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We're a Long Way From There

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This is a bloody foolish idea, Killian thought to himself as he palmed the keys from the nurse's station. Still, foolish or not, it was the only plan he had.

He kept half an eye on the exit over his shoulder as he crept down the corridor, muffling his footsteps out of habit. The distraction he'd put in place should have been enough to keep the ward's usual sentries occupied for some time. But he hadn't survived as a pirate for the better part of three centuries by allowing overconfidence to cloud his judgement. Especially not when he was dealing with something this important.

He wrinkled his nose as he walked, assaulted by the sharp, sterile stench of the hallway. The Psychiatric Ward of Storybrooke's hospital reminded him all too vividly of the brigs he'd been detained in over the years, dimly lit and somehow perpetually musty in spite of the great care its oversized inhabitant took in mopping it. It was one of his least favourite places in the town, and yet, necessity had forced him to make two visits there in just over as many months.

Thankfully, the windows on all of the cell doors were shut tight. He wasn't sure how he would've explained his presence had any of the ward's residents spotted him. No one would believe he was there on any sort of official business alone.

The door he sought was at the furthest end of the corridor. He slid the key into the lock and paused, listening for any signs of detection, but the ward remained silent as ever. He released the breath he'd been holding, easing the heavy steel door open and slipping inside.

Zelena was reclining gracefully on the hard cot that served as her bed, her legs crossed at the ankles. She remained engrossed in the book on her lap as he entered, steadfastly ignoring him. He resisted the urge to roll his eyes as she lazily flicked through the pages.

He shut the door harder than he needed to, pointedly drawing her attention. She didn't disappoint, her disinterested expression shifting into one of false surprise as she glanced up.

"Captain!" she grinned, a cloying smile with too many teeth. "Come to keep me company? How sweet."

She set her book aside, tenderly rubbing her stomach.

"Or have you come to help me escape again? All of this dank air can't be good for my baby."

He bristled at the reminder, widening his stance in front of the door. The Queen had assured them all that the witch's wrist had been enchanted to prevent her from cutting it or the cuff off, but he didn't plan to make the mistake of underestimating her again.

"If Regina has her way, you'll be down here a long time. I'd get comfortable if I were you, love."

Her smile hardened predictably at her sister's name, though she recovered quickly, her eyes narrowing. She pushed herself off of the cot, closing the distance between them. He quirked an eyebrow, subtly shifting to keep himself between her and the exit.

"So, what is it you want?" she demanded, all former sweetness forgotten. She made a show of glancing around the empty cell. "I notice you didn't bring any of your little band of do-gooders with you. Trouble in paradise?"

He stiffened, cursing himself as her smile immediately sharpened.

"Oh, I see! What's wrong, Captain?" she purred, pouncing on his momentary weakness with obvious glee. "Have the others finally remembered that you're a villain? Or have they realized that without Emma there to justify your existence, there's not much point in keeping you around?"

His temper flared, but he suppressed it. That's just what she wants.

"I didn't come here to trade barbs," he ground out stiffly. The distraction he'd set up would only keep the physicians upstairs occupied for so long.

Her lips twisted into a mocking smile, a glimmer of victory in her eyes.

"Oh, but it's so entertaining," she drawled. Her smile darkened into a bitter scowl. "There's been so little for me to do since Regina locked me down here without so much as a hearing."

He raised his eyebrow again, finding little patience for her petty grudge.

"Do you really think a hearing would've changed things, given everything you've done?"

She laughed, the sound sharp and tinkling like shards of glass.

"That's rich coming from Captain Hook," she retorted. "You may be spending all of your time with heroes these days, but we both know that doesn't make you one of them."

Her posture shifted as she leaned closer, staring up at him through thick eyelashes.

"We're not so different, you and I," she said earnestly, as though confiding a great secret. "No matter what we do, we'll never be trusted, and we'll never belong."

She pulled back slightly, her voice dripping with false pity.

"The only difference is, I'm quite happy not belonging, whereas you've deluded yourself into believing that if you try just a little harder, they'll actually accept you."

He glared, biting back the sharp retort on the tip of his tongue. He refused to give her the satisfaction.

She watched him carefully as she waited, her features slowly bleeding into a pout at his continued silence. A moment later, she huffed, dropping the act and turning back to her cot with a dismissive roll of her eyes.

"Well, if you're not here to let me out, then why are you here?"

His fingers curled into a fist.

"I want to know what Emma's planning."

She glanced back over her shoulder, her face a mask of innocence that was far too perfect to be believed. "How would I know what she's up to?" she said. "Thanks to her, my memories of Camelot are missing the same as the rest of you."

She frowned, turning fully to face him.

"And why not ask your precious Sorcerer what she's up to?" she asked, watching him with mild curiosity. "I heard you finally found him."

Killian repressed a scowl, stamping down the familiar spike of irritation that seemed to arise whenever the Sorcerer was mentioned.

It'd been three days since they'd found the man the Apprentice had promised would be the key to saving Emma. He'd been trapped inside of a large oak tree in the outskirts of Storybrooke's woods, unable to move or talk until Regina's spell had freed him. But for all of the Apprentice's assurances, Merlin had had disappointingly few answers for them following his release, claiming to have been affected by the same memory spell as the rest of them. Despite this, he remained steadfast in his assertions that Emma was the cause of his imprisonment.

Zelena studied him in his silence, tilting her head to the side.

"Ah, you don't trust him, do you?" she surmised with delight.

He inhaled deeply, wondering if there was any point in attempting to deny it.

He wasn't certain what it was about Merlin that put him on edge, but ever since they'd rescued him, Killian's instincts had been on high alert. More than once, he'd caught the Sorcerer quietly watching him, his penetrating stare making Killian uneasy.

Of course, the others hadn't shared his concerns, David going as far as to accuse him of undermining their first real chance at helping Emma. Killian couldn't blame them for their frustration — he shared it himself — but he couldn't bring himself to throw his loyalty blindly behind a man whose story didn't line up. Still, he'd had enough sense to keep his suspicions to himself after that.

He wasn't eager to confide in Zelena of all people, but it wasn't as though she had a multitude of people to share his doubts with down here. She could also be infuriatingly relentless when she wanted something. She would keep digging until he capitulated, which would only waste even more precious time.

He worked his jaw.

"I think he knows more than he's letting on."

His sullen admission made Zelena's smile widen.

"Or, at least, more than he's willing to tell you," she said. "It's hard not being trusted, isn't it? But if I were you, I'd get used to it. Without the Saviour around, the others won't have much need of you anymore."

Killian forced himself to loosen his fist.

"The others are off seeking Merlin's input," he stated, an undercurrent of warning to his words. "But he's a beacon of light magic. I figured if anyone would know what a dark magic user was up to, it would be you. Not to mention, you were the Dark One's apprentice for some time."

A coy look passed over Zelena's features, her gaze darkening appreciatively as she slinked back toward him.

"Even if I did know what your girlfriend was planning, why would I tell you?" she asked huskily, her bright eyes trailing deliberately down to his lips, the act too showy to be believed. Like mother, like daughter.

He tucked his thumb into his belt, feeling more on even footing as he canted his hips in a disaffected stance. This was a game he was well familiar with.

"Well, as you've said, it's Emma's fault you've lost your memories — I doubt you're pleased to know she got the better of you," he reasoned with as much disinterest as he could muster. He pointedly took in her sparse cell. "I'd also wager it's been rather dull for you being trapped down here with only that wretched nurse and the bloke with the mop for company."

Her smile took on a harder edge once more, anger simmering beneath her fixed expression.

He smirked, laying it on even thicker, leaning into her space.

"But most importantly," he murmured, his face close to hers, "Regina's been wracking her brain for weeks trying to figure out what Emma's up to, and she has nary a clue. I suspect you wouldn't pass up the chance to show off how superior your knowledge of magic is compared to hers."

His reply startled a small laugh out of her, her eyes lighting up with the first spark of genuine interest since he'd arrived.

"Oh, well played, Captain," she praised, observing him with new appreciation. "Very well, I may have figured a few things out."

She returned to her meager cot, sitting primly on the edge.

"What is it you want to know?"

There were dozens of responses to that question, all ranging in importance. But in his heart, there was only one question he could voice — the question he'd asked himself a hundred times since he'd watched the woman he loved pick up that cursed blade and become a stranger.

"What does Emma want?"

"Why, what every Dark One wants, of course," Zelena replied with no small measure of condescension. "To cut out the light."

He shook his head impatiently. He'd had enough infuriatingly vague responses from Merlin over the past two days to last him a lifetime. "What does that mean?" he demanded.

She smiled, clearly enjoying his frustration. "It means that your precious Emma is going to reset the balance of magic in her favour. And, once she does, there'll be no going back — she'll be unstoppable."

Killian froze, pain lancing his chest. No. He couldn't lose Emma to the Darkness for good — not when he'd promised to save her.

He pushed his guilt aside, willing his voice to remain steady.

"How?"

She huffed, rolling her eyes with an air of vague irritation. "You people really have no idea how Dark Ones work, do you? What have you been researching all this time, exactly? Increasingly ludicrous leather combinations?"

"I don't have time for games," he growled. His hook twitched, his nerves vibrating. It was taking all of his restraint not to throttle her and demand the answers he sought.

She met his gaze without flinching, unimpressed by the implied threat.

"Careful, Captain," she replied. "The only reason I'm telling you anything at all is because I think it will irritate the Dark One." She sighed, pouting. "I have so few pleasures left in life, after all."

She smoothed her hospital gown across her legs like the finest of silk dresses.

"You do know there's a former Dark One in this very town who could give you the answers you seek?"

Killian made a face.

"No one's seen Rumpelstiltskin in weeks — he disappeared not long after we returned from Camelot. Not that he was doing much talking the last I saw him — as far as I know, he still hasn't awoken from whatever the Apprentice did to him."

Killian doubted that his presence would have made much difference, either way — the Rumpelstiltskin he knew would never have offered his assistance, at least, not without a considerable price. He couldn't quite bring himself to summon any sympathy for the man's condition, though he felt sorry for Belle, who'd been beside herself with worry throughout his infirmity.

He shifted his stance, a pang of guilt running through him at the reminder.

"Belle's missing as well," he added softly, though Zelena seemed not to hear.

Truthfully, Belle had been his first choice for answers. If anyone were to have an understanding of what made a Dark One tick, it would be her. But he'd found the pawnshop in disarray when he'd arrived earlier that day, the front window smashed in and signs of a struggle inside. Worse, the mess looked to have been several days old at least. With both sheriffs otherwise occupied, apparently none of the town's usual busybodies had even bothered to report the disturbance.

He should have checked on her sooner. Belle had been a constant companion by his side since their return from Camelot six weeks ago, offering him words of wisdom and comfort that he truly did not deserve. He'd foolishly assumed her absence of late was linked to her quest for her missing husband, consumed as she'd been with the task in between helping him research ways to save Emma.

He swallowed harshly. There was no way to know what fate had befallen Belle or her husband, but he knew with certainty that Emma was involved, the thought making him physically ill.

Zelena raised a thin eyebrow in interest.

"She's even further along than I thought," she murmured to herself.

Killian's attention snapped back to the witch.

"What do you mean?"

"It's not important," she dismissed, waving her hand. "But I think congratulations are in order — it sounds like your girlfriend is very close to making herself the most powerful Dark One who ever lived."

"Emma doesn't care about power," he denied stiffly, his nails digging into his palm.

"No," Zelena agreed with a disappointed sigh. "She's dreadfully boring that way. But she does care about what the power can give her."

Killian's jaw ached from how tightly he was clenching it, his frustration mounting with each of her half-answers.

"And what is that?"

"Why, insurance, of course. You forget, Captain, I had my spies watching Emma for some time — poor Walsh got particularly close to her as you might recall." His nostrils flared and she grinned, pretending to inspect her long, piercing nails. "I learned all about her weaknesses, what makes her tick. And the one thing that drives her above all else is her fear of losing the people she cares about."

His eyes narrowed. He hardly needed relationship advice from the witch.

"Aye, what of it?"

She shook her head, apparently exasperated by his lack of magical knowledge. "Well, isn't it obvious? Most people want power to make themselves invincible in some way, and for Emma, that means protecting herself from heartache. With all of that power, she can stop the people closest to her from being hurt or killed. She could stop her loved ones from ever leaving her, even voluntarily."

He swallowed, his ears ringing.

Emma's walls had always been high, always reluctant to let anyone close for fear of the pain they could cause her. As hard as she'd worked to tear them down bit by bit, to let herself believe that the people who loved her wouldn't abandon her, the orphan in him knew how tempting the promise of a guarantee would be.

Even voluntarily. The witch's words echoed in his mind, the phantom grip of a hand tightening around his heart.

No. The Emma he knew wouldn't do that, wouldn't take the choice away from those she loved, no matter how badly she wanted them to stay.

But is she the Emma you knew? an insidious voice whispered, his chest tightening. He wished he had a better answer to that question.

His internal debate had gone largely unnoticed, Zelena continuing to admire her nails.

"Of course, what she's failed to realize is that the more darkness there is inside of her, the less she'll actually care about her loved ones," she continued idly. "Soon enough, you'll all be little more than possessions to her — pretty playthings she can use as she wishes until she forgets why she ever wanted you around in the first place." Her smiled sharpened once more, her eyes locking on his. "A bit ironic, isn't it? Her son's going to grow up with a ruthless Dark One for a parent, just like his father did."

Pain pierced his chest like a knife, and he growled, his hook at her throat before he'd even realized he'd moved. "That's not going to happen."

She didn't so much as blink, her eyebrow rising in silent challenge as her hand slid pointedly to her rounded stomach. He grimaced, the tension seeping out of him at the reminder of her current condition.

She smiled sweetly, pushing his hook away with her finger. "Oh, I wouldn't fret over it, Captain. She may not love you anymore, but I'm sure the Dark One will find some use for you. Perhaps she needs a new pet?" Her lips curled as her eyes slid to the expanse of skin where his shirt buttoned, the lazy appraisal setting his teeth on edge. "You always did make such a good lapdog."

He stiffened at the taunt, vividly reminded of the agony of Cora's hand plunging into his chest, of fighting desperately against the commands Rumpelstiltskin whispered with obvious satisfaction.

He forced the memories down, his patience wearing thin. He had no interest in continuing to play her games.

"What's Emma planning?" he demanded.

"Oooh, right back to business," Zelena purred, tilting her head up at him. "What's wrong, Captain? Did I hit a nerve?"

He knew better than to answer. He'd already given her far more ammunition than he'd intended, his emotions too raw to hide behind his usual facade. Instead, he held her gaze in tense silence, waiting.

Eventually, she relented with a small sigh.

"It's quite simple, really. Merlin is the guardian of light magic throughout the realms," she said matter-of-factly. "If she's like every Dark One who came before her, she's planning to kill him with Excalibur and take his magic for herself, tipping the balance of magic in her favour." She paused, her words taking on a sanctimonious edge. "Not a bad plan, I suppose, but a bit shortsighted. Even dark magic comes with a price."

Killian shook his head, her words not making sense.

"Merlin's been trapped in Storybrooke since we returned from Camelot. Why wouldn't she have done something before now?"

She rolled her eyes.

"If it were that easy, any one of the dozens of previous Dark Ones would have succeeded. She needed to pull Excalibur from the stone — a task which no Dark One was ever meant to do. And she also would have needed to wait until the time was right to perform the spell."

He frowned, mulling over her words. He and the others had struggled to find some pattern to Emma's actions, some hint of what she was plotting. She'd been fairly busy the first week or so after Camelot, cursing several of the dwarves and taking great pains to taunt them all regarding their missing memories, but they'd seen less and less of her as time passed. He'd assumed she was still angry with him after the confrontation aboard his ship, but if Zelena's words were true, perhaps she had just been biding her time, waiting for the perfect moment to put her plan into action.

"How exactly were you planning on stopping her, anyway?" Zelena's voice interrupted his thoughts. "I don't think batting those pretty eyelashes at her will be enough. But then, you already knew that, didn't you? I heard you tried True Love's Kiss and the curse never even wavered." She pouted at him, the effect ruined by the obvious amusement in her eyes. "Guess your love wasn't as strong as you thought."

He inhaled sharply at the reminder, making a mental note to find whoever had been passing local gossip along to the witch and threaten them mercilessly.

"I'll figure something out," he deflected gruffly. "When's the spell meant to take place?"

She glanced up at the cell's tiny barred window.

"Well, it's a full moon tonight, which means she's probably out searching for him right now. I'd hurry, if I were you — you wouldn't want to miss the show."

His breath caught as he followed her gaze to the darkening sky outside.

Gods. What if he was already too late?

He wrenched the door open, slamming it closed behind him, caring little now for the noise it made. He raced for the stairs, ignoring the sound of Zelena's laughter echoing behind him as he tossed the keys at the nurse's desk.

His boots squeaked on the floor as he ran, his heart pounding.

He couldn't fail her. Not again.

* * *

It's time. Emma stood a little taller, her magic sending a small thrill down her spine. Her fingers wrapped gracefully around the grip of the sword.

The Sorcerer — she sneered at the title, the voices in her head hissing at the self-righteous moniker he'd given himself — was staring out at the pond, apparently lost in thought.

He should have known better than to be out there all alone. Then again, he had always underestimated the Dark One. She smirked to herself, hefting the long blade in her hand. He'd regret his arrogance soon enough.

She stepped out of the shadows of the trees.

"Did you think you could hide from me?" she called, her dainty voice belying the anger beneath.

It had been three days since the others had freed Merlin from the tree — poetic justice, in her mind, caging him inside the very tree she'd freed him from in Camelot. She much preferred the silent, arboreal version of the Sorcerer — unable to spread further lies, helpless to do anything but watch the pieces of her victory fall into place.

The others had been overjoyed to find him, convinced he was the key to removing the Darkness from her. No doubt he'd spent the last three days filling their heads with his prophecies and warnings just as he had before, convincing his captive audience that he knew best. It was almost pathetic how eagerly they clung to his every word, believing they finally had an advantage over her — but if they thought anything happened in this town without her knowing, they were sorely mistaken. True, she hadn't expected them to find Merlin so quickly, but their releasing him a few days early had proven to be only a minor inconvenience.

Storybrooke wasn't a big town. Even without her powers, there was nowhere she wouldn't find him.

Merlin slowly turned his attention from the pond.

"I'm not hiding, Emma."

His gaze fell to Excalibur, the heavy sword glimmering in the moonlight. She smirked, letting the light catch the blade, its power humming against her skin.

"So, you pulled the sword from the stone."

Her skin prickled. He was too measured, too calm. She bristled, overcome with the urge to knock that patronizing look right off his face. She wasn't the same scared little girl he'd cornered at that movie theatre all those years ago.

She stood proudly, lifting the blade higher.

"You didn't think I could do it." He'd underestimated her, just like the others. He'd thought her too weak to do what needed to be done, to overcome the spell he'd placed on the stone that housed Excalibur, but she'd succeeded in the end. The only Dark One to ever accomplish it. The only Dark One destined for more.

Merlin shook his head. "I warned you a long time ago, Emma," he said, his heavy green and gold robes rustling in the night wind. The effect made him look even more pretentious, if such a feat were even possible.

"This power you seek — you think you can use it to hold on to what's closest to you, but it comes at a heavy price."

She straightened, a smirk playing at her lips once more.

"What, being a Dark One?" she taunted, cocking her head. "If it means getting what I want, I can deal with a small makeover."

"The price you pay will be higher than that," he warned. "And in the end, it won't get you want you want."

Her red lips curled into a sardonic smile, wondering how the others had ever fallen for his lies. She gave the sword a lazy twirl. "Maybe the other Dark Ones had to pay, but I'm the most powerful Dark One who ever lived. It's different for me."

"That's the Darkness talking," he replied harshly, "telling you that you can bend the rules — every Dark One before you has thought the same at their peril." He shook his head again. "The Darkness doesn't care about you, Emma. It only cares what you can do for it. It's using you for its own goals, but in the end, you'll be the one who pays."

"He's lying," Rumpelstiltskin hissed over her shoulder, a familiar giggle accompanying his words. "He wants you to doubt yourself, to make you the way you were before." She felt his presence at her back, his certainty making her thoughts clear and sharp. "Why not show him what real power can do?"

She lifted her chin.

"You're wrong," she said, her steady voice echoing over the water. "I listened to your lies back in Camelot because I thought you knew best, but now I see your words for what they really are: fear. Fear that I would fulfill the destiny you tried to hide from me. Fear that I would surpass you." Her expression hardened. "That's what you prophesied, isn't it? That's why you turned them against me?"

"They didn't turn against you, Emma," Merlin assured her in that same condescending tone, his warm voice like nails on her skin. "Your family has always loved you, but the Darkness is warping you. You can't see the way it's twisted everything."

"You're wrong," she repeated, snarling. She didn't need him to tell her what she'd seen with her own eyes.

"Enough chit-chat, dearie," Rumpelstiltskin urged eagerly. "Finish this and take what's rightfully yours."

She glanced up at the moon, feeling Excalibur's magic ignite in her grip. She widened her stance, preparing to attack.

Finally, it was her time to win.

"Emma, stop!"

She turned to see Killian running toward them from the direction of the town. Her parents and son trailed just behind him, Regina and Robin bringing up the rear. She felt a surge of irritation. Of course, they would choose this moment to stick their noses where they didn't belong — now, when she was so close to succeeding.

"Swan," Killian panted as he came to a stop just short of where Merlin still stood silently, his hand raised as if to halt the blade. "Please, don't do this. It's not too late. We can still defeat the Darkness."

His words were laced with desperation, his eyes pleading as his chest heaved from what must have been a long, hard race to stop her. The others spread out beside him, their expressions far warier.

"He's right," Mary Margaret said, her voice pitched in the same kind and familiar tone that Emma had once thought of as her 'princess voice' — the one she used on small animals and other creatures she wished to gain the trust of. Emma wondered if she even realized that she and David had stepped in front of Henry, subtly blocking her from him. "Please, Emma, we care about you."

Emma arched a thin eyebrow.

"Really? Is that why you brought your weapons with you?" she asked, eyeing the bow in her hands. Her mother had the good grace to look contrite, shifting the bow behind her leg slightly to hide it from view.

Regina, on the other hand, showed no such shame. She raised her arm, a fireball bursting to life in her palm.

"If you think we're going to stand by and let you turn yourself into the uber-Dark One, you've got another thing coming," she said haughtily. David stepped between them, gesturing for Regina to back down.

"We don't want to fight you," he assured Emma, lowering his sword. "We know this isn't you. You don't want to do this," he said sensibly.

"They still want to control you," Rumpelstiltskin warned, appearing behind her father. "They still don't trust you to know what's best. They want to keep you weak."

She watched the imp circle her family, pausing next to Killian. He was the only one besides Henry who hadn't drawn a weapon, his hook still at his side as his deep blue eyes bore a hole in her head. She felt a small twinge of uncertainty at the heartache she saw there.

Rumpelstiltskin cackled, waving his hand in front of an oblivious Killian's face.

"They don't want you for your true self, dearie, which means it's only a matter of time before they decide you're not good enough." He turned his focus back to her, his former amusement vanishing. "Unless you stop that from happening."

"Mom..." Henry's small voice brought her attention back to the others, but apparently, he could think of nothing else to say.

"Please, Swan, don't do this," Killian urged, his voice cracking, still unaware of his invisible shadow. "You can still come back from this."

He sounded so broken, so worried. A part of her longed to run to him, but she pushed the feeling aside. She couldn't let her resolve weaken. She was doing this for him — for all of them. She couldn't let anyone stand in her way. They would understand once it was over.

Mary Margaret edged toward her, mistaking her silence for hesitation. Hope blossomed across her mother's features, her bow hanging in a loose grip. "Emma, please, we don't want to hurt you."

Emma narrowed her eyes, feeling her resolve slip back into place.

"Nothing can hurt a Dark One."

She flicked her wrist, sending everyone but Merlin flying through the air. She didn't spare them another glance as a barrier shimmered to life, blocking them off from her and her prey. Her magic would keep them at bay while she completed her task.

She gripped Excalibur's hilt with both hands and lunged. She swung at the Sorcerer, the blade missing by mere inches as he leaned back infinitesimally. The momentum sent her stumbling.

"You won't win, Emma," Merlin said, his face as impassive as ever. "The Darkness won't give you what you want."

She re-centered herself, adjusting her grip on the sword.

Merlin watched her with obvious pity, seemingly unconcerned by her attack. "And the cost will be a steep one."

"Finish it, dearie."

With a shout, she raced forward, swinging again and again. The heavy blade sang as it sliced through the air, always falling just short of its target. Merlin moved by bare inches, avoiding each strike with little effort.

He was toying with her, she realized with a spike of anger. He wasn't even trying.

"He doesn't believe you can do it," Rumpelstiltskin taunted, his voice now overlapping with the whispers of the Darkness. "He's underestimating you, just like they did."

Emma growled, swiping the blade in a wide arc. She would show him. She would show all of them what she was capable of.

A high-pitched shriek pierced the air, but she paid it no mind, all of her attention focused on Merlin. She could hear the others shouting as she struck at the sorcerer again and again, her frustration mounting with each near-miss. Instead of fear in Merlin's eyes, there was sorrow, which only fanned her anger.

His mouth twisted downward as he at last raised a hand against her, his magic blasting her back several yards.

She hit the ground hard, the sword falling from her grip as she rolled along the cool grass.

Another screech echoed across the pond, louder this time.

"Look out, lad!"

She turned just in time to see Killian shoving Henry aside as a dark, swooping figure flew out of the sky toward them. Henry landed on the ground, safe, just as the fury hit Killian full force with its magic.

His shout of pain echoed across the suddenly quiet park as the fury pulled a glowing purple light from his chest, gathering its bounty into its outstretched arms. A split second later, Killian collapsed like a puppet with its strings cut.

Emma froze, her eyes widening in realization.

"No."

Her hesitation was short-lived. Magic exploded from palms as she pushed herself to her knees, hurling two fireballs at the creature. But the fury was already flying over the pond to a shadowy figure that stood waiting on the water, its claws greedily clutching its spoils. A second later, they were both gone, vanished into the fog that had risen out of nowhere.

Numbly, her eyes traced the fury's path back to the slumped figure on the ground.

She scrambled to her feet, the magical barrier disintegrating as she raced across the grass to where he lay, the sword forgotten behind her. No.

"I'm sorry, Emma."

Merlin's words barely registered as she dropped to her knees. Hook's eyes were closed, his dark eyelashes fanned out over his cheekbones, his skin far too pale.

Killian, no, she pleaded inwardly, her throat tight.

Her hands shook as she ran them over his chest, his neck, searching for any signs of life. A tear, warm and wet, slid down her cheek. She felt something crack inside of her, her breathing growing more and more laboured.

"I warned you there would be a price for removing Excalibur."

She felt more tears building as she continued searching in vain for a pulse, the rise of his chest, anything to prove to herself she hadn't lost him. Killian's face remained still, his head lolling to the side as she desperately pawed at him.

Her breath caught in her throat as the Sorcerer's words sunk in.

It wasn't worth it.

She choked out a sob, pressing her mouth against Killian's. His lips were limp and unmoving beneath hers.

She hardly noticed the pulse of magic that followed, tears pouring more steadily down her cheeks, her lips slick against Killian's unnaturally still ones. This wasn't supposed to happen. Not to him.

She pulled back slowly, her vision blurry with tears. Distantly, she noticed that the colour had returned to the hand resting on Killian's chest, but there was still no heartbeat against her skin. No gentle rise and fall beneath her palm. Her mind was quieter — the endless whispers that had been her constant companions for weeks falling silent at long last, making the absence of Killian's steady breaths all the more deafening.

"Emma."

The gasp of surprise was just enough to cut through the fog of anguish that had engulfed her.

She turned back to Mary Margaret, whose forehead was creased in dazed confusion. David stood beside her, a comforting arm around her shoulders. There was a wash of despair behind his expression that hadn't been there before, and in that instant, Emma knew. The curse of the Dark One had been broken, and along with it, her spell. Their memories of Camelot had returned, as had the knowledge of everything that had transpired between them.

Her gaze fell to her hand again, the pink of her skin a sharp contrast to the black of Killian's shirt. Her eyes blurred with tears again. For the first time in weeks, hers was the only voice in her head. Too little, too late.

Her parents were watching her silently, and Emma felt a distant stab of pain through her heart. Before Camelot, they wouldn't have hesitated, wouldn't have let anything prevent them from consoling her, but things were different now. She pulled at the lapels of Killian's jacket, the leather creaking in her grip as tears landed on his chest.

Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Regina pulling a shell-shocked Henry into her arms, disbelieving.

"How?" She didn't elaborate, but her meaning was clear.

"True Love's Kiss," Merlin answered somberly.

Robin shook his head, his eyes darting uncomfortably to Emma and Killian. "Hook tried True Love's Kiss with Emma weeks ago," he argued. "It didn't work."

"The curse of the Dark One could not be broken as long as Emma clung to the power," Merlin explained. "It was only after she let it go — after she chose love over what the Darkness had promised — that their love for one another was able to break the curse."

She breathed in unsteadily, her lungs feeling too tight. Her gaze drifted over Killian's face, his eyes closed as if in sleep. Anger surged within her and she rounded on Merlin, her hands shaking.

"Then why didn't it save him?" she demanded, tears burning her eyes. "Why didn't the magic bring him back?"

"True Love's Kiss can break dark curses, but Hook is not under any curse," he said. "You were fortunate that his soul had not passed completely to the Underworld when you kissed him, or even your curse would not have been broken. His life was the price for the dark magic you performed." He shook his head. "I'm sorry, Emma."

There was compassion in his eyes, but Emma didn't want it. She was vaguely aware of her parents holding each other close, of Henry crying where he was sandwiched between Regina and Robin, but their grief felt like a distant thing in the face of her own. With the Darkness gone, she could feel everything again, all of the love she'd been suppressing for those around her, but she wished suddenly for the numbness the power had provided. She couldn't think about their pain. She didn't want to. It was too much.

Anger and sorrow coursed through her, Merlin's words echoing in her head. It was all her fault. If she'd let go of the power sooner, Killian wouldn't be—

She swallowed, laying her head on his chest. Killian's necklaces dug creases into her cheek as a new wave of tears formed in her eyes.

I'm sorry. I'm so sorry.

* * *

Killian woke slowly, his palm scraping across ashy gravel. The ground beneath him was dry and uneven, tiny bits of dark gray stone and grit lodging beneath his fingernails.

He groaned, his eyes focusing slowly on the unfamiliar terrain. It was a cavern of some sort, lined in dark rock as far as he could see. The deep gray and black stone reminded him of the cliffs near Dead Man's Peak though, unlike Neverland, there was no sky overhead to light his path. Instead, the space around him was lit with a sickly green hue that brought back memories of too many stormy nights at sea. He twisted his head, but he could find no source for the light. It was as if the air itself was glowing.

What—

He struggled to recall how he had gotten there, his memories cloudy. There had been something important he'd been after, something he'd been trying to stop—

Swan. The witch's words echoed in his head, dire prophecies of what would befall her if they failed to reach her in time. He'd rallied the others to his cause quickly enough, but his mind was slow in putting together the pieces of what had transpired thereafter. He scanned the area again, but there was no sign of Emma, making him fear the worst. Had she sent him away from the fight? Had they already lost?

He got his arms beneath himself, pushing his chest off the ground as he tried again to discern his location. It didn't look like any part of the Enchanted Forest he'd ever seen, and the tunnels in Storybrooke were not this grand.

He let out an unsteady breath, worry filling him. "Where the bloody hell am I?" he muttered.

"Funny you should ask that."

His head snapped around to the source of the voice, his eyes catching on the peculiar sight of flowing black robes that inexplicably curled where they met the ground, rather reminiscent of the thick smoke of a fire. He raised his eyes and found himself staring up at a very tall man with a long, narrow face and dark black hair. His fingers were long and spindly, his hands nearly twice the size of Killian's.

Even from his position on the ground, Killian could tell the man would tower over him. But his unusual size was less unnerving than the man's sharp black eyes, keenly focused on his every move.

The man gave an oily smile, his lips stretching wide in either direction, nearly splitting his face in two.

"The name's Hades. Welcome to the afterlife."

Chapter Text

Camelot, Week 6

Rumpelstiltskin giggled, wiggling his fingers in amusement as he inspected the bark of the large oak tree that had sprouted up in the midst of the castle's ruins.

"Marvelous work, dearie," he said, turning back to her with a gleeful smile that bared his sharp teeth. "I'm not sure what it is about him, but I much prefer that meddling Sorcerer as kindling." He wrinkled his nose in distaste. "It's so much more peaceful around here without having to listen to all of those pesky prophecies and boring old lectures about heroism," he mocked, rolling his beady yellow eyes.

Emma ignored him, staring at the instrument in her hands. She ran her pale fingers over the bumps and grooves of the knobby wand, her unnaturally fair skin a stark contrast against the deep ebony of the wood.

The imp grinned, waltzing toward her with a theatrical air.

"Just a few more steps, and you'll be ready to take what's yours."

He paused when she remained silent, his head tilting as she continued to stare at the Dark Fairy's wand. It hadn't been hard to get her hands on — Regina had kept the dagger well-protected, but she had neglected to take similar precautions with the powerful item that had brought them all to this realm. Henry had regaled her with the daring tale of how they'd used Zelena to activate the wand and summon a twister. It seemed that with Regina unable to use the wand herself, she'd forgotten that her sister wasn't the only one who could wield it.

She swallowed, twisting the wand in her fingers, feeling its power.

"What is it, dearie?" he asked. "You are mere weeks from your daring victory — from doing what no Dark One has ever done before. You can't be having second thoughts now?"

She kept her eyes on the wand, remembering the pain and betrayal in Killian's eyes when she'd confronted them. "Are you sure this is the only way?"

Her voice still sounded unusually deep to her ears, giving her a moment's pause.

"Don't tell me you're feeling guilty," he replied, his eyes crinkling with confusion. "The Sorcerer got what was coming to him. You heard him plotting with the others — it was only a matter of time before he had them grabbing the torches and pitchforks," he trilled, emphasizing his words with a flourish of his hands.

"Don't let self-doubt make you weak."

Emma glanced up sharply, her temper flaring.

"I'm not weak," she said, her voice as smooth and hard as stone. Her gaze faltered slightly, taking in the dank castle ruins she'd secluded herself in. "I just don't want to hurt them."

"Well, it's a little late to be getting cold feet," he said, squinting at her as though she were a particularly odd puzzle he'd encountered. "You can't be worried about a little memory spell — it's nothing they haven't experienced before, after all. Some of them may even find it comforting at this point. Like a re-set for the mind," he quipped.

He vanished, reappearing behind her a split second later. "Not to mention it will keep them all safely out of your way while you do what needs to be done. Once you've molded the spinner's empty heart into that of a champion, you'll have all the power you could ever dream of! Surely that's worth the price of a few painful memories?"

"Besides, what do you really owe them?" he continued with another roll of his eyes. "Once little mistake and they were ready to turn on you without a moment's notice."

For the first time, she noted the differences between the real Rumpelstiltskin and this phantom imitation. At first glance, they were identical, his high-pitched voice and expressive movements almost disturbingly realistic, but now she could see the cracks in the facade. There was a hardness in his eyes that the real Rumpelstiltskin tried to soften, at least when Belle was within spitting distance. The fake showed no hint of the man beneath the scaly skin, because there was no man there. Only darkness.

"I won't hurt them," she said steadily, setting the wand on the table and standing up straighter, a challenge in her eyes.

He seemed amused by her declaration. "You mean, any more than you already have?"

Her lip curled as she forced her emotions down. "I did what was necessary."

"And that's all you're doing now," he said sensibly, spreading his arms wide. "Once you have all of that power at your fingertips, you'll be able to protect what's yours — no one would dare take what belongs to the most powerful Dark One of all time, after all. And you'll never have to worry about not being good enough if you know they can never leave you."

He gestured pointedly at the vial of dark purple liquid on the table in front of her, the final ingredient for the memory spell. She picked it up, staring at the contents for a moment before unstopping it, pouring it into the waiting cauldron. The mixture began to bubble, silver smoke creeping over the sides onto the table, spreading across the uneven stone floor below.

Rumpelstiltskin giggled again, waving his claw-like fingers in poorly-concealed excitement.

"And then, you'll get everything you ever wanted."

* * *

Storybrooke, Present

Emma stared out the window at the waves, watching them break against the side of the ship. The early morning sun reflected off the water, the rippling of the ocean casting flares of light in every direction.

It was quiet, the early hour making Storybrooke feel empty in a way it usually didn't. To Emma, it was as though the air had been sucked out of the town, making everything around her seem dimmer.

She glanced behind her, her eyes drifting over Killian's cabin. It, too, was more subdued than usual, the creaking of the ship as it rocked in the harbour the only sound to be heard.

Killian had often bragged to anyone who would listen about the Jolly Roger's enchanted properties, running his hand over its well-polished wood with unmistakable pride. He'd spoken of the ship like it was a living, breathing thing — it was more than his home, it had been his constant companion over the centuries, the one place he knew as well as himself. Now, it was like the life had gone out of it, leaving behind little more than a wooden skeleton.

She wondered if it was all in her imagination, or if it was a sign the Jolly Roger knew its captain was gone.

She turned, trailing her fingers along the wooden table in the centre of the cabin, frowning as they came away coated in dust. Killian was meticulous about the cleanliness of his quarters. He took great pride in maintaining his ship; he'd spent weeks scrubbing the vessel from top to bottom after rescuing it from Blackbeard's clutches. But the entire cabin now bore signs of neglect.

She rubbed the dust between her fingers, her eyes drifting to the undisturbed sheets on the bed and the empty water jug on the desk. She'd seen enough abandoned hideouts in her life to recognize that Killian hadn't been down there in weeks. Which begged the question of where he'd been sleeping all this time.

She knew instinctively it hadn't been at her parents' place. Even if they'd realized he was avoiding his ship, Killian's first instinct would have been to pull away from the others, refusing to ask for help. They were alike in that regard, both of them struggling with the notion of leaning on others after so long with only themselves to rely on.

Most likely, he'd been spending his nights at the library, though how much sleep he'd actually been getting was anyone's guess. She'd seen him there at all hours of the day and night, researching tirelessly with Belle for a way to remove the Darkness. As the Dark One, she hadn't given it much thought, considering their efforts a harmless nuisance — something to keep them both occupied while she put the rest of her plan in place. Looking back now, she could recall the dark circles around Killian's eyes, the way he'd worn his frustration like a second skin, his temper always close at hand. He'd been slowly coming apart at the seams, desperate to fulfill his promise to her.

A promise that he didn't live to see fulfilled.

Emma blinked as another wave of grief washed over her, though it wasn't as fresh as it'd been the night before. She felt as if she'd cried every tear she had within her, leaving behind a hollow shell.

She'd tried returning to her house last night, but she'd found it unbearably quiet, the rooms nearly suffocating in their emptiness. She'd stared at the blank walls of her bedroom — their bedroom — for hours, unable to rest, haunted by the echoes of the better life the home had promised. Eventually, she'd found herself on the dock, staring up at Killian's ship in the pre-dawn light.

He'd given it up for her, once. It was his home — the only constant in his life — and he'd given it up without a second thought at a time when she couldn't even admit to herself that she cared for him. It was the most selfless thing anyone had ever done for her — so much so that she could hardly wrap her head around it at the time. She'd never had someone put her first like that, like it was second nature, like she was the most important thing in the world.

It was that gesture that had finally allowed her to let her walls down around him, but the memory of it now made her insides twist with guilt. Would he still have made that choice, if he'd known what she would become? Would he have given it up — his home, his freedom, the last connection to his brother and to Milah — if he'd known what it would end up costing him?

'The Jolly Roger is not an 'it', Swan. She's a 'she'.'

Her breath hitched as the memory of him teaching her to steer the ship floated back to her, Killian's teasing admonishment as clear as if he were standing right beside her. He'd gently guided her hands on the helm, smiling at her in a way no one ever had before — like she was the centre of his universe — even as he joked about her needing to find her sea legs. She'd relaxed against him, enjoying the warmth of his chest pressed along her back. It had felt safe. She'd felt safe.

Her hand went to the heavy ring hanging from her neck, feeling the cold metal against her palm.

His cheek was beginning to cool under her palm, his face far too still.

She choked on another sob, her vision blurring with more tears even as a desperate thought seized her. She rounded on Regina, something worryingly like hope bubbling up in her chest.

"Save him. Please," she begged, hastily wiping the tears from her eyes. "I know you're angry with me, but none of that is Hook's fault. I saved Robin for you — there has to be some way you can help him."

Regina hesitated, her arms still wrapped around Henry, whose cheeks were red and puffy. She gave him another squeeze before letting go, casting a sideways glance at Robin. He nodded grimly, hugging Henry closer in her absence.

She approached cautiously, kneeling on Killian's other side. Regina spared him a quick look before returning Emma's gaze.

"I... I don't know how to fix this, Emma," she said regretfully, shaking her head. "He's dead. There's nothing I can do."

"What about the glass coffin?"

Both women turned in surprise. Henry's cheeks were still streaked with tears, but he was standing straighter, a hint of defiance in his expression. Emma tried to catch his eye, but he ignored her, his attention fixed on Regina. A wave of anguish ran through her that had nothing to do with the body lying next to her.

Henry huffed, apparently frustrated by their lack of a response. "The coffin you brought over from the Enchanted Forest — you can put him in it."

"Henry..." Regina trailed off, wincing slightly. She paused, visibly rethinking her words before continuing. "The coffin can only preserve his body," she said, eyeing him with sympathy. "If his soul is gone..."

He cut her off with a shake of his head, his hands curling into fists. "So, we'll get it back. If we use the coffin, it'll give us time to figure out how to save him."

He sounded so certain, so determined, and in that instant Emma wanted to believe him. She glanced back at Regina who looked torn, clearly worried about getting Henry's hopes up.

But Emma didn't care if the chances were slim. For the first time since the fury had appeared, there was a glimmer of light, and she refused to let it go so easily.

"Please, Regina," she whispered.

Regina tore her gaze from their son, reading the desperation in Emma's eyes. She sighed, her shoulders drooping slightly in defeat. "Of course," she replied. "I'll need to do some preservation spells. We should move him to my vault as soon as possible."

It was clear from her tone that she considered it a lost cause, but Emma refused to let it deter her, a small weight lifting from her chest. If there was even the slightest chance to make things right, she'd find it, one way or another.

She looked back at Henry, but he turned away, leaning into Robin's side. Her parents remained at a distance, seeking comfort in each other's arms like always, having watched entire the exchange in silence.

She turned back to Killian, brushing the hair out of his eyes with a heavy heart.

I'll fix this, she promised him. I'll make everything okay again.

She shook herself from her thoughts, her fingers absently tracing the grooves of the ring. She'd taken it on an impulse, but she was grateful for its presence now. She'd been eager to move Killian to the coffin as soon as possible, but the moment Robin and David had tried to take him, she'd panicked. Suddenly, the thought of being parted from him filled her with an irrational anxiety, one she'd found difficult to suppress. She'd found herself lifting the chain from around his neck before she'd even realized what she was doing, needing to keep some part of him with her.

Looking at the ring now, she wondered what he'd think about her taking it.

He'd given up his home for her — travelled to Camelot for her — and in turn, she'd manipulated him, used him as another pawn in the Dark One's games. At the time, she'd convinced herself that she was doing it for him — for all of them — but with the curse broken, she was thinking more clearly. It wasn't love she'd been acting out of, but fear. Fear that he'd leave her, fear that he'd be taken from her, fear that she'd lose. It wasn't love that had guided her, it was selfishness.

'I loved you.'

She swallowed back tears. And what good did it do me, she thought bitterly. I still lost him in the end.

"Emma? Are you here?"

Her dad's voice echoed through the floorboards overhead. She was tempted to ignore him, to let him believe the ship was empty, but she knew he'd search the cabins eventually. The thought of anyone but Killian in this room made her nauseous.

She took a breath, steeling herself before climbing the narrow steps to the upper deck. She cringed as she pushed open the hatch, the bright blue sky blinding in comparison to the dim light of the cabin.

David stood in the middle of the lower deck, peering down at the covered hatch that led to the crew's quarters. Mary Margaret was a few paces away, her arms wrapped tightly around herself, guarding against the cool morning air. They both turned quickly as she appeared, tensing for a brief moment. Emma struggled to keep her emotions off her face, the awkwardness from the night before returning with a vengeance.

They had watched silently as Killian was taken away, Regina, Mary Margaret, and Henry lingering near the pond as she tried to reign in her grief. There had been an uncomfortable pause as David's truck pulled out of the park, the others clearly uncertain what to do with themselves. Two months ago, that pause would've been filled by her mother insisting that Emma return with them to the loft, that she not be alone after such a tragedy.

But things were different now.

Mary Margaret had opened her mouth, realizing a moment too late that her hesitation had not gone unnoticed, but Emma had cut her off, her walls coming down hard. For the first time since the curse had broken, her voice had been steady as she'd told them all that she needed to be alone.

No one had tried to stop her.

Now, her parents were watching her uncertainly, neither making to move toward her. Her hand went back to the chain around her neck, squeezing hard enough to feel the imprint of the jewel against her skin.

"We looked for you at your—" David cut himself off awkwardly, glancing at Mary Margaret. "At the house. We wanted to see how you were."

She took another deep breath, pushing her emotions deeper below the surface.

"I'm fine," she said.

Mary Margaret's mouth twisted into a doubtful curve. "Emma, I know a lot has happened the last few weeks, but grieving is normal. You don't have to be fine yet."

"I'm not grieving," Emma denied, walking down the steps to the lower deck with a determination she didn't quite feel. "Grieving is what you do when you lose someone for good."

Her parents exchanged a wary look.

"What do you mean?" asked David.

She set her shoulders. "I'm getting Killian back."

* * *

The man's words echoed in the cavern, making Killian's ears ring. His forehead creased, a numbness settling in his limbs as he pushed himself to his feet.

"The afterlife? You mean I'm—"

"Dead?" said Hades — the Hades, if he was to be believed — his grin widening. "Afraid so. Tough break, there, tangling with a fury. It never ends well, believe me."

A fury. He frowned, his mind fuzzily conjuring the vague memory of a dark figure swooping down from the sky, its glowing red eyes the only clearly visible features in the moonlight. He'd never seen such a creature up close before, but he'd felt a stab of dread as he'd watched those fierce eyes focus their sights on Henry—

Henry. Gods, had the creature gotten him, too?

"The others—" he choked out, fear gripping him as he struggled to recall what had followed the fury's dive from the sky.

"Don't worry, they're all still topside," Hades assured him, waving his hand disinterestedly. "Your girlfriend conjured some bad mojo with that spell of hers but, lucky for her, the fury only required one soul to repay the debt. So, it's just you, big guy. And let me say, it's great to finally meet you in person."

Killian shook his head, confusion warring on his face.

"I'm sorry?"

"Captain Hook is a big catch for me — we've all been awaiting your arrival for quite some time," Hades replied, taking on a companionable tone that failed to put Killian at ease. "You've been dodging the big sleep for centuries. Neverland was a nice touch, by the way — I didn't see that one coming."

He chuckled, slapping Killian on the back hard enough to make him stumble.

"You should be flattered," he continued, oblivious to Killian's wince of pain. "I don't normally make personal visits like this, but I had to see it for myself: the dreaded Captain Hook finally joining the ranks of the dearly departed. What's it been, two hundred and fifty years? Time sure flies, doesn't it?"

Killian was barely listening, his thoughts a scattered mess. He couldn't be dead — not yet, not now — not when Emma still needed him. His mind was still struggling to piece together the broken fragments of his memories, searching for another explanation.

His host didn't seem to require his input, however, continuing on as though he had Killian's rapt attention.

"So, let me be the first to officially welcome you to the Underworld," he said, gesturing grandly at the cavern around them. "I'll admit, it takes some getting used to, but you'll get the hang of things soon enough."

"There's been a mistake," Killian interrupted, holding up his hand. "I can't stay here — I promised Emma I'd free her from the dark curse."

Hades' grin turned a touch patronizing, showing no offence at Killian's outburst.

"Regrets are kind of a common theme around here — there's always going to be something you wish you'd gotten the chance to do before biting the big one," he said dismissively. "Let me tell you, if I had a drachma for every poor schmuck who told me it couldn't be his time yet because he never got to finish that novel he was writing, I could buy Mount Olympus. Unfortunately, though, when your time is up, it's up. No take-backs."

"But—"

"I'm sure the do-gooders can handle whatever your sweetie-pie has planned," Hades said, waving off his concerns. "This is, what? The ninth major crisis for them? I think they'll manage just fine without you. And if they don't — hey, there's always plenty of room for them down here with you."

A shiver ran down his spine at the thought of Emma and the others having their lives snatched away from them. He shook his head again.

"There must be some kind of deal I can make," he pleaded, looking up at the god with desperation. "Something that will allow me to help Emma. I'll do anything."

"Sorry, I don't make deals anymore," said Hades. "Bad experience. You understand. Besides, you're dead. I already have your soul for all eternity — it's not like you have anything else to offer me."

Killian could think of no response to that — he had plenty of gold and riches back in the land of the living, but what use were they to a god? He didn't have magic like Emma and Regina, or the powers of the Author like Henry. There was truly little else of value he could suggest in trade for his life.

He closed his eyes as despair overtook him, remembering the cold and calculating look on Emma's face as she'd brandished Excalibur. Had she already succeeded in slaying Merlin? Was there even any saving her now? How could he have failed her so poorly?

It appeared as though Hades was used to emotional displays from his guests, his expression taking on a faintly indulgent air.

"I know it's a lot to get used to, Captain — can I call you Captain? — but don't let that put a damper on the first day of the rest of your afterlife," he said, gesturing at the dank cave. "It's not so bad down here. In fact, you know what? Let me show you around."

Hades wrapped an impossibly large hand around the back of his neck. He tensed at the touch, but the god seemed oblivious to his discomfort, his strength easily forcing Killian to fall into step beside him or risk falling flat on his face.

For the first time, he noticed the shallow river that had been behind him, the water an eerie green colour that matched the strangely glowing air. Wisps of white swirled just below the surface, vanishing in and out of sight. The river itself was massive, seeming to disappear into the darkness in either direction.

He frowned, tilting his head. A moment ago, the water had seemed only a few inches deep, but the longer he stared at it, the further down the bottom appeared to be. The misshapen white masses flickered in its murky depths, casting strange images on the surface. He wondered how deep it truly was.

Hades noticed his interest with a chuckle, veering them away from the water's edge. Killian blinked dazedly, the sudden movement startling him from his thoughts.

"Yeah, I'd steer clear of swimming if I were you, big guy," he warned, his words tinged with suppressed amusement. "It's less fun than it looks."

They ventured further into the cave, away from the mysterious river, though the scenery didn't improve much. Killian took in the sights warily, covertly searching for an exit, but every direction was the same as the last, bar a few stray boulders here and there. There was no sign of how he'd arrived in the Underworld, let alone how to leave.

A loud growl came from the shadows ahead. He jumped back in shock as the massive head of a vicious-looking black dog lunged toward him, its jaws snapping shut within mere inches of him. He tensed, his eyes widening as he spotted two more heads emerging from the darkness, each as ferocious as the last. Their teeth were bared, massive, sharp canines slick with spit as they growled in his direction.

The three-headed beast strained against a thick, metal collar at its conjoined neck, a chain rattling behind it as it pulled relentlessly at its restraints. A thick mass of spittle broke loose from one its mouths, spraying the tops of Killian's boots.

Hades laughed at his reaction, apparently unconcerned by the monstrous creature yearning to chew them to bits. He gave a high-pitched whistle, the beast immediately sitting back on its haunches, a low whimper sounding from two of its three heads.

"Don't mind him," he said, leading Killian past the creature with nary a second glance. "He's a big softie on the inside. And by that, I mean if you cross him, you'll get to see his soft, squishy insides when he eats you."

He let out another bark of laughter at his own joke, slapping Killian on the back in his merriment. Killian smiled uneasily, glancing back at the beast from the corner of his eye. He hoped to whoever was listening that his escape wouldn't require him to face the beast again — somehow, he doubted it would respond so kindly to his attempts to call it off.

"You're getting the five-star tour, here, Captain," Hades remarked in a way that clearly implied Killian should feel honoured. "I don't usually let the dead venture over this way, but I had Charon bring you in through the back entrance. Less crowded — I don't like to mingle with the masses if I can avoid it. You know how it is — nothing but desperate souls pawing at you, vying for your attention. You must have been used to that where you were from, what, with your reputation."

Hades' smile widened as the cavern they were walking through began to expand, eyeing their dismal surroundings with a look of pride they truly did not deserve.

"I know it's a lot to take in at first, but you'll get the hang of things soon enough. Once you get your judgement, you'll feel right at home."

Killian pulled up short, only to stumble a moment later from the force of Hades' unyielding grip on his neck. He righted himself, staring up at the god who had observed his clumsiness with vague bemusement.

"Judgement?"

"Well, yeah, big guy," Hades chuckled, shaking his head. "What, did you think the afterlife was all nectar and ambrosia and singing campfire songs until the end of days? Doesn't work like that."

"Think of this as a rest stop, of sorts," Hades mused, waving his arm in a grand gesture to encapsulate the cavern that surrounded them. "People come here to receive the punishments they've accrued over their lifetime."

Killian stiffened, worry settling low in his gut. Despite his companion's cavalier attitude, he somehow doubted such a prospect boded well for him.

Hades noticed his discomfort, snorting softly. "Don't worry, you're not special — pretty much everyone has something to make up for. The main difference is how long a time you end up serving. Some people get a few years, and others — well, let's just say we've had a few guests here since fire was the next big invention. But once the punishment's over, you head on down to the next level, no questions asked."

His gruesome smile did nothing to set Killian at ease.

"The next level?"

"The folks around here refer to it as 'moving on,'" said Hades, his long fingers making quotes in the air. "Can't say too much about it — big secret, very hush-hush, et cetera et cetera — but it's where almost everyone ends up eventually. Unless the judges decide that you're beyond redemption, in which case, I'd get comfortable."

Killian's thoughts were buzzing, his mind conjuring a host of unpleasant scenarios that could await him. He'd faced his share of punishments throughout his life, though he knew they all fell far short of what he deserved. Still, the knowledge that every soul was welcomed into the embrace of the afterlife by facing retribution for their deficiencies made his heart ache for those who'd gone before him.

"So, any idea how long I'm to be condemned for?" he ventured quietly, his voice rougher than he'd intended. He planned to be long-gone before any punishment could be put into place, but he wasn't daft enough to believe he could evade death forever. If there was one thing Killian Jones believed in, it was being prepared.

Hades made a face. "'Condemned' is a harsh word. Think of it more like a divine tally of the good and the bad. And, unfortunately for you, Captain, a few years of good deeds doesn't erase centuries of bad ones." He reached into his robes, producing a tightly-rolled scroll. With a flourish, the scroll fell open, reaching nearly to the ground.

"And you've done some doozies over the years, haven't you? That con you pulled with the clergyman from the Land of Nod is a particular favourite of mine."

Killian eyed the list with a sense of foreboding, curiosity and dread warring within him. He could guess some of what was written there, but in truth, his life had been such a long one that there were surely misdeeds he'd forgotten, sins he'd never given a second thought, consumed as he was with his revenge. Hades waved his hand, the scroll disappearing in a puff of wispy black smoke.

He gestured down the dark path ahead of them, indicating that they should continue their journey.

The cavern continued to widen as they walked, the sickly green air nearly vibrating with energy. Killian clenched his fist at his side, steeling himself for what lay ahead. He could feel the god watching him, observing his anxiety with poorly-concealed entertainment.

"Don't let it worry you, Captain," he said, his oily grin beginning to wear on Killian's nerves. "Very few people get eternal punishment anymore. We usually save that for the ones who've really ticked off a god. Fortunately for you, you patched things up with Poseidon — boy, can that guy hold a grudge!"

He clapped his large hand on Killian's back again, his fingers clawing slightly into his shoulder.

"Put in your time, and in a few hundred years you could be free to wander the fields in peace. Who knows — by that time, your honey bear will probably be down here herself."

The thought of Emma in this place made him feel violently ill, especially as he considered her new status as the Dark One. His mind flashed on the image of Rumpelstiltskin's heart, little more than a chunk of black coal from his years of evil deeds. He couldn't bear the idea of Emma facing centuries of torment in this place because of her actions under the curse. And the longer he was down here instead of helping her break free, the more she would have to atone for.

He swallowed down his dread, letting himself be consumed by plans for escape. I won't let you become a regret, Swan, he swore, hoping somehow, she could hear him. I’ll find a way to save you even if it's the last thing I ever do.

* * *

"You can't bring people back from the dead. It's not possible."

Emma inhaled deeply, forcing herself to loosen her grip on the kitchen counter behind her.

She's only trying to help, she reminded herself, reigning in her frustration with a patience that was quickly evaporating. It was a thankless task, one that seemed to be getting harder and harder every time Regina opened her mouth.

Her parents' kitchen was relatively crowded, despite the early hour. David and Mary Margaret were both seated at the table, her dad feeding her little brother his bottle as they watched the tense exchange with growing concern.

Regina was on the other side of the kitchen, her arms folded over her perfectly-pressed red blouse, looking every bit as annoyed as Emma felt. Robin subtly placed a hand on her lower back, his eyebrows raised in a clear message. Regina rolled her eyes in return, though her rigid posture relaxed marginally under his touch.

Watching the two of them, Emma felt a sudden pang of longing. She bit back a spike of resentment that had nothing to do with Regina's defeatist attitude.

She turned her attention to the window, willing her emotions off her face until the feeling had passed.

"You can't know that for sure," she said stiffly, interrupting their silent conversation.

Regina huffed. "Believe me, if there was any way of doing it, I would know. It can't be done."

Emma's anger returned full-force, her magic flaring under her skin, pushing against the boundaries of her control. She curled her fingers tighter around the edge of the counter.

She knew Regina was actually trying to be helpful in her own, miserably blunt way. Things had changed a lot between the two of them since she'd first come to Storybrooke, but the flash of irritation she felt facing off against the other woman was as familiar as it ever was. She had a way of getting under Emma's skin, making her feel defensive in a way few others did.

It could be worse, she reasoned, glancing in the direction of the table. At least Regina wasn't tiptoeing around her like she might snap at any second.

Her parents had been dead silent throughout the debate, offering no valuable contributions apart from the endless, worried looks they kept shooting one another when they thought she wasn't watching. She bristled a little more each time she caught them, fighting the urge to call them on it.

She took another deep breath and crossed her arms, willing herself to calm down. It didn't help that anger seemed to be her default setting these days.

"Look, I'm not saying it to be cruel, just realistic," Regina continued in a much softer voice than before. "You can't bring Hook back — not the real Hook, anyway. The most you could get is a poor, twisted imitation." Her mouth slanted unpleasantly. "Even if you could bring him back, it'd require the darkest of magic. Hook wouldn't want that."

Emma inhaled sharply, the implication stinging more than Regina had likely intended. She didn't need anyone to remind her of Killian's feelings on dark magic — she'd seen it with her own eyes.

But if it's to save him... a traitorous voice whispered from deep within her mind. She drove the thought away, swallowing a spike of fear. Her chest ached, Killian's ring burning a hole in her sternum.

"I think he'd want to not be dead," Emma ground out instead, her voice shaking.

There was far too much empathy in Regina's expression for Emma's liking, her posture softening. "I know it hurts, Emma, but searching for a fix at any cost isn't the answer. Take it from someone who knows — you need to try to move on."

"Says the woman who went on a decades-long rampage when the guy she loved died," Emma shot back.

Regina reeled back as though she'd been slapped, her eyes widening. She opened her mouth to retort, but Mary Margaret beat her to it.

"I think what Regina's saying is that we're all upset about what happened to Hook," she said hesitantly, glancing between the two of them. "But we need to accept that it might not be possible to help him."

"I can't believe I'm actually agreeing with Snow White, but your mother's right," Regina said tartly. "I know it's hard to let go, but that's the only way you're going to be able to deal with your grief."

Easy for both of you to say when your true loves are standing right beside you. The thought made her heart ache all the more soundly. Finding out that she and Killian were true loves should have been amazing, if somewhat terrifying — a scene straight from Henry's storybook. Instead, the memory of it was drenched with sorrow, like a gaping hole in her chest. It felt like a cruel joke — the universe dangling her happy ending in front of her in the same instant it had snatched it away.

She clenched her hands, her nails digging into her palms.

A knock at the door interrupted the stand-off. David handed her brother to Mary Margaret before rising to answer it.

The door opened to reveal a slightly harried-looking Belle, her arms laden with books. Emma blinked, a crease forming between her eyebrows.

"Sorry I'm late," Belle said, making her way into the loft and unloading the books onto the kitchen table. "I thought of a few more volumes at the last minute that might be useful."

Gold trailed in after her, carrying a much smaller burden in the arm that wasn't heavily leaning on his cane. He glanced around the loft warily as he entered, looking far more uncertain than Emma had ever seen him, his shoulders curled forward ever so slightly.

She dropped her gaze, studying the patterns in the floor. It was the first time she'd seen either of them since she'd forced Gold to remove Excalibur from the stone, threatening to crush Belle's heart if he didn't comply. She'd given them little thought once the sword was in her hand, the pair of them having served their purpose in her mind.

Her cheeks burned as she realized she hadn't even bothered to ask about them after the curse broke. Clearly someone had thought to check in on them, though, if their presence here was any indication.

She shifted her stance, trying to avoid Gold's eyes — not a difficult task, since he seemed determined not to look at anyone, his hunched shoulders making him appear smaller. What did you even say to someone you'd kidnapped and terrorized into doing your evil bidding? On the one hand, he knew what being a Dark One was like, so maybe on some level he understood why she'd done what she had.

On the other hand, he seemed to be having his own problems adjusting to a post-Dark One life, given the cagey looks he was shooting everyone. Whereas Belle had immediately gravitated to the center of the group, he had stopped just inside the door, his posture guarded as though he was preparing to flee.

She watched him covertly through her lashes. He no longer looked like the powerful, confident puppet master who'd reigned as the Dark One for centuries, his gaze falling submissively as he silently passed Belle the books he'd been carrying.

At the same time, he wasn't quite the man he was before the Darkness, either — the man whose memories she'd lived as though they were her own, a lifetime experienced in a matter of seconds. There was a cunning gleam in his eyes, in the way he seemed to be furtively measuring those around him, but it shifted in and out, like the two versions of him were fighting for control beneath the surface.

Emma's heart sank as she watched him, the answer to a question she couldn't bring herself to ask. There was no going back to the man he was before.

Belle, for her part, looked exhausted, her hands absently running over the covers of the books on the table. Emma stiffened as she accidentally caught her eye, but to her surprise, Belle's expression immediately softened.

"I'm so sorry about Killian," she said earnestly, displaying an uncomfortable amount of sympathy for someone who'd been abducted from her home only a few short days before.

Emma swallowed past the lump in her throat. She gave a small nod, not sure what to do with the unexpected compassion. Belle seemed to sense her discomfort, her attention shifting to the group at large.

"What have we missed?"

"We were just discussing whether it's possible to help Hook," Robin supplied diplomatically. "I'll be honest, I've never heard of anyone coming back from the dead."

"That's because it can't be done," Regina muttered, though there was no real bite to her words.

"We don't know that for sure," said Emma. "It's not like he had a heart attack — he was taken by a fury. It wasn't a natural death. Maybe the rules are different."

Belle perked up, shuffling through her pile of books before producing a small brown one with a crack in its cover.

"That's what I thought as well. I read up on furies after Robin was attacked," she said with a small smile in Robin's direction. "The stories go on at length about the perils of attracting them, but there's not much written about what happens to the souls after they're collected. The only thing I could find was that they're delivered to the Underworld."

"You mean he's in Hell?" Emma demanded, her mind conjuring images of Killian surrounded by flames, alone and in pain.

To her relief, Belle shook her head. "The Underworld is the name of the land of the dead — according to legend, pretty much all souls go there. It's ruled by a god names Hades."

She pulled out another book, flipping through the pages.

"I've found a number of separate references to the Underworld, and to Hades himself, but nothing about bringing souls back once they've arrived there. There are spells for summoning spirits, obviously, but nothing permanent, and they can be difficult to cast depending on how the person died."

Emma raised her eyebrows, surveying the massive pile of books in disbelief. "You read through all of these this morning?"

Belle paused, her eyes darting uncomfortably to Regina. "Actually, Henry called me last night to ask if I knew anything about bringing back the dead," she said. "He told me what happened — he seemed pretty determined to help Killian."

Emma's heart lurched. Henry had been through so many losses already in his young life — she should've considered the impact another one would have on him.

"We shouldn't be getting his hopes up," Regina complained. Robin rubbed her back comfortingly.

"I think they're already up," said Belle, wincing apologetically. "He's been in the library all day, researching." She pulled out one of the larger books, one with a thick black spine. "He found a collection of legends about the Underworld — mostly about Hades and his wife, but some of them mention the souls that have journeyed there as well. There's no way to know how much truth there is to the stories, but it's a start."

Emma frowned. "Henry didn't want to tell us about them himself?"

Belle fingered the book in her hand uneasily, glancing again in Regina's direction. The mood in the loft shifted, the others avoiding her gaze.

Right. Of course, he wouldn't want to see her.

She looked down, ignoring the pity she could feel directed at her. She always used to be the first person Henry turned to, the first one he came to when he was hurting.

That was before you became a villain.

She didn't have time to waste feeling sorry for herself. She squared her shoulders, keeping her expression neutral.

"Okay, so we open a portal to the Underworld, find Killian, and bring him back."

"Oh, is that all?" Regina quipped, rolling her eyes. "You don't think if it was as simple as just strolling into the Underworld, everyone would do it?"

Emma bristled. "Look, if you don't want to help, no one's forcing you. I know you and Hook didn't exactly get along."

"I never said I wouldn't help," Regina shot back, crossing her arms again. "But we need to be realistic about our chances, here — we're talking about the Underworld, not a trip to a day spa."

Emma opened her mouth to retort, but David raised his hand, cutting her off.

"We all want to help Hook," he said pointedly. "But Regina's right — we can't get ahead of ourselves. What you're suggesting might not be possible."

Gold looked mildly displeased to have been lumped in with the others, but he remained silent, toying with the handle of his cane.

Her magic was pulsing against the underside of her skin, her ears beginning to ring. She forced it back down, her nerves buzzing from the effort. "So, that's it?" she said, struggling to keep her frustration in check. "It's too hard, so why bother? I thought heroes were big on saving people."

Her parents exchanged a loaded look.

"It's not just that it's difficult, Miss Swan," Gold spoke up from his corner of the room, his voice softer than normal. "It's never been done. Perhaps if you wanted to summon the pirate's spirit, say your goodbyes—"

"That's not good enough," she snapped, harsher than she'd intended. Mary Margaret failed to conceal a flinch, clutching Neal a bit closer to her chest. Something brittle tore inside of Emma, stealing her breath.

She closed her eyes for a moment before continuing more quietly.

"Every second we wait is another second Killian is trapped in the Underworld. Who knows what he's going through down there?"

Gold sighed, a hint of derision peeking through his otherwise meek exterior. "The Underworld isn't a realm like the Enchanted Forest or Neverland. Only the souls of those who have passed on were meant to travel there."

 She shook her head. "That can't be true. There must be someone who's gone there without dying."

"There are a few legends," Belle offered. "Myths about mortals who've journeyed to the Underworld in search of deceased loved ones."

"Yes, legends," said Gold insistently, looking for all the world like it physically pained him to disagree with his wife. "But there's no known case of anyone actually rescuing a soul from the Underworld. The living can't enter, and the dead can't leave. Even if you somehow did manage to get there, you might find it very difficult to escape — certainly with one of Hades' souls in tow."

"I'll worry about that later," she said with more confidence than she felt. "Right now, all I care about is getting there."

Regina sighed resignedly. "Fine, if you insist on pursuing this, I'll check through my mother's spell books. Maybe there's something in there that can help." She glanced at Robin, who nodded his agreement.

"I'll keep researching the Underworld," said Belle. "It's possible it goes by other names."

David rested a hand on Mary Margaret's shoulder. "We'll help you with that," he volunteered.

Emma watched them settle into their familiar roles, feeling out of place among them. The rhythm was all off, the effect leaving her slightly unbalanced.

"Thanks," she murmured, the word sounding hollow to her ears. The sentiment went unnoticed, the others busy discussing plans of action.

They're helping, that's all that matters, she reasoned, pushing down her uneasiness. It'd be different once Killian was back.

Everything would be better then.

Chapter Text

Camelot, Week 5

"Swan, don't!"

Killian struggled to sit upright, his elbows digging into the soft soil of the courtyard. His ribs smarted where Arthur's blade had caught him, the cut pulling open further with his movements. He shielded the wound with his hand, supporting himself on his other forearm as he stared up at the spectacle with growing horror.

Emma ignored his plea, her right arm extended, fingers splayed wide. Her eyes narrowed as she watched Arthur and his men struggle. Three of his knights were on their knees already, their faces rapidly turning purple as they fought to breathe. The king's eyes were filled with tears, his hands clawing uselessly at the invisible force around his neck, preventing him from doing anything more than making small, gasping noises.

He made his way to his knees, ignoring the stab of pain the action brought. A quick glance across the courtyard confirmed that Regina and Henry were still unconscious, the backlash from the spell to free Merlin having knocked them clear across the garden. The tree that housed the Sorcerer was slowly shrinking, still more wood than man.

A small wheeze caught his attention, pulling his focus back to Emma. He swallowed, his blood chilling at the impassive look on her face as the men slowly perished before her.

He couldn't afford to wait for the others.

"Love, please don't do this."

She kept her eyes on her prey, her fingers twitching as one of the men tried to regain his footing. A second later, he collapsed onto his back, his hands fisting in vain around his neck.

"He wanted to kill me." That wasn't Emma's voice. It was too deep, too cold. A thrill of fear ran down his spine. "He tried to kill you."

Killian got to his feet, pressing his hooked arm against his wound. He stretched his other arm out, attempting to direct her attention away from Camelot's king.

"Aye, but that doesn't mean you have to kill him," Killian replied as reasonably as he could, doing his best to mask the horror coursing through him. "You're not a murderer, Swan."

He cursed himself for not seeing the blow from the cowardly king coming, for not stopping it in time. But he'd been too focused on fighting off the knight who'd lunged for the dagger to sense the danger to himself, Arthur and his men using the distraction of their attempts to free Merlin as a chance to take control of the Dark One. Perhaps if he had been faster, Emma wouldn't have felt the need to intervene, her eyes alight with an anger he'd never seen in her before.

Arthur's death would be no great tragedy to the world, in his mind, but he couldn't let Emma be the cause of it. She would never forgive herself, even if it was a pre-emptive strike against the man who'd sought to destroy her.

The king gave a piteous rasp, his face bloated and blotchy as he struggled for even the tiniest puff of air. Killian had seen many a man throttled in his day — done properly, the task did not take this long. Emma was toying with them, revelling in their pain.

She'd been doing so well against the Darkness, fighting the voices in her head that plagued her every waking moment. They hadn't come this far for her to give in, not now that they finally had the Sorcerer.

"Swan, please," he tried again, hoping to cut through the Darkness that no doubt enveloped her. He'd done it in the past, helped her to banish the Crocodile's words from her head.

Emma's fingers squeezed tighter, wrenching a pained wheeze from Arthur. "He hurt you."

A pulse of light overtook them both, the force of it breaking Emma's concentration. Killian winced, shielding his eyes.

"Enough."

He blinked back spots, searching for the source of the unfamiliar voice. Arthur and his men were splayed out on the ground — thankfully still alive from the sounds of their piteous moans. He glanced behind him, his eyes landing on a man about his height, with dark hair and a solemn expression, robes of green and gold covering his frame. The stranger lowered his outstretched hand, watching Emma steadily.

So, this was Merlin, then. It was about bloody time.

Emma shook her head, scowling.

"You're just going to let him go?" she demanded, rounding on the Sorcerer. She gestured back at the king and his knights. "After what he tried to do?"

"He will pay for his crimes — all of them," Merlin said in the same even tone. If he was surprised to have woken from his tree to find the Dark One busy strangling Camelot's ruler, he gave no sign of it. "He has much to answer for, but it is not your job to see to it, Emma."

His answer didn't seem to suit Emma, her eyes darkening.

"Ask yourself, are their lives worth the price you would have paid?" Merlin asked.

She looked ready to protest, but Merlin continued to meet her gaze, a thinly-veiled challenge beneath his otherwise calm exterior.

A noise from across the courtyard broke the standoff, Regina and Henry beginning to wake at last. Emma faltered, blinking and shaking her head dazedly.

She glanced at Killian, her eyes softening into something much more recognizable. "You're hurt."

He looked down at the cut — nearly forgotten until now — and the slow trickle of blood rolling down his hook.

In an instant, she was beside him, her warm hands covering the wound, a small, glowing light the only indication that her magic was at work. All at once, the pain vanished, the laceration stitching itself closed.

"There." She looked up, her clear green eyes meeting his. "I won't let anyone take you from me," she promised, too softly for the others to hear. She smiled, and it should have been comforting — familiar, even. But there was an undercurrent to the words that sent a shiver through him, an avaricious glimmer to her eyes.

And, for a moment, all he could see was the Dark One.

* * *

The Underworld, Present

"...And on your right, you can see the river of fire. We just had that put in a few centuries ago. My henchmen wanted to go with a lake of lava, but I figured, hey — go big or go home, am I right? I think the flames really add to the ambiance."

Killian gritted his teeth, doing his best to mask his exasperation.

He'd spent little time in the company of gods before now, a fact for which he was rather grateful if his present companion was any indication. Hades had been talking non-stop throughout their entire journey, seemingly incapable of letting a single, solitary moment pass in silence. He'd proudly pointed out each and every feature of the Underworld they came upon, in between regaling him with boastful tales of some of the more famous souls that had crossed through his realm.

He seemed to require little input or encouragement from Killian, though, which had allowed his thoughts to drift to other matters.

Such as the troubling fact that he was dead.

It was a notion he still had difficulty wrapping his head around. He'd survived centuries of swordfights, curses, assassination attempts, and waging war against the Dark One. He knew, of course, that his luck was bound to expire eventually. But how was it that he had managed to defy the odds during all those years of living a pointless existence, and the moment his happy ending was finally in sight — the moment he'd come close to having a true purpose — it'd been snatched away?

Apparently, the Fates had a cruel sense of humour.

He sighed to himself as Hades droned on about the architectural marvel that was yet another stone cavern, making an effort to suppress his irritation. He wasn't normally one to bow down to gods, but he'd been held captive too many times to make the mistake of squandering what little goodwill he had established by angering the deity. Better to let Hades think he was cooperating with his little operation, he thought to himself, covertly eyeing each passageway they came across. It would make sneaking out all the easier later.

He had no idea how long they had been walking for, but it had given him plenty of time to think. A blessing and a curse, if he'd ever encountered one.

His memories of Camelot had returned slowly, like disjointed fragments of a puzzle. It made sense, he supposed — even curses cast by a Dark One couldn't survive death. But whatever comfort he'd been searching for in the knowledge of what had transpired during those fateful weeks in Camelot had so far eluded him. He finally had the answers to the questions that had plagued him day and night, but instead of granting him peace of mind as he'd hoped, he found himself more adrift than ever.

He could remember with perfect clarity their final confrontation in Arthur's castle, his heart lurching painfully at every accusation Emma had flung at them. His mind kept replaying the betrayal in her eyes, the pain she'd tried to mask beneath her icy exterior. The last hint of true emotion he'd seen from her.

He knew, now, that it had already been too late by that point. She'd given in because she'd believed they'd given up on her, because she'd felt herself alone in the world, and he'd been utterly useless at convincing her otherwise. He'd known the Darkness was twisting her thoughts, making her see cruelty where there was only concern, but some part of him still wondered if a better man could have reached her.

He'd have done anything to stop that fate from befalling her, but in the end, his love hadn't been enough. He hadn't been enough.

He'd let her down.

And now he was dead, more useless to her than ever, while she was still among the living and facing who-knew-what. He took some meagre comfort in the fact that none of the others appeared to have followed after him. With any luck, that meant that some part of her was still fighting the Darkness, stopping her from crossing that final line. But who knew how much longer that would last.

Killian balled his hand at his side. He'd let Emma down, but he would make up for it. He'd find a way to keep his promise if it was the last thing he ever did in his sorry existence.

Of course, escape was easier said than done. He'd tried to keep track of the path as they'd walked, but there were too many twists and turns for even his keen navigational mind. Every tunnel was as non-descript as the one before it, save for the occasional boulder protruding from the ashy ground. Even if he could find his way back to where he'd arrived, he had nowhere to go from there. If Hades' warning was to be believed, he wouldn't make it far attempting to swim across the river. Which left the increasingly impossible task of happening upon an exit elsewhere.

Enough of that, he scolded himself, pushing his self-pity aside. He'd never been one to back down from a challenge.

"Well, that about wraps up the tour, Captain. Time to stamp your ticket."

The words shook him from his thoughts. He glanced up in surprise to find that they'd come to a stop in front of two large stone doors. The doors themselves were tall and narrow, their edges meeting in a sharp point far above even Hades’ head.

With a loud groan, they slowly began to open inward, leaving him to wonder if Hades had magicked them to do so.

The room the doors revealed gave off a dark blue hue — a dim contrast to the sickly green air he'd been growing used to — its contents cast largely in shadow. He suppressed a shudder, the temperature around them seeming to drop.

It seemed his escape plans would have to wait for the moment.

He swallowed, hating the feeling of dread that threatened to overtake him at the thought of whatever fate awaited him beyond those doors.

Hades chuckled at his expression. "Aww, don't look so worried, Captain. Like I said, people get judged, they serve their time, and they move on — everybody's happy. It's not personal."

He would have to disagree with that assessment. Having the sum total of his existence weighed and measured by strangers sounded very personal to him.

Still, he was no coward. He squared his shoulders, determined to face his fate head-on. With one last glance at the god beside him, he stepped through the doorway, walking toward the center of the room.

The doors slammed shut behind him, centuries of practice allowing him to hide his flinch. He turned his attention to the room itself, its corners still drenched in shadow. Smooth black stone replaced the rough gravel of the caves he'd seen so far. A circular design was carved into the floor, creating a spiral that ended in the middle of the room. Arced around the circle on one side was a tall, curved podium that reminded him of the magistrates' benches he'd encountered in port towns on those unlucky occasions he'd managed to find himself a guest of the local law.

The stone bench towered over him, the three hooded figures seated at it just barely visible from his place on the ground. Their gray robes blended into the darkness around them, making their features indiscernible. Though their faces were shrouded in shadows, he could feel them watching his every move, the hair on the back of his neck prickling.

These were the judges Hades had spoken of, then.

His boots echoed on the hard floor as he walked. He moved with confidence, but without his usual swagger, sensing that some measure of deference would go over better than any perceived cockiness on his part.

He reached the center of the circle and stopped, looking up at the figures with more apprehension than he would've liked.

Their silence was beginning to unnerve him. He was just contemplating the merits of speaking first when the center figure leaned forward slightly.

"Killian Jones. You stand before us today to receive your judgement."

The voice, which betrayed neither age nor gender, sent a chill down Killian's spine. He scolded himself for the reaction, pushing away his fear. What did it matter what fate they chose for him? His stay here was only temporary — as soon as he got a chance, he'd find his way back to Emma.

"You have lived a longer life than most, and so your deeds are many," the figure continued, waving a hand at a small black scale that sat between them on the bench.

The second judge picked up where the other had left off. "In your lifetime, you have murdered dozens, and been responsible for the deaths of dozens more. You have lied, stolen, cheated, and betrayed. You have killed your own kin, and double-crossed those who sought only to aid you."

As they spoke, the scale began to tip, as though weighted by an invisible hand. Killian winced at the accusations, his past deeds flashing before his eyes with shame.

"Your temper has led to many rash decisions," said the third hooded figure, its voice distorted and emotionless. "Your bad acts were as often the result of impulsiveness as they were selfishness."

"You have spent centuries in pursuit of vengeance," the first figure interjected without pause. "You have acted dishonourably, and have repeatedly placed your own interests over those of others."

The scale was now weighted almost entirely to one side. His stomach churned at the sight, but he stood firm, knowing they only spoke the truth.

"You have done good, as well, however," the third judge said dispassionately. "You fought bravely for the king's navy, and saved the lives of your crew many times over. You outran a curse to save a town, defeated villains, and attempted to make amends to those you had wronged. You fought alongside heroes when there was nothing for you to gain, risked yourself to aid others, and gave your life to save a young boy. There is goodness in your heart, and you have attempted to right the wrongs of your past."

Slowly, the scale tipped back the other way before coming to rest, though it was still tilted significantly to one side. As one, the figures glanced at the scale before them.

"More than two centuries of murder, betrayal, and piracy carries with it a heavy price. However, your good efforts have not gone unrewarded. Your punishment shall be four hundred and fifty years, to begin immediately."

The weight of their words washed over him, and he found his mouth opening before he could stop himself.

"Don't I get a chance to speak?" he asked, stepping toward them.

"There is no defense here," the second figure said. "We care not for emotional pleas nor justifications. All that matters is that justice is served — no more, no less."

The first judge gestured to the scale once more. "Your actions have spoken for you already. Take heart that your punishment is much shorter than it could have been."

The figure raised an arm heavily draped in robes, gesturing behind Killian. A gaunt, spindly-looking creature emerged from the shadows. Its cheeks were drawn, its jaw leading down to where a snarling beak took the place of a mouth. Though it walked on two legs, they were bowed and uneven, a tall spear clutched in its clawed hands.

Killian glanced back at the judges, but their faces remained hidden beneath their hoods.

The creature jerked its head, a clear signal to follow it.

Right. He nodded absently to himself, moving as it had indicated.

"Justice has been done this day, Killian Jones," the third figure's voice echoed across the room as he was led away. "Bear in mind that it is no more nor less than what you deserve."

* * *

"I never knew there were so many books on mythology," David sighed, leaning back against the booth at Granny's. His arm draped across Mary Margaret's shoulders, the pair of them fitting together seamlessly as the others settled into their places around the table. Emma's brother was nestled comfortably in his car seat on the bench next to them, sound asleep after his first post-sunrise feeding of the day.

Regina had taken the other bench, regally sipping a cup of coffee as Belle and Henry sorted the various research books into piles on the extra table they'd pushed up against the side of the booth. Emma was seated by herself at the far end of the table, toying absently with Killian's ring as she tried to mask her impatience.

Henry and Regina had arrived shortly after she had, but he'd gone rigid the moment he'd spotted her, immediately fixing his attention elsewhere. Done helping Belle now, he stepped back a short distance from the table, near enough to still hear what was happening, but far enough to make it clear that it was her presence he objected to.

She dropped her gaze to the table, ignoring the knowing looks her parents and Regina were exchanging. He has every right to be angry, she reminded herself, though it did little to dispel the tight feeling in her chest.

Gold was there as well, though he'd once again separated himself from the group. He had perched himself on one of the bar stools near the door, his cane resting between his knees, his fingers twisting the handle distractedly. She might've questioned the usefulness of him sitting so far away, but it wasn't like he'd have to strain to hear them.

While by this time in the morning the diner was usually packed with a steady stream of customers searching for breakfast and lukewarm coffee, Granny's was deserted except for them. Not a single townsperson had so much as stuck their head in the door since she'd arrived, which probably meant that word had gotten out about their meeting. Even Granny herself was nowhere to be found, though there had been a fresh pot of coffee sitting out when Emma had first come in.

She wasn't surprised, really — the residents of Storybrooke weren't coming after her with torches and pitchforks like they had Regina, but that didn't mean any of them were eager to be alone in the same room with her.

They'd avoided her as the Dark One, too. It was bad enough she'd turned Sneezy to stone and left Dopey as a tree for weeks on end, though Regina had managed to restore both dwarves. But ever since the memory spell had broken, word of her deeds in Camelot had spread quickly throughout the town — due in no small part to Leroy, she was sure. She might not be the Dark One anymore, but she wasn't naive enough to believe that everyone would just forgive and forget.

Her eyes slid to the spot near the counter where Sneezy had made the mistake of borrowing her hat and jacket. At the time, all that had mattered was that he had taken what was hers. That's what her world had been reduced to — not good and evil, but things that were hers and things that she wanted to be hers.

She'd spent most of the past two weeks on the Jolly Roger, only dropping by her house briefly for a change of clothes or a shower. The house was still too empty for her liking, a constant reminder of the hopes she'd had for her future. A life that was further from her grasp than ever before. She'd contemplated getting rid of it altogether — real estate in Storybrooke wasn't so plentiful that people would pass up buying a home just because the Dark One used to live there — but some part of her still couldn't bring herself to let it go, even if the sight of it made her heart ache fiercely. To the Dark One, the house had been a sign of impending victory — a monument to her imminent success. But to Emma, it had been a promise. A promise of what could be — of what she could finally allow herself to have.

What she could have had, if only...

She absently picked at the cool metal that lined the table. Maybe the house would never be a home, now, but she'd gotten it with the intention of gifting it to Killian, and that's still what she intended to do. If he chose to burn it to the ground after everything, then she'd happily give him the match.

She hadn't ventured into town much over the past few weeks, except at night to grab food, trying to minimize her interactions with the other townspeople. There'd been no talk of her returning to her old job as sheriff — it went without saying that no one wanted to be protected by the person who'd terrorized them. Instead, her days and nights had been filled with research, pouring over every line of the books Belle suggested in hopes of finding something — anything — that would bring Killian home.

When it came to the topic of research, Merlin had been no help at all. Barely two days had passed after the fury's attack before he'd gathered up Excalibur and announced his intention to return to Camelot. According to Robin, he'd wasted no time in following through on that proclamation, unveiling a hidden door to Camelot in the Sorcerer's mansion that very morning. The news had spread quickly throughout the town. Most of Camelot's citizens — having grown tired of camping out in Storybrooke's increasingly overcrowded woods — had accompanied him back to their old kingdom, to the relief of more than a few of the Merry Men.

She couldn't bring herself to be sorry Merlin was gone, as useful as his magical expertise might've been. The resentment she'd felt toward him as the Dark One had lessened only somewhat with the breaking of the curse. While she knew it was her own choices that had led to the fury's appearance, a part of her couldn't help but blame him for the role he'd played.

"Can we get this show on the road?" Regina said, interrupting Emma's musings. "Some of us have other things to do today."

Emma blinked, realizing that Belle had finished sorting the books into whatever categories she'd deemed necessary.

Belle nodded, lifting a small book from the nearest pile. "We were looking mostly at Greek mythology and legends at the start, but I decided to expand the search to anyone who's been known to be able to journey to the afterlife. There's one name that's come up over and over and again." She smiled, cracking open the book and pointing triumphantly to a line on the page. "Davy Jones."

David sighed again. "I'm guessing we're not talking about the Disney version."

She shook her head, running her finger along the text. "According to the stories, he was once a pirate captain. The details are unclear, but he somehow attracted the anger of the sea goddess, Calypso. She made him immortal, and cursed him to spend his life at sea, returning to land only once every decade. She also charged him with the task of ferrying souls to the Underworld."

"Like Charon," Henry exclaimed. Emma's mood soured at the name — familiar now, from weeks of research. Putting a name to the dark figure that had collected Killian's soul from the fury hadn't made her hate it any less.

"Not quite," said Belle. "Davy Jones only takes the souls of those who've died at sea — pirates and sailors, mostly. His ship has the ability to create portals between any body of water in any realm, and can pierce through the barrier between the land of the living and the land of the dead."

Emma perked up at the mention of portals, something like hope bubbling up within her.

"All right, so I can hitch a ride with him," she said.

"And how exactly do we get ahold of him?" Regina demanded. "I'm guessing we can't just call him up on a coconut phone and ask for his help."

"She's right,” said Belle. “Unfortunately, contacting him could be tricky."

Of course, there was a catch. Emma sat back, struggling to contain her disappointment.

"What do we need to do?" David asked, crossing his arms.

"There is a ceremony for summoning him," Belle said, "But as far as I can tell, it's a difficult spell to cast. It's only been performed successfully a handful of times."

Emma froze instinctively, dread curling low in her gut, but Regina waved her hand dismissively. "I'm not worried about that. I've handled plenty of difficult spells in my time."

She slowly released the breath she'd been holding, thankful her reaction had gone unnoticed.

"The question is," Regina continued, "will he help us?"

Belle shrugged. "That's the other problem. From what I can gather, Davy Jones doesn't take kindly to being summoned. He also won't answer the call of just anyone. The ceremony can only be performed by someone who's captained a pirate ship."

There was a heavy pause as the words sunk in.

"Well, that's ironic," Regina sassed.

"Regina," Mary Margaret hissed, her furtive gaze stopping just short of where Emma was sitting. Neal began to fuss, and she picked him up, rocking him gently.

"Do we know any other pirate captains?"

"The only other one I know of is Blackbeard," David volunteered. "But from what Hook said, he's not in Storybrooke. Even if he was, I doubt he'd help us."

Emma frowned, running through her knowledge of Storybrooke's last census.

"What about Killian's old crew?" she said, thinking out loud. As far as she knew, they were the only other pirates in town — Killian had certainly never mentioned anything about a rival crew. Her interactions with them had been pretty minimal to date, more than a few of them having been vocal in blaming her for Hook giving up piracy, but it was possible they'd be willing to help if it meant saving him. "Maybe one of them was a captain before they joined the Jolly Roger, or maybe they know—"

"I can do it."

Henry's statement caught her off-guard. She glanced up in surprise, but he avoided her gaze.

"I can do it," he repeated, turning to Belle. "You didn't say we needed a pirate, just someone who's captained a pirate ship. In Isaac's storybook, I captained the Jolly Roger when Hook didn't remember how."

"Absolutely not," Regina said sharply.

"No." It came out harsher than she'd meant it, her voice instinctively slipping back into the deeper octave she'd adopted as the Dark One. She regretted it instantly as Henry stiffened, balling his hands into fists.

"I'm not the same little kid I was when you first came to Storybrooke," he argued, meeting her eyes for the first time since the curse broke. "I've faced nearly as many villains as you have. I can do this."

Emma swallowed, the truth of his words hitting her. She was struck by the differences between the little boy who'd knocked on her door two years ago, so trusting and full of hope, and the young man glaring at her from across the diner. Back then, she could do no wrong in his eyes.

Storybrooke had changed him. It had changed them both.

Regina pursed her lips, glancing at Emma. "Henry, we don't know how dangerous this Jones person is. It's too risky."

"So is living in Storybrooke," Henry challenged. "Villains show up here every other week, it's not like I haven't been in danger before. You guys are always going on about helping others and doing what's right, even if it's hard. I care about Hook, too, and I want to help. Summoning Davy Jones is the best plan we've had so far, so I'm doing this."

A ringing silence followed his announcement. Emma studied the laminate of the tabletop in front of her. It was true enough that Henry had seen and dealt with a lot more than a kid his age ever should have to, just as a result of who his family was. It seemed a bit hypocritical to deny him the chance to help.

She grimaced, turning to Regina, who seemed to be reaching a similar conclusion. With a small tilt of her head, Regina conceded.

"Okay," said Mary Margaret, bouncing Neal in her arms. "So, that settles it."

"Not quite," Regina protested, holding up her hand. "We still don't know how to get Jones to agree to help us. I don't like the idea of walking into a meeting with someone that powerful without a bargaining chip."

"That's another problem," Belle said, wincing.

David frowned at her. "What do you mean?"

"Anyone who makes a deal with Davy Jones must pledge their life to his service as payment. They become part of his crew, unable to leave the ship for decades or even centuries. Most of his crew is made up of desperate pirates looking to avoid the afterlife for as long as possible, but... from the stories, it doesn't sound like a pleasant existence."

Regina huffed, scowling. "And you didn't think to mention that before now?"

Emma stared the table without seeing it, tracing patterns with her finger. Could she do that? Give up everything in exchange for a ticket to the Underworld?

Yes. If it meant saving Killian — meant setting things right — she'd do anything.

As if sensing her thoughts, David shook his head.

"Well, that's not an option," he said pointedly, glancing at Emma briefly before turning his attention away again. "There has to be something else we can offer him."

The bell above the door chimed as Robin entered, flashing the others a quick smile.

"Sorry I'm late." He bent and kissed Regina's cheek before sliding onto the bench next to her. "John's watching Roland. What have I missed?"

"The exciting prospect of indentured servitude," Regina snarked with a mild glare at Belle.

His eyebrows shot up as he regarded the others in confusion. Mary Margaret took pity on him.

"Belle found a possible ride to the Underworld aboard Davy Jones' ship, but apparently making a deal with him requires joining his undead crew for decades at a time," she summarized delicately, adjusting Neal in her arms.

Robin's forehead creased.

"Davy Jones?" he echoed thoughtfully,

Emma sat up straighter. "You've heard of him?"

He tilted his head, a faraway look in his eyes. "Not of him, exactly, but his heart. There were stories back in the Enchanted Forest about the heart of Davy Jones — it had supposedly been stolen by a goddess who he'd angered, and locked away on an island in the middle of the sea. The heart was said to lie in a chest made of pure gold and covered in priceless jewels. It's worth an immeasurable fortune," he said with a wistfulness that made Emma wonder how many times he'd daydreamed about pulling off such a heist.

Regina seemed to have picked up on it as well, raising a pointed eyebrow. Robin caught her eye, chuckling softly.

"I am a former thief," he said dryly. "If there's one thing we know, it's treasure."

"Do you think it's the same Davy Jones?" said Mary Margaret.

Belle nodded, an excited gleam in her eyes as she reached for one of the larger books. "It would make sense," she said, flipping to a page filled with handwritten notes. "The books don't mention anything about his heart, but this one says that when Calypso cursed him, she took away his ability to feel." She glanced up, smiling. "That sounds like it could be talking about a stolen heart. Calypso must have taken it as part of the punishment."

"This island," Emma said, turning to Robin. "Do you know where it is?"

"Planning to use Jones' heart to force him to do your bidding?" Gold spoke up from where he was brooding in the corner. His knuckles were white on the handle of his cane. "Because that's worked out so well for you in the past."

Henry blanched, his shoulders hunching. She inhaled sharply, her stomach twisting at the memory of Violet's small heart nestled in the palm of her hand.

I'm not that person anymore. She forced herself to meet Gold's contemptuous stare, feeling as though she were standing on the edge of a cliff. He was testing her, she knew, carefully studying her movements with a level of focus she hadn’t seen from him since he was the Dark One.

"Not to force him," she said, refusing to look away as the memories threatened to overwhelm her. She was done with bending people to her will. It was time to start doing things the right way again. "To give it back. We offer to get it for him in exchange for passage to the Underworld."

Gold assessed her for a moment longer before giving a slight nod, returning his attention to his hands.

"Hang on," said David. "If the heart's location is so well-known, why wouldn't he go and get it himself?"

"He might not be able to," Belle reasoned. "Calypso's curse prevents him from setting foot on land more than once every ten years, and even then, it's only for twenty-four hours. It's possible that wherever the heart is on the island, it's far enough inland that he can't make it there and back in time."

Robin shrugged.

"That sounds plausible enough from the stories I've heard," he said. "The goddess who hid the heart was said to have placed the chest in the very center of the island. She was supposed to have used considerable magics to guard it against intruders. It's also protected by some manner of darkness, though the tales were never very specific."

"Well, that doesn't sound ominous at all," said Regina, making a face.

"And how are we supposed to even get there?" David asked doubtfully. "I'm guessing the island isn't in this realm."

Robin shook his head. "It's somewhere in the land of Pelegosto, if the stories are to be believed."

"Great," huffed Regina. "I don't suppose anyone has any magic beans laying around they've neglected to mention?"

Belle shot Gold a loaded look over her shoulder. His expression immediately soured, evidently displeased to be singled out. The pair debated silently for another moment before he sighed, adjusting his grip on his cane.

"There may be another way," he said reluctantly. "As evidenced by the recent departure of our guests from Camelot, the Sorcerer's mansion contains doorways to more than just Arendelle. I discovered a few myself during our encounter with the Snow Queen. It's quite possible that one of them leads to the island — it would just be a matter of locating the right one."

"Well, then, it sounds like I'm heading to the Underworld," Regina sighed, covering Robin's hand on her shoulder. Emma swallowed down her relief — she hadn't wanted to presume the other woman's participation, but she had to admit she was grateful for the assistance.

David turned to Mary Margaret, who indicated her agreement.

"We'll have to ask Granny to watch Neal, but I guess that makes four of us," he said, glancing between Emma's mother and Regina before settling on Emma briefly. "Do you think Davy Jones will take that many?"

"Five of us," Belle corrected. Emma blinked.

The others seemed equally taken aback, Gold glancing up sharply.

She appreciated everything Belle had done to help them in their research, especially given Emma's recent treatment of her, but she hadn't expected her to want to come along on what was likely to be a pretty dangerous quest. Belle was no coward, but she wasn't much of a fighter as far as Emma had seen.

Maybe it was about Killian? The pair had grown closer while trying to free the fairies from the hat, and she'd been a frequent companion to him while Emma was the Dark One, but Emma still found it hard to believe she'd risk her life for the guy who'd spent centuries trying to kill her husband.

"Uhh..."

Belle cut her off. "I know more about the Underworld and Davy Jones than everyone here," she pointed out. She surveyed the others briefly before locking eyes with her husband, her lips pursing.

"I may not be much good with a sword, but that doesn't make me helpless," she said, a hint of steel beneath her words. The look she gave him was impossible to read.

"I'm doing this."

Emma could tell Gold was dying to protest, but he remained silent, his expression openly conflicted. After a moment, he dropped his gaze, resigned.

"I'm coming, too," said Henry, pulling their attention away from the silent exchange.

Emma's protective instincts flared, but Regina beat her to the punch.

"No, you're not," she said decisively, slipping into her Madam Mayor voice. "We have no idea what the Underworld will be like — it's too dangerous."

Henry stood taller.

"The fury was coming after me," he said rigidly. "Killian pushed me out of the way. I'm not going to stay here when you're all going to rescue him."

He crossed his arms. "Either I'm coming with you, or I'll find my own way there."

Emma tensed. Henry was a good kid, but he could be infuriatingly resourceful when he was determined. If not for Killian's intervention before he got his memory back, he likely would've made good on his plan to steal her car and high-tail it back to New York. She knew with certainty that he wouldn't give up on finding a way to help, even if they tried to stop him from coming. And in Storybrooke, that could mean putting himself in even worse danger.

At least if he came, they could keep an eye on him.

Regina seemed to be having similar thoughts, her indecision increasingly evident. She and Emma exchanged a quick look, gaging the other's reaction.

"...Fine," Regina said reluctantly. "But you have to promise not to go off on your own, and you have to do everything we tell you to do. If we say something's too dangerous, you'll listen. Agreed?"

Henry's shoulders relaxed and he nodded. "Agreed."

David turned to Robin expectantly, but he shook his head. "I'm more than happy to help you all locate the heart, but I'm afraid I can't join you on the journey. I worry about leaving Roland alone that long, especially with Zelena still in town."

"So, six it is, then," Regina said with a hint of finality, surveying the group. Her assessing gaze landed on Emma, the pair of them locking eyes.

"Let's hope you know what you're doing."

Emma's hand found Killian's ring again, Belle's warnings about Davy Jones echoing in her head.

I hope so, too.

* * *

Emma squinted as she peered over the rail of the Jolly Roger, the glare of the sun reflecting off the water making her wish she'd thought to bring along a pair of sunglasses.

'What need have I for those funny spectacles when a good stick of kohl works just as well?'

She ignored the voice, swallowing past the lump in her throat. Some days she swore she could hear Killian just as clearly as if he were standing beside her. Other times, she'd turn and see him — his grin, or a flash of his leather coat — in the corner of her eye before she blinked and he was gone. She'd been through enough grief in her lifetime to recognize it for what it was, even if she didn't want to admit out loud.

It should have been comforting in a way — like his ring — a way of keeping him with her, of reminding her what was at stake. But instead, the glimpses felt like an accusation — like the universe was taunting her with pale imitations of the happiness she'd had and destroyed.

She put her hands on her hips, her wrist brushing the hilt of the cutlass she'd strapped to her belt. It looked the same as it had the day Killian had given it to her, both of them still reeling from Neal's apparent murder. He'd handed the weapon over with poorly disguised reverence, the blade obviously well-cared-for and maintained over the centuries despite his claims that he wasn't prone to sentimentality.

She ran her hand over the hilt, feeling the small nicks and grooves it had earned from any number of battles. It'd been one of the first real moments of connection between them, one of the first times she'd caught a glimpse of the man he'd hidden behind the mask of a self-centered pirate with a thirst for vengeance. For a brief instant, they'd both let their walls down, allowing themselves to share in their grief over Neal's death.

His first death, she corrected herself somberly. His real death had come a year later, just after they'd been reunited. That was the pattern, wasn't it? Anyone who got too close to her eventually left, one way or another. She'd told Killian as much once, confessed her fears that he'd die like all the men before him. And now it had happened. He'd assured her he was a survivor, but in the end, he'd died too.

He survived for centuries until he met you. She shook the thought away, clutching the grip of the cutlass more tightly. It may have been her fault that he was gone, but she'd fix it. No one else would pay for her mistakes.

The afternoon sun was unrelenting, making her appreciate the cool breeze the open water provided. There'd been a lot of debate about how to go about holding a meeting with a guy who couldn't set foot on land, including several suggestions involving variations of kiddie pools and lifeboats. Eventually, though, they'd decided it was easiest just to meet him halfway.

The Jolly Roger was out a fair distance from the harbour — still within sight of the town, but with enough space to allow Jones' ship to appear.

Henry had done most of the actual sailing, David and Robin lending a hand with the heavy lifting. She'd pitched in where she could, but while Hook had tried on several occasions to teach her the basics, she'd never been the most attentive student. More often than not, their lessons had ended up devolving into more enjoyable activities, which she'd much preferred.

Henry looked at ease on the water, his earlier apprehensiveness having softened once he'd taken the helm. He'd hesitated for a long moment when they'd first boarded, his expression clouding over as he stared down at the letters she knew were carved into the wood behind the wheel. Sailing was something he and Killian did — something Killian and Neal had done as well. In a way, it had tied the three of them together, even with Neal gone. Now, Henry had lost them both.

Her arms had ached to hug the stricken look off his face, to tuck his head against her until his eyes lost some of that loneliness. Instead, it had been Robin who'd comforted him, the thief resting a reassuring hand on his shoulder and casting him a sympathetic smile that Henry eventually returned.

They'd dropped anchor as soon as Regina had declared them far enough from land for a portal to open.

Now, the others were shifting restlessly on the deck, waiting for Regina to signal that the sun had reached the right position for the ritual. Emma felt the familiar rush of adrenaline that usually precipitated a fight, her limbs jittery with nervous energy.

True to her word, Regina had performed the enchantment, with a fair bit of input from Belle. It had taken three days of trial and error to perfect it — three days in which Emma had felt like an animal in a cage, anxious for something to do — but Regina had refused to be swayed by her impatience.

'Do you want it done fast, or done right?'

With a solemn nod from Regina, Henry took a deep breath, holding out the large purple seashell they'd enchanted. Carefully, he ran his finger along the edge, cringing as it sliced his skin, leaving behind a smear of blood. Emma gritted her teeth. She hadn't been crazy about the idea of Henry using blood magic to summon Davy Joes, but Belle had assured her that the spell was harmless to the caster.

The seashell began to glimmer in Henry's hand, the spell activating. He tossed it into the water, where it quickly sank to the bottom.

"I request a parlay with Davy Jones," he said loudly, his voice carrying across the water.

They all held their breath as they waited, staring at the spot where the shell had disappeared, the ripples getting smaller and smaller.

Emma bit her lip, watching as the last ripple vanished, leaving behind a calm, smooth surface.

She could hear the others shuffling uncertainly behind her, but she refused to look away.

"...Maybe we got the spell wrong?" Mary Margaret said cautiously, peering out at the water.

"The spell was right," Regina retorted, crossing her arms. "Maybe Captain Barnacle isn't feeling chatty today."

Emma grabbed the railing, feeling the smooth lacquered wood under her palms. Her eyes were beginning to burn, the wind making them tear up as she stared unblinkingly at the water. If she looked hard enough, she could almost see the water starting to...

The ship lurched, Emma bracing herself against the rail as the others were knocked off-balance. Her eyes widened as the water beside the Jolly Roger began to buckle, pulling downward as though it were emptying down an enormous drain. A whirlpool began to swirl, faster and faster as she watched, the others soon joining her at the railing.

The sky flashed a brilliant green and she winced, turning her head away. A moment later, the water stilled. She opened her eyes and stepped back in surprise from the massive ship that had appeared alongside them.

It was nearly twice the size of the Jolly Roger, its planks burned-out and decrepit. The sails were little more than strips of tattered fabric that whipped and billowed in the wind. Large chunks of wood seemed to be missing from the sides of the ship, making her wonder how the thing was managing to stay afloat. She knew in an instant that Killian would've been offended at the very sight of it — he despised sailors who didn't take good care of their ships.

The ship itself was teeming with crew — pirates, mostly, judging from their appearance, though she spotted a few naval uniforms of varying styles among them. Their clothes were as dreary and ragged as the sails, their eyes on their feet as they made quick work of the anchor, bringing the ship flush with the Jolly Roger.

Her eyes roved over the heads of the sailors, searching for the captain. Her gaze drifted in the direction of the helm, spotting a black tricorn hat that had seen better days, its edges visibly frayed even from this distance. The man wearing the hat was a head taller than the rest of the crew, his gray, scraggly hair fanning out over his wide shoulders. His eyes were sunken on either side of his broad, hard nose, his skin so sickly and pale beneath his matted gray beard that it looked nearly translucent. He'd been watching the crew intently as they brought the ship around, a hint of a scowl on his face, but his head turned without warning as the anchor dropped, his sharp eyes meeting hers in a fierce stare.

Davy Jones.

He was dressed like the kind of old sea captain she'd seen in cartoons growing up, but his features were anything but friendly. His hair and clothes were completely soaked, the latter sprayed with layers of sea salt that faded the dark blue of his coat almost completely white in some places. He continued to stare at her as his crew feverishly finished their work, Emma suppressing a prickle of unease.

A plank was thrown down across the railings of both ships, landing with a loud bang that made Belle jump. Jones broke the staring contest at last, marching his way across the deck to the makeshift bridge. A moment later, he was leaping down onto the deck of their ship, his heavy boots landing with a loud stomp.

He was even more massive up close, easily dwarfing the rest of them. He scanned each of them in turn, his hand resting on the menacing blade at his side.

"Which one of ye made the call?" he demanded, his voice deep and rough. "Which of ye dared to summon the Flying Dutchman?"

Her parents exchanged a nervous glance, David's hand inching toward the sword hanging from his belt. Beside them, Regina subtly turned her palm outward, preparing to summon what would probably be a very ill-advised fireball, given the amount of wood they were standing on.

Emma began to raise her hand, preparing to wave the others off, when Henry stepped forward, clearing his throat.

"I did," he stated, a slight crack in his voice betraying his nerves. "I seek an audience with Davy Jones."

Jones looked unimpressed, his eyes boring into Henry’s. Henry swallowed but held his ground as the captain stormed toward him in just a few short strides. Up close, he was easily twice Henry’s size, his scraggly beard dripping water onto his sneakers.

"This wee lad thinks himself a pirate captain?"

Emma moved toward them, anxious to redirect his attention. "He called you here to talk to me," she said, pointedly resting her hand on her cutlass. Belle had questioned the propriety of bringing weapons to a parlay, but from the tales Killian had shared of negotiations between pirates, she knew most of them tended to end in a swordfight. She felt extra grateful for the weapon now as Davy Jones rounded on her, fixing her with an imposing glare.

The captain's eyes skirted over her figure, taking in the cutlass and her jeans and gray tank top, his mouth settling into a dismissive sneer.

"Yer hardly a pirate yerself," he scoffed, waving his hand. "I don't make deals with landlubbers, missy. And I think ye'll find I don't like to be disturbed."

She crossed her arms. "You'll make a deal with me," she said confidently, widening her stance.

"Is that so?" he laughed, a harsh, wet sound. "And what deal would that be?"

"We need safe passage to the Underworld and back."

"Hah!" Jones threw his head back this time as he laughed, the sound of it bellowing over the water. "I might've known. A foolish quest to retrieve some lost loved one, I suppose?" His head lowered again, his hooded eyes boring into hers. "Yer hardly the first to try, but none succeed. There's no bringing souls back from the dead, missy. Ye'd do best to move on and forget them."

"Whether I succeed or not is my business, not yours," she said, refusing to back down. "All I need is for you to get us there and back."

He stalked forward, his footsteps loud on the floorboards of the Jolly Roger, leaving a wet trail in his wake. "And my ship is no passenger barge. I ferry the souls of the dead, not the living, and I answer to no one — not even former Dark Ones."

Her eyes widened before she could stop them, and he chuckled.

"That's right, missy, I know who ye are," he said. "And I've no interest in assisting ye with yer quest. I go where I please."

"But you have to go back to the Underworld at some point," she reasoned, raising her eyebrow. "When you go, you can take us with you, and bring us back when you return."

He narrowed his eyes, watching her more carefully now.

"A favour from Davy Jones comes at a price," he intoned, leaning over her. "Ten years before the mast for any man who dares ask for my help." His eyes slid down her disinterestedly, a dark smirk forming at the corner of his mouth. "It's been a long time since a woman made such a deal, but there's room on my crew for all of ye. I suppose the whelp could make a half-decent deckhand."

She ignored the insinuation, standing her ground. "None of us are joining your crew," she said, staring him down. "You'll help us because we can get you something you want. Your heart."

It was a gamble. Belle's speculation that the heart was too far inland for Jones to retrieve made sense, but it wasn't the only possible explanation. There was always the chance that something else had prevented him from going after it for all these years, or that he didn't even want it back — who knew if an undead pirate captain had any use for a heart.

Still, it was the best leverage they could come up with that didn't involve them becoming permanent members of his crew. She held her breath as he considered the proposal, his expression giving nothing away.

"And what makes ye think ye could even accomplish such a task?" he asked, a challenge underlying his words.

"You said you know who I am," she replied evenly. "Then, you know what I can accomplish when I'm motivated."

The pirate pulled at his messy beard, his fingers tangling in the wet strands.

"I suppose if ye brought me the heart, I could be persuaded to find room on my ship for one of ye," he said neutrally.

She was already shaking her head. "No deal — the heart in exchange for safe passage for six to the Underworld, and back to Storybrooke once we're done. Plus, the soul we're going to get."

She'd talked over the terms at length with the others, debating on the best wording to prevent any loopholes. Gold would've been the best one to consult with, but he'd already been a reluctant attendee at their strategy sessions at best. He'd made it clear he still wasn't wild about helping her — or Hook, for that matter. It was only with Belle's insistence that they had managed to pull even the most unenthusiastic cooperation out of him.

Jones' eyes narrowed again, the others tensing as they waited for him to think it over.

"Very well," he said at last. "In three days' time, ye'll bring me the heart, and I'll take ye and whoever ye bring along to the Underworld and back."

He paused, crowding her space, his face mere inches from her own. "But mark my words, missy — if I return in three days and ye haven't got the heart, ye'll all be bound to my service for thirty years apiece. And I assure ye, ye'll regret the day ye ever heard of Davy Jones."

She stiffened slightly, returning his gaze without blinking. "We'll have it."

He raised a thick eyebrow, his doubt clearly evident.

"Ye'd better," he stated. He stared down at her for a moment longer before turning sharply, barking orders at his crew.

The sailors whipped into action as he returned to his ship. The water began to churn again as the gangplank was pulled back, Jones taking the helm just as the massive ship began to sink into the depths. A moment later, the ship and its crew were gone, leaving no trace behind.

She felt the others let out a collective breath behind her, the tension on deck easing slightly. She echoed their relief, but it was short-lived as she remembered the task they now faced.

"Was that smart?" Regina said, scowling at Emma. "We don't even know if we can get to the heart and back in three days."

"We will," Emma assured her. She glanced at Robin. "You're sure the heart is on that island?"

He nodded, still looking a little rattled from the encounter. "Its location has never been a secret amongst thieves. But..."

She frowned. "But what?"

Robin smirked a bit, shouldering his bow.

"We're going to need some help."

Chapter Text

Camelot, Week 5

Emma's throat was dry, her hands shaking as they slowly fell away from the thick wood of the double-doors. The others probably hadn't noticed the small gap where the doors met, just wide enough to allow sound to carry through to the other side. Too busy making plans to worry about being overheard, she thought numbly.

Her eyes stung, her breathing growing more laboured as she turned their words over in her head.

"I told you," said Rumpelstiltskin, making no effort to disguise the glee in his voice. "It was only a matter of time before they turned on you."

She rested her forehead against the door, her mind reeling. It couldn't be true — they couldn't really believe what Merlin was telling them. They were supposed to trust her.

They were supposed to—

She swallowed before drawing a shuddering breath. How could she fight the Darkness when even the people she loved didn't believe she could do it?

"They've never believed you could do it," Rumpelstiltskin said, reading her thoughts as easily as if they'd been spoken aloud. "They've always been afraid of your power — of letting you reach your full potential. Why, all it took was you standing up for yourself — protecting what's yours — and they were ready to condemn you without a second thought. Face it, dearie — you'll never be good enough for them."

She felt his presence growing closer, his voice coming from just over her shoulder.

"They think you're weak. It's only a matter of time before they give up on you entirely — before they leave you all alone again."

She slammed her eyes shut, each word like a dagger in her heart. Why didn't they trust her? Why couldn't they see she'd only been defending herself?

Her anger flared. It was all Merlin's fault. He was the one filling their heads with lies, making them doubt her. It was him who'd stopped her from doing what needed to be done, from teaching Arthur what happened when he tried to take what was hers.

She curled her hand into a fist, whispers ringing in her ears. She'd shove that meddlesome sorcerer back into the tree she'd pulled him from. Once he was gone, the others would realize how wrong they'd been.

"It's not just Merlin, dearie," Rumpelstiltskin cautioned. "They'll always be looking for an excuse — just one little mistake. That's all it will take for them to leave you for good."

She felt him drawing nearer, heat radiating along her back.

"Unless, of course, you don't let them," he said, and she froze, considering the promise his words held. The pain in her chest lessened, conviction slowly filling her veins.

Emma turned to face him, her hands falling to her sides. Her skin glistened in the flickering torchlight of the corridor.

She straightened her spine, green eyes meeting yellow head-on.

"What do I need to do?"

* * *

Isla Cuerta, Present

"How much farther, exactly?"

Emma rolled her eyes skyward, pushing a branch out of her face. Ahead of her, Tinker Bell shook her head exasperatedly, the pair of them opting to ignore the question.

"We've a bit further yet to go, I expect," Robin answered with far more patience than Emma could have. While she and Tinker Bell had all but given up on responding to Regina's periodic complaining, he'd shown an unbelievably high tolerance for it, his even-handed replies usually managing to take the bite out of the worst of Regina's grousing. For a guy famous for living in a forest, he seemed vaguely amused by his girlfriend's apparent hatred of the outdoors.

The air was thick and humid as they walked, making even the task of breathing a chore, the oppressive heat leaving Emma in no mood to talk. Their progress had been steady, but slow, Tinker Bell's machete hacking a gradual path through Isla Cuerta's dense foliage.

Behind her, Regina swatted petulantly at a particularly large green bug, curling her lip in disgust. With a regal wave, she erected a barrier around herself, the enchantment making Emma's magic prickle uncomfortably.

Great. A bug repellant spell. That seemed like a good use of their energy.

Emma blew out hard, feeling petty for the thought. She couldn't be too mad at Regina — judging by the way she was limping, she was probably in a fair bit of pain. Those black heeled boots might've been nice for a mayor's office, but they couldn't be all that comfortable for hiking through a jungle.

Robin had warned them all that the terrain would be rough, and that they should dress accordingly, but apparently for Regina that meant foregoing the matching blazer to her dress slacks. In all the time Emma had known her, she wasn't sure she'd ever seen Regina in anything more casual than a pantsuit.

Emma swatted something itchy on her neck, her mood darkening further. They hadn't seen much of the island except for greenery, but so far it reminded her too much of the hot, sweaty jungles of Neverland for her liking.

From the steady stream of grievances Regina had given air to since they'd arrived, she appeared to agree.

Robin and Tinker Bell, on the other hand, were in their element, gracefully weaving their way through the trees and thick bushes like it was second nature. Emma watched them with a hint of envy, making a face as her boots slid in a patch of mud.

They'd recruited Tinker Bell immediately following the meeting with Davy Jones, and had left Storybrooke shortly after, mindful of their tight deadline.

The island had been muggy and deserted from the moment they'd arrived. Emma had eyed the dense trees edgily, assaulted by the memories of far too many surprise attacks by Lost Boys, but Robin had assured them all that that the island was uninhabited. It made sense, she guessed, if a vengeful sea goddess felt comfortable stashing her stuff there.

They'd begun making their way toward the center of the island, the overwhelming heat keeping conversation to a minimum, until the sun began to wane overhead, the path getting harder to see. Emma had been eager to keep going, but after Regina had stumbled over her third tree root — despite the fireball torch she'd summoned for herself — Robin had politely suggested they stop and make camp.

She'd protested at first, certain that they could manage at least another hour of walking before the light disappeared completely, until Regina had impatiently reminded her that they'd be no use if they were too tired to face whatever protections Calypso had put in place.

After that, there was little Emma could say. She'd continued to feel restless, though, pacing at the edge of the camp as the others calmly went about their preparations for the night. The longer they delayed, the closer they got to missing Jones' deadline, the thought making her physically ill — and not just because it would mean losing out on their only chance at saving Killian.

Regina muttered irritably behind her, breaking Emma's train of thought. She took as deep a breath as she could manage in the muggy air. It wasn't fair of her to take her frustrations out on the others just because she was feeling guilty. They'd volunteered to help her, after all, even though she knew most of them didn't believe there was any hope of saving Hook.

Still, her frayed nerves and the lack of sleep were beginning to take their toll, her temper hovering too close to the surface. It was taking every ounce of patience she had not to snap.

Tinker Bell, it seemed, had no such restraint.

"You know, it would seem much faster if you weren't whining so much."

Regina huffed.

"Well, excuse me," she retorted, stepping over a particularly large log in the path. "Not all of us were the poster child for Jungle Recluse Monthly."

Emma curled her fingers into a fist.

"You're sure fairy magic will work?" she asked Robin loudly, interrupting what was sure to be an equally snarky comeback. She really wasn't interested in spending the rest of their journey listening to Tink and Regina try and out-bitch each other.

He cast her a knowing smile, nodding.

"Fairies and sprites are distant relations. Calypso is known for using water sprites to do her bidding, and she's said to have used them to place the heart on the island. Tinker Bell's magic should be similar enough to get us past any enchantments."

"We'd better hope so," said Tink, elbowing a vine out of her path. "Fairies and water don't really go well together."

Emma sighed, lifting her hair off the back of her neck to let it cool, sweat making her clothes cling uncomfortably to her skin. Why was it so many of the fairytale characters they came across seemed to favour forests and jungles? Just once, it'd be nice to have a quest that required them to journey somewhere with a Starbucks.

Ugh, she was starting to sound like Regina. Tink was right — it was better to focus on something else.

"So, if the legend about the heart is so well-known, how come no one's stolen it before?" she wondered aloud.

Robin glanced back at her, a touch of irony to his smile. "No one would want to risk upsetting Calypso. Thieving is a difficult enough business without an angry sea goddess out for your blood."

"I have a feeling she's not the only god we'll be ticking off with this quest," Regina said, scowling as the leg of her dress pants caught on a thorn. With an annoyed twitch of her hand, the branch curled away from her, retreating back into the bush.

"Have you thought about how you're planning to escape the Underworld with Captain Handless in tow? I doubt Hades will let us just waltz out of there with one of his souls."

Emma stiffened, wiping the sweat on her forehead away with the back of her arm. "I'll think of something."

Regina scoffed. "Well, that's reassuring."

Emma tamped down her irritation. She couldn't afford to second-guess herself now — not with so much at stake. "One problem at a time, Regina. Let's concentrate on fulfilling the deal with Davy Jones, and then we can worry about Hades," she said, hoping to put an end to the discussion.

Of course, Regina had never been one to just let things go.

"Yes, that sounds like a brilliant plan — let's all risk our lives by traipsing into the Underworld and just hope things work out. I can't think of any way that could backfire on us."

Emma clenched her jaw, choosing not to respond. Instead, she pulled out her pocket knife, veering off the trail as she spotted a tree with a wide trunk. She flipped the knife open, gripping it tightly as she started to carve a marker into the bark.

It was a habit she and Killian had picked up after one too many tracking sessions through Storybrooke's woods — a way of easily finding one another if they ever got split up. The Storybrooke Environmental Protection Society had actually started lodging complaints with the sheriff's office about the increasing number of vandalized trees in the town. Killian had met their protests with a roll of his eyes, suggesting that perhaps the Society's energy would be better spent stopping the villains who tended to pick the forest as their hideout.

There probably wasn't much use for the markers here — Tink was doing a pretty solid job of hacking them a trail to follow — but the action felt like second nature now.

Unfortunately, her small pocket knife wasn't much of a match for the rubbery, green trees of Isla Cuerta. Emma grimaced, her hand cramping as she struggled to dig into the wet, sinewy bark with little success.

"Here."

A severe-looking hunting knife was thrust in front of her face, its blade serrated on one side. Emma blinked, following the hand holding the knife back to its owner. Tink stood beside her, watching her with more sympathy than Emma would've liked.

She looked away, grabbing the knife.

"Thanks," she said neutrally, returning her attention to the tree. The hunting knife sunk into the bark easily, allowing Emma to carve a solid 'X'.

She stepped back, surveying her work. Satisfied, she offered the knife back.

"Keep it," Tink said. "I've got another one."

Emma raised an eyebrow.

"You don't survive decades in Neverland without learning how to protect yourself," Tink said, correctly reading her look.

Emma tucked the knife into the back of her jeans as they began walking again, falling into step beside one another as much as the narrow trail would allow.

She realized suddenly that this was the first time the two of them had been alone since she and Robin had cornered Tinker Bell in Storybrooke to ask for her help.

"Thanks again for coming, Tink," she said, her earlier frustration weighing guiltily on her mind.

The fairy waved off her gratitude. "Hook helped me out of a few scrapes in Neverland. It's his turn to owe me one," she replied, her machete easily slicing through a thorny branch that blocked their way.

Emma watched her out of the side of her eye as they walked, Tinker Bell still something of a contradiction to her. She hadn't adopted the nun habits the other fairies in Storybrooke favoured, replacing her ratty Neverland neckerchief with a slightly more fashionable one. She'd traded in her torn jungle clothes for dark tights and a belted dress, complete with combat boots that allowed her to march through the jungle with ease. She walked with a mixture of the grace that seemed inherent among fairies and the brashness earned through hard years of fighting for survival, her every movement equally soft and sure.

Killian didn't talk about Neverland often, but he spoke of Tinker Bell with the sort of fondness and quiet respect one usually reserved for old war buddies, or maybe long-time drinking partners. From the few tales he'd shared, she'd gathered they'd been thrown together more than a few times out of necessity. To hear either one of them tell it, they'd been reluctant allies at best, but Emma suspected their gravitating towards one another had more to do with mutual loneliness and regrets than survival.

When Robin had suggested using a fairy to get past Calypso's enchantments, her parents' first suggestion had been Blue. But Emma had wavered — the Blue Fairy had never been particularly fond of Hook, and even less so after the incident with the Sorcerer's hat. The head fairy tended to purse her lips in disapproval whenever he entered the room, and she also wasn't big on breaking the rules. Neither boded well for the chances of her agreeing to help them steal treasure from a goddess.

Thankfully, Tink had been more than willing to lend a hand once they'd explained the situation. She'd brushed off the risks, remarking that it'd been ages since she'd had any sort of decent adventure in Storybrooke.

Emma thought it likely there was more to her eagerness to help than just boredom. Her expression had shifted minutely as soon as Killian's name was mentioned, though she suspected Tink would deny it if asked. Emma wondered if he knew she was secretly as fond of him as he was of her.

"Still," she said, watching Tink closely. "I know pissing off a goddess isn't everyone's idea of fun..."

Tinker Bell shook her head. "It's a good plan, Emma," she said. "Don't let Regina make you doubt yourself — she can be a bit of a pessimist, but in her mind, she probably thinks she's helping prepare you in case things don't work out."

Right. She looked down, watching her boots sink into the soft dirt as they walked. "Do you think it'll work?" she asked, cringing inwardly as the words came out needier than she'd planned. Way to keep it casual.

She regretted speaking even more when Tinker Bell stopped, turning her full attention toward her. "I think if anyone could do it, it's you," she said seriously.

Emma tensed. "Because I'm the Saviour?" she asked with a hint of bitterness. She wasn't that person anymore. She'd stopped being the Saviour the moment she'd let the Darkness in.

"You still are, you know."

Emma glanced at her sharply. Had she—

"Being the Dark One didn't take that away from you," Tinker Bell continued. "Being the Saviour doesn't mean being perfect all the time."

Emma was spared having to respond as she caught sight of Robin and Regina ahead through the trees. The couple appeared to be taking a rest, Robin offering Regina his canteen of water as they waited for them to catch up.

Regina spotted them as she drank, handing the canteen back to Robin.

"Well, it's about time," she glared. "I thought we were on a deadline."

"Oh, quit your complaining," Tink returned as they drew near. "If you're allowed a break, then so are we."

Regina opened her mouth to retort, but Robin stepped between them.

"Well, now that everyone's well-rested, it appears we've arrived," he interrupted kindly, gesturing through the trees ahead of them.

Emma perked up, eagerly passing the pair of them to break through the treeline. The trees parted to reveal a large blue lagoon, well-shaded by the canopy of tall trees that surrounded it. The shoreline was punctuated by moss-covered boulders, pink and white lilies sparsely decorating the water's surface.

She frowned, surveying the large body of water that was easily wide enough for three ships. "If Davy Jones' ship can make a portal through any water, why wouldn't he just make one here? He wouldn't have to worry about travelling across the island."

Regina held out her hand, running it across the air in front of her face. "Judging by the barrier magic I'm sensing, I don't think anything can get in or out," she said, flinching as a spark of magic zapped her hand. "It's definitely not the work of your average magic user."

Now that Regina had mentioned it, Emma could see the slightest shimmer in the air in front of them, like a ripple. It seemed to stretch across the entire clearing. She kept her distance, not all that eager to find out what a protection spell from a goddess could do to a person.

"I guess this is where I come in," said Tink, stepping forward and brushing a stray hair out of her face.

"Just try not to fry us all," Regina said. Emma rolled her eyes again — antagonizing the fairy who'd volunteered to help them seemed more than a little bit counter-productive.

Thankfully, Tinker Bell didn't seem to take offense, merely shaking her head at the comment. She pushed her baggy sleeves back up past her elbows and raised her hands in front of her.

At first, nothing happened, Tinker Bell brow furrowing in concentration. Then, the air began to shimmer, Tink grunting a bit as she shifted her footing on the ground. The barrier pulsed, and she let out a cry of pain, her fingers curling as she recoiled.

Emma felt a stab of panic.

"Tink!"

She moved to intervene, but Regina grabbed her wrist, holding her back.

"Don't," she warned, her own eyes dark with unexpected concern. "That type of magic would fry us both. Just give her a chance — she's tougher than she looks."

Emma didn't have time to contemplate Regina's surprising faith in Tinker Bell as the fairy in question had planted her feet once more, grimacing as her hands began to glow a bright green.

The air rippled around her, bending inward like a mirror at a funhouse. A second later, a bright light exploded across the clearing, the force of it causing them all to shield their eyes.

Emma blinked away dots, searching frantically for Tinker Bell.

The fairy stood where the barrier had once been, sweat beading on her forehead. She was a bit pale, but appeared otherwise unharmed, looking back at them all with a tired smile. Emma saw some of the tension in Regina's posture relax, the other woman releasing her grip on her arm.

"Well done," said Robin appreciatively, patting Tink on the shoulder.

"Thanks, Tink," Emma echoed seriously. The fairy waved off her gratitude again, though with a bit less energy than before.

Emma took a deep breath, raising her hand in front of her. She didn't feel the barrier magic anymore, but that didn't mean Calypso didn't have other surprises in store for intruders. Cautiously, she walked toward the water, bracing herself as she crossed the spot where the barrier had once stood.

She let out the breath she'd been holding, glancing back at the others as they trailed behind her.

"So, where's the heart?" Emma asked, glancing around the deserted lagoon.

Robin raised an expectant eyebrow, nodding at the unnaturally calm water before them.

She sighed. "Really?"

He shrugged. "She is a sea goddess. What better place to hide her treasure?"

"Well, you're on your own for that part," Tink said, gesturing at the lagoon, some of the colour coming back to her cheeks. She wrapped her arms around herself. "I'm no good with water."

"So, what, we just swim down and get it?" she said, rubbing her palms on her jeans. "It can't be that easy."

"No, probably not," Regina agreed, looking somewhat resigned. "I didn't exactly dress for deep-sea diving."

Emma eyed the water cautiously. It was at least 200 feet across, its surface suspiciously calm given the slight breeze in the clearing. She moved closer, peering down through the surface. It didn't look that deep, but Emma was familiar enough with magic by now to know that looks could be deceiving.

"I'll go," she declared. She met Regina's incredulous look. "I used to be a pretty decent swimmer," she said defensively.

"Really?" Regina said dryly. "Was that before or after you did a swan dive off the Jolly Roger and nearly drowned on our way to Neverland?"

Emma shot her a dirty look. "That was different. We were under the mermaids' spell."

"Whereas I'm sure there's nothing dangerous here to keep out thieves," Regina said, gesturing to the water. "I'm sure Calypso designed this to be as easy as possible."

"I'll be fine," she said, toeing out of her boots and socks. Her tank top and jeans would dry fast enough once she got out, but she didn't want to deal with soaking wet feet all the way back to Storybrooke.

Reluctantly, her hand went to the chain around her neck. She hadn't taken the ring off since the night of the fury attack. But the chain was longer than her other necklaces, and it would be all too easy for it to get caught on something or fall off without her noticing. After a moment's hesitation, she lifted the chain over her head, running her thumb over the jewel a final time.

She turned to Tinker Bell, who was keeping back from the water's edge.

"Mind hanging onto this for me?" she asked, holding the necklace out. She kept her voice light, but from the look the fairy gave her, she knew exactly who the ring belonged to. Silently, Tinker Bell held out her hand, letting Emma pour the chain into her open palm.

"I won't let anything happen to it," Tinker Bell promised, closing her fingers securely around the necklace.

She nodded, not trusting her voice. She knew it was silly to get so worked up over a piece of jewellery, but that ring felt like the only part of Killian she had left. He'd never told her its origins, but he'd worn it every day for as long as she'd known him. She couldn't bear the thought of anything happening to it.

She turned back to the others, clearing her throat. "You guys keep an eye out," she said, back to business. "We don't know what else Calypso could have in store."

Regina nodded, Robin pulling his bow off his back.

"We'll be ready," he said.

She made her way to the edge of the lagoon, hesitantly stepping into the water. It was cool, but refreshingly so after the heat they'd all endured so far. She paused, half-expecting Calypso herself to materialize out of thin air, but the cove remained as quiet as ever.

She glanced back uneasily at the others before wading in further, her senses on high alert.

The sandy floor of the pool was littered with sharp rocks, forcing her to step gingerly. The water slowly rose to her shoulders as she walked, the surface remaining undisturbed apart from the ripples she caused with each movement.

She took a breath, diving under the surface. She kept her eyes open, grateful that the water was fresh, using her arms and legs to propel her forward. She scanned the bottom for any sign of the chest, the limited sunlight overhead making it difficult to see. The water grew deeper toward the center of the pond, larger rocks and seaweed carpeting the ground.

She surfaced, grabbing a quick breath before going under again. The sun was rippling through the water, casting parts of the lagoon in a glimmering light, but there was no sign of the chest anywhere. Frustrated, she kicked to the surface again, breathing deeply as the water rolled off her face.

She treaded water for a moment, re-orienting herself. She pointed herself determinedly toward the center of the lagoon — she'd search the entire place if she had to.

With another big breath, she kicked with all her might down into the water. The water was deepest at the center, and it took her a while to reach the bottom. She pushed herself past orange coral and rocks, brushing seaweed out of her face as she swam. The rocks ahead were darker, the boulders covered in a variety of sea plants, but a small glint caught Emma's eye. Was that—

Her lungs were starting to protest, and she kicked to the surface as fast as she could, pausing only long enough to gasp a lungful of air before plunging back down into the depths.

This time, she could see it more clearly — the shiny glint behind the leafy seaweed catching the uneven sunlight. The chest — it had to be. She kicked closer, hints of shimmering blues and reds marking the jewels that lined the golden exterior.

The chest looked like it had been there for centuries, the rocks and plants having molded themselves around it. She spotted a handle on the side and grabbed it, tugging, but it was stuck fast, caught between the rocks. She tugged again, her lungs beginning to burn. Come on, you stupid—

Something warm wrapped around her ankle, pulling her sharply. She went flying through the water, the handle sliding from her fingers.

She struggled, bending to pry the thing off, but it held strong, her fingers sliding across a thick, rubbery surface. She looked down at the red and purple tentacle beneath her hands, her lungs aching for air. What—

The thing jerked her again, knocking some of the remaining air from her lungs. She squirmed, trying to kick free, but it wouldn't let go. The giant tentacle slithered up her leg, wrapping even tighter around her ankle. Its grip was punishing, squeezing tight enough to cut off the flow of blood.

She was desperate for air, the lack of oxygen making her dizzy. Another tentacle shot through the water toward her and she twisted, stretching toward the floor of the lagoon. She grabbed a jagged-looking rock, slamming it against the appendage. The ugly thing jerked back in pain, its grip loosening enough for her to wrench free.

She kicked for the surface, her lungs reaching their breaking point. Come on, come on...

She could see the surface above her head, her lungs screaming for relief. She pushed her face through the water, gasping desperately for air. An instant later, she was tugged below again, water streaming down her nose and throat as a thick tentacle wormed its way around her waist.

She broke the surface again, coughing water from her lungs as the creature propelled her through the air.

She could hear the cries of the others on land, but her attention was fixed on the sea of purply-red appendages surfacing around her, each one thicker than her thigh. The ring spanned more than half the lagoon.

Her eyes widened as the water in the center rippled, parting to finally reveal the creature's head.

Teeth. So many teeth. Rows and rows of them lining a gaping mouth that reminded her too much of the sand pit monster from Return of the Jedi.

Oh god.

The tentacle holding her began drawing her toward the mouth, and Emma fought, her heart racing as she clawed at the appendage, but the skin was too rubbery, her nails sliding off with no effect.

"Blast it, Emma!"

Tinker Bell's shout was barely discernible over the churning of the water, the thrashing tentacles turning the previously calm lagoon into a veritable wave pool. The creature's head was turning toward her and she kicked, squirming as something dug into her back.

Tink's knife.

She twisted, reaching behind her to grasp the hilt, relieved when her fingers closed around it. The tentacle was constricting most of her torso, but there was just enough space for her to—

Yes!

She pulled the knife free, stabbing the appendage. The tentacle jerked, but its hold didn't loosen completely this time. She stabbed again and again, but the monster held fast.

The teeth were so close now, the creature's warm breath spraying bits of water at her as she struggled, changing her grip to jab at the thinner part of the tentacle. Come on, damn it! She couldn't fail, not now, not before she'd fixed things—

Fire exploded along the side of the creature's head, knocking its grip loose and sending Emma plummeting several feet into the water below. She spun, her sense of direction knocked out of whack as she tried to figure out which way was up. She righted herself, pushing past the surface in time to see the monster heading for shore.

Regina and Robin stood at the water's edge, Robin rapidly firing arrows at the beast. The bolts pierced its tentacles, a few of them landing in its mouth, but the attacks only seemed to irritate it.

Beside him, Regina's face was screwed up in concentration, her hands splayed in front of her. A ball of fire the size of a beach ball erupted to life between her hands, its flames a vibrant green.

The creature was picking up speed, closing in on the coast. Emma's heart lodged in her throat.

Regina hurled the fireball, hitting the beast square on the head. The flames exploded, the blast forcing Emma back under the water.

She surfaced again as quickly as she could, relieved to spot the monster's scorched carcass floating in the water, mere feet from the shore.

She treaded water for a moment, her pulse racing as she watched for any sign of movement. Satisfied it was truly dead, she front-crawled her way back toward the center of the water, diving under once more.

She was warier this time, keeping an eye on her surroundings as she worked at digging the rocks and sand surrounding the chest loose. When it was as clear as she could make it, she grabbed the handle again, bracing her feet against a rock and heaving with all her might. She felt the chest pull loose, scraping up to rest on top of the rock she was braced against.

She hoisted the chest into her arms, rubies and pearls digging into her skin. She kicked against the rock, propelling herself upwards.

It was a struggle swimming with the chest, but she managed, tucking it under one of her arms and using her other arm and legs to push herself.

She broke the surface, paddling toward the shore.

The others were waiting for her, Regina still visibly bracing for a fight. Robin had a fresh arrow notched in his bow, his expression strained.

Tink stood a distance behind them, watching Emma with concern.

"Thanks for the assist," Emma said, wading out of the water. Her heart was still working double-time as she shifted the chest into a more comfortable grip, the burden a lot heavier without the water to take some of the weight. "Sorry I lost your knife, Tink."

Tinker Bell frowned.

"Your magic might've worked better," she said.

Emma hefted the chest up in her arms. "We got it, didn't we?"

She smiled grimly as their attention shifted to the treasure, the jewels glimmering in the early afternoon sun.

"What do you say we get our tickets to the Underworld?"

Chapter Text

Davy Jones' entrance was every bit as dramatic the second time around, his ship bursting through the surface of the water amidst a giant whirlpool, a brilliant flash of green blinding everyone on the dock.

They'd cleared the smaller boats out of the way to make room for the ship, Jones' crew casting ropes down to tie off opposite the Jolly Roger at the pier. The Flying Dutchman looked even more massive in Storybrooke's harbour, dwarfing the small fishing boats and dinghies that now occupied the far side of the docks.

The gangplank had dropped the moment the vessel was tied off, though none of the crew had made any move to exit. Instead, the ship sat there, waiting, in a clear demand for its passengers to make their way aboard.

Emma stared up at the large vessel uneasily. She re-settled the gold chest in her arms for the dozenth time, wincing as a particularly ornate ruby scraped her forearm. She couldn't see him from this angle, but she could feel Davy Jones' eyes on her all the same.

A shiver ran down her spine.

Stop it, she admonished, feeling silly. There was no reason to be worried — she'd held up her end of the deal. They'd earned their passage to the Underworld fair and square, and all without having to agree to a place on Jones' crew. Everything would be fine.

Assuming he holds up his end of the deal, a small voice whispered in the back of her mind, sudden uncertainty giving her pause. Once they were onboard, there were no guarantees he would keep his word. Her eyes drifted to the others, occupied with saying their goodbyes. They were all risking their lives, but what if she was wrong to trust Jones? What was to stop him from going back on his promise as soon as they were out at sea, trapped aboard his ship?

You could always make him to keep his word.

Emma stopped cold, her magic roaring beneath her skin. Blood pulsed in her ears, the sound of it not quite loud enough to drown out the faint beating of the heart through the thick walls of the chest. It could work, the voice whispered. The others wouldn't even have to know. If she held Jones' heart, he couldn't betray them — betray her. She'd be in complete control.

'What are you waiting for, Dark One? You know what you have to do.'

Merida's accusing face flashed across her memory, disturbing her train of thought. She'd been so afraid beneath her anger, her bright blue eyes widening fearfully as she'd realized her fate was no longer own.

She'd had control, then, too.

It was ironic, in a way. As furious as Emma had been with Regina for using the dagger to command her, she'd then done the same thing without a second thought. It'd been so addictive, so empowering to know that she held all the cards, that she could see what she wanted and take it as her own. The Darkness had been only too quick to encourage her, assuring her that with its help, she could have anything she desired.

After all, no one could hurt her if she was the one pulling the strings.

No, Emma swore, the memories leaving her cold. She couldn't do to that again, no matter how tempting it was. She was done doing things the easy way.

The very idea of it now filled her with shame, her cheeks burning as she stared at the chest without seeing it. Merida had returned to Camelot before she’d worked up the courage to apologize, the guilt of her actions weighing heavily on her heart.

Emma’s mind wandered to Killian and the way he had pleaded with the others to give her a choice, certain that she would make the right one. What would he think of her, if he knew the truth of what she’d felt? Would he be disgusted to know some small part of her had enjoyed having all of that power in her hands?

She suspected she already knew the answer, her insides twisting painfully. It was bad enough she'd been the Dark One — the thing Killian hated most in all the world. But he had made his thoughts about those who sought to control others pretty clear.

It wasn't until more than a month into their relationship that he'd finally begun to share pieces of his childhood with her, confiding his feelings of powerlessness at not being free to direct his own fate. It was a helplessness he’d experienced too often in his long life. More than once, she'd sat up with him in the dark after nightmares tore him from his sleep, listening as he whispered, voice hoarse, about struggling desperately against Rumpelstiltskin's commands. She knew firsthand how weak and hopeless he'd felt, watching someone else use his body as their own.

Despite all of that, he'd repeatedly fought for her right to make her own decisions, still convinced she could be better, even when he'd found her mere seconds away from crushing Merida's heart. He'd put his trust in her, encouraging the others to let her choose the right path on her own.

And how did I repay that trust? she thought bitterly.

Barely five weeks had passed before she'd shoved her hand into Violet's chest, ripping away the last shreds of light within her. Violet had trusted her, too. She'd followed Emma willingly at the mere promise of a way to help Henry, never realizing the danger she was in until it was too late. Even now, with everyone else's memories restored, Violet had no recollection of the incident, simply because Emma had willed it so.

She'd used a little girl as a puppet for her own selfish ends, just as surely as Gold had used Hook.

Maybe he'd been right to doubt her. Was she really all that different from the other people who'd hurt him?

She shook her head, pushing the thought aside. What had happened between them in Camelot didn’t matter — all that mattered was setting things right.

She made her way toward the gangplank, the chest heavy in her arms.

A small crowd had gathered at the docks to see them off, most of them huddled a fair distance from the ship. Regina and Robin stood close to one another, too wrapped up in their farewells to pay her any mind. She found herself slowing as she passed, jealousy churning her stomach as she watched them out of the corner of her eye.

Robin reached for Regina's hands, worry creasing his forehead.

"I wish I could go with you."

Regina's reply was uncharacteristically soft, her face free of the hard lines Emma was used to seeing. "As much as I'd love you to come, you were right," she said, swaying toward him slightly. "With Emma and I gone, and Rumpelstiltskin useless, the town is going to be low on heavy-hitters. I don't want to trust the safety of Storybrooke to a bunch of dwarves, especially with my sister still here. Nor am I sure I'd trust your... companions to babysit a toddler for however long we'll be gone."

"...Besides, this is my debt to repay," she said, her discomfort obvious even from a distance. "Hook may not be my favourite person in the world, but if it weren't for him, Henry would be the one trapped in the Underworld."

Robin nodded, moving his hand to her cheek. "Still, the Underworld will be dangerous — even for you. Promise you'll be careful?"

She smiled, leaning into his touch. "I promise. We'll be back before you know it."

"You'd better be," he replied, quirking his lips. "Or I'll be scouring the realms for more missing organs to bargain with Davy Jones for."

Emma turned away as they kissed, feeling strangely numb. She didn't want to begrudge them their happiness, but the display felt like a harsh reminder of everything she'd lost, her heart aching at their casual affection with one another. She shifted the gold chest into the crook of her left arm, her other hand reaching for Killian's ring.

Around her, the others were finishing up their goodbyes, her mother accepting a heartfelt hug from Granny. Even Belle and Gold were having what looked to be a cordial — if somewhat uncomfortable — farewell. Everyone kept their distance from Emma, subtly parting around her as she crossed the dock.

She sped up as she reached the gangplank, having no desire to remain in a crowd of people who were so obviously uneasy around her. The sooner they left, the better.

The crew of the Flying Dutchman parted for her as well as she boarded, though it seemed to be a result of deeply-ingrained submission rather than any fear on their part. Their eyes remained firmly on their various tasks, two young men in dirty, ragged shirts scrubbing the blackened floorboards so furiously that she wondered how they hadn't worn a hole in the wood. She guessed Davy Jones wasn't a big fan of slacking off.

Her eyes drifted to the man in question, finding his dark gaze staring back at her from the helm of the ship.

She climbed the steps to the quarterdeck, steadfastly refusing to acknowledge the way he tracked her every move.

"Ye've brought what we bargained for?" he asked, his eyes glued to the treasure in her arms. She tightened her grip.

"It's here," she replied evenly. "I've held up my end, but you're not getting it unless I have your word that you'll follow through."

His eyes narrowed slightly, his broad shoulders rolling back in a move obviously intended to make himself appear larger. She stood her ground, returning his glare.

"All right," he said, his gravelly voice carrying across the deck. "Hand over the heart, and I swear I'll take ye and yers safely to the Underworld and back. But once ye get to the Underworld, yer on yer own, lassie. I'll not cross Hades for the likes of ye."

She studied him for a moment longer, her earlier uncertainty resurfacing, but she knew it was as good a promise as she was likely to get. Wordlessly, she handed him the chest.

He grabbed it with greedy hands, his actions turning almost reverent a moment later. Without a sound, he laid the chest on the stern, unlatching it with steady fingers to reveal the charred heart inside.

The look in his eyes was indiscernible as he lifted the still-beating organ, staring at it briefly before eagerly shoving it against his ribcage.

He closed his eyes, inhaling deeply. When he opened them, there was a spark there that had been missing before. She was uncomfortably reminded of Killian’s face after she'd returned his heart, the fire returning to his gaze so vividly she couldn't believe it'd taken her so long to realize something was wrong.

She gave him a moment to savour it, figuring even undead pirate captains deserved that much, but her patience quickly ran out.

"How long until you can get us there?"

He shut the chest with far less care than he'd opened it, casting her a dismissive glance out of the corner of his eye.

"We'll reach the Underworld in a few days."

"Days?" Emma looked at him sharply. "Can't one of your portals get us there faster?"

Jones gave a deep, harsh laugh. "Portals can only be opened between realms that are alive. The Underworld is a whole different beast. If ye want to get there, ye have to go through the door — the barrier between the land of the living and the land of the dead."

"And where is that?" she asked.

"It moves around," he said, looking out at the sea. "It wouldn't do for its location to be known, after all." He snorted at her derisively. "Too many foolish people trying to get their loved ones back. Hades is the cautious sort."

"But you can find it?"

He fingered a heavy black compass at his belt. "Aye, I can find it."

She quashed a surge of bitter disappointment that threatened to take hold. How many more delays would there be? Killian had been trapped in the Underworld for more than three weeks already, all alone and enduring who knew what. Every second they wasted felt like a further betrayal.

Jones took the helm, signaling a clear end to the conversation. Reluctantly, she descended to the lower deck, finding a place to wait near the railing. The crew was working steadily around her, completely ignoring her presence as they prepared to set sail.

She ran her hand gingerly along the decaying wood of the ship's rail, longing for the smoothly-sanded familiarity of the Jolly Roger. Her shoulders were tight as she turned her attention to the gangplank, the others finally beginning to board.

Her dad held his hand out to her mom as she stepped down onto the deck, their weapons and packs in tow. Henry followed behind them, the practice sword David had bought him for his last birthday strapped to his waist. She and Regina had both protested the gift at the time, but she knew how seriously he'd been taking his lessons. She also couldn't deny he'd be better off having a way to defend himself where they were going.

Henry seemed intent on taking in as much of the ship as he could, his head swiveling in every direction as he watched the crew prepare to cast off. His eyes skittered in her direction only briefly before darting away, a hard look passing over his face. A moment later, he’d made his way to the furthest edge of the lower deck, engrossed in conversation with her parents.

She swallowed, a hollow feeling in the pit of her stomach.

"Not as much fun from the other side, is it?"

She turned, startled. Regina stood just behind her, her attention focused on a point over Emma's shoulder. Emma followed her gaze back to Henry.

She stiffened, her walls slamming up. Of course. They hadn't talked directly about Camelot since the curse had broken, but she should've expected Regina to get around to gloating eventually. "You must be loving this," she said rigidly.

"As a matter of fact, I'm not," Regina countered. She moved closer, her focus still on Henry. "Contrary to what you may think, I don't enjoy seeing my son heartbroken. Nor do I enjoy seeing my... friend in pain," she said, stumbling over the word as though it was foreign to her.

Her words pacified Emma slightly, the tension slowly dissipating from her shoulders. She looked back at her family, the empty feeling in her gut intensifying. They looked so complete, laughing and smiling at one another, as though it were any other day in Storybrooke.

She could feel Regina's eyes on her, and she struggled to keep her emotions off her face.

"It's not going to be like this forever, you know," Regina said. "Henry's mad right now, but he still loves you. They all do. You just have to give it time."

She huffed, disbelieving. "Since when are you the one giving out the hope speeches?"

Regina's mouth twisted into a sardonic smile. "Since I know what it's like to give into your dark impulses and regret the impact it has on the people you love. I know what it's like to let people down."

Emma inhaled sharply, her throat going dry. Her parents were saying something to Belle now, who'd boarded with little fanfare, her hands wrapped around the straps of her knapsack. "I wasn't the only one."

"You're right," Regina allowed diplomatically. "We all screwed up in Camelot — myself included. But playing the blame game won't get us anywhere."

"I'm really not in the mood for a pep talk, Regina," said Emma, crossing her arms. The crew were raising the gangplank, their captain signaling that they'd be setting sail soon.

"Well, that's too bad," she replied, sounding more than a little smug. "I've had to listen to my share of speeches from you and your family over the years. Now it's your turn."

Emma rolled her eyes.

"So, this is payback?" she asked peevishly.

"No, not payback," Regina corrected. "As sanctimonious as those speeches were, I needed to hear them, whether I was willing to admit it at the time or not." She spread her hands, a slightly sarcastic smile on her face. "Consider this me repaying the favour."

"Yeah, well, don't take this the wrong way, but being the Evil Queen isn't really the same thing."

"That's where you're wrong," said Regina. "I may not have been a Dark One, but I have been where you are — wanting to make things better, but not knowing how. If you want my advice..." she trailed off, turning her head toward Emma. "Don't try and force it. You can't fix everything at once, and being impatient about it won't get you anywhere. I certainly made that mistake more than once."

She watched her parents and son talking, Henry pointing out various features of the ship with poorly-concealed excitement, remembering how eagerly he’d recounted the details of his first real sailing trip with Killian. He’d been so proud of himself, Killian assuring him he had the makings of a fine sailor.

Emma shoved her hands into the pockets of her jeans, hating how alone the scene made her feel. When had she started letting that get to her?

Before she'd come to Storybrooke, Emma had known better than to rely on others. She'd learned her lesson after too many disappointments, too many promises of home and acceptance yanked away just when she'd begun to believe it could be hers. She'd trained herself not to be bothered by birthdays alone or quiet nights by herself, but Storybrooke had changed all of that. Her family had changed it. Killian had changed it.

She'd let them in against her better judgement, slowly lowering her walls for them bit by bit as she’d allowed herself believe that maybe things would be different this time. Maybe she could be enough.

She'd let herself believe that she was special — that she could be all of the things they told her she was. A hero. A Saviour. Someone who belonged, who made things better.

But in the end, she'd only made things worse. And the moment they'd realized she wasn't the hero they'd wanted, suddenly she hadn't been enough anymore.

Maybe I never was, she thought sourly.

She shivered, the biting sea air going right through her. It'd been a long time since she'd felt so lonely in Storybrooke, but she'd been on her own before and she could do it again.

"It doesn't matter," she said, half to herself. "I don't have time to worry about any of that stuff. All that matters is rescuing Hook."

Regina frowned, decidedly uncomfortable.

"Look," she said hesitantly, "All pessimism aside, you do know there's a chance this won't work, right?"

Emma turned to look out at the water, her face blank.

"It'll work."

The look Regina cast her was far too pitying for her liking.

"I know you feel guilty for what happened to Hook, but—"

"But what?" she interrupted sarcastically. "It's not my fault? I'm not to blame for his death?" Even now, the word seemed to stick in her throat, choking her.

Regina paused, considering. "Okay, it is your fault," she allowed. "You did a stupid thing and he paid the price for it. I certainly know how that feels. And I get that you want to make it better — that you think this quest will fix everything. But you also need to prepare yourself for if it doesn't."

A cool breeze whipped across Emma's face, blowing her hair into her eyes. She wanted to ignore Regina's words, but they cut deeper than she would've liked. What if they didn't succeed? What if she had to go on without Killian, without—

No. She couldn't let herself think about it. One way or another, she was going to fix what she'd broken.

"I need to do this,” she said softly, willing her to understand. "I can't give up on him."

Regina nodded somberly. "I get it. He was the same way about you."

Emma glanced at her, Regina raising a well-manicured eyebrow.

"Are you that surprised? The whole time you were the Dark One, he wouldn't stop going on about how we couldn't give up on you. He refused to take no for an answer." She tilted her head. "Say what you will about Hook, but when he sets his mind to something, he's very determined."

Emma's eyes softened at the description. It was true — Killian was almost single-mindedly determined about the things that mattered to him. Anyone who spent two centuries on a quest for revenge would have to have some serious dedication, after all. It made sense that he would apply that same determination to the task she'd set before him — removing the Darkness from her.

The task that got him killed, her brain ruthlessly reminded her.

"Maybe he shouldn't have been," she murmured.

Regina's eyebrow rose even further, taking on a judgmental edge. "Do you think he didn't know what he was getting into? Hook has been chasing the Dark One for centuries — he knew it'd be dangerous. But that didn't stop him from insisting we do everything we could to help you."

Her lips quirked. "Hook and I will probably never be close — there's far too much history between us for that — but I saw what he was like when you were the Dark One. That man would have gladly walked into Hell and back if it meant helping you."

She knew the words were meant as a comfort, but the empty feeling in the pit of Emma’s stomach only worsened as she listened, remembering the sickened expression that had crossed Killian's face after her attack on Arthur and his men.

'I loved you.'

Tears stung her eyes, but she blinked them back. Any hope she'd had that the memory spell would put things right between them had been ripped away with those three words. Maybe he'd had faith in her to start, but she'd squandered it, taking it for granted that he would always return to her side no matter how poorly she betrayed his trust.

Regina seemed to realize that she was done talking. She gave an awkward attempt at a reassuring smile, her discomfort with the action evident as she left to join the others.

Emma leaned heavily against the rail, feeling splinters bite into her forearms. Behind her, she was vaguely aware of Davy Jones shouting orders to his crew as the ship began to push off from the dock.

She stared out at the water, plagued by the memory of her final moments with Killian at the pond. Had it been faith in his eyes that night as he'd pleaded with her, or was it fear? Disgust at what she'd become? The images were twisted in her mind, warped by the haze of the Darkness.

She toyed with the ring at her neck, wondering whether Killian would be angry with her for taking it. It had felt right at the time — keeping a piece of him with her, a reminder of what she was fighting for — but she wondered now if it had been selfish, as well. To take something precious of Killian's because she thought it might bring her comfort. To believe she had any right to lay claim to it, after everything she'd done.

She dropped the ring, the heavy metal knocking against her sternum. Regina was right about one thing — focusing on blame wouldn't get her anywhere. She couldn't undo what had happened, but she could do what she could to fix things.

One way or another, she'd make things right.

* * *

His guard wasn't much for conversation.

Not that Killian minded — he wasn't much in the mood for talk himself. He felt as though he'd been assaulted by a non-stop barrage of threats and surprises from the moment he'd broken into Zelena's cell, hurled from one stunning revelation to the next with hardly a moment to breathe in between. The sudden ringing silence that followed Hades' departure and his dismissal from the judges' chambers left him feeling off-kilter, and with far too much time to get lost in his own thoughts.

Being dead wasn't at all what he'd expected. Centuries of life had given him plenty of time to ruminate on the subject — at times, with a tad more longing than perhaps was healthy. In his more self-indulgent moods, he'd imagined being reunited with those he'd lost — a fate he'd dreaded and ached for in equal measure. In his darker moments, he foresaw an eternity of endless torture and anguish — the only end truly befitting of a villain.

But in all of his contemplation of the afterlife, he had never expected to find it so... lonely. Despite Hades' assurances that all souls journeyed to the Underworld when their time was up, he'd yet to come across any but himself.

It was nothing like his experience of dying in Isaac's storybook. One moment, he'd been alive and fighting, a childish sort of pride filling him at the thought of standing up to the Evil Queen to protect the beautiful maiden he'd met. The next moment, he'd been waking up in the loft, as though no time had passed in between.

He'd wondered after if that nothingness was what real death would be like. The thought had left him cold, the knowledge that he would never see those he cared for again disturbing him far more than he cared to admit. But perhaps it had only been that way because Isaac's story hadn't yet ended when he'd passed. If Emma and Henry had failed in their quest, who was to say he wouldn't have found his way down here all the same.

The Underworld wasn't quite what he'd expected either.

His guard had led him down several nondescript tunnels, each one as plain as the last aside, nothing but dark stone and ashy gravel littering the ground. He made a mental note to mention the lack of distinguishing features to Hades, if he ever saw him again. For a god who so obviously prided himself on the upkeep of the Underworld, he clearly hadn't put much imagination into decorating.

Of course, if all went well, it would be a good long time before he saw Hades again. He doubted the god would be as welcoming the second time around, but it would be worth it if it meant his escape was successful.

He lowered his gaze, kicking a small stone out of his path. He knew he should be concentrating on making said escape a reality, but the judges' words continued to echo in his ears. Having his entire life — every action he'd ever undertaken — laid out in such a cold and precise manner had unnerved him more than he'd expected. Hades hadn't been lying about the methodical nature of the judging, but he hadn't been fully prepared for the experience of having his life weighed and balanced in such an emotionless way, as though his entire existence had been nothing more than a scribble on a page.

Four hundred and fifty years. More than four centuries before he could hope to be reunited with Emma, if he stayed. The thought rocked him back on his heels, but not as much as the knowledge that his original punishment would have been much longer, judging by how far the scale had been tipped.

'A few years of good deeds doesn't erase centuries of bad ones.'

A heavy weight settled in his stomach. He'd known in his heart that he had many actions to atone for, but being surrounded by heroes for so long in Storybrooke had made him forget the harsh truth of who he was. He'd allowed himself to be swayed by their optimism, by their belief that people could change, and in so doing, he'd deluded himself in believing that things could be different. That he could someday be one of them.

He suppressed a sneer at the thought. He knew better — villains didn’t get happy endings. He'd been fooling himself, thinking that he could ever really change who he was. That there would ever be a time when his past would be anything other than a constant weight around his neck. Even now, he wondered what defense he would have given, had the judges allowed him to speak. What defense could there be for centuries of evil deeds?

Killian shook his head, cursing his self-pity for distracting him from his task. Emma had many more good deeds in her column than he did, but being the Dark One would take its toll. How long until the bad deeds outweighed the good for her as well?

He'd come by his punishment fairly after a lifetime of darkness, but Emma had not. He refused to allow the same fate to befall her.

He'd made her a promise and he intended to keep it.

He raised his eyes, surreptitiously observing his guard, whose attention was squarely focused on the path ahead of them. He had to wonder about the intelligence of those in Hades' employ that the creature hadn't so much as glanced back in his direction the entire time they'd been walking.

True, there hadn't exactly been a wealth of opportunities for escape thus far, but it wouldn't hurt for the guard to at least entertain the suspicion that he might be planning to make a run for it. He was vividly reminded of the black guards at Regina's castle, barely a brain between them for all that they seemed to be in endless supply.

Never curse the stupidity of others when you can use it to your advantage.

Of course, making his escape would still require a fair bit of stealth, negligent guard or not. And there was still the fact that he had no exit plan to speak of.

Well, are you a pirate, or aren't you? he scoffed inwardly. Centuries of misdeeds may have earned him his fate, but they had also given him plenty of experience at escaping tight spots.

He kept his steps even so as not to give his plan away, eyeing an upcoming divergence in the tunnel that appeared to veer off from their current path. He still had no idea what manner of beast his guard was, but with any luck its bowed legs would be as slow as they looked.

The fork in the path was fast approaching, and he braced himself, preparing to run.

Death would have to wait for another day.

* * *

Emma inhaled deeply, the refreshing sea breeze a welcome change from the dank air below deck.

The Flying Dutchman had surfaced somewhere near the land of Andelasia, according to its captain, the waterside kingdom watching over them as they sailed past from a distance.

She'd been disappointed to learn that locating the doorway to the land of the dead was a complicated process that could involve several portals between realms, punctuated by long periods at sea. Jones apparently hadn't been kidding when he said Hades was cautious about intruders. As frustrated as she was by the delay, she was grateful for the opportunity to stretch her legs.

She walked the length of the deck, avoiding the boards that looked most at risk of crumbling beneath her feet. She was doing her best to enjoy the sun while it lasted — something told her the Underworld would be short on blue skies and sunshine — but it still felt strange being aboard a pirate ship without Hook.

Her attention caught on a young sailor on his hands and knees, his chapped hands scrubbing a dirty brush back and forth across the deck. A matted, blond ponytail hung over one shoulder, the hair occasionally getting caught in the brush, though he never paused his actions for even a second, an air of hopeless determination to his movements. He kept his focus squarely on his task, a defeated hunch to his shoulders that screamed of someone conditioned to being treated like nothing. Her eyes softened as she watched him, thinking back on the stories Killian had shared of his childhood.

The sailor seemed oblivious to her presence, flinching a little any time someone got too close. Her mind conjured an image of a younger Killian in a similar state, resigned to being pushed around and ignored. Used to having no one in the world who cared about him, apart from his brother.

The thought made her insides twist, and she turned away, spotting Belle perched on a barrel nearby. Her nose was buried deep in a black leather book, its cover bearing the words The Underworld: Myth or Legend. She considered leaving before she was noticed, but Belle looked up and met her eyes with a smile, setting her book down in a clear invitation.

She pasted an awkward smile on her face in return, making her way over. She wracked her brain for something to say, painfully aware that their last one-on-one conversation had consisted of her threatening the other woman’s life. Her eyes dropped briefly to the book that now lay on top of the barrel, Belle stiffening unexpectedly as she followed her gaze.

"I only brought a few books with me," she defended. "I wasn't sure what all we would need, but I knew having too many to carry would only slow us down."

Emma blinked at her tone, having apparently struck a nerve without realizing it. Great. Nothing like ticking off the one person who wasn’t treating her like she had the plague.

She nodded vaguely, unsure how else to respond, distant laughter drawing her attention. She turned, spotting Regina, Mary Margaret, and Henry on the far side of the deck, the latter pointing out something on land nearby.

"They'll come around, you know."

Emma glanced back, embarrassed to have been caught staring. She shook her head, feigning ignorance.

"Who?"

The corners of Belle's mouth tilted upward softly.

"Your family," she said, blatantly ignoring Emma's attempt at deflection. "It may take some work, but they'll forgive you eventually."

This was so not the conversation she wanted to be having right now. Hope speeches were one thing coming from Regina, but she and Belle hardly even knew each other. Then, there was the added bonus that that she'd terrorized the woman and repeatedly threatened to kill her if her husband didn’t do what she wanted him to. Emma shoved her hands into her pockets, wiping her emotions off her face.

"Yeah, I guess," she said, eager to drop the subject. She frowned, a niggling thought re-occurring to her. "Shouldn't you be pissed at me, too?"

It was a question that had been bothering her ever since Belle had showed up at her parents' loft with an armful of books, eager to help. She'd kidnapped her and her husband, sending Merida to hunt her down in her efforts to force Gold to act, but Belle had blown past it all like it was nothing, even going so far so to offer her condolences. How was it possible that she was okay with what had happened when the rest of Storybrooke so clearly wasn’t?

Belle's expression softened. "I know it wasn't you. Not really. Rumple's told me what he was like in the months after he first became the Dark One — how it played with his mind, warped his ability to tell right from wrong. It doesn't excuse the things he did — particularly once he had better control over the Darkness — but I think the context is important. I know you regret what you did, and that you'd undo it if you could. That's enough for me."

Emma raised her eyebrows, taken aback. Her actions as the Dark One had been hanging over her head like a particularly determined storm cloud since the second the curse broke, tainting her every interaction and never giving her a moment's peace. After all of her agonizing over what she’d done, the idea that anyone would forgive her so easily, that they could go so far as to consider giving her the benefit of the doubt, was completely foreign to her. Something remarkably like relief washed over her, followed swiftly by guilt.

"Well... For what it's worth, I'm still sorry," she said awkwardly, her cheeks heating as she remembered the naked fear on Belle's face when Merida had aimed an arrow at her chest. Maybe Belle believed the Darkness was to blame, but she was the one who'd given into it.

Belle nodded. "I know. Thank you for saying it."

Despite her best efforts, Emma’s eyes slid back to her family across the deck. How was it that Belle could find it within herself to forgive her when they couldn’t?

"Don't be too hard on them," Belle said, following her gaze. "I think it's easier for me — I've seen better than anyone what being the Dark One does to a person. They'll get there eventually — they just have to sort through it all first."

"Yeah? Was it that easy for you and Gold?"

She winced, wishing she could take the words back as Belle ducked her head, her hands twisting in her lap.

Way to go, she berated herself, remembering the pair’s stiff farewell at the docks. Alienate the first person to talk to you normally by bringing up their marriage problems.

"Sorry," she blurted out. "That's none of my business."

Belle gave a weak smile. "No, it's— it's fine."

She looked back up at Emma, her eyes a touch sadder than before. "It's different with Rumple and me. It wasn't just the things he did — it was that he kept choosing the power over me, even when there was another way. There's a lot of broken trust between us, and I'm not sure we'll be able to rebuild it."

Emma shifted uncomfortably, wondering suddenly whether she was the first person Belle had been able to confide this in. "I'm sorry," she offered again feebly, at a loss for what else to say. She was hardly a relationship expert, herself.

"It's okay," Belle dismissed. "We've got a lot of work to do, but I still want to believe that things can be better between us. I'll always love him, but he needs to learn who he is without magic, and I—" she faltered, her smile a tad more tremulous. "I need to learn who I am without him."

"Is that why you wanted to come along?" she asked, taking a seat on the barrel next to her. She'd been wondering what would motivate someone more used to research than to rescue missions to volunteer for a trip like this. A rocky marriage was as good a reason as any, she guessed.

Belle shrugged, leaning forward to brace her hands against the edge of the barrel. "In part," she admitted. "The truth is, I'm here for the same reason as you — to help Killian. He worked for so long to find his happy ending. I think he should get a chance to experience it."

Whatever answer she'd been expecting, that hadn't been it. She knew that the two of them had been spending more time together, but she'd figured it had been more a result of mutually-aligned goals than anything else. It had been less than two years since Hook had tried to kill Belle, after all, and while Emma knew he regretted it deeply, she hadn't really expected her to have moved past it enough to concern herself with ensuring his happiness.

Some of her surprise must have shown on her face, Belle giving a rueful laugh.

"I know it seems like there should still be a lot of bad blood between us, but we've actually gotten to know each other a lot better over the last few months, between the fairies, and Camelot, and everything that happened after. I think he needed a friend to talk to, someone who'd been where he was. And, well," she gave a lopsided smile, "I needed one, too."

A heavy weight settled itself in Emma’s stomach. She knew Belle hadn't meant anything by it, but the painful reminder of how much strain Killian had been under because of her stung all the same.

Memories of the weeks following Camelot began to resurface, of the way his face had grown gaunter and more lined with worry each time she'd seen him. She'd known the situation was getting to him, but at the time it had been less important than fulfilling her plan. Everything had been.

Emma studied the decaying floorboards of the deck, lost in thought. A part of her wanted to know if Belle could ever forgive Gold for what he'd done, but she knew she had no right to ask. A larger part of her wasn't sure she wanted to hear the answer.

Belle smiled reassuringly, mistaking her silence for grief instead of guilt.

"He was really worried about you, you know," she said. "He'd be so proud of you for breaking the curse. And I'm sure he misses you, too."

Does he really? she wondered. Or was he glad to be away from her, after everything she'd done? Would he come back to Storybrooke only to leave again, too angry to stay in the same town as her?

Her eyes stung, her heart lurching painfully in her chest. If he did leave, she'd let him, she swore, even though the very thought of it made her sick inside. He deserved to have that choice, the one she'd wanted to take from him — from all of them.

She turned her attention back to Belle, grateful Killian had had at least one person to talk to. On some level, she’d always suspected he still felt like something of an outsider in Storybrooke, but it was only in analyzing his actions in the weeks following Camelot that she'd come to realize how small the circle of people he trusted really was.

Before the curse, she had always been the person he went to first, the one he'd relied on and gravitated towards. With her gone, the others had still had each other to rely on. But instead of sticking close to them, Killian had kept his distance, filling his days with research and solitude. She was ashamed it had taken her so long to recognize his loneliness for what it was.

She pushed the unhelpful thought away, meeting Belle’s concerned eyes.

"I'm glad you decided to come,” she said, sidestepping her last comment. "Something tells me we'll need all the help we can get."

"Well, I'll admit, I also came along for the adventure," said Belle, gracefully moving them away from heavier topics, a glimmer of excitement in her eyes. "I always believed I'd be spending more of my life doing the things I'd read about, but things haven't really worked out the way I thought they would. I want to start changing that."

Emma hummed absently, remembering the silent standoff between Gold and Belle at the diner. It occurred to her suddenly that she'd hardly ever seen Belle without Gold when he was still the Dark One, save those rare occasions when he'd been away from Storybrooke.

Now, she had the air of a woman starting her life over, finding her independence after years of focusing on the man she loved. She wondered again if she and Gold would work things out in the end, or whether Belle would decide she'd had enough of putting her own wants and needs second.

Her thoughts turned to Killian, always standing by her side, ready to follow her lead no matter what it cost him. Emma’s stomach churned, the comparison making her uneasy.

It's not the same thing, she assured herself, her fingers toying anxiously with the heavy ring hanging from her neck. She leaned back against the ship's rail, staring at the landmass they were passing without really seeing it.

It was a bit ironic, she thought numbly, that all her time as the Dark One hadn't made her a better liar.

* * *

He was lost.

It burned his pride to admit it, but he had been wandering for ages and he had no bloody clue where he was.

He'd spent years sharpening his navigational skills, until he was able to steer his way through even the darkest and most confusing locales. He had many talents honed from his time as a pirate intent on finding the things that others didn't want found, and one of them was an uncanny ability to find his bearings in any realm. But the Underworld, it seemed, was something else altogether.

He'd tried everything he could think of to retrace his steps, every trick he knew for locating an exit, but there were no breezes he could follow, no sliver of light that would suggest escape was nearby. There were few, if any, features to distinguish one cavern from the next, but he couldn't shake the suspicion that he was wandering further into the Underworld's depths, rather than out of them.

He and Milah had once broken into a palace where the corridors and staircases changed destination with some frequency, a clever enchantment intended to protect the Sultan's riches from thieves such as themselves. Men had been known to wander within its walls for weeks without finding their way free, let alone happening upon the treasure they sought.

At the time, he and Milah had had a bit of stolen magic on their side — a gem that could help them predict the chaos of the moving corridors and identify the path to the gold they'd been hunting for. Now, he had nothing to guide him — no gems, or locator spells, or even a magic compass to help him on his way. He was well and truly on his own.

His thoughts returned, as the often did, to Emma, wishing he had some way of knowing how she fared. It was impossible to guess how much time had passed since he’d arrived, but surely the battle had ended by now. Had Emma succeeded in her quest, taking Merlin’s power for herself? Or had the others managed to hold her off?

He felt a sudden stab of fear for Belle, already missing before his death. He should have asked after her fate when he’d had the chance, but surely Hades would have mentioned if she were down here as well? He couldn't quite wrap his mind around the idea that Emma might have actually hurt her, but he wished he had some assurance.

The uncertainty made him nauseous, discouragement slowing his steps. For all he knew, he was already too late. How much time had he wasted already, wandering aimlessly through the afterlife? Some bloody great pirate he'd turned out to be, defeated by a tunnel.

At least Emma's family was still with her, her friends. She had others to carry on the fight against the Darkness without him, but Killian couldn't help feeling as though he'd abandoned her. He'd let her down, just like every man she'd cared about before him — leaving her when she'd needed him the most.

His restored memories continued to plague him, the pictures that filled in the gaps between the Emma he'd known and the Emma she'd become haunting his every step. He'd been prepared for the heartache they had brought — there was no other emotion that could more strongly accompany watching the woman he loved succumb to a demon inside her head. But the shame of his own actions had caught him off-guard.

They'd all let Merlin fan their fears of the Dark One, let him turn their heads with talk of prophecy. He'd listened quietly as the others had debated, argued, fought, questioned — his mind overwrought with the memory of Emma standing over Arthur like a vengeful demon, of the way she'd revelled in her power.

It had reminded him more of the Crocodile than he'd wanted to admit.

In that instant, he'd allowed himself to doubt — even for a moment. Not that she was strong enough, or good enough, to defeat the Darkness, but that there was any point in even trying. Perhaps no one could conquer the Darkness, in the end.

For centuries, he'd suppressed the memory of a small, frail, soft-spoken Rumpelstiltskin clambering aboard his ship to meekly ask for his wife's safe return. At the time, his weakness had disgusted Killian, his impression of the man already coloured by Milah's stories of his cowardice. It had meant nothing to him to send the man on his way, humiliating him in front of his crew for good measure, for any man who truly loved a woman would have stood and fought for her.

He had drowned out the small voice inside him — the one that sounded too much like Liam, even after all of these years — that said there was no honour in bullying a man who was smaller and weaker than him. That just because Killian had more power than the spinner didn't give him the right to abuse it — to taunt him with it.

The next time he'd seen Rumpelstiltskin's face, the tables had turned. This time, it was the Dark One who'd held all the power, and he had delighted in exploiting it just as thoroughly as Killian once had. There'd been no hint of remorse in those beady eyes as he'd used his magic to toy with him, vanishing before Killian's rusty sword could land even a glancing blow. He'd been positively gleeful as he'd torn Milah's heart from her chest, crushing it in spite of Killian's protests.

He'd found power at long last, and he loved it.

Ever since Emma had taken hold of the dagger, he'd found himself wondering about the difference between those two men: Rumpelstiltskin and the Dark One. For too long, he'd let himself forget the first one in the wake of the second, convinced himself that they were always one in the same. But the more he thought on it — the more he remembered the stories Baelfire had confided of the time before the dagger —  the more he knew things were not that simple.

Rumpelstiltskin the spinner was not a perfect man, but he had loved his son, and he'd tried to do his best for his family, in his own flawed way. But becoming the Dark One had done more than bring his worst qualities to the surface. The Darkness had preyed on his thirst for power, his desire to be the strongest, to fight for what he wanted and win. It had found all of his weak points and hammered at them until he'd cracked, until he'd become almost unrecognizable as the man he'd been before.

His boots scuffed along the gravel as he walked, the noise echoing off the cavernous walls. The path was narrowing ahead of him, and his eyes widened as he found himself standing on the edge of an overhang, staring out into the darkness at a veritable maze of pathways and bridges. They seemed to go on forever, stretching in every direction from above and below him, connecting a labyrinth of tunnels that littered the walls of the cave.

He'd once travelled to a land that hosted a breed of particularly deadly black beetles, the creatures nearly as large as his fist. The locals had warned him to stay clear of the wide-open spaces outside of the village, where the beetles' tunneling had made the ground unsteady, but he'd ignored their advice, consumed as he was at the time with his quest for a particularly rare lamp that he believed would help him defeat the Dark One.

With one wrong step, he'd found the ground beneath his feet giving way, sending him plummeting into a massive cavern of twisting paths and tunnels. Every surface had been crawling with the insects, their shiny black shells glimmering in the dim light of the hole he'd made overhead. It had taken some very ingenious maneuvering on his part to escape the subterranean dwelling unscathed. He still woke some nights scratching at his skin, the sensation of hundreds of beetles crawling over him tormenting him even centuries later.

The cavern before him was uncomfortably reminiscent of the beetle colony he'd unwittingly stepped on all those years ago, the paths reaching out in every conceivable direction. He squinted in the dim light, taking note of the large black rectangles that seemed to line both sides of the tunnels.

He shook off the despair that threatened to take hold, refusing to let the enormity of his task deter him. He inched his way along the overhang, hugging the wall in the places where the path narrowed more than was comfortable, relief flooding him as he saw it beginning to widen once more. His brief bout of optimism dimmed as he realized that the path had widened only to split into three, each trail venturing off into a separate tunnel.

Up close, he could see that the black rectangles he'd spotted inside the tunnels below were actually doors — simple black slabs with no handles, each one virtually identical to the others. There was no telling where they led, or how many there even were.

His heart plummeted into his stomach. Gods, was he to search them all?

How long he stood at the crossroads, he couldn't say. Picking the wrong path could land him right back in Hades' grasp, or perhaps lead him so deep inside the Underworld that he had no chance of resurfacing. He was painfully aware of the fact that every moment he hesitated was another moment Emma was left fighting without him.

He clenched his fist, longing for some sign — a smell, a light, a breeze — anything that would give him a clue as to which path was the correct one, but the three tunnels remained indistinguishable.

Footsteps crunching through the gravel behind him startled him from his musings. He went rigid. Had his incompetent guard finally caught up with him? Or was it Hades, alerted to his absence? Either way, he could not afford to wait and find out.

He veered into the tunnel on his left, moving as quickly and quietly as he could. He paused a good fifty yards inside the tunnel, cursing silently as the sound of footsteps continued to resonate behind him. He glanced around, his gaze settling on one of the black doors.

Bloody hell.

With a grimace, he moved to open it, his fingers and hook scraping against the stone as he struggled to pry it free. The door was heavy, but it mercifully opened without a sound, revealing only darkness. He eyed the abyss with no small amount of trepidation, but the echo of the footsteps growing nearer made the decision for him. With a half-though prayer, he darted inside, pulling the slab closed behind him.

He waited, his forehead leaning against the back of the door, but there was no shout of alarm, no quickening footfalls through the tunnel. In fact, it was as if all sound itself had ceased aside from his own heavy breaths.

He had no idea how long he stood there in the darkness, except, he soon realized, he wasn't in darkness at all. The space around him had been growing steadily lighter as he'd been standing there, brighter than any light he'd seen since entering the Underworld. A cool breeze tickled the back of his neck. A familiar chirping noise was growing louder as well, one that sounded almost like... birds?

Puzzled, he turned and found himself standing in the middle of the woods, sunlight streaming down through the breaks in the trees. A canopy of green lay in every direction, pierced only by a well-trodden road to his left that looked to have seen better days.

He frowned, taking a few steps, his boots sinking a bit in the damp dirt of the forest. Had he actually found his way out of the Underworld? Or was this merely a different part of it? Either way, he found it a welcome change from the dank caves he'd seen so far, though there was something strangely familiar about the forest that he could not quite put his finger on.

Cautiously, he wandered toward the path, wishing he had more than his hook to defend himself, but the place seemed rather deserted. There were no sounds aside from the wind rustling the leaves, and the few birds that saw fit to nest in the trees. It felt as though he were the only person around for miles, the woods projecting a strange sort of loneliness.

He reached the road, his boots scuffing the hard-packed dirt as he glanced down either direction. It almost reminded him of the Enchanted Forest, though something was off about it, like a memory niggling at the back of his mind.

"Hook?"

He turned, the familiar voice startling him after so long in silence. He found himself staring at a man clothed in a dirty, well-worn tunic, his arms laden with firewood and a week's worth of stubble on his cheeks. Killian's breath caught, hardly daring to believe his own eyes.

"Neal."

Chapter Text

Camelot, Week 5

"What do you mean, 'It's not that simple'? You're not going to help us?"

Killian leaned against the wall of the bedchambers gifted to Emma's parents, the pale stone cool against his back. He picked at the tip of his hook with his thumbnail as the others continued their squabbling, feeling oddly disconnected from the debate.

David, for his part, looked ready to grab Merlin by the robes and shake him, were it not for his wife holding him back.

The Sorcerer in question — and what a bloody great use he was turning out to be, after all of the trouble they'd gone through to find him — was unphased, merely shaking his head at the royals' anger.

"The curse of the Dark One is difficult to break," he responded in that maddeningly even tone of his. "Once the person who is cursed begins to crave the power, they cannot be saved, not easily."

"But that's not Emma," Snow White protested. "I know she went too far with Arthur and his knights, but she stopped. She still wants to break the curse, I know it."

"She has tasted what the power can do now — what it can give her. Unless her heart is truly ready to be free, the Darkness will not let her go," said Merlin. "There is a prophecy of a Dark One who will come to power. One who will have the greatest capacity for good or for evil. They will either break the curse forever, or they will become the most powerful Dark One of all time, responsible for the destruction of countless lives."

"No," Henry said firmly, speaking up for the first time. "She's the Saviour. Just because she had one slip-up doesn't mean she's evil. We all saw her give Merida's heart back, and she saved Robin's life. She won't give into the Darkness — she'll fight it. That's what heroes do."

Merlin turned a pitying look on the lad. "Her bloodlust against Arthur was not her only transgression. The power had already begun to turn her mind before then."

"What do you mean?" Regina demanded.

"She took the heart of a young girl this very evening," he answered, his deep brown eyes latched on Henry still. "She used her to obtain the tear of lost love, then willed her to forget the experience."

Killian's thumb caught on the tip of his hook, leaving behind a smear of blood, his veins running cold. He swallowed, staring out into the middle distance, lost in the excruciating memory of a hand plunging into his chest. Of reciting words that belonged to another. Of watching his life from behind someone else's eyes, helpless to stop it.

Beside him, Emma's parents gasped, Snow White grabbing her husband's arm in a forceful grip.

Their pain was nothing on Henry's, his eyes swimming with tears.

"No..." he shook his head, backing away. "No, she wouldn't do that."

"I am sorry," said Merlin. "But you need to understand the enormity of what we are facing. She may not be the Emma you knew, not anymore."

The others were clearly still reeling from the revelation, Regina pulling Henry into her arms as Emma's parents held the sort of silent conversation that only long-married couples could. Killian, for his part, felt strangely numb, a gaping hole where his lungs should be.

"What if we stopped it?" Regina asked. "If the Darkness is pulling at her, maybe we can prevent it from getting any worse."

"How?" said Robin, frowning.

"The dagger," Snow answered with dawning understanding. "If the power gets stronger when she uses it, maybe we can stop her from using more of it — buy ourselves enough time to break the curse."

Killian fought back a swell of nausea, though whether it was the thought of their plan or the fate that awaited Emma that caused it, he couldn't say.

"You want to control her?" he asked, his voice rough from disuse. The others glanced over as though they'd forgotten he was there.

David's face betrayed the same anguish he was feeling. "I don't like it, either," he said. He glanced away, continuing after a moment. "...But if Merlin's right, then Emma may not be able to fight the Darkness on her own. If it's the only way to save her, what choice do we have?"

"But controlling her? Is that any better than what she did?" Belle asked, echoing Killian's thoughts.

"What else can we do?" said Snow White. "She made us promise to save her from the curse, and I refuse to let her become the Dark One that Merlin is talking about. If the dagger can prevent that, then we have to try."

The dagger. A wave of loathing ran through him at the thought of that cursed blade. Not even two months ago, he'd fought tooth and nail against the very idea of them using it on Emma, convinced that defeating the Darkness had to be her decision. But the memory of her face in the courtyard, the way her eyes had lit up with a perverse sort of glee as Arthur writhed on the ground before her continued to haunt him.

A small, guilty, voice within him wondered whether she was even capable of making the decision for herself anymore.

"Will it even work?" Robin asked, directing his question to the Sorcerer. "Will just stopping her from using the power be enough?"

Killian tuned out the answer, his attention shifting to Henry. The lad's face was a picture of devastation, his cheeks wet with tears. He could certainly empathize, his stomach churning with the events of the last few hours.

He stared down at his hook, remembering the way Emma had revelled in holding the lives of Arthur and his men in her hands. The way she had looked up at him afterward, as though he were a beloved pet who Arthur had threatened, her eyes still bright with power. She had been a stranger to him in that instant — no hint of the woman he loved behind those familiar green eyes — just another Dark One in a long line.

He knew from experience how darkness could twist one's thoughts, take hold of one's doubts and insecurities and refuse to let go. Killian loved Emma with all of his heart, but everyone had weaknesses and she was no exception.

Already, she had told him of the Crocodile haunting her steps, of the voices that whispered her deepest fears while everyone else slept. He had more faith in Emma than in anyone else alive, but the curse of the Dark One was the most powerful magic in existence. How long could she honestly hope to hold out against it? How could they stop it from invading her when none of them could see the things she saw?

The others continued their debate without him, his presence ignored as they argued over the best way to save Emma from herself.

Killian remained quiet, ashamed of himself for wondering if it was already too late.

* * *

The Underworld, Present

"Hook? Is it really you?"

Killian blinked a few times, still unable to believe his own eyes.

"Aye, it's me," he replied unsteadily, bewildered.

He knew he was staring, but he couldn't help it. The man standing before him wearing a faded burlap tunic and worn trousers that were patched and caked with dirt was indeed Neal. He was dressed much as he had been when Pan's curse had returned them to the Enchanted Forest, his messy hair longer than usual. Except — Killian blinked — the clothes were fading before his eyes, slowly being replaced with the gray shirt and jeans he recalled last seeing him in at the hospital, the burden of firewood in his arms vanishing from existence.

"It's really you." Neal sounded just as astonished as he felt, apparently failing to notice his changing attire.

"Aye," Killian repeated, at a loss for what else to say. He glanced at their surroundings in confusion. "I don't understand. Is this the Enchanted Forest? How did we—?"

"Not exactly," Neal answered, a strangely vulnerable expression washing over his face. "We're in the Underworld. This is my, uh, my punishment."

Killian frowned, looking around again. It certainly felt real enough, the sights and sounds exactly as he would have expected.

It occurred to him, suddenly, why the Forest had looked so odd to him. It was as it had been centuries ago, when Killian had first come across Neal's family. Vaguely, he wondered if this was some sort of memory of Neal's, though that wouldn't account for why Neal still looked like his adult self.

"What…" he trailed off as the forest began to fade just as Neal's clothes had, the bright light of the sun dimming into a familiar green hue. Moments later, they were standing in a cavern much like the one Killian had just left.

"It happens when someone gets woken from a punishment," Neal answered the question that had been on the tip of his tongue, though the response raised only more questions in his mind. Killian was tempted to ask after the nature of Neal's punishment, but something in his expression made him think better of it.

"What are you doing here?" asked Neal.

"The same as you, I expect," he said, feeling out of sorts at the unexpected reunion.

Neal frowned, taking in his face and appearance.

"No offense, but you don't look like you died of old age."

"Sadly not," said Killian, the notion finally managing to shake him from his stupor. "My soul was taken by a fury — the price for the Dark One to obtain ultimate power, apparently."

"My dad did this?" Neal asked, his eyes widening.

It seemed that Hades and the judges were the only ones aware of the happenings in the land of the living, then. Killian was tempted to brush over the question, certain the answer would not be well received, but Neal deserved an explanation of the events that had unfolded in his absence.

"Rumpelstiltskin isn't the Dark One anymore. The Darkness was overtaking his heart, so the Sorcerer's Apprentice pulled the curse from him to save his life. Unfortunately, that set the Darkness free to inhabit another."

"He's— he's not the Dark One?"

Neal's voice shook as he spoke, and Killian did not envy him the confusing blend of emotions he must have been experiencing, given the complicated history between father and son.

"I spent so many years wishing I could rid my Papa of the Darkness," he said softly, shaking his head. "But it's been so long, I barely remember what he was like before. I can't even imagine what he'd be like now."

"I'm afraid I can't tell you much," Killian said regretfully, wishing he could offer some measure of comfort. "He was in a coma for several months after the Darkness was removed, and he and Belle went missing shortly before the fury attacked."

Truthfully, even if it weren't for the coma and disappearance, he wasn't sure he would have had much information to provide. He and Rumpelstiltskin would likely never be close, given the centuries of history between them, dark curse or not. Most of Killian's concern over the matter had been for Belle's sake — he'd seen how deeply she'd been affected by the events of the past few months, and how draining the experience of her husband's return, betrayal, and subsequent coma had been on her.

Still, he and Belle rarely discussed her marriage, except in broad terms, and he doubted he would've gone out of his way to seek out the other man's company even if he hadn't been missing. As sorry as he'd felt for Belle, some part of him was still angry with Rumpelstiltskin for forcing Emma to take on the Darkness in the first place. Had it not been for his selfishness, she never would have had to sacrifice herself.

Even now, knowing that things weren't really that black and white, he couldn't deny the seed of resentment toward the man for leaving her in that position.

Neal was staring off into the distance, a myriad of thoughts evident on his face. He shook his head again.

"Wait, so who's the Dark One now?"

Killian grimaced, though he'd known he would have to explain eventually.

"Without your father's heart to tether it, the Darkness was free to roam to another victim. It went for Regina at first, but Emma thought she'd have a better chance of fighting it off—"

"Wait, Emma's the Dark One?" Neal cut in, panic in his eyes.

"Aye," Killian replied grimly, strangely relieved to hear his own worry reflected back at him. "She made us promise to break the curse, but I died before we could succeed. When I last saw her, she was preparing to kill Merlin and take his power. I need to get back to her before she does something she'll regret."

Neal was nodding along as he spoke, running a hand over his mouth.

"Yeah. Yeah, if you only just died, there's gotta be some way we can get you back there..." he mused to himself, his brow creased in thought.

Killian raised an eyebrow in spite of himself. "You'll help?"

It wasn't that he thought the other man heartless, but he did expect himself to be rather low on the list of people he'd be eager to assist.

If Neal took offense to his surprise, he didn't show it, his eyes scanning the walls of the empty cavern.

"Yeah, of course," he said distractedly. "I grew up with a Dark One for a parent. The last thing I want is for Emma and Henry to go through the same thing."

He shook his head. "Only problem is, I'm not really sure how to get out of the Underworld," he admitted, spreading his arms. "I mean, this is pretty much all I've seen since I've been down here. There were other souls around when I first arrived, but other than the judges and the weird bird thing that brought me in here, I think you're the first person I've talked to since I got my punishment."

Killian nodded, all too familiar with the loneliness of the Underworld himself. "Aye, I gathered there aren't many opportunities for interaction with the outside world here."

His words seemed to give Neal pause, a contemplative look spreading over his face. "Unless you're Hades," he said thoughtfully. "He always knows what's going on topside." He glanced up at Killian, a small but growing smile on his face. "I heard these other guys talking about it when I was waiting for my punishment. Hades has this reflective... pool — lake — I don't know, but it's something he uses to scry. Apparently, it can show you anything — it's how he keeps tabs on what's happening in the land of the living. Maybe we can use it to show you a way out of here."

It was as good a plan as any, and far better than Killian's earlier strategy of wandering until he happened upon an exit. Hope blossomed in his chest — it was far from a sure thing, but it was one step closer to getting him back to Emma.

He indicated his agreement, a grim sense of determination settling over him.

"Well, what are we waiting for, man?" said Neal, gesturing back the way he'd come. The jet-black door was just visible across the dimly lit cavern. "Let's go."

Killian hesitated, a sober thought occurring to him.

"Hades may not like you helping me," he said slowly, his optimism beginning to fade. As desperately as he longed for the assistance and the comfort of a familiar face, the last thing he wanted was to put anyone else in harm's way. Hades, for all of his apparent friendliness, seemed like the type to bite when crossed. "Are you sure you want to risk it?"

Neal waved off his concerns.

"What are they going to do, kill me more?" he dismissed, shrugging. "I'd rather get a few extra years tacked onto my sentence than go on knowing Emma's stuck as the Dark One. Besides, our chances are probably better together."

Killian ducked his head, determinedly burying the rush of happiness and regret that always seemed to surface in Bae's presence. He knew the other man's willingness to help had little to do with him, but selfish though it was, he couldn't deny that he was grateful for his company.

"Very well," he said brusquely, heading for the door. "Let's be off."

* * *

Emma sighed as she burrowed down into the couch cushions, her head tucked against Killian's shoulder.

Her brother cooed softly in his crib before falling silent, thankfully still fast asleep. He'd been quiet most of the night, waking only briefly to take his bottle. It was the most uneventful night of babysitting duty she could remember in a long time, and she was more than grateful for the excuse to relax.

"Happy, love?" Killian asked, his voice rumbling beneath her ear.

Her smile widened as she turned her face into his chest, pleasantly sleepy. She could feel him chuckling softly at her actions, his hand rubbing along her upper arm.

"Very," she mumbled, her eyes drifting shut. Her parents weren't due back for another few hours, and she was planning to spend all of them right here. "I vote we never move from this spot."

"As long as that's what you want," he replied easily. "That's all that's ever really mattered, isn't it? What you wanted."

Her brow furrowed, her tired brain struggling to process his statement. "What?"

"Ever since I came to Storybrooke, everything has been about your needs," Killian explained in that same casually unaffected tone. "And I let it happen because I didn't have anyone else — you were my whole world. I suppose that's why it was so easy for you to use me."

She drew back as though she'd been slapped, the bottom dropping out of her stomach. She turned to face him, her chest constricting painfully. "I didn't use you!"

He smiled back at her, his skin pallid in the yellow light of the loft. "Dark Ones always use people, love. But you were doing it long before you grabbed that cursed blade. Perhaps that's why the Darkness took you so easily — it knew the kind of person you truly were."

Her heart lodged itself in her throat, a wave of nausea rolling through her. Killian's eyes were sunken now, deep purple bags circling them. "Why are you—"

"But then, you've always been best at putting yourself first," he interrupted softly, his voice sounding strangely distant now.

"That's why I used to love you."

Emma shot awake, her heart racing. It took a moment for her sluggish brain to catch up to her surroundings, slowly recognizing the steady creak of the Flying Dutchman as it rocked on the waves. She pressed the heels of her palms into her eyes, rubbing the sleep away.

Her back gave a twinge as she stretched, a painful reminder that sleeping on a pile of old sails in the corner of the deck probably wasn't her smartest idea ever. Truthfully, she hadn't meant to fall asleep, the pre-dawn light streaming across the deck suggesting that she hadn't been napping for long.

She still felt like she could lie down and sleep for days, but as exhausted as she was, she could never seem to manage more than a few hours at a time.

At least she wasn't alone in that department. They'd discovered shortly after they'd departed Storybrooke that undead pirates weren't big on sleep either, Jones' crew prowling the ship day and night without rest.

The crew had quieted down as the sun set, but most had ventured off to the galley — to drink and gamble the night away, if her past experience with pirates was any indication — which had left the crew's quarters conveniently empty for their use. The others had all turned in early, but she'd stayed above deck, watching the sun disappear over the horizon.

She was regretting the decision now, the echoing loneliness from her dream making the empty deck feel all the more isolated.

She stood gingerly, casting a wary eye to Davy Jones who was still at the helm, just barely visible in the dim light. He'd hardly moved from his post the entire trip, his eyes on the sea, silent other than to bark the occasional order at his crew.

His dark eyes met hers with unnerving accuracy, now. She fought back another shiver, instead making her way across the deck, feeling his gaze on her as she walked. She refused to give him the satisfaction of knowing the effect he had on her, already looking forward to the moment when they'd seen the last of Jones and his ship.

The stairs leading below deck groaned with each step, and she walked cautiously, avoiding a plank that looked rotted enough to give out under her weight. Shouts and laughter echoed loudly down the hall from the galley, the most lively she'd heard the crew since they'd left Storybrooke. Maybe it was just Jones' presence that kept them quiet and cowed the majority of the time.

She spotted the door to the crews' quarters, pushing it open with as little sound as possible. Small portholes near the ceiling gave off just enough light to mark the outlines of several sleeping figures.

Belle was snoring loudly on a cot in the corner, her arms tucked around a thin bit of canvass that served as her pillow. Her parents were sharing a hammock that looked too small for the pair of them, curled around each other even in sleep, while Regina had apparently claimed the cleanest-looking cot, adjacent to Henry's.

She made her way inside, the creaking of the ship masking her footsteps. She paused a few feet from Henry's bed, the tightness in her chest easing a bit at the sight of him.

He was peaceful in sleep, his face free of the anger and heartache she'd grown used to seeing recently. She leaned against a blackened wood post, watching his chest rise and fall in time with the pitch and tilt of the ship.

She smiled as he burrowed down into his meager pillow, remembering countless nights in New York when she'd tiptoed into his room after coming home late from chasing a particularly bad skip. She'd leaned against the doorframe and just watched him sleep, so grateful to have him to come home to.

She had a lifetime's worth of memories of him, of his grin when he laughed at her corny jokes, and his enthusiasm as he told her about his day. She could remember being the one he'd run to after a bigger kid had taken his lunch money, the one he'd turned to when kids at school pestered him about why he didn't have a dad, drying his tears with big hugs and promises of ice cream.

Knowing most of those memories were just idealistic fantasies Regina had implanted in her head didn't make them any less real to her. Even without them, she had two years of actual memories with Henry — two years of being the one he came to with his problems, of being the one he trusted above all others.

Of being his hero.

She wasn't self-centered enough to think she was the only hero in his life, the only one who could fix things or make the world easier for him to bear, but ever since he'd knocked on her door on her twenty-eighth birthday, he'd looked at her like she was something special. Like she could do anything. Despite everything they'd been through together, he'd never lost faith in her, never stopped believing she could succeed.

Until now.

The hollow feeling in her chest returned. She dropped her gaze, her eyes catching on Henry's bag, which was lying half-open on the floor of the cabin. A familiar brown book was peeking out of the top, the gilded lettering on the cover just barely visible in the low light of the cabin.

She knelt, gently pulling the storybook free. She glanced up, worried about disturbing the others, but they were all still fast asleep.

She sat back on her heels, flipping through the book until she found the page she was looking for, her heart lurching at the image of her and Killian at the ball.

The last time she'd looked at it, she'd been sitting inside Granny's with her family, fresh off the very adventure depicted, listening to Henry go on and on about how cool it was that she'd actually time-travelled. Her cheeks warmed as she remembered what had followed, finding Killian sitting alone outside, away from the others.

She ran a finger over the outline of Killian's face, remembered his stunned expression when he'd caught sight of her in that red dress. She'd been reluctant to try dancing in it, dreading the embarrassment when she inevitably faceplanted in the middle of the ballroom. But he'd been a great teacher, guiding her through the moves with a practiced ease she envied. As eager as he'd been to return to their timeline, she knew some part of him had enjoyed being the experienced one for a change.

In Storybrooke, he often found himself a step behind the rest of them, confused by modern amenities and forced to ask endless questions about how the simplest things worked. Like Robin, he didn't have the benefit of cursed memories to help him navigate the Land Without Magic, which often left him at a disadvantage. Not that he ever complained about it, always taking her explanations and corrections in stride, but she knew he'd appreciated having the tables turned for once, however briefly.

'Ever since I came to Storybrooke, everything has been about your needs...'

It was just a dream, she berated herself, turning the pages idly. Her eyes caught on another image, this one of Killian and her dad sitting at a campfire. Killian's face was obscured in the shadows of the firelight, but she recognized his outfit, he and David obviously deep in conversation. She frowned — she didn't remember this happening. A quick glance at the accompanying text informed her it must've taken place while she was trapped in the Evil Queen's dungeons.

Emma sat up straighter, a tiny thrill going through her. Killian had glossed over the tale of gaining her parents' assistance in staging the rescue from Regina's castle, but here was a part of him she hadn't had before, however small.

She hesitated, guilt giving her pause. Did it count as eavesdropping if it was in the storybook? Maybe not, but it felt a little weird to read about a private conversation between the two of them.

Her guilt lessened as she remembered that Henry had read these pages a few dozen times already — if Hook or her dad had had any complaints, they probably would've said something. Besides, the thought of getting to soak up this tiny new piece of Killian's past was too tempting to ignore.

Scooting back toward the porthole to make the most of the early morning light, she leaned back against the rough planks of the wall, propping the book up on her knees. Her eyes roamed eagerly over the conversation between Prince David and Prince Charles.

"I don't mean to pry, mate, but you don't exactly look like a man who's doing this by choice."

Her mouth quirked at the irony of Captain Hook subtly encouraging Prince Charming to take a chance on love. She felt the urge to tease David about getting romance advice from a pirate, her amusement dying abruptly as she remembered that she and her dad hadn't really spoken much these last few weeks.

"I once felt as you did, mate. All it took was meeting the right person, and everything changed."

"Princess Leia?" the prince asked. "The one we're rescuing?"

"Aye. I'd go to the end of the world for her... or time."

Prince David smiled knowingly. "And she for you, I take it?"

The man gave a rueful laugh. "I don't know."

A tear fell on the page, blurring David's reply. She wiped it away quickly, not wanting to ruin Henry's book. She brushed the rest of the tears off her face, hating the knowledge that she'd made Killian feel so uncertain about her feelings for him, hating that he'd ever had cause to doubt that she cared as much as he did. Rationally, she knew that a lot had happened since their trip to the past, but some things hadn't changed much.

Killian had always been the open one in their relationship, laying his heart out for her to take or leave time and again. He'd shown his feelings for her over and over, in words and in actions, giving up his ship — his home — to help her while expecting nothing in return. He'd waited patiently for her to be comfortable with each painfully slow step of their relationship, never pushing her before she was ready. He'd listened to her, supported her, taken her rejections and insults in stride, never once letting them remove him from her side. He'd always put her first, even when it cost him.

And in return? She'd pushed him away again and again, using everything from her son to her family to her status as Saviour as an excuse to keep him at arm's length. Even after she'd realized how strong her feelings for him ran, she'd only been able to confess she loved him when she'd thought she was about to lose him.

She could remember clearly the muted disappointment that had flickered across his face when she'd chickened out on telling him the first time, but he'd quickly pasted a smile on his face, silently assuring her that it was fine. He didn't mind. Things could move at her pace, like always.

'Everything has been about your needs.'

She took a deep breath, blinking back another round of tears. Dream or not, the words still stung.

The ship rocked violently, sending the book sprawling across the floor. The others shot awake, shouts of alarm filling the cabin as her dad instinctively reached for his sword.

"What—?"

"ALL HANDS ON DECK!" Jones' deep voice boomed through the ceiling.

Emma gripped the nearest post, startled, as another blast shook the ship, knocking Henry out of his bed. Her eyes met her mother's for a panicked second, her own worry mirrored back at her as the hollers of the crew grew louder.

What the hell was happening?

Chapter Text

To Killian's dismay, the endless caverns of doors were every bit as labyrinthine as they had first appeared. He was somewhat grateful for the knowledge that the doors themselves led to other souls' punishments, rather than to potential exits, eliminating the need to search them all, but the tunnels still seemed to go on forever.

He suppressed an impatient sigh as they turned a corner, finding yet another line of doorways as far as the eye could see. Their journey was beginning to seem endless, but at least the exhaustion he felt was purely mental, his steps every bit as sturdy as they'd been when they'd first begun walking. That was one upside to being dead, he supposed — he'd felt no desire to rest, eat, or drink since he'd arrived in the Underworld, though he suspected he had been there for some time by now.

That was the other thing about being dead — he found it rather difficult to keep track of the passage of time.

The thought sent a frisson of worry through him. How long had he been in the Underworld? How long had he been separated from Emma and the others? He still hadn't seen Merlin, or any other faces he recognized besides Neal, so perhaps Emma hadn't managed to complete her plan yet. But the constant fear that he might not return in time made him tense with worry.

Each time they encountered another divergence in their path, with no sight of the enchanted pool Neal had spoken of, he felt a new weight settle on his shoulders. Every delay was another failure. Another moment he was breaking his promise to Emma.

At least he wasn't alone in his quest anymore. Killian cast a sideways glance at the man to his left, that same surreal feeling washing over him. It was strange seeing Neal again, a mixture of happiness and regret filling him each time he saw him, but he was truly grateful for the company.

Neal was more subdued than Killian remembered, a far cry from the exuberant child who'd once roamed his ship, eagerly soaking up everything there was to learn. Killian had expected a series of awkward silences between them, but Neal had been surprisingly eager to talk. There was a shade of desperation in his eyes that made Killian consider his confession regarding how long it'd been since he'd spoken to another soul in a new light.

That yearning to converse appeared to extend in only one direction, however. Though eager for any news of Storybrooke, Neal had been reluctant to discuss his punishment in any detail. All he would say on the matter was that it wasn't as bad as it could have been, a comment which had done little to reassure Killian.

He supposed it was bad form to inquire further on the subject. He himself was trying hard not to think about the punishment that would have awaited him — that still awaited him, really, as no one could escape death forever. Getting back to the land of the living would only delay the inevitable.

He shook the maudlin thought away, turning his full attention back to his companion. He'd been catching Neal up on all of the goings-on since his passing, having just started in on their adventures inside Isaac's storybook. Neal's mouth had pinched tightly upon learning that his father had been a central influence in creating a world where villains were the heroes, but he had otherwise remained silent on the matter.

"So, Emma's parents were the bad guys?" Neal asked, shoving his hands in the pockets of his jeans as they walked. "That must've been hard on her."

"Aye," Killian agreed, remembering the way Emma had pleaded for her parents to remember her. "She attempted to reason with them, but the spell was too strong. I tried to hold them off long enough for Emma and Henry to make their escape, but unfortunately my cursed-self wasn't a particularly skilled fighter — her father managed to stab me in the back. I'm afraid my first-hand knowledge of the adventure ends there, though Henry has regaled me with the tale a few times since my resurrection."

Neal frowned. "Wait, I thought you said you were killed by a fury?"

"That was later," Killian clarified, well aware of how ridiculous it all sounded in the retelling. "My death in the storybook was only temporary. The next thing I recall was waking up in Emma's parents' home."

He ducked his head, recalling the unnerving experience of waking to find two sets of memories in his head. With the number of curses the residents of Storybrooke had endured, most had treated the addition of further false memories as merely a minor grievance, but he'd found the ordeal rather unsettling, particularly as he'd reflected on how useless he'd been throughout the quest. The cowardly helplessness of his storybook counterpart had rankled, even more so upon learning the dangers Henry and Emma had faced following his failure. Still, they'd managed to succeed in spite of his inartful bumbling.

He shrugged, pushing the memory away. "I suppose I had the easier task," he said dismissively. "Though I do regret I wasn't able to help Emma and Henry complete the mission."

The path inclined steeply, Killian breathing hard as they made their way carefully up the slope, cautious of the slippery gravel beneath their shoes. A crease formed between his brow a moment later as he pondered why his breathing had become more laboured — surely breathing held little purpose for a dead man.

Neal huffed knowingly, catching sight of Killian's expression. "It's weird, isn't it?" he panted, his arms out slightly to keep his balance as the ascended. "I know in my head I don't need to breathe anymore, but I still get winded when I run. Kinda sucks — you'd think that'd be one of the advantages of being dead. I guess it's all in our heads, but it takes some getting used to."

"That it does," Killian agreed, finding the realization that he had no need for air did little to stop his lungs from burning slightly as they climbed.

They fell silent for a few moments, Killian privately relieved to see the ground evening out ahead of them. He could feel Neal's eyes on him again, an inscrutable look on his face.

"So, uh... you and Emma, huh?"

The comment caught Killian off-guard. He hadn't intentionally been talking around his relationship with Emma, but he would admit he'd been reluctant to mention it outright, anxious not to ruin the fragile peace between them. He had been enjoying talking with Neal for the first time in so long without any lingering jealousy or resentment between them, but some part of him wondered if he had only been putting off the inevitable.

He licked his lips, eyeing Neal warily, uncertain how best to respond.

Neal seemed to understand his hesitation, giving a partial smile. "It's okay," he assured him. "It's not like I had a claim over her or something. We weren't even together when I..." he shook his head.

"Emma's an adult, she can be with whoever she wants."

Killian cocked his head, surprised by the measured response. "I appreciate that, mate," he said cautiously. He wasn't about to apologize for their relationship, but neither did he want Neal to think he regarded their relationship as some sort of petty victory.

They walked in silence again for a moment, Neal staring at the doors as they passed, each identical to the one before it. His expression turned vaguely morose.

"Is she happy?"

"She was, I believe," Killian answered as honestly as he could. "At least, before all of the Dark One business."

Neal rubbed a hand over his stubble, lost in thought.

"I'm glad," he said to himself, so softly that Killian strained to hear him even in the echo of the cavern. "I mean, I'm glad that she has someone. She deserves that."

He glanced at Killian furtively, his expression shuttering slightly as he seemed to remember his audience. "I don't know if you know what went down between me and her, but I left her," he admitted grimly. "When we were together, I mean. I let her take the fall for some watches I stole, and she wound up in jail."

Killian remained silent, his mouth a thin line. Emma had shared the entire story with him one quiet night when they were both curled up on the couch at the sheriff's station, his arm around her shoulders. He'd been furious, at first, but she'd assured him that it was all in the past, that she'd forgiven Neal. She'd had to, she said, if she'd wanted to move on with her life.

Still, he'd seen the pain in her eyes as she'd recounted the tale. He knew no matter how much her mind told her she had moved past the betrayal, her heart still felt it to some degree. He knew better than anyone that being abandoned wasn't something you could ever truly forget.

Regardless, it wasn't his place to pass judgement on her behalf. He kept his expression neutral, waiting as Neal worked through whatever it was he wanted to say.

Beside him, Neal's steps had turned into a shuffle, his shoes kicking up the gravel as he walked. "I wish I could take it back. Not just because of Henry — I mean, the whole curse thing worked itself out, and maybe that's how it was supposed to happen — but I know I hurt her a lot. I made it harder for her to let people in. I felt the same after my Papa left me, and after, well..." he paused, glancing at Killian. "After you, I guess. I didn't let myself think about it when I was alive, but this place..." he blew out hard, looking down. "It makes you reflect a lot."

"Aye," Killian agreed, recalling the melancholy thoughts that had haunted him since his sentencing. "It does that."

Neal scratched the back of his head, Killian recognizing his discomfort.

"So, how'd you guys manage to free Emma from the tower, anyway?" he asked, picking up his pace.

Killian was grateful for the change in topic, speeding up to match Neal's stride.

"Henry did most of it," he confided with pride, remembering how impressed his storybook self had been with the lad's ingenuity. "He came up with a plan to trick the guard and sneak us both inside. He called it the Wookie Prisoner Gag, whatever that means."

Henry's strength throughout that entire adventure was still a marvel to him, given the odds he'd been up against. He couldn't deny the part of him that was honoured the lad had sought out his help, though he knew his options at the time had been limited.

He hadn't expected to grow to care for Henry as much as he had. True, he had ventured with the others to save Henry in Neverland, but that had been about repaying old debts and helping the lad's parents. Even the time they'd spent together during the Wicked Witch's tirade had started out as a favour to Emma.

He'd assumed, at first, that they'd have little in common, but the more he got to know him, the more he found himself enjoying their time together. There was an undercurrent of optimism in Henry that wouldn't have been misplaced in his maternal grandmother, but beneath it was a sharp and perceptive mind in the making. It'd reminded him of Bae at first, and of Emma, but unlike the two of them, Henry's cunning stemmed from a belief in good rather than a lifetime of pain. No matter what toils they faced, he still believed in happy endings, and he wasn't above using a bit of mischief to see that people received them.

There was a streak of pirate blood in him, Killian was certain of that.

Neal huffed a laugh. "Man, when you get back, you gotta get them to show you Star Wars," he said, somewhat nonsensically.

He paused, his momentary amusement fading. He glanced at him warily.

"How is Henry? Is he..."

Killian's eyes softened.

"He's a brave lad," he assured him. "He's been through a lot, but he never seems to lose faith. If it weren't for him, we'd all still be stuck in that infernal book. He makes a good captain, too."

Neal laughed again, his lips quirking into a smile.

"Yeah? That would've been something to see — Captain Hook taking orders from a kid."

"Aye, well, a good sailor knows when to defer to someone with more experience," he defended with good grace, feeling his mood lift. "Without my memories, I'm afraid I was rather useless at managing the Jolly Roger. Thankfully for all of our sakes, Henry paid attention during his lessons."

The look Neal cast him was unreadable. "You taught him to sail?"

Killian's brow furrowed, the sudden shift in mood leaving him wrongfooted. Perhaps the idea was too reminiscent of his teaching a young Baelfire how to captain the Jolly Roger for Neal's taste?

"It started out as a poor attempt at babysitting on my part," he confided with a hint of self-deprecation. "We were all mourning your passing, and I thought he would appreciate learning a skill that you knew as well."

Neal's mouth quirked up, his expression suggesting that he knew what Killian was doing. "You always were a good teacher," he admitted.

"Well, in this case, my skills were hardly needed," said Killian, unable to reign in the pride in his voice. "Henry's taken to sailing quite easily — he's even gotten fairly good at navigation, despite his distaste for arithmetic."

Instead of being pleased by this news, Neal's expression turned pensive, leaving Killian to wonder again what he'd said wrong. He was silent for a moment, watching at his feet as they walked.

"I didn't know that about him," he said softly.

Killian frowned, confused.

"That he hated math," Neal clarified, looking at him, his voice a bit raw. "I guess there's a lot about him I don't know." He scoffed, shaking his head. "You know, between leaving Emma, and Neverland, and the curse, I really only spent a couple of weeks with him. Some dad, huh?"

Killian's frown deepened. "You may not have had long with him, but it had an impact," he assured him. "He misses you a great deal."

A bitter smile twisted on Neal's lips. "I miss him, too. I didn't get to know him very well, but... I love him, you know?" he said, turning to Killian with a hint of desperation. "I mean, is that crazy? That you can love someone that much even if you don't really know them?"

"It's not crazy, mate." He may not have been a father himself, but from discussions with David about the curse and his forced separation from Emma, he gathered that there was something innate about it — something that connected parents with their children even when little else did.

Not all parents, he mused morosely, thinking of his own family. Perhaps some people just didn't have that in them.

Neal inclined his head, turning his attention back to the path. "I just wish I could've spent more time with him. I mean, I know he's got Emma and Regina, but I hate that all he's going to have of his dad is a couple of weeks of memories." His mouth turned down again. "I never thought I'd leave my kid without a father. Not after..." he trailed off, a faraway look in his eyes.

"He knows you didn't want to leave him," Killian said quietly after a moment. "He hasn't forgotten you, and he has a large family looking out for him. You'd be proud of him, Bae," he said, the old nickname slipping out unexpectedly, though Neal didn't seem to notice. "He's becoming a fine young man. He reminds me of you at that age."

Neal was silent for a moment, and Killian worried he'd spoiled things further by bringing up past hurts.

Instead, Neal tucked his hands into his pockets again, looking unexpectedly introspective.

"Did you mean it, back then?" he asked softly. At Killian's confused look, he hastened to clarify. "When you said that the Jolly Roger could be my home, that you could change for me. Did you really mean that, or was it just wishful thinking?"

The question caught Killian unprepared, assaulted suddenly by memories of their time in Neverland, of an angry Bae accusing him of caring only for himself. It was one he'd reflected on many times over the centuries.

"I was being truthful when I said you would've been under my protection," he said slowly, carefully considering the question. "I wanted revenge against your father, but if you had decided to stay, I had every intention of putting my vengeance aside. In truth, I think I was looking for an excuse to move on, and whatever else bad there was between us, I really did want to be better for you."

Neal nodded, dropping his gaze again. "I think some part of me knew that. I was just so angry. My whole life, I thought my mom had been taken from me. Finding out that she'd left by choice — that she left for you..." he shrugged, leaving the thought unfinished.

A question burned at the tip of his tongue, though he knew he had no right to voice it. Neal seemed to pick up on it regardless, his expression shifting into something more muted.

"I asked around when I first got here — my mom already moved on. I just missed her by few decades or so."

The knowledge left a dim sort of ache in Killian's chest. He was glad Milah's suffering was over, though a selfish part of him wished he could have seen her again. He loved Emma more than anything, but Milah was still his first love, and there was so much he longed to say to her, so much he wanted to lay to rest. With another ache, he realized that if Milah had moved on, his brother was likely long-gone as well. Even in death, he was parted from them.

He gave a solemn nod of thanks for the information, the other man looking vaguely uncomfortable.

"I'm sorry," he offered. As many years as he'd been parted from Milah, her son had had a much longer estrangement.

Neal's shoulders twitched a bit stiffly, his eyes anywhere but on Killian. "It's all right. Gives me more time to figure out what I'd say to her."

His words gave Killian pause, feeling a weight on his chest that he had borne for far too long.

"I'm sorry for more than that," he admitted, holding out his hand to halt their progress. Neal stopped beside him, his forehead creasing.

Killian took a breath his body didn't need, steeling himself.

"I should never have done what I did to you in Neverland," he said, his cheeks burning with shame. "Betraying you like that. Your mother would've wanted me to look out for you, but I let my anger and hurt feelings get the better of me. I regretted it the moment you were off the ship, but I was too proud to attempt to fix things. I should've fought for you, no matter what was said between us."

It was a moment he'd returned to countless times over the years, wondering if things could've been different for them both. He'd spent many a sleepless night going over it all in his mind, trying to determine if he was truly capable of change or whether he would always fall back on old habits.

He supposed his actions following Baelfire's rejection gave him something of an answer, but he'd spent many years regretting his decision, wondering what their lives would have been like if Bae had said yes. During his more self-indulgent moods, he'd imagined them sailing the high seas together, teaching Baelfire all he knew, the two of them becoming some semblance of the family Milah had envisioned. There still would have been the Lost Boys to deal with, and perhaps Bae would've found himself in Pan's clutches regardless, but at least then he would've fought for him. That had to be better than nothing.

In his more frequent darker moments, though, he'd allowed Baelfire's words to turn his head. Yes, perhaps he would've made an effort to change at the start, to protect Bae at any costs, to be the family that both of them were craving, but who was to say he wouldn't have slid back into his quest for vengeance all the same?

Had the right opportunity arisen at the wrong moment, Killian couldn't say with certainty that he wouldn't have jeopardized whatever life they'd built in pursuit of his own selfish goals. Even with the best of intentions, he still might've ended up betraying Bae just as poorly as his real father had.

'Your bad acts were as often the result of impulsiveness as they were selfishness.'

He considered again the list of deeds the judges had rattled off so carelessly — several lifetimes of letting his anger and pride overwhelm his better judgement. Perhaps it wasn't possible to change completely. The trouble with regrets, he supposed, was that there was no way to know for certain.

His words hung in the air between them, Neal's brow furrowed in thought.

"I appreciate the apology," he said. "But I don't think it's all on you. I pushed you away pretty hard. I'd spent all those years hating the pirate who took my mom from me." He shook his head. "I wasn't ready to let go of that. I'm not sure there was anything you could've said that would've changed my mind, and I know I said some pretty harsh things to you."

"That doesn't excuse what I did, handing a child over to the likes of Pan," Killian denied. "You were just a lad, it shouldn't have mattered what you said or how angry I was — I traded your safety for my own selfish interests. I only wish I could make things right."

"You're looking out for Henry when I can't," Neal replied seriously. "Yeah, you should've done things differently back then, but knowing that you'd do whatever you could to keep him safe means more to me than something that happened centuries ago. I'd take that over a hundred apologies, okay?"

His words sent a pang through Killian's chest.

"I'm sorry you can't do it yourself. You should be back in Storybrooke, getting to know your son. Not stuck in this dreary place."

Neal shrugged again.

"It's not so bad. Sixty-six more years, and I'll be out of here. I spent longer than that in Neverland."

Killian couldn't imagine being parted from Emma for that long, or Henry for that matter. He had no idea how long he'd been dead, but he already found himself missing them. Another jolt of worry shot through him at the reminder of what all could have befallen them in his absence. He could only hope the fury would not return for anyone else.

They began walking again, Killian's mind churning with dark thoughts.

Neal glanced at him.

"Don't worry — we'll get you back to them, man."

Killian nodded his thanks for the encouragement, suppressing another sigh at the long line of doors ahead of them.

"So, what happened after Regina tried to crash the wedding?"

* * *

The deck of the Flying Dutchman was complete chaos, pirates shouting at one another and racing in every direction as they grabbed ropes that'd come loose and adjusted sails that were buckling under the strength of the raging wind.

The ship lurched as another massive wave hit, water flooding the deck, Emma grabbing the nearest railing to keep from slipping. Mary Margaret shrieked as she lost her footing on the jagged steps exiting the hatch, Belle steadying her just in time.

"What's happening?" David hollered over the wind, his arm hooked around the mast as massive raindrops pelted their skin. The sky was dark overhead, the downpour so heavy that land was no longer visible.

"Hold 'er steady ye mangy dogs!" Davy Jones ordered, visibly struggling to keep the helm from spinning in his hands. "Batten down those hatches!"

Another wave slammed into them, washing one of the sailors overboard. His crewmates continued on without him, straining to keep the ship from pulling apart in the storm.

Emma's boots slid on the wet deck as she squinted against the rain. She saw a loose rope flying ahead of her and slowly pulled her way forward to grasp it, looping it around her forearm.

"Hold onto something steady!" she shouted back at the others. Regina and Belle were already tightly grasping the line securing a pile of crates nearby, her parents braced against the mast of the ship. Henry grabbed a spare length of rope and tied it around the rail, wrapping the other end around his hands.

"Brace yerselves!" Jones' attention was focused on the right side of the ship, his face even paler than normal. A wave of panic seemed to wash over the crew, their movements reaching a frenzied pace.

Emma followed his line of sight, her eyes widening as she saw the large whirlpool forming beside them. What the hell?

The wind and rain intensified. She shut her eyes, shielding her face against a particularly strong gust.

She opened them again a moment later, her grip on the rope slackening as she stared up at the gigantic woman emerging from the whirlpool. Emma stumbled backward, the rope pulling taught around her arm as she stared up at the figure.

Her curly brown hair was braided with bits of seaweed, framing dark eyes as angry as they were cold. She was easily twice as big as the ship itself, looming over them all like they were a colony of particularly annoying ants. Her dress looked as though it was made from bits of sail and fishing nets, secured in place with a few well-placed loops of rope.

Another large wave knocked the ship sideways, shaking Emma from her stupor. The crew had continued their work despite their obvious fear, frantically trying to keep them from capsizing.

She looked back at Davy Jones, who was glaring at the woman with clear hatred.

"What's going on?" she demanded, coughing as sea spray hit her in the face. The captain ignored her, his arms straining against the helm.

"Calypso!" he bellowed. "By what right do ye attack my ship?".

Emma's eyes widened, terror seizing her. Calypso.

The massive woman — goddess, shit — narrowed her eyes at him. "You forget yourself, Davy Jones," she replied, her voice like thunder. Emma wished she could cover her ears, her fingers shaking as they held tight to the rope.

"I have every right to rule my waters as I see fit. And I'm here for what is owed to me."

Emma's throat went dry as Calypso turned to her.

"You dare to steal from me, Emma Swan?" the goddess asked, her voice booming over the raging of the storm. "Did you think I would not know what you had done?"

The wind picked up as she spoke, the rain like needles on Emma's face. She struggled to hold on, her fingers going numb as the rope cut into her flesh.

She swore internally. Why hadn't she listened to Robin and Regina? She'd brushed their concerns off, not willing to listen to anything that might cast doubt on her plan. After they'd left the island without incident, she'd been stupid enough to believe they were free and clear. She should've known it was too easy. Stupid! She was still thinking like a Dark One, like nothing could touch her if she wanted it badly enough.

She swallowed back angry tears, furious with herself. It was the fury all over again. Only this time, her whole family could wind up paying for her mistakes.

"I'm sorry!" she yelled, her voice sounding feeble over the torrent of the storm. "I wasn't trying to offend you. I needed the heart to get Davy Jones' help."

"The struggles of mortals mean little to me, Emma Swan." Calypso seemed to grow even larger as she spoke, eclipsing the stormy sky above. "Did you think you could hide what you had done? Nothing happens on the water without my knowing about it."

The sky darkened further, thunder and lightning cracking overhead.

"Please, I was the one who stole it. It was my fault! Let the others go," she pleaded.

Another wave crashed over the ship, slamming Belle against the railing. Regina grabbed her, the two of them straining against the force of the water to pull her back to the pile of crates.

She heard the distinct creak of wood straining under pressure. Emma's heart pounded. They couldn't take much more of this.

"It was my decision to take the heart," she shouted, her voice croaking from the effort. "If anyone should be punished, it's me!"

"Wait!"

Emma's head shot around. Henry was staring up at Calypso, his hands still tightly gripping his rope.

"Henry, don't!" she warned, fear seizing her. She'd already lost Killian — she wouldn't lose him, too.

Henry ignored her, his attention on Calypso.

"She wasn't trying to steal from you, she just needed Davy Jones' help to save her true love," he yelled, his voice steady in spite of the pelting rain. "She didn't mean any disrespect."

Calypso eyed him with disinterest. "I don't tolerate thieves, child, no matter their motives. All are equal before the sea."

But Henry wasn't deterred. "If you know her name, then you know who she is — she's the Saviour! She's a hero, not a thief! She was trying to save Captain Hook from the Underworld. That has to count for something, right?"

Calypso stilled, the onslaught of wind and rain slowing for an instant.

"Captain Hook?"

Something in the goddess' expression gave Emma pause, her heart stuttering in her chest.

"His real name was Killian Jones," Henry clarified. "He was a sailor."

"I know who he is, boy," Calypso said sharply. "Our paths crossed once before."

Her tone was inscrutable, giving no indication of whether their past meeting had been a pleasant one. With Killian's history, it could go either way.

"So, Killian Jones is dead," Calypso continued, tilting her head. Suspicion laced her voice. "How? I felt no damage to the Jolly Roger."

"He didn't die at sea," Emma answered with difficulty, the words fighting their way past the lump in her throat. "His soul was taken by a fury. We needed passage to the Underworld to get it back. I just wanted a chance to set things right."

A calculating expression passed over Calypso's face, her sharp eyes narrowing again. Emma wiped her face against her shoulder, trying to clear the rain from her eyes.

Calypso turned to Davy Jones, observing him with obvious mistrust.

"And what of you?" she asked. "Do you seek to challenge me again? Have you already forgotten what happened the last time you defied me?"

Jones glowered up at her, his piercing eyes dark with loathing. "The lass offered me the return of my heart, and I accepted." He paused, lowering his head in grudging deference. "I've not forgotten our last encounter. I'll do my duty," he swore, his meaty hands tightening on the helm. "But I'll do it as a free man."

The pair stood in silence, an unreadable look passing between them as Calypso seemed to weigh his response. After a long moment, she inclined her head.

"And so, you shall continue, as I said once before. But know that I will not look kindly on such disobedience again."

Their eyes met, Davy Jones' jaw ticking. He nodded.

She turned her attention back to Emma, her expression darkening.

"Tell Killian Jones that this makes us even," she said. "The ledger has been wiped clean, and he had best not be invoking my favour again any time soon."

Emma blinked, taken aback. Killian had never mentioned he had a sea goddess in his debt. But she knew better than to look a gift horse in the mouth, certain he wouldn't mind them cashing in his favour on his behalf.

She nodded, still hardly daring to breathe.

"You are free to go, but know this," the goddess warned, "I shall not be so forgiving should you cross me again."

"Got it," Emma answered weakly, scarcely moving for fear of doing something to jinx their good luck.

Calypso stared at her a minute longer, reading into her soul. Whatever she found must have satisfied her.

She looked up at the sky, the clouds opening in a swirl overhead, drawing everyone's attention. They braced themselves as the wind roared, Emma turning her head against her shoulder, her eyes clenched tight.

And then it was over. Emma opened her eyes slowly, looking around in surprise at the placid water that surrounded them. The early morning sky was a clear, crisp blue, no sign of the dark and angry clouds that had been present moments before. Calypso herself had vanished, leaving a calmed sea in her wake.

The others appeared just as stunned as she felt, the eerie silence almost deafening. They slowly stood, looking themselves over as though they could hardly believe they were alive.

It was Davy Jones who broke the spell, snapping at his crew to begin repairs. Emma unwound the rope from her forearm, grimacing as the feeling slowly returned to her fingers.

She made her way to the others who were loitering in the middle of the deck. Henry stood apart from them, his eyes flitting to hers briefly before shying away.

"Well, I guess going back to sleep is out of the question," said Belle.

Mary Margaret glanced back and forth between Emma and Henry.

"Well, I don't know about the rest of you, but I could go for some dry clothes and breakfast," she said in a way she probably believed to be subtle.

"Me too," said David, heading for the hatch. "I don't usually like to face down sea goddesses until after I've had my first cup of coffee."

Regina and Belle followed them below deck, leaving her alone with Henry. Emma brushed the wet hair from her face, her stomach a tangle of knots.

An awkward silence fell, neither of them seeming to know what to say. Then, as if a switch had been flicked, they were both running toward each other, Emma pulling him into her arms.

"I'm sorry, I'm so sorry," she rambled against his shoulder, turning her face into his hair. "You shouldn't have had to do that, Henry. I'm so sorry for everything — Camelot, and Violet, and—"

Henry's arms tightened around her back. "I know, Mom. It's okay."

Her breath hitched. If felt like so long since he'd called her that, her heart ready to burst at hearing it again. She was vaguely aware she was shaking, pulling him closer as though afraid she might lose him again.

"No, it's not, Henry. I stopped fighting. I never wanted to hurt you, but in the end, I still did."

She felt his grip loosening, and she released him reluctantly.

"I was angry with you," he said, and it hurt to finally hear it said out loud, but she'd hear it a thousand times more if it meant he was talking to her. "Don't get me wrong, I was really angry for a long time. I hate what you did. Not just to Violet, but to Merlin, and Killian, and to Belle and Grandpa. But you're still my mom. And being mad all the time just hurts both of us."

He smiled weakly. "It's like when you were upset with Grandma and Grandpa about what happened with Lily. You told me you could either be angry forever, or you could choose to forgive and give them another chance. That's what our family has always done. I couldn't let Calypso hurt you, not when I know you're trying to fix things."

"I shouldn't have had to fix things," she protested. "I never should have done what I did. Taking your memories, and hurting you like that. I messed up, and I know I owe Violet an apology, too, but I want you to know how sorry I am. I let you down."

Henry winced, his gaze dropping for a moment. "It really hurt, finding out what you did. Both times," he admitted. "But I think what hurt more was that it was you. When you took on the curse, I just assumed you'd be able to fight it no matter what. I think I got so used to thinking of you as the Saviour, as someone who always defeated the darkness. When you started struggling with it, it was like finding out Superman isn't really invulnerable, you know?"

She fought back a rush of grief at the words, confirmation at last of all the ways that she'd failed him. She hated hearing how far she'd fallen in his eyes, but she refused to let him see how much it pained her, giving him a chance to say what he wanted to say.

"But now that I've had more time to think about it, I think maybe I expected too much of you," he continued. "You're still a person, and people make mistakes — even heroes. I mean, the storybook is full of heroes who lose their way, but turning your back on them isn't the answer. We should have worked harder to help you fight the Darkness instead of expecting you to deal with it all on your own."

She felt a tear slide down her cheek, quickly brushing it away. "I'm sorry I let you down."

"I'm not a little kid anymore," he said. "I think I'm finally starting to realize that just because someone's a hero, doesn't mean they're perfect. It doesn't mean you're not still the Saviour," he finished, beaming.

The comment took Emma by surprise, her breath catching in her throat. She hadn't realized how much she'd missed Henry's faith in her until this moment. How much it meant to her to know that he believed her capable of anything. Even having seen firsthand that it wasn't true, she'd felt so lost without it.

"That's how I know you're going to save Killian," he said. "You're his hero, too."

Her stomach sank at the vivid reminder of their quest, the words ringing false to her ears. Maybe she had been Killian's hero once, but after everything that had happened between them, she doubted he still thought of her that way. Still, she wasn't going to let that knowledge stop her from doing whatever she could to save him.

Henry was watching her expectantly, his optimism as endearing as it was painful to withstand. She bottled up her uncertainty, pasting a smile on her face. Just because she knew things couldn't be fixed so easily was no reason to put a damper on his spirits.

As usual, though, her kid was too perceptive for his own good, his forehead creasing in concern.

"It's a good plan," he assured her. "I know we can do it. This is just the low point of the story before things work out."

Not for the first time, she wished life really did work out like it did in Henry's storybook, happy endings guaranteed. But she'd been around long enough to know that wasn't always the case.

It's only the heroes who get happy endings, dearie, a small voice inside her head taunted.

She suppressed a shiver, turning the conversation to lighter topics. "So, do you have a name for this operation?"

His face scrunched up. "I think I'm getting a little old for code names," he said with all of the disdain of a teenager, his eyes crinkling with laughter.

Her smile turned bittersweet as she noticed how deep his voice had gotten. He'd changed so much in the two years since they'd found one another. With a start, she realized they were almost at eye-level. It wouldn't be much longer until he was taller than her.

"You're not too old for hugs, are you?" she joked, though she wondered with a touch of sadness how much longer that would be true.

Henry shook his head, grinning as she put her arm around him. She breathed a little easier as he rested his head on her shoulder, the pair of them staring out at the ocean. She missed the little kid who'd tracked her down in Boston, but she wouldn't trade the young man he was becoming for anything.

They stayed tucked side-by-side as the ship glided through the water, the torn sails taking the wind once more. The crew was lively behind them, repairs well underway under Davy Jones' watchful gaze.

She rubbed Henry's arm, an errant flicker of hope bubbling inside of her despite her best efforts to suppress it.

She didn't know what the Underworld held in store, but at least she wouldn't face it alone.

* * *

"I think that's it up ahead," Neal said, walking faster.

Killian allowed himself a small surge of optimism at the announcement. Though he no longer tired or hungered, he had certainly grown bored with his surroundings. It felt as though eons had passed since he'd woken up beside the river, his sense of time distorted without any clocks or a sky to guide him. The surprise Neal had expressed upon learning that he had been dead for less than a year led him to believe that time passed differently down here. There was a chance that it could work in his favour — that he might return to Storybrooke to find little time had passed in his absence.

The alternative was one he had so far refused to consider.

They drew nearer to the door Neal had spotted, the curved black slab blocking their path. Unlike the other doors they'd encountered in the Underworld, this one was marked with intricately carved letters, though they belonged to no alphabet Killian was familiar with. Somehow, he knew this was the entrance they were seeking, the inky stone so dark it was nearly invisible, as though it sucked in the surrounding light.

The door had no handle, a design feature Hades was apparently quite fond of. Killian eyed the massive hunk of stone with no small measure of trepidation — he didn't much like their chances at forcing it open without assistance.

They moved forward with caution, Killian brushing his fingers over the smooth surface. To his surprise, the slab moved, the door swinging open to reveal the room beyond. He exchanged an uneasy look with Neal, who shrugged slightly, mirroring his apprehension.

Stepping inside, they found themselves in a much brighter room, though once again there were no lanterns or sconces to be seen. Instead, the light seemed to emanate from the large pool in the center of the room, the movement of the water casting strange reflections on every surface.

At last.

He strode forward with a renewed sense of purpose, though his eyes darted warily to every corner as he moved. There were no apparent signs of danger to be found, and Killian found himself wondering whether Hades was so confident in his control over the Underworld that he saw no need to take precautions.

The edge of the pool was flush with the floor, a line of jagged gray rocks surrounding it. He peered down into its depths, finding nothing but darkness.

"How does it work?" he asked, his brow creasing. "Do we just ask it for what we need? Will it show us a way out?"

Neal had walked around the other side of the pool, shoving his hands into his pockets. "I'm not really sure. The guy I talked to had never actually seen it, he'd just heard stories. I don't know if anyone besides Hades has ever actually used it."

"With good reason."

Killian startled, whipping around to face the source of the voice.

Hades stood at the far end of the room, a wide smirk on his face. "I usually don't let people get this far. Generally, I'd let them wander around for a few years until they lose hope before sending someone out to collect them. But I gotta admit, I was curious what you would do, Captain."

The god glided forward, jerking his head at Neal. "Teaming up with your would-be-step-son-slash-former-romantic-rival? Didn't see that coming. But then, you always were unpredictable." He smiled, showing a few too many teeth for Killian's liking.

Hades spread his arms wide, glancing back and forth between the two of them.

"Well, hey, it's been fun, hasn't it? Trekking all over the Underworld, convincing yourselves you were on some heroic quest, giving my guards a run for their money. I had them in a panic looking for you." He shrugged. "No hard feelings, there, they're pretty useless. It's good for them to feel a little fear now and again. But the show's over, now, fellas."

He turned his attention to Killian, his sharp eyes boring into him. "I figured I should let you get your big, rebellious moment out of your system, but I think it's about time we got your punishment sorted out. And you," he said, fixing his gaze on Neal, "have an afterlife to be getting back to, if I'm not mistaken."

Killian's throat went dry. "Please, I can't stay here," he begged, caring little for his pride at the moment. "I need to get back to Emma — I promised that I would help her defeat the Darkness, that I wouldn't abandon her." He swallowed, his fist clenching at his side. "I know I deserve my punishment, and I'll gladly take it when the time comes, but Emma needs me."

"Is that so?" Hades replied good-naturedly. "Well, if that's the case, hey — why don't we take a little peek at what your Shnookums is up to, hmm?"

He waved a long hand out over the pool, his narrow fingers splayed wide. The water rippled as an image began to appear, Killian's breath hitching as Emma came into focus.

She was even more beautiful than he remembered, the bright sun casting a kind of glow around her. Wind whipped through her long tresses — no longer slicked-back and silvery white, but restored to the golden locks he'd run his fingers through on countless occasions, her skin a healthy peach colour once more. Henry stood by her side, her arm around his shoulders as they stared out at something in the distance, soft smiles on both of their faces.

Neal gasped softly across from him — affected, no doubt, by the first glimpse of his son in so long — but Killian was preoccupied with the torrent of emotions racing through him, each one fighting to be heard.

Hades chucked, waving at the idyllic scene with no small hint of irony.

"She looks fine to me. Guess she didn't need your help after all, big guy."

Killian's chest constricted painfully at the assessment.

His eyes were beginning to burn the longer he stared, unable to tear his gaze away from Emma's peaceful expression, from her obvious joy at having her son by her side. A wave relief crashed over him at the knowledge that she was safe, that she was free from the curse. But it was soon swallowed by a rush of grief, Hades' words ringing in his ears.

He hadn't been there to help her. He'd broken his promise.

The movement of the water distorted the image, but he could still see the way Emma tightened her arm around her son, the way that Henry tucked his head against her shoulder, the lad looking more content than he had in many weeks. A pang of longing hit him so strongly that it knocked the air from his lungs, a gaping hole taking up residence in his chest.

They looked happy.

"Well, I guess that answers that question — no need for any more side quests on your part, Captain," Hades said. "I mean, I'd love to stay here discussing this with you, but I've got other things on my schedule. So, whaddaya say we get to the 'rest' part of 'rest in peace'?"

"No."

Killian tore his eyes from the scene, looking up in surprise to find Neal's attention fixed on him.

"Don't give up, man," he urged, determination and sorrow weighing heavily upon his face. "Just because the curse is broken doesn't mean that Emma doesn't still need you."

He paused, glancing back at the image of the pair. "Don't make the same mistakes I did. Don't give up on her."

Killian considered his words, remembering a conversation with Emma from what felt like a lifetime ago. Her eyes had filled with tears as she'd loudly confessed that everyone she'd ever cared for was dead. His own response came floating back to him, the unspoken promise that he'd made to her. I'm a survivor. I won't leave you.

Hades made a face, waving off Neal's advice. "Hey, sure, it's hard to give up on love, I get it," he said disinterestedly. "But unfortunately, it's not as simple as that."

Dread curled in Killian's stomach. "What do you mean?"

Hades looked at him like he was a particularly inept pupil, a touch of bemused condescension tainting his words. "Well, your Pookie Bear pulled Excalibur from the stone. That comes with a price, namely, a life. If you don't pay it, she does."

Killian's eyes widened in horror, panic gripping him at the thought of Emma being dragged down to the Underworld, her life snatched from her as his own had been. "You can't do that."

"Look, I didn't make the rules," Hades said, shrugging. "I just collect. And what are you so upset about? Wasn't this the whole point of your big, heroic quest, here? Ensuring Emma's happiness?"

He gestured to the reflection again, Emma nestling her head against Henry's.

"She looks pretty happy to me. She's broken the curse, she's got her son — she's free to live a long, happy life with her family. Isn't your life a small price to pay in exchange for ensuring she gets to keep it?"

Wasn't it, though? His thoughts were a jumbled mess, uncertainty plaguing him.

"Don't do it," Neal implored, shaking his head. "There's gotta be another way out of this, Killian, I know it. They wouldn't want you to give up."

The use of his given name caught him off-guard. He met Neal's eyes, seeing his own worry and grief reflected back at him. He wanted more than anything to listen to him, to believe it was true, but if he was wrong, it wouldn't be his own life he was risking. He'd promised Emma he'd remain by her side, but what good was that promise if it cost her in the end?

His gaze dropped to the water once more, his eyes catching on Emma's smile — so much softer than it'd been under the curse, her cheeks flushed in a healthy glow. He soaked in the sight, certainty pooling low in his gut.

He'd wanted to help her, and now he could.

Killian inhaled deeply, turning his back on the reflection.

"I'll stay."

Chapter Text

Camelot, Week 5

"Emma's not in her room," Snow White said grimly as she and Belle hurried back to meet them. They had all gathered in the corridor outside of the Great Hall, awaiting Merlin's arrival.

"Well, we need to find her as soon as possible," said Regina. "If what Merlin said about the Darkness is true, we shouldn't give it any more opportunities to take hold."

"Maybe she went to the stables," David suggested, glancing at his wife. "She wasn't feeling well earlier, she might've gone to clear her head again."

Henry stiffened beside Killian, his face clouding over. He'd hardly spoken a word following Merlin's revelation, the pain of the betrayal no doubt still cutting him deeply. Killian wished he knew how to comfort the lad, but he suspected there was little he could say that would help in this situation.

His thoughts were interrupted as the heavy doors of the Great Hall opened to reveal Merlin. The Sorcerer held a long sword in his hand, its edges curved and sharp even in the dim firelight of the corridor. A blade unbroken for the first time in centuries, if the stories were to be believed.

"Is that—" Belle said, her eyes widening.

Merlin gave a solemn nod. "Excalibur and the dagger have been reunited. The blade is whole once again, as it was always meant to be."

The others regarded the sword with undisguised reverence, though Killian couldn't bring himself to match it. All he saw was the weapon that had been the source of so much misery, so many broken lives, the familiar black scrawl sending a shiver of revulsion down his spine. It was hard to fathom that the same blade he had hunted for centuries was now the only hope of Emma's salvation.

"How did you get Arthur to surrender it?" Robin asked, eyeing the sword with the keen appraisal of every thief Killian had ever met.

"Arthur was never truly worthy of the sword," Merlin said, holding the blade aloft, the flawless metal glistening in the flickering light of the wall sconces. "I've relieved him of Excalibur, as well as of the reigns to this kingdom. His queen, Guinevere, shall rule in his place. I've freed her from the spell Arthur placed on her."

"Good riddance," said David, reaching for Snow White's hand. "So, now that we've got Excalibur, how do we save Emma?"

"Uniting the blades was only part of the task," Merlin warned. "The Darkness will need to be removed from Emma, and I fear that will not be so easy."

Their earlier doubts aside, no one had ever accused Emma's parents of lacking in optimism.

"We'll do it," Snow White vowed. "We've come this far, we're not going to fail now."

"Assuming she even wants to be saved," Henry muttered quietly enough that the others appeared not to hear.

Killian's eyes drifted to the lad again, a sullen expression having taken up residence on his young face. He longed to assure him that everything would work out, but he knew how empty the words would sound coming from him. A broken heart was difficult enough to mend, but a loss of faith could be nearly impossible to restore.

He edged closer, ducking his head as the others discussed strategy.

"Henry—"

"I didn't know we were having a meeting."

Killian's head shot up at the new voice, both familiar and strange.

Emma.

Only, it wasn't Emma. Not quite.

He took in her ivory white hair, pulled back into a severe bun, not a single strand loose to frame a face that somehow seemed sharper than before. Her skin was so white it seemed almost transparent, a stab of bright red marring her lips. Her clothes were tightly affixed to her form, her black leather pants and long coat a startling departure from her usual attire, yet one that felt all too deliberate.

But her change in appearance was nothing compared to the look in her eyes, no hint of warmth to be seen. His stomach plummeted — he recognized that expression only too well.

Snow White gasped, clutching her husband's sleeve.

"Emma, what happened?"

Emma arched a pointed eyebrow, her face giving nothing away.

"Is something wrong?" she said, eyeing them all one by one. "I thought you'd be expecting this. I am the Dark One, after all."

A cold smile formed on her lips, a sharp contrast to the anger blazing in her eyes.

"I figured since you were all so busy deciding my fate for me, I should get a few words in myself."

The blood drained from Killian's face as the comment sank in. He knew at once how it must have sounded to her, hearing her loved ones discuss how long it would take her to succumb to the demons in her head, listening to them debate the merits of bending her to their will. Gods, why hadn't he said anything?

He shook his head desperately.

"Swan, we didn't—"

She turned her indifferent stare on him, the words catching in his throat. They didn't what, exactly? Hadn't they been guilty of the very thing she was accusing them of? Hadn't they — he — doubted her, even briefly?

She watched him silently for a moment before appearing to lose interest, her eyes drifting to her parents who were gaping at her in undisguised horror.

"The truth is that none of you trusted me," she said, looking over them all. Her gaze faltered briefly as she came upon Henry, a hard look in the lad's eyes, but her expression soon smoothed over. "Why bother fighting the Darkness if you all expected me to give in?"

"Emma, please, this isn't you," he begged, his heart breaking within his chest. "Merlin has united the blades — the sword can remove the Darkness, if you let it. You were right, we shouldn't have been planning behind your back, but we only wanted to help you."

Her eyes flinted. "You mean fix me. All you wanted was your precious Saviour back," she sneered, as though the word repulsed her. "The perfect hero, always doing what's expected of her, always concerned with ensuring everyone else's happiness. None of you could accept the real me," she accused, glaring daggers at her parents. "But I'm tired of letting others' expectations define me. With the Darkness, I can have everything I want."

Regina shifted, her eyes falling to the blade in Merlin's hands. The movement attracted Emma's attention, her gaze sharpening into something deadly. Guilt and defiance warred on Regina's face as she straightened, realizing she'd been caught.

"Are you going to use Excalibur on me? Force me to do your bidding?" Emma challenged. "I thought you were supposed to be the heroes."

"We were only going to use it to stop the Darkness from spreading further," Regina defended, her shoulders tense as though expecting an attack at any moment. "You're not yourself, Emma. You stole a girl's heart!"

"Remind me again, how many hearts are sitting in that vault of yours?" Emma demurred. "And yet, I'm the villain."

David stepped forward. "No, Emma, that's not—"

With a wave of her hand, he froze, as still as a statue. She turned her attention to Merlin, true loathing seeping into her expression for the first time.

The Sorcerer was the only one who had remained unaffected by her entrance, watching her with something akin to pity.

"You should listen to your family, Emma," he said.

Her lips curled at his tone. "Why should I? It seems like they're listening to you, now."

The look she shot him would have killed a lesser man. He remained unfazed, his stoic demeanor only feeding her anger.

Her eyes fell to the blade in his hands, a greedy glint to her gaze.

"No one controls me but me."

She lunged, but a cloud of white smoke enveloped the blade. The smoke cleared and she drew up short, the sword having vanished from sight.

"What did you do?" she snarled, glaring resentfully at the Sorcerer.

"You're too late," Merlin said. "The sword has been returned to the stone. Only someone worthy can pull it free once more. Its power is beyond your reach."

Emma's jaw twitched almost imperceptibly, her callous demeanor cracking in the face of Merlin's trickery. Killian's heart clenched at the hatred he saw there. Swan...

The tension broke a moment later, her expression smoothing over as she straightened, confident once more.

"Then, I'll just have to do things the hard way."

Killian realized her intentions a second too late, reaching for her in vain. She flicked her wrist, disappearing in a cloud of silvery-gray smoke, his hand grasping at thin air.

He stared numbly at the empty space before him, his stomach a wretched tangle of knots.

Swan, what have we done?

* * *

The Underworld, Present

"...Oh, and that time you took on Captain Redbeard and three ships with only a crew of ten men and a dog — that was a great one to watch. Thought we'd get you for sure that time, but you slipped out of it like you always did," Hades laughed, shaking his head.

It seemed the god had been truthful when he'd called himself a fan of Killian's, having spent much of their journey regaling him with some of his favourites of Killian's near-death experiences over the centuries. He supposed being stuck in the Underworld left little in the way of entertainment for Hades, who he'd gathered was rarely able to leave the realm. In any other situation, it might have been humbling, hearing a god recount his life as though it were a favourite bedtime story, but he found himself not in the mood to hear it.

"I was starting to wonder if we'd ever see you down here. I had a bet going with Charon — nice guy, a little on the quiet side — that it'd be ticking off the wrong pirate that got you in the end. I did not see a fury coming. Guess I owe him three drachmas."

Killian tuned Hades out as they walked, distracted by his own thoughts. While Hades thankfully seemed more amused than upset by Killian's escape attempt, regarding it as merely another adventure rather than an outright attempt at defiance, Killian was still coming to grips with the realization that he would never leave the Underworld.

He and Neal had said their farewells fairly quickly, the other man making no effort to hide his disappointment at Killian's decision. He understood his frustration, especially after Killian had promised to look out for Henry, but Killian couldn't bring himself to put Emma's life at risk.

He was certain Henry would have agreed — Emma's safety was far more important than his own.

A guard had been summoned to take Neal back to his punishment, but Hades had decided to escort Killian himself, no doubt wanting to ensure that Killian wouldn't go back on his word and attempt to make another run for it. He needn't have worried. Killian was many things, but he was not so foolish as to risk turning a fury on Swan or her family.

Still, he was in little mood to talk, despite Hades' multiple attempts to engage him. The god seemed to pick up on his reticence at last, nudging him with a pointy elbow.

"Come on, no hard feelings, Captain. You gave it a good effort," he cajoled, apparently interpreting Killian's dark mood as mere sullenness rather than a man coming to grips with the finality of his own demise. "Besides, it's good you got a chance to stretch your legs a bit — you won't be doing much of that for a while."

Right. Because he was stuck down here for the foreseeable future, until whatever punishment that awaited him saw fit to let him go. Four hundred and fifty years. More than four centuries before he could hope to see Emma again.

Perhaps, by then, he'd be ready to face her.

Killian's boots scuffed along the chalky gray gravel he was truly coming to hate, his footsteps echoing in the cavern. Hades watched him with a hint of bemusement.

"Oh, cheer up, big guy. It's not so bad, is it? I mean, everyone's gotta go sometime — might as well make it count, right?"

He supposed he had a point. It was why he was doing this, after all.

That's not the only reason...

Enough, he admonished himself, his insides twisting uncomfortably. It had been ridiculous of him to think that Emma might have needed his help to break the curse. Of course, he knew if anyone could find a way to overcome the curse of the Dark One unscathed, it would be Emma. But he'd allowed some small, selfish part of himself to cling to the belief that he was vital, somehow, that it was essential that he return to the land of the living. He'd been foolish to believe it, to think that they might require him — might miss him—

He shook his head forcefully, banishing the thought. All that mattered was that Emma was safe, her family reunited once more. At least, in this, he could still be useful. Hades' words floated back to him, his one bit of solace. As long as he was down here, Emma would be free to live a long and happy life with her family. They'd help her move forward, even if took time to get there.

It was a small price to pay, in the grand scheme of things.

"I have to admit, I'm curious to see what punishment you'll end up with, given everything," Hades mused, the non-sequitur startling Killian from his thoughts.

"What do you mean?" he asked despite his better judgement. "Don't you know what it is?"

Hades latched onto the topic with relish, never one to pass up an opportunity to brag about his realm. "Well, contrary to popular belief, we're not just fire and brimstone anymore. We've diversified."

He rested a large hand on Killian's shoulder, his other hand waving through the air as he talked.

"In the old days, you gave a guy a boulder and told him to roll it up a hill for all eternity, everybody was happy. Now, everyone expects things to be 'personalized'," he drawled sardonically, his long fingers forming quotations. "The fire generation — talk about entitled, am I right?"

The comment baffled Killian, who attempted to mask his confusion. But the god seemed to have little need for his input, continuing on as though he'd voiced his wholehearted agreement.

"That's when we got the idea to let the deceased choose their punishment."

Killian frowned. "I get to choose?" he said, suspicion creeping into his voice.

Hades chuckled, slapping him on the back with enough force to make Killian wince.

"Not like you're thinking, Captain. You see, the room reads into a person's deepest thoughts and fears. Lots of big magics, yadda yadda, it's all very technical, but the bottom line is that it looks for what they truly deserve, and that's what they get. Usually ends up being way more effective than anything we could come up with. It's the personal touch — I think it gives it that little something extra."

Hades' words offered Killian little in the way of comfort. He knew himself well enough to suspect he wouldn't like the kind of punishment his mind would pick out for him. Still, there was a twisted sort of logic to Hades' explanation — who knew what would hurt a person better than the person themselves? Briefly, he found himself wondering what Liam and Milah had endured during their time here.

As they walked, the corridor began to narrow, the identical black slabs that lined the doors seeming to stretch on forever. Behind one of those doors lay his home for the next four-and-a-half centuries. He was struck, suddenly, by the realization that it had been a less than two years since he'd first set foot in Storybrooke. By the time he was free, Swan and her family might have forgotten all about him. Assuming he ever saw them again.

The thought left him feeling strangely empty, and he did his best to push it aside.

Hades drew them to a halt in front of one of the doors, gesturing at it with a flourish. It opened on its own, the slab scraping the gravel as it swung slowly outward.

"Well, here we are! Your eternal ever after, so to speak. Looks nice and cozy, why don't you step on in?"

He could see nothing but darkness beyond the doorway, no hints as to the fate that awaited him inside. He couldn't deny the rush of fear that ran through him, but he refused to entertain any further fantasies of escape. Captain Hook was many things, but a coward wasn't one of them.

And if anyone deserved the fate that lay on the other side of that door, it was Captain Hook.

His mind drifted back to the scene he'd witnessed in the pool, Henry and Emma seemingly happy and at peace after so much heartache and strife. He was grateful to see they had mended things between them, knowing how deeply they relied on one another. Though he hadn't seen any of the others, he hoped the rest of Storybrooke fared as well.

He caught Hades watching him, a knowing expression on his narrow face. Could the god read his mind, or were his thoughts plainly on display?

Enough stalling, he berated, feeling foolish for hesitating. He'd made his choice, now all that was left was to put it into action.

He turned back to the doorway, straightening his spine. With one last thought of Emma, he stepped inside.

Then, there was darkness.

* * *

Emma watched the flickering reflection of the water on the ceiling of the cave, only her tightening grip on the oar as she rowed betraying her nerves.

They'd parted ways with Davy Jones not long before, the captain begrudgingly granting them the use of one of the ship's small lifeboats with the air of someone who never expected to see it again. He'd glared at her when she'd asked how they'd contact him for the ride back.

"I'll know," he'd said. "If ye make it back to the harbour with yer souls intact, I'll fulfill my end of the bargain. More likely, I've just saved Charon the trouble of collecting ye all in a few years' time," he'd chuckled with a nasty grin.

She refused to let his words get to her, choosing instead to focus on how close they finally were. She and David had taken charge of the oars for the lifeboat, falling into a steady pace, the others huddled closely together out of necessity in the small dinghy. The cavern was eerily quiet aside from the sweep of the oars through the water, every noise echoing loudly against the rocks.

A glimmer of white flickered in the corner of Emma's eye. She peered down at the water, her forehead creasing. Another white streak appeared briefly, her stroke faltering with a splash that moved the boat out of sync with David's movements. It had almost looked like...

"So, what's the plan?" Henry asked, shaking her from her thoughts.

She looked up, unable to stop her breath from catching at the smile he was giving her. She'd gone so long without it that it was still taking some getting used to. She found herself returning the smile without thinking, a bit of the loneliness within her receding.

"Once we get to shore, we'll get our bearings," she told him. "Then, we'll find Killian."

"And try to avoid Hades," Regina said, her voice betraying her doubt at the likelihood of them accomplishing both tasks. Emma longed to call her on it, but she held her tongue instead, the memory of Calypso's attack on the ship still too fresh.

She caught Henry's eye again, faith radiating from his expression. The tightness in her chest eased slightly.

"Do you think he'll be excited to see us?" he asked her softly.

"Who, kid?"

"Hook," he replied. "Do you think he knows we're coming?"

She was saved from having to reply as a small, flat rock came into view. Two posts stood at either end of it, the perfect place to tie off the boat.

"Well, that's convenient," David remarked, echoing her thoughts.

Belle strained between Henry and Regina for a better look. "I bet it's a dock for Charon's ferry," she said.

"Well, let's hope he doesn't mind us borrowing it," said Emma, picking up her pace.

They tied off the boat, stepping ashore one by one. The flat rock of the dock protruded from a gravelly shoreline that stretched on into the shadows in either direction. The sickly green air that lit the cavern seemed brighter here, allowing them a good look around for the first time.

Regina examined the black walls of the cave with disdain. "Well, this is lovely," she said sarcastically.

Emma silently agreed. She stared down at the ashy gravel beneath them, grinding it under her boot with a small frown. She'd expected something a bit grander for the land of the dead. This place just seemed... empty.

Behind her, the others began taking stock of their supplies. They'd been careful to ration their food and water aboard Jones' ship, but they had no idea how long the journey would take. With any luck, they'd have enough to get them back to Storybrooke.

A flicker of white caught her eye again, drawing her attention to the water. Glancing back at the others briefly, she wandered closer, confusion filling her as the water seemed to grow deeper with each step. A moment ago, she could've sworn it was only a few inches deep at the shoreline, but now the bottom seemed to disappear into darkness, making its depth impossible to gage.

She tilted her head, watching in fascination as white, wispy things slithered just below the surface. She couldn't make them out completely through the murky water, but there was something captivating about them, the way they appeared and vanished from sight.

Her eyes widened as she caught a glimmer of a face staring up at her, but she didn't feel scared. There was something inviting about it. She was struck by a sudden urge to reach out — she was sure she could touch one of the wisps if only she—

"Emma, don't!"

The shout startled her. She stumbled back from the water, shaking her head. Dizzily, she frowned, noticing how close she was to the shoreline, the water lapping half a foot from where she stood. Had she meant to do that?

The others seemed as confused as Emma, glancing between her and Belle, who was still staring at her, alarmed.

"Don't touch the water," Belle cautioned urgently, gesturing her away.

Emma moved back further from the river, her brain a bit muzzy as though she'd just woken up from a nap.

"Why not?" Mary Margaret asked.

Belle gestured to the river. "If I'm right, then that's the River of Lost Souls. Anyone who touches the water, their souls will be trapped in it forever."

"Okay," David said dryly. "No swimming. Got it."

Souls. That's what she had seen. The wispy white figures were the faces of people who'd become trapped in the river, unable to escape or do anything but draw others into their depths. Her eyes slid back to the dark water briefly, feeling sick. What if—

Belle's hand landed on her forearm, gently pulling her attention away from the river again. "It's only the souls who touch the water," she said, too softly for the others to hear. "He's not in there, Emma. If he was, you'd know it."

She locked eyes with Belle, expecting to see pity but finding only empathy shining back at her.

The moment was broken as her dad grunted, pulling on a backpack heavy with supplies.

"We should probably get moving."

She took in the shoreline again, surveying the dark stone in either direction. There was a narrow path near the wall of the cavern, which seemed as good a place as any to start. Her parents led the way, easily falling into their respective leader modes.

"Where do you think the light's coming from?" Henry asked, peering up at the glowing green air as they walked.

"If I had to guess?" said David. "Magic." He grinned back at Henry, who made a face at the corny joke.

"Well, I for one don't feel like relying on Hades' mood lighting to get us where we need to go," Regina remarked, raising her hand. She waved her fingers, scowling a bit. A weak flame ignited in her palm before flickering and spluttering out, her forehead creasing in concentration as she tried to relight it. After another moment of trying, she glowered, dropping her arm.

"My power feels different," she said sourly. "It's there, but it's like pulling teeth to get it to work."

"Don't worry about it," said Mary Margaret. "We can make do without a torch."

The path led away from the shoreline, the sickly green hue of the air lighting their way just enough to see a few yards ahead of them. Soon enough, they'd lost sight of the river altogether, venturing into a long, empty tunnel.

Emma eyed the dark stone walls and gravel-covered ground with something like disappointment. There wasn't much to it all, honestly, nothing that would suggest that they were at the entrance to the Underworld. So much for the big sign reading 'abandon all hope.'

She hadn't exactly wanted to find fire and brimstone, but this just felt... unremarkable.

The others seemed to be having similar thoughts, a decidedly dejected look crossing Henry's face as they passed a large boulder sticking out of the ground.

"Doesn't seem like much, does—" her mom jerked back, shouting, as a pair of massive teeth snapped at the air where she'd been standing.

"Look out!"

Emma pulled Henry behind her, David herding the others back with his arm. She gawked at the enormous face of a dog growling above them. Its thin black fur had made it difficult to see in the low lighting, but there was no mistaking those teeth, or the snarl on its face. Judging from the size of its head, the dog itself had to be at least five times their size, and it did not look happy to see them.

"What the—"

A second head shot out of the darkness, its massive jaw snapping closed just shy of Belle's face. It growled, letting out an enraged bark when it missed its prey. The group backed up again as one.

"Over there," said David, gesturing back to the large rock they'd just passed.

They ducked behind the boulder, Emma pressing her back up against it, breathing hard. They waited quietly for a moment, but it didn't seem to be following them.

Cautiously, she peered around the rock, only mildly surprised to see a third massive head snarling and biting in their direction, but thankfully moving no closer. She lowered her gaze, her eyes widening as she realized all three dogs' necks merged near the base. Its massive body was straining frantically against a collar at its conjoined neck, a large black paw scratching and clawing at the ground for traction.

A gigantic three-headed dog. Okay. That was weird. Not the weirdest thing she'd ever seen, all things considered, but definitely pretty high up there.

"It must be Cerberus," said Belle, the words just barely discernible over all of the growling and barking. "Hades' guard-dog. According to the stories, his job is to keep the living from entering the Underworld and the dead from escaping it."

"Well, he's doing a pretty good job of it so far," said Emma.

She drew her cutlass over her shoulder, her parents preparing their weapons as well.

"No, don't hurt him!" Henry protested.

"Don't hurt him?" said David. "He almost took Snow's arm off."

"He's just doing his job, he doesn't know anything else. Look — he's chained up."

Emma exchanged an exasperated look with Regina. "Henry, he's blocking the path. I don't know if we can—"

"There's another way, I know there is," he said, pleading up at her with those big brown eyes. Damn it. After weeks of him ignoring her, she couldn't bring herself to be the one to disappoint him again.

Hesitantly, Belle spoke. "I came across one legend that talked about soothing Cerberus with music, or feeding him sweets. It's possible that could calm him down."

Regina rolled her eyes. "Well, that's reassuring. What, we should just hand him a giant doggy treat and hope for the best?" She raised an eyebrow at Emma. "I don't know about you, but I don't feel like risking all of our lives on a maybe when a fireball would do the trick just fine."

"Assuming you can even summon one," David pointed out.

"No, Belle's right, we just have to try it." Henry pushed off the ground, racing out from behind the boulder before Emma could grab him. He ran toward the giant dog, his arm digging through his backpack.

"Henry, no!" She scrambled to her feet, the others shouting their own warnings beside her.

Henry was already more than halfway to the dog, pulling a handful of wrapped snack cakes from his bag.

"It's okay," he said soothingly, holding his hand out.

Cerberus seemed momentarily thrown off by his approach, its heads pulling back, assessing. Henry raised his arm higher, emboldened by the response.

"I won't hurt you."

She saw it the instant before it happened, the way its conjoined neck tensed, the muscles in each of its jaws rippling as it prepared to attack. Emma felt frozen to the spot, watching in slow motion as all three of its heads lunged at Henry, still too far away for her to grab him. Terror gripped her. Those massive teeth would tear him apart in an instant—

A sudden melody filled the air, its peaceful notes at odds with the fear clenching Emma's heart. The dog's heads pulled back mere feet from where Henry stood rooted to the ground, the middle and right heads huffing and cocking in confusion.

The song continued, a light plucking of strings that echoed off the walls of the cave. Emma held her breath as Cerberus' eyelids began to droop, one of its heads letting out a soft whine as it nodded forward.

They all watched in silent amazement as the once frightening beast retreated, a serene expression on its faces. It curled up into a ball next to the post it was chained to, its heads resting on its massive paws one by one until deafening snores could be heard throughout the cavern.

All of the air left Emma's lungs in an instant, her muscles sagging with relief. She risked a glance behind her, her eyes widening at the massive harp that had appeared in the middle of the cave, Regina's hand still outstretched toward it. The strings of the harp were plucking themselves autonomously, creating a beautiful tune. Slowly, as if hardly daring to believe it had worked, Regina lowered her arm.

The danger having passed, Emma raced forward, grabbing Henry by the shoulders and turning him to face her.

"Don't ever do that again," she said, her heart pounding loudly in her chest. "You could've been killed!"

Regina was a step behind her, emotions playing across her face. "We agreed you could come along if you followed the rules. Do you have any idea what could have happened if I hadn't conjured up that harp in time? Or if the music hadn't worked?"

Emma couldn't bear to think about it. Her mind kept replaying the scene, those massive jaws hurtling toward him, the creature's lips pulled back in a snarl, and all the while, she'd just stood there, helpless. Emma's blood ran cold, her fingers gripping Henry's arms all the tighter. What if Regina hadn't been there? What if she'd been a second slower to act?

Henry looked as shaken as she felt. "I'm sorry, " he said, glancing back at the still-snoring dog. "I thought I could help."

"You can't run off like that down here, kid," she said, for good measure. "It's going to be hard enough getting one soul out of here, I really don't want to try and take two."

He swallowed, nodding. She pulled him in for a hug, Regina resting a hand on the back of his head.

She let him go as her parents drew nearer, each of them hugging him as well.

"I guess the legend was partly right," David said, gesturing back at the harp. "Quick thinking, Regina — it's a good thing your magic worked."

Regina accepted the praise distractedly, her eyes locked on the sleeping beast. "It almost didn't," she admitted, her voice lacking its usual confidence. "I'd rather not test how long it will last."

The others agreed, Belle brushing Henry's arm with a small smile as he put his backpack back on. The rest of them readied their weapons, Regina watching the guard dog closely for any signs of movement. Henry's earlier protests aside, Emma had a feeling that if the creature so much as twitched, he'd be getting a fireball to all three of his faces.

Emma led the way, keeping a close eye on Cerberus for any hint of him waking. His right head huffed in sleep, the strength of it blowing her hair back. They quietly picked their way past the beast, her mother bringing up the rear, an arrow notched in her bow.

It was a tense few minutes before a tight nod from Mary Margaret signaled that they were well out of range of the enormous chain leash that secured the dog in place. Emma let go of the breath she'd been holding, all of the tension in her muscles releasing at once.

"Well, we got in the door," said David, lowering his broadsword. "Now, let's grab Hook and get out of here."

Emma agreed, fighting back a wave of anticipation. The pathway curved ahead of them, veering off in two directions. They hung a left, her stomach swooping at the scene that met them.

They were standing near the edge of a cliff, the path continuing off in several directions. Peering over the side, she could see more paths and bridges lining the walls of the cliff face, connecting a series of tunnels that seemed to go down for miles. The sight of it filled her stomach with lead.

"Now, all we have to do is find him," Mary Margaret breathed.

"Hook's somewhere in all of that?" Henry asked quietly, distressed.

Regina put a hand on his back, offering comfort Emma wasn't sure she could provide at the moment. There were more tunnels than she could even count, the bottom of the cliff masked in darkness. It could take weeks or even months to search them all. How could they ever hope to find him in all of that?

Beside her, Belle squared her shoulders, offering Emma an encouraging smile. "It'll be all right. We just have to do this logically," she said, infusing her words with an optimism Emma felt hard-pressed to match. "We'll take them one at a time."

David glanced back at Emma briefly, nodding. "She's right. If we can survive Neverland, then we can definitely do this. We just need to pick a route and stick with it — we'll be bound to come across something eventually."

The others exchanged uneasy looks, but after coming this far, what choice did they have? One by one, they turned and began making their way down the path, weapons held at the ready.

Emma started after them, but paused, a thought striking her. She squatted, grabbing one of the lighter-coloured stones off the ground. Straightening, she glanced ahead at the others before reaching out to scratch a large 'X' on the wall of the cavern.

I'm coming, Killian.

* * *

The first rays of light were just beginning to stream through the bars of his cell. Killian shifted in his spot in the corner, wishing he could see out of the small, barred window that afforded him his only light, but it was too high for him to reach. Prisoners were not afforded such comforts.

His back ached from a night spent on the hard stone floor, the jagged rock wall digging into his shoulder, but it hardly seemed worth the effort to move. The guard would be coming soon.

His cell was cramped, and was walled on all four sides, only a small slot in the thick wooden door offering him any opportunity for engagement with the outside world. It had remained firmly shut the entire time he'd been there. No one was coming to visit him.

He heard the heavy footsteps coming down the stairs, counting down his final seconds in this prison. A moment later, the door was wrenched open, an armoured guard standing in the shadows of the doorway.

"On your feet, pirate."

Heavy iron cuffs were closed around his wrists and ankles, the chains dragging and rattling with every step. They'd taken his hook some time ago, leaving only the brace behind to cover his stump.

He was led in silence down the stone corridor, the guard never once looking him in the eye.

More guards waited for him, shoving him into the caged prisoners' cart and locking the door behind him. With a jolt, the cart was moving, turning out of the castle's dungeon and into the town's main square.

There was a crowd already gathered, despite the early hour, familiar and half-remembered faces lining each side of the street. They jeered and threw things at him as he passed, though most of the abuse they shouted was lost to the overall racket. He recognized some members of his old crew — his brother's crew, the ones he had selfishly dragged with him to Neverland in his quest for revenge, the ones who had never escaped that cursed island. A few Lost Boys, whose names he had long since forgotten, hung off a nearby statute of a knight, craning over the heads of the crowd for a better view.

On the other side of the road stood Dr. Hopper, a black umbrella clenched tightly in his fist. His gaze darkened as Killian passed, the hatred there so at odds with the terrified expressions he'd made in the bowels of the Jolly Roger while he was begging for his life. Killian's cheeks burned as he remembered how he'd pled for his release, attempting to appeal to whatever humanity was left within him. 'You don't need to do this,' he'd urged, his eyes alight with unfounded optimism. 'There's still good in you — you can be a good man.'

If he'd only known then how wrong he was.

The cart gave a lurch, bringing his attention to the scaffolding ahead of him. A moment later, he was being dragged from the cage and shuffled roughly up the stairs, his movements hindered by the chains between his feet.

"Move," the guard ordered with a shove, sending him tripping up the last few steps. There was scattered laughter from the crowd at his clumsiness as he was jostled to the center of the gallows, the silhouette of the noose outlined clearly against the early morning sun.

He reminded himself to stare straight ahead, not to look out at those gathered, but his eyes kept catching on familiar faces. Ariel stood at the foot of the gallows, her prince safe by her side — no thanks to him — her hazel eyes glittering with resentment. Next to her, a stout man named Wallace glared up at him from the crowd, the blood from the chest wound Killian had inflicted still staining his tunic after all these years.

He dropped his gaze to his boots, his hand clenching behind his back.

The executioner stepped forward, roughly pulling the noose down over his head. Killian felt the scratch of the rope as it was tightened around his neck — not tight enough to choke him, but uncomfortable all the same. On his left, Robin began walking to the far end of the gallows, clutching a scroll with the royal seal on it.

Movement above him caught his eye, bringing his attention to the balcony that housed the royal family. Prince David had stood from his throne next to Snow White, his animus and distrust evident even from this distance. The princess remained seated, rocking her small babe as she scowled down at Killian.

Beside the royal couple stood Queen Regina, clothed all in black, her dark hair cascading around her face. Her hand rested on the shoulder of her son, the lad's face a picture of disgust as he peered at the scaffold below.

To the other side, in a throne smaller but no less regal than that of her parents', sat Princess Emma. Her blonde hair was swept up, diamonds bejeweling her tresses. Her soft blue gown was layered with smaller jewels, radiant in the morning light. Killian's heart hurt as he watched her, but her attention was occupied elsewhere, her chin resting daintily on her hand, a bored expression on her face. She seemed to have grown tired of the proceedings already, never so much as glancing in his direction.

Robin unfurled the scroll and cleared his throat, prompting a hush to fall over the crowd.

"Captain Hook, also known as Killian Jones — you have been charged, tried, and convicted of murdering Tiberius Crawe in cold blood for insulting your ship, leaving his wife a widow and his son without a father."

Killian lowered his head, a lump forming in his throat. The name wasn't familiar, but he remembered the portly man who'd made the mistake of crossing his path outside a tavern in Tortuga. The other man had been drinking heavily when he'd loudly disparaged the Jolly Roger in front of Hook's crew — an insult his pride hadn't been able to let pass. He'd killed him then and there, caring only for his reputation and foolish arrogance. He hadn't given him another thought at the time, leaving the body in the alleyway for the crows to find and returning victorious to his ship and the cheers of his crew.

His eyes flicked up briefly to meet the accusatory stares of his widow and son in the crowd, the woman's face heavily lined with grief. The lad wasn't much older than Henry.

He dropped his gaze again. He had no right to look at them.

"Having been found guilty of your crimes, you have been sentenced to be, on this day, hung by the neck until dead."

The crowd gave a loud cheer, several taking the opportunity to spit in his direction. He shifted his feet, the chains rattling at the movement, unable to look his detractors in the eye.

Prince David rested his hands on the parapet surrounding the balcony, glaring down at him.

"You have been a scourge on our world for far too long, pirate," he accused, the crowd quieting down as he spoke. "You have betrayed our trust and proven that you will never be anything more than a villain. Therefore, it is only fitting that you be punished as a villain."

"Hang him!" an angry voice shouted from the crowd, starting the cheering and hollering once more. Killian's eyes darted back up to the princess, but Emma was staring off into the distance, giving no indication that she'd heard any of what had been said. He swallowed, knowing he was beneath her notice. It was no more than he deserved.

Prince David raised his hand high before dropping it in a sharp motion. The trap door dropped out from under Killian, sending him plummeting straight down.

The rope wasn't long enough to snap his neck, and he choked, twitching like a fish caught on a line. He gasped, struggling to breathe, his wrists still chained behind his back, useless, unable to grab the noose with his hand, to loosen it even a little.

The crowd roared their approval as he thrashed about, his lungs burning, aching for even a tiny breath. No one would help him, he knew, but the pain seemed to last forever, his body dancing at the end of the rope in a futile endeavour. Tears filled his eyes, the last of his air escaping his lungs. It had to end soon. It had to.

His eyes shot back to the dais, wishing for one last glance from her, but she never looked his way, not even as his vision blurred and darkened around the edges, his face blotchy and red from the lack of air.

The others looked down on him with scorn as his legs kicked uselessly through the air, the heavy chains rattling with each movement. He couldn't breathe, he couldn't—

The first rays of light were just beginning to stream through the bars of his cell. Killian shifted in his spot on the floor, his back cramping in protest as the jagged wall dug into his shoulder.

The guard would be coming soon.

* * *

Emma sighed. If she'd found the entrance to the Underworld underwhelming — giant, three-headed dog excluded — it was nothing compared to the rest of it. All they'd seen since leaving Cerberus behind was dark stone cave after dark stone cave, the same boring gravel crunching beneath their feet as they walked.

She grabbed the pebble from her pocket as they turned another corner to find yet another remarkably bare tunnel, scratching a quick 'X' on the nearest wall. It was hard to tell one path from another, with almost no distinguishing features to be found.

They'd discovered early on that their electronics were no use down here. The hands of David's wristwatch had been spinning in opposite directions since they'd arrived in the Underworld, and none of their cell phones would so much as turn on, making it harder to keep track of how long they'd been travelling, or even what direction they were heading in.

Not that she had expected Google to have a map of the Underworld or anything, but a working compass would've been nice.

The Underworld was decidedly empty, as well. They hadn't passed a single living creature in all the time they'd been walking — or any dead creatures, either, she guessed. It was starting to feel like they were the only ones in the entire place, which only served to make Emma more anxious. Had Davy Jones lied? Was it even the Underworld he'd brought them to, or had it all been some kind of trick?

The others had been unusually quiet throughout the journey, though if the muffled sigh Henry had let out when they'd turned the corner was any indication, they were just as sick of the view as she was.

She tucked the stone back into her pocket, her fingers running over Killian's ring as doubts began to surface within her again. What if he wasn't even here? What if the stories were wrong, or he'd been taken somewhere else entirely? She'd dragged her whole family down here with her, putting them all in direct opposition to the god of the Underworld, but they still had no guarantees that her plan would actually work.

She inspected the dank walls beside them, water trickling down the stone from an unknown source. Had Killian walked this same path, feeling as helpless as she felt? Did he even know they were coming for him?

Her fist clenched around the ring, the dark red jewel digging into her palm.

What would she say when she saw him?

They froze as a noise echoed down the path ahead of them, Emma exchanging an uneasy glance with the others.

Someone was coming.

Regina narrowed her eyes, raising a hand. Emma grabbed her wrist before she could summon whatever magic she had planned.

"Wait!" she hissed.

Regina glared. "What? I can take care of one minion."

"Assuming that's all it is," Emma whispered frantically. "You said it yourself — we want to stay off Hades' radar. Our best hope for getting out of here is to find Killian before anyone knows we were here."

She'd let her cockiness get them into trouble once already on this quest, the fear that had gripped her when Calypso had turned her attention on Henry still tying her stomach in knots. Emma had no idea what Hades was like when he was angry, but she wasn't about to repeat the mistake if they could help it.

Regina looked mildly irritated, but she nodded reluctantly, lowering her hand. The footsteps were growing louder, and they looked around for a place to hide.

Belle pointed back to the last cavern they had passed. "Over there."

They backed into the entranceway as quietly as they could, Emma bringing up the rear. The cavern opened up onto another cliff face, a small path extending along either side that was just barely wide enough for one person. Orange light flickered below them and Emma peered over the side, her eyes widening at the river of fire at the bottom of the cliff, the flames casting shadows on the stone.

Great. Now they find the fire and brimstone.

The others eyed the river with equal concern, but there was no time to rethink the plan, the approaching footsteps growing louder in the adjacent tunnel.

They spread out on either side of the entrance, bracing themselves against the wall. Regina, Belle, and Emma edged their way single-file along the right side of the opening, wary of the narrow cliff, the others positioning themselves along the other side. Satisfied that they were out of sight, Emma raised a finger to her lips.

She held her breath as the footsteps passed them, resisting the urge to peer around the corner. Whatever was out there, the odd shuffling of the steps made it clear that it wasn't human.

She stood immobile as it continued past without pausing, the sound eventually fading away.

She kept still for another long moment, to be safe, before letting her head fall back to rest against the stone wall, the others mirroring her relief.

A soft crumbling sound was their only warning, the ground giving out beneath Mary Margaret's feet. Her mom cried out as she dropped from view, David grabbing at the air where she'd been standing.

"Snow!"

"Grandma!"

Emma stared in horror at the space her mom had been standing, paralysed. No!

"David!"

Her heart skipped a beat at the voice, her dad leaning out over the edge as far as he dared. She imitated him, her heart pounding.

Mary Margaret was a quarter of the way down the cliff, her fingers tightly grasping a small handhold. Pebbles fell around her, terror on her face as she glanced down at the fiery lake below her feet.

"Hang on!"

David dropped to his stomach, stretching his arms over the side to reach for her, his fingers splayed wide, but he was too far away. He winced, easing himself further over the edge, some of the cliff breaking loose under him and sending a small shower of tiny rocks and dirt down on Mary Margaret. She ducked her head as they fell, her fingers visibly straining with the effort of holding on.

"David, don't! You'll fall, too!"

Belle and Henry dropped carefully to their knees beside him, Henry yanking off his backpack.

"I could try," he said. "I'm the lightest — you guys could hold my legs and lower me down."

The strap holding Mary Margaret's quiver on her back was tipping at an odd angle, several of the arrows sliding partway out. The shift in weight threw her balance off, her grip sliding.

"Mom!"

Emma raised her hands on pure instinct, her magic flaring beneath her skin. She froze, panic rendering her immobile.

"Move!" said Regina, pushing her aside as she made her way closer. She raised her hands, a look of deep concentration on her face as she waved at the pathway between them. The gravel that surrounded them rose up, swirling in the air. She grimaced, shutting her eyes with a frown as the gravel molded itself together to form a small platform. With another wave of her hand, the stone platform flew over the edge, stopping mid-air just beneath Mary Margaret's feet.

"Let go," Regina grunted, her forehead creasing from the strain.

Cautiously, Mary Margaret let go of the cliff face, landing with a soft thud on the platform. Emma watched anxiously as the platform began to rise again, coming to rest safely on the path next to David.

Emma let out a breath she didn't know she'd been holding as David pulled Mary Margaret into a hug, Henry wrapping his arms around the both of them.

"What the hell was that?"

Her attention broke as she turned to face Regina, the other woman staring at her like she'd grown a second head. She stuttered, at a loss.

Regina wrapped a hand around her elbow, pulling her back into the adjacent tunnel, out of earshot of the others.

"What just happened?" she demanded. "You've faced way worse than a slip-and-fall without losing your head like that. I've seen you magic up an entire tower for yourself out of a broken bridge on pure instinct alone."

Emma's mind went blank, her eyes wide as she struggled for an explanation.

Regina frowned, her gaze darting over Emma's face. A moment later, her eyes widened.

"Oh, you've got to be kidding me," she huffed, shaking her head as though she was completely useless. "Emma, have you used your magic at all since the curse broke?"

The blood drained from her face, the accusation catching her off-guard. She shoved down the wave of anxiety that swelled within her, her walls slamming up.

"How could I?" she retorted with a glance back at the cavern, thankful the others had yet to notice their absence. "You saw what I did with it."

Regina of all people should know how dangerous power was in the wrong hands, what it could make them into. She'd embraced her powers as the Dark One, revelled in the promise of what they could give her. It was the promise of more power that had fueled her search for Excalibur in the first place.

"You can't blame your magic for that!" Regina exclaimed, her hands on her hips. "Magic isn't good or bad, it's just a part of you. I know better than most how it can go to a person's head, but you've never been one to seek out power just for power's sake. What happened was just the result of the Darkness playing on your fears."

"How can you say that?" she hissed. "My stupid quest for power is the reason Killian died! If I hadn't been so hell-bent on getting Merlin's magic, I never would've attracted the fury's attention, and he never would have paid the price for my mistakes."

Some of Regina's anger melted away as she spoke, replaced by begrudging understanding.

"Emma, you had magic before you were the Dark One," she said. "It's who you are. Yes, you can do bad things with it, just like anyone else, but denying that part of yourself isn't going to make things any better. Especially when we need it!" she said, flicking her hair out of her face.

"Going up against Hades will be hard enough — do you really want to face down a god and death itself without every advantage you have at your disposal?"

"If that 'advantage' is going to put everyone at risk, then yes!" Emma retorted.

"Not using your magic almost got you eaten by a kraken, in case you've forgotten," Regina said, raising an eyebrow. "Not to mention almost getting Henry and your mother killed. Magic comes with its risks, but we're in dangerous territory down here. Wasting your energy on being too afraid of yourself to help anyone isn't doing any of us any favours."

Her words gave Emma pause. She wanted to believe them, but Regina had only seen her deeds as the Dark One from the outside, seen the mask Emma had presented to the world. She hadn't heard her thoughts, known the twisted things the Darkness had wanted her to do. She didn't know how desperately Emma had clung to the power, to the knowledge that she could bend the very laws of nature to get what she wanted. No more pain, no more misery, no more heartache.

Even now, some small part of her whispered that she could do it again — do it right, this time, without any mistakes. This time, she could have it all.

"You guys ready to get going?"

Her parents stood at the entrance of the cavern, Henry and Belle by their side. She glanced back at Regina nervously, but to her relief, the other woman had wiped the irritation from her face.

"Yes, let's get moving. The less time we spend down here, the better," said Regina.

They headed out, Emma falling to the rear of the group, Regina's words echoing in her head.

It wasn't the same. Regina may have been the Evil Queen, but whatever Emma might've thought of her skills before she took up the dagger, her power paled in comparison to the Dark One. She didn't have centuries of magical knowledge at her fingertips, the collective memory of nearly every spell in existence just waiting for her to make use of it.

' There is a prophecy of a Dark One who will come to power… They will either break the curse forever, or they will become the most powerful Dark One of all time, responsible for the destruction of countless lives.'

She shivered, Merlin's warning echoing in her mind. If she'd had any doubts about which Dark One she was, her actions had certainly showed her. If it hadn't been for True Love's Kiss...

She shook her head. She knew where Regina was coming from, but it was still too big of a risk. The power came too easily to her, even now — all it would take was one little slip, one well-meaning spell or some small mishap she was certain she could fix. Even if she started with good intentions, there was nothing to stop her from falling back into old habits, letting her magic twist and bend reality to her liking, all in the name of making things better.

She couldn't take that chance. Not again.

And if you need your magic to save Hook? a voice whispered with a giggle, an echo of the demon that haunted her sleep. Will you be so righteous when it's your mistake that needs fixing?

Her magic hummed invitingly as she stared out into the distance, hating that she didn't have an answer.

Chapter Text

They'd continued their journey in relative silence. For a while, Henry had pestered David and Mary Margaret for stories of their adventures in the Enchanted Forest — the ones that hadn't made it into the storybook — but the excitement of those tales had waned once it became obvious that most involved besting or being screwed over by Regina in some way. Eventually, they'd all gone quiet, conserving their energy for what was starting to feel like an endless hike through the Underworld.

Emma ran her fingers through her hair, which was starting to feel in desperate need of a wash, as Mary Margaret stifled a yawn in front of her. They'd managed to stop and sleep a few times, taking shifts when they came across a well-enough protected cavern, two people keeping watch, but none of them had felt comfortable resting for long. The resulting fatigue had left them all a bit grouchy, Emma's temper flaring a little more each time they rounded another corner with no end in sight.

Belle had recommended that they alternate following the path on the left and the right at every junction they encountered. It was as good an idea as any, and it cut down on the long pauses they'd been having every time they encountered an intersection, with all of them debating whether there was anything to distinguish one path as superior over the other.

They turned another corner, finding more of the same — dark stone walls and dusty gray gravel as far as the eye could see. Emma sighed, wondering why the Underworld even bothered employing a guard dog to keep people out when most intruders probably died of boredom anyway. Her eyes caught on a mark on the wall, a soft gray 'X' clearly visible in the sickly green light.

She drew up short, her heart sinking as the others turned back to look at her.

"We're going in circles," she informed them numbly, hardly recognizing her own voice. Henry's face fell as he followed her gaze to the mark, Regina scowling in frustration.

Emma balled her hands into fists. After all of this time, they were still no closer to Killian than when they'd first arrived. Hell, they didn't even know for sure that he was down there. For all she knew, the stories in Belle's books had been just that — stories.

She felt her anger boiling over, all of the pain and exhaustion of the last few weeks hitting her at once.

"We're never going to find him like this! We could wander for weeks and get nowhere."

The thought made her nauseous. Every second they were down there was another second they risked attracting Hades' attention. There were also their supplies to consider, their store of food and drinkable water already running low. What if they ran out before they even found Killian? It wasn't as though they could refill their water bottles at the River of Lost Souls.

Regina pursed her lips. "You're right. We need a new strategy."

"Maybe we could try a locator spell?" Mary Margaret suggested, adjusting the strap of her quiver.

"We'd need supplies for that," Regina replied sourly. She spread her arms wide, her hands empty. "I didn't exactly bring my vault with me."

"I brought a few things from the pawn shop," said Belle, taking off her knapsack. She lowered the pack to the ground and began rifling through it. "I might not have everything we need, but maybe we can improvise?"

Regina appeared somewhat appeased, peering down at the ingredients as Belle unpacked them. "Perhaps. That's assuming the spell would even work down here. And we'd still need something of Hook's to direct it."

Emma's hand went to the chain around her neck, her eyes meeting Regina's. The other woman's expression softened minutely.

"That should work," she said briskly. She turned her attention to Emma's parents. "We'll see what we can do, though I can't make any promises. In the meantime, we might as well take a quick break. Who knows when we'll get another chance to stop."

"This area looks safe enough to rest in," Mary Margaret said, her bow in her hand as she glanced around the cavern. "We'll be able to hear anyone coming in either direction, and there are plenty of rocks to hide behind."

The others looked grateful for the excuse to rest, Henry immediately dropping to his knees as he unloaded his backpack of the snacks he'd brought with him, Mary Margaret adding a few provisions from her supplies.

Emma watched them for a moment before venturing further down the tunnel, staring off into the dark. She knew she should take the opportunity to eat with the others, but she didn't feel hungry, her stomach a tangle of knots. She ran her fingers over Killian's ring, feeling the grooves in the metal.

It was a heavy ring, surprisingly modest for a pirate, the red jewel in the center its only real decoration. It looked too big for any of her fingers, but she had never brought herself to test the size of it — the thought of actually putting it on without Killian's permission felt like a violation.

Killian had always worn lots of jewellery. Even back when she'd first met him, when he'd disguised himself as a poor blacksmith, he hadn't been able to resist keeping a few of his rings on display. He'd taken to wearing less of it since he'd traded in his pirate clothes for modern ones, but this ring had stayed with him, the plunging necklines of his shirts occasionally granting her a quick glimpse. Not for the first time, she wondered where he had gotten it. Had it meant something different to him than the other rings he wore? What was it that set it apart?

Guilt churned in her gut. She'd had plenty of opportunities to ask him, but she never had, always too occupied by other things. She twisted the ring between her thumb and forefinger, watching the green light play off the jewel.

"...Emma?"

She glanced over her shoulder at David, the hesitation clear on his face. Mary Margaret stood a few paces behind him.

"Is everything all right?"

Emma swallowed, feeling the distance between them like never before. The ring seared her fingers, her thoughts swirling too fast to hear.

"What if he hates me?"

She hadn't meant to say it, her voice barely a whisper in the cavern, but from the way their expressions immediately shifted into ones of concern, she knew they had heard. Her dad made to reach for her before apparently thinking better of it, his hand falling back to his side.

"What?"

She looked down at the chain around her neck, remembering the way it had lain across Killian's unmoving chest, his face so still and pale. She swallowed again, turning to face them.

"I'm the reason he's down here," she admitted, the words thick in her throat. She'd tried her best to avoid it, to keep herself from dwelling too long on the truth ever since the fury had attacked, but now that they were so close, it was all she could think about. Up until now, there had been missions to focus on, tasks to accomplish. She had been able to push all of her energy into the idea of saving Killian, never having to focus on what would happen after they found him.

She closed her fist around the ring, the ridges digging into her skin.

"What if he blames me for what happened?"

She couldn't stand the thought of Killian rejecting her. Of seeing the same fear and revulsion in his eyes that she'd seen from everyone else.

Of course he blames you, a voice hissed inside of her. Killian had done all he could to reach her through the haze of darkness that she'd surrounded herself with, but she'd dismissed his efforts, certain that she knew best. And in the end, he'd been the one to be punished for her mistakes. She couldn't blame him for hating her, even if the thought of losing him made her feel as though she were being thrown off of a very tall cliff.

"Emma—"

She cut David off, her voice shaking. "Killian tried to warn me what the Darkness would do, but I didn't listen," she said. "I ignored him, and because of me, he's down here suffering and it's all my fault—"

Her mother shook her head, moving to hold David's hand. "Emma, Hook loves you. You didn't see him after Camelot — all he wanted to do was find a way to help you. He could never hate you."

Emma stared back at them both, a question circling in her mind — one that had haunted her ever since the curse broke.

"Do you hate me?" she asked quietly.

Her dad blanched, falling back a step as though he'd been hit, her mother's eyes bright with tears.

"What?" she gasped. "Emma, no, of course we don't!"

David faltered, his expression pained. "You're our daughter — we love you no matter what. Nothing will ever change that."

She inhaled shakily, a tear sliding down her cheek. She dashed it away with the back of her hand. She'd been around long enough to know there was a difference between loving someone because you wanted to and loving them because you thought you had to.

"I get it," she said, dropping her gaze. "I was so angry with you both for siding with Merlin, for worrying about what I could become, but you guys were right not to trust me. I let you down — I wasn't strong enough to fight the curse."

"Emma, that's not true," Mary Margaret protested. "We put too much pressure on you. We shouldn't have expected you to fight the Darkness on your own. And we should have talked to you about it rather than letting Merlin's prophecy feed our fears."

"She's right," David said. "We were so busy being afraid of what could happen to you, we didn't realize how much you were already struggling. Instead of supporting you, we let the very thing we were afraid of happen."

"I chose the power," Emma insisted. "I was so worried you guys would reject me when you realized I wasn't strong enough. I thought the Darkness would get me what I wanted — that I could stop myself from being abandoned again, but in the end, I just drove everyone away."

"Emma, you could never drive us away," said David.

She scoffed, wrapping her arms around herself. If the past few weeks were any indication, that couldn't be further from the truth.

He cringed, apparently picking up on the direction her thoughts had taken. "I know things haven't been great between us lately," he said, gesturing between the three of them. "None of us have really known how to move forward from what happened, and I know we all said and did things that we regret. But you're still our daughter. And I promise you, nothing you ever do will make us stop loving you."

"He's right," Mary Margaret said, moving closer to her. "We're your parents, and we'll always be on your side. I'm sorry we haven't done a good job of showing you that. You should never have had to doubt that we believed in you."

Emma's face crumpled, her tears spilling over.

"I'm sorry," she said, her voice cracking. Her parents rushed forward, wrapping their arms around her. She hugged them back just as fiercely, a wave of relief flooding her. She'd tried so hard to stop herself from caring, to convince herself that the distance between them didn't matter, that she'd forgotten how badly she needed this — needed them. She may have spent most of her life as an orphan, with no one to rely on but herself, but she knew she couldn't go back to the way things were before, no matter what lies she told herself.

She sniffled, resting her head between theirs.

"I missed you guys."

Her dad's hand cupped the back of her head, his lips pressing briefly against her temple. "We missed you, too."

They stayed like that for another long moment, the ground feeling steady beneath Emma's feet for the first time in weeks. Eventually, they pulled apart, her mother's hand sliding down to grip hers.

Emma chuckled self-consciously, wiping her tears with the back of her hand, somewhat mollified to see her parents doing the same.

A small cough drew their attention. Belle stood at a distance from them, an embarrassed but pleased expression on her face.

"Sorry to interrupt, but Regina and I think we've got a spell that will help us find Killian. If you're ready to get going again, that is."

Her heart leapt, the rush of anxiety from before returning with a vengeance. Mary Margaret squeezed her hand, giving her an encouraging nod.

Emma took a breath, steeling herself. "Yeah," she said, squeezing back. "Let's do this."

* * *

The cart rattled as it was dragged along the cobbled road, making maintaining his footing all the more difficult. Killian did his best to keep his emotions off of his face, letting the jeers of the mob wash over him.

Against his better judgement, he scanned the faces of those around him, his breath catching with each familiar one. Most of those he saw were angry, their cheeks red from hurling insults and threats in his direction. A few, however, stood silently, watching him pass with grim satisfaction in their eyes. His gaze lingered on Tinker Bell the longest, the short woman barely visible behind the heads of those in front of her. She stared back at him, unblinking, her mouth tight with a look he knew all too well. He'd seen that expression on her face every time she'd found him drunk out of his skull and wallowing in self-pity in the jungles of Neverland.

It was the look of a woman battling between disappointment and disgust, thoroughly unimpressed by the person who stood before her. Each time he'd seen it, he'd felt a little more worthless in her eyes, as though he'd let her down in some way. Tink had always acted as though she'd expected more from him – an expectation he'd consistently failed to live up to, no doubt.

One of the cart's wheels hit a stone, jostling him. He braced against the side of the cage to steady himself. A wooden baton slammed his shoulder where it poked through the bars, and he jerked back, stifling a hiss of pain.

The guard walking alongside the cart glared, holding his baton ready for another strike.

"Don't try anything, pirate."

The cart lurched to a halt a moment later, the door wrenching open for the guards to haul him out, his boots tripping over the chain between them.

The guards manhandled him up the steps, ignoring the way he stumbled to keep pace with them. The guard on his left gave him a shove as they reached the top of the gallows, several members of the crowd hollering as he came to an ungraceful stop over the trap door.

He cast his eyes upward, anxious for a distraction from the masses. His gaze drifted over the royal family, his breath catching as he reached the farthest figure.

He peered up at the princess, his heart giving a painful lurch at the sight of her. She was indescribably beautiful, her hair shining in the early morning sunlight, her sky-blue dress complementing her soft green eyes. Her chin rested on her fist as she stared off into the distance, her expression radiating boredom. She sighed, looking as though she would rather be anywhere else.

Of course she would, he thought. She had better things to concern herself with than the fate of a worthless pirate.

The noose was shoved unexpectedly over his head, the rope scratching his face. He stiffened, trying not to wince as it tightened around his neck.

To his left, he saw Robin moving into place, a royal scroll held in his hands. A hush fell over those gathered, the people waiting in eager silence.

"Captain Hook, also known as Killian Jones, you have been tried and convicted of imprisoning the Apprentice in the Sorcerer's Hat for your own selfish and cowardly ends."

Killian swallowed, closing his eyes as the charges were read off, guilt churning in his gut.

"You furthered this betrayal by failing to free him for many months, only doing so when you required his assistance."

Robin paused in his reading, allowing the citizens to fill the silence with taunts and slurs. After a moment, he resumed.

"Having been found guilty of your crimes, you have been sentenced to be, on this day, hung by the neck until dead."

There was a rattling noise as the gathered horde signaled their agreement, several of the Lost Boys banging sticks against the cobbled streets in their excitement.

Snow White stood tall on the balcony, her sharp brown eyes firmly fixed on him. Her crown glinted in the sunlight, each flare of the light making him grimace. Her husband sat behind her, the young princeling nestled in his arms.

She raised a hand, the small movement instantly silencing the crowd.

"This man has proven time and again that he is nothing but a villain," she announced to her people, her eyes never leaving his. "He has tried to hide it – tried to deceive us all into believing he could change his nature – but his heart is rotten beyond all redemption."

Henry's mouth curled in revulsion as his grandmother spoke, the lad leaning forward in his seat in clear anticipation of what was to follow.

The heat of the sun bore down on him, the air heavy as he listened to Princess Snow detail his many faults for the masses. He caught sight of Liam standing behind a group of rowdy sailors, his dark blue uniform looking just as it had on the day he died. Killian's spirits lifted, but the feeling was short-lived, his lungs constricting painfully as his brother turned away, ashamed. He swallowed roughly, watching him disappear into the throng.

"In our kindness, we allowed him to fight alongside us," Snow White continued, her words sharp and biting. "But we have always known that he could never belong. He will always show his true colours in the end."

He studied the trap door beneath his feet, muscles tensed. He wished that he could say that waiting was the hardest part, but the words were worse, somehow.

"Captain Hook will never be a hero. And villains don't deserve second chances."

The densely-packed masses were growing restless, deference to their ruler slowly losing out to their eagerness for the spectacle to begin. He took a breath, closing his eyes in anticipation.

"Killian!"

His head shot up – Swan! But the princess was still staring off into the distance, her face as impassive as ever, giving no sign she'd even heard the shout. Why would she care about the fate of a pirate, he scolded himself. It was just his mind playing tricks on him.

He had barely a moment to think on it, the Princess signaling to the executioner. The ground dropped out from under him, the spectators cheering as he plummeted to a quick stop.

He gagged as the rope pulled tight, the air in his lungs leaving him in one quick exhale. His neck burned as he fought instinctively, his arms trapped behind his back. He wheezed, desperate for even the smallest breath.

Something whistled past overhead and the rope jerked before catching again, wrenching his neck. He strained, spotting an arrow protruding from the post of the gallows. The arrowhead had sliced through two strands of the rope, but the third was still holding strong, and he gasped for air, his feet dangling below him.

He could hear yelling nearby, but his vision was blurry with tears as he struggled, his wrists pulling against the chains that restrained them. He sputtered, his face bloated from the lack of air. He twisted, instinctively fighting for footing but finding none as he rasped out the last of his breath.

"Hold on!"

His vision was darkening around the edges, his eyes sliding to the princess again, little more than a distorted figure in the distance. He wished, nonsensically, that she'd turn his way, just once – just once before he–

He dropped to the ground, his shoulder and side breaking his fall. He gasped, coughing as his lungs desperately drank in each breath past the burning in his chest and throat, blood rushing through his ears.

Bit by bit, his eyesight returned, the world slowly coming into focus. His brow creased at the indistinct outline of a person in front of him, vaguely aware of hands gripping his shoulders, helping him sit up.

The figure was talking but his muddled brain struggled to make sense of the words, his lungs aching fiercely.

"...ust breathe, that's it, Killi...t's okay..."

He blinked a few times, staring up in confusion and amazement at Emma, her face finally sharpening into focus. A cutlass lay abandoned at her side, her familiar eyes attentively tracking his every breath.

Her face broke into a brilliant smile as he stared up at her, his brain sluggishly straining to catch up. Her hands moved to the noose still hanging from his neck, her fingers gently loosening it enough to pull it over his head.

He raised his hand to his throat, dimly noting that the chains had vanished from his wrists and ankles as his fingers rubbed over the unblemished skin. The roar of the crowd had disappeared as well and he frowned, watching as the gallows above him seemed to flicker and fade, the harsh sun overhead slowly replaced by the dank stone of a cave.

The Underworld. He was in the Underworld.

It was as though he'd been doused with a bucket of cold water, his memories snapping back into place as the last of the town vanished. His hook caught on the dark jeans he'd been wearing when he'd died, his prisoner's garb having faded away into nothingness.

"...kay, Killian. You're safe now."

"Swan–" he rasped, his eyes widening as he realized the Emma before him had not disappeared like the others. Henry and Belle stood behind her, watching him carefully as David and Snow White drew nearer, the latter still holding her bow. The lot of them were breathing hard as though they'd been running, Regina bringing up the rear.

He coughed again, fear quickly overtaking his confusion as he sat all the way up.

"Whoa, easy, Killian," Emma soothed, her hands still hovering over him as though afraid he'd hurt himself, which was ridiculous in the circumstances. He ignored her caution, pushing himself to his feet, his thoughts racing faster than he could catch them. Gods, Henry looked no older than the day the fury had attacked, his young face tracking Killian's movements with concern. How long had it been?

"No, you can't... Why are you– How did you–" he rambled, his heart clenching fiercely as he took in the familiar faces. This was far worse than any punishment he could have conjured for himself.

They were supposed to be happy, his mind replaying Hades' words to him over and over. Had it all been a lie? A neat farce to get Killian to submit to his punishment like a good little boy? Numbly, he realized that Hades had never actually promised long lives for any of them, but it had certainly been implied...

He became aware that he was shaking as he spoke, Henry and David exchanging twin looks of confusion. Snow White's expression fell, something akin to pity in her eyes.

"No, no, Killian, it's okay," said Emma, apparently deciphering the nonsense coming out of his mouth. "We're not dead, I promise."

Relief flooded him, but he had barely a moment to consider the implications as Henry darted past his mother, his arms wrapping around his middle in a tight hug that Killian dazedly returned. He fisted the back of Henry's shirt, his heart sinking. If they were really here, then...

He met Emma's gaze over Henry's shoulder with a sense of growing dread.

"What are you doing here?" he asked, his voice hoarse.

Henry released him, a wide smile belying the redness of his eyes.

"We're here to rescue you."

The words sent a chill through him. He felt numb as Belle moved to hug him, her kind face a stark contrast to the misery of the Underworld.

"It's good to see you again," she said, looking worlds more at ease than the last time he'd seen her.

Killian stiffened, pushing her back as a different sort of fear began to take hold.

"You can't be here," he told them, glancing desperately around the cavern for a means for their escape. How long had they been in the Underworld already? Long enough to attract Hades' attention, surely. It was a wonder the god wasn't here already. "You have to leave. Now."

"Well, that's gratitude for you," Regina groused, crossing her arms. "We went through a lot of trouble to get here, pirate. You want us to just turn around and go home?"

"We're not leaving without you, Killian," said Emma, her forehead settling into a frown. "We came here to get you."

"You have to," he urged. "Please, I can't leave the Underworld."

"It's okay, " Henry assured him, clearly mistaking his protests for mere pessimism. "We have a plan – Mom put a preservation spell on your body, and we've already got a ride home. We can do this."

He shook his head impatiently. "You don't understand," he pleaded, trying in vain to usher them in the direction of the door. "Hades explained it – there's a price for the magic. That's why the fury attacked. If I don't stay down here, someone else will have to pay it."

His words were met with ringing silence, the cave adding an unfortunate echo to the declaration.

Emma's eyes widened in dawning realization.

"You already agreed to stay, didn't you? You agreed to pay the price," she said quietly.

He didn't respond, but it appeared his silence was answer enough.

Her eyebrows snapped together. "No," she said decisively. "It's my price, Killian. If anyone's going to pay it, it's me."

"Actually, it's all of you, now."

Killian froze, the familiar voice chilling him to the bone. He turned with the others, already knowing what he'd find.

Hades was leaning against the wall of the cave, his arms crossed as he watched their discussion with mild interest.

Bloody hell.

The others examined the god with a mixture of confusion and uncertainty, Emma grabbing her cutlass off the ground as her parents and Henry drew their respective weapons.

"Who are you?" David demanded, levelling his broadsword.

Hades pushed off the wall, uncrossing his arms. He regarded their weapons with vague amusement, gliding closer to their group.

"Name's Hades, Lord of the Dead, you may have heard of me," he said conversationally, waving his hand disinterestedly as he spoke. The others tensed, Killian closing his eyes briefly in a desperate plea to anyone who might be listening.

"And you are trespassers," the god continued, tsking them with a long, thin finger. "What is it with you Storybrooke folks? I've got a whole Underworld to run, here. As fun as it to watch you wander around being 'hero-y', I can't spend my whole day chasing after you guys."

Emma stepped forward before Killian could stop her, her cutlass pointed at Hades. "We're here for Killian."

Hades rolled his eyes, waving his hand again. The cutlass vanished in a cloud of slippery black smoke.

"Yeah, I gathered that from the whole 'rescue mission' thing you guys have going on here," he replied dryly. "Maybe you missed the sign on the door, but we're not big on letting people waltz in and out of here whenever they feel like it."

"And unfortunately for all of you, that goes for the living as well as the dead. Now that you're in the Underworld, your lives are forfeit."

The words were a dagger through Killian's heart, their effect on the others immediate. Regina pulled Henry safely behind her, her hands rising protectively as David stepped in front of his wife.

"Please," Killian begged, moving to place himself between Hades and the others. "They made a mistake, but they didn't mean any harm. Just let them leave."

"No can do, Captain," said Hades. "They broke the rules: no living allowed down here. It ruins the aesthetic. I let them go, next thing you know I've got a whole horde of tourists dropping by thinking they can come down here and grab whoever they want."

"Please, I'll pay any price you want," he swore, desperate to make the god see reason.

"No," said Emma, moving in front of him. "He shouldn't have to pay any price – it was my mistake that got Killian sent here in the first place, and I was the one who brought the others along. If anyone's going to be punished, it's me. Let everyone else go."

"Look, this isn't just me being all Mr. Dictator over here," said Hades, with a touch of impatience. "As fun as it is watching you guys try to out-noble each other, I've got rules of my own to follow."

"Is everything all right, beloved?"

The new voice startled them all, Killian's eyes drawn to the far end of the cave.

A woman emerged from the shadows, though she was unlike any woman Killian had ever seen. Her beauty was ethereal, her auburn hair pulled back from her face and falling gently across her shoulders. Her dress was pale blue, a shock of light in the Underworld, but it seemed to be made of the air itself, the way it floated around her form. She had a regal posture, her movements graceful as she made her way toward them, her gaze fixed on Killian.

Hades stood taller as she approached, his chest puffing out slightly.

"Nothing to worry about, Pookie Bear," he said with a smile more genuine than any Killian had seen from him before. "Just dealing with a few intruders."

"She must be Persephone," Belle breathed, just loudly enough for the others to hear. "Hades' wife."

Wife? Killian studied the woman again. She was nearly as tall as her husband, her cheekbones sharp, her jawline coming to a neat point at her chin. He felt as if she had taken the full measure of their group in the brief time since she had appeared, though her attention had never once wavered from him.

Her clear blue eyes made him feel exposed, as though all of his thoughts were on display, her expression giving nothing away.

The entire inspection took the span of only a few seconds, although it had felt much longer. She then turned her penetrating gaze on Emma, who straightened, meeting it head-on, though he could sense her discomfort.

"As I was saying," Hades spoke, piercing Killian's thoughts, "I'm sorry you guys came all the way down here for nothing, but if you'd all kindly make your way toward the exit, we can get this show on the road."

Persephone tilted her head. Whatever it was she'd been searching for in Emma, she appeared to have found it, her attention shifting to her husband.

"These two have sacrificed much for one another," she said, her voice hard yet achingly beautiful, her tone unreadable.

Hades frowned. "Yeah, well, sure – that's love, for you, am I right? I mean, it's not like they're the first romantics to try and bend the rules."

"They have the spark of True Love," Persephone continued. "Are they to be punished for seeking to be reunited with their other halves?"

"Well, 'punished' is kind of a harsh word, Angel Face," Hades hedged, looking distinctly uncomfortable now. "You know the rules – the dead stay dead and the living can't leave. No exceptions."

Persephone raised a thin eyebrow. "And would you not do the same for me?"

"Of course I would, babe – what, are you kidding me?" Hades backpedaled. "But come on, they're hardly the first lovesick pair to come traipsing down here thinking they can defy the laws of life and death just to spare themselves a bit of heartbreak. I can't just let them walk out of here."

Killian felt a glimmer of hope, sensing the god's resolve was beginning to wane.

"Please," he said respectfully, directing his entreaty at Hades, "They didn't mean any harm, and they'll never bother you again. Let them go and I swear to you, I'll pay any price you wish."

Emma's hand wrapped around his arm, pulling him back from the pair. She released him almost immediately, flinching away as though she had been burned.

"I already told you, I'm not leaving you here. Not after we came all this way to find you." She turned her attention to the pair of gods. "I'll pay whatever price you want, please, just let Killian and the others go free."

"Swan, no–"

"Ugh," Hades interrupted, rolling his eyes at his wife. "Yeah. Okay. I get it. They're adorable."

Persephone moved closer to her husband, resting a hand on his forearm. "Why not offer them a chance to earn their freedom?"

"But Shnookums, you know the rules–"

"You've broken the rules before, when it suited you," she challenged, a touch of fond amusement behind her smile.

Hades looked mildly chastened, letting out a long sigh.

"Okay, okay," he said, closing his eyes in frustration, his long fingers massaging his temples. "New plan."

His eyes snapped open, his sharp gaze locking on Emma. "I'll give you guys two options. Option number one: the living among you turn around and go home. No guarantees you'll make it out safely, but if you get to the door? Good for you, no hard feelings, you're free and clear. But the captain stays here."

"Not a chance," Emma responded.

Hades shrugged as though he'd expected the answer. "Well, then there's door number two. It's sunset now in Storybrooke," he said. With a wave of his arm, the stone ceiling above them disappeared, replaced by a dusky sky.

"We've got this place called the Perilous Fields – a hold-over from the old days, but it comes in handy now and again. If you can make it from the entrance of the Perilous Fields to the top of the mountain on the other side before the sun breaches the horizon, you can all leave the Underworld and we'll consider the debt repaid. But," he cautioned, holding up a finger, "every single one of you has to be standing on that peak before the sun crosses the horizon. If even one of you isn't on it, you're all stuck here. Permanently."

Killian shook his head, opening his mouth to refuse.

"Deal," said Emma.

He whirled around, staring at her in shock, but she ignored him, her eyes fixed firmly on Hades.

"What?" he said, aghast. "No, Swan, you can't all possibly risk getting trapped down here. Not when you have a chance to escape."

She made to argue, but to his surprise, it was David who spoke first.

"She's right," the prince said, addressing Killian for the first time. Killian forced himself not to recoil under his familiar gaze, half expecting to see a large crown glinting atop the other man's head.

"We came down here to rescue you, Hook. We're not going to leave you behind." He smiled softly, the gesture so at odds with the harsh glares he'd grown used to receiving. "That's not what family does."

The words hit him like a punch to the gut. Killian gaped at him, at a loss.

Snow White smiled as well, leaning into her husband's side. "He's right. We're doing this together or not at all."

"It's Operation Lifejacket," Henry spoke up, shrugging as though it were obvious. The lad caught Emma's eye, his cheeks reddening in a way that made his mother smile.

"We all knew the risks," Belle agreed. "We're not going to turn back because of one little setback."

Regina crossed her arms, looking decidedly less comfortable at being looped in with the others. "You did save Henry's life," she said defensively. "I suppose that's worth a few more hours of adventure hiking."

He regarded them each in turn, a lump forming in his throat. He had never expected them to stay, never expected them to take such a risk for his sake. The sentiment caught him off-guard, stealing any response he might have made. He managed a tight nod instead.

The corners of Emma's lips turned up, her hand twitching as though to reach for him again, but it remained by her side. He felt its absence keenly, an empty feeling taking up residence in his gut.

She turned back to the gods, who had been watching the exchange with a mixture of impatience and amusement.

"We'll do it."

No smile graced Persephone's lips, but she looked pleased with the answer all the same.

"Your love for one another has earned you a chance to right past wrongs," she said, moving to stand beside her husband. "Don't waste it."

"Yeah, 'cause this is a one-time deal," said Hades, making a cutting motion with his hands. "I'm going out on a limb for you guys, so don't come crying to us if you screw this up."

Emma nodded her agreement to the terms. The others all seemed to stand taller, adopting the battle-ready determination he'd seen in them many times before.

"Hey, I'll even be fair and give you a head-start, whaddaya say?"

Before any of them could speak, Hades snapped his fingers, the cave vanishing in a cloud of smoke. Killian caught a last glimpse of the setting sun, the night sky disappearing behind a wall of inky black mist, and his stomach dropped, the flaw in their plan suddenly becoming clear.

None of them had thought to ask how large the Perilous Fields were.

Chapter Text

Emma felt a tug in her gut, her eyes closing as a wave of mild nausea washed over her. When she opened them again, the black smoke around them was slowly dissipating, allowing her to get her bearings.

The others looked every bit as disoriented as she felt, her dad's face a little paler than usual. She definitely preferred normal teleporting to whatever it was that Hades had done, her stomach roiling unpleasantly.

She felt a weight at her back and she glanced over her shoulder, somewhat surprised to find her cutlass strapped in place once more. At least Hades had had the decency to give her back her weapon.

"Everyone all right?" Mary Margaret asked, resting a hand on Henry's arm. Henry covered his mouth with his hand, looking in serious danger of losing his last meal, but after a long moment, he nodded, the others offering their own assurances. Only Killian seemed unaffected by their mode of transportation, watching them all with visible concern. Emma bit her lip, turning her attention to the space around them.

The weird magical sky Hades had summoned still shone overhead, the sight as familiar as it was strange. The light from the sun in Storybrooke was just fading below the horizon, but the area around them remained lit with the same creepy green glow as the rest of the Underworld.

They were at the edge of a vast field of indeterminable size, the jagged trail that cut through the centre beaten and worn. At the far end of the field stood the dark silhouette of a mountain, a small, glistening spot at its very top marking the peak Hades had told them about.

"Bloody hell," breathed Killian, his eyes darkening as he followed her gaze. She could practically see him reconsidering the deal with Hades, worry and guilt flashing across his face.

"I'm sure it's not as far as it looks," she said quietly, even as she doubted it herself. Hades wouldn't have set the task if there was no chance they could fulfill it, right?

Then again, what did she really know about Hades? The books she’d read hadn’t dedicated a lot of time to describing his personality.

"I'm guessing that's where we're headed?" David asked, sounding equal parts determined and resigned. The others looked equally as enthused, but she was grateful that none of them appeared to be second-guessing the decision to stay.

"It's a good thing I didn't wear my high heels," Belle joked weakly.

"We could magic ourselves over there," Regina suggested without much conviction.

Henry shook his head, echoing Emma's immediate thoughts. "It's a quest — using magic to get us there would be cheating."

"Henry's right," said Emma. "As tempting as it is, the last thing I want is Hades revoking the deal on a technicality and trapping us all here."

The reminder of what was at stake sent a shockwave through the group, the others straightening despite their exhaustion. She felt a ripple of guilt. This should have been her mission to complete, not theirs.

"We should get moving," she said, shoving her feelings aside.

The fields around them were pretty barren, the grass thin and browning in a lot of spots. Small stars slowly began to appear, peppering the open sky above them as they walked.

Emma took the lead, Killian falling into step beside her. The others trailed behind a few paces in a blatant attempt to give them some space. It felt like a wasted effort, though, Emma struggling for something to say. An awkward silence hovered over them.

She considered asking him about the scene they'd just witnessed, the bizarre fairytale town that had vanished as soon as she'd cut him free. Even now, she wasn't sure what to make of it, apart from Hades’ obvious involvement. But one look at Killian's face made her think better of it.

She furtively eyed the side of his neck. There were no bruises, no obvious signs of the trauma that should come with being hanged from honest-to-god gallows. She couldn't decide whether the lack of injury made it better or worse, her heart clenching again at the memory of him dangling from the noose as his face contorted in agony.

She had hoped – desperately – that it was all just an illusion of some kind, assuring herself that there was no way Killian could be hurt by anything that happened down here, but his choked-off gasps had sounded real enough to her. She'd felt paralysed as she watched her mom's lookalike give the signal for the trap door to open, helpless to do anything but watch as he fell and jerked to a painful halt, too far away for her to reach.

The real Mary Margaret hadn't hesitated, a scary amount of determination in her eyes as she'd drawn and released one of her arrows. The arrowhead had only grazed the rope, though, Emma's heart pounding as she raced across the square to get to him. The agonizing minutes it'd taken for them to fight their way close enough for her to slice through the rest of the rope had been some of the longest of her life. She was certain that the horrifying memories of Killian gasping and retching for air would haunt her for the rest of her days.

The back of her hand brushed his as they walked, as it had done a hundred times in the past, and she stiffened, his skin unnaturally cool and smooth against hers. Killian flinched minutely, pulling his hand closer to his side. Neither of them spoke, the distance between them – both figurative and literal – weighing all the heavier on Emma's heart.

Behind them, Henry and Belle had struck up an animated conversation comparing Hades and Persephone to their mythical interpretations. Emma's eyes drifted to the dirt and grass that lined either side of the path, a welcome change from all of the black rock and gravel they'd encountered before now. The silence only seemed to grow more oppressive, even as she racked her brain for a way to break it that wouldn’t somehow make things worse.

What could she say to him, really? She'd dreamed of and dreaded this moment ever since the curse had lifted, but the reality of it was even harder than she'd expected. She'd thought she'd known the pain of being parted from Killian, had grown used to living each day with that gaping hole inside of her. But now that she was actually beside him, she felt further apart from him than ever. She thought she'd have a million things to say when she saw him again, but every one of them felt inadequate now.

And it wasn’t as though he was rushing to talk to her, either.

Not that I can blame him, Emma thought bitterly. How could they ever rebuild things, after all they'd been through — all they were still going through? Where could they even begin?

She turned her attention to the mountain, noting with irritation that it seemed no closer than before. The horizon between here and there was distorted somehow, making it impossible to gage the true distance or what lay ahead of them. Emma cursed Hades internally. The confrontation with the god of the Underworld had gone better than the one with Calypso, but she couldn't quite bring herself to believe that Hades' deal was as straightforward as he'd made it sound.

She glanced up at the sky, the constellations from their world giving her some small measure of comfort. She wished again that her phone was working — it'd be nice to know how long they had until sunrise.

"We've about ten-and-a-half hours."

She blinked at Killian, his head tilted back as he stared at the sky overhead. She guessed she shouldn't have been surprised that he still found her so easy to read.

He blushed slightly when she didn't respond, a bashful smile pulling at his lips.

"I may have been in the Underworld for a while, but I can still read the stars as well as any sailor."

The smile faded as he met her eyes, his expression shuttering once more. A fresh wave of grief washed over Emma as he dropped his gaze. Was it that hard for him to look at her after what she'd done?

She thought back to their reunion in the make-believe town. He hadn't looked all that happy to see her then, either, for all that he seemed dead-set on getting them to leave. He'd made no attempts to touch her, his blue eyes never staying on her longer than they had to.

"How long was it, exactly?" said Killian, interrupting her thoughts.

She frowned.

Killian cleared his throat uncomfortably, still avoiding her gaze. "How long have I been down here? Marking the passage of time doesn't seem to be much of a priority in the Underworld."

Emma turned her attention to ground in front of them, kicking a small pebble out of her way.

"It took us a little under three weeks to come up with a plan and put it into action," she said, forcing the words past the lump in her throat. The lump grew as his only response was a slow nod, a faraway look in his eyes. She watched him covertly for some hint of what he was thinking, but his expression remained indecipherable.

Of course, her mind was happy to fill in the blanks for her, recalling every delay, every moment of hesitation and indecision that had lengthened their journey. Grimly, she wondered what all he had endured during that time, and how much of it they could have prevented. Her breath caught as she remembered the look on his face as he'd stood on the gallows. He'd been so resigned to his fate, no hint of a fight remaining in him.

It was the face of a man who had nothing left, not a hope in the world.

"We were at sea for a few days after that," she continued vaguely, not wanting to re-hash the details of her deal with Davy Jones. Stealing the heart back had seemed like the right plan at the time, but her recklessness had almost gotten all of them killed. It was bad enough knowing Killian disapproved of her actions as the Dark One. She didn't think she could handle his disappointment at the things she'd done without the dark curse as an excuse.

"And I'm not sure how long we've been in the Underworld, to be honest. So, maybe a little less than four weeks altogether?"

He nodded again, looking pensive. Guilt made her chest constrict painfully. Whatever he'd faced down here, it was clear it'd taken them too long.

She cast around for more to say, but her mind was frustratingly blank. The awkward silence returned, each of them unconsciously drifting to the furthest edges of the path as they walked.

The trail began to slope downward, revealing another long stretch of land that until now had been disguised by the distortion of the horizon. Thick dark trees began to line the path, their branches long and spindly. Various types of fruit hung from the majority of them, peeking out from beneath large, drooping leaves.

Mary Margaret sighed, looking up at the mountain again. "Is it just me, or are we not getting any closer?"

Emma followed her gaze. She was right. While the scenery around them had shifted, their destination looked as far away as ever. She wondered if they were actually making as little progress as it seemed, or whether Hades just wanted them to believe that.

"We'll get there," she said, hoping she sounded more confident than she felt.

Regina eyed their changing scenery with distrust.

"We should be cautious," she said. "Somehow, I'm guessing there's more to the ‘Perilous Fields’ than just a lot of walking."

"She's right," said David, hiking up the straps of his backpack. "Hades wouldn't have made the deal if there weren’t any challenges here to face."

They fell quiet again, everyone a bit more tense than before. The stars twinkled mockingly overhead, counting down however much time they had left. She licked her dry lips.

Killian made no further attempts at conversation, apparently deep in thought. His expression was still unreadable, the uncertainty of it only adding to Emma's worry. He'd accused her of being an open book in the past, but he'd always been something of one himself — at least, to her. Even before they'd gotten together, back when she couldn't quite bring herself to open up to him, she'd usually had some idea of what he was thinking.

Now, he seemed closed-off in a way she wasn't used to, his movements more guarded. Killian was usually the one tearing down her walls, reaching past the defenses she put up time and time again to reassure her — she wasn't used to being on the other side of the equation.

Well, that's the problem, isn't it? You didn't trust him, so why should you expect him to trust you?

She swallowed. Killian didn't seem angry at her exactly — she knew what an angry Killian looked like — but he was cutting himself off from her, keeping his thoughts to himself.

He's been through a lot, she reminded herself. You can't expect everything to just go back to normal. But a part of her wondered if that was all it was.

The Underworld was just the latest problem of her making that Killian had had to deal with. She'd spent a considerable portion of their relationship pushing him away, keeping him at a distance — the beanstalk, Neverland, the whole mess with Zelena, their trip to the past, and then Camelot. He'd always stuck by her regardless of how many barriers she threw up between them, even though it had come back to bite him more than once.

It'd taken her so long to let him in, to start believing that he would always be there for her. What if he'd finally decided it wasn't worth the effort?

A loud growl broke the silence, Henry covering his stomach in embarrassment.

"Sorry," he said as the others looked back. "I ran out of fruit cups and snack cakes a while ago."

David slid his backpack off, rooting around inside. "It looks like I'm all out of granola bars and bananas. My water's running pretty low, too."

Henry rubbed his stomach again, shaking his head. "It's okay. I guess we only have to make it until morning."

Regina eyed the grove of apple trees they were passing, waving her fingers regally. One of the apples vanished from its branch in a cloud of purple smoke, reappearing in her hand.

She rolled her eyes at Emma's exasperated look. "What? It's one apple. It's not like I magicked us an Uber."

She held the food out to Henry smugly.

"Wait!" Belle exclaimed before he could take it. "I'm not sure you should eat that. Some of the legends say that eating or drinking anything in the Underworld will trap a person there forever. That's supposedly how Persephone came to be here in the first place."

Mary Margaret winced. "Are you sure?"

Emma brushed her hair out of her face, sighing as her mood dropped further. "We probably shouldn't risk it, just to be safe."

The others looked resigned, but nodded their agreement.

"Well, I guess that means the sooner we get to the peak, the sooner we can have a big pancake breakfast at Granny's," said David with false cheer, nudging Henry in the ribs. Henry smiled half-heartedly, letting the apple fall onto the grass.

Emma's eyes slid to Killian, who had been standing quietly beside her, rubbing absently at his neck. "Sorry — you must be pretty hungry, too," she said softly. Who knew how long he'd been trapped in that strange town.

He dropped his hand, shaking his head as they began walking again. "I haven't felt hunger or thirst since I arrived here. I suppose food isn't much use to a dead man."

She looked away, hiding her discomfort. Of course he wouldn't need to eat down here, she berated herself, feeling silly. But something about the matter-of-fact way he referenced his death unnerved her. He sounded so casual, as if the fact that his soul had been violently ripped out as payment for her mistakes didn’t mean anything. As if his body wasn't laid out in a glass coffin in Regina's vault, frozen as though in sleep.

As if none of it should even matter.

She frowned, thinking again of the weird scene they’d witnessed. She hadn’t recognized every face in the crowd, but it didn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that they were all people Killian had wronged – or thought he’d wronged – in some way, every last one of them baying for his blood. She could only imagine how that must have affected him. Killian carried his past with him every minute of the day, dragging it behind him like a ball and chain, letting it weigh him down as though afraid he’d fall back on old habits if he let himself forget for even an instant.

They’d all been confused, pulling open that heavy stone door to find themselves standing in the middle of a large town, the dank green air of the Underworld replaced by the harsh light of the sun overhead. She hadn’t had long to consider the strangeness of it all, though, the angry crowd nearby immediately drawing her attention. It’d taken her a minute to understand what she was looking at, Regina and her parents stiffening at the large wooden structure in the centre of the mob.

Apparently, public executions were a familiar occurrence in the Enchanted Forest.

But it wasn’t the gallows themselves that had thrown her — it was the people running the execution. She'd been rooted to the spot as she’d caught sight of her family, decked out in fancy outfits that mirrored the clothes Arthur and Guinevere had loaned them. Their anger had been visceral as they watched the proceedings from overhead, all of them intently focused on the action below.

All, except for the woman seated at the far end. Emma's eyes had widened as she'd spotted herself on the balcony, feeling as though the world had spun upside-down.

She'd been dressed in a soft blue gown that would've put Cinderella to shame, her curls littered with little diamonds and an honest-to-god tiara on her head. Even in Camelot, she'd never been comfortable wearing such frilly clothes — a discomfort she was sure had shown in her movements, something slightly awkward that broadcasted to the world that she was just a regular person playing dress-up.

But there had been no mistaking the fact that the Emma on the balcony was a real princess — regal and composed. And also completely devoid of emotion.

Whereas everyone else was visibly struggling to contain their anger, all but chomping at the bit to see Killian in pain, she'd been completely indifferent, staring off into the distance as though she couldn't care less what happened to him. Even as the battle had raged on around her, Killian wrenching and twisting for the smallest gasp of air, she'd paid it no mind, her features cold and disinterested. As though he meant nothing, his suffering little more than a minor inconvenience to her.

Is that how he sees me? The thought sat like a heavy weight in her gut, the trees growing denser around them. Does he think I don't care what happens to him? Or was it just Hades' way of screwing with him?

"Is that my ring?"

Emma startled. She glanced at Killian, whose gaze was focused on a point near her sternum. She flushed as she realized she'd been absently playing with his necklace again.

She dropped her hand.

"Yeah," she said awkwardly, her cheeks burning. "Sorry, I just— here—" Reluctantly, she made to remove it, but he waved her off.

"No," he said, his tone inscrutable. "It's fine. I'm—"

A loud screech cut him off, Emma's heart skipping a beat. The fury!

But the dark gray figure swooping down out of the trees was too small to be a fury, its spindly bat-like wings flapping loudly as it dove at David.

"Look out!"

David ducked, rolling on the ground, his hand fumbling for his sword. Her mother swiped at the creature with the side of her bow. She missed, the creature darting away with another screech. Its arms and legs were thin but powerful, long sharp claws protruding from the ends of its four-fingered hands.

Emma drew her cutlass. She saw Killian raising his hook out of the corner of her eye, determined.

"Get down!" Regina pushed Henry behind her as another beast appeared. She threw a fireball at the second one, David grunting as he swung at a third, his blade slicing through the air. The creature hissed, baring sharp-looking teeth, its yellow eyes narrowing.

"What are these things?"

Belle grabbed a heavy branch off the ground, swinging it as one of the creatures dove at her. She missed, stumbling backward as its claws swiped the air just in front of her face.

"I think... they're gargoyles," she hissed, striking again. The branch connected with a heavy thud as the beast exploded into dust. The strength of the hit sent her spinning, and she struggled to catch her footing. One of Mary Margaret's arrows flew past her head, exploding another creature that'd been poised to attack.

"Lovely," said Killian, swiping at one of the gargoyles that was hovering just out of range of his hook. Emma spun, grazing the wing of one of the beasts.

Dust exploded over David as he struck another one. He winced, turning just in time to hold off another that had swooped in when his back was turned. "Anyone else getting a flying monkey vibe?"

"Let's hope their scratch isn't as dangerous," said Henry, holding his sword with both hands as he faced off with one of the smaller gargoyles.

Emma kicked one of the creatures in the chest. It howled angrily just as she used her cutlass to finish the job.

"Don't let any of them near you and we won't have to find out!"

Sweat beaded on her forehead as she fought, adrenaline coursing in her veins as more appeared from the trees.

"At least they're easy enough to kill," Mary Margaret said, loosing and reloading arrows faster than Emma could track. "But I'm going to run out of arrows soon."

"Less talking, more fighting," Regina chastised, sending twin fireballs at a pair of gargoyles hovering overhead. There were more of them coming now, the air thick with high-pitched shrieking and the sound of flapping wings. Emma grimaced, her head yanking back as claws pulled at her hair. She twisted her shoulder to knock the creature away. An arrow whizzed past her, the gargoyle showering her with dust.

"There's too many of them!" said Belle, backing up to stand next to Henry, the branch in her hand swinging wildly as she kept a trio of gargoyles at bay.

She was right — they were sitting ducks out here in the open. Emma whirled to face another one, cutting it across the ribs. She pushed her hair out of her eyes, her mind racing. She ducked as one flew past her head, its long gray wings beating loudly.

"The trees," she shouted. The forest around them had gotten thicker as they walked, the trees closer together. There would be less space there for the gargoyles to spread their wings, making it harder to swarm them.

Her dad nodded. "She's right, it's our best shot!"

A new wave of gargoyles appeared overhead, blocking out the sky and making it difficult to see. Emma ducked again. She lost sight of Henry and Regina, but she could hear Killian nearby, cursing loudly.

"Run!" she yelled, hoping the others could hear her over the din.

She heard a scream — Belle! She could just make out the two gargoyles pulling the smaller woman by the hair. A blade swung out of the chaos, freeing her.

"Go, go!" David said, pushing Belle toward the tree line.

Emma fought her way through the swarm, her heart racing. She couldn't see any of the others, but the trees were just ahead of her. She grimaced, half wishing she'd brought her gun with her instead of her cutlass, nostalgia be damned.

She finally broke free, her cutlass clenched tightly in her fist.

She made a break for the forest, a flurry of screeches chasing after her.

* * *

Killian ran, his boots pounding against the hard-packed dirt. He dodged a tree, his foot catching on one of the roots, and he stumbled, his speed propelling him forward.

A loud shriek behind him was his only warning, one of the cursed beasts swooping out of the darkness. He turned, swinging his arm in a wide arc, his hook missing its target by mere inches. The creature twisted away, screeching again. He backed up as quickly as he could, searching for steadier footing even as he tripped over the uneven ground.

He brandished his hook again, catching the beast in the neck. It burst into dust, but a second one was just behind it, its teeth bared.

His boot caught on another hazard behind him. He fell, wincing as he landed hard on his back. The creature dove, sensing easy prey. Killian cast his eyes around him in desperation, grabbing a study-looking stick off the ground.

He thrust the stick in front of him, stabbing the gargoyle through the chest with great satisfaction. It howled as it exploded, the sound echoing in the trees long after the beast itself had been extinguished.

Killian's hand tightened around the stick. He lay still another moment, straining to listen for the flapping of wings, but the only noise to be heard was that of his own heavy breathing, his heart still racing from the excitement.

He dug his elbows into the ground, pushing himself up with a grimace. For a dead man, he had certainly felt the impact of his fall. Death may have spared him the burdens of hunger and thirst, but he seemed to feel all other ails just as keenly as he had before.

He felt a tightness around his neck, his breath catching at the phantom pull of a rope. He gasped, the stick falling from his grip as his hand shot to his throat.

The feeling vanished as quickly as it had come, his fingers absently rubbing the unblemished skin. He took a deep breath, greedily filling his lungs, before letting his hand fall with a shake of his head.

It was an illusion, he berated himself, feeling foolish. You were never in any real danger. It had just been another trick of the Underworld, like the starry sky Hades had summoned overhead.

He turned his attention back to the forest, cursing as he realized the path they'd been following was no longer in sight. He scanned the shadows of the trees, searching for a glimpse of the others he'd thought were behind him, but he found himself quite alone. Perhaps they'd gone a different way? He could only hope they'd all managed to get away safely.

And a fat load of good you did them, he thought scornfully. His hook was useful enough in close combat, but he'd been fairly outgunned against the flying beasts, with not even a sword to contribute to the fight. And now they were separated, with Hades' deadline ticking away above them. He couldn't even see the sky anymore through the trees. How many precious minutes had they wasted fending off the gargoyles? How many remained?

At least he could see the space around him well enough, despite the heavy canopy of leaves overhead. The same putrid green air he’d come to despise lit the trunks of the trees and the dirt beneath his feet, casting an eerie glow.

He picked his way through the forest, wishing he had his compass with him, although he suspected it would have been of little use. He wondered bitterly whether Hades was enjoying watching them fumble their way through the Fields — one final hopeless quest in the daring adventures of Captain Hook. Only, this time, it wasn't Hook who had something to lose.

There was water babbling ahead of him, the sound giving him hope. He was having difficulty getting his bearings surrounded by trees on all sides, but a river or stream would at least give him a direction to follow. Perhaps he would find the others as well.

He pushed a branch out of his way, spotting an open clearing, the sound of trickling water growing louder. A stream cut through the empty space, its murky water flowing softly. He frowned, peering closer at the familiar white wisps floating just underneath the surface.

It was the same river he'd come across when he'd first arrived in the Underworld. Did that mean they were near the entrance? He glanced in either direction, hoping for some sign of where the water was flowing from, but there were only more trees to be seen, their twisted branches blocking his line of sight.

He turned back to the river, the wisps swimming in and out of focus. Just as before, the dark water appeared to get deeper the closer he got to it, one of the delicate white figures twisting toward the riverbank as though it were reaching for him, its hand outstretched...

He jerked back, shaking away the strange dizziness that had overtaken him, Hades' warning ringing in his ears. The god may not have been very forthcoming about the river's origins, but he figured he had a good reason for advising Killian to keep his distance.

Dangerous or not, though, it gave him a direction to follow. Now, if only he could find the others.

"I'm afraid they're long gone, mate."

He whirled around, his eyes widening.

He was staring at himself, dressed all in black, his leather greatcoat hanging down to his calves. His dress shirt was buttoned low on his chest, displaying the charms on his necklaces for all to see. His fingers glistened with the heavy jeweled rings Killian had locked in the safe on his ship so many months ago.

The other him smirked at his confusion, dark circles of kohl surrounding his even darker blue eyes. He knew that expression all too well.

Killian swallowed back the bile rising in his throat. Just another one of Hades' tricks.

"What do you want?" he asked warily, watching the other man closely.

The other man shrugged nonchalantly, taking in their surroundings. "A man can't take a little time to talk to himself?"

Killian scowled. "I don't have time for games."

"In a hurry to get back to the others?" the imposter drawled, picking his nails with the tip of his hook, false boredom dripping from his every movement. "Sorry to say, they didn't feel the same. They summoned Hades to accept his deal after the gargoyles attacked. Must have decided you weren't worth the risk."

He tilted his head, quirking an eyebrow with deep amusement. "Looks like you're stuck down here for good this time."

Killian pushed down a trickle of uncertainty at the notion. It was another illusion, just like the gallows and the raging mob that had surrounded it. Another deception sent to distract him from his task.

"They wouldn't do that."

The declaration did little to convince his doppelganger, who chuckled, a tinge of feigned pity mixing with the look of revulsion on his face.

"You had to know they wouldn't really risk being stuck here for all eternity just to save an old pirate who should've died centuries ago," he said, wrapping his hand around his belt with a confident cant of his hips. "Why should they put themselves in harm's way? They're heroes — their lives are worth ten of yours. Not exactly a hard choice to make, now, is it?"

"So, why are you here, then?" Killian spat, clenching his hand.

The imposter seemed to be enjoying his discomfort, a cruel smile pulling at the corner of his lips. The sight was rather unnerving, a bit like looking into a twisted mirror, or perhaps a time portal of some kind. This was the man who'd threatened those who opposed him without mercy, who'd taken the lives of enemies and strangers alike, all without a single ounce of remorse.

He walked a slow path in front of Killian, clearly relishing the moment as well as the dramatics. "Well, I seem to recall you being sentenced to several lifetimes' worth of punishment. A punishment you keep trying to cheat your way out of."

He swaggered as he walked, the movements as familiar as they were disconcerting to see from the other side. He bent and grabbed a long, sturdy stick off the ground, twirling it with a flourish as he straightened. "You didn't seem to enjoy the last punishment the Underworld gave you. What do you say we try something new?"

With a disinterested flick, he tossed the stick along the ground toward him. It rolled, coming to a stop just in front of Killian's feet.

The lookalike gave a well-practiced sneer, slowly unsheathing the sword at his side, the metal singing in the stillness that surrounded them. He lazily held the blade at the ready as he raised his eyebrow again, his intentions clear.

Killian tensed. "It's bad form to challenge a man without a sword to a duel," he said, knowing it wouldn't make a bit of difference to the other man. His memory flashed on a rusty cutlass, thrown carelessly to the deck in front of a quivering spinner.

The pretender's smirk deepened.

"What does good form matter to a villain?"

His jaw clenching, Killian stooped to pick up the branch, his eyes never leaving his opponent. The stick was rough in his grip, barely the width of his wrist, knobby and crooked. It wouldn't last long against a sharpened sword. He readied his stance all the same, preparing for a fight.

The other Hook watched him with an air of mockery, clearly unthreatened. The green light that surrounded them reflected off the edge of his blade.

"Am I meant to fear for my life?" Killian asked sardonically, his irritation spiking as he shifted to a wider stance. If this was truly to be his punishment, he meant to meet it head-on. "I've been killed a number of times since I arrived here — it never seemed to stick."

The imposter appeared unconcerned, his grin darkening a shade. "As they say, there are fates worse than death."

He struck without warning, Killian jumping back just as the blade sliced the air where he'd been standing. He chuckled grimly to himself. He of all people should have known better than to expect a fair fight.

"So, my new punishment is for me to face myself?" Killian said, dodging another blow. "A bit trite, isn't it?"

The doppelganger whirled, his sword catching the edge of the branch. Killian ducked as a piece of bark went flying. If he wanted to last more than a few minutes, he'd need a better weapon or a distraction.

"The last punishment was a bit over-the-top, but at least it was creative," he continued, infusing his voice with as much joviality as he could, his eyes tracking the forest behind his double for something he could use.

A hard blow sent a shockwave through his wrist, nearly knocking the branch from his hand.

"Trying to stall, mate?" the other Hook asked with amusement. "You're not still hoping one of the others will come along and save your sorry hide, are you?"

Killian parried, focused on deflecting the oncoming attacks with minimal damage to the branch.

"So much for the dreaded Captain Hook — nothing more than a coward waiting for rescue from the heroes who couldn't wait to leave him behind."

Killian's teeth ached with the force of his grinding. His next strike missed by several feet, his opponent's amusement growing.

"Of course, it's not the first time you've overestimated your own importance," the doppelganger laughed, his dark eyes glimmering. "Did you really believe she needed your help? That they'd need your help to break the dark curse? A washed-up pirate who's convinced himself he can somehow earn redemption for centuries of evil?"

The blade came at him again and again, hacking away at the branch. The wood vibrated in Killian's hand with the force of each blow.

"You've never been more than an annoyance in their eyes — a hanger-on whose only real value was his decades of association with the various villains they faced. They used you when it was convenient, and forget you when it wasn't, didn't they?"

Killian blocked a high swing and pushed, forcing the blade away. "You're wrong. They came down here to find me."

"They came here for Emma," the imposter corrected. "They've never cared about you — it was always about her. Do you think they would have given your death a second thought if she hadn't decided to fetch her loyal pet? Face facts, mate — none of them gave a damn about you. They tolerated you at best, because Emma liked having someone to follow her around and do her bidding."

The words stung, Killian struggling to keep his focus on the fight.

"She's not like that," he grunted, swinging the branch. The strike went wide again, the other man dodging it easily with a knowing smile.

"Of course not," he said, rolling his eyes with exaggerated theatricality. "Did you really believe she came down here because she loves you? You know she'll never care about you as much as you do her, no matter how much you wish differently. How could she? Deep down, you know you'll never be worth more than the handful of coins Captain Silver bought you for."

Killian growled, lunging for the other man. The double stepped out of the way with a laugh, his sword slicing Killian's bicep with a quick flick of his wrist.

He hissed at the sting of pain, pressing the wrist of his bad arm against the cut. The wound was shallow — merely toying with his prey — a small trickle of blood staining his leather coat. He spared a moment to wonder whether blood loss was even any cause for concern for one who was already deceased.

The lookalike laughed again, the sound thick with derision.

"You were a sight to behold, once," he said, shaking his head. "The fierce Captain Hook — scourge of the seven seas. Now, you're nothing but a neutered imitation, begging for scraps of attention from a cold, loveless woman who spends more of her time running from you than toward you. A woman so closed-off, she chose a cursed life as a Dark One over a future with you."

Splinters cut into Killian's palm as he clenched the branch tighter, his hand shaking. The words were like barbs under his skin, hard as he tried to block them out.

"Don't talk about her like that," he intoned.

The other Hook's mouth twisted into a warped smile. "It's quite the leash she's got you on, isn't it, mate?" he said conversationally, lunging, the strength of his attack sending Killian off-balance. "Extended all the way to the afterlife. Then again, you can't seem to stop putting yourself under the heel of one master or another, can you?" He sneered, his blade a flurry of attacks, Killian struggling to keep up. "Captain Warnes, Captain Silver, Pan, Regina, Cora, Greg and Tamara, the Crocodile — and now, the Saviour and her family." He huffed derisively.

"You think you've changed, but all you've done is trade your old collar in for a new one."

Killian was vaguely aware that he was being forced back in the direction of the river. He tried to pivot to the side, wary of Hades' warning, but his feeble attempts were easily blocked. He gritted his teeth.

The imposter smiled at his efforts, clearly enjoying the game.

"Even knowing all of that, you just keep following after her like a good little puppy dog, happy for the tiniest shred of affection. You're so desperate for someone to care about you that you don't even have the dignity to realize you're being used. It's pathetic."

Killian's boots slid in the soft mud, costing him his footing. The other him pressed his advantage, shouldering him in the chest. He fell, landing hard on his back, his head dashing against a rock. He stifled a shout, pain blossoming across his skull, his ears ringing as his vision went blurry.

The doppelganger stood over him in disgust, studying his prone form. Killian struggled to lift his branch, but his movements were sloppy and uncoordinated, the blow to his head still leaving him dizzy. The other Hook knocked the stick out of his hand with little effort, the weapon landing some feet away.

Killian tried to swallow past the spinning long enough to come up with another attack, but it appeared his double had grown tired of playing, levelling his sword at Killian's chest.

"Now what?" Killian bit out, knowing he was beaten. "I'm already dead."

His opponent sheathed his sword and stooped down, grabbing a fistful of Killian's shirt.

"I told you, mate," he said with relish, his face crowding Killian's. "There are fates worse than death."

He glanced meaningfully at the river lapping mere inches from Killian's head. It took Killian's confused mind another long moment to grasp his intentions, even as he felt the other man yank him up by the shirt. He closed his eyes, awaiting the inevitable.

Something slammed into his double, knocking him away. Killian dropped back to the ground, groaning as his head hit the rock again, sending the world into another nauseating spiral.

He slowly rolled to his side, vaguely aware of movement nearby. He cringed, squinting at the blurry figures, his thoughts muddled and heavy as though they were being pulled through thick molasses.

"Leave him alone," said Emma, throwing the branch she was holding aside and drawing her cutlass. Killian's heart gave a lurch. She's still here.

The lookalike had recovered from the blow, facing off against her with a leer.

"Come to retrieve your play thing, have you?" he taunted, circling her slowly. Emma mirrored his movements, poised for attack. "Tell me, what did you miss first about him — the blind devotion or the constant willingness to serve as your punching bag? It's nice having someone around who doesn't question you even when you're wrong, isn't it?"

Emma faltered, and the doppelganger struck lightning-fast, her cutlass blocking his attack at the last minute. Their blades crossed, locking at the hilt. He didn't let up, using his strength to force her backward. She strained to maintain her grip as he bore down against the steel.

"What now, love? Are you going to use your magic on me?" he asked, his face close to hers. "Force me to do your bidding?"

Killian pushed himself to his elbows, willing his body to obey. He was dead, damn it, the pain he was feeling wasn't real. Emma was.

Emma shoved the other Hook away, a pained expression on her face. She brandished the cutlass, visibly struggling to contain her emotions.

The imposter spread his arms wide, mockingly inviting her attack.

"Or are you going to kill me again?" he taunted. "It's a bit of a habit with you, isn't it, Swan? Hurting those around you."

Emma recoiled, her eyes bright with tears. Her cutlass lowered slightly, leaving her vulnerable. Killian clambered to his feet as the other man tensed, preparing for the final attack.

Killian leapt, tackling his double to the ground. His side flared with pain as the other man's hook caught him across the ribs. The sword fell from the imposter's grip, and they both lunged for it, Killian just managing to grasp the handle before the other Hook's fingers could close around it.

He rolled onto his back, blocking the other man's hook as it veered toward him, the blade clanging loudly from the impact. Killian kicked, forcing the other man back far enough to allow him to get to his feet.

His double gave him a smug look. "You've already lost to me once, mate. You really think you can defeat me?"

Killian didn't answer, anger coursing through his veins. He swung, the other man deflecting the blade again and again with his hook.

He saw his opening, striking high and shoving his shoulder into the other man's sternum as he blocked the attack, knocking him off his feet. Killian was on him in an instant, his knee on his forearm, keeping his hook at bay.

He raised the sword over his head, thrusting down into the imposter's chest.

The other Hook winced as the blow landed, but his body was soon enveloped in thick black smoke, vanishing away into nothingness along with Killian's sword.

Hades.

He sat back on his heels, still breathing hard from the exertion, his skull aching fiercely.

Killian stood, fighting back a lingering wave of vertigo as he pushed his hair out of his eyes. He glanced back at Emma, who was staring at her hands, lost in thought.

"Are you all right?" he asked, taking a step toward her. Her head shot up, her hands falling to her sides.

She smiled weakly, her eyes clearing of their former uncertainty. "Yeah, I'm fine. Are you? That thing didn't hurt you, did it?"

He looked down at himself, taking stock of his injuries. His arm was still bleeding sluggishly, despite his lack of a heartbeat. The cut on his side was even shallower, little more than a flesh wound.

"Nothing serious," he answered. Truthfully, he wasn't certain what would qualify as a serious injury to someone who was already dead — he'd long since given up trying to make sense of the Underworld and its rules.

Her eyes fell to the spot where the doppelganger had disappeared. "What was that thing?"

Killian avoided her gaze, scratching the back of his head.

"Just another of Hades' ruses," he dismissed. "I suppose it was too much to hope that the gargoyles would be the only annoyance we'd have to deal with."

She nodded vaguely, an indecipherable look on her face. It made him feel inexplicably lonely, the uncertainty from before returning with a vengeance. He used to be so good at reading her.

"Have you seen the others?" he asked. A fresh wave of guilt rushed through him as he peered up at the gnarled branches above their heads, the starry sky blocked from view. How much time had he squandered battling that figment?

Emma shook her head, still watching him carefully.

"We should probably try to head for the peak," he said, shifting under her gaze. "Water usually runs away from a mountain — if we follow the river upstream, we might be able to find our way back to the path. With any luck, the others will do the same."

She signaled her agreement, sheathing her weapon.

They walked in uncomfortable silence, Emma staring off in thought. Killian's chest felt tighter and tighter with each step he took, dread pooling within him. He had no way of knowing how many of the doppelganger’s taunts she'd overheard, but the arms-length of distance she was keeping between them made Killian fear the worst.

The imposter's verbal attacks had cut deeper than he cared to admit, the fears and insecurities that had been plaguing him all laid bare. Had that been Hades' game all along — exposing Killian's weaknesses to Emma, forcing her to take the full measure of the man she'd risked her life for? Was she wondering whether she'd made the right choice in not taking Hades' offer?

Even if she hadn't overheard everything, there was still the matter of the cruel accusations his double had hurled at her directly. Whatever his doppelganger’s intentions, the speech had clearly hit its mark judging from the look on her face. Killian was at a loss for how to begin to repair things.

The silence of the forest seemed all-encompassing, the distance between them widening with every step. When did we become such strangers to one another?

He tried to ignore the voice that whispered that perhaps things had always been this way, the lookalike's insinuations echoing in his mind. 'Begging for scraps of attention from a woman who spends more of her time running from you than toward you.'

The words stung, but he wondered on the truth of them, his mind helpfully supplying examples of Emma's reticence to let him in, to tell him she loved him. Was it only her walls that had kept her from opening herself up to him, or was it more? He'd always allowed her to take the lead, reassuring himself that he was merely giving her the time and space she needed to become comfortable with each step of their relationship, but perhaps there'd been more to her hesitation than just old fears resurfacing. Perhaps a part of her had recognized something in him that she was reluctant to acknowledge aloud.

Perhaps they'd both been fooling themselves, neither willing to admit what was right in front of them.

He kept his emotions off his face, his pace measured and resigned in a way that reminded him far too strongly of the path he'd walked to the gallows. Hades' clock continued to tick away above them, invisible through the trees, but couldn't help feeling as though it was counting down on more than just their quest.

* * *

The woods around them were oppressively quiet as they walked, leaving Emma with far too much time to think.

She flexed her wrists discretely, her joints still aching from the effort of bracing against the force of Killian's blade.

Not Killian, she reminded herself. He wasn't the man she'd fought back there, even if the imposter had worn his face.

In some ways, it was a face she'd hardly recognized. Killian had changed a lot in the time she'd known him but seeing him back in full pirate mode had been more of a shock than she'd expected.

It had been like looking into a window to the past. Except that the image had been warped, a distortion of the Hook she'd first encountered in the Enchanted Forest. That Hook had been self-serving, sure, but he'd also been playful, taking every spare moment to tease and flirt with her. He'd been almost single-minded in his quest for vengeance, but there'd been cracks in his cocky exterior, brief moments of vulnerability that hinted that there was more beneath the surface than just a smug, self-centered opportunist.

There'd been nothing vulnerable about the man they'd faced at the river, his actions calculated and cruel. It'd been Captain Hook at his worst — no hidden sense of honour or long-lost love to soften his edges. Just a selfish villain who took pleasure in the pain of others.

It was a version of Hook she didn't know, but from the expression on Killian's face, it was one that terrified him.

Initially, she'd assumed the lookalike was just a cheap distraction on Hades' part, the familiar face and clothes intended to throw them off their game. It hadn't really clicked for her until Killian had driven the sword through the fake-Hook's heart, the flash of hatred and revulsion in his eyes catching her off-guard.

The imposter hadn't just been a twisted reflection of Killian. It was how Killian saw himself.

The realization had sent a shockwave through her, her thoughts screeching to a halt. After all this time, Killian still thought of himself as a villain with no morals and no hope of redemption. She hadn't heard every taunt the clone-Hook had hurled at him, but she’d caught enough to understand that it was attacking Killian's weak points, going after the worries and fears he tried to hide, even from her.

And from where she'd been standing, he'd been more successful than not.

It had surprised her more than it should have, being faced with the extent of his insecurities. She knew Killian wasn't proud of the man he'd been. He went to great efforts to avoid discussing his past in all but the barest of terms, and even then, every description he gave was drenched in derision. But she'd hoped he had started to move past it — to begin seeing himself as the man he'd become instead.

They'd both tried so hard to put their pasts behind them, to start fresh with one another. But she hadn't known how strongly his still affected him.

Guilt pooled in her gut. Or maybe you didn't want to know.

She dropped her gaze, careful to avoid looking at the water to their left. Killian had done little more than nod when she'd explained the river's danger and the nature of the shadowy figures beneath the surface. She didn't know if Killian felt the same tug she did, the same urge to wander into its depths, but she'd made sure to keep a wide distance from the water, consciously placing herself between Killian and the riverbank.

She couldn't shake the memory of the fake-Hook grabbing a fistful of Killian's shirt, clearly intending to drag him into the river. Belle's warning had flashed through her mind, her blood running cold at the thought of him being trapped forever as one of the faceless wisps, nothing more than a memory.

But what had scared her more had been the resigned acceptance that had crossed Killian's features in that instant.

He'd stopped fighting, ready to accept the inevitable. More memories flashed before her eyes of him meekly levelling his sword at an evil Snow White, and shoving Henry out of the path of an oncoming fury. Killian facing certain death for others was nothing new — she knew he'd do anything to protect the people he cared about. But when it was his own life on the line, he'd just given up.

The riverbank began to curve, and she adjusted her course. Her arm brushed the leather of Killian's sleeve, and he recoiled slightly, covering the movement by curling his hook to his side. She blinked, the subtle rejection hurting more sharply than she'd expected.

Killian stared straight ahead, his expression pinched. She swallowed, her throat dry as she remembered the phony-Hook's taunts toward her. If the stuff he'd said to Killian really was how Killian saw himself, then what about the things he'd said about her?

'What did you miss first about him — the blind devotion or the constant willingness to serve as your punching bag?'

She didn't know if Killian had overheard the jeers, but maybe it didn't matter. The Killian she knew would never have said the things the clone-Hook had, but those feelings had to have come from somewhere, didn't they?

'It's always been about your needs.'

Stop it. She was being stupid, playing right into Hades' game. He wanted to distract them, to keep their focus off of completing their task.

But as the silence stretched between them, growing more uncomfortable with each passing second, she couldn't help but think that it was working.

* * *

Not for the first time since entering the cursed woods, Killian wished for some glimpse of the sky through the twisted branches above them. They'd been walking long enough for the pace to begin to affect Emma, her energy visibly flagging despite her obvious determination. It was nerve-wracking not knowing how much farther the mountain was, or how much time they had left, but without the moon and the stars for guidance there was no way to tell for certain.

Of course, it could be the unrelenting silence making it feel as though they'd been walking for an eternity, hardly a word spoken between them since the doppelganger had vanished. He got the sense that they were both bracing for the unpleasant conversation that surely awaited them.

Killian was in no great rush to initiate things himself, part of him taking some small measure of comfort in what was beginning to feel like the last few moments before the storm broke. As maddening as the uncertainty was, he suspected he'd much prefer it to the confrontation that was sure to follow.

At least his vision had returned to normal, his ears ceasing their incessant ringing. His head still ached some, but it was a manageable pain — a welcome one, even — the dull throb giving him something else to focus on.

His wounds had ceased bleeding, though he still felt a sharp sting across his ribs if he twisted his upper body too quickly. The cut was far shallower than the one he'd sustained in Camelot, but he thought its location along the side of his chest was nearly identical. Of course, there was no scar from the first wound to know for certain — Emma had seen to that.

She'd made no attempt to heal his injuries this time, or even offered, her hands never straying from her sides. He wasn't sure what to make of that, the behaviour in stark contrast to their past interactions.

It's not as though you were gravely injured, mate, he chided himself. Why should she waste her magic healing a dead man? Still, he couldn't help but wonder if that was all there was to it.

'A woman so closed-off, she chose a cursed life as a Dark One over a future with you.'

Even if she hadn't overheard the insult, the ones that had followed had been just as cruel. After all of the effort she'd made at breaking down her walls, he knew it would have been painful for her to have them warped into an accusation, a weapon to be used against her. He could only imagine how ungrateful and selfish it must have sounded coming from someone who wore his face, especially after everything Emma had done to retrieve him.

'Deep down, you know you'll never be worth more than the handful of coins Captain Silver bought you for.'

"Does it still hurt?"

The question startled him from his thoughts. He glanced sideways at Emma, who was watching him closely, a small crease between her eyebrows.

He tilted his head in confusion, following her gaze. He flushed as he realized he'd been absently rubbing his neck again, massaging the skin where the rope had once burned.

He dropped his arm, shame filling him at the reminder of the earlier humiliation she'd witnessed. Gods, why had she even bothered coming to the Underworld for his sorry hide?

"It's fine, love," he assured her, masking a wince at the term of endearment that had fallen from his lips out of habit. "The injury is long gone."

He cast his mind about desperately for another topic to latch onto, but Emma continued to watch him with that strange expression on her face.

"About that..." she said hesitantly after a moment, averting her eyes. "You never really explained what was happening back there. When we first found you."

He closed his eyes. So much for a change in topic.

"It was my punishment," he answered after a time, scratching behind his ear.

"...Punishment for what?" she asked.

He sighed.

"For a lifetime of sins. You know the things I've done." He didn't want to talk about this, had no desire to relive the sensation of standing on those gallows over and over again, awaiting the inevitable, but damn it all if he could ever refuse her anything. "I was sentenced to relive the same moment over and over again. With some minor changes," he added tonelessly.

"So, wait, you went through that more than once? The— the whole—" she cut off abruptly, looking disturbed at the notion.

"Hanging?" he finished brightly, infusing his tone with a hint of levity he didn't feel. "Aye, a few times," he deflected.

In truth, he had no idea how long he'd been in that cavern. He'd lost count of the number of times he'd made the journey from the dungeon, felt the noose tightening around his neck and the terrifying resignation of being unable to do anything except wait to die. On some level, he'd known what was happening to him, known that he was never in any mortal danger, but it had never stopped it from feeling real.

Emma swallowed, her eyes bright.

"I'm sorry," she said quietly. "You shouldn't have had to go through that."

"It's not your fault. It's no more than I deserved," he said hollowly. How many times had that thought echoed in his head as he'd made his way up those steps, as he'd stood under the judgmental gaze of nearly everyone he'd ever known?

She looked at him sharply. "Why would you say that? Killian, you didn't deserve that — it was just something Hades worked up to mess with you, like the gargoyles."

He huffed a small, humourless laugh.

"It wasn't Hades' doing, Swan," he admitted. "He said the punishments are created by the person themselves. They're tailored to each soul, to what's already inside them."

If possible, Emma looked even more troubled by this information. He found himself wishing another gargoyle would attack them, if only to put an end to the conversation. It was bad enough knowing he deserved the fate he'd been assigned, but Emma knowing it as well was more humiliation than he could bear.

"Then, is that what you really think of me?" she asked, her voice cracking slightly.

The question caught him off-guard. He frowned, trying to discern her meaning.

"The 'me' in the punishment," she clarified, her cheeks colouring as she stared resolutely ahead. "Up on the balcony, while you were being..." she cut off, swallowing again. "Is that how you see me?"

He considered her words, thinking back to the Emma from the punishment, her beauty almost unbearable to behold, her golden tresses layered with gems. Some part of him had known she was a figment — the real Swan would never have been completely at ease in the role of a princess, for all that it was her birthright. But the punishment had had a way of distorting things, turning the people he once knew into more severe versions of themselves.

Was it the sight of herself as royalty that was bothering Emma? Had the vision of herself as part of the royal family cut too closely to the reminder of things she had lost?

Apparently, his response was taking too long for Emma's tastes, her shoulders hunching.

"Do you really think I could ever stand by when you were being hurt and not do anything?"

"Of course not," he replied, taken aback. He recalled the cruel words the other Hook had bandied at her, grief pooling in his gut at the self-doubt that must have been plaguing her. "You're a hero, Swan, you'd never stand by when anyone else was suffering, no matter who it was."

"You're not anyone, Killian," she said pointedly, his words apparently failing to reassure her. "The other me, the one from your punishment, she didn't even look at you, she wasn't even watching when they—" her breath hitched. "It was like she didn't care at all what happened to you. And I've been trying to convince myself that it doesn't mean anything, that it wasn't real, but then there's everything the other you was saying and—"

She took a breath, steeling herself. "Do you really think I don't need you? That I don't care?"

He shook his head, his eyes softening. "Of course I know you care, Swan. But if you and the others hadn't come here, you'd have been fine without me," he assured her, the memory of her reflection in Hades' pool still tugging at him, though he knew it was selfish. "You broke the curse without me, didn't you?"

He hated himself for the tiny shade of bitterness that seeped into the words. Unfortunately, it didn't escape Emma's notice.

"I do need you," she protested. "I broke the curse with you, Killian. I kissed you after— after the fury..." she looked away, struggling to contain her emotions. "It was True Love's Kiss that broke the curse, but it wasn't enough to bring you back."

Killian reeled from the revelation, but he had hardly a second to consider the implications as she continued.

"It's been awful without you these past few weeks. It felt like a part of me was missing, and knowing that you spent all that time thinking that I was better off without you, or that I didn't feel the same way—"

"Swan..."

She didn't appear to hear him, her words taking on a frantic edge. "I'm sorry if I've ever made you feel unwanted, or like I didn't feel as strongly as you did. I know I'm a hard person to love sometimes—"

"Emma, no," he cut her off, his heart seizing painfully in his chest. He longed to halt them both, to look her in the eye, but he knew they couldn't afford to slow down. "I love you more than anything in this life or the next, and I know how hard it is for you to be open with others. My only regret since arriving here was that I wasn't there for you when you needed it."

The declaration seemed to grant her little comfort, a pained expression crossing her features.

"You always do that," she said softly, closing her eyes.

"Do what?"

"You're always so understanding about everything," she said, frustration lacing her voice, though he was uncertain who it was directed at. "I screwed up, Killian. I let the Darkness take me. But you — you acted like you were the one who failed, like I had nothing to do with it."

"It wasn't you, love."

"It was," she insisted. "It was my decision to pick up the dagger in the first place. I'm the one who stopped fighting. I'm the one who let the Darkness in, who turned on everyone, who tried to kill Merlin—"

"If we had stood by you, it never would have happened," he ground out solemnly, his chest tight. "I let myself be drawn in by Merlin's dire warnings. I should've trusted you more, instead of letting you feel so alone."

"But I should've trusted you, too," said Emma. "You've always been there for me — you're always supporting me, telling me I can do things, pushing me to be better. But I haven't done the same for you. I've been so wrapped up in my own stuff that I didn't realize the impact my actions were having on everyone else — especially you."

She faltered, looking away. "I just... I hate that you always feel like you have to be careful around me, or that your needs aren't as important as mine. I don't want this to be a one-sided relationship — it can't just be about my issues all the time. It's okay for you to need things, too."

Killian glanced down, his boots sinking slightly in the damp soil.

"I don't wish to be a burden."

"You're not a burden," she said, her voice thick with tears. "I know I have walls, and I'm not as good at being open about my feelings as you are, but I can't stand knowing that I ever made you feel like I didn't care about you."

His heart hurt as she spoke, his arms aching to hold her. He resisted the impulse, the memory of their accidental touch earlier making him think better of the action.

"I love you, Emma," he said instead. "I know you have a good reason for your walls, and I know how hard you've worked to tear them down. And walls or not, there's nothing I wouldn't do for you."

She frowned.

"But you're not sure if I would do the same?"

Killian couldn't meet her gaze. "You came all the way to the Underworld to find me. I can't tell you what that means to me," he said, scratching behind his ear again. "I just wish I was more worthy of the effort. I never wanted you or the others to put yourselves in danger for me."

"You are worthy of it," Emma insisted. "I know you've been through a lot down here, stuff you're maybe not ready to talk about yet, but whatever Hades told you, this place doesn't define who you are."

"You know my past," he repeated tonelessly, the words sounding like a death sentence unto themselves. "It was laid out pretty clearly for me when I first arrived. The judges didn't give me anything I didn't have coming to me."

"I do know your past, but I also know your present," she said. "I know the man you are, and the man that you want to become. I wish you could see what I see — a man who works hard every day to be better than the day before. A man who turned his ship around to save a town, when he could've just kept running. A man who sacrificed himself to save two people he didn't even know from an evil queen. A man who died protecting my son—" she cut off abruptly, her voice breaking.

"You can't change your past, Killian, but you are so much more than it."

Her words struck something deep within him, bringing him up short. Ever since he'd arrived in the Underworld, he'd been haunted by the specter of his past, by a lifetime of regrets and poor decisions. He'd struggled with the knowledge of the things he'd done — of the people he'd hurt — but perhaps there was some truth to what Emma said.

He thought back to the scale that had sat before the judges, weighing the good against the bad. The deeds of his past had carried a heavy price, but in all of his self-loathing over the man he'd been, he'd forgotten that there had been good as well. And much of that good had been recent.

Perhaps people weren't so easily lumped into categories like hero and villain. Perhaps everyone was simply a work-in-progress. Choosing to do better couldn't erase the things he'd done, but it wasn't without meaning.

He may have started becoming a good man for Emma, but he'd continued because it was who he wanted to be.

He stared at the ground without seeing it, his thoughts racing.

He felt a tug on his arm. He looked down to see Emma's fingers wrapping around his hook in a way she hadn't done since the whole mess in Camelot began. She smiled shyly as they walked, swinging their arms a bit as though they were on any one of a hundred leisurely strolls down Main Street in Storybrooke.

A warm feeling washed over him, his heart lighter than it had been since before Emma had reached for the dagger.

He let himself sway closer as they walked, the leather of his jacket brushing her upper arm. Perhaps he couldn't change the past, and perhaps he could never fully make amends for the things he'd done, but for the first time in a long time, he saw a bright future ahead.

And he damn well intended to fight for it.

Chapter Text

The trees were beginning to thin out as they walked, the river cutting a fairly straight path through the woods as far as Emma could tell. Her feet were starting to ache, the adrenaline high she'd felt as a result of finding Killian having long-since faded.

It was a struggle to keep moving, her entire body feeling weighted down by exhaustion. It was as though the months of fear and anxiety she'd experienced since taking hold of the dagger had caught up with her all at once. Since breaking the curse, she hadn’t managed to sleep for more than a few hours at a time, but she was certain if she closed her eyes now she would find herself drifting off in an instant.

You never felt tired as the Dark One, a voice whispered invitingly. She gripped Killian's hook harder, thankful the action went unnoticed.

She shook her head, willing away the fuzzy, spinning feeling she'd come to associate with long nights and too many stakeouts. She could rest when they were free and clear of the Underworld.

Killian looked no worse than when they'd found him, though he’d been growing more anxious the longer they walked. He’d tried to hide it, but she could tell from the way his eyes slid to her when he thought she wasn’t looking that he was worried. For all the good their talk had done, she knew he was still carrying the guilt of their decision to stay in the Underworld. She wished she had some way of easing the burden, but every assurance she could offer sounded hollow in her mind.

Her stomach churned. They hadn't come across anyone else since they’d inadvertently split up, and the terms of Hades' deal hung like a storm cloud over both of their heads. It had been her brilliant idea to make a run for it in the first place, and now they had no idea where the others were, or if they were even okay. Not to mention the fact that if everyone didn’t make it to the peak before sunrise, they would all be trapped in the Underworld forever.

This wouldn't have happened if you had just come alone. It was bad enough that Killian was down here, but she'd been an idiot to let the others come as well. She should've insisted to Hades that the quest be hers to fulfill — it was her screw-up that started all of this, and she should've been the one to fix it.

Her eyes stung, the trees around her blurring. She'd finally gotten her family back, and now they were all at risk of being imprisoned in the Underworld, facing punishments of their own.

She flashed back to the cavern they'd found Killian in, and the haunted look that had yet to fully leave his eyes. 'The punishments are tailored to each soul.' She shivered. There was a defeated quality to Killian's voice whenever he talked about his punishment, as though it was some inherent part of him, an inescapable truth about himself. She knew he was still holding back the full extent of what all he’d endured, but the little she'd seen had been bad enough. Was that what awaited each of them if they failed?

The thought of her parents — of Henry — enduring the same torture made her sick. What kind of mother was she, to put her son in danger like that?

What kind of punishment awaited her, given the things she'd done?

Emma's gaze wandered to the side, not wanting Killian to see what she was thinking. Her eyes widened as she caught sight of a familiar line of dirt through the thinning trees.

The path.

She grabbed Killian's forearm, startling him. He followed her gaze, a slow grin forming on his face to match her own.

Cautiously, they cut through the woods, keeping an ear out for gargoyles. Fortunately, the trail appeared to be free of the ugly little things, she and Killian exchanging a relieved glance as they stepped out of the trees.

The mountain was clearly visible again though, to her disappointment, it still seemed a long distance away. The horizon maintained its same hazy appearance, masking whatever lay ahead of them. She peered up at the sky, releasing a relieved sigh at the starry sheet overhead.

"We'll make it, Swan," said Killian, correctly reading her thoughts. He gave her a small smile, nodding in the direction of the mountain. She felt a murmur of guilt at the realization that he was still the one encouraging her, pushing her not to lose faith.

The trees took on a different appearance as they walked, the rich brown branches of fruit replaced by spindly twigs of ashy gray.

"I'm beginning to think 'fields' is a generous term for this place," Killian groused, raising a judgmental eyebrow at the scenery.

Emma's lips quirked at his tone, the same disapproving one he reserved for when they passed a poorly-maintained ship in the harbour. For a pirate, Killian could have pretty high standards.

She paused as a rustling sound came from the grove of trees just ahead of them, her senses on high alert. A quick glance to her right confirmed that Killian had heard it as well, his eyes darting around for the source.

The noise came again, and they both tensed, Emma reaching for her cutlass.

"I probably should have kept that branch," Killian murmured, eying his hook grimly.

The leaves rustled as the unmistakable sound of footsteps approached.

She released the breath she'd been holding, spotting a familiar mop of brown hair.

"Mom!"

"Henry!" She ran, throwing her arms around him. "Are you all right?"

Henry hugged back just as tightly, resting his head against her shoulder.

"We're okay," he said. She looked up to see Mary Margaret and Regina emerging from the trees, Belle and David just behind them. She let out a shaky laugh, all of the tension seeping out of her.

Killian had caught up with her, greeting the others with a relieved smile. Emma reluctantly let Henry go, turning her attention to Regina and her mother. Her forehead wrinkled at the scorch marks on their clothes, the troubled expression on Regina's face giving her pause.

"What happened to you?"

Mary Margaret and Regina exchanged a loaded glance, her mother shifting uncomfortably. The pause that followed lasted a second too long.

"We ran into Cora," she answered delicately. "Or… Something that looked like Cora."

Emma winced. Well, that explained the weird mood she was sensing from both of them.

"…Are you guys okay?" she asked hesitantly, unsure who to direct the question to.

"We're fine," said Mary Margaret, somewhat unconvincingly. She shot another uncertain look at Regina, who crossed her arms, her posture stiff. "We started making our way back to the path, and we ran into David and Belle," she continued in a blatant attempt to change the subject. From the way Regina's mouth twisted, it was clear she considered the topic closed.

Emma could empathize, thinking back to the double of Killian they'd faced off against. She wasn’t eager to relive that experience anytime soon.

She turned to Belle and her dad, noticing for the first time the tangled mess Belle's hair had become, her eyes red and puffy. Her dad had his sword out, the edge of the blade stained with blood.

She frowned, but David cut her off before she could ask.

"There was a siren," he explained, his eyes sliding briefly to Belle, who'd stayed near to his ever side since they'd emerged from the trees. "It tried to lure Belle into the river."

Belle blushed, avoiding her gaze. "It was stupid of me to fall for it," she said, her voice faltering a bit. "…It… It looked like my mother."

Killian placed a hand on her arm, his eyebrows pinched with concern. Belle shook her head, a self-deprecating smile on her face. "I'm all right," she assured him, just loudly enough for Emma to hear.

He didn't seem too convinced, still watching her closely, but he didn't press further.

"What about you guys?" asked Henry, turning to her with interest.

Emma glanced back briefly at Killian, who was looking decidedly uncomfortable, his attention fixed on his boots. He was clearly about as eager to recount their fight with the fake-Hook as she was.

She flashed a quick smile, keeping the others' attention fixed on her. "We had a fight with another one of Hades' creations, but Killian took care of it." It was hardly a lie, but she didn’t see the need to share the details with everyone.

Killian looked up sharply, his eyes widening. Emma held his gaze, trying to quietly convey that he had nothing to be ashamed of. His expression melted into one of gratitude as the others expressed relief at their safe escape.

David clapped Killian on the back, the pair of them exchanging a silent nod which she assumed was guy code for glad you're okay. She rolled her eyes a bit, letting her mom drag her into a hug.

"I told you things would be all right," her mom whispered, pulling back to rest her hands on the sides of Emma's face. Emma tilted her head, following Mary Margaret's gaze back to where Killian and her dad were talking.

Emma put a hand over her mom's. "They're getting there."

"I hate to break up the lovefest, but we should get moving," Regina interrupted, a crease between her eyebrows as she stared at the sky overhead.

Emma felt her elation dim at the reminder, her eyes drawn to the peak that stood at a distance. The mountain seemed closer than it had when they'd first arrived in the Perilous Fields, but it was impossible to know how long the rest of the journey would take them. As much as she'd prefer it, they couldn't afford to stand around.

"You're right," she agreed, seeing the same mixture of resignation and determination on the faces of the others. "Let's do this."

* * *

Emma suppressed the urge to groan as the path hit another incline, her steps getting shorter as she struggled to keep her aching feet from sliding back down the uneven dirt.

Henry had fewer reservations about voicing his unhappiness, his face screwing up in concentration as he picked his way over the large rocks that disrupted their path without tripping. He'd long-since given up on trying to keep the others talking, exhaustion clear on his face.

Belle, likewise, kept nodding off as they walked, her eyelids drooping briefly before fluttering open again. Killian had been keeping a watchful eye on her for the last while, his hand hovering next to her, flinching forward anxiously each time she looked as though she was about to veer off the path.

She realized with a start that none of them had slept since before they'd found Killian, the long journey clearly taking its toll.

Emma, for her part, had burned through the last of her energy reserves, only sheer willpower allowing her to put one foot in front of the other. Every muscle ached, bringing back crappy memories of Neverland, when the walking had seemed endless at times and sleep had been scarce for her due to the Lost Boys’ haunting cries. She didn't know why so many of their rescue missions seemed to require long hikes, but she was definitely skipping Leg Day for the next month at least.

Her stomach growled, reminding her that she hadn't eaten anything since before they'd found Killian, either, however long ago that was. Would it really have killed Hades to put a magical timer overhead instead of the night sky? At least then they'd have a more accurate idea of how much time was left. As it was, they were still depending on Killian's estimations which, while usually pretty reliable, weren't exactly satellite-accurate.

The trek was quiet, aside from the occasional sound of one of them losing their footing on the steep incline, their shoes sliding down the gravel before someone else managed to steady them. Emma frowned up at the sky, worry churning her gut at the lighter blues that had started becoming more prominent. She flashed a tense look at Killian, a matching grim expression on his face.

"Best to keep moving, love," he said, urging her to walk ahead of him as the path narrowed. The rapidly brightening sky didn't escape the others' notice, their pace picking up.

The trail curved around the side of the mountain, jutting through the dark rock. Emma turned her attention back to where she was walking as her boot caught a stone in the path, throwing an arm out to steady herself.

A flash of pale stone above them caught her eye, her breath catching. Relief washed over her, the peak of the mountain just barely visible at the top of the next incline.

Henry caught sight of it as well, his eyes widening as a grin overtook his face.

"We're going to make it!" he laughed, racing ahead of the others with an unexpected burst of energy.

His excitement was contagious, Belle beaming as her parents exchanged eager smiles. David grabbed Mary Margaret's hand, pulling her faster along the path, the sight of the finish line apparently giving everyone a second wind.

Emma felt the knot in her chest loosen as the others sped up. They were actually going to do this.

"Come on, Swan," Killian encouraged softly, the flat side of his hook resting against her lower back. "Let's go home."

The term sent a flurry of emotions through her, her eyes stinging at the realisation that she could have this. They could finally have the future they'd wanted: no more curses, no more secrets, no more lies. Her mind flashed on a vision of her and Killian in the house he and Henry had picked out, filling its cold, empty rooms with warmth and family, the three of them making it a real home — like the one she'd always dreamed about.

She grinned at him, his expression matching hers.

The others had a head-start on them as Emma and Killian began making their way up the pathway, happiness making her tired steps a bit lighter.

Henry was almost at the peak already, spinning around to wave the others on, Belle and Regina picking their way up the steep incline just behind him.

"Come on, Mom!"

A wall of fire cut across the path in front of them, blocking them off from the others.

"What—"

Emma reared back against the wave of heat. She squinted, her heart pounding as she strained for a glimpse through the barrier of flames that reached far above their heads. She couldn't see the others. Oh, god. Had it hit them?

"Henry?!"

"Swan, look out!"

Killian's hook yanked her backwards as the blaze flared toward her.

"Hades," he cursed, guarding his face from the heat with his forearm.

"Not quite."

Killian jerked back, an unseen force hurtling him through the air. He slammed back-first into a large boulder with a grunt, his arms spreading unnaturally to lay flat against the stone. A second later, the rock had come to life, melding around his wrists to hold him in place.

"Killian!"

Emma ran toward him, drawing up short as a dark figure stepped into her path. Her heart skipped a beat as she gaped at the familiar face.

The Dark One smirked, her blood red lips quirking into a slow smile. Her white hair was pulled back into a severe bun accentuated by swan feathers, a stark contrast to her tight black leather tank top and pants.

Blood roared in Emma's ears, cold fear running down her spine as she stared at a reflection she'd hoped never to see again. The face she'd seen every time she'd closed her eyes since the curse broke. She knew it wasn't real, it couldn't be — just another one of Hades' stupid games — but that did nothing to lessen the terror she felt.

"What did you do to the others?"

The Dark One waved disinterestedly. "They're fine, for now — I just didn't want them interrupting. Heroes never know when to stop meddling, after all."

"I know what this is," Emma said. "It's not going to work. We're getting out of here."

"In a rush to escape the Underworld?" the Dark One said with mock concern, her cold eyes lit with amusement. "I don't know why you bother — you'll save their lives today, and tomorrow they'll just find another reason why you're not good enough."

She could see Killian struggling against his restraints.

"Emma, it's another trick! Don't listen!"

The flames flared again. Emma winced, the heat sending rivulets of sweat down her back.

"All you do is save them, over and over again," continued the Dark One, her eyes rolling as she walked a semi-circle in front of Emma. "And how do they repay you? They leave. They always leave."

"You're wrong," Emma bit out, her eyes drawn to the horizon. It was growing steadily lighter, the pale colours blending into the dark sky overhead.

"You think just because you kissed and made up for now that they trust you? All it will take is one little slip-up — one little reminder that you're not the perfect Saviour they want you to be — and they'll abandon you just like they did before."

Emma did her best to drown her out, eyeing the path covertly. If she was fast, she might be able to get to Killian before the Dark One stopped her.

"Face it, you'll never be enough in their eyes. No matter what lies they tell you, they're just waiting for an excuse to leave."

The words stung, but Emma shoved them aside. The Dark One had turned as she was speaking, admiring the bonfire she'd conjured, and Emma took her chance, making a run for it.

She didn't get far before something sharp seized both her wrists, yanking her back with a yelp. She looked down. Long thorny vines had sprouted from the earth, twisting around her arms to hold her in place. She hissed, the thorns piercing her skin.

"Swan!"

"Ah ah ah," the Dark One tsked, shaking a pale finger in admonishment. "It's not nice to ignore someone when they're talking."

Emma glared, straining against the vines, but it was no use. They wouldn't budge, every movement causing the thorns to dig deeper, blood trailing from the cuts.

"Now, where was I?" the Dark One asked serenely.

"Leave her alone!" Killian shouted, drawing her attention. Interest sparked in her eyes, a hungry expression coming over her. With another glance back at Emma, the Dark One stalked toward him, her hips swaying slightly.

Killian seemed to be struggling with the sight of her, conflicting emotions warring across his face as she drew nearer.

"So much concern," the Dark One said with a mock pout as she ran a knuckle down his cheek. "But where was that concern when the others were searching for a way to restrain you? He didn't care so much, then, did he? He was too busy thinking how weak you were."

She pressed up against him, her fingers sliding down to tease his ribs. Killian grimaced as they probed the cut on his side, a feral grin on the Dark One's face.

Emma knew that look, the possessive way she was eyeing him — as though he were a favoured pet, existing purely for her pleasure and amusement. There was no affection on her face as she traced her fingers over him, only desire.

After all, Dark Ones didn't feel love.

'Come to retrieve your play thing, have you?'

Her stomach roiled.

"He's no different than the others," the Dark One murmured, brushing the hair out of Killian’s eyes. "He'll promise to stay, but eventually he'll realize you're not enough for him."

She ghosted her mouth along his jawline as she spoke, her lips grazing his. Killian swallowed, watching the Dark One warily.

"Get off of him," she said, her voice shaking.

The Dark One ignored her, running her fingertips along Killian's mouth, her dark eyes charting a slow, appraising path down his body.

"After all, he already stopped loving you once. What do you think it'll take for it to happen again?"

Killian shook his head as she spoke, a desperate plea in his eyes.

"I never stopped loving you, Swan," he swore, his jaw twitching as the Dark One moved to trace her lips over his ear, her sharp nails digging into his sternum. "It was a poor attempt to remind you of who you were — of what was at stake — but it was a lie. I could never stop loving you."

"Of course he could," the Dark One said reasonably, surveying his face with a hint of perverse pleasure. "Why would he want to stay with someone so closed-off? Someone who constantly disappoints him? After all, you're the reason he's down here. He told you his punishment exposed what was inside of him. Do you think the other Hook you saw was any different?"

'A cold, emotionless woman who spends more time running from you than towards you.'

Emma's breath hitched, the accusation and the hatred that had laced it tying her stomach into knots.

The Dark One smiled, reading her thoughts. "He was just saying what the real Killian was too afraid to say. Even now, you know deep down that he still blames you for everything. For all of this. Sooner or later, he'll realize he's better off without you."

"Emma—"

"But it doesn't have to be that way," the Dark One interrupted. "With your power, you can make sure he never leaves you — never doubts you — ever again. He'll be the perfect companion, never straying from your side. You can be yourself without ever worrying about losing him. Losing any of them."

The suggestion made Emma nauseous, remembering all too well the twisted fantasies the Darkness had fed her. She glanced at Killian, her chest aching. Was that a flicker of fear in his eyes? Did he think that she'd do it, force him to stay by her side?

You wanted to do it, once, a quiet voice reminded her. Maybe he wouldn't have died if you had.

Emma shoved the thought away and swallowed, clenching her hands. The thorns tore at her skin, the pain grounding her. "I had that power once," she retorted. "But I still lost everything."

The Dark One looked unimpressed.

"You were weak," she accused, her cold eyes boring into Emma's as she pressed herself more tightly against Killian's prone form. "You lacked conviction — that's why you failed. But this time, you could do it right."

Her fingers trailed along the side of his neck, her nails dragging down to the opening of his shirt, leaving angry red lines in their path.

"With enough power, you can stop him from leaving you again. You can make him yours forever — the others, too. it won't matter what you do in the future — you'll never have to worry about living up to their standards."

Killian shook his head, desperation in his eyes.

"She isn't you, Swan. Don't listen to her — this isn't who you are."

He let out a shout of pain as pale fingers jabbed the wound on his side. The Dark One pushed off of him dismissively, turning back to Emma.

"Of course it's who you are," she said, slinking toward her. "Where do you think the Darkness got its inspiration from in the first place? It only did what you wanted it to do. Everything that happened was your doing."

"Swan."

She looked at Killian, who jerked his head toward the horizon. The sky was lightening further, purples and whites mixing in with the blues. Her heart lodged itself in her throat.

She pulled at her restraints again, cringing as the thorns sliced her wrists, blood dripping onto her hands. If she could only reach her cutlass...

"Use your magic, love!" Killian grunted, his face scrunched as he strained futilely against the stone encasing his wrists.

"Yes, why not use your magic?" the Dark One purred, moving between them. "All of that power inside of you, just begging to be tapped into. Why not use it to choke me, leave me gasping at your feet? You always seemed to enjoy that."

Emma went rigid, the memory of strangling Arthur and his men catching her off-guard. It had been so easy, so empowering, holding their lives in her hands. To know that they were helpless and she wasn't. The thought of it terrified her.

She could feel her magic pulsing beneath her skin, pushing to escape, but she resisted. She could see in her mind's eye how easy it would be to let it take over, let it give her everything she wanted.

As if sensing her thoughts, the Dark One smiled again, the action failing to reach her eyes. She glided closer, her face inches from Emma's, a twisted mirror image of herself.

"Or, better yet — why don't you pull out my heart? Then you'll be the most powerful again."

Her fingers twitched at the phantom sensation of a beating heart against her palm, Violet and Merida's faces flashing across her memory.

“I’m not that person anymore,” she swore, her teeth gritted.

The Dark One huffed a laugh.

"Face it, the Darkness did you a favour," she taunted knowingly. "It made you stronger. Without it, you're weak. Vulnerable. Why would anyone want to stay with someone like that? You'll always end up alone, because they'll always leave you."

Emma's vision blurred with tears, her heart thumping loudly in her chest. She wanted to pretend they weren't fears she'd had before, but she couldn't. She'd been left so many times in the past. How could she possibly trust that anyone would stay? It was what had drawn her to the Darkness in the first place — the promise of removing that fear forever, of never having to experience it again. If anything, her screw-ups had proven she could still lose the people she loved, no matter what promises they made to the contrary.

But they came back, her mind whispered cautiously. All of them — Henry, her parents, Killian, even Belle and Regina — they'd all found it in their hearts to forgive her, to fight for her, in spite of everything she'd done. She'd messed up, and it had ruined things, but it hadn't broken them beyond repair. Even Killian, who had more reason than most to hate her for what she'd done, had confessed he'd spent his time in the Underworld fighting to get back to her.

She'd shown them her worst, and she knew she still had a ways to go in earning back their trust. But trust went both ways. How could she expect them to trust her if she didn't even trust they would stay?

If she didn’t trust that she was enough for them?

The glimmer of pink on the horizon tore through her thoughts. She knew what she had to do — she'd known it from the beginning, as much as it scared her. She shut her eyes, digging deep inside herself for that familiar spark, remembering Regina's words. The magic was a part of her. She'd lost control before, but she'd pushed past the cloud of insecurities to break the curse. She could do it again.

Her magic exploded from her like a tidal wave, disintegrating the vines restraining her wrists. The force of it blew the Dark One back several feet.

Emma felt dizzy with the power, her magic racing through her veins, as familiar as it was terrifying.

The Dark One stood tall again, smirking.

"Didn't that feel good?" she persuaded, raising a thin eyebrow. "All of that power is invigorating, isn't it? Knowing what you can do with it. Who you can hurt with it."

Emma suppressed the fear that threatened to bubble up, glancing at Killian instead. He nodded reassuringly, a small smile on his lips.

She wouldn't lose control. Not again.

She reached for her magic, struggling to bend it into a form she could use. Regina was right — her magic felt different in the Underworld, harder to manipulate. It was like trying to pull her powers through a vat of thick honey.

She thrust out a hand, forcing out a blast meant to knock the other woman off her feet. The Dark One easily deflected it, countering with an attack of her own. Emma threw up a shield just in time, bracing herself against the onslaught of power.

"Is that all you have?" the Dark One scoffed, her hands splayed as the strength of her magic intensified. "We both know you won't be able to defeat me on your own. You need the power the Darkness gave you."

Emma grimaced, her feet sliding on the dirt. Her arms shook with the effort of keeping her shield in place.

"I beat the Darkness once already," she grunted, steadying her footing. The horizon was a wash of pink now, darkening into a deep orange.

"You're not strong enough," the Dark One said, pressing her advantage. Emma strained against the increase in power. "Without the Darkness, you're just a scared little orphan who knows she's not good enough for anyone."

Emma grit her teeth.

"I am enough!"

A bright wave of magic shot out of her, vaporizing the Dark One in a brilliant light that left Emma breathless. She stood stunned as the magic dissipated, her skin tingling.

"Swan!"

Killian's frantic yell shook her from her thoughts. She could hear the worried cries of the others, now, coming from behind the wall of fire.

"Mom!"

"Go! We're right behind you!" she shouted through the inferno, running to Killian's side. Their eyes met briefly as she neared, the promise of a conversation far longer than they had time for now. She could only hope they'd get the chance to have it.

She braced her hands over the stone restraints, forcing her magic through them. The stone exploded, freeing his arms.

A range of emotions shone on Killian's face, gratitude and panic chief among them.

"We need to hurry, love," he urged, his eyes flicking to the horizon. The light was climbing higher into the sky, reds and oranges melding into the pink. Her stomach lurched.

Together, they raced up the path. The wall of fire hadn't vanished with the Dark One, but Emma held her hands out in front of her, channeling her magic once more. It was easier now, like a dam had broken after weeks of pressure. The flames died out entirely, revealing the path ahead.

They ran up the steep incline, her heart thumping in her chest.

The others had reached the peak already, her dad wrapping his arm around Henry as they waited for the two of them. She could see the anxiety on their faces even from this distance as the sky continued to lighten around them.

Her boots slid on the dry, loose dirt, and she stumbled. Arms wrapped around her instantly, holding her up and propelling her forward.

"Come on, love," Killian coaxed, desperation seeping into his voice.

She pushed herself to move faster, ignoring everything except her footing and the sound of Killian running beside her.

"Hurry!" Henry shouted down at them, his eyes on the horizon.

Her mind was a jumble of thoughts as she ran, the most coherent one among them an endless loop of please, please let me get another chance.

Her lungs ached as she clambered up the last bit of the incline, her boot landing on the smooth stone of the peak just as the sun breached the horizon.

* * *

The sea air was different in the land of the dead, the breeze piercing straight through her bones. Emma shivered as she leaned against the railing of the Flying Dutchman. The journey on this side of the barrier was longer than the last time, giving them all the chance to unwind a little.

Beside her, Killian seemed unaffected by the unusual wind, peering intensely at the water as he soaked up their surroundings with a hint of desperation. She remembered their conversation in Camelot, Killian confiding that the sea helped calm his mind. After the events of the last few months, she imagined his mind could use all the calm it could get.

Killian had gone noticeably tense when they'd first boarded the large, decrepit ship, his eyes shifting judgmentally from the tattered sails to the rotting wood. He'd covered it well, though, offering little more than a reserved and vaguely suspicious nod to its captain, which Davy Jones had stiffly returned. She assumed that was some sort of pirate code for 'thanks for the ride', just grateful he'd managed to hide his distaste given how tenuous their ride home was.

Jones had scowled upon seeing them, but he'd grudgingly allowed them access to the ship's provisions to refresh their depleted supplies, an act of generosity that she suspected had more to do with the god of the Underworld than any newly-found generosity on Jones’ part. They'd set sail immediately, the captain tersely informing her that the overall trip would be considerably shorter than last time, the barrier between the lands of the living and the dead having conveniently moved much closer to Storybrooke. A part of her wondered if he'd pulled a favour with Hades to make that happen, given his apparent eagerness to be rid of them.

Killian hadn't been too pleased to learn the full story of how they'd arranged passage to the Underworld, grimacing and clenching his jaw several times as she and Henry recounted the bargain with Jones, the kraken, and the attack by Calypso. She couldn't bring herself to regret the deal — not now that they had Killian back — but she could understand his concern. His expression had been strained throughout the retelling, visibly suppressing his worry and guilt so as not to put a damper on their reunion.

He'd been doing that a lot since they'd rescued him — holding things back. She’d never realized before how often he did it, but having the fake-Hook all but spell it out had made it nearly impossible to ignore.

He'd disappeared for a short while after the recounting, citing a need to stretch his legs that bordered on ridiculous considering the hike they'd all just been on. Emma had tried to give him some space, taking the opportunity to grab a quick nap, but her sleep had been fitful at best. After a while, she’d given up and gone searching, finding him on the lower deck with Belle, the pair apparently busy catching up. Belle had looked pleased as she'd approached, wandering off in search of a quiet place to read as Emma took her spot at the railing. Killian had stayed where he was, staring out at the sea.

The pensive look on his face had become all too familiar since they'd freed him from his punishment, too easily getting lost in his own thoughts. She couldn't quite get a read on what was bothering him, but maybe that was the problem — there were a lot of things it could be. She wished she was as good at getting him to open up as he was with her.

She licked her lips, thinking back on their conversation along the bank of the River of Lost Souls. Killian had gotten too used to keeping his problems to himself over time, his first instinct to suppress and dismiss the stuff that was bothering him. She couldn't expect things to change overnight. If she wanted him to start opening up more, she'd have to make the first move.

She leaned against his arm, feeling the familiar leather of his coat against her bare skin.

"Happy to be back at sea?"

Killian jerked a bit, looking over at her. A wan smile flitted across his lips.

"Aye," he replied absently. "I didn't realize how much I'd missed it."

His eyes drifted down to where her arms lay folded on the withered wood of the railing. She followed his gaze, taking in the smooth skin on her wrists. Her magic had healed the wounds left behind by the thorns, but she could still feel the phantom sting of them digging into her flesh.

They'd shared only the barest details with the others, neither wishing to revisit the attack by the Dark One in any great depth. Regina nodded approvingly as she'd confided the role her magic had played, the others failing to notice the silent exchange.

Killian was still staring intently at her wrists, his expression morose. This time, it didn't take a genius to figure out the direction his thoughts had taken.

"...So, we've both met each other's evil clones. I bet not many couples can say that," she said lamely.

The joke fell abysmally flat, Killian's eyes darkening a shade.

She frowned, remembering fake-Hook's accusations about her being closed-off. If you want things to be different, you have to make them different, she reminded herself.

She pushed off from the railing, turning to face him.

"Hey."

She laid her palm on his cheek, getting his attention, the first time she'd intentionally touched his skin since they'd found him. The sensation was still weird and foreign somehow, like a cool wind gliding across her fingers. But any weirdness was so worth it for the awe that filled his eyes at the action.

She took a deep breath, steeling herself for her next words.

"I know why you told me you used to love me," she said, her heart cracking as he lowered his eyes in shame. She rubbed her thumb against his cheekbone, waiting for him to look up at her before continuing.

"It really hurt me at the time, but I know now what you were trying to do."

The attempted wake-up call may not have helped her as he’d hoped, but she recognized the difficult spot she'd put him in. She wasn't sure what she would've done in his place.

Killian still looked ashamed, struggling to meet her eyes. She could tell he was trying not to interject, seeming to realize her need to get this out.

"The thing is, even though I know you didn't mean it, it still made me re-examine things between us, and what about our relationship would make you feel that way."

"Swan, no—"

"I know you didn't mean it," she assured him again, catching his eyes. "But the thing is, it made me realize that I haven't always been fair to you. You've always been so good about my feelings, about doing things at my pace and my comfort level, and I've let you — probably a bit more than I should have. But I haven't always returned the favour."

His head twitched like he was going to deny it, but she cut him off.

"It's true. I never meant to take you for granted, but that doesn't change the fact that I did, in some ways. I know that I can be a bit closed-off sometimes, but I do love you, Killian. More than anything. And I promise that I'm going to try harder to show it from now on."

His eyes widened as she spoke, the same surprised wonder she saw every time she told him she loved him, though he often tried to hide it. It made her heart ache, knowing that after all this time, it still amazed him that she loved him back.

She swallowed, fighting the instinct to throw her walls up, feeling exposed under his gaze. It was scary, making herself vulnerable like this, but there was something freeing about it, too.

She waited until she had his attention again, giving him a tremulous smile.

"But I need you to do something for me, too, okay?"

"Anything," he answered immediately, a torrent of emotions crossing his face.

His eagerness made her smile wider, a warm sensation filling her chest.

"I need you to promise me that you'll try to speak up when you're upset, or hurt, or when you're feeling ignored," she said, locking eyes with him. "I want us to be better at talking about these things, but it's harder for me to do that when you act like whatever's going on with you is less important than my stuff. You can't keep pushing everything you're feeling down because you think it doesn't matter. We're a team, Killian, which means that your feelings are just as important as mine. If we're going to do this, it can't just be about my issues all the time."

He dropped his gaze again, a grimace playing across his features. She ran her fingers gently through the hair at the side of his head, giving him a moment to process but not letting him pull away. He seemed to sense she wasn't going to let it go, nodding after a moment.

"I'll try my best, Swan," he answered, still staring at his boots, but she could tell there was more he wanted to say. She let her thumb glide over his cheek, the skin there still strange and cool to the touch, but it seemed to lend him some comfort.

He closed his eyes for a breath before looking up, naked vulnerability on his face.

"It's difficult for me, sometimes," he admitted, "to imagine anyone could care for me so strongly, given my past. Especially you. I've tried to be better, to earn the trust and forgiveness of others for my past deeds, but I haven't really forgiven myself. In my heart of hearts, I still can't quite fathom how you could love a man who's done the things I've done. But I've come to realize that I can't expect others to see me differently when I still see myself as the same villain I was. I suppose that's something I need to work on as well."

His speech sent a pang of sadness through her, but she was also proud, knowing how hard it'd been for him to admit.

"I feel the same way, sometimes," she assured him, sliding her hands down his arms. "I get so wrapped up in my walls that I can't think of any reason why you'd want to stay with me. But if we're going to make this work, I think we need to get better at trusting that we're both here because we want to be."

The words weren’t easy to say out loud, but all it took was the memory of the Dark One — of the cold, emotionless way she'd pawed at Killian, treating him like a thing to use and discard — to remind her that the alternative was worse. She refused to be that person.

"Aye," Killian agreed solemnly. "I think you're right, love."

They both fell quiet, but it was a different type of silence this time, heavy with promise instead of darkness and pain. She leaned into him as she looked out at the waves, the mist on the water beginning to dissipate. His arm immediately wrapped around her shoulders, tucking her to his side like she belonged there.

She closed her eyes, the lingering tightness in her chest loosening. She'd come so close to never having this again. But she'd gotten her second chance, and she didn't intend to waste it.

Killian seemed to be having similar thoughts.

"Neal was right," he said softly. "I was a bloody fool for not fighting for this."

She rested her hand on his chest, turning her cheek into his shoulder. Killian had given them all a brief outline of his time in the Underworld, including the help he'd gotten from Neal. She'd been surprised and pleased to learn that Killian hadn't been alone the whole time, especially when he'd quietly admitted that Milah — and, probably, his brother — had both moved on.

After, he'd privately confided to her some of the conversation that had taken place between him and Neal. She and Killian both had a complicated history with him, but she was glad that Killian had had the chance to get some closure.

Of course, that didn’t make hearing about Killian's decision to stay behind in the Underworld hurt any less. She could guess how heavily the choice weighed on him, no doubt blaming himself for giving up as much as he'd been blaming himself for not breaking the curse.

"You were trying to save me," she reminded him. "You didn't want to risk me getting stuck in the Underworld. I get it. I probably would've made the same call."

"Aye, but Neal berated me pretty strongly for giving up," he said. "He told me to keep fighting. I should've listened."

She tucked her head more firmly against his shoulder, the only comfort she could offer him. For all of their talk of change, she knew she couldn't force him to go easier on himself. After centuries of practice at wearing every misdeed and mistake like a brand on his skin, learning to let go wasn't going to be easy. It certainly wouldn't happen all at once.

"I'm just glad you had someone you knew down there."

Killian nodded. "I hadn't expected him to be so willing to help, given our history, but I appreciated the assistance. I only hope I didn't make things harder for him with Hades."

Emma shook her head, thinking back on their farewell at the docks of the Underworld. Hades and Persephone had seen them off personally, the goddess serenely congratulating them on earning their second chance.

Hades, for his part, had hastened to remind them that the deal was a one-time thing, and that he'd better not hear them blabbing about it to everyone. He'd let his wife handle the goodbyes, offering only a few snappy asides about making sure they didn't screw up and land themselves back in the Underworld right away.

"I wouldn't worry too much — Hades may've talked a big game, but I got the distinct impression he's something of a Captain Hook fanboy."

Killian made a face, looking back out at the water. "Well, I hope he won't take offense when I say I hope it will be a good long while before I see him again."

He rested his cheek against the top of her head, his arm tightening around her.

"I still can't believe you convinced Davy Jones to charter you to the Underworld."

Emma huffed a laugh, pulling back to narrow her eyes at him playfully. "Yeah, about that. Your old pal Calypso mentioned something about owing you a debt when she attacked us. I didn't realize there were so many gods on Team Hook."

"Ah." Killian scratched behind his ear bashfully, avoiding her gaze. "That is a rather long story, I'm afraid. Let’s just say I helped her retrieve something of value.”

Emma raised her eyebrow, certain there was more to the story than that, but she was cut off before she could ask.

"Coming up on the barrier!"

The shout from one of the crew shook them from their reverie. They exchanged a somber glance, a silent conversation taking place. Emma swallowed, a wave of uncertainty washing over her.

Killian kissed her cheek, the action comforting in spite of the strange coolness of his lips.

"I'll be waiting for you on the other side, Swan," he swore.

"You'd better be," she said, trying and failing to sound unaffected.

His expression turned a shade knowing. He leaned down again until his mouth was next to her ear, his voice blocking out the din of the ship and the waves.

"I promise," he said, his voice soothing her anxiety. "No force in heaven or on earth could keep me away from you again. Besides, as you said, the god of the Underworld appears to be something of a fan of mine."

She laughed, the sound of it wetter than she would've liked. She leaned back, meeting his eyes.

"I'll see you soon, Killian," she said steadily.

He nodded as Davy Jones called out their approach, the crew bracing for impact as the ship pierced through the barrier between the land of the living and the land of the dead. A wall of white light washed over the ship, Killian vanishing along with it.

She stared at the place where he'd been standing, hope and fear warring in her chest.

"Emma?"

She turned to find her parents watching her closely, matching sympathy in their eyes. Henry stood beside them, anxiously twisting the straps of his backpack.

"Are you okay?" Mary Margaret asked.

Emma held her arm out, Henry beaming as he moved to fold himself against her side.

She nodded, feeling a genuine smile on her face.

"I am."

Her hand went to the ring hanging from her neck, no longer a reminder of her mistakes but a promise of the bright future ahead.

Her parents joined them at the railing, watching the waves crash against the ship. Emma willed time to go faster, her heart feeling lighter than it had in ages.

Killian was waiting for her.

Chapter Text

Emma waited impatiently for the Flying Dutchman to finish docking, feeling as though she was going to burst out of her skin. The crewmembers were hard at work tossing ropes overboard and tying down sails, but they might as well have been moving backwards for how long it seemed to be taking them. It was with great restraint that she refrained from snapping at them to go faster. Davy Jones had tolerated their presence aboard his ship, but she knew he wouldn’t take kindly to her barking orders at his subordinates.

“Hovering over them isn’t going to make them move any more quickly,” Regina observed dryly. Emma ignored her, watching intently as three of Jones’ men began preparing to lower the gangplank. Her hand was beginning to cramp from its grip on Killian’s ring, so much so that she worried it might leave a permanent indent in her skin.

The others were spread out beside her on the deck, their belongings in hand. Jones had warned them flat out that he wouldn’t wait around for them to depart, and that anyone still aboard when the ship left the harbour would find themselves a permanent addition to his crew.

She felt a hand on her forearm, steadying her. Henry smiled up at her knowingly.

“He’ll be there, Mom.”

Behind him, Belle nodded.

“Hades assured us his soul would find its way back to his body once we crossed through the barrier,” she reminded gently. “He’s probably already waiting for you.”

She was grateful for the support, but it did nothing to calm her nerves. Too many things had gone wrong for them in the past. Too many times, she’d let herself believe everything would work out only for some new problem or threat to arise. She knew that there was a difference between optimism and overconfidence, but finding the right balance between them was harder than she’d like to admit.

Surprisingly, her parents were the only ones who hadn’t commented on her restlessness, their faces matching pictures of empathy and concern. She guessed if anyone knew what it was like to be separated from the person you loved over and over, it was them.

The gangplank was lowered at last, and she practically jumped off the ship, the rest of her family and friends following behind at a more reasonable pace.

As expected, a large crowd had gathered at the docks to welcome them back, but she ignored them, the face she was searching for nowhere in sight. She pushed her way past Robin and several dwarves as she made her way toward land, spotting Rumpelstiltskin hovering a bit awkwardly at the edge of the group. The crowd gave her a wide berth as she moved, a swift reminder that there were still more relationships to mend here in Storybrooke.

But all of that would have to wait.

She left the others to handle the greetings and explanations, knowing there would probably be a celebratory dinner at Granny’s in her near future, taking off at a run as soon as she hit land.

She raced down the street, picking up speed as she went, the familiar scenery of the town flying past. If she’d thought ahead, she might’ve asked to borrow David’s truck, her own Bug still parked at her house — their house, it was their house now, please let it be their house — but she couldn’t waste time going back for it now.

Her boots pounded the dirt as she crossed into the park, taking the fastest route to the cemetery. The area around the pond was as deserted as it had been the night she’d confronted Merlin. She bit her lip, her heart skipping a beat as she spotted a familiar figure racing toward her through the trees.

“Swan!”

She hadn’t thought it possible for her to run any faster, but she was, her vision blurring with tears.

They crashed into one another, his strong arms pulling her into a bruising grip. Her arms curled around him instinctively, her hands fisting the back of his jacket, the familiar leather creaking beneath her fingers.

And then he was kissing her, his stubble scraping across her cheek as he angled his head, his movements clumsy but insistent. She responded just as eagerly, overcome by the sensation of his lips against hers, the warmth of his skin beneath her hands, the steadiness of his heartbeat against her chest. All of it so completely and utterly him.

He lifted her off the ground as she deepened the kiss, tears pouring down her face. She slid her hand to the back of his head, carding through the shortened hair there, delighting in how solid he felt pressed against her.

It was like taking her first breath after being underwater for months, a missing piece of her finally slotting into place.

Eventually, though, actual breathing became a necessity. He set her down gently as they parted, Emma’s eyes closing briefly. She huffed a soft laugh as Killian seemed unable to stay parted for long, pressing fervent kisses to her cheek and jaw. His forearm tightened across her back as though afraid she would disappear.

“We really did it,” she panted, leaning back a bit to take him in for the first time. He was dressed in the same clothes he’d died in, his shirt wrinkled from his run. His normally well-coiffed hair was matted and flattened to his forehead with sweat, his cheeks red from exertion. She didn’t think she’d ever loved him more.

“Aye, we did,” he agreed, drinking her in just as desperately, like he still wasn’t sure she was real.

She shifted against him, feeling an uncomfortable jab where their chests were pressed together. She looked down to find Killian’s ring caught between them, the hard edges cutting into her sternum. She released him reluctantly, raising her hands to the long chain.

“I think this is yours,” she said, ignoring the small twinge of regret at the thought of removing it. The ring had been a much-needed comfort through so much of the past few weeks, but it was a small price to pay for the real thing.

Killian’s hand shot out, stopping her.

“No, keep it,” he said quickly, before shutting his mouth tightly. A familiar look crossed his face, like he was worried he’d pushed too far, preparing himself for her to pull away.

She glanced down at the ring, buying herself a moment to sort through her thoughts. It wasn’t a proposal — she didn’t think either of them were ready for that — but it still felt like a statement of some kind. The gesture would have scared her in the past, would probably have sent her running for the hills, the gift far too heavy with meaning and expectations. Now, it just made her feel warm.

She released the chain, sliding her hand down to cup the ring in her palm.

“Are you sure?” she asked.

He looked vaguely relieved, a genuine smile building on his face. “Aye,” he answered. “It looks better on you, love.”

She kissed him again, feeling lighter than she had in years.

“I know there’s probably a thousand people who want to see you right now,” she murmured against his lips, “but all I want to do is go back to our house and sleep for a few decades.”

He stiffened slightly.

“Our house?”

Emma tensed, panic instinctively gripping her. Had she misread things? Did he not want to live with her, after everything? Or was it the house itself… She’d just assumed they would keep it, but maybe the bad memories were too strong…

She forced herself to calm down, gripping the ring tighter. Just because she was finally ready to take that step with him didn’t mean he was. Didn’t you just finish promising to trust him more?

If he needed more time, then she’d give it to him — as much as he needed — but she couldn’t keep assuming that every action was a sign of the end to come.

“If you don’t want to live there, I understand,” she began, refusing to let herself pull away.

He shook his head, a stunned expression on his face. “No, I do,” he said, the words sending a wave of relief through her. “I just wasn’t sure…”

He faltered, dropping his gaze for a moment before meeting her eyes with a hint of determination.

“Henry and I chose that house when we were in Camelot — we thought that planning for the future would give you hope. But after everything that’s happened, I wasn’t sure you’d still want it.”

“I still want it,” she promised. “Even when I was the Dark One, a part of me wanted to share it with you. I went about everything the wrong way, but I want it to be our home. Together.”

Killian’s responding grin took up half of his face, his blue eyes crinkling. His hand went to the back of her head as he kissed her with such besotted fervor that she giggled against him, overwhelmed by happiness.

They pulled apart again, their foreheads resting against one another, neither willing to let the other go completely.

"Very well, then, Swan. Let's go home."

The End.