His heart beats first. He can feel, almost hear, his blood circulating again. The sounds of the forest surround them, the chirping birds, the rustle of the leaves in the wind. Even the gulps of frogs echo from the pond nearby. The smells—sunshine, water, soil—smother him until he can at last open his eyes.
"Broken," he mouths, still searching for his voice. It comes out hoarse, but stronger now. "Is the curse broken?"
Cora flexes her neck, her cloak tapering down into the tall grass. Her step forward requires all her strength from the looks of it, so he waits, content to just flick an ankle until she answers. Eyes closed, he doesn't know what she expects to find out other than the fact that being able to once again feel all the senses being stimulated is rejuvenating. Alive, Killian Jones alive again.
"No," she says, placing a hand over her chest to clear her throat. "No. Not yet. Time has only started again."
Working with Cora leaves little room for doubt, so he attempts walking. Wobbly, to be sure, but he steadies himself, accustomed to a rollicking deck. You won't even notice, she'd told him. True enough, he thinks. After twenty-eight years, this small island looks no different. Alive, and everything awaiting.
Lancelot has taken it upon himself to rebuild this corner of the realm, a brave and noble ex-knight apparently better qualified for the job than brave and noble non-ex-knights. The people, peasants mostly, are at his beck and call when they aren't thatching, carving, chopping, tying... They've nailed crude drawings of people on the tree trunks, those that the curse may have taken. Scouts ride farther and farther every day bringing the same news back with them as always—castles in ruin and whole villages in shambles.
Lancelot speaks to them at every meal, stands up and holds out his hands like a clergyman, spouting out bits of hope, that the curse will break, that the royals will all return with answers and plans. While not part of the survivors' hold, not yet, he shares their impatience. The promised Savior must clearly not want to rush into anything.
He wonders how the Dark One will look in a Land Without Magic. Ragged, he hopes, overworked and pitiful, a complete reversal from the last time he saw him.
"What news?" he asks, hearing Cora's footfalls behind him. He's far enough from the fort that no one will spot his campfire this late at night, and yet those left here with some fighting skills manage to keep the ogres at bay. The footfalls can only be Cora.
"Nothing new, but things are happening. People are getting emboldened by the monotony." She looms over the fire and warms her hands, but doesn't sit. "It won't be long before they'll find us. They'll be anxious to know why we haven't introduced ourselves sooner."
"Then perhaps now is the time to do just that."
"Enough of them know me as Regina's mother." She sighs. "It's not always good to have your reputation precede you."
Clamping his mouth shut, his tongue rolls around in his mouth. His eyes focus on a firefly.
"I say let it."
"You have magic. I find it hard to believe any of them do. Why haven't you already taken over their little hold?"
"Because I don't know what will happen when the curse breaks." And there it starts, that condescending tone she uses, always that "mother knows best" demeanor not limited to her own offspring. "Say the curse breaking does in fact send all of its victims back here. That's an awful lot of people who would be eager to put me back in my place. Besides, I don't have the option to take over as a beloved leader."
To answer him, she beckons him to follow her to the treeline. Shivering at his front now facing away from the fire, he adjusts his eyes to the darkness and pushes through it until he all but steps on Lancelot, nothing but a heap on the forest floor. A heartless heap, most likely.
"I crushed his heart when he found me," she says with all the passion of a bored child doing recitations. She folds her arms in thought. "I suppose I'll just have to pass myself off as him. That should do the trick, don't you think?"
"Pretending the dead to be alive? I have more experience with the other way around, and that doesn't hold out forever." He wonders what the crocodile is up to in this foreign land, probably sleeping, probably feeling so guiltless, smug, free. His hand drifts around to the grip of his sword.
"Well, you wanted an introduction. Here." She places her wrists together and holds them out to him. "You can win them over with a prisoner."
"I don't think so."
"It would be best if they never saw us together. You'd have better luck just turning yourself in. The guards will do whatever they think they have to do with you and when their backs are turned, you can sentence yourself as you see fit."
"And where do you fit into all that?" she asks, nodding, already sold.
"I'll come later, perhaps out of ogre territory." There are the makings of a fine tale, he thinks with a smirk. "Might explain this at any rate," he says, holding up his lack of hand. He won't take the hook off, not yet, not here, but a sack of some kind with a haphazard collection of belongings in it could conceal it long enough.
"I'll come to you with instructions of where to meet periodically," she says, loosening her bun and letting her hair tumble down. Picking up a clump of dirt, she grates it against her hair, tangling the strands. "Best look as if I'm in need of refuge. Bury that before you show up." Indicating the body with the toe of her shoe, she slips into the darkness and out of sight.
You're welcome, he wishes he could call out to her.
Lancelot still boosts the spirits of the people, finding solace in the action of capturing their hearts...literally. Not everyone's, Cora is too prudent for that, but he notices day in and day out while working in the flames of the smithy who comes out of the fearless leader's tent more muted than before. It's pure terror when she has hold of a heart, but he thanks fortune or whatever gods still watch over him that she chose not to control him through his all those years ago. He can't live like that, so dimmed and lackluster. The memory of her hand inside him, clutching his heart in a vice grip, along with recent activities causes his heart to seize every time she comes to the blacksmith's work station in her disguise. He'll have to find a way to be useful to her soon if he still wants her talents on his side. She had stepped into the work station earlier, as Lancelot, saying there was no time to talk but if they met later, she had news of the utmost importance.
She won't pull his heart out here, not all the way out here on the beach. If she wanted him dead, she wouldn't bother to toy with him this way. It would have been over and done with. Quick. Neat. Meticulous.
But she's late. He's peered through his spyglass at the same strip of land every five minutes or so to keep his nerves in check, for without Cora, he doesn't know what to do, and that can't stay the reality forever. Partners are only partners when they are equals, when each one is able to do a thing for the other; otherwise, one person is a hindrance, a load, and loads get dumped and left behind.
"Hello, Hook," she says, ambling along, looking successful as ever. His heart races at the possibility of news, but he will maintain his pride.
"Hello, Cora. You told me you had something important to show me." He swears to everything sacred, to love, to life, if she meant his heart... Instead she produces a bottle, containing an ashy substance, violet, flecks of pink and gold glittering around it. Of course it's bound to be significant. She's too pleased with herself for anything less, but she tries his patience. These people try his patience. Time itself, the Savior, the Dark One all try his patience and expect him to leap up in the air at the sight of bottled dust.
"Sparkly dirt. Wonderful."
"Just the remains of a magical wardrobe that can travel between worlds."
"Is there enough to get us to where we need to go?" It's late in the game to hope, yet he does in spite of himself.
"Not quite, but it's a start." She smiles at him. They seem to feel the same thing at the same time for once, a guarded exhilaration. He won't hold back a smile just yet, so starved for something to celebrate, to pass some milestone.
"We're almost ready to set sail," he says, summoning up the image of a portal. Soon. "What's our port of destination?" He wants to know everything, every region of the Land Without Magic, even though he knows even Cora won't have that information just yet...the villages, the cities, just the way the air moves.
"Curious name." He fights the urge to repeat it, again and again like it will materialize before his very eyes. "Is that where..."
"...she is." Cora inhales. "And so is he."
He can touch Storybrooke if he just holds out his hand and breathes its name, can see the portal as if it were spinning in front of him right now. Soon is simply not soon enough.
"Excellent. You'll be able to see your daughter, and I can skin myself a crocodile."
"There's something you need to do first."
"And that is?" It doesn't matter. Anything.
"I have a grandson," she says to the sand, lips tightened together. "Henry. Ask yourself how I might have come by that information."
"I can't venture a guess, not right now. Tell me everything."
"Mulan brought visitors with her on her journey back from rescuing Aurora. Snow White and her daughter."
"And you want me to..." He never would have attempted to break into Regina's castle so long ago without knowing a thing or two about Snow White, the Queen's stepdaughter and recipient of her obsessive wrath. She'd disappeared for a while, a bandit in the woods by several accounts, then married to King George's heir. Killian had stayed out of the battle for the kingdom. Kingdoms never had appealed to him much. Last he'd heard, the young princess had succeeded in her coups, prompting Regina to cast her curse in the first place. Then the curse breaking did send everyone back? That couldn't be. The uproar that would incite would have reached them even here.
"They're looking for the same thing we are," she explains. "I want you to assist them. There's no need to prevent them from doing our work for us."
"Do they know about the compass?" he asks, raising an eyebrow.
"They're clever, but not omnipotent," she laughs. "Assist them, guide them wherever they want to go, and find out all you can about this place we're going to. I won't take any chances now that we're so close." They turn back to walk back to the fort, the ashes safe within her robes. He watches her, some nagging thought pulling her off of her high from earlier, only a little, though. "In your experience, why would two women reluctantly share a child?"
"Is this a riddle?"
"The daughter, she told Lancelot she shares her son with Regina." He offers his arm to her for the incline. Ladylike Cora. He has a harder and harder time picturing her retrieving the compass.
"You haven't dealt much in the poorer circles, dear Cora," he says. "Parents die. Parents run off. There are circumstances in which a parent just can't provide for the child anymore and has to resort to more creative solutions. It's really not as unusual as you assume." It should be, he thinks, but he'll keep his and Liam's own childhoods out of it. They hadn't needed anyone else in the long run anyway.
"You're saying Regina fostered this boy for her," she concludes.
"My guess is that she was left in some situation where she couldn't care for the lad herself."
"As I told you, find out everything you can, if the boy is merely Regina's ward or if there is something more...affectionate in the works."