"Yes, all right, Cora has been stringing me along like some puling whelp," he snapped. Took a breath to steady himself. "Does it please you to keep rubbing that in?"
"No," she said immediately. "And I'll stop, now that I'm sure you really see it. The question is – just like you asked me – what are you gonna do about it?"
They'd reached the courtyard and were halfway to the ring that bounded the top of the stalk itself, before Killian replied. "Well," he said, "I suppose that's something that bears thinking about, isn't it?"
"Mm," said Swan. Climbed up onto the ring. "That's one thing that definitely makes sticking with us your best option."
"Oh?" Killian leapt lightly up beside her. "You mean besides traveling with four feisty lovelies instead of one vicious hag?" He found a likely handhold and swung out over the void. "However do you decide your sleeping arrangements each evening?"
Swan checked her foothold, then leaned around to put her nose within kissing distance. "Just for the record," she said, "I really don't care how long it's been since your last shore leave." He grinned, and she quirked an eyebrow in response. "Seriously. Just – keep it in your shorts, and save the pickup lines for the nearest bar." She picked her way down a few feet before saying, "We're your best option, and we'll stay your best option, because I'm not gonna dangle a carrot in front of your nose."
"Is that right?" he asked. Hard not to be skeptical after everything she'd said earlier. She had enough reasons to mistrust him, why not try to rein him in with one condition after another?
"Yep," she grunted. "I have a condition, but it isn't 'do this for me first and then'. I don't do leashes."
"Pity," he smirked down at her, "you've no trouble with ropes and chains…" and she reached over and punched him in the calf. "Hey!"
"You earned that," she said. Which he had, of course, but he saw no need to admit to it.
"So what is this famous condition of yours?" he asked.
"Back in my world," she said, "I have a duty to uphold the law. To enforce the rules; keep people from solving all their problems with a – a pry bar or a stupid brawl." Emma stopped climbing, waited for him to draw even with her. "This thing, between you and Gold – technically, I'm obligated to stop it from happening… but I won't."
Generous of her, since it wasn't as if she'd be able to anyway.
"I don't expect you to drop it, and if you help us get back home, I…" she shut her eyes, and Killian got the idea that she was steeling herself to say something unpleasant for her. Taking a deep breath she said, "I won't interfere. But –" That fire in her eyes was back, and once again Killian found himself captivated. "You will swear to me that whatever goes on between the two of you, stays between the two of you. You won't drag anybody else into your fight. Because if you do," she pressed, "if other people are harmed because of your vendetta, I will have no choice but to stop you. And let me promise you, right here, right now – if you hurt an innocent bystander, I will put you down."
On the other hand, perhaps she would be able, at that.
Killian found that he wasn't quite certain how to reply to her; acquiesce, rebel? Be serious, flippant? But Swan began to climb again, and was several feet below him before he could come up with a response.
For about an hour they climbed in silence, for which Killian was grateful. He had much to contemplate, and none of it brought him comfort.
He'd said it to Regina once, not all that long ago subjectively speaking – "Do I look like I'm playing chess?" And indeed he hadn't been, as it turned out; Regina at least had been forthright in her admission of using him, but under Cora's thumb he'd become even more of a pawn. He'd been, Killian realized, not valued for his skills, so much as useful for his vengeance itself – useful primarily because he had a single-minded focus on balancing the scales against the murderer of his love.
Why would Cora want to help him, come to think of it?
Assuming he was successful in ending Rumpelstiltskin's life, Killian thought, his success would have aided the witch by removing a potential obstacle in her path toward her own goals. And even if he were to fail, well, no doubt the attempt would have provided a useful distraction at an opportune moment – opportune for Cora, to be precise. Swan was right; very likely Cora would have gotten them to Storybrooke and then "discovered" some reason for him to delay, found some way to convince Killian to stay his hand until she was ready for him to strike. He'd needed Cora, up to this point; but the reverse was not true. As far as she was concerned, Killian was completely expendable.
Swan may not care to aid him in the pursuit of his goals, but at least she respected them. She'd also said she wouldn't hamper him, and Killian thought he could take Swan at her word, whereas Cora…
Remaining allied with Cora cheapened Killian's vengeance of Milah's murder. By extension, remaining allied with her cheapened Milah herself.
The realization sank in and brought anger with it, slowly as the tides, but just as inexorable. His rage toward Rumpelstiltskin was a hot fire within his chest, but this anger sat deep and cold within his bones.
Swan was right, to his eternal vexation.
So – as she she'd already asked him – what did he plan to do about it?
Killing the witch was out of the question; even if Cora lost her magic in Emma's land, she still had no heart within her chest. Hm, an entertaining thought – perhaps being heartless, she'd simply drop dead the moment she arrived in Storybrooke. Amusing, but unlikely – if for no other reason, his luck had been on the ebb lately and he couldn't imagine something so fortunate happening now. Perhaps he could behead her? But no; the Queen of Hearts was famous in the tales for beheading those who displeased her; Killian could well imagine she had some sort of defense against that as well.
Force was out; that left cunning, only that led to yet another question: how might one manage to outfox one of the most conniving, cold-blooded creatures he'd ever met?
Killian bared his teeth in a silent snarl, tempted to take a moment to slash this beanstalk to dripping shreds; not that he had anything against beanstalks, but it was the only thing nearby that he could destroy in hopes of venting some of the anger, the frustration, the infuriating helplessness he felt. He paused in his climb, struggling for calm, even as he reared back to drive his hook deep into the trunk; but before he could do so…
"You okay?" said Emma, a little ways above him.
Wait. Above him? When had he passed her in their climb?
"I could ask you the same, love," he replied, shoving the anger down as he always did. There would be time to indulge it later.
"Just thinking," she said, though he thought he could detect something just slightly off about her voice. "If we're going to change any of the things I dreamed about, we need some kind of plan."
"I admit I've been pondering much the same thing," he said, some of his earlier anger coming back. "As you so kindly put it, the witch has been using me to achieve her ends, and I am not inclined to allow her to continue."
"Mm," she grunted. Struggled a few more feet; Killian narrowed his eyes. Swan was definitely moving more slowly than she had been. Perhaps she was simply tired? It wasn't as though she was accustomed to this sort of thing, after all. "Question for you," she said after a moment. "Do the words, 'dried-up, dead, useless' mean anything to you?"
"You've recalled another fragment, I take it?" he asked.
"Yeah," she said, "but since I think you were originally talking to me I'm feelin' a little concerned."
He hummed in thought. "Given that you originally planned to leave me up there to die –"
"You weren't going to die –"
"– once I'd gotten free, I expect I'd have either attempted to find you, or tried to get back into Cora's good graces." Swan gave him an incredulous look, and he shook his head at her, exasperated. "What would you have me do? She has the ashes, you have the compass; if you weren't willing to take me with you to your world, then she becomes my only option." He dropped a few more feet easily, waited for her to catch up. "Assuming we crossed paths again, darling, I doubt I'd have had many kind words for you."
"Point," she conceded.
"In any case, I likely would have been referring to this." Wrapping his hooked arm around a pair of vines to steady himself, Killian reached into a vest pocket and pulled out his little souvenir. "The giant was wearing it, when we knocked him out with the sleeping powder."
Emma leaned closer, eyes widening. "Is that a bean? A – a portal bean?"
"Well, it was once," Killian replied. Swan reached for it and he snatched it back with a smirk. "Ah, ah – you've got the compass; I'm keeping this, as a memento of our time together."
"I just wanted to see it," she frowned. "Anyway, if it's dead, does it still do the… portal thing?"
"No, it doesn't," he said, sobering. "But perhaps there's a way to restore its potency. It might serve as a fallback should Cora succeed in her plans, and leave us behind."
"Well, don't look at me," Emma muttered. "All I know about magic is a card trick I learned when I was eight. And a couple disappearing-coin things I picked up in prison. But that's, y'know, sleight-of-hand, not… magic-magic."
Killian looked at her, amused. "You'll have to show them to me sometime," he said, and bit his tongue to keep from laughing when she rolled her eyes.
"Focus," she said. "Plan?"
"Too right," he said. "But first, I'm not sure you answered my question earlier."
"Are you all right, lass," he repeated. It was clear now; he was climbing much more quickly than she, without even putting any effort into hurrying. "You seem unwell."
Emma looked down at him from under her arm. "I'm fine," she said, but he could hear the strain in her voice, now that he wasn't trying so hard to disguise it, and her hands were gripping the vines a little too tightly.
"Now, why don't I believe you?" asked Killian, once more waiting for her to catch up to him, so he could get a better look. "What's wrong?"
"It's nothing," she insisted, and there it was. She wasn't merely tired as he'd first suspected; that was pain he was hearing.
"Drop it, Hook," she said. "It's no big deal."
"Whatever it is, it's slowing you down," he pressed, "you've nearly stopped climbing."
"Yeah, well, you can't just splash some rum on this and make it go away," she grunted. "Although I admit a drink sounds really nice right about now."
Killian drew back a bit, and she took that as her cue to keep moving. He looked her over as she reached for the next hand- and footholds. Nothing bleeding, she wasn't obviously favoring a limb…
"The giant," he guessed. "I couldn't see, being buried under half the cavern ceiling, but it sounded like a bit of a battle there for a moment."
Swan closed her eyes and propped her forehead on the back of her hand. "Yeah, kind of," she sighed. "I got… a little banged up, I guess. But it's nothing serious."
Killian said nothing, and when she opened her eyes again, let his expression do the talking.
"I mean it!" she said. "Nothing's broken, or anything like that – I'm just a little stiff and sore, is all. I'll be fine."
And of course that was the moment when the entire beanstalk shuddered beneath their hands, and a shimmering light rippled up past them a moment later. Killian could feel it tingle in his fingers, and his hook carried the sensation to his left wrist as well.
Emma groaned. He looked up sharply, to see if she'd slipped, but she had a look of resigned annoyance on her face that would have been comical, if the entire stalk wasn't beginning to sway in the wind.
"Oh, perfect," was all she said. "Just… perfect."
"Mulan?" he asked.
It looked as though their time had run out.
Real Life plus writer's block equals big honkin' delay between chapter updates. Hopefully this one makes up for the downtime.