Chapter Forty Three
Seeds of the Past
The shock in her mother's voice confused her at first, but when Snow White reached for her cheek with a concerned look furrowing her brow Emma understood and lifted her own hand, waving away the glamour that had made it look like her face was bruised from a heavy blow. At the unspoken command it quickly dissolved with a faint prickling sensation and a golden shimmer that she could just see out of the corner of her eye. The illusion had been compelling, maybe even more than Emma had expected it to be. It was the memory of the black eye Fergus suffered when that odious crewman Wilkinson had struck him that she'd used to magically paint her cheek while Killian was above deck, bargaining with the Evil Queen's men. Even the normally unflappable Doyle had clearly been taken aback by the sight of it when he'd entered the cabin to "forcibly" escort her up at the captain's command, stopping short in the door and staring at her with a deep frown on his lips. Everything had all been arranged in advance, Killian would offer her in exchange for a reward from Regina and send Doyle down to fetch her when the time came to reveal that he wasn't bluffing and she truly was his prisoner. As the largest man on the ship by any measure she would look even more helpless when caught in his meaty grasp, the lost princess, completely powerless against the pirates who'd captured her and taken her from her ship by deadly force.
But the bruise had been her own idea at the last minute, to help sell the deception even more. It had to look real if their plan was going to work, Emma knew he would never actually strike her but Killian could not appear to be anything except a heartless villain in front of the other crew, the sort of man who had no qualms against backhanding a defenceless woman.
"It's just a bit of magic," she'd explained to Doyle, turning and giving one last critical look at her reflection in the mirror. The Fairy Queen had taught her the spell, a variation on the one that still concealed her ring from view. She couldn't let anyone see it, a pirate would certainly have taken all her jewels and Killian had, in fact, done exactly that when she first came aboard the ship and he'd demanded her sapphires and the swan comb, but she refused to take the sea diamond off.
"Captain still won't like it, magic or not," Doyle had muttered under his breath with a rueful shake of his head while he reached for her arm and his fingers wrapped around her bicep. "Don't hold back when it comes to kicking up a fuss, ma'am, I've got plenty of padding and I've done more damage to myself with my hammer by being careless than taking a few slaps, they'll be no harm done. We'll give 'em a show they won't soon forget, aye?"
They certainly had.
"Oh," her mother breathed when the bruise disappeared, eyes fluttering shut and her hand resting against her chest as her shoulders sagged in clear relief. "I thought-"
"That was the idea."
Emma could hear the tightness in her own voice, the words coming out flat and clipped. Everyone had obviously believed that it was real and even though that had been the idea, her idea, it chafed on her that it was all too easy to think the worst, all too easy to fall back into those roles again where she was helpless and afraid and he was cruel and uncaring.
"So it worked then?"
It was her father who asked, looking not at her, but over her shoulder at Killian. He was leaning against the wall behind her and Emma was acutely aware of his presence, although he hadn't said a word since they'd entered the storeroom and Keswick and Fergus had bent down to lift the grate that covered the hidden compartment where her parents had stowed away, out of sight while Regina's men were on board. It was normally used to store smuggled contraband and stolen goods and was practically invisible unless you knew just where to look.
As Killian had said he might not have magic, but he did have a few tricks up his own sleeve.
"Aye," Killian answered after a beat. "They believe Her Highness is my captive and nothing more, and have sent a message to the Evil Queen informing her of my offer."
"I will gladly turn her over in exchange for the queen's formal, written endorsement of my vessel. We will sail henceforth as privateers, under Her Majesty's flag, with Her Majesty's protection."
Emma watched as her parents held one of those silent conversations with nothing more than a look, a familiar sight from a lifetime of watching them during balls and banquets and council meetings. Whenever they were separated, even if it was just across a ballroom floor or seated on the other side of the table next to foreign dignitaries, their gazes would always inevitably seek each other out. All these years later and their tale was still true, Snow White and Prince Charming always found each other.
It was Snow who spoke first. "Regina will accept, she's waited too long to quibble over minor details now. Emma, there won't be much time, when you face her, you must act quickly."
There was a gnawing pit of dread in her stomach at the thought of finally facing the woman who had tried to destroy them all, along with the uncertainty of just how she was supposed to defeat her even with magic the Fairy Queen had insisted was far more powerful than anything Regina could conjure. Violet's parting words ran through Emma's mind for the thousandth time or more since they had left the island and she swallowed against the lump in her throat, nodding.
"And you, Captain," her mother added, gaze flicking to him. "Do not let your guard down for a second."
"I assure you, milady, the queen will not be given the chance to harm your daughter on my watch."
Snow's face softened, and a hint of a smile graced her lips.
"I meant for *your* safety, not hers. You must be careful, my stepmother understands the power of love and she'll use it as a weapon. She knew the only way I'd accept her poisoned apple was to save my husband's life. The life of the man I loved more than my own."
Her gaze moved between them and this time when Snow's thumb touched her cheek Emma didn't flinch away.
"And I highly suspect in similar circumstances my daughter would make that same choice to save you."
Emma looked at him then and saw that Killian seemed to be completely startled by the remark, eyes blinking wide and a red flush creeping up his neck from the open collar of his shirt. Now there was no trace of the man who'd been so callous and indifferent in front of Regina's men, not with the naked fear she could see in his eyes.
"That's…no. No," he said, voice rising and cracking on the words. "There will be no bloody poisoned apples, or vines, or...or spinning wheels, or anything, of any sort!"
"I agree with the pirate."
At that all heads swiveled to her father. His own tone was far milder than Killian's sudden outburst, but Snow looked far more shocked by it.
It was rare for her mother to call him by his actual name instead of "Charming" and it was a clear admonishment that Emma shared, anger rippling hot under her skin at just what her father seemed to be implying. There was a rattling sound from the iron implements hung on the wall for storage that was not from the rock of the ship, but while her magic expressed what she was feeling her tongue was stayed by the unexpected *look* on her father's face, the way his light blue eyes were suddenly darker, older, shadowed with something the rest of them couldn't see.
Killian turned his head and gave the order quietly but firmly to Keswick and Fergus, who traded curious glances but obeyed without question, leaving just the four of them in the narrow room. Her parents were staring at each other again, her father's face pale, her mother's face flushed.
Usually it was the other way around.
"I felt it," he said at last. "When you bit into that damn apple, Snow, that exact same moment...I was locked up in Regina's dungeon with no idea what she was going to do to you, just knowing that she wanted to make you suffer and there wasn't a damn thing I could do to stop her...I could feel it, like it was stuck in my own throat and it was choking me...and then came the pain, this sudden, shooting pain in my chest that brought me down to my knees and I knew that wherever you were, it was happening to you a thousand times worse. The apple didn't just stop your heart. It broke mine."
The entire kingdom, from the eldest of dowagers to the tiniest child, all knew the grand tale of Snow White and Prince Charming. Once upon a time the Evil Queen had given the young princess a shiny red apple that hid the poison within and promised to spare her prince if she took just a single bite. Snow White would do anything for the man she loved, even give up her own life for his, so she accepted the queen's deal and immediately fell into a sleep as deep as death itself. They laid her out in a glass coffin in the same woods that had shielded her, and all hope appeared to be lost for good. Emma had grown up on the story, hearing it told over and over again by Red, by Granny, by Blue, by all seven of the dwarves who had seven different versions that they each claimed was the real version of what had happened, no matter what the others said.
But she'd never heard it told before quite like this.
"I had no other choice, did you really think I was going to just walk away and live happily ever after in the forest after she threatened to kill you? After everything we'd been through together? It had to be me, you'd already given up so much for me, lost so much because of me-"
"You were everything to me! And she took you from me, Snow, I almost lost you for good! Do you know what it was like to think that you were dead?"
"But, Charming, you found me! You will always find me!"
"I lost my brother."
Killian had a way of instantly commanding attention, a skill that was essential when captaining the ship through tumultuous seas. He hadn't spoken loudly, but it was enough to silence her parents in the middle of their argument as they both stared at him with surprise that quickly turned to sympathy at the unexpected confession. Emma already knew the sad tale of the brothers Jones and their ill-fated voyage to the strange isle named Neverland, they didn't.
"He was poisoned."
His own gaze was fixed firmly on the wall as the words dropped flatly from his lips like a stone into a pond and Snow gave a sharp inhale while David's eyes narrowed and his scrutiny increased. Faded handwriting on an ivory page flashed through Emma's mind, Property of Liam Jones. His brother's death was a scar as much as any he bore on his skin and had been laid even deeper than the cut of any lash. She'd known how Liam had died, sent on a secret mission by a treacherous king and falling victim to his deceit, but she hadn't given much thought to the fact that the actual cause of his death was a magical poison.
"No bloody poisoned apples!"
"Was he?" David asked, his voice much softer now. "I'm sorry for your loss, Captain."
Emma didn't need her secret gift to know that her father actually meant it and he wasn't just offering empty platitudes. He had lost a brother once too, albeit one he had never actually known. His Royal Highness Prince James, the adopted son and heir of King George, betrothed of Princess Abigail, the man a poor shepherd had tried rather valiantly to be.
Until a mysterious cloaked bandit stole his ring and hit him in the face with a rock, that is.
Killian shrugged off the condolences like water off a duck's back with a roll of his leather-clad shoulder. "It was a foolish, reckless mistake, and one I'll not see repeated. Not again. Not for me."
His voice took on a familiar flinty edge that made Emma cringe inwardly a bit, but to her surprise her father appeared to be unperturbed. If anything, he looked faintly...impressed. Their eyes met then and she thought she saw something pass between them, something that might have been a glimmer of understanding.
There was a tentative knock at the door and Keswick's muffled voice called through the wood. "They're waving the flag for parley."
"Regina," her mother sighed. "It's her answer."
"So quickly?" Emma asked, alarm flooding through her. "How?"
A crease appeared between Snow's brows. "They must have been given some way of contacting her directly with magic if you were found."
She felt foolish for not realizing that herself, or maybe she'd just hoped there would be more time. Of course Regina would be using magic. Her own was a quiet hum that was like the lap of the waves against the hull and the rock of the ship, ever present now, but something she no longer noticed the way she had in the beginning.
Sea legs, Killian had called it, that day they had first kissed next to a waterfall and she could still feel the faint echo of the ocean beneath her feet even on dry ground.
"Raise the flag and accept," Killian called back, pushing off from the wall. "I'll be up in a moment."
David moved to climb back down into the hidey-hole first and Killian wordlessly offered him a hand to assist. He grasped it without pause, landing with a muffled thump and letting go to reach for Snow. She sat on the edge and dangled her legs over it, putting her hands on his broad shoulders while he lifted her easily under her arms and lowered her down alongside him. The small, dark space hidden under the floorboards was not unlike a tomb, but they went into it willingly together. The grate was fitted easily back into place with a soft click and Killian stood up from his crouch, his back to her. Emma saw him nod, seemingly to himself, before he turned around and his hand closed loosely around her wrist.
Keswick and Fergus must have both gone back up already because the narrow corridor that ran almost the full length of the Jolly was now empty, stretching out silently to the steep, ladder-like stairs at the other end. Emma lifted her free hand, about to use the glamour again to put the bruise back but just as the magic tingled in her palm it was suddenly seized in an iron grip and was pulled away from her face. Killian had swung around so quickly that she'd scarcely even seen him move and she stumbled a bit, caught completely by surprise. They did an awkward waltz for a moment with her swaying skirts tangling with his legs and it ended with her back against the wall and her face cradled in his hands.
"Don't," Killian whispered, his breath hot against her lips and yet it made her shiver under the bodice of her yellow gown. It was a particular favourite of hers, the same shade as the buttercups that grew wild around the palace, small, delicate flowers that she used to gather by the handful as a child and weave into wreaths for her hair, pretending to be a great queen like her mother.
"Don't what?" she whispered back, although she already knew.
"Don't do that for me, Princess. This-" he dragged the pad of his thumb right over the spot where the bruise had been and exhaled in a soft sigh, "-was bad enough, knowing that everyone thought I...that I was the kind of man who would have done it, and to have to stand there, and say those things, to be that man again, the villain who stole you away for nothing but my own selfish greed and to watch the tears fall from your eyes again because of me when I swore to myself that I would only ever keep you safe."
Doyle had definitely been right, he hadn't liked it.
His auburn-tipped lashes lay against his cheeks as his eyes closed and his chest heaved with a shuddering breath, all traces of the man who'd mocked and scorned her with such disdain in front of Regina's men was gone and what was left was the beat of his heart under the fan of her fingers and the echo of the ocean that clung to them both.
"You are not that man again, Killian. You never were."
"No, I was worse. Worse than you can possibly imagine and you have no idea how easy it is to fall back into the darkness once you've given into it, as I did after Liam died. To lose myself like that again, to lose you...Emma, don't eat any of the queen's apples for me. Promise me you won't. Promise me!"
Killian's own words from up on the deck echoed in her ears. "Won't say a damn word to save your own skin, but you'll do it for him. We both know you'd do anything to protect the ones you love."
She'd lived among pirates for long enough now that the lie tripped easily off her tongue, "I promise."
His head bent and his forehead pressed to hers and a single tear escaped those long lashes, sliding down his own scarred cheek in a trail of salt. Her magic was a quiet hum that rose to his touch like a flower blooming open in the sun as the Jolly rocked around them. The Fairy Queen had told her that magic was emotion and she'd formed her glamour spell with the memory of fear and despair, spreading like a real bruise and almost as painful as it brought it all back, the anger, the utter hopelessness of being taken captive by a heartless pirate, dark nights locked alone in the brig, Wilkinson's oily threats and his hand closing over her breast, the rough squeeze that turned into King George's fingers wrapped around her heart, trying to pluck it out. Just a bit of magic.
But all magic came with a price.
A different emotion gripped her now and Emma understood why her mother had eaten the apple,
understood it viscerally right down to the very marrow of her bones in a way she never had when it was all just a bedtime story. Her fingers found the high collar of his coat, grasping the smooth leather to pour everything she could into the kiss as he pressed her to the wall and more magic popped and fizzled along every nerve, bubbling like champagne, a thousand tiny bursts with each slide of his mouth against hers. Her magic was tied to him somehow, ever since that moment when she had wished so desperately for a way to save him and it had first flared to life in an incandescent blaze of light. She could not bear to think of that tie being severed. It couldn't be severed, it just couldn't. Her father had found her mother. Killian would find her.
"I have to go...I have to swear my allegiance to the Evil Queen."
She ran a hand down the side of his jaw, feeling the rough stubble against her palm. "Your allegiance is mine."
Killian smiled at her fierce whisper. "Aye, love. Yours and yours alone, my true Queen."
We he left at last to go back up on deck her gown was a crumpled mess, both from being carried "forcibly" by Doyle and from the breathless embrace. Emma smoothed down the wrinkled folds in her skirt, even the choice of clothing had been deliberate. The bright, buttercup yellow would draw every eye on deck among the more sober dress of the men and she had seen some of Regina's crew almost licking their chops at the sight of her when Killian had her pulled flush against his chest. They thought she was alone and vulnerable, as easily crushed as a frail flower stomped under a heavy boot.
But buttercups only looked soft and delicate, in truth, they were as tenacious and took root in any spare bit of earth they could reach, far from being hothouse blooms that would immediately wilt and wither at a bit of rough handling. Emma would show Regina who she really was, not that helpless princess who had run away at the first hint of danger, not anymore, she would regain their kingdom and bring back all the happy endings before they were lost forever.
She would save her family.
She would stop the curse.
She would be Queen.
"The lieutenant is asking to speak with you."
There was something different about Fergus and it wasn't that he had grown taller overnight, again. Emma squinted at him, noting the way he stood with his hand on the hilt of his sword that mimicked Killian's own confident stance, shoulders relaxed, feet spread slightly apart, ready to spring into action immediately should the need arise.
"Send him in."
She closed Tales of the Sea on her lap as Lieutenant Liam Courtice entered the cabin, clicking his heels together and giving a slight bow. Fergus made no move to leave, he had come down to tell her that her mother had been right, Regina had sent word via the other ship's captain that she graciously accepted all of Killian's terms and had granted the Jolly Roger safe passage into the port closest to her castle, where an escort would be waiting to transport them the rest of the way. Her parents had been freed from their confinement but had to remain out of sight, lest anyone catch a glimpse of them through a porthole with a spyglass and raise the alarm. As the captain's prize, Emma remained confined to his quarters under the watchful eye of her guard.
"May we speak in private, Your Highness?" Courtice asked, his soft brown gaze flicking over to where Fergus stood. She saw the difference again in the firm set of his jaw and the calmness of his reply, with not a hint of apology or deference towards the older man.
"Captain Jones ordered me to stay with the princess at all times in his absence until we reach land, as part of my duties as a full sailor."
A full sailor. Emma wasn't sure when it had happened, but Killian must have promoted Fergus from the lowly rank of cabin boy to a full-fledged member of the crew and equal among the men. She gave him a pleased smile at the news that he returned with a boyish grin before schooling his face back into a stern look.
"Very well," Courtice said with an awkward cough when it became clear that she wasn't going to order Fergus to leave. "I came because I owe you and Captain Jones both an apology, and well, this might not be the best time, but there isn't much time left. My queen ordered me to stay with your mother at all costs, and as you clearly understand, such orders are not ones to be set aside lightly, so I must follow them where they go and not accompany you to the Evil Queen."
Emma gave a slight nod, while the lieutenant was a good man possessed of a courageous heart, the tension between him and the rest of the crew had not abated since departing the island of the fairies and his true loyalties lay elsewhere, with Queen Ariel and King Eric.
"I understand, Lieutenant, and I thank you for your service, I know that it hasn't been an easy task of late. There is no need to apologize to me-"
"But there is," he interrupted, forgetting his manners in his haste. "I confess, I was aware of Captain Jones's reputation and had heard many tales of his exploits, and assumed that his greed would get the better of him in the end, and you were simply too blinded by infatuation to see it."
She arched a brow at that and felt her lips purse. "Perhaps you do need to apologize, then."
"I'm sorry, I truly am. I was wrong, Your Highness."
If he had a hat he'd be wringing it in his hands but he was bareheaded and he raked a hand through his curls instead and let out a puff of breath. Under different circumstances maybe Emma would have been a bit sweet on him like in the story Killian had spun up on deck, a proud young naval officer who served one of their closest allies, but that was a tale that would never be told now that her heart was pledged to another man.
"Your apology is accepted, and I will inform Queen Ariel when next I see her that you never deserted your post, Lieutenant, and recommend you receive a commendation in recognition of all you have done for my family."
His face lit up at that. "Thank you. My father would be very proud were I to receive one from Her Majesty."
"You have family then, waiting for you back home?" she asked. The lieutenant had not shared much of his personal life in their brief time together aboard the Mermaid's Song.
"Just him now. He was the reason I asked to be considered for this mission, when King Eric was looking for men to undertake a secret journey and warned that it was a dangerous one. My father told me once that we were all braver than we think, if we just look deep inside. It's something that's always stuck with me, and I try to live my life to his example."
She stood up from the chair and set the book aside on the table, taking a step forward and extending her hand.
"I think I agree with your father's sentiment, and I am glad that you will be with my parents for the remainder of this journey we have all found ourselves on, Lieutenant."
He bent at the waist and lifted her hand to his lips, brushing a kiss over the back of her knuckles before taking his leave. Fergus closed the door behind him and turned around with a shake of his head.
"Captain won't like that, Princess."
Emma reached out and tweaked his chin, feeling the downy fuzz of the whiskers he was about to sport against her thumb. "What the captain doesn't know won't hurt him. That's an order, Sailor."
He flushed at his new title, clearly very pleased with it, and nodded. He might be a pirate, but he was still her loyal knight. She felt the ship start to turn underneath them and Fergus darted to the window to look while she followed, tapping a finger idly on the dark green cover of Liam's book as she went.
It was time for all of them to go home.