Emma trudged through the dense, Neverland overgrowth, pushing past the thick, hanging vines and ground-dwelling brush that her father had already hacked at with his sword, ignoring every new, small line of bright red that adorned her arms from the scrape of the tiny thorns that trailed up and down every, spiny, vine-like branch that came from her at all directions. Sweat dripped down her back in a warm trickle, like bugs crawling across her skin, sending shivers down her spine. Only the promise that every step was bringing her closer to the end of Pan's damned game, that every step was bringing them closer to Henry urged her tired feet forward. She reached for her small canteen of water at her belt, taking a generous sip as she continued to walk, sighing with relief as she felt the cool liquid wash over her parched throat. The flask left her lips just in time to get slapped with another bit of hanging foliage that she hadn't seen coming and Emma bit back a small cry of frustration, cursing madly under her breath with sentiments that would even make Hook blush as her mood continued to dip lower and lower.
God, she hated Neverland.
She hated the bugs –the deadly ones and the plain, old annoying, whether they buzzed, stung, or slimed their way around the island.
She hated the stupid plants – deceptively beautiful, deadly things, half of which could kill you faster than the bugs.
She hated the weather – humid and blistering at the same time during the days, while in the nights she often had to wrap her arms around her body at tightly as possible and bite her lip bloody to keep her teeth from chattering.
She'd more than once looked over at where her parents were sleeping and felt the tiniest twinge of jealousy in her chest, huddled together, providing each other with both comfort and combined body heat that was protecting them from the cold in more ways than one. Eventually, her eyes would drift over to Hook's tent, watching him pull his coat further around his body and curling into a half moon shape, his back to the wind, and catch herself wondering if there would be room enough for two beneath the heavy leather.
Aside from keeping Henry from her, she thinks she hates Neverland the most for that.
The lack of control she feels here.
Neverland brought out the emotions that you hid deep down. That contained flicker of anger that could flame into a passionate fire of rage, that insecure thought that could make you curl up into a ball and sob in the fetal position, those feelings for someone that you struggled to beat down until you thought they didn't exist. Neverland took away your control if you let it, and the more she fought the urge to sit on the jungle floor and cry every day that they didn't find Henry, the less she found herself caring to continue to battle the growing of affection and trust she was beginning to feel for the pirate.
It was becoming far too comfortable to stand close enough to feel the heat radiating from his body on cool evenings while they discussed their search for Henry. Too normal for her to settle herself beside him, exhausted after a long day, as they munched on their dinner of fruit while they stared at the flames licking at the air and they waited for night to fall. Too easy for her to trust him. They were the types of feelings that were dangerous. The types that ran deep and hurt even deeper when abused. The types that she had forced herself to deny even hints of existence for the past twelve years except for with-
Emma shook her head, cutting herself off short as she strode forward with a new determination in an effort to shake the treacherous musings from her head. You'd think her own thoughts would at least be on her side.
She really, really hated Neverland.
The crunch of the leaves and dirt sounded loud in her ears as she stomped her boots into the earth beneath her, angrily swatting a particularly large bit of vine from her face more roughly than necessary. She started to pull her arm back with an equal fervor, paying little heed to the fact that the thistles had bitten into her again, and giving into the instinct to yank it back roughly for a few seconds, only to freeze abruptly. Her breath caught in her throat when she realized what the thorns had caught was not just skin or sleeve and suddenly, Neverland had her emotions spiraling again with no end in sight.
"No, no, no," she mumbled under her breath, her pulse quickening, her previous annoyance turning into something needlessly frantic as she quickly but gingerly tried to untangle her wrist from the surprisingly tough bite of the thin, bitter plants. In the mere seconds she had fought them, they had managed to snake over and underneath the soft, brown shoelace that had been loosely wrapped around her wrist and tied at the ends.
Please no. Neverland couldn't have this. Not this. It'd taken Henry, it'd taken herself and her family on this stupid damned excuse for an adventure – it couldn't have all she had left of him too.
It was silly. She knew it even as she felt her chest tighten with emotion and her hands trembling as she moved even more desperately. It was just a stupid plant. All she had to do was calm down and untangle them. But she couldn't. Why couldn't she stop feeling like she couldn't breathe? Like all her held back emotions were bubbling to the surface. Like she was floating away without an anchor and there was no stopping the waves from dragging her down into the murky depths.
Emma cursed again under her breath, tearing a couple of strands of vine in two, ignoring how the plant cut into her palms, but the more she tugged, the tighter they seemed to dig into the laces. "Dammit!"
"Let me, love. These things have a bloody mind of their own."
Hook's deep, gentle voice startled her out of her concentration as she felt his presence close in on her, and she had entirely forgotten that he had been taking the rear of their group. She glanced up at him just in time to see him reach for her wrist, catching it in the curve of his hook as he brought his dagger towards the laces and vines with the other hand.
Hook's hand stilled, meeting her eyes, startled. "Why?"
"I... just don't cut it, ok? I'm fine. I'll get it out myself," she muttered, moving her forearm from the coolness of the hook and turning her scared gaze back down, still jerking at the tendrils of plant at her wrist.
Hook couldn't help but notice the slightest shimmer, barely a threat of a tear beginning to form in her anxious eyes and his expression softened into something Emma would have recognized as understanding if she had been watching his face.
After a short moment of peering at her as if searching for something that he knew she wasn't willing to show him, Hook twirled the dagger in his fingers and tucked it safely back into the pocket at his belt.
"Don't pull like that, darling."
His surprisingly soft, murmured tone succeeded in fully snapping her out of her brief haze of panic that had initially set in at the sight of the shoelace bracelet covered in thorns, looking up at him to see his blue eyes trained on her seriously.
"Devil's Vine. It takes a delicate touch to remove these once they've dug their nasty thorns into something," his fingers brushed the barbed wire like bristles briefly, turning her wrist ever so slightly to survey the damage, before dropping his hand and nodding in her direction. "I wouldn't have chosen to take you through them, but your father…" his voice trailed off and he shook his head. "Try it gentler this time. The harder you pull, the stronger their hold is."
Emma could feel him staring at her (much more intently than a few thorns should warrant) despite her own stare being fixed at the brown laces she was desperate to free from the snare of the plants. She slowed her shaking fingers, doing her best to follow his calm instructions as bit by bit, the offending plant fell away.
"That's it, love."
She took in a deep breath through her nose, forcing her nerves to calm and her emotions to ease as she listened to his voice and stared at the laces that she hadn't realized meant so much to her. She wore it as a keepsake, but she tried not to think too much of the man that it had belonged to. Some things were just too painful. Emma let out her held breath as soon as the final, devilish piece of vine was removed, leaving only pinpricks of blood and fine, stinging, red lines in its place. Hook let out his own, quiet sigh, nodding again once as she straightened her shoulders, shaking off the last of her sudden onset of nerves with the final thorns of the brush.
"My hand isn't gonna fall off, right?" She joked lightly, aware of how awkward she must sound to him after her little dramatic little show over a bit of string. "No poison, right?"
Hook smiled at her briefly, matching her steps as they began to move forward again. "Fortunately for you, Devil's Vine is one of Neverland's few plants that is more irksome than it is dangerous. No poison."
"That's a relief."
"Aye. That it is," he repeated with a nod of his head, glancing at her with a tender look, a hint of worry still lingering in his eyes. They continued on in companionable silence for a few dozen more paces, when Hook's voice once again cut through the empty air. "So what is it, love?"
"What is what?"
"On your wrist."
Emma unintentionally drew in a silent, sharp breath.
There it was. That urge to lie. To deny. To shut him out. But it was too late for that.
Hell, it'd been too late for that since they shared that drink below deck and toasted to Neal's memory. At the very least, Hook had proven that he understood grief. At the most, maybe he had proven that he understood her, but that possibility was far too terrifying to consider while her heart was still pounding and she was a flurry of nerves. As they continued walking on in companionable silence, Hook quietly waiting for an answer, Emma suddenly found herself too exhausted – physically and mentally – to bother skirting around the truth.
"It's a keepsake."
More sounds of crunching leaves, compacting earth, buzzing bugs, and swatting of vines were all that served to fill the otherwise hush of the Neverland jungle. Hook's silence in particular seared into her like a knife, his patience making her want to give him more of an answer that he hadn't asked for.
"It's just… You have something on your wrist to remember someone and so do I," she shrugged him off, turning back towards the brush. "We'd better hurry, or David's gonna lead us straight back into the ocean or something."
"Aye," he nodded. "Your father doesn't quite have such a sense of direction as he seems to think." He chuckled softly, walking on, neither of them picking up the pace. "…has he passed?"
"Has who passed, Hook?"
His all too knowing, matter-of-fact tone hit her like a punch to the gut that made her halt in her tracks.
"He-" Emma stopped short, swallowing back corrections for the second time in the past five minutes, because did it really matter what he thought about her past love life? Besides, it felt wrong to deny it, as if she were saying it wasn't what they would have become if the chance hadn't been stripped away from them by the cruel closing of a fist. "He didn't pass. He was murdered." She paused for a long, painful moment before she added in a breath, "His name was Graham."
She heard his breath catch, and she glanced over at him in time to see a muscle in his cheek twitch. All sorts of words, emotions, thoughts, she saw them all pass before his stormy, darkening blue eyes until finally he let out his held breath, stopping in his tracks as he reached down to his belt. His fingers closed around an object that was becoming pleasantly familiar.
"Here, take it."
She raised an eyebrow. "Really, with the rum again?"
"We all have our vices, love," he shrugged, smirking then taking a short sip, swirling around his tongue for a moment before swallowing. "To keepsakes?" He extended his arm out towards her, the tattoo showing clearly on his forearm as he held out the bottle.
Emma looked at his slightly faded piece of artwork, the colors, the heart, the dagger, the name, subconsciously moving her fingers to toy with the leather straps on her own wrist. Her eyes flickered back to the his face, watching him almost warily as he tipped his head to the side, looking deeply into her eyes, almost pleading as he continued to offer the flask to her.
"You're really big on toasts, aren't you?" She whispered, trying for a chuckle, but instead her words crackled and broke as her fingers closed around the cool metal. She hesitated only briefly before lifting the bottle of rum to her lips. "Yeah. To keepsakes."
The alcohol slid down her throat with a fierce burn and tears stung the back of her eyes as it all became too much, what she had just done hitting her full force.
She had said goodbye.
She had never gotten the chance, maybe she hadn't wanted to. She had said goodbye to Neal, she had made peace with losing him – at least as much as she could in the belly of a boat in Neverland with a pirate who had once cared for him. But Graham. She had never had the chance to say goodbye. Too numb, too shocked, too pained to worry about closure, that she had simply done what she had always done when faced with pain and moved forward, accepting his death as just another shitty thing that happened in the life of Emma Swan.
God, it was just all too much.
Graham. Henry. Hook.
A past she was holding onto, a present she was struggling to get back, a future she could catch glimpses of on nights when she let his rum and her own thoughts cloud her mind with suffocating emotion.
She began to hand the flask back to him, when she felt his hook graze her wrist, gently pushing it back.
"Keep it, Lass. I have others."
"And separate a pirate from his rum? I-I couldn't."
"I did say that I have others. And if you honestly think that's all the rum Captain Hook has to his name, you would be sorely mistaken, love," he smirked, then sobered just as quickly, his voice softening. "Call it a keepsake."
Emma shook her head slowly, swallowing the past the lump in her throat as she took another deep breath, untwisting her fingers from the laces that she had unintentionally tangled them in again.
"You're not dead, Hook."
"Aye. Not yet anyway. But would it be so terrible to have one that doesn't hold thoughts of loss, Swan?"
One breath. Two. Three passed as she considered his words. Would it be so bad, really? Her thoughts drifted to her lifetime of keepsakes – the keychain she had worn around her neck, Graham's shoelace, even the tattoo that hid beneath it – all tied to painful memories, good or bad.
Her fingers tightened around her newest possession before she had even made a decision whether she would keep the gift or not. "Okay," she said finally. "Thanks, Hook."
He simply nodded, smiling a gentle, half smile at her, a smile of empathy, of understanding, of masked pain. After a moment, he nodded again, this time in front of them, motioning to the path of worn down brush that the rest of the group had taken short minutes before.
"We should catch up to the others."
Emma only nodded, tucking the flask into her back pocket as best she could, giving it a final brush of her fingers before letting her arm fall to her side.
Maybe it wouldn't be so terrible to keep something new, something that wasn't tied to loss or distrust.
Maybe it wouldn't be so bad to make room in her heart for something new altogether.