaze.

"It's where I'm going to go one day, Emma."

Emma stared at him, grey eyes sweetly round with wonder and lips parted, as though she dared not breathe and disrupt the woven magic the imagery had conjured about them.

"And that place? What is it called, Peter?" she whispered, not drawing away.

A slow smile curled on his lips, with that languid charm that was as innate to Peter as swimming was to a fish. "Neverland," he said, equally as soft.

"Neverland," she breathed, her interest irreversibly piqued. She repeated the name to herself with a sense of awe, savoring the taste of it. Neverland.

Glancing eagerly over to her friend, she caught the same fervent zeal shining in his gaze. "Oh, Peter, it sounds lovely! Where is it?"

His blasé answer wasn't quite the one she was awaiting.

Pulling away with a shrug, he said, "Dunno."

Emma's mouth dropped open at that, her eyes narrowing with a sudden onset of her famous temper. It was amazing that the boy could manage to dispel the dreamy atmosphere with one poorly-formed, drawling word.

"What do you mean, 'you don't know'!" She barked immediately after her shock had dissipated, blonde curls flying as she sat up erectly. "Stupid Peter, you wax eloquent about a magical far-off land and then say it doesn't exist! You did that on purpose!"

Her indignation was greeted with gasping laughter, Peter's face turning a brilliant shade of red as he veritably choked on his mirth.

Emma waited in stony silence for his very ungallant cackles to die off, brooding at the fact that Peter seemed to be the only person she knew who derived great amusement from her anger-fueled outbursts. While her mother and father simply waited until she got over it, and Jiminy and Granny went to great pains to instill more ladylike methods of exhibiting her displeasure, Peter merely laughed.

It was only when his chuckles had depleted into little snorts that she deigned to look at him again.

"Finished?" she inquired icily, with all of the stiff composure her manner lessons had taught her (and which she rarely employed).

He didn't even have the good sense to look ashamed or repentant for his ill-timed explosion of hilarity, like most of the princely boys of her acquaintance. Rather, he just aimed his famous smarmy grin at her, one hand reaching up to affectionately tug at a loose strand of sun-tinted hair. His fingers lingered, twirling through her locks in a comforting fashion.

"Sorry, Blondie," he allowed, the meager apology not quite fitting with his still-present smirk. "It's just so like you—jumping to conclusions like that. So before you go about tryin' to do me in, I suggest you let me finish."

She batted away his hand, further adopting her mother's 'regal' pose as her back snapped ramrod straight and her eyes narrowed. "Proceed."

Neither could quite hide the smile at Emma's purposefully snooty tone.

"Neverland's special, Emma," Peter told her, a confiding undertone to the words. "It isn't just for anyone to find, y'know. You have to really want to get there, lass. Have to really look and struggle and try to happen upon it. Nothing easy's worth having, after all. Learned that from experience, I did."

"How?" she asked curiously, a little skeptical about that particular pearl of wisdom.

Princessdom meant never really having to put much effort into obtaining something—given, her parents did their best not to spoil her, but comporting herself in a well-behaved manner and earning high marks in her lessons was the most she had to do to be rewarded.

"Well, took me a while to wrangle your name from you. Took you even longer than that to stop you referring to me as 'boy'."

Her cheeks pinkened, and she let out a soft little harrumph. "I'm not yours, Peter."

"You are," he said, as though he were merely stating the simplest of facts. "As much as I belong to you, Emma."

That dragged another inadvertent grin from her, lips twitching upwards as her thumb scrubbed lightly at his soot-speckled cheek. "Mine, hm? Then why can't I ever seem to make you wash your face?"

"That's asking for a bit much, don't you think, lass?" he complained, eliciting a full-throated laugh from her at his very real expression of horror.

Emma sobered quickly, however, as something occurred to her. "But…if you have to go off and find it…that will mean leaving these lands…for a long time, right?"

"Of course," Peter grumbled, flopping backwards to lazily lie on his back. "Don't want to get stuck here forever now, do I? Working as a bloody blacksmith all my life, without any adventure?"

Emma had to admit, it sounded just about as appealing as being stuck in an itchy crown and tightly-laced corset for the rest of her days did.

She shuddered.

Despite how easy her mother may have made it look, Emma didn't fancy it in the least.

In a display that would have earned her a severe scolding from queens and princesses around the world, Emma plunked onto her side, mimicking Peter in her abrupt movements.

Trying not to sound too crestfallen, she muttered, "I guess you'll be going as soon as possible to find it, then." While relegating her to a future filled with snotty princes and frilly underwear that gave her rashes something fierce.

Selfish cad.

Ignoring the not-wholly-unwarranted ache that spawned in her heart at the idea of her best friend departing for distant shores, she flipped over lethargically in the sweet-smelling grass. She shut her eyes tightly, pretending that Peter would chortle in incredulity at the thought of doing such a thing, and say…

"Of course! And you're coming too, lass."

Emma's eyes shot open at that, blinking rapidly as she shook her head in mystification. Not quite sure that it wasn't her overactive imagination conjuring up nonexistent things again, she turned back to the boy lying beside her. He met her confused gaze evenly, his lips twitching upwards in an amused smile as he caught her astonishment.

She cleared her throat. "I'm sorry, did you just say…?"

"Really, Emma," he chided quietly. "Did ya think I was just gonna go off and ditch you here? Not bloody likely."

Returning the smile, she let out a hearty scoff to mask the relief she felt. "Well, obviously I knew that, Peter! After all, who else would be around to keep you out of trouble? Knowing you and your mischief, you'd be behind bars before you even got to Neverland!"

Rolling over to face her, their bodies unconsciously curled towards one another like two missing halves of a whole, Peter grasped Emma's petite little hand in his.

Pure affection was in his voice as he said, "Give me some credit, Emma. I'd be absolutely fine without you…" Before Emma's mouth could drop fully open and her eyes could narrow with indignation, Peter continued amusedly, "…for about ten minutes, and then I'd have no idea what to do with meself, lass."

Quite against her will, and despite her ire for his heartless joke, her fingers returned the squeeze upon her hand.

"I already knew you couldn't do without me," she said confidently. "Ten minutes? You'd be curled up into a little ball, sobbing out tears, in nine."



"Emma, lass, that's not how haggling works…"

"An adventuring pirate?" she snickered lowly under her breath, favoring her friend with a teasing gaze. "Peter the Pirate…somehow I don't believe that works, aside from some excellent alliteration. Maybe you should think about a different profession."

Emma kicked her bare feet playfully as they dangled over the edge of the wall they were currently perched upon. Splashes of light from the setting sun washed over them, her eyes entranced by the colors painting patterns upon her skin.

The sounds of the town not so very far in the distance winding down to sleep with the fading light echoed about them, creaks of carts being stowed away and the shouts of children lessening into the soft click of doors as they were ushered back into their safe little homes.

Emma herself would have to be thinking about returning to her own nest soon enough, before her parents thought to grow anxious about her extended trip into the 'forest'. But Peter's unexpected proclamation about his intended occupation had been surprising enough to push those thoughts straight out of her head and into a dark corner of mental oblivion.

Peter shrugged from his seat beside her, unconcerned. "I'll just use me middle name, then. Can't hurt."

"You have a middle name?"

A lackadaisical hum of agreement floated up in reply. "Yes, but I'm not about to tell it to you, lass."

"Why not?"

"You'll laugh."

"I won't. I promise, Peter."

"We really need to work on your 'innocent princess' mask, Emma. I fear it's taken a bit of cracking since you've been keeping company with me."

"If you feel that badly about it," she suggested slyly. "Why don't you just tell me your name, and we'll call it even?" It was a bizarre reversal of their first meeting, and from the laughing quality of his light blue eyes, he realized it as well.

"Fair effort," Peter complimented with a breezy air. "But I'm afraid you'll just have to find out with the rest of the world when I become famous."

She grinned despite herself, shaking her head at her hopeless endeavor of coaxing the information out of him. "You're so odd about names, Peter."

"Well, my mother always did tell me that they're powerful things, names."

"Come on," her pleading tone was joined by disgustingly shining eyes and a shapely pout. While not a technique she utilized often, she had found it in the past to be quite effective on getting the cook to give her a sweet or two before dinner or wheedling Jiminy into letting her escape manners lessons a few minutes earlier. "I won't tell. Or laugh."

An inward shout of triumph sounded as she noticed Peter's gaze was firmly averted and there was a faint tinge of red on his cheeks. His tightly-pressed lips were threatening to twitch into an amused smile.

Sensing his weakening resolve, she offered her most cajoling look and pressed her hands together in an exaggerated motion of begging. "Please, Peter?"

Finally he sighed, shaking his head in mock resignation. "Just can't win against you, can I lass?"

He leant forwards, placing his lips close to her ear in the confidential manner of secret-tellers everywhere. Emma held her breath with excitement as he whispered it to her before pulling away with a faint smile.

She repeated it softly, rolling about the syllables on her tongue.

"Oh, Peter, I don't see why you're so embarrassed about it. I think it's absolutely beautiful!" Emma clapped her hands as a sudden thought occurred to her. "It's native to where you come from, isn't it?"

He tipped his head in confirmation. One hand reached up to rub at his spiky disarray of hair with awkwardness. "It's a bit weird sounding though," he grumbled. "Don't know what my mam was thinking, calling me that."

Smirking, she suggested, "Maybe she recognized just how unique you'd grow up to be, and wanted to name you accordingly."

Giggling, she ducked the playful swipe of his hand. "Oi, I'm already regretting telling you now."

"Killian Jones, pirate," she mused, after she had scrambled away from Peter's fingers—he had an unholy knack for finding all of her worst ticklish spots, after all. "That does sound a bit impressive." Looking up, she gave her friend a stern look. "Just so long as Killian Jones is a good pirate."

Holding his hands up in surrender, Peter said, "Just gold and adventurin', Emma. Promise. Besides, you'll be around to keep me on the straight and narrow, I figure."

"You figure right."

Peter hummed thoughtfully, raising his eyebrows at her in consideration. "If you're to accompany me then, lass, we're going to have to think up a new moniker for you as well. No more royal titles attached to you."

A small spark of exhilaration crackled to life inside her, even as she tried to conceal it with one of her deliberately calm masks. No more royal epithets meant no more petticoats, pinching shoes, and breath-constricting dresses that made it near impossible to jump and shout. "I'll be…um… Buccaneer Emma, then? Do you think that's an improvement?"

Peter leaned backwards off the wall as far as he dared, favoring her with a teasing look. "Dunno. Is Buccaneer Emma still going to lecture me on manners and cleanliness as much as Princess Emma does?"

"Yes," she replied stoutly, unapologetic for her badgering of him.

A short laugh left his lips. "Suppose I prefer 'em both then. Whichever one you want to be, Emma."

She could feel the familiar heat of a blush unfurling on her cheeks. "Me too," Emma admitted quietly after a moment, glancing down at her hands—much browner from hours spent basking in the last day of pre-winter sun with Peter. "Whether it's Peter or Killian the Pirate…I like both people equally as much."

At eleven years old, a boy confided his desire to explore the unknown…with her by his side.

At twelve years old, Emma fell in love with a dear friend.

"What? What did you just say?"

The enraged shout frightened a flock of birds that had been peacefully nesting in a nearby tree only a moment earlier. Unlike the boy standing defiantly in front of the furious princess, however, they had the good sense to flee.

Emma was fairly vibrating with anger, her eyes snapping heatedly and hands balled up into tight fists. Her irritation only increased at the calm picture Peter presented, his expression as mild as a soothing summer's day in comparison with the raging storminess that was hers.

"You know that I'm right, Emma." His gaze held hers steadily, bright blue boring relentlessly into turbulent grey. "And it's for the best."

"And why the bloody hell do you get to decide what's best for me, Peter Jones?" Hands planted on hips and eyes narrowed at his sheer audacity, Emma hardly even noted the familiar profanity that was more commonplace coming from Peter than it was her. "You're not my mother, and you're certainly not my father—you don't get any say in what I do!"

She swallowed hard.

"We're best friends." Her voice cracked pathetically, the soppy words tumbling with abandon from her. "You said I could come. You said whatever happened, we'd go together. Don't you want me anymore…?" The thought was too upsetting to finish.

Emma had been raised in a household where a friendship once formed was absolute, and love was something you couldn't just turn your back on. Having Peter suddenly announce a change of mind and tell her she was better off staying ensconced behind the boring castle walls while he went gallivanting away to distant lands was therefore a wholly unexpected and wrenching surprise.

"Of course I want you to come!" The strangled yell, coming from her ever laid-back friend, was enough to shock her into silence, quelling the arguments that had been coiling in her mouth.

Peter ran an agitated hand through his messy locks of hair, ruffling them even worse. Perhaps noticing her surprise, he sucked in a deep, measuring breath. "I want you to come, Emma," he repeated, the words slightly more somber this time. "I always—always—want you. You shouldn't doubt that."

Ignoring the gentle rush of heat that his stark statement caused in her cheeks, she instead focused on the flare of her temper at his stupid, contradicting words. "Then what's the problem? Why would you suddenly just tell me not to go with you when you leave for your adventures?"

"Emma, you're not thinking about this clearly!" His hard hands, unnaturally calloused from his daily work in the smithy, rose to clasp tightly onto her shoulders.

But not painfully, never painfully, because he was Peter and she was Emma and he'd sooner have cut off his own hand than deliberately cause her hurt.

Well, physical hurt, at least, she amended in her head. Because emotionally he was wreaking havoc on her quickly-shattering heart. Distantly she wondered when he had gained this degree of control over her innermost feelings—him with his stupid blue eyes and stupid floppy hair and stupid light-hearted smile.

Stupid, stupid, stupid. Stupid Peter.

Emma hadn't realized she'd voiced this last part out loud until he gave an exasperated sigh. "Emma…"

Before he could further chastise her, casting her back into the role of helpless, air-headed little girl, she said lowly, "I have thought about it, Peter. Long and hard. I wouldn't be going if I hadn't!"

"And what will your parents think, Emma? When you don't come home one day? If you just up and leave without a word?" His voice was just as fierce as hers. "The people who love you most in this world…how do you think they're going to react when they find you gone?"

"Probably the same way yours reacted when you decided to up and come east, Peter!" she retorted.

His hands flew off her shoulders, as though they'd transformed into hot coals that scorched.

The boy before her shrugged, a slightly melancholy look entering his blue eyes. "I wouldn't know," he said shortly, tone changing from impassioned to utterly flat in the blink of an eye. "Me mam died when I was five. Sickness."

Emma stared at him, mouth slightly agape and the aggravated words on her tongue quickly forgotten.

The succinctness of his tone told her this wasn't something he spoke of often. And indeed, in the years they'd kept company as friends, she'd never once heard him discuss the subject of his parentage at any length or with any willingness. Small mentions here and there but—no word on their fates, and all of her tries at broaching the subject ended in blank stares or uncaring shrugs.

Sympathy snuck into her heart, a slithery shiver running down her spine at the visualization of a world without her high-spirited, lovely mother. In her sheltered little world, death wasn't something she was often given reason to contemplate—and her parents abandoning her in such a final way was too horrible to even consider. "And your father?"

"Passed 'fore I was even born," he told her with a dismissive wave, though his gaze was distant.

Her hands wrung together, clasped tightly against her breastbone. "Peter…" Emma's throat tightened and she trailed off, her heart aching for her friend. "You've been alone? All this time?"

As though reading the sentiments thrumming painfully alongside her heartbeat, all traces of sadness were immediately banished from his expression, and his usual cocky grin was fixed firmly back in place. "Not alone," he corrected with a scolding air. "I've had you, haven't I?"

Rather than giving Emma the familiar warmth at his silly, self-assured smile, however, all that it succeeded in doing was twisting her gut in a tight knot and causing her eyes and nose to become annoyingly damp.

He wasn't trying to make her stay because he didn't want her.

Emma scrubbed hard as her eyes watered further at the realization. He was trying to make her stay because she was the only person he had left to cherish…and he didn't want her to ever know such a lonely feeling.

"Stupid Peter!" This time she knowingly cried it out, catching the boy by surprise as she did a most un-Emma-like thing and launched herself at him.

Princess and pauper went flying backwards into the snow in a flurry of limbs and yelps and long golden hair that tangled with short, spiky brown.

The resultant cloud of snowflakes floated softly back down to decorate the entwined bodies, melting on the flushed cheeks of the girl holding closely onto a wide-eyed boy.

Emma's nose was pressed gently into his tanned skin. She couldn't help the faint smile at the soothing scent of steel and smoke that was uniquely Peter—vaguely she wondered if someday soon, when he finally embarked on his sea-faring voyages, it would turn into that of the salty tang of the ocean.

That gave her pause. Would she still recognize him, even then? Would he still be Peter, underneath the fragrance of the rolling waves and the burden of new sights and trials lining his face and darkening his eyes?

Yes, she decided. No matter what, she would always know her Peter the instant she laid eyes upon him. Distance and time and adventure could separate them, but she would know her Peter.

"My parents have a saying," she murmured against the crook of his neck. A laugh bubbled past her lips as she felt his body tense as though preparing to flee; she could only imagine the roll of his eyes. "Don't dismiss me already, Peter, you haven't even heard it! It's not one of their boring royal ones, promise."

Her light mirth was echoed, except in Peter's rapidly deepening tenor. "You know me too well, Emma. Alright, then, what do the lord and lady of the land say?"

Pinching his arm playfully for his cheeky impertinence, she repeated the words that had granted her immeasurable feelings of comfort growing up. They were words crooned to her as she was rocked in her mother's arms as a child; they were words whispered tenderly against her mother's cheek as her papa kissed her an enviable gentleness.

"I will always find you."

Her embrace tightened briefly around Peter's suddenly still form, before she drew back slightly to look up shyly into his thoughtful face. "It means that no matter how far apart people go, they're always led back to where they keep their heart."

Emma smiled, pressing one hand lightly where she could feel the tickling pitter-patter of just that. "And my heart is in two places, Peter. Part is here, with my parents and my friends. And the other part is with you. So I think…I think that no matter how far I follow the part you have, I'll always manage to find my way back home. You needn't worry about that."

Peter's mouth worked silently for a moment, before he closed it abruptly and his eyes softened. Emma waited anxiously for one of his pithy comebacks, or another round of trying to convince her against accompanying him when he left.

It never came.

Instead, his arms drew her back against him, and he clung to her like a child long denied affection. Besides their fleeting hugs and playful hand-holding, Emma wondered when had been the last time he had shared such an intimacy with another.

"I didn't really want you to stay." His words were muffled against her mussed curls. "Is it okay to be selfish…just this once?"

Emma's response was merely to smile and snuggle closer.

Peter wasn't there when she arrived in the forest clearing, at the precise meeting time they had agreed upon.

It was a tad bit worrying, but Peter did have a penchant for lateness, given that he claimed only grown-ups were fussy about being punctual all the time. Still, Emma griped to herself, one would think that on the night they had decided to catch a ship in the town's harbor to embark upon their planned roaming of the seas and hunt for thrilling adventures, the least Peter could do was be there to meet her.

A small bit of movement on the periphery caught her attention. Her gaze flicked momentarily to an oddly shaped tree positioned at the edge of hers and Peter's special place, before dismissing it as the mere swish of the wind upon the leaves.

Well, she amended in her head, she supposed after this night, it would cease to be their "special place", and revert back to being a simple clearing with an ancient oak and the hum of the river that coursed nearby. For Emma and Peter were what granted it specialness, and once they were gone, fled into the darkness as the clock struck twelve, everything they had touched in this kingdom would become a boring old pumpkin again.

Looking about, gaze skimming over the place where she had spent many a happy day laughing about nonsensical things and relearning the precious magic that was childhood…she realized that it was incredibly sad, leaving.

She looked down at the thin bag, bulging with clothes and provisions, that she held in her hands—hands that not half an hour previously had been shakily penning a heartfelt goodbye to her parents in a letter that would be found by them when they returned from their diplomatic trip. The feel of her mother's warm lips and sweet scent when she had kissed Emma goodbye just a few mornings ago, of her father hugging her tight and tickling her until she was breathless with giggles…those images had been torturously fresh inside her head as she had gathered her possessions, had caused a tear or two to slip down her cheeks and stain the parchment she wrote her temporary farewell upon.

The knowledge that her parents were as much an integral and necessary part of her as her lungs were for breathing and brain was for thinking was horribly overshadowing of the excitement she felt about accompanying Peter to strange new lands. Even the defensive thoughts that the separation was only short-term, and that she would be coming back to them soon enough, did little in alleviating the stranglehold that emotion's icy hand held on her throat.

But Peter was going, tonight, and if Emma didn't come with him…he would be going alone.

And despite the fact that being separated from him would surely be a terrible, splintering blow to her heart as well, she just couldn't condemn him to that sort of crushing solitude. Her Papa and Mama had each other, and they had her…but whom did Peter have?

The answer had always been clear, in the relieved little glances he gave her when she ran to meet him nearly every day, in the reverent way in which he held her hand and tentatively embraced her. Peter, for all his projected liveliness and confidence, had been perpetually afraid that should he hold onto her too tightly, she would shatter in his very grasp and be lost to him for good.

As much as Peter had been unable to resist rescuing a naive little girl in the marketplace so many years ago, Emma was just as incapable of leaving him to such a cruel fate now.

The reason for this was simple, the driving force an invisible entity that characterized all of the most renowned stories of the ages.

To speak of her love for Peter was unnecessary, and was probably a subject that would never cross her lips in his presence. Love, as Emma understood it, was something that was implicitly known by two people when it happened—as obvious as the fact that the moon rose in the night and the sun swept it away with the morning light.

Her mother had always impressed upon her that love was something far more than an exchange of pretty words…it was actions, it was proving the lengths to which you would push yourself for the sake of another.

It was a young boy taking her hand and running through the town with her.

It was a princess becoming daring and bold in ways she had never dreamed, just to stay by his side.

It was listening to confessions of dreams and wishes, offering only encouragement for their fulfillment.

It was…the tale of a princess and her would-be pirate.

A low rustle sounded, emitted from the bushes behind her. Emma blinked as she was rudely pulled from her dreamy reverie.

She spun, her expression brightening enough to battle even the enveloping darkness of the forest.

"Peter!" Emma yelped in relief, preparing to teasingly scold him for his tardiness. The lightness in her heart grew and grew until the previous somberness had been all but vanquished. "It certainly took you—"

The words abruptly died in her mouth, snatched away along with her breath and all coherent thought.

For what had emerged from the tangled blackness was not her beloved friend.

There was an oddly distant, far-off thud as her knapsack slipped from her numb fingers and spilled open upon the forest floor.

A menacing clicking noise filled the air, a beak snapping together.

Slowly, Emma swallowed, feeling acutely every ridge and bump of her suddenly parched throat.

Slowly, she looked upon the intruder of her little piece of forest, eyes strangely bleak.

Yellow eyes that shone brilliantly through the surrounding blackness were locked with her grey ones, madness meeting horror.

Its eagle head swiveled at an odd angle, bending and twisting grotesquely as it gazed at her. The feathers were matted with dirt, and caked with the brown coloring of dried blood. A pointed beak opened and closed, clicking and tapping as a line of saliva hung from its tip.

A lion's paws moved on the ground, the protruding claws scraping against the dirt and rock. There was a body covered in tangled yellow fur, muscles and tendons moving in tandem beneath the covering of the skin. It was large, so large and powerful that it towered in height above her—taller than even the grandest horses of the castle.

Wings were folded behind the heaving body, scaled and netted with veins. She was sure that spread out to their full breadth, they would span dozens of feet in a frightening display of power.

A young Emma turned the pages of her leather-bound storybook, staring interestedly at one particular picture. An illustration. An imagined drawing of a nonexistent monster of folklore and mythology. Sleepy eyes grew large at the creature.

The fearsome king of the air and covetous guardians of riches.

The creature with the sleek head of an eagle, massive body of a lion, and wings as scaled and large as a dragon's.

Claimed to no longer exist, having been eradicated by many wizards that had deemed such a beast too dangerous to dwell in a peaceful land, children grew up teasing younger siblings about it and adults utilized it as a fearful bedtime monster to keep their exploratory little ones in line.

It had many names, passed down through generations of whispers and stories.

She knew them all. But only one rose to her lips in a disbelieving gasp.


She was electrified, she was frozen, she was burning, and laughing and crying all at once.

There was nothing like this in her world.

They didn't exist in her world.

They didn't.

So what was this doing here?

Shaking hands reached up to clutch the sides of her head.

The Gryphon was staring at her, and it was a common look that all animals shared when on the hunt, whether mythical or real: hunger. Its body was poised tensely for reaction as it regarded her, every inch speaking of a killing desire, an intention to destroy and feed. On her.

It wasn't real. They didn't exist in her world. They were long gone. They weren't supposed to exist.

Her fingers fisted tightly into her hair, fighting to gain control of her spinning mind. Maybe repeating a denial of its existence was the key to defeating the horrible picture her eyes painted before her. Words were powerful things, Peter had said. And Peter didn't lie.

The creature saw the distraction of its prey.

Emma was gasping for air now, all of her passageways seizing up with panic.

The salivating monster saw a simple kill. It took the advantage offered.

It began moving.

And Emma was abruptly struck with the fact that as much as her mind could protest and disregard it as imagination's figment, her body could most probably feel those ivory claws should they sink into her flesh.

This wasn't how she wanted to die. She didn't want to be found, torn apart beyond all recognition, with only a few scraps of golden hair to identify her. She was a princess, she was Emma, and the ignominy of a quaking coward's death was not to be hers.

Emma took a breath and stumbled back a few steps, tripping over her feet in a blind panic. She felt herself slam onto the hard forest floor, crying out as her body twisted and impacted with the ground painfully, sticks and brambles poking into her sides. Her fingers clawed at the dirt, hastily trying to drag herself back up even as the ground vibrated with each thump of the monster's heavy feet.

Get up, Emma! she screamed at herself, fighting every childish instinct to simply curl up and wish with all of her might for the monsters to go away. Get up!

A loud, terrifying screech that was as shrill as a siren's wail echoed wildly behind her—right behind her.

Serving to motivate better than any internally shouted command, her body's self-preservation finally kicked in at the Gryphon's shriek.

With a desperate leap, Emma sprang to her feet and slammed against a hardy tree trunk—the same one Peter had first taught her to climb upon, making her hold her sides in aching mirth as he scuttled up the branches in a decidedly monkey-like manner.

The vision of the grinning boy leaning idly against the tree, his enthusiasm to see her emerging from the thicker woods into their clearing expressed with a cheerful laugh and a greeting, granted her the strength so drained by her fear.

As she so often did, it seemed she would have to rely on Peter to kindle the courage that lay within her.

Her fingers clutched painfully at a low-hanging branch. Finding purchase with her foot against the jutting bark, she pushed herself upwards until she was perched upon the familiar outstretch. Her arms shook with an odd combination of exhilaration and fatigue as Emma continued to lift and tug and heave herself to branch after branch, hands and feet traversing the oft-taken path upwards almost automatically.

Emma paused to catch her breath in the branches that were tangled close together, morphing into a haphazard mesh of leaf and wood that would most likely stop the creature from using its sizable wings to get at her. It was the closest thing to rationale she could summon in her frightened haze.

Her breathing resonated harshly as she prepared to move higher—only to pitch abruptly into a scream as the Gryphon, thwarted from flight, instead rammed into the trunk, snarls ripping from it and claws swiping perilously close to her as it strained to stretch and reach her.

The tree shook, as though disturbed by the mightiest of earthquakes.

A tearing sound caught her attention as one slash finally succeeded in attaining its target, shredding noisily through the skirt of her dress.

She blindly grasped higher in a panic, scrambling for anything to pull her out of reach.

The warning creaks that foretold a branch's imminent breaking were already rippling through the air, the monster's continued ramming against the tree and her own weight working against her. She needed to reach a stronger branch, now.

Otherwise she would fall straight down into those powerful jaws and eerily gleaming teeth.

Locking her fingers about the first sturdy-feeling thing they touched upon, Emma frantically resumed her ascent…

…and was plunged straight into the reach of the monster when she discovered too late that it hadn't been quite as sturdy as she'd thought.

Lying winded on a low branch now, Emma's vision was consumed with the two eerie lantern-like orbs of the monster fixated on her figure, growing larger as it stalked towards her with its teeth on display and claws flexing.

And because she couldn't think of this being her last sight, she instead flicked her weary gaze up to the night sky, recalling a certain boy's long-ago uttered words about this being the most preferable prospect to perish beneath.

As the beauty of the star-dotted sky seeped into her mind, granting her a measure of peace, Emma discovered that he had been right.


The voice crashed into her sensibilities, and for a heart-stopping second she was convinced that her mind had decided to play an unusually horrid trick of an illusion on her. Scrambling to gain a better purchase on the branch, Emma watched the outline of an unmistakable person tearing towards her, practically eliciting a relieved sob from the sheer force of emotion she felt.

"Peter!" Her eyes sought his form out in the darkness.

"Just stay there! Stay up there, Emma!"

The Gryphon snarled, its beady eyes gleaming as they swiveled from the girl in the tree to the much more convenient prey that had willingly ran up to confront it. For a moment its attention darted between the two choices…

…and then it spun with a growl, abandoning the stranded princess and instead lumbering quickly towards a determined Peter, his blue eyes shining coolly in the streaks of moonlight and the heavy weight of a blade in his hand.

He twirled the sword in his hand (Emma wondered when exactly he had grown so confident in handling it) and loped back a few paces, luring the beast away from the tree where Emma was hidden.

Peter cocked his head as a grim smile played upon his lips. "Come, monster," he said jauntily, his smirk widening as the thing roared in angry reply. "A princess and a pirate? Surely, you know you're hardly a match."

The Gryphon may not have understood the words, but the challenging tone obviously rankled its primitive nature, as Peter had intended. Peter danced away from its furiously swiping claws, parrying with a dancer's preternatural grace.

They were a good distance from the tree now, Peter and the monster involved in a frenetic waltz where a misstep resulted in a slew of blood tainting the air with a coppery odor and the wrong turn would be rewarded with a gory slash by either claw or blade. Emma could only hold on helplessly to the tree trunk, squinting her eyes to keep track of the rapidly shrinking forms of Peter and his foe.

A yell nearly worked its way from her mouth when the Gryphon pounced, spittle flicking from its protruding tongue as it sailed towards Peter. But Peter ducked; whirling about to stab upwards in one swift, sure strike. Emma winced as the beast roared in a fury, and then gasped as one flailing talon managed to directly catch Peter about the side and sent him rolling to the ground.

A small stream of blood poured from the wound, illuminated silver in the moonlight.

Her heart stuck fast in her throat. Peter was struggling to recover from the stunning blow, all while the panting creature stalked towards him.


It did the trick. The Gryphon's head swiveled immediately at the bellowed word, and Emma almost imagined she could see a bloody smile curling about its mouth as it remembered the other little human it had cornered in a wooden prison.

Emma pressed herself further backwards, hands running about the tree for something—a loose branch or sharp, jagged slice of wood—that could be used as a weapon.

She needn't have bothered, though, for there was another whistle of cutting steel as Peter, realizing to where the Gryphon's attention had strayed, labored to his feet and struck its side furiously. It recoiled, reeling in pain.

"Not her." There was no laughter in Peter's eyes now, no smile of any type to be found on his visage. Though his arm shook almost imperceptibly with a trembling fatigue, his stance was iron and his sword unwaveringly pointed at the monster. "Never her."

It was then that Peter's gaze briefly moved, for the most infinitesimal of moments, to where Emma lay in wait for him. She looked steadily back, an odd sense of forboding stealing over her as Peter regarded her with that soft expression reserved only for her.

It was almost as if…well, it was silly, but she quite felt as though this would be the last time she saw those blue eyes that burned with such a cacophony of emotions.

And then whatever it was that had passed between them was broken as Peter glanced away.

Lowering his sword, Peter took a step back. A fleetingly crooked smirk flitted over his lips. "How fast might you be, creature?" he queried in an inviting tone to the Gryphon. "After a life spent running, I wonder if you could possibly catch me."

The foolhardy thing that Peter was about to do came crashing down in one horrible realization. But before Emma could even open her mouth to call him every name that existed for ridiculously stupid people who did equally as stupid and reckless undertakings, Peter had fluidly spun on his heel and darted into the enveloping clutches of the forest.

An incensed roar was all that was left ringing in Emma's ears as the beast followed without hesitation.

Her mind racing to catch up with what her heart already knew, Emma was left very alone in the little forest clearing where the once-present laughter had been smothered with the screams of both human and monster.

She clung to the tree for an unknown length of time, ears straining in vain to catch any faint noise of battle in the unseen distance. Once or twice she entertained the thought of trying to find her way back to the castle to summon aid, but each time would be seized with the fear of being absent if Peter should decide to call out for her help.

But with an ominous silence that seemed to blanket the entire forest, Emma was being to think that it wouldn't happen.

That was until she heard the familiar hoarse-throated shout, her own throat burning as though she had been the one to emit it.


His desperate request that she stay safe flew as quickly from her head as birds startled into hasty flight. Orders be damned, she was a bloody princess and she wasn't about to cower helplessly in a tree when the person she loved most was…was…

Gritting her teeth, Emma forced her shaky arms and legs to begin moving, trying to find her way back down the tree in a state of near blindness brought on both by her own blurring fright and the night's murkiness.

After only a second, what inevitably happens when one attempts to shimmy down a tree in the dark occurred.

She had only time for a startled gasp before her foot met air rather than the support of a branch, and her fingers slipped on the wood she hung onto.

And then she was falling, falling, falling, wind whirling past her and her figure tossed mercilessly through a canopy of branches and leaves.

Unconsciousness had already mercifully claimed her before her body hit the ground.

"Nggh." Emma stirred weakly, feeling as though a thousand sharp spears had been cruelly driven through her body, pinning her to the spot where she lay. In a perverse way, however, the pain engulfing her so unbearably was welcome—it meant that she wasn't dead.

She curled up into a tiny ball, desperately attempting to dredge up the memory of what had led to her being upon the ground with the unpleasant feeling of every limb burning in agony.

Emma squinted, weakly struggling to turn her head to look about. A few meters away, partially obscured in the cover of a few outreaching vines and bushes, a hulking figure sprawled grotesquely. Blinking the sweat and grime from her eyes, she could recognize it as the formidable beast that had charged her.

Her heart seized in an instant of crippling terror, before she was struck by a realization.

The foul thing was most surely dead, its body limp and unmoving. A sharp glint of steel was illuminated in the moonlight that trickled through the trees—Peter's sword, buried firm and true in the chest of the monster.

Peter. The name jolted her sluggish mind into a more awake state, and the remembrance of what had occurred along with it.

Emma moaned, struggling to overcome the wave of nausea that engulfed her at the sight in favor of focusing on a far more important concern.

For if that was Peter's sword, then where was…where was Peter?

Her nails dug deep into the damp soil when she pushed herself slightly off the ground. Something throbbed unpleasantly in her arm at the movement, and she resolutely bit back the exclamation of pain that tried to worm its way from her.

Emma scanned the decimated clearing with unfocused eyes, her head still feeling oddly light. From her fall, she supposed. But her search did not yield the one person she longed to see at that moment, the one person who unfailingly appeared at her side as a remedy to her fear, as a balm to her vulnerability.

Were Peter here, she thought hazily, he would crouch before her with that lopsided smile of his, reaching out to take her hand with some remark meant to incite her into leaping to her feet. Come on, Emma, he would say. You're really going to let a little tumble like this keep you down? Thought I taught you better than that, lass.

Her fingers clenched reflexively at the phantom impression of those calloused fingers linking lazily through hers.

"Peter." The whisper stuck fast in her throat, emerging as little more than a frightened gargle. She tried again, the call of his name intermixed with a desperate sob. "Peter!"

When the low but blessed groan emanated from nearby, Emma hauled herself shakily to her feet with all the haste she could summon.

Bushes and tangled shrubbery were no match for her tearing hands as she fought to make her way through the vast undergrowth towards her best friend. Her flesh burned as thorns and broken wood retaliated just as fiercely as she pushed her way through, but she paid little heed to the sensation.

Especially when she finally, finally emerged from their depths and into a dank little niche of the forest.

For she only had eyes for the lanky figure lying motionless upon the forest floor.

Her heart beat faster, as though to make up for the ones that no longer seemed to be pulsing within her friend's dreadfully still chest.

The dead monster had brought with it nothing but relief; this sight ruthlessly shoved her into the very arms of terror itself.

"Peter! Peter, Peter, Peter." It seemed as though his name was the only thing her fear-numbed lips could form as she hurried to his side, praying frantically that his life hadn't slipped away in the accursedly long time it had seemed to take her to reach him.

Every step to her friend was preternaturally heavy, every gasping inhale sounding blasphemously loud in the solemn silence that lingered.

She collapsed by him, eyes skimming the nasty gashes that oozed his life's blood and angry red scrapes that liberally decorated his skin. His familiarly messy brown hair fell upon closed eyes, causing Emma to emit a soft keen and lean her head down until her cheek rested only a centimeter from Peter's still lips.

It was torment, waiting in that position with bated breath and a locked posture—waiting for even the faintest caress of exhaled air to indicate her dearest person was still alive. That he hadn't selfishly deserted her, resigning her to a world that didn't include his impish blue eyes and laughing quips.

Emma had heard the term 'forever and a day' before…but never had she understood it as ardently as she did at that moment.

The tale of her mother's enchanted sleep and her father's flight to her side was one that Emma had had spun for her countless times, but it was only now that she could empathize with even a tiny portion of what her Papa must have undergone.

Had he felt it, that aching sensation high in his chest, as though his heart might tear through tissue and bone and flesh with the ferocity of its thrum? Had his throat tightened to an excruciating degree, neither air nor tearful exclamations slipping through the fear-cloyed airway? Had he despaired, knowing that he might never again see the vivacity of his love's spirit or the incredible courage that carried him through each day?

Emma had no awareness of how long she stayed like that, bent over her lifeless friend, willing his chest to rise as hers did after every shaky breath.

And then—there! A ragged gasp of relief rushed from her lips in tandem with the soft stir of a breath upon her cheek. Peter's breath.

She was certain that she had never heard such a beautiful sound, nor felt such a lovely thing.

She sobbed, just once, and went to grab his hand resting limply against his side, fingers seeking to entwine with his. Even trapped in the oblivion of unconsciousness, she was sure he would know that she was there.

The pads of her fingers finally felt his wrist in the dark, but as they moved downwards…they encountered something soft and wet.

Emma sniffled, confused as she brought her damp fingers closer to her eyes. She squinted in the dim moonlight, raising her hand above her.

Fresh redness coated her fingertips, slipping warmly downwards to drip onto her palm.

She stared blankly at the sight for a few seconds that might as well have been eons.

Her dreading gaze traveled slowly back to where she had gone to grab Peter's hand.

A cry, wretched in its despair, shattered the deceiving calm of the forest.

She never left his side.

Despite what the castle nurses and physicians muttered, commenting on the futility of keeping vigilance over someone unconscious, Emma stayed stubbornly upon the uncomfortable chair placed nearest to his bed.

Her own wounds—merely a few superficial cuts and bruises—had been treated immediately upon her return to the castle, after she had somehow found her way back in the dark and dragged a whole host of knights and healers into the forest with her to rescue her felled friend.

Cuts and bruises were something that were easily mended, with stitches pulling together split skin and salves soothing the ache of tender flesh. Her heart, however, was not to be comforted with such straightforward methods.

Emma swallowed the rising lump in her throat, gaze inadvertently falling upon Peter's pitifully bandaged form.

Just as unwittingly, her blank stare skimmed down past his weariness-rimmed eyelids and to lips that mouthed restlessly in his fitful sleep, as though he were relentlessly calling for someone. The steadier rise and fall of his chest was scrutinized next, and then the sterile whiteness of the binding cloths about his arms, and then the…

Emma closed her eyes tightly, scrunching them shut with such a desperate pressure that she was sure it would cause an onset of dark spots to malign her vision when she reopened them.

I did this.

The unbidden thought had resonated within her, possessing her mind like a shameful mantra.

And each time she looked at the sad stump of flesh on her dearest friend's lower arm, tormenting her conscience just that much more, the words cycled back with a vengeance.

I did this.

Peter had been in those woods to meet her. To take her away because she had insisted on coming with him when he left this land.

He had run to her aid when she was in danger, as he always did, heedless of his own wellbeing.

He had taken on a monstrous Gryphon in battle. He had extinguished its life light.

The Gryphon had stolen his hand.

I did this.

She dreaded and desired his awakening, fearful of the potential emotions she might find in his blue eyes when he looked at her.

Would there be anger that she had ultimately been the reason for the loss of his hand? A terrible sadness that would destroy her just as surely as it would him? Forgiveness for her pitiful weakness? Not a hint of blame, since he was Peter and she was Emma and neither had ever been capable of ill feeling towards one another? Would he laugh everything off, turning it all into some marvelous game or joke, as he was wont to do with everything?

Emma wasn't sure which possibility frightened her more.

And so, when her friend showed the first signs of stirring, Emma's courage failed her and guilt drove her to flee like a shameful thief in the night.

She could stay by him while he slept, because while he slumbered it was so easy to pretend that nothing had changed. That nothing had to change.

But she couldn't—just couldn't—face him when he woke.

"Your parents are returning home immediately, your highness." The head housekeeper's stern voice cut through her pensive thoughts, bringing Emma rudely back to a world she had no wish to return to. "Sir Jiminy has written to them of your…accident. They expect to be back from Lord Triton's northern coves within the fortnight."

Her parents' imminent homecoming was the least of her worries. Emma merely gave a vague hum of acknowledgment, her eyes stubbornly glued to the sunset taking place outside her bedroom window.

Such a beautiful thing, something she would have normally marveled at…and yet now it reminded her of all the sunsets she had beheld with Peter, and all the ones to come that she was never again to witness with him by her side.

It was understandable, then, that she found the sunset the ugliest, most horrid thing she'd ever seen at the moment.

"Princess, that boy you brought in…" The housekeeper trailed off uncertainly; most uncharacteristic for the woman who commanded most of the everyday, domestic matters for the efficient running of the castle. But then of course, Emma had caused quite an uproar, barging through the castle doors in the midnight hours, screaming for help.

"He's woken?" Emma swiftly tamped down on the spark of joy the news elicited.

"Indeed. And he's been relentlessly asking to see—"

"I don't want to see him." Those words were more difficult to force out like nothing else. Emma struggled to keep her face composed in stoic carelessness even as she choked on the last word.

The flash of a mangled hand; his agonized screams echoing wildly through the castle as the doctors amputated what was left of it. I did this.

"Tell him…tell him to go. As soon as he's better, give him whatever he needs in order to leave this land."

I did this.

Her stupid, stupid helplessness had cost the person she'd loved most something dear.

And what would he lose the next time he was forced to protect her? His beautiful, keen blue eyes? His restless, exploring legs that spurred him to roam in search of adventure?

What else would he give up for her?

I did this.

Peter had been right to want to leave her behind.

I did this.

Emma's hands clenched tightly in her lap, voice blank. "And tell Pet—the boy—that I shall not be coming with him. That I wish him to depart with all possible haste, for I do not wish to see him or be exposed to the dangers associated with his reckless sort of life."

She could almost physically feel it, the fading future of her and him and adventure—doing whatever they liked whenever they wanted, so long as they were together. So many possibilities and avenues, so many roads to choose from…all were darkening into one dimly lit little pathway, one that would be trodden on by only a single set of lonely feet.

I did this.

The housekeeper studied her silently for another long moment, before bobbing a short nod. "I will see it done, milady."

As Emma watched her stiff form leave, she very nearly cried out for her to stop, to not tell Peter any of her horrible, unforgivable lies.

You did this, her heart reminded her cruelly.

And so she held her tongue.

She wasn't quite as successful with her tears.

At nine years old, Emma met a strange boy.

At nine years old, Emma met a strange boy and, by fate's intervention, became his friend.

At ten years old, Emma was pulled abruptly into the world.

At ten years old, Emma was pulled abruptly into the world, her hand clasped tightly by a laughing mischief-maker.

At eleven years old, a boy confided his desire to explore the unknown.

At eleven years old, a boy confided his desire to explore the unknown…with her by his side.

At twelve years old, Emma fell in love with a dear friend.

At twelve years old, Emma fled from her love a stranger.

The clock struck, sounding the quarter hour. Eight fifteen, heralding the onset of darkness and the stars one sailed by.

A boy, one-handed and swathed in bandages here and there, made his way up the gangplank of the towering ship anchored in the harbor. His pace was labored, as though only sheer resolve were allowing him to place one foot in front of another.

He paused at a roughshod man scribbling purposefully on a piece of parchment at the top of the plank, the man's attention only deviating from his writings at the telltale clink of a coin pouch.

"I'd like to join your crew." The voice was as hollow as the tired blue eyes. One would have thought it belonged to a world-weary man ten times the young boy's age.

The man scrutinized the gold glinting in the youth's outstretched hand, before his gaze flicked pointedly to the bandaged stump on the boy's left arm and then to the drained, thin face before him. He raised an eyebrow. "Sure yer up to this, lad?" A low cackle rent the air. "Ye don't seem ta be the sea-farin' type."

"I'd like to join your crew," the boy repeated listlessly, seemingly taking no heed of the man's jabs. "If my money's not good enough for you then I'll find another ship. Any ship will do."

The man's eyes widened with panic, and before the boy's hand could close completely the gold was snatched from it and pocketed. "Now, now," he said hastily, feeling the satisfying weight in his coat. "If ye want to get yerself killed at sea, I reckon that's yer own business. No-discrimination policy, that's me."

Fingering the cool surface of his newfound riches, the man cocked his head. The youth didn't appear any more cheerful at the outcome, despite attaining what he'd come for—not a flicker of excitement nor a lick of satisfaction shone in his expression.

"Who was she then?" The man's loud, boisterous voice cut easily across the gentle swish of the night waves.

The boy's head jerked up, eyes widening with the first sign of emotion. "What?"

A sly grin spread across the man's lips. "The lass yer so desperate to escape from." A grim chuckle sounded. "See, in all me life thar's only been but two reasons I've found that a man yearns to go to sea: a love lost or a thirst for adventure. Since you aren't all atwitter at bein' let aboard me fine vessel, I'm hazarding a guess it's the first, lad."

Gaze downcast and cheeks paling, the boy muttered, "It doesn't matter now. She didn't…want me." His voice broke miserably on the final word.

His grizzly face contorting into something that could be vaguely construed as sympathetic, the man shrugged. "Ah, well. Such's the way o' things. Let the sea be yer one and only love, that's what I always say." Turning back to his curling parchment, the man dipped the nib of his feathered quill in an ink pot. "You got a name then, boy?"

There was a pause.

"Killian." The name was whispered, nearly too low for the man to catch. "Killian Jones."

"Never say goodbye, because goodbye means going away and going away means forgetting."

― J.M. Barrie, Peter Pan

Congratulations if you've read all the way to the bottom of my first OUAT fanfiction! Confession: I'm a very new Once Upon a Time fan, so forgive any mischaracterizations. This story was a product of a 2 AM call from a bored best friend, who proceeded to rant to me about exactly why she believed Hook would turn out to have once been Peter Pan because of the title of the final two episodes. Thus, this story was born (partly because I was prodded and poked into writing it, and partly because I think I've fallen hopelessly in love with this annoyingly addicting pairing).

Three things: no, the Gryphon wasn't in the forest by convenient coincidence. Make of that what you will. Yes, I firmly think that Hook is Peter Pan—darker side of the same coin and all that. Yes, I might make a sequel, if enough people seem to like the story. Otherwise, I'll leave it as is.

Over 24,000 words of a oneshot later, and my fingers may be about to fall off and my heart might be on overload from shipper feelings, but if one or two Captain Swan fans enjoyed it, it will all have been worth the effort :)

(Plus, Disney references galore, courtesy of my Disney nerdiness! Also one small Lord of the Rings nod. Tell me if you spot them.)